|No, Doctor, Iain Cuthbertson was two stories ago.|
It’s October 28, 1978. John Travolta and Olivia Newton John continue to do unspeakable things on Summer Nights and are thus left to sing about them instead. This lasts for three weeks before The Boomtown Rats make it to number one with “Rat Trap,” which, given that it’s now hit number one, makes me kind of regret that crack implying they were a one hit wonder with “I Don’t Like Mondays.” The Grease orgy continues lower in the charts with Olivia Newton-John making a solo appearance in the charts. The Jacksons, The Cars, and Public Image Ltd also chart. That said, when crafting the “also chart” sentence I usually limit myself to the top ten, and as we’re getting into the period where I actually love huge swaths of stuff going on lower in the charts, I think it’s time to inaugurate a sentence about the lower reaches of the charts so I have an excuse to mention The Buzzcocks, The Jam, Blondie, and Elvis Costello, if only to reassure anyone who wasn’t convinced by The Cars and Public Image Ltd that these are actually pretty good times for music. Having thusly reassured everyone, Donna Summer also charts with “MacArthur Park,” proving that there’s no hope at all and that we might as well just elect Margaret Thatcher or something.
In real news, we manage to avoid electing Margaret Thatcher for a bit longer. Instead Dominica gains independence from the UK. Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin win the Nobel Peace Prize, an event that is in part notable because Jimmy Carter does not win it despite brokering that peace, setting up a rare case of an “oops, sorry we forgot about you” Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. (Not that Carter’s post-Presidency work was not meritorious, but let’s face it – that prize was 1/3 about Carter’s post-Presidency, 1/3 about a rebuke to Bush, and 1/3 about the fact that in hindsight he obviously deserved to split the 1978 prize.) Rioters sack the British embassy in Tehran, California voters defeat an initiative to ban gay schoolteachers, and, the day after the final episode of this story airs, the first Take Back the Night march happens in San Francisco. But the big news story happens the day the final episode of this story airs as the Jonestown Massacre happens, resulting in the murder/suicide (we’ll leave it ambiguous which victims were which) of a staggering 918 people.
While on television, we should probably go back and note the one thing we didn’t mention in the Pirate Planet post (and which I bet someone has already commented on, but I’m writing this before the Pirate Planet post goes up, so who knows) that ITV’s failed attempt to poach top BBC talent and compete on Saturdays has been going on. The key event of that is their poaching of Bruce Forsyth, previously host of the BBC’s Generation Game, now host of ITV’s rather more disastrous Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. This is notable as the second time in the Baker era that ITV has botched an attempt to kill off Doctor Who. Mysteriously the architect of this plan, Michael Grade, would soon be poached by the BBC which will lead to nothing but good things.
But for now, everyone is still watching the BBC, where the first of four and a half Doctor Who stories contributed by David Fisher is on. Fisher is an odd duck. Certainly he got the nightmare brief here. Nobody in their right mind wants to be the script on after Robert Holmes and Douglas Adams. But if someone’s got to have the nightmare brief, Fisher is a pretty solid choice. He’s a competent writer who had actually been pursued by David Whitaker way back when he was script editor. He knows his science fiction and makes an immediate bid to be considered an old reliable hand. Sadly, he only really has two seasons in that role before John Nathan-Turner makes the only partially sane decision to stop hiring writers from before his time.
All of this is really me dancing around the crux of this story, which is that it is a perfectly competent story that works within the aesthetic and themes that have been set out in the last few stories, but that doesn’t really advance them much. Its most creative element is that it checks off one of the boxes for things that this era of Doctor Who would have been remiss not to get around to eventually, which is to turn its tools on Doctor Who’s own history. This is, in effect, the story where the Williams era finally takes on the Hinchcliffe era and makes its bid to be considered more interesting than it. It is, in many ways, the Williams era’s Terror of the Zygons.
The story’s biggest problem is that the first two episodes at times try the viewers patience. In their defense, this is part of the point. First impressions strongly suggest this story is yet another version of the von Danniken horror that was already looking tired last season in Image of the Fendahl. About the best that can be said is that the show is finally doing stone circles, which, while a significant and visible omission in the Hinchcliffe era were more than adequately covered in Children of the Stones, which, as I argued at the time, really should be considered an honorary part of the Hinchcliffe era.
But even within the first two episodes there’s hints of what’s going to happen. The initial setup makes it fairly clear who the villains are. The first episode is a dead-on execution of the formula for this sort of story, with Professor Rumford and Vivien Fay being the obvious allies and de Vries, the maniacal cult leader, being the obvious villain. Virtually nothing in the first episode even hints that the situation could be anything other than the obvious. It’s all competently executed, and with only 25 minutes of it doesn’t particularly try the viewer’s patience, but there is very little that’s remarkable about it either. It hits more or less perfectly the exact balance between being good enough to be fun to watch for one episode, but not good enough to sustain for four. So it’s a believable and good start and the audience doesn’t have to have any clues that this isn’t a business as usual story. In hindsight the only real clue that anything is amiss is how rubbish a villain de Vries is. Given that he is in fact a stooge who gets whacked in the next episode, this is in hindsight telling, but the fact of the matter is that anyone treating bad acting as a sign of a red herring in the Williams era is going to be wrong a lot more often than they’re right.
But in the second episode there is, slowly but surely, a massive change in tone. The key scene is de Vries’s death. Miles and Wood refer to this sequence as one of the most unintentionally funny parts of the story, and to some extent they’re right. Certainly one of the key sources of humor, the astonishing ineffectiveness of the Ogri as monsters, does not appear to be deliberate. Fisher had conceived of the Ogiri as stones that transform into rock men and thus walk around, but director Darrol Blake somewhat unwisely opted to turn them into giant moving stones. The result is difficult to capture in words. This is not because it is terribly hard to describe – they’re giant polystyrene rocks that glow urine-yellow as they glide around. Rather it is that the human brain, when faced with that description, isn’t quite capable of generating the full and jaw-dropping weirdness of it on its own, tending instead to hedge and assume that it can’t be that bad. No. It is. It is pretty much the worst case scenario for giant urine-colored attack rocks.
And yet despite the atrocious nature of the monsters, somehow the scene works, albeit in what is openly a so-bad-it’s-good manner. But what’s key is that the scene isn’t just a camp disaster that can be loved ironically by geeks who want to pretend they’re hipsters. Yes, it’s that too, but the way in which it jars the viewer out of the narrative actually has a narrative purpose. Given that the scene is already a transgression against the formula – de Vries, who we had taken to be the major human villain and the public face of the Cailleach, seemed sure to last until at least the end of episode three, if not well into episode four – to have him die in such an utterly ludicrous fashion is oddly effective. It makes the scene function exceedingly well for what it is, forcing the audience to sit up and realize that this is not the story they thought it was.
It’s here that we should pause and consider thoroughly the views of one of Doctor Who’s most prominent critics, Mr. Lawrence Miles. Regular readers of the blog may have detected a certain complete lack of respect for Miles’s viewpoints on my part (mingled with a grudging respect for his fiction, which I would find it convenient to hate but utterly fail to even dislike). This is not entirely inaccurate, and his comments on this story are a fairly succinct demonstration of why. Simply put, I think his poetics are on complete crack and that he doesn’t actually understand how stories work other than in one narrow sense. So yes, it’s time for another one of those bits where I start getting all narratological.
The crux of Miles’s complaints about this story are that it’s “impossible to relate to.” The significance of a living Celtic goddess on Earth is downplayed, the scary bits aren’t scary, and the entire idea of the Ogri are ill-conceived. To be fair, none of these three criticisms are wrong as such. The nature of the Cailleach is downplayed, the story isn’t very scary (not even the campers scene, much as Tat Wood tries to defend it), and evil rocks that move and suck blood are dumb. No, pointing out all of that isn’t where Miles completely gets the wrong end of the stick.
Miles’s problem is that he cannot conceive of any narrative logic where those things wouldn’t matter. The only way in which he is willing to treat a Doctor Who story is via a model where the most interesting question is “what happens to the Doctor this week?” There’s a great moment in the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore in which he talks about the progression of his interest in comics, and how as a small boy he was interested in what Superman was doing in a given month, but as he grew up – and by up I mean something in the 10-12 range – he became interested in what the writers were doing. This is a fairly normal progression. Mature readership involves moving beyond just blindly investing in characters and into thinking about the work of fiction as what it is, namely a work of fiction.
This doesn’t mean that nobody simply invests in the characters and cares about what happens to them. Obviously that happens, most commonly with children. But the idea that reading should be done more childishly and that more developed and mature approaches are bad things is, I think, prima facie ludicrous. It’s not as though reading works of fiction as works of fiction and with active awareness of the use of tropes, conventions, and structure is an emotionless process. After all, Alan Moore shot to the forefront of his field in part because he wrote more emotionally involved comics than anyone else at the time.
But more to the point, understanding long-form serialized media in terms of mere investment in the characters is actively the wrong way to go about it. If someone is a regular Doctor Who viewer, especially in 1978 when the show features virtually no long-term character development whatsoever, then they’re not watching it out of investment in the characters. They’re watching it because they like Doctor Who-type stories. And this is especially true for children’s media, which tends to generate a lot of its pleasure from the ritualized and consistent aspects of it. Part of why the Hinchcliffe era was good children’s entertainment where the Hammer films it paid homage to weren’t was that even in the Hinchcliffe era there was the basic contract that at the end of the story the Doctor and Sarah were going to be OK. That taken as a premise, all the other scares are permissible. Far from working because the audience is invested in what happens to the Doctor, the series works because the audience doesn’t have to worry about the Doctor and can just enjoy watching him.
Which means that even child viewers are more than capable of enjoying a story based on its subversion of expectations. (Anyone disbelieving this needs to go read some picture books. Scads of them are based on subversion of expectations. Idiosyncratically, my go-to example is The Monster at the End of This Book, a delightfully good Sesame Street book that, if you have never read, you really owe it to yourself to track down a copy. There’s apparently an iPhone/iPad version.) Sure, they may not go for broad and sweeping postmodernist readings about subversion of past eras of Doctor Who, but even they’ll get that the story’s got a dummy villain and that it’s a surprise when it jumps to a spaceship. And anyway, one of postmodernism’s stock techniques is applying childlike logic to adult things. So postmodernism for children is, far from an impossible thing because they supposedly relate to things because they think they’re real, actually dead simple. You can have emotionally real relationships with postmodern things. Just ask my ex-wife, much as I’m sure she wishes she hadn’t.
And yet Miles inexplicably rejects this entire avenue of reading, insisting that there must be some vaguely defined notion of coherence and suspense for the story to have any resonance, and that the suspense must rest on the idea that something bad could happen to the Doctor. And, I mean, he’s not wrong that that’s an effective means of suspense. There’s a bit of The Leisure Hive that he quite rightly praises to high heaven because it makes a sudden and unexpected turn into putting Baker’s Doctor in a position of real vulnerability. But that’s not the only way to do it any more than having the Doctor be all emo about Rose is the only way to do emotional storytelling. Just because it works doesn’t mean other things don’t.
In fact an overwhelming majority of viewers are quite capable of getting invested in the narratology of a story and in trying to outthink the writers. Yes, there have to be other things like characters that are fun to watch, but the Williams era, particularly once it gets the double act of the Doctor and Romana going, has that in spades. If there’s one thing that the rise in recent years of procedurals like Bones, Castle, and, yes, Sherlock has shown it’s that a good double act and some inventive plot twists really are sufficient to entrance a massive audience. In this regard, the Williams era has aged particularly well – better in many ways even than the Hinchcliffe era. It’s perfectly serviceable television by standards thirty years out from when it was made. But even by the standards of its time it works. In a world where Star Wars, Fawlty Towers, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all work, this isn’t too far ahead of its time.
So this really is a titanically large blind spot for Miles. And it kills the entire Williams era for him. In terms of this story, it causes him to miss a key fact – that the weaknesses of the story are in fact the point. The entire structure of The Stones of Blood is based on the fact that it starts out looking like an extremely familiar story structure then makes an about face and becomes a different story structure all without overstaying its welcome. And, more importantly, it becomes a story structure that’s markedly more fun. This is very much a story about the Williams era showing that it has more fun than the Hinchcliffe era ever did, and it just about gets away with it.
The heart of this is the Megara, which are essentially a pair of flying judicial fairy lights who end up putting the Doctor on trial for more or less arbitrary and capricious reasons. This gives Baker an episode’s worth of time to do one of the things his Doctor is absolutely best at, which is to browbeat stupid authority figures. And the entire sequence just sings. It’s delightful, particularly as the Megara become increasingly frustrated with him. (For my money, the real highlight is that the Doctor has a barrister’s wig in his pockets, which is one of the funniest uses of the recurring joke that Baker’s Doctor has all manner of bewildering things in his pockets.)
The problem, and it’s a significant one, is with the b-story. Not that it’s bad. Beatrix Lehmann, in her last television role, lights up the screen as Professor Rumford, and the sequence of her, Romana, and K-9 figuring out what planet Vivien is from via recipe books (a sequence gently appropriated by Russell T. Davies for the Slitheen) is delightful, doubly so if you’ve caught the lesbian subtext between Rumford and Vivien and can fully appreciate the domestics of it. The only problem is that instead of having them show up just in time to save the day after the Doctor has run out of tricks to delay things they show up after the Doctor has already solved it and proven to the Megara who Vivien is. Which makes the entire sequence pointless. And it’s not as though it needed to be. Successfully running rings around the Megara for long enough that Romana and Rumford could solve the mystery would have ben a fine accomplishment for the Doctor. Instead he gets the entire victory and the supporting cast is left irrelevant – a troubling instance of Baker hogging all the oxygen of a story. At this point it’s not even something he consciously or rudely does. It’s simply how he plays the part. Writing for Baker’s Doctor in this era just demands putting him at the center of everything. This – not his lack of vulnerability – is the heart of many of the narrative troubles this era does have. It’s not that nothing bad ever happens to Baker, it’s that he demands so much of the narrative focus that it’s hard for anyone else to get a subplot in.
But this gets at the nature of Romana, which is worth commenting on as she is a uniquely popular companion (though moreso in her next incarnation). Williams – and to his credit, Hinchcliffe moved in this direction as well with Leela – favors companions who are capable of winning audience affection in the same way the Doctor does. Romana is as capable as the Doctor at always finding something to try. (And on the rare occasions that the script gives her nothing to do she at least goes for a decent laugh by looking irritated and like she’s stalling for time through scenes and then, when the Doctor inevitably shows up, delivering the line “Oh Doctor” as if relieved that she doesn’t have to keep carrying on a conversation with the bore of the party.) It doesn’t always work, but it’s a savvy choice – so much so that the ability to always find some new thing to try in a situation becomes a mainstay of companions from here on out. Previous companions were often resourceful. But after Romana a good companion is defined by being as irrepressible as the Doctor without being quite as clever. It’s just unfortunate that right now she has to be to stand up to the lead’s chokehold on the narrative focus. And even still he might marginalize her right out of the plot.
But this defect aside, what we have here is quite charming. A genuinely enjoyable subversion of the by now tired standbys of the Hinchcliffe era that goes into some of the most fun Doctor Who has ever had being anti-authoritarian, and with a new sort of authority figure. We haven’t seen the Doctor do the legal system in a while. And another nice step in the larger anti-epic via the Megara. The Megara are, after all, keepers of justice, and what is justice if not the maintaining of fairness and balance? And, of course, the Megara are shown to be ridiculously blinkered and silly, striking another blow against the basic assumptions of the Key to Time.
But there is also an increasingly clear counter-narrative about the Key. Not only has every segment been stolen and, in being stolen, thrown something out of balance and into chaos or confusion, but furthermore there is an increasing theme of the segments being, for lack of a better word (or perhaps just because I really like this word) mercurial. Both the second and third segments have actively had shape-changing powers, and the first segment, more broadly considered, is effectively a tool to cause vast social upheaval. (Unlike the second and third segments, where their theft causes chaos because of the absence of the segment from its proper context, the first segment causes chaos by its presence.) The ethics of this story arc are, in fact, becoming increasingly clear, with the distinct sense that, far from being about the proper balance of forces it’s about the need to upend rigid definitions of the world. Not destroy, but challenge and unsettle. And in this regard the ornate structure of The Ribos Operation even reiterates in the structure of the arc. The arc is about the ethical validity of postmodern play that subverts rigid categories. It is told through postmodern narrative techniques even as it defends the philosophical underpinnings of those approaches.
I am beginning to run out of new ways to describe how good this season is thus far.