Monday, April 22, 2024

Doctor Who Season 16: The Pirate Planet (4)

A cave. A group of mysterious cultists with silly make up and saffron robes. They chant about the Life Force and talk Old Fashioned. ("The time of knowing shall be soon and fast upon that shall follow the time of vengeance.") They make telepathic contact with a young man with 1970s hair. The camera filter goes funny and they declare that they have "found another" and that he must be "harvested". We've all seen the Tomorrow People: it is clear that he is about to Break Out. The robed Telepaths come and take the young man away from his family. His grandfather fears and hates the Telepaths; but his sister and her boyfriend think that the Evil Dictator who rules the planet and has banned telepathy and freedom of thought is far worse. It turns out that the Telepaths are the last remnant of the original inhabitants of the planet; before it was conquered by the Evil Leader and his Evil Stormtroopers. The Doctor makes friends with them. Together they break into the Evil Leader's strong hold, shut down his Anti-Telepath ray, sabotage his power generator and blow up his base. The planet is now free and everyone lives happily ever after. Hooray!

This is not the plot of the Pirate Planet.

At any rate, not the whole plot, nor the interesting part of the plot, nor the part of the plot which anyone remembers. When I sat down to re-watch the serial, I was quite surprised that almost the first thing that we see are the Mentiads, standing in a circle and chanting. They seem to have come in from a different story, the Daemons, say, or Fendahl. 

Robed mystics with telepathy, telekinesis, plugged into the very essence of creation, who overthrow an evil cyborg technocrat. They could have wandered in from an entirely different franchise. They don't say "May the life-force be with you" but one fears that they might.

Now, it would be quite tempting to attribute the Mentiad sub-plot and it's rather lacklustre dialogue to script editor Anthony Read, and to say that the highly imaginative and witty piratical material came from the genius of Douglas Adams. Next season, we'll be praising script editor Douglas Adams for all the funny lines and blaming Terry Nation and David Fisher for all the boring ones. And certainly, the serio-comic Adamsian space-opera is set alongside the most generic of generic Doctor Who storylines. Cultists who stand in a circle and chant. Natives who think that being oppressed is "just the way things are"; while other natives half-heartedly say "we have been quiet for too long." They could just as well be Thals or Xenons or Two-Legs on Metabelis 3. David Warwick (Kimus) works quite hard to deliver heroic lines with a pantomime seriousness, but even a very good actor couldn't do much to salvage "Bandraginus Five, by every last breath in my body, you'll be avenged." [NOTE 1]

But what if the bifurcation of the story were intentional -- or at any rate, a happy accident? What if the corridors, the caves, the pathetic rebels and the Tomorrow Zombies are what Doctor Who looked like before 1977, and Captains and Queens and shrunken planets are what it will look like from here on in? In this corridor, the dying embers of Sydney Newman and monochrome tea-times: in this one, George Lucas and punk-rock filtered through the prophetic mind of Douglas Adams before Apple Macs even existed.  

Forward or backwards? Old Old Who or New Old Who? Can the two visions ever come into balance? At the exact centre of the story is a queen who literally wants to hold back time, abort change, and return everything to how it was in the good old days. 

In Episode One, Kimus asks the Doctor what he does for a living. "I save planets, mostly" replies the Doctor.

In the very next scene (the next line, in fact) the Captain asks Romana to define her "function". "Well, as a Time Lord I can travel about in space, and of course time" she replies. [NOTE 2]

Romana's answer is the one that the Doctor himself might have given at any time over the last fifteen years. She's actually an agent of the Time Lord Council and the White Guardian: she could very well have said "I am a student" or "I am seeking for the Key to Time." But she prefers to just say that she is a traveller. The Doctor, on the other hand, now defines himself by his function in the story. It's the same definition Tom Baker himself used: the role of the Doctor is simply that of a "benevolent alien".

"I travel in time and space". A glance back to the black and white era. A citizen of the universe; and a lady, to boot. 

"I save planets, mostly." A superhero who saves the universe on a monthly basis; one who knows the rules and can even wink at the audience. 

What the show used to be; what the show is now. 

Can the Doctor Who accommodate both visions? 

Or must the Doctor bi-generate?

There is very little world-building in classic Who. Season Sixteen may consist of six linked stories; but there is nothing but the recurrent Key to suggest that the segments are taking place in a shared universe. You might suppose that Queen Xanxia -- who in her day staged galactic wars -- would have known, or been known by the "Greater Cyrrhenic Empire" or to have interacted with "Pontonese Ships". The Ribos Operation was about a con-man trying to sell a valueless mineral mine to a mark; this one is about a villain who strip mines planets for their mineral wealth. Might Garron not have been aware of Bandraginus Five? Might the Captain not have been aware of the Mining Conglomerate? Might the precious mineral discovered lying in the street not have been Jethric? Kimus doesn't know of the existence of planets other than Zanak: when his world teleports to other locations he thinks that the patterns of the "points of light in the sky" change. By the end of the story he knows they are other suns, and that the planet itself moves. Which is very like what Binro went through in the previous story. But nothing whatsoever is made of this connection. Doctor Who, prior to the wilderness years simply never worked like that. Cameos and Easter Eggs, possibly: consistent setting and backstory, never, never, never. The Whoniverse is a fan mirage.

So it is not surprising that there is so little development in the relationship between the Doctor and Romana. Doctor Who isn't, and can't ever be a soap opera. The writers have presumably been briefed that the Doctor has a new assistant, and that she is clever, but not quite as clever as she thinks she is; that she is a recent graduate; and slightly disdainful of the Doctor. But each of them seems free to re-invent their relationship within the brief.  A few years later, Matthew Waterhouse would complain that he was playing a completely different Adric in each story. [NOTE 3]

In the Ribos Operation, there was tension between the Doctor, who has experience and street smarts, and Romana, who has up-to-date scientific expertise. She keeps being annoyingly right; but he keeps smugly saving the day. She hugs him when he saves her from the monster, but she doesn't back down over his egotism or his lack of academic status. This added up to some passable comedy drama, but it tended to reduce the Doctor to a stooge in his own show.

The opening scenes of Pirate Planet have some of the same dynamic: although it is now Romana who is being petulant and sniping, and the Doctor who is relatively unfazed by it. Her crack about not understanding the TARDIS because she skipped the class on antiques (and preferred "the lifecycle of the Gallifreyan flutter-wing") is pretty childish. But there is a glint in both her's and the Doctor's eyes which suggests that they are just going through the motions.

The Doctor flies the TARDIS intuitively; Romana wants to do it by the book. The manual -- which is, rather delightfully, a huge leather Bible on a lectern -- says that you should check the "synchronic feedback circuit" and activate the "multi-loop synthesiser" before landing. The Doctor says he never bothers, offers to demonstrate a "really smooth materialisation" and (of course) crashes the ship. Romana, following the correct procedure, brings them in safely. 

Pompous people slipping on banana skins will always be funny, but if the point of your hero is that he is clever then "clever people are not as clever as they think they are" is not a card you want to play too often. (If, on the other hand your here were very, very strong, it would not be a particularly good idea to play up to the stereotype that strong people are stupid. Comic book and movie versions of Conan too often turn Bob Howard's intelligent barbarian into a brainless brick.)

As it turns out, it isn't quite the Doctor's fault. The crash happened because something else -- the planet Zanak -- was trying to materialise in the same place at the same time.

Once the Doctor and Romana are on the surface of Zanak, the relationship seems to reconfigure. The script recognises that if you have two characters, both Time Peers, both more or less immortal, and both with infinite reserves of pseudo-science and pseudo-history to draw on, what you have got is not the Doctor and his Assistant, but two versions of the Doctor. Look at the way Romana interacts with the Captain's guard in Episode Two ("Thank you; will you drive, I assume you know where you are going?") and the contempt she shows for the Captain and his Nurse ("I was never any good at antiques"). Either line could have just as easily have been delivered by the Doctor.

Now, "Two Doctors", as opposed to "the Doctor and his Beautiful Assistant" has some narrative advantages. It means that the Doctor can be learning about the Mentiads while Romana is being interviewed by the Captain; and the Doctor can be talking to the Captain while Romana and the Mentiads are trying to find another way into the hyperdrive engine room. And a bright, independent companion is a good deal less irritating -- and less sexist -- than one whose main role is to scream and ask the Doctor to explain how brilliant he is.

But equally,  "Two Doctors" create narrative problems which didn't exist before. Writers have generally resisted multi-Doctor crossovers for exactly that reason: but it's hard to write convincing dialogue for three (or five) competing egos. Robert Holmes' pitch for the Five Doctors and the Terrance Dicks script that was actually filmed, both went to some lengths to keep Pertwee, Troughton and Davison apart for most of the tale. Baker, of course, declined to be involved.

So: Episode Three of the Pirate Planet begins with a colossal expository dollop: we find out what the Captain is doing (materialising his hollow planet around other planets and stripmining them) and what this has to do with the Mentiads (killing planets releases the Life Force, which causes latent telepaths to Break Out). The Doctor and Romana both contribute to the explanations, talking over each other in a not particularly funny way.

DOCTOR: At almost the same moment it vanishes, it rematerialises in another part of the galaxy around another, slightly smaller, planet.

ROMANA: In this case, a planet called Calufrax.

DOCTOR: Yes. So your planet...

ROMANA: ....Zanak....

DOCTOR: [Glares]

ROMANA: Just helping you along, Doctor.

Adams does his best (did I mention he's quite good at dialogue?) but it quickly becomes annoying.

There are moments when the old patriarchal patronisation kicks in. The Doctor reveals very obvious plot points which the audience have already got to, and Romana exclaims "of course!" as if he is a genius. When it transpires that the Queen is behind the whole evil enterprise, and the Captain was only pretending to be a pantomime pirate, the Doctor becomes more school-teachery than Jon Pertwee ever was. "Let that be a lesson to you, my girl".  He really does call her "my girl".

At the end of the story they go back to the TARDIS together. It's a rare instance in the classic era of the TARDIS itself being used to solve a problem; and of the Ship itself being put at risk. 

And, if we are paying attention, there is a massive call back to Episode One. 

To prevent Zanak materialising around the Earth, the Doctor decides to deliberately materialise the TARDIS in the same place at the same time. If he gets it wrong, TARDIS and planet are both going to come to an explosive end. 

And sure enough, as he is going through this incredibly difficult operation we hear him say "Multi-loop stabiliser; synchronic feedback." He's doing it by the book: as Romana advised him in Episode One. In the end, the scheme is only partly successful and he has to invoke his own telepathy, the Mentiads, and a convenient spanner to damage the hyperdrive engines. So once again, they were both right: book learning and seat of the pants intuition together saves the day. And the Doctor and Romana stop scoring points off each other. "It was nice working with you" says the Doctor, when it looks as if they are going to die. "You too" replies the Doctor. The Doctor and Romana -- the Boy Doctor and the Girl Doctor -- have achieved a kind of balance.

In order to get a degree in English Literature, you have to have a good answer to the question "Why does Hamlet delay?" Why doesn't he just kill the King as soon as the Ghost has set him the quest? There are lots of possible answers: because he doubts the Ghost's veracity; because he doesn't have the opportunity; because he has studied Freud's Introductory Lectures; because he's a Calvinist; because he's not a Calvinist.

But the truthful answer is always: because if Hamlet killed Claudius in Act II Scene 1 the play would be very short.

Put more simply: Hamlet procrastinates because Hamlet is a play about procrastination. 

In Episode Three of the Pirate Planet, the Doctor tells Romana that the Captain wants to find out why they have come to Zanak.

"The reason we've come here is to find the second segment of the key" replies Romana "In case you'd forgotten". And, in fact, we had. Zanak and the Captain were quite exciting enough without worrying about the Guardian's cosmic jigsaw. Romana is about to claim that getting involved in what's happening on the planet is a distraction, but the Doctor interrupts her: "Getting involved in all this is the only way to find it."

It's either an admission of defeat, or Douglas Adams bragging that he has done something immensely clever. The only way in which the Doctor can find the second segment is for him to do exactly what he would have done in any case.

The Key to Time Saga is an argument about the essence of Doctor Who. The aimless wanderer now has a device which sends him to very specific times and places. The curious fellow who always gets involved is now under a divine mandate to turn up, grab the quest-objective, and leave.

Except that the Doctor's wanderings were never aimless. The Tracer has not changed the format: it has simply made explicit what has always been the case. The Doctor always ended up exactly where the Plot required him to be -- exactly where the writer decided to send him. The Plot has been made manifest; but it was never not there. Perhaps in this Season the Doctor can see it a little more clearly.  

Up to now every Doctor Who story has always begun with the question "Why doesn't the Doctor just leave?" And the answer, give or take a fluid link and a dematerialisation circuit, has always been: "Because he's the Doctor, that's why. 

But in Season Sixteen, that answer doesn't apply. Once the Doctor finds the Segment -- and he has an Anti-Plot device which infallibly points him to it -- he has no reason to stay and every reason to leave. The forces of Plot have to come up with strategies to keep him on Calufrax or Ribos . Otherwise, the Season would be very short indeed.

The First Segment was the intersection of a series of intrigues which would have carried on whether the Doctor had shown up or not. It kept him on the periphery of the action; reducing him to a supporting character on his own show. 

The Second Segment, as the Doctor directly acknowledges, is The Plot itself. For the first half of the story, the Tracer appears to be malfunctioning. It appears to have taken the Doctor to the wrong planet -- Zanak instead of Calufrax -- and it doesn't direct him to any single location. Viewers realise, a shade before the Doctor does, that it is behaving like a compass at the South Pole -- trying to point in all directions at once because everywhere is North.

The Doctor has to work out what is going on before he can put his hands on the Key and end the narrative. Once the puzzle is solved, the Plot focuses down on a single location: Calufrax ceases to be the narrative environment, and becomes an object within it, a tiny shrunken head in the Captain's trophy room. But the Doctor can't remove it until he understands the Captain's grand scheme. When everything falls into place, twenty two minutes into Episode Four, the story dutifully comes to an end.

If the Doctor had arrived on Calufrax / Zanak through the random wanderings of the TARDIS he would undoubtedly have been fascinated by the missing planet, and by the precious stones lying in the street. He would certainly have been horrified by what the Captain was doing, and he would definitely have sided with the Mentiads once he understood who they were. And there is no doubt that he would have tried to overthrow the Queen and save the Earth from being smothered. The Key to Time has negligible effect on the story we have just watched. 

People writing about the Key to Time often point to balance as a unifying theme. The meta-plot is about finding a mid-point between the Black and White Guardians; and the individual stories keep referencing the idea of balance: the unending war between heat and ice in Ribos mythology; the Captain's collection of dead planets held in perfect gravitational balance. Could we not also say that the Pirate Planet strives to find a balancing point between Plot and Anti-Plot?

Or would it be better simply to say that the Plot is in this case so huge and the Captain's power so evil, that the Doctor can't possibly ignore it, Black Guardian or no Black Guardian?

Or should we merely say that Adams made the not unsensible decision to pretty much ignore the overarching theme and wrote a damn fine space opera instead?

[NOTE 1] It is possible that Adams is consciously parodying or exaggerating some of the cliches of Doctor Who. The air-cars and the inertia corridor could be read as reaction against the preponderance of corridors. Villains honestly, no-kidding say things like "Guards, seize them!" "Die, you fool, die" "You shall die for your insolence" and "You dare to mock me." When the Doctor literally says "Take me to your leader" he must surely be doing it deliberately.

[NOTE 2] Romana definitely says "Time Lord", as opposed to "Time Lady". When they first met, she told the Doctor that she would be happy with the male sobriquet Fred. Despite her elegant dresses, gender is not, at this point, that big a deal in Time Lord society.

[NOTE 3] There is a fan tradition that "Time Lord" refers to an elite ruling class on Gallifrey, and that there are a number of artisans and technicians who are not in that illustrious caste. Romana is young by Time Lord standards but she appears to have already reached that exalted status: unless, perchance "Time Lord" is the title automatically bestowed on one on graduation. Terrance Dicks once joked that the existence of The Doctor and The Master rather implied that somewhere in space and time there must be a traveller called The Bachelor. The Doctor and Romana seem to treat "Time Lord" as synonymous with "Gallifreyan".

Serious face.

I currently have 62 Patreon followers, paying me very roughly £80 dollars per article.

Every single follow is a huge vote of confidence and massively appreciated; as, indeed, is every comment and every reader. (I am reminded of aline by favourite singer/songwriter: “It still blows my mind each time they let me play to anyone.”)

However, it remains true that I lost about five followers during March, on top of the ones I have lost since the beginning of the year, and any further drop in followers would be A Little Alarming.

I reduced the amount of hours I work on my day-job in 2022 specifically to spend more time writing; and Patreon remains my primary income stream.

I am only semi-serious when I say that I think my political writing drives people away. Certainly people have walked away (and in some cases stopped talking to me altogether) because of my shockingly right wing / shockingly left wing views. But I am sure it’s mostly because Times Are Hard and setting up monthly payments is a certain amount of hassle.

I also have to consider that I have over the last twenty years said absolutely everything I have to say on absolutely every subject, and that it is time to start looking for another hobby. I turn out to be quite good at singing sea shanties, for certain values of "singing". And obviously the Trolls said a long time ago that I had simply lost my marbles.

It’s definitely the case that if I find my Patreon followers go UP this month when I start writing about Doctor Who again, I am more likely to write about Doctor Who (or start some other Great Big Geek project). I set up a little Readers Poll for Patreon Supporters, which seems to show that the engaged followers are basically fine with me going off on one about Woke from time to time.

Coming this month:

I am writing my way around the 1978 Doctor Who story Stones of Blood, including a wild digression about Ley-lines, stone-circles and evangelicalism. I am hoping to do another Video Diary before too long. 

If this is even slightly interesting, do please consider clicking on the little button and pushing my follower back up to a healthy 70 or so. 

1 comment:

Achille Talon said...

A very fine article as e'er! Very insightful w/regards to the unfolding Romana/Doctor relationship and of course the tension between the two halves of the plot.

Regarding Footnote 3, I would not call it a fan tradition so much as a fan-"point that bloody wars of religion are fought about on a regular basis". (My personal creed is, of course, that all Gallifreyans are Time Lords, but not all Time Lords are Gallifreyan.)