Monday, November 12, 2018

The Last Doctor Who Review (For The Time Being)

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

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

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

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

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 The eerie, barely audible high pitched mechanical voices ("You will become like us") have been replaced by actors shouting from under masks.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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

--I had a dream.

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

And so on, for weeks at a time.


I will defend Revenge of the Cybermen to anybody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Imagine Tom Baker without a scarf.

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

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

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

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

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


Mike Taylor said...

"He pauses to quote four words of Macbeth. ("Dusty death, out out, brief..."

Something not quite right here, I think.

I've very much enjoyed this series by the way.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Five words.

This is literally what Tom says, though: "Dusty death, out out, brief". Which come in the middle of a line: "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death: out out brief candle."

Mike Taylor said...

Macbeth is so astonishingly rich in well-known phrases that it sometimes reads like a sort of joke "Shakespeare's greatest hits" — "all our yesterdays", "the way to dusty death" and "out out brief candle" are all stand-outs in their own right, and having them all in the space of single sixteen-word sentence is just ridiculous. (I had much the same feeling about the last few minutes of Casablanca.)