Tag Archives: historical

Road trip, stolen Ship and Marco Polo (1964)

Marco

There’s a school of thought that whilst Inside the Spaceship, the original TARDIS crew erupts into conflict and then everyone makes up, settling into a comfortable team. This is allegedly the point where, after 13 weeks of experimentation, the show finds its standard shape and settles into a pattern. From this point of view, Marco Polo is a standard historical adventure, albeit the first and a bit grander than most. But this neglects how wildly experimental it is and that it too plays a part in helping the show find its groove. The Keys of Marinus feels much more like the typical sort of story Doctor Who will settle into. Marco Polo is, aptly enough, exploratory.

Its original name was A Journey to Cathay and that suits it far better. Because this is a literal journey across 13th century China and a metaphoric journey for our travellers and chief protagonist Marco Polo (Mark Eden). Uniquely, this is a story which takes months to unfold; the televised sections are just the edited highlights, linked by narrative excerpts from Polo’s diary. This makes it Doctor Who’s only road trip story, and such stories are always about charting the change in characters as they progress along their journey.

What did this story’s viewers back in 1964 think of being dragged along this trek for nearly two months with our heroes? They would surely have noticed, even in its weekly episodic formats, a plot which is the slowest of slow burns. Writer John Lucarotti gently doles out incident after incident for seven weeks, fuelled by two major plot strands which sustain the dramatic tension. The first is the struggle for possession of the TARDIS, played out between our heroes and Polo. The second is the treachery of Mongol warlord Tegana (Derryn Nesbitt) which the TARDIS crew are convinced of, but Polo is not.

The first plot strand prompts multiple attempts by the Doctor (a waspish William Hartnell) and his friends to regain the TARDIS by fair means or foul. Each gambit gets frustratingly closer than the last, but each inevitably fails and with each failure, those earliest episodic viewers must have realised they had at least one more week of Chinese antics left before the series got back to bug eyed monsters. The second plot strand generates various attempts by Tegana to disrupt Polo’s caravan. All his ploys – your draining of water gourds, your facilitation of bandit attacks and so on – are shared with the audience before he attempts them, keeping us one step ahead of both Polo and our TARDIS chums.

The incidents within these two plot strands repeat and overlap each other through the seven episodes. In fact, the whole story is a bit like listening to two vinyl records simultaneously, both of them stuck on a groove. Our friends plan an escape, make their attempt, they fail and face the consequences. Tegana hatches a plot, executes it and is foiled. Repeat and repeat until we reach Peking.

And in between these two narrative drivers, there are other road trip hijinks to fit in: getting lost in a sandstorm, a runaway girl, an attempt to steal the Ship. There’s even time for a poetry recital in the middle of it. This story is in no hurry.

Which is good, because it’s also trying to teach you stuff. Not an episode goes by without an attempt to educate as well as entertain, on subjects as diverse as the boiling temperature of water at heights, how condensation works, the speed of messengers on horseback and the explosive potential of bamboo. Never has the show’s original instructive premise been taken so seriously.

This what I mean by the story being experimental: it’s working out what a Doctor Who historical should be. Should there be a problem for our TARDIS crew to solve? Or should they simply be caught up in events, struggling to get back to the Ship? Should each episode be scattered through with educational nuggets? What’s the mix between drama and comedy? It’s notable that they never again tried another 7 episode historical; after Season 1, all historicals are restricted to 4 parts. Marco Polo is R&D for all the other historicals. Even the 21st century’s celebrity historicals take their lead from this one.

There’s also something experimental in its exploration of morals and its ability to tie them to its plot. The recovery of the TARDIS is a case in point. Polo confiscates the TARDIS because he wants to give it to Kublai Khan (Martin Miller, one of many actors in yellowface, unfortunately). The Doctor makes various attempts to steal it back… but the message here is he can’t win through trickery. Even when he’s an odds on favourite to win it back from the Khan in a game of backgammon, he loses. He doesn’t regain the TARDIS until Polo gives it back to him… and that act is the culmination of a corresponding moral journey for Polo.

It takes seven episodes for Polo to realise the truth of things he’s been struggling with since he met the travellers on the roof of the world. Tegana is up to no good, as our heroes have been telling him. And the TARDIS was not his to take in the first place. To bring the story to its end, to complete is own personal journey, he has to recognise and defeat his enemy but also do the right thing and give back the Ship. True, it’s kind of arbitrary that it takes seven episodes to make it happen. It could have taken four or six or ten, but that’s the saga format for you. It can take as long as you want to reach a destination.

But now that I think of it… wouldn’t it have been more fun if Marco Polo had ditched its pretentions to moral and educational instruction? It could be more like a road trip movie – a kind of Doctor Who version of The Hangover? The Doctor, Ian (William Russell) and Polo, could go out on the tear and wake up to a tiger in their caravan. Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and Ping Cho (Zienia Merton) could steal a couple of fast horses and rack up some bills on the Khan’s expense account. Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) could wake up married to that handsome Ling Tau (Paul Carson). Now those seven episodes would fly past in a blur! And as the Ship departs our heroes could all wearily agree that what happens in Cathay, stays in Cathay.

LINK TO The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Apprentice: the Doctor is separated from the TARDIS in both.

NEXT TIME… Inquests bore me. But luckily it’s Time and the Rani.

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Divergence, importance and Rosa (2018)

rosa

The thing about writing a weekly blog about a randomly selected Doctor Who story is that it’s sometimes wildly out of sync with what’s new and exciting. And it feels most disconnected from the rest of Planet Who when a new series airs. Everyone’s talking about the latest and greatest and I’m over here saying, “hey, let’s talk about The Happiness Patrol!”

So when I worked out that my 250th post was going to fall during the new series, I thought I’d make a pretence of being up-to-date and de-random the whole shebang just for a moment. Just for one week, I’ll talk about the most recent episode to air. And when I was planning this brief foray into topicality, I hoped that the post would neatly coincide with an episode which was notable. Something interesting and engaging and that felt like an event for the show.

I got lucky. That episode turned out to be Rosa, an episode which offers much to talk about. I know this because so many people have been talking about it.

Online fandom seemed to draw a collective breath after this episode aired – a kind of moment of startled surprise at what they’d just seen – and then the tweeting and blogging and podcasting began in earnest. This is an episode which people want to discuss. And debate. And draw attention to, in a kind of “wow, did you see what Doctor Who just did?” moment. BBC News, Radio Times and New Statesman ran stories on it; more than the usual amount of attention for a mid-series celebrity historical.

Normally, I have months and more often, years to think about a Doctor Who story before I write about it, so the prospect of giving a prompt response to an episode panicked me. So, I’ve been reading and listening to everyone else’s opinions, to think over what other people have said to help synthesise my own thoughts. And over the course of five days, this is the general opinion I’ve noted: “It’s very good. Surprisingly good considering how badly it could have gone. But…”

And that “but” is where opinions start to differ. For some, Rosa is preachy, for others, poignant. The aspects of it that one person loves, someone else hates. Whether it’s that scene by the dustbin or the patriotic trumpets in the score or the distracting eyebrows of the time meddling racist… you’ll find voices in support and criticism of them all. Well, so far, so the lived experience of Doctor Who fans everywhere.

There’s something invigorating about this whirlwind of ideas and competing viewpoints because we all know it won’t last. In years to come, it will all settle down, consensus will be mostly reached and we’ll all come to some sort of rough agreement about the episode. We’ll assign it a mark out of 10. We’ll pigeonhole it. But right now, we’re in a state of uncertain, noisy, opinionated divergence. I wish it was always like this.

***

If there’s a common word to pick out of the maelstrom of comment about Rosa, it’s “important”. That’s a signifier for when Doctor Who drops its usual far-fetched malarkey and tackles a serious issue. Like that other “important” episode Vincent and the Doctor, Rosa takes a real and present problem, refuses to dress it up in allegory and drops it like a truth bomb into the Doctor’s fantasy-filled world. The Doctor’s not that well equipped to deal with racism, or depression or similarly complex societal issues. But occasionally an episode forces her to do so. And because this draws a mainstream audience’s attention to those problems, we say that’s important.

In Rosa’s case, it’s also the first story in 55 years written by a person of colour (definitely important) and a compelling piece of drama. I relished my first viewing of the episode in which the powder keg tension of Alabama in 1955 was at its most palpable. It felt like our TARDIS travellers, particularly Ryan (Tosin Cole), were in genuine danger. This pervading threat of jeopardy, all too rare in Doctor Who, is like lightning in a bottle. A second viewing can’t hope to recapture that feeling, but it at least allows the viewer to appreciate how director Mark Tonderai and DOP Tico Poulakakis created it. (Aided, it’s got to be said, by some of the best art direction the show has ever seen and some brilliant locations which felt authentically deep south).

Rosa herself is played with poise and precision by Vinette Robinson. Where Doctor Who’s other historical celebrities – your Shakespeares, Churchills and so on have been broad brush pastiches – Robinson produces the sort of naturalism you expect on prestigious dramas. She lends this already weighty story much gravitas. Among the storm of opinions about this episode, praise for Robinson is as consistent as praise for the decision to keep Rosa’s story parallel to but separate from the sci-fi hijinks of the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) foiling uber racist Krasko (Joshua Bowman). Rosa’s act of civil disobedience is too profound and treasured to be spoilt by turning it into standard Doctor Who, by making the bus driver be an alien in disguise or something. If a Doctor Who episode’s going to be “important”, it also needs to tread carefully.

Still, there are missteps, and despite the episode being genuinely moving, we shouldn’t overlook them. The script telegraphs its intentions too often, such as when Ryan inquires how the temporal displacement gadget works and the Doctor carefully explains how to use it before warning him not to. Surely no one was surprised when he disobeyed her a few scenes later. Repetition snuck in: the Banksy joke, for instance, worked well once and didn’t need to be repeated. And as for how many times our TARDIS quartet explained to each other how they needed to coordinate efforts to get Rosa on the bus on time… well, I’ll just say I felt comprehensively informed.

Those four are proving to be engaging company, even if their exploits seem carefully planned around their individual skill sets. They just about get away with Yaz (Mandip Gill) using her investigative skills to plot Rosa’s movements, and Ryan can be relied upon to fire the space guns and bumble into trouble, but I’m just not sure how many more bus driving related plots they can conjure up for Graham (Bradley Walsh).  Their individual character arcs are all pointing to moments of self-realisation I’m quietly dreading: Yaz reconnecting with her family, Ryan riding a bike to save the universe and Graham driving a spaceship vaguely shaped like a bus to some vital plot point. (And at some stage, surely Ryan’s going to call Graham “Grandad,” and I’ll be hiding behind my sofa for that one).

The Doctor continues to be refreshingly warm, smart and enthusiastic, walking confidently through this tale of the worst of human prejudice. She’s the first Doctor who seems to truly enjoy having a team of people around her, but she has the smarts and courage to talk down a two-bit crook like Krasko on her own, and without raising a sweat.

Where the Doctor truly looks challenged, for the first time this season, is in that climactic scene on the bus, where she must steady her friends to stand by an allow an act of racism to play out, in order to safeguard the future. It’s a brave scene in several ways. First, it’s brave to make a decision to do nothing the moment on which a drama hangs. Secondly, it’s uncomfortable to watch the Doctor and her friends silently condone a moment which goes against everything they stand for. Thirdly, in doing so, the Doctor seems to reject the radical act of demanding immediate change which she is usually the catalyst for. She’s normally the bringer of regime change on many an oppressed alien planet. Here, she falls in favour of slow, incremental change, making people of colour take the long way around to equal rights. It’s a deeply conflicting ending but it’s designed to be, and that’s what makes it work.

This kind of small-l liberal resignation to the practical – an attitude of “well you’ve got to work within the system and change will eventually come” – is an odd note for a Doctor Who story to end on. And I can see where some are coming from when they say that’s part of the story positioning racism too firmly as a historical artefact; that despite Ryan and Yaz’s dumpster conversation, there wasn’t enough recognition of the ongoing stain of racial prejudice in our own society. I think there’s two elements here which redress the balance.

The first and subtlest is that Krasko comes from the far future. He’s a walking indication that racism will prevail long into humanity’s future and will always need confronting. More overt is the choice to close out the episode with Andra Day’s Rise Up. As it’s closely linked to the Black Lives Matter campaign, it’s a clear statement that racism is still our problem and the fight goes on; a point I’d much prefer being made by music than by the post-match TARDIS exposition convo.

***

In her first episode of this series, and in the trailers to promote it, our new Doctor proclaimed, “this is going to be fun!” That seems to be a catch cry for this season, and a point of difference from the show’s recent past. Whatever the merits of the Capaldi era, it wasn’t, for the most part, what you’d call “fun”.

Rosa proved to be an early antidote to fun in this season. But that’s OK, because it swapped being fun for being essential viewing, for more than just us die hards. Whatever the diverse opinions about this episode, I think we can confidently say it’s been a while since Doctor Who was that.

LINK TO The Happiness Patrol: both feature Americans.

NEXT TIME: Normal service is resumed. Stop your Cryon, it’s Attack of the Cybermen.

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.

 

 

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

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)

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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)

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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.