5 years, 9 months ago
And apparently one of the things we don't quite fully
understand is basic physics.
It’s January 18, 1982. Bucks Fizz are at number one with “The Land of Make Believe,” with Kraftwerk threatening to take the number one spot. Unfortunately it is instead Shakin’ Stevens with “Oh Julie” that inherits the number one from Bucks Fizz. Elsewhere, The Human League have two separate songs in the top ten and are joined by Kool and the Gang, Foreigner, and Meat Loaf.
The trouble with these twice-weekly airings is that I get very little window to cover any non-musical history in. To wit, all I’m finding is that the post-war peak in unemployment happens in the UK, with over three million people out of work. Ah, the triumphs of Thatcherism. (Yes, she cut the unemployment rate later. But in the process she presided over a complete realignment of the economy that was... less than ideal.)
While on television, it’s Four to Doomsday. With the exception of The Highlanders, which is, of course, missing, I am reasonably certain that this is the second appearance of a Doctor that the fewest people care about one way or another. The next two Doctors get two of the most reviled stories in series’ history for their second outings (one of them even correctly reviled), while Hartnell, Pertwee, and Baker get all-time classics for their second go-rounds. Davison, on the other hand, gets this - a story nobody much likes, nobody much hates, and, frankly, nobody much thinks about beyond “that one between Castrovalva and Kinda” with a side of “that was the first story Davison filmed.”
While I would not go so far as to call this story an overlooked gem (or as an overrated disaster), it is a fair bit more interesting than its reputation. The first thing to realize about it is that it very much sets the tone for Season Nineteen. Of the seven stories in Season Nineteen three are unabashedly attempts to redo things the series has done in the past in a new format. The first of these is, of course, Castrovalva, which we already noted was an effort to go back and build a transition out of the Bidmead era. And we’ll deal with the other two in a few days. Three more are conscious attempts to try new things that the series couldn’t previously do. And then there is Four to Doomsday, a story that it is difficult to firmly describe as forward-looking or backward-looking. In a season that is equally committed to finding ways to rework the standards into the new approach for Doctor Who and to finding new things to do, Four to Doomsday is actually the one story that’s splitting the difference between the two approaches.
On the one hand, as Miles and Wood point out, Four to Doomsday is essentially built like a Hartnell story. From the start, this is clear: the story opens with the Doctor failing to get his companion back to Earth and the TARDIS crew trying to figure out what sort of world they’re in. The exploratory mode hasn’t been completely absent from Doctor Who, but its uses after The Underwater Menace are few and far between. But it goes further than that. The particular flavor of moral dilemma on offer here is also peculiarly old-fashioned. It’s been a long time since the central conflict of a story is a purely philosophical one. This story is about whether Monarch’s autocratic rule is good. This isn’t explored in terms of its effects on people, or even in terms of Monarch’s psyche, but as question of political theory. If one were to pick a past story that Four to Doomsday is most similar to it would be difficult to come up with a better choice than The Savages, of all things. So in that regard its status as more or less completely overlooked can be seen as a flawless mimicry of its source material.
But this shoots far, far past redoing the classics. The tendency introduced in Season Nineteen of “let’s update the format of X” is never going to depart the show - even in the most recent season we had The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, an updating of the Troughton base under siege,, and The God Complex, which clearly owed more than a slight debt to The Curse of Fenric. But those are iconic classics that there’s a relatively clear motivation to pilfer. The idea that Season Nineteen’s “let’s update the past” aesthetic started with The Savages is more than faintly ludicrous.
The truth of things is visible under the hood. It’s not really until The Visitation that Doctor Who starts having the remake be a conscious style decision. Four to Doomsday fits better into the tradition of things like Full Circle and State of Decay - stories that referenced a much earlier flavor of what Doctor Who was, but did so because of the idiosyncrasies of their writers. The idiosyncrasies in question are almost polar opposites - State of Decay felt like a Hinchcliffe script because it basically was one, whereas Full Circle felt classic because its writer had grown up on classic Doctor Who. But the result was the same - stories that felt like old Doctor Who because they were by people who were steeped in old Doctor Who.
For the most part, and the repeated disasters that are John Nathan-Turner’s nostalgia-steeped nightmare briefs demonstrate this, this method of having the past influence Doctor Who’s present because of influence on the writers is vastly superior to the overt remake plan. Unfortunately, Four to Doomsday is basically the end of the period we’ve been enjoying since Full Circle where the show’s relationship with its past was based on influence instead of mimicry. This is one of Nathan-Turner’s many wrong turns, but it’s a real one. But that’s two stories from now. For now, we have Terence Dudley, who was an old hand at the BBC. Miles and Wood suggest, quite sensibly, that this explains the somewhat old-fashioned nature of this story - that Dudley’s conception of the series is based on the Hartnell era because he was a working television professional for that era.
In many ways this gestures back at problems we were discussing around Destiny of the Daleks and Creature From the Pit - the fact that it’s a very, very unusual person who can maintain a 20 year writing or directing career in television. Certainly it explains the weaknesses of Terence Dudley’s writing - and there are many. But while the datedness of his writing is a drawback, it’s also worth noting that Four to Doomsday is in no way just a Hartnell remake. As much as its themes and structure are old-fashioned, this is also where the attempt to make the show more character-based and soapy really gets going. (Which is unsurprising, given that it’s the first story made under the new brief.)
It’s worth actually thinking a little more about The Savages in order to understand this. Back in the day we noted that one of the things that really stood out watching The Savages was how, in modern times, the story would have been done in such a way as to have the whole story be about Steven’s journey from the Doctor criticizing him for being unable to make his own decisions at the start to being ready to take over and run things. And now, sixteen years later... well, we’re still not quite to the point where the character-based storytelling is up and running, but we’re getting closer. This story at least tries to do something with its characters, framing the major conflict as being between the extremes of Tegan’s reaction to Monarch (we have to get back to Earth and warn everyone) and Adric’s (ooh yay, fascism, maybe it will make the icky women go away).
This, of course, gets at the real problem here. It’s trying to create soap-like character tension and drama here, and good for it, but it’s doing so with appallingly broad strokes. Adric is sexist and embraces stupid ideas, Tegan is rash and doesn’t think things through, and the Doctor mediates between them with Nyssa serving as the actual companion for the story. It’s very, very superficial and doesn’t actually work like character drama at all. I mean, it’s got all the moving pieces - setting characters against each other for ideological reasons, having dramatic tension within the TARDIS crew, using the differences between characters as the engine to tell the story. It’s all there. It’s just not being put together well.
Many of the problems here are the traditionalism. When the moral dilemma at the heart of the story is “totalitarian dictatorship by a reptilian overlord named Monarch, yay or nay” you’re really not setting yourself up for success in the compelling drama department. There’s never any serious doubt that Adric is wrong and that Monarch is evil. Likewise, within the storytelling framework of Doctor Who “run and warn Earth” is never going to be the correct decision, and so Tegan hardly comes out as a sympathetic character in all of this.
Add to this the fact that both Adric and Tegan have their own problems. Adric’s are easy enough to explain: he’s played by Matthew Waterhouse, and Waterhouse can’t anchor a dramatic plot. Yes, it doesn’t help that he’s suddenly being written as the most obnoxious teenager in the history of the world, but he’s hard-pressed to deal with well-written dramatic material too, as he’ll show given time.
Tegan, on the other hand, has an additional problem here in terms of her just wanting to get home. It’s been a long, long time since the Doctor had an unwilling companion, and with good reason. It worked in the very early days because we didn’t know the Doctor very well yet. And even there by the second season Ian and Barbara had essentially made their peace with the Doctor and were OK with traveling in space and time. The idea of a companion who doesn’t want to be on the TARDIS doesn’t really have a place in Doctor Who one the audience’s sympathies are 100% aligned with the Doctor. Once the show reaches a point where the audience unambiguously is on the Doctor’s side and wishes they could travel in the TARDIS a companion who doesn’t want to be there is actively working against audience sympathy. So whenever Tegan visibly hates being on the TARDIS the audience finds itself siding with her altogether too much: we wish she’d sod off too. (To her credit, Janet Fielding does as well as can be done with the character, and Tegan does improve.)
But look, we’re essentially bitching at this story for doing a poor job of a type of storytelling that Doctor Who has never really tried before. As I said, the parts are all there, just not in fully formed ways. Even the concept of this story has some interesting stuff in it. The various performances of cultural rituals are an interesting updating of the old Hartnell-era mandate towards education into the realm of the visual. And, when paralleled with the invocation of the dreamtime (a core concept in Australian aboriginal mythology) on the part of Kurkutji, the referencing of the fleshtime by the Urbankans seems to gesture at an interesting idea of human culture influencing the Urbankans. So there’s genuinely compelling stuff here, even if the script doesn’t quite know what to do with any of them.
But incremental change happens. The mere fact that this is a half-step forward is no more of a problem here than it was in The Sontaran Experiment, The Underwater Menace, or any other early story of a new Doctor. This is the Davison era’s meandering and uncertain start. What it does right will be done better in subsequent stories. And, unfortunately, what it does wrong will be done worse. But as stumbling first efforts go, it’s not all that bad.
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