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Saturday, 27 February 2021

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MIGHTY FALL: 5. “NO CONCEPTION OF WHAT HE’D MADE”

(The previous part, which began our look at third album ‘Grotesque’, can be found here.)


”Come, Come, Hear My Story…” 

But if ’C’nC’ was the musical sequel to ’Spectre vs. Rector’, the number that took up and ran with the narrative baton was the album’s closer - the equally acronymic ’The NWRA’. 

If you were allocated one number to demonstrate what the golden-age Fall were all about, this could well be your candidate. The ten-minute track feels epic and, drawing on a number of earlier themes and characters, defining – like the last reel of a film. Indeed the line “and the fall had begun” makes it sound like the song the band were formed to play.

Some contemporary listeners assumed the title spelt out 'North West Republican Army'. Despite it being... er... spelt out endlessly in the song - ‘The North Will Rise Again’. Which is most likely a flip of the American Southern rebel expression “the South will rise again”, perhaps picked up by Smith on tour.

And not long after the LP was released, the North really did rise. In ’81 a wave of riots spread across the country, taking in Manchester. The opening narrated section (“when it happened we walked through all the estates from Manchester right to Newcastle”) suggests touring habits keyed the band in to the powder keg state of the nation. He later commented to Mick Middles, “it was genuinely horrible before we went away. You could really feel the tension, just hanging in the air. It was obvious that something big was going to happen”.

Ironically, just as Britain burnt the band were off touring America. As they launch into the track in Chicago, as captured on the live album 'Part of America Therein', the compere even introduces them as “from the riot-torn streets of Manchester, England!” It’s unlikely that Smith was pleased to be placed with the post-Clash lumpenly literal ‘keepin’ it real’ school of punk, who he dismissed as “condescending French revolutionary bands”. (Hanley has recounted, after supporting the Clash in New York, Smith banned the band from listening to them.) Nevertheless he also commented the riots “should have happened a hundred years ago as far as I’m concerned.”

For let’s remember the easily forgotten - the Fall had once operated as a raggle-taggle collective, playing benefits for Stuff the Jubilee and Rock Against Racism. If legend be true, their original drummer lasted just one gig, ejected after writing the song ‘Landslide Victory’ to celebrate the Thatcher election.


Though Smith had long since begun his Robespierre reign of terror over and against any band egalitarianism, he’d not entirely abandoned notions of proletarian antagonism. The singles compilation 'Early Years', released the next year, had adapted Edgar Varese’s slogan “the present-day composer refuses to die” into “the present-day proletariat refuses to knuckle under”.

And ’The NWRA’ was where such opposed notions went head-to-head. Though Smith would undoubtedly rail against the suggestion, the track works like John Lennon’s 'Revolution' – an apparent polemic which actually comes out of, and is driven by, the author’s own conflicted state of mind on the subject. Smith concocts an array of bizarre characters, some real some imaginary, then sets them against one another in the hope the ensuing war might settle the war in his own mind.

Except Lennon, long-haired, endlessly hopeful and very very stoned, assumed that all this was inevitable, the only choice left being whether we wanted our revolution with violence or without, as if the issue was akin to ordering side salad. Whereas Smith is mulling over whether it will happen at all. Is writing the song some act of sympathetic magic which might make the whole thing come about? Or is a narrative being built because that’s the only way we’ll ever get to talk about it?

In a contemporary interview he stated: "I mean, everybody knows about the split between the north and the south in England, but 'The North Will Rise Again' isn't a political statement, it's a story, like a science-fiction story. The way I wrote it was from a few dreams I had after playing the north a lot - it's about what would happen if there was a revolution. It's purely fantasy, science-fiction stuff... It's just like a sort of document of a revolution that could happen - like somebody writing a book about what would have happened if the Nazis had invaded Britain. It's the same concept as that.”

And the song’s sung quite undemonstratively, in a relentless monotone, not a clarion call to arms but a mere witness to events. Unlike many of the other tracks on the album. In fact Smith got much more worked up over dirty socks.

The character R Totale had already been used by Smith as a pseudonym, on the sleevenotes of ’Totale’s Turns’. Whose press release explained “Roman Totale XVII was born in a coalshed under the buzz of a defective street lamp. From birth he roamed Britain as a self-proclaimed professor of speed speech…. He is the mental manifestation of the Fall camp, and dwells underground while above him trends grind on slowly and sickly.” (“Explained” may not be the most accurate word there.) He also showed up on ’2nd Dark Age’, a B side from the same year, as “the bastard offspring/ Of Charles I and the Great God Pan.”

Perhaps all that matters is that he’s simultaneously a stand-in for Smith and the personification of the North, and so becomes the spirit of the revolt. But his efforts are undermined by the “opportunist… business man” Tony who “seized the controls... [to] set out to corrupt and destroy this future rising”. (This is believed to be Tony Wilson of Factory Records by approximately every single human being alive in the world.)

Tony and Totale are set up as conflicting opposites. Tony’s twice associated with blue, taking a “bluey” (for any American readers, slang for a fiver) and wearing a blue shirt. Initially Totale stains his blue shirt red, presumably by taking a swing at him, as if red’s his totem colour. Though he then seems to give up on the whole thing, taking to “dwell[ing] underground, away from sickly grind, with ostrich head-dress”. And when he retreats underground, his face becomes merely “orange-red with blue-black lines”, as if in his malaise his redness is fading.

Like the Fisher King the personification sports the suffering of the land. So the rising transforms him physically (“face a mess, covered in feathers….”) even though he’s removed himself from the action. Or perhaps he and Tony are rival spirits of the North, at constant war. Whichever, the rising seems inherently self-contradictory. While security guards at the Arndale are hung and Soho pillaged, “DJs have worsened since the rising” and ‘English Scheme’ has metamorphosed into a soppy love song.

But, just as Lennon eventually swung more towards “count me out”, Smith thumbs-down the notion. Like Lennon, it’s the chorus line that lingers:

”The North will rise again?
”Not in ten thousand years
”Too many people cower to criminals
”And Government pap 
”When all it takes is a hard slap”


There’ll only ever be a handful of individuals in the whole of history with defiance enough to deliver that “hard slap”. Smith’s prior commitment, and later lingering dalliance, with collective action is to be laid to rest. From this point on Mark E Smith will have no time for anyone but Mark E Smith.

Which segues neatly into ’English Scheme’. Folk are forever trying to divulge the ‘meaning’ of a track, by abstracting the lyrics from the music and placing them on a web page, as everything that mattered slips through their clutching mitts. And the Fall are a classic example of the absurdity of this approach. Yet with ’English Scheme’ such scholars would get a reasonable notion. The lyrics are straightforward and the musical backing… well, it’s pretty much a musical backing. (Though Hanley claims it was written first.) And the lyrics effectively say “a plague on both your classes”. Smith even commented favourably on the positive response the track engendered in people, a great rarity for him.

And in many ways this isn't very surprising. Joe Strummer of the afore-mentioned Clash, often seen as the prince of punk protest, had once penned insurrectionary provocations such as '1977':

”In 1977
”Knives in West 11
”Ain't so lucky to be rich 
”Sten guns in Knightsbridge”


...but within a year was writing an older, wiser rebuttal of such fantasies with 'White Man in Hammersmith Palais':

”It won't get you anywhere 
”Fooling with your guns
”The British Army is waiting out there 
”An' it weighs fifteen hundred tons”


The faith in insurrection of ’1977’ was itself a weaker echo of the hope for world revolution in 1968, a displaced form of self-belief you could only keep from colliding with reality for so long. The hard-drinking, straight-talking persona Smith played to the music press increasingly became curmudgeonly and provocatively reactionary. I remember reading one screed where he’d dismiss the current crop of star bands one by one, finishing with “no, give me the Royal family any day”.

He once described the shift as ”a real pain for me.” Though he later conceded to Middles “I always used those right-wing comments to wind [the NME] up because I always knew how narrow-minded they were”. How much he’d really shifted, how much this was just a character he’d play and how much he became that character through playing it… it’s doubtful he knew himself.

Like ‘Revolution’, the song’s written to resolve a dilemma in the writer’s head. And, like 'Revolution’, it ends up leaning heavily on one side. But, like ‘Revolution’, it still can’t quite come down on it. Despite that being the ostensible purpose of the song. R Totale effectively exiles himself, yet the song is narrated (as yet partially) by Joe Totale “the yet unborn son”. The father retreats underground, which is often a symbol of pre-birth (as in, for example, the Zeus myth) creating a parallel between the two. But while R Totale counsels inaction, the “as yet” unborn Joe will one day emerge. And yet of course from that point the Totale persona was never used again.

But perhaps in the longer term the unborn son was proven right. Riots recurred in 1985, while the more recent 2011 outbreak soon spread to Manchester. The text of one of the Blackberry messages which triggered them (“to be honest I don't know why its taken so long for us make this happen”), closely echoes Smith's initial response.

”It Would Turn Out Wrong”

‘Grotesque’ might seem to show Mark E Smith split between two writing techniques – narrative and stream-of-consciousness. On ’Printhead’ (from ’Dragnet’) he’d even commented on “a barrier between writer and singer." A barrier many had hit, particularly in the previous prog era. Folk found to their cost that the immediacy of songs and the arcing ambitions of narrative were at odds with one another, that each would fight to displace the other.

But rather than try to resolve this, he exploits the friction. ‘Spectre vs. Rector’ does follow a standard narrative structure – set-up, conflict, resolution. Which was more or less replicated on other narrative songs here, such as ‘New Face In Hell’. Not ‘TNWRA.’

Smith's cryptic writing style can be taken as mere obtuseness, the challenge being to see through it to find the songs' 'meaning'. That's pretty much what was happening earlier, demonstrating how easy a trap it is to fall into. Yet to quote Mark Fisher again: "The temptation, when writing about The Fall’s work of this period, is to too quickly render it tractable."

As ever, how you say it is as important as what you say. Fisher continues that Smith’s writing is “alien to organic wholeness… It is a grotesque concoction, a collage of pieces that do not belong together…. The story is told episodically, from multiple points of views, using a heteroglossic riot of styles and tones.” Just as he married the mundane with the weird, Smith staged a shotgun wedding between grand narratives and stream-of-consciousness. It’s as if he found himself typing out an epic novel with one hand while scrawling random gnomic phrases with the other onto the same page, and resolved to do it more.

Typically for a post-punk band the Fall were as influenced by non-musical sources, with Smith insistent he was at root a writer rather than singer or songwriter. (Even giving himself a very unrockish middle initial.) And modern writers had often come to rebel against the neatly ordered world offered by narrative. It can scarcely be coincidence Smith was an avid reader of the cut-up world of William Burroughs.

But others took from Burroughs the notion that cut-up text could be stuck together to make up a meta-view, like the facets of a Cubist painting. And Smith did once describe this track as “supposedly objective”. Yet in that phrase it’s the “supposedly” which lingers. Overall, he’s much more a Dadaist, taking a Schwitters-style scalpel to meaning.

The sense that narratives are inherently incoherent and fragmentary, that you can’t tell stories with loud amplifiers, that the whole thing doesn’t really work, isn’t contested but placed front and centre. The Falls’ narrative tracks are also simultaneously anti-narratives. Remember his taunt from ’New Puritan’: “What d’ you mean, what’s it mean?/What’s it mean, ‘What’s it mean?’.”

And, not unrelatedly, ’The NWRA’ screws with time more than usual in a Fall song, which is saying something.

“The North had rose again
“But it would turn out wrong
“The North will rise again”


Smith describes it on the sleeve notes as “made up of parts 2, 3 & 1 ie right now, after and during.” It’s less time travel than the separation between time periods being broken down, events collapsing into one. There’s even hints the rising is itself against time, as if temporality itself is part of the political system that needs overthrowing.

“The streets of Soho did reverberate 
“With drunken Highland men
“Revenge for Culloden dead”


Smith would often write in a collage style even at the level of individual lines, skipping pronouns, colliding, compounding and compressing words and phrases rather than combining them. Take for example the opening to the later song ‘Backdrop’:

“The Leicester YOP instructor
“Emerged from corridor
“His state-subsidised cannabis haze
“Moved reptilian”


He’d often pronounce words phonetically or sing acronyms and abbreviations verbatim (eg “get up for ind. est.”, “D. Bowie sound-alikes” or for that matter “eg” itself, as used on the later ‘CREEP’). As if he was reciting not from a novel or poem but by rote from a shorthand transcript or speaker’s notes.

Taylor Parkes points out “It's language used as a tool of attack, but it's also an attack on language, its limitations and inadequacies.” Many a track sounded like a bunch of tape excerpts stuck together. (And often for a good reason.)


It was also there on the album sleeves, before you even got to the music. These were as home-made as punk, but rather than rough and immediate like street graffiti tehy were scrawled over with polemics and gnomic utterances. Smith told ‘Sounds’ magazine “I like the cover to reflect what’s inside.I love all those misspelt posters… those cheap printed cash ‘n’ carry signs with inverted commas where you don’t need them, things like that… a graphic designer would never get it right in years.”

And Smith’s singing, so often mocked by non-fans, worked with this. It shouldn’t be underestimated how much he needed a style of singing for someone who couldn’t actually sing, even by punk standards. Yet he found something which not only worked, but worked well with all of this. Smith was a keen Faust fan, who were themselves influenced by the German Sprechgesang tradition - literally ‘spoken singing’.

(And believe it or not, but there’s even a historical basis for this. Northern dialects of English, such as Smith’s Mancunian, are more influenced by Anglo-Saxon than the Latinised stuff spouted by Southerners such as myself.)

Up to ’Room To Live’, (two albums hence) the track lists come with song explanations, which are of varying usefulness. (One simply says “This is a very funny track. It's a pity you can't hear what's going on." Another pontificates for a while before conceding “this has little to do with song”.) If fellow Mancunians and arch-rivals Joy Division had cultivated a mystique by with-holding information, as typified by their austerely minimal packaging, the Fall took the opposite route to the same result – bombarding fans with semi-complete snippets, until they became a form of indecipherable white noise. Never knowingly understood.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MIGHTY FALL: 4. “...AND THE FALL HAD BEGUN”

(The previous part, looking at the second album, ‘Dragnet’ lies here.)


”The new-born thing hard to describe”
- ’Impression of J Temperence’

”A Treatise To Explain These”

The immediate follow-up to ’Dragnet’ was 1980’s ’Totale’s Turns'. A live plus offcuts album, it chiefly conveyed the confrontational nature of the band’s performances. Sleeve notes proudly relay the abuse slung their way like badges of honour. (“Everybody knows best groups come from t’ South”.) Though the album itself mostly captures confrontation going on within the band with no need of the audience. But with a cheap cover even by the Fall’s extemporised standards, it was clearly something of an interim release. And indeed later that year they were back...

As it turned out, if ‘Dragnet’ was a bold step forward from ‘Witch Trials’, with ‘Grotesque (After the Gramme)’ the dice man threw his first six. The dark seam they struck by recording 'Spectre vs. Rector' became something malleable and accessible, like a shaman first beset by spirits who slowly becomes able to bargain with them. Little if anything remains of the punk band who saw the Pistols. If history had prevented any further releases this would still be regarded as one of the classic albums. (Consequently there’s a bit more to say than normal. So I’ve split things into a more reader-friendly two bits.)

Overall, if ‘Dragnet’ conveyed the twitchy, paranoid sense of speed ’Grotesque’ has the acrid taste of brown acid. The cover, painted by Smith’s sister Suzanne, suggests this. Both previous sleeves had been in black and white, hippy pastoralism in negative. ’Grotesque’ is in gaudy colour – a shriek of lurid greens and feverish purples, all at war with one another. It looks like a Fall gig transforming into some sort of coven as it unfolds. (The vertical rope motif is, I think, intended to convey the edge of the stage.)

The only number to use both “grotesque” and “post-gramme”, ’New Puritan’ is effectively the title track. (Plus the sleeve part-illustrates the line “fans send tapes to famous apes.”) Yet, bar a demo version on ’Totale’s Turns’, it only appeared on a Peel session of the same year. (A typical Smithian idiosyncrasy.) It was only ever played live seven times, less than the seemingly unreproducible ‘Spectre Vs. Rector’.

As the Fall came into their own, so did their name. Sounding simultaneously righteous and infernal, Smith rants “plagiarism infests the land” like the word’s some synonym for pestilence, and “the whole country is post-gramme” as if what us fools take for daily reality is the world in some fallen state - with the tribulation coming soon. He cries at one point “righteous maelstrom”, at another “your decadent sins will reap discipline”.

Though he may have been a hard-drinking speed-freak who didn’t always treat his band the way the Musician’s Union would have favoured, though he may (as we’ve seen) express disdain for “small moralists”, Smith was in his wayward way a moral crusader – ceaselessly railing against stupidity, cant, careerism, hypocrisy and mere imitation, never settling for second best.

The grotesque is pretty much the collision of the horrific with the humorous by definition, each simultaneously lacing and souring the other. And despite the absence of overt parody songs the humour’s still there, merely darker and less overt. ’Impression of J. Temperence’ seems assembled from Lovecraftian kit parts, quite literally a shaggy dog story down to the gag-like punchline. It even has the much-parodied Lovecraftian trope of the foreign thing being described as indescribable (quoted above), immediately followed by a description. It’s almost absurdly easy to interpret, the Bunyanesque name of the title character underlining how it’s all about the return of the repressed.

And yet it’s delivered with such glowering menace! You couldn’t take the thing seriously, but it’s equally impossible to just laugh it off. It’s not resolvable, there’s no box to put it in. And much of that comes from the sound. Traditionally, in rock ’n’ roll motion was a synonym for freedom – songs would both move and be about things that moved. “Ridin’ along in my automobile” was a classic opener. Whereas this track is slow, ominous, as if frozen by dread.

Remember the old canard about a scream being a 33rpm laugh being played at 45? The Fall played the thing at 16, until you didn’t know where you were. You don’t ride along in this track so much as get mired in it. The line “I was mad, and laughed at the same time”, though from elsewhere on the album, best conveys things.

Meanwhile and by way of contrast he cries on the sleeve notes “C’n’N Music is born!”, a reference to the freshly minted genre of Country and Northern. In ’The Weird and the Eerie’, Mark Fisher contends of the Fall: ”It seems as if the whole record has been constructed as a response to a hypothetical conjecture. What if rock and roll had emerged from the industrial heartlands of England rather than the Mississippi Delta? The rockabilly… is slowed by meat pies and gravy, it’s dreams of escape fatally poisoned by pints of bitter and cups of greasy-spoon tea. It is rock and roll as working man’s club cabaret, performed by a failed Gene Vincent imitator in Prestwich. [But] rock and roll needed the endless open highways: it could never have begun in England’s snarled up ring roads and claustrophobic conurbations”.

Yet ‘Container Drivers’, like ‘Psykick Dancehall’, is a rare example of an up track from this downwardly named band. The opposite bookend to ’Industrial Estate’, it’s a post-punk trans-Pennine ’King of the Road’ performed in an industrial rockabilly style. The Annotated Fall notes Smith was once employed as one of the self-described “customs bastards” the container drivers sail past, no boss breathing down their neck but an open road ahead of them.

But like ’Psykick Dancehall’ this was something of a contrast to the rest of the album. It’s smartly set straight after the ultra-restrained locked-groove of ’C’n’C-S Mithering’, coming on like a break-out. It’s even incorporated in the cover artwork as an insert, the tail end of a lorry hurtling out of the frame.

”His Tattooes Were Screwed”

And speaking of which… ’C’n’C-S Mithering’ (an abbreviation of ’Cash and Carry, Stop Mithering’, Mancunian for bothering) is the first of two long tracks which dominate the album, and is the sequel to ’Spectre vs. Rector’ in the uncompromising stakes.

It’s the first of what Smith would later call “the definitive rants”, a stream-of-consciousness screed of bile with a backbeat, perhaps a successor to Dylan’s ’Highway 61 Revisited’, an ever-expanding shit list. It builds on the original Crap Raps (versions of which appeared on ’Witch Trials’ and ’Totale’s Turns’), but extended into insanity and beyond, stretching for seven and a half minutes. One section makes this basis clear...

”This was supposed to be called crap rap fourteen 
”But it's now Stop Mithering
”The things that drain you off and drive you off the hinge
”Boils, dirty socks, the ceilings collapse
”The Sunday morning loud lawn mower...”

Making ’Repetition’ seem grandiose and orchestral, it’s almost literally stripped down – a guitar strum, some rapping on the drums, a bug in the ear. It’s not even a repetitive beat so much as an isolated phrase, a snatch of a rhythm never resolving – a niggle that attaches itself to your brain.

It’s a variant of that comedy routine where the raconteur gets incandescently irate about crumbs on the kitchen worktop or the unflushed public toilet. A routine which gains its edge by leaving the audience uncertain whether this is part of the act or he’s really that obsessive. (Smith later wrote a furious diatribe about the light bulb going in his flat, when “you need light here even in the morning.”) And indeed it becomes somewhat frightening to witness one man with so much bile to spew over socks.

Notably, it doesn’t end but simply cut out, as if an open-ended shit list Smith will be adding to before too long. Live, Smith would often mix up and vary his lyrics. He said to Middles: "To me, a song's never finished and it's never good enough, that's why I don't write lyrics down. Once they're down on paper, you can't change 'em, and I like to change 'em, even just before I'm going on stage... Lyrics change shape and meaning all the time... Once something is written I like to either change it or just move on."

But never more so than with this track, as whatever was mithering him at that moment would be thrown in. Not only was it never worked into a finished number, it seems antithetical to that notion. Some songs are portraits, some are tableaus. This is an etch-a-sketch, to be wiped down after use and built up again from it’s very basic basics, always in the moment, never fossilising.

Next up! The other major track from ’Grotesque'. (Clue, not ’WMC - Blob 59’…)

Saturday, 13 February 2021

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MIGHTY FALL: 3. “THE STREETS ARE FULL OF MERCENARY EYES”

(The previous part, looking at the first album, lies here.



”Those flowers, take them away, he said,
”They’re only funeral decoration”
- ’Spectre vs. Rector’ 


”Stupid faces looking back” 

Despite arriving only eight months after ’Witch Trials’, ’Dragnet’ (1979) brought important developments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you consider the only band member to remain from the original EP was Smith himself. On ’Dice Man’, he made clear this new arrangement was the new normal:

”I push, push, push, push
”Throw the bones and the poison dice
”No time for small moralists”


And significantly just as he took sole charge he took up Blake’s line “I must create my own system or live by another man’s”. From then the band were productive, forward-looking and ever-evolving. New songs were constantly elbowing out old ones, developed on the road, added to the set as soon as written – sometimes while being written. And with the consigning of old songs went with the consigning of old band members...

You could write a book based on Smith sacking anecdotes, except someone already has. Suffice to say he was already singing "Can't remember who I've sacked/ Just stupid faces looking back" on the B side 'In My Area'. It can seem like there was a press gang principle at work, where some poor soul would pop out for a pint somewhere in Salford and wake up with a bass strapped to his chest and the tour bus already half past Antwerp.

As so often with rock music, it's such a good legend it's tempting to just print it. For many years we all believed everything Captain Beefheart told us about the Magic Band, that he'd directed all the music and had taught band members to play from scratch. Which turned out to be nothing but spin.

True enough, ’Dice Man’s tumbling insistence nothing should ever stand still is certainly one of the Fall’s main driving factors. And there’s doubtless some truth in the second-most-common claim, that the ever-present threat of the P45 was Smith’s way of keeping the rank and file in line.

Yet merely totting up the sum of players who passed through the band creates something of a meaningless mean. Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley, both of whom start here, were to remain to 1996 and 1998 respectively. Karl Burns, who had drummed on ’Witch Trials’, skips here but alternates with or plays alongside Paul Hanley throughout the golden age.

And the era when the line-up was at its most fluctuating, the mid Nineties to the mid Noughties, led by some margin to the most uneven output. After which things solidified again. Yes, Smith was central. But the Fall were more than the main man plus his minions.

The paradox of the Fall is that even if they were always Mark E Smith’s band, they were still always a band. Other bands with such a sum total of members, such as Current 93 or the Waterboys, were more solo artists who traded under a band name. Whereas the Fall needed that group mind to function. The most cost-effective and obedience-decreeing model would have been to hire and fire session musicians as and when required. Smith vehemently rejected this idea, despite conceding meagre takings often made it hard to keep the full band running.

Scanlon, Hanley and others made significant contributions to the music, songs often starting with their riffs. Hanley’s book ’The Big Mid-week: Life Inside The Fall’ repeatedly reiterates the paradox. He recounts how classic tracks were written, sometimes without Smith even in the room. Yet he remains an outsider to Smith’s motivations and thought processes. It’s like reading about the Napoleonic Wars from the perspective of an enlisted foot solider, who occasionally gets his orders directly from the General.

So if the Fall didn’t work much like the Magic Band of legend, did they work like the Magic Band of reality? Yes, but with one important variant. Beefheart required accomplished musicians to realise the sounds in his head. While, to hold true to the three R’s rule, what Smith needed was a garage band – and knew it. He insisted “I have never had musicians in the Fall. I don’t like them as people.” (‘The Fall’, Mick Middles) Paul Hanley wrote in his account ’Have a Bleedin Guess’ that the band’s great asset was their ability “to use their non-musicianship to their advantage.”

Johnny Cash’s manager would confiscate the group’s instruments between gigs, figuring that practise might make them too perfect when freshness counted for more. Similarly, Alfred Hitchcock struggled against luvvieness, pronouncing actors to be “cattle”. He didn’t want to be asked what someone’s motivation was to open a door in a scene, he just wanted them to open the door. And Smith’s persistent scorn for musicians was really a disdain for musos, with their mystifying air of self-importance. He wanted a group who’d just play his repetitive, no-frills music without getting clever about it.

But at the same time Smith was always throwing in the unexpected, to keep his recruits alert and responsive. Don’t play what you know, play in the now! Again there’s plenty of precursors to this, such as Miles Davis.

Further, Smith’s dice-rolling was in many ways more an American than a British attitude. Paradoxically, given his avowed Manchester localism. With the American underground scene independence went alongside a work ethic so strong it bordered on Protestant. Music was written and recorded quickly and cheaply, then the band moved on. If there was somewhere the band could play, the band would play there. But if audiences were to be sought out, they should never be appeased. The music industry was best treated as an irrelevance, at its worst an intrusion.

And that method of working created a positive feedback loop with the music, which wasn’t polished or radio-friendly but a work perpetually in progress. The requirement to be prolific meant the music evolved faster than with mainstream bands. Bands otherwise as varied as Black Flag, Big Black and the Butthole Surfers held to that philosophy.

While British bands were often more bohemian in outlook, perhaps because living on the margins was - at least at the time - easier. Mostly, though not entirely, through the dole. There’s the (possibly apocryphal) story that Virgin found Public Image a well-drilled machine for inhaling money and exhaling dope smoke and excuses.

Whereas Smith very much did have this work ethic, and the bulletin-like sound which came with it. He confessed he welcomed the discipline of financial necessity, which meant things had to keep moving to stay viable. In a man chiefly driven by dislikes, laidbackness seems to have been one of his greatest bugbears.

(Yet there’s one big exception to this rule. In the American underground, gobshite punks and freaks often proved surprisingly proficient in business acumen. The Butthole’s Gibby Hayes had studied accountancy, even making student of the year. Not things you would say of Smith. Only the Replacements rivalled him in a loathing of the music industry so deep they were even willing to screw with their own career to confound it.)

”My Vibrations Will Live On” 

But back to ’Dragnet’. Like it’s predecessor, it was split down the middle - punk numbers and sour, surreal parodies at one pole, longer, stranger tracks on the other. In fact the parody numbers, ’Your Heart Out’ and ’Choc-Stock’ were even more blatant, sharply accentuating the distinction between them and the ‘arty’ tracks.

Yet it sounded quite different. Chiefly because the keyboards, so dominant on ’Witch Trials’, are gone. Compare two of the key tracks, last time’s ’Frightened’ to ’A Figure Walks’, which are thematically similar but simply don't sound it. If ‘Witch Trials’ sounded sluggish and smeary, ‘Dragnet’ is scratchy, like sinister runes scrawled into a wall with a knife blade. It’s the most twitchy, most speed-addled Fall album, a scrawny, frazzled street character you’d instinctively avoid. Infamously, the recording studio lobbied to have their name taken off the sleeve, fearing the album could only cost them work.

Much as the first Hawkwind album had few lyrical references to space, ’Witch Trials’ had not particularly delved into the weird. (Perhaps only the brief title track.) Which makes the album opener here - ’Psykick Dancehall’, with its opening séance cry “is anybody there? YEAH!!!” - as much a mission statement as had been ’Frightened’. The sleeve notes stated “this place actually exists”, which it sort of did – even if the punters didn’t really dance to spirit waves. It was based on a 'psychic centre' which replaced a ballroom in Prestwick. With typical derision Smith soon dubbed it “Alcoholics Anonymous for psychics”, but the image was potent.


For, much like Blake spying angels in East End trees, Smith didn’t drop the street-corner subject matter of punk but revelled in colliding the uncanny with the everyday. (“My garden is made of stone/There's a computer centre over the road/ I saw a monster on the roof.”) A later, 1986 B-side was somewhat gloriously titled ’Lucifer Over Lancashire’.

Stewart Lee (him again) described the band as “kitchen sink realists who found Lovecraftian horrors lurking down the U-bend.” The Fall became like Alan Sillitoe and HP Lovecraft superimposed on one another. From this point on they would work as shamans and mediums, Smith spouting psycho-babble over endlessly lumbering basslines and trance-repetitive beats. While simultaneously taking the piss out of pop stars and adverts.

Plus the band’s patented self-referentialism shacked up with the weird and produced some shapeshifting creature you could never classify. ‘Before the Moon Falls’ opens with Smith intoning: “We are private detectives onward back from a musical pilgrimage. We work under the name of the Fall.” There was soon a somewhat bewildering array of pseudonyms and author surrogates in song.

Yet with its group cry of “yeeeah” there's something triumphalist in ’Dancehall’- it really is a kind of dancehall number. Rather than Lovecraftian forces invading our reality and rending it, it reverses the perspective, it’s about being able to bust out of the arbitrary limits to your life. And quite literally your life:

“When I am dead and gone
”My vibrations will live on 
”In vibes not vinyl through the years
”People will dance to my waves”


Whereas 'Figure Walks' not only picks up from where 'Frightened' left off, with the menace of the loner at night, it takes the original opening line (“someone's always on my tracks”) into another dimension. The spectre of street violence was then a common theme, but was either literal and visceral, as in the Specials’ ’Concrete Jungle’ (1979) or made into a manifestation of urban alienation, as in Stiff Little Fingers’ ’Big City Night’ (1982). But here the “something” which “followed me out” becomes (at least in the narrator’s paranoia) supernatural in its horror - “eyes of brown watery/ Nails of pointed yellow/ Hands of black carpet”.

And yet at the same time its the pack instinct personified, society's embodied judgement on its outsiders and scapegoats, disliking the unlike to the point of eliminating it. Its enmity is aroused by the “irascible” or a “genius”, in other words by Smith. The event's compared to the suicide of Socrates, as enforced by “the old golden savages”.




”Spectres Redundant”

And this strange melding of mundane and uncanny may have had it’s roots in Seventies Manchester. Middles has commented of Smith “it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to think of a single living artist, in the rock spectrum at least, where a locality is so deeply embedded within their work.” Joy Division’s Bernie Sumner commented on the city’s deprivation at the time, “it was virtually a ghost town” (‘Rip It Up And Start Again’, Simon Reynolds). If so, the connection was clearest in the track ’Spectre vs. Rector’, which became literally embedded in a locality. A sleeve note confirmed it had been partly recorded in a disused warehouse, with the comment “maybe industrial ghosts are making spectres redundant”.

Mark Fisher finds this “the moment when the Fall really began to sound like themselves…. any vestigial rock presence subsides into hauntology... Steve Hanley’s bass rumbles and thumps like some implacable earth-moving machine invented by a deranged underground race, not so much rising from subterranea as dragging the sound down into a troglodytic goblin kingdom in which ordinary sonic values are inverted.”

We’re used to levels of sound in music, elements neatly placed above each other like theatre flats. This sound has depth, but like peering into a murky pool where you’re never sure how far down it runs. In a sense it’s the band’s ’Sister Ray’, not so much the pinnacle of their career as the point where they got down to the very essence of what made them, their ur-moment. Fisher insists it’s a track (not a song), but in many ways it isn’t even a track – it’s more like a ritual which coincidentally got recorded. Of all the Fall tracks, it’s closest to the industrial sound of Throbbing Gristle. Though it’s their turning point it’s less a template than a crucible, a point where everything to date was boiled down to the bones, and then reforged into something more basic.

Nothing they recorded subsequently ever matched it for pounding extremism. In fact even Smith would concede the track’s ‘challenging’ nature, at the end of the live ’Chaos Tapes’ version thanking “everyone who helped me with my vendetta tonight”. Nevertheless, with pun intended, its spirit permeated every subsequent held-down chord.

And like ’Sister Ray’ the ostensible narrative less degrades into incomprehensible gibberish than barely appears above it. The track’s underlined by what sound like field recordings. Which seems to be because the original warehouse recording was committed to a single-mike cassette, with Smith’s vocals subsequently overdubbed in the studio. (Perhaps more necessity than plan?)

Everyone knows the horror trope where some bunch of berks perform a conjuration, then act all surprised when the resulting demon turns out not to be their idiotically expected obedient servant. They’re almost like those safety films telling kids not to mess about about in electricity substations. Look both ways, just say no, don’t call on Cthulhu. Nothing like that happens here. Rather than wait to be inserted when it’s place in the narrative arrives the incantation kicks off the track, and repeats… well, repeatedly.

Even if we take it as just the chorus, what song ever had the chorus coming first? It becomes like the “evil dust in the air” (a sequel both to the fog and haze of ’Witch Trials'), what Fisher calls “verbal ectoplasm”, taking hold of the listener. The song’s about an exorcism but ultimately is an invocation. You end up succumbing, just as much as the possessed Inspector.

The hero, the “strange man” who lives not among other men, seems another clear stand-in for Smith himself. Unlike the Rector or Inspector his name doesn’t conveniently rhyme with Spector, and he’s the one the Spector can’t possess. It’s not so much that he’s stronger or more virtuous than the others, he’s simply more indigestible. The very stuff which makes him shunned make him unpossessable, assimilatable by neither system, not good or bad but outside. We’re told “selling his soul to the devil” was “his kick from life”, and certainly he seems unconcerned either by the Rector’s death or the Inspector being insane.

And yet through all this the black humour of ’Industrial Estate’, the sense of life’s absurdity, is retained. Is it threateningly deranged or a knowing parody of absurd ghost story tropes? It’s pretty much both. That incantation once (semi) decoded turns out to be a spew of Lovecraftian calls (“Yog-Sothoth, rape me Lord”) and references to MR James but among those literary allusions is King of the B movies Roger Corman. It’s simultaneously trying to draw down the horrors of the netherworld on your head and pointing out its own clichés.

And Smith plays up the absurdity further on the live version (from the follow-up album ’Totale’s Turns’), breaking from the script to reflect “you probably know this if you’ve got the record”, before musing on the incongruity of telling stories through loud amplifiers.

’Frightened’ kicked off ’Witch Trials’. ’Spectre vs. Rector’ didn’t conclude ’Dragnet’, it was succeeded by ’Put Away’. But it upped the ante considerably. Where was there next for the Fall to go..?

Saturday, 6 February 2021

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MIGHTY FALL: 2. “...AS IF FROM HEAVEN”

(The first part, covering the original EP, lies here.)


”I still believe in the R & R dream
”R & R as primal scream”

- ‘Live At the Witch Trials’

”We Were Early And We Were Late”

Wikipedia kicks off with the two best-known facts about the Fall’s debut album, ’Live At the Witch Trials’ (1979) – it wasn’t actually a live album, and was recorded in a single day. (More time was booked but Smith fell ill. Though I’ve always suspected he feigned it, preferring the on-your-toes nature of rushed recording. “Tension pulls out the best in us” was one of his maxims.)

'Industrial Estate' seems the closest cousin to ’Bingo-Master’ from the initial EP. Smith once introduced it live by saying "this song was written round here, it's for the people round here.”

Sparking off with the line “Well you started here to earn your pay” it’s sung as if from an old hand to fresh blood, delivered straight from school. It’s jaunty, punchy power-pop and chanted refrains both capture and parody the well-rehearsed consolation and paint-on cheeriness, the sheer awful Englishness captured in that sickeningly familiar phrase “it can’t be as bad as all that, mate”. A particular delight is the reassuring refrain: “And if you get a bit of dee-preshun/ Ask the Doctor for some vaaa-lium”. The fake jauntiness just accentuates the hopelessness.

It's a great song. But there's nothing about it which suggests future decades of great songs. Not wanting to become factory fodder was a common punk theme, and understandably so. (Hapless media pundits portrayed punk as a protest against unemployment, in a vain bid to make it something more palatable. Yet it was more a protest against employment. The Clash had railed against ’Career Opportunities’. Rotten had sung triumphantly on ’Problems’: “You won't find me working nine to five/ It's too much fun being alive.” The Prefects had written ’The Bristol Road Leads to Dachau’, referring to the road in Birmingham that took you to your car plant job. Fortnightly giro cheques were a welcome alternative to forty hour working weeks. But I digress...)

There’s probably a parallel universe where this Fall were the only Fall, where they split up sometime in 1982 and occasionally resurface in pub quizzes and on compilation albums. Fortunately for us, that’s not our world…

And in fact there are signs even there, visible with hindsight of what was to come. While punk was a kitchen sink drama, dramatising and bigging up the lot of the common man, the Fall reversed perspective to positively revel in a pettiness and mundanity normally associated with comedy. (The last straw for the Bingo Master was when “holiday in Spain fell through”, according to the neighbours anyway.)

This went with a recurrent self-referentialism in the Fall, where lyrics just served as reportage. Smith would very often just sing about himself, what he’d been doing and where the band were at. The Fall existed as a vehicle for the songs, which by turn were about the Fall. (A classic example being ’Two Steps Back.’) These frequently spilt over into diatribes against the music scene, habitually populated in Smith’s eyes by idiots, pseuds, chancers and rip-off artists (as in, logically enough, ’Music Scene’), or into general diss tracks. Draw his ire and expect a barbed lyric aimed your way.

In 'Rebellious Jukebox', through not overly elaborated means, a jukebox acquires sentience and decides to “make music for itself.” (At least, when not chatting up the cigarette machine.) The non-plussed regulars do not have their concerns noted. (“Drinkers from the slaughterhouse/ Weren't happy and went out”.) The symbolism’s clear enough, a live band with the temerity not to cover the hits of the day. It’s an overt statement of contrary intent, a band principle embraced with almost religious fervour. In its way it’s a moving on from ’Bingo-Master’, its “break-out” no longer the quiet of the grave but facing stage death and simply not caring.

Martin Bramah confirms that at this time “live... it became a war of attrition against the audience. If we were feeling particularly abused we'd just play 'Repetition' until the audience either walked away or got really violent.” (‘Babylon's Burning’, Clinton Heylin.)

Hence 'Crap Rap', normally their introductory number live, served the twin purpose of introducing the band and insulting the audience. (Smith was also fond of saying “if you don't like us, it's already too late.”) But on the album it's bumped from pole position by 'Frightened'. Which, with the chorus “I don't want to dance, I want to go home” must surely be a(nother) statement of intent...

”Time Moves Slow When You Count It”

It's a track that tells us more about the band the Fall were fast becoming. If 'Repetition' was sluggish, 'Frightened' is literally slowed down - it's the Monkees' 'Stepping Stone' driven in the wrong gear. It’s dominated by keyboards, an instrument most punk bands eschewed as a distraction from their back-to-basics ethic. The result is what Perfect Sounds Forever call “a masterpiece of brooding sensuality.” 

Smith was (citation not needed) something of an avid snorter, and the track evokes the speedfreak's volatile combination of egoism and paranoia, insisting “I'm better than them and I think I'm the best.” While, seeing only antagonism in human company (“I couldn’t live in those peopled places/ They might get to know my actions”), a solo figure stalking the streets after everyone else has gone to bed.

As the Daily Reckless say of ‘Frightened’: “If ever a song reflected its paranoiac message in the music this is it.” Smith intones “time moves slow when you count it”, and from the first few slurry notes you're placed in the same edgy “trance” as the singer. Which means... yes really... they conveyed the effects of speed by slowing everything down.

It’s tempting to call it the Fall’s ’Heroin’. But a less likely comparison might actually come closer. Black Sabbath had opened their first album with a slow-burning signature track, in their case even titled eponymously. In both cases the words describe the music, which itself describes the words – with no way of separating one from the other.

But if ’Frightened’ is the most musically prescient track on the album, lyrically it may be 'Futures and Pasts'. Appropriately enough it's the first track to, in Vonnegut’s famous phrase, become unstuck in time. (‘Various Times’ had followed a chronology.) Literally it may just cross-cut between adult and child memories, as the title suggests. But the dual references to the fog, both times containing a policeman, suggests a blurring of the two.

Fog’s obscuring effects are often used as a signifier for the suspension of the standard rules of time and space. Let’s cross streams with the other great fixation of this blog. David Whitaker’s novelisation of the first Doctor Who story (with the award-baiting title ’Doctor Who In An Exciting New Adventure With the Daleks’) not only stages our first encounter with the Doctor in fog, it brings that fog into its first sentence. And notably 'Rebellious Jukebox’ takes place in “a blue haze”, though presumably rather than fog the fug of a pre-smoking-ban pub.

Overall, the album is split down the middle, between variants of 'Industrial Estate' and of 'Frightened', between short sharp punk songs and far stranger fare. From that first EP, the Fall sounded like embryonically conjoined twins – two bands in one, ready to split apart. Only 'Mother-Sister!', hitching a fast chorus to a slow verse, and self-described as “like a see-saw”, made any attempt to unite the two.

With John Peel's championing of the band, people assume their Peel Sessions were their beating heart. Indeed, their first two sessions bypassed their first two singles, and entirely devoted themselves to material yet unreleased. However, at this stage those sessions still confined themselves to the punkier songs, as if those were the public face of the band.

Yet ultimately things were only going to go one way. Too punk to be punk, the Fall exulted in sounding and looking as anti-punk as they could. Julian Cope recalls: “Mark E Smith, the Fall and the rest were our idols. They all wore flares but they wore them in the right way.” ('Liverpool Explodes', Mark Cooper). Which possibly sums up this era more than anything else.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MIGHTY FALL: 1. “NEVER GONNA LOSE IT”

”What really went on there?
"We only have this excerpt”
- ’Cruiser’s Creek’



After Mark E Smith died, now two years ago, every pundit, pontificator and professional sofa-sitter had to briefly pretend they were a great fan of the Fall. And really enjoyed that ‘chat’ with him which was really an excruciating anti-interview in which he’d stayed obstinately taciturn throughout. Then probably went to the nearest pub and waxed lyrical with a painter and decorator for the next three hours. But now all that chaff’s blown away, it’s the time to ask what it was which made the band so memorable? And when were they at their mightiest?

Stewart Lee, a rare example of a celeb who not only got the Fall but seemed to hit it off with Smith when interviewing him, has cheerily admitted that when he first heard the band he found them terrible. (“I just thought 'This is absolutely awful. This bloke can't sing, it's repetitive, it doesn't make any sense, all the things are out of tune, it just goes on and on the same. I hate it'. Then I heard it again and for all those reasons I thought, 'This is also brilliant'.”)

Me too, truth be told. It was only through John Peel playing them so persistently that I finally got there. Were I first hearing them today, with the ever-present and too-easily-pressed skip button, I’d most likely never have made it. As it was, antagonism became repellant fascination and finally devotion.

And for the reasons Lee gives. You didn’t see through the apparent draw-backs, such as Smith’s lack of singing ability. (The way some say they got inured to Dylan’s drawl.) Those apparent obstacles just transformed themselves into unique strengths. Everything that was wrong about them became what was right, everything that didn’t fit suddenly did. They didn’t change, the Fall were just the Fall. Your brain reoriented around them.

Were they a punk band? In Britain, punk largely followed the same trajectory as Bart Simpson, when he got briefly famous as the ‘I Didn’t Do It Kid’. It had been defined early by the infamous ’Sniffin’ Glue’ slogan: “here’s a chord, here’s another, now form your own band”. The upside of this is that a lot of people did form their own bands (the Fall included) and sometimes this was even a good idea.

The downside of this is that there isn’t really much to do after you’ve played your two chords apart from play them again. Consequently, most bands found themselves trapped in diminishing returns. Yet those who tried to venture further found all-too-often those two chords were all they ever really had. They became like rejected suitors, valiantly springing back with different hairstyles, extra instruments or other gimmicks but hopeless in the fact that the lacking lay in their very selves. Many bands went into half-life after their first album. Sometimes their first single.

But the Fall found themselves able to venture far and wide, while always keeping the magic two chords with them. The title track ’Repetition’, from their first EP, proffered their oft-quoted mantra – “repetition in our music and we’re never gonna lose it.” It kept them going for the next forty-two years, even if – as everyone knows – the only constant was frontman Mark E Smith.

Did they ever lose it? That's a thorny issue among fans. But most would agree it was the years from that 1978 EP which were to provide the band’s golden age – and the subject of what follows here. Here we’re taking it up to <i>’Perverted by Language’</i> in 1983. (Their silver age, which by my reckoning runs up to 1989’s ’I Am Kurious Oranj’, may be covered at some future point. You never know.)


Like many a band from that era, the Fall were galvanised into action by seeing the Sex Pistols. And listening to that first EP, ’Bingo-Master’s Break-Out’ (recorded in ‘77 if not released until the following year) you can hear that on the title track. Happily, it’s more influenced by Rotten’s sardonic humour than the normal numbskull social commentary and earnest promises to “the kids”. A sense of humour Smith then filters simultaneously through Northern miserablism and arch Surrealism.

This was when most band responded to the Pistols by switching from faux-American accents to Mockney. (Even, most risibly, Edinburgh band the Exploited.) While Smith’s singing was so Mancunian people commented his mouth sounded full of mushy peas. Guitarist Martin Bramah has commented “Mark picked up on how to make Manchester interesting”, resulting in “’Coronation Street’ on acid”.

The soul-sick Bingo Master is titled but never named throughout the song, as if there was no extracting him from the job he’d grown to loathe. So showbiz, the standard dream of escape from routine, becomes just another rote job. And, via transposing bingo calling into a punk number, rock music itself is drawn in. “Wasted time in numbers and rhymes/ One hundred blank faces buy” could easily refer to a moribund rock star, hauling himself on stage and going through the motions “for the fans”.

But it’s the EP’s flip-side, with the track ’Repetition’, where the band’s other influences come to the fore – the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Can and Faust. If it’s most famous for confirming the brand’s credo (quoted above)its slow, rumbling tempo is at least as important to their sound. The initial burst of noise, and promise to "get real speedy" lull the listener into believing some lead guitar action is about to break in, whereas what you get is the very opposite.

Despite their beginnings, the Fall identified more as an underground than a punk band. (Smith had a particular disdain for punk fashion which he saw – in many ways correctly – as a successor to glam, against which he preferred the hippie underground.) As we’ll see, the covers of the first two albums are anti-bucolic, imagery which suggests an inverted version of psychedelia. Wikipedia gives one of its features as “dechronicization”, or ”permit[ting] the drug user to move outside of conventional perceptions of time”. And Smith said “the last thing you want is regular time”.

But if they didn’t extend time like psychedelia tended to, they slowed it, made it sluggish. The track sounds like the players were trying to achieve some sprightlier tempo, but have their hands mired in glue. It sounds like a bad drugs experience which in enveloping you overcomes time, the clock hand failing to turn. (All of these are, of course, good things.)

And all at the height of the expectation that 'punk' songs were short, fast and spiky. (Think of the Clash's “the band went in, knocked 'em dead, two minutes fifty-nine.”) These days there are Godspeed tracks you can't put on without being late for work the next day. But back then pushing past five minutes was almost anathema.

And even after those punk days were done, the Fall still seemed to beam in from a different reality system. These being ye olde days of LP records, people were forever asking me if they were playing at the right speed. I remember someone taping one off me, in a particularly perverse act, too slowly. I took to the tape, often asking to hear it.

Then, hidden away on the flip side to their second (and most forgettable) single, came the hugely significant 'Various Times'. It was the first Fall song to focus on time, serving up scenes from past, present and future. The moral – and you can almost use that word – is that time’s a useless appendage, as no-one ever learns anythinguseful from it, to the point where it finally gives up on us. (Time’s end was predicted for Nineteen Eighty.)

It’s to Buddhism what Satanism is to Christianity, adopting all the precepts but only in the negative. Here there is nothing but the wheel, a mirthless merry-go-round where no-hopers live their lives in a state of bad faith, learning nothing over and over again. (Later songs would return to this theme, such as ‘Backdrop’, with it’s dig at “the re-run which is your life”.) It’s a classic piece of Smith misanthropy.

But what’s most important here is the combination - the time-blurring themes set to the time-distorting non-standard tempos. Music seems to affect the process of time. Listen to gabba and then acoustic blues, or to a symphony and then some top twenty hits. Time will not seem to be passing at the same rate at all. And the sinister slowing spells the Fall cast on the tempos of rock seemed to denude time, as if overpowering it, in a way which went well with tales of time travel. Smith was wont to claim he was (or had been) psychic, one indication of which was his aura stopping any watches which came near him. More of that sort of thing anon...

Saturday, 23 January 2021

A USER'S GUIDE TO CONTINUITY IN 'DOCTOR WHO' (CLUE: THERE ISN'T ONE)



“Many fans like to think that ‘Doctor Who’ stories fit into a consistent framework. They draw links between the separate stories and try to explain away the discrepancies that ensue.”

...Lance Perkin said that...

“People who like science fiction want to explore brave new worlds whilst failing to understand simultaneously there’s one they’re living in right here and now.” 

...Sue Perkins said that...

”Would a nerd by any other name be as obsessive and lacking in social skills?”

...I said that.

I’m going to tell you something that you may find hard to believe...

If you read about ‘Doctor Who’ online, you can run into a lot of nerdish and obsessive behaviour.

...that is not the thing that you may find hard to believe. But reading some of this stuff has led me to wonder exactly what goes on in the recesses of the nerdish obsessive cranium. Why would minds so smart, albeit myopic, set themselves such a fool's errand?

Mostly people don’t care about this, because to them nerds are just for shunning – with their amazing abilities to store and recall information and their equally amazing inability to ever shut up about any of it. However, though the nerd is characterised as lacking empathy, it’s crucial to understand that from the nerd’s perspective it’s the world which is failing in its understanding of him.

Take the classic office nerd, and contrast that reassuring computer on his desk with the girl by the water cooler who sometimes smiles at him and sometimes doesn’t. It is unknown to the nerd why she sometimes smiles and sometimes doesn’t, so any journey to the water cooler becomes fraught with uncertainty. But the computer comes with a manual. It’s a delineable, predictable world contained inside a box. Look into that screen and all can be right with the world.

Though a common totem of this sort of thing, the computer itself is not actually necessary. Anything else which provides that safeness and security will do – be it model railways, Marvel comics or watching old ‘Doctor Who’ episodes on DVD. (There are radical politics nerds who memorise minute details of past strikes, riots and uprisings as an alternative to leaving the house. I have met them and can attest they are no more fun or interesting to be around than those who obsess over whether the D IN 'Tardis' stands for 'dimension' or 'dimensions'.)

’Doctor Who’ nerds can become so obsessive about the Whoniverse that some assume they take it for a real place. However, it’s more akin to playing armies when you were a kid. Some upstart from the opposite side would always claim to have shot you. Now you knew full well you weren’t actually shot; there was no blood pouring from your side, unbearable pain or any of the other normal giveaways. But the psychological association with the game was still too strong and you’d refuse the very concept. (He'd normally then punch you. That one was harder to deny.)

Particularly before New Who, during that off-air impasse, many people got their impression of the show entirely from the nerds – as if it was just a projection of the people who talked about it. They imagined (or more accurately, shunned) something of arcane and labyrinthine complexity. Unless you knew what a Rassocoplionator was and why it needed the Transhymonian Deferberator and why such a thing was only obtainable from the Quadrillion complex in F-space, you were quite hopelessly lost and better off waiting for 'The Generation Game' to come on.


Yet consider the penultimate episode of the relaunched show's first series - 'Bad Wolf'. The Daleks have reappeared in overwhelming numbers, and currently have their amassed exterminators aimed at Rose. Confidently, they order the Doctor to surrender. Naturally, we expect the closing theme tune to kick in about now.

It doesn't. Instead the Doctor just says “no”. The Daleks turn their eyestalks to one another, look about as perplexed as tin cans with eyestalks can and ask him to “explain this negative”. Instead he repeats it - “no.”

“But,” they insist, trying valiantly to get him to see some reason, “you have no weapons! No defences! No plan!”

“Yeah,” he replies, “and doesn't that scare you to death?”

The Daleks haven't managed to second-guess his plan because he hasn't got one. He'll just make it up as he goes along, like he does, and they've no real mechanism for coping with that. In some ways, the exchange is the archetypal moment for the Doctor. It’s the scene I’d show people wanting to know who the character was. The planners, the schemers, they're the bad guys of the Whoniverse. It's always ambiguous whether the Doctor's exploits restore order or disorder.

...but it's also the archetypal moment for the show. If the Doctor doesn't know what he's doing yet that's because the writer doesn't either. The Whoniverse was never some ordered place, with carefully annotated sheets of backstory and chronologoy. As our travels through the Hartnell years have shown, it was all made up on the hoof. 

He was originally made a man of mystery because no-one had the faintest idea who or what he actually was. The continuity creaks worse than any of the sets. Working something like that into a neat timeline is like trying to sculpt with marmalade. You can try. You can even try telling people you've succeeded. But that's about the extent of it.

But of course if you wanted a world built up in intricate detail, for many years you were out of luck. No longer. At the very least, not since ’Babylon 5’ debuted in 1993. A show almost entirely written by one man, J Michael Straczynski, with all the long-haul plotlines worked out in advance. Other, similar shows have followed in it's wake. Your shelf can now groan from the DVD box sets of them all.

Especially with 'Doctor Who' not even being on the air in 1993, fans gave up on it. They ceased grafting their fixations on a dead show which had never really lived up to them, indeed was never even intended to, and became ’Babylon 5’ obsessives instead.

Of course they didn’t. 

Some may have become ’Babylon 5’ obsessives as well, but ’Doctor Who’ didn’t lose any of its totemic status. If all they wanted was the safe harbour, the long list of new terms to learn and characters to memorise, how come?

I'm saying that that the Whoniverse draws in the nerd precisely because of all this, because it’s such a muddle, so antithetical to Straczynski's meticulous timelines or Tolkein’s punctiliously detailed little maps.

In ‘Terror of the Autons’, the Doctor admits of the Master “I do sometimes think the cosmos will be a duller place without him.” So it is with the nerd and discontinuity. Rather than fearing continuity lapses, nerds seek them out. They find them exhilarating and dangerous. Isolating and neutralising their threat is the nerd equivalent of extreme sports. (But still not quite as challenging as talking to the girl by the water cooler.)

The alternative is a world too safe, too cosy. As Blake so wisely said “the bounded is loathed by its possessor.” (Disclaimer: Not the Blake who had the Seven.) Combatting discontinuity is the nerd’s equivalent of keeping spice in the marriage. To some extent we all do this. We watch thrillers because they make us jump, while knowing they will operate only inside controlled parameters.


Stan Lee (of Marvel comics fame) intuitively grasped this about the nerd when he invented the institution of the no-prize. Nerds won this (ie no prize at all) if they spotted a continuity error in a Marvel strip. But they could win a double no-prize if they then came up with a way of explaining away this error! Letters flooded in taking him up on this deal. Blood was up, a new sport was coined. The girl by the water cooler remained ignored, her sometime smile un-de-encrypted.

Now a little bit of what you fancy does you good. At the end of ‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’, Susan elects to stay behind with her human boyfriend. At that point, no-one had made up the bit about Time Lords living super-longly, so it seemed a reasonable idea. So, in order not to spoil the moment, while watching I write a quick ‘fix’ in my head. I imagine that, in some unspecified way, Susan surrendered her extra-long and two-hearted Time Lord life, and chose to become human. Arwen and Aragorn all over again. The story can then play out unhindered by future continuity.


But when such fixes become not just important in their own right, but functionally replace the stories, then the wood has been swapped for the trees, the flag of nerdery is flying high and suddenly I have something better to do.

In short, despite the screeds of stuff I have written on some cheapo old TV show, both on this blog and on message boards, I am now going to claim... and the bit which you may find hard to believe... I am not a nerd over ’Doctor Who.’ 

Well I said it was going to be hard to believe.

(And don't click here.)

As Mark Fisher has said: “Watching something like ’Star Wars’, you immediately think two things. Its fictional world is both impossibly remote, too far-distant to care about, and too much like this world, too similar to our own to be fascinated by. If the uncanny is about the irreducible anomalousness in anything that comes to count as the familiar, then Fantasy is about the production of a seamless world in which all gaps have been monofilled.”

If he's right, Science Fiction may well be the genre where the Uncanny and Fantasy clash. Of course something like horror has its lore. Crucifixes finish Vampires, head-removal dispatches Zombies, just as sure as shaking a six lets you pass go in 'Monopoly'. But no-one worries very much about how the two of them can be un-dead in the first place. The most famous modern zombie films, Romero’s Dead trilogy, deliberately taunt us with blind alley non-explanations. We are in the realm of the uncanny. 

But put vampires into science fiction, such as in ’Doctor Who’s’ ‘Vampires in Venice’,  and suddenly we need to be told why they don’t have reflections in mirrors and all the rest. (Disclaimer: I am admittedly picking on a crap episode.)

And yet Science Fiction contains within it a spectrum, at which ’Doctor Who’ is very much at one end. Though the title character is a scientist, not a rocket-ship pilot, it was never concerned with getting the science very right. Fans of ‘proper’ science fiction tend to disparage the show for this very reason.

But personally, a large part of what attracts me to the show is the Uncanny. It presents a disordered universe with mystery at its heart, which can never quite be delineated or reduced to sense. Even our guide, the title character, is a mystery in and of himself. He is at home among the unhomely.

Disclaimer 1: It might be argued that only the truest nerd would deny his own nerdosity. Mark Fisher also, somewhat shrewdly, noted “It's always other people who are 'fans'.”

Of course I’m a fan of the show to be writing about it, and you’re probably a fan too for bothering to read any of this. But “fans’ is also a handy short-cut term. When a fan calls another fan a fan, he means something else. By the act of pointing he means the next step beyond, a uber-fan, an obsessive. “Fan” is really a euphemism for when I don’t want to actually say “nerd”.

Disclaimer 2: None of this is to suggest I endorse the shunning of nerds. It would be truer to say that I farm them. I avail myself of the fruits of their labour without bothering to recompense them all that much. They spend their time gathering together a whole load of information so I don’t have to.

Much of this (like how Susan came to name the Tardis or what the D really stands for) is functionally useless. But every now and again it can be stuff which comes in quite handy. This is in fact what the internet was invented for. You used to need a tame nerd on stand-by, to act as a kind of walking Wikipedia. Nowadays I can avail myself of the info they’ve provided, then at any time click on the little cross in the corner to get rid of them. It works for me...

PostScript: For the accompanying image to this, I did try to find an on-line equivalent for that silvery mirrored paper stuff that reflects your own image back, but had to give up on it...

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...)