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Saturday 17 February 2024

'SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE’ (JON PERTWEE'S DOCTOR WHO)

Written by Robert Holmes 
First broadcast: January 1970 
Plot spoilers: Medium-to-high


”The New Policy”

”No eyes, no hair, just stares...”
”What?”
”Men. Creatures! Made in the factory!”

Some ’Who’ stories, there’s no real doubting which one they are. Take this. It’s the one where the dummies break out the shop windows and run amok. It’s one of the show’s most memorable sequences. Though I’ve never specifically heard it said, I would bet my frilly cuffs that this kicked things off and the script was then written around it.

But then why should that be so iconic? Why should one and a half minutes stand out so much from twenty-six years? (Particularly if you watch it back and realise they could only break that plate glass by having it happen off-screen.)

Perhaps the child psychologist Piaget will know. He conceived of the young mind as animist, progressing from a generalised sense that “all things are conscious”, even the most inanimate objects, through “things that can move are conscious” to what he called the mature view. (“Not everything that moves is necessarily conscious, just look at Ian Levine.”)

Interestingly, he saw the source of this as anxiety, a reaction to what otherwise seemed inexplicable. “It is when some phenomenon appears doubtful, strange and above all frightening that the child credits with a purpose.” (‘A Child’s Conception of the World’, 1929) And the child progresses through these stages not mechanically, like passing exams, but unevenly, shifting back and forth. So the old beliefs linger, overwritten but never truly banished.

Crucially, then, this is less a child’s anxiety than an anxiety rooted in childhood. (Surrealist art, not known for being aimed at an infant audience, often played on it.) So even in the adult that child sense can be re-induced. Which is crucial for a ‘family viewing’ show such as this. How do you appeal to both child and adult at the same time? You allow adults to reconnect to their child fears.

And this animism is all the stronger in the case of things in the image of a human. ’Who’ has already featured animate toys and dolls in ‘The Celestial Toymaker'. (If poorly applied, alas.) And it would frequently return to the trope, for example with the Weeping Angels. Further, Piaget insisted that animism isn’t anthropomorphism; in other words, things are granted sentience, but they continue to merely fulfil their function just as things do. So here the Autons don’t just oppose the shoppers they shoot, they behave in a contrary way to them. They are life and unlife at the same time.

So in a sense this sequence is classic because it's timeless, reversing development, taking adults back to a child perspective. But at the same time there is something very timely about it. And to get there we need to compare it to some near neighbours. The ’Twilight Zone’ episode ’The After Hours’ (1960) essentially takes mannequins as a variant of toys, and tells a Pinocchio tale. While the 1967 'Avengers' episode 'Never, Never Say Die’ focuses on duplicate copies. 'The Avengers' and 'Who' in particular were always exchanging writers and story ideas, so similarities are not so surprising. But instead let’s look at the differences. The 'Avengers' story becomes that spy-fi staple, the bodyswapping farce. Whereas here the focus is on duplication itself – on production.

This is of course not just the first story to feature Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, but the first of the new Earth-based adventures. (The conceit being he’d been sent there by the Time Lords, and told to think about what he'd done.) And if these new direction stories were to become more indebted to the classic BBC series 'Quatermass', they waste little time about it. The alien takeover narrative of 'Quatermass II' is unceremoniously filched in almost its entirety.

And then, more shamelessly still, they borrow to an almost equal degree from the show's own earlier 'Quatermass' homage – 'The War Machines’. To steal not only from another show but your own prior stealing from it – now that's chutzpah.

But the difference lies in the differences. In 'Quatermass II' alien takeover is signified by the familiar trope of a mark, echoing folk tales and witch trials. Here it is a plastic sheen, like spray-tan. One of the first encountered 'humanised Autons' (as opposed to those shock troop shop-front dummies) is a Secretary. And she sports the bland perfection of the Seventies 'dolly bird', recalling the then-familiar phrase “putting my face on”. In fact the closest parallel might be nothing from the list above but ’The Stepford Wives’ (1975, from a 1972 novel), which while more feminist had the same focus on getting replaced by a more perfect version of yourself. (And when you look at the silicon sheen on today’s celebrities, I’m not sure the Autons didn’t win after all. Rylan Clark? Clearly an Auton.)

Simon Reynolds writes that “plastic as a pejorative dated as far back as the Twenties...but it was really in the Sixties that people started using the word to mean fake and superficial.” (’Shock and Awe’,Faber & Faber) Think for example of the 1967 Mothers of Invention track ‘Plastic People’: “She paints her face with plastic goo/ And wrecks her hair with some shampoo”.

Which you might expect. Though their history is longer, in the Seventies plastics were becoming increasingly ubiquitous - to the point where they seemed almost new technology. Notably, the 'Doomwatch' episode 'The Plastic Eaters' hit the screen only a month later. Though, unsurprisingly, 'Who' is less concerned with maintaining scientific caution than using the stuff as a poetic symbol. Just like the Cybermen weren't really about your Auntie getting a replacement hip, the malevolent Autons aren't really about plastic bags replacing paper ones.


So plastic comes to play an almost transmutive role in the story. It becomes the bridge in the once-firm division between man and machine, between metal and flesh. One of the key settings is the Auto Plastics factory, where designer Ransome returns after a business trip. To find everything changed. His presence is now no longer required by his former business partner Hibbert, who has a new and somewhat sinister compatriot in Channing. In general, everyone seems to be behaving very strangely. 'Edge of Destruction’ levels of strangely. They don't shake hands when they do business. He's fobbed off by being told all the changes are down to “the new policy”.

But perhaps the key sequence is the one preceding this, set on the factory floor. It has, as you might expect, similarities to the factory sequence from 'War Machines'. But, again, the differences... That was clearly being undertaken in secret, happened upon by a tramp. Here they are not surreptitiously making robots by night but doll parts by day. After the 'poetic realism' of 'War Machines', this is 'real realism'. It could be documentary footage of a doll factory merely inserted into the episode. It might even be taken for filler.

…except the whole significance of the story is there in that scene. One of Marx's famous dictums was “it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour but the instruments of labour that employ the workman”. This scene is like that sentence turned into a feedback loop. The workers (all women here, despite Charlie's chosen phraseology) are making approximations of human parts with machines. While they themselves work robotically, to the machine's speed, just a replaceable set of parts themselves.

“We're turning over to automation,” explains Channing. “It means we can keep staff down to a minimum.” But of course the meaning of the phrase is not literal. Its not a story about mechanisation resulting in rising unemployment, something in its infancy at the time of transmission. It means a minimum of autonomy. In 'Quatermass II' the manual work still needed to be done by workers, who could scupper the invaders' plans simply by folding their arms. But times change...

It's like lifting up the lid and exposing the workings. You could look at that scene and wonder if, like the Secretary, the workers have been taken over yet. But when you do you come to realise it doesn't really matter. The Autons may win, or the Doctor may defeat them. But whichever way the workers are staying on that production line.

That shop-window-busting scene, where the immaculately attired dummies usurp the somewhat-shabbier-looking shoppers – yes it’s iconic, but it’s not altogether surprising. In a way it’s cachet lies in the fact it’s a moment whose time had come. As the counter culture came to be more subsumed into the mainstream, critiques of consumerism became a staple of the Seventies. But this story goes beyond that. It takes not just consumption but production into its lens. True it only does this incipiently, but its being there at all is noteworthy.

In this way the replacement of mind control (used in both 'Quatermass II' and 'War Machines') by... well... replacement is significant. Notably, Holmes' working title for the story was 'Facsimile'. In this new, plasticated world we all become replaceable. People aren't just done away with but vaporised, made to disappear. (Via the command “total destruction”.) Being surplus to production is analogous to non-existence.

In 'The War Machines', the plan's combination of takeover by mind control (represented by the sentient super-computer in the Post Office Tower) and by robot invasion (represented by the factory) never seemed very joined up. And here the Post Office Tower is essentially replaced by another handy London landmark, the waxwork museum Madame Tussauds. Which makes more sense...

...no really, it does! Well, that symbolic sort of sense anyway. Because it is used as their warehouse of Auton duplicates of the great and the good, the “government types” and military top brass. Because it matters who our betters are. While us proles, we’re essentially mere parts - faceless, interchangeable cogs. We can be replicated by the production line we're working on.

Yet it needs stressing that the critique of production is only incipient. Just as with 'Quatermass II', as with 'War Machines',  as with 'Tenth Planet' or countless other examples, the problem is framed less in terms of our losing our agency than a rather fetishistically individualised sense of the pure self. The Nestene Consciousness, who control the Autons, are bad because they are collective. Ransome becomes suspicious of Hibbert when “you keep saying we”. When Channing later intones “we have no individual identity” we are intended to be chilled.

There's a plethora of telephone scenes, despite the fact that unlike 'War Machines' they have no obvious narrative function. But they're most likely there to underline one early scene where Channing is in a phone booth. Someone impatiently barges in to ask how long he'll be, to discover the receiver is down. We separate beings communicate one-on-one, nodes in an exchange. While the Nestene, a hive mind, pool their thoughts universally by telepathy.

Except of course they possess only the supposed downsides of collectivity – and so they still have leadership! While their consciousness arrives on Earth via meteorites (giving the story it's title) which can then inhabit the Auton shells, its the 'swarm leader' which goes missing – putting their plans on hold until it can be found. “Swarm leader” seems a peculiarly oxymoronic phrase, reminiscent of Kenneth Williams insisting on being called “Citizen Sir” in 'The Black Fingernail'. 

When looking at 'Tenth Planet’, it became obvious that the notion of the Cybermen standing for communism can't really hold up to scrutiny. This story may be firewalled against misinterpretation, but from another direction. Ransome has been away on business, which is carefully specified as in America. Though by the Seventies this had become common, there may be a significance to it.

Particularly back then, America seemed the place where capitalism came from. “The latest thing from America” was a common phrase. Any mention of “the new policy” might stir up Stateside thoughts in people's minds, new business practises shaking up the trusted old ways. Ransome's trip throws us off this wrong scent. (Though my mind goes in another direction. The Nestene’s name always make me think of the notorious Swiss multinational Nestle.)

Because, just like the Cybermen, the Nestene come from neither west nor east, neither left nor right. Not even up, not really. Outer space is not being used as a blind to disguise their actual origins. In a cautionary story, they stand for the future. (The meteorite's calling signals sound almost uncannily prescient of mobile phone rings.) And space stands for the future just fine.

From A Clown To A Dandy

”I couldn't bear the thought of being tied to one planet and one time.” 


If not much has been said about the new Doctor so far, then the story doesn't do much more. He's kept out of the action for almost the first half, as he recovers from his (still unnamed) regeneration. (While Troughton’s first outing got an instalment to itself.) And when he does appear, as perhaps should be expected in a story so indebted to 'War Machines', he's clearly a successor to Hartnell.

Donning the aristocratic signifiers almost as soon a stepping from his sick bed, he 'borrows' his trademark cape and vintage car from... yes, really... a Doctor. Which he promptly drives to UNIT and speaks so imperiously to a sentry you can't help but be reminded of Andrew Mitchell's Plebgate affair. His commanding voice, we don't even need to be shown, gets the job done. In fact, it could be argued he doesn't <i>really</i> behave like the Pertwee Doctor until he's in his posh togs. In his sick bed he feigns derangement as a means to get what he wants, then pulls a face of mischievous-child triumph, a very Troughton trick to pull.

At points he acts less like a hero and more like an aristo who, after losing his heritage, has been thrust unwillingly into a day job. Suddenly he has responsibilities, even the need for a name. At first he tries to evade it by sneaking off, only to find the Tardis disabled.

And herein lies the paradox. For a story about the alienation induced by modern production methods (which in no small way this is), it is all the more bizarre to have a protagonist so steeped in privilege culture. But rather than searching for some intra-story way of getting to grips with this, we are better off seeing it as symptomatic of Seventies culture overall - perhaps even British culture in general. Andrew Hickey has often observed that there is much of George Orwell or Tony Benn in the Doctor, the toff who turned to the proles. This paradox will be turned over again and again by the show. It's the grit that makes the oyster.

The Autons and their replacement/takeover scenario may have been devised to match his regeneration. The Doctor conveniently manages to land not just at the same time as the Nestene's meteorites, but in the same wood. (In the Pertwee era, not only does the Earth reduce to the Home Counties, they can be spanned by stretching out your arms.) His line about his new face being “very flexible, you know” might seem to suggest at some kind of parity. Yet the Autons' replacements ultimately do the opposite of the Doctor, who is the same person only looking different.

However, for all that there's a newfound emphasis on his alien-ness. He's shown to have two hearts, something he's been previously quiet about. But of course this alienness is now required precisely because of the new format – because things are now Earth-bound. However copycat the scripts might get, the Doctor is not Bernard Quatermass the Earth scientist. He's from another world and has at root an inscrutably alien nature. The 'Radio Times' cover which introduced him was keen to show him as some kind of magician.


If this is not the first UNIT story, it's clear UNIT is now being set up to be regular feature. (We're almost explicitly told the Autons will be back for a rematch.) This story went out the same year as yet another Seventies SF show with an alien invasion premise, 'UFO'. While SHADO, UNIT's equivalent, hide behind the cover of a movie studio, their glam fashionista uniforms suggest the cover they've gone in for is quite deep. Nominally SF, 'UFO' overlapped considerably with pop-surreal spy-fi stories, such as 'The Avengers', 'The Man From UNCLE' and Marvel comics' 'Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD'. (Where SNAAC applies, Snappy Acronyms Are Always Compulsory.)

UNIT can't compete with this fashion parade, but they still look a good deal more dashing than that regular army clobber. Of course they have to act the straight man to the Doctor's dandy. But like the plastic they occupy a between-space, not as hidebound as the straight army, but neither as savvy to strangeness as the Doctor. Notably it's Captain Munro from the regulars who gets replaced.

And with UNIT of course the Brigadier is back. This significance of this may be hard to reconstruct from hindsight, as we tend to see his role as effectively beginning here. But while fans frequently complain the new policy of Earth-set stories constrained the show, the contemporary casual viewer – tuning in to a much faster-paced show, with more location shooting and now in glorious technicolour – would have seen it as opening up. 

All those revelations about the Time Lords to top off the last season, now they don't even get mentioned by name. This is built to be a jumping-on moment for new viewers. (Ratings had been falling through Troughton's tenure, and are known to have increased with this story.) Given all this, the Brig's reassuring face becomes one of the very few recurring features, the only person around who would have been able to recognise the old Doctor. (The Tardis is alternately guarded and ferried around like a totem, but we don't see inside it.)


Yet if the Brig is the familiar face, all the audience identification business falls to new companion Liz Shaw. When Hartnell became Troughton they made sure it happened mid-season, with Ben and Polly still around to provide a live commentary. This time it’s a season-opener. Here, as Andrew Hickey comments: “we’re introduced to these vaguely familiar elements as if they’re totally new, through the eyes of new companion Liz Shaw.”

Her introductory scene is all about her, and us, being brought up to speed. But it also tells us about both her importance and her character. Her initial skepticism has to be seen in this light. We're used to encountering the small-minded disbelief of the petty bureaucrat - obsessing over protocol and procedure oblivious to the fact that silver-suited extras are even now over-running High Wycombe. But from Liz, coming so early in the reboot, its a skepticism she expresses for us – and so in her we see it as a sign of intelligence. (Though she doesn't need to worry about those “little blue men”. Everyone she runs into will be green.)

She's clearly been head-hunted by UNIT on her own prowess, though just in case we haven't got it yet the Brigadier states firmly she's “not just a pretty face”. If the Doctor's still a magician, this time he's not handed another mini-skirted assistant. Liz is an actual scientist who does actual science stuff, almost a dummy run for Romana. To think that it was only four years ago when Polly first appeared, and we got almost excited over her being a secretary.

Though 'Quatermass' featured female scientists, despite so much else being sourced from there Liz has no real antecedent. She's more an acknowledgement of shifts in Seventies culture – what was then dubbed “Women's Lib” and we now tend to call second-wave feminism. A wave which had expanded from political and legal campaigning to a general critique of culture, which of course included popular culture. Gloria Steinem’s article <i>’After Black Power, Women’s Liberation’</i> was at this point barely a year old.

A popular TV show keen to expand its audience may have not wanted to seem behind the times, or to cut itself off from a potential female audience. Certainly, like the UNIT uniforms Liz's look seems pitched - tied-back hair but mascara round her eyes. Not too old-world, not too dauntingly modern.

Given all this, when Liz is shown taking to the Doctor straight away the man she's meeting is the man a whole chunk of the fresh audience may be meeting. A mysterious stranger, an alien. All we can be really sure about is that he's brilliant and here to help us. Actually, we can't even be entirely sure he's here to help us.

One of the more unfortunate similarities to 'War Machines' is that the ending is as much of a let-down. Things are essentially solved by the combination of a technomaguffin and overacting. (Androzani calls it “a disappointing ending which fizzles out in a sea of woeful tentacles”, and indeed its a sequence about as infamous as the Autons coming to life is famous.) Seemingly you're only supposed to twig that Channing was an Auton himself right at the end. A natural reaction to which would be “if I'd have known I wasn't supposed to guess that, I'd have tried harder not to”.

Yet overall, while Holmes' previous two efforts ('The Krotons’ and 'The Space Pirates') are not what you would call well-remembered, this has gone on to be a favourite among fandom. Yes, the same fandom which normally so takes against the Pertwee era! Which is perhaps odd, as it very much establishes the new policy rather than provides an exception to its rule. Maybe sometimes its the first time that can be the charm.

Coming soon! Those anomalies in the tempo-spatial sphere persist…

Saturday 10 February 2024

‘THE DOMINATORS’ (PATRICK TROUGHTON’S ‘DOCTOR WHO’)

Written by Norman Ashbury (and definitely not Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, not them, no not at all)
First broadcast: August/ September 1968
Plot spoilers? Officially yes, but I shouldn’t worry


“Shall we destroy? Shall we destroy?”

”Destroy”

“Overall verdict”, says Tomb of the Anorak, “it’s crap”. This is not a popular story. It normally finds itself in a three-way tie for last in the Troughton popularity stakes, with ’The Underwater Menace’ and ’The Space Pirates’. (Respectively, a story I didn’t bother with, and one I won’t be.)

People are keen to point out that the premise is daft, the plot thin, the costumes ludicrous, the ‘deadly’ robots actually weirdly cute, and its all bundled up in a reactionary rant against the peace movement. Even the writers washed their hands of it, insisting it went out under a pseudonym.


Which might seem hard to argue with. Starting with the costumes, I would bet money that the actors were signed up before the first costume fitting. The Dominators are for some reason dressed up as armadillos, in armour so stiff and awkward that when they try moving blockily about they resemble a ’South Park’ animation. For their part, the Dulcians parade about in curtains. And the robots Quarks look like packing crates turned bling but also punk, while also a child gang. The Chumblies were more menacing, frankly. You’re clearly intended to understand what they’re saying, and it’s impossible to work out a word.


One character, Cully, is scripted as a headstrong and impetuous youth - but is played by the most incongruously middle-aged duffer since Bill Hayley. (Actor Arthur Cox was 34 at the time, but in all honestly looks older.) But it’s the reactionary moral, and the virulence which its given, that gets most goats. El Sandifer found it: 

“…an overt attack on the ethical foundations of Doctor Who… an attempt to twist and pervert the show away from what it is and towards something ugly, cruel, and just plain unpleasant. The sheer sickening stench of this story is enough to turn one off the program entirely.”

Yet ’The Daleks’ was an anti-pacifist story too. But as pointed out by approximately everybody, that gave its target their best face. The Thals were as noble and principled, and in their own way brave, as the Dulcians are a ludicrous Aunt Sally inside a curtain. Anyone can knock down a straw man, in fact that’s what they’re made for. (In addition, I suspect most aren’t objecting out of some card-carrying pacifist conviction. The problem is the familiar elision between being anti-war and pacifism, then pacifism with passivity.)

Except, as you may have already guessed, it’s around now that I’m going to say that its the business of ’Doctor Who’ to be absurd. So, while it’s no competitor for ‘Power of the Daleks’ or ‘Web Of Fear’, this is a whole heap better than ‘The Wheel in Space’.

True, the anti-anti-war angle is the second-hardest thing to take. It does feel highly un-’Who’ for the Doctor to be messing so readily with guns and bombs. And while the Sixties peace movement certainly deserved its share of criticisms, none of them are the knee-jerk reactionary reasons doled out here. But I always say, you’re better being ridiculed than ignored. When they try this hard to misrepresent you, you must be doing something right.

More importantly, with this sort of thing they always imagine they’re telling on us. But of course they’re really telling on themselves. And they don’t know that. Which only makes it more telling. As we’ll see later.

I may have had an advantage here, as I knew before watching that this was originally intended as a satire but had those elements edited out. Which was part of the reason why the writers huffily resorted to a pseudonym. (The other part being a squabble over the robot Quarks, imagined as being as marketable as the Daleks in the same hopeful way as I imagine Ana de Armas and matrimony.)

Except of course the satire kind of sticks. It’s a bit like the adage about rock & roll, you can’t clean it up because it’s dirty to begin with. It could even be argued that the insistence all this is played straight just sharpens the satire. With the story as broadcast it would be more than difficult to work out how intentional the comedy is. But certainly none of it is intentional from the point of view of the characters. Which, like a planet filled with straight men, only makes it funnier. Being asked to take this seriously and finding you just can’t, that’s perhaps the best way to watch it.

The tiffs between the two Dominators are especially hilarious. Big Dominator (as I was soon calling him) is forever called off-stage, insisting that in his absence Little Dominator to not do any more of that destroying business. But as soon as he’s out of sight what do you know but some pressing problem rears, which unfortunately can only be resolved by destroying some more stuff. So what’s a poor Dominator to do? Reluctantly he has to give the order again - “destrooooy!”

Only for Big Dominator to return and ask angrily whose been destroying in his house. Hilariously, his objection to all this isn’t anything to do with scruples or even strategy, he just figures it wastes too much power. He may be concerned they’ll run out of 50ps for the meter, it’s not exactly clear. Little Dominator then sulks and seethes, before muttering the passive aggressive “order accepted.” It may be he’s actually a Destroyer, enrolled in the Dominator fleet by clerical error.

But the Dulcian Council, who endlessly debate stuff and occasionally try to decide whether they should maybe be deciding something, are not exactly ept either. Perhaps their attire comes out of the fact that it’s clearly curtains for them, no matter the size of the threat. Their meandering musings seemed absurd to me. And I work for the Council. In fact the whole thing could be summed up as a resistible force meeting an ineffectual object.

So in short the Dominators look and act like a right bunch of prats, and the Dulcians a different bunch of prats. And that’s a vital part of the story. Their respective costumes represent their respective ideologies. They’re absurd because those ideologies are absurd. The Dominators are encased in rigid armour, their movements little more than literally one-track. While, less happily, the Dulcians look remarkably like men in dresses, emasculated and enfeebled. (I did say less happily. This is in fact the hardest thing to take about the story.)

”Destroy!”

But also, forget all this for a moment and try to picture a contemporary satire of the Sixties peace movement. Surely Rada members in wigs saying “hey man” a whole lot. Hopeless hippies, useless youths who won’t fight the godless Commies like they should because they’re too busy lying down and listening to the Grateful Dead. Kids today…

So then why are so many of the Dulcians so bloody old? They’re one of the most gerontocratic societies yet seen on this show. Yes, there’s Cully the reckless youth. But that suggests reckless youth starts at forty. (Like the daft costumes, there’s a way in which the ludicrousness of this helps the story.)

Further, but relatedly, what’s with the Classicism? I mean, it’s pretty hard to miss. They wear togas. Okay, they look like they all wanted to wear togas but had to resort to curtains, but even so… What could that possibly have to do with peacenik hippies, in their kaftans and patched jeans?

And further still… At this stage ’Who’ almost entirely ignores the mechanisation of labour. And this story soon continues the series tradition of humans doing manual labour while machines look on. The Doctor does ask “What would they want Dulcians as slaves for, they've got the Quarks?" But no real interest is paid to this. We’re told the Dulcians don’t do labour, and the Dominators finally decide they’re useless as slaves. (A message from their home world, confirming what we could have told them inside of five minutes.) But if (as is stated) we’re not just seeing some aristocratic caste, if they don’t labour at all, whose keeping them in curtains or maintaining those travel tubes?

Because it keeps up the link between pacifism and passivity. And it effectively fits with our received history of Classicism, where slaves are kept off-stage and invisible. But then the next thing doesn’t…

What about their rote learning? To the point where “better to do nothing than do the wrong thing” is their credo. Which might seem more part of the Dominators’ culture than the Dulcians. This certainly has nothing to do with our received ideas of Classicism, that it was some kind of forerunner of the Enlightenment.

(While watching I was convinced the Dulcians should be seen as the philosophising Greeks and the imperious Dominators as the invading Romans. But it seems the names are all from Latin. Dulcian means “beautiful people”, an early working title.)

Remember the Thals too had classical-sounding names like Ganatus and Antodus, intended to confer gravitas upon them. But unlike them the Dulcians aren’t there to be seen as nobly wrong. Their society is, in its own way, as problematic as the Dominators. It can’t be a peaceful utopia, whose problems unfortunately rear up from outside. It must call those problems down on itself.

And the learning-by-rote is function overriding theme that allows for this, foregrounding that what we’re looking at is a stagnant society. In a twist on Jules Feiffer’s famous gag about the Republicans and Democrats, the Dominators do all the wrong things while the Dulcians don’t do anything. If they’ve seen no wars for thousands of years, they’ve probably just not got round to one.

Because the point we’re supposed to take about these useless hippies is that they aren’t an aberration but a symptom of a wilder malaise. Like children copying and magnifying their parents’ bad habits, they’ve taken on the worst elements of the generation before. The post-war world of peace and prosperity has softened people up, left them insulated from the harsh realities of life, turned decadent by such luxuries as indoor toilets and central heating systems. What they need is some shock therapy before the inevitable next war rolls round. Haisman and Lincoln spent a good deal of their spare time berating the end of national service, would be my guess.


’The Penta Ray Factor’ (July/Aug ’65), a ’Daleks’ comic strip in ’TV21’, is strangely similar. We have a decadent Classicist society who chooses to do nothing when warned of invasion, we have a brash and reckless son of the leader, and so on. (It’s also similar to ’The Trigan Empire’, though preceding it by four months.) Suggesting these themes were in the air. (Wyndham’s ‘Midwich Cuckoos’, as we saw, also dealt with this projected problem.)

There’s two odd things about this. First, much of their earlier ’Web of Fear’ was about the uselessness of a military response to an otherworldly threat. Okay that threat was specifically designated the Weird, rather that a pair of bickering buffoons in cumbersome costumes. But it’s still somewhat bizarre they went from there to here in one script.

But also, this sounds like last weeks moral panic. By time of broadcast (after, for example, the Grosvenor square riots) the Dulcians should have been if anything more like Little Dominator, headstrong and reckless militants, convinced that the world they want is only one explosion away. (Or jump arbitrarily between hopeless space cadets and deranged fanatics, as the Planet People did in ’Quatermass’.) 

But popular culture is never so neat, and the first draft of history normally arrives late. Literally, so here, where the script was commissioned on Jan 2nd ’68 then written over February and March. This was effectively a ’67 story, which just happened to be broadcast to the world of ’68.

”Destrooooy!!!"

If the Doctor taking too readily to guns and bombs seems problematically out of character, his decision to act the part of a dumb local, in order to stay under the radar of the Dominators’ arrogance, seems very Troughton.

”An unintelligent enemy is far less dangerous than an intelligent one, Jamie. Just act stupid. Do you think you can manage that?”

Speaking of Jamie, all the fighting stuff gives him something to do, likening the Quarks to redcoats. True, this mostly takes the form of throwing styrofoam rocks at kids dressed up in packing crates. But he looks happy about it.


While Zoe fares the best. Rather than just being a walking Wikipedia she scores on the gumptionometer. Separating her early on from the Doctor and Jamie takes her out of their shadow, and allows her to be contrasted to the Dulcians. As Cully points out: “She can't be a Dulcian - she has an enquiring mind.” It would have been better not to dress her up as a Dulcian, as the earlier scenes visually contrast her from them. But curtain-covered or not, she gets her moment.

Coming soon! Disruptions in the space-time continuum…

Friday 2 February 2024

LIBERATE THE FORCES WHICH MATTER BINDS! (A SPOTIFY PLAYLIST)



Our next Spotify playlist takes the form of a winter ritual. The opening 23 Skidoo track is from the album ’The Culling is Coming’, which came with bespoke ceremonies for Winter, Summer and Autumn. Presumably because you can get through Spring by yourself. Things then carry on in similar vein…

Mostly, this is tracks to trance you out rather than have you listen to them. Never a bad thing in my book. And of course the primary purpose of a Winter playlist is to take you out of the fact that its currently Winter. If it doesn’t work for you, then your entry fee will be refunded in full.

The title may well come from ’Invention For Destruction’, a Czech animated version of ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’. Or somewhere else. Who can say?

23 Skidoo: G-2 Contemplation (Part 1 - A Winter Ritual)
The Sabres Of Paradise: Duke Of Earlsfield
Fuck Buttons Race You to My Bedroom / Spirit Rise
Bowery Electric: Slow Thrills
Silver Moth: Hello Doom
MONO: Halcyon (Beautiful Days)

Saturday 27 January 2024

“THE HIGHWAY THAT’S LEADING ME”: JONI MITCHELL’S ‘HEJIRA’ (TOP 50 ALBUMS)

“I’m not an evasive writer. You don’t have to dig under the words for the meaning… When someone asks what a song is about, I want to say, ‘Well, did you listen to the words?’”
Joni Mitchell


”A Decade Full of Dreams”

We are here to talk about the 1976 Joni Mitchell album ’Hejira’. But if we take our time in getting to it, wind our way round some serpentine curves, wouldn’t that be the most *’Hejira’* way of going about things?

The NME Book of Rock, the first music book I ever read, described Mitchell as a “singer/songwriter with a pure voice, specialising in highly-wrought emotional ballads… notorious for various romantic attachments”. A widespread notion which reaches its nadir in the notion that her music’s ‘confessional’, like an emotional version of striptease. (Notably, its a term she always disliked.)

And some still see her through that frame, the epitome of a hippy-dippy Sixties artist, going gooey over clouds, getting wide-eyed about Woodstock and falling in love with passers-by every few minutes. But they mistake the overture for the act. It’s the early-to-mid Seventies where she came into her own.

It's the first two albums which most match that popular image, and while they do contain some great tracks there’s also times where she sounds like Phoebe from ’Friends.’ Mitchell herself later conceded “to me, most of those early songs seem like the work of an ingenue.” It was the third try, ’Ladies of the Canyon,’ which first brought in the changes. Released in 1970, it meant that for Mitchell the Sixties ended right on cue.

A few numbers, such as the title track, could have come from the earlier albums. But mostly it pointed forwards. Which also meant wider. While the earlier albums had featured occasional bass, extra instruments came to be used more expansively. But perhaps most significant of all was the guitar-sporting folkie making greater use of piano.

It was followed by ’Blue’ (1971), which capitalised on all of this and is regarded by some as her best album. And where the title track made it clear which element she was channelling - “Blue/ Songs are like tattoos/ You know I’ve been to sea before”. Then on ’River’ she imagines the titular body of water as something she could “skate away on”. (Yes, skate. She was Canadian.) And her piano-based music came to flow like a river. Which went with something else…

Leonard Cohen, particularly on his earlier albums, set his songs in a heightened realm, full of slightly mystic characters doing richly symbolic things. It is something of a wrench to hear that famous lines in ’Suzanne’ may have been inspired by someone called Suzanne making him a cup of tea and putting bits of orange in it.

While other songwriters use a more straightforward, conversational style, directly addressing the listener in a way which feels immediate and involving. (Think of how many songs are sung second-person, to “you”.) As John Lennon put it: “say what you mean and put a backbeat to it.” Sinead O’Connor’s ’The Emperor’s New Clothes’ would be an example, with its payoff line “you asked for the truth and I told you.” If you were ever to find out that the song wasn’t a faithful description of her life at the point you couldn’t help but feel it was lessened.

And these are diverging approaches, branching off from each other. You need to pick one.

Well, maybe me or you would. And most people seem convinced Joni Mitchell picked the second. But she didn’t. Instead, she straight out refused to pick. And she seems able to slip between the two irreconcilable opposites within a single line. At times she’d deliberately juxtapose them for effect…

“She speaks in sorry sentences
“Miraculous repentances
“I don't believe her.”


…the punchy immediacy of the last line added like a pin to a balloon.

And this created a kind of double virtue. You feel like something significant is being imparted while, at the very same time, that she’s talking straight to you. ’Song For Sharon’ (which we’ll get to, promise) is written as if a letter to a long-time friend, casually mentioning Dora and Betsy as if we know them.

And the flowing piano enhanced this, enabled her lyrics to be more free-flowing and semi-stream-of-consciousness. Her tracks can have the buzz of meeting up with an old friend, where the torrent of conversation seems both effortless and endless, something to ride. It gives it a compulsive quality, the exhilarating feeling of being absolutely in the moment. (Yeah okay, she’s the only one doing the talking. It still feels that way.) And the immediacy of music, the sense that it’s all happening now, is always a positive feature.

And these go on to work as part of a triple whammy, with her Seventies shift in subject matter. ’California’ starts:

“Sitting in a park in Paris, France
“Reading the news, it sure looks bad
“They won't give peace a chance
“That was just a dream some of us had”


…and this just one year after she’d written the hippie anthem ’Woodstock’! John Lennon, the one who’d coined ‘give peace a chance’, later sang “the dream is over.” Yet where he was rueful she was phlegmatic. Her tone is “remember when we thought that peace stuff? Boy, what had we been smoking?” From that point on the song moves on to other subjects, like waking and shrugging off a strange dream.

Mitchell has said she saw her generation as an equal-but-opposite reaction to the stultifying, conformist Fifties. “Out of it came this liberated, spoiled, selfish generation into the costume ball of free love, free sex, free music, free, free, free, free we're so free. And Woodstock was the culmination of it. [But] I was not a part of that.”

Except of course the writer of ’Woodstock’ was. Giving up on social change after finding out you won’t be given it seems pretty on-brand for that description. With Mitchell, as with many others, the dominant subject of her music became herself. On the afore-mentioned ’Song For Sharon’ she sang, out loud and upfront:

“Well, there's a wide wide world of noble causes
“And lovely landscapes to discover
“But all I really want right now
“Is... find another lover”


And its the self-importance of singer-songwriters which so often grates. The genre often feels like First Word problems recited over some strummed guitar. Godspeed’s Efrim Menuck once called it the “privileging of individual angst”, while Mclusky recorded an album acidly titled ’My Pain and Sadness Is More Sad and Painful Than Yours’.

All true. Except there’s a crucial difference between Mitchell recording ’Hejira’ and Jerry Rubin becoming a stockbroker. An artist’s first responsibility is to find what they’re good at and do that. There’s not a lot to be gained in demanding they write a song calling for the military-industrial complex be dissolved if their talents lie elsewhere. Mitchell was made to sing about the bittersweet richness of life, in all its complexities and self-contradictions. If it took her a little while to get round to that, she still got there. And anyway, personal relations, aren’t they part of life too? Or should we be stamping down Jericho full time?

As she said herself: “A lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on ’Hejira’ could only have come from me.” Or as she sang herself…

“People will tell you where they got
“They’ll tell you where to go
“But till you’ve got there yourself
“You never really know”


Besides, in her case that free-flowing, semi-conversational style mitigates against self-absorption. (Or at least too much of it.) She sings less like she’s shining a spotlight on her personal dramas and more like she’s catching up with us.

And also, for someone supposedly so self-obsessive, Mitchell could be acutely observational, pinning people with a phrase…

“Like a priest with a pornographic watch
Looking and longing on the sly
Sure its stricken from your uniform
But you can’t get it our of your eyes”

And once more, there’s a companion musical shift. As said, post-’Blue’ she started the move to a fuller band. The music grew more intricate, bringing in brass and strings. This grew slowly, but was unmistakable by 1975’s ’The Hissing of Summer Lawns’, which even incorporated the jazz standard ’Centrepiece’.

’Ladies of the Canyon’ had, clearly enough, been her Laurel Canyon album, the backpackers and freewheeling hippies who passed through it drawn from her own crowd. Songs are like quick snapshots of life happening around her, friends caught in character poses. While ’Summer Lawns’ is definitely her take on LA – “the city of the fallen angels”. Its like a film, with a cast list full of larger-than-life figures. Which means the most inventive, the most musically rich Mitchell album is the one most concerned with artificiality. (“Beauty parlour blondes with credit card eyes/ Looking for the chic and the fancy/ To buy.”)

But then there’s a bend in the road.

By this point the ‘studio album’, rich with effects and overlays, had become a thing you did - cemented in the popular mind with ’Sergeant Pepper’. And, as with that example, there wasn’t much to do once you’d gone there but reverse back out again - go back to what you were doing before. And at least in part ’Hejira’ does this, goes back to the simpler and more direct songs of ’Blue’. Precisely one track has more than four players, most have three.

But at the same time the sound became more jazzy. Mitchell had always been as much a Jazz as a Folk fan and, feeling Rock musicians lacked finesse, she started to work with Jazz players. Perhaps starting off with LA Express playing on her 1974 album ’Court and Spark’. Which ended with the Jazz cover… yes cover, ‘Twisted’. But ’Hejira’ was the first of her albums to incorporate the fretless bass of Jaco Pastorius, and involved her singing evocatively about “strains of Benny Goodman”. So the album which went back simultaneously went forwards. 'Summer Lawns’ had worn its sophistication on its sleeve, while ’Hejira’ held it closer to the heart.

Now Jazz to me is like chilli or garlic. You wouldn’t want to taste it on its own too much, but it can serve well when added to other things. And when added to Folk it creates a kind of sweet ’n’ sour. (Just think Pentangle.) This fretless playing just went with her lyrics, free-form music to give wing to her free-form narrative. (Not unlike Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’.)


”Porous With Travel Fever”

Also, if the element running through ’Blue’ had been water, and the instrument piano, this changes too. This album featured not a note of piano. On ’Amelia’, she sees the vapour trails of six planes in the sky, and likens them to guitar strings. A track named, of course, after the aviation pioneer. Elsewhere she paid tribute to those “who’ll walk the girders of the Manhattan skyline.” The music doesn’t seem even as bank-bound as ’Blue’, but passing in jets and flurries like air streams.

As is often, the immediate reason for the switch was simple and practical. It was largely written on a road trip across America, from LA to Maine, and a guitar had simply gone in the van easier. At one point she describes coming across a piano mid-journey, and falling on it like an ex-lover. But that necessity was fortuitous. When she picked up a guitar again, it was as if it was a new instrument. The result was, if not in the standard sense, a classic air guitar album.

And, yes, travel… The observant reader might want to point out she had written about travel before. Often, in fact. ’Blue’ had opened with the line “I am on a lonely road and I’m travelling”. But those travel songs tended to focus on place. ’California’ was sung to California, as if to a person. Here the travel itself was the thing, the road runs through the whole album. One track is titled *’The Refuge of the Roads’* and the highway appears on the cover superimposed over her figure, as if it’s what she has inside - a space where you’d expect a presence. She said herself: 

“I wrote the album while travelling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it…The sweet loneliness of solitary travel.”

The title track opens with “I’m travelling in some vehicle/ I’m sitting in some cafe”, and its the “some” which sticks out. It’s the smooth transience of the road which soothes you, like rubbing a succession of freshly laundered hotel towels across your cheek. Freedom is the absence of snags and ties, passing through places the way a ghost walks through walls. On ’Coyote’ the road offers odd-couple romances and one-night-stands, inoculated against entanglements. Because all the time you’re in some place you’re just some person, unencumbered by the associations and expectations of those who ‘know’ you.

She sang “Your life becomes a travelogue/ Of picture postcard charms.” And the songs are like travelogues, flitting from one incident to the next, passing a farmhouse on fire or a couple sitting out on a rock.

The result’s an album that’s literally as free as air. Not in the sports commentator sense of “I literally don’t know what literally means”, but literally as free as air. Drums, which usually play a grounding role in music, are so sedate you pretty much need to check the track listing to know when they’re there. (They appear on four tracks, percussion on three, while two feature neither, seeing as you asked.)

But then there’s a curve in the road.

Like a yin/yang sign, pursue one course for long enough and it’ll bend and turn and become its opposite. And with that in mind it would be tempting to take songs as antonyms, set the floaty, gossamer-light title track and ’Amelia’, the world seen from “clouds at icy altitudes”, against ’Song For Sharon’, with it’s more distinct pulse, and self-confessed hankering for human attachment. But, as is often the way with Mitchell, nothing is so clear-cut…

Faulkner wrote the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. He probably wasn’t thinking about Joni Mitchell, but he might as well have been. She writes not like she’s providing some summation of her life, where it all led to this, but mapping the beats of her heart. And ’Hejira’ frequently returns to her conflict between this wanderlust and a desire for the most tied of all knots. Described by her as ”the strongest poison and medicine of all.” Brought on not by a love affair, a one night stand or even a crush, but by spying “the long white dress of love” in a Staten Island window.

“In our possessive coupling
“So much could not be expressed
“So now I am returning to myself
“These things that you and I suppressed” 

But later in the same song she adds:

“I’m porous with travel fever
“But you know I’m so glad to be on my own
“Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger
“Can set up a trembling in my bones”

And this is (as promised earlier) ’Song For Sharon’, sung as a letter to a home-town friend. Notably, Sharon’s possessions are material, Mitchell’s metaphysical…

“Sharon you've got a husband
“And a family and a farm
“I've got the apple of temptation
“And a diamond snake around my arm”


The concluding track is ’Refuge of the Roads’ as if Mitchell never really returned from that trip. But ’Song For Sharon’, the longest number, feels like the album’s centrepiece. Ultimately she doesn’t resolve any of this, or even try to. She just tells us it like it was.

To sum up… Heading for another drudgeful and demanding day of work one Monday morning with ’Hejira’ playing in my head, I figured that whatever transpired after I arrived, in that moment I was in free transit. An album that even makes Monday mornings more bearable. Who could ask for more?

Saturday 20 January 2024

’CHILDREN OF THE STONES’

Happy days! Our look at Teatime Dystopias, when kids' TV went weird (starting here), continues with a well-remembered if rarely repeated classic. We foretell PLOT SPOILERS!


Where There's Stone There's Strange

Like all great TV shows, ’Children of the Stones’ starts with a great credit sequence. And, like all TV shows made in the Seventies, it starts off with a very inexpensive credit sequence (see end). In fact, it’s just a bunch of close-ups of some old stones.

Of course, it’s the disorientating music that makes it, that gives it that eerie effect. It was described by Stewart Lee as “the most inappropriate children's TV theme ever penned.” (In his Radio Four documentary 'Happy Days'.) Needless to say he meant it as a compliment.

Admittedly composer Sidney Sager may have been at something of an advantage. In those staid days, science fiction and fantasy were permitted more out-there music and sound design than the norm, just by invoking that catch-all heading ‘weird'. I genuinely think that throughout my childhood, the only time I heard any music other than pop fodder was through science fiction shows. As a sensitive youth, I found that fear was more easily triggered by sound than by vision, particularly the uncannily ‘causeless’ sound of soundtrack music. When it all got too much, don't shut your eyes - cover your ears.

But the music comes to affect and infect the visuals, in a kind of sinister synaesthesia. As you listen to the voices (provided by the Ambrosian Singers) rising and falling, undulating and unpredictable, you start to see the misshapen stones the same way. In fact as the show progresses, great play is made out of their inscrutable shapelessness. Those undulations become like Ernst’s famous frottage artworks, when you were never quite sure what you were seeing and what you weren’t. (I suspect that at points fake stone props were deliberately used to suggest semi-subliminal clues of this kind.)


But perhaps most magnificent is the image above, where they’re held in contrast to the electrical boxes and measuring devices which our protagonists heroically take to them – the measuring rod held up against the defiantly askew. In many ways the image acts as a microcosm of the whole series, and much like the show it seems to pack in so much. As I once said of Paul Nash’s megalith paintings: ”Inevitably we come to see these things as outside ourselves, a puzzle to be solved with measuring tape and aerial photographs. Yet there's the nagging sense the answer is within us, one of those things we seem to know but cannot quite recall.”

As with ’Sky’ you could diminish 'Stones' by reducing it to a formula; it’s at root a mash-up of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ with ’The Stepford Wives,’ with a dash of 'The Wicker Man' thrown in for garnish. But that would be to mistake the recipe for the taste, and the taste of that eerie opening remains.

Broadcast in 1977, only two years after ’Sky’, Children of the Stones’ is more insistent still on the fundamental weirdness of the English landscape, and is often cited as an example of the Old Weird Britain. This is less a genre (a set of rules which more or less associate with a mode of thought) than a mood. And this lack of specificity gives the concept a flexibility, a resistance to hard definition.

And 'Stones' knows how to play this ambiguity. Though both it and 'Sky' were ITV shows, we who grew up in the shadow of our parents’ snobbery cannot help but see ’Stones’ as an honorary BBC production, ’Blue Peter’ to ’Sky’s ‘Magpie’. This difference is there even as those credits roll. <i>’Sky’</i> is full of filters and post-psychedelic effects, here we’re just shown some stones. (It is hard now not to see 'Sky' as a period piece, while the lesser use of special effects allows 'Stones' to seem more timeless.)

While much of 'Sky' is chase-and-run, ’Stones’ has a more complex storyline which develops quite slowly. Clues marinade, events accumulate. (In fact co-author Trevor Ray had been an associate script editor on ’Doctor Who’, with which ’Stones’ shares both strengths and weaknesses. Most notably, it lasts seven episodes when it could easily have fitted into five or even four.) Those who think of Brit SF TV as extras in rubber suits shouting “boo!” at the screen will be somewhat nonplussed by all of this.

While Sky has some iconic force to his performance, the series’ acting in general is at best adequate. By contrast ’Stones’ has some name actors in chief roles, including Ian Cuthbertson and Freddy Jones. (Though admittedly that does expose the poorer child performances somewhat.)

Let's go back to 'Stepford Wives' a moment, because the similarities are so strong they throw an emphasis on the differences. Both used location filming heavily, but used quite different locations to quite different effects. 'Stepford Wives' is set in an idealised suburbia, as if a gleamingly pristine advert for a newly built estate sprang to life, so was shot in small town and suburban locations wherever possible. It's a bit like the way Portmeirion works in 'The Prisoner', you're aware you're looking at something simultaneously real (not a set, a real space) and artificial (an un-place with none of the feel of the lived-in).

While 'Stones' is set in a village. The makers based their fictional Milbury closely on the actual geography of Avebury, a Wiltshire village genuinely nested inside a stone circle. (From today’s perspective Milbury can seem pretty idyllic; with a population of fifty-three it can claim its own Post Office, museum and pub. In fact the pub seems to survive on precisely three customers. They must have been pretty heavy drinkers...) And this distinction between suburb and village is significant. Here it's the rootedness, the connection of everything to its own history which is the cause of all the problems. These aren't plastic people. These are stone people.

You can read in any book on Romanticism how Britain’s early and rapid urbanisation led to the veneration of the rural. The heart and soul of the country, clearly it wasn’t where we were. So by default it must be where we weren’t. As a child I was taken to see twee English villages in much the way I was taken to see the Crown Jewels at the Tower. It was worth seeing because it was so unfamiliar, yet at the same time supposed to be our heritage. This made it ripe for inverting.

And stone circles, aren’t they ideal for this? They’re kind of just <i>there.</i> They’re used as emblems of Britain, appearing on tourist posters and the like. But at the same time as being quaintly traditional, like country pubs and cricket greens, they’re foreign objects, sitting loftily on our landscape like they own the place, despite the fact we know little about why they were put there - defying our supposed smartypants modernity. We construct theories to explain away how and why “they” built them, like a kind of intellectual comfort blanket.

”Complete the Circle”


The story's central conceit is that Hendrick, Lord of the Manor, is using ancient magic to brainwash the villagers into docile happiness. He’s been at this a while, since roundabout the dawn of humanity. The main image of this is the circle, a word which comes up in every episode’s title. When the outsiders Adam and Matthew arrive, the circle vies with the straight line - the primary relationship of parent and child. In that earlier image it’s their magnetometers and other paraphernalia which are pointed hopefully at those old, weird stones.

In a key instance of the show's 'Blue Peter'-ness there’s none of 'Sky’s working class protagonist or its suggestions of the generation gap. Adam and Matthew are a father-and-son team, with Adam in the finely middle class job of academic researcher. (An astrophysicist, albeit one who seems confused between his own job description and that of a geographer.)

While ’Sky’s Arby Vennor has to abandon his regular work to get involved in the adventure, here it’s the father’s job which takes him there. Being “very clever at working things out” Matthew helps his father in his researches, and is essentially a junior version of him. As Adam gets rather pally with Margaret, the museum creator, Matthew does the same with her daughter Sandra. Generations don't gap here. They recur. 

It’s an unstated but fundamental rule that, when people go to Hendrick to be converted, they go two by two. In Matthew’s case, there’s a brief explanation that his mother has died. There may also be one for Sandra but if so I missed it. But notably everyone seems to be in a one-parent family, for example the Doctor and his son. This rule is upheld by Hendrick’s table/altar (below) only having three chairs. For a family even of three would risk counterposing the bigger circle with a smaller one.


The sole exception is the solitary Dai, who survives by avoiding the village, clutching his magic amulet and going into endurance bouts of loony mumbling. Alone he cannot fight the circle, so instead he continually dies and is reborn, the show’s equivalent of Kenny from ’South Park’. (There may even be a sneaky pun in his name.) Unlike others he’s not an outsider to the village, his exception just proves the rule.

Hendrick himself is not exception but variant. At first he’s rather like Goodchild in ’Sky’ an ominous presence prone to turning up unannounced, his urbane charm merely part of what makes him chilling. (Though he’s more the series’ answer to Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle from ’The Wicker Man.’) Though it’s often spoken of as the circle’s centre, we don’t get inside his manor house until the fourth episode, when we first see it through Adam’s eyes. From that point we are enabled to follow Hendrick from his own point of view. We find that instead of the standard parent and child relationship he has a butler, reinforcing his separation and authority. He is outside and at the centre of the circle he creates, his is the burden of command.


As Matthew points out, and like all great bad characters, the fantastic and terrible thing about Hendrick is that he genuinely believes he’s working for everyone’s good. His spell runs ”return to us the innocence that once we knew. Complete the circle. Make us at one with nature and the elements.” By making the villagers docile he purges them of all capacity to do evil, and in return gives them harmony and (in an interesting twist) intelligence.

Despite my heading it’s arguable how dystopian this series actually is. While ’Sky’ boldly tells us our whole way of life is doomed, ’Stones’ has a set-up which tacitly assumes that everything outside the village circle – in Adam-and-Matthew land - is okay. True, the village itself turns out to be a faux utopia, if one seen through almost from the start. In fact, at its most basic level, the series is about the conformism of closed communities. (This was the element picked up in the comedy film ’Hot Fuzz’, which is simultaneously tribute to and parody of the series.)

In this way, it’s tempting to see it as Enlightenment values trumping pagan superstitions, religion casting out the unknown versus science trying to understand things. Adam and Matthew represent a virtual roll-call of scientific rationalism – inquisitive thinking, individual identity and all the rest of it. They’re like science fiction characters trying to navigate through the tropes of a horror story, their magnometers like crucifixes against the strangeness.

Given the date, it would even be tempting to see it as a parting kick to the already waning back-to-the-land rhetoric of hippie subculture, with their feelgood mantras. Couldn’t Hendrick’s spell be the founding statement of some well-intentioned Home Counties commune?


And yet… Hendrick is himself a scientist, holding banks of computers in the deconsecrated church’s crypt. If the stones themselves are the dominant image of the series, this seems the broadening point, the image which connects it to the science fiction of the era. See the amp monoliths of the gatefold sleeve of the first Hawkwind album from 1970, above. Author Arthur C Clarke famously claimed “any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Sixties and Seventies were the point where that became true of our technology, where our lives became besieged by an ever-increasing supply of devices and accoutrements - with us lacking the faintest clue how they really worked.


Also muddying the occult/rational waters, and with shades of ’The Tomorrow People’, Matthew develops psi powers. (Adam has a strong reaction when he touches one of the stones, suggesting he too is ‘sensitive’ but it is Matthew’s powers which develop.) So, rather than opposing Hendrick's magus with rationalism, their chief counter-weapon is itself a kind of shamanism.

The series might seem to resolve more neatly into good guys versus controlling baddies than the cosmic moral ambiguity of ’Sky’ or the conflicted wish at the heart of ’The Changes’, but the autochthonian is still given its seductive appeal. As the Wiki entry for the concept in Greek myth says, "they are rooted and belong to the land eternally.” Folk horror often uses protagonists as interlopers, going somewhere else within the UK (here less than a day’s drive from London) but finding it foreign soil. Yet unlike say *’The Wicker Man’* the incomers are seen not so much antagonists as the sick who need curing. Newcomers are incorporated until they belong. Milbury’s danger is through being someone else’s utopia. Welcome, friend.


Ultimately, circle versus line manifests as the conflict between circular and linear time. Events happen less in a causal than a fatalistic manner. The painting, found off-screen by Matthew before the series even starts, is an inbuilt plot spoiler - demonstrating almost everything that will happen. Dai lives a prisoner of circular time, living (and dying) the same events over and over. As Rob Young wrote in ’The Magic Box’, “when narratives engage with paganism and ritual, actions get stuck in a loop.”

Whereas Adam and Matthew are the champions of linear time; they must enter the village, complete a project and then leave. To Hendrick leaving is a non-concept. Notably they arrive by road, their journey interrupted when they (think they) see a strange stone figure jump out at them. And they defeat Hendrick through manipulating linear time, like it’s their element. (Check out the denouement for what I mean.)

Yet circular time is also, in a sense, accumulated time. Instead of the present arriving to replace the past, events recur, deepen like a coastal shelf. In an earlier piece, we looked at how Henry Moore’s sculpture explored his own fascination with the autochthonian. As the show’s name suggests, here this fascination becomes a phobia. The number of villagers not only equals the number of stones, in the end they turn into them. Perhaps the stones grow like coral, thickening with each iteration.

And the series does a good job of suggesting the vast timescales involved, rather than succumbing to attempt an inadequate literalisation. At one point, Hendrick takes umbrage at Adam's jibe at our primitive caveman ancestor. The inference is that he has good reason to take the insult personally. The “magus” he insists the caveman was, that's him.

Like ’Sky’, there’s no sense that victory is in any way complete. This war of linear versus circular time isn't really resolved – each just returns to its respective corner. And perhaps the point is that it can’t be. The picture, we should remember, predicts their escaping the village. Which it does by portraying a previous occurrence. And the coda suggests that circular time may already be reasserting itself and will always recur, like the seasons, no matter how many times it is defeated. This is a Manichean war, opposites endlessly attracting and then repelling one another.

The series as a whole is nicely open-ended; rather than being spoon-feed, you are left a lot of plot points to tie up yourself. However, there are times where you can’t help wonder whether those points do fit together, or whether you’ve been set a fool’s errand.

For example, it's debatable how much sense the conceit of stone people actually makes. Are they stones brought to life through these ancient magical forces? Have those people been in the village all these centuries, so the stones are their natural calcified form? But of course it’s there because it makes a great deal of symbolic sense - the stones quite literally have no free agency and are locked in a circle.

There's similar problems with the black hole/ supernova element. It’s originally a mystery what the stones are aligned with, it seems an empty section of sky. Then it’s revealed as a black hole which, back in the day, was a bright supernova. But Hendrick’s whole shtick is to dispel the villagers’ ‘evil’ into the repository of the inescapable black hole. If time is circular, how was that possible with the supernova? The star's collapsing seems there merely as a measure to indicate the vast timespan rather than a piece of internal story sense.

However, if not every piece fits perfectly, that’s no reason to throw away the whole picture. This series assumed its child audience were intelligent enough to follow it’s not-always-straightforward plot, run through some quite philosophical concepts and (at times) cope with being quite thoroughly spooked! Do they write ‘em like that any more? I’m not at all sure that they do...

The first five minutes, including that eerie opening...




Saturday 13 January 2024

'SKY'

(The first part of Teatime Dystopias, our look at SF in Seventies Kids shows, on ‘The Changes’, lies here. Though they can be read in any order.)


”It is like this. The truth that men once saw was a window of many colours, now the window is shattered and lies in glittering shards across the floor. But the fragments you pick up cannot be the whole and the wind of chaos begins to blow through the open space.”

When middle-aged men blog about old TV shows its normally because they have youthful memories they wish to indulge. But this post is appearing precisely because when the ITV children's series 'Sky', by Bob Baker & Dave Martin, was first shown back in 1975 I didn't watch it.

I mean, I didn’t miss it either. I was home from school and plonked before the telly every evening. This was the Seventies, after all, there was bugger all else to do. But truth to tell, my young brain found it all too much to take. Some weeks I'd try risking it only to find myself hastily changing channels. While with others I didn't dare put myself through the ordeal at all and I'd stick to the altogether safer realms of the BBC.

Of course, times were simpler then and I certainly was. But it wasn't just that I found it scary. Worse, I found it unsettling, reason-defying, literally uncanny. It was like a bad dream. It seemed almost impossible to figure out what was going on, even who the good guys were.

I'd now be less likely to reach for the word 'scary' than 'Seventies'. It seems like the elements from every other Seventies SF show distilled into one - someone's overlaid, composite memory of them all. Strangely blonde alien messiahs, psi powers, cosmic pontificating, ecological themes, visions of armageddon, Stonehenge-is-really-sci-fi, a spaceship as a wicker man… all seen through a filter of spacey music and post-psychedelic screen effects. Even Glastonbury hippies get a look-in.


Part of what so fazed my young brain was the title character (up top). With his synthesised unearthly voice, spaced-out eyes, spectral presence and general all around alien-ness, was he hero or villain? He had recognisably human sidekicks, but unlike the good Doctor seemed far too otherly to be the hero. He didn't look so far from the scarily superior aryan kids from the film 'Village of the Damned' (above). And yet he simultaneously seemed so vulnerable, so haunted. Without that sort of pole to set your compass by, how could a young child be anything but lost?


I knew it not at the time but, also archetypically for the Seventies, the character was channelling a great deal of David Bowie. Actor Marc Harrison was encased in a blonde wig and blue contact lenses. (Which ironically made him look most like Bowie in 'The Man Who Fell to Earth',, above, a film not released until the following year.) And of course blondeness and whiteness was a general signifier of futurism in the Seventies, in fashion and design as much as SF.

Bowie had repeatedly used the metaphor of aliens to represent generation gaps, with youth as the nascent “homo superior” who were becoming increasingly unknowable to their own parents. (Which, as we’ve seen, was a phrase instrumental in developing another ITV children's SF series,'Tomorrow People', in 1973.) Yet the Tomorrow People didn't wear weird all-blue contact lenses but smart jumpsuits, and behaved quite properly – as if the cast of 'Blue Peter' had developed psychic powers, which they'd decided to utilise to defend the Earth when they weren't busy on bob-a-job week.

'Sky', conversely, was almost the anti 'Tomorrow People,' the point in the schedules where the uncanny just erupted. And one component of this was its incorporation of generational conflict, albeit in an unusual way. It's almost a staple of children's SF that its young protagonists are as beset by everyday travails as by extraordinary ones – they're set detention at school or grounded at home, and always on the night when they need to meet the passing space rocket. (Of course appealing to the young mind, with whatever it had fixed on to do that evening feeling as important as meeting a space rocket.)


'Sky' has a school, true, but one seemingly without any teachers to it. In general, adult characters are weak and marginal - an alcoholic Major, ineffectual yokel cops. But this just allows adult authority to be bundled up inside one figure – Sky's antagonist, the ironically named Goodchild (above). Played in an almost absurdly melodramatic way by a black-clad Robert Eddison, like Dracula but with less redeeming features.

The patriarchal Devil was a staple of Seventies horror (albeit in horrors more normally aimed at adult audiences), and Goodchild is a chip off this block. After a first line “I'm looking for my charge”, he spends almost the whole series chasing Sky around the place. He often explicitly takes on roles of adult authority, such as that of a Doctor at the hospital.


More unusually, class makes an appearance alongside age. With Sky so strange and remote, the primary audience identification character is Arbie (above). He's not just working class, but surly and widely distrusted as a tealeaf – James Dean meets Ed Grundy. His family lives next door to the more middle class Roy and his Major dad, not out of any Seventies egalitarianism but the better to juxtapose them.

In a seemingly perpetual plot point the natural word is constantly turning against Sky, like antibodies against a foreign intruder. Which was perhaps the main source of my youthful disquiet. Firstly, it found horror in what was all around you – the English landscape, the stuff more commonly used for pretty backdrops. And worse - if this was the hero, how could the very Earth turn against him? Which is actually quite a good question. Despite Goodchild's panto villainy, there's a sense that the two are locked in some endless Manichaean dualism.

Sky's white coding goes against Goodchild’s black, not just foes but primary antagonists. Upon age versus youth and white versus black the show then places every other dualism – authority versus rebellion, custom versus innovation and earth versus... well, sky. Only some way in do we discover the SF-sounding Juganet which Sky searches for is actually Stonehenge, which of course is some time machine/ astral portal sort of thing. (The original purpose of Stonehenge was almost certainly to link earth and sky rather than oppose them, the builders abundantly aware how deep those stones had to be sunk just to stand up. But let's not fret.) In fact the moralistic name Goodchild is perhaps not entirely ironic, for he ultimately represents the natural order.

Nor is this just a matter of painting Goodchild less black. Contemporary viewers watching the opening scenes would most likely assume Arby to be the sidekick to pheasant-hunting posh kid Roy – at which point he promptly drives off on his own. But there's a sense in which by finding Sky he merely swaps one bossy rich kid for another.

Arbie's sister Jane seems inserted into the script at a late stage, to give the girls someone to relate to. And as she mostly just follows Arbie around as he follows Sky, it's doubtful that strategy was particularly successful. Yet at one late point its she who not unreasonably suggests Sky is simply using them. And certainly nothing happens to dissuade us of this. The war of earth versus sky seems to have little interest in the human jam sandwiched between them. One way of reading things would be to pursue the Bowie metaphor, where Sky is the star with his head full of visions and mouth dispensing significant statements, and Arbie his lowly earth-bound fan.

As we discover, while Sky is a saviour he isn't really our saviour. Because of reasons he's shown up at the wrong time and, while he expects and accepts human assistance, he shows a right royal lack of gratitude for it. Not being meant for us, he's consequently not able to tell Arby anything particularly useful. What he does have to say basically boils down to “I'm not your messiah, I just took a wrong turn. Actually, you lot.. well, you're all buggered. Sorry about that.”

Which seems the mood of the moment. To go back to Bowie, the year before ‘Sky’ was broadcast he tried explaining what the ‘Ziggy’ album was all about: “Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe.” This is clearly a post-hoc construction, almost entirely unrelated to the album made a couple of years before. But the remarkable thing is how close it is to ‘Sky.’ 

One intriguing aspect of this is that neither Sky nor Goodchild wants the world as it is now. If Goodchild represents nature, it doesn't follow Sky is in hock to the white heat of technology. Despite his name he's not here to predict any media empire branding, explaining things have been on the wrong track since the time when “with the first flint man bent nature to his will”.

As stated at the opening, psi powers were a staple of Seventies SF, mind control battles about as common as bell bottoms. Yet what's interesting about 'Sky' may be less than it's yet another iteration, but the way it knocks out what often seems a core component of them. Think again of 'Tomorrow People’ and their jaunting belts, human evolution and technological development so aligned as to be almost symbiotic. Whereas in 'Sky' it's all just got to go.


What Sky's mission means in practise, or how it even differs from Goodchild's vision, is... wait for it... ill-explored. Insofar as it's possible to tell, his psi powers – and in particular his telepathy - represent a kind of nouveau spiritualism. Using them makes us at one with the world, while tools and even speech just separate us from it. Or something. Yet while there is something New Agey about this it doesn’t have the feelgood factor that seems central to New Age ‘thinking’. We get to visit Arbie’s post-tech future and it’s not much of a utopia. (Despite the telepathy it’s not unlike the world of ‘The Changes’, including the sense that we’re in somebody’s utopia, just not ours.

Though there is a sense this is fitting. We see all this from our perspective, from a fallen, lesser world. So of course what we see is fragmentary, and hard to interpret. And perhaps what's really significant is what's absent. In a quietly brilliant scene, when Arbie finally gets back home he doesn’t rush back into the arms of his family but goes round the kitchen switching on lights and taps – refamiliarising himself with familiar things. But we’re supposed to do the opposite. The ambiguous dualism essentially tells us soon there’ll be no more water in that tap, the whole thing is up the spout and we need to sort it out for ourselves.

Producer Patrick Dromgoole later said “What we were trying to say to the children was their normal definition of good and bad was not going to work because they were suddenly confronting one of the great mysteries of the universe and a very simple definition wasn’t available.” (So yes, they were screwing with my young mind!)

And perhaps that’s what's significant. Nowadays we fancy ourselves as dystopian connoisseurs, like a drunk boasting he can take his booze. But would we countenance anything so bleak, strange and challenging as this on contemporary children's TV?

True there may be films which have taken on this mantle. ’The Hunger Games’, based on teen-lit novels, may be something of a sibling. But they’ve mostly been overwritten by apocalypse porn. A genre where, while the disaster may even be pulled from the headlines, it is always rendered as something known and explicable. Both characters and audience will be aware what they’re up against. Even horror variants, such as zombies, are normally subject to quite rigid rules. And, however much they fetishise the spectacle of destruction, at heart they’re Robinson Crusoe stories. Even when stripped of our lattes and i-phones, we Westerners will find within ourselves the will to survive.

But most of all… Wilfred Owen once said “all a poet can do today is warn.” And when you’re issuing a warning, it makes sense to direct it at the young, those least inured in the bad habits. I’ve now lived through many of the dates they used to flaunt so ostentatiously in science fiction in those big futuristic fonts. We passed those warning signs. So inevitably they now seems prophecy. I’m not surprised that things have skirted so close to disaster. What I’m surprised about is that they haven’t tipped over yet.

’Sky’ is not particularly well-acted or even necessarily that well-written. As Goodchild chases Sky from one hidey-hole to another, as the super-intelligent alien hides in another country setting (“you'll be safe here”) then belatedly remembers nature has it in for him, it quickly becomes repetitive. And its boldest defenders would have to work hard to claim it's in any way coherent.

But it's got the sort of qualities that analysis can miss. It throws up interesting concepts and memorable images, which can stick in your brain. (In my case, over decades. Despite the fact I didn't even watch it.) You're never sure what are flaws or weaknesses, or what are deliberate ambiguities and clever devices. (For example, the rather wooden performances of the others throws into relief the larger-than-life nature of Sky and Goodchild.)

Compare it to a dark psychedelic track, like something by Trees or early Pink Floyd. (Similar visual effects were, after all, regularly used on music programmes of the time.) The underlying structure may be of an overly familiar pop number, but that's simply not the part to focus on. The disorientating psychedelic effects leap up at you, take you by surprise, drag you into their realm. Similarly the spooky music, the photo-filter effects, the strange-looking characters aren't embellishments to what's going on, they are what's going on. As Sky says at one point, “What you read are symbols, and fragments of symbols.” My eight year old self was right. It can't be made sense of, and that's the key thing about it...

That very Seventies credit sequence...


Coming soon! Perhaps the best-known teatime dystopia of them all...