Friday, March 12, 2021

Doctor Who 14.4 (1977)

New Years Day. 

In the next twelve months we will sit on trestle tables and eat jam and cream and jelly and feel an uncomplicated love for the Queen. Or else we will learn that she represents a fascist regime and that there is no future in England’s dreaming. It amounts to the same thing. 

We may see a film called Star Wars: more likely we will hear about a film called Star Wars. 

But here we are at the turning of the year. The first day of 1977: the first episode of the fifteenth season of Doctor Who. 

Or, at any rate, the fourteenth and a half. 

The final part of Deadly Assassin was five weeks ago; and it felt very much like a season finale. The grinning, companion-less Doctor who steps out of the TARDIS tonight doesn’t reference the momentous events he has just lived through. Quite a lot of time has obviously passed. The BBC put a NEW SERIES highlight over the listing in the Radio Times. 

It feels like a reboot. But then, every Doctor Who story feels like a reboot. 

We are on an alien planet. We come in in the middle of a tribal council: a young woman is being banished from her tribe for heresy. The planet looks like a stage set rather than a quarry: the savages speak in the High Style. (“There can be but one punishment...”). A Priest has been told by his god that the tribe must attack something called The Barrier; the young woman has spoken against it. She even doubts the existence of the tribal deity. 

The acting has a distinct flavour of cured pork; but the cast are doing their best, and Louise Jameson, Leela, the heretic, is trying as hard as if she had been cast in a major supporting role at Stratford. 

And into this materializes the Doctor. He gives his scarf a little jiggle, straightens his hat, looks straight to camera, and says “I think this is not Hyde Park”. The Doctor was on his way somewhere. (The Doctor is always on his way somewhere.) Why Hyde Park? We don’t find out. It doesn’t matter. Two stories ago he missed South Croydon, twice. 

The Doctor is alone. We, at home, behind our sofas, briefly find ourselves in the role of the companion. The great discovery of Play School and Blue Peter was that children’s TV presenters should talk to the camera as if it was a child. Thus Brian Cant and John Noakes became aunties and uncles and big brothers to every kid in the country. Peter Purves had done a tour of duty in the TARDIS before he earned his Blue Peter badge. The Doctor is acting as if he is the presenter of a particularly strange children’s TV show. Which in a way he is. 

He ties a knot in his hanky to remind him to fix the “nexial discontinuity”, and walks off whistling Colonel Bogey. After Deadly Assassin, fans would certainly agree that Doctor Who’s continuity needs fixing. This story is going to be very much about remembering things you have forgotten. 

The classic Tom Baker mannerisms are finally arriving. He starts to pull comedic props out of his pockets, like Harpo Marx: a giant alarm clock (which he claims is an egg-timer); an already knotted handkerchief; and, of course, a big bag of jelly babies. The jelly baby has been promoted to a Fourth Doctor trademark, like the scarf and the sonic screwdriver. Leela thinks he literally eats babies: the Doctor threatens to use one as a weapon. But they are not yet quite ubiquitous: at the end of the story he is eating chocolates instead. He is avuncular—even patronizing—towards Leela; and he periodically comes out with wise aphorisms. (“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common....”) He is less sarcastic than he was in Italy and the story is full of quotable Doctorisms. (“Killing me won’t help you. It won’t do me much good, either.”) But the Shakespearean gravitas of Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks is all gone. 

It looks like Doctor Who, which is to say, this is what Doctor Who will look like from now on. Location filming costs money; cine-film and video tape have different textures; colour seperation overlay—blue screen—is still in its infancy. Doctor Who is slowly ceasing to be about the Perils of Pauline (the Liabilities of Leela?) and becoming about a traveler and the universe he travels in. But it is also becoming more and more about corridors, sliding doors, corridors, forests, corridors, quarries, scientific gobbledegook and corridors. Face of Evil is the kind of thing which people parody when they parody Doctor Who. 

In one way, Face of Evil is not a Doctor Who story at all. No planet is invaded, and no base is besieged. There are not even any monsters. But then we’ve more or less given up on monsters. We’ve had alien energy, and an alien war criminal, and a deformed Time Lord, and the season will play out with rebellious robots and another war criminal. Invading armies of men in rubber suits are notable by their absence. Next year, Chris Boucher will be script-editing something called Blake’s Seven. 

The Doctor used to be the restorer of the status quo. Stories were set on Earth, our Earth, and the Monsters threatened to disrupt or destroy it. The Doctor did away with the Monsters, returned things to how they were before, and moved on. 

But the Doctor is increasingly a chaotic or apocalyptic figure. He enters an ongoing process and brings it to a conclusion. How long have the Tesh and the Sevateem been deadlocked? How long has the Shaman been propagating his cargo cult? Generations, certainly: since Leela was a child. How long after the Doctor arrives does their way of life come to an end? Hours. 

This is what Doctor Who will be from now on: the crazy chaotic child man blundering around the set of whatever science fiction tale the writers can come up with this week. It will be five years before anyone makes a serious attempt to invade the earth. 

But if this is a science fiction story rather than a Doctor Who story, it is still very much a science fiction story with the Doctor at the center of it. Perhaps more central than he ever was before. Terror of the Zygons said: “Some shape shifting orange sea horses are breeding giant underwater cows in Loch Ness: the Doctor tries to stop them”. Face of Evil says “The Doctor visited a planet a long time ago, and changed the course of their history: now he is going to try to change it back.” The show is interested in the idea of the Doctor: what it would be like to be him; and what it would be like to exist in a universe with him in it. 

The Doctor’s face is carved into a mountain; and giant force ghost projections of his face menace Leela’s people. It’s much easier to do this kind of thing when the Doctor is Tom Baker than it would have been when he was Jon Pertwee or even Peter Davison. Spock or Avon might conceivably have reprogrammed a computer in their own image, but the resulting story would have a quite different atmosphere. 

It is five weeks since the Doctor left Gallifrey. In that time he has wandered the universe, by himself. (Yes, there are other theories about what he was doing in those weeks, and other theories about when he first came to this planet: but we are talking about Doctor Who as we experienced it in 1977.) During that time he found a human space ship in the process of colonizing an uninhabited planet. Its computer—the most advanced computer ever made—had become sentient, and was malfunctioning. The Doctor used his own brain to reboot it; but in the process, copied his mind onto the computer. So the most powerful computer ever made has two distinct personalities: its own and the Doctor’s, endlessly competing with each other. 

The schizophrenic computer creates a schizophrenic planet. The colonists are split into two factions: the technicians, became the Tesh; a telepathic, priestly caste who dress like slightly racist toy soldiers and service the computer as if it were a god. The survey-team became the Sevateem, savage warriors who worship high tech machinery without understanding it. They also believe that the computer is a god; but they believe their God is held prisoner by a folk demon they call the Evil One. The face of the Evil One, is carved, Mount Rushmore style, into the side of a mountain: crawling through its mouth is the only way of getting between the two realms. The Face of Evil is the face of Tom Baker. 

This is pretty good world building; a pretty good piece of science fiction; full—if anything too full—of intriguing ideas. I like the idea of the colonists split into two different cargo cults neither of which understand the technology around them rather better than I like the idea that the two races have been deliberately split up as part of a eugenic experiment by the schizoid computer. I like the idea that Sevateem and Tesh represent body and soul; or id and ego; or even the Doctor’s own cleverness and the Doctor’s own arrogance—but these ideas are hinted at more than they are developed. The story resonates with mythological and religious themes, but it doesn’t address them head on: a captive, imprisoned God; a physically located Eden; a disillusioned Priest who wants to assassinate his deity. We are told that Boucher wanted to call the story The Day God Went Mad, but the BBC decided that was a bit strong for a Saturday night. 

Captain Kirk encountered computers who thought they were God on a weekly basis. Next year Douglas Adams will parody the trope to death. Doctor Who has engaged with religion relatively often: usually in the form of a quaint native superstition or a set of blood curdling sacrificial rites; but occasionally as a source of spiritual and civilized values. (The Aztecs wanted to rip people’s hearts out; but the only nice person at the court of Nero wore, anachronistically, the sign of the Cross.) What is slightly shocking is that the Face of Evil is openly talking about God rather than a god: asking us to entertain the possibility that the God of Songs of Praise and the Daily Service might be a superstition and a cargo cult. Leela’s people may wear loincloths; but their language is the language of the Book of Common Prayer. Anyone who has ever been to Sunday School will recognize Neeva’s “Master, speak, thy servant heareth”. (What from Levi’s sense was sealed the Lord to Hannah’s son revealed.) Everyone murmurs their responses to the liturgy exactly as if they were at morning service in a Church of England parish church. “Let the tribe of the Sevateem partake of your strength, Xoanon, that they may inherit your kingdom.” 

Star Trek tended to use god-like computers as metaphors for communism. Doctor Who seems actively interested in faith and theology. Leela is regarded as a heretic (and even a witch) for doubting that Xoanon exists. The Doctor seems to be hostile to religion—or at any rate, hostile to the religious. He describes the myth of Paradise as “religious gobbledegook”. When Jabel says that God is everywhere, he takes this as an admission that God is nowhere. But he is equally scathing about sophisticated liberal faith: when Leela says that there would be no point in talking to God if you didn’t think he could talk back, he remarks that some theologians would not agree with her. He tells Leela that she should never be certain of anything; but then praises her for being certain that God doesn’t use a transducer. Clearly he meant "never be certain of anything, present company excluded". 

But the story isn’t a metaphor for atheism. The problem isn’t that the Sevateem worship God, or even that they worship a false God. The problem is that God has literally gone mad. Once the Doctor has cured Xeonon of his schizophrenia he offers the Tesh a red pill (a big red button) that would or might destroy their God. And they choose not to press it. Captain Kirk would not have given them the choice. 

The story begins with Leela being cast out of the tribe: it ends with her being offered the role of tribal leader. The final moments—in which she follows the Doctor and goes into the TARDIS without his permission—feel a little like tagged on. Leela the leader would have been a better ending. 

The Doctor is companion-less at the beginning of the story: Leela steps into the companion role as soon as they meet. Was there really a script in which she is left behind? Did we, for a second, contemplate a new model of Doctor Who—one in which the Doctor arrives alone, befriends Leela, but moves on alone at the end of the story? 

Sarah-Jane Smith was not entirely unlike Jo Grant; and Jo Grant was not completely unlike Liz Shaw. They were all recognisably Doctor Who companions, more or less contemporaries of the audience. They could be expected to understand what we understand and question what we question. Zoe came from the Future and Jamie came from Scotland, but their otherness was relatively rarely made into a narrative selling point. But Leela is an alien and a savage. She doesn’t know anything about yo-yos or tea, and she is prone to kill people with poisoned thorns. She is going to hang around for nine stories; only three of which will be set on Earth, and only one of them in the present day. 

Doctor Who has slipped its moorings. It is not that long, historically, since it was about two secondary modern teachers, lost in time and space. Now it's about an alien in a scarf and an alien in a loin cloth and before long there will be a cute comedy robot. Tom Baker’s face has impressed itself onto the series; we are cut adrift in a world of purest fantasy.


Richard Worth said...

Was this the last generation who would understand riffing on the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer? Discuss, with parables

Nick M said...

‘ It is five weeks since the Doctor left Gallifrey. In that time he has wandered the universe, by himself. (Yes, there are other theories about what he was doing in those weeks, and other theories about when he first came to this planet: but we are talking about Doctor Who as we experienced it in 1977.) During that time he found a human space ship in the process of colonizing an uninhabited planet. Its computer—the most advanced computer ever made—had become sentient, and was malfunctioning. The Doctor used his own brain to reboot it; but in the process, copied his mind onto the computer. So the most powerful computer ever made has two distinct personalities: its own and the Doctor’s, endlessly competing with each other. ’

I always thought he was supposed to have ‘fixed’ the computer during Robot when he was still suffering from regeneration craziness.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Terrence Dicks put that in this novelisation of Face of Evil -- which makes perfect sense. But that isn't in the TV script, and I think that if you watched it at the time, you would take it that the Doctor has been doing a lot of travelling by himself between Deadly Assassin and Face of Evil.

Brian B. said...

When I introduced my kids to Doctor Who — seven years ago now — “the Face of Evil” is where we started. I decided that although there’s a dozen or more earlier episodes I love dearly, this, the Doctor/ Leela era, is where it truly became my show. I like how you’re able to do a decent job articulating why, even though your value judgment about eras is nearer to the opposite of mine.

voxpoptart said...

Historical note: Tom Baker absolutely did want to be companion-free, and was brutal to Louise Jameson at the time as a way of getting back at the BBC for not letting him.

I love Jameson’s acting, and disagree that Leela as tribal leader would have been a better ending. She’s written as an independent-minded gadfly, not as someone who wants to be a boss and to have to pull all those extra hours being in charge. I’m the same way, except less stabbily.