Showing posts with label DOCTOR WHO.. Show all posts
Showing posts with label DOCTOR WHO.. Show all posts

Monday, November 08, 2021

Doctor Who 15.5 - Underworld

BOB BAKER

While I was writing this piece, the news came through that Bob Baker, co-writer of Underworld, Invisible Enemy and numerous other Doctor Who stories had died at the age of 81.

I have left the piece unchanged: I don't think that Underworld or Invisible Enemy were very good; but I don't imagine Bob Baker intended people to be doing close-readings of his scripts forty years down the time line.  And they were very much part of the series I loved at the time I loved it most.

When I started this retrospective, I said that his Sontaran Experiment was a classic example of the kind of thing Doctor Who does well. Everyone loves the Three Doctors, and my eleven year old self adored K-9.

More to the point, I saw some episodes of the 1975 HTV series "Sky" when I was a kid, and saw the whole thing on DVD in the last couple of years. It is one of the strangest, most surreal, trippy, Electric Eden-esque pieces of children's TV ever made. It's about a group of school kids protecting an alien who has arrived on earth; but with its weird religious overtones and New Age sensibilities, it is more Whistle Down The Wind than E.T. The image of the boy wiping the starscape off his hand in the final episode has stayed with me my whole life.







"We're on the edge of the cosmos, the frontiers of creation, the boundary between what is and isn't, or isn't yet, anyway. Don't you think that's interesting?"

Leela is having a go at piloting the TARDIS. The Doctor is teaching himself to paint. He is wearing a smock and a beret and has paint on his face. The paint disappears when he leaves the TARDIS, but it reappears when he gets back on board in Episode Four.

The TARDIS stalls, possibly because of something Leela did and possibly not. It has taken them to the very edge of the universe, for some reason. But they are not alone: they encounter a spaceship, the R1C which has been travelling for a hundred thousand years. The Doctor asks Leela if she has heard of the Flying Dutchman. Not surprisingly, she has not.

The crew are Minions from the planet Minios; their captain has the disappointingly mundane name Jackson. They are searching for a sister ship, the P7E, which is the only other remnant of their long dead civilisation. The lost ship is carrying Race Banks which would allow them to recreate their near extinct species.

"Ah" you say "I suppose it is a generation star ship and none of the crew can even remember why they originally set out?" On the contrary: the Minions are immortals. Like the Time Lords, they can regenerate when their bodies wear out. They used to worship Time Lords as gods, and presumably learned regeneration from them. They are a bit sad because the power supply is finally running down and their long voyage may be coming to an end.

This is heady stuff. Wandering, world-weary immortals. An endless voyage through space. People who need the Doctor to be a god but think of him as the devil. Yet another skeleton in the Time Lord's closet.

Don't get too excited. They turn out to be just one more ship full of thick, slightly bellicose militaristic space-men in silly tin-foil suits, who initially treat the Doctor with suspicion, but end up accepting his help. In Episode Two they arrive on One Of Those Planets and find a population of slave-workers ruled over by an oppressive boss-caste. The boss-caste take their orders from a mad computer, who thinks it is a god. Doctor Who has gone beyond being formulaic. It has become a series of variations on a theme.






"Shut up, K-9! Shut up! I can tell K-9 to shut up if I want to!"

Tom Baker's Doctor gets nastier by the episode.

Manners change; my family may have been exceptionally sensitive, but saying "shut up" was one of the things guaranteed to make Mum and Dad genuinely angry. I suppose it was a playground rudery that they didn't want me to use in front of Grandad. I didn't learn "piss off" until I got to secondary school.

So maybe the Doctor is playing linguistic anarchist, using the bad words and waiting for the walls of censorship to come tumbling down, like Johnny Rotten saying "fuck" to Bill Grundy. Or maybe he's less a Time Lord, more a very naughty boy: saying and doing the stuff that we would never get away with. I adored him as a kid; but he's increasingly hard to take now. 

The wonderful comic improvisation that Baker brought to his first seasons is dwindling, and the jokes aren't very funny. When he turns up on the flight deck of the R1C one of the crew asks "How did you get here?" and he replies "Through that door." This is slender class-comedian stuff. He tells Leela that they are the first intelligent "and semi-intelligent" life forms to see the edge of the universe -- a pointless snipe which goes well beyond teasing her about being a savage. He talks about things people couldn't possibly know about, and gets annoyed when they don't. He off-handedly tells everyone that The Planet is probably going to be destroyed with a sort of ironic contempt for the universe.

Tom wants the Doctor to be alien; to look down on humans with ironic detachment from a higher plane; and the script is more and more playing up to that characterisation. But sneery arrogance has become the low-rent replacement for that divine condescension which he did so impressively in, say, Ark in Space.






"Then they went to war with each other, learnt how to split the atom, discovered the toothbrush and finally split the planet."

Last season Robert Holmes established a mythology and backstory for the Time Lords.

And it seems to have made absolutely no difference. The Time Lords are referenced in every story: "But I'm a Time Lord!" has become a cliche, if not actually a catch phrase. (Tom Baker parodies it slightly in Episode Two: when he is told that there is no time to stop a goodie being executed, he replies "Don't talk to me about time, I'm a Time Lord.") But none of the scripts pay the slightest attention to the mythology that Deadly Assassin went to such a lot of trouble to create. The day will come when writers requiring plot devices will reach for the "trumpet of Rassilon" or the "razor of Omega" but it has not come yet.

Scripts shed bits of backstory with gay abandon, safe in the knowledge that they will never be mentioned again. In Invisible Enemy, the Doctor and Leela are exploring that part of the Doctor's brain which makes memories and dreams and nightmares. In the next story we meet a creature that the Doctor has nightmares about. Are the two connected? Why would they be? In Image of the Fendahl, we discover that the Time Lords once broke their non-intervention vows, and took some trouble to cover it up. In Underworld, we find out why they took those vows to begin with.  Are the two stories related? Of course not. And the final story of the season is going to take us back to Gallifrey. Will it draw all the hints and foreshadowing together and show how the Fendahl and the Time Lord Intelligentsia and the Minions are connected?

SPOILER: No.

It seems that when the Time Lords were first learning to travel in time and space, they shared their technology with the Minions: and of course the Minions promptly kicked the Time Lords out and had a genocidal civil war. Jackson's ship, and the one he has been chasing for the past hundred millennia are the only survivors of the cataclysm.

This is the exact same origin story that Stan Lee made up for the Watcher in a back up strip in an Iron Man comic in 1964. The Watcher was a supporting character in the Fantastic Four; he sits on the Moon and never interferes in human affairs (except when he does). It turns out that "aeons" ago, his people taught the Proscillicons about atomic power, were rather surprised when they blew themselves up and promised never to do it again. The United Federation of Planets seems to have come up with the Prime Directive all by themselves, without the trauma of original sin.

In 1963, when Doctor Who was just a TV show, series creator Sydney Newman said that the origin of the Doctor ought not to be revealed. Writers could drop hints about it, but they should leave enough wiggle room that the next writer could drop hints of his own. It seems that Williams is adopting this approach to the Time Lords. Anyone can say any shit they like about them and no-one is expected to pay the slightest attention to it.





"A ship of ghosts, going on and on and unable to remember why."

The Doctor says that the Time Lords inadvertently destroyed the Minions by giving them better weapons and communications but the only unusual technology we see them using is Cellular Regeneration. There are no shortage of races in the universe who have space-ships and ray-guns, with or without Time Lord intervention. The Minions do have a natty weapon called a pacifier which calms the target down and makes him temporarily love everyone, but they use it once on Leela and then forget about it.

The Minions Cellular Regeneration is definitely meant to be the same kind of thing as Time Lord Regeneration: the Doctor says that he has been through it "two or three times" (instantly decanonizing the Mobius Doctors.) The crew of the R1C say that they have regenerated thousands of times each; suggesting that Bob Baker and Dave Martin don't know about the twelve body limit imposed by Robert Holmes.

You would expect this to be the main thrust of the story: how a race of immortals recklessly shared their deathlessness with some mortals who were not ready for it. But it's pretty much just a one-use plot device to explain how the same crew can have been in space for a thousand centuries.

Nothing in the story would fall out differently if the Minions did not have Previous with the Time Lords, but were just some humanoids trying to get their Race Banks back. Nothing would be different if they had been elderly people who had been questing for fifty years, as opposed to immortals who had been at it for a hundred thousand. Nothing would be different if the Planet were a few hundred light years away rather than at the very edge of existence.

I was going to say that these concepts have been crowbarred in to give a painfully generic story a spurious significance and gravitas. But they don't even do that. They feel more like space fillers, improvisations, twiddly bits that briefly embellish an otherwise rather bland melody.

Some people are going to a certain place to do a certain thing.

Why? Because Time Lords.





"Revolution. Has no-one thought of revolution? Has no-one ever rebelled?"

It seems that Jackson's ship exerts a gravitational pull strong enough to attract all the asteroids and space debris in the vicinity: Episode One ends with the ship very nearly being buried by small rocks. The quest ship, the P7E, has been sitting in the asteroid field for centuries; a whole planet has formed around it. Descendants of the crew live in the tunnels and caves they have excavated. They have never seen the outside world and don't even believe it exists.

This seems to be quite a lot of narrative trouble to go to to establish the basic conceit of the story; that the race-banks which Jackson is searching for are at the heart of a labyrinthine network of caves and tunnels. The central metaphor is advertised in the story's title: Jackson is going down into the underworld. He is going to retrieve the golden life pods from P7E. (Persephone. Geddit?)

Most of the population of P7E dress in ragged nightshirts and look like extras from Life of Brian. They are, inevitably, called the Trogs and spend their whole lives digging rock "for reprocessing into food so that we can go on working to get more rock." (Leela is surprised that it is possible to eat rock. "Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Blackpool?" ripostes the Doctor. Ha-ha.) They are ruled by the Guards, who are ruled by the Seers, who answer to the Oracle who (to no-one's great surprise) turns out to be the computer that ran the original starship. 

Dig rock so we can make food so we can dig more rock; work so we can pay for drugs that can keep us awake to work longer hours so we can pay our taxes. A casual viewer who had zoned out during Sunmakers and rejoined the action part way through Underworld could be forgiven for thinking he was watching the same story.




"What else? We can make your brain boil in you skull! What else?"

Graham Williams is making a concerted effort to appeal to the neglected torture-and-execution demographic (largely neglected since Deadly Assassin.) Last time he had Leela being steamed to death while the Gatherer drooled. This time one of Jackson's crew is strapped into a device somewhere between a particularly unwieldy stereo system and the electric chair; while the Seers demand he tells them things that he obviously doesn't know. Meanwhile, an elderly Trog becomes a human sacrifice because he has publicly stated that the sky is not made of rock and there are stars above it. "The Trogs always work harder after a good sacrifice" say the Seers.

The black and white William Hartnell story, the Aztecs, may not be the most culturally sensitive piece of TV ever filmed: but it did show some awareness that human sacrifice was a religious rite, albeit a cruel and bloodthirsty one. Underworld depicts it purely as a form of execution. It doesn't seem to be about deterring specific heretics; it's merely a show of strength pour encourager les autres. The Doctor sees it as "official sadism". For a show which is meant to be toning down the violence for the sake of the Whitehouse, the episode spends a lot of time dwelling on the process of killing. A sword is suspended over the victim, tied by an elaborate strip of cloth, and an oil lamp is lit underneath to burn through it. It is presumably supposed to evoke the Sword of Damocles; but it feels more like an Adam West Batman cliffhanger: an over-complex trap the sole purpose of which is to give the hero a chance to escape from it.






"You're just another machine with megalomania. Another insane object, another self-aggrandising artefact. You're nothing. Nothing but a mass of superheated junk with delusions of grandeur."

The Seers think that preserving the Oracle is the most important thing; so they agree to hand over the Race Banks if Jackson's crew will go away. But the Oracle thinks that holding onto the Race Banks is the most important thing, so it hands over two Race Bank shaped atomic bombs that it prepared earlier. The Doctor takes the real Race Banks by force; and tries to dispose of the Bombs safely; but the Guards take them off him thinking they are real Race Banks. The Trogs escape on board the ship, the planet blows up, and everyone lives relatively happily ever after.

("The prophecy's being fulfilled. Our god has come to save us. We can escape to the stars" exclaims one of the Trogs. Tom resists the temptation to say "I think this is becoming needlessly Messianic".)

Once again, the climactic scene involves the Doctor confronting the main villain and over-acting a lot. Tom Baker is now the defining feature of Doctor Who; so it makes perfect sense to allow him to grandstand once in each story. The showdown with the Oracle is considerably more shouty than the one with the Gatherer last week: the Doctor appears to be angry, not because it is especially evil, but because it is such a cliche. It is fairly hard not to read this as Tom Baker's contempt for the material; or perhaps even knowing self-deprecation on the part of Bob Baker and Dave Martin. After four episodes, a hundred thousand years and a ground-up re-write of Time Lord history, it all comes down to yet another nasty computer and a very powerful hand-grenade.





"Perhaps those myths are not just old stories of the past, you see, but prophecies of the future."

There was a three-week gap between the Sunmakers (which concluded on December 17th 1977) and Underworld (which began on January 7th 1978.) There was no Doctor Who on Christmas Eve, even though it fell on a Saturday; and only a repeat of Robots of Death on New Years Eve.

And during that hiatus, on the day-after-Boxing Day, Star Wars finally arrived in the UK. (The day-after-New Years day also saw the launch of Blakes' Seven.)

So: that really-quite-good BBC special effect of space-ships flying overhead and getting swallowed by meteors in Episode One happened at the same time most of us were having our first encounter with Star Wars. Very many of us saw the Planet blow up (split down the middle like a giant easter egg) in the same week we first saw Alderaan (and then the Death Star) explode. Leela shouts "revolution!" at the Trogs at the same time that brave rebels, striking from a hidden base, won their first victory over the evil galactic empire.... Her names sounds a bit like Princess Leia's, come to think of it. 

Had anyone in the Doctor Who production office seen Star Wars? Had they (like me) read the comic book and the novel? Did they know it by reputation? Or, as the Doctor said last week, it might just have been coincidence.

Did Underworld -- and by degrees Doctor Who itself -- develop its reputation for shoddiness because it appeared in the same time-frame as the massively spectacular and ground-breaking effects in Star Wars? Was our perception of the awesomeness of Star Wars effected by the mediocrity of Doctor Who?

Did we look at the spaceships in Underworld and say "Oh dear, the BBC is trying to do Star Wars, badly." Or did we see Star Wars for the first time and think "Oh my giddy aunt, it's like Doctor Who, only less crap."

The first thing the world noticed about Star Wars is that it was kind of like a fairy tale, only in space. The second thing it noticed was that it was kind of a collage of everything that George Lucas loved about cinema. But we very quickly spotted that the really important thing about Star Wars was that it had something to do with Joseph Campbell.

Let's not revisit the question of whether Lucas used Hero With a Thousand Faces as a template; whether the mighty power of the collective unconscious caused him to make a movie that was shaped like the Monomyth; or if Campbell's Monomyth is merely a convoluted way of saying that most stories are about people who go from some place to some other place in order to do a thing. What matters is that for a while, we all believed that Star Wars was not just a great Hollywood adventure movie. It was a modern embodiment of the One True Story, and therefore Very Important Indeed.

And it is more or less at that cultural moment that the Doctor chooses to assert that Underworld, the most formulaic and derivative of all Doctor Who stories had, in fact, been the recapitulation of an ancient myth.

"Jason was another captain on a long quest. He was looking for the Golden Fleece. He found it hanging on a tree at the end of the world..."

The whole point of Image of the Fendahl is that myths and religions are garbled memories of things which really happened in the remote past. The Doctor now proposes that they are prophecies of things which will happen in the far future. Joseph Campbell, of course, says that they are the forms in which deep mystical and psychological truths penetrate our conscious minds. All three say that myths are not true, but are nevertheless really important. It is possible to bite through the chocolate shell of legend and get to the Kinder toy of truth buried within.

The connections between the story of Jackson and the story of Jason are actually pretty tenuous. One of Jackson's crew is called Herrick, which is obviously supposed to make us think of Heracles: there are also characters called Orfe and Talis. Herrick is a bit heroic and gung-ho; but Orfe doesn't sing and Talis isn't made of bronze. Their ship is nearly destroyed by asteroids, which is a bit like crashing rocks. P7E sounds like Persephone (who Jason never encountered) and if you try really hard you can make R1C rhyme with Argosy. They are not looking for a fleece, but for Race Banks; but their pods are certainly gold in colour. The P7E is concealed in a kind of labyrinth which the Trogs call the Tree; it is defended by automatic lasers which the Trogs call dragons. Going down into a series of caves to retrieve the very thing which will save your people is unquestionably pretty mythic.

Joseph Campbell gave it a big important name. George Lucas injected it into a movie. But if you are inclined to believe in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, it is very interesting that in the exact same week Luke Skywalker arrived in England, Doctor Who was telling a story about a band of heroes who go an a long journey and descend into the underworld to bring back the golden boon which will restore their race.

The Quest, they keep on saying, Is The Quest.





Thursday, October 28, 2021

Doctor Who 15.3 - Image of the Fendahl

In October 1977, Jack Kirby's Eternals came to an ignominious non-conclusion. It had been a gosh-wow treatment of the theory that human mythology and superstition is based on race-memories of alien visitations. 

Also in October 1977, the first episode of Image of the Fendahl premiered on BBC 1. It was a spooky, gothic treatment of the theory that human mythology and superstitions are based on race-memories of ancient alien visitations. 

Nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe even the universe can't bare to be without a decent set of space-gods. 


"How do we follow that?" asked producer Graham Williams. "We are only on our third story, and we have already had a Giant Alien Brussel sprout and a Giant Alien Prawn. What could possibly be more scary than that?" 

"I know," replied writer Chris Boucher "What about a Giant Alien Penis?" 

(This didn't really happen, as you very well know.) 


Image of the Fendahl is not so much a story as a headlong rush through a sequence of Doctor Who tropes. Things happen, not because it makes any kind of sense for them to happen, but because they are the kinds of thing which happen in this kind of Doctor Who story. The components are all in place: a lab full of oscilloscopes; a pretty lady chained to a pentangle; a glowing skull; a Giant Muppet Phallus Monster (and lots of baby phalluses); a foggy, foggy, wood; and an old lady who don't be holdin' with this kind of thing. 

In the cracks between the tropes is a lot of exposition about Time Lord legends, rifts in the fabric of time, evolutionary blind alleys and gestalt entities which feed on life itself. It turns out that the human race has an extraterrestrial origin. (And then it turns out that it doesn't.) The ancient aliens' visit explains why the pentangle is a universal symbol of power and why we throw salt over our shoulders for good luck. Almost definitely. 

It is based around a strong set of characters, several of whom are not cliches. It is overacted and melodramatic: but it's 1977. Everything is over-acted and melodramatic. The confrontation between scientist Colby and scientist Thea in Episode Two would probably have gone down a storm on Play For Today. Director George Spenton-Foster has a nice line in intercutting short scenes to keep up the pace and does his level best to use close-ups and shadows and reaction shots to make the Giant Space Penis look less risible than it would otherwise have done. The production is cast and dark red autumnal colours; we are in the visual world of Talons of Weng Chiang and Pyramids of Mars. It feels like a piece of grown-up TV, where Invisible Enemy felt like a comic strip (and not in a good way). 

But it is all surface. There is much chat about race memories and the extraterrestrial origins of the occult; and about how a Time Lord put the Fifth Planet into a Time Loop (which 'twas against the rules) but it all seems to be made up on the spot. Boucher knows that he wants hubristic scientists fooling around with an alien artefact; and he knows that he wants a Dennis Wheatley human sacrifice scenario in the cellar; but he seems to flail around wildly trying to find a route from one to the other. When Leela asks, not unreasonably, how the Giant Space Penis got from the Fifth Planet to Earth without a space ship, the Doctor replies that it used its stockpile of energy to project itself; and that human belief in astral projection is a race-memory of this method of travel. Leela says "you mean the way lightening travels". 

But when the creature has menaced everyone in the corridor in part four, the Doctor says "it can only have been created out of pure energy while the skull was restructuring Thea's brain." Travelling like the lightening? Astral projection? Or created out of pure energy by an alien skull? Which is it? No-one knows.  

It is never a good sign when companions begin sentences with "You mean....?" (Colby has a nice line in sentences beginning "Are you telling me...?") 

Perhaps Graham Williams had come to the conclusion that most people only watched Doctor Who with half an eye. On any given Saturday, some people would have been coming home late from the football or the shops or the Sunday School concert. It can hardly be said too often that there were no re-runs, no streaming services and no Betamax videos. At any given moment, most of the audience could be assumed to be saying "I don't understand that; but it was probably explained in the episode I missed." And if they are resigned to doing that anyway -- if being confused is part of the fun -- then why not allow even the kids who managed to get home by 6 o'clock four weeks running go away agreeably bewildered? 


There are four scientists. A Sarcastic One, a Grumpy One, a Foreign One, and a Girl One. A hiker is hiking through the foggy, foggy woods, whistling to keep his spirits up. The Sardonic One says that the skull can't possibly be as old as the Girl One thinks it is. The Grumpy One goes to a secret lab, and the Foreign One says "now ve can begin". They switch on their oscilloscope. There is a rising high-pitched sound effect; the skull starts to glow. It is superimposed over the face of the Girl One. The hiker in the woods is scared. He is attacked by something invisible. 

And then we cut to the TARDIS where the Doctor and Leela are talking gobbledegook about continuums, displacements and implosions. 

A week ago, to the delight of small boys and the dismay of serious Who fans, the Doctor acquired a robot companion, K-9. One week later, K-9 is in pieces on the TARDIS floor. Fan-fiction writers bless the production team for this: it means that at least one, and probably lots of adventures must have taken place between Invisible Enemy and Image of the Fendahl. (Has there been a Big Finish about How K-9 Got Corroded?) After all the build up, we won't get to see K-9 as a part of the regular cast for another month. One assumes that the radio controlled hound didn't function on location shoots with uneven floors. Or perhaps Chris Boucher simply felt disinclined to add another companion to his script at short notice. 

There is a little bit of banter about pronouns. The Doctor refers to K-9 as "it" and Leela refers to them as "he" (although he calls the TARDIS "she"). This gets a pay-off four weeks later, when the Doctor announces that he is going to call K-9 "he" after all ("he's my dog"). 

There is an essentially similar scene at the beginning of Robots of Death, when Leela thinks the Doctor's yo-yo is integral to the working of the TARDIS. But that scene was played straight: when Tom Baker explains why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, he seems to believe it, which allows Leela to believe it; which in turn allows us to carry on believing in it. This week's TARDIS scene is played -- if not exactly for laughs -- then at any rate, facetiously. 

-- What did you say, Leela 

-- Leela said... 

-- I know what you said 

-- Then why ask me? 

There are as yet undiscovered tribes in New Guinea that knew that as soon as the Doctor says that he is in "complete and constant control" of the TARDIS, the ship would lurch off course, throwing everyone to the floor. It's an example of that joke format which TV Tropes calls the Gilligan Cut. It crops up again in Episode 2, Leela says that the Doctor is very gentle, and we cut to him kicking boxes around out of frustration. Once the TARDIS is back on course the Doctor says "she" is wonderful and Tom Baker (presumably) ad libs a little football chant ("TAR-DIS! Won-der-ful!") 

The message of Robots of Death was that the TARDIS is a wondrous alien machine that Tom and Louise want us to believe in. The message of Image of the Fendahl is that it's a silly plot device that can safely have the mickey taken out of it. 

But the terminal diagnosis comes as they leave the TARDIS. 

-- Come on then. 

-- No. The one who leads says come on. Come on. 

"Come on" and "Let's go" were both certainly cliches of the period. (I recall some spoof writer's guidelines for Blakes 7 in a fanzine saying that if Avon said "Let's go" then Tarrant couldn't.) But as soon as the characters start to become aware of the cliches, the writing is on the wall for your TV show. 

*

Leela says that it is obvious that the Doctor cannot control the TARDIS. This is rather odd. The series is now predicated on the idea that the Doctor can control the TARDIS and has to be given reasons to go where he is going. (The whole of next season will be predicated on one particularly convoluted reason.) Last week he was called to Titan base to answer a Mayday; next week he'll be forced to land on Pluto because the TARDIS is broken. This week, the Doctor chooses to go to Earth because The Foreign One's oscilloscope is really a Time Scanner, and (as everyone knows) if you fool around with a Time Scanner you risk ripping a hole in time. Which would be a Bad Thing. The Foreign One is brilliant at electronics; he used to make missile guidance systems; and he is one of the richest men in the world; but quite how he managed to invent something so dangerous is not covered. It doesn't matter: the Time Scanner has no actual bearing on the story. In Episode 4 the Doctor switches it off and says "Whew! We've saved the planet", and everyone who is not taking notes says "You what?" 

The skull is a Mysterious Anachronism, exactly like Eldrad's hand in the Hand of Fear. It's a human skull, but it is millions of years older than any human skull has a right to be. It was dug up in Kenya. (The Sarcastic One's dog is called Leakey because it digs up bones, and not for any childish scatological reasons). Obviously, an African skull is bound up with pentangles, witches covens, and traditions about salt, rather than, say, ancestor worship or Kikuyu. 

In Episode Two, the Foreign One says that the Skull is extraterrestrial, and that this proves that man did not evolve on earth ("of zat I am sure"). The Time Scanner has revealed (somehow) that when the Skull's owner died, it absorbed a huge amount of energy. When something as sophisticated as a Time Scanner -- or maybe just an X-Ray machine -- is turned on it, it releases all this energy, telling the other members of its race that intelligent life has developed on earth. This is a perfectly fine sci-fi trope: it's very much the function of the Black Slab in 2001: A Space Odyssey (which also mucked around with human evolution.) But in the actual story, the Skull seems to operate by possessing people, killing them, and turning them into Giant Rude Looking Caterpillars. We don't see it acting as a beacon or summonsing device. Why the Fendahl need humans to be capable of developing time scanners and radiography before having them for lunch is not explored.

But there is more to come. The Skull is connected, in some way, with creatures from Time Lord mythology -- who were destroyed when the Fifth Planet blew up. The Doctor knows this because after she has been possessed by the skull, Thea, the Girl Scientist faints and tiny little phallic Fendahl appear on her body. Why do they appear? And, indeed, where do they go? Is the thought that the Skull, as well as sending out a signal, has used the nearest human as some kind of bridgehead or teleportation terminus? A cynic might say that the only reason for the Baby Monsters to appear is because Boucher can't think of a better way of appraising the Doctor of the identity of this week's bad guy. 

We aren't told what Time Lord myths are attached to the Very Genocidal Caterpillar. We aren't told if the planet which blew up is the fifth one in our solar system, or in Galifrey's or if it is connected with the number five for some other reason. (Planet of the Pentangles, possibly?) The idea that the Fendhal is a legend rapidly falls away; it becomes simply a Bad Alien that the Time Lords fudged their non-intervention policy to get rid of. And anywhere, their relationship with the Time Lords has no bearing on the story. It's just a spurious way of making the story pointlessly hyperbolical. Not only are the Fendahl  evil aliens who are going to consume all life on earth; but they are the kind of evil life-consuming aliens that Time Lords tell each other scary stories about! 

But there is more to come. Fendalman, the Foreign One, is clearly coded as the villain in Episode One; but in Episode Two it turns out that the main human baddy is actually the Grumpy One, the improbably named Maximillion Stael. It isn't enough to say that the Skull might be the source of some human legends. There has to be some actual Hammer Horror black magic going on. Superstitious villagers regards Stael as Leader of the Coven; and in case we were in any doubt, he has to deliver lines like "I shall be a god!" and "It is too late for all the meddling fools!" 

In Episode One, an elderly lady who runs errands for the scientists has a run-in with the security thugs who Fendalman has called down from London. After she thumps him with her hand-bag Colby (the Sarcastic One) remarks sarcastically that he can see why people used to burn witches. In Episode Two it turns out that Mrs Tyler really is a witch. (She do be following the old ways, me 'andsome, on account of 'ow folks round here were raised in the old religion, so they were etc. etc. etc.) It could be that Colby's reference to witches is a cack-handed piece of foreshadowing; but it is very tempting to think that the joke came first and the plot twist came afterwards. 

I imagine that in the 1970s, some people really did meet up in secret places to perform what they imagined were ancient ceremonies. They could have been rich, Hell-Fire Club, Crowley-influenced decadents; well meaning new-age flower children; or even sincerely spiritual neo-pagans. But Boucher thinks that once you travel west of Basingstoke all the locals speak with thick accents and talk about The Old Ways. Not only is this patronising, but it's a literary cliche. The four scientists are, by Doctor Who standards, fairly naturalistically drawn. The Mummer set yokels are straight out of Cold Comfort Farm. Jack Tyler, (the wise-woman's grown-up grandson) gives the impression that he's going to break into a rousing chorus of Brand New Combine Harvester at any moment. 

A comparison with Jon Pertwee's the Daemons is rather salutary. The Daemons is almost entirely an occult story, in which burial mounds are opened and existentialist vicars say "so mot it be" in crypts. The cloven hoofed alien is defeated because of Jo's self-sacrificial love for the Doctor -- very much how you would expect someone to defeat Satan in a horror story. The sciencey explanation -- that Daemons are not supernatural figures, but aliens from the planet Daemos -- is a secondary gloss. It gives us permission to enjoy what is essentially a fantasy story in the context of Doctor Who. And Miss Hawthorn is a middle-aged, posh, tea-drinking, church of England white witch and not at all a Granny Weatherwax cliche. This was before Terry Pratchett. 


Half way through Episode Three, we get another scene on board the TARDIS. We do not see Leela and the Doctor go to the TARDIS, we do not see the TARDIS take off, we don't even see the Doctor saying "Let's go to the TARDIS". We just discover them in space. The Doctor has taken the Ship ten million years back in time and millions of miles through space to visit the Fifth Planet where the Fendahl originally came from. (Which rather gives the lie to Leela's claim that he can't control it). There is a jumble of pseudo science, and they go back to earth. We don't see the TARDIS materialise and we don't see them get out of it. 

There is nothing wrong with pseudo science. Doctor Who has always been driven by it. But you generally expect it to have some connection to the plot. "The Doctor uses [gobbledegook] to discover that the alien is really trying to [gobbledegook] and can be stopped by [gobbledegook]". But this scene leaves us with no better idea of what the Fendahl is up to than we had before. We are told that the Fifth Planet has been hidden in a Time Loop (and not destroyed at all) which ought to be a set up for a Big Reveal that the Master or Rassilon or the Meddling Monkey is behind the whole thing. Needless to say, no such revelation occurs. 

Maybe Boucher is lamp-shading the fact that his script makes no sense. What is the Fendahl? I don't know and you don't know and the Doctor doesn't know because the Time Lords have put a No One Is Allowed To Know sign around their planet. Or maybe he had spotted that the story was really about Mad Scientist Fendalman, Mad Occultist Stahl and Eccentric Witch Tyler, and needed an excuse to absent the Doctor from the main action? Or perhaps the script was simply too short and the TARDIS scenes were added to pad it out? (Episode Three runs a standard twenty four and a bit minutes, but Episode Four finishes its business in twenty.) 


By the final instalment, a sense of desperation is setting in. The Weird Occult Ritual in the cellar is spooky enough fun. There is some genuine drama; particularly when Stael takes his own life rather than become possessed. We are told that the BBC was running scared of Mary Whitehouse and had toned down the horror; but the rule appears to be that that kids won't be harmed by suicide (or human sacrifice, or executions or torture) provided they happen off-screen. 

The Doctor suddenly remembers that the Fendahl is a Gestalt Entity. That's another good idea: when twelve witches get together to perform a summonsing ritual, what they are really doing is channelling a composite alien being which is made up of twelve lessor beings. But the story rolls in exactly the same direction that it would have done if the people in the cellar had been bog-standard witches calling up a bog-standard bogeyman. Thea turns into a glam-rock Greek goddess, menaces everyone for a bit, and then gets zapped. The Fendahl may be life-consuming death bringers who the Time Lords are scared of, but they have a rather simple Kryptonite Heel. "Obviously sodium chloirde affects the conductivity, ruins the overall electrical balance and prevents control of localised disruption to the osmotic pressures" explains the Doctor. Fortunately Leela is on hand to translate. "Salt kills it.".

And then the Doctor changes the backstory. 

And then he changes it again. 

And then he furiously back-pedals. 

Take your pick: 

1: The Skull is the extra-terrestrial ancestor of the human race. 

2: No, it isn't. Its alien energy merely affected terran life-forms which caused them to evolve into humans. 

3: No, it didn't. It simply manipulated the DNA of some primitive humans so their descendants would eventually summons the Fendahl. 

There is nothing wrong with unreliable narrators and mad scientists who leap to the wrong conclusions. You thought that this was what was going on -- but in fact it was THIS all the time. But there is no sense of a big revelation, of layers of the onion being peeled off until we see the terrible truth that man was not meant to know. It is merely confusing. A simple, interesting premise is incrementally replaced by sixteen or seventeen more complicated ones. 


But why be concerned? The explanation is not part of the story. Witches covens summons Giant Alien Dicks because reasons. 

"On the other hand" says the Doctor, giving up completely "It could just be a coincidence." 


Image of the Fendahl has, in 100 minutes, completely rewritten the history of the human race. Life on earth has very nearly been wiped out, and by my count, at least fourteen people are dead. Mrs Tyler has learned that the religious faith she has followed her whole life was, at best, a cargo cult. So what do the survivors do? Do they spend the rest of their lives in a mental asylum, wishing that the human mind were less able to correlate its contents? Do thet pour oil on their clothes and set themselves alight? (And do their families deny that they ever existed?) Or do they, in point of fact, go back to the cottage and have tea and plumb cake off the best china? 

Keep Calm and Carry On became a silly reactionary cliche. But it does, I think, nicely sum up a story that the English really do like to tell themselves about themselves. And as stories go, it's not a bad one. We really did help to defeat Hitler; our capital city really was bombed flat; and we really did brush our hair and polish the front step every morning during the Blitz. 

In Terry Nation's Survivors, the English middle class are the only people left alive after a pandemic: they continue to iron their C&A dresses, put vases of flowers on the table, and sing We Plough the Fields and Scatter once a year. The Doctor and Leela seem more and more to live in the TARDIS, playing chess, tinkering with K-9, learning to read, trying their hand at painting. Adventures are the interruption to this relatively idyllic existence. 

This is a product of the format. But it is also a core part of the aesthetic. Doctor Who has to reboot at the end of each episode. The toys have to go back in the boxes, ready for the next adventure, and the one after that. If Pyramids of Mars, Image of the Fendahl and the Daemons were all "true" then the Earth would be a surrealistic hybrid, unrecognisable as the world we know. And the story has to start in the world we know because although the Doctor is a disruptive anarchist, he is also a defender of the status quo. 

Cosmic horror is an interruption to domestic life: but it doesn't over write it. The stories, under Graham Williams, will get bigger and bigger, as we move from Gothic to Space Opera to a Douglas Adams parody of Space Opera. But the concerns remain small scale. The human race migrates to Pluto via Mars, but the focus remains on one little guy who can't pay his tax. 

Cosmic horror which is not interested in cosmic horror. Sweeping galactic science fiction which is not interested in galaxies or science. 

You cannot preserve the village green if it was concreted over in the previous story. Lord, keep within they special care, 121, Cadogan Square.





Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Doctor Who 15.4 - The Sunmakers

The Doctor arrives on a planet where evil rulers oppress a slave population. He falls in with some rebels: he helps them stage a revolution. The nasty rulers are killed; the people are freed. The Doctor is hailed as a hero, but he doesn't stick around long enough to help the freed people to rebuild their civilisation.

That's the plot of the Sunmakers. It's almost a new paradigm, replacing "the Doctor foils an alien invasion" and "the Doctor protects scientists besieged by aliens" as the generic example of what Doctor Who does. 
Four stories in, Graham Williams, has worked out what Doctor Who is going to be about from now on. 

Silly. But good silly, not bad silly.

The twist is that the evil rulers are plutocrats rather than military conquerers. This is the only reason for setting the story specifically on Pluto rather than on earth or on some made-up planet. And this pun is the only reason for the story to be called The Sun Makers. The evil Company have made Pluto habitable by constructing six artificial suns. A large, symbolic sun-face is displayed prominently in the Gatherer's office; and it appears on all the baddy's uniforms, but (like the Penny Farthing in the Village) it is never alluded to. The oppressed workers who built the suns are never allowed to see the sunlight; but nothing is made of this satirical point. The plot could have involved the workers downing tools and plunging the planet into darkness: the Doctor might have switched off the sun as part of his plan to overthrow the Company. But it doesn't. The idea of people who make suns just sits in the title, not doing anything in particular.

I suppose we could say that this is very much part of the new aesthetic. Huge cosmic ideas -- artificial stars human migration and sentient slime -- are casually tossed out as part of the not-very-important background to a little character-level adventure yarn.

The Company is comedically, artificially nasty: a metaphor for nastiness rather than a satirical exaggeration of anything we could imagine really existing. They refer to the people as Work Units, and regard them only as a source of income. Cordo, the viewpoint character, has paid a large sum of money to give his father "a golden death with four mercy attendants". (Although this is not spelled out, there is a strong implication that he has had to pay for his father to be euthanised.) He then has to pay death duties; which are more than his actual income. He says that he is currently working twenty one hours a day; and the Gatherer says that he should take drugs so he can manage with less sleep. The drugs, are of course, expensive and taxed. When the Doctor arrives and offers him a jelly baby, poor Cordo is about to jump off a skyscraper. (SPOILER: The Gatherer is thrown off the same skyscraper by the liberated mob in the final episode.)

The action takes place in a Megrapolis, which may make us think of Friz Lang. There may be a touch of Judge Dredd, too. Certainly it is clear from the opening moments that we are not supposed to be taking things entirely seriously. It's dark ("congratulations, citizen; your father ceased at one ten") but it's dark comedy. The Gatherer, with his robes and his turban, looks like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan. It isn't yet a pantomime, but there is a camp, theatrical aesthetic. Almost every line has a jokey archness to it; as if everyone is speaking in quotation marks "I see the magnitude of the offence astounds you....Criminal deviants occur in every generation...."

The Gatherer's increasingly preposterous grovelling to his superior, the Collector is consistently funny. Despite the Gatherer's having run through the thesaurus in search of synonyms for "big" ("your promontory:"; "your aggrandisement"; "your grossness"; "your orotundity") the Collector is a small, bald man who sits Davros-like in a motorised wheel chair, hunched over hi-tech accountancy machines saying things like "time is money" and "business is business". Henry Woolf was, in fact, of Jewish heritage, but I don't think the Sun Makers has ever been accused of Gringotts goblins anti-semitism. The Collector isn't Shylock. His main distinguishing features are his ridiculous eyebrows.

Forty years ago, this might possibly have seemed funny. Harold Wilson was Prime Minister; and one Dennis Healey was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had quite a high public profile -- even the youngest Doctor Who fans would probably have known who he was -- because he was very frequently mimicked by impressionist Mike Yarwood. Yarwood's comedy had almost no satirical element: he just made good natured fun of celebrity mannerisms. His caricature of Healey consisted of basically two jokes: that he was fond of the phrase "silly billy" (which he wasn't) and that he had bushy eyebrows (which he did). So, rather weirdly, Robert Holmes could stick bushy eyebrows on a villain, and everyone would instantly understand that the story was about money and taxation.

I wonder how often this kind of thing is true of older, less well documented fiction in ways we don't see, and can't find out?

Healey was a Labour cabinet minister. Labour certainly had high rates of taxation. In 1977, before the Winter of Discontent and the collapse of the post-war consensus, income above £20,000 (about £100k in todays money) was taxed at 83%. The one-for-you-ninenteen-for-me rate that the Beatles had moaned about, with peace and love, had been abolished in 1972. But this was part of a socialist agenda to take money from the rich and use it to pay for trains and roads and schools and nuclear missiles. Taxing the poor never makes much sense, despite what the Sheriff of Nottingham may believe.

A story which equates taxation with evil could be seen as regressive and anti-liberal. All those Two Ronnies gags about officious ticket inspectors and mouldy meat pies; and endless Carry On tittering about hospital matrons were at some level political jokes about unions and nationalised industries and the welfare state. Leela asks if tax is like a sacrifice to a tribal god; and the Doctor says taxation is more painful. There is a very silly scene where Cordo tells the Doctor and Leela to run from the Gatherer, and they run away, despite having no idea who he is. "Everyone runs from the tax-man" says Leela.

But the story wants to have it both ways. The Company that makes people work long hours with no breaks and gives them nothing in return is a socialist caricature of capitalism. The Tax Gatherer and Tax Collector who use small print and unfair rules to take your hard-earned money away from you is a conservative caricature of socialism. This could have been a punchline: we might have learned in episode four that the company which pays you and the government that taxes you are in cahoots. That might even have amounted to satire. But everyone in the story takes it for granted that the Company give with one hand and take with the other. Yes, at one point everyone runs down corridor number P45 (which is the number of the tax form you get when you quit a job); and yes, tax is calculated PCM (per complete month) which is also the name of the drug which keeps the population of Pluto docile. And yes, when the Gatherer divides his forces to attack the rebels from two directions, he calls it Morton's Fork, which refers to one of Henry VII's tax officials. (Morton allegedly claimed that if people lived opulently, it proved they must have lots of cash and could therefore afford to pay tax; but if they lived frugally, they must be putting money aside and therefore could afford to pay their tax.) The Doctor even quotes Karl Marx at one point. But what it adds up to is not so much a satire on the British system of taxation as a bog-standard rebellion story with some fiscal window dressing.

Jokes about tax men are pretty much on a level with jokes about lawyers and mothers-in-law. We dony quite know why we laugh at them. They are funny because they are.

The production achieves new levels of cheapness. The kilometre high skyscraper that Cordo wants to throw himself off looks exactly like a disused cigarette factor in Bristol. The underground road that Leela is chased along in episode 2 is obviously part of a 20th century subway; the guards seem to be driving a golf cart or possibly a milk-float. Interiors are represented by the most generic BBC studio sets imaginable; white walls, generic science equipment. The asteroid base in Invisible Enemy was decorated, for some reason, with Greek columns; Pluto seems to go in for terracotta nipples.

But if anything, this make-do-and-mend aesthetic works in the story's favour. It's hard to ignore a genuinely bad special effect. The very primitive blue screen graphics used for the Doctor's brain in Invisible Enemy (and the cave sequence we will see in Underworld) might have looked cutting edge at the time, but they are risible now. But it's relatively easy to treat Sunmakers as you would a theatrical performance on a bare stage. When we do speak of a vast mega city on the planet Pluto lit by six synthetic suns, think that you see them, as the Bard might have put it.

Because the main thing to say about Sunmakers is that it just works. The Collector and the Gatherer are funny enough that we enjoy watching them; but evil enough that we can boo and hiss and be pleased when they come to a sticky end. The rebels are believably nasty and believably idealistic. Leader Mandrell is very nasty indeed, but most of the good lines go to Michael Keating, who is basically playing a joke free version of Vila. (Since Blakes 7 didn't start for another three weeks, hardly anyone noticed.) 

Robert Holmes knows how to construct a narrative. The correct amount happens in each episode: it never feels rushed, but it never feels boring. The Doctor meets Cordo; Cordo leads the Doctor to the Rebels; the Rebels send the Doctor on a mission, keeping Leela as a hostage. The Doctor is captured and put in the Correction centre; Leela and Cordo try to rescue the Doctor. The Gatherer frees the Doctor (in oder to track him back to the Rebel Base) so when Leela arrives, he is already gone. Leela is captured and sent to be executed. The Doctor helps the rebels stage a proper revolution, during which Leela is freed. Each scene leads sensibly to the next scene. Most scenes give us an additional bit of information or backstory, without us feeling we're being info-dumped. Characters are brought together in different combinations and different situations; creating different kinds of scenes and different kinds of dialogue. The Gatherer is callous to Cordo but obsequious to the Collector. When he frees the Doctor from the correction center he is all smiles and fake affability. The Doctor pretends to be taken in; complimenting him on the strawberry leaf he is offered as a delicacy, and offering him candy in return. 

No, not a jelly baby: Tom Baker offers it with the single word "Humbug?" 

This is not high drama. But it is too very good actors having a lot of fun with a very good script.

Almost the best thing about the story is that Leela comes into her own, treated as a character rather than light relief or a comic foil. When the cowardly rebels won't help her rescue the Doctor, she goes into full William Wallace mode. "You have nothing, Mandrell. No pride, no courage, no manhood. Even animals protect their own. You say to me you want to live. Well I'll say this to you. If you lie skulking in this black pit while the Doctor dies, then you will live, but without honour!". Naturally, the only one who will help her is timid Cordo, who she calls "the bravest man here." It really is Louise Jameson's finest hour.

K-9 finally emerges from the TARDIS and gets some lines: but he's already an embarrassment and an encumbrance. He was introduced as a super-computer; but his main purpose in the story is to act as a portable stun gun. This time, the Doctor regards him primarily as Leela's friend (despite the closing line of the last story being "He's my dog".) When K9 puts himself at risk to rescue Leela, the Doctor tries to thank him, and he replies "Please do not embarrass me" even though it was a plot point in Invisible Enemy that he didn't have emotion circuits. 

Either 

a: the Doctor added such circuits when K-9 was off-line in Image of the Fendahl or 

b: No-one cares.

The final twist is that the people have a revolution by actually having a revolution. The Doctor removes the gas from the atmosphere which is keeping the people docile; they put out fake propaganda that the revolution has already happened. The Gatherer, who has been a comic bad guy all the way through is unceremoniously thrown off a skyscraper by the mob. The Doctor confronts the Collector, and, as is rapidly becoming part of the formula, they have a jolly good sneer at each other. It turns out that The Company are, indeed, aliens: subtly called Usurians, presumably from the planet Usury. The Doctor does a Thing, and the Collector reverts to his true, alien form. Again, we could read a political message here: capitalism and socialism are not the result of human greed or systematic injustice, they are an Evil Force that have invaded from Outside which we could theoretically Cast Them Out. But I think Robert Holmes just likes the joke about tax inspectors literally being pond-scum. When the Collector thinks the company is losing money he starts exclaiming "Inflationary spiral! Negative growth! This branch is no longer viable!" and shrinks into a pool of green slime. The impression, possibly intentional, is of something unpleasant being flushed down a lavatory.

I enjoyed the Sunmakers. I enjoyed it so much that I don't have very much to say about it. Let other people see Doctor Who as a mirror for its times and a political commentary, if they will. For me, it was always about aliens, robots, weirdness, baddies, rebels, getting captured and escaping. 

A tough lady with a dagger and a robot dog being chased down a subway tunnel by stormtroopers on a milk float? Bring it on. 



 



Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Doctor Who 15.1


John Abbot must be in his seventies by now. In his youth he reportedly played Snoopy on the Edinburgh Fringe. But for four weeks in 1977 we knew him as the Nice One On The Lighthouse.

The Lighthouse is called Fang Rock. It is populated entirely by stock characters who are wiped out by a giant luminous brussel sprout at the rate of 1.75 per episode. There is an Old Set In His Ways Lighthouse Keeper and a Middle Aged and More Up To Date Lighthouse Keeper. The latter doesn't last ten minutes into Episode One.

Everyone speaks non-specific Mummerset so it is probably inevitable that Abbot's character, the Young Lighthouse Keeper Who Is Still Learning The Ropes should be called Hawkins. Old Reuben really does say things like "it do seem...unnatural" and "this is a queer 'un". Thank goodness he resists the temptation to say "Arrr... Vince-Lad!" at any point.

In Episode Two Central Casting supplies a fresh boatload of victims: otherwise the story would have been very short. There is a Greedy Financier, a Corrupt MP and a Posh Lady Who Keeps Fainting. In Episode Three, Palmerdale, the nasty rich guy, tries to bribe Vince to send a message about a shady stock deal to the mainland on the lighthouse's morse code transmitter. "A hundred pound!" exclaims Vince. "That be a fortune!" Palmerdale becomes the Monster's fourth victim almost immediately and Vince burns the money because he is afraid he'll be accused of murdering him. In Episode Four, the monster offs Vince as well.

Abbot spends the rest of his career playing rolls like Estate Agent, Lawyer, Mouth Organist and Verger. Probably getting regular bit parts on TV is a good gig for an actor; very likely he doesn't think of Vince as anything other than a job of work he did a very long time ago. But Doctor Who and its fans go on and on forever. Someday we will hear that the guy who played the nice one on the lighthouse has died, and a few thousand of us will think of that day as one thinks of a day on which we did something slightly unusual. Fifty years from now someone who thinks of the Twenty Ninth Doctor as their Doctor will decide to watch the one where the one with the scarf goes to the lighthouse and will feel ever so slightly sad when the giant Brussels sprout kills Vince Hawkins.

Acting is an odd job: fandom is an odd hobby.




Season 14 of Doctor Who came to an end in April, 1977. Season 15 began the following September. On May 25, a new space fantasy movie was released in the U.S.A. It would not arrive in the UK until the day after Boxing Day, but the comics, novels, picture cards and breakfast cereals were already much in evidence. Doctor Who knew that it couldn't compete.

Deadly Assassin and Talons of Weng Chiang wanted to be exceptional: interrogating and deconstructing the show itself; embracing the idea of Time Travel and melodrama like they had never been embraced before. Horror of Fang Rock wants to be just good enough.

Fans are always dividing things into Eras. Talons of Weng-Chiang brought the Hinchcliffe Era to an end and Horror of Fang Rock inaugurated the Williams Era. And it is entirely true that between Season 14 and Season 15 Phillip Hinchcliffe stepped down as producer, and Graham Williams took over. But Producers didn't have as much power and influence as Show Runners do today; and script editor Robert Holmes would hang on for three more stories.

Season 14 ended with a Victorian costume drama; Season 15 opens with an Edwardian costume drama. Season 14 was full of pastiche horror; Season 15 opens with a spooky gothic spine chiller. The lighthouse is as emphatically shrouded in fog as the streets of London were. No-one ever suggested giving Col. Skinsale his own series, but you could imagine him in the club with Dr Litefoot, swapping tales of China and India and being patronising about the natives. Horror of Fang Rock didn't feel like a new era: it felt like business as usual.

Although it is full of stock characters and stereotypes, Fang Rock is not doing conscious literary pastiche in the way that Weng Chiang was. There is no particular "Edwardian Lighthouse Keeper" genre to draw on. If anything, it falls back on the venerable Who format of "aliens besieging a base". Everyone dies by the end of Episode Four: this is in fact the only story in which the Doctor fails to save anyone at all. No-one seems very bothered. The Doctor makes a quick joke about Louise Jameson's contact lenses, quotes an obscure poem that no-one is likely to have read, and hops into the TARDIS for next week's romp.

Doctor Who is now Tom Baker's show, and he knows it. This is his fourth season, and he has already clocked up more screen time than Matt Smith or Peter Capaldi would. He is slowly morphing from the Shakespearean One to the Alien One; the Callous One; and indeed the Insufferable One. Terrance Dicks's script does not give him very much; but he does a great deal with what he's given. He turns an innocent line like "I don't know what the truth is yet" back on itself by adding a little snarl around the word "yet". He makes much use of his trademark device of delivering lines in a convincingly inappropriate tone of voice. He exclaims "We haven't been introduced!" as if it were a life and death crisis; but announces "The lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead" with a silly grin on his face. When old Reuben ("'t'aint natural!") says that this new-fangled wireless won't bring middle-aged Ben back to life the Doctor responds "No!" just a shade too emphatically; raising his eyebrows and widening his eyes. When Reuben, insinuating that it was the Doctor who murdered Ben, says "I knows what I knows and I thinks what I thinks" the Doctor responds with the single word "Incontrovertible!" as if Reuben has just had a clever scientific insight.

It is this Doctor, smug but likeable, who won our devotion, who turned Doctor Who from a TV show into a religion. We felt sure that he would confide in us, as he does with Leela; not patronise us and ignore us, as he does with Reuben. We wished we could be as witty and supercilious to all the bullies and P.E. teachers in the world as the Doctor is to superstitious old duffers who prefer oil lamps to electricity.

Enjoy it while you can: soon it will be buried beneath a stream of weak jokes and jelly babies.

From Ian and Barbara to Harry and Sarah-Jane, the Doctor's companions had always been our near-contemporaries, wrenched from their proper contexts, but acting as our anchor-points and avatars. Doctor Who was about normal people taken to unusual times and places. Horror of Fang Rock lacks any contemporary viewpoint. Seven Edwardian stereotypes go through their paces, while two alien outsiders stand apart. The Doctor and Leela feel increasingly like Sapphire and Steel: visitors from a different world, not quite engaged with what is going on. Although he calls her "savage", Leela is treated almost as the Doctor's equal. The Doctor has knowledge that she doesn't have, but she has instinct which the Doctor respects. When Leela threatens to cut Palmerdale's heart out, we almost believe that she would -- and that the Doctor would let her. Leela is still a character -- recognisably the same young woman we met in Face of Evil and followed through Robots of Death and Talons of Weng Chiang. She has not yet been reduced to a pretty assistant with a dagger instead of a personality.

When Screamy Adelaide mentions that she consults astrologers, Leela says that she too used to believe in magic. "But the Doctor has taught me about Science. It is better to believe in Science." Leela's faith in the Doctor is almost superstitious: she thinks that they have nothing to fear from the alien murderer, because the Doctor is a Time Lord and the monster is not. She believes in him more than he believes in himself. But she can also stand up to him and puncture his pomposity as Sarah-Jane used to. "That's what I thought" she says "But of course I am only a savage!"

The Doctor's pomposity needs to be punctured from time to time: we can really only enjoy someone behaving awfully if there is someone to point out his awfulness. (We are licensed to enjoy Basil Fawlty's rage because we know he will end up with egg on his face.) That's why the Doctor needs to be paired with some sassy mortal: with a Sarah or a Leela or even a Jo. Much of the rest of the Baker era will descend into bickering between two insufferably arrogant ubermenschen -- and and even more insufferably arrogant robot dog.

The murderous Brussels sprout is eventually revealed to be a Rutan. Rutans have, in fact, been mentioned before: almost the only thing we know about the Sontarans is that they are engaged in a perpetual war against them. This is something of a watershed moment. When Dicks requires a rationale for the lighthouse monster, he doesn't go into folklore or literature, but to the series' own marginalia. Vanishingly few viewers in 1977 would have remembered the small print in the Time Warrior or the Sontaran Experiment, and nothing follows from it. But there is now a feeling, outside of fan fictions in mimeographed zines, that the show has a mythos -- or at least a body of old texts -- which are worth gesturing towards.





"What are you doing in this part of the galaxy?" asks the Doctor, as if intergalactic travel is about as remarkable as hitching a ride on a stage coach. Up to this point we've been watching a kind of low key nautical gothic -- Agatha Christie meets William Hope Hodgson. But this dialogue pulls us back into the realm of space opera; the realm, indeed, of Star Wars. Weng Chiang and Sutekh remained godlike even when they were revealed to "really" be time travelling war criminals and exiled aliens. The Beast of Fang Rock ceases to be beast-like and becomes merely an alien soldier. The Doctor spends the first three episodes convincing us that he is genuinely scared and genuinely worried: but as soon as he comes face to face with his adversary, he sets about relentlessly trivialising it. "I don't like your face"; "Reuben the Rutan"; "Oyster face". We are meant to think that he is being brave, or that he is carefully goading the creature into making an error: but in fact it has the effect of making the audience think that this baddie is really nothing to be too concerned about. We don't need to take the threat seriously if the Doctor doesn't.

The Doctor will rarely take anything seriously again.

Terrance Dicks knows how to construct a story. There is set-up and pay-off: characters do exposition without it being too obvious that exposition is what they are doing. ("So long as it isn't a hazard to navigation we don't have to bother with it" says Reuben, in case we were in any doubt as to what lighthouses are there for.) Everybody remembers the cliffhanger at the end of Episode Three: "I thought I'd locked the enemy out; instead, I've locked him in". But I preferred the end of Episode Two, however much it may reek of cheese. Palmerdale asserts that "absolutely nothing is going on" just as the set is plunged into darkness and someone off stage screams.

The characters are one dimensional, and it is impossible to care about the Palmerdale / Skinsale intrigue. But they are well enough drawn that it is possible to remember which is which, and to vaguely care as they queue up to fall into the Rutan's metaphorical jaws.

After three episodes build-up and a 100% casualty rate, the Doctor makes a plan and the plan works. The monster is scared of heat, and light; the Doctor can use diamonds to turn the lighthouse into a kind of laser. It would have helped if the fact that Palmerdale carries diamonds as "insurance" had been foreshadowed. Skinsale spends an inordinate amount of time rifling through his trousers to find them.

"The Doctor jerry rigs a doohickey and saves the day" feels like a cop-out, but in a sense the Doctor's whole rasion d'etre is to be a deus ex machina. The 21st century Doctor would have made the monster go away by thinking beautiful happy thoughts at it.

There was never any point in Doctor Who trying to be bigger of flashier than Star Wars, just as there is no point in the Doctor Who of today trying to be bigger and flashier than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Horror of Fang Rock is small and cheap and just good enough. One senses that Terrence Dicks delivered the script with a resounding "will this do?". It tries to get by on charm; specifically, on Tom Baker's and Louise Jameson's charm. It very nearly succeeds.

 


Thursday, April 23, 2020

12:10 The Timeless Children



WHERE IS HE THAT SAYS I PLAY THE VILLAIN?


The Timeless Children is not so much a story as a cop-out. 

There are fireworks. There are flags and lampshades that warn us that this is a really important story and the season climax. The space-opera gloss from last week is all present and correct. I liked the gun battle in the camp. I liked Ryan throwing the bomb as if it was a basketball. (I like the way he says “oh my days” rather than “oh my god.”) I liked the way Graham takes charge of the party of player characters on the space ship and comes up with scheme that is so crazy it might just work. I liked the huge crashed Chris Foss spaceship on Gallifrey. I liked the melodrama, the machismo, the one last cavalry charge into certain doom. Be swift, be brave, but most of all, be lucky! 

There is a great big hole in the plot. It is called the Boundary and it connects the story about the Cybermen quite arbitrarily with a story about the Master. It is guarded by an old soldier with robes and a staff played by Ian McElhinney. He speaks his lines in that understated thespian way that good stage actors used to have, managing to say minor lines under his breath but still letting us hear them. He puts one in mind of dear, dear Sir Larry playing Zeus. But most of all he puts one in mind of Sir Alec Guiness. If Doctor Who is going to do Star Wars it may as well go the whole way.

I wish we could have stuck with the gritty space opera and left the Master and the Time Lords for another week. I’ve always wanted to see Blakes 7 done with Cybermen in the Doctor Who universe. (Why do we describe a more down-beat version of an established character as “gritty” incidentally? Is there any such thing as a “smooth” reboot?) 

The Master is quite funny, but the whole “I am evil and I know I am evil” routine got old after John Simm. And Michelle Gomez. And Moriarty. And that Dracula thing. He shrinks the Lone Cyberman with his evil shrink ray and five minutes later says he wished he’d said “I’m going to cut you down to size.” He makes a fairly good evil joke at the Doctor, and then asks why she doesn’t crack a smile. He says “Are you sitting uncomfortably?” before expositing the backstory. Evil is performative; the Master is outside the script. But it removes any sense of him being a threat you need to take seriously. 

Having killed the main villain from last week, the Master gets control of the Cybermen’s floaty glowy mercurial artificial intelligence that they normally keep hidden in the brains of romantic poets. There was a decent comparison to be made between the Time Lord Matrix and the Cybermen’s Cyberium but no one makes it. I hope at some point we get a Cybermen / Sea Devil cross over so they can call it the Silurian Cyberium. It turns out that the Shrunken Cyberman had a Plot Device hidden inside of him that, if released, would wipe out all organic life. The humans already know about this Death Particle. Legends speak of it, apparently. You’d really think that Chibnall could come up with a better way of getting his plot coupon to the Doctor.

The Time Lords are all dead, but the Master is going to allow the Cybermen to convert the dead Time Lords into Cybermen. Which is a Bad Thing because Time Lords can’t die. There is, it seems to me, a tiny flaw in this reasoning, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Earlier in the episode the Lone Cyberman was waxing maniacal about how he was going to remove the last bit of organic matter from his people and turn them into pure robotic entities. The Master, speaking again from outside of the script, complains that that would be a cliche because there are already lots of evil robots in the Doctor Who universe. This plot thread gets buried when the Master zaps the Cyberman. A pity. “Emotional Cyberman who wants to be a robot versus Emotionless Cybermen who want to stay a bit human” was a plot that could have gone somewhere. 

The Cybermen and the Rebels come from a serious world we might almost believe in. They speak the same language, literally and metaphorically, as Ryan and Yaz. The Master is a clown; a trickster; a wild card in the deck; he knows he is in a story and loves the fact that he’s got cast as a baddie. So, obviously, when he incorporates the Cybermen into his plan, the Cybermen are going to become ridiculous. The bigger and more apocalyptic the plan, the more risible the Cybermen need to appear. The Master isn’t really going to destroy the universe by releasing the Particles of Death. He is going to destroy it by parodying it and making it ridiculous so no-one can believe in it any more. 

Since Season 2, everyone has been working really hard to make the Cybermen scary; and the last time we saw them they were properly dark. So obviously, when they are turned into unkillable dead Cyber Time Lords they acquire high collars, with a lace-style pattern worked into the metal. And robes. When did Cybermen ever wear clothes before? When the ultimate villains come on stage, the audience titters. The Master’s victory is complete.

Graham tells Yaz that she is amazing, strongly signalling that she is going to get killed. (She isn’t.) The Doctor decides to use the miniaturised body of the Lone Cyberman and a bomb to unleash the Particles of Fatal Death to kill the Master and all the Cyber Time Lords (who are, if you have been following this, unkillable.) 

The Master is delighted with this because it means that the Doctor is (all together now) just as bad as him. The Doctor chickens out at the last moment, reasoning presumably that if someone pointed out a child to her and told her that the child would grow up totally evil she still couldn’t kill the child. So the Jedi Knight shows up and commits hari kari while the Doctor runs away. Everyone goes home in various TARDISes. A mysterious lady in a bridal outfit [check this. Ed.] appears in the TARDIS to set things up for the holiday special and the Doctor is left going “what, what, what” like she always does. 

There is a twenty minute digression in which the Master narrates some guff about the origin of the Time Lords to the Doctor, but you can skip that part because it doesn’t affect the plot in any noticeable way.


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I said I was going to give up thinking about Doctor Who after the desecration of William Hartnell’s corpse in Twice Upon a Time; and nothing in series eleven made me regret the decision. Series twelve was a notable improvement. I found the holiday camp one and the America one perfectly watchable. The one with Lenny Henry, the one with the Romantic poets and the one with the rhinos I thought were positively good. Only the one with the dead birds and the one with the evil aliens who feed of negative emotions were properly unwatchable. The closing two-parter is funnish but is predicated on a cop-out and some not ultimately interesting fanwankery. 

So if anyone cares, on a scale of 1 to 5


Spyfall 1 ***

Spyfall 2 ***

Ocean 55 **

Nicolas Tesla’s Night of Terror **

Fugitive of the Judoon***

Can You hear Me *

Praxeus *

The Haunting of the Villa ***

Ascension of the Cybermen ***

An Untimely Child **