Saturday 29 May 2021


(NB Not a review of the recently animated version. We’re being strictly old-school here.)
First broadcast March/April 1967
Written by Ian Stuart Black
Yep, plot spoilers!

“This is your Controller speaking. There is no need for alarm.Your may continue your work and play confident the best is being done for you.”

Gulags With Jingles

Much like Ian Stuart Black’s first ’Who’ story ‘The Savages’, his third takes place in an apparent abundant utopia where All is Not As It Seems. Where the Doctor seems quietly clued up to the goings-on from the get-go, and where another character struggles between two natures.

But there’s significant differences. In ‘The Savages’ the Elders hide their guilty secret from the travellers, directing them down different corridors. Here they don’t even want to admit it to themselves. The Controller rages “No-one on the Colony believes in Macra! There is no such thing as Macra! Macra do not exist! There are no Macra!” You half-expect him to add “I don’t even know that the Macra are called the Macra, that’s how little I know about the Macra.”

Medok’s plot-instigating role is to fail to understand the other Colonists are refusing rather than failing to see them, so becoming like that guy who brings facts and information to an internet message board.

And as the above might suggest, this is more Swiftian satire than space opera. There’s some genuinely funny moments. (“Our patrols have orders to shoot on sight. Happy sleep time!”) There’s a fudging of ranks with personal names, with one official called Officia. The Colony is called the Colony, another nudge to see this allegorically not as somewhere in its own right. Even in ‘Power of the Daleks’, the place got a name!

Not unsurprisingly for the guy who wrote ‘The War Machines’, there’s comparisons aplenty to ‘Quatermass II’, and while we’re on Nigel Kneale we might also mention his adaptation of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.

But let’s focus on the widely recognised similarities to ‘The Prisoner’. The Doctor takes on the Number 6 role of the obstinately square peg, insisting he’s “perfectly alright as I am, thank you”. While the Controller and the Pilot match Numbers 1 and 2, with the Pilot’s office (revealed to contain a panopticon) as their Green Dome. The story often advances via bizarre juxtapositions, such as Jamie escaping from a mineshaft into a gaggle of cheerleaders. Both appeared the same year, ‘The Prisoner’ debuting that September, suggesting something zeitgeisty is striking.

There’s the holiday camp setting and atmosphere, with its peer-pressure jollity and saccharine jingles. (And holiday camps do seem to have been as regimented as the factory jobs they supposedly offered a break from, gulags with jingles.) Though crucially the Colony’s also presented as luxurious, while the working class break of holiday camps would have been much more basic.

But more, in both the luxury is less a cover for the conformism than a constituent part of it, manicures and mind control working together. Society has become mollycoddling and infantalising, literally putting you to bed at night to protect you from the dark. The hypnotising voice-in-the-ear is liked to “a sort of sweet perfume”, a culture of the soporific.

So modern lad Ben is most taken in, likening it to being “at anchor in the Med”. He seems to quickly revert to his Navy days, admonishing the Doctor “you’ll find yourself on a charge” and insisting “I had to do my duty.” While rough Highlander Jamie is distrustful from the start, picking up on the voice as “an evil that spoke so gently”. (This distinction smartly finds fruit in their differences, wile they’re more commonly clashing over their similarities.)

And this consumer abundance scepticism is indeed very late Sixties, reminiscent of the (slightly later) John Lennon line “they keep you doped with religion and sex and TV.” The poison is always in the sugar coating.

Getting (Rid Of) The Crabs

So the mid-point twist isn’t that the Macra exist, which was telegraphed from the start. It’s that, despite their seeming to hang menacingly at the periphery of things, and unlike the Cybermen last time they’re really running the show. ’The Savages’ was about a split society resembling a dissociated mind, which needed to be reassembled for the situation to heal. Here we’re dealing with a foreign foe, just one that’s already within.

The Macra props were risible even by the standards of the day, openly ridiculed by the production team. Anneke Wills, playing Polly, has recalled her heavy-duty screaming was her figuring something was needed to sell this.

And when you hear they were originally intended to be spiders, then insects, before settling on crabs, then find they’re still carelessly called insects in the dialogue, that the story repeatedly stresses them coming up from the underground just like crabs don’t, it’s tempting to conclude “generic monster on Doctor Who” and move on.

But before we’re quite that quick, remember the image that foreshadowed all of this. The one at the end of the previous story (despite them ostensibly having stopped the inter-story cliffhangers) - the claw. For the mistake was allowing them to rear their ugly heads, even if crabs don’t really have heads.

Firstly, guys, when your budget doesn’t stretch to showing a credible monster - just don’t show the monster! Shove that crap crab into the shadows! We should only have seen the claws, plus a whole lot of contradictory babbling speculation about what that appendage might be appended to. (See also the creature’s tentacle in ‘The Daleks’.) And for the longest time, this is what we did. As said in Wood and Miles’ ’About Time’ guide, once the episodes were wiped we had one photoshoot to go on (below), and so “fandom went for years without any photos of the Macra except for a single shot of a big menacing claw.”

But as Jack Graham points out, there’s an upside to this. Even if not intended, some of this still exists in the story: “They are categorically indeterminate, crab/non-crab, insect/spider/ bacteria things that people have trouble perceiving clearly even - especially - when they see them.”

Added to which… we’ve seen before how the clash-of-values conversation is such a show staple. Yet nothing of the kind happens here, no-one speaks to for directly from the Macra. Even when their not-so-subtle subterfuge is busted they stay in character, speaking as the Controller.

I’m generally not keen on sticking political labels on pieces of popular culture. It feels hopelessly reductive, a shoehorning in order to get in some terminology namedropping. (“The Master running out of regenerations demonstrates the decadence within the capitalist system. How’s my Marxism?”) But here… well, let’s creep up on it Macra-like…

The Gothic is often used as the antithesis and nemesis of modernity. It’s tropes - the ruin, the phantom, the hidden room - all suggest a past forgotten but not gone, and therefore never truly forgotten, a past which stubbornly refuses to lie down as you try to close the lid on it. ‘The Rescue’ was full of this, even if the avenging Indians doubled as the rescuing Seventh Cavalry.

But, two things. We've seen how the Troughton era is fast becoming more Gothic than Hartnell’s. As one instance, count the claws. They appeared, passingly in ‘Power of The Daleks’ but more so in ‘The Moonbase.’ But this story adds the uncanny to the mix. In fact a kind of uncanny capitalism, where ostensibly normal aspects of our modern lives are projected back at us as unfamiliar and even undiscernible.

Check out how that paranoiac indeterminacy isn’t just directly to do with the Macra but spread everywhere. The Pilot has a hypnotising voice placed in his own wall. And Control himself is clearly not in control, as even country lad Jamie soon spots. Nominally, as is common, there’s a nerve centre, but no-one ever gains access to it. The Macra are indeterminate, outside and within, seen and not seen, there and not.

Perception being inherently subjective, wherever you are will always feel to you like here. Go over there, and there will suddenly become the new here. But power works the opposite way - it always seems elsewhere, remote from you even as it holds you, ungraspably contrapedal to wherever you are. You are in the pincers here, while the controlling brain lies elsewhere. And this is a symptom of alienation.

As Guy Debord once wrote: “The more powerful the class, the more it claims not to exist, and its power is employed above all to enforce this claim.... Though its existence is everywhere in evidence, the bureaucracy must be invisible as a class. As a result, all social life becomes insane.”

And note how work, so normally conspicuous by its absence (including in ‘The Savages’), shows up here. Not so much with the mines, which frequently appear and are always associated with slave labour. Including here, where they’re a punishment detail. The more significant moment is the briefer “labour centre” scene (where work seems to consist of playing modernist checkers, but baby steps), and the endless tannoy jingles selling the virtues of hard work.

So let's take the claw not as just a suggestion of a greater creature, but an image in itself? When Polly sees one she instantly exclaims “they’re in control!” Hands are parsed as possessive instruments, just as claws signify the foreign. So here the grasping claw morphs into something like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, where the market is held to work for our mutual benefit precisely because it’s outside of our control. Or as Marx more accurately put it: “The capitalist is only a function of capital, the labourer a function of labour power.”

The gas which vitalises the Macra is toxic for humans, associated in the dialogue with “plus and minus” pipes. It could be seen as a from of surplus value, the part of any commodity which benefits not the workers who mine for or create it, but their bosses. It’s of no direct use and in fact of great harm to those who extract it, but empowering to the masters. As the Doctor says “they’ve used this colony for their own ends, destroying you to live themselves.”

All’s Unwell That Ends Too Well

Alas all good things come to a close. And unfortunately they do it here before the story’s ended. The reason it ends so badly, in one sense, is that in another it ends too well. It even ends on pretty much the same point, a cheery marching band. Life without the Macra seems strangely similar to life with the Macra. Things, alas, just get back to normal. The Colony, it seems, can overthrow the Macra more easily than the story can escape its genre conventions.

Medok is re-introduced, briefly raising his agent’s hopes, only to be sidelined all over again. Instead we have the sudden switch of their appealing to the Pilot, which would make scant story sense even if it wasn’t just more of what he saw with the first cliffhanger. And it leads to exactly the same situation as ‘Power Of the Daleks’, so bringing exactly the same problems. The Pilot versus Ola is Quinn versus Bragan all over again, the order-takers trying to usurp the natural role of the order-givers.

Okay, endings can be a general problem with ’Who’. Which runs more on quirkiness, crazy concepts and off-kilter images than cunningly crafted plots. The ending is often little more than a calling of time. ‘The Savages’ had a less-than-satisfying ending too.

…but there it was still suggested that society had changed as a result of events. Here the whole rationale of the Macra, that they’re simultaneously a thing without and within, lurking at the periphery yet right at the core of things, is simply struck out. They were bug eyed monsters, after all, and they went away. ‘Quatermass II’, more than a decade earlier, involved a much more radical ending.

Further reading! At Love & Liberty, Alex Wilcox asks - what if it were all in your head? “The Macra are an idea; they’re the personification of the Colony’s problems, which is why there really are no such things as Macra.” (You can probably guess what I think about his elision between Marx and the Soviet Empire. But you should read this anyway.)

Saturday 22 May 2021


First transmitted Feb/March 1967 
Written by Kit Pedler

Beware plot spoilers!

“They are not dead. They are altered.” 
- A Cyberman

Cybermen 2.0 (From Prototype to Production)

'The Moonbase', and its possible you got this far without me, was a moon craze story. The highpoint of which, at least as far as science fiction was concerned, was right about now - just before the Apollo landing. When the anticipation was at its height, before a bunch of spoilsports came back to tell us there were no green men to be seen, and lurking behind those rocks were only more rocks. Check out how excited Ben and Polly are to be bounding about up there, even after they've seen alien planets. (It also establishes the great 'Who' tradition that you only need spacesuits for alien planets if its one one we've already heard of.)

Strange then, the feeling that we've been here before...

We have work crews that go up to the surface only to get offed, rescuing rockets that fall hopelessly into the sun, a room where vital operations occur but Cybermen can't enter (last time because radiation, this time just because)... this reappearance of the silver darlings either shamelessly recycles plot elements from 'The Tenth Planet' or swaps superficial points. There's the same base under siege, but the Antarctic (already transposed from the Arctic in 'Thing From Another World') gets swapped for the Moon.

But it's a bit like a band performing a cover version. The beats gets repeated verbatim, but every nuance is somehow shifted until much of the resemblance becomes almost ostensible. There's new wine in those old bottles. And the new look to the Cybermen makes this the clearest. The clunky prototypes of ‘Tenth Planet’, struggling behind their cumbersome chest packs to fire those ray guns that look strangely like car headlights, are now streamlined for mass production.

El Sandifer has said “If the Doctor faces the Daleks or the Zarbi, it's an attempt at creating a popular and marketable monster. These monsters are supposed to happen multiple times.” Which would seem to make sense. A hero requires a rogue’s gallery, after all. But that’s a post-hoc reading which only applies after the Hartnell era.

Let's remember that before this the show had only one recurrent adversary. The Mechanoids. Nay, I jest. The Daleks. And there was never much of an attempt to create a functional chronology for them. Initially casually killed off, they were only brought back after public acclaim. Leading to a rushed half-cocked excuse for their continued existence. Whereas the Cybermen not only reappear much sooner than the Daleks, a mere five stories later, their reappearance is placed in the last story's future. There's a timeline being built for them. It's diegetic.

Making past events part of the current narrative was then unusual. This was a teatime viewing show, with neither a known fan audience nor iPlayer catch-up. It was transmitted, then it vanished. So, while characters in the early seasons would comment on adventures gone, these were incidental to the current plot and the show was for the most part anti-self-referential. While the Tardis crew would recognise the Daleks, they'd normally be new to everyone else within the storyline. And there'd be little or no narrative trajectory to the re-matches, it would all just happen again somewhere else. Moreover, even if the returned Daleks were no longer tied to their city, they were only changed enough to make the new story happen.

But here, human society has moved on – from space missions to Moonbases. And so have their enemies. Part machine, the Cybermen have had a product upgrade. Sleeker, shinier, they're Cybermen 2.0. They even come from a different planet to the Tenth of their predecessors. (Though this exposition was cut from the broadcast version.)

The Cybermen treat this new Moonbase very differently to the old snow base of 'The Tenth Planet'. They did use some subterfuge to enter it, but from there they plainly identified themselves and calmly explained what they were going to to do. There was as much guile to them as there is to the operating system on my computer. “Resistance is useless” was their virtual catch-phrase. They reacted to Polly's defence of human values with such puzzlement they may even lack a theory of mind altogether. They see human variation but perceive only the absence of efficiency. Whereas version 2.0 has seemingly been upgraded with sneak circuits. They are even wont to taunt us - “clever, clever!”

The Perpetual Divide

With 'Tenth Planet', we saw how the notion that the Cybermen are stand-in Reds can't withstand scrutiny. Yet the moon craze was part of the space race, which was itself little more than a function of the Cold War. Which means this marks the ideal time and place for a 'Red Scare' story. And the script still doesn't show the slightest interest in any of that. The Moonbase is as international as the Antarctic base, and it's there to serve the Earth as a whole.

Yet the show suffuses itself with a Cold War atmosphere, not through its antagonists but with the whole base-under-siege scenario. In essence, its the Cold War antagonisms universalised (in quite a literal sense) and at the same time psychologised. Here’s something I wrote about Francis Bacon’s paintings of the era: 

“It probably is hard for the young folk of today to understand how all-pervasive the Cold War felt at that time... It came to feel not merely political but existential, as if Berlin Walls inevitably imposed themselves not just between nations but between (and within) individuals... it transcended the unique conditions which created it and inscribed itself back through history.”

In short, conflict is essential and eternal. Within and without. It's part of the very fabric of things. This doesn't need explaining or justifying. It's just the way things are.

So, just as the Cybermen get an upgrade, the show’s new formula is similarly refined. They're not just better, they're badder. Literally so. As Jack Graham puts it: “This is the story... when they were no longer fighting to save their planet but to steal ours... when they became overtly and deliberately evil.”

That clash-of-values conversation their clunky predecessors held with Polly seemed central. There is a moment here where, accused of acting out of revenge, they ask “Revenge? What is that?” But their actual mission, “to eliminate all dangers”, is mere rewording. More significant is when they comment “you are known to us” and the Doctor responds equally calmly “and you to me”. Frequently, what exchanges they have are conduced not face-to-face but over the radio. Which leads us onto...

This is the story where the Doctor makes his mission-defining “they must be fought” statement, mentioned in an earlier instalment but which can now be seen in context. Andrew Harrison calls this his “Agincourt speech”. Wrong again, Andrew Harrison.

It’s El Sandifer who shrewdly points out that Troughton's delivery “is not triumphant, but rather the weary acceptance of a duty”. It's somewhat akin to the first Spider-man story in 1962, with it's well-known line “with great power comes great responsibility”. A line originally delivered not from some heroic pose atop a commanding rooftop, as it would be so often reproduced, but confined to a caption as “a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness”.

The Silver Hands and the Shadows

For the first two episodes, the Cybermen are withheld, to the point where the first two cliffhangers are almost identical reveals. Take the scene where they bump off that surface party. We first see their intruding shadows on the human's backs, then – even when the assault takes place - the two groups are never in the same frame. Mostly we see only sinister shadows, or close-ups of claw-like hands. We hear people screaming things like “the hand! No, don't touch me! No! The silver hand!”

Hands are of course body parts but only parts; they can be presented as dehumanised instruments of power. In the recent 'Power of the Daleks', Ben describes one of the tentacled things that live inside the casings as “a sort of disembodied hand. A sort of claw”.

The James Bond films might give us the most egregious use of this trope - we first see Blofeld only via his menacing hands, even though his identity wasn't actually being disguised. Hands which of course contrast with the open face of the hero, forever ready for his close-up. All of which could be suggesting the Cybermen’s… well, cyber basis; they're an assemblage, a series of parts which have been put together, a parody of the integrity of the human body.

And, were this still 'Tenth Planet', that might even have been it. Yet this time something else is afoot. There's the contrast of those sinister shadows intruding on the gleaming white of the futuristic Moonbase, a place which would seem to have no place for them. Let’s start off with the point that, unusually, the Moonbase staff all know of the Cybermen, but believe them to be dead.

As Jamie and Ben start the story double-booked for the action hero role, Jamie soon gets relegated to the sub's benches. In the time-honoured tradition of actors demanding holidays, he takes a bump on the head and retires to his bed. But, unlike that tradition, he doesn't then vanish off-screen. Instead, feverish, he sees a prowling Cybermen and perceives it as the Phantom Piper of his Highland culture. And he's not altogether wrong. Like the Piper they are here to take away the dead, to transport the plague victims off for conversion. This time they can dispense electric shocks from their hands, like a pseudo-scientific version of the touch of death, felling the mortal with a gesture.

We're now so used to the Cybermen being associated with death, it might be hard to remember this is where the notion first showed up. In 'Tenth Planet' they represent a terrible state of un-life, an attempt to cheat death which ends up cheating life, which they then seek to reduce us to. This time they're Phantom Pipers, to take us away. And in this newfound association these once so logically minded creatures take on so many of the Gothic tropes associated with death.

They still use the word converted, Ben sourly commenting he doesn’t like it. But now they mean something else by it, they even offer as synonyms “altered” and – most importantly - “controlled”. In 'Tenth Planet' their plan was to make us like them, into more Cybermen. Here humans become their drones, still working the control room but on their behalf. (In a manner remarkably similar to the Robo-men in the Daleks' second showing.) They're likened to zombies in the transcript. The fear is no longer that we will be made into machines, but that in dying the plague victims will become minions of death.

The Appliance of Science

With the slightly wearied authority of the schoolteacher, Base Commander Hobson's not exactly the duplicate of Dr. Barclay from 'Tenth Planet'. But after General Cutter's hysterical trigger-happy Americanisms, he's reassuringly and soberly English. His crew have affectionately nicknamed him Nobby. Cutter's military mentalities have been left behind. (“We're all scientists here, you see. No room for idle hands.”) The script throws up some tension between him and the Doctor, at one point contriving a rather arbitrary deadline, but rather half-heartedly.

And what are all these scientists doing on the moon? It seems they're controlling the Earth's weather via the Gravitron. Rather than watching the skies, they're there to sort stuff out back home. (Another reason not to go overboard with 'Thing From Another World' comparisons.) It seems in the intervening years the weather has become some sort of problem. (Those crazy sci-fi concepts!) Handily, the Gravitron seems powerful enough to control things even when they’re on the far side of the Earth.

As this might suggest, none of the science is actually very credible. But it follows the codes that suggest this is that scientific sort of science fiction, in the way soap opera codes are meant to suggest 'real life'. (It's presumably linked by fuzzy logic to the way the moon affects our tides.) And it suggests a society where a lofty but benevolent group of boffins sit above us, calmly regulating our lives. A little over three years earlier, Harold Wilson had made his celebrated speech about a new “Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat” of a scientific and technological revolution. And the whiter-than-white Moonbase seems something of a visual analogy of that.

Take the cause of the plague. This ultimately seems inserted into the story to give the Doctor some scientific deduction to be getting on with. (While simultaneously demonstrating his eccentricity.) There's no way for the audience to guess the solution, and in fact when it arrives it doesn't make sense anyway. (The Cybermen are drugging the sugar. But given they've gained access to the whole stores, why not choose something everybody takes? Wouldn't that suit their purpose better?) But it establishes the principle of scientific reasoning.

True, the Cyber-plot is to take over the Gravitron and weaponise it through those 'converted' drones. But it’s also the Gravitron which is used to defeat them, blasting them into space. (After the sonic prison bust of 'Power of the Daleks', the Doctor's taking “sonic control” of the Gravitron seems a second precursor of the sonic screwdriver.) It's a long way from the Conscience Machine, which had to be switched off at the end of 'Keys of Marinus'. 

This all ends (as the Wikipedia plot summary puts it) as “Hobson and his team reorient the Gravitron to its proper use”. Once the Cybermen represented the threat of amok technology. But during their upgrade they switched sides. Now they're the Gothic, and are fought off with the appliance of science – deductive reasoning (finding the cause of the plague), chemistry (Polly's anti-plastic concoction) and above all physics (the Gravitron).

Except the switch from un-life to death isn't really accomplished that neatly. Half-way through, after two cliffhangers in a row of Cybermen being revealed, they're flushed out of the shadows. And when their stealth tactics fail, they suddenly remember they have an army. “We must invade now!” they decide. “Prepare the weapons.” Oh yes, the weapons. They should come in handy. A second Cyber-ship appears out of nowhere and pretty soon they're back to saying things like “resistance is useless.”

If it takes two more episodes until the Gravitron finally sends them packing, all that's effectively interesting about the Cybermen is gone from that point. When we shone a light the shadows they inhabited, we also effectively lost the creature with the habitat. Like a tag team, the silver figures of death are replaced by generic invading robots, the hands of death by booted marching feet. (The fourth episode opens with them advancing on the Moonbase.) If they're supposed to now be death in a scientific story, well then what is the techno-fix for death? The workaround is to quite literally whisk them off stage, then cut to some cheerleading. Which is a trifle dissatisfying.

Lost In Transition

Contrast this to 'Dalek Invasion Of Earth'; putting Daleks on Westminster Bridge established something which became so intrinsic to the show it's hard to remember it ever had to be added. Putting Cybermen on the moon isn't the same sort of deal. The paradox is that, for a script that ushers in such new approaches for both the Doctor and the Cybermen, it doesn't actually take you in the direction it points in.

The problem with this story isn’t that the Cybermen change from one thing to the other. (Even if the first one was ultimately more interesting. Different was always going to be a precondition of more.) The problem is that it arrives too soon, and catches the Cybermen mid-morph. It’s a bit like the old movie trope where Jekyll drops behind the desk and comes back up in his full-on Hyde make-up. Except here he does it too soon and his Gothic make-up’s barely applied and already falling back off.

They’re in some indeterminate state, between the technology-gone-alien of their first appearance and the Gothic horrors of... we'll get to that, honest. Perhaps consequently, it never really tastes of either fish or fowl. And perhaps befitting a story without its own identity, it feels like it has no core. It shuffles rather awkwardly from the one foot of the shadowy, skulking Cybermen to the threatening army of the other.

As Brian May puts it “in a nutshell... a story of two halves, and quite different ones at that. An interesting and intriguing first half, full of suspense and shadows; followed by a boring, unengaging, runaround of a second half that lacks any sort of tension or excitement.”

Half full then half empty? Harsh but fair, Brian May. Harsh but fair.

Further reading: A must-read item from Jack Graham on the Cybermen and the Borg. More focused on the Borg than our silver shadows, but must-read nonetheless. Key line (at least to me) “the Borg are a nightmare that liberal capitalism had about itself”.

Saturday 15 May 2021


Written by Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis
First broadcast Dec 1966/ Jan 1967

”How do I look?"
- The Doctor

The Wild West Goes North

As we saw with ‘The Tenth Planet’, the Troughton era essentially started before the main man was aboard. But then, because nothing makes sense in this show’s history, his second outing was the show’s last historical. (Though in fact, because nothing in this show makes sense, there was then a late entry, appearing in 1982.)

And it happened in a characteristically cockeyed way. Production team Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis had considered the historical to be retired, but Elwyn Jones then pitched a Jacobite story. He having connections at the Beeb, they found themselves reluctantly demurring. Jones then announced he didn’t have the time to write the thing after all, lumbering Davis with it.

The scenario, and numerous plot elements, are unashamedly similar to ‘Reign of Terror’. A breed of inherently noble types have been overrun, by invaders placing vengeance above any kind of natural justice.

As we saw with ’Reign’, adventure stories set in post-revolutionary France have a mother. While Highland Romances have both a grandfather and a father. Walter Scott’s career-founding ’Waverley’ was published in 1814 while Robert Louis Stevenson’s ’Kidnapped’ followed in 1886. The tone of both is best summed up by Stevenson’s dedication:

“This is no furniture for the scholar’s library, but a book for the winter-evening schoolroom when the tasks are over and the hour for bed draws near… to steal some young gentleman’s attention from his Ovid, carry him awhile into the Highlands and the last century, and pack him to bed with some engaging images to mingle with his dreams.”

Indeed, both are populated by characters drawn so broadly you’d need the open Highlands just to frame them. Yet at the same time ’Kidnapped’ doesn’t just find plot-related reasons to traverse the Highland landscape, it puts great emphasis on real place names - at one point even suggesting the reader consult a map.

Two things square this paradox. Both books made their protagonist a stranger to the region; Scott’s titular hero is English, and Stevenson’s Scottish but a southerner - venturing from his home town for the first time and speaking no Gaelic.

And note Stevenson’s reference to the last century. In fact despite the seventy-year gap between them both were set in the same period, the Jacobite rebellion. Something both foregrounded, with ’Waverley’ even subtitled ’Tis Sixty Years Since’. To us these novels cannot but seem historical in themselves, but even in their day they were presenting a Highlands already gone. 

In his introduction to ’Waverley’, Andrew Hook comments that Scott’s method was “to present the modern world with a series of images from the past that were at once actual, in that they had a historical basis, and simultaneously by contrast… marvellously romantic.” In short, they handily lie at our margins in both time and space.

They’re effectively geographically relocated Westerns, an untamed North to match the Wild West, the post-rebellion Highland clearances playing the same board-clearing role as the American Indian wars. Scott explicitly compares Highlanders to “African Negroes and Esquimax Indians”, and calls them “gentleman savages”. In what is sometimes called imperialist nostalgia it’s the currently cowed nature of the savages which permits their former wildness to be framed as thrilling, and perhaps even worthy of respect. Like the cavaliers of ’1066 And All That’ the rebel Jacobins are romantic but wrong.

For that reason their inner nobility is often presented as something of a twist. Scott writes: “Yet the physiognomy of the people, when more closely examined, was far from exhibiting the indifference of stupidity: their features were rough, but remarkably intelligent; grave, but the very reverse of stupid; and from among the young women, an artist might have chosen more than one model…. It seemed on the whole as if poverty were combining to depress the natural genius… of a hardy, intelligent and reflecting peasantry.” Someone else might have missed these inner features. Not you or me, of course.

But for all the similarities between the books there’s an important difference. Hook concedes that ’Waverley’ “may not be the best novel of the nineteenth century; but it may well be the most significant… The historical novel properly speaking did not exist before [it]. After, it quickly became one of the most common and popular modes of the novel.” And this is because it found a way to convey the fixations of Romanticism in a narrative format.

But if it paved the way, it did so for others to ride over it. Truth be told it is little read today. It took ’Kidnapped’ to put the Highland Romance into mass production, unlike its ponderous predecessor a short punchy work. (Anyone thinking of attempting ’Waverley’ should be warned there’s a hundred-plus page slog before anything actually happens.) While ’Waverley’ has seen more train stations named after it than had adaptations Wikipedia lists no less than nine film and TV versions of ‘Kidnapped’. In this era alone a film in 1960 was followed by another in ’71. And inevitably it’s ’Kidnapped’ which has its plot elements repeatedly and shamelessly filched here.

”Between Highlanders and Redcoats”

Yet every adaptation inevitably reinterprets. And, at increasing distance from the source events, they felt freer to amend them. ’The Highlanders’ is typical of this. Both books semi-acknowledged Jacobism came from a schism between royal families. (Scott assuming the reader to be familiar with the overall events.) But this became crudely reduced to a nationalist opposition between Scotland and England, which is if anything more romanticised than these great Romantic novels. The Scottish are on the Scottish side because they are Scottish, just as the English are on the English. A telling subtitle in the Loose Cannon reconstruction is “between Highlanders and Redcoats.”

But interestingly, this is combined with a growing cynicism. Bonnie Prince Charlie is presented in ’Waverley’ as the very epitome of the regal. (The title character effectively converts to his cause after being swayed by his radiant presence.) Here we’re told sourly by Jamie “he was the first to leave the field” of Cullodden. Which makes him a microcosm of a whole era run by bribery and corruption, by bullying and domination, where superior officers are ineffectual fops called things like Algernon-Ffinch and their subordinates petty and grasping.

Which leaves the Highlanders as the exception which proves the rule. The Doctor has very soon told us “a Highlander’s word is his bond,” and not much later that an English solider would “sell his Grandmother for tuppence halfpenny”.

The plot contrivance of them having to be tricked into signing themselves away for slavery seems designed to convey this combination of noble-hearted with simple-minded. Certainly it makes no intra-story sense. They’re already prisoners aboard the boat that will take them, so in little position to argue, and it’s not a nicety that slavers normally bothered with. It’s another borrow from ’Kidnapped’, but David is enlisted via a more traditional knock on the head and waking up to a receding shoreline.

Peter Watkin’s award-winning drama documentary ’Culloden’, appearing four years earlier, is perhaps the last word in this cynicism. Generally, this is a comparison people make too much of. Yes it’s cultural impact was huge, to the degree I was first shown it at school. Yet the facts it was award-winning and I was shown it at school tells us it sailed in higher waters than an early evening adventure show. An overlap is not necessarily an influence. Both are riffing on similar cultural currents, not one lending to the other.

Doctor In Disguise


We’ve already seen how, despite being based on the Scarlet Pimpernel’s adventures, ’Reign’ is a dour story with little of it’s derring-do spirit. And aspects of ‘The Highlanders’ are equally bleak, not least a a bound man being thrown in the sea as a lesson to the other prisoners. (Framed as a cliffhanger, despite his clear inability to escape.) They’re soon locked in jail and threatened with hanging.

In the early historicals the past was nothing more than a constraint which you needed to escape from, like the animal trap Polly falls into. And this is heightened here, where to Ben’s befuddlement the arrival of English troops means not rescue but imprisonment. In ’Reign’ you needed to flee from France, this time the Highlanders are escaping to it.

At which point the Doctor cheerfully proclaims “I’m just beginning to enjoy myself”. Such levity is a world away from ’Kidnapped’. But it’s a big step towards the Pimpernel, who Troughton resembles so much more than Hartnell. The Pimpernel’s chief weapon is his mastery of disguise, which allows him not just to outwit his foes but make them appear fools. He’s hero less as adventurer than trickster. A trick Troughton repeats… well, repeatedly.

Hartnell dons just one disguise in ’Reign’, and carries on behaving much like himself. Troughton manages three in four episodes, including one in drag. And this is because he impersonates, gleefully taking on his roles. And, a cat in a world of wolves, in his games he cheerily plays friend and foe alike. When for example he acts as a German doctor, he delights in making mugs of his captors, convincing one he must close his eyes to rest them as he handily escapes. And his serving wench is straight out of Terry Jones. Even in ‘The Romans’, where Hartnell’s at his most mercurial, there’s nothing like this.

In short it’s a bleak story set in a callous world, except for when the Doctor shows up. Troughton is already proving so different a Doctor that he’s warping the stories he appears in to fit around him, like the sun distorting gravity waves. And this approach seems infectious. Polly’s soon picked up on it, delighting in playing the Lieutenant who she mockingly dubs ‘Algie’.

And that becomes the motor. Proceedings start to resemble a bleak historical all over again, only for the Doctor to reappears and re-establish the comedy. And, particularly when you consider this was rush-written by someone who never wanted to write it to begin with, it works fairly well. It is more fun to see authoritarian bullies wrongfooted and humiliated than defeated in a sword-fight, their power not stayed but dispelled.

But there’s two problems. Other characters, given their brief screen time, inevitably come to be cut from whole cloth. So they’re scarcely any less stereotyped than the Doctor’s impersonations. Trask, for example, clearly comes from Sea Captain’s Finishing School and is often to be found saying “you scurvy swarb” or “arr.” Which is perhaps why he’s given so few scenes with the Doctor.

And if only the Doctor’s presence can right this wrong world, inevitably he’s going to take off. So how can there be any kind of satisfactory ending? The solution is to give Algie a last-minute volte-face so he can do the right thing to some wrong ‘uns and a modicum of order can be restored. But it’s unseeded and unconvincing.

The New Boy

For the longest time, this story seemed to have just one claim to fame - it marked the introduction of Jamie. This being another wiped episode, all we now have is the soundtrack and a few stills. The most reproduced of which came to be the one up top, where the new boy holds the Doctor at dagger-point.

Yet if the four stills we have of this scene are representative, that’s the only one in which he’s prominent. He has no dialogue and two of the other stills don’t even feature him. (See example below.) It might seem a strange start for someone who’d go on to become the longest-serving companion.

Moreover, in the opening scene it’s not Jamie but his clan compatriot Alexander who gets rid of a troublesome redcoat. His only real task in the story is offing Trask, an event that’s presented as a twist. (It’s another character who's after the usurper for stealing his boat, but Jamie has to step in.) The return to the Tardis could be easily rewritten without him.

One thing everyone now knows about ‘The Highlanders’ is that everyone used to know Jamie’s inclusion was a last-minute decision, then found out that wasn’t true. Nevertheless, you can see how such an urban myth gained credence.

All this may partly be explained by Ben getting the escapology stunt in episode three. There’s essentially now two contenders for the ‘doing’ male role, an overstaffing issue which won’t be resolved until Ben packs his kit bag two stories hence.

But there is… or at least will be, a crucial difference between Jamie and the previous holders of his role. As his actor Frazer Hines once told Troughton: 

“Patrick, you’re paid a fortune as the Doctor to do all that speaking. I'm paid to get the girls from going out to the disco. And Padders [Wendy Padbury, who’ll show up soon enough] is paid to get the dads in from the garden.”

The sexy girl companion, which now seems such a show staple, only really came in about now. (Polly is probably its start.) As Hines alludes to, this was often tellingly described as “something for the Dads”. They were sometimes even referred to as “assistants”, like the girl hired to point at the magician while sporting stockings. He was a rare offering for the Mums. Of course this scarcely compensates for decades of imbalance (even if we factor in his length of tenure), but it’s still interesting the first eye candy for girls arrived so soon.

(Let’s recall… William Russell’s Ian was more the leading man, in his early days seen as the heroic protagonist to the Doctor’s Grand Wizard, with his relationship to Barbara an unspoken understanding. Jamie’s the eye candy companion who just happens to be a boy.)

So prevalent is this theme, TV Tropes even has a Man in a Kilt section. The thinking is partly just “how can we get a male character to show some leg… oh wait!” But there’s more. Unlike Africans or Native Americans, Highlanders were just foreign enough for this purpose, rugged and exotic without the risk of fantasies straying to the inter-racial. For example, the ‘white-man-gets-to-hang-out-with-noble-savages’ exploits of ‘Dances With Wolves’ had to concoct a safe all-white squaw for Kevin Costner to get with, even at the absurdly late date of 1990.

Coming soon! ‘The Underwater Menace’ looks somewhat soggy underfoot, so instead let’s shoot for the moon…

Saturday 8 May 2021


First broadcast: November/December 1966
Written by David Whitaker and (uncredited) Dennis Spooner
More plot spoilers!

Rebels Without Much of a Cause 

”This lot's too busy arguing amongst themselves to do much about anything.”
– Ben (summarising the storyline while also predicting the internet) 

The new Doctor in an exciting adventure with the Daleks? Troughton would only come up against the pepperpots once more, later this same season. About half Hartnell's number. Nevertheless, it reinforces the primacy of the antagonism to his enemies. (A primacy which gets foregrounded still more clearly a couple of stories down the line.) He knows what the Daleks truly are, knowledge he shares only with us in the audience. Even Ben and Polly haven't seen them before. But equally the Daleks are able to recognise him. At the same time as Ben doubts him, the Daleks know this is the Doctor straight off.

The scenario, should anyone not know, is that a human colony on Vulcan has dug up a Dalek capsule. The Daleks affect at being dutiful servants, while nicking the power supply in order to surreptitiously make more of themselves and generally await their chance to start exterminating.

In short, the whole thing rests on the eternal evil of the Daleks having being established. The idea they might have turned Boy Scout, that isn't even worth considering. The general problem with recurrent enemies is of course repetition. You know what they will do, and pretty much how they will go about it. Laws of return diminish. And this leads to the most common criticism of the Troughton era, that after the manifold eccentricities of Hartnell things become merely formulaic.

But here that foreknowledge, that predictability, the very limitations which should lose our interest the story, are turned into the source of all the tension. Like the Doctor, we know full well where this is going. And that knowledge doesn't help us in any way. Because no matter how much he waves that Examiner's badge of his, no-one else is listening. It's like the excruciating experience of watching an accident while powerless to stop it. It's like an anxiety dream where nothing works the way it should.

(In this way the New Who episodes which most resembles this isn't the direct copycat 'Victory of the Daleks', but the far superior 'Midnight'. As with 'Power' the Doctor needs to get what he knows over to everyone else to ensure their multiple survival. But don't count on it...)

So, why won't the humans listen? Apart from that powering the story. (No pun intended... oh alright, I only ever say that when the pun is intended.) Asking that question tells us a lot about what sort of story this is.

'Tenth Planet’ had approximately two-and-a-bit locations. But it's predicated on the idea we see the diversity of the Antarctic base not just as a microcosm of the Earth, but with actual connections all over the world. It's a global story, even if it looks suspiciously like a featureless cupboard. It has intra-story 'real life' devices, such as newsreaders announcing things.

'Power' isn't like that at all. There's no attempt to evoke the sense of Vulcan as a real place. It's not like one of those scenic landscape pictures, where you can imagine the contours extending past the frame. When the Governor goes off to inspect the perimeter, you don't picture a perimeter - full of perimeter people doing perimeter stuff. You just assume the actor's standing patiently in the wings, trying not to get jostled by stagehands, waiting his cue to come back on. It's even called “the perimeter”, like there's nothing to gain by giving it a place name. Things aren't there to be somewhere. They're there to stand for something. Asking further questions would be like asking where the Good Samaritan was headed for in Jesus' parable. It would miss the point of the thing.

In the argument the show has an allegorical nature, this may seem like Exhibit A. What we have is a morality play. Or what passes for one given the complete absence of anything resembling morality. The enclosed space is to tell us we're focusing on particular features, like the base is a kind of petri dish in a human experiment.

But there's a twist to this. As already seen, aliens in 'Who' are actually monsters – they're shadows cast by us, enlarged and dehumanised to demonstrate human foibles writ large. This idea is toyed with via the Pandora-like opening of the Dalek capsule. (Another echo of Quatermass, this time 'Pit'.) Yet it's toyed with only to visibly discard it.

The Daleks cleverly find and then utilise weaknesses among the humans, be that thirst for scientific knowledge, desire to improve production and impress bosses back on Earth, or plain old lust for power. And with this last example they catalyse the coup at the centre of the story. Yet they clearly don't cause it. It was set to happen anyway, sooner or later, capsule or not. (The Examiner was called for, before the story even began, to try to quell it.)

In the story's most quotable line, a Dalek is told by one character to exterminate another. He complies, but then asks “why do human beings kill human beings?” This isn't part of their scheming, he's virtually breaking cover by asking but feels compelled to. It's both bookend and corollary to the Cyberman in 'Tenth Planet' asking Polly why humans care about human life. It's alien to him. We're alien to him.

Rather than any previous Dalek story, this most resembles 'The Ark' with the internecine power wars amongst the Monoids. Except they were monsters given allegorical number names (Number 1, Number 4 and so on), devices in a cautionary story.

In other words, what's problematic about humanity isn’t projected on the Daleks. It belongs to the humans. Who are a shopping list our of foibles - ruthlessly power mad, blindly arrogant or recklessly curious. And they're us without the distancing devices of rubber suits or antennae stuck on heads. They aren't even handed distancing science fiction tags, like Mondor or Zerk, but regular names like Bragan and Quinn.

It's true it's not at all clear what the rebels are rebelling over. Donald Trump had a more coherent programme than them. Ostensibly a political story, crammed with plots and machinations, it has no real interest in this line of enquiry. As far as we can tell, it's a military coup against military rule. But the criticism that the story is about politics while having none misses the point.

And the point’s up there in the title. More than anything since ‘The Aztecs’, perhaps even including ‘The Aztecs’, ‘Power’ is a parable about… well, power. Say it out loud and it can sound hackneyed. The Daleks need power, like electrical power, but it's also a metaphor, geddit? But spelling it out is like explaining a joke. Within the story, it's extremely effective. People need to be fighting over power and power alone, for the allegory to work.

Bragan might be masterminding the whole thing just to get a bigger office. Certainly his first act is to get a smarter uniform. And on taking power he cries “from now on I will have complete obedience – from everyone!” Power here is like pirate treasure, there to be owned, stuff you want just to run your gloating hands through.

In fact the problems stem from the places real-world politics do intrude, like water seeping into seemingly solid rock. Both Governor Hensell and his deputy Quinn have educated RP accents, while Quinn disparagingly calls Bragan's guards “muscle boys” and an “army of layabouts”. The Governor's described in the script as “old fashioned, single minded” and “autocratic, a man used to making decisions”. Polly even says of Quinn “there are some people you know are all right. You can tell just by looking at them”, which events conspire to prove true.

The result is a rather reactionary story where the whole problem reduces to Bragan having ideas above his station. Rebellions don't change anything, but at the same time they disrupt the existing order so they'll turn out badly. It's the doublethink of British conservatism – power = bad, yet status quo = good.

And the petty-minded, rule-book-waving Deputy and his more flexible-minded Superior is a ’Who’ commonplace. It even gets satirised in the Golgafrincham spaceship in ’Hitch-Hiker’s Guide’. ’Power’ just takes this further.

And that's even before we get onto Janley.

Janley and Polly are the only women with speaking roles. And significantly they have no scenes together, they function like opposing poles. Polly doesn't do much, but she senses things. She senses – not works out – that the Doctor is the Doctor or that Quinn is “all right”, through 'women's intuition'. Much like Susan in ‘The Sensorites’. Against which Janley is cold, calculating and scheming, but worst of all active. As much as she does anything womanly it's to use her wiles to manipulate men. (There does seem to be something suspiciously Freudian in the image above.) While the workers, inasmuch as they appear at all (perhaps via the rebels), are the speechless equivalent of cannon fodder.

The Daleks Take Over the Asylum

”We are not rea-dy yett to teach these hu-man be-ings the law of the Da-leks.” 
- A Dalek (You may have guessed that)

One way to look at this story is that the Daleks are being rebooted as much as the Doctor. Originally intended as a one-off foe, 'Dalek Invasion Earth' had made a reasonable stab at reworking them for general use while not entirely losing track of what made them special. But with both 'The Chase' and 'Daleks Master Plan', they'd degenerated into a general menace, running round the universe doing the sort of stuff you'd expect bad guys to do. Their coinage was fast becoming debased.

And just as 'Alien 3' worked as an alternate sequel to 'Alien', effectively bypassing the first attempt, so this goes back to 'The Daleks'. They're not just antagonistic but treacherous. They're even back to being powered by static electricity.

As El Sandifer points out, “previously they had to be in bigger and bigger adventures to satisfy us. Now, suddenly, they are in a much smaller adventure, and scarier than ever.” Look, now more Daleks and with flying saucers! Look, now they have a time machine! Look, now they have a time destructor! And so on... Whereas this story shows us things up close. (And wasn't it ever thus? What's your favourite Dalek story from New Who? One of those where armies of Daleks drag planets around for the sake of it, or the one with just a single Dalek in it?)

And it's a story which would only work with the Daleks. Comparing them to the Cybermen of the previous story really establishes the distinction. The Cybermen set themselves tasks and try to carry them out with maximum efficiency. Here the Daleks, deprived of their exterminators and low on numbers, resort to their killer app - malevolent cunning.

This YouTube vid, sequencing all the times the Daleks chant ““ex-ter-mi-nate”, shows a sharp increase with this story. Yet that's kind of misleading. For they're not ceaselessly shouting it like a comedian with a catchphrase. In fact they take up an escalating series of chants (such as “we will get our po-wer”), which between them make up four out of the five cliffhangers. And they only start with ““ex-ter-mi-nate” once they're able to come out into the open. (The Doctor has used the term twice before they get to it.)

Their chanting punctuates the story, underlining their unity as the antithesis to human self-serving factionalism. When the now-crazed scientist Lesterson babbles that the humans don't stand a chance against them (“Man's had his day. Finished now... all we can do is marvel at the creatures who are taking our place”) you can't help but feel he has a point.

And that variation is important. For the story never falls into the trap of depersonalising the Daleks, even as it counterposes them. A recurring element is the way they can barely bear to play dumb and kow-tow to the pathetic humans, a necessity which really sticks in their imperious craw. (Or whatever they have for a craw.) You sense they might slip up at any point.

And that leads into one of the key images of the story – the army of Daleks being built inside the capsule. Previous stories had lost sight of the green globby creatures that lived inside the Dalek casings, which seems indicative of losing track of their characterisation overall. Yet the point isn't so much that the tentacles are back, but that we see them as part of a production line.

It's the combination which counts. The horror isn't that they're organised around a production line, animate non-life. The horror is that they're living things, which are organised around a production line anyway. To quote El Sandifer again, Whitaker “takes care to repeatedly stress the contrast between their robotic exterior and their fleshy interior, playing up the essential strangeness of the concept to make the Daleks seem unusual.”

The assumption that the Daleks are just robots, so widespread even some scriptwriters seemed to start to take it in, was possibly the inspiration for this story. Certainly the colonists make this very mistake, blithely assuming the Daleks are “machines”, and hence can be controlled. There's even talk of setting them to work in the mines, the neat inverse of the Dalek task reserved for humans in 'Invasion Earth'. (And just about every subsequent story.)

Doctor Who in an Exciting New Adventure With the Daleks 

”I think we'd better get out of here, before they send us the bill.” 
- The Doctor

Throughout the story, the Doctor deflects rather than answers questions. And his reaction to power is similar. In an ending remarkably similar to the just-gone 'Tenth Planet', his solution is to destroy the Daleks by giving them the power they seek – and plenty of it. But, on top of the pile of dead bodies, this shorts the Colony's entire power supply. “There's a lot of clearing up to be done”, says one of the few surviving rebels, with some of that English understatement you hear about.

When you put this into not just the first Troughton story but the first reincarnation story, with it’s inevitable theme of change... well, change and order are almost made into antonyms. There’s really four sides at play; the Governor (described by the Doctor as “jealous of his own position”) who wants to retain power, Bragan who plots to usurp it, the Daleks who scheme to “control and destroy” and the Doctor who wants nothing except to thwart all of that. Quinn's left nominally in charge, but by that point there isn’t much to be in charge of. The theme would seem to be, if we want change we must also expect disorder.

El Sandifer describes this new Doctor as “a force of pure chaos, willing to bring the world down around people's ears.” And this is true to a degree that's even troubling. In fact what's really troubling is that it’s hard to work out whether this is good troubling or bad troubling. There’s story-gets-edgy-in-getting-you-to-question-your-assumptions troubling. And in a series which can too often be sentimental in its indulgence of ‘human values’, in its easy assumption we must be the good guys, that's kind of welcome.

But it's simultaneously troubling in a way where it doesn't seem to understand that it might be, that troubling sort of troubling. The Doctor's plan is essentially to thrown Bragan's guards at the Daleks’ exterminators as a distraction, to give him time to work. Which seems barely distinguishable in means from Bragan's plot to stir up a revolt in order to suppress it. Ironically, Bragan's initial response to this is his nearest moment to morality in the story - “I refuse to allow my guards to be sacrificed”.

But sacrificed they are. Given the already-mentioned authoritarian underpinnings to this story, its hard to escape the notion it doesn’t matter much if a bunch of people die when they're just extras and hired help. Their corpses become a character tic to notice in the new Doctor. Someone in the Whoniverse should really start a Guard Lives Matter campaign.

But then again the lack of power has as much of a symbolic value as the power did. Remember what sort of story this is. The Daleks are not our shadows, and the humans don't overcome their differences to unite against their greater threat, holding them back while the Doctor gets all Doctorish. Both Bragan and the Daleks are now out of the picture. But as the bodies are swept away and the power put back on, another Bragan could easily rise through the ranks to try and depose Quinn. Nothing has been solved or healed.

If regeneration was to prove popular, regeneration stories didn't necessarily follow suit. (At least in the classic show.) If Pertwee and Davison had reasonably popular initiation stories, it also led to two of the show's direst clangers - 'Twin Dilemma' and 'Time and the Rani'. But that might be in part due to the first ever regeneration story setting the bar so high. Despite the impediment of all the episodes being missing, 'Power' proved a classic. The best Dalek story at least since their first appearance, and possibly of all.

Further writing: This time a suggestion that someone writes something - ‘Compare and Contrast the Examiner’s Pass to Barbara’s Necklace.’ There are so many thematic parallels between this and ’The Aztecs’, both critiques of power unable to escape the perspective of power, that someone should really write a comparison between the two. Go on, why not give it a go? Your time starts now...

Saturday 1 May 2021


”It's not only his face that's changed. He doesn't even act like him.”
- Ben

Not Himself Today 

So… the first Troughton story. The first ever new Doctor story. All resorted to out of necessity, of course. Hartnell's ailing health meant he had to go. But it didn't just ensure the show's longevity. It became one of those vintage 'Who' concepts, a thing that everyone knows whether they watch the show or not, almost as classic as calling a Police Box a time machine. “The changing face of Doctor Who”, the line used on all those Target novelisations, becomes a core component of the character – that he doesn't have just one character.

And if the character can regenerate, then so can the show. It becomes not just futuristic but future-proof. It's a concept equal thirds deranged, ingenious and audacious. And like the Police Box, it's hard to think back to a time where it needed dreaming up.

It’s true that leads had been replaced on shows before. In 'Quatermass', such a forerunner for 'Who', it had changed with every series. But each actor played pretty much the same role, as if hoping you wouldn’t notice the join. Yet this inevitably opened the door to changing the character. Tarzan is both the Johnny Weissmuller noble savage and the Ron Ely gentleman-in-trunks, without anyone worrying about it too much.

Nevertheless, to make that diegetic – to change the character within the show and have other characters comment on it - was a bold step. It has a kind of double virtue – the ‘always on’ sense of a continuing show, with the advantages of a continually reset one, such as… well, Tarzan would be a good example.

So bold in fact, they nearly didn't do it. The Uncyclopedia deadpans “when the first actor to play the Doctor finally left the show... the casting director took the brave decision of replacing him with a look-alike in the hope that the audience wouldn't notice. Unfortunately the casting director was blind.”

In further evidence that 'Who' is beyond satire, this is very nearly true. They'd already used Edmund Warwick to stand in for Hartnell when the ageing actor was ill, or with whatever was going on in 'The Chase'. Which did indeed suggest a blind casting director. And their first idea for replacement was for him to return from invisibility in 'The Celestial Toymaker', but sporting a new face. Which suggests just a new face, rather than a new personality to go with it.

And some of that thinking does survive to the screen. Regeneration as a term hasn't been invented yet. Instead we have 'renewal', which suggests something more like resetting. Remember last time that Hartnell had commented his “old body” was “wearing a bit thin”. And Troughton is often demonstrated as something of a younger model. Two of his immediate acts are to find he no longer needs specs and leap over a boulder.

This bold step wasn't taken without nervousness. While New Who would announce a new Doctor as a media event, reserving the 'Radio Times' cover, Hartnell segued into Troughton mid-season. And it was accompanied by the nearest thing the show then had to a ratings grabber. (We’ll come onto that. But you’ve already guessed...)

A Time For Change

So why did they go bold not play safe? Of course Hartnell's character, devised largely on the hoof, had morphed considerably during his run. But what had really instigated change in the show was the companions' role. At first, with Vicki for Susan, replacement had been essentially like-for-like. Both of who, as soon as they started to act at all independently, headed off-stage. But that hadn't lasted, with Ben and Polly – now the sole remnants of the previous era – as living proof. Though new arrivals, they seemed strong enough to hold the join.

But now they went further than that. The show didn’t just change when it had to, it flagged change. The lead character didn’t just get replaced, he was shown to be replaced. And so, as paradoxically as it sounds, change became part of its tradition. The central character came to represent change.

I once wrote about the fan conviction that every enduring character starts with a genius creator and how that so often isn’t true, with particular reference to Superman. But the good Doctor’s possibly a better example. As noted ‘Who’ sage Andrew Rilstone has said “you can't say that 'Doctor Who' was created by Sydney Newman: he's the product of every writer who has ever worked on the series.”

And he’s not just right, he has to be right. It’s ancillary to the show having longevity. If it had tried to maintain absolute faithfulness to its original concept, it would have gone the way of most TV shows, which don't carry on for decades and which tend to stop when they're cancelled.

Rob Young once summed up the attitude of celebrated folksong collector Cecil Sharp: “Don’t seek the ‘original copy’; focus on the transformations themselves – for they are the substance of the song… the ‘original’ is not the authentic prototype; instead, it should be thought of as the equivalent of a composer’s first draft - ‘the source from which it is sprung’. Every subsequent iteration becomes more ‘real’, more ‘definitive’.” (’Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music’, Faber & Faber.)

So folk song isn’t like finding the source of the Nile, disregarding all tributaries as irrelevant. It’s more like trying to map and re-map an ever-morphing delta. And, effectively another product of popular culture, ’Doctor Who’ is in this way like a folk song. It’s title character can change considerably, but all Doctors are the Doctor.

Except it’s wider than that. Wikipedia states, without citation needed that “the BBC takes no position on the canonicity of [the show], and producers of the show have expressed distaste for the idea of canonicity.” Some characters seem born for fanfic, to be taken up by folk culture. And the Doctor must be pre-eminent among them.

And this is a further demonstration, as if we needed one, of the Doctor as a shamanic figure. The Doctor likens his new look to the metamorphosis of a butterfly, commenting “life depends on change... and renewal”. The shamanic ritual may be buried deep in our culture, like an ur-melody we’ve forgotten we know but still find ourselves humming.

But this also suggests something of its own era. For the production notes called renewal a “metaphysical change”, and likened it to an acid trip. If regeneration made ’Who’ timeless, it simultaneously fitted its times.

When did the changed self become a fixture of popular culture? When in doubt, people usually look to 'Sergeant Pepper'. And the iconic cover to that album featured not only the bright, psychedelic new-look Beatles but juxtaposed them against the neatly suited old Fab Four. (A metaphysical change brought on by similar means to the show's production notes, if interpreted slightly more literally.)

Though not released until June 1967, six months after 'Power' was broadcast, it was another symptom. Change was in the air. And one of the key things to be changing was attitudes to change. It had, needless to say, always happened. But no longer were things the way they were, which sometimes changed. Now there was change which sometimes took a break. And us, we were no longer beings made in moulds, we were now plastic and ever-morphing.

Look how Bowie, a few years later, took that concept and ran with it, even calling his compilation albums 'Changes'. In his Glam rock history ’Shock and Awe’ Simon Reynolds recounts how Bowie came to be seen as “a shapeshifter”; that musical dilettantism, once a sign of inauthenticity, in his hands became a virtue.

Gent Into Hobo

In some ways, the changes they didn't choose to make are as significant as the ones they did. Hartnell has not originally been seen as the protagonist of the show, but an instigator, in personality alien and remote. His taking up the starring role had happened by accident. But now it had they could reboot the character into someone more humanised, more explicable, more reassuringly familiar.

In fact they do the very opposite. This is where the Doctor's alien-ness really kicks in. Troughton's mystery doesn't just surround him, it becomes part of his nature. He's hard-wired to act inscrutably. The emphasis on Ben and Polly, reluctantly following a new-found stranger they don't necessarily trust, commenting on what he's doing, is actually very similar to Ian and Barbara in the early days. (See Ben's quote up top.)

I have now lost track of however many times I have said “this is the start of the show as we know it”. Nevertheless, the first Troughton story is the start of the show as we know it. It's the first to use the patented 'The... of the...' title formulation, as used in every 'Doctor Who' parody ever. (While the next, inevitably enough, would be the next Dalek story.)

Look how in his first story there's prototype versions of two things which become totemic to later 'Who'. The Doctor breaking out of a cell with a sonic lock presages the soon-to-arrive sonic screwdriver. But more important is the speedy way the story thrusts the badge of the murdered Examiner into his hand. As this becomes a free pass for him to investigate stuff, it becomes the sort of thing that's likely to happen in 'Doctor Who'. The psychic paper wasn't named until New Who. Yet here it is born.

Hartnell had taken up disguises in his time. But whatever disguise he took on he always looked the part, hitching his thumbs into his waistcoat and imposing his authority. (In 'Reign' he comments “my voice seems to carry some weight.”) Troughton’s endlessly brandishing the badge, sometimes even proclaiming “I have a badge!”, like a clown with a crown. If he's the Lord of anything it's Misrule. And, in something we'll come onto, no-one actually listens to him very much – badge or not.

Because in a sense Troughton's Doctor is a disguise. In Sydney Newman's famous phrase, he was a “cosmic hobo”. Ironically, Hartnell - at least early Hartnell - was something of a hobo, amblingly bumping into schoolteachers one week, cavemen the next and aliens with funny feet the month after. But Troughton can look like a hobo precisely because that's what he isn't. He's less wanderer, more freelance detective.

His habit of searching out clues with a magnifying glass soon established, it's common to assume his nearest cousin is Sherlock Holmes. In fact it's quite a different kind of detective, and not even an English one. Columbo wasn't to appear for another two years. Yet, like Troughton's Doctor he's a crumpled little man, devoid of gravitas or natural authority. With both, it's their adversaries who are the important people, with the big plans. And, while distracting them through displays of clownishness, both quietly demolish those plans, bring down the mighty.

”It’s Like a Promise”

Troughton’s defining quote, even if he didn’t make it until his fourth appearance, was: “There is evil here and we must stay. There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.

Andrew Rilstone goes so far as to assert that Troughton's little speech “defined what 'Doctor Who' was about for ever after. I think that … Hartnell was a gentleman scientist who travelled the universe and got involved in quarrels… but that wasn't his prime motivation… the Troughton era established him as a crusader who fought evil.” (NB He says this in his comments section.)

Hartnell's equivalent speech comes at the end of 'Reign of Terror' - “our destiny is in the stars, so let's go and search for it”. Notably it shows up without any real narrative context, he just ups and says it. And the show often resembled its lead character, exploring hither and thither, as it grew up through happenstance and extemporisation, making mistakes but somehow surviving them. It’s lack of a formula made the highs higher, but also the lows lower. It ran without a safety net.

And Troughton defines his stories equally. There no longer any need to be a conveniently inconvenient rockfall or mislaid parking ticket to keep him from the Tardis. To Hartnell's “among the stars” he counters flatly “we must stay”.

Hartnell's Doctor was created, accurately or not, to represent a generation – part of a family unit for a family show. The docu-drama 'Adventure In Space and Time' made great play of the actor watching the show with his own grand-daughter. The time traveller was less beyond than out of time, his clothing and mannerisms chosen to represent an era.

Here, the changed scenario goes hand-in-hand with a changed central character. It’s like the two sides of an equation. Because there is the shadow of evil, cast darkly over our no-longer-impregnable walls, there must also be the hero. Troughton's Doctor is not just eccentric but idiosyncratic, irreducibly otherly.

They come from one corner of out-there to assail us, he from another in our defence. In short, he becomes an emblematic hero. Think of his quote from the much later 'Name of the Doctor', “My real name… that is not the point. The name I chose was the Doctor. It’s like a promise you make.” All that is seeded here.

So, to misquote Bagpuss when the Doctor changes the Whoniverse cannot help but change with him. The... to use a word I have just made up... Hartnellverse was for the most part strange, exotic and wondrous. Troughton stories are closer to Sixties spy fiction - strewn with clues, surveillance and deception, stirred with a sense of pop Surrealism. And they take place less in the grand span of the cosmos than in drably locked rooms. In something you don't get points for noticing, besieged bases were soon to be common.

And, before we wax too lyrical, these were already an SF staple, in Hollywood films we'll shortly be hearing a whole lot about. Not to mention a means to turn cost-effective limited sets to your advantage. But as soon as the Doctor's given the role of the Joker, we need a pretty straight pack to deal him into. Cryptic, playful and inventive, he's the very antithesis of the closed bureaucratic mind. And what better visual correlative for that closed mind than the besieged base?

But, I hear you ask, what adventures did this brave new Doctor get up to..?