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.