“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.”
Last week, I thought that Class might be having trouble finding where it stood in the multichannel age. On the basis of Nightvisiting this was unwarranted caution. On the basis of this episode, Class is purposeful, assured and effective in exploring the unavoidable horrors of emotional life. Nightvisiting takes Class’s urban setting and injects it with a mystic folk tradition, as a green entity breaks through from another world claiming to represent a communion of souls which can bring comfort and release to the grieving, if only they will choose to believe the manifestations of the dead which flower at the end of their tendrils.
Nightvisiting is a story of the night and how it challenges our experience, with arresting visuals as Coal Hill and its environs are entwined by glistening, sometimes pulsing, green tendrils, some displaying a concerning knotted girth, as if advertising a well-fed gut. The alien entity, Lankin, sets out to define itself in ethereal terms, but its methods and presence are viscerally organic. As Tanya defends herself by working out patiently what she knows and why, through dialogue with a devil in the shape of her father, Charlie and Mateusz confirm their relationship and by claiming control of their present from the past immunize themselves against assault, while April and Ram discover their previously unsuspected mutual attraction in the midst of apocalypse. There’s a precise balance to the two love affairs; at different stages and with different dramatic and social heritages to draw upon, contrasting textures but here of equal force for discovery and self-discovery and strengthening against the force in the dark.
For all the attention received by the lovemaking of Charlie and Mateusz, this is an episode built on the female leads and their inner conflicts. Tanya we knew about, and Vivian Oparah’s two-handers opposite the embodiment of Tanya’s father Jasper (a disarmingly natural and then unnatural Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) confirm how much of a cornerstone to the programme her performance is. Sophie Hopkins continues to shine further – how many young people convinced they are just ‘nice’ need to hear April say that being kind and polite and concerned isn’t about mere pleasantness but about not giving in to the assaults of the world? Katherine Kelly demonstrates a determination somewhere on the far side of resignation; Miss Quill’s exchange with Lankin’s impression of her sister Orla’ath (a well-matched Anastasia Hille) is a verbal dance with words as surgical blades, the only knives (as dialogue reminds us) that Miss Quill is able to use. There’s an added picquancy to Quill, too: she’s not just an embittered enslaved terrorist reduced to sniping at her situation, but a person of experience who runs alongside but can’t share the formative experiences being enjoyed by her young charges.
After a resolutely beat-heavy urban soundtrack in the first two episodes, it was good to hear a folk-influenced one on this, including Jim Moray with a new recording of his own ‘Nightvisiting’. Class has shown it can shift tone and structure of storytelling and that despite its title it’s not tied to school and classroom. It also draws from the imagery and lore of Doctor Who without being trapped by it; as the Shadow Kin recalled to some the Pyroviles of The Fires of Pompeii, Lankin’s victims and projections, enveloped by vegetable matter and in some cases with green flesh, echoed in image the Krynoids of The Seeds of Doom, while telling an unrelated story, something Class must be free to do. Next week, a story of new heads and shared hearts, it appears.
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.
All good things come to an end, and like the first run of Doctor Who, sometimes with only the obliquest of warnings that this is the case. When the editorial team for most of the second series (formally, for its early issues, the fifth volume) of the long-running Doctor Who fanzine Skaro ended their editorial with the words “We look forward to Issue 14”, those of us who read it did not realise that this was Skaro‘s equivalent of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor’s “There are worlds out there…”. There were no BBC1 executives lurking in Bath seeking to stamp out the title, but like a lot of voluntary projects, employment and new commitments took over for Skaro‘s editors and it has not been seen since. The memory survives in occasional eBay listings and retrospectives like this.
Skaro chronicled Doctor Who fandom’s awareness that it was at a crossroads. The period from 1990 to 1996 was dominated by a steady professionalisation of fan creativity through Virgin Publishing’s New Adventures, Missing Adventures and associated titles, as well as the continuing openness of Marvel UK’s Doctor Who Magaazine to new voices under editors who for the first time had participative experience of Doctor Who fandom. Writing Doctor Who for the BBC had been a near-impossible goal for fans in the 1980s, though the emergence of maturing literary voices in active Doctor Who fan circles, together with greater numbers and familiarity with the broadcasting industry might suggest that, had the BBC continued to produce Doctor Who in-house after 1989, Ghost Light‘s Marc Platt would have been the first of many fan writers to bash out a three- or four-parter. The disappearance of Doctor Who from the television firmament was something to which many had difficulty acclimatising themselves, for reasons rooted deep in personal experience. Fandom was more self-aware, with the age profile of the active fan, whatever their method of participation, shifting ever so slightly higher. Without a new series to focus on, fans of the early 1990s were looking around themselves like the survivors of a cultural purge (and being a Doctor Who fan in the late 1980s was for various reasons a torturous experience) and working out what they had in common with other enthusiasts and why they loved Doctor Who so much. Available resources changed too, with access to good photocopiers being largely superseded by the advance of lithography. Skaro‘s colour covers, all by Brian Hudd, managed to catch the mood of changing times as well as demonstrating just what depth could be achieved with a limited colour palette.
Issue 13 was unusual because of its timing: it dealt with a year’s reaction to the 1996 Doctor Who television movie (henceforward ‘the TVM’), not just among fandom, but among a wider public. Viewed after nearly nine years of the Russell T Davies/Steven Moffat series, the articles display a range of levels of prescience and ideas about what the TVM experience did to Doctor Who fan assumptions about the programme and its place in British television culture. Michael Haslett’s article ‘Even better than the real thing’ opens the issue, expressing a level of mock-perplexity at the possessiveness which British ‘normal folk’ suddenly displayed over Doctor Who when faced with a feature-length episode made in North America which looked as if it had money spent on it. Whether or not people really pined for Doctor Who as ‘a rotten old BBC programme filmed in a local sandpit’ is another matter (though arguably this is what they have been lapping up since 2006), Haslett’s argument really hinges on the idea that Doctor Who‘s integrity was found in ‘a moral depth and a classic dramatic range’ shared by Jackanory Playhouse and Dad’s Army but not by The Persuaders! and thereby anticipates a host of articles or book chapters over the next eight years which would argue or assume that Doctor Who could not be recreated or perpetuated by British television in a filmic age. This isn’t Haslett’s conclusion, merely his explanation for what some parts of the audience seemed to find lacking from the TVM, and he concludes that Doctor Who will eventually return, even if not in the form the TVM envisaged. Daniel O’Mahony’s ‘The American Way’ placed the programme in the American SF genre field and suggested Babylon 5 rather than Lois and Clark or The X Files had most to offer a future Doctor Who series. This anticipated both the budget-aware and writer-led nature of the post-2005 BBC series, but also the advantages and disadvantages of the story arc. It could be argued that latterday Doctor Who has never successfully negotiated between the need for arc storylines to offer closure, and Doctor Who‘s ability to deny this by regenerating its lead character and itself. Michael Laycock’s ‘Paradigm Rift’ interprets the story of Doctor Who fandom as one of increased fragmentation as the number of source texts proliferate and diverge, with a McGann-led, American-produced series likely to have divided the existing fanbase further by overlaying a new mainstream populist audience upon it and, if successful, changing what ‘fan’ means in a Doctor Who context.
With hindsight, there are lots of missing elements in the appreciation of the 1996/7 context. The internet was already growing in influence as a medium for the exchange of enthusiasms and the build-up to McGann’s casting had already been exhaustively followed on newsgroups and early news sites. From the point of view of most literary-minded British fans, perhaps this was marginal stuff, the chattering of a few thousand science and technology professionals and students; or perhaps we didn’t know, yet, how to write about it. I had been a contributor to Skaro since 1993, and though I was also a reader of the Doctor Who newsgroups, I didn’t quite know how to assess their importance, even though they had been used by Philip Segal to promote his Doctor Who venture, and by other Doctor Who professionals, such as Christopher H. Bidmead, Johnny Byrne and Jean-Marc Lofficier, to engage with fans and occasionally promote new initiatives. So with ‘Independence Day’ in Skaro 13, I concentrated on what I knew, the student Doctor Who society at my university. The TVM was a liberation, even though in the short term it was only a part-liberation from thinking about Doctor Who within the confines of the traumas of the 1980s.
Other articles are already playing out tensions to come. Tim Munro’s ‘Beardless in San Francisco’ takes Eric Roberts’s Master as his starting point and while comparisions with Anthony Ainley were inevitable these are overshadowed by his embrace of a ‘grandiose’, broader conceptualisation for Doctor Who. Tat Wood’s ‘In Bed with William Hartnell’ is mainly about what the discovery and publication of John Cura’s telesnaps of many of the missing Hartnell and Troughton stories mean for fandom’s hitherto audio-led conceptualisation of the missing stories, but towards the end refers to “our programme” being taken from “us by Segal and Worldwide” – but this, like the content of the article (which invokes a narrower fan experience than many readers of Skaro will have shared) raises unanswered questions about who ‘we’ are.
Skaro was remarkable among the major British Doctor Who fan publications of the period for being co-edited by a woman, Vanessa (Ness) Bishop. The female minority in active Doctor Who fandom in the 1990s seem to have taken it upon themselves to offer a broader perspective on the obsessive and very male world of fandom and lighten the tone, as Ness did with her poems in Skaro and her quasi-manifesto in an issue of the glossy David Howe-Mark Stammers-Stephen James Walker fanzine The Frame, ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’. Here, ‘Retirement Blues’ covers ground that Dead Ringers Doctors-at-Christmas sketch will do in 2005, but does it better; but the observational ‘Fans Have Bags’ manages to cover a lot of the convention-going experience on one innocuous hook. Facing down one almost entirely male howl of outrage and despair at a particular oscular connection in the TVM is Liz Halliday and her article ‘French Kissing in the USA’, noting in her conclusion that ‘Very few long running series survive without the sex theme’ and either Doctor Who embraces this reality or is revived in the style of mid-1990s childrens’ series which Halliday can’t sit through. “Doctor Who has to be aimed at an older market to survive more than a season as the kids’ latest craze,” she writes; will a 7pm slot do, I want to ask from seventeen years later.
The successful fanzine is the product of particular personalities and a particular moment. The 1990s incarnation of Skaro had really hit its stride with the ‘Remembrance’ issue (3, 1990), which was dominated by individual recollections of particular moments, particularly from childhood. These were largely the memories of those who had been children when watching mid-to-late 70s Doctor Who and who had reached university in the late 1980s or early 1990s. As Doctor Who‘s audience had reduced in the 1980s, so the pool of new fan writers fell, and those who did emerge often moved straight into contributing to professional outlets. Skaro also benefited from the growth of cultural studies, and the type of criticism it published is now almost invisible between the instant reactions of the internet and the multi-author volumes published by academic presses. The nest for all these factors to flourish, though, was provided by editors Julian Chislett, who provided the link with the old Skaro of the early 1980s, Brian Hudd whose artwork immediately lifted the magazine’s presentation into the first rank, and Vanessa Bishop who gave an embittered post-cancellation fandom licence to enjoy itself again.
I still have a great affection for Skaro, though; it was the first Doctor Who fanzine which I contributed to regularly other than Oxford’s The Tides of Time, and it’s a sign of the strength of its reputation that when the very different Panic Moon launched in 2010, it was hailed by one admirer as the Skaro of the present day. Almost everything printed within its covers still comes across as articulate and the passion of its writers is both comprehensible and involving. Its tone influenced late-1990s Doctor Who Magazine in particular, and Vanessa Bishop brings her freethinking wit to that publication’s reviews to this day.
- Skaro issue 13. Edited and published by Vanessa Bishop, Brian Hudd and Julian Chislett. Bath, summer 1997.
Here’s something from the personal files, though already online in another form – a review of a Doctor Who story which I wrote back in 1991 for The Tides of Time, the Oxford University Doctor Who Society fanzine, and published in issue 5 (pictured left, art by Muzibur Rahman). The Aztecs remains a story of which I’m fond, and it keeps on offering further nuances at each viewing. I still think this review by my twenty-year-old self stands up well despite my winces at some of the cliched phraseology. More recently, I’ve provided (most of) the production subtitles for the special edition release of the story on DVD, released in 2013 and available here at time of writing.
To those not au fait with the programme in the mid-1960s, it may come as a surprise that Doctor Who was able to convey the cultivated suspense it was famous for in its heyday without the appearance of monsters such as the Daleks or the Zarbi. Episodes that have received wider coverage than The Aztecs appear to confirm this view: the last three episodes of the first story, admittedly more an ‘anthropological’ than a historical story, can be criticized for their laborious moralizing and the less than creditable performances of some of the cave dwellers. The Aztecs, the second story to be based in man’s recorded past, and the oldest of those to exist in the BBC Archives, helps redeem their reputation. Like many Doctor Who tales, particularly in the early years, the action as far as the travellers are concerned revolves around the problem of the way in which they are going to get back to the TARDIS. An uncharacteristic, but credible burst of kleptomania from Barbara, as she puts on the bracelet of the priest Yetaxa, provides protection for the four as they attempt to explain their materialization to the Aztec priests and warriors attendant on the tomb of the dead holy man in which the ship had landed, but also serves to embroil them further in Aztec culture. Thus the scene is set for four episodes of vintage Who.
One of the tasks that faced scriptwriters during the first two seasons was to dream up new perilous situations for Ian Chesterton to find himself in. John Lucarotti’s story is full of them. Ian successively finds himself challenger to Ixta, the Chosen Warrior of the Aztec people, in the course of which he is nearly poisoned accidentally by the Doctor; he is imprisoned in a secret passage at the base of the Aztec temple; and immediately afterwards he is nearly drowned as it is revealed that the very passage is, in fact, a water conduit. Barbara helps Ian shoulder the danger burden, though, as the Priest of the Sun God, Tlotoxl, who suspects the divinity accorded her by his colleague Autloc, very nearly succeeds in poisoning her.
It has been said that one of the themes of the first two seasons was the humanizing of William Hartnell’s Doctor. As those who have seen An Unearthly Child will know, the Doctor is initially, at least on the surface, often cynical, sometimes malevolent, and almost always manipulative. In The Aztecs he gets his comeuppance when he finds himself engaged to one of the best supporting characters in the series, the lovestruck Cameca, played with total obsession by the excellent Margot van der Burgh. William Hartnell’s splutterings as she accepts his unwitting proposal (over a cup of coffee – not much has changed in six hundred years) are a joy to behold.
In an interview for Doctor Who Monthly in 1981 Dennis Spooner, the programme’s second script editor, remembered how Sydney Newman, then BBC Head of Drama and co-creator of Doctor Who, always insisted that the Doctor should always stay as an observer in the historical situations he was involved in, and never be portrayed as the initiator of events. Here this dictum becomes part of the storyline as the Doctor rigidly enforces the doctrine of nonintervention. Barbara only causes herself embarrassment and her companions danger as she fails to appreciate the integral part that human sacrifice plays in Aztec culture. This point is stressed as the travellers successfully regain access to Yetaxa’s tomb and the TARDIS at the close of the fourth episode, John Ringham’s Tlotoxl proceeding with a sacrifice to reassert the stability of Aztec society that Barbara’s intervention had imbalanced.
The acting in the early, studio-bound, seasons of Doctor Who is often stereotyped as theatrical and subsequently lacking credibility. The former may be the case; the latter is not so. John Ringham’s performance is a prime example. The High Priest walks with a humped back and occasionally a dragging of the foot, but his characterization works because the other members of the cast believe in it. While accepting and to some degree welcoming that actors in recent years have enjoyed appearing in Doctor Who because it is fun to do, it is perhaps valuable to wonder whether or not a higher standard of suspension of disbelief from the cast was elicited in the weekly turnaround.