It’s January 27th, 1973. The Sweet’s “Blockbuster” has mercifully brought an end to this unfortunate Jimmy Osmond business, and hold number one for four weeks, marking a pleasant restoration of glam rock order. Gary Glitter, Elton John, David Bowie, and ELO all also chart. In non-musical news, Roe v. Wade is decided in the US, the US ends its involvement in Vietnam by signing the Paris Peace Accords, while in the UK the Sunday Times wins a court case allowing it to publish articles on thalidomide, as it was increasingly turning out that people should probably have figured out that in addition to reducing nausea in pregnant women it also caused them to give birth to deformed flipper babies. Oops.
While on television we have Carnival of Monsters. It ought go without saying that Carnival of Monsters is the best Pertwee story to date, probably the best period, and flat-out one of the best Doctor Who stories ever. And yet somehow it does not go without saying. In fact, on the big Doctor Who Magazine poll, Carnival of Monsters inexplicably finishes behind Inferno, The Daemons, The Silurians and The Sea Devils – and those are just the stories it’s completely bewildering why anyone would prefer to this, as opposed to the ones where I can at least squint and pretend that there’s some logic to.
The thing is, if you ask non-fans, it’s clear this story’s reputation is right where it should be. It’s not a coincidence that this is the one used for the Five Faces of Doctor Who repeat, was among the earlier DVD releases, and has generally acquired a reputation as the goto Pertwee story for the general public. Which makes this a case of that classic problem where Doctor Who fans occasionally know far less about Doctor Who than anyone else.
It’s worth taking a step backwards here and looking at season ten as a whole. Like all the Pertwee seasons, it consists of five stories. Unlike any of the other Pertwee seasons, fully four of these are “event” stories – that is, stories in which a character recycled from an earlier story appears or stories in which a major character debuts or departs. The only other Pertwee season to have anything like this sort of pure focus on event stories is Season 8, and that’s only true if you want to overlook the fact that the Master wasn’t an “event” yet.
More broadly, the Pertwee era is actually strangely short on primarily self-contained stories. If we take a broad view and count stories that are “events” for historical reasons – things like The Silurians or The Time Warrior – Pertwee ends up with only four stories in his entire tenure that are definitively not event stories: The Ambassadors of Death, Inferno, The Mutants, and this. And save Inferno, that list consists of stories I’ve claimed are underrated.
The non-event status of Carnival of Monsters, however, is more than just a reason why it’s oddly overlooked by fans. It’s the entire point of the story. What’s so interesting about it is the fact that it is the only Pertwee story to actively pursue a small scale instead of a large one. For the most part only a handful of people are ever in any peril. If you try to spin events you can just about get away with the claim that for a few minutes the fate of an entire planet is at stake, but if we’re being honest, the bulk of this story is an old carnie arguing with some bureaucrats while the Doctor runs around inside a television. In a series that was doing threats to the entire universe last week and will be doing galactic war next story, this is astonishingly and willfully low rent.
But to call this a flaw in the story is to commit yourself to a deeply strange view of Doctor Who whereby its purpose is to do vast and sweeping epics. This isn’t a criticism of vast and sweeping epics, which can be marvelous, but the pattern of the show in its early years mixed vast epics in with other stories. Something like The Aztecs or The Sensorites is not a huge story about planet and universe-threatening menaces. Even into the Troughton era, a story like Fury From the Deep, The Krotons, or The Macra Terror is considerably smaller scale than anything in seasons nine or ten other than this.
The value of these small scale stories cannot be overstated. One thing that has been frustrating about the Pertwee era has been the way in which Pertwee’s Doctor is so patrician compared to many of the others. And part of that is because he’s so often removed from humanity. This is a real problem, especially given that the challenge laid down at the start of the Pertwee era was to connect with humanity better than the psychedelic irresponsibility of Troughton’s Doctor did. The fact that Pertwee’s Doctor spends almost all of his time rushing around offices full of important and powerful men while everyday characters tend to just be generic comedy yokels is frustrating in light of that. Off-planet things have been better, with Colony in Space involving heavy engagement with a more working class band of people and The Mutants interacting heavily with oppressed populations, but more really than any other Doctor, Pertwee’s Doctor is one who spends the overwhelming majority of his time interacting with people in power.
And so for this story, the first since the basic premise of the show was restored, it’s particularly important to break this cycle and show the Doctor interacting with ordinary people, if only to make sure that that’s firmly embedded in the premise of the show. In this regard, Carnival of Monsters is an odd inversion of the last time the TARDIS went on its first trip after the premise of the show is set up – a point that is particularly important given what the next two stories hold.
After establishing its premise in An Unearthly Child, the next thing the show did was go to a strange alien world and show us a truly brilliant science fiction concept in the form of the Daleks. More broadly, it introduced the basic idea of monsters. This makes sense. Having introduced two ordinary characters – Ian and Barbara – the first thing it needs to do is take them somewhere truly extraordinary. But here the show has the opposite issue – having spent fifteen stories doing huge, epic, planet-threatening stories in which the Doctor dashes around in the halls of power, the first thing the show needs to do, ironically, is go for the ordinary.
What’s really funny about all of this is that the whole Yeti-in-the-loo premise was supposed to avoid this problem. The whole point of the earthbound format was that it was supposed to show monsters in ordinary places. Instead, it was largely, and even from its earliest moments, about showing monsters in iconic British, and more specifically English, places – Post Office Tower, Gatwick Airport, the Underground, or St. Paul’s, for instance. What it has, up to now, basically never been used for is making the stores relevant to the viewer’s life. Socially relevant, sure – we’ve got plenty of that. But relevant in that intimate, personal way? No. That we’ve basically avoided, with the exception, basically, of Holmes’s last story.
It’s not until Carnival of Monsters, with our first real back-to-space-and-time story, that we actually get a story that engages the viewer’s life and world. Because Carnival of Monsters is fundamentally about the act of watching television. The entire story is a commentary on the act of passively watching spectacles and what that means. In this regard its high point has to be taken as the moment in which Jo responds in horror at the idea that anyone would be so cruel as to want to watch her get chased around by monsters, and says that anyone who does must be evil and horrible. For all that Vorg insists that the purpose of the show is to amuse, as opposed to do something serious or political, the story immediately shows the absurdity of that by turning the very act of watching the show into an ethical issue.
On top of that, there’s an emotional realness to Vorg that secondary characters in Doctor Who have lacked up until this point. Vorg is a penniless drifter trying to keep his head above water and barely managing. He doesn’t know what he’s doing – quite literally, as it eventually turns out he’s lost the manual to his miniscope. His major opponents are not horrible monsters but generic bureaucrats. He is, in other words, a very literal working class hero – someone trying to survive in a hostile system that is designed to benefit people other than him. That he’s visually still firmly in the glitzy, glam aesthetic of Doctor Who makes the disjunct all the more appealing.
On top of that, we have a proper, classic case of Doctor Who embracing constraints and playing with them. The entire reason this story was made was that, seeing that the rest of the season was going to be really expensive, the show needed a cheap one. And specifically, Barry Letts, who had converted Doctor Who’s production method from doing one episode a week to doing two episodes simultaneously in a two week block, wanted to try a specific method of making the show cheaper: have two sets and two groups of actors who would never actually interact with each other. Hence Ian Marter and company are on the SS Bernice while Vorg and the rest are on Inter Minor – Letts could shoot one set of actors in the first two week block, then the other in the second and, in the process, get away with paying all the actors save Pertwee and Manning for two weeks’ work instead of four.
But what’s interesting is, having come up with a cost-saver, Letts took on the directing himself and gave the script to one of the series’ best writers. In other words, the production team came up with a cost-saving approach, but didn’t attempt to sacrifice episode quality. They put their best people on the task of doing an episode for cheaper. This is actually a bit funny – after the ridiculous laziness of stories that were supposed to be big such as the almost Dalek-free Day of the Daleks and the almost taste-free Time Monster, the production team finally pulls out all the stops and goes for the throat with their cheap story.
But another way to look at this is something we don’t really see often at all in the Pertwee era – the production team trying to challenge themselves instead of playing it safe. Even the Pertwee era’s most avant grade episodes – The Claws of Axos, for instance – have a strange conservativeness to them. They do what is expected of them and throw in lots of crowd-pleasers. Compare to Carnival of Monsters, whose monsters look like crap (as Robert Holmes expected, hence him making their names an anagram of dishrags, which he predicted would be what they were made of), but where we have a technically ambitious script, the producer taking an active hand in making it come off. It’s refreshing, especially in an era that was often far too willing to decide that just putting Roger Delgado in would liven up a flaccid script.
So what we get here is not a big story. Instead, it’s an interesting story, a fantastically made story, and a story where everyone is putting in considerably more effort than they are in many of the “big” stories. It’s trying for greatness, instead of being a big hit, and it actually makes it. And yet it’s often overlooked in favor of stories that are more like what it pokes fun at – trifles purely to amuse that are big hits with the kids. The fact of the matter is, the worst thing one can say about this story is it really shows how much better the rest of the Pertwee era could have been had the production team gone for “interesting” more often than it went for “big.”
Instead we’re left with an unfortunate fact: the Pertwee era is at its best when it most resembles the era immediately after it. A lot of what makes this story good is that it displays the traits that Robert Holmes eventually becomes known for. And the fact of the matter is, once he takes over as script editor and most of the stories show at least some of these traits, the show jumps to a whole new level of brilliance. We’ve brought much of the production team in for criticism at one time or another in the Pertwee era, and here it’s time to admit it. The very skills that make Terrance Dicks the best person to go to for a functional novelization – his capacity to efficiently craft extremely competent, exciting plots – are at times a liability for him as a script editor. He can do exciting and thrilling like nobody else, but Dicks is first and foremost an entertainer.
Holmes, on the other hand, is certainly a capable entertainer, but it’s not what he is. Holmes has always had more of a willingness to risk upsetting his audience. There’s a part of me that thinks The Space Pirates is most easily read as Holmes trying to show Derick Sherwin how dumb an idea asking for a “realistic” space story was in the first place. And even if it isn’t, look at things like Holmes’s willingness to suggest the audience is morally bankrupt for watching the show in this story, or his eventual aggression towards the audience with The Two Doctors. Holmes weds a fantastic ear for dialogue and a knack for visual set pieces to the fact that he has something to say and the fact that he has a better sense of character than anyone else who has written for the show to date.
The result is a writer who turns out something like this, as opposed to the well-done straightforward adventure yarns Terrance Dicks is the master of. And if we’re being honest, comparing this even to the last story (which Dicks did heavy rewrites on), while The Three Doctors is mad and complex and requires an insane blog entry to cover, Carnival of Monsters is by miles the better written story and has the better vision of what Doctor Who should be. Simply put, Holmes has more faith in what the program can do than Dicks. He can’t take over as script editor fast enough.