Saturday, February 10, 2024

The Key To Time


He that is not busy being born is busy dying.

Doctor Who has always been in a death spiral; undermining it's own credibility and trampling it's own legacy. But equally it has always been struggling to come into being; edging toward the moment when it has finally become Doctor Who.

But what is Doctor Who? 

We think we know. Pseudo-science, corridors, second rate Equity members over-acting in the general direction of extras in rubber suits. And no one can say that that version of Doctor Who never existed. But the crock of gold at the end of the corridor is always receding. We think we've arrived at the definitive Doctor-Who-as-it-always-was: and we find that what we're watching is a clever costume drama on left-over sets from Anna Karenina.

The Doctor has to retrieve a powerful object referred to as the Key to Time. It has been split into Six Segments and scattered across the Universe. Since there are six stories in a season of Doctor Who, the artificiality of the device pretty much screams at you from the first synopsis.

The term "story arc" was not quite current in 1978: the production team were inclined to talk about "the umbrella theme" or "the blanket story line". But we could all see that the Key to Time was a McGuffin hunt: a trek across time and space searching for what Nick Lowe memorably called "plot coupons".

There are two extant documents which explore the idea behind the saga. One is written by incumbent producer Graham Williams; the other by incoming script editor Douglas Adams. Two writers, thinking on paper, trying to sort out in their heads what the Key to Time saga could possibly be about.

Williams is interested in cosmology and lore. He's interested in what kind of universe the Doctor inhabits. I have said in the past that most Doctor Who backstory amounts to "lore-babble": stuff that sounds good but which has no real "sub-creation" behind it. However, the Williams memo does seem to envisage a self-consistent Whoniverse: even if he is ad libbing it in the very act of typing the words.

There are writers who can't write the big sex scene unless they know what kind of handles there are on the bedroom door and the colour of the wallpaper. And there are writers who don't give the hero a name unless and until it becomes relevant to the plot. Douglas Adams seems to have been in the second camp. When someone asked him if Arthur Dent used an Apple Mac, Adams said it was a silly question because Arthur Dent didn't exist, and there had never been a scene in which we saw him typing. Graham Williams is more like the actor who can't say "My lord, your carriage awaits" unless he knows what the footman had for breakfast. The Guardians have to have a purpose and the Key to Time has to have an origin even if he has no intention of sharing them with the audience.

Tolkien worked out elvish rates of fertility to a hundred decimal places as a kind of displacement activity before writing some of the most beautiful mythic prose any human being has ever composed. Williams is similarly doodling on the page, trying to get a head of steam up before working on his story. But his ideas barely impact on the actual TV show.

The memo keeps dissolving into gibberish. Elisabeth Sandifer memorably called it the most spectacularly incoherent thing she had ever read. There are three forces in physics, right? Gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear? And some theories require there to be a fourth force, which might be space-time? And humans can control gravity and electromagnetism? So maybe the Time Lords control the fourth force? 

Come on. It was 1978. Of course it was going to involve the Force.

But the Time Lords are corrupt, right? So mustn't there necessarily be a power that is as far above the Time Lords as the Time Lords are above us humans? But the higher force can't be purely good; because then the universe would be good, which it obviously isn't. So there must be two higher forces; a good one and an evil one.

Voila: the Black and White Guardian Show.

"Eternity and Infinity, as concepts, do not by their very nature, allow for an absolute Authority -- the Pyramidical Hierarchy stretches through time and space and can have no apex... But the next step is logical. The balance must be kept by someone..."

If "must" is a moral imperative ("you must be home by tea-time") then this doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Who or what made the rule that there "must" be a balance? But if it's an inductive "must" ("he must have been home by tea-time because the kitchen light was on") I think we can see what Williams is driving at. If Time and Space are infinite there can't be any supreme being. A pyramid with infinitely long sides never comes to a point. If the Time Lords are above the humans and the Guardians are above the Time Lords, there must be Something Else above the Guardians, and Something Else above the Something Else. It's turtles all the way down. (Williams literally quotes Jonathan Swift's poem about fleas.) But if the next in line above the Time Lords were good then we'd expect goodness to be running the whole show: which obviously it isn't. So it follows that there "must" be both a good and an evil force, in some kind of balance.

It's the old, old question. If the supreme being is good, then how do you account for the existence of haemorrhoids and Sir Kier Starmer?

There is some pretty weird moral philosophy in the memo:

"Must responsibility and objectivity lie solely in the hands of the good influence? Demonstrably not so. Of our recent history there is no account nor any evidence that Hitler believed his principles less sincerely than Churchill believed in his. Where were Nuremburg, had Hitler won."

This is monstrously confused -- we're looking over Williams' shoulder as he vomits ideas into a notebook. But I think we can see the thought he is trying to have. He's contrasting a monotheist universe in which good is good and all alone and ever more shall be so with a dualist world where good and evil are two equal and opposed forces.

In a strictly dualist universe there is no particular reason why you ought to choose to be good rather than evil. They are just two teams, like the Arsenal and the Spurs. Dungeons & Dragons conceptualises "good" and "evil" as antagonistic clubs you choose to join, not meaningful descriptions of codes of conduct or ways of life."You ought to follow the light rather than the dark" implies that there is a third force, over and above the light side and the dark side that approves the Jedi and deprecates the Sith. That's why orthodox Christians have always been very clear that Satan is not an evil god; he's merely a very naughty angel. I believe that even so-called dualistic systems like Zorastrianism and Manicheism say, under their breath and off mic, that the good force came first and will beat the bad one in the end. You ought to back the winner.

What Williams appears to be blurting out is that Hitler believed himself to be good and the allies to be evil and that there is no absolute perspective from which one can say that he is wrong. Cosmically speaking, murdering six million Jews and not murdering six million Jews are equally neutral acts. It's a fortunate quirk of history that we happen to have been educated on the non-genocidal side of the line.

But "Hitler thought that doing evil was good, so maybe doing good is evil" is not meaningful or helpful, even as a thought experiment. The relevant insight would have to be something like "Suppose you honestly thought that monstrous aliens dedicated to the destruction of humanity were dispersed through your population: might genocide be one of the solutions which would occur even to a good person?" We stopped executing witches, not because we changed our mind about executions, but because we stopped believing in witchcraft.

But that's exactly the kind of thinking which the Doctor rejects. There would be a contradiction in wiping out the whole Dalek species because the Daleks are genocidal monsters. The Daleks are bad and if the Doctor acts as they do he would be as bad as them.

The second half of the Williams memo attempts to connect all this back to Doctor Who. It proposes that the President of the Time Lords is told about the higher authority when he assumes office. (The Doctor must therefore have learned about them in Invasion of Time -- or would have done if he had not had his memory erased at the end of the story.) The two Guardians are representatives of the Higher Power within the Cluster -- the section of the universe the Time Lords are in charge of. The Key to Time is a neutral source of power for both the White and the Black Guardians. In Williams' original conception, the Black Guardian has already stolen the Key and scattered it through Time and Space; the Universe is already descending into chaos. He seems to entertain the thought that the Doctor has always been resisting the chaos and his enemies have always been agents of the Black Guardian. He wonders if perhaps Time Lords are periodically promoted to being Guardians, and that the Doctor might be rewarded for completing the quest by being offered the chance to level up.

But none of this makes its way into the actual episodes. Neither does the attractive idea of a magic candle which burns dimmer and dimmer as the Black Guardian's power waxes. And Williams philosophical doodle entirely fails to answer the big question. How will a season of Doctor Who in which the Doctor is searching for the six segments of the Key to Time be distinguishable from a season in which he isn't?

In this respect, Douglas Adams' notes are a lot more interesting; albeit only as a counterfactual -- a brief premonition of a more interesting Key to Time which might have existed, but never did. Adams isn't interested in higher powers, moral relativism, or infinitely large pyramids. He's truthfully not that interested in Doctor Who. He's interested in scripts. The producer has determined that the Doctor is going to spend Season 16 collecting party favours for a cosmic scavenger hunt: so how can a writer use that idea to generate some interesting TV?

Adams zeroes in on one crucial fact. Each of the segments is disguised as a random object. So in each story, one object must be of exceptional significance. The important thing is to think of interesting and surprising objects and to think of interesting and surprising reasons why some character might want to stop the Doctor getting his hands on them.

"The problem in each case is that the object plays some significant role in the life of the planet on which it is located, either for good or evil, and the Doctor has to consider how its removal will affect life on [that planet]."

Being Douglas Adams, he tries to think of far-fetched and ridiculous things for the segments to be disguised as. The Moon and the Sun. Stonehenge. A person: Romana, maybe, or even the Doctor himself. Imagine a story in which the Doctor arrived in a future London and was required to ask the King (recognisably descended from Prince Charles) if he could please remove Buckingham Palace because he needed it to save the universe.

Adams was finishing up the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy at the same time he was working on what became the Pirate Planet and there is a certain familial wackiness between the two stories. What if the second segment turned out to be, er, Africa? What if the Doctor already knew this, and had the original continent in storage in his infinitely large TARDIS?

Adams' essay is not always very easy to follow. His mind worked very quickly but didn't stay in one place for long. But it is the idea of disguise which seems to fascinate him. He envisages characters being mistaken, or directly lying, about which object will turn out to be that episode's plot coupon. Maybe the Doctor pretends that he has found the segment to impress Romana? Maybe he lies about what the segment is to give him a pretext to take away some alien object he wants to possess for some unfathomable reason of his own? Maybe the segment is a weapon and the Doctor has to make a morally ambiguous pact with a supervillain to get his hands on it?

Williams' introduction of the tracer/core in Episode One pretty much closes off most of these interesting avenues: the Doctor has an infallible wand that flashes "this way to the plot" at the beginning of each episode. (Several times, the Doctor loses the tracer, but that simply turns the McGuffin detector into a temporary McGuffin.)

The memo may contain the germ of what became the Armageddon Factor. But very few of Adams' ideas ever see the light of day. It is hard to avoid the feeling that in many of the Key to Time stories, the quest was being retrofitted into stories which would have worked perfectly well without it.

Four seasons ago, the Doctor was sent on a quest: not by the Guardians but by the Time Lords. The TARDIS could, I suppose, have randomly dumped him on Skaro at the precise moment when Davros was about to activate his new range of outer space robot people. And the Doctor might have decided that this provided him with an opportunity to abort his enemy at the moment of their conception. And he might even have had moral qualms at the last minute. But that would have all been a bit of a stretch even by Doctor Who standards. The prologue to Genesis of the Daleks justifies the contrivance; and sets up the moral dilemma in the final episode. The Doctor questions whether he ought (that word again) to destroy the Daleks even though the Time Lords have told him to.

And that's the question that neither Williams nor Adams successfully answers. What narrative effect will the Guardian's sending the Doctor on a cosmic treasure hunt have on the six stories that make up Season 16?

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