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We stared into the untempered schism and all we saw was this dodgy CSO effect

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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.

25 Comments

  1. Sean Daugherty
    March 19, 2012 @ 12:46 am

    Just meditating on a point, but the idea that John Nathan-Turner era was averse to "the idea that companions might be in some way competent or useful in their own right" may be a deeper problem than that. One of the most common complaints against the fifth Doctor was that he was "ineffectual," after all. Many of the most significant events of this period involve the Doctor failing in one or more ways, be it his inability to save Adric, or, looking ahead, the sour note on which he and Tegan ultimately part company (as an aside, I'm convinced this is part of why the final two episodes of "The Caves of Androzani" are so effective: they essentially show a Doctor who refuses, at last, to be deferred or defeated). The problem continues to be endemic through seasons twenty-two and twenty-three, where the Doctor's failures seem to outnumber his successes regularly (misjuding Lytton in "Attack of the Cybermen"; his apparent failure to save Peri in "Mindwarp").

    Interestingly, this seems to evaporate once we get into the final three seasons or so. Once Ace is introduced, the TARDIS crew consists of two characters who, while they certainly have their flaws and failures, are both legitimately "competent and useful" in their own right. The Doctor's competency is almost overplayed with the "chessmaster" theme, and Ace routinely gets to blow things up, beat Daleks to death, or what-have-you.

    So, again, as with so much that goes wrong for the show during the 1980s, I suspect this may be one of the quirks of Eric Saward as script editor. While he wasn't around for to help write out Romana or K9, I don't think the problem really becomes acute during season 18. You've mentioned Nyssa, but Adric as well, at least on paper, had the potential to be useful: he was a mathematics wizard, and there were legitimate glimpses of brilliance, especially in stories like "Logopolis." It's only with Tegan that we really get into the problem of "high concept, low competency" companions, marked either by some quirk of origin (Tegan, Turlough, Peri) or by someone's weird idea of stunt casting (Mel). But I think it may only be more noticeable amongst the companions of this period because there are more of them (we have five companions and only two Doctors between "Time-Flight" and "The Ultimate Foe").

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  2. Alex Wilcock
    March 19, 2012 @ 12:47 am

    With you on most of this, though I still don’t warm to Nyssa… I’d add that of all the 20th anniversary year stories, this is the only one that thinks intelligently about how to use an anniversary, rather than just cramming in the cameos. I’d show it at Christmas, myself – all those people who grump about everyone having fun and that they’ve forgotten the true meaning of Christmas? The Doctor’s exactly the same sort of party pooper for Snakemas, and makes sure everyone hears what it’s really about. It’s true, but no-one’s happy when they find out what it is.

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  3. John Callaghan
    March 19, 2012 @ 12:48 am

    Madness? A guilty pleasure? Surely simply a pleasure. Unless you enjoy guilt, in which case don't let me spoil it for you!

    I liked season 20 because of the fantasy tone (rather than being hard sci-fi), and the comparatively unusual motives of the antagonists (wanting to live/die/alleviate boredom etc.).

    Gary Gillat cites Snakedance as the best DW story ever, by the way.

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  4. William Whyte
    March 19, 2012 @ 5:14 am

    Snakedance is tighter and more straightforward than Kinda, but I feel that Kinda does a better job of portraying the Mara as monster from the dark places of the mind, while in Snakedance it's much more of a standard-issue monster. In Kinda, the Mara emerges in a place of emotional chaos, while in Snakedance it's more of a polite party for the tourists. This is the first of the run of four high-concept/art-house stories that are promising on paper but don't deliver on screen: it's a shame, as any one of them could have been as compelling as Warriors' Gate, but none of them quite make it and the twentieth anniversary season ends up being the least likely one to attract new viewers. (At least for now; 21 is a step up, but 22, 23 and 24 probably come below this one).

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  5. Alan
    March 19, 2012 @ 5:53 am

    Random thoughts: Unquestionably one of the best Davison stories, though that's pretty faint praise, IMO. Structurally, I thought it kind of lost the thread in episode four. The cliffhanger is that they're captured by Lon who orders them killed. The resolution is that the Doctor and Nyssa overcome the guards by unexpectedly shoving them rather gently so that they collapse to the ground. Then, the Doctor wanders around in the desert until the Quaker Oats man shows up provide a "Buddhism for Dummies" explanation of how to defeat the Mara.

    Poor Martin Clunes, who had previously ruled every scene he was in, spent most of episode four stuffed into what appeared to be a six-year-old girl's party dress for his climactic scenes, an unfortunate misstep in a story that had, up to that point, been a crowning achievement in DW costuming. Finally, the rubber snake was better than in "Kinda" but not by much (despite the addition "Green Pus" (tm JNT)).

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  6. Alan
    March 19, 2012 @ 5:56 am

    As I've been talking about how ineffectual and feckless the Fifth Doctor was, I found it almost amusing that that he finally found an enemy in the Mara that he could defeat largely be ignoring it completely.

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  7. Alan
    March 19, 2012 @ 6:03 am

    On the bright side: I really liked Janet Fielding in "Snakedance," and it's the first time I really felt that she was a good actress saddled with a poorly written and directed part. While I detest Tegan Jovanka, I'd watch Possessed Mara/Tegan all day. They should have done a followup to "Keeper of Traken" with the Rani stealing Tegan's body so she could spend all her time laughing maniacally and vamping up the place.

    Also, does anyone else think that Nyssa is simply exasperated with the Doctor in this story? She spends most of episode one angry with the Doctor for how he treats Tegan. In episode three, she stops just short of calling him an idiot for not replacing the sonic screwdriver. And in episode four, she snaps at him for helping her climb down a step as if she were a small child. One begins to see why she would find a leper colony preferable to babysitting the Doctor all the time.

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  8. Matt Sharp
    March 19, 2012 @ 8:34 am

    'Madness? A guilty pleasure? Surely simply a pleasure. Unless you enjoy guilt, in which case don't let me spoil it for you!'

    Seems 'Our House' was the only Madness song that charted in the US.

    Tell us, Phil, oh dweller in the strange and mysterious land of America, what the general perception of Madness is over there?

    I'm genuinely interested, as I didn't think any Americans had even heard of Madness and they were actually one of the biggest bands of the early eighties over here.

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  9. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 19, 2012 @ 8:35 am

    I was limiting myself to "Our House" in the judgment – I'm only familiar with the rest of their work in passing. As Matt intuits, they are largely a one-hit wonder in the US.

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  10. Jesse
    March 19, 2012 @ 8:39 am

    "One Step Beyond" and "House of Fun" got some MTV airplay back in the day.

    Anyway. I can only speak for myself, Matt, but this American likes them a lot.

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  11. nimonus
    March 19, 2012 @ 9:38 am

    I'm not sure that "greed for knowledge" was the only flaw Pertwee's Doctor had to confront in Planet of the Spiders. It was a rather transparent way of introducing the second noble truth, craving and aversion, into the story.

    But the larger theme of the problem of Ego certainly applied to Pertwee's Doctor throughout his tenure. He was routinely arrogant, self-centered and domineering. "Facing your greatest fear" didn't seem to be about greed for knowledge, it seemed to be fear of death, fear of the dissolution of ego. And actually, Sue from Wife in Space pointed out in her review of Planet of the Spiders the horror of seeing Pertwee lose control and be taken over, turned into a literal puppet and how that humbling was to him as a character. Pertwee from the very beginning strove to maintain a sense of control, and railed against his lack of control over his own fate.

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  12. Shane Cubis
    March 19, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    I'm more upset about his dismissal of "Down Under", myself.

    Reply

  13. Matthew Blanchette
    March 19, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    The Doctor should be reckless, not feckless. He should make an effect, not be ineffectual.

    He should, in short, not be Peter Davison. Nothing against the man, myself, but his Doctor was a failure as a Doctor.

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  14. Alan
    March 19, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

    In his defense, it was a failure of conceptualization rather than execution. He played the part well, but the part was that of a whiny nebbish who had to be saved from disaster by guest stars in nearly every episode. For all his faults, can you imagine Tom Baker ever consenting to saying that line from "Earthshock" about appreciating a well-prepared meal?!? He'd have refused and improvised something different (and unquestionably better) and probably stormed off the set if the director had pushed it. Same thing with Colin Baker — it's not like any other actor, living or dead, could have played the part as written in "The Twin Dilemma" without it being a disaster.

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  15. John Callaghan
    March 20, 2012 @ 12:23 am

    There's a joke in the Simpsons about how Dexy's Midnight Runners are one-hit wonders too. Mind you, there are loads of Kiss jokes in US programmes. I suspect they were much bigger in the US than the UK.

    Give me Madness and OMD any day, though! Every wedding I've been to has played Baggy Trousers. (Although not Genetic Engineering, admittedly.)

    And I like Wonderful Christmas Time.

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  16. John Callaghan
    March 20, 2012 @ 12:27 am

    I much prefer the Doctor as just another character, who is distinguished by purity of intentions and good nature. The superheroic bully can lead to boring and irritating stories, and even when it's done well we've already got more conventional superhero stories for that.

    Doctor 9's stories had it about right – generally he's there to uncover the mystery and inspire people to be better than they thought they were, with the occasional moment of triumph.

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  17. John Callaghan
    March 20, 2012 @ 12:33 am

    I prefer the Doctor to be just another character who is characterised by his ingenuity, good nature and purity of intentions. The superheroic bully leads to boring and irritating stories, and even when it's done well we've got more conventional superhero tales for that.

    The ninth Doctor's stories got the balance right, I feel. He courageously uncovers the mysteries and inspires people to be better than they thought they were, with the occasional moment of personal triumph too.

    After all, the message of Doc 10's stories is "sit and cower while someone far better than you solves your problems for you". I prefer "you too can make a difference – all you have to do is have personal conviction and believe in yourself".

    Plus, it'd be even more boring if every Doctor was interpreted the same way.

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  18. John Callaghan
    March 20, 2012 @ 1:38 am

    Hmmm. How interesting that in a comment about how fallibility is more interesting than unassailable competence, I'm unable to delete my draft comment!

    Reply

  19. Matt Sharp
    March 20, 2012 @ 3:55 am

    It might be worth you checking them out – they're from the era that Steven Moffat cites as his era of Doctor Who, and I rather suspect that the Nutty Boys have had an influence (albeit possibly an unconscious one) on some things about the eleventh Doctor, even if it only extends to dancing like a fool while wearing a fez.

    Plus, of course, Madness are cool.

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  20. Jesse
    March 20, 2012 @ 4:03 am

    John: KISS was huge here. You might be amused by this artifact of that era.

    Reply

  21. Matthew Blanchette
    March 20, 2012 @ 4:24 am

    The best Doctor stories, I think, are collaborative, where the Doctor is not automatically the lead, but a lead.

    This doesn't excuse the faults of Journey's End or End of Time, however; it just shows how not to do those types of stories.

    Troughton didn't have to dominate a scene to make an effect… and Baker's improvisations, though effective, often came with the baggage of his own ego, as this anecdote from The Robots of Death (recorded on the Shannon Sullivan site) attests to:

    "…[O]n the 3rd, the part one cliffhanger in which the Doctor is buried alive was also recorded at Ealing. Baker disliked the resolution of this scene (particularly SV7 rescuing the Doctor), suggesting instead an action-packed sequence in which the Doctor swings on his scarf to kick the door open. He and Briant argued vociferously until Briant revealed that Graham Williams was present to observe the shoot. Baker quickly agreed to follow the director's instructions."

    Pretty sure that kind of action would've flown during Season 17, though.

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  22. John Callaghan
    March 20, 2012 @ 6:22 am

    An entertaining film! If it was English it would finish with "of course, we did actually lose the football that night".

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  23. John Callaghan
    March 20, 2012 @ 6:27 am

    I'd agree that the second Doctor is a good example of how to do it too, and that he doesn't have to be centre stage all the time. I do like people to solve their own problems generally – it makes for better stories in my opinion – and I'm happy for the Doctor to facilitate that and tip the balance. A lead but not the lead is a good way of putting it.

    Plus, the superheroic Lonely God idea leads back into the sonic screwdriver debate. If he's that amazing, why doesn't he sort everything out as easily all the time?

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  24. Alan
    March 20, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

    And I like Wonderful Christmas Time.

    Seriously, after reading that sentence, my right eye twitched for ten seconds straight!

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  25. Henry R. Kujawa
    November 21, 2015 @ 11:56 pm

    John Carson is a wonderful actor who I’ve give terrific performances in a number of things (he was particularly surprising when he guested on “THE SAINT” with Roger Moore). But in “Snakedance”, he plays someone I’d like to vote as the biggest A-HOLE in the entire 26 seasons, someone who’s at once egotistical, arrogant, annoying as hell, ans so stupid it’s amazing he can walk upright.

    But then, everybody suffers in most of these stories.

    Meanwhile… can anybody tell me who “Dugdale” is? I keep seeing the name in the credits, but for the life of me, after all this time, I’m still not sure who he is in the story!

    Reply

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