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 

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Thursday, July 04, 2024

Arts Diary: Kinds of Kindness

Arts Diary: Kinds of Kindness:  Everyman

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Thursday, June 27, 2024

Walk the Line (2)

 He talked of poetry and Cornish saints;
He kept an apiary and a cow;
He asked me which church service I liked best —
I told him Evensong… “And I suppose
You think religion’s mostly singing hymns
And feeling warm and comfortable inside?”
And he was right: most certainly I did.
                 John Betjeman


Paul Screeton dedicates an extended chapter of Quicksilver Heritage to UFOs. It opens with a rather moving account of a childhood holiday in the 1950s: 

"Once upon a time a small boy stayed for his summer holidays with distant relatives at a house in the scenic village of Redmire in Yorkshire in Wensleydale, where time passes so slow. He had a den at the bottom of the garden, beyond the nettles, where newts were hoarded in a glass tank..."

After a couple of paragraphs in this vein, he reveals that, during the holiday, he saw "a discoid golden craft" manoeuvring over Pen Hill.

"Years later the small boy read books about flying saucers, eventually heard of leys, began publishing a magazine on the two subjects and subsequently wrote this book. That day at Redmire my future path was marked."

The light is extraterrestrial rather than celestial; but meadow, grove and stream appear to be apparelled in it.  Everything else follows from that visionary gleam.  A charming holiday; a UFO sighting; a book about English pathways; enlightenment and the great work of the alchemist. Join the dots. My future path. The old straight track. 

The point is not that Alfred Watkins drew some lines on a map. That wouldn't be particularly interesting. The point isn't even that stone-age man might have used stones or trees to find his way. He very probably did. Hikers sometimes use churches as landmarks, or used to before the invention of mobile phones. Churches are very often aligned East-West, but that doesn't prove that the Ramblers Association are sun-worshippers. But ley lines aren't a theory; they are an epiphany. 

"Alfred Watkins discovery was in the nature of a vision" writes Screeton. "The revelation took the form of a rush of images forming a coherent whole. The insight...was as breathtaking as any vision any shaman, guru or mystic has experienced."

John Michell goes a lot further. "Suddenly in a flash he saw something which no-one in England had seen for perhaps thousands of years...The barrier of time melted and spread across the country, he saw a web of lines, linking holy places and sites of antiquity...In one moment of transcendent perception Watkins entered the magic world of prehistoric Britain, a world whose very existence has been forgotten."

If ley-lines are real, then it makes perfect sense that believers look for big, dramatic markers on maps, and then for smaller, less obvious markers on the ground. You'd expect them to have compasses and spirit levels and metal detectors and spades. Maybe they'd divide an area up into squares, and catalogue what was in each square, and look for statistically significant patterns. 

But this is not how Screeton and Michell envisage the Quest proceeding. 

"....He will walk through sunlit glades, meditate under gospel oaks, rest his weary feet on special mounds while listening to highflying skylarks....Slowly he will become attuned to the scene; his perception having shifted, there will appear a vibrant countryside humming not only with the buzz of bumblebees, the call of the curlew, or the scamper of rabbits, but throughout it all, the energy of nature, and criss-crossing it, always straight, the heartbeat of magic power which keep it alive...."

My paperback edition of Quicksilver Heritage was published in 1977.  A not insignificant date. If you wanted to, you could sum up the entire message of the book in five words.  "May the force be with you".


We are sometimes told that there is a thing called spirituality in all religious faiths. Politicians sometimes say that they support religious education because it promotes this thing called spirituality. Sometimes they say that they would happily get rid of religious education altogether and teach this spirituality thing instead. Spirituality has recently been repackaged as "mindfulness" -- as if that part of Buddhism where you sit facing a wall not thinking of anything in particular can be detached from the noble eightfold path and sold to people with boring stressful soul-destroying jobs as a technique for not minding too much. Different people: same old opium. 

But I guess we broadly know what spirituality is. It's what Daleks and Chatbots don't have. It's the bit which Thomas Gradgrind and Richard Dawkins don't believe in. Two chaps see a waterfall: one says "this is pretty" and the other says "this is sublime". But the third chap feels that it is imbued with significance and importance and meaning that he can't quite put into words. That thing which he can't put into words is spirituality. 

And there will probably be a fourth man saying that if you can't put it into words and express it to three significant figures and a margin for error, that it doesn't exist. Even the word "pretty" is a bit dodgy.

Evangelicals and Charismatics are inclined to reduce Christianity to a feeling -- an intense, personal moment of being "saved"; an ecstatic, shamanistic hysteria which sometimes breaks out at religious performances. They talk about "getting religion" and "being full of glory"; they may be "slain in the spirit" or start to "speak in tongues".

I don't know how many people in the born-again community have honestly experienced this. I don't know how common it is to have an overwhelmingly specific sensation of "making peace within" and "having your vile sins lifted". I strongly suspect that most of them merely point to a particular moment when they vaguely thought "Maybe I'll swing by that church and find out what they do there" or "This preacher seems to be making a lot more sense than I expected him to" and defined that as their moment of being Saved. They talk about chains falling off and dungeons flaming with light after the event because that's the kind of language they've been taught to use. The New Testament has a good deal to say about upper rooms and roads to Damascus, but you'd have to search quite hard for the primacy of the conversion experience.

If you start out with the idea that the world is a huge battle between God and Screwtape it's not so hard to attribute spiritual significance to every day vicissitudes. "Satan hid my keys. I thought this was because he wanted to make me late for work. But in fact, he was trying to provoke me to use vulgar language. I resisted the temptation to swear. And sure enough, God revealed that I had put the key-fob down right by the kettle, like I always do. And then Satan departed from me, biding his time."

And that's not necessarily an unhelpful or unhealthy way of thinking. If anything has a spiritual dimension than everything does. And it did stop you from saying shit. But the fact that you lost your keys and found them again is not, I think, proof of the existence of God. Or Screwtape. Or anyone else.

If you have a strong belief that there is a magic line between Warwick Castle and Stratford-on-Avon Parish Church, then it is not particularly surprising that, when you walk along the line, you start to notice things that you wouldn't have noticed if you hadn't been looking for them. And if that makes you love this English earth more than you ever did before -- if it makes you feel that you are at some spiritual level transmuting base metal into gold -- I have not the slightest intention of telling you that it's not true. 

It's the concrete claims which are problematic. 

"To say that leys do not exist is to say that motorways do not exist. Both can be found on maps."

No, they can't. 

 "To say that ley power does not exist is to say that electricity does not exist. Both can be felt."

No, they can't. 


I come back to one of the men who taught me Chaucer at college. One day, out for a walk on a very cold night, he found a baby, abandoned in a telephone box. He took the infant to hospital; she recovered; he became her godfather. If he had gone for his walk at a slightly different time or on a slightly different path, the baby would certainly have died. He later described the event as "Providential". 

"I do not mean that if I did not already believe in Providence this event would have made me do so, but that, since I have that belief, the event fits readily to it."

You don't need to believe in flying saucers to think that if you get away from it all for a while, you will start to perceive sermons in stones and books in the running brooks. Alfred Watkins was hardly the first person to think that one murmur from the vernal Brook will teach you more of moral evil and of good than all the sages can. xxxx


Quicksilver Heritage mentions in passing that the early Christian Gnostics believed in a singular God; but that their unique insight was that humans could have direct contact with Him. A lot of Christians, particularly Christians of the born again protestant flavour, would say that "direct contact with God" is the unique selling point of Christianity.

Screeton suggests that the main point of ley lines is that they are a means of getting in touch with what he calls (following one John Keel) The Great Whatzit In The Sky. He's a bit vague as to whether The Great Whatzit is God or the Space People. I don't suppose it makes much difference. 

Joseph Campbell said that all mythology points us towards the Final Incomprehensible Mystery. He shares with the ley hunters the bad habit of drawing lines between things which have nothing in common. The Hero's Journey is every bit as imaginary and every bit as methodologically dubious as the ley system.

But that doesn't mean it isn't real. Joseph Campbell and Alfred Watkins had ideas, and we can't unthink them. We can't look at a stone circle without seeing lines of power. We can't watch a movie without seeing the Hero With a Thousand Faces. If all stories are true, then stories about stories are true to the power of truth. I rather suspect that the Final Incomprehensible Mystery and the Great Whatzit in the Sky are the same fella. 

Campbell tells the story of the western philosopher who asked a Shinto practitioner to explain the ideology and theology of his faith. 

"We don't have any ideology" replied the Shinto guy "We don't have any theology. We just dance."

Plenty of people would tell you that there is a nothing in the sky, great or otherwise. Plenty of people would tell you that nothing is mysterious, nothing is final and quite definitely nothing is incomprehensible. The belief in ley lines is a belief in something. Ley hunters don't have an ideology or a theology. They just went for a walk. 

The closest I ever got to actual ley hunting was a hiking holiday around Glastonbury when I was maybe nineteen. I was probably already too critical and too actually knowledgeable about the King Arthur literature to look at the landscape in quite the right light. I fairly consciously decided that if I was really interested in the Holy Grail, Glastonbury Abbey and Joseph of Arimathea, the most rational thing to be was a common or garden English Christian. I believe that is what pandits tell westerners who want to convert to Hinduism. It's Anglicans, not hippies, who literally drink from the chalice of Jesus's blood every Sunday. 

But the vibe -- the olden days England vibe, and the sense that stone circles are esoteric and mercurial never quite goes away. I deeply adore the Celestials and the Monolith. But Stone-Age-Man walking an invisible grid system and opening himself up to the Cosmos with a capital C has a magic all of its own. 


Quicksilver Heritage is a silly book. Researching this article I came across an essay (actually an interview) with one man who thinks that it is very silly indeed.  The "crystals, chakra, ether, orgone energy and spiritual bluff and guff" amounted to  "New Age pap" he says.  

"It now looks upon a quick scan" he goes on "like a right rag-bag of undiluted pseudoscience, pseudo-philosophy and too much following others’ woolly-thinking" 

The man expressing this opinion was, of course, Paul Screeton. He now describes himself as a gnostic Christian. 


I was there when it happened, so I guess I ought to know
Johnny Cash 




This is an epilogue to 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. 












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. 












Answers To Readers Questions


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.


This is a very interesting point. 

There can certainly be stories about immortal or indestructible heroes. The trick is to create jeopardy even though the hero's own life can't be in danger, and perhaps to show him surviving ever more extreme perils: e.g Captain Scarlet goes into the centre of an nuclear explosion in order to retrieve a weapon to save Earth from the Mysterons. Or else you treat it as a puzzle and try to find out ways of killing the unkillable man. What if you cut Captain Scarlet up into little tiny pieces, and put each piece in a space rocket and send them to different corners of the galaxy? Can Superman survive indefinitely without food or oxygen, and if so, why does he eat and breath in the first place? But one never feels that Doctor Who is "playing" with regeneration and immortality in that way.

In classic Who, the definition of "regeneration" was always fuzzy. The term was only coined in Planet of the Spiders. I don't think that in 1978 we had reached the point where "Death means nothing to a Time Lord because they can live indefinitely" was established lore. The argument was made semi-officially that Hartnell > Troughton was a "rejuvenation" and Troughton > Pertwee was "a change of appearance". The Romana regeneration, which we will come to shortly, suggest that either Graham Williams didn't remember Planet of the Spiders, or else that he didn't care. And Logopolis introduces The Watcher without explanation and treats regeneration as slightly new and surprising thing. "Ho hum I'll probably regenerate" doesn't come in until Caves of Androzani.

What does regeneration mean for a Time Lord? For Romana, it is just like changing a dress; for the First Doctor, it's like coming out of a chrysalis; for the Second, like being forced to adopt an unattractive disguise. New Who seems to treat it like reincarnation: the present form is really dying; but some essential element is carried over into the new form. Krishna told Arjun that death in battle is nothing to be feared because he will go on to a new life; Arjun replies that since he will be leaving his friends and loved ones, death is still death even if you subsequently get another try at life. The point being, I think, that the problem is not mortality but attachment. 

When the Doctor and Romana think that the TARDIS is going to be destroyed in Pirate Planet, they say that its been an honour to have known each other. When the Doctor goes to sabotage the nuke in Power of Kroll, he says goodbye to Romana in case he doesn't come back. When going to confront the giant squid he says that he has had a good life and can't complain if he dies. ("That's him saying that the Fourth Doctor has had a good life; bidding farewell to this incarnation." No: he specifically says that 760 is a great age, and that's clearly not the number of years he's been Tom Baker for.) 

I think that each individual Who story is constructed on the basis that the Doctor is putting his life on the line and that he could die; and that he would face death in the way that any brave (and spiritually serene) mortal would. I think regeneration is treated as a special case; and that there is a pact with the audience that it only happens when an actor wants to leave. 

Indeed, we could argue that the literary device which allows multiple actors to play the part of the Doctor deconstructs the narrative in which the Doctor is admirable because he risks his life for the greater good. It could, in fact, be that the introduction of the Twelve Regeneration limit in Deadly Assassin was Holmes' attempt to repair this crack. The fans who continued to argue right up to 2017 that the Twelve Regeneration was involatile and unchangeable might have been unconsciously recognising this point: if Capaldi isn't the last and final Doctor then the Doctor can't die and the series can't ever be exciting again. Many kids go through a stage of thinking that first person narratives aren't exciting, because they know that the hero must survive to tell the story. Which is a good point, in a way, but kind of misses the point of stories.

All that said "The Doctor laughs in the face of death because he knows he will Regenerate" is a perfectly good Watsonian description of what happens; and is a good work-around if "The Doctor is a meta-textual device who can break the fourth wall" is uncongenial.