Commentary, conscience and The Savages (1966)

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Ah, Season 3. The season of politically incorrect inversion. It started with Galaxy 4, which imagined a world where beauty was bad and ugly was good, and in doing so created a race of evil women up to no good. Then there’s The Ark, where the repressed underclass outfox their human overlords but prove to be a bunch of nogoodniks when they do. Then there’s The Savages (working title: The White Savages) which suggests that blacked up people as masters and white people as oppressed primitives is such a reversal of the natural order of things that it’s a sufficiently novel idea to hang a Doctor Who story on.

The origins of The Savages are so obscure that we can only guess at the true intent of the production team. Although The Fact of Fiction in DWM505 does a good job of demonstrating that it’s a critique of apartheid era South Africa. How far we can stretch this rubber band is hard to say. But it’s interesting that the story’s Elders don’t just imprison and repress the savages, they vampirically suck the very life essence out of them.

If writer Ian Stuart Black is saying something about apartheid, he isn’t just saying, “ooh, isn’t it awful?” He’s saying there’s a deliberate pillaging of all that’s good from one race and to enrich the fortunes of another. It could be a metaphor for cultural appropriation.

But I think The Savages is too slight a piece of work to attribute too much lofty ambition to. Instead it’s fairly standard sci-fi material, presenting the familiar trope of a society full of beautiful civilized people which seems idyllic but is harbouring a terrible secret. Any claims it has to social commentary are shouted down by the sheer cliche of it all.

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It’s interesting how far William Hartnell’s cantankerous old Doctor has come by the time of The Savages, one of his final clutch of stories. Once he was a figure of mystery. Now, his fame precedes him. The Elders know of him “light years” before he touches down on their nameless planet. They have tracked his journeys through time and space, a feat only the Daleks had previously managed.

It’s a tangential point, skipped over within the story, but the Doctor has been noticed. Since the show began, he’s been a cosmic nobody, landing in places by chance, nameless, homeless and unheard of. Yes, the Monk knew him, but they were of the same race. The Elders know of him by his travels and travails. The Doctor even acknowledges it himself, when he asks to know the secret  behind the Elders’ scientific advances, before he endorses their society. “After all,” he says “there’s my reputation to think about.” Last episode, he didn’t even have a reputation.

All this started back at The Dalek Invasion of Earth, when, as we noted, the Doctor stopped being a wandering traveller getting himself into random scrapes, and became a hero. Since then, his adventures have been a mixed bag. In the futuristic stories, he tends to be a righter of wrongs and a fixer of things. But in the historicals, he’s still being swept along by the tides of time, striving only for his and his companions’ escape.

From The Savages on, however, he’s all hero, righting wrongs wherever he goes. Even the remaining historicals are variations on the norm. In The Smugglers, he makes a conscious decision to eschew escape in the TARDIS and prevent the murder of the local villagers. And in The Highlanders, he sets about rescuing the enslaved men aboard Trask’s ship. Under the guidance of new producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davies, Doctor Who becomes a show about a good man going to war with the bad guys, every week.

He even has a battle cry:

DOCTOR: Indeed I am going to oppose you, just in the same way that I oppose the Daleks or any other menace to common humanity!

So that’s his mission statement now: to oppose menaces to common humanity. He’s conveniently failing to mention that time he once threatened to brain a savage himself, when fleeing from the Tribe of Gum. The sly old fox.

****

Incidentally, the Elders are surprised when the Doctor condemns their exploitation of the Savages as protracted murder, but I don’t know how they thought this was going to go down.

EDAL: Jano, you’re sure the Traveller from Beyond Time won’t have a problem with us extracting the life force from the Savages and leaving them for dead?

JANO: Of course not, Edal! We have followed his travels across the universe! (I particularly liked the one about the Sea Beggar. That was educational as well as entertaining.) He’s never resisted anything like this before! No, I can’t see why he’d object to our oppression and slaughter of our fellow men and one scantily clad girl.

(Pause)

EDAL: Maybe best not mention it, though. Just in case.

JANO: Perhaps it won’t come up?

****

The additional element of novelty in The Savages is when Jano (Frederick Jaeger) absorbs the life energy of the Doctor, goes the full Jon Culshaw and delivers no mean impression of him. The vocals alone are impressive, but I bet the body language was full of lapel grabs and imperious stares down the nose too. Let’s hope the episodes rematerialise one day and we can see it in full.

With a slug or two of Doctor in him, Jano’s a changed man, and not just because he can out Hartnell Hartnell (he even gets his lines right). Suddenly, he’s on the side of the angels. “It’s all very simple,” gloats the Doctor. “You wanted my intellect. You got it, and along with it, you received a little conscience.” Which is certainly a change from the Doctor we met in Totters Lane, who didn’t seem to have a conscience… at least not until he nearly killed himself and his companions by pressing the wrong button.

The Savages tells us something quite different. It unequivocally says the Doctor has a conscience and that it’s an essential element of him, as is a determination to rail against injustice and persecution. It’s part of his life force, indivisible from him. So strong it can influence others.

This, then, is the Doctor as Lloyd and Davis sees him: a force for good in the universe, and one who’s renowned for it.  A hero in a frock coat. It doesn’t start here, but it’s confirmed here and that’s how it has stayed ever since.

LINK TO The Dæmons. Both directed by Christopher Barry.

NEXT TIME… Your train awaits! We have a date with a Mummy on the Orient Express.

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