Saturday 30 January 2021


”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


“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


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

Plot spoilers happen!

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

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

The Scenario From Another Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clue coming up...

”Terrible Human Beings”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last of the First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 9 January 2021


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

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

Earth's Not As We Left It, Doctor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gettin' Down With the Kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future in Bold Black and White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who As We Know It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 2 January 2021


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

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

Where Future and Past Collide 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyday Exploitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Common Humanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colours Lose Their Brightness

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

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

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

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

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