Log in

Doctor Who: Deep Breath

Posted on 03/08/2016 at 22:57
Tags: ,
There are two types of Doctor Who fan: those who divide the programme by Doctor and those who divide it by production team.  These sometimes coincide, but that is not the case here.  Steven Moffat seems to think the programme needs a new, raw style for the new Doctor, but also chooses to follow the old tactic of using old friends or foes in the first story of a new Doctor to provide continuity.  This leads to a darker, more dangerous Doctor and a grey/blue colour palate for the new era, but also the return of the Paternoster Street Gang and a plot that is openly acknowledged to riff on The Girl in the Fireplace and the occasional line borrowed from classic Who, as well as a surprise guest appearance from Matt Smith.

Like the Half-Face Man, then, this is a Ship of Theseus story that swaps its parts around while trying to convince the audience that it is the same programme, only regenerated and fresh.  The real problem, which will dog this whole season, is that the new Doctor, like the sixth Doctor, is too unsympathetic.  He is dangerous, which is novel after Matt Smith, but also rude and unpleasant.  It is not always fun to be with him, especially when he seems to be on the point of mugging a tramp for his coat.

Still, as curtain-raisers go, it works, holding the attention reasonably well and setting the stage for future adventures.

In my early teens, Doctor Who original novels formed a staple part of my reading diet (mainly The New  Adventures and The Missing Adventures; I didn’t get very far into the BBC Books before giving up, although I later picked up a few in remaindered bookshops when I was in my twenties).  To be honest, I didn’t like them much: I liked the mystery around the seventh Doctor (was he the mysterious Other from Time Lord myth?), but I hated his ruthlessness and the callousness of Hardened Space Mercenary Ace.  I was also a bit of a prude, in the way that only a shy teenage geek with no girlfriend can be, and objected to the least hint of sex, particularly from the regulars.  I read the books anyway, because I’d read most of the Doctor Who novelizations, couldn’t afford the videos and in the Who desert of the early nineties, with no TV series, Big Finish or DWM graphic novels there was no other game in town.  As I recall, I picked up lots of the books cheap when Virgin lost their licence.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I’m older and (possibly) wiser.  I’ve watched all my DVDs countless times and, in the midst of a massive Deep Space Nine rewatch, am unlikely to need them in the near future.  I found a copy of the recent reissue of Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters in a charity shop and its loose and literary take on Doctor Who and the Silurians made me nostalgic for original Doctor Who fiction.  I’m also struggling with my mental health and my “to read” list, although enormous, is mostly filled up with serious non-fiction and weighty classics like Homer and Shakespeare; not what I want to read for escapism.  So my eyes were dawn to the pile of books that have been relegated to sitting on top of my bookcase since we moved house last year, ostensibly to make room on the shelves for ‘real’ books.  Did I misjudge the Doctor Who (and Star Wars and The Prisoner) spin-offs?  Are they ‘real’ books after all?  Only a re-read can determine the matter.  Just let me find a step-ladder to bring a few down...

Cut for space and spoilersCollapse )

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part IX, and links to parts I to VIII, can be found here.
Part X can be found here.
Part XI can be found here.
Part XII can be found here.
Part XIII can be found here.

Stories: The Eleventh HourThe Time of the Doctor
Show runner: Steven Moffat
Representative stories: The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, The Doctor’s Wife, The Wedding of River Song

Behind the Scenes

The transmission of The End of Time saw one of the most radical changes in Doctor Who’s long history, as almost all the key personnel before and behind the cameras were changed, with a new Doctor, new companions and new show runner and producers.  There remained points of continuity in the style of the show, particularly the emphasis on emotional stories and the balance of horror and humour, but as we shall see, much else was to change and this was to be a distinct era of the programme, unlike both what went before and what was to come afterwards.

Story Style

The big innovation in this era is a more complex type of story arc than had been seen previously.  Whereas Russell T. Davies had generally trailed one or two elements from the season finale through the preceding season, Steven Moffat structured the eleventh Doctor’s era so that the events of his final story would reverberate backwards through his earlier adventures so that he was constantly encountering the effects of his final battle.

However, there does not seem to have been a fully worked out plan from the start as some details were lost along the way (I do not think it is ever explained how the Silence managed to blow up the TARDIS or where River was between 1969 and meeting Amy and Rory as children some years later) or at the very least became rushed and confused with The Time of the Doctor having to hurriedly tie up a number of loose ends, not always convincingly.  Some elements ended up a little bathetic through over-hyping, particularly the Doctor’s faked death.  Other elements seemed to suffer a change in emphasis, for example Signora Calvierri speaks of the Silence in a way that does not exactly fit with what we see, claiming to have “run from the Silence” and lost the children of her planet to them, which does not easily fit with a renegade faction determined largely on killing the Doctor; the sudden silence at the end of the episode also suggests Silence as a quasi-supernatural force rather than the name of a religious/military faction.

Perhaps more significantly, the arc peaks too soon.  After The Wedding of River Song, only The Name of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor are really relevant to the Silence arc, with season thirty-three concentrating first on the character arcs for the Ponds and then on Clara’s plot/character arc as the impossible girl, which seems to have been brought forward to fill in time or perhaps to make the ongoing arcs less complex and long-term, possibly in response to online criticism.

Within the context of the arc, there are a wide range of different stories, varying in both genre and tone.  The programme can move from the light-hearted adventure of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship to the serious drama of the Western A Town Called Mercy and then on to the contemporary The Power of Three and the horror story Angels Take Manhattan.  This reflects Doctor Who’s mandate to experiment with style and content, but arguably pushes the envelope further than had been the case for a while.

Early on in his time as show runner, Steven Moffat stated that his stories would have a dark fairy tale feel.  This was arguably not pursued consistently, but can be seen to have been loosely applied with elements of stories like The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (particularly the rebooting of the universe), The Doctor’s Wife and The Snowmen being rooted in fantasy and fairy tale rather than hard science fiction.  Of course, ‘fairy tale’ means different things to different people and the divide between science fiction and fantasy can be hard to find, but these stories seem to prioritize fantasy elements over hard science fiction.

After about two years the dark fairy tale elements fade away with the programme focusing on producing miniature films (complete with ‘posters’ in the advance publicity) with “really slutty titles” as Moffat liked to say.  Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (referencing Snakes on a Plane) is the most extreme of these, but all aim to grab the viewer’s attention, usually with a high concept big idea summed up in an attention grabbing title.  This does not mean that the stories were simplified, as episodes like The Angels Take Manhattan and The Name of the Doctor have complicated and emotionally resonant plots that are only hinted at by their titles.

Although Moffat’s Doctor Who can be seen to have distinct differences from Russell T. Davies’ approach, there is some continuity of style across the two eras.  Like Davies, Moffat is interested in rooting his companions in reality (or something approaching it) and especially interested in the love lives of his companions, but Moffat tends to express this in a more science fictional way than his predecessor did (at least at this stage in his time as show runner).  For example, Amy’s Choice looks at the way Rory and the Doctor compete for Amy’s attention.  This is similar to the storyline involving Rose and Mickey across the first two years of Davies’ time on the programme, but Amy’s Choice is more science fictional, rooting the character drama in a science fiction scenario about alien incursions, cold stars and false realities.  This compares with the Rose and Mickey relationship largely playing out away from the science fiction elements of the plot in stories like Boom Town.  The death of Rory in Cold Blood is also made very science fictional by being tied in to the cracks in the universe plot.  It is noteworthy that Moffat’s first season concludes with the marriage of Amy and Rory, something that ties up both the emotional arcs of the companions and the season-long narrative arc of the rebooting the universe plot rather than having it as an emotional epilogue tagged on at the end in the manner of Martha’s departure at the end of Last of the Time Lords.

Finally, it is worth noting Moffat’s tidy as you go approach to Doctor Who continuity.  After fifty years, this had become quite cluttered, but was also a source of popular characters and monsters that were fun to reuse.  At times Moffat tries to sweep the decks of unwanted references, as when Amy fails to remember the Daleks or the Daleks forget the Doctor.  At other times, however, Moffat revels in the idea of the Doctor as a great hero known throughout the universe, for example in A Good Man Goes to War.  There is quite deliberately no consistency here, with Moffat apparently wanting to fit the level of continuity to the needs of the story in question.

The Doctor

We first this Doctor crashing his TARDIS after his predecessor trashed it at his leaving do and he continues to be somewhat manic and eccentric, the madman with a box.  The eleventh Doctor will be more manipulative and scheming than his outward persona suggests.  He bends time to speak to Amy in The Big Bang, does not tell Rory that Amy is a ganger in The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, fakes his own death in The Wedding of River Song without telling his friends that he is still alive and deliberately seeks out the impossible girl Clara.  Perhaps worst of all, he is ruthless in deceiving everyone over his inability to save both Amys in The Girl Who Waited.  In Hide Emma even describes the Doctor as having “a sliver of ice in his heart.”  Nevertheless, he never loses this madcap, improvisational quality.

As with his predecessor, the eleventh Doctor is often presented as being incredibly powerful and a great hero.  This is most obvious in A Good Man Goes to War, a story built around the Doctor’s power and the hubris that accompanies it.  Similarly, in The Pandorica Opens and The Time of the Doctor we see whole armies in terror of him, as River Song had predicted (or remembered) back in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead and it takes a team up of all his foes to build a prison that can hold him.  His death is a fixed point in time and his survival until Trenzalore threatens the universe.  River tells us in A Good Man Goes to War that the Doctor did not intend to become this powerful when he left Gallifrey; the Doctor has changed in ways he perhaps did not want.  This reflects the way that the Doctor has grown more powerful within the fiction over the years (compare the frightened old man of 100,000 B.C. with the figure who can tackle any number of alien armies in The Time of the Doctor), but also indicates the growing influence of Doctor Who in British and global popular culture.  The Doctor simply could not be as “powerless” as he was in the early years when he is expected to defeat alien armies every week.  At the same time and perhaps paradoxically, the Doctor attempts to become anonymous again, although the extent to which he manages to do this varies from story to story.  This is not so much a reboot as an attempt by Steven Moffat to have his cake and eat it, telling whatever type of story he wants.

Interestingly, this Doctor is particularly good with children, which we see quite often, starting with young Amelia.  Making the Doctor Amelia’s imaginary friend was a shrewd move, moving him one step on from the mythic tenth Doctor (“The Time Lord Victorious”), but it is also appropriate, given that the Doctor is an imaginary friend to many children.  If the Doctor is good with children, it is partly because he is childlike himself.  The Doctor retains a schoolboy enthusiasm for everything, although he retains his predecessor’s habit of making pompous and self-aggrandizing speeches.  However, the eleventh Doctor’s attitude to sexuality is more complex than that of his immediate predecessors.  He’s naive enough to go adventuring with a young woman in her nightdress on the night before her wedding and not expect her to see it as a come-on, leading to a comically panicked reaction.  He’s scandalized by Amy being a kissogram, but only once she explains what a kissogram actually is and is bemused by Craig’s offer to leave him alone if he brings someone home in The LodgerA Christmas Carol implies that he invented the sonic screwdriver in lieu of relationships, something which he now sees as a mistake, although as with many of the Doctor’s remarks, this may not be strictly accurate.  Of course, his relationship with River is more complicated, having both childlike and adult elements to it.  He giggles like a child after River kisses him for the first time (from his viewpoint), but also seems to view their marriage as legitimate and meaningful, despite their crossed timelines.  He certainly displays a lot of affection for River and behaves in a more flirtatious way than usual when she is around.

The Doctor’s relationship with Amy and Rory is also worthy of detailed mention before we look at the companions in more detail in the next section.  He seems to be highly invested in making Amy and Rory’s relationship work, as if he blames himself for their relationship difficulties in The Vampires of Venice, Amy’s Choice and Asylum of the Daleks.  If the Dream Lord is a reflection of the Doctor’s self-hatred, it is interesting that he focuses on the perceived love triangle between Amy, Rory and the Doctor.  Of course this is complicated by the fact that the Dream Lord says the dreams they experience come from all their imaginations, so we do not know how much comes from Amy and Rory.  There is no denying that the Doctor goes into a big sulk when the Ponds are gone.  The idea that the Doctor needs a companion to rescue him from himself is commonplace in new Who, but The Snowmen looks back to Doctor Who’s very first season, with an uninterested Doctor hiding out in London until followed home (as Susan was) by someone working in child education who helps him become a hero (again).  The Snowmen is a more fairytale version of this story, as befitting Moffat’s stylistic choices, with the TARDIS parked on a cloud, not a junkyard and featuring living snowmen.

Finally, the War Doctor allows the programme to draw a line under the Time War and the guilt-ridden Doctor we had seen since 2005, although the series had already tacitly moved in that direction with only The Beast Below and (by implication) A Town Called Mercy dealing with the Doctor’s guilt before The Day of the Doctor.  The War Doctor also allows a critique of the new series Doctors with someone a bit like the older Doctors (or the popular image of them) commenting on the tenth and eleventh Doctors, who are presented as behaving childishly as displacement activity to cover their guilt over the fact that they believe that they destroyed Gallifrey.

The Companions

For the first time in the new series, the companions’ biological families do not appear much, although they do appear briefly (less briefly in the case of Brian Williams).  This is a drastic move away from the dramatic set-up of the Davies era.  It is telling that the biggest exception to this is The Power of Three, which is something of a throwback to the Davies era in many respects.  Nevertheless, Amy and Rory turn out to be the biological parents of quasi-companion River Song who was even conceived in the TARDIS, showing that family is still an ongoing concern, even if not in such an overt way.

Unlike the Davies era (and Peter Capaldi’s first season) where the companions’ personal lives and development were important story elements in themselves, here they are linked into ongoing science fictional concerns such as the crack in Amy’s wall, Rory being erased from time, River Song’s parentage and her killing and marrying of the Doctor and Clara’s impossible status.  Linking the companions so closely to the ongoing story arcs makes the whole series seem like one big story.

The companions are still presented as the Doctor’s conscience, particularly in stories like The Beast Below and A Town Called Mercy.  They also demonstrate his alien perspective, for example when the Clara criticizes the Doctor’s callous perspective on human life in Hide, when she realizes that we are all dead from his point of view.

The Doctor has a unique relationship with Amy Pond, as she has grown up with him and his current persona largely grows up with her until eventually she and Rory are forcibly separated from him, causing him to retreat into solitude.  The fact that Amy is originally a kissogram gives her an unusually strong sexual identity for a companion, pointing the way for her attempt to seduce the Doctor at the end of Flesh and Stone and for the Amy-Rory relationship to form a backdrop to most of this era (it may not be coincidental that she first appears in the first and thus far only Doctor Who episode to contain a joke about internet pornography).

Rory at first seems a straightforward foil to Amy and the Doctor, but he develops from an unwilling time-space traveller into a more enthusiastic one, albeit one a bit more pessimistic and grounded that Amy and the Doctor.  Rory is straight-laced enough to phone his fiancé while on his stag do and is embarrassed by the stripper even before the Doctor emerges in her place.  Rory’s love for Amy, signposted here, is a key point of his character, with him eventually becoming the Lone Centurion, waiting for Amy for two thousand years and going into battle in that persona in A Good Man Goes to War to rescue Amy and Melody/River.  The episode even plays with our expectations with Amy apparently talking about the Doctor’s heroism, but really talking about Rory’s, showing how far he has come from the tentative traveller of The Vampires of Venice.  He is, of course, killed and resurrected so often that it becomes a standing joke in the fiction.

Amy and Rory are on-off companions, travelling with the Doctor on and off for ten years of their time.  Rory has a surprising number of friends at his stag do, as companions do not normally have a lot of friends; later we will see a number of his and Amy’s friends in The Power of Three and it will be noted that they are losing contact with them as a result of their TARDIS travels.  Indeed, this is part of the way that the series spends a considerable amount of time from The Girl Who Waited onwards setting up the departure of the Ponds as they grow up and move on from the Doctor, developing lives away from him.  Despite this, they are eventually forced to leave him by circumstances outside of their control, like Rose and Donna, but the preparation beforehand leaves a sense that they are prepared to live their own lives without the Doctor, unlike Rose and Donna.  As with the Davies era, the implication is that no one would easily leave the TARDIS; they need to be weaned off or forced away by complicated space-time events.

Clara, the impossible girl, is fully integrated into an ongoing science fiction plot in a way rarely seen before (Turlough in his first few stories is the only real precedent).  To be honest, this is not completely successful, as the mystery, once raised, does not really get developed until it is solved and the character would go in a different direction in the following Doctor’s era with some plot ends left dangling, notably the TARDIS’s dislike of Clara.

River Song is also a radically new companion, both in the science fictional idea of her meetings with the Doctor being out of order and in her being the daughter of the other companions.  As with Clara, some plot ends are not entirely clear, particularly what she was doing between 1969 and growing up with Amy and Rory.  River is also, of course, the Doctor’s wife, another new idea.  She is very much the eleventh Doctor’s wife, for all that she once claimed to have the spotter’s guide to all the Doctors.  She has a recklessness and fast wit that the post-2005 Doctors have in a greater degree than the original series ones.  River also has a ruthlessness and even an amorality as well as a sexiness that it is hard to think of the original series Doctors being comfortable with (although it can be fun trying to imagine River meeting the first Doctor).  Her love for the Doctor allows the programme to explore new elements of his character as well as reinforcing Moffat’s ideas about marriage as a battle of the sexes.

Finally, the semi-regulars of the Paternoster Street Gang are presented as a sort of nineteenth century UNIT, a base of operations and additional help, as well as a source of comedy.  The nineteenth century background makes it seem different and allows the culture shock between nineteenth and twenty-first century mores.  It also allows Moffat and Mark Gatiss to riff on elements of the Sherlock Holmes canon, especially those that can not be used in their updated Sherlock, from the general aesthetic to in-jokes like “The repulsive red leech”.

Monsters and Villains

Perhaps surprisingly, monsters and villains are not a key part of this era, which is often more concerned with the unfolding of complex plots than with the antagonists of said plots.  For example, the complicated story arc involving the apparent death of the Doctor and its consequences lingers in the memory a lot more than Madame Kovarian and the Silence.  There are a number of new monsters that are effective in both design and concept, but that do not actually do very much.  The Silence and the Whispermen both fall into this category and the Weeping Angels, although introduced in the previous era, are arguably similar.  All of these are highly memorable and frightening, but actually do very little except appear menacing.  The Kovarian Faction and the Silence do build on the Doctor’s reputation in and out of the programme, a key concern of this era as noted above, but this is left a bit under-developed.  The Weeping Angels are a partial exception, being made suddenly much more powerful in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone before losing a lot of those new powers for The Angels Take Manhattan.  Even so, the latter is memorable more for the departure of the Ponds and the visual gimmick of the Statue of Liberty being an Angel (something that raises more questions than it answers) than for adding anything new and interesting to what was established in Blink.

Other old monsters and icons are used in a similar manner to the previous era.  Moffat, like Davies, seems to be interested in the iconography of Doctor Who as a short-cut to raise tension and please fans before getting on with the story he really wants to tell.  Episodes like The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, A Good Man Goes to War and The Wedding of River Song use old monsters to establish a threat or to raise the stakes before telling a very different type of story, one that would not really need those old monsters; even A Good Man Goes to War could be told just as effectively without Strax and Vastra being from established alien species.

Another use of old monsters is to reintroduce them and then take them in a new direction in later stories, with a single member of the species being made into a relatively rounded character rather than being treated just as a representative of a monstrous species.  This is seen most successfully with Madame Vastra and rather less so in the case of Strax, who can hardly be considered a rounded character, fun though he is.

The Daleks are revised as a “New Paradigm”, something that cynics saw as a way of selling toys.  This was quickly reversed after a poor reception (Steven Moffat says that the New Paradigm were only ever intended as an officer class, but that is not how Victory of the Daleks plays out).  Just as Victory of the Daleks plays on The Power of the Daleks, so too The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is based on Doctor Who and the Silurians.  It is interesting that while the earlier story is focused on politics, the later one focuses on family and relationships, with both humans and Silurians having families; unsurprisingly writer Chris Chibnall is the most Davies-like writer of this era.

The Changing Style of Doctor Who XIII: The Time Lord Victorious!

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part IX, and links to parts I to VIII, can be found here.
Part X can be found here.
Part XI can be found here.
Part XII can be found here.

Stories: RoseThe End of Time
Show runner: Russell T Davies
Representative stories: Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, Human Nature/The Family of Blood, The Waters of Mars

Behind the Scenes

In 2005, Doctor Who returned.  As with the TV Movie, it was not a reboot or a re-imagining, although certain elements were updated and even radically rethought (the Time War, the Doctor-companion relationship).  As show runner and executive producer, not to mention chief writer with significant input into the other scripts, Russell T Davies essentially took on much of the old roles of the producer and script editor, becoming the most important person on the programme in the process.

The programme was, of course, a great success, justifying its resurrection as a family drama, a form thought no longer to exist, and its significant budget, not to mention the massive advanced publicity campaign.  Doctor Who could so easily have been brought back – successfully – as a cheap children’s programme (indeed, Davies had pitched a revival along those lines some years previously, in a format revisited for The Sarah Jane Adventures).  In hindsight, it is tempting to see this success as inevitable, but the writers were dealing with the possibility of failure in a way that has rarely troubled production teams since and there is a sense of experimentation and fear of failure about Christopher Eccleston’s season that has not been seen since.

In subsequent years, Doctor Who’s place in the schedules seemed assured.  Indeed, under David Tennant’s Doctorate, the programme occupied a place in the hearts of the public that it had not held since the late seventies.  Doctor Who seemed bulletproof, at least for a time.  Meanwhile companions came and went, old friends and foes returned and the Doctor’s personality subtly evolved, but the basic format remained the same.  But that format was, in certain key respects, highly innovative...

Story Style

Before looking at the style of stories across this whole, fairly long, period, it is worth focusing first on how the programme was brought back to the screens, in narrative terms rather than real-life terms.  As noted above, this was not a ‘reimagining’ or a ‘rebooting’ of the franchise in the manner of the new Battlestar Galactica, the remake of The Prisoner or the J. J. Abrams Star Trek films.  This was a resumption of the narrative that ended with Survival and the TV Movie, although unambiguous proof of this was surprisingly long in coming.

Like An Unearthly Child and Spearhead from Space, Rose introduces the programme to a new audience by rooting it in the everyday before adding the fantastic.  The TV Movie tried something similar, but introduced too much fantasy far too quickly.  Indeed, unlike the TV Movie, season twenty-seven uses the benefits of being a series and not a one-off film to set things up slowly, over time.  The TARDIS’ ability to translate alien languages and the first mention of the Time Lords are held back to episode two, UNIT are glimpsed in episodes four and five but do not really appear until season three and the Daleks do not appear until the middle of the season, held back by Davies against the wishes of the BBC hierarchy in case the season flagged and needed a burst of publicity to pep it up. Rose’s culture shock on first entering the TARDIS, bursting into tears, is necessarily a world away from the later, jokier approach to the “bigger on the inside” reaction.

The rooting of the series in the contemporary world begins from the opening moments of Rose and continues throughout; although the programme would later voyage further in time and space, contemporary stories appeared regularly.  Season twenty-seven itself is notoriously set entirely on Earth or in orbit around Earth in a future that is a recognisable extrapolation of our world; for better or for worse, there is nothing in terms of setting here that might be considered too geeky or challenging for a general audience (this fear of alienation would change over time, but never entirely go away).  Even the past is familiar from memory (Father’s Day) or popular culture (The Unquiet Dead and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances) as much as from history books.  The series is not afraid to be strange, opening, as it does, with a story about living dummies and wheelie bins, but Davies has removed any potential for mockery from the show, something most clear in the way that Dalek systematically takes every joke that was ever made about the Daleks and subverts them, turning them into something deadly.  Nevertheless, initially at least there is less of the weirdness associated with the programme.  There is too strong a risk of failure at this stage to try something as bizarre as The Mind Robber, Warriors’ Gate or even Midnight.  However, Tat Wood suggests in About Time 7 that this is as much about establishing the production infrastructure that would later allow more effects-heavy alien worlds over time.  It is also true that a focus on stories in the present and the past differentiates Doctor Who from straightforward space operas such as Star Trek and Star Wars.  It is also noteworthy that despite these constraints, many episodes in the revived programme’s first two seasons widen the series’ palate in someway, introducing new genres or new continuity elements.

The series is initially a little uncertain tonally.  The burping wheelie bin and the Slitheen’s ‘gas exchange’ noises are at odds with the more adult tone of later stories like Dalek and Father’s Day.  This focus on the contemporary world, the careful establishing of the series’ premise and icons and even, perhaps, the occasional toilet humour all stem from a fear of repeating the perceived failures of Doctor Who in the 1980s and in the TV Movie.  Thus, although season twenty-seven remains the only one written entirely by card-carrying fans, and although this is emphatically a continuation of the new series, not a reboot[1] there is little of the continuity that would feature in later episodes, with it really being limited to the series’ icons (the Doctor, the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver and the Daleks with even the Time Lords limited to noises off), plus the Autons and Nestene, stealing a place by virtue of the effect they had on the young Russell T Davies, who thought that that effect could be replicated for a new generation.  In retrospect there are a few loose ends that look like an attempt to create a new continuity that was abandoned in favour of plundering the old: the Nestenes and the Gelth are both affected by the fallout of the Time War, which implied that this might be a key feature of the series, but it was never pursued.  Likewise, the Time Agency and Jack’s lost memories were quietly forgotten.  Instead, certain elements from the past were subtly re-imagined, most notably the Daleks, the nature of the Doctor-companion relationship and the role of the companion’s family.

Moving on to look at the era as a whole, perhaps the most obvious aspect of the new series, and one that provoked much debate among fans at the time, is the focus on character-based drama, leading to allegations that the series had become a soap opera.  Of course, all drama is in part based around characters and the original series had also had its moments of emotional drama.  The difference is that the original series rarely foregrounded these relationships and the relationships in question generally affected supporting characters, not the Doctor and the companion (the main exception being for regeneration stories and companion departures).  For example, the burgeoning relationship between Greg Sutton and Petra Williams is a key element in Inferno, but it is one element among many and does not involve the regular cast directly, but plays out as part of the general plot about the Inferno Project.  This contrasts with Boom Town, where the relationship between Rose and Mickey not only focuses on the regular cast, but occurs in a separate plot thread to the science fictional plot, which results in Rose literally having to run away from one plot to the other.  Moreover, the character elements are often not science fictional.  Rose and Mickey’s relationship is under strain because she is travelling with the Doctor, but it would be under strain if she went travelling with another man on Earth.  This is not incidental, but is part of Russell T Davies’ plan to keep the programme rooted in the present day and in contemporary character drama.

The series adopts a mode of dialogue common to much contemporary television, dialogue that is delivered very quickly and which is by turns emotional, ironic, full of knowing cultural references and self-aware commentary on the programme itself and a little supercilious.  (There is certainly a sense that this can be described as postmodern in intent, but that would require an essay in itself to defend!)  In a sense this is at odds with the attempts at realism (e.g. Rose’s speech before saving the day in Rose), but it is noteworthy that the series, although rooted in the contemporary world, is not aiming for realism as such.  Rather alien invasions and the like are increasingly accepted.  Instead, the contemporary world is used as a background of ‘normality’ against which the alien and bizarre can play.  The programme has a distorted sense of reality, essentially having its proverbial cake and eating it by creating a world close enough to ours for the intrusion of alien elements to be shocking and to create a sense of familiarity for the casual viewer, yet also allowing strange and uncanny events to take place within it, something taken to an extreme with the parody TV shows in Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways and also demonstrated by the frequent faux news broadcasts updating viewers on events.  From this point of view, the heightened dialogue fits with the attempt to create a reality like ours, but exaggerated.  It must be said that this is a difficult thing to do and the result is arguably as much an acquired taste as more straightforwardly science fictional eras of the programme’s history.  It is also worth noting that the use of celebrity cameos and pop cultural references, alongside the use of pop music within the fiction, well-known guest stars and parodies of recent hit films and TV programmes does seem to be an attempt to make Doctor Who part of the zeitgeist, to make it fashionable, even cool.  Beyond this, Rose’s speech in The Parting of the Ways sets out Davies moral vision for the programme: that one can escape from a dull, quotidian life by making a moral stand.

While the present day stories generally toy with realism (with exceptions like the fourth-wall breaking Love & Monsters), the stories in the past are, as Tat Wood has noted “theme park history”, taking memorable bits from the school history syllabus, from well-known films and TV programmes and famous historical personages (usually authors) and portraying them in a bold style that has as much to do with image as historical reality – this is a history where it did not rain on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation day, where Martha’s skin colour is generally ignored and where Queen Victoria was far stuffier and more humourless than in our reality.  Perhaps most surprising is that the future stories are often bold, colourful tales that seem to be a visual cross between 2000 A.D. comics, the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and late eighties ‘oddball’ Doctor Who stories like Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol.  These stories take a single idea (a planet-wide traffic jam; a slave factory; a futuristic hospital) and push it to its limits, without getting bogged down in technobabble or excessive world-building.  What all three styles have in common is a accessibility, a desire to give people what they want and what they can understand, rather than to challenge them with the complexities or real history or of detailed science fictional world-building.  This has angered some fans and it remains to be seen whether it is the only or best approach to the material, but there is no denying that it attract many viewers to a programme and genre that was thought to appeal to only a small minority audience.

Most of the stories are self-contained, forty-five minute episodes, with a few two-part stories.  This contrasts with the original series’ stories generally made of anything from one to fourteen twenty-five minute episodes, but usually four or six episodes long.  This results in stories that are shorter and more linear, with fewer characters and sub-plots and a much faster pace.  There is a new form of character-based drama with Father’s Day being unlike any previous story in its personal nature, although there are still monsters story in there.

However, for arguably the first time there is a definite ‘shape’ to a season, opening with a couple of flight-hearted ‘romps’, reintroducing an old monster partway through, then heading towards a big season finale with old monsters and a sad ending.  The season as a whole is seeded with references pointing towards the season finale, sometimes very simple, such as “Bad Wolf”, but more complex in season thirty, where a number of plot threads are woven together in the final episodes.  There is also a tendency to become darker across the seasons, building up to the bleakness of the year of specials unlike the relatively upbeat nature of seasons twenty-seven and twenty-eight.

This use of story arcs is part of a change towards more complex, inter-connected narratives.  Boom Town and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways introduce the idea that the Doctor’s actions have consequences, something seen in some of the other season finales, where it is implied that the Master comes to power because the Doctor overthrew Harriet Jones and with the Doctor’s influence on his companions examined in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.  This is something the spin-offs had done, but which had not really been seen on television.  The Long Game and Bad Wolf in particular focus on the way the Doctor tends to leave soon after an adventure, leaving others to tidy up, an idea also present, less clearly, in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday.  Emotional consequences are also followed through with character arcs for most of the companions and semi-regulars.

It is also worth noting briefly that for the first time, Doctor Who uses its spin-offs as source material and inspiration in a sustained way.  Although odd elements had come in from the spin-offs in the past, with terms like “console room” and “chameleon circuit” first appearing in the Target novelizations, now whole elements are taken from the novels, comics and audios.  The Dalek saucers are clearly based on those from the TV Century 21 Dalek comic strip of the sixties, Dalek is based on the Big Finish audio Jubilee and Human Nature/The Family of Blood is based on the most popular New Adventure novel.  Even the Time War may owe something to the Doctor Who Magazine back-up strips of the early eighties or perhaps to the Time War seen in the Eighth Doctor novels, in which the Doctor destroyed Gallifrey at great personal cost.

One final point worth considering is the large number of children who appear within the programme.  This is sometimes done to indicate that this is a family programme, not a ‘cult’ one aimed only at young men.  This is seen most clearly in the motorway scene in The Runaway Bride, where the Doctor’s efforts to rescue Donna are cheered on by two children in a nearby car.  There are also child characters that may be intended as identification figures, such as Chloe Webber in Fear Her.  At other times children are included apparently just for emotional reasons, as with Jackson Lake’s son Frederick in The Next Doctor, put in jeopardy to raise the stakes.  At other times this is less clear-cut.  The Toclafane turn out to be children, apparently because this is more chilling, but on some level it may appeal to at least some children – the Freudian desire to kill one’s parents and take control of one’s environment.  Given that the Toclafane were originally devised when it looked like BBC Wales would not get the rights to the Daleks there is a sense that the Toclafane are children pretending to be Daleks in the playground, like real children; they even have a slightly Dalek-y look.  At any rate, Davies was keen to encourage children’s participation in the show, with the Absorbaloff designed as part of a competition on children’s programme Blue Peter and the role of Creet in Utopia going to the winner of an acting competition on the same programme.  There was also, of course, the forgotten spin-off programme, Totally Doctor Who, aimed squarely at children.

The Doctor

The two Doctors we see in this era have certain points in common, but also some differences.  The tenth Doctor is in some ways the ninth having worked through his survivor’s guilt across season twenty-seven, but this guilt returns after Rose’s departure.

The ninth Doctor initially fits the pattern of some earlier Doctors (most notably the second and the fourth, but also occasionally the seventh) who hid their loneliness and sadness behind a veil of silliness or manic enthusiasm.  Tellingly, he knows what it is like to be the only child left out in the cold in The Empty Child, although how literal a statement this might be is left unclear.  The Doctor brings Rose to the destruction of the Earth on her first proper TARDIS trip apparently to help her understand him, his loneliness and his new belief that all things have their time, based on the destruction of his own planet.  This is also shown in his willingness to let Cassandra die when he feels she has had her time.

His loneliness also leads him to put up a front of indifference and scorn at times, making out that he does not care what people think of him.  He looks scornful when Casssandra says he was the school swot and never got kissed, as if this insult means nothing to him, but all the same he practically begs Rose to join him in the TARDIS at the end of Rose, even though he has spent the episode telling her to go away.  He becomes jealous of other people who claim her attention (Mickey, Jackie, Adam, Jack) and even bullies them, particularly Mickey, although he is later friendlier to Jack and Mickey.

The ninth Doctor is also embittered and angry and often misanthropic, repeatedly referring to human beings as “stupid apes”, while Rose is apparently beautiful but only “considering you’re human” (The Unquiet Dead) – a line that was possibly written as teasing, but is played more forcibly by Eccleston.  His lack of patience with the failings of humanity is unexplained.  Possibly he sees them as mirroring the failings of the Time Lords or thinks that they can achieve so much that is positive that their failings are less excusable than those of lesser species.  Of course, we see him interact with humans so much that there could be a selection bias in the evidence here.  At any rate, his moral indignation is devastating, as seen following the death of the space pig in Aliens of London.  The Doctor’s anger leads him to be compared to the Daleks in Dalek, especially when we learn that he wiped out the Daleks in the Time War.  He has never liked the Daleks, but now his battle is deeply personal.  Ultimately, though, he refrains from killing the Dalek survivor as well as the invasion force in The Parting of the Ways and this is presented as deliberate character growth – he has changed his attitudes and his moral code.  Despite his battle-scarred nature, he can not place the collective ahead of the individual, trying desperately to find a way to let Pete Tyler live in Father’s Day and ultimately refusing to wipe out the population of Earth with the Daleks.

The Doctor’s ruthlessness is the focus of Boom Town, which provides a neat case study of this Doctor and his morality.  Here, he states that he is indifferent to Blon’s execution, but in the end it is clear that he is relieved by not having to follow through on his threats.  Blon describes him as being like a god (a key theme that will echo through later years), setting up the dilemma not just here, but in the next story, when the Doctor is given the power of life and death over the Daleks and humanity, power that he ultimately refuses to exercise, leading in to his successor’s era, which will play with the same themes, but not in an identical way.

If the ninth Doctor is possibly the angriest Doctor, yet he can also swiftly become funny and charming, with an infectious enthusiasm for things he deems “Fantastic!”  He has a bravado that we have never really seen before, but it becomes a fixture of twenty-first century Doctor Who: he is certain of his abilities and delivers long, slightly pompous speeches declaring his intention to defeat his enemies such as at the end of Bad Wolf.  However, he does not do “domestic”.  He never has done so in the past, but now, with a young companion anxious to keep one foot on the Powell Estate, it becomes a mantra, perhaps as a way of escaping commitments and the risk of losing people who matter to him again after the Time War.

The Doctor has a closeness with Rose that was rarely seen previously.  He holds hands with her, something done occasionally by previous Doctors (e.g. the third and Jo; the fourth and Romana), but not often.  Here, however, there is a definite romantic and flirtatious edge to their relationship, even if it never quite blossoms during his lifetime and also leads to an element of jealousy rarely seen before (tellingly, only when Susan and Jo fell in love).  In Dalek we are told that the Doctor did not survive the Time War by choice and over his episodes, we see Rose save him from near-suicidal despair, letting him revel in the wonders of the universe again, thus explaining her unique relationship with him.

There were complaints at the time of broadcast that the ninth Doctor did not do enough to resolve the stories, but essentially he is a catalyst hero whose presence and actions prompt others to become heroic, starting with Rose and later including people like Cathica, Pete and Jack, among others.  However, by being a catalyst, he also becomes responsible for other people’s negative actions.  In particular, his refusal to stay behind and help Earth after The Long Game leads to the situation of Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways.  This focus on consequences (also seen in Boom Town) is an unusual take on the Doctor and his behaviour, something rarely seen before or since in televised Doctor Who, although familiar from the spin-offs.

The tenth Doctor begins life laid back and nonchalant, with a sense of fun, some tongue-in-cheek arrogance and a love of danger similar to his predecessor’s, as well an angry streak.  His vocabulary is as demotic as
the ninth’s and he is more tactile, being keener on hugging.  He develops a number of catchphrases and running jokes, notably “I’m so sorry”, which highlights his compassion, but also risks making him seem insincere for continually apologising, fitting with his growing ruthlessness and the sense across his run that he is at least partially responsible for the danger he finds himself in.  He develops his predecessor’s fondness for portentous announcements, for example, “This ends tonight!” and “I’m the Doctor.  I’m a Time Lord... and I’m the man who’s going to save your lives and all six billion on the planet below.  You got a problem with that?”  This fits with his “Time Lord Victorious” persona (see below) and also with his streak of common-or-garden vanity: he is pleased when he thinks Rose compliments his appearance in Fear Her (she is actually talking to a cat), gets Skye Silvestry to tell him how handsome he is when testing her verbal repetitions in Midnight and forgoes a regeneration, apparently because of his satisfaction with his body in Journey’s End.

Interestingly, the element of exploration important in most Doctors is downplayed with both ninth and tenth Doctors (although not as much as with the seventh Doctors).  The ninth Doctor rarely leaves Earth, while the tenth Doctor is not so much an explorer as a tourist, taking his companions to see the sights and meeting Famous Historical Celebrities.  In The Impossible Planet he states that it is not a good idea to go beyond the TARDIS’ knowledge, which rather flies in the face of the exploration ethos.  Indeed, the fact that this Doctor seems to know everything implies that there is little for him to explore, but we discover in The Satan Pit that he travels to be proved wrong and he explores the unknown rather more enthusiastically in Utopia.

The tenth Doctor continues his predecessor’s intense relationship with Rose and develops it further, although it seems that, for whatever reason, he can never quite bring himself to say he loves her (see Doomsday and Journey’s End).  This relationship and its abrupt ending colours his relationships with all his other companions.  His loneliness returns after Rose’s departure and becomes a key feature of his persona, alongside a growing arrogance; these two possibly feed in to each other, culminating in “the Time Lord Victorious”.  From The Runaway Bride, we are frequently told that the Doctor “needs” someone to balance his loneliness and hold his ruthlessness in check.  There is a sense that his ruthlessness is ultimately self-destructive, something hinted at in The Runaway Bride and made explicit in Turn Left where, without Donna, the Doctor perishes with the Racnoss.

The arrogance that accompanies this loneliness appears in the tenth Doctor’s first adventure, where he tells the Sycorax that he gives “No second chances”, something that applies equally to Harriet Jones.  This attitude could equally apply to the ninth Doctor, who gave no second chances to Adam or Margaret (at least until she was de-aged), but did offer second chances to Rose (in Father’s Day) and arguably to the Nestene, assuming one includes the third Doctor’s encounters with it.  The tenth Doctor is defined as a “lonely god” as early as New Earth, the same story that sees him say there is no “higher authority” above him – the first time he really expresses his sense of self-importance, something that is perhaps inevitable now the Time Lords have gone.  Just as he offers no second chances, so too he is willing to say that Cassandra’s time has come, although he later amends this to say that she should stand trial.  There is a real sense of pride coming before a fall across his era, most notably in The Waters of Mars, but it is a theme that starts as early as Tooth and Claw, where he inadvertently creates Torchwood, which will be instrumental in separating him from Rose.

Despite this, he does generally offer his foes one chance to repent, even if they seem unlikely to use it or to deserve it.  This is arguably also part of his post-Time War psyche: he needs to prove to himself that he had no alternative but to kill.  The chance of repentance is as much for him as anyone else, as it is broadly hinted that he destroyed Gallifrey.  (The statement in School Reunion that he is less merciful in the past seems unlikely, although it may be a retcon or wishful thinking on the Doctor’s part.)  Nevertheless, the Doctor remains ruthless and angry, something shown at its most extreme in The Family of Blood, where the Doctor metes out what seem like cruel and unusual ironic punishments to the Family, perhaps an indication of his anger and sadness over the loss of John Smith, although the following scene sees him fairly sure that Smith is still inside him.  Either way, Joan’s rebuke to him afterwards over all the death being the Doctor’s fault is just one instance of the way the series examines the Doctor’s role in the chaos around him and presents him as culpable to a degree in it; see also Davros’ rebukes in Journey’s End and Adelaide’s in The Waters of Mars.  This has been a trend since the 1980s and is part of a reluctance to portray unambiguous heroes in contemporary popular culture.

Voyage of the Damned marks the point where the programme itself begins to deify the Doctor.  He angrily declares “I can do anything!” when he fails to resurrect Astrid, only for Mr Copper to tell him that someone who could decide who lives and dies would be a monster, a theme developed over the remaining episodes of the tenth Doctor’s run.  Beyond this, the episode has him lifted heavenwards by angels (!), with The Fires of Pompeii going one step further by having the Doctor and Donna literally deified, following the “Sistine Chapel” shot of the Doctor reaching out to Caecillius.  However, running parallel to this is the idea mentioned above that the Doctor needs companions to restrain him.  The humanistic ideas at the heart of Doctor Who can not allow its hero to be deified without protest.

The tenth Doctor’s hubris reaches its height with The Waters of Mars, where he breaks the laws of time to save the Bowie Base crew, showing the way that his power has gone to his head.  He thinks he can rewrite time according to his wishes, but the survivors of the Martian expedition are horrified by him and Adelaide commits suicide to try to restore the timeline.  In many ways, this is the tenth Doctor’s defining moment.  Although it was probably not planned in advance, the whole of his era and perhaps also that of his predecessor seem to be heading here, back to his attempts to restore the damaged timeline while keeping Pete Tyler alive in Father’s Day, through his growing arrogance and power seen in episodes like Tooth and Claw and Voyage of the Damned as well as his inadvertent creation of timeline seen in Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways.  The Time Lord Victorious is the moment when the Doctor’s loneliness, arrogance and anger threaten to tip him over to the side of evil.  It is a choice the Master may have made at some point (see the spin-offs) and the Doctor’s willingness to sacrifice his “important” self to save the “unimportant” Wilf in the next story is a moment of redemption for him, moving him back towards the moral outlook of the other Doctors, despite his initial hissy fit when he realizes that he has not cheated death.  The moral and heroic core remains beneath the arrogance, despite his assertion that he has lived too long.

The Companions

The companions are vital to Doctor Who in this era.  Every season is constructed at least in part as a companion’s journey.  Season twenty-seven sees Rose grow in confidence and awareness before becoming the Bad Wolf, a storyline running alongside the Doctor’s redemption.  Season twenty-eight is the story of Rose’s love for the Doctor and its tragic end.  Season twenty-nine is about Martha’s crush on the Doctor and her growing confidence.  In season thirty Donna’s growth parallels that of Rose, but ends in a memory wipe, something that horrified many viewers, especially when Rose was ‘rewarded’ with the meta-crisis Doctor in the same episode.  Only the year of specials is not focused on the companions, dealing with the Time Lord Victorious and the Doctor’s approaching death.

An idea that is articulated here for the first time, but which has become an accepted part of Doctor Who lore is that the Doctor needs his companions to avoid becoming arrogant, cruel and lonely (as we saw above, these traits are considered to be interlinked).  The companion often represents the voice of compassion against the Doctor’s occasional ruthlessness; when there is no companion, the problem of the Time Lord Victorious arises.  However, the alternative position is also advanced, that the Doctor corrupts his companions.  Season thirty in particular examines the Doctor as a “soldier” who turns his companions into “weapons”, but this idea is not really developed enough to be convincing.  It is another example of the drive to darken the programme towards the end of this era and feeds into the Time Lord Victorious character arc.

This darkening of the Doctor-companion relationship may develop in part from the idea implied here that travelling with the Doctor is so great that no one would voluntarily leave him, especially as the TARDIS, more controllable than in the past, can easily drop the companions home for a quick visit.  The result is that the companions tend of leave the Doctor for tragic reasons, making the Doctor’s influence seem negative.  Rose is trapped in another universe, Martha’s family are traumatized and Donna loses her memory and all the personality growth she has achieved.  It is as if the best a companion can hope for is a tragic separation; the worst is severe psychological trauma for her or her family.

Balancing this is the fact that the companions do tend to grow as people due to the Doctor’s influence.  Rose starts as someone with no ambitions beyond her dead-end job and slightly incompetent boyfriend and becomes someone both confident and competent to tackle Daleks and Cybermen.  Mickey also develops from that incompetent boyfriend to a monster-fighter.  Jack moves from immoral con artist to running a branch of Torchwood and being concerned about the welfare of his team (see Last of the Time Lords – although note that The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances stresses that Jack did not intend to harm anyone physically with his scam, so he was not completely evil). Martha manages to grow past her crush on the Doctor and again become independent, working for UNIT (and Torchwood, but we are not considering the spin-offs here).  Donna arguably grows most of all, from someone completely oblivious of the wonders of the world around her to someone willing to explore the universe, before it is all taken away from her.  Even Jackie comes to terms with Rose’s lifestyle and is briefly seen as a Dalek-hunter herself.  Only the arrogant Adam fails to grow, instead trying to profit financially from his travels, resulting in his swift dismissal.  However, it must be said that in most of these cases emotional development does seem rather to be embodied in carrying big guns and shooting at monsters, something that seems at odds with the ethos of Doctor Who.  This may be because the companion is generally presented as already being empathic and able to communicate with people in a way that the Doctor can not, seen almost from the start of the series, with Rose’s conversation with Raffalo, leaving the action-adventure side of things to be the main avenue for growth.  It is interesting that only Donna does not grow in this way, instead becoming more empathic and open to the universe, but her growth is removed, perhaps another reason why that plotline feels so uncomfortable for so many people.

It is noteworthy that the programme actually begins by being the story of Rose as much as the Doctor, down to being named in the title of the very first episode.  As noted above, her eyes are opened to the wonders of the universe and eventually she becomes willing to sacrifice herself for the Doctor, becoming the Bad Wolf in the process. She adapts to time travel more slowly than later companions (obviously intended to let the new audience adjust), being disorientated by aliens in The End of the World and making the mistake of asking to see her personal history and then trying to change it in Father’s Day.  Gradually, her life becomes a love story, with Mickey, Adam and Jack presented as alternative suitors, favoured for a time but then rejected in favour of the Doctor.  This only becomes fully clear in the closing moments of season twenty-seven, when the Doctor and Bad Wolf-Rose kiss, although they had been flirting for much longer.  By the next season, there is full on sexual tension, with Rose being jealous of any other women the Doctor speaks to and speaking of settling down with the Doctor in The Impossible Planet.  There is hubris here too, with love leading to separation in Doomsday, but a sort of reconciliation in Journey’s End.   This romantic relationship is a new take on the Doctor-companion relationship, but through the presentation of Sarah Jane Smith in School Reunion, the earlier stories are arguably retconned to imply that there was sexual tension between Doctors and companions all the time.

With Rose gone, the focus switches to Martha and there is an uncomfortable sense that both the Doctor and the programme are keeping her on probation to see if she is as good as Rose.  She does so across the season, building to her independence for a year without the Doctor in Last of the Time Lords, before growing beyond anything the Doctor can offer her.  There is, of course, a sexual element here too, with it repeatedly stressed that Martha has a crush on the Doctor, who is oblivious to it.  Such low self-esteem and neediness seem out of character with Martha as a career-focused woman in a high-pressure job.  This would all be uncomfortable even without the racial politics involved in comparing the black companion to the white one; a wiser course might have been to drop the references back to Rose and focus on Martha.  It is rather a relief when she finds her confidence to leave in the last episode and is later seen forging a life for herself in later guest appearances on the programme.

Unlike Rose and Martha, Donna is introduced as a one-off comedy character.  Only when the Doctor’s excitement at going to the creation of the Earth is juxtaposed with Donna’s tears over her betrayal by Lance does she begin to become real.  She gains a certain amount of depth over her year as a proper companion, but remains obsessed by her single status, another uncomfortable character point.  The fact that she deliberately sought the Doctor out second time around to broaden her horizons is a more positive character trait balancing this.  The whole of season thirty is structured to drive home the point that Donna acts from insecurity because she does not think she is anyone important, shouting and ranting to cover this up.  We gradually realize that she is not just important in the sense that Doctor Who portrays everyone as important, but that she is cosmically important – a nexus point in the Doctor’s life.  This is part of Russell T Davies’ view that Doctor Who companions are ultra-competent, moving from workaday jobs to world-saving heroism.  Donna does not fancy the Doctor and this is presented as a great innovation, rather than the norm, showing how much the role and expectation of the companion have changed since the original series.

The doubts raised over the treatment of Donna worsen when one considers the other older women characters in the programme (not that Donna is particularly old, merely older than Rose and Martha): Jackie Tyler, Francine Jones and Sylvia Noble.  These are all forthright, opinionated, even blinkered characters who do not easily grasp the science fictional elements of the stories they are in and who tend to put their daughters down, while simultaneously being over-protective.  Jackie gains some depth, especially from Love & Monsters, but the others remain two-dimensional, unpleasant caricatures of middle aged womanhood.  It is disturbing that, whether intentionally or otherwise, the programme in this era presents two types of women: the lovestruck young woman and the ‘battleaxe’, the bad-tempered, sarcastic, over-protective mother (Donna is a sort of junior battleaxe).

Monsters and Villains

As with many eras of Doctor Who, season twenty-seven sees a number of monsters and villains based on ideas drawn from current affairs, with monsters seeking wealth (Cassandra, Adam and especially the ruthless capitalist Van Statten), beauty (Cassandra), control of the news media (the Jagrafess) and even TV ratings (the ostensible reason for the Gamestation).  The newly-religious Daleks of The Parting of the Ways tap in to fears of religious extremism that have been an almost perpetual feature of the news since the September 2001 attacks.  This is alongside the accidental monsters released in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.  After this season, the series becomes a little less rooted in the real world and is less of a distorted version of the news.  Nevertheless, greed for wealth is an important motivator in a number of stories.  Similarly, The Lazarus Experiment is based on the quest for youth, Gridlock, while not featuring a conscious villain per se, is drawn from contemporary concern about traffic, pollution and drugs.  Sometimes the monsters feel a bit cursory and are clearly not the focus of an episode, being there for children and merchandisers – the large number of monsters based on animals (Cat-nuns, Judoon) may fall into this category.

Season twenty-seven avoids returning monsters except for the iconic Autons and Daleks, avoiding overwhelming the new audience with excess continuity at this stage.  Early on, the idea of a monster-free time travel story (Father’s Day) was mooted.  However, Jane Tranter, Controller of Drama Commissioning at the BBC, insisted on the need for a monster, creating as rigid a template as the programme had had throughout the seventies and eighties (but not the sixties), perhaps removing the possibility of a more intellectual programme in favour of a more populist one.

The Daleks are used in a mature way, to highlight aspects of the Doctor.  They are used as a symbol for totalitarianism as in the original series and also, as noted above, for religious extremism, reflecting the concerns of a twenty-first century audience.  The Daleks are also used to illustrate how violent and hate-filled the Doctor has become after the Time War, until Rose pulls him back from the brink.  Interestingly, Dalek presents the Dalek itself as a rounded character, manipulative, but desperate and almost lonely.  This probably could not be sustained in the long-term without undermining the Daleks’ threat.  Rob Shearman certainly re-imagines the Daleks to remove anything that might be a source of unintentional humour, from the sucker to the perceived inability to climb stairs.

After season twenty-seven, another iconic old monster or villain is brought back each year: first Cybermen, then the Master, then the Sontarans and Davros.  This feels a bit like box-ticking and fan-pleasing by the end.  Davros in particular feels rather superfluous in a story also featuring Dalek Caan and the Dalek Supreme, being kept locked in the Vault by the Daleks with little plot function except to act as a mouthpiece for theories about the Doctor turning his companions into weapons.  More interesting is the use of less well-remembered monsters, particularly the Macra (perhaps also the Autons), suggesting that this was done to recreate a memorable moment (the Autons) or because their presence flowed naturally from the story (the Macra).  There is a sense in all of this of fans playing in the Doctor Who toybox and doing what they always wanted, such as a Dalek-Cybermen fight.

The Master as usual parallels the Doctor, being younger than previously and having a more demotic vocabulary and an accomplice in whom he takes a more sexual interest than previously.   He is more clearly identified as clinically insane than ever before, although it is hard to map this on to any real mental illness.  The Doctor continually hopes to redeem him, more so than previously.  This may say something about the tenth Doctor, who wants to give his foes a chance, or about the Master who sometimes implied to be a good or ‘normal’ person driven insane by the sound of drums in his head.

It is interesting that after idolizing the dead Time Lords for years, when they finally appear, they want to destroy the timelines and become immortal beings of pure consciousness, thus committing the two cardinal sins of Doctor Who: attempting to rule the universe and seeking immortality.  This fits with the pessimism of the final tenth Doctor stories, the sense that people are corrupt and that even the Doctor is limited in his powers and ability to save people.  There is also a sense that if Gallifrey returns, it has to be in opposition to the Doctor, who can not function as a straightforward Time Lord; even as a Time Lord agent in the seventies, he resisted his role and he has been put on trial by the Time Lords on several occasions.

The Slitheen and the Ood are the only new recurring alien races created here (the Weeping Angels do not strictly recur until the next era).  The production team seem to have thought highly of both given their cameos and reappearances (the Slitheen appeared in The Sarah Jane Adventures and were heavily merchandised).  The Slitheen are very much on the childish side, but also stereotypical science fiction monsters, a bit like the classic Greys, only taller and green.  The fact that they rarely reappeared in Doctor Who despite all this merchandising suggests again that the programme was deliberately moved in a more mature direction after the first production bloc (Rose, Aliens of London, World War III), with the Slitheen only making one more appearance in the main series before being relegated to the child-orientated spin-off; even Boom Town is more mature in its approach.

The Ood are unusual in that they are not technically monsters – they are always ill or possessed when they kill.  However, they are designed to look monstrous.  Alongside the Weeping Angels, they are probably the most successful monster produced in this era, in terms of memorability and re-use.  Alongside Novice Hame and, perhaps, Margaret Slitheen, they indicate an attempt to question whether monstrous appearance must be connected to monstrous behaviour, always a key concern in Doctor Who.

[1] Actually, it is not until the return of Sarah in School Reunion that this becomes completely clear.


Posted on 27/08/2015 at 20:41
Tags: , ,
I'm not sure if this is really of interest to anyone around here, but I just discovered that I have a poem up in the latest issue of Altar Journal, an online Jewish literary journal.  I'm not quite sure why I've only just found out about it, but better late than never.

Obeying the Master

Posted on 26/08/2015 at 00:46
Tags: ,
(Am I returning to more regular Doctor Who blogging?  I honestly don’t know.  I do know I have started work on the next Changing Style of Doctor Who post, covering the whole of the Russell T Davies era, a mammoth undertaking that warrants a mammoth rewatch.  I’m currently nearing the end of season twenty-nine/new series three/the year of Martha and the Master.  Anyway, to business.)

Growing up as a child reading the ‘standard’ reference works available in the early nineties (Peter Haining, Jean-Marc Lofficier, DWM when I could get hold of it), I picked up certain ‘facts’ about the programme.  Not real facts, like names of writers and script editors, but opinions passed off as facts.  And one of these was that the Master was one of the cornerstones of Doctor Who, the greatest individual villain, up there with the Daleks and the Cybermen.  John Nathan-Turner, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat all seem to agree, given the number of return gigs for the Master as opposed to, say, the Borad or Professor Zaroff (who has suffered the indignity of being the only villain apparently deemed too embarrassing to be allowed on to DVD for today’s sophisticated audience, but I digress).

Like all myths, it was due for a puncturing sooner or later.  Or rather, two puncturings in fairly rapid succession, from an essay by Philip MacDonald in DWM and another by Daniel O’Mahony in the Licence Denied collection.  Both argued broadly the same thing: that the Master was a bit rubbish, an artificial creation intended to give the Doctor a regular adversary, something the programme’s “limitless format” (another myth for another time) has no need of.  Moreover, he is silly and gimmicky and always loses, driving a series of clichéd plots that have no place in a series as innovative and clever as Doctor Who.  As Graham Williams said in an interview posthumously printed in DWM around this time, as soon as he turns up, the audience is wondering how he will lose this time.  And so my impressionable adolescent mind found a new myth: the myth of the Master being pointless, not a premiership player at all.

And yet the Master is still here.  He’s plastered all over the latest DWM, for instance.  And yes, some of that coverage is mocking.  The over-complicated, hole-ridden plans.  The  insistence on involving the Doctor even though he always wins.  The evil laugh.  The general air of camp silliness.  All come in for a sound mocking.  But there is affection beneath all the mockery.  Why?  If the Master is so rubbish, why do we, and successive production teams (who we can assume are not deliberately trying to alienate the audience) love him so much?

Some of it involves slaying another myth my adolescent self held dear, namely that Doctor Who is somehow “realistic,” a sort of kitchen-sink drama in time and space about a time-traveler and the real and the politically-relevant dilemmas he deals with.  Once we can accept that, while the programme does have deeper meanings, on some level this is a bit of escapist fun, we can be more accepting of the Master, who embodies that fun.  (Arguably it’s precisely the clash between the realistic and escapist elements in the programme that can lead to the kind of kitsch and camp which the Master embodies.)

And he is fun!  For one thing, every single actor who played him, from the legendary Roger Delgado to the wonderful Michelle Gomez is clearly having a ball, letting their ids run loose and do stuff that would not normally be acceptable in society (genocide, assassination, answering authority figures back, laughing inappropriately, that sort of thing).

Even the clichéd, B-movie villain aspects have a place.  After all, cliché becomes a cliché because it is overused and it is only overused because it has a certain power.  The complicated death-traps and manic laughter function almost like a musical leitmotif, reminding us just who this character is and why we like him.

There is a more serious point to be made, which is that the character does function as a mirror to the Doctor.  They are broadly similar and as one changes so does the other.  For example, the Simm Master adopts a more demotic form of speech than previous incarnations, fitting with the twenty-first century Doctors.  Even if the Master’s plans are deeply stupid, the conceptual parallels between the two characters, which the writers continually emphasize, make the Master feel like a serious threat, at least in his better stories, and even some of his worst ones (I think Logopolis is pretentious piffle, and yet it exerts a strong fascination over me, albeit not just because of the Master).  The Delgado Master in particular gets to send up some of the more pompous aspects of the early seventies format, allowing the programme to have its cake and eat it, acknowledging the flaws, but getting its own jokes in before the audience’s.  Whose side are you on in The Time Monster when the Master complains that the third Doctor always has to have the last word and feeds those very words back to him backwards?  The real answer is that you are on the side of the Doctor and the Master – the former is obviously right, but you have to concede that the latter has a point regarding the third Doctor’s need to win an argument.  The Simm Master arguably does something similar for the Davies era format, making fun of the demographic box-ticking TARDIS team and horribly aging the youngest and most conventionally attractive Doctor to date.  This may help explain why the Master only makes three appearances in Tom Baker’s seven year long stint as the Doctor: the fourth Doctor was too good at sending himself up to really need the Master; when the latter did appear it was mostly as a hate-fuelled walking corpse who did not mirror the Doctor in the usual way.

So, although the Master is essentially an artificial and unnecessary character, it is these elements that make him so compelling.  Freed of a clear narrative function, he can send up the programme and its lead, while providing a compelling threat.  And this is without even touching on his unique and complex relationship with the Doctor as his oldest friends, something the likes of Davros can not hope to achieve.  So, perhaps inevitably, the Master is destined to return, sooner or later, as he always does.  Bwa-ha-ha!

Mention Quatermass to most people and, if they have heard of it at all, they will most likely think of the groundbreaking BBC serials of the 1950s or the Hammer films of the fifties and sixties.  Less remembered is Quatermass, the bleak sequel broadcast in 1979 on ITV, with a limited cinema release as The Quatermass Conclusion.

Aside from obvious production changes (e.g. colour, longer episodes, more location filming), Quatermass differs from its predecessors in its presentation of the near future.  While all the earlier Quatermass stories had been set vaguely in the near future, aside from a few surface details, it was primarily the advanced British space programme and the resultant contact with alien life that made the near future different to the audience's present. Quatermass presents a more detailed near future scenario, extrapolated from the dissent of the sixties and seventies.
While it is clear that society has broken down in this near future, the exact details are not always clear and are sometimes contradictory.  Law and order has broken down in the cities, yet the government still has an army at its disposal, which makes one wonder why it does not enforce martial law to try to get the situation under control.   Society has collapsed and the elderly are living in hiding, but there is a sort of pornographic version of Top of the Pops being broadcast by the British Television corporation (which has a logo suspiciously similar to that of the BBC in 1979!) as family entertainment, alongside more serious science programmes.  There are frequent power cuts (not unlike the real Britain in the seventies), but Kapp's radio telescope still gets enough electricity to work (there is a bit of unconvincing 'lantern hanging' here, with Kapp stating that he fears he will lose the power soon).  Above all, Quatermass seems not to know at all what has been happening in the cities, allowing numerous info-dumping conversations, yet this does not seem credible given the almost total collapse of civilization implied at times, even if he is living by a remote Scottish loch.  Similarly, the USA and the USSR are said to have similar problems (perhaps not quite so severe), yet both have the resources for space programmes not unlike their real-life equivalents and the Soviet youth seem to be happy as part of the Youth Pioneers, rather than forming into the feral gangs seen in Britain.

However, this occasional incoherence does not detract from a sense of nightmarish dislocation in which the details of the story matter less than the fact that death could strike at any moment.  Virtually every major character dies and while Quatermass makes a meaningful sacrifice, most characters die quite pointlessly and horribly.  This reinforces the nightmare feelings, but makes it hard to actually enjoy the story.

The story suffers from a style of dialogue that seems to belong to the era of the original serials, not to mention writer Nigel Kneale's inability to write working class characters.  Kneale establishes a series of polarities: old/young, science/cult, reason/superstition.  This is fairly uninspired and familiar, although the emphasis on geriatrics saving the world is unusual.  The story feels like the work of a bitter old man, so it is a surprise to realise that Kneale was in his fifties when he wrote it.

Despite all this, I did enjoy Quatermass.  Kneale was always more of a horror writer than a science fiction one and there is a real sense here of living in an urban nightmare.  The story benefits from a series of mostly strong performances, although John Mills' Quatermass lacks a certain charisma and presence, although he is acceptable enough.  The usual Kneale traits are present here: eerie rhymes, incompetent government, ancient evil hidden in human history, mankind being used by vastly more powerful beings - yet they are as potent as ever, despite their familiarity.  The atmospheric location filming helps greatly, although there is some cheap studio work, notably the American shuttle set.

Quatermass is ultimately a triumph of atmosphere over logic and is best taken in small doses, but it will repay the attention of any Quatermass fan.  It is easy to sound negative, but like reviewing a nightmare it is easier to point out the irrationality of the experience than to convey its nihilistic power.

(This essay on Quatermass II in its historical context may also be of interest.  I'm very proud of it.)

The Changing Style of Doctor Who XII: Who am I?

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part IX, and links to parts I to VIII, can be found here.
Part X can be found here.
Part XI can be found here.

Stories: The TV Movie
Executive Producer: Philip Segal
Writer: Matthew Jacobs
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Representative stories: The TV Movie (obviously)

Behind the Scenes

In 1996, Doctor Who had been off-air for over six years.  Fandom had heard rumours of a possible American co-production (alongside rumours of a feature film that never materialised), but nothing had been confirmed, largely because, for a long time, there was nothing to confirm, just endless negotiations and drafting and redrafting of series bibles and scripts as eventual executive producer Philip Segal took his idea of a high-budget version of the programme for an American audience from production company to production company.

And then, suddenly, it was really happening.  The TV Movie was not officially a pilot for a new series of Doctor Who; although Segal seemed happy to let people believe it was, it was not in his power to commission such a pilot.  It was a one-off film intended to gauge audience interest in the hope that a full series might follow, a so-called ‘backdoor pilot.’  Because of that, and because of its short running time, it is hard to determine the type of style Segal, writer Matthew Jacobs and director Geoffrey Sax were aiming for in their version of Doctor Who, not to mention how much of what appears here would have survived in a full TV season.  Nevertheless, the TV Movie points the way towards the full revival of Doctor Who in 2005, both in terms of things Russell T Davies consciously avoided and in terms of things he picked up on and used, perhaps more of them than is usually acknowledged.  As such, the TV Movie, while something of an oddity in Doctor Who’s history, is also worthy of our attention.

Story Style

As many commentators have noted, the TV Movie is indebted to a number of popular television programmes from the mid-nineties, including ER, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and The X-Files.  It can be argued that the TV Movie is an attempt to re-imagine Doctor Who in this context, to create a rival to programmes like these and the Star Trek franchise, but using the building blocks and existing fanbase of Doctor Who.  The so-called Leekley Bible, the proposed writers’ guide for the programme, is indicative of this trend, featuring proposed remakes of many original series stories, but often relocated to the Americas.  This may seem odd, but twenty-first century Doctor Who has occasionally attempted similar things, albeit with more subtlety than the suggested remakes of Genesis of the Daleks and The Gunfighters.  For example, The Evil of the Daleks and The Power of the Daleks have been re-imagined as Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks and Victory of the Daleks, while a number of stories from the spin-offs have been adapted or used as starting points for ideas.  The idea is not as backwards-looking as it might seem: at this distance only die-hard fans will remember details of original series stories, especially lost ones, just as only they will know the spin-off books, comics and audios.  A remake does not have to be a slavish and creatively-bankrupt one and Doctor Who has been pillaging classic fiction for decades in the search for inspiration and there is no inherent reason why its own past should be off-limits.  Still, Matthew Jacobs’ arrival on the programme saw the TV Movie shift away from the Leekley Bible in certain respects, which was in any case a series of suggestions as much as a mission statement, so we can not be sure that a full series would have seen such remakes.

The TV Movie generally does not go this far in using Doctor Who’s past to build its future.  Nevertheless, it is notable that the TV Movie seems to borrow much of the material at the hospital from Spearhead from Space, while the climactic fight between the Doctor and the Master for control of the Eye of Harmony owes more than a little to The Deadly Assassin.  Beyond this, there is still a general sense of repackaging Doctor Who for a new audience, taking the props of the past and trying to deploy them in a new way, although Doctor Who has been doing this every few years since 1963, as these essays have hopefully shown.  The TV Movie is possibly trying to put a Doctor Who spin on established formats, while also trying to establish the programme for a new audience, leaving it caught between full-on Doctor Who, with the Master, Gallifrey, the Daleks and more and the over-familiar tropes of other television programmes, science fiction and otherwise.  It is worth comparing it with An Unearthly Child, Spearhead from Space and Rose, all of which were launching or relaunching Doctor Who in a new style, but which took a more minimalist approach, focusing on key areas of their Doctor Who, leaving less important things to be introduced later.

A similar problem can be found with the TV Movie’s tone.  The film is tonally uncertain trying to be alternately dark and brooding, sentimental, funny, action-orientated, romantic and frightening.  Doctor Who can do all of these individually and even several at once, but it is not always clear what the production team were aiming for as their primary tone, which is arguably a failing in a pilot, even a backdoor one, as the viewers are likely to be left uncertain as to what they can expect in the future.  It is difficult to find the heart of the TV Movie, to work out what is its core theme or tone, although as we shall see, there were attempts to provide character arcs to give weight and shape to the story.

Rather more promising is the direction, which uses some clever juxtapositioning (e.g. the regeneration intercut with Frankenstein) and a recurring eye/circle motif leading to the Eye of Harmony to bring unity to the production, while the use of cross-fades and similar imagery early in the film helps to give it a free-flowing feel.  We will never know the extent to which this could have become the programme’s permanent house-style, given the pressures of weekly episodic television production, but what we see here is extremely promising, establishing a bold new visual style for the programme.

The Doctor

The opening narration by the (eighth) Doctor establishes this as the Doctor’s story, however much it may at times appear to be Grace’s story (see below for more on the confusion here).  Like most regeneration stories, it is about how the new Doctor finds himself.  It is therefore unclear how much we can generalise from this to predict what a new series would do.

We do not see much of the seventh Doctor here, but he is visually coded as an eccentric intellectual with a tweed jacket and unkempt hair, reading The Time Machine (people on television rarely seem to read unless being marked as intellectual).  He drinks tea, which establishes an Britishness motif also shown by his landing the TARDIS before a sign advertising holidays in London.  Later this will apply to the eighth Doctor too, who will be excused by Grace as British.  Again, it is hard to tell whether this would have led to anything significant in a series: an exploration of Britishness in the postmodern era?  Or just window dressing at best?  It does seem intended primarily to foreground the nature of the franchise as imported to America rather than for any other reason.

The eighth Doctor is quirky, exuberant and excitable, as well as being oblivious to social niceties in a way that would actually appear threatening in real life (getting into Grace’s car without her permission); the audience is apparently supposed to be sufficiently won over by his eccentric charm not to care.  As with later Doctor Who, the TV Movie is about the effects of the Doctor on those around him, particularly Grace, but also Chang Lee and even one or two minor characters like Gareth.  Unlike twenty-first century Doctor Who, the Doctor’s role here is largely positive and redemptive, as we shall see in the companions section.  This fits in with the supposedly “accidental” Christological imagery focusing on the Doctor that permeates the production (waking from the dead in a shroud, wearing a symbolic crown of thorns when (nearly) being killed at the climax etc.).

Controversially, this Doctor is half-human.  It is unclear what the production team attempted to achieve by this. On one level it seems to simply have been a left-over from earlier drafts in which the Doctor’s family was to be the focus of the series: he was to have had a human mother and a missing Time Lord father for whom he was searching, providing a clearer focus for the narrative than had been the case in the past.  It was also to have helped explain the Doctor’s fondness for Earth.  However, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that it was intended to make the character more accessible for an American audience, in the way that Mr Spock in Star Trek had a human mother and a Vulcan father.  It is impossible to know how important this would have been in a follow-up series.  It is certainly interesting that the TV Movie suggests the Doctor is half-human while simultaneously drowning the story in Time Lord concepts (regeneration, the Eye of Harmony, the Seal of Rassilon).

That the Doctor is a time-traveller is also painted in broad strokes.  As well as reading The Time Machine in his time machine, the Doctor knows famous figures from the past, as well as having foreknowledge of the future of various people he encounters.  The Doctor Who Magazine comic strip would make intelligent use of this (see The Fallen in the collection The Glorious Dead), but here it is again unclear whether it was meant to build anything important or if it would have acted like the psychic paper in the twenty-first century version of the programme: a useful way of getting the Doctor out of trouble and not much more.

Finally and most controversially, the eighth Doctor is sexualised in a way that had not been seen before.  This may again be a populist move for an audience that expects sexual tension between male and female lead characters.  This is a new area for Doctor Who (excluding The Aztecs), but familiar territory for television in general, including science fiction and fantasy television (see Lois and Clark and The X-Files, both noted above as influences).  This probably would have been maintained in some form over a series, just as it has featured in much of contemporary Doctor Who, albeit less so as time has gone on.

The Companions

Grace is the familiar fictional figure of the career-focused person (often a woman) who has sacrificed her personal life to her job.  As the Doctor says, she is tired of life, but afraid of dying.  Hers is a narrative of redemption as the Doctor re-opens her eyes to the wonders of the universe, which just about salvages the conclusion of her story arc which sees her return to mundane life when aesthetics would require her to join the Doctor in travelling time and space.  Again, the nature of the backdoor pilot gets in the way: one assumes that Grace could not end the story in the TARDIS in case the programme went to series and either Daphne Ashbrook was unwilling or unable to return or the studio bosses wanted to replace her (compare with the big cast changes between the pilot episodes and first full seasons of the original Star Trek and Babylon 5).  Grace’s arc is further deflected by the TV Movie’s focus on the Doctor, leaving the episode with an uncertain feel as to just whose story this is.  The focus is split between Grace and the Doctor.  We could have seen the Doctor through the eyes of Grace (compare with An Unearthly Child and Rose), but the Doctor is foregrounded, being introduced to us in the opening moments of the episode, at least in part to provide a regeneration sequence.  This was probably a mistake, given the task of selling the programme to a new audience who did not know the Doctor.

As well as being the companion (to all intents and purposes), Grace is also the Doctor’s love interest.  This was new ground for Doctor Who, certainly in such an open way (fans will continue to ship their favourite pairings, but this is the first openly acknowledged as such on screen), unsurprisingly given that this is the first obviously sexual Doctor (again, ignoring early experiment of The Aztecs).  This at least was likely to be maintained in some form in a full series, regardless of whether Grace returned.

Chang Lee is more the Master’s companion than the Doctor’s, but he does seem to be regarded as a companion by a part of fandom, so a few quick words about him may be in order, especially as they reflect on Grace’s arc.  Lee also has a story arc of redemption, this time one of moral redemption, moving from murderous criminality (being involved in a gang war when we meet him) to alliance with Master to repentance and reform, even being rewarded for his change of heart with a bag of gold and a warning to avoid San Francisco this time next year (next year?  What about the gang still after him from the start of the film?).  As such he reinforces the idea that the Doctor is able to influence people for the better.

Monsters and Villains

The TV Movie is quite bold in eschewing a traditional monster for the most part (bar a few scenes of the Master as a shape-shifting CGI snake) in favour of a humanoid villain.  This marks it out from Doctor Who, especially as it appeared in the public’s imagination, which had often featured memorable monsters such as the Daleks and the Cybermen.  Of course, this choice may have been driven partly by budgetary considerations as well as by the desire to move the programme in a new direction, but it does suggest a more character-focused approach to the programme, something also indicated by the character arcs for the Doctor and Grace.

The Master is presented as the equal and opposite to the Doctor, even his superior in some respects.  For example, the Master wins the support of Chang Lee much more easily than the Doctor wins the support of Grace.  However, if the Doctor offers redemption, the Master only offers corruption using appeals to materialism, lies and hypnosis to control Lee and Grace and use them as instruments of destruction.

The Master has a brutal edge rarely seen before, with him appearing to break the necks of both Bruce’s wife and Lee (I believe snapping sound effects were removed late in the day).  This may be a result of the later broadcast time, which I think was the latest a new episode of Doctor Who had been broadcast in the UK until the 2014 season.  Despite this, he remains largely an over-the-top, even somewhat camp villain familiar from many science fiction and action films.  There is no real depth here other than his paralleling the Doctor and even that leaves it unclear as to what these parallels and oppositions actually say about the Doctor, beyond further foregrounding him as the hero of the story.  This may perhaps be another artefact of the endless drafts and rewrites, as in the Leekley Bible, the Master was to have been the Doctor’s half-brother.  Perhaps some element of this survived in the desire to compare and contrast the Doctor and the Master, although the programme has often drawn subtle parallels and oppositions between the two characters.

The Changing Style of Doctor Who XI: The Dark Doctor

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part IX, and links to parts I to VIII, can be found here.
Part X can be found here.

Stories: Paradise Towers Survival
Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Script editor: Andrew Cartmel
Representative stories: Remembrance of the Daleks, Survival

Behind the Scenes

As noted in the previous article, Andrew Cartmel had arrived as script editor at a time when Doctor Who was in crisis.  The previous script editor had left acrimoniously and the BBC management had lost confidence and interest in the programme, not giving it the budget it needed for higher production standards and, from Cartmel’s first season, scheduling it in the graveyard slot opposite Coronation Street, the most popular programme on British television.

Cartmel’s response was a radical reinvention of the show, aimed at modernising it and attracting a new audience.  In one sense, he failed, as after three seasons of mostly falling ratings, the programme was indefinitely suspended.  Aside from the 1996 TV movie, there would be no new series of Doctor Who on television until 2005.  Nevertheless, Cartmel’s stylistic innovations would drive many of the Doctor Who spin-offs of the nineties and noughties, as well as feeding in to the returning series in 2005.

Story Style

Doctor Who in this period is famous for its left-wing political outlook.  Andrew Cartmel, on being asked at his job interview what he would like to do with the job if he got it, replied, “Bring down the government” to which Nathan-Turner laconically responded that he might be able to show that green people are equal to purple people.  There is certainly a left-wing political slant to many stories: Paradise Towers tackles urban decay and social atomisation; Remembrance of the Daleks is about racism and neo-Nazism (Silver Nemesis also features Nazis, but it’s difficult to see a political message in that any more than in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is perhaps its inspiration); Battlefield is an anti-war and anti-nuclear tale; Ghost Light and Survival both deal with social Darwinism, while The Curse of Fenric is another anti-war story, with a slightly disturbing positive presentation of the Soviet Union.  Above all, The Happiness Patrol is generally seen as an all-purpose attack on Thatcherism, although it would be more accurate to say that it is a personal attack on Mrs Thatcher with Sheila Hancock delivering a powerful caricature performance.  But there is no point-by-point attack on government policy, no reference to privatisation and only brief mentions of industrial unrest.  Indeed, the political radicalism of this era can be over-stated, perhaps as a result of the need to attract a mainstream audience, or to keep to the BBC’s neutrality policy.

By his own admission Cartmel was a big fan of the adult comics of the eighties and was strongly influenced by them in his vision of Doctor Who.  We shall see below how the character of the Doctor was shaped by the superheroes of the time, but the story styles were also influenced by comic books.  Stories like Silver Nemesis, Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric arguably owe something to the graphic format in the way that they focus on bold visual images and juxtapositions ahead of plot logic, relying on the force of the image and the speed of the narrative to carry the viewer over any plot holes.

A related issue is the influence of postmodern writing styles.  Postmodernism often places theme and imagery centre-stage ahead of plot and character and tries to create an intertextual web of references to other stories and historical events.  This can be seen in a number of stories in this era, most notably The Curse of Fenric and Ghost Light.  In the former the idea of the chess game as a metaphor for war ends up dominating the story; there is no real reason why a godlike being such as Fenric should care about a chess game nor why the Doctor should be able to make an illegal move to win it, but the power of the imagery (and the acting) lets us accept these conceits.  Similarly, Ghost Light does not tell its story in a straightforward, linear manner, but litters its narrative with in-jokes and references to Victorian culture (as well as later pop culture), creating a picture of Victorian culture that extends beyond the house in which the drama is situated and resonates with issues relevant at time of broadcast, such as religious fundamentalism and social Darwinism.  While it has less thematic depth than these stories, Silver Nemesis’ visual style, bringing together Nazis, a seventeenth century witch and the ‘props’ of Doctor Who (placing the Doctor centre-stage, adding Cybermen and Time Lord mythology), as well as a cameo for the Queen (or her stand-in) has a postmodern playfulness with imagery and a cheerful disregard for rules and conventions of thematic unity or narrative coherence.  Other stories show these elements of postmodern styling to a lesser extent, such as The Happiness Patrol’s copyright-challenging Kandy Man or The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’s joyful slaughtering of an insufferable Doctor Who fanboy, with a postmodern wink (or raspberry) at its audience.

The stories also have more of a fantasy style than other eras of the show.  Although it was later given a science fictional explanation, Lady Peinforte’s mode of time travel is originally presented as pure magic, while a cut scene in Battlefield suggests that advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology (Clarke’s Third Law backwards); the story has Morgaine using magic throughout.  The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and Survival have magical-seeming things happening and while there may be a rational explanation, the programme is in no hurry to give it and certainly not to smother the story in technobabble as might have happened in the past.  This is another sign of the writers setting out to reinvigorate the programme by exploring new territory.

It must be said, however, that the laudable desire to employ new writers and find new creative directions for the programme was not without its problems.  Cartmel’s decision to let his writers (often new to television and sometimes to professional writing) write what they wanted and cut the episodes to the right length later, often in the edit suite, is problematic.  The deleted and extended scenes and special editions available on DVD show that, contrary to what fans previously believed, very little in the way of important exposition was lost from the broadcast episodes.  What did get cut was mood and tension, resulting in some very badly-paced productions with rapid editing that seems very modern, but often undercuts attempts at atmosphere and eeriness; it is notable that The Curse of Fenric: Special Edition DVD generally stitches small scenes back together into longer ones and is much better as a result.

It is also true that season twenty-four, like The Trial of a Time Lord, feels more like a children’s programme than previous eras.  As noted last time, this is partly due to the programme being recorded entirely on video rather than film, with video by this time being associated primarily with cheap children’s television, but the feeling of being aimed at children comes from the scripts too.  All the stories in season twenty-four have serious and even disturbing ideas in them, but this is often lost among broad comedy, most notably the Doctor’s pratfalls and malapropisms.  The direction often favours the comedy over the serious aspects of the programme.  This would all change.  The jump in quality from season twenty-four to Remembrance of the Daleks is enormous, but Silver Nemesis would see the return of unnecessary crude comedy scenes (I see The Happiness Patrol as an essentially serious, experimental story that did not completely work, but I know other people disagree).  Nevertheless, by the time of season twenty-six, this is an accomplished programme, dealing carefully with complex characterisation and adult themes.

The Doctor

The seventh Doctor starts life as a clown, pratfalling and speaking in malapropisms.  This is gradually toned down, with more subtle comedy replacing it.  Nevertheless, even in season twenty-four, a different and more powerful interpretation of the role is forming, seen in situations such as the Doctor using the Caretakers’ rule book to aid his escape in Paradise Towers, his melancholy reflections on love and his “life will defeat you” speech in Delta and the Bannermen and his farewell to Mel in Dragonfire.

By season twenty-five, Cartmel had made it his explicit aim to place the Doctor back at the centre of the series and to increase the mystery surrounding him, which Cartmel felt had been eroded over the years.  We now know that Cartmel had no ‘masterplan’ for the character or the series beyond these broad goals, but to further them, he restructured the series, making the Doctor more manipulative and proactive and hinting at secrets in his past (Remembrance of the Daleks, Silver Nemesis) and his future (Battlefield).

In fact, this portrayal of the Doctor as manipulative of both his friends and enemies was not entirely innovative, with such stories as The Evil of the Daleks, The War Games, The Claws of Axos and The Invasion of Time showing the Doctor apparently cooperating with his enemies, to the consternation of his friends.  Similarly, the first Doctor performs a minor act of sabotage to get his companions let him explore the city in The Daleks and is keen to stress the immutability of history, which sometimes upsets his companions.

The difference with stories in this era is that in those earlier stories, the Doctor was essentially reactive, being trapped in a situation where he is forced to feign cooperation with the villain and to plot his way out.  However, the seventh Doctor deliberately seeks out enemies to trap them, something that was impossible until the TARDIS became fully steerable in the stories of the eighties (exactly how much the Doctor planned in advance in stories like Silver Nemesis and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is not always made clear).  Moreover, the Doctor’s control of events often takes place on a larger scale in the late eighties stories than in earlier ones, so it is here that the idea of the Doctor as a godlike figure begins to appear, even if it is not yet made explicit (he had been a god in The Face of Evil, but the point of that story was that he made a very bad god).

Cartmel saw the Doctor as being like Dr Manhattan from the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore.  This is an odd choice, as Dr Manhattan has little interest in humanity and much of the novel centres on his abandonment of it; the villain of Watchmen is actually closer to the seventh Doctor of The New Adventures, being willing to sacrifice millions of lives for the greater good, but again this is not really the case with the televised seventh Doctor.  While the televised seventh Doctor manipulates villains like Davros and Lady Peinforte, he generally only manipulates Ace to help her work through her anger or because he has no alternative.  This can still be morally problematic, but it is not as inhuman or unfeeling as the behaviour of Dr Manhattan or The New Adventures Doctor.  Note that the television seventh Doctor pleads for Ace’s forgiveness at the end of The Curse of Fenric.

Interestingly, there is still a comedy element to the seventh Doctor even after he becomes a more adult character.  There are moments of broad comedy, such as his dropping a brick on his foot in The Curse of Fenric, while two cliff-hangers (Delta and the Bannermen part two and Remembrance of the Daleks part three) rely on his making a miscalculation, something both exciting and somewhat amusing.  Indeed, the Doctor’s fallibility is a key element in providing tension, as it results in his schemes not going according to plan and hence creating the drama, for example when two factions of Daleks arrive to search for the Hand of Omega in Remembrance of the Daleks or when Ace inadvertently helps Fenric (twice!) by working things out faster than the Doctor anticipated.

The Companions

Initially, Mel comes across as a stereotypical Doctor Who companion, although as I noted last time, she does at least move away from the sexist presentation of her predecessors.  Nevertheless, the character feels like a placeholder, as if neither writers nor actor really know what to do with her.  Mel’s departure at the end of Dragonfire and her replacement with Ace therefore seems like a key moment for the era.

As the Doctor grows in importance, so too does the companion, balancing the Doctor and providing an audience identification figure as the Doctor becomes increasingly alien and aloof.  We see his plans through Ace’s eyes.  It is notable that Ace is a deliberate attempt to create a fashionable young companion, something arguably not seen since Jo Grant in the early seventies.  This may be an attempt to reach out to a younger audience and maybe even to people who had previously seen Doctor Who as unfashionable and out of touch.  Whether this succeeded is another question; I am no expert, but many fans have claimed Ace’s slang was already outdated on broadcast and ratings continued to decline.

Anyone coming to the seventh Doctor’s era after having read The New Adventures will note that Ace is not the stroppy and violent loner of those novels and fan perception.  She is upbeat, friendly and even naive, being betrayed by her trust in her new friends on several occasions (e.g. Mike in Remembrance of the Daleks and the possessed Sorin in The Curse of Fenric), while her forced bonhomie when saying goodbye to Bellboy in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is clearly covering inner upset.  Nevertheless, the angst for which she is noted is definitely there and this is explored in a way that had never been done previously on the show.  Ghost Light explores her anger and the way it is rooted in a racially-motivated attack on a friend.  The Curse of Fenric examines her relationship with her mother, while Survival explores her personal development during adolescence in an allegorical way; more overtly, it shows the dull suburban background that she sought to escape.  Her anger does appear frequently, sometimes focussed on the Doctor for not letting her in to his latest plan, but often projected towards the latest villains.  The way she is continually reconciled to the Doctor after his manipulation of her indicates a complex and rounded character.  Her love of explosives perhaps begins as a hobby and plot device, only later becoming a visible demonstration of her anger issues.  Overall, Ace is a more complicated companion than had been seen in Doctor Who previously, with a more overt background, indicating the character-led direction that the show was adopting and that it would continue to adopt after its long hiatus.

Monsters and Villains

Looking at the villains and monsters present in these stories, it is easy to see them as based on the political subtexts present in this era, inasmuch as they are projections of things the British left hated in the 1980s: neo-Nazism, war, nuclear weapons, big business, social Darwinism, religious extremism, pollution and, of course, Margaret Thatcher.  This would be true up to a point, but it ignores the fact that it was not just people on the left who were concerned with these things.  As noted above, the need to maintain (or even to find) a mainstream audience meant that the programme had to move closer to the centre than some of the people working on it may have liked.

Moreover, any good work of art that rises above the level of propaganda will contain complexity.  On one level The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is a left-wing satire against the commercialisation of entertainment, but it complicates that by also being a story about the hippie generation of the sixties selling out and becoming that which they most hated.  The point is left-wing, but more complex than  a simple diatribe against The Man.  Similarly, Remembrance of the Daleks rightly loathes the neo-Nazism that Mike Smith and Ratcliffe stand for, yet Mike is a likeable person.  On one level this is necessary to hide his true allegiances until late in the story, but even after it is revealed that he cooperated with the Daleks, the story’s final scene shows the grief after his death and leaves the Doctor and Ace pondering the human cost of events.  It is this complexity that prevents the programme lapsing into crude propaganda.  Even the most overtly party-political story, The Happiness Patrol, can be seen as a parable about emotional repression without a political focus.

Alongside the political elements, there is again an influence from the comics of the era.  Someone better versed in the comics of the eighties may be able to find precise parallels[1], but I will just note that there is a preference for bold images in the villains of this era, perhaps reaching a culmination in The Destroyer, arguably the best-made monster in Doctor Who’s original run.  Note that some of the mocked elements of the era might have worked better in graphic format, with a deliberately less realistic artistic style and the chance to create striking images from unusual elements.  I am thinking of the Bannermen, the Husks of Ghost Light and especially the Kandy Man; one might add the clowns of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, but I feel they work well on screen as it is.  Overall, there is a tendency to create monsters that have a strong and memorable visual presence, and this works to the benefit of the programme most of the time, even if there are occasional failed experiments.  Even other visual elements, like the uniforms in Dragonfire (influenced by World War I German uniforms) or the deliberately fake-looking sets in The Happiness Patrol, can be seen as fitting this pattern.

[1] It is probably coincidence, given that they appeared relatively close together, but Alan Moore’s Batman story The Killing Joke, which saw the Joker at his most brutal, appeared in 1988, the same year as the murderous clowns of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

The Changing Style of Doctor Who X: Continuity and Violence

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part IX, and links to parts I to VIII, can be found here.

Stories: The Visitation Time and the Rani
Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Script editor: Eric Saward, Andrew Cartmel (Time and the Rani only)
Representative stories: Earthshock, Enlightenment, Revelation of the Daleks

Behind the Scenes

In the previous part, we saw Doctor Who take a radical new direction under John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead.  Now, following Bidmead’s departure and eventual replacement by Eric Saward (after Anthony Root’s brief caretaker stint), there follows a lengthy period of creative stability, or so it might seem merely from looking at the end credits.  The reality is more complex.  While Saward and Nathan-Turner initially got on well, gradually they became more antagonistic.  Obviously it is impossible for us as outsiders after the event to know exactly what happened, but tensions grew over time, especially with the casting of Colin Baker to replace Peter Davision at the end of season twenty-one, with Saward thinking Baker miscast in the role.

The situation worsened the following year, when the BBC suspended Doctor Who for eighteen months.  While such gaps between seasons are not unknown now, in 1985 this was the longest the programme had been off air and many fans feared an attempt to cancel the programme by degrees.  Although the reality seems to have been a practical decision to push season twenty-three into the next financial year there was a vocal fan backlash, orchestrated in part by Nathan-Turner with the help of superfan and occasional continuity advisor Ian Levine.  This forced the BBC to justify their actions by citing artistic reasons for the delay and demanding a creative renaissance on the programme, particularly regarding the level of violence in the programme (as we shall see below, these criticisms were not entirely unjustified).

Saward was uncomfortable with the mixed messages the production team subsequently received from the upper echelons of the BBC management, being told to replace violence with humour before receiving complaints of the lack of tension and threat in the new scripts.  This combined with Baker’s continued presence and Saward’s growing anger at Nathan-Turner’s production style, culminating in the casting of Bonnie Langford (known primarily at the time for light entertainment, not serious drama) as the new companion, Mel, to prompt Saward to resign angrily.  Nathan-Turner was left to act as uncredited script editor for parts of The Trial of a Time Lord, as well as commissioning Time and the Rani for the start of the next season, to the annoyance of incoming script editor Andrew Cartmel, who disliked the story.

By this stage the BBC management had the programme in its sights, sacking Colin Baker and forcing Nathan-Turner to continue as producer despite his desire to leave (he had, in fact, wanted to leave after The Five Doctors, several years previously, but the BBC would keep him there until the end of the programme’s initial run in 1989 and, indeed, beyond).  With Baker replaced by Sylvester McCoy, from Time and the Rani the BBC would begin to schedule the show in the graveyard slot opposite Coronation Street, the most popular drama on British television and support for the programme within the BBC would be lacking.  But that is a story for next time.

Given this history and given the changes in style and characterization noted below, it might be thought that this era does not see stylistic uniformity and, to some extent, this is true.  In fact, I thought hard about whether to make this one essay or to sub-divide it into different eras and essays.  In a sense, the problem is too many possible dividing lines: the increase in continuity references and returning characters in seasons nineteen and twenty; the increased violence and gore in season twenty-one and twenty-two; the increased comedy in season twenty-three; the three very different Doctors seen here.  But, as I hope to show below, I think there are certain stylistic continuities across this whole era with regard to the use of continuity and violence that unite this period and separate it from the eras around it.

Story Style

One of the more positive aspects of this era, especially during the first few years, is the different story styles within individual seasons.  Season nineteen sees the first purely historical story since 1966 in Black Orchid, as well as Earthshock, which not only brought back the Cybermen after a long absence, but told a futuristic action story of a kind that was new to the programme as well as killing a companion for the first time since the Hartnell era (indeed, Katarina and Sara Kingdom were around for such a short period that Adric feels like the first ‘real’ companion to die).  It is true that this style of continuity-heavy action story would come to dominate the programme in seasons twenty-one and twenty-two, but early on it remains one ingredient among many.

The responses to Earthshock were manifold.  The tone of the stories slowly became bleaker, with Adric’s death followed by that of short-lived companion Kamelion and stories like Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks ending with the Doctor pondering the morality of his actions.  This emphasis was intensified thanks to the influence of The Caves of Androzani which, thanks to Jek’s disfigurement, may have introduced an element of body horror that dominated season twenty-two.  Now regarded as one of the very greatest Doctor Who stories, the story was a key influence on Saward, partly as a result of his personal friendship with writer Robert Holmes, and it has often been noted that season twenty-two feels like an attempt to replicate its success, with dark stories about soldiers and mercenaries often ending with the death of most of the guest characters.

As well as producing a focus on war stories, Earthshock also led to an increase in the use of continuity and returning characters and monsters in the programme.  Sometimes this is constructive, with the introduction of the Valeyard as an evil future incarnation of the Doctor being a shocking development, as is the revelation that he is being employed by a corrupt Time Lord High Council, intent on hiding its devastation of the Earth.  These ideas had the potential to advance the programme’s narrative, pushing it in new directions similar to the introduction of the Time Lords back in The War Games or evil Time Lords (not always named as such) in The Time Meddler and Terror of the Autons.  The development of the Brigadier’s character in Mawdryn Undead can also be seen as an attempt to push the boundaries of the programme and to use its history to tell stories that had never been attempted before and which required revisiting elements of the programme’s past.

Nevertheless, much of the continuity here is restricted to rematches with old villains and monsters or simply references to past adventures without developing the ongoing narrative in any way.  The narrative continuity references are often not matched by continuity of character.  For example, after Logopolis there is only a token mention of the fact that the Master has killed Nyssa’s father, Tremas, stolen his body and been responsible for the Doctor’s regeneration, along with the destruction of much of the universe, including Nyssa’s planet.  Likewise, in The Five Doctors and Attack of the Cybermen there is no ‘grudge match’ between the Cybermen and the TARDIS crew over the death of Adric.  Worst of all, after a scene tying up loose plot-ends from Earthshock, Time-Flight continues as if the death of Adric had never happened, undermining perhaps the bravest move of the era.  This movement towards more gratuitous continuity is perhaps a response to the success of The Five Doctors, which had thrown together numerous past elements for an anniversary special with little regard for internal logic beyond the need to please fans.  It is noteworthy that while The Three Doctors and later The Two Doctors kept the incumbent Doctor centre stage, the problem in The Five Doctors is resolved by the first Doctor, who is not even played by the original actor!  The attempt to appease fans who wanted to see past Doctors seems to have overtaken the need to please the regular audience.

The other important innovation of Earthshock was the death of Adric.  As noted above, this was virtually unprecedented and indicated a willingness to shake up the programme’s format by adding greater threat to the regular characters.  However, as also noted, there is little follow-through from the events of Earthshock; the regular characters seemed to recover too quickly and Adric was rarely mentioned again (a few moments stand out, such as Turlough being given Adric’s old room and the fifth Doctor’s last words being “Adric?”).  Similarly, the apparent death of Peri in The Trial of a Time Lord is undercut by news of her survival later on.  This may indicate uncertainty on behalf of the production team as to how far the boundaries of a family programme could be pushed.  It contrasts unfavourably with Blake’s 7, Doctor Who’s quasi-sister show, which spent a whole episode dealing with the emotional fallout from the death of Gan.

A further point of interest emerging in the latter period of this era is a postmodern focus on the nature of the televisual narrative, as noted by Philip MacDonald in a Doctor Who Magazine Sixth Doctor Special many years ago (MacDonald, P. (2003) Loving the Alien.  Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition, 3, p. 4-8).  Numerous stories in seasons twenty-two and twenty-three revolve around characters watching action unfold on screens and commenting on it.  It is most obvious in Vengeance on Varos and, inevitably, The Trial of a Time Lord, but features prominently in Revelation of the Daleks too as well as being a less important feature in several other stories.  In a number of cases the images shown on screen are actually faked or suspected of being faked; again, The Trial of a Time Lord is the most memorable instance, but there is also the Borad’s screen persona in Timelash, the false death of the second Doctor in The Two Doctors while even The Mark of the Rani has the Doctor convince the Master that the image of the TARDIS being thrown down a mineshaft was a clever special effect.  There is a postmodern understanding here of narrative as something constructed by an author and open to multiple interpretations, with The Trial of a Time Lord again being notable for the fact that we never find out just how much of parts eight to twelve were created by the Valeyard and how much really happened.  Meanwhile, Vengeance on Varos spoofs the experience of watching Doctor Who, as Arak and Etta pass judgment on the Doctor and his adventures.  There is a playfulness and inventiveness here that undercuts the brutal violence with which the period is more often associated.  Perhaps as a result of Eric Saward’s growing disillusion with Doctor Who or the criticism of it by the BBC bosses, we are frequently asked to decide how much of the programme is meaningful and whether it is open to multiple interpretations.

After the eighteen month gap between seasons twenty-two and twenty-three, there is a definite change of tone.  The emphasis on the programme’s continuity is still present: the whole of season twenty-three is about the Time Lords putting the Doctor on trial and there are guest appearances from Sil and the Master while the twist regarding the Valeyard’s identity is based on the concept of regeneration; the Rani then returns at the start of the next season.

Nevertheless, season twenty-three has more of a children’s television feel, something that will continue into season twenty-four.  The scripts are in fact often as brutal as seasons twenty-one and twenty-two, particularly episodes five to eight of The Trial of a Time Lord (the Mindwarp section), but also in the bloody deaths of Katryca and Broken Tooth in episode four, but the realisation feels much cosier and less threatening.  For example, Glitz is initially written as a brutal, psychopathic murderer, but he is portrayed as a sort of intergalactic Del Boy, a loveable rogue.  There are a lot of corny, child-friendly jokes with the slapstick gunge scene in episode four of the Trial coming to mind in particular.  It does not help that by this stage the production values were beginning to seem very cheap.  The opening shot of the trail space-station is highly impressive, but the replacing of film with video on location, giving an all-video feel was problematic at a time when most serious dramas were made on film.  While many viewers were not aware of the difference between film and video, there may have been an unconscious effect in making Doctor Who seem cheap and childish.

One last point is worth making about Doctor Who in this era.  Seasons nineteen to twenty-one saw the programme broadcast twice weekly and on weekdays, the first time that either of these things had happened. The result, as David Darlington and Alistair McGown pointed out (Darlington, D. and McGown, A. (2000) Can You Tell What it is Yet?  Doctor Who Magazine 298, p. 26-31) is a series of stories structured in two very different halves.  The first two episodes of Earthshock, for example, largely take place in the caves on Earth and focus on the Cybermen’s bomb and androids; partway through episode two, the action shifts to the freighter, where it remains for the rest of the story, dealing with the hijack of the freighter and the Cybermen’s plan to crash it into the Earth, a plot thread only loosely related to that of the first half.  There are a number other examples, often more subtle.  Enlightenment clearly tells a single story throughout, for example, but is set largely on Striker’s ship in the first half, then largely on Wrack’s in the second half.

The Doctor

The fifth Doctor is something of a contradiction.  He is thoughtful and quiet and does not dominate scenes the way most of his predecessors do.  Yet he is also an action hero who uses a gun several times (Earthshock being perhaps the most blatant example, but not the only one) and always seems to be running breathlessly to or from something, even more so than other Doctors.  He has a trusting nature, suspecting that Turlough is up to no good from Mawdryn Undead, but risking his own life over the following stories by letting Turlough remain on the TARDIS, trusting him to make the right decision.  He is, however, more suspicious of the boy in Planet of Fire.

Eric Saward has described the fifth Doctor (I think on the 30 Years in the TARDIS documentary) as being “James Bond”, which is a fascinating, if troubling, insight into the script editor’s perception of the title character (it certainly puts the gun use into perspective, and see also the comments about the objectification of the female companions below).  Davison’s own perception, I think early on in his run, was that his Doctor had a “reckless innocence”, but this is counterpointed by the character’s increasingly violent tendencies in season twenty-one.  This seems to have been deliberate, as it reaches a head in Resurrection of the Daleks, with the Doctor intending to murder Davros in cold blood and Tegan walking out of the TARDIS in disgust at all the death at the end of the story.  While often taken as a sign of Saward’s faulty moral compass, at least with regards to the programme’s traditional morality, the sequence of the Doctor intending to kill Davros is arguably more complex than many fan commentators have realised.  The Doctor intends to kill Davros, but while the genuine James Bond would have paused only to make a wisecrack before pulling the trigger, the Doctor allows himself to get drawn into a moral debate, before going out of the room to investigate gunfire outside, allowing Davros to lock him out.  While it is ambiguous, there is room here to suggest confusion in the Doctor’s mind, with him procrastinating deliberately, hoping for signs of moral revival in Davros and perhaps even, at least unconsciously, letting Davros lock him out to spare himself an impossible decision.  The next story, Planet of Fire, sees the Doctor kill unstable robot companion Kamelion and watching as the Master apparently burns to death, unable either to save or despatch the villain himself. Certainly the Doctor’s morality is increasingly in question, without any easy answers being provided.  This is not problematic in itself and could be seen as a sign of moral maturity, but there is a feeling that the programme is posing questions it wants to answer, but can not.  This problem will worsen when the sixth Doctor arrives.

It is not only regarding violence that the fifth Doctor exhibits conflicting characteristics.  He is polite, but also capable of biting sarcasm, anger and even dark humour.  See his agggresive “you did ask what I think” rant in Frontios, his sarcastic banter to Chellak and Jek in The Caves of Androzani and his rather disturbing dark joke about “The Toast of Little Hodcombe” in The Awakening (he is talking about an innocent young woman who was deliberately burned alive and Will Chandler quite rightly rebukes him for it - this is very much James Bond territory, not Doctor Who).  It is not certain whether this is a sign of character growth or a lack of consistency on behalf of the writers.  Certainly the fact that the sarcasm and dark humour grows over time indicates a deliberate trend, perhaps in line with the general darkening of the programme in season twenty-one.

The sixth Doctor seems to have been created as a deliberate contrast with his predecessor, while continuing to develop the violence and sarcasm that had emerged in season twenty-one.  The quiet, polite fifth Doctor becomes the loud and often rude sixth.  If the fifth increasingly pondered the morality of his actions, the sixth is often ruthless, killing a number of people.  While this has been a source of criticism since the original broadcast of season twenty-two, most of the sixth Doctor’s actions are morally defensible within the programme’s normal terms, inasmuch as his victims are usually attempting to kill him or someone else, placing the Doctor in a ‘kill or be killed’ situation.  There are a few exceptions, such as his rigging up a lethal trap within minutes of arriving on Varos and without really knowing what is happening there (although the guard is very stupid to wander into the highly visible laser beam), but, as Gary Gillatt pointed out (Gillatt, G. (1998) Doctor Who from A to Z. 1st ed.  London: BBC Worldwide.) it is the Doctor’s mocking humour in these situations that marks him out from his predecessors, more so than the actions themselves.  He seems to get a sadistic kick out of bullying his victims in a way that is again reminiscent of James Bond.  For example, when he kills Shockeye in The Two Doctors, he has no real alternative, but his “just deserts” quip about the chef’s death seems to take unnecessary pleasure in the deed.  In Revelation of the Daleks, he makes two cruel jokes about Davros’ dismemberment (in itself something unnecessarily violent), saying that there is “No ‘arm in trying” and going to shake hands with Davros only for the latter to realise he no longer has a hand to shake.  This all seems cruel and sadistic, not to mention out of character.

This bullying manner is not restricted to villains.  There are times when the Doctor’s and Peri’s relationship seems to consist of mutual bullying and insults and in mitigation one can only really say that both give as good as they get.  The Doctor’s comment in Vengeance on Varos that Peri is lucky because she can only die once, whereas he will regenerate and die numerous times seems spiteful and uncaring, not to mention out of character again.

In recent years, the idea has taken root that over time the sixth Doctor would be revealed to have a secret that explained his ruthless and cruel behaviour.  However, there seems to be little evidence for this aside from some comments Colin Baker has made in interviews.  As far as I am aware, neither John Nathan-Turner nor Eric Saward has said anything in support of this idea, nor has anyone elaborated on what this great secret would have been.  Certainly the idea of a modern-style pre-planned character arc seems misplaced.

Nevertheless, we should remember that the sixth Doctor is not totally different from his predecessors.  There are moments when traditional Doctorish compassion shines through, as when he takes the dying mutant’s hand in Revelation of the Daleks (perhaps Baker playing against the script).  Indeed, The Trial of a Time Lord sees a more likeable sixth Doctor, one who makes more jokes and seems less of a bully, who is friendly to his companions, often putting a paternal arm around the shoulder of Peri or Mel.  Even here, though, there is the Mindwarp section, which sees the return of the ruthless Doctor without ever quite reassuring us in the end that it was all an illusion created by the Valeyard, a bluff or the result of Crozier’s machine.  It is Yrcanos, not the Doctor who rescues Peri and it is difficult to look at the Doctor’s involvement on Thoros Beta in a positive light.

Finally, it is worth looking briefly at the Valeyard. As a future incarnation of the Doctor, albeit an evil one who may or may not ever come into being, he indicates an attempt to look at the Doctor’s dark side. Sadly, the real-life confusion surrounding the end of the season, with writer Robert Holmes dying, Eric Saward leaving and withdrawing his replacement script and Pip and Jane Baker writing a replacement that legally could not be influenced by Saward’s draft has left the nature of this future Doctor unclear.  Holmes’ scripts would apparently have seen the Valeyard as an old man terrified of death, but on screen he seems too much like the Doctor’s other evil alter ego, the Master (who also features in the story, confusingly): a megalomaniac who revels in death and chaos for its own sake and loves complex death-traps and Victorian melodrama.  What does remain is Holmes’ idea of bureaucracy as the Doctor’s real antithesis, with the constant paperwork of The Fantasy Factory an appropriate target for the sixth Doctor’s final rages.

The Companions

Adric and Nyssa continue to be written as children or at least as teenagers.  As noted in the previous essay, the Doctor does not allow them to drink alcohol in Black Orchid, but does allow Tegan to do so, indicating that this was due to their youth rather than a general disapproval of drinking.  Adric becomes something of a moody teenager, especially in Earthshock, wanting to be appreciated and not liking being teased by the others.  Naturally this tension with the other members of the TARDIS crew is increased in Earthshock to add pathos to Adric’s death at the end of the story.

Nyssa arguably matures a little over time; she wants the Doctor to notice her new dress in Snakedance, something which can be read as unusually sexual for an era that famously had the producer decreeing “No hanky-panky in the TARDIS”, although one could read the situation as a more innocent desire for approval from a friend/father figure.  Two stories later, Nyssa is treated as mature enough to decide to leave the TARDIS and stay on Terminus, essentially to work as a research biochemist.  This is one of the more satisfying companion departures of the eighties, as it flows naturally from her previous interests and values, as well as producing a feeling of character development.  When we met Nyssa in The Keeper of Traken she was still in many ways a child and when her father went missing at the end of the story, she sent the Doctor a message asking for help, turning to a surrogate father figure.  Now she is able to take on an adult role for herself, helping the Vanir and the victims of Lazar’s Disease on Terminus.

More troubling is the presentation of Tegan and Peri, two characters who have a lot in common.  Both are presented as ‘ordinary’ women who get caught up in the Doctor’s adventures, but who eventually remain as a TARDIS traveller from choice, something that Tegan takes some considerable time to decide to do.  However, both spend much of their time with the Doctor complaining, often unfairly, and it does seem worryingly as if the writers could only conceive of a strong female character as being rude and argumentative.  This worsens when the sixth Doctor arrives and, as noted above, tends to argue with Peri, perhaps even to bully her.  Note that when Tegan is written by the female Barbara Clegg in Enlightenment, she gets a more emotional subplot involving her relationship with Marriner; we also learn that the image of the Doctor in her mind is “intriguing” although we never find out why (perhaps the “No hanky-panky” rule again).

Even more disturbing is the way Peri is continually objectified by characters who want her body in some way, whether for her beauty (Jek, Mestor, Jobel), for cyber-conversion (the Cybermen), to mutate it (Quillam and, arguably, the Rani with her tree-mines), to breed with her (the Borad), to transfer his mind into it (Kiv) or simply to eat her (Shockeye).  When you add the threat of forced marriage in The Mysterious Planet section of The Trial of a Time Lord, it seems that barely a story goes by without someone wanting to use Peri in some way or another, usually a way that reduces her to a physical body without her personality being considered important; indeed, her personality is often to be destroyed.  This continual objectification of a young woman, even by characters portrayed as villainous, sends out worrying signals to both the boys and girls in the audience of what was still seen as a family programme.  Indeed, season twenty-two saw Doctor Who return to its traditional Saturday teatime slot for the first time in four years.  Given the sexual politics and the violence noted above, this would seem to have been a strategic error.  It is only fair to say that with the arrival of Mel, this misogynistic subtext largely vanishes, with Mel being portrayed as a competent and independent young woman (even if she screams a lot) who has a friendly relationship with the Doctor and does not exhibit the symptoms of low self-esteem occasionally shown by Peri and Tegan.

There is some innovation with the other companions.  Turlough is a bravely original companion, one who is planted on the TARDIS by a recurring villain in order to assassinate the Doctor.  Initially, Turlough is willing to do this, albeit being slightly hesitant and squeamish about it (he feels more comfortable sabotaging the TARDIS in Terminus than in hitting the Doctor on the head with a rock in Mawdryn Undead!), but over his first three stories we see him develop and finally refuse his mission.  It is a pity that the series largely loses interest in him after this, portraying him simply as a cynical coward, and he has little else to do until his final story, Planet of Fire, sees him return to moral ambiguity.  Only Frontios gives him a strong role, hinting at his personal and cultural background and giving him more to do than being locked up or trying to run away from the monsters as usual.

Kamelion is also an unusual companion, a psychically-controlled robot stolen from the Master, one that was a working robot in real-life too.  However, Kamelion, was even more of a failure than Turlough, not least for practical reasons: the robot’s software designer died tragically before filming on his first story, The King’s Demons.  The robot never worked satisfactorily and was quickly written out of future stories, bar an untransmitted cameo in The Awakening and a farewell appearance in Planet of Fire.  No in-story explanation for Kamelion’s non-appearance was ever given, making the whole situation slightly surreal.  Nathan-Turner’s decision to use Kamelion seems odd on two grounds.  Firstly, he was well-aware of the problems that K9, a far less sophisticated machine, had given the production team over the years, so his assumption that the Kamelion robot would work easily seems overly optimistic.  Furthermore, Nathan-Turner had removed K9 and the sonic screwdriver on the grounds that they made the Doctor’s life too easy, so giving him another robot companion and a shape-shifting one at that seems a retrograde step, perhaps a further indication that Nathan-Turner’s production ideas were constantly changing.

Monsters and Villains

As has been noted above, this era sees the frequent return of old monsters and villains, alongside old friends like Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (and, in the case of Borusa, an old friend and villain).  Much that was written in the ‘story style’ section applies here, in terms of the return of old characters in without any development, the mere return of, say, the Daleks or the Master being deemed good enough to satisfy the fans and, apparently, the general public, at least according to Nathan-Turner and Saward.  I have mentioned the role of Earthshock in adjusting the production team’s priorities, but the twentieth anniversary year was also important.  Fans seemed to respond well to a year of stories that all featured some element from the past, followed by an anniversary special featuring a host of old friends and foes.  It is perhaps not surprising that this recipe stayed in use for many years.  Season twenty-two had no anniversary theme, but four of the six stories feature recurring monsters (including one that also includes an old Doctor and companion), while a fifth has a key plot moment when a plastered-over mural of the third Doctor is uncovered.

One might suggest that Nathan-Turner was a bit ahead of his time here.  The cult television of the nineties, which in some respects is arguably the mainstream television of today, relies on a small, but animated fanbase that avidly watches the programme and rarely, if ever, misses an episode, allowing for complex ongoing plot threads and character development.  If an episode is missed or forgotten (and assuming the viewer does not have the DVD box set), a quick search on Wikipedia or Google will reveal the forgotten plot point necessary to understand tonight’s episode.  A small, but dedicated fanbase can be as attractive to advertisers and merchandisers as a large, casual audience.

I sometimes half-suspect that Nathan-Turner was on the point of discovering this formula, but failed to implement it successfully by being ten or twenty years too early.  Neither adverts or merchandise are strictly a concern of the BBC, but ratings are important, and Nathan-Turner had to keep his plot developments and character arcs low-key to avoid deterring casual viewers or even fans at a time when video recorders were still not widespread, archive VHS videos were rarely released and were prohibitively expensive and the idea of looking up plot details from a television programme on a computer network was bizarre science fiction.  As Miles Booy (Booy, M. (2012) Love and Monsters: The Doctor Who Experience, 1979 to the Present. 1st ed. London: I. B. Tauris.) has noted, the recurring monsters seen in this era are quietly reimagined in line with audience expectations, rather than adhering slavishly to a past continuity which was in a sense inaccessible.  The Cybermen, who in the sixties were constantly on the verge of extinction and had no empire to speak of are now on the verge of conquering the galaxy and have limited time-travel capacities, simply because this is how the fans remember them.  Lots of races now know of the Time Lords and of regeneration, which was rarely the case in the seventies.  This happens not due to laziness on behalf of the production team, but in order to tell stories that fans and casual viewers alike want to see, that they think they always had seen without Wikipedia or DVD box sets to tell them otherwise.

It is easy to berate Nathan-Turner and Saward for reusing old monsters without developing them or for putting the Doctor and his companions through traumatic experiences without any apparent lasting effects, but there is simply no way they could have created the arcs of modern Doctor Who, let alone groundbreaking series like Babylon 5 or ‘water-cooler’ mysteries like Lost.  In a sense, this period falls between two stools, aware that fans want something meatier than the isolated adventures of the sixties and seventies, but unable to provide it given the television environment of the time and the lack of interest in the programme from BBC bosses.  As we shall see next time, Andrew Cartmel would later harness the logic of the comics of the late eighties to nudge to the programme in a more successful direction (in terms of fan appreciation, but not ratings), but his approach arguably has more in common with what preceded it than is commonly recognised.  At the very least, arcs like Turlough’s attempts to kill the Doctor and the corruption of the Time Lords and the Doctor himself revealed in The Trial of a Time Lord do reveal an attempt to shape an eighties version of the water-cooler-discussion plot arc, one probably informed as much by the soap operas of the era (of which Nathan-Turner was a great fan) as anything in the science fiction genre at that time.

The Changing Style of Doctor Who

Posted on 22/01/2015 at 23:10
I don't think anyone is still reading this, but just in case anyone is, I posted this post on season eighteen of Doctor Who earlier in the week, but accidentally posted it private.  Enjoy!  And please comment to let me know you're reading!

The Changing Style of Doctor Who IX: Hard Science

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part I can be found here.
Part II can be found here.
Part III can be found here.
Part IV can be found here.
Part V can be found here.
Part VI can be found here.
Part VII can be found here.
Part VIII can be found here.

Stories: The Leisure Hive Kinda
Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Script editor: Christopher H. Bidmead
Representative stories: Full Circle, Warriors’ Gate

Behind the Scenes

In the previous article, we saw how Graham Williams, Anthony Read and Douglas Adams attempted to keep Doctor Who relevant and impressive-looking in the face of production problems and competition from the cinema and television science fiction boom of the late seventies and early eighties.  In a sense, incoming producer and script editor team John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead (overseen by former early seventies producer Barry Letts, now acting as executive producer) were faced with similar problems, but rejected the answers of the previous era, sending the programme in a bold new direction.  To this end, the production team attempted to create a season with an almost completely new behind-the-scenes team.  Season eighteen has all-new directors and only two of the writers (David Fisher and Terrance Dicks) had worked on Doctor Who before and they were commissioned as much from desperation due to lack of scripts as much as anything else.  As the season went on, there would be on-screen changes too, with K9 and Romana written out and gradually replaced by Adric, Nyssa and Tegan, with Tom Baker leaving the title role at the end of the season after a record-breaking seven seasons, being replaced by Peter Davison.

It is also worth noting that this era sees significant recording of stories out of broadcast order.  At this stage, John Nathan-Turner favoured recording new cast members’ debut stories after they had recorded another story, so that they had time to get used to the part before their first televised appearance.  To this end, Adric’s first stories in season eighteen were recorded out of order (with Meglos between State of Decay and Full Circle), as were the fifth Doctor’s stories the following year.  These were recorded in the order Four to Doomsday, The Visitation, Kinda and then Castrovalva, but broadcast in the order Castrovalva, Four to Doomsday, Kinda and Castrovalva.  This is particularly significant for our purposes, as I have put The Visitation in the next stylistic era, despite being filmed before two stories that clearly fit with Bidmead’s vision for the programme.  Obviously this is another example of the fact that conceptual eras do not always fit nicely over seasons or even stories and one story may fit in two eras.  To some extent, drawing any kind of boundary is arbitrary and done to facilitate discussion.  Note that Bidmead had some input over the commissioning of the first three stories recorded in season nineteen, before writing Castrovalva himself (as with the previous story transmitted, Logopolis).  There then followed an interim period with Anthony Root as caretaker script editor (credited on Four to Doomsday and The Visitation and also later on Earthshock, largely as a formality to disguise the fact that it was written by the current script editor, Eric Saward) before Eric Saward arrived with Kinda.  Nevertheless, with Saward writing The Visitation, it is not surprising that it has many similarities with later stores.  But that is a story for the next essay.

Story Style

Bidmead has made it clear in interviews that he came to the programme disappointed with the preceding production style (usually presumed to be referring to Graham Williams’ time on the programme, but many of Bidmead’s comments could apply just as easily to the mid- or early seventies), seeing it as too comic and fantasy-based, lacking scientific rigour.  Nathan-Turner also wanted a more serious approach and it is immediately obvious that the programme is less comedic than it was not just under Williams, but throughout much of the seventies.  In taking a serious, scientific approach, Bidmead and Nathan-Turner seem to have seen themselves are returning to an earlier model of the programme in the early sixties that was later ‘corrupted’ in the seventies.  It is unlikely that this was actually he case; as we have seen, accurate science was never a prominent part of the programme in the way that historical accuracy was, and few stories from the sixties were built around scientific ideas; likewise humour was an important part of the programme from the second season.  Nevertheless, the perception of Doctor Who’s history as a source of strength and a model to be updated rather than ignored will remain important for the rest of the eighties.  A more subtle inheritance from the sixties is the introduction of greater continuity between stories, in this case mostly in the form of references to the previous story at the start of a new story, although the return of the Master and the CVEs point towards the more complex use of continuity that would develop in the following years.

Returning to Bidmead’s main idea for the series, namely the introduction of more accurate science, it is debateable as to whether he succeeded.  Certainly big scientific concepts are named and much of the technobabble is grounded in the cutting-edge science and technology of the early eighties.  Evolution, tachyonics, entropy and recursion, not to mention the laws of linguistics (away from the natural sciences), are all used as the basis for stories.  However, the way the stories develop is usually well in the realm of science fiction; the technobabble may sound accurate, but the plot is often pure magic.  For example, Logopolis talks a lot about entropy, but entropy is a destructive force that can travel around the universe faster than the speed of light and turns its victims to dust in seconds, leaving onlookers untouched.  A more extreme example is the chronic hysteresis in Meglos that has a fancy scientific-sounding name, but which is defeated by completely unscientific means.

It is probably more accurate to state that the scientific method is the key theme in these stories, Bidmead having a laudable aim to teach the children in the audience the value of empiricism.  These stories are full of scientists and often present a conflict between science and superstition, although only Meglos and State of Decay foreground this.  Knowledge is explicitly stated to be the greatest weapon of all in State of Decay and in a number of stories we see the Doctor and his companions doing experiments, looking at microscope slides, examining technical blueprints and reprogramming computers.  Even if the science is not accurate, the programme is presenting an image of science that is perhaps a little closer to reality than is normally the case, while as we shall see below, the Doctor has moved back to being a scientist from being an explorer and adventurer.

The programme embodies its scientific or pseudo-scientific ideas within particular societies.  The society of the Starliner in Full Circle is there to provide a setting to discuss evolution, while the Logopolitans allow Bidmead to discuss entropy and the notion of mathematics as the basis of physical structure.  This moves the programme away from its traditional focus on plot and character.  Within this focus on societies, the outlook of the programme becomes surprisingly technocratic.  The repeatedly-presented idea is that only an elite of scientists are fit to rule, struggling against religion and popular superstition to find and maintain the power of knowledge, although Full Circle does critique the nature of an unelected elite.

Perhaps related to this is Bidmead’s desire to differentiate Doctor Who from the many other science fiction programmes and films around in the early eighties, particularly Doctor Who’s BBC sibling, Blake’s 7.  While other series and films paid lit-service to scientific ideas, but were essentially fantasy, Bidmead wanted to be different by engaging with real science.  He seems to have had some success in this area, with only Meglos, State of Decay and perhaps The Leisure Hive really feeling as if they could appear in any other series made at this time or indeed in the Doctor Who of a few years previously.

Despite the hard science edge, there is a hint of the fairy tale here, as had been the case under Williams and Anthony Read and, to a lesser extent, Douglas Adams.  Script and costume combine in many stories to suggest something archaic and magical as much as scientific.  Warriors’ Gate is perhaps the best example of a fusion of hard SF (the spaceship, the timelines) with fairy tale (the Medieval setting of the Gateway, the Tharils’ costumes), but it can be found in many other stories too.  Despite this similarity to the Williams era, the tone of the stories remains different less knowing and humorous, more solemn.  However, the new ‘starfield’ title sequence codes Doctor Who as science fiction more clearly than before, being similar to the title sequences of Star Trek and Star Wars, unlike the more abstract and ‘unearthly’ title sequences seen previously in Doctor Who, which allowed for more fluid associations of science fiction, horror and fantasy.

Finally, it is worth looking briefly as the era’s production values, widely praised by fans at the time as an improvement on those of season seventeen.  While I have argued in the past that the production values of the Williams era are better than fan discourse suggests, it is true that much time, money and effort has been spent in these stories in producing eye-catching, artistic visuals, the most extreme example being the slow pan across Brighton beach (lasting over a minute and a half!) that forms the opening shot of The Leisure Hive and, indeed, of season eighteen.  It is hard not to see it as a mission statement for the new production team, favouring visuals and solemnity over plot and humour.  Whether this was a positive or negative development is a question I will not answer here as these articles are intended to be analytical, not critical, but there is no denying that the results of the stylish direction here resulted in on-set tensions, financial overspends and two of the most impressive directors (Lovett Bickford and Paul Joyce) never working on the programme again as a result.

The Doctor

As noted above, the Doctor is more of a practical scientist here, doing experiments, reprogramming computers, looking at microscope slides and so on.  He is no longer an adventurer and not really an explorer as such. There is a general toning-down of the fourth Doctor’s character across his final season, with less humour and eccentricity and fewer opportunities for him to dominate scenes.  That said, the humour is not completely absent although it is most obvious earlier in the season, particularly in State of Decay, perhaps reflecting its origins as a script intended for season fifteen.  There also seems to have been a deliberate attempt to weaken the Doctor, physically and psychologically: he is aged in The Leisure Hive, duplicated in Meglos, beaten up in Warriors’ Gate, controlled by the Master in The Keeper of Traken before finally admitting to a universe-threatening mistake in Logopolis.  The regeneration then flows naturally from this increased vulnerability.

The Doctor’s more sombre characterisation is paralleled by a more sombre costume, but also undercut by it: the Doctor’s more uniform and designed appearance (as opposed to previous off-the-peg costumes) makes him look more striking than previously and he tends to be visually dominant even when the script gives him little to say or do.  This is also due to the incidental music frequently quoting the Doctor Who theme when the Doctor is around, foregrounding his character, something that rarely happened in the past, but is much more frequent across the eighties.  The overall effect possibly reflects Nathan-Turner’s desire to create a more easily recognisable and branded figure, something also reflected in the question marks that will increasingly dominate the Doctor’s costumes during this decade.

These traits carry over into what we see of the fifth Doctor in this era.  He is more subdued than his predecessor and baffled by Adric’s conjuring trick in Kinda, something that previous Doctor’s would have understood immediately.  Just as Biroc solves the problem in Warriors’ Gate for the fourth Doctor (“Do nothing”), so Shardovan explains the puzzle of Castrovalva’s history for the fifth; again, previously the Doctor would have worked this out for himself.  The fifth Doctor of Castrovalva is fragile, amnesiac and spends much of the story asleep and/or in a box, as if the production team is trying to create a blank slate to remove memories of Tom Baker before fashioning the new Doctor, something that will largely take place in the next era.  That said, the fifth Doctor of Four to Doomsday is much more like his predecessor, perhaps due to this being the first fifth Doctor story into production.  The new Doctor is still somewhat eccentric, with his cricketing motif and “decorative vegetable”, but this seems more forced than previously, as with the question mark collars.  It is noteworthy that the sonic screwdriver is rarely used by either Doctor in this era (leading up to its destruction in The Visitation), while K9, as we shall see below, is largely written out too, giving the Doctor fewer gadgets to rely on, although Nyssa’s ion bonder comes in handy in The Keeper of Traken.

The Companions

There is not much to add about Romana’s character that was not said in the previous essay.  She remains intelligent and independent, unusually so for a companion, with her story eventually reaching a natural conclusion as she heads off to have adventures of her own in e-space with K9 and the Tharils, making clear that she has become a surrogate Doctor.  K9, however, is clearly unpopular with the new production team, being damaged for at least part of four of the five stories he features in before being written out in Warriors’ Gate (Nathan-Turner did at least see the commercial possibilities of K9’s fanbase, however, creating K9 and Company around this time).  Even Romana states that they are always repairing him these days.

Season eighteen sees the introduction of three new companions, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan, with a very different dynamic.  Adric and Nyssa are younger companions, apparently designed to appeal to children.  They are actually identified as children in Four to Doomsday and later in Black Orchid, contrasting with Tegan, who is not (although outside our period, the Doctor lets Tegan drink alcohol in Black Orchid, but not the others).  Perhaps related to this idea of being a child, Adric’s relationship with Romana often seems to be that of a step-child and step-mother, a mixture of affection, repressed suspicion, even anger and competition for the attention of the common male linking figure, in this case, the Doctor.  Note the way Romana and Adric argue over Adric’s failed ‘pretending to join the enemy’ ruse in State of Decay or her apparently deliberately blowing dust all over him in Warriors’ Gate.  Adric’s relationship with Nyssa is also interesting, as there seems to be hints of a possible romantic relationship between them, with Adric in particular being very excited to see Nyssa again in Logopolis.  This would seem to be another unexplored avenue, especially given Nathan-Turner’s “No hanky-panky in the TARDIS” rule.

Adric and Nyssa’s high intelligence and scientific knowledge, as well as being useful from a plot point of view, may represent a belief that a disproportionate part of the audience consisted of children who were intelligent and/or interested in science, in parallel with the increase in scientific content in the stories.  Adric is gifted at maths and quickly gets the hang of the console controls.  It feels a bit as if he is being set up for something that never happened, such as being trained as a Time Lord.  The Doctor is certainly correct that he would love Gallifrey in a way no other companion would, not even Romana, who has developed and now wants to avoid going back there.

Tegan is something of a throwback to an earlier form of Doctor Who companion.  She is portrayed very much as an ordinary person, more emotional and less scientifically literate than Adric and Nyssa, but she is more pragmatic than they are: as the Doctor states in Castrovalva, Tegan has the practical skills needed to be a coordinator.  She is an unwilling traveller (at least in these stories), determined to return home as soon as possible, even trying to steal the TARDIS in Four to Doomsday to get away from what she sees as an impossible situation.  Her desire to return home may be a homage to earlier companions, especially Ian and Barbara and Ben and Polly, another nod to the Hartnell era, also seen in the sheer number of people travelling in the TARDIS, not seen since season two.  Tegan is also very much an adult character, allowing a variety of audience identification figures.  Kinda shows Tegan’s insecurities and, at least in some readings, her sexuality, although the latter seems to have been obscured by Nathan-Turner.

Overall, the new TARDIS crew, Doctor and companions, at the start of season nineteen is more vulnerable and more human than had been the case for some time.

Monsters and Villains

The early stories of this era have rather obvious monsters, fitting with the general trend across the late sixties and seventies.  As with some Doctor Who in the seventies, there is no straightforward correlation between looking monstrous and acting monstrously: there are good and bad Foamasi and the Marshmen are ‘related’ to the inhabitants of the Starliner and we pity the Marshchild when Dexeter harms him.

The later part of the era sees a decrease in the number of monsters and a focus on humanoid villains, with the exception of Four to Doomsday and, to some extent, The Keeper of Traken (Melkur being a machine, but seeming like a monster in early episodes).  Castrovalva is a rare example of a post-sixties story with no monsters; Logopolis might qualify too, depending on how you interpret the Watcher.

The Master is the only old villain or monster to return in this era (excluding flashbacks).  He has a clear goal in The Keeper of Traken (take over the Source to get a new body), but his motivation in Logopolis is confused, with him apparently wanting a lift to Logopolis to discover its secret and (somehow) use this to his advantage.  Castrovalva, meanwhile, basically consists of two plans to kill the Doctor.  This suggests that the Master was being used as an all-purpose villain.  Other villains vary between prosaic motivations, particularly money, and more traditional, large-scale universe-conquering.  This may indicate flexibility on the part of the production team in the type of stories they wanted to tell or a shift as they commissioned scripts more to their liking from traditional villainy to more prosaic motives.  Kinda is noteworthy as  a story with psychologically-grounded villainy.  Tegan and Hindle are victims of repression (although, as noted, the idea of sexual repression was downplayed onscreen) and the Mara is a symbol for the negative side of human nature rather than a typical Doctor Who monster.

Ultimately, the villains and monsters of this era are less memorable than the big themes: being lost in another universe; entropy and decay; and the solipsism of Castrovalva, which Bidmead correctly intuited would be more frightening to children than monsters.  Again, this indicates the attempt to aim at a more intellectual audience, albeit one not necessarily excluding children.

The Changing Style of Doctor Who VIII: Myth Making

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part I can be found here.
Part II can be found here.
Part III can be found here.
Part IV can be found here.
Part V can be found here.
Part VI can be found here.
Part VII can be found here.

Stories: The Sun Makers The Horns of Nimon
Producer: Graham Williams
Script editors: Anthony Read, Douglas Adams
Other key contributors: Tom Baker
Representative stories: The Androids of Tara, City of Death

Behind the Scenes

In 1977 new producer Graham Williams inherited a show that was a great success in terms of ratings, audience approval and critical acclaim, but his time on the show would be defined by crises.  Williams remains a controversial producer because of this, but he was largely a victim of circumstance, attempting to retain the programme’s audience amidst changes in popular culture and problems within the BBC.  The economic crisis that Britain experienced in the late seventies produced double-digit inflation that dramatically eroded Doctor Who’s real budget, while audience expectations for costly special effects work became higher than ever in the wake of Star Wars, which was released in Britain during Williams’ first season.  The economic crisis also produced frequent industrial action, with several stories in this era being negatively affected by strike action at the BBC, most notably Shada, which was never completed and transmitted.  Meanwhile, Tom Baker was become an ever more dominant force in the studio, insisting on over-ruling writers and directors in his interpretation of the role of the Doctor.

At the same time, the controversy over horror in Doctor Who that had dogged Philip Hinchcliffe’s time as producer and ultimately resulted in his being reassigned had its impact on Williams’ creative approach.  Williams described himself as being willing to remove realistic violence from what he perceived as a family programme, but felt he was being pressured by his superiors at the BBC to remove the fantasy violence as well, something he felt was not necessary.  Moreover, with the horror content that had proved so popular removed, Williams and his script editors needed to find a new approach that would please the audience.

Against this backdrop, it would be tempting to see this era as a prolonged exercise in damage limitation and, indeed, many fans do persist in seeing it as a creatively weak era.  However, as we shall see, Williams and script editors Anthony Read and Douglas Adams in fact worked towards creating a new and distinctive style for the show, one that worked with the budgetary constraints to compete with Star Wars while still maintaining the unique aspects of the programme’s nature.

Story Style

While fandom focuses on the increased humour in this era of the programme (itself a natural development from the increase in humour in seasons thirteen and fourteen) it is worth considering other aspects of the storytelling style adopted here, as really the humour is just one component in the way stories are told here.

The stories are mostly well-constructed, whether due to the natural inclination of Williams, Read and Adams or because the low budget meant that there was a limit to the amount of spectacle that could be used to cover for poor scripting.  That said, the lack of spectacle should not be overestimated.  There are some memorable effects sequences (e.g. the model shots in Destiny of the Daleks and City of Death) alongside some good direction with Michael Hayes using artistic camera set-ups and Ken Grieve providing faster editing than had really been seen in the programme to this date, alongside experimental steadicam location filming.  It could be argued that the programme’s ambition exceeded its ability to deliver on a few occasions (e.g. Erato), but the production team is to be commended for attempting so much while real budgets were shrinking.

There is a strong emphasis on colourful, larger-than-life characters here, partially to balance Tom Baker’s increasingly dominant and eccentric portrayal of the Doctor (see below), but also to complement the shift to lighter stories as well as to provide an additional point of interest for the viewer, with characters who are interesting and watchable in their own right rather than simply serving plot functions attracting to viewer attention and again compensating for the lack of spectacle.  Characters such as Borusa, Professor Rumford, Garron, Scaroth and Grendel are typical of the era, although again build on some of the characters in season fourteen, such as Engin and Spandrell in The Deadly Assassin or Jago and Litefoot in The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Still, it would be foolish to deny that humour is a key factor in this era. While Doctor Who had often been a funny programme, and British television science fiction of the time was arguably more humorous than American television science fiction, the frequency of jokes increases here to an extent rarely seen before and not really seen again until the twenty-first century.  As well as the broad characters noted above, the Doctor and Romana often keep up a sardonic commentary on the actions of the villains, with the Doctor often making jokes for no reason than the fact that he can.  This is in addition to child-pleasing (and sometimes adult-irritating) sequences as K9 reading Beatrix Potter to the Doctor in The Creature from the Pit with the Doctor over-reacting to the story or the Everest in Easy Stages sequence later in the same story (“It’s in Tibetan!”).

As this indicates, some of the comedy is broad and not all of it works, but it is more subtle than it is sometimes given credit for being.  There is an element of world-weariness at times in the Doctor’s jokes in this era that make the stories poignant rather than silly, as will be seen in the section on the Doctor below.  The humour also acts as a laughter conductor.  With scripts that can easily slip into melodrama, performances that can seem arch and special effects that do not always work as well as intended, deliberate comedy can be a way of trying to make the audience laugh at the right bits, rather than the serious bits, to laugh with the programme rather than at it.  There is also a sense, as Williams noted in interviews, of the humour increasing to fill the void left by the officially-sanctioned toning down of the violence and horror in the programme (a similar situation would develop in the mid-eighties).  With a lack of horror and limited spectacle, something is needed to hold the audience’s attention and while fandom might demand that the programme be very serious indeed, the writers were aware that comedy can keep the viewers watching, something noted by Dennis Spooner as far back as the very first season.  While the balance of ‘funny bits’ to ‘serious bits’ may have shifted, the humour itself was by no means innovative, as a glance at seasons thirteen and fourteen or earlier stories like The Romans and Carnival of Monsters will demonstrate (not that ‘funny’ and ‘serious’ are mutually exclusive, a fact lost on some fans, but that is an argument for another time).

As important as the comedy in this era is the attempt to create a modern myth. This focus on the programme’s mythology may be in part a response to the growth of the programme’s own legend over the previous decade and a half.  The Doctor, the Time Lords, the Daleks and so on were well-known even to casual viewers by this stage and could be deployed in more complicated ways, while new layers of the mythology were added, most notably the creation of the Key to Time and the Guardians in season sixteen, the most mythic elements in this period (season sixteen is one of very few seasons to have no old monsters or involvement of UNIT, although it does feature a Time Lady companion, otherwise focussing on the new elements of the mythos).  Note also the way the legends and history of the Time Lords assume new importance across season fifteen.  The Time Lords are more powerful than before, even as they are used for comedy.  This fitted the vogue for science fictional myths in the wake of Star Wars, but Williams was planning this from before he even got the job, long before Star Wars appeared, and the myth making can be seen in season fifteen as much as in season sixteen and seventeen, more so than in season seventeen, in fact, although this would have seemed different had Shada been completed, adding new dimensions to the Time Lords.  Of course, the cruder and less successful side of this desire for mythic depth is the plundering of genuine myth in a fairly superficial way in Underworld and The Horns of Nimon.

One further element of the storytelling style is the use of old costumes from costume dramas in otherwise science fictional settings after some drab and traditional science fictional design in season fifteen.  This broadened the programme’s visual style and allowed a contrast with Star Wars, while maintaining a science fiction–fairy tale feel.  It also immediately adds to the complexity of the societies on screen, suggesting an unseen history not suggested by the usual bland jumpsuits.

The Doctor

The Doctor is more humorous than before and Tom Baker’s performance increasingly dominates the programme, but there is more to both character and actor than that.  The Doctor here is a mixture of wise old man, wide-eyed child, mad scientist and Bohemian intellectual, a character that both children and adults could simultaneously identify with and see as alien.  This is something difficult to achieve and Baker makes it look effortless, so effortless, in fact, that his performance is sometimes criticized as lazy and simply playing to the gallery in a very superficial way. Baker does fool around at times and occasionally goes too far.  His first scene with Erato notoriously looks rude (although that may be an indication that that was not the intention – Baker was always keen to keep sex and other adult concerns away from the Doctor) and there are a few other occasions when tension is sacrificed for a cheap laugh, such as the “Oh my fingers, my arms, my legs, my everything” scene in Nightmare of Eden or the first cliff-hanger to The Horns of Nimon.  But these scenes are less common than is sometimes supposed and Baker always performs his confrontations with the villains with the appropriate gravitas.  His anger at the Captain’s mass murder or at the Countess Scarlioni’s wilful ignorance is palpable.

Baker’s performance in this period owes something to Harpo Marx:  a mixture of childlike naughtiness and a refusal to accept authority. There’s a very Harpo Marxian moment at the start of part three of The Ribos Operation, where the Graff slaps the Doctor in the face with his glove, only for the Doctor to slap him back despite the difference in rank and the fact that the Graff is backed by armed men.

Indeed, the Doctor’s humour in this era should not be taken as a sign that the character has no depth.  On the contrary, there is often a sense of intense age and world-weariness in both script and performance.  For example, look at the Doctor’s complaint that his companions never listen to him in The Sun Makers.  This has been seen a proto-postmodern knowing critique of the programme’s clichés, but there is also a more subdued character point being made, showing the Doctor’s frustration that he is doomed to repeat the same behavioural patterns with companions who refuse to take advantage of his superior experience.  A similar moment comes a couple of stories later, in The Invasion of Time, when the Doctor agrees that he has access to the greatest source of knowledge in the universe because he talks to himself.  This is a joke, but also shows the Doctor’s awareness that his intelligence and experience separate him from the other characters and although Romana will later be a more Doctor-like companion than any before or since, her early stories do emphasise her book-learning as opposed to the Doctor’s  experience and the gulf between them created by this.

The Doctor is often presented as a fallible hero, but this is particularly true in this period, with him often being corrected by K9 or Romana.  Nevertheless, he is usually three steps ahead of his enemies (and his friends) and shams foolishness for strategic reasons, except when improvising madly, a point made forcefully in The Invasion of Time.  Far from being self-centred, he seems to genuinely enjoy the company of those around him, even rogues like Garron.  However, some of his stories, especially about meeting historical personages, should perhaps be seen as a sign of his childlike imagination and whimsical sense of humour rather than the literal truth.

The Companions

In her appearances here, the subtlety of Leela’s character is eroded.  She is by turns violent and naïve, embodying the dubious stereotype of the noble savage, especially when she is the butt of jokes, whether the Doctor’s or the writers’.  There is a particularly cruel moment in The Invasion of Time where the Doctor tells her that if she practises killing people she could become quite proficient and she is left confused by the meaning of the word.  The writers do not always seem at all clear as to what they can do with her.  Leela is a complex character and not a perfect fit for Doctor Who’s format; Graham Williams noted bitterly that she was there mainly so the Doctor could stop her killing people.  Nevertheless, it does seem as if the writers and production team simply gave up on the character in despair and it is no surprise Louise Jameson felt that the part was not developing and left.

Romana is a completely different type of companion.  Like Leela, she is an attempt to get away from the stereotype of the screaming, dependent Doctor Who girl, but Romana represents book learning to Leela’s intuition, thus reversing the Doctor-companion relationship, where previously the Doctor had represented book learning to Leela’s intuition.  Now the Doctor represents practical experience against both Romana and K9.

Romana initially has a combination of innocence, playfulness and hauteur, making her rather similar to the Doctor.  She grows over her first season, moving from naivety in her first stories to greater experience and confidence and a decreased willingness to take things at face value.  After complaining about her presence in The Ribos Operation, the Doctor is confident that Romana can look after herself by The Armageddon Factor and the same story places Romana as the voice of conscience complaining about the effective death of Princess Astra to complete the Key to Time.

Romana is often said to be a female Doctor by season seventeen and this is something the writers and costume designer pick up on: she has her own (better) sonic screwdriver in The Horns of Nimon (and apparently also in City of Death) and wears a pink and white version of the Doctor’s costume in Destiny of the Daleks, while her hunting outfit in The Horns of Nimon maintains the same silhouette.  She is fairly independent and while the Doctor is always key in saving the day (it is still very much his show, perhaps more than ever as Baker’s performance becomes more dominant), the Doctor-companion dynamic feels very different to how it had been previously, even when Sarah had been the companion.  It is appropriate that the curtailment of season seventeen means that the season ends on a close up of Romana smiling, given that the previous two seasons had ended on close ups of the Doctor smiling, symbolically placing Romana in the same position as her mentor.

K9 is a problematic character, for both practical and script reasons.  The K9 prop was beset with technical problems and poor manoeuvrability and hard to use on location, while from a scripting point of view he could solve problems too easily and make the Doctor reliant on his stun gun.  As a result, he is often kept out of the story at least during the early stages if not entirely.  Much of the time he functions as comic relief, but it is uncomfortable to see the extent he is used as a plot device, dispensing information, stunning villains and cutting through walls.

Monsters and Villains

Much of what could be said here has already been said in the ‘Story Style’ section, where the era’s fondness for larger-than-life villains has been noted.  Indeed, this is a Golden Age of such villains, developing naturally from the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era, with such villains as the Graff, the Captain, Vivienne Fay, Count Grendel, Scaroth, Lady Adrasta and Soldeed.  It is worth noting that there are several female villains (Queen Xanxia, Vivienne Fay, Lady Adrasta) and notable accomplices (Countess Scarlioni, Lamia, Karela), something largely due to the arrival of David Fisher as a writer, Fisher writing unusually prominent female characters for the era (The Stones of Blood is arguably the most female-dominated story in Doctor Who).  The other notable point is the number of royal and aristocratic villains, something reflecting the programme’s fairy tale ethos in this era, with planets more likely to be ruled by a king than a president.

The second half of season fifteen and season sixteen try to reduce the role of monsters in the programme, perhaps for financial reasons or perhaps again to focus on those larger-than-life villains and the interpersonal dynamic between the Doctor and the villain (it might also have been thought easier to get Tom Baker to act against a character actor he respected than a lump of latex).  The influence of Star Wars and Darth Vader may be significant here too.  There is usually a monster per story (although The Sun Makers stretches this to its limit with briefly-seen green CSO blob), but stories like The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet and The Androids of Tara reduce their monsters to supporting roles, perhaps wisely, given the often less than inspiring costumes.  Nevertheless, The Stones of Blood and especially The Power of Kroll see a return to more traditional monster stories, something that would be seen more frequently in season seventeen, although a monster would not necessarily mean the absence of a prominent villain.  Even Destiny of the Daleks, the nearest the era comes to a monster-dominated story of the kind that appeared in the late sixties, features a villain in the form of Davros.

  The Changing Style of Doctor Who VII: The Horror, The Horror

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part I can be found here.
Part II can be found here.
Part III can be found here.
Part IV can be found here.
Part V can be found here.
Part VI can be found here.

Stories: The Ark in Space Image of the Fendahl
Producers: Philip Hinchcliffe, Graham Williams
Script editors: Robert Holmes
Representative stories: Pyramids of Mars, The Robots of Death

Behind the Scenes

In the previous article we saw that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had presided over an unprecedentedly long and stable period in Doctor Who’s history.  With Letts and Dicks leaving in rapid succession, most of this era was overseen by Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as script editor.  Hinchcliffe and Holmes quickly found a shared affinity for Gothic horror and a desire to make the programme more adult.  Whereas Letts and Dicks had attempted to this with political subtexts, Hinchcliffe and Holmes intended to make it darker and more frightening.

Controversy over the violence in the programme, especially the freeze-frame cliff-hanger to part three of The Deadly Assassin, resulted in Philip Hinchcliffe being moved to another programme, crime drama Target.  From Hinchcliffe’s point of view this was essentially a promotion rather than a disciplining, as he was moved to a more prestigious programme, but incoming producer Graham Williams, who was credited with the final three stories under consideration here, was ordered to tone down the violence and horror in the show, something that Robert Holmes found unnecessary and restrictive.  As a result, Image of the Fendahl would be Holmes’ final story as script editor, although it was far from the end of his association with the programme.

Story Type

As indicated above, horror predominates in this era, notably the stylized subgenre known as Gothic horror.  In an article in Doctor Who Magazine #282, Alan Barnes looked as this genre in depth and examined its suitability for Doctor Who, something that has contributed to this era being considered one of the greatest eras of the show, both in terms of audience size and fan appreciation.  Before looking at the style of Doctor Who in this period, it is worth reflecting on the Gothic horror genre.

Barnes notes that the central conflict in the Gothic is between the Old World and the New World.  In the eighteenth century, this took the form of Catholicism versus Protestantism; later, and more typically for Doctor Who, it became a conflict between superstition and science.  It is typical for stories in this period to show that an apparently supernatural phenomenon has a scientific basis, whether it is something rooted in our world, such as the Loch Ness Monster in Terror of the Zygons, or something entirely fictional, such as the cargo cult civilization of the Tribe of the Sevateem in The Face of Evil.

Barnes points out that even an apparently non-Gothic story like The Sontaran Experiment has Styre using Medieval-style torture methods (Old World) to prevent the Galsec astronauts re-colonizing the abandoned Earth (New World) (if I recall correctly, the story was at one point to be set in a ruined monastery, which would have made this even clearer).  While I will not retread the whole of Barnes’ argument, he notes the prevalence in this period of both literal and figurative catacombs and haunted houses, which function as symbols of Gothic notions of inheritance and the threat of dynastic extinction as well as being metaphors for the unconscious and the primal fears and urges buried there, ready to be awoken by the villain/monster.

While it is correct to say that the horror style predominates in this era, each season has a distinct identity.  Season twelve focuses on science fiction, with the horror less prominent, except for the mutational horror of The Ark in Space.  Notably, this season was largely commissioned by Barry Letts.  Genesis of the Daleks is a particularly obvious transitional story: a science fiction runaround with political overtones as in the previous era, but filmed with an adult and often brutal style, complete with slow motion machine gunning in the opening sequence and a freeze-frame cliff-hanger (the first in Doctor Who) of Sarah falling from a great height; the next episode has her dangled off the edge of a rocket while her captor speculates aloud as to whether she would be dead before hitting the ground.  It would be hard to make it clearer that Doctor Who was trying to engage a more adult audience!

Interestingly, aside from The Ark in Space, mutational horror barely features in this season.  This is surprising as the Cybermen had always been used for ‘body horror’ while the Daleks often would be used for it in the future.  Instead, Revenge of the Cybermen does not feature the cyber conversion process at all, while the Daleks in Genesis of the Daleks appear to be grown in vitro, rather than being mutated from adult Kaleds.  Only in Noah’s mutation into a giant space wasp do we see such body horror in this season.

If season twelve cautiously introduced more horror into the format, the same could hardly be said for season thirteen.  Duplication, possession, mutation, transplantation – all appear and all are used primarily as a source of horror rather than, for example, philosophical exploration of the nature of being in the manner of The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.  Instead, we have some of the most memorably frightening stories in Doctor Who, but if they have a fault, it is a certain amount of repetition.  The parallels between Terror of the Zygons and The Android Invasion have often been noted, particularly their impersonation plots, but two other stories feature mutation and another features possession.  Interestingly, however, this is one of only four seasons of Doctor Who not to feature old monsters or villains (the others being seasons one, seven and sixteen), suggesting a programme pushing into new territory, but the continued, if vestigial, presence of UNIT feels unnecessary, as if the programme has not yet completed its stylistic transformation.

Season fourteen is different again, uniting the horror and science fictional strands.  It moves away from contemporary Earth into settings that are either more science fictional or occur at key moments in the history of science (the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution), in the process pre-empting the entire sub-genre of steampunk.  The stories have greater thematic depth than previously for this era, with The Masque of Mandragora exploring the tension between astrology and science in the Renaissance (not always entirely accurately), The Face of Evil treading similar ground in a science fiction setting, The Deadly Assassin making political jibes and The Robots of Death elevating a relatively routine ‘base under siege’ story by rooting it in body language and including clever design work that not only looks different to most space operas, but also examines the human-robot relationship at the heart of the story: the humans insist they are in control, yet they fear robot revolution and adopt make up that make their faces look more angular and robotic, suggesting a relationship more complex than the characters explicitly state.

The stories across these seasons tend to be extremely melodramatic.  This can be said of most Doctor Who, but is particularly true here.  There are few realistic characters, but plenty of larger than life ones.  There is certainly little room for character-driven subplots; The Robots of Death sets up Poul as a likeable character with a memorable attack of robophobia, but discards him like a broken robot when the plot no longer needs him.  The melodrama would often seem silly were it not for the complete conviction of the cast and crew and their refusal to allow it to fall into parody or camp.  The flippancy of the Doctor, Sarah and Harry can also act as a ‘laughter conductor’, focussing the audience’s humour on the intentionally funny bits.

The violence in this period must also be addressed.  Many of the complaints aimed at the programme in this period were wrong-headed and ideologically-motivated, ignoring the need for evil in drama, even (especially) in stories aimed partly at children.  However, at the risk of being criticized, I feel there were a few instances when the complaints were justified, most notably the very gory death of Condo, which seems like pure sadism, his stomach exploding as he gets shot, spraying blood everywhere.  ‘Realism’ is hardly an adequate excuse, however, as he crawls around for some time afterwards rather than just dying of loss of blood.  There really is nothing like this in Doctor Who until the controversial season twenty-two and nothing at all like it in twenty-first century Doctor Who, which is expert at walking the tightrope between the adult and child audiences and at being frightening without being gruesome.

The stories in this period do not aspire to be more than “good, clean, escapist hokum” according to no less an authority than Robert Holmes himself, but are arguably some of the best escapist hokum produced on British television.  They give the audience what they want in a way they don’t always expect and there is nothing wrong with that.  Hinchcliffe and Holmes seem to have had an almost perfect sense of what was achievable in a pre-CGI, three camera studio set-up and the stories stand up consistently well visually, allowing that rarity in Doctor Who, successful spectacle.  The most criticized effect of the era, the giant rat in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, is better than dozens of other, similar, effects before and since.  Hinchcliffe and Holmes also had a perfect understanding of how to balance horror and humour, as well as how to homage without plagiarizing or becoming boring.  Only season thirteen risks becoming repetitious on repeat viewing and even then each story looks and feels different.  Although these articles are intended as analysis rather than critique, it must be acknowledged that this era deserves its reputation as one of the high points of the programme, not to mention being a perfect introduction to the original run for viewers more familiar with the new series.

The Doctor

Surprisingly to anyone seeing the fourth Doctor as the most eccentric incarnation, whether as a result of Williams era stories or Tom Baker’s performance in Robot, the fourth Doctor is initially presented here as aloof and detached, even arrogant, somewhat like Sherlock Holmes.  It is only in season thirteen, especially the second half of the season, that he increasingly makes jokes and is flippant in the space of danger, talking irrelevantly about Mozart during an interrogation in The Seeds of Doom, apparently just to annoy Scorby, despite the latter holding a gun on him.  He has sudden mood swings, is capable of unpredictable anger and sulks.  In particular, he initially refuses to do what he sees as the Time Lords’ dirty work at the start of The Brain of Morbius, while in Pyramids of Mars he complains that he needs to find something better to do than to run around after the Brigadier.

Indeed, the changeability of his moods is perhaps more important than any particular mood.  He is able to alternate melodrama, passion, flippancy and intense seriousness.  He gleefully watches Lawrence Scarman scampering around the TARDIS in Pyramids of Mars, but seconds later is ultra-serious in the ‘alternative 1980’ sequence.  Nor does his fondness for Scarman here stop him treating the man’s death with what Sarah sees as callousness, the Doctor defending himself by saying that he sees the bigger picture, the danger that Sutekh poses and the need to stop him whatever the cost.

The Doctor still has alien skills and knowledge.  He has often heard of a particular foe in advance and has a respiratory bypass and the ability to go into an oxygen-saving coma (which may or may not be the same thing).  This indicates a production team that was still thinking of the Doctor as a superhuman character, at least to some extent.

One feature of the Doctor in this period that goes unnoticed is his violence.  The Doctor has never really been a pacifist and usually defeats his enemies violently, but in this period he commits acts that are unusually or unnecessarily violent for him, some of which even seem like cold-blooded murder.  He has no qualms about locking the Zygons in their ship and blowing it up, he knocks Salamar out cold with a punch (no Venusian karate here!) and then leaves Sorenson for dead, he kills Sutekh, gases Solon, engages in sword-fights in Renaissance Italy and decides that the best way to dispose of the Krynoid is to bomb it – the Brigadier would feel vindicated!  He leaves a brutal grenade booby trap for Goth in the Matrix and later hits him with a poison dart – yes, it’s a dream sequence but (a) we know that anyone killed in the Matrix dies in real life and (b) it reaches a new level of realistic violence in the presentation of the Doctor.  Most of these actions are understandable in context and many have their analogies elsewhere in the history of the programme, but some do seem unusually brutal or graphic (in particular the gassing of Solon, which seems designed just to remove him from the story now he is no longer needed), but they do indicate a new understanding of the Doctor’s character from the production team, one that is tempered when Leela arrives towards the end of this period, with the Doctor’s role now being stopping Leela from murdering people in cold blood.

The Companions

Sarah Jane Smith has been remembered as the archetypal companion: kind, clever, witty and brave, but also human, sometimes showing fear and bad temper and not having the somewhat superhuman traits of her immediate successors, Leela and Romana.  It is significant that she has had two TV spin-off series (K9 and Company and The Sarah Jane Adventures) as well as an audio series compared with two for K9 (although he has appeared in The Sarah Jane Adventures too) and one for Captain Jack.  This shows her enduring popularity.  Part of the character’s appeal lies in the strong chemistry between Sarah and the Doctor, who really do come across as close friends.  It is noteworthy that Sarah, like Harry, is the focus for much of the humour in the first year or two of this era, while the Doctor is presented as a more serious and distant figure, and this doubtless contributes to Sarah’s popularity as she seems to have a sense of humour and a sense of the absurd, things not all companions have, making her more believable and likeable.  One must not underestimate Elizabeth Sladen’s performance either, giving Sarah human fears without making her seem weak, making her brave without seeming foolhardy or unrealistic and suggesting an emotional intimacy with the Doctor that is never allowed to become clingy or to imply a romantic/sexual relationship, something utterly forbidden in this era.

If Sarah is the archetypal female companion, Harry Sullivan is perhaps the archetypal male companion: a bizarrely old-fashioned character, slightly bumbling and essentially treated as a stooge to the Doctor and Sarah.  Surprisingly, he remains likeable.  It becomes clear, however, that the writers do not know what to do with him.  Created for a contingency that never arrived (the casting of an older actor as Jon Pertwee’s replacement who would not be able to handle the action sequences), Harry contributes very little to the plots, generally hanging around with either Sarah or the Doctor instead of being given his own sub-plots.  It is telling for the production team’s priorities that they do not go down the obvious route of giving him a romance with Sarah – but then, there is little character development in this era.  It is no surprise that he was written out swiftly.

With Sarah and Harry being the archetypal companions, the introduction of Leela, a totally unique companion, shows a deliberate attempt to move away from the ‘screaming girl’ stereotype.  Leela is a violent savage and is very proactive.  She is probably the first female companion not to express fear.  The fact that she has instincts that give her privileged information the Doctor does not share fits with the era’s Romantic side: the noble savage, the triumph of innate humanity over intellectualization.  Nevertheless, the fact that the Doctor has to explain many things to her ensures that the subordinate role of the companion remains, doubly so as he has to explain things that would be taken for granted by the audience, like body language and policemen.  Nevertheless, this is perhaps a source of her appeal to children: Leela is in many ways uneducated and naïve, like the children in the audience, but she is also intelligent and capable, making her a positive identification figure for children.  It must be said, however, that her costume does take the programme even further into the realms of male fantasy: we may have a powerful female character, but to some extent she exists to appeal to the men in the audience as much as to provide an identification figure for the women or even to fulfil a dramatic function.

Monsters and Villains

The monsters in this era are often representations of powerful, mythic evil, from the Zygons controlling the Loch Ness Monster to Egyptian and Chinese gods.  Even original characters have mythic airs, most notably Morbius, a figure from the dark history of the Time Lords.  The Face of Evil even goes so far as to present the Doctor as an evil god.  This is all in keeping with the Gothic nature of the programme: the villains represent powerful threats to rationality, science and progress by the forces of superstition and myth.  This also raises the stakes in the stories now that the Doctor is no longer an ‘ordinary’ time-space traveller, but a borderline superhero Time Lord.  Furthermore, it justifies the melodramatic atmosphere the production team have created which would otherwise seem silly.

However, scientists, whether misguided, mad or plain evil, are also common villains in this period, from Styre, Davros and Vorus to Sorenson, Styggron and Chase to Taren Capel and Greel.  This complicates the Gothic rhetoric.  Science itself, we are told, can be a regressive tool of murder and chaos.  This may be the result of these Gothic texts being written, not in the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century, after the scientific, mechanized slaughter of two World Wars as well as the risk of a nuclear war wiping out all life on the planet.

It is also worth looking briefly at possession, which often features in these stories as an effective and cost-effective way to frighten an audience with the fear of loss of individuality.  It is doubly effective in a programme that places such an emphasis on individuality, free will and moral autonomy, but we should not forget it is also cheap, requiring few effects, just a good actor and perhaps some make up.

The Changing Style of Doctor Who VI: TV Action

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part I can be found here.
Part II can be found here.
Part III can be found here.
Part IV can be found here.
Part V can be found here.

Stories: Terror of the Autons Robot
Producer: Barry Letts
Script editors: Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes
Representative stories: The Dæmons, The Curse of Peladon, The Green Death

Behind the Scenes

This four season (and one story) period represents a time of unusual creative stability on Doctor Who, with Barry Letts remaining producer throughout and Terrance Dicks credited as script editor for all the stories bar Robot, which Dicks wrote himself (although Robot script editor Robert Holmes performed uncredited editing duties on parts of season eleven).  Given that Letts and Dicks had been involved in the programme for several years in various capacities and had been responsible for most of the previous season, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a great deal of stylistic continuity with season seven, the first season of the Doctor’s exile on Earth.  Nevertheless, there is enough that is different about this period for it to be seen as Letts’ and Dicks’ interpretation of the exile format devised by Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin, most notably in the way that the Doctor is sent on missions away from the Earth by the Time Lords, eventually being granted his freedom, but continuing to maintain a base of operations on Earth and to work (when he feels like it) as UNIT’s scientific advisor, all despite the fact that the TARDIS is now functioning a little more efficiently than it did in the sixties.

In front of the cameras a flexible line-up of regulars and semi-regulars was maintained, the so-called UNIT family of the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee), Jo Grant (Katy Manning), Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Captain Yates (Richard Franklin) and Sergeant Benton (John Levene) with Roger Delgado as a sort of black sheep of the UNIT family as the Master.  But over time this large regular cast became cumbersome; it was almost unheard of for the Brigadier, Yates and Benton to join the Doctor and Jo in adventuring away from Earth and some Earthbound stories had limited roles for them.  UNIT was gradually playing a less important role even before Delgado’s tragic death and Manning’s decision to leave.  Tellingly, the new companion, Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) was a journalist, rather than a UNIT member.  Change was again coming, even before Jon Pertwee left the role to be replaced by an unknown actor called Tom Baker…

Story Type

With the Doctor still exiled to contemporary or near-contemporary Earth, this period sees the programme continue to reorient itself more as an action-adventure series.  This had been begun back with The Invasion in season six and accelerated in season seven, particularly in its second half, but becomes even more prominent here as the character focus of season seven is reduced.  The early part of the era follows season seven in employing a regular credited stunt team (HAVOC), indicating the importance of well-executed action sequences to the production team.  However, this is not to say that this period sees a bunch of mindless action stories with nothing more interesting going on in the background – far from it.

The stories in this period maintain the political awareness of season seven, but are painted with broader strokes.  Whereas Doctor Who and the Silurians and The Ambassadors of Death took pains to show both sides of an argument or at least to present those who disagreed with the Doctor as people of integrity who have come to erroneous conclusions some, although not all, of the stories in this period present caricature villains.  While season seven had produced one glory-seeking politician/civil servant character in Quinlan, it produced two open-minded ones, Masters and Gold and none of them could really be described as stupid.  Conversely, politicians and civil servants in this era are almost all blinkered and unwilling to listen to reason, Chinn and Walker being the most extreme, but also the most prominent.  The only real exception (unless you count some of the futuristic bureaucrats in The Mutants) is Grover, who is a villain, albeit for somewhat moral purposes.

The stories are, broadly speaking, left-of-centre in political orientation, but presented vaguely enough to avoid causing offense when broadcast to a general audience.  For example, the Doctor blames pollution on ‘greed’ rather capitalism at the end of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, a significant distinction.  The same story has a bunch of villains who could broadly be described as ‘progressive’, as does Robot.  This should not be seen as a renunciation of the centre-left politics of the era, but rather as introducing a qualification that the ends never justify the means.

Alongside the continuing political allegory, this era sees the return of stories set in the future and on alien worlds, restoring some much needed balance to the programme after the more or less earthbound season seven, although historical stories are largely absent.  With the exception of Terry Nation, the authors tend to see futuristic stories as a way of projecting the concerns of the twentieth century into a new or exaggerated environment, thus maintaining the political focus of the contemporary stories.  There is an enthusiastic embrace of space opera, with its focus on alien civilizations and interstellar travel.  The futuristic tales are sometimes surprisingly bleak, stories with little hope for mankind, projecting a future of capitalist exploitation, authoritarian government, imperialism and environmental catastrophe.  In a couple of stories the Doctor rights a wrong, but broader societal injustice remains, apparently too deep-rooted for him to fight.  These bleak tales may be a deliberate contrast with the original Star Trek (a key influence on this era) or part of a tradition of British science fiction that tends towards the dystopian.  Regardless of the reason, it reflects a new maturity for the programme.

While Gothic horror is more associated with the next phase of the programme, it can be found in a more diluted form here too, in The Dæmons, the two Peladon stories, elements of Day of the Daleks and The Time Warrior and even Death to the Daleks (albeit largely obscured by the direction in the last two cases).  Such motifs of the genre as the return of ancient forces of evil threatening the destruction of the forces of progress and science, Medieval architecture and haunted houses (cleverly science fictionalized in the City of the Exxilons; largely ruined by flat direction in The Time Warrior), human sacrifices and torch-lit tunnels can be found throughout.

There is much stronger continuity between stories than in the sixties and later seventies, although it is still fairly loose by modern standards, necessarily so at a time when television was seen once or at most twice before being relegated to the archives (if it was lucky) or vanishing into the ether.  Note the compilation repeat of Planet of the Spiders the day before broadcast of part one of Robot as a sort of extended recap for viewers.  Old characters and monsters return regularly, with the Time Lords becoming a key part of the programme’s mythology, regularly sending the Doctor on missions and providing a recurring villain in the shape of the Master.  Moreover, there is an attempt to build plot arcs over time, most obviously with the Doctor’s exile, but also with Yates’ treachery and redemption, the Doctor’s attempts to get to Metebelis III, the saga of Peladon and the stories that chart the rise and fall of the Earth Empire.  Of course, unlike modern arcs, few of these were planned as such from the outset.  Nevertheless, they do represent a new storytelling style for the programme and an acceptance that it has a dedicated viewing base that is willing and able to follow stories closely and over a long period.

With Doctor Who no longer broadcast virtually all year round, the production team begins to structure the season more carefully.  Seasons open with a fast-paced four part story that hooks the casual viewer by introducing a new regular and/or bringing back a popular old character or monster.  Seasons usually conclude with an epic six part story, sometimes featuring an emotional journey for the Doctor.  This format would be largely neglected after Letts and Dicks departed, but has strong parallels to the way that Russell T Davies structured his seasons.

The Doctor

Key to understanding the Doctor in this period is Barry Letts’ conception of him as a flawed hero.  This did not always come across and unsurprisingly is most clear in the end of season epics Letts wrote with Robert Sloman (with Letts uncredited or hidden behind a pseudonym).  Letts posited a guru for the Doctor – a guru in the religious sense as much as the colloquial one – and, after being mentioned in The Time Monster, he finally appeared as K’Anpo in Planet of the Spiders.  This was something of a counter-intuitive idea at the time, as the Doctor had rarely been presented as someone in need of guidance from a mentor, just as he had rarely needed help in more practical problem solving.  Letts seemed to be pushing towards the idea that the Doctor knew facts, but needed to learn the values underlying them and to develop a philosophy of life rather than just wandering aimlessly.  Pushed to its logical conclusion, this could have destroyed the programme entirely, particularly in the Buddhist-contemplative trappings of Planet of the Spiders, so it is perhaps fortunate that things were never quite spelt out explicitly.  Nevertheless, viewing the third Doctor’s character with this in mind some of his rougher edges can be seen as deliberate attempts at creating a flawed character.

Perhaps most irritating trait is the Doctor’s tendency to bully authority figures and companions alike.  At times this makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing, as when he seems to go out of his way to pick a fight when asking for directions in the pub in The Dæmons or the way he bullies Jo in the same story, particularly regarding her lack of academic achievement.  In recent years some fans have suggested that the third Doctor is more likeable in the futuristic stories than the contemporary ones that are considered the heart of his era.  This may be because the reduced realism means that he can attack genuinely evil people rather than ordinary politicians, scientists and soldiers just trying to do their jobs.  The Doctor also has a tendency to lecture people, although this is perhaps not as pronounced as fan wisdom would suggest.

The Doctor is more physically active than ever before, often using his skills at Venusian karate and Venusian aikido to fight without causing permanent harm (he shoots an Ogron dead in cold blood in Day of the Daleks, but this is out of character for him).  Fans sometimes complain about the Doctor becoming too violent, and it is indeed a major departure for the character, but the complaints miss the deliberate incongruity of the fifty-something Jon Pertwee playing the action hero part, another instance of Doctor Who’s long history of genre subversion.  The fact that the Doctor makes his own gadgets also makes him unusual: James Bond and Q rolled into one.

With the Doctor largely stranded on contemporary Earth, the Doctor’s namedropping of famous historical figures and strange alien cultures maintain the image of him as a time-space traveller.  He is also a connoisseur, but, again, not so much as fandom remembers.  He does have a spontaneous wine and cheese tasting evening in Day of the Daleks (arguably another piece of genre subversion, as this is not usual behaviour for characters in a spooky ghost story – Jo conforms much more to type here), but often eats sandwiches and drinks endless cups of tea and coffee.  It is true that he claims to belong to an exclusive gentlemen’s club in Terror of the Autons, but this may be a bluff intended to browbeat the snobbish civil servant Brownrose; that we are not supposed to take this too seriously may be indicated by the obsequious ‘Brownrose’ being only one letter from ‘Brownnose,’ a typical piece of vulgar satire from Robert Holmes.  We must likewise hope that his claim (in The Mind of Evil) to be on first-name terms with murderous dictator Chairman Mao is another cunning bluff or perhaps the result of some unseen Let’s Kill Hitler-style adventure.

There is no denying that this Doctor is earnest, compared with most of his predecessors and successors.  When he is a source of humour it often stems from the incongruity of his historical namedrops and tales of alien civilizations or from external events puncturing his self-assurance, as when he praises his improvised radio transmitter, which promptly explodes, in The Sea Devils.  We rarely laugh at his personal eccentricities as we do with most of the other Doctors.  Interestingly, given the political nature of his adventures, when asked if he is political in Frontier in Space, he responds, “Not particularly” but does admit to being a “troublemaker”.  This does fit his actions, as he rarely voices support for a particular party or programme, but does act against policies he sees as harmful.  Oddly, by season eleven the Doctor seems to be staying on Earth out of choice to conduct experiments in ESP, perhaps indicating that there was nothing left to do with this version of the character, and of the programme.

The programme’s presentation of the Doctor does develop as this era continues.  In season seven he gained certain superpowers: his ability to fall into a self-induced healing coma and his alien martial arts prowess.  Now he comes to dominate the narrative.  In Planet of the Daleks and The Monster of Peladon we hear that the Doctor has become a semi-legendary figure in the history of Peladon and Skaro.  In The Three Doctors the Doctor is a key figure not just to the audience (who are expected to tune in to see William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton again), but also within the narrative, with Omega, a hero from ancient Time Lord history, explicitly seeking him out.  Moreover, from season eight onwards the Master is presented as the polar opposite of the Doctor (see below), again placing the Doctor at the centre of the narrative.  Indeed, a team-up between the Master and the Daleks (Frontier in Space/Planet of the Daleks) is presented as inherently exciting.  With the Time Lords featuring more heavily and The Three Doctors introducing their history and legends to the ongoing narrative, the programme begins, perhaps inevitably, to embrace its decade-long history, centring on its main character.  This would, of course, continue in different ways across the future iterations of the programme.

The fourth Doctor, introduced by the outgoing production team in Robot is not entirely congruent with the way Tom Baker would later play him, even in the wildest days of season seventeen.  He is eccentric (he sleeps on a lab bench and considers various bizarre costumes before deciding on his jacket, hat and long scarf), wilful (he ties Harry up to get away from him), given to sudden mood changes and to cracking odd jokes that other characters do not always understand.  He relishes the thought of being childish and wants to avoid lunch at Downing Street and dinner Buckingham Palace, something his previous incarnation would have loved, though the third Doctor would have shared his horror at writing reports.  He is essentially the anti-Pertwee, written to let Tom Baker displace Jon Pertwee in the public’s mind with Terrance Dicks correctly assuming things would be toned down in the future.  But more of that in the next instalment…

The Companions

The Doctor’s main companion in this period is Jo Grant, the only UNIT member to travel by TARDIS.  There is a dichotomy between Jo as invented by Letts and Dicks, a competent spy modelled on Emma Peel from The Avengers, and Jo as played by Katy Manning, with a degree of clumsiness and kookiness influenced by Manning’s own personality.  Malcolm Hulke, Brian Hayles and Don Houghton tended to write the former; some other writers, notably Robert Holmes wrote the latter.  The sheer likeability of Katy Manning prevents her ever becoming an irritating bimbo, even when essentially written as such.  Interestingly, Jo shows character growth, being more independent in season ten than previously, not to mention able to resist the Master’s hypnotism, before finally leaving the Doctor to get married and have adventures of her own.

Sarah Jane Smith, who replaced Jo, is largely defined by her job in these stories: four of the six stories in question make her journalistic background and skills important.  She is somewhat more down-to-earth and practical than Jo, but there is a sense in which Jo and Sarah are both childlike characters, like many of the companions of the sixties.  Their jobs (spy, journalist) are the type of jobs a child might fantasize about having and fit with an established trend in children’s literature for children to perform investigative jobs either professionally (Nate the Great, who was paid in pancakes and arguably Tintin, whose age was uncertain) or as an amateur (The Famous Five, The Hardy Boys).  Jo has a number of romances, eventually leading to an engagement in The Green Death, but they are all rather chaste and childlike, arguably even by the standards of the time.  Tellingly, her desire to help Professor Jones instead of travelling with the Doctor, resulting in her marrying the Professor, is likened by the Doctor to a fledgling growing up and flying the nest.

The Brigadier, meanwhile, becomes more buffoonish, albeit remaining likeable.  Gone is the practical, open-minded soldier of season seven, replaced with a Colonel Blimp who does not know what ESP is, has TOMTIT explained to him by his subordinate, mistakes an alien world in another universe for Cromer and simply denies the evidence of his eyes that the second Doctor has returned, insisting the third has somehow resumed his previous form.  The programme insists on presenting him as a Blimp even when unjustified: the Brigadier had no good reason not to use the disintegrator gun on the robot in Robot, yet when it goes wrong both the Doctor and the script assume that he should have known better.

Given this degeneration in the Brigadier’s character, it is surprising to note that Captain Yates gets some genuine character development.  Aside from apparently being yet another of Jo’s suitors (something dealt with in a single aside) his brainwashing in The Green Death, siding with the villains of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and moral redemption in Planet of the Spiders is a development that is unprecedented and would rarely be repeated.  It was surely a surprising sequence of events to viewers at the time of broadcast: regulars simply did not become villains without brainwashing.

UNIT as a whole is often said to have a family feel in this period, a statement that is fairly valid.  It is certainly an informal organization with loose discipline: backchat directed at superior officers is a regular occurrence, as are non-regulation haircuts.  The Doctor is more firmly integrated to UNIT in this era compared with the ambiguity about his membership of the organization in season seven noted in my last article.  Soldiers come to attention on his arrival in Day of the Daleks and he is piped aboard ship in The Sea Devils.  The Brigadier certainly seems to think he can order him about in The Green Death, although the Doctor soon proves otherwise.  This all suggests that the Doctor has a fairly high rank in UNIT, but below that of Brigadier, perhaps a colonel.  This is possible perhaps because UNIT now seems less overtly militaristic and cosier, as well as being more willing to listen to the Doctor.

Monsters and Villains

One similarity between this era and season seven is the treatment of its villains and monsters.  These are still often nuanced characters, rather than out-and-out villains.  The repentance of the Ice Warriors in The Curse of Peladon is a first for the programme, unless one counts the humanized Daleks of The Evil of the Daleks.  Along with Captain Yates’ treachery, this indicates a willingness to see good and evil as inhering in choices, rather than being essentialist categories applying to certain individuals: one chooses to do good or evil rather than being good or evil.

Nevertheless, the general level of characterization, including of the villains, is cruder than in season seven.  Soldiers, politicians and bureaucrats are less likely than previously to be reasonable or even to have an understandable point of view.  Some monsters are simply monstrous: Autons, Axons, Daleks and others.  This period also sees many non-sentient monsters, monsters that are perhaps not alive and are certainly not intelligent.  Examples include the Keller machine monster, Bok, the Gell Guards, the Drashigs, the dinosaurs and, most famously, the giant maggots.  This allows the programme to have its cake and eat it: the Doctor and UNIT get to fight the monster, leading to exciting action sequences, but there are no moral consequences to these battles as they are treated as not fully alive, or at least not as important as humans and Time Lords.  Nevertheless, the Doctor considers Kettering’s Robot to be alive and he mourns the death of the giant fly in The Green Death.

Discussion of cruder characterization in this era brings us inevitably to the Master.  His reasons for his plans of global, galactic or even universal conquest are often unclear.  It is assumed that he is the villain and that is enough.  There are a few clues, tantalizing in their brevity, that allow us to reconstruct the production team’s view of the Master.  His greatest fear is revealed in The Mind of Evil as the Doctor laughing at him, yet in Colony in Space he offers to share dominion of the universe with him (something noted by Jo in Frontier in Space).  In The Time Monster he admits to being paranoid, but argues that deep down everyone else is paranoid too.  This ties in with his argument in Colony in Space that the basic rule of the universe is to rule or serve.  His speech to Squire Winstanley in The Dæmons shows a visceral hatred of freedom and democracy.  This all indicates that the character has complex feelings about the Doctor and has a paranoid, even psychopathic outlook on life.

However, there is a further dimension to the Master which has doubtless led to the character’s popularity, both in the early seventies and subsequently.  The production team explicitly designed the Master as an evil counterpart to the Doctor and this can be seen in many details, beyond the general parallels of them both being renegade Time Lords.  They are both charming and charismatic, at least when they want to be, and both like the good things in life.  The Master is as polite and cultured as the Doctor, always calling Jo “Miss Grant” and reading The War of the Worlds and quoting Tennyson in Frontier in Space.  He has a sense of humour, almost unheard of in a Doctor Who villain up to this point.

However, the Master is a bit more dangerously adult than the Doctor.  I do not mean his willingness to manipulate, lie and kill to get his way, but something more low-key.  The Master’s behaviour at times resembles those of the ordinary adults around the children in the audience, but behaviour marked off as “Not until you’re older.”  The Master smokes cigars in The Mind of Evil and The Time Monster, the latter story deliberately contrasting the Master sitting with a cigar and a glass of brandy with the Doctor having a sandwich and a cup of tea.  Most dangerously of all, the Master seems to have a libido or at the very least is aware how to play on the affections of others: in The Time Monster he seduces Queen Galleia to get his way.  All these behaviours mark the Master out not just as an evil counterpart to the Doctor, but an older one.  If the Doctor is a fantasy figure for children who twice in this era asserts his fondness for being childish (Terror of the Autons and Robot), the Master represents the socially dangerous figure of the precocious child, who experiments with alcohol, tobacco and sex while not knowing how to deal with the consequences of his actions.  After all, virtually every Master story in this era ends with the Doctor having to step in when the Master’s allies prove too powerful for him to control.

Of course, this pushes the Doctor out of childhood into responsible adulthood, but this does not quite contradict what I said before about the Doctor being a childlike hero; rather his unique appeal is the way his childlike sensibility co-exists with his superior wisdom: he is both the child in the audience and the child’s father, a hero to be emulated by having adventures and a parent who will stop those adventures getting out of control.  Thus the role of the companions as surrogate children to the Doctor and the Doctor’s acquisition of a parental figure in this era in K’Anpo are different facets of the same character, with the Master being excluded from emulation as a rebellious adolescent – but with the character likeable enough to appeal to children nonetheless.  In other words, the UNIT family exists quite literally!

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part I can be found here.
Part II can be found here.
Part III can be found here.
Part IV can be found here.

Stories: Spearhead from Space Inferno
Producers: Derrick Sherwin, Barry Letts
Script editors: Terrance Dicks
Other key contributors: Malcolm Hulke
Representative stories: Doctor Who and the Silurians, Inferno

Behind the Scenes

These stories, which form the whole of the seventh season of Doctor Who, see dramatic changes in major cast and crew working on the programme as well as in production techniques.  Coinciding, more or less, with the departure of the entire regular cast in The War Games, is a radical change of behind the scenes personnel.  Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin, both of whom had served as producer and script editor over the preceding years, departed after The Space Pirates and Spearhead from Space respectively, leaving Terrance Dicks as script editor (a role he had already fulfilled for much of season six) with former The Enemy of the World director Barry Letts taking over as producer.

As well as replacing almost all the key figures before and behind the cameras in the space of a few stories, the start of season seven sees important changes in production methods.  Most obviously, the programme was now made in colour, although, as we shall see, the ramifications of this were not always apparent.  Not least, colour allowed for colour separation overlay (CSO), an early form of blue-screen filming, with studio footage combined with model work or stock footage in a composite image.  This was used fairly conservatively in these stories, before becoming a major part of the programme’s visual style in future years, but effects shots such as the large videophone screens seen in The Ambassadors of Death would not have been possible previously, mundane though they seem in 2014.

Also important is the dramatic reduction in the number of episodes made a year, with the season length almost halved.  Nowadays fans would scream, but it meant that the budget per episode was increased at a stroke, with highly visible results.  It also meant the regular actors would not need to miss episodes while on holiday, as had happened previously, placing the Doctor more at the centre of the action than before.  The increase in budget and recording time allow for more location filming, resulting in a more ‘open’ feel to the stories and allowing the unique atmosphere of a particular location to be shown.  Finally, the system of recording one episode a week was changed to two episodes a fortnight.  This may seem the same, but it allowed scenes to be filmed out of order.  This meant that there was less damage to sets from being put up and taken down repeatedly.  Narrative structure could also be affected.  Whereas in the sixties TARDIS scenes outside the first and last episodes were rare in order to avoid putting up the TARDIS sets and to leave space in the studio for other sets, this was no longer a factor (there are, of course, no TARDIS scenes at all in this season, but you get the idea).

Story Type

On 21 June 1969, in the final episode of The War Games, the Doctor was found guilty by the Time Lords of interference in the affairs of others.  He was sentenced to have his appearance changed and to be exiled to Earth.  While viewers sitting down to watch Jon Pertwee’s first episode on 3 January 1970 (after by far the longest break between episodes since Doctor Who began) would probably have expected the Doctor’s new body to be permanent, they would have been forgiven for assuming that, one way or another, the Doctor would escape exile within a few weeks, the way he had escaped so many other threats and inter-story cliff-hangers, and that he would soon be on his travels in time and space again.  Instead, as the third Doctor collapsed unconscious outside the TARDIS, the most radical change in the series’ format since 1963 had begun and things would never quite be the same again, even today.

For the previous six years (and, indeed, for most of its future) Doctor Who had been a programme that could go anywhere, any time and in any style or genre.  Suddenly it is bound to one place, one time and one style.  (Later seasons of the exile will see the writers fighting against this, but here we are focusing on season seven.)  Spearhead from Space episode one is essentially written as a relaunch, with Liz Shaw playing the audience identification figure.  In a sense, she is a reincarnation of Barbara Wright, dragged unwillingly into a mysterious and violent world that she never dreamed existed.  The Doctor is alien and unknowable again.  The Brigadier plays an odd role, with Nicholas Courtney being the only regular cast member to have previously appeared in the programme, yet being less of an audience identification figure than Liz, perhaps for the sake of people who did not see or could not remember his previous appearances.  It is worth noting that there are no direct mentions of the Time Lords in the whole season and only a very brief indirect reference to them.  It is as if they are not intended to be part of the ongoing format of the series at this stage, something that will dramatically change in the following year, with a recurring Time Lord villain and cameos by other Time Lords.

Once the season was underway, viewers would have realized that more had changed than cast and visuals.  While Spearhead from Space has certain plot similarities with the Troughton era (notably The Faceless Ones, The Abominable Snowmen and The Invasion), the remaining stories are much more character-based and political than previously – not party political, but having a sense of the practical conflicts and moral dilemmas that emerge between people on a societal basis as well as a personal one.  It feels in many ways as if the programme is finally embracing the legacy of the Quatermass serials of the fifties after studiously avoiding them for most of the sixties. 

The season excels in presenting believable characters reacting to unreal situations in ways that we can relate to our world without the use of direct parallels or allegory.  However, it is not ‘realistic’ in the sense that fans seem to use the word.  There is little real science (although the Doctor does wear the appropriate clothing for potholing and space exploration) and the tone is generally melodramatic.  However, it is more mature than Doctor Who had been previously and not just in the levels of violence (the interrogation in Inferno is more brutal than any seen in the programme before and probably since), but in requiring empathy for its characters and patience for its plots that unfold at a slower pace than in the past.  The drama increasingly comes from people in offices and labs talking, from conflict of character and ethics, rather than cartoonish violence.  Episode one of Doctor Who and the Silurians is astonishing in its lack of overtly science fictional or child-pleasing moments.  Aside from a few seconds of monster action at the start and end and a brief glimpse of a drawing of some monsters, the episode largely consists of people in suits talking about particle accelerators and nervous breakdowns.  Even the reactor nearly going critical is portrayed in dialogue, not melodramatic lights and sirens.  The ending of this story is second only to The Massacre in its downbeat nature, and without the Hartnell story’s attempt at providing some kind of redemption.

For one season only, Doctor Who occupies a world of complex characters and genuine moral ambiguity.  Most of the stories feature humans and non-humans reacting in a credible way to the world as they perceive it and often led by laudable moral motives.  As we shall see below, the Brigadier’s actions in Doctor Who and the Silurians are motivated by what he sees and his concern to protect humanity.  Similar things could be said for the Silurians, General Carrington, the aliens of The Ambassadors of Death and the human cast of Inferno.  It is fitting that Carrington is allowed to go to jail with a certain amount of dignity and the Doctor even shows him a degree of pity now that he is no longer a threat.  Even Reegan has recognizable motives, wanting to rob banks rather than take over the world.  This emphasis on characterization and political dilemmas is most apparent in Doctor Who and the Silurians and The Ambassadors of Death, the former written by Malcolm Hulke and the later largely rewritten by him after David Whitaker’s drafts proved unsuited to the new format.  Hulke’s writing here helps set the tone not just for these stories, but for the following four seasons and he is as important to the style of Doctor Who in the early seventies as Terry Nation was to the programme in the early sixties.  Even the villains of the alternative Earth in Inferno are recognizable from real-world parallels, rather than the camp caricatures often seen in parallel universe stories.

The dialogue is largely humourless, something of a change after the late Troughton era.  The seriousness of the plots and the clear commitment of all involved prevent this falling into po-faced self-parody as happened to some later stories (e.g. The Claws of Axos).  That said, Liz does keep up a pomposity-puncturing sardonic commentary on the events of the early episodes of Spearhead from Space and it is a pity that this aspect of the character was abandoned.

Contrasting with this move towards realism, the direction is often the opposite of documentary realism.  The four directors use every visual trick available to them to tell their stories and involve the viewer, from faux news footage to long tracking shots to sudden jump cuts, from distorted images to the classic monster’s point of view shot (here made more interesting with a triple image, one of them tinted).  It is perhaps telling that of the four directors credited here[1], all bar one had worked on the programme before and it feels like all are excited by the possibilities the technical changes and budget increases allow, while aware of the potential pitfalls in working on the show.  The Ambassadors of Death in particular goes out of its way to include a highly visual filmed location sequence in every episode (with the possible exception of episode six, which does have some location work, but which is fairly workmanlike).  On occasion this rises to purely visual storytelling, as in the hijack of the convoy in episode two.  Doctor Who and the Silurians and Inferno could be told as Troughton era base under siege stories, but the addition of location filming allows a sense of atmosphere and scale that would otherwise be lacking.  This applies doubly to Spearhead from Space, which would struggle without its memorable invasion and battle sequences and which benefits immensely for being made more or less entirely on location. Indeed, the grim industrial landscapes seen in most stories here quickly become part of the programme’s visual idiom, supplemented by the urban invasion and plague scenes in the first two stories which help to anchor the programme in the viewers’ world, despite the occasional flourish indicating a near-future setting (mainly videophones and the strange plastic blocks used to operate the computer in Inferno).

Sadly, while these episodes excel visually in most respects, it is clear that the designers are not yet used to colour television.  Most of the sets are bland and ugly-coloured, although to be fair they are generally showing government buildings, not generally noted for their attractive design work.  Most viewers were still watching in black and white too.  Nevertheless, from a present day perspective scenes in the conference room in Doctor Who and the Silurians are deeply awkward, as Liz’s orange dress blends into the orange walls and the slightly darker orange curtains.

The Doctor

The Doctor as presented here is the most straightforward version of the character up to this point.  Except for his costume (and frilly shirts and velvet jackets were more normal then than now, at least for rock stars like Jimi Hendrix) the eccentricity usually associated with the role is largely absent.  Moreover, elements of the third Doctor as he is fondly remembered among fans have largely yet to develop: references to bizarre alien planets, historical namedrops and Venusian martial arts are largely, although not entirely, absent from these stories, while the sonic screwdriver, seen several times with Patrick Troughton, goes unseen and is only briefly mentioned.  This is significant, as the need to make the Doctor more eccentric and likeable was a key factor in the reshooting of the pilot version of An Unearthly Child back in 1963.  It is as if the production team are unwittingly rolling back time to present an entirely new take on the character, one less gimmicky and more suitable for an adult audience, to fit with the more mature storytelling of the series.

The Doctor is rarely as rude and abrasive as he is here, whether in earlier or later stories.  It is as if his new personality is bristling against his exile.  Only occasionally do we see the charm that Jon Pertwee will utilize in later stories.  It is no wonder that he makes enemies of so many scientists and bureaucrats who come into his path, especially when they have big egos of their own.  It does not always make for comfortable viewing as sometimes the viewer is forced to wonder if the Doctor would make his point more successfully without being so arrogant and rude.  Inferno is perhaps the most successful story in this regard as his anger has a more justified target in the brutal thugs of a totalitarian regime rather than against scientists and civil servants who are just trying to do their jobs in difficult circumstances.  Interestingly, it is against this background that the Doctor’s alien physiognomy is stressed for the first time, with reference to his second heart, unusual pulse rate, ability to induce a healing coma and so on.  This may be a deliberate attempt to stress his alien nature now that he is confined to contemporary Earth.

Also unusual is the Doctor’s attempt to leave Earth during the events of Spearhead from Space and Inferno.  While this action is not without precedent, it had not been seen since the time of the first Doctor and generally only in his earliest stories. It is probably best seen as a symptom of his discomfort at being exiled to Earth rather than a new-found callousness, particularly as the severity of the threat facing the Earth was perhaps unclear on both occasions.

On a more positive note, the Doctor has a new-found passion for diplomacy and peacemaking.  While this is now considered one of the hallmarks of the character, it had previously been seen only fitfully in stories like The Sensorites, The Ark and The Faceless Ones.  Here he usually urges a peaceful resolution of conflicts – except in the case of interpersonal character clashes where he is a master of the blunt insult!  Particularly noteworthy is the Doctor’s behaviour in Doctor Who and the Silurians.  In his desperation to broker a peaceful understanding between humans and Silurians, the Doctor betrays the Brigadier’s exploration of the caves to the Silurians in the hope of achieving a dialogue.  Instead, the Young Silurian traps UNIT and several men die.  While the Doctor’s motives are pure, his action can be construed as naïve and over-optimistic and it is a pity that neither the Brigadier nor the programme itself really deal with the consequences of the Doctor’s actions here.

The Doctor remains curious, but this curiosity is not seen so often, not least because of his confinement to a known time and place.  He is, however, extremely excited to find out that he landed on Earth in a meteor storm in Spearhead from Space as well as wanting to understand the scientific knowledge of the Silurians (does he really think it is greater than that of the Time Lords?!) and to break through the ‘limbo’ that he discovered when travelling by TARDIS console in Inferno to find out what lies beyond it.

An interesting point to consider regarding the Doctor’s characterization in these stories is whether he is a member of UNIT.  While it is usually assumed that he joined UNIT immediately after Spearhead from Space and stayed a member despite the conclusion of Doctor Who and the Silurians and while he certainly is a full member of UNIT by season eight, with a lab in UNIT HQ and a pass (albeit one carried by Jo Grant), it is far from clear that that is how the writers of season seven saw matters.

In Doctor Who and the Silurians the Doctor describes himself as “an associate of UNIT” rather than a member of UNIT and we are told that he has no official records, being regarded as the Brigadier’s “personal responsibility”.  Against this is the fact that the Brigadier seems to think he can order the Doctor and Liz to Wenley Moor at will.  The Doctor’s ‘lab’ as seen The Ambassadors of Death looks like the living room of a flat or house rather than a purpose-built official installation: it has bric-a-brac and upholstered furniture as well as a picture hanging on the wall outside, which not only make it look homely, but also give the air of an improvised laboratory rather than a purpose-built official one.  In the same story we learn that the Doctor has no pass because “I don’t believe in them” which may be bluster, but may indicate that he is not a member of UNIT.  Again, the Brigadier describes the Doctor as “one of my associates” not as a member of UNIT staff and when General Carrington asks who the Doctor is the Brigadier says that he has helped UNIT, rather than giving the more authoritative answer that he is UNIT’s scientific advisor, which would surely be a better way of silencing Carrington’s criticisms.  The Doctor walks off at the end of the story as if it is not his job to tidy up the loose ends left, saying that Liz is better at practical things than he is.  Most importantly, in Inferno he says that Liz has the “misfortune” to work for the Brigadier, but that he is a “free agent”.  He seems to be working on the TARDIS console at the Inferno Project independently of UNIT, getting power from the nuclear reactor and use of the computer in exchange for consultation on technical matters; the Brigadier does not know why the Doctor is there which would not be the case if he were a UNIT employee.

Trivial though all this might seem, it indicates that the production team was still evolving an idea of how the exile set-up would work while the first season of the new format was actually being made.  In subsequent years it was often claimed both by fans and by luminaries of the programme such as the first producer, Verity Lambert, that this period of the show saw the Doctor becoming an authority figure, with a job, an official HQ and a boss, and a military one at that.  These little scraps of evidence may indicate that that was not the original intention of the season seven production team and writers and certainly show that that presentation of the Doctor and UNIT in season eight was not the only option available, even within the confines of the UNIT/exile set-up.

The Companions

Liz and the Brigadier are the first adult companions since Ben and Polly and arguably the first to really behave like adults since Ian and Barbara.  The Doctor’s relationship with Liz is quite unusual.  It is a meeting of minds and they are able to converse in a way that the Doctor has never done in the past with his companions and rarely will do again.  However, there is a certain distance between them; certainly the Doctor feels no qualms about deceiving Liz when he attempts to leave in Spearhead from Space and Inferno (he does let her drive Bessie, though).  It is possible that, still angry about his exile, the Doctor is worried about putting down roots by making friends.  It is noteworthy that Liz can work out which of all the Doctor’s bits of paperwork is the correct cure for the Silurian plague after his kidnapping.  She intermittently gets exposition duties when the Doctor is otherwise engaged, suggesting that the writers have not forgotten her scientific background, although this gets less relevant as time goes on.  She stands up to Reegan and his thugs, being sarcastic and assertive – far from the passive screamer of Doctor Who stereotype.

The Doctor’s relationship with the Brigadier is less cosy than it would be later, but far from hostile even in Doctor Who and the Silurians.  There is a genuine conflict of opinions over the Silurians, but their relationship improves afterwards.  It is noteworthy that, whatever the Doctor thinks, the Brigadier does not kill the Silurians, but seals them in suspended animation after seeing them make two attempts at genocide, though it could be argued that this is a mere technicality and there is little chance of the Silurians ever being revived.  The Brigadier here is more open-minded than he would be later and pragmatic rather than blimpish, as seen in his quarantining Wenley Moor Hospital at gunpoint.  While he is incredulous, this is usually kept within the boundaries of common sense.  He leaves the Doctor and Liz to work on the cure for the Silurian plague and tells someone on the phone, possibly a superior, that he will not hurry them, although he does become impatient as time goes on, understandably.  He later seems genuinely upset when he hears of the death of Sergeant Hart, suggesting compassion for the men under his command.

UNIT is shown to have considerable manpower, especially during the hunt for the Silurian, where they field soldiers, and a helicopter as well as having assistance from policemen with dogs.  UNIT also have their own forensics section in The Ambassadors of Death.  The constantly changing seconds in command (Captain Munro, Captain Hawkings, Sergeant Benton) also helps to suggest a large organization, but the fact that a lowly sergeant answers directly to the Brigadier in the second half of the season suggests the truncated organization of later years.  UNIT also has rather Orwellian powers of detention, with the Brigadier claiming to be able to hold people for “considerable” periods on security charges, perhaps suggesting a darker side to the organization that we generally do not see.

Villains and Monsters

As hinted above, this season of the show presents a radical reinterpretation of the nature of villainy and monstrousness within the programme.  Whereas once villains and monsters were evil due to their very nature (e.g. the innate and unreasoning racism of the Daleks) or due to crossing some boundary, a boundary that blurs the biological with the metaphysical (e.g. the Cybermen replacing their organs but losing their humanity in the process), now monsters are at least sometimes not innately monstrous.  While the Nestene Consciousness is presented as an almost Lovecraftian horror beyond human comprehension not unlike the Great Intelligence, the alien ambassadors are essentially misunderstood, kidnapped and forced to kill by humans.

The Silurians are more complex: for the first time since The Sensorites we get a sustained picture of an alien society split over an ethical dilemma, with the Old Silurian favouring peaceful negotiation with the humans, only to be deposed in a coup and replaced by a more militaristic leader who makes two attempts at genocide.  Even then, the Doctor (and hence the audience, at least in theory) believes a negotiated peace is possible, although the Brigadier tragically disagrees.

The Primords are perhaps more analogous to Troughton-era monsters which, as I noted in the previous instalment are often elements of nature transgressing their appropriate boundaries or representations of elements of violent human nature.  Here, in a subtle presentation, it is humanity that has transgressed the boundaries of nature by drilling through the Earth’s crust, resulting in a violent backlash by nature itself, producing an otherwise inexplicable mutagenic green goo that turns Inferno personnel into werewolf-like monsters driven by the instinctive need to accelerate the drilling apparently so that they can complete their mutation faster (the destruction of the Earth would seem to be unintended).  At the same time, they can be seen as embodiments of the savagery of homo sapiens, with no real difference between the violence of the Primords and that of the soldiers of the alternate totalitarian Britain.

This brings us to human villainy.  Every story in this season presents a human face to villainy.  While Hibbert is essentially a weak man, hypnotized by Channing and not all that dissimilar from numerous Troughton-era figures, other characters are more interesting.  The humans of Doctor Who and the Silurians are not essentially evil.  Doctors Lawrence and Quinn are arrogant and anxious to advance their careers, while Miss Dawson driven by her love for Quinn, which blinds her to his unethical conduct, but these are not the worst of all crimes, although they do lead people to terrible deeds.  Masters is essentially an open-minded man, but too lowly in the political/bureaucratic chain of command to make the necessary decisions to bring about a peaceful outcome.  Major Baker and the Brigadier are both patriotic men anxious to save innocent lives; their tragedy is that they see only a part of the Silurian culture and internal political conflict, thus leading them to the conclusion that the Silurians are monsters and that peaceful coexistence is impossible.  That the Brigadier is later able to join the Doctor in finding a peaceful solution to the situation of the alien ambassadors is a sign of the character’s essential moral sense and open-mindedness.

Much the same could be said about the humans of The Ambassadors of Death and Inferno.  Reegan is a petty thug, but his motivations are realistic and understandable.  He really just wants to rob a bank and get rich.  General Carrington is driven by the accidental death of his colleague, resulting in xenophobia which, while murderous and probably pathological, is comprehensible and as noted above it is appropriate that the Doctor and the programme itself regards him with a degree of pity in defeat rather than triumphalism.  Finally, ‘our’ Professor Stahlman is another career-focussed scientist who will not take advice like Lawrence and Quinn.  The totalitarian personnel of the alternative world are realistically-portrayed, but the fact that they are so similar to their equivalents in ‘our’ world (a point deliberately reinforced in the dialogue) makes us see totalitarianism as something that could evolve out of our world if we are not careful, rather than as something that happens ‘over there’ in Nazi Germany or the USSR.  Overall the impression is that Doctor Who takes place in a world like our own, both in setting and in the type of characters who people it.

[1] Producer Barry Letts directed much of Inferno uncredited after the credited director, Douglas Camfield, was taken ill.  Letts insisted that he followed Camfield’s intentions with few alterations.

No, I'm not coming back to regular blogging, nor do I intend to do so.  However, I have been thinking about using my LJ as an irregularly-produced fanzine, as a venue for my Changing Style of Doctor Who posts.  Starting to write the next one (on Jon Pertwee's first season), I discovered that the previous post (on the Troughton era) seems to have been posted 'private' instead of 'public'.  If this was the case the whole time (which I am not sure about) it would explain why no one seemed to read it!  Herewith a link back to it.

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.

Part I can be found here.
Part II can be found here.
Part III can be found here.

Stories: The War Machines The War Games

Producers: Innes Lloyd, Peter Bryant, Derrick Sherwin

Script editors: Gerry Davis, Peter Bryant, Victor Pemberton, Derrick Sherwin, Terrance Dicks

Representative stories: The Tenth Planet and The Web of Fear epitomize what fans think of as the standard template for the era; The Mind Robber reminds us that Doctor Who could still do other things too.

Behind the Scenes

As can be seen from the lists of production personnel above, this is a time of high turnover in the most important behind the scenes positions, with three producers and five script editors, including two people serving in both positions.  Nevertheless, there is greater continuity than at first appears, with an element of musical chairs as people move from one position to another or go on leave and return a story later.  Moreover, the changing team did not prevent a period of conceptual stability for Doctor Who.

Story Type

This period sees Doctor Who attempting to create a house-style, arguably for the first time, after the stylistic variety seen in its first three years.  Much of what is established here will continue for many more years, especially the importance of the monsters.  Monsters had not been an integral part of the programme previously, even in the science fiction stories, but after this only Christopher H. Bidmead will really try to do a story without even a token monster of some kind.  Perhaps surprisingly, although the monsters are clearly being presented as a key part of the programme here as shown by the publicity photos, in this run of twenty-four stories five have no monster at all (two historical, three science fiction), one of several signs that the stereotypical fan view of these seasons, all monsters and bases under siege, is a simplification of a more complex reality.

The descriptive phrase ‘base under siege,’ used by fans for many years to discuss these stories, is arguably no longer helpful on two counts.  Firstly, the phrase emphasizes the generic similarity of the stories, ‘generic’ in the sense of genre and also of lacking originality.  This is missing something.  There is a deliberately wide variety of settings in the different stories; the bases under siege include a Tibetan monastery and the London Underground, not just hi-tech futuristic bases.  This gives a greater sense of diversity to the stories.  That this visual distinctiveness is deliberate is indicated by the fact that a number of stories have unique opening or closing titles to help them look and feel different, something that continues for a season after this era, but is then only seen in the silent closing credits over Adric’s badge at the end of part four of Earthshock.  Naturally, visual diversity is reduced when so many of these episodes survive only as off-air audio recordings.  Audio diversity is important too, with many stories having unique, memorable sound effects or even soundscapes.

The second reason why the phrase ‘base under siege’ is no longer useful is that the settings in these stories are not all under siege: the colony experiencing The Macra Terror has already been conquered; The Faceless Ones are only interested in kidnapping, not in invasion; while the Cybermen of Tomb of the Cybermen are breaking out, not in.  A number of other stories do not remotely conform to the base under siege format e.g. The Evil of the Daleks, The Enemy of the World and The Space Pirates.  Perhaps it is better to speak of location-based stories, where a big set or linked group of sets is almost a character in its own right.  Along with stories traditionally cited as bases under siege, the title of ‘location-based stories’ would apply to the Orwellian colony of The Macra Terror, the Victorian mansion in The Evil of the Daleks, The Krotons’ linked Hall of Learning and Dynatrope, the offices and factories of The Invasion, the alien command centre in the latter stages of The War Games and perhaps also the trenches and command posts in the early episodes (at ten episodes, it is no surprise that The War Games literally covers more ground than the average story).  There is certainly a sense in which stories in this era involve taking Location A featuring Obstructive Commander B, bringing in Monster C and then seeing how the Doctor reacts to them all.

While the production teams have admitted that the restricted number of sets was an attempt at getting value for money – paying for one really good-looking set, rather than half a dozen shoddy ones – there is also an attempt at claustrophobia in many stories, even when they have significant location filming, but especially when restricted to the studio and the limited number of sets.  The programme’s sudden interest in possession and hypnosis is of interest here too: these are cheap plot devices, often requiring nothing more than asking an actor to speak in a monotone, but they speak to our deepest fears, the fear of the loss of personality, of being turned into a machine, figuratively among the brainwashed citizens in The Macra Terror, but rather more literally when the Cybermen are around.  We will pick up this thread later on.

Still, it is worth noting that season six sees the programme less reliant on impressive locations and trying more experimental fare, including the surrealism of The Mind Robber, the espionage thriller of The Invasion and the space opera of The Space Pirates.  There is perhaps a sense that the programme makers feel the show needs a radical overhaul, one that it was about to get…

The Doctor

With only a few stories, it is hard to tell how Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis saw the first Doctor.  The War Machines and The Smugglers have him behaving quite proactively, especially when compared to some earlier stories where he was essentially a witness to history.  The cliff-hanger at the end of episode three of The War Machines is arguably the first ‘hero moment’ for the Doctor of the type that would become the norm after 2005.  His use of a fortune-telling bluff to escape in The Smugglers seems designed to spotlight his ingenuity, while his refusal to leave the villagers to their fate in the same story is a contrast to his usual passive outlook in historical stories.  This is undermined somewhat by The Tenth Planet, where he knows what is going to happen in advance (is it well-known history to him?) and is desperate to leave from halfway into the first episode.  In any case, Hartnell’s illness and the need to have the Doctor weak as a pretext for what would later become known as regeneration keeps him out of the action for much of the story.

And then the Doctor collapses on the floor and nothing will be quite the same again…

The new Doctor is very different to his predecessor.  Lloyd and Davis could have gone down the route of casting another amiable old man or at least another middle aged man made up to look older.  This was essentially what the 1960s Dalek movies did in casting Peter Cushing.  But Lloyd and Davis totally revised the character.  The second Doctor is more low-key.  The first Doctor dominated his scenes, but the new Doctor is willing to stand in the background and watch events unfold.  The Tomb of the Cybermen is perhaps the best example of this: the first Doctor would have delivered a grandstanding speech denouncing Kleig, but the second Doctor prefers to watch, giving Kleig enough rope to hang himself, a strategy that very nearly backfires.

This illustrates a second aspect of the new Doctor’s character: he is more cunning, at times even deceiving his friends as part of some plan.  He frequently appears to side with the enemy (see The Evil of the Daleks, The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Web of Fear and The War Games).  In The Power of the Daleks and The Underwater Menace, his solution to the problem involves huge numbers of innocent casualties, which does not seem to bother him much.  There is a shift towards a more straightforward characterization of the Doctor in season six, with clowning around replacing cunning, perhaps a side-effect of Patrick Troughton’s increasing boredom with the role and annoyance with the scripts, Troughton and Frazer Hines (Jamie) having a reputation for adding unscripted comedy ‘business.’  This may explain why both fandom and the authors of later multi-Doctor stories think of the second Doctor as a bumbling clown, not a quiet manipulator: until recently most of the complete or near-complete stories from this era were from season six.  It will be interesting to see whether that view shifts with the recent return of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear, both of which see a more cunning, less clownish Doctor.  Bruce’s comment on the Doctor in The Enemy of the World, “You must be a complete fool or very clever” stands as an excellent appraisal of the character.

The War Games, an end of an era in more ways than one, finally gives the Doctor a background, something studiously avoided after Susan’s departure.  The introduction of the Time Lords and the revelation that the Doctor did not build the TARDIS, but stole it, appear to come from nowhere on screen, but seem rooted in C. E. Webber’s original ideas for the programme, perhaps buried unconsciously in Derrick Sherwin’s memory.  One again, things would never be quite the same again…

The Companions

The treatment of the companions in this era is not always successful.  Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis have achieved a degree of deserved notoriety among fans for their swift removal of characters who were deemed unsuccessful or no longer of any use.  This was partly a carryover from the approach of John Wiles and Donald Tosh, but few companions have been dismissed as rapidly as Ben and Polly in The Faceless Ones (missing for most of the story and making a brief goodbye in the closing minute or two – it’s a testament to the actors involved, especially Patrick Troughton, that this scene is actually quite moving) not to mention Dodo, who is sent away halfway through The War Machines to recuperate after being brainwashed and is never seen again!  (Virgin Books had even less pleasant fates in store for her.)  Only the non-reappearance of Liz Shaw in season eight and Ace after season twenty-six come close and there were at least sound production reasons for those.  It is worth noting that the departures of Victoria, Jamie and Zoe are handled rather better, with their farewells flowing naturally from the story in question and being well-written and moving.

The companions themselves are often experimental.  After the most successful contemporary companions to this point, Ben and Polly, two historical companions are introduced, Jamie and Victoria, something only tried once before with the short-lived Katarina.  After Victoria’s departure, Zoe sees a return to the Hartnell era’s futuristic child prodigies (Zoe’s age is never given on screen, but she was originally intended to be in her teens).  However, there is a tendency for the historical companions to lose their distinctiveness, with Victoria not appearing particularly Victorian except for the occasional cry of “Mercy!” and wariness of short skirts.  Likewise Jamie quickly learns a more advanced vocabulary and becomes at ease with futuristic technology – perhaps the only viable option in a series that suffers enough from the need for regular exposition to impart information to the audience without the need to explain things already known to them, such as trains and radios.  Zoe is handled better, with her hot-housed intelligence and photographic memory being fairly consistent throughout her appearances, even if her knowledge of how candles work is variable.  It is worth noting that the dynamic of the TARDIS crew in season six is a little different to previously: as traditional for the male companion, Jamie is the muscle, but it is Zoe as much as the Doctor who represents pure intelligence, with the Doctor providing practical experience and friendly rivalry to Zoe’s genius.

Villains and Monsters

This era of the programme also comes in for criticism for its presentation of alien species, which are deemed by some fans to represent a monstrous, irrational Other pitted unfavourably against a series of mostly white, mostly Western, mostly male bases under siege, the implication being that monstrousness is an essentialist existential category in opposition to Western-ness.  I think this is a misunderstanding of the dynamic of these stories.  It is true that non-white characters are few in number, usually limited to subordinate roles and generally killed off quickly.  It is also true that there are some truly horrifying stereotypes on show, notably Toberman in The Tomb of the Cybermen, who is basically an infantile black slave, and Silverstein in The Web of Fear, not explicitly said to be Jewish, but showing all the characteristics of antisemitic stereotype (Central European name and accent, greedy, paranoid).  But however unfortunate these are, the presentation of monstrousness and evil in this era of the programme is done with an agenda quite different to that of demonizing the Other.

Throughout much of this era, the monsters are presented not as an alien Other, but as nature exceeding its boundaries or as humanity itself out of control[1].  The most obvious example in the former category is the weed creature in Fury from the Deep, which is not killed, but sent back to its natural habitat in the depths of the ocean in a rare pre-Steven Moffat story in which everyone – and everything - lives.  Other examples include the Macra in The Macra Terror, which are described as bacteria even though they look like crabs; the story is less clear than could be wished, but it does seem that the problem is that the Macra have come up from their natural habitat in the depths to control the Colony (this may be an overly-redemptive reading on my part).  The Great Intelligence might also fall in this category; again the problem seems to be that it has come down from its astral plane and sought to control the world of humanity.

But it is the second category of monstrousness, that of humanity out of control, that this era turns to most often.  From the augmented Fish People to the duplicated Chameleons, from corrupt early modern squires and solicitors to corrupt twenty-first century demagogues, from space pirates to Dominators, from the aliens running the war games to the ruthless Time Lords stopping them, villainy in this era often wears a human(oid) face.  And that is without mentioning this era’s ‘big hitters,’ the Daleks and the Cybermen.  The later are explicitly identified as being the disastrous consequences of humanity removing its emotions and with them the limits on its hubris.  The Cybermen in this era almost invariably attack multi-national settings to drive home the message that it is our common humanity that stands under threat from the loss of the emotional drives that are the heritage of all mankind.

A more subtle use is made of the Daleks in two of their finest ever stories, sadly now largely surviving only as audio recordings.  In The Power of the Daleks, the totalitarian conformity of the Daleks is portrayed as the perverse source of their power against the corrupt and infighting humans; unlike a human, a Dalek will kill anything except another Dalek.  The result is one of the bleakest stories of the sixties, a story in which the militarism of the Daleks almost wins out against the murderously divided humans.  However, just a few stories later, The Evil of the Daleks, by the same author, David Whitaker, presents the other side of the equation.  Here, human emotions and questioning are presented as a source of strength against Dalek conformity.  The introduction of human emotions to the Daleks results in their humanization, creating Daleks that know the value of friendship and compassion.  Inevitably, the conformist Daleks seek to destroy them.

As noted above, five stories in this era have only human(oid) villains, to which one could add that for much of The Invasion the villains are the human Vaughn and his human minions, not the Cybermen.  Likewise the real villains in The Underwater Menace are the human Zaroff and the Atlanteans, not the humans augmented to become Fish People.  The era also makes much use of the stock figure of the obstructive base commander, although the reasons for his obstructions may vary, ranging from incredulity at the Doctor’s talk of threat to professional pride, neurosis and outright possession.  Indeed, with the second Doctor so joyfully anarchic it is appropriate that he be set against unimaginative bureaucrats and monsters that hypnotize and possess, removing the very imaginative diversity he holds so dear.  But the Doctor and his foes were about to change as was the very nature of the programme itself…

NEXT TIME: the most radical reimagining of the programme’s premise.

[1] A couple of monsters do not fall easily in either category, generally being too robotic or abstract to be seen as natural, human or anything else: robots like the Quarks and the White Robots of the Land of Fiction and the Master Brain Computer controlling the latter as well as the inorganic Krotons and perhaps also the Lovecraftian Great Intelligence.

I’ve decided to hold off from reviewing for a while for various reasons.  Still, having dropped a mini review of The Time of the Doctor into a comment on parrot_knight’s blog, I thought I would share an edited version here, just in case anyone (including my future self) was wondering what I thought.

I was expecting the fall of the eleventh to be a grand banquet, but was presented with a succession of cold cuts. Entertaining though it was at times, I was left with a feeling of something lacking - the whole was definitely less than the sum of its parts. Overall I did enjoy it, though, particularly the image of the Doctor settling down in a single town to save it, growing old (and Hartnell-esque) while fighting.

The idea that the Doctor was at the end of his regenerative cycle seemed an odd inclusion, perhaps implying that Moffat already has ideas for Peter Capaldi's departure (which seems a unnecessarily early) or that he doesn't trust his successor(s) to devise a suitable plot device.

It's fairly well established by now that the Doctor can change time without consequences whenever he likes, as long as there are no dramatic reasons to prevent this i.e. anything the writers don't want changed is a "fixed point" and everything else is fair game. Perhaps a clearer set of rules are needed if "timey-wimey shenanigans" are to continue to have any emotional power.

I started writing a pastiche of G. K. Chesterton’s poem The Rolling English Road earlier in the year as a homage to Doctor Who for its fiftieth anniversary.  I am not quite sure why – I am not a particular fan of Chesterton.  The poem just seems to flow nicely.  Then Real Life took over and I abandoned it.  As a result of a discussion about the influence of G. K. Chesterton on Anthony Coburn, author of 100,000 B. C. with parrot_knight, I dug it out again.  Too late for the anniversary, I made a few changes to what I had written and continued it as a homage to the eleventh Doctor and his soon-to-be-finished era, my favourite era of new Who.  Poetic licence has been taken in parts, I know, mostly because the eleventh Doctor has a habit of landing on Earth or nameless planets, which causes trouble for a poem about place names.

The Rolling Vortex of Time

Before the Roman came to Leadworth or Clara saw the Shard,
The blue English police box left the cold and dark junkyard.
A magic box, a crazy box, that rattles round in time,
The steering is erratic, the cloister bell does chime.
And back in time and out in space and facing monsters fearsome,
The time we went to Bandril by way of the Byzantium.

I knew no harm of the Silence for I had not heard their name
And though they tried to kill me, I foiled them just the same.
And their most deadly secret weapon, Professor River Song
Became my (other) wife (sort of) before waiting too long.
We travelled through that vortex: Ponds, Clara and my spouse
The time we went to Heiradi by way of the carnivorous House.

My sins were at last forgiven, for I changed my own timeline
And incarnations past and present all helped me to align
Gallifrey and move it away from destructive Dalek legions
Though finding exactly where it is might take a few more seasons.
Rassilon pardon us for we were blinded as the vortex swirled
The night we went to Hakol by way of Hedgewick’s World.

My friends, we will not go again to fight an old Time War,
Instead to search for Gallifrey I turn my face afore.
I vworp with clearer eyes and ears and through the vortex go
And though I fear the end is near, I shout “Geronimo!”
For there are stories yet to tell and fine things still in store
Before we go to worlds unknown by way of Trenzalore.

With acknowledgements to G. K. Chatterton Chesterfield Chesterton

I wrote this as a comment on strange_complex’s blog regarding how to number the Doctors now we have a new ninth Doctor, then realized I had wandered very far from the point. Still having spent a while setting down thoughts I had meant to write for some time, I thought I would expand on the idea here instead.

My radical theory of Doctor Who continuity (which I don't expect anyone else to share!) is that Doctor Who has a fluid continuity made up by a sort of balancing act between what the writers want to do and what the general audience remembers at any given time. I increasingly see Doctor Who as a series of interpretations of a central idea, not a single coherent canon.  I admit a big influence here was Neil Gaiman's excellent Batman comic Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Gaiman reconciled the differences in Batman (the character and series) over the years as being a myth that is constantly retold in different ways to suit different styles and eras, which is what it really is, although he did provide a narrative fig-leaf (Bruce Wayne is constantly being reincarnated and experiencing a life full of similar major events, particularly the murder of his parents, but constantly varying in details).

As Doctor Who is not a single continuity, it can therefore undergo small or even medium style readjustment without rebooting, but this doesn't become retroactive when watching old stories.  So there are only three Doctors in The Three Doctors, but there is nothing 'wrong' with The Brain of Morbius suggesting lives before Hartnell or with subsequent production teams not pursuing that idea. This is because Doctor Who has a mythos, not a canon - a canon being what you're left with when a religious or academic elite attempts to establish some core texts from a larger mythos and to harmonize them into a single whole. But no one has ever succeeded in doing that with Doctor Who and every attempt has bred dissent!

Certainly my Changing Style of Doctor Who series of posts are about looking at the different aesthetic eras of Doctor Who on their own terms, not bending them out of shape into a single aesthetic/narrative whole as fans love doing. And, of course, aesthetic and narrative go hand in hand: you couldn’t use a ‘homeless wanderer’ Doctor like the first Doctor to tell ‘powerful manipulator’ stories like those of the seventh Doctor’s era – the character just doesn’t fit the plot.

So, from this point on (I suspect) the War Doctor is the ninth, but looking back to 2005, Eccleston is the ninth, although I can't think of any particular story from Rose until now where this would have been of major significance (unlike the tagging systems of a million blogs...). Of course, from a practical point of view (e.g. for the sake of those tags), something clearer is needed and I suspect fandom will develop some system, either seeing the War Doctor as separate (Steven Moffat seems to see him as such in giving him a special title) or renumbering (less likely, I fancy, but it might happen if Moffat keeps referring to Capaldi as the thirteenth as he did in <i>The Day of the Doctor</i>, in contradiction to the what I just said about the War Doctor!). But as far as the general public are concerned, in a few years John Hurt will be a footnote in history like Peter Cushing and Michael Jayston and Matt Smith will still be the eleventh (etc.).

Bottom line: I'll forgive almost anything for the sake of a good story (emphasis on 'almost' and 'good'!), which is what we got last night.  All that said, I don't expect anyone to share this 'heretical' view (heretical because people who dispute canonical texts are necessarily heretics).

Cut for spoilersCollapse )

The Night of the Doctor

Posted on 16/11/2013 at 22:51
Tags: ,
I've only just seen this Paul McGann-starring mini-episode on the BBC website, released a few days ago as I didn't want to interrupt my trip through the highlights of the 2011 season arc.  I thought it was pretty good: the best ‘prequel’ (or whatever they are called) in some time, not least because it managed a proper story with a beginning, middle and end and character development all in the space of about five minutes, alongside a lot of squee.

I have never really wanted to see the Time War or the eighth Doctor’s regeneration, feeling some things are best left to the imagination, but this handled the latter well and tantalized us with the former without giving too much away, although Day of the Doctor may yet do that.  This was probably the best of McGann’s performances in the role that I have encountered, although I have only heard a few Big Finish stories.  Speaking of which, if I still believed Doctor Who had a canon, which I don't, I would perhaps be annoyed at the canonization of the audios ahead of the DWM comics (which I really like) and the books (I didn’t follow the eighth Doctor novels much, but know enough about them to know they are a rather significant influence on post-2005 TV Who).  Still, all's fair in love and war, I supppose.

And I'm glad the eighth Doctor's haircut has improved since San Francisco.

Continuing my examination of stylistic change in Doctor Who.
Part I can be found here.
Part II can be found here.

Stories: Mission to the Unknown The Savages

Producer: Verity Lambert, John Wiles

Script editors: Donald Tosh, Gerry Davis

Representative stories: The Ark is the only story credited to John Wiles to survive completely, but the audios of The Myth Makers and The Massacre are certainly better and arguably more representative of the era.

Behind the Scenes

In the previous two parts we saw how producer Verity Lambert oversaw two rather different interpretations of the programme’s premise: under the first script editor, David Whitaker, the programme was an awe-struck exploration of different civilizations, but under his successor Dennis Spooner, the series became rooted in the idea of time-travel.

Now the production team changes again.  New script editor Donald Tosh had been credited since The Time Meddler, but was working through a backlog of scripts written or commissioned by Spooner and only now begins to really make his presence felt.  This coincides with the arrival of new producer John Wiles, who has also been around in the studio since Galaxy 4 (and is already at loggerheads with William Hartnell), but only now takes creative control of the series.  Together, Wiles and Tosh will take Doctor Who in a radical new direction, or rather, several radical new directions.

Unfortunately, this short but distinctive run of stories suffered badly from the destruction of episodes.  Of the twenty-five episodes under consideration only seven survive, with audio recordings and a handful of clips giving an idea of what the others were like.  The era also suffers from the next production team strongly disagreeing with the style of their predecessors.  As a result The Celestial Toymaker and The Gunfighters, commissioned by Wiles and Tosh, would end up being made with a different approach and the clash of styles is not to the benefit of the material nor is it always easy to apportion credit and blame; Wiles totally disowned The Celestial Toymaker, which had further departed from the commission when it needed a total rewrite at the last minute.

Story Type

John Wiles and Donald Tosh oversaw a stretching of Doctor Who’s conceptual envelope, in terms of both the genres and styles that the programme would attempt.  I have noted before that Doctor Who can be seen as either an anthology series of almost unrelated stories that just happen to feature the Doctor or as an ongoing story about the regularly appearing icons (the Doctor, the TARDIS, the Daleks, the Master and so on).  In reality, these polar opposite styles never appear in an unadulterated form and the programme always falls somewhere in the middle ground between them, but these stories press as close as ever to pure anthology, particularly once you recall that the Daleks were foisted on an unwilling production team (in Mission to the Unknown and The Daleks’ Master Plan) by their predecessors and the BBC bosses.  But this is obvious not so much in the use of the programme’s imagery as the dramatic stylistic differences between stories and even within them.

In terms of tone, there is an attempt to push the series in several very different directions at once. The Myth Makers sees the most overt foray into comedy in Doctor Who to this date, as well as introducing an element of parody, in this case of classical mythology and Homer (followed by a parody Western in The Gunfighters), that the series had rarely seen before now, while the return of the Monk part-way through The Daleks’ Master Plan sees a momentary lightening of the tale, even ignoring the comedy Christmas episode shoved unceremoniously in the middle of the story.

The Massacre, on the other hand, is pure tragedy, while the subdued or downbeat endings to Mission to the Unknown, The Myth Makers and The Daleks’ Master Plan show a sustained attempt to make the programme less light-hearted, something also seen in the death of likeable characters in many stories and (as we shall see below) the Doctor’s responsibility for a number of tragic events.  It will be noted from this that some stories attempt comedy and tragedy at once or at least in rapid succession – not impossible, but very difficult to do successfully.  Indeed Mission to the Unknown, The Massacre and parts of The Daleks’ Master Plan are very serious, even solemn, needing to be played very straight, something at odds with Donald Cotton’s knowing comedy in The Myth Makers and The GunfightersThe Daleks’ Master Plan in particular takes situations out of Flash Gordon and plays them like Macbeth, not a million miles from the approach writer Terry Nation would later take on Blake’s 7.

As well as tonal innovation, the era experiments with a number of new genres.  Mission to the Unknown sees the series’ first tentative use of mutational horror, later to become a staple of the programme, while The Ark and The Celestial Toymaker see the most overt forays up to this point into ‘hard’ SF and pure fantasy respectively.  Mission to the Unknown’s vision of a man mutating into a deadly plant also recalls The Quatermass Experiment, another significant milestone for the programme as the BBC’s most successful science fiction series before Doctor Who would be a major influence on the programme in the seventies, but had been studiously avoided up until now.

It is a shame most of this era survives on audio only, as The Ark, The Gunfighters and parts of The Daleks’ Master Plan seem to be attempting a more cinematic look for Doctor Who, although the surviving episode of The Celestial Toymaker looks horribly TV-studio bound.  There is also a strong element of genre-bending of a kind now associated with postmodernism in several stories, while the original version of The Celestial Toymaker would have featured unseen characters from the play George and Margaret, another playful, self-aware idea that would fit comfortably with postmodernist theory.  And, of course, the Doctor breaks the fourth wall in an ad lib by William Hartnell at the end of the Christmas episode, The Feast of Steven, wishing the viewers a merry Christmas, but even before that the episode had featured silent movie style captions in the Hollywood sequence, breaking with Doctor Who’s normal narrative and stylistic conventions.

Audience expectations are challenged throughout these stories by the constantly shifting style and tone.  A number of stories have sudden shifts of tone between comedy and tragedy as noted above.  For example, the final episode of The Myth Makers is notably less comedic than the preceding ones.  While this seems unusual from a modern perspective, note that it is similar to how Russell T Davies would write for the show: Bad Wolf is a social satire, but The Parting of the Ways is an action thriller, to pick just one example of many.

The narrative itself also challenges audience expectations.  The Doctor does not appear in Mission to the Unknown, which in turn is separated from its parent story The Daleks Master Plan by the unrelated The Myth Makers at a time when such story arcs were unknown.  On the other hand, The Ark is essentially two separate but related stories broadcast consecutively, with the TARDIS crew leaving The Ark, the story apparently resolved, only for them to find they have travelled in time, but not space (relatively speaking) and discover the consequences of their actions centuries previously, although frustratingly they do not really take personal responsibility for what has happened or get emotionally involved.  Indeed, The Ark plays with big science fictional ideas, but by episode three goes down the route of clichéd action-adventure.  Conversely, The Celestial Toymaker aimed to take the Doctor and the programme to a realm of pure fantasy, only not to know what to do once they actually arrived there.

More successfully, The Massacre leads the audience to believe that the Abbot of Amboise is the Doctor in disguise, planning some clever rescue attempt as he usually does, leading to a shocking cliff-hanger when Steven finds the Doctor’s corpse (this is rather undercut for modern fans who tend know the story by reputation in advance and so know that the Abbot is merely a lookalike).  Indeed, The Massacre is notable for the detail with which sixteenth century France is created, despite some simplification of detail and the morals of the characters.  It has real people arguing about things that matter to them, engaging with the past even more than David Whitaker’s awe-struck historical tourism.  It also avoids producing a trite moral or contemporary parallel about intolerance; if the past is not presented as it was, it is as near to that as the programme-makers can manage.  There are astonishingly few concessions to a family tea-time audience in it: no monster, no over-the-top villain, no adventurous hi-jinks (the only sword fight is abortive) and for the most part no Doctor, with even his double only featuring prominently in episode three.

Also successful are Donald Cotton’s scripts, The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters, which explore the gap between real history and the fictionalized myths of Homer and the Hollywood Western.  Although much-criticized by fans, The Ballad of the O. K. Corral is used to narrate parts of The Gunfighters in the third person, something rarely done in the original series.  At times it gives important information not related elsewhere (“Johnny Ringo and Katie/Were lovers, they say”), in the process illustrating how the story of the real American West (mostly farmers) was mythologized into that of The Wild West (mostly gunslingers) by its presentation in popular culture.

Even The Feast of Steven, the much-criticized (this time rightly) Christmas episode of The Daleks’ Master Plan innovates both in being pure comedy (or at least attempted comedy…) and by immersing the programme in the everyday in a way Doctor Who had not done before, in this case being set initially in an urban police station based on the BBC’s hit police drama Z-Cars.  In fact a full crossover was suggested, but vetoed by the Z-Cars production team who presumably didn’t want to associate their realistic adult drama with a children’s science fantasy programme.  But note Steven putting on a Scouse accent to fit in: Z-Cars was set in Merseyside.  The closest story to bring Doctor Who down to the real world like this previously, Planet of Giants, split its story into separate ‘realistic’ and ‘fantasy’ streams, but here the Doctor gets interviewed by the police.  It’s not very successful and the next attempt to do this, The War Machines, will opt for a different approach, but it is noteworthy.

In the end this constant stylistic shifting and occasional narrative discontinuity, combined with sometimes unsuccessful experiments and ideas pursued half-heartedly may have led to the steadily falling ratings in this period.  The Massacre, The Ark and The Gunfighters got lower average ratings than any Doctor Who story this far bar 100,000 B.C., the only story transmitted before the Daleks arrived to boost the programme’s profile.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the next production team would seek to create a stronger stylistic continuity.  The approach tried here arguably works better now, when the stories are DVDs and CDs to be enjoyed out of sequence, than as an ongoing series.

The Doctor

The Doctor reverts here to his original conception as an alien with a different code of morals to us.  He is more ruthless than he has been since the beginning of the first season, perhaps more ruthless than we have ever seen him before.  He is saddened and angered by the carnage at Troy, but in no way feels responsible for the former despite building the Trojan Horse for the Greeks.  He is similarly saddened by the massacre in Paris, but again feels the preservation of history is more important, even if that means sending an innocent young girl to her almost certain death.  His speech in the TARDIS afterwards (one of the Hartnell’s finest moments in the role) laments his loneliness as the bearer of the burden of history and causality, regretting that none of his companions, not even Susan, could understand his outlook, but he never considers acting differently.  Tantalisingly he even muses about returning to his home planet in his loneliness, but says that he “can’t” without revealing why – a rare reference to the Doctor’s home planet in sixties Doctor Who after Susan’s departure.  Also noteworthy is the fact that he admits indirect responsibility for the events of The Ark due to his bringing of the common cold (incubated in Dodo) to the future, but while he shows regret, he does not seem to take any precautions against it happening again in the future.

Despite all this the Doctor has not become an anti-hero.  He retains his moral sense in most circumstances.  He is willing to sacrifice his life to stop the Daleks and has a strong sense of morality in The Ark, criticising the slavery of the humans, but also reprimanding them for mistreating the Monoids in the first place.  In The Savages, at the fringes of this era, he argues that the sacrifice of even one life is too great even if the result is utopia and likens the city-dwellers to the Daleks due to their exploitation of the “savages” outside their city, an indication that he sees monstrousness as a moral quality, not related to humanoid form.  He spends much of The Gunfighters lamenting the violence of the period and there is a running gag in the story about people giving him guns that he doesn’t want (although an ambiguous line suggests he may have a collection of them in the TARDIS).  He also tries to stop the gunfight at the O.K. Corral on humanitarian grounds and it is not clear how this fits with his usual ‘history is sacrosanct’ line, the notion of fixed points not having been introduced yet; in The Massacre the implication is that everything in the past is inviolable.  His eulogy for Katarina and lament of her death and the deaths of Bret Vyon and Sara Kingdom at the end of The Daleks’ Master Plan show that he does indeed form strong emotional connections with the people he meets in his adventures, even if he only knows them for a short time and, in the case of Katarina, even if they have no real idea of what is happening to them.

The Doctor still occasionally describes himself as the leader of a serious scientific expedition and a “doctor of science” and seems anxious to meet the apothecary and proto-scientist Charles Preslin to talk as men of science, even though there must be nothing Preslin can teach him.  There is perhaps a sense of the Doctor as a science fanboy, trying to meet famous scientists throughout history.  In The Ark we see him conducting scientific research again, apparently curing the common cold.  For almost the last time he seems like a scientist-explorer rather than an adventurer.

The Companions

Wiles and Tosh attempted to revise the essential conception of the Doctor Who companion.  As with their experimentation in story type and style, this was quite radical, but also pulled in different directions.  Katarina, the serving girl from a Trojan temple who briefly travelled with the Doctor (she starred in five episodes across two stories) was an attempt at a historical companion.  This was actually achieved reasonably successfully.  Unlike later historical companions, she does not miraculously acquire an anachronistic understanding or vocabulary to further the plot, but it does mean that she quickly becomes an impediment to it, needing to have basic concepts like tablets and keys explained to her.  She is hardly an audience identification figure.  In the end she is rather brutally killed, which is probably what would happen in such a situation.  She does at least manage to sacrifice her life for the cause of stopping the Daleks, which prevents her being a complete victim.

The next new companion, Sara Kingdom, is, like existing companion Steven, from the future and therefore has a fund of scientific knowledge useful to the science fiction setting and it is interesting that the writers seem to stress that she is from Steven’s future and has more advanced knowledge than he does, the type of attention to detail often neglected in Doctor Who.  More interesting is the fact that she first appears working for the villains, trying to kill the Doctor and Steven, albeit from good motives (she does not realize that the Guardian of the Solar System has sold out to the Daleks) and shoots her own brother dead before changing sides.  It is understated, but there is a definite sense that she softens over the course of The Daleks Master Plan and in some ways it is a shame that she too is killed before the end, part of Wiles’ and Tosh’s ongoing attempt to make the programme more adult and unpredictable.

Sara is often compared to the women of The Avengers (the British TV series, not the unrelated Marvel comics).  This is a fairly valid comparison, but only if you bear in mind that Emma Peel’s debut in the ITV series almost coincided with that of Sara and if Terry Nation, Donald Spooner and/or Wiles and Tosh had an Avengers character in mind when writing and casting Sara it would have been Honour Blackman as Cathy Gale.  Cathy was a sardonic and unsentimental anthropologist and judo expert, charismatic and attractive, but without the easy charm and straightforward sex appeal of Emma Peel.  It is easy to see the parallels with Sara and given the high profile of The Avengers at the time, it is easy to see why the Doctor Who production team might have sought to produce their own version.  Sara’s catsuit strengthens the connection, being clothing associated with Cathy Gale.

The surprising thing is that these developments in the nature of the companion were abortive and the introduction of Dodo sees a return to the stereotypical image of the female Doctor Who companion as a naïve and easily scared teenage girl.  Actually, in many ways Dodo invents this stereotype, as Vicki had been fairly headstrong and adventurous, while Susan, although prone to screaming, had occasional telepathic abilities and extensive experience of time-space travel; both Susan and Vicki had advanced scientific knowledge and neither was from contemporary Earth.  Dodo is therefore the first young Doctor Who companion to be pitched as ‘normal’ to the children in the audience, Ian and Barbara having been identification figures to the adults watching, not their children.  By the time we get to The Ark, we have the ‘traditional’ set-up of the Doctor being a lovable old eccentric, accompanied by a brave and excitable, if easily frightened teenage girl, and a sarcastic male companion who tackles the action sequences.  Only Steven’s background as an astronaut reminds us of the more adventurous companion backgrounds of the past and this is largely forgotten as we move into the ‘liminal zone’ stories of The Celestial Toymaker, The Gunfighters and The Savages before Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis get to create their own companions in The War Machines.  This might be seen as indicating that either the outgoing or incoming production team thought the experiment with futuristic companions unsuccessful, but on the evidence available it is hard to see why.  From The Time Meddler until the closing moments of The Massacre there are no contemporary characters in the TARDIS, but the drama does not suffer.

Villains and Monsters

The use of villains and monsters here represents a point of transition in Doctor Who.  The Refusians and the Monoids hark back to the original conception of the programme in which there were to be no “bug-eyed monsters”.  The invisible Refusians are presented as good, while the Monoids begin the story that way and repent of their evil at the end.  Fan criticism of the Monoids’ appearance is a little misplaced as they are supposed to look strange rather than frightening.

Elsewhere, however, the idea of the Doctor Who monster begins to take shape, even though it would not fully appear until the next stylistic era.  The Daleks had originally been a political allegory while The Chase had tried to use them for comedy.  Now Mission to the Unknown and The Daleks’ Master Plan use them for horror.  They seem more powerful than ever with their flame-thrower attachments and their ability to chase the Doctor across time and space rather more successfully than in The Chase – here they succeed in recapturing the tarranium core of their time destructor.  The Varga plants also use ideas of mutational horror, as noted above.

However, the excessive appearances of the Daleks, not to mention their use to hold the audience’s attention in the Doctor-less Mission to the Unknown can be seen as a sign of desperation rather than strength on the part of the production team.  They are indications of the way that the exigencies of producing the series week by week, the decisions of BBC bosses (who saw the Daleks, not the Doctor, as the focus of the programme) and the desires of the audience (who also saw the Daleks as a key factor) prevented Wiles and Tosh from doing what they wanted and forced them to make creative decisions that they would not have otherwise have made.  Certainly Wiles is on record as saying that the twelve episode Dalek epic was forced on him against his will.  Nevertheless, the Dalek stories restore the monsters as a credible threat after The Chase and the bickering between their allies and the Daleks’ calculating betrayal of them adds a new dimension to their villainy, this type of plotting and betrayal being the prerogative of the historical stories up until now.

Note also that Mavic Chen is the first larger than life science fiction villain, with the partial exception of the Monk, who appeared in a historical setting.  Larger than life villains like Tlotoxl, Nero and El Akir had appeared in the historical stories, but not in the science fiction ones, perhaps reflecting a fear that that would cause the more fantastic stories to tip into camp self-parody, but such villains would become a key part of the programme in the future.  The use of human, or at least humanoid, villains, allows a greater range to the villainy in the science fiction epic The Daleks’ Master Plan, with humans being able to express more emotions than Daleks.

Also of note is the Celestial Toymaker.  He is underdeveloped, but he is the first villain with god-like powers and the ability to invade the sanctity of the TARDIS, again pushing the boundaries of villainy in the show.  On the other hand, The Myth Makers and The Massacre have a more prosaic view of human bigotry and violence, again showing the way Wiles and Tosh pushed in different and sometimes contradictory directions.

NEXT TIME: after three seasons of experimentation, Doctor Who develops a more rigid format.

The Collected Aphorisms Franz Kafka

Posted on 15/09/2013 at 10:57
Tags: ,
I read this book some months ago and wrote this mini-review then for a post that I have now decided against posting as intended.  I thought this was worth posting separately, even though it is really a fragment, as I know some people here also like Kafka and I certainly want to preserve my thoughts on this little book.

A strange little book, barely fifty (small) pages, some the passages in it are less aphorisms and more tiny yet intricate short stories a few lines, or even a single sentence, long.  As usual with Kafka much is thought-provoking and some parts are disturbing.  Feelings of personal and religious alienation pervade throughout and there is a strong feeling of irresolvable conflicts at the heart of human existence, yet there is also at times a feeling of hope, even of the inevitability of hope.  As usual with Kafka, there was much that seemed deeply personal to me.

Shoot the Apple at the Honey

Posted on 03/09/2013 at 19:11
I don't usually post Jewishey stuff here, but I thought this has geek appeal!

On Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, starts Wednesday evening), the custom is to dip apple in honey, but that isn't good enough for the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology:

Shana tova umetuka: have a happy and sweet new year!

Insomniac, I find myself answering that old question, “Which missing Doctor Who episodes would you most like back?”  Having reached ten and not fallen asleep, I decide to type it up in the hope of tiring myself out before reaching the end.  These are missing episodes, not missing stories – the point is not whether the story is any good, but whether the episode features enough to justify its separate existence.

  1. Assassin at Peking AKA Marco Polo episode 7

The photos make this look the most lavish of historical and it would be good to see a bit properly.  This episode boasts a big swordfight and an interesting cross-fade at the end from Marco Polo to the regulars in the TARDIS superimposed on a star-field; it would be nice to see how those worked.

  1. Mission to the Unknown

A unique episode in many respects, I would like to see it mainly as it represents the series’ first tentative step into the realm of pure horror (bar a bit of The Chase).  I do wonder how the Varga mutation effect looked.

  1. Bell of Doom AKA The Massacre episode 4

An excellent story, if not quite the flawless gem of revisionist fan assessment, this episode would give us a Doctor-defining soliloquy from Hartnell.  It would also be interesting to see whether the idea of representing the massacre by dubbing screams on contemporary woodcuts worked.

  1. The Smugglers any episode

A fun tale, I would like to see some of the unprecedentedly-long location work, particularly on a replica sailing ship.

  1. The Power of the Daleks episode 1

Patrick Troughton was a very visual actor and we are missing so much by not seeing his first episode as the Doctor.

  1. The Faceless Ones episode 6

Another story I like that everyone else ignores, the Doctor bluffing his way to victory may not be especially visual, but it deserves a wider audience.

  1. The Evil of the Daleks episode 7

The effects would probably disappoint, but the greatest confrontation between the Doctor and his archenemies would be worth having back in the archives, if only for the bit where he seems to seriously contemplate taking everyone to his home planet.

  1. The Web of Fear episode 4

Pure fanboy nostalgia: it would be great to have something of Lethbridge-Stewart’s first appearance, when still a colonel in the regular army (he is not in the surviving first episode).  This episode features the colonel leading from the front in a pitched battle and then giving in to despair when his troops are wiped out – a side of the character we would not see again.

  1. Fury from the Deep episode 3

On audio this one seems over-rated, but it would be nice to make up my mind properly.  Episode 6 has all the helicopter stunts and lots of foam, but episode 3 has perhaps the most disturbing cliff-hanger in all Doctor Who, when a possessed character walks into the sea… and doesn’t come back.

  1. The Wheel in Space episode 1

Another unusual choice, this is hardly a great story, but the first two episodes, before the Cybermen are seen, are rather different.  The first episode is the largely visual tale of the Doctor and Jamie trapped on a mechanized spaceship; once again, it would be good to see something that is hard to visualize on audio only.

Which episodes would you most like to see returned?

Romana vs. Adric

Posted on 22/08/2013 at 22:52
Tags: , ,
I’ve been watching the E-space trilogy again this week, three stories I had seen numerous times and which never fail to entertain, but which often seem to be overlooked among fans, perhaps because fan attention is held by the stylistic innovations of The Leisure Hive and the canonically-important events of The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis.  I much prefer Full Circle, State of Decay and Warriors’ Gate to anything else in season eighteen, though.  Warriors’ Gate in particular is a haunting story like few others and at times a beautiful story like nothing else at all, a story made of links that are associational rather than logical and of memorable images that serve no obvious purpose than to be memorable images, almost dreamlike in its shifts of style and tone. 

I am struck by the fact that across the trilogy Lalla Ward and Matthew Waterhouse seem to be competing across these stories to see who can be the more supercilious, even when being rescued.  It’s a close contest, but I think Lalla wins.  Actually, the dynamic between Romana and Adric is interesting.  The relationship between the fourth Doctor and Adric has often been identified as a pseudo-paternal one, but Romana and Adric act like a stepmother and stepson, particularly where the father is much older and the stepmother is closer in age to the stepson than the father.  There is an odd mixture of uncertainty, affection and contempt, with perhaps a hint of jealousy and competition for the Doctor’s attention – both want to travel with the Doctor, but the price is travelling with each other.

I admit I don’t like DVD production subtitle very much (sorry parrot_knight).  It’s nothing personal.  I like my non-fiction to have a high level of information density, structured in a careful argument and accessible in such a way that I can skim bits I know or find uninteresting and spend my time mulling over the implications of new facts and interpretations before moving on, as well as being able to return easily to crucial points in the future.  DVD production subtitles, by their very nature, are not able to meet many of these needs.

However, I found those for Survival particularly annoying.  There is a tendency for long periods to pass without any subtitles so that I began to worry that something has gone wrong, but when they do appear they sometimes change very rapidly (this may be to synchronise with the picture on some occasions).  Less easy to justify is the way the subtitles frequently refer to changes between “the original script” and the televised version, without saying what “the original script” actually was: the first draft or the shooting script or something else.  Obviously the implications for something changing after the first draft are different to a last-minute change on location, which might simply due to the exigencies of shooting (again, a level of interpretation the production subtitles aren’t always suited to giving, nor at giving the viewers all the facts needed to draw their own conclusions).

The main reason I was watching the subtitles was to try to find out who decided to include the Master: Rona Munro, Andrew Cartmel or John Nathan-Turner.  It is hinted that it was one of the latter two, but no more details are forthcoming.  Nor are we given any details of the quarrel with John Nathan-Turner that resulted in stuntman Tip Tipping resigning from the programme.  The other thing I was watching for, the text of the Doctor’s final, cut, confrontation with the Master (the one where the Master says the Doctor is no longer a Time Lord and the Doctor replies that he has evolved) is presented in full, but, again, no reason is given for its removal.  This is a real shame, not least because the speech suggests that the resolution of the ‘dark Doctor’ arc given by Marc Platt in the New Adventure Lungbarrow, was not, as many fans believe, something Platt and Cartmel had worked out in the eighties (The New Adventures’ Doctor is a throwback rather than an evolved model).  I suppose the documentaries on the disc might answer these questions, but I usually find those even less interesting and informative than the subtitles.

Of course, if I had more time I could complain about the choice and presentation of the deleted scenes on these DVDs, but fortunately for you, I don’t have the time.

I’ve never really been one for computer games, but I did buy the official Doctor Who computer game Destiny of the Doctors when it came out in 1997.  The plot as I recall it involved the Master kidnapping the first seven Doctors (why not eight?  I can’t recall if there were copyright problems with the TV Movie or if it had something to do with Paul McGann distancing himself from the role at the time) with the player having to fight monsters in the TARDIS and again in the surreal domain where an incarnation of the Doctor is trapped to release him.  Then repeat with variations of setting, monster and challenge for the six others.  I made a reasonable go of it, but only ever released three of the Doctors.

The reason I bring this up now is that Anthony Ainley’s link sections (written by Terrance Dicks, something I had long ago forgotten if I ever knew it) are presented in full on the DVD of Survival and I just watched them.  I’ve never much liked Ainley’s interpretation of the role except in Survival, where he effectively plays the Master as a savage and sadistic animal, but he is surprisingly good here, the last time he ever played the part.  Although the budget is microscopic with tiny, sparse sets, a handful of props and one other actor briefly seen and heard, and although Ainley is almost certainly reading off an autocue his over the top interpretation suddenly makes sense in the surreal setting of the game.

My favourite set of links are probably those for the second Doctor’s level, inspired by The Web of Fear.  The first section has the Master dressed as a Cockney ticket salesman on the Tube, selling the player a “No return” ticket.  The end links either have him vowing revenge while struggling to stay upright inside a jolting Tube train if you win the level or, if you lose, being dressed as a commuter in the same carriage, reading a newspaper and simply winking and smiling as you are condemned to your doom.  The Kings Demon’s-inspired medieval banquet is fun too, rather more fun than the TV story.

This all seems to indicate that the eighties production team wasted Ainley’s talents.  Rather than filling most of his stories take with technobabble, bland characters and occasional po-faced evocations of the past, the eighties Master should have been in brash, colourful settings: surreal dreamscapes and full-blooded pseudo-historical romps, with the Master a powerful and dangerous Master of Ceremonies in a danse macabre, like the villain of an Diana Rigg-era episode of The Avengers.  Who wouldn’t rather watch something like that than Time-Flight or Planet of Fire?

I’m watching The Deadly Assassin again, this time on DVD, and a few little visual details that went unnoticed or seemed less prominent on VHS are apparent, but what seems more striking is Robert Holmes’ use of language.

That the Time Lords have a ‘Panopticon’ has often been noted as appropriate, the word meaning ‘seeing all’ and the Time Lords observing all time and space.  The word was coined by Jeremy Bentham (the philosopher, not the fan) for institutions such as schools, hospitals and asylums, but is most associated with prisons.  There is a sense here that the Time Lords see themselves as the guardians of a universe full of unruly elements that they must keep in line.  It is fitting, then, that this story introduces the Celestial Intervention Agency, establishing that Time Lord intervention in history is frequent enough to warrant institutional control, rather being limited to occasional and ad hoc actions as The War Games and the Pertwee era led us to believe.

This sense of a fortress mentality among the Time Lords is furthered by the fact that social control in the Capitol is administered by a ‘Castellan’, the keeper or governor of a medieval castle.  It is therefore no surprise to learn in this story that the Time Lords have “plebeian classes” who are the main target of the Castellan’s attentions and that the Time Lords are worried about others’ perception of them – they fear being seen as disarrayed after the assassination of the President, although exactly who they think is watching and how is never stated.  Indeed, the 'Capitol' itself is an interesting word, suggesting both ancient Rome and (like the CIA) contemporary Washington – this being only a couple of years after Vietnam and Watergate, both Rome and Washington would doubtless suggest a narrow, corrupt, conspiratorial, imperialist and murderous elite to many viewers.

(If you really want to run with this, if I recall correctly Chessene in The Two Doctors, also by Holmes, is referred to as Dastari’s 'chatelaine', a word cognate to castellan and significant because Dastari and Chessene want a TARDIS (‘a TARDIS’ is an anagram of ‘Dastari’ - another type of Holmesian wordplay) so they can overthrow and replace the Time Lords.)

Moving from words to images, the Doctor’s trip into the Matrix (a term in mathematics and computing, but also denoting an enclosed environment and, in an obsolete sense, a womb – where the consciousness of the Time Lords conceives of the future, perhaps?  I think Brian Aldiss had previously used it to suggest a virtual reality environment and Holmes would probably have known this, but the word was by no means an SF standard in 1976) is indicated by use of the tunnel effect from the title sequence.  This is usually taken by fans as a ‘time tunnel’, but here as in the mind-bending sequence in The Brain of Morbius it is used to suggest the Doctor’s subconscious mind.  The Pertwee era’s psychedelic spirals are similarly used when the Doctor’s mind is probed in Day of the Daleks.  There may be a suggestion here that this is a narrative told by the Doctor (to us? To himself?  To someone else?  Or is he dreaming it?  Is he a reliable narrator?), a feeling reinforced by the voiceover at the start of the story (but is that by the Doctor or by Tom Baker?  Is there a meaningful difference between the two at this stage?).

“I think Peter Capaldi should be the new Doctor Who.  He could tell the monsters to **** off.”

As usual, I don’t know enough about the actor in question to really voice an opinion on what he might bring to the role (The Fires of Pompeii and a few minutes of The Thick of It aren’t really enough to judge).  However, I am glad to have a Doctor significantly older than I am for the first time since 2005.  And here's to the first of many posts tagged 'twelfth Doctor'.

EDIT: parrot_knight
has done the research I was feeling too lazy to do and notes that Capaldi will be the oldest (canonical) Doctor at time of debut.  Of course, fans tend to forget that William Hartnell was deliberately playing the Doctor older (and, at first, more frail) than he actually was, so that almost certainly does not mean  Capaldi will be an 'old' Doctor.  Good news anyway.  Much as I like Matt Smith it will be good to get away from sexy young men and try a different dynamic.

I watched The Leisure Hive for the first time in years, this time on cleaned-up DVD.  It was better and worse than I remembered.  It was actually better-directed than I remembered, as I always thought director Lovett Bickford was over-rated and the really good-looking season eighteen stories were State of Decay and Warriors’ Gate.  That said, I still think the sets are not sturdy-looking enough and a bit shabby and the ‘jelly mould’ statues are silly.  The clarity of DVD has only made me more certain of this.  The costumes are pretty good, though, although the Foamasi are no better or worse than many of those from the much-maligned, season seventeen.

This does not obscure the fact that art-house cinema styling is not really suitable for the family science fantasy/adventure stories Doctor Who tries to tell, let alone the self-consciously ‘serious’ hard SF Christopher H. Bidmead was aiming at (and rarely achieved, certainly not here with the “magic wand” tachyons).  It is not always clear what is happening, especially in the first episode.  In any case, trying to copy 2001: A Space Odyssey on a budget that wouldn’t pay for coffee with Stanley Kubrick was never going to work.  The result is the over-use of a painfully slow and cheap model shot to represent spaceships docking, not to mention the long and fairly unimpressive opening pan across Brighton beach, lasting approximately five years.  Thirty seconds would have been eye-catching without boring the audience half to death (several stories later this season will attempt to finish the job).

With the opening shot as with much else Bickford, Nathan-Turner and Bidmead are desperate to declare that this isn’t a (supposedly) silly kids’ show any more, but they have not, as yet, got an alternative mission statement nor do they know what they can do in a family slot that they don’t consider silly.  This problem will dog Nathan-Turner throughout his time on the show as he would prove himself capable of producing drama either for children or for adults, but rarely for a family audience and he would almost never get the right tone for his timeslot.  The latter was not always entirely his fault; by the late eighties it does seem like the BBC management was trying to mis-schedule Doctor Who to death.  At this point, however, the idea of airing Doctor Who on a weekday or at 7.30pm is as bizarre and fantastic as lizard Mafiosi, and there is no real excuse for alienating the audience in this way.

Bickford’s directorial tricks are reined in after the first episode (or maybe I just adjusted), but that creates its own problems, as it becomes clear that Bidmead has systematically removed almost all the jokes without substituting much else.  The occasional bit of humour ends up seeming out of place e.g. the Argolin who faints on seeing the Doctor’s equations.  David Haig gives Pangol some character almost entirely through his performance, but the subtext that Hardin and Mena have had an affair before the story started is relegated almost entirely to the novelization, although it actually makes they plot rather more coherent once you accept it.  David Fisher had a history of hinting at romantic/sexual involvement between characters in a more complex way than Doctor Who usually does even now, but this is the eighties and everything is desexualized.  I prefer my Doctors asexual, but making the entire cast so is silly.  None of the other characters is really memorable and the casual viewer is confronted by an aural bombardment of technobabble rather than character, humour or anything else to help the rather confused plot along – confused because two independently reasonable storylines, one about gangsters taking over a holiday camp in space, the other about a sterile race seeking to regenerate itself and seek revenge, have been welded to each other even though they have little in common.

Despite this, The Leisure Hive is actually quite enjoyable if you enter the right mental space and the short episodes help, even if they are an admission of failure by the production team.  It exists in a liminal space between two controversial eras, but it does at least manage to take some good points from each: a strong performance from Tom Baker and a fairly sensible plot, once you disentangle the threads, from the Williams era; stylistic gloss and technobabble vaguely justified by inspiring children into reading up on real science from the Bidmead era.  Then they took the worst points from both eras and made Meglos[1]

[1] They did, of course, make State of Decay between The Leisure Hive and Meglos.  You can decide for yourself where that story and its tortuous, much-delayed history fit in the stylistic development of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who: Dragon's Claw

Posted on 14/07/2013 at 13:12
Tags: , , ,
Sandwiched between the seminal and much-loved strips collected in The Iron Legion and The Tides of Time, Dragon’s Claw seems underwhelming.  Pat Mills and John Wagner captured the Williams era fourth Doctor perfectly, but Steve Moore and Steve Parkhouse seem unsure what to do with him, often reducing him to a spectator in other people’s stories, perhaps reflecting a TV production office keen to restrain the lead actor and re-imagine the Doctor as a scientist and explorer, not an eccentric adventurer, while the less said about the hasty disposal of Sharon the better.

There are several radically different genres of story here, which is laudable, but at one or two instalments long – sixteen pages or so – they are not long enough to explore the environments and characters as much as is necessary for this world-building to work.  Nevertheless, The End of the Line deserves credit for a bleak, downbeat story in what was still a children’s comic, while the opening of Junkyard Demon was apparently influential enough to be reused for the start of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.

Steve Parkhouse would go on to better things; his fifth and sixth Doctor strips are rightly considered among the best Doctor Who comics and some are even among the best Doctor Who stories full stop, but overall this is mostly for completist fans of the DWM comic or, I suppose, the work Parkhouse and illustrator Dave Gibbons, both of whom achieved far greater success away from Doctor Who.

Watching Resurrection of the Daleks, I find myself wondering why the Doctor automatically assumes Davros is around if the Daleks have arrived.  Up until now the Doctor has only met him twice, as opposed to eleven encounters with the Daleks (excluding The Five Doctors and Frontier in Space).  It’s probably another example of Miles Booy’s point in the excellent Love and Monsters: The Doctor Who Experience 1979 to the Present, that eighties Doctor Who continuity is driven more by fandom’s perception of past stories and expectations for future ones than the actual content of previous adventures.  So suddenly the Cybermen are conquering the galaxy (whereas in the sixties and seventies they were rarely seen outside the Earth’s solar system and were constantly on the point of extinction) and Daleks, Cybermen and Silurians know about all Time Lords, TARDISes and/or regeneration, which they generally did not in the past.  It’s things like this that incline me to the view that Doctor Who does not have a canon or a continuity, but a constantly shifting set of canonical reference points and narrative and aesthetic continuities.

On a more prosaic note, the oft-repeated claim that Lytton only meets the Doctor once in this story is wrong.  Lytton helps apprehend the Doctor at the start of part two/three (depending if you are watching the two or four episode version) and tries to shoot him at least once, possibly twice, in the climactic battle (with all the smoke, I’m not completely sure if it is Lytton who fires at the Doctor after he has released the Dalek virus).  The Doctor does not hear his name on screen, but it is not unlikely that he heard it off camera, given that Stien [sic] is said to be part of his special guard.

Another curious point I noticed for the first time, perhaps due to the clarity of DVD, is that Styles and one of the female soldiers on Davros’ prison ship have painted fingernails – clearly a deliberate decision on the part of the director and/or make-up designer, as the colours match their (different) uniforms.  One could say that this encourages the view of the station as a backwater assignment with poor morale and lax enforcement of uniform regulations, but arguably undermines the image of hard-bitten professional killers endemic in Eric Saward scripts and mid-eighties Who generally…

The Cult of the Supreme Being was Robespierre’s attempt to create a rationalist deist national religion in France during the Reign of Terror.  He probably didn’t know Davros, but there are clearly fanfic possibilities there, especially in the light of The Reign of Terror

I bought A Death in the Family more for its position in the Batman canon and comic book history (SPOILERS! it is the story that killed off Jason Todd, the second Robin, part of the general trend towards maturity in comics in the eighties) than for any expectation that it would be a great story.  It’s an uncomfortable mixture of the would-be realist and the pure comic book, in the sense of illogical and unlikely.  While comics, even Batman comics, arguably can deal with subjects like the death of main characters, international terrorism and raison d’etat trumping justice in war-torn Lebanon and famine-stricken Ethiopia, mixing that with such improbable storylines as the Joker stealing a cruise missile, getting himself appointed Iranian ambassador to the UN (watch out for the cameo by Ayatollah Khomeini) and using that position to try to murder all the delegates at the General Assembly means the reader suffers from a shifting sense of what is credible in this fictional world and how seriously to take it, not to mention the tastelessness of reducing real famine and war zones to backdrops for a man dressed as a bat to fight a man who looks like a clown.

There is a neat joke about Western stereotyping attitudes (the Joker refers to all the Middle Eastern characters as ‘Abdul’ and ignores their attempts to tell him their real names), undermined by basic factual inaccuracies in terms of language and dress.  Likewise, although the Joker is said to be clinically insane and Batman spends much of the last chapter wondering if this means he is not responsible for his actions, it is a comic book insanity that owes little to the psychological complexities Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and (switching media) Heath Ledger had or would bring to the character.  The Joker here is just a guy who kills people for laughs.  He doesn’t even get many good jokes.  That may be deliberate – he may see himself as hilarious, but his victims do not, but that may be reading too much into things.

All that said, I did enjoy this more than perhaps I should admit.  If you turn your brain off first it’s an enjoyable ride mixing bonkers plot elements with down-to-earth character arcs, long enough to build momentum but not short enough to avoid becoming boring or repetitive.  Even knowing what was coming, it was amusing to see the Joker turn up as the Iranian ambassador and Robin’s death is equally powerful, as is Batman’s response.  I do wonder how even Superman can talk while trying to hold nerve gas in his lungs, though.

When I was a child (at primary school – back some way) A Lonely Place of Dying was by far my favourite Batman comic.  I regretted throwing it out (I mean, more than I regret throwing out all my Batman comics, not that I have the room) and have been trying to get hold of a copy, but I thought it was out of print.  So I was delighted when my copy of A Death in the Family arrived and had this unannounced as a supporting feature.  I won’t review it in full, but what it lacks in iconic ideas compared to A Death in the Family, it more than makes up for with consistency of tone and strong characterization.  It is by far the better story, even if it does not quite manage anything as memorable as killing Robin or appointing the Joker as Iran’s ambassador to the UN.

Castrovalva Oddity

Posted on 10/07/2013 at 19:01
Tags: , ,
“My tussle with the Master came at precisely the wrong moment.  When the synapses are weak they’re like radio receivers, picking up all sorts of jumbled signals.” – the Doctor, Castrovalva part one.

I’d never noticed the implications of that dialogue before: if the Doctor’s tussle with the Master came when his synapses were already weak, as this implies, then presumably there was something the matter with the Doctor before his struggle with the Master on the gantry at the end of Logopolis.  Was he already regenerating?  As a result of the entropy on Logopolis itself or something else?  Or was there originally a scene where the newly regenerated Doctor struggled with the Master at the start of Castrovalva before someone realized that would mean getting Anthony Ainley out on location unnecessarily and substituted the Pharos Project security guards and/or the Master’s TARDIS instead?

Black Orchid: A Lord Peter Davison Mystery

Posted on 08/07/2013 at 20:38
Current Location: The family estate
Tags: , ,
I haven’t read many of Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey murder mysteries, but Murder Must Advertise (which I haven’t quite finished, so no spoilers, please!), has the aristocratic sleuth adopting an assumed name, dressing up as a harlequin at a fancy dress ball and playing cricket, all to solve a murder.  According to the internet, it was dramatised on BBC TV in 1973 and BBC radio in 1979.  The former probably had a larger audience, but I think the latter would have been broadcast about the time Terence Dudley submitted the outline that became Black Orchid to the Doctor Who production office for the first time (and had it rejected by Christopher H. Bidmead).  We didn’t see the fifth Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa and Adric work as advertising copywriters, though.  Maybe if it had been a four-parter…

I don’t really like multi-Doctor reunion stories, but there is one thing I will miss this year if, as seems likely, Steven Moffat chooses to mark the fiftieth anniversary in subtler ways:

“So you’re my replacements, are you?  A clown, a dandy , an escaped lunatic, a public schoolboy, a walking quilt, a victim of over-eager branding, a would-be Romantic, a thug, a hipster and a hat-obsessive!”

The Invasion of Time stands up well on rewatching.  It is no surprise that fandom disliked it on original broadcast (although I think it still won the first DWAS season poll).  Fandom in the seventies and eighties wanted epic stories with tons of continuity.  They must have told themselves that a story set on Gallifrey, a six parter when such things had become rare (and before video, when the padding became obvious) would surely deliver such things.  So The Invasion of Time raised hopes only to dash them.

What fandom – and the general public – actually got was rather more imaginative and groundbreaking: an extensive character study of the Doctor (perhaps the only really sustained one in the original series), combined with a comedy of manners.  Set on Gallifrey.  During an invasion or two.  This should indicate that Graham Williams and Anthony Read were trying something different, not trying to imitate Messrs Letts, Dicks, Holmes and Hinchcliffe, let alone pre-empt Nathan-Turner.  It is a story ripe for re-evaluation now that the prioritization of character over plot and a strong dose of humour are the standard elements of Doctor Who.

As usual, Tom Baker delivers a strong and subtle performance.  Yes, I said subtle.  Although Tom can usually be relied on to beat all other Doctors bar the current incumbent to the title of ‘Best Doctor’ (which, if you strip out the home advantage belonging to the incumbent may indicate that Tom is still the real favourite – just look at the way David Tennant dropped down the polls once Matt Smith had his feet under the TARDIS console), fandom continually underestimates his acting.  Oh, we love it when he’s all doom and gloom at the ends of his reign, but somehow we dismiss the Williams era as lazy acting, something done to fill in the time before the pubs opened.  This story, perhaps more than any other, gives the lie to this opinion and shows the intelligence of Tom’s performance, the way he knows when to act the fool to portray an eccentric and when to act the fool to portray a very clever man who wants his enemies to underestimate him.

Gareth Roberts wrote a piece in DWM years ago suggesting that the Doctor of the Williams era is more serious than in the Hinchcliffe era, arguing that the clowning around is mostly the displacement activity of a clever man who can’t find intelligent company and challenging the standard description of this Doctor as a “Bohemian buffoon” with the alternative of “depressive loner”.  That’s probably an exaggeration (Roberts’ piece is in #325 if you want to judge for yourself), but it’s worth bearing in mind across the Williams era and especially here, where after a season of travelling with a “savage” he trusts, but can barely talk to, so different are their outlooks and even vocabularies, he finally returns to visit his mentor for a rather more substantial period than in The Deadly Assassin.  Joking around and depressive tendencies aren’t mutually exclusive, of course; the number of professional comedians who have suffered from depression is disturbingly high and I can testify from my own experience that extreme clinical depression can prompt wit as well as inhibiting it, when jokes become a form of protest, a way of protesting at the cruel absurdity of the world.  There is certainly a note of world weariness in a lot of the Williams era Doctor’s jokes that fandom has largely ignored while condemning/praising them for a supposed postmodern self-awareness.  When he agrees that he has access to the greatest source of knowledge in the universe because he talks to himself he is joking, but also reflecting a character whose intelligence and experience marks him out from all around him.  The closing scenes of the story, with the Doctor unable to admit that he will miss Leela until after he is alone while Leela and K9 ponder the Doctor's future loneliness demonstrate this sense of a wise old man whose human friends lack his intelligence and knowledge and whose Time Lord peers lack his experience and emotional depth, a man who can never really find an equal and has to build sarky robot dogs to stave off loneliness (although a more equal companion was round the corner, Romana never equalled the Doctor's experience, and so never developed his occassional world-weariness).  I’m not suggesting the fourth Doctor was clinically depressed, but he is a more complex, subtle and nuanced character both in scripting and in Tom Baker’s performance than fandom believes, which is doubtless part of his lasting popularity, in fandom and outside it.

There’s no denying that The Invasion of Time is a flawed story in many ways, from special effects even the production team were unhappy with to cramped sets (it has been suggested that the tacky plastic set dressings are symbols of cultural decay in Time Lord society) to plot holes, padding and a truly awful ending (the Doctor gets a big gun and Leela marries someone she’s barely spoken to).  But then original Doctor Who was not event television in either intention or resources and yet this story suddenly seems very, very contemporary.  And that’s without praising Milton Johns and John Arnatt or some excellent model work or the way sound design is used to suggest a scale impossible in the studio or the Doctor becoming a classic conspiracy theorist living in a lead-lined room (nice design) and making special helmets to block telepathic intrusion or Rodan, the first Time Lady and clearly a proto-Romana or the genius of the TARDIS interiors, so much more imaginative than Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS or the sheer length of time (over two episodes!) Williams and Read leave the audience wondering if the Doctor really has gone mad and sold his own people out or the fact that the season ends on the Doctor just looking to camera and smiling, like the audience is in on a private joke that no one else, not Leela or K9 or Borusa, can ever get…

Meanwhile, the fans who wanted an epic story with a continuity-conscious Gallifreyan setting and the melodramatic return of an old foe with no trace of humour had to wait five more years for Arc of Infinity.  I hope they’re satisfied.

I met you in the morning waiting for The Tides of Time,
But now the tide is turning I can see that I was blind.

The lyrics are from What Goes On by The Beatles (it’s the Ringo song on Rubber Soul).  I didn’t have Ringo down as a Whovian, but is he a fan of the Steve Parkhouse era of the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip or of a fanzine of importance to several round these parts?

(Yes, I know “the tides of time” was a yet another coinage of the Bard of Avon.  Avon in Warwickshire.  Not Blake’s 7.)

(Posted friends-only, for reasons that may or may not be (or become) obvious to other people.)

Although Kinda is still the best story of season nineteen, it gets easier to see why DWM readers voted it bottom in the contemporary season poll each time I watch, especially this time, the first time I have seen it cleaned up on DVD.  The previous season’s Warriors’ Gate (the story of that era Kinda most resembles, arguably more than its sequel Snakedance) had a good, if flawed, script, enhanced by stunning direction and a sympathetic production.  Here the reverse arguably occurs, with the flaws heightened.

It looks cheap and nasty.  Anyone attempting to argue for an improvement in production standards between the Williams and early Nathan-Turner eras should compare the jungles in The Creature from the Pit and Nightmare of Eden to those in Meglos and Kinda.  Yes, Doctor Who doesn’t need to look like Hollywood and the fairground giant snake does its job fine.  But if your story is about natural civilizations versus artificial ones, then plastic trees, Astroturf grass and frequently visible studio floors and walls will undercut your message.  The pith helmets seemed a bit Pythonesque too, but then perhaps the fact that they look ridiculous is part of the point: I believe that pith helmets came out of pseudo-scientific racial beliefs that white people need extra protection from the tropical sun that 'natives' didn't need; in reality, they didn't really do very much an ordinary hat wouldn't accomplish, perhaps illustrating the way that Sanders and Hindle box themselves away from the natural world, both physically and emotionally, as well as expressing imperialist fears that intellectual accomplishment would lead to physical emaciation and destruction of 'moral fibre' and 'backbone', tying in with all the pseudo-Victorian "I was beaten every day as boy, made me the man I am today!" dialogue in the first half.

As well as looking back to the (again superior) studio jungles of the Hartnell era, the flaws look forwards too.  Like a lot of Cartmel era, this feels very rushed and tightly edited, with no space for the story to breathe and establish character and atmosphere.  Considering one story strand is a psychological thriller, this is a problem.  Hindle’s breakdown is confused, although the clues are just about there if you watch (note that deleted scenes on the DVD make this clearer), but I’m not sure that the Mara’s possession of Tegan works.  “Everyone knows” the Mara uses her insecurity and sexual repression to manifest itself, thus elevating the story psychologically over other, cruder, possession stories.  Well, “everyone” might know that, but I can’t find much to support such a reading – one or two little things, but not much, not even enough to be sure any of it was deliberate.  Her argumentative personality might be over-compensating for low self-esteem, but the void scenes arguably don’t feature enough of an attack on her sense of self for the character arc Christopher Bailey is trying to develop.  The scenes with multiple Tegans are just too short and over too soon as broadcast (again, the deleted scenes develop this).

The story is also hampered by not being sure what to do with the Doctor.  I think the fifth Doctor spent much of his tenure in the shadow of Tom Baker – as well as the necessity to distance the character from such a well-known interpretation, Nathan-Turner seems to have vetoed anything that smacked of eccentricity, lest it lead to more Tom-foolery in the studio.  Hence the slightly unfair accusation that the fifth Doctor was bland and boring.  The best writers wrote the fifth Doctor as a bit world-weary and quite sarcastic as well as frantic and thoughtful, but here we just get the latter and it’s a bit – well, bland and boring at times.  (Bailey would play with this in Snakedance, presenting a Doctor so frantic he never explains himself properly so everyone assumes he’s certifiable and ignores him.)

I don’t want to be too critical, as there is a lot to enjoy here.  I mentioned most of it in my review last time I watched it (yes, I know some of what I wrote there contradicts some of what I write here.  Response to art is subjective) and Simon Rouse really is excellent as Hindle.  Kinda is the best story of season nineteen despite all this, but it does go to show that a sympathetic (as opposed to lavish) production and a running-time that fits the story are essential to make a good script work properly (BBC Wales take note; see also Terminus, which is also a clever script without the resources it needs, but unlike Kinda is too long).

A lot has been said about this story’s sources, some of it by me (not a link to the review linked to above).  This time around I noticed perhaps a playing with Marxist historical theory, which states that civilizations start as egalitarian hunter-gatherers, then become hierarchical as agriculture and technology arrive, with warrior classes established for war/defence and establishing hierarchy before becoming egalitarian and  post-scarcity with the eventual arrival of the classless society (or something like that).  Here we have a post-technological, egalitarian (more or less – Panna and Karuna don’t seem to have any actual power or position other than experience) society that has finished with history, threatened with being plunged back into history and hierarchy with Aris proclaiming himself a warrior-king and leading the attack on the dome.  In other words, the arrival of the imperialists from outside the ‘system’ threatens to send the Kinda backwards in Marxist historical terms – a sort of blending of Marxist historiography with epidemiology, with capitalist-imperialism as an intergalactic disease (not that we know that the people from the dome are capitalist in narrative terms, although they would pretty much have to be in thematic terms for this to work).

Or maybe not.

Smiley's People

Posted on 11/06/2013 at 22:00
Tags: ,

Smiley’s People is the final book in John le Carré’s loose trilogy about the conflict between British spy-master George Smiley (who had already appeared in four of le Carré’s novels) and his Soviet counterpart known only by his codename of ‘Karla.’  Originally this duel was to have formed a long and epic sequence of novels, as Smiley and Karla would fight by proxy across the globe in the various battlegrounds of the Cold War. The Honourable Schoolboy gives an idea of what those books might have looked like, being set partly in the Far East.  The BBC TV adaptation of the first novel in the sequence, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy changed all that.  If I recall correctly, le Carré felt that Alec Guiness played Smiley so well that he, the author, no longer felt he had any control over the character and so hurriedly wrapped up the sequence and moved on to other things (he would briefly return to Smiley in the post-Cold War book The Secret Pilgrim, essentially a linked set of short stories with Smiley appearing in the linking narrative and some of the stories).

Top secret review encoded beneath the cut...Collapse )

Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It (edited by Lynne M. Thomas, Tara O’Shea) was read in part for an MA assignment and in part from personal interest resulting in the skimming of certain parts that didn’t fit either category.  Nevertheless, this was an interesting insight into parts of fandom of which I have little experience (by which I mean conventions, cosplay and fan videos, not female fans!), but as other reviewers have noted, it is too American-centric.  Far too many pieces follow the pattern of finding a strange British programme on PBS, eventually finding other people who have heard of it, discovering that Doctor Who fandom has more women than other fandoms and so on, but this does not really hold true for Britain, where the make-up of fandom and the wider culture’s relationship to it and the programme, is rather different and has changed over time.  More variety needed, in other words.  That said, I was amused by Seanan McGuire’s piece on mistaking Doctor Who for a documentary series as a child (because her mother told her that everything broadcast on PBS after midday is factual), with devastating consequences once Earthshock aired.

Amid some standard defences of the programme in general and the new series in particular (not necessarily untrue, just familiar) it was also nice to see praise for Nyssa and for Freema Agyeman’s performance as Martha, neither much-appreciated by fandom as a whole.  As a long-term Doctor Who Magazine reader I was glad to read the inside story of The Life and Times of Jackie Jenkins as well – Vanessa Bishop was right to steer the column away from editor Gary Gillatt’s original intention of a fannish Bridget Jones towards a Doctor Who Fever Pitch, which was much more in line with the way the magazine’s readership, male and female, saw themselves.  (I recall Alan Barnes saying that he used to argue against Gillatt’s policy of trying to make Doctor Who cool: “There are certain things you cannot make ‘funky’, and William Hartnell is one of them!”)

Watching Four to Doomsday, it occurs to me that if I had more time on my hands, it would be interesting to look at the depiction of the companions as children in season nineteen.  Adric and Nyssa are certainly identified as children in both Four to Doomsday and Black Orchid by various characters, including Monarch, Lady Cranleigh and the Doctor, who tellingly lets Tegan drink alcohol in Black Orchid, but keeps the others on soft drinks.

The idea of Adric as a confused adolescent looking for adult figures to replace his dead elder brother makes a lot of sense, and one can see his confusion when the paternal fourth Doctor is replaced with the less authoritative fifth, hence his defection to Monarch in Four to Doomsday.  Hence perhaps also his numerous (usually bungled) attempts to be heroic, sometimes by feigning alliance with the villain as a way of proving his maturity and usefulness, sometimes by acts of straightforward foolhardiness, which ultimately leads to his death.  Nyssa stayed around for longer, but by season twenty John Nathan-Turner was beginning to think more of sex appeal than child identification figures and Nyssa rather improbably started doing chemistry experiments in her underwear.  To add to the confusion, a new companion, Turlough, was introduced in a school, yet both actor and character seemed to be much older, a confusion increased by what we hear of his backstory in season twenty-one.

Actually, original series companions are often identified as children or teenagers, either overtly or by implication.  Susan, Vicki, Dodo and Ace are all teenagers and Zoe was intended to be a teenager (or even pre-teen!), although this is not clear on screen.  Given that this is a series with a large child audience, it is telling that characters with adult jobs like Jo (secret agent, sort of) and Sarah (journalist) are sometimes written in a rather childlike way, it being accepted in children’s adventure literature that children can undertake investigative jobs like journalism and espionage in an unrealistic way e.g. Nate the Great, a child detective.  Jo in particular varies between mature adult and naïve child from story to story, albeit with a trend towards increasingly maturity over her three years on the programme.  Indeed, the most obvious difference between the original series and the new, the lack of overt sexuality shown by the companions and Doctors, emphasises this, although it is not clear whether they avoid sexual or romantic entanglements because they are written as children or whether they are written as children to make the avoidance of sex seem less odd.  That said, the childlike Jo has a number of (chaste) suitors over the years before marrying Professor Jones.  Still, if romance appears, it is usually reserved for a companion's final story, as the reason for her (not usually his) departure (Susan, Vicki, Leela; not counting Jo, who has previous suitors and Peri, who has previous suitors/molestors and is generally not written as a child).  But most companions do not even get this.
Ace is handled better.  Although the same age as Susan, Ace is a more realistic depiction of adolescent confusion than her more childish predecessor, an earthly teenager rather than an unearthly child. She has a number of flitations, but also stories that deal with her emotional baggage in some depth.  Season twenty-six in particular really feels like the story of Ace's coming of age and it is a pity that the cancellation of the programme denied us the final chapters, although what we have is good enough anyway, particularly ending on the symbolic home-coming and deliberate departure from Perivale in Survival.  That said, Ace's story is, in publishing terms, more a young adult story than a children's story, perhaps reflecting the programme's time-slot more effectively than the 'children' of season nineteen.

Presenting characters played by mature women as childlike risks sexism, especially given the tendency of the costume designers (and, as noted above, producers) to dress them in adult fashions, with all that entails.  Even good intentions can backfire here, as shown by Lalla Ward’s story of wanting Romana to wear a school uniform in City of Death to appeal to schoolgirls fed up with having to wear a uniform, but being surprised by getting fan letters of a rather different kind from adult men.  That said, if Jo is a schoolgirl playing at spies and Sarah a sixth former working on the school newspaper, then surely the Brigadier and the UNIT team are small boys playing soldiers?  In this context, the childhood reminiscences of the Doctor and the Master fit perfectly with four years of extended break-time until the headmaster (K’anpo) turns up at home-time.

While the horror of the fourth Doctor’s first few years is less obviously child-friendly than the stories that preceded it, part of the genius of Tom Baker’s performance from the start was his ability to appropriate some of these childlike character traits for the Doctor, without relinquishing the ‘wise old man’ elements, thus creating a dichotomous character that both children and adults could simultaneously identify with and see as alien.  It’s a hard trick to pull off, and more than Tom is usually credited for these days.

There is probably more to say here, but I have rather run out of time for the evening!  I certainly hope to return to some of the ideas here in later Changing Style of Doctor Who posts.

Up to a Point

Posted on 31/05/2013 at 00:53
Tags: , , ,
“What I understand by ‘philosopher’: a terrible explosive in the presence of which everything is in danger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

This is very true and acknowledged as such, but what is often forgotten is that if everything is in danger, then that necessarily includes all beliefs and ideas that the philosopher seeks to defend.  Few indeed have the courage to go this far.

The Sontaran Experiment is the first two part Doctor Who story in ten years and the first to try to be a ‘normal’ story rather than a character-study (in any case, when Inside the Spaceship and The Rescue were broadcast there was no such thing as a ‘normal’ Doctor Who story).   Given that a two part story from the twenty-five minute era is almost exactly as long as a forty-five minute standalone story once you edit out the extra title sequences and cliff-hanger reprise and given that both louisedennis and I both felt that a number of recent stories needed to be longer, it is interesting that certain elements common to the post-2005 series appear in The Sontaran Experiment (not that they don’t appear in three, four and six part stories too):

  1. A simple, runaround plot.

  2. Few guest characters, none of whom are developed.

  3. Reliance on the charisma of the regular characters to balance points 1 and 2.

  4. The sonic screwdriver does something vital (destroying Styre’s robot) that would have taken too long if the Doctor had to improvise a solution instead.

  5. The Doctor knows of the monster and its weaknesses to avoid time-consuming investigation.

  6. Strong continuity links to the stories around it to give it extra weight.

  7. Clever ideas (about future history and language here) raised and then ignored.

  8. The self-sacrifice of a character we do not know well enough to care about.

  9. A confused and/or deus ex machina ending.

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Doctor who?
I can’t tell you that until the fall of the eleventh on the fields of Trenzalore.
That’s not funny.
And “Doctor who?”  “Precisely!” is?!

And so, as we knew had to in this fiftieth anniversary year, we arrive at The Name of the Doctor.  But did we really have to arrive there after all?  It had been hinted that this was the next Big Revelation ever since The Wedding of River Song (and the last Big Revelation) back in 2011.  Like Lawrence Miles (now the enfant terrible of online fandom, but back in 1999 a jobbing spin-off novelist) claiming that he wrote Interference because “IM Foreman [the junkyard from the first episode] is the last thing about the Doctor’s past that needs dealing with before we can close this forever.  I’d like to see people getting to grips with the future of the mythology, and using IM Foreman was an exorcism of all the old hang-ups about Doctor Who” (Live and Let Die, interview in Doctor Who Magazine #282) we are constantly told – or rather, we, as fans, tell ourselves, that the point of the programme is to resolve the mysteries of the Doctor’s past, that this is the only way to move the programme onwards.  But this is not the case.  The programme has rarely been about the Doctor’s past and almost never successfully.  Miles seemed to partially realize this, as he went on to add, “a lot of writers think the Doctor Who mythology rests on the question, ‘Who is the Doctor?’, and I don’t think it does – even if that hasn’t been answered, we’ve investigated it as much as we can.”  It’s a strange view (which Miles proposes even as he refutes it and vice versa) that one can only move on by moving back, but it’s an oddly pervasive one.

We already know who the Doctor is: he’s an eccentric explorer and adventurer who opposes injustice, violence and tyranny, is never cruel or cowardly et cetera, et cetera.  His name is absolutely irrelevant to who he actually is, the mythic and folkloristic symbolism of names and the knowing or withholding thereof notwithstanding, just as in the final analysis it is irrelevant that he is a thousand-plus year old Time Lord from Gallifrey with two hearts who fled home and became UNIT’s scientific advisor and blah blah blah blah blah Daleks and blah blah blah blah blah Master and blah blah blah blah blah Time War.  Fans tend to bring this stuff up within about thirty seconds when asked to define the programme or the character, but it’s arguably irrelevant to an actual majority of stories.  You can easily watch Ghost Light, the last story in production in the original run of Doctor Who, without knowing anything about the programme other than that he’s a time traveller and not miss anything except one or two tiny in-jokes.

Any serious attempt to resolve a narrative question that has been left running for this long risks bathos and irrelevance, as in Gareth Roberts’ joking suggestion that the Doctor’s real name is Liam.  (Personally I’d opt for Hugh.  Doctor Hugh, geddit?  Oh, suit yourselves.)  Skipping over a couple of odd references in old stories that imply that the Doctor’s surname really is ‘Who’, this is a question that has been left unanswered so long, that not only would the answer have to be exceptionally good to satisfy, even the reason for posing the question at this point would have to be powerful.  I was sceptical about going down this route back in 2011, at the end of my favourite season of new Who; coming after a season that has seemed underwhelming (while rarely being actually bad), I was distinctly worried.  But was I right to worry?

Yes and no.  Billed as the answer to the Big Question of The Name of the Doctor, not only do we not find out the Doctor’s name, we barely find out anything to do with it, except for overt confirmation that River does indeed know it (so the Doctor wasn’t bluffing or tricking her back in The Wedding of River Song).  Nor do we find out anything about the exploding TARDIS of season thirty-one or the Silence’s attempt to kill the Doctor and build a time machine in season thirty-two (surely these must all be connected) nor the fall of the eleventh at Trenzalore and all that will entail if it ever actually happens, which is debateable given the series’ propensity for ducking these sort of questions now and in the past (going back to Interference and its predecessor Alien Bodies again, note how all the questions about the Doctor’s future death and changes to his past were eventually ducked by having the Doctor destroy a corrupt Gallifrey for the greater good in a Time War (yes, really.  All that had nothing to do with Russell T Davies)).  We still don’t know who the woman at the shop who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number is.  Or why the years 16 and 23 are absent from her 101 Places to Visit Book.  Indeed, as is often the case with Doctor Who stories that purport to answer questions, several new ones are proposed instead: now we know more about Trenzalore, we realize how little we know about it.  How can River survive Clara’s death?  And, of course, who is the Hurt Doctor?  (Brings a new meaning to the hurt/comfort fanfic sub-genre.  Particularly for fans of obscure twentieth century poets mostly famous for writing something far less literary.)

We do get a sort of answer about Clara, although it is frustratingly vague and confusing.  She was present enough in Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen for the Doctor to interact with her and for her to save him, yet most of her other appearances seem to have been mere glimpses; she might have seen the seventh Doctor throwing himself of a cliff on Iceworld, but she didn’t do anything to help (maybe she just went there for a laugh…), nor did she seem to need to.  She didn’t manage to attract his attention on Gallifrey during The Invasion of Time and, again, did not seem to need to.  And so on.  This may have been explained, but it is all still unclear to me.  Even taking it as read that somehow she saved the Doctor across his timeline and somehow the Doctor saved her in return (although to my surprise I prefer a clear mythic/symbolic resolution with the leaf to a vague, technobabble one), the resolution was, once again, an ontological time travel paradox, just as it always seems to be with Steven Moffat.  I like time travel stories and I was initially glad to see the programme foregrounding time travel under Moffat, which had not been the case in the past, but this is getting predictable, like a detective series where the detective is the murderer every week.  It’s clever once, not all the time.

Also predictable was the survival of all the main characters.  By this stage, when Doctor Who Magazine declares that not everyone will make it to the end of the episode, you shrug and wonder vaguely how whoever gets killed will be resurrected (answer: time travel).  There is not much tension here, although this is another by-product of the programme’s emphasis on the regulars at the expense of the guest characters post-2005, itself a perhaps product of a shorter time-slot, it being easier to concentrate on regular characters who can be developed over a number of episodes than to introduce, develop and give resolution to a number of guest characters in forty-five minutes (see Hide for a good attempt at doing this anyway and note that it still does not quite succeed).

Despite all this, The Name of the Doctor worked.  Just don’t ask me how.  The episode started well, but rapidly became sillier, with Victorians having a “conference call” in a trance (just call it a séance or astral projection, that’s basically what it is and it’s certainly what Victorians would have called it) before going to the Doctor’s grave for a poorly-motivated reason and fighting some people (including the Great Intelligence, who wants to die or get revenge or both) before the usual time travel paradox is wheeled out and the reset button pressed for some of the characters (but perhaps not all – see below).  But, as I said, it worked.  That special something, that elusive element I can not define, but which has been largely lacking since The Wedding of River Song was present here.  In other words, I could tell this was a con, but for once I was quite happy to let Steven Moffat deceive me.

I can certainly point to a view obvious points in its favour, from by far the most impressive, if largely inexplicable, monsters this season (admittedly not hard) to Richard E. Grant’s best performance in Doctor Who, canonical or otherwise (even easier).  I am not at all a fan of excessive continuity references or clips and, as I implied above, few of the clips were well chosen, and I wonder why some Doctors were represented by stand-ins, something bound to offend some people, but colourized footage of the first Doctor stealing the TARDIS and interacting with Clara, Forrest Gump-style surprised me by seeming oddly moving and not the heresy – or worse, the stupidity – I expected when the sequence started (it is highly debateable whether the TARDIS had faulty steering before An Unearthly Child or whether that is the primary problem with it immediately afterwards.  But homaging the feel of the sixties is more important than obsessing over trivia.  Incidentally, this sequence also demolishes theories that the Doctor initially left Gallifrey without Susan).  Eighties-fashion Clara in the Arc of Infinity clip amused me too.  More subtly, the past is also referred to by a deliberate quotation or close paraphrase of Castrovalva and by a reference to the Valeyard, which may indeed be setting up something for the anniversary special.  I was also glad to be proven right that the Doctor telling Clara about her deaths in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS was not negated by a reset button, that it would in fact be of significance later on.  “The little… Daleks” made me smile and even the inevitable Sherlock Holmes (or should that be Sherlock?) reference made me smile rather than grimace (unlike the Doctor, Sherlock Holmes really did retire to keep bees).

And, as noted above, we got another Alien Bodies rip-off, with the Doctor crossing his time-line to find his corpse, killed in a future battle, which he must prevent falling into the wrong hands.  Lawrence Miles’ rage at never having written for television Doctor Who is clear from his blog, but he can take comfort from having inspired about three-quarters of what is good about Doctor Who since 2005 (perhaps the best combination: Miles is arguably better as an ideas man than as a writer or at least as a popular, dramatic writer).

The ending still troubles me a little.  This, and not the Doctor’s name or Clara’s destiny, is presumably what Steven Moffat and Doctor Who Magazine mean when they say that things will never be the same again.  This is a claim that seems to get made all the time post-2005, but it is rarely true.  Indeed, looking back at the original run of Doctor Who, the episodes that were supposed to be game-changers after which things would never be the same often faded into obscurity; the ones that did change things were not intended to do so.  Turning the Doctor from an old man to a much younger one was intended as a one-off, not even called “regeneration” yet; no one seriously believed the programme would run long enough for it to be needed again – Patrick Troughton didn’t expect it to last six weeks without William Hartnell in the role!  The Time Lords were introduced as a one-off deus ex machina, not a new part of the programme, which is why they are not mentioned by name once in the following season; the real rewrite of Doctor Who’s format initiated by The War Games was the Earth exile, something that was being relaxed within two years and ended at the start of the fourth.  The Daleks and Cybermen were intended as one-offs, as was Davros.  Even the Doctor becoming Time Lord President is largely treated as just another thing that could happen to him, not a major format change.  Away from the narrative, many of the stylistic changes in the programme’s history began as one-offs capitalized on by production teams when they seemed to succeed.

On the other hand, the Valeyard, the Doctor’s evil future self is introduced… and never heard of again (but for how long?).  The Rani, a much-publicized new Time Lord enemy for the Doctor is introduced, returns once out of desperation due to a script crisis and is forgotten (but not by a certain segment of fandom…).  The McCoy era heralded major revelations in the Doctor’s identity, but what got to the screen didn’t amount to much at all and not just because of the cancellation (John Nathan-Turner vetoed Lungbarrow on the grounds that it revealed too much of the Doctor’s past; other key bits of dialogue ended up on the cutting room floor, most notably the Doctor’s claim to be “more than just a Time Lord” in Remembrance of the Daleks).  Note that arguably the most important “game-changing” event since The War Games, the Doctor’s destruction of Gallifrey in the Time War, happens off-screen before the new series starts.

Historically Doctor Who, like the Doctor himself, has thrived on improvisation and spontaneity and has generally resisted attempts to impose changes or Grand Schemes from above.  Throwaway lines and disposable characters embed themselves in the legend (the sonic screwdriver was, of course, originally intended to be used by the Doctor in a single story.  To unscrew screws.  Ordinary, twentieth century, man-made, screws).   Brilliant schemes to send the programme in a new direction fail due to production team changes, audience responses or luck.  At other times, those same factors would radically revise the nature of the show without anyone intending or even realizing until it was too late.  I am looking forward to the anniversary special rather more than I was a week ago, but I would still predict that, regardless of what Steven Moffat says, this time next year Doctor Who will still look much the same as it does this year.  It will be the next change in show-runner that might send the programme in a new direction, stylistically or narratively, not the introduction of that venerable science fiction character/trope, the Evil Future Self (or, perhaps, the Evil Past Self).

Star Wars and Doctor Who fans clash at Norwich convention

"This wasn't a fight between Star Wars fans and Doctor Who fans with lightsabers and sonic screwdrivers drawn," [Mr Poole] said.
"It's a bit sad and pathetic. We're all in the same boat. We're not in competition.
"We'd like to extend the hand of friendship."

Only for it to be cut off with a lightsaber prompting cries of “No, I’ll never join you…!”, presumably.

I also see the latest round of LJ (Lousy Job?) maintenance has done nothing for my formatting problems.

Part I: A Sense of Wonder can be found here.

The RescueGalaxy 4
Producer: Verity Lambert
Script editors: Dennis Spooner, Donald Tosh
Representative stories: The Space Museum, The Time Meddler

In the first post in this series, we saw how a series about a group of time-travellers experiencing the wonders of the past and future was given a sense of urgency and adventure by Terry Nation.  We also saw that Doctor Who was initially an ensemble piece and that monsters were not yet seen as a key part of its formula.  That post covered the first production block, or the first season and a bit.  But as we continue, we encounter several important changes before and behind the cameras, so let’s get the background clear first.

Most obviously, Carole Ann Ford (Susan) left at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, resulting in an important change to the regular characters as Maureen O’Brien joined as Vicki; part-way through the period we are considering William Russell and Jacqueline Hill (Ian and Barbara) also leave and, as we shall see, that changes the dynamic of the programme even more, especially as they are replaced with a single character, Steven Taylor (Peter Purves).

But the behind the scenes changes are more important, as will become clear.  Verity Lambert is still producer for the stories we’ll be looking at here, although by Galaxy 4 she is being shadowed uncredited by John Wiles.  Story editor (script editor, in modern terms, which is the term I will use from now) David Whitaker left at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, but because BBC rules prohibited script editors commissioning themselves, neither The Rescue nor The Romans have a credited script editor to allow Whitaker to write The Rescue to introduce the new companion and… well, I’m not quite sure why Spooner wrote The Romans, except perhaps out of necessity, given the chronic shortage of scripts throughout most of Doctor Who’s original run.  At the end of the run we’re looking at Spooner is replaced by Donald Tosh, but as Spooner then wrote the first story for which Tosh is credited Tosh’s influence won’t really be felt until the period covered in the next post. So essentially here we’re looking at what difference Spooner’s arrival makes to the format established by Lambert and Whitaker.

Story Type

It is tempting to see the first three years of Doctor Who as all having a similar style, a style many fans would title ‘not like Doctor Who as we know it.’  I myself held that view for many years, first dismissively, then appreciatively.  But on reflection their do seem to be clear differences introduced by different production teams.  With the arrival of Dennis Spooner, several things change.  This can be seen clearly from the stories in question.

We open with The Rescue, a brief story essentially written to introduce the new companion.  This is really the norm in post-2005 Doctor Who, but is something of a rarity in the original series, where companions would sometimes be introduced briefly near the end of a story (Steven, Katarina, Dodo) or a guest character in an existing script would get lucky and catch the attention of the producer and script editor and suddenly be written into the series as a new companion (Jamie, Leela, K9).  Even if a story was planned to have the introduction of a companion as a selling point, the story was still as long and complicated as usual and did not necessarily focus on the new companion more than usual.  The Time Warrior is a good example of this: it clearly showcases Sarah as the new companion, yet there is a typical Doctor Who story going on as normal.  Of course, The Rescue is unusual in two respects: it introduces the first new regular since the programme started and it is the first story since Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, left.  Therefore there are good reasons to focus the story as much on new companion Vicki and the way that the Doctor essentially sees her as a substitute for Susan.

Moving on, there are two stylistic holdovers from the previous year.  The Crusade is a typical ‘witness to history’ type of historical, with the TARDIS crew meeting real historical figures, King Richard I and Saladin, but not being able to do anything particularly significant to the course of events, getting involved in palace intrigue and sub-plots involving fictional characters only.  This is unsurprising given that it is again written by David Whitaker, who saw history as unchangeable, even sacrosanct.  Likewise, Galaxy 4 is very much in mould of The Sensorites, a small-scale, science fiction tale of militarism and paranoia with an attempt to create very alien societies, the type of thing Doctor Who would doubtless have done much more often had Terry Nation never written for the programme.

But away from these stories we see Spooner and Lambert developing and even radically revising the format.  Following the success of Terry Nation’s scripts, perhaps especially The Dalek Invasion of Earth, there are two stories that aim for the sense of an epic.  The Web Planet at least pays lip-service to the earlier format, with its attempts to show a completely alien culture, with its own linguistic idioms and even alien body language.  But The Chase is a full-out attempt at doing the type of story that really needs the budget and production time of a feature film and it is difficult to see it as anything other than a cash-in on the success of the Daleks, although it does present a few more interesting minor points that we shall consider further on.

But Spooner’s arrival is notable for one thing in particular: of the eight stories that we are considering, half of them involve the implications of time travel, particularly changing time in some way.  The Romans flirts with the idea of the Doctor interfering with history by suggesting to Emperor Nero that he burn Rome; the Doctor denies this when Vicki accuses him of interfering, but is amused by the idea once she is out of earshot.  The Space Museum has the time travellers find their own corpses exhibited in a museum and the remainder of the story examines not just whether time can be changed, but how it can be changed for the better in the absence of all the data.  The Chase shows us another set of time travellers for the first time, providing a new gimmick for the Daleks and for the programme as a chase across time and space ensues; in one sequence, the Daleks accidentally cause the crew of the Mary Celeste to abandon ship suddenly, thus causing time to happen as we know it and solving a historical mystery in the process (another Doctor Who cliché pioneered here).  Finally The Time Meddler is the first story to centred on the idea of someone wanting to change ‘our’ history and the Doctor having to stop him, as well as featuring the first member of the Doctor’s (as-yet unnamed) race other than the Doctor and Susan, indicating that time travel is routine for all the Doctor’s people.  It is also the first story to be set entirely in the past, but to involve overtly science fictional elements, a sub-genre fans have dubbed the pseudo-historical.

All this amounts to a dramatic reversal of Whitaker’s view of time as unchangeable.  Whitaker famously stated in a letter to a viewer that time is like a road and while the Doctor can look up and down its length, he can not alter its path and this is stated canonically in various stories from his time as script editor.  Indeed, The Aztecs only makes sense if the Doctor can not alter “even one line” of history.  Yet Spooner seems to take the view that the Doctor can make minor changes to the road’s direction, to swerve around obstacles, while needing to ensure the road still goes from A to B when hostile ‘time meddlers’ would rather it went to C.  Note the Doctor’s dialogue when he uncovers the Monk’s plan: “So that’s it!  You’re a time meddler!  No wonder you wanted to get rid of me.”  It seems to me that “time meddler” is supposed to sound like a standard description, as if the Doctor knows that there are time meddlers around and that he needs to stop them if he encounters them.  This in turn would seem to pave the way for further adventures of this kind (as happened later), although when the Monk returns in The Dalek’s Master Plan his interest is purely in revenge.

Centring the series on the notion of time travel seems fairly obvious.  Doctor Who is about a time traveller, after all.  Yet most production teams have kept time travel stories to a minimum.  While ‘time meddler’ stories of a basic kind appear fairly regularly from the seventies onwards, actual time paradox stories like The Space Museum are very rare in the original series (Day of the Dalek and Mawdryn Undead being the other ones that spring to mind) and it was only when Russell T Davies took over the programme in 2005 that time travel began to feature more prominently in stories like Father’s Day and Blink before becoming the dominant motif of the programme under Steven Moffat.

This refusal to write stories springing naturally from the format may seem a little odd in retrospect, like setting a series in a hospital, but refusing to write stories about illnesses.  Yet it may reflect a feeling among successive production teams that the public would not understand complicated time travel stories.  An internal BBC report by Alice Frick and Donald Bull in 1962 (which laid the groundwork for the creation of Doctor Who) noted that “Audiences – we think – are as yet not interested in the mere exploitation of ideas – the ‘idea as hero’ aspect of SF” before going on to talk of the need for audiences to be “trained” to accept more science fictional ideas gradually, science fiction not being a popular genre; time travel is considered “indigestible stuff for the audience.”  The idea that BBC writers were wary of time travel stories should be treated with care; in a follow-up report a few months later Frick and John Braybon suggest adapting Guardians of Time by Poul Anderson, about a Time Patrol that stops people altering the past.  Nevertheless, we are left with the impression that Spooner may have been more confident in the audience’s understanding and awareness of science fictional tropes than his predecessor and many of his successors.  Note that a couple of respondents to a BBC’s Audience Research Report on episode two of The Time Meddler seems to have been completely baffled by the storyline, "I still can't understand this new Doctor Who story.  I was completely baffled after last week's episode and am even more so after this, with its mixture of Saxons and Vikings, electric toasters and electric frying pans."  "Vikings and electrical toasters!  What rubbish!"  "Can't understand what a gramphone etc has to do with early Britons.  It seems just silly", though several others did find the anachronisms intriguing.  Interestingly, The Time Meddler expects the audience to be accepting not just of science fictional ideas about time travel, but about the nature of the programme itself, still some months short of its second birthday, as it lets us laugh at Steven’s scepticism about the TARDIS, something that could only happen if the audience’s acceptance of it was secure.

This brief period (only about nine months, including a month-long break!) also saw other stylistic changes in the types of stories told.  Most important is the series’ first real sustained use of comedy, following on from some of the scenes with the jailor in Spooner’s previous script, The Reign of TerrorThe Romans, while not quite the all-out comedy it is sometimes said to be, is the first story with a strong humorous subplot, as the Doctor pulls off an emperor’s new clothes-type trick with Nero (playing an ‘inaudible’ harp, not, thankfully, wearing invisible clothes) and then using corny puns to hint that he knows of Nero’s plan to have him killed.  (That said, Nero’s pursuit of Barbara, and her constantly missing the Doctor during the process, although clearly written and played as farce is less easy to watch, given that sexual harassment is no longer seen as a laughing matter).

Spooner cut a lot of humour out of The Space Museum, although the Moroks have been seen by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles in About Time 1 and Rob Shearman on the DVD release as comedic creations, satirizing the standard Doctor Who ruthless and efficient aliens by replacing them with bored and slightly incompetent bureaucrats.  The Chase is also intended as a comedic story, perhaps even more so than The Romans.  This is seen in such things as the stupid Dalek who ums and ahs when answering questions, the Dalek that falls off the Mary Celeste (and falls apart, although that may not be intentional), Vicki accidentally knocking Ian out and Morton Dill’s vaguely self-aware belief that the TARDIS crew are filming a chase scene for a drama, albeit film rather than TV.  Ideas like the TARDIS crew arriving in a funfair haunted house and believing it to be real and Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster fighting the Daleks are essentially comedic ideas, even if that is not entirely how they come across.  The story is not unlike later stories that use humour in serious narratives, only without good jokes.  It is bold of the series to use its most popular monster for a comedy story and also a little odd, perhaps a tactical attempt on behalf of the production team to reduce the power of a monster that threatened to be more popular than the programme itself.  It is perhaps strange in retrospect that Terry Nation agreed to this (in fact, I think it may have been his idea), given the ruthless way he ensured the credibility of the Daleks was maintained in the future.

The haunted house sequence in The Chase also sees the introduction of stylized horror for the first time, something else that would be important to Doctor Who later, but had not been a part of it up until now.  In fact, Verity Lambert was uncertain whether it was a good idea, feeling uncertain of the consequences of introducing horror into Doctor Who, as well as vetoing the fantasy explanation for the situation that Terry Nation originally proposed on the grounds it would make the programme unrealistic (Nation originally had the Doctor’s theory that the TARDIS had landed in the collective unconsciousness being the correct one and added the funfair solution at Lambert’s insistence).  She also wrote to director Richard Martin that the horror sequence might open “a door on the Doctor Who series which may run us into considerable trouble in the future.”  I am not entirely sure what she meant here, but it could be an expectation of the kind of controversy about violence and horror in a family programme that dogged the series throughout the late sixties and seventies.

The Doctor

The Doctor also undergoes a change here, becoming much closer to the figure most people think of as the Doctor.  He is less of a serious explorer; while he tells Steven that this is a “scientific expedition” in Galaxy 4, this is not really his attitude any more.  He is really a dotty mad scientist, familiar from children’s fiction.  It is interesting that in The Space Museum he admits that “I’ve always found it extremely difficult to solve the fourth dimension”, which seems to mean that he finds it hard to understand time paradoxes or perhaps time travel generally; it seems very odd now to see television’s most famous time traveller admit that he does not understand time travel!  This is probably intended as a way of raising the stakes in that particular story by making the problem seem rare and the Doctor unaware of a solution rather than an attempt at establishing the limits of the character’s knowledge, but it does support the image of the Doctor as an amateur, making it up as he goes along, which was inherent in the format from the start.

At the same time, the Doctor becomes more violent.  Those who think of the first Doctor as standing back while his male companions do the dirty work will be surprised to see him defeat an assassin in The Romans, pick up a sword in The Crusade and overpower one of his captors in The Space Museum.  Nevertheless, this is mostly comedy violence, perhaps related to the increase in the humorous side of his character: while we do not see much of the sword fight in The Crusade, the overpowering of Dako in The Space Museum off-screen is a prelude to the reveal of the Doctor hiding in the Dalek and, indeed, impersonating it for no reason other than his own amusement.  His defeat of the would-be assassin in The Romans is also comedic, leading to the rather unbelievable claim that the first Doctor once trained a wrestler called The Mountain Mauler of Montana!  As well as using his fists, the Doctor also uses his brains to bamboozle authority.  The scene in which he taunts Governor Lobos and resists his mind probe may seem a little hackneyed now, but that is only because we have seen it imitated so often.  Despite this new-found violent streak, in Galaxy 4 he again encourages negotiation and cooperation between different alien races, as in The Sensorites.

Other hints that the character of the Doctor is still somewhat in flux come in The Chase, in which the Daleks claim that the TARDIS is an “Earth time machine” and that the Doctor is a human (although in the sixties “human” generally seems to mean “humanoid”) and which implies again that the Doctor built the TARDIS, something apparently contradicted by The Time Meddler, which describes the Monk’s TARDIS as a “Mark IV”, implying some kind of industrial manufacture process (although I suppose TARDISes could come in kits, to be assembled by the owner).  That said, viewer expectations are solidifying: Edith walks in on the Doctor in her hut before we cut away to another scene.  When we return to the Doctor, Edith is giving him mead, it being taken for granted that the Doctor has talked her round – the audience knows by now that the Doctor has a silver tongue, at least when it comes to ‘history’.

The arrival of the Monk in The Time Meddler also sheds new light on the Doctor.  Although not entirely clear, he seems to know the Doctor by reputation, the first hint that the Doctor is a famous figure in the history of the universe.  The Monk also seems to expect the Doctor to oppose him, although it could be that any responsible time traveller would oppose a “time meddler” like the Monk.  Whatever the reason, this gives the Doctor a new heroic function: not only is he able to be proactive in ‘future’ or ‘space’ stories, now he must actively preserve the past rather than passively observing it.  This is a huge change in the way the Doctor functions as a character, mirroring the change in the programme’s story-telling, removing the apparent hypocrisy of his intervention against the Daleks’ invasion of Earth, but not against the human sacrifice of the Aztecs.

It is interesting that this attempt to make the Doctor a figure of huge significance, known to the Monk and identified by the Daleks, along with his companions, as their “greatest enemies” comes after Susan has departed.  As the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan necessarily gave him a familial dimension (it is noteworthy that since 2005 the programme has taken to alluding to Susan when wanting to stress that aspect of his character).  It is true that Vicki, like many of the other sixties companions, is very young and can to some extent be seen as a surrogate for Susan from the Doctor’s point of view (as well as an identification character for children in the audience).  Yet without the biological tie, the Doctor begins the process from moving away from a vaguely ‘normal’ character, one with a family and hence the implication of a life beyond adventuring, saving planets and preserving history, to an almost mythical hero.  It starts off very small and low-key, but it will snowball over time.

The Companions

This period is very important in the history of Doctor Who, as it sees the first changes to the regular cast.  As I suggested last time, although the Doctor is the focal character to some extent, the companions are much more important than they would be in most later periods of the programme.  An Unearthly Child posed a pair of questions that seemed to provide the premise for the show: will Ian and Barbara return to 1963?  And will the Doctor and Susan ever return to their home planet?  With Susan’s departure at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth the second question became rather less important (it had been Susan, not the Doctor, who had seemed anxious to return home; he only mentions his home a couple of times before The War Games); with Ian and Barbara’s departure (for 1965 rather than 1963) in The Chase the first question is categorically answered.  In some ways, the programme-makers will be continually trying to find a replacement premise for the show down to the present day, but here we will focus on the change in the character dynamic as a series that had two clear viewpoint figures for the audience evolves into one about an alien and two people from the future.

Vicki is interesting, as she is more of a replacement for Susan than fandom credits.  She is from the future and this is not something forgotten by the writers.  She sees The Beatles and the events of The Dalek Invasion of Earth as historical and in The Space Museum and The Chase she displays a surprising knowledge of time travel theory.  She actively wants adventure, complaining at the start of The Romans (her first story after joining) that things are too boring.  This contrasts with Susan, who often seemed anxious to get away from trouble and who displayed little advanced scientific knowledge, despite mentioning many past experiences on alien planets or historical periods (perhaps her education was interrupted by leaving her home planet?  Compare with Vicki’s complaints of her schooldays in The Web Planet).  That said, Vicki can still be childish at times, maintaining Sydney Newman’s desire for a child character to get into trouble.

It is also noteworthy that whereas Ian and Barbara were originally reluctant adventurers, they seem to enjoy their travels a lot more in these stories than in earlier ones (perhaps most obvious in the villa scenes in The Romans, which some fan commentators have seen as post-coital, a description more justifiable than in many other fan pairings; at any rate, they seem relaxed and enjoying each others’ company).  Combined with Vicki’s adventurous nature, this may indicate a desire on the part of the production team for less bleak and realistic stories and more emphasis on excitement and the fantastic.

Once Ian and Barbara leave, Vicki is ‘promoted’ to senior companion, both in the sense that she knows the Doctor more and the audience knows her better.  As a result, she becomes more mature, to some extent replacing Barbara as the voice of reason and common sense on the TARDIS, although Barbara is still a unique type of companion in some ways, the most down-to-earth and realistic, not to mention not fitting the later stereotype by being somewhat older and not obviously glamorous.  Steven, of course, is a more obvious replacement for Ian, being there mainly to handle the action sequences, but also to argue with Doctor, often sarcastically, in a way that Ian and Barbara never did.  Still, Steven’s arguments are usually there for the Doctor to rebut, with The Time Meddler in particular being written to show Steven having to learn to accept the Doctor’s authority.  The story ends with confirmation that the Doctor is himself the entire TARDIS crew; Vicki and Steven are merely passengers.  The centre of gravity in the programme has shifted and this is increasingly the Doctor’s show.

Villains and Monsters

Another way the format changes here is the use of the Daleks.  As mentioned in the last instalment, the original conception of Doctor Who could potentially have had some stories without villains and Sydney Newman gave strict instructions that there should be no “bug-eyed monsters”.  This has occurred occasionally in Doctor Who’s long history, but very rarely.  By The Dalek Invasion of Earth the Daleks had become the Doctor’s archenemies, essentially by default, because they were popular enough to demand an almost immediate rematch, but also because none of the other monsters in the first season were remotely as good.  Just as The Dalek Invasion of Earth had raised the stakes by having the Daleks invade conquer Earth, so The Chase raises them even further by giving them a time machine and one that works better than the Doctor’s TARDIS at that.  They are now technologically on a par with the Doctor, if not superior (because they can steer their craft – they can also climb stairs, at least by implication, in The Chase) and have far superior numbers, even if their robot technology leaves a lot to be desired.  It is worth noting that the Doctor and company are referred to by the Daleks as “Our greatest enemies”.  Note also the use of the Dalek casing in the museum in The Space Museum, a further attempt to keep them at the forefront of the viewers’ minds as part of the programme’s ongoing legend, as well as making the Moroks seem more impressive for apparently having killed one.  That said, the failed attempts at finding another monster to rival the Daleks continue here, with the lacklustre Zarbi and the visually impressive, but rather useless Mechanoids.

More successful is the Monk, introduced in The Time Meddler as the first of many attempts at creating a pseudo-Doctor.  In the future these would generally be either evil (e.g. the Master) or comic (e.g. Vorg in Carnival of Monsters).  The Monk is both evil and comic by turns, essentially as clever and as funny as the Doctor (if not funnier), but immoral.  This demonstrates the increasing focus on the Doctor in the narrative, something also shown by the Daleks’ duplicate Doctor, although that was too crude to really comment on the Doctor as a character.  It is a mark of confidence in the series at this point that it feels able to play the villains for laughs, both in the form of the Monk and the notorious ‘stupid Dalek’ in The Chase, as well as the leering, vain, melodramatic Emperor Nero in The Romans.

The problem with the Monk is that he is just too much fun and runs the risk of winning the audience’s affections from the Doctor.  The Monk’s plan to prevent the Norman Conquest seems benevolent, especially from the point of view of an English (and for once I mean English, not British) audience steeped in a culture that for centuries had seen everything wrong in English society as the fault of “the Norman Yoke” – the importation of a European aristocracy and feudalism into the mythically free and democratic Anglo-Saxon kingdom.  The Monk does not even kill anyone on screen, although he does help the Saxons find and kill the Vikings as well as planning to sink Harald Hardrada’s fleet.  The Monk’s apparent innocence, along with the Doctor’s failure to answer the Monk’s question about who says that the “Golden Rule” of time travel is non-interference, risks making the Doctor seem like a strict teacher with a naughty schoolchild, not something that would endear him to the children in the audience.  It may be for this reason that the final episode of The Time Meddler emphasizes that the Monk’s TARDIS is a “Mark IV”, more advanced than the Doctor’s TARDIS, with a working “camouflage unit” and navigation system and an “automatic drift control” that lets it materialize in space.  This gives the Doctor the amateur status that all good British heroes should have, something reflected in his improvised sabotage of the Monk’ ship.

NEXT TIME: is Doctor Who’s format infinitely flexible?

Previous 50