|roofle pwned feminist
It’s December 15, 1973. Slade is at number one with “Merry Xmas Everybody,” with Gary Glitter, Roxy Music, Wizzard and Mott the Hoople also lurking in the charts. Slade holds #1 through Christmas, and into the new year, in the last real flourishing of glam.
I’d do the usual new season politics roundup, but I feel like the last entry did most of it. You’ve got the Yom Kippur War, tons more bad stuff in Northern Ireland, Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile, Spiro Agnew’s resignation, and the mounting hilarity of Watergate. While during this story, OPEC doubles the price of oil, and the Three-Day Week itself comes into force.
So let’s get down to watching Doctor Who, since the nature of the blog as it gets to the end of an era is that I end up packing it with entries about things other than TV episodes. (There are, after this, four more Pertwee stories, but Robot is eight entries away.) And The Time Warrior, made at the end of the Season Ten block (i.e. a block where the show was, as I’ve said, on fire creatively), is, in a practical sense, the last Pertwee story that has a large number of people who unabashedly and unambiguously love it. Not that at least some of the four after this don’t have their fans (though some of them basically have nobody whatsoever who likes them), but that this is in one sense the Pertwee era’s last stab at outright greatness.
It’s also very much a passing of the torch. It’s Robert Holmes’s last story before he becomes script editor, a position he unofficially adopts for part of Season Eleven, and adopts in full for Season Twelve. And it’s the debut of Sarah Jane Smith, the iconic companion of the Holmes/Hinchcliffe era renaissance. So there’s a lot to love here.
As with the last Holmes story we saw, the major highlight here is that Holmes is a wizard at creating epic stories out of low rent characters. This is perfectly in keeping with the “fallen power” feel of Britain that has been brewing for a while and really reaches a head with the wiping out of the Heath Prime Ministership. Here we get Irongron, whose name makes him sound like a strange reject from The Krotons. At the start of the story, Irongron is a pathetic loser of a warlord complaining about his bad food and bad wine, and talking of how he’s going to have to go do some conquest to get new stuff, but with the clear sense that he is pathetically all talk.
This is the essential Robert Holmes move – to make a villain out of a pathetic schlub instead of out of some terrifying and powerful figure. So Irongron is scary not because he’s inherently powerful, but for the far more interesting reason that he’s an easily manipulable loser who’s come under the influence of a powerful alien warrior. What Holmes does with this character – and with many of his other characters – is make him scarier by making him more low rent. Holmes is intensely aware of the vicious sadism that ordinary people are capable of, and knows that by putting Irongron in the influence of Linx he gets a villain who is more rawly nasty than anything we’ve seen in the program since Benik in The Enemy of the World.
Holmes also gives us a helpful reminder of how much of a good idea the Master was. Remember that Holmes was the one who wrote the Master’s first appearance – and yet it’s also the only time he wrote for Delgado’s Master, and one of only three times he wrote for the character at all. (And one of only two he survived) In Holmes’s original conception, the Master was solidly the evil counterpart to the Doctor. Not just an evil genius, but someone who gets to out-Doctor the Doctor in scenes they share. Once the Master became as familiar as the Doctor, as I’ve said, he steadily became toothless and impotent.
Here, though, Holmes just goes back to the drawing board and creates Linx. I should stress, because this is one of those points where obsessive fans skew things a bit, he does not create the Sontarans here. Rather, he creates a character who is a member of a previously unseen and unknown alien race. But Linx is not a particular instance of a mildly tedious Doctor Who monster – he’s a specifically designed counterpart to the Doctor. Just as the Doctor is still one of two (or, given that The Final Game was still on the menu at the time of writing, one of one) Time Lords we have met, Linx is meant to be the one Sontaran we meet – a representative of a larger and more powerful people. And notably, Linx is built up in a way that we’ve never really seen prior to this story – he talks sneeringly of the Time Lords as if they’re a lesser race.
In other words, Linx is basically Holmes going back to the actual original idea of the Master and doing that again. The bitter irony of this, of course, is that filming on this story ended mere days before Delgado’s death, an event that, understandably, smashed the wind out of the sails of many of the people who had been working on the program for some time, most obviously Jon Pertwee, who, by all accounts, became deeply apathetic about the program after this story.
What this means is that Holmes is doing an interesting engagement with a recurring theme we’ve seen in the Pertwee era – one that dates all the way back to The War Games. In The War Games, we talked about an idea that seems to be introduced but that then gets dropped because of the gravity of the whole Time Lord revelation, namely that the Time Lords are some form of counterpart to the War Lords, and overseers of those concepts. With the Sontarans, Holmes is essentially dusting off that dead end and reworking it into something else. But since the Time Lords have developed considerably since the first try at that, the equivalent of the War Lords changes as well.
I’ve talked several times about the way in which the Time Lords appear to be the guardians of some notion of historical progress. And in this story, Holmes gives the Doctor a couple of lines that seem to support this, most notably in how the Doctor appears to view technological progress and social development as fundamentally intertwined, objecting to what Linx is doing because speeding human technological progress would ruin their moral and ethical development. Linx, as a Sontaran, is viewed as representing a different model of progress – one based on military might and power. And so the basic conflict of this story is an argument between a moral/technological view of historical development and one based on power and the use of force.
But then, in characteristic Holmesian style, he makes the forces of military might into silly buffoons – though as we’ve already discussed, this in no way takes away from the fact that they are effective and truly menacing villains. He creates an entire chunk of the story to serve as a view of history and the world centered on military might, then makes that portion of the story into a truly dark bit of comedy. We’ve already talked about Irongron’s pathetic incompetence, but it’s also worth looking at Linx, who promises endlessly to supply Irongron with weapons, but endlessly fails to deliver, or, when he does deliver, delivers something lousy and unworkable like a silly robot. And then there’s the sublime visual gag of Linx unmasking himself at the end of the first episode, revealing that underneath his helmet is… a potato head the exact shape of his helmet.
This is the thing that is so wonderful about Holmes – his ability to weaponize humor and use it to lay into things like military bravado that he finds preposterous and wrong-headed. Holmes is not the funniest writer to do Doctor Who – both Douglas Adams and Steven Moffat reside in leagues of their own. But he is the most savagely funny writer – the one who is most capable of using comedy to damn his enemies. But this also brings us around to Holmes’s biggest weakness as a writer – the fact that his unrepentant cynicism, which fuels his greatest moments, is at other times simply too unrestrained and too nasty. And The Time Warrior is the first place where this fault really comes through. Because as wonderful as Sarah Jane becomes, and as amazing as Lis Sladen is, Holmes is truly awful to her in this story.
Let’s circle back briefly and look at Jo. As I talked about in the Terror of the Autons entry, Jo was introduced to a great extent because Terrance Dicks thought Liz Shaw was too strong and competent a character, and wanted a dumber companion who would get captured and rescued a lot. And this marked a major shift in how female companions were treated on Doctor Who. Not all of the previous female companions were paragons of feminism – not by a mile. But they did better than people give them credit for. Anneke Wills famously used to complain about how sexist the treatment of Polly was, pointing heavily to The Moonbase, where she’s somewhat infamously told by the Doctor that the most helpful thing she could do would be to go make coffee. But then she actually saw the episodes and realized that, in fact, Polly is enormously resourceful and clever in that story, and a much stronger and better character than she’d assumed.
What I’m getting at here is that Doctor Who, contrary to Dicks’s claims in justifying swapping Liz for Jo, was actually always a show with stronger female characters than the norm for its era. And that it was under Dicks and Letts that a crasser and more superficial view of what the companion was really took root (although as I discussed in the video blog for The Ice Warriors, Victoria is a major step in this direction as well). So contrary to how Sarah Jane is presented – as a liberated and more mature woman than the show has given us in the past – she’s actually a return to a better state of affairs. The show only had a major feminism problem because it had traded up from a minor feminism problem.
The thing is, even when the show under Letts and Dicks turned to feminism, it did so with appalling condescension. The most toe-curlingly awful moments of The Time Monster are where Ruth is made a feminist to make her comically annoying. But that’s nothing compared to this story, which contrives to have the Doctor be a sexist ass to Sarah just so she can complain about it. The problem here should be obvious – the show goes out of its way to make a major character sexist just so it can get in a line complaining about sexism. In other words, the show’s reaction to feminism is actually to make its major characters more sexist.
Even worse, though, is the extended sequence in Episode Two in which Sarah’s complaining about how Irongron and company are sexist is played for laughs, where part of the joke is that Sarah hasn’t figured out that she’s gone back in time and so is complaining about sexism to people who cannot possibly understand what she means and genuinely don’t care. In other words, feminism is played for laughs – har har, look at how the dumb feminist gets it wrong and complains that the medieval brutes are sexist. She’s so dumb. It’s cruel, and nasty, and cynical, and, unfortunately, pure Robert Holmes. And this is his real weak spot – his cynicism can readily get carried away and start attacking the good guys with the same brutal fervor he applies to more deserving targets.
Which also serves as a decent lead-in to the rest of the season. If Season Ten was the year in which Doctor Who improbably made it work (with the exception of the Sloman/Letts script, which is, as always, full of truly dreadful stuff), Season Eleven is the year in which no matter how good a set of ideas they have, they somehow find a way of screwing something big up (with the exception of the Sloman/Letts script, which is, as always, full of some quite cool bits). This story, of the first four, fares the best by miles. But its initial treatment of Sarah Jane really is woeful, and ends up being far worse than the ostensibly more sexist Jo Grant ever was. And unfortunately, the gaping and catastrophic flaws in well-intentioned stories are just beginning.