In what seems likely to be his last script for the series, Mark Gatiss finally manages to get ruthlessly trad Doctor Who to work in the new series. Sure, we’ve had straight-up bases under siege and throwbacks, but most of those were at their root prettified versions – what people thinking back to the highlights of Doctor Who half-remember the series as being. But this is what the series actually was – a quaintly stagey morality play in a cave. More than, I think, any new series episode to date you could imagine this one with Jon Pertwee in it. Sure, the Victorian expedition would be down to about five people and you wouldn’t do the pop culture jokes, but this belongs to the series that made Colony in Space, The Mutants, and, yes, The Curse of Peladon in a way the new series simply hasn’t before.
It’s easy to make this sound like an unimpressive trick – and it’s not like the three stories I listed there make many people’s top ten lists. (Though I think they’re all underrated.) But, and I really want to stress that I’m not damning with faint praise here, one need only look at how long Mark Gatiss has spent trying to make Doctor Who feel like the Pertwee era to see that it’s not even remotely easy to make something simultaneously feel like 1972 and not feel like a jarring mess in 2017.
Part of what makes it work is what always made me less pessimistic about the Gatiss episode this year – the fact that Victorian explorers fighting Ice Warriors on Mars is so utterly, pathologically Gatiss that it holds things together. What’s interesting, then, is that it’s an idea it’s impossible to actually imagine Letts and Dicks going for. It’s not that it’s too gonzo for the production team that brought us The Claws of Axos, but it’s gonzo in the wrong way. Literally nobody but Mark Gatiss would ever suggest it. But more to the point, it’s too unvarnished in its political critique – when the Pertwee era did the Empire it was as the “Earth Empire,” and already in its collapse phase. Actually doing the Victorians and treating them as invaders would have been too much. (Although to be fair, part of why this feels so Pertwee is that “Earth invades Mars” turns out to be indistinguishable from The Sea Devils aside from the costumes.
The irony, though, is that of course this isn’t a critique Gatiss wants to push too far either. He puts the obligatory lines in, sure. And the basic conflict between Godsacre and Catchlove is a critique of Victorian culture. But he’s not Peter Harness, and he’s not going to do a rigorously political episode any more than he’s going to bother characterizing Bill in more depth than “the one that makes pop culture references.” Given the choice between biting political allegory and riffing on Edgar Rice Burroughs some more, or indeed between most things and riffing on Edgar Rice Burroughs some more, it’s not hard to guess what’s going to win.
So instead we get a story that hinges on straight-up virtue ethics whereby the cowardly deserter ends up the clear-cut good guy, while Catchlove is evil because he’s selfish and pig-headed as opposed to because his entire system of values is morally bankrupt. Which is roughly how it ends up being a Pertwee revival piece – it’s morally simplistic in the same way.
All of which confounds my standards. In terms of “something I haven’t seen before,” Pertwee revivalism is obviously a flop. On the other hand, if you’re going to miss something I haven’t seen before, something I haven’t seen in a long time is probably the next best thing. And more to the point, it’s something a large swath of the audience simply won’t have seen at all. But, of course, this also segues into a different problem, namely the ending, in which Alpha Centauri is wheeled out like something the audience should actually be expected to recognize. Putting aside the ludicrous self-indulgence, which I can forgive, the decision to end on that note makes it clear that this is a Pertwee throwback for people who like Pertwee throwbacks, as opposed to for people who haven’t seen something like this before. (Indeed Jill, who’s never seen a Peladon story, initially thought Alpha Centauri was going to turn out to be a front for some season-culminating evil. She was relieved to find out it was just ridiculous fanwank.)
Is that a problem? Maybe not, though I’d be lying if I said I was confident that was a judgment made out of anything more than a wearied acceptance of Mark Gatiss. I mean, it’s not like I suspect this story of being some Nathan-Turneresque morass of continuity that’s impenetrable to anyone who doesn’t have a Peter Haining book to hand. For the most part, this was simple and reasonably engaging fun. There are loftier goals, but that’s still a pretty good one.
- What I do wonder is what percentage of the audience sees it as a throwback to The Hungry Earth/In Cold Blood. Presumably attentive new series fans who aren’t historcally invested in the differences between Ice Warriors and Silurians. (Though it’s worth noting that The Hungry Earth/In Cold Blood was longer ago today than Rose was in 2010. Kids watching have largely never seen it; Moffat really has been around for a long time.) Although the comparison largely flatters Empress of Mars, which is more clever and better paced. They picked the wrong showrunner, folks.
- Which is not to say I particularly want to see more Mark Gatiss episodes of Doctor Who, That said, I really do find myself slightly melancholy at the likelihood of his departure. For all his faults, and they are numerous, he has a distinctive vision of Doctor Who that nobody else comes close to and a generally under-acknowledged instinct towards experimentation and pushing outside his comfort area. Sometimes that works out well (Robot of Sherwood), other times decidedly not (Sleep No More), but I think a survey of his Doctor Who career (especially when one realizes The Unquiet Dead and The Idiot’s Lantern were rewritten by Davies, so that Victory of the Daleks is our first glimpse of “pure” Gatiss) reveals a writer who evolved and grew more than people give him credit for. It’s not that I expect he’d ever get good, but I’m curious what late style might have brought. Of course, the answer probably can’t be a better way for him to go out than this, so.
- I am glad Gatiss got to write Missy before he went, even if she’s just a cameo here, and a less than explicable one at that. (Why did the TARDIS take off, other than Gatiss apparently not wanting to write Nardole? Why wouldn’t it go back? Why is she so worried about the Doctor?)
- At least Alpha Centauri still looks, in the immortal words of Lennie Mayne, “like a fucking prick.”
- Speaking of Missy and Alpha Centauri, I believe this the first episode of Doctor Who with two genderqueer characters in it. And with Bill, an impressive three queer characters. Happy Pride month, everyone.
- One aspect of this that’s particularly interesting is Friday. He’s underplayed, not least in the way he basically disappears from the story once he frees the Doctor and Bill, but he’s a type of character we haven’t seen before, an alien who’s genuinely conflicted between the two factions. He’s subtle in ways that are uncharacteristic both for Ice Warriors and for Mark Gatiss. One thing that makes this possible – the decision to have him be played by a single actor instead of having Nicholas Briggs do another monster voice. Richard Ashton’s performance, especially the decision to do a very different voice from the standard Ice Warrior hiss, is really impressive for a monster suit performance.
- And in a random comment about suits, it’s really weird to see Doctor Who drop two new spacesuit designs in a season after recycling the one from The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit all the way through Kill the Moon.
- This was the last thing of the season I didn’t have high expectations for (although it cleared those expectations handily). Frankly, I’m massively psyched for everything left until Chibnall, possibly next week most of all.
- All right. See you Tuesday with some Proverbs of Hell and Thursday with Ian McDuffie for a podcast.
- Thin Ice
- The Pyramid at the End of the World
- The Pilot
- Empress of Mars
- Knock Knock
- The Lie of the Land