Scribbles, shibboleths and Planet of Evil

Oakleigh Primary. A pretty little school, part of a leafy outer Melbourne suburb. Diverse community, mix of modern and historic classrooms. A warm, welcoming place.

At least, that’s how it looks from the website. I’ve never actually been there. I would never have come across it all, except that it’s the place where my copy of Doctor Who and the Planet of Evil came from. Published 1977, hardback, first edition. A thing of beauty, with a big ugly wolfman on the cover.

Since I was a kid, I’ve read Doctor Who books (the first: Doctor Who and the Zarbi, paperback, umpteenth reprint. Spoilt by my sister writing a bogus dedication from Bill Strutton on the title page. I was livid). Though just as important as reading them, was collecting them. I wanted the full set of tidy little paperbacks with spines all the colours of the rainbow, and white.

The quest had begun. For years I scoured bookshops and department stores and garage sales and my world in general for those vivid little tomes. The ones I couldn’t find, I’d borrow in small piles from my local library. But its collection consisted of exotic hardback editions. It was extensive too – although it lacked a Planet of Evil, it did have a rare Frederick Mueller edition of The Zarbi, which, to my life long regret, I didn’t steal.

Amazing, mysterious things, those hardbacks. Where did the library get them? They were never in the newsagents and quaint little book exchanges I got chased out of. I sullenly settled for buying paperbacks, but in truth, I was addicted to the hard (cover) stuff.

By the time I reached adulthood, I was concentrating on girls and beer but also celebrating my complete collection of Doctor Who paperbacks (I know, right? What a catch). The quest was completed, but I faced a new problem. I had nothing more to collect. I had to make do with new adventures and missing adventures and what have you. But it wasn’t the same. 

I couldn’t kick the habit. I kept combing second hand bookstores searching for spines with little Target logos atop. I bought copies of books I already had, but with different covers. Hell, I bought copies of books I already had with the same covers just because I couldn’t leave them behind. At one stage, I had three identical copies of The Zarbi. Plus my original copy, by that stage in tatters, Fake Bill Strutton’s message angrily ripped out.

Every so often, I’d find a lonely hardback on those shelves and I’d snatch it up, greedily. They were rare treats, often “ex-library”, a term sneered at by serious collectors. These were well worn books, often a bit battered. Often covered in clear plastic, lending slips still glued to the back, stamps and stains throughout. I didn’t care, I loved them all. As my collection grew, I wondered how hard it would be to collect all the hardback editions… and lo, the quest began again!

This time though, the task was much harder. My paperbacks search, back in the day, had been for cheap, mass market products. The hardbacks had much smaller print runs and were often distributed only to libraries. I was now searching for collector’s pieces via eBay and Abebooks and other obscure corners of the web. And the copies I found were old, imperfect and often pricey. Whether to drop $100 on a roughed up old copy of, say, The Power of Kroll, became a familiar dilemma.

It took me years. It cost me stupid money. But over time, I got them all. (Well, all except those Frederick Mueller editions of The Daleks, The Crusaders and my old friend, The Zarbi. Even I couldn’t come at those eye watering prices.) And although I found plenty of handsome, well kept copies of later books (harvested from collections of fans whose love had grown cold), the ex-library ones are my favourites.

Because shabby and dogeared though they are, these books have histories. People have read them, loved them, taken them home, carried them in school bags, spilled tea on them, lost them down the back of the couch. They’ve been held in the hands of fans, pored over again and again. These stories have stories. Who, for instance, at Oakleigh Primary School read, loved and coveted this copy of Planet of Evil. Who crossed off the other books they’d read on that list at the front? Was it even you, reading this post right now?

Or did you once clutch some other book in my collection? Perhaps you are Kevin C Wood from Lincolnshire, who wrote his name so carefully in my copy ofAn Unearthly Child. Hello Kevin! Lovely handwriting. Did you get in trouble for defacing a library book?

Or perhaps you’re Kathleen Robinson, formerly of East York public library. Kathleen, I need to know: did you really borrow Planet of the Daleks8 times? Or were you just practicing your signature on that library slip, in preparation for opening your first bank account, or in case you married that dreamy Robinson boy from down the road?

Or maybe you’re the mysterious frequenter of Leeds library who studiously wrote the numeric ranking of each Doctor on the frontispiece of each book, a shibboleth to other fans. “First,” you printed seriously in biro on The Keys of Marinus. “Fourth,” in Meglos.

If you went to Mapleridge Senior Public School, Ontario, I have your copy ofPyramids of Mars. No, you can’t have it back. If you frequented Transvaal Public Library, you might have thumbed my copy of The Ultimate Foe. My copy of The Romans comes from Hong Kong, The Five Doctorsfrom Manitoba, The Rescuefrom sunny Toowoomba. From all around the world, they’ve flown to me in Sydney, Australia.

I love that so many people have held these books. I love the marks and scribbles they left behind. And every now and then, there’s something special. “To Margaret,” a dedication reads on the front page of The Deadly Assassin. “Happy times. Tom Baker.” Oh, Margaret. How could you ever give something so glorious away?

The quest is over now. I buy the occasional new series book, but they don’t have the same appeal. I read, but don’t collect.

Except for last year, when three smart new additions hit my shelves. Replicas of those first three books, the ultra rare Frederick Mueller ones, completing my collection at last. Wonderful – even if they don’t have library stamps, tears, coffee cup rings, enigmatic written messages and all the rest. I’ll just imagine they come from Yorkshire public library.

And, of course, one of those books is another copy of Doctor Who and the Zarbi. Well, you can never have too many.

A version of this post appears in the forthcoming charity anthology, You on Target. Find out more about it here.

LINK TO Frontios: both stories set on the edge of the universe

NEXT TIME… It’s Genesis of the Daleks. Thank you! That’s what I wanted to know!

Advertisements

Immobility, inconvenience and Frontios (1984)

Frontios

Sometimes, we Whoheads like to ignore the inconvenient. If one solitary story reveals a rogue fact about the show which doesn’t chime with the other 50 plus years, we like to quietly forget it ever happened. For instance, we don’t like to recall that Susan made up the name TARDIS. Or that Time Lords can live forever, barring accidents. Or that the Doctor is half human.

In Frontios, we find out for the first and only time that the TARDIS cannot actually travel anywhere in time and space. There are some places it’s not supposed to go. It has time parameters which should not be exceeded, on fear of the Time Lords getting cross and doing something or other.

This is a strange development for a series which has as its main premise the ability to set adventures stories throughout the history of the cosmos. Why try to ring fence that? What is the dramatic potential gained from such a move? The answer seems to be none. All it facilitates is a few worried phrases from Peter Davison’s dashing Doctor about not telling anyone that he’s wandered out of bounds.

The place he’s come to is Frontios (because it’s on the frontier, geddit?) It’s in the far future and it’s where the last representatives of the human race are struggling for survival. It’s a bleak, rocky world which is continually beset by meteorite strikes (there’s some irony that they finally have a story which would have benefited from being filmed in a quarry, and instead, they create a quarry-like planet in the studio). It’s a place where everything seems to fit into a limited colour palette of grey and red and where synthesised pan pipe music can be heard everywhere.

The Doctor doesn’t want to land on Frontios because, “the colony’s too new… its future hangs in the balance.” When forced down to the planet’s surface, he decides to muck in with the Frontiosians and help out, after some initial reluctance. True to form, he finds some space cockroaches who are behind it all and sorts the whole mess out over four episodes, but then he appeals to everyone around him to keep the whole thing quiet. We never really find out why, but perhaps the implication is that he shouldn’t have saved the colonists from their fate and the Time Lords would have been happier if the human race had been finished off once and for all? In which case, wouldn’t that have been an interesting premise which could have lead to some mighty repercussions of some kind?

Doesn’t matter anyway, we’ll just ignore it at move on. Like how the Daleks call their ships DARDISes and how the character’s name is actually Doctor Who.

Anyway, we should talk Tractators. They are the aforementioned space cockroaches and they live beneath the surface of Frontios, tractating meteors to the planet’s surface and sucking the occasional human into the earth. They are enormous woodlice creatures with faces of elderly bespectacled housewives and they are among the least mobile alien creatures ever to waddle across a television screen. They have no visible feet, but they do have two paddle like hands protruding from their bellies. Our heroes and their colonist compadres have to lean into those bellies awkwardly in order to be “captured” by the creatures. Running away from them has to be carefully timed to deny instant success. “Only those who have been isolated for millennia,” growls their articulate leader, the Gravis (John Gillett), “truly appreciate the power of mobility.” I believe old mate Gravis (because he controls gravity, geddit?), because the best he and his swarm buddies can manage is a menacing shuffle and the occasional precarious sway to emphasise salient points.

Nothing about the Tractators seems feasible. We’re told they are highly skilled gravitational engineers, although none of them are able to hold as much as a screwdriver. They are burrowing wave form tunnels underneath the surface of Frontios, which they will then use to propel the planet around the cosmos to look for other worlds to infest. Hopefully they can pilot it at a far greater speed than they can totter, because space is awfully big and planets can be pretty unwieldy.

Otherwise, it’s the slowest invasion plan ever. We’re told that they need human pilots for their gruesome excavating machines (which again, they somehow build with their flappy little hands), but they particularly like to choose humans in leadership positions like Captain Revere (who is revered, geddit?) and Plantagenet (who’s a sort of king, geddit?), and everyone else they drag from the surface they use for… well it’s not really clear.

Feasible or not, the Doctor treats them like an inimical threat to humanity which needs to be neutralised. Only a couple of stories ago he was arguing that humans should make friends with the similarly subterranean Silurians because they were an intelligent, technologically advanced species with whom the Earth could be shared. He offers no such argument about the Tractators, even though they too are intelligent, technologically advanced and presumably, were on Frontios before the humans.

But then, the Doctor only occasionally likes to defend the right of the monsters to live. The rest of the time he blows them up or throws them into the sun or – like he does here – strands them on an uninhabited planet. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a top bloke. It’s just sometimes he forgets about the sanctity of life in the universe and just gets the roach bombs out.

While all this is going on, companion Kamelion (a robot who can change shape, geddit?) is conspicuous by his absence. Sure, he usually is, having been benched from the TARDIS team because he couldn’t remember his lines or stand up unaided. It’s understandable he doesn’t get out much and I don’t think he even minds. I like to think of him lying on one of those bendy sleeping benches which fold out of the TARDIS walls, drinking an engine oil cocktail, sucking in naughty android films through his roundel-connected umbilical cord. Still, it’s an astonishing oversight on behalf of his companions to not give him a second thought when the TARDIS disintegrates around him. This would never have happened to K9.

So where does he get to during all this? My guess is that having found himself pulled underground, he’s promptly disguised himself as a Tractator. They are perfect for him, really. They barely move, don’t speak and are useless without the controlling mind of a greater intelligence. He probably feels right at home. And I like to think he amuses himself by gathering up other bits of discarded TARDIS paraphernalia like the food machine, the astral map and the space time visualiser. Just so he can be surrounded by those other inconveniences we like to forget about.

LINK TO The Crusade: one features a King, the other has a Plantagenet.

NEXT TIME… off to the edge of the known universe to find a Planet of Evil.

Crusades, Crusaders and The Crusade (1965)

crusade

I’m always a little confused about the name of this story. I know not to call it The Crusaders, because that’s the name of the novelisation. But I often want to call it The Crusades, because when I think of that period of history, I  think of Crusades multiple. The events of this story, for instance, take place during the Third Crusade.

I’m not so foolish as to read too much into the titles of 1960s Doctor Who stories, because who knows what the real titles actually are. But I wonder sometimes why it’s called The Crusade, singular. It could be just one of those early Who vagaries that leads us to call Serial C Inside the Spaceship, The Edge of Destruction or sometimes after we’ve had a few wines, Beyond the Sun.  Or it could be that writer David Whitaker was referring to one personal crusade, presumably that of Richard the Lionheart (Julian Glover).

His personal crusade may once have been to claim Jerusalem for the Christians, wresting it from the Saracens. But after years of bloody warfare, he’s ready to sue for peace. Richard’s an interesting character – he is by no means a paragon of virtue. He’s petulant and temperamental. He lingers too long in the woods, despite the best advice of his knights, and as a result, his key men are killed (he admits no responsibility for this). It is this event, perhaps, which leads him to want to bargain with Saladin (Bernard Kay, unfortunately in brownface). He concocts a plan to marry off his sister Joanna (Jean Marsh) to Saladin’s brother, Saphadin (Roger Avon, also unfortunately in brownface), and thus secure a peaceful settlement.

Joanna’s crusade is to utterly oppose the proposed union. Her outrage leaps off the screen, such is Marsh’s ability to portray Joanna’s horror at the idea. Joanna’s no fool either. She rebuffs Richard’s idea with a stratagem he can’t counteract; she threatens to appeal to the Pope. Her whole presence in the story leads up to this point (indeed, she doesn’t appear afterward) and unlike the men around her, she’s won the day.

Perhaps the title refers to Saladin’s crusade, to prevail over his invaders. The presentation of a religious war between Christians and Muslims would be almost unthinkable in today’s Doctor Who. Despite the unfortunate casting, Whitaker presents a refreshingly measured view of the other side of this holy war. Saladin is no raving, unreasonable madman; he’s cold and calculating (in contrast to Richard’s reckless passion). He’s a subtle, shady character; he conceals himself behind a curtain, listening to events before he intervenes. He treats his prisoners and enemies alike with courtesy. It would have been easy to paint him as the evil mastermind, implacably opposed to Richard. Instead, he’s eminently reasonable – in many ways preferable to Richard. His key moment is when he agrees to Richard’s proposal but insists on preparing his armies for war, in case the whole thing goes pear-shaped. “Hold one hand out in friendship,” he says, in one example of an outstandingly lyrical script,  “but keep the other on your sword.” (Like Joanna, once he’s made his key point, he exits the story, not to be seen again).

It would be easy to say that this is a crusade for Ian (William Russell), whose whole role in this story is to rescue Barbara (Jacqueline Hill, playing her role in a typical Whitaker trope. Think of The Evil of the Daleks where Jamie goes on a similar quest in pursuit of Victoria). But actually, that’s not as interesting as that of another of Barbara’s protectors, Haroun Ed Diin (George Little). Ed Diin is on a crusade to murder the wicked emir El Akir (Walter Randall). His fervour is stoked by El Akir’s killing of Ed Diin’s family and his alliance with Barbara is another way of getting within stabbing distance of his target. His single-mindedness is horrifying, particularly when he entrusts Barbara (who he’s only just met) with killing his daughter, lest she fall into the hands of his enemy. And, by the way, his crusade’s successful, robbing Ian of the opportunity to confront El Akir face to face. He’s a secondary character, but he gets to do away with the bad guy, so his crusade must count for something.

It’s certainly not Barbara’s crusade; she had hers a season ago in The Aztecs, an historical in which she became intrinsically linked with the culture around her, attempting to play an interventionist role. Here, she’s far more a victim of circumstance: captured by El Akir, incarcerated by Saladin, recaptured by El Akir, rescued by Ed Diin, recaptured by El Akir and finally rescued by Ian. Despite constantly being manhandled (quite literally) throughout the story, she remains a strong presence throughout the story, albeit one without agency. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to have a story where Ian was captured and abducted, with Barbara staging the rescue campaign?

It’s also not the Doctor’s (William Hartnell) crusade. He plays an early active role in concocting the plan to win Richard’s favour to gain his help in rescuing Barbara. After that he enjoys some hijinks bamboozling tailors and chamberlains and entering into some ethical debate in the royal court, but he’s an observer rather than a catalyst for action. He’s our eyes and ears with which to observe Richard and his dramas with Joanna, but in truth, he’s tangential, not essential to the action. Even when he falls out with Richard (the Lion thinks briefly that the Doctor has snitched on him to Joanna), it’s quickly reversed without consequence. Still, it gives Hartnell a chance to thesp around in some nice costumes and switch rapidly from mirth to outrage.

The final candidate to offer a crusade is the subject of that outrage. It’s the bellicose Earl of Leicester (John Bay), with whom the Doctor has picked a fight about siding with Richard’s scheme for marrying Joanna to Saphadin. He’s appalled by Richard’s plan, and says so, only for the Doctor to accuse him of being a fool and a butcher. He rebukes him with more of this story’s elegant dialogue. “When you men of eloquence have stunned each other with your words,” he snarls, “we the soldiers, have to face it out.” He takes such offence that when the Doctor and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) sneak quietly back to the Ship, he gives chase to execute them. He really must believe they’re bad eggs if he’d rather spend time hunting down an old man and a young girl than fighting the Saracens.

It doesn’t come to that, of course. Our four heroes reconvene at the TARDIS just in time and inveigle themselves insides. Once inside, their ordeals – particularly the ghastly one Barbara’s endured – have been forgotten, and they dissolve into puns and giggles. It’s a spectacularly ill-fitting end to a story which has been a sober and at time brutal examination of men of war exercising their personal crusades. Crusaders. Crusade. Whatever.

LINK TO Under the Lake/Before the Flood: both feature kings.

NEXT TIME… It’s the daily disaster we call Frontios. Luckily it’s about as offensive as a chicken vol-au-vent.

 

 

Cryptic, caustic and Under the Lake/Before the Flood (2015)

flood

Let’s say you’re a wounded alien warlord stranded in an ersatz Soviet training camp in Scotland in 1980. (I know. That old story, right?) You need to send a message to your homeys to come and pick you up and heal you. So you can set up a rescue beacon. Or call a space Uber or something right?

Sure, you could do that… if you’re from Planet Mundane! But the Fisher King (Neil Fingleton, and the voice of Peter Serafinowicz) is not. Nowhere near. No, he prefers a more ingenious method. He scratches some alien symbols on the wall of a spaceship. These symbols have the power to embed themselves in your subconscious without you knowing or wanting them to. Y’know, like dialogue by Eric Saward.

The symbols are actually the directions needed to find the Fisher King, but this is no simple set of galactic coordinates. Nothing so helpful. These directions are in the form of a particularly oblique brain teaser. The instructions in question are “the darkness, the sword, the foresaken, the temple,” which is a bit like giving the ambulance a cryptic crossword puzzle to solve in order to find your house so they can stop you from dying.

So anyway, the directions you so desperately need to get to your would-be rescuers are lying dormant in the minds of unsuspecting graffiti readers. To transmit those directions, the folks with the quizzical message embedded in their brains, have to die. Then they (somehow) turn into spectral beings with murderous intent, all the better to bolster their numbers and boost the signal and get His Majesty of the Fishers home and hosed.

Who said writer Toby Whithouse likes to over complicate his underlying concepts? Oh that’s right, it was me. Here. And here.

Now let’s say you’re a caustic old Time Lord whose accent makes him sound right at home in 1980s Scotland (Peter Capaldi). You need to find out how this whole “ghosts in the Drum” thing started, so you travel back in time to before the lake was flooded.

(The Drum being the name of the underwater base which is housing all the action. Its main feature is lots of lovely corridors to run down. The lake it’s submerged in never gets a name, but I like to think of it as Lake Siege. Then it could literally be a base under siege. Well, I’d laugh.)

Anyway, you travel back in time to before the lake was flooded.  There you discover the Fisher King and work out his nefarious, if overcomplicated, scheme. Easy enough to stop that – just blow up the dam wall and drown the sucker.

Thing is, you need to send a message to yourself from the future to spur you into action. So probably the easiest thing to do is write yourself a note. Maybe on the side of the spaceship, seeing as that’s where everyone goes for some light reading.

Doctor. The thing causing all the ghosts is a big alien nasty called the Fisher King and Clara’s next on his hit list. Go back in time and blow up the dam. Record the roar of the Fisher King as you do, so you can trap the ghosts in the Faraday cage. Also, never wear that jumper with the holes in it again, you look a right berk. Love, the Doctor.

Simple, right? But we don’t do “simple” around here, oh no. So what you do is write a piece of sentient software (in the TARDIS, I suppose) which creates a hologram (somehow. Not sure how it gets projected) that can walk and talk around everyone else. It will look like one of the ghosts and activate at a pre-determined time once you’ve left the base. You know, just to freak everyone out.

Then your Doctor Ghost will start to mouth a sequence of names, in order of who’s going to die (again, it might be simpler for him to just say what’s going on, but a silent list of names is much more complex). Including Clara in this list will be the catalyst for you to act, but if you throw in one of the crew members’ names before hers, that crew member will needlessly die, so watch out for that.

(To make matter worse, that crew member is the glorious Alice O’Donnell (Morven Christie), one half of my new favourite twin set of would-be companions, O’Donnell and Bennett (Arsher Ali). She’s full of fangirl enthusiasm, he’s all caution mixed with scientific curiosity. Plus both have practical skills from working in a military base and they have unresolved sexual tension between them. Perfect! When they board the TARDIS for our quick trip back to 1980, they look absolutely right beside Capaldi’s spiky Doctor. They could have been the Barbara and Ian of our times. Ah well.)

So your holographic ghost will be mouthing names spookily but also wandering about the place. In this way, your ghost can also pointlessly menace the remaining crew members by, say, helpfully letting all the ghosts out of the Faraday cage and letting them continue their killing spree. This isn’t strictly necessary but it extends the terrifying ordeal a bit longer for everyone and keep them on their toes.

I shouldn’t moan. I genuinely like this story with its creepy setting and its likable characters. I’d say it’s Whithouse’s best work for the show, though there’s a lot to be said for the old adage, “keep it simple.”

But why characters who want to communicate with their future selves insist on leaving cryptic messages all over the place instead of just writing a note always baffles me. I call it the Bad Wolf paradox and it’s far more prevalent than the “bootstrap paradox.” I wish the Doctor would spend a pre-credits sequence explaining that one.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: when Prentis suggests the Doctor could “oppress him” the subtitles suggest “appraise him” like he’s on Antiques Roadshow.

LINK TO The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: each feature avatars of Doctor Who fans – O’Donnell and the Whizz Kid.

NEXT TIME… You stupid butcher! It’s time to embark on The Crusade.

Oddballs, Whizz Kids and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988/9)

greatest show

Back when I was a teenage whizz kid, I watched The Greatest Show in the Galaxy on transmission. Avidly. This makes me feel dodderingly old, but thinking back on it reminds me that it was a rare period of optimism for fandom.

Suddenly, it felt like the show was riding a new wave of creative quality. There was a Doctor and a companion viewers were connecting with. And the show itself was experimenting with a new type of story that someone had christened “oddballs”. During Andrew Cartmel’s reign as Doctor Who script editor, stories oscillated between traditional adventure stories where deeper themes were hinted at (so Remembrance is about things blowing up and racism, Battlefield is about more things blowing up and fear of nuclear war) and these so called oddballs.

I’m working from memory here, but I think “oddball” was the term John Nathan-Turner used in pre-publicity to describe a story which more bizarre elements than usual. I’m pretty sure he first applied that description to Delta and the Bannermen, but that feels more traditional to me than Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol and Greatest Show, oddballs one and all. By Season 26, the oddballs had become less outre, with Ghost Light and Survival blending their bizarreness with more traditional Who storytelling. To become “tradballs”. (Do you like that? I just made it up.)

Being like traditional Doctor Who, or more specifically being like Holmes & Hinchcliffe’s version of Doctor Who, mattered to fans in the 80s. Despite the show’s creative renaissance, oddballs were always greeted warily. I seem to recall someone sniffily calling Greatest Show “the oddball that worked”. And that’s probably because it’s creepy and well acted and it’s got good incidental music, so altogether quite Hichcliffey. Plus no one does anything too silly like dressing up like a big liquorice allsort or smashing jars of honey all over the aliens or doing galactically OTT zombie acting.

But although fans at the time were a bit iffy about oddballs, they brought a new mode to Doctor Who: a sort of highly stylistic aesthetic. Suddenly everyone and everything seemed to be unreal, but not in a Time and the Rani kind of unreality, where people were called Beaus and Ikona and big bat creatures loped alongside Kate O’Mara while she impersonated Bonnie Langford. In this new aesthetic, people had occupations rather than names (the Chief Caretaker, the Tollmaster, the Ringmaster, Control) or they had names which pointed towards their character traits or social heirarchy (Pex, Helen A, Deadbeat, Squeak). Threats became more oblique and more parochial: sweets, pool cleaners and bus conductors will kill you. And the oddballs were so clearly unconcerned with realism that it was obvious they must be allegorical.

To put it another way, Time and the Rani is bizarre but essentially wants the viewer to take the story it’s telling literally. Paradise Towers is bizarre in a way where a reading along the lines of, “this is clearly a message about urban discord and isn’t meant to be read literally” is absolutely valid. And this riled a certain set of fans who just wanted a sequel to Pyramids of Mars.

By the time we get to Greatest Show, the production team was approaching the oddball with confidence. They were working out that a certain set of stories could be told allegorically and still deliver the scares for those wondering what had happened to the magic of Doctor Who. For instance, writer Steven Wyatt saw this story of a hippy circus being infiltrated by a sinister force as expressing the death of 1960s idealism…. And also clowns made great Doctor Who monsters, because were creepy and cheap to realise. So win win.

The members of Wyatt’s space circus have long since sold their Bohemian souls. Corruption is a potent theme in Greatest Show. Just as the Gods of Rangnarok have corrupted the members of this circus troupe, so each of its victims – including the Doctor (a smart, vivid performance from Sylvester McCoy) – are drawn to the circus ring in by their own desire for fame. One of the most terrifying aspects of this is that the corruption doesn’t produce a standard Doctor Who villain – just a triad of desperate middle managers. The Ringmaster (Ricco Ross), Morgana (Deborah Manship) and the Chief Clown (Ian Reddington) have to strategise in panic to get people in the ring, until the latter has no other option but to feed his colleagues to the ever hungry beast. There’s no grand plan here, only desperate improvisation against a relentless taskmaster.

While most of the story’s elements pull in the same direction, others are oddballs within this oddball. Mags (Jessica Martin) is a end of episode monster grrrl hidden in plain sight, but her connection to the selling out of hippy ideals is unclear. Still, she’s nothing compared to Captain Cook (TP McKenna), a walking, talking, pith helmeted representation of colonial arrogance. He’s as out of place as Mags, but he’s perhaps the most extreme example of this story’s high symbolism. How can this towering stereotype be read literally? He’s too starkly stylised to be anything but a walking parody.

Talking of walking parodies, there’s also the Whizz Kid (Gian Sammarco), a stereotypical representation of Doctor Who fans, and specifically, the sort who wished the whole place would Hinchcliffe itself up a bit. Where Captain Cook seems to be one random allegorical element too far, the Whizz Kid manages to push Greatest Show into a new shape, where the circus becomes a stand-in for Doctor Who itself. It’s almost a cry for help from the production team: trapped in an aging show, trying to sate an audience demanding endless entertainment, mercilessly judged by ratings and beset by barkers. Among everything else it’s doing, Greatest Show’s also a meta commentary.

This, I think, is the power of the oddball. It allows so many things to happen simultaneously. You can tell a story about the death of idealism, our society’s constant appetite for entertainment and the strained relationship Doctor Who had with its fans, all at once. You can set it in twisted versions of familiar worlds, dress your characters up in wacky costumes and give them oblique names, and all would be forgiven as long as you kept the lighting low and offered the occasional scare. From here, we get Gridlock, The Doctor’s Wife and Smile. They’re great because they’re smart and funny and see the world a little differently. And maybe it’s because all whizz kids eventually grow up to be oddballs, I still find so much to love in them.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy Mini Quiz:

  1. How can the Ringmaster switch off Mags’ screams?
  2. When he does, why can Ace still hear them?
  3. Why does the Doctor expect Segonax to be a green and pleasant land when he saw on the scanner that it looked like a quarry?
  4. Why is that section of dialogue in Part Two between the Ringmaster and the Doctor (and a little bit of Ace) in the ring written in rhyming verse?
  5. How exactly was it the Doctor’s show all along?

LINK TO The Space Museum: annoying teenage boys.

NEXT TIME… Don’t leave me hanging! We meet an underwater menace in Under the Lake/Before the Flood.

Morons, zeros and The Space Museum (1965)

space museum

I have this theory that a museum is no place to set an adventure story. They are places of scholarship, conservation and learning, characterised by quiet, respectful contemplation. There’s a reason why Indiana Jones, intrepid collector of museum pieces, has his adventures in jungles, deserts and other far flung locales: museums themselves are inherently dull. Unless the exhibits are going to come to life and exterminate you, there’s not much to set the heart racing.

It’s a theory borne out by The Space Museum, which is set in a space museum, run by a bunch of uninterested guards called the Moroks. They’re an odd lot. Their name is perilously close to “morons”, they dress like power dentists and they have hairdos which appear to have been blown into a permanent state of alarm with industrial strength driers. Plus they have a predilection for declamatory speeches about how hard done by they are. Despite these handicaps, they are, we are told, ruthless conquerors of worlds. Beware! They will land on your planet, kick your arse and… set up a museum.

This is exactly what they do on the planet Xeros. There they establish a museum which looks like a chocolate gateau on the outside, but on the inside features a dazzling array of featureless corridors. The museum’s collection consists of the spoils of war, which it must be said, are scant: a few random spaceships, some unlikely looking props, one Dalek casing and some stools they found on the Sense Sphere. I don’t know who the target audience is for this museum – no-one, if current visitor numbers are any indication – but perhaps it hints at a new battle strategy by these fearsome maurauders. Instead of fighting and killing other races, the Moroks will just wait until their victims come to their space museum and let them bore to death.

The Doctor (William Hartnell), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), Ian (William Russell) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) arrive at the museum early – in fact, in spectral form before their real selves actually get there (the TARDIS having tripped over some technobabble). They have a premonition of their future selves as immobile exhibits, like stuffed animals in perspex boxes. Once the timelines are back in sync, it does indeed transpire that the monotonous Moroks do want to embalm our heroes… which is a novel threat, but also strange seeing that the museum isn’t actually full of other unwary travellers who have strayed within its stultifying walls.

(It’s never made clear why the Moroks want to start their collection of frozen alien beings with our heroes. But imagine a museum filled with frozen people, like Narnia’s statue garden of various creatures whom the White Witch turned to stone. And imagine the museum as a dark, gothic mausoleum. Now that might actually be suspenseful.)

Having been confronted with the vision of a future spent frozen in display cases, our four heroes debate what it will take to change the future. They stage an interesting debate about whether any action on their part is going to help or hinder their chances. Well, it’s interesting the first time. The problem is they keep having that same debate over and over throughout the next three episodes. But at least it’s an interesting reversal of their usual mantra about not being able to change history. This time, in order to survive, they need to mess with future events.

They never get to the bottom of it, though. At the end, it seems the future has been changed because Vicki has encouraged the mousy Xerons to stage a revolution. (If Vicki seems like the least likely of the TARDIS crew to stage such a rebellion, it is at least a pleasing development in her character, from being a line feed for the Doctor).

Who are these Xerons? Well, they are the oppressed indigenous species and an equally odd bunch. Their name is perilously close to “zeros”, they all dress like sinister Wiggles and they each have four eyebrows. They’re also all weedy teenage boys, the type you’d think would be super tech savvy, but unfortunately they can’t work out how to hack the computer which is guarding the armoury (because, y’know, museums totally have armouries). This is preventing them from overthrowing the Moroks, so instead they sit around, drink coffee and wish they’d taken more STEM subjects at Xeros Elementary. Luckily Vicki’s on hand to hack the armoury’s computer and generally do all the thinking for them.

As it happens, it must have been Vicki’s rabble rousing which did the trick because none of her companions did anything effectual. Barbara gets locked in a cupboard with a Xeron. The Doctor goes on holiday for a week. And Ian finds a gun and reimagines himself as the series tough guy, getting into fights, menacing some Moroks, but not actually achieving anything. If The Space Museum does nothing else, it at least shows Vicki to be an intelligent, proactive force in the program. It may even be a subtle suggestion that the future can only be changed by the young.

The story falls so quickly from being innovative and spooky to being a generic good guys vs bad guys shoot ‘em up, that you can’t help wonder if it was deliberate; an early meta-commentary on the show itself. But surely that gives The Space Museum too much credit. There’s no subtext here. The battle between the Moroks and the Xerons seems like generic sci-fi tosh because that’s what it is.

That in itself is peculiar, because the Hartnell era is so much about the weird and the wonderful of alien cultures; that a world ruled by insects is as strange and adventurous as the rival courts of Richard I and Saladin. To suddenly veer into pulp sci-fi seems uncharacteristic. It’s like writer Glyn Jones, having set up an intriguing premise in the first episode, has to cobble together another plot to contain it in for three episodes.

The whole thing staggers to an ending when the hammy revolution, full of ray gun shots and extras falling extravagantly to the floor reaches the Moroks’ headquarters. Our heroes congratulate themselves on a job unwittingly done and head for the TARDIS, leaving the teenage boys in charge. Though really, if our heroes had stopped to think about it for as long as they worried about whether or not they were changing the future, they’ve have realised that both parties of antagonists on Xeros are doomed to die out within a generation. Because although they have guns and freezing machines and Sensorite furniture to fight over, what neither the Moroks or the Xerons have amongst them, is any women.

LINK TO The Shakespeare Code: both feature callbacks to The Crusade.

NEXT TIME… nothing’s quite as it seems to be at The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

 

 

 

 

Reverence, irreverence and The Shakespeare Code (2007)

shakespeare

In the newfound Twitch-inspired spirit of “London, 1965!” let’s head back for a moment to The ChaseSo many wacky things happen in that story, but among my favourites is when the Doctor and co take possession of a big television, upon which they could watch any event in all of space and time. Given free rein on this miraculous device, all Barbara wants to do is tune in to see Shakespeare throwing around ideas for new plays with Elizabeth I and Francis Bacon. Any kids watching as an Saturday escape from the weekday grind of school must have groaned. All of time and space filled with Daleks and Zarbi and she wants to watch Shakespeare?!

But it’s typical of classic Doctor Who, which loved Shakespeare from afar, but never sought to meet him in person. The Doctor never travelled back in time to meet him and have an exciting adventure in doublet and hose (which when you think about, seems perfect for Season 2). And though he once claimed to have done some light secretarial work for Shakespeare, he might have just been trying to impress a beautiful woman, probably.

For 20th century Who, Shakespeare was there only to be reverentially alluded toIts various producers never mined Shakespeare for plots. It robbed other works of fiction shamelessly, from The Prisoner of Zenda to High Rise, but we never got the Doctor Who version of Twelfth Night or Macbeth. We never even got a trip back to meet Richard III or Henry V to compare them to their  Shakespearean depictions.

Instead, the show referenced the Bard through quotes, often with a knowing wink to the audience. The first Doctor quoted The Merchant of Venice while the sixth loved Hamlet. But the fourth was the greatest Shakespeare fan. Tom Baker never missed an opportunity to insert a few lines in a quick audition for the RSC. My favourite is, “out out, dusty death” after a Cybermat was killed with gold dust, but no doubt you have your own.

All this is to say that old Doctor Who kept a respectful distance from Shakespeare. But new Who likes to put its literary heroes centre stage. So Doctor Who meets Shakespeare seems not only like a cracking idea for adventure, but also long overdue.

*****

In The Chase, Shakespeare is the mousy, middle-aged, high foreheaded figure we know from his portraits. In The Shakespeare Code, he’s a handsome young buck, played with schoolboy charm by Dean Lennox Kelly. This type of Shakespeare was a recent innovation in 2007. The irreverent influence of 1998’s slick, self-aware cinema hit Shakespeare in Love was still palpable.

Shakespeare in Love also portrays Shakespeare as a young, bawdy rock star figure. He’s played by handsome Joseph Fiennes, as a character whose literary genius makes him attractive to many around him, and not just the ladies. He dashes about in a flappy shirt, a tight leather jacket and a single stud earring. He fights and quips and drinks and wins the girl, who’s dressed as a boy. He’s the unmistakable hero of the piece, and a long way from that bookish looking fellow with the pinched face, the ruff and the goatee.

The Shakespeare Code not only mirrors Shakespeare in Love’s take on Shakespeare; it also adopts its jokey, self-referential tone. In both, Shakespeare hears his own famous lines being quoted back at him and modern day affectations, like fans asking for signatures and therapists’ sessions, are aped. In both, the Master of the Revels is a sneering threat and Queen Elizabeth makes a cameo. Both are comic, knockabout adventures.

Except that in The Shakespeare Code,  Shakespeare is not the hero. There’s our tall, flappy coated Doctor (David Tennant) for that. So Shakespeare has to play second fiddle to him here, rushing around behind him and Martha (Freema Agyeman) like an extra companion. Like our other celebrity historicals, he’s enlisted into the Doctor’s coterie to help save the day. And in a trait common to lots of 21st century Who (but particularly noticeable in stories written by Gareth Roberts), the guest character has to step up and save the day, when the Doctor needs help. Here Shakespeare is inspired by the Doctor to find the words which seals the witchy Carrionites’ fate. After years of the Doctor taking his cue from Shakespeare, it’s nice to see how that works in reverse.

***

This is the first of Roberts’ many scripts for the series, and the last one to be Randomed, so it’s worth thinking about his contribution to the show. In fact, it would  be shirking a difficult topic not to. His episodes are well regarded, but lately, he’s been provoking fierce reactions through Twitter account, which often expresses his disdain for the political left. He also offended many with a couple of ill-considered tweets about trans people. All of this means there is a distinctly critical prevailing view of him at the moment.

It would be a shame, though, to discount his Doctor Who episodes, which are consistently smart, witty and well constructed. It took until Series 3 for Roberts to be added to the show’s writing retinue, but once he was, he quickly became a regular fixture, presumably because of his ability to reliably deliver good quality scripts. The Shakespeare Code is typical of his work: regularly funny, with a string of good one-liners, but also well plotted, hitting the right beats and the right time, creating interesting characters and using them as counter-points to the Doctor. You can see why Russell T Davies and later Steven Moffat kept inviting him back. He always delivered the goods.

Whether he’ll be invited back though… well, who can say? It seems unlikely. But for now, what we have are six better than average episodes written (or co-written) by someone whose public persona is as a provocateur, a sideline commentator, an occasional contrarian and for some, it must be said, an unforgivable transphobe. It’s an interesting dichotomy if you’re attracted to his creative work, but not to his politics or the way he expresses himself.

But because of that, I’d argue that how we view The Shakespeare Code and his other work, has changed since 2007. And how we view that work in future years, of course, remains to be seen. But I think this is Doctor Who’s fandom’s first struggle (at least in the 21st century) between recognising the quality of a piece of work, while finding its creator’s views objectionable. Can we no longer bring ourselves to do the former, because of the latter? But for some, that’s absolutely going to be the case.

****

Back to that moment in The Chase. If only Hartnell and Co had twisted that dial a little further backwards, they might have been able to watch the events of The Shakespeare Code on that big ol’ TV. What would the first Doctor have made of it?

VICKI: Look! There’s a young, dashing Doctor with a black assistant! (Doctor sits down in shock)

BARBARA: And Shakespeare’s a spunk! (Doctor loses consciousness)

IAN: And in the space year 2017, the writer of this adventure causes a furore by offending trans people everywhere! (Doctor keels over and regenerates)

LINK TO… Mission to the UnknownDid Roberts name his heroine in Planet of the Dead after Mission actor Edward De Souza? For the purposes of this link, let’s say yes.

NEXT TIME: Let’s stick with that particular TARDIS team and watch them put some Morok arms in Xeron hands while visiting The Space Museum

%d bloggers like this: