A Critique of the Gothic Seasons

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Yes, I know I've already done that joke... but it's too good not to overuse.  Here's my stuff from Timelash II for the first three years of Tom's tenure, generally regarded as the "golden age" (or something) of the old show.  Not much extra stuff.  Sorry.  Oh, one warning: at several points in the essay below I will be going into gush mode.  You have been warned.



‘Robot’

Dafter than the Rt. Hon. Lady Daftetta Daftington-Dafton of Daftwood Hall, Daftfordshire. A robot that grows to the size of King Kong (and starts acting like him)... a disintegrator gun kept in pieces and scattered in different locations... a government think tank that turns out to be a cover for fanatical right-wing scientific 'progressives' who think a good way to take over the world would be to destroy it first... umm, well actually the last ten years or so have made that last one seem quite plausible.

This is set in a world in which 'bad' scientists are spottable by their evil suits and ties, their evil black armbands and their evil black leather gloves; meanwhile 'good' scientists all work on renewable fuels, have bottle-end spectacles (as distinct from the evil little Himmler spectacles worn by 'bad' scientists) and cardigans and wildly unkempt hair.

But all that is nothing compared to the idea that, as Wikipedia puts it: "to ensure peace, the governments of Russia, China and America decided to give the locations and launch codes of their nuclear weapons to a neutral country — Britain — for safekeeping".

Words fail me.

As in 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs', people who have an ideological desire to make a better world are portrayed as deluded, ruthless, callous fanatics.

Of course, you can simply decide not to worry about any of this (just as you can decide not to worry about the fact that the giganticized robot spends a lot of time carrying a wobbly doll and attacking tonka trucks) and enjoy this for the utter hokum that it is.

This is the last gasp of the detumescent Letts/Dicks comfy-cosy-nicey-wicey-matey-watey style (complete with the usual bit of largely-fatuous liberal/moralistic political comment). There's something melancholy about watching a story with the Brigadier, Benton, UNIT HQ, Bessie, etc... but no Pertwee. I understand why they did it that way: if this new guy drives Bessie and the Brig calls him "Doctor" then he must be the same guy. But it just feels wrong somehow. And the style is past its prime. It's done good service for a few years but now is clearly the time for it to be retired... which, fortunately, is precisely what happened. There are some eras that feel truncated wheras others end right on time, and 'Robot' is evidence that the Pertwee/Letts era was one of the latter.


I'll post something about 'The Ark in Space' seperately, and I've done 'Genesis of the Daleks' here.


'Terror of the Zygons'

Brilliantly done hokum. The direction is some of the best in the series: stylish, pacey, scary, beautifully cinematic (especially the location sequences which are amazing - they could be from a movie). Superb, eerie music. Great creature design: the suckered-foetus look of the Zygons is effective and memorable. Great Harryhausen-style monster, only actually embarassing when filmed as a puppet rather than animated.

Sarah gets to be a journalist again; 'Harry' gets to be evil; the Doctor gets to wear tartan; the Brigadier gets a lovely comedy moment that Courtney absolutely aces.

The Zygon shape-shifting stuff is well done, neither neglected nor overused. Nowdays, you'd have to have a scene where one of the Zygons impersonates the Doctor and/or Brigadier... but you don't need it. The point is made and is used to advance the plot when they impersonate Harry, the Nurse, etc. No overkill.

Downsides? Bit too much infodumping, especially from Broton when talking to Harry. And Scottish stereotypes galore. Och aye, pass the haggis Morag, etc.

Lovely touches abound, however. The psychic landlord stops playing his bagpipes the moment the Doctor walks into his inn.  And I love the whole queasy baby vibe going on with the Zygons. Zygons sounds like "zygotes". And they have big, domed foreheads. And live in a womblike ship. And live on the Skarasan's "lactic fluid", i.e. milk.


‘Pyramids of Mars’


Without the extended confrontation scenes in Part Four, this would be a solid bit of Hammeresque gothic fun (albeit tainted with the orientalism inherent in all these stories about ancient evil Egyptian curses and fanatical Egyptian acolytes).

With the extended confrontation scenes in Part Four, this is something extra-special. The awesome mask, Gabriel Woolf's terrifyingly quiet and cultured psycho voice, Tom's amazingly committed performance... it all does great service to the scripted exchanges, which are potent and thrilling.

There's something about the things the Doctor says here. "I renounced the society of Time Lords. Now I'm simply a traveller." No grandiose boasting, no messianic showing off, no fetishised superman posturing, no trembly-lipped emoting. Just a simple statement. It's one of the best Doctor-characterisation moments in the whole series.


‘The Android Invasion’

The plot of this story depends upon the main guest character failing to notice one of his own eyeballs.

'Nuff said?


‘The Brain of Morbius’

Superlative. Dark, grisly, funny, legendary. A schlock-gothic, politico-mythic, literary/movie-pastiche/parody with terrific verbal texture, hilarious but disturbing jokes and some deceptively big themes. This is raw, pure, quintessential, uber-Who, performed with a perfect combination of knowing wit and grim seriousness by a uniformly excellent cast. Special laurels must go to Lis Sladen for her astonishing performance during the 'blind scenes'.

Time Lords are not just a race of cardboard spacemen but an unseen Power, devious and dangerous, manipulative and unpredictable; when they go rogue they don't just turn into whimsical adventurers, sometimes they lead campaigns of conquest so devastating that they might as well be Daleks. They have war criminals and secret pacts with covens of witches. In short, they are the Greek Gods: phenomenally powerful but subject to human frailties and peccadilloes (but on a cosmic scale).

This is, essentially, a story about the need for decay and death. The Sisterhood have fallen into the trap of immortality. They've juddered to a perpetual halt and, without change and decay, they've become "quaint", weak, ineffectual, backward. They huddle together in ritual and eternal stasis, achieving nothing, blind to deadly danger under their noses. Morbius has fallen into the same trap. He's stuck in his absurd, megalomaniacal dream of continuance; but he's nothing but a remnant. His bid for unnatural survival has left him a powerless, helpless, impotent, raging relic in a jar, at the mercy of a mad servant.

Morbius at the mercy of Solon's whims, yet nominally Solon's Master; Solon needing his crazy mission as a justification for his own fanaticism and failure in life. The relationship of Solon and Condo echoes it in miniature: Condo is Solon's whipping boy for his frustrations (Solon and Morbius) and Condo is at Solon's mercy while he waits for the restoration of his body (Morbius and Solon). The ultimate in co-dependence.

All these sad and silly people, stuck together in a cul-de-sac because they've cheated or denied death and, as a result, lost the possibility of change and progress. How telling that the final battle in the story involves the two antagonists trying to regress each other backwards through their long lives. This scene works beautifully, regardless of whose faces they are on the screen.

As a reworking of Frankenstein (the movies more than the book) this is also an expression of what you could call the ‘industrial turn’ in teratoculture. This shift, which starts with Mary Shelley’s novel and becomes even more pronounced in the 20th century (especially via sci-fi), sees our monsters becoming man-made, or even mass produced; they start to become mechanical or cybernetic or semi-artificial; the monsters change to reflect the rise of industrial and technological capitalism, with all its alienation and destructive by-products, with all its mass production of machinery that seems to live beyond us and escape our control and even to turn upon us. (I’ve looked at Frankenstein a bit and suggested some notions of the monster as product, here). The other way that ‘Morbius’ reflects the modern era is its emphasis on the monster as “war criminal”. Solon doesn’t play god so much as resurrect the ghost of a defeated totalitarian dictator.

How can it be this good when it's the product of a falling out between two writers leading to a ground-up rewrite? Easy, when the two writers are Terrence Dicks and Robert Holmes. All hail Robin Bland - the ultimate Doctor Who writer!


‘The Seeds of Doom’


Never quite seen what all the fuss was about with this one.

Best scene? Scorby picks up a bit of beautiful scientific equipment and, prompted by Keeler’s whine of bourgeois distress (“careful, that’s valuable!”) smashes it to the floor, just for the pure fun of destroying something that someone values.

Meanwhile, the disenchanted Dunbar (lack of promotion is such a realistic motivation for corrupt behaviour) sells his information to Chase, a man so wrapped up in his own id and absurd fetishes that he seems detached from reality.  Chase is a bit gay (so is Scorby actually... well, and Keeler) but that's not why he's evil.  In Who, being rich (and emotionally closed off) is a much more reliable sign of evil than mere campness.

Oh, and I love the way Sarah gets as close as teatime scheduling will permit to accusing Scorby of having a tiny cock.


‘The Masque of Mandragora’

Well, it looks gorgeous. It looks like one of the early BBC Shakespeares, but with nice location footage too! Portmeirion really adds an authentic feel, oddly enough... but then it would because it's nothing but a huge, witty, eccentric, eclectic, pastiched folly, a bit like Doctor Who itself. It looks right at home with Tom Baker striding around in it.

And the acting is largely excellent, especially from Tim Piggot Smith and Jon Laurimore. There's some superb dialogue for the cast to get their thespianic teeth into. "They say there are places where the bat droppings are twice the height of a man!" is a particular favourite of mine.

The mixing of the Hamlet pastiche with the Borgia/Medici/Machiavelli vibe and all the gothic business of masked acolytes sacrificing maidens in caves is rather satisfying.

As for the themes?

Mandragora as the embodiment of superstition. It makes its home in caves, in a ruined pagan temple (which it promises/threatens to resurrect), in ritual and mumbo-jumbo, in blades flashing with moonlight before being used in the blood rituals of old Roman sects. It demands mindless obedience, chanting, fearful submission, etc. It is intellectually what Frederico is politically. Hierarchy, despotism, cruelty, mindlessness.

On the other hand, the Renaissance brought new ways of thinking, new intellectual freedoms and pioneering ideas... reason began to make headway against superstition... men like Leonardo embodied the spirit of the age... more enlightened rulers began to champion such things while old-fashioned despots started to lose traction...

The Doctor stands with the future, with the 'enlightened' ruler who's interested in optics and astronomy and new ideas, who invites scientists to his big party, who doesn't use the torture chamber in the cellar of his palace, who sympathises with the peasants, etc.

Well, Guiliano is very idealised. But there were people a bit like him, who wanted to rule in a more enlightened fashion. Of course, they still wanted to rule.

He's drawn from Hamlet (the young heir who mourns a murdered father, displaced by the uncle who murdered him) and that's apt because Hamlet is an expression of the new Renaissance generation... educated at (Protestant) Wittenburg, ironic, witty, sceptical, bookish, etc., but also torn by his lingering attachment to the old ways.

Guiliano wants to "rule over a land where there is no tyranny", which is an oxymoron if you ask me, but we know what he means. He wants to be one of the new, liberal, tolerant rulers who doesn't slaughter peasants for fun and who encourages the development of science. Of course, in practice, such people wanted scientists to devise new weapons (which Leonardo did) and wanted artists to paint gigantic frescos which would symbolise the power of their own regime (which Michaelangelo did). And people who questioned the status quo would still end up in torture chambers or execution blocks, this time harangued with ingratitude to their new, modern, liberal, tolerant ruler.

Of course, things are soooooo different today, aren't they?

Also, the opposition between science and magical thinking is far too unambiguously drawn. For ages, the people who thought of themselves as modern, enlightened, rational and progressive would still engage in the rituals of the freemasons, or the gibberish of alchemy, or the religious heresies of the Arians or Rosicrucians. In fact, much of the scientific and cultural advances in the Renaissance wouldn't have been possible without magic thinking, without the traditions of alchemy, without the economic and social power of the Church and/or the despots (enlightened or otherwise).

There's a danger with the kind of linear and stagist thinking (backwardness vs. progress; religion vs. science) that this story seems to be based on. It can lead to the kind of ahistorical, culturalist nonsense you hear from people like the Sams Huntington and Harris.

Also, the story fails to even gesture towards the fact that the Renaissance didn't just happen, that it grew from changes in the economy of Europe, from advances in trade and credit and the rise of a new mercantile middle class, about pressure from below, from ordinary people demanding political change so that the could enjoy new freedoms and social mobilities, etc...

But this is all nitpicking. The story gets the gist pretty much right and presents it in a lovely package of semiotics and narrative quotes. It's hard not to love something so sumptuous, especially if its heart is in the right place.


I've posted about 'The Deadly Assassin', here.


‘The Face of Evil’

This is easily one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made. Its method is the classic Doctor Who method: shamelessly raid gothic fiction (of both the literary and B-movie variety) for images and ideas, then combine them with its own peculiar perspective, creating a unique fusion. Its style is the classic Doctor Who style: a kind of halfway house between realism or naturalism on the one hand and discursive theatricality on the other. But the subject matter is unusual, possibly a first in the show: the Doctor himself. About the consequences of his actions, about the effect he has on the places and people he 'helps' and about his own understanding of himself, his own grasp upon his own identity.

The face in the title is the Doctor's own face, and every cliffhanger depends upon an encounter with that face.

The first cliffhanger is an existential one, in which the Doctor sees himself outside himself, as an evil idol, a sick Mount Rushmore (not that the original isn't pretty sick in my book), a trace of his forgotten past, evidence of his own effect upon an entire culture, an explanation of why the Sevateem think he's "the evil one" and an almost Lacanian moment of self-cognition, in which he begins the journey that will occupy him for the rest of the story; a journey into his own reflection.

The second cliffhanger sees rampaging monsters of the id, attacking people, snarling at them... and all of them with the Doctor's face (though Tom Baker's amazing technique is to make these monsters look more afraid than savage). Andor is killed by one of these Doctor/id monsters, little knowing that he is being killed by splinters of the Xoanon he prays to for salvation. And it's interesting to see monsters directly lifted from a gothic, Shakespeare-inspired, sci-fi B-movie as expressions of the id of Xoanon/Doctor... precisely because Doctor Who as a text is built on a foundation of lifted elements from just such other texts!

The third cliffhanger sees the Doctor's sanity under direct assault by his own screaming face, fractured in several parts. An evil, mad, terrified reflection that demands of him "WHO AM I?" (which, rearranged, is "I AM WHO!") in the voice of a child. Looked at one way, that's what childhood is: the period during which we wander around constantly asking everyone who we are. That's where Xoanon is, but he's trying to disentangle himself from his parent in order to find his own identity... but then we all have to do that too, don't we?

Beyond all this psychology (none of which has to actually be true in an objective sense for this story to be subjectively fascinating) we have an amazing, Feuerbachian analysis of relgion. Man builds the totem pole, falls down before it, imagines it to be an expression of something outside of himself and greater than himself... and forgets that he is grovelling before a material expression of his own powers, and a idealised image of his own capabilities. Religion as alienation. Xoanon is an expression of our alienation from both our own technical skills and production capacities (he's an artefact, after all) and our own image, both physical and psychological.

Plus Leela is a great character, a companion who is also an image of the Doctor. A dissident, a free-thinker, a sceptic, someone who has left her static society (by being expelled/willfully opting out) and struck out on her own. Louise Jameson puts across Leela's strength (both physical and intellectual) effortlessly, subverting the sexism inherent in the idea of a companion in skimpy skins, making Leela probably the greatest ever companion.

If sci-fi is about "the relationship between man and his tools", this story shows that relationship very deliberately and consciously. I think sci-fi is more the reiteration of myth and legend in the technological age... and this story shows that happening deliberately and consciously too. And both are shown from the point of view of the machine, the tool, the technology. In this story, the machine itself has lost the difference between itself and its creator, and is deliberately re-enacting mythology in order to express itself. That's where the themes meet, and that's why the story is ultimately so satisfying.


‘The Robots of Death’

Absolutely thrilling. A script that, for once, really is about well-drawn and psychologically complex characters interacting with each other in human, funny, scary ways.

Uvanov's obvious sexual desire for Zilda takes the form of hostility, probably because it is based on class envy and a deep inferiority complex. Poul spends the story circling the others like the thoughtful, reserved, removed, brittle voyeur that he is... and, underneath, he seethes with existential terror... and his existential terror throws a revelatory light upon the neuroses of Capel, who is trying to merge with the robots and control them, thereby neutralising his oedipal terror of the benign, obedient, emotionally blank things that raised him and accidentally screwed him up beyond redemption (just as they seem to have screwed up this entire society).

The unexpected costume and production design suggests an indolent, decadent, aristocratic culture. But these people are workers, in their own way... they need to be there for the minerals to get back to the Company... so... in this culture, where almost everything is done by the robots, to be allowed to work (even a tiny bit) is to be privileged, is to be the aristocrat. The products of human labour have now alienated humans entirely, even from their ability to produce things.

But, of course, the robots are slaves... and the masters are always terrified of their slaves. They're also repositories of human neuroses. Dummies onto which the people project their inner demons. And dolls, toys in the hand of a psychopathic child in an adult's body.

Meanwhile, we have Tom on worldbeating form, playing THE Doctor (this really is, for me, THE Doctor, in a very fundamental way) as a sceptical, sardonic, razor-sharp intellectual whose one-liners slice through ignorance and thuggishness... while showing immense respect for Leela and D84 (surely one of the most lovable guest characters ever). D84 shows the difference between Capel's false revolution (in which the robots just lose one master and gain another) and a real revolution, in which the lowest of the low (a Dum, for goodness sake!) saves the day with an act of self-sacrifice born of friendship.

Louise Jameson is marvellous, playing Leela as a true force, as a character who shapes the story herself. In fact, you really should watch 'Face' and 'Robots' together, as two halves of one story. Not only for Leela's journey but because they cover much the same ground but from different angles.

The guest cast (with one exception) are all excellent. The music, the model work, etc... all superb. The script is full of amazing lines. "Please do not throw hands at me" is the most simple, D84s little poem to the power of the Laserson Probe is the most beautiful... and ironic. A machine, a tool, rhapsodizes the capabilities (for science and violence) of another machine, another tool.

It just doesn't get much better than this.


‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’

Blissful, pulpy Victorian gothic. Literary pastiche that synthesizes something new and unique out of its borrowed parts. Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, Jekyll and Hyde, Fu Manchu, Dracula... it's all in there. A sort of voyage into our collective consciousness of pea-souper-ridden Victorian London.  The story and the society in which it is set keep on unfolding in new directions. We keep getting some new angle. The town, the characters, the interactions, the relationships keep shifting and realigning. We have carefully-executed forays into very adult territory. We even have a prostitute and a scene set in an opium den.  Of course, it's a "tissue of quotations", but isn't everything?

Against the psuedo-historical backdrop (and this story really might as well be set in the Land of Fiction), Holmes summons up a vast, complex, convincing and richly-textured backstory of future history in just a few lines of stunning dialogue. In fact, the whole story has a wonderfully extravagant verbal texture. The villain doesn't say "Why am I surrounded by fools?", he says "Your opium-sodden scum are all bunglers!" and "You stupid, incompetent lice! You crawling, mindless dogs!"

Tom Baker is at the height of his powers. The Doctor comes over as a man playing a game that he loves, but also as a deadly-serious tactician. Tom and the superb Louise Jameson (despite their supposed coolness towards each other) have tremendous chemistry. Their characters seem to have mutual respect for each other's powers, and the inherent imbalance in every Doctor/Companion relationship is here transmuted into a Guru/Trainee thing.

Great guest characters. Chang, despite his crimes, is no simple villain; he's devotee of a cause he believes in, a peasant's son seeking status, a man of personal dignity who exaggerates his accent and demeanour on stage to play up to the preconceptions of his Causcasian audiences. Jago is almost Falstaffian; a deeply flawed but utterly lovable old fake whirling around in a verbal tornado of fustian and flim-flam.

I think 'Talons' is clearly a bit racist (no more than many things) but it's a very complex business. I think it represents Chinese culture (or rather a second hand, pastiched and confabulated version of Chinese culture) according to Western assumptions and cultural tropes, i.e. exoticism (which is inherently a viewpoint that is imposed on Eastern culture by the Westerner), decadence, sensuality, enigmatic inscrutability, etc., as well as clearly making it a source of the uncanny, the menacing, and so on. It's a complex text because it imports these sorts of representations from its source texts... Sax Rohmer, etc... as part of its pastiche method, not as part of a political objective. And it problematises its own representations by making the ultimate source of the corruption in the story a Caucasian who has exploited Asians in an imperialistic way and has engaged in the kind of crimes of 20th century modernity that were common to both European and Asian forms of fascism. Moreover, he was overthrown by Philippinos... historically, the victims of a particularly ferocious campaign of Western imperialist aggression that the world has now all but forgotten.

More broadly, it's a shame that all the Chinese characters are either baddies or coolies or nunchucka-weilding thugs. But at least we are shown the racism of the Londoners, from the piggishness of the coppers to the condescending nonsense from Lightfoot about the Chinese being "enigmatic". The Doctor doesn't immediately notice that Chang is ethnically different from the Londoners and the story deliberately has Leela and the Doctor talking about the "tribe" in London known as "Cockneys".

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