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.

No comments:

Post a Comment