|The Doctor tries to sand his jowls off on an airplane wheel.|
It’s April 8, 1967, and Englebert Humperdinck will not die. Actually, this is his last week at number one. Next week it’s Nancy and Frank Sinatra with “Somethin’ Stupid.” Once again we’re just seeing the pendulum in action here. It’s just that the pendulum is unusually swung at the moment – nothing all that interesting in the entire top 10 (though #11, Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze, reminds us that there is a counterculture out there). It peaks at #3, and The Who, The Mamas and the Papas, and Cat Stevens all break the top ten in the next few weeks as well, bolstered by a population who, having listened to Humperdinck for a month and a half, finally intuitively get what this revolution is all about. The flip side, and this is a lovely day to talk about it given that Eurovision is this weekend, is that the UK wins the Eurovision song contest with “Puppet on a String,” bringing this touching song about complete physical and emotional submission to your man to number one. (“If you say you love me madly, I’ll gladly be there like a puppet on a string.” Stay classy, British pop music.) Oh, and Pink Floyd chart, but nowhere near the top ten.
Whereas in the world of things that don’t sing, the Tories win the Greater London Council elections, never a good sign for Labour. Mass protests against the Vietnam War, Surveyor 3 lands on the Moon, Greece falls to a military dictatorship, the Soviets manage to kill an astronaut, and Prime Minister Harold Wilson announces that the UK will be applying to join the EEC.
Most of these can be slotted into standard 60s fare, but the last one might be lost on you, which probably also means that Mark Gatiss’s great joke about Euroskeptics in The Roundheads was lost on you too. So sad. Basically, the EEC is an earlier version of the European Union. It’s one of several “communities” to crop up after World War II – the first of them being the ECSC, European Coal and Steel Community, which sought to establish control over the basic supplies needed for war. A few more stabs in the dark in the general area of this eventually led to the EEC, which quickly became fairly powerful in that it made intra-European commerce more efficient, allowing Europe as a whole to remain a major force even as few of its component states retained the superpower status they had prior to the World Wars.
The thing is, the EEC and the UK kind of have a… history. Because shortly after it was founded, Charles DeGaulle shut down the process for countries to join because he didn’t want the UK to join, fearing that it would basically serve as a US puppet state. Given that the UK rarely required reasons to be ambivalent about its status in the European community, the re-opening of applications and the UK’s decision to apply in 1967 is, by any standard, a major shift in the general tone of European cooperation. Or, if you’re the sort of person who is extremely anxious about the loss of national identity implied by greater integration of the United Kingdom with the rest of Europe… Well then, you might just see the entire thing as vaguely similar to an airport full of aliens who steal people’s identities and threaten to eliminate the entire youthful population of Britain.
Completely unrelatedly, then, we have The Faceless Ones. And lest you think the show can’t respond that fast to current events, keep in mind that applying for EEC membership was a continual issue in 1967, and that the show was, at this point, running with virtually no buffer, the overspend on The Underwater Menace having left them with I believe only a one week lead time between filming an episode and airing it. (It might be two. Don’t have the right book handy.)
There are two ways to look at The Faceless Ones. On the one hand, it’s a tour de force. For one thing, it has the most effective use of location filming in the series to date. In the past, locations have been used for exterior shots. At its most cliche, this means some running around in a rock quarry before you get to running around some space station corridors. Occasionally it’s more lively – the location work in Cornwall for The Smugglers, for instance.
But here we have something altogether stranger – indoor location work. And it’s impossible to overstress how fascinating this is. Flip back to Cathy Come Home to get a sense of why. The use of cameras moving around large indoor spaces – and “large” does not really get at the full difference between Gatwick airport and any other modern building – again serves to establish these events as things that are happening in a world as opposed to on a televisual stage.
On the other hand, this is the same story as The Macra Terror, The Moonbase, The Tenth Planet, and The War Machines, and frankly as The Underwater Menace. You can create these stories with Mad Libs. Take a noun that is something people have, a verb ending in ing, a creature, and a location with people, and you too can write a story in which Noun-Verbing Creatures attack a Location. Last time was Mind, Controlling, Crabs, and Holiday Camp. Today we get Identity, Stealing, Humanoids, and Airport.
This isn’t so bad. Or if it is, it’s probably time to skip ahead a decade or so in Doctor Who and try again, because it’s not like the “find a Mad Lib and plug it for all it’s worth” approach is going away. And why should it? The approach works. The fact of the matter is, in terms of sheer watchability, the show is doing far better than it used to. Yes, it’s playing it safe, but the consequence of that is that it manages to hit its mark with reliability, and it frees it up to try more interesting feats like The Macra Terror does. When the show doesn’t have to worry about being unwatchably bad, it does let it try to do something interesting.
The problem isn’t even that The Faceless Ones forgets to do that. It does a ton interesting, which we’ll get back to. The problem is that The Faceless Ones took one for the team and expanded to six episodes to make up for the cost overruns on The Underwater Menace. The mechanics of this are simple – the highest cost for any story is its first episode, for which most of the costumes and sets need to be constructed. The remaining episodes mostly just re-use the stuff from the first episode. So if you need to save money, you make stories longer so you have to make costumes and sets less often. That’s why there are eight four-parters in season three, six in season four, and then one each in seasons five, six, and seven and two in seasons eight through eleven.
The problem is that this decision was rarely made on the basis of what stories should be longer. Previously this was decided sensibly – you expanded the Dalek stories, because those were your bigger hits. Except now we end up in a period where everything gets expanded, whether or not there’s actually a reason beyond the financials. So we get six episodes of The Faceless Ones. And, worse, we get six episodes where no individual episode is that bad. At least in the next story everyone knows which episode is padding. (Or at least, they think they do.) Here, though, what we have is actually a three episode structure in which each episode should be about 30-35 minutes, but is instead fifty minutes split up into two episodes each. The first two episodes are the TARDIS crew sneaking around an airport, the second two are half of the TARDIS crew doing Quatermass, and the final two are a trip to a spaceship to liven things up. It’s a fine structure, but there’s not actually enough story for it. Every episode is about 25% too long.
And, crucially, this isn’t because of the cliche that television pacing has sped up over time. It has, due largely to the fact that editing is now easy and you can tell your story with camera movement and cuts instead of dialogue. But this feels slow compared to The Macra Terror. And it’s unfortunate, because this is a good story – I expect considerably better than some of what’s waiting for us in Season 5. But it’s the point where the changes in the show we talked about here really start to show their dark side. The Faceless Ones would have just seemed a bit slow in the past. But as a formulaic story that comes after a raft of other stories done on the same formula, and then stretched out to be 50% longer, it’s just a bit too much, and the strain becomes a bit too visible.
But look, in the end, these are a fan’s problems. And we should be a little suspicious of them. We’re still in a period that’s mostly reconstructions. The reconstructions are for the most part very good. But they’re still static images with a soundtrack. They’re not as good as the real thing. And the show is designed to be watched an episode a week, not at the two or three a day rate I’m having to go. So we’re dealing with not-quite-as-good reconstructions of episodes at over seven times the pace designed. This doesn’t erase the problems with pacing, but it does mean that we’re a lot more sensitive to them than the intended audience of the show is.
Which is to say that, yes, this is too long and too formulaic. But that’s not all there is to say about it. So let’s get back to the good. Those shots of Gatwick! They’re amazing! They’re the clearest example of social realist techniques in Doctor Who to date. But that’s a bit of a trap. When we say Doctor Who and social realism, we start to stray towards Jon Pertwee’s oft-repeated comment that Doctor Who is at its scariest when it’s a Yeti in your loo in Tooting Bec. We’ll deal with the urological tendencies of Yeti more when those are actually monsters that have appeared in Doctor Who, but the thing to stress here is that Gatwick Airport was in no way familiar ground for the audience.
In fact, having this story come right after a story about the 1950s vacation mainstay of the Holiday Camp is oddly fitting timing. If that story was about the receding past of working class vacations, this was about the new future offered by economic and technological development. The package tour – which is what this story ultimately centers on – basically served to take the holiday camp concept and instead flit about Europe having scheduled tourist experiences instead of sitting about having mandatory fun. And in their main innovation, the package tour offered something the holiday camp never could – an experience designed for a single young traveller.
The impact of this is significant, and ties in with what we were talking about earlier with the EEC. Previously, for most people, the only reason you’d go to mainland Europe was if you had to fight a war or perform some other form of public service. Now the UK was connected to Europe in a way it never had been before. For a working class household, this was every bit as much a new frontier as space was. Which means that it was every bit as scary as space was.
This is the thing that isn’t mentioned quite often enough with The Faceless Ones. This is the most committed the series has ever been to suspense. The music is droning bass, everyone is sneaking around, and one of the dominant themes of the story is surveillance, with a tremendous amount of action taking place as characters watch other events on television screens. (This leads to one of the most peculiar cliffhangers in Doctor Who, in which the cliffhanger is actually a character watching TV in horror as something unexpected happens.) This is a story about how this weird commercial air travel thing is scary, and might steal our children. (Not, as is often claimed, immigration. It makes no sense as a story about immigration.)
But, equally impressive, it doesn’t end up there. This is the debut of Malcolm Hulke, and for those of you who love it when Doctor Who borders on leftist propaganda, this is a big day. So we’re not going to end up on some xenophobic point about how these European stand-ins really are nefarious. Instead we get a scene that is actually, in its own right, as iconic as “corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things.” The Doctor opens “negotiations” with the Chameleons instead of making them blow up. And it works. The Chameleons slink on home, and all is well. This is arguably anti-climactic (though with the pacing issues, I’d suggest it’s hardly the story’s biggest problem with climax), but is more accurately something we’ll see repeatedly in Hulke’s Doctor Who work – a serious ambivalence about the idea that “alien” and “monster” are in any way related concepts.
Oh, and then there’s the companions. As I alluded in the post on The Roundheads, this is where we say goodbye to Ben and Polly. They basically vanish with no trace in the second episode, showing up in the last scene in a pre-filmed insert, a write-off that is only slightly better than Dodo’s in that they remember to bring them back to say goodbye. They even remember to have the Doctor make reference to their existence in the sixth episode before they show up again!
But no, this is another crass companion write-off of the sort we’ve become maddeningly accustomed to. And it’s a pity. Ben and Polly were a good pair of characters. But they were, in the end, caught between two extremes. On one level they were supposed to be companions in the Ian and Barbara mode – reluctant travelers who wanted to go home. On the other, they were supposed to be young companions representing Britain’s future. The trouble is, by this point, when traveling with the Doctor seemed so fun and exciting, that disparity doesn’t work. Another consequence of the decision to make the Doctor fun and charismatic is that the reluctant traveler model falters.
(The following two paragraphs were written by the Silence, and if you feel as though you did not see them on a previous reading of the post, that is why, and not that I added them a day later.)
Still, even if Ben and Polly kind of fall into the crack between two approaches, it’s tough not to find their departure irritating. Yes, more of an effort is made than with Dodo, but that’s kind of like saying that euthanasia is more medical attention than leaving someone to die. And while I’ve restrained myself on the accusations of Polly being portrayed in a sexist manner – not that she isn’t, just that I think she’s by and large in better shape than female characters of the era usually got – holy crap is her send-off one of the most appalling pieces of sexist drek I have ever seen. The Doctor tells Ben to go off and become an admiral… then seconds later tells Polly to go and look after Ben. Ouch.
The problem here is that investing in the 60s companions is a bit of an uphill battle sometimes. With no emotional plotlines serialized across stories, or even, usually, within a single story, the characters spend much more time fulfilling plot functions than acting like characters. They’re stock characters, expected to be drawn out in broad strokes, and then thrown into situations where the stock characters don’t belong. Occasionally they transcend this – Barbara being the one with the most examples of scenes where she works as more than a stock character. But for the most part, they do not. But another way to think about this is that we care about the characters when the show cares about them. We care about Ian and Barbara because the show finds space to give us scenes of them marveling at their circumstances even quite late in their tenure, after we’ve gotten used to the characters. When, as is the case with Ben and Polly, we never get those scenes, and are forced to read in any depth we add to the characters, and then are treated to perfunctory departure scenes like this, it is difficult to muster up any real emotion at the event. Why should we care about Ben and Polly when it’s obvious that the show doesn’t?
While talking about the companions in this story it’s also necessary to mention Samantha, played by Pauline Collins, who was apparently offered a role as a companion, and thought to be completely mad for passing it up. She’s got an OBE, a BAFTA, and an Oscar nomination, which is more than can be said for anyone who did take a role as a companion, and, frankly, her character is insufferable here, so really, let’s leave it at that.