Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Daleks' Master Plan (Parts 1-6)



Yes, I know. I'm not even listing the episode titles for this one. Sorry. I can't even, as the kids say.

But the 12 part storyline The Dalek's Master Plan Is a strange one--it's long (obvioulsy) and, written as it is by Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner, filled with lots of plot complications and twists and turns. The thing is, summarizing those twists and turns isn't all that much fun, and we'd get lost in a lot of the more intricate, less interesting, bits of plotting.

The story begins right after the TARDIS's hurried departure from Troy. The TARDIS lands in some forsaken wasteland, the Doctor starts exploring to find some medical help for Steven, poisoned in the last episode of The Mythmakers. Katarina, the handmaiden who brought him into the TARDIS, is trying to help, but, as she thinks the Doctor is Zeus and that she and Steven are dead, she's of limited utility.

Enter Bret Vyon, Space Security Service, man of action, who'd return in a few years in an iconic role. Bret is trapped by the Doctor (he wants to capture the TARDIS and use it to warn Earth of impending Dalek invasion, so he's a goodie at heart). Indeed, bound to a chair by the Doctor, he persuades Katarina to retrieve some pills from his belt and administer them to Steven, saving his life.

OK, see? I'm doing plot exposition. Maybe I should do a more Missy-style Catch up.

The Daleks have formed a league with some other aliens to conquer the Solar System. Vyon wants to stop them, the Doctor et al try to help. The Guardian of the Solar System, Mavic Chen (a scenery-chewing, great hambone performance by Kevin Stoney is betraying the Solar System by having a rare metal core (50 years in the making) for a Time Destructor (whatever that is) made. It's a McGuffin you could buy at Radio Shack. The
Doctor swipes the thing from the Conference of Evildoers, Vyon hijacks Chen's ship (they can't take the TARDIS--and this is the first good joke in the story--because they need to get where and when reliably.). On the way they're forced to land on a prison planet; they escape but one of psycho band of prisoners grabs Katarina as a hostage to make them take him anywhere but Earth. He picks Kemble--ie, where the Daleks are--and Katarina proves once and for all that she's not the naïf everyone thought she is, because she opens the airlock pulling her captor and herself into space, to save the others. It's brutal, even in a recon.

When they reach Earth, Chen--who followed in hot pursuit--makes sure That Kingdom, the Space Security Service's most ruthless agent, is assigned to kill the infiltrators and retrieve the McGuffin. We discover (and thank heaven we have this part in film and not just recon) is Sara Kingdom--and she guns down Bret Vyon, her own brother, and then coolly sends her agents out to kill the Doctor and Steven. "Shoot them in the head," she instructs them, to ensure the McGuffin is not endangered.

Meanwhile the Doctor and Steven--and Sara, who jumps into the room with them at the last second--get transported, along with some lab mice, to a planet far away, and (1) the Daleks trap them; (2) The Daleks exterminate the mice; (3) Sara is convinced of Chen's treachery, and grieves for Bret; (4) the Doctor, Sara and Steven steal the Dalek ship, and fly to Kemble. During the trip back, the Doctor makes a fake McGuffin and Steven finishes it, temporarily acquiring immunity to energy weapons. The Doctor turns over the fake outside the TARDIS and they all run inside--the Daleks fire at them, hitting Steven, but see earlier statement re energy weapons, temporary immunity to. The TARDIS dematerializes...

***

See what I mean? What a run-around. But so much to praise/condemn along the way.

The Daleks' Allies What a useless bunch of refugees from Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show (Or is it Dark & Nightshade these days? Hard to remember...)

The Daleks: Really, guys? You send the Laurel and Hardy of Skaro to track down the Doctor and the last piece of your superweapon? Ogrons would have done a better job. As for exterminating the mice because they were potentially hostile? Lame. Just lame.

Mavic Chen: Ridiculing the Daleks when they try to blame him for their failures, over-the-top megalomaniacal, he's the best old fashioned villain to date. I suspect I'll still rate the inimitable Roger Delgado well over Stoney--but he's good. Quite good.

Bret Vyon: Cool, unflappable, but with a sense of honor--sounds like Nicholas Courtney's iconic Brig, right? But he isn't; there's a tension, a near-desperate quality to him that differentiates him from Courteny's later performances. Subtle differences in body language and tone of voice. Vyon is tough, but he's at the limit.

Katarina: Basically she got stuck on the TARDIS by accident, helping Steven inside. She's just a place keeper, you might think, Until Adrienne Hill nails that horrifying, but noble death scene. Katarina is under no illusions; she's sacrificing herself, and it's raw and it hurts. And she's right.

Sara Kingdom: An amazing turn from Jean Marsh. Totally different from Joanna in The Crusade--all clipped commands and subtlety, even grieving. If I'm reading the dates right, Sara appears before Emma Peel in The Avengers. Whether or not that's so, Sara reminds me more of Cathy Gale, who proceeded Diana Rigg's Emma Peel, particularly in her earlier appearances where she's sterner, less playful.

Marsh makes Kingdom a true professional whose professionalism is used against her, and she's now desperate to stop Chen and wrest some meaning out of her brother's death, at her hands.

Doctor Who doing Space Opera rarely works; this part of the story could have been superb trimmed down to a four-parter. But what's good is really good.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Destroy and Rejoice!": In the Wake of Charlottesville

In the last few months, the main item on this blog has been what I call "Anglocat in the TARDIS," my reactions to the episodes of Doctor Who From its pilot in 1963 to, um, however far I get. The reason for this feature is that, in a world that seems to be getting darker, I wanted to write about something fun, and, frankly, I wanted to get my creative juices flowing again, as my second novel has been sluggish in coalescing. So I have been following William Hartnell's exploits as the Doctor, even those that have been lost in whole or in part, and have reached the longest story in the show's history, the twelve-episode saga, The Daleks' Masterplan. Only three episodes survive, but reconstructions using telesnaps and the audio tracks fill the gap. And so I have viewed the first six episodes.

But tonight is not the time to write about them. One day after the horror of Charlottesville, I am not ready yet to return to the pleasant parables of fiction. Because we have some unfinished business.

Back when I wrote about the first episodes of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, I noted that the Daleks were a parable about the Nazis, and, in particular in that story, what defeat at their hands would have meant to Great Britain. I wrote about how the story postulated resistance fighters, collaborators, and those whose wills would be utterly broken.

In a later story, The Chase, the Daleks chant, not yet the repeated "Exterminate!" we expect nowadays but "Exterminate! Seek and Destroy! Destroy and Rejoice!"

It is the only suggestion I can recall in many years as a fan that Daleks could find joy in anything, and that is solely in destruction. There are people of whom I could say the same. Some of them were carrying their ludicrous tiki torches yesterday, seeking to be important the only way they knew how--cruelty. Ambush. Inflicting harm.

They sought the legitimation of a philosophy, and found it in White Nationalism. In neo-Nazism. At last, they had permission to uncover their true and ugly selves.

***

Back in college, lo these 30 years ago, I had a part in a production of Jean Anouilh's adaptation of Antigone--in which the great dramatist cast the eponymous heroine as the French Resistance, Creon as the Nazi Occupation, and the guards as the collaborators, and did so in such a compelling, psychologically real, manner that both sides embraced it. (This is less inconsistent with Sophocles than you might think; Martha Nussbaum has argued that both Antigone and Creon are simultaneously wrong and right; Werner Jaeger made a similar argument).

In that production, as the chief of the three guards, and the only one given a name, I represented the collaborators. Believe me, it's not a headspace you want to be in.

***

Yet we find ourselves confronted with the resurgence of explicit advocates for white supremacy, our Nation's darkest taproot, clashing with the people of Charlottesville, who stood up to them almost entirely non-violently, representing once again the better angels of our natures. We must choose. Do we stand against the Nazis and the White Supremacists, as a broad array of unlikely bedfellows such as New York's Andrew Cuomo and Mitt Romney, with Elizabeth Warren and Orrin Hatch. (To name but a few--many strong express condemnations from left and right have been made, and deserve commendation)?

Or do we temporize? Equivocate? Do we hope it goes away until we are engulfed, like the collaborators in Antigone or the Robomen in Terry Nation's science fiction parable?

All of us, old, young, middle aged, will be judged, at least by history. This is our hour.

Where do we stand?

T.H. White, in the depths of the Blitz, wrote in The Once and Future King, that "[t]he fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea." But those drops, surging together, can carve away landmasses, create new shorelines, and wash away the blood and soil of the past.

Speak up; tell your truths in opposition to the lies of Fascism and White Supremacy.

Make neighbors out of strangers.

Most of all, pay attention to who respond to these events and who temporizes.

And vote.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Failing Uncle Fred

Yesterday, I wrote about a novel, whose hero, a scholar in 1930s England, in the grip of unbearable depression sought for a cause to lose himself in--romantic love, scholarship, religion, and, as a final desperate throw, the idea that Germany under Hitler could rejuvenate a seemingly decadent society. But, as I noted, even the fictional Roy Calvert was appalled and revolted by anti-semitism. All too many English people, like Oswald Mosley and his followers, lacked that decency, but the fictional Roy Calvert, and the man he was based in part on, did. Both the fiction and the real man gave their lives fighting the evil of Nazism.

And before we get all superior about Mosley, let me remind you of our own home-grown version. Including at least one American hero gone bad.

So today, amidst chaos and violence spurred by a march of Americans who embrace the teachings of Nazism and its American counterpart, I thought of a very different hero: My Uncle Fred.

No, not P.G. Wodehouse's fictional character Uncle Fred. An Uncle Fred you've never heard about except for from me every Veteran's Day.

Uncle Fred was the widower who first dated and then married my long-widowed grandmother--the spirited, talented, singer who had recreated herself as a Mexican singer when her opera career went bust in the Great Depression, later marrying my grandfather, whom I never met because of his early death. But I was at my grandmother's wedding to Uncle Fred, and didn't even need a TARDIS.

I mention this because Uncle Fred fought in World War II, and was among those American soldiers who discovered the ultimate Nazi horror. He helped liberate a concentration camp, caring for the victims of what I can only think of as one of the two worst systematic and thought out evils perpetuated by humankind--the Holocaust, rivaled only by the chattel slave system.

He didn't talk about it much--you had to pry it out of him, and even then needed a good lever, like when I used a family history project I was assigned in my senior year of high school to get him to open up. (My sister, whom he adored, didn't need such tools).

No "Greatest Generation" for Uncle Fred; he looked to the future, to build upon what he and his generation had to face, and to make a better world. Despite an appalling family tragedy, he never lost that faith. He was gentle as only a man who has seen too much cruelty can be. He loved my grandmother, her children and grandchildren as if we were his own. He followed a spiritual path, and devoted himself to service. He believed that the world could and should be better. If you called him a hero, he'd smile sadly and shake his head.

Three decades after Uncle Fred's death, itself 40 years after the war in which he served, what we have long called The Good War because of the sheer monstrousness our Nation opposed, Americans are marching on behalf of both of those systematic and carefully worked out evils.

We can say many things about today's events, and, as we learn more, no doubt we will. Free speech and its limits will be discussed, the wisdom (or lack thereof) of tolerance of the intolerant, what it means that there are among us some who see in Hitler's seizure of power a model for the future, instead of what it is, a nightmare from the past.

Today, I see a Nation and its children who are failing my Uncle Fred. And not just mine, but all the men and women who put their lives on the line in that struggle against, as T.H. White called it, "the ancient brutal dream of Attila the Hun."

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Novelist, Not The Biographer

I have previously written of my very great affection for C.P. Snow's The Light and the Dark (1947)--the second written volume of his Strangers and Brothers series (though its action takes place such that it would be the fourth volume if read in terms of continuity). I thought enough of it to but a first edition of it from the Strand Rare Book Room, and gave my early edition to someone who had taught me something of spirituality, who I thought would value it.

To quote my own summary:
The storyline is simple; the novel focuses on Roy Calvert, an able young researcher into ancient languages trying to translate an extraordinary document, what is believed to be the only surviving written work of the Manichees, hitherto known only by the writings of their enemies, such as St. Augustine. In truth, a handful of fragments and isolated quotations exist as well, but the manuscript Calvert is working on, a psalm-book, provides the best chance of understanding the Manichaean world view as communicated amongst adherents to that faith, with its distinction of the world into--you guessed it--Light and Dark.

The Psalm-Book is real enough; it was translated by Charles Allberry, who is affirmed by Snow's brother Philip to have been the model for Roy Calvert. Like the fictional Calvert, Philip Snow asserts, Allberry suffered from terrible bouts of depression, and moments of manic elation, but was also charismatic, charming and kind, especially to those who were poor, oppressed, or unhappy.

Snow makes Calvert very real, and sympathetic; it doesn't hurt that the character is that rarity, a fictional wit whose dialogue is in fact witty. For much of the book, he tilts quixotically against those in power who have become pompous, and use learning for fame, or to keep others down. His characteristic method is to solemnly interrogate them, tripping them up in logical inconsistencies, or revealing their hypocrisies in deadpan dialectic.

These amusing interludes, as well as some society life, are punctuated by Roy's struggle against his own "oddly mechanical" affliction--depression, destructive elation, relief, alternating in phases only the length of which are unpredictable--leads him to try to lose himself--in God, in women and drink, even flirting with Fascism (the novel is set in the mid-Thirties into World War II).

This last is an interesting, and risky move. It happens quite late in the book, after we have come to like Calvert very much indeed, and is a shock. It's profoundly narratively counterintuitive to have the character drawn to fascism be sympathetic (in Powell's Dance, it's Widmerpool who is a quite unlovely, though interesting figure). Calvert's attraction to fascism causes for the first time a strain in his long friendship with narrator Lewis Eliot, law don and generally reasonable man, himself a firm anti-Fascist, as was Snow, from the get-go. Calvert, no political thinker, is drawn to it as a means of throwing himself away in hopes of escape from the crippling, debilitating depression he suffers--he is a specific instance of Erich Fromm's "Escape From Freedom." Even while he finds himself drawn to it, Calvert is revolted by its bigotry and antisemitism, as well as its disdain for the odd characters Calvert loves--he even risks his life to save a Jewish couple from the Nazi regime. It's a brilliant portrayal of cognitive dissonance.

Ultimately, Roy himself rejects the Reich as "a feeble simulacrum for his search for God", admitting to Eliot that "I was clutching at anything of course," and sadly describing it as "my last grab." (Ch. 33)

So Roy gives in, and tries to live with his affliction, while he serves in the War. First in intelligence, but then, as the depression closes in on him, he chooses to join the RAF, after enquiring of Eliot what is the most dangerous duty to be had. He becomes a bomber pilot, because he wants to die but can't quite kill himself. In his surrender, he marries, and his wife bears a daughter. And Roy becomes, ironically, free of the cycle that has driven him to choose death over life; he finds, at last a certain peace. Now that he no longer wants to die, though, he is stuck; "One can't change one's mind," Roy admits, "It[war] holds one to it." (Ch. 38)
Calvert fascinated me, enough so that when an opportunity to obtain a copy of Allberry's translation of the Psalm-Book, I took it. It is the only genuinely rare book I own.

Recently, I stumbled on an interesting piece exploring the extent to which Calvert might not be an entirely faithful picture of Allberry, but may have incorporated aspects of Larry Darrell, one of the characters in The Razor's Edge. That led me to a book compiled and in part written by Allberry's widow, Patricia Lewis, titled, Charles Allberry-A Portrait (1984). Privately printed, the book is a collection of reminiscences of Allberry, by Lewis herself, but by a series of his friends and colleagues.

As Lewis explains the genesis of the Portrait, "my son David, having re-read C.P. Snow's novel 'The Light and the Dark', the main character of which 'Roy Calvert', was partly based on my late husband, Charles Allberry, asked me 'Was my father really like that?'"; The Portrait is an effort to provide an answer. Lewis wrote her own account of her whirlwind courtship and all too brief marriage, and then "wrote to those few friends of Charles who survive and whose addresses I know for theirs." The book is a labor of love, as much meant for her son as for the memory of her late husband. It is touching in places, especially Lewis's own account, and certainly complicates the identification of Allberry with Calvert. S. Gorley Putt, whose article set me off on this literary jaunt, looked at the differences in Snow's novel and in Lewis's Portrait, noting that "They remind one of the difference between fiction and fact, however closely a fictional figure may resemble a real person in some aspects. I do this in fairness not only to Charles Allberry but also to my other friend, Charles Snow the novelist {not, remember, "the biographer")."

It is interesting, though, to examine the aspects of Snow's depiction of Calvert that clearly upset his widow. As she writes, when she heard that Snow had written a book based on Allberry:
I bought it at W.H. Smith's, and, like his parents, was distressed at what I read. To those who did not know Charles and have difficulty in differentiating between the true and fictional qualities portrayed in the book, I should like to say this: I can vouch for the fact that Charles was never sexually immoral, the reverse was true--he was a man of high moral and religious principles; that though he poked fun at people and delighted in bringing them down a peg if they became, as he thought, "inflated", he would never bait them--he was too kind for that; that at times he suffered moods of depression may well be true (what highly intellectual man or woman does not?), but that these were grossly exaggerated by the author and provided the theme for the novel, and certainly I never saw him depressed; that he was not pro-Nazi (as events later proved) though he might have admired the Nazi efficiency and orderliness--he detested their treatment of the Jews and other dissidents and the disservice they were rendering to universal scholarship. He did admire the German people, especially their industry and enthusiasm, the cleanliness of their towns, their music and poetry.
(Portrait at 6).

Now,with one significant exception, this is not really inconsistent with Snow's novel.

To deal with the most damning piece first, Calvert's pro-Nazi leanings, he is depicted as admiring the energy and efficiency of the Reich. This is repeated several times in the novel, but most notably when Calvert invites the narrator Lewis Eliot to Germany, where Calvert is pursuing his studies. As they walk through Berlin, the friends quarrel:
"It has great power. Don't you feel it has great power?" He spoke with extreme force. As he spoke, I knew for sure what I had already suspected: he had brought me to Berlin to convert me.

****

He had set out to convince me that the Nazis had history on their side.
The future could be in German hands. There would be great suffering on the way, they might end in a society as dreadful as the worst of this present one: but there was a chance—perhaps a better chance than any other—that in time, perhaps in our lifetime, they would create a brilliant civilisation.

'If they succeed', said Roy, 'everyone will forget the black spots. In history success is the only virtue."
(The Light and the Dark, 183). Calvert views the world (as does Eliot, as do many of the figures in the novel), as a choice between Germany and Russia, believing that the democracies of Europe had used up their moral and philosophical force. He finds Communism "sterile" and "naive"; He finds the Germans more "human." (Light and the Dark, at 184-185).

But like Allberry, Roy inveighs (at some risk to himself, as this is taking place in Nazi Germany, "at an august official dinner") against anti-semitism: "You're a wonderful people," Roy says, as a concerned English attache in Berlin tells Eliot, "You're grave. You're gifted. You might begin a new civilization. I wish you would. I'm speaking as a friend, you see. But don't you think you're slightly mad? Your treatment of the Jews--why need you do it? It's unnecessary. It gets you nowhere. It's insane. Sometimes I think, whatever else you do, it will be enough to condemn you." (Light and the Dark, at 175-176). In later novels, we read that he has helped several Jewish scholars and dissidents to escape before the outbreak of war.

Roy's flirtation with the Reich takes place in 1938; by 1939, he has rejected the Reich as his last, most desperate effort to throw himself into a purpose that could save him. He only turns to it after romantic love, and then religion fail him because he simply can't believe in God.

Roy's teasing only turns cruel on one occasion, when he revives an old academic scandal at an academic gathering honoring an old fraud. Mostly, his humor accords with Allberry's own as described by his widow.

As to the depression, Pat Lewis quotes a letter from Snow to his brother Philip that demonstrates that, whatever her experience of Allberry was, Snow believed that Allberry suffered:
His loss is harder to bear than that of any of my other friends would be. I learned from him more of the adventures and solitariness of the spirit than from anyone else; in some ways he was the most gifted and the most remarkable of all of us, and the most unhappy."
While some contributors to the volume deny any depression at all on the part of Allberry, others describe specific outbreaks of it, while noting the difficulty of the times--the Great Depression and the Second World War. Most acknowledge that Snow knew Allberry far better and longer than did they.

The one area where Snow's depiction is completely inconsistent with A Portrait? Sexual and morality and faith. Allberry converted to Roman Catholicism--not because Pat Lewis was a Catholic herself, but as he grew alienated from the Anglo-Catholicism in which he was raised. That's a fact, on which we Allberry's own words, preserved in a letter in A Portrait. Calvert struggles with faith, and fails, as I described in my recent sermon and it was Catholicism that called to him.

I'm not claiming that Snow is "right" and Pat Lewis is "wrong." I'm claiming that Snow the novelist, not the biographer (as Putt admirably phrases it) is closer to her memories than she realizes, and that his love of his friend did not stop him from recalling, if possibly heightening, his dangerous flirtation with a political philosophy the full scope of whose evil was not fully grasped by many in England at the time. Both portraits are done with love, one in charcoal, the other in brighter colors. Each enriches the other. Snow's novel does not take away Lewis's reminiscence--she depicts the surprising joy and fulfillment he found as a husband in the last years of his life (Snow depicts Calvert's war-time marriage as happy, too, and as breaking the cycle of depression if not permanently, then at least until Calvert's death). Her surety that he found religious faith at the time of his conversion--well, the Roy we see at the end is at peace.

But ultimately, only one of them was real. Charles Allberry was clearly a greatly gifted man, a complex and brave man, and one who raised the emotional temperature of a room by his presence. Nigel Havers captured that in the adaptation. CP Snow gave him the means to do it. But Lewis's Portrait reminds us that history has its claims, even over fiction.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

No Day But Today



Some years ago, when I was still properly considered a young lawyer, I was in the elevator on the way up to the office. A colleague in entertainment law was in the elevator with me, clearly deeply upset. When I asked what was wrong, she told me that her friend Jonathan Larson had died, shortly before his new show, which she was sure would have put him on the map, was to open.

Rent opened despite Larson's death. I didn't see it.

Pity, that. It had something very important to say to me, though I wasn't ready to hear it.

Somewhat later--not very long, really--an old friend told me that a date had fallen through and he had theater tickets. He proposed an exchange: I'd buy dinner, the tickets were on him. I agreed, and we saw Rent. The message had been delivered.

As I was internalizing it, I turned for some light reading to a novel a very different old friend had recommended to me, a novel by Lawrence Block, that carried the same message in a very different form.

That was more than twenty years ago.

***

Looking for something else online this evening (hint: Anglocat in the TARDIS is due to resume), I stumbled on the video of "No Day But Today" which brought those days back to me, and one more, that reminded me of a smaller, but very happy memory.

***

On New Years Eve at the turn of the millennium, I was at an apartment overlooking Times Square owned by one of seven guys I roomed with in college, several of whom were there--I don't talk about these gents enough, but they have meant a great deal to me, even though I don't see them often. They helped me grow up.

Anyway, around 11:00, Times Square was full, and my host gestured out to his balcony.

"You want Mark?" He asked.

"You're Roger," I answered.

We went out and serenaded the crowd with a song we each implicitly trusted the other to know, and which fit the night perfectly. Here it is done by the originals, albeit years later:



Thanks, Jonathan.

Thanks, Larry.

Still here--no day but today.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

"A Bit Late to Say 'Whoa' to the Horse": The Mythmakers: "Temple of Secrets"/"Small Prophet, Quick Return"/"Death of a Spy"/"Horse of Destruction"

"Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour'd
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done: perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honour bright: to have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery. Take the instant way;
For honour travels in a strait so narrow,
Where one but goes abreast: keep then the path;
For emulation hath a thousand sons
That one by one pursue: if you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an enter'd tide, they all rush by
And leave you hindmost;
Or like a gallant horse fall'n in first rank,
Lie there for pavement to the abject rear,
O'er-run and trampled on: then what they do in present,
Though less than yours in past, must o'ertop yours;
For time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretch'd, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing. O, let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was;
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time.”


The speech is given to Ulysses in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, and subverts the nobility of Homer's Iliad. Yet this speech provided the title for Simon Raven's scathing 10-volume depiction of life in Britain from 1945 through the 1970s. Raven's jaundiced eye is useful to us here.

***

After the rather flat farewell to Verity Lambert that was Mission to the Unknown, I had low expectations for The Mythmakers. It's a serial that is entirely missing, though the reconstruction by Loose Cannon feels much less static than many others. Possibly that's because so much of the story is powered by the dialogue, and the actors--especially the guest stars--are having a whale of a time.

That's in part because we are not in Homer's Troy, nor yet even Shakespeare's poetic, if scandalous and tainted. Troy. No, only Shakespeare's scabrous Thersites captures the Trojan war as seen by scriptwriter Donald Cotton; Cotton takes his cue from Thersites's description of the War:
Here is such patchery, such juggling and such
knavery! all the argument is a cuckold and a
whore; a good quarrel to draw emulous factions
and bleed to death upon. Now, the dry serpigo on
the subject! and war and lechery confound all!
The characters are neither Homer's nor Shakespeare's; Achilles is rash, but hardly the killing machine of myth or drama; Odysseus seems to be a barbarian, at first, but turns out to be clever as advertised, and cynical as Shakespeare's, but without the philosophy to back it. Agamemnon cries out to be played by Brian Blessed, but Jack Melford carries it off quite well.Menelaus doesn't even want Helen back, and knew what he was getting when he married her. (Talk about getting under the radar).

Hector is unimpressive (his brief duel with Achilles is more silly than thrilling), Paris a weak-willed coward who wants to be important (Steven has to goad him into a fight which Steven deliberately loses to get into Troy and rescue Vicki; Paris's newfound courage is, er, transitory), Priam is so innocent he needs a guardian--though he is quite nice-natured. As is Troilus, who falls hard for Vicki. Just as well, really.

The Greeks are bastards, the Trojans are dilettantes, they both really want to command the trade routes, and Helen is a pretext we never even see. (It would have been a perfect in-joke if they'd cast Jacqueline Hill).

It's a jet-black comedy with the Doctor trying to avoid suggesting the Trojan Horse (he can't believe Homer had it right and anyone would be that stupid--pro tip: they are), Vicki being renamed by Priam as Cressida and falling in love with Troilus (at least the script tries to earn this), and Steven just getting in the way. Oh, and episode 3, "Death of a Spy"--the title refers to Odysseus's mute friend who is killed by Paris's patrol for for not answering a soldier's question.

And yet it all works. These characters are funny, infuriating, silly, and steal the show out from under the regulars. Even Frances White's Cassandra is interesting, het petulance and frustration mounting throughout the storyline.

War isn't glorious in Doctor Who. Not in 1965. It's Shakespeare's wasteland, for wretched causes and stupidity run riot, minus the poetry.

Even without a single surviving episode, this one's a stone classic.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"You Could Almost Do Anything": Verity's Mission to the Unknown



Mission to the Unknown, represents the last time we'll see the credit "Producer: Verity Lambert"on Doctor Who, and it's a shame for several reasons. First, because, as indicated in my write up of Galaxy Four, incoming John Wiles is hardly a champion of women's empowerment in the show--my limited defense of the dramatic possibilities of Maaga and the Drahvins aside, the incoming team is about to drop the spirited Vicki, because Maureen O'Brien was too assertive, and for all of Stephanie Bidmead's character building, she really only had two scraps of the script to draw on. For the rest, the Drahvins are all too much like a certain type of man's fear of women in authority, written and televised when the woman in authority was leaving.

Second, it's just not. . . very good. No, it tells the story of Space Security Agent Marc Cory, who is trapped, along with astronaut Gordon Lowery, with a broken spaceship on the planet Kemble (after Fanny, if the melodrama is anything to go by), and discovers nefarious Dalek doings: A plot by the pepper pots and their allies (they have allies here), to conquer the Solar System, and especially. . . Earth.

Lowery, like a briefly glimpsed other member of the expedition, is done in by carnivorous plants native to Skaro (that then reanimate your corpse, to spread the infection). Cory's efforts to launch a message seemingly fail, because he waits until he sees the Daleks. What? The homicidal Skaro cacti weren't enough of a tip off?

The recon is not particularly good, but I think the flaws are most likely in the scripting, and the sudden departure from our regulars. Still, no way to say goodbye to Verity.

***

Lambert's IMDB page demonstrates a career that can only be called stellar; she produced crowd-pleasers, classics, significant historical drama, and shattered boundaries--the bold, pioneering drama The Naked Civil Servant mean something to you?--thank Verity. She brought Rumpole of the Bailey to Thames Television after a successful one-shot on "Play for Today", and brought Peter O'Toole and Richard Briers to Blandings Castle.

And, with Sydney Newman goading her, she created a classic from scratch, on the fly. Here she is discussing, inter alia, her run on Doctor Who:



And now she leaves our story.