|The Doctor is the only person even|
remotely connected to this cover
not to stare at Leela.
It’s January 1, 1977. Johnny Mathis is at number one with “When a Child is Born,” because apparently Christmas songs don’t fall from the charts when you’d expect them to. It’s not until the 15th that David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up On Us” knocks Mathis down to #2. Soul holds number one for the fourth week of the story as well. Stevie Wonder, Mike Oldfield, ABBA, Queen, and ELO also chart. Album charts also show that The Eagles have Hotel California out, Genesis has Wind and Wuthering out, and Queen has A Day at the Races out. The Sex Pistols have their first charting song, “Anarchy in the UK,” fall out of the charts in here as well.
Since The Deadly Assassin aired, The Band disbanded, nearly 4000 people died in an earthquake in Turkey, and Patrick Hellery was elected President of Ireland. Bob Marley is shot in an assassination attempt in Jamaica. Two days after, Marley performed at the Smile Jamaica Concert, originally saying he would perform one song, but then giving a 90 minute performance in which he displayed his bullet wounds to the crowd. He then withdrew to the UK for two years, where he would record the album Exodus. Also of major note is the Sex Pistols catapulting to notoriety after appearing on Thames Television’s Today program with Bill Grundy and engaging in a profanity-ridden interview. This set off a good old-fashioned moral panic of the sort we’ll talk about next Wednesday.
While during this story, Commodore demonstrates the first all-in-one computer, the PET, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. EMI sacks the Sex Pistols to what can only be described as their delight. Gary Gilmore is executed in Utah, the first execution in the US since the return of the death penalty. And Jimmy Carter takes office and immediately pardons Vietnam draft dodgers.
While on the bookshelf…
I mean, on television as well. But let’s begin with the bookshelf. For me, it was in the center alcove of my parents’ library, left-hand side, third shelf down. That was where their substantial collection of Target books, spanning highlights of the 1st-5th Doctors, resided. These books have moved on – the 1st-3rd Doctor books live in my office, while 4th-5th are MIA in a box somewhere. Currently the shelf consists of: four books by Dorothy Gilman in the Mrs. Pollifax series, nine Dick Francis novels, five John-Gardner penned James Bond novels, Linda Barnes’s Lie Down with the Devil, Robert Parker’s Rough Weather, Kathy Reichs’s Devil Bones, Jerry Seinfeld’s Sein Language, Jeanne DuPrau’s The People of Sparks, George Will’s Men at Work, Scott Adams’s The Dilbert Future, and Who on Earth is Tom Baker. Only the latter of these is mine.
I say all of this for two reasons. The first is that The Face of Evil is one of several stories from this period that I know I experienced first as a Terrance Dicks novelization. The second is that the continual focus on the material nature of history dictates this approach. Doctor Who is not just an idea but a set of material experiences – a real set of television broadcasts, videos, DVDs, books, and acts of viewing and reading. Attentiveness to the material conditions of Doctor Who is a part of its story. And the nature of Doctor Who is that these material conditions are only partially constrained by time. This story aired at the beginning of 1977, but since the publication of Dicks’s novelization in January of 1978, the story has, in one form or another, existed continually. This is a fact that is always erased by the ritual of our entry beginnings here.
The Target novelizations corresponded to the “my parents VHS tapes” era of Doctor Who for me. So fifth grade, mainly. I brought the books to school with me, holing u in a corner of the room for a daily SSR. That’s Sustained Silent Reading, a ritualistic daily period of reading. For the most part my reading focused on Tom Baker stories. Within that list I favored ones with Romana, which was an era my parents spoke warmly of but had no videos of (and that was comparatively poorly represented on the early VHS releases). But I also read this one then. It doesn’t stick particularly well in the memory nearly twenty years later, but I remember vividly the story’s most interesting conceit – the idea that the Doctor is returning to a planet where he made a mistake in the past that he has forgotten.
Rereading the novel, the thing that strikes me most is the way in which so much of what we assume to be the Doctor’s default characterization comes from the novels. Admittedly, this period of the show in general is one in which there is a frequent sense of things settling into what will turn out to be their default forms. The new series frequently does episodes that are collages and remakes of classic series stories, but the Hinchcliffe era is particularly drawn upon. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit two-parter consists of direct lifts of Planet of Evil, Pyramids of Mars, and Robots of Death put into a blender, while The Unquiet Dead is unabashedly a remake of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. This is also the point in the show that much of David Tennant’s characterization of the Doctor is clearly drawn from, with Baker getting several moments a story that it is trivial to imagine Tennant performing almost exactly the same way.
But all of that is just a restatement of what we already know – that we are in the midst of one of the most remembered and beloved eras of Doctor Who’s history. What I’m talking about is altogether subtler. Dicks fills in reams of details about the Doctor’s thought processes, talking about how “he’d set a course for Earth. Or had he? Had his fingers sent the TARDIS to some other destination, guided by some impulse deep in his unconscious mind” or reflecting openly on how the Doctor is lonely without Sarah there. There’s also a distinct change in tone between passages giving insight into the Doctor and other passages. Consider the beginning of chapter two: “The trouble with forests, decided the Doctor, is that they are undoubtedly rather monotonous.” Compare that phrasing, particularly the double qualification of “undoubtedly rather,” with the more clipped prose Dicks uses when narrating a passage from the perspective of another character: “Calib stood silent, considering the information. Already his cunning mind was seeking ways to turn this incident to his advantage.” The Doctor, in other words, is given a wordiness in all of his descriptions that other characters don’t get, increasing the sense that he is in some sense an outsider to the narrative.
These strands are every bit as much a part of the evolution of Doctor Who as the ones we track more regularly. And for all that I use this blog to establish counter narratives and alternative depths to stories, the dominant, default narrative of Doctor Who is real and has its material foundations as well. These narratives do not compete but compliment, creating further wrinkles and nuances to the vast gestalt that is “Doctor Who Canon,” i.e. “everything ever written that isn’t Enid Blyton’s Noddy series, unless the Doctor was lying that day.” This is another reiteration of history’s endless propensity for reiteration. The same story is told, across media and time, literally recurring and reiterating endlessly.
This frame of reference exists for every story, but it carries an odd potency with this story. Not only because in its first iteration this story follows the classic Doctor Who story with the single most complex version of this process of reiteration, but because this story is itself concerned explicitly with the reiterations of history. An interesting feature of the back four of Season Fourteen is that they end up oddly mirroring the first four/five stories of the series at large. We’ve already discussed how the Kennedy parallels make The Deadly Assassin a reframing of An Unearthly Child. The next story, Robots of Death, evokes both The Daleks in its play with the concepts of machines and identity, and The Edge of Destruction in its opening TARDIS scene about the function of the ship. And Talons of Weng-Chiang, for obvious reasons, evokes Marco Polo. And this story is, of course, a strange mirror of 100,000 BC.
The primitive tribes are, of course, different. Orb and Xoanon are not the same gods. But reiterations always drift. The similarities are far more striking. The Doctor arrives at the height of a leadership dispute within each tribe. Each tribe worships a god that they visibly misunderstand. And, not to belabor the obvious, but each tribe is in fact a primitive tribe. And, of course, the Sevateem are a tribe the Doctor has visited in the past. In this case we have a piece of continuity that is thoroughly metaphoric, but it is nevertheless clearly present. Any primitive tribe that the Doctor has had a profound influence on the development of is necessarily a reiteration of the Tribe of Gum.
In which case what this story sets up is truly incredible. But to get to that, we have to take a quick layover at cargo cults. Once again we have an idea here that is cropping up on multiple fronts almost simultaneously. Just as Foucault and Doctor Who seize on the idea of the panopticon simultaneously, here, within about a six year period, we have a couple major moments of fascination with the idea of cargo cults. Richard Feynman delivered his famous “Cargo Cult Science” speech in 1974, while the famed The Gods Must Be Crazy hit in 1980. Squarely in the middle of this we have The Face of Evil. So clearly there’s something in the air around here.
Cargo cults, if you’re not familiar with them, are a type of religious practice that spring up in populations that have contact with more technologically advanced civilizations that is then cut off. Usually this happened in the Pacific during World War II, as islands that were of strategic use in the war against Japan had huge amounts of goods shipped into them, and were then largely abandoned by the US after the war. On several of these islands the tribes quickly generated a new religion built around the idea of getting these goods back to the island and restoring the plenty that existed during the war. The cults are characterized by an inaccurate aping of the practices of the Americans or whoever – most famously building landing strips in the jungle and engaging in an imitation of the procedures for having a plane land in an attempt to get the cargo to return to the island.
Cargo cults are kind of doubly problematic. First of all, they represent an egregious bit of cultural violence due to colonialism – a sobering reminder of just how much the west just casually destroyed entire cultures and lifestyles without even meaning to. Second, however, there’s an uncomfortable tendency among western cultures to treat cargo cults as a source of novelty – either, as Feynman does, using them as a self-evident metaphor for sloppy intellectual practices, or as Uys does, as a source of comedy: look at the funny little bushman worshiping the Coke bottle. There’s a real cruelty to this double logic. The cargo cult is bad in part because it’s a deformation and corruption of existing cultures, but we also refuse to take it seriously because we recognize it as a silly misunderstanding of the west. And in doing so, we repeat the violence against the tribes in question, delegitimizing their culture twice instead of once.
In The Face of Evil, then, we have a truly strange phenomenon – a cargo cult based around the Doctor. There are a number of interesting implications of this. First of all, it marks the first real step since Planet of the Spiders to present the Doctor as thoroughly fallible, and the first time his fallibility has been defined in terms of its consequences for the people around him since The Massacre. This is a first, tentative step towards the themes Asylum was wrestling with. The Doctor completely ruined an entire civilization through his errors, and this story is him cleaning up a mess that is entirely his fault – not in the mere sense of “he brought this threat to Earth” that we get in The Masque of Mandragora but in the sense of “centuries of real destruction and death have happened as a result of his actions.”
Second, however, we are presented with, two stories in a row, a shadow version of Doctor Who as a whole. Just as the Matrix on Gallifrey is Doctor Who as written by the Master, here the Doctor is forced to deal with Doctor Who as written by people who do not understand Doctor Who. To some extent this is the natural evolution of the general tendency of Doctor Who to be about ideas and stories that has been developing since Genesis of the Daleks and Pyramids of Mars. Eventually it had to hit the point in which the story it injected the Doctor into was Doctor Who itself.
The result is a fairly straightforward dialectic. The Doctor’s version of Doctor Who comes into conflict with Xoanon’s version in a way that renders them mutually exclusive. This is not merely a practical consequence of Xoanon’s desire to kill the Doctor, but a fundamental one. Xoanon’s entire conception of the universe is threatened by the Doctor, whereas Xoanon’s existence as a part failure of the Doctor’s is a direct threat to the Doctor’s ethical legitimacy – indeed, in Xoanon’s worldview the Doctor is the very embodiment of evil itself. The story presents us with two seemingly irreconcilable positions.
The end synthesis, then, is Leela. On the one hand she is a character born out of Xoanon’s society and out of the Doctor’s failures. On the other hand, however, the Doctor, albeit grudgingly, takes her on board the TARDIS to travel with him. She is thus, at the end of the story, simultaneously a part of both the Doctor’s version of the show and Xoanon’s part of it. The consequences of this, of course, are going to extend far beyond this story, creating another iteration of the Problem of Susan. This time we are closer to the original formulation of the conflict between the companion’s role as subservient to the Doctor and the companion’s own individual identity and existence separate from the Doctor. In this case, however, we have the problem manifesting in an unusually literal sense. For really the first time since The Silurians the Doctor and his companion have an actively antagonistic element to their relationship. The Doctor wants to change Leela to be more to his liking, and Leela is resistant to changing. And because of the Eliza Doolittle aspect of the plot, this conflict plays out in a way with profound material and social consequences. The show, in what is either a staggering feat of ambition or of hubris, is now playing the Problem of Susan out as an account of social and historical development.
And on top of all of this, it’s a good story. The Doctor has some great moments, Louise Jameson is a fantastic actress, the plot is full of creative ideas and great images like a spectral Doctor’s face that kills people and the sublime third episode cliffhanger. Once again we have a series that is firing on all cylinders, matching ambitious ideas with fantastic stories in ways that justify the way in which the series and its individual stories persist uncannily over time. Indeed, this story’s basic process of deforming the Doctor Who and then reconciling the deformed version with the original itself serves as an allegory for the process of reiteration and complexly integrated variations that creates the larger cultural artifact of Doctor Who.
In other words, this story both represents the material process by which Doctor Who functions as a cultural force and performs that process itself as a successful and well-remembered piece of Doctor Who. Or, to use its own logic, it juxtaposes the representation and the thing itself, and then, through the very process it describes, synthesizes them into a single object. And it does so with a casual confidence that suggests that the show is not even reaching to do this – that this sort of dizzying and complex integration of multiple material frames of reference is simply business as usual for the show.