Friday, February 19, 2021

Doctor Who 14.1 (1976)

We left the Doctor and Sarah at the South Pole. They had just spent six weeks running around one of the Stately Homes of England, trying very hard not to get eaten by a gigantic plant. When we rejoin them they are having a stroll through the corridors of the TARDIS and chatting about infinity.

Last season, the Doctor was still working for UNIT—complaining about working for UNIT; threatening to resign from UNIT, but nevertheless calling in UNIT when he wanted to nuke the giant carnivorous daffodil from orbit. But as this season opens, he is a free agent with no particular place to go. The idea that the Doctor had a job title and a boss and a home-base was one that the series seemed reluctant to let go: but now the apron strings have been well and truly cut. It will be six years before we hear from the Brigadier.

Seasons 12 and 13 had a very loose narrative arc. Robot followed on from Planet of the Spiders; Revenge of the Cybermen led directly into Terror of the Zygons. Season 14 begins in media res. The Doctor and Sarah are not coming from anywhere or going anywhere. They are wandering in space and time. That’s what they do. That’s who they are.

It is jarring to see the Doctor and Sarah, casually taking a walk, inside, as it were, the spaceship. With a single black and white exception “TARDIS interior” has always meant “a white room containing a cybernetic mushroom control tower which goes up and down”. And yet here we are, talking about boot-rooms and finding Wellsian control rooms we had forgotten all about. (Discovering a room in your house that you didn’t know was there is a pretty common anxiety dream, right up there with turning up to work with no clothes on.)

“You humans have got such limited little minds” says the Doctor. “I don’t know why I like you so much.”

“Because you have such good taste.” replies Sarah-Jane.

“That’s true, that’s very true” says the Doctor. The Doctor’s alien-ness, his otherness, is being foregrounded as never before. But he remains avuncular. Everyone’s favourite alien.

Change is incremental: but Doctor Who is becoming a new and different thing. We could say that the original series is dying. We could say that the Doctor Who we know and love is finally coming into being. We could say that Doctor Who has always been in a perpetual state of re-invention. Nearly twenty stories will have come and gone before one of the Classic Monsters makes re-appearance.

There is a threat: a threat that the Doctor understands and never quite gets around to explaining to us. He calls it the Helix, although I think he really means Vortex. For a force of ultimate evil it sure does look a lot like an extreme close up of milk being poured into black coffee. It is a great big red glowing lump of Plot.

There are some woods. There are some baddies. They are chasing some peasants. It is the olden days. We could easily imagine that we were in Sherwood Forest, but we turn out to be in Italy.

There are some characters, and a plot. The Duke has died. The Wicked Uncle is going to take the Dukedom from the Duke’s Good Son, with the help of a Fraudulent and Wicked Astrologer. It’s like Hamlet, or at any rate the Lion King. No-one has told the thespians that they are in Doctor Who. They think they are in a BBC costume drama. They do cod Shakespearean readings of cod Shakespearean lines. Giuliano (the nice prince) thinks that astrology is bunkum, writes letters to Galileo and wonders if perchance the earth goes round the sun. Hieronymus (the nasty astrologer) uses the stars to exert power over the credulous. Marco, Giuliano’s wet friend, is inclined to believe in astrology. Very possibly there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy.

It feels like we have switched channels: from a space-opera, full of black voids and corridors and evil helixes to one of those classic historical dramas that the BBC still showed on Sunday night. If we hadn’t started with the Doctor and Sarah and the crazy sci-fi stuff, we might not have recognized this as Doctor Who and switched channels for real. (Although since BBC2 was showing cricket and ITV was showing an hour long Guys n’Dolls special, probably not.) The Doctor hasn’t been anywhere near an historical story in six seasons.

Five minutes after our heroes arrive in the Olden Days, Sarah is kidnapped by sinister Men in Cowls. They seem to have wandered in from a Dennis Wheatley adaptation, or more specifically, from the Daemons. They are going to sacrifice Sarah to someone called Demnos because she is a lady, and pretty, and because she is a heroine, and they are the baddies.

To have two plots may be regarded as dramatic: to have three seems like overkill. Some of the blurry red Plot Energy from the science fiction story hitched a lift on the TARDIS, and it is now going to use the Men in Cowls to do Very Bad Things to the inhabitants of the costume drama.

But instead of letting him help, Hieronymus sends the Doctor to the headmaster’s office for a jolly good beheading.

Episode 2

“With one leap, our hero was free...”

We all knew that the Doctor wasn’t really going to have his head chopped off. He was only sentenced to death because we were coming to the end of an episode, and the Doctor has to be in terrible danger before the credits are allowed to roll. And because kids enjoy nothing better than some light capital punishment with their marmite crumpets.

The Doctor knows it too. He politely says “excuse me” to the man with the axe, lassos him with the end of his scarf, jumps on a horse and over a bridge and rides away. He jumps into the tunnel which leads to the underground temple where Sarah is having an interesting meeting with an evil monk and a pointy sword. She lies on the alter in her night dress while a man in a mask he presumably borrowed from the National Theatre’s Orestia holds a dagger above her chest...and somehow the Doctor tiptoes in and pulls her out of the way before anyone notices.

The Doctor is the Doctor. The rules don’t apply to him. The danger is the point. How he escaped from the danger, not so much.

Demnos bathes the chief of the Men in Cowls in a golden  god light and says he is going to give him  POWERS UNDREAMED OF in order to make him SUPREME RULER OF THE EARTH. And when he takes his mask of he turns out to be...

...Hieronymus the Evil Astronomer!!!

Pretty good plot devising, I call that. Giuliano (the nice prince) is a big fan of science. Hieronymus believes that Demnos is magic; but the Doctor can see it is really just the swirly red helix vortex. But when the Doctor talks about balls of alien fire, the olden days people naturally assume that he is talking about magic. Federico (the evil duke) doesn’t believe in astrology any more than Giuliano does, but is happy to use Hieronymus to further his own political ambitions.

We critics love to stalk sub-texts. But the story is not really very much concerned with philosophical questions about magic and science and superstition and the Enlightenment. It is much more interested in the conflict between good guys and bad guys and how many times our heroes can get captured and escape in one twenty five minute segment.

There are some Very Good Moments. The Doctor and Sarah are sitting in the tunnels explaining the plot to each other. (“Sub-thermal recombination of ionised plasma”. “Oh, simple. I should have thought of that.”) Two men with pikes creep up behind them. But it turns out that they are being rescued, not captured, and the pikeman deliver them to Giuliano and Marcos. Giuliano identifies the Doctor as a fellow scientist (“oh, I dabble”) and explains to Sarah his wacky theory that the earth is a sphere. Federico and Hieronymus leave no piece of scenery unchewed.

When we first met the Fourth Doctor, he was the Shakespearian One, the one who made speeches about how Homo Sapiens are indomitable and how he doesn't want to commit genocide if he can possibly help it. But he has become the Grim, Arrogant, mostly Dislikable One. He asks Hieronymus if the moon is made of cheese; he pretends to Giuliano that he is going to move on without helping him. He talks technobabble and refuses to explain things: only Sarah can sometimes prick his pomposity. Serious, grim and knowledgeable: he is not afraid of the Helix (in the way that he was arguably afraid of Sutekh) nor does he respect it (in the way that he probably respected Davros). But he treats it as a serious threat. He is not playing games. Hiding from Federico’s men in the market place, he bites into an orange and grins: the pre-Whovian face of Baker lights up the room. He is a benevolent alien: very benevolent, and very, very alien. Any eccentricity come from the mis-match between his personality and his appearance.

Remember the quote—attributed to Mae West—about the prisoner who is asked by the judge if she is trying to show her contempt for the court? “On the contrary, your honour” she replies “I am doing my very best to conceal it.” That’s the Doctor’s attitude to the whole universe. I am afraid that a lot of naughty boys in nasty schools thought that this was a cool way of dealing with authority, with people who are not as clever as you, and indeed with your friends and your family. Probably, Doctor Who was a not unhealthy fantasy safety valve for us: one day we too would deliver the perfect put-down to that P.E teacher who threatened to chop our head off if we forgot our kit. But it also made many of us bigger outsiders than we needed to be. The stereotype of the Doctor Who nerd is tiresome. But was Doctor Who popular with social pariahs because it validated their nerdish behaviour? Or were they pariahs because they kept on trying to be as arrogant as their hero?

Sarcasm. Yeah. That’s a really high form of wit.

The Doctor goes back into the tunnels to work out what Hieronymus and the Red Energy can possibly be up to. Sarah Jane gets captured again and led off to be a human sacrifice. We end the episode on the same cliff we were hanging off at the beginning.

Episode 3


Last year we ran through all the cliches that could possibly arise from alien invaders in Scotland: bagpipes, oil-rigs, haggis, lake-monsters. This time, we go through everything that could possibly happen in olden days Italy. Torture, sword fights, beheadings, sorcery, catacombs, astrology, science... 

Why is Marco being tortured and what does it matter to the plot? I am not entirely sure. But I am sure that Marco is noble and blonde and brave and that Federico is filthy and disgusting and sadistic and above all foreign and you totally need a scene in a dungeon in this kind of adventure.


Hieronymus hypnotises Sarah and sends her to murder the Doctor. The Doctor realizes that Sarah has been hypnotized because she starts to question the basic premises of the programme. How, she wonders, can she understand what Giuliano is saying, given that she doesn’t speak Italian? “Because them’s the rules of the show” explains the Doctor “If my companions couldn’t communicate with cave men and Daleks and Romans and Aztecs it would all become very boring very quickly.” (Well: what he actually says is “I’ll explain later” and “It’s a Time Lord gift, I share it with you”, which comes to much the same thing.) But he knows that the real Sarah would never have asked such a sensible question.

Very boringly indeed, the “Time Lord Gift” became an actual plot-point, as opposed to a plot device, in the rebooted series.

Scarf Ace

The Doctor wears his scarf at all times. He no longer bothers to tie it round his neck: it just hangs there, like a sash. (Sashes will shortly become very important.) Do you have any idea how hot he must have been in Italy? (The episode was actually filmed in Portmerion. Everything is filmed in Portmerion.)


Giuliano takes on Federico’s men. He parries four swords at once and pushes them away.

“You craven gutted curs” says Federico to his goons “He is but one man”. And then Doctor Tom appears, sword in hand, and says “You can’t count, Count.” (There is a nice little fanfare in the incidental music, just to underline the point.) It is the kind of thing that might have been said in any Wurwitanian Womance.

We are sometimes told that in Old Who, the Doctor was a man of science, not a man of action: that David Tennant, in particular, turned him into a British Indiana Jones. And yet, here he is, buckling every swash in Errol Flynn's Book. He holds a sword to a bad-guy’s throat and pushes him away. Several times he jumps in the air as a bad guy goes for his legs. He grins right through the fight, and at one point licks his lips with enjoyment. Spoilsport grown ups may notice that the Doctor’s hair gets longer in fight scenes (at any rate, when filmed from behind). The same thing happens when he jumps on a horse. But the director manages to disguise this pretty successfully: back shots of stunt men are inter-cut very swiftly with close ups of the Doctor’s face.


Don’t you think that, by the standards of 1970s children’s TV, there are a rather a lot of lavatorial references in this episode? Which is fine: kids like toilet jokes almost as much as they like executions. The Captain Of The Guard tells Federico that there are places in the Catacombs where the bat droppings are twice the height of a man: Federico calls the Captain of the Guard a shit-head. (Well, dung-head.) He also calls his nephew a sewer rat and says that Hieronymus can no more read the stars than he can read “my chamberpot”. If you discard one very prominent and unfortunately unremovable bit of signage in the Faceless Ones, I think this is the first suggestion that anyone in the Doctor Who universe ever needs to go.


We have had a beheading and a human sacrifice, so of course we have to have a nice bit of torture. It is the most conventional, archetypal torture scene you ever saw. Federico wants Marco to say that Giuliano is part of the Cult of Demnos. Which he isn’t, obviously. Marco whispers “Never!” Evil Duke says that the torturer can be over-zealous and that “not everyone survives his attentions”. Marco snarls “You devils!” Federico appeals to his intelligence and leans in close for his answer. Marco spits in his face. One half-expects him to say “No, no, not the comfy chair” while Federico blows up the planet Alderaan.

Episode 4

The Doctor works out what the audience has already guessed: the Mandragora Helix hijacked the TARDIS to bring it to this specific point in history because there was already an appropriately Helix worshiping body available for it to snatch.

The Doctor makes a temporary pact with Federico and gate-crashes the Demnos worshipers revival meeting in the catacombs.

Federico rips the mask off the leader of the cult and reveals...nothing underneath. Whereupon the cult leader unceremoniously disintegrates Federico. It recalls the iconic ending of Pyramids of Mars Episode 1. Federico is great fun as a pantomime villain, but he has to be eliminated before the big finish.

The final episode is Quintessentially Splendid. Once Federico is dead everyone agrees to accept that Giuliano is boss and not chop Sarah and Marcus’s heads off after all. Giuliano holds a big party—indeed, a Masque—to which Leonardo and all the other Turtles are invited. If the Helix kills everyone at the party, the Renaissance will not happen in Italy. (Or if it does, it will have no importance.) This will in turn prevent the human race establishing a galactic empire in the far future. There is a brief hand-wave about how if Mandragora conquers the earth it will kind of make astrology true because it will take away human free will.

The Doctor spends some time cobbling together a Plot Device: a suit of armour with wire in it which will enable him to drain the Mandragora Energy from Hieronymus when he tries to zap him. In New Who, he would presumably have discovered some Anti-Mandragora spray in his pocket; or made all the people hold hands and think beautiful lovely thoughts. I grant that defeating an ancient cosmic evil with some cleverly wired fifteenth century armour is not a lot more logical; but it is a good deal more narratively satisfying. It says “The Doctor beat Mandragora because he is clever and brave and ingenious” not “The Doctor beat Mandragora because he’s the Doctor”

There is a sense of gathering doom. The Doctor admits to Sarah that everything is going very badly: but he continues to joke about it. The masque itself looks sumptuous, but it is Tom and Liz who carry the day. Sarah does not get quite as far as breaking the fourth wall: but she is so aware of the Doctor’s quirks and mannerisms that she effectively lampshades the excesses of Tom Baker’s performance. She tells the Doctor off for being flippant. She tells him off for being obscure. The Doctor admits that if he has guessed wrongly, he will be killed, but asks “When have my guesses ever been wrong?” leaving Sarah to say “Lots of times...” to the audience. You couldn’t imagine Sarah undercutting the Third Doctor in quite that way: come to that you couldn’t imagine Elisabeth Sladen taking the wind out Jon Pertwee’s grand old sails. Sarah wasn’t the first companion to answer the Doctor back. Jamie and to an extent Steven could see right through him. That kind of thing can easily degenerate into series undermining camp. But Sarah challenges the Doctor, not because she wants to undermine him, but because she cares about him. She is the perfect dramatic foil. Oh, where will we find another?

The Doctor confronts Hieronymus and is suitably flippant and sarcastic to him. He claims that it is part of “a Time Lord’s job” to insist on justice for all species, which is a far cry from “I renounced the society of Time Lords” and indeed from “We pride ourselves that we seldom interfere with the affairs of others”.

The plan works. Everyone thinks it has failed, and a lot of minor guests at the Masque gets zapped; but in a way I can’t quite follow the Doctor has swapped places with Hieronymus. So when the Mandragora energy is ready to flood the earth (which has to be during an eclipse, obviously) it floods the Doctor instead and is reflected back on itself. Because it isn’t bright enough to know that the man in the mask isn’t Hieronymus, because the Doctor is doing a jolly good impersonation of his voice.

The Doctor grandstands. Having saved the universe, with a silly grin on his face, he demands a round of applause and a salami sandwich. He does, in fact, leave with large sausage under his arm, a farewell gift from Giuliano. (Salami making, like the cult of Demnos, can be traced back to ancient Rome. I looked it up.)

Not a jelly baby. A salami sandwich. This is not an ad lib; this is not a serious line said in a silly voice (or even a silly line said in a serious voice.) It’s just a very silly line which must have been in the script.

The Shakespearean Doctor has gone. The Arrogant Doctor is going. Soon, the Silly Doctor will have taken over.


Andrew Stevens said...

We just finished this (well, actually, we're on Face of Evil now) in my from the beginning watch of Doctor Who with my daughter. (Obviously we skipped the non-existing stories though we did watch all of the orphaned episodes and I filled her in on stuff that happened in the missing episodes.)

Andrew Stevens said...

I am guessing Tom Baker will supplant Jon Pertwee as my daughter's favorite Doctor by the end. (Right now, her opinion is that they are both awesome.)