|Frankly, this image is just here so that my heart doesn’t|
sink whenever I scroll past this entry and remember the
It’s November 22, 1975. Billy Connoly is at number one with “DIVORCE,” a novelty parody about dogs and, well, divorce. The remaining three weeks of this story, on the other hand, belong to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” one of the most epically successful singles ever. It is worth pausing and discussing what “Bohemian Rhapsody” does that is so significant. First, it’s a high profile case of a band performing a successful end-run around their label. EMI had no faith in the single for its length and lack of traditional song structure, and it was instead deliberately leaked via DJs. Second, it’s aggressively not poppy. It’s telling that there’s a lengthy period here where the number one song goes from a six year old piece of protoglam to a novelty record to this that provides a useful context for why postmodernist horror was proving to be adequate teatime entertainment. Third, it marks some of the initial stirrings of New Romanticism, which will eventually be one of the dominant aesthetics of the series. Also charting are Bowie, The Bay City Rollers, Rod Stewart, and Steeleye Span.
While on television, we run into one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Hinchcliffe era, especially compared to the Letts era. I’ve discussed the idea that there are two approaches to take when trying to improve a television show: increasing quality and reducing badness. This may sound like an obvious point, but it’s significant, in part because it gets to the heart of an art/entertainment debate. Barry Letts improved Doctor Who by targeting weak episodes and trying to eliminate them. Hinchcliffe did it by targeting strong episodes and trying to make them masterpieces. And just as the Letts era was never so frustrating as in its Sloman/Letts Curate’s Egg scripts that could have been great and weren’t, the Hinchcliffe era is never more frustrating than it is when it’s obvious that Hinchcliffe and Holmes have decided that this just isn’t one of the stories they’re going to put much effort into.
So, for instance, when they decide to just hire a writer with a massive list of television credits and pair him with the previous producer as director, it’s pretty clear that the plan here is that they’re going to go pay attention to other stories and let this story play out however it plays out. And it plays out terribly. It’s boring, unambitious, and terribly plotted. It brings back UNIT characters for another round without having anything resembling a reason for them. It is, in every regard, the story Terror of the Zygons was making fun of. It’s the first story in months where my notes for one episode are totally blank because I just stared at the screen seeing nothing interesting happen for twenty-five minutes straight. It’s not even bad in interesting ways. It’s just bad in boring ways. In all honesty, I spent a solid day contemplating an entry that, after going through the usual historical/music intros, just said “While on TV, everything was very boring” and moving on. I’m not quite willing to declare that there is nothing interesting to say about this story… but I am willing to declare that there’s very little interesting that I want to say about it.
So let’s talk about Terry Nation instead. Because I, like virtually everyone who has engaged in extended critique of Doctor Who, am really hard on Terry Nation. And while I’m not going to back down and become an unabashed Terry Nation fanboy, Nation deserves the sort of extended analysis that’s been offered to many other creators. After all, look, you don’t create two successful television series and the Daleks and have a writing career on Doctor Who that spans seventeen seasons by being an incompetent hack. You do it by being an extremely competent hack. And though Nation was deeply flawed as a television writer, there are things he is extraordinarily good at.
The heart of it is something that we’ve talked about before, way back in The Keys of Marinus when we observed that Nation more or less hit on the correct plot structure for a video game, only he did it in 1964. Nation is as good as writers get at crafting action and events. Even when Nation’s scripts are, as they are here, stultifyingly dull, they’re not dull because nothing happens. A Nation script is a constant blur of people doing things. And there’s often a charm to the things he manages to come up with. For all that it’s irritating because of how badly it lines up with other conceptions of the TARDIS, his scenes in which the TARDIS develops technical faults in his two Pertwee stories are quite pacy little numbers that involve people solving problems in ways that the viewer understands but that still look clever. Likewise, the Doctor noticing that all of the coins in the village have the same date is exactly the sort of thing Nation does well – a detail the audience recognizes as anomalous but wouldn’t notice themselves that thus gives the Doctor something useful to do.
No. Nation’s problem is altogether subtler than that. Indeed, it’s arguable that Nation’s problems are what made his influence on Doctor Who so important, as opposed to his solutions. Being able to pack in a lot of events into serialized television is certainly useful, but it’s not as though Nation is the first person to crack that nut. Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes are both at least as good as Nation at that, and it’s a stretch to say that either learned from Nation. No. What makes Nation so fascinatingly important is that for all the skill he displays at making things happen, he has zero sense whatsoever of structure or visual storytelling.
The Android Invasion is a prime example. Absolutely everything that anyone would enjoy about this premise – namely watching everyone get into spats with their doppelgängers – takes place in the fourth episode. Other than a brief bit of having a fake Sarah in episode two, the actual part of the story where androids invade Earth is put off until episode four. This isn’t just bad plotting in the “Oh bugger, we don’t have an ending, let’s have the Doctor play logic games and then throw the ‘Kill Sutekh’ lever” sense of that phrase where a massive flaw is introduced. This is bad plotting in the sense that every single aspect of the plot structure of The Android Invasion is comprehensively misconceived. The twist of “They’re not on Earth after all! We’re just sitting around waiting for the plot to start” has to go down as a jaw-droppingly terrible idea – one that is not only uninteresting on its own merits but that actively tells us we’ve been wasting our time for the preceding weeks and that nothing that happened actually mattered.
In essence the problem is that Nation has very little sense of what an event is. He can do action well enough, but in the sense of keeping things constantly moving. What he can’t do – what, in fact, every single Terry Nation story has massively lacked in – is getting the story to move to anywhere. Instead, the archetypal Terry Nation moment is something like the emergence of, say, giant clams or the Slyther or the Mire Beast – a monster that adds nothing to the overall impact of the story and instead fills some time with monster-avoiding shenanigans. But what he can’t do is built to a satisfying climax. In fact, the Android Invasion, much like Death to the Daleks and Planet of the Daleks before it, ends with the same slow decline ending in which the Doctor, in basically sequential scenes, takes care of his various opponents, generally moving from the most immediately threatening to the least. (Nation is not alone in favoring this sort of anticlimax – Robert Banks Stewart did it with Terror of the Zygons, for instance – but it’s still a desperately weak ending to stop all the androids then go polish off the one not-very-interesting alien baddy.)
On top of that, Nation has no sense of the visual. This is actually clear from his very first appearance. Remember that while Nation invented the Daleks, his invention was some shrieking robots in an abandoned city. Almost everything that made the Daleks brilliant was provided by Raymond Cusick’s visual design. There’s nothing about the original idea of the Daleks that’s any better than the original idea of the Voord or, for that mater, the Kraals. But the Daleks ended up in the hands of one of the BBC’s best designers who ended up doing career-best work on them. That doesn’t mean Nation got lucky – they’re also an enormously successful execution of a basic malevolent alien race. But he didn’t invent a massive pop culture success. He invented something that Cusick could design into a massive pop culture success.
Once you realize that, the flaws across Nation’s Doctor Who work become clear. He has no sense of what’s going to work on the screen. Whether it involves badly misestimating what BBC budgets can do (Keys of Marinus, The Chase, Death to the Daleks) or just not quite grasping what’s going to be exciting on television (for all that I quite like the landmine scene in Genesis of the Daleks, Nation’s belief that men fiddling with machines is gripping TV viewing is badly misguided. See also the climax of this story), Nation does not do a very good job of coming up with action sequences that are going to work well once they’re filmed.
But there’s another way to look at all of this. Let’s start with Nation’s extreme pacing issues. There’s a phrase used by comics fans, “writing for the trade.” What it means is that a given story is written with very little consideration for readers who are waiting a month between installments, instead being written for people who are going to read the whole run in one shot when they buy the book version. Nation, in a real sense, writes for the novelization. And did so long before novelizations were a thing. Look, for instance, at the ginger pop sequence in The Android Invasion. A detail – that Sarah hates ginger pop – is introduced in the first episode. In the second, it is used as the explanation for why the Doctor knows that Sarah is a duplicate. It’s a nice deduction. Except that with a week between episodes, basically nobody is going to pay attention to Sarah’s preferences in fizzy beverages to see the setup. The fact that there’s a week gap between those two scenes is something that Nation seemingly doesn’t even care about. He’s writing as though the episodes are going to be watched in one stretch.
This also gets at the problem with Nation’s sense of the visual. Ultimately, it’s a mistake to think of Nation as a screenwriter. I mean, sure, most of what he wrote was for the screen, but he didn’t actually write like a screenwriter. He’s a pulp sci-fi writer who belonged writing for Hugo Gernsback or William Clayton for magazines. Or, better yet, a writer who belongs churning out cheap novels in an H. Rider Haggard style. Almost all of the foibles of his writing – not thinking about episodic structure or how things will play out visually, but instead just writing fast-moving sci-fi adventure stories – are things that would not be foibles in the least if only he were writing in that medium.
And the thing is, for all the flaws evident in that, and there are many, it also explains why Nation is so important to the development of the program. Because Doctor Who has always been TV for people who read. I don’t mean this in a pompous or elitist fashion either – it’s not TV for people who only read the finest literature or anything like that. No, it’s just TV for people who read. That’s why the Target novelizations happened, frankly. It’s a fair part of why the series was, unlike any comparable cancelled TV series, sustain itself for over a decade as a series of novels. And a real part of that is that Terry Nation embedded a strangely textual sensibility into the program from an early date. Just by writing stories that appeal so heavily to readers of science fiction instead of viewers, he played a large part in instilling an aesthetic of literacy.
And the Hinchcliffe era, even if it quotes film as much if not more than it quotes literature, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of that. The fact that Doctor Who has always been for bookish people is a large part of why, in 1975, when “postmodern” was a term still associated entirely with the avant grade, Doctor Who was able to quietly appropriate the logic of postmodernism and use it to tell thrilling adventure stories.
Yes, The Android Invasion, which I’ve managed quite satisfyingly to avoid saying much about (although I would argue that I’ve said everything worth saying about it) is a disaster. And by 1975 – heck, by 1973 – Nation was sufficiently far behind the standards of modern television that he could not supply good material without an excellent collaborator to help him. (Ideally, it turns out, David Maloney) But for all the vast and cratering flaws of this story and of Nation’s writing in general, let’s instead just say this: there was a reason he seemed like a safe pair of hands for Hinchcliffe and Holmes to put this story in and leave be.