It’s February 4th, 1978. “The Mull of Kintyre” has finally been unseated at the top of the charts by Althia and Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking,” a nice little reggae number. It makes it a week before Brotherhood of Man unseat it with “Figaro,” a song widely accused of ripping off ABBA, who, coincidentally, knock it off a week later with “Take a Chance on Me,” which has a three week run before Kate Bush storms to number one with “Wuthering Heights,” which is, quite frankly, a fantastic song, doubly so for having been written in the space of a few hours by an eighteen-year-old, which is the sort of thing that makes those of us who are pushing 30 feel desperately old and like we have wasted our lives. This song is also worth pointing to on the grounds that the New Romanticism movement is generally dated as kicking off at least a year later, which makes this a bewilderingly massive hit a good year or two before the movement that it obviously belongs to actually existed. Bonnie Tyler, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Rod Stewart, Blondie Electric Light Orchestra, and the Bee Gees also chart, the latter with “Stayin’ Alive.”
While in real news, Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia, agrees to transfer power to black majority rule, attempting to end a saga that we’ve been following since The Myth Makers. It doesn’t work. Electrical workers in Mexico City unexpectedly discover the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in the middle of the city, which is the sort of thing that just doesn’t happen in most of our lives. Larry Flynt is shot and paralyzed in the US, a hijacking of a bus on Israel’s Coastal Highway by Palestinian terrorists leaves 38 civilians dead, and China lifts a ban on works by Dickens, Aristotle, and Shakespeare.
While on television, and speaking of Shakespeare, we have one of the most overtly Shakespeare-inspired Doctor Who stories in the entire run as the Doctor nicks Hamlet’s whole “acting mad to confuse everyone” plan. The result, like most of Season Fifteen, is a mixed bag. This is a tremendously rough, transitional season that saw a non-trivial number of viewers change the channel and not come back as long as ITV was actually on the air. Under Hinchcliffe the program reliably got viewers in the ten to twelve million range. Under Williams, barring a massive ITV strike, the show was solidly in the seven to nine million range – still fine ratings, but a visible drop.
And while we’ve been staying positive about this season, let’s be clear, it’s not hard to understand why the viewers gave up. The entire aesthetic apparatus of the show imploded on short notice, the level of basic competence that could be expected in the production plummeted, and the artistic goals of almost every story this season have not extended much beyond “oh God, let’s just get this made.” And this story is no exception in that department – a recurrence of the industrial disputes that happened almost annually at the BBC and the fact that the original script had bottomed out spectacularly (by legend it was abandoned after it was found to require a night shoot in a stadium full of cats) meant that this script was assembled under pressure and with lots of decisions being made because all of the sensible ways to accomplish something were off the table for whatever reason.
But while Season Fifteen has felt like a drunken stumble in panicked pursuit of a viable aesthetic, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t managed to get closer to one. There has been a coherent move over the course of these last six stories from the baroquely postmodernist horror of the Hinchcliffe era to a more aggressively materialist postmodernism of satire and rebellion. It’s been horrendously rough, and this story still shows plenty of the problems of that transition. The most infamous ones being the effect used for the Vardans, the bewilderingly sloppy TARDIS chase sequences of the final episode, and the fact that the whole thing is appallingly mispaced. But we’ve been doing this dualism for several entries now, and if you’re not bored of it, I certainly am. So instead of focusing on that, let’s look both at the things within this story that do work (and there are several) and at the thing that, in hindsight, is its most problematic element.
First the good, which is something that can be praised about this story and, for what it’s worth, the last one: this is unabashedly television that assumes that its viewers are intelligent people. This story goes further than any other to date in terms of the patience it demands of its audience. It’s not that unusual to withhold key details about the premise until several episodes into a story. But it’s tremendously unusual to do so in a format where we’re left uncertain for two of the six episodes what the Doctor is doing or whose side he’s on.
Typically in a Doctor Who story the audience’s level of knowledge, while not equivalent to the Doctor’s, is primarily related to his level of knowledge. We’re not privy to his thought processes, but since he’s the moral center of the series we do use him as our benchmark for how to evaluate other characters. The audience is, by default, assumed to like the same characters the Doctor likes and to dislike the same characters the Doctor dislikes. Occasionally this is subverted – a character the Doctor initially appears to like turns out to be bad, or a character the Doctor has been dismissive of comes good – but even there the Doctor remains the audience’s main frame of reference for making sense of the rest of the story.
But for two and a half episodes here, that gets completely inverted. It’s not, of course, that the Doctor actually appears to be the bad guy. Even if you don’t know the premise of the story going in, the Doctor is still the moral center of the story. Assuming he’s gone bad is like assuming he’s going to die as a result of the cliffhanger: stupid. But just because the audience knows the Doctor is playing some sort of larger game doesn’t mean the audience knows what’s going on. From the audience’s perspective all of the reference points are scrambled.
As Miles and Wood frequently point out, the best cliffhangers are the ones in which the suspense is not over the next event in the plot but over the significance of a revelation – i.e. not “what’s going to happen,” but “what does that mean?” A prime example comes in the best cliffhanger of the story, which is in no way the sudden appearance of the Sontarans in episode four, but rather the Doctor cackling madly as he introduces the Time Lords’ “new masters” at the end of episode two. This is interesting not because of the possibility that the Doctor has gone bad but because of the complete mystery as to what the heck he’s doing – the question of what could possibly have motivated the Doctor to act like this.
But what’s really impressive about The Invasion of Time is that it sustains this approach over two and a half episodes. Until the Doctor’s conversation with Borusa in episode three, the audience is left in a continual cliffhanger-like state of trying to figure out the significance of what they’re seeing. Far from, as Lawrence Miles bizarrely asserts, being the point where the show stops trying to take the viewer to interesting places, this is a phenomenally successful attempt to recapture that sense in a world where everybody knows the premises of the show and where the Doctor is a reassuring figure, as opposed to the cranky and potentially dangerous man he was when the show started and was most firmly in that mode. By throwing out the normal storytelling apparatus of the series – following the Doctor – this story gets the audience spending two and a half episodes trying to figure out its rules. The last time the program spent that long playing “what are the basic principles of this setting and this story” it was in black and white.
There’s a sophistication to this storytelling that’s actually well beyond what anything save for arguably The Deadly Assassin managed in the Hinchcliffe era. This is a story that requires that the viewer pay attention, and that requires continual guessing and re-evaluating of guesses. It’s cerebral and demanding of its viewers. In many ways, this is the most triumphant rebuke of Mary Whitehouse to date: a story that depends almost entirely on the exact processes of interpretation she ignores. This is a story that depends on the fact the the viewer is not simply treating it as a documentary about imaginary people but as something bound by a series of tropes, conventions, and narrative rules that are at least as important, if not moreso, than the events actually happening on screen in terms of understanding the show.
This is all particularly powerful in the context of what Miles and Wood compellingly argue that this story is about. They point out that the sorts of events that take place in this story would have been mostly associated with the rise of African dictators like Idi Amin or, a year or so after this story, Robert Mugabe. By setting it on Gallifrey, a planet obviously inspired by Oxford and Cambridge, the story positions the sort of event that happens in areas far removed from the UK in the heart of British culture to considerable effect. By making the storytelling challenging and complex the viewer is forced to confront the chaos and ambiguity that surrounds a revolutionary coup and a change in power and is compellingly reminded that not only could it “happen here,” they’d be hard-pressed to keep up with it and notice it was happening in time to stop it.
The other very satisfying aspect of this story is the way in which it plays with the audience’s understanding of Tom Baker’s Doctor. By this point Baker, more than any other Doctor including Pertwee’s, is played to be beloved by the audience. There are a lot of parts to this – the fact that Baker’s Doctor is overtly funny in a way none of his predecessors – not even Troughton – really was, for instance. But also in terms of the show’s basic visual grammar. Baker gets close-ups and a central position in the shot in ways his predecessors didn’t, and has had a considerably smaller supporting cast than any of them did. (This is particularly clear in comparison with The Underwater Menace and the clip going around of Troughton asking Zaroff why he wants to blow up the world. Watch how Troughton flits around the edge of the screen, allowing Zaroff to occupy the center of the frame, then compare to Baker in this episode. Baker’s performance is far closer to Furst’s than it is to Troughton’s.) A fundamental aspect of how Doctor Who works in the Williams era is based on the assumption that watching Tom Baker is a fundamental part of the audience’s pleasure.
So in this story, when the audience is routinely left not understanding what they are watching when they watch Baker, there’s an interesting tension. Because we like watching Baker so much it becomes deeply unsettling watching him pretend to be the bad guy. Baker is the only Doctor thus far that it’s really possible to imagine in this story simply because he’s the only one charismatic enough to make it disturbing in this way. Again it’s worth comparing to Troughton, who plays bad several times. But when Troughton plays bad it’s always disturbing because his character is just mercurial enough that it’s plausible. We know the Doctor won’t turn out to be evil (except in Power of the Daleks, where we really do basically know nothing whatsoever), but with Troughton we’re never completely confident that he’ll turn out to be good either.
Baker, on the other hand, we love and trust, and so watching him pretending to be a villain for an extended stretch unsettles in strange new ways.And Baker plays it fantastically, delivering an unequivocal reminder that whatever problems his increasing ego caused the production, he was at east partially justified in his egotism. He plays the Doctor’s madness in such a way as to keep him firmly the Doctor we love, turning all of the things that are normally pleasurable about the Doctor into unsettling subversions of the character.
That said, the story has a massive flaw. Well, it has several, but in hindsight the biggest by far is its introduction of a very different sense of continuity than the series has ever displayed before. In some ways this is closely related to the story’s primary strength. What’s best about the story is the way in which it plays with people’s expectations of what Doctor Who is. What’s worst about it is the way in which it relies on the series’ history in lieu of actually establishing any urgency or investment.
The telltale moment is when the Sontarans, who have not appeared in over three years and who aren’t particularly A-list monsters, get trotted out for a “surprise reveal” cliffhanger. This cliffhanger is, in truth, an appalling moment. Its entire impact is based on the fact that the story had, mere moments earlier, appeared to be over. In truth the sudden appearance of the Sontarans is nothing more than a desperate story extender; having failed to stretch the Vardans out over four episodes the writers had to add a two-episode Sontaran run-around, one of which is just a tedious chase sequence. And the effects on them are particularly bad. Most people cite the Sontaran that breaks a chair and nearly falls into the swimming pool, but for my money the real great moment is when Stor dramatically puts his helmet back on and flagrantly fails to get the eye holes to line up with his yes.
But more broadly, the use of the Sontarans has little to do with their merits as an alien species. Holmes had never even designed them as a species – Linx was a Master surrogate, not a debut of a monster. No, the reason they’re being used is purely that there’s a decent chance much of the audience will recognize them, thus adding excitement to what would otherwise be a cliffhanger amounting to shouting “Oh hey, there’s another two weeks of this!” The fact that the Sontarans are a relatively uninspiring race that are in no way what people want to see invading Gallifrey (the Daleks or the Cybermen would be the far more obvious choices for that) is, in this case, almost completely irrelevant.
This gets at the real problem in this story, however, which is the Time Lords. As I’ve previously said, this season takes a nail gun to the coffin of the Time Lords as an interesting and imposing race. Much of what Jan Rudzki wrongly accused The Deadly Assassin of being finally happens here, as the Time Lords firmly become hapless and squabbling dupes. When Paul Cornell brings back the Vardans in his novel No Future, he has the Doctor mock them as the only race ever to be outwitted by the Sontarans, which rather spectacularly misses the fact that the Time Lords are also outwitted by them in this story – a rather stark failing on their part.
But more broadly this is when we finally get the Time Lords treated as business as usual. There is no sense of mystique or occasion as we return to Gallifrey. It’s nothing more than a recurring guest planet. Last time we went to Gallifrey it was an awe-inspiring event of such size that it ripped apart the Doctor and Sarah Jane. This time its magnitude comes only from its invocation of the series’ past – the fact that it’s a return to a previously popular event. This, more than any of the changes to Time Lord society (and virtually ever idea The Invasion of Time has is vastly inferior to what The Deadly Assassin seemed to hint at. In particular its conception of the Matrix is painfully dull, turning the vast and subjective history of the Time Lords into a sort of Presidential Wikipedia) is what finally kills off any sense of grandeur that the Time Lords might have. The series does not ask us to care about them as anything more than a familiar set of funny costumes.
And if we may be permitted to peek ahead slightly, this, and more broadly the approach to the series it represents, will prove to be disastrous for the series in the long term. This is the first time the series has simply assumed that because something has been seen before it will be cool to see it again without thinking that anything else is required. It’s an approach that will characterize the worst moments of the series in the 80s, but perhaps more importunity, it’s an approach that’s just boring. It amounts to a tacit admission that the series isn’t as good as it used to be and thus that it is recycling past ideas not because they worked well but because they represent a nostalgic yearning for what it used to be.
The sad thing is that the series is finally starting to show that it is just as good as it always was and that it does have bold new ideas. But unfortunately, the worst ideas of this story ended up being the ones with the most impact. But to fault this story for The Arc of Infinity would be like faulting The Time Warrior and The Deadly Assassin for this story. And if nothing else, this story, and for that matter Season Fifteen in general, deserves some credit. It was made under astonishingly trying conditions that rival those of the overworked start in inadequate studio conditions that characterized Season One. The fact that it often seemed satisfied just to get to the finish line and make it to the screen is unfortunate, but we shouldn’t forget that getting twenty-six episodes made this season was a challenge. To pull it off while also reinventing the show in response to considerable political pressure is a phenomenal result. That the result is one of the hardest seasons to watch is unfortunate. But my God, it could have been so much worse. And next season, frankly, it gets so much better.
Which leaves us with one more obvious thing to talk about, which is Louise Jameson’s departure. Some companions are easy to like. Leela, on the other hand, is easy to love. For all of the many very valid complaints about Leela, from the implicit racism of her conception to the tedious marginalization of her in the latter episodes of this season, Louise Jameson consistently turned in one of the most impressive performances ever done with the companion role, displaying an adaptability that rivaled that of Patrick Troughton in terms of the raw ability to find something dramatic to do in a given scene. There are companions who did better with good material than she did, but few if any who have done as well with material as poor as she reliably made sublime. Her departure is at once lousy and a perfect summation of the character: rushed, poorly considered, badly upstaged by Tom Baker, and yet dignified for no reason other than the sublime skill of Louise Jameson. And though it’s hard for the audience not to get pulled along with Baker’s giddy grin as he stares at the camera in the final shot, the fact remains – if only for the actress, Leela is definitely a character who will be missed.