|At least someone stepped in and stopped Nathan-Turner|
from his original plan of using Twiki.
It’s March 15th, 1983. Bonnie Tyler remains at number one with “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” with The Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” nipping at its heels, and the rest of the charts being a similar burst of pure and unadulterated 1980s of the sort that you really probably need to cut with some do-wop or something lest you risk an overdose. Also in music news is the debut of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk dance two days prior to this story beginning transmission. In real news, Thatcher’s government passes massive tax cuts. That’s about all we’ve got.
Speaking of not having much, it is difficult to say anything about The Kings Demons, which stands as one of the most strikingly unambitious scripts of the Davison era. It was, admittedly, not supposed to be the season finale, so we can at least give it a break on those grounds and acknowledge that this is not another case of the foolishness that led to things like Time-Flight and The Twin Dilemma being used as finales. But it does represent the degree to which the two-episode stories that every season of the Davison era is saddled with are unfortunate at best.
One gets the intense sense that this script is a dumping ground. Terence Dudley, with whom Saward did not get on, is brought back and given the short script. Anthony Ainley’s Master, who here becomes nearly impossible to take seriously, gets abandoned in it. And so too is the introduction of Kamelion. To be fair, not all of this is intentional. The degree to which Kamelion was not going to prove at all workable was not really clear until the story filmed, and the decision to keep bringing Ainley back demonstrates that he was not intended to be snubbed with this assignment. But intentionality counts for less than one might hope in these things. Shoved after the Black Guardian trilogy, at the end of the season, and a two parter to boot, this story gives nothing so much as a sense of all the steam going out of Doctor Who.
For the most part the “something old returns in every story” idea this season has not been the disaster it could have been. Everything, at least, had a fresh take on its returning concepts, even if, in the case of The Arc of Infinity, that fresh take was to abandon all notion of the concepts themselves in favor of soul-crushing tedium. But here we’re back to the awkwardness of The Visitation’s redoing of The Time Warrior – an ugly case of everything in this story having been taken from other stories and just redone with an “it worked before so it must work again” attitude.
This contributes to something I’ve been accusing Doctor Who of for a while now, which is the use of simulacra of actual content. Whether it be Earthshock’s hollow aping of the form of a dramatic death, Arc of Infinity’s empty recitations of past concepts or, really, several other bits over the past two years. Here, though, we get at something that starts to tie this in with the 1980s at large, and harkens back to what we talked about back in the entry on The Cleopatras, which is that this is part and parcel of what the 1980s were doing. The focus on artificiality that underlaid so much of 1980s popular culture is inexorably connected with the collapse of things into hollow recitations.
This pulled in multiple directions. On the left you had a growing critical discourse that was capable of articulating the ways in which the establishment used the contentless forms of ideology to advance their causes. A perfectly textbook example is the way in which the Thatcher government objected to the BBC’s declining to cover the Falklands War with naked jingoism, and further how effectively The Sun was able to use a sense of patriotism for nakedly propagandistic ends. There was, in the 1980s, an increasingly mainstream awareness of the idea that there is something inherently unreal about the corporate. To use just one example from Doctor Who, in 1970 the Autons were scary because they were plastic people. But in 1980, when Alan Moore did an Auton story, the idea was that Autons were the perfect image of business in general. They weren’t just the product gone mad, they were the entire teleology of the economy gone mad.
But this was contrasted with the open fascination with the artificial discussed in The Cleopatras entry. Or, rather, it laid right alongside it. The result of this was that there was continually a very, very fine line between postmodern subversion and a garish and ill-advised travesty. Which goes a long way towards explaining how Doctor Who finds itself lurching back and forth between stories like The Arc of Infinity and Snakedance, or, for that matter, Enlightenment and this. (Or, to fess up and admit where this line of argument eventually lands us in a few week’s time, between The Caves of Androzani and The Twin Dilemma.)
I don’t want to follow the argument of Miles and Wood too closely here, but it is worth remarking specifically on the way in which this story relates to history. Miles and Wood make much of the fact that this story comes from the history books, rather than from actual history. It presupposes in a way that was terribly untrendy in 1983 that disrupting this history of Britain is coextensive with disrupting the history of the world. This was, admittedly, the point behind The Time Meddler as well, but there’s a difference. In 1965 when the national myth (like any national myth, based largely on truth) of Britain standing alone against the Germans and holding them back long enough for the rest of the world to get its act together was still relatively recent it was one thing to position the idea of undermining Britain as being the same as undermining the planet. Nearly twenty years later, in a world where a great military victory for the UK was beating up Argentina over some islands, there’s just not the same punch. It’s a bad sign when even the Doctor has to admit that the Master’s scheme is naff this time around.
Instead we have the program setting something in what Miles and Wood slyly describe as “Heritage Themepark Britain.” This story represents Britain for the export market – a stitched together checklist of period details, at times assembled with essentially no care for piddling little questions like whether all the details are from the same period. It’s a story entirely of willful quaintness – the sort of British-esque stuff that sold well abroad, particularly in the United States (where, of course, the program was becoming increasingly popular). The problem, of course, is that Doctor Who may function for the export market, but it’s still first and foremost a BBC program sent out in a rather nice timeslot on BBC1. And this sort of “look at us, we’re being terribly British history here” approach is just… dull in that context. (It’s notable that in the Hartnell era the only two historicals to draw primarily from tourist-friendly British history were The Crusade, which cut it heavily with its Middle Eastern material, and The Time Meddler, which subverted its entire genre.)
It’s a sign of just how uninspired this approach is that Dudley is able to get away with just reversing the trick he used in Black Orchid. There the first episode is spent making everything look like it’s going to be a standard Doctor Who story only to have it turn out to be a historical. Here we’ve just inverted it – everything in the first episode save for the mystery of who’s impersonating the king gives the appearance of being a historical, then the bottom is pulled out at the end it turns out to be a sci-fi explanation. That this reversal is even possible when Doctor Who has done only one “pure” historical story in recent memory shows just how crushingly flaccid all of this is. The fact that the show can play off of these conventions when it hasn’t done any work establishing them as Doctor Who conventions suggests that they are beyond commonplace. We’re in a version of history here that’s so utterly and vapidly familiar that it doesn’t even need to put effort into itself.
Unfortunately, any hope that this one feeble twist might be pulled off is extinguished by the unfortunate decision to have James Stoker, who plays Sir Gilles Estram, self-evidently be Anthony Ainley. Whatever one might say of the idiotic Kallid revelation in Time-Flight, at least the makeup Ainley was wearing that time around successfully obscured his identity. This time you have someone who is obviously Anthony Ainley gone ginger doing an appalling French accent. Never mind the theme of returning villains in this season. Between this, Michael Gough, and Mawdryn’s rather spectacularly poor Doctor impression the theme of the season is, at this point, utterly rubbish revelations of the secret villain.
Of course, it doesn’t help that it’s the Master, who has, over his last three appearances, been systematically undermined as a character. The Delgado version of the character was the Doctor’s equal and opposite number – a charmingly perverted parody of the Doctor. But Ainley, while perhaps a plausible choice for an inversion of Tom Baker, isn’t close to a viable inversion of Peter Davison’s comparatively staid Doctor. But on top of that, the Delgado version only became a tacky plot extender in the dying embers of his eight story run. The Ainley Master, on the other hand, basically started that way after a compellingly menacing turn in Logopolis.
Much of this comes down to the irritating practice of disguising the Master. Miles and Wood observe the way in which this speaks volumes as to the difference between Ainley and Delgado as actors, remarking on the degree to which “hiding” Delgado in a story would have been impossible. This is slightly unfair – the elaborate makeup job in Time-Flight, for instance, would have hidden just about anybody. But it does get at the degree to which there’s a real lack of confidence in the ability of the Master to actually hold down a scene or justify himself on his own terms.
Put this way it becomes possible to see the real problem with the Master over these last three stories, which is that he’s only being used to stretch out other stories. When Castrovalva runs out of things to do with its actual concept of eccentric geography it wheels the Master back out to extend things. Time-Flight gets an extra two episodes in after defeating Kalid. And here the Master gets wheeled out dutifully at the halfway point in order to spice up a historical gone flat. In none of these stories do we get a situation where the plot is actually about the Master in any meaningful sense. The Master is nothing more than a device to salvage a plot gone wrong. Here he nearly gets upstaged by a robot.
This is unfortunate, especially as Ainley does eventually show – even if it takes until Survival by some arguments – that he can do the part. Just as, actually, he showed he could back in Logopolis. But the damage done by the series’ supreme lack of confidence in the character over his first three Davison-era appearances is difficult to shake off. This is, admittedly, where the idiotic “disguise and anagram” era of the Master ends, at least until Russell T. Davies does his little homage to it with Mister Saxon/Master No. Six. But that homage works because it’s not about trying to hide the Master – it’s an easter egg for the bulk of fandom that figured out that Season Three was going to end with the Master somewhere around Rise of the Cybermen. But as with much of the Cartmel-era renaissance, it’s too late. The character has already been revealed as one not even the series is taking seriously anymore, and for at least the next three times he shows up there’s going to be a sickening sense of “goddammit, it’s him again” that takes hold before he even does anything. It’s a terribly unfortunate circumstance for the character to be in. And while Ainley’s performance does the character no favors at times, he is capable of doing worthwhile things when he’s actually given the material.
But he’s not, nor is anyone else. Instead we get an EPCOT Center version of British history and a sense that this is two episodes mostly as mercy. And with that our anniversary season comes to a premature end, the closing Dalek story felled by a union dispute. There is, of course, still the small matter of the actual anniversary story, which we’ll come to in two entries’ time. But on the whole, there’s an awful sense that this has been something of a drab affair. It’s not that the season has been bad – three of the stories are quite good, two are utter train wrecks, and one is Terminus. But there is the sense that the series doesn’t know what its strengths are – that it seriously thinks that bringing back Omega, the Master, and the Black Guardian were the high points of the season and not the fragmented dream-myths of Snakedance, the Teutonic grandeur of the Terminus that might have been, or the combination of the epic and familiar in Enlightenment. It’s not that it’s difficult to love Season Twenty. It’s really not.
It’s just that the show doesn’t seem to be among those loving it.