Tag Archives: historical

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

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Poetry, brutality and 100,000 BC (1963)

100000bc

So we come, at last, to Doctor Who’s first story, consisting of a creepy one-episode prologue and a three-episode thriller set in pre-history, with early homo sapiens. Except it’s only really the first Doctor Who story for those lucky enough to have seen in back in 1963. (Or perhaps, for some unsuspecting gamers who have come to it on Twitch). For most of us, it’s our umpteenth Doctor Who story, come to us via video or DVD or latter day repeats, after having been hooked by dozens of stories which came after this one.

From that perspective, as one part of the sprawling armoury of the series, rather than its opening salvo, it’s a very unusual story indeed. It’s not goodies vs baddies. There’s no injustice to overcome. There’s just a group of mismatched people thrown into a bewildering and potentially deadly situation, forced to work together to escape. And disconcertingly, its first episode feels like the rest of Doctor Who we’ve seen, but its caveman installments feel like something completely different and unique.

For a start, the production team makes the brave move of presenting a supporting cast of early humans who can barely communicate. In a wise scripting decision, these grunts don’t grunt, but instead talk in short, simple sentences, not unlike small children. This just about works, although you can’t help but shake your head every so often when the spell breaks – which it tends to when the tribespeople struggle to describe something outside their experience, and end up speaking in a kind of gentle poetry. My favourite is when chief nimrod Za (Derek Newark) realises he needs more information and says, “I must hear more things to remember.”

This quest for knowledge is one of the story’s themes. It’s Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian’s (William Russell) curiosity which draws them to the TARDIS in the first place, following unearthly student Susan (Carole Ann Ford) home one night, only to discover that she’s living in a police box and there’s a grumpy old Doctor (William Hartnell) is hanging around suspiciously. Once sprung, the Doctor wants to protect the secrets of his technology, which he sees as the key to his and Susan’s safety.  It’s so important to him to preserve this knowledge, that he takes off with the teachers on board. In the other, more hairy tribe, Za and rival Kal (Jeremy Young) are in a race to acquire knowledge of fire making, because with that knowledge comes leadership. As Za says, “the leader would have things to remember.”

The struggle for the position of alpha male happens in both tribes but the one between Za and Kal is a basic contest for dominance. The one between the Doctor and Ian is more interesting. Both can’t help but squabble with each other about the way out of their predicament. Ian is rightly suspicious of this haughty, dismissive alien, and the Doctor views Ian as as primitive and uncultured as any caveman. They eventually reach a detente through recognising the other’s skills, but it’s trickier than a simple development of mutual respect. There’s much more strategy going on.

Take, for instance, when the Doctor saves Ian’s life in the second episode. There’s a scrap with the cave folk and Ian’s about to get a stone axe to the head. Just in time the Doctor bellows, “If he dies, there will be no fire.” It’s easy to see this as an early indication of the Doctor’s true, underlying character, but I think it’s far more pragmatic than that. The Doctor quickly realises that in order for him and Susan to escape this situation, he will need Ian’s physical strength. He admits as much in the next episode.

Similarly, after sparring over the best way to order themselves on their first escape attempt from the tribe, Ian eventually appears to concede the Doctor’s leadership role. It’s in the fourth episode, when the Doctor has tricked Kal into revealing himself as the Old Woman’s (Eileen Way) killer, thus turning the tribe against him. Apparently impressed by the Doctor’s quick thinking, Ian agrees that the Doctor is their leader. But I don’t think he’s given up so soon. Surely Ian’s just thinking that if they ever get back to the Ship, he and Barbara need the Doctor to let them on board again and to attempt to get them home. As Rose once said, you don’t argue with the designated driver.

Naturally enough for 60s Who heroines, Barbara is never in the running for leadership position. But she does operate as the TARDIS’ crew’s conscience. In the third episode, she’s the one who can’t leave Za to perish (he’s been mauled by a vicious jungle beast, sensibly kept off camera). She’s almost hysterical with fear just before this happens, so her decision to give up the dash back to the TARDIS to help their pursuer is initially seen, certainly by the Doctor, as an act of madness. Her act of compassion seems to have been futile; it buys them no particular favour from Za who incarcerates them again as soon as they’re back at the cave. But Hur (Althea Charlton) seems particularly fascinated by this act of kindness, so there’s the sense that the tribe might also end up learning the importance of compassion from our heroes, chiefly Barbara. Add this to the idea of collective action – that no one person is stronger than the whole tribe – and Za has a whole heap of things to remember, including some new socialist ideals.

Barbara’s desire to help people might have an impact on the tribe, but it’s lost on the Doctor. He’s famously callous in these early episodes in a way which we’ll never see again. It’s not just the famous moment where it looks like he might kill the injured Za in order to escape. Also in that sequence, he seems prepared to abandon Barbara and Ian to help the caveman, while he and Susan run to the TARDIS. And any chance that he might have been learning some kindness from these earthly teachers is dashed in the last episode. That’s when Barbara stumbles and falls on the final run to the TARDIS and the Doctor, tellingly, runs straight over the top of her.

I suppose, to be generous, he might just be in shock. He and his companions have been held in particularly gruesome conditions. They’re kept in that cave of skulls, even though the decomposing corpse of the Old Woman is in there too. Perhaps even worse is that the four of them are forced to watch the final, brutal fight where Za beats Kal to death, eventually smashing his head in with a rock. It’s then you realise how bleak this story is; never again will the show depict one man savagely killing another with his bare hands, no matter how cartoony the circumstances.

It ends up, as most Doctor Who stories do, as a peculiar but fascinating mix. On one hand, it’s startlingly grim – I just can’t imagine the show lasting long if it had kept putting its heroes through bloody ordeals like this week after week. On the other, with its almost lyrical caveman dialogue, it never loses the sense of the unreal. In some ways it’s very sophisticated; it takes the show’s educational remit and uses it both literally (this is how you start a fire, kids!) and also uses education as a theme. In other ways, it’s hammy and repetitive.

Whichever order we watch Doctor Who in, we always come back to 100,000 BC, in an attempt to try and uncover where the show came from. But it will never work – at least not entirely – because in its unique mix of poetry, tutorage and brutality, there’s never been another story like this first one.

LINK TO… The Invisible Enemy. Both feature the work of designer Barry Newbery.

NEXT TIME… Are we in Scotland? It’s time to go Tooth and Claw. But before that… a random extra: a look at the pilot episode.

Celebrity, history and The Unquiet Dead (2005)

unquiet

Remember the celebrity historical? It used to be a thing. A real, live, it-can-be-our-second/third/fourth-episode kinda thing. Through it we met all sorts of famous dead people – Queen Victoria, Madame du Pompadour, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie. And it starts here, with a tale of ghosts and walking cadavers with Charles Dickens in ye olde Cardiff.

It was a shrewd move by showrunner Russell T Davies to include this episode in the revamped series’ first year. Those first three episodes of his version of the show are set in the present, the future and the past respectively; a shorthand statement of what the show’s about. A historical adventure tells a new audience that this series isn’t going to be all spaceships and laser beams every week. But the inclusion of a famous historical figure, plus some alien bad guys, gives that same audience a way into these old world adventures without them feeling like they’re being subjected to some snoozy old history lesson.

It also gives the production personnel something on which they can show off their skills: period drama. Former script editor Andrew Cartmel first vocalised what had been staring viewers in the face for years – that the BBC could pull off a more convincing historical drama than a science fiction epic. Despite new Who‘s increased budget, there’s still some truth in this, plus time and money saved in recreating familiar historical sets and costumes rather than dreaming them up anew. Not to mention that a well known star playing a well known historical figure makes for great publicity.

Writer Mark Gatiss sets the template for the celebrity historical in this macabre episode. He chooses a well known historical figure, one with an inkling for the the supernatural. Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) might be a daunting figure for viewers (me included) who have never finished any of his mighty tomes (I know, I know! I’ll get to them! Right after The Doctor Who Cookbook) but he proves a prudent choice, with the Doctor (an energized Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (an energetic Billie Piper) turning up just at a point of personal existential crisis. He teams up with the our heroes, becoming a de factor companion and along the way, his life is changed for the better by the experience. It’s a pattern which holds more or less up until and including Vincent and the Doctor.

Then things change. With The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, where Richard Nixon, who under the old template for celebrity historicals might have been expected to be the episode’s focus, but now becomes just a notable supporting character. In their respective episodes, Queens Nefertiti of Egypt and Elizabeth I of England are similarly exotic side dishes, not the main meal. By the time we get to Peter Capaldi’s era, the celebrity historical has been dropped altogether. Clara makes do with sly references to her flirty adventures with Jane Austen. That name dropping’s enough; we don’t need to see the Doctor meet another historical British writer. We’ve been there done that.

(Thank Rassilon. I can’t stand Austen. A Doctor Who encounter with her sounds awful. It’d be called Time and Temerity, or Space and Speciousness or something. Clara would be proposed to by some alien dressed up in period costume, via a series of letters delivered by horse and cart and everything would take weeks. Yawn. Unless it was a Blackadder inspired version where Jane Austen turns out to be “a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush”. Yes, I’d watch that.)

So now the celebrity historical, once a mainstay of any Doctor Who season is out of vogue. No doubt famous people from history will continue to turn up, but more episodes showcasing any given figure of history seems unlikely. It’s a shame, because having our heroes rub shoulders with someone we know from history is one of those uniquely Doctor Who ideas. And it’s been with the show since its earliest years, where we met Marco Polo, Nero, Richard I and Doc Holliday. If you squint, it even stays true to the show’s original remit to be slightly educational. The Unquiet Dead, for instance, manages to trickle out an abbreviated biography of Dickens and his work.

Still, it’s fun to fill in future fantasy seasons with celebrity historicals which still one day might come to pass. Oscar Wilde’s episode would riff on The Picture of Dorian Gray.  That other OW, Orson Wells already has one in Big Finish’s universe – by Mark Gatiss, no less – which could be adapted. Sylvester McCoy’s suggestion of the Doctor meeting Richard III could finally come to fruition. What about JFK, given his and the show’s association with November 1963? Galileo? Da Vinci? The Beatles? Surely we can’t let Timelash be the definitive Doctor Who appearance by HG Wells. Nor let Einstein be claimed by the ignominious Time and the Rani.

As for the story itself, it’s pleasingly creepy, with enough black humour in it to recall more than a few camp, schlocky horror films. Its gleefully brash use of walking cadavers as monsters is stronger stuff than the show eventual settled into; to this day Mrs Spandrell can’t get past the opening pre-credit sequence with old Mrs Peace (Jennifer Hill) stumbling through the streets, howling. It strays into interesting moral territory when the Doctor finds virtue in the Gelth’s alleged plan to inhabit the bodies of human dead to save their species, and Rose is opposed to the idea. But the last minute u-turn of the Gelth into treacherous invaders neutralizes that debate which might have lead the story to something other than a “it’s time to stop the monsters now” kind of ending.

Truth be told, as good as The Unquiet Dead is, nearly all its tricks – be they ghost stories, Victoriana or zombified monsters – have been done better by later stories. Its lasting claim to fame is showing us how these celebrity historicals work and inventing a new sub-genre for 21st century Who. If they really have gone forever, then that’s its legacy – creating a Who specific subset right up there with ‘base under siege’, ‘pseudo-historical’ and ‘multi-Doctor’.

But if they ever come back, I’ve still got my list of candidates: Michelangelo, Louis Pasteur, Elvis, even Mrs Malaprop… sorry, that’s Time and the Rani again. It sneaks in everywhere!

LINK TO Into the Dalek: uncertainty about whether the monsters are good or evil.

NEXT TIME… well, he didn’t come by Shetland pony, Jamie! We defrost The Ice Warriors

 

 

Conscience, camaraderie and The Reign of Terror (1964)

reign2

It didn’t take long for Doctor Who to wind up in the French Revolution, a mere eight stories in. Although the show was eager to get there, it proves an uninspiring destination for the fledgling series. It offers little except a series of captures and escapes, strung together with a disconcerting series of coincidences.

It’s really five episodes of runabout, then an opportunity for our friends to stand witness to the downfall of Robespierre and the rise of Napoleon. Still, it gives everyone a chance to dress up, ponce about and end a lot of sentences with the word ‘citizen’. Ah revolutionary France, where everyone speaks English. Along familiar class lines too: posh if you’re well bred, Cockney in you’re not.

Let’s take a detour to the story’s second episode, Guests of Madame Guillotine. In it, the plot inches along. The Doctor (gamey William Hartnell) walks some miles to Paris, taking time out to join a road gang and brain its foreman with a shovel. This is actually of no importance to the plot, but in prison, Ian (dependable William Russell) meets a fellow called Webster (Jeffry Wickham), who gives him a secret message to pass on to a mysterious figure called James Stirling.

This actually pushes the story along a bit, and is played out through a series of filmed inserts, because William Russell was on holiday that week. The only bit of any plot importance in the whole episode, and was done in pre-filmed inserts. The remaining cast shouldn’t have bothered squeezing into Lime Grove Studio D to record that week.

Certainly Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford should have gone on strike. The whole episode consists of them being imprisoned and planning an escape which never happens. Susan, you see, gets frightened by some rats so they decide to give up. Yeesh. That’s not only annoying and sexist, it’s also just dull.

This is not a good story for Susan. Imprisoned and hysterical in the second episode, sick for most of episodes three to four, imprisoned again in the fifth and almost entirely absent from the sixth. No wonder Ford left the series soon afterwards, if this was the sort of material she could expect week after week.

Barbara gets more to do, mostly in the segments when she’s out of prison and once she’s sent poor sick Susan to bed. She’s integral to the story’s most interesting moment, which comes in its fifth episode, A Bargain of Necessity. In it, Ian and Barbara have both allied themselves with a resistance agent called Jules Renan (Donald Morley).

Our two school teachers, usually inseparable comrades, are at odds over the fate of a man called Leon Colbert (Edward Brayshaw, who would later sneer his way through multiple episodes of The War Games). Barbara had got a bit friendly with Colbert, while Ian languished in gaol. But then once Ian escaped and Barbara herself was languishing in gaol (for the second time. It’s that kind of story), Colbert revealed himself to be working for the other side. A shootout ensues, and Renan kills Colbert to save Ian. Babs takes the news badly.

BARBARA: He was a traitor to you. To his side he was a patriot.

IAN: Barbara, we’ve taken sides just by being here. Jules actually shot him. It could just as easily have been me.

JULES: And what about Robespierre? I suppose you think…

BARBARA: Well just because an extremist like Robespierre…

IAN: Oh, Barbara, Jules is our friend. He saved our lives!

BARBARA: I know all that! The revolution isn’t all bad, and neither are the people who support it. It changed things for the whole world, and good, honest people gave their lives for that change.

IAN: Well, he got what he deserved.

BARBARA: You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve.

Barbara is the Ship’s resident historian, and luckily wherever in history the TARDIS lands is on the Coal Hill curriculum so she always knows her subject. She’s often also the conscience of the crew, and the historicals bring out her strength of opinion. The Aztecs famously highlights her willingness to stand against the Doctor’s fatalistic view that history can’t be changed. And here, despite the fact that all their allies have been in the resistance, she can still see value in the ideals of both sides of the conflict, while Ian has long since chosen a team to back.

It’s an interesting theme – the duality of accepted history – one which the series could have explored further. Perhaps story editor David Whitaker wanted to. This incident reminds me of the sentences he wrote for his terrific prologue to his book Doctor Who and the Crusaders. “The next time we visit Earth,” [the Doctor] said, “I hope we encounter a situation where two men are opposed to each other, each for the best reasons… That is the only way to understand the folly, the stupidity and the horror of war. When both sides, in their own way, are totally right.” It sounds like the direction The Reign of Terror could have headed down.

Barbara’s role as history teacher means she is a tangible presence in these early historicals, whereas Ian does not have quite the same resonance. His role as science teacher is only of passing interest to the series. He’s on hand to explain a convenient example of high school science in action, like how condensation works or how to use a pulley, but these are small touches not the whole story. Barbara is able to have her perspective on and reactions to history change a story like The Aztecs or The Reign of Terror, but Ian has no such pivotal involvement in the sci-fi serials.

Barbara’s strong presence in the story is contrasted by the rather weepy one provided by Susan. As the only other female character in the story is a maid, the two provide the story’s major viewpoints of femininity: on one hand determined, brave and fiercely moral, on the other helpless, hopeless and ineffectual. To say 1960s Who is sexist is hardly the newest of observations, but The Reign of Terror shows just how mixed its messages could be.

Given this history, it’s perhaps to be expected that our two Coal Hill School teachers conform to traditional gender roles when it comes to education; she’s into the humanities, he’s about the “hard” subjects like science. If you think times might have changed in this regard, remember that 50 years later, the twelfth Doctor hung around with two Coal Hill teachers as well; she taught English and he taught Maths.

As the French might say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Except they’d say it in English, of course, Citizen.

LINK TO 42: The Doctor faces a fiery death in both.

NEXT TIME: Do not feed the flying pests! It’s the final end of The Evil of the Daleks.

Conniving, complications and Black Orchid (1982)

black orchid2

What a complicated life Lady Madge Cranleigh (Barbara Lane) leads. Her mutilated, mentally ill son George (Gareth Milne) is repatriated from South America, accompanied by a local tribesman, Dittar Litoni (Ahmen Khalil). So she imprisons said son within her enormous home, employing the tribesman as his nurse. Cut off from the love of his family and fiancée, confined 24 hours a day, is it any real surprise that George goes a little troppo?

He longs for contact with his fiancée, Ann (Sarah Sutton). But Ann has moved on, and is about to marry George’s brother Charles (Michael Cochrane). Madge, unwisely, keeps them all under the one roof. In hindsight, not the best move.

Things get out of hand when George, desperate to make contact with Ann, crashes a costume party. For a madman, he’s surprisingly calculating. Finding his way through a labyrinth of secret passages, he steals a fancy dress costume meant for the Doctor (sporty Peter Davison), one which fortunately conceals his face, and uses it to crash a party Madge is holding. Having stolen a dance with Ann, he attempts to steal away a few moments with her. When she takes fright, there’s a struggle with a footman, who is killed. But George has enough presence of mind to return the costume back to the Doctor’s room. Handy, and unlikely, I think.

Madge meanwhile makes a few odd choices of her own. She and the Doctor discover the body of another servant, hidden in the secret tunnels. Now would seem like a good chance to fess up. Instead, she decides to keep the whole thing to herself, and weirdly, the Doctor agrees to keep her secret. She doesn’t want to disturb her party guests with news of a murder, which is some extreme lengths to go to avoid social embarrassment. But then this is the woman who locked up her injured son to avoid social embarrassment, so she has form.

Inevitably, the footman’s murder is discovered. With two men dead, you might expect that now Madge will finally come clean. But you see, because George was wearing the costume allocated to the Doctor, she sees an opportunity to allow the Doctor to take the fall. Why she feels the need to do this is never explained. As she says herself once the Doctor is arrested, “He will come to no harm. He is innocent”. So at best, she has bought herself a little time. But to do what exactly? Perhaps she is hoping the mystery will go unsolved and she can go back to imprisoning her disabled son.

But no, it can’t be that because her next step is to confess all to Charles. The audience is kept away from that revelation, but perhaps it went like this:

LADY CRANLEIGH: So Charles, I have some news. Your brother’s not dead. He’s alive and horribly disfigured. Goodness knows the fuss this would cause, so I’ve been holding him captive in a secret room in this house. No, it’s fine, I’ve given him a private nurse. Yes sometimes he has to be tied to the bed, but it’s for his own good, don’t you agree? Anyway, it was all going swimmingly until he killed a servant, escaped, dressed up in the Doctor’s costume, assaulted Ann (whom he still believes he’s engaged to. Yes, that will need sorting out at some stage.) and killed James the footman. Anyway, it seemed best to let the police think the Doctor was responsible and Sir Robert’s such a dear old friend, I’m sure he won’t charge me with obstructing a murder investigation. While they work out that the Doctor’s innocent, we should work out some way of making both murders look like unfortunate accidents and then we can go on keeping George locked up out of sight. So thinking caps on! Shall we get James to fetch us some tea? Oh no, that’s right, he’s dead.

*****

The Doctor leads a pretty complicated life too. But sometimes the situations he finds himself in seem served up to him a little too conveniently. In The Doctor’s Wife we find out that the TARDIS chooses many of his destinations. Surely Black Orchid is one of those occasions. How else would the cricket loving Fifth Doctor be manoevered so neatly into a scenario where he can indulge in his favourite sport? And where his companion Nyssa (Sarah Sutton again) can meet Ann Talbot, her exact double? As this Doctor said in another adventure, “what worries me is the level of coincidence in all this.”

Look, Black Orchid doesn’t make a lick of sense. But if we wrote off Doctor Who stories on that basis, we’d be condemning a large swathe of the series. Still, there’s stuff to admire here. Sure, Part One is full of unlikely incidents (the Doctor takes the place of another cricketing Doctor, the Cranleighs readily accept that the Doctor has no name), but in Part Two when these oddities finally start to be questioned they serve to increase suspicions about the Doctor and we feel him sliding into real trouble. Also, the silent killer in the harlequin’s costume is nicely spooky and it gives the story its most enduring image. And the whole thing looks very handsome in an acclaimed BBC period drama kind of way.

Plus it gives Sarah Sutton a chance to display her versatility, playing a gushier, more ebullient character than prim and proper Nyssa. (Although points must be deducted for the perfunctory and confusing way we’re shown Ann before the TARDIS arrives. Where’s the big reveal when Ann turns around and we see she’s Nyssa’s twin?)

Sutton’s a capable actress and Nyssa is a pleasant enough character, so it pains me to say that Nyssa’s a little too bland to be a fully engaging companion. Peter Davison’s on record as saying he thought she should be his Doctor’s sole companion, but surely Nyssa just doesn’t have enough spunk to hold an audience’s interest?

Davison was comparing Nyssa favourably to fellow companion Tegan (Janet Fielding), who too often was left to complain her way throughout a story. But in Black Orchid she’s a delight; feisty but fun loving and fun to be around. She’s exactly the companion you want Tegan to be, but she rarely is. However you have to question her judgement when late in the story she hotly declares that “the Doctor is no imposter!”. When actually, having taken that tardy cricketer’s place and kept quiet about it, that’s the one thing he clearly is and everyone knows it. Better lay off those screwdrivers, Tegan.

Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) fairs worst of all the regulars. He should have been left behind in the TARDIS to do some sums or something, as he’s completely surplus to requirements here. The most he gets to do is eat his own body weight in BBC buffet during the fancy dress ball. Terence Dudley’s vivid novelisation of this story at least offers him a smidgen more interest when he gets asked to dance by a man. 

A conflicted Adric then sets about overcoming his fear of dancing, and despite his earlier reluctance finds he has something of a latent talent in the toe tapping department. “All at once a wave of happiness overcame Adric,” the book gushes. “He was doing it. Yes, he was doing it and felt wonderful!”. I like to think of it as Adric’s out and proud moment. If only to liven the whole thing up a bit.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: “Top hole,” says Charles in Part One. “Top ho,” say the subtitles. Where is this ho exactly?

LINK TO Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Both feature misguided, rather than evil villains.

NEXT TIME: This is the day the Sun expands. Welcome to The End of the World.

The Good, the Ballad and The Gunfighters (1966)

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Perhaps it would be easier for all of us if The Gunfighters was a musical. In 1966, the relatively modern idea that a drama series might, for an episode, abandon its format and take up the trappings of a movie musical was as far fetched as science fiction. But if it had, then maybe it would all make a bit more sense to us, viewing it nearly 50 years later.

But The Gunfighters is not a musical, it’s a comic Doctor Who historical which features a song. It’s a song which exists in the internal narrative, but also functions as a storytelling tool of its own and as an external commentary on the narrative itself. It’s mind bendingly complex. And it doesn’t help that the song is used to excess and is chirpily irritating.

Perhaps the song would be easier to take if the story was set in a time and place related to the musical genre. If say, the Doctor and co landed on the set of a 1930s broadway show, or a Doris Day film. But The Gunfighters is set in the blood soaked surrounds of the OK Corral. Even if we reason that this story pays more attention to Hollywood’s depiction of the Wild West than its unglamorous reality, it’s still in a genre mainly known for high drama and unflinching violence, rather than jaunty singalongs.

But here it is anyway, a spoof Western with a dramatic sting in its tail, a song and visitors from outer space. Never mind that this is the strangest Doctor Who story ever produced. It’s the strangest piece of television I’ve ever seen. And I’ve watched every episode of Twin Peaks.

It was always designed to be wacky – you don’t recommission Donald Cotton, writer of The Myth Makers so you can remake The Massacre. Cotton had apparently included the song – the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, as it’s known – in the story as background colour, but it was director Rex Tucker who allegedly decided to feature it heavily and integrate it into the narrative. It’s hard to imagine the state of mind that led to this decision. Even if you dislike the script of The Gunfighters (which, save for a few too many convenient plot twists, I don’t at all), what made him think “this would be better with more of the song. Pour it all over it! Lashings and lashings of it!”?

For the first episode, the Ballad is acceptable, if shrill, incidental music. And really, what other sort of incidental music would you have used? It’s hard to imagine Dudley Simpson’s standard electronic buzzs and clicks over the top of this. But then at the end of the episode, Steven (a stoic Peter Purves) is forced to sing it (while Dodo plays a mean piano) and he serenades us into the end credits. Now Season Three of Doctor Who is a rollercoaster ride of genre and quality, but this must have left even the most dedicated of watchers bemused.

In the third episode, the song starts to comment on the narrative, when Wyatt Earp (John, Alderson) knocks Phineas Clanton (Maurice Good) unconscious. “So pick him up gentle and carry him slow, He’s gone kind of mental under Earp’s heavy blow” it croons, and so the song explains to us what we’ve just seen happen on TV. If that wasn’t strange enough, when Charlie the Barman (David Graham) is shot, the verse dedicated to commemorating this act is sung three times. We get it! He’s dead!

But in the fourth episode, the Ballad changes function again. Bad guy Johnny Ringo (Lawrence Payne, who I can’t look at without recalling his appearance in The Two Doctors, where he was dressed like a disco version on The Thunderbirds‘ Brains) has followed Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs) and his girlfriend Kate Fisher (Sheena Marsh) to a nearby but strangely unnamed town.

So Johnny’s outside a hotel. He’s the only person in shot, looking off camera when the song starts again: “Johnny Ringo has found her. Johnny Ringo’s found Kate. The gunslinger’s got her, Now what is her fate?” Now note that this is before we can see Kate, but we can see the look of dangerous satisfaction on Ringo’s face.

More song: “Johnny Ringo has seen her, She’s coming his way. Johnny Ringo and Katie were lovers, they say.” And only now does Kate enter the shot, and we can see that the Ballad has been telling us the story for once, instead of retelling it. And for that moment, it’s intriguing and you can see how it might have worked throughout the whole story.

Meanwhile, Doc Holliday has struck up an unlikely friendship with Dodo (Jackie Lane). When he and Kate flee Tombstone, he insists on taking Dodo, for no discernible reason. So Dodo ends up being an unwilling gooseberry throughout Holliday and Kate’s sojourn to a town called nothing. And although Dodo forces Holliday at gunpoint to return to Tombstone, she’s oddly devoted to him. In the middle of the climactic Gunfight at the OK Corral, bullets flying everywhere, she runs out into it to join him. For no other reason than to be briefly captured by Ringo. Honestly, it’s a contender for dumbest move by a companion ever. This is clearly a Dodo with a death wish.

But this is a black comedy, so black it mightn’t have entirely surprised if Dodo had bitten the dust, followed by a hammy punchline, and perhaps another verse of the Ballad. (“She’s as dead as a Dodo, and it’s all gone to ruin! Vacant room in the TARDIS and the Last Chance Saloon!”). Doc Holliday shoots some folk offscreen while fetching dinner and the other Doctor (Hartnell, having fun throughout) rests his hand absentmindedly on poor old dead Charlie. Grim laughs indeed.

It’s often mentioned that The Gunfighters was the story that really did for the historicals. But it also meant the end for comedy stories for a long time until, what…City of Death? Sure, there were plenty of stories with lighter moments, but outright comedies were no more. And they had been semi-regular in Doctor Who up until this point: The Romans, The Myth Makers and then this. And musical stories? The next story which could make a claim to that would be Delta and the Bannermen 21 years later.

There can’t be many stories that have scared Doctor Who off three genres: historical, musical and comedy. And on top of all that, the director took his name off the last episode, apparently over a disagreement about editing. Another inexplicable decision from Rex Tucker. Of the myriad of weird things going on in The Gunfighters, the thing which really got his goat was the editing? The editing?!

LINK TO The Rings of Akhaten: Songs.

NEXT TIME… AHHHIMMM in charge! Bring out your dead, it’s Dark Water/Death in Heaven

Throwing shade, making allowances and The Aztecs (1964)

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Recently, I stumbled across this twenty year old opinion about 60s Doctor Who:

I’m talking retrospectively now, when I look back at Doctor Who now. I laugh at it, fondly. As a television professional, I think how did these guys get a paycheck every week? Dear god, it’s bad! Nothing I’ve seen of the black and white stuff – with the exception of the pilot, the first episode – should have got out of the building. They should have been clubbing those guys to death! You’ve got an old guy in the lead who can’t remember his lines.

Bit harsh! Particularly seeing as the person being quoted is none other than Steven Moffat, showrunner of Doctor Who. But I wouldn’t hold him to this; there’s plenty of boozy conversations I had in 1995 which I wouldn’t want recorded and transcribed on the internet for posterity. Although I don’t think in any of them I advocated clubbing anyone to death. Could be wrong though.

As it happens, this is the third random in a row on stories from the 60s. Are they all awful? I’m probably more fond of The Dominators than I should be, but any balanced assessment would probably conclude that its impressive moments are outnumbered by its duff ones. Before that I was talking about The Tenth Planet and was so flummoxed by it I ended up asking the question ‘is this brilliant or rubbish?’

Now, I can’t agree with Moffat the Younger’s assessment that all 60s Who post An Unearthly Child was bad. But perhaps you do have to be a fan to look past early Who‘s limitations; perhaps this is what I’ve done with all the Hartnell and Troughton stories I’ve randomed (need a handy list? Why, here’s one!).

Which makes me wonder how many allowances does a viewer have to make to enjoy 60s Doctor Who?

And so I’ve been thinking about this in relation to one of the most highly regarded 60s stories. In The Aztecs, our original TARDIS crew of the Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and her teachers Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) land in 16th century Mexico and are, as in so many early stories, cut off from the Ship. They become embroiled in local politics when Barbara is a. mistaken for a reincarnated priest and b. attempts to dissuade the locals from practicing human sacrifice. All in a day’s work.

It may be over 50 years old, but The Aztecs still impresses and fascinates. It’s one that deserved to be let out of the building. It presents an interesting (pro-colonial?) dilemma and cuts along at a pace which far outstrips many other Hartnells. But there is something inherently hokey about the way it was made, which I think is one of those things a viewer has to make allowances for. Luckily there’s something utterly convincing about it too.

For an example of this inherent contradiction, consider Barry Newbery’s sets. They are all rostra, polystyrene and painted backdrops. They are in essence, the stuff of theatre, the influence of which is so palpable in these early Doctor Whos. There’s no reason why these stagey sets should have the power to transport us to this distant civilisation.

And yet they do. They offer the viewer a complete world. I realised watching the story again that I had a real sense that the warriors’ training camp was some distance from the elders’ garden and that both were in different places to the temple and the tomb in which the TARDIS lands. Of course in reality, they were butting up against each other in Lime Grove Studio D. Somehow, through some Newbery magic, it works.

Also something of an acquired taste is chief bad egg Tlotoxl, the High Priest of Sacrifice. He’s played with leering treachery by John Ringham. Much of The Aztecs revolves around Tlotoxl’s attempts to discredit Barbara, so time and again he has some scheme to cook up, to undertake and then to commiserate over. Ringham’s performance is at times hammy, but often this is because of the limitations of early TV technique. Look at the end of the first episode:

TLOTOXL: (while facing the Doctor and Barbara) No, no, this is not Yetaxa. This is a false goddess! (Turns to directly address the camera) And I shall destroy her. (Long lingering stare over a slow fade and roll credits)

The dramatic import of that line is undermined by the fact that the Doctor and Barbara are just there and clearly within earshot. We have to suspend our disbelief because that’s the style of piece. The cameras don’t offer the flexibility to do anything differently. Remember those hulking great things didn’t even have zooms. (There’s another example of these camera limitations when Barbara first exits the tombs wearing Yetaxa’s bracelet. To get it into shot, and thereby signal its significance, Jacqueline Hill has to raise her arm up in front of her torso and allow the camera to creep forward.) As for changing shots, this is an era when editing literally meant cutting tape with scissors and reattaching it with sticky tape, so the more long lingering shots the better.

So anyway, Ringham’s performance is theatrical in style, but it’s full of conviction. Subtle, it’s not, but he speaks of his desire to bring down the ‘false goddess’ with such venom, you can’t help but believe him. His ambition is almost tangible. Again, somehow it works despite of itself.

But you can see what I’m doing here; making allowances all over the place. For familiar Doctor Who bugbears: lack of time, lack of money, lack of technical sophistication, and a penchant for theatre. I’m a forgiving viewer. Young Moffat’s right, I think, to present the alternative view of someone who’s not prepared to be so forgiving. And even my sympathetic eye can pick out some flaws; the fight scenes are slow and unconvincing, a few performances are wooden as, and the whole plot hinges (geddit?) on our heroes forgetting to leave a door open. Twice.

WithThe Tenth Planet, the good and the bad elements sat next to each other in strange opposition. With The Aztecs, I’m saying something different: that I can see that it shouldn’t work as TV (at least to our modern sensibilities), but somehow it does. Let’s put our clubs down, Moff, say I, at least for this one.

And as for the old guy who can’t remember his lines… He’s nowhere to be seen in The Aztecs. Hartnell gives an awesome performance here, moving easily from calculating old schemer to gentle romantic (his romance with Aztec lady Cameca offers some welcome light relief). And occasionally the unpredictable alien peeks out from behind his grandfatherly facade. Early on, Ian is quietly appalled when he realises he’s going to have to hold down a man while he’s stabbed to death. “Do it, man!”, the ever pragmatic Doctor urges. “Do it but don’t interfere”. It doesn’t come to pass in the end, but has a Doctor ever asked a companion to be an accessory to murder since?

A spiky ruthless grey haired Doctor pushing his companions to the limits? That’d never work, right Moff? Take their pay cheques back immediately.

LINK to The Dominators. In both, aliens arrive in a new culture and question that society’s ways.

NEXT TIME… God save the Queen, ay? Let’s light The Idiot’s Lantern.