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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Holmes’

Doomwatch finds itself touched by greatness with the eleventh episode of the second series, The Inquest. One wonders how many of the themes of these episodes were handed to the writers by the production team, for the idea at the heart of this one – a rabies outbreak in England – also pops up in a late episode of Survivors, albeit realised rather differently.

A young girl has died of rabies and Quist has sent Hardcastle down to the area to try and locate the source of the infection, as there have been no reports of mad dogs. The local research institute has been implicated in the outbreak and he is checking it out when he is wounded after someone starts taking pot-shots at the place – the institute’s use of live testing has made it the target of sustained protests and sabotage from animal lovers in the vicinity. Luckily it’s only a flesh wound, but he’s still confined to hospital.

With Chantry and Ridge both away on business or leave, it falls to Quist to send Colin Bradshaw (Joby Blanshard), Doomwatch’s token Northern stereotype, into the field to take over. He soon discovers that tempers are running high, with no obvious leads on the mad dogs (no pun intended) and the local dog-lover determined to pin responsibility on a mutant virus carried by tsetse flies from the local lab…

The Inquest is the sole contribution to Doomwatch from Robert Holmes, who in 1971 was just at the start of his imperial period as the greatest writer of Doctor Who stories in the history of the world. One is so familiar with the particular tropes of Holmes’ Doctor Who work – larger than life characters, a genuine love of language, occasional signs of real political sophistication and cynicism, for instance – that it can be a little disconcerting to watch his work on another series and find these things much less evident. It’s a little difficult to discern just how good a fit Holmes and Doomwatch were for each other, for in some ways this is a very atypical episode. Ridge and Chantry aren’t in it at all, and Quist and Hardcastle play quite minor roles, leaving Bradshaw to enjoy his big moment as chief representative of the team. Even then, he’s off-screen for quite long periods, with the meat of the episode being the proceedings of the inquest for the dead girl – extremely long scenes of people talking to each other in the same room.

It’s a testament to Holmes’ talent that The Inquest remains an engaging drama despite these constraints. Before becoming the world’s greatest Doctor Who writer, and doing some other jobs in TV, Holmes was a police detective and then a newspaper journalist, and his familiarity with these kinds of proceedings shines through. The mystery of where the rabies outbreak has come from is handled well and the solution, when it comes, is logical and satisfying. None of it really qualifies as actual SF, of course, but given how different it is from the norm, this is a strong episode, at the very least (hey, they can’t all be Pyramids of Mars).

A major figure from an earlier era of Doctor Who writes the next episode, The Logicians: Dennis Spooner, script editor during the programme’s second and third seasons, and the first person to see a place for comedy in the palette of the series (you could therefore perhaps say the current tendency for S***** M***** to write the programme as a sitcom is ultimately Spooner’s fault, but that might be considered overly harsh). (Spooner had previously written Burial at Sea, one of the ‘lost’ series one episodes.) As I’ve said before, Spooner is really one of the unsung heroes of British TV SF and fantasy: he was the creator of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and a notable writer on Thunderbirds and other Gerry Anderson programmes, as well as both The Avengers and The New Avengers.

This may be why The Logicians feels distinctly like an early Avengers episode itself, and why Simon Oates seems to be having such a ball (Oates played Steed in an ill-fated Avengers stage show between seasons of Doomwatch and later appeared in The New Avengers himself). A group of schoolboys plan and execute a robbery on the pharmaceutical company which one of their fathers manages – the plan is both audacious and meticulously worked out, and the formula for a lucrative new drug is successfully stolen. What the boys have not reckoned on is the presence of Ridge, who puts together enough evidence to make Doomwatch interested in the experimental school they go to – there is little conventional discipline and the children are extensively trained in logical problem-solving. But can Quist and the others outwit such young and gifted brains?

This works quite well as a light caper drama, with Doomwatch attempting to keep up with their youthful quarry – it’s made clear that the robbery is motivated not by self-interest, but a desire to raise funds to keep the school open. (One of the boys is played by Peter Duncan, most famous as a Blue Peter presenter, but also the possessor of an interesting acting CV featuring episodes of The Tomorrow People, Space: 1999 and Survivors. This episode also features Michael Gover, another Survivors regular.) The shift away from conversation and character to plot and action is very noticeable and not at all unwelcome.

However, you do find yourself thinking that Doomwatch’s involvement in what’s arguably a police matter is somewhat contrived, and the usual note of baleful concern, when struck by Quist, feels a little forced – are experimental schools and the use of computers in education going to turn children into high-functioning amoral recidivists? I would say that was an example of the show trying to create a concern rather than reflect one – an example of ‘wouldn’t it be worrying if…’ rather than ‘isn’t it worrying that…’ But Spooner is a good enough writer to keep you watching and entertained.

The second series concludes with Public Enemy, written by Patrick Alexander (a writer, for once, with no connection to that other show which I never mention any more). This episode marks the last involvement in the series of co-creators Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler, and the temptation to assume that they were heavily involved in its scripting is very strong.

A teenage boy dies after climbing onto a factory roof to retrieve a football; this happens in a small southern town is already under investigation for an unnaturally high rate of pulmonary illness, and the new death gives the team a focus for their efforts. The factory is operated by a metallurgical company working on a potentially valuable new alloy, and the research is being overseen by Lewis, an ambitious young scientist played by Trevor Bannister (Bannister is best remembered for appearing sitcoms like Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine, but he is notably effective in more serious and antagonistic roles both here and in The Tomorrow People).

Quist’s investigation uncovers the fact that production of the new alloy creates  beryllium salts as a by-product, which are quite capable of causing lethal side-effects unless precautionary measures are significantly stepped-up. Lewis is outraged, suggesting Quist is scaremongering, but the management and the workforce are more sympathetic.

…until the parent company of the factory decides that the cost of the safety improvements involved in meeting Quist’s requirements is too great, and they’re going to close it down and shift production to their site in Leicester, many miles to the north. Everyone prepared to relocate will keep their jobs, but this is still terrible news for the rest of the town and its businesses. Quist is obliged to address a meeting of the angry principals, all of whom want him to either justify his report or (preferably) moderate its conclusions.

Up to this point the episode has been a reasonably engaging drama, but in its scene it transforms into an undisguised parable about environmentalism and social attitudes towards it. Everyone wants a cleaner, greener world, but no-one wants to pay for it – whether that means paying in cash, or in inconvenience, or in loss of potential progress. (Quist also dismisses the obsession with progress as something else impelling humanity’s zombie march towards disaster.) Tough decisions have to be made. ‘We all have a choice to make,’ Quist says, in the final words of the episode, ‘…all of us.’ By this point John Paul is looking straight down the camera lens, and the implication is obvious – it’s not just Quist speaking to the angry workers, managers, scientists and townspeople, but also the makers of the programme addressing audience at home. It’s a memorably powerful conclusion to the episode and the season, the fact that the episode’s story is left unresolved feeling very secondary.

Is it somewhat preachy? Well, maybe – but then the whole series has been motivated by the same kind of concerns. Its earnestness and willingness to be partisan may be unfashionable nowadays, but many of the issues it has touched on are as important today as they were in 1971. Regardless of how well the remains of the third series prove to have turned out, this remains a landmark series.

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I think there are a couple of little phrases I shall have to prohibit myself from using when I write about vintage TV from now on, first and foremost ‘nothing like this would ever be shown for the same audience today’ – that probably goes without saying, on reflection, in that it’s true that every programme, from the news downward, is operating to a different set of values and priorities than it was even twenty years ago. Things change; such is life.

But even so, sometimes you are smacked in the face by just how different things were in years go by. Watching The Brain of Morbius again, nearly 40 years on from its original broadcast, one is almost instantly struck by a crunching one-two of things that would be inconceivable on modern TV.

The first one is how inescapably shoddy the production looks, by modern standards. Proceedings open in a studio-bound mountainside set, which appears to be made of finest polystyrene, and crawling about is a man in a second-hand rubber insect costume. The cheapest of cheap shows for very tiny children looks more polished than this, today. But then, within a handful of minutes, it is made clear that this story is going to deal with subject matter so ghastly and unpleasant it would only appear post-watershed these days, and even then probably only with a prefatory warning [Apparently not: subsequently shown on the Horror Channel during daytime with barely a disclaimer in sight – A]: the poor old insect gets his head chopped off, and we later see his severed bonce being experimented on by the story’s resident mad scientist, Solon (Philip Madoc). (It suddenly occurs to me that Solon’s first name, Mehendri, doesn’t seem to appear on screen, so I wonder where it came from. Is it in the novelisation? Hmmm. [Wrong again – I think I heard it in Episode One – A])

brain

I don’t mention these things because I think The Brain of Morbius is an embarrassingly primitive or outrageously depraved story, but simply because one of the over-riding impressions one gets watching these great old Doctor Who stories nowadays is the sense of how they are products of an utterly different culture. Perhaps that’s why I love them so much, and am so indifferent to virtually everything made for TV today.

This isn’t even a particular favourite of mine, nor indeed a story held in the highest of regards. It was originally transmitted in 1976, and behind the innocuous writer’s credit of Robin Bland lies the closest the series ever came to a collaboration between two of its greatest writers, Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes.

The TARDIS lands on the devastated planet Karn, perhaps better known these days as the place of the eighth Doctor’s demise, apparently sent there by the Time Lords. Living on Karn are the Sisterhood of the Flame, a quasi-religious order dedicated to protecting a mysterious flame which produces an elixir of everlasting life, and Solon and his servant, who are dedicated to a rather darker pursuit. The Sisters have got into the habit of telekinetically shooting down any passing spacecraft just to be on the safe side, which dovetails rather well with Solon’s need for a constant supply of fresh body parts. But what does all this have to do with Morbius, a now-deceased Time Lord despot who was executed on Karn, and whose little grey cells feature so prominently in the title of the tale?

It would be fascinating to get one’s hands on the original Dicks scripts for The Brain of Morbius and see just how significant Holmes’ redrafting was. The story certainly has the rock-solid underpinning of structure that one would expect from Dicks, not to mention the fascination with Time Lord mythology and history (he’s allowed this, he did co-create them, after all), and he displays the sort of casual, total understanding of the Doctor’s character you would expect. But on the other hand, the story also sticks very closely to the narrative template Holmes deployed numerous times during his tenure as script-editor: the story is occurring in the aftermath of a cataclysmic conflict, the instigator of which is trapped somewhere underground in a debilitated form. Various servants are trying to release him, which generally happens towards the end of the final episode: that’s Morbius in this story, but also Sutekh, the Master, and Magnus Greel elsewhere – give or take the odd detail. The character of Solon also feels authentically Holmesian and is one of the things that makes the story sing: there aren’t many performers who can match Tom Baker in terms of sheer presence, but Madoc manages it here.

That said, this isn’t quite a story from the first rank, as it relies a little too much on plot devices appearing out of thin air for it to function – the convenient gun Solon whips out to blow a hole in Condo’s guts, for one thing, but more importantly the mindbending machine which features so prominently in the climax – Chekhov’s Gun dictates this should have been set up in the previous episode, at least.

(One of the incidental sadnesses of the recent Moffatisation of Doctor Who is the ironclad declaration that the Hartnell incarnation was definitively the first, which does render the procession of pre-Hartnell Doctors displayed here rather baffling. Even my own inclination to disregard everything from The Time of the Doctor onwards doesn’t help, given there’s that ‘all twelve of them’ moment in the fiftieth anniversary… Never mind.)

More importantly, perhaps, there’s the fact that the story’s nature as a pastiche (primarily of Frankenstein, obviously, but not without a dash of Haggard) is essential to it working. This isn’t always the case with the Holmes-Hinchcliffe pastiche stories – you don’t need to be aware of Forbidden Planet to enjoy Planet of Evil or Face of Evil – but unless you understand that Holmes (and we can be pretty sure it is Holmes, rather than Dicks) is playing games with Mary Shelley, the whole thing unravels into a heap of niggling plot holes, despite the writer’s valiant efforts – why doesn’t Solon plan to just transplant the brain directly into the Doctor, rather than all that messing about with head-swapping which seems to be on the cards? Why bother building the composite body at all? (One can also engagingly speculate on how removing the brain of a Time Lord interacts with the regenerative process, and exactly how much damage it would take to stop the process working.)

So this is a story which functions first and foremost as a gothic pastiche, containing many of the most prominent tropes of this period of the programme (there’s even a knowing gag about how many times Sarah finds herself believing the Doctor is dead, which does happen rather a lot). You could probably make a decent case that The Brain of Morbius is the most representative story of all the things this particular production team are famous for, even if the studio-bound nature of proceedings inevitably make it less effective than it could be. I will be honest and admit that this story isn’t a particular favourite of mine, but – given its conception and the circumstances in which it was made – there’s not very much wrong with it at all.

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The Semi-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Bit

The Brain of Morbius is one of those stories which offers virtually no clues as to its setting, spatially or historically, and the few clues we are given are either heroically unhelpful or invite more questions than they answer. Solon is apparently Terran in origin, which at least seems to suggest a setting some time after the 22nd century, but this would seem to indicate Earth was involved in – or at least aware of – Morbius’ rebellion, which is curious.

It’s one of those slightly odd facts that Earth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries had at least some knowledge of the existence of Time Lords as individuals, but there is no suggestion of any formal relationship between any of the later Earth Empires and Gallifrey (and Gallifrey does seem to maintain a form of diplomatic relation with other powers – the Third Zone government, for instance, disregards requests from the Time Lords to discontinue their time experiments in The Two Doctors).

This is all doubtless a result of the fact that the Morbius rebellion is one of those apparently-major events which is only referred to in one TV story. Not being familiar with any of the spin-off stories dealing with it in more detail, I can’t help but wonder at Terrance Dicks’ original idea – is Morbius another figure out of legend for the Doctor? Or did his reign happen during the Doctor’s own lifetime? What effect did it have in shaping his own outlook? It’s irresistibly tempting to draw the conclusion that the Doctor’s unique reference to the circumstances of his own birth is in some way significant… but, as I say, there are many more questions than answers here.

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It is, I suppose, possible that some people reading this may come away with the idea that I am some sort of obsessive Season 8 fan: there are a couple of Pertwee seasons I’ve barely scratched the surface of, and yet here we are talking about Terror of the Autons, meaning that more than 80% of this particular run is done.

This is a story with which I have a slightly odd relationship. It was one of the very last stories from the 20th century run of Doctor Who that I saw – I bought it on VHS in the Spring of 2004, and probably only watched it once before, well, the series came back, and DVD became my preferred format, and all that sort of thing.

And yet this was one of the first Pertwee stories I – well, not watched, but certainly experienced, outside of the novelisation format, certainly. In the early summer of 1986 I came across someone at school who had the story on audio tape. Younger readers will probably find this impossible to comprehend, but audio tapes of old Doctor Who stories remained a big deal into the 1990s: the complete availability of the existing series on any format seemed like an impossible dream, and swapping audio tapes could go on under the radar of the BBC’s legal team. So it was that my first time through Terror of the Autons with actors and so on happened not in front of a TV but next to a hi-fi.

Hey ho. This is not, I would say, a story best suited to the audio-only experience, consisting – in very characteristic Robert Holmes style – of not much more than a string of bravura set pieces strung together by a somewhat perfunctory plot.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) is still exiled on Earth in the 1970s (or possibly the 1980s). To be perfectly honest, the Time Lords could have exiled him to one small English county in the 1970s (etc) and it would have made no difference as far as this story is concerned, because every key location seems to be remarkably close to all the others.

Anyway, the Doctor’s old enemy the Master (Roger Delgado) turns up to cause trouble, quickly forging an alliance with the Nestene Consciousness and its polymer-based servitors, the Autons. What follows is, basically, a series of plastic-themed death-traps with the odd action sequence thrown in for good measure.

delgado

The obvious thing to say about Terror of the Autons is that this is the story where Barry Letts took a firm grip on the series he had inherited, slightly less than a season earlier, and thoroughly reworked it into the style he wanted. This is where the Pertwee style of popular conception really gels. Henceforth, none of those sprawling seven-part stories; none of that quasi-grittiness and adult restraint. Season Seven often looks like it wants to be The Avengers or Department S: Season Eight is the one you can imagine inspiring The Tomorrow People. It is brash, it is colourful (often to the point of garishness), and given the remarkable body-count it is often strangely cosy.

Strangely enough, though, none of these things are really what you would want to remember Barry Letts for – none of them are tied up with his greatest contributions to the series. Quite what those are – well, different people will have different ideas, I shouldn’t wonder, but for me they are the creation of a Doctor Who which took itself and its own mythology a little more seriously, and also a considerable elevation in the sophistication of the series’ storytelling, both morally and narratively.

As I say, not much of that is visible here: Terror of the Autons is largely just razzle-dazzle, but entertainingly done. I suppose you could argue it partly constitutes a commentary on early 70s Britain’s love for plastic consumer tat, but this is hardly a profound message. To be honest, the story really only functions as an introduction to another of Barry Letts’ great innovations (though here Terrance Dicks should take his fair share of the credit), the Master.

The Master is the first of the regular characters to appear and for most of the story he has the most pro-active role, even if it is basically just to kill lots of disposable guest characters and make various doomed attempts at killing the other regulars. Delgado, of course, ensures that the character is always great fun to watch, even if he is always a cartoony villain in a cartoony story. Not just cartoony but also quite as cosy as any other element of the format – you know he’s never going to kill anyone important, or murder a woman or a child.

This isn’t close to being the greatest Master story, or even the greatest Master story of the Pertween years. But it is one of the very few occasions where the Master is as utterly central to the narrative as the Doctor, if not moreso – it’s interesting to note the number of parallels between this story as The Sound of Drums, which is arguably its 21st century counterpart. And the story fits him like a tight leather glove: he may be quietly ridiculous, cartoony, and not stand up to serious consideration for more than a few seconds, but then neither does Terror of the Autons. It doesn’t stop either of them from being a lot of fun to watch.

 

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Amongst the basic human rights that we all enjoy and often take for granted, an easily-overlooked one is the right to be wrong – commonly utilised at the same time as the right to be stupid, and, of course, the right to free speech. (Personally I’ve never needed it, of course.) Some kinds of wrongness are less acceptable than others, obviously. Not liking Doctor Who because you just don’t go for fantasy or you’ve received serious permanent brain damage I can empathise with, if not entirely understand.  On the other hand, should you object to it on the grounds that it is ‘occult’ – well, we’re either never going to discuss it again or have a very, very lengthy and heated argument.

Another group I’m prone to get exasperated with is that odd subset of Who fandom who dismiss great chunks of the series as ‘not counting’ somehow. This particular fault-line tends to be most pronounced when it comes to the 1963-1996 version and the one that’s been running since 2005 (oddly enough, the American-led TV movie production usually gets lumped in with the first run). Personally I can’t really understand why this should make any difference. I was talking to a work colleague a few years ago and he admitted that a friend of his was a lapsed Who-fan – she just didn’t like the new stuff. ‘But,’ he added, ‘she was still really annoyed when Chris Eccleston left after only one year.’

‘Why?’

‘She thought he was frivolously wasting one of the Doctor’s regenerations.’

Well, it’s nice that she still cared, I suppose. But people who get precious about this particular subject are another group who I tend to get grumpy with.

Everyone properly familiar with Doctor Who knows that the series changes its lead actor every few years. In a typical example of making a virtue of necessity, the show writes these changes into the narrative in exactly the way the Bond franchise doesn’t – the change is part of the Doctor’s alien physiology, and some of the stories immediately preceding or following a regeneration have been amongst  the series’ finest. (And some of them have been horrible, of course.)

14 years into the show’s run, a writer named Robert Holmes needed to put a villain in dire straits to make the story he was working on function. As the villain was from the same planet as the Doctor, Holmes decided that the bad guy had exhausted his allowance of bodily renewals and was thus in danger of death. Apparently arbitrarily, he settled on twelve as the maximum possible number of regenerations. As the show was only its fourth Doctor at the time, this probably didn’t seem like a big deal.

Robert Holmes. Secret plan to destroy Doctor Who not pictured.

Now, of course, we’re on our eleventh official Doctor and the regeneration limit has become more of a live issue in recent years, particularly with some very dedicated fans. While on the one hand they love the show and want to see it continue on into the future (though I’d suspect they secretly hope it will be finally cancelled just before the moment of their own death), the fact that they treat every last detail of continuity with the sort of reverence normally only accorded to Holy Writ has put them in a bit of a bind.   

Anyway, after various rumblings and jokes and oblique comments on the subject over the past year or so, it seems as if the Lords of Who have finally broken cover and repealed the limit of thirteen. As if this wasn’t already guaranteed to provoke frenzied outrage, they’ve made things even worse by not doing it in Doctor Who itself but in one of the spin-offs. (The show in question hasn’t aired yet so the exact nature of the dodge isn’t quite clear.)

As the regeneration limit doesn’t appear to be a factor in the story involved, one almost suspects this has been included solely to wind up certain people. (To which I say: huzzah! You go for it!) Certainly, the fact that the writer is Rusty Davies, already something of a totemic hate-figure amongst ultra-trads, suggests that this is just being done in the way it is to draw the fire away from incumbent showrunner Steven Moffat.  (Not that one gets the impression he’d give a damn anyway.)

I’m probably taking far too political a view of this. In any case I am anticipating the shrieks and squeals of affronted continuity fundamentalists with probably a bit too much pleasure. Anyway, to them I would say this…

Robert Holmes didn’t write the limit of thirteen into continuity because he decided it was crucial to put a limiting factor on the longevity of his favourite show. He did it because it suited the story he was writing at the time. Caring about the story you’re writing at the time means you’re more likely to get great stories. Caring more about the big story that started in 1963 and is still going on now (because that’s all that fretting about continuity really is) is a recipe for… well, bad things. Honest.

Anyway, I find the whole thing of revering the limit of thirteen rather ironic, given that at the time the story in which it was introduced was savaged by that generation’s ultra-trads  for… rewriting established continuity. (Eh?) Glad you asked. The very first time the Doctor speaks of his own race in any detail, he describes them as ‘living forever’ – no hint of any kind of limitation there. Later on, the Time Lords offer the Master a new lease on multiple lives on two separate occasions – he even takes them up on it the second time. Even sticking strictly to continuity, there’s more evidence against the thirteen limit being in force than there is supporting it.

It is compulsory for any discussion of Bad Continuity in Doctor Who to include a photo from Mawdryn Undead. So here it is.

And it’s not as if the series isn’t riddled with other examples of continuity being ignored and/or messed up. The main character’s stated age has magically reduced itself. A major and beloved character retires from one job slightly before he actually starts it, if you do the sums. One character fails to recognise an alien being which has spectacularly invaded his home planet twice in the previous five years. There is the ongoing and rather delightful chaos of when exactly the series’ ‘present day’ actually is, and how the various spin-offs relate to that.

So the apparently-impending abolition of one piece of continuity really doesn’t bother me at all. Once, it might well have done. I’m slightly surprised about how mellow I’ve become, to be honest. And if the ultra-trads want to froth and sizzle and rave about something they have no control over, that will ultimately increase the lifespan of their favourite thing almost immeasurably, and that everyone else will either welcome or be completely indifferent to, so be it. As I mentioned at the start, everyone has the right to get it wrong some of the time. Or even all of the time.

Which is probably for the best, all things considered.

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