|We call it… green.|
It’s October 27, 1979. Lena Martell are at number one with “One Day at a Time,” which is described as gospel-tinged country music. So that’s exactly the sort of thing that a Scottish singer is probably good at. After three weeks its unseated by Dr. Hook’s “When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman.” Fleetwood Mac, Sad Cafe, Queen, and The Jam also chart.
While in proper news, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines becomes independent from the UK. The Carl Bridgewater murder trial ends with all four of the accused being found guilty, though their convictions are overturned in 1997. NORAD computers in the US detect a massive Soviet nuclear strike, but it turns out to be a false alarm because someone put a training tape in the wrong slot and fooled the computer. Oops. Ted Kennedy declares that he’ll offer a primary challenge to Jimmy Carter. Also, the Iran hostage crisis begins with a mob of 3000 Iranians seizing the US embassy and holding 90 people, 53 of whom are American, hostage. Carter responds by freezing all Iranian assets in the US, and it all goes very well for him.
While on television we have The Creature From The Pit, one of the most tragically misunderstood stories in Doctor Who’s history. Some people, it seems, just don’t understand a proper anti-capitalist screed when they see one. Tragically, among them is the director of this story, Christopher Barry. Or, at least, that’s Tat Wood’s assessment, and on this point at least I’m inclined to agree.
Much like Terry Nation on Monday, I’m hardly inclined to slag Barry too hard. He directed the bulk of The Daleks, including the first appearance of the Dalek itself, he directed Power of the Daleks, he directed The Brain of Morbius, and he directed some lesser but still quite nice efforts like The Rescue and The Mutants. His sole problem here is one of the passage of time. In the normal course of things someone who was a solid television director in 1963 probably shouldn’t still be one in 1979. Virtually the entire medium changed over those 16 years. One of the things John Nathan-Turner does do a relatively admirable job of, even if he overdoes it a bit, is clearing out large swaths of the past that had stayed on past their prime and getting new blood onto the program. But to be honest, a lot of the problem the program is facing now is an inevitable part of being on season seventeen. It has to figure out which parts of its heritage are part of what the show is and what parts are things tit it should let go of. There wasn’t a rulebook on how to handle a show that had evolved continually over that kind of timespan. Science fiction had never done something like “Season Seventeen” before. It was hard.
And here Barry proved to be a poor choice. He makes two crushing mistakes, both of which Tat Wood is exactly on target about. The first is that he egregiously misreads what to do with the bandits and ends up just having them be horrible Jewish stereotypes. Even if the script didn’t have something considerably more clever in mind (and it does), the anti-Semetic stereotyping would be unbearable. Then he fails to understand the final episode, turning it into a ten minute confrontation between Adrasta and Erato followed by a fifteen minute mini-episode about stopping a different threat.
In fact both of these are the same error. Fisher’s script is doing something fairly complicated that just passes Barry by. The key thing is a point related to one of the things I was talking about in the Thatcher entry – the way in which both sides of an apparent political debate were in one sense indistinguishable because they both adhered to the same premise. My example there was the way in which the trade unions, Callaghan, and Thatcher all took for granted that maximizing profit was the right thing to do. The idea that they were opposing sides in many key ways serves more to cut other perspectives out of the debate entirely than it does to actually describe a fundamental philosophical difference between them. And this sort of false opposition is exactly what Fisher is trying to do with the culture of Chloris, but Barry complete misses it.
Essential to this story is the fact that at first glance it looks like something other than what it is. The Doctor has been showing up on planets with a powerful ruling class and a bunch of oppressed quasi-savages for, well, seventeen seasons now. And in virtually every case, assuming the quasi-savages are human-looking, he sides with the savages in overthrowing the government. The impact of this story depends on the assumption that the audience is going to mistake the bandits as the good guys.
The correct way to pitch it, in other words, is as your usual batch of oppressed miners with just a little too much edge on their part. This is the story where an Arthur Scargill figure actually would have been appropriate – no, more than appropriate, downright prescient. This needed a bunch of miners led by a seedier version of Ettis – one whose angry populist rhetoric is subtly undermined by his callousness and his greed. Instead we get John Bryans doing obsequious comedy in which he makes unwise comments about his personal wealth and then reassures his stupid henchmen that he cares about them.
If one imagines the script being executed in a manner more or less akin to what Fisher seems to have been writing the idea suddenly becomes much clearer. The trick is in the title. Plenty of people have commented on the two moments in the script in which Adrasta rather dramatically delivers the lines “We call it… the pit” and “We call it… the creature.” In both cases the Doctor (or Romana) get a brief wisecrack in response. The lines are generally pointed to as the moments in which we’re meant to see how blinkered and narrow-minded Adrasta is, and that’s clearly the case. But what all of this misses is the third moment in the script in which the joke is used: the title. If calling it “the pit” and “the creature” is evidence of a lack of imagination or open-mindedness, what are we to make of the fact that the title of the story commits the same error?
Again we get the sense that the point of this story is in part to trick the viewer into thinking that it’s a different story than it is. The audience is supposed to assume that the creature is, in fact, a monster in a pit that eats people. Even when we do start to figure out that the creature isn’t evil we’re supposed to assume that it’s just a redo of the Star Trek episode “Devil in the Dark.”
Ah, yes, the Star Trek episode. Miles suggests in his review that the critical divide on this story is whether it’s bad science fiction or a parody of bad science fiction. It’s an ironic divide to make, as it mirrors the central moral point of the episode itself by creating a false debate in which both sides are really on the same side of a different debate entirely. The truth is that this story has no conscious relationship to bad science fiction one way or another. It’s quite good science fiction that just happened to be made badly. But all the same, there’s no way around the fact that it has some sort of relationship to this particular Star Trek episode, if only because it make fairly explicit references to it.
But what’s inexplicable about Miles’s attack on this story is that he for some reason thinks that the audience is supposed to get that this story is recycling a Star Trek plot. Sure, there are some cute nods in place if the audience does in fact get it, but it’s no more essential to have seen “Devil in the Dark” to get this story than it is to have read The Prisoner of Zenda (which I haven’t) to get The Androids of Tara. In fact, the audience who doesn’t see the similarities off the bat is going to be in a better position because they’re more likely to be tricked into thinking that the Creature is in fact a straightforward monster. This isn’t literary parody, it’s a good ol’ fashioned ripoff that’s then spruced up into a better moral point.
The only way in which the Star Trek story is in some way requisite to following this one is indirectly, which is that Star Trek itself falls for the second red herring in the script. The problem with Star Trek’s world, in a nutshell, is that it depicts a galaxy of utter cultural hegemony. There’s the monoculture of the federation, i.e. New Frontier liberalism, and that’s it. So in “Devil in the Dark” the default assumption – never challenged anywhere in the entire story – is that what the miners are doing on the planet is necessary. The “monster” in the mine turns out to have utterly defensible motives as well, sure, but everything comes down to a misunderstanding – the nice miners didn’t realize the Horda was basically human.
But here that’s a red herring too. Even as we start to figure out that the creature isn’t hostile our default assumption is supposed to be that Adrasta and company just don’t understand it. Especially because Adrasta is apparently so blinkered – of course she doesn’t get an alien culture and has just chained the creature up in a pit. But in truth what’s going on is subtler than that. Adrasta actually understood what Erato was just fine. The problem is that she didn’t care. She was only willing to look at the world from her own capitalist perspective.
Whereas Erato – and note that the name is picked not just from Greek myth but specifically for the muse of love and erotic poetry, suggesting a specific sense of love and harmony – could care less. What Erato was going for all along was to create a symbiotic relationship between two planets with complimentary sets of needs. In other words, the entire point of the story is not, in fact, “Erato was just like us” but “we never needed to be so obsessed with mining in the first place and the entire basis of our economy and culture was flawed.” The point is that profit as understood on Chloris was simply wrong, and that there was another way. Adrasta did misunderstand, but not because she didn’t recognize Erato’s individual subjectivity, but rather because she didn’t recognize that there was another way for the world to be.
The reason, of course, is that she’s a selfish arch-capitalist who is perfectly happy to thrive while everyone else suffers. Here I should pause and point out a particularly galling error in About Time, in which Miles and Wood do a takedown of John Fiske’s (admittedly pretty foolish) article on this story in which they say that reading Adrasta as a Thatcher figure is anachronistic. Which, given that the story was written in the midst of the general election, is fairly ludicrous. Yes, it was made before Thatcher was Prime Minister, but I think one can pretty safely make the connection while she’s merely the odds-on favor to win the election. It’s not exactly a stretch to think that a female ruler written in the middle of Thatcher’s campaign might be inspired by her somehow.
But to wander back towards the other error that Barry makes, he misses that the entire resolution of the story, in which the bandits and Karela, even after Adrasta is defeated, still misunderstand and remain stuck in the capitalist mode. The entire point of this resolution is that Adrasta wasn’t a special or unique villain, but rather merely the point at the top of an entire society that is diseased and unable to understand that alternatives exist. The real resolution isn’t Adrasta getting her comeuppance – which was inevitable given all the sneering about she does all story – but rather the moment where the Doctor blows up a massive pile of metal in order to demonstrate the folly of short-term materialism in response to the failings of the entire planet.
But the script and execution instead land miles apart. That said, even the execution isn’t quite as bad as people give it credit for. Other than Romana obviously being written for Mary Tamm (and it’s worth noting that at least some of the problem here is just that this was actually Ward’s first story in the part and so we’re seeing her suddenly losing two months of experience playing the role), most of what’s highlighted as flaws here just isn’t a problem. Yes, the Everest in Easy Stages/Teach Yourself Tibetan joke is a bit silly, but to blame Douglas Adams for it is unfair. One of the running gags for Baker’s Doctor, since Genesis of the Daleks, has been the multitude of odd things in his pockets. This is the sort of joke you get to on year six of that. And Erato isn’t nearly as bad a prop/costume as people say. Not a triumph of design by any stretch, but the novelty of moving away from men in rubber suits counterbalances the flaws. The wolfweeds, on the other hand, are positively charming. And while it’s tempting to rag on David Brierly’s K-9, to do so would require positing that it was ever possible to fill John Leeson’s shoes to begin with.
No, if anything we should be praising Douglas Adams here. He’s turned in what is probably Doctor Who’s best-written script ever, took at least some of the rough edges off of a Terry Nation script, and helped supervise a fantastic script here, albeit one that was badly sandbagged by the director. In the two where his hand has been most visible – this and City of Death – he’s managed to create worlds where the rules and nature of the world matter and where the action is character-driven instead of spectacle-driven. Far from his reputation as a chaotic and hands-off script editor who mostly left things alone, it’s quite clear that he’s been successfully stamping his vision on the program, and the program is unmistakably better for it, whatever other flaws still exist in it.