|So. How was your weekend?|
It’s November 24, 1979. Dr. Hook’s beautiful woman obsession continues for two more weeks before the Police break up the party with “Walking On the Moon.” That lasts for a week before Pink Floyd take the top slot with “Another Brick in the Wall.” Kool and the Gang, Donna Summer and Barbara Streisand, Gary Numan, and the Sugarhill Gang also chart, making this, I think, a strong contender for the most utterly screwed up set of musical options ever.
In real news, Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashes into Mount Erebus in Antarctica. Bruce George Peter Lee sets fire to a house in Hull, killing three and setting off a large manhunt. Jack Lynch resigns as Taoiseach of Ireland, which is by far the best name for a major political office ever, and the whole Rhodesia thing continues with the short-lived and unrecognized state of Zimbabwe Rhodesia returning to British control as Southern Rhodesia. Smallpox is formally eliminated, there’s a coup d’etat in South Korea, and the first Star Trek movie debuts.
While on television we once again have a story that gives us an opportunity to practice our “defending the Graham Williams era” skills. As usual, a curate’s egg. Somewhat surprisingly, the biggest problem isn’t the writing, given that this is a Bob Baker solo script. Apparently Dave Martin was the weak link there. I mean, the writing isn’t award winning genius. But it’s serviceable enough. The real flaws… let’s see. The Mandrels are, of course, a disaster, although at least with them, unlike several other recent monsters, you can see why people thought they could have worked. They’re firmly a case of just missing scary and landing on ridiculous (and the two are often a hair’s breadth apart) as opposed to a misconceived disaster. The acting is often poor, though nobody stands out as a particular disaster. The sets are… generic 70s space ship at its most generic, although some points are on offer for a relative lack of white.
But the biggest problem, if we’re being honest, is the basic concept. The number of series that have had good days with anti-drug stories is very, very small. It’s not a great topic, largely because one can’t deviate from the proscribed moral position that drugs are super-duper bad. Lacking in any ability to say or do anything interesting with the material they become little more than a race to see how ludicrously anti-drug you can end up being. So for Bob Baker to falter here is hardly surprising. Heck, even Steven Moffat has trouble with this theme, with “How to Make a Killing,” his anti-drug episode of Press Gang, being by far one of the weakest episodes of the series. Still, the fact that a vraxoin high consists of emotional apathy followed by death means that this has to be said to be something of an impressive entry in the ludicrously excessive anti-drug story sweepstakes. And given that vraxoin is one of the story’s big ideas and that another one of its big ideas is nothing more than a less interesting lift of Carnival of Monsters it’s easy to see why this story is a bit underwhelming.
But thankfully, and here’s something we’ve gotten to say relatively rarely over his Doctor Who career, this is a Bob Baker story. Which means that there are more than two big ideas in it. And while the first two are lackluster, the third one is actually quite interesting. This is a little bit surprising on the surface, because it seems like by far the least interesting. When you’ve got drugs that are made out of the corpses of dead aliens and a reskinning of the Miniscope in your story the bit about two spaceships crashing into each other seems utterly lackluster. So, of course, it’s the thing I’m going to talk the most about.
It is easy, especially when you are the sort of person prone to sitting at a keyboard for hours of a day banging out strings of letters, to fail to think adequately about the visual dimension of television. This is doubly so if you are of my generation and thus used to watching television while sitting on your computer or otherwise half-watching, leading television to often become a radio play reinforced with pictures. (If I may be speculative, I suspect this is why an increasing number of fans are watching and enjoying reconstructions. Not just that they’re now much more widely available – although obviously they are – but because the visual grammar of a reconstruction is basically what watching television while noodling on Facebook is like anyway. Unfortunately it equally well explains the dreadful practice of “motion comics,” which I’ll talk more about basically never.)
And on top of that it is easy to overlook the visual components of older television. Because there’s something alienating about watching something that looks old, because so much of the pacing is wrong to modern tastes, and, perhaps most significantly, because technological changes continually alter how the visuals work in the first place it’s easy to fail to think much about the way in which a story is told visually. And if you’re Bob Baker (or Dave Martin, to be fair) that’s a bit of a pity, because it means that none of your scripts are really adequately appreciated anymore.
There are many, many ways in which Bob Baker is not a great writer. His dialogue is clunky, his characters are shallow, and his plots are meandering. But on the other hand, it’s not like he hasn’t, you know, written three Oscar-winning films. I mean, yes, the Oscars went to Nick Park, the director of the Wallace and Gromit films, but Baker did write the things. And looking at them what’s clear is that they are intensely visual pieces. Every single scene is based primarily on revealing information and telling the story via what happens on screen – which isn’t surprising given that part of the fun of Wallace and Gromit is meant to be seeing what Nick Park can do with stop-motion. But it’s worth stressing just how visual the scripts are. Other than the feature-length Curse of the Were-Rabbit, all of Baker’s Wallace and Gromit scripts have at most two speaking characters. They’re not just heavily visual scripts, in other words, they’re scripts that are completely structured around the notion of visual storytelling.
Which means first of all that Baker was always going to be a bit of a rough choice of writers for BBC television. This is clear enough in the descriptions of his early scripts, with their giant skulls in Hyde Park and flaming death carrots. What Baker was good at was coming up with amazing things to put on the screen. And this is key. He’s usually credited with having a lot of ideas, but a perusal of his scripts shows that actually, he doesn’t have that many different ones. The esteemed William Whyte pointed out most of the common elements in a comment on The Armageddon Factor. The key thing to realize is that the things Baker generates aren’t really ideas in the first place. If they were, he’d explore them considerably more than he does. No, he comes up with images. Which was not really feasible on a Doctor Who budget most of the time, hence his scripts being ruthlessly reined in to try to be about fewer things.
Even still, Baker consistently shows more concern for the question of what’s happening than most writers. The Baker and Martin stories do a better job than most of thinking through the episodic structure, making sure that each week of the story does something tangibly different from the one before. Even when pacing within an episode is confused or muddy there’s always a sense that Baker and Martin stories are built with their episode structures in mind and with a conscious brief to make every episode into a concrete event in its own right. (This again does their reputation no favors in the modern age of the DVD. Really no writers of the 70s are as harmed by watching in movie format as them.)
But their best scripts have always been the ones in which the matter of what happens is not merely a question of plot points but of visual events. The Claws of Axos – still in many ways their best story – works because it is a continual bevy of fascinating visual experiences. Even into The Armageddon Factor the best moments are the ones relating to the slowly expanding time loop, which makes for unusual and interesting television. And it’s important to note that this gets at one of the most fundamental things about what the series is. From the first moment of the bizarre and shrieking theme music Doctor Who defined itself as a space in the television schedule in which strange things happened. The TARDIS was initially defined, remember, in terms of television. Doctor Who’s initial brief was to create televisual spaces in which unusual things happened. Looking at the early single episode titles of Doctor Who it’s striking how many describe places instead of events: The Cave of Skulls, The Dead Planet, The Wall of Lies, The Screaming Jungle, The Temple of Evil, etc.
In this context the collided spaceships of The Nightmare of Eden are an impressive return to form for Baker. The idea of merged and overlapping ships with patches of unstable space is fascinating in part because of how it turns the world of the story into a visually and conceptually distinct space. And in particular, what’s interesting about them is that they mean that part of the story is visual. What makes this story interesting – and it’s something that’s lacking in most of the stories around it – are the ways in which the Doctor runs through different parts of the spaceship, moving through the passenger sections (which are couched firmly in terms of airplanes) into jungles or tangles of wires and machinery. What’s interesting isn’t just what’s happening but the confused and tangled spaces where it happens and how the various parts of the ships juxtapose and affect each other. Or, to put it another way, what’s interesting here is that the idea of the crashed spaceships and what happens on screen are the same things. That’s distinct from, say, City of Death, where the concept (an alien running an outlandish art fraud) and the events (Tom Baker and Julian Glover delivering brilliant wisecracks) are related but distinct. The crashed spaceships and what happens on screen around them can’t be meaningfully distinguished between.
Unfortunately Baker is hamstrung by the same thing that usually kills his scripts, which is that the BBC just isn’t anywhere close to being able to do his ideas justice, and that he isn’t enough of a television guy to know how to use his capacity to come up with odd images to create things that the BBC can do. But it’s notable how similar the collided starships are to the sort of eccentric narrative spaces that show up in Castrovalva in two seasons time.
The other and larger problem is that he’s stuck in the Williams era when the entire structure of the show runs counter to what he’s good at. The series is, for better or for worse, utterly dominated by Tom Baker right now. When it succeeds it’s because it finds interesting things for Tom Baker to do, and generally that means finding someone interesting for him to talk to. City of Death’s quality is largely down to T. Baker constantly having someone interesting to play with. When Creature From the Pit is good it’s because T. Baker is getting to carry on an interesting conversation with either Adrasta or Erato. And the sort of story B. Baker is good at is exactly wrong for T. Baker at this stage.
But the thing is, much as it would be easy to slag B. Baker here for the theme I’ve been on for a few stories now of “you’re a bit past your prime,” I can’t. For one thing, he’s not past his prime – he’s got three Oscar winning pieces ahead of him in his career. For another, he’s not even past his prime on Doctor Who. One of the things that the Nathan-Turner era does is move back towards a style of storytelling in which concept and event are synonymous. As poor a match as Baker’s scripts are for the late Williams era, they’re surprisingly in touch with what’s going to be going on in just a few stories’ time. Even though this is his last script and he’s been behind some weak stories for several seasons now, the problem is first and foremost that his style is a poor mesh with the Williams era.
But this becomes a criticism that cuts both ways. On the one hand, Baker’s clunky dialogue, meager characterization, and the degree to which his writing relies on an effects budget and level of skill that the BBC just couldn’t provide hamstrung him. But on the other hand, at least some of the blame has to go to Williams for letting the show get to the point where it essentially only has one arrow in its quiver. It works when it can do intelligent comedy based around Tom Baker. When it can’t, it doesn’t. And as good as the show is capable of being with that, there’s an uncomfortable reduction implicit in it. A show that was once about strangeness has become about comfortable comedy. It’s not necessarily a bad thing in terms of how the show is. Indeed, even after the ITV strike its ratings are commendable this season. But the show that exists in 1979 isn’t one that can run forever. And for Doctor Who, that’s a real problem.