Wednesday, December 22, 2021



Chris Godfrey is an almost completely passive protagonist. He has no agency whatsoever. His heroism consists being subjected to the discomfort of g-force, the nausea of zero-gravity, the indignity of endless medicals and injections and changes of underwear and Taking It Like A Man. He puts himself in a position where he is quite likely to be killed, and he doesn't chicken out, even though it is made clear to him that he could.

The English are proud of the stiffness of their upper lips. There are no terms of endearment when Chris takes leave of his Aunt. On the day before the mission everyone keeps saying "see you in a few minutes" even though they know he is likely to die. There is a queasy sense of male closeness: Greatrex, the whiskered battle of Britain veteran who takes him under his wing refers to Chris as "young feller-me-lad" to his face and "that kid" out of earshot.

The Battersea Park Teddy Boys demand that Chris literally licks their boots, and Chris acquiesces. Sir George and Greatrex are shocked that Chris allowed himself to be humiliated rather than fighting back.  “If the kid really has a yellow streak, he’ll start squealing when the time gets near for the blast-off." But then they realise that Chris would have liked to have punched one of the group of bigger men with knives who outnumbered him. But he held back, because he knew that his getting hurt would jeopardise the mission. "In some circumstances it takes a great deal of courage to be a coward" says Sir George. Much manly squeezing of hands and gruff clearing of throats ensues. 

And on the final day, after Chris has said his prayers and refused a hearty breakfast, it's Sir George who starts to have second thoughts 

With every yard that they covered, Benson had to fight the thought that he was sending this lad to his death, that he was accompanying him to his execution.

Everyone is conscious, but no-one quite says, that what they are engaging in is child sacrifice. We overhear a conversation among the scientists about the ethics of sending monkeys into space: some think that it is wrong to kill dumb beasts who can't possibly understand what is happening; others think that killing a few animals for advancement of human knowledge is justifiable. When the monkeys survive, the families on the base make a great fuss of them and give then names. Hughes does not draw the obvious conclusion -- that Chris is somewhere between and experimental subject and a pet: but the thought must have occurred to many of his brighter readers. 

We see the launch twice, once from Sir George's point of view, and once from Chris's. In mission control, we hear Chris sobbing; in the claustrophobia of the rocket, we hear all the doubts that are going through his mind.

Would he be seeing any of them again? Of course he could if he wanted to. He had only to call out that he was too scared to carry on, and Sir George wouldn’t press the switch. Or would he? It wasn’t fair of them to ask him to undergo this mental agony, let alone the physical torture that would probably follow.

Uncle, if it be possible, save me from this hour. In case we miss the point, as the rocket falls to earth, God makes a brief, on-stage appearance.

Nearer grew the brightness at the end and all Christopher knew was that he wanted to reach it more than anything he had ever wanted before, for somehow he was sure that in that bright glow lay happiness and peace and rest. With a half-formed prayer in his mind he came to the end of the tunnel or corridor and all about him was the light.

English literature has also involved an element of sentimentality which borders on the sadomasochistic. From the sacrifice of Isaac to the Prioress's Tale, via Little Nell and Babes in the Wood, right through to tabloid salivation over "Maddie" and "Jamie", there is nothing we like better than blubbing about dead kids. The language when Chris is apparently killed is completely over-the-top:

Would to God young Chris had been spared, [Sir George] breathed to himself in silent anxiety. With a choking in his throat he admitted to himself how much this youngster had come to mean to him.

And weeks later, in the hospital:

Two large, dark eyes like miniature pools in a thin, white face. For a second or two Benson stared, too full of emotion to speak. Then the incredible boy, still too ill to speak, slowly winked an eye. In spite of himself and to his eternal chagrin Sir George felt the tears smart in his eyes. Again that slow movement of Christopher’s eyelid—so full of meaning, so very precious. Silently Benson left the ward, a prayer of gratitude singing in his heart.

So: a scientific procedural, told very much in the language of a school story, conceals a clear Christian metaphor. Virtual death and virtual resurrection. He is lead like a monkey to slaughter. He is humiliated and bears his suffering cheerfully. He is betrayed by one of his own. His suffering brings the world together.

The Russian spy, we are told, is not doing it for the money: he is a completely sincere Communist. We don't find out what Communism is all about, but we do find out that the spy had a difficult childhood which set him on the wrong track. I don't know if this is supposed to be a redeeming feature -- he kills one of his friends because of an honest political conviction -- or if it makes him more of a monster. He politely arranges to be shot in the head in the final scene, and ends up in a mental hospital, saving everyone the embarrassment of a real execution. His communism is described as a faith; more oddly, as a kink. It is the language that relatively tolerant people in 1957 might have used about gay men: it's not really their fault and they can't help it. But it's the act of a godless commie that brings Chris back from the Light and indirectly causes peace to break out. How, if nothing else, ironic. 

Blast Off At Woomera is not an allegory. It's a space story about a boy astronaut by an amateur boffin; beloved by junior library geeks who wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. Hughes puts Christian morals into story in the same way he puts in thermal underwear and cooked breakfast: they are the kinds of things that go into stories of this kind. 

And yet. Hughes wasn't above playing around with names. His pen-name is a kind of pun: Walter Hughes the furniture salesman became Hugh Walters the science fiction writer. (A science fiction writer named Wally Hughes appears in one of the later volumes.) I doubt that he consciously intended the symbolism, but it is hard to avoid noticing syllables of the main character's name. Chris Godfrey. Chris/God. The story of how Chris sacrificed himself for the world. 

And it would be remiss of me not to mention that Christopher Godfrey literally means "Christ-Bearer Peace-of-God."



The book starts with Sir George Benson, visiting his old school on sports-day, and noticing that one young lad, an academic high flyer with an interest in rockets and astronomy, would be small enough to fit into his rocket.

They have a jolly good chin-wag in the headmaster's study. Chris isn't allowed to make a decision straight away:

"No grand heroic decision please. I’m sure Sir George won’t accept an answer one way or the other until tomorrow morning. Isn’t that so, Benson?”

“Absolutely,” came the reply. “Run along now, Chris, and think about it very carefully.”

“And pray,” added the headmaster.

Pray? Well, it's an old fashioned book; and headmasters are generally very old fashioned characters. Mr Berry was very probably born when Victoria still occupied the throne. One might suppose that Hughes is drawing a contrast between the old-world religious authority of the head of a grammar school, and the modern scientific authority of the head of the space programme.

On the day before Chris boards the Hogwarts Express, it is mentioned in passing that he and his Aunt go to evening service at their local church. Well, most people did. Hughes probably wants us to see that Chris is leaving the old world of family, shop, school and parish behind him and going to join the modern outward looking world in That London and eventually Space.

On his first Sunday in the Metropolis Sir George asks Chris if he wants to go to church, and Chris says that he does. But everything stays decorously C of E: Chris's sentiments are humanistic and nationalistic rather than spiritual.

Here, indeed, was written in metal and stone the record of our history. Here were recorded the lives and achievements of the great, each—be he poet or politician, scientist or explorer, king or commoner—had made his contribution to the advancement of our race. Each had helped to take a tiny step forward down the long corridor of human progress.

But as the big day draws close, some serious piety sets in. A few days before the launch, Chris gives up counting sheep to send himself to sleep and starts to think about theology instead:

What after all, he thought, am I? Why should I be concerned about myself when I’m only a scrap of animated matter in a universe of infinite variety and mystery? Surely we are all of utter and complete insignificance—unless God has chosen us for some purpose of His own.

And just before Chris goes out to face his fate, comes this wholly remarkable passage:

“Chris, lad,” [said Sir George] “we can only stay a few minutes. I thought perhaps you and I might spend just a few moments together in silent prayer. No matter how perfect man may try and make a machine, it’s God who has the last say as to whether or not it will function. Your life will soon be in His hands, and I know you’ll be all right if such is His purpose.”

“Thanks, Uncle George. It would be a comfort to say a prayer with you. I’m a bit shy with other people, but I’d like us to do it together.”

The man’s arm round the boy’s shoulder, they knelt on the dusty concrete floor.

Chris is an orphan, raised by his Aunt (as all good heroes are): and by this point in the story he is calling the man who is going to blast him into space "Uncle". Which is not creepy at all.

I remember being given Lord of the Flies to read, around the age of twelve or thirteen.It came from the same post-war schoolboy universe as Hugh Walters; and it had once been a shocking book. Mr Wallis the English teacher who gave it to us he thought it was important for us to learn about the Evil in Men's Hearts before World War Three kicked off. Like most grown-ups he seemed to believe that a nuclear holocaust was more or less inevitable. But no-one who had been in the boys changing rooms of a north London comprehensive would have been remotely shocked by the idea that, sans parental authority, teenaged males would start to bash each others brains out. If he had really wanted to shock us, Mr Wallis would have given us Coral Island, which took it for granted that shipwrecked boys would do the decent Christian thing, buck up and civilise the natives. People educated at English public schools in the 1910s might possibly have been shocked that Wilfred Owen thought that dulce at decorum est was a big lie: what shocked us in Mr Wallis's English class was that people in the olden days could possibly have believed in anything so silly. But there is something genuinely shocking about an old man and boy kneeling down to pray before the the five-four-three-two-one thing happens. Reed Richards didn't ask Johnny Storm to say a prayer before launching himself into the cosmic ray storm. Perhaps things would have gone better if he had. Dan Dare was known to get a service-book out in his capacity as a ship's captain, but it is hard to imagine him kneeling down with Digby and squeezing his arm. 

Blast of at Woomera  looks forward to a future of British-led space exploration, international co-operation and (by volume six)  peaceful contact with benevolent space aliens. But it simultaneously looks back at a passing 1950s worlds of good manners, decency and Christian certainties. Our hero may be the first Space Man, but he is not part of the new world of teddy boys and teenagers.

Did we cringe? Did we think "Oh, this is a Christian book, I hadn't realised?" I think that, in 1972, we hardly noticed. Americans and people under the age of thirty five will hardly believe how ubiquitous the Church of England was in English schools in the 1970s. Compulsory religious studies; a hymn and prayer every morning; nativity plays; visits from the local vicar. Prayers and church and morals were just part of the dull roughage that grown-ups liked to put into books. We looked straight through them. I am endlessly astonished by the people who tell me that they read the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and didn't particularly notice that the dying-and-rising god-lion was A Bit Like Jesus.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021



It's the damn Russians, of course.

The English believe that the mysterious domes that have appeared on the moon were built by the Russians: that's why the mission is so urgent. But one of the Woomera scientists is a Russian spy. (It is rather hard to tell one scientist from another, so the spot-the-traitor whodunnit falls a bit flat.) The spy sabotages the mission; the rocket crashes on re-entry...and Chris is killed! The photos are saved (the plucky lad hugged them to his body on the way down) and it turns out that the domes are not created by the Russians after all, but possibly alien. As a result, the British and the Russians end their rivalry and pledge to work together. Our hero's self-sacrificial pluck has ended the the Cold War and secured the future of the space programme.

Ronald Reagan reportedly told Gorbachov that if the earth were invaded by aliens, then the Americans and the Russians would bury their differences and come together as fellow members of the humans race. In Clarke's disappointing sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, America and Russia step back from the brink because the Black Slab turns Jupiter into a second sun. And, of course, it is the ending of Watchmen: Ozymandias's faked squid incursion averts World War III at the eleventh hour. It is nice to think that a furniture salesman and part-time boffin had the same thought twenty five years earlier. It is quite possible that Alan Moore has read Blast Off at Woomera: Alan Moore has read everything.

Fortunately, Chris turns out to only have been mostly dead. Not only does he miraculously recover, but the cosmic radiation has given him a growth-spurt! So Hughes gets to have it both days: a death scene of monumental sentimentality in Chapter 20, and a happy ending in Chapter 21. In a way, it would have been a better story if he had stayed dead: but you don't kill off heroes in kids fiction, and anyway, it would have been a shame to have missed out on sequels with names like Passage to Pluto, Mission to Mars and Something to Saturn.

But there is another reason why our hero survives his near-certain death. Astute readers will have spotted it already. The book doesn't only have a plot and a sub-plot. It has a sub-text. A huge, massive, in your-face subtext that I was totally unaware of for 50 years.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Something to do with space...


So, it is 1957. England has its own space-programme. It has sent unmanned probes and monkeys into space; but the time has come to send up a human being. A full-grown man wouldn't fit in the capsule, so Sir George Benson recruits a seventeen year old schoolboy, who is so small he could pass for 12. The boy is trained for some weeks, and an Englishman duly becomes the first human being in space.

"Boy volunteers; boy is trained; boy goes up; boy comes down." That's very nearly all there is to it. 

The boy hero, Chris Godfrey, is the most transparent of Mary Sues. He has very little personality or interior life; he's brave and clever and shy and not much else. We follow him on trips to a scuba-diving company to get his experimental space-suit fitted; to a centrifuge where he experiences artificial G-force and to an RAF base where he experiences weightlessness in a supersonic jet. We also follow him on an R&R trip to Battersea funfair (where he has the unfortunate encounter with the Teds); to a music-hall where he sees the Crazy Gang; and on a pre-launch picnic in one of the prettier parts of the Australian outback.

Hughes keeps our feet on terra firma. We get a blow by blow account of Chris's experience: how well he slept each night, what he had for breakfast each morning and at what time. (Come to think of it, "eating a lot" is another personality trait.) Hughes shares with Enid Blyton and J.K Rowling a habit which drives grown-ups mad but which often grips kids. He never skips over a piece of action or offers a summary of what is going on. Anything which can be expanded into a scene, is expanded into a scene: characters often provide a running commentary about what is happening next. Nothing is shown which cannot be told. When Chris is driven from his home in Wolverton to London in a military vehicle, the tension reaches fever pitch:

The Royal Air Force corporal who was driving the car turned to Chris and asked if he would like to pull up for a coffee. Chris replied that he didn’t mind and would leave it to the corporal, who, after cogitation, volunteered that coffee wasn’t much in his line—so they continued their drive to London.

The scene in which he changes his underwear before putting on his space suit is very nearly as thrilling:

Following the white coated man into a small side room, the boy saw that he was to strip and put on one of the light cotton garments placed ready for him. This covered the whole of his body except for his hands and his head, and was secured by a long slim zip fastener up the front. A pair of special socks were pulled on, and he walked a little self-consciously into the larger room where the others were still examining the suit.

I don't know how much Hughes actually knew about aeronautics but it all feels convincing to me. The premise takes a little bit of swallowing -- are there really no adults of restricted growth? couldn't they have recruited a jockey? -- but it is treated with logic and conviction, and followed through to its logical conclusion. The manned space flight has to happen right now because the boffins have spotted possibly artificial constructions on the moon and need photographs of them. The test rockets have capsules in them, because they have been launching monkeys into space. The capsules are monkey-sized, and can't be made grown-up sized in the time-frame. There has to be a human occupant, because there is no way of training a monkey to operate a camera. 

The space agency takes sensible steps to cover their tracks: when Chris is whisked off to London without a cup of coffee, it provides a sensible cover story that he has gone on holiday. When Chris arrives at Woomera, the crew of the base are told that he is Sir George's nephew. When the truth leaks out -- the government is putting children in experimental rockets! -- the media backlash is wholly plausible. We really feel that if the English government had put a grammar school boy in space in the 1950s, this is how it would have happened. 

Why did I find the book so hard to put down? I knew perfectly well -- and I must have known perfectly well when I was in Miss Beale's class -- that the launch was going to be a success. Hughes was hardly going to make us plough through a hundred and fifty page chapter book (with no pictures) only for the rocket to explode on the launch pad or for Chris to chicken out at the last minute. But I found myself racing through the final chapters to get to the denouement. Not because I wanted to know what happened: but because I wanted to imagine that it was happening to me. 

And even when the twelve minute adventure finally takes place, Hughes dials it down. Chris's message from orbit is not "one giant leap" or "my god, it's full of stars" but "Moon....big....clear".

So. In some ways, quite a dull book. It renders space-travel prosaic and unromantic and even ordinary. And for precisely that reason, the most exciting book I ever read. It feels real. It feels like you are there. I went from shouting five, four, three, two, one in a toy space helmet to knowing I definitely wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. This book told me truthfully what it would be like. Reading it was as close to being an astronaut as I am ever likely to get. 

However "Boy goes up. Boy comes down" is not quite enough plot to sustain a novella. So Hughes adds a subplot. It orbits the margins of the main story: just sufficiently to add some tension and some jeopardy to the narrative. And to provide a punchline and a sub-text that I didn't quite see coming.

Sunday, December 19, 2021



As a matter of fact, you can go home again. But home looks different. Unless you have been away for too long. Then it looks exactly the same.

So: Blast Off At Woomera by Hugh Walters. 

If you are close to my age and frequented libraries, you certainly read it; if you are any younger you won't even have heard of it. I don't know what I thought re-reading it was going to feel like: embarrassing, I suppose, a vague nostalgic cringe. I have watched a lot of old children's TV recently, thank you Brit Box. Thunderbirds is as wonderful as ever, but I wouldn't want to watch very much of it. Catweazle stands on its own two feet as a charming piece of comedy-farce with both a heart and an historical head. The Tomorrow People makes me squirm in my seat. 

I've talked about what it was like to read Stan Lee's prose for the first time, or see one of Jack Kirby's cosmic spreads. But that experience is unrecoverable. I can't go back to Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer because they never left me. I can't compare "reading them at fifty" and "reading them at twelve" because memories of reading them and thirty five and twenty seven and sixteen rush in to fill in the gap. I believe that I have seen Star Wars at least once a year for the past forty five years. I could have a very good go at reproducing the script from memory. I had forgotten every single thing about Blast Off At Woomera, except that it is about a rocket, which blasts off, presumably from Woomera.

I read through it in a single sitting, pretty much glued to my chair; the word "unputdownable" (unputtable down?) never truer. I am not a fast reader: I got through the Dune series and Ulysses by setting myself targets -- this many pages today, this many pages before I am allowed a coffee break. But this ancient kid's book dragged me in and refused to let me go. (As an adult, I mean. I think I found it quite hard-going as a kid, but liked things which were A Bit Too Old For Me.) 

Do not, whatever you do, go away and read the thing on my recommendation. In the cold light of day it is really not very good at all. It clearly the work of a very good amateur, one Walter Hughes who sold metal beds and ran the Rotary Club. Hugh Walters was a cunning pen name. He tried his hand at writing science fiction because he thought the existing stuff wasn't sciency enough. Blast Off at Woomera was published in 1957: four years before Yuri Gargarin; nine years before James T Kirk; twelve years before Neil Armstrong. It comes from a time when Dan Dare was still in his pomp on the front page of the Eagle. Like Dan Dare, Hughs' hero, has to confront strange, alien life-forms; savage creatures, strangely dressed, with deadly weapons who hate for no reason and kill without purpose. In the Eagle it was the Treens from Venus. In Blast Off at Woomera it is the Teddy Boys, and they come from Battersea Funfair.

He had read about the exploits of some of these young hooligans in the papers. Wolverton had, happily, been without them, and this was the first time he had seen any in the flesh. What he saw did not reassure him. About eighteen or twenty years old, they each had “sideboards”, gaudy ties and suits with velvet lapels.

It was more than a decade old when I found it, and already quite old-fashioned. Now it seems to speak to us from another world. 1950s England is vert nearly as alien as the planet Venus.

Walter Hughes was a member of Arthur C Clarke's interplanetary society, but the story is as unlike Clarke as any book could be. Clarke likes his hardware and he cares about his science; but he is also full of romanticism and awe and childish wonder. 

H.G Wells was also in the Junior Library. I got to the end of  War of the Worlds but First Men "In" The Moon defeated me. My father rather approved: H.G Wells was a proper author. He never did quite persuade me to have a go at Kipps. I remember the fugitives seeing a tripod on a hill near East Barnet. East Barnet was where my school was. My secondary school was at the top of Cat Hill, where John Betjamen had disastrously failed to teach cricket. I imagined that was the Hill H.G Wells had in mind. Wells is not as romantic as Arthur C Clark, but he makes you aware that the universe is big and strange and terrifying and awesome. Hughes' heroes wouldn't recognise the Cosmos if it bit them on the nose while they were munching their bacon and eggs. Blast Off At Woomera is singularly uninterested in the Cosmos. 

War of the Worlds begins:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

2001: A Space Odyssey Begins

Behind every man living there stand thirty ghosts: that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living... Please remember this is only a work of fiction: the truth, as always, will be far stranger.

Blast of at Woomera begins (and I promise I am not making this up)

Sports Day at Wolverton Grammar School is the social event of the year. Held traditionally on the third Saturday in July, it falls in that delightful period between the end of all exams and the start of the longest holiday. It is then that the masters become human beings for a brief spell and even the Head is known to quote an occasional humorous Latin tag.

It sits halfway between Biggles (unlikely yarns about the RAF by someone who had actually flown a plane) and Jennings (unlikely yarns about schoolboys by someone who had actually been a teacher). It starts in a school; and it it never quite leaves the ethos of the school. In that way the hero, Chris Godfrey, has something in common with Harry Potter.

I loved it unreservedly. I can fully understand why it became so big when I was little.

Saturday, December 18, 2021



I am going to talk about the first science fiction book I ever read; possibly the first real book I ever read. I am going to try to explain why it was my favourite book when I was a child, and what it was like coming back to it after very nearly fifty years. 

When I was four or five the grown-ups asked me what present I would like for my birthday. "Something to do with SPACE" I replied. I got a magnificent plastic space helmet, one size fits all, with a NASA logo and a visor you could raise and lower. It echoed, slightly, when you put it on your head so your voice seemed to be coming from the moon itself. I got a space suit to go with it: a silver pair of P.Js, really, with moon-shot patches and Stars and Stripes sewed into them. I can't remember wearing the suit, but I can remember sadly realising that I was getting too big for it.

I was born in 1965 so I would have been just about conscious of the moon landings. I think I was just barely aware of the Apollo 13 near disaster; I think my mum shielded me from watching the TV news in case it became too sad.

I suppose the choice is arbitrary. I decided I liked Space. I might just as well have decided that I liked Unicorns.

It is not hard to explain why, at the age of eight I went crazy for Spider-Man and at the age of twelve I went crazy for Star Wars. Maybe you went crazy for Pirates of the Caribbean or Toy Story or Jurassic Park. Spider-Man and Star Wars are texts. I was crazy about the stories that Steve Ditko and George Lucas were telling me.

But very small children know that they like Pirates or Dinosaurs long before they have encountered any actual texts. They don't like particular stories. They certainly don't care about letters of marque or paleontology. But they do know that Pirates and Dinosaurs are cool.

Space-rockets were cool. Daleks were cool, too, long before I knew that they came from Skaro or contained a disgusting mutant or wanted to rule the universe or even that they appeared in a TV series called Doctor Who. 

Children become obsessed with the oddest things: lifts or trucks or teapots or the colour pink. It's almost a form of imprinting. How many serious grown up interests started with pointless childhood fixations, I wonder? See a pony at the age of three; develop a serious interest in dressage and the Grand National at the age of sixteen. Get a toy turtle at two; get a junior black belt in Judo at the age of eleven.  

The overwhelming majority of grown-ups read stories about businessmen and lawyers and vets and village school teachers and middle class Italians and narcissistic Norwegians. They say that they literally cannot understand why any grown-up would want to read "all those crazy space stories". And crazy space story readers can't work out why anyone in their right mind would want to read a story about ordinary things happening to ordinary people in an ordinary world. Perhaps the grown-up majority just never fixated on space rockets or dinosaurs? 

Didn't Freud think that most kinks were perfectly normal elements of infantile sexuality that particular people never grew out of?

Some of the unpleasant far-right science fictions fans who called themselves Puppies believed that no-one really liked mainstream fiction: it was being forcibly imposed on a docile population by a feminist-academic cult, to make America more vulnerable to the communist take-over. Or something. Guardian cartoonist Tom Gaud drew a celebrated cartoon in which a science fiction reader imagined that mainstream fiction readers were dull sourpusses who were secretly jealous of all the fun he was having. 

Two mutually uncomprehending sub-cultures. Two people for whom "books" mean different things.

Yes; I know. There are dog people and cat people, but Mrs Smith down the road dotes on her poodle and her siamese.

We like Doctor Who because, when we were too young to know what Doctor Who was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting Ex! Term! In! Ate! in a silly voice.

We like Pirates of the Caribbean because when we were too young to know what a sailing ship was, we thought it was fun to run round the room shouting "Arrrr!" in a silly voice.

We are interested in equestrian sport because when we were too young to know what a horse was we thought it was fun to gallop around the room making clip-clop noises with our tongues.

It really was that simple. That was why I decided I liked Space. 

Not because of the adventure.

Not because I liked the idea of different worlds and aliens.

Because a rocket ship is a great, big, tall, willy-shaped firework.

And mostly because it is fun to run around the room shouting FIVE FOUR THREE TWO ONE BLAST OFF.

Not the real reason. Not the only reason. But the point of origin.

My first school was split between Infants and Juniors. The Infants were segregated off in their own corridor. I don't think there was ever an Infants Library. I suppose there must have been books, but I can't remember any particular ones. We were taught to read from Janet and John, of course. At home I had a fine collection of Ladybirds. I remember Magic Roundabout Annuals and a very dog-eared Disney Storybook. Doctor Seuss was disapproved of because he rhymed Zed with Bee and couldn't spell "colour". 

I think that Picture Books are a slightly more recent publishing phenomenon. I can recall Infant teachers reading to us from quite text-heavy books: Winnie the Pooh and Noddy and Alice in Wonderland and the Song of Hiawatha. I remember Miss Ward reading us Hans Andersen's Tinder Box and Miss Heinze reading us Jason and the Argonauts, both unexpurgated. The romance of human sacrifice and public execution kicked in quite early.

The rest of the school was the province of the Juniors, and the Juniors had their own library -- a tiny little cubby hole lined with what we would now call Chapter Books in A-B-C order of the writer's last name. We were presented with one of those old fashioned blue ticket-pockets which allowed us to take out (and take home) one book a week. Miss Beale allowed some of us more voracious readers to have two. I read the obvious: Doctor Doolittle, Mary Plane, Paddington Bear, the Wombles, Enid Blyton, who I never really took to, and Willard Price, a kind of entry-level Clive Cussler. But I gravitated to the very small section of Space Books; what I knew, at the ripe old age of seven or eight, to refer to as Science Fiction. 

I think that the publishers were commissioning big-name writers to write juvenile material, or scouring back-catalogues for kid-friendly material. I remember titles like Have Space Suit Will Travel (Heinlein); A Life for the Stars (Blish) and Islands in the Sky (Clarke.) I don't think Asimov wrote anything for for children.

I can date my Spider-Man infatuation precisely; the second week of February, 1973. (The Wombles came on TV the same week.) I don't have any reference point, but I suppose it was about the same time when I walked into the Junior library and pulled down a little tome, with small print, no pictures, and an abstract cover. 

A cover perfectly suited to fixation on five-four-three-two-one-blast-off. It was old fashioned and perhaps out of print when I read it. Libraries seemed to have copies; I never saw a paperback in a bookshop. For years I would have said it was my favourite book. I only read it once, and it's been out of print for decades. 

But the Internet is the Internet; and Orion Publishing has decreed that every science fiction novel ever written, however obscure, can be dowloaded into my Pocket Computer at the touch of button....

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The Nature of Middle-earth

Can we get three questions out of the way before we start?

1: Ought Tolkien to have engaged in world-building above and beyond what was needed to tell a story?

2: Given that he did, ought his relatives to have made his unpublished notebooks available to the public?

3: Given that they did, ought we to read them?

The answers being: yes, if he wanted to; yes, if they want to; and yes, if we want to.


The Nature of Middle-earth is a sad, infuriating, fascinating and above all, unreadable work. If it were all we had to go on, we would describe Tolkien's creative process as a pathology. We would place him, at best, alongside the more obscure gnostic ramblings of Phillip K. Dick; and at worst, alongside the patterns some crazy man has daubed on the wall of his padded-cell: meaningful to him, meaningless to the rest of us.

But this book is not all we have to go on: at some level, these kinds of writings -- jotted down on the backs of exam papers and royalty statements, yet carefully preserved by Tolkien himself and by his children -- led to the Tale of Beren and Luthien, to the Mirror of Galadriel, to the Steward and the King. Can we make the connection?

Many of us doodle on the backs of envelopes. The Complete Doodles of Leonardo Da Vinci or the Collected Scribbles of Van Gogh would be intensely interesting. They might not be great works of art; but they would tell us things about the artists' development and their working practices that we couldn't find out anywhere else.

The Complete Doodles of Andrew Rilstone, not so much.

The Nature of Middle-earth doesn't tell us much about the nature of Middle-earth. But it does tell us a good deal about the nature of Tolkien's creative process. More, perhaps, than we actually wanted to know.


There is no single, finished thing called Middle-earth to talk about the nature of; only three differently unfinished works in progress.

There is, if you will, Middle-earth I, the setting of the Book of Lost Tales, back when Beren was an Elf, Sauron was a cat and minstrels had names like Tinfang Warble.

There is Middle-earth II, the world of Lord of the Rings and the published Silmarillion, when Hobbits, Dwarves and the sunken island of Numenor had inveigled themselves into the long-standing Elf-mythology.

And there is the projected Middle-earth III which would have made the world of Lord of the Rings more consistent with real-world geography, real-world astronomy and real-world theology. It would have ret-conned out the flat-earth, the sky done, and the literal sun-chariot, and made Eru and Morgoth theologically consistent analogues for the Catholic God and the Catholic Satan.

Maybe Numenor-Atlantis never sunk beneath the waves, muses Tolkien at one point. Maybe it just had all the magic sucked out of it and turned into America.


The notes that make up the Nature of Middle-earth were written at the very end of Tolkien's life; and are therefore mainly about the projected, unfinished, and inferior version of what purists call The Legendarium. Anyone expecting a collection of geek-heavy lore -- more or less canonical information about the setting that got left out of the books -- is going to be deeply disappointed. Very little in this book would be of the slightest use to someone producing, say, a role-playing game, a work of fan-fiction, or a four hundred and sixty five million dollar TV series for Amazon Prime. It would be more help, I think, to someone trying to write a grammar of Elvish; although even here Tolkien's thinking is in a permanent state of flux. Carl Hostetter, the editor, is an expert on Quenya and Sindarin and used to be the head of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship. He also wrote computer software for NASA, which was probably a lot more straightforward.

In the Silmarillion, the Elves are created and wake up in Middle-earth long before the creation of the sun and the moon; they go on a very long journey to Valinor (where the gods live under the light of the Two Trees) but they eventually rebel against the gods and come back to Middle-earth. Tolkien has decided that for Lord of the Rings to work as a fictional pre-history of our own Earth, the sun and the moon must have always existed. And this puts his chronology right out. He starts doing sums in his head about how long a Valinorian year lasts compared with a "year of the Sun", how long Elves live for, and how much they breed. Given that they are immortal, if he gets his figures wrong the world is going to be teeming with the little pointy-eared buggers; if there are that many, they can't all have decamped to Valinor and he doesn't want to spoil the story about how the first Men found quite a small tribe of Elves when they first came over the mountains. 

And so: pages and pages of different "generational schemes": if Elves hit puberty at such-and-such an age and have yay many babies, what would the population be after X, Y or Z generations? At one point he calculates the ratio of Elf-Years to Human-Years to three hundred decimal places -- without, the editor reminds us, the aid of a pocket calculator or correcting fluid. 

This is not writing; this is not world-building. It isn't even doodling. It is displacement activity.

Elves live longer than humans, but not ridiculously longer: not much more than a hundred and fifty years. But time passes much more slowly in Valinor, and once they are in Middle-earth, Elves continue to age at the Valinorian rate (although they perceive time as humans do).  Arwen is 2788 years old at her marriage, but, subjectively, she's only about 28.

Naturally, it's not that simple: Elvish children age at about the same rate as human children; and hit puberty at about the same time. And age doesn't effect Elves the way it does humans. They don't go grey and wrinkly or become weaker and they don't grow beards. Their spirits (fea) and their bodies (hroa) are plumbed together very differently from those of humans. At their creation, Elves looked very much like men; but the longer they live the more spiritualised their flesh becomes. In the end, their fea "uses up" their hroa: any Elves in Middle-earth today (in the twenty first century) would have bodies that have become completely spiritualised, and would appear to us as disembodied or invisible beings. Making babies exhausts some of their fea, which is why they (fortunately) tend to have very small families.

Hostetter provides a helpful appendix pointing out that this is in line with Catholic thinking. The idea that the soul inhabits the body and is separable from it is a gnostic heresy. A good Catholic thinks that a human person is a unity of body and spirit. (The theology of the incarnation of Jesus became very complicated around this point.) Tolkien's theory that the fall of Morgoth-Satan entailed a corruption in the nature of they physical universe depends on this Thomist/Platonic conception of matter.

So what happens if an Elf is killed? Tolkien can't simply say that an Elf's spirit goes to Elf-heaven: he is very committed to the idea that Elves, body-and-soul, are "coeval" with the life of the material universe. It takes a direct conversation between Eru (literally God) and Manwe (top Valar on earth) to sort it out. Eru gives Manwe permission to create new bodies for any Elves who have been temporarily dis-incarnated. Tolkien gets justifiably worried about whether an Elf with a new body can be said to be the same elf as he was before, and goes down a deep rabbit hole about whether an exact replica of your house would still be your house. (Yes, if your house burned down and was replaced by one exactly the same you would feel that you had your house back; except with respect to an object that you loved particularly because it was, say, a gift from a friend. That can't be replaced because what you love is not the thing itself, but its history. And so on for some pages.)

In places, Tolkien's lyrical story telling voice does shine through. Here is is recounting the Elves own story about their first generation:

Imin, Tatis and Enel awoke before their spouses, and the first thing that they saw was the stars, for they woke in the early twilight before dawn. And the next thing they saw was their destined spouse lying asleep on the green sward beside them. Then they were so enamoured of their beauty that their desire for speech was immediately quickened and they began "to think of words" to speak and sing in. And being impatient they could not wait but woke up their spouses. Thus (say the Eldar) elf-women ever after reached maturity sooner than elf-men; for it had been intended that they should wake later than their spouses.

The six go exploring and find another group of twelve; the twelve find twenty four, and so on until there are a hundred and forty four of them. The Elvish words for the numerals one, two and three (Minn, Atta, and Nel-De) come from the names of those first three Elves, although scholar-Tolkien adds a footnote saying that this is a story-internal myth; and that it is more likely that latert Elves retrospectively named their first ancestors after the numerals. Because there were twelve dozen Elves in the original creation, the Elves count in base twelve and don't have names for any number higher than a hundred and forty four. (A hundred and forty four is, of course, a significant number in the first chapter of Lord of the Rings.) Elvish children play a this-little-piggy game in which they call their fingers Daddy, Mummy, Big Boy, Little Girl and Baby. Those words also sound like the numbers from one to five.

Tolkien has started with some theoretical ideas about the origins of language; some mathematical calculations about how many Elves there need to have been for the demographics to make sense; and even a note about the rate of maturation in he-Elves and she-Elves: but the ideas have come together into a charming narrative about Elf-Adam waking up Elf-Eve too early because they were so keen to start creating poems. That particular story would not have happened if not for the theoretical ground-work.

Some of the material is of more general interest. Tolkien is quite annoyed by Pauline Baynes' illustration for a poster-map of Middle-earth; he takes particular exception to her giving the Nazgul hats: so he provides extensive notes about what the characters looked like. He seems to be interpreting his own text as if it were an historical document. She shouldn't have drawn Gollum going naked, because the text says he had pockets; he "evidently" had black garments, but when the text says he is "as dark as darkness" that just means he couldn't be seen with normal eyes in a dark cave. Elsewhere he explains that Aragorn and Boromir would not have had beards, not because they shave, but because of their Numenorean ancestry and Elvish blood: Elvish men don't grow beards. (This made we wonder about the beardlessness of Hobbits.)

But some of it is really astonishingly trivial. A paragraph about the Druedain's cultivation of mushrooms (rejected by Tolkien because it made them too much like Hobbits) is lovingly reproduced. We learn that they liked fungi; that they knew which were poisonous and which were not; that they planted fungi near their dwellings; that Elves on the whole don't like mushrooms; that some people even think that fungus has been cursed by Morgoth. It's like Tolkien feels that he has to say something about everything, even if he has nothing to say. But as a result of the doodle, he now knows that some people in Middle-earth call mushrooms "orc plants".

Or again: Tolkien makes a linguistic note about the Elvish word gor, which can mean "warn" but also "influence" or "counsel". To elucidate the nuance, he says that it is derived from the word ore, which in Lord of the Rings is translated as "heart" ("my heart tells me") but which does not in fact refer metaphorically to the bodily organ. It means something more like "inner mind": particularly thoughts which seem to come into your mind spontaneously, which Elves think come from the Valar or even from God. Humans, think the Elves, are bad at listening to their ore; it may even be that their ore gives them bad advise, because of the actions of Morgoth/Satan. Tolkien the linguist is cares that Elvish words do not correspond exactly to English words; Tolkien the philosopher cares that Elves have their own perception of how psychology and conscience operate; Tolkien the Catholic cares about the consequences of original sin in his sub-creation. We're a very long way from translating Hamlet back into the original Klingon.

Hostetter helpfully notes that when Tolkien said that the Lord of the Rings is fundamentally Catholic, he does not mean that it is explicitly or directly Catholic (in the way that C.S Lewis's fairy tales and science fiction stories were directly and explicitly Christian): he means literally that they have a Catholic foundation. The building blocks of the world take Catholic thinking for granted. It is clear that, in a similar way, the Lord of the Rings is fundamentally linguistic. Elves have a particular perception of time; and a particular way of thinking about the future; and a particular view of conscience because Tolkien was concerned about the nuances of the word gor; and a thousand other words as well.

There is a kind of writer who cannot describe a character opening a door unless he first decides what the doorknob looks like. Perhaps we need to think of Tolkien as an historical novelist, writing stories in an imaginary history which he had created himself, but a history nonetheless. He could no more make up a fact about Elrond than Hilary Mantel can make up a fact about Thomas Moore. And his history is created out of philology and Thomist theology: in asking these incredibly dry, abstract questions, he is bringing the world into sharp enough focus that he is capable of writing about it. If Boromir had told Frodo that his favourite food was an orc-plant, Tolkien would have believed it because he hadn't, in that sense, just made it up.

So it seems that that was how Tolkien wrote. How Middle-earth grew; how it congealed on the page. If you love the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion then you have to say that this was the right thing to do; a different writer would have done it differently and we would have ended up with a different book.


Still: the Nature of Middle-earth is a sad book. Middle-earth, so solid, so convincing, "a world more real than any other", dissolves into a series of calculations and conjectures; an unknowable, unfinishable work-in progress. Sad because Tolkien was so obviously struggling to do the impossible. An old man, working out his backstory to three hundred significant figures, when we would rather he had written one more poem or a single footnote about the Entwives -- when we would much rather he had not abandoned his "thriller" about Minas Tirith during the reign of Aragorn's son. 

And because it seems like such a waste. 

On one occasion the BBC declared the Lord of the Rings the 26th greatest book of the twentieth century; on another, the best loved British novel of all time. It is estimated to have sold a hundred and fifty million copies, which would make it comfortably the best selling "authored" book of all time. 

If Tolkien hadn't wasted his time worrying about pedantic detail, imagine what he could have achieved.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Doctor Who 15.5 - Underworld


While I was writing this piece, the news came through that Bob Baker, co-writer of Underworld, Invisible Enemy and numerous other Doctor Who stories had died at the age of 81.

I have left the piece unchanged: I don't think that Underworld or Invisible Enemy were very good; but I don't imagine Bob Baker intended people to be doing close-readings of his scripts forty years down the time line.  And they were very much part of the series I loved at the time I loved it most.

When I started this retrospective, I said that his Sontaran Experiment was a classic example of the kind of thing Doctor Who does well. Everyone loves the Three Doctors, and my eleven year old self adored K-9.

More to the point, I saw some episodes of the 1975 HTV series "Sky" when I was a kid, and saw the whole thing on DVD in the last couple of years. It is one of the strangest, most surreal, trippy, Electric Eden-esque pieces of children's TV ever made. It's about a group of school kids protecting an alien who has arrived on earth; but with its weird religious overtones and New Age sensibilities, it is more Whistle Down The Wind than E.T. The image of the boy wiping the starscape off his hand in the final episode has stayed with me my whole life.

"We're on the edge of the cosmos, the frontiers of creation, the boundary between what is and isn't, or isn't yet, anyway. Don't you think that's interesting?"

Leela is having a go at piloting the TARDIS. The Doctor is teaching himself to paint. He is wearing a smock and a beret and has paint on his face. The paint disappears when he leaves the TARDIS, but it reappears when he gets back on board in Episode Four.

The TARDIS stalls, possibly because of something Leela did and possibly not. It has taken them to the very edge of the universe, for some reason. But they are not alone: they encounter a spaceship, the R1C which has been travelling for a hundred thousand years. The Doctor asks Leela if she has heard of the Flying Dutchman. Not surprisingly, she has not.

The crew are Minions from the planet Minios; their captain has the disappointingly mundane name Jackson. They are searching for a sister ship, the P7E, which is the only other remnant of their long dead civilisation. The lost ship is carrying Race Banks which would allow them to recreate their near extinct species.

"Ah" you say "I suppose it is a generation star ship and none of the crew can even remember why they originally set out?" On the contrary: the Minions are immortals. Like the Time Lords, they can regenerate when their bodies wear out. They used to worship Time Lords as gods, and presumably learned regeneration from them. They are a bit sad because the power supply is finally running down and their long voyage may be coming to an end.

This is heady stuff. Wandering, world-weary immortals. An endless voyage through space. People who need the Doctor to be a god but think of him as the devil. Yet another skeleton in the Time Lord's closet.

Don't get too excited. They turn out to be just one more ship full of thick, slightly bellicose militaristic space-men in silly tin-foil suits, who initially treat the Doctor with suspicion, but end up accepting his help. In Episode Two they arrive on One Of Those Planets and find a population of slave-workers ruled over by an oppressive boss-caste. The boss-caste take their orders from a mad computer, who thinks it is a god. Doctor Who has gone beyond being formulaic. It has become a series of variations on a theme.

"Shut up, K-9! Shut up! I can tell K-9 to shut up if I want to!"

Tom Baker's Doctor gets nastier by the episode.

Manners change; my family may have been exceptionally sensitive, but saying "shut up" was one of the things guaranteed to make Mum and Dad genuinely angry. I suppose it was a playground rudery that they didn't want me to use in front of Grandad. I didn't learn "piss off" until I got to secondary school.

So maybe the Doctor is playing linguistic anarchist, using the bad words and waiting for the walls of censorship to come tumbling down, like Johnny Rotten saying "fuck" to Bill Grundy. Or maybe he's less a Time Lord, more a very naughty boy: saying and doing the stuff that we would never get away with. I adored him as a kid; but he's increasingly hard to take now. 

The wonderful comic improvisation that Baker brought to his first seasons is dwindling, and the jokes aren't very funny. When he turns up on the flight deck of the R1C one of the crew asks "How did you get here?" and he replies "Through that door." This is slender class-comedian stuff. He tells Leela that they are the first intelligent "and semi-intelligent" life forms to see the edge of the universe -- a pointless snipe which goes well beyond teasing her about being a savage. He talks about things people couldn't possibly know about, and gets annoyed when they don't. He off-handedly tells everyone that The Planet is probably going to be destroyed with a sort of ironic contempt for the universe.

Tom wants the Doctor to be alien; to look down on humans with ironic detachment from a higher plane; and the script is more and more playing up to that characterisation. But sneery arrogance has become the low-rent replacement for that divine condescension which he did so impressively in, say, Ark in Space.

"Then they went to war with each other, learnt how to split the atom, discovered the toothbrush and finally split the planet."

Last season Robert Holmes established a mythology and backstory for the Time Lords.

And it seems to have made absolutely no difference. The Time Lords are referenced in every story: "But I'm a Time Lord!" has become a cliche, if not actually a catch phrase. (Tom Baker parodies it slightly in Episode Two: when he is told that there is no time to stop a goodie being executed, he replies "Don't talk to me about time, I'm a Time Lord.") But none of the scripts pay the slightest attention to the mythology that Deadly Assassin went to such a lot of trouble to create. The day will come when writers requiring plot devices will reach for the "trumpet of Rassilon" or the "razor of Omega" but it has not come yet.

Scripts shed bits of backstory with gay abandon, safe in the knowledge that they will never be mentioned again. In Invisible Enemy, the Doctor and Leela are exploring that part of the Doctor's brain which makes memories and dreams and nightmares. In the next story we meet a creature that the Doctor has nightmares about. Are the two connected? Why would they be? In Image of the Fendahl, we discover that the Time Lords once broke their non-intervention vows, and took some trouble to cover it up. In Underworld, we find out why they took those vows to begin with.  Are the two stories related? Of course not. And the final story of the season is going to take us back to Gallifrey. Will it draw all the hints and foreshadowing together and show how the Fendahl and the Time Lord Intelligentsia and the Minions are connected?


It seems that when the Time Lords were first learning to travel in time and space, they shared their technology with the Minions: and of course the Minions promptly kicked the Time Lords out and had a genocidal civil war. Jackson's ship, and the one he has been chasing for the past hundred millennia are the only survivors of the cataclysm.

This is the exact same origin story that Stan Lee made up for the Watcher in a back up strip in an Iron Man comic in 1964. The Watcher was a supporting character in the Fantastic Four; he sits on the Moon and never interferes in human affairs (except when he does). It turns out that "aeons" ago, his people taught the Proscillicons about atomic power, were rather surprised when they blew themselves up and promised never to do it again. The United Federation of Planets seems to have come up with the Prime Directive all by themselves, without the trauma of original sin.

In 1963, when Doctor Who was just a TV show, series creator Sydney Newman said that the origin of the Doctor ought not to be revealed. Writers could drop hints about it, but they should leave enough wiggle room that the next writer could drop hints of his own. It seems that Williams is adopting this approach to the Time Lords. Anyone can say any shit they like about them and no-one is expected to pay the slightest attention to it.

"A ship of ghosts, going on and on and unable to remember why."

The Doctor says that the Time Lords inadvertently destroyed the Minions by giving them better weapons and communications but the only unusual technology we see them using is Cellular Regeneration. There are no shortage of races in the universe who have space-ships and ray-guns, with or without Time Lord intervention. The Minions do have a natty weapon called a pacifier which calms the target down and makes him temporarily love everyone, but they use it once on Leela and then forget about it.

The Minions Cellular Regeneration is definitely meant to be the same kind of thing as Time Lord Regeneration: the Doctor says that he has been through it "two or three times" (instantly decanonizing the Mobius Doctors.) The crew of the R1C say that they have regenerated thousands of times each; suggesting that Bob Baker and Dave Martin don't know about the twelve body limit imposed by Robert Holmes.

You would expect this to be the main thrust of the story: how a race of immortals recklessly shared their deathlessness with some mortals who were not ready for it. But it's pretty much just a one-use plot device to explain how the same crew can have been in space for a thousand centuries.

Nothing in the story would fall out differently if the Minions did not have Previous with the Time Lords, but were just some humanoids trying to get their Race Banks back. Nothing would be different if they had been elderly people who had been questing for fifty years, as opposed to immortals who had been at it for a hundred thousand. Nothing would be different if the Planet were a few hundred light years away rather than at the very edge of existence.

I was going to say that these concepts have been crowbarred in to give a painfully generic story a spurious significance and gravitas. But they don't even do that. They feel more like space fillers, improvisations, twiddly bits that briefly embellish an otherwise rather bland melody.

Some people are going to a certain place to do a certain thing.

Why? Because Time Lords.

"Revolution. Has no-one thought of revolution? Has no-one ever rebelled?"

It seems that Jackson's ship exerts a gravitational pull strong enough to attract all the asteroids and space debris in the vicinity: Episode One ends with the ship very nearly being buried by small rocks. The quest ship, the P7E, has been sitting in the asteroid field for centuries; a whole planet has formed around it. Descendants of the crew live in the tunnels and caves they have excavated. They have never seen the outside world and don't even believe it exists.

This seems to be quite a lot of narrative trouble to go to to establish the basic conceit of the story; that the race-banks which Jackson is searching for are at the heart of a labyrinthine network of caves and tunnels. The central metaphor is advertised in the story's title: Jackson is going down into the underworld. He is going to retrieve the golden life pods from P7E. (Persephone. Geddit?)

Most of the population of P7E dress in ragged nightshirts and look like extras from Life of Brian. They are, inevitably, called the Trogs and spend their whole lives digging rock "for reprocessing into food so that we can go on working to get more rock." (Leela is surprised that it is possible to eat rock. "Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Blackpool?" ripostes the Doctor. Ha-ha.) They are ruled by the Guards, who are ruled by the Seers, who answer to the Oracle who (to no-one's great surprise) turns out to be the computer that ran the original starship. 

Dig rock so we can make food so we can dig more rock; work so we can pay for drugs that can keep us awake to work longer hours so we can pay our taxes. A casual viewer who had zoned out during Sunmakers and rejoined the action part way through Underworld could be forgiven for thinking he was watching the same story.

"What else? We can make your brain boil in you skull! What else?"

Graham Williams is making a concerted effort to appeal to the neglected torture-and-execution demographic (largely neglected since Deadly Assassin.) Last time he had Leela being steamed to death while the Gatherer drooled. This time one of Jackson's crew is strapped into a device somewhere between a particularly unwieldy stereo system and the electric chair; while the Seers demand he tells them things that he obviously doesn't know. Meanwhile, an elderly Trog becomes a human sacrifice because he has publicly stated that the sky is not made of rock and there are stars above it. "The Trogs always work harder after a good sacrifice" say the Seers.

The black and white William Hartnell story, the Aztecs, may not be the most culturally sensitive piece of TV ever filmed: but it did show some awareness that human sacrifice was a religious rite, albeit a cruel and bloodthirsty one. Underworld depicts it purely as a form of execution. It doesn't seem to be about deterring specific heretics; it's merely a show of strength pour encourager les autres. The Doctor sees it as "official sadism". For a show which is meant to be toning down the violence for the sake of the Whitehouse, the episode spends a lot of time dwelling on the process of killing. A sword is suspended over the victim, tied by an elaborate strip of cloth, and an oil lamp is lit underneath to burn through it. It is presumably supposed to evoke the Sword of Damocles; but it feels more like an Adam West Batman cliffhanger: an over-complex trap the sole purpose of which is to give the hero a chance to escape from it.

"You're just another machine with megalomania. Another insane object, another self-aggrandising artefact. You're nothing. Nothing but a mass of superheated junk with delusions of grandeur."

The Seers think that preserving the Oracle is the most important thing; so they agree to hand over the Race Banks if Jackson's crew will go away. But the Oracle thinks that holding onto the Race Banks is the most important thing, so it hands over two Race Bank shaped atomic bombs that it prepared earlier. The Doctor takes the real Race Banks by force; and tries to dispose of the Bombs safely; but the Guards take them off him thinking they are real Race Banks. The Trogs escape on board the ship, the planet blows up, and everyone lives relatively happily ever after.

("The prophecy's being fulfilled. Our god has come to save us. We can escape to the stars" exclaims one of the Trogs. Tom resists the temptation to say "I think this is becoming needlessly Messianic".)

Once again, the climactic scene involves the Doctor confronting the main villain and over-acting a lot. Tom Baker is now the defining feature of Doctor Who; so it makes perfect sense to allow him to grandstand once in each story. The showdown with the Oracle is considerably more shouty than the one with the Gatherer last week: the Doctor appears to be angry, not because it is especially evil, but because it is such a cliche. It is fairly hard not to read this as Tom Baker's contempt for the material; or perhaps even knowing self-deprecation on the part of Bob Baker and Dave Martin. After four episodes, a hundred thousand years and a ground-up re-write of Time Lord history, it all comes down to yet another nasty computer and a very powerful hand-grenade.

"Perhaps those myths are not just old stories of the past, you see, but prophecies of the future."

There was a three-week gap between the Sunmakers (which concluded on December 17th 1977) and Underworld (which began on January 7th 1978.) There was no Doctor Who on Christmas Eve, even though it fell on a Saturday; and only a repeat of Robots of Death on New Years Eve.

And during that hiatus, on the day-after-Boxing Day, Star Wars finally arrived in the UK. (The day-after-New Years day also saw the launch of Blakes' Seven.)

So: that really-quite-good BBC special effect of space-ships flying overhead and getting swallowed by meteors in Episode One happened at the same time most of us were having our first encounter with Star Wars. Very many of us saw the Planet blow up (split down the middle like a giant easter egg) in the same week we first saw Alderaan (and then the Death Star) explode. Leela shouts "revolution!" at the Trogs at the same time that brave rebels, striking from a hidden base, won their first victory over the evil galactic empire.... Her names sounds a bit like Princess Leia's, come to think of it. 

Had anyone in the Doctor Who production office seen Star Wars? Had they (like me) read the comic book and the novel? Did they know it by reputation? Or, as the Doctor said last week, it might just have been coincidence.

Did Underworld -- and by degrees Doctor Who itself -- develop its reputation for shoddiness because it appeared in the same time-frame as the massively spectacular and ground-breaking effects in Star Wars? Was our perception of the awesomeness of Star Wars effected by the mediocrity of Doctor Who?

Did we look at the spaceships in Underworld and say "Oh dear, the BBC is trying to do Star Wars, badly." Or did we see Star Wars for the first time and think "Oh my giddy aunt, it's like Doctor Who, only less crap."

The first thing the world noticed about Star Wars is that it was kind of like a fairy tale, only in space. The second thing it noticed was that it was kind of a collage of everything that George Lucas loved about cinema. But we very quickly spotted that the really important thing about Star Wars was that it had something to do with Joseph Campbell.

Let's not revisit the question of whether Lucas used Hero With a Thousand Faces as a template; whether the mighty power of the collective unconscious caused him to make a movie that was shaped like the Monomyth; or if Campbell's Monomyth is merely a convoluted way of saying that most stories are about people who go from some place to some other place in order to do a thing. What matters is that for a while, we all believed that Star Wars was not just a great Hollywood adventure movie. It was a modern embodiment of the One True Story, and therefore Very Important Indeed.

And it is more or less at that cultural moment that the Doctor chooses to assert that Underworld, the most formulaic and derivative of all Doctor Who stories had, in fact, been the recapitulation of an ancient myth.

"Jason was another captain on a long quest. He was looking for the Golden Fleece. He found it hanging on a tree at the end of the world..."

The whole point of Image of the Fendahl is that myths and religions are garbled memories of things which really happened in the remote past. The Doctor now proposes that they are prophecies of things which will happen in the far future. Joseph Campbell, of course, says that they are the forms in which deep mystical and psychological truths penetrate our conscious minds. All three say that myths are not true, but are nevertheless really important. It is possible to bite through the chocolate shell of legend and get to the Kinder toy of truth buried within.

The connections between the story of Jackson and the story of Jason are actually pretty tenuous. One of Jackson's crew is called Herrick, which is obviously supposed to make us think of Heracles: there are also characters called Orfe and Talis. Herrick is a bit heroic and gung-ho; but Orfe doesn't sing and Talis isn't made of bronze. Their ship is nearly destroyed by asteroids, which is a bit like crashing rocks. P7E sounds like Persephone (who Jason never encountered) and if you try really hard you can make R1C rhyme with Argosy. They are not looking for a fleece, but for Race Banks; but their pods are certainly gold in colour. The P7E is concealed in a kind of labyrinth which the Trogs call the Tree; it is defended by automatic lasers which the Trogs call dragons. Going down into a series of caves to retrieve the very thing which will save your people is unquestionably pretty mythic.

Joseph Campbell gave it a big important name. George Lucas injected it into a movie. But if you are inclined to believe in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, it is very interesting that in the exact same week Luke Skywalker arrived in England, Doctor Who was telling a story about a band of heroes who go an a long journey and descend into the underworld to bring back the golden boon which will restore their race.

The Quest, they keep on saying, Is The Quest.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Bristol Arts Diary: Truckstop Honeymoon

Bristol Arts Diary: Truckstop Honeymoon: Canteen

Doctor Who 15.3 - Image of the Fendahl

In October 1977, Jack Kirby's Eternals came to an ignominious non-conclusion. It had been a gosh-wow treatment of the theory that human mythology and superstition is based on race-memories of alien visitations. 

Also in October 1977, the first episode of Image of the Fendahl premiered on BBC 1. It was a spooky, gothic treatment of the theory that human mythology and superstitions are based on race-memories of ancient alien visitations. 

Nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe even the universe can't bare to be without a decent set of space-gods. 

"How do we follow that?" asked producer Graham Williams. "We are only on our third story, and we have already had a Giant Alien Brussel sprout and a Giant Alien Prawn. What could possibly be more scary than that?" 

"I know," replied writer Chris Boucher "What about a Giant Alien Penis?" 

(This didn't really happen, as you very well know.) 

Image of the Fendahl is not so much a story as a headlong rush through a sequence of Doctor Who tropes. Things happen, not because it makes any kind of sense for them to happen, but because they are the kinds of thing which happen in this kind of Doctor Who story. The components are all in place: a lab full of oscilloscopes; a pretty lady chained to a pentangle; a glowing skull; a Giant Muppet Phallus Monster (and lots of baby phalluses); a foggy, foggy, wood; and an old lady who don't be holdin' with this kind of thing. 

In the cracks between the tropes is a lot of exposition about Time Lord legends, rifts in the fabric of time, evolutionary blind alleys and gestalt entities which feed on life itself. It turns out that the human race has an extraterrestrial origin. (And then it turns out that it doesn't.) The ancient aliens' visit explains why the pentangle is a universal symbol of power and why we throw salt over our shoulders for good luck. Almost definitely. 

It is based around a strong set of characters, several of whom are not cliches. It is overacted and melodramatic: but it's 1977. Everything is over-acted and melodramatic. The confrontation between scientist Colby and scientist Thea in Episode Two would probably have gone down a storm on Play For Today. Director George Spenton-Foster has a nice line in intercutting short scenes to keep up the pace and does his level best to use close-ups and shadows and reaction shots to make the Giant Space Penis look less risible than it would otherwise have done. The production is cast and dark red autumnal colours; we are in the visual world of Talons of Weng Chiang and Pyramids of Mars. It feels like a piece of grown-up TV, where Invisible Enemy felt like a comic strip (and not in a good way). 

But it is all surface. There is much chat about race memories and the extraterrestrial origins of the occult; and about how a Time Lord put the Fifth Planet into a Time Loop (which 'twas against the rules) but it all seems to be made up on the spot. Boucher knows that he wants hubristic scientists fooling around with an alien artefact; and he knows that he wants a Dennis Wheatley human sacrifice scenario in the cellar; but he seems to flail around wildly trying to find a route from one to the other. When Leela asks, not unreasonably, how the Giant Space Penis got from the Fifth Planet to Earth without a space ship, the Doctor replies that it used its stockpile of energy to project itself; and that human belief in astral projection is a race-memory of this method of travel. Leela says "you mean the way lightening travels". 

But when the creature has menaced everyone in the corridor in part four, the Doctor says "it can only have been created out of pure energy while the skull was restructuring Thea's brain." Travelling like the lightening? Astral projection? Or created out of pure energy by an alien skull? Which is it? No-one knows.  

It is never a good sign when companions begin sentences with "You mean....?" (Colby has a nice line in sentences beginning "Are you telling me...?") 

Perhaps Graham Williams had come to the conclusion that most people only watched Doctor Who with half an eye. On any given Saturday, some people would have been coming home late from the football or the shops or the Sunday School concert. It can hardly be said too often that there were no re-runs, no streaming services and no Betamax videos. At any given moment, most of the audience could be assumed to be saying "I don't understand that; but it was probably explained in the episode I missed." And if they are resigned to doing that anyway -- if being confused is part of the fun -- then why not allow even the kids who managed to get home by 6 o'clock four weeks running go away agreeably bewildered? 

There are four scientists. A Sarcastic One, a Grumpy One, a Foreign One, and a Girl One. A hiker is hiking through the foggy, foggy woods, whistling to keep his spirits up. The Sardonic One says that the skull can't possibly be as old as the Girl One thinks it is. The Grumpy One goes to a secret lab, and the Foreign One says "now ve can begin". They switch on their oscilloscope. There is a rising high-pitched sound effect; the skull starts to glow. It is superimposed over the face of the Girl One. The hiker in the woods is scared. He is attacked by something invisible. 

And then we cut to the TARDIS where the Doctor and Leela are talking gobbledegook about continuums, displacements and implosions. 

A week ago, to the delight of small boys and the dismay of serious Who fans, the Doctor acquired a robot companion, K-9. One week later, K-9 is in pieces on the TARDIS floor. Fan-fiction writers bless the production team for this: it means that at least one, and probably lots of adventures must have taken place between Invisible Enemy and Image of the Fendahl. (Has there been a Big Finish about How K-9 Got Corroded?) After all the build up, we won't get to see K-9 as a part of the regular cast for another month. One assumes that the radio controlled hound didn't function on location shoots with uneven floors. Or perhaps Chris Boucher simply felt disinclined to add another companion to his script at short notice. 

There is a little bit of banter about pronouns. The Doctor refers to K-9 as "it" and Leela refers to them as "he" (although he calls the TARDIS "she"). This gets a pay-off four weeks later, when the Doctor announces that he is going to call K-9 "he" after all ("he's my dog"). 

There is an essentially similar scene at the beginning of Robots of Death, when Leela thinks the Doctor's yo-yo is integral to the working of the TARDIS. But that scene was played straight: when Tom Baker explains why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, he seems to believe it, which allows Leela to believe it; which in turn allows us to carry on believing in it. This week's TARDIS scene is played -- if not exactly for laughs -- then at any rate, facetiously. 

-- What did you say, Leela 

-- Leela said... 

-- I know what you said 

-- Then why ask me? 

There are as yet undiscovered tribes in New Guinea that knew that as soon as the Doctor says that he is in "complete and constant control" of the TARDIS, the ship would lurch off course, throwing everyone to the floor. It's an example of that joke format which TV Tropes calls the Gilligan Cut. It crops up again in Episode 2, Leela says that the Doctor is very gentle, and we cut to him kicking boxes around out of frustration. Once the TARDIS is back on course the Doctor says "she" is wonderful and Tom Baker (presumably) ad libs a little football chant ("TAR-DIS! Won-der-ful!") 

The message of Robots of Death was that the TARDIS is a wondrous alien machine that Tom and Louise want us to believe in. The message of Image of the Fendahl is that it's a silly plot device that can safely have the mickey taken out of it. 

But the terminal diagnosis comes as they leave the TARDIS. 

-- Come on then. 

-- No. The one who leads says come on. Come on. 

"Come on" and "Let's go" were both certainly cliches of the period. (I recall some spoof writer's guidelines for Blakes 7 in a fanzine saying that if Avon said "Let's go" then Tarrant couldn't.) But as soon as the characters start to become aware of the cliches, the writing is on the wall for your TV show. 


Leela says that it is obvious that the Doctor cannot control the TARDIS. This is rather odd. The series is now predicated on the idea that the Doctor can control the TARDIS and has to be given reasons to go where he is going. (The whole of next season will be predicated on one particularly convoluted reason.) Last week he was called to Titan base to answer a Mayday; next week he'll be forced to land on Pluto because the TARDIS is broken. This week, the Doctor chooses to go to Earth because The Foreign One's oscilloscope is really a Time Scanner, and (as everyone knows) if you fool around with a Time Scanner you risk ripping a hole in time. Which would be a Bad Thing. The Foreign One is brilliant at electronics; he used to make missile guidance systems; and he is one of the richest men in the world; but quite how he managed to invent something so dangerous is not covered. It doesn't matter: the Time Scanner has no actual bearing on the story. In Episode 4 the Doctor switches it off and says "Whew! We've saved the planet", and everyone who is not taking notes says "You what?" 

The skull is a Mysterious Anachronism, exactly like Eldrad's hand in the Hand of Fear. It's a human skull, but it is millions of years older than any human skull has a right to be. It was dug up in Kenya. (The Sarcastic One's dog is called Leakey because it digs up bones, and not for any childish scatological reasons). Obviously, an African skull is bound up with pentangles, witches covens, and traditions about salt, rather than, say, ancestor worship or Kikuyu. 

In Episode Two, the Foreign One says that the Skull is extraterrestrial, and that this proves that man did not evolve on earth ("of zat I am sure"). The Time Scanner has revealed (somehow) that when the Skull's owner died, it absorbed a huge amount of energy. When something as sophisticated as a Time Scanner -- or maybe just an X-Ray machine -- is turned on it, it releases all this energy, telling the other members of its race that intelligent life has developed on earth. This is a perfectly fine sci-fi trope: it's very much the function of the Black Slab in 2001: A Space Odyssey (which also mucked around with human evolution.) But in the actual story, the Skull seems to operate by possessing people, killing them, and turning them into Giant Rude Looking Caterpillars. We don't see it acting as a beacon or summonsing device. Why the Fendahl need humans to be capable of developing time scanners and radiography before having them for lunch is not explored.

But there is more to come. The Skull is connected, in some way, with creatures from Time Lord mythology -- who were destroyed when the Fifth Planet blew up. The Doctor knows this because after she has been possessed by the skull, Thea, the Girl Scientist faints and tiny little phallic Fendahl appear on her body. Why do they appear? And, indeed, where do they go? Is the thought that the Skull, as well as sending out a signal, has used the nearest human as some kind of bridgehead or teleportation terminus? A cynic might say that the only reason for the Baby Monsters to appear is because Boucher can't think of a better way of appraising the Doctor of the identity of this week's bad guy. 

We aren't told what Time Lord myths are attached to the Very Genocidal Caterpillar. We aren't told if the planet which blew up is the fifth one in our solar system, or in Galifrey's or if it is connected with the number five for some other reason. (Planet of the Pentangles, possibly?) The idea that the Fendhal is a legend rapidly falls away; it becomes simply a Bad Alien that the Time Lords fudged their non-intervention policy to get rid of. And anywhere, their relationship with the Time Lords has no bearing on the story. It's just a spurious way of making the story pointlessly hyperbolical. Not only are the Fendahl  evil aliens who are going to consume all life on earth; but they are the kind of evil life-consuming aliens that Time Lords tell each other scary stories about! 

But there is more to come. Fendalman, the Foreign One, is clearly coded as the villain in Episode One; but in Episode Two it turns out that the main human baddy is actually the Grumpy One, the improbably named Maximillion Stael. It isn't enough to say that the Skull might be the source of some human legends. There has to be some actual Hammer Horror black magic going on. Superstitious villagers regards Stael as Leader of the Coven; and in case we were in any doubt, he has to deliver lines like "I shall be a god!" and "It is too late for all the meddling fools!" 

In Episode One, an elderly lady who runs errands for the scientists has a run-in with the security thugs who Fendalman has called down from London. After she thumps him with her hand-bag Colby (the Sarcastic One) remarks sarcastically that he can see why people used to burn witches. In Episode Two it turns out that Mrs Tyler really is a witch. (She do be following the old ways, me 'andsome, on account of 'ow folks round here were raised in the old religion, so they were etc. etc. etc.) It could be that Colby's reference to witches is a cack-handed piece of foreshadowing; but it is very tempting to think that the joke came first and the plot twist came afterwards. 

I imagine that in the 1970s, some people really did meet up in secret places to perform what they imagined were ancient ceremonies. They could have been rich, Hell-Fire Club, Crowley-influenced decadents; well meaning new-age flower children; or even sincerely spiritual neo-pagans. But Boucher thinks that once you travel west of Basingstoke all the locals speak with thick accents and talk about The Old Ways. Not only is this patronising, but it's a literary cliche. The four scientists are, by Doctor Who standards, fairly naturalistically drawn. The Mummer set yokels are straight out of Cold Comfort Farm. Jack Tyler, (the wise-woman's grown-up grandson) gives the impression that he's going to break into a rousing chorus of Brand New Combine Harvester at any moment. 

A comparison with Jon Pertwee's the Daemons is rather salutary. The Daemons is almost entirely an occult story, in which burial mounds are opened and existentialist vicars say "so mot it be" in crypts. The cloven hoofed alien is defeated because of Jo's self-sacrificial love for the Doctor -- very much how you would expect someone to defeat Satan in a horror story. The sciencey explanation -- that Daemons are not supernatural figures, but aliens from the planet Daemos -- is a secondary gloss. It gives us permission to enjoy what is essentially a fantasy story in the context of Doctor Who. And Miss Hawthorn is a middle-aged, posh, tea-drinking, church of England white witch and not at all a Granny Weatherwax cliche. This was before Terry Pratchett. 

Half way through Episode Three, we get another scene on board the TARDIS. We do not see Leela and the Doctor go to the TARDIS, we do not see the TARDIS take off, we don't even see the Doctor saying "Let's go to the TARDIS". We just discover them in space. The Doctor has taken the Ship ten million years back in time and millions of miles through space to visit the Fifth Planet where the Fendahl originally came from. (Which rather gives the lie to Leela's claim that he can't control it). There is a jumble of pseudo science, and they go back to earth. We don't see the TARDIS materialise and we don't see them get out of it. 

There is nothing wrong with pseudo science. Doctor Who has always been driven by it. But you generally expect it to have some connection to the plot. "The Doctor uses [gobbledegook] to discover that the alien is really trying to [gobbledegook] and can be stopped by [gobbledegook]". But this scene leaves us with no better idea of what the Fendahl is up to than we had before. We are told that the Fifth Planet has been hidden in a Time Loop (and not destroyed at all) which ought to be a set up for a Big Reveal that the Master or Rassilon or the Meddling Monkey is behind the whole thing. Needless to say, no such revelation occurs. 

Maybe Boucher is lamp-shading the fact that his script makes no sense. What is the Fendahl? I don't know and you don't know and the Doctor doesn't know because the Time Lords have put a No One Is Allowed To Know sign around their planet. Or maybe he had spotted that the story was really about Mad Scientist Fendalman, Mad Occultist Stahl and Eccentric Witch Tyler, and needed an excuse to absent the Doctor from the main action? Or perhaps the script was simply too short and the TARDIS scenes were added to pad it out? (Episode Three runs a standard twenty four and a bit minutes, but Episode Four finishes its business in twenty.) 

By the final instalment, a sense of desperation is setting in. The Weird Occult Ritual in the cellar is spooky enough fun. There is some genuine drama; particularly when Stael takes his own life rather than become possessed. We are told that the BBC was running scared of Mary Whitehouse and had toned down the horror; but the rule appears to be that that kids won't be harmed by suicide (or human sacrifice, or executions or torture) provided they happen off-screen. 

The Doctor suddenly remembers that the Fendahl is a Gestalt Entity. That's another good idea: when twelve witches get together to perform a summonsing ritual, what they are really doing is channelling a composite alien being which is made up of twelve lessor beings. But the story rolls in exactly the same direction that it would have done if the people in the cellar had been bog-standard witches calling up a bog-standard bogeyman. Thea turns into a glam-rock Greek goddess, menaces everyone for a bit, and then gets zapped. The Fendahl may be life-consuming death bringers who the Time Lords are scared of, but they have a rather simple Kryptonite Heel. "Obviously sodium chloirde affects the conductivity, ruins the overall electrical balance and prevents control of localised disruption to the osmotic pressures" explains the Doctor. Fortunately Leela is on hand to translate. "Salt kills it.".

And then the Doctor changes the backstory. 

And then he changes it again. 

And then he furiously back-pedals. 

Take your pick: 

1: The Skull is the extra-terrestrial ancestor of the human race. 

2: No, it isn't. Its alien energy merely affected terran life-forms which caused them to evolve into humans. 

3: No, it didn't. It simply manipulated the DNA of some primitive humans so their descendants would eventually summons the Fendahl. 

There is nothing wrong with unreliable narrators and mad scientists who leap to the wrong conclusions. You thought that this was what was going on -- but in fact it was THIS all the time. But there is no sense of a big revelation, of layers of the onion being peeled off until we see the terrible truth that man was not meant to know. It is merely confusing. A simple, interesting premise is incrementally replaced by sixteen or seventeen more complicated ones. 

But why be concerned? The explanation is not part of the story. Witches covens summons Giant Alien Dicks because reasons. 

"On the other hand" says the Doctor, giving up completely "It could just be a coincidence." 

Image of the Fendahl has, in 100 minutes, completely rewritten the history of the human race. Life on earth has very nearly been wiped out, and by my count, at least fourteen people are dead. Mrs Tyler has learned that the religious faith she has followed her whole life was, at best, a cargo cult. So what do the survivors do? Do they spend the rest of their lives in a mental asylum, wishing that the human mind were less able to correlate its contents? Do thet pour oil on their clothes and set themselves alight? (And do their families deny that they ever existed?) Or do they, in point of fact, go back to the cottage and have tea and plumb cake off the best china? 

Keep Calm and Carry On became a silly reactionary cliche. But it does, I think, nicely sum up a story that the English really do like to tell themselves about themselves. And as stories go, it's not a bad one. We really did help to defeat Hitler; our capital city really was bombed flat; and we really did brush our hair and polish the front step every morning during the Blitz. 

In Terry Nation's Survivors, the English middle class are the only people left alive after a pandemic: they continue to iron their C&A dresses, put vases of flowers on the table, and sing We Plough the Fields and Scatter once a year. The Doctor and Leela seem more and more to live in the TARDIS, playing chess, tinkering with K-9, learning to read, trying their hand at painting. Adventures are the interruption to this relatively idyllic existence. 

This is a product of the format. But it is also a core part of the aesthetic. Doctor Who has to reboot at the end of each episode. The toys have to go back in the boxes, ready for the next adventure, and the one after that. If Pyramids of Mars, Image of the Fendahl and the Daemons were all "true" then the Earth would be a surrealistic hybrid, unrecognisable as the world we know. And the story has to start in the world we know because although the Doctor is a disruptive anarchist, he is also a defender of the status quo. 

Cosmic horror is an interruption to domestic life: but it doesn't over write it. The stories, under Graham Williams, will get bigger and bigger, as we move from Gothic to Space Opera to a Douglas Adams parody of Space Opera. But the concerns remain small scale. The human race migrates to Pluto via Mars, but the focus remains on one little guy who can't pay his tax. 

Cosmic horror which is not interested in cosmic horror. Sweeping galactic science fiction which is not interested in galaxies or science. 

You cannot preserve the village green if it was concreted over in the previous story. Lord, keep within they special care, 121, Cadogan Square.