Surprisingly, I didn't hate it.
Tuesday, November 23, 2021
Saturday, November 20, 2021
Thursday, November 18, 2021
The opening caption makes it clear what we have let ourselves in for. Kirby gets a credit; but this is not an adaptation of Kirby's comic book.
Jack Kirby's Eternals were a divergent species of homo-sapiens, the result of genetic tampering by the cosmically cosmic Celestials. Chloe Zhoa's Eternals are immortal aliens, placed on earth to protect mankind from the Deviants. (Unless they are not. Would the opening text lie to us?) The comic book Deviants were a third human species who lived in a city and had spaceships. The movie Deviants are bestial monsters, part Godzilla and part velociraptor. The original Arishem was the Celestial judge, jury and executioner, returned to earth to check up on his experiment and wipe it out if things were not going according to plan. This Arishem is the chief Celestial, from whom the Eternals take their orders; the God of the gods.
I think this works to the movie's advantage. Even die-hard Kirby-heads can treat the film as its own thing, without preconceptions.
Neil Gaiman felt that the Eternals compared unfavourably with other late period Kirby Koncepts: when he was called on to revamp the book, he latched on to the idea of a small group of immortals living secretly among the human race. American, you might almost say, gods. (Living, come to think of it, Endless lives.) It is this idea that the film also fixates on. A family who have been estranged and out of touch for thousands of years, gradually coming together because of something portentously called The Emergence.
Ikaris is played by Robb Stark with a Scottish accent: perhaps the elevator pitch was "Kind of like Highlander meets Game of Thrones but with Superheroes."
Once or twice an element from the original comic peeps its head into the film. Kirby's male Ajak (clad in ridiculous, supposedly South American armour) is the one Eternal who communicated with the Space Gods during their last visit, running a Van Daniken mission control out of an Inca Temple. This female Ajak is the leader of the team, and communes with Arishem by means of a ball of wibbly-wobbly light that lives in her chest. Druig, in the comic an Eternal bad-guy with more than a passing resemblance to Loki, remains broadly unsympathetic to the rest of the team. Sprite is a butch, too-cool-for-schoolgirl rather than a snook-cocking Dennis the Menace figure: but the idea that an eleven year old kid is still and eleven year old kid even if they are also a six thousand year old immortal remains firmly in place. (I think it was Gaiman who gender-swapped Sprite; she's certainly female in the current Kieron Gillen version.)
Kirby really liked the idea of gestalt entities -- the Forever People can merge into a single superhero called Infinity Man and the original Eternals merged into the Unimind. In the comic the Unimind is literally a gigantic brain (that floats up to the Celestials spaceship); here it is a wibbly wobbly light-show emanating from the Eternals' heads. A lot of the Eternals' mysticism involve wibbly wobbling glowing symbols, possibly suggested by the insignia on comic-book Arishem's thumb. They appear on the characters' bodies; on the landscape around them and in the air. When Phastos wants to help the human race create steam engines or ploughs or atom bombs, he builds wibbly wobbly glowing models in the air. (This isn't quite as cosmic as it is meant to seem: Tony Stark and the crew of Star Trek: Discovery use pretty much the same interface.) If we can cope with gods called Celestials, immortals called Eternals and an event called The Emergence, I am not quite sure why it was necessary to draw our attention to "Unimind" being quite a silly name.
The film covers quite a lot of ground. In just under three hours it has to introduce us to a dozen major characters, two-thousand years of earth history and the True Nature of the Universe. I think it largely pulls it off: the characters are broadly drawn, with some surprises and twists, and are engaging and mostly likeable. We kind of care from the outset that the nice museum lecturer (Sersi) who hangs out with the nice kid (Sprite) and is dating the nice human (Dane Whitman) are being menaced by CGI aliens in Camden Town; and we are kind of pleased when the smoulderingly hunky Ikaris comes and helps them -- even if we haven't quite worked out where all this fits into the grand narrative. (Have Americans heard of Camden Town, or is it just some place in Europe?)
I think that even non-comic book fans will cotton on to the fact that someone with as silly a name as Dane Whitman and who is played by you-know-nothing Jon Snow is not going to turn out to merely be the main character's love interest. Sure enough, there is a brief reference to The Ebony Blade and an obligatory tantalising post-cred. (SPOILER: He's going to become an Arthurian-themed superhero called the Black Knight. Which will be confusing if his movie comes out in the same week as Moon Knight.)
Stan Lee used to say that superheroes were the modern equivalent of ancient mythology. The Eternals (like the New Gods) made that idea explicit and the film embraces the idea. We start with some pretty standard super-heroic daring-do in the present day, and flashback to ancient Babylon, medieval Europe and Hiroshima. In the foreground, a millennia-long family soap opera -- the casting of actors from Game of Thrones can't be a coincidence. In the middle distance, a huge, super-heroic race to save the world. And in the background, the Celestials, the World Forge, the Emergence and a gigantic, cosmic, fib.
[SPOILERS] [SPOILERS] [SPOILERS] [SPOILERS] [SPOILERS] [SPOILERS] [SPOILERS]
There are three big twists.
The First Big Twist is that the opening text did indeed lie. The Eternals are not immortal space aliens after all, but robots, programmed by Arishem to believe that they are gods. This is, interestingly, also the set-up for Jack Katz' mighty First Kingdom: the gods of his post-holocaust earth are amnesiac cyborgs from a super-advanced civilisation. Katz and Kirby mutually influenced each other: it would be interesting to know if Zhoa was aware of Katz. When an Eternal is destroyed, Arishem will absorb, or at any rate file away, their memories. Science-based karma and reincarnation recalls Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny's science fictional reworking of the Hindu myths, which (as everyone knows) Kirby wanted to turn into a theme-park.
The Second Big Revelation is that the Earth is a gigantic egg incubating a new Celestial. Any day now it is going to hatch, and the planet and everyone on it will be destroyed. This derives, not from Kirby, but from an (I believe) still non-canonical alternate Marvel History called Universe X. It strongly calls to mind John Byrne's philosophical reinvention of Galactus: Reed Richards discovered that, at some level, the universe needs there to be a giant in purple shorts who eats planets. Like Galactus, Arishem has to destroy planets because it is in his nature; periodic world-destroying Emergences have to happen so that the Celestials can carry on travelling round the universe creating new life. In the comic, the Eternals are very much on-side with the Celestials, and spend most of their time trying to prevent reckless humans and deviants from attacking them and triggering the final judgement fifty years early. We don't know how Jack would have continued his epic if he had been allowed to complete it: maybe he was building towards a split in the Eternals' ranks. The plot of the film -- that when the chips are down, the Eternals turn against their godlike masters and side with the mortals -- has obviously Promethean overtones. (Ikaris, incidentally, lives up to his name, which he never does in the comic.) But it also feels very much like Kirby's original vision of the Silver Surfer; the herald turning against his world-destroying master because he sees the value of humans.
I am not sure if it is a breach of etiquette to reveal that the opening text has been misleading you. I suppose it is a bit like finding out that God has been lying to you all along, which is what happens to Sersi and the others. The revelation shakes up the family dynamic in the second half of the movie. The Eternals think that they have been protecting the human race; their job is actually to ensure that it is destroyed. The family splits: some of them think their duty is to the Celestials and the Universe, some that they can't simply let the whole human race be wiped out. I can't help thinking that the Big Reveal could have been done more subtly than with a five minute info-dump from the Voice of God, albeit accompanied by the biggest and most Kirbyesque display of floaty wibbly wobbly lights in the movie.
Like the first Thor movie, like Black Panther and Shang Chi, and perhaps most closely like the X-Men, Eternals creates a new dynasty of superheroes with its own rationale, its own backstory, and its own internal politics and infighting. But it is in a lot of ways still a pretty traditional comic book adventure. When Ikaris flies into space and sees the world behind him, it is hard not to think of the Christopher Reeve incarnation of Superman.
It is distinctly odd that Phastos's little boy thinks that Ikaris is Superman, rather than, say, Iron Man or Captain America, and that he wonders why he doesn't have a cape. We know that the next wave of Marvel Movies are going to involve revelations about the multiverse and parallel universes: is it at all possible that we are being prepared for the idea that the Eternals takes place outside of mainstream continuity?
It would make a lot of sense. The revelations about the Celestials are so vast and all-encompassing that they make the rest of the Marvel Universe look small and insignificant by comparison. Immortal cyborg gods called Gilgamesh are a poor fit for a setting which already contains Thor and Thanos. Either the entire setting is going to have to be reinvented from the ground up, or else the other superhero movies will have to pretend that Eternals never happened.
So, yes: the movie has, in fact, got more in common with the comic book than might appear at first glance.
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
Can we get three questions out of the way before we start?
1: Ought Tolkien to have engaged in world-building above and beyond what was needed to tell a story?
2: Given that he did, ought his relatives to have made his unpublished notebooks available to the public?
3: Given that they did, ought we to read them?
The answers being: yes, if he wanted to; yes, if they want to; and yes, if we want to.
The Nature of Middle-earth is a sad, infuriating, fascinating and above all, unreadable work. If it were all we had to go on, we would describe Tolkien's creative process as a pathology. We would place him, at best, alongside the more obscure gnostic ramblings of Phillip K. Dick; and at worst, alongside the patterns some crazy man has daubed on the wall of his padded-cell: meaningful to him, meaningless to the rest of us.
But this book is not all we have to go on: at some level, these kinds of writings -- jotted down on the backs of exam papers and royalty statements, yet carefully preserved by Tolkien himself and by his children -- led to the Tale of Beren and Luthien, to the Mirror of Galadriel, to the Steward and the King. Can we make the connection?
Many of us doodle on the backs of envelopes. The Complete Doodles of Leonardo Da Vinci or the Collected Scribbles of Van Gogh would be intensely interesting. They might not be great works of art; but they would tell us things about the artists' development and their working practices that we couldn't find out anywhere else.
The Complete Doodles of Andrew Rilstone, not so much.
The Nature of Middle-earth doesn't tell us much about the nature of Middle-earth. But it does tell us a good deal about the nature of Tolkien's creative process. More, perhaps, than we actually wanted to know.
There is no single, finished thing called Middle-earth to talk about the nature of; only three differently unfinished works in progress.
There is, if you will, Middle-earth I, the setting of the Book of Lost Tales, back when Beren was an Elf, Sauron was a cat and minstrels had names like Tinfang Warble.
There is Middle-earth II, the world of Lord of the Rings and the published Silmarillion, when Hobbits, Dwarves and the sunken island of Numenor had inveigled themselves into the long-standing Elf-mythology.
And there is the projected Middle-earth III which would have made the world of Lord of the Rings more consistent with real-world geography, real-world astronomy and real-world theology. It would have ret-conned out the flat-earth, the sky done, and the literal sun-chariot, and made Eru and Morgoth theologically consistent analogues for the Catholic God and the Catholic Satan.
Maybe Numenor-Atlantis never sunk beneath the waves, muses Tolkien at one point. Maybe it just had all the magic sucked out of it and turned into America.
The notes that make up the Nature of Middle-earth were written at the very end of Tolkien's life; and are therefore mainly about the projected, unfinished, and inferior version of what purists call The Legendarium. Anyone expecting a collection of geek-heavy lore -- more or less canonical information about the setting that got left out of the books -- is going to be deeply disappointed. Very little in this book would be of the slightest use to someone producing, say, a role-playing game, a work of fan-fiction, or a four hundred and sixty five million dollar TV series for Amazon Prime. It would be more help, I think, to someone trying to write a grammar of Elvish; although even here Tolkien's thinking is in a permanent state of flux. Carl Hostetter, the editor, is an expert on Quenya and Sindarin and used to be the head of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship. He also wrote computer software for NASA, which was probably a lot more straightforward.
In the Silmarillion, the Elves are created and wake up in Middle-earth long before the creation of the sun and the moon; they go on a very long journey to Valinor (where the gods live under the light of the Two Trees) but they eventually rebel against the gods and come back to Middle-earth. Tolkien has decided that for Lord of the Rings to work as a fictional pre-history of our own Earth, the sun and the moon must have always existed. And this puts his chronology right out. He starts doing sums in his head about how long a Valinorian year lasts compared with a "year of the Sun", how long Elves live for, and how much they breed. Given that they are immortal, if he gets his figures wrong the world is going to be teeming with the little pointy-eared buggers; if there are that many, they can't all have decamped to Valinor and he doesn't want to spoil the story about how the first Men found quite a small tribe of Elves when they first came over the mountains.
And so: pages and pages of different "generational schemes": if Elves hit puberty at such-and-such an age and have yay many babies, what would the population be after X, Y or Z generations? At one point he calculates the ratio of Elf-Years to Human-Years to three hundred decimal places -- without, the editor reminds us, the aid of a pocket calculator or correcting fluid.
This is not writing; this is not world-building. It isn't even doodling. It is displacement activity.
Elves live longer than humans, but not ridiculously longer: not much more than a hundred and fifty years. But time passes much more slowly in Valinor, and once they are in Middle-earth, Elves continue to age at the Valinorian rate (although they perceive time as humans do). Arwen is 2788 years old at her marriage, but, subjectively, she's only about 28.
Naturally, it's not that simple: Elvish children age at about the same rate as human children; and hit puberty at about the same time. And age doesn't effect Elves the way it does humans. They don't go grey and wrinkly or become weaker and they don't grow beards. Their spirits (fea) and their bodies (hroa) are plumbed together very differently from those of humans. At their creation, Elves looked very much like men; but the longer they live the more spiritualised their flesh becomes. In the end, their fea "uses up" their hroa: any Elves in Middle-earth today (in the twenty first century) would have bodies that have become completely spiritualised, and would appear to us as disembodied or invisible beings. Making babies exhausts some of their fea, which is why they (fortunately) tend to have very small families.
Hostetter provides a helpful appendix pointing out that this is in line with Catholic thinking. The idea that the soul inhabits the body and is separable from it is a gnostic heresy. A good Catholic thinks that a human person is a unity of body and spirit. (The theology of the incarnation of Jesus became very complicated around this point.) Tolkien's theory that the fall of Morgoth-Satan entailed a corruption in the nature of they physical universe depends on this Thomist/Platonic conception of matter.
So what happens if an Elf is killed? Tolkien can't simply say that an Elf's spirit goes to Elf-heaven: he is very committed to the idea that Elves, body-and-soul, are "coeval" with the life of the material universe. It takes a direct conversation between Eru (literally God) and Manwe (top Valar on earth) to sort it out. Eru gives Manwe permission to create new bodies for any Elves who have been temporarily dis-incarnated. Tolkien gets justifiably worried about whether an Elf with a new body can be said to be the same elf as he was before, and goes down a deep rabbit hole about whether an exact replica of your house would still be your house. (Yes, if your house burned down and was replaced by one exactly the same you would feel that you had your house back; except with respect to an object that you loved particularly because it was, say, a gift from a friend. That can't be replaced because what you love is not the thing itself, but its history. And so on for some pages.)
In places, Tolkien's lyrical story telling voice does shine through. Here is is recounting the Elves own story about their first generation:
Imin, Tatis and Enel awoke before their spouses, and the first thing that they saw was the stars, for they woke in the early twilight before dawn. And the next thing they saw was their destined spouse lying asleep on the green sward beside them. Then they were so enamoured of their beauty that their desire for speech was immediately quickened and they began "to think of words" to speak and sing in. And being impatient they could not wait but woke up their spouses. Thus (say the Eldar) elf-women ever after reached maturity sooner than elf-men; for it had been intended that they should wake later than their spouses.
The six go exploring and find another group of twelve; the twelve find twenty four, and so on until there are a hundred and forty four of them. The Elvish words for the numerals one, two and three (Minn, Atta, and Nel-De) come from the names of those first three Elves, although scholar-Tolkien adds a footnote saying that this is a story-internal myth; and that it is more likely that latert Elves retrospectively named their first ancestors after the numerals. Because there were twelve dozen Elves in the original creation, the Elves count in base twelve and don't have names for any number higher than a hundred and forty four. (A hundred and forty four is, of course, a significant number in the first chapter of Lord of the Rings.) Elvish children play a this-little-piggy game in which they call their fingers Daddy, Mummy, Big Boy, Little Girl and Baby. Those words also sound like the numbers from one to five.
Tolkien has started with some theoretical ideas about the origins of language; some mathematical calculations about how many Elves there need to have been for the demographics to make sense; and even a note about the rate of maturation in he-Elves and she-Elves: but the ideas have come together into a charming narrative about Elf-Adam waking up Elf-Eve too early because they were so keen to start creating poems. That particular story would not have happened if not for the theoretical ground-work.
Some of the material is of more general interest. Tolkien is quite annoyed by Pauline Baynes' illustration for a poster-map of Middle-earth; he takes particular exception to her giving the Nazgul hats: so he provides extensive notes about what the characters looked like. He seems to be interpreting his own text as if it were an historical document. She shouldn't have drawn Gollum going naked, because the text says he had pockets; he "evidently" had black garments, but when the text says he is "as dark as darkness" that just means he couldn't be seen with normal eyes in a dark cave. Elsewhere he explains that Aragorn and Boromir would not have had beards, not because they shave, but because of their Numenorean ancestry and Elvish blood: Elvish men don't grow beards. (This made we wonder about the beardlessness of Hobbits.)
But some of it is really astonishingly trivial. A paragraph about the Druedain's cultivation of mushrooms (rejected by Tolkien because it made them too much like Hobbits) is lovingly reproduced. We learn that they liked fungi; that they knew which were poisonous and which were not; that they planted fungi near their dwellings; that Elves on the whole don't like mushrooms; that some people even think that fungus has been cursed by Morgoth. It's like Tolkien feels that he has to say something about everything, even if he has nothing to say. But as a result of the doodle, he now knows that some people in Middle-earth call mushrooms "orc plants".
Or again: Tolkien makes a linguistic note about the Elvish word gor, which can mean "warn" but also "influence" or "counsel". To elucidate the nuance, he says that it is derived from the word ore, which in Lord of the Rings is translated as "heart" ("my heart tells me") but which does not in fact refer metaphorically to the bodily organ. It means something more like "inner mind": particularly thoughts which seem to come into your mind spontaneously, which Elves think come from the Valar or even from God. Humans, think the Elves, are bad at listening to their ore; it may even be that their ore gives them bad advise, because of the actions of Morgoth/Satan. Tolkien the linguist is cares that Elvish words do not correspond exactly to English words; Tolkien the philosopher cares that Elves have their own perception of how psychology and conscience operate; Tolkien the Catholic cares about the consequences of original sin in his sub-creation. We're a very long way from translating Hamlet back into the original Klingon.
Hostetter helpfully notes that when Tolkien said that the Lord of the Rings is fundamentally Catholic, he does not mean that it is explicitly or directly Catholic (in the way that C.S Lewis's fairy tales and science fiction stories were directly and explicitly Christian): he means literally that they have a Catholic foundation. The building blocks of the world take Catholic thinking for granted. It is clear that, in a similar way, the Lord of the Rings is fundamentally linguistic. Elves have a particular perception of time; and a particular way of thinking about the future; and a particular view of conscience because Tolkien was concerned about the nuances of the word gor; and a thousand other words as well.
There is a kind of writer who cannot describe a character opening a door unless he first decides what the doorknob looks like. Perhaps we need to think of Tolkien as an historical novelist, writing stories in an imaginary history which he had created himself, but a history nonetheless. He could no more make up a fact about Elrond than Hilary Mantel can make up a fact about Thomas Moore. And his history is created out of philology and Thomist theology: in asking these incredibly dry, abstract questions, he is bringing the world into sharp enough focus that he is capable of writing about it. If Boromir had told Frodo that his favourite food was an orc-plant, Tolkien would have believed it because he hadn't, in that sense, just made it up.
So it seems that that was how Tolkien wrote. How Middle-earth grew; how it congealed on the page. If you love the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion then you have to say that this was the right thing to do; a different writer would have done it differently and we would have ended up with a different book.
Still: the Nature of Middle-earth is a sad book. Middle-earth, so solid, so convincing, "a world more real than any other", dissolves into a series of calculations and conjectures; an unknowable, unfinishable work-in progress. Sad because Tolkien was so obviously struggling to do the impossible. An old man, working out his backstory to three hundred significant figures, when we would rather he had written one more poem or a single footnote about the Entwives -- when we would much rather he had not abandoned his "thriller" about Minas Tirith during the reign of Aragorn's son.
And because it seems like such a waste.
On one occasion the BBC declared the Lord of the Rings the 26th greatest book of the twentieth century; on another, the best loved British novel of all time. It is estimated to have sold a hundred and fifty million copies, which would make it comfortably the best selling "authored" book of all time.
If Tolkien hadn't wasted his time worrying about pedantic detail, imagine what he could have achieved.
Wednesday, November 10, 2021
Tuesday, November 09, 2021
Monday, November 08, 2021
While I was writing this piece, the news came through that Bob Baker, co-writer of Underworld, Invisible Enemy and numerous other Doctor Who stories had died at the age of 81.
I have left the piece unchanged: I don't think that Underworld or Invisible Enemy were very good; but I don't imagine Bob Baker intended people to be doing close-readings of his scripts forty years down the time line. And they were very much part of the series I loved at the time I loved it most.
When I started this retrospective, I said that his Sontaran Experiment was a classic example of the kind of thing Doctor Who does well. Everyone loves the Three Doctors, and my eleven year old self adored K-9.
More to the point, I saw some episodes of the 1975 HTV series "Sky" when I was a kid, and saw the whole thing on DVD in the last couple of years. It is one of the strangest, most surreal, trippy, Electric Eden-esque pieces of children's TV ever made. It's about a group of school kids protecting an alien who has arrived on earth; but with its weird religious overtones and New Age sensibilities, it is more Whistle Down The Wind than E.T. The image of the boy wiping the starscape off his hand in the final episode has stayed with me my whole life.
"We're on the edge of the cosmos, the frontiers of creation, the boundary between what is and isn't, or isn't yet, anyway. Don't you think that's interesting?"
Leela is having a go at piloting the TARDIS. The Doctor is teaching himself to paint. He is wearing a smock and a beret and has paint on his face. The paint disappears when he leaves the TARDIS, but it reappears when he gets back on board in Episode Four.
The TARDIS stalls, possibly because of something Leela did and possibly not. It has taken them to the very edge of the universe, for some reason. But they are not alone: they encounter a spaceship, the R1C which has been travelling for a hundred thousand years. The Doctor asks Leela if she has heard of the Flying Dutchman. Not surprisingly, she has not.
The crew are Minions from the planet Minios; their captain has the disappointingly mundane name Jackson. They are searching for a sister ship, the P7E, which is the only other remnant of their long dead civilisation. The lost ship is carrying Race Banks which would allow them to recreate their near extinct species.
"Ah" you say "I suppose it is a generation star ship and none of the crew can even remember why they originally set out?" On the contrary: the Minions are immortals. Like the Time Lords, they can regenerate when their bodies wear out. They used to worship Time Lords as gods, and presumably learned regeneration from them. They are a bit sad because the power supply is finally running down and their long voyage may be coming to an end.
This is heady stuff. Wandering, world-weary immortals. An endless voyage through space. People who need the Doctor to be a god but think of him as the devil. Yet another skeleton in the Time Lord's closet.
Don't get too excited. They turn out to be just one more ship full of thick, slightly bellicose militaristic space-men in silly tin-foil suits, who initially treat the Doctor with suspicion, but end up accepting his help. In Episode Two they arrive on One Of Those Planets and find a population of slave-workers ruled over by an oppressive boss-caste. The boss-caste take their orders from a mad computer, who thinks it is a god. Doctor Who has gone beyond being formulaic. It has become a series of variations on a theme.
"Shut up, K-9! Shut up! I can tell K-9 to shut up if I want to!"
Tom Baker's Doctor gets nastier by the episode.
Manners change; my family may have been exceptionally sensitive, but saying "shut up" was one of the things guaranteed to make Mum and Dad genuinely angry. I suppose it was a playground rudery that they didn't want me to use in front of Grandad. I didn't learn "piss off" until I got to secondary school.
So maybe the Doctor is playing linguistic anarchist, using the bad words and waiting for the walls of censorship to come tumbling down, like Johnny Rotten saying "fuck" to Bill Grundy. Or maybe he's less a Time Lord, more a very naughty boy: saying and doing the stuff that we would never get away with. I adored him as a kid; but he's increasingly hard to take now.
The wonderful comic improvisation that Baker brought to his first seasons is dwindling, and the jokes aren't very funny. When he turns up on the flight deck of the R1C one of the crew asks "How did you get here?" and he replies "Through that door." This is slender class-comedian stuff. He tells Leela that they are the first intelligent "and semi-intelligent" life forms to see the edge of the universe -- a pointless snipe which goes well beyond teasing her about being a savage. He talks about things people couldn't possibly know about, and gets annoyed when they don't. He off-handedly tells everyone that The Planet is probably going to be destroyed with a sort of ironic contempt for the universe.
Tom wants the Doctor to be alien; to look down on humans with ironic detachment from a higher plane; and the script is more and more playing up to that characterisation. But sneery arrogance has become the low-rent replacement for that divine condescension which he did so impressively in, say, Ark in Space.
"Then they went to war with each other, learnt how to split the atom, discovered the toothbrush and finally split the planet."
Last season Robert Holmes established a mythology and backstory for the Time Lords.
And it seems to have made absolutely no difference. The Time Lords are referenced in every story: "But I'm a Time Lord!" has become a cliche, if not actually a catch phrase. (Tom Baker parodies it slightly in Episode Two: when he is told that there is no time to stop a goodie being executed, he replies "Don't talk to me about time, I'm a Time Lord.") But none of the scripts pay the slightest attention to the mythology that Deadly Assassin went to such a lot of trouble to create. The day will come when writers requiring plot devices will reach for the "trumpet of Rassilon" or the "razor of Omega" but it has not come yet.
Scripts shed bits of backstory with gay abandon, safe in the knowledge that they will never be mentioned again. In Invisible Enemy, the Doctor and Leela are exploring that part of the Doctor's brain which makes memories and dreams and nightmares. In the next story we meet a creature that the Doctor has nightmares about. Are the two connected? Why would they be? In Image of the Fendahl, we discover that the Time Lords once broke their non-intervention vows, and took some trouble to cover it up. In Underworld, we find out why they took those vows to begin with. Are the two stories related? Of course not. And the final story of the season is going to take us back to Gallifrey. Will it draw all the hints and foreshadowing together and show how the Fendahl and the Time Lord Intelligentsia and the Minions are connected?
It seems that when the Time Lords were first learning to travel in time and space, they shared their technology with the Minions: and of course the Minions promptly kicked the Time Lords out and had a genocidal civil war. Jackson's ship, and the one he has been chasing for the past hundred millennia are the only survivors of the cataclysm.
This is the exact same origin story that Stan Lee made up for the Watcher in a back up strip in an Iron Man comic in 1964. The Watcher was a supporting character in the Fantastic Four; he sits on the Moon and never interferes in human affairs (except when he does). It turns out that "aeons" ago, his people taught the Proscillicons about atomic power, were rather surprised when they blew themselves up and promised never to do it again. The United Federation of Planets seems to have come up with the Prime Directive all by themselves, without the trauma of original sin.
In 1963, when Doctor Who was just a TV show, series creator Sydney Newman said that the origin of the Doctor ought not to be revealed. Writers could drop hints about it, but they should leave enough wiggle room that the next writer could drop hints of his own. It seems that Williams is adopting this approach to the Time Lords. Anyone can say any shit they like about them and no-one is expected to pay the slightest attention to it.
"A ship of ghosts, going on and on and unable to remember why."
The Doctor says that the Time Lords inadvertently destroyed the Minions by giving them better weapons and communications but the only unusual technology we see them using is Cellular Regeneration. There are no shortage of races in the universe who have space-ships and ray-guns, with or without Time Lord intervention. The Minions do have a natty weapon called a pacifier which calms the target down and makes him temporarily love everyone, but they use it once on Leela and then forget about it.
The Minions Cellular Regeneration is definitely meant to be the same kind of thing as Time Lord Regeneration: the Doctor says that he has been through it "two or three times" (instantly decanonizing the Mobius Doctors.) The crew of the R1C say that they have regenerated thousands of times each; suggesting that Bob Baker and Dave Martin don't know about the twelve body limit imposed by Robert Holmes.
You would expect this to be the main thrust of the story: how a race of immortals recklessly shared their deathlessness with some mortals who were not ready for it. But it's pretty much just a one-use plot device to explain how the same crew can have been in space for a thousand centuries.
Nothing in the story would fall out differently if the Minions did not have Previous with the Time Lords, but were just some humanoids trying to get their Race Banks back. Nothing would be different if they had been elderly people who had been questing for fifty years, as opposed to immortals who had been at it for a hundred thousand. Nothing would be different if the Planet were a few hundred light years away rather than at the very edge of existence.
I was going to say that these concepts have been crowbarred in to give a painfully generic story a spurious significance and gravitas. But they don't even do that. They feel more like space fillers, improvisations, twiddly bits that briefly embellish an otherwise rather bland melody.
Some people are going to a certain place to do a certain thing.
Why? Because Time Lords.
"Revolution. Has no-one thought of revolution? Has no-one ever rebelled?"
It seems that Jackson's ship exerts a gravitational pull strong enough to attract all the asteroids and space debris in the vicinity: Episode One ends with the ship very nearly being buried by small rocks. The quest ship, the P7E, has been sitting in the asteroid field for centuries; a whole planet has formed around it. Descendants of the crew live in the tunnels and caves they have excavated. They have never seen the outside world and don't even believe it exists.
This seems to be quite a lot of narrative trouble to go to to establish the basic conceit of the story; that the race-banks which Jackson is searching for are at the heart of a labyrinthine network of caves and tunnels. The central metaphor is advertised in the story's title: Jackson is going down into the underworld. He is going to retrieve the golden life pods from P7E. (Persephone. Geddit?)
Most of the population of P7E dress in ragged nightshirts and look like extras from Life of Brian. They are, inevitably, called the Trogs and spend their whole lives digging rock "for reprocessing into food so that we can go on working to get more rock." (Leela is surprised that it is possible to eat rock. "Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Blackpool?" ripostes the Doctor. Ha-ha.) They are ruled by the Guards, who are ruled by the Seers, who answer to the Oracle who (to no-one's great surprise) turns out to be the computer that ran the original starship.
Dig rock so we can make food so we can dig more rock; work so we can pay for drugs that can keep us awake to work longer hours so we can pay our taxes. A casual viewer who had zoned out during Sunmakers and rejoined the action part way through Underworld could be forgiven for thinking he was watching the same story.
"What else? We can make your brain boil in you skull! What else?"
Graham Williams is making a concerted effort to appeal to the neglected torture-and-execution demographic (largely neglected since Deadly Assassin.) Last time he had Leela being steamed to death while the Gatherer drooled. This time one of Jackson's crew is strapped into a device somewhere between a particularly unwieldy stereo system and the electric chair; while the Seers demand he tells them things that he obviously doesn't know. Meanwhile, an elderly Trog becomes a human sacrifice because he has publicly stated that the sky is not made of rock and there are stars above it. "The Trogs always work harder after a good sacrifice" say the Seers.
The black and white William Hartnell story, the Aztecs, may not be the most culturally sensitive piece of TV ever filmed: but it did show some awareness that human sacrifice was a religious rite, albeit a cruel and bloodthirsty one. Underworld depicts it purely as a form of execution. It doesn't seem to be about deterring specific heretics; it's merely a show of strength pour encourager les autres. The Doctor sees it as "official sadism". For a show which is meant to be toning down the violence for the sake of the Whitehouse, the episode spends a lot of time dwelling on the process of killing. A sword is suspended over the victim, tied by an elaborate strip of cloth, and an oil lamp is lit underneath to burn through it. It is presumably supposed to evoke the Sword of Damocles; but it feels more like an Adam West Batman cliffhanger: an over-complex trap the sole purpose of which is to give the hero a chance to escape from it.
"You're just another machine with megalomania. Another insane object, another self-aggrandising artefact. You're nothing. Nothing but a mass of superheated junk with delusions of grandeur."
The Seers think that preserving the Oracle is the most important thing; so they agree to hand over the Race Banks if Jackson's crew will go away. But the Oracle thinks that holding onto the Race Banks is the most important thing, so it hands over two Race Bank shaped atomic bombs that it prepared earlier. The Doctor takes the real Race Banks by force; and tries to dispose of the Bombs safely; but the Guards take them off him thinking they are real Race Banks. The Trogs escape on board the ship, the planet blows up, and everyone lives relatively happily ever after.
("The prophecy's being fulfilled. Our god has come to save us. We can escape to the stars" exclaims one of the Trogs. Tom resists the temptation to say "I think this is becoming needlessly Messianic".)
Once again, the climactic scene involves the Doctor confronting the main villain and over-acting a lot. Tom Baker is now the defining feature of Doctor Who; so it makes perfect sense to allow him to grandstand once in each story. The showdown with the Oracle is considerably more shouty than the one with the Gatherer last week: the Doctor appears to be angry, not because it is especially evil, but because it is such a cliche. It is fairly hard not to read this as Tom Baker's contempt for the material; or perhaps even knowing self-deprecation on the part of Bob Baker and Dave Martin. After four episodes, a hundred thousand years and a ground-up re-write of Time Lord history, it all comes down to yet another nasty computer and a very powerful hand-grenade.
"Perhaps those myths are not just old stories of the past, you see, but prophecies of the future."
There was a three-week gap between the Sunmakers (which concluded on December 17th 1977) and Underworld (which began on January 7th 1978.) There was no Doctor Who on Christmas Eve, even though it fell on a Saturday; and only a repeat of Robots of Death on New Years Eve.
And during that hiatus, on the day-after-Boxing Day, Star Wars finally arrived in the UK. (The day-after-New Years day also saw the launch of Blakes' Seven.)
So: that really-quite-good BBC special effect of space-ships flying overhead and getting swallowed by meteors in Episode One happened at the same time most of us were having our first encounter with Star Wars. Very many of us saw the Planet blow up (split down the middle like a giant easter egg) in the same week we first saw Alderaan (and then the Death Star) explode. Leela shouts "revolution!" at the Trogs at the same time that brave rebels, striking from a hidden base, won their first victory over the evil galactic empire.... Her names sounds a bit like Princess Leia's, come to think of it.
Had anyone in the Doctor Who production office seen Star Wars? Had they (like me) read the comic book and the novel? Did they know it by reputation? Or, as the Doctor said last week, it might just have been coincidence.
Did Underworld -- and by degrees Doctor Who itself -- develop its reputation for shoddiness because it appeared in the same time-frame as the massively spectacular and ground-breaking effects in Star Wars? Was our perception of the awesomeness of Star Wars effected by the mediocrity of Doctor Who?
Did we look at the spaceships in Underworld and say "Oh dear, the BBC is trying to do Star Wars, badly." Or did we see Star Wars for the first time and think "Oh my giddy aunt, it's like Doctor Who, only less crap."
The first thing the world noticed about Star Wars is that it was kind of like a fairy tale, only in space. The second thing it noticed was that it was kind of a collage of everything that George Lucas loved about cinema. But we very quickly spotted that the really important thing about Star Wars was that it had something to do with Joseph Campbell.
Let's not revisit the question of whether Lucas used Hero With a Thousand Faces as a template; whether the mighty power of the collective unconscious caused him to make a movie that was shaped like the Monomyth; or if Campbell's Monomyth is merely a convoluted way of saying that most stories are about people who go from some place to some other place in order to do a thing. What matters is that for a while, we all believed that Star Wars was not just a great Hollywood adventure movie. It was a modern embodiment of the One True Story, and therefore Very Important Indeed.
And it is more or less at that cultural moment that the Doctor chooses to assert that Underworld, the most formulaic and derivative of all Doctor Who stories had, in fact, been the recapitulation of an ancient myth.
"Jason was another captain on a long quest. He was looking for the Golden Fleece. He found it hanging on a tree at the end of the world..."
The whole point of Image of the Fendahl is that myths and religions are garbled memories of things which really happened in the remote past. The Doctor now proposes that they are prophecies of things which will happen in the far future. Joseph Campbell, of course, says that they are the forms in which deep mystical and psychological truths penetrate our conscious minds. All three say that myths are not true, but are nevertheless really important. It is possible to bite through the chocolate shell of legend and get to the Kinder toy of truth buried within.
The connections between the story of Jackson and the story of Jason are actually pretty tenuous. One of Jackson's crew is called Herrick, which is obviously supposed to make us think of Heracles: there are also characters called Orfe and Talis. Herrick is a bit heroic and gung-ho; but Orfe doesn't sing and Talis isn't made of bronze. Their ship is nearly destroyed by asteroids, which is a bit like crashing rocks. P7E sounds like Persephone (who Jason never encountered) and if you try really hard you can make R1C rhyme with Argosy. They are not looking for a fleece, but for Race Banks; but their pods are certainly gold in colour. The P7E is concealed in a kind of labyrinth which the Trogs call the Tree; it is defended by automatic lasers which the Trogs call dragons. Going down into a series of caves to retrieve the very thing which will save your people is unquestionably pretty mythic.
Joseph Campbell gave it a big important name. George Lucas injected it into a movie. But if you are inclined to believe in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, it is very interesting that in the exact same week Luke Skywalker arrived in England, Doctor Who was telling a story about a band of heroes who go an a long journey and descend into the underworld to bring back the golden boon which will restore their race.
The Quest, they keep on saying, Is The Quest.
Thursday, November 04, 2021
Thursday, October 28, 2021
In October 1977, Jack Kirby's Eternals came to an ignominious non-conclusion. It had been a gosh-wow treatment of the theory that human mythology and superstition is based on race-memories of alien visitations.
Also in October 1977, the first episode of Image of the Fendahl premiered on BBC 1. It was a spooky, gothic treatment of the theory that human mythology and superstitions are based on race-memories of ancient alien visitations.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe even the universe can't bare to be without a decent set of space-gods.
"How do we follow that?" asked producer Graham Williams. "We are only on our third story, and we have already had a Giant Alien Brussel sprout and a Giant Alien Prawn. What could possibly be more scary than that?"
"I know," replied writer Chris Boucher "What about a Giant Alien Penis?"
(This didn't really happen, as you very well know.)
Image of the Fendahl is not so much a story as a headlong rush through a sequence of Doctor Who tropes. Things happen, not because it makes any kind of sense for them to happen, but because they are the kinds of thing which happen in this kind of Doctor Who story. The components are all in place: a lab full of oscilloscopes; a pretty lady chained to a pentangle; a glowing skull; a Giant Muppet Phallus Monster (and lots of baby phalluses); a foggy, foggy, wood; and an old lady who don't be holdin' with this kind of thing.
In the cracks between the tropes is a lot of exposition about Time Lord legends, rifts in the fabric of time, evolutionary blind alleys and gestalt entities which feed on life itself. It turns out that the human race has an extraterrestrial origin. (And then it turns out that it doesn't.) The ancient aliens' visit explains why the pentangle is a universal symbol of power and why we throw salt over our shoulders for good luck. Almost definitely.
It is based around a strong set of characters, several of whom are not cliches. It is overacted and melodramatic: but it's 1977. Everything is over-acted and melodramatic. The confrontation between scientist Colby and scientist Thea in Episode Two would probably have gone down a storm on Play For Today. Director George Spenton-Foster has a nice line in intercutting short scenes to keep up the pace and does his level best to use close-ups and shadows and reaction shots to make the Giant Space Penis look less risible than it would otherwise have done. The production is cast and dark red autumnal colours; we are in the visual world of Talons of Weng Chiang and Pyramids of Mars. It feels like a piece of grown-up TV, where Invisible Enemy felt like a comic strip (and not in a good way).
But it is all surface. There is much chat about race memories and the extraterrestrial origins of the occult; and about how a Time Lord put the Fifth Planet into a Time Loop (which 'twas against the rules) but it all seems to be made up on the spot. Boucher knows that he wants hubristic scientists fooling around with an alien artefact; and he knows that he wants a Dennis Wheatley human sacrifice scenario in the cellar; but he seems to flail around wildly trying to find a route from one to the other. When Leela asks, not unreasonably, how the Giant Space Penis got from the Fifth Planet to Earth without a space ship, the Doctor replies that it used its stockpile of energy to project itself; and that human belief in astral projection is a race-memory of this method of travel. Leela says "you mean the way lightening travels".
But when the creature has menaced everyone in the corridor in part four, the Doctor says "it can only have been created out of pure energy while the skull was restructuring Thea's brain." Travelling like the lightening? Astral projection? Or created out of pure energy by an alien skull? Which is it? No-one knows.
It is never a good sign when companions begin sentences with "You mean....?" (Colby has a nice line in sentences beginning "Are you telling me...?")
Perhaps Graham Williams had come to the conclusion that most people only watched Doctor Who with half an eye. On any given Saturday, some people would have been coming home late from the football or the shops or the Sunday School concert. It can hardly be said too often that there were no re-runs, no streaming services and no Betamax videos. At any given moment, most of the audience could be assumed to be saying "I don't understand that; but it was probably explained in the episode I missed." And if they are resigned to doing that anyway -- if being confused is part of the fun -- then why not allow even the kids who managed to get home by 6 o'clock four weeks running go away agreeably bewildered?
There are four scientists. A Sarcastic One, a Grumpy One, a Foreign One, and a Girl One. A hiker is hiking through the foggy, foggy woods, whistling to keep his spirits up. The Sardonic One says that the skull can't possibly be as old as the Girl One thinks it is. The Grumpy One goes to a secret lab, and the Foreign One says "now ve can begin". They switch on their oscilloscope. There is a rising high-pitched sound effect; the skull starts to glow. It is superimposed over the face of the Girl One. The hiker in the woods is scared. He is attacked by something invisible.
And then we cut to the TARDIS where the Doctor and Leela are talking gobbledegook about continuums, displacements and implosions.
A week ago, to the delight of small boys and the dismay of serious Who fans, the Doctor acquired a robot companion, K-9. One week later, K-9 is in pieces on the TARDIS floor. Fan-fiction writers bless the production team for this: it means that at least one, and probably lots of adventures must have taken place between Invisible Enemy and Image of the Fendahl. (Has there been a Big Finish about How K-9 Got Corroded?) After all the build up, we won't get to see K-9 as a part of the regular cast for another month. One assumes that the radio controlled hound didn't function on location shoots with uneven floors. Or perhaps Chris Boucher simply felt disinclined to add another companion to his script at short notice.
There is a little bit of banter about pronouns. The Doctor refers to K-9 as "it" and Leela refers to them as "he" (although he calls the TARDIS "she"). This gets a pay-off four weeks later, when the Doctor announces that he is going to call K-9 "he" after all ("he's my dog").
There is an essentially similar scene at the beginning of Robots of Death, when Leela thinks the Doctor's yo-yo is integral to the working of the TARDIS. But that scene was played straight: when Tom Baker explains why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, he seems to believe it, which allows Leela to believe it; which in turn allows us to carry on believing in it. This week's TARDIS scene is played -- if not exactly for laughs -- then at any rate, facetiously.
-- What did you say, Leela
-- Leela said...
-- I know what you said
-- Then why ask me?
There are as yet undiscovered tribes in New Guinea that knew that as soon as the Doctor says that he is in "complete and constant control" of the TARDIS, the ship would lurch off course, throwing everyone to the floor. It's an example of that joke format which TV Tropes calls the Gilligan Cut. It crops up again in Episode 2, Leela says that the Doctor is very gentle, and we cut to him kicking boxes around out of frustration. Once the TARDIS is back on course the Doctor says "she" is wonderful and Tom Baker (presumably) ad libs a little football chant ("TAR-DIS! Won-der-ful!")
The message of Robots of Death was that the TARDIS is a wondrous alien machine that Tom and Louise want us to believe in. The message of Image of the Fendahl is that it's a silly plot device that can safely have the mickey taken out of it.
But the terminal diagnosis comes as they leave the TARDIS.
-- Come on then.
-- No. The one who leads says come on. Come on.
"Come on" and "Let's go" were both certainly cliches of the period. (I recall some spoof writer's guidelines for Blakes 7 in a fanzine saying that if Avon said "Let's go" then Tarrant couldn't.) But as soon as the characters start to become aware of the cliches, the writing is on the wall for your TV show.
Leela says that it is obvious that the Doctor cannot control the TARDIS. This is rather odd. The series is now predicated on the idea that the Doctor can control the TARDIS and has to be given reasons to go where he is going. (The whole of next season will be predicated on one particularly convoluted reason.) Last week he was called to Titan base to answer a Mayday; next week he'll be forced to land on Pluto because the TARDIS is broken. This week, the Doctor chooses to go to Earth because The Foreign One's oscilloscope is really a Time Scanner, and (as everyone knows) if you fool around with a Time Scanner you risk ripping a hole in time. Which would be a Bad Thing. The Foreign One is brilliant at electronics; he used to make missile guidance systems; and he is one of the richest men in the world; but quite how he managed to invent something so dangerous is not covered. It doesn't matter: the Time Scanner has no actual bearing on the story. In Episode 4 the Doctor switches it off and says "Whew! We've saved the planet", and everyone who is not taking notes says "You what?"
The skull is a Mysterious Anachronism, exactly like Eldrad's hand in the Hand of Fear. It's a human skull, but it is millions of years older than any human skull has a right to be. It was dug up in Kenya. (The Sarcastic One's dog is called Leakey because it digs up bones, and not for any childish scatological reasons). Obviously, an African skull is bound up with pentangles, witches covens, and traditions about salt, rather than, say, ancestor worship or Kikuyu.
In Episode Two, the Foreign One says that the Skull is extraterrestrial, and that this proves that man did not evolve on earth ("of zat I am sure"). The Time Scanner has revealed (somehow) that when the Skull's owner died, it absorbed a huge amount of energy. When something as sophisticated as a Time Scanner -- or maybe just an X-Ray machine -- is turned on it, it releases all this energy, telling the other members of its race that intelligent life has developed on earth. This is a perfectly fine sci-fi trope: it's very much the function of the Black Slab in 2001: A Space Odyssey (which also mucked around with human evolution.) But in the actual story, the Skull seems to operate by possessing people, killing them, and turning them into Giant Rude Looking Caterpillars. We don't see it acting as a beacon or summonsing device. Why the Fendahl need humans to be capable of developing time scanners and radiography before having them for lunch is not explored.
But there is more to come. The Skull is connected, in some way, with creatures from Time Lord mythology -- who were destroyed when the Fifth Planet blew up. The Doctor knows this because after she has been possessed by the skull, Thea, the Girl Scientist faints and tiny little phallic Fendahl appear on her body. Why do they appear? And, indeed, where do they go? Is the thought that the Skull, as well as sending out a signal, has used the nearest human as some kind of bridgehead or teleportation terminus? A cynic might say that the only reason for the Baby Monsters to appear is because Boucher can't think of a better way of appraising the Doctor of the identity of this week's bad guy.
We aren't told what Time Lord myths are attached to the Very Genocidal Caterpillar. We aren't told if the planet which blew up is the fifth one in our solar system, or in Galifrey's or if it is connected with the number five for some other reason. (Planet of the Pentangles, possibly?) The idea that the Fendhal is a legend rapidly falls away; it becomes simply a Bad Alien that the Time Lords fudged their non-intervention policy to get rid of. And anywhere, their relationship with the Time Lords has no bearing on the story. It's just a spurious way of making the story pointlessly hyperbolical. Not only are the Fendahl evil aliens who are going to consume all life on earth; but they are the kind of evil life-consuming aliens that Time Lords tell each other scary stories about!
But there is more to come. Fendalman, the Foreign One, is clearly coded as the villain in Episode One; but in Episode Two it turns out that the main human baddy is actually the Grumpy One, the improbably named Maximillion Stael. It isn't enough to say that the Skull might be the source of some human legends. There has to be some actual Hammer Horror black magic going on. Superstitious villagers regards Stael as Leader of the Coven; and in case we were in any doubt, he has to deliver lines like "I shall be a god!" and "It is too late for all the meddling fools!"
In Episode One, an elderly lady who runs errands for the scientists has a run-in with the security thugs who Fendalman has called down from London. After she thumps him with her hand-bag Colby (the Sarcastic One) remarks sarcastically that he can see why people used to burn witches. In Episode Two it turns out that Mrs Tyler really is a witch. (She do be following the old ways, me 'andsome, on account of 'ow folks round here were raised in the old religion, so they were etc. etc. etc.) It could be that Colby's reference to witches is a cack-handed piece of foreshadowing; but it is very tempting to think that the joke came first and the plot twist came afterwards.
I imagine that in the 1970s, some people really did meet up in secret places to perform what they imagined were ancient ceremonies. They could have been rich, Hell-Fire Club, Crowley-influenced decadents; well meaning new-age flower children; or even sincerely spiritual neo-pagans. But Boucher thinks that once you travel west of Basingstoke all the locals speak with thick accents and talk about The Old Ways. Not only is this patronising, but it's a literary cliche. The four scientists are, by Doctor Who standards, fairly naturalistically drawn. The Mummer set yokels are straight out of Cold Comfort Farm. Jack Tyler, (the wise-woman's grown-up grandson) gives the impression that he's going to break into a rousing chorus of Brand New Combine Harvester at any moment.
A comparison with Jon Pertwee's the Daemons is rather salutary. The Daemons is almost entirely an occult story, in which burial mounds are opened and existentialist vicars say "so mot it be" in crypts. The cloven hoofed alien is defeated because of Jo's self-sacrificial love for the Doctor -- very much how you would expect someone to defeat Satan in a horror story. The sciencey explanation -- that Daemons are not supernatural figures, but aliens from the planet Daemos -- is a secondary gloss. It gives us permission to enjoy what is essentially a fantasy story in the context of Doctor Who. And Miss Hawthorn is a middle-aged, posh, tea-drinking, church of England white witch and not at all a Granny Weatherwax cliche. This was before Terry Pratchett.
Half way through Episode Three, we get another scene on board the TARDIS. We do not see Leela and the Doctor go to the TARDIS, we do not see the TARDIS take off, we don't even see the Doctor saying "Let's go to the TARDIS". We just discover them in space. The Doctor has taken the Ship ten million years back in time and millions of miles through space to visit the Fifth Planet where the Fendahl originally came from. (Which rather gives the lie to Leela's claim that he can't control it). There is a jumble of pseudo science, and they go back to earth. We don't see the TARDIS materialise and we don't see them get out of it.
There is nothing wrong with pseudo science. Doctor Who has always been driven by it. But you generally expect it to have some connection to the plot. "The Doctor uses [gobbledegook] to discover that the alien is really trying to [gobbledegook] and can be stopped by [gobbledegook]". But this scene leaves us with no better idea of what the Fendahl is up to than we had before. We are told that the Fifth Planet has been hidden in a Time Loop (and not destroyed at all) which ought to be a set up for a Big Reveal that the Master or Rassilon or the Meddling Monkey is behind the whole thing. Needless to say, no such revelation occurs.
Maybe Boucher is lamp-shading the fact that his script makes no sense. What is the Fendahl? I don't know and you don't know and the Doctor doesn't know because the Time Lords have put a No One Is Allowed To Know sign around their planet. Or maybe he had spotted that the story was really about Mad Scientist Fendalman, Mad Occultist Stahl and Eccentric Witch Tyler, and needed an excuse to absent the Doctor from the main action? Or perhaps the script was simply too short and the TARDIS scenes were added to pad it out? (Episode Three runs a standard twenty four and a bit minutes, but Episode Four finishes its business in twenty.)
By the final instalment, a sense of desperation is setting in. The Weird Occult Ritual in the cellar is spooky enough fun. There is some genuine drama; particularly when Stael takes his own life rather than become possessed. We are told that the BBC was running scared of Mary Whitehouse and had toned down the horror; but the rule appears to be that that kids won't be harmed by suicide (or human sacrifice, or executions or torture) provided they happen off-screen.
The Doctor suddenly remembers that the Fendahl is a Gestalt Entity. That's another good idea: when twelve witches get together to perform a summonsing ritual, what they are really doing is channelling a composite alien being which is made up of twelve lessor beings. But the story rolls in exactly the same direction that it would have done if the people in the cellar had been bog-standard witches calling up a bog-standard bogeyman. Thea turns into a glam-rock Greek goddess, menaces everyone for a bit, and then gets zapped. The Fendahl may be life-consuming death bringers who the Time Lords are scared of, but they have a rather simple Kryptonite Heel. "Obviously sodium chloirde affects the conductivity, ruins the overall electrical balance and prevents control of localised disruption to the osmotic pressures" explains the Doctor. Fortunately Leela is on hand to translate. "Salt kills it.".
And then the Doctor changes the backstory.
And then he changes it again.
And then he furiously back-pedals.
Take your pick:
1: The Skull is the extra-terrestrial ancestor of the human race.
2: No, it isn't. Its alien energy merely affected terran life-forms which caused them to evolve into humans.
3: No, it didn't. It simply manipulated the DNA of some primitive humans so their descendants would eventually summons the Fendahl.
There is nothing wrong with unreliable narrators and mad scientists who leap to the wrong conclusions. You thought that this was what was going on -- but in fact it was THIS all the time. But there is no sense of a big revelation, of layers of the onion being peeled off until we see the terrible truth that man was not meant to know. It is merely confusing. A simple, interesting premise is incrementally replaced by sixteen or seventeen more complicated ones.
But why be concerned? The explanation is not part of the story. Witches covens summons Giant Alien Dicks because reasons.
"On the other hand" says the Doctor, giving up completely "It could just be a coincidence."
Image of the Fendahl has, in 100 minutes, completely rewritten the history of the human race. Life on earth has very nearly been wiped out, and by my count, at least fourteen people are dead. Mrs Tyler has learned that the religious faith she has followed her whole life was, at best, a cargo cult. So what do the survivors do? Do they spend the rest of their lives in a mental asylum, wishing that the human mind were less able to correlate its contents? Do thet pour oil on their clothes and set themselves alight? (And do their families deny that they ever existed?) Or do they, in point of fact, go back to the cottage and have tea and plumb cake off the best china?
Keep Calm and Carry On became a silly reactionary cliche. But it does, I think, nicely sum up a story that the English really do like to tell themselves about themselves. And as stories go, it's not a bad one. We really did help to defeat Hitler; our capital city really was bombed flat; and we really did brush our hair and polish the front step every morning during the Blitz.
In Terry Nation's Survivors, the English middle class are the only people left alive after a pandemic: they continue to iron their C&A dresses, put vases of flowers on the table, and sing We Plough the Fields and Scatter once a year. The Doctor and Leela seem more and more to live in the TARDIS, playing chess, tinkering with K-9, learning to read, trying their hand at painting. Adventures are the interruption to this relatively idyllic existence.
This is a product of the format. But it is also a core part of the aesthetic. Doctor Who has to reboot at the end of each episode. The toys have to go back in the boxes, ready for the next adventure, and the one after that. If Pyramids of Mars, Image of the Fendahl and the Daemons were all "true" then the Earth would be a surrealistic hybrid, unrecognisable as the world we know. And the story has to start in the world we know because although the Doctor is a disruptive anarchist, he is also a defender of the status quo.
Cosmic horror is an interruption to domestic life: but it doesn't over write it. The stories, under Graham Williams, will get bigger and bigger, as we move from Gothic to Space Opera to a Douglas Adams parody of Space Opera. But the concerns remain small scale. The human race migrates to Pluto via Mars, but the focus remains on one little guy who can't pay his tax.
Cosmic horror which is not interested in cosmic horror. Sweeping galactic science fiction which is not interested in galaxies or science.
You cannot preserve the village green if it was concreted over in the previous story. Lord, keep within they special care, 121, Cadogan Square.
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
The Doctor arrives on a planet where evil rulers oppress a slave population. He falls in with some rebels: he helps them stage a revolution. The nasty rulers are killed; the people are freed. The Doctor is hailed as a hero, but he doesn't stick around long enough to help the freed people to rebuild their civilisation.
That's the plot of the Sunmakers. It's almost a new paradigm, replacing "the Doctor foils an alien invasion" and "the Doctor protects scientists besieged by aliens" as the generic example of what Doctor Who does.
Four stories in, Graham Williams, has worked out what Doctor Who is going to be about from now on.
Silly. But good silly, not bad silly.
The twist is that the evil rulers are plutocrats rather than military conquerers. This is the only reason for setting the story specifically on Pluto rather than on earth or on some made-up planet. And this pun is the only reason for the story to be called The Sun Makers. The evil Company have made Pluto habitable by constructing six artificial suns. A large, symbolic sun-face is displayed prominently in the Gatherer's office; and it appears on all the baddy's uniforms, but (like the Penny Farthing in the Village) it is never alluded to. The oppressed workers who built the suns are never allowed to see the sunlight; but nothing is made of this satirical point. The plot could have involved the workers downing tools and plunging the planet into darkness: the Doctor might have switched off the sun as part of his plan to overthrow the Company. But it doesn't. The idea of people who make suns just sits in the title, not doing anything in particular.
I suppose we could say that this is very much part of the new aesthetic. Huge cosmic ideas -- artificial stars human migration and sentient slime -- are casually tossed out as part of the not-very-important background to a little character-level adventure yarn.
The Company is comedically, artificially nasty: a metaphor for nastiness rather than a satirical exaggeration of anything we could imagine really existing. They refer to the people as Work Units, and regard them only as a source of income. Cordo, the viewpoint character, has paid a large sum of money to give his father "a golden death with four mercy attendants". (Although this is not spelled out, there is a strong implication that he has had to pay for his father to be euthanised.) He then has to pay death duties; which are more than his actual income. He says that he is currently working twenty one hours a day; and the Gatherer says that he should take drugs so he can manage with less sleep. The drugs, are of course, expensive and taxed. When the Doctor arrives and offers him a jelly baby, poor Cordo is about to jump off a skyscraper. (SPOILER: The Gatherer is thrown off the same skyscraper by the liberated mob in the final episode.)
The action takes place in a Megrapolis, which may make us think of Friz Lang. There may be a touch of Judge Dredd, too. Certainly it is clear from the opening moments that we are not supposed to be taking things entirely seriously. It's dark ("congratulations, citizen; your father ceased at one ten") but it's dark comedy. The Gatherer, with his robes and his turban, looks like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan. It isn't yet a pantomime, but there is a camp, theatrical aesthetic. Almost every line has a jokey archness to it; as if everyone is speaking in quotation marks "I see the magnitude of the offence astounds you....Criminal deviants occur in every generation...."
The Gatherer's increasingly preposterous grovelling to his superior, the Collector is consistently funny. Despite the Gatherer's having run through the thesaurus in search of synonyms for "big" ("your promontory:"; "your aggrandisement"; "your grossness"; "your orotundity") the Collector is a small, bald man who sits Davros-like in a motorised wheel chair, hunched over hi-tech accountancy machines saying things like "time is money" and "business is business". Henry Woolf was, in fact, of Jewish heritage, but I don't think the Sun Makers has ever been accused of Gringotts goblins anti-semitism. The Collector isn't Shylock. His main distinguishing features are his ridiculous eyebrows.
Forty years ago, this might possibly have seemed funny. Harold Wilson was Prime Minister; and one Dennis Healey was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had quite a high public profile -- even the youngest Doctor Who fans would probably have known who he was -- because he was very frequently mimicked by impressionist Mike Yarwood. Yarwood's comedy had almost no satirical element: he just made good natured fun of celebrity mannerisms. His caricature of Healey consisted of basically two jokes: that he was fond of the phrase "silly billy" (which he wasn't) and that he had bushy eyebrows (which he did). So, rather weirdly, Robert Holmes could stick bushy eyebrows on a villain, and everyone would instantly understand that the story was about money and taxation.
I wonder how often this kind of thing is true of older, less well documented fiction in ways we don't see, and can't find out?
Healey was a Labour cabinet minister. Labour certainly had high rates of taxation. In 1977, before the Winter of Discontent and the collapse of the post-war consensus, income above £20,000 (about £100k in todays money) was taxed at 83%. The one-for-you-ninenteen-for-me rate that the Beatles had moaned about, with peace and love, had been abolished in 1972. But this was part of a socialist agenda to take money from the rich and use it to pay for trains and roads and schools and nuclear missiles. Taxing the poor never makes much sense, despite what the Sheriff of Nottingham may believe.
A story which equates taxation with evil could be seen as regressive and anti-liberal. All those Two Ronnies gags about officious ticket inspectors and mouldy meat pies; and endless Carry On tittering about hospital matrons were at some level political jokes about unions and nationalised industries and the welfare state. Leela asks if tax is like a sacrifice to a tribal god; and the Doctor says taxation is more painful. There is a very silly scene where Cordo tells the Doctor and Leela to run from the Gatherer, and they run away, despite having no idea who he is. "Everyone runs from the tax-man" says Leela.
But the story wants to have it both ways. The Company that makes people work long hours with no breaks and gives them nothing in return is a socialist caricature of capitalism. The Tax Gatherer and Tax Collector who use small print and unfair rules to take your hard-earned money away from you is a conservative caricature of socialism. This could have been a punchline: we might have learned in episode four that the company which pays you and the government that taxes you are in cahoots. That might even have amounted to satire. But everyone in the story takes it for granted that the Company give with one hand and take with the other. Yes, at one point everyone runs down corridor number P45 (which is the number of the tax form you get when you quit a job); and yes, tax is calculated PCM (per complete month) which is also the name of the drug which keeps the population of Pluto docile. And yes, when the Gatherer divides his forces to attack the rebels from two directions, he calls it Morton's Fork, which refers to one of Henry VII's tax officials. (Morton allegedly claimed that if people lived opulently, it proved they must have lots of cash and could therefore afford to pay tax; but if they lived frugally, they must be putting money aside and therefore could afford to pay their tax.) The Doctor even quotes Karl Marx at one point. But what it adds up to is not so much a satire on the British system of taxation as a bog-standard rebellion story with some fiscal window dressing.
Jokes about tax men are pretty much on a level with jokes about lawyers and mothers-in-law. We dony quite know why we laugh at them. They are funny because they are.
The production achieves new levels of cheapness. The kilometre high skyscraper that Cordo wants to throw himself off looks exactly like a disused cigarette factor in Bristol. The underground road that Leela is chased along in episode 2 is obviously part of a 20th century subway; the guards seem to be driving a golf cart or possibly a milk-float. Interiors are represented by the most generic BBC studio sets imaginable; white walls, generic science equipment. The asteroid base in Invisible Enemy was decorated, for some reason, with Greek columns; Pluto seems to go in for terracotta nipples.
But if anything, this make-do-and-mend aesthetic works in the story's favour. It's hard to ignore a genuinely bad special effect. The very primitive blue screen graphics used for the Doctor's brain in Invisible Enemy (and the cave sequence we will see in Underworld) might have looked cutting edge at the time, but they are risible now. But it's relatively easy to treat Sunmakers as you would a theatrical performance on a bare stage. When we do speak of a vast mega city on the planet Pluto lit by six synthetic suns, think that you see them, as the Bard might have put it.
Because the main thing to say about Sunmakers is that it just works. The Collector and the Gatherer are funny enough that we enjoy watching them; but evil enough that we can boo and hiss and be pleased when they come to a sticky end. The rebels are believably nasty and believably idealistic. Leader Mandrell is very nasty indeed, but most of the good lines go to Michael Keating, who is basically playing a joke free version of Vila. (Since Blakes 7 didn't start for another three weeks, hardly anyone noticed.)
Robert Holmes knows how to construct a narrative. The correct amount happens in each episode: it never feels rushed, but it never feels boring. The Doctor meets Cordo; Cordo leads the Doctor to the Rebels; the Rebels send the Doctor on a mission, keeping Leela as a hostage. The Doctor is captured and put in the Correction centre; Leela and Cordo try to rescue the Doctor. The Gatherer frees the Doctor (in oder to track him back to the Rebel Base) so when Leela arrives, he is already gone. Leela is captured and sent to be executed. The Doctor helps the rebels stage a proper revolution, during which Leela is freed. Each scene leads sensibly to the next scene. Most scenes give us an additional bit of information or backstory, without us feeling we're being info-dumped. Characters are brought together in different combinations and different situations; creating different kinds of scenes and different kinds of dialogue. The Gatherer is callous to Cordo but obsequious to the Collector. When he frees the Doctor from the correction center he is all smiles and fake affability. The Doctor pretends to be taken in; complimenting him on the strawberry leaf he is offered as a delicacy, and offering him candy in return.
No, not a jelly baby: Tom Baker offers it with the single word "Humbug?"
This is not high drama. But it is too very good actors having a lot of fun with a very good script.
Almost the best thing about the story is that Leela comes into her own, treated as a character rather than light relief or a comic foil. When the cowardly rebels won't help her rescue the Doctor, she goes into full William Wallace mode. "You have nothing, Mandrell. No pride, no courage, no manhood. Even animals protect their own. You say to me you want to live. Well I'll say this to you. If you lie skulking in this black pit while the Doctor dies, then you will live, but without honour!". Naturally, the only one who will help her is timid Cordo, who she calls "the bravest man here." It really is Louise Jameson's finest hour.
K-9 finally emerges from the TARDIS and gets some lines: but he's already an embarrassment and an encumbrance. He was introduced as a super-computer; but his main purpose in the story is to act as a portable stun gun. This time, the Doctor regards him primarily as Leela's friend (despite the closing line of the last story being "He's my dog".) When K9 puts himself at risk to rescue Leela, the Doctor tries to thank him, and he replies "Please do not embarrass me" even though it was a plot point in Invisible Enemy that he didn't have emotion circuits.
a: the Doctor added such circuits when K-9 was off-line in Image of the Fendahl or
b: No-one cares.
The final twist is that the people have a revolution by actually having a revolution. The Doctor removes the gas from the atmosphere which is keeping the people docile; they put out fake propaganda that the revolution has already happened. The Gatherer, who has been a comic bad guy all the way through is unceremoniously thrown off a skyscraper by the mob. The Doctor confronts the Collector, and, as is rapidly becoming part of the formula, they have a jolly good sneer at each other. It turns out that The Company are, indeed, aliens: subtly called Usurians, presumably from the planet Usury. The Doctor does a Thing, and the Collector reverts to his true, alien form. Again, we could read a political message here: capitalism and socialism are not the result of human greed or systematic injustice, they are an Evil Force that have invaded from Outside which we could theoretically Cast Them Out. But I think Robert Holmes just likes the joke about tax inspectors literally being pond-scum. When the Collector thinks the company is losing money he starts exclaiming "Inflationary spiral! Negative growth! This branch is no longer viable!" and shrinks into a pool of green slime. The impression, possibly intentional, is of something unpleasant being flushed down a lavatory.
I enjoyed the Sunmakers. I enjoyed it so much that I don't have very much to say about it. Let other people see Doctor Who as a mirror for its times and a political commentary, if they will. For me, it was always about aliens, robots, weirdness, baddies, rebels, getting captured and escaping.
A tough lady with a dagger and a robot dog being chased down a subway tunnel by stormtroopers on a milk float? Bring it on.