The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

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.

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