All posts by johnnyspandrell

Audio, visuals and Fury from the Deep (1968)

fury

One of the benefits of watching Doctor Who stories out of order is that sometimes the lack of context improves the story you’re watching. At the distant end of Season Five, Fury from the Deep can come off as just the latest in a long line of base under siege stories. Younger audience members watching at the time probably didn’t care, but I like to think the intelligent fourteen year olds in lounge rooms everywhere cottoned on quickly after Episode One and, having clocked this week’s base and its truculent commander, worked out that they could come back around Episode Four, by which time the monsters would have arrived and the supporting cast whittled down to a few gamey survivors. Freed from its familiar stablemates, though, Fury is as engaging a monster fest as the series has presented.

It’s also, for most of us, an audio only experience. Luckily, it’s a story which translates to audio well, because its source material was a radio serial (The Slide, also by writer Victor Pemberton). This means it has peculiarly audio-friendly dialogue, like (to choose just one example) the bit where Victoria (Deborah Watling) picks the lock of a door to aid an escape and Jamie (Frazer Hines) says, “Pick a lock with a hair pin? Don’t be daft!” thereby negating the need for any added narration.  It also features various audio elements which add to both the tone and plot of the thing: the thumping heartbeat of the weed creature, Dudley Simpson’s playful but sinister music, and an audio-based plot solution, when Victoria’s screams prove instrumental and meta-textual in defeating the rampaging sea weed creature.

All this makes for a satisfyingly complete adventure for the ears, but of course, I’d love to see the actual episodes themselves. I’d love to see the weed creature attack the base, the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) erratically flying that helicopter and any number of the story’s tantalizingly pictureless action set pieces. But the pictures would also be useful to add some nuance to on some of the um… unusual characters who populate this standard Season Five scientific complex by-the-sea.

*****

The boss of this week’s monster infested base is Robson (Victor Maddern). He’s spectacularly unsuited to running a large industrial operation, but that never stopped anyone else in Season Five. Everyone around Robson tells him there’s something blocking the pipes and that he should shut down the gas flow and take a look, but he refuses because, um, male ego or something. His favourite mode of communication is the angry shout and he regularly loses his rag at his staff like he’s been to the Steve Jobs school of personnel management. Supporting characters talk in hushed tones about the four year stretch he once spent out on a rig, but everyone’s too polite to add, “and that’s what sent him batshit crazy.” If we could see the episodes themselves, I like to think we’d see actors in question shooting meaningful glances at each other, while quietly sidling towards the nearest exit.

Robson is particularly cranky at 2IC Harris (Roy Spencer) for being exactly the sort of smarmy Oxbridge type who hasn’t spent four years on a rig and has therefore avoided significant mental trauma. Harris’s main characteristic is a constant concern for his wife, Mrs Harris (June Murphy). She is having a bad day, having been stung by some vicious seaweed, asphyxiated by two men with bad breath and compelled to walk into the sea. They are the sort of sickly devoted couple who can’t get enough of calling each other “darling” and “love”. Some sample dialogue:

MAGGIE: Darling, you couldn’t even boil an egg.

HARRIS: You shouldn’t have married a scientist then. (She gasps suddenly, ill from that nasty seaweed) Maggie!

MAGGIE: Darling! Darling! Darling!

HARRIS: Maggie!

Now if only we had the pictures, not only could see whether the two actors managed to sell all this matinee-movie dialogue with some pathos, but also whether Harris takes offence at the suggestion that a scientist of his education is unable to boil water, which if not covered in first form science you would have thought would be on the curriculum at Oxbridge.

What about Van Lutyens, played by soon to be Who stalwart John Abineri? We can imagine the sternness he would have brought to the character, having seen him be grim and misguided in The Ambassadors of Death and green and in a misguided costume in The Power of Kroll. Here, he plays an expert adviser who is from Europe and so not to be trusted. The telesnaps tell us he’s wearing a sports jacket and turtleneck combo which makes him look very louche like he might walk off set and into a jazz club, lighting a cigarette filled with a different sort of mind-altering weed. No wonder Robson’s suspicious of his unhelpfully sensible suggestions such as, “turn off the gas and see what’s blocking the pipes.” I can imagine how may looks of Dutch exasperation we would have got from Van Lutyens, but I’d also love to see how he steals the Episode Two cliffhanger with a line which should really be Troughton’s: “It’s down there, in the darkness, in the pipeline, waiting.” Surely Abineri would have furrowed that magnificent brow of his to add maximum foreboding to that line.

I’m also keen to see board director Megan Jones (Margaret John) and her hapless adjutant Perkins (Brian Cullingford). Jones is your standard corporate headkicker who gets to say things like, “Now, pull yourself together man!” and generally stride around being the late-arriving voice of scepticism. But it’s Perkins’ frightened little face I want to see most. I bet it’s full of unrequited love for Jones, whom he follows around like a lost toddler. There’s a bit where Jones, always the business, chides him for looking so worried (“Don’t look so worried, man. You might as well go home!”) and then there’s a pause before Jones is forced to apologise, presumably for hurting Perkins’ feelings. Did his face crumple into dismay? Did he pout with injured pride? We must know.

Finally, there’s a pivotal moment for Victoria and Jamie. Victoria has been mooching around all story, wondering if she can keep doing all this (and who can blame her? She spends the whole story being kidnapped or wailing in terror). Jamie tries to convince her to keep travelling with him and the Doctor and ends his entreaties with a kiss. But what sort of kiss is this? Platonic or achingly romantic? Longing or merely fond? The telesnaps missed this moment, so until someone finds the episode down the back of a BBC cupboard or something, we’ll never know.

*****

It’s like Inferno, in many ways. There’s a stubborn base commander, ignoring the advice of the experts around him. A young couple in love and um, pipes everywhere. And the threat, although never entirely made clear, seems to spring from nature itself, a response to humanity’s exploitation of the earth’s natural resources.

But unlike Inferno, the defeat of the weed creature (creatures? The script isn’t quite sure) has a restorative effect on everything around it. Everyone infected by the thing just wipes the patches of foam of themselves and is fine. It’s Steven Moffat’s “everybody lives!” forty years or so early. And Robson seems to come out of the affair in much better humour than when it started, even taking dinner with loved-up upstart Harris. Sure, that stint on the oil rig sent him crackers, but being possessed by a sinister vegetable has done him the world of good.

The cost of all this happily-ever-after is that Victoria decides to stay behind (much to the disappointment of intelligent 14 year olds everywhere) and not be traumatised on a daily basis. Her last scenes are on that grim grey beach, waving the Doctor and Jamie goodbye. It’s a touching goodbye, but also a silent one; no handy exposition here. It’s the part of this audio friendly adventure which needs no words, but needs its accompanying pictures the most.

LINK TO The Space Pirates: the second Doctor and Jamie, of course.

NEXT TIME: O tempora, o mores! It’s time we dropped in on The Romans.

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Troughton, trouble and The Space Pirates (1969)

spacepirates

28 February 1969. A bitter night. Michael Troughton, 13, is waiting for his father to come home from work. He’s been rehearsing today, part of the all-too-familiar treadmill of working on Doctor Who: rehearse all week, unless you’re called away for pre-filming, then record on a Friday night, in a tense and often fraught race against the clock. Then, forget all that and do it again next week. Rinse and repeat for 42 weeks of the year.

Normally, his father walks through the door ebulliently, complete with a jaunty whistle. But tonight is different. As he walks through the front door, his Dad -TV’s Patrick Troughton – is solemn and pensive. “He looked haunted,” Michael would write years later in his biography of Patrick, “and highly stressed.”

Over dinner, it transpires that Patrick is far from happy with his lot on Doctor Who. He’s fighting with the producer. And the director. The problem at hand is the current story, in which Troughton’s Doctor and his companions are stuck in a one-room spaceship for two episodes. So irritating are these problems that Troughton seems to have lost his love for the show.

And the production which has driven the show’s usually affable star to despair?

Welcome to The Space Pirates. The story which broke a Doctor.

*****

Troughton, like Hartnell before him, and Tom Baker after him, became “difficult to work with” TM after a few years of being Doctor Who. Troughton described it to a friend as the role making him feel schizophrenic, although he could also be forgiven for simply being exhausted. In the series fifth production block (from The Abominable Snowmen to The Mind Robber), they made an incredible 46 episodes, at a rough rate of one a week. That pace seems not just punishing, but also mentally disorienting. Who would know which base was under siege by which monster from week to week?

Troughton famously complained about the workload and scored a few concessions such as shorter episodes and better scheduling of pre-filming. The Space Pirates feels like it was written in response to that, and the Doctor and his companions’ involvement in a plot about mineral stealing bandits being chased by po-faced space policemen and a moustache-faced space cowboy, is correspondingly minimal. If it was a deliberate strategy to give Troughton a break, it doesn’t seem to have placated him. His son remembers him complaining about the story being boring. And although he was right on that count, it does begin to sound like Troughton was so exhausted he didn’t know what he wanted.

He asked for and got a reduced workload, but this resulted in less involvement in the story and thus less screen time; few leading actors would ever be happy with that. This strikes me as reflective of Troughton’s contradictory relationship with stardom, which seems to have both attracted and repelled him. From all accounts, he was a deeply private man, who had taken on one of the highest profile jobs in television. He created a character beloved by a generation of children but avoided doing public appearances. He seems to have been a man who wanted to have his cake and eat it quietly, out of sight of anyone.

Then on top of all this, there’s an actor’s understandable concern about stability. Michael Troughton’s book paints a picture of a man who worried about typecasting and about not being able to find work because of it. This was not unwarranted fretting; after all, the man had not one but two families to feed. It seems he wanted the stability of income which being Doctor Who brought but also wanted the creative freedom to do new things. With all this on his mind, no wonder he was a bit tetchy as the end of his Doctordom loomed. The rest he longed for was within reach but so was the precariousness of freelancing.

*****

Even though it represents the fag end of his era, The Space Pirates pushes Troughton’s Doctor into some new places. There is, for example, an emphasis on his Sherlockian deduction, like noticing a wound up clock in a supposedly long abandoned room or that an intact but fragile bowl at the bottom of a pit indicates a secret entrance. He also seems to have gained Felix the Cat’s ability to pull exactly the right piece of random ephemera out of his bag of tricks as needed to get out of trouble: marbles, magnets, drawing pins and tuning forks. As written by Robert Holmes (whose second Doctor Who story offers no hint of the greatness to come), his Doctor has suddenly turned into a man with a quirky fix for all occasions.

Holmes is also using The Space Pirates to dry run a few of his favourite set pieces. The Doctor and his companions being locked in an airless room, for instance, ala The Two Doctors and The Ark in Space. And also reused in that later story, the risk of the Doctor being trapped in the exhaust of a departing spaceship. But in other ways, it feels distinctly unlike the cinema horror pastiches Holmes would regularly offer the series in future. Never again would he give us goodies and baddies chasing each other in space. And never again would he dabble with familial drama as he does here, with Madeleine Issigri (Lisa Daniely) re-discovering her long lost father Dom (Esmond Knight), who’d been locked in Edwardian study for years. Holmes doesn’t seem comfortable with this element at all; he leaves their eventual reunion offscreen.

Madeleine, who turns out to be in league with the pirates, at least until they start to get all murdery, is Holmes’ only concession to complexity of character. Again, it’s not what we’ll grow to expect from him, but the other characters are one-note, like bad guy Caven (Dudley Foster), and space cop Hermack (Jack May, he of the fruitiest voice ever). The only variation is the first of Holmes’ mavericks, prospector Milo Clancey (Gordon Gostelow), and he is so overplayed that any potential pathos Holmes gives him when he discovers his old friend Dom is alive is lost underneath an absurd cowboy accent.

We might blame director Michael Hart for these all-too-obvious approaches to characterisation. Or we may need to look again at the working atmosphere our leading man was engendering. As Jack May recalled (and please, imagine him saying this in the world’s plummiest accent): “In rehearsals (Troughton) would sound off at the smallest thing… He seemed paranoiac and unusually serious about the whole thing.”

*****

28 March 1969, Lime Grove Studio D. The recording of the last episode of The Space Pirates. Troughton’s scenes have all been pre-filmed so he doesn’t have to turn up. Presumably, no-one missed him.

That it had come to this: a show which doesn’t need its star and a star who doesn’t want to make his show. Whatever strengths and weaknesses The Space Pirates has, they’ll always pale in comparison to the languorous impression it leaves, that of a show in desperate need of change.

PLEASE CHECK OUT: Patrick Troughton: The Biography by Michael Troughton, much referenced in this post.

LINK TO Demons of the PunjabLong lost family secrets in both.

NEXT TIME: It’s down there. In the pipes. Waiting! Time to unleash the Fury from the Deep.

Moderates, radicals and Demons of the Punjab (2018)

punjab

One of the surprises brought to us by the thirteenth Doctor, as played with brains and brio by Jodie Whittaker, is that she’s less interventionist than we’ve grown to expect the Doctor to be. Often her first season has shown us circumstances where she has let events take their course, or let bad guys off the hook or otherwise not directly confronted the evils of the universe she comes across.

For instance, in Rosashe has to stand back and allow humanity’s racism to take the slow path to partial improvement. In Kerblam!, she chooses not to overthrow an exploitative corporate behemoth. In Arachnids in the UK, the spider shooter and Trump wannabe escapes unsanctioned. And in Demons of the Punjab, we are presented with a uniquely odd situation: a story in which the Doctor and her friends arrive, discover two problems: one which turns out to not be a problem at all and one which turns out to a problem they can’t solve. Then they leave.

How important is it that the Doctor is an active presence in any given story? Traditional wisdom says that as she’s the hero of the show, she should play a central, proactive role. I think that’s basically right, but as it’s the traditional wisdom, I always like to question it.

Certainly, there are instances in the past where the Doctor hasn’t been central to her own adventures. Many of the 1960s historicals saw the Doctor and his (with apologies for switching pronouns) companions swept up in events but playing no significant role in them. Stories as diverse as The Caves of Androzani and Twice upon a Time have experimented with decreasing the Doctor’s involvement in stimulating and resolving the plot. The trouble at Warriors’ Gate was sorted out when the Doctor realised he was called upon to do nothing. That it was “the right sort of nothing” doesn’t change that.

So sure – a non-interventionist Doctor is the exception rather than the rule, but it’s not unheard of. And despite how it might appear from 21st century Who, not every Doctor’s modus operandi has been to forcefully intervene in the concerns of those around them. The fifth Doctor, for instance, often trod a softer path. The second could also approach problems obliquely, avoiding direct confrontation. So it’s not as if there’s no precedent for a Doctor who plays a less dominant role in the series.

Writer Vinay Patel talked about this in an interview for the The Doctor is In podcast. When talking about the Doctor’s proactivity, or lack thereof, he positioned it as a side product of the show’s new ensemble approach. With Team TARDIS around her, she’s not always going to be the one who takes the lead, so in her character’s DNA is a tendency to let people around her call the shots.

There’s an illustrative moment of this when the Doctor wants to leave after finding out the true nature of the alien Thijarians, but her three buddies convince her to stay. It’s not a loud moment, but it’s a quiet reinforcement that the Doctor’s less of a leading force than she used to be. Whether this is to the Doctor’s detriment – because it pushes her to be more passive than her predecessors – or whether it gives us a refreshing new take on this much-interpreted character is a matter of personal preference.

But while it’s not unheard of for the Doctor to be a tangential element in her own story, it is unusual for her to also face an alien threat which is equally unimportant to the plot. The demons of the title are Thijarians, who travel around paying respect to people who die alone. They’re kind of professional mourners. Thing is, they used to be professional assassins, and that sounds altogether more interesting.

If they had indeed come to India in 1948 to assassinate Prem (Shane Zaza) because he would, in an alternative future, become a global political hero (or villain), that would have given both them, and tellingly, the Doctor, an excuse to get involved in the story. Instead, the theme of helplessness against the course of history is encapsulated in that moment when Prem is shot, and the Thijarians stand witness and the Doctor and her friends simply walk away.

Prem is shot by a posse of India loyalists led by his own brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa). Manish represents something new in Doctor Who villainy, as introduced in Whittaker’s first series: he’s the radicalised young man. His dogma has prompted him to isolate himself from his family and align himself with dangerous people and ideas. Ultimately, it leads him to murder. It’s a particularly 21st century concern, that young men led astray will resort to acts of violence in pursuit of their perverted world view. And it’s not just a one-off; in the next episode, young factory worker Charlie will seek to commit mass murder in an expression of his “activism”. There’s something similar in the journey of smouldering racist Krasko in Rosa, and the hatred of difference he learned while in prison.

Of these depictions of good young men gone bad, Demons of the Punjab’s feels the most timely, because it’s also about borders. There are lots of Doctor Who stories about the evils of colonialism, but few which explore the troubled geo-political decision making which often goes along with it. This story shows how those decisions to apply crudely drawn borders based on religious beliefs ignore the subtleties of residence, family and tradition. Viewers in the UK, the US and Australia (among other places) are living through these concerns about borders and who gets to live on either side of them, making this as relevant a topic as the threat of radicalised young men.

It’s touchingly done too, without being cloying. Manish’s betrayal of his family feels all too feasible – the kind of thing which happens to families when politics meets religion. Umbreen’s (Amita Suman and Leena Dhingra) decision to marry her husband straddling two lands is nicely symbolic, as is the shattered watch, reminding us that some moments are frozen in our memories forever.

It’s a smart story, well told. So much so that it only emphasises how little it needs both the Doctor and the Thijarians. And it proves typical of an intriguing but uneven series of Doctor Who; one which takes us to new, fascinating places with the potential for great drama, but which is tentative about putting the Doctor at the centre of them.

LINK TO The Girl in the Fireplace: Aliens stalking historical humans.

NEXT TIME: Put your mysterious face on, it’s time to track down The Space Pirates.

Rose, Reinette and The Girl in the Fireplace (2006)

girlfire

You can tell a Steven Moffat script. The writing is full of clever ripostes and zingy one-liners, delivered at just the right moment, with just the right amount of sardonic wit. But my favourite line of dialogue from (the thankfully less grisly than it sounds) The Girl in the Fireplace is much simpler and more functional. It’s this:

ROSE: Why her?

That line comes in the middle of a standard mid-episode exposition scene, albeit in an episode with a more complex premise than most. The Doctor (David Tennant), Rose (Billie Piper) and Mickey (Noel Clarke) have discovered a spaceship in the far future, linked to a number of times and places in 18th century France. Present in each of these locations is Reinette, AKA Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles), at different stages in her life, and a cohort of clockwork androids are crossing from future to past to monitor her.

In this scene, our TARDIS crew and Reinette have cornered one of the robots and are interrogating it on what’s going on. They’ve found out that the robots have cannibalised the ship’s crew for parts (still 21st century Who’s most gruesome plot development) to repair the immobilised spaceship, and they want Reinette for a mysterious, but crucial, final component.

The pivotal question is why, out of all the people in history, do the robots want Reinette? The question must be asked, but think about Moffat’s choices about which character should give voice to it. He could give it to the Doctor, but he’s already carrying the bulk of this scene. He could choose Reinette and change the question to “why me?” It would be a perfectly understandable question for her character to ask.

Instead, he gives it to Rose. And in a moment which shows what a smart and subtle actor she is, Billie Piper manages to drench those two words with subtext. Yes, she wants to know what the robots find so fascinating about Reinette, but she’s really asking why this fascination has spread to the Doctor, whose romantic interest the girl in the fireplace has piqued. Why her, she’s asking, and not me?

*****

Moffat has said that this episode is “the one where Doctor Who gets a girlfriend”. Which cheerfully ignores the fact that he already has a girlfriend in Rose. But then the Doctor and Rose have never been what we might call “official”.

Truth is, Rose never knows where she stands with the Doctor. Yes, she’s snogged him but both times were under extraordinary sci-fi infused circumstances: once he drew a bundle of time energy out of her to save her life (via her lips) and the other time she was possessed by a notorious vamp (and not responsible for the actions of her lips). No commitment has been made by either party. Which is where the romantic insecurity sets in. Mickey teases her about it this episode when listing possible suitors for the Doctor in Sarah Jane Smith, Cleopatra and now, Madame De Pompadour.

None of which would matter if Rose felt secure in her relationship with the Doctor, but she’s always played it pretty casually too. She’s kept Mickey on the hook for long enough, keeping her options open. So she doesn’t really have cause to complain when the Doctor takes up with Reinette in record speed. But it obviously bugs her. It’s pretty clear throughout this episode that Rose is thinking, “what if he invites her to come with us? Or what if he decides to stay with her?”

Why the Doctor is suddenly so taken with Reinette is more difficult to work out. Sure, she’s a beautiful woman (probably) but the Doctor’s hung out with plenty of them before and never hooked up so quickly (that wild New Year’s Eve back in 1996 excepted). It’s tempting to think that he’s just so unused to romantic relationships that he’ll latch on to any girl who’s deigned to kiss him.

To be fair, Reinette is remarkably smart, capable and unafraid to take what she wants. He’s not just fascinated by her, but by the mystery of why this troop of ticking androids wants to plug her into their spaceship. (Here we see one of Moffat’s favourite plot lines beginning; a woman as an intriguing puzzle for the Doctor to solve.) Sure, Rose is the girl next door, but Reinette’s an enigma wrapped in a ball gown.

If the Doctor’s aware that he’s causing Rose consternation, he certainly doesn’t show it. Can he really be so blind to her feelings? Doesn’t he know that they’re quasi boyfriend and girlfriend? He’s clearly no stranger to romantic jealousy. Look at how snarkily he tells Louis (Ben Turner) that a lord of time trumps a king of France.

I think it’s more likely that with Rose’s determination to keep her options open with Mickey, the Doctor’s assumed that this whatever-it-is with her is not necessarily going to be monogamous. Sadly, we never got a serious suitor for Rose to find out whether he’d react in the same way (Captain Jack kinda made him jealous for a bit but I’m not really sure that counts. Given that he turns out to be turned on by just about everyone he meets).

It’s sometimes pointed out that the Tennant Doctor and Rose don’t treat other people very well, so ensconced are they in their bubble of love. But The Girl in the Fireplace shows that occasionally, they also don’t treat each other very well. It’s pretty hard to ignore the fact that the Doctor heads off to “dance” with Reinette mid-episode, with no thought as to how this might make Rose feel. Cheating on his girlfriend with his new girlfriend. The Doctor as a cad – that’s something genuinely new.

Rose and Reinette end up representing the two types of woman our 21st century Doctor, with his new interest in romance, will end up flirting with over the next few years. On one hand, you have the sassy girl next door types: Rose, Amy, Clara and Martha. On the other, you have mythic, powerful, uber women: Reinette, River Song, Tasha Lem, Queens Elizabeth and Nefertiti. Both are idealised feminine archetypes, though at opposite ends of a spectrum of hetero male fantasies. It would be interesting to see the Doctor fall for someone who sits more realistically between these two ideals.

*****

I have a favourite shot in The Girl in the Fireplace, to go along with my favourite line. It’s the final one where we at last find out why the clockwork robots are as fascinated in Reinette as the Doctor is. As it turns out, the answer to Rose’s question was there all the time, obscured by a particularly unfortunate piece of TARDIS parking.

Why her? Well, the ship is named after Madame De Pompadour. In using the very last moments of his story to put the last of its jigsaw puzzle pieces in place, Moffat underlines that the big events of our lives – who you fall in love with, who falls in love with you – depend to a large extent on coincidence and will always remain, at least in part, a mystery.

LINK TO The Woman Who Lived: Both titles refer to mysterious female guest stars.

NEXT TIME: Family history and time travel? Very tricky. Break out the shop bought cake for Demons of the Punjab.

Human beings, being human and The Woman Who Lived (2015)

womanwholived

The Woman Who Lived. Which one’s that again?

It’s one of those episodes which is difficult to recall. Even more difficult to come to grips with, as it’s a gentle, mid-season character drama, more designed to push the season arc along than be a kick-ass episode on its own terms. Still, it’s beguiling… once you’ve remembered which one it is.

It’s another version of Boom Town, which sought to subvert Doctor Who’s norms by being an episode where two characters have a conversation instead of the usual hijinks like monsters invading earth or maniacal despots doing their thing. In fact, it’s an extended conversation which questions the moral tenets the Doctor holds dear, his modus operandi and the very point of him.

That extended conversation is between the Doctor (grizzled Peter Capaldi) and Me (ungrizzled Maisie Williams) about whether he should whisk her away from a life of medieval drudgery. He’s basically responsible for it because 800 years ago he inadvertently made her immortal while trying to save her life. She wants him to take her away from it all, but he’s reluctant to do so because he’s got a thing about immortal, deathless types travelling with each other (ironically, this is exactly what will eventually happen to Me in Hell Bent but, hey, that’s six whole episodes away!).

Churlish to say it, but it’s hard to take Maisie Williams seriously as an immortal, uber-competent heroine. She looks so young and slight. But I suppose that’s the point, right? The juxtaposition of youth and immortality is what makes Me such an interesting proposition. And even though she’s had hundreds of years to master every possible skill you might think of, it’s still odd to see her besting those big beefy men in hand to hand combat. Or even being a highway woman in the first place. The archetypical female highway robber masquerading as a man, may or may not be historically accurate, but it’s great fodder for a Doctor Who story. Even if Me’s overdubbed male voice does bring back unfortunate memories of that episode of Blackadder the Third. (You know the one I’m talking about and if not, here’s a linky link.)

Despite her many talents, Me is not infallible. One of the story’s weaknesses is her credulity; if she has evolved into a super competent uber-everything, why does she fall for lion man Leandro’s (Ariyon Bakare) story? Can someone that longlived really be so gullible? It takes the Doctor about five seconds to see through the leonine ruse. Perhaps being so intent on escaping Earth has blinded her to the fact that this beast may not have his beauty’s best interests in mind.

On one level The Woman Who Lived is a treatise about the Doctor’s taking responsibility for his own actions. It’s all very well to take a split second decision to save a young girl’s life just because you happened to turn up in a David Tennant episode. But what happens when the girl has to hang around in Earth’s history for, like, ever?

Writer Catherine Tregenna suggests that she’s going to lose the very humanity that spurred the Doctor to save her in the first place. The risk is that she becomes so desensitised to the plight of the human “mayflies” around her that she stops being human and becomes… something else. A woman who has mastered humanity’s every skill but can no longer connect with her fellow people. But the Doctor can’t, y’know, go back in time and let her die, so he’s rather stuck with it.

On another level, it’s saying that being human is indivisible from having connections with other humans. Me has detached herself from everyone around her. The awful experience of losing her children to the black plague has meant she’s promised herself to not get as emotionally attached to anyone again. She’s already prepared to kill her helpless old manservant Clayton (Struan Rodger, he of the uncanny ability to make anachronistic cocktails) in an attempt to leave Earth forever. When the climax of the episode arrives in a blur of scampering yokels and a big purple light in a sky, the revelation for Me is that she does actually care about the mayflies she’s had such disdain for.

But she’s forced into her not-very-well-thought-through plan because the Doctor won’t take her with him. His reasoning for not wanting to is pretty weak. He says, “it wouldn’t be good” and that immortals need ongoing contact with mayflies because with their short lifespans, they really know how to party, or something. It’s a point reinforced early on when Me points out that the Doctor really is an old man in this era when life expectancy is at 35. But still, it’s a pretty lame excuse. I mean, why not take her away and deposit her in an era where there’s wi-fi and indoor plumbing? That would be polite, at least.

How much responsibility should the Doctor take for his actions? Behind every story, there are probably consequences as long-lasting and as impactful as that explored in The Woman Who Lived, but only some explore them: The Ark, for one, and to a lesser extent, Bad Wolf. Turns out there’s a subgenre of Doctor Who stories where the consequences of the Doctor’s actions are questioned.

In those stories, the Doctor gets an opportunity to put things to rights. They’re in effect “second chance” stories. But not here. Here, the Doctor deliberately evades his chance of making things right again. In this episode, he decides to leave things as they are, even though it’s entirely within his power to put Me’s world back on track.

Except that he does help her rediscover her own latent humanity. (Which, y’know, she must be stoked about but I bet there’s still a bit of her which is longing for the wi-fi and the indoor plumbing.)

ICKY BIT: when talking about the other immortal he’s travelled with, Captain Jack Harkness, the Doctor tells me, “he’ll get round to you eventually”. Um, that’s a bit gross, isn’t it?

LINK TO The Web PlanetAnthropomorphised animals.

NEXT TIME: Have you met the French? We’re off to meet The Girl in the Fireplace.

Nature, corruption and The Web Planet (1965)

webplanet

There’s a moment in An Adventure in Space and Time which shows Heather Hartnell visiting the Doctor Who set in 1964. As she walks in she bumps into two Menoptra, sneaking out for a quick fag, or something. Just for a beat, she clocks the bizarreness of it all as the two butterfly creatures walk past. It’s a second or two of pure WTF.

That’s fitting because The Web Planet is a six episode exercise in WTF. It comes from a production team wanting to jolt its viewers out of the everyday. They recognised that even after just a year and a half, Doctor Who had fallen into a predictable pattern of tea-time adventure and it was time to try something really bizarre.

This bizarreness doesn’t end with creating a world full of giant ants, giant butterflies, giant millipedes or even a tossed salad of them all (as if that wouldn’t be enough). It stretches to production decisions which deliberately alienate the viewer, such as blurring the camera lens, having a soundtrack of experimental electronica and dialogue peppered with strange alien speech patterns. This is a story that wants you to see and hear Doctor Who in a new way. (Or it’s a story which wants to assault your eardrums while obscuring your view of what’s going on. Potato, potahto).

Its ramshackle production values, its sleepy pacing and its chirruping soundtrack make The Web Planet almost unwatchable to a modern audience. And yet by several measures, it has proven to be a phenomenally successful Doctor Who story. Made in the height of Dalekmania, it outrated the Daleks, averaging 12.5m viewers. Selected to be one of the first Doctor Who novels, its print version has been read by millions of people. It gets name-checked in modern Who and mentioned by Who luminaries like Peter Capaldi as one of their most potent memories of the show. It’s an enduring triumph of ideas over their plywood and poster paint execution.

It transcends all this because of its villain. It’s not a scheming human or a sly Sensorite. This is the Animus and it’s a malevolent force growing like cancer through the planet, poisoning its water, ravaging its landscape. It animates the otherwise docile creatures around it and turns them into killers. It’s strong enough to drag the TARDIS off course. It corrupts everything around it. There’s never been anything like it, before or since.

It gets a bit lost in the story’s ropey design work, but the Animus is a spider which has spread its web across the planet. This makes me think how this story came about. When thinking up a plot preposterous enough for Doctor Who, apparently writer Bill Strutton remembered a painful incident from his childhood, when he was bitten by a bull ant, at his home in Moonta, South Australia. Had young Strutton been bitten by one of Australia’s famously venomous spiders – a funnel-web or a redback – he would have died. You don’t mess with those mofos. Google images of a funnel-web’s web, and you’ll find an eerie looking whirlpool shaped web, leading to a dark centre and, well you can see what Strutton may have been thinking off.

Sadly, when we finally get to meet the Animus in this story’s final ep, it doesn’t look particularly spidery. It’s a dome half suspended from the ceiling, covered with tentacles of old vacuum cleaner hoses which spill out over the entire room. The actors do a good job of looking suitably horrified at it, but there’s no hiding that it’s afflicted by the same budgetary pressures which give us Zarbi which run into cameras and Operta with comical Rastafarian haircuts. The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) have to lie down and self-entangle themselves it in at one stage, signalling the brute’s limitations.

But wishing for a more technically sophisticated version of The Web Planet gets us nowhere (although if there was ever a candidate for an animated version of an existing story, here it is). And it neglects the elements which transcend its general tackiness. There’s that truly spooky cliffhanger to its fifth episode, with the Doctor and Vicki enveloped in web. But again, it’s the Animus which works, because of its creepy (crawly?) voice (Catherine Fleming). That calm, whispery cadence, like a sinister anaesthetist. (Funny how giant spiders in fiction are often female.)

If The Web Planet is “about” anything (and I’m not sure it is. It could be just so much sci-fi hokum), I think it’s about evil as a force of nature. Up until this point, Doctor Who’s monsters had backstories which explained how they got to be so wicked. Even the Daleks were originally survivors of war, twisted and transformed by xenophobia. The Animus has no backstory, short of just arriving one day to upend everything on Vortis. It just is. It’s just there. And it grows like a malignant tumour. There’s something both chilling and everyday about that.

Strutton was in a POW camp in WW2, so no doubt he saw the best and worst of human nature on display there. Perhaps the Animus is his stand-in for the Nazis, presiding over a microcosm of society, with the Zarbi as guards and the rest of this planet’s population as the oppressed prisoners. Unlike Terry Nation, who used the Daleks to question the basis of Nazism, Strutton’s not interested in how evil emerges. For him, it’s as natural as any other part of the world. But left unchecked, it will take over, like weeds strangling a garden.

Doctor Who never returned to The Web Planet, at least on TV. Despite it being the site of its greatest ratings success until 1974. As the Hartnell era ended, the show turned more and more to Earth-bound settings. Not just bases under siege and adventures with UNIT in the home counties; even alien planets had more humanoids and looked and felt more familiar than smeary, noisy Vortis. Never again would the series try to create such a completely alien world. Camera lenses remained undirtied. No more special “insect movement” choreography for the monsters. Return visits to Vortis were restricted first to TV Comic, and the books, audio dramas and give-a-show slide projectors, where the Zabi didn’t have legs like rugby players and Menoptra didn’t trip over their own wings.

It’s truly a world too broad and deep for the small screen. But that’s why it never gets forgotten. That’s why those Menoptra get a cameo with Heather Hartnell, why Margaret Slitheen’s afraid of venom grubs and why this shaky old runaround gained thousands of new fans when it aired on Twitch. We really can’t get enough WTF.

LINK TO The Underwater Menace: both shot at Riverside Studios. Can I get away with that?

NEXT TIME: Stand and deliver! We’re having quite the Knightmare in The Woman Who Lived.

Gerry, Geoffrey and The Underwater Menace (1967)

underwater menace

Doctor Who production office, late 1966.

GERRY: (on phone) No, no, it’s the windjammer jacket, the blacked-up face and the Harpo Marx wig. No, he’s going to look great. Don’t let him out of the building. OK, marvellous. Thanks.

Imperious knock on the door.

GEOFFREY: Pray, good fellow! Grant me access to these… impoverished premises!

GERRY: Call you back.

Hangs up and opens door. There stands an imposing man, opera cape, wild hair, crazy eyes.

GEOFFREY: Thank you, good man! Run and fetch the Script Editor, would you?

GERRY: I’m the Script Editor.

GEOFFREY: Good lord, you’re Mr Davies?

GERRY: It’s Davis, actually.

GEOFFREY: Davies, I am the esteemed writer Geoffrey Orme! No doubt you’ve heard of me. I have written many high quality feature films and TV programs, enjoyed by the masses!

GERRY: Oh, yes, right…

GEOFFREY: And the good news is, I have decided to write for your children’s program, Mr Who!

GERRY: Well, it’s Doctor Who, and…

GEOFFREY: Now, Davies, I submitted a perfectly brilliant Mr Who script to you a good fortnight ago and yet I have heard nothing! Nothing! Me, the writer of What would you do, chums?, Ramsbottom Rides Again and no less than four Old Mother Riley films!

GERRY: Oh right, Mr Orme. What was the name of that script again?

GEOFFREY: Mr Who Under the Sea!

GERRY: Oh yes, hang on, I’ve got my notes on it somewhere.

GEOFFREY: Notes? Of sheer gobsmacked admiration, I trust! Haw haw haw!

GERRY: (fishes the script out of the bin) Here it is.

GEOFFREY: Misfiled, eh? You should sack your incompetent wretch of a secretary.

GERRY: Yes… So, Mr Orme, thank you, but we will not be making your script.

GEOFFREY: No! No! You cannot do this to me! You are turning me down? I, who wrote 6 episodes of Ivanhoe? I demand to know why!

GERRY: Well, it doesn’t make any sense.

GEOFFREY: So you’re just a little man after all, Davies, like all the rest. You disappoint me.

GERRY: I mean, it’s set in the ancient city of Atlantis. And these people live under the sea…

GEOFFREY: But of course! The people there survived due to in air pockets in the mountain’s caves! But they long to lift Atlantis from the ocean. Make it dry land again!

GERRY: They could just take the lift.

GEOFFREY: What?

GERRY: There’s a lift leading to the surface. If they wanted to be on the surface, they could do so whenever they want. Rebuild Atlantis there. And really, why would they stay hidden for thousands of years rather than rejoin humanity? Why not go and ask people on the surface for help to raise Atlantis?

GEOFFREY:  But you see, Professor Zaroff has promised them…

GERRY: Yes, that’s another thing. Zaroff wants to blow up the world, under the guise of raising Atlantis from the sea bed, but there’s no good reason why.

GEOFFREY: Why? You, a script editor of a lowly children’s programme ask me why? The achievement, my dear Davies! The scientist’s dream of supreme power!

GERRY: See, the mad scientist thing is a bit clichéd, Mr Orme and most scientists actually want to advance humanity.

GEOFFREY: You are a fool! An idiot!

GERRY: What about how all the Atlanteans live on plankton?

GEOFFREY: What’s wrong with that?

GERRY: They live in the ocean, Mr Orme! They are literally surrounded by seafood, yet they choose to eat plankton. And although they have the world’s greatest scientist living amongst them, and they have the technology to perform transformative surgery on human beings, they haven’t got any refrigerators.

GEOFFREY: But that’s the genius of it, don’t you see? All the food goes bad in a few hours, and that’s what sparks the revolt which spells Zaroff’s downfall. That’s how Mr Who wins!

GERRY: Look, it’s not Mr Who. The lead character’s name is the Doctor. And sometimes Dr Who when I want to mess with people. In any case, I just don’t think you’ve got the structure right.

GEOFFREY: What do you mean, you little man?

GERRY: You see in our show, Mr… I mean Dr Who wins through intelligence and ingenuity. In your script, the villain just tells the Doctor his plan at the start of Part Two. There’s nothing for him to work out if Zaroff gives the game away as soon as they meet. And the Doctor’s big plan to stop Zaroff destroying Altantis is to… destroy Atlantis. He might as well let Zaroff blow it up.

GEOFFREY: Blast! Blast! Blast!

GERRY: Well, exactly. In any case, I think it’s beyond our budget. It’s got a shark tank, an octopus and a whole underwater ballet with loads of floating fish people. We showed the script to one director and he ran away in panic.

GEOFFREY: Just put flippers on some extras and hang them up via wires! I really think you’re making too much fuss about all this, Davies. A silly little children’s program doesn’t need to make any sense or look convincing!

GEOFFREY: Yes… I think that’s your whole problem right there. Now if you please Mr Orme… (Ushers him out the door)

GEOFFREY: (In the corridor, shouting at closed door) The man is a fool. Have I not sworn to you that Atlantis shall rise again from the sea? Haven’t I? Haven’t I? What are you staring at?

CLEANING LADY: Nothing. Nothing at all.

*****

One week later

GERRY: (on the phone) The t-shirts say what? Tell him it’s just a joke. No, don’t let him phone his agent, I’ll come down straight away. (Hangs up). Okay, thanks for coming in Mr Orme. I wanted to tell you that we will be producing your script for Doctor Who after all.

GEOFFREY:  Well, how delightfully wise of you, young Davies! You must have read the script again and realised what pure, unsullied genius it is!

GERRY: Well, no. Another script fell through and as I’m writing the story before it and the one after, I just don’t have time to write this one as well. Frankly, it’s either your story or we put on reruns of… I don’t know, Ivanhoe.

GEOFFREY: I wrote six episodes of Ivanhoe!

GERRY: I know you wrote six episodes of Ivanhoe. Plus, we’ve found a director who didn’t have a conniption at the thought of making the thing, so we’re on.

GEOFFREY: Capitol! Excelsior!

GERRY: Sure. Look, I don’t have time to do much rewriting on it, so just take on all the notes from our last meeting. Plus the octopus has got to become a fish and add a bit where the Doctor dresses up as a gypsy. Dressing up’s his new thing. And you’ll need to write in a new assistant, a Scots boy called Jamie.

GEOFFREY: No problem there, good fellow. I’ll just give him some of Mr Who’s girlfriend’s lines.

GERRY: Um, sure. And change the title.

GEOFFREY: Yes! To Geoffrey Orme presents the extraordinary tale of Mr Who and the Fish People!

GERRY: Keep working on it. Oh, and one other thing… there’s a terribly hackneyed line in it somewhere. I forget what it is just at the moment, but it’s a real howler. Anyway, we’ll fix it later. I’ve got to get to the studio. (exits)

Geoffrey savours the moment.

GEOFFREY: Nothing in the world can stop me now!

CLEANING LADY: Good for you, ducks.

*****

LINK TO Cold War: Setting, the sea.

NEXT TIME:  We get ensnared in The Web Planet. What galaxy is that in, Doctor?