|Duplicates! I haven’t seen duplicates in years!|
It’s November 21, 1978. The Boomtown Rats are still at number one with “Rat Trap,” which should probably get at least some serious mention as, at least in Wikipedia’s unquestionably correct worldview, it is the first punk/new wave song to hit #1. In any case, my life gets simpler a week later when Rod Stewart hits number one with “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” a song that is really pretty unambiguous in all regards. A week later it’s Boney M with a version of “Mary’s Boy Child,” which stays in place through the end of the story. Blondie, The Cars, Sarah Brightman, The Bee Gees, Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond, and the Village People (with YMCA) all also get into the top ten. In the lower reaches of the chart are The Buzzcocks, The Clash, Elvis Costello, and for our purposes (and nobody else’s) most interestingly, Mankind with “Dr Who,” a version of the Doctor Who theme song, which makes it as high as 25.
In real news, Harvey Milk is murdered by Dan White. The Times halts publication for nearly a year due to labor problems, which is the sort of thing you’d normally like to mock Rupert Murdoch for, except he buys the paper in the fallout from these problems so still has nothing to do with it. Next time, Mr. Murdoch, I will not be so lenient. Also, the Spanish Constitution is established, officially restoring democracy to the country.
While on television we have one of those things that puzzles one about Doctor Who fandom. I’m not one to treat the Doctor Who Magazine surveys as the definitive gauge of fan opinion, and certainly not as some doctrinaire statement about aesthetics. On the other hand, I’m not going to pretend the Mighty 200 survey has nothing to tell us about Doctor Who. Obviously it does. There’s some type of fan that the survey is broadly representative of the taste of. We admittedly know little about this type of fan beyond “they answer Doctor Who Magazine” surveys, but they exist.
Where I’m going with all of this is that, not for the first time in recent memory, we’re looking at a story that has a puzzling reputation. According to the big DWM poll, this is the second best story of this season, behind Stones of Blood. Whereas I am unable to come up with an even remotely sincere argument for how to consider either of these stories better than the first two of the season. And that presents an interesting problem.
First, let’s quickly deal with what this story is. It’s fairly simple – it’s a parody of The Prisoner of Zenda. Tara is a planet with androids and advance technology that has, for no particularly discernible reason, taken on a social structure that almost exactly matches that of a Ruritanian Romance. All of this sounds cynical, and it is a bit. Certainly it’s tough not to see moving from a trio of complex multi-layered narratives to a straight pastiche as a bit of a move down, at least in some sense. This is, notably, the part of the Key to Time arc with the fewest thematic similarities with the larger story. The segment is shamelessly a pointless MacGuffin this time – a random bit of a statue that then gets taken by the bad guys and doesn’t even influence the plot after the first episode.
But all of this ignores the fact that it’s really quite well done. Swashbuckling period pieces are right up the BBC’s alley, the addition of Tom Baker to the proceedings is genuinely fun, Grendel is a hoot as a villain (and his last line is phenomenal), and there’s a delightful cleverness to the whole thing. Taken on its own merits its solidly enjoyable. Only the Key to Time stuff makes it a weak choice to show a non-fan looking for something idly entertaining. It’s really only in terms of the three stories that came before it and what the Williams era has been shooting for lately that it seems lackluster. So it’s interesting to ask why it’s held in visibly higher regard, at least within the DWM poll, than either The Pirate Planet or The Ribos Operation.
I mean, the phenomenon that people have different taste isn’t all that interesting. But often on this blog we end up comparing a story’s reputation to the story itself, and there’s an implicit judgment there. And, I dunno, it seemed worth hashing out what we’re talking about when we’re talking about a story’s quality, since I keep insisting this isn’t a review blog and then banging on about how good a given story is. On its most basic level, of course, this claim is just that reviews imply a level of recommendation, whereas I don’t particularly, when praising a story, mean my praise to be advice to watch it, nor do I consider a pan to be advice to steer clear.
But there’s more to it than that. I occasionally, here and elsewhere, make reference to my belief that there is such a thing as objectivity in aesthetics. In this regard I view it much like ethics, where I am also not a complete relativist. Aesthetics can be debated and considered, much like ethics, in two regards. First one can debate the degree to which a given text does or doesn’t hold up to a given set of aesthetic standards. This is the most common sort of debate that takes place – does the ending work, is such and such a bit funny, is the pacing right, etc.
These tend to be the questions I avoid, and they’re particularly irrelevant here. Of the four stories under discussion, two – The Ribos Operation and this – are pretty solid in their mechanics, while the other two have some visible but not story-ruining flaws. There’s not a lot of daylight among the four stories this season in terms of raw competence. This is also the area where aesthetics come the closest to subjectivity, as it’s on that line where enjoyment and quality start to lose their distinction. (As I tell my students, it’s fine to enjoy bad things and not enjoy good things. Enjoyment is subjective. Quality is less so.)
The second type of aesthetic debate is largely the one I find more interesting, and that’s the debate about competing aesthetic values. This is the debate that takes place when one tries to, for instance, compare the postmodern horror of the Hinchcliffe era with the punk with a smile approach of the Williams era. Part of the appeal of this debate is that it’s where finding new things to enjoy really takes place. It’s easy to like something that works according to standards akin to most of what you like. It’s much harder to do it for something that’s working according to a logic you’re less familiar with. Moving to the level of comparing types of quality instead of levels of quality also helps avoid frustrating moments of talking at cross-purposes of the sort that happens when, for instance, fans end up angrily agreeing that the Williams era is clever, with one side using the word as praise and the other as some sort of vulgar epithet.
The question, then, is whether it is possible to reverse engineer an aesthetic from the Mighty 200 list. There are two very obvious problems with this. The first is that the Mighty 200 list lacks any single authorship or coherent communal vision. In a real sense it doesn’t represent an attempt to describe a coherent aesthetic so much as the aggregate of a large number of individual aesthetics. But this is no different from the problem of treating Doctor Who as a coherent single object from 1963 to 1978, and we do that fine. The second is trickier, however. Respondents to the survey surely, in many cases, answered based on what they like instead of attempting to make more detached critical judgments. As a result any attempt to determine an aesthetic is likely to turn out to hinge on aesthetic principles such as “I like Louise Jameson in scanty leather clothing” instead of piercing insights about the political utility of humor. And while I will be the first to admit that Louise Jameson is adept at wearing scanty leather clothing, there is an extent to which this sort of thing stacks the deck in my favor when I get to the inevitable rhetorical turn where I sandbag the DWM aesthetic.
Still, it’s worth trying, if only to see what we can get out of the attempt. The first thing we can tell is that the aesthetic clearly favors some eras and not others. Philip Hinchcliffe’s three seasons are all in the top five when the list is averaged out by season, and Russell T Davies’s four all make the top eleven. But past that the success of individual producers varies more wildly. The John Nathan-Turner era is, of course, a mess and less what I want to talk about anyway since we haven’t covered those stories yet (although the fact that the three Sylvester McCoy seasons slot into 10th, 19th, and 30th place makes that the most fascinatingly schizoid era), but the Letts era spans from 3rd to 20th, the Lambert era is in 1st and 23rd, and the Innes Lloyd-containing seasons make 8th, 14th, and 24th. In fact, the only other producer to be roughly as consolidated as Hinchcliffe or Davies is Graham Williams, who ends up with the 18th, 25th, and 27th most popular seasons.
But this only tells us broad strokes. After all, the top story is from the 22nd most popular season and the eighth moth popular story is from the 25th most popular season. Whereas the most popular season had a story languishing down at 163rd place (The Android Invasion). There is more to be gained in the odd idiosyncracies – the immediate juxtapositions that happen in making a ranked list. Yes, there’s a lot of statistical noise in this sort of comparison, but the exercise of trying to explain individual comparisons is also in many ways where the most and strangest information can be found. So for the purposes of discussion/my own entertainment, I’ve picked five immediate comparisons, each involving a Williams-era story that we’ve dealt with, that jumped out at me. All of these are consecutive slots – that is, each one can be framed as “Story A is the next best story after Story B.” To wit:
- Planet of Giants is immediately before The Invisible Enemy.
- The Invasion of Time is immediately before The Wheel in Space.
- The War Machines is immediately before The Pirate Planet.
- The Androids of Tara is immediately before The Hand of Fear.
- Tomb of the Cybermen is immediately before Horror of Fang Rock.
Admittedly the Doctor has been a reluctant hero in plenty of eras, but there’s something different to it here. The Doctor may be reluctant to help at first, but he generally finds his way into being invested in the adventure eventually. But at this point Baker never moves off audience-pleasing cleverness. It’s all he does. This isn’t necessarily a disaster. Baker is, in fact, audience-pleasing and clever. But by its nature it works better when the story is also just a string of entertaining moments than it does when there’s something serious trying to go on under the surface. When the center of the show doesn’t care about anything more than individual moments of cleverness, the show is fighting a losing battle with gravity if it doesn’t as well.
Which begins to set us back up for a larger critique of the Williams era. As people have been noting in comments, for all the brilliance that goes on in these stories, the whole is often markedly less than the sum of its parts. Even The Ribos Operation, which I loved, doesn’t quite live up to all of its potential.
So yes, this is fun. We haven’t had a good identical duplicate since The Enemy of the World, and there’s a bit of clever cheek in doing a duplicates story that also has android doubles. Mary Tamm ends up with four separate roles in the story, which is oddly charming. And it is all entertaining and fun. But if you want more than just entertaining and fun, this story is going to be a let-down after the previous three. And if all you want is entertaining and fun then there’s the troubling fact that almost all of the success of this story comes from things that can’t be repeated on a regular basis. It is, in the end, a good story that it’s just not easy to feel very good about. For the first time in a while the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But there’s an uncomfortable sense that it only accomplished that by avoiding trying to add up to too much in the first place.