Gallibase has relaunched ‘Timelash’ as a story-per-day affair. Along with others, I’ve managed a review (ranging from a terse comment to a bloated essay) for every story. It goes without saying, I don’t have a girlfriend.
Anyway. Today, we got to ‘The Tenth Planet’ and so I thought I might post my comments here – or the more interesting ones anyway (everything being relative) – and make it a regular thing every time we finish with a Doctor. Basically, I’m very bored.
As you will see, my view of the Hartnell era is much influenced by the work of V. Gordon Childe, Walter Benjamin, historical materialism in general, the wobbly ‘permanent arms economy’ theory, William Morris, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Edward Said and lots of thinly veiled class hatred. There’s also some stuff in here that might remind you of the About Time books… but, with all due respect to Miles and Wood, I’d already thought of it all before I read them. When I mention something that I got from them, I acknowledge it.
‘An Unearthly Child’
It’s been said before but its true: the first episode is amazing, the other three are disappointing… but only by comparison.
The first episode really is extraordinary; an example of pure TV alchemy. A fusion of literate sci-fi, children’s fiction, folklore, the aesthetics of ‘everyday life’ drama, urban gothic and the uncanny. Somehow, everything comes together to create something fascinating, suggestive, oneric and scary.
The stuff with the tribe is rather grim and plodding by comparison… yet, note how seriously it demands to be taken. And note the thought that went into the themes.
To the Doctor, Ian and Barbara are savages… just as the tribe are to Ian and Barbara. Fire is technology, the future… to be acquired by a society struggling in cold and darkness… just as the TARDIS is a symbol of the same quest for power through technology. The reluctant crewmates of the TARDIS find themselves forced to be a tribe, to be a society in miniature.
Note, also, the characterisation of the Doctor. His intellect (which is ruthless and cold) is undermined by his emotional reactions. When he doesn’t think too hard, he reacts with instinctive compassion. “If he dies, there will be no fire!” And then he proceeds to deduce who murdered The Old Woman (nice character for an actress to be offered) and ruthlessly engineer the coup against Kal.
Note also, how many of the series long running concerns are already present: technology, tools, political struggle, tyranny, literacy, death, social and universal and technological entropy…
Really, this story libels tribal societies. Hunter-gather societies (in which humans lived for the vast majority of their history) were almost certainly very egalitarian and probably dominated by social altruism. Certainly, most tribal societies that survived into the modern era demonstrated startling ethics of fairness and sharing. They didn’t behave like the Tribe of Gum, who are ruthless and selfish throatslitters, preying on each other, yearning for hierarchical domination and unable to understand compassion. They’re more like people from a devastated capitalist world. Which makes me think that the Gummers are probably just the survivors (or the children of the survivors) of the nuclear war that people in 1963 expected any minute. This isn’t 100,000 BC. It’s more like 1986, twenty years after someone pressed the red button.
But then, fire has always been able to burn us as well as warm us.
‘The Daleks’ is a weird one. Looked at one way, the Daleks are Nazis irrationally trying to destroy the Thals simply because they’re different… which reduces racism, even the highly systematised and technological racism displayed by the Daleks, to mere xenophobia.
On the other hand, you can look at ‘The Daleks’ as a story about the evil troglodytes (the Daleks are very deliberately made into diminutive underground dwellers) who persecute the virtuous, noble, volkisch, Nordic types.. i.e. as the Wagnerian, anti-semitic version of Norse mythology.
So, it’s either an inept anti-racist polemic… or an accidental quasi-Nazi fable!
How did this happen? Perhaps because the story is so indebted to Wells’ The Time Machine, which is itself indebted to this fusion of Norse myth and Wagnerian opera. (Well, I think the story is more indebted to the George Pal movie than to the actual book… but the movie carefully removes Wells’ subtext about the class struggle, thus making the Blondes-persecuted-by-evil-trogs side of things even more obvious.) ‘The Daleks’ even makes the nasty underworlders into scientists and technicians, which is an Age-of-the-Atom/B-movie reiteration of the Niebelungen/Morlocks as industrious villains, working at fiery forges.
I think Nation and Whittaker were trying to be anti-prejudice. But Ian’s analysis of the race war ignores the fact that the Daleks have come off (drastically) worse as a result of a war which was probably started by the Thals, who were the warriors back then. And the reasoning by which Ian convinces the Thals to launch a pre-emptive strike would gladden the heart of a neocon. Conveniently, the Daleks really are tooled up with WMD which they are planning to deploy at any moment… which makes the genocidal attack upon them by the Thals and TARDIS crew all right.
It’s kinda hard to see these problems when you look at the story through the fog of decades in which the Daleks have developed from crippled and fearful underground survivors into galaxy-spanning and unfathomably evil conquerors.
It’s also kind hard to see this story for the curate’s egg it is, when we all know that the Daleks made the show.
But this really is just a B-movie rip-off with questionable morality.
The triumph of the story is, of course, aesthetic. The production design, the forest, the amazing music, the amazing sounds, the Dalek voices and the Dalek machines themselves – an instant design classic.
‘Edge of Destruction’
Dali Who! Melting clocks! Scissors! Shadows!
But, of course, it misses the point of dream symbolism… because every weeeeiiird symbol turns out to mean something literal, something mechanical… and once properly interpreted, everything is solved. Mystery, clues, theories, solution, resolution. This isn’t Freud or surrealism. It’s… it’s Agatha flamin’ Christie.
It’s also proto-Moffatt. He’s all about contrived creepiness, fake surrealism and soapy relationship conflicts as garnish upon tricksy stories about malfunctioning systems.
For all that, it’s well acted, creepy and sinister at times, etc. And I like the idea that something as small and insignificant as a jammed spring under a switch could cause a machine like the TARDIS to both malfunction and go a bit mental. The contrast between the huge, cosmic events outside the TARDIS doors and the smallness of the fault is pleasing. The animated sequence is lovely and the special sounds are, once again, marvellous.
If only the cast had all been on the same page. Russell and Ford play the early scenes like Beckett but Hartnell and Hill just chug on like normal.
A story about people trapped together in a particular landscape and political situation. Personalities chime, rhyme, clash, abrade, compromise, cheat, strategise, strain against each other, etc…
Marco is the unbendingly honest and decent plain dealer… who is desperate to get away from the society that he once loved so much that he allowed himself to be adopted by it… so desperate that he will steal the TARDIS and kidnap the tense little pseudo-family now living in it… and be unaware of his own hypocrisy because he considers his royal charge to be warrant for anything… but who is not really trusted or accepted by the Mongols around him, however much he might refuse to see this…
… and yet he has more in common with even Tegana than with the Doctor and friends. The beginnings of a clash of old and new moral sensibilities in the 60s is echoed in the different attitudes of the 13th century characters and the time travellers. The fascinating scene in which Ian tells Marco the truth… and Marco refuses to believe him because he once lied about the key! The wonderful scene in which Marco falls into a rage because he finds that the future people don’t see what is obvious to him: that Ping Cho should and must be married to the man chosen for her.
Marco’s sense of honour stops him seeing Tegana’s blatant villainy. This isn’t a goof, as some claim. Rather, it’s a character note. Tegana is an appointed ambassador, hence to be trusted. The wily old Kublai Khan has seen more of life and has the quiet ruthlessness of an efficient ruler. He notices how well Tegana has persuaded him to doubt Marco’s loyalty… hence his trust in Tegana is also reduced.
The world in which the TARDIS had landed keeps unfolding and expanding, revealing itself in ever greater detail… new characters keep appearing and broadening the social picture… the characters refuse to be what we expect them to be, i.e. the Khan turns out to be a wizened and doddery old fart, yearning to play board games all day and scared of his wife… and then slowly reveals that he has a mind like a razor blade.
But, for all the sprawling time and geography traversed, this is a story about social confinement. Marco wants out of the Khan’s service, Tegana is trapped by his own role as provocateur, the TARDIS crew are trapped so near to the means of their escape that it nearly drives them mad, the Doctor is trapped by his own unbending will, Marco by his own refusal to deviate from duty, Ping Cho by the destiny laid out for her, even the Khan is trapped in his palace and his status and his wealth – which seems to mean so little to him that he’ll gamble it away on games of backgammon.
The key, as so often in Doctor Who, is flexibility of thinking. Tegana is inflexible, but all the others eventually manage to think their way out of their traps, at least to some degree.
The first bona fide specimen of that most frustrating species: the clever/dumb story. ‘The Sensorites’ is both clever and stupid in equal measure. The plot makes very little sense… but even the silliest elements stem from a genuine attempt to be different and imaginative and thought-provoking.
There are some reactionary elements. The depiction of the Sensorites contains a submerged form of orientalism (they’re enigmatic, all look the same and live in a forbidden city), and there’s an implicit theme about personal ambition always and inevitably destabilising egalitarian political states (“some people always want more” as the nice air stewardess woman says, so forget about socialism kids!).
Also, the depiction of humans (i.e. all white westerners, natch) accidentally causing problems for a foreign culture (as mentioned, the Sensorites are an encoded orientalist stereotype) and suffering madness because of their contact with it, is pure imperialist self pity.
Mind you, Ray Cusick neutralises this effect to some degree by creating an amazing set for the Sensorite city that recalls Gaudi.
On the whole, this is an attempt at a story about openness to the unknown and the different, about the need for a rational and humane approach to contact with strangers. Again, flexibility of thinking is the key. The Sensorites – who are a rigid and static culture – need to think outside of the box they live in… and the humans – who are depicted as psychologically vulnerable to fear and lunacy – need to accept contact with the other.
It’s just a shame that this dialectic is rendered in terms of a daft, ludicrously overcomplicated, grindingly slow ‘thriller’ plot about a villainous public official whose big, sneaky disguise involves simply changing his attire. Slightly.
‘The Reign of Terror’
So, the policy of making ‘educational’ historical stories has already come unstuck. And why? Because the decision was made to do one about the French Revolution… which entails a choice: do the actual history, which would run the terrible risk of actually making the revolution look quite exciting and admirable… or do a Baroness Orczy pastiche. Obviously, it had to be the latter.
It had to be set during the “Reign of Terror” rather than during any other phase of the revolution. It had to feature Robespierre as a cold hearted, calculating, bloodthirsty tyrant. It had to depict the sans culottes as thugs, lechers, cowardly grovellers and ignorant scum. It had to feature dashing British agents rescuing people from a guillotine that is melting due to constant and indiscriminate use.
What was the alternative? Depict the common people of France in a good light? Celebrate the fact that they’d unseated a brutal, callous, ruthlessly exploitative and repressive autocracy that had flogged and beaten and worked and starved them into misery for years, while the rich lived in careless luxury under the benevolent eye of a succession or moronic, indolent scum kings? Depict Robespierre as a complex, flawed but fundamentally idealistic man, trapped in desperate circumstances, trying to radicalise a revolution that was slipping back on its initial promise, fighting a war against a very real threat from invaders who wanted to destroy the gains the people had made and reinstall the vengeful monarchy? Acknowledge the fact that relatively low numbers died in “the Terror”, certainly compared to other terrible moments in history that can be laid at the door of the system the Jacobins were trying to bury forever? Acknowledge the fact that the British state was up to its necks in trying to send the French people back under the thumbs of their earstwhile lords and masters?
Oh no, that would never do. What would Lord Reith say?
Of course, these are all ideological choices… and what ‘The Reign of Terror’ peddles to kids is ruling class ideology, plain and simple. A few half-hearted words about the revolution being “not all bad” merely create the illusion of balance in a story that depicts the revolution as an irrational outbreak of villainy and fanaticism, imposed on ignorant scum commoners by evil zealots.
Well, bollocks to that.
Why not do a story about the first phase of the revolution? About the massive upsurge in popular involvement and democracy? About the storming of the Bastille? About a postman arresting a fleeing King? About people suddenly refusing to obey the lazy filth who’d owned and run them all their lives? About Tom Paine, or Mary Wollstonecraft, or Wordsworth… ? Yes, show how the revolution derailed and started to “eat its own children”… but show the concrete, historical reasons why this happened.
But no, we get the Blue Peter version.
I hate this one. I don’t need a story to suit my ideological preferences before I can like it… but this one is too much.
Having, by now, entirely and wholeheartedly abandoned any pretence of making “educational” (i.e. vaguely accurate) historicals, the show is now free to visit historical periods and settings for the purpose of sending them up, and sending up the way in which they’ve been depicted elsewhere.
So, in ‘The Romans’, we get the TARDIS crew poncing about playing at being in Ancient Rome (Ian spouting his few bits of latin, Barbara combing his hair forward, etc), we get cheesy stock footage of lions inserted into a cheesy storyline about lions in the arena, we get Nero and the imperial court as bedroom farce, we get the professional court poisoner, etc…
Years before I, Claudius did Rome as a middle class soap opera, ‘The Romans’ does it as outright sitcom… and very clever and witty it is too. It’s camp in the best sense: archly straining against its own pretentions and brazenly revelling in its limitations.
‘The Web Planet’
It’s usual to say something like “great ideas, poor production values”. In my opinion, it’s the other way round. For the time, and given the temporal and spatial and financial limitations under which they were working, the production values are amazing. The plot, on the other hand, is boring and hackneyed. Okay, it’s cast in terms of insect-people, but essentially this is nothing but the most basic rebels-vs-guards runaround. Capture, interrogation, escape, rebellion, prison breakout, blah, blah, blah.
The first episode is rather enjoyable, for the peculiarity of (amongst other things) the new environment in which the crew find themselves and the even greater peculiarity of Hartnell’s performance. Maureen O’Brien continues to impress, conveying genuine fear at Barbara’s possessed hand.
It’s interesting to note the submerged, anti-communist theme. The Zarbi are beasts of burden, made “militant” by the arrival of a malignant, cancerous spider and rebelling against their natural rulers, the noble Menoptera. The Menoptera are put into labour camps and treated brutally. They have to plot an invasion and counter revolution to restore the natural order and put the Zarbi back down to their proper position. The Animus (which is another word for hostility or hatred) is called “the dark power” by the Menoptera… yet, interestingly, it burns with light. However, the serial doesn’t really question the moral right of the Menoptera to re-establish their rule and the power that has unseated them is depicted as unnatural, as enslaving the mind, overturning the proper hierarchy of society and destroying all order. It’s a reactionary depiction of a space-Bolshevik. The Zarbi are the mindless drones who are encouraged by this manipulative force into usurping their proper masters and then establishing a tyranny.
Whittaker draws on conventional ideas and adventure story tropes about the Crusades, and adopts a quasi-Shakespearean mode with the dialogue… all of which could easily have made this killingly naff. But it’s saved – and triumphs – because it strives carefully and conscientiously to provide a nuanced, detailed, morally complex picture of events and personalities… and because it is so deliciously aware of itself as a story.
Richard is portrayed far more kindly than he deserves… but still, he is shown to be capricious, scheming, selfish, callous and manipulative. Joanna’s tirades express both a just outrage at being used like a chess piece (with which we can sympathise) and a racist revulsion at the “infidels”. The Earl of Leicester’s bigotry, superstition and warmongering counterpoints noble English characters like William des Preaux.
On the other side, El Akir is a classic orientalist stereotype – an almost archetypal expression of Western ideas about the cruel, sensual, decadent East. And yet… he is seen to conspire with a Genovese merchant who is prepared to help him acquire Barbara in return for a chance to talk contracts with Saladin. These are still stereotypes (i.e. the machiavellian, money-minded Italian) but they problematise any attempt to see this as a story about nasty Muslims victimising innocent Westerners. Saladin himself is dignified, intellectual, judicious, melancholy, ruthless, noble… the depiction is the classic version of a Western admiration for the man, epitomised by the fact that Napoleon built him a tomb. (One wonders how, by contrast, Whittaker would have depicted the altogether more ferocious and effective Baibers, who is more admired in the Muslim world than Saladin.) The various harem girls are depicted more or less as sexual slaves (this version of harems being yet another obsession of the West, particularly in Romantic and Gothic fiction or art). So, imperfect… but an obvious attempt has been made to be balanced.
I recently watched the David Suchet version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. They inserted a scene (not in the novel) in which an adulteress is hunted down through the streets of Istanbul by a baying mob and stoned to death. The British presence in Istanbul, meanwhile, is depicted in terms of ‘men of honour’ commiting suicide when accused of lying. Later, Poirot rages at the killers on the train, calling them “medieval” for taking the law into their own hands like (it is implied) the savages on the streets of Istanbul, who were (Poirot has previously remarked) simply obeying the law of their “different culture”. He ends the story clutching a rosary. What I’m saying is that, compared to the kind of casual, faux-sophisticated Islamophobia that is now mainstream enough to get on primetime ITV, ‘The Crusade’ looks like it was written by George Galloway.
The best thing is the depiction of ordinary people. Ibrahim is a rogue, but a lovable one with a streak of the anarchist in him. Ben Daheer and Thatcher are struggling to get by in a warring world run by big personalities who don’t care about the little guy. Haroun – evidently a devout Muslim – is a man of immense dignity and humanity; the most straightforwardly sympathetic guest character in the whole tale.
The other great thing about this story is its awareness of itself as a story, indeed of Doctor Who as a story. Whittaker uses Shakespeare as a template for telling a story set in the past (which was common practice for every TV hack back them) but is playfully aware of the fact. He has Vicki get into the kind of comic cross-dressing dilemmas that turn up all the time in Shakespeare. The Chamberlain is obviously a version of Malvolio and other such characters in the plays. Whittaker launches the characters into quasi-iambic pentameter during the barnstorming debate scene in which the Doctor plays (with evident and self-conscious theatricalism) at being a royal adviser.
And, most beautifully, Whittaker has Barbara tell Saladin about her travels on the TARDIS… which Saladin interprets as meaning that she and her friends are travelling players, tellers of stories about giant insects and Roman emperors… and he tells her that her survival will rely upon becoming a new Scheherazade, the storyteller from the One Thousand and One Nights, who knew that she would die if she ever ran out of stories… a bit like the show itself, or even human culture itself.
‘The Time Meddler’
Witty, cheeky and very clever. Dennis Spooner invents an entirely new kind of Who story… though, really, it’s just a development of the ordinary ‘historicals’ (which, after all, have time travellers in them, i.e. our heroes) crossed with precedents like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and even A Dream of John Ball.
But Spooner combines this with the kind of cheeky interrogation of history, and of the show’s inability to really be accurate or educational about history, that he previously tried out in ‘The Romans’.
1066 and all that comes under his ironic gaze here, and because of his less overt use of comedy, we are never entirely sure when (and if) he’s joking… which is great fun.
I tend to think that he spends the entire story gently mocking every standard idea about the period – from Flintstones villagers to treasure-seeking, behelmeted Vikings – and counterpointing it with the idea of two time travellers, one who wants to just watch and one who wants to change things (i.e. rewrite the story to make it better).
Is this a picture of two opposing ways of writing ‘historicals’? The educational way vs. the ironic way; the straight way vs. the muckabouty way? If so, Spooner undermines the straight way at every turn. What is the Monk but a distorted picture of the Doctor? After all, the Doctor intervenes when it suits him, moralising to cover up his own desire to get involved and have adventures, collecting bric-a-brac… the Monk just has more self-awareness, just like an ironic story in relation to a straight one. The conclusion seems to be that the unironic way is the least honest… but the Doctor still has to win. How ironic.
The only bum note in all this mockabilly narrative syncopation is the implied rape of Edith. This seems to be in there simply because Spooner is mocking every last cliche about Vikings, but perhaps there was a taste failure there. It’s debateable.
Hartnell was never better and his scenes with the excellent Butterworth are priceless. Purves and O’Brien are two of the best actors to ever play companions, and their scenes together are excellent. They really work up a great relationship between their two characters. Camfield’s direction is full of lovely touches (i.e. the overhead back projected sky) but he’s in on Spooner’s joke, viz the hilariously jammed-in stock footage of the longboat.
‘The Myth Makers’
This one grows in stature every time I listen to it.
First and foremost, this is genuinely funny. And the fun comes on several levels. Earthy wit, bathos which plays against the mythic dimensions of the story, good puns (nothing wrong with a good pun) and self-aware self-ridicule (notice how Cotton puts the best puns… which are always the worst ones… into the mouths of the most fatuous characters).
Secondly, this is a brilliant trip into Doctor Who as both psuedo-History and self-aware Story. They’ve been doing this sort of thing for a while now under the aegis of Dennis Spooner (whose own scripts are exemplars of it) and Cotton swoops in with just the right script to bring the theme to a head.
Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan war, Troilus and Cressida, is a gloriously filthy and cynical swipe at all notions of order, hierarchy, love, honour, legend and… well, just about everything else you can think of. Cotton is clearly influenced by this (though he tones down the bile and smut, natch). The Trojan story is the perfect vehicle for a sceptical and ironical look at history and myth… precisely because it masquerades as history and provides one of the fundamental mythic narratives of Western culture. Cities at war, peoples in opposition… all because of noble motives about protecting the honour of untrustworthy women. All rubbish, of course… as ‘The Myth Makers’ shows, with its guilty references to “trade routes” and its total disinterest in Helen (she’s an inconsequential, lazy bimbo in Shakespeare; in ‘Myth Makers’ she’s simply irrelevant and thus absent).
Moreover, as reiteration of myth and legend in the age and idioms of modernity, sci-fi is obsessed with Greeks and Trojans. Sci-fi is crammed full of warring races/cities/planets and Who is no exception (i.e. Kaleds and Thals, Atrios and Zeos, etc).
Where ‘Myth Makers’ particularly scores is in its awareness of the fact that the TARDIS crew have ventured into a space that is neither history nor myth but simply Story. The Doctor resists the horse idea but eventually, wearily, has to give in to it. Stephen tries to pass as a Greek warrior and finds he gets on much better behaving like a sitcom character. Vicki seems to realise that she is caught in an inevitable destiny (plot?) when she meets Troilus and realises what he thinks her name is. Of course, she has to have a happy ending and so be allowed to avoid the clutches of Diomedes… but only because in this version of events he’s already dead. She and Troilus disappear into a new myth as they meet up with Aeneas.
After this story, Doctor Who descends into weeks and weeks and bloody weeks of pompous, bloated, OTT, Dan Dare bullshit… so it’s delicious to see such stuff mocked in advance. The warring races, invasions and swaggering heroics of Terry Nation have already been given a slow puncture by Donald Cotton. Heroes aren’t brave and semi-divine supermen, they’re cowardly or outright villainous. Odysseus is vile, but he’s preferable to just about everyone else in the story because he’s the only one with irony or self-awareness. He’s the only one who really knows that gods are always fake, heroes always drunks and fools, honour little more than ideology, heroics always little more than murder.
And here we come to another triumph: the seriousness of the depiction of the slaughter. The trouble with irony is that it can become overpowering and put us at a distance from the emotional effect that drama should have on us. Cotton switches the irony off at the last moment and allows the dirty brutality of war to suddenly jump out at us. The effect is quite startling.
A thousand curses upon whoever burnt this one.
‘The Massacre’ (Yes, that’s what’s it called. Nice, short, succinct title.)
On the surface, this is the most ‘serious’ Doctor Who story ever made. It’s John Lucarotti’s version of Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, minus the crude (but thrilling) machiavellianism of the Guise. There’s a very good BBC radio production of Marlowe’s play (findable online if you look in the right places…). Listen to it immediately before or after the CD release of ‘The Massacre’. The effect is rather startling.
Lucarotti plays the politics, the diplomacy, the bigotry, the violence all dead straight. Paddy Russell (a marvellous director) brings in an amazing cast who treat the script like Shakespeare or Bernard Shaw. The massacre itself, with the sounds of mass murder overlaid over depictions, is done with the direct intention of causing horror.
There is an inexorability about these parts of the story which mirrors the terrible inexorability of history. There’s no escaping the massacre, or the suffering. In this way, this story says much more about the “destruction of time” than the last one. We might not agree that massacres are inevitable, but we are forced to assent (with the Doctor’s peroration at the end as a caveat) to the story’s contention that History is a great machine that grinds the little people up into mincemeat.
Also, this story pulls no punches in its depiction of the corrupt, callous, ruthlessness of a royal state. Even the King himself is caught in the whirlpool of Catherine de Medici’s unaccountable power. The bigotry radiates downwards from her and she is shown – in the single most negative depiction of a real historical royal ever in Who – to be a thoroughly hateful specimen. Tavanne is much less a bigot than a loyal apparatchik to a state that is rotten to the core.
Thing is… this is also a story about a time traveller who inexplicably encounters (or rather fails to encounter) a physical double, leading to all sorts of adventure-serial mistaken-identity shenanigans. The best that can be said about this strain of the story is that it comes from Dickens (physical doubles leading to confusions in Paris) rather than Marlowe.
There is a staginess, a literary artifice about this element of the story that directly plays against the careful attempts at realism elsewhere. With the arch smile and knowing wink of a Dennis Spooner or a Donald Cotton, a story could get away with it… but Lucarotti’s straightforwardness, coupled with the bolted-on business of the Abbot of Amboise seeming to be the Doctor, makes for an awkward combination.
For all its integrity, there is something less convincing about this story than even ‘The Myth Makers’, precisely because ‘Myth Makers’ is prepared to face the fact that its a story, whereas ‘Massacre’ tries to dodge it.
Even with these niggles, however, it’s still a 9/10. If only for the little details, like Preslin’s interest in lenses, or the way the Huguenots react to Stephen saying he’s been in Egypt.
Easily the best of the Hartnell futuristicky stories; certainly the only one that can compare favourably with the historicals.
It’s a straightforward tale about benevolent rulers of a utopia who, natch, turn out to be evil exploiters in charge of a dystopia. Cue lots of captures, escapes, chases, etc.
This story scores, however, by taking its concepts very seriously and trying to explore them.
This is achieved, partly, by the stripping away of obvious indicators. Apparently this was going to be called ‘The White Savages’ but that got changed. Jaeger is blacked up but seems to be the only swarthy Elder. So, this isn’t straightforwardly about race. There are elderly “savages” and young “Elders” so it’s not straightforwardly about the generation gap. There’s no labour or production of any kind, so it’s not straightforwardly about capitalism.
This leaves the story free to focus on exploitation itself, in its most basic form. Of course, sucking out the “life force” is sci-fi mumbojumbo, but its very emptiness as a concept allows it to stand for lots of other things.
The story gets exploitation fundamentally right. You exploit people, seperate and degrade them in the process, and then point to their seperateness and degradation as proof that they’re to blame for their own position. You treat your victims as less than human. You cover up as much of the dirty process as you can and ideologically neutralise the rest. You treat anyone who dares to protest with condescension and then brutality if they refuse to shut up. The exploitation leads to surplus and thus to hierarchy, though even those on the lower levels of the oppressing class don’t have the same status and liberty as the people at the pinnacle. The luxury and complacency that stems from the exploitation helps to legitimate the system, even providing a utilitarian pseudo-moral argument. Etc.
I think this speaks to unease about the long post-war economic boom that was just starting to decline when this story was shown. The boom was built largely on unprecedented and continuous armaments production, legitimated by the “cold war”. Meanwhile, the third world starved and Indochina burned under Western bombing raids. Mind you, I don’t want to overstate that. Economics is invisible in this story (as it usually is in Doctor Who), with it being by no means clear how harvesting the mojos of a bunch of hairy people translates into a post-labour and post-scarcity society for others. Also, the very metaphorical vagueness of the story makes it impossible for it to say anything specific about capitalism or imperialism.
There’s a strong moral strain in this story that is both a strength and a weakness. You can’t help but thrill to the Doctor’s passionate moral outrage (Hartnell is on particularly good form here)… but you also get fascist guards who reform once they get a taste of their own medicine, which is unconvincing. Also, the story ends with a reconciliation, instead of real retribution. The exploiters and the exploited must learn to forgive each other and live together…. but how can they?
All the same, and bearing all the weaknesses in mind, this is still the most intelligent, direct and thoughtful “sci-fi” Hartnell… though it lacks the arch wit and self-consciousness of the best historicals. It may fail here and there but, essentially, this is a fine example of what Who was *made* to do: the politico-mythic morality fable.