|Eldrad must live. Eldrad must jive. Having the time of|
It’s October 2nd, 1976. ABBA remains at number one with “Dancing Queen.” After two weeks, Pussycat unseat them with “Mississippi,” which sounds innocuous until you realize that Pussycat is a Dutch country music band, and that this is one of those moments where the British charts do what sane and rational people never would. Rod Stewart, Manfred Mann, and Chicago also chart.
In other news, the InterCity 125, a high speed train, begins service in the west of Britain. The Cultural Revolution formally ends in China. Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh resigns as President of Ireland after being loudly denounced by the Minister of Defense. As for Fords, Motors begins production of the Fiesta, and Gerald flubs badly in a debate against Jimmy Carter.
While on television, it is the end of an era. And not the obvious one. Yes, this is the story where Lis Sladen departs the series. But in terms of screen time, she’s only actually 2/3 of the way done with her tenure in Doctor Who and related shows. This is, for her, a sort of midpoint pause in her Doctor Who career. Those who want to reflect in polite sadness can read the eulogy I wrote when Sladen passed away in April. But this is not the end for Sarah Jane.
That is not, of course, to say that the apparent end to her involvement with the show is anything less than vital to this story. But in this case, we shouldn’t focus on the sentiment of Sladen’s departure, because doing so loses sight of a far bigger fact – this story marks a fundamental shift in the relationship between Doctor Who and contemporary Britain. More specifically, this is the story where Doctor Who gives up on the idea that it is by default grounded in the real world of the viewer.
The easiest way to show this is with some raw facts. So here they are. The Hand of Fear is the last story until Terror of the Vervoids to feature a companion from contemporary Britain – a run of over a decade. The last time that was true was The War Games. And even in the Troughton era, at least one companion was from Britain at all times, albeit from its history. The last time there were no regulars who were overtly from Britain – the only time, in fact, in the series’ history before this point – was The Daleks’ Masterplan. From The Deadly Assassin through The Keeper of Traken, the Doctor does not even travel with anyone who is from Earth at all.
More telling, however, is this: from The War Machines (the first story in which the straightforwardly arrives in contemporary Britain) to The Hand of Fear, 28 of the 60 stories feature a threat to contemporary Britain – a rate of about 47%. From The Deadly Assassin through Survival only 11 of 72 do – a mere 15%. (You can move the numbers around a bit depending on what you do and don’t count, but the gulf remains.)
This, more even than the departure of Sladen, is the major legacy of this story. It’s where that line of thought essentially gives out and Doctor Who, basically until 2005, abandons contemporary Britain as a primary setting. It doesn’t abandon contemporary Britain entirely, but there’s an intrinsic connection to it that the series had up to this point that goes away. And here I’ll adopt something got a heretical position regarding Doctor Who – albeit one that Miles and Wood sketch out as well when they suggest that the whole Yeti in the Loo idea was a disaster.
The abandonment of contemporary Britain was a good thing.
First, let me add the corollary that the return of it in 2005 was also a good thing. The problem, much like the pause in the influence of social realism on Doctor Who, is not that Doctor Who set in contemporary Britain is a bad idea, but rather that the next major insight into how to do Doctor Who set in contemporary Britain is one that isn’t ready to emerge out of the culture in 1976. I’m not going to go into considerable detail on how Davies solves this problem, but I’m not saying it’s an unsolvable one at all. (Inconsiderable detail: a combination of successfully merging soap opera narrative techniques with Doctor Who [which both Letts and Nathan-Turner had done at earlier stages, but soap operas evolve too, so you can do that trick more than once in the history of the show] and enmeshing Doctor Who into the overall television landscape so that it existed as a cultural event, thus giving it a metafictional tie to contemporary Britain instead of just a literal one. Bad Wolf is, after all, the most contemporary-Britain focused story of the first season.)
But in terms of 1976, contemporary Britain wasn’t working. I mean, to some extent we can just say this aesthetically – if we look at the Tom Baker years, the contemporary Britain stories have had a visibly lower average quality than the others. This isn’t an issue specific to The Hand of Fear at all. It’s not as though one mediocre earthbound story invalidates the genre. But a lengthy string in which the stories focusing primarily on contemporary Britain are mediocre is a bigger problem. And that’s much closer to the situation at hand.
That said, The Hand of Fear happens to also double as a story that clearly illustrates the problems. But to some extent, those problems are best illustrated in terms of a different issue – the evolving career of the Bristol Boys, Bob Baker and David Martin. The thing about Baker and Martin is that the level of quality of their writing coincides almost exactly to what era they’re writing for. Under Barry Letts, they were one of the best writing teams, penning three very solid stories that are among the most interesting things the Pertwee era has to offer. Under the next producer, Graham Williams, they’re going to be bringing up the rear, with all of their stories fairly widely reviled, not even particularly praised by the proponents of the era. And under Hinchcliffe, they’re… decidedly mediocre. Not particularly offensive in either of their stories, nor particularly exciting. In other words, we have here two writers whose Doctor Who careers have a very straightforward downward arc.
I don’t mean this as an insult to Baker and Martin at all. Almost every writer who has an extended engagement with Doctor Who over multiple producers and Doctors has a downward trend in quality at some point. Some have an upward trend first (Robert Holmes), but eventually, pretty much every writer who sticks around on the series for a long time enters a period of terminal decline. Even David Whitaker, who I consider one of the three great writers of the classic series, had trouble in the end, though he lucked out and had a good rewriter to cover him.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone. As we talked about, actually, in the last Baker and Martin story, and have talked about in general throughout the blog, television evolves. A writer who is good at 1971 television is genuinely unlikely to be as good at 1976 television, because being good at 1971 television means you are good at a different set of visual and storytelling conventions than works in 1976. This is why most of the claims that the new series should hire writers from the old series are misguided – because as good as many of those writers were, they’re not 2011-style television writers. For a sense of how problematic this can be, one need only look at the later scripts of Terry Nation, Gerry Davis, or, yes, Bob Baker and David Martin. (Amusingly, given that he’s written for an Academy Award winning film, Bob Baker is by miles the classic series writer with the best chance of writing for the new series.)
And what’s particularly interesting is that it is the very things that made, say, The Claws of Axos very good that makes The Hand of Fear so lackluster. The Claws of Axos worked because it treated every aspect of the show as a performative spectacle instead of messing around with “realism.” And The Hand of Fear doesn’t work because it makes zero effort towards any engagement with the real world.
The thing about The Claws of Axos is that it was a UNIT story. I have documented mixed feelings on UNIT, and have even suggested that the earthbound format might have worked better without them. But that’s too simple. The more accurate way to phrase it is that, when adopting the earthbound format in 1970, the show could have gone in either of two directions – the glam performativity it actually went for, or the more ripped-from-the-headlines approach of, say, Doomwatch. Or, to put it in the terms we framed in the System Shock entry, whether it wanted to be a sci-fi show in the cultural commentary tradition, or whether it wanted to be an SF show.
It picked cultural commentary. Decisively. In fact, and this is something Letts will never be recognized for as much as he deserves, the refusal to go for SF in 1970 did more to ensure the preservation of the Whitaker/alchemical tradition in Doctor Who even than Whitaker’s fundamental role in the show’s development did. By refusing to go SF at a moment that lent itself to going SF as much as the earthbound format did, Letts ensured that Doctor Who was never really going to be an SF show.
But UNIT was a big part of that. By giving the Doctor a large cast of exaggerated caricatures, the show was making a fundamental commitment to being a show that wasn’t about material realism. UNIT was consciously designed to look like a television army and not a real one, and that set the tone for the entire show. Yes, this had its own attendant weaknesses, including making it far too easy for the show to coast and spin its wheels in the latter days of the Letts era. But in terms of the overall direction of the show in the period where Baker and Martin got their starts, it was essential.
But now Baker and Martin are stuck writing a contemporary Earth setting without UNIT to serve as an interface between the Doctor and contemporary Earth. And without UNIT to make the show about them, Baker and Martin are left with a story that isn’t about anything. It’s a story in which a nuclear reactor is threatened and risks exploding, and in which military airstrikes are called in, but in which there’s no connection to the world. The nuclear reactor could be out in a quarry for all we care, and for all practical purposes it basically is. There’s an emptiness to this story.
In some ways, the airstrike sequence characterizes this perfectly. Airstrikes have been a common enough trope of earthbound stories in Doctor Who, such that there’s nothing inherently odd when they get called in. But there’s always the lurking refrigerator logic of how it is that nobody has noticed all the domestic military actions in the UK and the alien invasions when something like this happens. In the UNIT days, UNIT serves again as an interface for these situations. Because the UNIT era was really The Doctor juxtaposed with the UNIT show, not The Doctor juxtaposed with our world, it was OK when there were things that made it very clear that Doctor Who wasn’t in our world. (And remember, up until The War Machines, nothing in Doctor Who ever really made it impossible to say that the world of Doctor Who is just like ours only there turns out to be the Doctor except for the cricket game in Daleks’ Masterplan, and that was a joke.)
But now the show runs in our imaginations, and that makes it more real. When Moffat says that Doctor Who takes place under your bed, this is the exact era of the show he’s talking about. Not the UNIT era, but this era where the monsters are ideas and the adventures are happening not on made up worlds but in stories the audience knows. Far, far more of the audience has some sort of instinctive familiarity with Frankenstein than do with Welsh mining towns. So when we talk about which story is more “realistic,” we should remember that.
But in that case, the airstrikes, absent UNIT, are a problem. Because at that point, everything that makes it sensible to set Doctor Who in contemporary Britain is gone. The show is still not an SF show. But it’s also not commenting on anything. With UNIT, it was a commentary on a cultural creation. Here, it’s a world that doesn’t have any new and interesting ideas that make it different from ours, but is still a place where the military randomly calls in airstrikes on domestic targets and that doesn’t affect anyone’s life. It might as well be Zog.
And at that point, you may as well just give up on the approach. There is no point to doing contemporary Britain if you’re going to do it like this. So, for very sound reasons, the show stops. For the most part, from now on, when the Doctor intersects contemporary Britain, he does so in the margins, far from the eyes of authority. He doesn’t engage in the whole world, but in particular corners of it that lend itself to particular stories. He still might have a skulk around a country manor now and again, but nobody from the outside world is likely to come rescue him, and whatever the threat is will actually be in the manor instead of off through a time portal.
In fact, the show does more than stop. It disappears completely into the realm of ideas, and stays there for the next four stories, after which the show goes through what is, to date, its most decisive shift not to involve a major cast change. And it does so by jettisoning Sarah Jane. Yes, in some ways it is more accurate to say that it does it by not immediately replacing her, and then replacing her with someone utterly unlike any previous companion in that she is not even from Earth. Companions have left before, and the reason that Sarah’s departure matters is, in part, what was done to replace her.
And another part of it is, of course, Lis Sladen. This isn’t the end for her, but nobody knew it at the time. This was the apparent end of the single best actress to tackle a companion to date. To be fair, Sladen benefitted enormously from having Katy Manning before her. Manning made colossal strides with the role of companion, and was the first person to really do so since Deborah Walting. And Lis Sladen was thus in the enviable position of inheriting a role that, under Manning, had just improved dramatically. Unless she bombed it, all she had to do was stick around for a few years and she was basically guaranteed to look like one of the two best actresses ever to play the role. And she could, even if she was only pretty good, probably fine-tune it and do quite well for herself.
But, of course, this describes perfectly what was so amazing about Sladen. She took the role up after the most transformative actress ever to have played it and then transformed it again. Manning changed the role so that the companion had a role in the narrative beyond being a plot device/exposition tool. Sladen changed the role so that instead of being a supporting character, the companion could, done right, be a co-lead. And, of course, her final scene with Baker is amazing. It’s the best TARDIS scene of the classic series, bar none, and is one of only a handful of sequences in the classic series that can stand up to the new series even by the standards of today. Both Baker and Sladen are amazing in it, and it really is all them, as the scene was apparently largely improvised.
Equally significant, though, is the tone of the departure. For the first time since Susan, there’s a sense that neither the companion nor the Doctor want to go. There is an obvious, genuine love between the Doctor and Sarah, and here they are forced apart. There’s a reason that, for years after, there was the constant sense that Sarah should come back, and it’s here in her ending – in the fact that the Doctor could come back for her, and she clearly wants him to.
This means that The Problem of Susan here recurs in its most intense sense to date. The Doctor doesn’t return for her. This says bad things about him. In a strange sense, this parallels Baker’s own problems with the role that begin to arise after this story. Perhaps the highest praise that can be given to Sladen as an actress is that she was the only co-starring actress Baker actually respected. (“Slept with” is not a synonym for “respected.”) And after she was gone, Baker was actively resistant to the idea that there should be another companion – he wanted to be the show’s sole star. As it happens, of course, Baker is phenomenal in the part, and he remains so.
But an ugliness creeps in here that I would be remiss not to mention. Not just for Baker, though. The Doctor himself is sullied here. The audience is made to want him to return for Sarah, and he never does. The audience may have been perplexed why he never returned for Susan, but if we’re being honest, Susan is nobody’s favorite companion. Sarah is many, many people’s favorite companion. It’s terribly brave scriptwriting to do this – it’s the first real jump towards making the Doctor less trustworthy instead of more since Power of the Daleks, and the first really, shatteringly decisive one since The Massacre. This is a scene that fundamentally changes who we think the Doctor is.
And that parallels the real ugliness in Sarah Jane’s departure. But, of course, this ugliness is also what Sladen plays so jaw-droppingly well when she returns in “School Reunion.” Because, as I said, this isn’t actually the end for her. She gets to come back.
No. It’s the end for the Doctor. Not just in the Problem of Susan sense where he is, in a real sense, sullied by this. But there’s something more fundamental happening here. Because we’re also given an event that can force the Doctor to abandon Sarah. He hasn’t kicked a companion out since Susan, and that was at least fundamentally about Susan. Now he kicks Sarah out. Because he has been summoned to Gallifrey. Even Sarah is awed by that, saying, “I can’t miss Gallifrey.” The last time the Doctor went to Gallifrey, it was to be condemned to die. Something massive is coming.