Thursday, June 20, 2024

Doctor Who Season 16: Stones of Blood (3)

 V: Spaceship

So: Vivien Fay teleports Romana to a spaceship. The Doctor, back on earth, cobbles together a teleportation device of his own. Despite the scarfs and cakes and toreadors, he is still at heart a boffin. He teleports to the ship to rescue Romana; but Vivien zaps the machine, leaving the Doctor and Romana both trapped.

"Too late now, Doctor" she explains "I've destroyed your pitiful little machine. There's no way out for you. You're trapped in hyperspace forever".

It's a vintage piece of Doctor Who villain-speak. As if "pitiful" wasn't sufficient, she pronounces the last sentence "You're trapped in hyperspace... ... ... ... for EVAH!" And then she laughs. The "bwah-ha-ha" laugh that villains always do at the end of episodes. And then the camera zooms in a little closer to her face.

Fifteen years and four hundred and eighty seven episodes scream at us that we should go into the closing credits at this point.



Dum-ba-de-dum, dum-ba-de-dum... Wee war....

But they don't come.

Instead we cut to a reverse establishing shot of the hyper-space-ship. Which we have already seen, and which isn't particularly impressive. Only then does the music start. The pause wrong foots us. It's almost as if the show itself is embarrassed by the cliche.

It doesn't particularly matter what the hyperspace prison ship looks like. Nothing in the plot depends on it. It isn't a reveal -- we're not being told "Ha-ha: they were on a spaceship all the time!" We know where we are. There are corridors and panels and sliding doors everywhere. 

A tiny point: a really tiny point. But it suggests that we are watching a version of Doctor Who that is not completely comfortable in its skin. It offers up beloved tropes and steps away from them. It follows conventions and simultaneously breaks them.

And it is 1978. The only thing which the lingering shot of the model hanging in front of the painted backdrop says is "This show is really quaint and amateurish compared with Star Wars."

VI: Wig

Hands up if you remember Crown Court? 

Hands up if it is forever associated in your mind with being off school with the flu or a tummy ache -- with Cup-a-Soup, Lucuzade and Hickory House? 

Hands up if you remember the name of the fictional town where it was set? And if you know why that name has since become a bit of an in-joke? 

Crown Court was a thrice weekly TV show that came on after the lunch-time news on ITV. Three twenty five minute episodes depicting a fictional trial. A tight, elegant format: prosecution on Monday; defence on Tuesday; verdict on Wednesday. 

The procedure was legally correct; the cast were played by actors but the jury were made up of members of the public who were on the electoral role and eligible for jury service. With the exception of the foreman, who usually had a line of dialogue and therefore had to have an Equity card and a mention in the end credits. 

It must have been terribly cheap to make, because it all took place on a single set. But it had decent actors. I remember Patrick Troughton having an outburst and being taken down to the cells to cool off. The format was flexible: you could do a story about white witches desecrating the local graveyard one week, and one about a farmer suing a market for selling him an infertile bull the next. One week it turned into a completely surreal self-parody. 

Quite often, the plot illustrated a specific, interesting, legal question. I recall one which turned on whether an expert witness could persuade a jury to doubt the veracity of fingerprint evidence. I am sure that anyone from the legal profession would laugh it out of...well, out of court. But it felt authentic.

David Fisher (writer of Stones of Blood) contributed a dozen stories to Crown Court. I guess it was a good gig for a jobbing freelance. I have just been watching one of them. Entitled simply Treason, it is pretty lurid by the standards of 1970s lunchtime TV. The Accused is a white supremacist mercenary who has participated in an inept coup on a fictional British colony in the Caribbean. Fifteen people died, and on his return to England he has been charged with treason against the crown.

It's contrived as hell; of course, but it's well scripted, well acted, and oddly compelling. The Prosecution barrister is played by a disconcertingly young Richard Wilson: you kind of wish that instead of accusing one of the witnesses of presenting a tissue of lies, he could have shouted "I don't BELIEVE it." Of course the Defence produce a comms expert to argue that Special Branch have doctored their phone-tap evidence to make it more incriminating that it is. Of course the prosecution notice that the expert witness's address is a local farm. Would it be true to say that you in fact live in a commune? Would it be true to say that you are in fact an anarchist?

"We don't believe in definitions."

"No further questions m'lud."

The defence argues that since the accused isn't a British citizen (he's a white Belgian planter from Congo) he can't, by definition be a traitor, since he owes no allegiance to the British crown. The Judge explains that in English law, allegiance is reciprocal, and since he was married to an English woman and ran a business in England, he owed allegiance to the Queen whether he had a British passport or not. So everything depends on whether he divested himself of his British property before or after he led the coup; and whether his wife filed for divorce before he left or after he returned.

Episode Three always ends with a caption saying "The Verdict". In this case, the Jury agrees with the Prosecution and finds the ex-mercenary guilty of Treason. So the judge gets to try on his black cap, and the end credits roll without a theme tune. The next case was about someone who'd been stabbed with a kebab fork at a swingers' party.

This is all just about legally believable. Although the death penalty for murder was abolished in the UK in 1965, capital punishment technically remained on the statute books for treason, piracy and military sabotage until 1998. Justice Donaldson famously opined that the four men convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings should have been charged with treason (as opposed to the lessor crime of terrorism) and hanged. Since they were all subsequently exonerated, it's probably just as well no-one paid any attention to him. 

Because Crown Court was a purely legal drama, it didn't have any interest in the political ramifications of a capital trial in 1973. One imagines that the court would have been stuffed to the brim with hysterical tabloid reporters; and that the Home Secretary would have instantly commuted any death sentence to life imprisonment. The Isle of Man was allowed to retain the death penalty until 1993, on the strict condition that they didn't actually execute anyone.

Now: we have talked before about how frequently the death penalty is used as a motif in Doctor Who. Not just mortal peril; not merely cliffhangers or death-traps: the specific threat of capital punishment. The Captain makes the Doctor walk the plank; the Graf puts him in front of a firing squad; Federico tries to have him beheaded; the Master frames him for murder on Gallifrey.

So it is interesting that David Fisher, who brought the noose to a genteel lunch-break drama show, chose, in the second half of Stones of Blood, to once again put the Doctor on trial for his life. 

The plot, such as it is, runs as follows: the Doctor has beamed up to the hyper-space prison ship to rescue Romana. The ship appears deserted, and he uses the sonic screwdriver to open a cabin door. He releases two aliens, who describe themselves as "justice machines". Opening a cabin door without authorisation is a serious offence; and they sentence the Doctor to death. 

Judge Mowbray in Crown Court told the Jury to disregard the possibility of a death sentence when considering their verdict. "It is for the judge to sentence, and for the jury to weigh the evidence and arrive at a just verdict." But the language of Fisher's justice machines is more in line with Judge Dredd.

"We are the law. Judge, jury and executioner. Once we have arrived at our verdict, we execute it. Without fear or favour; impartially."

In the early instalments, Dredd occupied a position somewhere between that of a Wild West sheriff and a state-sanctioned vigilante: he spotted wrongdoers and shot them on the spot. But very rapidly, he morphed into a cop who could summarily send crooks to jail. "I am the law" is one of his catchphrases. Fisher must have been aware of 2000AD. Dredd enforces the law in Mega City One: the justice robots who have captured the Doctor are called Megara.

But the Megara are not vigilantes or assassins. They are portrayed as caricatures of English lawyers. They say things like "contrition is to be accounted in the accused's favour" and "your evidence is immaterial." 

Now, one can perfectly well imagine a science fiction story in which "opening the door" turns out to be a terrible local taboo. Star Trek did that kind of thing several times. But the Megara don't seem to regard door opening as especially heinous: they merely treat execution as a routine form of chastisement for any and all rule-breaking.

Crown Court depicts an ideal vision of the English justice system: everyone is allowed a fair hearing and the judge is careful to make sure that the jury understands both sides of the argument. At one point he politely asks a witness not to use so much slang in case the jury don't understand him. The lawyers don't leap to their feet and cry out "Objection!"; they politely say things like "M'lud, I really fail to see the relevance of this line of questioning..." The trial in Stones of Blood is purely Kafkaesque: the Doctor is tried in his absence and convicted of something he could not conceivably have known was against the law when he did it. The "justice machines" are a bit like Lord Melchet who sent for his black cap before he has heard any evidence from either side because he would need it later. ("I do love a fair trial" remarks Captain Blackadder.)

The Megara allow the Doctor to appeal against his death sentence, but they state in advance that he is going to be killed in any case: 

"In accordance with article fourteen of the legal code, subsection one three five, this humanoid's execution is stayed for two hours while we graciously consent to hear his appeal. Afterwards, the execution will take place as ordered."

They reiterate it in the next scene: 

"The court has considered the request of the humanoid, hereinafter known as the Doctor. In order to speed up the process of law, it will graciously permit him to conduct his own appeal, prior to his execution."

So maybe what Fisher is aiming at is something like Alice in Wonderland: "sentence first, verdict after." Which would be consistent with the show's descent into dreamlike surrealism.

In a real legal system, laws are there to provide clarity and transparency: it is written in technical language to remove any possible ambiguity or misunderstanding. The Crown Court judge carefully explains legal concepts to the jury in plain English. Stones of Blood depicts the law as an exercise in obfuscation: obscure procedures which override common sense or natural justice, which no-one but a lawyer could possibly understand. ("Article twenty three of the legal code, subsection seventeen.")

While the Doctor is presented as an anti-establishment figure standing up against unfair authority figures; the underlying idea (that "the law" stands against simple principles of right and wrong) is in fact deeply illiberal. It's right wing tabloids who complain that a criminal "got off" when the jury declare that he wasn't proven guilty. It's right-wingers who complain about liberal lawyers holding prosecutors to the rules. ("He got off on a technicality.") It's Batman who says that he no longer cares about the law, only about what is right. The alternative to pedantic lawyers is trial by public opinion and lynch-law.

So, the Doctor is on trial for his life. He is going to mount his own defence. The stakes could not be higher. He calls the only witness he could possibly call: Romana. 

And then he reaches into his pocket....and pulls out a wig. He puts it on his head, and continues his defence.

In the RPG Toon, a character can have a "gizmo" in his back pocket; where a "gizmo" is an object which will transform into exactly the thing the character needs when he takes it out. (This is also how Batman's utility belt functions in the DC Heroes RPG.) It has long been a running gag that the Doctor has magic pockets; or else that he is so clever and so lucky that he always just happens to be carrying the exact think that he is most likely to need that day. No-one has ever given a story-internal reason that his pockets work this way: it's more fun left as a running gag. 

But why an English lawyer's wig? Romana would expect him to wear one of those Gallifreyan skullcaps, like the Inquisitor wears in Trial of a Time Lord. The Megara presumably don't care about uniforms at all. I can only assume that the Doctor is taunting Viviane -- she's lived on earth for centuries and presumably knows something about British legal etiquette.

But what is he communicating to her by putting the wig on? "I'm such a complete idiot that I think this alien spaceship functions like an English court"? Or perhaps "I understand the law very well and can easily get myself acquitted" ?

Romana is sworn in, with an oath that goes  "I swear to tell the truth, as far as I, a mere humanoid, am capable of knowing the truth." Again, it is perfectly possible that advanced lawyer robots might regard human testimony as intrinsically unreliable. The dramatically believable thing, I suppose, would be for them to treat Romana as the judge on Crown Court would have treated a young child: "Now then; do you know the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie....?" That would also have been quite funny.

But we're not trying to imagine how an alien court might work. We're creating a parody of the oath in an English or American court. It reminds me, slightly, of the scene in Flash Gordon where Dale is forced to marry Ming. Presumably, Mongo would have its own religious traditions and rituals: but in the movie, they play Wagner's wedding march and use a burlesque version of the English prayer book. ("Do you, Ming the Merciless, ruler of the universe, take this Earthling, Dale Arden, to be your Empress of the hour? Do you promise to use her and  not to blast her into space ...until you grow weary of her?")

Once Romana has taken her oath, the camera goes back to the Doctor. While we were looking the other way, he has acquired a court brief. Did that happen to be in his pockets as well, or did the Megara sportingly give them to him? But why do they look like the kinds of papers that would be used in an English court? Why do the Megara use paper at all? Are we in some sort of cyberspace information system where data-bases are given a visual appearance that the user feels comfortable with?

It's a silly question. And one that, in all fairness, wouldn't occur to us on a first, second or third viewing of the show. The oath, the wig, and the legal papers are, if anything, a Whitehouse-friendly wink at the audience. The kids who thought that the Doctor really drowned in Deadly Assassin Part Three; and who might have thought that Tom Baker had really pushed Mary Tamm off a cliff have to be reassured that the Doctor isn't really going to be disintegrated. (The sinister end credits in Crown Court were intended to suggest that the traitor really was going to be hanged.) It's a little bit like when Play School used to reassure the kids that none of the ten green bottles had really been damaged. Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan had a bit part in the aforementioned Flash Gordon. Whenever the movie was going to be on TV, they showed his clip on Blue Peter, and reassured the audience that he was just acting and hadn't really been killed by a venomous snake. 

The Doctor treats the trial as an annoying inconvenience; he doesn't at any point behave as if he is in the slightest danger of being killed. The scenes keep undermining any sense of secondary reality: we are watching a group of kids playing at death sentences. 

Kids can be morbid. Several of the popular pantomimes involve child murder. The London Dungeon and the Horrid History series play off an interest in gore. But condemning your benevolent Santa Claus surrogate to death on a near weekly basis is an interesting aesthetic choice. 

Fisher, Williams and Read would have grown up at a time when the British state was regularly strangling its own citizens: they would have vivid memories of the grotesque miscarriages of justice that led to the abolition of the death penalty. Is it possible that the jokey, off hand references to killing are a delayed traumatic response? Are we breathing a collective sigh of relief that such things no longer happen in the real world? The kids comics of the day were still eliciting nervous laughter from the idea of corporal punishment.

But perhaps it's more like Talons of Weng-Chiang and the Black & White Minstrels Show. It makes us feel uncomfortable now; but that's because times have changed. In 1978, executions, racial stereotypes and cruelty to children were just a bit of fun.

This is the fourth part of a series of articles on the Doctor Who story Stones of Blood. 

The whole series has already appeared on my Patreon. 

Patreon followers have also read my definitive guide to the UK election, and are about to read my essay on the Doctor Who story Androids of Tara.

It would be great if the majority of people reading this could join them. 


Achille Talon said...

I tend to feel the Doctor (and Romana) can shrug off execution threats because they are, after all, Time Lords. What's a body? Romana could even probably reconstitute herself as Lalla Ward again, if she didn't fancy a surprise change; she turns out of Ward and back again in the Destiny scenes. When the Doctor treats deadly threats seriously, it's because he has a more fragile human companion by his side, and is more broadly concerned with threats running amok and killing ordinary people.

(Face the Raven: "Why? Why shouldn't I be so reckless? You're reckless! All the bloody time! Why can't I be like you?" "Clara, there's nothing special about me, I am nothing, but I'm less breakable than you. I should have taken care of you.")

Possibly there's a line to be drawn between the decision of pairing the Doctor up with a fellow immortal, rather than a human, and his increasing insulation from natural human reactions to deadly peril.

Andrew Rilstone said...


see response above