|Steve Dahl eats horn lasers.
It’s December 22nd, 1979. Pink Floyd are at number one with “Another Brick in the Wall.” This lasts for three more weeks before The Pretenders, the most British band ever to have a vocalist from Akron, Ohio, take number one with “Brass in Pocket.” ABBA, KC and the Sunshine Band, and Paul McCartney also chart. The latter, it should be noted, charts with “Wonderful Christmastime,” which is one of the single worst Christmas songs ever written – a piece of mawkish offal that makes me long for dogs barking Jingle Bells within seconds of it coming on. It is a song so bad that it was held off from the Christmas #1 by six separate songs including The Sugarhill Gang “Rapper’s Delight.” A song, in other words, so bad that the Brits preferred rap music to it in 1979 for Christmas. And yet Paul McCartney gets half a million dollars a year from royalties on it. Thatcher wasn’t the worst thing to happen in 1979. Just saying.
In real news, a ceasefire is signed for Rhodesia. The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan, which makes a lot of people angry and causes no end of problems, many of them for the United States. Speaking of the United States, they give Chrysler a $1.5 billion bailout, because that’s just how we roll. And the GPS epoch begins. Shortly thereafter, the President of Sicily is killed by the Mafia. Coincidence? Well, it’s tough to figure out how it wouldn’t be.
While on television, it’s The Horns of Nimon! Here even the staunchest defenders of the Williams era are given pause. This is not a story that anybody tries to defend the production of as such. The defense of the story, such as it is, amounts to “well it’s supposed to be funny.”
Fair enough, it often is. Certainly someone took an active decision here to just let Tom Baker have comedy larking for the entire story while turning the actual “Doctor” role of the story over to Lalla Ward. And certainly Graham Crowden is far too good an actor to treat his performance as anything other than deliberate. The erstwhile WGPJosh suggested that the story is a “Ham Singularity,” and if I am to disagree it is only because I think that it may simply seize the entire world’s cured meat supply in general. Crowden’s performance has a sufficient amount of ham involved that it borders on the anti-semitic. The design of the Nimon, on the other hand, may be inadvertent, but if so it’s an accident that at least fits seamlessly with the rest of the episode. (Also apparently inadvertent is the degree to which the opening TARDIS scene almost exactly parallels The Time of Angels. The Doctor knows less about flying the TARDIS than his female companion, instead of materializing on the ship the TARDIS materializes alongside and creates a corridor to the ship… even the switches that get hit to keep the TARDIS from exploding are blue.)
Is it actually funny? That, of course, is a matter of pure subjectivity. And it forms the basis of the traditional Miles and Wood dispute here. Miles’s objection boils down to “it’s not funny.” Wood’s defense, to its credit, attempts to sail past that debate towards “actually it’s quite serious,” but in doing so runs afoul of the point underlying both of their arguments that really accounts for what’s going on here. It is, in essence, the exact opposite of what was going on in Creature From the Pit, where we had a very good script that was marred by the fact that the production team couldn’t execute it to save their lives. This time we have the production team executing the best possible rescue plan for a script that it is simply impossible to save.
Absolutely everything about this script is wrong. Miles identifies the worst of it in terms of its conception of Greek myth. The value of myths in genre storytelling are that they’re an opportunity to make things bigger. Myths are stories of gods and demons and fundamental forces of the universe. Even if you go for more modern mythic constructions like Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan you’re dealing with stories that work because they are based around extremes of human experiences – the idea of the smartest man there can possibly be or of a primal state of nature that still exists in the world.
So when you just do myth as literary pastiche where the sole purpose of the mythic content is to show how clever you are – as is happening here, as happened in Underworld, and as happened, to a more limited extent, in The Armageddon Factor – well, it’s more than a bit flat. Especially when it comes in the post-Star Wars “mythic science fiction” tradition. There’s a clear belief on the part of the script that just because this looks like a Greek myth it must be meaningfully epic. And not only isn’t it, it’s embarrassingly not. To give Lawrence Miles, who has done a few spells as a punching bag lately, his real due, the original myth of the minotaur is “a tale of everything animalistic and Freudian in human consciousness, about a journey into the darkest, guiltiest tunnels of our collective psyche” whereas this is “about a bull-headed alien who fires energy bolts from its horns and lives in the middle of some space-corridors.”
And therein lies the problem. This is once again Doctor Who trying to do Star Wars not only without the budget but without any understanding of what doing Star Wars means in the first place. The script seems to genuinely believe that if you have spaceships and allusions to myth then nothing else is required. If you’ve got a world class special effects team backing you up then you can maybe get away with this, though frankly that trick only worked once. After that even Star Wars had to come up with something more clever. (And to its credit, The Empire Strikes Back is more clever. After that it tried Ewoks as its next trick, and it’s all been downhill since.)
So with no ability to execute it competently and nothing to execute competently anyway the series fell back on the last resort of the screwed over: comedy. To blame the story for having enough ham to kill the entire Cass family is to ignore the fact that every single other option would have been worse. The real question is why the hell this script was even being made in the first place.
Tat Wood suggests that this story amounts to “clearing the decks” and trying to kill off every single cliche imaginable so that nobody would try this sort of crap again, with the idea being that the series would then be born anew with Shada. Several problems arise with this theory. First of all, Graham Williams had, by all appearances, already decided to quit during the production of Nightmare of Eden, so treating this as a deliberate effort to clear the deck is a stretch. Second of all, the basic idea of accepting a script just to show how bad all of its ideas are and to get people to stop doing scripts like that is moronic. “Let’s deliberately make a crap episode of Doctor Who?” That’s Tat Wood’s defense of the story? That they consciously made it crap? I mean, Christ.
No, this was a commission of desperation – it was in less bad shape than the other five stories being considered, none of which Christopher Bidmead saw fit to try to rescue the next season either. (Admittedly Bidmead had a fairly unusual vision of what the series was, but the fact that neither Douglas Adams nor Christopher Bidmead saw the scripts as workable is… not a good sign for them. As interesting as some of them sound, it’s tough to believe they were workable scripts.) And, given that it’s the end of the Williams era, at least in one sense, we may as well use this fact to start our postmortem.
In many ways it’s the next story that provides the most complete and perfect metaphor for the Williams era – a story comprised of brilliant ideas that completely fell apart for reasons largely beyond everyone’s control. But let’s give the late Mr. Williams Shada as a victory lap and use this one to discuss, in essence, where it all went wrong for this era. Because the overall sense of things after seventeen stories is that this is the most colossal waste of potential in the history of the series.
So much of what is going on in the Williams era is scintillatingly good. It’s largely the smartest the series has ever been, which is impressive coming off of the Hinchcliffe era. All but eight stories of it are script-edited by two of the best writers the classic series has ever had, both of them contenders for the outright title of “best writer of Doctor Who ever.” It has one of the greatest Doctors in it, and when Mary Tamm is your weakest link in the supporting cast you’re clearly in phenomenal shape there too. Everything should be on track for a legendarily good era.
Except it isn’t. I mean, it’s good. Out of seventeen stories it has three stories that nobody ought think less of you for declaring to be the best Doctor Who story of all time (The Ribos Operation, City of Death, and Horror of Fang Rock). A solid majority of the stories are at the very least quite good. Its horrific low points are indeed horrific and low, but few producers make it through seventeen stories without some utter crap. We can weigh Underworld and The Invisible Enemy against The Time Monster and Monster of Peladon if we really want to, but really, what’s the point? We’re going to condemn the whole Williams era because it hit “utter and irredeemable shit about which there is nothing good whatsoever to say” twice instead of once? Just because Innes Lloyd only had one Celestial Toymaker and Peter Bryant only did The Dominators the once? (And to answer a point about Underworld, which I noted that I kind of liked before finding nothing good to say about it… it’s a story that benefits greatly from the fact that it’s viewed as being miles worse than everything else around it when in fact it’s at most a kilometer worse.)
No, as I said previously, most of the real loathing towards the Williams era was badly exacerbated by the fan-industrial complex. And it was utterly shameful. John Nathan-Turner got the producers job on Graham Williams’s recommendation alone. He wasn’t viewed as having enough experience (hence Barry Letts being brought back as executive producer for Season Eighteen) and it was purely because Williams vouched for him that he got the job. So for him to throw Williams under a bus as thoroughly as he did is redeemed only by his noble decision in 1985 to oversee an era of the program so bad as to immediately replace the Williams era in everyone’s mind as the nadir of the series.
Gareth Roberts, in his essay “Tom the Second,” mounts an impassioned defense of the Williams era that centers roughly on the fact that it’s very, very fun and that it has better characters than other eras. On both counts he’s on target. Not since the anarchic glee of Patrick Troughton have we had this clear a sense that the Doctor does what he does for the sheer love of it. And there’s something very powerful to that. However compelling his moral sense and tortured psyche may be – and I love both aspects – at the end of the day the Doctor is always a better character if the audience buys how much he loves what he’s doing.
And the characters in this era have been quite good. Attention is reliably paid to things like motivation. The villains aren’t bad just because that’s how they are. The worst villains are consistently bad not because they’re raving psychopaths but because they’re boring and closed-minded. Even the Daleks, for better or for worse, get reinvented away from being raw and seething evil and find themselves stuck in an existential crisis about the limitations of their nature of the sort nobody has bothered with since David Whitaker was writing them.
And perhaps most importantly, more often than not it’s been funny. So why does it feel like such a disappointment?
I suggested back with The Armageddon Factor that the problem was that it was rare that everyone involved seemed to be on the same page. And that, I think, is the crux of it. There are three solid classics in the Williams era, but only two of them feel as though they’re the actual aesthetic of the Williams era being executed. We can add to that The Sun Makers, which gives every appearance of being what it meant to be but doesn’t quite have the sparkling brilliance of The Ribos Operation or City of Death. Out of seventeen stories this is an era that only manages to show up and do what it means to three times.
The rest of the time it runs smack into the same problem this story does: the script can’t support what the production team is trying to do. Faced with perpetual and searing budget crises and a mandate to stop doing what was working Graham Williams was, in fact, able to develop a brilliant approach to Doctor Who that combined punk sensibilities, postmodern storytelling, and intelligent but broadly accessible humor. It’s just that he didn’t find a stable of writers who could execute it.
This, actually, is going to be the biggest problem for Doctor Who from now until the Cartmel era. Nobody is going to be able to actually find a large enough pool of writers to consistently turn out quality material. Say what you like about the Pertwee era, but Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks could count to five. Almost every season they acted sensibly and put a Malcolm Hulke story in, a Robert Holmes story in, the obligatory Sloman/Letts script (for better or for worse), and a Baker and Martin story. That put them at four stories that would almost certainly range from serviceable to quite good every year. Even when Baker and Martin or Holmes skipped a year or someone coughed up a bad script there was enough depth in the bench that no season turned embarrassing. Similarly, the Hinchcliffe era had a deep enough pool of writers (and a script editor suicidal enough to do two scripts a season) that it very rarely found itself in catastrophe territory.
But the Williams era? They almost immediately lost one A-List writer to Blake’s 7 when Chris Boucher was (quite rightly) grabbed for script editor there. Then they lost Robert Holmes. Their successful additions were good – David Fisher is a solid, reliable writer and Douglas Adams is a genius. But at their high point they had three writers who could deliver a script that worked in the mould they were shooting for. Most of the time they had two. It’s tough to make a six story season that way.
You can blame things like the way in which they drove Holmes off, but every era has lost good writers to frustration. Complaining about how Holmes shouldn’t have been put on a brief as wretched as Power of Kroll because they needed him makes as much sense as complaining about driving Hulke off. It happens. The problem was simply that by all appearances there just weren’t enough writers in the UK who could do a script as complex as the Williams era required. And that started every single season of the Williams era off at a massive handicap. It was usually a challenge to get past three good scripts.
And when that’s true you’re in a very, very vulnerable position when other things go wrong. When Chris Boucher turns in a weak effort or David Fisher’s script gets mauled by the director on top of everything it’s now a crisis instead of a run of the mill problem. But really, what were they going to do? It’s not like Bidmead or Saward had more straightforward times getting enough competent writers on the program. It’s not like they were hiring writers turned out a good script and then not hiring them for more. The writers who were good got more commissions. It’s just that doing that never got you out to six good scripts. Yeah, it would have been nice if Boucher had been script editor of Doctor Who instead of being wasted on Blake’s 7. Let Anthony Read, who is apparently a weak writer himself, go work for Terry Nation. They deserved each other.
But when all is said and done the real problem is that there just weren’t the writers out there. Sure, one can think of a couple of options from British TV of the same era who it would have been great to see on Doctor Who. But frankly, most of them were good enough to run their own shows. I mean, yes, PJ Hammond would have written a fantastic Doctor Who story. But why would he when he had Sapphire and Steel? Sure, Tanith Lee would have been far better on Doctor Who than Blake’s 7, but was she going to be a good fit under Adams? (Well, actually, probably yes. So that’s one lost opportunity. But on the other hand, they had the good sense to try Christopher Priest, so let’s not ding them too hard.)
But for the most part one suspects that, no, there probably weren’t enough writers who could do what Douglas Adams did. That the biggest problem with the Williams era was simply that there weren’t enough writers who could do it. But on the other hand, we return to the initial problem the era faced. With Mary Whitehouse closing down one angle for the show and the budget cratering to where you needed to make science fiction adventure that consisted of people sitting around talking to each other a lot if you wanted it to look good there weren’t a lot of good options on the table. Graham Williams found a model that could work. No, he found a model that did work. He just didn’t find enough other people who could do it.
Still, this may be the last televised Graham Williams story, but I’ve got two more entries before I’m through with his era. So let’s leave it at this – the Graham Williams era was a crushing disappointment through and through, yes. But it disappoints far more because of how good it could have been than how bad it was. So let’s take two entries and celebrate the alternative. The Williams era that could have been and almost was. The one that deserves to be celebrated and praised, whether it happened or not.