The Feast of Steven

(11 comments)

For you holiday pleasure, I gift to you this little lovely essay on The Feast of Steven. Which is neither a reference to the current showrunner, nor to the marvelous Steven Universe, despite their similarities. No, this is the seventh episode in the epic The Daleks’ Masterplan, and quite possibly one of the best therein. See, at this point in the show, as Phil so eloquently inscribed back in the early days of TARDIS Eruditorum, Doctor Who had swung away from its counterculture ethics and aesthetics, and Masterplan was certainly a part of that swerve, an insistent undermining of the Doctor’s efficacy and the show’s overall optimism. But for one shining moment on Christmas Day, 1965 (despite a singular dark splotch within that moment) this was most certainly not the case.

The Feast of Steven is perhaps most memorably known as the most blatant case of the show breaking the 4th Wall, when at the end the Doctor turns to the camera and wishes everyone in the audience a Merry Christmas. In some dreary netherparts of our fandom, this is considered a mistake. Apparently the showrunners at the time, producer John Wiles and script editor Donald Tosh, weren’t too fond of it either, suggesting it was an ad-lib by Hartnell, a literal mistake. Of course it’s not a mistake. Everything in the episode was always leading up to this.

Not that this is an easy episode to analyze. The Feast of Steven was the first episode of Doctor Who to ever be junked – because everyone knew this was going to be the Christmas episode, and that people might not be watching on Christmas (how times have changed), they decided it would be something completely unnecessary to the larger serial around it; ergo, it wasn’t ever copied and shipped to other TV stations around the world with the other 11 parts of Masterplan.

So all we have is an audio recording, from which two main reconstructions have been reconstructed. On the one hand we have the version from stalwart recon studio Loose Cannon, which uses a variety of telesnaps (there were only 20, so even here there’s a dearth of material) in many creative ways to form the vague semblance of a visual narrative. The other is a crude animation, which is in some ways superior to the somewhat incoherent mélange of motionless stills of the former recon, but which elides any semblance of “performance” – gone are any of the actors’ expressions, the actual sets, and perhaps less obviously, the direction of the piece. Not that the Loose Cannon recon saved much in the way of direction, but its very lack of direction is ironically more honest. All that said, the animated version is certainly more watchable. Both are available at the usual places you might find such stuff.

The story basically consists of two parts, with some connective tissue inside the TARDIS – the story actually begins there, ends there, and that is the place that bridges the two main setpieces. Our heroes are ostensibly on the run from the Daleks, but as mentioned before, nothing they do here has any material bearing on that story. The break we get instead is one that is searingly self-aware, possibly the most self-aware the show has ever been.

 

The Police Station

As I said, the episode starts with our trio of heroes (the Doctor, Sara Kingdom, and the eponymous Steven) in the TARDIS, not at the police station, but it’s a terribly brief scene: the scanner isn’t working. And the scanner is simply a television, of course, so what’s really happening is that television isn’t quite working right to begin with, which is a nice bit of self-referentiality that I’m totally justified in describing as such, especially when we get to the second half of the episode. All of which to say, this isn’t a normal episode of television. It’s more like a funhouse looking-glass. Especially when we consider that the TARDIS has landed outside a contemporary police station, and it’s being checked out by a trio of cops, who call it a “Christmas Box” and joke about it flying away. Inside, the Doctor is insisting that modern-day pollution is life-threatening, and that Steven should stay in and “do as you’re told,” a now rather familiar phrase.

It’s funny how quickly the Doctor turns on a dime after looking briefly outside and seeing where and when he is. Now he insists that Steven and Sara come out while he distracts the cops; “do as you’re told” is invoked yet again. Diegetically there’s no explanation for this turnabout, but we might assume that now he knows the scoop, he realizes it’s not as dangerous as he’d thought. Extradiegetically, though, the fact that the TARDIS has landed somewhere that mirrors her might tip off the Doctor that this is no ordinary adventure. Assuming, you know, that the Doctor realizes he’s in a TV show, and the previous episode’s cliffhanger on the “poisonous” atmosphere has been resolved.

The Doctor steps out once again, and he’s immediately called Father Christmas. Again, there’s a mirroring – the story is taking place on the day it’s being broadcast. And now the jokes start coming at a faster pace. We cut to the interior of the police station, where a man is telling the desk sergeant that he’s “got a complaint,” to which the sergeant replies, “well the Doctor’s is ‘round the corner,” which is now doubly true. The man with a complaint says that “they keep moving me house,” his greenhouse, which is almost but not quite a blue house. The Doctor insists that he recognizes the man with a complaint, that he’s seen him at a marketplace in Jaffa, and then he laughs at his own joke: the joke being that the actor playing the Complaining Man previously played a Middle-Eastern merchant in a previous serial, The Crusades. Very self aware, oh yes indeed, hm hmm.

While all this is going on, Steven infiltrates the police office by stealing a uniform; this is mirrored by Sara’s encounter with a policeman, who comments on her strange futuristic clothes before she slips around back to fix the scanner eye. Steven’s infiltration, meanwhile, hinges in part on adopting a funny Northern accent, like the other cops; when the Doctor admonishes this, Steven protests: “Everybody else is doing it,” which is actually quite true.

 

The Film Studio

They dash inside, make their escape, and recap their situation. Sara’s fixed the scanner, Steven’s pleased with his pretending to be someone else, and even Doctor admits enjoying himself. We then get a bit reminding us that this is in the middle of a Dalek story… which isn’t entirely necessary, of course, given it’s a frivolous Christmas episode. But Daleks, well, they’re signifiers of narrative collapse, a possibly apt description for this episode.

They land, and now the scanner’s working, but upon checking the latest TV show they see something horrible: a woman being pulled by a man into a sawblade! Our heroes rush out to the rescue. Actually, they ruin everything, as this is actually a film studio. Talk about live television!

And this is, well, this is really very interesting. Sure, it’s all a bit of a farce, with lots of running around and hiding and chaos. But the whole setup really functions as a mirror, a two-way mirror. See, some of the humor of the piece is that our heroes (Sara in particular, but also Steven) aren’t at all familiar with a film studio. As if, in the future, that’s just simply not something that exists anymore. And this is used to setup jokes like:

STEVEN: I'm nothing to do with your film. Put me down! Put me down!! I have never taken part in a scene I swear!

Which is funny, not just because Steven doesn’t know what making a show is like, but also because the actor playing him, Peter Purves, knows exactly what making a show is like. A similar frisson comes across with this:

STEVEN: Sara, where've you been?
SARA: I don't know, but a strange man kept telling me to take my clothes off.

for entirely different reasons, of course. We should note this is paralleled by the Doctor telling an actress to put more clothes on, and scoffing at the idea she’s an Arabian princess (which again ties back to The Crusades). Which almost suggests that the Doctor isn’t quite aware he’s on a movie set, either. But this isn’t a bum note – what’s a bum note is the Doctor proclaiming that they’re in a “madhouse” because “it’s full of Arabs,” which has more to do with the show’s self-awareness of William Hartnell’s bigotry than anything else. Regardless, it’s deeply unpleasant.

As I said before, there’s a two-way mirror going on here – not only are the stars of Doctor Who unaware they’re in a film studio, the film studio isn’t aware that they’re in a Doctor Who episode. After Steven and Sara beat the living daylights out of the camera crew, the starlet (Blossom) and the star (Tranton) try to get the attention of their director, Steinberger Green, who has other ideas:

BLOSSOM: Oh, Steinberger, what are you going to do about it?
GREEN: Pipe down now. There's no camera running now. Save it for later.
TRANTON: Steinberger, look at my eye.
GREEN: I want those two back here. He's great!


Funny how after fixing the scanner eye, Sara’s given Tranton a black eye. But the lack of self awareness is rooted in the director’s responses: “There’s no camera running now,” he says, but there is, the camera of the Doctor Who TV show. And thinking Steven’s an actor, when he’s not – but, as we said, there’s a frisson when we step back and consider that he could also be talking about Purves.

All the talk about getting to “the wardrobe” harkens back to the matter of costumes at the police station, not to mention invoking a future Christmas episode about a wardrobe. Quasi-sentient TV show. The TARDIS can see backwards and forwards, of course. Perhaps that explains another conceit in this segment – several of the scenes are marked by interstitial title cards (“The Chase Was On…” for example), like from the silent movies; another genre convention has crept up taking ahold of the show.

* Crosby pic *

It’s terribly ironic that an episode that’s self-aware can make such fun out of the lack of self-awareness. But we should note that the Doctor is actually playing a different sort of role with the lack of self-awareness. Which is to say, he’s only pretending to. For the sake of the show. He’s actually quite aware of the show, and of our world’s media. There’s a scene between the Doctor and a Clown that kind of reminds us of this. It visually sets up a mirror between the Doctor and the Clown, allowing the Doctor to indulge in some comedy, and kind of pointing to the archetype that inform the portrayal of the next Doctor as well. But it’s in the course of the conversation between the Doctor and the Clown that it becomes apparent that the Doctor is fully aware – he starts acknowledging how much Charlie Chaplin has shaped the genre (Chaplin was seen in an earlier scene), then speaking in unison with the Clown. This is topped off by the Clown’s admission he’d like to get into singing, but he’s hinder by his name: Bing Crosby. And at this the Doctor laughs, knowingly.

Of course, when the TARDIS finally dematerializes, the film crew think it’s a special effect. A special effect! HA!

Which brings us back to the mysterious breaking of the 4th Wall. First of all, it couldn’t have been an adlib by Hartnell, for the line wishing everyone a happy Christmas is actually in the shooting script. The script, according to Shannon Sullivan, was started by Terry Nation, specifically the police station bit, but that was an idea by script editor Donald Tosh. And apparently Tosh had to finish it, which means he wrote the whole movie set business, which is the much more self-aware half. Did Tosh write the line, and subsequently disavow it as part of his plan to leave the show, having grown disenchanted with it? Or did director Douglas Camfield write it into the shooting script, following a BBC tradition of acknowledging the audience at Christmastime?

Less mysterious, but still ambiguous, is the title: “The Feast of Steven.” It’s not much of a feast that the Doctor brings out at the end, just a couple nibbles and drinks. It’s the Doctor’s feast, not Steven’s, and Sara partakes of well. But Steven is certainly prominent in the episode itself – the “director” Steinberger Green thinks Steven is bigger than Fairbanks! We can’t see the episode, sadly, so we can’t tell if the title is a pun on “Steven” (which is to say, Peter Purves) chewing the scenery, which would certainly be self-aware. But Steven himself isn’t much of a scenery chewer, in general, and Purves plays him rather straight. So I suspect the title is actually a pun on The Feast of Saint Stephen, which is held on December 26th. Boxing Day. Perhaps a sly nudge nudge for the TARDIS being called a Christmas Box?

Anyways, given all this, it should not come as any sort of surprise that the Doctor is able to turn to the camera and wish a “Happy Christmas to all of you at home!”

Incidentally, Happy Christmas to all of you at home!

 

Comments

ScarvesandCelery 1 year, 6 months ago

Happy Christmas to you too. Thanks for an insightful reading of The Feast of Steven
A couple of things.
The opening police station scene was, I understand, was originally intended to feature actors from the BBC's then current other hot show - early evening police procedural Z Cars much like today's Children in Need and Red Nose Day specials mash up popular shows and their stars. The 'Northern accents' line then makes sense as a reference to the many London trained British actors adopting, with varying degrees of success, northern accents for the show which was innovatively set in a fictionalized area of Liverpool called Newtown. Unfortunately the cop show's producers vetoed the plan.

'The Feast of Steven' is a phrase which would have been familiar to British viewers, particularly children, from the first line of the popular Christmas Carol 'Good King Wencaslas' I quote -

Good king Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Steven
When the snow lay all about
Deep and crisp and even

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Anton B 1 year, 6 months ago

That was me Anton B. Sorry Scarves, I seem to have accidently hijacked your identity.
What is going on with the captcha and comments?
Also sorry for weird unnecessary italics and dodgy editing.
Tee hee hee.

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Jane Campbell 1 year, 6 months ago

Oooh, thank you Anton! I knew that about the police show, but not that it was set in the North.

Also for the Christmas Carol from which the episode's title derives. So, does this make the Doctor good old Wenceslas? He is Father Christmas, of course. Oh, and that's carol that the cops in the car are singing at the beginning!

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ScarvesandCelery 1 year, 6 months ago

Not a problem! I was slightly confused as to how I'd managed to comment without knowing about it.
But for the record, I agree with the sentiment that this is a delightful post

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Holly 1 year, 6 months ago

There's another joke in Steven's Northern accent, which is that Purves' natural accent is a Blackpool one.

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StuartP 1 year, 6 months ago

Of course, Steven doing a Northern accent of any description falls completely flat because absolutely NO ONE else is doing one - so his comment is ridiculous and this is clearly just a hangover from the idea that this would be a Z Cars/Doctor Who mashup. Plus the whole thing is rubbish on any level!

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Anton B 1 year, 6 months ago

I've always suspected the "everybody else is doing it" line to be a snarky sideswipe at the, then contemporary, penchant in the arts for gritty drama from the north of England. Post Beatles, post Liverpool poets Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top, Billy Liar, A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, (Featuring William Hartnell!) etc. Z cars was merely latching on to a trend. The British stage and screen of the early sixties was awash with Northern accents.

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Anton B 1 year, 6 months ago

I've always suspected the "everybody else is doing it" line to be a snarky sideswipe at the, then contemporary, penchant in the arts for gritty drama from the north of England. Post Beatles, post Liverpool poets Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top, Billy Liar, A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, (Featuring William Hartnell!) etc. Z cars was merely latching on to a trend. The British stage and screen of the early sixties was awash with Northern accents.

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Anton B 1 year, 6 months ago

Aaaaagh! bloody captcha! Sorry for repeating myself.

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Roderick T. Long 1 year, 6 months ago

Where it says "Crosby pic," was there supposed to be a Crosby pic?

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Prandeamus 1 year, 6 months ago

Perhaps it's bing and gone.

Pause.

Why yes, I have been reading Christmas cracker jokes today.

I'll get me coat.

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