Peter Murphy had to tone it down a bit before Bauhaus
really took off.
It’s November 22nd, 1980. Blondie remains at number one with “The Tide is High.” A week later ABBA take over the spot with “Super Trouper,” their last number one hit on the UK charts. It remains at number one for the remainder of the story. The Police, The Boomtown Rats, Kool and the Gang, UB40, and John Lennon also chart. Meanwhile, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash, and Devo lurk about in the lower portions of the charts, the latter with “Whip It,” which peaks in the 50s, which is probably considerably lower than people would guess if pressed.
In real news, we should probably start with the murder of John Lennon, which, a week later, causes his then declining single “(Just Like) Starting Over” to suddenly jump from 22nd to number one and prompting a hurried rerelease of “Imagine.” Because for an anti-capitalist pacifist legend John Lennon and Yoko Ono were nothing if not shrewd businesspeople. A massive earthquake kills nearly 5000 in southern Italy. And Jean Donovan, and American missionary, is murdered in El Salvador along with three Catholic nuns. Her singles, of which there are none, do not chart as a result.
While on television, it’s 1977. Those who enjoy the ways in which the musical charts and Doctor Who oddly parallel will be bemused that 1977 was by most standards the peak of ABBA’s popularity, and that the last time ABBA was at number one was during The Invasion of Time, the last story of the season that was meant to begin with The Vampire Mutations by Terrance Dicks. Unfortunately the BBC was busy doing a high-profile adaptation of Dracula at the time and Head of Serials Graeme MacDonald commenced the first of a long series of butting heads with Graham Williams and ordered the script spiked for fear that Doctor Who would be seen as “sending up” the BBC’s more serious adaptation. It was replaced by Horror of Fang Rock.
Then came Bidmead, who as we’ve seen had a distinctly different take on what the program should be than his predecssor. Bidmead viewed Doctor Who as a more or less straight drama, whereas Adams, though not the cavalier jokester his detractors portray him as being, clearly preferred a mixture of comedy and drama. Beyond that, Bidmead preferred structures where real scientific concepts were transformed and expanded into the fantastic where Adams preferred to work with stock sci-fi ideas that didn’t need explanation. The result was that Bidmead saw little value in anything Adams had commissioned save for Christopher Priest’s “Sealed Orders,” which didn’t quite work out due in part to Romana needing to be removed from it. (Bidmead did commission another script from Priest, but that one fell afoul of Eric Saward, creating one of the great “what might have beens” of Doctor Who’s history) The best option he could find, then, was to go way back into the program’s archives and dust off The Vampire Mutations.
As a result we have a script that was made for 1977 and the aesthetic of the Hinchcliffe era being made in 1980. This turns into a study of contrasts. The nearest equivalent story in the program’s history is The Brain of Morbius – another Terrance Dicks effort adapting a classic British horror story, although Holmes’s script for The Pyramids of Mars is also an obvious antecedent, as is The Talons of Weng-Chiang. We are, in other words, back in the model of the literary homage, where the Doctor is unleashed inside of someone else’s story to jockey for supremacy.
But in the old model – even in the “serious” days of the Hinchcliffe era – this was done in part with a bit of humor. But Bidmead’s drive towards drama has stripped much of that away. Even still, the Doctor is funnier in this story than he has been all season (or, if you want to think about it in terms of production order, his humor wasn’t done being stripped away). But this is something that can’t simply be wound back. The three years of Graham Williams focusing primarily on the Doctor and his charismatic charm make it impossible to go back to the lower key humor of the Hinchcliffe era. It’s dialed back here, but in an odd way – his clowning is still broad and excessive, just considerably rarer. The result is a script in which the Doctor is mostly serious save for a quick bit of physical comedy with Romana and a deliberately parodic bit rousing the villagers into an opposition army against the vampires.
But this really does pose a problem for the Hinchcliffe approach. With the exception of the extremely serious Pyramids of Mars, the Hinchcliffe era’s horror pastiches were mostly quite funny. The Brain of Morbius, after all, had a suicidal vegetable envier as its great galactic conquerer. And the seriousness of Pyramids of Mars is hard to read as a virtue – when looked at alongside the rest of its era it, like The Seeds of Doom, comes across as fast-paced and brutal because of a lack of other ideas as opposed to out of a commitment to gripping action-packed drama. So by stripping the impish and mercurial qualities out of the approach Bidmead sets himself up with a real problem – how do you make the story work?
Further complicating things is the fact that Bidmead’s usual approach faces a real challenge here. At his best Bidmead creates the fantastic out of the real, through playful expansions upon existing concepts. In Full Circle he took the basic idea of evolution and created a world out of literary uses of it. In time, when he starts contributing his own scripts, he’ll build worlds and universes out of mathematical and computer science concepts. But there’s no real way to make hard scientific concepts out of vampires. You’re pretty much up a creek when it comes to making vampires stem from science. Fundamentally, they stem from literature and stories. And that’s not a direction Bidmead is eager to go in.
Under normal circumstances this would be a recipe for disaster. I mean, occasionally you get gold when the scriptwriter and script editor are pulling in different directions, but more normally you get a muddled trainwreck of conflicting ideas and men in very bad lizard costumes. But this is Terrance Dicks. That’s not a knock on David Fisher, who’s a fine scriptwriter, but Terrance Dicks is, god bless him, the most magnificently efficient hack on the planet. And I use “hack” here not in a pejorative sense at all. This has always been the gift of Terrance Dicks – he can write well even when he has no desire to be writing what he’s writing. I mean, nobody seriously believes he enjoyed every Target novelization he wrote, do they? No. Dicks is the ultimate “lock himself in his flat for a weekend and bang the fucking thing out” writer, and there’s not a set of circumstances on the planet that is going to get him to turn out half-assed work. Or, rather, his half-assed work is barely distinguishable from his top notch work. Even if his heights of genius are lower than those of Robert Holmes – or even of Christopher Bidmead – Terrance Dicks’s worst case scenario is still leagues above most people’s best day at the office.
But in this case there’s an assist from an odd direction. Because what ends up happening is that the vampires are explained in terms of ancient Time Lord legend. And this, in turn, hits upon an odd transition in the nature of the Time Lords. There are, in the classic series, essentially three visions of the Time Lords. Two have shown up so far – Terrance Dicks’s and Robert Holmes’s. (The third, of course, is Andrew Cartmel’s) The Dicks version is the one we see starting in The War Games and extending through the Pertwee era. The Holmes version begins with Genesis of the Daleks and lasts until The Deadly Assassin. But then comes the odd decade or so between The Deadly Assassin and Remembrance of the Daleks in which both Dicks and Holmes weigh in on the Time Lords with no real coherence or mutual plan.
For the most part Terrance Dicks “wins” this debate by outliving Holmes, writing most of the novelizations featuring the Time Lords and then writing several books in the 90s and early 00s with Time Lords such that he basically got to spin out his vision at great length. Whereas Holmes’s vision lurks around under the surface of Dicks’s, never quite becoming clear. (A prime example is Dicks’s obsession with the CIA) The usual statement of this – coming in part from Jan Rudzki’s legendary screed about The Deadly Assassin – is that Dicks’s Time Lords are powerful technocrats whereas Holmes’s are petty squabblers. But this is wrong. Dicks’s Time Lords are just as prone to factional squabbling as Holmes’s – The Three Doctors is full of the stuff.
No, the difference is rather one of attitude. Dicks’s Time Lords are detached and above the fray whereas Holmes’s Time Lords are historically bound. I am not going to rehash the argument made in The Deadly Assassin, in no small part because it was 15,000 words long, but the end point was that Holmes’s Time Lords functioned as creatures who still interacted with the universe through memory and imagination whereas Dicks’s Time Lords were austere technocrats who looked down on the universe from a position of superiority. (Another way of putting this is that Dicks’s Time Lords were what Williams did with the Guardians.) Holmes’s Time Lords, in other words, are mysterious even to themselves, lords of something they do not fully understand. (It is, as ever, a gorgeous bit of cynicism on Holmes’s part – after all, what lord ever understands those who are ruled over.)
This marks the first time since The Deadly Assassin that Dicks has gotten to return to his creations in a meaningful sense. While none but Romana and the Doctor appear, the nature of Time Lords is central to the story. The plot hinges on the existence of an ancient war between the Time Lords and the vampires, and speculates that vampire legends on all planets come from some ancient memory of this conflict. On one level this is just your usual von Danikenism – oh look, human legends of vampires are really just legends of aliens. But there’s something underpinning it that is new. Past stories have usually contented themselves to explain aspects of human mythology in terms of aliens. But here the script asserts that vampire legends exist across species. I have not exhaustively checked this next claim, and so may turn out to be wrong, but I believe this is the first time that the von Daniken trick has been applied on a universe-wide level instead of on a planet-wide level. (The closest I can think of is the end of Underworld, which suggests that the Greek myth was in fact a prophecy of future) And because we’re so familiar with the von Daniken trick it’s easy to miss the radical element of this, which is that it means that narrative principles are quietly revealed to be a fundamental principle of the universe. There is such a thing as a universal narrative.
Once again we have that characteristically odd double gesture of the Bidmead era – and Miles and Wood pick up on this at length with their essay on this story, in which they use it to argue that Doctor Who could well be fantasy and not science fiction. On the one hand vampires turn out to be ancient aliens with scientific explanations and they are only able to maintain their power by keeping the people from reading or learning – knowledge is forbidden and the chief vampire is actually a scientist. But there are two things that undercut this. First, of course, is that vampires are real at all. Even if they’re “really just” aliens, they are real and work like we expect them to.
But second and more significantly, everything about the vampires is still grounded in a sense of the ancient and the unknown. Look at the Record of Rassilon itself – an obscure directive buried in an ancient museum piece of technology that is old and obsolete even by the standards of the TARDIS. It’s not a fancy record in the databanks but a set of weathered punchcards the Doctor feeds into the TARDIS. That there was some logic and sense to the Time Lord/Vampire war when it happened it’s clear that the very sense of it is lost and that it has been forgotten.
The result is on one level a swipe at the Holmesian Time Lords – a suggestion that they’re just fallen Dicksian Time Lords who have forgotten too much and are now bumbling around in a universe they’d understand if they only stopped and read up on it. But this misunderstands how the ancient and unknown function in this story. They’re not merely mysteries to clear up. Defeating the vampires overtly requires relics and the ancient. The Record of Rassilon, old and arcane as it is, is essential to defeating the vampires. The power of the ancient, in other words, is not merely that it’s scary because we’ve forgotten how to understand it. There is real power to ancient artifacts in this story.
And so the austere autocracy of Dicks’s Time Lords is preserved even within the memory and imagination-bounded vision of Holmes’s Time Lords. Dicks makes mastery over myth and legend a part of the Time Lord’s technocratic superiority. But in the course of doing so he also solves Bidmead’s problem for him. The vampires are simultaneously able to be literary creatures and scientific creatures because they are based on the lost science of the ancient Time Lords. This science flickers between rationalism and a literary approach, with the gap between Holmes and Dicks’s conceptions of Time Lords serving also as the point of ambiguity that allows for an ambiguous relationship between science and fantasy.
And so Bidmead is able to demonstrate how his approach can subsume the Hinchcliffe-era approach of this story. Dracula can fuse with the Doctor because Bidmead’s conception of the scientific is based on the odd fusion of the scientific with the literary. What happens when Dracula is merged with Doctor Who isn’t just some highbrow literary jokes or some recycled thrills from popular movies (though the script has a couple of each) but the move of Dracula out of the familiar conceptual space of a cliche and into a strangely ambiguous conceptual space that bridges reality and imagination.
There are, of course, downsides. Simply put, the production team is not a production team that does these stories with the instinctive skill that the Hinchcliffe era could. An ailing Baker feuding with both of his co-stars and the production team is still phenomenal in the part, but the combination doesn’t lend itself instinctively to a seamless execution. Peter Moffatt begins a lengthy career of idiosyncratic Doctor Who directing with things like the questionable decision to have Aukon, Camilla, and Zargo deliver large swaths of dialogue standing in a tableau and staring at the camera, and it is very, very hard not to laugh when Zargo begins pulling evil vampire faces in the backgrounds of these shots. The result is either a full-throated embrace of overacted lunacy that outdoes the Graham Williams era in its skill at this sort of joke or just bewilderingly ill-advised. (The former is a real possibility, though – look at the joke musical cue K-9 gets when exiting the TARDIS in episode four, as if to comment that he’s woefully unimpressive. This is not the last time we will be left to stare incredulously at the screen trying to figure out if Moffatt is just messing with us. Nor, for that matter, the last person with that name we’ll be doing that with.)
This begins a frustrating tendency of the John Nathan-Turner era, which is that it frequently reaches for doing things the series did in the past and falls short of their past executions in some key ways. Nathan-Turner’s usual defense of this was the catchphrase “the memory cheats,” and there’s at least some truth to it. For all that is wrong with this story – and there are a fair number of things wrong with this story – there’s quite a bit that’s better done, and it still holds to the general truism that the quality of television improves constantly. The costumes and sets for the tower are fabulous and the sorts of things that The Brain of Morbius would have killed for in places. The action sequences are tighter than they’ve been in ages. Though there are some appalling effects the use of fades and video overlays is adding new types of storytelling to the show’s repertoire. And the music is an improvement on Dudley Simpson.
Which is what makes it so infuriating that Aukon, Zargo, and Camilla are only occasionally even tolerable, the peasants look like they came out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and nobody can be bothered to cut together a decent horror sequence in a story about vampires. Yes, the memory cheats in thinking that you could just run Pyramids of Mars as-is on BBC1 in 1980 and have it look good, but the fact of the matter is that if you watch the stories back to back there are obviously some basic technical things that Pyramids of Mars is solid on that State of Decay isn’t. And this keeps being true of the Nathan-Turner era. With maddening frequency it soars on advanced topics in television production while crashing and burning on the basics.
But past that, we still have something interesting here. For three stories now Bidmead has been showing off a new approach for Doctor Who in terms of what came before and showing how it can genuinely improve what Doctor Who is. Now it’s time for what we might call the pure Bidmead era. The first half of the Bidmead era is Bidmead sketching out a vision of the show in terms of things we’ve seen before. Now come four stories that are unlike anything we have ever seen before or since. For sixteen episodes, Doctor Who is going to become one of the most distinctive pieces of science fiction in Great Britain at the time. In fact, I’d say the most distinctive piece if it weren’t for the fact that in another medium entirely an even bigger revolution was already well underway…