Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Sound of Empires Toppling (Frontier in Space)

Only Doctor Who would finally give aliens masks where
they can have facial expressions, then have them
just look tired and busy all the time.
It's February 24, 1973. The Sweet continue to be at number one with "Blockbuster," but are unseated after one week by Slade's "Cum On Feel The Noize," a more emphatic anthem. It lasts four weeks before Donny Osmond unleashes "The Twelfth of Never." Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song," T. Rex's "Twentieth Century Boy," Alice Cooper's "Hello Hurray," and the Jackson 5's, consisting at this point of Jackie, Tito, Michael, Jermaine, and Marlon, cover of Browne's "Doctor My Eyes" all also chart. Also during the course of this story, Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon is released.

The day before Pink Floyd's release, on the other hand, came Thomas Pynchon's release of Gravity's Rainbow. Other non-musical events of the six weeks included voters in Northern Ireland voting to remain part of the UK (Irish nationalists supported a boycott of the referendum), while IRA bombs go off in London. The Governor of Bermuda is assassinated by a small Bermudan black nationalist group. The Watergate scandal begins to blossom in the news, while in the UK is the Lofthouse Colliery disaster, a mining accident in which seven coal workers died in West Yorkshire.

On television we have Frontier in Space, the annual Malcolm Hulke Lizard People Extravaganza. As with all of Season Ten, there's more going on here than in similar stories from past seasons. Which is good. One could be forgiven for thinking that we've been here before, after all. The Master manipulating two parties into a conflict for his own benefit. Misunderstandings between humans and lizard people. Pig-headed military figures. I'd link those phrases to the appropriate Hulke stories, but one is spoiled for choice - literally every Hulke story to date has qualified for at least two of that list.

The thing about the Pertwee era is that in a real sense, it builds logically and inexorably towards a peak in Season Ten. To give a sort of map of the era, at least for our purposes here, it spends its first three years working out a bundle of anxieties and contradictions. Then its last two seasons each end up embodying one half of that split, with Season Ten as the brilliant glam monument and Season Eleven basically flopping around like a dead fish. This is a strange split. It's not that Season Ten is doing something massively different from the seasons on either side of it. Season Nine has its Hulke lizard story. Season Eleven has its Hulke lizard story.

But for some odd, ineffable reason, perhaps down to nothing more than the lingering energy of the madcap singularity that was The Three Doctors, perhaps down to Doctor Who just being in the exact right place to catch a social wave, the show is on fire in 1973. Everything they try comes off, even when (as in the next story), it has no right to. Yes, we'll eventually get to our traditional Sloman Curate's Egg, but even that's good this year, as these things go. So here we get the Hulke story where every part just works.

Part of this is that Hulke, who was always chomping at the bit for the earthbound format's demise, is clearly giddy to have a TARDIS to play with again. The appeal of the TARDIS has always been more than just its ability to go anywhere. Equally important is its ability to leave anywhere - to keep the show from being trapped in one premise for too long. Instead it gets to come up with a neat idea, explore the major consequences and highlights of the idea, and get out before things get too boring.

Just as last time we talked about the comparative ordinariness of situations the TARDIS landed in in its early days, this time we should remind ourselves of the sort of genre romps that characterized the early days of the show - most obviously things like The Gunfighters or The Smugglers, but also things like The Web Planet or the slightly later The Enemy of the World. What these stories have in common is that they all take a high concept setting, explore the high points of dropping the Doctor into that setting, and then end and allow the show to move on to something else. This is one of the basic modes of operation for Doctor Who: drop the Doctor into X, where X is something well known and pre-existing, then pull him out when you've used up your best ideas on that.

So here we get the Doctor thrown into a good old fashioned sci-fi space opera. And it's delightful. Both Pertwee and Manning give the sense of having fun in this story to a degree that they haven't really before, and it carries over to the characters. At one point, upon realizing that an unknown agent is using the Ogrons to try to spark a galactic war between the Human and Draconian empires and that this unknown agent has stolen the TARDIS, the Doctor and Jo seem to be kind of chuffed about it, as if they're glad to be having some fun. Likewise, while the Doctor is emphatic and furious as the leaders of Earth and Draconia ignore his warnings, he clearly takes a real joy in repeatedly breaking their mind probes.

On top of that you've got the basic thrill in the scope of the story. And not only in terms of its steadily escalating scale, going from being concerned about Ogrons raiding ships and a diplomatic crisis to being bout chasing the Daleks, the Master, and the Ogrons around in a desperate attempt to stop an all-out war. The scale and escalation is wonderful, and we'll talk about the absolutely wonderful build and twists of this in a bit, but equally impressive is the degree to which this story moves around. Multiple space-ships, several Earth locations, the homeworld of the Draconians, and the homeworld of the Ogrons are all traveled to, giving this story a sort of giddy sense of scope and wonder.

Yes, the Draconians are just the Japanese in lizard costumes, but again, that curious tendency of Season Ten to just get on with it and make it work is on full display, with the Draconians being the beneficiaries both of Hulke’s hobby horse of making alien species actually have multiple characters with distinct personalities and perspectives instead of a hive mind and from costume designers who managed to give them the ability to still have facial expressions. The masks are as much a high point of the Pertwee era’s effects as the CSO in Carnival of Monsters is a low point. (Legend, used here in the sense of “the stories Jon Pertwee told over and over again in every interview and convention appearance,” claims that Pertwee, during lunch, got to talking to one of the Draconian actors and forgot he was talking to a man in a costume.)

And yes, two empires on the brink of war is not a particularly original concept so much as it’s the most generic pulp sci-fi imaginable. But Doctor Who has never relied entirely or even primarily on original concepts. Yes, it uses them, and when it does it’s usually wonderful - case in point, the last story. But just as often and just as validly, Doctor Who goes with juxtaposing two concepts that are, on their own, fairly normal, but that don’t normally go together. So while warring space empires are nothing new, they’re also not something we’ve see the Doctor running around in the middle of, and they’re certainly not something we’ve seen Pertwee’s drag action hero running around in.

Which is to say that this is a story that is much more than the sum of its parts, and another sadly overlooked gem of Season Ten. On paper it’s filler - a five and a half episode runaround before the Daleks show up and we get a ten minute trailer for the next story without really resolving the plot of this one. But in execution, it’s a masterful slow build that lets the dramatic tension reach its breaking point before finally exploding in a genuinely unexpected direction.

We should talk here, then, about the Master. For the first time in Doctor Who history, he’s actually used as the surprise reveal that eventually becomes so tiresomely standard. But here it’s wonderfully fresh, with the Master being put into an already bad situation and immediately making it worse for everyone. This is the surprise reveal that every subsequent Master story tries and usually fails to equal.

The thing is, if we’re being honest, it’s a bit of a move of desperation. That doesn’t make it any less brilliant or effective - it’s definitely both. But on the other hand, in less than two and a half years, Roger Delgado appears in thirty-nine episodes of Doctor Who. In comparison, Vicki only appears in thirty-eight episodes total, and in the twenty-five months after their first appearances the Daleks and Cybermen appeared in thirty-two and twenty-six episodes respectively. While I love Delgado’s Master, the fact remains that this is a staggering level of frequency for one villain played by one actor.

One result of this is that, inevitably, and with no particular story being at fault, the Master has gone from being a character who transgresses against the narrative and throws it into chaos to being virtually the most predictable character on the show. Where Jo has found more and more outlandish and remarkable ways to break the rules of the narrative, the Master, because he always needs to be defeated, has been trapped in an increasingly small set of schemes. As we feared when it happened, there was nowhere to go but down once he summoned the Devil.

And so introducing him as a surprise twist has to be taken as a survival mechanism - a clever but desperate attempt to find a way to get the character to be unexpected and threatening again instead of a chump who will be defeated the same way he’s always defeated - when his ambitious goes too far and his scheme backfires. Which is how he’s been defeated in every prior story save for The Claws of Axos, whether because his allies betray him (Terror of the Autons, The Sea Devils), because some all-powerful being he sought to control tells him to piss off (Colony in Space, The Daemons, The Time Monster), or because the Doctor successfully turns his own plan against him (The Mind of Evil, and, ultimately, here).

And here we’re forced into a really awkward situation where we have to be very careful about speaking unkindly of the dead. I mean, not that I’ve been hesitant in slamming Barry Letts, Jon Pertwee, or William Hartnell when they’ve screwed up, but Delgado is different. Delgado died far too young, and his death is the sole reason this story is his last appearance. His contributions to the show were uniformly fantastic, and even in a problematic story like The Time Monster, Delgado does an incredible amount with what can charitably be called difficult writing to work with. I have nothing bad to say about Delgado whatsoever, and strictly in terms of the actor himself, it’s an appalling tragedy that his last appearance should be a poorly edited scene with a bunch of grunting monkey aliens as opposed to a proper, grand farewell.

That said, in terms of the Master, this is the best thing that could have happened to him. First of all, let’s remember the story that would have been his farewell had he not been killed in a car crash. A Sloman epic in which we were to learn that the Master is literally the Doctor’s dark side and where the Doctor would fail to save him and be haunted by the guilt. This sounds hackneyed enough reading about it. Imagining it written with the staggering haphazardness of the Sloman/Letts team is simply excruciating. It is impossible to watch The Time Monster or even The Daemons and imagine that this team could have made a story like that work, because they completely botched the dramatic beats and tension of both previous Doctor/Master stories they attempted.

If we assume, as it seems like we have to, that Delgado’s intended final story would have been a train wreck, if nothing else the fact that he got to go out in a clever Malcolm Hulke story instead has to be taken as something of a blessing. Frankly, the character is probably more beloved for having avoided that disaster in the making.

But more to the point, the Master was increasingly starting to fail as a character. As I said, he’d been overexposed without enough variety or new ideas, and ever since The Sea Devils, where he ended up badly dumbing down the moral complexity of what could have otherwise been an extremely successful updating and streamlining of the brilliant but flawed The Silurians, his appearances have been a mixed blessing at best. Delgado is great, but his character hasn’t helped a story in some time.

Hulke, to his credit, actually seems aware of that. Certainly he recognizes that the Master and Jo, introduced in the same story, have expanded in different directions. The Master has progressively become a more and more limited character while Jo has become more transgressive and capable of contorting the narrative. And so in this story the Master attempts to recycle his first trick with Jo and hypnotize her. And she casually kicks his ass. Even when he later tries to reassert his dominance over her by granting her a fake escape to trap the Doctor, it’s rubbish on his part. Yes, Jo led the Doctor to an Ogron ambush, but the fact of the matter is, the Doctor would have gone to rescue Jo even if he had known about the ambush. He was looking for the base and Jo told him where it was. Had she not escaped, he’d have found the base and still been ambushed by the Ogrons. The Master’s “tricking” of Jo has zero effect.

But more importantly, Hulke ends up executing a hilarious and brilliant snub on the overused character. Three episodes after his surprise unveiling as the story’s real villain he gets upstaged by another surprise reveal in which it turns out that he’s not the real villain, the Daleks are. And then he gets shoved offstage unceremoniously so we can have the real star attraction: Dalek fighting! It’s a bit of cynicism worthy of Robert Holmes, but it’s spot on. If nothing else, the reverse reveal - the Daleks are secretly working for the Master - would have been a crushing anticlimax. Hulke is right. The Master is small potatoes compared to Daleks.

So while it’s an awful ending for a great actor, for a character that, largely due to the mistakes of Sloman and Letts, has passed his peak and begun to become a liability, there’s a delightful justice in shoving him offstage in favor of a better foe for the Doctor. If nothing else, for better or worse the character’s survival past Delgado hinges entirely on the fact that he got this sort of unsatisfying abandonment instead of a capstone epic. Because there was something unfinished about the Master, he came back.

But even beyond that, there’s a sense that in that moment the show is making a real and meaningful decision about what it is. The Master, as a character, existed in part because by trapping the Doctor on Earth the show lost one of its major engines to bring in strange and unusual things into the plot. So it created a character who would engage in bewildering schemes that make the stories more exciting. But now that the show is back in space, the Master is a crutch - a way of padding out a story that’s run out of steam. Hulke makes it work here, but it works because it’s the first time it’s happened. The entire Ainley era of the character is a sobering reminder of what happens when this approach becomes the norm.

So instead the show turns away from that approach and towards a belief that the TARDIS means that you don’t need gimmick characters to jumpstart the plot. Instead we turn to the first great monster of Doctor Who and prepare for the encounter that we were teased and denied last time they appeared. It’s time for a big ‘ol Dalek story the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1966.

Because that’s the other thing about this story. The Dalek reveal is, in fact, absolutely brilliant. For one thing, given a need to upstage the Master, the Daleks were literally the only things that could do that. For another, it’s just the right thing to do. Especially since their last appearance was such a tease, having restored the Doctor and the premise of the show, one of the things the show needs to do as a part of showing that it has fully reclaimed its own mantle is to show that it can still do the Daleks.

It is, after all, they who upstage the Master and take over the story. They are, in this regard, the last true threat the show has - characters that can plow in and completely unhinge and distort the narrative. Their appearance is a delicious throwing down of the gauntlet - a case of the show saying “Bah, this situation is too easy for the Doctor to get out of. Let’s see him get out of this!” And Friday, we’ll see how he does.

12 comments:

  1. Half of me loves this, half of me thinks of it as Day of the Daleks without the space trikes. Did the Daleks bring the space trikes?

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  3. Great article as always, though I have to disagree with your claim that losing "The Final Game" was a blessing. Perhaps it would have turned out to be a train wreck as you predicted, and I agree the signs are there given the spotty track record of Sloman and Letts. However, part of me wishes some variant of that story had made it to screen because I think showing The Master and The Doctor as two aspects of the same personality would have been an intriguing way of looking at the core of the show and the character.

    The whole idea that The Doctor and The Master need to come together could have been a nice cap to the Pertwee era, which we've seen clearly shows The Doctor in an unnatural state at times both implicitly and explicitly. What better way to conclude your story about The Doctor needing to learn a lesson on Earth to refine his philosophy and "become more complete" than to show that, at this stage he is in fact literally incomplete as a person? That he needs those parts of The Master: The scheming, the manipulations, the antiauthoritarian zeal and the occasional gleeful indulgence in chaos are important aspects of who this character is, although he must learn how to synchronize and blend them better with the rest of his personality and hone them into more constructive and more complex ways. This could even be phrased in a slightly Neo-Whitakerian fashion: The Doctor lacks true elemental balance which he needs to be truly enlightened, or he had it and one point and lost it for whatever reason (much has already been made comparing Pertwee and Troughton, for example). If the lesson here is that The Doctor needs a more nuanced and cosmopolitan view of the universe than just running away or shooting monsters, the fact that he has yet to attain balance and true enlightenment could be straight-up literalized through the character of The Master and the necessity for the two to be united (or perhaps reunited: Maybe they were split at one point in the relative recent past).

    In my opinion anyway this would have (or at least could have, a very important distinction to make) tied very neatly into the reoccurring themes you've pointed out throughout the Pertwee era and would provide a really interesting transition to the Tom Baker one. That just seems to me a far better and far more appropriate use of the character than what we get later. At the very least it would have spared us the bland moustache-twirling of Anthony Ainlay and the horrifying, cringe-worthy antics of Eric Roberts if nothing else.

    I grant my alternate history of Doctor Who requires a whole lot of what-ifs, most importantly Roger Delgado not tragically dying in a car crash, but also the script probably being extensively rewritten and passed to someone more capable then Sloman and Letts (maybe Robert Holmes, though I don’t know). Nevertheless I still think there was some merit in the core concept of “The Final Game” and would at least like to see someone take a stab at it today as a fanfiction or Unbound story or something.

    EDIT: Double-post plus typos. Re-uploaded comment here. Apologies. Also, I'm the same person as "forestofillusions", though for some reason I can't post with my WordPress account here anymore so I'm using this profile. Sorry again about the confusion.

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  4. Funny that we're now supposedly hip-deep in the "Glam era", and yet Jo is still wearing knee-high boots and mini-skirts, while the Master mostly sports a Nehru jacket. I've always maintained that Glam was not anywhere near as influential as people think, and the Sixties really carried on way into the 70s until suddenly slaughtered by Punk in 1976.

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  5. Except that i think looking at the Master and the Doctor as simply the ying/yang halves is, for TV at that time, somewhat enlightened, but ultimately utterly boring and just too easy an out. I would prefer to have a flawed character whose longer arc would eventually dovetail rather nicely into the more alien fourth Doctor.

    Pertwee's Three is truly still tied in the an authoritarian class structure, and to often taking the easy "listen to me, I'm right" way out. Granting him the freedom of the Tardis and the guilt over taking the crystal from metebelis 3 was an intersting way of shoehorning the Buddist ideas that had been slipped in along the way by individual authors. And it certainly was different than the Tory approach of the mid-Pertwee years.

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  6. @inkdestroyedmybrush

    Everything you mentioned is very true and I actually wasn't thinking in terms of Yin/Yang balance. I'm not entirely sure *which* framework exactly I'd approach "The Final Game" from but I think the closest descriptor that comes to kind is the concept of Chakral or Satori elemental balance, where energy systems and power vortices work dynamically and the goal is to equalize and balance all of them so no one aspect overwhelms the others.

    The problem of both the Third Doctor and The Master is that they can be seen as fundamentally unbalanced characters, just in different ways. They can be read as having one or two predominant elements that overwhelm all the others and thus, incapable of achieving balance and enlightenment in their current state. If you take them both as representations of different elements or forces run amuck, then their symbolic fusion could be seen as a metaphor for the various elements coming together to work in harmony instead of discord, and thus ascension to enlightenment.

    Now I grant this conception somewhat weakens them both as complete characters (one possible major argument I see is why can't the two attain balance as individuals and I concede that) but I was phrasing this in terms of classical philosophical fiction where the characters are used more as symbols. I haven't thought it through enough to give a truly refined and elegant version of "The Final Game", but my main point is simply that the core concept was not unworkable from the start and probably could have been made to work with some adjustments and TLC.

    Additionally, I certainly have no problem with the Buddhist undertones of Season 10 and "Planet of the Spiders" and actually think those points you raised could have been made to work with a "Final Game" type story as well. Like I said though, it probably demands some more thought.

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  7. I can certainly see how a story like "The Final Game" could have worked, especially within the Pertwee era, but I can't imagine that a Sloman script could possibly have looked much of anything like what I can see working.

    Now if it were Christopher Bailey writing it...

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  8. Spacewarp - Jo and the Master may have not been dressed very glam for this story, but on the other hand, look at that photo of the Draconians with the massive emerald chest pieces.

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  9. @Phil (may I call you Phil?)

    I agree: Sloman and Letts were the wrong people for the job. The core concept was a solid one, perhaps even a very good one, but it was in the hands of the wrong team. Had the opportunity arisen itself, it would most likely have needed to be heavily rewritten by someone else and handled with the utmost of care to avoid being a total embarrassment. In the most likely (i.e. non-wishful thinking) alternate scenario I have a feeling we'd be let down pretty hard.

    I just get hung up on this one a bit because I find the core concept to be one with a lot of potential and I find the ramifications for the series had it gone through (or at least gone through WELL) to be really intriguing. As a writer who dabbles in experimental fiction myself, I occasionally have this compulsion to tweak and edit abandoned or failed story ideas that stick with me. "The Final Game" is one of those Doctor Who stories I keep mentally playing with to find a way to heavily rewrite and make work because for some reason they keep nagging at me (others, incidentally, include "Tomb of the Cybermen" and "Erinella" and I'm very curious to see if you'll touch on that one when the time comes).

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  10. I always thought that RTD stripped the Buddhist parables from "The Final Game" and made it the engine of his Master stories in Seasons 3 & 4B. To good effect, I thought (floaty Dobby Doctor aside).

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  11. The way I'm reading this potential Doctor/Master singularity is that upon final defeat, the Master regenerates into William Hartnell. What a total mindfuck that would be.

    After all, the Doctors are not numbered on screen until The Five Doctors, and the original intention of the multiple faces in Brains of Morbius was to show that Hartnell was not the first. And as you progress through your academic career, you become a Master before becoming a Doctor.

    It would explain why the Doctor can always outwit the Master - he's already lived it, and the Master hasn't. It also calls in some problems, like how the Doctor can let the Master kill so many people. But that's probably down to the law of time, and he should let things play out as he remembers them, lest he nullify his own existence.

    This is a fan theory that can only exist during this era, and is completely impossible by 1983. But what a ride, eh?

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  12. I first ran across this theory of The Master in an issue of Doctor Who Magazine, around 15 or so years ago. If memory serves, they did a lengthy article trying to figure out The Master, and WHY he did all he did, because onscreen, most of it makes no sense.

    And then they had an interview with Barry Letts, who spelled it out. I was stunned. It had never crossed my mind. Strangely enough, I never ran across another reference to it for at least the next 10-15 years. It was as though, despite the publication of the interview, nobody knew about it.

    Letts has often been referred to as a fan of STAR TREK. Go way back to the early part of the 1st season-- "THE ENEMY WITHIN". Due to a transporter accident, Captain Kirk is split into 2 people-- one "good", one "evil". Except... they're not. They're both him, they're bnoth incomplete, and neither can really survive without the other. In the end, they find a way to reunite them, and he's a whole person again.

    With Letts doing the occasional ST tribute in some stories, this seems a natural basis for what he had in mind. The question it brings up for me is, WHEN would such an accident have occured, and how long had The Doctor been an incomplete person? Has The Doctor we'd known up to this point ALWAYS been incomplete??? He did say "You could say we were at school together..." Did he mean this figurative-- or literally? If the latter, it must have happened a LONG time before we ever met Hartnell!

    I believe at least SOME of what was intended for "THE FINAL GAME" did find its way into "PLANET OF THE SPIDERS". I mean-- look at it!! You've got K'ampo, and Cho-je, who, it turns out, are the same person. (Not quite the same thing, but similar.) But more-- you've got "Lupton". I'd seen "SPIDERS" several times before reading that interview, but the next time I watched it after reading it, it suddenly hit me. "Lupton" was supposed to be The Master. HE's slotted into the spot in the story The Master would have had. Once again, he's hiding out in secret with some group he's manipulating for his own purposes, he allies himself with the spiders for his own purposes. But more-- listen when he talks about his past. So much of what he said, with only the most minor modifications, COULD have been describing The Master when he lived on Gallifrey!

    And then you have the end of the story. After it's all over, and The Doctor is about to regenerate, Cho-je appears, to help give him a push. And what does he say? "Look after him. He may be a bit erratic." And who do they get to replace Jon Pertwee? An actor who, up to then, had mostly played VILLAINS.

    I wish Delgado had done the story, in wehatever form it took. Imagine, if he'd lived, when WHO conventions got popular, he probably would have been one of the most popular guests anywhere he'd have appeared. I'm sure I'd have preferred meeting him to meeting Pertwee!

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