Friday, December 23, 2011

And Incidentally, a Happy Christmas to All of You at Home (The Androids of Tara)

Duplicates! I haven't seen duplicates in years!
It's November 21, 1978. The Boomtown Rats are still at number one with "Rat Trap," which should probably get at least some serious mention as, at least in Wikipedia's unquestionably correct worldview, it is the first punk/new wave song to hit #1. In any case, my life gets simpler a week later when Rod Stewart hits number one with "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," a song that is really pretty unambiguous in all regards. A week later it's Boney M with a version of "Mary's Boy Child," which stays in place through the end of the story. Blondie, The Cars, Sarah Brightman, The Bee Gees,  Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond, and the Village People (with YMCA) all also get into the top ten. In the lower reaches of the chart are The Buzzcocks, The Clash, Elvis Costello, and for our purposes (and nobody else's) most interestingly, Mankind with "Dr Who," a version of the Doctor Who theme song, which makes it as high as 25.

In real news, Harvey Milk is murdered by Dan White. The Times halts publication for nearly a year due to labor problems, which is the sort of thing you'd normally like to mock Rupert Murdoch for, except he buys the paper in the fallout from these problems so still has nothing to do with it. Next time, Mr. Murdoch, I will not be so lenient. Also, the Spanish Constitution is established, officially restoring democracy to the country.

While on television we have one of those things that puzzles one about Doctor Who fandom. I'm not one to treat the Doctor Who Magazine surveys as the definitive gauge of fan opinion, and certainly not as some doctrinaire statement about aesthetics. On the other hand, I'm not going to pretend the Mighty 200 survey has nothing to tell us about Doctor Who. Obviously it does. There's some type of fan that the survey is broadly representative of the taste of. We admittedly know little about this type of fan beyond "they answer Doctor Who Magazine" surveys, but they exist.

Where I'm going with all of this is that, not for the first time in recent memory, we're looking at a story that has a puzzling reputation. According to the big DWM poll, this is the second best story of this season, behind Stones of Blood. Whereas I am unable to come up with an even remotely sincere argument for how to consider either of these stories better than the first two of the season. And that presents an interesting problem.

First, let's quickly deal with what this story is. It's fairly simple - it's a parody of The Prisoner of Zenda. Tara is a planet with androids and advance technology that has, for no particularly discernible reason, taken on a social structure that almost exactly matches that of a Ruritanian Romance. All of this sounds cynical, and it is a bit. Certainly it's tough not to see moving from a trio of complex multi-layered narratives to a straight pastiche as a bit of a move down, at least in some sense. This is, notably, the part of the Key to Time arc with the fewest thematic similarities with the larger story. The segment is shamelessly a pointless MacGuffin this time - a random bit of a statue that then gets taken by the bad guys and doesn't even influence the plot after the first episode.

But all of this ignores the fact that it's really quite well done. Swashbuckling period pieces are right up the BBC's alley, the addition of Tom Baker to the proceedings is genuinely fun, Grendel is a hoot as a villain (and his last line is phenomenal), and there's a delightful cleverness to the whole thing. Taken on its own merits its solidly enjoyable. Only the Key to Time stuff makes it a weak choice to show a non-fan looking for something idly entertaining. It's really only in terms of the three stories that came before it and what the Williams era has been shooting for lately that it seems lackluster. So it's interesting to ask why it's held in visibly higher regard, at least within the DWM poll, than either The Pirate Planet or The Ribos Operation.

I mean, the phenomenon that people have different taste isn't all that interesting. But often on this blog we end up comparing a story's reputation to the story itself, and there's an implicit judgment there. And, I dunno, it seemed worth hashing out what we're talking about when we're talking about a story's quality, since I keep insisting this isn't a review blog and then banging on about how good a given story is. On its most basic level, of course, this claim is just that reviews imply a level of recommendation, whereas I don't particularly, when praising a story, mean my praise to be advice to watch it, nor do I consider a pan to be advice to steer clear.

But there's more to it than that. I occasionally, here and elsewhere, make reference to my belief that there is such a thing as objectivity in aesthetics. In this regard I view it much like ethics, where I am also not a complete relativist. Aesthetics can be debated and considered, much like ethics, in two regards. First one can debate the degree to which a given text does or doesn't hold up to a given set of aesthetic standards. This is the most common sort of debate that takes place - does the ending work, is such and such a bit funny, is the pacing right, etc.

These tend to be the questions I avoid, and they're particularly irrelevant here. Of the four stories under discussion, two - The Ribos Operation and this - are pretty solid in their mechanics, while the other two have some visible but not story-ruining flaws. There's not a lot of daylight among the four stories this season in terms of raw competence. This is also the area where aesthetics come the closest to subjectivity, as it's on that line where enjoyment and quality start to lose their distinction. (As I tell my students, it's fine to enjoy bad things and not enjoy good things. Enjoyment is subjective. Quality is less so.)

The second type of aesthetic debate is largely the one I find more interesting, and that's the debate about competing aesthetic values. This is the debate that takes place when one tries to, for instance, compare the postmodern horror of the Hinchcliffe era with the punk with a smile approach of the Williams era. Part of the appeal of this debate is that it's where finding new things to enjoy really takes place. It's easy to like something that works according to standards akin to most of what you like. It's much harder to do it for something that's working according to a logic you're less familiar with. Moving to the level of comparing types of quality instead of levels of quality also helps avoid frustrating moments of talking at cross-purposes of the sort that happens when, for instance, fans end up angrily agreeing that the Williams era is clever, with one side using the word as praise and the other as some sort of vulgar epithet.

The question, then, is whether it is possible to reverse engineer an aesthetic from the Mighty 200 list. There are two very obvious problems with this. The first is that the Mighty 200 list lacks any single authorship or coherent communal vision. In a real sense it doesn't represent an attempt to describe a coherent aesthetic so much as the aggregate of a large number of individual aesthetics. But this is no different from the problem of treating Doctor Who as a coherent single object from 1963 to 1978, and we do that fine. The second is trickier, however. Respondents to the survey surely, in many cases, answered based on what they like instead of attempting to make more detached critical judgments. As a result any attempt to determine an aesthetic is likely to turn out to hinge on aesthetic principles such as "I like Louise Jameson in scanty leather clothing" instead of piercing insights about the political utility of humor. And while I will be the first to admit that Louise Jameson is adept at wearing scanty leather clothing, there is an extent to which this sort of thing stacks the deck in my favor when I get to the inevitable rhetorical turn where I sandbag the DWM aesthetic.

Still, it's worth trying, if only to see what we can get out of the attempt. The first thing we can tell is that the aesthetic clearly favors some eras and not others. Philip Hinchcliffe's three seasons are all in the top five when the list is averaged out by season, and Russell T Davies's four all make the top eleven. But past that the success of individual producers varies more wildly. The John Nathan-Turner era is, of course, a mess and less what I want to talk about anyway since we haven't covered those stories yet (although the fact that the three Sylvester McCoy seasons slot into 10th, 19th, and 30th place makes that the most fascinatingly schizoid era), but the Letts era spans from 3rd to 20th, the Lambert era is in 1st and 23rd, and the Innes Lloyd-containing seasons make 8th, 14th, and 24th. In fact, the only other producer to be roughly as consolidated as Hinchcliffe or Davies is Graham Williams, who ends up with the 18th, 25th, and 27th most popular seasons.

But this only tells us broad strokes. After all, the top story is from the 22nd most popular season and the eighth moth popular story is from the 25th most popular season. Whereas the most popular season had a story languishing down at 163rd place (The Android Invasion). There is more to be gained in the odd idiosyncracies - the immediate juxtapositions that happen in making a ranked list. Yes, there's a lot of statistical noise in this sort of comparison, but the exercise of trying to explain individual comparisons is also in many ways where the most and strangest information can be found. So for the purposes of discussion/my own entertainment, I've picked five immediate comparisons, each involving a Williams-era story that we've dealt with, that jumped out at me. All of these are consecutive slots - that is, each one can be framed as "Story A is the next best story after Story B." To wit:

  • Planet of Giants is immediately before The Invisible Enemy.
  • The Invasion of Time is immediately before The Wheel in Space.
  • The War Machines is immediately before The Pirate Planet.
  • The Androids of Tara is immediately before The Hand of Fear.
  • Tomb of the Cybermen is immediately before Horror of Fang Rock.
Looking at these five, the first thing that jumps out is the way in which almost every way that immediately springs to mind to compare a given pair fails to explain another pair. For instance, The War Machines is a much scarier, action-based story than The Pirate Planet. But that explanation completely fails to account for how a scary Cybermen story is beaten out by tinfoil and Sontarans. Similarly, the idea that classic monsters do better than obscure ones or one-offs that the Tomb/Fang Rock comparison implies runs aground when one considers that the Sontarans are in no way more A-list than the Cybermen. (That said, the fact that Planet of Giants and The Invisible Enemy are consecutive does, I suppose, suggest that there is a fairly coherent sense of how good miniaturization is as a plot point.) Similarly, though The Invisible Enemy and The Pirate Planet are both less funny than the stories immediately ahead of them, The Invasion of Time and The Androids of Tara are both funnier than the ones immediately behind them.

But there is one point of comparison that I think does hold for all five. In each case, the better story has appreciably better set pieces in it. For instance, Planet of Giants is all about creating memorable and striking visuals of miniaturization, whereas The Invisible Enemy's big set pieces are a possessed Doctor and an evil shrimp, neither of which really come off. The Invasion of Time, for all its faults, has some iconic Tom Baker sequences and a well-shot if ill-conceived surprise reveal of the Sontarans, whereas The Wheel in Space's big flaw is generally seen as the way it keeps the Cybermen pushed off to the margins. The War Machines has several iconic shots, whereas The Pirate Planet has to get by with the "appreciate it" speech. For all that Fang Rock has lurking horror in spades, Tomb of the Cybermen is all about building to its iconic "Cybermen breaking out of their tombs" sequence and other minor versions of the same.

The only one, actually, that's at all puzzling here is The Hand of Fear, which has both "Eldrad Must Live" and Sarah Jane's departure sequence. How is it beaten by The Androids of Tara, a story which has no sequences that come close to the stature of those two? The answer is actually fairly straightforward, I think - The Androids of Tara, even if it's set pieces never rise to the quality of The Hand of Fear's best two, is basically 90 straight minutes of set pieces that range from the competent to the excellent. 

I suspect that, in the main, this is actually a pretty on-target account of the taste of a significant segment of Doctor Who fandom. They watch Doctor Who as a parade of memorable and iconic moments. Stories with a lot of them are beloved, stories that lack them are objects of ambivalence at best. And that stands in contrast with the segment of fandom that favors weird, complex, and challenging stories. 

It would be foolish to go too far down the road of directly comparing these viewpoints or making value judgments about them, and anyway, it's not like anyone reading this blog can't figure out which side I lean towards. But I do want to pause briefly and point out that both viewpoints have a legitimate claim to extending from what Doctor Who originally was. A show about showing the viewer strange places juxtaposed with the familiar is going to be weird, complex, and challenging, yes, but it's also going to have a lot of big set pieces in it. 

But this difference explains a lot about the problematic reception of the Williams era. A successful string of set pieces, to be frank, usually requires higher production values than Williams had access to. Here the production gets away with it by remaining squarely in the BBC's wheelhouse. Mostly, though, when they try they end up with something like Underworld. Given this, it's not exactly a surprise that the era has tended towards flawed brilliance over competent set pieces. Nor is it a surprise that this story - one of the few where it does go in the other direction and gets it right - is the fifth most popular Graham Williams story. (And of the four that beat it, three are the three Williams stories that look most like Hinchcliffe stories and the fourth is City of Death.) 

On the other hand, there is one key regard in which the set pieces approach works better here than the one that has been in use thus far this season. Tom Baker, as he's playing the role these days, works much better in the set pieces approach than he does in the more conceptual approach. So much of the show at this point is bound up in the pleasure of watching Tom Baker. And this goes beyond the series being a star vehicle. It's not just that Baker mugs for the camera and dominates every scene he's in. It's that he does nothing else anymore. This is almost painfully clear in this story, where he begins by (relatively amusingly) deciding that this adventure isn't worth his time and that he's going to go fishing. His involvement in the action is entirely reactive - he either wants to save Romana or is being threatened.

Admittedly the Doctor has been a reluctant hero in plenty of eras, but there's something different to it here. The Doctor may be reluctant to help at first, but he generally finds his way into being invested in the adventure eventually. But at this point Baker never moves off audience-pleasing cleverness. It's all he does. This isn't necessarily a disaster. Baker is, in fact, audience-pleasing and clever. But by its nature it works better when the story is also just a string of entertaining moments than it does when there's something serious trying to go on under the surface. When the center of the show doesn't care about anything more than individual moments of cleverness, the show is fighting a losing battle with gravity if it doesn't as well.

Which begins to set us back up for a larger critique of the Williams era. As people have been noting in comments, for all the brilliance that goes on in these stories, the whole is often markedly less than the sum of its parts. Even The Ribos Operation, which I loved, doesn't quite live up to all of its potential.

So yes, this is fun. We haven't had a good identical duplicate since The Enemy of the World, and there's a bit of clever cheek in doing a duplicates story that also has android doubles. Mary Tamm ends up with four separate roles in the story, which is oddly charming. And it is all entertaining and fun. But if you want more than just entertaining and fun, this story is going to be a let-down after the previous three. And if all you want is entertaining and fun then there's the troubling fact that almost all of the success of this story comes from things that can't be repeated on a regular basis. It is, in the end, a good story that it's just not easy to feel very good about. For the first time in a while the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But there's an uncomfortable sense that it only accomplished that by avoiding trying to add up to too much in the first place. 

13 comments:

  1. Funny thing about this story is that while the Key segment serves virtually no role in the plot (even in its disguised form), this is probably the episode where it gets the most screen time, aside from the season finale. It is also the only episode (again, aside from the finale)in which we see non-Timelord characters interacting with the revealed segment (Grendel wants to know what it is, Lamia tries to examine it scientifically). As I recently re-watched this story (after not having seen it for years) this stuck out for me because I remembered this as the story that could have most easily dispensed with the Key narrative, and because I thought it was interesting to actually have some examination of what the segment is.

    In the modern tv series, there probably would have been some revelation from Lamia's examination of the Key segment that would have come in useful in the season finale, but sadly this season did nothing more than note that it defied analysis.

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  2. I think you are correct that set-pieces play a large role in story rankings. With literally hundreds of episodes to compare, nobody (presumably with the exception of yourself :) ) is going to take the time to complete an in-depth analysis of every episode before evaluating where the story should fall relative to the other few hundred.

    I suspect most people are going to look at which stories most readily come to mind (both good and bad), which will skew the results towards episodes that have the most-memorable sequences. Once you factor out the episodes that are so well/badly written and executed that you can’t help but remember how good or bad they were (leaving just the middle-ranked stories), I suspect people will just utilize a basic heuristic of comparing how interesting the aspects they remember about the episode are, relative to others (finally putting my Psychology degree to use here).

    For instance, I’m quite fond of RIBOS OPERATION, but it is not really that memorable a story (“It’s the story with the con men on a primitive planet with a dictator. There’s a Galileo stand-in character, a goofy-looking reptile monster, and -- I think -- a woman wearing antlers”.)

    Even though I tended to recall ANDROIDS OF TARA as “The story where they put androids and electric swords into THE PRISONER OF ZENDA and Romana gets captured and escapes a hundred times”, comparing the episodes based on “the one with the con men” versus “the one with the robots and sci-fi swords”, one might be inclined to favor ANDROIDS OF TARA because it sounds more interesting (though the memory of it as a PRISONER OF ZENDA rip-off lead me to rate it lower).

    And with missing episodes, you sort of see this as well. As most people never got to see them, the ranking is reliant on what people most readily know about these episodes (I'll bet TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN was rated more highly before its re-discovery because the premise sounds so good. It isn't until you see the hammy acting, and large volume of ridiculous details that you realize this may not have been the undiscovered classic people thought it was).

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  3. I think in your last paragraph you've managed to articulate the slight unease with which I've always viewed this story!

    As good and entertaining as it is, there's a certain, I dunno, hollowness (or something similar that I can't quite convey at the moment) to the proceedings that leaves an odd aftertaste for me.

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  4. I personally think you're on a hiding to nothing trying to make sense of a DWM poll. The fallacy here is to think of it as a decently large and representative slice of fandom as your sample. Unfortunately that's not really the case here. For a start it's a poll filled in by only people who read DWM, which probably excludes (or at least is heavily skewed against) anyone under the age of 10 and over the age of say 40. But these people (especially those under 10) make up a significant proportion of Doctor Who fans. It also only really works as a representative poll if you assume that everyone who took the poll has watched every extant episode of Doctor Who. Even if that assumption was true, the sample group (a significant proportion of whom may well be within a specific age group) may well have grown up with a particular era of Who, and therefore will look favourably on it. I grew up with Pertwee and find it difficult to compare him critically with other Doctors' stories.

    "But this is no different from the problem of treating Doctor Who as a coherent single object from 1963 to 1978, and we do that fine." In my opinion we don't do fine here, and we should not do this. It makes a lot more sense of the aesthetic leap from Troughton to Pertwee if you consider Pertwee to be almost a reimagining, for example, than if you try to see it as a seamless continuation. If you did a hundred polls of Cybermen stories for example, I don't believe you would have any consistency other than a tendency for fans to put Tenth Planet high simply because it is "regarded" as a classic, and Silver Nemesis low because it is "regarded" as a dud.

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  5. Spacewarp - When saying "we do that fine," I should note that the "we" refers to this blog. Where one of my entire premises is that Doctor Who can be treated as a single coherent project. I do so primarily because I enjoy the usefully mad conclusions that follow from the premise. You can't really get to Doctor Who as secret solution to alchemy and counterpoint melody to radical politics and youth counterculture without going through that particular blatantly false premise.

    I approached the DWM poll in a similar spirit. Yes, obviously DWM-poll-answering fandom doesn't make any sense or have a coherent single agenda. But that doesn't mean taking the gestalt mind seriously isn't going to be worthwhile. It just... restricts the sorts of worthwhile it might be.

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  6. Phil - point taken! Addressing another of your points: I'm sorry but on several occasions your blog posts have sent me scurrying back to re-evaluate a story, so I'm afraid you do have an influence whether you like it or not!

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  7. On the DWM Poll
    Spacewarp - while what you say about the validity of the DWM poll is true, it's probably the best we're going to get and I think it works reasonably well as a benchmark of popular fan opinion. In case you're interested, The age range was 5 to 71 with 14% under 18 and 45% over 35; and DWM did give us the top 10 and bottom 5 for each of the three age groups. 6,700 people took part and it was a "rate these" not "vote for your favourite", so having fewer people rate the missing episodes didn't matter (and even The Savages received 2740 ratings, twenty times the number for the most commonly rated stories in the Gallifrey Base Non-Dynamic rankings).

    Philip - while it's quite fun to compare adjacent stories, the difference in scores is often so tiny - 0.03% for The Hand of Fear/The Androids of Tara - that only their similarities are meaningful, rather than which one comes out on top. Having said that, I believe (like Keith) your conclusions are probably correct. It's just this isn't very good evidence for it.

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  8. On the KTT Season So Far
    I've seen this season once, when I borrowed the Limited Edition DVDs from the boy next door. I happen to know that one of my Christmas presents in a couple of days will be the Unlimited Edition, so I'll soon get a chance to watch it again. This time I will have Philip's analyses (and the comments of others) rattling around my brain; I suspect they'll make the biggest difference to The Ribos Operation, which is already my second-favourite, after The Stones of Blood and just ahead of The Pirate Planet. Androids is currently in fourth place. But it's all totally subjective and based purely on how much I enjoyed them at the time.

    Happily, I can enjoy both the set-piece stories and the weird ones. This does depend somewhat on my mood, but in general I can appreciate them for what they are. And - unless I am misunderstanding terms again - there are some that manage to be both: The Mind Robber springs to mind.

    Incidentally, KTT is my daughter's favourite season. In fact, Graham Williams' era seems to have been targeted with her in mind: the remote control K-9 was the first piece of DW merchandise she bought for herself - she saved up for three months after Christmas to get it - and her favourite Tom Baker story is The Horns of Nimon!

    Anyway, this has been a particularly fine run on the blog, and I look forward to seeing what you have to say about the stories that are generally considered the lowlights (though personally I quite liked Kroll).

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  9. Got to say, The Androids of Tara is my very favourite Who story of all. I know objectively there are other stories more dramatic, exciting and even competently made, but this for me is Doctor Who at its funniest and cosiest. But then, Cave of Androzani, Enemy of the World, The Myth Makers, Vincent and the Doctor and Father's Day are all favourites of mine as well, so I wouldn't necessarily say that "cosy entertainment" is my yardstick (though most of my favourite stories are noticeably funnier than others - but then I come from a school of thought that reckons most of the best dramas are also the funniest programmes; Doctor Who is funnier than most comedies).

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  10. It's time for me to embarrass myself by being dense and missing the point of what you were saying... Could you clarify what you meant by the following?

    "Though The Invisible Enemy and The Pirate Planet are both less funny than the stories immediately ahead of them, The Invasion of Time and The Androids of Tara are both funnier than the ones immediately behind them."

    Isn't the same thing happening in both cases? And I find The Pirate Planet much more funny than The War Machines. And Planet Of Giants isn't more comical than Invisible Enemy.

    While typing this it's occurred to me that you may have meant that PP and IE are *more* funny than the story immediately above them...

    And have a happy Christmas yourself!

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  11. ...and a Merry Christmas to everyone at home!

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  12. Merry Christmas to you, too, Phil.

    You starting this blog has been, no exaggeration, one of the highlights of my year. It's been a chance to have the conversation about Doctor Who I've always wanted to have, and an immensely enriching experience for me. Hope you have a good 2012.

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  13. I just think you're over-analyzing this. I think people like Androids of Zenda because it's a swash-buckling adventure of a style that DW in general and Baker in particular rarely did. All I remember about it was that Romana had a (highly implausible) double and that episode 4 had a lengthy sword duel between Baker and the bad-guy who, upon losing, jumped into a moat and tried to swim away. I can see why someone for whom the existential horror of The Pirate Planet was overshadowed by a robot parrot that pooped lasers would prefer this rather more straight-forward tale.

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