|The flat share sitcom Eric Saward proposed as a spinoff|
tragically never really took off.
It’s February 15th, 1982. The Jam remain at number one for the entirety of this story with Soft Cell, XTC, Depeche Mode, and Hall and Oates also charting, making this the only time that list of four bands has ever happened. Depeche Mode, it should be noted, are here debuting in their Vince Clarke-free version with “See You,” their first single written by Martin Gore. Lower in the charts Journey appear with “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which will peak at 62 before vanishing, getting the reception it deserved until the damn thing reappeared repeatedly from 2007-2012, eventually becoming a top ten single.
In real news, a general election in the Republic of Ireland boosts the centrist Fianna Fáil party who, after a few weeks of jockeying, form a government. The DeLorean factory in Belfast is put into receivership. And, two days after this story airs its last episode, the European Court of Human Rights determines that caning, belting, or tasing students without their parents’ permission is a human rights violation, which is one of those rulings that just makes you wonder how anyone ever thought otherwise.
While on television it’s the debut of Eric Saward, who will be a major character in the blog for the next while. Eric Saward is an interesting figure. He’s the script editor over the low point of the classic series – a fact that taints him as much as it taints John Nathan-Turner. He also, however, had a colossal falling out with Nathan-Turner at the end of his tenure, and, more to the point, dished freely about this in an interview after leaving the show, which means that he’s also a primary source for many of the criticisms of the show.
And then you have his four actual scripts for the series. They are, generally speaking, controversial. He has one that’s largely considered an absolute classic, which we’ll talk about in two entries. His others have their admirers and their detractors. For the most part admirers win out – all four of his stories are in the top 100 in the Mighty 200, with two in the top fifty. But there’s a volume, in every case, to the detractors that one doesn’t see with other largely well-regarded writers.
There’s a quote that’s been making the rounds of the Internet from Ira Glass – an American radio presenter, for the large portion of my audience who isn’t from the US – about how beginners in any creative sphere run into a problem because they generally have very good taste, but their work isn’t up to their own standards yet. It’s an unusually good quote as bland inspirational quotes about writing go, but it’s particularly apropos for Eric Saward, who is, by and large, a writer with demonstrably solid taste and a chronic inability to quite live up to it.
The best example of this is Robert Holmes. The active relationship between Saward and Holmes doesn’t begin until Season Twenty, but I’d make a strong case – in fact, I’m going to – that the writers need to be considered in tandem from the start of Saward’s career. Miles and Wood suggest that this is the first attempt to do a “traditional” Doctor Who story, but this is a slightly dodgy claim. For one thing, the pseudo-historical isn’t exactly a format with a long tradition. It was reasonably popular in the Hinchcliffe era, which had three of them, and then the Williams era started with one, but prior to that there were only three of them: The Time Meddler, The Abominable Snowmen, and The Time Warrior
So while it’s true that “aliens mess with history” is one of the standard plots of Doctor Who now, it wasn’t really in 1982. It’s not until there are eight of the things in seven years, starting with this story, that it becomes a sort of standard issue thing. And the seven that exist hardly form a coherent genre. The Horror of Fang Rock, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Masque of Mandragora, The Pyramids of Mars, The Time Warrior, The Abominable Snowmen, and The Time Meddler have very, very little in common as a list beyond their historical setting. Some involve aliens meddling with concrete facts of history, others just use the historical setting as a set of tropes and conventions. Actually, about the only thing other than the historical setting that can be generalized about that list is that five of the seven involve Robert Holmes in some fashion. Which is amusing given that he hated doing history in Doctor Who.
But this gets at what’s really going on in The Visitation, which is not about redoing a Doctor Who standard in the 1980s so much as it’s a flat-out 1980s remake of The Time Warrior. Saward, in his first outing, is attempting a redo of a Robert Holmes story. And to his credit, it’s not the worst idea. I was a little rough on The Time Warrior when I covered it due to the fact that it’s got some egregious sexism problems. But that’s the sort of thing that’s why I insist this isn’t a review blog. Because considered as a piece of entertainment, The Time Warrior is a highlight of the Pertwee era. As stories to go back to and try again go, there are few better choices – it’s a great story that, unlike something like Warrior’s Gate or Carnival of Monsters, can be easily repeated with slight variations. So as source material to pinch goes, Saward is on firm ground here.
And let’s also be clear, Saward is not a talentless hack by any stretch of the imagination. There are some real strengths to his writing. He has a sense of pace that’s genuinely admirable. In all of his scripts there’s a sense of mounting and pressing drama – a sense of pressure and suspense that animates his scripts satisfyingly. He’s good at stringing together set pieces – a talent he shares with Holmes – and while he uses bickering among the TARDIS crew as a crutch to pad out episodes the fact is that he writes those scenes quite well. It is, in other words, not hard to see why this was one of the most popular stories of the season – it was fast-paced, exciting, and had a lot going on. It’s very much fun to watch.
The word “but” hangs over that paragraph like a sword of Damocles, however, and so let’s drop it. Saward is no Robert Holmes. And the real case in point is Richard Mace. On the one hand, Mace is a flagrant effort to create an archetypal Robert Holmes type character – the larger than life comedy rogue, specifically. It’s not that Mace isn’t funny – there are parts of the story where he’s downright charming. But for some inexplicable reason Saward hangs the entire story on him – he’s the only supporting character in the entire thing that can accurately be called a character. And it doesn’t work at all. Mace just isn’t a good enough character to support the entire plot. He’s great fun, but that’s all he is. Garron, another one of the comedy rogue characters in question, was one of the most fun parts of The Ribos Operation, but he was balanced out by a well-characterized villain and the Unstoffe/Binro storyline that provides the emotional heart of the story. And Saward, in doing his Holmes imitation, misses all of that.
It is, in other words, as though Saward watched some Holmes scripts, noticed that comedy rogues were the best part, and so he wrote a script consisting of nothing but a comedy rogue and some action set pieces. It’s maddening because it’s so close to working. He’s got the right model. He’s correctly identified many of the best parts of the model. But he doesn’t have a sense of the underlying mechanics of The Time Warrior to actually imitate it. The Time Warrior’s comedy rogue is Irongron, and he’s a bad guy created to play endlessly off of the alien. Saward makes the comedy rogue the Doctor’s sidekick and doesn’t bother developing the world any further.
The real giveaway is the Tereleptil leader. Holmes, in creating the Sontarans, creates a specific character in Linx. Whereas the Tereleptil leader never gets a name – he’s just the Tereleptil leader. Saward, in part four, goes for a moment of supsense where there suddenly turn out to be three Tereleptils. The idea seems to be that it’s suspenseful because the lone Tereleptil was a real threat all story and now there are three of them. But with the lone Tereleptil already being little more than a featureless monster who gets some moustache-twirling lines the sudden reveal of more of them is little more than a reveal that the story’s monster is… a monster. Yay.
All of which said, it’s not that the story doesn’t work. It does. It’s just that it only works on transmission, and even then would only work at the heightened pace of the twice-weekly episodes. This story depends on the fact that the audience doesn’t really have time to think about what’s going on. And we’re starting to exit the point where only working once is a sound choice and to enter a point where Doctor Who is obviously going to be out on video someday. Even if, in 1982, the VCR was still a bit of an obscure object (10% of the households in the UK owned one) it was clearly a rising technology. And so while The Visitation can get something of a pass on the old “it was only meant to be watched once” defense… that defense is going to stop working soon.
One final thing that, of course, has to be commented on: the destruction of the sonic screwdriver. The reasoning behind it, stated ad nauseum by John Nathan-Turner over the course of his career, is that the sonic screwdriver was a cheat that made the Doctor too powerful and encouraged lazy scriptwriting. Somewhat astonishingly, this nonsense is still repeated within some corners of fandom, and while the idea that it might be put to bed for good is surely ludicrous, let’s take a stab at it.
First of all, the thing that makes the Doctor too powerful is that the show is named after him. I’ve slaughtered this horse in past entries, but this is one of the most egregious outbreaks of this sort of twaddle, so let’s be perfectly clear. Anyone who is watching Doctor Who in any spirit based on the idea that the Doctor might not save the day is simply being televisually illiterate. The drama of Doctor Who cannot reasonably be said to come from whether or not the Doctor is going to be OK. And so on those grounds Nathan-Turner’s entire crusade to remove Romana, K-9, and the sonic screwdriver on the grounds of excessive power was simply silly.
The idea that the sonic screwdriver encourages lazy scriptwriting, on the other hand, may be even more bewildering. In that it seems to suggest, allegedly seriously, that the purpose of Doctor Who is to watch the Doctor do clever things with locks. If anything the sonic screwdriver discouraged lazy scriptwriting because it made it harder to justify putting the Doctor in an endless sequence of captures and escapes. It dramatically reduced the amount of stupid padding that could be shoved into a story, and it does so even more in its modern day version as a tool that can accomplish anything so long as it wouldn’t be more interesting to do it another way. But as of The Visitation lazy scriptwriters can now stretch episodes out with lengthy amounts of fiddling with wires manually. Thrilling. What an improvement.
But this is fundamentally related to what’s wrong with The Visitation. It’s an imitation of a story about characters written by someone who doesn’t really understand storytelling beyond the level of action sequences. Likewise, the destruction of the sonic screwdriver is the removal of something that speeds through some of the dreck of action sequences. Whereas one of Russell T. Davies’s fundamental innovations in 2005 is going to be to bring back the sonic screwdriver, make it more powerful, and add the psychic paper to it so that he can speed through trivial setup and wire-fiddling and get on with the actual character drama.
And while I am usually disinclined to criticize the classic series for failing to live up to the standards of television from over twenty years later, this is genuinely troubling right after Kinda. Doctor Who is spending more time figuring out how to get more captures and escapes into its format than it is on character-based storytelling. This while simultaneously trying to act more like a soap and have character conflict. It’s problematic to say the least. And while every individual story of the Davison era thus far has more or less worked fine and been at least somewhat entertaining, it’s also clear that the show has ambitions on the level of story arcs instead of just single adventures. It’s inviting the viewer to judge it on the grounds of how it handles its characters over multiple stories and on its ongoing development. And it’s doing so actively, unlike in the Graham Williams era, where even as the series moved towards season-long arcs it subverted the possibility of the epic and actively declined to offer plot arcs. Nathan-Turner is actively offering a type of series where there should be plot arcs and character development. And then he’s failing not just miserably but bizarrely at delivering them.