Monday, November 12, 2018

Stand tall!
Thou hath reached the peak and plucked the proudest prize!
Hang loose! Thou shalt flee from fear no longer, nor suffer pangs of doubt!
Face front! The past doth lie behind thee. The beckoning future now is thine!
‘Tis true! ‘Tis true! How proudly we proclaim: thou hath joined Marveldom assembled!
Thy name hath been inscribed, now and evermore, in the blessed book of FOOM!
Come take thy place, believer, within the hallowed ranks.
The eyes of FOOM are upon thee.
They behold thee with fondness and favor.
The heart of FOOM embraces thee.
The hands of FOOM clasp thine.
For FOOM hath summoned thee, and claimed thee for its own!
Thou hath chosen a creed, a code, a way of life, and by thy choice, and by thy faith, the legends ne’er shall perish!
Excelsior!

The Last Doctor Who Review (For The Time Being)

We keep getting exterior long shots of a Cyberman in a cave. (Actually, we keep getting the same long shot of Cyberman in a cave.) In the darkness, lit up by some kind of spotlight, it looks very silver, very shiny, very real

It is eight years since the Cybermen last appeared on TV: an eternity in TV years. They are part of the past of the series; something our elder brothers remember; as irretrievable and canonical as shillings, and food-rationing. Yet here they are: on the screen, looking just as they did on the Weetabix picture cards and the Target book covers, silver suits and eye holes and handlebar ears.

Genesis of the Daleks was about the Daleks. It may have deconstructed their origin but it was interested in what a Dalek was and why. Revenge of the Cybermen is not remotely interested in the Cybermen: they exist only because they are icons. Like the Daleks they are "utterly ruthless", "total machine creatures", who think they are "destined to be rulers of all the cosmos." Sometimes, they remember that they are evil science fiction robots and say things like "maximum urgency imperative." But a lot of the time, they just sneer like any other super-bad-guy. 

"You are about to die in the biggest explosion ever witnessed in this solar system. It will be a magnificent spectacle. Unhappily, you will be unable to appreciate it." 

The sheer creepiness of the creatures who rose from their tombs on Telos, humans who have let themselves become machines, is long forgotten. The eerie, barely audible high pitched mechanical voices ("You will become like us") have been replaced by actors shouting from under masks. Even the Doctor finds them more ridiculous than threatening. The previous story repositioned the Daleks as emotionless creatures of pure evil. A good title for this one might have been Redundancy of the Cybermen.

A large amount of Episode Three is taken up with a battle between the Cybermen and the gold-mining-dwarves who inhabit the caves. It is not choreographed: it is a montage of guns going off and dwarves falling over. But it is very dramatic: a little like the legendary Dalek vs Mechanoid battle at the end of The Chase.

It looks real because it is real. Some actors dressed up as Cybermen and some other actors dressed up as dwarves and they went down Wooky Hole. (This was before Chewbacca). They pretended to have a fight and Elisabeth Sladen fell in the water and for a few seconds she was in serious danger. Old Doctor Who is doubtless very silly and very tacky and very amateurish; but the word that keeps occurring to me in these scenes is documentary.

*

We are back on the Ark, retrospectively re-purposed as a sort of space-light-house preventing people crashing into Jupiter's new satellite. It is the Very Far Future: but it is the sort of Very Far Future where people still wear patent leather shoes and keep box-files on their book shelves. At first it looks like everyone on the Beacon is being wiped out by a plague; but then it turns out that they are being poisoned by more than usually unconvincing Cybermats. It is quite hard to keep track of which human is which, but one of them is in charge and one of them is a scientist and one of them is a traitor. It feels like the kind of thing Patrick Troughton would have got involved with: boring scientists, gleaming monochrome corridors, a base, as it were, under siege.

But then we shift to the planet Voga, Jupiter's new satellite. A younger, militaristic dwarf wants to emerge from the caves and fire missiles at the Cybermen. An older, more sensible dwarf, wants to stay underground where it is safe. This all feels like the kind of theatrical costume drama we used to get when the Doctor was still known as Grandfather. The older dwarf literally hobbles around the stage with a long white beard and a walking stick. The masks and the make-up put one in mind of Peter Hall's legendary Orestia. (This was before Peter Hall's legendary Orestia.) If you don't have a problem with high artifice and theatricality, its really nicely done:

--You made clandestine contact with aliens, and you beamed radio transmissions out into space. There are no greater crimes in our calendar.

--In your calendar, Tyram! Your cowering, furtive, underworld life. If we survive, I will face trial gladly. I will give the people my reasons. I wanted to free them from this tyranny of dark, living rock.

--Living the way we had for generations, at least we were safe, Vorus. Safe from the genocidal threat of the Cybermen.

--I had a dream.

--A folly, conceived out of arrogance through overweening ambition.

And so on, for weeks at a time.

*

I will defend Revenge of the Cybermen to anybody.

It has one very big logical flaw. The dwarves -- oh, all right, if you insist, the Vogans -- live on a planet made entirely of gold. This makes them the implacable enemies of the Cybermen: Gold is to Cybermen as Kryptonite is to Vampires.

The Gold thing is presented as if it were a fact which everyone already knows. Indeed the Doctor tells us that the Cybermen were defeated at the end of the Last Great Cyber War as a result of Humans armed with Glitter Guns with such confidence that diligent Who fans go scuttling off to their episode guides to check which story this happened in. It didn't happen in any story. The idea that the Cyberpeople die if you wave a lump of gold in their general direction was made up for this story. (It spoiled the Cybermen for years to come.)

But in Episode Three the Cybermen attack the Vogan's planet; and the Vogans despair that their weapons are useless. But the entire planet is made of the Anti-Cyberman Metal.

This is clearly a plot hole. But it is not the kind of plot hole that obliterates the story, or even really impacts on it. It doesn't make sense, but it doesn't matter.

It has been my argument that Doctor Who while it is sometimes other things as well is primarily and irreducibly a children's tea time adventure serial. Specific details may change -- from space fascists to space robots to space dwarves. But you aren't expected to necessarily keep up with the plot, or even remember which story you are in. No-one can be expected to catch every single episode, but every episode is recognizably an episode of Doctor Who,

This is a story in which gold mining dwarves and silver robots kill each other in location shots in caves. A story which ends with the dwarves aiming a missile at the Ark while the Cybermen plan to crash the Ark, loaded with bombs, onto the planet Voga. (The Doctor is on the Ark; Sarah-Jane and Harry are on the planet.) Sarah-Jane falls sick with a space plague that makes the veins on her face glow red; the Doctor has a planet busting bomb strapped to his shoulders and is forced to go down to the very centre of the planet Voga. In order, apparently, to fragmentize it. The Doctor has to talk the rather dense people on the planet's surface through the process of directing the missile away from the Ark and into the Cybermen's spaceship; and then personally steer the bomb-loaded space station away from the planet, in a scene that is part roller-coaster ride and part computer game. (This was before computer games.)

As a children's tea-time adventure serials go, it doesn't get much better than this. If you are over-worried that the Vogans didn't think to use their gold against the Cybermen you are probably not the target audience.

*

Imagine Tom Baker without a scarf.

Or, imagine Tom Baker, as originally imagined, with a sensible, normal length, collegiate scarf.

The rest of his costume is smart: stylish, even. The velvet jacket; the elbow pads; the cravat; the watch-chain. The hat is a little over-large, but it matches. Take away the scarf, and you have an English professor, or maybe an espresso guzzling perpetual student.

But the scarf: less an item of clothing, more a trademark. He wears it all the time, regardless of the weather. (Who on earth keeps a scarf on indoors?)

Tom Baker talks about Homo Sapiens. Tom Baker worries about destroying sentient life-forms and murdering infants in their cradles. And yes, there is a childish insolence about him. When Sarah-Jane says "It's good to see you?" he says "Is it?" which is the sort of thing schoolboys get slapped for. His pockets contain jelly babies, an apple core, and a yo-yo: we only need some conkers to complete the set. And there are a couple of daft ad libs. Having knocked a Cyberman out by putting gold dust in its respirator, and with only seven minutes to save the universe, he pauses to quote five words of Macbeth. ("Dusty death, out out, brief...") It isn't clear who in the audience is meant to pick up on this.  But the Scarf marks him off as strange, eccentric, silly; and as the years roll on, the scarf will come to dominate his characterization.

Tom Baker will not be remembered as the Shakespearean One, the Philosophical One, the Melancholic One—even the Annoying One. History will remember him only as the One With The Scarf.







Friends, Romans country men: lend me your ears.
The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Fourth Doctor Who Review


"Strange!’ said Oyarsa. ‘You do not love any one of your race — you would have let me kill Ransom. You do not love the mind of your race, nor the body. Any kind of creature will please you if only it is begotten by your kind as they now are. It seems to me, Thick One, that what you really love is no completed creature but the very seed itself: for that is all that is left.’
             Out of the Silent Planet

I: Absence of the Daleks 

Soldiers in gas masks; trenches; barbed wire. And then Doctor Tom emerges from the smoke. 

In 1963, the Daleks had been a product of the Cold War; what would be left after the nuclear holocaust which we all feared and expected. But it is now 1975 and 1914-18 is the trauma we never got over.

Two races: the Kaleds and the Thals; they have been at war for over a thousand years. Some of the Kaleds have been turned into mutants—muttos—due to the use of chemical weapons. They are thrown out of the Kaled city into the wilderness to maintain the purity of the race. (This was before Judge Dredd.) 

Genesis of the Daleks may be the greatest Doctor Who story, but it is still, at heart, a Doctor Who story: a series of chases, captures, and escapes. But the guns are louder, the peril more perilous and the space fascists more fascistic. Ravon rants and shouts and punches the Doctor in the guts; Nyder, channeling Peter Cushing, is terrifyingly patronising. (This was before Star Wars.) 

Once again, we are in what is clearly an English wilderness. We explore it for a bit. The Doctor and Harry are captured; and escape; and are captured again. Sarah-Jane continues to explore the wilderness by herself, menaced from a distance by shambling zombies.

The Sontaran Experiment sometimes felt as if someone had pointed a video camera in the rough direction of the action; here, the direction is tight, even inventive. When the Doctor arrives in the barren quarry, the camera pans over the nothingness—then suddenly sweeps back when the Time Lord appears. Nyder is discovered looking through the Doctor's magnifying glass, a single big eye dominating the screen. (What else has a single big eye?) 

It stands up as well as any piece of vintage television could possibly stand up. Only the habit of shifting from exterior shots (on cine-film) to interior shots (on video) seems dated. It takes an effort of will to believe that the interior stage set of a trench is part of the same exterior world as the quarry where the action begins. 

The Doctor puts his foot on a land mine. If he moves, it will go off. Harry, very carefully, puts stones of the right shape underneath to make it stable, and tells the Doctor to move his foot gently. He does so. Nothing explodes. Harry sighs silently, and the Doctor grins. Up to now, the Doctor has not tried to conceal his contempt for Harry: now he accepts him as part of the crew. For a while, indeed, the Doctor and Harry are lost boys on an awfully big adventure leaving Sarah-Jane trying very hard to be their Wendy. 

This is Episode One. We know that the Daleks must appear in the final scene, because the story is called Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor knows that the Daleks must appear in the final scene because a Time Lord has told him. But we do not feel the absence of the Daleks. Nyder and Ravon are compelling villains in their own right and someone called "Davros" is given a big build up. 

It feels like a surprise when Sarah-Jane, fleeing from what must be muttos, comes to a place which must be the bunker and sees a being who must be Davros testing a machine that we know is a Dalek. 

"Now, we can begin." 

2: Exposition of the Daleks 

Sarah-Jane is captured by muttos. Sarah-Jane and the muttos are captured by Thals. The Doctor and Harry escape from Davros's bunker along, of course, a ventilation shaft. The ventilation shaft leads into a cave where Davros keeps failed experiments in monster-breeding. Sarah-Jane, in the Thal dome, is set to work loading "distronic explosives" into a Great Big Bomb which the Thals plan to use against the Kaleds. Sarah-Jane tries to escape by climbing the scaffolding around the Great Big Bomb onto the roof of the Thal Dome. Harry gets his foot trapped in a giant clam, and then frees it. It is Sarah-Jane's predicament which terrifies us, because Elisabeth Sladen seems genuinely terrified. 

The cave of mutations belongs to an earlier world; a world of mercury lakes and slythers; a world now known only from maps and diagrams in holiday annuals. It has no place in this world of black uniformed fascists who hang prisoners to preserve ammunition. 

Davros is a scientist. Sometimes he speaks softly and reasonably; sometimes he shouts like a Dalek. His top half is human but he is a Dalek from the waist down. He is more like a Dalek than the Daleks: a shriveled, weakened, brilliant, evil body, being kept alive by an artificial, inefficient, transport machine. 

It falls to someone called Ronson to explain the backstory. 

"Our chemical weapons had already started to produce genetic mutations, and the mutations were banished out into the wastelands. Davros believed that there was no way to reverse this trend and so he started experiments to establish our final mutational form. He took living cells, treated them with chemicals and produced the ultimate creature." 

In a sentence, a decade of Who-lore is over-written. No longer are the Daleks the product of a nuclear nightmare; now they are the result of chemical warfare and genetic tampering. No longer the survivors of a war, kept alive in creepy but immobile transport machines: now they are creations with a definite creator. 

"The all powerful Davros" wrote Terry Nation in a 1976 children's book. "Reincarnated in the form of the terrible Daleks." 

III: Longueurs of the Daleks 

Davros betrays his own people. I had forgotten that. 

If we are not very careful, we can forget that Classic Who was a series of 100 and 150 minute serials, and remember it only as a fragmentary collection of Great Moments. (The Cybermen wake up. Sutekh needs no other servant. The Dalek rises up from the Thames.)

We know Genesis of the Daleks well, too well; to the point of cliche. The Doctor holding the two wires. Davros imagining the doomsday virus. The Dalek ranting into the monitor. Yet which of us remembers the story on which it all hung? Who remembers the Episode Three cliff hanger? 

Genesis of the Daleks is not a collection of set pieces, strung out on a disposable plot thread. Genesis of the Daleks is a miracle of pacing and story telling. There is a grand narrative; Davros vs the good Kaleds; the Kaleds vs the Thals; the Doctor vs the Daleks. Each week there is a revelation or development about that grand theme. Yet always, the drum beat narrative rhythm which makes it a Doctor Who story. Sarah-Jane nearly escapes from the Great Big Bomb, but is recaptured. The Doctor and Harry escape from the Kaled bunker. The Doctor warns the Kaleds that Davros is evil. 

Running around; getting captured; escaping.

It rushes forwards. It is never boring. Each episode seems to take less than it's twenty five minutes. Relatively little happens, but it never feels padded. 

My favourite moment, the moment that we talked about on Monday in school, the moment that appealed to nasty, cheeky boys and made them nastier and cheekier is when the Doctor gets past two Thal guards by walking up to them with a broad grin on his face and saying "I wonder if you could help me? I'm a spy." 

Ironically, the one problem with this story is its handling of time and space. There is a bunker where Davros and his Elite are making Daleks. There is the main Kaled city, under a dome. There is the main Thal city, also under a dome. And despite the preliminary talk about wastelands and muttos and caves of mutations, everyone seems very free to jump between them via access panels and ventilation shafts. The Bunker, the Kaled City, and the Thal City are indistinguishable, and the Thals seem very little different from the Kaleds. (They set slaves to work loading dangerous material onto their Great Big Bomb, which is a very Dalek thing to do.) It becomes hard to keep track of where we are. 

Davros positively wants the Thals to destroy the Kaleds so that his Daleks will be all that is left. So he, Davros, gives the Thals a Secret Formula that will enable their Great Big Bomb to get through the shielding on the Kaled Dome. The Doctor tries to prevent the Thals from launching the Great Big Bomb; he gets caught on an electric fence and shocked with electricity. 

That is the cliffhanger. I am sure you had forgotten it. I certainly had. 

IV:  Apocalypse of the Daleks 

The Thals nuke the Kaled dome. The Doctor thinks Harry and Sarah-Jane were inside, but they weren't. They all head back to Davros's Bunker through the mutations cave but Davros is waiting for them at the other end. Some of Davros's scientists are plotting against him; but he is counter plotting. 

And so we build towards the first Set Piece. Davros and the Doctor come face to face. The Doctor speaks of a future where the Daleks are a force and an empire; sometimes defeated but never utterly wiped out. Davros demands to know what caused all these Dalek defeats. The Doctor refuses to tell him. It is another moment which evokes a much bigger universe: Genesis of the Daleks has six Daleks and some corridors and a quarry, but outside is the TV Century 21 Dalekverse and the Dalek Master Plan; Dalek Empires and Dalek Emperors and Anti Dalek Forces and Space Special Agents and chocolate and mint ice cream lollies. 

None of this ever appears on the screen. And because of this story, arguably, none of it ever will. 

Abolition of the Kaleds 

If I say that something is Evil I might just mean that it is very bad indeed. On the other hand, I might be saying that a person or thing contains an immutable, metaphysical, evil essence. 

If someone is Evil I have permission to hate them; shoot them; gas them; exterminate them. If someone has merely done some very, very, very bad things I am allowed to ask why. 

If I say "I don't think that Hitler was Evil; I think he was a human being; a product of a political ideology and a set of historical and biographical circumstances", someone is bound to say "What? You don't regard the killing of six million Jews as evil?" 

It is more fun if the pirates and space Nazis and outer space robot people in children's TV are Evil, because then we can blow their space ships up and not feel bad about it. But people who blow up space ships and don't feel bad about it are very much the kinds of people we are tempted to call Evil. 

It is profoundly unhelpful to think that the darkest creatures human nature can produce, serial killers and pedophiles and people who shoot old ladies in synagogues are in anyway similar to cartoon bad guys. 

St Paul believed, not in evil, but in hamartia which the English translators of the Bible rendered as synne. It is a flaw or a crack or a fault: there is no self-existent Dark Side, no option to write Lawful Evil on your character sheet. But certainly it is synne which makes us want to hate and kill and exterminate. Francis Spufford glossed synne as UHPTFTU: the universal human propensity to fuck things up. 

If you have children, it is natural to want to protect them. And it is probably natural to want to protect your grandchildren and your great grandchildren as well. If we are strict Dawkinsians then what we mistake for the love of our children is simply our DNA trying to copy and preserve itself. The selfish gene has no conscience or moral sense, but it is not evil. It is programmed simply to survive. 

The human instinct to protect your children is tempered by human empathy. My child is precious to me; therefore your child is precious to you; therefore all children are precious. The idea that my child is to be protected at the expense of yours is at best an ideology of the very far right, and at worst, another way of spelling "evil". You start by saying that not one penny which could have gone into a trust fund for my child should be spent on a state school for yours; you move into the realm of the anti-vaxxers; and you end up affecting to actively take pleasure when the children of refugees are exteminated. 

If you could somehow travel forwards in time and see the Last Men, the descendants of the human race, ten million years in the future, you would not feel any more responsibility for the individuals who carried some of your DNA over the individuals who were not related to you. They would all just be people. 

The strangest perversion of the paternal instinct is the one which looks at two children and feels empathy for one and hatred for the other, because Child A has certain physical characteristics—light coloured skin and straight hair, for example—whereas Child B has dark skin and curly hair. Doubtless the same Darwinian urge that we mistake for parental love can get translated into a natural dislike for the unlike. But only for the terminally evil does that gut feeling ever become a theory or an ideology. 

How stupid would you need to be to be willing to fight and die for something called The White Race over and against something called The Black Race? 

But what of the Human Race?

If what I mistake for the paternal instinct is simply a biological urge to preserve the Human Race, does it follow that I have an instinct to preserve The Human Race at the expense of all other races? If push came to shove, should I wipe out the dolphins and the elephants and the octopuses to preserve the humans?

If you took me to a planet ten thousand light years away and ten thousand years in the future and said look—this child is genetically similar to you, because its remote ancestors came from Earth; but this child is genetically different from you because its remote ancestors came from Skaro would my biological urges tell me to love one and hate the other? 

And if they did, would I listen to them. Or would I say "Shut up, biological urges and Darwinian programming! You're not the boss of me!" 

5: Apology of the Daleks 

Finally, the leader of the good Kaleds confronts Davros. 

"The initial concept of the Dalek was to build a life support system and a travel machine for the creature that we know our race will ultimately evolve into....We believe that concept has been perverted. You have tampered with the genetic structuring of the creature to create a ruthless power for evil. We cannot permit this to continue." 

"The initial concept of the Dalek." 

But this, of course, is Terry Nation's initial concept: it is what the Daleks were in the first and best Dalek story, which I will persist in referring to as The Dead Planet. The Daleks and the Thals were both survivors of a hideous nuclear war. The Thals had evolved into pure, Aryan humanoids; the Daleks so mutated that they were stuck in their machines, powered by static electricity, unable to leave their city. They were horrible and scary and baddies but they weren't in any absolute sense Evil. They were pitiful and to some extent, they were victims. The Thals had hurt them and they wanted to hurt the Thals back. 

Genesis of the Daleks is about an attempt to change history. But it is not the Doctor doing the changing. It is Davros. 

Davros, who has no origin. Davros, who has never been mentioned before. Davros, an entirely new factor is dropped into the Dalek timeline. Davros, the creator of the Daleks, whose existence changes everything. 

In the old comic strips, the Daleks certainly had a creator, one Yarvelling, who made the machines which allowed the mutant Daleks to survive. But Davros is not just the creator of a clever voice controlled tank. He is also the creator of the actual Daleks. 

"It's not the machines" says the Doctor. "It's the minds of the creatures inside them. Minds that you created. They are totally evil." 

If the good Kaleds had persuaded Davros to make the Daleks simply life support machines for whatever the Kaleds eventually became, then history would have continued along its expected pathway; and Genesis of the Daleks would simply be a prequel to the Dead Planet. But if Davros succeeds then that version of history is wiped out and the Daleks become creatures of pure evil, an eternal extension of their creator's ego. 

The Time Lords are not using the Doctor to massively alter history. They are using the Doctor to try to ensure that history stays the same. Which is a much more Time Lordy thing to do. 

Davros threatens to torture Sarah-Jane and Harry if the Doctor will not tell him how and why the Daleks were defeated throughout their history. Sarah-Jame and Harry keep nobly shouting "Don't tell him!" as loved ones being tortured in Saturday evening tea time serials are wont to do. But the Doctor tells Davros everything. 

This is clearly not the rational thing to do: it may not even be the morally right thing to do. But it is the human thing. And Davros is quite clear what that means.  

"You will tell me because you have a weakness that I have totally eliminated from the minds of the Daleks so they will always be superior. A weakness that will make you give me the knowledge to change the future." 

In Episode Three, the Doctor told the Kaled leaders that Davros had created "a machine creature...without conscience, without soul, without pity." In Episode Four, Davros "outlines chromosomal variations to be introduced into the embryo Daleks" turning them into "creatures without conscience, no sense of right or wrong, no pity...without feeling or emotion." In Episode Five, Ghorman says that the scientists will only continue to work on the Daleks if Davros restores "a conscience; a moral sense; a judgement of right and wrong." 

Moral sense; judgement of right and wrong; conscience: this is the weakness which Davros tells the Doctor he suffers from. 

Conscience is a great big word; but there's a general consensus that its something humans have and machines do not. It's not a belief or a theory; it's a gut feeling. It is a cliche of children's literature that if you feel bad after you have been naughty, then your conscience is punishing you—and you can hopefully be excused from whatever penalty your parents or your teacher had in mind. Little wooden boys lack this faculty for self-punishment and need to be provided with anthropomorphic crickets to tell them when they have done something wrong. 

Over and over again, we are asked to believe that the Daleks are evil by virtue of the fact that they have had their consciences surgically removed. But why would a conscienceless automaton be any more evil than, say, a toaster?



This is the point of Davros, and this is the point of Davros's Very Famous Speech. As long as he is talking about programming the Daleks to survive, he can make out some kind of case. His theory that existence is pain and that the universe will only have peace when the Daleks have annihilated everything else might resonate with those of a particularly Nietzschean bent. Even his fascists' plea—"achievement comes through absolute power, and power through strength"— might appeal to a certain kind of puppy. It is only when the Doctor presents Davros with the thought experiment of the ultimately destructive virus that the mask falls away. 

Davros is creating the Daleks because they are destructive. He is creating the Daleks because he likes the sensation of power. He is creating the Daleks in order to make himself the master being, the one who determines what the universe itself will be from now on. And yes; this takes us back to the Christian story about the origin of synne. It's the story of a man who wanted to set himself up above the gods. It is to be found in a book called Genesis. 

Maybe Davros believed his own propaganda. Maybe he honestly believed that he was working for the survival of the Kaleds and for universal peace. But now he knows, and we know, and the Doctor knows. 

Ah. You are completely mad. I just wanted to make sure.

VI: The Doctor's Dilemma 



Why, at this final, pivotal moment, does the Doctor hesitate? 

He escapes from Davros. He finds—providentially—a wardrobe containing explosives and detonators. He puts the explosives in the incubator room, where Davros's genetically engineered Dalek creatures are growing. One of them tries to strangle him; but it's a minor distraction, to see us through the gap between Episode Five and Episode Six. 

And then, as everyone knows, just when he is about to set the explosives off, he hesitates. 

"Just touch these two strands together and the Daleks are finished. Have I that right?" 

The Doctor hates killing, and rarely carries a weapon, but he is no pacifist. He has killed before. Minutes ago, he was prepared to allow Davros to give the order to destroy the Dalek incubators. He told Davros that he would kill him if he refused, and we believed him. So why the sudden qualm? 

You might suppose that the Doctor would have a problem with the altering of history. If the Daleks are really going to be a force for evil on a galactic scale for thousands of years, touching the wires would not so much change history as erase it altogether. But it isn't this that worries him. He is happy to endorse Ronson's bloodless coup which would have overwritten the future on an almost equally dramatic scale. 

The Doctor perceives a difference between wanting the Daleks to be dead, and killing them himself. It is a classic liberal scruple: not wanting blood on my own hands, because that blood would make my own soul more ugly. You might think that the world would be better off if some murderers were dead: but would you be prepared to look them in the eye and strangle them? You might think Nazis are evil; but could you blow out the brains of a teenaged German squaddie, if you knew his name, and the name of his parents, and the name of his sweetheart? If you must strike a child, take care that you strike it in anger, even at the risk of maiming it for life. A blow in cold blood neither can nor should be forgiven. 

What Davros calls conscience amounts, I think, to squeamishness. It is not rational or moral for the Doctor to tell Davros the secret of making the Daleks invincible, because Harry and Sarah-Jane are only two people and his betrayal will result in the death of billions. But the billions are not in the room with him now: Harry and Sarah-Jane are. 

It isn't that a machine necessarily lacks the capacity to make a complex moral judgement. It could be programmed to do so. But it isn't a complex moral judgement that would make us hesitate before killing Baby Hitler in his cradle. It is, quite simply, the "yuck" factor. 

Davros, faced with the concept of destroying all life in the universe was delighted, transfigured, aroused by it; but the Doctor, faced with power on an only slightly smaller scale, is repelled. Davros is asked to imagine that the tiny pressure of his thumb, enough to break the glass, would end everything, and he ecstatically says he would do it. The Doctor, asked to actually touch two tiny wires together, cannot. 

There is the difference. There is the story. 

*

The Doctor fails. The Dalek incubator is destroyed; but the conscienceless Daleks survive. The Doctor's final hand-wave, that the universe is somehow better with the Daleks than without them, convinces no-one. 

Has history been changed? In fact, in every Dalek story except the very first, the Daleks were already the living embodiment of evil. It was never very easy to believe that the creatures who flew around the universe in a flying saucer, conquering planets and sucking out their magnetic cores, were the same creatures who cowered like dodgem cars in their metal floored city, planning to irradiate the world because they liked it better that way. Genesis of the Daleks is an acknowledgement of what we already knew: that Dead Planet, for all its brilliance, is an anomaly; an unsatisfactory origin for the outer-space robot people who once terrorized the universe. When the Doctor reviews the history of the Daleks with Davros, he starts, not with The Dead Planet, but with The Dalek Invasion of Earth 

*

The words "computer virus" and "meme" were not quite current in 1975, but that is clearly what Davros is talking about. An idea or a collection of code has no conscience. It never says "yuck". It exists only to make copies of itself.

But without conscience or the yuck factor or the gods isn't that what we all are? 

Douglas Adams famously summed up Darwinism in the four words "That which survives, survives."


Next week: Cybermen.






Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Doctor Who Review Three

The Sontaran Experiment is the one which comes in between Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks. It was two episodes long.

*

The Sontaran Experiment is a Boy Scout Wide Game; or possibly an installment of the Famous Five, only with space suits. When Sarah-Jane encounters Roth for the first time, she absolutely charmingly says that he is wearing "space clothes".

The Doctor's team lands in a rough patch of English countryside; Harry and Sarah go for a walk while the Doctor does science; Harry falls down a hole. Sarah goes to get help from the Doctor, but Harry gets out of the hole by himself. Two spacemen with guns capture the Doctor; a more friendly spaceman without a gun meets up with Sarah-Jane. Sarah-Jane cleverly frees the Doctor; the Doctor falls down a hole. It's a grand old game of space-chase, with space-clothes, space-ray-guns and space-robots

And also, of course a really nasty space-alien. Although the story is only half as long as usual, the cardinal rule that we aren't allowed to see the monster until the end of Episode 1 is adhered to. While the Doctor, Harry and Sarah-Jane run around Dartmoor, sinister hints are dropped about "the thing in the rocks" and "the alien". For the third story running we get scenes filmed from the monster's point of view: we see a nasty claw like hand operating a futuristic control panel, and are left wondering who or what the hand could possibly belong to. The music reminds us to be quite surprised at the end of Episode 1 when the antagonist of The Sontaran Experiment turns out to be... a Sontaran!

It is traditional at this point to say that Sontarans look rather silly. Reviewer's generally say that Field Marshall Styre looks like 

a: A baked potato, 
b: Humpty Dumpty or 
c: A poo. 

In fact he has aged a lot better than many of the monsters in the old series. He blinks. His mouth moves. His face looks human, but huge, distorted, ugly: very much what a being from a high gravity world might be expected to look like. There was a character from the planet Jupiter in the Guardians of the Galaxy (not to be confused with the Guardians of the Galaxy) with a rather similar physique.

The man under the mask was called Kevin Lindsay. He played an amusing cockney milkman in a series of adverts for the Milk Marketing Board on the Other Side. We really did have a chirpy cockney milkman in those days with an electric van who put milk on our step every day. Kevin Lindsay the actor died very soon after making the Sontaran Experiment. It was one of the first deaths I can remember. It did not make me sad but somehow rather embarrassed. It was strange to think that the funny cockney milkman and the Sontaran were not there any more.

*

The Sontaran Experiment is a cosmic space opera sweeping across three empires and ten thousand years, yet observing the Aristotelian Unities. In this corner—in this galaxy—the militaristic cloned Sontaran Empire, eternally at war with the not-yet-glimpsed Rutans. In this galaxy, an earth rendered uninhabitable by solar flares, and a human diaspora. Season 12 is well-known for its theatrical rhetoric. Vural's expository ditty may not reach the heights of "a capsule which contains such power" but it evokes a cosmic tapestry with some dramatic flair. 

"Listen: if you are one of the Old People we are not taking orders from you lot. While you were dozing away, our people kept going and they made it. We've got bases all across the galaxy now. You've done nothing for ten thousand years while we made an Empire. So we're not taking any of that Mother Earth rubbish." 

"That Mother Earth Rubbish" is not further developed or explained; but we instantly get the idea. There are two classes of humans. The long-sleepers in the Ark will regard themselves as purer and more human than the returning colonials. The colonials are not having it. Nothing comes of the idea; but it hangs there, making time seem awfully long and space awfully big. 

Just at the exact moment when the Ark is ready to defrost the Sontarans have decided to use the Earth as a beach head to invade our "Galaxy" as part of their endless war. But before they start, they need to figure out the human race's weaknesses. So they send out a fake distress signal and start experimenting on the humans who respond to it. Nasty experiments; leaving humans chained up in caves to see how long it takes them to die of thirst; holding them underwater to see how long it takes them to asphyxiate. Nothing is shown graphically, but it's a disturbing, cruel idea to put into kids' heads on a Saturday evening. 

It makes absolutely no sense at all. It never does. One Sontaran? Holding up the invasion of the galaxy until he has finished scientifically torturing half a dozen humans? 

But who cares. A diaspora; a return; earth destroyed but reborn; two alien empires in endless war; colonial resentment towards the Mother world—the stuff of multi-volume Asimov space sagas, squeezed into two twenty five minute tooth paste tubes. And make no mistake: a multi-volume Asimov saga based around this material would be as tedious as—well, as tedious as Isaac Asimov. It is hearing the Big Ideas alluded to, in passing, during a romp through woods and quarries, which is so magical. 

I think that is why we took it for real history. When we heard about the lost colonies and the Sontarans and the Rutans, we didn't think—we never thought—"this is corroborative detail which Bob Baker and Dave Martin are pulling out of their collective hats to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." We honestly believe that it was exposition of a long established back story. We thought that if we were proper Doctor Who fans—the kind who preferred William Hartnell and owned the Dalek Outer Space Book —we would know this stuff already. And I think this is part of the intended effect. This kind of back story means something, in a way that "I was with the Philipino Army during the siege of Reykjavik" doesn't. The Sontaran Experiment and the Ark in Space take place in the same universe, obviously, but so in a way does the Revenge of the Cybermen and the Invasion of the Zygons and that universe is different from Star Trek or Blake's Seven even though you would be insane to try to draw a map of it. 

See, over there? That's the universe, that is. 

*

Tom Baker is still establishing himself as the serious one. And the sad one: the sad serious one who grins a lot. He spends much of the episode sciencing; but when the moment comes, our jaw drops slightly and he announces that he is going to challenge the Sontaran to single combat. Our benevolent wandering alien versus the ugly space Nazi on a post-holocaust earth (that looks oddly like Dorset) with the fate of the galaxy resting on the outcome. This is a new thing in Doctor Who. 

Sarah-Jane is crucial. We cannot imagine the Very Early Fourth Doctor without Sarah any more than we can imagine the Second Doctor without Jamie. She grounds him; humanizes him; without her he would be a scary out of control alien ego, as indeed he subsequently became. Of course, the Fourth Doctor is Harry and Sarah-Jane's space Dad, and they are to him as small children. 

"What you are trying to say is that you're busy and you'd like us to push off" says Sarah 

"I'd phrase it more elegantly myself, of course" says the Doctor, and off they push.

But The Fourth Doctor is also a nasty, cheeky, brilliant child (which is why he is still so adored by nasty, cheeky, brilliant children of all ages). Look at the infuriating grin when Krans orders him to talk "Certainly, what would you like me to talk about?" or the studied sneer when he is recaptured "Can't say I'm delighted. No use pretending." Do you want to applaud him, or give him a good slap? It falls on Sarah-Jane to manage this man-baby. At 26, she seems to be intuitively maternal (look how sensitively she deals with torture victim Roth). When Harry is patronising and sexist, she allows herself to be annoyed; but with the Doctor she is gentle and indulgent while steering him in the right direction, narrowly avoiding a sulk when he thinks he has lost his favourite toy. 

"Doctor, I've found your sonic screwdriver..." 

*

The Sontaran Experiment is Doctor Who at its purist, at its silliest, the quintessence of Saturday Evening Teatime. Doctor Who was a children's programme. Doctor Who was a game we played in the playground, space men and Daleks, cops and robbers, colonists and Sontarans.  It felt like Doctor Who had always been like this; and there was no reason for it ever to be anything else. But in truth, we were looking at a version of the show which would be consigned to history by the end of next season.



Friday, October 26, 2018

I thought this would be a good moment to let everyone know that I have been officially Not Very Well but am now feeling Much Better.

Two weeks ago I went out to do some shopping and get a cup of coffee and found I couldn't get to the bottom of my road because of a sudden and very nasty pain my leg. I managed to get to the doctor's with the help of passing driver and it turned out that I had a fairly impressive blood clot. After a lot of tests, pills, injections and a stay in Southmead General Hospital, I now don't have a blood clot any more, and my left leg is very nearly the same size as my right leg, which is the way I prefer it.

I am probably going to have to be off work for another three weeks; currently have to give myself injections twice a day but will shift back to pills in a couple of weeks time. I feel pretty much okay again. Like Winnie the Pooh I just completed my walk, did my shopping and got my cup of coffee.

It is of course a matter of political dogma that NHS staff are wonderful, but this is (thankfully) the first time I've seen it close up; in the whole process I didn't come across anyone, from consultants to cleaners being anything other than cheerful, patient and helpful, even for a second. Although the nice Jamaican man who kept bring me cups of tea was convinced my name was "Rustone" and kept calling me "Rusty."


Total cost to me so far: £16 prescription charge and whatever I paid for taxis to the hospital. I hate to think what a ride in an ambulance, four nights in hospital, radiographers, surgeons, ultrasound and MRI tests and a home visit from a nurse to make sure I knew how to do the injections would have set me back if I lived in Abroad. No forms to fill out, no conversations with insurers, no proof of eligibility: I just staggered into Montpelier Health Center and said "I don't feel very well" and the doctor did some basic checks and said "We'd better to get you to the hospital and get you checked out": I was seeing a specialist within an hour of presenting.

No fuss, by request. Will take seriously all lifestyle advise from my physicians. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Doctor Who: Another Review


Episode 3

A man pulls his hand from the pocket of his uniform jacket. Tuneless music thumps in the background. He looks, shocked, at the hand. It has been completely consumed by a green, alien parasite. 

As we see his shocked face, the music cuts out, and a surreal female voice cuts in. "Halloooo....Space Station Nova!" It starts as a portentous sing-song chant; but gradually turns into generic political rhetoric. "And now, across the chasm of years, I send the prayers and hopes of the entire world."

As the voice speaks, we cut away from the man: first to an external view of a space station, then to an empty corridor, and then to an impressively large interior chamber. As the voice says "You have slept longer than the recorded history of mankind!" we see row after row of plastic, human shaped caskets.

Sarah-Jane, Harry and a uniformed woman listen: the Doctor walks slowly across the scene.

As the speech reaches its climax, we cut back to the guy with the possessed green hand. "You have been entrusted with a sacred duty, to see that human culture, human knowledge, human love and faith, shall never perish from the universe" says the speaker, invoking the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. The possessed man starts to cry, and then smashes the hand against a control console. As it finally comes to an end, the uniformed woman catches the Doctor's eye. (She is Vira, first of the humans to be defrosted.) We finish on a long close up of Tom Baker's face.

This is the opening scene of Episode 3 of The Ark in Space. It is like something out of an opera: the whole story shrunk down to one little scene. Even if we missed Episodes 1 and 2 — even if we are not sci-fi fans and have never heard the word "cryogenic" before — we understand perfectly what is going on. It is the very far future. A small number of humans have been frozen and sent into space to keep the species going. And they have been infected by an alien parasite.

It is so good — proper Mythic Level good — that I think it is the only thing most of us remember about the story. The last humans. On a spaceship. Being turned into aliens. I suppose the Doctor must have saved them in some way.

Remember C.S Lewis's comment about the ending of King Solomon's Mines? "The trap I remember forever. How they got out I have long since forgotten."

Episode 1 – 2

But we are not watching an opera. We are watching a hundred studio-bound minutes of Doctor Who, stretched out over four cold February Saturdays more than forty years ago. And this is not Episode 1 one, but Episode 3: it has taken us a fortnight to get anywhere near the beginning of the story.

Episode 1 was another initiation, an enforced wait until we get to the good stuff. The Doctor and Harry and Sarah-Jane wander around the space station trying to work out what is going on. Harry accidentally locks Sarah-Jane in an airtight room; Sarah-Jane manages to teleport herself into a cryogenic unit. The Doctor gets increasingly impatient with Harry: Ian Marter, bless him, has nothing to give and poor dear Tom has to carry the episode on his own.

"Have you pushed any buttons, Harry?"
"What, me?"
"Well, there are only two of us here, and your name is Harry."

In Very Old Who, this was a fairly standard way of starting a story: everyone would walk around the set and Ian would say "Hey, Doctor, what do you make of this?" until someone worked out what was going on. But the initial set up of, say Planet of the Giants or the Space Museum were at least a little bit puzzling. We all worked out pretty much what was going on on Space Station Nova as soon as we found out that the story was called The Ark In Space.

Episode 1 ends, right on schedule, with Harry opening another one of those Mysterious Doors and a GIANT ALIEN CRUSTACEAN emerging. It turns out, fortunately, to be a dead alien crustacean, and we get right on with the exposition. It's only at the end of the second episode that the station commander, known as Noah ("a name from myth") gets his hand scratched by a green alien caterpillar, and the story proper gets under way.

It is a mistake to judge the past by the standards of the present. We can tell that the alien caterpillar and the parasite taking over Noah's arm is made of green bubble wrap, but people in Olden Time couldn't. Most people were watching in black and white, so it was less green and more, well, bubble wrap coloured.

Episode 3

There is a limit to how long you can stand around saying "Gosh, this is incredibly mythic".  Contemplate the last humans stuck in the compromised base all you like: but sooner or later Stuff has to start happening.

Harry Sullivan is on hand to provide the bathos. His first reaction to hearing the Prime Minister of Earth address the last, best hope of the human race is "I say, it's a bit like a pre match pep talk." And his second reaction is that Sarah-Jane must be pleased that in the Far Future, the Prime Minister of Earth will be a woman. One of the things written on Sarah-Jane's character sheet is "Journalist"; the other is "Feminist" — what was in those days still called "women's lib". We are meant to find this a little bit funny: but primarily we are meant to think that Harry Sullivan is being an idiot. "Fancy a member of the fair sex being top of the totem pole" he says. That's what Harry's own character sheet says, unfortunately: Navy Man; Physician; Idiot.

(Episode 3 of Ark in Space went out on Feb 7th 1975. On the previous Tuesday, Conservative MPs had voted to select a new leader. The former Prime Minister Edward Heath only received the support of 119 members, and withdrew from the contest. On the 11th, one Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party.)

And so stuff starts happening again. The next two humans out of deep freeze start moaning about there having been a "snitch up" and wishing they'd been wiped out along with everybody else. The Doctor starts rigging up silly science equipment. Actors point toy guns at caterpillars without very much conviction. Some have said that it is darker and grimmer and scarier than anything which went before, and others have wondered if Ridley Scott was a fan. But from this vantage point it feels like corridors and monsters and a clever scheme to save the day: if not what Doctor Who had always been, then definitely what Doctor Who was going to become.

Some years ago the BBC repeated the classic historical drama, Elizabeth R, starring Glenda Jackson and the entire British acting profession. It was quite brilliant and impossible to take seriously, because, of course, it was the exact thing which the equally classic and much more familiar Black Adder The Second was sending up. Speech at Tilbury all you want, Glenda, we will all hear Queenie pouting that she has the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant. I feel that Douglas Adams and the Golgafrinchans may have done similar irreparable damage to the Ark In Space.

Episode 4

It's a very clever, tight little story. Bigger and more epic than the format allows for. The last act of a millennia long space-opera epic played out between basically just five people: the Doctor, the two companions, Vira and Noah.

The Ark was sent into space because the Earth was due to be wiped out by solar flares. But other human explorers had set out before the days of the Ark, and while the last humans slept, they made enemies of the Wirrrn. Robert Holmes is good at alluding to stuff outside his tale. "Andromeda - then our star pioneers succeeded!" says Vira, and that's as much as we are allowed to know. The Wirrrn have got a complicated life cycle; they take over the bodies of warm blooded mammals, turn them into green caterpillars; and finally emerge as giant talking insects. But here is the fiendish bit: they normally incubate themselves in mindless cattle; but they have discovered that if they lay their eggs in humans the adult creepy crawlie will have all the knowledge and memories of its host.

So the Doctor defeats the Wirrrn through the power of exposition, which is infinitely preferable to a Big Red Button. Their Achilles Heal turns out to be electricity; and so he runs a cable from the space shuttle to the cryogenic hall to keep them out.

This leads to the most genuinely scary scene in the entire story; because Sarah-Jane, being small and thin as well as feminist, has to crawl along an incredibly narrow access tunnel to bring the cable through. It is when he is acting against someone like Elisabeth Sladen with whom he has a genuine rapport — and who can give as good as she gets but is under no illusions about who the star of the show is — that we discover just what a fabulous actor Tom Baker is. Sarah-Jane gets stuck in the access shaft, a few feet away from saving the human race. And after trying to encourage her, the Doctor goes into full-on comp school P.E Teacher mode. Oh, you are useless! I never should have trusted you! You're a silly girl! Stop blubbing! Which makes Sarah-Jane so cross that she forces her way through the tunnel, and out into the Doctor's arms and he immediately tells her how very proud he is. Elisabeth Sladen's face brilliantly shifts between genuinely upset to cross to sharing the joke. It's a sexist scene, arguably: or at any rate, it shows the Doctor at his most patronizing, prepared to be cruel to be kind. But it is as close to Drama as this episode comes, and it is brilliant.

The Wirrrn swarm over the space station and steal the space shuttle and fly off. But their leader used to be Noah the leader of the humans and there is just enough of his memory left that he scuttles the ship, wipes out the Wirrrn and gives the human race its chance to survive. So that's all sorted out.

Which made me wonder: couldn't this have been a story about interspecies compromise? Why, after all, would anyone go to all that trouble to preserve the human race? So that somewhere in some corner of a foreign planet there could be a species which happens to have some of the same DNA which emerged a zillion years ago on earth? Or so that human culture, human knowledge, human love and human faith — everything which is unique and irreplaceable about the species — can survive? In which case, wouldn't uploading homo sapiens minds into the minds of incredibly resilient space fleas be the best possible outcome for everybody?

Episode 1

It isn't quite true to say that the Ark in Space owes its retrospective celebrity entirely to the opening of its third act. It owes some of it to a little speech in the middle of Episode 1. The Doctor walks solemnly into the cryogenic chamber for the first time. Harry entirely fails to understand what is going on ("funny sort of place for a mortuary") but the Doctor breaks out in a full scale aria:

Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they've crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts, and now here they are among the stars, waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable. Indomitable!

And indeed, this is the moment where Tom Baker first becomes Tom Baker. You can perfectly well imagine Jon Pertwee speaking the same words. You can imagine him half sneering them out, surprised and patronising but with a twinkle in his eye. "Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species you are, Jo..." Or you could imagine him coming over all paternal and giving us a little lecture, like the one on courage in Planet of the Daleks. "Homo sapiens, my old chap? Why, what an inventive, invincible species!"

But Baker declaims it to himself or to the universe. Harry is pointedly in the other room, so this is a private moment shared between the Doctor and us. The camera is looking down on him from a height. Pertwee gained a certain cachet from occasionally reminding us that he is not really human, but his character never ceased to be that of an upper crust boffin with a funny car and retro dress sense. Baker is obviously an outsider, looking down on the earth from a cosmic perspective."Just Tom being a benevolent alien" was how he later summed up the part. He is very far from being the fetishized Lonely God of later retroactive continuity. He is only a traveler, an ancient traveler whose path happens to have crossed with ours.

Holmes pulls off a similar effect in Episode 3 when the Doctor plugs his brain into the dead alien to try to discover its Achilles heel. Any space hero from Dan Dare onward might have said "It's not just our existence that's at stake, Sarah. It's the entire human race." But only the Fourth Doctor could have grinned and said "It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favourite species".

Robot established that Tom Baker's ego was big enough to fill an entire story; but Ark in Space defines him as the visitor from outside. There are some jelly babies and a yo-yo. There are some good put-downs. But if we had been asked to describe this new Doctor, after two stories, we would have said "He is going to be the serious one, the alien one, the Shakespearian one." And for a few weeks yet, we would have been right.









Monday, October 08, 2018

Doctor Who: A Review


This story introduces a new Doctor. It also represents the death — the gentle putting to sleep — of a remarkable TV series called Doctor Who. It's over. It's gone. It will never come back. And that’s okay.

Last season went out on a more than usually allegorical note. New life grows out of death. You have to accept change and move on. But this is hard, particularly for those of us who have been watching the show for — can it really be?— more than ten years now. We had got used to the Doctor being an older, grey-haired man, sometimes so school-teachery, sometimes so silly. We'd forgotten he could be anything else.

Some of us will get used to this colourful new version. Some of us never will. But that's okay. We can move on. It's only a children's programme. We're grown-ups. It's okay for grown ups to stop watching children's TV.

That's the message, isn't it? Embrace change. That's more important than just going on living.

But still. I wonder if the production team got the memo about what an important story this was? Or did they make a conscious decision to treat regeneration — referred to simply as changing — as just another day at the office? Sarah-Jane is a little sad, and the Brigadier is a little irritated, but Benton just takes it for granted ("You mean he's done it again?") Maybe they were just acknowledging the reality of the situation. The viewers all know by now that the Doctor sometimes changes. They have all seen pictures of the new guy in his parka jacket in the papers. So there would have been no point in making us watch Nicholas Courtney wondering at great length whether this really was still the Doctor. We all know darn well it is.

The New Doctor quotes some of the old Doctor's lines. He grins a lot. He runs down the corridor in a nightshirt and tries on a harlequin costume. He skips. And then he gets right on with just being the Doctor.

So: what is this New Doctor like? No-one knows. For this first Tom Baker story, Terrance Dicks, bless his little novelisations, turned in a Jon Pertwee script. There is hardly a scene, hardly a line, which you could not perfectly well imagine being performed by the Third Doctor. We get the Doctor as Sherlock Holmes, brilliantly deducing what attacked the Ministry of Defense building by examining a crushed dandelion. ("And according to my estimation of the resistance to pressure of vegetable fiber, it was stepped on by something that weighed a quarter of a ton.") We get the The Doctor as James Bond, leaping into his posh yellow car and rushing off to help a boffin in distress. We get The Doctor as Man Of Science, rushing off in the middle of Episode 4 to brew up some Evil Robot Disintegrating Goo in the lab. And of course, we get the Doctor as School Teacher, gently drawing out the life-lesson in the final scene ."It was a wonderful creature, capable of great good, and great evil. Yes, I think you could say it was human. "

Tom Baker has been contracted to play Doctor Who, and he has been given a Doctor Who script. And Doctor Who, at this point, means Jon Pertwee. The posh, patronizing science guy who likes fast cars and bickering with soldiers. It's going to take Tom Baker a few weeks to figure out who the Doctor is going to be from now on. And we are going to watch him figure it out.


Did Terrance Dicks ever think of himself as an artist? Did he set out to wittily rework the classics, a Frankenstein tale in which a shiny robotic tin-man turns out to have a heart? Was he cleverly satirizing the environmentalist movement, warning us that if the science nerds ever get into power, they'll start an atomic war and ban ladies from wearing trousers? Did he even have any sense that Doctor Who was a big deal, and that the debut of a new Doctor was a very big deal indeed?

Of course not. He was a hack, sorry, a craftsman, hammering out a job of work. Take a bit of this and a bit of that and a bit of the other and you'll end up with 25 minutes of early evening TV which will keep people watching and maybe even make them come back a week later. He wrote nearly 150 children's books, not including his Doctor Who novelizations.

How does he do it? Story. Structure. Construction. Four episodes with a pattern and a shape and a form and admittedly an enormous cheating plot hole. It had me grinning all over my face with joyous, innocent recognition. Oh, for the days when Doctor Who was made of stories. 

Almost the first thing we see is the Mysterious Monster breaking into the M.O.D base. We are looking through the Monster's own eyes: we can see what is being done, but we can't see the Creature that is doing it. Of course, now we instantly think of first person computer games. But this was 1974. There were no first person computer games. There were no computer games. There were one or two computers, but they looked like dishwashers.  

We see that the Whatever It Is has claws. We see that they are metal. We see the shadow of the Whatever It Is as it breaks into the base. We see it pick up the secret plans. We know that they are secret plans, because  they have TOP SECRET PLANS written on them. 

We flash back to the UNIT base. The Brigadier is fretting. Something has broken into an M.O.D base and stolen the Top Secret Plans for a Top Secret Disintegrator gun.

What can it be? Whatever can it be? And could their possibly be any clue in the fact that the title of the story is ROBOT?

Those, as Nicholas Parsons would say, are the rules of the game. You start in the drab, real world, 1970s; military bases which look like dentists' waiting rooms; science Think Tanks which look like comprehensive schools. A Mysterious Something steals the plans to a secret weapon; and then it steals the components of the secret weapon; and then is steals secret nuclear codes from the Man from the Ministry. The Doctor does a Science and works out that the Mysterious Something must weigh half a ton and not need to breathe and be made of metal. And quite separately and for no particular reason Sarah-Jane goes to investigate a secret science Think Tank and sees a mysterious door that you are not allowed to open under any circumstances marked "VERY SECRET ROBOTICS SECTION". But only at the end of the episode does the Mysterious Something emerge from behind the Mysterious Door and -- bless my soul -- it's a Robot! 

We passed the threshold between the mundane and the fantastic, and now, anything goes. (This was before Star Wars. No-one had heard about Joseph Campbell.)


It is a truth universally acknowledge that Old Who was slow and ponderous whereas New Who is fast moving and dynamic. Or, put another way, that Old Who took the time to tell a proper story but New Who is rushed, gasping for breath and directed at people with no attention span. Like all truisms, it is just close enough to the truth to be almost completely misleading.

It is true that it takes 100 minutes for Terrance Dicks to get us from the point at which a Mysterious Something is stealing TOP SECRET plans to the point where UNIT and the Science Fascists are having a pitched battle outside a bunker. Modern Forty Five Minute Who would have dumped us in media res just after the shooting started. It is also true that the groundwork for the final resolution is foreshadowed in unnecessarily ponderous detail. In Episode 2 Dr Kettlewell, the robot-creating boffin, just happens to mention that he has also invented a microbe that eats metal. In Episode 4, it just happens to occur to Sgt Benton that this might be worth mentioning. So we watch the Doctor drive back to Kettlewell's lab; wait with him for three whole scenes as he brews up some fresh Microbes, and then watch him drive all the way back. The Forty-Five-Minute Doctor would have had a test tube of the stuff in his pocket. Or else just made the Robot eat itself by projecting the Power of Love at it.

But in fact, the story feels incredibly pacey. Breathless even. Almost every scene reveals a new piece of information which changes our understanding of what is going on. 

Sarah is threatened by the Mysterious Something from behind the Mysterious Door. It's a Robot! Jellicoe and Winters, who run the Think Tank, arrive in the nick of time and deactivate the Robot. Sarah was never in any danger: they just intended to give her a scare so she wouldn't come snooping around their secret headquarters again. Sarah says the Robot is dangerous — so they order it to kill her. But it can't kill her — because it has been programmed with the Prime Directive and The First Law of Robotics. Sarah feels sorry for the Robot, because it was obviously distressed when it was given orders which conflict with its artificial conscience. She leaves. Winters reveal that she has been trying to remove the Robots anti-killing inhibitor, that it might very well have killed Sarah, but that she wouldn't have cared.

Twist, twist, twist, and all in one five minute scene. Twist: the Robot was only meant to scare Sarah. Twist: they are ordering it to kill her. Twist:  it is incapable of killing anyone. Twist: but maybe it isn't.

And wrapped around it all, a rather less predictable twist: the lumbering cuboid wind-up tin Robot is capable of feelings, and Sarah feels sorry for it. Not the most radical piece of science fiction originality, of course, but it pushes us into different narrative territory from the one we thought we were inhabiting.


It is a cliche to say that the special effects of Doctor Who in the 1970s were amateurish. It is entirely true that computer generated animation was a decade away. Colour separation overlay — blue screen — was a new and cutting edge technology and they haven't quite got the hang of it yet. If a bit of blue background gets reflected in the Robot's chrome body, its leg had an annoying habit of disappearing. (Back then I honestly thought this was intentional. I honestly thought the Living Metal was being attacked by the Metal Eating Microbes before the Doctor had arrived. It made the Giant Robot somehow more unearthly. There is no production flaw which the eye of faith cannot perceive as a virtue.)

The final episode is all about UNIT soldiers firing guns at a monster they already know is bullet proof, while the monster disintegrates tanks and stomps on buildings. Very obviously there is an actor inside the Robot and very obviously the tanks and the buildings are only models. Models you could buy in a toy shop: tanks that richer kids had in their Action Man collections. But the visual effects team is clearly having great fun playing with their toys, and they are using some ingenuity to make everything look as exciting as it plausibly can on a budget of ten shillings and a free cup of tea. We get a long shot of the Giant Robot blue screened against an English town. A shot of a row of cabins or outbuildings of some kind. A closer shot of a single cabin. And then a Giant Robotic Leg comes down and crushes it. We cut away before we have quite had time to realise that the crushed cabin was made of cardboard. 

In 1974 we stamped our feet and sulked and said this was all NOT REALISTIC. But in 2018 we can smile and say "Toy soldiers fighting toy robots! Cool!" 


But in the end, it's not about the script or the special effects; it's all about the cast. Tom Baker was a protege of Lord Olivier and Passolini. Nicholas Courtney had a great future behind him playing sergeant majors and policemen in any rep company of his choice. And Elisabeth Sladen has a way of squeezing her words out like toothpaste as if she isn't quite sure if she is back in the provinces playing Desdemona or has landed a job teaching Primary School. They are Actors. They take the words some writer has given them to say, and they make them come alive. If a line comes from nowhere then they make sure the audience sees it forming on their lips before a sound comes out of their mouth. Elisabeth Sladen is particularly good at mouthing the words before she says them. If it isn't clear what their motivation is then they show it, by gesture and body language. It's what being a thespian is all about. The character of the New Doctor emerges, not from the script, but from stage business. 

Everyone knows that Tom Baker's first line as the Doctor is "Don't worry Brigadier. The Brontosaurus is large, placid and stupid." But Tom Baker pauses after the word "placid" and adds the word "stupid" as the new medical officer, Harry, walks in. So the line becomes "Don't worry Brigadier, the Brontosaurus is large, placid.....And stupid?" The line is Dicks'. The delivery is all Baker's. He turns a back-reference to Invasion of the Dinosaurs into a foreshadowing of his relationship with Harry. 

Or look at the feeble joke about the Titanic.

--Never liked the word impregnable. Sounds too much like unsinkable.
--What's wrong with unsinkable.
--Nothing, as the iceberg said to the Titanic.

The Third Doctor could have said that and it could have got a perfectly good laugh. But it's not the "as the iceberg said to the Titanic" which we remember; it's Baker's "glug glug glug" as he sinks down below the windscreen of the Landrover. And then he sticks his feet on the dash board as if he (the Doctor) is incredibly bored with the whole thing. So when the Brigadier tells him that the building is secure on all sides and from the sky, he has to wave his finger in the air to indicate that the Robot could tunnel up through the ground.

And so on. Improvising card tricks, building towers out of lab junk, delivering exposition lying on his back with his face covered by this hat. This is not an actor delivering lines. This a clown skipping merrily around what is written on the page, adding a squiggle hear and a flourish there, while the rest of the cast stand back and watch in mounting bemusement.


"I think just for once, we're not going to need the Doctor" announces the Brigadier as he very sensibly zaps the robot with its own disintegrator gun, which Benton had very sensibly picked up. This very plausibly makes the Robot grow to about 40 feet tall and start stomping on the local scenery, until the Doctor turns up and chucks the big bucket of microbes at it.

But what is perfectly clear by the end of the episode is that the Doctor isn't going to need the Brigadier ever again. Jon Pertwee was impressive and charismatic but needed a foil. (Three foils, in fact: Courtney, Manning and Delgado.) Baker barely needs the rest of the cast at all. Everyone is looking at him all the time, and boy, does he know it.

I was taking my first tentative steps into Doctor Who fandom in Tom Baker's first year. The New Doctor mesmerized me. He turned me from a person who watches Doctor Who on Saturday nights along with ten million other people, into a person who memorizes the plots of stories which were made  before I was born and spends his pocket money on inky duplicated fanzines. Of course, those early fanzines were written by people who grew up with Troughton and Hartnell and Pertwee and they were mostly horrified. Their serious ensemble show was mutating into a garish vehicle for a manically charismatic leading man. This was not their Doctor Who. This was not their Doctor. And in a sense they were not wrong. When the Doctor offers Sarah a jelly baby and steps into the TARDIS, and shuts the door, he was shutting the door on the UNIT era, and on all the previous years as well. We were now in the Tom Baker era and you either liked it or you left.


Sarah says that the Doctor is childish. "Well of course I am" says the Doctor "There is no point in being grown up if you can't be childish." Sarah also says that Harry is a bit old fashioned "There is nothing wrong with being old fashioned" says the Brigadier "I am a bit old fashioned myself."

This story is a bit childish and very old fashioned. There is nothing wrong with that.



If you link to this review, please don't give away my little joke.