Tom, Lalla and Warriors’ Gate (1980)

warriorsgateNearly 40 years after it was made, many of us are still slightly bewildered by Warriors’ Gate, that oblique, minimalist E-space oddity. It’s well placed at the sombre end of the Tom Baker era, where it’s free to start ridding the series of its trappings. It lets go of Romana (Lalla Ward) and K9 (Voice: John Leeson), in its march towards a new era full of young companions and question mark motifs. But its melancholy tone stretches beyond the fictional story it tells of time sensitives and lion men. It’s also the sadly permanently record of a romance going wrong.

The romance, of course, is Tom and Lalla’s. To date, they remain our only Doctor and Companion hook up (at least the only one I know about. Were there other, more clandestine trysts over the years? Be warned: once you start thinking about this, there are some pretty worrying combinations to ponder on.) They are our only Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, our only Brangelina (Tomalla? No?). An off screen romance which seeps on screen. Watching Seasons 17 and 18, we see a relationship spark and fade in front of our eyes.

Think back to the previous year’s City of Death, which seems to come from an entirely different universe than the one which contains Warriors’ Gate. In that Parisian holiday, Tom and Lalla are clearly in the first flush of love. They run around holding hands, they flirt and flitter about, clearly delighting in each other’s company. Never before had we seen the Doctor besotted, and its slight wrongness only serves to make it more invigorating. And it’s like that for the whole of Season 17. Had we ever actually made it to Shada, we would have seen Tom and Lalla messing around romantically around in boats and larking around Cambridge, reveling in being together. It’s no exaggeration to call it beautiful.

Back to bleak old Warriors’ Gate and there’s very little affection to be seen, let alone love. Tom won’t even look at Lalla. He spends the majority of the story avoiding it. Part One’s introductory TARDIS scenes are static, awkward “Mum and Dad are fighting again” affairs. In these, and in later scenes, they stand rigidly side by side, Tom staring off into the middle distance to deliver his lines and Lalla, looking almost pleadingly at him, trying to generate some interaction. Until Part Four when she finally gives up and just starts trying Tom’s game. Only in their most vigorous exchanges, when there’s really no other option, do they look each other in the face. And they reckon Tom’s antagonism toward Louise Jameson was evident on screen. Surely if you showed Warriors’ Gate to a not-we, their first question after, “what the hell is going on in this story?” and “why are you making me watch this?” would be, “why do those two hate each other?”

Reports from the rehearsal room tell of Tom and Lalla refusing to talk to each other (save for occasionally shouting matches) and stalking opposite perimeters like warring Generals. Like working on Warriors’ Gate wasn’t stressful enough what with the Director trying to be Pasolini in TV Centre and the lighting director writing letters to the director-general dobbing him in. But even in season 18, as moody and reserved as a sulky teenager, it wasn’t always like this. Just last story, Tom and Lalla managed to sneak in a coy reference to their relationship. Trapped in a dingy exposition scene together, Tom had whispered to her like a schoolboy passing notes in class, “Psst! You are wonderful!,” to which Lalla had responded with unguarded delight. It’s this year’s only return to the playful banter of season 17. Most of the season, you wouldn’t even though these two were friends let alone lovers.

Given this lack of interaction, it’s no surprise that Romana’s farewell scene is swift and deeply unsentimental. It’s performed in only 11 lines of dialogue on that flat white CSO backdrop. These two who once ran around the city of love and lounged about punting, deliver their lines as if ordered by a court to do so while maintaining a safe distance from each other. “I’ll miss you,” the Doctor finally manages to force out, sounding like he won’t miss her at all. From one viewpoint, it’s interesting to see how two alien superbeings might deal with saying goodbye, with aloofness rather than emotion.  But from another, it’s utterly unfitting for the series’ second lead and a character who’s been in the show for three years. Imagine them trying that in 21st century Who.

So basically, we’ve watched as a romance died before our eyes. Paris is a distant memory. But then, in typical Tom Baker fashion, he pulls an unexpected trick. He and Lalla get engaged and married shortly after. To the astonishment of anyone who had ever shared a studio, a rehearsal room or a conversation with them. What on earth happened here?

Warriors’ Gate is set in a pocket universe which is collapsing in on itself. It’s not hard to see a metaphor here for Tom Baker’s world. He’s ill. Leaving a job he had been in for 7 years. Facing uncertainty and unemployment. Clashing with everyone around him. A production in turmoil. And on top of it all, he’s saying goodbye to seeing his love every day at work. Under these circumstances, who can blame him for disengaging? For not wanting to stare the inevitable straight in the face. Better to look off into the middle distance.

Still, right at the end, there’s a glimmer of better days to come.  When musing on Romana’s departure, the Doctor gives perhaps my favourite line of dialogue in the entire series: “One solid hope’s worth a cartload of certainties.” Which for Tom Baker, facing a world with very little certainty at all, must have been some comfort.

And as for Lalla, Tom allows a moment of his real feelings to slip out when he says, “she’ll be superb.” He means it. It’s his one solid hope.

LINK TO The Pyramid at the End of the World: The Doctor is injured – and has his injury healed – in both.

NEXT TIME: One thing’s sure. We’re not at Southend. We join the search for The Keys of Marinus.

Chance, choice and The Pyramid at the End of the World (2017)

pyramidend

Poor Erica (Rachel Denning). We’ve all had those days where small, unforeseen events spark a chain reaction which turns your whole day into a massive clusterf*ck.

First, your reading glasses get smashed, so you can’t read a chemical formula at work. So you ask one of your colleagues to do it, only he’s chronically hungover and gets it wrong. Before you know it, you have to lock down the lab for fear that you’re about to release a killer biochemical agent into the atmosphere and bring about the end of all life on Earth. Admittedly none of my days have spiraled out of control to that extent, but it makes me grateful that I don’t work anywhere with the potential for catastrophic accidents: nuclear power stations, military bases or the like. Because I forget my glasses all the time.

The Pyramid at the End of the World is about these random events, at least in part. The crux of its story is that the alien Monks have drawn attention away from what’s going on in this tiny Agrofuel facility, so as to aid their attempts to gain humanity’s consent for them to intervene and save the world (more about the Monks’ complicated strategising later on). In doing so, the Monks are pointing out that we as humans are concentrating on the wrong things, and around the world, there are all sorts of things going on with the potential to go randomly and disastrously wrong about which we remain blissfully unaware. So that’s reassuring.

Co-writer Peter Harness likes to present global disasters in his Doctor Who stories. All three have examined how individuals cope under the pressure of dealing with worldwide threats and the decisions those people make when scared and desperate. Often, the people who are making those decisions are military; all three of his stories have army personnel front and centre. This helps sell a gritty… well, I hesitate to type the word “realism” to describe stories with Zygons and baby moon dragons, but you know what I mean. It also helps to contrast the military thinking to these problems with the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) more off-the-wall approach.

For the Doctor, the role that chance plays in this story is critical, because it brings about his failure. Having pinpointed the Argofuel lab as the hotspot, the Doctor arrives, teams up with Erica, and finds a solution in record time (it’s to blow everything up. What a mercurial genius! So different from his military friends). But his plans all come undone when he suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of a locked door, with a combination lock he can’t open on account of his temporary blindness. This random event – someone’s retro decision to put a 1970s lock in a 21st century state-of-the-art facility’s door – leads to the Doctor’s certain doom. Bill (Pearl Mackie) has to ask the Monks to save him, thereby consenting to their takeover of the world.

So that’s the first world presented to us by Pyramid. A world of everyday events where chance events upend everything. It feels real and plausible. I believe it. But there’s a second world presented to us within the same story, and it deals not with chance, but with power. And this world doesn’t convince me for a second.

*****

In this other world, the Doctor is the President of the World. It’s a repeat of a plot point used in Dark Water, and an excuse to get the Doctor into an ersatz Air Force One and pretend we’re in a sci-fi version of The West Wing. I have never bought this. It seems antithetical to who the Doctor is – he’s never worked from a position of prominence, let alone a position of authority. He’s saved the world from the behind the scenes, not from centre stage. And the idea that the superpowers of the world, led by narcissists and despots would cede power to the Doctor during a time of grandstanding global crisis doesn’t ring true. Lord help us, they’d all be there, jockeying for the best camera angle.

The Doctor is picked up by secretary general of the UN (Togo Igawa) and taken to the fictional hotspot of Turmezistan (West Wing aficionados will recall that that show had a fictional middle east trouble spot as well). There he coordinates the efforts of the world’s three largest armies. The American, Russian and Chinese commanding officers all fall in behind him, making friends, taking the Doctor’s lead, even undertaking some light Googling on his behalf.

It just doesn’t seem plausible that three great military leaders are going to allow themselves to be hogtied into a joint planning meeting, make solo decisions based on their nations’ interests and accept the leadership of a grumpy Scotsman. For some reason, Doctor Who never quite pulls off these attempts at geopolitical realism; it’s one world the series can’t seem to build. They should have stuck to a UN peacekeeping force, with one belligerent general to spark off. Basically, it should have just been UNIT, but instead, we get the Doctor as President, aided and abetted by the bigwigs of the world’s armies; a scenario which is both atypical and implausible.

Then there are the Monks, the most cautious alien invaders the show has ever presented. They run countless simulations to make sure their takeover plans are going to work, even though they seem to be able to do anything with their quasi-magical powers. Their modus operandi is equally methodical. They will take over a planet and enslave the population, but only if they are asked. Further, they can’t be asked out of strategy or fear, they have to be asked out of love. There’s a lot of fiddly stipulations here, but the chief Monk (Jamie Hill, voice Tim Bentinck) insists, “we must be loved. To rule through fear is inefficient.” You want to know what else is inefficient, buddy? Asking a planet’s population to consent in a needlessly complicated way before you enslave their sorry arses. Apple just does it by forcing people to accept incomprehensible terms and conditions with a simple “accept” button. C’mon, Monks, it’s the 21st century.

Where does all this leave us? With a collision of two worlds: one which is embedded in a worryingly familiar reality, where everyday human foibles will bring about the end of the world before we’ve even noticed there’s something wrong. The other is an inherently unbelievable world of geopolitical negotiations, between the leaders of the world and a strangely bureaucratic alien threat. In the first, the Doctor acts like the Doctor: working things out quietly and saving the world out of view. In the other, the Doctor’s not even the Doctor, but a President, rubbing shoulders with world leaders and coordinating their military forces. It’s what makes The Pyramid at the End of the World a story which feels like it’s constantly cutting between two very different visions of Doctor Who.

LINK TO The Ghost Monument: The Doctor carries sunglasses in both.

NEXT TIME: One solid hope is worth a cartload of certainties as we attempt to fix the hinges on Warriors’ Gate.

Races, relations and The Ghost Monument (2018)

Ghost

I’m slightly cranky at The Ghost Monument for taking an idea for a Doctor Who story that I’ve always wanted to see, and being a version of it which isn’t quite as good as I’d envisioned. That’s probably the most unfair attitude you can take to an episode of Doctor Who –  “It wasn’t as good as the imaginary version I’ve harboured for years and years! Call the Daily Mail! Set up a hashtag!” – but there you go.

In my head, a grand space race was an epic backdrop for a Doctor Who story. A kind of Wacky Races meets Hitchhiker’s Guide. A host of racers, in exotic latex masks and cut price spaceships. The Doctor pressed into service to drive one of the ships. Lots of heart thumping races across deserts, around satellites, through ancient ruined cities. With each leg survived, the stakes only get higher as competitors are peeled off one by one. C’mon, you’d watch that, right?

The Ghost Monument teases us by seeming initially that it’s going to be a race story told on a similarly epic scale. After all, it does kick off with that impressive sequence of the spaceship crashlanding almost on top of Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) on location in South Africa. But then it transpires that we’re joining the race at a late stage when most of the competitors have already bumped each other into the flightpaths of comets, or what have you. Only two are left, gritty and determined Angstrom (Susan Lynch) and gritty and determined Epzo (Shaun Dooley). Which goes to show that while the budget will stretch to shooting on the other side of the planet, they just can’t take that many actors along for the ride.

So my dream story of a mad miscellany of aliens and their hovercrafts racing around a planet has become, before my eyes, a story of a couple of humanoids taking a long and sandy walk. With the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her buddies in tow, so there’s that to keep us engaged. But even if I forgive The Ghost Monument for not being the madcap rollercoaster ride of my dreams, there’s still one fairly major trick it has missed.

Early on in the episode, our adventurers come across the organiser of this race. It’s enigmatic, holographic Ilin (Art Malik) and he lounges around in a tent of plot exposition. In it, he explains that the race will be won when one of them reaches the fabled “ghost monument”. When he brings up a nifty special effect of it, the Doctor recognises it as her recently lost TARDIS. From there on in, she commits to tagging along with Angstrom and Epzo to get to her ship and return her friends to Earth.

But here’s the thing… the TARDIS should surely be the prize, not just the finish line. What if the TARDIS were the thing Angstrom and Epzo were so desperate to win? That would transform the Doctor and her friends from mere fellow travellers on this trek, but to genuine competitors. And given that we’ve seen that without the TARDIS, its crew are highly vulnerable to a. asphyxiating in the depths of space and b. never getting home again, they have every reason to compete for this prize with every last breath. Surely this should have been the dramatic driver in the story – not that the Doctor had merely to reach her lifeline home, but that she had to fight for it as well.

But then, The Ghost Monument has more business with Angstrom and Epzo than making them mere competition for the Doctor. They’re there to emphasise and give us contrasting perspectives on one of Series 11’s recurring themes: the importance of family.

Not for nothing do our new TARDIS quartet describe itself as a “fam”. They are, for each other, substitutes for their own broken or dysfunctional families. Ryan and Graham, both recently bereaved, are trying to reconcile their own familial relationship. Yaz (Mandip Gill) hints at a family life which she finds suffocating and maddening. And the Doctor seems, in this new incarnation, to need more than just a pretty girl and a grumpy butler by her side. She seems keen – as all of this new bunch of fellow travellers do – to form an unofficial family amongst them. And throughout series 11, we’ll see families and familial relationships of all kinds thrown at us: the home life of Rosa Parks, family secrets in Demons of the Punjab, a man contemplating childbirth and parenthood in The Tsuranga Conundrum, feuding family members in that story as well as The Witchfinders, and a family in turmoil in It Takes You Away. Not to mention the tricky family dynamics that both Yaz and Ryan have to navigate throughout the series.

Both our competitors in The Ghost Monument use family as motivation for racing. Angstrom is driven by her need to win the cash prize and lift her family out of persecution and poverty. If this series’ message about the importance of family needed a moment of overt emphasis, it is surely here when Angstrom looks straight at Yaz and implores her to not take her family for granted. Epzo, the cynical, hard-bitten type, recounts the (it must be said, fairly cliched) story of his mother tricking her young son into trusting her, only to trick him into trusting no-one. It’s no surprise when the Doctor tells him flatly, “your Mum was wrong. We’re stronger together.”

She’s shown to be right, of course. The story requires Angstrom to save Epzo, and Epzo’s self-igniting cigar to save the day; acts of teamwork which justify a dead heat in the race. As for the Doctor, when it appears that the race has ended without her retrieving the TARDIS, she needs her newfound family to reignite her hope and ensure that she can indeed coax that errant ghost monument back into being. So we can all tick that box marked, “thematic consistency”.

But beyond this, why does Doctor Who in 2018 want to reinforce the importance of family? On one hand, perhaps it’s just trying to differentiate itself from recent TARDIS teams, which have strived to show various combinations of unlikely mates mucking around together through time and space. Or maybe it’s trying to recall family-like combinations of classic Who, like the very first TARDIS team or the ersatz families of seasons 18 and 19.

However, my bet is on an attempt to reflect the audience base of what could be the world’s most famous “family” show. Not just that there’s someone in the cast for every demographic to latch onto, but that as families watch the show together, they are seeing themselves reflected back at them. That at least saves me from thinking it’s some low level propaganda about traditional family values, which would be um… tricky, to say the least.

So given the emphasis placed on family, perhaps the TARDIS shouldn’t have been the prize after all. Perhaps it should have been something essential to saving the life of one of our new found “fam.” An antidote, a pardon or a rescue in the nick of time. Or one of  the fam themselves. For all their importance, Series 11 steadfastly refused to put one of our crew on the line. I think the show will get there though. And when it does, the Doctor will really have something worth racing for.

LINK TO The Brain of Morbius: both set on worlds which were once the home to great civilisations, now gone.

NEXT TIME: We’re wanted in Turmezistan immediately, to contemplate The Pyramid at the End of the World. Is it OK if I get an Uber?

Authorship, villainy and The Brain of Morbius (1976)

brain of morb

There’s a story about The Brain of Morbius we all know so well we could probably sing it. When writer Terrance Dicks found his scripts for this story extensively re-written by script editor Robert Holmes, he angrily took his name of it and told Holmes he could put it out under some bland pseudonym. And so he did: Robin Bland, to be precise. Ho ho, all good fun.

(Funny thing is, it didn’t stop Dicks adopting Morbius as his own in the years since. He wrote the novelisation, then the junior novelisation and then several original novels as sequels to this story. Far from being ashamed of it, seems like Dicks has recognised how well the story he once denied authorship of turned out. Well, who would begrudge one of Doctor Who’s great masters that?)

In Dicks’ retelling of this writerly fracas, he says his original version of the story had a robot trying to reassemble the body of its master from the remains of spaceship-wrecked casualties but failing, because it didn’t know what a human being looked like. Dicks has claimed that once Holmes changed that robot to the character of Dr Solon (Philip Madoc), an expert surgeon, the plot no longer made sense.

I see two problems with this argument. Firstly, while it’s true that Solon has a full understanding of what a humanoid should look like, he’s assembling a patchwork monster body for Morbius (Voice: Michael Spice) not out of ignorance but desperation: he has no other option. As his bulky dullard of a servant Condo (Colin Fay) says, humanoids just don’t come to Karn. Secondly, isn’t it reasonable to assume that as Dicks had sold the production team a story the previous year where a man made a robot, that a story where a robot made a man may have not exactly filled them with anticipation?

In any case, it’s not the major logical flaw in The Brain of Morbius. No, that has to be that when the Doctor (Tom Baker) turns up in a fully intact Time Lord body, why Solon doesn’t just change his plan to transplanting Morbius’s spongey brain into it? Maybe he’s just grown too fond of the big meaty brute he’s stitched together for his master and can’t bring himself to discard it. But then, there are many unanswered questions about Solon.

In one sense, he’s your standard mad scientist, that extensive role of dishonour which includes nutters like Professors Zaroff and Whittaker, who want to do crazily destructive acts on a grand scale, for some misguided reason or just because they can. In Solon’s case there’s the added motivational factor of fanaticism, as he was at one time part of the cult of Morbius, which goes some way to explaining the extraordinary lengths he goes to to try and resurrect this tyrannical Time Lord. Without that, he really just is a delusional brainbox like all the others. But I’m grateful to @si_hunt on Twitter for pointing out to me there’s one thing which makes Solon stand out from this parade of white-coated loons: he’s funny.

Madoc infuses Solon with a dryness which, combined with the melodrama of the dialogue, raises many a smile. There are overt lines such as his “irresistible pun” about Morbius’ crowning glory, but also more understated gags, like when the Doctor first arrives and all Solon can do is look avariciously at the Doctor and say, “superb head!” My personal favourite is when he stops Condo from gently stroking Sarah’s (Elisabeth Sladen) arm, with a curt, “That’s enough, she doesn’t like it. Now get out!”

This humour makes Solon an unusual villain for Doctor Who, where the bad guys are generally not allowed to bring the funny. Especially if they are as violent as Solon; at one stage he shoots Condo at close range, straight in the stomach. If you have a funny villain in Doctor Who, like say, the Monk, they generally don’t kill people at close range. In fact, with this combination of villainy, charm, the odd quip, a Nehru jacket and goatee, isn’t there someone else he reminds you of?

The next story Holmes wrote after this is The Deadly Assassin, which brought back the Master after an absence of three years. I wonder if he was thinking of the Master when he was re-writing Dicks’ story and if so, where he thought he might fit into The Brain of Morbius. Looking at the options, the Master could take the place of either Solon or Morbius in the narrative – either the maniacal Frankenstein or his tortured creation. Given the emaciated form Holmes eventually chose for him, it seems more likely he would have made the Master the brain in the jar.

As intriguing a creation as Morbius is, I can’t help but think this would have raised the stakes in this grim little tale. Morbius, we’re told by the Doctor and local mystic Maren (Cynthia Grenville) is an infamous badass, whose return to the land of the living we should dread. Problem is we’ve never heard of the guy; sure he’s got a scary voice and all but we never see him commit the crimes everyone’s so appalled by. If it were the Master, we’d get it straight away, and when that brain slaps gruesomely on the floor, we’d know exactly what sort of wicked thoughts were once running through it. Plus, it could also kind of make sense of Solon’s cosplaying of the Master and copying of his vicious but wisecracking ways – he’d be doing nothing grander than indulging in a bit of hero worship.

On the whole, I think another re-write’s in order. For a story which has gone around the block as often as this one has, that shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve even got a bland pseudonym you can put it out under. I can see it now: The Brain of the Master by Johnny Spandrell.

POTENTIAL SPIN-OFF: Tidying up with Manservant Condo.

Follow the ConMannie method of tidying up to bring calm and order to your life. Tidy items in categories: first, dismembered limbs. Then mind-wrestling equipment. Then surgical equipment. And finally, miscellaneous items around your gothic castle. Careful not to leave anything around which might be turned into a lethal chemical gas and used by your morally superior Time Lord adversary to murder you with. Hold each item in your hook, and if it doesn’t spark joy, throw it over a cliff.

LINK TO Vengeance on Varos: controversial violence

NEXT TIME: Were you born that miserable or did you have to work at it? We’re heading for Desolation to gaze upon The Ghost Monument.

Late response, lasting impact and Vengeance on Varos (1985)

Radio times letter

Dear Harry,

I am a little late responding to your letter in the Radio Times, 9-15 February 1985. To be fair, there were a few impediments to me to doing so.

For a start, when your letter was published, I was only 10 years old and living in Nowhere, Australia. Also, I’d never heard of the Radio Times, its letters page or indeed, you. And on top of all that, I’ve only just become aware of your letter, via what is now, in the space year 2019, called a website. And if you think entering into correspondence about your thoughts on a program broadcast 34 years ago, expressed in reply to a letter which wasn’t addressed to you is both unusual and obsessive, well, you obviously haven’t met many Doctor Who fans.

Doctor Who was the subject of your disgruntled letter back then. Specifically, the story which stoked your objections was Vengeance on Varos. You’ve probably forgotten all about it and gotten on with your life, like a norm. Good for you.

But to jog your memory, VOV (as no one has ever called it) is about a dystopian society where capital punishment and torture are served up as entertainment to an oppressed public. The planet’s governor (Martin Jarvis) is trying to negotiate a trade deal with a capitalist slug called Sil (Nabil Shaban) but is hampered by a corrupt police state and regular public votes from the viewing public, which if lost, result in painful retribution. The Doctor (Colin Baker) and his friend Peri (Nicola Byrant) turn up and get caught up in all this.

Your letter ends with the memorable phrase, “the kids deserve better than this…” and after reading it, I suddenly remembered that I was one of those kids.

In 1985, I had made the transition from casual viewer to book collecting, t-shirt wearing fan. And I was just becoming aware of other Doctor Who fans and their complex organising principles. Through fan clubs and their newsletters, I knew what was coming up in Doctor Who’s 1985 season and I was looking forward to Vengeance on Varos. I knew that it had attracted some criticism about the levels of violence in it; I even remember worrying about whether it was going to edited for local transmission, or perhaps even omitted (Doctor Who‘s Australian broadcaster, ABC, had a habit of doing both these things). The things you worry about when you’re 10.

Oddly enough, Doctor Who tended to worry its fans a great deal in 1985. Having just started to make contact with my fellow Whoheads and read their opinions in homemade fanzines (cheaply printed but lavished with extensive outrage), I was confused to find that most of my fellow TARDIS followers seemed to hate Doctor Who, at least in its current iteration. Which you might think is a contradictory position for people who loved something enough to form themselves into a fan club to take, but then, as I’ve speculated above, you’ve probably haven’t met many Doctor Who fans.

Like you, they worried about its violence. But also, they worried about this new Doctor, dressed like a demented fairground attendant and with a fractured personality to match. His newfound tolerance for, and occasional participation in, violence signalled a relaxation of the Doctor’s moral code, and they hated it.

On viewing VOV, fans concentrated their ire on the “acid bath scene” where the Doctor makes a tasteless quip after two men fall in a pool of acid, and the last of a string of set pieces in the planet’s “punishment dome,” where the Doctor engineers the deaths of two bad guys by slapping them with poisoned vines. (They didn’t worry that the only two black people in the show are voiceless, musclebound servants or that the only female characters are two housewives and Peri, costumed to accentuate her breasts, but there you go).

But Harry, I’m here to tell you I survived the ordeal of watching VOV when I was 10. In fact, I loved it. It was my favourite of the season. At 10, I don’t think I could fully grasp the satirical points it was making about the corrosive effect both television and violence have on a society, or the dangers of tying government to populism – a message which seems particularly relevant in 2019. Mainly, I think, I liked the character of Sil, a slimy but hilarious business type, who laughed like a broken propeller when fortune deserted our heroes. Plus, the Doctor being bold and ingenious, and more prepared to dive into immediate action than his cautious predecessor.

I certainly wouldn’t have been able to identify its faults and contradictions, most glaringly that it seems to be indulging in the sort of gratuitous gore it was busy criticising. But also that the Doctor and Peri take ages to arrive on Varos, with loads of valueless TARDIS scenes delaying their entrance into the story. There are a few dodgy performances. And special effects. And buggies. And mysteriously, two old men in nappies. But none of this stayed with young me, only the afterimage of an engaging and witty story, inhabiting some of the darker corners of Doctor Who, which I always liked to explore.

What has the lasting effect of VOV been on me? Well, it didn’t scar me for life. It didn’t turn me into a violent sociopath. It has, along with the rest of that visceral 1985 season of Doctor Who, made me fonder of this difficult era of the show than most. That’s partly as a rebellious response to the vehemence of its critics I found inhabiting fan clubs; I’ve never liked being told what to like and their strident complaints served only to draw me closer to it, to search harder for the good stuff in it. I’m glad I did.

But perhaps it also made me more tolerant than others of a sort of darker version of Doctor Who, one which can test its own boundaries about violence and grimness from time to time, as long as the Doctor’s core values are maintained. It’s something the show does occasionally – it went this way in Tom Baker’s second and third years and does it again in Colin Baker’s first and Peter Capaldi’s first. Each time, it emerged with a greater commitment to the Doctor as a figure of compassion, empathy and intelligence over brute force.

But did I, as one of those kids you mention, “deserve better than this”? Well, what we kids got was the first Doctor Who story teaching us to read television, and to think about how television is constructed by producers and politicians alike. We got a story mixing the storytelling traditions of Greek theatre and contemporary television. One which had something to say about democracy, entertainment, colonisation and violence. One that blurred its fictional world with the techniques of its own production (watch the end of Part One to see what I mean).

At 10 years old, it was my introduction to metatextuality and post-modernism. More than any other Who story up to that point, it prompted me to think beyond the surface level of a story. And despite its faults, it’s remained a story which Doctor Who fans (a far nicer bunch these days), return to time and again to deconstruct and find new meaning in.

So no, I don’t think we did deserve better than Vengeance on Varos. On the whole, we were pretty well served with what we got. And we still are.

Love to the kids,

Johnny

 ***

LINK TO Snakedance: JN-T produced both. Plus both have guest stars called Martin.

NEXT TIME: Talking of questionable levels of violence, we match wits with The Brain of Morbius, you chicken brained biological disaster!

Delusion, dropouts and Snakedance (1983)

snakedance1

In the middle of the otherwise straight-laced Davison era, lies Snakedance – an exotic, experimental and slightly deviant experience. It feels like an illicit treat, like a sneaky spliff before heading back into English class, focussing on Eliot or Blake. It’s got much to say about expanding your mind to see the true nature of things. But let’s start with its most famous scene, which focuses on an elaborate but mysterious hat.

It’s a hat from the old times of the planet Manussa and it’s in the possession of this planet’s chief fusspot Ambril (John Carson). The hat features five sculpted faces in an outer orbit around its crown but is confusingly called “the six faces of delusion”. Not even Ambril, an antiquities scholar, knows why. It’s left to the Doctor (an excitable Peter Davison) to point out that the missing sixth face belongs to the hat’s strong necked wearer. Ambril, who had put the numerical discrepancy down to his ancestors’ inability to count rather than their ability to balance oversized headwear, is outraged to have this pointed out to him and orders the Doctor out.

Critics of this scene have mentioned that it’s a pretty obvious conceit and it’s surprising that Ambril and his fellow Manussans hadn’t worked it out themselves. Fair enough, but it’s also saying something else about them: that their minds are closed to symbolism, metaphor and nuance. Snakedance tells us that the Manussans are a decadent, complacent people, but that scene shows how bereft of imagination they are. They are blind and deaf to the threat of the return of the Mara – the ancient evil that once dominated their planet – because they can’t conceive of it happening. Just as they can’t imagine a situation where five faces can become six. They cannot open their minds to the possible.

Opening one’s mind to new possibilities and engaging in mind altering experiences to see the truth of things are at the heart of this enigmatic story. It starts with a dream, in which companion Tegan (Janet Fielding) has a premonition of arriving at the snake’s head cave on Manussa where the Mara will attempt its return. Later, the Doctor will hypnotise her and have her regress to childhood in order to confirm his diagnosis that the Mara is resident insider her head. In both these states, it’s shown that the only way to reveal the Mara is to suppress your own ego and enter into a subconscious state.

Once on Manussa, Tegan is mentally overtaken by the Mara, as she was in Kinda, this story’s prequel. Possessed companions are standard Who fare, but Tegan’s is something different because the Mara’s presence suggests not just suppression of her personality but an amplification of darker characteristics lying latent with her. This makes the Mara a uniquely disturbing creation: greed, lust, envy, wrath are all magnified by the Mara. It makes Tegan’s experience feel like a genuine expansion of the mind, although in a deeply malevolent way. And to reinforce that this mind expansion opens up new ways of seeing things, there are symbols of distorted perception dotted around, like crystal balls and fairground mirrors.

Altering your mind also eventually proves to be the only way to prevent the Mara’s physical return to Manussa. This is the only Doctor Who story to place mystical, almost heroic significance on the “dropout”; the person who turns their back on society to travel into the wilderness, and search for life’s essential truths. Maybe with the help of drugs; the image of a mind blowing trip in the isolated wilderness seems to be what the snakedance actually is.  We only ever see one snakedancer, Dojjen (Preston Lockwood) and we never truly meet him. He turns up in a series of unexplained close ups which are dotted through the story and reappears at the end as the Doctor’s spirit guide to chaperone him through his own bender.

Dojjen used to hold the same position as Ambril, that of dusty historian and bureaucrat, but he dropped out of Manussan society to wander in the desert. Ambril dismisses Dojjen as a “crank”, one who “decided his particular line of research was best pursued up in the hills with a snake wrapped round his neck.” But Snakedance positions Dojjen not as a spaced out loon, but as the wise man from whom the Doctor must seek advice. He’s a bit like K’anpo in Planet of the Spiders, except that Dojjen is completely outside the establishment, and he’s a drug user. OK, so he doesn’t actually drop acid but his drug is the venom of the snake and he convinces the Doctor to sample it as well. And so we have the only Doctor Who story where the Doctor takes a mind altering substance in order to solve the story’s problem.

The insight the Doctor gains from the experience is to find the “still point” within himself. When the Doctor returns to the snake’s head cave to confront the Mara, he finds dozens of Manussans in thrall to it, paralysed as the Mara feeds off their mental energy, in order to take corporeal form. The question is how to prevent it and the answer, again, is to change mental states.

It’s never fully explained what the still point is, but what the Doctor seems to do at the end of Snakedance is to meditate, to eradicate conscious thought and therefore starve the Mara of the energy it needs to fully emerge. All around him, the gormless, weak willed Manussans are entranced by the Mara, unable to clear their minds and disbelieve it out of existence. Again, they lack the ability to open their minds, to mentally adapt to the world around them, which has suddenly got very dangerous very quickly.

This is why, I think, Snakedance is such an intriguing story. But it’s also a languid one. Its big moments are not action sequences, but ones which focus on characters changing their consciousness in order to expand their perception. They are personal, internalised events. In fact, the standard Doctor Who runaround bits – your chases through market places, dashes back to the TARDIS, the interminable Part Three lock up – are its least interesting segments.

It’s a story hampered by having to remember to be Doctor Who, as reinvented in 1983 as a cut-price action adventure serial. But despite all of that, writer Christopher Bailey manages to slyly – even covertly – tell a story with a deeply Doctor Who moral: a lack of imagination leads to stultification and corruption, but open your mind and you’ll be enriched and rewarded.

Plus you’ll know how to interpret a mysterious hat. So there’s that too.

LINK TO Thin Ice: fairgrounds and tattooed men.

NEXT TIME: It’s reality TV gone feral in Vengeance on Varos. And cut it… there!

Fiends, fish and Thin Ice (2017)

Doctor Who S10

Some Doctor Who villains are Machiavellian geniuses. Others pursue their wickedness out of misguided loyalties or twisted views of how the world works. And then there are some, who, despite their obvious failings, you can’t help but admire for the lengths they went to in order to pursue their nefarious ambitions.

In this corner of Doctor Who’s rogues’ gallery we find Thin Ice’s Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns), he of the bright blue jacket and the sneering face of a scoundrel. He is, perhaps, Doctor Who’s uber-villain: a racist, a capitalist and a mistreater of animals. So obnoxious is he that the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), normally a shunner of violence, is moved to punch Sutcliffe the face when he disses companion Bill (Pearl Mackie). Never cruel or cowardly, but this Doctor’s perfectly willing to thump you if you say something nasty about his friend.

Sutcliffe doesn’t get a lot of screen time in Thin Ice, what with most of the episode being devoted to solving the mystery of why an enormous fish is chained up beneath the Thames (and fair dues, it is difficult to fathom. Geddit? Fathom? Ah, whatever). But I don’t think we give him enough credit.

I mean, for a start, top hats off to the man for working out a way to chain a fish to the river bed. I’m talking about just an ordinary sized fish to start with. I haven’t tried it myself, of course, but I reckon it would take some doing. How do you keep it still? What do you fix the chains too? Why doesn’t the slippery sucker just wriggle out?

But somehow Sutcliffe, with all the technological wonders of Georgian England at his disposal, manages to do it. And not just any old fish. This thing is a mile long and shits rocket fuel. It’s not (we’re led to believe) of this Earth, it’s a creature from an advanced civilisation. (Or perhaps it’s the remnant of one of Earth’s ancient civilisations. The Doctor’s unsure and can’t bothered finding out). But Sutcliffe manages to get the best of it with nothing but shackles and a can do attitude. Imagine the hours he spent trying to perfect his fish wrestling technique! He’s an inspiration to us all.

Mention of matters scatological reminds me of another indication of Sutcliffe’s ingenuity and determination. We’re told the big fish’s poo can burn hotter and longer than coal, and that it can even burn underwater. How exactly did Sutcliffe find this out? Where did he find this miraculous substance? And what made him think to set it on fire? I genuinely cannot think of a circumstance which would have led to someone thinking, “Hmm. Out of coal. What should I try next? Hang on… what about some giant fish faeces?” And then, high on success: “Gee, this burns well. Maybe I’ll try burning it underwater!”

Though to be fair, Sutcliffe didn’t come up with this genius idea himself. He says the creature has been there since “I don’t know when” and the secret has been handed down through his family over time. Oh, they must have been grand old nights around the fireplace with Grandpa Sutcliffe: “Don’t tell anyone, m’boy, but I know where there’s a big fish capable of crapping out the most wonderous substance! Well, I was down the river one day, just idly setting fire to any fish poo I could find, and wouldn’t you know, I came across this load of old shit which burns like there’s no tomorrow. Why, if a man could only restrain that fish and feed it a steady diet of unsuspecting passers by, he’d be marginally richer than we already are. There’s a notion for you, young Sutcliffe jnr!”

Sutcliffe probably would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that pesky Time Lord, his upstart friend and those meddling kids. He gets his comeuppance when the Doctor repositions explosives made of fish droppings to free the creature from its bonds (lucky that stuff explodes underwater as well as burns). It breaks the ice beneath Sutcliffe’s feet and he falls into the river and drowns.

And here we see that despite the man’s many talents, he isn’t immune to a little ironic misfortune. Because although he managed to find a giant, miraculous fish, chain it to the river bed and dredge up its precious dung, I like to think that as he sank below the waves, the thought that lingered in Sutcliffe’s villainous mind was, “you know, when I chose to embark on this scheme to farm a captive sea creature in the Thames, I really should have learnt how to swim.”

Lesson one for all would be entrepreneurs: don’t neglect the basics.

Thin Ice not-so mini quiz: which story does it better?

  1. Third episode trip to the 19th Century to show companion a slice of history? The Unquiet Dead or Thin Ice.
  2. The conversation between the Doctor and his companion where he convinces her to disregard the butterfly effect? The Shakespeare Code or Thin Ice
  3. The conversation between the Doctor and his companion where he dismisses her fears about being dark skinned in historical England? The Shakespeare Code or Thin Ice
  4. Having a big animal being enslaved to produce some product/service for mankind? The Beast Below or Thin Ice
  5. Having a group of street urchins aid and abet the Doctor? The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances or Thin Ice
  6. Dressing the Doctor up in 19th century duds complete with a new tall hat? The Snowmen or Thin Ice
  7. Having a sea monster turn up in the Thames? Terror of the Zygons or Thin Ice
  8. Conspicuous use of an elephant? The Ark or Thin Ice
  9. Conspicuous use of giant marine creature’s digestive processes to drive the plot? The Power of Kroll or Thin Ice.
  10. Uncharacteristic insistence by the Doctor on needing his companion to issue him an order so he can take action? Trick question: that’s unique to Thin Ice.

LINK TO Underworld: adventures that take place beneath the surface.

NEXT TIME: Where the winds of restlessness blow, where the fires of greed burn, where hatred chills the blood, here we will find the Safety Dance. Sorry, I mean Snakedance.

 

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