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

Monday, March 06, 2023

The Problem of Susan (2)

Last week, or possibly the week before last, the Twittersphere became concerned about a scene in the 1964 Doctor Who story The Dalek Invasion of Earth which is alluded to in Peter Capaldi's 2017 swan song, Twice Upon a Time. 

In the old, black and white story, the First Doctor becomes exasperated with his teenaged granddaughter Susan. She's recklessly climbed on a derelict wall, causing a bridge to collapse and cutting our heroes off from the TARDIS. He tells her that she's "far too curious" and "always rushing about" and when she protests that there's "no real harm done" and that she "didn't pull down the bridge on purpose" he stomps off, adding, preposterously, "What you need is a jolly good smacked bottom." There is a general consensus that William Hartnell ad libbed the line, or at any rate suggested it during rehearsals. Nothing analogous appears in either the Peter Cushing movie or the Terrence Dicks novelisation.

If we are treating the Dalek Invasion of Earth as an old, 1960s television programme, the scene requires no explanation. Terry Nation was born in 1930, William Hartnell in 1908: naturally the script contains out-dated and old-fashioned attitudes. The Doctor is an elderly man, maybe 70 years old, with the attitudes of someone born towards the end of the reign of Queen Victoria. Susan is a sixteen or seventeen year old girl who he has been bringing up since she was a child. He is making an inappropriate and embarrassing threat, but it's the kind of embarrassing threat that any old-fashioned father might have made in 1964. It may be that the Doctor -- who is definitely absent-minded and possibly senile -- has temporarily forgotten Susan's age and is talking to her as he might have done when she was eight. This is the man who forgets his companions' names and confuses drugs with gloves. More likely, he is genuinely cross, but at the same time, consciously making a joke against himself. He's not saying "I would seriously like to hit you"; it's more like "I am as cross with you as I would have been when you were a naughty toddler." It's pretty much the same joke that Jackie Tyler made when she told the adult Rose that she was not too big for a slap. At the end of the story, the Doctor starts to scold Susan as if she were a little girl; and it is entirely clear that he doesn't mean it at all. 

"You little monkey. You know, since you've been away from that school, you seem to have got yourself thoroughly disorganised, haven't you? Yes, you need taking in hand."

If this were a comic book; that would pretty much be the end of the conversation. If Sue Richards had threatened to spank Franklin in an 1960s Fantastic Four story (which I don't think she would have done) we would be happy to say that she was saying what any 1960s Mum might have said to a 1960s child. Insofar as the story was still canon, the floating time line would have overwritten the bad word, and we would "deem" that she had threatened to take away the lad's IPad or ground him on movie night.

But there is no floating time-line in Doctor Who. It's a revealed text. If the Doctor said it, the Doctor said it.  

People sometimes say "You can't judge the past by the standards of the present." To which I reply "In fact, you can only judge the past by the standards of the present, because you live in the present and standards are what you judge things by." (People also sometimes say "I saw it with my own eyes" which always makes me wonder who else's eyes they suppose I thought they might have seen it with.) But it is probably true to say that you shouldn't judge the popular culture of the past entirely by the standards of the popular culture of the present. 

By the standards of 2023, the Doctor's attitude to Susan is, at best, sexist and patronising, and at worst, border-line abusive. By the standards of 1964, it is an innocuous piece of father-daughter banter. We don't imagine that the Doctor actually beats Susan: but we have to assume that he thought that smacking was perfectly normal and the kind of thing it was okay to make lighthearted remarks about. And everyone agreed with him. Ian would be a very unusual chemistry teacher if he has never sent a pupil to the headmaster for corporal punishment. As late as 1972, Doctor Who was preceded on BBC 1 by a sit-com about a boy's boarding school entitled Whacko! 

But for us to maintain a Watsonian faith in Doctor Who as a revealed text we have to find a way to convince ourselves that this patronising, sexist, borderline abusive old man is the same person as the good looking young guy in the Fez who can't bear to see children crying and respects the lifestyle choices of transgender horses.

And this is merely the tip of the iceberg. At the end of the same story the Doctor sees that Susan is in love with the rebel leader, David Cameron, and -- believing that she'll be happier marrying her boyfriend than spending eternity in a blue box with Grandpa -- locks her out and leaves. It is a scene I like very much. It's moving and in-character and a little bit funny and leads into one of the all time great lines in Who history.

"One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine."

He never did come back.

It would be fair to say that you wouldn't write a scene like that today. It's going a little over the top to talk in terms of forced marriage. I am not even quite sure I would describe it as "fridging" (the phenomenon when the death, or in this case departure, of a female character matters only in terms of how it makes the male character feel.) But it is another incredibly sexist and patronising scene. 

Four years later (in a story called Fury From The Deep) the Doctor's belief in personal freedom is said to be a core part of who he is. His incumbent companion Victoria is obviously completely unsuited to the adventurous life; but the Doctor gives her as much time as she needs to decide whether to stay on the TARDIS or to make a new life with some nice humans in a conflict-free period of Earth history. Victoria specifically says that the Doctor thinks it's important for people to make their own minds up; the Doctor himself later tells Jamie not to be sad because leaving was Victoria's own decision. How is this the same person who denied Susan agency -- kicking her out and double locking the TARDIS doors? Does regeneration change your core values to that extent? If so, does it mean anything to say that the First and the Second Doctors are the same person? And if they aren't, is there even a character called the Doctor to be having this conversation about?

And we can't really say that the Doctor is behaving like an elderly man from the 1960s because that's how elderly men from the 1960s behaved. Because the Doctor is not an elderly man; and Susan is not a teenager. We are told from the outset that they are aliens, or, possibly, human beings from Earth's very remote future. Maybe we are supposed to take it for granted that dotty old scientists from the 49th century had the same mannerisms and social attitudes as dotty old scientists from the 19th. But that's a pretty problematic assumption in itself. Cavemen and Crusaders and Aztecs all sound like white middle class English people from the 1950s because God is an Englishman and the Universe is English. 

In 1966 it was REVEALED that the Doctor could change his physical appearance, and in 1967 it was REVEALED that the Doctor was actually four hundred and fifty years old and in 1969 it was REVEALED that he was a member of a godlike species called the (checks notes) Time Lords and in 1974 it was REVEALED that his planet is called (checks notes again) Gallifrey and in 1979 it was REVEALED that Time Lords can swap bodies like clothes and in 2018 it was REVEALED that they can change gender during the regeneration process in in 2020 it was REVEALED...I don't think I want to talk about what was revealed in 2020. 

But all these things have always been true. It was a 450 year old gender-swapping Time Lord from Gallifrey who abandoned Susan on earth with her nice but dim human boyfriend. 

It has never been definitively REVEALED who Susan was. For years I adhered to a piece of fanfic by Jeremy Bentham which identified her as a human foundling adopted by the Doctor. This seemed to admirably save the appearances: it allowed Susan to be Susan but eliminated the need for a Mrs Who. I never took to Eric Saward's story (published in the Radio Times) which identified her with Lady Larn, a descendent of Rassilon and the opponent of a corrupt Time Lord regime, who happened to be hiding in the same TARDIS that the Doctor stole. The Cartmell Masterplan would have REVEALED that she was cloned from The Other. (If you don't know who The Other is you don't particularly need to.) But the Fan Consensus remains that she was simply a Time Lady, the Doctor's literal grand-daughter. Post-reboot, we are less squeamish about the idea of the Doctor having done sex than we used to be.

In 1964, it was just about possible to defend the end of Dalek Invasion of Earth. Susan has directly said that she is in love with David; she has told him that she wants to belong in one place and have an identity of her own; and wants to help rebuild the Dalek ravaged earth. But she feels a responsibility to her grandfather. The Doctor isn't forcing his preferred outcome on her, but facilitating the choice she's already made. Back in Unearthly Child, she begged to be allowed to stay on 20th century earth, even if it meant leaving the TARDIS; which the Doctor dismissed as foolish sentimentality. If anything, he has become more respectful of her own choices. 

In 2023, that doesn't work: there is no way that the Doctor leaving Susan with David can be a valid decision. One immortal Time Lord is marooning another immortal Time Lord on a primitive planet, knowing full well that her mortal lover will expire like a mayfly. Terrence Dicks' novelisation of the Five Doctors showed us a glimpse of a relatively content Susan living on the reconstructed post-Dalek earth; but his original Eight Doctors novel showed David being relieved to die first because Susan has told him that she will live forever and he will get old. I** L*****'s objection to Jodie Whitaker depended on this point: the Doctor would not have left Susan with David knowing that she might someday regenerate into a boy; ergo, trans-gender regeneration is non-canonical, ergo, hashtag not my Doctor and I always liked Babylon 5 better in any case.

In the 2017 story Twice Upon a Time, the Twelfth Doctor's companion Bill uses the words "bloody" and "arse" in front of the third First Doctor (now played by David Bradley) and the third First Doctor responds using the same threat he made to Susan some half century ago. This closes off the possibility that the remark about smacking was an innocuous joke. And it makes it impossible to pretend that the Doctor never said it. The First Doctor apparently goes around making wildly inappropriate remarks to anyone and everyone. A Victorian grandpa would distinctly not have said the b-t-m word in front of a lady (particularly one he had just told off for using a stronger word for derrière). Are we supposed to think that the old boy has gone completely doolally and regards all human beings as naughty toddlers? Or is he perfectly well aware that he is making a sexual remark (which is how Bill takes it) in which case we have to reframe the First Doctor as a Benny Hill level dirty old man, with no filter at all.

I can think of one possible solution: it may be the one Moffat is nudging us towards. The Doctor is hyper-correcting. He hasn't been away from Gallifrey that long: he doesn't understand these funny human creatures very well, although he rather likes some of them. He's an alien trying to fit in, and he sometimes says inappropriate things because he doesn't fully understand the culture he has appropriated. Susan herself does a very good job of pretending to be a 1960s student, although her slang is a bit self-conscious. ("Aren't they fabulous?") But if Susan thinks that England went over to decimal currency in 1962, then the Doctor might well misunderstand the nuances of what Captain Kirk once called "this human custom called spanking". He's in a similar boat to that alien who wanted a very common human first name and inadvertently adopted the name of a very common car as his alias. 

And this is probably the only Watsonian way of reading Doctor Who. Every jelly baby, every crumpet, every game of cricket -- every moral principle -- is a bit of play-acting, an ineffable being doing the kinds of things he thinks humans do, not always very well. The Doctor plays with yo-yos, not because he is an overgrown schoolboy who thinks playing with yo-yos is fun but because that's what he thinks is expected of humans. It's a kind of reverse cargo cult: he once saw a human being doing this strange thing called cricket and has decided that doing cricket will make him seem human. The more cricket he does, the more human he will seem. Which saves the appearances and allows us to believe that there is some continuity of identity between Jon Pertwee and Jodie Whitaker. But it rather spoils Doctor Who.

It's a fact that there are old Doctor Who stories in which Asian characters are played by white actors with silly yellow make up. The pure Watsonian has to argue that Doctor Who takes place in an alternate reality where that is what Chinese people really look like. Or perhaps that Greel hired a white henchmen and asked him to pretend to be Chinese, providing him with only a pile of Penny Dreadfuls as research material. But in that case why why didn't Litefoot or someone say "Hang on you bally blighter I've been to the Far East and the native johnnies don't look a bit like you?" So maybe they are on an alien planet where the telepathic natives have somehow morphed into simulacra of Victorian stereotypes? Captain Kirk was always finding himself on planets where everyone thought they were in a James Cagney gangster movie, or a Kirk Douglas Roman epic or a John Wayne cowboy movie. 

Maybe it is simpler to just expunge this material from the Canon. Cancel culture, I think they call it. Today we tell New Fans to skip Talons of Weng Chiang because it is Racist; tomorrow we will tell them to fast forward through William Hartnell's cheeky ad lib because it is Sexist; next week we will tell them that the entirety of Old Who is not worth bothering with. That's one way through the thicket. The stories we like are Revealed. The ones we don't are just stories. It's common enough for liberal clergymen to say that the bits of the Bible which agree with their politics are the literal true facts about the Historical Jesus, but that the parts of the Bible they don't agree with were daubed in after the event by some evil Roman emperor or American evangelist.

This is where Watsonianism leads us. We want to believe that Holmes and Watson are real, so we pretend that the Holmes stories were really written by Dr Watson. But to iron out the inconsistencies, we have to say that this paragraph isn't true (because Watson misunderstood what was going on) and that paragraph isn't true (because Watson lied to make Holmes look good) and that whole story isn't true (because Watson was being discrete) and that other whole story isn't true (because it was inserted into the canon by Moriarty to test our faith.) We end up saying that none of it is true: Watson created a fictional character called Sherlock Holmes as a cover for his own amateur sleuthing. Or maybe Watson was mad and made up stories about an impossibly clever imaginary friend. 

Treating fiction as if it was true ends up making it less true. Next time you are at a fashionable wine and cheese party and someone asks you what is meant by Deconstruction, you can have that. 

So. Susan Foreman is a Time Lady. Of course she is. She used to wear funny raised collars and cardinal's skullcaps and participate in arcane ceremonies in the Panopticon. She backed her Grandpa up when he moaned to the Council about minoscopes. She knew multiple Doctors before he regenerated into the one we erroneous call the First: she watched that dashing young chap with the beret and the moustache renew himself into the crotchety old man. Perhaps when they first left Gallifrey she was still a boy. Perhaps she went into the TARDIS wardrobe and tried on new bodies, settling on a cool earth teenager. When no humans are around, she and the Doctor compare notes about how well their deception is playing out. 

Your mileage may vary. Doctor Who survives as a text; but Dalek Invasion Earth is sucked dry and we are left with a narrative husk.

There is no solution to the problem of Susan. There is a fundamental hole in Doctor Who, and there always was. Doctor Who is an Englishman who likes cricket and tea-cakes and an alien Time Lord, and he blatantly can't be both. Doctor Who is a set of stories made up by writers reflecting the attitudes of their times, and it is a single text about a singular character called the Doctor, and it blatantly can't be both. Like Christian theology, it makes most sense when it is allowed to be most nonsensical. The central conceit is a box which is bigger on the inside than the outside. Which is a nonsensical combination of words that doesn't really mean anything at all.

When Russel T Davies revived the series in 2005, he eschewed reboots. The Doctor who saved Rose from the Autons was the same Doctor who was rude to Ian in I.M Foreman's junkyard and the same Doctor who Grace kissed in Los Angeles on New Years Day, 2000. But he hung a huge lampshade on the problem. 

Dalek Invasion of Earth is a fun dark slow moving dated classic black and white story. I laughed at the silly old Doctor's silly old remarks in the spirit in which they were intended. I wiped away a tear at the noble old Doctor's awkward kind well meaning cruel farewell to his semi-grand-daughter in the spirit they were intended. 

If you're a Time Lord, how can you also be a crotchety old man with sexist attitudes? 

Lots of planets have a north.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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Friday, March 03, 2023

The Problem Of Susan

In 1963, the other kids at Midtown High took the mickey out of Peter Parker because he didn't know the difference between a fashionable cha-cha and an old-fashioned waltz.

In 1969, his friend, Flash Thompson was off fighting in Viet Nam.

In 2001, he sits with Captain America and looks at the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

Peter Parker can't have been younger than 16 in in 1963. He could have been as old as 22 in 1969 (he didn't graduate college until 1978) but he clearly wasn't 56 in 2001. And he definitely isn't 80 right now. He's usually represented as in his early 20s, which means he wasn't even born at the time of the September 11th attacks. Even if he was 15 in 2001 he'd now be well in sight of his 40th birthday.

Dragons last for ever, but not so little boys. In the 1970s, when Roy Thomas was Stan Lee's representative on earth, they used to talk about something called Marvel Time. Spider-Man was 20, and always had been. He had become a superhero when he was 15, and always had done. So the Origin of Spider-Man was always 5 years ago. The story about the spider, the burglar, and the uncle was first told in 1962: but in 1980, you had to imagine it having happened in 1975. "Wouldn't know a cha-cha from a waltz" gets overwritten as "Wouldn't a waltz". I suppose from the 2023 perspective they said "Doesn't know Kanya West from the cha-cha."

The stories in which Flash Thompson is drafted to Viet Nam still kind of happened, but he was actually fighting in Iran. Did I say Iran? I meant Afghanistan. In fact, I meant "an unspecified US war." (I don't know what they did with his very specifically and not at all stereotypically Vietnamese girlfriend.) Roy Thomas actually inserted new text into reprint editions warning us that when Mr Fantastic talks about helping the French resistance in World War II, he was actually talking about helping the French resistance in Korea.

This has the great advantage of broadly reflecting how everyone has always read stories, particularly comic strips. Charlie Brown is every kid's contemporary; but he was also their Dad's and very probably their Grandpa's contemporary. Lucy pulled the football away from him at the beginning of forty consecutive football seasons. Charlie may have aged slightly since 1948, but he sure wasn't 60 in 2001: but equally, the ball gag never happens for the first time. Batman has foiled the Joker before; Batman has foiled the Joker many times before, but Batman has not foiled the Joker on a thousand previous occasions.

William Brown (usually known as just William) pointedly remained eleven years old for half a century, doing his bit against Hitler in the 30s, playing at moon rockets in the 50s and trying to become a pop star in the 60s. His mother mutates from a 1920s village lady with a small staff to a 1960s house wife with a washing machine. This fits in with the ethos of the stories: when you are 11, summer holidays really do seem to last for half a century. That sense of time having stopped may have suggested the idea of William the Antichrist to Pratchett and Gaiman, although that idea became rather submerged in the over-egged Good Omens pudding. One of the reasons Bill Waterson terminated Calvin and Hobbes seems to have been that he found the idea of Calvin remaining permanently six years old and the idea of Calvin growing up equally unpalatable.

Jake Dudley's justly forgotten Daily Mirror comic strip The Larks did show characters aging more or less in real time during its thirty year run. 80s yuppie Alex is now late middle-aged with a grown up son.

The floating time line and the eternally extended adolescence works well for characters like Calvin and Orphan Annie: for a more realistic figure like Peter Parker it doesn't make sense. A kid who was born to Jewish immigrants in 1945, grew up in the fifties and hit college when the sixties were in full swing can't possibly be the same character who was born to an American couple in 2003 and grew up with the internet.

The best solution to the problem is to just ignore it. They are only comic book characters, after all. If you want to pretend that the Spider-Man who visited that cancer patient in 1984 is the same guy who is working for Norman Osborn in 2023 you are quite free to do so. If you come across an old comic book in which the Beatles are a bit new-fangled and Peter Sellers is still making movies, you are welcome to ignore it. The same applies to cars, hemlines, haircuts and, in particular, black people.

"They are only comic book characters, after all." It all comes down to whether you are a Doylist or a Watsonian. (*) Everything always comes down to whether you are a Doylist or a Watsonian. How many of the great questions in literary criticism, art theory, philosophy, Biblical scholarship and nuclear physics could be solved if everyone would just figure out what side of the line they stand on?

The question becomes more and more pressing as time passes. The popular culture of the past used to be inaccessible. Peanuts didn't exist beyond the back pages of the Daily Express. Once you'd read it, you put it in the dustbin, or on the end of a piece of string in the outside privy. Yes, there were paperback reprints with panels printed horizontally down the page, but they were this year's paperback reprints, unless you frequented second hand shops and jumble sales. Stan Lee used to pretend that everyone kept their Marvel Comics in a neat pile and could refer back to them; but very few of us had complete runs and there was no reliable source of back issues. Popular culture existed in the present; and in our collective memories.

Star Trek, admittedly, existed on an endless cycle of reruns. But most Doctor Who fans had never seen most of Doctor Who. Soon after I encountered the One With The Old Yellow Car and The One With The Long Scarf I became aware of the existence of the Crotchety Old One and the One Who Looked Like A Hobo. (I didn't know what a hobo was: we don't use that word in this country.) But I had never actually seen any of the characters. This was a big part of the mystique. Tomb of the Masterplan and the Daleks Toymaker weren't just stories you hadn't seen, they were stories you could never possibly see. When the BBC showed a very weak black and white Second Doctor story called the Krotons as part of a retrospective, an unimaginably old fan of twenty something said in a fanzine that it was strange to think that younger viewers were seeing, for the first time, Doctors and companions that they had only read about. It was stranger to me that there still existed in this present world people who had seen them; who preserved the memory of a time when Patrick Troughton was just someone wot came on the telly on a Saturday night.

But the wheels spun round and along came Betamax and VHS and DVD and Netfux and Britbox. Fans got older and didn't grow out of being fans. Branches of Forbidden Planet popped up in ordinary shopping malls and big huge books called The Complete Judge Dredd and the Complete Peanuts and The Complete Golden Age of Superman appeared on the shelves. In the 2016 Marvel movie Civil War, a 15 year old Peter Parker describes the Empire Strikes Back as "a really old movie". But that's not how it works. Errol Flynn's Robin Hood and Groucho Marx's Night at the Opera are very old movies. The Star Wars trilogy are just movies.

I wonder if this is why fandom became toxic? It lost its original purpose as the repository of a tradition, and become focussed on dissecting presently available texts. Its function was nostalgia, and nostalgia is, really and truly, not as good as it used to be.

That is part of the fear and the promise of CGI and deepfake. If we can summons a young Mark Hamill and a young Harrison Ford from Lucasfilms vaults, there is no reason not to carry on making New Star Wars films, with simulacra of the original cast, even though the original cast are old or dead or bored. Never mind guest appearances by Luke Skywalker in the Disney+ TV shows: the time is not remote when Young Luke, Young Han, and Still Alive Princess Leia might change out of their medal ceremony uniforms, hop into the Millennium Falcon and embark on magical adventures more wonderful than any George Lucas told us about. Which is not, truthfully, that much different from endless Star Wars comics and endless Star Wars cartoons filling the interstices between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Big Finish have been creating pastiche First Doctor stories with sound-a-like actors for decades: there is no reason why William Hartnell and Carol Anne Ford might not soon be starring in brand new 1960s black and white stories filmed in colour.

Old people have always thought that the popular culture of their youth will go on and on forever. Our generation is the generation for which that might turn out to be true. The summer of 1977 is a story which will go on and on forever, and every chapter will be exactly the same as the last.

As everyone knows, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Superman of the 1940s and 1950s was shunted off into an alternate reality called Earth-2, which was then abolished, reconstituted, merged with Earth-1, abolished again, reconstituted again, and finally rediscovered in the Lost Property office at Paddington Station. Marvel Comics asks us to believe that the gung-ho biff-the-bosh Captain America stories of the 1940s were in-universe propaganda strips, not accounts of what "really" happened to the "real" Capt & Bucky. (The gung smash the commies Captain America stories of the 1950s stories really happened, but not to the real Captain America. It's complicated.) 

Doctor Who fans have never played these metatextual games. You can't rewrite history: not one single line. What happened, happened.

We aren't bonkers. We don't think Doctor Who is true. A lot of us are very interested in the ins and outs of how it got made, which script editor rowed with which producer over which story and what Michael Grade said to Mary Whitehouse and precisely which brand of sticky-back plastic the Emperor Dalek was constructed from. But that's not how we watch it. Yes, we know that in 1965 William Hartnell was too poorly and too annoying to carry on starring in a TV show, and Sydney Newman and Kit Pedlar between them came up with a silly plot device that meant that -- instead of just recasting the actor -- the Doctor could turn into a completely different character, who was still exactly the same character, which made no sense, but was true, because they said so. But we also say that in 1965 it was revealed that the Doctor could change his physical form, and always had been able to. Once it was revealed; it became true retrospectively.

Things are always being Revealed in Doctor Who. The Doctor is REVEALED to be a Time Lord in a 1969 story; but the name of the Time Lord's planet is not REVEALED until 1973. The Daleks are introduced in the 1960s, but their true origin and the name of their creator is not REVEALED until 1974.

It's an interesting word. Christians and especially Muslims think of Scripture as not having been composed by human writers, but Revealed to prophets and holy men by God. The last book of the Christian Bible is called the Apocalypse, which literally means thing-which-has-been-revealed:  Revelation. The opposite of Apocalypse is "Aprocrypha" which means "thing which has been concealed." Over the years, "Apocryphal" has come to be synonymous with "non-canonical".


(*) The original Sherlock Holmes stories are presented as memoirs of Holmes' boyfriend Dr Watson. Some Sherlock Holmes fans play a game of pretending that the stories really are Watson's accounts of the adventures of a person he knew. As long as you are playing the game, inconsistencies can be explained as errors or misrepresentations by Watson -- who is conveniently, not very bright -- but not as plot devices or errors on the part of a writer of fiction. When Tolkien made it a plot-point that Bilbo had lied about his encounter with Gollum or when serious scholars invent previous husbands or miscarriages for Lady Macbeth, they are more-or-less playing a Watsonian game. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Sunday, May 08, 2022

I GOT IT RIGHT!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Pirate Shipping

A Lady Pirate is trying to find a sunken treasure so she can pay the ransom to free her children and crew from a Nother Pirate.

 A Young Man is chasing the Lady Pirate because he thinks she killed his Father. But his Father was really killed by a statue of a Sea Monster which came to life when the Lady Pirate stole the treasure map from it.

The reanimated Sea Monster is chasing the Young Man because he (the Young Man) has a Magic Gem which will enable it (the Sea Monster) to flood the world and kill all the humans. 

The Sea Monster has got a Giant Leviathan which it sends to chase the good guys. 

Doctor Who goes back in time to when the treasure ship sunk, and finds Pirate Captain apparently in league with the Sea Monsters. But then it turns out that he isn't. 

All the Pirate Captain's crew jump overboard. 

It turns out that one of the Crew who jumped overboard had the Magic Gem.

It turns out that the Crew Member with the Magic Gem is one of the Young Man's ancestors. 

It turns out that the Ancestor used the Magic Gem to turn the Sea Monster to stone to begin with. 

It turns out that the Young Man's Dad and now the Young Man have been guarding the Magic Gem ever since. 

Doctor Who uses the Magic Gem to defeat the Sea Monsters. 

The Pirate Captain lays down his life selflessly to save the world from the Sea Monsters. 

The Lady Pirate gets the treasure, frees her family, and the Young Man joins her crew. 

This is not a particularly bad story. The threads hang together quite well and it looks quite pretty. I don't think that it is a coincidence that it is driven by interlocking quests and McGuffins within McGuffins: that is how Pirates of the Caribbean was constructed, so it's probably how Chibnall thinks pirate stories work. I am not sure how much it gains from being set in nineteenth century China: I think it would have been more fun if it had directly used eighteenth century Caribbean piratical imagery. The costumes looked authentic to me; the cast were all Asian and spoke with RP British accents. If you want to know how racist and/or woke it was, please read every other review on the internet. The pace is so frenetic that it is relatively hard to follow on the first viewing. I had to keep pressing freeze frame and rewind to keep track of it, and I probably wouldn't have bothered if I had not been planning to write this review. No character stays on stage long enough for us to have the slightest investment in them. We have seen Ying Ki's father for perhaps 30 seconds before he is killed; and Ji-Hun (the pirate whose treasure everyone is after) has maybe six minutes of screen time before he nobly sacrifices himself to save the Doctor. It's a heap of broken images, tumbling across the screen. Many Doctor Who stories have been driven by weaker plot devices than the Sea Devil Keystone. But the story is so brief that there is no time to do anything but expound the McGuffin. It's an enabling device for a story that never gets told. 

I have a question. 

It is a question I have asked before. 

It is perhaps the only question I still have to ask about genre television. 

Does this not-particularly-bad story suddenly become an intensely interesting story once you know that the Sea Monster is not just any Sea Monster but specifically a SEA DEVIL, and that the Leviathan is not just any Leviathan but specifically a MYRKA (probably)?


(There is a subsidiary question: does this not-particularly-bad story suddenly become an insulting pile of fanwankery once you know that the Sea Devil is a piece of fan service that will be recognised by one or two sad cases who remember an obscure TV show from before they were born? This question is rarely asked abut Doctor Who, but quite frequently asked about Star Wars and the Universal Marvel Cinematic.) 

Legend of the Sea Devils has four points of interest.

1: It has got the Sea Devils in it

2: It has got the Myrka in it (probably)

3: It reveals that the Doctor and Yaz are an item 

4: Two familiar old ladies appear in the Next Episode trailer.

The Sea Devils appeared in a Jon Pertwee story half a century ago. They were said to be related to the Silurians, who had appeared in Jon Pertwee's very first season. The Silurians were lizard creatures who had lived on earth before humans, gone into suspended animation for several million years, and were  understandably miffed to find that monkeys had taken over the planet while they were asleep. They had a pet Tyranosaurus Rex, which is, as Target readers will remember, the most fierce mammal ever to walk the earth. The Doctor tried to broker peace between humans and lizards but the Brigadier cut short negotiations by nuking them. 

The Sea Devils were meant to be underwater Silurians. Their design is often said to be iconic; which isn't quite the same as actually being particularly good. They had their day on screen before I was a regular viewer, but I knew what they looked like from The Doctor Who Monster Book, the very famous Weetabix picture cards, and the cover of The Making of Doctor Who. The Making of Doctor Who was the first piece of merchandise I ever owned. I think that if you psychoanalysed me you would find that I am primarily a fan of The Making of Doctor Who and only secondarily a fan of the actual TV show. There was also one on the cover of the Radio Times Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special, come to think of it. You are almost certain to have seen the scene in which the Devils emerge from the Sea and threaten the human race with car headlights, for some reason. The story is more memorable for the silly sword fight between Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado, and for being the only time Jon actually says "Reverse the Polarity of the Neutron Flow".

Sometimes, when New Who brings back old monsters, it sticks with the original design. A Dalek is a Dalek is a Dalek, give or take a new paradigm. Sometimes, it redesigns them from the ground up. A New Cyberman only looks slightly like an Old Cyberman, and the New Silurians don't look very much like Old Silurians at all. The New Sea Devils look as close to the Old Sea Devils as it is possible for them to look.  The actors are no longer wearing masks on their heads and looking through eye-holes in the neck piece. There is some kind of animatronic jiggery pokery in their faces: their lips move, and they can blink. CGI means we can see whole armies of Sea Devils climbing the sides of ships, but only from a distance. But the 2022 version is clearly the 1972 version with a bit of spit and polish and a respray. 

Lots of us first encountered Old Who in the form of novelisations, or Synopses in Doctor Who Monthly. Some of us heard unofficial, pirate audios of the Very Old Stories when it wasn't possible to see the actual episodes. Nearly all of us have cloudy memories ofd Doctor Who from when we were kids. The Sea Devils of our memory and imagination are more terrifying than a 1970s BBC special effect (watched in black and white) can possibly have been. The New Sea Devils are not the Sea Devils as they were: they are the Sea Devils as we remember them being. 

If you bought old VHS tapes and have the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary special and an incomplete set of Weetabix cards in a plastic bag somewhere, this will give you a certain kind of nostalgic buzz. My childhood memories, remastered. I sometimes think that that is what Doctor Who has become. A nostalgic buzz delivery system for very old people. The TV equivalent of one of those "do you remember what jam was like before the war?" magazines they used to sell on coach stations. 

In 1984, Doctor Who had already become all about Nostalgic Buzzes, or, as the jargon went, Old Monsters and Things From the Doctor's Past. The show had been running for twenty years, so it already had quite a lot of Olden Days. John Nathan-Turner and I** L***** decided it would be a wheeze to do a story with both the Sea Devils and the Silurians in it. It wasn't very good. This time, instead of a not-very-convincing Tyranosaur, the Silurians pet was a not very convincing sea-monster called the Myrka. This was after Star Wars, but the BBC budget still wouldn't stretch to much blue-screen or miniatures work. The Myrka was represented by two men in a monster suit -- literally the very same two men who played the Pantomime Horse on Rentaghost. 

The Myrka arguably destroyed Doctor Who. When the BBC cancelled the show to make way for Wogan a few years later, clips of the Myrka were repeatedly shown as proof that it wasn't worth saving. Bonnie Langford didn't help.

As is often the case with Old Who, the Myrka itself wasn't an altogether terrible piece of design: it could have looked a lot less silly if they had time to set up lighting and camera angles. Peter Davison was a good actor and did his level best to look scared, but that really only mades things seem more ridiculous. He quit the show shortly afterwards. 

There was a quite decent Big Finish story called Blood Tide in which the Doctor and Charles Darwin met the Silurians on the Galapagos islands. Big Finish Doctor Who always feels a little like a game of  Consequences. At one point, the Doctor, on a small boat, is menaced by a terrifying sea monster. This is an audio story, so all we can hear is the monster's roaring. Asked what it is, the Doctor replies "It's a full grown Myrka". This is an in joke, but it's a good one. We can't see the creature; we imagine it is scary; we are suddenly reminded of just about the least scary monster of all time, and then we get an explanation. The silly TV monster was only a baby. 

In several scenes in Legends of the Sea Devil, a large, whale like creature with fins on its back emerges from the sea and threatens the heroes. It's called Hua-Shen, which may possibly mean "reincarnation" or "personification" but we are meant to infer that it is the Myrka. In the twenty first century, CGI can reliably conjure up fairly convincing sea monsters without arguing about who is going to play the back legs; and the scene is fairly impressive if not particularly original: arching back emerging whale-like from the sea; the TARDIS briefly trapped in its jaws.

There is nothing particularly un-fun about a pirate ship being attacked by a leviathan and firing canons at it. There is nothing not to enjoy about Sea Devil leaders addressing Sea Devil minions on the decks of sailing ship, or heroes swinging in on ropes to save the day. 

But. Why Sea Devils? Why the Myrka? 

Star Trek aliens tend to come packaged with philosophical outlooks -- the logical ones, the honourable ones, the warlike ones, the greedy ones, the hippy ones -- and each of them has some back story which tends to stay the same from season to season. If you tell me that Discovery features a human who has been fostered by Vulcans or a power-struggle in the Klingon empire, I know roughly what kind of a story I am going to get. Doctor Who monsters are mostly only Weetabix cards: fondly remembered masks and sound effects, devoid of specific narrative content. Baddies who want to take over the world. In what way would this story necessarily be different if Lady Pirate had inadvertently brought the statue of a Sontaran to life? 

Nothing follows from the baddie being a Sea Devil. And nothing follows from the Gurt Big Beastie possibly being the same species as the Very Silly Beastie from Warriors of the Deep. It's just a monster. The clever thing would have been to have brought back the original Myka and somehow made it work. Maybe the Myrka was actually a cute house pet that Peter Davison somehow mistook for a fierce monster? Or maybe it's the equivalent of a Silurian bunny that can somehow telepathically scare people? Or perhaps a malicious poltergeist has brought a figure from a Sea Devil Christmas entertainment to life and been unable to cancel the spell?

But we are meant to be pleased that Hu-Shuan is the Myrka. And some people are pleased. A not un-sensible person on-line said that the CGI creature redeemed the Myrka. 

Redeemed. Fine word, redeemed. 

We are still hurting because of Warriors of the Deep. We are still hurting because we were laughed at and mocked a great deal for our faith in Doctor Who. We are still hurting because Michael Grade used the Myrka and and the Kandyman as an excuse to cancel a show he was going to cancel in any case. And Legends of the Sea Devils kisses it all better. It inveigles itself into our memories. Next time we think of the Myrka, this is what we will think of. When we remember the Sea Devils, we will remember them blinking and lip syncing. If bad TV somehow vandalises our childhood memories then good TV fixes them. Legends of the Sea Devils is not so much a TV show as neuro-linguistic programming for recovering geeks. 

Which brings us to the Doctor and Yaz.

I think that Russell T Davies' sexualisation of the Doctor was a bad idea; I think that Tom Baker was on the right wavelength when he said that one of the things which made the Doctor interesting is that he doesn't have romantic emotions. There is much to be said for the idea that Doctor Who is a children's show and children's shows are defined, not by being simplistic and naive, but by happening not to reference particular subjects like sex, romance, and income tax.

However, continuing to carp about The Girl in the Fire Place and Doomsday is about as helpful as saying that if I was going to Newport Pagnell I wouldn't start from here. (Which I certainly wouldn't.) I take on board that courtly romance -- unrequited love -- between the Doctor and his companion is now one of the main things which Doctor Who is about.

Russell T Davies said at one point that he didn't want to cast a female Doctor because he didn't want children asking their parents if the Doctor had a willy or not: which I take to mean "Doctor Who is now sufficiently mature that it would have to take gender issues seriously, but still sufficiently immature that it would be hard to do so in an age-appropriate way."

Granted that the Ninth Doctor was romantically involved with Rose; and granted that the Thirteenth Doctor has a female body, the question about "Which way do they swing?" kind of has to come up. The answer is never going to be as interesting as the question, and to tell you the truth, I don't think that it is a very interesting question. Either Doctor Thirteen fancies boys, or else they fancy girls, or else they fancy both, or else they fancy neither. Any permutation could potentially give rise to a good story. 

In the New Year Special, Yaz told Dan that she felt romantically attracted to the Doctor; in this story, we find out that those feelings are reciprocated.

From which, so far, nothing follows.

The Doctor says, as we immediately knew they would, that they are tempted by the welcome in Yaz's smile which tells their restless heart to be still. However they think that Yaz would never understand the life of a natural born wandering person, and that if they don't go now they never will. 

Or words to that effect.

The companion loves the Doctor because the Doctor is the Doctor; the Doctor loves the companion because the companion is amazing, but the Doctor can't do anything about it because the Doctor is the Doctor. This isn't so much a revelation as a restatement of the format. But again. We are supposed to be pleased because it's there. "The Doctor is gay" (or bi- or poly) is meant to be a plot point in itself. And it just isn't.

I agree Representation. I agree that it annoys awful people. If Doctor Who has come to an end and been replaced with a mechanism for annoying awful people then we have probably made a fair exchange. It is better that awful people should be cross than that there should be fun space operas on TV. But I shall persist in reviewing space operas and telling you if they are any fun. 

If the next episode begins with a much older Doctor and a much older Yaz living together in a nice little retreat, maybe with a couple of kids, or even with Yaz coming out to her family and trying to arrange a same-sex Muslim wedding, or in fact anything at all, then I will be happy to eat my scarf and say "Oh, there was a point to it after all."

But I am not holding my breath.

Which brings us to the trailer. 

Jodie Whitaker's final story will have, stop me if you've heard this before, not only the Daleks but also the Cybermen in it and also the Master as well, along, very probably, with Abbot and Costello and the Wolf Man. And not only that, but the trailer shows us a glimpse of Janet Fielding, who is old enough to have first appeared with Tom Baker, and Sophie Aldrad, who was the last companion in the original series, paired with Sly McCoy.

Ooo, oooo, old person's nostalgic buzz delivery system set to maximum. Ooo. Ooo. 

I repeat myself. A story could be written in which a very old Tegan meets a very old Ace. A story could be written in which a very old Tegan meets a very old Ace. The question "What do companions do after the Doctor leaves them?" has been tackled before but that is no reason why it should not be tackled again. RTD's first thought was that Sarah-Jane was a rather sad individual; nothing in her life ever having quite lived up to gallivanting round the universe with Tom and Jon. But then she got her own (very good) series on CBBC and it turned out that everyone who had ever met the Doctor lived amazing lives because they had been touched by his special magic. Tegan was said to be campaigning for the rights of indigenous Australians. Ace was said to be running a charitable foundation called A Charitable Earth. Some people were cross about this because it smacked too much of White Saviourism. Some people were quite cross because it contradicted the New Adventures in which Ace became a Space Marine, or possibly a Time Vigilante, or in one version, an actual Time Lord. Everything makes someone cross. I am sure the forthcoming Canon Wars will be immensely edifying.

I am not excited that the Sea Devils came back.

I am not excited that the Myrka came back.

I am not excited that the Doctor dates girls, or even that she thinks that if ever she were to give her heart again, 'twould be to such a one as Yaz. RTD, in fairness, worked quite hard to convince me that Rose was so remarkable that she'd become the Doctor's Special Friend: nothing on-screen has really made me think that Yaz is anything other than Quite Nice. (If "the Doctor loves Yaz" had been a plot point from the beginning then the Thirteenth Doctor era might have been about something. But it has been plucked out of thin air.) 

I am not excited that Jodie is getting a multi-baddie cross over for her going away present.

I think that a good story could be told on any of these premises, but Doctor Who seems stunningly uninterested in telling it.

And I can list a whole series of current genre TV which appears to take interesting premises and then tell stories about them: Hawkeye, the Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Star Trek: Discovery, Picard, the Bad Bunch, the Book of Boba Fett, Foundation, and even the bloody Masters of the Universe reboot. They have strengths. They have weaknesses. They go on for much too long. But they don't say "Hey Captain America is black now" and "Hey, Prince Adam died" and think that their work is done.

Are there people for whom "Cool, Sea Devils" is the beginning and the end of being a Doctor Who fan? Bully for them. They have their reward. 

Maybe it's my problem. Maybe the overwhelming majority of viewers have just never heard of the Sea Devils; perhaps those viewers were able to perceive the Easter Special as Just A Pirate Story. Perhaps it is just me who sees Old Monsters and can't get past them? 

Or perhaps no-one is watching. Perhaps Doctor Who is just working out its contract until the show is handed hook line and sonic screwdriver to Russell T Davies and the BBC is deported to Rawanda? It's A Sin was very good indeed. 

Dalek, Dalek, Pirate, Master, Old Companion, Lesbian Kiss.

It's a Doctor Who story. You've got to make Doctor Who stories.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Doctor Who 15.5 - Underworld


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?


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.