Thursday, October 28, 2021
In October 1977, Jack Kirby's Eternals came to an ignominious non-conclusion. It had been a gosh-wow treatment of the theory that human mythology and superstition is based on race-memories of alien visitations.
Also in October 1977, the first episode of Image of the Fendahl premiered on BBC 1. It was a spooky, gothic treatment of the theory that human mythology and superstitions are based on race-memories of ancient alien visitations.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe even the universe can't bare to be without a decent set of space-gods.
"How do we follow that?" asked producer Graham Williams. "We are only on our third story, and we have already had a Giant Alien Brussel sprout and a Giant Alien Prawn. What could possibly be more scary than that?"
"I know," replied writer Chris Boucher "What about a Giant Alien Penis?"
(This didn't really happen, as you very well know.)
Image of the Fendahl is not so much a story as a headlong rush through a sequence of Doctor Who tropes. Things happen, not because it makes any kind of sense for them to happen, but because they are the kinds of thing which happen in this kind of Doctor Who story. The components are all in place: a lab full of oscilloscopes; a pretty lady chained to a pentangle; a glowing skull; a Giant Muppet Phallus Monster (and lots of baby phalluses); a foggy, foggy, wood; and an old lady who don't be holdin' with this kind of thing.
In the cracks between the tropes is a lot of exposition about Time Lord legends, rifts in the fabric of time, evolutionary blind alleys and gestalt entities which feed on life itself. It turns out that the human race has an extraterrestrial origin. (And then it turns out that it doesn't.) The ancient aliens' visit explains why the pentangle is a universal symbol of power and why we throw salt over our shoulders for good luck. Almost definitely.
It is based around a strong set of characters, several of whom are not cliches. It is overacted and melodramatic: but it's 1977. Everything is over-acted and melodramatic. The confrontation between scientist Colby and scientist Thea in Episode Two would probably have gone down a storm on Play For Today. Director George Spenton-Foster has a nice line in intercutting short scenes to keep up the pace and does his level best to use close-ups and shadows and reaction shots to make the Giant Space Penis look less risible than it would otherwise have done. The production is cast and dark red autumnal colours; we are in the visual world of Talons of Weng Chiang and Pyramids of Mars. It feels like a piece of grown-up TV, where Invisible Enemy felt like a comic strip (and not in a good way).
But it is all surface. There is much chat about race memories and the extraterrestrial origins of the occult; and about how a Time Lord put the Fifth Planet into a Time Loop (which 'twas against the rules) but it all seems to be made up on the spot. Boucher knows that he wants hubristic scientists fooling around with an alien artefact; and he knows that he wants a Dennis Wheatley human sacrifice scenario in the cellar; but he seems to flail around wildly trying to find a route from one to the other. When Leela asks, not unreasonably, how the Giant Space Penis got from the Fifth Planet to Earth without a space ship, the Doctor replies that it used its stockpile of energy to project itself; and that human belief in astral projection is a race-memory of this method of travel. Leela says "you mean the way lightening travels".
But when the creature has menaced everyone in the corridor in part four, the Doctor says "it can only have been created out of pure energy while the skull was restructuring Thea's brain." Travelling like the lightening? Astral projection? Or created out of pure energy by an alien skull? Which is it? No-one knows.
It is never a good sign when companions begin sentences with "You mean....?" (Colby has a nice line in sentences beginning "Are you telling me...?")
Perhaps Graham Williams had come to the conclusion that most people only watched Doctor Who with half an eye. On any given Saturday, some people would have been coming home late from the football or the shops or the Sunday School concert. It can hardly be said too often that there were no re-runs, no streaming services and no Betamax videos. At any given moment, most of the audience could be assumed to be saying "I don't understand that; but it was probably explained in the episode I missed." And if they are resigned to doing that anyway -- if being confused is part of the fun -- then why not allow even the kids who managed to get home by 6 o'clock four weeks running go away agreeably bewildered?
There are four scientists. A Sarcastic One, a Grumpy One, a Foreign One, and a Girl One. A hiker is hiking through the foggy, foggy woods, whistling to keep his spirits up. The Sardonic One says that the skull can't possibly be as old as the Girl One thinks it is. The Grumpy One goes to a secret lab, and the Foreign One says "now ve can begin". They switch on their oscilloscope. There is a rising high-pitched sound effect; the skull starts to glow. It is superimposed over the face of the Girl One. The hiker in the woods is scared. He is attacked by something invisible.
And then we cut to the TARDIS where the Doctor and Leela are talking gobbledegook about continuums, displacements and implosions.
A week ago, to the delight of small boys and the dismay of serious Who fans, the Doctor acquired a robot companion, K-9. One week later, K-9 is in pieces on the TARDIS floor. Fan-fiction writers bless the production team for this: it means that at least one, and probably lots of adventures must have taken place between Invisible Enemy and Image of the Fendahl. (Has there been a Big Finish about How K-9 Got Corroded?) After all the build up, we won't get to see K-9 as a part of the regular cast for another month. One assumes that the radio controlled hound didn't function on location shoots with uneven floors. Or perhaps Chris Boucher simply felt disinclined to add another companion to his script at short notice.
There is a little bit of banter about pronouns. The Doctor refers to K-9 as "it" and Leela refers to them as "he" (although he calls the TARDIS "she"). This gets a pay-off four weeks later, when the Doctor announces that he is going to call K-9 "he" after all ("he's my dog").
There is an essentially similar scene at the beginning of Robots of Death, when Leela thinks the Doctor's yo-yo is integral to the working of the TARDIS. But that scene was played straight: when Tom Baker explains why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, he seems to believe it, which allows Leela to believe it; which in turn allows us to carry on believing in it. This week's TARDIS scene is played -- if not exactly for laughs -- then at any rate, facetiously.
-- What did you say, Leela
-- Leela said...
-- I know what you said
-- Then why ask me?
There are as yet undiscovered tribes in New Guinea that knew that as soon as the Doctor says that he is in "complete and constant control" of the TARDIS, the ship would lurch off course, throwing everyone to the floor. It's an example of that joke format which TV Tropes calls the Gilligan Cut. It crops up again in Episode 2, Leela says that the Doctor is very gentle, and we cut to him kicking boxes around out of frustration. Once the TARDIS is back on course the Doctor says "she" is wonderful and Tom Baker (presumably) ad libs a little football chant ("TAR-DIS! Won-der-ful!")
The message of Robots of Death was that the TARDIS is a wondrous alien machine that Tom and Louise want us to believe in. The message of Image of the Fendahl is that it's a silly plot device that can safely have the mickey taken out of it.
But the terminal diagnosis comes as they leave the TARDIS.
-- Come on then.
-- No. The one who leads says come on. Come on.
"Come on" and "Let's go" were both certainly cliches of the period. (I recall some spoof writer's guidelines for Blakes 7 in a fanzine saying that if Avon said "Let's go" then Tarrant couldn't.) But as soon as the characters start to become aware of the cliches, the writing is on the wall for your TV show.
Leela says that it is obvious that the Doctor cannot control the TARDIS. This is rather odd. The series is now predicated on the idea that the Doctor can control the TARDIS and has to be given reasons to go where he is going. (The whole of next season will be predicated on one particularly convoluted reason.) Last week he was called to Titan base to answer a Mayday; next week he'll be forced to land on Pluto because the TARDIS is broken. This week, the Doctor chooses to go to Earth because The Foreign One's oscilloscope is really a Time Scanner, and (as everyone knows) if you fool around with a Time Scanner you risk ripping a hole in time. Which would be a Bad Thing. The Foreign One is brilliant at electronics; he used to make missile guidance systems; and he is one of the richest men in the world; but quite how he managed to invent something so dangerous is not covered. It doesn't matter: the Time Scanner has no actual bearing on the story. In Episode 4 the Doctor switches it off and says "Whew! We've saved the planet", and everyone who is not taking notes says "You what?"
The skull is a Mysterious Anachronism, exactly like Eldrad's hand in the Hand of Fear. It's a human skull, but it is millions of years older than any human skull has a right to be. It was dug up in Kenya. (The Sarcastic One's dog is called Leakey because it digs up bones, and not for any childish scatological reasons). Obviously, an African skull is bound up with pentangles, witches covens, and traditions about salt, rather than, say, ancestor worship or Kikuyu.
In Episode Two, the Foreign One says that the Skull is extraterrestrial, and that this proves that man did not evolve on earth ("of zat I am sure"). The Time Scanner has revealed (somehow) that when the Skull's owner died, it absorbed a huge amount of energy. When something as sophisticated as a Time Scanner -- or maybe just an X-Ray machine -- is turned on it, it releases all this energy, telling the other members of its race that intelligent life has developed on earth. This is a perfectly fine sci-fi trope: it's very much the function of the Black Slab in 2001: A Space Odyssey (which also mucked around with human evolution.) But in the actual story, the Skull seems to operate by possessing people, killing them, and turning them into Giant Rude Looking Caterpillars. We don't see it acting as a beacon or summonsing device. Why the Fendahl need humans to be capable of developing time scanners and radiography before having them for lunch is not explored.
But there is more to come. The Skull is connected, in some way, with creatures from Time Lord mythology -- who were destroyed when the Fifth Planet blew up. The Doctor knows this because after she has been possessed by the skull, Thea, the Girl Scientist faints and tiny little phallic Fendahl appear on her body. Why do they appear? And, indeed, where do they go? Is the thought that the Skull, as well as sending out a signal, has used the nearest human as some kind of bridgehead or teleportation terminus? A cynic might say that the only reason for the Baby Monsters to appear is because Boucher can't think of a better way of appraising the Doctor of the identity of this week's bad guy.
We aren't told what Time Lord myths are attached to the Very Genocidal Caterpillar. We aren't told if the planet which blew up is the fifth one in our solar system, or in Galifrey's or if it is connected with the number five for some other reason. (Planet of the Pentangles, possibly?) The idea that the Fendhal is a legend rapidly falls away; it becomes simply a Bad Alien that the Time Lords fudged their non-intervention policy to get rid of. And anywhere, their relationship with the Time Lords has no bearing on the story. It's just a spurious way of making the story pointlessly hyperbolical. Not only are the Fendahl evil aliens who are going to consume all life on earth; but they are the kind of evil life-consuming aliens that Time Lords tell each other scary stories about!
But there is more to come. Fendalman, the Foreign One, is clearly coded as the villain in Episode One; but in Episode Two it turns out that the main human baddy is actually the Grumpy One, the improbably named Maximillion Stael. It isn't enough to say that the Skull might be the source of some human legends. There has to be some actual Hammer Horror black magic going on. Superstitious villagers regards Stael as Leader of the Coven; and in case we were in any doubt, he has to deliver lines like "I shall be a god!" and "It is too late for all the meddling fools!"
In Episode One, an elderly lady who runs errands for the scientists has a run-in with the security thugs who Fendalman has called down from London. After she thumps him with her hand-bag Colby (the Sarcastic One) remarks sarcastically that he can see why people used to burn witches. In Episode Two it turns out that Mrs Tyler really is a witch. (She do be following the old ways, me 'andsome, on account of 'ow folks round here were raised in the old religion, so they were etc. etc. etc.) It could be that Colby's reference to witches is a cack-handed piece of foreshadowing; but it is very tempting to think that the joke came first and the plot twist came afterwards.
I imagine that in the 1970s, some people really did meet up in secret places to perform what they imagined were ancient ceremonies. They could have been rich, Hell-Fire Club, Crowley-influenced decadents; well meaning new-age flower children; or even sincerely spiritual neo-pagans. But Boucher thinks that once you travel west of Basingstoke all the locals speak with thick accents and talk about The Old Ways. Not only is this patronising, but it's a literary cliche. The four scientists are, by Doctor Who standards, fairly naturalistically drawn. The Mummer set yokels are straight out of Cold Comfort Farm. Jack Tyler, (the wise-woman's grown-up grandson) gives the impression that he's going to break into a rousing chorus of Brand New Combine Harvester at any moment.
A comparison with Jon Pertwee's the Daemons is rather salutary. The Daemons is almost entirely an occult story, in which burial mounds are opened and existentialist vicars say "so mot it be" in crypts. The cloven hoofed alien is defeated because of Jo's self-sacrificial love for the Doctor -- very much how you would expect someone to defeat Satan in a horror story. The sciencey explanation -- that Daemons are not supernatural figures, but aliens from the planet Daemos -- is a secondary gloss. It gives us permission to enjoy what is essentially a fantasy story in the context of Doctor Who. And Miss Hawthorn is a middle-aged, posh, tea-drinking, church of England white witch and not at all a Granny Weatherwax cliche. This was before Terry Pratchett.
Half way through Episode Three, we get another scene on board the TARDIS. We do not see Leela and the Doctor go to the TARDIS, we do not see the TARDIS take off, we don't even see the Doctor saying "Let's go to the TARDIS". We just discover them in space. The Doctor has taken the Ship ten million years back in time and millions of miles through space to visit the Fifth Planet where the Fendahl originally came from. (Which rather gives the lie to Leela's claim that he can't control it). There is a jumble of pseudo science, and they go back to earth. We don't see the TARDIS materialise and we don't see them get out of it.
There is nothing wrong with pseudo science. Doctor Who has always been driven by it. But you generally expect it to have some connection to the plot. "The Doctor uses [gobbledegook] to discover that the alien is really trying to [gobbledegook] and can be stopped by [gobbledegook]". But this scene leaves us with no better idea of what the Fendahl is up to than we had before. We are told that the Fifth Planet has been hidden in a Time Loop (and not destroyed at all) which ought to be a set up for a Big Reveal that the Master or Rassilon or the Meddling Monkey is behind the whole thing. Needless to say, no such revelation occurs.
Maybe Boucher is lamp-shading the fact that his script makes no sense. What is the Fendahl? I don't know and you don't know and the Doctor doesn't know because the Time Lords have put a No One Is Allowed To Know sign around their planet. Or maybe he had spotted that the story was really about Mad Scientist Fendalman, Mad Occultist Stahl and Eccentric Witch Tyler, and needed an excuse to absent the Doctor from the main action? Or perhaps the script was simply too short and the TARDIS scenes were added to pad it out? (Episode Three runs a standard twenty four and a bit minutes, but Episode Four finishes its business in twenty.)
By the final instalment, a sense of desperation is setting in. The Weird Occult Ritual in the cellar is spooky enough fun. There is some genuine drama; particularly when Stael takes his own life rather than become possessed. We are told that the BBC was running scared of Mary Whitehouse and had toned down the horror; but the rule appears to be that that kids won't be harmed by suicide (or human sacrifice, or executions or torture) provided they happen off-screen.
The Doctor suddenly remembers that the Fendahl is a Gestalt Entity. That's another good idea: when twelve witches get together to perform a summonsing ritual, what they are really doing is channelling a composite alien being which is made up of twelve lessor beings. But the story rolls in exactly the same direction that it would have done if the people in the cellar had been bog-standard witches calling up a bog-standard bogeyman. Thea turns into a glam-rock Greek goddess, menaces everyone for a bit, and then gets zapped. The Fendahl may be life-consuming death bringers who the Time Lords are scared of, but they have a rather simple Kryptonite Heel. "Obviously sodium chloirde affects the conductivity, ruins the overall electrical balance and prevents control of localised disruption to the osmotic pressures" explains the Doctor. Fortunately Leela is on hand to translate. "Salt kills it.".
And then the Doctor changes the backstory.
And then he changes it again.
And then he furiously back-pedals.
Take your pick:
1: The Skull is the extra-terrestrial ancestor of the human race.
2: No, it isn't. Its alien energy merely affected terran life-forms which caused them to evolve into humans.
3: No, it didn't. It simply manipulated the DNA of some primitive humans so their descendants would eventually summons the Fendahl.
There is nothing wrong with unreliable narrators and mad scientists who leap to the wrong conclusions. You thought that this was what was going on -- but in fact it was THIS all the time. But there is no sense of a big revelation, of layers of the onion being peeled off until we see the terrible truth that man was not meant to know. It is merely confusing. A simple, interesting premise is incrementally replaced by sixteen or seventeen more complicated ones.
But why be concerned? The explanation is not part of the story. Witches covens summons Giant Alien Dicks because reasons.
"On the other hand" says the Doctor, giving up completely "It could just be a coincidence."
Image of the Fendahl has, in 100 minutes, completely rewritten the history of the human race. Life on earth has very nearly been wiped out, and by my count, at least fourteen people are dead. Mrs Tyler has learned that the religious faith she has followed her whole life was, at best, a cargo cult. So what do the survivors do? Do they spend the rest of their lives in a mental asylum, wishing that the human mind were less able to correlate its contents? Do thet pour oil on their clothes and set themselves alight? (And do their families deny that they ever existed?) Or do they, in point of fact, go back to the cottage and have tea and plumb cake off the best china?
Keep Calm and Carry On became a silly reactionary cliche. But it does, I think, nicely sum up a story that the English really do like to tell themselves about themselves. And as stories go, it's not a bad one. We really did help to defeat Hitler; our capital city really was bombed flat; and we really did brush our hair and polish the front step every morning during the Blitz.
In Terry Nation's Survivors, the English middle class are the only people left alive after a pandemic: they continue to iron their C&A dresses, put vases of flowers on the table, and sing We Plough the Fields and Scatter once a year. The Doctor and Leela seem more and more to live in the TARDIS, playing chess, tinkering with K-9, learning to read, trying their hand at painting. Adventures are the interruption to this relatively idyllic existence.
This is a product of the format. But it is also a core part of the aesthetic. Doctor Who has to reboot at the end of each episode. The toys have to go back in the boxes, ready for the next adventure, and the one after that. If Pyramids of Mars, Image of the Fendahl and the Daemons were all "true" then the Earth would be a surrealistic hybrid, unrecognisable as the world we know. And the story has to start in the world we know because although the Doctor is a disruptive anarchist, he is also a defender of the status quo.
Cosmic horror is an interruption to domestic life: but it doesn't over write it. The stories, under Graham Williams, will get bigger and bigger, as we move from Gothic to Space Opera to a Douglas Adams parody of Space Opera. But the concerns remain small scale. The human race migrates to Pluto via Mars, but the focus remains on one little guy who can't pay his tax.
Cosmic horror which is not interested in cosmic horror. Sweeping galactic science fiction which is not interested in galaxies or science.
You cannot preserve the village green if it was concreted over in the previous story. Lord, keep within they special care, 121, Cadogan Square.
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
The Doctor arrives on a planet where evil rulers oppress a slave population. He falls in with some rebels: he helps them stage a revolution. The nasty rulers are killed; the people are freed. The Doctor is hailed as a hero, but he doesn't stick around long enough to help the freed people to rebuild their civilisation.
That's the plot of the Sunmakers. It's almost a new paradigm, replacing "the Doctor foils an alien invasion" and "the Doctor protects scientists besieged by aliens" as the generic example of what Doctor Who does.
Four stories in, Graham Williams, has worked out what Doctor Who is going to be about from now on.
Silly. But good silly, not bad silly.
The twist is that the evil rulers are plutocrats rather than military conquerers. This is the only reason for setting the story specifically on Pluto rather than on earth or on some made-up planet. And this pun is the only reason for the story to be called The Sun Makers. The evil Company have made Pluto habitable by constructing six artificial suns. A large, symbolic sun-face is displayed prominently in the Gatherer's office; and it appears on all the baddy's uniforms, but (like the Penny Farthing in the Village) it is never alluded to. The oppressed workers who built the suns are never allowed to see the sunlight; but nothing is made of this satirical point. The plot could have involved the workers downing tools and plunging the planet into darkness: the Doctor might have switched off the sun as part of his plan to overthrow the Company. But it doesn't. The idea of people who make suns just sits in the title, not doing anything in particular.
I suppose we could say that this is very much part of the new aesthetic. Huge cosmic ideas -- artificial stars human migration and sentient slime -- are casually tossed out as part of the not-very-important background to a little character-level adventure yarn.
The Company is comedically, artificially nasty: a metaphor for nastiness rather than a satirical exaggeration of anything we could imagine really existing. They refer to the people as Work Units, and regard them only as a source of income. Cordo, the viewpoint character, has paid a large sum of money to give his father "a golden death with four mercy attendants". (Although this is not spelled out, there is a strong implication that he has had to pay for his father to be euthanised.) He then has to pay death duties; which are more than his actual income. He says that he is currently working twenty one hours a day; and the Gatherer says that he should take drugs so he can manage with less sleep. The drugs, are of course, expensive and taxed. When the Doctor arrives and offers him a jelly baby, poor Cordo is about to jump off a skyscraper. (SPOILER: The Gatherer is thrown off the same skyscraper by the liberated mob in the final episode.)
The action takes place in a Megrapolis, which may make us think of Friz Lang. There may be a touch of Judge Dredd, too. Certainly it is clear from the opening moments that we are not supposed to be taking things entirely seriously. It's dark ("congratulations, citizen; your father ceased at one ten") but it's dark comedy. The Gatherer, with his robes and his turban, looks like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan. It isn't yet a pantomime, but there is a camp, theatrical aesthetic. Almost every line has a jokey archness to it; as if everyone is speaking in quotation marks "I see the magnitude of the offence astounds you....Criminal deviants occur in every generation...."
The Gatherer's increasingly preposterous grovelling to his superior, the Collector is consistently funny. Despite the Gatherer's having run through the thesaurus in search of synonyms for "big" ("your promontory:"; "your aggrandisement"; "your grossness"; "your orotundity") the Collector is a small, bald man who sits Davros-like in a motorised wheel chair, hunched over hi-tech accountancy machines saying things like "time is money" and "business is business". Henry Woolf was, in fact, of Jewish heritage, but I don't think the Sun Makers has ever been accused of Gringotts goblins anti-semitism. The Collector isn't Shylock. His main distinguishing features are his ridiculous eyebrows.
Forty years ago, this might possibly have seemed funny. Harold Wilson was Prime Minister; and one Dennis Healey was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had quite a high public profile -- even the youngest Doctor Who fans would probably have known who he was -- because he was very frequently mimicked by impressionist Mike Yarwood. Yarwood's comedy had almost no satirical element: he just made good natured fun of celebrity mannerisms. His caricature of Healey consisted of basically two jokes: that he was fond of the phrase "silly billy" (which he wasn't) and that he had bushy eyebrows (which he did). So, rather weirdly, Robert Holmes could stick bushy eyebrows on a villain, and everyone would instantly understand that the story was about money and taxation.
I wonder how often this kind of thing is true of older, less well documented fiction in ways we don't see, and can't find out?
Healey was a Labour cabinet minister. Labour certainly had high rates of taxation. In 1977, before the Winter of Discontent and the collapse of the post-war consensus, income above £20,000 (about £100k in todays money) was taxed at 83%. The one-for-you-ninenteen-for-me rate that the Beatles had moaned about, with peace and love, had been abolished in 1972. But this was part of a socialist agenda to take money from the rich and use it to pay for trains and roads and schools and nuclear missiles. Taxing the poor never makes much sense, despite what the Sheriff of Nottingham may believe.
A story which equates taxation with evil could be seen as regressive and anti-liberal. All those Two Ronnies gags about officious ticket inspectors and mouldy meat pies; and endless Carry On tittering about hospital matrons were at some level political jokes about unions and nationalised industries and the welfare state. Leela asks if tax is like a sacrifice to a tribal god; and the Doctor says taxation is more painful. There is a very silly scene where Cordo tells the Doctor and Leela to run from the Gatherer, and they run away, despite having no idea who he is. "Everyone runs from the tax-man" says Leela.
But the story wants to have it both ways. The Company that makes people work long hours with no breaks and gives them nothing in return is a socialist caricature of capitalism. The Tax Gatherer and Tax Collector who use small print and unfair rules to take your hard-earned money away from you is a conservative caricature of socialism. This could have been a punchline: we might have learned in episode four that the company which pays you and the government that taxes you are in cahoots. That might even have amounted to satire. But everyone in the story takes it for granted that the Company give with one hand and take with the other. Yes, at one point everyone runs down corridor number P45 (which is the number of the tax form you get when you quit a job); and yes, tax is calculated PCM (per complete month) which is also the name of the drug which keeps the population of Pluto docile. And yes, when the Gatherer divides his forces to attack the rebels from two directions, he calls it Morton's Fork, which refers to one of Henry VII's tax officials. (Morton allegedly claimed that if people lived opulently, it proved they must have lots of cash and could therefore afford to pay tax; but if they lived frugally, they must be putting money aside and therefore could afford to pay their tax.) The Doctor even quotes Karl Marx at one point. But what it adds up to is not so much a satire on the British system of taxation as a bog-standard rebellion story with some fiscal window dressing.
Jokes about tax men are pretty much on a level with jokes about lawyers and mothers-in-law. We dony quite know why we laugh at them. They are funny because they are.
The production achieves new levels of cheapness. The kilometre high skyscraper that Cordo wants to throw himself off looks exactly like a disused cigarette factor in Bristol. The underground road that Leela is chased along in episode 2 is obviously part of a 20th century subway; the guards seem to be driving a golf cart or possibly a milk-float. Interiors are represented by the most generic BBC studio sets imaginable; white walls, generic science equipment. The asteroid base in Invisible Enemy was decorated, for some reason, with Greek columns; Pluto seems to go in for terracotta nipples.
But if anything, this make-do-and-mend aesthetic works in the story's favour. It's hard to ignore a genuinely bad special effect. The very primitive blue screen graphics used for the Doctor's brain in Invisible Enemy (and the cave sequence we will see in Underworld) might have looked cutting edge at the time, but they are risible now. But it's relatively easy to treat Sunmakers as you would a theatrical performance on a bare stage. When we do speak of a vast mega city on the planet Pluto lit by six synthetic suns, think that you see them, as the Bard might have put it.
Because the main thing to say about Sunmakers is that it just works. The Collector and the Gatherer are funny enough that we enjoy watching them; but evil enough that we can boo and hiss and be pleased when they come to a sticky end. The rebels are believably nasty and believably idealistic. Leader Mandrell is very nasty indeed, but most of the good lines go to Michael Keating, who is basically playing a joke free version of Vila. (Since Blakes 7 didn't start for another three weeks, hardly anyone noticed.)
Robert Holmes knows how to construct a narrative. The correct amount happens in each episode: it never feels rushed, but it never feels boring. The Doctor meets Cordo; Cordo leads the Doctor to the Rebels; the Rebels send the Doctor on a mission, keeping Leela as a hostage. The Doctor is captured and put in the Correction centre; Leela and Cordo try to rescue the Doctor. The Gatherer frees the Doctor (in oder to track him back to the Rebel Base) so when Leela arrives, he is already gone. Leela is captured and sent to be executed. The Doctor helps the rebels stage a proper revolution, during which Leela is freed. Each scene leads sensibly to the next scene. Most scenes give us an additional bit of information or backstory, without us feeling we're being info-dumped. Characters are brought together in different combinations and different situations; creating different kinds of scenes and different kinds of dialogue. The Gatherer is callous to Cordo but obsequious to the Collector. When he frees the Doctor from the correction center he is all smiles and fake affability. The Doctor pretends to be taken in; complimenting him on the strawberry leaf he is offered as a delicacy, and offering him candy in return.
No, not a jelly baby: Tom Baker offers it with the single word "Humbug?"
This is not high drama. But it is too very good actors having a lot of fun with a very good script.
Almost the best thing about the story is that Leela comes into her own, treated as a character rather than light relief or a comic foil. When the cowardly rebels won't help her rescue the Doctor, she goes into full William Wallace mode. "You have nothing, Mandrell. No pride, no courage, no manhood. Even animals protect their own. You say to me you want to live. Well I'll say this to you. If you lie skulking in this black pit while the Doctor dies, then you will live, but without honour!". Naturally, the only one who will help her is timid Cordo, who she calls "the bravest man here." It really is Louise Jameson's finest hour.
K-9 finally emerges from the TARDIS and gets some lines: but he's already an embarrassment and an encumbrance. He was introduced as a super-computer; but his main purpose in the story is to act as a portable stun gun. This time, the Doctor regards him primarily as Leela's friend (despite the closing line of the last story being "He's my dog".) When K9 puts himself at risk to rescue Leela, the Doctor tries to thank him, and he replies "Please do not embarrass me" even though it was a plot point in Invisible Enemy that he didn't have emotion circuits.
a: the Doctor added such circuits when K-9 was off-line in Image of the Fendahl or
b: No-one cares.
The final twist is that the people have a revolution by actually having a revolution. The Doctor removes the gas from the atmosphere which is keeping the people docile; they put out fake propaganda that the revolution has already happened. The Gatherer, who has been a comic bad guy all the way through is unceremoniously thrown off a skyscraper by the mob. The Doctor confronts the Collector, and, as is rapidly becoming part of the formula, they have a jolly good sneer at each other. It turns out that The Company are, indeed, aliens: subtly called Usurians, presumably from the planet Usury. The Doctor does a Thing, and the Collector reverts to his true, alien form. Again, we could read a political message here: capitalism and socialism are not the result of human greed or systematic injustice, they are an Evil Force that have invaded from Outside which we could theoretically Cast Them Out. But I think Robert Holmes just likes the joke about tax inspectors literally being pond-scum. When the Collector thinks the company is losing money he starts exclaiming "Inflationary spiral! Negative growth! This branch is no longer viable!" and shrinks into a pool of green slime. The impression, possibly intentional, is of something unpleasant being flushed down a lavatory.
I enjoyed the Sunmakers. I enjoyed it so much that I don't have very much to say about it. Let other people see Doctor Who as a mirror for its times and a political commentary, if they will. For me, it was always about aliens, robots, weirdness, baddies, rebels, getting captured and escaping.
A tough lady with a dagger and a robot dog being chased down a subway tunnel by stormtroopers on a milk float? Bring it on.
Saturday, October 23, 2021
Friday, October 15, 2021
Tuesday, October 12, 2021
If I were show-runner of Doctor Who I would go back to basics.
First, I would work out what "basics" means.
I would not advocate a reboot or a Rilstone Masterplan or more Timeless Children or even another Time War.
I would present the Doctor as a wanderer (not a traveller or a tourist) running from something unspecified and searching for something unspecified, in a TARDIS he can't quite operate: a space gypsy rather than a space trouble shooter.
Whatever happened to the cosmic hobo?
I am happy enough with the Time Lords existing: but I wouldn't think it necessary to go on and on and on about them. "I am from Galilee in the constellation of Kasturbation" has a certain aesthetic flavour to it. "I was born in another world, and I renounced my own people to become a wanderer" tastes different. I know which I prefer.
Characters don't need to speak the words "Doctor who?" every five minutes, or indeed ever again. But the majority of the supporting cast should be asking the question. One or two of them know the answer, but they aren't telling.
I do not care who plays the fifteenth Doctor provided they stick around for a while. The endless speculation as to who is going to replace Jodie Whittaker's successor has destroyed the show as a piece of drama, however much fun it might have made it as a game show.
We talk about lame duck presidents and caretaker governments: one third of Jodie Whittaker's entire run on Doctor Who will have been a holding pattern, killing time before the return of RTD and whoever he casts as the Doc.
In the olden days, some fans might have known that someone called Holmes or Adams was editing the script; they might even invite him to speak at one of their convocations: but the notion that a newspaper would have an opinion about who the next producer of a TV show ought to be is bizarre in the extreme.
We are all excited about the Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. (It must be pretty galling for him that, after all he has done, he will live and die as "the guy who wrote that comic where Death was a cute goth chick" although in fairness, it was a very, very good comic.) The one question none of us is asking is "Who do you think the next Morpheus will be when Sturridge leaves?" We kind of assume that actors sign on for seven seasons. Granted, arguing about whether the next 007 could be a Bondess is as much part of the British way of life as arguing about whether Last Night of the Proms could afford to be a bit less jingoistic. But Casino Royale premiered in the same year as Rose. Daniel Craig has out-Bonded Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, Capaldi and Whittaker.
The actor I hire to play Doctor Who in 2022 will, if all goes well, still be in the role when I quit in 2029, by which time no-one will be able to imagine that it could ever have been anyone else.
Colin Baker says the next Doctor should be a Doctor of Colour.
I wouldn't go as far as should myself; but the next Doctor certainly could be a black person, and there are (I assume) many black actors who would be great in the role.
But I don't think that a black Doctor would shake up the format, particularly, any more than a woman Doctor seems to have done; and I think that the format badly needs upshaking. When they find out who I have cast as the Doctor, I want the fans to be as gobsmacked as they were when Troughton became Pertwee and Pertwee became Baker. "Don't be ridiculous: how can that silly little man in the checked suit possibly be the same person as the irascible old crotchet with the white hair?"
When I saw the first still of Paul McGann, I thought "Yes: he looks exactly as I expect the Doctor to look." That, as Yoda might have said, is why he failed. Christopher Eccleston confounded all our expectations about who the Doctor should be: he had to fight every step of the way to convince us that he really was the same guy who failed to touch the two wires together on Skaro and was prosecuted by the Valeyard. If he had been an elderly Edwardian in a frock coat and a wooly scarf, would New Who have lasted beyond Season 1?
Jodie Whitaker was the first female Doctor and it wouldn't have made the slightest difference if she hadn't been. She could have phoned in the same characterisation in guy clothes with male pronouns: in fact it might have been more interesting if she had. The message of the Whitaker era, and indeed the Whitaker error, is not "The Doctor can be anyone". It is "The Doctor can be anyone more or less like David Tennant."
Given that New Who is all about romance, you might have expected a lady Doctor to become the obscure object of some Impossible Boy's desire. The thirteenth Doctor isn't even particularly maternal, which would have been a different take, albeit not a particularly interesting one.
The single point of intersection on the venn diagram which we should cling to is the idea that the Doctor is, when all is said and done, fundamentally and illogically British. Sometimes Scottish and sometimes Northern, but usually posh-English. Chibnall's multi-ethnic Timeless Child seems explicitly created to remove that one remaining point. I may very well cast a black or Asian actor as the Doctor: but they will be black British or British Asian. They will still like cricket and tea and jelly babies and jammy dodgers and cucumber sandwiches.
Colin Baker was on to something with his idea of a nasty Doctor Who would gradually mellow.
The Twin Dilemma is appalling; but the characterisation of the Doctor in Attack of the Cybermen is genuinely interesting, even though the story itself is a steaming pile of Levine. But Old Who couldn't generate story arcs: Colin had to say lines that were written for Peter Davison. The new Doctor was pretty much just the same as the old Doctor with a bit more of an attitude problem than before.
In one sense "a nasty Doctor" is a contradiction in terms. If regeneration can really turn a person who is never cruel or cowardly into a monster, then "regeneration" is another word for death and the Thirteen Doctors are Thirteen different people, not Thirteen aspects of a single being.
But suppose the Doctor, our Doctor, jelly babies and psychic papers and sonic screwdriver and all started behaving in a way that seemed, by our standards evil... Suppose that the right thing to do according to his Time Lord logic was the wrong thing to do from our human point of view, and suppose that after three seasons we understood that? Wouldn't that have been a story worth telling?
For about thirty seconds, it looked as if that might be the point of the John Hurt. But having been introduced as the bad Doctor, the one who disgraced the holy name, he was almost immediately reduced to simply Captain Grumpy.
I don't want to cast a black Doctor, a gay Doctor, a trans Doctor or another female Doctor: that is just the kind of thing you would expect me to do. I want to do the last thing you would expect.
What then? A disabled Doctor could be interesting, not because it would give kids who are wheelchair users the opportunity to imagine themselves as the hero (kind though that would be) but because a Doctor in a wheelchair wouldn't be able to run down corridors or swing across chasms or use Venusian aikido. They would have to approach problems in a different way. The dynamic of the show would change.
And it would be amusing to hear the Daleks making fun of the Doctor because he can't climb stairs.
What about an alien Doctor? A Krynoid Doctor or a Sontaran Doctor or a Sltheen Doctor? What about the Doctor regenerating into a robot?
But Andrew, that is not canon. We know that the Time Lords are all humanoid.
Granted, every Time Lord we have seen so far has looked human. But every Time Lord we had seen was male, until the first female one was introduced; and they were all white until we saw a black one. I declare unilaterally that the universe is full to the brim of Time Zygons and Time Ogrons and conceivably also a Time Dalek. I declare unilaterally that Time Lords take on the form of whatever species they are with at the time of their "death". Romana (and the Third Doctor) got to choose their forms: it just so happens that, up to now, the Doctor has always chosen to identify with his favourite species.
And further more: Doctor Who is a made up thing and we don't care about canon.
So: what if Fifteen was a very warlike Doctor who happened to be a very peaceful Sontaran?
A very peaceful English Sontaran?
What if he became the Face of Bo, a brain with tentacles, or a small owl-like bird with two heads. And what if we had to learn, over many, many, seasons that a small patch of ochre slime could stand up for the little guy, never be cowardly or cruel, and have a strange liking for cricket and jelly babies?
Or if that fails: I will regenerate them into a child. Unearthly or Timeless: I will find the youngest actor I can who can plausibly deliver the lines. Better yet, I will use CGI to cast a baby in the role, and allow them to age at the rate of about two years per season. By the time I return Doctor Who to its owners, "the Doctor-baby" will be a fourteen year old adolescent with their whole career in front of them. (They could have a companion they call grandfather.)
I said that Doctor Who didn't really have any lore. So, I would invent some.
It astonishes me, that while some people demand that Jodie Whittaker has to go away and watch Planet of the Giants before she is allowed to do a scene with Rosa Parks, we are quite happy for Backstory of the Daleks to be reinvented pretty much every time they appear. The Cybermen, too. In 1966, the point of the Cybermen was that they came from a counter-earth on the far side of The Sun. RTD had a quite clever notion (he was full of quite clever notions) that this could be recast in the modern idiom by placing them on a parallel earth in a parallel universe where everyone was wearing eyepatches. (I made that last bit up.) That rapidly got forgotten and it turned out that wherever you go in time and space, augmented humanoids use the same design that Rose's dad made up in the early twenty first century, sometimes even with the same corporate branding.
Each time we meet the Cybermen or the Daleks or the Sontarans or UNIT or the endless, endless iterations of the Human Space Empire and its vast fleet of space-arks, we reimagine them from the ground up. Or just rely on some sort of oral tradition.
"The Daleks? They have an empire, I think, which rose and then fell and was fought against by men in grubby uniforms called Tarrant?"
There is no chronology. There is certainly no geography.
What if there were?
There hasn't been up to now. For many years, Terry Pratchett maintained that there could never and should never be a map of the Discworld. After about a decade of publishing stories, he bowed to the inevitable and commissioned someone to create a map. I am not a Terry Pratchett fan, having only red ten or twelve of his books, but I suppose a fan can tell me whether the stories are
a: more funny
b: less funny
c: differently funny
d: about the same funny
since Ankh Moorpork acquired a street-plan.
In 1989, thirty minute serials were already an anachronism.
Twenty five minute serials were a weird historical aberration. I suppose that in 1963 there was a five minute weather forecast or Potters Wheel ident to be squeezed in between the cliffhanger and the evening news so they couldn't spare a full half-hour for Doctor Who. That format stayed in place for 26 years because dammit, Jim, you can't improve on perfection. Even Big Finish went with 25 minute segments until they didn't.
In 2005, the rebooted Doctor Who very naturally went with 45 minute stand-alones, with just a smattering of two-parters to keep it weird. But when I take over as show-runner, that format will also be looking decidedly olde worlde. Picard and Discovery and Sandman and Loki are predicated on multi-season arcs, intended to be gobbled up in mighty box-sets. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was, to all intents and purposes, a six hour presentation of a fourth Captain America movie, and all the better for it. Even Masters of the Universe had a beginning, a middle and an end and jolly good fun it was too. If Doctor Who for the millennium had to be 45 minute Buffy-a-like zingers, Doctor Who for the twenties and thirties needs to be a series of binge worthy boxsets.
The unique selling point of Doctor Who is that it can encompass all of time and space; but it hardly ever does.
Stories arrive in particular settings and stay there. Steven Moffat did sometimes let the Doctor zip between different time periods in the same story; but that was mostly to allow him to play with the idea of non-sequential story telling, of effect preceding cause.
I would use Doctor Who's extensive backlog of stuff and create a single unified Doctor Who setting, fuzzy round the edges, but solid enough that audiences could get to know Skaro and Raxacoricofallapatorius in the way that they got to to know Casterley Rock and Kings Landing: as places with a consistent feel which stood in a consistent relationship, geographically and politically. I'm not looking for the Silmarillion, but I am looking for a series Bible: something like one of those Histories of the Marvel, or, as it were, DC Universe, or the little map of the galaxy in the front of all the best Star Wars guidebooks. A Time Line from Big Bang to Big Crunch, noting when the Daleks started expanding and when the Time Lords took their non-interference vows and precisely when the human race finally left earth. There would be periods where Sontarans and Rutans were struggling for control of the galaxy and periods when everything was overrun by Daleks. Davros and the Master and Mavic Chen and Ming the Merciless and Rassilon would be treated as characters rather than adversaries: they would have off-stage-lives when they weren't being the Doctor's opponent-of-the-week.
I would under no circumstances tell the viewers that this is what I had done. My first story would just be a story: maybe the Doctor would find and orphan alien on a near future earth, and protect her from the locals, even though she just wanted her alien mummy. I expect he would then embark on a quest to take her home. (If we go with the idea that the Doctor is a baby with the mind of a Time Lord, clearly the alien would have to be a big scary monster with the personality of a toddler. Has that ever been done before?) But I would drop in a few facts and references to the the setting and hope that the audience notices that they are more specific and more consistent than they used to be. ("I can't call UNIT, because they were disbanded after the Grail scandal about a century ago.")
But it would become increasingly clear that I was no longer writing individual adventures, but instead, writing a twenty-six week soap opera that ranged around the fictional galaxy and fictional time line I have created. The individual action would be old-school Doctor Who: no corridor would fail to be run down and no cliff would fail to be hung off. But the adventures would have consequences for the setting and ramifications for the characters that would only be seen in the next episode or the next season. A conspiracy that the Doctor initiated in the court of King Arthur would bear fruit five thousand years later in the heart of the Draconian Empire. Human rebels would be holding out against the Daleks on 22nd Century Earth; UNIT would be trying to repel the same invasion in the 21st. A season long quest by the Doctor-baby to find the alien's mummy would intersect with these, and many other, historical events. (I suppose the baby would pull the Draconian Excalibur from the stone?)
"Are you saying, Andrew, that you wish Doctor Who was a bit more like Babylon 5"
No. I am saying that Doctor Who should be a bit more like The Mandalorian.
"But you hated Babylon 5."
No. I hated the inept, childish scripting and the fact that JMS couldn't distinguish between religious allegory and the libretto of Jesus Christ Superstar. I liked the ambition and the structure and the space ships. I like the fact that it was doing big science fiction concepts in the Star Trek format, even though the big science fiction concepts were mostly a pile of derivative poo. I think that "Star Trek with a backstory and a setting" could potentially have been more fun than Star Trek had ever been.
"Wouldn't it be better to just make up brand new science fiction stories with up to the minute stuff about transexual smart phones and AI black holes and just happen to have a Time Traveller called the Doctor in them?"
You could do that.
You could take out everything that made Doctor Who Doctor Who, apart from the Doctor.
And then you could rewrite the character of the Doctor so he/she / they were not recognisably the Doctor at all; either because of the infinite Childish variations or because someone has decided that it would be cool to make him a tough talking hispanic cop who does drugs and thinks with his fists.
And then you could write him out of the series altogether and just do stories.
This would be the rational thing to do.
Because as mentioned before, there is no rational reason to carry on making Doctor Who.
But the reality is that we are going to have to carry on making some kind of TV show with the words "Doctor Who" printed on it.
So we will kind of pretend.
Or we could just bow to the inevitable and cast Benedict Cumberbatch.
Sunday, October 10, 2021
Thoughts On The Occassion of the Appointment of Mr Russell T Davies to an Unprecedented Second Term as Producer, Chief Writer and De Facto Showrunner of Doctor Who
There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears. Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically. He couldn't speak, since he didn't have a mouth. Neither did he have a nose. He didn't even have any arms or legs. He had no stomach and he had no back and he had no spine and he had no innards whatsoever. He had nothing at all! Therefore there's no knowing whom we are even talking about. In fact it's better that we don't say any more about him.
Danil Ivanovich Kharms
There is no reason for Doctor Who to exist; but it is impossible for it not to.
In 1989, Doctor Who was an embarrassment to the BBC: the fossilised remains of a Reithean Saturday night edu-drama which an Imperial College student society had successfully turned into a cult. As long as it existed, there was no particular reason to cancel it; but once Michael Grade had pulled the plug, there was no particular reason to bring it back.
Superman and Spider-Man can be endlessly deconstructed and reimagined around a narrow set of tropes. Exploding planet; childless farmers; sick Auntie; radioactive spider; dead uncle; glowing rocks; teenage side-kick; Irene Adler; Sheriff of Nottingham.
Doctor Who can hardly be said to exist at all: its premise is so fluid that all fans can do is hallucinate minutiae about a lore that was never really real. The Doctor is a guy who travels in space and time. Except for the couple of seasons when he didn't.
"Doctor Who can be anything it wants to be" was a unique selling point in 1963: but an anthology series that can go from spoof Homer to camp Dan Dare to serious sixteenth century historical fiction in consecutive stories is a harder sell in the age of Netflix than it was in the days when your choice of viewing was the channel with the adverts or the channel without them
Why is there not a vast, interconnected shared universe of Doctor Who spin-offs, as big as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
If you stare at a blank sheet of paper for long enough you start to see patterns. We have been staring at Doctor Who for a very long time, and no very coherent pattern has yet emerged.
The Mandalorian is a Frankenstein series, fragments of lore stolen from dead movies, stitched together and reanimated: and yet it manages to be fully itself. The show knows that Sand People always ride single file to conceal their numbers, but the viewer doesn't have to. It stands on its own feet. Lone Wolf and Cub meets the Magnificent Seven with aliens.
Why isn't The Adventures of Nyssa a thing? Why can't that in-joke about Ace starting a charity for orphans when she got back from the Time War be spun out into an entire series? Why aren't Martha and Mickey saving the universe on a weekly basis?
Because no-one outside of a very narrow fan-elite has heard of these characters. Your Mum knows that Batman has a Butler called Alfred: she doesn't know that it was kind of implied in The End of Time that the Doctor's Mother was a weeping angel.
The Mandalorian and the Marvel Multiverse Phase 6 are constructed from pre-existing lore. Doctor Who does not, in the required sense, have any lore for us to work with.
(I don't know when the word "lore" was coined to mean "back-story, canon, and continuity". Some people think it comes from the World of Warcraft computer game. It is a very useful word and I propose to carry on using it.)
There have been four spin-offs from Doctor Who, and I am pretty sure you can only remember three of them. The Sarah-Jane Adventures was a vehicle for Elisabeth Sladen. And also some very decent child actors, but mostly Elisabeth Sladen. K-9 and Company, despite the title, was a vehicle for the same actor. Torchwood was a vehicle for John Barrowman, which means that we probably never have to watch it again. The Adventures of K-9, which you haven't seen and really, really don't want to was a vehicle for a piece of hardware. Bob Baker and Dave Martin didn't own the rights to the K-9 prop, but the BBC couldn't prevent John Leeson saying "affirmative" into a ring modulator. It may, for all I know, be canon and it may not have compared unfavourably with other Australian kid-friendly soft-cyberpunk soap operas of its day, but it has very little to do with Doctor Who.
"A strange lady and some schoolkids get into scrapes with space monsters" is an obviously good pitch for CBBC and if Lis Sladen is available you might as well cast her. Some episodes of the Sarah Jane Adventures clearly had very strong connections to Doctor Who. Others, not so much. If you want to say "The Death of the Doctor is canon in the Doctor Who universe" then I certainly can't stop you. But I can't help thinking that if you were watching a quite good kids TV show mainly to find out what happened to Jo Grant after she sailed down the Amazon on her blue crystal, you may possibly need to take a long hard look at your life.
Torchwood was a piss-poor sci-fi show that had been cross-promoted -- at best seeded -- in Doctor Who. You can barely even call Army of Ghosts a backdoor pilot: all it actually had in common with Barrowman's sex-and-aliens travesty was that they both had the word Torchwood in them. "What if the Victorian science fascists in Season 2 of Doctor Who had the same name as some sexually incontinent Men in Black scavengers in a completely different series?" doesn't amount to a premise. Mentioning the word Torchwood in Doctor Who is a fair enough way of getting people to tune in to the new show -- and god knows, there was no other reason -- but it doesn't amount to an expansion of Doctor Who lore.
The Captain Jack who appears in the One With the Gas Masks was an interesting and appealing character; but he has very little to do with the immortal camp pantomime turn on BBC 3. This was before we knew about John Barrowman's zip fastener related issues.
But when Russell T Davies talks about spin-offs and a Doctor Who Universe, this is the kind of thing he seems to have in mind. He used Doctor Who to float ideas for unrelated programmes he'd quite like to have made. The one about the Time Travelling lady aviator; the one about the underdeveloped Doctor-clone played by Peter Davison's daughter for another; Billie Piper and, er, Noel Clarke running a parallel Torchwood on a parallel earth for a third. Poor David Tennant actually had to look into camera and pitch the title with a straight face. "Rose Tyler, Defender of the Earth and the Video Rangers".
In 1977, the BBC seem genuinely to have considered rehiring Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter to do a series of Victorian sci-fi horror yarns: not because That Corner of the Whoniverse needed development, but because Jago and Litefoot were obviously funny characters who the viewers enjoyed.
That's what spin-off means. It occurs to someone that the snooty landlady from Man About The House, or the pretentious shrink from Cheers, could sustain a series on their own. I seem to remember that the one where Ronnie Barker's burglar from Porridge went straight, imaginatively called Going Straight, was quite funny.
Before the Great Hiatus, Doctor Who could be said to have existed as a kind of Heraclitian tradition.
William Hartnell might have been dead, but Terrence Dicks, Robert Holmes and the Doctor Who office were on hand to provide the illusion of continuity, though not, of course Continuity. Nicholas Courtney was not the only man on earth who could have played a comic English army officer. But he had been doing it for so long that he acted as a kind of golden thread from Survival back to Mission to the Unknown. There was still a torch of some kind that was capable of being passed. But once the axe fell and the dynasty dissolved what was left? A series without a lead actor, without a consistent supporting cast, without a setting or a plot; and increasingly without even a format.
But Doctor Who refused to die. When Virgin ran out of TV stories to turn into novellas it just continued to churn out novellas which had never been TV shows in the first place. The final script editor had had a vaguely interesting idea for a story arc (or as people called it in those pre Straczynski days, a masterplan) and some of that arc worked its way into some of the novellas. It didn't have much to do with the TV show, and it wasn't that original, but it was lore, and some people liked it.
Meanwhile some semi-pro fans started to hire actual ex-actors to read out pastiches of old Who scripts. Some people liked these, as well. (I did, for a while, before they overwhelmed me.) There are currently two hundred and seventy five of them, with twenty or thirty more coming out each week. For maybe six years, the Big Finish CDs and the Virgin Novels existed in more or less contented mutual contradiction. It would be a gross over simplification to say that Virgin was creating fiction and Big Finish was creating fan fiction, but I am going to say it anyway. Peter Darvill-Evans' writer's guidelines specifically prohibited writers from using lore as a jumping off point for stories. Yes, it would be possible to tell a spy story or a war story which just happened to have an old monster in it, but "What if Sgt Benton met a Draconian at Devils's End and the consequence was the Key of Time" was off limits.
This was the view that the production team invariably took at conventions when Doctor Who was still on the telly: no, we are not planning to "bring back" the Daleks, yes, if someone comes up with an excellent story which happens to have the Daleks in it, we might well use them again. The very first Big Finish disc said "What if Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy went on an adventure together" and kept being drawn into the orbit of questions like "What if Romana were President of the Time Lords?" and "What if Davros, or Omega, or some version of the Master did something that interests fans a good deal but not really anyone else?"
At the time of Trevor Baxter's death, Big Finish had published seventy Jago and Litefoot stories on CD.
Russell T Davies went down neither path. His reboot of Doctor Who was neither fan-friendly pastiche nor a hypothetical Season 27 that followed Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann down unexpected narrative pathways.
It would be tempting to say that he created a new thing that had little or nothing to do with Doctor Who. A cool but safe YA show about an asexual alpha male who had a succession of doomed courtly romances with impossible women. He told us that it was Doctor Who, and we believed him, because we desperately wanted it to be.
But maybe, just maybe, he chewed up forty years of Saturday evenings (and a few Tuesdays) and spat out the core concept.
He travels in time and space.
She's his human friend.
Everything else is up for grabs.
You could have sold the premise (of a time traveller and his platonic girl-friend) to the BBC even if Doctor Who had never existed. Hell, you could have sold the pitch without the premise because Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper made such beautiful sparks together.
It all comes down to the sparks. If not for Tom Baker's personal charisma, we would not be talking about Doctor Who today.
William Hague will never not be the little boy who stood up at Tory party conference and told Mrs Thatcher off for not being right wing enough. Chris Chibnall will never not be the little boy on Points of View telling Pip and Jane Baker precisely what he thought of Terror of the Vervoids.
He wasn't wrong: it was shite. After Tom Baker departed, Doctor Who became a zombie show, continuing because it had to continue, running on the fumes of old memories. The Cybermen are back. The Daleks are back. UNIT is not back, but it has been alluded to. A tolerably decent Roger Delgado impersonator is appearing in practically every story. Earthshock was pretty good and Kinda was very good and Caves of Androzani was very good indeed. But everything after Logopolis -- everything after Talons of Weng Chiang -- was a bonus.
Chris Chibnal grew up in the declining years. Peter Davison was "his Doctor"; it is those zombie years that he now seeks to revive. Doctor Who is like the Ur-Ru, the Muppet Jedi mystics from Dark Crystal, endlessly repeating formulas and rituals which no longer give the slightest comfort.
There is a card game called Flux in which the rules are endlessly redefined: the number of cards you draw, the number of cards you discard, the number of cards you may hold in your hand, the values of the cards and the end-game conditions: all are subject to change each time a card is played. I believe a game exists which takes this a stage further: the rules consist of nothing but a set of conditions under which the players can redefine the rules.
Doctor Who doesn't even have a meta-rules. It is defined by the absence of a definition: the only thing which stays the same is the fact that it is always changing. The Doctor. Her companions. The format. The title sequence. The logo. The TARDIS (interior and exterior). The Sonic screwdriver. Not one thing about the show stays the same for more than three seasons.
Chibnall has admitted this. He has rewritten the lore to make it a feature. We no longer have a periodically regenerating main character, but infinite iterations of the main character spread throughout Time and Space. The Doctor can now be anyone; so the Doctor is now no-one. But perhaps he never was. When everybody's somebody then no-one's anybody.
What does it matter? Why do we care?
People on the nastier fringes of the internet (hereafter "Twitter") have taken to saying that the fault lies not in Jodie Whitaker's genitals, nor in her DNA, nor even in her pronouns. The problem with Jodie Whitaker is that she stands outside the Great Tradition.
If she had been worthy to occupy Saint Peter Davison's throne she would first have familiarised herself with two thousand years of Whovian dogma. She would have watched old episodes of Doctor Who and built her characterisation out of that. The worst people say say, in so many words, that her refusal to study the sacred scriptures is evidence of her feminist entitlement. Peter Capaldi, a man, knew that he had to know about the old Doctors before he could take up their mantle. Jodie Whittaker thought that just being a woman was good enough.
This, it goes without saying, is deeply offensive bullshit. There are a lot of deeply offensive bullshitters on Twitter.
But like most offensive bullshit, it contains an interesting grain of truth, if you are prepared to get your hands filthy rummaging through it.
If Doctor Who can no longer be said to exist as a format, a character, or a production office -- and if it never was a body of lore -- then in one sense all it can be is a text. Doctor Who can only be defined as everything which has ever been published under the banner of Doctor Who. The only way to play the role of Doctor Who is to watch other people playing the role of Doctor Who and follow them, round and round in ever decreasing circles until you finally disappear up your own canonicity.
William Hartnell was irascible. Patrick Troughton was eccentric. Jon Pertwee was patrician. Tom Baker was eccentric and patrician. Peter Davison was eccentric, patrician, irascible and had a stick of celery. Colin Baker was eccentric, patrician, irascible and had a pin on cat. The Fourteenth Doctor will have celery and a cat and an umbrella and rainbow braces and say "Fantastic" and "Fam" and "Jelly Baby". Jodie and Peter and Matt and Dave and Chris and Sly and Colin and Peter and Tom and Jon and Pat and Bill....
I am not at all sure I know what irascible means, but I am jolly sure William Hartnell was it. I suppose it means the same as crotchety. That is another word which no-one ever uses.
Colin Baker said that he watched videos of his predecessors , not with a view to copying them, but with a view to absorbing what he called their Doctor-ness. The Doctor-ness of the Doctor being, presumably "whatever the actors who have played him up to now have in common". The spot on the Venn Diagram where William Hartnell intersects with Tom Baker and Tom Baker intersects with Jon Pertwee. Theatricality, I suppose: a certain predilection for vaudeville and the wireless; a belief that you are a Legitimate Character Actor. Each time you add an actor, that intersection becomes smaller and smaller. The addition of an infinite number of Timeless Children takes us to a homeopathic level of dilution. What the Infinite Doctors have in common is a null-set; a mathematical point.
Jodie Whitaker's job is to say "Do you have any idea where those planets might be?" or "Hey Daleks! Over here!" in a convincing manner. Would she be better at this job if she had watched every single Tom Baker story before filming The Woman Who Fell To Earth? Is it clear that she would even do it differently?
Christopher Eccleston, by his own admission, didn't watch Doctor Who. Tom Baker didn't watch TV at all, even when he was in it. Matt Smith's persona clearly is influenced by that of his predecessors, particularly Hartnell and Troughton, but he is most like the Doctor when he is most like Matt Smith. Jon Pertwee was a radio star and reputedly asked Barry Letts which of his six hundred funny voices he ought to use. Barry Letts told him to play it like himself.
What about the people who write the words for her to say? Knowledge of the text clearly has more potential affect on a writer than it does on an actor. Someone who is "just a writer" asks "What if the Doctor met Van Gogh?" or "What if the Doctor went to India at the time of the petition?". Someone who is a Doctor Who writer says "What if there were a Dalek we could feel some human sympathy with?" or "What if the TARDIS were a person who the Doctor had a relationship with?" I don't think that lore-steeped scripts are necessarily better than those written in a vacuum: but the difference is there. Robert Holmes and even Douglas Adams didn't show much sign of caring what David Whitaker had said about the TARDIS and the Time Lords and the Daleks in the previous decade. They didn't particularly care what they themselves had said the previous week. Fans despaired; and yet the programmes was as good and successful as it has ever, ever, ever, ever been.
Fans, nasty and nice, have said that the Timeless Children amounts to a vandalisation of Doctor Who lore, which, in one sense, it definitely does. But only someone who cared about Doctor Who lore could have damaged it in that particular way. No-one but a fan boy would think it was fun to make the Morbius Doctors canon. No-one but a fanboy would know what "the Morbius Doctors" even meant.
Is the Archers written by an Archerphile who knows and cares who was staying at the Bull in October 1957? Or is it written by someone with a knack for coming up with soap opera storylines and then checked for consistency by someone who has listened to all 20,000 episodes? That approach makes sense to me: a writer writing stories and a consultant worrying about canon. But if Ian Levine had been breathing down Terry Nation's neck would we ever have had a Davros?
Who, in your opinion, should become show-runner when Chris Chibnall relinquishes his death grip?
Should it be the man who wrote Good Omens; who likes Doctor Who; who knows about rebooting moribund properties, has show runner experience and a track record for Making Good Art?
Should it be the man who created Babylon 5, who positively wants the job, and has a track record for making, er, Babylon 5?
Should it be the lady who created Gentleman Jack, who knows about smart historical fiction, the current UK TV scene, gender-fluid characters and who would presumably commission a stonking theme song?
No. Let's give the job to the guy who has already produced four and a half seasons and who was generally felt to have run out of steam by the midway through the third.
We agreed. We agreed that I would save Doctor Who, but that when I returned I could reclaim your first born. We agreed that I would be show-runner and you would be Chancellor of the Exchequer but after two years I would step down. Doctor Who is mine. My birthday present. My precious.
And so, Doctor Who is over. Again.
The endless, ever-regenerating chain of producers and show runners goes running back to one man: the one man who admittedly brought the show back from oblivion and defined what it is, but who it can now never grow beyond. New Who belongs to Russell T Davies. Its power is bound up in him and it will last only as long as he will last.
New Who has always, to some extent, been a metashow: always primarily interested, not in being itself but in being a commentary and a celebration of the old show.
From 1963 to 1987, the BBC's Doctor Who was multiple and polyvocal. It had been many different things and might have been many more things. From 2005 to 2010, we saw what that multifaceted show looked like from the point of view of one particular fan who happened to end up in the TV trade. From 2010 to 2017 we saw what it looked like from another point of view. 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 have given us what for want of a better word we must call Chris Chibnal's vision. And if by common consent that era has failed, then there is nothing to do but accept that RTD's vision is the only vision which matters. He will, I don't doubt, produce something entertaining and compelling and incredibly irritating. (Did I mention that It's a Sin was very good indeed?) But it will be very hard to move on. Not in this life time. John Nathan Turner saved Doctor Who in Season 18 and killed it in Season 24. It became John Nathan Turner's show; incapable of mutation or evolution, content to lurk in it bunker and define itself as the supreme being in the universe.
So why not let it die?
Why not, at any rate give it a rest? Why not let Doctor Who go out with a bang on November 23rd 2023, and leave open the possibility of a revival, a reboot, a reimagining, a regeneration ten years down the line. Why not stop making Doctor Who until there is a good reason to start making it. Why not wait until some hot twenty something producer who watched Jodie Whitaker at the age of twelve wants to show us what Doctor Who looks like to him.
We live in an age of franchises; of cinematic universes; and reboots. Star Trek: The Next Generation followed Star Trek at a discrete interval of two decades; Deep Space Nine overlapped with it for a couple of seasons and gave way to Voyager which begat Enterprise. A simple exercise in torch passing. But since then we have had three big-screen movies, part pastiche, part parody; taking place in their own universe connected to the old one by the ghost of Leonard Nimoy. We have three season of Discovery and threats of a fourth one, spinning off into a prequel about that guy who lost out to William Shatner in the original auditions. We have a second series of a sequel predicated on the continuing youthfulness of 81 year old Patrick Stewart and a cartoon which is definitely a parody but respects the material more than the cinematic abomination. And it is all canon, unless it isn't.
Cancel Doctor Who at sixty and there wouldn't be an absence of Doctor Who; there would be competing visions. There would be novels and comics and computer games and action figures and CDs and a Netflix series. Sit down for a moment and contemplate a world where there are two films about a Spider-Man villain, Venom, without Spider-Man. The universe itself could never bear to be without the Doctor.
So what would you have done if they had made you show-runner?