I never drank the Kool-Aid here. I mean, Star Wars was fine. I enjoyed the movies when I watched them – probably third grade? But the fact that I have to ask the question shows pretty clearly the extent to which this was not a rabbit hole I fell down. I attentively rented the entire trilogy from my local grocery store (ah, the 90s), if only to finally suss out the difference between it and Star Trek, watched them, and was later very puzzled by people who fell in love with them. I still find them terribly overrated, and the continual grating of my ambivalence against people who do love Star Wars has pretty much worn me down to active dislike of the franchise. So, you know. We’re doing this because we have to, not because I’m jumping for joy at the entry. Or maybe because I’m secretly a bitter misanthrope who delights in the wave of comments that this will inevitably generate.
|It’s Marlon Brando playing Professor X!|
It’s November 26, 1977. ABBA remain at number one with “Name of the Game,” but are overtaken by Wings with “Mull of Kintyre,” a Paul McCartney-penned ode to Scotland that will manage a nine week run at #1 that will keep it in place through Christmas and, indeed, through the next story. Queen, the Bee Gees, and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band also chart.
In real news, British Airways establishes regular Concorde service between New York and London. The International Fund for Agricultural Development is established at the UN. The President of the Central African Republic declares himself emperor, and in the US the cable channel Nickelodeon launches, albeit under its original name of Pinwheel, which would last about eighteen months before the channel relaunched as Nickelodeon.
While on television we have Robert Holmes, frequent genius and occasional cynical dick, penning his departure script. This was actually filmed prior to Image of the Fendahl, which was the script Holmes actually departed during, with Anthony Read picking up midway through. But in running order it serves to continue the spurious tradition Dicks cited of the outgoing script editor getting a script on or around his departure date. (Actually, as I noted at the time Dicks pulled the trick on Holmes, the tradition was kind of real. In practice, Dicks was the seventh regular script editor of Doctor Who, and four of his six predecessors got a writing credit in the story after they left.)
The Sun Makers is a bit of an odd duck. Much like The Horror of Fang Rock, it is a story that it is currently very much trendy to enjoy. But whereas Fang Rock is very much a rediscovered classic that everyone now appreciates, The Sun Makers serves as more of a shibboleth – a story used to determine whether someone is a trendy Doctor Who fan or simply a traditionalist spouting received wisdom. Real fans love this story as an overlooked classic.
Except, of course, the problem with trendy classics is that there quickly becomes the countertrend. Now that everyone knows to revere The Sun Makers as an inadvertent triumph for Robert Holmes, the trendy thing to do is to complain about it. The easiest way to do this is to be political about it, which is easy enough if you’re a leftist nut job like me. Because this story is overtly a political satire about the horrors of taxes. And if you, say, happen to live in a country where one of the two political parties is stringently opposed to any tax increases whatsoever even though the tax rates are at a near historic low and even though this is one of the two major reasons for a massive budget deficit… well, it’s just kind of hard to get excited about a story that rails against the evils of taxation.
This is not quite fair, though. First of all, a blanket position that taxes are always good is as ludicrous as the belief that cutting taxes is always a good idea.…
|I wonder if I could have slipped in the Ingrid Bower|
version of Kronos or the Hosts from Voyage of the Damned
and had anybody fail to notice…
It’s October 29th, 1977. Baccara, a Spanish vocal duo that represented Luxembourg in the 1978 Eurovision contest with a song entitled “Parlez-vous français?,” are at number one with “Yes Sir I Can Boogie.” This moment of utter nationalistic confusion is short-lived, and ABBA take over with “Name of the Game” one week later and hold it through the end of this story. Rod Stewart, Queen, The Carpenters, The Bee Gees, and the Sex Pistols also chart. The latter also has their memorably titled “Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols” come out the day before the first episode of this story airs.
In other news, Harvey Milk is elected City Supervisor of San Francisco. Anwar Sadat visits Israel, while General Hugo Banzer, leader of the military government in Bolivia, moves the date for the transition back to a constitutional democracy up two years to 1978. (In practice this would go poorly when Banzer’s supporters attempted to steal the election.) And Greek archeologist Manolis Andronikos locates the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.
While on television, Doctor Who spins its wheels. I’m not entirely convinced that the 1970s actually have a story less likely than this one to evoke strong opinions in people. Nobody loves it. Nobody hates it. It’s pretty much the third best story in the weakest season of the 70s, and that’s about what there is to say. Tat Wood’s defense of it in About Time amounts to “well it’s better than The Daemons,” which is true enough, but hardly inspiring. Lawrence Miles dislikes the tell-don’t-show style of the exposition. And most of the online reviews are masterpieces of the “a little good, a little bad” formula of reviews. And at 73rd place on the Doctor Who Magazine Mighty 200 poll, it seems like “a little good, a little bad” is pretty much the default consensus.
Watching it, it’s easy enough to see why. Much like The Invisible Enemy, this is heavily Doctor Who by Numbers. Unlike The Invisible Enemy, though, it’s Chris Boucher writing, and he’s good enough to avoid massive embarrassment. Even still, of his three scripts for the series it’s very difficult to muster anything like an argument that this isn’t his weakest. Whereas The Face of Evil was a thrilling deconstruction of the entire series and The Robots of Death was a particularly adroit and complex genre piece that commented extensively on its parent genre, this is… a very good rewriting of Quatermass.
The reasoning is simple enough. As with The Invisible Enemy before it, this is a story that’s trying to avoid ruffling any feathers. It’s in the horror mode that’s familiar to Doctor Who, but even this is largely defanged, with the violence actively kept off-screen. There are a few good scares, but for the most part this looks like what it is – a horror script that people are trying to tone down.…
It’s October 1, 1977. The late Elvis Presley remains at number one with “Way Down.” One week later he is unseated by David Soul with “Silver Lady,” which holds number one for the remaining three weeks. Yes, Rod Stewart, The Stranglers, and Meco also chart, the latter with a recording of the Star Wars theme, although that movie won’t premiere in the UK for another two months.
In real news, four Palestinians hijack a Lufthansa flight to Somalia to demand the release of members of the Red Army Faction. Five days later an unusually large number of Red Army Faction members commit suicide in prison in a manner that is not in the least bit suspicious and does not lead anyone to conclude that they were actually murdered. Pele retires from professional soccer, Queen Elizabeth II opens the Canadian Parliament, Anita Bryant is hit in the face with a pie by gay rights activists, and the Atari 2600 is released.
While on television we have The Invisible Enemy. There are some stories that nobody, ever, has identified as their favorite Doctor Who story, and The Invisible Enemy is a prime example of that species. It would be nice to insert a sentence beginning “It’s not that the story is bad, but” at this point, but there’s a major barrier to that – the story is bad. It’s bad in a way Doctor Who hasn’t really been in a long time. Really it hasn’t been since The Time Monster that we’ve had a story was bad in this specific fashion. Most of the same ingredients, in fact, are on display: a script from writers known to have some specific and severe weaknesses, a particularly egregious set of failures on the part of the design departments, and a handful of acting performances that make you wish they were merely forgettable.
But because the series has kept the basic quality level so high for so long – only The Monster of Peladon and The Android Invasion have really been full-out turkeys over the five seasons between The Time Monster and this – there’s something jarring about hitting The Invisible Enemy. Part of it is, perhaps, the fan’s knowledge that, far from being the freakish anomaly it appears to be when you reach it chronologically, this is the first of many stories over the next few years that are turkeys like this. 60% of the bottom ten stories and about 50% of the bottom quarter of stories in the Doctor Who Magazine Mihty 200 poll come from the Williams or Nathan-Turner eras of the classic series, whereas only eight of the top quarter do. Apres Croc Roches, le deluge. (Assuming Google Translate didn’t just screw me.) But more of it, I think, is just the sheer size of the gulf in quality between this and Talons of Weng-Chiang, which was the story made before it, or, for that matter, between this and Horror of Fang Rock. It’s difficult to believe that it’s the same people making it.…
|I was going to bring the use of the|
book/VHS covers as the
illustrations to a close after Talons
and the close of that bit of my
childhood memories, but this cover
is just way too good. All it needs is
It’s September 3, 1977. Anyone sensing a general turning backwards in the music charts will feel quite vindicated upon seeing that Elvis Presley is at number one with “Way Down,” although they will presumably be mollified by realizing that it’s only at number one because he died two weeks previously. This means that it stays there for four weeks, with Carly Simon, Donna Summer, and SPACE, French pioneers of the space disco subgenre, also chart.
In other news, since The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Philip Hinchcliffe’s tenure crashed to their conclusions, the Red Army Faction in Germany murdered federal prosecutor and ex-Nazi Siegfried Buback, and then later Banker Jurgen Ponto. Residents of Dover, Massachusetts witness the Dover Demon on the prowl in one of cryptozoology’s iconic moments. Queen Elizabeth II began her Silver Jubilee tour. Shooters opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators in Turkey, killing at least 34. The shooters were never captured, and if you concluded that they were US-funded anti-communist forces you sure as hell wouldn’t be the only one. Star Wars came out in the US, but we don’t care about that so much yet. The Supremes play their final concert in London and disband, and the Son of Sam killer is captured in New York, which also enjoys a 25 hour blackout marked by looting.
While during this story, gang violence in San Francisco results in the Golden Dragon Massacre, the US agrees to give the Panama Canal to Panama at the end of the century, the Red Army Faction kidnapps Hans-Martin Schleyer, a major head of what is basically an inverse union – an association of employers. The Faction’s goal in this is to secure the release of RAF prisoners by the West German government. And Mark Bolan, the glam rock icon better known as T. Rex, dies in a car crash. Oh, and the moment on Happy Days that led to the term “jumping the shark” takes place.
While on television, we have a story with fascinating critical dimensions that we need to disentangle before we go much further. For one thing, we’re starting off the Graham Williams era, an era that the word “polarizing” seems barely to scratch the surface of. There really is a visible dividing line that takes place between the Hinchcliffe and Williams eras. The first fourteen seasons of Doctor Who are, all in all, considered to be overwhelmingly solid. Sure, they all have their detractors, but the critical consensus on the first fourteen seasons is that the series defaulted to very good.
No such consensus exists for the final twelve seasons. It’s not that they’re hated – every one of them, even seasons 22-23, have their firm defenders. But the position that Graham Williams and/or John Nathan-Turner’s tenures on the show were flat-out unsuccessful is a thoroughly mainstream one in fandom, and not without reason.…
Apparently the RSS feed failed to pick up Wednesday’s post about Mary Whitehouse. If you missed it, it’s over here.
Among the most stereotypically overdone debates in all of Doctor Who fandom is the debate that took place over the long interregnum between the so-called “rad” and “trad” schools of novels. This was a proper debate, and thus characterized by each side considering the other’s position to be self-evidently silly and essentially unworthy of discussion. Proponents of the “trad” school – short for traditional – favored novels that closely hewed to the approach and aesthetics of televised Doctor Who. They tended to view the “rad” school, with their preference for more radical and experimental novels, as a strange sort of Doctor Who fan who was only fond of Doctor Who when it wasn’t much like Doctor Who. The “rads” on the other hand largely viewed the traditionalists as silly an unadventurous sticks in the mud who failed to appreciate that anything that is traditional Doctor Who now was, at one point or another, radical Doctor Who. (The other 99% of fandom just read books and enjoyed some while not enjoying others.)
As is usually the case with a divide like this, the truth of the matter is that both sides of the debate are rather silly. We’ve already seen how “trad” novels can be subversive and challenging to the aesthetics and approaches of their eras. And we’ve followed the progress of the series closely enough to know that the idea that all changes are radical shifts is nonsense. The series has often improved incrementally, with “normality” being established through small shifts. The Hinchcliffe era really only did a dramatic revolution of a story twice: once with Genesis of the Daleks, and even that is still 80% just “generic Terry Nation story done really well” and would probably have qualified as “trad” by the standards that characterized this deeply silly moment of debate because it had Daleks in it and felt like a Terry Nation script. And then, of course, once with The Deadly Assassin, which is unquestionably “rad.” Still, one example does not change the fact that even in an era full of iconic stories, not much is actually “rad” in televised Doctor Who. And so in this regard we recognize that in fact the very act of writing a Doctor Who novel means that you’re signing up to try to do radical and interesting things within a prescribed form – a tradition, if you will. And that criticizing “trad” novels while extolling the virtues of “rad” ones is the height of idiocy. Right? Good. Moving on.
Here we begin to see the other side. Jim Mortimore is one of the archetypal “rad” writers, which should surprise nobody who has been reading the Time Can Be Rewritten stuff from the beginning. In this novel he manages to avoid casually reconfiguring reality every chapter via an Aristotle-infused video game being played on the TARDIS. Instead he tells his story through two distinct sequences of alternating chapters in which even and odd-numbered chapters each tell a different part of the story.…
|Photoshopped? Oh, probably.|
|i has a dragon|
|Have you noticed how every|
robot story I do a Kraftwerk joke
in the caption? Because I have,
and it’s giving me terrible
writer’s block on this one.
It’s January 29th, 1977. David Soul continues to implore you not to give up on us. After two weeks, Julie Covington takes over number one with “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” As it happens, the truth is that Covington, who declined the title role in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita, had never left Argentina, though this is largely because she had also never been there. One week later it goes to Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You.” Also in the charts are Elvis and… things I have honestly never heard of. Let’s try Heatwave, Barry Biggs, Rose Royce, and Harry Melvin and the Bluenotes.
While in real news, between the last episode of Face of Evil and the first episode of this the Massacre of Atocha took place in Madrid. Spain was still in the fragile period of transition between Franco’s military dictatorship and a meaningful democracy, and this was basically the darkest day of that process. Neofascists, failing to find the communist leaders they were looking for, simply opened fire, killing five and injuring four more. The gunmen, believing the government would protect them, did not even attempt to flee Madrid. In cheerier news, 2000 AD, arguably the most important of the British comics magazines, publishes its first issue or “prog.”
While on television we have one of the big classics – The Robots of Death. First off, this is a story that requires me to situate myself a little bit. I have not read any of Boucher’s Past Doctor Adventures or listened to any of the Kaldor City audios. Those who guessed that I would be doing one of the Boucher novels are incorrect, although I’ll do one for the book version. But for now we’re going to stick to the televised story.
Robots of Death is widely cited as one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time. Certainly the video release supports that – another early story that every Doctor Who fan of a certain age has seen. But like the next story, which is also widely beloved, there is a bit of an asterisk next to that title. It’s a much less severe asterisk than Talons of Weng-Chiang gets, but it’s still there, and seemingly every discussion of the story these days begins with it: it’s a shameless rip-off of Isaac Asimov’s novels The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun.
The first and most obvious response to this is that anybody who is just now waking up to the Hinchcliffe era’s tendency to do lifts of existing works of fiction should probably have a look at, oh, say, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, The Quatermass Experiment, Frankenstein, or The Manchurian Candidate. And yet those stories seem to get less stick for their relationship to source material than Robots of Death does. This is a bit unusual, and it’s worth looking at why.…
|The Doctor is the only person even|
remotely connected to this cover
not to stare at Leela.
It’s January 1, 1977. Johnny Mathis is at number one with “When a Child is Born,” because apparently Christmas songs don’t fall from the charts when you’d expect them to. It’s not until the 15th that David Soul’s “Don’t Give Up On Us” knocks Mathis down to #2. Soul holds number one for the fourth week of the story as well. Stevie Wonder, Mike Oldfield, ABBA, Queen, and ELO also chart. Album charts also show that The Eagles have Hotel California out, Genesis has Wind and Wuthering out, and Queen has A Day at the Races out. The Sex Pistols have their first charting song, “Anarchy in the UK,” fall out of the charts in here as well.
Since The Deadly Assassin aired, The Band disbanded, nearly 4000 people died in an earthquake in Turkey, and Patrick Hellery was elected President of Ireland. Bob Marley is shot in an assassination attempt in Jamaica. Two days after, Marley performed at the Smile Jamaica Concert, originally saying he would perform one song, but then giving a 90 minute performance in which he displayed his bullet wounds to the crowd. He then withdrew to the UK for two years, where he would record the album Exodus. Also of major note is the Sex Pistols catapulting to notoriety after appearing on Thames Television’s Today program with Bill Grundy and engaging in a profanity-ridden interview. This set off a good old-fashioned moral panic of the sort we’ll talk about next Wednesday.
While during this story, Commodore demonstrates the first all-in-one computer, the PET, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. EMI sacks the Sex Pistols to what can only be described as their delight. Gary Gilmore is executed in Utah, the first execution in the US since the return of the death penalty. And Jimmy Carter takes office and immediately pardons Vietnam draft dodgers.
While on the bookshelf…
I mean, on television as well. But let’s begin with the bookshelf. For me, it was in the center alcove of my parents’ library, left-hand side, third shelf down. That was where their substantial collection of Target books, spanning highlights of the 1st-5th Doctors, resided. These books have moved on – the 1st-3rd Doctor books live in my office, while 4th-5th are MIA in a box somewhere. Currently the shelf consists of: four books by Dorothy Gilman in the Mrs. Pollifax series, nine Dick Francis novels, five John-Gardner penned James Bond novels, Linda Barnes’s Lie Down with the Devil, Robert Parker’s Rough Weather, Kathy Reichs’s Devil Bones, Jerry Seinfeld’s Sein Language, Jeanne DuPrau’s The People of Sparks, George Will’s Men at Work, Scott Adams’s The Dilbert Future, and Who on Earth is Tom Baker. Only the latter of these is mine.
I say all of this for two reasons. The first is that The Face of Evil is one of several stories from this period that I know I experienced first as a Terrance Dicks novelization.…