Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Too Narrow, Too Crippled (The Monster of Peladon)

And of course the other reason Curse of Peladon was great
was the giant green penis. Which they redesigned to look
less obscene, so they even screwed that up. Monster of
Peladon: So bad it couldn't get a giant green penis right.
It's March 23, 1974. Paper Lace continue to hold the number one spot with the legendarily execrable "Billy Don't Be a Hero," a song imploring a lover going off to war to "not be a hero" and, in particular, to "keep your pretty head low." It is basically one of the worst things ever. After two weeks it finally goes away to be replaced with "Seasons in the Sun," one of the most upbeat and cheery songs about dying ever recorded, and at only 3:24, not so long that the listener actually wants to. Also in the charts are Paul McCartney and Wings, Ringo Starr, Gary Glitter, The Hollies, and Queen.

In real news, the OPEC oil embargo largely ends, bringing some stability to markets that had been lacking during the energy crisis. A major Palestinian terrorist attack in Israel - the Kiryat Shmona massacre - kills 18. And the Carnation Revolution takes place in Portugal, managing the amusing historical feat of being a military coup organized in part by using the Eurovision Song Contest as a pre-arranged signal to take action.

While on television, and speaking of the legendarily execrable, it's The Monster of Peladon. Along with The Time Monster, this is generally considered to be the worst story of the Pertwee era (although, inexplicably, The Mutants slots in between them on the Doctor Who Magazine poll, while Death to the Daleks is somehow of at 128, just ahead of The Claws of Axos). And while there are cases where I will defend a hated story to the bitter end (Paradise Towers is excellent, dammit), or where I will opt to look at a story's virtues in lieu of its flaws... this is not one of them.

The last few entries have involved a lot of pointing out some fundamental failings of the Pertwee era. Actually, most of the entries on the Pertwee era have dealt with this, due largely to my not liking the Pertwee era very much. But I've at least generally hedged those with appreciation of the good sides and of what the era was trying to do. Here, then, is where the good will runs out. I have next to nothing positive to say about this story. It is an ugly train wreck at virtually every level.

To start, let's think about its source material. In particular, let's consider what it was that made The Curse of Peladon interesting and striking. By and large, it was that the story was so strikingly weird. Peladon was not like what we were used to seeing in Doctor Who in 1972. More to the point, The Curse of Peladon is one of only three stories not to rely on a concept from a previous story in order to generate or justify the plot. (Admittedly the majority of the others just use either UNIT or the Master, but it's still the case that only Curse of Peladon, The Mutants, and Carnival of Monsters actually involve the Doctor, on his own, encountering a new situation)

So in that regard, the entire idea of a sequel to The Curse of Peladon is moronic. I'm reminded of the anecdote of Jack Kirby being told by an artist working on one of his old creations that the artist was determined to do the comic "in the Jack Kirby style," and Kirby later commenting that the Jack Kirby style is to create something new. Even worse is the fact that not only did they decide to remake the story (and with virtually the same plot), they decided to make it at 2/3 speed by turning it into a six-parter this time around.

It is difficult to imagine how this is a decision that could possibly emerge out of a process that was focused on any level on creating quality television. By this point nobody working on Doctor Who could possibly have failed to notice the fact that six-parters are, generally speaking, train wrecks from a writing perspective. There is next to no way to accomplish them with at least one, if not two episodes that consist of running in place. There's a reason that Robert Holmes's first innovation as script editor is an attempt to do away with them by splitting them into a four-parter and a two-parter, followed by restructuring into a season of five four-parters and a six-parter instead of two four-parters and three six-parters that characterized the Pertwee era. (It's worth highlighting the fact that Holmes and Hinchcliffe made this switch despite having had to take extreme measures to get the previous season in on budget by planning the entire thing around recycling the set for The Ark in Space for Revenge of the Cybermen. In other words, they hated six-parters so much that they were willing to have to do prep for an additional story a season in a budget crunch just so long as they could get rid of two of the three six-parters.)

Admittedly, little attention has been paid throughout the Pertwee era to how many episodes a story needs, with the bewildering end of The Daemons being only the most obvious example. Stories were six episodes for little reason other than that three of them had to be a year. But even by the meager standards by which pacing was thought about by the production team, the decision to do a remake of a two year old story only slower has to be viewed as a decision made with a shocking lack of thought about whether anyone would actually enjoy this.

From there we expand to other issues like how the effort to adapt and retool the story were handled. In the original version, there's a clever feint whereby we know one of the villains - the King's advisor - from the start, but don't know the other, and are misled to assume it must be the Ice Warriors. This time we're misled to think that it's the Queen's advisor who's evil, when in fact it's the mining engineer Eckersley who's the villain. Now, to be fair, this is actually rather clever. If nothing else, it manages to be a far more interesting and elaborate conspiracy plot than Invasion of the Dinosaurs, in that "characters introduced for this story" is not simply a subset of "bad guys."

Less fortunate, then, is when the Ice Warriors are trotted out at the halfway mark in a cack-handed effort to keep the plot going, and immediately they slot into "obviously evil." Again, this is an egregious misunderstanding of how Curse of Peladon worked. The Ice Warriors worked as a decoy villain because we were well-trained by their previous appearances to recognize them as villains, and because the Doctor assumed they were villains, so even if you hadn't seen what was by then a three-year old story, you had a clear reason to suspect them. And so the twist that they weren't actually the bad guys meant something.

Again the problem appears to be little more than that nobody even thought about this. Dicks, whose script this mostly was, clearly looked at Curse of Peladon and observed that there were two groups of characters in it - the royal court of Peladon and the aliens. Among the aliens there was a clear villain who turned out not to be evil, whereas among the Peladonians there was a clear villain who we recognized from the start. So Dicks, in a straightforward attempt to keep it fresh, flips it - he relies on the precedent of the high priest being evil from Curse of Peladon to put the decoy villain in the royal court and the obvious one among the aliens. (The point where it becomes obvious that Dicks has just swapped the two groups of characters comes with the death of a minor character in the first episode to start off the mystery, which in Curse of Peladon goes to the spare Peladon noble, whereas Monster of Peladon kills off to the spare alien.) He tinkers it up a bit by adding the new wrinkle of Eckersley, but for the most part it's a straight swap of two groups of characters where each one plays the role the other did last time around.

Except it's rubbish. The new advisor isn't nearly as good a decoy villain as the Ice Warriors because, unlike the Ice Warriors, who were originally a straightforward monster, he's a human and a new character. The only thing that casts major suspicion on him is the fact that last time they did this story the character most similar to him was evil. So while it's more clever than Invasion of the Dinosaurs, it's still not exactly what you'd call a rock solid red herring, and it certainly lacks the cleverness and the substance of having an old monster turn good.

Which is, of course, where the real problem is: in the decision to flip the Ice Warriors back to evil. The Ice Warriors, after all, are one of a kind - they're the only species originally introduced as a straightforward "monster" that has ever redeemed itself. And this is a significant thing - especially given the problems that the show had in the era they were introduced of collapsing issues to nothing more than "who can fight the monsters best." Redeeming them into a peaceful species was a really good idea. And so collapsing them back to generic baddies with a quick explanation about how they're a splinter faction who wanted to return to the old ways is unfortunate. Especially because it makes the story look for all the world like a parable about how bad guys never change and will always betray you. This is all the worse given that The Curse of Peladon was a metaphor in part about the EEC and euroskepticism, which makes the "your enemies might reform but they'll go back to being evil again" a point that it's difficult not to cast as a comment about, say, the Germans.

Speaking of politics, he said, while preparing for another attack, the ones in this story are a bit dodgy. First of all, this story manages to somewhat embarrassingly miss the boat. It's clearly a story about the miner's strike, but it aired after all the major events of that had come and gone and the issue was settled, making it a political story that fails to actually find any politics to talk about. Which is maybe for the best.

I'm not even going to pick up particularly on Tat Wood's suggestion that Ettis is intended as an analogue for Arthur Scargill, then effectively the second in command in the miners' union. We'll talk about Scargill in more detail when we get to the strike he was lead figure in, but suffice it to say that he was a very controversial and fairly Marxist figure. In any case, if Wood is correct about this equivalence, the decision to have Ettis go mad and try to blow everyone up has to be ranked as the crassest political moment in Doctor Who since the pacifists all had to wear dresses.

Because frankly, just knowing that this story is overtly about the miners strike is enough to condemn it. Consider - in this story, the miners are striking primarily because they believe that Aggedor, their deity, is angry at the Federation's mining practices and is killing them in protest. Of course, in reality Aggedor is just a killer statue controlled by Eckersley and the Ice Warriors. So in other words, the entire miner's strike appears to, in Terrance Dicks's eyes, be because of insidious manipulation of the miners by enemy agents.

There have been a lot of frustrating moments in the politics of Doctor Who, especially during the Pertwee era. There are many frustrating moments in this episode - the jaw-droppingly bad women's lib plot (because apparently, despite having had a queen for 22 years then, the British public couldn't imagine seeing a queen on the throne without having a handy motivational speech about how girls are just as good as boys to justify why she actually has the power to rule) being the most often cited. But for my money, this has to take the cake.

Because, of course, this implication that the miners are just being manipulated by enemy agents - and let's face it, there's no way to read those enemy agents as being anything other than the Communists (the script borders on the overt about this - if the Federation is the EEC, then the only people it makes sense for them to be at war with is Eastern Europe) - is on top of a string of standard issue Letts/Dicks condescension towards the working class. We discussed the basic form of this back in The Green Death, but it's particularly overt here. So of course the miners can be helpfully identified by their identical hairstyles. And of course they get the working class accents reserved for comedy yokels and other characters who aren't like the Doctor and his companion. They even get a subtle but noticeable difference in their names. The noble Peladonians - Thalia and Ortron - get names that are full of softer consonants and long vowel sounds (Ortron's name, as pronounced, sounds more like Autron). The miners get names like Ettis, Gebek, and Blor - full of harsh consonants and clipped vowels that are less aesthetically pleasing.

So to recap, the miners are an underclass of comedy yokels with funny names who are all being duped by enemy agents, and that's the real reason they're striking. This would be one thing if Doctor Who were actually trying to presciently write a pro-Thatcher allegory for the 1984-85 miners strike a decade early, but perhaps the most galling thing about The Monster of Peladon is that its writers appear to genuinely believe they're on the miners' side.

After all, they give the Doctor a bunch of lines about how the miners' concerns are justified, and they end by having Gebek replace Ortron as Queen Thalia's right hand man (a move justified with a callback to the horrid Women's Lib bit to help ensure it falls flat on its face). The miners are good people! Their concerns are valid! It's just that they should have pleasant and polite conversations with their noble benefactors instead of being fooled by those wily enemy agents!

I mean, gag me. Seriously. I don't even have words for the sheer condescending crassness of this. Were it simply a right-wing hit job - and the script would need only a handful of changes to make it unambiguously into one - I could at least just give it the same vicious drubbing I gave to The Dominators or The Celestial Toymaker: stories with overtly bad intentions. But no. This is somehow worse, because its good intentions only reveal the utter moral bankruptcy of the supposedly liberal politics of the Letts era.

Were I to, in a fit of Lettsian sloganeering, attempt to reduce my view of left-wing politics to a single principle, I would be hard pressed to come up with a better one than Carol Hanisch's classic observation that the personal is political. What I mean by this is that, to my mind, the fundamental moral principle of progressive politics is the belief that politics must be primarily understood on the level of the individual. And furthermore, it must be understood in terms of the real experiences and material conditions of actual people, not in terms of some theoretical image of what people like. In other words, the basis of left-wing politics is actually going and talking to people, especially those who are marginalized or oppressed, and then engaging with what is actually happening to them.

As I got at when last lambasting his politics, there are few writers and directors of politically motivated drama to whom it appears this view is more antithetical to than Barry Letts. And crap like this is why that's so unfortunate. Unlike his rape apologist moment in Moonbase 3, this isn't a case of him just missing an issue entirely by not thinking about individual people and stepping in it big time (although his appalling mishandling of feminism in general can probably be laid at the feet of this. Remember, after all, that "the personal is political" was a feminist slogan first). This is an issue of him egregiously misunderstanding an issue to such an extent that he is actually on the wrong side of it.

The entire reason the miner's strike mattered was a refusal of the working class to be exploited. The one that caused the three-day week was about the basic nature of what a fair wage is. Typically speaking, jobs that pay the most are ones requiring an education and ones that involve supervising other people and management. Pit crews were neither. But mining work is dangerous. People die every year in mines, often in truly horrible ways. You can flip through any number of mining disasters in any number of countries and know what the job is like. The root issue of the strike was that the miners believed that danger meant they should get generous overtime pay when called on to work extra shifts to compensate for the lost energy due to OPEC's oil embargo.

So they struck, because they knew full well that they were being used. And, on a larger level, because they were tired of being marginalized and treated as less important or valuable people. Britain was and remains an extremely classist society, and the working class is not unaware of this fact. Inherent in any issue like this is the fact that the working class knows that the upper class enjoys far better conditions than they do while the miners are in a real sense risking their lives and doing work that much of the upper class neither could nor would deign to do. When you're already getting screwed, the call for "shared sacrifice" (as it is called these days) is a bitter pill.

And that's a lot of what that strike was about. Not being "listened to," not getting a token position from your leader who helped preach calm and get everyone to unite behind the government once it became clear that there was a real crisis, but being respected. And Letts and Dicks miss that completely. They miss it with every single decision they take about the miners - making them an identical caste that may as well be an alien race they're so uniform, giving them accents to mark them as Other to the main characters, giving them the crap names, making them hapless dupes of the foreign powers, or, frankly, phoning in such a shitty episode about them in the first place. They have zero respect for the actual people this story is ostensibly about, and it's sickening to see them blunder with such asinine and blinkered moral conviction and pat themselves on the back for being so clever as to write a story that explains to everyone how the miners and the government can just compromise long after the miners and the government had worked it out just fine for themselves thank you when they so obviously do not understand or care about the people they're supposedly helping.

And the problem is, this immediately becomes an indictment of the entire Pertwee era. It's smug and superior and about a brilliant aristocrat from the stars who will come down and fix everything for we silly little people. It's a story about the viewer's world in which the viewer doesn't matter. They're not even there except as an object to terrorize. They have nothing to contribute, nothing to say, and no relevance to anything that is going on in the world of the story. Which is one thing when the story is about a part of the world that just isn't near the part the viewer is in. Given that an overwhelming majority of the viewers are not military officers, it's not a problem when UNIT doesn't reflect their actual experience. But for an era of the show that was so consciously "about" things - that was going to do a pollution episode and an EEC episode and a nuclear weapons episode and, yes, a miners strike episode - to so spectacularly in every single case fail to be about anyone other than smug people in charge is an egregious failure.

The Troughton era merely didn't go far enough, and like the Hartnell era before it needed a drastic change to push it to the next level. The Pertwee era, however, has gone in a significant way off the rails. It's not that the Pertwee era isn't going far enough. It's that it's going wrong. It's trying to deal with human issues and human politics - just like the Troughton era demanded it did - but it's gotten it badly wrong.

Quite frankly, this isn't just an era of the show that's at its natural end and needs to evolve. This is an era of the show that deserves to die.

16 comments:

  1. "failure to properly edit this post before getting it up that apparently goes along with my inability to set the timer on it right so it posted five hours late."

    But I edited it to be even clearer now. :)

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  2. Watching this after having read Phillip's post on "Curse", I couldn't help but think of this:

    "
    The biggest piece of evidence for this reading of the story being about the inevitability of progress, of course, is the Ice Warriors. The big trick of this story, after all, is that the Doctor (and the audience) wrongly suspect the Ice Warriors of villainy when in fact they're among the good guys, having renounced their former ways. But remember exactly what this means - that they have gone from monsters to people. They are, in other words, walking illustrations of the fact that progress exists. This is something we've never seen before in Doctor Who, and now that we have it seems so utterly obvious and necessary. Of course monsters get reformed.

    This also goes a long way towards explaining the Time Lords objection to the Doctor - there he is slaughtering monsters (and remember the willingness he had to kill the Ice Warriors on their last appearance) when monsters, in at least some cases, are just people who haven't engaged in their full historical development yet. Thus he was sent to Earth until he could learn to do better, and here he shows that he can."

    How sad is it that this episode throws that all under the bus and we see the Doctor incinerating random Ice Warrior goons with a heat ray?

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  3. to so spectacularly in every single case fail to be about anyone other than smug people in charge is an egregious failure....It's trying to deal with human issues and human politics - just like the Troughton era demanded it did - but it's gotten it badly wrong.

    There is a school of thought that says much of the real-world left did the same thing.

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  4. Phil--

    Thanks for this welcome evisceration of one of the worst Pertwees, and worst Who serials, ever. Many years ago, I watched all the Pertwee and T. Bakers in order, and so by this low point in the survey, it really felt like Pertwee, Letts and Dicks were retarding the progress of history itself. (Knowing Baker, Hinchliffe and Holmes were just around the corner made it even more awful to sit through this slog).

    The whole thing seems like one long, inept rear-guard action by an exhausted regiment (all of whom are desperate to surrender).

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  5. Sorry but, looking at the photo, just which giant green phallus are we talking about? Alpha Centauri? The Ice Lord's head? Or the bulge in his Ice Pants?

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  6. Harsh, but 100% fair.

    Not to excuse it - it is execrable on every level, particularly the politics make one cringe - but you can see how it happened.

    The writers being brought up on good old English colonialist boy's own adventures, and Jon Pertwee's arrogant and overbearing personality, and then they all inherit a show with a remit to re-invent it. And what new central idea had just been inserted. Time "Lords".

    The skew to the effete-aristo was almost inevitable. A sad and sorry affair, and I think the show's imminent reaction against this era is so perfect that it ends up washing away all the awkward and out-moded sentiments of this unfortunate wandering.

    (Same guy as from Livejournal, but with this account I might get a picture.)

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  7. Colonialist? Skew to the effete-aristo? Hmmm...possibly over-analysis here. At the time this was broadcast it was aimed firmly at a target audience of children. Unlike Doctor Who today, this wasn't water-cooler discussion material, this was playground-discussion material. Any kind of allegory of the current political situation would have gone over the heads of most of the intended audience, as would any allusions to colonialism and Empire. Children in the UK were far less aware of (and interested in) their country's past than, say, the US (where every child knows exactly how their country was founded). British kids in the 70s knew that there was a war 30 years ago between us and the Germans and that's about it (and to be honest things haven't changed much today). The "deeper" symbolism of this story would not have resonated with 8-10 year olds at the time, and I'm fairly certain that far from being an attempt at a flawed reflection of the current socio-political situation, "Monster" just had miners in it because kids would go "oh, miners, like in the news". And as for the Ice Warriors, kids went "hooray! Ice Warriors!"

    I know from what I speak here because I was a member of the target audience when this was broadcast. Pertwee's era of Doctor Who needs to be evaluated not as much against the news of the time but more against the television of the time. Trust me, I was an English kid growing up in the 1970s and I lived through this period. I watched it, and my school friends watched it, we played Daleks in the playground, and Doctor Who was not that much different from a lot of other shows on a the time. Phil's already mentioned Adam Adamant, The Avengers, and Ace of Wands. Doctor Who of the time owed far more to these programmes than it owed to it's own history. In some ways the Pertwee era was Doctor Who in Name Only, a new programme based on huge swathes of current TV, rather than on it's own past. A decision was made in 1969 to tear down the whole edifice of the Troughton years and rebuild from scratch (keeping the same name-plate to stick on the door when finished). What we got here was Jason King and Tarot crossed with Adam Adamant, and a slice of Spencer Quist for good measure. It was no longer Doctor Who as those who grew up with Hartnell and Troughton remember it, but the vast majority of its viewers didn't grow up with them (or at least remembered them vaguely). For them, Doctor Who was fast, flashy and dashing, and that's first and foremost how it should be approached.

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  8. But even if we take the goals of Doctor Who as being fast, flashy, and dashing, this is painfully slow, has no new images we didn't see in the first version of this story, and you can see the stunt man's face. I mean, I've given the Pertwee era a fair amount of leeway on the "but it's still entertaining" defense, but even that seems to fall down at this point.

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  9. I honestly think saying Doctor Who had "goals" other than to broadly entertain is probably attributing too much self-awareness to the programme's makers. As you've already pointed out, Doctor Who had not quite reached the mythology of being an important part of British culture that it did with Tom Baker. At this point it was simply a television programme. In fact other people have noted that the "reimagining" of Pertwee is very similar to RTD's 2005 reimagining. Keep the series continuity, state that this IS the same bloke, but change everything else.

    Yes it's slow, and in a critical sense yes it is a retread of the first story. But in an entertainment sense it's simply a sequel. And to a 7 year old or a 10 year old it's entertaining. There's scares in the right place, and creepy dungeons, and villainous Ice Warriors who menace the new girl, and the Doctor is reasonably heroic. That's what children wanted at the time, and that's what they want now. If you want to get a sense of what the "Pertwee era" felt to a child, cast your mind back to the Doctor Who you used to watch when you were between the ages of 7 and 10. You know how that felt? That's how Jon Pertwee's Doctor Who felt to me and my contemporaries. Analysing Doctor Who from the perspective of an adult is wrong, because that's not how the programme is designed. And if you've never seen it as a child you can't view it as it was meant to be viewed. That's why I would never critically review Hartnell, Davison, Colin, or Sylv. Because I never saw them as a child and I therefore can't appreciate them the way they're meant to be, in the way I can with older Troughton and all of Pertwee.

    It's the curse of Fandom.

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    Replies
    1. Well, I watched a rerun of this is a child and remember finding in dull.

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  10. I have little interest in the perspective of a child as any sort of pure perspective. It's certainly a detail that interests me, and one that will definitely be a part of the Hinchcliffe era, since the question of fear and childhood is central to it.

    But, I mean, you're pretty much complaining about the central premise of the blog here. Doctor Who is explicitly treated here as a show that is fundamentally entwined in the politics and history of the time, with mystical influences up the wazoo, and with the assumption that everything is at least potentially significant.

    I mean, I recognize that I've clearly spent more time thinking about The Monster of Peladon than Terrance Dicks did. That's sort of my critique, in a nutshell. And I recognize that Baker and Martin weren't actually writing a mad Blakean epic with The Three Doctors either. But that's kind of beside the point. :)

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  11. No, I'm not complaining about your blog. I've bookmarked it and I refresh the page every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I think it's the most refreshing and unique viewpoint on Doctor Who I've seen for...well ever really...and a wonderful antidote to the tedious predictability of fandom. I really do enjoy and look forward to reading it every week.

    No, I'm not complaining, I'm just putting forward an alternate viewpoint. The viewpoint of the people I consider to be the most important audience of Doctor Who - the children of each decade. I truly believe that what creates and fuels each person's love of this programme is their earliest experience of it. Children in the Uk have been growing up scared witless by the first true horror television of their lives. You wouldn't show a 7 year old child a horror film, but you'll let them watch Doctor Who, and believe me it stays with you forever. I grew up being terrified by the Cybermen, the Daleks, the Autons, the clockwork soldiers. Trust me, I'm 49 now, and if I'm in the London Underground and the lights go out for an instant, I do think of the Yeti. Maybe it's a uniquely British perspective, but I wouldn't be without Doctor Who, no matter what it's faults. It did its job of terrifying the nation's youngsters from 1963 to 1989, and now it's doing it again. No, your blog's great, and I love your viewpoint, even if I occasionally raise a polite finger and question it.

    I admire your recent restraint on Gallifrey Base by the way. :D (I am known as The Molk).

    Keep up the good work!

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  12. It is a mistake to dismiss the politics of the strike here. The miners explicitly say that their main grievance is the unfair division of the benefits of progress on Peladon. They also complain that their work is hard and dangerous, while the nobles enjoy a soft and easy life of luxury in the citadel. Agador is just a trigger for them, one of the typical small issues that start a strike, and as usually happens with strikes, the strikers think more deeply about their situation and the society around them. Furthermore in the end their chief spokesman receives the fullest attention possible of the government.

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  13. "And the problem is, this immediately becomes an indictment of the entire Pertwee era. It's smug and superior and about a brilliant aristocrat from the stars who will come down and fix everything for we silly little people."

    Spot on. The Pertwee era is my least favourite era of Doctor Who. As a child growing up in 1970s Belfast, having the Doctor chum around with the same British soldiers that terrorised my neighbourhood left a very bad taste.

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