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

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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)

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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.

Style, substance and Destiny of the Daleks (1979)

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“You listen to me in there,” shouts Tom Baker’s shambolic Doctor through a doorway to his companion Romana, in the opening scene of Destiny of the Daleks. “What you want is something warm and sensible. Something that will wear well. Something with a bit of style and, well, y’know, style.” Sure, it’s bold for a man in a oatmeal coloured overcoat and an 8m multicoloured scarf to be giving out fashion advice. But then it’s a bold story that kicks off with what’s essentially an elaborate costume change.

Well, a cast change first and foremost, but it takes the form of a costume change. See, before the story can start, there’s the small matter of changing companions. At the end of the previous season, Romana actress Mary Tamm told producer Graham Williams she was going to leave the program. Williams thought she could be talked round. She couldn’t, as it turns out. No more than her predecessor Louise Jameson could be the season before that.

So rather than write Romana out, Williams and script editor Douglas Adams decided to recast. And having a Time Lady for a companion meant that the easiest way around the change of actress was for Romana to regenerate, and that’s where we start. We’d seen the Doctor regenerate three times before, so we know what to expect. A terminal injury, a collapse to the floor, a final line full of pathos, roll back and mix and we’re done. Except like with most things, Romana turns out to be far more competent than the Doctor at regeneration.

Firstly she can choose who she looks like, and luckily for Tom Baker, she chooses Princess Astra, played by Lalla Ward, the girl from the last story that he’s a bit keen on. She can even copy her clothing. “But you can’t wear that body!” the Doctor protests. “I thought it looked very nice on the Princess,” counters Romana, starting the comparison of changing bodies with changing clothes. And suddenly we’re taking a jokey approach to what has previously been a life and death and life again experience.

The fact that the first time we see a female Time Lord regenerating it’s compared to shopping for clothes, has more than a whiff of sexism about it. (And it reminds me that when Mels regenerates into River Song in Lets Kill Hitler, she’s worried about concentrating on a dress size. Sigh.) As does the next bit, where the Doctor objects to how Romana looks and demands she tries again. It’s only that we know that Romana gets the last laugh that makes this section palatable to modern tastes.

So then we see Romana ‘try on’ three different looks – one tall, one short, one ‘exotic’ – and the Doctor objects to each of them in turn.  Yes, it’s a joke but it’s still very patriarchal for the man to be dictating to his female friend what she should look like.  But then the scene inverts in a lovely way when Romana emerges looking like the Doctor, and this finally wins his approval. It’s a smart way to prick his pomposity. In fact though she’s not just  wearing his clothes – she’s reverted to her Princess Astra face. So she gets the last laugh.

The wearing of the Doctor’s clothes is an interesting statement. It positions Romana very firmly as a would-be Doctor. And indeed, while last season she was an apprentice adventurer, the first story of this season says, look, she’s arrived. She resembles the Doctor so strongly she’s even started dressing like him. And she’s determined to see it through – when the Doctor finally accedes to her looking like Astra, but insists that she “gets rid of those silly clothes” (again, sigh), she comes out dressed in a pink and white version of the Doctor’s outfit.  She’s an acutely feminised version of him.

“The arms are a bit long,” she witters in that scene, “but I can always take them in”. Again, regeneration as costume change. In fact, Romana was often positioned as a character who’s interested in changing clothes. She’s already had costume changing scenes in The Androids of Tara and The Stones of Blood. In the latter story, and in The Ribos Operation, she’s chastised for the impracticality of her clothes.  And during her first season, she’s a character who uses clothes in attempts to fit in to any culture in which she lands.

This changes in her second incarnation, where she does precisely the opposite, and seeks to stand out from her surrounding environment. Often this means adopting a highly stylised costume, as if she’s playing a distinct character type: a schoolgirl in City of Death, a fox hunter in The Horns of Nimon, an Edwardian swimmer in The Leisure Hive and of course, the Doctor himself in Destiny of the Daleks. Romana becomes a cosplayer, a character disguised as another character.

As for actually behaving like the Doctor though… Well, she does get to feign death to escape her captors in Episode Two, an old trick of his. And she does leap headlong into a physical scuffle with one of the robotic bad guys, the very funky Movellans, in Episode Four which feels something the Doctor rather than the companion usually gets to do. (But it also ends with Romana kicking one of the unfortunate robot’s arms off, which doesn’t feel very Doctorly at all).

The rest of the time though, she’s pure companion, albeit a smart, snooty and thoroughly capable one. Indeed the cliffhanger to Episode One even has her paying homage to past companion Barbara, who was famously cornered by a Dalek at the end of the first ever Dalek episode, recoiling in fear from an extended plunger. It’s not pulled off with anywhere near the same flair, but that’s Destiny for you: always in the shadow of greater Dalek stories.

But it’s not without its idiosyncrasies. For a start it’s mostly devoid of incidental music. On the few occasions when Dudley Simpson’s familiar woodwind and percussion combo cuts in it’s rather startling. The rest of the time it’s silence, or the ghostly atmos of a Thal Wind ™, even if the action’s taking place in an underground bunker. There’s also the extensive use of Steadicam, a novelty for classic Who, and the sense of motion does help us feel like we’re running around in that sandy pit, chasing Time Lords in flowing scarves and tottering bandoleer Daleks. It has a sparse, windswept tone you don’t get in many other stories.

But then the Movellans are on hand to add a bit of zhoosh to this sandy wasteland. Look, it’s an infinitely variable universe, so who’s to say it’s not feasible that an alien species has evolved to look like Boney M. (Somewhere out there, I suspect, there are worlds where everyone looks like The Manhattan Transfer and Kajagoogoo as well). I think it was brave of costume designer June Hudson to dress actors from head to toe in white lycra and then take them out to a sandpit to film. I’ve got visions of her tirelessly brushing Movellan thighs free of grit, while the camera assistant frantically tries to keep the camera sand free.

And sure, white leotards and silver dreadlocks are one of the series’ odder costume choices but still they are remembered; 20 years later when Mark Gatiss and David Williams made The Web of Caves it was the Movellans they turned to for a parody of outrageous Who villains. If only Gatiss had donned Romana’s pink Doctor’s outfit, their homage to Destiny would have been complete. And although that might have sealed the story’s reputation a case of style over substance, sometimes it’s the style which endures.

Destiny may not always be sensible, but it’s warm, wears well and has a bit of style. Y’know, style.

LINK TO The Talons of Weng Chiang. Disfigured villains again, and of course, Tom Baker, but playing his Doctor in a very different way.

NEXT TIME: You lucky, lucky people. We burn our fingers on Dragonfire.

Whiskers, writers and State of Decay (1980)

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State of Decay, Season 18’s tale of long lost spaceships and even longer lost vampires, is a collision between two contrasting views of Doctor Who. On the one hand, there’s script editor Christopher H Bidmead and his attempts to bring some scientific rationality to the series and erase the undergraduate frivolity of the previous season. It’s from him we get the pocket universes, the forgotten data banks and a society in technological stagnation. On the other hand, there’s writer and former script editor Terrance Dicks, master of 4 and 6 part structures, who knows exactly where to put the monsters, the jokes and the helpless assistants.

It’s no wonder the two didn’t get on. At this stage Dicks had written or edited about 40 Doctor Who scripts and Bidmead had edited one. Goodness knows how the conversations about the script went down.

BIDMEAD: Terrance, I think there should be a scene here where we investigate the system file structures of the computer’s operating system and discover a theoretical universe inside the negative universe of e-space.

DICKS: Chris, that’s BORING! I think this is where Romana is tied to a post screaming while the vampires menace her! Cue cliffhanger, you see!

BIDMEAD: Terrance, Romana doesn’t scream, she’s a super intelligent Time Lady. But suppose the post she’s tied to is really a TARDIS, with another TARDIS inside…

DICKS: You know, it’s about this point in the story that the Master usually turns up.

BIDMEAD: The Master? As if!

DICKS: That’s it. From now on I talk to Barry and no one else!

Still, something intriguing comes out of the creative marriage between these two men with very different ideas about what makes Doctor Who tick. Originally devised for season 15, we can guess at what State of Decay would have been like if Dicks had had his way; traditional gothic horror, set in England perhaps in an old manor house. Small number of people isolated from the outside world. Music by Dudley Simpson. Horror of Fanged Teeth perhaps.

What we get from Bidmead, I speculate, is the stuff about the latent power of lost technology and a society being held back by ignorance, under the baleful influence of an outside force. These are themes flowing through his one distinctive season of Doctor Who and on his two Davison stories. A Bidmead rewrite of this story was prepared but the director rejected it as not Gothic enough. No doubt it was all consonantal shifts and closed vacuum emboitments but without any, y’know, vampires sucking people’s blood. My bet is he was responsible for the story’s dullest patch where the Doctor temporarily leaves the story to go and do some TARDIS based research with punch cards and ticker tape (what prompts him to go is more interesting, but I’ll get to that)

But I wonder which of them is responsible for the ingenious plot ending. I’m talking about when the castle, which turns out to be a spaceship, has a small scout ship which can serve as the mighty bolt of steel needed to kill the awakening giant vampire (we’ll politely ignore the fact that the ship is conveniently spike shaped, that it lands in exactly the right spot, that its somehow penetrates the ground to reach the underground cavern…). The story’s very setting turns out to hold the solution to the problem, which is neat storytelling I think.

Because it involves technology coming to save the day you may think this was a Bidmead conceit. Except that Dicks pulled the very same trick in Horror of Fang Rock, where the lighthouse itself turned out to be the story problem solver. Something scientifically implausible about a diamond being placed in front of the lighthouse lamp to produce a laser beam. God knows what Bidmead would have thought of that.

********

Meanwhile, Tom and Lalla are in love. You can tell by the way they’re so grumpy with each other. And then so sweet with each other. And then grumpy again. And so on. It must have been a very confusing time. One moment Tom’s vehemently refusing to help his lady love down off a ladder. The next he’s beaming at her with that voracious smile of his as if to say, oh it’s all a bit of a joke, isn’t it? Lalla wisely seems to maintain a cool reserve throughout, not getting too excited as if to guard herself against Tom’s unpredictable changes of mood.

There’s one scene in particular where they both let their guards down and let the affection for each other shine through the TV set. It’s in Part Three, when it’s time, as Uncle Terrance would know, to indulge in a little plot exposition. Our heroes are locked in a dungeon so they have some time to kill. Tom and Lalla have done this scene before, lots of times. They know all its variations. And so rather than play it with the breathless earnestness of “we’ve got to get out of here before it’s too late” etc., they decide to play it like avant garde theatre, both facing away from each other, lost in their own dream worlds.

So the Doctor tells the story of the Time Lords’ battle with the giant vampires and in return, Romana talks about an old job she once had working in an archive (do Time Lords work? Did she get flex time and penalty rates?). She casually mentions that an old book which might help them defeat the vampires was installed on certain time vehicles.

DOCTOR: What time vehicles?

ROMANA: (feigning disinterest) Oh, I don’t know. I forget.

DOCTOR: What time vehicles?

ROMANA: Type Forty, I think.

Tom is quietly delighted.

DOCTOR: Psst. The TARDIS is a Type Forty!

ROMANA: (feigning surprise) Is it? Oh.

Then Tom looks at her and says with genuine adoration:

DOCTOR: You are wonderful.

Lalla in turn is utterly delighted.

ROMANA: Me? Wonderful? I suppose I am. I’ve never really thought about it.

And then Tom punches a guard and the story rolls on. But just for a moment, we were let in on a beautiful romance, happening right in front of us.

******

The planet of State of Decay has no name so let’s give it one. I nominate Whiskeron because of the popularity of unconvincing beards. They are everywhere. From village head man Ivo (Clinton Greyn; long, straight and grey) to vampire king Zargo (William Lindsay; teased into fetching curlicues). Silver surfer Kalmar’s (Arthur Hewlett) face is shaved, but he makes up for it with a strange assortment of plaits lying half heartedly across his pate. It’s a perplexing look for an old fella. Well, for anyone.

But most peculiar of all is the strange brushy beard on feisty rebel Tarak (played by the terrifically named Thane Bettany) which seems to radiate in all directions. Perhaps feeling a little foolish under that unconvincing number, Bettany chooses to play every line with wide eyed intensity. I’m not sure which is my favourite. Is it… “The wasting is… the wasting!!” Or is it “I was a guard once…(turn directly to camera, beard faithfully following) I can be so again!“?

But if this is a scenery chewing competition then the clear winner is Emrys James as chief bad guy Aukon (little chin beard, sticking out in front). There’s not one line he doesn’t milk for maximum portent. He gets lots of zingers, but I love the bit when Habris (Iain Rattray) the captain of the guard asks for help from Aukon’s colony of carnivorous bats to see off the rebels. Aukon gives him the harsh truth. “Then die!,” he coos. “That is the purpose of guards!”

Surely that’s Uncle Terrance again, pointing out that it’s now the part of the story when minor characters become cannon fodder.

LINK to Planet of the Ood. Both are stories of an oppressed people revolting. One men over monsters, one monsters over men.

NEXT TIME… KKLAK! We find ourselves in the golden age of Invasion of the Dinosaurs.