|From futuristic Scouse space girl to Shakespearean|
title character. You go, girl.
We also know, by sight, that we're in a comic historical. We've seen them enough before. Perhaps somewhere in the back of our minds we remember that the last comedy historical, The Saxons, was unexpectedly interrupted, but one genre-breaking story does not erase the existence of the genre. So whatever shock we might have in the unexpected failure of the Daleks to show up again, we can at least settle down quickly.
And indeed, the first episode of this story is pretty straightforward. By the end of it, we know what we're watching. It's a typical historical. This is something that really can't be stressed enough. I've said that Doctor Who is building to something in these stories over and over again now, and we're almost there, but that's an easier claim to make in 2011 when I know what the next 16 episodes of Doctor Who are and have seen them. In 1965, this tonal shift was jarring and confusing, and it was in no way clear where all of this was going. And so the fact that the episode appears to offer some foothold - that it looks like something resembling normal service - is probably nice. After something as weird as Mission to the Unknown, the historical version of the Galaxy 4 phoning-in is pretty welcome looking.
But as the episodes play on, a couple of things are clear. For one thing, this is funnier, at least to modern tastes, than any past historical. There's a scene in the second episode in which Paris slips out to the battlefield to make a token effort at challenging Achilles to single combat, and happens upon Steven, who wants to fight him. Paris's visible dislike of the idea of combat, and wants nothing more than to get out without dying. Similarly, in the first episode, there's a wonderful scene of Menaleus complaining that, honestly, after ten years of Trojan War, he doesn't even care that Paris stole Helen, and he'd rather just go home.
Much of this is down to a new writer, Donald Cotton, who, on the early evidence, appears to be quite a sharp, clever writer who one hopes will make a return to the series down the road. But the result is a really sharp, funny story. The acting is also good - Max Adrian as Priam is fantastic (even if his homosexuality allegedly caused serious tensions with an increasingly temperamental William Hartnell), as is Frances White as Cassandra, retooled as a villainess who demands Vicki and Steven's execution as Greek spies. Her counterpart on the Greek side is Odysseus, who gets some fantastic scenes with the Doctor as the Doctor tries to bluff his way out of having to solve the Trojan War before finally giving in and just proposing the Trojan Horse.
So it's a return to form - like Galaxy 4, an attempt to go back to what Doctor Who is known to be good at, but unlike Galaxy 4, a profoundly non-lazy attempt that makes a real effort to be interesting, funny, and better than what's come before. Right?
It's November 6, 1965. At long last, Ken Dodd goes away and is replaced by the Rolling Stones ordering people off of their cloud. It is worth, for once, looking at the immediate history surrounding this moment. In Britain, two things of extreme note are going on. First, the transmission of this story coincided with the breaking of the Moors murders, a series of five brutal child murders committed around Manchester. The murders are named because two of the graves were discovered in Saddleworth Moor. We should take a quick moment to define "moor" here for unfortunate Americans - rural, uncultivated hilly areas of Britain. They'll be worth knowing about come 1970 or so.
The other thing to know about the last month or so of British culture is that there has been an escalating crisis in the colony of Rhodesia, which we now know as Zimbabwe. You may recall from a few previous entries occasional remarks about the UK losing another African colony now and again. Mostly these went pretty well. The fact of the matter is that the UK was really good at losing colonial power. Up until Rhodesia. Rhodesia was a disaster.
The main problem was that the UK's policy under Harold Wilson was that it would not grant a colony independence unless the ruling powers in the country were the ethnic majority. That is to say, the UK actively declined to have a situation where it would liberate a colony in such a way that white colonists and their descendants formed the government. Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia (as it was known to the British), disagreed, and over the four weeks that The Myth Makers aired, the situation hurtled towards its resolution, which came five days after the end of the serial when Ian Smith and his supporters signed the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, separating from the UK and establishing a white minority government. The situation was a complete disaster - the UK was under enormous international pressure to stop Smith from declaring independence by whatever means necessary, while within the UK opinions were divided on whether a minority white government was actually all that bad. Remember, after all, that the whole kerfuffle with Gandhi in India was only resolved about twenty years ago. The British Empire was clearly dying, but that didn't mean it wasn't beloved by some.
I say all of this to stress that the first three episodes of The Myth Makers, with its broad comedy of the impersonal irritations of war, would have had a particular tone airing in this climate. With the real possibility of a British military action looming and the general darkness of horrifying child murders in the news, the dark and pessimistic humor of The Myth Makers must have struck a very particular chord. And so now we get to episode four.
And suddenly, the comedy drops out horrifyingly. The story veers abruptly from a comedic historical to something that feels like it's just shredding the basic structure of Doctor Who. Some of the tropes of narrative collapse from The Chase come in - a character called Katarina is hastily introduced amidst a wave of everyone acting like they've known her for three episodes now. But unlike The Chase, this is not a funny episode. This is, instead, an episode where half the characters brutally murder the other half, and the Doctor runs around trying desperately to collect the TARDIS crew and escape.
It's something we haven't seen before. The Doctor doesn't save the day here. He barely escapes. Not since The Aztecs, really, have we seen the Doctor simply get out of a situation at all costs instead of saving the day. And there, the only real loss was the Perfect Victim. Here it's a bloody massacre.
The most striking sign of this is the end fates of the two villains of the piece. Odysseus goes from a vaguely comedic figure to an extremely dark, threatening figure. Cassandra, on the other part, goes from a snarling antagonist to a tragic figure who is ultimately cut down by Odysseus.
Meanwhile, in the chaos of things, the Doctor loses Vicki. I mean loses. Not that she dies - she doesn't. Instead, she runs off to be with Troilus, taking on the name Cressida. But, notably, we are denied a proper farewell sequence for her. By all appearances, she makes it into the TARDIS, until we see her later on the battlefield with Troilus promising to help him rebuild - specifically to go help Aeneas found Rome, which is oddly circular given what her first adventure after joining the TARDIS was. But, more significantly, her entire departure is consumed, along with her name and identity. She loses her status as a companion of the Doctor's and becomes a Trojan woman. This, I think, is some of why Vicki is marginalized as a companion - she really was fantastic, and did a ton to establish what the role of the young female companion was. I've praised her before, and will not belabor the point here, but Maureen O'Brien is undoubtedly one of the overlooked gems of the Hartnell era.
Katarina, meanwhile, gets all but kidnapped onto the TARDIS - taken onboard in the chaos of their departure. She, being an ancient Trojan, does not understand what is going on. She believes herself to have died and gone to the afterlife, and believes the Doctor to be a god - much to his consternation. She's only there because Vicki sent her and told her all would be well. We will see, next story, how well that goes for her, but it is worth tracking her character arc - thrust into the TARDIS because the Doctor destroyed her world with his Trojan Horse idea, promised that all would be well, and very much lost.
As for Steven, in the closing minutes of the story he suffers a gruesome wound in battle, paralleling Vicki's sprained ankle at the end of Galaxy 4, but taking now a much more sinister tone. The Doctor admits that he needs to seek medical assistance for Steven. What has changed so that the essentially similar endings - a member of the TARDIS crew carrying an injury - take such different tones? The answer, it seems, is Mission to the Unknown - the intrusion of the fact that the Doctor can't save everybody. After the Doctor's failure last story - a failure he doesn't even now about - his status as an absolute hero who saves the day is endangered. Now it is shattered. Sometimes the Doctor can't win.
In this regard, The Myth Makers is by far the best historical we've seen. The last episode is a brutal sucker punch that advances the themes we've seen. This is the weakest we've seen the Doctor. When we saw his cowardice in the Cave of Skulls, it was because he was still learning to be the Doctor. By now he knows, and his failures are a sign of something far more troubling. That perhaps being the Doctor isn't enough.
Next week, we are told, The Nightmare Begins. Given how dark things are at the end of this episode, that is a chilling prospect.