Doctor Who commentator, editor and blogger John Connors has begun to reissue a series of articles which I originally wrote for the fanzine Plaything of Sutekh, which John co-edited with Richard Farrell. The series concerns the Doctor’s ‘British’ identity as defined and explored by Doctor Who since 1963. The first article looks at the first ten years of the programme.
S0me of the material in this series has not been published before and we intend to follow this ‘archive’ unpublished commentary with more. Please find the first of these articles here.
It’s been a while since I mentioned any old Doctor Who fanzines here. For your entertainment, though, here is a review of issue 18 of Star Begotten by me and published in the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s Celestial Toyroom magazine back in October 1992. My twenty-one-year-old self both admires the freewheeling ambitions of the rising generation of writers, but also seeks the restoration of the old bonds of fandom as common endeavour as different parts of what had seemed a civil society in microcosm when I discovered it in late childhood headed in different directions. Some of this review is unsurprisingly given its author rather prim, but it’s still a good summation of the quality and impact of the contents.
The circumstances in which a reviewer writes a review are assumed to be invisible, but on this occasion they are not. Last night’s context included pressure placed on myself to finish a review before I went to bed, having started later than usual; seeing the episode in a group of people mostly a generation younger than myself and my being sensitive to that fact. That particular environment, too, has wave upon wave of past associations, not necessarily bad and very many good, but which remind me of the transience of the present moment and how much it can depend on earlier situations. So my tendency to read episodes in the context of past Doctor Who was magnified. Having said this, new Doctor Who doesn’t live in a vacuum and audiences can be expected to judge it against the way they remember old Doctor Who – although not exclusively. There ought to be enough to surprise, and Doctor Who is always of its present moment. Looking at the split in opinion which has emerged overnight, there seems to be a divide between those who remember the episode being tense and frightening and provokingly disturbing, and those who were too distracted by past associations. Of the group with which I viewed the episode, positive assessments seemed overwhelmingly in the majority, too.
I introduced my review on Facebook as ‘Tired thoughts on tonight’s Doctor Who’. I was aware that they were disconnected but posted them anyway. I neglected some of the more interesting things about the episode or underdeveloped them. As I’m down for the Doctor Who News Page review of the next two episodes, I thought I needed to revisit last night and reassure myself and others that I did actually enjoy the episode.
I was led back to an old and possibly misleading question: who narrates Doctor Who? It could be easy to interpret The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar as a tale narrated by Clara with interjections by Missy, the Doctor’s dialogue with Davros being how someone who knows the Doctor well might have imagined it transpired based on what the Doctor told her. The introductory lecture by the Doctor establishes that this episode, whoever narrated Under the Lake, is ‘told’ by the Doctor: he is the narrative’s engineer, whether in reverse or forward motion. I spotted neither the Magpie Electronics logo on the guitar amp nor the clockwork squirrel on first viewing, and had to have the latter pointed out. Given that the Doctor ends up frustrating a plan to turn as many people as possible into transmitters, the metaphor of the radio being made into as harmless and as cherishable as a clockwork (red) squirrel is a reminder that the programme still has its soul.
It was easy to focus on the loss of O’Donnell. The programme has its cake and eats it; killing the military ex-intelligence officer who could offer insight into and to the Doctor and who is also a youthful woman who combines a professional manner with engaging exuberance. We are meant to be frustrated by her death, which closes doors for the audience as it does within the narrative for Bennett. She’s also been presented as a capable person and her value to the plot as a potential level head grows once Clara relays the news that the Doctor has a ghost. She presents herself as a manager, who can’t be left behind and delegated to while Bennett and the Doctor have adventures. Her death isn’t the result of recklessness, but of necessary decision-making – if they split up there is a chance one of them at least will escape the Fisher King – and bad luck. She is a companion here, making decisions comparable to Clara’s in the 2119 setting. O’Donnell’s death doesn’t have the casualness of Osgood’s; it is made to matter by all concerned: the Fisher King, Bennett, the Doctor and of course O’Donnell herself, whose dying words are her own message to the future.
The deserted town is as eerie a setting as the base; it’s light, but in the desaturated palette this season seems to like, it’s a twilight settlement like a dream detached from reality, an unsettlement if one prefers. It’s full of dolls, broken and otherwise, which in the viewer’s imagination might spring to unlife and complicate this story further. The only inert figure this happens to is the Fisher King. The Arthurian parallels are being untangled by others and it’s very possible that a more nuanced parallel was lost at an earlier draft; or perhaps the undeveloped symbolism of a wounded king in a waste land is enough. In any case he fails to be a Fisher King proper; because he is tricked into thinking his hooks and his bait are useless the knights he hopes will rescue him will never come, and instead he becomes food for fish, absorbed into the ecosystem he intended to conquer. He’s the second name this series with an association with Arthurian and especially Grail myth, the Doctor’s twelfth-century warrior friend and Dalek agent from The Magician’s Apprentice being Bors, who in the series prologue seemed to want to heal the Doctor of his sorrow. Louise Dennis has suggested that the Doctor might turn out to be more a fisher king in this season than the Fisher King of this story; but what is his wound, and who can heal it? It would certainly compliment the Fisher King’s accusation that the Doctor is a man lost in time who is less potent than he pretends. It’s possible that the TARDIS was unhappy at the start of the story because the Doctor was already present in the sarcophagus; or is there something else to be revealed?
In drawing attention to the reverse engineering of storylines, the episode acknowledges the convenience of Cass, whose deafness is required by the plot. Perhaps she is also a Fisher King, but she isn’t obviously seeking a cure for her wound. (If this is a lack of love, then her Perceval is Bennett for pointing out Lunn’s feelings for her.) She is presented as differently abled rather than disabled; in one of the tensest scenes in the episode, conscious that a ghost is following her, she measures the vibrations from the floor and correctly judges the moment to dive away from the falling axe and run through Moran’s ghost – an understated but effective visual reversing the established one of the ghosts walking through doors, walls and windows – and back to Clara without the need to revisit the encounter for her benefit. Cass is heroic and behaves ethically; she’s sensitive to the manipulation of others but knows that Clara is right to send Lunn off to his possible doom. Sophie Stone plays her with a contained and furious authority.
The middle period of the episode leaves the viewer pondering how the story is going to end; time is running out and the ghosts are in control of the base. It had been implied that Lunn had never looked at the inscription inside the space hearse, but it’s confirmed in this episode; but his invulnerability is also a vulnerability because it’s so fragile. There is every expectation that the ghosts might kill him anyway in another reverse. Instead he’s used as bait by the ghosts, the weaponisation of one’s bravery and compassion for another’s purpose being one of the themes of this episode. The Fisher King and the ghosts strip and invert the aims of the individuals they subvert; Clara and the Doctor co-ordinate for the common cause, however uncompromisingly.
There was much underplaying to enjoy too: Morven Christie and Arsher Ali maintained character perfectly with little dialogue in the earlier 1980 scenes, and while a lot of attention has been given to Peter Seafinowicz and Corey Taylor as the vocal talents behind the Fisher King, his movements were provided by Neil Fingleton, whose heavy, measured tread and gestures convey both the King’s confidence in a looming triumph, and his cold, immoving fury at the simplicity of the Doctor’s victory.
I was still underwhelmed by the episode somehow, even while paying tribute to its enduring claustrophobia, its commanding visual sense – the juxtaposition of Peter Capaldi pith a mural of Lenin lingers in the memory, suggesting the confrontation between two men of yesterday that was then imminent, competing over rival tomorrows, fighting a proxy war in another place like NATO and Lenin’s successors. (Arguably Lenin is also a wounded monarch, in his mausoleum, urging his followers to resurrect him through their political deeds.) Could it have enjoyed itself more, as I and others have asked? It’s difficult, because to keep going Doctor Who needs to keep testing itself. Sometimes it needs to attempt unabashed bleakness, only to pull out its recurring themes at the end to confirm that it is still Doctor Who. This did so. Perhaps it was the choice of a cold and flat palette and the absence of spectacle in the camerawork which did it, though the verisimilitude in the fracturing of the dam, and the matter-of-fact way the onrush of water propels the Fisher King past the camera was itself visually remarkable, determinedly quiet in and about its accomplishment.
So, what did I mean when I said that I found the glowing eyepieces of the Mire warriors (presumably) a visual callback to the Captain in The Pirate Planet? Just that. Inevitably having watched Doctor Who for years I make associations between present and past and am aware that those involved in the current production can do too. Criticism of the creative decisions made wasn’t intended; it’s just that Doctor Who can never appear as fresh as it might want to be when viewed in a certain mood. I followed my review with a link to the old TV Comic Annual comic strip Woden’s Warriors to acknowledge the limits to these comparisons. As for The Pirate Planet, I’ve always defended it (see letter right). Contempt doesn’t follow from familiarity, otherwise we would all hate each other. Before the Flood might age well in the context of the unfolding series; it’s still strong but somehow pulled the punches it might have made.
I threw this picture last night into a Twitter conversation between two retired veterans of Doctor Who fanzine editing, Andrew-Mark Thompson and Peter Anghelides. This – Frontier Worlds 13&14 – was the first Doctor Who fanzine I ever bought, in the old Forbidden Planet 2 at 58 St Giles High Street in London in August 1982, a few months after it was published. It’s difficult to capture what a revelation this was now to my eleven-year-old self. Jeremy Bentham’s fan-informed articles in Doctor Who Monthly gained the context I’d always inferred. I knew they were a projection of a parallel universe of fan commentary into the mainstream, but now I managed to see part of that normally hidden world for the first time. I learned that there were lots of people who thought about Doctor Who in similar ways to me, and about Blake’s 7 too as Frontier Worlds covered both series. Indeed, Steve Bowkett’s post-‘Blake’ story ‘Choice’, the first of Frontier Worlds‘s Blake’s 7 ‘Series E’ series, revealed to me a more cynical interpretation of Blake’s 7 distinct from the idealistic action-adventure reading I’d given it since I was seven. Martin Wiggins’s review of K9 and Company conveyed to me just how hostile an older generation of fans than mine was to its robot dog protagonist, of which I’d always been (and remain) rather fond. The most memorable article was probably the piece by editors Peter Anghelides (aforementioned) and Peter Lovelady and former editor Anthony Murray about their set visit to ‘Blake’, unaware that they were watching studio sessions for the last episode of Blake’s 7 until they saw the regulars perform their death scenes. The article has an entertaining B-plot about the writers’ attempts to break into writing for Blake’s 7 Monthly – Marvel UK’s not-quite-sister title to Doctor Who Monthly. As with all fan productions, there’s a social history in the lithography and the Letraset, with hints of the world beyond, of ‘University work’ and personalities in the then small world of active Doctor Who fandom, and a seriousness even in the humorous articles which roots Frontier Worlds in a particular phase of post-war British self-expression and which predates both the visceral panic of the cancellation-wary late 1980s and successfully avoids, moderates or sublimates the self-criticism or worse which seemed to pervade a lot of Doctor Who fan writing later in the decade.