|Richard the Lionheart really wishes the Doctor wouldn’t
bother him while he’s in the loo.
It’s March 27, 1965. The Rolling Stones still hold number one, although that weird tendency for totally rubbish pop trash to take over whenever the show goes into historical mode promptly rears its head with Unit 4+2 and Cliff Richards ready to pounce. If The Web Planet felt like it was going out into a world of bracing and sudden change, The Crusade feels like it’s going out into a world that’s a bit dull.
The most interesting thing to happen during the four weeks it’s airing, in fact, is Mary Poppins winning a bunch of Oscars. Mary Poppins is interesting for presenting a ridiculously nostalgic look at British culture that, effectively, was a love letter to Victorian children’s literature that was so effusive that its major effect was to make everybody think that Victorian children’s literature was actually anything like that.
I mention this because The Crusade is Doctor Who’s pseudo-Shakespearean story – quite distinctly, with bits of the script written in iambic pentameter. There’s something odd on the face of it here – the possibility of saying “the X story” for Doctor Who suggests an oddly definitive power for the show. Miles and Wood (who, if it’s not obvious, I have the sort of tremendous respect for that it is only possible to have for people with whom you disagree almost completely) point this out explicitly – the odd thing about the historical stories, in specific contrast to the monster stories, is their unrepeatability. If the Doctor faces the Daleks or the Zarbi, it’s an attempt at creating a popular and marketable monster. These monsters are supposed to happen multiple times. But the Doctor is not supposed to return to a historical location – especially not those like the French Revolution or the court of Kublai Khan where he meets historical figures.
And so for Doctor Who to do the pseudo-Shakespearean story is definitive. This is meant to be the one story of this type. Which poses something of a problem when, as is the case with this story, half of it is missing. Indeed, the bulk of it was missing for years until a series of unlikely events caused the first episode to surface in New Zealand. (Short form of the story – the TV station that had been airing Doctor Who in New Zealand was destroying film it no longer had the rights to. A collector bribed a huge lot of it out of the dumpster blind, and then this print bounced around collectors in New Zealand for years without anybody realizing it was the last surviving copy of the episode)
This means that its release came in 1999 – which, you may remember, were some dark days for the program. The sort of floundering that was going on is actually visible on the quickly released VHS copy of the two surviving episodes, for which William Russell provided in-character linking narration that makes an oblique reference to one of the BBC Books novels in a sort of bizarre attempt at cross-promotion. I say bizarre because it’s not as though anyone cared about the show anymore. The only people who wanted to see the recovered episode of The Crusade were the hardcore Doctor Who fans with bad enough taste that they were actually reading the BBC Books.
The weird thing is that it’s hard to imagine an audience less suited to The Crusade than, well, Doctor Who fans. This is the thing about the historical adventures – because their central concepts are singular and they (by necessity) represent a different sort of storytelling from what Doctor Who eventually settled on as its default, they feel like exactly what they are. They’re not even a dead end of Doctor Who so much as a different show that inadvertently got made under the name of Doctor Who. So that watching them, the major work becomes trying to explain how the heck this story fits in between giant ants and whatever comes next week.
And to be fair, the first few times we did this, that’s a pretty valid question. Marco Polo was a bizarre thing to shove between Edge of Destruction and Keys of Marinus, and its major contribution to the series frankly has to be taken as showing that any attempts to predict what the hell the series is about are doomed to failure. The Aztecs is a similarly dissonant note, though one with more unambiguously successful contributions to the evolution of the show. But The Romans and, in particular, The Reign of Terror both felt like bizarre intrusions on the show.
Perhaps the strangest thing about The Crusade, then, is that it actually fits quite well between The Web Planet and The Space Museum. Which, without getting too far into The Space Museum, is actually a completely bewildering task. Much of this is down to a positively inventive opening. The trope, basically invented by Whitaker in The Rescue, of starting in the world of the story and having the TARDIS enter it is used again. Thus the pseudo-Shakespearean tone of the story is strengthened – because the story is about Shakespeare world being visited by the Doctor, not about the Doctor visiting Shakespeare world.
When the TARDIS crew shows up, they drop immediately into action – there’s basically no establishing dialogue before Barbara gets kidnapped. The result is that the first episode picks up as though it’s recovering from a cliffhanger.
Which is actually perhaps the best starting point to get into this story, and something we should probably talk about anyway. See, classic Doctor Who is, as a general rule, consumed wrongly these days. Doctor Who was a weekly show where adventures lasted a month or so, coming, usually, in four episode chunks. Each chunk (save the first part of a story) would end with a cliffhanger that led into the next week’s episode.
In fact, in these early days, this was true between stories. Episodes were not sent out as The Crusade Part 1, but with individual titles, and usually each story picked up with a cliffhanger direct from the previous. This is much of why so many stories up to this point have featured plots based around something happening to the TARDIS – because it’s one of the few cliffhangers that can readily be built around “And now we’re going to a place!”
The thing is, other than these trans-story cliffhangers, the cliffhangers were generally not exciting as such. I mean, picking up on Davies’s “That’s not cynical, that’s wise” observation, odds are pretty low that any audience member – including the children the show is (idiosyncratically) for – actually thinks a member of the TARDIS crew is going to die. The TARDIS crew is self-evidently safe. So the ostensibly obvious purpose of the cliffhangers is pretty rapidly defused.
This is not to say that the cliffhangers are bad. There’s a reason that the new series has chosen to put a few two-parters into the mix, and it’s the classic appeal of cliffhangers. This is one of those cases where understanding the classic series is probably easier in light of the new series. So take, for instance, the cliffhanger at the end of The Time of Angels. The Doctor is in a trap. The Doctor basically says “Ooh, blimey, I’m in a trap.” Then he points out that putting him in a trap is a really dumb idea, and fires a gun into the air. And, cliffhanger.
There’s no actual tension here. The Doctor says he’s going to get out of the trap he’s in. Then the Doctor does something. It does not take a particularly advanced understanding of narrative technique to figure out that whatever he did was probably getting out of the trap. So the cliffhanger is not “Is the Doctor OK.” He is. We know that. The cliffhanger is “Why was firing a gun the right thing to do?”
In other words, the point of a cliffhanger is not to leave the audience in any sort of doubt as to what’s going to happen to the leads. John Byrne, in a moment of epic stupidity, describes the contrary position to this approach.
When I was a lad, I worried every time Superman fell into a kryptonite death trap. Usually I only had to wait four or five pages to find out that he was going to be okay, but it never occurred to me to shrug and flip to the next story to see if he survived. Only when reading SUPERBOY was I ever aware that there was no “tension”, since we knew Superboy would become Superman. (I refer to this as “Superboy Syndrome”, and caution writers to be very careful about it when doing flashbacks or, more significantly, flash forwards.) ??If you reach a point at which you “know” no real harm can ever befall the main characters, and you are unable to simply accept that (without commenting that there is “no real tension”) then you have crossed an important line, and there is no point in you continuing to follow this kind of fiction. Accept it for what it is, or move on — but don’t find fault with the ocean because it is too wet.
Here’s the thing. John Byrne is an idiot here, and it’s a wonder he ever managed to write a decent comic thinking about it this way. I mean, the problems here are enormous. First of all, why Byrne would even need to flip to the next story to see if Superman survived is beyond me. Is there a next story? In a comic called Superman? Then I’ll wager that the odds are pretty damn good Superman is in it.
Byrne tries to handwave this away by saying that it’s essential that you pretend you don’t know what’s going to happen. But how the hell that’s any harder with Superboy than it is with Superman is a mystery to me. Not even the most credulous of childhood readers of Superman thinks Superman is going to die in a kryptonite death trap. They know he has to survive because otherwise there’s no next issue, and they have to have a next issue. They recognize Superman as something that appears with regular frequency at a store. Just like any viewer of Doctor Who recognizes it not just as a bunch of characters, but as something that reliably happens on Saturday night.
The tension of the cliffhanger is not – and never has been – whether the characters are going to be OK. Rather, the tension of the cliffhanger is how. That’s what the page gap in Superman comics, or the week-long gap between Doctor Who episodes is. A space in which the reader or viewer has to fill in their guesses as to what’s going to happen.
It’s why serialized media begets fans. The entire reason there are Star Wars fans is because Empire Strikes Back ends with Han Solo frozen in carbonite. Because serialized media encourages its viewers to compete against the writers – to try to see if they can come up with a better next move. Which is why the week long gap in Doctor Who matters. Because it is actually a beat of the story – one that gets erased when you can just hit “next episode” on the DVD and resolve the cliffhanger.
This is very clear in the first cliffhanger of The Crusade. Barbara has been kidnapped by Saladin. The Doctor and Ian are trying to persuade Richard the Lionheart to make a deal with Saladin for her release. He refuses, saying he’ll never deal with Saladin, and storms off. Ian goes to follow him, the Doctor holds him back, and the credits roll. Clearly this is not a situation of particular danger. So why is it a cliffhanger? Because the challenge facing the Doctor is clear – he has to figure out a way to rescue Barbara, and asking the king isn’t going to cut it. So the Doctor is left pondering his next move. For a week. Which means the audience is pondering the next move as well. That’s the major point of a cliffhanger – the writerly moment whereby reading the text and constructing it become conflated.
The thing that you miss if you watch the show on DVD – the thing that is not intuitively reconstructed if you stop and think about this – is that in a given 168 hour week, Doctor Who is on for 25 minutes, and in the midst of a cliffhanger for 167 hours and 35 minutes. The bulk of the show is in fact the writerly moment – trying to figure out where the narrative is going.
And this is why John Byrne is so transparently and idiotically wrong in his Superboy Syndrome idea. Because the whole point of Superman comics is those moments of trying to fill in the gap – the moment of participating in the story. The would-be credulous reader he imagines who ignores the fact that Superman is going to survive is, in fact, a stupid reader. A smart reader plays along, and engages with the story as a story. (Of course, the fact that John Byrne thinks comics are for stupid readers is fairly clear to anyone who has actually read a John Byrne comic, but that’s neither here nor there.)
So when The Crusade picks up acting as though it had a cliffhanger leading into it (when in fact it didn’t), this is actually a supremely interesting moment. First of all, it extends the writerly pleasure distinctly into the episode itself – the viewer is simultaneously anticipating developments and trying to reconstruct past events. I mention this mostly because the next story takes this even further, so let’s set it aside for the moment.
Instead, let’s focus on the way in which this cliffhanger business ties in with what I said last time about The Web Planet. There, you’ll recall, I talked about the idea that Doctor Who is dealing with non-representational techniques. I made passing reference to a synonym for this, which I’ll expand on here. Doctor Who is theatrical. Which is closely related to why it’s at home in a serialized tradition with cliffhangers – because the cliffhangers are, as I said, a case of presenting the show to the audience instead of immersing the audience in the show.
Which is why Doctor Who can follow giant insects with pseudo-Shakespeare and have it feel like anything other than the weirdest thing on television. But, ironically, this depends on dropping the inter-story cliffhanger. In order to work properly, The Crusade has to be a Shakespearean world that the Doctor and company drop into. Which is why Whitaker uses the fast start from within the pseudo-Shakespearean world instead of the normal TARDIS arrival sequence. This is the first major step towards abandoning individual episode titles – which will finally happen in a little over a year.
But the thing is, this theatricality was not in the least bit experimental. I mean, don’t get me wrong – Doctor Who is, on the whole, massively experimental. But it has never been a show that sought to sit on the cutting edge. And theatricality is in no way part of its experiments. The show, after all, is on the BBC. Which is something that it’s easy to lose sight of.
Let’s pause for a moment and help out those who are in less fortunate countries with poor education systems that don’t teach them important things about the world. Like America. The BBC is a publicly owned non-profit corporation. When you buy a television in the UK and start using it for anything other than watching DVDs or playing video games, you have to pay a license fee of 150 pounds a year for a color TV. When Doctor Who started, that fee was four pounds a year. And that fee is a tax. It is not like a cable bill – it’s a government tax that it is illegal not to pay.
So, for Americans. You know how the Republicans want to slash the modicum of funding for NPR and PBS? In the Britain of 1965, that viewpoint would mean that you want to eliminate 50% of television outright. Television and radio were, in Britain offered as a public service. And as you might imagine of 1960s Britain, that meant that proper art had to be shown on them.
Not exclusively, of course – the looming competition of ITV was sufficient to establish at least partially that making some commercial programs was a good idea. But Doctor Who was not, strictly speaking, a commercial mass hit either. Rather, it was a bizarre sort of hybrid program. It’s a show anchored by an elderly character actor that’s meant to entertain kids and secretly educate them, but that airs in a family slot so has to entertain everybody. This sort of mad concept could only happen in the name of the public good.
But it also meant that Doctor Who had to occasionally go and do things like The Crusade. Not out of some sort of BBC mandate, but just because that was part of being the public service program that it was. Because Doctor Who was never particularly subversive to what the BBC was. And so of course it did a high culture, theatrical Shakespeare story. Because the BBC was about the arts, and when it came to drama, the arts were theatrical. Which is why the concept of nipping off to do a bit of theater in between stints on the most popular program on the BBC is still not that weird an idea in England. (For a comparison, imagine if CSI went on an 18-month hiatus with only a few 90 minute episodes to air sporadically through the time so Lawrence Fishburn could be in Othello. See?)
And so The Crusade has Julian Glover, who’s actually a Shakespearean actor of non-trivial repute, tromping about alongside the regulars. Because this is a particular sort of theater, and the BBC is well-equipped to put on that show. Which, again, is profoundly non-immersive. You’re not supposed to go “Ooh, Richard the Lionheart!” You’re supposed to go “Ooh, Julian Glover as Richard the Lionheart.” You’re supposed to recognize that the rules, this week, are Shakespeare rules. Which is, again, why we start the serial in the world – because the rules apply to the Doctor here too. (Hence his extended comic set-piece about clothes theft in the first episode.)
But here’s the thing about Doctor Who. On the one hand, it’s happy to play along and do its Shakespearean duties. On the other hand, and this is where Doctor Who in March of 1965 differs from Doctor Who in, say, a year earlier. Then doing a historical serial meant playing it all very straight and doing a big, epic. Now, however, there’s enough of an idea of Doctor Who and its sort of mad cap ethos starts to run up against its own setting.
And so here we get the absurd meta-conceit of Vicki cross-dressing as Victor for no discernible reason whatsoever. Why? It’s funny, yes, and as this episode leaves Vicki with no room to give a monster an amusing diminutive nickname, her comedy beat has to come from somewhere. But, notably, it’s specifically a joke about the Shakespearean theatrical tradition – namely its convention of having the female characters be cross-dressed males (a situation which, I hasten to add, was played for laughs at the time because nobody has ever actually seriously suggested that immersive narrative is a good idea prior to about Wordsworth, nobody took it that seriously until the mid-to-late 20th century, and if I had my way nobody would ever take it seriously again because it’s absolutely idiotic.)
I want to focus on this for a couple of reasons. First, it’s campy and theatrical in a big way, and evolving an ability to revel in theatrical camp is kind of a survival instinct when it comes to watching Doctor Who after about 1963. Second, it’s a staggeringly meta joke that puts the lie to the idea that Doctor Who is for children in any sort of exclusive way – no ten year old is going to get the humor of dropping in on a Shakespeare play and cross-dressing your female character as a male so that they’re allowed to be there. Third, anyone wondering when drugs entered the Doctor Who production office can probably make a pretty safe bet that it’s somewhere in the vicinity the tentacle rave bouncy castle at the end of The Web Planet and the introduction of cross-dressing comedy to Doctor Who.
Some other quickies to notice about this story. This is the first time people who actually have dark skin appeared on the set. Albeit not in any scenes with the Doctor. I wonder why. (I know full well why, but that’s another entry.)
And there’s another bit tailor made for the obsessive quoters, as Joanna, sister to Richard the Lionheart (and, in the original script, kinky incestuous lover until William Hartnell objected) describes the Doctor by saying “There’s something new in you, and yet something older than the sky itself.” Once again, the mythic nature of the Doctor is established – in this case necessarily so, as otherwise he has no chance of standing up against Shakespearean King Richard in the plot. As it stands… he still doesn’t really manage to do anything over all four episodes, but honestly, the theatrical spectacle of it all and the fact that 50 minutes are collapsed into about five minutes of Ian hastily summarizing the plot mostly papers over that.