You Were Expecting Someone Else 6 (Doctor Who and the Pescatons)
There is a thread that we should follow up on from Friday. We established that The Seeds of Doom was quite entertaining. But there is a serious ethical critique to be raised against it. And you’d kind of hope that there would be more people who would prioritize the ethical critique over the entertainment defense. There’s something terribly unfortunate about the fact that a story that is at best wholly amoral and at worst outright ethically bankrupt can be genuinely believed by fans to be the 16th best Doctor Who story ever.
Which brings us to Doctor Who and the Pescatons, about which it is far more easy to find things to criticize than it is to find things to praise. This in and of itself is hardly an unusual position for Doctor Who to be in. Nobody gets to active Doctor Who fandom without going through a few paragraphs that begin “In spite of…” There’s even a complex if unofficial set of rules to this sort of thing. It makes sense – loving Doctor Who necessarily involves a fair amount of taking green bubble wrap seriously. But there are also pathological elements to it.
But there are cases that go further than this. Fans want desperately to love Doctor Who, and sometimes are far too willing to excuse real problems in order to do so. This is not unique to Doctor Who fandom. Indeed, it’s not really unique to fans. People are defensive of the things they love. A normal person would look at The Celestial Toymaker and say “well that’s racist crap.” But a Doctor Who fan, if they can bring themselves to admit that it is racist, is going to be actively depressed by that fact. And so many opt not to admit it, pretending that it or Tomb of the Cybermen are just fine. And this is a more pathological and upsetting aspect of fandom, and one we see pretty clearly with The Seeds of Doom.
But this brings us back to The Pescatons. Because while fans are willing to blind themselves to the faults of television episodes, it’s rare to see them so willing to protect spin-off material. Few people are moved to defend the New Adventures or Big Finish Audios with the same passionate fervor as people will line up to explain why, despite the overwhelming pile of evidence, to explain why The Celestial Toymaker isn’t racist.
I say all of this to set up the feeling of frank bewilderment that listening to The Pescatons inspired. There’s not a lot out there in the world of Doctor Who that surprises me. Even if I’m watching a story I’ve never seen before, I’ve read too many guidebooks recreationally to be surprised. When there are surprises, they tend to come in the form of “Huh, none of the guidebooks ever mentioned that” as opposed to genuine surprise. But with The Pescatons, I knew absolutely nothing except that it was an audio drama, released in the break between Seasons 13 and 14, and that it was by Victor Pemberton. And, of course, that it was inevitable that I’d cover it. I mean, everyone knew that. It’s been assumed since the You Were Expecting Someone Else entries began that I would cover it.
I had, as a result, made the understandable assumption that it was good. And so you can imagine my surprise upon listening to it. To some extent I shouldn’t have been surprised. Victor Pemberton has come up three times before in the blog – as script editor of Tomb of the Cybermen, writer of Fury from the Deep, and writer of the Ace of Wands episode I covered. In none of these cases did he make a particularly compelling case for his talents. So it’s not a particular surprise that The Pescatons is a barely connected series of action sequences in which every concept is either a giant fish or lifted directly from Fury From the Deep. (Hostile seaweed, monsters with menacing heartbeats, mind controlling aquatic life, and a susceptibility to high pitched noise. And the Doctor acquiring a sudden piccolo obsession. You can almost hear Victor Pemperton saying, “What do you mean he doesn’t play the recorder anymore? How am I supposed to do monsters that are destroyed by sound with no recorder? I CAN’T WORK LIKE THIS!”)
It was not offensively bad. Nor, however, was it particularly good. Mostly it was exactly the sort of thing most of the contemporaneous spinoffs are, and thus why I avoid most of them and this series is only up to #6 – generic tosh that happens to feature the Doctor. Which brings us around to where we started – why is this particular spin-off so beloved given its lack of apparent virtues. And I’m forced to speculate here, but I think this gets to the heart of the less pathological aspects of why we forgive Doctor Who its faults. And given that we’ve got a dwindling pool of just six stories before we leave the portion of Doctor Who that there’s a general critical consensus in favor of and enter the portion where virtually every episode is harshly polarizing, this is something worth talking about.
The first thing we should observe about The Pescatons is that, coming out in 1976, it is among the first wave of permanent Tom Baker stories. We’ve talked repeatedly about the way in which being among the early Target novelizations is clearly directly related to being considered a classic story. And at this point in 1976, there were only twenty-three novelizations, consisting of four Hartnell stories, three Troughton stories, eleven Pertwee stories, The Three Doctors, and four Baker stories, two of which came out the same summer as The Pescatons. So the era of the show that is most immediately exciting is one of the least represented eras in the permanent record of stories.
That’s the context in which The Pescatons was released. And so it has classic status for, ultimately, the same reasons that The Web Planet or The Moonbase do – it’s a story that it was possible to own a copy of, and so it is a story that is remembered. Except add to that the fact that this is the first time the Doctor has appeared in a story outside of television. I mean the real Doctor – not a drawing of him, or some words about him, or Peter Cushing, but Tom Baker himself, playing the Doctor, somewhere other than television. This is common enough now, with Matt Smith’s first CD release dropping the same week as Time of Angels and a massive line of Big Finish audios, but in 1976, it was extraordinary. Add to that the cachet of being the only proper, numbered, classic-era Target novelization to be based on something other than a television story and you have something where it’s wholly understandable why people remember it fondly.
And this brings us to why we excuse Doctor Who. And more than that, what is ultimately the reason that this blog’s official position is that if I can manage a defense of the story, I will defend it. Because yes, The Pescatons is rubbish. It’s dull. All of its ideas are pilfered from Fury from the Deep, and it’s not like Fury was a hugely inventive story in 1968, little yet eight years after. But goddammit, who cares? It was Doctor Who that people could own. It has Tom Baker with at least some good lines, and good delivery even of his crappy lines. It has some decently exciting bits in which monsters rampage through London. If you’re ten, what the hell else do you want out of life?
And this is why we forgive Doctor Who. Because it is a part of our childhood and a part of who we are. I could pillory the Pertwee era more thoroughly than I did. I could take seriously the critique that the Hinchcliffe era has a few too many Hammer Horror tributes. I could feel really upset that the Troughton era has too many bases under siege, or that the Hartnell era… well, I mean, take your pick of the Hartnell era. But… I don’t want to. Any more than I want to go up to a family member or loved one and just list off all of their flaws. It’s not that they don’t have them – it’s that I just don’t want to do that. This is another reason that I insist this blog isn’t a review blog. If it were a review blog, I’d feel some sort of obligation to hold Doctor Who up to objective standards. No. Objectivity is for things I love less than this.
That doesn’t mean ignoring the flaws or pretending they don’t exist. It just means forgiving them. And, more broadly, it means forgiving our own childhoods, and even to some extent forgiving ourselves. Doctor Who is rarely perfect. But it’s frequently good enough to be enthralling, and it enthralled an awful lot of people over the years. It was precious to many of us. And so when we come upon something like The Pescatons… is being a rehash of a story much of its audience was around two or three years old for really something worth condemning it for?
Especially because, while it’s easier to identify its flaws, it’s not as though The Pescatons doesn’t have merits. Say what you like about Pemberton, and obviously I’m far from a fan, but he’s put some real thought into how to make Doctor Who work as a three-character audio. The decision to trim it to the major set pieces, thought of this way, becomes a clever concession to the fact that the record is going to be played multiple times. In essence, every part of the story that might be less exciting to kids (which just so happens to be a subset of “scenes not requiring anyone but Baker, Sladen, or the monster) is removed so that the story is always heading into another “good part.” It’s not a hugely brilliant technique, and it certainly pales in comparison with the narrative techniques that become standard issue in the Big Finish era, but for 1976 and a writer who is a bit of a hack, it’s surprisingly well thought through. He understands his medium. The worst thing one can say about it is probably that the focus on the exciting bits makes it in some ways as violent as The Seeds of Doom, but here it’s played very differently. For one thing, the audio medium takes the edge off any critique of violence in that it is only as violent as the listener’s imagination. But more importantly, the story plays everything off for laughs. This isn’t a big exciting adventure – its larking about with giant fish monsters smashing up London.
The biggest reason this works is that Baker, instead of playing everything seriously like he does in Seeds of Doom (which works dramatically but only exacerbates the ethical issues), here he plays it like he’s having a blast. Baker is, frankly, imperious here. Pemberton, if we’re going to be charitable here, wrote a script that would work well for any incarnation of the Doctor. (If we’re being less charitable, he wrote a script that gives zero evidence he has ever actually seen Tom Baker.) The Troughton-esque characteristics are clear enough, though they perhaps stand out more because we know Pemberton’s only television credits came in the Troughton era than because Pemberton is overtly writing for Troughton. But also present at points is the cantankerously alien tone of Hartnell (in particular when the Doctor irritatedly points out that Earth isn’t his planet), and the dashing defender of Earth that Pertwee gave us.
All of this, though, is held down by Baker, who puts in a performance that really helps nail down how it is that he completely redefined the role – which, of course, he did. Every actor until at least David Tennant has stepped into the role compared primarily to Baker. And once we see – or rather, hear – Baker with a script that really isn’t written particularly for him – we start to see what it is about his performance that made him so definitive.
His central trick in The Pescatons is one that will, with admittedly somewhat mixed results, migrate into his television performance before too long: his asides to the audience. Baker serves double duty in The Pescatons as both the main character and the narrator, and frequently cracks jokes about the proceedings he’s relating. Crucially, these jokes tend to be at his own expense as often as they are at the expense of the plot, which prevents them from purely being means by which Baker asserts power over the narrative. Instead, they serve to establish the Doctor as part of the audience of his own story. The Doctor, by making jokes about the narrative, sides firmly with the audience because both are in the position of reading the events as a story.
The result is a combination of the defining aspects of his two predecessors. To an extent every Doctor’s character is a reaction against the previous one, but Baker’s relationship with his predecessors is remarkably deft. The joking asides only work because the Doctor is the star of the story, and Baker’s use of his magnetic charisma to position himself as the focus of the narrative evokes Pertwee’s tenure. But what he does with this charisma is firmly in the Troughton position of becoming a narrative force unto himself. And when you see Baker acting with a script that is so evocative of his predecessors and so unevocative of his own tenure (both he and Sarah Jane have several lines that are deeply inscrutable given the context of the series), these aspects of the role become clear.
Which isn’t a lot. But it’s something. Certainly it’s enough to make The Pescatons an entertaining way to spend 45 minutes as an adult Doctor Who fan in 2011. But more, perhaps than any other story we’ve covered in the blog, that’s really not the way to approach this story in the first place. This is for the ten-year-olds of 1976, and through them it’s more than earned its classic status.
October 31, 2011 @ 2:37 am
I fondly remember listening to Doctor Who and the Pescatons as a child. I really enjoyed it, especially Tom Baker singing "Hello Dolly."
"There are people who factionalize hilariously within fandom, and come to love or hate a particular era with a verve that pushes them to absurdly indefensible positions."
Oh yes! That's the whole fun of it. Doctor Who is just like politics or theology, it leaves plenty of room for heated debate.
October 31, 2011 @ 12:43 pm
"Doctor Who is just like politics or theology, it leaves plenty of room for heated debate. "
No it doesn't! Only type 3K deviationists believe that!
October 31, 2011 @ 1:14 pm
Great analysis of fandom there. Yes, because we like the whole, we'll tend to make excuses for the not so good bits. And the analysis of why some stories became classics whilst others didn't is pretty insightful too.
And I'm glad I got one of these right. And given that there's another entry to come before we hit the next season, I guess Wednesday will be the novel System Shock.
October 31, 2011 @ 2:30 pm
This is another reason that I insist this blog isn't a review blog. If it were a review blog, I'd feel some sort of obligation to hold Doctor Who up to objective standards. No. Objectivity is for things I love less than this.
I agree that this is not a review blog. It's a criticism blog, in the academic sense rather than in the colloquial sense that someone who reviews movies for the local paper is a film critic.
That said, I would take issue with the idea that if it WAS a review blog, you would need to be "objective." For one thing, I don't believe it's possible to be objective about an artistic work. A work of art, whether an oil painting, a sonata, or an episode of Doctor Who, is meant to provoke an emotional response on the part of the observer, and emotional responses are inherently subjective. And since a review is nothing but the reviewer's response to having see what he's reviewing, how can that review be anything but subjective?
In any event, if it was possible to judge such things on a purely objective level, then there would be no point to a blog like this. You'd just being looking at each episode, comparing it to the list of objectives, and reporting on how it measures up against that list. And who would want to read that? The reason people read this is because we're interested in your opinions–which, again, are inherently subjective.
October 31, 2011 @ 3:19 pm
I'd like to hope that a good reviewer would make some attempt to do more than merely record his or her response, but would make an error to report also on the objective qualities of the work (and there certainly are such objective qualities).
But of course the good critic does the same thing. And indeed the author here does seem to be aware of that, and one of the things that makes this site worth reading is that all its arguments are backed up by objective evidence. When the claim is made that, say, The Celestial Toymaker is racist, well, you can agree or disagree, but you can't claim that Dr Sandifer is merely reporting his response, 'I found this racist'. No, it's clearly argued from objective aspects of the work and supporting evidence that The Celestial Toymaker is racist.
So yes, I read because I'm interested in the author's opinions: but precisely because they are not just subjective, but rather they are objective opinions carefully argued from objective evidence (well, mostly they are — I just roll my eyes when sentences like 'There is no concept of ideas that are conscious beings in which Doctor Who would not have to be one' pop up).
If this site were merely about the author's responses it would be as worthless as most of the user-generated internet. But it's not: it's a real attempt to say something objectively true. It may fail — I mean, it has failed, because not everything it's said has been correct (working out which bits are wrong is left as an exercise for the reader) — but the very fact that it's trying to say something objectively true is what makes it worthwhile, and it's rather unkind of you to try to drag it down to the level of merely someone recording their subjective responses.
November 1, 2011 @ 11:44 am
"emotional responses are inherently subjective"
I don't think this is true at all. That implies both that all emotional responses are equally valid and appropriate (and while people may say this, nobody believes it; otherwise, e.g., racist attitudes would have to be regarded as valid and appropriate) and that emotions play no role in cognition (and yet emotions are not raw feels, they embody judgments). In fact emotions have both cognitive inputs and cognitive outputs (as Aristotle understood). And if that's so, then an objective review needn't be one that eschews emotions and just ticks criteria off a list.
There's a nice passage in Stanley Cavell's "Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy" when he asks us to imagine person A saying of a musician, "He plays beautifully, doe'n’t he?", and person B responding, "How can you say that? There was no line, no structure, no idea what the music was about. He's simply an impressive colorist." Cavell then asks:
"Now, how will A reply? Can he now say: 'Well, I liked it?” Of course he can; but don't we feel that here that would be a feeble rejoinder, a retreat to personal taste? Because B's reasons are obviously relevant to the evaluation of performance, and because they are arguable, in ways that anyone who knows about such things will know how to pursue."
November 1, 2011 @ 11:46 am
By the way, I am also 7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194. "BerserkRL" is my Google ID, while "7a1" etc. is (for reasons unknown to me) how my OpenID manifests.
November 1, 2011 @ 3:02 pm
For what it is worth, the doctrinal position of this blog is that there is such a thing as objective aesthetics, it's just that the epistemology is a bitch and a half.
It hasn't really come up in the blog, but I also don't consider emotions to be subjective, adhering heavily to the arguments of Martha Nussbaum, who makes a very moving argument that her grief at her mother's death is not simply a random feeling but in fact a rational response to the fact that she values her mother and her mother is gone forever.
November 2, 2011 @ 12:55 am
See also The Abolition of Man (the first chapter, before the transhumanist-inspired dystopian sci-fi fantasy).
November 2, 2011 @ 1:33 am
My own blog – which is a review blog – is unashamedly subjective, but I agree that any reasoned review will be a mix of the subjective and the objective. I adore The Velvet Web, for instance, and go on at some length explaining why I admire the direction; but I also point out that I'm a sucker for any story that plays around with perception and the nature of reality, and it's this combination that really hits the spot for me.
Oh, and I'm definitely one of those who could see the racism in The Celestial Toymaker once you pointed it out, but feel sad that I can't continue to experience it in ignorance.
November 2, 2011 @ 2:44 am
I remember how exciting it was going round to listen to The Pescatons at a friend's house, and how it kept its thrill for a long time for its rarity value (and by taking such a long time to get to the novel, which as you say was an 'official' Target, but so gob-smackingly awful it makes both the LP and every other book in the series shine). But the breakthrough 'Doctor Who you can have at home' for me – and for many, many others, with sales and distribution far outstripping this earlier release – was 1979's Genesis of the Daleks, and I never tired of it. I know you've already done the TV version, and you may not feel you're in a position to comment (as you weren't 'there', temporally or spatially), but I'd be fascinated if you were able to research and comment on the cultural impact of the 1979 LP version, in so many ways a different experience to TV in 1975…
November 3, 2011 @ 9:30 pm
I've never heard the assertion that The Pescatons is "a classic" before. Three Dr. Who spin-offs with more talismanic power are the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special; the Making of Doctor Who (both editions, in fact); and the first Doctor Who Monster Book. They were the first reference books, as it were, predating the Haining volumes that shaped the fan orthodoxy of the 80s.
With reference to the "rarity value" above, Pescatons and to an extent, the Genesis/Daleks lp were difficult to buy outside metropolitan areas simply because retail distribution networks was so different in Britain in the 70s. That's why ads for BBC licenced publications referred to "good bookshops", for example. It's probably difficult to appreciate this, when, as a previous poster notes, you weren't there, temporally or spatially.
November 4, 2011 @ 1:53 am
I'm suitably ashamed not to have thought of that. Thanks, Dougie! Of course, you're entirely right about all three and a half of those publications: I bought The Monster Book and The Making of (mass-market paperback) probably among my first ever books, aged about five or six, probably about a year after this point, and they're still among the most influential books I've ever known. As part of Target, too, they felt like the Bibles of an ongoing series, rather than one-offs. Unfortunately, Philip, you've scooted past three of them, but there's still time to do a feature on the second and best-known edition of The Making of Doctor Who between Assassin and Face (published 16th December 1976)…
November 4, 2011 @ 8:20 am
Everyone has their own iconic DW publication – for me it's the original Dalek Omnibus, combining novelisations of "Planet" and "Genesis" with insanely coloured illustrations and pages of mad Terry Nation story ideas. I think it was only sold in Marks & Spencer.
November 4, 2011 @ 8:20 am
Sorry, I sounded rather rude and grammatically inaccurate! I mean to say that it may be difficult to picture Britain in the mid-70s (when megastores were unknown and chain stores were far more modest affairs) if you live in the US.
I agree completely about the first Monster Book which was a Xmas present in 1975 and every b/w photo is seared into my memory. But the RT Special was like Holy Writ to me, with stories titled (ahem) The Temple of Evil and Strangers in Space.