Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"The Death of Doctor Who": The Tenth Planet



-1-

Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
“Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolv’d
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.”

And slowly answer’d Arthur from the barge:
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have liv’d my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure!


I have to start with an insight garnered from Phil Sandifer's essay on this story: trying to scrape all the history of the show and its mythology from this story is very hard, but worth doing. Ideally, you want to watch the story that aired, and not retroject the future of the Cybermen and regeneration as staples of the program. (Sandifer's essay is excellent by the way, and I'll try not to cover too much of the ground he did--but at a minimum we must begin with fresh eyes). Or, in the words of the somewhat germane Mr. Roboto, "forget what you know."

Why do I bring up the 1980s "Mr. Roboto" with its rather nastily stereotyped-faced robots? Because the 1980s, not unlike our own era--and the mid sixties, for that matter--was an era where the vitality of pop culture, like Doctor Who, like "Mr. Roboto," like The Handmaid's Tale (the novel from which it was drawn was published in the 1980s), came from the paranoia and fear of change, of an impending breakup of an established social order, to be succeeded by something far worse. As we snapped back into the long 1980s, the forces trying to move beyond them revisit the fears of that era, and so it was in 1966--long held verities (sorry!) were collapsing and fears of what would fill the void were rampant, reflected in books like A Clockwork Orange (1962), and the ambiguity toward both authority and protest displayed by The Prisoner (1967-1968).

Look at the changes in companions--from Barbara and Ian (twinset and pearls (metaphorically, at least), suit and tie, received pronunciation) to Ben (a cockney sailor) and Chelsea girl Polly. The old order changeth, yielding place to new, Tennyson wrote, but not easily, not without pain, and not without fear. Ben and Polly are the acceptable faces of the Youth Revolution, meant to reassure that "the kids are alright," but the verdict in England at the time was still very much out.

"The Tenth Planet," then, is a response to a fear of loss of humanity through technology changing the very nature of humankind. (No, really--that's what was the catalyst of the story and the Cybermen. But if General Cutler puts you in mind of Dr. Strangelove (1964), remember that Doctor Who was engaging with nuclear war and its potential for devastation as far back as its second story arc.

Sandifer notes that the Cybermen are "an alternative version of humanity - the dark mirror of humanity, who went on a quest for spiritual enlightenment and succeeded at terrible cost," and points out that they win the debate with Polly over "caring." And he's right. They are body horror because of their human origins and remnants, and they are spiritually horrific because they have a point of view that is not easily refuted. Indeed, they offer twice--the second time after the first wave of Cybermen have been killed by Ben and the staff of the base--to save humanity and bring them to Mondas. They just want to guarantee their own survival (and do not reject out of hand the Doctor's offer that they stay and share Earth with humanity). They are horrific because they reject what makes humanity good by pointing to its shadow side.

They have a point of view, as I said. And Polly can't quite muster a defense why "caring" about General Cutler's son is noble and human-defining when There are people dying all over your world, yet you do not care about them."

Meanwhile, General Cutler is preparing to use the "Z Bomb" (Which sounds awfully reminiscent of the "Q Bomb" in The Mouse that Roared (1955), filmed 1959, starring, like Dr, Strangelove, starring Peter Sellers and featuring William Hartnell, by the bye).

We're in body horror territory with the Cybermen, a genre that "arguably can be traced 1950s horror/science fiction hybrids," but we're also in the uneasy land of Leonard Wibberly, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens.

-2-

"But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seëst—if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)—
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.”


Arthur's words to Bedivere are the last words he speaks in Idylls of the King. Wounded, confused, the old hero is unsure, unheroic; he is weakened unto death.

And so too is Doctor Who--or, if you must have it so, the Doctor. The effect of this last adventure has been the sapping of his strength--his "old body is wearing a bit thin," he says. And, after Polly wraps him in his cloak, he hurries back to the TARDIS, acting up in a way it hasn't since The Edge of Destruction. After managing to let his companions in, he collapses, they rush to see him, to see the old order changing, giving place to new.

Doctor Who is dead, but not Doctor Who. And just who is this new man, and what will the new order be?

-3-

Love is very fruitful,
Both of honey and of gall
.

--Pautus, as translated by Barnaby.

I'm a little suspicious of the old story that Hartnell was fired for ill health. His performance in "The Gunfighters," in "The War Machines," "The Smugglers" and in "The Tenth Planet" itself are vintage Hartnell--he's funny, he's powerful, he's angry--to steal great characterization from Sandifer, in Episode 4:
Hartnell rumbles back into the story full of fury and passion. The strong sense is that he stopped the Z-Bomb (though all reason says Ben did) and saved the day. He gets, in other words, the hero's entrance, full of terrible rage. This is absolutely the same man we see at the end of, for instance, The Family of Blood - a man who, when put with his back against the wall, roars back even stronger.

But there's a sense that something isn't quite right as well. The Doctor complains of an outside influence effecting him, and murmurs that his body is wearing a bit thin. Still, that is quickly set aside as the Doctor manages to finally completely unhinge General Cutler (who is quickly gunned down) and take over the situation. It's a fantastic sequence, and it's tough to remember when we last saw Hartnell this in control and decisive.
I agree with this, except for the last sentence. He was this decisive in The Savages, furiously rejecting the Elite's exploitation of the outsiders. His standing up to the War Machine creates a template that the show has returned to again and again. The Doctor may be sick, but Hartnell, when not sidelined by the producers or the script, delivers until his very last scene.

The infamous "Billy fluffs" don't strike me as worse than those any other actor on the show, when you consider the amount of lines Hartnell had to deliver. He's often considerably less gaffe-prone than the guest stars 9watch "The Gunfighters" again). And yet--1n 1973, he was indeed very ill, barely able to participate in the anniversary show. Needcoffee.com's "Doctor Who Essentials" quotes Hartnell:
We did Doctor Who for forty-eight weeks a year but I loved it. I couldn’t go out into the street without a bunch of children following me, like the Pied Piper. People used to take it terribly seriously. I’d get letters from boys swotting for exams, asking me complicated questions about time ratios and the TARDIS. I couldn’t help them. A lot of the scriptwriters used to make The Doctor use expressions like “centrifugal force” but I refused. If it gets too technical, the children don’t understand and they lose interest. I saw The Doctor as a kind of lama, one of those long-lived old boys out in Tibet who might be anything up to eight hundred years old but only look seventy-five.
Perhaps the theory suggested there that he wore himself out, and wore out his welcome with the production staff too, is true.


The Cybermen, with the organic body parts, singsong speech, cloth masks, either work for you or they don't. They did for me, except on the combat scenes in the snow where they were required to use there arms as clubs. But that strange, unexplained visage gazing into the camera at the cliffhanger for episode 1? Genius. The voices, so distorted, and yet so logical, so musical, yet so inhuman--much more creepy than the standard deep voices later used. These Cybermen are weird. And that makes them scary.

Finally, two production notes. This story begins to build the order that will house UNIT--a world-wide cooperative system between nations, with people of all races and nations sharing authority. It's not flawless, as presented (the Italian stereotypes are pretty over the top), but it's clearly an effort to envisage a future of international cooperation, and treats its nonwhite characters, especially Earl Cameron's calm, measured performance as Williams, who keeps his white counterpart Schultz from panicking at least twice.

Finally, critics often mock the American accents of General Cutler and his son, and they do seem pretty off-base in 2017. But Robert Beatty was born in Canada and lived there until he was 37. Born in 1909, he played Americans and Canadians throughout his career, including a highly regarded portrayal of Ronald Reagan in Breakthrough at Reykjavik in 1987. Beatty may have been recalling an earlier era of American history, the Damon Runyon New York of his youth, made famous in film and literature. But whatever he was doing, it was an American doing an American accent, not an Englishman.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Long Ben's Ghost: The Smugglers



"Long Ben" Avery, whose name does not appear, in fact to have been Ben, or Avery, for that matter *Henry Every is apparently correct), casts a rather longer shadow in literature and pop culture than might seem reasonable. The Pyrates (1983), George MacDonald Fraser's "burlesque fantasy on every swashbuckler I ever read or saw," portrays Avery as an unabashed hero who pretends to go rogue in order to rescue his lady love and her cantankerous father. He's about as nuanced in Fraser's telling as The Great Leslie in Blake Edwards's The Great Race. Under his own name, he appears as the sympathetic antihero in 2011's Doctor Who episode The Curse of the Black Spot, and later sails to the Eleventh Doctor's side in A Good Man Goes to War.

But his treasure is the chief bone of contention in The Smugglers, a four-parter in which the Doctor, Polly, and Ben find themselves in 17th Century Cornwall, landing on a beach near a church tended by the lone churchwarden Joseph Longfoot, a former member of Avery's crew. Longfoot, at first suspicious of the the travelers, comes to trust the Doctor, and, swearing he has reformed, trusts him with a riddle that will unlock the mystery of Avery's lost treasure.

The Doctor, Polly, and Ben go into town to an inn. Meanwhile Longfoot is ambushed by his old cremate, the inaptly named Cherub, who fails to get the secret from Longfoot, and kills him, having learned that travelers had spoken with him recently. Cherub kidnaps the Doctor, the local Squire jails Polly and Ben, who cannot account of their whereabouts and are thus suspects for Longfoot's murder, and the evil pirate Captain Pike (also an alumnus of Avery's ship), lulls the Squire (a smalltime smuggler, along with the innkeeper Kewper) into a "partnership" that will be very one-sided. Oh, and the pirates have managed to capture and tie up Josiah Blake, the "King's revenue man" sent to end the smuggling, a more somber performance from John Ringham who you really must remember from The Aztecs, where he played the barking mad, scenery-chewing Tlotoxl.

I think of all the lost episodes, this is the one I wish would be found. The recon I watched for parts 1-3 was not up to Loose Cannon's standards, but even Part 4, which was LC, was harder than usual to follow. It's a pity, because this one is action packed, with plot and counter-plot, and I strongly suspect it might rank near The Gunfighters for sheer entertainment value. It's less funny--though Hartnell flattering and charming the half-aware-he's-being-gulled Captain Pike (a splendid performance by Michael Godfrey is very funny, as is his scene faking out the pirate guard Jamaica by pretending to tell fortunes so that he and Kewper can escape.

The story darkens as it goes on, and has some pretty grim death sequences--Jamaica's death at Pike's hands is pretty rough, to name but one, but this is the sort of pirate story Fraser was lovingly lampooning in The Pyrates, and it's a pretty good job, insofar as we can see from the recon and the audio. The notion that everyone mistakes Anneke Wills's Polly for a boy (seriously, even the tele snaps give that game away) is treated as a running gag,almost as if anticipating Strax's inability to recognize human gender.

Escape is important here; Polly and Ben get back into the game by rather cruelly convincing the village idiot left to watch them that he is cursed by the Doctor--a warlock--and that only they--his apprentices--can save him. So that gets them free.

The story has a three sides seeking the treasure--Cherub, Pike, and the Squire/Kewper nexus, and Blake, in consultation with the Doctor, trying to prevent Pike from massacring the townspeople. As Blake is delayed gathering a militia, and the pirates begin to load treasure (while drinking heavily on the job), the Doctor plays for time. He makes an agreement with Pike to give him the clue to Avery's treasure in return for Pike's guarantee that the townspeople will not be hurt, he keeps his word. How far we have come from the Doctor who would break faith and even kill to protect himself and (only incidentally) his companions in The Cave of Skulls!

The Doctor keeps his word, but will Pike? We never find out, though we're pretty sure the answer is no, because Avery's riddle and Cherub's treachery delay him long enough that Pike and the few of his pirates who were sober enough to not get killed in Blake's initial support, are caught in a losing battle with Blake. Pike fits to the end, nearly killing the Doctor with his last breath--the wounded Squire, who never meant things to go so far helps stop Pike. As the mop up ends, the TARDIS takes off and lands in an area so cold that the travelers can feel the chill inside.

One can catch his death in the cold.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Sleeping People and the Hedgehog



In T.H. White's long unpublished last Arthurian novel, The Book of Merlyn, the elderly Arthur, on the night before his final battle, accompanied only by his old friend from childhood, the Hedgehog (or Tiggy, or hedge-pig), climbs a hill. Arthur, betrayed by his people, his wife, his friends, and his son, climbs a hill, and muses:
England was at the old man's feet, like a sleeping man-child. When it was awake it would stump about, grabbing things and breaking them, pulling the cat's tail, nourishing its ego with amoral and reckless mastery. But in sleep its masculine force was abdicated. The man-child sprawled undefended now, vulnerable, a baby trusting the world to let it sleep in peace.

All the beauty of his humans came upon him, instead of their horribleness. He saw the vast army of martyrs who were his witnesses: young men who had gone out even in the first joy of marriage, to be killed on dirty battlefields like Bedegraine for other men's beliefs: but who had gone out voluntarily: but who had gone out because they thought it was right: but who had gone although they hated it. They had been ignorant young men, perhaps, and the things which they had died for had been useless. But their ignorance had been innocent. They had done something horribly difficult in their ignorant innocence, which was not for themselves.

He saw suddenly all the people who had accepted sacrifice: learned men who had starved for truth, poets who had refused to compound in order to achieve success, parents who had swallowed their own love in order to let their children live, doctors and holy men who had died to help, millions of crusaders, generally stupid, who had been butchered for their stupidity—but who had meant well

. . . .

They might be stupid, ferocious, unpolitical, almost hopeless. But here and there, oh so seldom, oh so rare, oh so glorious, there were those who would face the rack, the executioner, and even utter extinction, in the cause of something greater than themselves. Truth, that strange thing, that jest of Pilate’s.
And, as the King's thoughts darken again, the hedgehog offers him the comfort he once offered the old man when he was a boy known as Wart:
The hedgehog asked, “Dost tha mind as how us used to sing for un?”

“I minds un well,” said Arthur. “’Twas ‘Rustic Bridge’, and ‘Genevieve' and ...and..."

"‘Home Sweet Home’.”

The king quite suddenly bowed his head.

****

“Majesty,” the hedgehog mentioned shyly, “us gotter fresh un."

There was no reply.

"When us knowed tha was acoming us larned a fresh 'un. 'Twas for thy welcome, like. Us learned it off that there Mearn.”

"Sing it," gasped the old man. He had stretched his bones upon the heather, because it was all too much.

And there, upon the height of England, in a good pronunciation because he had learned it carefully from Merlyn, to Parry's music from the future, with his sword of twigs in on grey hand and a chariot of mouldy leaves, the hedgehog stood to build Jerusalem, and meant it.

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green and pleasant Land.
White wrote these words in the early days of World War II, as he prepared to, as he put it, "lay down his books to fight for his kind," meaning all those who strove, "in their own small way, to still the ancient brutal dream of Atilla the Hun."

Friday, October 6, 2017

The No-Men of No-Man's Land": Le Carre's "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold"



I've recently begun reading A Legacy of Spies, John le Carré's most recent novel, a return to the storylines of his breakout third novel he Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). As Tinker, Tailor and its two direct sequels are among my favorite novels, I knew I had to rejoin le Carré on his return to the ground of what I have always thought his genuine classics. (Not that his later works aren't noteworthy; its just that the Smiley trilogy and Spy are of astounding quality.)

So I ordered a copy of Legacy right away, and I read the first two chapters. And--here's a first for me--curled up in my favorite rocking chair, I was so relishing le Carré's prose that I found myself reading those first two chapters aloud. Not acting them, you understand--savoring them.

This is not my usual way with books, even books that grab me. Maybe that savoring thing will grow on me--Robertson Davies's prose, P.G. Wodehouse, A.S. Byatt's--I can think of other writers whose style I appreciate, independent of the character drawing that normally hooks me.

But I've never read aloud for my own benefit before.

After reading those two chapters, I realized that before I could had to go back, and re-read Spy, which I had not read in at least 20 years. (My copy is an early American hardcover. Nice, but a book club edition. Still, a handsome reading copy.)

One often hears this book praised as le Carré's masterpiece. And, in a technical sense, I think it is, if I may use Davies’s construction of the word in What's Bred in the Bone--the piece by which one moves from apprentice to master in one's own right. Le Carre's first two novels were good genre fiction, with an interestingly unlikely hero, the tubby, middle-aged, cuckolded George Smiley. As Smiley will be with us for a bit, here's how he is introduced in Call:
When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn't left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.

This remark, which enjoyed a brief season as a mot, can only be understood by those who knew Smiley. Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that 'Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou'wester'. And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.

Was he rich or poor, peasant or priest? Where had she got him from? The incongruity of the match was emphasized by Lady Ann's undoubted beauty, its mystery stimulated by the disproportion between the man and his bride. But gossip must see its characters in black and white, equip them with sins and motives easily conveyed in the shorthand of conver­sation. And so Smiley, without school, parents, regiment or trade, without wealth or poverty, travelled without labels in the guard's van of the social express, and soon became lost luggage, destined, when the divorce had come and gone, to remain unclaimed on the dusty shelf of yesterday's news.

When Lady Ann followed her star to Cuba, she gave some thought to Smiley. With grudging admiration she admitted to herself that if there were an only man in her life, Smiley would be he. She was gratified in retrospect that she had demonstrated this by holy matrimony.

The effect of Lady Ann's departure upon her former husband did not interest society – which indeed is unconcerned with the aftermath of sensation. Yet it would be interesting to know what Sawley and his flock might have made of Smiley's reaction; of that fleshy, bespectacled face puckered in energetic concentration as he read so deeply among the lesser German poets, the chubby wet hands clenched beneath the tumbling sleeves. But Sawley profited by the occasion with the merest of shrugs by remarking partir c'est courir un peu, and he appeared to be unaware that though Lady Ann just ran away, a little of George Smiley had indeed died.
A long quote; but over the years, George and Ann come back together, drift apart, re-engage, and--well, in The Secret Pilgrim (1990) we are left wondering whether Smiley and (as George's friend Connie Sachs used to call her) "the demon Ann" remain together, apart, or in their old, odd quadrille.

In Spy, le Carre moves from genre fiction practitioner to a top-flight novelist writing within a genre. But, interestingly, Spy is tethered to its two predecessors much more thoroughly than I had remembered. Especially Call for the Dead (1961). In Call, as I’ve pointed out, we first meet George Smiley, who, in investigating the unexpected seeming suicide death of a Samuel Fennan, a civil servant Smiley has just cleared as a not posing a security risk. Things get more complicated from there, and the novel ends with a physical confrontation between Smiley and Dieter Frey, his one-time student, who has arranged for not one but two deaths. The confrontation ends with Dieter surprisingly dead at Smiley's hands, and Smiley mourning:
Dieter was dead, and he had killed him. The broken fingers of his right hand, the stiffness of his body and the sickening headache, the nausea of guilt, all testified to this. And Dieter had let him do it, had not fired the gun, had remembered their friendship when Smiley had not. They had fought in a cloud, in the rising steam of the river, in a clearing in timeless forest: they had met, two friends rejoined, and fought like beasts. Dieter had remembered and Smiley had not.
The surviving villain of that novel, Hans-Dieter Mundt, is in Spy the target of the operation mounted by the new head of the Circus (le Carré's name for the British Secret Service), who is known only as Control. Alec Leamas, the eponymous hero, is whipsawed between his humanity and the darker side of his mission, between love and duty, between conscience and expedience.

Smiley is a peripheral figure in Spy, present in the flesh only at the very end, but haunting the novel like a ghost. Leamas and Control meet at his house, Smiley and Peter Guillam (who is the narrator of Legacy, and George's acolyte through the trilogy that is, I believe, the acme of le Carré's art, visit Liz Gold, the British Communist Party member who briefly becomes his lover, and arrange her financial independence.

Leamas is pulled from the field by the Circus, then fired, then drawn to East Germany, soon after the Wall was erected, where an East German subordinate of Mundt, Fiedler, uses Leamas's knowledge to undermine the anti-Semitic, brutal Mundt.

Where it goes from there, I won't spoil for you, other than to say that the moral bankruptcy of both sides, the callous betrayal of allies and friends--the cruelties of the intelligence world are searingly depicted. No James Bond adventure, no heroics. Just a moral fog eroding the morality of men and women who once had ideals.

In Call for the Dead, Smiley grieves for the relative clarity of the War years, and reflects that "The NATO alliance, and the desperate measures contemplated by the Americans, altered the whole nature of Smiley's Service. Gone for ever were the days of Steed-Asprey, when as like as not you took your orders over a glass of port in his rooms at Magdalen; the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department."

Leamas, like Smiley, like his creator, is trapped in a world that Kim Philby made: Le Carré worked for MI5 and MI6 during the 1950s and 1960s, using the cover of a British diplomat in Germany to run agents and lure defectors.

"In was in those days most definitely a calling and for all that I've written about it, it was a pretty decent calling, in the sense that we were very patriotic people in ways I don't think we are anymore.

"The ethic, which I believe has been greatly undermined in recent times, was that we spoke truth to power," he said.

However his cover was betrayed by the double-agent Kim Philby, the highest-ranking British intelligence officer who worked as a spy for the Soviet Union.

"I had been betrayed by Philby, I actually refused to meet Philby in Moscow in 1988. For me, Philby was a thoroughly bad lot, just a naturally bent man.

"You have to remember that Philby was in line to become head of SIS. I wouldn't have trusted him with my cat for the weekend," he said.

Here's a fascinating interview with le Carre, around the 39 minute mark; note how, despite his three dimensional portrayal of a character based on Philby, he still can't abide him:


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

“Doctor Who is Required”?: The War Machines



Yeah, to those of us fans who, as adolescents watched Tom Baker and Peter Davison, insisting that the character was known simply as "The Doctor," the traditional billing was a problem, but this--The War Machines is a death blow. WOTAN, the super-computer that has possessed its creators, and means to forward progress on Earth through culling humans and focusing on mechanical evolution--well, WOTAN says, as you can see above, "Doctor Who is required." As does the (admittedly possessed) Professor Brett. So that would appear to be that. Debate over.

More to the point, the new creative team--Innes Lloyd, Gerry Davis, and Kit Pedler--are ready to put their own stamp on the program. Where the interval from Verity Lambert's departure through The Savages has had some classic episodes, frankly it feels like pastiche--they were still trying to make Verity Lambert's program without her. There was no distinctive vision or voice, and so the show overall felt increasingly fusty, despite the fact that many stories, taken on their own worked, and quite well.

But this--this story marks the birth of a new show. A show much more like the one we know today than Verity's Pandemonium Carnival was. The War Machines represents a first in many ways--it's the first time that the Doctor comes to the aid of the present day (at time of airing, 25 June-16 July, 1966, in this case) UK Government (as pompous as that of the UNIT era) and is set entirely in a menaced London of the present day. Without the need to be bound to cheap sci-fi sets, this story feels free, roaming through real landscapes and using real details. (Although the designers of the War Machines lack Ray Cusick's flair, and rather lamely model the weaponry on the Dalek guns Cusick designed.)

Even the "modern" graphics labelling each episode by number marks a declaration of freedom from Verity's style. (That special "computer" font used to turn up on book covers and other media as late as the 1970s, as my own memories of school books and other books I read as a child attests.) And we get the first of many scenes, the Doctor calmly confronting the alien menace, challenging it to come for him. Hartnell, looking iconic in his seldom-worn cloak and fur hat, stares down the War Machine in a way very similar to what we'd expect from David Tennant, or Matt Smith:



Ok, not quite--Tennant or Smith would have had an awesome speech of awesomeness to deliver, but Hartnell's stoic, poised courage in the face of the destructive machine rumbling toward him? Yeah, that's as modern as Peter Capaldi.

Polly and Ben are introduced much more naturally than Dodo was. Alas, poor Dodo! Banished without an onscreen farewell! Still, if it makes you feel better, Jackie Lane got her revenge:
“I think (Innes Lloyd) had definite plans for the series which neither Steven nor Dodo really fitted, and half way through my first year I was told that Dodo was to be written out. I would have liked a dramatic ending and my farewell just two episodes into ‘The War Machines’, and not even on camera but in reported speech, was a bit of an anti-climax. Still, I got my revenge. I now run a voice-over agency and Innes Lloyd once asked me to find him work. I reminded him that he had once sacked me from ‘Doctor Who’ and said a very firm ‘no’!”
Can't say I blame her, really.

Despite the unceremonious dumping of Dodo, the story does the job well. But more to the point, this Doctor Who is breaking loose in a new direction. And it needs to. Striking out with a new vision of Doctor Who is the salvation of the show. But it may very well be the death of the Doctor. At least this version.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

"What Are You Frightened Of, Soldier Boy?": The Savages

You may ask whether we should care about blogging Doctor Who in the wake of the horror in Las Vegas. I don't blame you if you do.

But stories have power, and faced with the usual post-mass shooting paralysis, I have nothing but stories. I have previously called upon gun owners to challenge the toxicity of Second Amendment fundamentalism, I have written about the Hobbesian views of the NRA, and I have seen the cycle go on, and on, endlessly repeating.

As old patent remedy nostrums used to say, "the mixture as before."

So, stories. We could no doubt find more apt stories than those told by Doctor Who, but that is the path we've been walking together these past months, and there is a value to consistency.

And, as chance would have it, we have arrived at a story where our TARDIS travelers, the Doctor, Dodo, and Steven land in an advanced civilization where they are welcomed as long-awaited heroes in the idyllic city, offered gifts and entertainment, but forbidden to wander into forbidden areas. Outside, you see, there are savages. Savages who are armed with clubs and spears, but little else. While in the nice, clean, crisp city, the guards keep order and repel savages with their fearsome "light guns."

Except they don't, you see. They capture the savages, bring them, one at a time, into the City, drain most of their life force out of them, releasing them into the wild, like animals to be captured and drained again after they have recovered.

It turns out that the only difference between the savages and the civilized is the power of the gun. The Light Gun, that is, but, for today, let's just view it as what it is--the gun.

When a lone guard tries to capture the escaped TARDIS team, the savages hide them (including the Doctor, whose life force has been drained into Jano, the leader of the so-called civilized elite, but who Steven and Dodo have rescued), at much risk to their own lives.

The gun has turned Exorse, the guard, cruel. Power to kill or to dominate with the finger on a trigger can do that, you know. When Exorse is outwitted and captured by Steven, some of the savages want to kill him, but his most recent victim, a woman named Nanina, takes pity on him, and will not let her tribe kill him. "It will do no good," she insists, showing that the so-called savages are actually the ones with an ethical grasp on the situation.

Jano, meanwhile, finds himself imbued with the Doctor's ethical qualms and reflexes, and begins grasping toward a better way. Exorse, aware of Jano's intention to betray the City, escapes--only to be confronted with his victim, who nonetheless saved his life:
EXORSE: Why did you follow?
NANINA: If you betray Jano, what will become of us?
EXORSE: It is Jano who is the traitor.
NANINA: What have you learnt, Exorse? That we are people like yourselves. What chance will we ever have if you speak?
EXORSE: You think I can keep silent about what I've heard?
NANINA: You owe me your life, Exorse. I have a right to ask you. If you are against us now, you condemn us forever.
When the Doctor, his companions, and Jano try to overthrow the City by destroying the machinery that allows for the stealing of life force, Exorse is asked to take up the gun again by his superiors. Instead, he joins Nanina in destroying the machinery of death that kept the City-dwelllers dominant and the outsiders--we can't pretend they are savages anymore, can we?--oppressed.

***

Channelled into hunting, skeet-shooting, target, or other basically harmless uses, the gun is just a tool. And it can be used for self-protection, although not as often as we might think.

But in this tale, the poor and oppressed are closer to the truth than the powerful and comfortable, and the basically good are corrupted by the power of their totemic guns. For Exorse, as Steven''s repeated taunts bear out, the Light Gun and the power that gun gives him helps him cover his fear of the so-called savages, of the Other. It helps him cover his fear of his own inadequacies.

I'm reminded of the similar corruption of the basically decent Logan 3 by the power his Gun (always capitalized) gives him in the novel Logan's Run (1967); filmed in 1968, and thus after this episode aired in May and June 1966).

The totemic power of the Light Gun, of Logan's Gun, of the gun in American culture, breeds a desire to wield it, to exercise that symbolic power. It corrupts, as power tends to, the more it becomes a totem.

The gun is very much a totem for many people in in today's America. So "The Savages" may have something to teach us, after all: We cannot find our truest, best selves until we are able to lay down our weapons, and meet as equals, equal in vulnerability as well as in law.

***

Some episode notes, for the blog's consistency. We're back to recons, I'm afraid for this story, and of them all, I recommend Loose Cannon; the CGI versions just don't work for me, and the captioning and clever use of the telesnaps the Loose Cannon team (except for the lame spears effect) do.

I don't get all the dislike for Dodo. She was the best thing about The Celestial Toymaker, was quite funny and plucky in The Gunfighters, and here she is the one who figures out the rot at the heart of paradise, while Steven is oblivious to its signs--she seems to work it out as quickly as the Doctor does, as the alternating scenes between him among the Elders and Steven and Dodo being carefully escorted by City-dwellers Flower and Avon. Jackie Lane is quite good in the part, really.

As is Peter Purves as Steven--even though he has to grasp the idiot ball early on, it's Purves's most heroic performance, cool in the face of danger, willing to spend his life mediating between the two tribes, yet believably unsure is he's up to the task. Purves sells the maturation of Steven over these episodes, and he's touching at the very end.

Hartnell is solid--this isn't his best story ("The Gunfighters" is a tough act to follow), but he's solid, and his rage when he discovers the use the Elite put he "savages" to is reminiscent of the fierceness Tom Baker could bring to the role, or even Peter Capaldi.

In sum, a well made story, with a lesson we could benefit from today.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Doc Ballou: "A Holiday for the Doctor"/"Don't Shoot the Piano Player"/"Johnny Ringo"/"The OK Corral" [The Gunfighters]

It's one last multi-part tale,
With episodic names,
It's recovery after the fail
of undistinguished games.
Though the Doctor's time is ending,
and Troughton's coming soon,
Hartnell's dignity is mending
In The Last Chance Saloon.




The familiar theme music suckers us in; we're watching Doctor Who, traveling in Space and Time--but wait a second--the theme gives way (listen above) to a ballad, sung by Lynda Baron (she'll be back. More than once.) And we're led into a Western. But not any kind of Western; it's tongue-in-cheek approach inspired by the 1965 film Cat Ballou, which also uses a recurring musical ballad as a narrative framing device:



Notably, the "Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon" is much less bouncy than "The Ballad of Cat Ballou"; the story is dramedy, not full-fledged comedy. For a long time, this story had the unfortunate designation as the worst Doctor Who story ever. It's reputation has been reviving, as witness Sandifer and Neil and Sue Perryman.

Count me in with the revisionists.

After the flawed but interesting The Ark and the weak,deeply problematic Celestial Toymaker (Hartnell is literally silent and invisible through much of the story), the show surprises us with what I will defend as a stone classic. Here we see the Doctor and his companions spelunking through a comic Western, Cat Ballou style for the first two episodes, as the stakes slowly begin to rise. By the third episode, "Johnny Ringo," the comic sequences taking off Western memes are turning deadly serious.

Hartnell, stuck in the 19th Century west with a toothache, resigns himself to getting it pulled (I suspect knowing that the TARDIS could take him to even more primitive times and places, so he just gives up and goes with it), and staggers through the first episode unclear about Doc Holliday and his machinations. Anthony Jacobs is a conniving, witty Doc Holliday, but one who has some scruples; John Alderson provides solid support as Wyatt Earp (the Doctor keeps addressing him as "Werp" to the lawman's confusion). Earp is played straight, a stolid lawman, who wants to protect his friend Holiday but also the Doctor, who he is letting the Clantons think is Holliday (sort of a less ruthless version of Gene Hackman's Little Bill Daggett; he's ready to lie and break the law to keep the peace).

Steven and Dodo shine in this storyline--Steven starts off overly exuberant, donning ridiculously theatrical costumes, only to find himself forced to live out the real life consequences of a Western story. Meanwhile, Jackie Lane, whose pity for the Toymaker's earlier victims was the best thing about The Celestial Toymaker here gets to be funny, brave, and is paired well with Jacobs and with the excellent Sheena Marshe. Marshe is great, playing Kate as a Western stereotype at times, then showing us a real, wry woman within. Peter Purves manages the shifts in tone seamlessly. He's marvelous in the part, with double takes that are funny but in character, and his comic timing is excellent.

As things get grim, the whole cast up their game. The showdown, the inexorable march to bloodshed, began long before the darkening tone. From the very first bars of her ballad, Lynda Baron has been warning us how this will all end: Blood on the sawdust in the Last Chance Saloon. And yet it's shocking when it comes, a tribute to an excellent script, the regulars at their best, the excellent guest cast, and Rex Tucker's direction.

This is the last time you'll hear me refer to a "story arc" or "the story known as"; after The Gunfighters, there are no more individually-titled episodes in the classic series. I won't miss the long titles for these posts necessitated by respecting that convention. But I think I will miss the echoes of old-fashioned serialization--the original viewers had no idea when one story would end and another would begin.