The Right To Experiment (The Savages)


The device the Doctor is holding is called the Reacting
Vibrator. I am not making this up. I swear.
It's May 28th, 1966. The Rolling Stones have the number one single with "Paint It Black." Also in the top ten are "Wild Thing" and "Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 and 35," alongside conventional fare. Although Frank Sinatra takes over #1 after one week, holding it for the remaining three weeks of The Savages with "Strangers in the Night," the remainder of the charts retains the increasingly hardening edge of music with The Animals and The Yardbirds both notching top ten hits.

In other news, two days ago the South American colony of Guyana was granted independence from the UK. The rest of the news is fairly typical 60s stuff. The Space Race continues with the US doing its second spacewalk, American cop shows evolve suddenly when the Supreme Court rules in Miranda v. Arizona, and the Vatican finally gets rid of the Index Liborum Prohibitorum.

On television, we get one of the least heralded episodes of William Hartnell's tenure on the show. Certainly it was one of the least watched, with this entire period of the show being the lowest sustained drop in ratings the series would experience until 1980, and the second least watched story of Hartnell's era. And on top of that, it's another missing story, this one with no episodes in existence and a post-1983 novelization (see The Gunfighters if you don't know why 1983 matters here).

One of the harder things in writing these is marking the ends of things. Since in the classic series, a new creative team for the show always inherits some spare scripts from the previous team, the end of an era tends not to be an emphatic "out with a bang" in the style of The End of Time, but rather some faint whimper down the line that you don't even realize was the end until you look at the next seven stories and notice that nothing like how it used to be is being done.

So it's easy to miss that this is basically the last William Hartnell story. I mean, he sticks around for three more, but in terms of the tone and type of adventures that make up a normal Hartnell story, the historical checked out back with The Massacre (but more about that when the historical itself checks out) and science fiction checks out here.

Once upon a time, you see, Doctor Who didn't always have monsters in it. Eventually that came to an end, and somewhere in season four or five we reach a point where the norm is for stories to have monsters. But up to now, the only properly monstery monsters we've had are the Daleks. The other attempts to create "the new Daleks" have been interesting visual designs, but not the sort of lurking Otherness of a proper monster. Look at something like the Chumblies or the Mechanoids and you get an alien, but the point is their strangeness. They're objects of wonder. The Zarbi are the closest thing to proper monsters we've really seen, and they're really just benign cattle under mind control. Doctor Who Monsters in the proper and traditional sense really just haven't been a part of Doctor Who thus far, leaving the Daleks to be the one thing you can turn to when you need ultimate and inconceivable evil.

In fact, the Jeremy Bentham section of the Haining book calls this story out as one that would be better with monsters in it, a claim that Wood and Miles take considerable issue with in About Time. (Available at your local nifty Amazon widget on the right of this site) But more to the point, the introduction of monsters meant that a particular mode of science fiction story - one that is about the contours of a given future society - was largely ruled out. For science fiction throughout the Hartnell era, the questions have been what kind of world the TARDIS has arrived on - see in particular the opening episodes of The Ark or The Web Planet. The Doctor rarely arrives at moments of crisis and intervenes. Instead, he arrives at relatively normal moments and makes chaos.

The Savages is a work in that style, and, as is usually the case for these post-regime change holdovers, not a hugely remarkable one. In particular, it displays one of the cases where I solidly do agree with complaints about pacing in the classic series. Usually I'm inclined to argue that it's less that the classic series is paced badly than it is that the classic series is paced to be watched weekly and consumed as a single unit to be watched in one go, and that unsurprisingly when you completely change the medium from "television serial" to "films" without changing the actual content, things go wrong. So I'm perfectly willing to forgive a story whose problem with pacing is that the middle episodes could be taken out. What I'm less forgiving of is a story that takes ten minutes to do what could be done just as well in two minutes. And that's where this story errs. The revelation that the Elders are evil moustache-twirlers is painfully obvious to the audience ages before it's actually clear on screen, which is just head-deskingly tedious.

But even if it is a slightly wobbly episode, The Savages is useful because it lets us actually look at this era. One of the things that we're going to see as we navigate the transition into Patrick Troughton is that the series is going to develop a very new take on counterculture and the future. That change coincides with the collapse of alien races into humanoids and evil, but it's not actually the same change. And we can see that really clearly if we compare this story to The Ark, since they are in fact basically the same story.

Both stories are intensely and clearly about colonialism. But they take exactly opposite views. The Ark was, in the end, about how the Monoids were clearly unsuitable for self-rule. The Savages, on the other hand, is about how the eponymous savages are unjustly oppressed and are perfectly capable of dignified civilization. (The clearest clue here is that the original title of the story was The White Savages, a title that would have on the one hand somewhat undermined the point, and on the other hand made the point even clearer.) But you can see right away that the transition to "human good, funny looking thing bad" has already happened, because the central difference between the two stories is not just that one is pro-colonialism and the other is anti-colonialism. It's also that one has a funny looking alien and the other doesn't.

In this regard, actually, Bentham is right and Wood and Miles are wrong, although to be fair, I don't think this is what Bentham had in mind when he complained about the lack of monsters. Think of how much more interesting The Ark would have been if the Monoids looked exactly like the Guardians, and it was only cultural differences that existed and distinguished the two. Or, for that matter, how much more interesting The Savages would be if the oppressed "savages" were visibly different from the Elders so that the Elders are not quite so self-evidently moustache-twirlers. And here we can really see the sort of thing that has fallen off since Verity Lambert left the show. Compare both of these stories to something like The Web Planet, where the entire point of the story is the fact that nobody looks like humans and we actually have to judge them on their actions instead of their anatomy, and you see immediately the collapse that's leading to "funny looking aliens are monsters." The xenophobic turn had already happened, really, back in The Ark. And like most endings in the series, we missed it.

One ending we don't miss in this story, however, is the departure of Steven. Again, though, this is a case where you can see the amount of work and development the series still has ahead of it. In the first episode, there's a great scene in which Dodo taunts Steven for being unable to make his own decisions and for just doing what the Doctor says. In a modern episode, this would be what the story is about - Steven's successes and failures of being independent of the Doctor as a setup for when the Doctor volunteers Steven for the task of helping rebuild the society.

Instead, we get glimpses of this - in particular when Steven is, after the Doctor's life energy is drained, forced to take charge and make decisions. It's enough that, if you put your mind to it, you can almost pretend that this story was designed as a counterpart to The Massacre so that, where that story was about the failure of Steven to take charge, this story is about him finally being able to. Almost. But we never quite get the sort of definitive "this story is about Steven" moment that we take for granted in the new series where a companion departure gets an entire episode that is basically devoted to that theme. Frankly, and we'll really see this in comparison to The War Machines on Wednesday, it's a wonder Ian Stuart Black managed to get this much thematic content into the episode regarding Steven.

But as we have a longstanding tradition of pleasant memorial episodes whenever a major departure happens, let's do our Steven memorial. But first, a quick rundown of other things worth remarking on. This is the first story to abandon individual episode titles in favor of the story getting one over-arching title. The result is a slight step away from the serial nature of the show. It's not a move to the movie-like approach that the DVD/VHS releases take, but it is at least a move towards codifying the idea that every few weeks Doctor Who changes everything. This story also has one character - Jano, the leader of the Elders, who partially takes on the character traits of the Doctor, another dress-rehearsal for the interchangeability of the character, something we know in hindsight was only a few stories away from being very important. This story also has a fascinating conceit that, to my knowledge, no other story ever  used - the Elders have tracked the Doctor's trajectory through space and time and have known he was coming for years. This is a great idea, and one that I think has some real potential for future stories - the idea of people having years to prepare for the Doctor's arrival because the TARDIS, as a time machine, is visible over time. And this is the first time a rock quarry is an alien planet - a conceit that on the one hand is stereotypical Doctor Who, and on the other hand frankly works pretty darn well.

OK. So, Steven then. As I've said previously, the thing about Steven is that the actor exceeds the character by a great margin. A strong case can be made that the show could never have survived without its year of Peter Purves. Where William Russell had a narrowly defined character who was, in the end, extremely useful, Peter Purves was never given much with Steven. A futuristic pilot who mostly just had to look credulous, Purves's job on the series very clearly increasingly became to pinch-hit for an increasingly erratic William Hartnell. With Hartnell being written out of every other episode, and really never being ideally suited to the leading man role, Purves was forced to be a chameleon, filling in whatever a given story needed him. It's difficult to meaningfully memorialize Steven. But Peter Purves kept the series together for a year, and thank God for it. And if his departure is sudden, it is by miles the least sudden and least bewildering departure we've had thus far on the show besides Ian and Barbara. (And even they puzzlingly miss the fact that they were back in their own time four episodes before they suddenly risk life and limb to return there.)

But by and large, this episode is... transitional. Although it's not formally the case that Hartnell is on his way out, the fact of the matter is that Innes Lloyd has been angling to remove Hartnell since The Celestial Toymaker. Rumor says the only reason the Doctor wasn't played by a different actor when he rematerialized in that story was that the BBC accidentally renewed his contract. And so in many ways, since then the series has been quietly evolving - trying new things. This story my have been the last return to the style and themes that dominated the first two seasons of Doctor Who. But with as much in the air as it was, even those styles and those themes seem strangely... off. (Another thing I could have spent a lot of time talking about is the strange and alienating effect of strings-based music in this story.) By now, the series can't go back to the Verity Lambert days. But until Patrick Troughton shows up, it can't go forward to what it will be either.


Spikeimar 5 years, 10 months ago

Poor Steven, he seems to be the forgotten companion, never trotted out in those top ten lists so beloved of fandom but he always seemed to me to be the most believable of the male companions. Much as I love Ian Chesterton, he was the heroic leading man and behaved as such. (I refute the idea that he was wooden but there was sometimes the hint of balsa about him) Steven's character as a space pilot seemed to be forgotten as quickly as his second story and he became almost a contemporary companion, seeing the universe as a man from the 1960's would.

The idea that he was kept on because the character was useful to cover the Doctor's erratic nature may also mirror real life as in interviews with Peter Purves you feel he was also kept on as someone who could calm down William Hartnell's erratic nature too.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 10 months ago

Well, Ian has almost two seasons to Steven's one, and has only three stories that are missing any episodes, and even then only one that's completely missing. With 66 of Ian's 77 episodes in the archive versus 17 of Steven's 45, it's tough for Steven to make it out of the archives as a favorite.

In some ways I'm more surprised that Vicki, who has 26 of 38 episodes available and was a very solid female companion, is so poorly remembered. Especially because she's worse remembered than Susan (42 of 51 existent), who is well-remembered more because of the continuity issues she poses than because of any merits demonstrated in the actual episodes.

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Aaron 5 years, 10 months ago

Still, Steven rules. It's one of the big injustices of the missing episodes that Steven is mainly forgotten while Ian, who's a worse character with much poorer episodes, is remembered in such a good light. If season three had survived instead of seasons one and two, our fan-memory of the Hartnell era would be so completely different. We'd think of Hartnell as the excitable quirky character of Season Three and remember Steven as well as Jamie. At the same time, everybody would talk about the amazing speech at the end of the Massacre, but wonder how Hartnell acted the his farewell to Susan.

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Spikeimar 5 years, 10 months ago

I think Ian and Barbara will always get the lion's share of the fan interest because they were the first companions and set the template for most of those following. That shouldn't take away from the fact that Jaqueline Hill was superb as Barbara and for my money so was William Russell (though he did occasionally let his annoyance at some of the scripts show through as in part 6 of The Web Planet) I much prefer both the acting style and character that Maureen O'Brien brought to Vicki, over the, for me, unrealistic style of Carol Ann Ford. Perhaps it was the scripts but I never believed in Susan
as a real person.

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John Binns 3 months, 4 weeks ago

Most of the Hartnell 'future' stories have a 'monster' in the sense of something that at least briefly appears to be an aggressive non-human (unless you count The Edge of Destruction, Planet of Giants or The Time Meddler, which I think are more 'sideways' stories, the only counter-examples are this and The Space Museum), although it's true that often (more often than not) that gets subverted, in a way that doesn't often happen post-Hartnell (until 2005 anyway). And I think the other example of people accurately predicting when and where the TARDIS will arrive is Logopolis.

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