Tuesday, April 15, 2008

4:2 "Fires of Pompeii"

If Captain Kirk used his superior technology to impose his superior morality on every planet he visited, he would come across as a colonialist or a communist. But if he said that it's up to everyone in the universe to fix their own troubles, then there wouldn't actually be any stories. Ergo: The Prime Directive. Kirk is signed up to a Sacred Law which says that he can't interfere with the affairs of other planets, except when he can. Although this is said to be one of the laws of the United Federation of Planets, it's actually one of the laws under which a TV show like Star Trek always and necessarily has to operate. It's a way of drawing a circle around a genre-assumption and saying 'please don't think about this, or the whole thing will collapse'. It's a sacred mystery that enables us to believe that when Kirk reintroduces war to an otherwise peaceful planet, he's doing it in the name of non-intervention. It's only a problem when someone tries to tell us what the Prime Directive actually says; to examine it's philosophical ramifications. That's a bad idea: it's there to facilitate story-telling; it's not what the stories are about.


I know I'm banging on and on about rules: but ever since a big hairy cave man stepped out of the shadow of the TARDIS and started talking in a RADA accent, it's been absolutely clear that Doctor Who has at least two Prime Directives:

1: Everyone, anywhere in the Universe, speaks English.

2: If the viewer knows the outcome of an historical event, the Doctor can't change it.

Directive 1 is so obvious that for fourteen years, no-one noticed it was there at all. In, I think, 'Masque of Mandragora', Sarah wonders why she is understanding Italian and Doctor Tom mutters something about sharing a Time Lord gift with her: the subject isn't raised again until RTD starts to obsess about it in 'End of the World.'
Directive 2 is more of a problem: it comes on stage from time to time (in 'The Aztecs', 'The Time Meddler', 'Day of the Daleks' and arguably 'Genesis of the Daleks'), but it patently makes no sense whatsoever. If helping Harold beat William at Hastings counts as time meddling; why is helping the Thals beat the Daleks on Skaro perfectly OK? In general, the series has been happy to say 'Because the Laws of Time say so' or, in the vulgar, 'It just is, okay?'

RTD has followed Big Finish in adopting Peter Darvill-Evans elegant theory: the whole of the future is in a state of flux and pretty much everything counts as 'future' from the Time Lords point of view. When the Doctor materializes at a particular point, he 'crystallizes' history around himself and makes the events he experiences, and any which depend on it immutable. The fourth dimension is a collection of fixed points, linked together by more or less mutable time-lines, in a sea of unresolved possibilities. But 'The Web of Time' is just another way of spelling Prime Directive: in the Doctor Who universe, history is immutable, except when it isn't. Why can the Doctor change the outcome of the war between the Daleks and the Movellons, but not the outcome of the Second World War? He just can, okay.

Sadly 'The Fires of Pompeii' is yet another example of Doctor Who turning in on itself and making the 'prime directives' -- both 'why does everyone talk English?' and 'why can't we change the past' the actual subject of the story?'. Doctor Who, it seems, is about the narrative conventions of Doctor Who. It's about our nostalgic memories of a show called Doctor Who. It's about the nature and significance and state of consciousness of a character who is carefully not called Doctor Who. About anything, in fact, apart from coming up with an entertaining answer to the question 'What would happen if a none-too-bright 20th century girl was transported back to ancient Pompeii?' Which some people might have thought was the object of the exercise.

This is rather a pity: because, after the grit your teeth embarrassment of the Season 3 finale, the total waste of time that was the Christmas Special, and the 'what the hell are they thinking' comedy of 'Invasion of the Jelly Babies', 'Fires of Pompeii' was quite a decent little story. While nominally about Pompeii, it felt a lot as if the Doctor and Not-Not-Rose had materialized on the set of Rome, largely because they had. (Indeed, I kept wondering whether Quintus was going to be buggered by Ceasar and declare himself Emperor.) The joke that, because the TARDIS translator turns Latin into colloquial English, the market trader talks like Del-Boy and Lucius' family talk like soap opera characters lasts for about five minutes. By the time we get to the serious bits, everyone starts talking Theatre. The question: 'If the TARDIS makes my English sound like Latin, what do the Romans hear when I speak Latin?' is the sort of question only a child (or, I suppose, a fan) would think to ask. The answer 'Welsh' is funny the first time. But not very.

Donna wants to use the TARDIS to save the people of Pompeii from their impending destruction. The Doctor knows that this violates narrative conventions, but Donna persists. He bends the rules slightly, rescuing a single family, because, presumably, introducing thousands and thousands of their descendants into human history doesn't constitute 'interference.' The point of the story is not that the Doctor saves the earth or Lucius's family but that he realises that he needs Donna, even though the audience still can't stand the bloody site of her. Without her, he would have callously left everyone to be incinerated just as he would have wiped out the jelly babies and did in fact kill the ickle bubby spiders. The old man in 'Voyage of the Damned' told the Doctor that if he kept making life or death decisions he'd become a monster and the Dalek in 'Dalek' said he'd make a good Dalek.

Well, yes: every hero is potentially a villain. Surely the Master was introduced precisely to make this point? Sherlock Holmes would have made an excellent murderer; come to think of it, the very first thing we're told about him is that he'd think nothing of killing a friend in cold blood. But I do hope we are not building up to a story in which the Doctor turns evil and, say, Donna, Martha and Rose have to get together to bring him back.

This core story only requires that the Doctor and Donna appear at some historical crux: to give them a chance to assassinate Hitler or stop the Black Death. Arriving in Pompeii 24 hours before the volcano erupts does the job admirably, even if it does effectively decanonize a rather excellent little Sly McCoy / Bonnie Langford audio. One might think that 'Do we save the city or not?' would be quite a big enough question to fill 45 minutes of airtime. (It took basically 100 minutes for Barbara to work out that weaning the Aztecs off human sacrifice was a: a bad idea b: impossible.) But no: it has to be enmeshed in half a dozen other story lines. The overwrought climax in which the Doctor has to choose between destroying Pompeii and allowing some aliens to destroy the whole world diminished, rather than intensified, the dilemma. Save Pompeii or Save the World is not really a difficult call: just a matter of choosing the lessor weevil. Save Thousands of Humans or Obey The Laws of Time could actually present a problem. (And anyway: isn't Pompeii actually part of the world?) It makes a good point about the Doctor's burden: it's in his nature as a Time Lord that he can see the consequences of his actions, that merely by time travelling, he's causing historical events to happen, making decisions which effects who lives and who dies -- which could turn him into a monster, remember. But this -- plus the emphasis on his unimaginable fourth dimensional consciousness -- is one more step towards turning him into a god, if not actually God.

This is overlaid with the amusingly silly idea that the people of Pompeii are physically turning to stone so the city is actually populated by creatures which resemble the plaster casts you can see when you visit the archaeological site. (I wonder if Draft 1 involved the plaster casts in the museum coming to life and menacing the modern visitors, as Egyptian mummies do all the time.) This is happening because they are breathing in dust from the Volcano, through hypocausts, which is related to some alien life form that crashed there in the past, and which is having the effect of making everyone telepathic oh, and also precognitive. These aliens eventually manifest as Transformers made of fire and magma; although they are not very threatening, because they can be defeated by chucking water over them.

This is really only sketched in the most perfunctory way. At the last minute, the Doctor says slightly desperately, that the precognition powers came about because a rift in time was blown open when the alien space craft crashed, and that the 'eruption' has blown it closed. Well, obviously.

Which, as I say, is a pity, because the basic story is really quite good. The soothsaying scene, the moment when the Doctor rescues the family, the epilogue, and the moral dilemma itself were all quite well done. It is one thing to use monsters as plot-devices to facilitate character based stories. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did it every, single week : but the monsters have still got to be either believable and comprehensible, or far enough off stage that we don't notice. It's okay to for the Daleks to be a sort of Prime Directive which lasts for a single story. 'Why do they want to drill a hole through the Earth's core?' 'They just do, okay. It's the rebels you're meant to be interested in.' But the fire monster was complicated, contrived and fussy: it simply generated noise which drowned out, rather than illuminated, the passably interesting story about the Doctor and Donna which RTD presumably set out to tell.

P.S

When bad SF writers realised that they had written bad cliches into their bad SF, they used to think that it would help the audience suspend disbelief for the dumb blond to say 'Gee, professor, this is crazier than one of those nutty Science Fiction movies.' RTD's preferred technique is for someone to say 'Oh, you are kidding me.' Please stop it.





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39 comments:

J.V. said...

Here's some other hitler-related sci-fi (comedy), a new web cartoon series: "Cats of Death"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ptq39zbsxms

Enjoyed the blog!

Mike Taylor said...

Sometimes, Andrew, I don't understand you at all. In a review like this one, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that you've reached the point where you're actively looking for things to dislike. The TARDIS translation convention may have started as a narrative trick, but that doesn't mean it can't be interesting; and I thought it was handled well, and the recurring Welsh jokes played with a light hand. What's not to like, really?

These are interesting things. "Metatextual" doesn't always, automatically, mean "bad". We're so used now to seeing the Doctor's companions' families that most of us have probably forgotten what a shock it was in The Aliens of London the first time we saw a parent's reaction to losing a child to the Doctor. Despite some of the weaknesses in how that episode worked out, that insight, that change in the rules of how Doctor Who is done, made it a classic episode in DW history. There is fertile territory to be explored here. Even given that RTD doesn't do as good a job of exploring it as we'd like, do we _really_ want to go back to The Doctor Saves The Earth From An Alien Menace every week?

(Also, the Doctor running away from the balrog while firing the water pistol over his shoulder at it was a truly great momemnt, redolent of all that was best about Old Who.)

Speaking as one who has, in the last couple of hours, watched the first two episodes of Robot, I have to say that New Who is better in every single way than the original: acting, ideas, music (oh my, the music!) and, yes, even stories. The Fires of Pompeii makes at least as much sense as Resurrection of the Daleks.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Sometimes, Andrew, I don't understand you at all.

Only sometimes?

Even given that RTD doesn't do as good a job of exploring it as we'd like, do we _really_ want to go back to The Doctor Saves The Earth From An Alien Menace every week?

Yes. Although I can't help thinking that you may have excluded the middle of your phallus.

Speaking as one who has, in the last couple of hours, watched the first two episodes of Robot, I have to say that New Who is better in every single way than the original:

Having just watched "The Aztecs", I have to say that Old Who is better in every single way than the re-make.

acting, ideas, music (oh my, the music!) and, yes, even stories.

When I watched "The Time Warrior" the main thing I thought was "This needs more fart gags. And heavy handed religious imagery."

In all seriousness, I don't think that "Old Who" vs "New Who" is a battle that's worth fighting. I have never, at any time, complained that "New Who" is not "Old Who". I have complained that particular episodes of "New Who" are not very good at being "New Who". And even worse at being "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", which is clearly the object of the exercise.

Mike Taylor said...

In all seriousness, I don't think that "Old Who" vs "New Who" is a battle that's worth fighting. I have never, at any time, complained that "New Who" is not "Old Who". I have complained that particular episodes of "New Who" are not very good at being "New Who".

Point taken. And most of the time, I do agree with you -- most especially as regards the excruciating Series 3 finale. It just seems sometimes that you've got so used to seeing things to dislike in New Who episodes that, as in this review, there is an element of autopilot in it. I suppose in particular I am surprised that you were so underwhelmed by by the Human Nature double-parter, which for me was by some distance the best that DW has ever been (without wanting to raise old-vs.-new again).

Then again, maybe The Aztecs is just much, much better than Robot?

[Oh, and could you please explain that middle-of-the-phallus comment? I didn't follow that at all.]

Andrew Stevens said...

You know, Mike, I love reading what you have to say and think you're obviously a man of great wit, taste, and style. However, I must object that whenever you compare old Who to new Who, you always cherry-pick poor examples of old Who and the best examples of new Who. (Here, it's Robot, but previously it's been Genesis of the Daleks, the most overpraised old Who story there ever was.)

Only Moffat and Cornell have shown anything like the chops that Robert Holmes had as a storyteller. And new Who hasn't had any script editor at all who could whip a plot into shape like Terrance Dicks did week in and week out during the Pertwee era. Eccleston and Tennant are both very fine actors and very good Doctors (especially Tennant), but neither has anything like the magical charisma Tom Baker used to have. I'm not arguing that old Who is better than new Who. I'm just pointing out that the cherry-picking can be done the other way. Shall we compare The Long Game, Idiot's Lantern, Fear Her, Evolution of the Daleks, and Last of the Time Lords to Caves of Androzani, Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Robots of Death, Carnival of Monsters, and The Aztecs?

And Mr. Rilstone was referring to your false dichotomy, sometimes called the fallacy of the excluded middle.

Salisbury said...

'The overwrought climax in which the Doctor has to choose between destroying Pompeii and allowing some aliens to destroy the whole world diminished, rather than intensified, the dilemma. Save Pompeii or Save the World is not really a difficult call: just a matter of choosing the lessor weevil. Save Thousands of Humans or Obey The Laws of Time could actually present a problem.'

Yes and no. Obeying the laws of time is a compelling imperative from the Doctor's point of view, but as we the audience aren't privy to why that is, it's meaningless to us. What are the consequences of breaking the laws of time? We're not told--although this in itself is a dodge because once we know what they are we can weigh them up against the 20,000 dead. We're back to square one.

So instead it ceases to be a question of ethics and becomes one of valour--it's unspoken, but the real test here is whether Donna is willing to sacrifice her life and, to some extent, validate herself as a companion.

Keep in mind, too, that the Doctor has now answered that question both ways ('Coward. Every time.')

As to the moral dilemma and the consequences of breaking time's laws, that comes up when the Doctor rescues the marble sculptor and his family. The Doctor makes a choice, and I'm fairly sure that altar suggests there'll be consequences later on.

SK said...

do we _really_ want to go back to The Doctor Saves The Earth From An Alien Menace every week

Actually, old Doctor Who wasn't like that (except in one particular period). It's new Doctor Who That seems to think that there must be some threat to the Earth, or failing that, the universe, every week.

Old Doctor Who is full of stories where what's at stake is the survival of a few people in an isolated environment, or even occasionally just the survival of the Doctor and his companions and some really abstract notion of 'Enlightenment'. These are almost completely absent from new Doctor Who (I can think of three-and-a-half episodes where the stakes are smaller than 'millions of people').

Not that old Doctor Who didn't have its periods of saminess -- the aforementioned one where it was saves-the-Earth-every-week, the two years of Troughton bases-under-seige -- but it was in general less formulaic than new Doctor Who: but that's pretty obvious considering the difference in process. You're obviously going to get a better range when writers pitch episodes to the script editor who commissions them, than when two guys come up with all the stories and then tell the other writers what they have to write.

But but but even given that, the point is, as Andrew says, nt to compare old Doctor Who and new Doctor Who but to point out that new Doctor Who is simply, considered entirely as an entity in its own right without reference to old Doctor Who, not very good.

If it were not Doctor Who but simply a flash-bang no-depth run-aroundy Saturday evening 'family' sci-fi programme, I'd have stopped watching long ago.

Mike Taylor said...

Hi, Andrew Stevens, and thanks for your kind words. I have to say I'm not cherry-picking on purpose: the reason I've recently drawn comparisons of New Who with Genesis and Resurrection of the Daleks and Robot is that they are the three Old Who serials that I've seen most recently. Although they all have some good things in them, I have to admit I've been really disappointed by all three; and I think that must be because of raised expectations caused by New Who.

Let me try it another way: I asked our esteemed host whether he really wanted The Doctor Saves The World From An Alien Menace every week, and to my great surprise he said yes. And yet the episodes where exactly that happens (The Idiot's Lantern, Fear Her) are generally the least liked NW stories, while the most admired stories are usually those that explore an aspect of the Doctor's character or nature (Girl in the Fireplace, School Reunion). The way it looks to me, anyone can save the world -- as comparatively dull a character as James Bond does it every year or so. But the Doctor is more interesting than that, and I like to see that interesting character explored: similar enough to us that we can relate to him, but different enough to cast a different light on what it is to be a sentient, moral being.

Finally, let me heartily concur that Moffat and Cornell's writing for New Who is whole level above that of most other NW writers ... and especially, unfortunately RTD's. I still think that Davies has been responsible for many of the finest individual moments in NW -- such as when Doctor Chris's hologram turned and looked right at Rose -- but he is certainly not very interested in, or perhaps capable of, actual stories.

SK said...

'School Reunion' is a save-the-world-from-this-week's-alien-monster episode.

'The Girl in the Fireplace' is one of the three-and-a-half.

Greg G said...

This new Time Directive business is solving a problem that only really became a problem with the new status quo.

My interpretation of Old Who's set-up which is liable to be flawed by affection and the weakness of memory: Basically decent chap has a time and spaceship that even he doesn't trust to work properly. He goes to places where there's a problem, and usually solves it due to some combination of him being
a) Nice
b) Trapped in the problem unless he does something to solve it
c) Academically interested
d) Grumpy, and he's going to make other people feel it.

Why he doesn't change past events in this instance is still handwaving, but - Old Who in Pompeii doesn't know what the hell he's going to do with a thousand romans when they land on Telos rather than Italy. And he'd mostly likely have been trying to find out what the mad priest and his temple guards did with Jamie and Victoria and the Tardis before the volcano blew in episode four.

New Who is the last survivor of a doomed planet, who has sworn to use his awesome powers for the good of the human race (what is the secret of the Doctor's new power? See inside!) He can travel anywhere in time fairly easily, except when he can't. Everyone loves him and he loves everyone. So why can't he save everyone?

He just can't, ok? Because of STUFF.

The best answer I can see to both Whos is the standard God one - when would he stop helping? Only the first Who had a respectable answer to why he helps at all.

Greg G said...

PS I'm not sure of the opinion of this chap in these parts, but these archived reviews by the Anorak give a good view of how I see most of Old Who. Written before the new series came out, too.

http://www.grke.net/anorak/

Andrew Rilstone said...

[Oh, and could you please explain that middle-of-the-phallus comment? I didn't follow that at all.]

"Fallacy of the excluded middle" = offering a false choice between two options, and leaving out other possibilities. As "You can either have socialized medicine, or watch the dead bodies of poor people pile up in the street."

It was late.

Mike Taylor said...

Oh, a pun. Gotcha.

So, then, on to the subject of The Doctor Saves The Earth From An Alien Menace Every Week (hereafter TDSTEFAAMEW). I suppose the point I was trying to make -- rather poorly -- was not to do with the Earth being at stake every time (which I agree it was not, refreshingly, in Old Who) but with the whole substance of the story being about overcoming the alien menace, whether the A.M. was M.ing the Earth, a different planet or just a B. under S.

School Reunion is a great example of a story where the A.M. is almost incidental: for me, at least, that story is all about the Doctor's and Sarah Jane's reactions on meeting again after thirty years. (Oh, and my own reaction is that she is a much better actor now then she was then.)

Here's what it comes down to for me. Leaving aside its tiresome lower-sixth obsession with constantly saying the kinds of things you can say after the watershed, the big problem with Torchwood is that it's Doctor Who with the Doctor taken out. And the great service it's performed is that it's shown us just how central and crucial the Doctor himself is. *I was going to continue by saying "Without the Doctor, Doctor Who is just ..." and then realised that the correct end to the sentence is "Torchwood", which wouldn't really have added much to the discussion.)

So given the Doctor's centrality in making DW something special, it seems reasonable to me that the most interesting approach the program can take is looking at the Doctor himself -- more, more relevantly, his relationships with people, since that's always the window that gives the best insight into what a person is like. At its best, that approach gives us School Reunion (the bits without the Krillitanes), The Girl in the Fireplace, Human Nature, the good bits (yes, there were some) of Last Of The Time Lords and indeed Dalek; at its worst, on the other hand, you get Martha's Secret Love -- the horrible consequence of RTD's seeming struggle to understand any other kind of relationship than the romantic.

I suppose it comes down to this: when New Who focusses on relationships (sensu lato) it gives us both the best and the worst of its range. When it focusses on TDSTEFAAMEV, it's admittedly more consistent, and sits near the middle of the range. For myself, I'm prepared to grit my teeth through the lows in order to get the highs.

(One day, we should all get together and discuss this over a beer or two.)

SK said...

Except the problem with new Doctor Who is that it can't slow down enough to do the relationships-exploring that you're claiming it does best. Take 'School Reunion' (please, take it, ahahaha): even if we accept that the Doctor/Sarah stuff is meaningful character relationship stuff and in any way not just incredibly shallow nostalgia-porn combined with an off-the-shelf 'ex-wife meets new girlfriend and they spark off each other but eventually bond' plot, it takes up about three scenes scattered through that mess of an episode.

If new Doctor Who wants to be character-driven drama it can't also be flash-bang-wallop keep-moving never-let-the-audience-think breathless breathless breathless run down a corridor here-comes-a-monster here-comes-a-joke here-comes-a-joke-masquerading-as-a-monster sell-some-toys blow-something-up trail-the-next-episode credits and out! (by the way Confidential's on BBC3).

Andrew Stevens said...

Yes, Doctor Who without the Doctor and the TARDIS is a show not worth watching. However, one of the Doctor's central characteristics is his mystery. My own favorite era of classic Doctor Who is the Hartnell era. Verity Lambert and David Whitaker got it almost exactly right. Later changes (such as the Time Lords) have not been terribly kind to the show. The Doctor is a character best left relatively unexplored.

I don't wish to argue that Genesis, Resurrection, and Robot aren't representative of the classic show. I think they are fairly representative. Just as the new show gives us more Lazarus Effects than it does Human Nature. However, if you want to experience the real brilliance of the classic show and see why some of us are so devoted to it, I would recommend anything written by Robert Holmes, the whole of Seasons 13 and 14, and the whole of the Hartnell era. The best of the new show does indeed rank right up there with the best of the classic show; there is no question about that. I'm not a big Girl in the Fireplace fan, but I am a fan of both Cornell scripts, the other two Moffat scripts, and School Reunion. I love Cornell and Moffat, but they've still got a lot of work to do to surpass Robert Holmes as the greatest writer of Who in history.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Mike Taylor said...

So given the Doctor's centrality in making DW something special, it seems reasonable to me that the most interesting approach the program can take is looking at the Doctor himself...

No. No, no, no, no, no. Nay, and thrice nay. Definitely not. Negative, captain. No, no, no, no, no. The most interesting approach the program can take is to take the Doctor absolutely for granted and allow him to the be the lens through which we see other worlds and other times. The most interesting approach the program can take is to put the Doctor in places and situations which are interesting in themselves and then show us how he reacts. Trying to "look at the Doctor" is like trying to look at the meter instead of the poem, or the key instead of the tune, or the cows bones instead of the soup.


-- more, more relevantly, his relationships with people, since that's always the window that gives the best insight into what a person is like.

Well, I've always been fond of Jeremy Bentham's definition: " 'Doctor Who?' is a question, and the TV series is about the people who have asked that question." But no, not making the show primarily about his relationships with people, certainly not in order to give us insights into his character. What it's like to travel in time; what it's like to be friends with this enigmatic figure, yes: what it's like for the Doctor to be the Doctor, no; except incidentally.

One of the great charms of "Sherlock Holmes" are the bits before the adventure starts -- Holmes and Watson chatting in their flat; vague hints about Holmes' possessions; the whole atmosphere of Victorian London. I'm sure that if Doyle had written the same shocking little melodramas and left Holmes out of them, we wouldn't know about it because they wouldn't be in print. But that does NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT mean that a map and inventory of 221B Baker Street, and a biography of Sherlock Holmes would improve the stories; much less if Doyle started to write biographies and inventories INSTEAD of detective stories (as Marvel Comics have arguably been doing for 20 years.)

Incidentally: what I thought I had said about "Pompeii" was that I'd rather the story had concentrated on a 21st century girl exploring an ancient Roman city, and on the difference of opinion about whether to save the people or let history running it's pre-destined course; and that the pretty but ill-conceived aliens had had the effect of drowning that out. I didn't intend to say "I wish they'd ditch the character stuff and concentrate on earth invasions."

Andrew Stevens said...

owever, if you want to experience the real brilliance of the classic show and see why some of us are so devoted to it, I would recommend anything written by Robert Holmes, the whole of Seasons 13 and 14, and the whole of the Hartnell era.

I recently watched the DVDs of the first 3 seasons of BBC "Morcombe and Wise", complete with excruciating guest stars that I didn't fast forward through, honest. I think that most of us know Eric and Ernie mainly through half a dozen endlessly repeated sections from Christmas Specials -- Angela Rippon, Andre Previn, breakfast striptease, Singin' in the Rain, "Musical Demons" with counter melody. But it's only by watching the actual episodes that you see why they were so revered: every week they came out in front of the curtains and completely misunderstood each other in a cross-talk routine; every week they had a bitchy conversation in their flat or their bedroom; every week Ernie roped some minor celeb into appearing in a terrible play; every week they showed that only pretty talented hoofer can dance quite that badly.

If you want to understand Doctor Who watch an entire season. Any season. Even a Colin Baker season if you like. ("Trial of a Time Lord" doesn't count.) Yes the "Talons of Weng Chiang" period is excellent; yes, Season 1 (you can get a sense of the missing stories with the slide-show plus sound track reconstructions) is a one of the best things to be done on TV, ever. But pick out one of the weaker seasons, if you like: Doctor Jon patronizing Jo, or Doctor Peter with Adric, Teagan, Nyssa, Turlough, Bill Brewer, Jan Stewert, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy... And, obviously, watch it an episode at a time: don't judge a sequence of 2 or 4 or 6 or 7 little playlets as if they were oddly paced 100 minute films.

Kai said...

About anything, in fact, apart from coming up with an entertaining answer to the question 'What would happen if a none-too-bright 20th century girl was transported back to ancient Pompeii?' Which some people might have thought was the object of the exercise.

I thought they answered that: she would try to save everyone, getting herself into some sort of amusing trouble that we know won't last and then acting hurt and desperate and furious when she failed.

When the Doctor explained that his choice had gone from "kill 20,000 people or break some other part of my personal code of ethics" to "save all but 20,000 of the people on Earth or don't," I stopped even trying to take the episode seriously anymore. I started caring again near the end when it looked like the Doctor was going to be callous (and consistent) and let everyone die, but then he gave in and rescued a random family whose only virtue seemed to be the time they'd spent on screen. I can really see where you're coming from with that complaint.

The Doctor was pardoned from having a dark side twice in one episode. We got something like a happy ending forced on us after a story about a volcano killing the hometown of every new character we met. Perhaps the problem is that the writers aren't brave enough to use their own ideas.

Gavin Burrows said...

Except the problem with new Doctor Who is that it can't slow down enough to do the relationships-exploring that you're claiming it does best. Take 'School Reunion' (please, take it, ahahaha): even if we accept that the Doctor/Sarah stuff is meaningful character relationship stuff… it takes up about three scenes scattered through that mess of an episode.

Surely the relationship stuff and the monster stuff have to be related in some way! I probably see it in terms of the Buddhist parable, where the monster is always really you. The classic example is surely Planet of the Spiders, where the Queen Spider comes to represent the Doctor’s egoism. It doesn’t happen in School Reunion and you’re right, the episode’s a poor one. But in the better episodes it does.

No. No, no, no, no, no. Nay, and thrice nay. Definitely not. Negative, captain. No, no, no, no, no. The most interesting approach the program can take is to take the Doctor absolutely for granted and allow him to the be the lens through which we see other worlds and other times... Trying to "look at the Doctor" is like trying to look at the meter instead of the poem, or the key instead of the tune, or the cows bones instead of the soup.

You nearly had it there, but unfortunately didn’t put in quite enough ‘no’s.

Sherlock Holmes stories were always narrated by Watson, someone at best sporadically taken into Holmes’ confidence and who was more than once completely manipulated by him. Doctor Who doesn’t have so formalised a distancing device, but needs it even more. Holmes may have verged on the para-human, but the Doctor’s non-human. That, or the jjg is up.

On the DVD bundled with the ‘In the Beginning’ DVD , various ‘explanations’ for Who The Doctor Is are put forward. All are then promptly rejected by Sidney Newman and his handy red pencil. Verity Lambert then pops up to say it should have always stayed an eternal mystery who the Doctor was; no backstory, no home planet named, nothing.

Verity Lambert was a smart old buzzard.

One of the things they get right about the New Who is their insistence on the unknowability of the Doctor. The emphasis then falls on the companions, just like it was in the beginning. Indeed, as many people have pointed out, Rose’s departure changed things more than Christopher’s. Amid the psychobabble, dimestore therapy and group hugs of today’s TV, that’s refreshing.

Having just watched "The Aztecs", I have to say that Old Who is better in every single way than the re-make.

Oddly enough, I’ve been watching my way through Season One, so for once can sound a bit knowledgeable! The Aztecs is a classic episode, perhaps rivalling The Daleks. But unlike The Daleks it could never have been the foundation for a series. The Girl Who Kept Trying to Change Time But Always Failed Sometime Round the Final Episode Then Some Old Bloke Said I Told You So… that might not have lasted twenty five years.

If you want to understand Doctor Who watch an entire season. Any season. Even a Colin Baker season if you like.

Cough! Splutter! A whole season? A reasonable rejoinder might be – but what about all the crap episodes? I bypassed The Sensorites partly from your own warnings. (That and the fact everyone with a pulse agreed with you.) I watched Keys of Marinus despite the warnings but am better now. Most of the past seasons don’t have through-lines like today. Aren’t you better off cherry-picking the good bits?

Andrew Stevens said...

I actually want to endorse Mr. Rilstone's view even though he was reacting against my comments. The way that I personally watch Doctor Who is that I watch every single episode (including reconstructions) in order and then do it again. I am currently on my fourth time through the series. (It takes me years to get from An Unearthly Child through the TV-movie.)

Is there a lot of stuff that isn't very good? Sure. But almost none of it is unwatchable. The Sensorites is perfectly watchable an episode (perhaps two) at a time and Keys of Marinus is one of Terry Nation's better scripts. Lots and lots of dodgy bits and silly ideas, but it's never boring. (Best thing - the aliens in rubber suits are supposed to be in rubber suits.)

It is funny to me that there is nothing on television today even remotely as daring as the original idea for Doctor Who. A strange old man from some other planet kidnapping people and/or rescuing orphans and then getting lost with them in time and space. A brilliant concept and sustainable for forever if you have the courage to keep doing it.

I can't say I'm terribly interested in the Doctor's "dark side." His dark side is his irascibility, his (justified) sense of superiority, his loneliness, and (to us) his inhumanness. I think it greatly detracts from the character if the audience ever feels morally superior to the Doctor. I pray that Mr. Rilstone is wrong about how this season winds up. If RTD really thinks he can get away with pulling a "Willow" on the Doctor (and there is a lot of evidence to support the speculation), well, what can I say, except that it really didn't work with Willow and Whedon would never have considered doing it with Buffy.

Andrew Stevens said...

Now that I think of it, though, it might work. Perhaps the Doctor will have sex with Donna (or Rose) and lose his soul.

Mike Taylor said...

I said:

So given the Doctor's centrality in making DW something special, it seems reasonable to me that the most interesting approach the program can take is looking at the Doctor himself...

And Andrew replied:

No. No, no, no, no, no. Nay, and thrice nay. Definitely not. Negative, captain. No, no, no, no, no.

I may be reading you wrongly hete, but I get the impression that you don't really agree with me.

And yet, really, you do:

The most interesting approach the program can take is to put the Doctor in places and situations which are interesting in themselves and then show us how he reacts.

That is at least part of what I meant -- hence the clarification about looking at the Doctor's relationships. But even then I think the Doctor himself is interesting. Specifically, returning to School Reunion, Sarah Jane's reaction to seeing the Doctor again is more or less what we'd expect -- a mixture of shock, pleasure at the reunion, anger at her desertion and a certain amount of jealousy toward her successor. But the Doctor's reaction to seeing SJ again is much more interesting, precisely because it is so alien and therefore different from what we might see on Eastenders.

All said and done, I guess we can agree this far: that many of the best moments of Doctor Who (both old and new) come when his alienness is juxtaposed with something familiar. Done well, that brings out new aspects to both.

(And it's a fair cop, I did rather badly misrepresent your stance on Fires of Pompeii. By the way, having just watched that again with my boys, I really like the Welsh joke.)

Andrew Hickey said...

The thing is, the new series is frankly terrible in its characterisation of the Doctor (and in its characterisation full stop, but the old series was just as bad at that). Even a story like Robot (which we can all stipulate is Not Very Good) manages to get the character of the Doctor exactly right - when asked if he'll speak to the Nobel-prize-winning physicist he says "Oh yes, I'll speak to anyone!"

That line, and Baker's delivery of it, have stuck with me even though I only watched Robot once, three years ago, and say more about the kind of character the Doctor is than the whole of last year's series.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the three best episodes last year were the three where the Doctor essentially doesn't appear...

Gavin Burrows said...

The Sensorites is perfectly watchable an episode (perhaps two) at a time…

I’m not being facetious here (at least not totally) but would you read reprints of newspaper strips a tier to a day? Or, for the Sundays, one a week?

Or something like Dickens in the original serialised form?

Of course you need to make some kind of mental adjustment. Some complain it’s a plot spoiler when you see Arbitan murdered in Marinus. But audiences at the time wouldn’t have seen the ramifications for a few more weeks, when the memory would have been a hazy one. But there’s a distinction between saying “these old shows weren’t made for today’s audiences at today’s production standards but have nuggets of imagination” and “these old shows weren’t made for today’s audiences but in their day were great”. My reply to the second one would be “leave them there”. The Daleks is often painfully slow, but personally I think it repays the effort. (And anyway New Doctor Who is painfully fast!)

…and Keys of Marinus is one of Terry Nation's better scripts. Lots and lots of dodgy bits and silly ideas, but it's never boring. (Best thing - the aliens in rubber suits are supposed to be in rubber suits.)

Some claim Marinus was relay-written by Nation and an uncredited Whitaker at a fair rate of knots, hence the episodic ‘quest’ format. It’s most laughable when fans commend it because you see so much of an alien planet. It’s just a bunch of stock scenes strung together. Some are reasonably good in their own right, some are… well boring is exactly the word I would use for the Ice Knights.

Weirdest thing – no-one seems to know whether they’re rubber aliens or men in rubber suits, even within the story!

I think it greatly detracts from the character if the audience ever feels morally superior to the Doctor.

True if taken to that extent. But there’s a kind of frisson in being reminded of the alien-ness of the Doctor. Do we really know the title character?

Mike Taylor said...

Oh, and one more thing that I think we can all agree on: New Who moves much too fast, nearly all the time. To take a recent example, The Fires of Pompeii cried out to be a two-parter. Given that the production team are evidently having real problems coming up with nine or ten separate stories each series, AND given that everything is rushed, it seems the most obvious thing in the world to make nearly all stories two- or three-parters, so that the good ones can be explored properly and the bad ones junked.

(That said, I think there is a place for the _occasional_ wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am single parter, with Blink being the obvious example.)

SK said...

I can't say I'm terribly interested in the Doctor's "dark side." His dark side is his irascibility, his (justified) sense of superiority, his loneliness, and (to us) his inhumanness. I think it greatly detracts from the character if the audience ever feels morally superior to the Doctor.

Well, Doctor Who was about scuppered from episode three, then.

Or do audiences not feel morally superior to someone who has to be physically restrained from killing an injured man?

Andrew Stevens said...

I’m not being facetious here (at least not totally) but would you read reprints of newspaper strips a tier to a day? Or, for the Sundays, one a week?

Not all the time, no. But I have a desk calendar at work and I do indeed read one a day (three on Monday).

I do grant your point about the Ice Knights. The story did bog down about then. Limitations of the medium, of course. My guess is that they figured out on the set that they didn't have enough material to film and padded out that scene as best they could.

I should say that when I'm watching Doctor Who, I watch about an episode or perhaps two a day, rather than one a week. If it's a really good story that I like watching all at once, then I will. But when I find myself getting a bit bored, I turn off the television and come back to it later instead of making it an exercise in masochism. Such pauses rarely fail to bring back my enthusiasm, even if it is Colin Baker.

Well, Doctor Who was about scuppered from episode three, then.

Or do audiences not feel morally superior to someone who has to be physically restrained from killing an injured man?


And about ten weeks later, they radically changed the character, realizing the lack of sustainability in what they had written. I find this plausible character development. The Doctor adopted and eventually perfected the morality he absorbed from Ian and Barbara. It is vital to understand that the Doctor is not human and, to him at that time, humans stand in relation to him about the way dogs stand in relation to us. (Indeed, that's the point of setting the first story in prehistoric times. To dramatically show that Ian and Barbara must appear to the Doctor precisely how the cavemen appear to us.) The wounded caveman had been an active threat to the Doctor and was still a passive threat at that time. And the Doctor is proven correct later in that story. Za was indeed still a threat to him and his companions, including his granddaughter. In that scene, even Ian is rather skeptical of helping Za, remarking that Barbara's "flat must be littered with stray cats."

I do not concede that the audience necessarily feels morally superior to the Doctor even at that point, though certainly they are probably more than a bit frightened of his ruthlessness (an intellect vast, cool, and indifferent, if you like). It should also be pointed out that the scene is ambiguous. The Doctor's motives are quite clearly implied, but never outright stated. I believe this was Coburn's exact intent - to strongly suggest that was what the Doctor was planning without actually confirming it.

The antiheroism of the early Doctor is entirely different from any villainy now. Back then, the Doctor didn't know any better. Now he does. It is because of episode three that it would not be satisfying to go backwards.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said...
…they radically changed the character, realizing the lack of sustainability in what they had written…
…The Doctor's motives are quite clearly implied, but never outright stated. I believe this was Coburn's exact intent - to strongly suggest that was what the Doctor was planning without actually confirming it.


You may well be right both times. But I sense the start of a contradiction in terms slowly forming here. There’s clearly no way they thought of ‘character arcs’ in those days, in the way they might well have done for Rose. They were simply extemporising, figuring out what works and jettisoning what didn’t.

This is enhanced by the way we tend to assume the first-draft ‘pilot’ episode (in which the Doctor is a more malevolent figure) happens first, in some fuzzy sort of way. Wheras its actually an abandoned plan.

When we look back, we see a character arc. But it’s like a rainbow, because we see it doesn’t mean its there.

The pedant in me is also compelled to ask… If Yartek’s just wearing a rubber mark, why doesn’t he take it off when he’s pretending to be Arbitan? (Let two nerds meet and the debates will range over the completely unimportant!)

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't know. I don't think it's that hard to see that The Edge of Destruction was written in order to smooth the tensions between the Doctor and Ian and Barbara. This transformation was complete by the end of Roof of the World. Obviously the softening of the Doctor's character was done for the same reason as the softening of Donna's. Week in and week out with that irascible old man would have been unbearable. Newman insisted on the Doctor being made less sinister in the first episode because he saw the problems with the Doctor being too sinister immediately.

However, I don't believe at any point that David Whitaker said, "And at this point, the Doctor will accept Ian and Barbara's more universal morality and become a paragon, due to his superior reason and judgment." He was thinking more along the lines that the Doctor will learn to respect Ian and Barbara and they will all travel happily together. Partly it's certainly the case that Coburn imagined the Doctor as a more sinister figure than anyone else did, thus the pilot and that scene with Za. The other writers, like Nation and Whitaker, made the Doctor stubborn and superior, but not actively immoral. I have no doubts that William Hartnell also played a large role in the transformation of the Doctor.

The fact that Yartek was wearing a suit is made explicit when they find the pod with a rubber suit inside, but nobody inside the suit. (This is when they figure out that the sea is made of acid and his suit must have been punctured.) As for why Yartek doesn't take it off - perhaps it was very comfortable? Maybe he was taking no chances when on a small island surrounded by a sea of acid?

Andrew Stevens said...

I do wish to stress, though, that the theme of "Ian and Barbara teach the Doctor moral lessons" is clearly present throughout all of the beginning of Season 1.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said:
I don't think it's that hard to see that The Edge of Destruction was written in order to smooth the tensions between the Doctor and Ian and Barbara.

Yes, but it's even easier to see Edge of Destruction as rush-written to fit a gap in the schedules. A One which focused on the regulars because they didn't have the money to pay any other actors at that point! (To re-iterate, I'm not saying none of that happens. I'm just doubting it was preconceived.)

the theme of "Ian and Barbara teach the Doctor moral lessons" is clearly present throughout all of the beginning of Season 1.

Well, they're definitely the chief characters, the ones we're expected to relate to. But 'moral lessons'? It works a different way round in The Aztecs. The Doctor and Ian team up on Barbara!

As for why Yartek doesn't take it off - perhaps it was very comfortable?

We must have different definitions of comfortable! The pods (and the acid sea) also suggest the Voord are an invading army. But later Arbitan talks about Yartek being able to overcome the influence of the Conscience Machine, like he's a citizen of Marinus. It just doesn't make much sense!

Andrew Stevens said...

You're not going to trick me into defending the plot of The Keys of Marinus. I said it was entertaining; I never said it made sense. My own opinion on why Yartek never took his suit off is because, logically, he should look like all the other people on Marinus which would have been anti-climactic.

I was really only referring to the first half of the season for the Doctor being taught moral lessons. By Keys of Marinus, they're all learning from each other, except Ian, who's the real hero and rarely wrong about anything.

Yes, but it's even easier to see Edge of Destruction as rush-written to fit a gap in the schedules. A One which focused on the regulars because they didn't have the money to pay any other actors at that point! (To re-iterate, I'm not saying none of that happens. I'm just doubting it was preconceived.)

I think it's the case that both of these things are true. David Whitaker was forced to rush-write a script and he knew he needed to smooth the relationship between the Doctor and his companions, so he took that story to do it. Thus, he first went backwards and had the Doctor treating them much worse than he had in The Daleks, and then ultimately resolved the situation. I believe I've seen a quote from Whitaker or somebody talking about Whitaker to that effect, i.e. that he had to turn the crew into a team, though I'm afraid I can't remember a source. Still it's such a small piece of character development taking place in such a compressed time frame at the beginning of the series, that I'm not sure I would ever call it anything so grandiose as a "character arc."

My main point was simply that what worked then has no real relevance on what would work now with the Doctor a very well-established character.

Tom R said...

'The Prime Directive - also known as General Order Number One... is "a wise, but often troublesome rule which prohibits starship interference with the normal development of alien life and societies." It was first postulated in an episode entitled "The Apple" in which Kirk and crew must violate the Directive and destroy an Eden. The justification was that this Eden was an artificial condition which was already interfering with the normal development of this particular culture, it rapidly became clear that the Prime Directive was to be more honoured in the breach than otherwise.'

- David Gerrold, THE WORLD OF STAR TREK (Ballantine, 1973), p 236.

'The STAR TREK WRITERS' GUIDE summarises the rule like this: "It can be disregarded when absolutely vital to the interests of the entire Earth [sic] Federation, but the Captain who does violate it had better be ready to present a sound defence of his actions." Which means, translated into English: The Prime Directive is a great idea, but it's a bloody nuisance. Let's forget about the whole thing".' (p 237)

'INDIVIDUALLY, any one of the above [1966-69 ] episodes was designed to make a specific point. Slavery is wrong. Exploitation is wrong. Racism is wrong. And so on. CUMULATIVELY, the effect is quite different. Cumulatively, the effect is that each situation has been constructed for Kirk to make that point. And cumulatively, the effect is of a set of straw men - or straw cultures, actually - for Kirk to knock down.' (p 256)

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens, we’re probably not disagreeing a whole lot really. I actually quite like the imagery of the first episode of Marinus - the lone monk beset by devils from a hostile world. (To my mind Yartek can’t take his ‘mask’ off because you’re supposed to think of him as the Devil.) I just wish it had been ingested into a story a little bit more. I’d even settle for consistent imagery through the whole thing, but that doesn’t happen either. But it’s maybe a bit silly to focus on one of the first series’ lesser efforts.

The set-up of Doctor Who involved a ‘pretend’ family, two parents, a child and a grandparent, with a twist. (I think until quite late in the day Susan was planned to be human.) So that would lend itself to a… well actually I don’t like the Hollywoody term ‘character arc’ either. If anyone thinks up a better one I’ll use that!

David Gerrold (via Tom R):
'INDIVIDUALLY, any one of the above [1966-69 ] episodes was designed to make a specific point. Slavery is wrong. Exploitation is wrong. Racism is wrong. And so on. CUMULATIVELY, the effect is quite different. Cumulatively, the effect is that each situation has been constructed for Kirk to make that point. And cumulatively, the effect is of a set of straw men - or straw cultures, actually - for Kirk to knock down.'

Nice quote! (Even if he’s missed out Kirk getting the girl.) Of course Star Trek is a kind of UN-in-space setup, the multi-racial bridge is like the General Assembly with America firmly in the driving seat. And America would really, honestly like to be non-interventionist but keeps being forced to do good in the world due to other’s failings.

Whereas in Britain, it would seem, we identify much more with the gentleman amateur and lone eccentric. If the Doctor turned up on the Enterprise I’m fairly sure he’d regard them pretty much the way he does the military anywhere…

Andrew Stevens said...

I do wish to stress that I think Marinus is a lot of fun and rarely dull (Ice Knights scene aside, which was like watching ice melt). The Daleks is surely a better story overall, but like all of Nation's Dalek stories, it bogs down considerably at points and can become quite a dull affair. The ideas in The Daleks were much, much better than any of the ideas in Marinus. But even Marinus has some interesting points. If we could create a "moral algorithm" and force people to conform to it, should we? Okay, it's not terribly well realized.

It's a pity you haven't seen The Sensorites. That would be much more fun to defend. Watch the sinister aliens who are really just old men afraid of the dark and loud noises! It's badly dated, of course, and the production values were poor even by the standards of the time and it's just about impossible to watch all six episodes in one go without falling into a coma. (I recommend three sittings at least.) And, yes, some of the enjoyment of the story comes from completely unintentional things (like the circular feet of the Sensorites or the amazing number of line fluffs). Still I like it a great deal, possibly just out of nostalgia. Season 1 was how I got hooked on Doctor Who as a young teenager and I was entranced.

I can, by the by, easily see Captain Kirk as the Brigadier and Dr. McCoy as Harry Sullivan. Spock becomes a bit redundant though.

Andrew Stevens said...

Come to think of it, the Pertwee era is a kind of Earth-bound Star Trek in which Spock is the main character instead of Kirk as, of course, he should have been.

Gavin Burrows said...

The Daleks is surely a better story overall, but like all of Nation's Dalek stories, it bogs down considerably at points and can become quite a dull affair.

True.

The ideas in The Daleks were much, much better than any of the ideas in Marinus. But even Marinus has some interesting points.

Hmmm.

If we could create a "moral algorithm" and force people to conform to it, should we? Okay, it's not terribly well realized.

True. “I wonder if this Conscience Machine could turn out to be some sort of prob… oh, look, it’s blown itself up. That was lucky!”

The thing I will mostly take away from this debate is Andrew Steven’s endorsement of Yartek’s fashion sense. From now on I shall picture him, hunched over his MidWestern keyboard, decked out in head-to-toe rubberwear.

…I shan’t really. Anyway, I believe that there might have been lately more of this Doctor Who business..?

Andrew Stevens said...

I do own a replica of Yartek's wetsuit, though I rarely wear it at the computer.

Tom R said...

Dunno if it's a consistent Brit/ Yank pond thing. "Firefly/ Srenity" is at least as anarchic as "Dr Who". Mind you, Joss Whedon flogged a lot of the ideas in it from "Blake's Seven" ("Nice shot!" "I was aiming for his head"), probably while he was at boarding school in England in the '70s.

Tor Hershman said...

"Liberty and justice for all." "Strength through joy," THEY all have their pretty lies and their awful facts.

"...all men are created equal" was written and signed by Slave Holders.