Monday, April 13, 2020

12:7 Can You Hear Me?

The Nightmare of Somewhere or Other

Aliens who feed on human nightmares. Well, that’s totally never been done before.

Can You Hear? me is a mechanical plod which seems to have been expressly created to demonstrate the shortcomings of Chibnall era Who.

It is technically competent: Ian Gelder is creepy enough in the role of the bald nightmare god: and the image of his fingers detaching themselves from his hands is disturbing the first half dozen times it is used. The cave-painting animation of the backstory represents something that hasn’t been done before in Doctor Who. But a cute cartoon doesn’t stop an infodump from being an infodump.

Everyone is having nightmares, and it turns out that the nightmares are being induced by a generic G.L.A to feed his lover who has been imprisoned in a space prison. The nightmare gods seem to have been specificslly created to lack motivation or interest: they find eternity boring, treat the material univeirse as a toy, challenge esch other to games using mortsl as playing pieces, and and generally do whatever the plot needs them to do. There is some fanservice about Guardians, Eternals and Toymakers but we know a plot device when we see one.

There is nothing wrong with aliens messing with characters’ minds. It used to happen in Red Dwarf on a weekly basis. But Red Dwarf was based on a set of very clearly defined comic characters: Rimmer was arrogant, Lister was lazy and the Cat was vain, so Despair Squids and alternate universes could meaningfully shake up the status quo. The current TARDIS crew have no personality tropes to play off. Graham is a cancer survivor and a widower. Yaz is a cop. And Ryan is, er, a bloke. Graham dreams that his cancer is going to come back. Ryan dreams that his mate (who he refers to throughout as “mate”) will get old in his absence. Yaz remembers an episode a few years ago when she was depressed and possibly suicidal and a nice police officer helped her out. (Things are getting quite bad when you require a caption saying “Three years earlier” to indicate that a flashback is a flashback.)

The story is full of flaws and lazy writing which I am sure we could ignore if it had managed to be any fun at all. I spent the first fifteen minutes waiting for the big reveal that Tahira is a time traveller from the modern era who got stuck in medieval Aleppo for some reason. But no: someone just decided that it would be amusing for her to talk Modern (“Creating happiness is important to my mental wellbeing.”) A lot of the time, she talks like the Doctor, because everyone talks like the Doctor, because that is how people talk. When we need to see a child being scared by the nightmare creatures, we can’t imagine anything more specific or interesting for him to be worried about than “the bogeyman”. Yaz’s episode was brought on vaguely by bullying and poor grades at school; Mate is depressed and lonely and misses human contact in self service grocery stores.

When the Doctor goes back to Aleppo without Graham, Yaz or Ryan, she can’t think of a better way of doing audience exposition than talking to herself, and then starts talking to herself about talking to herself. Matt Smith’s main character trait was self-awareness: he knew he was the Doctor and had to continually do the things which people expected the Doctor to do. This has been tediously carried over to Capaldi and Whittaker, so it now seems to be the defining characteristic of the whole show: “Doctor Who is that TV show about the character who knows they are in a TV show called Doctor Who.” The Doctor’s little speech to Graham “I should say a reassuring thing now, shouldn't I?...” would be quite funny if it wasn’t the kind of thing we get in every damn episode.

The denouement of the story is, firstly, that humans are brilliant and can defeat their irrational fears by being brilliant because they are so brilliant. “They're not pathetic, they're magnificent. They live with their fears, doubts, guilts. They face them down every day and they prevail. That's not weakness. That's strength. That's what humanity is.”

And secondly, that if you have been affected by the issues raises in this programme, you should totally talk to someone about it. Mate goes to a support group, talks about being lonely, and is told that he is not alone. Yaz talked to a nice policewoman who convinced her that things would get better. Graham has never told anyone apart from the Doctor that he is still scared of cancer, and just talking helps, even though the Doctor is too “socially awkward” to actually respond. But the Doctor is still not telling her companions about the Master foreshadowing the end-of-season cliffhanger.

I do not think that a script this lazy or inconsequential would have passed muster for Casualty or Grange Hill or the Clangers. Netflix and Amazon are paying proper writers to write proper scripts which treat Captain Picard and Daredevil and the Skeksis Chamberlain as characters in dramas which take themselves seriously. The BBC is making Doctor Who because it is Doctor Who and there has to be a TV series called Doctor Who. Can You Hear? me fills up another 45 pointless minutes.
I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order.

I have no political opinions of any kind.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Murder Most Foul

Murder Most Foul by Bob Dylan

When a major talent turns in work which is disappointing or substandard or just plain ridiculous, some people respond with undisguised glee. The false idol has shown is true colours. The admired writing was a con trick: we now see him for what he truly is.

When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, more than one person murmured “wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup” and stroked their beards, as if they had successfully spotted what everyone else had missed. But no-one sensible expects an artist to always write in the same idiom, or at the same artistic pitch. Take You Riding In My Car, Car does not refute This Land Is My Land. It is not especially funny that a man who is very good at writing tunes should write the kinds of tunes he has been asked to write: the Frog Chorus this week and Liverpool Oratorio the next.

But it does hurts when a man does the very thing you love him for and does it badly.

Bob Dylan moved on from protest songs and folk music somewhere around 1968. If you are still sad about that, then by all means find a dark corner somewhere and shout “Judas” to yourself. His subsequent career has been full of stream of consciousness and free association. There are songs which are long sequences of disconnected imagery; songs which play with language; songs where the sounds of the words take over completely from any possible meaning.

I read an interesting discussion recently by some admirers of Mark Rothko [check this]: one of the abstract artists who covered canvasses with blocks of colour. They spoke of going to art galleries and spending hours staring at a single painting; of wishing they had the thousands of pounds it would cost to have an original on their own wall so they could look at it all day. I understood, for the first time that this kind of art works differently from other kinds of abstract and non representative art. You don’t look at it and admire it. You stare at it and get lost in it.

This is very much what I was describing when I said that Visions of Johanna contained everything that there is to know about everything. Of course I can’t tell you where the museum was or why infinity was being put on trial there. But the song triggers a psycho-spiritual response.

Of course, Dylan can be silly. A song called Angelina describes a woman who dances to the music of a concertina, and who the singer will seek out in either Jerusalem or Argentina. By the time she is been observed in an arena while a judge is issuing a subpoena, you start to think that maybe Bob is slightly taking the piss. But perhaps this is just how he writes; this doodling with sound and meaning. The goddess with the body of a woman well endowed and the body of a hyena comes from the same place as the woman with the cowboy mouth and the warehouse eyes. The sublime and the ridiculous are never that far apart.

Dylan was once asked what his songs were about, and he replied that some of them were about three minutes, some of them were about five minutes, and that he was working on some which were about eight or nine minutes. Murder Most Foul is about twenty minutes. Dylan clearly regards length and repetition as a sign of high seriousness. A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall is a list of mythological images: a room full of men with their hammers a bleeding; a young woman who gave him a rainbow. They don’t have anything to do with each other; but they sum up Dylan’s apocalyptic frame of mind in October 1962. The great Desolation Row does the same kind of thing: it’s a sequence of vivid images of fairy tale and legendary characters, mixed up and in the wrong context. They don’t interact or connect in any way; but cumulatively they create a powerful sense of hopelessness and, well, desolation. The late, remarkable Highlands doesn’t even get as far as surrealism: it’s a stream of consciousness, an account of trivia set to a washed out rhythm. The game seems to be to see how long it is possible to stretch nothing out for:

I’m in Boston town in some restaurant
I got no idea what I want
Or maybe I do but I'm just really not sure
Waitress comes over, nobody in the place but me and her
Well it must be a holiday, there's nobody around
She studies me closely as I sit down
She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs

Murder Most Foul is ingeniously long. It is full of surreal dream imagery and playful use of language. It hovers on the border between the silly and serious. It cumulatively builds up a mood. And it is clearly about a subject — the murder of John F. Kennedy — which had a profound effect on everyone of Dylan’s generation. So why does it fall so very flat as a song?

It has no structure; no narrative; no sense that the imagery is building towards a climax or indeed a point. It doesn’t tell the story of November 22 1963 and its aftermath. Kennedy is shot in the first stanza. We are told several more times that he was shot. There are a series of increasingly vague and cryptic declarations about the event.

They day they shot him someone said to me, Son
the age of the anti-Christ has only just begun

The second half of the song is a list of 50 song titles, with no obvious connection to the matter at hand.

play Another One Bites the dust
play The Old Rugged Cross and In God we trust

As Bob spends the last eight minutes running through a dream play list for Theme Time Radio Hour, even the most devoted fans must be crying “please, please, make it stop.”

Seven months before the death of J.F.K Bob Dylan famously delivered a beat-style eulogy to a still-living American icon. Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie is delivered very quickly, in a naive sounding monotone, as if Young Bob is blurting out someone else’s text. You have scarcely heard one breathless image before he goes on to the next one.

and your sky cries water and your drain pipe's a-pourin'
And the lightnin's a-flashing and the thunder's a-crashin'
And the windows are rattlin' and breakin' and the roof tops a-shakin'...

If Murder Most Foul had been delivered at this pace, it might have been an altogether less agonising experience. Read quickly off the page, some of the stanzas have a compelling, hallucinogenic weirdness. But Bob has chosen to chant it, slowly, in a kind of plainsong, with a piano, a drum, and sometimes a fiddle providing a mournful but melody free background. This isn’t a young man saying “I wrote a poem? Will you indulge me while I read it?” It is an old man presenting a song which, after nearly twenty minutes, doesn’t seem to have got started. And we have plenty of time to attend to each painfully slow couplet; each obvious comment; each irrelevant image.

Dylan’s singing has always tended towards the whiney; and for the last 25 years his live act has involved bizarre vocal and melodic reinventions of famous songs. Audiences are several lines into “howwwwww manyroadsmusta MAN. walkdown” before they spot what he’s singing. The tendency to deliver the lines of Murder Most Foul as a drawl give the impression (unintentional, I am sure) that he is not taking the song quite seriously. “Murder most foul (as in the best it is)” is a quote from Hamlet, but its such a cliche that it seems to trivialise the material — as if it were the title of a penny dreadful or whodunnit. Particularly when it is drawn out as “murreder moooooooooost fow-el.”

There is some merit in describing a horrible event in brutal, frank terms. But this song fetishises Kennedy’s body, with a particular emphasis on head wounds, while at the same time drifting into trivial language. We recoil, not from what was done, but from the callous way it is being described.

“they blew off his head while he was still in the car”

“the day they blew out the brains of the king”

“they mutilated his body they took out his brain”

Oh for that writer who 50 years ago wrote (of the murder of Emmet Tell) “they tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat.”

A poem built on strong AA BB end rhymes always risks turning into doggerel. We expect the rhyme; we predict the rhyme; and if the rhyming words resonate with different pitches of emotion, the effect is often unintentionally comic. Goodness gracious don’t you know? There’s no such thing as a Gruffalo.

Ride the Pink Horse down that Long, Lonesome Road
Stand there and wait for his head to explode

It is supposed to be shocking, but there is something childish, almost Pythonesque about the use of the word “explode” in that context. Too often, we feel that the rhyme is driving the sense: that the second part of a couplet is pure nonsense to get us to the rhyme word.

Wolfman oh wolfman oh wolfman howl,
Rub a dub dub this is murder most foul.

The wolfman has come from nowhere to set up the fowl/howl rhyme: the nursery jingle is there because Bob has four syllables to get rid of. Surely if you want to get the word “howl” into a poem about JFK you should be looking at Alan Ginsberg or King Lear?

Play it for the Reverend, play it for the Pastor
Play it for the dog that’s got no master.

The dog that’s got no master has nothing to do with the case. It’s hard not to think of William McGonogal; or more specifically with those deeply felt obituaries you get in local papers. (“how you died was really rotten / but you will never be forgotten”)

The poem is driven by these aural and semantic associations, not by any kind of logic. Lee Harvey Oswald famously claimed to be “a patsy” — a scapegoat, someone who has been forced to take the blame for a crime he didn’t commit. And Patsy Kline was a famous country singer who died six months before Kennedy. But the line:

I’m just a patsy like Patsy Kline
I never shot anyone from in front or behind

literally has no meaning. An arbitrary association between two words has occurred to the writer, and he has dropped it into the song without doing anything with it.

Poetry is allowed to make connections between different words. That’s one of the things poems do. But either the reader has to say “I never saw that connection before, but now I do” or else the writer has to say “let me cleverly show you how thistles are like Vikings or how frost is like an invading army.” “Have you ever noticed that the slang term for victim is also a girl’s name?” hardly qualifies as an idea.

Something could possibly have been done with the fact that the road the motorcade was on when the shot was fired was called “Elm Street”. (I didn’t know that. Did you know that?) But presented as the punch line of a forced rhyming couplet, it simply evokes a groan:

In the red light district like a cop on the beat
Living through a Nightmare on Elm Street.

Alan Moore quotes Dylan extensively in Watchmen; Dylan songs are used to open and close the movie adaptation of the graphic novel. Alan Moore believes that writing and ritual magic are about forging connections: and that once a writer has said that two things are connected, they are — and this may change the meaning of both of them. Watchmen is, of course, driven by endless segues — where a small object or word or colour in scene A is also present in scene B. Perhaps Dylan thinks he is performing an incantation of that kind.

Bob Dylan is neither writing factually about President Kennedy, as he was about Joey Gallo or Rubin Carter. But neither does he transform him into symbolic figure, as he arguably does with John Lennon. We hear that he was shot, and that he was shot in a car; and we hear a huge swirl of bitter emotional imagery, suggesting that on the one hand his death was fated and preordained, but that on the other, it was the result of some kind of miscarriage of justice or betrayal. The historical Kennedy was killed by an individual assassin: Dylan keeps talking about a non-specific “they” who did the deed. There is already a fair body of exegesis by Dylanologists who are keen to claim that Bob support the Kennedy conspiracy theory of their choice.

On his last album, Dylan presented the sinking of the Titanic as a metaphor about the end of the world: the ship is somehow a microcosm of the apocalypse. Good or bad, that is an idea. Murder Most Foul seems to contain no idea. Kennedy was killed by non specific dark forces; everyone was sad; and every pop record before or since was in some respect mourning him. Desolation Row and Hard Rain give shape to a mood. Murder Most Foul conveys nothing but burned out ennui.

I know, of course, what the response to this piece will be. A few people will say that until I have a Nobel Prize For Literature I have no right to sit in judgement over the great Robert Zimmerman. And others will point out that there are lines in Dylan’s more highly regarded works that are guilty of the same sins as the lines I quote here.

So I should restate my thesis. I hate this song because I love Bob Dylan. It is painful to listen to because the very same devices and techniques which Dylan has used elsewhere to great effect fall flat and misfire. Murder Most Foul is not merely a bad song by Bob Dylan: it is a bad Bob Dylan song.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order.

I have no political opinions of any kind.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Brain of Morbius


Brain of Morbius is a silly story.

There. I have said it.

There is a storm; there is some of the fakest fake lightening you have ever seen. There is the maddest mad scientist you ever saw in your life. He has a lab, full of flasks and retort stands and valves and dials and gas lamps. He has a servant called Igor. I am sorry, did I say Igor? I meant Kondo. Kondo has been sent out to foray for corpses. Solon, the scientist, is angry because Kondo the servant, has brought home the head of a “mutt” — a giant humanoid insect — when what he really wanted was the head of a human being. At which point, right on cue, the Doctor and Sarah arrive at the door. Solon adopts a positively Basil Fawlty level of obsequiousness. “What a magnificent head!” he says as the Doctor takes his hat off.

“Thank you very much” says the Doctor. “I’ve had several.”

Solon is constructing a Monster out of the bodies of dead travellers; and he is preparing to bring it to life. When he berates Kondo for bringing the wrong head we all recall the moment when Igor brings Frankenstein “a criminal brain” to put in his monster. The scene comes, not from Mary Shelly’s novel, but from James Whale’s iconic movie. Most of us probably know it better from Mel Brook’s parody in which Igor steals a glass jar clearly marked “Do not use this brain.” (It belonged to someone called Abbey Normal.)

Brain of Morbius is almost completely uninterested in the text of Frankenstein. It isn’t very interested in the Boris Karloff movies. Frankenstein provides the story with its aesthetic, much as Karloff’s Mummy provided Pyramids of Mars with its upholstery.

It is however, very much interested in criminal’s brains.

We are not in nineteenth century Transylvania, but on the planet Karn. Solon is not a Victorian madman, but a brilliant microsurgeon from the far future. Sarah Jane, who is up on her Egyptian mythology, has apparently never read Frankenstein. If she had said “oh, this reminds me of something in a horror film I once saw” the game would have been up. And the Doctor is never tempted to say that he once recounted the legend of Solon to a charming Victorian girl who needed an idea for a ghost story. The Doctor has visited lots of historical settings and met lots of famous people, but a Doctor Who / Mary Shelly cross over has never been tried, and probably never will be. //IRONY//

The First Doctor encountered an animatronic version of a Boris Karloff at a futuristic theme park, although he presumably still believes that he was in an alien dimension where people’s fears took on solid form.

If this had been Star Trek, Solon would have been a cargo cultist who had consciously based his science on late night schlock horror broadcasts from planet Earth. In Brain of Morbius, we are just asked to take him for granted. It’s an alien planet in the the far future where they still use candles and gas lamps. Solon is the foremost microsurgeon of his day and he uses hacksaws and needles and thread to cobble patchwork monsters together.

Of course he does. Do you have a problem with that?

But we have only scratched the surface of what an odd story Brain of Morbius is. On the same planet, within walking distance of Solon’s castle, a second story is going on. And the second story is cast in a completely different narrative register from the first. Where Solon thinks he is in a Hammer Horror movie, the Sisterhood of Karn are very well aware that they are in a BBC costume drama. They enunciate their lines; they roll their Rs; they do strange Greek-chrous style rituals just as the specially credited movement director tells them to. (SAY! KRED! FLAME! SAY! KRED! FIRE!). They act as hard as they possibly can, but it is quite clear that they don’t have the first idea of what is going on.

The Sisterhood are immortal feminist witches who worship fire (SAY! KRED! FLAME!) and guard the Elixir of Life. They are fantasy characters and they do not belong in this gothic pastiche. They are, like everything else in the story, a plot device: a brilliant, beautiful, plot device.

Frankenstein only really gets under way once the creature is animated. The story is about Frankenstein’s treatment of his creation, and how how his creation took its revenge. Sarah catches her first glimpse of Solon’s monster at the end of episode one. It is a pleasantly disgusting creation, as if a lump of rotting butcher’s meat was about to stand up and walk around the shop. But it is not finally brought to life until the final seconds of episode three. Something has to fill the time before we reach this inevitable climax.

The Sisterhood are there to provide the necessary plot wrinkle. Solon needs the Doctor’s head as the final component of his Monster. The Sisters think the Doctor has come to Karn to steal their Elixir. So — using their feminist mind powers — they teleport him to their cave, stalling Solon’s plans. Sarah infiltrates their lair and rescues the Doctor. But during the escape she is zapped with the chief witch’s magic ring. This makes her overact even more than usual, and also renders her temporarily blind.

Back in the castle, Solon convinces the Doctor that Sarah’s eyes can only be healed using the Sisterhood’s magic healing McGuffin, so back he goes; and dutifully gets captured again. That pretty much fills the time between Sarah seeing the Monster and Solon finally resurrecting it.

Frankenstein Versus the Witches could have added up to a perfectly good piece of Saturday night horror. But there is a third element which turns Brain of Morbius into a major piece of Whovian mythmaking.

I want to stay focussed on the story as a story: as a very good example of the thing of which Android Invasion was a mediocre example. It is most unlikely that Robert Holmes woke up one morning and said “I know. I will entirely redefine the mythological backstory to Doctor Who. But just to wrong-foot people, I will embed it in Boris Karloff pastiche.” Quite clearly, he said “I need a literary device to connect the Sisterhood of Karn with Solon’s experiment, and to bring the Doctor into conflict with both of them. An off-stage Time Lord war criminal would be an elegant piece of plot machinery.”

Robert Holmes was the past master of lorebabble. Lorebabble, a word I just invented, is the technique of referring to a backstory which does not exist. “I was with the Filipino army at the final advance on Reykjavik” (from Talons of Weng Chiang) is pure lorebabble: it sounds evocative, it conveys the idea of a history that the Doctor knows about and we don’t, but it doesn’t really refer to anything. A lot of the mystique and charisma of the Sisterhood comes from lorebabble of this kind. “Our senses stretch beyond the five planets....” “Even the silent gas dirigibles of the Hoothi are felt in our bones” “Since the time of the stones we have shared the elixir with them.” We get the message very clearly that the Sisterhood are old and wise and know a lot of stuff that we don’t. But a question like “Which are the other four planets” and “Do the Hoothi have any quiet dirigibles” fall outside the scope of the narrative. If you want to know the answer then you haven’t understood the question.

The legend of Morbius himself is a rather different kettle of sea-devils. It comes out in fragments, but we are left with a very coherent impression of the unwritten story to which the Brain of Morbius is an epilogue. The story is much more evocative because we have to piece it together and flesh out the details in our minds’ eyes. If Big Finish or someone decided to actually tell the story they would only spoil it.

When the Doctor arrives, he mentions that Solon was rumoured to have been a member of the cult of Morbius; and notices that the clay head Solon has been working on looks like Morbius’s face. Then Solon soliloquises that Morbius offered the Time Lords a greatness which they rejected. The leader of the Sisters tells the Doctor that Morbius was executed by the Time Lords for crimes which he committed on Karn. As the story rolls on, more and more fragments come out. Karn is a wasteland because of the war to defeat Morbius. Morbius’s plan was to steal the Elixir from the Sisters. Morbius was at one time president of the High Council of Time Lords.

“For years, the Time Lords have extended their friendship towards the Sisters. When Morbius and his rebels overran this planet, who was it saved you?”

“The Time Lords acted then as they do now, from self-interest. They too feared Morbius. They too depended on the Elixir of Life for their survival.”

We have to assemble these fragments in our heads. You might almost say that we have to stitch them together to recreate Morbius.

This back story changes what the Time Lords are and how we can talk about them. None of the mythology introduced in the story is ever mentioned again. The Doctor never engages in Time Lord mind-wrestling with the Master. You might imagine that the “cult of Morbius” would be referenced when the Doctor goes back to Gallifrey next season, or that he would turn out to have had some connection with the new figure of Rassilon. The new ideas are not retconned or overwritten: they are simply ignored. They don’t have any effect on the stories around them and we don’t really expect them to.

And yet. For the first time, the Time Lords have a history. There were evil Time Lords and rebel Time Lords. There is a position called “president”. They have followers on other planets and form alliances with cabals of Shakespearean witches. This is new. This is not who the Time Lords were even two stories ago.

Again: Holmes knows what he is doing. The Time Lords have taken the TARDIS off course because they want the Doctor to do something for them, and the Doctor is cross with them. He childishly sulks and pretends to Sarah that he is not going to get involved in what is happening on Karn. These are still the Time Lords of Genesis of the Daleks and the Three Doctors and the Auton Invasion, aloof and godlike. The Doctor addresses them by looking up at the sky, as someone might talk to their God or a deceased relative. But by the end of the episode we are being told that these same Time Lords had to make alliances with the Sisterhood of Karn to get access to their potion of immortality. They aren’t gods at all, although they have more powerful Psi Powers than “even” the Sisterhood. Holmes has reminded us what the Time Lords used to be like so we can be surprised that the Time Lords are not like that any more.


The Universal Pictures version of Frankenstein ends, famously, with a mob of peasants with burning torches chasing the Monster and eventually cornering him in a burning windmill.

Brain of Morbius ends with the Sisterhood chasing Solon’s monster and eventually forcing him off the edge of a precipice. This brings the plot, the sub-plot and the backstory together in a highly satisfying conclusion. Morbius tried to steal the Sister’s elixir of life; Solon tried to raise Morbius from the dead; now the Sisterhood have destroyed the re-born Morbius. And although we have stepped out of Solon’s gothic castle we are still in the world of Karloff’s Frankenstein. The Sisterhood, like the peasants, are armed with burning torches.

The Sisterhood of Karn have been created purely to facilitate that scene. Everything about them is associated with fire. They wear cool flame coloured robes; they worship a SAY! KRED! FLAME! and they twice try to kill the Doctor by burning him at the stake. (An interesting reversal, incidentally: it’s normally men who burn witches.) Morbius is destroyed with flaming torches because he is a living reenactment of Frankenstein and that is how Frankenstein’s monster dies; he dies by fire because he is the enemy of the Sisterhood and the Sisterhood are all about fire. The audience sees the connection: it is ontologically impossible for anyone in the story to do so.

We can extend the line further backwards. If the function of the Sisterhood is to destroy Morbius, then Morbius has to be their enemy; so they have to have something he wants. The Elixir plays very little part in the story. But it is crucial to the backstory. The Sisterhood control a magic elixir which makes them immortal. Morbius came to Kan because he wanted to steal the elixir from the sisterhood.

But this generates a new narrative problem. The Time Lords have placed the Doctor into the middle of a story which he is not strictly part of. It is narratively and historically appropriate for the Sisters to kill Morbius. So what is the Doctor’s role in the story? What is he there for?

Holmes’ solution is incredibly clever. Of course, the story is mostly a silly pastiche of Frankenstein, and of course the hybrid monster containing Morbius’s brain gets to go on the rampage, damaging the scenery and terrifying everybody. Sarah and the Sisters both confront the Monster as a Monster; Sarah playing the role of the damsel in distress; the Sisterhood standing in for the mob of peasants.

But the Doctor faces Morbius as Morbius. He faces him as a fellow Time Lord. The Frankenstein pastiche has become almost irrelevant. As with Sutekh and the Anti-Matter Monster, he is battling someone on his own level; someone arguably more powerful than him. And out of nowhere comes the idea of a Time Lord Telepathic Wrestling Match.

Now: if Holmes had not been terribly careful, this could have been a massive anti-climax. The Doctor and Morbius stare at each other and Morbius falls over. So Holmes does two very clever things.

First, the Doctor appears, unexpectedly, to lose the duel. He is left mostly dead; and Morbius escapes, to be pushed off the cliff by the Sisterhood. This is perfectly good plotting: the hero sacrifices his life in an epic struggle with the villain. The villain, thinking he has won, staggers out of the room in a weakened state, and the subsidiary goodies deliver the coup de grace.

But that is not a big enough climax to such an epic story. So Holmes hits the audience with a genuinely unexpected surprise.

Fans have been much too prepared to look at the mind-bending competition in terms of the show’s lore. But Doctor Who isn’t nearly as interested in lore as Doctor Who fans are. This particular piece of mythology was overwritten six months later, and it is highly unlikely that any writer will ever refer to it again. //IRONY//

It is much more profitable to look at it is a narrative device: as a theatrical effect in the total theatre of Brain of Morbius. How is a telepathic conflict between two Time Lords to be represented? By a series of pictures of the Doctor’s face. How are we to see that the Doctor is struggling, but losing? By showing that face turning back into previous versions of the Doctor — a sort of reverse regeneration. Baker turns into Pertwee, Pertwee turns into Troughton, Troughton turns into Hartnell. What could be more dramatic than that? The process reaches its logical end point with a picture of the “First” Doctor, and then continues, though Doctor Minus One and Doctor Minus Two, right through to Doctor Minus Eight. This isn’t a new piece of information or a change of backstory. It’s the breaking of a taboo for dramatic effect. We have been taken back before the beginning, into a time which logically can’t exist.

Morbius understands this. The very scary ancient renegade Time Lord is freaked out. “How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?” he cries out, and “Back to the beginning!”

We don’t have time to think about any of that: because at the end of the contest the Doctor drops down, apparently dead. We’ve gone back before the beginning, but we’ve also reached the end. What happens next?

The story is named after a physical organ which was removed from the body of an executed criminal: the brain of Morbius. Morbius sought to infinitely prolong his physical life by stealing the Sister’s elixir: that’s what makes him evil. Solon is trying to prolong his physical existence in a much more obviously grotesque way: by keeping the brain alive in a vat, and by transplanting it into a body that he is sown together from bits of dead aliens. But the final scene is not about brain wrestling, but about mind wrestling. It is the mind of Morbius which made him evil, and it is the mind of Morbius which the Doctor has to defeat.

It is hardly a year since Tom Baker first appeared on our screens; and it is already very hard to imagine anyone apart from him playing the Doctor. Right at the beginning of the story, he cracks a joke about how he used to wear a different face entirely, and the story ends with a cavalcade of all the faces he has ever had. The audience needs to be reminded that the Doctor regenerates; that change is part of the nature of the Time Lords. Morbius’s scheme to make himself immortal with a magical formula is a fundamentally un-Time Lordly thing to want to do.

Perhaps that is how we should read the mind-bending contest. The Doctor destroys the mind of Morbius, leaving the Sisters to destroy his brain. The fight on the cliff is the climax of the front story, the story about Solon and his hybrid monstrosity. But the fight in the lab is the climax of the backstory, the story of Morbius rebellion.

The Sisterhood are the antithesis of the Time Lords. Like Morbius, they seek to infinitely prolong their lives without changing. They use supernatural mind powers which the Doctor regards as primitive; and they treat perfectly explicable natural phenomena with religious awe. But the story ends with the Masculine Scientific Ever Changing Time Lords and the Feminine Magical Never Changing Sisterhood reaching a kind of synthesis. The Doctor gives his life to defeat Morbius; Maran sacrifices her life to save the Doctor.

Brain of Morbius has been stitched together from two different storylines; and from several contradictory ideas. It’s a strange thing; an unwieldy, ridiculous thing. Chop suey and potpourri. But there is something holding it together; animating it; and making it work. Not the brain of Morbius; not even the mind of Morbius. But maybe, somehow, the idea of Morbius?

Thursday, April 02, 2020

12: 6 Praxeus


Babylon 5 was not, in fact, the first TV series to have a pre-planned five season narrative structure. Some American cop shop I never watched had done it years before. But certainly, the TV shows I grew up with — Star Trek and Thunderbirds and the Incredible Hulk had very little episode-to-episode continuity. You could shuffle the stories and show them in any order and it made little difference. Even in the eighties, Star Trek: Next Generation had little or no over-all structure. But events in one episode were allowed to affect events in subsequent episodes. Tasha Yar died, frequently. Worf lost his honour and remembered where he had left it. The Klingons either were or weren’t at war with each other.

 J. Michael Straczynski cites Cerebus the Aadvark as a major influence on Babylon 5. Not that Dave Sim was the first comic book writer to employ tight, well constructed storylines that developed over dozens of issues, of course. Chris Claremont had spent five years on what became known as the Dark Phoenix saga. But Sim was the first writer with the chutzpah to claim that he was writing one big story that would unfold over 300 issues — and to more or less pull it off.

But Babylon 5 definitely popularised the term “story arc” . I suppose the word “arc” suggests a plot with an overall shape. But for fans “arc” rapidly came to mean “the main storyline; the continuity”. An “arc story” was one which advanced the narrative about the different alien races and the evil Psi Corps. A “non arc story” was one in which some characters encountered a new problem and tried to solve it. On this definition, Classic Era Star Trek had been made up entirely of non-arc stories.

The rise of DVD, Netflix and boxed sets has made the concept of story arcs rather dated. Picard, and Good Omens, and Star Trek: Discovery and Jessica Jones and Game of Thrones don’t have arc episodes and non-arc episodes They are twelve hour movies broke down into hour long chunks.

And meanwhile, on BBC 1, on plods Doctor Who, trying to wrap up world threatening crises in 45 minutes. Yes, there is a Chibnall masterplan afoot, involving the Master, a logically impossible Doctor, and the destruction of the planet Gallifrey. But we have forgotten about that as quickly as we forgot about Adric. This week, we are all off another adventure. Fugitive of the Judoon had a spurious urgency because we knew it was an arc story. It is very hard to summons up much enthusiasm for Praxeus because we know it isn’t.


Jake is store detective. He used to be a policeman. His boyfriend Adam is an astronaut. But their relationship is on the rocks. Jake doesn’t think he is good enough for Adam; so he thinks that Adam must be being dishonest when he says that he loves him. So Jake deliberately lets down Adam and avoids intimacy in order to punish him.

“Oh mate” says Graham, who has regenerated into a gifted, intuitive relationship counsellor since last week. “I don’t think it is him you are punishing.”

This kind of thing might possibly work in one of those long, American, mid-century plays in which families make Freudian revelations after five gin soaked acts. A psychoanalyst might just possibly make a patient understand that he is subconsciously punishing his partner in order to punish himself. It isn’t something which someone would be consciously aware of and explain to a total stranger. And dramatically, it isn’t something you can introduce and resolve in a five minute scene.

I must admit that when Adam and Jake identified themselves as a married couple, my first thought was “Is there any particular reason for them to be gay?” My second thought was  “Is there any particular reason why they shouldn’t be?”My third thought was “having a couple of gay characters in a story which is not remotely about gayness will annoy the sorts of people who call this sort of thing ‘woke’”. My last thought was “Annoying those kinds of people is a very good reason for doing it.”

So, I finally know what “woke” means. Putting the kind of thing which annoys the kind of people who call the kind of thing which annoys them “woke” in order to annoy those kinds of people. The Left Hand Of Darkness, would certainly annoy the kinds of people who call things woke, but it isn’t woke, because it was never written with a view to annoying them. Praxeus was, so it is.

I don’t go as far as C.S Lewis, or indeed Isaac Asimov, in saying that science fiction is not permitted to contain any human interest subplot whatsoever. I see the argument: there is no point in setting a spy story on Alpha Centurai if it could equally have been set in Moscow: if a story of forbidden love between a Martian and a human could just have well been about forbidden love between a Muslim and Jew, then it should have been. But there are far too many exceptions for this to work as rule. Red Dwarf is arguably a character based sit com set in space which is not really about the fact that it is set in space. Lewis and Asimov were understandably pushing back against the tendency of hack writers to turn in the same kind of cowboy story they had always written but substitute six shooters for ray guns and martians for Indians.

But I do think that it is a very good rule that there should be nothing in a story which doesn’t have something to do with the story; and that the shorter the story, the more the extraneous material needs to be cut out. It is relevant to the story that Adam and Jake are a couple in order that ordinary, unheroic Jake is motivated to risk is life to save famous, heroic Adam when he is a infected with a space plague. The fact that they are an estranged couple pushes the emotional jeopardy up a jot. Cod-Freudian bullshit about self-punishment — not so much.


One of the characters in the old sketch comedy series The Fast Show was a northern teenager full of boundless energy who would perform a weekly monologue beginning “Ain’t gravity brilliant!” or “Ain’t holidays brilliant!” I was forcibly reminded of this character during the Doctor’s opening and closing monologues this week. Ain’t humans brilliant? There are so many of them! And yet some of them have something to do with each other! Some of the them are different and some of them are the same!

Some time ago there was a TV series called Heroes that quite caught the public imagination at the time, but which no one could be bothered to watch the second series of. It had an unusually large cast of characters, all following separate story lines, but over the course of 13 episodes, the different story lines converged, in quite a complicated way. Someone said it was the first TV series of the Facebook generation: it was ostensibly about superheroes but it was really about social networks.

The idea of a Doctor Who story about Heroes style human interconnectedness is not at all bad, but this wasn’t it. The only “surprising” connection is that the store detective in England turns out to be connected with the astronaut flying back from the International Space Station, and once you know they are in a relationship, that’s actually not all that surprising. What you actually have is several completely unconnected groups of people—two scientists, two bloggers and the crew of a submarine—who are connected only in so far as if they have all been infected by the new alien-virus-of-the-week.

Using the TARDIS to tell a story which is taking place simultaneously in London, Peru, Hong Kong, Madagascar and the Bottom of the Sea is quite a good idea. It makes use of Doctor Who’s USP to tell a story that you couldn’t have told in any other format. It’s the same kind of thing as having Spyfall unfold in the present day, in Victorian times and in the Second World War. And it has the same problem. Things would have panned out very similarly if the three people possessed by alien plastic virus monsters had been in Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Mornington Crescent. The exotic locations were just there as scenery. Very pretty scenery, I must admit.


Go back to the half way point, just before they all go the alien base at the bottom of the sea. Just before they find out who Suki really is.

Now suppose that nice Suki had turned out to be yet another new incarnation of the Master. Does anything in the first 35 minutes of the episode prevent that from being the resolution.

Okay: now suppose that nice Suki turns out to be yet another logically impossible new incarnation of the Doctor. Again, does anything that has been foreshadowed up to this point prevent that from being the twist?

We have not started from the (not uninteresting under the present circumstances) idea that Evil Aliens have been using the earth as a petri dish to find a cure for the alien virus plastic that is destroying their civilisation. We have started with some random scenes — dead submariner exploding off the coast of Madagascar, dead blogger exploding in Peru, poorly astronaut suffering from the same greyscale that the explodey people were suffering from in Hong Kong — and then, very late in the story, trying to find something which desperately ties then together.

The big twist and the big revelation is arbitrary. It come from nowhere. Aha! You never realised but in fact I am PROFESSOR MORIARTY

Note that Suki has travelled across three galaxies to come to earth. Seven hundred and fifty billion star systems, and we are the only planet with a pollution problem.


There was a celebrated political cartoon in the Guardian which cast Michael Grove as the Jeff Goldblum character in independence day: begging for the chance to pilot a flying saucer against the aliens even though he had no prior experience in flying. (The implication was that Gove was doing political jobs he had no expertise in).

For the climax of this story to work, we have to believe that Ryan, who has never heard of Mary Queen of Scots or pathogens, remembers enough school biology to perform an autopsy on a dead pigeon. That the controls of an alien spaceship are sufficiently straightforward (“up, down, left, right”) that Jake, the ex-policemen, can save the world by flying the thing into orbit. That Graham is able to fit a cannula and a medical drip because he was once a chemotherapy patient.

I can believe in plastic eating alien parasites that make humans explode: but some of this stuff is too far fetched even for me.


When Jake first encounters Yaz and Graham in Hong Kong he asks who they are. “We are the people with the big set of skeleton keys” replies Yaz.

Later, Yaz and Gabriella (the travel blogger) decide to teleport to what they expect to be an alien planet even though the Doctor has told them not to. “Where is the worst place we could end up?” asks Gabriella. “Long list. You don’t want to know” replies Yaz. And on the other side of the teleport. “It’s not an active volcano. Result!”

So. Is the idea that Yaz has been with the Doctor for so long that she is starting to sound like the Doctor. Is this a very broad hint that she is yet another previously unmentioned and logically impossible incarnation of the Doctor? Or is it just that Chibnall can only write one kind of dialogue?


Yes, as a matter of fact, I am finding it hard to actually write a review of this episode. But not nearly as hard as I found watching it. I fell asleep on the first two attempts and eventually got to the end of it by pressing “pause” every ten minutes and going off to tidy the kitchen.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Android Invasion

Happy Day

A van pulls up near a war memorial by a pub. It contains a dozen English villagers out of central casting: ladies with neat headscarves, red faced sons of toil, a vicar in a hat. They are completely silent and motionless; they walk like zombies into the village pub, take their positions and stand still and silent. A clock chimes, and they all start talking as if nothing has happened.

People of a certain age were collectively traumatized by the super-intelligent brain-washed inhabitants of Avebury in Children of the Stones. Devasham, the ostensible setting of Android Invasion, is obviously in the vicinity of Avebury: an English village which is not an English village.

The first episode of the story -- like the first episode of Terror of the Zygons -- is all about setting up a mystery. Sarah and the Doctor explore: wherever they turn, something strange is happening. The very first shot is of a UNIT soldier, staggering robotically towards the camera. He falls off a cliff, breaks his neck, and is subsequently seen in the pub as if nothing had happened. Figures in white protection suits have guns concealed in their forefingers. ("Is that finger loaded?" Tom Baker can't resist the temptation to say.) There is a UNIT run "space defense station" nearby, but the Brigadier's office is occupied by a "senior defense astronaut" called Crayford. We know he is a wrong'un because he has an eye-patch. He says things like "I'm asking the questions" and "I can very easily get the truth from you." Sarah has visited the village once before. She came here as a journalist before she knew the Doctor -- investigating Crayford's death... 

Twist and Shout

If one wanted to be cruel, one would say that the solution to the mystery is given away in the title of the story. Robotic soldiers; white suited creatures with guns in their fingers; mesmerized villagers; soldiers who die and come back to life. What could possibly explain this kind of thing? Could they conceivably be androids? Could they possibly be planning some kind of invasion?

But Terry Nation is cleverer than that. When we see the staggering soldier in the opening shot, of course we know he is an android. When the villagers act like zombies, we know they are androids too. But Nation still manages to spring a surprise on us in the final frame. Crayford locks the Doctor up in a cell. Sarah has come to rescue him. And we catch the briefest possible glimpse of a monstrous alien face looking in through the cell window.

We thought we had the story figured out. Doctor Who does Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Androids replacing the population of an English village. But just when we are not expecting it, Nation springs an actual alien on us. 

The story, like the village, is not what it seemS to be at first glance.

Let's Twist Again

There is another twist at the end of the second installment. It's a bit obvious. But this is a kid's show and it's better than the Knights and Knaves puzzle in Pyramids of Mars.

When the Doctor and Sarah were being chased by evil android soldiers with sniffer dogs, the Doctor took Sarah's scarf and used it to draw the dogs off. Sarah herself hides up a tree. Later in the episode, Sarah, having been captured by and escaped from the aliens, arranges to meet the Doctor in the village store.

In the first minute of episode 1 the Doctor had offered her a swig of ginger beer and she remarked, very much in passing, that she couldn't stand the stuff.

So when a still scarf-wearing Sarah-Jane tells the Doctor that his ginger ale is delicious we all immediately know that this is not the real Sarah. The Aliens have made an android in her image, but their technology is imperfect. The Doctor sees immediately what is going on.

The Doctor knocks Fake Sarah to the ground. Sarah's face falls off, revealing Android circuitry underneath. The special effect is very well done. Clearly, some quick editing has replaced Elizabeth Sladen with a dummy, and then allowed the face mask to fall off the dummy. But the cut is so quick we don't spot the substitution: it looks for all the world as if Lis Sladen's face has dropped off. Less a visual effect, more a piece of misdirection: a conjuring trick. A good example of the magic of Doctor Who.

So: the Aliens have created a fake, android Sarah to go with the fake, android soldiers and the fake, android landlord. But that isn't the twist. The twist is that everything is fake. The Aliens haven't taken over an English village with androids: they have made a replica of an English village on their own planet and populated it with androids. For some reason.

" This isn't Earth. This isn't real wood. It's some kind of artificial material like plastic. These are not real trees. And you're not the real Sarah."

We should allow ourselves to experience, rather than merely analyze, these old stories. Mary Whitehouse was right in one respect: if you were watching Doctor Who in the 1970s, each cliffhanger stayed with us for a whole week. So let's pause and enjoy the weirdness of the first two installments; let's enjoy the shock of the second cliffhanger. Once we have done that, we can move on and see if the remaining two episodes can makes sense of what just happened.  (SPOILER: No.)

Acting, Darling 

Many people have spotted that the key to Tom Baker's characterization is that he says very serious things as if they were quite trivial, and very trivial things as if they were of earth shattering importance. But I don't think it has often been noticed that Elisabeth Sladen does a very similar trick.

At the beginning of the episode, when Sarah finds the Doctor in a cell, there is a very brief exchange:

"What are you doing?"

"Rescuing you, actually. For a change."

Elisabeth Sladen delivers this as a double pronged attack: the word "actually" is a put down, a reproach to the Doctor for being ungrateful. "For a change" is an afterthought: Sarah knows her role as the Assistant is mostly to be a damsel in distress and is pleased that the boot is on the other foot.

While they are running away, the Doctor says "So far so good..." and Sarah adds " the man said when he fell from the skyscraper." Sladen delivers it with menace; even horror. She uses her weak, scripted joke to express how scared Sarah really is. And a bit later, as every girl sidekick is contractually obliged to do in a chase, she stumbles and twists her ankle. "Are you all right?" says the Doctor. She elongates the word "yes" to turn it into an accusation, as if she were really saying "no of course I'm not, you silly man." 

For Mash Get Smash!

The Aliens who have been giving Crayford his orders are Kraals. They have silly masks, wear spray-painted bovver boots and one of them sounds like Zippy from Rainbow. They serve essentially the same function that the Zygons did in Terror of the. There is a quite good mysterious spooky adventure going on: curses on ye Moors in the former; pod-people taking over an English village in the latter. We enjoy the idea of punters being delivered to a pub like milk bottles. The monosyllabic landlord whose phone doesn't work is straight out of the Village. If this was Sapphire and Steel, things could just carry on being mysterious indefinitely, and no-one would expect an explanation. But this is Doctor Who, and the explanation is always "because Aliens." 

There is a flying saucer. There are Aliens. The Aliens want to conquer the earth because they are Aliens. And the mysterious village is somehow part of this plot. We are not supposed to be interested in the Kraal invasion plan, which is just as well. They are just a bit of plot machinery to give the spooky stuff a reason to exist. 

It Wasn't The Earth All Along...!

In "The Chimes of Big Ben" Number 6 believes that he has found his way back to London -- but suddenly realizes that he never really left The Village. In "V for Vendetta", V allows Evey to believe that she is going to be executed, and suddenly reveals that the concentration camp is a stage set and the guards are all waxworks. 

Moments like this, when you are not where you thought you were and everything you thought you knew is wrong are pretty hard to pull off. Terry Nation has a good go. We thought that we were in an English village and that the inhabitants had mysteriously been replaced by Android replicas. We discover that the entire village is a replica; that we are still on the Kraal's home planet. The whole set up of the first two episodes dissolves into air, thin air leaving not a rack behind. The Androids are even now being loaded into a space ship, and the invasion of earth is only now about to start.

It All Makes Sense Now!

Episode 3 of Android Invasion drifts away from the first two episodes spooky-kids-show aesthetic and becomes a very generic piece of Who. The Kraal seem to know that they are walking cliches, delivering lines like "RESISTANCE IS...inadvisable" and "I imagine it will be a most ...DISAGREEABLE...death". One should never forget that Terry Nation started life as a comedy writer; Blake's Seven was driven by its dialogue and its wit. It makes sense that the creator of the Daleks would create a different set of generic evil aliens and gently take the mickey out of them. 

The Doctor is strapped to a table while the Kraal try to extract his memories—which makes us think of Davros and mind probes. He is tied to a war memorial with indestructible ivy—which makes us think of Daemons and Maypoles. Sarah cleverly uses her rations to electrocute a guard, which makes us think of every story in which the Doctor has been held captive from the Dead Planet onwards. Sarah remembers she has a limp when she escapes from the Kraal base but has forgotten it by the time she gets back to the Doctor. There are androids in the form of Benton and Harry, but this doesn't effect the plot in any way: it would be just the same if they had been generic guards. The Doctor and Sarah sneak on to the space ship just before it takes off—they are travelling back to earth along with the android invasion force... Maybe they will still be able to save the day. The space ship's launch is represented by stock footage of Apollo XI, even though the model is a completely different shape.

How enjoyable you find any of this depends on how little attention you are prepared to pay. It's jolly good fun. There's a bomb countdown, a rocket launch, a mind probe, two if not three daring escapes: all told it is much less boring than Planet of Evil. Ridiculous aliens in silly masks are planning to invade the earth using a rocket full of androids. What more to you need to know?  

It's only when you try to work out what is going on that it all starts to look decidedly dicey. Why have the aliens made an exact replica of an earth village on their planet? It's a lot of trouble to go to to practice a dry-run at conquering the world. Is it remotely believable that they can create a replica human which is perfect in every detail, and then foul up over trivial things like Sarah Jane's scarf and her taste in soft drinks? And isn't it a bit of a stretch that the Doctor, who has been failing to get back to UNIT base for three stories now, should happen to land on an alien planet which happens to be making robot replicas of two very close friends of his?

"It all makes sense now!" says Sarah, when she realizes that she is not on earth but on the planet Kraal. But it doesn't.

Such power would set me up above the gods!

In Terry Nations previous Doctor Who story, the Doctor presented Davros with a classic thought experiment. If you had created a virus that was capable of wiping out all life, would you allow it to be released? (Davros says that it would be worth destroying all life in order to prove that he could.)

Genesis of the Daleks episode four was first transmitted on March 29, 1975. Two weeks later, April 16, the BBC transmitted the first episode of a new Terry Nation series. Survivors depicted a contemporary earth in which Davros' thought-experiment had occurred in reality. The opening credits distinctly show a scientist dropping a phial and releasing a virus which wipes out nearly all human life. And six months after that (December 6 1975) we reached episode three of Android Invasion and found out what the Kraals's plan actually was.

"That phial contains a death sentence for the entire human race. Be careful! " explains Steggron. "The phial contains a virus so lethal the Earth will be rid of it's human population within three weeks" Exactly why they were fannying around building replicas of sweet shops when their biological warfare was so advanced isn't quite clear. What is clear is that Terry Nation has used the same metaphor three times in one year. In Genesis, the phial is merely a philosophical conjecture. Survivors is about its aftermath and consequences. And Android Invasion gives the Doctor the opportunity to thwart the catastrophe before it occurs.

Boom! Boom!

I do not think that sufficient attention is paid to the fact that Doctor Who was generally paired with Basil Brush in the BBC's Saturday evening schedules.

For anyone not fortunate enough to have been 12 years old during the 1970s: Basil was a British incarnation of Groucho Marx and W.C Fields—an endless fount of wise-crack and repartee. His stock in trade was corny, contrived puns; but his persona was full of sarcasm and self-deprecation and answering back. He said the kinds of things you'd get slapped for if you said them at school; but he got away with it, because he was posh and clever and charming. And a glove puppet.

Tom Baker's Doctor has some similar traits. That is why he appealed so much to a certain sort of priggish, self-opinionated proto-geek. He was witty and charming but he would have been insufferable in real life. His wit starts from the assumption that he is much cleverer than anyone else in the room. He is always, by definition, punching down. (When he meets an equal like Davros or Sutekh, he drops the one liners.) Of course he can't warn a functionary that there might be a dangerous robot double on the loose. He has to say " Now, if you do see me again today, I want you to report it to me immediately". Sounding clever is more important than actually letting the poor guy know what is going on. When Crayford orders him to be taken away to interrogation, he says "If you're calling the butler, I'm very partial to tea and muffins." We've all thought of saying that kind of thing to petty officials. Most of us will spend most of our lives being the petty official people want to say that to.

Look at the first five minutes of Android Invasion episode 4. The lives of the Doctor and Sarah, and the lives of everyone else on earth, are in real and immediate danger. And so they banter: of course they do. But Sarah is honestly scared; and somehow the Doctor is acting as if it's all good fun. You want to punch him; except you don't, because you know he would sacrifice his life to save Sarah's in a heartbeat.

"So, providing we don't burn up on re-entry, and aren't suffocated on the way down, we'll probably be smashed to a pulp when we land" says Sarah: and she sounds properly scared, as if she thinks her number has finally come up

"Exactly. Sarah" says the Doctor "You've put your finger on the one tiny flaw in our plan." Tom Baker is all smiles, coming across the room and sitting by Sarah, like an academic who is pleased that his pupil is finally understanding things.

"Our plan? It's your plan." Now Sarah is outraged, angry—how dare the Doctor blame her for the situation?

"Well, I'm open to suggestions if you've got a better idea." The Doctor is matter-of-fact: facing Sarah with the reality of the situation. 

And Sarah immediately accepts it—accepts that she is probably going to die. "How long before we start?"

The script is quite witty. But the principals pour a deep understanding of the two characters into their reading of the lines. 

Not by HAVOC

In Pyramids of Mars, we saw the Doctor as a god among the gods, confronting and cursing and outwitting a being who he says had once taken the name Satan. There is none of that today. He is openly contemptuous of Steggron and the Kraals ("the best laid plans of mice and Kraals gang oft aglay") and fires off weak jokes when he is being put in a death trap. ("Don't go. Stay, just for a few minutes. Then we can all go together.") And he takes on the role of an action man; jumping through second floor plate glass windows; physically attacking and fighting and throwing bad guys -- none of that namby-pamby Venusian karate. Last time he was a god, this time he is a super hero. Tom Baker saw him always and simply as the benevolent alien.

Unit Dating Problem 

In Pyramids of Mars, Sarah claimed to come from 1980. In Android Invasion she says that, two years before she met the Doctor she investigated a story about the death of Crawford the one eyed astronaut who is running the base. Crawford was supposedly killed on a mission into "deep space" testing out the XK-5 space freighter.

This would be consistent with the older UNIT stories in which England has its own space program and is sending manned missions to Mars. So Sarah's time must be quite a bit later than the 1980s: there is hardly time between 1975 and 1978 for Britain to develop a programme of hauling freight in space. Perhaps "I'm from 1980" means "I was born in 1980"; which would allow Crayford's expedition to be as late as 2010.

To Be Continued...

Very disappointingly, the top brass officer at the base is not the Brigadier, but the Colonel. He says things like "confounded cheek!" and makes us all realize just how good Nicholas Courtney always was. Perhaps the Brig's absence explains why we don't to get to see the Doc saying goodbye to UNIT, for what will turn out to be the very last time. We get to see the real Harry and the real Benton alongside their robot doubles, but nothing very much follows from it. The Doctor fairs rather better: Tom Baker obviously enjoys being an evil copy of himself and relishes some of the confusion that two Doctors cause. The BBC make-up department evidently can't source the stunt man a wig that looks even remotely like Tom Baker's own hair. The day is saved through quite interesting tricks: turning the radio telescope back on itself to jam the robots; and reprogramming the Android doctor to attack Stegron. The Davros-phial is smashed, but it does nothing bad apart from dissolving Stegron. Is the idea that the virus is contained inside the rocket? At any rate the human race is not wiped out. Everyone lives happily ever after.


Ginger beer is a fizzy drink—a soda. It is possible to make it at home using yeast and sugar and root ginger, although I suppose the stuff you can buy in bottles and cans is flavoured and carbonated. People who are "on the wagon" sometimes drink it because the ginger gives it a bit of a kick. People who are not on the wagon add rum to make a Dark and Stormy. But it's mostly a children's drink. The kind of thing you'd have as a bit of a treat at a birthday party. The Famous Five take bottles of the stuff on their picnics, although the phrase "lashings of ginger beer!" is apocryphal.

In episode two, the Doctor is waiting for Sarah in an empty pub, and has to order a drink. It's an interesting moment: what does the Doctor drink? Most English pubs would supply a cup of tea, but that would be a bit obvious. Instead he asks for "a pint". A landlord would automatically take this to mean a pint of beer bitter in the south, mild in the north. At the end of the Daemons, the Brigadier and Benton went for "a pint" in preference to watching the Morris Dancing. But this landlord isn't going to let the Doctor—or the writer—off the hook. "A pint of what?". So the Doctor orders a children's drink: ginger pop. ("Pop" is definitely a children's word; slightly more in use in Northern England than in the South.) And the Doctor isn't joking, either: he was drinking ginger beer from a small earthenware bottle at the beginning of episode one. The landlord pours two ordinary glass bottles into a beer glass.

Patrick Troughton occasionally offered his companions sherbet lemons or gobstoppers. Tom Baker has twice proffered a bag of jelly babies. Jelly babies, sherbet lemons, gob stoppers and ginger beer are all signifiers of the olden days -- Victorian and Edwardian summers and school tuck-shops. And they also represent a type of harmless schoolboy childishness. Over the next season or so, "jelly babies" will just become a marker of conscious silliness: an accouterments of the Doctor, like the sonic screwdriver and the scarf. But today "ginger beer" marks the Doctor out as a child-man from a vanishing, but not quite vanished, world.

He meets the fake Sarah in a sweet shop, with adverts for British Cheese and Lyons Made Ice Lollies clearly visible. He consumes five bottles of ginger beer during the story. That's a lot of sugar and something like 1,000 calories.

Pop Goes The Weasel

To recap. At the beginning of episode, Sarah says that she doesn't like ginger pop. At the end of part 2, she finds it delicious. This is one of the things which clues us into the fact that Sarah has been replaced by an Android.

This small point could not reasonably have been picked up on by someone watching the story at the rate of one episode a week. This suggests that Terry Nation thinks of Android Invasion as a single, 100 minute movie.

But as a single, 100 minute movie, Android Invasion makes no sense at all. It actually feels like three different stories that have crashed together: a spooky two part horror show about androids taking over a pretty English village; a rather generic single part Doctor Who story about people being captured by aliens and escaping; and a James Bondish denouement about aliens taking over a government base, with much leaping through windows and jujitsu. 

We can entirely accept a Doctor Who story in which a space ship full of androids is coming to earth to infect everyone with a deadly virus. It is quite a cool idea. But the space-ship full of androids completely fails to follow on from the English village. 

It has been said that the ginger beer proves that Nation "wrote for the novelization". But everything else in the story suggests that he really didn't care if the eventual novelization or compilation made sense. All he wanted was for cool stuff to happen on a Saturday night. And those of us who remember the seventies can't quite bring ourselves to say that he was wrong.

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Friday, March 27, 2020

12.5 Fugitive of the Judoon

The Two Doctors

I enjoyed Fugitive of the Judoon in a straightforward, uncomplicated way. It was the first episode of this season—the first episode in Doctor Thirteen's run—which I might have enjoyed if it had been part of a brand new TV show that I didn't have any investment in. It was the first episode in I don't know how long—since Matt Smith's first season, perhaps—that made me think: "Well, that was fun."

It's easy enough to see why it worked. It followed a perfectly standard structure of escalating tension. Introduce the main plot; escalate to crisis; cut away to subplot; escalate to crisis; repeat for tertiary plot. Then return to first plot; escalate crisis to a higher pitch and cut back to second plot: continue until all plots converge in one massive crisis. 

It has a central mystery: and each time part of the mystery is solved it reveals a deeper mystery beneath it. There is something a bit mysterious about Lee. The Judoon have come to earth looking for some fugitive. The fugitive is seems to be Lee: but what is he running from. The Judoon are interested in a box in Lee's possession, but why? The Judoon were hired by Gat, who has a former connection with Lee, but what? Gat kills Lee: it wasn't him she wanted, after all, it was his wife Ruth. But why?

And so on, until the great big question mark on which the episode ends, which I very much hope will never be resolved. (I am writing this review straight after watching the episode, and definitely have no idea what will happen in the Season Finale, oh no.) 

And the stuff which happens while the tension is being ramped up and the Russian dolls are being unpacked is great fun. We immediately like Ruth as a character. We care that no-one comes on her walking tour and Lee hasn't ordered her a birthday cake. (Is there really only one cake shop and one coffee bar in the whole of Gloucester?) We enjoy the scenes on the Judoon spaceship, with military music and marching boots and silly chants and figures in spacesuits silhouetted against bulkheads. They made me think of 1970s TV adverts for space-toys you were never actually going to be able to afford. Everyone falls in step with that sense of slightly retro generic skiffy, referring to the Judoon as "space-rhinos". The Judoon were created as a rather weak place-holder for the Sontarans: but they are silly enough to be fun and menacing enough to be exciting. A rhinoceros is an intrinsically silly beast. Rhinoceri in spacesuits are joyous. 

When I like a Chris Chibnall episode I often say that it felt like an episode of the Sarah-Jane Adventures. But then I frequently said that Sarah-Jane was more like Doctor Who than Doctor Who was at the time. It retained a sense of fun and playfulness and story and was not overwhelmed by Numan Interest. (But on I cared much more about what happened to Clyde and Luke than I ever have about Yaz and Ryan.) Doctor Who has BBC Children's Television in its DNA: there is something endearingly childish about Fugitive of the Judoon which puts us off guard for the big dramatic serious ending. 

So, Andrew, you might as well leave it there. "It was a good story. I liked it. I wish there were more stories like this." What else is there to say?

Before Fugitive of the Judoon was released, the BBC put out a short teaser trailer which made it clear that the big revelation that O was the Master in Spyfall was only the beginning: this weeks episode was going to contain an even bigger revelation. And that trailer totally changed how we experience the episode. Every plot twist—every red herring—makes us think "Is this the big revelation? I wonder what the big revelation will be? When will the big revelation come?" Telling us that there is a big surprise but not telling us what it is is almost as much a spoiler as if it the episode had been entitled "Day of Tour Guide Who Turns Out To  Be The Doctor." 

The guy in the coffee shop has been compiling a dossier on Lee. Is that the revelation? Is the revelation to do with Lee's identity?

It turns out that the Judoon have come to arrest Ruth—who seems to be completely innocuous— rather than Lee—who is obviously hiding something. "So" we can't help thinking "That must be the big revelation. The big revelation must be something to do with Ruth. What can Ruth's big secret be?" 

This is why John Bloody Barrowman is in the episode. The dreadful Torchwood turned Captain Jack into an annoying, camp Action Man, but I have to admit that this episode's digression restores the character to what he was in the Empty Child—a flamboyant polysexual Han Solo. He really shouldn't exist in the story, and he gets to comment on the narrative from the outside, rather as Missy did in World Enough and Time: 

"Listen, kid, working with some low-rent equipment here." 

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" 

"Oh, she likes them mouthy, then, huh?" 

"Yeah, one up from cheesy." 

"Okay, he's my favourite."

It's like two eras of the show are being allowed to comment on each other. Jack assume that Graham is the Doctor: and one suspects that in Jack's era, he would have been. 

Jack has nothing to do with the story: he is only here to deliver a message: "Beware the lone Cyberman"—presumably a set up for the season finale which I definitely haven't watched yet. It is quite fun that a flying saucer pops up in the middle of an already quite complicated narrative and quite convenient that Graham, Yaz and Ryan get beamed out of the story just at the point when the Doctor and Ruth need time for some quality exposition. 

But the main point of Captain Jack is to be a red herring. We have been told that there is going to be a really big revelation. A major, major character who we haven't seen in a decade pops up. Here comes the revelation, we think: Jack is going to tell us the big secret. But it turns out that his message has nothing to do with the revelation, or to do with anything else in the story. Which is kind of cool.

A heavily trailed revelation was always going to be about the format; about the mythos about, as we now have to say, the lore. "Yaz is pregnant", "Ryan becomes a Muslim" or "Graham's cancer comes back" would count as major revelations in a soap opera or drama, but in Doctor Who they would barely register as sub-plots. The twist has to be a twist about Doctor Who itself. Ruth as a secret. And within the rules of Doctor Who, there are really only three things it can be: 

1: Ruth is the Master

2: Ruth is some other Time Lord—the Rani or the Corsair or the Monk or Omega or Rassilon. 

3: Ruth has some family connection with the Doctor: she is her child, or her former wife, or her mother. 

We do not see "Ruth is the Doctor herself" coming. And how could we? We were looking for a twist within the rules of Doctor Who. But the twist is that the rules of Doctor Who have been broken. Ruth can't be the Doctor. But she is.

I have used this illustration before. Children's riddles and cracker-jokes depend on a question being understood in a non-obvious way, or there being an equivocation about the meaning of a word. Why did the man throw his watch out of the window? In order to see time fly. What gets wetter the more it dries? A towel. So "Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side" is funny because it breaks the rules of joke telling. The joke is that it requires a perfectly ordinary answer: the joke is that it is not a joke. Many, many children's riddles are anti-jokes of this kind. What is white and can't climb trees? What is green and pear-shaped? Where would you find a tortoise with no legs? 

Ruth can't be the Doctor, because there is no Doctor for her to be. If she had simply been the fourteenth (or, depending on how you count, sixteenth) Doctor, it would have been quite surprising but not a major twist. "I am your next incarnation, but not for a couple of seasons yet". I have thought for a long time that it would be cool if the BBC could somehow spring a regeneration on us without the traditional eighteen month build up. But Doctor Ruth is not from the future (she doesn't remember having been Doctor Thirteen) nor is she from the past (Thirteen definitely doesn't remember being her). And there is nowhere else for her to be from.

It could all be sorted out very easily by saying that she is the Doctor from a parallel universe; or by saying that our Doctor had pre-Hartnellian lives but is for some reason suffering from amnesia. Neither solution would be nearly as interesting as the mystery. "There is another Doctor in the universe who logically can't exist" is quite an appealing addition to the mythos: particularly if the Doctor and the Other Doctor can be contrived to be at loggerheads. 

I can't help thinking — and I definitely, definitely haven't watched the season finale yet—that "logically impossible Doctor" is what Chibnall is driving at. Doctor Ruth very pointedly does not know what a sonic screwdriver is, which puts her pre-Troughton: but her TARDIS is already shaped like a London Police Box, which puts her post-Unearthly Child.

We see the Time Lords casting the Doctor out in the War Games; and we see the Doctor arriving on earth in Spearhead From Space: many fans have theorized that there could be any number of untold adventures in between. (The theory is well established enough that if you refer to "Season 6 B" Who fans generally know what you are talking about.) But there is really no scope for a Season 3 B in between the last William Hartnell story and the first Patrick Troughton one. Moffat's Twice Upon a Time rather ruled that out. 

Vinay Patel, who is credited with Chibnall as co-writer of the story, also wrote last year's Demons of the Punjab, as story which was greatly admired by people other than me. It is interesting that there are two writers; because it sometimes feels as if Fugitive of the Judoon is two different stories.

Is Patel a Doctor Who geek? Did he go to Chibnall and say "I've had a cool idea for a story in which there is an extra, impossible Doctor, in between Hartnell and Troughton?" Or did Chibnall go to Patel and say "Since we liked your very political historical story last season so much, we think you are the idea person to write a mythos heavy narrative which sets up a puzzle about Doctor Who continuity." Neither scenario is impossible. But I have this nagging feeling that maybe Patel pitched a clever character piece in which an ordinary lady and an ordinary man living ordinary lives in Gloucester turn out to be alien war-criminals hunted by the Judoon. And that Chibnall looked at the script and said "That's a cool script. But I want to incorporate it into my masterplan. I want the lady to turn out to be, not an alien war criminal, but a logically impossible Doctor." 

There is one very suspicious thing. In the very good cathedral scene, when the Doctor and Ruth are surrounded by Judoon, Ruth unexpectedly grabs a gun, threatens the Judoon, does Martial Arts and rips off one of their noses. This gives the Doctor the clue that she, Ruth, has a different identity hidden inside her. Ruth doesn't know what has happened; it is like someone else is controlling her. 

Now, if you wanted to give a clue that a Numan Bean is really the Doctor in disguise, is Martial Arts and mutilating bad guys what you would choose? Wouldn't you show that she has a knack for improvising plans, or impresses the Doctor by her understanding of super-advanced science. If in the original script Ruth had been, say, an alien ninja with an activation code; or a renegade space cop who had resigned from the force, the scene would have made a lot more sense. 

The second half of the story is very well done. The juxtaposition of Ruth breaking the glass and starting to "regenerate" and the Doctor finding the TARDIS buried beneath an unmarked grave is very powerful. And the final scene on the Judoon ship, when it transpires that Gat is taking her orders from the Time Lords and that the Doctor—Ruth—has always been her quarry is pleasantly surprising and interesting. There is a bit of chemistry between the two Doctors. And the aftermath, with the Doctor brooding about what has happened and the Famous Three promising to stick by her whatever comes next, is very well done. But I am terribly afraid that we are looking at two different scripts. And when you realize that it, it is not too difficult to see the join.

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