Among the many services Big Finish provides for Doctor Who at large is a helpful testing of various pieces of fanlore regarding unmade stories. There are, for instance, people who wonder whether Prison in Space would really have been as unbearably terrible as it sounds. And as it happens (and we’ll cover this in the Troughton book this fall), yes, yes it would have been. But there is perhaps nowhere this service is more valuable than in the Saward era. One of the less resolvable debates surrounding the Saward era, and one that will play into the next two entries heavily as well, is the nature of the writers. Simply put, there’s some solid evidence of some very good writers having scripts rejected during this period while people like Glen McCoy and Anthony Steven had scripts made. It’s one thing when Pip and Jane Baker, two writers who are at least fast and reliable, get repeated commissions. It’s quite another when they’re actively commissioned over Christopher Bidmead and PJ Hammond, as, in Season 23, they were.
Of what I’d consider the big three of baffling rejections – the twin rejection of Christopher Priest’s Sealed Orders and The Enemy Within, PJ Hammond’s Paradise Five, and Pat Mills’s Song of the Space Whale, two – Hammond’s and Mills’s – have subsequently been recorded by Big Finish. Since the fan lore has Hammond’s rejection being down to Nathan-Turner and not Saward, whose influence I am more interested in tracking at the moment, let’s opt for Mills’s script, now renamed Song of Megaptera.
For those who don’t obsessively memorize every detail I cover on this blog, Mills, along with John Wagner (who was a co-author on earlier drafts of this script) co-created Judge Dredd with artist Carlos Ezquerra, and co-wrote the earliest Doctor Who Weekly comic strips. Song of Megaptera was, originally, a story for a Tom Baker comic strip, but Mills was persuaded that it was too good for that and instead sent it to the production office where it was, at various times, considered for Tom Baker, Peter Davison, and, finally, Colin Baker before finally being abandoned. In discussing its scrapping Pat Mills has stated that one of the reasons Saward gave for objecting to it was that Saward didn’t like Mills’s decision to portray the ship’s captain as working class, preferring the idea of a classless future.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first – in a litany of poor creative decisions that can be laid directly at Eric Saward’s feet, making Timelash over this is one of the most inexcusable. It is flat-out inconceivable how any remotely sane or reasonable script editor could look at Timelash next to this script and conclude that Timelash was going to work better. The Twin Dilemma was an aggregate of brain-searingly bad decisions, but I’m not convinced that any given decision, and particularly any given one of Saward’s decisions about The Twin Dilemma was prima facie worse than this.
It is not that Song of Megaptera is a flawless story. Its flaws are relatively evident – it displays an almost Baker and Martin level of obsession with cramming in new ideas, and like Baker and Martin it fails to explore most of them in the depth they deserve. This is, to be fair, simply the way Pat Mills is as a writer – his 2000 A.D. work displays the same hyperactivity, as do his Doctor Who comics. Unlike the comics (which combine this with an at times puerile machismo), however, this script feels altogether more suited to Doctor Who.
It’s also an example of politics done well in Doctor Who. The five-year incubation of this project coincided with the heyday of the “save the whales” campaign, and the year after its final abandonment marked the decision to put a moratorium on whaling that is still in place. This story is unrepentantly and unambiguously an anti-whaling screed. I’ve admittedly always been in favor of overtly political Doctor Who, but if there’s been a season that’s made that case for me more successfully than Season 22 it’s tough to think of it – the best story in the season was by miles the most political one, and virtually every stab at quality it had stemmed from efforts to be more immediately relevant.
But more than its politics The Song of Megaptera has two things going for it that are significant. On the one hand, it wears its politics on its sleeve and builds outwards from them instead of building towards them. The question of whether or not the Doctor is going to oppose whaling is never seriously raised – of course the Doctor opposes it. This is refreshing. After all, a political story like this tends to telegraph its intentions early on, so holding off on having the Doctor’s inevitable moral stand on the issue (in either direction – it’s not impossible to imagine a story about defending a whaling vessel from ecoterrorists, after all) in favor of having that be the climax would have been dumb anyway.
But equally importantly, it does actually build from that. Yes, the story is anti-whaling, and yes, that’s very blatant and up front. But because it takes that as a starting point it’s able to go somewhere from that. The working class captain that Saward apparently didn’t like is, in this regard, a fantastic character because one is able to understand why he’s the way he is. Yes, he’s the villain of the piece, but he’s an utterly sympathetic villain. Because Mills is so up front about making whaling a loathsome practice, in other words, he’s freed from the obligation to make anything else equally loathsome. There’s no moustache-twirling villain in the piece. The captain is an over-aggressive Ahab because he’s desperate both to prove himself and because he wants revenge on the company that he feels exploited him. The whaling practices take place not on anyone’s overt command but out of a systemic failure of anyone to care about motives beyond profit. The sequences in which the Doctor impersonates an inspector making sure regulations are followed are fantastic largely because of the sheer banality of evil on display here and the way in which that banality makes for a far more nuanced game of manipulation than basic “bad guys try to hide the plot from the Doctor.” Instead it becomes a game of the villains trying to pull off a PR job on the Doctor, which is far more complex and involving.
The second thing the story does that’s exceedingly satisfying is play for willfully low stakes. For most of the story the dramatic tension hinges entirely on the survival of the space whale. Eventually there are a decent number of lives at stake, but we’re still talking about hundreds of human lives and a herd of whales. This is an exceedingly small scale – there’s not even a planet at stake, and there’s no iconic foe to ratchet up the stakes artificially either. The last time we played for such small stakes is the story that replaced this in Season 20, Mawdryn Undead, and even there we had the Black Guardian lurking around in the b-plot. But on the whole this is refreshing – a reminder that Doctor Who’s power comes in part from its ability to change scales and focuses week to week. When every single story is about massive planet/galaxy/universe/species-imperilling danger, well, frankly it gets a bit overwhelming. A story where what’s at stake is “a whale” is nice simply because it’s a reminder that Doctor Who can do more than this.
There are failings – the fungus monster who’s also a stand-in for indigenous people who whale is unfortunately under-explored in a way that’s troublingly xenophobic. But on the whole this is a script with its heart in the right place that’s trying to make the program do interesting things, and that constantly pushes to make sure there are things happening in the story and things are exciting.
So why the hell was Timelash made and this rejected? We can posit personal and psychological reasons – and in two entries’ time we will – but for now let’s stick with aesthetic reasons.
It could simply be that the 2010 version of this is better than the 1985 version was. In the interviews at the end of the story Mills talks about changing scenes to work better on audio, and one of the highlights of the story (Peri’s delirious ramblings when infected with the fungus) is one he specifically mentions adding. Perhaps this just wasn’t that good a story. Or perhaps nobody had the heart to point out that a giant whale is difficult to do on a BBC budget. At least some allowance has to be made for the fact that this is not the 1985 script but a polished up 2010 adaptation of it.
It could also be stylistic. There is something odd about Mills’s hyperactive approach. It’s something I’m more inclined to file as an authorial idiosyncrasy than as a failing, but it would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Perhaps Saward favored the logorrhea of the Bakers or the lack of any distinguishing style or characteristics whatsoever of McCoy to this. There is something markedly different about this script compared to anything else from the time. That basic fact is, in some sense, a reason for rejection.
But I think the real issue is likely something very close to what Mills has said all along. The Saward era, even in Season 22, was never fond of politics. Take Vengeance on Varos out of the mix and Season 22 becomes marginally more political than what had come before, but we’re still basically left with Robert Holmes and Philip Martin as the only solidly political writers of the bunch, with Saward himself poking at it (very) lightly in Revelation of the Daleks. Yes, it’s impossible not to read Mark of the Rani as having political implications, but it takes pains to avoid having to make the connection directly. And Philip Martin recalls being warned off of politics rather angrily by Nathan-Turner prior to writing Vengeance on Varos. A script this political was out of step with the rest of the era.
In a few entries we’ll deal with the television program that most flagrantly showed how foolish this approach was, but even here it’s safe to say that it’s a problem. As I noted, almost everything good about Season 22 came from its eagerness to engage more in the material world. And more broadly, in a world so dominated by material politics any piece of science fiction that turns away from that is at least somewhat problematic. This is where my long-standing opposition to escapism as an aesthetic goal becomes clearest. Escapism tacitly abandons changing the status quo in favor of purely imaginary pleasures. Whereas what the culture needed in 1985 was material change – a clear vision of something other than a Thatcherite hell. There is, I think, a direct line from the sociopathy of escapism to appropriating the methods of famine relief for complaining that you have to wait eighteen months for your favorite television program.
But at the end of the day, the why matters less in terms of understanding the program in this era than the basic fact that one of the central defenses of the program in this era – that better writers weren’t available – just isn’t true. Good scripts by proven writers were rejected while the litany of debacles goes on. There’s an alternate Davison and Baker era where the stories that do work are accompanied not by Arc of Infinity, Warriors of the Deep, and Timelash but by stories by Pat Mills, Christopher Priest, PJ Hammond, and more scripts by Bidmead, Clegg, and Bailey. And if The Song of Megaptera is any indication, those scripts would have been better. For all the defenses we can mount of this era, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that there were better alternatives right under the production team’s noses and they hadn’t the sense to use them.