“I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
Behind much discussion…there hover two propositions that I think much less admissible than the new morality
1: That if a book is literature it cannot corrupt. But there is no evidence for this, and some against it…
2: That if a book is a great work of art it does not matter if it corrupts or not, because art matters more than behaviour. In other words art matters more than life; comment on life, the mirroring of life, matters more than life itself. This sounds very like nonsense
I hadn't seen it before, although I am familiar with Tom Gauld's cartoons in the Guardian.
It troubles me.
It troubles me in the way Jonathan Pie troubles me.
At first glance, I thought it was saying "The kinds of people who read serious literature are inclined to look down on the kinds of people who read science fiction: and this is silly, because the people who read science fiction are having a good time." Since I am one of the people who read science fiction this made me smile.
But then I stopped smiling because I am also one of the people who reads serious literature, so I thought that perhaps it was me who was being made fun of.
Overthinking cartoons is probably a bad idea. It is probably the sort of stuffy thing that the kinds of people who read serious books would do. Probably I am only doing it because I am jealous of your red nose and your floppy shoes.
But the artist must have thought about the cartoon before drawing it. At least I suppose he did.
A.A Milne said that he thought of putting a little comment before each of his children's poems explaining who was speaking the words: the author, Christopher Robin, or hoo.
I think that is my question about this cartoon. Who is saying it: the cartoonist, Christopher Robin, or hoo?
Are we being told what the science fiction reader really thinks about the serious literature readers? Or are we being shown what the serious fiction readers think that science fiction readers think about them? Or are we being told what the cartoonist thinks that the science fiction reader thinks that the serious fiction readers think that he is thinking?
And who are we supposed to agree with? Do we read the science fiction reader's think bubble and say "Ha-ha, he's so right, they are only jealous of him."
Or do we read it and think "Ha-ha, he's so wrong, imagining that they are jealous of him".
The artist draws simple, iconic figures -- hardly more than stick men. The Proper Literature readers each have a single feature: one man is bald and wears glasses, the other man has a pipe and the woman has her hair in a bun. They are unattractive, fusty, old fashioned, spinsterish, studious -- in a word, uncool. This is the stereotype that people who don't like books have always applied to people who do.
The science fiction character is also a cartoon, but he's more realistic: a combination of 1970s NASA spacesuits and 1930s Buck Rogers comics with a heavy overlay of steampunk imagery. The spacesuit seems to have been made out of tin cans.
The idea of the jet-pack comes off a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, and is sufficiently old that it may have provided some of the inspiration for Superman ten years later. Jetpacks were rendered pretty obsolete by the rise of superheroes who could fly under their own steam. They weren't a feature of most space-opera after the so-called golden age: they aren't part of the Lensmen books, Star Trek, Star Wars, Blakes 7 or Battlestar Galactica. They'd look pretty retro in the Expanse or Firefly.
So: does the artist think that readers of serious literature really are old fashioned and stuffy; and that science fiction readers really are still reading century old pulps? Or is he saying that readers of serious literature foolishly and wrongly think that science fiction is still just Buck Rogers? Or that the science fiction fan thinks that literature fans think that he only reads space opera comics? Or that the literature fans think that he thinks that they think that sci-fi is only Buck Rogers. Or that he thinks that they think that he thinks....
Again: are we supposed to accept the premise that there is a category called "proper literature" and a category called "science fiction" and that never the twain shall meet? And if so, are we supposed to think that this is a bad thing, and they should both have a look at each other's books: or is the science fiction fan right in thinking that proper literature is joyless?
Obviously cartoons have to deal in symbols. A cartoon in which someone in ordinary clothes said to someone else in ordinary clothes "Oh, yes, I also enjoy Elana Ferrante, why don't you have a look at Gene Wolfe one of these days" wouldn't be particularly funny.
I notice from some of Gauld's other cartoons that this two-pronged approach is a fairly consistent feature of his humour. Darned if I do and darned if I don't. One cartoon depicts a simple labyrinth puzzle, with the instruction "guide the metropolitan intellectual back to his ivory tower without encountering his countrymen". "Liberal metropolitan elite" is a right wing trope: Eton educated Boris Johnson and commodities trader Nigel Farage were both presented by the far-right press as Men of the People, in contrast to Liberal Metropolitan Elitists like Jeremy Corbyn. It isn't clear from the cartoon whether Gauld is saying "Intellectuals really do live lives of isolated luxury, without contact with ordinary people: this is bad"; or "Silly, small minded Tories falsely imagine that intellectuals are remote from ordinary life: it is bad that they imagine this." Another cartoon has a fairy godmother providing Cinderella with a bank account and a fulfilling career rather than a coach and glass slippers, and saying that she only has to get married if she wants to. Again, it isn't clear whether he is saying "traditional fairy tales are sexist, and this is bad" or "feminists spoil fairy tales, and this is bad." Certainly "the left want to impose politically correct fairy tales on us" is a trope of the far-right; but in the context of the cartoon the artist might well be saying "the idea that anyone would write a fairy tale in this way is absurd; PC gone mad is a false fear."
Laughter often occurs when the same text can be read in two different ways ("there were two fish in a tank"). So it might be that this ambiguity is precisely what the cartoonist is aiming at. He draws both for the New Scientist and for the Guardian literary section, so he himself may have a camp in the "Buck Rogers" and "joyless literature" camps.
The accusation that the science fiction fan is making -- or that the the literature fans think that he is making or that he thinks they think he is making -- is that readers of literary fiction are insincere. They would rather be reading sci-fi; their disapproval of the genre is a mask for their jealousy. They are literary puritans, haunted by the fact that someone somewhere might be having more fun than they are.
It is very tempting to say that Mary Whitehouse was an anti-smut campaigner because she longed to read dirty books or that Richard Dawkins hates Muslims because he secretly knows that there is a God, but it's highly unlikely to be true. I am not even sure that "if you were confident in your own sexuality you would not be so homophobic" is either fair or helpful, although it is very funny. But this kind of thinking underlies too much of our current political discourse. To call someone a virtue signaller, woke, PC or an SJW is ultimately to call them a hypocrite. They don't really believe in reducing global warming or promoting human rights: they are justing pretending to do so because they want to look good, feel superior, toe the party line, and ultimately destroy western civilisation. We have talked before about the stance known as "Bulverism", where the knee jerk reaction to any opposing position is to say "You only think that because..."
You don't really think that serious literature is better than genre literature; you are just pretending that you think so in order to conceal the fact that you'd rather be reading Buck Rogers than Kazuo Ishiguro.
Then again, there are still rather a lot of people who think that they have heard quite enough from experts. I am mildly concerned with how full my in-box seems to be with memes about English professors who are filling kids minds with some silly idea about how Edgar Allen Poe's Raven might have some element of symbolism to it (when the kids can all see that it is, you know, just a bird.) A perfectly sensible little parable about how the perfect can be the enemy of the good seemed to morph into a complaint about theory and theoreticians. It is very possible that in the 1830s the people of Denmark needed to be told that emperors were sometimes naked. But right now, I think people ought to consider the possibility that if ninety nine knowledgable folk think that the emperor is wearing his imperial robes and you are convinced he's starkers, then possibly you are the one who should have gone to specsavers.
I think that people who read serious literature read serious literature because they like serious literature because serious literature can tell them things about the world and human beings and life. I think that people who read science fiction read science fiction because they are interested in ideas and speculation and science and the future and philosophy and technology. I think that the some of the people who read serious literature believe, correctly, that some science fiction is poorly written and badly characterised and that some of the people who read science fiction believe, correctly, that some serious literature is dull and difficult. I think that very large numbers of readers of serious literature also read genre fiction and very large number of readers of genre fiction also read serious literature. Probably its a bad idea to only read one kind of thing. I don't think anyone is jealous of anyone.
Spacesuits and jetpacks -- the whole ethos of Buck Rogers and Hugo Gernsback -- is not so much retro as an historical curiosity, with the same relevance to contemporary science fiction that Lonnie Donnegan does to Dizee Rascal. But we are only a few years on from the awards named after Gernsback being hijacked by reactionary science fiction fans who said -- very explicitly -- that retro, ray-gun and jet pack science fiction was the only real kind; that the intrusion of characterisation and and psychology and new-fangled good-writing into science fiction was the thin end of a communist wedge. They very much drew a line between science fiction and "proper literature". They said that science fiction was a purely masculine form; that the infiltration of "literary" ideas into science fiction was part of a feminist plot and that the girls should damn well get out of their treehouse.
I don't for one moment think that the cartoonist believes this. And the fact that a trope can we weaponised by neo-nazis does not invalidate the original point. But the false dichotomy between Buck Rogers and stuck-up-librarians-with-hair-buns troubles me.
Some reviewers and and university departments are quite snobby towards science fiction readers, and I wish they weren't.
That is why in all boys’ papers, not only the Gem and Magnet, a Chinese is invariably portrayed with a pigtail. It is the thing you recognize him by, like the Frenchman’s beard or the Italian’s barrel-organ... As a rule it is assumed that foreigners of any one race are all alike and will conform more or less exactly to the following patterns:
ITALIAN: Excitable. Grinds barrel-organ or carries stiletto.
SWEDE, DANE: Kind-hearted, stupid.
NEGRO: Comic, very faithful.
An evil time traveller has lost the key to his time machine. He is sick and deformed, and subsists by draining the life-energy from human victims. After a long chase, a good time traveller destroys the key, and the bad one falls into his own life-draining machine and is destroyed.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO screamed the President of the DWAS in his infamous review of Deadly Assassin.
As if in answer, Robert Holmes offers us the Talons of Weng-Chiang.
It's the perfect Doctor Who story. It is full of magic; and it has a magician at the centre of it.
In Episode 1 of the previous story, Leela had asked the Doctor to explain how the TARDIS could be bigger on the inside than the outside. The Doctor showed her two boxes, and said that one box is small, and the other box is far away. If something could be both far away and close at the same time, he explained, then big things could fit inside small things.
"That's silly" said Leela.
It's an explanation which fails to explain. It is a piece of sleight of hand. The only possible answer to the question "Why is the TARDIS bigger on the inside than on the outside?" is "Hey -- look the other way!"
That's what happened to the magic of Doctor Who. We spotted how it was done. It was a matter of misdirection.
"Next tlick; velly simple."
1850 In Memorium
1887 A Study in Scarlet
1892 Daisy, Daisy
1892 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
1895 The Time Machine
1895 The Importance of Being Earnest
1902 Down at the Old Bull and Bush
1909 The Phantom of the Opera
1911 The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God
1913 The Mystery of Doctor Fu Manchu
1919 My Old Man Said Follow The Van
1953 The Good Old Days
1963 An Unearthly Child
1977 The Talons of Weng Chiang
If you read a story about a whale, you think of Moby Dick. (Even if you have never read Moby Dick, you still think of it.) You may also think of Jonah, or Pinnocchio, or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. But you can't read a story about a whale without thinking of all the other whale stories.
This is also true of everything else.
When a man in a clerical collar walks onto the stage you know he is going to be a Vicar. But you also know what kind of a Vicar he is going to be. One kind if the play is called Whoops, There Go My Trousers! another kind if it is called My Awful Miserable Irish Catholic Childhood.
Talons of Weng-Chiang is more than usually reliant on cliches and stereotypes. We know what to expect from each character the moment they come on stage. In the first few minutes of the first episode we meet
a stereotypical theatre owner ("so many feats of superlative, supernatural skill!)
a stereotypical Cockney cabbie ("she come in here last night and nobody ain't seen her since")
a stereotypical Irish workman ("hideous it was, hideous")
a stereotypical English peeler ("well, if that don't take the biscuit")
a stereotypical police doctor ("upon my soul!")
and a stereotypical Chinese conjurer ("honoulable master kind to bestow plaise on humble Chang's miserlable, unworthy head.")
To have one stereotype might be regarded as a misfortune. To have six seems like carelessness.
And it isn't only the characters: every setting, every scene, almost every plot beat is weirdly familiar.
Of course, it is foggy. We are in Victorian London: how could it not be? Everyone travels everywhere by hansom cab. The only streets which do not look like sinister rookeries are the ones which look like Baker Street. (There is a bale of hay on Baker Street, reputedly to conceal an inconveniently anachronistic horseless carriage that someone had parked there.) Women keep disappearing: the papers are saying that Jack the Ripper has struck again. There were other Victorian murderers; but Jack the Ripper is the one we have heard of.
The police pull a dead body out of the river. An old woman, credited only as "ghoul" watches the proceedings. "Look, there it is guv....It's a floater, all right..." She is played by Patsy Smith, who specialised in dotty and eccentric older ladies. (She took her dentures out for the part.) She makes us think of the toothless whores in Les Miserables and indeed of the Wise Woman about whom Black Adder knew only two things.
It is important to the story that a body has been pulled from the river, but a policeman gives the Doctor this crucial piece of information in the very next scene. We didn't need to see it happen. But corpses and barges and rivers and dotty mad ghoulish women who call everyone "gov" are part of the Victorian setting. It may possibly make us think of the opening of Our Mutual Friend.
The scene is not there to advance the plot. The plot, such as it is, is there to provide an excuse or a pretext for the scene.
And that is also true of everything else.
In Episode 3 we see the Sinister Chinese Conjurer perform his act. (The Conjurer is called Chang: his sinister master is called Chiang. There is an old joke about a Chinese telephone book which I am not going to repeat.) Before Chang comes on stage at the Music Hall, we catch the end of the preceding act: a cockney lady singing Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer Do (I'm half crazy, all for my love of you!) Leela, rather delightfully, thinks they are at some kind of religious ceremony and worries that she does not know the correct responses. A snatch of the song also appeared in the incidental music when the Doctor stepped onto the stage at the end of Episode 2.
There were lots of popular songs in the eighteen-hundreds: but Daisy, Daisy is the one we think of when we think of Music Hall. People still think it is the kind of song which goes down well with the inmates at the local Old Folks Home, even though your average octogenarian is more likely to have grown up with Rock Around The Clock. The song is a signifier of Victorian-ness. It is there to tell us we are in the Olden Days.
And that is also true of everything else.
At the beginning of Episode 2, Chiang tells Chang that he needs a new victim. Chiang is a kind of science-vampire: to stay alive he has to drain life energy from human victims. "You must bring another linnet to my cage", he says. Not a mouse or a rat: a linnet. I am not absolutely sure what a linnet is: but I know Victorians kept them in cages. The captive born of noble rage, the linnet born within the cage. Off went the van with my home packed in it; I walked behind with my old cock linnet. My Old Man Said Follow The Van is the second song you think of when you think of Music Hall. It stands for the Olden Days almost as much as the Bicycle Made For Two does. It wasn't written until 1919; twenty years after the death of Queen Victoria. The Mystery of Fu Manchu came out in 1913. The Olden Days lasted a long time.
In Episode 2, the Doctor tells Professor Litefoot that he found Leela floating down the Amazon in a hatbox. Litefoot incredulously replies "a HAT box?". A trace of a smile goes across the Doctor's face. Either the Doctor, or Tom Baker gets the joke: but Litefoot decidedly doesn't..
Litefoot himself is a bit of a joke. He is, to all intents and purposes, the same character as Doctor Watson. A decent chap, but with all the prejudices and assumptions of his age, and an absolute knack for getting the wrong end of every available stick. After the unfortunate cab-driver has been assassinated by a malevolent ventriloquist's dummy, Litefoot leaps to the conclusion that the cabbie "got stupidly drunk and picked a fight with a dwarf". The Doctor has foregone his floppy hat and scarf, and spends the story dressed in a paisley jacket, tweed trousers, and a deerstalker hat. Theatrical manager Jago goes so far as to say that the Doctor solves most of Scotland Yard's cases and allows them to take the credit; and that the Doctor and Litefoot are the most formidable duo in the annals of criminology. Jago also discovers a masked, deformed murderer living underneath his theatre. The Doctor says that his adversary is like a vampire. He explains that Chiang is looking for a lost Time Machine. No-one seems to have read Oscar Wilde, or Conan Doyle or Gaston Leroux or Bram Stoker or H.G Wells. And certainly not Sax Rohmer.
Talons of Weng-Chiang is a Victorian fiction entirely constructed out of other Victorian fiction: but none of the Victorians have read the books. How could they possibly have done?
"On my oath, gov, you wouldn't want that served with onions" says the madwoman. Considering what the Whitechapel murderer used to do to his victims, this remark is in especially poor taste.
The Doctor arrives in a city where a number of young women have mysteriously disappeared. It turns out that they have been kidnapped by cultists. It turns out that the leader of the cult is a cult-leader and that he is using mind control powers to control their minds. It turns out that the cult leader works for a being he thinks is a god. It turns out that the god feeds by sucking the life energy from the kidnapped women. It turns out that he is searching the city for a valuable artefact. It turns out that the god is really a war-criminal from the far future and the valuable artefact is a time machine. The Doctor beats him in the end.
Talons of Weng Chiang does not have a plot. It has a series of links, of stitches, pathways which get us from one trope to the next. The links are intricate; the story is brilliantly constructed; a perfectly oiled narrative machine. But the paths lead nowhere. The story is bound together by nonsense.
If you are a Doctor Who fan, you have seen Talons of Weng Chiang a hundred times. But I wonder if you could write a coherent summary: draw a map of which McGuffin propels which character to which location in which episode? One link leads to another, but there is Nothing At The End of the Chain.
Leela is menaced by a giant rat in the sewer. She is in the sewer because she and the Doctor witnessed a murder and believe that is where the body must have been thrown. They believe the body must have been thrown into the sewer because the sewer flows into the river and that's where the body was found. The man was murdered because he came to the theater to ask the conjuror about the whereabouts of his wife. The conjuror abducted his wife because he is the servant of a Chinese God called Weng-Chiang. Weng-Chiang needs victims because he drains their life energy. Chang is posing as a conjuror because this provides a stream of female victims. They have to be female victims because... because... because...
The endless chain of arbitrary links makes Talons of Weng-Chiang more than usually re-watchable. We forget the details; so we are surprised every time we watch the story. We enjoy saying "Aha!" every time Jago finds the glove bearing the monogram of the wife of the cab driver who was found dead in the river in the cellar of the theatre...
Robert Holmes' script may sometimes do a little too much showing and not quite enough telling. In Episode 4 Leela sees Chang kidnapping a woman, and follows them back to his lair. Leela sees the captive woman: Leela sees a wardrobe. We see Chang take the woman to Chiang. And then we see the the woman is in the wardrobe. We have to infer that Leela has switched clothes with the woman: and Holmes doesn't give us much time to do so. But this tends to make the story even more memorable. We have to give it our full attention. The viewer collaborates with the writer.
There are several moments in the story when I think -- "Hang on: what is Leela doing in Chiang's lair" and "Wait a minute, why is the Doctor back in the theatre?" In each case, I went back a few moves and found that there was, in fact, a decent reason. Only the meaning of Chang's "Chinese puzzle" clue to the whereabouts of Chiang's lair in Episode 6 leaves me baffled after multiple rewatches.
Some of it is contrived. The Doctor makes friends with Prof. Litefoot; Prof. Litefoot is conducting an autopsy on the body recovered from the river. (The body of the cab driver who came to the theatre to ask the Chinese conjurer if he knew what happened to his wife...) We know that the man was murdered by the Chinese martial arts ninja; we know that the the Chinese martial arts ninja are connected to the Chinese conjuror; and we know that the Chinese conjuror is looking for a Chinese McGuffin which is located somewhere in London. And suddenly, out of the blue Litefoot remembers that he just happens to have been brought up in China, and he just happens to have in his possession a mysterious Chinese cabinet that just happens to have been gifted to his late father by the Emperor himself... But this kind of contrivance is itself a Victorian cliche: the implausible plot developments make the story even more like itself.
"Aha!" we all say.
The McGuffins bring the characters together and separate them. The Doctor and Leela. Leela and Litefoot, the Doctor and Jago. Litefoot and the Doctor. And finally, inevitably, Litefoot and Jago. It is fun to watch Litefoot being the perfect Victorian gentleman while Leela eats whole joints of meat with her fingers. It is fun to watch him playing Watson to the Doctor's Holmes. And it is fun to watch blustering braggart Jago admitting that he is a coward and silly old fashioned Litefoot telling him that’s okay. Of course they don’t move the story forward. They get captured, they try to escape, they get captured again, and they get rescued by the Doctor. But Jago and Litefoot aren’t there to advance the plot. If anything they are the to slow it down. The plot exists in order to force Jago and Litefoot to spend some time together.
Five thousand years in the future, the earth is experiencing a new ice-age and the human race is dabbling with dangerous new technology. Chinese scientists create a cyborg with the brain of a pig: they give it to the children of the Icelandic Commissioner as a toy, as you would; but it turns out to be so malevolent that it causes a war between Iceland and South East Asia; with the Doctor fighting on the Philippine side.
Meanwhile an Australian politician, Magnus Greel -- becomes involved in an experiment, created by one Prof Findicker, to create a working Time Machine. This Time Machine uses zigma energy; human DNA; and psychic power: many thousands of humans are sacrificed to make it work. Greel is branded a war criminal, and uses the experimental time machine to escape. He takes the psychotic Chinese pig-doll with him. For some reason.
He arrives in China sometime after 1861, during the reign of emperor Tong Chi. Tong Chi's soldiers take the Time Machine from him, leaving him trapped in the nineteenth century. The zigma energy or possibly something else has effected his body, causing him to become horribly deformed. A Chinese peasant forms the impression that he is the deity Weng-Chiang. Greel gives the peasant powerful mind control powers, because he can, for some reason. The peasant becomes the leader of a cult of kung-fu ninja who worship Weng-Chiang.
In 1860, Brigadier General Litefoot travels to China to put down a rebellion during the opium wars. After the war, he remains as a British representative in the Imperial court, and has a child, George. The Brigadier dies prior to 1875, and his wife returns to England with their son. The emperor gives them the Time Machine (not knowing its significance) as a gift.
Over the next decade and a half, Greel, the Peasant and the Mannequin try to track the Time Cabinet down, eventually tracing it to London some time after 1888.
Greel constructs a device which sucks the life energy from human females (to sustain him, as he still hasn't recovered from travelling through time). The process of building the device causes rats and spiders to grow to enormous size. For some reason. He trains them to respond to a Chinese gong and uses them to guard his lair. The Peasant pretends to be a stage conjuror and the killer mannequin pretends to be a ventriloquist’s dummy. He uses his mind control powers to hypnotise pretty ladies as part of his act and brings them down to Greel's lair afterwards, so Greel can feed on them. The energy draining machine only works on pretty ladies. For some reason. Eventually, he works out that the cabinet is still in the possession of Brigadier Litefoot's son, now a police doctor, who, by a staggering coincidence, is investigating murders committed by Greel's cultists and the dummy.
He tries to get it back and go back to the future but the Doctor stops him.
On the surface, Talons of Weng-Chiang is a Victorian melodrama about Fu Manchu and Jack the Ripper and the Phantom of the Opera. But beneath the surface, it is "really" about a war criminal from the future and a murderous toy and a failed experiment in time travel.
Many Doctor Who stories work along these lines. Pyramids of Mars is a spooky story about an Egyptian curse in an Edwardian country house; but the Egyptian god is "really" an evil alien. Brain of Morbius is a loving pastiche of a Hammer Frankenstien movie; but it is "really" the story of an evil Time Lord and a failed revolution. The story of the Osirans is part of our enjoyment of Pyramids of Mars; and the story of Gallifrey and the Sisterhood of Kahn is a big part of our enjoyment of Brain of Morbius. But Magnus Greel, the Peking Homunculus and the Fifth, or possibly Sixth, World War have almost zero contribution to our enjoyment of Talons of Weng-Chiang. They don't amount to a back-story; they are just a hand-wave. They aren't even pseudo-science, they are just noise.
"Look -- over there!"
There are giant rats. The murder victim has bite wounds and preternaturally long rat hairs on his body. So there must be giant rats.
The Chinese Ninja belong to a Tong which worships Weng Chiang: and the Doctor notes that Weng Chiang is legendarily a god of abundance. So that explains why there are giant rats.
Leela describes the police officers as "blue guards" and it occurs to the Doctor that the giant rats must have been put in the sewers as guards. So that explains why there are giant rats.
The masked phantom living in the sewers beneath the cellar of the theatre is guarded by giant sewer rats. Of course he is. What else would he be guarded by? One of the untold tales of Sherlock Holmes involved a giant rat. Sumatra is a long way from Iceland, but not too far from the Philippines.
Doctor Who often seems to be driven by brain-storming: by an association of images. If the story is set in Italy then there will be intrigue, and torture, and astrology, and sword fights, and an evil Duke, and Leonardo Da Vinci, and salami. Scotland suggests bagpipes, moors, oil rigs, lairds, haggis, and lake monsters. So if this is the nineteenth century, of course there is a phantom underneath the theatre, and of course he is ugly, and of course he has a hat and a mask and of course he is guarded by rats.
But Weng-Chiang isn't really a Chinese god. He's a war criminal from three thousand years in the future with a broken time machine. This piece of information should make everything else -- the mask, the rats, the hypnotism, the vampirism, the evil Chinese martial arts ninja -- fall into place. There should come a moment in the story when we can say "There was a perfectly sensible reason why all the science fiction things this Time Travelling Australian Butcher was doing would just happen to look like a Bram Stoker / Sax Rohmer / Conan Doyle mash up. Aha!"
But this moment entirely fails to come. It pointedly fails. Holmes' solution doesn't merely fail to make sense: it jumps up and down, waving its hands in the air, singing "Sense oh sense, oh sense, sense is what I do not make!"
The Doctor says that Weng-Chiang -- Magnus Greel -- is deformed because "with his DNA helixes split open, the more cells he absorbs into himself, the more deformed he becomes.”
"And the rats?" asks Leela
"Just an experiment. He had to gauge the strength of the psionic amplification field. The rats were handy. After that, they were useful as sewer guards"
Leela doesn't reply "That's silly" but I rather wish she had.
What is a psionic amplification field? "Psionic" normally refers to mind powers, and Chiang has given Chang "mental powers undreamt of in this century": but why would that make rats grow, particularly? Chiang's deformity has something to do with the way in which he is preying on human females. But it also has something to do with his use of the Time Cabinet. And if he mends the Time Cabinet, something called Zigma energy will destroy London. Because of elastic.
The evil ventriloquist's dummy is a decent enough idea. The puppet seems to move of its own volition; Jago finds blood on its hands. It helps to kill the cabbie in part 1 and tries to kill Leela in part 2 and Litefoot in part 3. A lot of people find dummies -- like clowns -- creepy and uncanny: inert caricatures of a human that seem to be alive but isn’t. But there is nothing particularly creepy or uncanny about a robot with a pig's brain. We have met artificial humans before. Last week there was a Sand Miner full of them. There aren't a lot of obvious Victorian precursors to Mr Sin: perhaps Victorian dolls weren't lifelike enough to be spooky. Holmes seems to flirt with the idea that Mr Sin is the instigator of the plot: the idea of a puppet that controls its master has obvious horror potential. We are told that the dummy is in reality "The Peking Homunculus"; that it is notoriously evil; that it almost started a war. It looks like a doll because it was constructed as a toy: it turned evil because it has a pig's brain. "It has a pig's brain" is a non-explanation, on a level with "that box is small and that box is far away." We don't generally think of pigs as especially psychotic animals. And it isn't quite clear that having a pig's brain would make a wooden robot grunt. Mr Sin seemed spooky and uncanny, but he is really only a small wooden psychopath.
Tom Baker once said that the role of the Doctor required him to speak complete nonsense with total conviction -- something which his Catholic background and flirtation with the priesthood gave him ample practice in. Neither part of that statement is completely fair. But I think it is true that we remember lines like "I was with the Filipino army at the final advance on Reykjavik" because of Tom Baker's starry-eyed delivery. It is a good line. I think Russell T Davies went a bit overboard in saying it was as good as anything Dennis Potter ever wrote, but it is a good line nonetheless. If it had been given to Jon Pertwee or Peter Davison we wouldn't remember it.
How does an army get from South East Asia to Scandinavia? Has "Reykjavik" come in simply because of the reference to the New Ice Age in episode 5? If Greel is the Butcher of Brisbane, does that mean he is an Australian? Or is he a Philippine who committed an atrocity against the Australians? So why does he have a posh English accent? And why does his Time Machine have nineteenth century Chinese styling?
There are fan fiction explanations. There are novels and audio plays. But in the original TV context the lines don’t make sense and deliberately don't make sense. Holmes has written "I was the butcher of .... the least plausible city you could think of... I was with the army of...somewhere incredibly unlikely....in the last advance on...somewhere even more incredibly unlikely..." He is signalling to the audience, as clearly as he possibly can, that these lines don’t really refer to anything at all.
Doctor Who deals in pseudo-science all the time. But pseudo-science is different from nonsense. We don't know how the TARDIS works, or what a fluid link is, but we understand perfectly well that he needs some mercury to make the TARDIS fly. We don't know how the Sash of Rassilon works, but we understand that someone wearing it can get close to the Eye of Harmony, which would otherwise kill them.
But this is not pseudo-science. It is nonsense. Misdirection. Don't think about this. If you think about this the magic will go away.
Why are there giant rats? Because.
Why is Greel deformed? Science.
Why is Mr Sin? Because science.
Why is the Time Cabinet? Science.
What is Greel trying to do? Science. DNA. Zigma energy. Psionic amplificiation. Pig's brains. This box is big, and that box is far away.
Next tlick: velly simple.
At the end of Episode 5, Leela pulls off Chiang's mask and reveals the deformed face...of the Master. He was last seen escaping from Gallifrey in a grandfather clock three stories ago.
And in this single image, everything in the story makes sense. The innocent victims (the Master has run out of regenerations); the Time Cabinet (the Master's TARDIS has a chameleon circuit); Chiang's powers of hypnosis (he's the Master) and his general malevolence (he's the Master).
Once you know this, it is impossible to unknow it.
Of course Greel was originally meant to be the Master. Look at Chang kneeling to Chiang in Episode 2, very much as Goth knelt to the Master in Deadly Assassin. Think how much more sense it would make if Chiang had said "a Time Lord would not ask questions" rather than "a Time Agent would not ask questions". (Time Agents are not mentioned again, in this story, or in any other story. They indirectly cause Torchwood in the New Era.) And listen to Chang describing one of his victims as "a morsel that will feed my regeneration".
"Because Chiang is the Master" is a very good answer to the question "Why are there giant rats in the sewers?” The Master is a villain by profession, so of course he is doing the kinds of things a villain would do. Very probably he is the archetype on whom the legends of Dracula and Jack the Ripper were based; just as surely as the Doctor and Litefoot gave rise to the legend of Holmes and Watson.
But Hinchcliff vetoed the Master. He didn't want to use the same villain twice in one season. (Tell that to Barry Letts and John Nathan-Turner.) So "The Master, who has run out of regenerations is searching for his TARDIS" had to become "Just Some Villain, who is deformed, for some reason, is searching for some kind of time machine".
The Master himself is only a plot device. He is a useful tool for explaining why there are demons in English country churches and killer plastic daffodils on the high street. He is a baddie because he is a baddie and we accept that he is a baddie and skip over the explanations. Holmes did not replace an established villain with a new one. He replaced a well established plot device with a hastily improvised one.
The producer said "I think we are making too much use of the sonic screwdriver".
"Very well," replied the script writer. "In this story the Doctor will open a locked door with his luminous door opening courgette."
Feb 1972: First season of Kung Fu begins on ITV
Dec 1973: First issue of Marvel Comics Master of Kung Fu
5 Mar 1975: Vengeance of Fu Manchu starring Christopher Lee shown on BBC 1
24 Apr 1976: New season of the Black and White Minstrel Show begins on BBC 1
4 Sep 1976: Two Ronnies Season 5 begins on BBC 1
4 Sep 1976: Season 15 of Doctor Who begins on BBC 1
5 Sep 1976: First Season of The Muppet Show begins on ITV
23 Oct 1976: Two Ronnies Season 5 ends
11 Feb 1977: Woman murdered by serial killer in Leeds
12 Feb 1977: First season of The Muppet Show ends
24 Feb 1977: Larry Grayson and Hinge and Bracket star in the Good Old Days on BBC 1
26 Feb 1977: Talons of Weng Chiang begins
10 Mar 1977: Arthur Askey and Josef Lock star in the Good Old Days on BBC 1
2 Apr 1977: Talons of Weng Chiang ends
23 Apr 1977: Woman murdered by serial killer in Leeds.
13 Jun 1977: Two Ronnies Season 5 repeated
12 Jul 1977: New series of the Black and White Minstrel Show begins on BBC 1
16 Jun 1978: Final series of the Black and White Minstrel show begins on BBC 1
22 May 1981: Peter Sutcliffe sentenced to life in prison for the murders of at least thirteen women in and around Leeds.
30 Sep 1983: Vengeance of Fu Manchu starring Christopher Lee shown on BBC 1
25 Mar 1987: Vengeance of Fu Manchu starring Christopher Lee shown on BBC 1
18 May 1989: Vengeance of Fu Manchu starring Christopher Lee shown on BBC 1
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
Talons of Weng-Chiang does not begin with sinister Chinese conjurors or psychopathic mannequins: and it very emphatically does not beging with the assassination of the president of Iceland. It begins with a theatre audience The theatre audience is applauding wildly. One of the ladies is wearing a flowery straw hat, tied under the chin. One of the men has a pipe in the corner of his mouth; another is smoking one of those curly calabash pipes we associate with detectives. And there is a younger fellow in a red uniform: he could be a soldier, a bell-boy or a character from a box of Quality Street.
It is 1977. We know where we are. Not in the Nineteenth Century. Not in Victorian Times. Not in Dickensian London.
In the good old days.
Come, come, come and make eyes at me
Down at the Old Bull and Bush...
Doctor Who began in 1963. The BBC had already been broadcasting a show called The Good Old Days for a decade. It eventually clocked up thirty seasons: the Doctor only managed twenty seven.
Some people say that the age of music hall ended with the death of Max Miller. He died the same year Doctor Who started. Many people who watched An Unearthly Child would have had memories of seeing Marie Lloyd sing My Old Man Said Follow the Van live. The good old days were not that long ago.
Victorian music halls were rough, boozy places and the jokes were dirty by the standards of the day; the Good Old Days was a very sanitised exercise in nostalgia. A resident dance troupe performed elaborately choreographed song and dance routines incorporating medleys of the old songs, but big name contemporary performers like Roy Castle and Ken Dodd did roughly the same turn they would have done in any other revue. It wasn't glitzy: for that you went to Sunday Night at the London Palladium on the other side. But it was popular and well-loved and an institution in its own right. The audience were encouraged to dress up in Victorian clothes: there was a long waiting list for tickets.
The show was chaired by Leonard Sachs (latterly Borusa in Arc of Infinity) who gave absurdly wordy, alliterative introductions often translating them back into plain English for the benefit of an imaginary ignoramus in the audience. "An exuberantly extrovert extravaganza of uninhibited hilarity and equilibristic acumen....funny acrobatics!"
Jago is the first (and indeed last) person to speak in Talons of Weng Chiang. His dialogue is pure Sachs. "I shall doubtless descry those lugubrious liniments at the crepuscular hour". When we first saw Talons of Weng-Chiang, we felt that we were watching the Phantom of the Leeds Variety Theatre; seeing unconvincing rats menace the Good Old Days; watching the host of our favourite light entertainment show trying to escape from the Tong by means of a dumb waiter.
It is worth noting that the day after Season 14 of Doctor Who began, ITV launched the most sensational inspirational, celebrational Muppet Show -- which also involved an old-fashioned theatre, views of an enthusiastic audience, back stage action, and an unthreatening puppet rat. Variety was very much in the air.
Come, come, drink some port wine with me
Down at the old Bull and Bush
Almost as popular as the Good Old Days, and very nearly as old fashioned was the Two Ronnies. Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker weren't quite a double act, and their show doesn’t quite have the cachet of Morecambe and Wise. But their weekly confection of sketches, monologues and silly songs, are very fondly remembered.
The show included a weekly serial, usually a parody, in a different comedic style from the rest of the programme. They haven't worn very well: The Worm That Turned was a pitch-perfect skit on BBC dystopian fiction based on the terrifying premise that, er, feminists have taken over the world. (There was also a cod police drama called Death Can Be Fatal.) Season 5's serial (September/October 1976) was a Victorian melodrama, written by the great Spike Milligan. The Ronnies normally dealt in puns and mild innuendo but this was much more in the surreal vein of Milligan's Goon Show.
It runs through all the expected Victorian cliches: dense police officers, Queens who are not amused, and a shoe-maker who just happens to have royal connections. (There is a sign outside his shop reading "Cobblers to the Queen".) There is a lot of fog. A figure in absurd traditional Chinese dress appears alongside a Scotsman in a kilt, a vicar with a dog collar, and a man in an old fashioned swim-suit at a police identity parade. "It's so hard to choose..." says the eye witness "They all look so alike!"
Now, in Episode 3 of Talons of Weng-Chiang, there is a brief cameo appearance by a young woman named Teresa. (She's the one who Leela cleverly switches clothes with.) It is mildly insinuated that she is a prostitute: but most of us would have associated her with Eliza in My Fair Lady. (You can't help hearing Audrey Hepburn's voice when she protests "I'm a lady!") East End rhyming slang is a real thing but when someone says "all I want is a pair of smoked kippers, a cup of rosie and put me plates up for a few hours, savvy" we understand that we are in the presence of a Stage Cockney.
Having been rescued by Leela, Teresa notices the poster of Chang on the theatre wall, realises he is the person who kidnapped her, and exclaims "It's him! It's him!".
And along with two thirds of the audience, I instantly interpolated the voice of Ronnie Barker into the soundtrack:
"It's....the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town!"
Milligan's Raspberry Blower, who wanders the fog-shrouded streets of London, surprising women and sticking his tongue out at them, is a burlesque version of the Whitechapel Murderer. When Casey, Jago's painfully Irish factotum, hears that a woman has been kidnapped from the theatre, he wonders whether Jack the Ripper has struck again.
A few weeks before the BBC showed Talons of Weng-Chiang, a woman named Irene Richardson was murdered in Leeds, Yorkshire. A few weeks afterwards, a woman named Patricia Atkinson was similarly murdered in Bradford. The press took to referring to the killer as the Yorkshire Ripper: the police received a tape recorded message, purporting to come from the murderer, who referred to himself as Jack.
The Phantom of the Opera. The Yorkshire Ripper. The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town. The Good Old Days. My Fair Lady. The Muppet Show.
Everything is intertextual. Nothing happens in a vacuum. A whale is never just a whale.
Do, do, come and have a drink or two
Down at the old bull and bush, bush, bush
C.S Lewis didn't like the Three Musketeers very much. He said that it didn't have any atmosphere: it was just a sequence of thrilling adventures, without any sense of place. On the other hand he enjoyed stories like Last of the Mohicans because they conveyed the atmosphere of the mythical American wilderness -- what he unfortunately described as "Redskinnery". Wagner is full of "northernness" and Squirrel Nutkin contains "the idea of autumn". Hamlet is a collection of images which cumulatively convey the atmosphere of death. Real places have atmosphere too: we can speak of the Londonness of London and the Donegality of Donegal.
In his silly book about astrological symbolism, Michael Ward tries to get us to adopt the term Donegality as meaning "atmosphere-in-Lewis's-sense".
When the first generation of fans lamented the passing away of "magic" from Doctor Who, I don't think that they were merely looking at their childhoods round the telly through rose tinted spectacles, though doubtless that was part of it. I think they were talking about Donegality. Very Old Who can be boring, sexist, repetitive and silly. But it had a sense of place which the more sophisticated stories didn't do nearly so well. When I watch Season 1 I do feel a sense of the Skaro-ness of Skaro, the Stone-Age-ness of the Stone Age -- and, crucially, the TARDISness of the TARDIS. It is hard to point to Season 14 and say that you have experienced the Sand-Miner-ness of the Sand Miner or the Kastianess of Kastia.
In the aftermath of Deadly Assassin, the stories which were most frequently said to have restored the old "magic" to the show were precisely the ones with a strong sense of place -- for example Ribos Operation and Keeper of Traken.
Doctor Who is about Time Travel. The TARDIS is a magic box. We don't want historical fiction. We don't want a plot that makes sense. We don't necessarily want a good story. What we want is to feel that the time cabinet has taken us back to the good old days.
Talons of Weng-Chiang gives us that feeling. A feeling of time and place. The cumulative effect of tropes, cliches, stereotypes. Atmosphere. Donegality. Magic. The Victorianness of Victorian times.
Next season, the show's penultimate producer will take over. It will become the show I remember best; the show I fell in love with: Tom Baker will become truly “my Doctor”. There will be weird aliens, cosmic plots, a robot dog and jelly babies. It will drink at the same well as Douglas Adams and George Lucas. But it will also become increasingly low budget and silly. And then, in the final years, it will turn from self-parody to fan-fiction, intelligible only to devotees.
Talons of Weng-Chiang is the perfect Doctor Who story. Talons of Weng-Chiang is the final example of Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who was created to do. Talons of Weng-Chiang is the fulfilment of the promise of An Unearthly Child. Talons of Weng-Chiang may not have been the greatest Doctor Who story. It was certainly not the last good Doctor Who story. But Talons of Weng-Chiang was the last Doctor Who story I felt I didn't need to apologise for.
I don't particularly like comic books, but I do like superheroes. My native mythology is 1970s Marvel, but if you like superheroes then Superman and Batman are magical, supercharged figures. I saw the Christopher Reeve movie more times than I saw Star Wars; I even loved the John Byrne reboot.
John Byrne is a problematic figure, but then everyone is a problematic figure. Byrne's Fantastic Four was joyous because it reminded me of Stan and Jack; and Man of Steel was joyous because someone who reminded me of Stan and Jack was reinventing Superman.
The Golden Age of comics is about twelve. When I was twelve I was reading the Eternals and the tale end of Starlin's original Thanos saga. They reprinted the New Gods when I was at college. The Fourth World is where superhero comics should have finished: nothing was ever as super or heroic again. That guy who did Marvelman did a superhero comic for DC, which I somehow never loved quite as much as I was supposed to love it. That would have been another good place for superhero comics to finish. Years later Zack Snyder turned it into a movie, with Bob Dylan singing over the opening credits. It kind of worked.
Then Snyder did a Superman movie, which I didn't like all that much, although I did like the trailer. It was too self-aware: Superman knew that Superman was a mythic figure. The spaceship and the story was too big. Mario Puzo's prologue took over the movie, reducing Superman to a bit player in the war between Jor El and Zod. I want to see Superman rescuing a cat from a tree; or breaking up the clan of the fiery cross before I see him laying down his life for the sins of the world. Wonder Woman entirely passed me by. I didn't actively hate Superman vs Batman, although I felt it wasted Batman. Suicide Squad is definitely a move I saw.
Moderately invested in Superman and Batman; very invested in Darkseid; quite ambivalent about the DC Cinematic Universe. If there had not been so much shouting about THE SNYDER CUT I would not have bothered.
Everyone is cross about it. But then everyone is cross about everything all the time. Possibly everyone was always cross but now Twitter allows them to tell everyone else how cross they are. Half the world is cross with Justice League for existing; but then half the world was also cross with the Justice League for not existing. A lot of people are cross because Batman said fuck. A fair proportion of my inbox seems to be cross about the whole principle of a four hour movie, although we live in a world where box sets no longer come in boxes and everyone consumes them in single sittings. It's broken up into 6 chapters and an epilogue, so its not like you can't get a cup of coffee and a toilet break if you need one.
I liked it. The material is too slender for the presentation. I am self-consciously retro in my tastes: but the natural home of superheroes is baseball caps, seed catalogues, sea monkeys and breakfast cereal fortified with the vitamins. I don't think that Superman is necessarily improved by portentous voice overs about giving the human race an ideal to strive towards. I don't think Wonder Woman's Island of the Lesbians is necessarily improved by cavalry charges and CGI Spartans. The original New Gods had Wagnerian preludes about the Days When The Old Gods Died but it also had a cruel orphanage run by Granny Goodness and an escapee called Scott Free. It really only makes sense in four colour newsprint with "too" many quotation marks. Snyder is clearly under the influence of Grant Morrison who was under the influence of Alan Moore who was under the influence of William Blake. God knows what William Blake was under the influence of. Morrison has done a lot of stuff with Darkseid and the DC Universe which I have never read: perhaps I ought to. The one glance we get at Apokolips makes it look like the Rebel Alliance medal ceremony. Darkseid snarls a lot but doesn't have the weird evil nobility that Kirby gave him. The main villain is Steppenwolf, who looks nothing like Steppenwolf. He wants to conquer the earth to get back into Darkseid's good books. The secular critics have spotted that Darkseid is a lot like Thanos, although in actual fact Thanos is a lot like Darkseid
I liked it. I thought it worked better than the more recent Marvel movies. Four hours seemed to be about the right length. It gave us time for a set up, some digression, a climax and an epilogue without us feeling that the grindstone was particularly damaging our noses.
Superman is dead to begin with. The films works hard to convince us that this matters: everyone is sad, and Batman is recruiting superheroes to fight on in his name. Ben Affleck can act a bit, and he can do the squared jawed resolution the part requires. He can even do the thing of talking in different voices depending on whether he has got his mask on or not. But he isn't so much playing Batman as playing a man in a Batman suit. There is no sense of dark knight who strikes fear into the hearts of cowardly, superstitious criminals. I think Christopher Nolan turned him too much into a James Bond figure who is defined by high tech machinery. Jeremy Irons's Alfred has taken over the "Q" role from Morgan Freeman. (Did the sarcastic Alfred, the Alfred whose job it is to undermine Batman's pomposity, exist before the very good animated cartoon series? Adam West's Alfred was merely an obsequious and faithful manservant. In the army a manservant is sometimes referred to as a batman, I suppose because he carries your cricket kit. No-one ever makes this joke.)
Aquaman hangs out in stormy sailors bars showing off his beard, and characters we don't know turn up and talk about Queens and tridents and how he ought to take up his heritage. The solo movie, which I saw out of sequence, is very epic and very camp and doesn't have a Freddie Mercury soundtrack. But I think I liked hm rather better as a bad tempered guy in his bathing suit with some history that he knows about and we don't.
The introductions of Teen Titans alumni Kid Flash and Cyborg were particularly well handled. They keep telling us that the guy in the red suit is Barry Allen, but he's quite clearly Kid Flash. I respect the fact that they didn't want a protagonist called Wally. Tongue tied, witty, I suppose coded as autistic, hero-worshipping the dead Superman, he brought exactly the right amount of humanity and lightness to the epic absurdity that was going on around him. Flash started out as a guy who can run very fast, but he acquired a heavy duty backstory in which something called the Speed Force is a pivotal element in the universe. Doomsday Clock and the Last and Definitely Ultimate and Final Crisis both seemed to be about positioning Kid Flash as the most important being in the Continuity. The movie uses the cosmic imagery as he runs faster than the speed of light and warps the universe around himself but it doesn't waste our time trying to explain revisionist DC theology. FTL sprinting generates infinite power which can be used to jumpstart McGuffins. But he is at his most fun when he is simply doing speedy stunts, which are represented by a kind of hyper bullet times: Barry sees the rest of the world as a lot of static frozen statues.
I take it someone has done a manga version called Flash in Japan?
Victor Stone gets something much more like full on origin and a redemption arc. He hates Daddy for turning him into a monster and missing his big football game but then Daddy dies and they make it up posthumously. (Barry's Daddy is in prison for a Crime He Did Not Commit. Superman and Batman also have paternal issues.) His main power is being able to plug himself into every computer in the world at once. I think in the comic he was just quite strong. Batman and Wonder Woman and Aquaman are big and archetypal and we know that the biggest and most archetypal dude of all is going to be be resurrected in time for the finale. A couple of recently upgraded teenagers bring the team slightly down to relatable human levels.
Steppenwolf is collecting Mother Boxes. He is not going to attach them to a glove. When he gets all three, Darkseid will come and conquer the earth. There is some muttering about the Anti-Life Equation.
In the penultimate act everyone realises that Mother Boxes bring dead things back to life, and Superman is currently a dead thing. The film takes its time over this. (Did I mention that it is very nearly four hours long?) We are allowed to feel that raising the dead is difficult; that coming to terms with the fact that someone has raised you from the dead is also hard. Clark and Lois and Clark's Mum get to do some proper character stuff. One feels one has seen a satisfactory third part of the Superman Trilogy and Satisfactory Cyborg and Flash moves, and a satisfactory prequel to Aquaman. Batman is the only character who doesn't get a decent sub-movie to himself: but he does say fuck.
The Third Acts of Marvel Movies have a tendency to feel like computer games: the heroes have to defeat wave after wave of Chitauri or clones of Ultron before someone finally gets to smash the End of Level Guardian: the kinds of battles which normally end with someone lighting a beacon and summonsing Rohan. Justice League keeps the finale up relatively close and moderately personal. Quite a lot of time is spent zapping Parademons, but the climax is one of those very contrived "plans" that George Lucas taught us about: Character X has to knock out the Force Field so that Character Y can get at the Cybernetic Exhaust Port while Character Z run really really fast to give him a power boost. After the goodies close down the teleportation portal (which does go BOOM but isn not referred to as a Boom Tube) the baddie announces that he is going to launch a space armada and invade earth the old fashioned way. My heart sank a little at this point -- is there a whole nother battle to come? -- it seems to be just foreshadowing the increasingly hypothetical sequel.
There was an epilogue. I didn't understand the epilogue, but it didn't seem to matter. I don't know what the Martian Manhunter was doing, but then I have never consciously read a Martian Manhunter comic. He appeared briefly in a very early episode of Sandman which. I didn't understand that either, come to think of it.
So after all the fuss and excitement, what we had was in fact a superhero movie. But quite a classy one, I thought, with space to get to know all the characters (except Batman) and a feeling that the personalities didn't get drowned in spectacle.
I wonder if the ambiguous canonical status gave us permission to just sit back and enjoy the thing for what it was? The Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the god-awful Star Wars Discourse is now almost entirely canon-based: one approaches every movie in the spirit of "I wonder what line they are going to take with Galactus" or "I feel personally aggrieved by what they did to the one true canonical biography of Luke Skywalker." (This is not, in fact, completely mad: when you are engaged in interlocked world building, every new movie affects ten movies yet unmade: a bad take on the Fantastic Four premptively spoils the Silver Surfer movie that isn't in development yet.) But we know that there is a completely different, unrelated Batman movie on its way, one where he fights criminals and presumably doesn't say fuck. And there is a talk of a Superman story in which the person of steel is going to be played by Jodie Whittaker (check this. ed.) And indeed a separate, stand alone New Gods. So I was not watching SUPERMAN and DARKSEID so much as one tentative and temporary take on Superman and Darkseid. Or as we used to say before Twitter ruined popular culture: a story.
Don't pay any attention to me. If you are the kind of person who likes this kind of thing you will probably find that this is the kind of thing you like. If it is the kind of thing that you get very cross about, don't bother. Unless you like getting very cross, which presumably you do. But if you like superheroes and have a general sense of who Superman and Batman are there are considerably worse ways of spending a morning.
A perfectly decent piece of science fiction; but a perfectly decent piece of science fiction which doesn't particularly need to have the Doctor in it. Another Doctor Who story which could perfectly well have been an episode of Blake’s Seven.
We’re in the desert. A huge vehicle is crawling through the sand. It’s full of robots. The world is holding its breath, waiting for Star Wars: it doesn’t know it yet.
It’s not a Sand Crawler, but a Sand Miner. It is chasing sandstorms, because sandstorms bring to the surface Plot Devisium, a rare mineral that people will risk their lives for. The idea of sandstorm chasers is maybe more Thunderbirds than Doctor Who, but Matt Irvine has done a decent job cobbling the model kit together in his bedroom. It will be a decade or two before Babylon 5; but some deft use of green-screen lets us look at the cast through the window of the model. It isn’t that convincing, but everyone is doing their best.
It all feels very 1980s, as things made in the late 1970s are inclined to do. The humans wear silly head-dresses and feathers and tunics with turned up collars. The robots have Greek masks, quilted jackets and sound a lot like the original Cybermen. People say that they look Art Deco: I think they look like porcelain dolls with Japanese styling. Maybe that’s what Art Deco means? Last week, the Tesh also gave the impression of being worked by strings like Japanese marionettes.
But it’s a shrewd piece of design. If you are going to do a story in which robot servitors turn against their human masters, then of course the robots should look ornate and beautiful and unthreatening.
They could perfectly well have been chrome robots. The story would still have worked. They could have been on board a space ship mining for rare minerals among the asteroids. It wouldn’t have made any difference. But porcelain robots in the desert gave Robots of Death a distinctive aesthetic. That’s the main thing we remember about it.
Someone called Chubb is found dead. The crew of the Sandminer is assembled in the library to work out who killed him.
In the classic whodunnit, everyone spends a lot of time trying to work out which of the Duke’s guests slipped poison in the old man’s wine. When all the red herrings are played out, it is revealed that the wine was poisoned, not by one of the suspects, but by the previously un-noticed non-speaking part whose only role has been to pour the drinks. The Butler, proverbially, dunnit. If the story were called the Butlers Of Death this would not be a particularly surprising twist. The question is never “Who is doing the murdering?” but “Who is reprogramming robot butlers to murder people?”
The crew treat the situation as if it were a game of Cluedo. They playfully undermine each other’s alibis and try to incriminate their friends. (“At the time Pohl heard the scream...” says Someone “Says he heard the scream” says Someone Else “Let’s leave the point open.”) No-one remotely behaves as if one of their colleagues has just strangled another one of their colleagues. Jon Pertwee was still hosting a solve-your-own-murder game show on ITV.
Then, in a wholly unexpected twist, the Doctor and Leela arrive. Guess who suspicion immediately falls on?
There are a lot of characters, and it is quite hard to keep track of which is which, let alone care who the murderer is. And Boucher doesn’t stick to the rules: there is no moment where all the clues and red herrings are placed on the table so that we could theoretically solve the puzzle. In Episode 2 we find out that the Captain murdered the brother of one of the crew on a previous trip; in Episode 3 we find out that, no, as a matter of fact the young man’s death was an accident and the Captain has felt bad about it ever since. Both these new pieces of information are plucked out of thin air.
When Leela finds the robot D84 incriminatingly near another dead body, the robot says “If I had killed him, I would have killed you too?" Later the Captain asks Leela why he shouldn’t kill her, and she applies the same logic: if he intended to do so he would have killed her already. It all feels like a Whodunnit written by someone who doesn’t really write Whodunnits.
It fairly rapidly turns out that a mad scientist (“a very mad scientist” says the Doctor) named Taren Capel is on board the miner. Capel was raised by robots, thinks like a robot and wants to ferment a robot revolution. He has been reprogramming the robots to kill humans, not because he holds a grudge against any individual, but as part of a robot versus human vendetta.
So the question becomes “Which of the crew is Taren Capel in disguise?” There are so many characters—and they each get so little screen time—that the final resolution that someone called Dask is Capel does not so much elicit a gasp of astonishment (“good heavens, the Butler”) as a sigh—“Wait a minute, which one was he?” It doesn’t help that he puts silly green and silver make up on his face to try to make himself look more robot-like. When we first see him giving one of the robots a damn good reprogramming with a big red syringe; he is wearing a Klan style hoodie. No-one else is watching: he just wants to keep us viewers guessing for another episode. By Episode 4, the murder-mystery has given way to something more like a base-under-siege Doctor Who story, with a bad scientist and evil robots walking slowly down corridors shouting “Death to all humans!”
Like Face of Evil, Robots of Death contains some quite interesting ideas. Leela, being a “savage” can intuitively read body-language. She spots that there is something strange about Poul because he “moves like a hunter”. Robots, of course, don’t have body-language: and this freaks Poul out to the point of a complete mental breakdown. (“His mind is broken” says Leela.) The idea that robots are uncanny — the concept of “robophobia” — is a strong one. But it isn't particularly relevant to how the story plays out. The Doctor says that a civilisation which is too heavily dependent on robots will come to an end when it realise that they can be reprogrammed to harm humans: but this apocalyptic possibility doesn’t spoil anyone’s day. And while the idea of robotic Tarzan — a human raised by robots who thinks he is one —is quite cool, its hard to see why wiping out the crew of the Sandminer is a sensible starting point for your plot to overthrow the human race.
But this is not a bad way of composing a Doctor Who story. This is Saturday night TV, not hard science fiction and certainly not a treatise about artificial intelligence. Why not throw out good ideas scattergun style — give the kids something to think about while giving them an entertaining story?
Blake’s 7 was structured like a situation comedy: a group of individuals who don't got on are stuck in a situation they can't get out of. The crew of the Liberator spent most of their time bickering with one another. This kind of thing is only entertaining if the individual lines are reasonably sharp: people being bitchy at each other palls after a few minutes. Terry Nation cut his teeth writing comedy, and Blake’s 7 is often quite funny. Chris Boucher can’t really pull it off, and a lot of the dialogue in Robots of Death comes across as merely childish. When the Captain asks the Doctor “What are you doing here?” the Doctor replies “Oh, just standing here talking to you.” This is so funny that he does it again in the next episode “What were you doing in the scoop?” “Trying to get out.” Two crew members, Borg and Toos, have a full on playground spat (“Why don’t you shut your mouth?” “Why don’t you shut yours?”) but the Doctor’s “you are a classic example of the inverse relationship between size of mouth and size of brain” amounts to the same thing, but with added pomposity. Everyone resists the temptation to say "Well, so's your mum".
The Flanderisation of the Fourth Doctor continues. He munches a jelly baby as he walks down a corridor in episode 1; he offers one to Borg in episode 2, who throws it across the room. (“A simple no thank you would have been sufficient.”) When one of the robots has been ordered to kill the Doctor, he puts his own hat and scarf onto a different robot to distract it. If we aren't very careful, then hat, scarf and jelly babies will become what the Fourth Doctor has instead of a personality.
But there are some good Baker moments. At the end of episode 3 The Doctor and the Captain are cornered by a robot. The Doctor thinks, incorrectly, that the Captain is controlling the Robots; the Captain claims that the Robot has simply followed him. “Now either it followed you, or else it homed in on this" says the Doctor, very casually, in a spirit of mild scientific curiosity. "It depends which of us is going to be killed first. That is, you or me.” And then the theme music kicks in.
The Doctor describes D84 as a “robot detective”; and for much of Episodes 2 and 3 the Doctor and the Robot work together, with Leela dedicating herself to the important business of getting locked in rooms. It wouldn’t be quite true to say that D84 is potential companion material, but he does spend a lot of the story acting as the Doctor’s side-kick. When the robot volunteers to lay down his life in a daring plot device because he is not important, the Doctor responds “I think you are very important.” This is consistent with the idea that the Doctor might have travelled alone after Deadly Assassin, with Leela, D84, and Litefoot acting as single-story confidents.
In 1977, most households only had one TV set and there were only three channels: if one person wanted to watch Doctor Who then the whole family had to watch it too. Middle-aged men notoriously dislike all that crazy science fiction jazz: the only thing that prevented them going into another room and reading a dirty book was the tantalising possibility of seeing Louise Jameson in shorts. “Something for the Dads” they used to say. Teenaged boys don’t generally like Doctor Who, and certainly aren’t interested in female flesh. Honestly, I’m not sure how well this theory holds up. But it is certainly true that Doctor Who had to appeal to more than one demographic. It was increasingly a complex, cerebral drama; you had to pay attention if you were going to follow it. That maybe why Episode 1 ends with a silly trap, and Episode 2 begins with an equally silly escape. The Doctor is buried alive in space-sand, but, very fortunately, has a snorkel in his pocket which keeps him from suffocating. Doctor Who may be increasingly turning into Science Fiction but it can still do old fashioned cliff-hangers. The hero in danger. Something for the kids.
But it's still pretty dark. Not realistic: the fights, the strangulation and the face slaps are all done in the style of English stage acting. But I don’t think that allows us to overlook how nasty it is. People are strangled and scream; knives are thrown; other people are stabbed with giant hypodermic syringes; one of the robots is found with blood on its hands. It wouldn’t be Doctor Who without at least one execution: the Doctor is strapped to a bench while the syringe comes down towards his head. And there is some rather sadistic talk about whether the Robots are going to kill the humans quickly or slowly.
People used to complain about the violence on Doctor Who. I am more inclined to use the word “cruelty”. Robots of Death is a strange fit for Saturday evening family viewing. I am not saying that Mary Whitehouse had a point: but it was clear that something was going to have to change.
NOTE: Bumblebees are very small. They flap their wings very fast. Aeroplanes are very big. They don't flap their wings at all. It is perfectly true that a bumblebee would not be able to fly if it was an aeroplane, but it is equally true than an aeroplane would not be able to fly if it was a bumblebee.