Here’s the first thing every fan knows about The Androids of Tara: it’s based on Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. We learn that in Fandom 101, along with Daleks are Georgian State Dancers and Colin once shot Peter but not to get his job, ha ha.
It’s also the least important thing about The Androids of Tara. Why?
Because you’ve never actually read The Prisoner of Zenda, have you? Haven’t even seen the film with Ronald Colman that everyone talks about. In fact, if it wasn’t for The Androids of Tara, you would probably never had heard of The Prisoner of Zenda. Or Ronald Colman, come to that.
Me either. And there’s nothing wrong with that.Tara’s an example of how literary allusion in Doctor Who works sometimes when, in a very timey wimey fashion, we come at it backwards. We’re introduced to works in the literary canon, through Doctor Who. Who said this show gave up its educational remit after those bug eyed monsters moved in? If I wanted to read Zenda, my knowledge of events on Tara would give me a way in.
There are plenty of other examples – some of them where I’ve even read the book. Revelation of the Daleks led me to The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. (It’s a strange book that one – a sort of acid social commentary with a deeply unlikable hero – but it really only faintly resembles events in that Sixth Doctor oddball.) The Brain of Morbius didn’t exactly lead me to Frankenstein, but I knew of its relationship to that classic novel before I tackled it. I was surprised though, to find it’s more like another Terrance Dicks story, Robot.
I could go on, and usually do. Classic Doctor Who pulled this trick often enough – borrowing plots from classic literature and making new stories out of them. But spotting these literary forebears doesn’t help us understand a Doctor Who story on anything more than a superficial level, because Old Who doesn’t critique or comment on those works; it simply borrows from them. (New Who on the other hand does playfully comment on the literary canon of famous works, not by merely borrowing their plots, but by staging ‘author tribute’ episodes like The Unquiet Dead, The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp.)
Anyway, here’s what I think is really the most important thing about The Androids of Tara: it’s fun.
Fun is a concept Doctor Who fans sometimes have trouble with. ‘Fun’ can imply lightweight and insubstantial. It can be a signal to not take things too seriously. And fans long for Doctor Who to be taken seriously, so anything with a label of ‘fun’ feels, paradoxically, dangerous.
It can also be a term used to passive aggressively damn something for being enjoyable but unworthy of critical praise. “Oh, it’s fun,” people say on such occasions. Fan favourites like Androzani, Blink and Genesis of the Daleks might be scary and thrilling, but they’re not fun. Tara, on the other hand, is so much fun DWAS voted it their least favourite story of its season.
Fun is brought to Tara by lots of people; by Peter Jeffrey who plays chief villain Grendel on just this side of piss taking. By director Michael Hayes, who keeps proceedings bright and breezy, and by composer Dudley Simpson, who provides lots of harpsichord-like trills. But principally by two other men who between them shifted Doctor Who‘s centre of gravity in the late 70s.
Producer Graham Williams had been instructed to make the show less violent and more humourous, and Tara is smack bang in the middle of his stretch. When he started the show, the Doctor was a moody, aloof presence, accompanied by a trained killer from the jungle. By Tara, the show’s stars are a wise cracking madman, enjoying a sparky, almost flirty relationship with his genius sidekick and a robot dog. No wonder we’ve shifted from misshapen fiends kidnapping women and breeding monstrous vermin to princesses, castles and sword fights (with mild electric charges, no blood please).
The other man responsible for this outbreak of fun is Tom Baker. Taking his cue from the general lightness of tone, he’s conducting a four episode search of Tara for any opportunity to liven things up with a few funnies. Some people say he went too far during this era of the show, trying to turn it into Tom Baker’s Comedy Half Hour. But while he occasionally went a little too far, it’s his constant desire to enliven the show’s action which makes the whole thing more watchable. And this concentration on fun works, if not for fans, then definitely for a casual audience. I know this to be true, because Mrs Spandrell told me it was.
Mrs Spandrell and I have been together for twenty years. Last year we released our large format coffee table book The Spandrells – A Celebration. (It was full of dodgy fan art and factual errors) We’re looking forward to the next five years when we’ll release The Spandrells – 25 Glorious Years which will only actually cover the first 24.
Ah, pity poor Mrs Spandrell. In fact, pity the poor spouses of all hard core Who fans. Perhaps they thought we’d grow out of it. Perhaps they thought it would just fade away. Then the series’ 21st century revival took off and it must have seemed that now the whole world had been infected with this inexplicably mad obsession. Mrs Spandrell has seen both old and new Who. She’s had a lot of Doctor Who inflicted on her.
But here’s a thing: she likes The Androids of Tara. She discovered it a year or so ago when looking for toddler friendly Doctor Who to show Master Spandrell, and because of its lack of scary bits (unless you count the rather tame Taran Wood Beast, and probably, even if you do) it fitted the bill nicely. So we can add this to the eclectic list of Mrs Spandrell’s favourite stories, which includes Paradise Towers, The Two Doctors and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (though to be fair, it was Master Spandrell who inflicted that one on her).
(She’s recently added Heaven Sent to that list, though it must be said her interest in modern Who was sparked by a crush on David Tennant, peaked with a fervent appreciation of Matt Smith, and she has waned since Peter Capaldi took over. The tipping point might have been when I told her of P-Cap’s love of The Web Planet, a story she despises due to the irritating Zarbi chirruping throughout. I’m dreading it coming up on randomwhoness. Divorce may beckon.)
I asked her what she liked about Tara. “It’s fun,” she said, before launching into an unexpected tribute. “Prince Reynart?,” she said in a passable Tom Baker. “Never heard of him. Decent sort of chap?” Then she mentioned frightening the fish and p-p-potent stuff and Lamia’s oddly arranged hair and Grendel’s final line and did that actor who played Reynart die recently he seemed so nice. This is more interest than she’s taken in any Doctor Who story since Matt Smith took his kit off.
“And it’s Prisoner of Zenda, isn’t it?” Well well well. Either she’s better read than me or fun has turned this long suffering spouse into fan.
LINK TO Colony in Space. In both, the Doctor is on a mission for someone else.
NEXT: Here we are, four days from Earth on a spaceship with three billion and three frogs. And four Earthlings. Why? Because it’s Four to Doomsday.