All posts by johnnyspandrell

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!

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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.

 

Desperation, depravity and Underworld (1978)

Underworld

Oh, to be a fly on the wall in the Doctor Who production office in 1977, when designer Dick Coles broke the news to producer Graham Williams that finally – after 15 years of eking out alien worlds and space operas out of budgets smaller than the tea lady had access to – the budget of an average Doctor Who story had finally proven impossible to work around.

DICK: So the good news is that the set designs look terrific.

GRAHAM: That’s brilliant! You’re a genius.

DICK: The bad news is there’s no money left to build them.

GRAHAM: All the designers say that.

DICK: They are all right. But this time it’s not, “there’s no money to make the sets, but I’ll find a way.” This time it’s “there’s no way in Television Centre we can make this work.”

GRAHAM: OK, well what are our options?

DICK: Well, you can cancel the story.

GRAHAM: I’m pretty sure my contract says to deliver 26 episodes this year.

DICK: Or you could cancel the next story.

GRAHAM: The Killer Cats of Gin-Sengh?! No way! It’s gonna be an epic.

DICK: Or we make all the sets as models and use CSO to matte the actors in.

GRAHAM: Will that be convincing?

DICK: Not for a minute.

GRAHAM: Give me a moment to think it over. (Opens drawer, takes out a bottle of whisky and takes a large slug.) OK. Let’s go.

In one way, it’s a pity that Underworld‘s makers had to resort to this, because their decision has come to define the story. It’s the thing it’s remembered for. Often, the only thing it’s remembered for. And like many of Doctor Who’s most egregious shockers, it’s so infamous that it makes you search even harder for the story’s redeeming features. Surely, so the theory goes, if only Underworld (or insert name of story here) hadn’t had the misfortune of having to rely so heavily on CSO (or insert other production misfortune here), it would have been a success, because at heart, it’s a really good story.

Well, if there is a decent Doctor Who story buried deep within Underworld, it’s very difficult to unearth. It was a story borne of pragmatism; writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin, knowing script editor Anthony Read’s predilection for stories based on myth and legend figured they could get an easy sale by basing a Doctor Who story on the tales of ancient Greece. They were right, but the sheer convenience of their inspiration shines through. Yes, as a retelling of Jason and the Argonauts it’s obvious enough but you can just sense no-one gives a hoot about the Minyans and their deathless quest for the race bank of their ancient peoples. Not Baker and Martin, not the actors and certainly not the audience. They’re too boring a lot for that.

The Greeks, of course, loved a monster: the Hydra, the Minotaur, Medusa and so on. But for some reason, there’s no such big bad in this underworld. So we have to be content with human baddies, who, in the story’s second biggest design fail, are dressed in hooded felt jumpsuits. We can’t see their faces most of the time, so most of the time, it’s hard to care about who they are and what they want. Perhaps, the hopeful audience member might think, when they eventually pull off those shapeless hoods, there’ll be some ghastly but exciting monster underneath. But no, beneath those hoods are the faces of fairly ordinary looking middle-aged white men. You kind of wish they’d kept the hoods on, which is saying something.

I have this theory (unburdened by any actual evidence, mind) that there must have been some rule in the 1970s that extras whose faces were entirely obscured were paid less than those who showed their face. This would explain the prevalence of fully masked guards in late 70s Who. It’s a costume design quirk which starts here in Underworld, but see also The Pirate Planet, The Androids of Tara and The Creature from the Pit.  It would be the only good reason to explain why we see so few faces of the ruling guards in Underworld. It’s particularly mystifying when director Norman Stewart cuts to a close up of one the featured guards (Rask? Tarn? Who would know?) for them to deliver their line, and it’s like looking at talking sack. I mean really, what’s the point? (If not that when present on the set of the Oracle, complete with chains and swords, the hooded men fit right in with what is apparently Doctor Who’s only sex dungeon. Oh sure, they had enough money to build that one.)

To be fair on Stewart, he had his work cut out for him. If this is Doctor Who’s most poorly directed story, then we need to remember he didn’t have a full complement of cameras to work with, because at least one, and sometimes two, had to be pointed at the miniature sets for the actors to image they were on. It’s easy to criticise the astonishingly boring cliffhanger to Part Two and the clumsily shot cliffhanger to Part Three, but given the pressure he was working under, it’s amazing we got to see anything at all.

Where the whole plot is going, is that the Minyan crew has come to edge of the universe to find their race bank, which is held by the R1C, a spaceship which a planet has formed around. The ship’s despotic computer, the Oracle, has fashioned a society out of this protoworld and its crew, with a caste of gun-toting guards and a lower class of rock mining Trogs. Never mind ripping off the ancient Greeks; here Baker and Martin baldly rip off the previous year’s The Face of Evil. In that story, a mad computer created a society of warriors and technicians as an experiment in eugenics and things were only put to rights when the Doctor (Tom Baker) cured it of schizophrenia. Here, things are far more pedestrian. The Minyans fight their way towards the Oracle over the course of three episodes and then the computer tries the ol’ switcheroo and tries to blow them all up. The Doctor fixes everything by doing a reverse switcheroo. Vamp until explosion and end credits.

Sadly, the conclusion must be drawn that an overreliance on CSO is only one of Underworld’s many problems, and even with a budget which stretched to caves of expertly pained jablite, this would still have been a dog of story. To redeem it, it would need a design, writing and directorial overhaul. And an approach to Doctor Who which sees the program as worthy of more of just a retelling of some old mythic tale with a few name changes.

If only its makers had had the confidence to play one final wild card: a wild card named Tom Baker. In Underworld, the great man has yet to decide that he’s the most interesting thing on screen and attempt to steal every scene with a joke, a smile, an overplayed gesture or all of the above. Only he could spark something of interest in Underworld, but that version of Tom hasn’t arrived yet. Move this story to Season 17, give Tom his head and a few stiff gins and see what happened. If only they’d lit that blue touch paper. No amount of CSO could have dampened that.

LINK TO The Return of Doctor MysterioAll right, this is a bit desperate, but Underworld  and Superman were both released in 1978, and Superman‘s a big influence on Mysterio. (Better links are welcome, comment away!)

NEXT TIME: Get in! We’re treading on Thin Ice.

 

Up, away and The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016)

mysterio

Please adopt your best movie trailer voice for the purposes of this post. (Internal or external voice, up to you.)

In a world where Christmas specials have gone on so long we can no longer think of any more Christmas themed plotlines…

I like to think it happened like this: showrunner Steven Moffat, punchdrunk from making Sherlock, scrabbling around for a suitable Christmasy idea for Doctor Who’s 12th festive special, finally sighed and said “how about Superman? They show Superman movies at Christmas, don’t they? Sometimes, at least? It’s either that or we go with alien elves and sentient egg nog. Don’t make me do it, you know I will!”

Although I’ve argued that modern Who sometimes imbues the Doctor with superpowers, “superhero movie” is generally a genre the show has to avoid. Superheroes have only existed in the Doctor Who universe as fictional characters and integrating them into a Doctor Who story would have meant some oddball narrative deviation, such as a visit The Mind Robber’s Land of Fiction. In fact, that’s exactly what did happen when the second Doctor and Zoe were menaced by the mighty Karkus (as if you could forget).

But genre blending never frightened Moffat, and so he comes up with a way to tell a superhero story, as well as offering a fondly satirical pastiche of superhero stories, while still making it a Doctor Who story. If he neglects to cover this one in tinsel and Christmas baubles, then at least it’s still merry and bright.

In a time where superhero movies and Doctor Who collide…

To create this mishmash of formats, Moffat wisely decides to make the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) the mad professor who unintentionally creates a superhero, rather than making him the stand-in Superman. (The alternative would be for the Doctor to temporarily gain some superhero powers, but I don’t think anyone would have wanted to see the waspish twelfth Doctor donning a spandex body suit. Nor Matt Lucas’s Nardole as SuperDoc’s trusty sidekick. Although the image of that pairing does seem to suggest a duo of classic Little Britain characters we never got to see.)

As it turns out, it’s as simple as the Doctor giving young Grant (Logan Hoffman) a magic sci-fi pill which turns his comic book fuelled fantasies into reality. And hey presto, the Doctor has dragged a superhero out of the realm of fiction. And suddenly, we’re in a world where the Doctor can meet, work and argue with Superman (or at least his copyright free equivalent) while still being hyper aware of the stereotypes of the genre: secret identities which are both obvious but unnoticed, torturous romances between hero and human, and earnest, ethical instruction (“Because fire prevention is the responsibility of every citizen, so get a smoke detector!”).

It’s as neat a narrative conceit as Moffat ever constructed. And given his form in that field, that’s really something.

One man and his comedy sidekick must save New York City…

Every so often, the Doctor grows tired of travelling the universe with a succession of beautiful women and shacks up with a bloke for an episode or two. In this case, it’s aide-de-camp (emphasis on the “camp”) Nardole, unfeasibly bought back to life after being decapitated and embedded in a big red robot.

Nardole will go on to play an important role in Series 10 as the secondary companion and the Doctor’s nagger in chief. Here, though, he has no real plot function, other than to puncture the Doctor’s pomposity every so often. But he’s not entirely out of place in this tale of superheroes and the people around them. After all, Batman had a butler so why not the Doctor? Nardole is useful for running errands, asking questions, being exasperated and cracking the odd gag, but as companions go, surely the Doctor is overlooking someone.

A hero will rise…

Honestly, Doctor, if you’re looking for a companion to keep you company while you mooch around after the loss of River, boy next door Grant (Justin Chatwin) not only has the pleasantly dorky look of the permanent underdog, but he also has freaking super powers! Which could be very useful against the Daleks, the Mandrells and other top tier villains. Funny how the option to dump Nardole like a hot dumpling and take the phenomenally more useful Grant along for a ride never crosses his mind.

Perhaps he thinks it’s too cruel to break up the burgeoning romance between Grant and Lucy (Charity Wakefield). In which case, maybe he should cut along and get another magic red pill for Nardole. And we’re back to Super Nardole! He’d cut quite the figure in skin tight body armour and a big G on his chest.

With the woman he loves…

In an unusual move for Doctor Who, this story’s a romantic comedy. Quite a lot of it’s time is spent trying to get Lucy and Grant together.

In one sense, it’s a distraction from the Doctor’s fight against the agents of Harmony Shoal, because it’s a romance between two side characters. But it’s much more central the episode than that. It plays on all the old gags about Superman and Lois Lane, particularly her inability to recognise him out of his superhero duds. The Doctor almost derails this plotline mid-episode when he threatens to spill the beans to Lucy. “There are some situations which are just too stupid to be allowed to continue,” he sighs and he’s right of course, but that would totally spoil the fun. And as Moffat could write romantic comedy in his sleep, we see here what a superhero popcorn movie written by him might turn out like.

Come to that, where’s the spin off series for Lucy and Grant? You could call it The Ghost and Mrs Lombard (there’s a TV reference for the old timers among you). Wakefield and Chatwin make a charismatic pairing. I’d totally watch them tearing around New York (or its ersatz Bulgarian equivalent) finding a balance between crime fighting and child care. Quick, someone make it before Big Finish jumps on it.

And things will never be the same again.

It all gets wrapped up very neatly at the end, but one thing’s left hanging. The hinge heads of Harmony Shoal aren’t entirely defeated. One of them gets to turn meaningfully to camera, Valeyard style, at the end of the episode. Pure cheese, but still, an indication that a rematch was planned, but never delivered. And then there’s the name of the thing (to borrow a line from The Leisure Hive) – “Harmony Shoal” sounds a little too reminiscent of “Song, River” to be coincidental. Surely this is a tale unfinished.

Anyway. We never got that sequel and now the series has moved significantly on from the genre mangling, wisecracking world of Steven Moffat. But it’s just as well – we know from Superman II, Batman Returns and all the rest that they’re rarely as good as the original.  Best to leave Mysterio alone. As one off, slightly festive, comic book hero, rom coms go, it’s pretty super.

LINK TO Arachnids in the UK: both feature Americans.

NEXT TIME: The Quest is the Quest! We take a detailed look at Tom Baker’s Underwear. Sorry, I mean, Underworld.

Trump, triumphs and Arachnids in the UK (2018)

arachnids2It was inevitable, I suppose, that Doctor Who would have to deal with President Donald Trump. He casts too long a shadow over 21st century life to ignore. Way back when talking about Aliens of London, I suggested that the way the show deals with world leaders is to show the real ones onscreen, unless you want to kill them, in which case you invent new ones you can ice without controversy.

Back in The Sounds of Drums, we got a George W Bush substitute who was zapped at the earliest opportunity. Arachnids in the UK does something new – it gives us a stand-in president but lets him live. More than that, it gives him a moment of triumph, which feels uncomfortable and unusual for a show which would normally sanction such a character.

The stunt Trump presented here is Jack Roberston (Chris Noth). The similarities are clear to see: American hotel magnate and celebrity, bombastic and petulant. They stop short of having him lech onto every woman in sight and having him take a phone call from a Russian operative, but we get the idea. He’s also a potential presidential candidate in 2020, which is a little confusing. He doesn’t seem like a Democrat so perhaps he is proposing to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination? Perhaps it’s a reflection of the antipathy towards Trump within the GOP establishment. Anyway, The West Wing it ‘aint.

Robertson’s a broad brush stroke portrait of an unscrupulous businessman, a familiar adversary for the Doctor for years. With his brash, obnoxious style, his closest cousin is Henry Van Statten from 2005’s Dalek. Back then, the mainstream fear being reflected was of a Bill Gates types controlling the government and replacing the President whenever the whim took him. If only it were that easy (actually, here in Australia it kind of is. We go through Prime Ministers like socks. There’s been three since randomwhoness started and we’re just about to get another). In the Trump era, we no longer worry so much about big business pulling the strings of power. The President generates enough concern on his own.

Robertson, however, represents something more than a Trump-lite style parody. He’s a stereotypical alpha personality who’s firmly on the side of “might is right.” He’s in favour of shooting his way out of his new spider infested hotel and when the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) insists on finding a less violent way out of the problem, his lack of ability to understand someone who isn’t pro-gun borders on the unhinged. “What’s wrong with you people?” he exasperates. “What is wrong with this country? Why don’t you do what normal people do? Get a gun, shoot things, like a civilised person.”

He’s a caricature, sure, but his hoplophilia becomes pivotal at the story’s end. When faced with the giant mother spider, the Doctor’s preferred solution is to lure it outside the hotel with the help of some homemade insecticide (I don’t know what the plan is then. Let it roam Sheffield freely? Hope it catches a train home?). When she and helpful spider exposition provider Dr Jade McIntrye (the terrifically named Tanya Fear) discover that the spider is going to die anyway because it has grown too large to live without suffocating, Robertson arrives to shoot it dead. Bang bang, problem solved. The Doctor is appalled and we as the audience, are meant to side with the Doctor’s moral view to treat all living creatures with dignity. Even if that means letting the spider die slowly and painfully, as opposed to Robertson’s short, shooty solution.

Like so many of the stories in Series 11, Arachnids in the UK presents a simple but problematic moral. There’s a view to take here that Robertson’s solution is actually more humane than the Doctor’s, and simply expedites something which was going to happen anyway. That’s not an unreasonable conclusion to draw, but there’s more going on here than just a debate about whether euthanasia by gun is acceptable. Robertson’s decision to shoot the spider may be defensible, but it also shows how empty his philosophy of brute force is.

Because Robertson doesn’t shoot the spider to save it from an agonising death. He doesn’t even do it to save himself and the Doctor and the other five supporting characters present from agonising deaths. He does it to make himself feel better and to return to him the illusion of being in control. Robertson’s reaction to the spiders has been panic, followed by self-preservation and finally justification of his company’s dodgy operating procedures which has led to the growth of the spiders in the first place. For him, the gun is a surefire solution to any problem, including the reassertion of his masculinity. That’s what sets his solution apart from the Doctor’s, which comes from a place of compassion. And who knows, the Doctor may have eventually decided to euthanise the spider too. But she would have done it with the creature’s welfare in mind, not her own.

The episode’s apparent misstep is to let Roberston walk away without any consequences. There’s no final comeuppance here for the Doctor to deliver. Think of how she once turned the tables on UK Prime Minister Harriet Jones after she blasted the Sycorax; there’s no Doctorly punishment rolled out here. And the fact that Robertson gets to walk out scot-free does make the Doctor come off as powerless against this man who wields power like a weapon. It’s a real kick in the teeth. It feels like in the adventure where the Doctor met Trump, Trump won.

My hope is that this is leading somewhere. That Robertson will return to the series someday (you’d hang on to a star as big as Noth as long as you could, right?) and that the Doctor will get her revenge. Perhaps she’ll sabotage his campaign in 2020. Perhaps she’ll email a server load of incriminating documents to the FBI. Or perhaps she’ll transport him back to that panic room full of hungry spiders and leave him there.

But on second thoughts… that only rids us of Trump-lite and leaves us with the real thing! In this sense, maybe “Doctor Who deals with Trump” was always doomed to be depressingly impotent.

LINK TO The Romans: Hmm, how about powerful, egocentric men (Nero and Robertson) delivering each story’s climax instead of the Doctor?

NEXT TIME: Up, up and away with The Return of Doctor Mysterio.

The times, the customs and The Romans (1965)

romans

When Doctor Who started, it was a grim little series. Its first story had cavemen beating each other to death. Its second showed the aftermath of nuclear war. But one year in, and it lightened up considerably and could even playfully mix up genres. By story number 12, the series can tackle one of the bloodiest periods of Earth’s history with Carry On-style verve. The Romans is, famously, Doctor Who’s first comedy.

Of course, it’s only partially played for laughs. Ian (William Russell) has an awful time of it; sold into slavery, almost drowning in a galley and thrown into the circus to fight for his life. There’s not much there to chuckle at. Even the stuff played for laughs has a dark edge: Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) gets caught up in an attempt to poison Nero (Derek Francis) which, although unsuccessful, it still results in the death of servant Tigilinus (Brian Proudfoot). Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) gets chased around the palace by Nero, Benny Hill-style which might raise a smile until you remember she’s being sexually harassed. And the Doctor (William Hartnell) thinks it’s utterly hilarious that he may have inadvertently inspired Nero to burn Rome to the ground. He chuckles heartily away even though down amongst the inferno, people are dying horribly.

So as comedies go, The Romans is as black as night. It’s in good company among the Hartnell historicals like The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters, both of which mix up humour with death on an operatic scale. Even writer Dennis Spooner’s own The Time Meddler has a comedy plot punctuated with violence and rape. Makes you wonder exactly who this stuff was aimed at.

More to the point, is The Romans actually funny? I can’t say I’ve ever actually laughed at it. (My first viewing of it, via the VHS release in 1994, put me to sleep). Its jokes are pretty laboured. That unlikely gag Ian and Barbara deliver about the “fridge” is weak, but still it gets two runs. The Doctor’s employment of the emperor’s new clothes tactic to avoid having to play the lyre is very stagey. As is his comedy fight with the assassin Ascaris (Barry Jackson). Francis comes closest to making it work, but even his antics of bashing people over the head with lyres, falling over beds and absent-mindedly waving swords about is pretty tiresome.

But actually, I don’t think it matters that the comedy stylings of The Romans seem irredeemably lame. For a start, it’s impossible to tell what a 1960s audience made of this – they might have thought it was a riot. What’s important about it is that it’s another of Doctor Who’s attempts, even at this early stage of its life, to push the boundaries of what the show was capable of, to ensure that it had sufficient variety to enable longevity. Better Doctor Who comedies will follow because The Romans showed it was possible for the show to bend that far and not break. And hey, they’ll be back to killing people with acid next story.

But gee, can you imagine the reaction to this story if they’d had Twitter in 1965?

@babshair WTF are they doing to #doctorwho? Unfunny comedy antics turning the show into PANTO. BBC intent on killing it. Spooner must go! #notmydoctor

*****

The other thing The Romans does is change the dynamics of the TARDIS crew.

In an era known for decadence and hedonism, Ian and Barbara are cheekily positioned as lovers. They flirt and joke around and treat each other with gentle physical intimacy. We never see them as much as hold hands, let alone kiss. But there’s something undeniably sexy about them lounging around in their togas together.

Their friends with benefits time is interrupted by them being kidnapped and sold into slavery. So begins one of Ian’s semi-regular quests to rescue Barbara, but the absence of the Doctor and Vicki from this adventure means this plot can be viewed in isolation, and it’s purely about two lovers pulled apart by circumstance and eager to reunite. It gives their solo adventure added piquancy, which you can sense when the two finally find each other again and rush into a joyful embrace. From here on in, they’re clearly more than just friends, ready for generations to come to ship them madly.

The Doctor meanwhile is getting to know his new substitute granddaughter, Vicki. I’ve noted before that I think it was an odd decision to replace Susan with someone so similar to her, and yet O’Brien brings a greater air of independence and worldliness to the teenage girl companion than Carole Ann Ford was allowed to. And for his part, the Doctor is less paternal towards her. He sees Vicki as a co-conspirator in his schemes and a student who’ll benefit from his tutelage. Plus she’s more likely than Susan to instigate action within the story; the whole poisoning gag comes about because she’s struck out on her own and made friends with the palace poisoner. Of all people.

Whereas previously we had a TARDIS crew made up of people with protective responsibilities towards Susan – her grandfather and her teachers – now we have a crew of four friends. (Incidentally, The Romans does a great job of giving each of the four regulars a slice of the action, something the most recent series of Doctor Who struggled to do). And in its quiet way, it sets a new template for the show to follow from now on: a TARDIS crew of people who travel together because they want to, not because they have owe any responsibility to each other to do so. A cohort of genuine buddies who’ll go on holiday together, drink, dress up and fondly tease each other.

The Romans may not be very funny, but it’s loads of fun. And because it happens so early in the show’s run, it allows loads of subsequent stories to be fun too. That’s a far more valuable legacy than simply being the first Doctor Who story to crack a few gags.

LINK TO Fury from the Deep: TARDIS crew members washing up on the beach.

NEXT TIME: More trouble with the eight-legs in Arachnids in the UK.