|OH MY GOD! I SAW UNDER JAMIE’S KILT!
Hi! So, how was A Good Man Goes to War? I hope it was good. I wrote this post a full week ago, and since I suspect that there are going to be things that it would make sense to point to in A Good Man Goes to War here, I figured I should remind you of that fact.
It’s March 16, 1968, and Israeli novelty blues are still at the top of the charts. It is replaced by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Tich with “The Legend of Xanadu,” which sits oddly on the line between novelty and love song. In week three The Beatles ride in to save us with Lady Madonna, and in week five it’s Cliff Richard. Honestly, I’m at a loss – this is not music I’m terribly familiar with. Cliff Richard appears to veer in his career from young rock guy to evangelical Christian. I see lower in the charts things like 1910 Fruitgum Company, which I have never heard of. I look at the cover and think “Ooh, that looks like a nice bit of psychedelia.” And it turns out to be bubblegum pop. Let’s call that the defining image of these weeks.
In real news, the British Foreign Secretary resigned seemingly over a drunken row with the Prime Minister, the Mai Lai massacre took place, 91 people are injured in a London protest against the Vietnam War, 200 more are arrested. Aer Lingus flight 172 crashes, killing 61. Lyndon Johnson declares he will not seek re-election, which was probably a good idea on paper, though as it turns out, this upcoming US Presidential Election is going to go somewhat badly for the planet. (I am rather more a hippie than an archeologist). Martin Luther King is murdered. Political assassinations in Germany. And, just to wrap off these uneventful six weeks, on the day the final episode of Fury From the Deep is transmitted, Enoch Powell makes the famous Rivers of Blood speech in which he rails against excessive immigration into Great Britain, complains that the British way of life is being destroyed, and warns:
As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.
In other words, this is the bit of history that we’re talking about when we talk about the turbulence of the 1960s. Except none of this is turbulence. Turbulence suggests the rapid switching back and forth between Summer of Love-esque bits of youth culture and stuff like Enoch Powell. This is, frankly, just a six week stretch of sheer unpleasantness.
While on television, we have that increasingly bone-chilling phrase, a classic Patrick Troughton story. No. That’s unfair of me. It’s really not that there’s anything awful about the stories in this era. It’s just that there’s rarely anything especially good about them either. Fury From the Deep, I fear, is no exception. I’d summarize the plot, but you know it. The Doctor arrives at LOCATION_OF_BASE to find that the base is being threatened by a DESCRIPTION_OF_MONSTER. Although the base takes a while to trust the Doctor, eventually he is able to save the day. This time, LOCATION_OF_BASE is an offshore natural gas platform, and DESCRIPTION_OF_MONSTER is sentient seaweed.
As with any base under siege, there are plusses and minuses. We get some sense of ordinary people here, including a civilian wife who is unfortunately menaced. There’s a strong female character, although she’s the stock idiot plot role of the new person in charge who shows up when all the old people in charge have either been possessed by monsters or won over to the Doctor’s side so that there’s still someone to make sure nobody does anything untoward like actually resolve the plot. Which gets at the larger problem – a base under siege lives or dies on its supporting characters, and these ones are, on the whole, pretty flat.
On the plus side, though, the threat has some scariness this time, with the clearest example yet of the show taking an everyday object and making it dangerous. (This time it’s seaweed and stove repairmen that are revealed to be deadly) The lack of any overt monster is nice – instead it’s bits of foam and rushing water that are scary, which is a nice touch.
In more childish fun, we also have here a Doctor Who story that is oddly suited towards being a stoner party game, since everyone keeps talking about “the weed” and delivering lines like “someone among us here must be under the control of the weed!” The last episode even aired on 4/20. Better party games in Doctor Who do not exist. (This paragraph of inappropriateness should perhaps be capped off by observing a recurring theme in the Troughton era that appears again here. Just as the Third Doctor is a gadget freak and focuses most of his sciencey bits on gadgetry, Troughton’s Doctor usually solves problems via chemistry. In the psychedelic era, when the major drug is the result of chemistry as opposed to horticulture, this is a small but significant clue in where this Doctor’s social allegiances lie.)
Staying on the positive side of the ledger, this story is also intriguingly more modern in its storytelling than the rest of season five. This story, you see, marks Victoria’s departure from the TARDIS. And for the first time since at least Steven, arguably Vicki or Susan, and really probably just ever, this fact is actually seeded and dealt with through the entire story. Victoria, as this story goes on, gets more and more frustrated and upset about life with the Doctor and the continual mortal peril she’s thrust into. Until, in a deliciously clever end twist, it turns out to be Victoria’s screaming that is capable of vanquishing the seaweed, which ends up being the final straw for Victoria, who longs for a life in which she is not continually threatened by homicidal plant life, Martians, Cybermen, Daleks, or Yeti.
But the structural maturity here only serves to make the degree to which we do these things better in 2011 clear. Yes, this episode deserves credit for seeding Victoria’s departure through the whole story. Also for giving hints that Victoria’s screams are what’s effective against the weed throughout the story. And for the fact that the Doctor’s bit of gadgetry in the start – unscrewing a hatch with some new toy he has called a sonic screwdriver – echoes the solution he’ll eventually use to defeat the monster – a sonic attack. All of this is very good.
But it’s not enough. Fury From the Deep may show us Victoria’s misery a lot, and even have her misery play into the climax, but it’s not about her misery. Compare it to the nearest equivalent in the new series – Last of the Time Lords. Last of the Time Lords may be by far the weakest of Davies’s season finales, but it goes out of its way to earn Martha’s departure at the end. Martha goes through absolute hell, and the whole story revolves around the fact that she has to do this because the Doctor, Jack, and her family are all captured. Every plot development extends from Martha going through awful things, so that when she finally says this is too much and she has to go, we believe it and know why. And yes, it’s clumsy and has an awful moment where Dobby the House Doctor metamorphoses into a magical love Jesus through the healing power of Doctor Who fandom, but it’s still a better handling of an emotional journey than Fury From the Deep.
But here we get to the bizarre thing. For all of its flaws, The Dark Path is a better story than this. Which is odd, because this is probably the third best story of its season and one of the better Troughton stories overall. And it’s not just that I’m burnt out on bases under siege and tired of watching reconstructions. (This is, thankfully, the last story to have no episodes existing. I have exactly eleven more reconstructed episodes to watch, and two of those they animated.) It’s that this story, which is ostensibly about putting Victoria through the emotional wringer, does not deal with her nearly as interestingly as The Dark Path, even though that novel ends up being a kind of ridiculous snub of Victoria. Why? Because that novel took the time to make sure multiple plot developments hinged on Victoria’s actions. Because there are specific character traits of Victoria’s – her upbringing, her father’s death – that cause her to make the decisions she makes. Her fate at the end of that book is meaningfully a consequence of her own actions, and had it been the story of her departure, it would have made far more sense than this one did with no changes other than her leaving at the end.
Here, on the other hand, ultimately Victoria is a passive object to whom bad things happen until she gets fed up and leaves. Even the ultimate defeat of the weed does not extend from her actions. She screams into a microphone, and the Doctor solves the problem. Compare to how this would surely be done now, with her getting captured and dragged to the nerve center and is about to have something truly awful happen to her when she lets out a piercing scream and saves the day. Note how in that version of the story, it’s Victoria’s actions that resolve the story. This shouldn’t be a story that also happens to be a bad day for Victoria. It should be a story about Victoria’s bad day.
For another comparison, think about the supporting characters of Fury From the Deep and the ones in The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People. In Fury From the Deep, every character is defined almost entirely in terms of how they’ll respond to a terrible seaweed crisis. The closest thing to another motivation anyone has is Frank worrying about his wife, and even that mostly only affects how he does or doesn’t want to evacuate the base or stop drilling. Whereas in The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, characters have significant traits that don’t in any direct way relate to crisis management. Jimmy has a kid whose birthday it was. Jennifer imagined a stronger, better version of herself growing up. These are traits that define the characters as people instead of crisis management plot devices. And The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People then uses these facets of the characters instead of just their crisis management skills for its plot resolution. The fact that Jimmy is a father and that Jennifer has always imagined a better version of herself both end up shaping how they respond to the crisis in ways that go beyond mere competence, which is all Fury From the Deep ever thinks of its characters in terms of – how good at crisis management are they, and are they going to make the situation worse or better when they act?
And this gets to something I want to point out, both because I’ve been fairly critical of aspects of the Troughton era here and because I just kind of took McIntee’s book to task last Friday. Generally speaking, Doctor Who has consistently improved over time. Yes, there are stories in the 1980s I’m going to be as savage towards as anything we’ve already talked about. Yes, the TV Movie is one of my least favorite things ever. Yes, there are truly staggeringly bad bits throughout the run, and classics as well.
But by and large, over time, we’ve gotten better at TV and have learned and mainstreamed more and more interesting techniques in novels. Techniques that were high literary techniques in the 1960s are business as usual in the 1990s, and yeah, that helps the novels a lot. The improvements in editing technology over the course of the series has helped it. But so have better understandings of how to tell television stories. Mass entertainment is much better, in 2011, about grabbing emotional throughlines and making sure they impact the rest of the story than it was in 1997. And 1997 was better than 1968. And so The Dark Path has more mature and interesting storytelling techniques than Fury From the Deep.
Yeah, there’s high levels of variation in the short term, but in the long term, an average piece of Doctor Who in a given year is likely to be better than an average piece from five years earlier, and likely to be inferior to one from five years later. That doesn’t mean that the Hartnell and Troughton eras aren’t amazing, but let’s be honest – they need to be watched as historical phenomena. They don’t pack nearly the same punch as shows in 2011 that are far worse shows for 2011 than Doctor Who was for the 1960s. None of this is a criticism – I think learning to appreciate and enjoy historical modes of storytelling is a tremendously important skill. I think there’s a ton to be learned by seeing how 1960s Doctor Who is good. Because even if later Doctor Who is better, there are still things that are good in 1960s Doctor Who that aren’t done again, and there’s a lot to be accomplished in looking to old ideas and figuring out how to make them work in new contexts. Matt Smith built a whole portrayal of the Doctor off of 1960s Doctor Who, and it’s stunning.
I say all of this because, well, there are stories I don’t like and eras I don’t like. We’re going to hit a big era I’m really just not very fond of soon. And I’ve been harsh on the Troughton era, aside from my continual point that Troughton is a jaw-droppingly good actor who can make anything compelling. But beyond that, have a look at the lengthy clip of Mr. Oak and Mr. Quill menacing Maggie Harris that survived for this episode. Look at the use of close-ups and cutting to tell the story, and how they create and sustain tension. There’s very, very little in the Hartnell era that works that effectively. The Hartnell era needed to kill Sara Kingdom and have a Dalek ultimate weapon to get the kind of menacing atmosphere that Fury From the Deep manages with evil stove repairmen.
It may not be a very ambitious story, but in terms of how it’s put together, it grabs the audience and engages them in a way Hartnell-era stories didn’t and couldn’t. And Pertwee stories will improve on this, and so on and so forth. Whatever wrong turns the show takes, and I’ll point out lots of them, this is something we don’t reflect upon often enough – by and large, the show really does improve. Some years go downhill from the ones before them, and some are shockingly bad compared to what else was on at the time. But in terms of how it tells its stories, the picture is almost uninterrupted improvement.
But enough of that. Let’s go to a positive note. This story is our farewell to Victoria, as I said. No, wait. That came out terribly wrong. Because there’s nothing nice about Victoria leaving. She’s the most successful female companion the show has had in ages. And we ought to take a moment, as she goes, to praise her.
The thing that is so effective about Victoria compared to the two preceding female companions is, ironically, the thing that makes her least palatable in 2011. No effort is made to have her be an ordinary, viewer identification figure. We talked about some of this in the video blog on The Ice Warriors. Instead of being the eyes through which we see fantastic things, Victoria is instead usually a bit objectified and used as what I have derisively referred to as a peril monkey.
The thing is, and this ties in with my point about Fury From the Deep compared to The Dark Path, it works terribly well. In part because we have such a magnetic lead and in part because we are nearly five years into this Doctor Who thing and thus pretty comfortable with the basic premise, we don’t need audience identification figures in quite the same way anymore. And so the female companion has been reverting, over the last few years, into a plot role as opposed to a character role. They’re there to get captured and menaced. This is itself a problem and something the show will have an almost continual love-hate relationship with – starting with the next story, it tries to solve it a bit. Two years from now, it’s going to succumb to it in a major way. From there on out, it swings back and forth.
But what’s crucial about Victoria is that she’s actually a companion designed to do what companions do on the show, as opposed to what people wish they did. The decision to cast a well-known former child star as the companion pays dividends, because the show is unrepentant about using close-ups of Watling’s face and using her charisma to let her get in nice plucky moments between her imperilments.
Yes, it’s frustrating that the female companion is such a peril monkey. And if all of the outrage weren’t so painfully obvious, I’d stamp my feet and point out that it sure would be nice if she got as many save-the-day moments as Jamie. Or, you know, any. But here’s the thing. Since Barbara left, female companions have tended to be good ideas that get shoehorned into peril monkeying. It’s very much been a matter of “take a solid actress and a neat concept for a part, and then have them stand their and get menaced by monsters constantly.” And it’s been a frustrating waste of talent and an insult to the characters. However much of a male gaze damsel in distress Victoria might be, the fact of the matter is that seeing a character who was actually supposed to be a strong and independent woman like Polly reduced to hot beverage service is considerably more irritating. By starting the companion off as a fairy tale damsel in distress – which is what Whitaker did with her way back in Evil of the Daleks – the show made it so that when she dishes out sassy put downs to sexist men in Tomb of the Cybermen, it counted for something. It was not just, as those rare moments of spunk in Polly were, brief moments where the character worked right. They were moments when the character worked surprisingly well.
This isn’t just about lowering expectations. It’s about going with the flow. And it was an important switch. Yes, Victoria is, thus far, the companion that feminists should be most frustrated with – a particularly irritating fact for 1967-68. But on the other hand, by learning to do a peril monkey well, the show has made it so that it can begin varying that template and pushing it. I’ve already written about why Sarah Jane is so effective a companion. But much of what is so effective about Sarah Jane comes from taking the Victoria template and turning the spunkiness up to eleven.
With Victoria, in short, the show stopped trying to have the female companion be the audience’s eyes, and instead had the female companion be likable. And that means that future companions can push up against the limits of the role in ways that past ones couldn’t. And it is one of the best decisions the show made in its first five years. It’s every bit as much of a watershed moment for the series as Patrick Troughton’s revamp of the role of the Doctor.
So farewell to Deborah Watling. Basically, you rule.