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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

14 Comments

  1. David
    August 29, 2011 @ 2:50 am

    Carnival is a story I want to love and I agree with every point made in all the good reviews for it. It's a wonderfully imaginative story with some great conceits, great twists, great characters and great dialogue. But I've always found the plot itself to be a bit uninvolving and – funnily enough – repetitive. Most of the middle episodes are just the Doctor and Jo running around a bit without really connecting to anyone, whilst Vorg tries to get one over on the Inter Minorians and Kalik slowly puts together a bizarre plan designed to overthrow a character we've never met. That much of it culminates in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it Drashig attack in episode 4 is even more disappointing. I don't watch Who for the monsters but if you're going to write a monster attack into your finale then at least go full throttle with it.

    As I say, I wish I could love it and I do certainly appreciate it as the most innovative story of the era (and, to be honest, it's more innovative than anything the Troughton years gave us) but I don't feel the concepts and characters are working within a particularly good plot. This story always seems longer to me than many Pertwee 6 parters (though, having said that, I'd rather watch it three times than have to sit through the wretched 12 episodes that are coming up).

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  2. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 29, 2011 @ 7:19 am

    There are some ways in which the pacing is wonky, in part, I think, because the original decision to withhold Vorg's world for at least an episode means that we're in a position of watching the Doctor figure out what we already know for the better part of two episodes. That combined with the necessarily superficial nature of the characters on the ship can make the middle a bit rough – although once Jo gets frustrated with them and just starts walking around overtly mocking the premise of the story, I find it very hard not to just forgive all.

    That said, I quite like the next twelve episodes too…

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  3. JJ
    August 29, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    Still slagging on Inferno, eh? 🙂

    Although Carnival of Monsters isn't my number one Pertwee story, it's definitely one of the very best, and highly underrated. I would put it under Ambassadors and, yes, Inferno, and just possibly Curse of Peladon, but that's about it. I never quite understood how it got the reputation of being just pretty good – it's a fantastic story that stands out as the finest of a very strong season.

    But I think you underrated the effectiveness of the Drashigs as monsters. Those things look awesome, and the puppetry is as good as anything of the sort in Classic Who.

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  4. William Whyte
    August 29, 2011 @ 8:51 pm

    I don't think the distinction between Dicks and Holmes is simply entertainer vs. something more. They're both pretty much small-c conservative, but Dicks's stories have the beaming face of a bluff country squire, as soon as this unpleasantness is over everything'll be right as rain again, God's in his heaven; whereas Holmes is the former policeman with an eye for miscreants wherever they may be found and no illusion that there's only one problem in society; as soon as this unpleasantness is over we can return to that other unpleasantness over there. You, Hibbert, can go back to your unsuccessful plastics factory. You, general population in Terror of the Autons, can go back to using plastic for everything. You, medieval peasants, can go back to being feudal.

    One of the pleasures of Carnival of Monsters, in fact, is the contrast of the Dicksian world inside the Scope with the Holmesian world outside. (So Dicksian is the world inside the Scope, in fact, that Dicks reuses "posh people on a ship" wholesale in Horror of Fang Rock).

    Or contrast The War Games and The Ark In Space, where the problem is basically for the Doctor to get everyone home safely; clearly, home is the solution in the War Games and just the start of the problem in The Ark In Space.

    And note how, although Doctor Who continues to be sympathetic to youthful rebellion (the Nuthatch in The Green Death, Leela in the Face of Evil), Holmes in Carnival of Monsters is suggesting that even if the system sucks, the people who are trying to replace the system may be even worse. The last person to do that was… Robert Holmes in The Krotons. And he was almost the only person to do it: the rebels in Power of the Daleks barely count, because the colony in Power of the Daleks isn't that bad a place and it's not clear that we're meant to hope the rebels succeed (except that this is Doctor Who and they're rebels, so they get some presumption of sympathy), and we like all the other rebels: the Macra Terror, the Savages, the Space Museum…

    Er, one other point: it's easy, as you write about the difference between Dicks and Holmes, to make it sound like Holmes is simply more cynical. He is. But in Holmes stories, in addition to the cynicism, people keep on trying and life goes on. What makes Holmes's stories so memorable is that all of his characters, faced with an indifferent world where nothing good is guaranteed to last, all have to work really hard. Even Vira. Even Runcible, bless him. Even Condo.

    (My personal Holmes blind spot is The Sunmakers, and writing this has helped me clarify why: it's just a Dicksian romp, and once the guy gets thrown off the roof and the other guy goes down the plughole, the problem is solved. The cynicism in that one is so foregrounded that he forgot to put it in the background where it can actually do narrative work too).

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  5. William Whyte
    August 29, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

    It's worth saying also that the postmodernism in Carnival of Monsters is pretty much Postmodernism 101, not such much an attempt to genuinely subvert anything as an attempt to bend the fourth wall for comedic shock value. In that, it's not so much in the tradition of "sous les paves le plage" but more carrying on from the camp self-awareness of the Avengers. The characters in The Avengers were very self aware and knew they were putting on a show, but rarely (if ever — I haven't seen it all, or any recently) broke through to making it explicit that they were putting on a show, on television. Insofar as Carnival of Monsters does it, it's mainly taking the joke one step further. In fact, you could argue that after three years in which the main idea of Doctor Who has been "I know! Let's do the Avengers, after the heyday of The Avengers has passed, but with a slower pace and less sexily", Carnival of Monsters is the story that finally rises to the challenge of being as fun and self-aware as the Avengers while also properly taking advantage of the broader canvas Doctor Who has to offer.

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  6. Wm Keith
    August 30, 2011 @ 12:35 am

    Even the title is breathtakingly great. It's literally true, but emphatically false. The monsters are completely incidental. Anyone who expects a "carnival of monsters" will be disappointed. Like Vorg's miniscope, or indeed any fairground sideshow, the "carnival" fails to live up to its own hype.

    Look at how literal and bland the story titles are in this period. The story is preceded by "The Three Doctors", and "The Time Monster", and succeeded by "Frontier in Space", and (perhaps the weakest title ever?) "Planet of the Daleks".

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  7. ABM
    August 30, 2011 @ 4:07 am

    I'm not sure I can match with the post doctoral university language here but I'll say my piece and get shot….

    The way that the first episode of this story progresses: first there's a stagey sort of alien revolt thingy in a spaceport, then some prattling space travelling show folk drop in from nowhere (and just argue with each other!), then cut to a apparently unconnected scene on board an old cargo/ship. Then there's the bending wierdness of the way the narrative on board the ship develops, loops, repeats. (Jo's reaction is magical to watch.) The climax of episode one suddenly and excitingly joins up the two stories. That is astounding television, that is, even forty odd years on it's still breathtaking.

    That first ep is a top 5 best ever ep of DW contender without even sweating.

    What's actually strange is the length of the scenes. Most DW by 1973 was quite fast moving and intercut, certainly compared to 10 years before (eg. in The Tribe of Gum where the camera fade to black halfway through the episode to change tapes and reset is about the only edit in the whole episode). Most scenes in The Three Doctors last less than a minute and there's 25-30 per episode. But the scenes in the early parts of Carnival.. are all lengthy and have lots of dialogue. Ep1 has about 14 scenes by my count. Carnival of Monsters bucks a trend here (but it doesn't suffer from it.)

    And then there's episode 2.. particularly the "71 edit" of episode 2 with the Delaware version of the theme music which for some strange reason was the one that ABCtv in Australia kept replaying through the 70's and 80's (and thus to me is the "real" version of episode 2). The very notion of partly repeating a scene to show a slightly different bit of the story (the bit with Pletrac in the Spaceport….. you may have to watch it to know what I mean) was just fuel to my boyish mind when I first saw it… it makes me misty eyed just thinking about it. It was b-r-i-l-l-i-a-n-t. It still is.

    PS wrote "the production team trying to challenge themselves instead of playing it safe"…. I think this is a supremely confident production team that knows they must challenge themselves and
    the viewers.

    Carnival of Monsters is a very special piece of finely crafted television. It's not a mini-film, it's not an adaptation of a novel, it's definitely not a video'd play…. it's like the zenith of the TV art from that golden age of multicamera studio…

    I'm glad Mr Sandifer likes this one. He's made some unconventional choices in the course of this blog, mostly reasoned I think. So as a fundamentalist 70's DW fan, it feels good to agree with him for once.

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  8. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 30, 2011 @ 5:04 am

    I think that you're right that Holmes and Dicks have fairly similar politics – fairly centrist. But I think the major difference, rather than cynicism vs optimism, is that, if you will, Dicks is a conservative's liberal – full of grand narratives and fundamental principles – while Holmes is a liberal's conservative – suspicious of macro narratives and fundamentally invested in the personal scale. And in 2011, it seems to me that this division maps well onto a left/right division. Holmes is much more compatible with contemporary leftist fears – excessive corporate power, the subversion of nationalist ideologies by powerful people to serve their needs, and the widespread abandonment of ordinary people.

    Whereas in contrast, Dicks's plucky optimism sounds like nothing so much as David Cameron promising that just as soon as we put all those nasty looters in jail there won't be any problems, because the only big systemic problem in the society is that we haven't caught all the bad guys – a position that sounds more appropriate for the Yeti than the urban poor.

    I talk about some of these issues in the Green Death entry next Monday.

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  9. William Whyte
    August 30, 2011 @ 5:21 am

    I like "conservative's liberal" v "liberal's conservative".

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  10. inkdestroyedmybrush
    August 30, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    You're absolutely right about the difference between Dick and Holmes, and its not a hard one to identify: the sheer difference in world view that exists in the stories. Dick has always come across as thinking that if we just could get past the one problem, the one villian, the one evil thing, that the world would go back to being safe and wonderful, and Robert has always had the idea that it was anything but.

    I've always thought that i would enjoy the Pertwee stories more had he inherited Hinchcliff and Holmes instead of Letts and Dicks. As I completely agree that Jon worked better when not allowed to be in control of the situation, and it certainly would have been interesting to see him far more in the murky world of Holmsian greys rather than the Dickensian Black and White.

    Carnival makes a number of witty remarks upon the nature of politics, and Wisher, in his second best role in the series, mutters many of them under his breath along the way. The story both comments upon people viewing cheap video entertainment, by people who control cheap entertainment and not always in very flattering terms. It breaks the fourth wall so thoroughly that you would think that it would hit a fifth on its way out the building

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  11. TheEditor
    November 27, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    I don't think CoM appearance in the 5 Faces season has anything to do with it being a popular story in the eyes of the public, but the result of a limited number of Pertwee stories existing in their original format in 1981 (only 8 stories at the time). Plus the dictation of needing to be 4 parts in length reduces things to a choice from SfS, DotD, CoM and TTW (3 Docs already part of the season). With Letts having around as Executive Producer at the time he probably had a hand in the selection and picked the one he himself had directed

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  12. Nickdoctorwho
    November 21, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

    One other thing about your analysis:

    Vorg and Shirna are parallels of the Doctor and companion; the Miniscope looks an awful lot like the TARDIS' main console, too.

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  13. orfeo
    December 11, 2013 @ 1:09 am

    I agree with you, this is a real gem. Good script, good performances… as much as anything I suspect everyone understood just what they were trying to do. Which is one benefit of having a 'small' story.

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  14. John Binns
    August 5, 2014 @ 6:14 am

    Interesting that the Doctor says he successfully lobbied the Time Lords to ban Miniscopes, given the parallels between them and TARDISes (and televisions), between him and Vorg (glamorous ditzy companion, inability to operate his own machine, but Vorg's mission is 'simply to entertain – nothing political), and indeed between Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes.

    Reply

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