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Don’t Shoot – He’s British! part one

BBClogo_1963Doctor 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S0me of the material in this series has not been published before and we intend to follow this ‘archive’ unpublished commentary with more.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.

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Doctor Who V.23-28: The Web of Fear

The Web of Fear returned viewers of Doctor Who to the format of so many stories commissioned under the producership of Innes Lloyd: a military base or technological centre with a large central set, where humans are besieged by a hostile environment and by alien monstrosities. The Web of Fear varied this recipe by telling a story where the Doctor, his companions and their fellow-sufferers were mice in a trap sprung by the Great Intelligence. The TARDIS is captured by the Intelligence early in the first episode, but the story happens because the Doctor is able to vary the materialisation point by a sufficient amount to stay out of the Intelligence’s reach. From then on, the Intelligence has to wear down the military outpost in the London Underground network by attrition until it thinks it has reduced the Doctor from player to just another card. The Underground’s potential for suspense and menace is exploited through craftily-designed sets and careful lighting, sound design and camera angles which suggest the slow constriction of freedom of movement, imagination and hope. London’s arteries are clogged by the web and resistance is suffocated. The result is a slightly uneven but still impressive realisation of psychological drama without compromising the expectations from an established family action-adventure serial.

On inspection, the tube tunnel sets don’t look very much like the real London Underground. There are too many crossovers between tracks, no mention of having to cut through stations to change from line to line, and most noticeably Monument is depicted as a deep tube rather than a sub-surface station. However, it does successfully represent the Underground as a region not normally navigated by human beings without aid of creatures native to the subterranean world. The Yeti are reconfigured for this realm with their headlamp eyes; their thick coats might encourage the viewer to think of the tunnels as cold rather than hot (as they would more likely be), as also suggested in dialogue, and play up the idea of the Underground as a kind of limbo, an unfriendly state of existence between the known and unknown worlds. The physical distance between Goodge Street and Piccadilly Circus is correlated to the metaphysical one between Earth and the Intelligence’s astral plane.

In Doctor Who MagaWebofFear4_Yeti_duotonezine Special Edition 35: The Missing Episodes – The Second Doctor, volume one, Jonathan Morris writes that for Doctor Who‘s fourth and fifth years David Whitaker’s contribution of six hours of television was equivalent to that of a modern showrunner. In its fifth year Doctor Who briefly found a writing partnership to match Whitaker’s output, the authors of The Web of Fear, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln. Though never again associated with Doctor Who after 1968, Haisman and Lincoln’s two contributions changed the series’ narrative direction for several years to follow, the two Travers and Yeti stories providing the ground from which the UNIT cycle of military-scientific sagas would spring. They also found a successful way of blending modish New Age concerns into Doctor Who‘s traditionally materialist view of the universe. Before they go up to the surface in episode four, the Doctor warns Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart that the Intelligence is without tangible form, likening it to a mist floating in space. On his return, the last survivor of his expedition, the Colonel attributes those qualities – “formless, shapeless” – to the Yeti themselves. Given the physical transformation of the Yeti seen in episode one as well as their near-invulnerability to bullets, how far should the Yeti be considered objectively real, and how far are their animal appearance and apparently robotic nature just manifestations of both ancient and modern fears of threats to human survival? If so, then what of the electronics inside the Yeti control sphere, and the device the Doctor builds? The material universe of The Web of Fear is one where characters who want to be able to explore and establish its boundaries by rational inquiry face a would-be author whose creations project into ‘our’ experienced reality in shapes devised to best exploit the terrors of a society in the throes of technological transformation, but which substantially exist in a state which though imperceptible to humans which is (usually) more possessed of more reality than the perceived material or technological substance. The robot Yeti derive their strength not only from the appearance of advanced electronic and mechanical engineering, but from the Intelligence and whatever matter it sees, makes and is made from.

Photograph of Eva C showing fraud ectoplasm made from a Paris newspaper, Le Miroir. Albert Schrenck-Notzing, Phenomena of Materialization: A Contribution to the Investigation of Mediumistic Teleplastics Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1920

Similarly several states sustain in the eponymous Web. The practical limitations of design are turned to advantage. David Myerscough-Jones presents the Web as a pulsating mass of foam; foam seemingly held by a membrane; jets of foam fired by Yeti from gourd-like guns; mists of dust and vapour; a film overlay depicting the multiplication of microorganisms; and strands and ribbons of cobweb. The dialogue describes it as “fungus” and the strands do look like threads of mycelium, but when seen choking the faces and particularly mouths of victims they look like ectoplasm ejected from the bodies of mediums as they interact with the spirits of the dead. Not only is The Web of Fear one of many examples of the programme telling supernatural stories clothed in scientific terminology, its design and language place the story in a lineage of pseudoscience.

The Web of Fear‘s embrace of the ambiguous helps deflect some of the conceptual weaknesses of the Great Intelligence and the Yeti carried over from The Abominable Snowmen. A point of continuity hidden in plain sight is the identity of the agent of the Great Intelligence. The nearest role to the lama Padmasambhava is the old soldier who has seen it all, Staff Sergeant Arnold. In contrast to Padmasambhava’s plight, there is no evidence that Arnold is ever aware that he is possessed by the Intelligence. Instead, Jack Woolgar plays Arnold as a hard taskmaster but sympathetic character, as disturbed by the death toll in the tunnels as anybody, scared of the fungus and in episode five sitting down on the corner of a table alone, baffled by his own survival. There are just a few hints before the last episode that there is something other than dutiful military efficiency driving his questions about the travellers and the TARDIS or his allocations of his subordinates. Woolgar is on screen for far fewer minutes as the personification of the Intelligence, but it’s a confident performance without the gaseous sibillance previously associated with the Intelligence. The Intelligence is fully present in this world and behaves as if it is adding finishing touches to a victory it has already achieved, without any hint that it is enjoying its own cleverness: the assimilation of the Doctor’s memory and capabilities is handled, after so much effort, as an administrative necessity.

Mid-period Patrick Troughton Doctor Who sometimes liked to provide its protagonist with a non-ingenue but young woman with whom to flirt. Astrid in The Enemy of the World is here succeeded by Anne Travers. Anne famously puts down Captain Knight’s by-the-book chat-up line in episode one, thought it’s almost a pity that her stereotype-challenging short dress is replaced by a very tailored but more businesslike trouser suit from episode three, as if confounding male expectations is done for today. Isobel Watkins takes her place in The Invasion but The Web of Fear reveals Isobel was more of a reaction to than a continuation of Anne under another name. There is no overt stalking of a ‘dolly soldier’ here. Anne’s combination of attractiveness to men in uniform and position as highly-educated technical feed to the Doctor make her instead a precursor to the next two female companions, Zoe and Liz. Tina Packer’s performance when Anne covers the companion role, principally in episode five, conveys alarm without suggesting imminent physical or psychological collapse. Instead fear is a practical problem to be mastered. The Doctor bonds with Anne as if delighted to have adult company: the back-patting and hand-holding emphasise that they are counterparts. Tina Packer’s ease in realising Anne’s facets invites contrast with Deborah Watling’s difficulties in finding ways to vary the perils of Victoria Waterfield, too often the most distressed of Doctor Who‘s damsels and here given even fewer opportunities than usual for proactivity. Perhaps Victoria’s finest moment comes in episode two, where, speaking slowly as if to a small child, reintroduces herself and Jamie to Edward Travers. Travers’s departure a few minutes later, unclear whether he is leaving Victoria in the care of Anne or vice versa, plays merrily with the paradox time travel can make of the conventions of seniority, a game leavened by the viewer’s knowledge that Travers is played by Deborah Watling’s father.

Just as Anne isn’t really Isobel, this isn’t really a dry run for The Invasion. The battle scene in episode four shows how Doctor Who can pull off an armed confrontation in contemporary London, but where UNIT are victorious the battle of Covent Garden is a bleak affair. The Goodge Street garrison don’t have the resources of a UNIT. They are battling with the realisation that they are out of their depth, something which UNIT at least acknowledges and usually overtakes. The use of regional accents and stock types – conscientious young officer, Cockney wide boy, gadget enthusiast, Welsh coward – might be lazy to the point of offence but it invites the audience to think that they know Captain Knight, Corporal Blake, Craftsman Weems and Driver Evans and be shocked or relieved by their fates. It’s a device at least as old as Shakespeare’s history plays, though the battle of Covent Garden in episode four is only Lethbridge-Stewart’s Agincourt insofar as it provides a catharsis. The incident itself fails to vindicate the short-term strategy of either Lethbridge-Stewart or the Doctor. Lethbridge-Stewart survives not because he hides on top of a crate (as suggested by Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood in About Time 2, working with the sound and images then available), but because Corporal Blake dies in his place, a good subordinate protecting his commander, and because the Intelligence, in command of the situation, has decided it has wrought enough havoc. One person survives to tell the tale because the Intelligence at this stage is the author of the story and the Intelligence needs someone to tell the others how hopeless the situation is before it appears inhabiting the body of Travers. The enemy is already within.

The recovery of The Web of Fear should explode any attempt to discuss UNIT dating as if Doctor Who was offering some serious predictions of a near future, or as if a consistent chronology was part of the production team’s plan by this point. The ‘1975’ of The Web of Fear is a large step towards an exciting intensified version of the present in which one would take a more grown-up part, and in which it wasn’t at all implausible that entities from other worlds would need to be fought. The near future becomes one self-conscious fictionality where the texture of the experience is more important than ongoing consistency. Thus the posters on the tube station walls magnifying of the concerns of 1967/8 – a female gaze and the Scottish National Party, and, closest to the cast and crew, ‘Camfield’s’ milk chocolate.  There’s a badly-disguised poster (supposedly advertising ‘Block-Busters’) for In the Heat of the Night prominent on a passageway wall in episode six. This must have been someone’s choice: the parallels between the plots are there, with mutually mistrustful investigators pursuing several potential suspects, and the actions of a mob directed by an intangible force impeding their efforts.

As everyone notes, London Television’s Harold Chorley is an obvious parody of the key personality of the real-life London Television Consortium, David Frost. One of the many differences between the broadcast story and the later novelisation is that in the latter Chorley has inveigled and bullied his way down to the Goodge Street bunker to cover the emergency; on television, he’s been voted there by his colleagues and is blithely unaware that this shows they can’t stand him. Frost’s irrepressible self-confidence is well-attested.¹ At the conclusion Chorley is bouncing back, fixing on Anne Travers as the person most likely to assist him in relating the story to a waiting audience despite his earlier dismissal of her as the product of a redbrick university. Chorley is presumably, like Frost (a Cambridge man) a graduate of one of the ancient English universities; believing he represents the new and the popular, he reveals in these moments his reliance on the establishment. Without his network, he is unable to maintain his composure alone in the tunnels. The door is not closed to the possibility that Chorley’s were among the ‘many other human hands’ of the Intelligence, though if so Arnold/the Intelligence establishes on their meeting in episode six that he remembers nothing of being taken over.

The Web of Fear ends hunting a sequel. The Intelligence is left free and one is left with the sense the Doctor is leaving an extended family rather than the ill-assorted group of colleagues who populate many of the Doctor Who serials of the Troughton period. The cast develop a sense of trust among and self-knowledge within the characters which didn’t arise by necessity from format and script, a compliment to this particular cast and to Douglas Camfield’s seriousness of purpose as director. It’s entirely credible in the context of this ending that Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore have speculated that The Invasion was conceived as a third Yeti story, an opening-out of the battle of Covent Garden to build upon what Camfield’s production had made of the Web of Fear script. As a poster on an online forum noted after watching this story, the name of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce suggests it had one particular intelligence in mind. As it was, the production office’s relations with Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln cooled, and the Intelligence would not appear until reinvented by Steven Moffat for The Snowmen in 2012. Novelised in 1976, Terrance Dicks subtly recast story and characters to be more consistent with the UNIT format as it evolved under his guidance in the early 1970s, and while found compelling by this reader (who was a few weeks short of his eighth birthday when he first read the 1978 reprint) lost some of the ambiguity which pervades the screen version. This is a Doctor Who which makes the most of monochrome, a serial of tight portrait shots which emphasise the shadows playing over profiles in relief, and light shone from above on figures often seen from below, as if by a person not yet fully grown (the target audience) or a mouse (a fellow plaything of the Intelligence, or a rodent denizen of the tunnels).

Unusually for a series concerned with the victory of rationality, Intelligence and Yeti defy explanation in a manner more satisfactory than they do in The Abominable Snowmen. It’s less the contemporaneity and military trappings of The Web of Fear that make the story successful, than the overwhelming of London’s own planned and engineered mechanical infrastructure by something seemingly unpredictable and both organic and non-material at the same time. Haisman and Lincoln were banished and recordings of their Doctor Whos wiped, but their contribution has haunted Doctor Who ever since and the recovery of The Web of Fear, film print ghosts of lost video masters now reanimated by digital processing and distribution, reveals how they extracted menace from the borders of empirical enquiry and insistent, lingering superstition in a world which sought comfort and reassurance from a technology of which it was uncertain.

¹ For examples of the opinions contemporaries at Cambridge had of Frost, see Patrick Mulkern, ‘Doctor Who’s Waris Hussein on William Hartnell, Bette Davis, & Peter Cook loathing David Frost’, www.radiotimes.com, accessed 26 October 2013. For his unpopularity within ITV, see ‘History of ITV: The New Franchises’, Teletronic, accessed 26 October 2013, offers one of many examples.

Doctor Who V.17-22: The Enemy of the World

ImageIt’s the odd one out in fan folklore, supposedly: the monster season story without a monster. A case can be made, though, for The Enemy of the World being the story which both rebukes the philosophy of Innes Lloyd’s presentation of Doctor Who as a carnival of monsters and points out what sustains it. All the monsters of Doctor Who are projections or reflections of human characteristics one way or another, and The Enemy of the World upholds this from the start, with the Doctor’s line stating that the men who hunt them are doing what human beings enjoy best – killing others. The story goes on to present the viewer with unpalatable truths about human beings, many drawn from the near past, but projected into an imagined near future.

The Enemy of the World had probably the greatest number of settings of a story that season. The use of a painted backcloth to show Nagy Gardens (a politically-charged name) and the townscape beyond in episode two is glaring now on our high-resolution screens, though its limitations must have been obvious to Barry Letts and his crew in 1967; a few years later, in the colour era, Letts would be experimenting with colour separation overlay, models and photographs in an attempt to compensate. It’s also something of a comedown after the beach scenes and the helicopter explosion in episode one. Other throws-forward to the period when Letts will be in charge of the whole series, rather than just one serial, are the exterior shots of an industrial site or power-plant to represent an advanced research centre, and the plotline involving the fake nuclear shelter, which just over six years later will appear in a revised form as the spaceship storyline in Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

When the novelisation was published in 1981, the BBC still prohibited any Doctor other than the current one being portrayed on new novelisation covers. For a generation of Target book readers, The Enemy of the World is represented by a fresh-faced Astrid Ferrier and an intense, suspicious Giles Kent. It’s now possible to see more of the performances behind those images and also understand the costuming a little more, particularly where Astrid is concerned. Her thigh boots are straight out of 1960s fetishised male anxieties about powerful women, but they also function as part of her presentation as a huntswoman. She’s Giles Kent’s ‘assistant’, but in what sense is left for the viewer to infer by the script: her costume suggests she is an elite enforcer and investigator and her early activities are those of a leading intelligence operative with more than a dash of bounty hunter. To some extent the story is Astrid’s moral journey, from placing her faith in a system and leader (Giles Kent as champion of justice and victim of Salamander) to making decisions herself which don’t idealise particular individuals.

The future society of 2018 is conceivably consistent with that of 1986 depicted in The Tenth Planet just over a year before. The United Nations has been superseded by the United Zones, based in the UN building, with Hungary now only being a geographical descriptor in a supposedly post-national world. The images of the Hungarian city’s collapse in the face of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes seem as much to do with war as with natural disasters and the replacement of Denes with Salamander’s puppet Fedorin, with his perhaps more Russian-sounding name, further encourages comparisons with the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. The depiction of a society whose outwardly ordered and presumably democratic forms are being subverted almost imperceptibly while people go about their daily lives is reminiscent of Nazi rule in Germany. Salamander’s dupes in the underground shelter are perpetuating one kind of Cold War nightmare, borrowed from Mordecai Roshwald’s Level Seven, as adapted the year before by J.B. Priestley and directed by Rudolph Cartier for BBC2’s Out of the Unknown, while borrowing and inverting imagery from The Time Machine, blond Eloi living and working underground.

David Whitaker’s attitude to the regular cast is shaped by his status by this time as the writer with the longest association with the programme. In the first episode Jamie and Victoria are suddenly the quasi-parental figures to the unpredictable childlike Doctor, especially on location. Though they return to more identifiable child-friendly patterns later, Jamie has to undertake a lot of derring-do which is consistent with his underused eighteenth-century Jacobite rebel background, but is much more reminiscent of the more mature Ian Chesterton. Putting Victoria in what starts as a pastiche of Jamie’s usual costume, with self-aware bonnet, and then becomes a clone suggests that when Jamie describes Victoria in conversation as his ‘girlfriend’ he’s not simply acting; their body language mirrors each other’s, let alone how Victoria cosies up on Jamie’s knee in the helicopter, and it’s as if they are for the time being one of those couples who wear the same outfits. Viewed in this context the Doctor’s request for Jamie’s opinion on whether Salamander is handsome or not plays as if he is reminding them this relationship is a threesome.

Patrick Troughton’s dual performance as Salamander and the Doctor will be anticipated by most viewers and they should not be disappointed. Rarely do the two overlap and one is always aware what sort of man Salamander is. Troughton enjoys playing characters who are both actors and Salamander is someone who pushes his ham performance of sincerity beyond his limit, propelled by a mesmerising charm with a brutal and desperate edge, and fuelled by a sadistic enjoyment of power, displayed most in the final episode by his intention to pursue Kent through tunnels, wounding him and enjoying his slow death. Troughton also seems to relish the Doctor having more to do other than shepherd strange creatures about and talk pseudoscience as was too often the case; his flirtation with Astrid as she tries to work out what sort of doctor he is (“Which law? Whose philosophies, eh?”; and for those who see significance in Whitaker or Anthony Coburn giving Ian the surname Chesterton, there might be added meaning in Astrid’s final option, not denied, that the Doctor is a doctor of divinity) reinforces the eroded enigma around the character. Some of Astrid’s enthralment by the Doctor will be borrowed by Steven Moffat for River Song – she hails him as “the most marvellous man who ever dropped out of the sky”.

The Enemy of the World often exceeds its technical limitations – as the Doctor and Salamander draw closer together, I was more and more trying to work out where the recording breaks were and where instead Troughton was moving quickly between sets – and is a more rewarding script than The Ice Warriors, less nonsensical than The Abominable Snowmen, and more ambitious and less narrowly derivative than The Tomb of the Cybermen. It’s kept going by strong performances (Milton Johns, George Pravda, the delicate Margaret Hickey) and a script which is structurally sound, keeps momentum going, and credibly builds Salamander into a villain mad and monstrous enough to finally attempt to take over the TARDIS itself. If anything lets it down, it’s the absence of a specially-composed incidental music score, which could have added extra polish to an already well-hewn production. Its incorporation of contemporary political and science-fictional influences makes it a memorable beacon of reflection in one of the more gung-ho eras of the programme, while retaining enough explosions and percussion weapons to keep action-adventure viewers happy.

Thanks to Jim Smith and Tony Cross.