Friday, April 29, 2011

Fry Something (The Highlanders)

Jamie McCrimmon, in his debut.
It's December 16, 1966, and time for us to ring in 1967. Almost everything you need to know about music in 1966 can be explained by the fact that Tom Jones is at #1 with "The Green Green Grass of Home," while The Kinks are at #7 with "Dead End Street," a song about inescapable economic despair with a chorus of "We are strictly second class / we don't understand /why we should be on dead end street/People are living on dead end street / gonna die on dead end street" while a background shout of "dead end!" repeats. (To be fair, after two verses of maudlin sentimentality, "The Green Green Grass of Home" turns out to be about waiting on death row, but the degree to which this feels like a pale imitation of Simon and Garfunkel's "Silent Night/7 O'Clock News," which does the smash fade from sentimentality to harsh materialism with far greater aplomb, and was released in the US, at least, two months earlier ultimately reminds us that this is still Tom Jones we are talking about.) Tom Jones will hold the #1 spot for the entirety of this story.

In actual news, meanwhile, you've got a nice illustration of how 60s news works in hindsight. You've got basically three categories of events. The first is of significance only to people who think that the 60s are about youth cultural revolution. For instance, The Doors releasing their self-titled debut on January 4th. The second is of significance only to people who think the 60s are about an obnoxious assault on traditional culture. For instance, the theft of millions of dollars of art from the Dulwich Art Gallery in England. And then there are the ones that are significant to both groups, and thus reveal the fault lines in what was actually going on at the time. For instance, Prime Minister Harold Wilson withdrawing all offered settlements with Rhodesia and insisting that the UK will only recognize a majority-black Rhodesian government.

This paradigm is not entirely unhelpful in understanding Doctor Who in its fourth season. On the one hand, you have the stuff that's chum for fans of later eras: The Doctor is funny! Lots of contemporary Earth stuff! On the other hand, you have the stuff that feeds the Troughton-era backlash that seems to have seized Doctor Who fandom somewhere along the line - stuff that amounts to the loss of things that were around in the Hartnell era: No historicals! Endless bases under endless sieges! And on the third hand, because this is British science fiction and we have Zaphod Beeblebrox handy whenever we want him, you have stuff that turns to Marmite: Monsters! And... um... more monsters, really.

The underlying issue is this. In its first season, Doctor Who flailed around and tried to figure out what it was. In its second season, though, Doctor Who was ruthlessly confident about what it was. That confidence was arguably misplaced at times, but it was unquestionably there. But over the course of season three, that confidence progressively waned until Innes Lloyd decided to just reboot the entire show. And now, in season four, we're flailing about again trying to make a new show. Now as it happens, we're going to get there, and there is going to turn out to be a massively influential and frankly genuinely interesting television program. But we're not there yet. So instead we get things like this. The spotters guide for The Highlanders is "last pure historical story and first appearance of Jamie," neither of which are quite true.

But this kind of mediocre fan summary is understandable. After all, we're reeling about in territory that, as Doctor Who fans, we're spectacularly ill-suited to understand. I've been knocking on about this for a while now, but it really cannot be stressed enough - watching this stretch of the show from the viewpoint of someone who knows how changing lead actors on Doctor Who works is just the wrong way to go about it.

I mention this because normally the second story is the one where we get to see what the new status quo is going to be. The Silurians tells us that the show is going to be about the Doctor butting heads with UNIT even as he helps them. The Ark in Space tells us that we're going to see a lot of gothic horror. Four to Doomsday tells us that we're going to see a lot of sloppily plotted violence. Attack of the Cybermen tells us that we're going to see a lot of fanwank alongside sloppily plotted violence. And so on. But if you try to apply that framework to The Highlanders, you will end up more or less on a completely different planet.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, it would be extremely difficult for the series to confidently step up and show us what it's going to be like with Troughton because nobody working on it actually has the foggiest idea. This story was slapped together in a desperate hurry, and the next story was initially deemed too bad to use, and only brought back onto the schedule when it became obvious that every other story was actually even worse. It's not going to be until The Moonbase that Doctor Who starts to look like it was written by people who had a clue what they were doing again.

But beyond that, the show just can't do the confident switchover at this stage. Because what it's trying to do is too strange to just do and hope nobody notices. It would be like The Beatles releasing Sergeant Pepper immediately after Help!, instead of going through Rubber Soul and Revolver first. So instead the show hits on the frankly brilliant idea of having the Doctor go through a horrifying metaphysical change that destabilizes the basic core of his identity and forces him to rebuild who he is on the fly, and then don't quite embrace that in the actual episodes. Now, having done that, we enter phase two of "what happens if we recast the Doctor," in which the show flails about for eight weeks not quite sure what to do after the main character attains enlightenment and becomes a trickster figure.

And so we get The Highlanders, an episode that is considerably more about establishing the ways in which the show is not like what it was under Hartnel than it is about establishing what it is like under Troughton. At its core, this story is an unstructured romp across some famous history in which, in lieu of following any discernible plot, the Doctor runs around and plays dress-up for four episodes.

Taken on its own terms, it is easily the single most baffling Doctor Who story to date, making The Web Planet look perfectly normal and routine. Taken in context, it actually seems even stranger, in that it offers the bewildering spectacle of Doctor Who visibly and loudly refusing to be Doctor Who as we know it.

Let's first clear up the easy part of the spotter's guide fallacy. Yes, Jamie McCrimmon appears in all four episodes and departs with the TARDIS crew at the end. But he's a completely minor character with very little role in this story, elevated to companion status out of nowhere except the realization that Frazier Hines has some star power. His sticking around at the end of the story is only slightly more probable than Dodo's sticking around at the end of The Massacre, and that's down purely to the fact that at least Jamie appears in his debut story. But if you want a story that is at least in part about establishing Jamie, tune in Monday.

But the real thing is the idea that this is the last historical. Because it's not. Not that there are more historicals before Black Orchid gets attempted as a throwaway in the 1980s. No, the issue is that this isn't a historical in any sense that we've previously understood the term.

This is clear from the opening moments, really. The TARDIS arrives just after the Battle of Culloden, and it looks like we're in for a standard historical in which we learn the basic shape of the battle. But then the Doctor does something very unusual. As soon as he sees that the TARDIS has landed in a battlefield with cannons, he tries to turn tail and run, responding to Polly's quite reasonable question "You don't want people to think you're afraid, do you" with "Why not?" It's only Ben and Polly's insistence that they appear to be back in England that forces him to stay.

From there, almost immediately, the story just becomes a compilation of "stuff we couldn't get Hartnell to do." Prance about in a comedy German accent and do intense and oddly violent comedy scenes of humorously torturing people? Check. Cross-dress? Check. Be oddly obsessed with stealing people's hats? Check. Basically, liberated by his metaphysical change from the tedious requirement that he be remotely sane, the Doctor goes completely nuts here, hamming for the camera, firing off one-liners to nobody in particular, and generally having a good time, while, distantly in the background, some kidnappings and rescues go on.

This is where the spotters guide approach falls short, then. Because this isn't the last historical, due largely to the fact that other than having no overt science fiction elements, nothing about it even faintly resembles historicals we've seen before. In terms of televised Doctor Who, The Smugglers was the last historical, and this is just a parody of the genre to reiterate after last time that the entire rulebook has been chucked out the window. We'll deal with the issue of the historical being abandoned as a genre later (And once again, those of you who are obsessives now know which book from the BBC Books range is showing up in a few entries), so for now, let's just look at how unlike this sort of mad romp is.

To be fair, there are two distinct strands of historical that we could be talking about. These two styles split very sensibly on the lines of who wrote the first four historicals. The first two historicals - Marco Polo and The Aztecs - were written by John Lucarotti, and are essentially stories about being trapped in a hostile past. Marco Polo is a hugely extended epic of the TARDIS crew being trapped in the Himalayas. The Aztecs is a shorter epic of the TARDIS crew being trapped in ancient Mexico and Barbara trying and failing to make the most of it. In both cases, the main point is that history is a scary, chaotic place.

Compare to the second style - the Dennis Spooner approach - as displayed in The Reign of Terror and The Romans. Both of those stories can be fairly described as "romps" in which the major, iconic bits of the history are thrown into a blender to produce a sort of highlight tour of the historical time period. Where the Lucarotti historicals are about giving the past a richly detailed texture and forcing the TARDIS crew to survive it, the Spooner historicals are a sort of history tribute band, playing through a greatest hits album of "Roman stuff" or "French Revolution stuff" where the primary pleasure is the recognition of the key elements. So in Marco Polo, Kublai Khan's palace is a struggled towards resolution of six episodes of freezing death. When he shows up, there's a sense of relief and a sense that the danger of the past six episodes has partially passed and we are headed towards resolution. Whereas when Nero shows up in The Romans, it means we've finally gotten to the good bits.

From those first four historicals (or, really, four of the first five, with 100,000 BC basically being a Lucarotti-style), we get pretty much all of the rest. The Crusade, The Myth Makers, and The Gunfighters all belong to the Spooner tradition. The Massacre to the Lucarotti tradition. (It is perhaps worth remarking, albeit somewhat sadly, that the Lucarotti tradition is maddeningly restricted to stories written by Lucarotti. That said, when I finish banging out the extra Hartnell essays and get the book version of that out, it'll include an essay on Steve Lyons' novel The Witch Hunters, which is firmly a Lucarotti-style historical.) That's not to say that the genre didn't evolve - The Gunfighters is far smarter, more complex, and better than Spooner's amateurish go at The Reign of Terror (And indeed, Donald Cotton went and spruced up The Romans hilariously when he did the novelization), and The Massacre works in ways that The Aztecs and Marco Polo never did. (The Massacre was, admittedly, heavily rewritten, but really, let's leave that be.)

With The Smugglers, things start to break down a little bit. On the one hand, it's clearly a Spooner-style romp through the highlights of the pirate genre. But all of the previous Spooner-style stories had basically been comedies, with the possible exception of The Crusade, and even that spent an awful lot of time with Shakespeare parodies. In terms of its plot, it feels Lucarotti-style - the characters are stuck in a hostile past. The key clue? Not since The Aztecs had Doctor Who done a historical without famous people in it. But seen in hindsight, The Smugglers seems like a natural evolution of what came before. Put in context, The Smugglers looks like a model for how historical stories could have worked under Troughton, with the leading man providing the comedy instead of the situations, freeing the writers up to explore non-comedic bits of history.

In other words, there's absolutely a way to do a historical with Patrick Troughton in it. That is not the reason the historicals died. (Again, we'll deal with why they did die and what that means in a few entries.) But what is striking, then, is that this is nothing like either the Spooner or Lucarotti traditions. I mean, figuring out why The Highlanders isn't a Lucarotti historical should just be a matter of watching a few minutes while Troughton is in drag.

But why isn't it a Spooner-style historical? Because fundamentally, the Spooner-style historical is about the regulars playing stock roles in a defined type of adventure, and laughing about their being cast in those roles. This is part of why The Crusade is an archetypal Spooner-style historical - because the sections where Ian is Sir Ian of Jaffa are ultimately about the tension of a 1960s science teacher having to be a knight in the Crusades. So what's wrong with watching the Doctor be cast as Doctor Von Wer, the Hannoverian Doctor?

Because the entire point of Doctor Von Wer is that the Doctor is putting on a funny voice and playing at being someone else. The Spooner-style historical is about the TARDIS crew being mis-cast. The Highlanders is about the way in which the Doctor can put on a disguise and, most importantly, parody the very role he's supposed to be playing. The Doctor, when he is playing at Doctor Von Wer, acts neither like the Doctor nor like a Hannoverian physician in 1746. Instead, he acts like the Doctor parodying a Hannoverian physician.

So instead of being a case of "the TARDIS crew puts on costumes and plays at a different genre," The Highlanders is a complete mockery of that. The TARDIS crew puts on costumes and romps about laughing at the genre they're ostensibly in. This is not just "a bit different" from Hartnell historicals - this is an overt mockery of the entire Hartnell era, with Troughton's Doctor repeatedly refusing to play the role of the Doctor (and in fact spending 80%+ of the story playing any other role he can find). "I should like a hat like this" indeed.

This is actually quite a high-wire act, because it's an absolute assault on the good will of the audience. If The Highlanders at any point tips into a mean-spirited dig at the stupidity of historicals, the entire thing comes crashing down. Remember, most of the audience at this point has not made up their mind on this whole "new Doctor" thing, and if they've been watching Doctor Who thus far, what they like is not Troughton-style clowning but Hartnell-style adventures, historicals and all. So putting on a mockery of the previous three years of the show is not the safest move.

Thankfully for the show, Troughton is up to the task, and even though this is miles from where his characterization of the Doctor is going to settle, he is a good enough actor to hold this together and be charming. But watching The Highlanders, by far the most important thing to remember is that there is absolutely no reason why this had to work. The Doctor enters and exits this story as an unrestrained force of anarchy (as he was at the end of Power of the Daleks). No effort has been made to establish to the audience what Doctor Who is like now that Hartnell has left.

But on the other hand, we have gotten four weeks that are essentially about how much fun Patrick Troughton is. And they worked. The Highlanders, in the end, is a story about convincing Doctor Who fans that they didn't really like Hartnell all that much and that Troughton is going to be much more fun. And, astonishingly, given that Hartnell's Doctor Who was really quite good, the show more or less pulls it off.

But the consequence is a story that is by necessity nobody's favorite. Troughton fans don't get Troughton in it, and Hartnell fans get a slap in the face. Taken as a story, this is an abject failure. Taken as a step in making the transition from one era to the other, it's a success, made all the more satisfying by how improbable it is that it worked in the first place.

8 comments:

  1. "... normally the second story is the one where we get to see what the new status quo is going to be. The Silurians tells us that the show is going to be about the Doctor butting heads with UNIT even as he helps them. The Ark in Space tells us that we're going to see a lot of gothic horror. Four to Doomsday tells us that we're going to see a lot of sloppily plotted violence. Attack of the Cybermen tells us that we're going to see a lot of fanwank alongside sloppily plotted violence."

    ... and Paradise Towers tells us the show isn't being taken seriously by anyone and is doomed ...

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  2. Heh. The Paradise Towers entry will come, and will be...

    Detailed.

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  3. Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying this blog. I don't always agree with it.

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  4. Oh, I didn't think you were complaining.

    The short form is that I do think Paradise Towers, despite being a deeply flawed story, does an awful lot to advance what Doctor Who is. It doesn't quite succeed at getting where it's trying to go, but it sets a new destination, and later stories do follow more successfully.

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  5. I think you've missed a trick with this review. Peter Watkins' film "Culloden" had been broadcast and won many awards. (I'll just send you here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culloden_(film)) Since you are very into television historical context, I would have thought it might be partially obvious to you that Doctor Who might be choosing a safe history that had already shown the full horrors of the battle and the aftermath ... as well as being technically revolutionary in modern film style ... ie, the Highlanders is a perfect, though backward reflection of the quite horrific documentary in the style of Doctor Who.

    Just a thought ...

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  6. I knew about Culloden. And yeah, its inspiration is clear. I skipped it because I was at 3000 words without it, and it didn't seem to contradict my reading so much as add another detail. Since I was coming off a stretch where I was mixing non-TV based entries very heavily, I wanted to spare yet another lengthy study of another piece of television, especially when my end conclusions would have amounted to "But even still, what we have is a refusal to do what The Smugglers and The Gunfighters do in romping around the tropes of the genre - instead, the Doctor explicitly flits around the edges of the iconic portrayal of the time period and parodies it."

    To my mind, the Culloden connection is basically that The Highlanders is the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to Culloden's Hamlet. Which is true, but what's significant about The Highlanders is less what it is that it has its strange relationship to and more that it is taking a strange, parodic meta-textual approach to history in the first place.

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  7. OK - as long as you thought about it. And, no one wants you to get carpal tunnel syndrome over a blog.

    I just don't agree. I'd say it is the Doctor Who to Colluden, which seems to be the overall point you wish to make. Doctor Who isn't something else, it is unique. Keep the SAT analogies out of it. I agree they didn't know what they were doing with Troughton (or more simply, HE didn't know what he was doing yet), but I don't agree the script was as confused as you believe. I think it would have been less goofy with Hartnell, but I don't think it would have been anything but a comedy ... because of Peter Watkins. In fact, his film makes me appreciate The Highlanders because I know they clearly had it in mind (and the audience at large) when they did it. It's probably the only reason they did it.

    I also disagree with your analysis of the historical stories in general. I like the Reign of Terror and dislike ... I don't "hate" any Doctor Who stories ... The Gunfighters (just saw them again, so its not a memory or fandom thing.)

    The problem with historicals is really what you do with them and how you want them to be. How should the Doctor react? What is the nature of the storytelling? How does that fit into the time period the story is told?

    I find the analysis here well-worth the read and I can't help but agree on many points (especially your Chase "story collapse" theory.) I just find that you might be as biased as the next fan.

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  8. I'm looking forward to your Paradise Towers entry too! I recently rewatched it and it makes a lot more sense in the middle of a run of Hartnells than it did right after Trial of a Time Lord. It feels more like improv theatre than television in a lot of ways.

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