5 years, 9 months ago
It’s January 5th, 1984. The Flying Pickets are at number one with “Only You,” with Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace” knocking them off a week later as they manage one of the most impressive drops I’ve ever seen from a number one single, plunging down to ten. Billy Joel, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, Culture Club, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood all also chart, the latter with “Relax.” (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, it should be noted for Americans, were not a one hit wonder in the UK at all.)
In the month and change since The Five Doctors, Lynda Mann is murdered, though the newsy part of that came many years later when the murderer, Colin Pitchfork, became the first person in Britain to be convicted based on DNA evidence. An IRA car bomb exploded outside Harrods in the Christmas shopping center. And Pope John Paul II visited the man who attempted to assassinate him to forgive him. While during this story a hurricane-force storm kills six in Britain.
While on television. A commenter made the quite valid point that my entries on the Davison era have been markedly closer to the critical consensus than in any other era. This is true, and I’ve kind of internally conceptualized much of this stretch as being about providing a more thorough account of the logic behind the consensus than about changing it. Largely because I think the overall consensus on this part of the Nathan-Turner era is solid, which, in turn, is because it’s just about the most analyzed portion of Doctor Who around save, perhaps, for the new series, which is so deliciously oversignified that the existing critical consensus can’t be grasped at all.
All of which said, I think the era as a whole gets an unfairly rough ride. There are systemic problems, which I’ve pointed out at length and will continue to do so, but there are also moments of real quality, including in oft-overlooked stories. And then there is Warriors of the Deep, about which I sadly, if unexpectedly, find myself with virtually nothing good to say.
That said, much of the criticism of the story is, if not inaccurate, at the very least faintly unfair. Yes, the effects on it are lamentable, but I’ve kept a decent policy of not criticizing Doctor Who for poor effects and I’m not going to break it here. The Myrka is deeply, deeply unfortunate, but to suggest that it, or any of the shoddiness of this story, is the actual problem with the story is ridiculous. They’re symptoms of the problem. The story wouldn't be significantly improved by better effects. It just wouldn't have quite as obvious a punching bag.
Michael Grade, responsible for pulling the trigger on the 1985 hiatus, has apparently cited this story as the one that persuaded him that Doctor Who was crap, a claim that Eric Saward took issue with, pointing out that Grade was in a position to give the program more money. But the flip side of this is what possible reason Michael Grade would have for giving more money to a program that’s blowing what it has on a pantomime horse. I mean, it’s tough to point at this and call it a compelling case for giving the program more money.
This is not a defense of Michael Grade as such, as he’s guilty of the same basic mistake. Neither Grade nor Saward, apparently, can conceive of Doctor Who as anything more than the BBC version of Star Wars. Which, of course, it cannot possibly be on any budget that the BBC could possibly provide. I mean, that’s just not what the BBC is good at. It never has been.
To some extent it’s understandable. Everybody loved Earthshock, so they tried it again with another returning monster and a similarly bleak ending. It’s as understandable as redoing The Silurians two years later as The Sea Devils. The problem was purely that Earthshock was largely unrepeatable, having been the biggest case of getting away with it in the classic series. Earthshock worked by changing directions sharply in the second episode, having a genuinely unexpected ending, and featuring the shock return of the series second best-known monsters (even if their unexplained appearance at the end of episode one was probably stretching it for some viewers).
Warriors of the Deep, on the other hand, is exactly what it looks like it will be after its first episode, features the massively hyped return of twelve year old monsters, and features no shock in its ending at all. With none of that gut-punching impact we get what Earthshock was all along - a mediocre action serial that was remarkable for its chutzpah, not its execution. So when that execution dips, as it had to here when the 1983 general election led to Doctor Who losing studio time, the fragile soap bubble of quality that Earthshock represented bursts traumatically.
But the conclusion everybody draws from this - that all Warriors of the Deep needed was money - is ludicrous. What Warriors of the Deep needed was for the script to be thrown out and restarted from scratch. What it needed was to not be people trying to do a thrilling BBC sci-fi action serial. It needed to be a story that wasn’t going to have all of its hopes rest on the ability of the BBC to get the Myrka to come off, simply because there’s never been a point, in the twenty year history of the program, where it ever looked like the BBC could do something like the Myrka. The list of successful “giant X” monsters in Doctor Who history is... erm... well, I liked Erato? The show has never gotten giant monsters to work. So why the hell was it trying to base a story on the idea that one was going to be amazing? To blame the Myrka's execution for letting the story down is like blaming gravity when a man jumps off a building. A pantomime horse is exactly what anyone pitching the Myrka should have expected for Doctor Who.
What’s painfully ironic about all of this is that it’s Malcolm Hulke’s work that’s getting ripped off here, given that Hulke was the writer who showed the most anxiety about it the last time Doctor Who mistook itself for a militaristic action show. (Though admittedly, ill-advised attempts at giant lizards are a staple of Malcolm Hulke's scripts, with the only script of his to lack it being the one with a giant testicle instead.) The Silurians was, at its heart, about Hulke’s own dislike for the idea that the Doctor was going to be an employee of the military-industrial complex. The entire concept of the Silurians was that they weren’t monsters but another race with as legitimate a set of views as the humans. The point of the end of the story was that there was another way, it was just precluded by assuming that the series was going to be military action where the Doctor’s primary support was people who were good at shooting stuff. Even in The Sea Devils, when this aspect of the plot is systematically marginalized, the point is that the humans make a wrong decision at a key moment that prevents the possibility of peace. Even if this is taken away, at the very least the point of The Silurians is that the “monsters” actually have distinct personalities and are not a blank monoculture to be exploded.
Whereas here the Silurians are interchangeable, the Sea Devils are mostly a mute warrior race, and both of them have apparently randomly adopted the human names for them (which is bewildering, given that by any standard “Sea Devil” is a pejorative in its original context). They spend the entire story acting like generic monsters, with the Doctor being the only person who gives any sort of argument that they might be different. Then the Doctor finally meets up with their leader and gets told “oh, no, we’ve gone generic monster.” It would be difficult to approach this story in a way that more systematically undermines the point of the monsters. Every possible effort is made to take monsters whose entire raison d’etre was to not be generic monsters and make them generic monsters.
Given this, the Doctor’s “there should have been another way” ending has to go down as one of the most gobsmackingly po-faced and moronic moments of the series. I’m not among those who is hugely bothered by the level of violence in some of the Peter Davison stories, nor even, generally speaking, by the sequences where the Doctor gets a bit physical. But the sequence in episode one in which the Doctor decides to handle the possibility that they’ll be caught by overloading the base’s reactor to distract them, then proceeds to beat up the guards who are not thrilled with the prospect of him overloading their reactor is just appalling. There should have been another way, Doctor? Sure. And we might have called it “don’t introduce yourself by needlessly sabotaging the base and beating people up.” Similarly, to suggest the value of “another way” when the script has been bending over backwards to ensure that all of the other ways didn’t exist is just cheap. This conclusion might be forgivable if we were actually using generic monsters - if the Tereleptils were the ones sieging the base or something. But these are Malcolm Hulke’s potentially peace-loving Silurians. They come with another way built into the script, only to have Johnny Byrne take the thing out for no discernible reason.
What we have instead is a story about the horrors of nuclear war in which no alternative is actually presented. Far from being a story about the importance of peace, this is a story in which massive slaughter of the other is necessary, if regrettable. Even the Doctor’s last line undermines any actual point about the merits of not slaughtering everybody. There should have been another way. Not that there was one. Or that there must have been one that the Doctor missed. There should have. But there wasn’t. Everyone, apparently, deserved to die. And here we get to the heart of my objection to supposedly apolitical writing. Because this is shooting for that. Yes, it's about nuclear war and the cold war, but given that nobody was actually overtly in favor of nuclear war, this is a straw man. By being unwilling to commit to any viewpoint beyond "gee, it sure would suck if we completely annihilated the species" the story ends up tacitly endorsing it.
Which, again, this would only suck if it weren't Hulke they were ripping off. Hulke having been the writer least afraid to take off the gloves and do political Doctor Who. But this is part of the lengthy and torturous period where Doctor Who avoids politics at all costs. And here we see why that was such a terrible idea - because the series isn't about anything anymore. There's no content here. Saying you're going to be apolitical just means that you've given up on being about the real world at all. Which is fine right up until you remember that reality is inescapable and that flights of fancy come back to Earth eventually. Here's our crash landing. But to have the crash happen in a Malcolm Hulke homage is just taunting. There should have been another way? There was. You had it in the script you were ripping off. Fundamentally, things never would have gotten this way on Hulke's watch.
Making matters even more frustrating is Byrne missing the one idea he had that didn’t amount to cannibalizing Malcolm Hulke’s work and taking all of the actual thought out. Warriors of the Deep has, as an incidental detail, a world in which human-computer synthesis is a common and everyday part of life and where people have backup personality discs that can be used to control them. This, however, is used only to sustain a plotline in which saboteurs make things worse for the base. Maddox is by far the most interesting idea in the story, and he’s nothing more than a plot hammer.
And as with Arc of Infinity, there’s a good story shuffling about in these ideas. Worse than Arc of Infinity, however, this time the good story is so blindingly obvious that one is left with no sense of how the heck the production team missed it and went for this. You’ve got enough money to do some fairly impressive monster costumes, but not much else. You spend them on the monster from the series history that lets you do a story that’s not about special effects and fighting but about negotiation, debate, and conversation. You are, in other words, setting everything up for a story that Doctor Who can actually do and do well - one about conversation and acting. Maybe you do monster costumes that let you see the actors mouths and eyes - redo the Silurians to look more like the Draconians did. That way you can really have them act and have a proper, tense thriller. Instead of relying on the stupid Myrka.
But instead we have this. And I’m left in a terribly unfortunate position, because I pretty much have to say that on the evidence of this story that Michael Grade was right to cancel the show. I mean, not in his actual reasons, but in the basic decision. Because this, in all seriousness, is what they think a good season opener is? They think the way to open their season is to give twelve-year-old monsters a makeover in a frighteningly generic story? I mean, even if we excuse all of the decisions that went into filming it, how the heck did nobody see that it needed to be swapped with The Awakening or Frontios in the running order. Both, after all, have self-contained openings. At worst it would have required redoing a handful of TARDIS scenes. They surely could have looked at the Myrka shots on rushes and seen that they needed to change the order of things.
But no. Because Nathan-Turner isn’t making the program for the general public, who would have, on the whole, much preferred to see something that had an interesting idea beyond “Wow! Silurians! And Sea Devils!” He’s making it for Doctor Who fans, and then as much the ones in the US and Australia as the ones in the UK. If you’re not the sort of person who’s excited because a Pertwee-era monster is coming back, you’re no longer the sort of person the program is for. All the program has to say is "look at me, I'm Doctor Who."
I said back in the Five Doctors post that there was an inherent problem with the program being done “for the Americans,” and there is. This is a moral point, and it’s a real one. The BBC is funded by what is essentially a tax, and the people paying that tax have a right to be catered to by the resulting channel. That’s where the Reithian idea that the BBC has to have something for everybody comes from. So when the program so cavalierly discards the idea of doing interesting or relevant drama in favor of doing things that get cheered at American conventions, frankly, there’s a real problem with it. To present this as the season premiere - as though this is the way to get things started, right after the high-profile and beloved Five Doctors, is just insulting. To say this should be taken off the air and replaced with something that actually takes the viewing public seriously is not, quite frankly, a controversial proposition to anybody who isn’t a blinkered Doctor Who fan.
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