Sunday, November 23, 2008

45 Years Later

"It is emphasized that the "ship" may transport the four characters backwards or forwards, sideways into lesser or greater dimensions or into non-gravitational existence or invisibility etc, but once arrived into the different place and time the four characters have only their intelligence and ingenuity upon which to rely. They cannot produce a "ray gun" to reduce a horde of Picts and Scots, nor can they rely upon specialized drugs to cure a Greek philosopher.

'It is also emphasised that the four characters cannot make history. Advise must not be proffered to Nelson on his battle tactics while approaching the Nile, nor must bon mots be put into the mouth of Oscar Wilde. They are four people plunged into alien surroundings, armed with only their courage and cleverness. "

David Whitaker's guildelines for Doctor Who writers - 16 May 1963

30 comments:

  1. David Whitaker knew the score. And wrote good Dalek.

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  2. Show may alter over 45 years, shock.

    Simon BJ

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Show may alter over 45 years, shock.

    I think my point, in so far as I had a point, and was not just looking for an apposite quote for the glorious 23rd, was not that David Whitaker wrote a long time ago, but that David Whitaker was, er, obviously correct. Thanks to the BBC's putting the documents on line, we now know certain things which have "changed" since the original conception of Doctor Who, e.g, the Doctor is no longer thought to be senile or amnesiac, he is no longer thought to fleeing a galactic war in the far future, the programme is no longer filmed "as live", the first companion was not called "Cliff", the main character is not played by William Hartnell. How this impacts on my opinion that Mr. Whitaker obviously understood drama where Mr. Davies obviously doesn't, I really couldn't say.

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  5. Having found those documents through a link elsewhere, I'm most amused to find that Poul Anderson's Guardians of Time was an (indirect but apparently specific) influence on the original conception, and that the Beeb had been talking to Brian Aldiss at the time.

    The comments on C.S.Lewis were pure gravy, even if they did come from someone who talked about Edward Blish's A Case of Conscience.

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  6. But I don't agree that David Whitaker was right, in all those respects, and *if* he was the programme was different as early as well, say 'The Mythmakers' which had the Doctor giving the Trojans the idea for the Horse or any of the 1st Doctor's historical name dropping, and while the sonic screwdriver as a ubiquitous gadget dates from the 2nd Doctor, the Doctor has gadget that helps dates back to, well The Web Planet, where the TARDISes energies shortcircuit the Animus' control of the Zarbi. Remind me who wrote that one again? Wasn't it er David Whitaker?

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  7. Remind me who wrote that one again? Wasn't it er David Whitaker?

    Nope, it was Bill Strutton, an Australian who died on the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who five years ago.

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  8. Just so everyone knows, Whitaker script edited all the stories which had Susan in them (An Unearthly Child through Dalek Invasion of Earth) and wrote the following stories: Edge of Destruction (the only one written by him while he was script editing), The Rescue, The Crusade, Power of the Daleks, Evil of the Daleks, Enemy of the World, The Wheel in Space, and The Ambassadors of Death.

    Arguably, the change that Simon J talks about, with the Doctor influencing history occurred earlier than The Myth Makers (the Doctor may or may not have caused the burning of Rome in The Romans). However, both of these were after Whitaker had left and Whitaker was responsible for neither. The "name dropping" that the first Doctor did, at least in the first season, was never of the nature of the Doctor giving ideas to historical persons, merely commenting that he knew them. (Tom Baker's Doctor would later claim credit for a great many human scientific advances, but I can't think of a time William Hartnell did this.)

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  9. In a sense they "make" history in the very first story by teaching Ug to make fire; they certainly do so in "The Chase" by inadvertently causing the crew of the Mary Celeste to abandon ship. This seems quite a lot different from giving Shakespeare and Agatha Christie the idea for all their best stories. Tom Baker's claiming credit for practically everything in human history is less relevant, because they are in-jokes and give-away lines, not the subjects of actual stories. And I think by that point it had pretty much been accepted that the Doctor was a terrible name-dropper.

    I'm really more interested by the first bit: it seems to me to be self-evident that "Four people stuck in an unfamiliar time with only their wits and courage to rely on" is a more interesting premise than "Four people stuck in an unfamiliar time with as much shark repellent bat spray as they need."

    Wasn't episode #1 of "The Temptation of Sarah-Jane" utterly brilliant and wonderful, by the way?

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  10. Perhaps you mean: "two people drop by a fairly familiar time with as much shark repellent bat spray as they need and wonder whether they should shag".

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  11. In a sense they "make" history in the very first story by teaching Ug to make fire; they certainly do so in "The Chase" by inadvertently causing the crew of the Mary Celeste to abandon ship.

    You are arguably correct on the first point (I will refrain from pointing out his name was Kal), but really, Mr. Rilstone, you ought to know that The Romans predates The Chase. I agree that The Chase is the first time the Doctor unambiguously changed human history if that's what you meant.

    David Whitaker was certainly behind the original "you can't change history, not one line" ethos of the programme. Even after this had been altered by his successor, Whitaker would write a straight-up historical (The Crusade) where history remains unchanged and (apparently) unchangeable.

    On the subject of gadgets, the Pertwee Doctor used to take a lot of flak for inventive uses of the sonic screwdriver (blowing up land mines in The Sea Devils, detonating swamp gas in Carnival of Monsters). It seems absurd to complain about that in light of the new series, but if Simon J really thinks that the first Doctor's use of his ring to break the Animus's mind control on a single Zarbi is comparable to the myriad and inexhaustible uses of the sonic screwdriver, then I really don't know what to say.

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  12. Andrew Rilstone said...
    I'm really more interested by the first bit: it seems to me to be self-evident that "Four people stuck in an unfamiliar time with only their wits and courage to rely on" is a more interesting premise than "Four people stuck in an unfamiliar time with as much shark repellent bat spray as they need."

    Perhaps the first bit is a little too self-evident, which has naturally bent everyone’s focus to the second. At the very least it’s not the sort of thing where someone’s likely to take the opposite tack. Unless someone mails in to say - “I like the way that, as soon as anything looks tricky, the Doctor just produces some electro-thingamyjig from his pocket to free everyone. I especially like the feeling of arbitrary pointlessness it conveys, surely the essence of good writing.”

    While there certainly are some very good historicals, the concept that they can only witness and never influence historical events does become a bit of a dramatic limitation in the long term.

    In a sense they "make" history in the very first story by teaching Ug to make fire;

    A pedant might comment – The Tribe has already lost the secret of fire, with the result that Ug and Bug are competing to rediscover it. Of course this is there primarily to give them the King Louie motive. If they don’t know what fire is, they can hardly demand it off the Doctor. But it also suggests he’s not changing history so much as speeding it along.

    ...they certainly do so in "The Chase" by inadvertently causing the crew of the Mary Celeste to abandon ship.

    Another pedant might suggest that was actually the Daleks. (I run out of these excuses by The Romans, though. And of course the rule gets wholly rewritten with The Time Meddler.)

    Greg G said...
    David Whitaker knew the score. And wrote good Dalek.

    I would concur with m’learned colleague. The only qualification I can think of is that, due to his script ed connections, Whitaker was often given the fix-up episodes rather than given free reign. (The one that introduces Vicki, the one that introduces Doctor No. 2 etc.) This is of course at it’s most extreme in the infamous Edge of Destruction, where budget constraints forbad the use of any other actors or any sets outside of the already-built Tardis.

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  13. Unless someone mails in to say - “I like the way that, as soon as anything looks tricky, the Doctor just produces some electro-thingamyjig from his pocket to free everyone. I especially like the feeling of arbitrary pointlessness it conveys, surely the essence of good writing.”

    Don't worry, I'm not going to say that (at all).

    What I imagine the creators of the current version of the series might say is something like, "It's been established now that the Doctor is a phenomenal, unique, superhuman figure. Even if we could reverse that, having an assorted bunch of human-level figures running round history and assorted space opera sets, solving problems under constraints such as vague pacifism and an inability to change documented history, isn't the sort of story which we want to tell, and would probably get boring relatively quickly. Telling stories about a living phenomenon, a superman-and-the-abyss combined in one quirky human form, and how he relates to humans, and how ordinary humans deal with their experience of that figure, is a more radical and (we think) interesting idea. The ability to whip out appropriate bafflegab solutions to many problems is merely a minor manifestation of that character's nature."

    Even assuming that I'm putting appropriate words into their mouths, though, (a) whether they're right, and (b) whether they tell such stories particularly well, are of course highly debatable questions. To say the least.

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  14. The comments on C.S.Lewis were pure gravy

    For anyone else who wondered what this alluded to, the relevant section is found in the first of the BBC documents, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/doctorwho/dr6400_1.shtml?doc=6400

    And says:


    In a perhaps crude but often exciting way the apparatus [of science fiction] is used to comment on the Big Things - the relation of consciousness to cosmos, the nature of religious belief, and like matters. The American writer Edward Blish, in "A Case of Conscience", is surpassing here. More pretentiously, far less ably, the novels of C.S. Lewis likewise use the apparatus of SF in the service of metaphysical ideas.


    ... which I think we must file under "harsh but fair".

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  15. Oh, excellent, more on Lewis from page 3 of that same BBC document:

    Two exceptions to [the "Threat and Disaster" school of SF] are Arthur Clarke and C.S. Lewis. The latter we think is clumsy and old-fashioned in his use of the SF apparatus, there is a sense of condescension in his tone, and his special religious preoccupations are boring and platitudinous.

    Yikes!

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  16. Calling the Ransom trilogy "pretentious" sounds odd. Lewis has been called many things, but "pretentious" isn't one of them. (On the not terribly good Radio 4 chatshow "I've Never Seen Star Wars", Mr Paul Daniels, forced to read a feminist book for the first time in his life, described Germain Greer as "pseudo intellectual". "I think possibly Germain Greer is a real intellectual" replied the compere.) Unless "pretentious" hadn't acquired its perjorative sense, and the writer meant that Lewis had set his sights higher than Edward Blish?

    Lewis would have laughed at the bit about his apparatus being old fashioned: he deliberately made it so because he wanted to make it clear that it was only "machinery" and not what the story is about. (Dickens thought it odd that people complained that he hadn't done a good job of concealing the identity of Thingy in "Our Mutual Friend", since he had been working very hard to make it obvious.)I'm also interested by "platitudinous" was religiousplatitude already a single word, like gratuitousswearing and bogusasylumseeker. The bit about "condescension" is much nearer the mark, but it's quite an achievement to be both pretentiosu and patronising at the same time. I assume they'd only read "Out of the Silent Planet". ("Perelandera" is really hardly science fiction at all, and probably ought to be shelved with the religious books like "Great Divorce" and "Til We Have Faces": ISTR that JBS Haldane criticised the book for being scientifically accurate, and Lewis replied that it's subject matter wasn't science, but religous questions ("what if there had been no fall" "how might the Atonement work on other planets") which he, Haldane, would be simply uninterested in.

    The bit I like best is that there have only been two sci-fi TV series, or possibly more if you include (snarl) commercial TV. Go, British Broadcasting Corporation!

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  17. I suspect their thinking was along the lines of Man With Agenda = Crank. And, to be fair, few Hartnell stories did have an agenda in that sort of a way. Even the ones which more themselves to a more allegorical reading, such as The Daleks.

    I assume they'd only read "Out of the Silent Planet". ("Perelandera" is really hardly science fiction at all...)

    The weird thing about the trilogy is how different all three books are, with only the same lead character to knit them together. That Hideous Strength is somewhere between a parable and a farce, probably less a science fiction story than Perelandera even.

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  18. Umm... which lend themselves to more of an allegorical reading.

    Doh!

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  19. By the way, the BBC got his name wrong. The writer of A Case of Conscience is James Blish, not Edward.

    I suspect their thinking was along the lines of Man With Agenda = Crank.

    Of course, this standard is rarely consistently applied. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of Lewis's fiction, but I don't see how his agenda discredits him and, say, Ursula K. LeGuin's agenda somehow never discredits her (except for people with the opposite opinions, of course).

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  20. Ah, yes. Hence the italics in my original post.

    For added irony, note the tendency in some of Blish's work for a clunking emphasis on Big Ideas to overwhelm trivia such as character, plot, or logical plausibility. Though I probably fixate too much on the mess that is A Clash of Symbols (and the lesser weakness as a novel of A Case of Conscience). Also note that the Day After Judgement duology (very much an agnostic's exercise in theological fiction) treats The Screwtape Letters as a factual source within its narrative. Albeit really as a joke.

    Doctor Mirabilis, incidentally, is brill.

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  21. (That's A Clash of Cymbals, of course. Darn Freudian slips. And technically it's "The Devil's Day" duology. Ugh. Post in haste, errata at leisure.)

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  22. I read somewhere that the original Pete n Dud version "Bedazzled" used Screwtape as its main theological source. Which is, of course, amusing, given that Lewis made it quite clear that, although he believed in devils, he wasn't speculating about what they were really like but using them as a literary device to talk about morality and psychology.

    I should be inclined to call the whole "Cities in Flight" series unreadable if not for the fact that I have actually read it. But Blish probably deserves some kudos for writing the Star Trek short stories, a nice bridge between TV skiffy and proper grown up science fiction. (I have never been quite sure what a kudo is. Probably some species of panda.)

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  23. Andrew Stevens said:
    Of course, this standard is rarely consistently applied. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of Lewis's fiction, but I don't see how his agenda discredits him and, say, Ursula K. LeGuin's agenda somehow never discredits her (except for people with the opposite opinions, of course).

    Me, I like a bit of an Agenda. Of course it can have its own pitfalls, as rightfully pointed out to us by Phil Masters. (“Look I have created my own private little universe which proves me right” is not necessarily a compelling argument.) But it can add a bit of substance to what otherwise might just be a concoction. The main problem I have with most genre fiction is that it just rearranges the furniture a little bit.

    Perhaps as a consequence I would say good things of Out Of The Silent Planet and (once you dispel from your brain the notion its any kind of associated work) That Hideous Strength. Voyage to Venus is a little fuzzy over whether it’s supposed to be a Platonic debate or a science fiction story, and does a funny left turn quite late on.

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  24. Cities in Flight isn't Blish's best work, by any means. (One good image, some decent invented skiffy jargon, and too much reading of Spengler, do not an SF classic make.) But he could write, and was probably at his best when he had a few ideas - but not too many - behind his plotting. Even A Case of Conscience isn't bad, as I recall, though it flails a bit by the end.

    (And I can see why those BBC researchers preferred it to Lewis. I now find myself imaging an alternate Doctor Who? in which the Tardis crew includes a Jesuit priest, who keeps finding challenges to his theology wherever they stop.)

    But Blish didn't have much of an agenda, that I can see, Spenglerism aside; there's a sense of general academic agnosticism in a lot of his stuff. He doesn't have any answer to the question, "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?", but he still insists on writing four books about it. Fortunately, when he gets interested enough in one approach to the subject, we get Doctor Mirabilis. And even when he was writing straightforward entertainments, we get Jack of Eagles (or the Star Trek books, I guess, though I never did read those).

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  25. Phil Masters said...

    I now find myself imaging an alternate Doctor Who? in which the Tardis crew includes a Jesuit priest, who keeps finding challenges to his theology wherever they stop.

    Well Dan Dare was originally conceived of as a 'padre in space.' (A decade earlier, admittedly!)

    But Blish didn't have much of an agenda, that I can see, Spenglerism aside; there's a sense of general academic agnosticism in a lot of his stuff. He doesn't have any answer to the question...

    I can't argue with you on Blish, for the simple reason I've never read any! But I don't think Having An Agenda is the same thing as Having An Answer. People who insist they are always immutably right over whatever they happen to be saying are no less annoying in print than in real life. And some of my favourite authors perpetually ask questions to which they've no real answer, Dick comes to mind. You get the feeling there that if one day they found they could answer the question, they'd stop asking it.

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  26. I guess if "having an agenda" means "having an abstract topic one wants to talk about in this fiction, whether or not the plot really permits it", then Blish is agenda-prone to the point of damaging his standing as an author. If it means "having a thesis or (probably ideological) point that one wishes to convey through this fiction", then much less so. (Much less than, say, Heinlein, although Heinlein writes better plots.) I tend to interpret the phrase in the second meaning, but that may well be a mistake on my part.

    Blish was a clever man who could write a bit, though. It's worth looking at one or two of his books some time, though Andrew and I appear to agree that the Cities in Flight series isn't the place to start.

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  27. 'Agenda' writers (at least according to my previously coined definition) tend to the compulsive, which can tend to be engaging for the reader in short does but repetitious in the long term. Much as I love Dick, I can't imagine myself ploughing through everything he wrote. The part can stand for the whole quite easily.

    Any Blish you'd especially recommend?

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  28. ...short doses!!!

    Drat and double drat!

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  29. In truth, it's quite a long time since I've read any Blish, but I do have a great residual fondness for Doctor Mirabilis. That, I should say, is a historical novel - a life of Roger Bacon - with no great SF or fantastical content apart from one rather wonderful chapter, a fever-dream vision of the future.

    It's also part of a thematic series with the title "After Such Knowledge", the other components of which are the paired Black Easter and The Day After Judgement (modern theological fantasy - kind of Denis Wheatley with brains) and A Case of Conscience (Jesuit neurosis in spaaace - intelligent but not especially engaging, quite influential in some quarters). Why someone who was apparently a non-believer felt impelled to write a whole string of books about the crisis of faith in the face of scientific modernity isn't entirely clear. Blish could do cool visions of Hell, though.

    Aside from those - well, his short stories were often good. The early-ish ones in which he invented the word "pantropy", and which were collected in The Seedling Stars, are worth a look, if only for "Surface Tension", which is a bit of a classic of vertiginous skiffy scale-manipulation. His later shorts did get a bit New Wave; take that as you will.

    I also have a soft spot for his juveniles, but that may be distance lending enchantment to the view; others disagree. Andrew apparently recommends his Star Trek stuff (from before the great modern age of spinoff grot). Oh, and Midsummer Century is prett good Deep Time SF, as I recall.

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  30. Thanks for the comments, Phil. Doctor Mirabilis and Case of Conscience seem to be the most popular.

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