Tag Archives: key to time

Skin, swamps and The Power of Kroll (1978/9)

kroll

Well, after we finish filming they get us in the coach and we go to RAF Bentwaters which is about 10 miles down the road. And we go in… That’s an American Air Force base. We go into the gym and there’s all these 6’ 10” negroes all playing basketball, saying, “Hey man! You must come from Mars! Wow! One black bloke said, “Now you know what I feel like.” Unnamed Swampie actor, talking about how he and his fellow actors washed off their green body paint. (Variations segment on the making of The Power of Kroll, TX 15 December 1978.)

In one of those odd pairings that comes from watching Who in random order. We go from The Mysterious Planet to The Power of Kroll, making our LINK between the two nice and easy: they’re both by veteran writer Robert Holmes. But also, they both feature “primitive” Indigenous cultures at threat. In The Mysterious Planet, it’s the Tribe of the Free – humans in the far future who have been released from their hermetic survival chamber to eke out life in the wilderness. In The Power of Kroll, it’s the Swampies, scantily clad, green skinned humanoids, living in the swamps of a far distant moon.

Both show us what Holmes thought were the key ingredients for sci-fi depictions of Indigenous races. They live in huts, worship heathen gods and perform ritual sacrifice. They are aggrieved by their treatment and want to wage war on their enemies. They are on the verge of rebelling against their oppressors – both eagerly await guns which will allow them to attack the opposing side – though they lack the skill and strategy to win through. (And oddly enough, both have wildly miscast actors as their leaders. Carry On’s Joan Sims as a space age Boudicca? Dignified, straight laced John Abineri stripped to his underwear and painted green?)

The Tribe members of the Free are just colour-by-numbers standard Doctor Who primitives, but the Swampies are far more worrying. On first glance, they seem to be stand-ins for native Americans. But the set dressing around their camp seems to have a Polynesian influence. On top of all that, when chief bad guy Thawn (Neil MacCarthy) talks about them, his sneering hatred seems to be a critique of the treatment of Africans under South Africa’s apartheid (“Not you!” he growls at a Swampie butler who tries to follow him into a room, and he laughs when the Doctor tries to include said Swampie in a head count of personnel). But then, he accuses one of his crew of being a “Swampie-lover” which sounds like it’s referring to race relations in the USA’s Confederate South.

So in the first instance, it’s irritating that multiple, diverse cultures are conflated to produce a generic Indigenous species… like anyone who’s not white is more or less the same. And there’s also something slightly icky about the decision to paint all the Swampies green, from toe to matted bewigged head. By 1978, it’s clearly too offensive to brown or black all the tribesmen up. But is greening them up any better? Green or brown, aren’t they both just symbols for “not white”?

To me, painting them all green is not all that different to blacking up. The significant thing is that they’re not white and there’s no good reason to make the ruling class white and give the oppressed natives coloured skin. Surely it’s not that hard to imagine a version of The Power of Kroll where the Swampies are loin clothed, but white (a la the Sevateem of The Face of Evil). Or even a version where the refinery staff are green skinned aliens and the Swampies are white (or is that too redolent of The Savages?) Or better still, where the refinery staff and the Swampies are played by actors of all skin tones, representative of the diversity of our communities. (Blimey, you might even make one of them… a woman).

Doctor Who’s heart is nearly always in the right place though. Kroll, like that other 70s take on colonialism, The Mutants, might be a bit iffy in its details but in broad terms is rightly critical of racism. It’s clear enough in its characterisation of bad guy Thawn, who makes no attempt to hide his prejudice towards the Swampies (as per the Marshal from The Mutants). He openly admits to the Doctor (a rangy Tom Baker) that his plan is to use the Swampies’ arming themselves as an excuse to wipe them out. He lays out that plan in Part One, so there’s no secret about it. (What he does conceal is that he’s behind the arms dealing in the first place.) Throughout he’s presented as unadulterated bad guy, ranting, unhinged and unapologetically racist – even his co-workers look at him with the sideward glances of those counting the exits. So Thawn and the racism he represents is clearly condemned, and he gets his just deserts when he’s skewered by a Swampie spear.

But that American serviceman’s comment – “Now you know what I feel like” – sticks in my mind. And here’s another interesting quote from 1978, when politician Margaret Thatcher said on a TV news program that, “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.” Swamped. Maybe Robert Holmes was watching. Maybe out chatty American friend was.

Or maybe they’d watched The Goodies’ episode South Africa – featuring Kroll’s Phillip Madoc as a ranting racist – a few years back. Or maybe they were watching repeats of Love Thy Neighbour or Till Death do us Part. Or maybe they caught the final episodes of The Black and White Minstrel Show, which ended in 1978. Whatever, it’s fair enough to say that television in the UK in the 70s was questioning and critiquing race relations with gusto, sometimes sensitively, often not. And The Power of Kroll is a vivid part of that.

Also, there’s a big squid in it.

NEXT TIME… There you go, big fella! A new Doctor and a new festive tradition in The Christmas Invasion.

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Fun, fandom and The Androids of Tara (1978)

tara

Here’s the first thing every fan knows about The Androids of Tara: it’s based on Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. We learn that in Fandom 101, along with Daleks are Georgian State Dancers and Colin once shot Peter but not to get his job, ha ha.

It’s also the least important thing about The Androids of Tara. Why?

Because you’ve never actually read The Prisoner of Zenda, have you? Haven’t even seen the film with Ronald Colman that everyone talks about. In fact, if it wasn’t for The Androids of Tara, you would probably never had heard of The Prisoner of Zenda. Or Ronald Colman, come to that.

Me either. And there’s nothing wrong with that.Tara’s an example of how literary allusion in Doctor Who works sometimes when, in a very timey wimey fashion, we come at it backwards. We’re introduced to works in the literary canon, through Doctor Who. Who said this show gave up its educational remit after those bug eyed monsters moved in? If I wanted to read Zenda, my knowledge of events on Tara would give me a way in.

There are plenty of other examples – some of them where I’ve even read the book. Revelation of the Daleks led me to The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. (It’s a strange book that one – a sort of acid social commentary with a deeply unlikable hero – but it really only faintly resembles events in that Sixth Doctor oddball.) The Brain of Morbius didn’t exactly lead me to Frankenstein, but I knew of its relationship to that classic novel before I tackled it. I was surprised though, to find it’s more like another Terrance Dicks story, Robot.

I could go on, and usually do. Classic Doctor Who pulled this trick often enough – borrowing plots from classic literature and making new stories out of them. But spotting these literary forebears doesn’t help us understand a Doctor Who story on anything more than a superficial level, because Old Who doesn’t critique or comment on those works; it simply borrows from them. (New Who on the other hand does playfully comment on the literary canon of famous works, not by merely borrowing their plots, but by staging ‘author tribute’ episodes like The Unquiet Dead, The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp.)

Anyway, here’s what I think is really the most important thing about The Androids of Tara: it’s fun.

*****

Fun is a concept Doctor Who fans sometimes have trouble with. ‘Fun’ can imply lightweight and insubstantial. It can be a signal to not take things too seriously. And fans long for Doctor Who to be taken seriously, so anything with a label of ‘fun’ feels, paradoxically, dangerous.

It can also be a term used to passive aggressively damn something for being enjoyable but unworthy of critical praise. “Oh, it’s fun,” people say on such occasions. Fan favourites like Androzani, Blink and Genesis of the Daleks might be scary and thrilling, but they’re not fun. Tara, on the other hand, is so much fun DWAS voted it their least favourite story of its season.

Fun is brought to Tara by lots of people; by Peter Jeffrey who plays chief villain Grendel on just this side of piss taking. By director Michael Hayes, who keeps proceedings bright and breezy, and by composer Dudley Simpson, who provides lots of harpsichord-like trills. But principally by two other men who between them shifted Doctor Who‘s centre of gravity in the late 70s.

Producer Graham Williams had been instructed to make the show less violent and more humourous, and Tara is smack bang in the middle of his stretch. When he started the show, the Doctor was a moody, aloof presence, accompanied by a trained killer from the jungle. By Tara, the show’s stars are a wise cracking madman, enjoying a sparky, almost flirty relationship with his genius sidekick and a robot dog. No wonder we’ve shifted from misshapen fiends kidnapping women and breeding monstrous vermin to princesses, castles and sword fights (with mild electric charges, no blood please).

The other man responsible for this outbreak of fun is Tom Baker. Taking his cue from the general lightness of tone, he’s conducting a four episode search of Tara for any opportunity to liven things up with a few funnies. Some people say he went too far during this era of the show, trying to turn it into Tom Baker’s Comedy Half Hour. But while he occasionally went a little too far, it’s his constant desire to enliven the show’s action which makes the whole thing more watchable. And this concentration on fun works, if not for fans, then definitely for a casual audience. I know this to be true, because Mrs Spandrell told me it was.

*****

Mrs Spandrell and I have been together for twenty years. Last year we released our large format coffee table book The Spandrells – A Celebration. (It was full of dodgy fan art and factual errors) We’re looking forward to the next five years when we’ll release The Spandrells – 25 Glorious Years which will only actually cover the first 24.

Ah, pity poor Mrs Spandrell. In fact, pity the poor spouses of all hard core Who fans. Perhaps they thought we’d grow out of it. Perhaps they thought it would just fade away. Then the series’ 21st century revival took off and it must have seemed that now the whole world had been infected with this inexplicably mad obsession. Mrs Spandrell has seen both old and new Who. She’s had a lot of Doctor Who inflicted on her.

But here’s a thing: she likes The Androids of Tara. She discovered it a year or so ago when looking for toddler friendly Doctor Who to show Master Spandrell, and because of its lack of scary bits (unless you count the rather tame Taran Wood Beast, and probably, even if you do) it fitted the bill nicely. So we can add this to the eclectic list of Mrs Spandrell’s favourite stories, which includes Paradise Towers, The Two Doctors and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (though to be fair, it was Master Spandrell who inflicted that one on her).

(She’s recently added Heaven Sent to that list, though it must be said her interest in modern Who was sparked by a crush on David Tennant, peaked with a fervent appreciation of Matt Smith, and she has waned since Peter Capaldi took over. The tipping point might have been when I told her of P-Cap’s love of The Web Planet, a story she despises due to the irritating Zarbi chirruping throughout. I’m dreading it coming up on randomwhoness. Divorce may beckon.)

I asked her what she liked about Tara. “It’s fun,” she said, before launching into an unexpected tribute.  “Prince Reynart?,” she said in a passable Tom Baker. “Never heard of him. Decent sort of chap?” Then she mentioned frightening the fish and p-p-potent stuff and Lamia’s oddly arranged hair and Grendel’s final line and did that actor who played Reynart die recently he seemed so nice. This is more interest than she’s taken in any Doctor Who story since Matt Smith took his kit off.

“And it’s Prisoner of Zenda, isn’t it?” Well well well. Either she’s better read than me or fun has turned this long suffering spouse into fan.

LINK TO Colony in Space. In both, the Doctor is on a mission for someone else.

NEXT: Here we are, four days from Earth on a spaceship with three billion and three frogs. And four Earthlings. Why? Because it’s Four to Doomsday.

Companions, character arcs and The Ribos Operation (1978)

ribos2

That Robert Holmes was an old slyboots, as the fourth Doctor might say. In the opening scenes of The Ribos Operation, he can’t resist having a jab at his leading man, the by-this-time-in-his-tenure increasingly temperamental Tom Baker. Holmes has the ethereal White Guardian (well, I say ethereal. He’s an old safari-suited gent in a wicker chair sipping an verdant looking liqueur) assign the Doctor a new assistant to, well, assist on his quest for the segments of the Key to Time.

The Doctor hates the idea. ‘In my experience,’ he pleads ‘assistants mean trouble. I have to protect them and show them and teach them and couldn’t I just manage with K9?’ But the man in the big chair insists. He clearly knows K9 can’t even get himself out of those Police Box doors without the camera cutting away, quite apart from the fact that more glamorous help is going to be needed to keep those Dads watching. So a new female sidekick is delivered.

Tom… I mean the Doctor, shoots the White Guardian a mutinous look. I can imagine Holmes watching this episode go out and chuckling into that pipe of his. During his stint as script editor, I bet he would have frequently heard Tom’s opinion that he didn’t need an assistant. Indeed he wrote the story designed to prove Tom wrong. But here he indulges in some self-referential commentary; the powers that be have deigned that Tom/the Doctor gets a new companion, whether he likes it or not.

(But Tom’s no fool and my bet is he would have spotted Holmes’s art mirroring real life. The interesting thing is he doesn’t try to hide his feelings; he puts it all there on screen. Now that’s the sign off a star who knows the extent of his power: he can see someone poking fun at him, he’s pissed off and he won’t bother to hide it.)

The new assistant is Romana, played with ice cold snootiness by Mary Tamm. Romana is an apprentice Time Lord, designed to be a better intellectual match for the Doctor than companions past. This she is, but being a know-it-all also gives her the ability to comically undermine the Doctor by sometimes being more competent than him; she can fly the TARDIS better than him, not walk into animal traps and scored higher than him in the HSC. It seems familiar to us now, because Romana’s direct descendant is River Song; both women point out the Doctor’s pomposity and silliness by outDoctoring him. But this is the first time in the series we see a companion with the ability to do this consistently.

Of course, she’s not allowed to be too clever. She turns out to be smart but inexperienced. So the Doctor still has plenty of opportunities to do all the clever things and point out to Romana that she’s wrong. In some ways this is even more sexist than Doctor Who normally is; to introduce a strong, funny and appealing character and then undermine and patronise her frequently.

Some have said this is demonstrated when Romana’s very first episode ends with her screaming at a monster (it doesn’t, by the way). I think it’s more clearly symbolised by a moment in Part Four, when she ends up pushing vainly against a polystyrene rock. Doesn’t matter how bright you are, Doctor Who‘s basic template reasserts itself. You’re the assistant. The Doctor’s the clever one, you’re the asking questions, pushing jablite one. Now put on this ridiculously inadequate costume and let’s go.

That’s unless you’re able to throw away the template. And I think the next story, Douglas Adams’ The Pirate Planet is a case in point. Romana is a much more active figure in that story. She can land the TARDIS properly, she deduces and solves as much as the Doctor… It short she’s allowed to be the character she was designed to be. Perhaps what we can see in these two stories is the different approach of two brilliant writers. Holmes, a veteran, committed to the old ways. Adams, a young Turk, ready to tear them all up.

But enough of that, it’s time to invoke a fan cliche and consider the ‘Holmesian double act’, which is overused shorthand for Holmes’s tendency to pair characters together within his stories. On first sight there are two in The Ribos Operation, exiled soldiers the Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh and galactic con men Garron and Unstoffe. Both are superior/subordinate pairings which is another pattern Holmes uses regularly. But the more interesting pairing is one no one seems to mention, that of Unstoffe (Nigel Plaskitt) and Binro (Timothy Bateson).

To step back a bit… The Ribos Operation is sometimes summarised as the story of Garron trying to fool the Graff into buying a planet based on a lie that it contains great mineral wealth. But that plot ends halfway through Part Two, when the Graff discovers Garron has bugged his room and the game is up. From then on, The Ribos Operation becomes a simple man hunt; Unstoffe has the Graff’s money and a lump of space crystal called jethryk and the chase is on.

Unstoffe is assisted by a homeless man known as Binro the Heretic. Binro is a stand in for Galileo; both believe, in opposition to the prevailing view, that their planets circle their suns. Both are persecuted for adhering to these ideas and both are forced to recant. There’s quite a nasty instance of suggested violence in The Ribos Operation when Binro retells his story.

BINRO: They said that if I did not publicly recant my belief, the gods would destroy our world.

UNSTOFFE: And did you?

BINRO: In the end. See these hands? (He raises his gnarled, twisted hands) Useless for work now. That’s why I live here.

That’s brilliant writing. In just a few short sentences, we know the whole story. Torture, specifically breaking of Binro’s hands, the tools needed for writing and conveying ideas. Without his hands, he couldn’t work. Without work, he was forced onto the streets. Doctor Who may well have adopted a lighter tone when Graham Williams took over as producer, but the darkness is always there, just a little better hidden than before.

Binro helps Unstoffe conceal himself because, as he says, ‘I know what it’s like when every man’s hand is against you.’ In return, Unstoffe confirms what Binro believes about planets and their movement. So grateful is Binro that he becomes Unstoffe’s guide through the catacombs in an effort to outwit the Graff. It fails in the end, and Binro gives his life for Unstoffe, killed by the Graff and his men. And although this prompts Unstoffe to make a headstrong rush at the guards, he is otherwise untouched by Binro’s intervention in his life.

The pay off is as clear as it is absent. Binro’s friendship should have meant that Unstoffe changed his thieving ways. Certainly he shouldn’t stick around with Garron, as he does at story’s end. Perhaps he should have stayed on Ribos, to take up Binro’s ideas and convince people of them. His character’s journey would be complete.

Or perhaps he should have left with the Doctor, and join the quest for the Key to Time. How about that? The Doctor, Romana, K9 and a light fingered, artful dodger type. Nah, that’d never work. Besides, we know how Tom feels about assistants.

LINK to The Masque of Mandragora: Catacombs! Three stories in a row.

NEXT TIME: Just you watch your lip or I’ll put you across my knee and larrup you. Then I’ll make you watch/listen to The Wheel in Space.