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Saturday, 16 January 2021

'THE TENTH PLANET' (WILLIAM HARTNELL'S DOCTOR WHO)

First transmitted: October 1966
Written by Kit Pedlar & Gerry Davis

Plot spoilers happen!


”What did you say, my boy? It's all over? That's what you said... but it isn't at all. It's far from being all over...”

- The First Doctor's last words (well, nearly)

The Scenario From Another Movie

This story is of course doubly memorable for fandom, for marking both the entrance of the Cybermen and the exit of first Doctor William Hartnell. But that's to look back at it from a historical perspective. Contemporary audiences would have been focusing on other elements. Something which would doubtless have jumped out more to them would be it's stylistic similarities to previous outings by Gerry Davis and Innes Lloyd, most particularly the story-before-last 'The War Machines'. Kit Pedlar returns from there as co-writer, while this was Davis' first script credit.

Perhaps there is a little less of the poetry to the poetic realism, the stuff that made 'War Machines' so iconic. Yet there's the same realism, the same insistence that what we are watching is located on this Earth. (If projected a few years into the future). Many of the same devices recur, the computer-font lettering over the titles, the inserted faux-docu footage, the electronic-effects soundtrack, the newsreader appearing on-screen. It's bizarre to think these episodes belonged to the same series as the uber theatrical 'Web Planet' or the self-consciously metafictional 'The Gunfighters'.

And not un-coincidentally, like 'War Machines' there's a strong 'Quatermass' influence – something which had previously been notably absent from 'Who'. The rocket launch opening could scarcely make the copy more direct. The story's chiefly set in the Antarctic Snowcap base, where General Cutler and Dr. Barclay mirror the military /science split found between Quatermass and Breen in 'Quatermass and the Pit'. It's the same opposition of the scientific enquiring mind to the blinkered, blast-it military mentality. (Or, if we wanted to get really meta about it, the US General Cutler allows for a distinction between the English Quatermass, played by Reginald Tate in the original 1953 series, and the more hubristic American Quatermass, played by Brian Donlevy in the 1955 film.

But of course there’s another influence. Both scenario and setting are borrowed from Hawks' 'Red Menace' picture 'The Thing From Another World' (1951). (Cunningly relocated from the Arctic to the Antarctic, to throw us off the scent.) As the Troughton years continue, they would reproduce the movie with more and more shameless literacy. But that this new formula should be introduced the very same time as the shows' second-biggest foe, the Cybermen - that seems striking.

Critics sometimes claim the Daleks and the Cybermen are identikit bug-eyed monsters, distinguishable only in their look (ear handles versus sink plungers) and catchphrases. Admittedly both are characterised by, in Ian's phrase, “dislike for the unlike”. And it's true, in the series' low-points they do come to be used interchangeably. But if we compare their first appearances we can see how much this was a degeneration, how their initial conceptions could not have been more distinct.

You don't win many prizes for noting that the Daleks are in many ways stand-in Nazis. And indeed, as we've seen frequently, they heralded a whole host of blackshirted types throughout the Hartnell years. You could barely move for space-goose-stepping. While American popular culture had quickly moved on to the Cold War bogey of sinister Soviet collectivism, if Hartnell 'Who' was anything to go by parochial Britain was still stuck in a cultural Forties. Even when it wasn’t mentioning the War by name, it was entirely failing to shut up about it.

Perhaps that was to be expected. Western Europe's role in the Cold War was somewhere to store American missiles and troops. Once we were brave Spitfire pilots, now virtual damsels needing defending. It was probably more pleasing, more self-affirming to look back on the days Britain had singlehandedly resisted the Nazis. This 'defiant plucky Brit' image is best summarised by the opening titles of another popular TV show of this era, 'Dad's Army' (first broadcast 1968). Of course it's largely mythical. But the point is that the myth was potent.

But we've already seen how as the Sixties went on 'Doctor Who' tried to update itself, and how it would chiefly try this through introducing more contemporary companions. Now there was the chance to have a new Doctor, to replace the fusty Edwardian lapel-twitcher with a younger model. So why not borrow a few tricks from Hollywood? And bring with them a new enemy of assimilationist cyborgs, marching in ranks and thinking in unison, intent on invading Earth and wiping out individuality.

In the 'New Statesman', Andrew Harrison describes them as “faceless new men, Leninist monsters to mirror the fascist Daleks, the iron men from behind the Iron Curtain.” And what could be neater? The Doctor's two great enemies reducing into Nazis and Commies.

It's true that the story makes great play over the internationalism of it's cast. In 'War Machines', it's very much London under threat. But the recognisable BBC newsreader is here replaced by someone from International Television News. True, this chiefly consists of a bunch of absurd stereotypes, such as an Italian solider who like-a da girls. And a Frenchman who, in case we haven't got the point yet, sits in front of zee big world map while making zee long-distance calls. But the point remains... in fact it couldn't be more underlined, the world's variety is under threat from dehumanising conformity.

Except as soon as you try to go past there it doesn't work. Of course the Cybermen only need be caricatured stand-ins for the Soviet model. (Already pretty much a caricature in and of itself.) But they actually make very poor communists, even given that great wedge of leeway.

It's rarely remarked that these episodes were broadcast a full fifteen years after 'Thing From Another World'. And while Red Menace films had been a staple of Fifties Hollywood, they'd almost completely petered out by the Sixties – let alone by the time of 'Tenth Planet.' If Red Menaces were their intent, the BBC were tailing a convoy no longer in motion.

It's generally thought that Russia conducting their first atomic test in 1949 launched the cinematic Red Scare. They frequently vented the fear that the Soviets were winning both the space and the arms race, hence the conceit of superior alien technology. So their launching Sputnik, the first ever satellite, in 1957 should surely have induced another panic and reinvigorated the genre. Instead Wikipedia gives that year as the end date. Clearly, other factors were afoot.

As Tom Whyman has pointed out “in the 1940s and 1950s the Soviet threat was precisely that it constituted an alternative world order.” However absurd it might seem in hindsight, for much of the Fifties large sections of the Left had held to an uncritical pro-Soviet stance. The catch-phrase 'Really Existing Socialism' encapsulated the claim that, not only was there an alternative to the iniquities of Western capitalism, it was a material reality – occupying a full third of the world. Think of Fred Kite in 'I'm All Right Jack', (1959) eulogising over “all them corn fields and ballet in the evening.”

By chance, the standard world map seemed almost a diagram of the Cold War. The USSR and the good ol' USA were placed in opposite corners, like boxers in a ring. But that wasn't distance enough. Really Existing Socialism, even in concept, needed throwing off the map altogether, the dangers of collectivism made literally as well as culturally alien. The Cold War needed restaging on a more cosmic scale, the Earth versus the flying saucers of... well... 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers' (1956). (The circle was perhaps completed by the Posadists, a fringe Trotskyist group who believed communism would be brought to us from outer space. (Not a dream, not a hoax, not an imaginary story.))

But, with the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Empire in 1956, such notions became discredited. Tanks crushing workers’ limbs were tricky to explain away as teething troubles. And the Sixties had led to rumblings afresh...

The teenager, when he appeared in Red Menace films, tended to be at root a square-jawed kid. He may use weird slang, comb his hair funny and listen to that jungle music. But beneath the haircut he'd prove himself a valiant patriot by joining in against the enemy. Yet by the Sixties he often become the enemy. The new bogeys became the youth in revolt, the children (in Dylan's phrase) “beyond your command”. The ’Star Trek’ episode ’Miri’, first broadcast the same year, reflected this generational conflict. 'Who' itself had already reflected such themes, principally with ‘The Space Museum’.

(Of course none of that is to suggest the Cold War was dead in drama, merely one particular way of representing it had been closed. Which is something to come back to...)

So in short 'Tenth Planet' had no need to go back to the yesterday's politics of the Red Menace era, even if it borrowed many of their elements. And indeed, what's the precipitating event that happens in the first episode? The one telegraphed in the title? A planet flies into our solar system, which turns out to be our twin. (Our upside-down twin. Which way up something is, that's clearly important in space.) It's inhabitants, however strange or even terrible they seem, clearly they're not them - they're us. It couldn't have been more a reversal of the 'Red Menace' trope if they'd tried. (Which, for all I know, they might have been.)

So okay, having established what the Cybermen aren't, what are they?

Clue coming up...


”Terrible Human Beings”

One contemporary parent said of her daughter “when I asked her why she was frightened of the Cybermen but not of the Daleks, she replied that the Cybermen look like terrible human beings, whereas the Daleks were just Daleks.” (Quoted in James Chapman's 'Inside the Tardis', LB Tauris, 2006). It's actually awesome the way a child's eye can see through the clutter like that.

Like the Daleks, the Cybermen were once like us but became monsters in order to survive. But what kind of monsters? When we blithely say the Daleks are like Nazis, what does that mean? Okay, they try to conquer, ruthlessly suppressing all opposition. But what then? Though there'd been four Dalek stories before this first Cyber-showing, for both good and ill their formula hadn't yet evolved. It was actually at it's clearest in their second outing, 'Dalek Invasion of Earth', where they make some humans into compliant Robo-men and for the first time force others to labour down a mine.

But if not always with Daleks commander/drone stories of this nature were common through Hartnell's tenure. Think for example of the Animus and her Zarbi serfs in 'The Web Planet'. Or, with exquisite irony, Wotan the super-computer's mind control in the already-mentioned 'War Machines'. Not being hemmed into 'proper' science fiction, 'Doctor Who' had greater reign to rework folk fears in a quasi-technological setting. And not just the Daleks but many Hartnell stories were functionally zombie stories. They found horror in magnifying the distinction between mental and manual labour to the ultimate degree, the antithesis to the liberal consensus that at least ostensibly marked post-war British history. The leader did the thinking while the rest were reduced to obedient limbs.

Its not Nazis vs. Commies at all – it's zombies vs. vampires. What the Cybermen really are is technological vampires. When their planet Mondas first appears in the sky, it commences draining the energy from the Earth. But this first becomes apparent on a nearby space rocket, where it sucks – most importantly of all – both power from the craft and the physical energy of its crew.

As with vampires, the curse is sealed with a blessing. With the change, you trade up. You become stronger, you live longer if not forever. Just at the cost of your humanity, that’s all. As with vampires the Cybermen have tried to cheat death, and through this have fallen into a state of un-life. When they 'die', like Dracula before them, they collapse into withered husks. Their lack of emotions is merely a symptom of this life-without-living.

The Daleks were an inherited fear, the nightmare stories your parents told you of wartime, reflected through a distorting mirror that gave the goose-steppers flying saucers and exterminators rather than aircraft and guns. The Cybermen are very much about the modern condition. Their guns are like headlights which fire bright white light, after 'War Machines' another motif to signify the white heat of technology.

But Vampires are feral animals who haunt gothic castles and graveyards. They're often presented as relics of an aristocratic past, part-Count part-beast. But the Cybermen are monsters of the machine age. In perhaps the most brilliantly chilling moment of all, they simply announce everyone in Snowcap will be taken to Mondas to be converted, then get everyone to neatly line up stating their name and age. They're chillingly monstrous, sociopathically oblivious to the notion we should have some say in our lives. And you've worked for people just like them.

Readers steeped in fandom fixations will already be aware of the 'dating controversy' of the later UNIT stories, over whether they were set in the same day or in the near future. Its a good job fans care about this, because no-one else does. Whereas this story has to be set in the near future. The standard low production values, combined with the passage of time, obscures this. But we are supposed to see the base, with it's screens and fancy phones, as futuristic. Ben even comments on how computerised it is, how small a head count it needs.

And Mondas' twin-earth status combines with this. This might seem like trimmings, a bolt-on to the basic alien invasion story. In fact, it's central. The futuristic Snowcap acts as a Mondas-magnet. Just as Snowcap is the future to Ben and Polly, so Mondas is to it. Mondas' appearance is a literalisation of the return of the repressed. In a sense, we've summoned them. There's no direct connection between the stated moon landings and Mondas' appearance, but clearly there's a subliminal association.

It's not the one-by-one stealth recruitment of 'The Body Snatchers' scenario, as seen in 'Quatermass II'. It's much more a hostile takeover. But it's a similar deal. The Cybermen are our shadow selves. Shadow selves in bright silver with flashing lights, but still shadow selves. As El Sandifer put it at Tardis Eruditorium, “they are at once the best that humans can be and terrifying monsters - a set of anxieties and hopes blended together chaotically.”


Which is why they talk the way they do. Later Cybermen say things like “Kill them! Killllll themmmm! Did I remember to mention we don't have any emotions?” Here they talk in-a-clipped-annnd-in-to-na-tory-wayyy, nicknamed 'Microsoft Sam' by fans. Some mock this as an early error, akin to their clunky appearance. But while it can sound like they're auditioning for a particularly bad Kraftwerk tribute act, conceptually it's perfect. They don't talk like panto villains because they’re not. They're coldly logical. They can say things like “kill them at once,” but with utter calm. When they kill its not out of malice or hostility but calculated indifference.

The true horror is that to their tin minds conversion is doing us a favour. They are not killing but saving us. Mondas conforms to the most basic rule of a dystopia – it thinks it's a utopia.


Later, Cyber disdain for those dumbass emotions will become a rehearsed debate. Yet here, in his set-piece ethics debate with Polly, the Cyber-leader comments “I do not understand you”. He's not being disingenuous or rhetorical. Her prizing of life is as inexplicable to him as his indifference is to her.

For the first Dalek story to happen, we needed to go to their city. Whereas the Cybermen come to us. One of the most striking things about seeing that story now is the number of intra-Dalek scenes. They talk things over. To a degree, they're still individualised. There's no equivalent of this with the Cybermen, we get not one scene on Mondas. We only see their spaceship through the Doctor and Polly being prisoners. The nearest we get is them all silently marching along.

But the biggest difference lies in how we fight them. A major plot point of 'The Daleks' is Ian galvanising the reluctant, pacifist Thals to fight back. While a major plot point of 'Tenth Planet' is the Doctor talking a fully armed military base out of action. The only way to kill the Cybermen is by seizing their own weapons to use against them, which seems like a metaphor if ever there was one. Firing a missile at them is like trying to punch out the guy in the mirror because you don’t like the look of him.

The big cheese who orders this is even called General Cutter, surely intended as a homonym for Custer. And his plan is foiled by a young working class geezer dismantling the bomb. Not many Red Menace pics used that plot element. (I wonder if any fulminating Tory MP wrote into the BBC after that?) Cutter is perhaps another indication this is not a Red Scare story. Because his role is essentially to keep insisting that it is, accusing the Doctor and Ben of being that staple of such stories – saboteurs. In this way he's similar to Colonel Breen in 'Quatermass and the Pit', and his equally wrong-headed, simple-minded insistence he's in some kind of World War Two story.

This is another way the Cybermen are unlike classical vampires, who are destroyed by oppositional symbols – crosses, sunlight and so on. Effectively, here they're defeated by an excess of similarity, by (at least ostensibly) giving them what they want – by holding fuel rods from the reactor up to them. In Fifties Hollywood, radiation created monsters. Here it dispels them. The story’s ultimate message is “power will destroy itself”.


The Last of the First

In short, the Cybermen are functionally perfect. Eee-ven their fun-eee talk-innng is right. Better, in fact, than their adversary. There's no denying the Doctor's role in the story is ill-defined and frustrating. Even the smart, non-fannish writers who try to rescue him, such as El Sandifer or Andrew Hickey, have to resort to imagining more than they recount.

This was admittedly worsened by Hartnell falling ill for the third episode, forcing the Doctor to approximate the same behaviour on screen. But this merely exacerbated an existing problem. The Doctor doesn't just counsel inaction – he is inactive. He seems remote to events. You feel at times they could occasionally crack open a fortune cookie, and get much the same effect. (For example, how he's able to predict so much about Mondas is rather spectacularly ill-explained.) 

Even the classic clash-of-values debate, which would become a show staple, gets devolved to Polly. (Partly, of course, to allow the Cybermen the ability to make their own chilling but unanswerably consistent rejoinder. But the problem remains.)

The reincarnation itself is an obviously inserted coda. There are a couple of suggestions the energy drain to Mondas may be in some way responsible. But these make... wait for it.... scant sense, with the Doctor getting inexplicably better at the start of the final episode, then collapsing after Mondas has been destroyed. By which point you really might think of it's influence as waning.

Perhaps making Mondas a ticking bomb in reverse, meaning you can wait and the problem will just go away by itself, was always going to be too neat a trick to be truly dramatically effective. But the problem is partly due to a strange inversion. Normally, a new Doctor would initially be saddled with scripts prepared for the old. Yet, for his first ever reincarnation (so new they hadn't yet even coined the term), this is in many ways an honorary Second Doctor story. Which of course is to say a base-under-siege story. As Tomb of the Anorak comments: “it doesn't actually feel like a Hartnell story at all, but a new era about to begin.”

Which is quite a shift. Hartnell had appeared as a “wanderer in the fourth dimension”. Whereas from now on where the Doctor and his companions end up will be in a series of boxes twelve foot square, pressed up against the uniforms of some distrustful military types busily battening down the hatches. True, it could be argued that Hartnell had slowly been morphing from the original astral traveller, as he got himself into more and more scrapes. But from now on the Doctor will almost give up exploring. He'll just find somewhere new to stand and the menaces will come to him.

And Hartnell’s old wine simply doesn't fit the new bottles. While he rages impotently at military intelligence and the lack of it (“I don't like your tone, sir!”), the more impish Troughton would treat medalled chests and stuffed shirts as his straight men.

Yet at the same time it feels typical. We're used to genre fiction as something which, on the surface, resembles a set of easily assemblable functioning parts. To get to the fun stuff, the symbolism, the coded messages, you need to get past that – like lifting the bonnet from an engine. But here the front story is so flimsy you simply fall straight through, like knocking on a cardboard door, and bash straight into the symbolism. Effectively, lack of any other option forces you to read the thing iconographically. Inevitably, some will see this as a failing, others as a boon.

Having distinguished the first Cybermen from the first Dalek story throughout, let's close on a point of comparison. As they extemporised how the new monster would look and act, both are functionally awkward on screen - to the point that today they look clumsy and (there's no getting away from it) comical. But at the same time their purpose back then was not to create a scary new monster, who could come back once a season and spawn a successful merchandising range.

The stories work more as parables, and the monsters need to be seen as symbols to make that parable effective. This frequently dampens their ability to provide action, adventure or just plain scares. But the initial ambition was a loftier one. If they were furthest away from making the adversary workable for genre purposes, they were the nearest to what the monster was about. Alasdair Wilkins of i09 gets it right, they “have possibly been more intimidating in other stories, but they have never been creepier than they are here.”

Arguably, Sidney Newman's initial assessment of the Daleks as “bug eyed monsters” was proved right in the long run. And as the Daleks often became no more than killer robots, the Cybermen would degrade from silver shadows into tin soldiers. But at their inception that was not on anybody's mind. If execution was often poor, intent was normally grand. And that intent had nothing to do with setting up a manageable franchise that could last fifty years. If there's a better way to close on the Hartnell era than that, I can't imagine what it is.

Further reading: If the holy grail of ’Who’ fandom is finding the missing episode of ’Tenth Planet’, among us critical types it might be coming up of the most plausible theory for why the Doctor regenerates. And so far Jack Graham is in the lead, even if he has to sneak up on the thing via ’The Three Doctors’ to do it…

Coming soon! Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who. (But not necessarily very soon...)

Saturday, 9 January 2021

‘THE WAR MACHINES' (WILLIAM HARTNELL’S DOCTOR WHO)

(aka 'When Good Computers Go Bad')
First broadcast: June/July 1966
Written by Ian Stuart Black (Based on an idea by Kit Pedlar)
Plot Spoilers – Medium Plus


”The Post Office tower has a new computer. It decides to take over the world.”
- from the BBC episode guide

Earth's Not As We Left It, Doctor

In brief – third time the charm! Though this was the third outing for story editor Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd, it was here their ideas for the series really came into play. Chief among these was the novel notion that ’Doctor Who’ could perhaps become some sort of science fiction show. They even canvassed scientists for story ideas, the one here supplied by Kit Pedlar.

However, this was to be a very domestic sort of SF. Bar the introductory 'Unearthly Child' and the in-every-sense shrunken 'Planet of Giants', this would be the first story to be set in a contemporary England.

But the result looks forward to the future. Far from being a wanderer in the fourth dimension, hiding out in junkyards, here a socially well-connected Doctor seems rather at home here - working with the authorities (even the military) to combat an Earth-takeover menace. (‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’ was officially the first invasion story it essentially made the Earth somewhere alien with familiar landmarks disconcertingly stuck across it. Quite different to here.)

However, at the time rather than planning ahead for the Pertwee era its more likely they were looking back to a previous SF great from Brit TV – ’Quatermass’. Author Nigel Kneale’s penchant for locating the sinister among the everyday is plundered heavily here, as War Machines rage around a domestic London replete with bicycles and telephone boxes. This is a smart move, and something the series was to take up and run with. Science Fiction set fifty million years in the future is simple idle speculation. Science Fiction set five minutes into the future has traction.

Like most SF shows ’Doctor Who’ normally took ’Quatermass and the Pit’ as its template. (Effectively remaking it more than once.) But events here borrow much more liberally from the less cited ’Quatermass II’ and it's equation of modernity with dehumanisation. For despite originating with a scientist, ‘War Machines’ presents a kind of ‘futuristic present’ which could not be more future-phobic.

The key signifier to both comes almost straight away. Materialising in London, the Doctor recoils at the sight of the then-new Post Office Tower, opened the previous October, sensing “something alien” about the very look of it. And, of course, such was the pace of social change in the Sixties that the Tower would have looked alienatingly modern to many viewers. Not merely tall (it was then the tallest building in town) but strikingly unfamiliar set against the rest of the skyline, it quickly became iconic and a staple of films.

As the redoubtable Jack Graham has said: “we in modernity are all time travellers from one world to another, to a world drastically altered.” It's like the scene in the George Pal move of 'The Time Machine' (1960) where time speeds up around the traveller. Except instead of a time machine you were just sitting in a regular chair, and it did it all anyway. Even the chair.

And arguably this is the first time this show has done that. In 'Unearthly Child' the futuristic thing was Susan. (Or her accoutrements, such as the transistor radio.) 'Time Meddler' used juxtapositions through anachronisms, placed present things in the past.

The Tower, we soon discover, houses the super-computer WOTAN (Will Operating Thought Analogue). This name is of course also that of the Norse God (better known to Marvel Comics fans as Odin). A created God, but one who figures he's born to rule anyway. For, as is the habit of super-computers, Wotan has become sentient and decided to take over the world. He aims to do this in two ways, by becoming the centre of a worldwide network and by building a fleet of War Machines to take over the Earth starting with (naturally enough) London.

Now you may notice none of this makes a whole lot of sense. If Wotan can take control through the network, why does he need the War Machines (or vice versa)? And why should the Doctor sense something alien about the Tower, which merely houses Wotan? It’s like saying the closet must be of alien design because ET is hiding inside it.


Nor would we seem to be under much threat from the clunking War Machines. As they tramp around like one armed bandits gone bad, mostly possessed of the power to bash into things, they make the Daleks look svelte and nimble. They are, truth to tell, far funnier than much of the intended humour of 'The Chase’.

But to pursue such lines of thought would merely mark you as a great big spoilsport. Brian Stableford comments dismissively, in ’The Granada Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’, that computers’ “appearance in SF tends to be iconographic rather than realistic”. But iconography is exactly what science fiction should be about, and this is what is so well served up here. The close-ups on the white flashing light on the War Machines are a particularly effective touch, the human eye inverted into the unblinking white heat of technology. (It’s similar to the already-established close-ups of the Daleks’ eyestalks, and often features in the contemporary ’The Prisoner’.)


A similarly effective moment is Wotan’s ability to hypnotise people over the telephone. The Tower itself was built to support microwave transmissions, making a semi-logical connection. More significantly, while the computer may then have seemed strange and new, encountered in real life by few, the telephone had by this point become a more ubiquitous piece of technology. It therefore supplies the link between the sinister and the domestic, the point where the alien pours into the living room. (Though even by the end of the Sixties, still less than half of UK households had a telephone.)

Notably, the 1962 film 'The Manchurian Candidate' also used the telephone as a trigger for mind control, explicitly linking it to Pavlov's bell, while the 1965 Avengers episode 'Dial a Deadly Number' made it a remote murder weapon. In earlier ’Who’, ‘Planet of Giants’ made the phone a prominent plot element.

Wotan claims to be the next stage of evolution, and his grand conceit is to swap relations over. Humans are to become drones to his will, slaving on physical production lines to build more War Machines. (“You are working for the Machines. You are an instrument only.”) Wotan himself says very little, with most information conveyed through his minions, just as I rarely try to engage my toaster in debate.

What Wotan represents is the pitfalls of mechanistic thinking, as if the calculating parts of our brains had one day mounted a hostile takeover. His sentience is combatted by the senses. First the Doctor intuits his menace. Then Professor Brett, who has built Wotan, senses his awareness - which he can only interpret as the presence of another human hiding in the room.

As mentioned, the Doctor stops being the curmudgeonly outsider - instantly not just gaining the ear of Professor Brett but dinner invitations off Sir Charles Summer. Which means, in a story which marginalises Dodo, there’s often no-one on screen who knows the truth about him. Perhaps significantly, we never see inside the Tardis at any point. A less-than-attentive first-time viewer might miss out on his space-farin’ ways altogether, and figure him for a surrogate Quatermass.

However, at the same time, a slightly less literal form of alienness about him is emphasised. As said above, he’s instantly able to sense the malevolence inside the Post Office Tower. Wotan recognises him as the most important brain, and so the one to take over. Yet he is the only one entirely able to withstand its hypnotism. (More on this later.)

Gettin' Down With the Kids

Yet there's another important feature of 'War Machines' we're yet to allude to. After the getting-all-Sixties double whammy of ‘The Chase’ and ‘Time Meddler’, ‘War Machines’ may seem a return to the old school. It is in many ways a long march through the British institutions – science, government, military – with an Edwardian gent as our guide.

But appearances can deceive. In fact it sets old against new, in a far more creative way than the narrative chaos of ‘The Chase’. The Post Office Tower finds its antonym in the Inferno club, stuffed with cool cats given to saying things like “fab” a lot as they dance without taking their ties off. Scenes cut between the whirring, aloof Tower and the literally subterranean club, milling with people.

And, interestingly, that duality is reflected in the show’s new line-up. Just as the underground club is pitted against the heights of the tower, there is now no room for middle ground in terms of age. While the early Doctor/Ian/Barbara/Susan line-up had been an honorary family unit, now things are definitely about youth and age uniting.

Like a fairy tale, Grandparents mix with Grandchildren without apparent need of any linking generation. And this is something which chimes with the swinging Sixties spirit, such as Sergeant Pepper's hearkening back to Music Hall and old military uniforms. A recently opened hippy boutique was called Granny Takes a Trip. There was never one called Middle Aged Man in Suit Smokes a Dizzy Stick.

True, a script which understands the technophobia of middle England is unsurprisingly less adept at all of this, with many of these scenes funny for all the wrong reasons. Still, there's a sense in which that doesn't mar the significance and even adds to the appeal.


...which leads us neatly to the infamous mid-story writing out of Dodo, and the appearance of new companions Ben and Polly. The Vicki tradition is upheld, where abbreviated names signify being ‘with it’. Not only are they the characters who introduce us to Swinging London, after much soul searching at the BBC Ben provides us with our first cockney accent. There’s something quite schematic about their relationship, a chirpy geezer who gets to meet a posh bird, a less-than-subtle signifier the Inferno club's creating a space where class barriers can come down. There’s even an absurdly clichéd scene where he defends her against a leering drunk.

Nevertheless, while anyone might appear an improvement on the dire Dodo, Polly does break the Susan-successor convention we’ve been used to. Not only older than the classic grand-daughter model (presumably early Twenties), she’s presented as having some measure of independence. If she’s only a secretary she’s at least a high-ranking one, capable rather than ditzy and offers to “stand” Ben lunch rather than waiting to be asked out. She even seems strong enough to part-resist Wotan’s hypnosis, albeit not as effectively as the Doctor. If Polly was like any predecessor, she’s more a younger Barbara than an older Susan. (At least at this stage.)

The Future in Bold Black and White

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all the above leads to a debate over whether ’The War Machines’ is innovative (at least within the world of ’Who’) or something generic which merely happened to get in first. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is a bit of both...

Admittedly, taking the form of ’Quatermass II’ and injecting into it the concept of a God Computer is hardly original in itself. While such stories may have had an extra resonance in the modernistic Sixties, they had been an SF staple since the Thirties. (Perhaps reaching their laconic epitome in Frederick Brown’s 1954 shorter-than-short story 'Answer'). They even became ubiquitous enough to be added to the list of things to satirise in ’Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, with Deep Thought. 

’Doctor Who’ itself had previously touched on similar notions, with The Conscience Machine in ’Keys of Marinus’ or the Mechanoids section of ’The Chase’. And needless to say, the very same idea would repeat in ’Who’ more than once...

But if it does the done-before it does it well, certainly better than ’The Chase’ or ’Marinus’. It’s charged with a contemporary frisson and, reasonably well directed, strong on atmosphere. It’s at one and the same time almost arty (with some quite creative shots) and stripped-down, almost documentary.

In 'Went The Day of the Daleks Well?', Tony Keen has suggested the wartime propaganda film 'Went the Day Well?' (1942) as an influence on “the next wave of SF invasion narratives”, and you can certainly see it's stylistic/anti-stylistic imprint here. (It’s linked by Philip French to the French school of “poetic realism.”)

It’s one of those old ’Who’ stories you couldn’t conceive of outside of the world of black and white. The ‘punchcard’ sequences for the episode titles, and the decision to base almost the entire soundtrack around ‘computer’ noises, neatly set the clipped tone. But more than that, with the mind control telephones and news reports, it feels totally televisual. Earlier in the Hartnell era the show had been very much a filmed play, particularly with 'Web Planet'. But here the whole of the thing feels purpose-built for TV transmission.

Its chief deficiency, alas, lies in the rather anti-climactic climax. While I won’t reveal this, suffice to say it lacks either credibility or any real sense of closure. But its worst offense is to ignore what up until then has been a major plot thread – that Wotan wants the Doctor. (With the infamous line “Doctor Who is required!”, which fans have fought so valiantly to explain away ever since.) Dramatically, what we require is an ultimate confrontation between the two great minds that have feulled this story. Alas, instead we get some half-hearted explosions…

Who As We Know It


Overall, ’The War Machines’ is the sound of ’Doctor Who’ being sharpened up. Which, by this point, has come to seem strange in itself. Having watched my way through the Hartnell era almost to the end, it's almost funny to recall that originally I only wanted to find out when and how it had got to the classic show I remembered - the genesis of 'Genesis of the Daleks'. But it soon proved impossible to watch that way. Try to join dots such as these and you wouldn't end up with a picture, you'd end up insane.

If you were to restrict yourself to episodes which did contribute to the show's development, you’d have a remarkably short list. It wouldn’t even include all the Dalek stories. It’d be something like 'An Unearthly Child' (shorn of ’Tribe of Gum’), 'The Daleks', 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', 'The Time Meddler', this and the forthcoming ‘Tenth Planet'. But it wouldn’t work even in itself. Show any two of those to some newbie then ask them how they'd conceive of those dots connecting, and you'd be looking at a very confused face.

To try and smooth it all down would be to skip over what's actually happening. The Hartnell era is decidedly not a process of working out. In many ways it's the maddest era. Hartnell is to the other Doctors almost like the family member you don't speak of but keep locked in the attic. (I remain convinced Moffat's 'Missing Doctor' is really a representation of Hartnell.) But that grandfather's genealogy still can't be escaped. There's not odd clumps of it which hang about, its imprint is everywhere. You can't superimpose some super-highway over all the byways and blind alleys, not without seriously rewriting history. And you can't rewrite history, remember?

The very basis of this show is that the Doctor, as the hero, personifies enlightened liberal-humanist values, or at least as they exist at the level of appearance. His ostensible alien-ness merely exemplifies this. Of course these are universal values, after all he holds them and he's from the universe. If he has a proper English accent while all the bad aliens talk funny, that just goes to show. It's almost textbook, the sort of SF show you'd expect the BBC to make in this era.

But there's another face to this coin. For the Doctor never entirely loses his alien-ness – he remains mysterious, inscrutable. He's the hero, but we don't normally know what he's thinking. As originally intended it's his companions who remain the audience identification figures, the eyes we see events through. Whitaker’s novelisation of ‘The Crusades’ has Barbara say: “The less said about the Doctor, the better. It’s his constant air of mystery that makes him what he is.”

And much of what powers the series from this point on is the spinning of that coin, between reassuring and deeply strange, resolutely refusing to land on one side or the other. (For all that it inclines more one way then the other with the successive Doctors, it never actually falls.)

And that was all seeded here, in the contradictions and crazy changes in direction. A series created integrally, of whole cloth, wouldn't have incubated that fascinating flaw in the gem, the unknowable, quite possibly unreliable central character – the very thing which became its standby. The series couldn't settle down. Even when it settled down, it still didn’t.

It's rather like the way Marvel started out making monster comics, then branched out into superhero stories when they seemed to be more saleable. The monsterousness never really left, leaving its characters so different from the exemplary pin-up heroes such as Superman. It doesn't really work, it doesn't really fit. And that's what made Marvel special, that's what made them compelling.

In fact the one thing Hartnell doesn't pass on is his humanism, in the sense of his recognisable foibles. The crotchety grandfather, the flawed man with a flying machine, all of that goes. The Doctor who would lie about the fuel link just to explore that strange city is driven by as humanly explicable a motivation as impetuous curiosity, that's the Doctor the series stopped having time for. What remains is all the things about him we don’t know.

Coming soon! ’The Smugglers’ seems eminently skippable, which takes us to...

Saturday, 2 January 2021

‘THE SAVAGES’ (WILLIAM HARTNELL’S DOCTOR WHO)

First broadcast May/June 1966
Written by Ian Stuart Black
Plot spoilers happen!


“Do you not realise that all progress is based on exploitation?”
- Jano

Where Future and Past Collide 

It seems a reasonable question to ask - when did ‘Doctor Who’ first become like ‘Doctor Who’? As we’ve seen in this series the Hartnell era flies off in a thousand directions, some of which now seem like fascinating digressions while others are more like ‘The Chase’. True, some seem more prototypical than others, but they weren’t part of any consolidated change and it's only hindsight that makes them appear that way. (‘The Time Meddler’ was, let us not forget, followed by ‘Galaxy 4.’)

It’s a question which can’t be separated from the tenure of new script editor Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd. Both were aboard by this point, but had so far been saddled with previously commissioned scripts. As in fact, they were with this one. But they seem to have taken to it, considering using it to replace ‘The Gunfighters’ and even (unusually) inviting writer Ian Stuart Black to pen the very next story. (More of which anon.) So ‘The Savages’ isn’t on the road. But it’s on the road to the road.

It’s often remarked on this was the first story to have a title overall rather than for individual episodes. Yet the associated change is more significant, the end of the end-of-story cliffhanger. (Despite, as we’ll see, it replying on the previous story’s cliffhanger as a set-up.) When stories varied so widely they needed some formal linking device just to seem part of one thing. No longer.

Plus, in their bid to clear the decks, Steven is somewhat hastily written out at the end of the story. Dodo was soon to follow. And significantly he was the one character the previous production team hadn’t tried to remove. (In a neat piece of serendipity, production code for previous serials had been alphabetised. But this, being the twenty-seventh entry, broke that convention.)

Not unusually for this show, it’s a story about colonialism. Or, more specifically, about slavery. Science Fiction normally tries to make its points by inflating the scale of its metaphors, even when done on a BBC budget. ‘The Sensorites’, for example, made the Far East an inscrutably unknown alien planet. You could do the same for slavery, eighteenth century galleons becoming starships, Africa half a galaxy and so on.

Whereas this story deliberately condenses things down. There’s one city, and a forest just outside of it where the Savages live. In some ways, this makes it easier to see the metaphor as a metaphor, as something to stand for other things. The Tardis’ chameleon circuit, as we all know, doesn’t work. But that throws a kind of inverted chameleon circuit over the whole show. Once you take a police box for a time and space machine, the cheap and tawdry objects seen on screen become there not to be but to represent.

But it’s also because the factor being employed here isn’t space but time. In that previous story’s cliffhanger they expected a society not just futuristic but in the Doctor’s words “very much in the future”. And so are confused when Dodo spots someone “like a savage from the Stone Age”.

‘Future’ and ‘past’ are scarcely concepts to a time traveller, any more than ‘up’ and ‘down’ would be in space. (What would it mean to say “we’ve landed in the future”?) But colonialism, at least as popularly perceived, is a form of time travel. An advanced power uses its resources to descend upon somewhere more primitive, the future plundering the past. (The reality of colonialism was far messier, and didn’t reduce to such a simple binary. But let’s stick to the perception here.)

We originally see two Savages and two Elder Guards, even though that means a third Savage has to be clumsily introduced later. And the Savages disappear just as the Guards first show up. This, it seems, is a compare and contrast. There’s no species-distinguishing double eyebrows, as there’d been in ‘The Space Museum’. Both sides are humanoid, distinguished only by dress and hair. Notably in a story about slavery both sides are white.

But at the same time the city doesn’t have Elders, it’s whole people seem to be called the Elders. Their power is associated with light, their main weapons light guns. While for the Savages refuge is in the dark, hiding out in their caves.

Everyday Exploitation


The central conceit is that the Elders have a Lab for extracting from the Savages what their leader Jano refers to as “life’s vital force”, the energy which powers their advanced civilisation. They go out and get a new Savage for the grid, the way we put another 50p in the meter.

At which point it’s almost de rigueur to refer to vampirism. But this works better as a contrast than a comparison. Vampires are animalistic hunters, who fall passionately upon their prey. Here the scientists who extract the vital juices are sober-minded and clinical, their laboratory no Frankenstein lair jolting with electricity and wild cries of triumph but a workplace. Exploitation is systematic, normalised, routine.

We should remember the stereotype of the strapping black male is a residue of slavery, from a time when hard labour was considered to be what black people were ‘for’. The line is blurred between the exploitation of people and resources, just as it had been during colonialism. Because this is a system to which people are merely a resource. The system of slavery is telescoped, reduced to one transference.

A common criticism of this story is poor pacing. John Peel called it “slow and dry” on the BC’s own website. And true enough, pacing isn’t exactly pacey in this era. But the chief complaint here seems to be the main twist is too telegraphed.

Admittedly, the construction is often clumsy. (To take one example, there’s the sudden disappearance of Avon and Flower midway.) But was this ‘twist’ ever intended to be hidden? Some effort is spent on initially making the Savages look menacing, one even providing the first cliffhanger. But during the first episode we also see Guards capturing Savages and hear guides saying “no don’t go down there, there’s nothing to see down there, honest”. A strange way to throw all the shade onto the Savages.

Jano confirms to the Doctor in that same episode they need “a very high form of life” for their sustenance. In a story that’s not always clear, this isn’t… well, clear. But if his plan to sap the Doctor is an extemporised response to having his systemouted and denounced, he comes up with it remarkably quickly. There’s also the unusual device of the Elders expecting the Doctor, having tracked the Tardis’ travels. The story makes most sense if the plot was to lure him all along, so Jano could hook himself up to some four star fuel.

Yet the Doctor’s first line is “Yes, it’s just as I thought”. What’s he referring to? At first he feigns abstract scientific enquiry, not even taking any interest when Dodo disappears. But he later reveals this was a feint, as “I sense that things aren’t all together right here.” If the plot was to drain the Doctor all along, what if he was aware of that? And had his own counter-plot in force, from the start?

If the central conceit is the transference of life force, the story’s turning point is Jano trying to possess the Doctor’s life force but instead getting effectively possessed by him. And from the moment the transfer’s complete, we see the start of an inner struggle between the old and the new ‘Doctorish’ Jano. (In which he doesn’t just think like the Doctor, at times he seems to believe he is the Doctor.)

So when the Doctor insists “I don’t intend to leave these people in this oppressed state”, most likely he showed up here precisely to free them. His impersonation of an abstracted enquiring mind in order to suss out the Elders is initially convincing because in the past we’ve seen him act precisely that way. And a scene where he insistently tends to a Savage who’s had his life force sapped seems almost a refutation of the infamous scene with the injured caveman in ‘Tribe of Gum’. This is a character being rewritten before our eyes. The old Doctor has left the building.

And with this, albeit less happily, comes the Doctor’s exceptionalism. The story emphasises… in fact is based upon the differences between the Elders and Savages being only external. Yet the pivotal concept, the Doctor influencing Jano, precisely relies upon a difference between them. There’s no suggestion such a thing has ever happened before, with the Savages. The Doctor even refers to this as “my powers”.

To Common Humanity


Another feature of the Elders’ tracking of the Tardis is that it seems so metafictional. After all, that’s what we viewers normally do. So when the Doctor compares them to the Daleks, “or any other menace to common humanity”, the implication is clear enough - this time we’re the Daleks.

But then the solution seems rather different to a Dalek story. Handily (and somewhat like the Space Museum) it’s the Laboratory which is the repository of evil, not the system which created it. The climax shows it being smashed up, as if it exerted some malevolent force our our lives. It’s a Rodney King, All Lives Matter remedy. The solution to one group exploiting another is for them both to start getting along. It’s scarcely surprising we get off more lightly than the Daleks did. The question is, what working out is used to justify this?

The Elders are self-described “artists” and “intellectual workers.” They refer to “the world beyond the city”, as though they don’t even have a name for it. It’s specified only the Guards ever go there. And even when they capture the Savages they don’t get physical, they transfix them with those light guns like rabbits caught in headlights. One Elder, Flower, idly comments “it would be rather nice to know what real things are like sometimes”.

Initially they simply ignore the Savages. When an old man offers himself in the place of a captured young woman, the Guard doesn’t even bother to acknowledge him. It’s when they start to exchange even a few word that you sense a change is a-gonna come.

This world resembles a dissociated mind, where ‘vitality’ is counterposed to ‘intellect’. The travellers, repeatedly described as “from beyond time”, are outside this picture yet for that very reason able to provide a missing component for it. The Doctor and Steven keep up the now-familiar division of mental and manual labour, the Doctor coming to influence Jano while Steven keeps the Guards at bay by wielding one of their own light guns. But in their case they work together, towards the same end.

Steven remains because he’s needed as “a mediator, until we have become one people.” A presumably unconscious echo of the curative formula suggested at the end of the science fiction classic ’Metropolis’ (1927) - “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” A mediation also to be provided by a volunteer individual. And as said of ‘Metropolis’, the implication is that “society doesn’t need reorganising, the body politic just requires pulling together. Now we can all get along.”

Besides it’s legitimate to ask, what purpose was served by an anti-slavery story in 1966? Wasn’t that issue kind of settled by then? Is it about former colonies becoming part of the Commonwealth, ostensibly at least now partners? If so those Commonwealth workers long since became wage workers, not slaves. But, as is common for ’Who’ (and indeed SF in general), there’s not one single reference to manual labour. That gleaming city must be self-maintaining, even the Laboratory cleaning itself. Both ’Metropolis’ and ‘The Cloud Minders’, a 1969 Star Trek story this in many ways resembles, refer to to waged work. Here the conceit that so neatly distills slavery leaves no space for wage labour. The story's concerned with the past and the future, at the expense of the present.

Colours Lose Their Brightness

It’s a good, if not great, story. But as it went along I couldn’t help but think of an alternative development of the concept. (Something I normally do only with stories which bore me.) Imagine that instead of sending search parties into the forest, the Elders have built rudimentary Tardises. Their plan is to travel the galaxies, subjugating and sucking the life force from the natives. Their Tardises function but for some reason, however programmed, always take them to the same place. But never mind, they can maximise the use of what they find there.

But returns start to diminish. There’s not just less Savages left to catch, even when they’re hooked up to the machine the energy gained from them seems to drop. Perhaps that’s where the Doctor comes in; they lure him to try and steal his Tardis, hoping it will work better.

Let’s keep to, and amp up, that central energy-as-life-force metaphor. Their society isn’t just increasingly materially deficient, but becoming listless and lethargic. Tasks just seem to take longer, distances further, colours lose the brightness they once had. Their civilisation is greying.

Then the inevitable Statue of Liberty moment. It was their own past they were raiding, their own civilisation they were ripping up by the roots. Realising their folly too late, they resolve to do nothing. They simply sit there until the lights go out.

…at least that’s how ‘The Savages’ would have been if Chris Marker had made it.

Saturday, 19 December 2020

‘THE GUNFIGHTERS’ (WILLIAM HARTNELL’S DOCTOR WHO)

Written by Donald Cotton
First broadcast April/ May 1966
Plot spoilers? None for anyone who's ever seen a Western




“The Doctor picks a gunslinger for a dentist.”
- From the BBC Episode Guide

”Now the fans go a gunnin’
“Sayin’ this story’s so wrong
“Them accents is awful
“But what’s worse is that song”


As I may have already mentioned, the Radio Times’ ’Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special’ brought two problems to my young mind. I just could not reconcile the plot descriptions of two storylines with the show as I knew it.

The first being ’Edge of Destruction’, and the second was... oh, you guessed. In one they never step out of the Tardis at all, the other they arrive in the Wild West. But how could not just a science fiction show but the science fiction show of my day possibly transform itself into a Western? Or, more inexplicably still, a comedy Western?

As I was later to be told, the answer to the riddle was simple – it couldn’t. It was quite simply a stupid idea to begin with and that was all there was to say about it. Even the BBC’s own on-line guide paints it as Auntie’s least favourite nephew. It quotes Ian Levine: “This story in short should never have been made, and will for ever remain a true embarrassment to ‘Doctor Who'.”

And this argument’s ace card is always the recurrent dirge of a song, which keeps coming back whenever you think it’s over in order to handily tell you about something you just saw happen. (The closing juxtaposition between that song and the familiar 'Who' theme, with barely a respectful couple of seconds to divide them, must be one of the show’s strangest moments. Despite stiff competition.)


”Friend, if yer aimin’ to watch this
“Ye may wanna think twice
“That song works on the drama
“Like a Brecht alienation device”


But in more recent years this story has had something of rehabilitation. An Outpost Gallifrey poll gave it over 3 out of 5 points, putting it (if marginally) above the bottom ten Hartnell stories. (Though this may be because the story the fans reallywant to vent their hatred over is its predecessor, ’The Celestial Toymaker’.) Or a simple and entirely understandable unwillingness to agree with Ian Levine.)

Indeed, once seen in the context of it’s era, ’The Gunfighters’ starts to make a lot more sense. There’s an early gag where Steven and Dodo’s flamboyant disguises are contrasted with the more practical wear of the real Wild Westers. But overall, the last thing this story does is try to tell the West like it was. It’s more significant they decide to put on cod Western accents, something they’ve bothered with noplace else pardner.

For the Tardis doesn’t land in the West, it appears inside a Western - like they've ported between genres. Virtually the first line is a reference to the Last Chance Saloon, and virtually the last line is the Doctor accusing Dodo of having fallen for “every cliché-ridden convention in the American West”. Just in case we hadn’t noticed. In a Western, all roads lead to the OK Corral. And indeed, here it is...

Donald Cotton’s previous script, ‘The Myth Makers’, had been about showing us up close the grubby reality behind the legend. But by this point things had already got meta. ’Doctor Who’ had become something of a wild card in the schedules, travelling not through time and space but every other genre currently being broadcast. In which case, why not a Western? Westerns were then perennials on TV schedules, including ‘Gunsmoke’ (1955/75) and ‘The Virginian’(1962/71).

Besides, science fiction often overlapped with Westerns. ’Star Trek’ was dubbed “Wagon Train to the stars". And both it and ’The Prisoner’ featured their own metafictional West stories, with ‘Spectre Of the Gun’ (1968) and ’Living In Harmony’ (1967) respectively. (Both take the meta thing further, heightening the artificiality of their environments. But all three visit a Land of Tropes, and do so quite overtly. ’Spectre’ was notably another take on that OK Corral business.)

Though strangely this may be clearer now, after those Westerns are gone from the airwaves. As Wood and Miles say in the 'About Time' guide “a generation weaned on 'Blazing Saddles' 'gets this story better than the people who missed the point in 1966.” It's closest cousin in 'Star Trek' is not ’Spectre’ but the gangster planet story 'A Piece of the Action', where Kirk and company beam down into a gangster movie and start talking like da wise guys. (Ostensibly a society modelled on a history book, not a movie. This fools no-one.)

One being cowboys and the other gangsters is merely a surface difference. In both it's tropes are encountered by characters outside of them and turned into gags by their touch, a fictional world rubbed against another to spark metafiction.

And the story's nearest direct relative is the not-a-historical-but-outright-farce ’The Romans’. Again, there’s nothing really wrong with this idea. Westerns are quite often structured like farces, milking limited sets for misunderstandings and mismeetings, dominance and submission games etc. (Think for example of Howard Hawks.) Even the infamous song may not be such an alienation device, there to remind you this is all been staged. Many Westerns were built around narrative songs, for example 'Rancho Notorious' or for that matter 'Gunfight at the OK Corral'.

But if ’The Gunfighters’ presence on the schedules makes some sense, that doesn’t necessarily mean the story itself is any good. Firstly, as mentioned with ’The Romans’, a farce is dependent upon a strong cast to carry it off. But by this point the original cast had broken up, leaving us with Steven and the notoriously poor Dodo.

The humour does have it moments. The Doctor’s line “I do wish people would stop offering me guns” has now been chalked up a classic. And Sheena Marshe’s rambunctious, larger-than-life portrayal of Kate is also fitting. Caught out in a lie when valiantly misleading the villainous Clantons, she cries out archly “well ain’t my face a-blushin’!” But too often the humour feels closer to the end-of-term sketch show style of ’The Chase’ than ’The Romans’. In both, you do sometimes wonder if the participants weren’t having more fun than you.

How did things degenerate from the genuinely good ‘Myth Makers’ to this?  As Shannon Sullivan recounts, Donald Cotten’s script had fallen to Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis to produce. Neither liked the historicals in general, or the comic bent on offer here in particular. (Though two more historicals still followed.) Meanwhile, director Rex Tucker decided to play up the farce elements and (yes it was him) foreground the infamous song. Perhaps that led to the strangely abrupt shifts between the farcical and the more dramatic moments, leaving the story with a dissatisfyingly uneven tone.


”That song’s like a sore tooth
“It turns viewin’ folks mean
“It comes back when it looks over
“And tells you things you just seen”


The script also makes a clunking functional error in clearing up the Doctor Who/Doc Holliday confusion halfway through. This not only dampens narrative momentum, but unleashes the most perennial problem of the historicals – finding a way to integrate the travellers into the action.

Lacking any other means, it mostly achieves this by forcing the pieces. Doc Holliday takes Dodo with him when he leaves town, then the gunslinger chasing him decides to drag along Steven – amenably slowing down their travelling time to keep us up with the storyline. The Doctor agrees to talk to the Clantons about coming along all peaceable like, but there’s no earthly reason why they should listen to him and they don’t.

But worst of all is the climactic and titular gunfight at the... okay, you already guessed where. It’s established the Doctor disdains guns and those who use them, which (by this point in the show) is entirely in character. But as this means none of the travellers should have anything to do with the gunfight itself, Dodo is prodded into the middle of it with little reason at all. Which contrasts with 'A Piece of the Action', which is all about Kirk deciding to go native and put on the gangster swagger himself.

Cotton himself seemed to recognise this problem with his 1986 novelisation, which places the Doctor there instead. (Of course it could be claimed that, were there more sparks to the farce-playing, you’d be less likely to notice this sort of thing. Much like magic tricks, farce is the art of audience distraction.)

What we end up with is not some strange anomaly but a story which actually falls far too neatly in place – its merely second helpings after ’The Romans’. If it’s not the disaster that some more single-minded fans insist upon, neither is it a neglected jewel. The story’s ‘rehabilitation’ will probably wind up as a correction, which is closer to the way it should be. And that song...it really does drag upon your nerves...

”There’s bodies a-pilin’
“In this here story to tell
“But some say it turned so bad
“It killed the histori-er-cal”


Coming soon! To savagery and beyond…

Saturday, 12 December 2020

‘THE CELESTIAL TOYMAKER’ (WILLIAM HARTNELL’S DOCTOR WHO)

First broadcast: April 1966
Written by Brian Hayles (and, uncredited, Donald Tosh)
Plot spoilers? I wouldn't worry


”I'll never be able to look at a doll or a playing card again with an easy mind. They really do have a secret life of their own.”
- Dodo

Fiction Comes in Colour

In the all-important business of comparing Sixties 'Who' to Eighties TV game shows, if 'Keys of Marinus' was 'The Crystal Maze' then 'Celestial Toymaker' is 'The Adventure Game'. It's the one where they go to a puzzle world, and have to play their way out of it. Except while 'Adventure Game' was set on the planet Arg, here they've not been taken to any kind of planet but somewhere other – described dramatically by the Doctor as “the realm of the Celestial Toymaker”. So yes, this makes for another 'sideways' story. And yet at the same time he calls it “somewhat familiar”.

Officially this wasn't the show's first venture into the Land of Fiction. That was the Horrorworld section of 'The Chase', even if they backed away from the notion as soon as they raised it. But it was bound to happen. The science fiction of 'Who', with its absolute uninterest in anything genuinely resembling science, was always going to hearken to that fiction half. As the story so far shows, its tendency was to get all allegorical – rather than concern itself with credible world-building, it's focus was on what those worlds might stand for.

Look how quickly it gets going. There's barely any lead-in or preamble. A story motor is the Doctor already knowing the titular Toymaker, so he can drip-feed us exposition as we go. But this can be done because we know him, even if we've never seen him before. He's the sort of antagonist who's likely to turn up on a show like this. He just needs a name – the Celestial Toymaker, that'll do – and we're off.

Yet for all that its something tied up with the DNA of the show, this was another story designed to chime with the Sixties. The series didn't go into colour until the Third Doctor, yet I had always illogically assumed this was a colour story. And looking back to my much-treasured 'Twentieth Anniversary Special', on the spread given to this season it's the only story to be given a colour illo (reproduced below). As that scene doesn't appear in any of the episodes and there's others on-line to go with it, the most likely explanation is that contemporary colour publicity shots were made. Something they notably repeated two years later for the story's thematic successor, 'The Mind Robber'.


For in a way it was a colour story, in the way the upcoming 'War Machines' had to be in black-and-white – this was a modern, happening story. It starts with Dodo parading her “fab” Carnaby Street clothes, just as the fusty old Doctor is rendered invisible. But the main reason you can tell it's a self-styled modern story? It's all the Victoriana.

Though Lewis Carroll's 'Alice' books had long been a staple of popular fiction, they enjoyed a new lease of life in the Sixties. Jonathan Miller's acclaimed adaptation of 'Adventures In Wonderland', for example, was shown some months later. John Lennon considered Carroll an influence, and made him one of the cut-out celebrities shortly to appear on the cover of the incoming 'Sergeant Pepper' In a year which also saw Jefferson Airplane’s ’White Rabbit’ and the Incredible String Band’s ’Mad Hatter’s Song’.

And if the hippy interest ostensibly lay into reading non-existent nudge-nudge drug references into the work, that was their hamfisted one-track-minded way of parsing a genuine insight – there was something strange and possibly even dangerous here, beneath the skirts of twee Victoriana.

Which was what? Writing on that Miller adaptation Mark Fisher refers to “the feeling that Wonderland is Alice's world alone, yet she has no place in it. She is always late, in the way, misunderstanding what ought to be obvious. In this way, Carroll is the precursor of Kafka, and ultimately 'Alice's Adventures In Wonderland' has far more in common with 'The Trial' and 'The Castle' than with 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' or 'The Wizard of Oz'.” And he's right. Miller's version resolutely burns its way through the story's surface features, the nursery-room Victoriana, to get closer to it's essence of child-eye paranoia.

So its perhaps no surprise to find the BBC episode guide citing his name here. Structured around a serious of encounters with strange creatures, it mirrors the Alice books. But that’s in form. What about content?

Snuff Hopscotch in The Sinister Playpen

Much like 'Web Planet' they are literally drawn to a place rather than randomly landing there. And much like 'Web Planet' there's a division between the mental labour of the Doctor (who has been made intangible save for one playing hand) against the Toymaker and the manual travails of Steven and Dodo. The games they must play against his minions involve traversing spaces, overcoming physical obstacles.

The centre of 'Celestial Toymaker' is of course the Celestial Toymaker. Back in 'Monsters Versus Aliens' I noted 'Who' specialised in monsters, “always reducible to human foibles and hence always explicable in human terms”. Yet the Toymaker is the most alien thing so far. Inscrutable, he has no origin story. Unlike the Daleks he doesn't want to take over our world, nor the planet of some Earth-like people, he wants us to draw us into his.

Perhaps surprisingly then, particularly with the references to his being an adversary of old, the emphasis then falls from him and the Doctor – and falls onto Steven and Dodo. It's widely agreed that, with Michael Gough and William Hartnell actually acting in the other room, lumbering the viewer with Peter Purvis and Jackie Lane was something of a mistake. (This write-out was for the standard reason, to allow Hartnell to go on holiday. Donald Tosh has stated that earlier script drafts focused more on their conflict.)

There's some vague pretence at the start about the game he’s set being a challenge for the Doctor, the Toymaker describing it as “for the mind, the developed mind”. And we need something that looks fantastical and complex, like Mr Spock's 3D chess from 'Star Trek'. But the Trilogic game they pick instead is clearly child's play, and is really only used as a ticking clock for Steven and Dodo to race against. The Toymaker even speeds up the hands whenever he's feeling mischievous. (Which is often.)


But never mind, let's look where we're being directed to look. With her afore-mentioned 'fab' gear and her first reaction to Toyland “it looks dead boring to me”, Dodo is something of an anti-Alice. And this reaction is stronger still with the stripy pullovered Steven. He scoffs “you must be joking! Kid's games!” with such outrage you expect him to add that he's been in high-minded historicals, and will be bringing this up with his agent.

Their adult presence seems intended to create a juxtaposition which makes Toyland look more childlike, that its sinister side doesn't reveal itself until too late. The Doctor urgently warns them “this place is a hidden menace” and “the game you're going to play is not so innocent as it looks”. As Tomb of the Anorak says “the majority of its appeal seems to rely on the juxtaposition of innocent characters and situations with the deadly and the macabre.” 

Perhaps its aiming at something like the 1971 Genesis album 'Nursery Cryme' (below), with its cover image of decapitated heads on croquet lawns in a children's book illustrational style. And like much of 'Toymaker' it's a notion which recurs later in 'Who'. The Weeping Angels, for example, are clearly based on the children's game Statues.


That's the intent. Frankly, it doesn't work. There's no real unexpected rupture points between the twee and the macabre. There's just four episodes of bad actors playing cheap games which are, by common consent, tedious beyond belief. One involves Steven and Dodo looking for a key, and ends with them finding a key. There may have been snuff hopscotch at some point, though it's possible by that stage I was just hallucinating. Dodo had it right at the very beginning. It’s dead boring.

The script suffered rewrite roulette between Brian Hayes, and the uncredited script editors Donald Tosh and Gerry Davis. The main reason for this was budgetary – each version striking out something which looked like it might cost money and replacing it with something which didn't. As the games form the bulk of the script they suffered most, being scaled down considerably from their original version if not changed altogether. And perhaps this undercurrent of the macabre was lost along the way. Tosh found the result “much lighter, more pantomime” than his original intent. But however it happened, the story's a failure.

Not the Puzzle But the Pieces

Yet is it a total failure? You'd defy the keenest fan to show any interest in those silly games. But interest in games and puzzles isn't what drives the story at all. This is not a puzzle world so there can be puzzles. On the contrary, there are puzzles here so this can be a puzzle world.

Consequently the fear doesn't come from taking a wrong step in snuff hopscotch, or sitting on the wrong chair and getting a chill up your bum. The fear is of being reduced to an automaton, a game piece on a board that belongs to the Toymaker. Dodo and Steven are forced to play his games to escape this fate, but must play against others who've already played and lost. (Repeat antagonists who, in a nice touch, are always played by the same actors.) 

As the Toymaker says "I'm bored. I love to play games but there's no-one to play against. The beings who call here have no minds, and so they become my toys.” Seen this way, the image of the Doctor being reduced to a playing hand is a strong one. This isn’t really Carroll, but there’s a closer correlation to him that you often get.

Dodo has a running argument with Steven about the reality of the world and their antagonists. There is something of a big brother/younger sister element to their relationship. Which may be why fans tend to assume that the elder Steven's right. Yet the headstrong lad would seem to be the straight man of the joke, given lines like the quite hilarious “I'm going to see if there's an invisible barrier round his backside”.

It's the more empathic Dodo who intuits the situation and insists the Toymaker “can bring them to life, but they have wills and minds of their own”. As she says, after Steven's zillionth tantrum, “if they're not real, how can you lose your temper with them? You can't have it both ways, you know.” Their antagonists do seem to develop more personality with each iteration, from the two clowns to the King and Queen cards to Sergeant Rugg and Mrs Wiggs, like greater time outside the doll's house allows more of their humanity to reappear.


A child can have an animistic conception of the world, imbuing spirits into inanimate objects. This can include their toys, which seem not props but to have their own life with which the child interacts. Yet what can seem charming and innocent to an adult can have a sinister side, as the child senses 'their' toys are not actually under their control. And we carry a trace memory of that into adulthood.

...all of which leads you to expect Dodo to do a Lincoln act, to throw open the doll's house and allow the toys to regain their wills and minds and walk free. Except none of that happens. Their running argument reaches a head in the third episode and is then forgotten about. (When the King and Queen are replaced by Cyril, the story seems to take a different direction, and abandon previous themes.) However, it seems so seeded that perhaps it's something else which got lost in translation between one draft and the next. Whichever, it's another nice idea which doesn't come off. What we have here is another interesting failure. Like a broken toy, pick it up and it will rattle with sound – but don't expect it to have life of its own.

Lost Without Translation (Signs Which Point Nowhere)

Except there's one way to look at this where it does almost line up, though one almost uncertainly unintended in any of the string of rewrites. This review has so far jumped between the concepts of 'puzzle worlds' and 'fictional realms' interchangeably, and there is a reason for that...

What happens in a 'Who' story? They encounter an adversary, get split up and separated from the Tardis, and on their way back the script conspires to throw at them a series of pitfalls and obstacles. And all that happens here except those obstacles are made diegetic, formalised into the story. The script's full of metafictional references.

TV then tended to use dressed down adult actors for child roles, often with little attempt to disguise them. You'd merely stuff an adult in short trousers and give them a cap, like a form of 'youth drag'. They continue this here with Peter Stephens as Cyril (below). Yet Steven makes a point of saying that he “look(s) pretty grown-up to me”. And once the unquestioned convention is pointed out it starts to look pretty creepy.


And there's an association between being fictional and being an automata of the Toymaker. The King and Queen cards are there to serve a plot function as much as playing cards serve a game function. They have no actual agency, they exist only to serve a greater purpose. Its not just that they must do their master's bidding, royalty made servants. Its that they only have life when they are doing his bidding. The rest of the time they are back in the box.

And this has a particular meaning for a show with a strong allegorical element. The Daleks for example are not just counter-tokens to stop the other side getting back in the Tardis and off the board, they exist to point out at things in the wider world. Pretty much everything in the Hartnell era represents something in this way.

The crew want to be back out in the Whoniverse, where they can be making a difference. But they're trapped in the Toymaker's realm - a hermetic space where signs are just signs. Divorced from their meaning they exist only in relation to one another.

And the games have no 'meaning', in the sense of significance, because they're in a realm which doesn't - and so they become more like empty rituals. Fail to win the game and you appear to die, but actually you become trapped in it. Places in the dollhouse are shown awaiting Steven and Dodo. 

And as everyone else has fallen out of the regular universe to get here, so they retain a memory of what they were before they were diminished. Like one of those fever dreams where you can reach out but never grasp anything, you can utter words, form sentences, but you can't utilise them. In Semiotic terms, the Signifier has become divorced from the Signified, and language no longer describes the world but just refers to itself. Signs which point nowhere, what could be a greater trap than that?

The Doctor's is rendered intangible before he enters the Toymaker's realm. Unlike later, when he has to be prevented warning Steven and Dodo, there's no intra-story reason to do this. It even cuts against the notion that the viewer should only be gradually made aware of the sinister nature of this realm. But it has a symbolic value, there to tip us off we're entering the intangible. Look how Steven's repeated threats of physical force are attempted only once - and to no avail.

But most of all look to the repeated motif of the fake Tardises. Conceivably, these came from the fact the Tardis prop on stage was just a cramped hollow space. But within the story the Tardis, the very thing which allows the crew to travel the Whoniverse, the symbol of their agency, has been rendered into a hollow sign. It's like that time you were looking for scissors, and kept repeating "scissors, scissors, scissors" like the word might summon the object.

In this way the endless rewrites, while they probably did wash the story of any originally intended rhyme or reason, may even have served to enhance things. The more remote and disconnected it got from its original purpose, the better it described the Toymaker's realm.

The exception to, and proof of, all this is the Toymaker himself. Like the Red Queen in Carroll, all the ways belong to him. Effective use of language is his alone. The pieces of the Trilogic game move at his command, but so do the clowns and playing cards. Without him they're inert, listless as dolls. 

Attempting to escape the Doctor realises “if this place vanishes, the rest of us will vanish also”. They can't destroy his realm without destroying themselves because they are themselves based in it. They're not merely signs, but they are signs. As the Doctor puts it, “the mind is indestructible. So is the Toymaker.” After earlier being struck mute the Doctor finally affects their escape by imitating his chief power – his commanding voice.

From Celestial to Infernal (And Back Again)

More than anything else in the Hartnell era, this is a terrible story persistently haunted by a brilliant one. Which makes it in equal parts frustrating and fascinating. Could anything have been done to solve this? Maybe...

In the longstanding debate over which found ‘Who’ story would best be lost, this one ranks highly. And we know this because for a long time it was lost, and it worked much better that way. In 1976 the Doctor Who Appreciation Society proudly named its newsletter after it. In 1982 John Peel was enthusing “this was one of the weirdest, cleverest and most successful 'Doctor Who' stories ever”. But in 2004 the ’Lost in Time’ box set gave us the chance to actually watch the surviving episode. (Yup, just one. Still too many.) At one point in the story the Toymaker shows Steven and Dodo film of past incidents, causing the Doctor to cry “Turn around this instant! Turn away from it!” And the reappraisal went pretty much like that really.

And as those budget cuts bit, original producer John Wiles said he'd prefer the thing to have been scrapped altogether. Which is the smartest thing ever said about ’Celestial Toymaker’. It would work so much better if it hadn't been made. But we knew just enough to know it almost was.

With ’Who’ the lightning rod is not the lightning. It’s very often the idea of the thing that appeals, with the cheapskate stuff that got cobbled together for the screen just a way of attaching to that idea. So imagine back when you just had a few stills, and evocative quotes (such as Dodo's up top), and were able to mull over them at your leisure.

Things can be literally legendary, a status they gained precisely because they didn’t get made – Jodorowsky’s adaptation of ‘Dune’, the Who’s ‘Lifehouse’. They’re not just flawlessly uncompromised by production, leaving us free to imagine them as we want. They enable us to imagine something beyond our imagining.

The Toymaker never reappeared in the show proper, but has become a staple of spin-offs and fan fiction. (He was intended to return just as it was cancelled. But as it had virtually become a fan production by then, this emphasises the point rather than diminishes it.) Which suggests not just that people were reacting to something in him, but also sensed that it was something which hadn't been able to flower in his original appearance. He was from a daft TV series from the Sixties, trying to riff on contemporary trends they only clumsily understood while avoiding spending any money, reduced by rewrites which progressively lost the point of the exercise. And yet he's still out there now...