|People do not remark on the fact that Salamander|
dresses like Jon Pertwee enough. This is sad, as there
are some great jokes about Pertwee as an evil version
of the Doctor to be made here.
It’s December 23, 1967. The Beatles are at number one with “Hello Goodbye.” Also at number three with the Magical Mystery Tour EP. They’ll hold it for five weeks, which is good, because the rest of the top ten for those weeks leaves more than a little to be desired. At week six, the bottom falls out and Georgie Fame takes over with the Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.
In terms of news, we have the origin of the term “black hole,” which will be a term with surprisingly large impact on the series. Prime Minister Wilson endorses the “I’m Backing Britain” campaign asking people to work an extra half hour without pay, which ends up being a complete turkey. The Prague Spring gets underway, which is a bit unusual given that it’s January. And the Vietnam War keeps it up.
But look, the real news is this. Doctor Who airs The Enemy of the World. And I am here to tell you that it is the best Doctor Who story up to this point. It is, in fact, one of the all time greats of the series. It is a criminal offense that there are people who think of this as the red-headed stepchild of season five and prefer the monster stories. This story is absolutely incredible, light years ahead of its time, and still fantastic to this day. I’m honestly at a loss for why this does not have the wild and ecstatic praise reserved for it that Marco Polo or The Massacre, both of which it runs rings around. I’ll take it as a given that it’s never going to attain the luster of The Tomb of the Cybermen or something by virtue of it being mostly missing, but there’s really no excuse for it not being recognized by those who have seen it as an absolute triumph. Because it is. This story belongs on the list with things like City of Death, Caves of Androzani, Doomsday, and Blink. It’s that good.
(For the sake of completists, since I have declared this the best story to date, I will say that previously I consider An Unearthly Child/100,000 BC, The Aztecs, The Rescue, and Power of the Daleks to be the best stories to date.)
Let’s just dive right into it. The usual thing everybody knows about this story is that it’s another in an oddly long line of identical duplicate stories that Doctor Who does. The first, of course, is The Massacre. In this one, Patrick Troughton gets to pull double duty as both the Doctor and the villainous Salamander. The second thing that everybody knows about this story is that it’s Doctor Who Does James Bond. This should not be a surprise to us today, when the default mode of Doctor Who is “Doctor Who does X” where X is some other genre – The Curse of the Black Spot being the most recent flagrant example. The third, and probably the clue to why it’s so good, is that David Whitaker wrote it.
The James Bond comparison is apt, at least for the first episode. Whitaker, in fact, holds to the James Bond paradigm we discussed on Friday, dropping an action-based cliffhanger every five minutes for the first fifteen minutes of the story as the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria are chased by hovercraft and helicopter, and then, for good measure, attacked by gunmen. This is clever – far more clever than just using some James Bond trappings. Whitaker begins by literally aping the structure of a James Bond movie, then dropping the Doctor into it. Then he pulls his first grand trick and has the Bond Villain be played by Troughton.
There are two things that should be immediately clear about this setup – two things that as soon as you hear this, you want to see happen. You want to see what happens when the Doctor gets into a James Bond style mess, and you want to see the two Troughton characters face off. The thing is that Whitaker, having started on Doctor Who dealing with the padded anticipatory storytelling of season one and, more to the point, having lots of experience writing for serials and writing a mode of television where you spend a lot of time anticipating the climax, knows how to handle this. For another writer, six episodes in which the payoff at episode six is clear from episode one would be a train wreck – and indeed, for more than one writer, it has been. But here, perhaps spurred on by his own irritation at getting screwed by pacing in Evil of the Daleks, Whitaker buckles down and paces this thing divinely well.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we get to episodes 2-5, we need to deal with one more bit of bizarreness from episode one, namely the cliffhanger. Actually, all of the cliffhangers in this story are a bit strange, because they almost all consist of characters learning pieces of information, generally ones the audience already knows, but being in no immediate danger. But of them, it is episode 1 that has the weirdest cliffhanger – possibly one of the weirdest cliffhangers ever.
OK. So the Doctor and company get taken in by Giles Kent – our sympathetic agent James Bond stock character, and Astrid, his assistant/Bond girl. And then Salamander’s security forces show up, and the Doctor is forced to duck into a bathroom and attempt an impersonation of Salamander. The thing is, Salamander is Mexican. (Indeed, in one of the few somewhat tacky bits of the story, Troughton plays him slightly blacked up. That said, we should probably also remark on the way in which blackening makeup worked in black and white television compared to color. Salamander is played blacked up, but he is in no way played as a stereotypical or “minstrely” character.) And so part of impersonating Salamander means doing his accent.
I’ve talked before about Troughton’s counterintuitive but brilliant line readings. Here he outdoes himself. Remembering that Troughton is simply imitating his own character in Salamander, and that he can thus do the voice perfectly. (The voice is not so much a Mexican accent as a generic “foreign” accent, but hey.) So when Troughton strides out and confidently greets Bruce the security guard in a Mexican accent that would make Speedy Gonzalez cringe it is already a strange and sublimely weird moment. But then to have that be the cliffhanger – on an episode that has featured fifteen minutes of tense vehicle chases – is simply mind-wrenching. It’s a classic case of using cliffhangers to signal changes in direction of the story, instead of just to put the characters in danger (which gets farcical rapidly – I forgot to mention in The Ice Warriors the ludicrous cliffhanger in which the Doctor is given the choice of answering the question “Who are you” or being exploded. In a move that I am sure shocked every single viewer, he answered the question next episode), and Whitaker does it for the whole story.
So Whitaker’s problem now is that he has four episodes to write before he can get to his money shot of the Doctor confronting Salamander. I say “problem,” but what I should really say is “opportunity for sheer genius.” Because what he does is meticulously go through all of the lesser checkboxes on the story (and some unexpected ones to boot) by way of getting there. For instance, one of the things that this premise eventually requires is, as I said, putting the Doctor into the James Bond action. So what Whitaker does is send Jamie and Victoria halfway across the planet to do an espionage plot in order to prove that Salamander is a bad guy. This makes perfect sense. Yes, we want to see the Doctor in the James Bond plot, but Jamie McCrimmon, 007 is a solid idea too. That gives us episode two.
Then comes episode three – the surviving episode, and probably the reason this story doesn’t have the reputation it should. Not that it’s bad – it’s actually absolutely brilliant – but that it makes no sense out of context. Mainly because it is in part a repudiation of the entire rest of the season, and in particular a response to many of the problems I observed about The Ice Warriors.
See, Whitaker, we have to remember, is an old pro. He had a hand in the first season and change, and has written three stories since he left. That includes lots of historicals that he either wrote or script-edited. And so he has some experience in the task of “depict a culture thoroughly in Doctor Who.” This relatively new problem where Doctor Who ignores ordinary people in favor of strictly tracking heroic figures in a story was not a trap Whitaker fell into. Look at how, in a story like The Crusade, the characters get split into their own plotlines so that different aspects of the society are presented. (Or, for ones Whitaker merely edited, The Aztecs and The Reign of Terror) So Whitaker, I am willing to bet, noticed the way in which ordinary people were being increasingly marginalized by the series – especially given the lack of an audience identification character among the leads.
So what Whitaker manages to do is contrive to send Jamie and Victoria into Salamander’s kitchen for an episode where they try to pry information about Salamander from his food taster, Fariah. Fariah is notable as the show’s first black woman. The second episode manages a clever bit where it initially looks like she’ll be a miserable serving girl, then slowly reveals that she’s actually quite an important character and a strong woman until, when she dies in episode four, it’s genuinely upsetting because of how good a character she was. But the point of episode three is not primarily Fariah, but a character who debuts in it and appears only in it – Griffin the Chef.
It’s tough to quite explain Griffin the Chef. Basically, he’s a character who has absolutely no stake in any of this “save the world from the evil dictator” business, dislikes everybody, and just wants to be left alone to cook, which he does very well in spite of the fact that virtually every other sentence out of his mouth is an observation about how bad his food is and how he’s going to get fired or executed for it. Basically, he’s a comedy interlude character, except that he’s actually genuinely funny. But more to the point, he’s exactly what so many of the past few stories have been lacking – a regular person. Griffin is in the story so that the story has the perspective of an ordinary guy who just wants to manage to survive this insane world where people routinely poison and shoot each other. And it’s absolutely wonderful. Griffin steals every scene he’s in, and the inclusion of the third episode is a huge part of what elevates The Enemy of the World from “quite good adventure” to “sublimely good story.” Because it – especially after episode two, which is all about selling the global scope of this story with characters and action jumping across continents – goes miles towards making us actually see the whole world that Salamander is the enemy of.
Still, after two well-delivered episodes of delaying the Doctor’s intervention in the narrative, surely in episode four Whitaker’s luck must run out. I mean, surely there’s nowhere else to pad. We have a sense of the mundane world, we have a sense of the scale, we’ve seen the companions try and fail to be James Bond, there’s nothing left but to finally unleash the Doctor onto the James Bond narrative so we can see his anarchic glee completely overturn all the tropes of the genre. In which case the fact that there are three episodes remaining is a bit of a bad sign. What can Whitaker possibly do?
The answer is quite possibly the most mind-wrenching reveal in the history of Doctor Who – one that if Moffat can manage to match the impact of when he finally reveals who River Song is (assuming he didn’t on Saturday – I’m writing this way back on Wednesday the 25th), he’ll be wildly successful if he can come close to matching. See, by this point, by conspicuously leaving the Doctor on the sidelines of the story demanding more evidence of Salamander’s evil before he acts, the show has set up our expectations very clearly. Eventually the anarchic force that is the Doctor will enter the James Bond narrative and mess it up in brilliant ways. The evil Salamander will get his comeuppance in a confrontation scene, and everyone will go home.
Certainly nobody would expect episode four, then. First of all, both Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling get the week off, leaving Troughton as the only regular in this episode. That’s already an odd decision. On top of that, Troughton spends the lion’s share of the episode as Salamander, so the Doctor is hardly in it. So instead of bringing the Doctor to the action, the show frustrates that desire further. Thus far, this sounds like a train wreck. Except for the third bizarre thing Whitaker does.
See, thus far we have a pretty standard James Bond plot. Salamander has technology that helps grow food, and appears to be both murdering people and causing natural disasters to slowly rise to power over the whole world. All of this makes sense. He’s a bog standard James Bond villain. So the absolute last thing we expect is for Salamander to pull the Doctor’s trick of breaking the rules of the narrative he’s in. But that’s what Whitaker does. Salamander literally slips out the back door of the James Bond plot, sneaking out into the mysterious “records room” where he doesn’t let anyone else go. But more to the point, he slips into a different story entirely.
See, it turns out that Salamander has had a bunch of technicians stored away in an underground bunker, and has convinced them all that there was a terrible nuclear war up on the surface and that they have to hide down there and orchestrate natural disasters for him so he can defeat the last armies and render the planet habitable again.
This may sound stupid, but there’s one other detail – the bunker full of people is basically a bunch of grumpy British people. After a story full of exotic names and foreign locales, the bunker consists of people with common British names playing their parts in their native accents. In other words, as Rob Shearman (who I’m surprised ends up kind of neutral on this story, as it seems so very much up his alley) points out in Running Through Corridors, “Having shown us a world stage which is so relentlessly cold, he now wrongfoots us by presenting the people who’ve so passively allowed that world to come into being – and they’re not Eastern Europeans hiding behind exotic names. They’re us.”
What Shearman doesn’t give Whitaker nearly enough credit for is this – months before the end of The Prisoner has actually been seen, he’s managed to stick a gigantic pin in the entire premise of that show. The Prisoner is, after all, about an insane world with an illusion of normalcy hidden within the real world. And in its final episode, part of the point is the inescapability of the Village and the idea that there isn’t actually an “outside” to it. Whitaker manages, here, a very droll undercutting of this premise by having us suddenly stumble upon a Village like structure inside a James Bond story – that the Village exists within The Prisoner in part because of its implied connection to McGoohan’s previous series. Or, in other words, the Village only makes sense because it’s not hidden in the real world, it’s hidden inside a crazy James Bond world. It’s far easier to have a blurry boundary on the Village when the world outside it is as fundamentally insane and fictional as the world inside it.
But what’s really brilliant about what Whitaker does here is that it completely changes how the end of the story goes. By the time, in episode five, that the Doctor finally gets around to intervening in the plot, the Bond villain has already left it. This is deceptively clever. Whitaker has made us wait for four episodes to see the Doctor get to play in a James Bond story, and by the time the Doctor finally gets there, the main villain of that story has already shown himself to be far more than just another Bond villain. Far more than just looking like the Doctor, it turns out here that Salamander is, in a very fundamental sense, every bit the Doctor’s equal.
This means that Whitaker can get away with a resolution that is different and more interesting than he’s been setting us up for. Because the Bond Villain has already breached the narrative, Whitaker is much freer to do as he pleases in letting the Doctor into it. And so when Salamander’s security forces swarm Kent’s compound, setting off a Bond-like showdown, Whitaker can have the Doctor completely defuse it and point out that everybody is insane – a far more drastic action than he could have pulled off previously.
But Whitaker resists the temptation to simply turn this story into an out and out parody of James Bond stories – although that is one of the things the story does. Instead, he lets one of the Bond characters – an intermediate henchman named Benik – become a truly terrifying figure, menacing Jamie and Victoria in an overtly creepy and sexualized way, and chillingly admitting to being a simple sadist who just likes to hurt people. Yes, eventually the Doctor barges in and defuses the situation with a Salamander impersonation, but Whitaker lets the scene run long enough to be deeply unsettling, and even when the Doctor arrives, he holds his Salamander impersonation with Jamie and Victoria in order to demonstrate how genuinely afraid of Salamander they are, pulling the task off so well that he has trouble convincing Jamie and Victoria later that it’s him. Aside from being something that is quintessentially Whitaker, with his far more ambiguous and inhuman characterization of the Doctor as someone willing to push and manipulate his friends if he needs to, it also lets Whitaker come up with a clever variation on one of Troughton’s trademarks, with the Doctor searching for his recorder to prove that he’s himself, and finally just miming a recorder performance.
So by the time we get to episode six, all Whitaker really has to do is run down the checklist of big confrontations and get us to the end. Or at least, that’s what we would think if it weren’t for the fact that Whitaker uses his last cliffhanger to throw yet another curveball, with Astrid stumbling upon Salamander’s underground bunker, thus connecting two parts of the narrative that the audience surely did not expect to see connected.
Thus episode six starts with the sorts of big face-offs the story has been promising us. The Doctor faces down Benik again. Astrid the Bond Girl faces down Salamander’s secret Britain. The companions face down the dumb Bond henchmen. (OK, that last one is a bit of a snide comment on Whitaker’s part, perhaps.) And then we get the really weird one, as it turns out that Kent has secretly been a Bond Villain the entire time, and that he was originally in league with Salamander on this whole “secret bunker causing natural disasters” thing. And the Doctor has known this all along, and that’s why he’s been so reluctant to help Kent. Aside from being a beautiful lampshading of this story’s biggest flaw – the degree to which the Doctor delays getting to the action – this sequence and the resultant confrontation between Kent and Salamander reiterates a key point – Salamander is smarter than this narrative too. He is every bit the evil Doctor and a proto-Master, and he even gets a nice Mastery laugh in after killing Kent.
What this means is that there are huge expectations for the big one – that when Salamander and the Doctor finally do face off, it’s going to have to be epic. And for a lot of people, the story fails at this. Those people are wrong. Generally, their objection is that this final confrontation scene is too abrupt and too tacked on. I will grant that it is surprisingly short. But what these commentators miss – and it’s an easy thing to miss when you’re as used to later Doctor Who as anyone who goes and watches reconstructions of Troughton episodes is – is that Salamander has done something we’ve never seen done before.
He’s breached the TARDIS.
Other than a brief incursion from a Zarbi way back in The Web Planet, the TARDIS has been sacrosanct. Sure, it might get stolen, batted around, or, in The Tenth Planet, mildly possessed. But no villain has ever just strode into the TARDIS and tried to take it over. The TARDIS has always been completely safe. And Salamander gets within a few inches of stealing it. Never mind how brief the scene is, or the strange question of how Salamander found the TARDIS (It’s a David Whitaker script. As always, we deal with symbols, not reality). The jaw-dropping thing is that he’s there, and he attacks the Doctor inside his own ship.
Which, when you think about it, is almost inevitable. Once you set up the idea of an exact counterpart of the Doctor, you have to let him face the Doctor on the Doctor’s home turf. If the counterpart isn’t a strong enough character to threaten the Doctor in the TARDIS itself, he’s not a strong enough character period. Which is why I’m going to, at considerable risk of humiliation given that this article will post after the episode airs, predict with great confidence that the Ganger Doctor is going to make it into the TARDIS in The Almost People, and that if he doesn’t this will be an obvious shortcoming of the story. Because that’s how good an idea Whitaker has here – one that is so good that there is no choice but to do it again.
(SPOILERS FOR THE ALMOST PEOPLE IN THIS PARENTHESES, MOVE YOUR EYES ALONG IF YOU’RE A LAW ABIDING AMERICAN: Oooh. So close, yet so far. Still, I was right in the general principle – the dramatic tension was fundamentally about the equivalence of the two Doctors. They both make it to the TARDIS, and Amy even begs the Ganger Doctor to come on board. And they both refer to the TARDIS as sexy. Both of which accomplish the same thing as Salamander making it to the TARDIS – establishing the Ganger Doctor as the full equal of the original Doctor via the TARDIS. The bit I got wrong was assuming that the Ganger Doctor would be an antagonist to any degree.)
Yes, venting Salamander out into the Void is a bit abrupt (Although if you look at the start of The Web of Fear, it spends a few minutes wrapping this up and then moves on to an unrelated plot. Watching the first episode and seeing how little the first scene has to do with the rest of it in any way, shape, or form, one frankly gets the sense that Whitaker’s episode overran and that they tacked the last few minutes of his onto the start of The Web of Fear.) But on the other hand, this is, again, David Whitaker. He created the TARDIS as we know her way back in The Edge of Destruction. So having the TARDIS herself destroy Salamander is wholly appropriate. He may be able to nearly trump and beat out the Doctor in his own story. But the one thing he cannot hope to compete with is the magical box itself.
The result is sublime. A story that starts seeming like a James Bond pastiche and ends up delivering a commentary on James Bond, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who, has some sublimely weird and mindblowing double crosses in the final act, gives us more of a sense of a world than we’ve gotten out of Doctor Who in months, and lets Patrick Troughton really stretch his acting chops. It’s proof that Doctor Who still can do anything, assuming it’s allowed to try.
The Enemy of the World is a story that starts looking positively mundane, ends up with its villain nearly threatening the entire narrative structure of Doctor Who, and stops off at Griffin the Chef on the way. It’s magnificent, and it’s high time we started treating it as the absolute classic it is.