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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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.