The entire Doctors Revisited series takes a fundamental turn here, and largely not for the better. Where the Tom Baker episode merely brought in the actor who played the Doctor as one of its primary talking heads, here the show has access to essentially all of the major stars of the era. Where the first four episodes were basically anchored by two Scottish fanboys, here Davison, Strickson, Fielding, Sutton, and Waterhouse are the stars, with Tennant and Moffat contributing only choice insights.
|What do you tell a companion with two black eyes?
It’s March 22nd, 1984. Lionel Richie is at number one with “Hello,” and remains so for the whole of this story. Sade, Culture Club, Bananarama, and Depeche Mode also chart, along with, at number two for the second week of this story, the Weather Girls with “It’s Raining Men.” Hallelujah. In real news, the heyday of the Satanic ritual abuse panic begins in sync with the Colin Baker era as teachers at the McMartin Preschool are falsely accused of it. Speaking of Satanic ritual abuse, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Starlight Express opens in London.
While on television, we go from the supposed best Doctor Who story ever to the supposed worst. Unlike The Caves of Androzani, The Twin Dilemma made it as the worst story for two polls running. On basic quality, this might not be quite fair. It’s very bad, but as a matter of competent production and provision of a modicum of entertainment it’s not demonstrably worse than many others. If you were to show someone a selection of this, Warriors of the Deep, The Horns of Nimon, Mark of the Rani, and The Monster of Peladon and ask them to pick the worst of them I don’t think you’d see this one picked in particular excess to the others. There are actually moments of it that border on the compelling. I mean, this is praising with faint damnation, but it’s still worth noting that, taken on its own and out of context, and judged purely on its storytelling merits, this is merely among the worst stories ever made, but it’s not clear that it’s the worst story ever by any means.
But, of course, when have we ever taken things out of context here? Yes, the biggest problem with this story is its context in Doctor Who, but the thing aired on television in a context everyone involved knew about, so really, that criticism sticks pretty well. Because what this story does is doom Colin Baker’s tenure as the Doctor and, in doing so, ensure the show’s cancellation. In this regard it is the single story most destructive to Doctor Who. Never mind Michael Foot. At 100 minutes, this is the longest suicide note in history.
There are, of course, self-inflicted wounds prior to this. If the past two seasons hadn’t started with pieces of utter crap like Warriors of the Deep and The Arc of Infinity, if the Peter Davison era hadn’t been a monument to wasted potential, et cetera, et cetera. The Twin Dilemma’s spectacular faceplant and sabotaging of the series didn’t happen in isolation. On the other hand, it’s also not the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s the entire bale of hay flung at high velocity towards the camel’s back. Doctor Who was vulnerable coming into this story, yes, but even if the Davison era had been a consistent triumph it would have been, at the very least, in serious trouble coming out of this story.…
|Don’t worry, Peri. It’s just a Voord.
It’s March 8th, 1984. 99 Red Balloons continue to float along atop the charts, and will play out Peter Davison. Also in the top ten are Van Halen with “Jump” and Billy Joel with “An Innocent Man,” while lower in the charts are King Crimson and the Fraggle Rock theme, a trivia fact I included just to use the phrase “King Crimson and the Fraggle Rock theme.” Top albums are Into The Gap by The Thompson Twins and Human’s Lib by Howard Jones.
In the news, Gerry Adams and three other Sinn Féin members are injured in an attack by the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the other William F. Buckley is kidnapped in Beirut. But the real news and, in many ways, most crucial backdrop for this story comes with the start of the miner’s strike.
It is difficult to come up with a better illustration of the idea of a “clusterfuck” than the 1984-85 miner’s strike. As a pragmatic issue, the strike consisted of Thatcher’s government running rings around the National Union of Miners so as to humiliate them and break the back of what had previously been the most powerful union in the country. Thatcher’s government stockpiled coal prior to announcing the pit closures that sparked the strike, thus blunting the immediate impact of the strike and preventing the calamity of the Three Day Week. Meanwhile Arthur Scargill, head of the NUM, made an egregious political miscalculation. Faced with an accelerated schedule for closing the pits and afraid that he’d lose the vote, Scargill declined to submit the strike to a national vote. This was against NUM rules and allowed Thatcher to delegitimize the strike, which she wasted no time doing, comparing striking miners to Argentina in the Falklands.
The resulting PR coup was, quite literally, literally bloody and brutal. Backed by the redtops Thatcher unleashed the police force, which was spectacularly violent and corrupt. Indeed, the extent of the depravity is still coming out. Only a few weeks ago The Guardian ran a story observing that the South Yorkshire police, who arrested 95 people at the so-called Battle of Orgreave before having to drop prosecution on all of them due to having fabricated the evidence, would five years later be largely responsible for the Hillsborough disaster and the appalling attempt to blame the incident on Liverpool supporters. In both cases, of course, the police and government were aided and abetted by Murdoch and The Sun. The propaganda war, combined with Scargill’s inept politicking, kept the strike from gaining broad support with the public, and it ended in failure a year later, leaving the mining industry and union a shadow of its former self.
In more fundamental terms, of course, the strike is a classic example of the false opposition. Of course closure of collieries had to happen. The coal industry was increasingly unprofitable, and even in 1984 it was clear that in the medium to long term a transition away from coal mining and towards other forms of energy was necessary.…
Given that none of the BBC Books novels featuring Davison’s Doctor are particularly beloved, the pick of a novel was always going to be one of the two golden turkeys – this or Gary Russell’s Divided Loyalties. I picked this for two reasons. First, Divided Loyalties was a Season 19 book and having just come off of a host of non-televised entries at the end of the Tom Baker era I didn’t want to do two novels in Season 19. And I was pretty firmly committed to Cold Fusion. But the second is that Divided Loyalties received mostly scathing and truly outraged reviews on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, whereas nearly every review of Warmonger consists of several paragraphs of admitting that the novel is unfathomably awful before the author sheepishly confesses that they loved it. (Of course, several of those exist for Divided Loyalties, and more than a few outright pans of Warmonger exist as well)
For those who have never heard of this… interesting book, allow me to provide a basic plot summary. Peri inadvertently gets her arm ripped off by a pterodactyl, so the Doctor rushes her to a pre-Brain of Morbius Karn in the hopes that Dr. Solon will reattach it. He does, but unfortunately the Doctor and Peri get caught up in galactic politics and the rise of Morbius such that Peri is stranded on an alien world as a fierce guerilla warrior against Morbius’s galactic army and the Doctor is rechristened the Supremo and leading an army of Draconians, Sontarans, Cybermen, Ogrons, and Ice Warriors against Morbius in what is, we are repeatedly assured, a terribly dire, ugly war. Eventually he rescues Peri and she makes a drunken pass at him, then they defeat Morbius, the end.
If this sounds like a hot mess, you are underestimating things. But let’s pause for a moment and note two things. First, Terrance Dicks’s gloriously readable prose continues to rescue him. As preposterous as this book is, Dicks is able to make each fresh absurdity another step in a standard plucky adventure, marching cheerily through the action with a horribly compelling glee. Second, Terrance Dicks is surely way too smart a writer to pen a book this bad by accident. In fact, it is my firm conviction that this book consists of Terrance Dicks, elder statesmen of the Doctor Who world, in his 34th year of working professionally with Doctor Who, just unrepentantly screwing with the audience.
Let us boil this question down to its barest essentials. There is a moment, fairly early in the book, in which guerrilla warrior Peri, the Scourge of Sylvana, is captured along with some other guerillas. One begins to shudder as their captor, Lieutenant Hakon, ogles her. The following bit of prose then happens:
Puzzled and repelled, Hakon released her. “What’s the matter with her?”
“She can’t stand to be touched,” said Peri.
“She was gang-raped by some of your troops when the first wave landed.”
“Some girls have all the luck,” said Hakon.…
|See, Peri? Kamelion, lying there in the sun. He can change
shapes, you know, and be all things and everyone. Now
run, Peri. Run, run away.
It’s February 23rd, 1984. Frankie Goes to Hollywood is still at number one, but they’re finally unseated by Nena’s “99 Red Balloons.” Lower in the charts is equally satisfying – Rockwell’s beautiful bit of paranoia “Somebody’s Watching Me” and Slade’s “Run Runaway” chart, though to be fair, the latter is far better when Great Big Sea does it as an overly fast paced fiddle orgy. Also, The Smiths have their first full-length album out, and it debuts at #2. In real news, the US pulls out of Beirut, Pierre Trudeau retires as Prime Minister of Canada, and, four days after this story wraps, the miner’s strike to end all miner’s strikes begins.
While on television, Planet of Fire. Peter Grimwade is nobody’s favorite writer of the Davison era, and Planet of Fire is nobody’s favorite story of the era. Neither of these judgments is necessarily unfair – I think you’d have a hard time arguing Grimwade as superior to any of Holmes, Bidmead, or Bailey, and arguing Planet of Fire as a classic of the era crosses the line from redemptive readings to outright psychosis. But in an era with Eric Saward, Terrence Dudley, and Johnny Byrne submitting multiple scripts treating Grimwade as one of the era’s lowlights seems equally strained.
But there’s always a complexity to flying in the face of critical consensus. This gets at one of the fundamental tricky bits of understanding audience responses, which is that audiences are very good at identifying whether they like or dislike something, and very bad at explaining why. When it comes to making art, giving people what they say they want is almost always a disaster, particularly when those people are a self-selecting group of hardcore fans who are volunteering their opinions. (This is not to say that populism is a bad thing, but there’s a difference between giving people what they like and giving them what they say they want. In one you attempt to reproduce what has been successful. In another you base your aesthetic and goals off of what people say they like. The issue is letting the audience’s self-description and interpretations play in as opposed to using data like what they actually do.) For example, I would argue fairly readily that the complaint that Davison’s Doctor was “bland” at Longleat and the resultant attempt to correct it via Colin Baker’s portrayal was a case of misunderstanding that the writers weren’t giving the Doctor good stuff to do and not a reflection on Davison as such.
So we’re faced with a bit of a puzzle. Grimwade’s scripts are clearly jarring in some sense, but the degree of judgment against him seems in excess of the observable flaws in his scripts. What’s the actual flaw here?
I dealt with this a bit in the Mawdryn Undead entry, where I observed that Grimwade is the one writer who’s actually capable of working in the soap opera style that the Davison era half-heartedly aspired to.…
This also, of course, marks the first time I have to deal overtly with the new series instead of in passing reference. So time to obliterate all notion that I can stitch together some sort of consensus about the series and just start pissing off large sections of fandom, I suppose. I won’t bother playing about – as I’ve said before, anyone expecting the blog to turn sour on the new series is going to be sorely disappointed. Even when I agree with those who criticize it – and I’ll grant that there are deep flaws in the Davies era and fault lines that could turn into deep flaws in the Moffat era – the fact remains that making redemptive readings of the new series is not even remotely difficult. Disliking it frankly requires more effort than liking it, and I just can’t be bothered. If you can, well, I win, because I get more television to enjoy than you do, so there.
But on top of that basic issue there are a few more substantive issues I have with critics of the new series, and Time Crash serves as a bit of a ground zero for them. There’s an objection to Time Crash that gets voiced with some frequency on forums that serves as a perfect moment to repel a general critique of the new series, namely that there’s something wrong with the sequence at the end in which Tennant’s Doctor proclaims Davison’s Doctor to be “his” Doctor. In fact, I’m going to have my Ian Levine moment here and simply declare this objection to be evil.
To be fair, the problem with it is not quite that it doesn’t make sense on its own terms. If you are invested in the idea that the Doctor has a coherent “life” and that he is always the same character then, indeed, the idea of him picking favorites among his past selves is absurd and jarring. I can and will readily grant that. What I not only won’t grant but will remain openly hostile to is the idea that because there’s a context in which that exchange doesn’t make sense this constitutes a problem. And this encapsulates a great number of complaints about the new series, as a strange alliance of people who adore what they think the classic series was and people who just hate Doctor Who in general insist that there are things that don’t make sense or don’t parse, as though their inability to understand something makes them intellectually superior to the overwhelming majority of the audience who has no problem comprehending things.…
|Of all of the silly set design elements of the Nathan-Turner
years, the tendency to make surfaces more “spacey” by
covering them in bubble wrap is, in fact, my favorite.
It’s February 8th, 1984. Frankie continues to relax in Hollywood, with Queen lurking just below. Duran Duran and The Eurythmics also chart, and The Smiths have one of their biggest hits during their actual career with “What Difference Does it Make” just barely missing the top ten and peaking at #12. But perhaps most significant is Madonna making her chart debut with “Holiday,” which peaks at #6.
The Winter Olympics run through this story, necessitating the merging of episodes into two 45-minute episodes, an experiment that becomes the norm in the next season. Konstantin Chernenko becomes the head of the Soviet Union.
While on television, Davison gets his obligatory Dalek story. There is no such thing as a great era of Doctor Who that has ended without a great Dalek story. The Pertwee era’s inability to quite stick the landing on any of its Dalek stories is emblematic of the nagging doubts plaguing that era. The fact that the Williams era went to pieces on its Dalek story is almost a perfect metaphor for its failings. And on the other extreme, however good – and indeed better – stories like The Brain of Morbius are, it will always be Genesis of the Daleks that is the defining moment of the Hinchcliffe era, and all the various weak spots of the Troughton era can be forgiven in a heartbeat in the face of his two Dalek stories. But perhaps no stories exemplify the way in which Dalek stories serve as the defining metaphors of their eras as the two Saward-penned Dalek stories.
For all the stick I’ve given him, John Nathan-Turner was not untalented. The quality of work at the beginning and end of his tenure makes it very clear that he was capable of producing some phenomenally good television. But it is equally telling that he is by miles the least writerly Doctor Who producer. He is the only post-Innes Lloyd producer of the series to have no significant writing credits to his name. Bryant and Sherwin both served as script editor, Letts wrote several scripts, Hinchcliffe started as a writer, wrote three novelizations, and submitted scripts after his departure, and Williams stepped in on scripts in his era and was set to write one for Season 23. Nathan-Turner, however, was not a writer.
This is not an insult, I should stress. The producer’s job is not first and foremost a writing job, and writing is only one path to the chair. Nathan-Turner has a strong sense of publicity, is savvy about stretching the budget, and is attentive to the visuals even if his aesthetic is at times exceedingly dodgy. But it does explain a fairly basic truth about Nathan-Turner’s tenure, which is that he is more dependent on the quality of his script editor than almost anyone else. (Of course, with a nine season tenure and three script editors, there’s considerably more data available for Nathan-Turner) When he’s paired with a writer who has a strong creative vision for the show he’s able to get that vision to execute successfully and compellingly week in and week out.…
The skies of November turn gloomy.
The news, on the other hand, is wholly mediocre. The big one is that the Winter Olympics kick off the day after this story airs its final installment, but that has relevance for the next story, not really this one. Nissan announces plans to open a plant in Great Britain, which will be the first time that non-British cars will be built in the UK. The first embryo transfer resulting in a live birth is announced? An untethered space walk? It’s not thrilling news.
It is, however, thrilling television, as we’ve got Frontios on tap, and as it happens, Frontios is quite good. Perhaps the easiest thing to say about Frontios is that it is not at all the script you would expect from Christopher H. Bidmead. Not merely based on Logopolis or Castrovalva, although it’s very much unlike either of those, but based on the entirety of Season 18, one does not expect to see Bidmead going for body horror and grimy militarism. Nevertheless, this is unmistakably a Bidmead script. His stocks in trade – lost knowledge of the ancients, eccentric spaces – are all here. It’s just that they’re serving a story about slugs using human corpses for labor instead of some fugue on Escher or computers.
There is an almost ritual element to the progression of Season 21. After so long mining every part of Doctor Who’s history save for its alchemical spark the series unexpectedly brings back two of its last three alchemists in Bidmead and, later, Holmes. On top of that, there is an odd focus on the buried. Story after story in this season focuses on imagery of caves, tunnels, or the deep. With the miners’ strike looming, there is in hindsight something slightly uncanny about this. It is not quite a thematic link – the issues of the strike are not well reflected across Season 21, although there are moments that come close. But it remains striking, as Doctor Who finally stirs, even if temporarily, from its season-long torpor of museum pieces, and has a resurgence of alchemy to see it obliquely reflect the looming politics of the day.
But there is something troubling and unsettling about the alchemy in these stories, and Frontios is a prime example. Bidmead has always had a love of eccentric spaces, but here the unfathomable depths of Frontios and the outer reaches of time do not hide a sense of wonder but a sense of raw horror. And not just any horror, but good old-fashioned body horror.…
|Don’t make me crumble menacingly at you.
It’s January 19th, 1984. Paul McCartney is still at number one with “Pipes of Peace,” with Frankie Goes to Hollywood now up to number two. The lower reaches of the charts are basically as described last time, so let’s go even lower and see if there’s anything interesting. The Police have “King of Pain” near its peak, which isn’t nearly as high as you’d expect for that song. The Smiths are in with “This Charming Man.” There. That’s worth noting. Ooh, and on the album charts the first volume of Now That’s What I Call Music! is at number one. So there’s a symbol of the death of culture and hope. In real news, though it’s between this story and the next, we may as well give this one credit for the Apple Macintosh being introduced, just because otherwise I’d have absolutely nothing to talk about before I moved on to Doctor Who.
So here is something that I didn’t realize how much I’d missed writing about until I sat down for this entry: a thoroughly underrated gem. Not one I have to provide some rescue operation on like Terminus, but a story that’s just quite marvelous and largely overlooked. I think the last one of these was, what, Stones of Blood? Regardless, The Awakening is absolutely marvelous.
Perhaps the most striking thing about The Awakening, at least to a modern eye, is that it figures out how to do the two-part story. Or, at least, rediscovers it – David Whitaker had the gist of this figured out in the mid-60s. (Then again, to some extent the entire history of Doctor Who after 1968 is just people figuring out what David Whitaker understood all along.) But as The Awakening is the only 45-minute Doctor Who story to work between The Rescue and Rose, it bears some analysis on those grounds alone.
To some extent, of course, its central innovation is just blindingly obvious: it gets the cliffhanger to work right. Let’s look at the cliffhangers of the two-parters quickly, starting with the post-Rescue ones. The Sontaran Experiment ends with revealing the villain of the piece. Black Orchid ends with the incident that kicks off the murder mystery. The King’s Demons ends with the revelation of the Master. All three of these are cliffhangers in what we might call the game-change mould – they’re revelations that promise a shift in the nature of the story.
Compare those to Whitaker’s two cliffhangers on his two-parters. The Rescue has the Doctor stumbling upon a spike trap, and The Edge of Destruction has a particularly vivid moment of the crew betraying each other. These are not cliffhangers that change the shape of the story, they’re sudden intrusions of danger that we know will be squared away within a minute or two of the start of the next episode so we can get back to the plot.
In most circumstances it is the game-change cliffhangers that are most interesting.…
It’s January 5th, 1984. The Flying Pickets are at number one with “Only You,” with Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace” knocking them off a week later as they manage one of the most impressive drops I’ve ever seen from a number one single, plunging down to ten. Billy Joel, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, Culture Club, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood all also chart, the latter with “Relax.” (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, it should be noted for Americans, were not a one hit wonder in the UK at all.)
In the month and change since The Five Doctors, Lynda Mann is murdered, though the newsy part of that came many years later when the murderer, Colin Pitchfork, became the first person in Britain to be convicted based on DNA evidence. An IRA car bomb exploded outside Harrods in the Christmas shopping center. And Pope John Paul II visited the man who attempted to assassinate him to forgive him. While during this story a hurricane-force storm kills six in Britain.
While on television. A commenter made the quite valid point that my entries on the Davison era have been markedly closer to the critical consensus than in any other era. This is true, and I’ve kind of internally conceptualized much of this stretch as being about providing a more thorough account of the logic behind the consensus than about changing it. Largely because I think the overall consensus on this part of the Nathan-Turner era is solid, which, in turn, is because it’s just about the most analyzed portion of Doctor Who around save, perhaps, for the new series, which is so deliciously oversignified that the existing critical consensus can’t be grasped at all.
All of which said, I think the era as a whole gets an unfairly rough ride. There are systemic problems, which I’ve pointed out at length and will continue to do so, but there are also moments of real quality, including in oft-overlooked stories. And then there is Warriors of the Deep, about which I sadly, if unexpectedly, find myself with virtually nothing good to say.
That said, much of the criticism of the story is, if not inaccurate, at the very least faintly unfair. Yes, the effects on it are lamentable, but I’ve kept a decent policy of not criticizing Doctor Who for poor effects and I’m not going to break it here. The Myrka is deeply, deeply unfortunate, but to suggest that it, or any of the shoddiness of this story, is the actual problem with the story is ridiculous. They’re symptoms of the problem. The story wouldn’t be significantly improved by better effects. It just wouldn’t have quite as obvious a punching bag.
Michael Grade, responsible for pulling the trigger on the 1985 hiatus, has apparently cited this story as the one that persuaded him that Doctor Who was crap, a claim that Eric Saward took issue with, pointing out that Grade was in a position to give the program more money. But the flip side of this is what possible reason Michael Grade would have for giving more money to a program that’s blowing what it has on a pantomime horse.…