Sisterhood, sexiness and The Hand of Fear (1976)

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It’s no original observation to point out the irony that the last few minutes of The Hand of Fear are its best.  In this afterthought to a story of ancient revenge by an exiled stone alien, we say goodbye to longstanding companion Sarah Jane Smith. Played as ever with smarts and spunk by Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah is farewelled in touching but unsentimental form when Tom Baker’s Doctor drops her off to go off on a solo adventure. It’s a devastating end to one of the show’s most effective partnerships.

It’s also complete nonsense.

To get why, we need to reflect on the sort of character Sarah is. She was designed to be a part-time companion. She’s the companion who has a life outside the TARDIS. She has a job. She stays on Earth between trips. This mode of travel does two things. It makes her seem more independent of the Doctor. And although it might give the impression that she’s not that interested in travelling with him full-time, instead it does the opposite: it constantly reaffirms how much she loves travelling with him because she makes the choice to be with him over and over again.

After her first, inadvertent TARDIS trip, she finds herself back in London and is ready to go home to check that it hasn’t been stepped on by a brontosaurus when the Doctor coaxes her into another journey – this time to an improbable sounding holiday planet. This becomes a recurring trait; when given the chance to go home, time and again she chooses to jump in that big blue box and run away a bit longer.

It happens in Robot, when she accepts by snatching a jelly baby from the Doctor’s stash. It happens in Terror of the Zygons, when she’s convinced to jump on board while everyone else around her says no. It happens in The Android Invasion, where she barely puts up a protest. And in The Seeds of Doom, she’s not even travelling with the Doctor, but agrees to run off with him twice, once to Antarctica and then to another improbable sounding holiday planet.

So in The Hand of Fear, when the Doctor says he needs to go to Gallifrey by himself, the immediate reaction is… so what? Sarah will go back to her real life for a while. He can just come back and get her at story’s end. He has done that many times before. But for some reason, this time’s the last. No adequate explanation given. It’s a bit like The Husbands of River Song. The Doctor makes the decision to end their time together. Sarah gets no say in it.

It’s beautifully written and heartbreakingly performed. (My favourite beat: when the TARDIS lands and Sarah says, “that’s my home.” Sladen manages to wring about 17 different meanings out of just three syllables.) But it goes against everything that Sarah is and does. She’s the Doctor’s best friend. She’s her own woman. Give her her own space and she’ll say yes every time. There’s absolutely no reason why she wouldn’t keep doing so.

And least in the fictional world. Behind the scenes, it was time to raunch things up a bit.

****

The other great irony about The Hand of Fear is that it improves no end when the hand is finally attached to a body. The body in question is the lithe feminine form of Eldrad, as played by Judith Paris. Squeezed into a blue bodysuit carefully adorned with fake stones, she’s a scene stealer. A formidable enemy and, despite being covered in blue paint and plastic tiles, an instantly sexy one.

She’s a complete contrast to Sarah, who, dressed in her red and white striped overalls is a far more platonic figure. And as the Doctor is more and more taken with Eldrad, Sarah is noticeably jealous.

Of the two of our heroes, Sarah is far more suspicious of Eldrad’s motives than the Doctor, who is much more open to helping Eldrad return to her home planet. But Sarah thinks she’s up to no good, and apart from that, she’s the first woman she’s ever had to compete with for the Doctor’s attention (women being few and far between in Hinchliffean Who).

Sarah always had a sisterly relationship with Tom Baker’s Doctor, but standing in Eldrad’s stony blue shadow, she looks positively chaste. And in a number of other ways, Sarah’s childlike innocence (emphasized by that outfit and her stuffed toy) is deliberately positioned as “not sexy” next to Eldrad. In a few episodes time, Sarah’s replacement will be revealed (ahem) as Leela, a leggy amazon in a leather swimsuit. After her it’ll be Romana, an evening gown wearing ice maiden. Questionable in terms of gender politics, but undeniable attempts to sex up the show.

Still, Sarah gets her own back. Although the Doctor might get all doe-eyed about sexy blue Eldrad, she eventually turns into the bulkier, shoutier, more magnificently mustached form of Eldrad the Bloke (Stephen Thorne). That soon puts an end to the ol’ Tooth and Curls’ campaign of flirting and offering rides home.

Then it’s revealed that when Eldrad was being resurrected, he based his female form on Sarah’s bodyprint. See, she really is sexy! I bet under those overalls there’s a red and white striped bedazzled bodysuit ready to rock and roll.

*****

If Sarah’s last story spends a lot of time pointing out what she’s not, and then gives her a farewell which ignores who she is, it’s partly Elisabeth Sladen’s fault. It was she who asked the production crew to avoid making her final story about Sarah. “Just make it an ordinary Doctor Who story and have me leave at the end,” she advised. True to her request, they made a very ordinary Doctor Who story and had her leave at the end.

But this typically modest request by Sladen grossly underestimated her own importance to the show and her impact on it. Frankly, they were wrong to agree to her request. A story which focused on and celebrated everything about Sarah was the very least Sladen deserved.

LINK TO Hell Bent: Gender changing.

NEXT TIME… One small step for a thing. We’re off to Kill the Moon.

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Unanswered questions, unreliable memories and Hell Bent (2015)

hellbent

Part 1: The Barn of Mystery

In recent years, we’ve learned a little more about our mysterious, powerful Doctor (Peter Capaldi). Specifically, that when he was a young boy, he used to cry himself to sleep in a barn. Now, in big moments in his life, such as in Hell Bent, after he’s just spent four and a half billion years in an ashtray, he returns to said barn.

But here’s the thing: where’s the farm which utilises this barn? In fact, what could you farm in the desolate orange wasteland of Gallifrey? What gets stored in this barn anyway? Perigosto sticks? Shaboogan toboggans? What’s going on here?

Then, when the Doctor has returned to the barn, he’s greeted by a group of locals. Not Time Lords (no fancy robes, you see). Instead, they dress like extras from a spaghetti western. The gather in a clump to stare silently at the Doctor. Then they offer him one bowl of tomato soup. Which they insist he eats outside his barn. Well, you don’t want to risk spilling soup on your perigosto stick.

Again, just like there’s no farm, there’s no visible township from where these soup offerers have emerged. Where have they all come from? Why have they come at all? Where’s the bread roll? What’s for main?

Here’s my explanation. The Doctor’s barn is actually in a small but tightknit farming community. But the Doctor’s family farm, and all the other farms and buildings, have their chameleon circuits switched on so we can’t see them. The townsfolk have all taken a vow of silence until someone gives them all big collars. Their tradition is to offer newcomers one bowl of al fresco gazpacho. That’s my head canon and you can’t take it away from me.

Part 2: The Chamber of Dubious Utility

Having scared off an army and a despot with only his reputation and an entree, the Doctor heads off to the Capitol to kick some scarlet robed ass. There he demands access to an extraction chamber, so he can (he claims) consult dead companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) about the legendary Hybrid. In fact, he snatches Clara away from the point of her death and abducts her to freedom.

But, um, why do Time Lords need extraction chambers in order to whisk people away from death for a quick natter? Don’t they have complete mastery over time? If they wanted to talk to, well, anyone at any point of their lives, they can do so whenever they like. We might as well call it a plot advancement chamber.

Once the Doctor has successfully extracted Clara, punched a guy in the face and then shot him, he demands a “neural block, human compatible,” and a flunky grabs one from a nearby time/space cupboard. If they have “human compatible” ones on hand, how many other varieties to they have to keep in stock? And why do they keep these nifty little memory wipes in the plot advancement chamber? (Perhaps I’ve answered my own question there).

Part 3:  The Monsters who don’t.

Gallifrey, you would have noticed, is back. Although until recently, it was lost. Frozen in another dimension. This was a big ‘ol thing. Tom Baker came back especially to tell Matt Smith to go search for it. Consoles were punched and tears were shed when Doctor Capaldi couldn’t find it. How did it get back into our universe? “They must have unfrozen it and come back,” shrugs the Doctor. Well, that clears that up then.

While we’re talking unanswered questions, let’s slip from the fictional to the real world: why create a monster you never use? Guarding the subterranean Matrix, are the spooky Cloister Wraiths. They glide around like Georgian state dancers and their faces are transfixed in eerie static filled screams. They can best Daleks, Cybermen and the Weeping Angels. They are a worthy addition to the Doctor Who Monster Book. And they do… precisely nothing. They don’t threaten the Doctor. In fact, they don’t do anything. They might at least have offered our heroes more soup.

Part 4: The Hybrid of Obscurity

It’s Orpheus in the Underworld, isn’t it? The Doctor descends into forbidden worlds to rescue his love from death, only to lose her again on the climb out. In doing so, he realises there are some things you can’t fight. It’s a great plot, the basis for many a retread. And that’s probably all an episode like this needs.

So given that Hell Bent has a perfectly serviceable plot, why clutter it with so much else? Why, for instance, do we care about the Hybrid? The Hybrid, it transpires, is not some big bad monster, ready to wreak havoc on Gallifrey. It’s far more theoretical than that. It’s the combination of the Doctor and Clara which causes them both to go to such extremes that the universe might end up as collateral damage.

The operative word being “might”. I mean, I can see an ending where the Doctor finds himself burning up whole star systems in order to keep Clara alive and realises that he has become the thing he always feared. But what terrible consequences have come about this episode from this dangerous combination? Well, one Time Lord was forced to regenerate and one TARDIS was stolen. Hardly apocalyptic stuff.

Also, why do we need that side trip to the Universe’s end to collect Ashildr (Maisie Williams)? Other than, of course, to collect Ashildr so that she can be Clara’s new companion. And I suppose, to resolve her relationship with the Doctor post her actions in Face the Raven, which this doesn’t really do. It’s at this point in the episode you sense events and characters moving into place, not in a natural way which sets up an inevitable conclusion, but instead in a contrived way to facilitate a pre-determined conclusion.

That pre-determined conclusion is the Doctor having his memory of Clara wiped (a fate some of her fannish critics may have welcomed). As heart-rending as this is, only a couple of seconds pass before the whole conceit falls apart. The Doctor can recall his experiences with Clara but not what she looks like… so this whole Hybrid threat might be back on again, if he happened to come across a picture of her, like, oh I don’t know, the one painted on the outside of his TARDIS?  In any rate the whole problem is fixed in Twice Upon a Time and the new Doctor, I boldly predict, will resist the temptation to track down Clara and form a universe-ending partnership.

By which I mean, she’ll just forget about it. And the barn, the wraiths, the soup and the whole bewildering affair. Must have taken one hell of a neural block.

FOREHEAD SLAP MOMENT. The General has just regenerated from male to female in front of us. The Time Lords’ gender fluidity finally and incontrovertibly proven! And then in the very next scene she says, “We need to block every exit from the Cloisters. Every available man.” Ah well.

LINK TO… Midnight. Both directed by women.

NEXT TIME… Eldrad must live as we’re offered The Hand of Fear.

Subversion, reassertion and Midnight (2008)

midnight

In a show as long running as Doctor Who, it’s inevitable you’re going to get episodes which are designed to challenge the series’ norms. Having it be the “monster of the week” every episode’s not creatively satisfying for production team or audience.

Hence, Midnight is one of those episodes which subverts everything the show usually does. In it, the Doctor (David Tennant) is stripped of his hero status, humiliated and helpless, his standard tricks made useless. The standard Doctor Who monster is replaced by an invisible, unknowable force; its origins and motives never explained. And human beings, so often championed in 21st century Who as being amazing, inspirational creatures capable of so much, are seen here to quickly descend into vindictive self-preservation. In doing so, they disprove everything the Doctor has ever said about their brilliance and potential.

Midnight sets out to be the antidote to the show’s usual optimism about humanity, but that determination to find the heroic in the everyday proves a hard mold to break. Among its cast of bickering humans, it zeros in on one who goes on a character arc which describes 21st Doctor Who’s most prominent theme: that the Doctor can inspire ordinary human beings to acts of great heroism. It does this by tracing that character’s Orpheus-like journey into the underworld of selfishness and fear, and subsequent emergence by using Doctor-like logic and courage to save the day.

That character is the Hostess (Rakie Ayola). Forgive me for retelling the plot at you for a bit, but I think what’s interesting is how writer Russell T Davies uses her as a structural component of the script. It’s the Hostess who pushes the plot along, ramps up the tension in specific steps and then does an about turn which saves the day. Whoever said plot and character are the same thing would find an instructive example in Midnight.

At the story’s start, the Hostess seems like a purely functional character. She’s there to welcome passengers aboard this pleasure trip and her demeanour tells us it’s not a job she enjoys. When the Doctor tries to engage her in cheery conversation, she looks at him with weary politeness, just wanting to get on with her job. But crucially, she notices the distinctiveness of his turn of phrase, that jaunty “allons-y”.

The other passengers are utterly ordinary people. A holidaying family, a professor (of Which University) and his protégé.  When their fellow passenger, the solitary Sky Sylvestry (Leslie Sharp) becomes possessed by the invisible creature, they act not like the courageous, noble humans of so many other Davies stories, but with fear and suspicion. The Doctor corrals them and the Hostess to the back of the ship and tries to convince them to simply keep their distance from Sky until the rescue ship arrives. As ingenious plans go, its practical, but not up to his usual standard.

Unfortunately, he can’t restrain the humans’ tendency to lash out. Davies ramps up the stakes in a series of reveals from the humans, each one punctuated by a dramatic sting in Murray Gold’s instrumental music. And the Hostess plays the pivotal role of influencer. She’s always the one to say what everyone else is thinking.

First, the Hostess says, “We should throw her out.” Cue sting!

It’s the first admission that at least one of them is thinking of a murderous pre-emptive strike on Sky. The Doctor just about manages to hose that one down, helped by the general belief that it’s not technically possible.

But then Dee Dee (Ayesha Antoine) says, “Yes we can,” and explains that a human jettison is possible, if done within 6 seconds. Sting!

And although Dee Dee makes the suggestion, it’s the Hostess who provides the practical method. “I wouldn’t risk the cabin door twice, but we’ve got that one,” she says, pointing out an alternative. “All we need to do is grab hold of her and throw her out.” The ethically questionable action which had been ruled out as impossible, is now feasible. The Doctor then calms debate down again, this time on the grounds of common humanity, asking if any one of them are prepared to become killers.

Again, the Hostess prompts the next development in this argument, saying “I’d do it.” Sting!

The cat is out of the bag again as the others admit that in order to save their own lives, they are prepared to commit murder. The Hostess falls back on her job description as justification, “It’s my job to see that this vessel is safe,” she says. The others panic and pile on. Having failed on grounds of practicality and moral values, the Doctor resorts to threats. He says if they want to throw Sky out, they’ll have to throw him out too.

Once more, it’s the Hostess who tells it like it is. “Okay,” she says. Sting!

And the mood shifts to questioning the Doctor. Who he is, why he’s on board, why he seems to relish the situation so. It’s here that we begin to sense the Doctor losing. We realise how flimsy the Doctor’s story must appear, when given the slightest scrutiny and without a companion by his side to back him up. When challenged about his assumed moral superiority and the right he has to take control of the situation, his response is desperate and arrogant.

“Because I’m clever,” he says, and that’s the moment where he loses everyone’s respect.

The Doctor usually wins by inspiring others to be their best, but here all he has done is alienate and antagonise them. They take offence, and when he tries to fob them off with his usual lazy pseudonym, John Smith, they don’t believe a word of it. At this point, there really is nothing to stop them from throwing him out of the ship. As the Hostess, points out, “He’s practically volunteered,” providing a moral justification for ejecting him. He’s a liar, a braggart and, by protecting Sky, a danger to them all.

When the creature finally captures the Doctor’s voice, his deconstruction becomes complete. He’s left paralysed and babbling on the floor. But former antagonists, the Hostess and Dee Dee, start to put two and two together.

While the others are preparing to throw the Doctor out, spurred on by the Sky/Creature, they start behaving like the Doctor. They notice the logical flaws in the creature’s story. They look objectively at the evidence. It’s a sudden about-face, but crucially it’s because they have both listened to what the Doctor has said. When the creature uses the Doctor’s favourite phrase, “allons-y,” the penny drops and the Hostess expels Sky and herself in the process.

You can see this self-sacrifice as being consistent with the Hostess’s sense of duty to “keep this vessel safe.” Or it could be seen as penance for her earlier suspicion of the Doctor and her stoking of tensions throughout the event. But I see it as the series snapping back into its basic shape. The story needs someone to be the Doctor, and if he’s incapacitated or all his usual strategies are neutralised as they are here, someone else will step up. His very presence will inspire scared, prejudiced humans to be better people, by using their intelligence to inspire acts of bravery and self-sacrifice.

In setting out to disprove Doctor Who’s fundamental tenet, Midnight actually reasserts it. While the rest of the cast are utterly broken at the story’s end, their relationships in tatters, their personal integrity destroyed – the Hostess proves once again why the Doctor loves humans so much. She just took the long way around.

LINK TO Genesis of the Daleks: TARDIS Wikia tells me that “This is the first televised story since Genesis of the Daleks in 1975 not to feature the TARDIS.” And talking of the long way around…

NEXT TIME… We’re off to Space Glasgow and we’re Hell Bent.

 

Courage, choices and Genesis of the Daleks (1975)

genesis daleks

“Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened,” the Doctor once said, back when he looked like Jon Pertwee. “It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.” It’s the expression of a theme which writer Terry Nation often explored: people under pressure, finding the courage to make choices which challenge them to the core, but which they know are the right thing to do.

When asked to revisit the origins of the Daleks, Nation came up with this titan of a story, a mythic struggle where the Doctor (now looking like Tom Baker), fights to prevent his deadliest enemies from ever being born. But amongst all the bombs and bombast, he included a courageous choice at the story’s heart.

After five hard-fought episodes and with victory only the touch of two detonator wires away, our hero suddenly questions the moral basis for his actions. He asks himself, in a now famous speech, whether by destroying the Daleks he becomes no better than them. He has in his hands the power to save countless future victims, but when he finally has the means to destroy these heinous creatures, he asks himself, “do I have the right?

It’s the payoff to a choice made back in Part One, when an enigmatic Time Lord (John Franklyn-Robbins) asked the Doctor to go on this deadly mission in the first place. The Doctor wasn’t forced to say yes; he agreed to go. Sure, the Time Lord correctly anticipates his agreement and transports him to Skaro as a fait accompli, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Doctor makes a choice to attempt genocide. There’s something of the special contempt the Doctor reserves for the Daleks in this decision. It’s difficult to imagine him agreeing to wipe out any of the other species he’s encountered. But whether it was a choice clouded by hatred or made in haste or made without full appreciation of its implications, the “do I have the right?” moment tells us it was wrong.

Genesis of the Daleks repeatedly shows us people making difficult moral choices. Often this is presented as the choice to rebel against the fascist regime in the bunker. Members of the scientific elite like Ronson (James Garbutt), Kavell (Tom Georgeson) and Gharman (Dennis Chinnery) carefully reveal their allegiances in urgent, conspiratorial whispers, in the style of so many WW2 films where people plot against the Nazis from within. They find the courage to resist, even though their lives are in immediate danger.

The choices they make are made on moral grounds – they abhor the lack of conscience in the Daleks – but they also present a direct challenge to the viewer. Would we, under similar circumstances, have the courage to speak up? Their choices are made even more striking by the moment when Nyder (Peter Miles) mimics their concerns in order to trap Gharman. His famous fake out (“Thank you! That’s what I wanted to know!”) shows us how dangerous speaking up is, but it’s also an example of Nyder’s unflinching devotion to Davros. In the whole story, Nyder’s the only character whose moral stance, twisted though it is, remains unquestioned.

Outside of the bunker, others make choices which set them at odds with those around them. Sevrin (Stephen Yardley) for instance, chooses to save Sarah, when the rest of his Muto mates want her killed. Thal soldier Bettan (Harriet Philpin) has to make the choice about closing the bunker’s doors and potentially trapping the Doctor inside. And throughout, the Doctor finds himself trying to convince people to change their behaviour on moral grounds: appealing to Mogran (Ivor Roberts) to stop work in the bunker, appealing to the Thals to abandon their rocket launch and, most critically, appealing to Davros (Michael Wisher) to stop the entire Dalek project.

Davros too, is confronted with choices to make on moral grounds, which he mostly rejects. He does so because his worldview is antithetical to the Doctor’s. He sees the Daleks as a force for good, not evil. He sees democracy as a utopian delusion and totalitarianism as the only way of achieving peace.

In another moment for the clip reels, the Doctor proposes a hypothetical moral choice to Davros: would he use a biological weapon to kill everyone? Davros, seduced by the idea, says emphatically, yes. But he’s not above using the same moral challenges to point out the hypocrisy of others. Later, he uses a similar trick on Kaled opponent Kravos (Andrew Johns): “I saved your life once,” he icily points out to the young man. “In your chest is a tiny instrument which I designed. It keeps your heart beating. Will you now turn that heart against me?” He neglects to mention that he would, and later does, kill Kravos without a second thought.

It’s a clear indication that moral choices work only in relation to your own moral framework. And Davros’ moral framework is particularly perverted. It’s oddly underplayed in the story itself, but when confronted with a threat from the Kaled government to investigate his work, Davros retaliates by helping the Thals use their rocket to kill everyone in the Kaled city. Then, he sends the Daleks to kill all the Thals. It’s Doctor Who’s greatest act of ruthlessness: a double genocide. And in Davros’s twisted philosophy, these are moral choices worth making to ensure the survival of his Dalek children. Again, it’s not mentioned specifically, but this act of mass murder must surely be on the Doctor’s mind when he’s hesitating to connect those two explosive wires.

Davros only sees the error of his ways in the story’s final minutes, when he realises his Daleks have started managing their own affairs. With his life in danger, he suddenly switches tack and makes a moral choice to destroy the Daleks… but his wizened hand never lands on that big friendly “total destruct” button. Finally Davros has joined the legion of characters in this story having the courage to do what’s right, although it’s far too late.

My point is that we rightly praise the Doctor’s “do I have the right?” speech in Genesis of the Daleks (even though it’s effectively neutralised about 15 minutes later, when he decides to go back and have another go). But in fact, the whole story is a series of events in which characters have their convictions challenged, find the courage to act despite their fear and make choices based on what they see is right. Perhaps difficult choices are simply the building blocks of all drama. Perhaps all Doctor Who stories contain them to a greater or lesser extent. But Genesis is infused with them.

But to return to “do I have the right?”, it underlines what Nation had the Doctor say back on Spiridon about being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway. A future with the Daleks frightens the Doctor – initially enough to want to kill them. Instead, he has the courage to do what he has to do anyway, and let them live.

LINK TO Planet of Evil: same Doctor, companion and production team. Links abound!

NEXT TIME… we’re taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight. What could possibly go wrong?

Scribbles, shibboleths and Planet of Evil

Oakleigh Primary. A pretty little school, part of a leafy outer Melbourne suburb. Diverse community, mix of modern and historic classrooms. A warm, welcoming place.

At least, that’s how it looks from the website. I’ve never actually been there. I would never have come across it all, except that it’s the place where my copy of Doctor Who and the Planet of Evil came from. Published 1977, hardback, first edition. A thing of beauty, with a big ugly wolfman on the cover.

Since I was a kid, I’ve read Doctor Who books (the first: Doctor Who and the Zarbi, paperback, umpteenth reprint. Spoilt by my sister writing a bogus dedication from Bill Strutton on the title page. I was livid). Though just as important as reading them, was collecting them. I wanted the full set of tidy little paperbacks with spines all the colours of the rainbow, and white.

The quest had begun. For years I scoured bookshops and department stores and garage sales and my world in general for those vivid little tomes. The ones I couldn’t find, I’d borrow in small piles from my local library. But its collection consisted of exotic hardback editions. It was extensive too – although it lacked a Planet of Evil, it did have a rare Frederick Mueller edition of The Zarbi, which, to my life long regret, I didn’t steal.

Amazing, mysterious things, those hardbacks. Where did the library get them? They were never in the newsagents and quaint little book exchanges I got chased out of. I sullenly settled for buying paperbacks, but in truth, I was addicted to the hard (cover) stuff.

By the time I reached adulthood, I was concentrating on girls and beer but also celebrating my complete collection of Doctor Who paperbacks (I know, right? What a catch). The quest was completed, but I faced a new problem. I had nothing more to collect. I had to make do with new adventures and missing adventures and what have you. But it wasn’t the same. 

I couldn’t kick the habit. I kept combing second hand bookstores searching for spines with little Target logos atop. I bought copies of books I already had, but with different covers. Hell, I bought copies of books I already had with the same covers just because I couldn’t leave them behind. At one stage, I had three identical copies of The Zarbi. Plus my original copy, by that stage in tatters, Fake Bill Strutton’s message angrily ripped out.

Every so often, I’d find a lonely hardback on those shelves and I’d snatch it up, greedily. They were rare treats, often “ex-library”, a term sneered at by serious collectors. These were well worn books, often a bit battered. Often covered in clear plastic, lending slips still glued to the back, stamps and stains throughout. I didn’t care, I loved them all. As my collection grew, I wondered how hard it would be to collect all the hardback editions… and lo, the quest began again!

This time though, the task was much harder. My paperbacks search, back in the day, had been for cheap, mass market products. The hardbacks had much smaller print runs and were often distributed only to libraries. I was now searching for collector’s pieces via eBay and Abebooks and other obscure corners of the web. And the copies I found were old, imperfect and often pricey. Whether to drop $100 on a roughed up old copy of, say, The Power of Kroll, became a familiar dilemma.

It took me years. It cost me stupid money. But over time, I got them all. (Well, all except those Frederick Mueller editions of The Daleks, The Crusaders and my old friend, The Zarbi. Even I couldn’t come at those eye watering prices.) And although I found plenty of handsome, well kept copies of later books (harvested from collections of fans whose love had grown cold), the ex-library ones are my favourites.

Because shabby and dogeared though they are, these books have histories. People have read them, loved them, taken them home, carried them in school bags, spilled tea on them, lost them down the back of the couch. They’ve been held in the hands of fans, pored over again and again. These stories have stories. Who, for instance, at Oakleigh Primary School read, loved and coveted this copy of Planet of Evil. Who crossed off the other books they’d read on that list at the front? Was it even you, reading this post right now?

Or did you once clutch some other book in my collection? Perhaps you are Kevin C Wood from Lincolnshire, who wrote his name so carefully in my copy ofAn Unearthly Child. Hello Kevin! Lovely handwriting. Did you get in trouble for defacing a library book?

Or perhaps you’re Kathleen Robinson, formerly of East York public library. Kathleen, I need to know: did you really borrow Planet of the Daleks8 times? Or were you just practicing your signature on that library slip, in preparation for opening your first bank account, or in case you married that dreamy Robinson boy from down the road?

Or maybe you’re the mysterious frequenter of Leeds library who studiously wrote the numeric ranking of each Doctor on the frontispiece of each book, a shibboleth to other fans. “First,” you printed seriously in biro on The Keys of Marinus. “Fourth,” in Meglos.

If you went to Mapleridge Senior Public School, Ontario, I have your copy ofPyramids of Mars. No, you can’t have it back. If you frequented Transvaal Public Library, you might have thumbed my copy of The Ultimate Foe. My copy of The Romans comes from Hong Kong, The Five Doctorsfrom Manitoba, The Rescuefrom sunny Toowoomba. From all around the world, they’ve flown to me in Sydney, Australia.

I love that so many people have held these books. I love the marks and scribbles they left behind. And every now and then, there’s something special. “To Margaret,” a dedication reads on the front page of The Deadly Assassin. “Happy times. Tom Baker.” Oh, Margaret. How could you ever give something so glorious away?

The quest is over now. I buy the occasional new series book, but they don’t have the same appeal. I read, but don’t collect.

Except for last year, when three smart new additions hit my shelves. Replicas of those first three books, the ultra rare Frederick Mueller ones, completing my collection at last. Wonderful – even if they don’t have library stamps, tears, coffee cup rings, enigmatic written messages and all the rest. I’ll just imagine they come from Yorkshire public library.

And, of course, one of those books is another copy of Doctor Who and the Zarbi. Well, you can never have too many.

A version of this post appears in the forthcoming charity anthology, You on Target. Find out more about it here.

LINK TO Frontios: both stories set on the edge of the universe

NEXT TIME… It’s Genesis of the Daleks. Thank you! That’s what I wanted to know!

Immobility, inconvenience and Frontios (1984)

Frontios

Sometimes, we Whoheads like to ignore the inconvenient. If one solitary story reveals a rogue fact about the show which doesn’t chime with the other 50 plus years, we like to quietly forget it ever happened. For instance, we don’t like to recall that Susan made up the name TARDIS. Or that Time Lords can live forever, barring accidents. Or that the Doctor is half human.

In Frontios, we find out for the first and only time that the TARDIS cannot actually travel anywhere in time and space. There are some places it’s not supposed to go. It has time parameters which should not be exceeded, on fear of the Time Lords getting cross and doing something or other.

This is a strange development for a series which has as its main premise the ability to set adventures stories throughout the history of the cosmos. Why try to ring fence that? What is the dramatic potential gained from such a move? The answer seems to be none. All it facilitates is a few worried phrases from Peter Davison’s dashing Doctor about not telling anyone that he’s wandered out of bounds.

The place he’s come to is Frontios (because it’s on the frontier, geddit?) It’s in the far future and it’s where the last representatives of the human race are struggling for survival. It’s a bleak, rocky world which is continually beset by meteorite strikes (there’s some irony that they finally have a story which would have benefited from being filmed in a quarry, and instead, they create a quarry-like planet in the studio). It’s a place where everything seems to fit into a limited colour palette of grey and red and where synthesised pan pipe music can be heard everywhere.

The Doctor doesn’t want to land on Frontios because, “the colony’s too new… its future hangs in the balance.” When forced down to the planet’s surface, he decides to muck in with the Frontiosians and help out, after some initial reluctance. True to form, he finds some space cockroaches who are behind it all and sorts the whole mess out over four episodes, but then he appeals to everyone around him to keep the whole thing quiet. We never really find out why, but perhaps the implication is that he shouldn’t have saved the colonists from their fate and the Time Lords would have been happier if the human race had been finished off once and for all? In which case, wouldn’t that have been an interesting premise which could have lead to some mighty repercussions of some kind?

Doesn’t matter anyway, we’ll just ignore it at move on. Like how the Daleks call their ships DARDISes and how the character’s name is actually Doctor Who.

Anyway, we should talk Tractators. They are the aforementioned space cockroaches and they live beneath the surface of Frontios, tractating meteors to the planet’s surface and sucking the occasional human into the earth. They are enormous woodlice creatures with faces of elderly bespectacled housewives and they are among the least mobile alien creatures ever to waddle across a television screen. They have no visible feet, but they do have two paddle like hands protruding from their bellies. Our heroes and their colonist compadres have to lean into those bellies awkwardly in order to be “captured” by the creatures. Running away from them has to be carefully timed to deny instant success. “Only those who have been isolated for millennia,” growls their articulate leader, the Gravis (John Gillett), “truly appreciate the power of mobility.” I believe old mate Gravis (because he controls gravity, geddit?), because the best he and his swarm buddies can manage is a menacing shuffle and the occasional precarious sway to emphasise salient points.

Nothing about the Tractators seems feasible. We’re told they are highly skilled gravitational engineers, although none of them are able to hold as much as a screwdriver. They are burrowing wave form tunnels underneath the surface of Frontios, which they will then use to propel the planet around the cosmos to look for other worlds to infest. Hopefully they can pilot it at a far greater speed than they can totter, because space is awfully big and planets can be pretty unwieldy.

Otherwise, it’s the slowest invasion plan ever. We’re told that they need human pilots for their gruesome excavating machines (which again, they somehow build with their flappy little hands), but they particularly like to choose humans in leadership positions like Captain Revere (who is revered, geddit?) and Plantagenet (who’s a sort of king, geddit?), and everyone else they drag from the surface they use for… well it’s not really clear.

Feasible or not, the Doctor treats them like an inimical threat to humanity which needs to be neutralised. Only a couple of stories ago he was arguing that humans should make friends with the similarly subterranean Silurians because they were an intelligent, technologically advanced species with whom the Earth could be shared. He offers no such argument about the Tractators, even though they too are intelligent, technologically advanced and presumably, were on Frontios before the humans.

But then, the Doctor only occasionally likes to defend the right of the monsters to live. The rest of the time he blows them up or throws them into the sun or – like he does here – strands them on an uninhabited planet. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a top bloke. It’s just sometimes he forgets about the sanctity of life in the universe and just gets the roach bombs out.

While all this is going on, companion Kamelion (a robot who can change shape, geddit?) is conspicuous by his absence. Sure, he usually is, having been benched from the TARDIS team because he couldn’t remember his lines or stand up unaided. It’s understandable he doesn’t get out much and I don’t think he even minds. I like to think of him lying on one of those bendy sleeping benches which fold out of the TARDIS walls, drinking an engine oil cocktail, sucking in naughty android films through his roundel-connected umbilical cord. Still, it’s an astonishing oversight on behalf of his companions to not give him a second thought when the TARDIS disintegrates around him. This would never have happened to K9.

So where does he get to during all this? My guess is that having found himself pulled underground, he’s promptly disguised himself as a Tractator. They are perfect for him, really. They barely move, don’t speak and are useless without the controlling mind of a greater intelligence. He probably feels right at home. And I like to think he amuses himself by gathering up other bits of discarded TARDIS paraphernalia like the food machine, the astral map and the space time visualiser. Just so he can be surrounded by those other inconveniences we like to forget about.

LINK TO The Crusade: one features a King, the other has a Plantagenet.

NEXT TIME… off to the edge of the known universe to find a Planet of Evil.

Crusades, Crusaders and The Crusade (1965)

crusade

I’m always a little confused about the name of this story. I know not to call it The Crusaders, because that’s the name of the novelisation. But I often want to call it The Crusades, because when I think of that period of history, I  think of Crusades multiple. The events of this story, for instance, take place during the Third Crusade.

I’m not so foolish as to read too much into the titles of 1960s Doctor Who stories, because who knows what the real titles actually are. But I wonder sometimes why it’s called The Crusade, singular. It could be just one of those early Who vagaries that leads us to call Serial C Inside the Spaceship, The Edge of Destruction or sometimes after we’ve had a few wines, Beyond the Sun.  Or it could be that writer David Whitaker was referring to one personal crusade, presumably that of Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover).

His personal crusade may once have been to claim Jerusalem for the Christians, wresting it from the Saracens. But after years of bloody warfare, he’s ready to sue for peace. Richard’s an interesting character – he is by no means a paragon of virtue. He’s petulant and temperamental. He lingers too long in the woods, despite the best advice of his knights, and as a result, his key men are killed (he admits no responsibility for this). It is this event, perhaps, which leads him to want to bargain with Saladin (Bernard Kay, unfortunately in brownface). He concocts a plan to marry off his sister Joanna (Jean Marsh) to Saladin’s brother, Saphadin (Roger Avon, also unfortunately in brownface), and thus secure a peaceful settlement.

Joanna’s crusade is to utterly oppose the proposed union. Her outrage leaps off the screen, such is Marsh’s ability to portray Joanna’s horror at the idea. Joanna’s no fool either. She rebuffs Richard’s idea with a stratagem he can’t counteract; she threatens to appeal to the Pope. Her whole presence in the story leads up to this point (indeed, she doesn’t appear afterward) and unlike the men around her, she’s won the day.

Perhaps the title refers to Saladin’s crusade, to prevail over his invaders. The presentation of a religious war between Christians and Muslims would be almost unthinkable in today’s Doctor Who. Despite the unfortunate casting, Whitaker presents a refreshingly measured view of the other side of this holy war. Saladin is no raving, unreasonable madman; he’s cold and calculating (in contrast to Richard’s reckless passion). He’s a subtle, shady character; he conceals himself behind a curtain, listening to events before he intervenes. He treats his prisoners and enemies alike with courtesy. It would have been easy to paint him as the evil mastermind, implacably opposed to Richard. Instead, he’s eminently reasonable – in many ways preferable to Richard. His key moment is when he agrees to Richard’s proposal but insists on preparing his armies for war, in case the whole thing goes pear-shaped. “Hold one hand out in friendship,” he says, in one example of an outstandingly lyrical script,  “but keep the other on your sword.” (Like Joanna, once he’s made his key point, he exits the story, not to be seen again).

It would be easy to say that this is a crusade for Ian (William Russell), whose whole role in this story is to rescue Barbara (Jacqueline Hill, playing her role in a typical Whitaker trope. Think of The Evil of the Daleks where Jamie goes on a similar quest in pursuit of Victoria). But actually, that’s not as interesting as that of another of Barbara’s protectors, Haroun Ed Diin (George Little). Ed Diin is on a crusade to murder the wicked emir El Akir (Walter Randall). His fervour is stoked by El Akir’s killing of Ed Diin’s family and his alliance with Barbara is another way of getting within stabbing distance of his target. His single-mindedness is horrifying, particularly when he entrusts Barbara (who he’s only just met) with killing his daughter, lest she fall into the hands of his enemy. And, by the way, his crusade’s successful, robbing Ian of the opportunity to confront El Akir face to face. He’s a secondary character, but he gets to do away with the bad guy, so his crusade must count for something.

It’s certainly not Barbara’s crusade; she had hers a season ago in The Aztecs, an historical in which she became intrinsically linked with the culture around her, attempting to play an interventionist role. Here, she’s far more a victim of circumstance: captured by El Akir, incarcerated by Saladin, recaptured by El Akir, rescued by Ed Diin, recaptured by El Akir and finally rescued by Ian. Despite constantly being manhandled (quite literally) throughout the story, she remains a strong presence throughout the story, albeit one without agency. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to have a story where Ian was captured and abducted, with Barbara staging the rescue campaign?

It’s also not the Doctor’s (William Hartnell) crusade. He plays an early active role in concocting the plan to win Richard’s favour to gain his help in rescuing Barbara. After that he enjoys some hijinks bamboozling tailors and chamberlains and entering into some ethical debate in the royal court, but he’s an observer rather than a catalyst for action. He’s our eyes and ears with which to observe Richard and his dramas with Joanna, but in truth, he’s tangential, not essential to the action. Even when he falls out with Richard (the Lion thinks briefly that the Doctor has snitched on him to Joanna), it’s quickly reversed without consequence. Still, it gives Hartnell a chance to thesp around in some nice costumes and switch rapidly from mirth to outrage.

The final candidate to offer a crusade is the subject of that outrage. It’s the bellicose Earl of Leicester (John Bay), with whom the Doctor has picked a fight about siding with Richard’s scheme for marrying Joanna to Saphadin. He’s appalled by Richard’s plan, and says so, only for the Doctor to accuse him of being a fool and a butcher. He rebukes him with more of this story’s elegant dialogue. “When you men of eloquence have stunned each other with your words,” he snarls, “we the soldiers, have to face it out.” He takes such offence that when the Doctor and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) sneak quietly back to the Ship, he gives chase to execute them. He really must believe they’re bad eggs if he’d rather spend time hunting down an old man and a young girl than fighting the Saracens.

It doesn’t come to that, of course. Our four heroes reconvene at the TARDIS just in time and inveigle themselves insides. Once inside, their ordeals – particularly the ghastly one Barbara’s endured – have been forgotten, and they dissolve into puns and giggles. It’s a spectacularly ill-fitting end to a story which has been a sober and at time brutal examination of men of war exercising their personal crusades. Crusaders. Crusade. Whatever.

LINK TO Under the Lake/Before the Flood: both feature kings.

NEXT TIME… It’s the daily disaster we call Frontios. Luckily it’s about as offensive as a chicken vol-au-vent.

 

 

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