Sunday, June 23, 2024

Doctor Who Season 16: Stones of Blood (4)

VII: Tom

Stones of Blood is a terrible story. Stones of Blood is a terrible Doctor Who story. But this is not quite the same thing as saying that Stones of Blood is terrible.

It's entertaining. It's not boring. It's funny. It has a certain Doctor Who-ish quality to it, particularly if you are not paying attention. It's got Tom Baker in it. It's got Mary Tamm in it. And it's got K-9 in it. K-9 the annoying piece of hardware from Season 15 has become K-9 the character, K-9 the comic foil. We can no more imagine Tom Baker without K-9 than we can imagine Patrick Troughton without Jamie.

How are we supposed to watch Stones of Blood? The Doctor chained to an altar stone, menaced by unfriendly druids? The Doctor condemned to death by evil justice robots? Romana dangling from the edge of a cliff?

How do we react? Are we worried -- worried that the Doctor might die; as worried as we would be if we read in the news that a real-life person had been kidnapped by terrorists?

Do we think that is how the story is really going to end? "I guess I started watching too late: just in time to find out how this Doctor character finally dies?"

Or are we slightly more sophisticated viewers, but still focussed on what happens next. "I know, of course, that the Doctor will escape, but I wonder how he will pull it off? I wonder what ingenious solution the writers are going to come up with this week?"

The Librarians are Awesome Brigade keep on telling us that reading is a form of hallucination. As long as you are under the influence of a psychotropic novel, the people and places in the story are more real to you than your immediate surroundings. If you are aware of the hand of the author, the book has failed: the search for symbolism, sub-text and irony is antithetical to the reading experience.

And I suppose that is also how some people watch television. A TV show is an illusion. You believe that Inspector Morse and [Insert Name Of Eastenders Character Here] are real people whose lives you are observing. I am not talking about the very, very early cinema audiences who honestly thought that the steam train might come crashing through the screen and squish them. You are aware that it's all an illusion. You are perfectly well aware that Death In Paradise is not a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the day-to-day life of police officers on a Caribbean island. But it succeeds as drama precisely to the extent that you are able to pretend that it is. 

I guess that approach works for some TV shows better than others, in the same way that the Librarians Are Awesome approach applies to Lee Child more than it does to James Joyce.

Nothing against Lee Child. Nothing against James Joyce.

It may be that this kind of thinking lies behind the fannish obsession with canon and continuity. The more the scripts contradict each other, the harder it is to maintain the belief that what you are watching is reality TV. And it may lie behind a lot of chat about "special effects" and in particular "wobbly sets". If Matt Irvine (the special effects guy) is an illusionist -- trying to fool us into believing that we are actually having the experience of seeing a spaceship -- then we have to say that he is not very good at this job. Not as good as the folks at Industrial Light and Magic, anyway. But perhaps he is more in the nature of a storyteller -- a puppeteer  -- showing us an obvious model in order to suggest the idea of a spaceship?

The test case might, in fact, be Thunderbirds, which is explicitly a puppet show which shouts its artificiality from every frame. Some people like it a lot. Others not so much.

If drama is falsified reality TV -- if the excitement depends on our belief that the hero might really die -- then Doctor Who is and always has been an abject failure.

But perhaps our enjoyment of Doctor Who is more formal; more epicurean. We enjoy the idea of heroes chained to altars and heroines clinging to cliffs; we get aesthetic satisfaction from cliffhangers; even though we are way, way past finding them frightening or thrilling or thinking for one moment that our heroes may actually come to a soggy end.

Stones of Blood came out at the same time I was first reading Sherlock Holmes. I was also reading, gods of literature forgive me, the Shadow: little American paperbacks with yellow-edged pages and Steranko covers. The Shadow gets into cliff-hanging situations pretty often. Holmes, not so much. Although one story famously ends on a very literal one. In both cases, I liked the idea of the books more than I liked the actual books. I liked the pipe and slippers and the secret sanctum; the snarky chats with Watson and the secret messages to his agents; the opal fire ring and the hansom cabs; the invisible ink and the fussy landlady. There was almost a slight sense of disappointment when Holmes leaves Baker Street to solve some puzzle about a governess, a dog and a snake; or when the Shadow leaves his mysterious black lined radio studio to rescue a white lady from some terrifying racial stereotype. 

How do we feel when the Doctor wakes up and cracks a joke about the druid with the knife? Are we relieved because we honestly thought our friend the Doctor might have died? Or do we feel aesthetic pleasure because the hero has escaped from an archetypal death trap in a genre-appropriate fashion?

Do we smile because Tom Baker the actor has delivered a funny line in a wonderfully deadpan way? Or are we cross because the dramatic pulp cliffhanger scene has been turned into a skit?

Does the funny line enhance the sense of danger and adventure? Or does it explode, undermine, and undercut it? 

Did I watch Doctor Who mainly for the scenes on the TARDIS? Was I a little disappointed when they left the Ship and started on this week's Adventure? Graham Williams understands that there should be a moment on the TARDIS, a moment when K-9 fails to explain tennis to Romana, or when the Doctor leaves his hat on the uppsy-downsy control column for no reason. A moment when we are at home and all is right with the universe. And there should be a moment afterwards when normality resumes and everyone smiles and laughs and there is no Post Adventure Stress Disorder. The Doctor has been within seconds of execution twice in a single day, and is none the worse for the experience.

Who is Who for? For whom is Who?

In 1978 Doctor Who was the thing which happened to be on the screen of the receiving device which happened to be in your front room and happened to be switched on at the time. Some people simply ignored it, in the way that they ignored the music coming over the gramophone at a party and the pattern on Granny's wallpaper. Some were watching it less passively: but Stone Circles and Spaceships and evil squires and human sacrifices and cliffs were simply the kinds of things you would expect to be running past your eyes at that time on a Saturday evening. It was us fans, glued to the set and trying to get the sound track onto a C60 cassette (don't deny it) who were falsifying the experience. Just as we falsify it now with our blue-rays and our commentaries and our fan feuds.

Doctor Who starts to go wrong when it starts to assume that the audience is paying attention. Warriors' Gate is a much, much better story than Stones of Blood. But it is a much worse Doctor Who story, and arguably a much worse piece of television. 

Why did we switch on? We switched on to spend time with Tom. With Mary and K-9 as well, of course, but they exist mainly to put Tom's Tomness into sharper and sharper relief. No shame in that. In the days of vaudeville, straight men often commanded higher salaries than comedians.

Tom intersected with me in exactly the right years. Tom is the whole reason I fell in love with the show. Tom is the whole reason I fell in love with science fiction. Tom is the reason I am typing these words. Tom Baker is what everything built up to, and what everything which came afterwards failed to live up to. 

Not just everything in Doctor Who. Everything.

Graham Williams recognised that Tom Baker owned Doctor Who. Graham Williams sees that the only purpose of a script is to create a space for Tom Baker to be Tom Baker in. Graham Williams understands that as long as Tom Baker carries on being Tom Baker, people will carry on watching Doctor Who.

But a problem will emerge. Tom being Tom is not sufficient: we need Tom to be the Doctor. In the early seasons he had nuance. He was Tom Baker, the Actor. Tom Baker who had shared a stage (though no actual scenes) with Sir Laurence Olivier. Tom Baker who took all his clothes off for Pasolini, albeit fairly reluctantly. And that Tom Baker is fading away. The grin is gradually turning into a sneer. If the Doctor no longer takes the universe entirely seriously, that's because Tom Baker no longer takes Doctor Who entirely seriously.

And it works. Up to a point. One of the things we like about the Doctor is that he can stick his tongue out at Teacher and not get whacked. He resents authority figures, so naturally he resents being pushed around by the White Guardian. But the White Guardian is manifestly an authorial self insertion. The White Guardian is the personification of the Plot. And once the main character has rejected the Plot, the narrative falls apart. We're not watching a story about a hero being menaced by evil stone worshippers. We're just watching some big kids playing "human sacrifices".

Maybe Actor Tom despises the material. Maybe he's doing the best he can with material that David Fisher despises. It's funny; it's mesmerizing. But we're engaged in the deconstruction of the whole idea of Doctor Who. It is not going to end well.  

Tommy Cooper and John Cleese were just funny: their appearance, their demeanour, their presence. They could walk on to a stage and people would laugh. (This certainly isn't true of every comedian. Rowan Atkinson is famously dull without a script in front of him.) Maybe Tom Baker is just charismatic. Maybe Tom Baker is just the Doctor. Put him on a set and point a camera in his direction and we can't not love him. 

VIII: Ending

The Doctor defeats Viviane Fay, and says goodbye to Emilia.

She doesn't seem at all bothered that her friend, who she has shared a cottage with for at least several weeks, has been turned into stone for a billion years.

Actress Beatrix Lehmann was openly gay at a time when being openly gay wasn't a very safe thing to be. Graham Williams had wanted to hire Honor Blackman to play Vivian. (Honor Blackman correctly spotted that Beatrix Lehmann gets all the best lines.) Perhaps we are supposed to infer a slight -- frisson -- in the cottage? 

She give it all she's got; slightly too much, in fact, trying to make sense of some very silly lines. When Romana gently kisses her goodbye (she certainly never kisses the Doctor!) Emilia puts her hand very subtly on her cheek.

She is surprised that she has never noticed a Police Box on the moor before. She's old enough to remember when Police Boxes were a ubiquitous part of English street furniture, and doesn't know they have been phased out. Or maybe the story is set in the 1950s; there is no particular reason why it couldn't be.

And as the Doctor and Romana go into the TARDIS she acts at them. As the TARDIS disappears, she continues to acts ("I do have my academic reputation to consider"). And then she acts a bit more. She does a double-take. She sighs.

And once again, we expect to hear the signature tune; since the episode has quite clearly come to an end.

But for absolutely no reason we go back to the TARDIS, and we see the Doctor putting the segment in the cupboard, and we have a tiny homeopathic bit of business reminding us that he can't always tell how the segments fit together. And then we get a final exchange. 

Romana asks "Is Earth always like that?" A silly question: she is perfectly aware that what they have just experienced can in no way be thought of as a typical day on the blue planet. And the Doctor replies "Sometimes it's even exciting." 

He does not say "Sometimes, it's even more exciting". That would have made sense. That would have implied that what they had just been through was exciting, but that even more exciting things sometimes happen. But "sometimes it's even exciting" implies that what has just happened is not exciting. That the last adventure was dull. 

"Exciting" is not what you would say if you had a narrowly escaped being stabbed and sentenced to death on the same day. Traumatic would be nearly the mark. It's us viewers who are meant to find adventure stories exciting.

The Doctor has, once again, stepped out of the frame. He has commented on the story from the viewers point of view. He has said, in effect, "That was quite a dull story." And he's not wrong. 

And there you have it. Ribos Operation is not a Doctor Who story. Pirate Planet is a comedically extreme Doctor Who story. And Stones of Blood is a consciously bad Doctor Who story. Thesis; antithesis; synthesis. The metafiction remains intact. What will come next in the chain?

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. 

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