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. 


Aonghus Fallon said...

I think you're right about how any series needs to change, but - and I'm not casting any aspersions on the latest incumbent - I always much preferred Pertwee. My formative memories of the series consists of 'Carnival of Monsters', 'The Green Death', 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' and 'Planet of the Spiders', and I found some of these episodes genuinely terrifying. I reckon this was an important ingredient in the series and was largely diluted by Baker's clowning around, a pattern which became more pronounced with each of his successors.

That said, I saw very few of the episodes in which Bakers starred and even less of the later ones. I grew up in rural Ireland. We had an enormous aerial which allowed us access to all the UK TV channels which my parents subsequently took down so they could plant potatoes, with the result that my knowledge of British TV only extends as far as the mid-to-late Seventies.

Mike Taylor said...

"The Doctor does a Science and works out that the Mysterious Something must weigh half a ton."

I believe that would be a quarter of a ton.

Mike Taylor said...

Oddly, the result of reading your very clever review of Doctor Jodie is that I feel nostalgic for Matt Smith. Three seasons of Peter Capaldi, who has been competent and unobjectionable throughout, have left me badly missing the genuinely profound unspoken elements of Smith's portrayal. If ever a 28-yaer-old man cracking dumb jokes conveyed the weight of a thousand years of deadly-serious conflicts, he did. Of course, Tom Baker was not even trying to do that, so it would be churlish to criticise him for not achieving it. Maybe Jodie Whittaker isn't trying to do that, either. That would explain it.

For those who care, my own thoughts on The Woman who Fell to Earth can be found at