Before we start, I just wanted to give everyone an update on the Troughton book – and this seems the appropriate post to do it in. I’ve switched to paying someone to copyedit in the hopes that it will reduce the number of infelicities that creep into the text. Unfortunately, that person is booked through to July, which means that the book is probably looking at a fall release.
That said, once I finish the first draft on the Wonder Woman book this summer I am taking a few months to do revisions on a couple of projects – both getting some proper academic work, and doing my revisions and additions to the Pertwee, Baker, and Davison/Baker volumes one after another and with the ability to focus on them as a main project instead of as something I’m fitting around the blog and another book. So while the wait for Volume 2 of TARDIS Eruditorum is going to be longer than I’d hoped, the wait for volumes 3-5 should be considerably shorter.
On to the post.
|That’s right, it’s the same picture again.|
It’s one way of learning visual literacy!
It’s February 16th, 1985. Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson remain at number one, remaining there for all three weeks of this story. Kirsty MacColl, The Commodores, and Howard Jones also chart. More inspiring are the album charts, where The Smiths’ landmark Meat is Murder debuts at number one in what is one of the most perfect thematic convergence of music charts and Doctor Who in some time.
In real news, William J Schroeder is the first person to receive an artificial heart and leave the hospital. It doesn’t go terribly well, admittedly, but it happens. EastEnders starts, and the day after the story ends the miner’s strike ends. Oh, and Doctor Who gets cancelled. Damn.
When last we looked at this story the question was whether or not it functioned meaningfully as a Patrick Troughton story, and it was found wanting. Lucky for it, then, that its primary job was not to function as a Troughton story but as a Colin Baker story, a job that it performs markedly better at. Especially so under the model I’ve been approaching the series under – indeed, the “Baker era as exorcism” theory has, perhaps, no evidence better than this.
It can hardly be called a surprise. I said we’d have to drop the “no talking about the production team” rule for this story, so let’s go ahead and point out that this is a Robert Holmes script. Holmes is always a nice writer to deal with as a critic simply because the authorial intent objection falls away. Holmes is a smart and clever enough writer to have intended much of what we’ll find here, and it’s only the alchemical embellishments that strike me as at all improbable.
The key detail is the part of the story everyone seems most ready to ignore – the Sontarans. Apparently Holmes was not terribly thrilled at the instruction to include the Sontarans, but was eventually mollified by Eric Saward pointing out that nobody had done them right since he created them. This is certainly believable – appealing to a writer’s ego is terribly effective. But this anecdote is, on the surface, difficult to reconcile with the fact that the Sontarans are treated as the most generic of generic aliens imaginable here.
Here I must acknowledge my debt to Rob Shearman, whose guest analysis of this story in About Time, to which this entry is little more than an extended footnote, sets the standard to which all other redemptive readings of Doctor Who must aspire. The problem with assuming that just because Robert Holmes was persuaded to use the Sontarans due to how bad everybody else’s take on them had been he was going to restore his original vision is absurdly reductive. No, instead what we get is an aggressive examination of the nature of monsters.
This, in a nutshell, is the disagreement between Shearman in his guest defense of the story and Tat Wood in his critique of the story. Alongside the Sontarans are the Androgums, a race of food-obsessed aliens who are repeatedly treated as brute savages by all of the other characters. One – the story’s main villainess – has been “enhanced” to where she is intelligent and acts like a human, to the consternation and horror of virtually every other character, particularly the Doctors. And the story over and over again stresses that you can’t change or improve an Androgum.
Tat Wood objects, and not unreasonably, that this is ethically appalling. But where Shearman retorts – and to my mind clearly gets the better of Wood – is in pointing out that the only reason anyone finds the treatment of the Androgums problematic is that they look human except for having funny eyebrows and a few pimples. Nobody, in watching the story, ever complains that the Sontarans are treated as generic and irredeemable monsters. And really, that’s just because they have potato faces.
This, of course, is exactly what Holmes was trying to do back in The Time Warrior – to create a villainous character who happened to be a potato-faced alien. He created a generic alien culture for them – planet of the war-like people – but Linx was manifestly intended to be a character. The steady reduction of his concept to “generic war potatoes” was, as Saward guessed, a source of annoyance to Holmes. But he didn’t fix the problem by redoing the Sontarans. He fixed it by creating the Androgums – essentially the same concept only now they’re food-obsessed instead of war-obsessed – and having them be humanoid enough that nobody was ever going try to reuse them as generic monsters. And then, for good measure, have the story repeatedly and uncomfortably treat them like generic monsters even though they’re clearly interesting characters. So basically, the Sontarans without funny masks.
That, right there, tells us an awful lot about how this story works. It’s the one story that we can say with some confidence is meant to be an exorcism. This is a story that is overtly and consciously about the flaws of Doctor Who. And being Robert Holmes, it’s not about fixing them. It’s about screaming angrily at them. It’s tempting to criticize Holmes here for his cynicism – to suggest that at some point bitching about the sad state of the world needs to come to an end in favor of doing something about it – but that’s not fair. After all, in some of the most recent stories we’ve had to be overtly mystical the themes have been Buddhist. In this regard, at least, Holmes’s approach is very much on target.
A central and important idea here is the idea that one does not eliminate demons and personal failings, but rather accepts them and comes to terms with them. It’s a theme in a lot of mystical thought, really. And it’s an important thing to realize about Holmes’s critiques here. It’s not that he doesn’t have a solution to the problems, it’s that for a lot of them there isn’t a solution that allows the series to still be Doctor Who. I mean, much as one can insist on some viewpoint where aliens aren’t treated as generic monsters, for instance, the truth is that in an action sci-fi show there are always going to be monsters. This is an objection that was first raised by Sydney Newman back around week five of the program. Then the Daleks hit the scene and raised ratings to where the show could actually survive. The idea that aliens aren’t going to be treated like the Androgums and the Sontarans is absurd.
This is true of most of what Holmes critiques here. Holmes is also visibly reacting against the role of nostalgia in this story. Given the task of bringing Troughton’s Doctor back Holmes does what is more or less the exact thing that nobody who was obsessed with the nostalgia of the piece expected or wanted – he brings Troughton’s Doctor back instead of “The Second Doctor.” The difference between how Troughton plays the part here and how he played it in The Five Doctors is profound. Put simply, he looks much older here.
The thing is, he wasn’t. The Five Doctors shot in March of 1983. This shot in August of 1984. And yet Troughton feels far older in this story than he does in The Five Doctors. But then, he feels far older in The Invasion than he does in The Five Doctors too. Troughton’s Doctor always inherited more of the “old man” characteristics from Hartnell than people give him credit for, and his portrayal here is far closer to what he actually did on the series than the defanged clown he played in the anniversary stories. There are moments that jar – snapping at Jamie about his mongrel tongue remains indefensible – but for the most part Holmes actually writes the character that appeared in the 1960s. This character is still magnetic and charming – especially in contrast with Hartnell, who was, after all, the only point of comparison when people formed their impressions of him. But he’s not nearly as saccharine as the character from 1973 or 1983.
This poses an interesting issue. For one thing, at least, it spares Colin Baker some of the ignominy that would otherwise exist. This is not a slight against Baker as an actor – it’s just that his Doctor was not conceived of as a charming and fun figure. Putting him opposite Troughton is rough to begin with – Shearman observes that Holmes is working on a theme in which Troughton is the “old” Doctor whereas Baker is the younger, more “fun” Doctor, and even with Holmes’s efforts to stack the deck in Baker’s favor it’s incredibly easy to love Troughton here. Had Troughton not been written back to his more… difficult version it would have been nearly impossible.
But there’s a larger issue here, which is an overt hostility to the very idea of nostalgia. With everything he brings back in this story he brings it back either in the form fans remember it with no regard for whether that’s still worthwhile (i.e. the Sontarans) or he brings it back with excessive fealty to the original concept so as to betray the false memories of nostalgia (i.e. Troughton).
This culminates in his supposed continuity goof with regards to Troughton’s Doctor and the Time Lords. Some amount of ink has been spilled on these, including a bit of my own, but for our purposes here suffice it to say that none of the options to explain how it is that the Time Lords can get in touch with Troughton or how Jamie knows about them quite work. This is, of course, a minor issue at best. But it’s almost tailor-made to piss continuity-obsessive fans off.
That, I suspect, is the point. Holmes’s interest in continuity has always been virtually null. He jettisoned everything we thought we knew about Gallifrey in the Deadly Assassin, and in bringing the Time Lords back as peripheral figures in this story he basically scraps all of that for a whole new set of technology and explanations of things. Tat Wood accuses this of being the point where Holmes starts to believe his own reputation, but I think nothing could be further from the truth. This is the point where Holmes loses patience with being put on a pedestal. It’s much like the classic story of comics legend Jack Kirby being told that someone was drawing one of his characters “Jack Kirby style” and remarking that Jack Kirby style would have been to create a new character. Likewise, the classic Robert Holmes style that fans so revere was never to do continuity-laden “return of the X” assignments. It’s a clear shot at the sorts of people who wanted Attack of the Cybermen – a reminder that the days of old that they were nostalgic for were not, in fact, defined by nostalgia.
This point also gets at the most controversial aspect of the story, the death of Oscar. I have little to add to Rob Shearman’s analysis here. Oscar is a broad comedy character in classic Robert Holmes style – and has always been safe within the overall shape of the narrative. Killing him is thus shocking. But the brilliant part is that he remains a broad comic figure even as he’s dying. Again, it’s deliciously angry – a game of giving people what they want – a classic Robert Holmes comedy character – and then playing it more faithfully than they wanted it played, remaining funny even to his death. (After all, the other thing Holmes is known for is ridiculous body counts.)
So what we have is a story that savagely refuses to give the audience what they ostensibly want and that instead shows how the very premises of the show are corrupt and decadent. As I said, this is the one story this season where the exorcism seems deliberate – where the script really is about identifying and displaying the flaws of the series. And, more to the point, not just identifying them but performing them – enacting them and, in a perverse way, owning them. Again we have a story that is about its own flaws, where the thematic content of the story lines up oddly well with its deficiencies.
But here we have a more damning one. Troughton’s Doctor – the most alchemical and mercurial of them – is reintroduced to the scene. More than any other Doctor Troughton’s was created by the actor. So much of his Doctor’s nature comes from the fact that Troughton is an astonishingly good actor. There’s a reason his character worked so rarely in books and other media that lacked Troughton himself – because so much of who his character is comes from him. And so his return is a genuinely powerful invocation – especially, as we’ve been taking much of this era, in hindsight, knowing that it’s his last time in the role.
It is, then, a final credit to Troughton that he can pull off this last transformation of his Doctor. To have the character be so recognizable as Troughton’s Doctor and yet remain unable to “save” this story (where salvation is defined, quite inaccurately, as avoiding its flaws ) is impressive. Troughton has always carefully moderated his performances, but here they are more finely tuned than ever as he, in a sense, takes the bullet for the series. Because the point of the story is that an alchemic Doctor, a great actor, classic monsters, none of these things matter. None of them make the show good. With just a slight angling of the series’ moral viewpoint – a tiny shift that brings its ethical problems to the fore – the rest comes crashing down in spite of them. No, worse than that – because of them.
It’s fitting that the story that demonstrates that not even Patrick Troughton can save the series from itself is the one during which the plug was finally pulled. But equally, this is a confrontation the show needed to have. These are real demons within the series, and they needed to be seen, acknowledged, and named. This is how one shapes the conditions under which the show will revitalize itself. One can’t just reinvent blindly.
In that regard, then, this is the archetypal Troughton story – one in which the spirit of his era is unleashed directly at its future. More than any other version it is Troughton’s Doctor who is defined by a tendency to bring your world down around you and vanish prior to rebuilding. The nature of mercurial anarchism is that one shapes the start conditions of the rebirth. In his last and most savagely brilliant gift to the program, the late, great Patrick Troughton does exactly that.