|You know, looking at them, I can’t think of any witty jokes|
to make that the picture doesn’t do for me.
It’s August 10, 1968. Tommy James and the Shondells are at number one with “Mony Mony,” but if we really want to capture the spirit of this one we need to look at number two, or just jump a week ahead to where it hits number one and look at Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire,” which dethrones Mr. James for a single week. From there on out, it’s just the Beach Boys and the Bee Gees. So let’s go back to Arthur Brown. Personally, I advocate taking three minutes out of your day and just watching Mr. Brown perform this song on Top of the Pops. But if you cannot spare the time to watch a man with a hat whose most visible feature is the fact that it is a pair of horns that are constantly on fire scream “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE” on BBC One, well, I pity you. It’s basically the greatest thing ever, and should really be recognized as the anthem of uniquely British psychedelic culture as discussed last Friday.
Speaking of last Friday, a fair chunk of the events of that post happen in the course of this story – all the DNC and Prague Spring stuff, for instance. So just read that post for the news section.
While on television we get our second entry into the ignoble rankings of the ten worst ever Doctor Who stories according to the most recent Doctor Who Magazine poll. The Dominators comes in 191st. The thing about the bottom ten in a poll like this is that they’re not the ten worst stories. They’re the ten most hated stories. To come at the bottom of a list like this, you can’t just be lousy. You have to be so lousy that there are people who hate you and will make that special effort to give you a zero out of ten.
For most of the ten, there are clear reasons why they’re hated. Of the three 1960s stories in the bottom ten, two are ones that have single surviving episodes. Those episodes are watched only by particularly dedicated fans, and if they’re dodgy, they are remembered for the constant mocking they elicited. So, for instance, The Underwater Menace is basically down there entirely on the basis of Joseph Furst shouting “Nothing in ze world can stop me now!” Further, there are five stories from John Nathan-Turner’s tenure that are slammed as part of a well-rehearsed (and largely, though not entirely, correct) critique of his tenure. Similarly, there’s one Graham Williams episode that is slammed because it’s the worst story of another era with a ton of detractors. But then you have two episodes that are down there despite having no obvious reason for the hatred – a lone turkey from the new series, and The Dominators. The Dominators, in other words, is one of the two most hated episodes of Doctor Who that has no credible explanation for the hatred other than being truly terrible.
That should give you some sense of how bad this is. Clear a space on your shelf next to The Celestial Toymaker, because we are about to dive into a story about which the sole good thing that can be said is “they had the good sense to end it an episode early so we got an extra episode of The Mind Robber.”
As with the Toymaker, the first and most visible problem is that The Dominators is a misbegotten wreck at every level of its production. The monsters are rubbish. The writing is rubbish. The acting is rubbish. The costumes are rubbish. Let’s start with the costumes. While it is possible that the horrific midpoints between togas and cocktail dresses that the vast majority of characters wear in this story is simply a wardrobe decision that has aged poorly, I have to confess that I am skeptical that the Dulcians ever looked anything but men in dresses.
For one thing, to believe that the Dulcians were well designed I would have to believe that the Dominators themselves… actually, we should pause here to note that “The Dominators” is easily the stupidest name for an alien race ever. What on Earth is the etymology of this? Did their planet just happen to be called Dominat? If not, this would be like dogs naming themselves The Furry Barkers, or humans naming themselves The Hairless Pink Things. If so, it seems to open an even stranger can of worms, or as I prefer to call them, Wiggles. (Wait, that one’s taken.)
One can only assume, frankly, that they were renamed as part of a corporate rebranding – an interstellar version of the Swiss design craze that brought us Helvetica. “So I think you need to refocus on what you do best. Let’s brainstorm. What are you guys good at?” “Crushing opposition?” “No, no, Crusher has bad associations in space. Try again.” “Ummm… Exterminating lesser races?” “Sorry, that’s trademarked.” “Oof. Um. Dominating?” “Yes! Perfect! THE DOMINATORS! I love it!” If that meeting then ended up designing the preposterous shoulder pads that the Dominators walk around with, it is officially the worst corporate meeting since Microsoft Bob was greenlit.
Somehow, though, none of this – not the men in dresses that look to be sewn out of excess adult diapers, not the Dominators, not their shoulder pads, none of it – quite prepares the mind for the experience of seeing a Quark for the first time. The Quarks are the first effort to consciously design the next Daleks (in terms of merchandising potential) since the Chumblies. (The Cybermen, although pushed as merchandise, were not actually invented for that.) But where the Chumblies were a bewildering design that at least made interesting noises, the Quarks… look like children in bad robot costumes. Which they are. Fine. The Cybermen look like grown men in bad robot costumes. But the Quarks take the baffling decision to flaunt this fact with numerous sparkly bits, purposeless spikey bits, and the world’s least practical arms. (They fold out of the chest, and seem good for nothing but shooting things) The Cybermen, whatever flaws their design may have (and there aren’t actually that many), at least were designed with some eye towards function. The Quarks look like they were slapped together in a Blue Peter competition. Not that there is anything wrong with Blue Peter competitions, but note that I just said they looked like they were in one. Not like they won it.
(Ah, yes, another note for ignorant Americans. Blue Peter is a weekly children’s show that’s basically a kids’ general interest magazine morphed into a television show. It has been on the air for a terrifyingly long time, and is completely iconic. The show is such that the Blue Peter badge – given to children for appearing on the show or by sending interesting material into the show – can still, in 2011, be used to gain free admission to numerous British attractions. Also, they frequently run competitions of the “design a Doctor Who monster” variety. Both the Abzobaloff from Love and Monsters and the TARDIS console the Doctor builds in The Doctor’s Wife were based on Blue Peter designs.)
And then, on top of that, after the first episode cynically holds back the Quark reveal as if the appearances of these things is something to look forward to, we hear them talk. And it sounds like a homicidal chipmunk on helium. Perhaps the idea here was the frisson of childlike objects being dangerous. And in a story like, oh, the one we’re talking about Wednesday, there’s something to be said for this. The thing is, to successfully generate a genuine sense of fear and apprehension via the juxtaposition of the absurd and childish with the serious and dangerous you have to project some sense that you know what you’re doing and thus that it might be deliberate. When every other piece of design in the entire episode is a complete trainwreck, the chilling juxtaposition of the childlike and the dangerous just looks like you have no idea that chipmunks sucking down helium are not what people immediately associate with “terrifying robotic killers.”
Still, this is Doctor Who. Where we love nothing more than to ignore a ridiculous pile of camp insanity and enjoy the underlying story. So we should be fine, right? Well, perhaps. If anyone involved in this trainwreck had bothered to include an underlying story. Instead they included five episodes in which virtually nothing happens. At one point a rock is rolled down a hill to crush a Quark. It is the most boring piece of styrofoam rolling down a hill ever filmed. It looks nothing like a real rock, and bounces preposterously on the way down before landing off-camera and crushing the Quark. Apparently Morris Barry thought that a bouncing piece of styrofoam would be seen by viewers as an adequate replacement for seeing one of the evil robots blow up.
It’s not. But it is par for the course for the plotting of this story. But if you want another example, we can look at the intelligence tests given to the Doctor and Jamie in the second episode. Which amount to putting blocks in the appropriately shaped holes. While being electrocuted. Aside from the question of what the electrocution was supposed to add to the experience other than establishing that the Dominators are evil – something that was probably decently well communicated by the fact that they are called the Dominators as opposed to the Nice Consensus Builders – we run into the fact that this is an intelligence test that most three year olds pass with remarkable ease. No species that has evolved the ability to talk is going to screw that one up. And yet the Dominators have no trouble believing that the Doctor and Jamie really are that stupid. Perhaps they can’t pass the test either?
Of course, there is something of a reason for the crap plotting, much as with, once again, The Celestial Toymaker. See, apparently Haisman and Lincoln – the writers of this story – wanted to fill the script with biting social satire, but script editor Derrick Sherwin and producer Peter Bryant felt this was a poor decision. Unfortunately, given that the script was supposed to be about the social satire, that left it not about anything at all.
Lest you think the fault here lies with Bryant and Sherwin, however, we should quickly clear up what the satire was supposed to be. See, the Dulcians are all pacifists. Get it?
No, really. That’s it. The entire point of the satire was that the Dulcians were pacifists, isn’t that stupid. Haisman and Lincoln’s entire idea in The Dominators is to ruthlessly mock the antiwar movement. And this aired during the Chicago protests in August, remember. This is Doctor Who overtly siding with the people committing police brutality over the people who are being beaten, whose major point is that the things like the Mai Lai massacre were bad.
Yes, Doctor Who has critiqued pacifism before – most obviously in The Daleks, where much effort is spent getting the Thals to fight. But look at how differently the two stories handle that. In The Daleks, the Thals are led to fight against the Daleks when Ian and the Doctor demonstrate to them that there are things they care about enough to fight for. In other words, as noble as pacifism may be, the Thals are led to see that there are things worth fighting for, and furthermore are shown that they clearly already believe this and that their pacifism is based out of the trauma of the last war, but isn’t really who they are..
Whereas in The Dominators, the Dulcians are an entire culture defined by a genuine and considered ideal of pacifism. And so instead of being shown that, no, there are things they’ll fight for, we get a scene in which a Dominator walks into the Dulcian high council. They all try to reason with him and indicate that they are happy to help him extract any minerals he needs and that there’s really no reason to be violent, and he murders their leader and tells them that the Dominators do nothing but take and are basically just moustache-twirling villains who will be enslaving them all.
In other words, instead of pacifists being good people who can be made better, pacifists are deluded fools and it’s funny to watch them die. It is easily the most cynical and mean-spirited scene I have seen yet in Doctor Who. It is a scene that exists only to take people who are acting out of a genuine moral conviction and mock them for their own morality. It doesn’t even pretend to have an interesting story to tell. It’s just pantomime villains murdering men in dresses (and in light of all of this it is hard to read the Dulcian wardrobe as anything other than a horrifyingly sexist claim about the hippie movement being a bunch of sissies) because watching hippies get killed is apparently funny.
It’s bad. It’s mean. It’s a story that should never have happened. A story so bad that both Rob Shearman and Tat Wood separately tell stories of being at the 1983 Longleat convention and standing in line for hours to get into the screening room for Doctor Who stories only to be given The Dominators as the Troughton story and ultimately giving up on the idea that this could ever be fun. Even Troughton seems to be fed up with the story. At one point he’s forced to argue that the problem the Dulcians are having with the Dominators is that they’re not realizing that the Dominators are completely alien. It’s an appallingly xenophobic line. The Dulcian points out that the Doctor is an alien too. Now, in the episode Troughton responds laughing and saying “you got me there.” But fire up the episode and listen to his delivery. It’s an incredibly fast response – the only moment I’ve ever seen Troughton flagrantly step on someone’s dialogue. What I’m implying here is that the line sounds improvised – like Troughton snuck it in because he was horrified at his own dialogue and desperate to undercut the idea that the Doctor could be such a xenophobic prick.
Two episodes later you can, quite frankly, see the moment where Troughton quits the series. Forced to do a scene in which the central joke is the use of the “number nine pill” to create a bomb, he gives up all pretense of playing the Doctor and simply begins trying to clown the script into submission in a desperate attempt to make it even remotely watchable. You can frankly see the will to live just drain out of his eyes. The “number nine pill,” it should be noted, is a reference to a military prescription laxative. In other words, the plot of this story resolves with a diarrhea joke. Actually, it resolves with the Doctor running around with a different explosive trying to dispose of it. You may recognize this as the climax of the Adam West Batman movie, which gave us the classic line “Sometimes you just can’t dispose of a bomb.” While I recognize that the Troughton era is in part an attempt to compete with the charismatic double acts of series like Batman, ripping off Adam West for your plot developments has to be seen as the absolute nadir of Doctor Who plotting up to this point.
Here, in other words, Doctor Who has its own private ’68. The complete and abysmal abdication of any claim to a moral worldview in favor of mean-spirited mockery of the youth culture that had previously been the heart and soul of the show. And the blame here falls squarely on Haisman and Lincoln, the mean-spirited thugs who wanted to write a Doctor Who story about how they hate pacifists. This story is so breathtakingly cruel and so shockingly out of step with everything that Doctor Who has been up to this point that, frankly, it calls into question everything Hasiman and Lincoln ever did. Really. Let’s re-evaluate their contribution to Doctor Who briefly in light of this, shall we?
First off, we have the Yeti – their big monster. The idea of robotic Yeti was always a bit odd. On the one hand, they’ve always been in a position of either being the best monster that hasn’t made a return. But if they were to return, frankly, they’d switch to being the worst monsters that have. There is nothing about the idea of the Yeti that looks on paper like a winner. When you stop to consider that they were created by the same people who made the Quarks – and indeed by the same people who went to war with the production office and threatened to engage in a lawsuit that would have had the probable effect of canceling Doctor Who over the rights to the Quarks – it becomes very difficult to see what about evil robotic teddy bears is a better idea than the evil robotic whatever the hell the Quarks are. It’s just that the Yeti managed to show up in two stories that otherwise had good production values so that the frisson of an inappropriate monster functioned. But in hindsight, we have to take this as inadvertent postmodern genius – one of those moments where idiocy inadvertently works.
We also praised them for the Buddhist setting of The Abominable Snowmen. Except one of the things that’s striking about that story is that the Buddhist monastery has an oddly militant group of warriors who constantly beg for permission to oppose the Yeti and are shut down by their pacifist brethren. Combined with the fact that Lincoln is apparently fond of broad ancient conspiracy theories about how the French monarchy were secret descendants of Jesus and you suddenly get the sense that we are dealing with people with somewhat less of a grasp on culture and human behavior than one might hope. In fact, I’d argue that in the massive overlap among ancient European conspiracy theories, which tend to all have at least some elements in common with others in the set, it is impossible to distance any of them entirely from the anti-Semitism of conspiracies like the Gnomes of Zurich or the Elders of Zion. Oh, hey, I guess the whole stereotypical Jew aspect of The Web of Fear paid off after all.
Indeed, the thing we liked about The Abominable Snowmen was mostly how respectful the Doctor seemed of Buddhism. But then, we’ve already seen Troughton using line readings to undercut the intent of an offensive and xenophobic script once this episode. It is Troughton’s line readings more than the script itself that makes the Doctor appear respectful of Buddhism. Looking at the script you have… a bunch of pacifist monks who wrongly ignore the guy who says they have to fight. And the author of the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead possessed for centuries by a malevolent alien. The same Book of the Dead that, as I’ve pointed out, got adapted into one of the major texts of psychedelia. Suddenly that story looks like a thinly veiled swipe at the evils of psychedelic culture with insanely dumb monsters that’s been redeemed by quality production and some Troughton line readings.
As for their other story, The Web of Fear, stereotypical Jew aside, you may remember that I noted that the Doctor and the military make for strange bedfellows – a problem we’ll see more and more this season and in the five following. Except that Haisman and Lincoln, in their non-existent understanding of the series they’re writing for, seem to think that, no the Doctor loves the military and just isn’t very fond of those dirty hippies.
Frankly, once you watch The Dominators, it becomes impossible to assume any good will at all on the part of its authors. The sheer mean-spiritedness of this story forces us to reexamine what we liked in their two previous efforts, and once you do that it becomes possible to undo almost every virtue any of them had and read them instead as expressions of the same ugly cruelty of this story. They lucked out and got good production twice and managed to cover up most of their flaws, but with this one, they are, quite frankly, found out as the cynical and nasty hacks that they are. This is their last involvement with the show, and frankly, good riddance.
If I sound pissed off at this story, it’s because I am. It is an overt attack on the ethical foundations of Doctor Who. Not only is it an attack on the entire ethos that underlies the Doctor as a character, it’s an attempt to twist and pervert the show away from what it is and towards something ugly, cruel, and just plain unpleasant. The sheer sickening stench of this story is enough to turn one off the program entirely. Especially coming off of the long turgid slog of pointless and cynical bases under siege we’ve seen over the last year.
Frankly, unless the next story turns out to be a David Whitaker-esque piece of magic and one of the best stories the show has ever produced, it might just be time to pack it in on this program before it goes from worse to completely and utterly unforgivably awful.
Have you been spared the agony of The Dominators? You can fix that by buying it on DVD in either the US or UK, and in the process spare me the agony of ramen noodles by giving me a small kickback.