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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

19 Comments

  1. Steve Hogan
    August 17, 2011 @ 3:37 am

    Hi Phillip. I've really been enjoying your blog. The thematic dissections are impressive, and the way you encourage readers to re experience the series from an evolving historical perspective really makes things fresh. (Reminds me a bit of what the "Roasted Peanuts" blog does with Charlie Brown.)

    I should note though as a former record store manager that Nilsson wasn't really a "They", but just the shortened stage name of singer Harry Nilsson. Sort of like "Morrissey".

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  2. 5tephe
    August 17, 2011 @ 4:04 am

    I always loved this story – found it creepy and unsettling, then really rewarding in its epiphanic revelation. (Hmm. Spell check doesn't like that word. Can't say that I blame it.)

    For me, it actually cemented the idea of the Time Lords as "Lords of Progress" (about which I think – at this stage – you are bang on). To me their intervention using the Doctor without giving him adequate information or tools to intervene with was brilliant: forcing the Doctor to stop fopping around and fencing with Delgado, and actually evolve himself a little bit.

    If the cycle of Solos is as inevitable as the long seasons would dictate, and being disrupted by the human colonialist activity, then just putting one of their own on the ground there, who would naturally fight against this kind of oppressive treatment of an intelligent species would probably be catalyst enough to re-establish the natural order.

    Perhaps if he had failed, they would have sent another Time Lord to set things straight, but instead they gave the Doctor a chance to learn to shine.

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  3. talestoenrage
    August 17, 2011 @ 5:51 am

    It's funny that after punishing the Doctor for running off and meddling with time, the Time Lords are sending him on jobs to restore/prop up civilizations. You could argue that's a way to bring him back into the fold (or at least rein in his worst impulses to meddle), but I wouldn't be surprised if there was some pettiness there.

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  4. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 17, 2011 @ 6:02 am

    I also think that it's important to compare the language used at this point in the program with the language used by default. The main word used to describe what the Doctor did that was wrong. The word is "interfere." Which is different from what the Doctor is doing here, for instance, in which he is removing an obstruction to the natural course of affairs.

    In later stories – even as soon as Carnival of Monsters – this starts looking like the irritating hedge we all know and love where the Time Lords never interfere except for all the constant bloody interference we see them do. But notably, that's Robert Holmes, who consistently favors a cattier and more corrupt image of the Time Lords.

    But there's always been a tremendous amount of hedging in that word. It's only interference if it conflicts with the way things are supposed to go.

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  5. Jesse Smith
    August 17, 2011 @ 6:25 am

    I really enjoy this story too, and can't exactly understand its dismal reputation. Perhaps it's the difference in watching it an episode a day versus all in one sitting.

    I think the reason I like it so much is that there's a remarkable amount of incidental detail about the culture of Solos and the Earth Empire, through little things like the segregated transporters, and the down-to-earth humanity of Cotton and Stubbs. The setting is very well drawn and intriguing for me.

    Some of the acting is a bit OTT and melodramatic, but that never bothers me all that much in Doctor Who, which has always had roots in theatrical melodrama, IMO.

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  6. C.
    August 17, 2011 @ 6:56 am

    Isn't "Mutants" referenced somewhere in Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" or am I remembering wrongly? Also the planet lifecycle (centuries-long springs, summers, winters) is similar (and ahead of) Aldiss' Helliconia SF books of the '80s.

    Always loved this one and it gets a bad rap still. & Rick James' performance is astonishing in its sheer badness–it's like performance art. You would never find anything like James' acting on any American network TV program, even from the dawn of television.

    Chris

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  7. Aaron
    August 17, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    "

    Spectacle is another one of these logics. And it's a very straightforward one. In the logic of spectacle, one accepts whatever it is that creates the biggest spectacle. It's a logic where we accept that characters, when given a range of options, will pick the one that leads to the most interesting results even if it is not strictly speaking the most sensible one according to other logics. The big visual moments are what provides the logic and justification for the rest of the material, which is just filler to link them up."

    This is a really interesting way of putting this. Something tells me we'll be revisiting this entry a lot when you eventually get to the RTD era.

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  8. inkdestroyedmybrush
    August 17, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    Love the approach on this one, one of the few stories that i remember from the books but have never seen the televised version of. Makes me want to track it down from one of the many dubious (cough cough) sources to watch it now.

    The problem with the writing is that asking the bits inbetween to hold together the spectacle on works occasionally, and in thier later writing fails abysmally. the idea of stringing spectacle after spectacle simply doesn't work as people became more knowlegable about science and TV became more sophisticated in terms of storytelling (which is one of the great failing of Doctor Who in its later years: not the lack of budget but the lack of sophistication with its storytelling made it look more and more like an unwelcome anachronism on the BBC schedule).

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  9. 5tephe
    August 17, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

    Oh, and by the way: District 9 anyone?

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  10. Wm Keith
    August 18, 2011 @ 1:52 am

    I love "The Mutants". I even started a fanzine called "Oxymask".

    One extra piece of the puzzle, which you haven't really mentioned, is the identification of Ky with Christ. Partly by name (Ky is the same as the Greek letter X, or Chi, long used as a shorthand (together with the letter P, or Rho) for Christ). Partly because of the persecution and the transfiguration/ascension.

    It's not a perfect fit with orthodox Western theology, but it works well with Liberation theology.

    I suspect that you haven't mentioned it because it all the other colonialist/racial themes flung at the screen in "The Mutants" gel together with each other better than they do with this one.

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  11. Wm Keith
    August 18, 2011 @ 3:13 am

    And it's taken me until now to notice what "Microsoft XP" really means.

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  12. Don Zachary
    August 19, 2011 @ 6:55 am

    I like The Mutants a lot too, so I was looking forward to your argument as to why everyone else had got it wrong. And as you like it a lot more even than I do, saying it’s almost the best Pertwee, I was really looking forward to you trying to convince. Unusually, I’m a bit disappointed. Rather than making arguments as to why it’s really good, you seem to just make statements. For example, Tat Wood says it’s incoherent because the empire / Nazi / segregation metaphors are all over the place, and makes a case for that. You list them all and then say the story’s shiny, so it’s fine. I was scratching my head at that point. You’ve not been sitting too long in the radiation cave, have you?

    Maybe it’s because I think the effects “spectacles” in The Mutants look a load of old tat, but that the story’s strong. The story, mind you, not the script.

    My teeth ground at your “white western European culture has nothing of value” case too. Not that that case can’t be made. But the whole thing is saved and we’re let into the whole story by the Time Lords and Pertwee, as you say Mr Patronising, which makes it really difficult not to assume the story’s saying we should be grateful to the ultimate Dead White Guys, the Time Lords. You criticise the way they do it, but it works. And in a weird way? That just makes them Big White God, walking in mysterious ways. Another reason I don’t like them, but the story does. Then, yikes, you ignore the way the Solonians are white actors with some slap on them, but call Cotton “the one non-European character”. Yeeeeeeeesh. I found that really offensive. He’s European all right. He’s clearly British, and over here only the BNP would agree with your blasé statement that if your ancestors are from Africa way, way back (as are all of us!) you aren’t British. Or, as you’re American, you sound like a Birther. So suddenly your PC case sounds like it’s looping round right the other way. He was written just as any old bloke and cast colourblind, too, which is the way he should be read. Certainly if you’re prepared to ignore his acting.

    OTOH, I can’t stand The Time Monster. So…

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  13. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 19, 2011 @ 8:08 am

    Well, perhaps I should clarify. Tat Wood says the story is a mess because it has four competing metaphors for what it's about, and thus ends up being somewhat incoherent. I think the story is brilliant because by over saturating the metaphor it stops being a bland allegory about some political situation and becomes a far more provocative piece about the basic nature of power dynamics and cross-cultural contact in the general case. Wood, I think, tries to find a story about why the British Empire/Apartheid/Nazis/Jim Crow laws were bad in the specific case, and is frustrated by the lack of a clear allegory. I think it's a story about the fundamental abuses involved when two fundamentally different cultures are in an asymmetrical power relationship. So I don't see the story as a muddled allegory, I see it as a consciously broad metaphor. And that, I think, is where Wood and I differ.

    I agree, the spectacle is hit and miss – for every great sequence there's Rainbow Ky flying about the space station. But my point was that the spectacle provides a coherent logic for the story, which is where I think Wood stops short of fully embracing what the story is doing. The quality of the effects is largely immaterial to how well the story works – and anyway, watching in cleaned up and restored digital video on a HDTV in 2011 is not the way to be judging how effects worked on a single transmission in 1972 in the first place. I remain wholly agnostic on most of the effects in terms of quality, because I'm not and never really can be the target audience. But that's not the point – the point is how the story is organized to bring spectacle, and how that organization allows the story to get away with a narrative structure with considerably less consistency than is normally considered desirable.

    As for the Solonians, I'm willing to accept the realities of casting in British television in the 1970s, and accept that a white guy made up to clearly be an alien is, within the story, an alien, not a white guy in makeup. Whereas the humans are humans, and I take whatever ethnic traits they are assigned as human ethnic traits. If nothing else, casting the Solonians entirely as Indian or Afro-Carribean actors would have been, I think, even more racially excruciating than the all white cast – especially given the… somewhat emphatic dialogue they're given. The various signifiers bouncing around the humans are at least all consistently white European signifiers. The Solonians may be played by white actors, but they don't particularly signify any human ethnic group in their actions.

    (breaking comment into two because Blogger is being annoying)

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  14. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 19, 2011 @ 8:08 am

    And I hope my post was clear – I do think the Time Lords remain problematic in the story. I mean, I'm open to the possibility that this is an accident, although having now watched up through the first two episodes of Frontier in Space I am increasingly having to conclude that Baker and Martin are freakishly lucky if they don't actually intend for their scripts to be as smart as they are. But I think it's significant that Ky's complaint – that the Time Lords should have sent something other than stone tablets – never gets answered. He pretty much gets the last word on that one: "Well that was a stupid way to help."

    There's also something to be said about the nature of the crisis the Solonians face. The entirety of their problems are caused by human intervention. More well-intentioned human intervention is extremely useful in undoing the previous damage, but even then the intervention's only value is getting Solos back to where it's left alone. Which is just common sense – I mean, even the most complete repudiation of imperialism acknowledges that simply pulling up roots and leaving is a train wreck unto itself. So yes, the Time Lords and the Doctor are the well-meaning, patronizing liberals who are trying to undo the damage their culture has already one. They're still not ideal, but they have instrumental value in the particular circumstance. I have no problem with that. Had Solos's problems not been entirely down to external interference, it would be a different matter, but given the particulars, I have trouble getting too annoyed at the specific intervention.

    A larger problem – and one I probably shouldn't have skipped, but I'll get to in one of these stories – is the fact that one of the ways in which the Solonians are determined to be inherently valuable is when it turns out that they had science once upon a time too. Which is to say, they matter because they were like Europeans. But I found that a much less objectionable version of this than the comparatively asinine treatment of the issue in Colony in Space, where the existence of their past science was the only reason the primitives were valued. Here, at least, the Solonians are valuable primarily because of their unique culture, not because they used to be scientists. So I still think we're in some of the best treatment of oppressed indigenous cultures to date.

    Which leaves Cotton, where… I have to think his race matters, because there's no other possible justification for casting Rick James in the part given its importance. The alternatives are simply too horrifying to contemplate. That said, and it's now been two weeks or so since I watched it, but is James playing it with a straight British accent? I remember mentally pegging it as an accent with clear foreign overtones, though I couldn't place it specifically to an area.

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  15. Jesse Smith
    August 19, 2011 @ 8:58 am

    IIRC from the DVD commentary, Rick James's casting was part of an explicit attempt by the director to increase acting opportunities for minority actors. The character was written as Cockney in the script, which makes for a bizarre combination with the actor's native Caribbean accent.

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  16. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 19, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    @Jesse – Oh good. I was appalled at the idea that I had somehow mistaken a British accent for something Afro-Carribean. 🙂

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  17. Seeing_I
    September 1, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    I do agree with you contra Woods – mixing up the metaphors, rather than making it incoherent, seems to me to make it more interesting and not so didactic.

    I always thought this was a much better story than its reputation, but it must be said, the Commander is giving an utterly ludicrous performance and a lot of the plotting – like scheming against said commander into an open microphone – is just nuts. And just to say it kindly … "completely in command of the capabilities of television in 1972" might be stretching things a bit.

    Though the Mutant costumes are just superb!

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  18. Henry R. Kujawa
    August 12, 2012 @ 6:48 am

    Philip Sandifer:
    "The big visual moments are what provides the logic and justification for the rest of the material, which is just filler to link them up."

    For some reason the film "YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE" comes to mind. a film whose last half-hour was SO spectacular, and so well-done, you just dind't care if, thinking about it, the entire film made no logical sense whatsoever.

    "the delicious over the top lunacy of Paul Whitsun-Jones's Marshall"

    I tend to think of this as his "signature" role. In earlier times, he'd briefly played John Steed's boss on THE AVENGERS (when it was still being done on video), and had a interesting cameo in Roger Corman's "THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH", where he offers his wife to Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) if he'll just spare his life. "I've already had that dubious pleasure…" replies Prospero.

    Talestoenrage:
    "It's funny that after punishing the Doctor for running off and meddling with time, the Time Lords are sending him on jobs to restore/prop up civilizations. You could argue that's a way to bring him back into the fold (or at least rein in his worst impulses to meddle), but I wouldn't be surprised if there was some pettiness there."

    In their history, The Time Lords used to travel a lot, and, one would think, at least occasionally interfere. Until they decided not to. Depending onm how old The Doctor may really be, he may actually remember the old days. Or perhaps he merely knew about them, and developed a love of travel. And sometimes, that wound up involving interference. The Time Lords– or, as we later learn, at least, the "C.I.A."– apparently prefer if they're the only ones who are allowed to interfere– but it's even better if they get The Doctor do do it FOR them.

    The question is, how many stories were the result of their manipulations, without The Doctor even being aware of it?

    Jesse Smith:
    "I really enjoy this story too, and can't exactly understand its dismal reputation. Perhaps it's the difference in watching it an episode a day versus all in one sitting."

    I did see this as separate episodes once, but most times, edited together as a movie. It was interesting a couple of times, but this latest time around, I skipped it. Another 6-parter I'd have preferred as a 4.

    Philip Sandifer:
    "I'm willing to accept the realities of casting in British television in the 1970s, and accept that a white guy made up to clearly be an alien is, within the story, an alien, not a white guy in makeup. Whereas the humans are humans, and I take whatever ethnic traits they are assigned as human ethnic traits. If nothing else, casting the Solonians entirely as Indian or Afro-Carribean actors would have been, I think, even more racially excruciating than the all white cast"

    I'm reminded of how in "THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD" (made not long after this), the savage native Lemurians were supposed to be played by black actors, but there was some objection, and so instead, they got all white actors, in green makeup.

    Tom Baker was SO good in that!

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  19. Josiah Rowe
    February 11, 2013 @ 10:57 pm

    It's worth remembering that this was one of James Acheson's contributions to the show — which I think means that this story and "The Three Doctors" are the only Doctor Who stories on which two future Academy Award winners (Acheson and Bob Baker) worked!

    Reply

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