It’s March 27th, 1965. Between now and April 17th, 470 people will die in a dam burst and landslide in Chile, 20 will die when a car bomb is detonated outside the US embassy in Saigon, two will die when the first aircraft lost in air-to-air combat during the Vietnam War are shot down during a strike on the Thanh Hóa Bridge, and somewhere north of 250 people will die in the Midwestern United States in what are called the Palm Sunday Tornadoes, while Richard Hickock and Perry Smith will be executed by hanging for the murders of the Herbert Clutter family, Princess Mary wll die of a heart attack on the grounds of her estate at Harewood House, and the world will edge incrementally closer to the eschaton. Also, The Crusade airs.
Acclaimed Doctor Who critic Philip Sandifer (whatever happened to him?) once attempted to classify the historical stories into two moulds defined by the Season One writers of the genre. Like most of his work, this is insightful but ultimately over-simplified. The more productive approach is to read the historicals as advancing dialectically between John Lucarotti’s harder edged approach to historicals, in which they are a vehicle for exploring foreign cultures, and Dennis Spooner’s more comedic one, in which they are a vehicle for playing with genre tropes. In this reading, David Whittaker’s script for The Crusade serves as synthesis before the entire genre is ultimately collapsed by Spooner’s own season-ending story The Time Meddler, which short-circuits the entire serious-minded approach by instead synthesizing his own approach to historicals with the sci-fi genre that the show would ultimately settle into permanently. But that’s a discussion for later.
Whittaker’s approach, meanwhile, is to run two separate historicals in parallel, with limited interplay between them. On one side we have the court of Richard the Lionheart, where the already well-regarded Julian Glover reigns over a bunch of courtiers who at times offer dialogue actually written in iambic pentameter. Here, in other words, we get Doctor Who having a romp in the grand realm of respectable BBC Shakespeare. Barbara and Ian, meanwhile, find themselves on the Arab side in the court of Saladin, where they explore much more uneasy ground and do a more Lucarottian exploration of foreign culture.
Whittaker does much to complicate this division—the Christian side may be a genre romp, but it’s the most respectable and highbrow genre open to the series, while the Muslim side finds plenty of opportunities for feats of derring-do and melodramatic set pieces such as Tutte Lemkow’s villainous thief Ibrahim tying Ian to the sand and threatening him with scaphism. This is, in other words, a true alchemical fusion, in which each of the two sides of the story are not just laid next to each other but tempered with each other to form something new.
More to the point, however, Whitaker goes to considerable length to parallel the two sides of the story. Both Richard and Saladin are noble, judicious figures, but each has a key advisor who is altogether more unscrupulous and antagonistic. And events in one court tend to implicitly mirror the other, most obviously in the detail that each court is visited by a deceitful merchant. Whittaker in no way portrays the two courts as interchangeable—indeed, he’s ultimately deeply invested in the notion that there are very real differences between them. But he is committed to the idea that they have equal dignity.
This is made even clearer in Whittaker’s novelization of the story, where he adds a prologue in which the Doctor reflects on how “the only way to understand the folly, the stupidity and the horror of war [is] when both sides, in their own way, are totally right.” He has both Richard and Saladin lament the cruelty and human cost of war, and makes both men out to be heroic in their desire to put an end to the conflict. The story is clear and resolute in its morality.
But there are clear limits to this. To put it in the most obvious terms, while there are a number of people of color in background roles, the bulk of Saladin’s court, Saladin included, is made up of white actors blacking up to play the part. This is not quite minstrelsy, in that the actors are not doing this as part of a grotesque and fundamentally racist caricature, but that doesn’t come close to eliminating the racism involved.
Actually, it’s not quite fair to say that nobody is engaged in grotesque racist caricature—Tutte Lemkow’s portrayal of the thief Ibrahim is unreconstructed racist caricature of the worst sort. That Lemekow was a Norwegian Jew with a distinctly idiosyncratic appearance who was largely typecast throughout his career as a procession of ethnic villains adds complexity to this, but again does not actually change the fact that what’s going on here is extremely racist on very fundamental levels.
And even if the acting is mostly not engaging in gross caricature, the writing is another matter. Consider the paralleled advisors who reject Richard and Saladin’s desires for peace. On the English side is the Earl of Leicester, who, while held in contempt by the Doctor for being a “stupid butcher,” is ultimately little more than a battle-hungry oaf. Oh the Muslim side, on the other hand, is the profoundly sadistic El Akir, who serves as the primary antagonist for the story and who repeatedly muses on how he’s going to torture Barbara and how it would be entertaining to see her dance on hot coals. There is ultimately not an equivalence here; no character on the English side comes close to this sort of depraved monstrosity. And more to the point, even if Walter Randall’s portrayal does not lean into the sort of over the top racial stereotyping of Tutte Lemkow’s, the entire character is a racist trope.
And this gets at the fundamental limitation of Whittaker’s sense of judicious equality: it’s rooted in a patronizing view of the Muslims. Whittaker finds nobility there, yes, but only by seriously entertaining the possibility that he might not. Likewise, while he finds fault in the English, the idea that they’re anything other than noble Shakespearean heroes is never seriously considered. Of course Richard the Lionheart is a Great Man of History deserving of our undying respect—the only surprise is that Saladin is too. And even this is decidedly limited in value—the European tradition of lionizing Saladin as “the good Muslim” is longstanding, and Whittaker is engaging with it on familiar terms in which Saladin’s moral character is only ever established by comparison with the apparently unquestionable character of his European foes. And Saladin is given far too much work to do anchoring the moral worth of the entire Muslim world—take him out and El Akir would be the most prominent Muslim character. Take Richard I out and you’d still have Des Preaux, and, for that matter, the entire TARDIS crew clearly demonstrating the nobility and heroism of the English. Whereas on the Muslim side, you’d have Haroun, who, while sympathetically motivated by murderous revenge, is still a clear step shy of deeply noble.
But there’s an even larger issue here, which is that even saying that the two sides were of equal nobility is farcical. After all, one side was an invading force engaging in imperialist expansionism. The other side… wasn’t. By any reasonable moral standard the Crusades were an atrocity in which European countries sent armies across the world to butcher people and steal their land. That this would go on to be the blueprint for destroying the planet is a grim irony, but even on their own merits the crusades were barbaric. Richard I was a warmongering monster engaged in a war of brutal aggression. Whatever one might say about Saladin, who, as a member of the ruling class, was surely no innocent, he at least wasn’t that. He was fighting a defensive war to repel invaders and reclaim lands that they had taken. To portray Richard I as morally equivalent to this, little yet as tacitly superior to it, is appalling.
And yet this view is implicit in Whittaker’s larger approach to the nature of history. To turn again to the novelization, he has the Doctor explain in the prologue how “the fascination your planet has for me is that its Time pattern, that is, past, present and future, is all one—like a long, winding mountain path,” going on to clarify this account by telling the story of Clive of India, who “attempted to commit suicide as a young man by putting a pistol to his head. Three times he pulled the trigger and each time the gun failed to explode. Yet whenever he turned it away, the pistol fired perfectly. As you know, Robert Clive did eventually take his own life in 1774. The point is that Time, that great regulator, refused to let the man die before things were done that had to be done.”
Leaving aside the fact that Robert Clive was an imperialist who manufactured deadly famines to line his own pockets, since at that point we’re just making the exact same point on different grounds, and the key point is the idea that Earth’s history, apparently unlike that of other planets, has a teleology. Within Doctor Who, this is obvious—all narratives have authorship and thus teleology. But this isn’t supposed to be a claim about the fictional world of Doctor Who—it’s supposed to be a claim about how history works. Whittaker is suggesting that history is directed towards a goal. This is an innately theistic claim—you cannot have a goal without a desire, which in turn requires there to be someone having the desire. If all of history is working towards a single end, then history has an author.
Two things follow from this, at least in terms of The Crusade. The first is obvious: Whitaker believes history to be written by a white man, and to reflect a white man’s concerns. He imagines a liberal white man who cares about the dignity of Muslims and of women, but he still unquestionably imagines a white man, and his view of history unquestionably holds those biases.
The other is that history’s author is monstrous. Whitaker makes at least some acknowledgment of this, having the Doctor muse on how “Life, death, the pattern of Time, are eternal mysteries to us. Here you find one man squandering his talents on wholesale slaughter, evil and terrible acts of indignity. There, another makes every effort for peace, goodwill and happiness. Inventors of medicines and advantages for others are laughed into insane asylums. Discoverers of murder weapons die in old age as millionaires. True love is set aside, hatred seems to flower” before concluding that “Time is constant. Look at history. You’ll find the brave have their share of successes. You’ll see that honesty, unselfishness and good works overflow in every generation.”
The problem is that we know otherwise. Sure, there’s good in every generation—often profound levels of it. But there’s also an abundance of moral horror. And the claim that the good parts win out and exist in abundance is, in the end, cold comfort to the impressively large number of people it doesn’t work out for. The world looks a lot more like an abundance of good when you’re a middle class television writer in the UK than it does when you’re a Palestinian trying to survive the disastrous consequences of yet another wave of European imperialism. Even if one doesn’t climb a bit further along Whitaker’s mountain path to see it all plunge into the bleak horror of the anthropocene, just looking at the world into which he put The Crusade makes the limitations of his concept of history painfully obvious. If history has an author, it’s a butcher to whom human suffering is a cheap currency with which to buy nebulous moral points. Or worse still, it’s just us, and our longstanding collective failure to stop destroying the world. As Whitaker himself notes, “Until we know, until we can control greed, destructive ambition, hatred and the dozen and one other flaws that plague us, we are not worthy to breath.”