Tag Archives: nyssa

Delusion, dropouts and Snakedance (1983)

snakedance1

In the middle of the otherwise straight-laced Davison era, lies Snakedance – an exotic, experimental and slightly deviant experience. It feels like an illicit treat, like a sneaky spliff before heading back into English class, focussing on Eliot or Blake. It’s got much to say about expanding your mind to see the true nature of things. But let’s start with its most famous scene, which focuses on an elaborate but mysterious hat.

It’s a hat from the old times of the planet Manussa and it’s in the possession of this planet’s chief fusspot Ambril (John Carson). The hat features five sculpted faces in an outer orbit around its crown but is confusingly called “the six faces of delusion”. Not even Ambril, an antiquities scholar, knows why. It’s left to the Doctor (an excitable Peter Davison) to point out that the missing sixth face belongs to the hat’s strong necked wearer. Ambril, who had put the numerical discrepancy down to his ancestors’ inability to count rather than their ability to balance oversized headwear, is outraged to have this pointed out to him and orders the Doctor out.

Critics of this scene have mentioned that it’s a pretty obvious conceit and it’s surprising that Ambril and his fellow Manussans hadn’t worked it out themselves. Fair enough, but it’s also saying something else about them: that their minds are closed to symbolism, metaphor and nuance. Snakedance tells us that the Manussans are a decadent, complacent people, but that scene shows how bereft of imagination they are. They are blind and deaf to the threat of the return of the Mara – the ancient evil that once dominated their planet – because they can’t conceive of it happening. Just as they can’t imagine a situation where five faces can become six. They cannot open their minds to the possible.

Opening one’s mind to new possibilities and engaging in mind altering experiences to see the truth of things are at the heart of this enigmatic story. It starts with a dream, in which companion Tegan (Janet Fielding) has a premonition of arriving at the snake’s head cave on Manussa where the Mara will attempt its return. Later, the Doctor will hypnotise her and have her regress to childhood in order to confirm his diagnosis that the Mara is resident insider her head. In both these states, it’s shown that the only way to reveal the Mara is to suppress your own ego and enter into a subconscious state.

Once on Manussa, Tegan is mentally overtaken by the Mara, as she was in Kinda, this story’s prequel. Possessed companions are standard Who fare, but Tegan’s is something different because the Mara’s presence suggests not just suppression of her personality but an amplification of darker characteristics lying latent with her. This makes the Mara a uniquely disturbing creation: greed, lust, envy, wrath are all magnified by the Mara. It makes Tegan’s experience feel like a genuine expansion of the mind, although in a deeply malevolent way. And to reinforce that this mind expansion opens up new ways of seeing things, there are symbols of distorted perception dotted around, like crystal balls and fairground mirrors.

Altering your mind also eventually proves to be the only way to prevent the Mara’s physical return to Manussa. This is the only Doctor Who story to place mystical, almost heroic significance on the “dropout”; the person who turns their back on society to travel into the wilderness, and search for life’s essential truths. Maybe with the help of drugs; the image of a mind blowing trip in the isolated wilderness seems to be what the snakedance actually is.  We only ever see one snakedancer, Dojjen (Preston Lockwood) and we never truly meet him. He turns up in a series of unexplained close ups which are dotted through the story and reappears at the end as the Doctor’s spirit guide to chaperone him through his own bender.

Dojjen used to hold the same position as Ambril, that of dusty historian and bureaucrat, but he dropped out of Manussan society to wander in the desert. Ambril dismisses Dojjen as a “crank”, one who “decided his particular line of research was best pursued up in the hills with a snake wrapped round his neck.” But Snakedance positions Dojjen not as a spaced out loon, but as the wise man from whom the Doctor must seek advice. He’s a bit like K’anpo in Planet of the Spiders, except that Dojjen is completely outside the establishment, and he’s a drug user. OK, so he doesn’t actually drop acid but his drug is the venom of the snake and he convinces the Doctor to sample it as well. And so we have the only Doctor Who story where the Doctor takes a mind altering substance in order to solve the story’s problem.

The insight the Doctor gains from the experience is to find the “still point” within himself. When the Doctor returns to the snake’s head cave to confront the Mara, he finds dozens of Manussans in thrall to it, paralysed as the Mara feeds off their mental energy, in order to take corporeal form. The question is how to prevent it and the answer, again, is to change mental states.

It’s never fully explained what the still point is, but what the Doctor seems to do at the end of Snakedance is to meditate, to eradicate conscious thought and therefore starve the Mara of the energy it needs to fully emerge. All around him, the gormless, weak willed Manussans are entranced by the Mara, unable to clear their minds and disbelieve it out of existence. Again, they lack the ability to open their minds, to mentally adapt to the world around them, which has suddenly got very dangerous very quickly.

This is why, I think, Snakedance is such an intriguing story. But it’s also a languid one. Its big moments are not action sequences, but ones which focus on characters changing their consciousness in order to expand their perception. They are personal, internalised events. In fact, the standard Doctor Who runaround bits – your chases through market places, dashes back to the TARDIS, the interminable Part Three lock up – are its least interesting segments.

It’s a story hampered by having to remember to be Doctor Who, as reinvented in 1983 as a cut-price action adventure serial. But despite all of that, writer Christopher Bailey manages to slyly – even covertly – tell a story with a deeply Doctor Who moral: a lack of imagination leads to stultification and corruption, but open your mind and you’ll be enriched and rewarded.

Plus you’ll know how to interpret a mysterious hat. So there’s that too.

LINK TO Thin Ice: fairgrounds and tattooed men.

NEXT TIME: It’s reality TV gone feral in Vengeance on Varos. And cut it… there!

Caution, character and Kinda (1982)

kinda

It’s hard to know where to start with Kinda. There’s so much going on in it, all of it interesting. But so much has already been written about it in attempts to solve its mysteries, track down its allusions and just generally work out what’s it all about?  I could have another go, but I’ll only repeat what others have said, or get it all wrong or both. So instead, I’m going to talk about a character in Kinda who is often overlooked: the Doctor.

The Doctor, as played by Peter Davison, holds Season 19 together. Behind the scenes, three script editors worked on this set of 7 stories, plus a one off special about the tin dog. It’s no wonder that this season produced such an eclectic clutch of stories: from the lyrical brain teaser of Castrovalva,  to straightforward monster mash The Visitation, to cozy murder Black Orchid to whatever Time-Flight is via the return of the Cybermen and the death of a companion. And Kinda, this esoteric parable, sits in the middle. Not since season 3 has the show veered so wildly from one thing to another.

In any other prime time, family show, this might be a problem, alienating viewers from one week to another. But this show has Peter Davison as its lead, and at that time, he was as big a TV star as you would have found on British TV. Producer John Nathan-Turner used to say that when he was recasting the towering Tom Baker in the role of Doctor Who that he wanted someone younger and with straight hair. What he didn’t say, for whatever reason, was that he was also looking for a star; someone with a following they could bring to the show.

Davison’s profile in the early 80s is something which might be lost of newer fans who weren’t around to experience it, but it pushed the show into mainstream popularity. For want of a better analogy, it would be like Kris Marshall becoming the Doctor (what a crazy idea!). He was a familiar face and he was well known for taking on charming, young larrikins. He had a presence about him which was informed by his other TV roles and that was part of his appeal.

He’s the sort of Doctor who allows you take risks like telling a story like Kinda because his presence kinda forces it into the shape of a standard Doctor Who story. Kinda is a strange, mystical story, but Davison is a solid, dependable presence in it. He’s your boy-next-door hero, who your Mum remembers from All Creatures Great and Small and he plays it dead straight while all sorts of weird shit goes on around him. It’s hard for Kinda to be completely mystifying with the fifth Doctor around; he’s intrinsically a patient explainer of things. (Compare it to that similar head scratcher Warriors’ Gate, in which the aloof fourth Doctor sheds no light on proceedings.)

Why is this important? Because as well as being a stabilising factor in an unusual story, it gives Davison licence to play the Doctor in a radically different way to Tom Baker.

Some have argued that the Doctor is a peripheral presence in Kinda, but that’s not how I see it at all. He’s actually a catalytic presence in the story; his arrival on Deva Loka brings Tegan to the planet which allows the Mara to emerge. And it’s he who bridges the gap between the colonially minded dome dwellers and the Kinda themselves. Finally, it’s he who devises the plan to deal with the Mara itself.

Thing is, I think that from the outside it can look like he’s being more passive. Partly that’s because he expresses himself in far more passive way than Tom Baker – sometimes verging on meekness. Like this exchange, when the bellicose dome commander Sanders (Richard Todd) promotes his febrile 2IC Hindle (Simon Rouse).

SANDERS: Oh yes, incidentally, while I’m away, Mister Hindle will be in charge.
DOCTOR: I don’t think that’s…
SANDERS: Yes? What?
DOCTOR: (backing down) Nothing. 

It’s the sort of tentative approach the show hasn’t seen since Troughton left (was Tom Baker ever tentative?). Later, when Hindle flips his lid and starts raving about the menace presented by the trees, the Doctor doesn’t seek to shut him down; instead he perseveres with his gentle approach to understand the man’s psychosis.

HINDLE: Seeds, spores and things. Everywhere. Getting hold, rooting, thrusting, branching, blocking out the light.
DOCTOR: Yes, but I…
HINDLE: Don’t you see?!
DOCTOR: Nearly, nearly, nearly!

That “nearly, nearly, nearly” is the plea of someone trying to understand, trying to help. It’s the tiniest moment, but it’s distinctly fifth Doctor-ish. Can you imagine Tom or Pertwee taking this cautious tack with a madman? Early on in his tenure, Davison is pitching empathy as one of his Doctor’s defining traits.

Eventually, the Doctor and his newfound friend Todd (Nerys Hughes) escape from the dome and encounter the wise woman Panna (Mary Morris). She’s instantly insulting towards the Doctor. When she brands him an idiot, he takes it with bemused good humour. And when he can’t work out Adric’s (Matthew Waterhouse) coin trick, he’s intrigued, not indignant. When his joke about an apple a day keeping the Doctor away backfires, he retreats sheepishly. In all these ways and more, he’s marking himself out as different from Baker’s stridently prominent persona.

There’s another crucial moment for him at the story’s end. When he took over the role, Davison confided in Nathan-Turner that he didn’t know if he could summon the heroic strength to stand up to the show’s various villains. Nathan-Turner assured him that the character of the Doctor would naturally bestow that strength on the actor. As if to prove his point, Kinda features just such a moment, when the Doctor stares down the Mara, glaring at him through the eyes of Aris (Adrian Mills).

DOCTOR: I’m called the Doctor.
ARIS: Why do you involve yourself?
DOCTOR: Because I share the Kinda’s aim where you’re concerned.
ARIS: I now control the Kinda.
DOCTOR: Well, you did for a while, but no longer.

Davison’s Doctor is an active, heroic presence in Kinda, but his modus operandi is different to other, more boldly interventionist Doctors. He spends nearly all the story collecting information, working things out. It’s only in the fourth episode that he takes action, having gathered the data he needs.

This quiet, deliberate approach is important because one of Kinda’s themes is men trying – and failing – to assert their authority. Sanders shouts. Hindle shouts. The Mara roars. But the Doctor takes the subtler route: he listens, he empathises, he demurs, but he stands up to the bad guy when he has to. It’s a beguiling combination. It makes Kinda an important story in the development of Davison’s Doctor, among the many, many other things it is.

Walk quietly and carry a big stick of celery. He’s the Doctor who turned young Spandrell into a fan. And when he’s part of a story as smart, scary and sexy as this, I don’t think he can be beaten.

LINK TO The Eaters of Light: Demons crossing over from other worlds.

NEXT TIME… By the left frontal lobe of the sky demon, it’s The Pirate Planet.

 

 

 

Brands, association and Time-Flight (1982)

timeflightIt’s an irresistible pun: Time-Flight is unashamedly upwardly mobile. How better to describe this cheap-as-chips story which has Concorde casually hangared in it? Not so much a guest star, more a guest prop and one which is a gleaming white symbol of 1980s materialism.

I suspect there’s a cohort of new Who fans who have never heard of Concorde, or who know about it only vaguely as a historical relic (not unlike a police box). It might be difficult for them to understand what all the fuss was about. But this is not a story about any old aircraft; it would never have got made if there was only a mere 747 available to shoot in.

This is a story which, at a conceptual level, is about the most famous and exclusive aircraft in the world. The sight of it in Doctor Who is so odd, you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing, as the Doctor (sporty Peter Davison) and gal pals Nyssa (sensitive Sarah Sutton) and Tegan (sassy Janet Fielding) clamber up the boarding steps to take their seats, stow their luggage and observe the no-smoking sign. It’s a strange mix of aspiration and delusion, but it’s also the TV show’s first commercial brand deal.

Time-Flight is sometimes quoted as Doctor Who’s stab at product placement, but that misunderstands the term. Product placement in films and TV productions is about covert advertising of products which the viewing public may be convinced to buy, simply by having them featured within the narrative. Think of the Sugar Puff ads in Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.

But this is hardly product placement, because no one watching Time-Flight was about to run out the next day and book tickets on Concorde. In 1982, Concorde was an experience for the affluent and the globe-trotting. It was for people who had the money to spend on cutting edge technology, luxury service and status symbols. It’s not that no-one in Doctor Who’s audience was like that, it’s that hardly anyone was like that. Concorde was a prestige product for the super rich and Doctor Who a mass market product for anyone with a TV licence. Ticket sales, I confidently suggest, would not have taken off.

What it is about, is brand association and that’s a different thing altogether. That Doctor Who was suddenly interested in brand in 1982 fits in with an image of a time when the trappings of wealth were gaining visibility, but it also chimes with producer John Nathan-Turner’s ambitions for the show. He always wanted a deal with an airline – Qantas had been on his radar since the introduction of air hostess companion Tegan. His desire for consistent, stylised costumes for the regular cast had one eye on marketing opportunities. He reportedly also thought Tegan’s haircut could start a fashion trend. More than any of the show’s other producers, he was entrepreneurial. Having Concorde in Doctor Who must have delighted him. It speaks of ambition, glamour and prestige.

(All the more reason why it was such a bad idea to leave this story to the end of the season, when the series’ budget was running perilously low. Doctor Who was always a cheap show, but Time-Flight looks bargain basement. Instead of lifting the show up, the world’s most expensive set dressing only throws the story’s tacky interiors and scatological monsters into stark contrast. It’s like parking a Maserati in a K-Mart.)

So why does Concorde, or more specifically its operators British Airways, want a brand association with Doctor Who? The answer’s surprisingly simple. In 1982, Doctor Who was a massive hit.

This gets overlooked a bit, but Season 19 brought loads of viewers back to the show. The previous year, Tom Baker’s last, had averaged 5.8m viewers. Peter Davison’s first series brought in 9.2m. Five of its episodes, including Time-Flight Part One, attracted over 10m viewers. It is, in fact, Classic Who’s last taste of broad, mainstream popularity, and comparable to the ratings peaks of Seasons 2, 17 and the Hinchcliffe years. It rated far better than the 21st century version of the show has done in recent years.

So through Time-Flight, British Airways gets associated with a hugely popular, family oriented brand which attracts millions of viewers. Two grand old British institutions combined for a (ahem) thrilling  aviation based adventure. BA gets its logo and uniforms and livery broadcast on publically funded telly, reaching an audience that advertising on commercial networks can’t. No wonder when Nathan-Turner bluffed them by mentioning he might go with Air France instead, they rushed to secure the deal.

(Can you imagine it though? French versions of flight crew Stapley, Bilton and Scobie… and Angela Clifford to boot! Faffing about with outrageous French accents! Sacre bleu.)

From our fannish perspective, Time-Flight is an infamous disaster of a story. But I suspect no-one at either the BBC or British Airways considered it so at the time (neither did readers of Doctor Who Monthly, who placed it fourth out of seven in the mag’s Season 19 poll). Like so many other Doctor Who stories, this just wasn’t built for multiple viewings, let alone the intense scrutiny thousands of Whoheads subject it to. But as a disposable piece of cross promotion disguised as popular entertainment, I suspect it was mostly viewed as a success.

If anything, it’s amazing there weren’t more examples of it in Classic Who. That would-be story about the Master (Anthony Ainley) involved in a banking fraud? Sponsored by Barclays! (Plus he could disguise himself for no good reason again! He loves that schtick. Maybe a fatcat banker called Mr East) Or if we’re sticking with luxury transport, surely there’s be some hidden alien menace in the back seats of a fleet of Rolls Royces? Or perhaps the silencing suds of doom might return, branded by Imperial Leather?

But hang on, I’ve got a better idea. New Who could make a Time-Flight sequel, but with Virgin Galactic! More hi-jinks with vanity travel for the super rich. With a cameo by Branson! Call it One More TimeFlight. Or maybe Wham Bam Sharaz Sharam, An Orange Kalid Sky? Or if the pooey Plasmatons return, perhaps The Pile High Club?

Oh yes. This trip’s not over yet. Sit down, strap in and hang on.

LINK TO The Silurians. UNIT and the Brigadier get name checked.

NEXT TIME… We have a New York stop over when The Angels Take Manhattan. Which is handy, as the Captain wants us to try that new Indonesian restaurant he’s found.

Storytelling, sins and Terminus (1983)

Forgive me Terminus fans (yes, both of you, haha)  but I’m not quite finished with City of Death. On that DVD’s “making of” featurette, a number of Who luminati line up to talk about how great the story is, but when it comes to Douglas Adams’ stint as script editor, their reviews are decidedly mixed. The consensus seems to be that he was a prolific generator of good ideas, but didn’t understand story structure. That anyone can say this with a straight face on a documentary about City of Death is slightly bewildering. Apart from a few languid breaks for sections of travelogue footage around Paris, that story is one of the most tightly plotted the show ever produced.

And while we’re about it, think about the rest of the stories in Season 17. Despite any of their other pros or cons, they are all well structured stories, well told (save for, perhaps, The Creature from the Pit, with its odd narrative dogleg in Part Four). Sure, these were written by some of Doctor Who‘s old hands, but they’re shaped and formed by Adams. If he really is shaky on story structure, I see little evidence of it in his year as script editor.

Compare it, though, to Terminus, and there’s a story whose storytelling is all over the shop (despite its merits, of which, contrary to popular opinion, I think there are several). And because we haven’t done a listicle in while, let’s list the 7 deadly storytelling sins in Terminus.

  1. Too many characters. Most obviously illustrated by the way that companions Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) are relegated to clamber through miles of underfloor ducting for the whole story. What makes this even more annoying is that there are two surplus characters: glam rock space pirates Kari (Liza Goddard) and Olvir (Dominic Guard). Their contribution to the plot is minimal and there’s no reason their places couldn’t have been taken by Tegan and Turlough. Then we’d have had a story which involves all the regulars substantially. And in Turlough’s case, this would have kept him closer to the Doctor. Given that his character’s whole raison detre is to kill the Doctor, it might have helped to have actually been within chucking distance of him.

2. There’s no villain. The story tries to cast our suspicion on the Vanir, a group of disheveled men who act as porters for the cargo of Lazars destined for treatment on board Terminus. But as it eventually pans out, the Vanir are simply drug addicted slaves. The real bad guys are here at the Company, the Vanir’s employers and Terminus’s operators. They are the ones who process the Lazars without care or satisfactory cure, (presumably for profit) and they are the ones who keep the Vanir enslaved through the supply of glow sticks of their drug of choice, Hydromel. Problem is, we never see anyone from the Company, so we have no-one to epitomise the threat they represent. Think, for example, of the Tom Baker story The Sun Makers, where the odious Collector represented all that was corrupt in that enslaved society and gave us a villain to hate. There’s no such figure in Terminus, only a half-hearted attempt to build up the character of Vanir leader Eirak (Martin Potter) into a ruthless bully, but in reality, he’s just as big a victim as everyone else on this ship.

3. The problem Nyssa wants to solve isn’t shown. Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) contracts Lazars’ Disease which makes her pale and weak and too hot to wear anything but her underwear. She’s manhandled into the big furry paws of the Garm (RJ Bell) whom we’re led to believe will torture her. As it turns out, the Garm actually administers the treatment which cures Nyssa, but she’s not grateful. The treatment, she says, is haphazard. Some live and some die, but for those who live the treatment might lead to unforeseen secondary illnesses. The process needs refining, she says. But we’re told all this, never shown it, so it’s hard to visualise what the problem actually is. In fact, the only thing we do see is Nyssa being cured, which seems to suggest there’s no real problem here.

4. The big bang plot is unconnected to the rest of the story. Throughout the story, the Doctor (Peter Davison) is intrigued about Terminus’s position at the exact centre of the Universe. This doesn’t seem to worry anyone else, but later he deduces (somehow) that the explosion of Terminus’s engines millennia ago caused the Big Bang, and a second impending explosion may cause its destruction. Cue Part Three cliffhanger! Then the doggy Garm comes and flicks a big red switch and it’s all fixed again. Then it’s back to the main plot about the Lazars, which is completely untouched by all this flim flam. (For other, more relevant, instances of destructive, history altering events, see The Visitation, Earthshock and indeed City of Death. That can be our LINK).

5. It’s unnecessarily complicated. The sabotaged TARDIS locks on to a Lazar carrying ship. The ship is then boarded by the space raiders from funky town. The raiders’ ship then scarpers. Then the Lazar ship lands on Terminus. What ever happened to just landing the TARDIS in the place where the story’s happening? (One of the problems here, is that the set designs for the Lazar ship and for Terminus are drably similar, so there’s no sense that these are different places. Even the production team was confused. In the next story, Enlightenment, Turlough says, “I explained what happened on Terminus!” but in fact, he never boarded Terminus. To coin a phrase, “all these corridors look the same to me.”)

6. Its climax is hugely unexciting. Because there’s no real threat or villain to overcome, everyone just agrees to Nyssa’s plan to synthezise some Hydromel (in a home made meth lab, I presume) and start a hospital. Eirak is outraged a bit, but that’s all the resistance it meets. It’s a quiet, drama-less revolution.

7. It’s too long, but somehow still runs out of time. It’s quite a feat, but this story maintains a gentle languid, pace during Parts Two and Three, with much corridor wandering and aimless chatter. But suddenly, half way through Part Four, it seems to run out of time. The Vanir, including the previously belligerent and murderous Valgard (Andrew Burt) are swiftly won over. There’s no time to explain how Kari and Olvir will get back home. A quick goodbye to Nyssa and suddenly we’re back to the TARDIS for a closing snarl from the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall, see problem 1). In short, its pace is all over the place.

Now cast your mind back to City of Death. The right amount of characters, a clear and present threat, no unnecessary subplots, a strong climax… you get the idea. It’s just a better told story than Terminus.

In fact, all of season 17’s stories are better told than Terminus. It’s just one comparative example – there are many other stories both better and worse – but when we look at story telling which is genuinely a mess, we can see that Adams wasn’t half bad at his job.

NEXT TIME: Build high for happiness. We move into Paradise Towers.

Australia, ancestry and Four to Doomsday (1982)

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING (INFO-TEXT EDITION): “New South Wales is just outside Sydney, in Australia”

I love that little snafu on the Four To Doomsday DVD info text with its shaky grasp of Australian geography (for the record, international readers, New South Wales is not ‘just outside Sydney’. Sydney is the capital of the state of New South Wales, one of six states and two territories which make up the Commonwealth of Australia). And it’s apt that it’s adhered indelibly to Four To Doomsday, a story which demonstrates another strange idea about Australia.

Yes, I’m talking about the bit where Tegan (Janet Fielding) reveals that she can speak an ancient Aboriginal language (one of those unusual talents sometimes displayed by companions). I’ll get to that, but let’s go back a bit to who Tegan is, and why she’s in our favourite show in the first place.

John Nathan-Turner, who took over as producer show about a year before Four To Doomsday was made, created Tegan and specified that she should be Australian. This was not a random choice. JN-T was the first producer to consider how Doctor Who could be an international show; it was he, in his role as Production Unit Manager, who suggested and facilitated the show’s first international location shoot for City of Death.

JN-T must surely have had Australia in mind as the next potential Doctor Who location shoot. In 1979, Tom Baker had undertaken a promotional tour of Australia (oh so many awkward TV interviews. The Molly Meldrum one is fun, but the killer one is with John Singleton of all people), and he’d done TV commercials here for Keep Australia Beautiful and Prime Computers. Peter Davison has joked that Tegan was created as an air hostess in order to get cheap flights from Qantas. If true, it wouldn’t have been the wackiest plan JN-T ever embarked upon. In fact, I seem to remember a Sydney Morning Herald interview, which kicked off with Nathan-Turner saying, “I have a vision of the TARDIS landing on top of the Sydney Opera House”. It’s the kind of headline grabbing thing he might have said, but surely there was a grain of truth in it.

So Australia was on Doctor Who’s radar in 1981. And the expression of it was strident sidekick, Tegan Jovanka.

*****

We all know how that name got chosen. JN-T was deciding between two names for his new companion: Tegan or Jovanka. Script Editor Christopher H Bidmead read it as one name, and so it became. Both are uncommon, but not unheard of names. I’ve met a few Tegan/Teagans around the joint and I’ve met a couple of Jovankas.

Tegan’s surname marks her as an exotic outsider among Doctor Who companions, who are generally speaking a lot of Smiths, Jones, Wrights, Grants and Browns. But here’s the thing: Jovanka’s not a surname. It’s a first name of Serbian origin. JN-T got the name from then Yugoslav first lady Jovanka Broz. So why is Tegan using it as a surname?

Which leads us to the question, just who is Tegan?

When we meet her, she’s in her early twenties and living in London. So far, so much the lived experience of many young Australians. She’s on the first day of her job as an air hostess (cabin crew, we call them these days), so we can perhaps assume she’s been living in England for a while since moving from Australia.

Whereabouts in Australia? Well, she talks occasionally of Brisbane, and certainly she has the brash, straight talking approach of a Queenslander (Queensland being just outside Brisbane, in Australia, y’know). In Castrovalva, she says that if the Doctor wanted to go somewhere cut off from the rest of the Universe, Brisbane would be the go. (It’s a nice joke, but Australians might have chuckled a bit more if she’d nominated Adelaide.)

She refers to her father’s farm, which her Aunt Vanessa says is ‘hardly the outback’. I wonder where this not-quite-the-outback-farm within cooee of Brisbane was. Toowoomba? Not far out enough maybe. Roma?

Either way, it’s the only mention of Tegan’s father. Who was he? What did he farm? Was he Serbian by birth, or was his wife, or both? Or neither? There is certainly a long history of Yugoslavs settling in Australia, particularly post World War Two. But they mainly settled in Sydney and Melbourne.

Here’s my theory. A little bit of ‘head canon’, as the Moff calls it.

Tegan’s grandfather (Andrew Verney) comes to Australia from England and marries a woman called Jovanka, a Yugoslav by birth. They have at least two children, Tegan’s Dad and her Aunty Vanessa. Tegan’s Dad buys a farm in Queensland. Somewhere along the line, Jovanka dies and Verney and Vanessa move to England.

That’s the Serbian/Australian/English heritage, but how can Tegan speak an Aboriginal language? It’s highly unlikely that a white Australian growing up in 60s and 70s Australia would learn one. So perhaps the answer is that Tegan is part Aboriginal herself, and her Dad married an Aboriginal woman.

So under this scenario, Tegan is born and given the middle name Jovanka, after her grandmother. She grows up on the farm and the Aboriginal side of her family teaches her some language. When she leaves school, she moves to Brisbane for a couple of years, before moving to London.

And at some stage, she decides to give up her surname and use Jovanka as her surname.

And on Monarch’s spaceship, she speaks confidently with Aboriginal android Kurkutji (Illarrio Bisi Pedro). Even though he hasn’t been on Earth for 35,000 years.

Though I have no idea why she says ‘rabbits’ as an expletive. I’ve never heard anyone – Australian or otherwise – say that.

*****

As for JN-T, he never got to film a story in Australia. Qantas never gave him any cash, although the ABC did, to help him make The Five Doctors.  Was his creation of an American companion to follow Tegan a second attempt to broker international support? Probably

At any rate Tegan’s inclusion in the show was a big acknowledgement that Doctor Who had an international audience. Maybe even that outside the UK, Australia was the show’s biggest market. Sure, it didn’t get many of the details right, but that’s not really the point. Tegan Jovanka, the girl with the loud voice, the oblique ancestry, the mystifying surname and the knack for long dead Indigenous languages can actually be seen as Doctor Who’s first move from being a British show to an international show.

LINK TO The Androids of Tara: more androids.

NEXT TIME: Yo ho ho! It’s The Curse of the Black Spot, ya scurvy rabbits… um, dogs.

Inside, outside and Castrovalva (1982)

castrovalva

Act 1: Part One and half of Part Two

Perhaps the oddest way to start a new Doctor’s era is with a re-tread of Inside the Spaceship. In that curious little adventure from Doctor Who’s dawn, the Doctor and his three companions are trapped in the Ship and have to deduce that the rickety old thing is careering towards the creation of a sun. In the first act of Castrovalva, much the same thing happens, and in both, the theme is of strangers getting to know and respect each other through adversity.

The Doctor (Peter Davison) is suffering from the post-regenerative tremors and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has been kidnapped by the Master and replaced with a mathematical model of himself (this is presumably what CGI is going to lead to. Somewhere in his TARDIS the Master must have the future equivalent of Andy Serkis in his green body sock trying to mimic Adric’s body language. “Put your hand in your pocket now, walk stumblingly forward now”. Hopefully he wouldn’t have had to mimic the young lad during his famously priapic moment suffered whilst caught in the Master’s hadron web. Yup. Totes awks, boy wonder.)

With the blokes out of action, our heroes of this segment are bold and brash Tegan (Janet Fielding) and prim and proper Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). These two become mainstays of the Davison era, but in this story’s terms, they have only just met, sharing precious few scenes together in the previous story, Logopolis. So it’s an interesting decision to put these two women – strangers to themselves and to us – at the heart of the story, and put the fate of the TARDIS and the Doctor in their hands.

Luckily, Tegan and Nyssa make for a surprisingly interesting paring. They are certainly smart, proactive characters: it’s they who steal the ambulance in Part One to rescue the Doctor, they who work out that the TARDIS is in the middle of a death plunge and they who eventually have to jettison 25% of the Ship to escape oncoming disaster. It’s refreshing for Doctor Who to so prominently place two female characters and for them to take charge while the Doctor plays a diminished role.

I love this first segment of Castrovalva and a lot of it is down to Sutton and Fielding selling the dangerous situation they’re in. Which is no small feat considering all they’ve got to help them is some ‘it’s too hot’ acting, a few TARDIS lurches and some overlaid smoke. The new Doctor wandering around the TARDIS interior and impersonating his former selves is entertaining too, but it’s the idea that the two newcomers are in charge while everything goes to hell with roundels which maintains the tension. Paddy Kingsland’s music and Fiona Cumming’s direction help to sell it as well. If only they have turned down the lights a bit we would have got a real sense of our safe, familiar spaceship truly being on the edge of destruction.

Act 2: The rest of Part Two and a bit of Part Three

Castrovalva is continually about getting lost and finding a way out. In the first act, the Doctor and his companions lose themselves in the labyrinth of TARDIS interior, the second time in as many stories for Tegan. In the third, they’re befuddled by the kaleidoscopic dimensions of Castrovalva. The second act is set in the lush, airy outdoors of the planet, but even here our heroes struggle, with their destination seemingly moving about mid journey. You can’t trust any of this story’s settings to stay stable or make sense.

This second act is the most sedate of the three, a kind of mid-story breather. It consists of an increasingly strenuous stroll through the woods for Nyssa and Tegan, while they carry the Doctor in a faux coffin. Writer Christopher H Bidmead seeks to liven things up with stumbles into creeks and misdirection about a hunting party who turn out to be gentlemen, but there’s no hiding that this is the picturesque but otherwise dull shuttle between two more interesting stops. I mean, at least have our TARDIS crew pursued by a Castrovalvan wood beast or something.

Act 3: Most of Part Three and Part Four

Once we actually get to Castrovalva, the story turns into something unique. A gentle puzzle of a story, set in a quiet, refined castle/city filled with librarians, pharmacists and washerwomen (gender stereotypes are hard to shift, clearly). Presumably there’s a milliner around somewhere too because nearly everyone wears elaborate hats. In addition, all the Castrovalvans speak in a lyrical, arcane style which means there’s a sense of poetry being interrupted whenever the regulars have some dialogue. So there must be a dialogue coach about the place too.

It’s here that the Doctor realizes the Master (Anthony Ainley, heh heh heh) has maneuvered him into a trap, and that trap is Castrovalva itself. As traps go, it’s elaborate: ‘on the off chance that the Doctor survives the tumble into Event One, I’ll just use space maths to create a fake city which will collapse in on itself, and lure the Doctor into it. I’ll go as far as to populate it with oddly hatted characters who speak like 19th century butlers. Hell, I’ll even dress up as a doddery old codger and wander about in it myself.’ You’ve got to give it to him, he puts some thought into these things.

The Master’s plan is undone when the Doctor realises that the accumulated history of Castrovalva is faked, because although the books appear old, they are also paradoxically up to date. It’s an oblique point to rest a plot on, but there you go. Personally I wonder what 23 volumes of fake Castrovalvan history had in them. Tegan claims unconvincingly that the history is ‘fascinating’, but what could those dusty tomes possibly say? “Day 10,003: clothes were washed, medicants were prepared, wild boar for dinner again.” Surely the Master never expected anyone to actually read those books, as he stayed up, carefully staining the pages with cold tea.

In the end, Adric is torn out of the web, Castrovalva goes to pieces and the Master has his fancy dress torn from his body by angry fake people. The Doctor mobilises his friends into a brisk jog back to the TARDIS. Hard to imagine Tom Baker agreeing to that, and indeed although this hasn’t been an action packed story, it has consigned the fourth Doctor to hazy memory. A hungover Matthew Waterhouse looks very queasy in these scenes, and while the cameras weren’t rolling, he had a spew on some of that delightful scenery. Poor lad. An erection and gastric ejection in one story. That never happened in Inside the Spaceship.

LINK TO The Enemy of the World: in both stories, the villain keeps a small community of people in ignorance of the shocking true nature of their world.

NEXT TIME: This is a WARNing! We become companions of The Krotons. Great jumping gobstoppers!

Transitions, technobabble and The Keeper of Traken (1981)

keeper1

The Doctor (moody, burgundy clad Tom Baker) and boy companion Adric (nerdy, mustard clad Matthew Waterhouse) can be forgiven for not being up on current affairs on planet Traken. They have, after all, just emerged from an entirely different universe when this story stirs into life. But luckily the wizened old Keeper of Traken (Denis Carey) materialises directly in the TARDIS console room to play Xbox on the scanner screen. Well, he already has the chair.

No, he’s there to show some home movies and bring our heroes up to speed with the backstory. Traken, he says, is a world of peace and harmony. Well, that’s his first problem right there. In Doctor Who, idyllic, peaceful worlds are always one step away from total mayhem. In Traken’s case, a portentous statue called Melkur has landed in the grove and become calcified by the planet’s wholesomeness. Or it might be that he clashes with everything around him. Traken’s all very art nouveau, while Melkur’s pure futurism.

The ancient Keeper is reaching the end of his reign, as indeed the fourth Doctor is reaching his. “The passing ages have taken their toll on me,” the Keeper says and the Doctor replies, “yes, I know that feeling”. The Keeper senses trouble approaching during the transition. He urges the Doctor to come to assist, which of course the Doctor makes his number one priority. Right after he’s found some old books. Then read some old books. And wittered on to Adric for a while. Jeez, I’d hate to be waiting for him to rescue me.

Meanwhile on Traken, most of the first episode has past. But we’ve met kissing Consuls Tremas (Anthony Ainely) and Kassia (Shelia Ruskin, who from her accent is quite posh but has a name which sounds like she’s from somewhere west of Wagga Wagga) on their wedding night. Tremas is a scholarly type, who wanders around, playing with electronic gadgetry and talking technobabble. Naturally enough, he and the Doctor get on famously.

Kassia, however, has developed a far less scientific obsession with Melkur. She’s a bit like one of those folk who fall in love with inanimate objects, and end up marrying chairs and clocks and the like. To be honest, the husband/wife combination is a little old fashioned: Tremas is the scientific, rational male, Kassia the passionate, corruptible female. And like Eve, she’s seduced by evil in the Grove, a verdant garden in the middle of Traken. Gardens are interesting symbols of change and fertility and it can’t be by accident that one’s at the centre of things here. It’s the growing heart of Traken, while everything around it is as clean and sterile as an antique shop.

In story terms, the Grove’s polar opposite is the sterile but gaudy Source, a device which seems to hold Traken together, although exactly how we’re never told. The Keeper, apparently uses it to ‘organise the whole Traken Union’ and the Doctor says it has ‘limitless organising capacity refined to a single frame’. Who knows what that means? It must be more than just a nifty spreadsheet, but its significance is hard to grasp. Particularly when it looks like an oversize light fitting with fairy floss whizzing around inside it. Because we never get a decent explanation as to what it does, we never get a sense of what the consequences are of it being destroyed. ‘We can destroy Melkur,’ Adric says very seriously to Nyssa (Sarah Sutton, on debut) at one stage. ‘But only by completely destroying the Source.’ Wow, we might even care if we had the faintest idea what it did.

(Young Adric, by the way, is undergoing a change. He’s got a greater share of the plot now, since fellow TARDIS travellers Romana and K9 have left. But this means he suddenly picks up a level of scientific genius left behind by those braniacs. He’s able to deduce that there’s another TARDIS on Traken by looking at some gadget and muttering about Fourier analyses. He follows the Doctor’s brief bafflegab about nixing the Source so well that he can singlehandedly construct the device to do the job. Well, not quite singlehandedly; he has Nyssa to help. So typical of Adric. Left alone with a girl in the TARDIS and all he wants to do is play with his Meccano set.)

All the meaningless faux technical talk really puts the brakes on what’s a better than average Doctor Who story, with far better than average design work. For all the textbook Who imagery like the glowing eyed statue stalking the gloomy court, suffocating necklaces and black gloved villains watching events from the shadows, there’s an equal amount of blathery chat about fold back flow inducers, energy signatures and warp crossovers. It’s an odd mix of science manual and theatre, and I’d take the latter any day.

This collision of ideas is on display in the story’s climax, when Melkur’s grasp on the Keepership is broken, and a Shakespearean tempest is unleashed. Amidst all the sound and fury, the Doctor and Adric struggle to restore the natural order of things… by punching a number into a machine. By any measure, entering your PIN into a Trakenite ATM is no dramatic climax to a story.

Anyway, it all ends up OK, with the Doctor defeating his old enemy the Master (he was the Melkur all along!) and winning through to save the planet, the Keepership and the whole Traken Union from destruction. The successful end of an epic battle with some epic frocks. The future of Traken is assured.

Well, at least for the next three episodes, after which it will be casually destroyed by a big black stain. Well, you win some, you lose some.

*****

This story’s LINK to our last Random, Earthshock, is worth a bit of attention. Both feature the shock reveal of an old enemy. It’s a trick that comes to characterise 1980s Who, but it starts on Traken. The show had brought back old enemies in unexpected ways before – your Frontier in Space, your Deadly Assassin – but here the return of the Master feels like a showcase moment.

The Master, played with delicate menace by the silky voiced Geoffrey Beevers, lurks inside the Melkur, in fact his TARDIS. He’s in his decrepit state we witnessed in The Deadly Assassin, and that in itself says something about the series’ newfound love for continuity, heralded by producer John Nathan-Turner. He could have ignored the backstory, and simply bought the Master back in full bodily form. Yes, it would have disregarded the notion that the Master had run out of regenerations, but the series had performed more brazen u-turns than that in the past.

But the Master’s reappearance went down well with fans, and so Nathan-Turner repeated it the following year with the Cybermen in Earthshock. And found lots of excuses to bring back other old enemies, though never again with the same revelatory impact. New Who‘s not immune to that tactic. Far from it; there’s rarely been a post 2005 series without some familiar monstrous faces from the old days returning.

But as Nathan-Turner found, it’s a well you can only go back to so many times. Right now, I struggle to see which of the big, classic foes are left in the toybox for new Who to pull out. I think this opens the door for a few B graders to make come back. And if the Macra and the Zygons and the Sisterhood of flippin’ Karn can all be pushed back into service, I see no reason why the Melkur can’t one day ride again.

NEXT TIME… Dreams within dreams and sweet Papa Chrimbo. Every Christmas is Last Christmas.