|See, Peri? Kamelion, lying there in the sun. He can change
shapes, you know, and be all things and everyone. Now
run, Peri. Run, run away.
It’s February 23rd, 1984. Frankie Goes to Hollywood is still at number one, but they’re finally unseated by Nena’s “99 Red Balloons.” Lower in the charts is equally satisfying – Rockwell’s beautiful bit of paranoia “Somebody’s Watching Me” and Slade’s “Run Runaway” chart, though to be fair, the latter is far better when Great Big Sea does it as an overly fast paced fiddle orgy. Also, The Smiths have their first full-length album out, and it debuts at #2. In real news, the US pulls out of Beirut, Pierre Trudeau retires as Prime Minister of Canada, and, four days after this story wraps, the miner’s strike to end all miner’s strikes begins.
While on television, Planet of Fire. Peter Grimwade is nobody’s favorite writer of the Davison era, and Planet of Fire is nobody’s favorite story of the era. Neither of these judgments is necessarily unfair – I think you’d have a hard time arguing Grimwade as superior to any of Holmes, Bidmead, or Bailey, and arguing Planet of Fire as a classic of the era crosses the line from redemptive readings to outright psychosis. But in an era with Eric Saward, Terrence Dudley, and Johnny Byrne submitting multiple scripts treating Grimwade as one of the era’s lowlights seems equally strained.
But there’s always a complexity to flying in the face of critical consensus. This gets at one of the fundamental tricky bits of understanding audience responses, which is that audiences are very good at identifying whether they like or dislike something, and very bad at explaining why. When it comes to making art, giving people what they say they want is almost always a disaster, particularly when those people are a self-selecting group of hardcore fans who are volunteering their opinions. (This is not to say that populism is a bad thing, but there’s a difference between giving people what they like and giving them what they say they want. In one you attempt to reproduce what has been successful. In another you base your aesthetic and goals off of what people say they like. The issue is letting the audience’s self-description and interpretations play in as opposed to using data like what they actually do.) For example, I would argue fairly readily that the complaint that Davison’s Doctor was “bland” at Longleat and the resultant attempt to correct it via Colin Baker’s portrayal was a case of misunderstanding that the writers weren’t giving the Doctor good stuff to do and not a reflection on Davison as such.
So we’re faced with a bit of a puzzle. Grimwade’s scripts are clearly jarring in some sense, but the degree of judgment against him seems in excess of the observable flaws in his scripts. What’s the actual flaw here?
I dealt with this a bit in the Mawdryn Undead entry, where I observed that Grimwade is the one writer who’s actually capable of working in the soap opera style that the Davison era half-heartedly aspired to. And Planet of Fire is a prime example of this. It’s a four episode story in which several plot threads at various levels of development coincide. There’s the short and self-contained plot arc of Sarn, the end of the plot arc of Turlough, the end of the plot arc of Kamelion, another step in the Master’s plot arc, and the start of a plat arc involving Peri. These are sufficiently unified to make sense, but this is unusual for Doctor Who in that the series is approaching the structure of a show with A, B, and C plots in a given episode. Which is to say, this is how soaps work. And it’s how you have to structure plots to manage long-term storytelling with a cast of larger than about three. (And the Davison era usually has a cast of about five, with the Master as a recurring character and Kamelion making it so there are at least three companion plots)
But it’s not how Doctor Who usually works. Including how it works under the other writers of the Davison era, which is why the long term arcs of Nyssa and Tegan never really materialize. Despite setting itself up to be a show that could work as a sci-fi soap, every writer other than Grimwade has stuck to the traditional Doctor Who model of having a single storyline in any given story. Which means that when Grimwade shows up and does an incremental advancement of a bunch of different plotlines it doesn’t quite work in the context.
But this ignores the fact that what Grimwade manages to juggle here is solidly impressive. He manages to relegate to pure refrigerator logic the fact that the side trip to Lanzarote to pick up Peri makes no sense, and while the chain of coincidence that has the Master trapped on a planet that also happens to house Turlough’s brother is relatively ludicrous the fact that the two plotlines rarely affect each other keeps this from feeling excessive.
And we shouldn’t ignore the extent to which Grimwade is set up to fail here. Faced with the need to do a triple replacement of Turlough, Tegan, and the Doctor along with the introduction of a new companion and a new Doctor, plus the need to tie off Kamelion and provide a potentially permanent end for the Master, Nathan-Turner elected to stagger their departures. The word “stagger” is a bit of a massive misnomer, though, for what is in practice a sixteen episode run of continual upheaval in which four episodes bear the weight of four of the seven changes. This is a ridiculous structure and someone should have pointed out that it might be a good idea to deal with the Master or Kamelion in one of the first three stories of the season instead of embarking on a massive block of changes. (Or to give the show another story to breathe and not decide to throw in Colin Baker’s introduction on top of an already overstuffed season)
The last time the series was looking at this large a mass of changes – a new visual style, two companion departures, three companion introductions, and a regeneration – it actually did stagger them, with Meglos, State of Decay, and (with its feint of leaving Nyssa on Traken) Keeper of Traken all serving as stories that maintain the state of play from their predecessors so that it’s only every other story that the structure of the show gets upended. And if they hadn’t done this and had just pulled the rug out in all likelihood the show would have died. And indeed, when they don’t do it the next time the show goes under a year later. (Though even that could have arguably been avoided had it not been for the poor decision making involved in introducing Colin Baker)
But the irony is that Grimwade’s approach here, had it been followed by the rest of the show, would also have worked. The writer who gets the lion’s share of Nathan-Turner’s massive miscalculation to clean up actually does it the only way that possibly could have worked. But when everyone else is pulling against this and insisting on being relentlessly high concept Grimwade’s approach runs aground because suddenly he’s the one story of the season that you can’t summarize in a one-sentence pitch and so looks like the boring one.
But so much of what Grimwade is doing is exactly what Davison’s Doctor needed all along. The argument I made last time about how making the Doctor at times relatable doesn’t undermine his otherness as long as there are clear-cut times in which he is starkly alien plays in perfectly here, and the death of Kamelion, with the Doctor at once utterly ruthless and unhesitating in ensuring it and still clearly hurt by it, is a prime example. Similarly, the Doctor standing icily by as the Master burns, or his rebuke to Turlough that if Turlough is keeping a secret the Doctor needs their friendship is at an end are fantastic moments that give Davison an opportunity to move between the warm, kind version of the Doctor and one that is quite a force to be reckoned with.
The problem is that those moments are building off relationships that were never established. As easy to slash as Ainley’s Master and Davison’s Doctor are, one has to pour on the extra-diegetic readings to get that pairing to work. Instead we get a teasing “won’t you show mercy to your own…” as he burns, but nothing that it connects to. Nobody has been trying to write stories that lead up to an eventual denouement, and so there’s no drama. What really needed to exist somewhere in the Davison era is the Doctor trying to save the Master from Castrovalva or Xeraphin and being betrayed so that his standing by as the Master burns is a moment of him being once bitten, twice shy. But the Doctor has never looked at the Master as anything other than a villain to defeat, so there’s no impact.
Likewise, Kamelion has had all of seven lines of dialogue in which he’s not being actively used as part of one of the Master’s schemes. The Doctor having to kill a pseudo-companion is a moment of drama, but Kamelion never got the chance to be one. Yes, there were technical problems with him, but as has been pointed out in comments, he’s a shape changing robot. Have him take a human form and choose to stick with it and actually build the character. Grimwade is right that a scene in which the Doctor is pained to have to sacrifice his friend (but willing to do it anyway in this case) is a fantastic one. But nobody has bothered to help Grimwade set that scene up.
And, of course, there’s Turlough. The exchange I noted in which the Doctor rebukes Turlough for still keeping secrets is a fantastic one. But of course it is, because Grimwade is the one who actually understood Turlough as originally conceived – a companion you can never quite trust. Everyone else just went with a generic “ruthless coward” characterization, whereas Grimwade is, in having the Doctor make the active but wary choice to let Turlough have his secrets, is actually thinking about the relationship. And as it turns out, Mark Strickson can act and would have benefitted nicely from, you know, actual material.
Similarly, Ainley suddenly reveals himself as being quite good at his job here, finally getting a script in which the Master gets to do Mastery things and play the Doctor role in reverse instead of just getting to be unmasked halfway through with a dramatic synth stab. It’s too little too late for his version of the Master (and the revelation that the real Master is a tiny little man flailing about in a box is a depressingly apropos metaphor), but again, with Grimwade actually giving him decent material, Ainley shines.
In this regard Grimwade goes on the list, along with Strickson, Ainley Fielding, Sutton, and, most damningly, Davison as creative figures who were wasted by their colleagues. Grimwade’s vision of Doctor Who would have worked beautifully over a twenty-six episode season. But as four episodes of a twenty-six episode season where the other twenty-two had no interest in contributing to the same goals (despite those goals ostensibly being the goals of the production staff) they don’t work.
Which is not to completely exempt Grimwade from the blame. Grimwade writes as though his plotlines have the support of the episodes around them when they don’t. Yes, there’s not enough buildup to make the plots with Kamelion or the Master or Turlough work. But the way to respond to that isn’t to pretend that the rest of the show was behaving like it was supposed to if your brief was ever going to work. It’s to crank up the volume and go all-out with the emotional storytelling. Instead we get a bunch of good ideas – Turlough following the course the Doctor did in The War Games (his beginning having been as an Unearthly Child), Kamelion having to be sacrificed, the Master begging the Doctor to save him – that are all underplayed as if they’ve been built to.
Even the Sarn storyline is flaccid. Grimwade’s break from the high concept obsession of the rest of the season is in some sense refreshing, but this goes a bit too far in its lack of idea. A critique on religious dogma is all well and good, but why the heck is he blatantly targeting Islam with it? For all the world it looks like the main idea this story has is to go and pick a fight with another culture’s supposed extremism. Sure, the pick of Islam isn’t incidental – the 1980s were a classic era for depicting Muslims as dangerous extremists. But the fact that such xenophobia existed isn’t a justification in and of itself. Particularly because Grimwade had a more domestic target available, indeed, Miles and Wood suggest he had one in mind.
This suggestion seems to me largely credible. This is 1984. The AIDS crisis is decimating the gay community and nobody is paying attention because it primarily effects gays and drug users. Instead they were at best ignored, and at worst accused of things like, as James Anderton, Chief Constable of Manchester’s police, would put it, “swirling in a cesspit of their own making.” And Grimwade was well aware of the way in which this moral judgment, based primarily on appeals to traditional and religious values, was killing people. He couldn’t not be. But instead of pointing his critique at the domestic level he goes with the xenophobic attack on other people’s fanaticism and blindness instead of using the exact same themes to make a commentary that had some teeth. It’s at best a missed opportunity, and at worse just crass, and it’s no wonder Saward toned it down.
Which actually serves as an epitaph for the Davison era in many ways. And, having finished the watching of it now, captures my feelings on it well. Throughout it the possibility of what it could do and of how great it could be is present, crackling under the surface. At moments it breaks through. Or, as the joke goes, parts of it are excellent. Rewatching it was an extended process of wondering where the spark and wonder I knew I’d seen as a child was. And in the end, I realized that as a child I just didn’t see the mess the spark was fighting to get through quite so clearly. But the ability to see the flaws doesn’t mean that the brilliance of the era didn’t exist. Just that it wasn’t always the case that anybody knew what to do with it.