Thursday, January 13, 2022

15:6 Invasion of Time

"That passed the time."
"It would have passed in any case."
"Yes, but not so rapidly."
      Waiting For Godot

A religious-academic figure in robes and a skull cap runs through a warehouse. Or perhaps it is a factory.

He is accompanied by three aliens in metal armour.

Three incongruous figures run into an old fashioned hospital ward, with curtained-off changing cubicles. One is wearing a big coat, a hat, and a scarf, even though he is indoors. The other, by complete contrast, is wearing what seems to be a bathing costume. A Flash-Gordon looking storm trooper, in red plastic armour, hides in one of the cubicles. One of the aliens looks through the curtain, but doesn't see him, for some reason. The chase continues.

This is what Doctor Who has become.

The final episode of Season 14 was a rich autumnal costume drama. It featured two supporting characters who are still remembered with great affection five decades later, and wonderful dialogue about the invasion of Iceland. The final episode of Season 15 involves mismatched characters chasing themselves in circles through hospitals, swimming pools and an art gallery, arguing about which corridor they have been down before. The stock brickwork buildings are supposed to be the interior of the TARDIS. 

From lavish, atmospheric costume drama to surrealistic farce in one year. We talk about Doctor Who re-inventing itself. This is Doctor Who deconstructing itself: Doctor Who rotting from the inside out.

If Doctor Who is serious science fiction then Invasion of Time is not a Doctor Who story.

If Doctor Who is about transporting you to luscious alien worlds that will stay with you until the day you die then Invasion of Time is not a Doctor Who story.

If Marco Polo or Tomb of the Cybermen is the template for what a Doctor Who story should be, then Invasion of Time falls short, far short, laughably short of the ideal.

But Invasion of Time is a Doctor Who story. So this is what Doctor Who was always like. Mad, silly, incoherent, and gloriously uninterested in its own lore.

It exemplifies everything which non-Doctor Who fans think is wrong with Doctor Who: everything we fans like to deny or excuse or forget. One set of aliens, the Vardans, are literally pieces of tin foil hanging on the ends of coat-hangers. And they sound Welsh. Nothing wrong with sounding Welsh: lots of planets have a Wales. But amid all the posh-English Time Lords it is one more thing which sticks out; one more aspect of the show that we can't quite commit to believing in. 

Sets may not literally wobble; but the exterior sequences on Gallifrey -- referred to ominously as the Outside -- are filmed in the usual BBC quarry with added sand. The Outsiders are English actors with posh accents dressed up in fake fur rugs. They are meant to be Time Lords who have renounced their heritage: they come across as one more set of Plucky Rebels. (Some people have connected them with the shabogan, the hooligans who scribble on the walls of the Panopticon in Deadly Assassin, but this is pure fan dot-joining.) In the middle episodes Leela goes full Magnificent Seven and tells them they have nothing to lose but their chains. It's Underworld and Sunmakers all over again. It wouldn't be a Doctor Who story without armed insurrection.

We aren't talking about unintentional silliness, like the unfortunately phallic monster in Image of the Fendahl. We aren't talking about over-ambitious ideas that come across as ludicrous because of the BBC's cut-price special effects, like the Doctor's blood-stream in Invisible Enemy. We aren't even talking about a sensible production ruined by a single ill-advised rat. Invasion of Time is intentionally silly -- deliberately bad. You could dub-in better Vardans (it has been tried). You could conceivably reshoot the Sontarans with masks that actually fit. It wouldn't make any difference. It isn't the dematerialised Vardans that are the problem. We can accept that strips of tin-foil dangling from wire coat-hangers are standing in for beings of pure energy: we do, after all, accept that quarries and cigarette factories sometimes stand in for alien worlds. The problem comes when we see their true form: humans in stock military uniforms.

"Disappointing, aren't they?" says the Doctor. Yes: they are.

This is a story about how an alien race invaded the Doctor's own planet; and how the Doctor lied and deceived and alienated his friends to stop them -- and no-one can be bothered to make the aliens even slightly impressive. And the Doctor points this out.

The sequences in which people literally walk round and round the TARDIS looking for the bathroom is embedded in the story and can't be edited out. (The bathroom is an ornate swimming pool: the English do call public swimming pools "baths", especially in the North, but bathroom is also used as a euphemism for bathroom, particularly by schoolteachers and the affectedly posh.) The TARDIS interior is not a bug, but a feature. It's the scripts which make the Outsiders unconvincing as dissident Time Lords, not their LARP-style costumes. (This was before LARP.) 

At one point, the Doctor has a conversation with himself about how he can escape from the Chancellor's room undetected. He speaks the line "Even the sonic screwdriver won't get me out of this one" at the audience, into camera, for all the world like a Play School presenter. The temptation to shout "It's behind you!" is overwhelming.

Later on, he runs down a corridor, confronts some Time Lord Stormtroopers, and says "Salute the Sash of Rassilon". They all bow to let him pass. Leela, who they have been told to arrest, simply says "I'm with him" and they let her pass as well. The Doctor bribes a guard with a jelly baby: there follows a bizarre mime in which the two of them try to eat their sweet at the same moment. (It recalls the battle of wits from the Princess Bride. This was before the Princess Bride.)

It is, as a very wise man said, funny-peculiar rather than funny-ha-ha. Gallifrey, for no reason that I can work out, is strewn with multi-coloured inflatable chairs. When the Doctor is inaugurated as Time Lord President, the crown (which gives him access to the Matrix) is brought in on an inflatable plastic cushion.

What we are watching is now The Tom Baker Show. It should have been obvious that Doctor Who was bigger than any one actor and that  allowing one charismatic thesp to gain the ascendency would put the show into terminal decline. But for now, Invasion of Time is happy to acknowledge the new normal and run with it. The story is about the Doctor: his nastiness, his silliness, his misanthropy -- and our ultimate faith in his benevolence. He is allowed to be awful because we know he is only pretending; and yet we suspect that the pretence -- shouting at Borusa, shutting out Leela, making illogical demands -- reveals what he has always really been like. (A writer named Shakespeare did a similar trick with a mad Danish prince.) In the past we have arrived on alien planets and asked "What is going on here?" and waited for the Doctor to tell us. Now, we have to ask "What the hell is the Doctor doing?" And there is no-one to tell us.

The last few stories have been topped and tailed by TARDIS scenes: that has become the formula, the way Doctor Who has always been, at least since last Christmas. The TARDIS is not just the vehicle that takes us to new adventures: it is home. The Doctor Who Family are discovered learning to read, or playing chess, or trying out painting; some threat interrupts them; but by the end of the episode they return home. Invasion of Time subverts the set up. Leela and K-9 are alone on the TARDIS; the Doctor has left them there; he won't tell them what is going on. He is positively horrid to Leela ("K-9, tell her to shut up") but Leela, touchingly, retains her faith in him. We don't seriously believe that the Doctor has turned evil; because we know he is the Doctor, but we can't figure out what is going on. We never really do find out: we kind of have to accept that the Doctor knows what he his doing even if we can't quite see all the moves.

This is Doctor Who. The hero is a petulant man-child with jelly babies who wears his winter coat indoors. The universe has followed suit. Tom is silly. The monsters are silly. The universe is silly. The silliness is the point.

At the beginning of Episode 6, we see first the Doctor and then the Sontarans leave the TARDIS control room and pass into the rest of the ship. It feels as if a huge taboo has been broken. For very many years, the control room has, to all intents and purposes, been the whole of the TARDIS. We saw a bit of corridor and a boot room in Season 14; and way, way back in the black-and-white we saw sleeping quarters and a food dispenser, and there have been intermittent references to wardrobes and labs and storerooms. But this is the first time we have seen the interface. And behind the white hexagonal walls and buzzing console are bricks and wooden slats. We aren't just going to a part of The Ship we haven't seen before. We are stripping away a level of reality and slipping back-stage. Camelot really is only a model. In its way it is as jarring a moment as when Number Six realises that London is a stage-set and that he is still in the Village; or when Evey realised that she was never really in the concentration camp to begin with.

Those of us who care about canon are free to say that the TARDIS is infinite and that if the Doctor happens to have configured it to look as if it is made of bricks and mortar, that's his prerogative. Some people think it's cool to make the desk top of their high-end Mac resemble the boot-up page of a first generation green screen Amstrad. (This was before Amstrad. It was a very long time before Apple.) But that's not what happens in the story. In the story, everyone thinks that the TARDIS looks like this because it is a broken down, archaic, rather ridiculous piece of technology. And that's a big part of what Doctor Who is doing to itself. Undercutting. Demythologising. Inviting us to laugh at the very premise.

In Episode 5, the Doctor and K-9 retire to the TARDIS. The Doctor is going to connect K-9 to the Matrix because the Matrix is infected with a Matrix virus and it won't affect K-9 because he doesn't have a brain. Or words to that affect. Tom can't fit the Matrix halo onto the robot head, so he hangs it over one ear, instead: the producer has fixed it by the next scene. K-9 is supposed to be a robot, constructed by a human scientist. The Doctor is the president of the Time Lords. Yet throughout the dialogue, it is clear that K-9 has the upper hand.

--You are the most insufferably arrogant, overbearing, patronising bean tin....someone said that about me once
--Correction master, several people have said that about you
--Well at least no-one's ever called me smug
--Correction master....

Doctor Who was often preceded on a Saturday night by the Basil Brush show, and it is developing a similar dynamic. Roy North is nominally in charge, nominally the grown-up, the sensible one; but Basil Brush the sarcastic, anarchic puppet comes out on top in every scene. We know, though Mr Roy does not, that it is really Basil's show. Ernie is clever and pompous and writes the plays, and Eric is moronic and spoils everything; but we know who is really in charge. The Doctor is clever and powerful and good and would have his name on the tin if we knew what it was; so it is very tempting and funny to allow his side-kicks to prick his pomposity. Sarah and Jo could often see right through him. But while Leela looks up to the Doctor with an almost religious awe, K-9 seems honestly to think that he is a fool and the TARDIS is a clapped out piece of technology. And we are supposed to be on K-9s side.

Of course the Doctor is smug: that is the point of him. Of course Basil Brush is rude: that is the point of him. It is absolutely fine for Jo to be better than the Doctor at sweet-talking warehouse men and for Leela to be better than the Doctor at hunting -- even for Zoe to be able to do the kinds of sums in her head for which the Doctor might use a computer. But if the Doctor is not as clever as he thinks and the TARDIS is not as wonderful as we thought then the whole idea of Doctor Who starts to evaporate.

Once I had a sprig of thyme.
It prospered be night and be day;
Till a false young man came a-courting to me,
And he stole all me thyme away.

I suppose one ought to try and say something about the plot.

One summary might go a bit like this:

"Powerful aliens seek to conquer our hero's home-world. In order to gain their confidence, our hero pretends to side with the invaders, to the extent of deactivating the planetary defences. The plan works: the aliens reveal a crucial piece of information, and our hero defeats them. However, while the planetary defences are switched off, and even more powerful set of evil aliens sneak in and conquer the planet."

Not a bad plot in fact. It makes more sense than Flux. There are some holes in it, but there always are. I don't know quite why the Doctor needs the precise co-ordinates of the Vardan home-world, and why he has to go to such extreme lengths to get them. I don't know quite why the Vardans are such an existential threat to the omnipotent Time Lords? Their unique selling point appears to be that they can teleport along any kind of power-source, including people's brain waves, which is a neat trick, but doesn't quite make them the ultimate force in the universe. And they kind of have trouble teleporting through lead. I don't quite know how the Vardans are defeated: there is some talk of black holes and time loops; but this is hardly the last time the Doctor will defeat the bad-guys by Doing a Thing. It's the last minute entrance of the Sontarans which makes the set-up look distinctly wobbly.

Robert Holmes reputedly told Graham Williams that the best way to write a six part story was to write a four part story and stick a two part one on the end, and I am not saying he was wrong. BBC copyright being what it is, Graham Williams had to ask Holmes' permission to re-use characters from the Deadly Assassin, and Holmes' also owned the rights to the Sontarans, which explains why it wasn't the Daleks or the Cybermen or the Master or someone actually threatening. 

At the exact moment when the Vardans appear to have been defeated, the Sontarans sneak in through the hole in Gallifrey's defence net and say, in effect "Aha: you fell into our trap. This was what we intended you to do all along!" The Sontarans knew that if the Vardans invaded Gallifrey, the Doctor would have to convince them that he was a turncoat. And they knew that the only way he could convince them that he was a turncoat was by deactivating the planet's defence system. But the Doctor isn't that predictable and the Sontarans aren't that clever. If the baddies had been a super-intelligent, super-logical race then we might just  have swallowed it, but even before they developed their chocolate fixation the Sontarans were rather dense, rather plodding infantry. And the Doctor, as usual, is improvising his head off.

If I wanted to be cruel, I would say that Graham Williams is waving his hands around and hoping we don't notice. The Vardans are invading Gallifrey because they are: the Doctor pretends to side with them because he does: The Sontarans pop up in Episode 4 because they do. But if I wanted to be kind, I would say that Graham Williams understands TV drama very well. Saturday night TV is constructed out of individual scenes, not grand plot arches. It is more important that fun stuff happens than that the exposition makes sense. 

And lots of fun stuff certainly happens. It is fun to watch Tom being evil in Episode One. It is fun to watch Tom being barking mad in Episode Six. Perhaps it would have been a mistake to make mid-March audiences attend to the pay-offs of early February set-ups. Most of the people who watched part six would have forgotten all about part one. It was 1978. Boxed sets were what Meccano came in.

Graham Williams has a strange attitude to continuity and consistency. In Horror of Fang Rock, he took a whole scene explaining why Leela's eyes had changed colour from brown to blue. The real reason was that Louise Jameson didn't much like wearing contact lenses. It is highly unlikely that viewers would have spotted the change if it hadn't been pointed out. Most of us were still watching in black and white. This time around, it has been decided to blow some of next season's budget on replacing the K-9 prop with a slightly less unwieldy one. Presumably concerned that, six months down the line, fans would say "Hey! Why is K-9's motor very slightly less noisy than it was last March?" he offers us a whole, excruciating scene in which K-9 is written out and replaced with -- a different K-9!

But as well-acted, well-written, genuinely interesting a character as Leela is summarily dispensed with, married off to a bit-part player she has barely exchanged five words with. Louise Jameson wanted her character to be killed off; Williams hoped she would stay on for another season, so the scene was added in a hurry. Maybe Williams thought that fans cared more about the shape of the tin dog's ears than the fate of the lady co-star. Maybe he was right. A new character, Rodan, the first female Time Peer we have encountered, is introduced purely in order to replace Leela as the Doctor's companion. She spends at least two episode convincing us that she would, in fact, have made rather a good companion. But at the end of the story she is left behind without a by-your-leave and never mentioned again. Romana, who will take Leela's place next year , is pretty much the same character as Rodan, only taller.

Time is an illusion. Lunch time, doubly so.
      The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

In March 1977, an up-and-coming comedy writer pitched an idea for a new comedy show to Radio 4. He purported not to specially like science fiction; but he seems to have grown up with Doctor Who, and his script, dealing as it did with the End of the World, had strong science fiction elements. Radio 4 commissioned a pilot episode immediately, and the writer shrewdly sent a copy of his script to out-going Doctor Who script editor Robert Holmes. Holmes commissioned a Doctor Who script more or less on the spot. Incoming producer Graham Williams had already decided that his second season (season 16) would have an over-arching theme, and the comedy writer bounced a lot of ideas about the Key To Time around before pitching an off-the-wall one about a hollow planet which materialised around other planets. Meanwhile, the script which Williams had originally commissioned to end Season 15 (thought to have been entitled Killers of the Dark) turned out to be un-filmable. A replacement script had to be cobbled together at the last minute by Williams and incoming script editor Anthony Read, in or about August 1977. This is why the story is credited to the fictitious David Agnew.

It follows that, when Graham Williams was writing The Invasion of Time, he had had sight of at least the pilot script for that wholly remarkable radio series. Synchronistically, the first episode of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast on the Wednesday as the final part of Invasion of Time was broadcast on the Saturday. (8th and 11th March, 1978.)

Douglas Adams had no direct input into Season 15 of Doctor Who; and certainly nothing that Graham Williams wrote approached Douglas Adams' level of wit. But it is hard not to hear Adams' voice in some of the Doctor's lines. ("They went to war with each other" he says of the Minoans in Underworld "Learned how to split the atom, discovered the toothbrush, and finally split the planet".) The TARDIS back-rooms have a certain family resemblance to the squalid Vogon Destructor Fleet; and the theory about the ubiquitous utility of the towel has a Doctorish daftness to it. David Dixon's Ford Prefect has a certain Bakerish quality to him; Geoffrey McGivern, not so much. 

The influence may not necessarily have flowed in only one direction. Adams had presumably seen Tom Baker's Doctor, so some of Baker's comic persona could have rubbed off on Adams. He would probably not have pitched Pirate Planet in the Jon Pertwee era.

Adams treats the end of the universe and the meaning of life with a sort of half-smile: there is none of the Python's surrealist outrage about the absurdity of the world. We are only a year or so away from the Pythons themselves treating the most sacred story in the western canon with the same kind of wry bemusement. The TARDIS has, up to now, been astonishing and wonderful, the magical hook on which the world's greatest TV show hangs. It's now a faintly ridiculous machine which everyone makes fun of. The Earth was colonized by hairdressers. It's not da-da-ist anarchy; any more than Life of Brian is a serious attack on anyone's faith. It's just a mild undermining of authority, which is in the end more insidious. Doctor Who started in a world where elderly boffins chatted to serious chemistry teachers about three dimensional graph geometry and Boyle's law. But it has ended in a world where the Doctor tells his own teacher that he learned nothing in college that he couldn't have arrived at from blind instinct.

Which is, come to think of it, very much what Obi-Wan told Luke Skywalker. Switch off your targeting computer. Feel, don't think. We've all heard quite enough from experts.

If Invasion of Time feels like a rushed job, that's because it was. If it feels like writers are struggling to fill blank pages, that's because they were. If it seems like characters are repeating themselves, saying the same things over and over again, going round in circles, literally and metaphorically, that's because they are.

Waiting for Godot is a play in which (allegedly) nothing happens, twice. Critics try to work out what it's really about. But what it's really about is two characters, desperately trying to fill the space until the play ends with something, anything. And the audience are supposed to say"Ah. That seems to be a familiar concept. What does it remind me if? Ah yes, life."

I felt that the Doctor running round in circles on Gallifrey and in the TARDIS, repeating himself, saying the same thing over and over, not really getting anywhere, had the some of the same vibe.

--What is it?
--That's the Chancellor's office.
--Well, I know it's the Chancellor's office.
--Well, no one goes in there unannounced.
--Well, announce me.
--All right.

The Sontarans may be invading time, but "David Agnew" is endlessly searching for witty and imaginative ways to pass it.

1 comment:

Richard Worth said...

Out of curiosity, does the script of 'Killers of the Dark' survive?