Friday, July 19, 2024

Androids of Tara (1)

No corridors. No invasions. No space ships. There is one more than usually ridiculous monster -- which gets only thirty seconds of screen time and could just as well have been a wolf or a boar. No ray-guns. There are swords which zap people with electricity, but it isn't clear why: everything would have come out the same if they had just been swords. But there are Androids. So we know we are watching science fiction and not, say, an affectionate parody of a famous swashbuckling novel.

We're on the planet Tara. The technology is clearly early-modern: crossbows and horses and fireplaces and castle gates which operate on winch systems. But there are also super-advanced robots which are indistinguishable from humans. One waits in vain for the big reveal: has the Key to Time gifted Tara with super-tech? Have they somehow salvaged robots and zap-swords from the remnant of a previous civilisation? Are we, perchance, inside a Westworld simulation of an Errol Flynn movie?

There are hints. We're told that only peasants know how to build and repair androids; and the Evil Count's chief android-wrangler has strange markings on her face. That could be a hint that she's an alien. We are very briefly told that Tara started to use androids to replace people after a plague. But where did the technology come from? Did the peasants develop advanced science while the nobles cos-played court politics? The Evil Count claims not to know how horses "work" ("I'm a knight, not a farrier") which makes us think for a moment that the planet's livestock are going to turn out to be robots as well. The novel suggests that the Very Silly Monster is a robot.

The Doctor says at one point that androids dislike people as much as people dislike androids. Later on he says that the robot duplicate of the Good Prince is cleverer than the actual Prince. But there is no sign of the androids having sentience or agency. These aren't the art-deco serving caste on the Sandminer; they are more like the Kraal's artificial human duplicates. Or perhaps even like the Nestene's shop-window dummies. Certainly, the Doctor has no moral compunctions about destroying or dismantling them.

The story is not interested in why there are androids. The story is not even interested in the fact that there are androids. The androids are there only to be decoys, doppelgängers and doubles. To be plot devices in a Wurwitanian Womance.

*

If you asked a hundred and seventy six Doctor Who fans what they thought of Androids of Tara, then a hundred and fifty eight of them would say "Well, it's a fun story, but it's not really a Doctor Who story."

To which the only response is to stroke one's beard, tap one's pipe and say thoughtfully "Well, it depends what you mean by 'a Doctor Who story'..."

What do we mean by a Doctor Who story? When we think of Doctor Who, we probably think of a story in which a flamboyantly dotty science boffin and some English squaddies fend off an alien invasion in front of some famous London landmarks. Or else we think of a story in which a wild Bohemian man-child strides along a fake corridor pursued by homicidal muppets. Which is to say: we think of a Season 8 story (Jon Pertwee, Jo Grant, and the Brigadier) or a Season 17 story (Tom Baker, Romana II and K-9.) And if that is what we mean by a Doctor Who story, then Androids of Tara quite definitely isn't one.

But Doctor Who didn't start with the Invasion or the Silurians or Nightmare of Eden. It started with the Tribe of Gum and Marco Polo and the Reign of Terror. Terrance Dicks used to say that Auntie Beeb invented Doctor Who to entice the kiddies into paying attention to their history lessons. Seduce the little'uns with giant insects and flying saucers, but feed them Aztecs and Crusaders. And yes, indeed, olden days BBC had a mandate to Educate as well as to Inform and Entertain. Blue Peter used to interview boy-band heart-throbs on their way through to Top of the Pops, and segue straight to a picture story about Florence Nightingale or the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Pausing only to step in some elephant mess. ("And now, over to Val.") But the idea that Doctor Who was invented specifically in order to teach the kids history seems to be an urban myth.

Still: twelve out of the first thirty stories were set in the past. And all but one of those stories was purely historical: there was no science fiction element apart from the presence of time travellers from the future. (The exception, the Time Meddler, involved a second Time Lord buggering around with Earth history.)

Subsequently, "historical" adventures came to mean stories about alien invasions and time travelling war criminals that happened to be set in the past rather than the present or the future. And they became rarer and rarer. Doctor Jon visited the Olden Days once, fighting Sontarans in the Dark Ages. Doctor Tom only had one story, Masque of Mandragora, in the properly olden days, although he did do Victorian times once and Edwardian times twice. In the final years, there was generally one historical story per season: John Nathan-Turner was quite proud of the fact that Black Orchid was a period whodunnit with no science fiction element, although it did use the TARDIS extensively as a plot device. The last purely historical story, the Highlanders, was transmitted in 1968, well within living fan-memory when Androids of Tara came out.

I've argued that Stones of Blood is a parody of a Doctor Who story: a sequence of tropes with very little coherent narrative stringing them together. Which makes it very tempting to say that David Fisher, a decent enough script-writer but no Whovian, was given Androids of Tara as a consolation prize. He shunted the Doctor and Romana sideways into an entirely different genre -- one that he was much more comfortable with.

But that doesn't quite work. Because the "entirely different genre" is quite clearly historical fiction (with the merest fig leaf of science fictional gloss) and historical fiction is where Doctor Who started. Stones of Blood may have been a parody; but Doctor Who had been teetering on the edge of self parody for three seasons, parrots and space marines and Time Lord newscasters and all. So an anti-Doctor-Who story arguably takes us back to something much more like what Doctor Who originally was. Intrigue and betrayal. Sword fights on the battlements. An historical costume drama in all but name. A return to the infinitely remote monochrome world of very nearly ten years ago when Doctor Who still retained its Elusive Magic.

*

So: we have Prince Reynart, the good guy, impossibly handsome and prone to say things like "How dare you lay hands on a lady!" We have Count Grendel, the bad guy, impossibly evil and prone to say things like "I will have you flogged and don't imagine that I won't!"

Baddies always seem to be Counts in this sort of thing, don't they? I suppose that's because no such rank exists in the English aristocratic system. Bram Stoker has a good deal to answer for. Peter Jefferey's Grendel doesn't look entirely unlike Christopher Guests's Count Rugens. Neville Jason doesn't look entirely unlike Cary Elwes, come to that. (This was before the Princess Bride.)

Prince Reynart is due to be crowned King; and Grendel is planning to murder him on the way to the coronation. But the good guys have a robot duplicate of Reynart, which they plan to use as a decoy to foil the assassination attempt. The bad guys have an android which looks exactly like Princess Strella, who is second in line to the throne. Grendel is planning to forcibly marry the android. Or force the prince to marry it. Something dastardly, at any rate. Due to a huge and unexplored coincidence, the Princess Strella, and the android Princess Strella, both look exactly like Romana. Mary Tamm only gets one credit, though. [1]

In Episode Four one of Reynart's merry men describes the castle where the coronation will take place as "Tara itself". I suppose there is no particular reason why you shouldn't name a castle after a planet. Equally, there is no reason you might not name a planet after a castle. The British Galactic Empire might decide that Planet Earth is henceforth to be known as Planet Buckingham Palace. Elon Musk might build an opulent dwelling on his space colony and name it Mars Mansion.

But in point of fact, this remark is part of the fossilised remains of an earlier script, in which the Prince was going to have travelled from his home planet to a totally different planet in order to get crowned. The planet he travelled to, Tara, was possibly going to have overtones of Irish Folklore.

Had this plan gone forward, the Prince's original planet would have been called Zend. Or possibly even Zenda. "The Androids of Zenda" was even a working title for the story.  Anthony Hope only died in 1933, so from a copyright point of view, this would have been rather courageous. But no-one has the slightest interest in concealing the tale's source material. When the Doctor hears of the scheme to substitute the robot prince for the original, he says sagely "Well, it's been done before."

*

So: Romana is captured by Count Grendel, the baddie. The Doctor is the unwilling ally of Prince Reynart, the goodie. He is persuaded to repair the Prince's android double, which has been malfunctioning. The plan seems foolproof: all seems ready for the coronation. So everyone (including the Doctor) drinks a toast. There is just that little bit too much emphasis on the quality of the wine.

Sinister music plays. The Prince looks at his wine. He falls unconscious across the table. The Prince's swordsman, Farrah, draws his weapon, and collapses. Swordsman Zadek is clearly not so good at taking theatrical falls, so he slumps unconscious onto a chair. You half expect Percy and Baldrick to run in shouting "Don't drink the wine". (This was before Black Adder.) The Doctor looks very mildly surprised, and cracks a weak joke. ("Potent stuff".)

And then we see Grendel standing in the doorway.

I was about to type "This is genuinely dramatic" or "This is a good twist", but neither of those things would be quite true. It's cheesy, melodramatic, and predictable. But we've swiftly moved from laughing at the theatricality of the poisoning -- and smugly nodding along with the Doctor when he takes the rise out of it -- to laughing with the scene: because the arrival of Grendel is so obviously and exactly the precise thing that we would expect to happen at this point in a story of this kind. On one level, his arrival has derailed the plot, as all good cliffhangers should. The question is no longer "How do the goodies get the Prince to his coronation in safety?" It is now "How do the goodies stage a coronation with no Prince?" But on another, it has directed the plot in precisely the direction it was always bound to go in. Reynart is now the The Prisoner of Tara; and the good guys are going to try and get his double crowned king.


[1] Of all the planets in all the universe, the fourth segment just happened to be hidden on the one which had an exact likeness of Romana living on it. Perhaps Romana was recruited for precisely that reason? Interestingly, at the beginning of next season, Romana is going to casually regenerate into the form of another Princess, Princess Astra of Atrios. Did the White Guardian, in fact, ask her to wear Strella's body for the duration of the mission, and allow her to choose another one when it was over?

Available to Patreons -- The Androids of Tara 

Available to Patreons  -- The Power of Kroll 

Coming soon -- The Armageddon Factor

Thursday, July 04, 2024

Arts Diary: Kinds of Kindness

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Doctor Who Season 16: Power of Kroll

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July 4th Waste Paper Basket

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