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

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Doctor Who 15.4 - The Sunmakers

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

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

Silly. But good silly, not bad silly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

b: No-one cares.

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

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

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


Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Doctor Who 15.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Doctor will rarely take anything seriously again.

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, April 23, 2020

12:10 The Timeless Children


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spyfall 1 ***

Spyfall 2 ***

Ocean 55 **

Nicolas Tesla’s Night of Terror **

Fugitive of the Judoon***

Can You hear Me *

Praxeus *

The Haunting of the Villa ***

Ascension of the Cybermen ***

An Untimely Child **

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

12.9 Ascension of the Cybermen


I remember the thrill when Earthshock first came out. Lots of science guys getting killed in a series of caves; a great big final-frame reveal that the Cybermen were behind it: new, glossy, post-Star-Wars versions of the Cybermen. Nathan-Turner reputedly refused to put the Cybermen on the cover of the Radio Times. What the story lost in ratings it won in legacy. Doctor Who fans of a certain age all remember the thrill of that final image. Chris Chibnall is a Doctor Who fan of a certain age. 

1982 was quite late to be trying to look like Star Wars: but Doctor Who was always good at riding the last wave but one. John Nathan-Turner’s new fibreglass Cybermen were glossy and violent and the video effects now ran to zap guns which zapped convincingly. Since Doctor Who had always looked shabby, glossy was a good thing to be. In retrospect, Earthshock turned the Cybermen into Stormtroopers. Into canon fodder. Into an infinite stream of extras in silver suits being bumped off by the Warrior Robot or by extras with golden crossbows. It didn't matter.  Adric died in the final episode and the theme music didn’t play. What happened in between I can barely remember.

Ascension of the Cybermen is firmly in the tradition of Earthshock. This is Doctor Who as action movie; Doctor Who with added gloss; Doctor Who with the best special effects the BBC can muster, which these days means pretty good. 

There are at least three styles. The seven-ordinary-people who are the sole survivors of the human race look like they came out of a late 70s BBC sci fi series for grown-ups. Out, indeed, of Survivors. They have grav rafts and grenades and wear wooly hats. The TARDIS team are incongruous, but only a bit incongruous, in this punky world. They have technology, rather than gadgets and plot devices. Graham has changed back into a realistic grown up human being, who has more or less grasped what the neural inhibitor system, is for, and does a good job of explaining it back to the natives, and therefore the viewers. 

The Cybermen themselves, when they come, come from Star Wars rather than Terminator, flying in formation with pretty computer game targeting computers. 

The idea of flying Cyberheads is a misstep. There is no special reason for the drones to be head-shaped: they are just there because the viewers might want to see some Whovian furniture. But the Cybermen themselves, when they show up are rusty and battlescarred and the Lone Cyberman, from last week, is still nasty and cruel and treacherous rather than cold and calculating. 

I must admit that I lap this kind of thing up. We all talk about speculative fiction and sci-fi as a respectable literary genre; but we all got into it for the big space ships and zap guns and baddie robots. 

There is some fabulous imagery: the first shot of the great big shiny Cyberman on the Cyberman troop ship made me grin; as did the scene of millions and millions of Cyber soldiers marching as to war. And I loved it when the spaceship flew through the debris of thousands of dead Cybermen. 

It is tremendous fun that ordinary people who dress like truckers and treat their spaceship like a caravan get to pass through space cyber graveyards and find themselves wandering around cyber troop carriers. It is tremendous fun that sci fi technology looks shabby and lived in and is allowed to seem almost ordinary. This is what was so riveting when Star Wars came out; a very long time ago; even before Earthshock. Doctor Who is being quite unoriginal; even quite retro. But it is being it very well indeed.

There is a separate, unrelated story. It is set in Ireland. We know it is Ireland because everything is green. Jonathan and Martha O’Kent find a foundling boy and bring him up as their own. Everything is ordinary. He goes to school and learns how to stack hay with a pitchfork and joins the police. Weirdly, he is shot and falls off a cliff but is uninjured. The story overlaps with the main plot only through Watchmenesque segues. When Brendan is poorly, and his mother sends for the Doctor, we cut straight to our Doctor fighting the Cybermen. There is no hint as to how the two stories relate: whether we are watching a dream or a flashback or a story. The characters are nice enough that it doesn’t matter all that much. The main story is relentless grim and explodey; it is quite pleasant to cut to an inset story where the land is green and the people are pleasant. At the end the boy, now an elderly cop, is strapped into an electric chair at the back of the Garda station. Which is not so nice. 

If you can fall off a cliff and get better you are probably a Time Lord, although we rather pointedly didn’t see the orange fireworks which normally come out of someone’s head in a regeneration scene. The Doctor and the Master didn’t grow up in 1950s Ireland, so far as we know. So my money is on this being the Doctor’s long lost son. The people frazzling his mind at the end must be other Time Lords, for some reason.

The Master has always been a bit of a Pantomime villain; a bit of a cartoon-strip baddies. Nothing against Pantomimes; nothing against cartoon strips; but he is the kind of baddie who is bad because he is bad; and Sacha Dhawan's characterisation is very clownish and quite meta. He falls into the quite realistically drawn space opera in the last half minute and says "Nice entrance!" for all the world like Lord Flashheart. Like Missy, he knows he's in a TV series; he knows this is all made up. 

Apparently, everything is going to change and nothing is ever going to be the same again. So we're back to the set ups and unanswered questions that have been driving this series. Why is the Lone Cyberman so important? Why is there a logically impossible extra Doctor? What news does the Master have which is going to rock the Doctor’s world quite so comprehensively. And what on earth does this have to do with an Irish cop who came to a sticky end a few decades ago?

Will the season wrap-up be able to answer all these questions to everyone’s satisfaction?


NOTE: When Ravio tells Graham that he is strange, Graham replies “Excuse me, I am the most normal bloke you are ever going to meet.” But there is a false start, and he very distinctly says “Excuse me, I am the D….” Under other circumstances, I would say that this is a set-up for a very clever twist. (Remember Matt Smith’s jacket in Time of the Angels?) But his worst enemy would never accuse Chris Chibnall of subtlety.

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Monday, April 20, 2020

The Seeds of Doom

Doctor Who was at it’s best when it was most like Doctor Who. Seeds of Doom is as much like Doctor Who as Doctor Who ever got

The set up is pure Quatermass. Scientists at an Antarctic Base discover two frozen space-eggs. The first space-egg hatches, infects one of the scientists and turns him into a monster. The first episode ends with him trying to strangle Sarah-Jane Smith. There is a lot of strangulation in this story. A lot of punching and kicking and neck-twisting as well; not to mention a Molotov cocktail and an airstrike. The Doctor himself is seen weilding a gun, a sword, and some military strength weed-killer.

There is a twist. A beautiful, bonkers twist. The space-eggs are vegetables: literally seeds. The seeds of Doom. They would have been the seeds of Death, but Patrick Troughton had already bagsied that one. They look a lot like giant horse-chestnuts.

And back in London there is an insane, camp botanist who lives in a mansion and is much concerned about cruelty to Bonsai trees. He sends two of his goons to the Antarctic. They steal the unhatched egg and take it back to England. By the end of episode three it is menacing Sarah-Jane with one of its tendrils. (Sarah-Jane spends a lot of this story being menaced.) In the event, one of the two goons gets infected and turns into a plant man; and then a giant cabbage. By the final story it is so huge that it is towering, Cthulhu-like over the the mansion, bursting out of doors and windows. (Like Camelot, it is only a model, but it is a pretty good model under the circumstances.) In the end, UNIT sends in an airstrike and destroys it. But not before the Doctor and the thugs and the botanist and some civil servants and an endearingly dotty old artist have done more running around, getting captured and escaping than is strictly decent.

At six episodes, it doesn’t feel padded: two episodes of The Thing (this was before The Thing) followed by four episodes of Little Shop of Horrors (this was before Little Shop of Horrors). It’s a structural masterclass: the threat escalates in each episode, from a pod which might potentially hatch in episode one two a house-sized plant which is going to throw out thousands more pods in episode six. Each episode races towards a gruesome cliffhanger. Of course Chase has got a conveyer belt which runs waste material through giant rotating blades to produce fertiliser; and of course Sarah ends up tied to it. Of course the baddies leave Sarah tied up in a power-station with a time bomb rather than just shooting her.

It’s Saturday, it’s six o clock, and it’s Doctor Who. Dum-ba-da-dum, dub-ba-da-dum, wooo-weee….


Season 12 began with the Brigadier summonsing the Doctor to Earth. The Doctor wasn’t happy; but he showed up. He offered to give Sarah-Jane a lift back to London in the TARDIS, but got distracted: he eventually ended up on an alien planet where they just happened to be making evil robot doubles of Sgt Benton and Harry Sullivan. He offered to take Sarah-Jane home one last time, but they ended up in a gothic castle in a different galaxy.

But now, here is the Doctor, sitting in the office of some British government bureaucrat. The Brigadier must have called him back to earth right after he left Karn. He isn’t happy: but he’s come.

And this is pretty odd: because in Planet of Evil he was talking to demonic anti-matter beings on their own terms; and in Brain of Morbius he was dealing with Time Lord enemies and in Pyramids of Mars  he was telling Sarah-Jane forcefully that he was a Time Lord.

He’s cross when the Brigadier treats him as an errand-boy; but he’s equally cross when the Time Lords send him on a mission of utmost importance.

It’s like: the Doctor is debating with himself about who he wants to be from now on. I am a Time Lord: don’t treat me like a Time Lord. I work for UNIT: don’t treat me as if I work for UNIT.

And in retrospect, we can see that the programme is still arguing with itself about what kind of a programme it should be from now on. Are we going to carry on watching Doctor Who stories in which ladies run around quarries being menaced by monsters and rescued by an eccentrically benevolent alien? Or is it going to be about high-concept fantasy, full of horror-pastiche and the mythology of Gallifrey?

When Sarah-Jane woke up in Solon’s lab she briefly thought the last three episodes had been a terrible nightmare. Planet of Evil, Pyramids of Mars, and Brain of Morbius have been very unlike Doctor Who stories. And now the Doctor is back in some Whitehall office, with his feet on the desk, playing with a yo-yo, pretending that he is reluctant to save the earth from yet another alien invasion. It’s like the rest of the season never happened. Normal service has been resumed.


Tom Baker has changed his mind; again, about what kind of Doctor he wants to be. He gives a very straight performance: there are few grins and few Shakespearean flourishes. One feels that “What you have done could result in the total destruction of all life on this planet” should have been delivered with more menace — or perhaps with inappropriate levity. By episode six he is being actively nasty; shouting at people and telling them to shut up. Perhaps Tom himself is bored by the script. But in a funny way this seems to work in the story’s favour. The Doctor isn’t scared of the Krynoids in the way that he was scared of Sutekh. They are, in the end, only big plants. But he is perturbed and worried by them: like a Doctor who has been called in to deal with a serious life-threatening but eminently treatable illness. Only when being threatened by Scorby, the mercenary thug, does he start to grin, and to be more than usually annoying.

“Okay, start talking!”

“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had perfect pitch…”

He comes across as a cheeky schoolboy who is about to get thumped; the childish, grinning, silly Doctor is an act to patronise and annoy baddies. (Minor baddies: the ones he has contempt for.) It is a shame that this deliberately annoying persona is going to become his entire personality as the series progresses.

From the beginning, this Doctor has mostly kept his outdoor clothes — hat, coat, scarf — on indoors. In this story he wears them when walking around the South Pole, even though everyone else is wearing specialised cold weather gear. At one point he disguises himself as a chauffeur: he puts a long black coat over his own coat. The scarf sticks out below the hem. It is ridiculous, but it is wonderfully ridiculous, the sort of ridiculous that little boys love.

Since the Christopher Eccleston reboot, the Doctor has carried a quiver of get-out-of-jail-free cards: the sonic screwdriver; the psychic paper; the TARDIS itself. The Fourth Doctor makes little use of that stuff. He doesn’t need to. He is perpetually jumping over walls; hurling himself through skylights; disarming bad-guys, even wielding weapons. His get-out-of-jail-free card is being the Doctor. If he is tied to a chair with a gun pointing at him that is only because at this moment he chooses to be so.

No TARDIS; no Brigadier; no familiar monsters. This is Doctor Who without any Doctor Who icons. Tom — floppy hat, baggy coat, long scarf — is the icon now. He defines what Doctor Who is. Doctor Who used to be bigger than any one actor. Tom Baker is already irreplaceable. He is ushering in a golden age; but he is also going to kill the programme.


A big chunk of Terror of the Zygons took place in a wood panelled library belonging to the Laird. Pyramids of Mars was mostly set in Prof Scarman’s wood-panelled stately home. And here we are in Chase, the mad botanist’s mansion. In memory, it all merges into one endless game of hide and seek through the stately homes of England, with giant vegetables and Egyptian mummies and the Loch Ness monster lurking around every corner.

There are scenes in the non-specific civil servant’s office and there were scenes in the chief astronaut’s office and there were rooms in a spaceship thirty thousand years in the future which looked very much like someone’s office.

And quarries: representing alien planets and the Antarctic and sometimes actual quarries.

The same scenes. Over and over. Nothing looks too alien. But we know: the milkman is an android and the laird is a Zygon; the plants in the greenhouse will strangle you and the oversized conker will wipe out all life on earth.

It has been said that Doctor Who is about putting the very, very strange alongside the very, very ordinary. That is certainly where it ends up: but that is not where it starts. It starts with the defamiliarization of the ordinary. These are the labs and classrooms and streets and pubs and villages that you might walk down in your everyday life. These are the sorts of stately homes that you might visit on a Sunday afternoon with a National Trust handbook in one hand and a bottle of ginger beer in the other. (Chase gives the Doctor and Sarah a guided tour of his mansion before trying to kill them.)

This is a children’s programme. This is what a child’s world is like. Ordinary things are strange and terrifying. Grown-ups may turn into monsters at any moment. They threaten to burn us at the stake and grind us down into fertiliser and we don’t understand what we did wrong. But for all we know a phone box or a wardrobe might contain something wonderful.

What was it G.K Chesterton said? Doctor Who doesn’t teach us that botanists sometimes throw pretty ladies into grinding machines. It teaches us that there is usually a way to escape from them.


I don’t have a problem with people who take Doctor Who seriously. I take it pretty seriously myself. But I am constantly amazed by people who take it literally. It is about as sensible to talk about a Doctor Who Universe as it would be to talk about a Monty Python Universe.

Look at Harrison Chase. As a human being, his almost inconceivable. As a piece of fiction he is one of the most morbidly funny ideas the series ever came up with.

He’s a James Bond villain. He lives in a posh mansion. He is surrounded by thugs and flunkies. He says “Why am I surrounded by idiots!” and “Guards, guards!!” and “Nothing can stop me now!”. He tries to mash first the Doctor and then Sarah into fertiliser and he positively enjoys doing so. “Your death will be agonising but mercifully swift” he says. No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.

Is he motivated by power, or world domination, or wealth or ideology? No. What he is interested in his flowers. He’s a collector. He wants to have rare blooms which no-one else has. But he seems to sincerely love his flowers. He thinks that hybrid strains are unnatural and that bonsai trees are cruel. By the end of the story, he is sitting in his greenhouse in a lotus position, ranting about the green and about how animals are usurpers on the earth. He’s quite poetic in a way. At one point he is said to be insane: at another point he is said to be possessed by the krynoid (which is hard to justify in terms of anything resembling the actual plot). But he basically just marches to the beat of a different drum.

Quite often I find myself typing that a villain or some Alienses want to take over the world because they are Doctor Who monsters and that is what Doctor Who monsters do. Chase is very much better than that. He prefers plants to people. He is cold-bloodedly interested in finding out what would happen if Keeler turned into a giant vegetable and he quite likes the idea of the human race being extinctified.

There could have been a point to all of this: a moral message about preserving the rainforest or being careful with industrial insecticide or taking your crisp packets home after a picnic. But somehow “plants versus animals” takes the place of political or moral ideology. It’s just us vs them: we are the animals and they are the plants. Chase is a classical villain but instead of being a Nazi or a Communist he’s a plantist. It’s completely bloody mad but it works.

The story is surprisingly character-driven. The characters may not be deep or psychologically believable; but they are autonomous human beings, rather than neatly packaged parcels of plot device. Scorby is a thug and knows he is a thug and knows he is good at being a thug. When the Doctor points out that he is working for a loony, he replies “When it comes to money, Mr Chase and I are of the same religion”. (The Doctor misattributes the quote to Franklin Adams: it is actually one of Voltaire’s.). He talks about having been a mercenary and knowing how to take care of himself: he switches sides in the final episode. “Can I rely on you?” says the Doctor? “For the moment” Scorby replies. The civil servant Dunbar passes secrets to Chase in return for money because he has been passed over for promotion; he turns against him (and risks his life) when he realises he is a psychotic lunatic and not just a plant thief. Keeler is a scientist who likes working with Chase’s plant collection and is scared of Scorby.

Even Amelia Ducat, who is quite obviously there as space-filling comic relief, has her own little motivation: she’s an artist; precious about her paintings; cross that Chase hasn’t paid her; and thinks that it is fun to “do her bit” and play at being a spy on behalf of the government. She is sometimes said to be a tribute to Lady Bracknell, but she’s a lot more like Miss Marples: the superficially harmless old lady who everyone underestimates. The Oscar Wilde connection comes from a single line: when Sarah says that they found one of her paintings in the boot of a car — a Daimler — she replies “The car is immaterial.” But surely it is Mrs Ducat who is wittily quoting a line from a famous play?


Speaking of superficially harmless old ladies…

Mary Whitehouse complained about the violence in this story. It was the molotov cocktail she objected to. The following year she would claim her biggest scalp, and force the BBC to cut the drowning scene out of Deadly Assassin, bringing the Hinchcliffe era and Tom Baker’s original characterisation of the Doctor to a premature close.

But she does have a point: this story is very, very violent.

There is something quite morbid about the preoccupation with executions and execution-style killings in what is still ostensibly a children’s programme. In this season the Doctor has been put into a gas chamber, threatened with being burned at the stake (twice), tied to a stone cross with a bomb next to it; put into a casket and fired into space. Quite possibly BBC guidelines felt that “I will leave you tied to the railway lines and wait for the train to squash you” was less violent and more in keeping with wholesome family entertainment than “I will shoot you with my gun or stab you with my sword.” Doctor Who is meant to be scary: Jon Pertwee always said that kids liked being scared. And this sort of thing generates suspense; it allows the viewer to contemplate Sarah’s fate for a few minutes.

One feels that the villain is being sporting; giving the Doctor a fair chance to come along and spoil his plans. And, indeed, that the writers are being lazy. It is relatively hard to think of a peril which arises naturally from the story and an escape which follows logically from the peril. Much easier for a baddie to put everyone in a death trap because he’s a sadist, or just because it is the sort of thing which baddies do.

Scorby sneers “You shouldn’t have long to wait,” before leaving Sarah in the room with the time bomb; Chase smiles “I imagine they won’t mind a few minutes delay,” when an urgent appointment prevent him from having the Doctor and Sarah shot. (He says that he is having them “executed” and points out that a former owner of the estate was also executed — presumably for being a Catholic in the sixteenth century.) It makes me wonder.

It was barely a decade since the last hanging in England; one of the last Frenchmen had has head chopped off a few weeks after this story went out. Was there a kind of nostalgia for the carefree days of pre-meditated killing? Or a subtle message that hurting someone in cold blood was something only a plant worshipping psychopath would ever stoop too?

Episode 3 starts with a close up of Sarah’s unconscious face after being blown up in the antarctic. It ends with a close up of her equally helpless face as she is held down next to a hatching krynoid. Of course, the Doctor arrives in a shower of broken glass and saves her.

Villains have to be cruel and heroes have to be kind. If the hero is a boy and the hero’s best friend is a girl — and they have to be one or the other — then the boy is probably going to spend quite a lot of time rescuing the girl from peril. But in the 1970s, nearly all stories had boy heroes with girl sidekicks; so you could easily run away with the idea that girls’ main purpose in life was to be menaced by baddies. Terrance Dicks, god bless him, was only partly wrong when he said that you can’t push too hard against the genre. Sarah may have been imagined as a liberated career-woman, but she still ends up tied on a conveyer belt moving towards the revolving saw. That’s the kind of thing Doctor Who is. It helps a great deal that Elisabeth Sladen can act: and conveys to the audience that she is afraid in proportion to how scary the situation is. She is never just a damsel in distress. She hardly ever screams.

Jon Pertwee pointed out that the reason Doctor Who appeared so high up Mary Whitehouse’s list of “most violent shows on television” was that the Viewers and Listeners Association included “binding” — tying up — in its tally of acts of violence. And in Doctor Who goodies were being tied up by baddies every five minutes.

I don’t think that the BBC was providing early evening audiences with bondage scenarios at any conscious level. Although they did openly admit that some adult males watched Doctor Who in order to ogle pretty ladies, and that the writers sometimes played up to this. “Something” they would say of any new female casting “for the dads.” But the emphasis on Sarah-Jane’s helplessness is striking. The Seeds of Doom is not Fifty Shades of Grey. But it may be an example of the kind of thing which Fifty Shades of Grey is a sexualisation of.


Season 12 had run from January to May 1975; Season 13 returned at the end of August, having only been off the air for three months. There was another three-week break for Christmas, and the series continued until March. Which is as much as to say: Doctor Who was on TV for 45 of the 62 Saturdays between January 1975 and March 1976. It was part of the day-to-day texture of British TV — of British life — in a way that no modern programme could ever be. There was not yet any such thing as a Doctor Who fan: but everyone watched Doctor Who. And the role no belonged irrevocably and definitively to Tom Baker. Jon Pertwee already felt like part of a long-vanished world.

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Thursday, April 16, 2020

12.8: The Haunting of Villa Diodati


Did it have to be Shelley?

Everyone knows “my name is Ozymandias king of kings” but only English students know “bird thou never wert” or “if winter come can spring be far behind?” The Doctor does her obligatory “Ain’t poems brilliant?” speech: if Shelley dies, then the whole of future history will change and Ryan might never be born.

“His thoughts, his words inspire and influence thousands for centuries. If he dies now, who knows what damage that will have on future history? Words matter! One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink.”

Is this specifically true of Percy Bysshe Shelley; or would it be equally true of Fletcher the Butler or Mrs Miggins in the kitchen? Or (rather crucially) Shelley’s soon-to-be wife Mary?

Staples, Sternes, Bysshe. If my parents had given me a silly middle name I might have been a great poet too.


In the Very Far Future the human race is at war with Alienses. The humans steal the Alienses MacGuffin, and send it back in time. The MacGuffin is hidden in the body of an innocent human. One of the Alienses travels through time to try and get it back.

The only way for the Doctor to prevent the Alienses retrieving the MacGuffin is to allow the human to die. But the Doctor won’t do this. Partly because she thinks that humans are brilliant, but mostly because allowing this particular human to die would involve changing the future to a greater extent than she feels inclined to do this week. So she allows the Alienses to have the MacGuffin and and heads back to the future (TM) to try and undo the mess she has created.

That’s the story. It’s a good story. I have no problem with this story.

Icons, whether they are icons from the history of Doctor Who or icons from the history of England, are always fun. But they also feel a little bit like cheating. Fans get excited about the reappearance of any adversary, the obscurer the better. The popular press will always sit up and take notice when they hear that the Daleks or the Cybermen are making a return to the nation’s TV screens. But a story does not magically become interesting by virtue of having Daleks or Cybermen in it.

There is nothing especially Cybermanish about a pool of psychic quicksilver which contains all the secrets of the universe; or about using “perception filters” to trap humans inside a big old house. But the moment we find out that the adversaries are not just any old Alienses, but your actual Cybermen, then we know that we are watching something big and important.

And this is not just any old Cyberman. This Cyberman is the payoff to Captain Jack’s big set-up in Fugitive of the Judoon — a story which, truthfully, consisted of nothing but set-ups. Jack said that a very bad thing would happen when the Doctor encountered the Lone Cyberman, and that she was under no circumstances to give it what it wanted. This is definitely a Cyberman, and it is definitely on its own, without so much as a faithful Indian companion. But the plot manoeuvres the Doctor into a position where she has no choice but to give it precisely what it wants. It would have been the same story without Jack’s warning: but the foreshadowing has the affect of underlining the threat, twice, in red ink, and then highlighting it with a fluorescent marker pen.

There is no particular reason for the Lone Cyberman to be looking for the Cyberium in the Olden Days — although admittedly there is no reason for him not to be. Chibnall is inclined to use historical settings to provide a bit of exotic local colour. But in this case the Victorian setting is a fake-out: a piece of misdirection. It is not what the story is about. It starts out as an episode of Horrid Histories, in which the Doctor’s moronic companions entirely fail to understand that the Olden Days are different from the present, and as a result, comedy happens. There was probably a good joke to be got out of the fact that in the nineteenth century, even a very opulent house wouldn’t have had anything a modern person would recognise as a bathroom. (Do the Doctor’s companions never notice how bad the Olden Days smell?) Graham wandering the corridors saying “That’s all right I can hold it in” is not a good joke.
For a few minutes it looks as if the plot is going to be that history has wandered off its expected pathway and it is the Doctor’s job to get things back on track. Again.

But it turns out that we are in a Haunted House story. There are lots of stories in the world in which a ghost of some kind manifests in a house of some kind; and there are lots of stories in which large, old, mysterious houses have some kind of spooky mystery attached to them. But Haunted Houses are primarily fairground attractions; and this feels a lot more like a theme park ride than a story of the supernatural. Vases throw themselves across rooms; people walk through walls; infants turn into skeletons; and the corridors and stairs fold around themselves, trapping everyone in the building. We only meet the Lone Cyberman two-thirds of the way through the story: the Haunted House is the puzzle to which he is the solution.

The comedy is a little too broad and the Haunted House is not very scary; but the puzzle is quite clever and the solution is rather ingenious. The Lone Cyberman who still experiences emotions is quite interesting, and his physical appearance — the corpse like face under the half finished mask is visually arresting. The Doctor’s vacillation at the end — “save the poet or save the universe” — cuts quite deep. This is as close to a good script as Jodie Whittaker has been given to work with, and she distinctly rises to the occasion.


Yaz discovers one of the Victorian women trying to sneak into one of the gentlemen’s bedrooms. She wants to read his letters: “If he has written about me, I can ascertain his true sentiments”, she explains. Last week, Medieval Syrians spoke the language of 21st century Sheffield. This week, ladies and gentlemen from the nineteenth century speak like ladies and gentlemen from the nineteenth century; or at any rate, like characters from BBC nineteenth century costume drama. Graham in particular tries to communicate in a moronic schoolboy “old fashioned”. “Please, excuse me, fair lady. I must poppeth to the little boys' room.”
Well, then:

When the Doctor is travelling alone, as she was last week, the TARDIS translator presented her with as literal a translation of what the locals are saying as it possibly can. The Doctor is so ancient and has travelled so much that she basically sees all cultures as equally valid, or equally strange. Come to think of it, there is no reason for her to have been talking to Tahira in modern English: presumably the actual conversation happened in Middle Gallifreyan and the BBC scriptwriters rendered it as English for our benefit. We don’t want it to be like one of those old war films vare ze Germanz spik to each ovver in ze rilly rilly bad accent.

When, on the other hand, the Doctor is travelling in a group, the TARDIS identifies nineteenth century English and twenty first century English as “the same language” and allows the visitors to hear exactly what the natives are saying. (This has the interesting effect that humans who speak poor English speak better English than aliens who speak no English at all.) Like any translator, the TARDIS must be translating cultural context as well as the exact words: so it is even possible that it translates historical characters words into the kinds of words Graham and Ryan would expect them to say.

There is no plot inconsistency so big or so serious that it cannot be sorted out with an ad hoc piece of fan fiction. But the fiction is still fictional and the inconsistency is still inconsistent.

Frankenstein is the story of the creation of a monster. (“Frankenstein” is the name of the scientist who creates the monster, not the monster itself. A lot of people don’t realise this, and if you remember to correct them you will come across as a very interesting and well-read person.)

To the endless delight of literary critics, the preface to Frankenstein describes how the novel came to be written. So this novel about the creation of a monster also contains a story about how the story was created. That creation-story is almost as famous as the novel itself: everyone knows that Mary Shelley created Frankenstein because Lord Byron had challenged her to tell him a ghost story that would really frighten him. The ghost story competition appears in a play by Howard Brenton, a rather over-the-top movie by Ken Russell and in the prologue to the camp classic Bride of Frankenstein. (Armstrong and Miller did a rather wonderful comedy sketch in which Mary delights the party with a story about a talking dog who travels around with three companions unmasking ghost-impersonators.)

In 1964, the Very First Doctor encountered animatronic versions of both Dracula and the monster-of-Frankenstein in what turned out to be a haunted house attraction at “the festival of Ghana”. More famously, the Fourth Doctor encountered a crazy gothic scientist who was in the process of creating a patchwork monster to house the brain of the dead Time Lord Morbius —a story which really only makes sense if you assume that the literary Frankenstein doesn’t exist in the Doctor Who universe. But the plot — the supposed plot — of Frankenstein crops up over and over again in Doctor Who. Science can turn round and bite you on the bottom. There are some things which man was never meant to know. The Doctor’s greatest enemy is pretty much Victor Frankenstein recast into the Doctor Who milieu; recklessly creating the monsters which rise up and destroy him. He literally thinks that the Daleks will make him more powerful than God.

The Frankenstein of popular culture is a metaphor for hubris. Mary Shelley read the novel in that way: she subtitled it “the modern Prometheus”. The first dramatised version was even clearer, going with the title “Presumption, or, the fate of Frankenstein.” The excruciating prologue to the James Whale movie says that it is the story of a scientist who tried to create new life “without reckoning on God.” The Daily Mail very sensibly closed down all discussion about the genetic engineering of food crops by describing them as “Frankenstein Foods”.

But this isn’t the only way of reading the story. It could just as well be about the responsibilities of scientists to think through the social implications of their inventions. Victor’s offence isn’t that he presumptuously stole fire from the gods; it’s that he created a new creature and then left it to fend for itself. Which is what some people have accused God himself of doing. Brilliant but irresponsible men feature rather heavily in Mary Shelley’s own life story.

The Cybermen do have some affinities with the Frankenstein myth. They were certainly conceived as being a dire warning about science running out of control. They have sometimes been depicted as walking corpses, human flesh kept going with infinite mechanical augmentation. They have sometimes been shown harvesting dead bodies to create more Cyberpeople, and they have a definite habit of emerging from Tombs.

But the story of the Cybermen is not really about Science with a big S. It’s more about over-reliance on technology; about the fear that augmentation and transplantation could rob humanity of its essence. If I lose a hand and someone fits a prosthesis, then I am a human being with a prosthetic hand. So if my brain were transplanted into a robot, would I simply be a human being with a prosthetic body? And what if we got rid of the brain and replaced that with an artificial one as well? Would I have a prosthetic soul?


The olden-days characters are not merely Some Victorians: they are Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Doctor Polidori and Clare Claremont. The human with the Cyberium hidden inside him is Percy Byshe Shelley. And this is important because…. Because the action mirrors the imagery in Shelley’s poetry, in the way that the imagery in Ghostlight arguably mirrored ideas from William Blake? Except that it doesn’t: hardly at all. Because the Lone Cyberman gives Mary the idea for Frankenstein? Except that it doesn’t: not in any meaningful or interesting way. “I wrote a story about a monster because I encountered a monster in the cellar of my house” is much less of an explanation than “I wrote a story about a monster because I had been discussing scientific experiments about the principle of life; because I was only beginning to get over the deaths of my mother and my first child; and because I had a weird, Freudian dream about a scientist reviving a corpse”.

Mary Shelley arguably created the modern genre of science fiction. So if Frankenstein had not been written, Doctor Who would not exist. It would have made more sense if it had been Mary who had the lump of Cybermercury stuck inside her. “This is the night when Frankenstein was created; but the creator of Frankenstein is not here” is a more interesting pitch than “This is the night when Frankenstein was created but the author of the Masque of Anarchy is not here.” “Can you imagine a world without Frankenstein?” Is a more interesting question than “Can you imagine a world without Ode to a Skylark?”

The Haunting of the Villa Diodati is about three very famous writers: but it is astonishingly uninterested in literature. It didn’t have to be Shelley: it could just as well have been A.N Other Victorian.

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