There are few stories more mysterious than The Myth Makers, the first Doctor’s tragi-comic excursion to ancient Troy. Long lost from the BBC’s archives, we have very little visual evidence left of it. A handful of photos and a few seconds of 8mm footage. We have the soundtrack of course, and it’s a terrifically engaging listen. But that audio is all we have, and of course, it will never be enough for fans. To really assess this story, we need the episodes and the day when those old film cans are found in some remote TV relay station in Asia Minor can’t come quickly enough.
But in the meantime, all we’ve got is speculation as to what these episodes looked like. It’s as much as we can manage, but thankfully, it’s fascinating in itself for a fan. And it starts with the very opening moments of this story, with Achilles and Hector fighting on location at Frencham Ponds. What shots did one-time Who director Michael Leeston-Smith choose? Was it cut with pace and vigour? Did one-time Who composer Humphrey Searle’s bold with brass score help or hinder it? We have no other examples of these gentlemen’s work to help us guess how they handled Who.
In this opening scene, it seems there’s a interesting entrance for the TARDIS. According to the BBC audio release, Achilles and Hector are mid battle as we follow their fight, the TARDIS stands unnoticed in the background. If that’s right, it’s an unusally low key and beguiling start to a story, signalling to the audience that the story has begun without them. It sounds like there’s a clear visual cue that this is a story trying to play against the audience’s expectations.
Soon enough, the Doctor (crusty William Hartnell, reportedly injured and bereaved while making this story) intervenes in the battle and is mistaken by Achilles for Greek god Zeus. Mistaken identity is something of a recurring motif in 60s historicals, whether divine as in The Aztecs, comic as in The Romans, deliberate as in The Reign of Terror, or sinister as in The Massacre. Here, it gives Hartnell a chance to be haughty amongst the Greeks of ancient myth and strike up something of a verbal sparring match with Odysseus (Ivor Salter).
There are only one or two photos of Salter as Odysseus and no moving footage. But he is the story’s main protagonist and the Doctor’s rougish foil throughout. The soundtrack indicates a full blooded turn, more than matching up to the formidable Hartnell. He gets some great dialogue too. When hearing of Hector’s death, he takes pleasure in baiting Achilles.
ODYSSEUS: But what a year is this for plague. Even the strongest might fall. Prince Hector, ha, that he should come to this. You met him here, you say, as he lay dying?
ACHILLES: I met him, Odysseus, in single combat.
DOCTOR: Oh yes, it’s true.
ODYSSEUS: And raced him round the walls till down he fell exhausted. A famous victory.
Salter’s performance is hugely enjoyable on audio, but it makes me ponder a question I asked myself several times when listening to The Myth Makers: would this work as well if I could see the pictures? Because it’s a BIG performance. Would it be too big onscreen? Would all that bluster detract rather than enhance?
It’s a similar story with Barrie Ingham’s portrayal of Paris, of whom I think not one photo is known to exist. Paris is written as cowardly, camp and ineffectual, and it sounds like Ingham has launched his performance from there. In the second episode, he’s creeping around whispering Achilles’ name when he’s meant to be shouting it out in challenge. When he defends his decision to drag the TARDIS into Troy, he splutters and stumbles in classic sitcom cadence. Again, too much or pitched just right? It’s comic sure, but is there any other way to play dialogue like this:
PARIS: And I will not tolerate interference from a fortune-teller of notorious unreliability!
CASSANDRA: How dare you! I am High Priestess of Troy!
PARIS: All right then, get back to your temple before you give us all galloping religious mania. Oh really, Father. I can’t tolerate another of her tedious tirades at the moment.
It’s clearly not meant to be played with great seriousness. Someone who is playing it seriously, though no less exuberantly, is Frances White as Cassandra. If she’s not shrieking, she’s spitting verbal venom and White never misses an opportunity to turn it up to 11. Photos of her have only come to light in recent years and show her as dressed quite simply, and looking rather mild mannered. This wasn’t how I pictured her at all. In my mind she was tall and fierce with banshee wild hair. How does the image match up with the vocal performance? Let’s hope we find out.
And this question – how did this story balance its audio and visual elements – echoes another: how did it balance the comedy and the tragedy? The story is famous for its sudden u-turn in tone in its final episode. From the sounds of it, the deaths of funny old Priam, Paris and Cassandra, discovered when the audience see their corpses lying on the palace floor, are as stark as they are bleak. What on earth did audiences make of it? Did they stick with it, or turn off in confusion?
Then there’s the story’s unusually adult approach to talking about sex. It’s odd enough hearing Hartnell’s Doctor tell Agamemnon “your wife is unfaithful to you”. But then there’s Odysseus asking the Doctor to tell “a tale or two of Aphrodite” (“I refuse to enter into any kind of vulgar bawdry,” he retorts). Cassandra calls Vicki “some drab of Agamemnon’s” and probably the less said about the matter of fact way in which a 16 year old girl is left to marry a 17 year old soldier the better.
As the story goes on, it gets more and more ambitious. I can just about imagine what scenes set in Agamemnon’s tent or Priam’s palace or the Trojan dungeons looked like. But what about that horse being dragged into Troy? What did that look like? What about the inside of the horse itself, with the Doctor and Odysseus trading barbs like an old married couple? The audio release contains a line of explanatory dialogue which describes the Doctor’s exit from the horse as “the Doctor climbs awkwardly down the rope”. I bet he doesn’t though. I can’t imagine Hartnell climbing down any rope, no matter how awkwardly.
The sacking of Troy in the final episode, is particularly mysterious. It sounds like a grand affair, but I’m sure, knowing Doctor Who’s budget, it’s just hurriedly costumed extras fighting unconvincingly in studio sets. But, more hopefully perhaps we can imagine that it’s an exercise in being economic about what the story actually shows. After all The Myth Makers does a lot of this.
For instance, we never meet Helen, who, along with Paris indulged in the vulgar bawdry that was the catalyst for the war. Vicki is gushing about Troilus before he’s even seen on screen (as far as I can tell, despite being a pivotal character, we don’t see his face until the third episode). And her departure gives this story one last chance to wrongfoot the viewer.
When she’s finally reunited with the Doctor, amid the chaos of Troy falling, she bundles him into the TARDIS and sends new girl Katarina to get Steven. The next thing we know the Doctor is bidding Odysseus a not so fond farewell and the Ship dematerialises (this gives Odyssues a nice character note to end on as he wonders if Zeus really has walked amongst them), for all we know, with Vicki onboard as usual. It’s not until after the TARDIS leaves that we discover she has stayed behind in Troy, to be with her love, Troilus. It’s crafty misdirection, and like so much in The Myth Makers, unexpected.
Does it work? Were viewers fooled? Or was Vicki’s romance too clearly signposted, leaving no surprise? Or another possibility – does the whole thing leave us feeling shortchanged, with not even a farewell scene between Vicki and the Doctor?
Just another of The Myth Makers’ mysteries. And if the missing films turned up tomorrow, I’d be overjoyed. But we’d lose something too – with all our questions answered we’d have nothing left to speculate on. All this story’s mysteries solved, the way we view it changed forever.
Still, it’s a trade I’d make in an instant.
LINK to Smith and Jones. Both are new companion stories. And each has a slightly self-aware comic tone about them, which marks them as similar despite the decades that separate them.
NEXT TIME: The moment has been prepared for Logopolis.