Friday, March 23, 2012

And He's Just Wiped Them Out (Mawdryn Undead)

Red velvet lines the black box...
It’s February 1st, 1983. Men at Work are at number one with “Down Under,” remaining there all story. Kajagoogoo, U2, and Echo and the Bunnymen also chart, which starts to look like one of the best charts we’ve seen until you look a the second week when it’s Joe Cocker, Wham, and Fleetwood Mac charting. Bauhaus, however, are in the lower reaches of the chart, and a post-breakup rerelease series means that The Jam occupy fifteen spots of the top hundred. So that’s nice.

In real news, unemployment in the UK reaches its record peak. The Australian parliament is dissolved in preparation for elections. Klaus Barbie is actually charged with war crimes. And that’s about it, I’m afraid.

On to television, then. Mawdryn Undead is another one of those stories that I was unaware was controversial and not widely liked until well after I’d seen it, and where I am thus unable to quite dislodge the way in which I was initially taken by it. I quite liked this story on the VHS tape, and was gutted that the back two parts of the Black Guardian arc had been taped over with a track and field meet by my parents, leaving me unable to watch them for a good two years or so after becoming a Doctor Who fan. Rewatching it, as with most classic Doctor Who, its flaws are evident, but as with much of the Davison era its virtues are evident as well, with the embryonic forms of what Doctor Who could and would become on plain display throughout the story.

Let me first say that I am mostly going to set Turlough aside until Enlightenment. I have a lot to say about the character, but I don’t think it’s going to be well-served by being split among three entries or by treating the early scenes of his character without reference to the later ones.

Second, let me deal very efficiently with the Brigadier. He’s obviously not the right character for this story, but in this story’s defense, he’s also the third choice character. The correct character is, obviously, Ian. They wanted to do the story for Ian. But William Russell wasn’t available and they had to do fallbacks, and ended up with the Brigadier. Nicholas Courtney is, of course, wonderful, but the fact of the matter is that this is to the story’s detriment and that very little about the story is meaningfully about the Brigadier. He is serving here as a stand-in for “generic past companion” and I’m mostly going to treat him that way, especially since there actually is a story in the future that deals with the Brigadier as the Brigadier and that, furthermore, is just as much a work of flawed genius as this one, so I’ll just hold all of that for Battlefield. (As for UNIT dating, I don’t really have anything to add to what I said on the subject in The Invasion.)

Those set aside, then, let’s start with Peter Grimwade, a strong contender for the most underrated writer in Doctor Who’s history. There are reasons for this - he only has three stories, none of which are exceptionally strong and one of which is Time-Flight. But his CV is deceptive here. All three of the stories he wrote were nightmare briefs in which Nathan-Turner saddled him with a metric ton of things to shoehorn in. Any scriptwriter is going to suffer from this. Just look at how Johnny Byrne was snowed under two stories earlier. Byrne is not a great writer, and it turns out that his best story, The Keeper of Traken, was heavily rewritten by Bidmead, but he’s still a better writer than Arc of Infinity made him look. Even Robert Holmes finds himself staggering under the weight of The Two Doctors.

Given that, it’s surprising just how well Grimwade’s work survives the seeming onslaught of requirements. I mean, we’ll never really know what “pure” Grimwade would have looked like. But on the evidence he was a reasonably deft writer. First of all, let’s point out that he’s surprisingly deft at characterization. That’s on particular display in this story, where he manages the non-trivial feat of having the two versions of the Brigadier tangibly feel like different characters. (And a hat-tip to Tat Wood for pointing out some of the subtler ways I’d have missed, such as the 1983 Brigadier using post-Falklands slang) But it’s true even in Time-Flight, where even if the actors disappointed painfully all of the various characters, even those with similar jobs and stations in life, sounded and acted visibly different

The other thing he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for is the fact that he, better than any other writer in the Davison era, gets the soap opera structure. Miles compares the structure of this story to how The Amazing Spider-Man typically works, and he’s spot-on. The biggest weakness Mawdryn Undead has is, as with much of Doctor Who, being sold as a TV Movie instead of as four parts of a serial. If this had been the Hartnell era and stories had been going out under individual episodes instead of pretending this was a uniform and monolithic block of story its reputation would rise almost immediately. Grimwade is remarkably deft at a structure whereby every episode introduces a new complication and moves the characters to a slightly new situation.

This is how the Davison era should always have been working - a series of definable encounters that move characters from one point to another and that work meaningfully as serials within each encounter as well. This is consistently sandbagged by two problems. First, seemingly nobody but Grimwade gets how to write these sorts of stories. Second, the writers are largely incapable of communicating among each other. A scene about the Mara gets tacked onto the head of this to provide continuity, just as a scene about Adric got tacked onto the head of Time-Flight. But in both cases nobody bothered to give Grimwade “deal with the fallout of this” as part of his brief. The hanging plot threads are gone by the five minute mark. But it’s clear that Grimwade understands how to do this sort of thing because everything within the story points to a writer who gets that sort of structure.

But this gets at a line of criticism of this story - and, correspondingly, a line of praise for this story - that are both alarmingly wrong-headed. There’s a debate about this story that goes roughly like this. Critics of the story complain that it is small and boring and not enough happens. Then defenders come up with an elaborate reading of the story based on a theme of lost innocence and retro-nostalgia where the point is the collapse of the big exciting UNIT days into the petty and soul-deadening mundanity of the domestic.

The two sides of this debate share a problem, which is the assumption that the small scale is in some sense a problem for Doctor Who. We talked back in the Black Orchid entry about how, for the most part, Davison’s Doctor works very well on the small scale, and this is no exception. Particularly adroit is the choice of villains - a bunch of guys who just want to die. The Doctor’s life is never in danger as such - only his ability to regenerate. This means that the conflict is taken to the personal level, with Davison getting to play with the limits of the Doctor’s kindness, with his refusal to help being, in this case, an unwillingness to sacrifice his life for mere “fools who tried to become Time Lords” combined with a willingness to do so for Nyssa and Tegan. The smallness of the scale lets Davison actually have a story in which the Doctor has decisions to make and an opportunity for priorities, as opposed to one in which huge swaths of lives are at stake and the choices in front of him are straightforward.

But more troubling is the idea implicit in both ends of the discussion that the Brigadier’s life of domestic teaching in in some sense a falling off or lessening of the character. Setting aside my immediate antipathy for the idea that teaching is in some way a lesser profession than shooting things, and remembering that as originally conceived this was not a falling off of the Brigadier but a return to first principles for Ian, let’s get at the real issue here. There’s a shockingly cavalier judgment here about the inherent superiority of having adventures to having a normal life. One that, if we take the Brigadier’s role as “generic companion” here, treats everyone who has ever chosen to leave the Doctor as wrong or weak for doing so.

This is, admittedly, an issue that really does run through Doctor Who, and one that Russell T. Davies eventually plays with overtly via both Rose and Donna. But by any standards, this is a particularly nasty flare-up of it. I’ve been trying, for the most part, to avoid letting too much criticism of Ian Levine slip into the blog at this stage. There are a couple of reasons for this, among them being that Levine has publicly told me to go fuck myself and I am mindful of being perceived as having some sort of grudge. But more important is the fact that at the end of the day Levine is a fan with an only partially public role in the show and I think there’s something jarringly unfair about making him into the emblem of the show’s frailties. He’s not. He’s an emblem of fandom’s frailties, and that deserves a different sort of attention. So while there are two entries in the Colin Baker years in which I think it’s impossible to avoid Levine, I mostly want to leave him out of the Davison years.

That said, he’s too good an example here to pass up. Back around the 2010 general election there was a thread on whatever Outpost Gallifrey/Gallifrey Base was that year in which Levine explicitly discussed basing his vote entirely around the question of what party would be best for the BBC’s continued funding of Doctor Who. To say that this is deeply unfortunate is an understatement, but it’s exactly the sort of understatement I love, so let’s go with it. I bring this up, though, because I think it’s worth drawing a direct line from that moment to the treatment of the series’ past in 1983 and the reading of that past. Because the logic that says “exciting science fiction adventure is inherently superior to the domestic sphere” and the logic that says “having more money for Doctor Who is more important than the future of the NHS” are, in essence, identical.

And this is my rather stark problem with that defense of Mawdryn Undead. If it is in part an act of mourning for the program’s past in which the adventuring days of UNIT are preferred to the soul-crushing domesticity of a public school (American readers - please be aware that this term does not mean what you think it means) then in essence the past is being mourned because of its anesthetic qualities. The UNIT era is, in this reading, valorized for its rejection of worldly concerns. A cursory rereading of my posts from the late Troughton era and the Pertwee era will reveal how shocking a misreading I find this to be. This is exactly counter to what I view the fundamental purpose of Doctor Who as being - the claim that material social progress is the solution to alchemy, and, to my mind, borders on overt sociopathy.

But crucially, I don’t actually think that’s what’s going on in Mawdryn Undead at all. I think it’s almost a complete 180 from the correct reading of the Brigadier’s emotional arc here, which is not about his fall from grace but rather about his recovery from the Doctor. Because everything about his amnesia is, at first, played as post-traumatic stress disorder. The implication isn’t some “you’ve grown up and can’t go to Neverland anymore” bit of fairy-tale. It’s that the Brigadier has blocked out the terrible and traumatic things that happened to him when the Doctor was around and now the Doctor has gone traipsing back into his life and upended it again. (In this regard it’s a return to the actual original version of the Brigadier - the Colonel who was left shell-shocked when his attack on the Yeti went disastrously and he lost his entire squad.)

Unlike the appalling “faded glory” interpretation, this interpretation has the benefit of integrating the various parts of the story. The Doctor finds himself facing down a narrative collapse that is averted by the Brigadier’s acceptance and reintegration of the past he’d rejected. The central antagonists have turned away from wanting to be Time Lords and now want only death as a result of how traumatic trying to be Time Lords was. The possibility of an endless life of adventure is treated with considerable anxiety throughout the story.

Taken in this light the story clearly isn’t about the faded glory of the Brigadier, it’s about the need to integrate the mythic realms of science fiction with the mundane and about the fact that they’re not antagonists at all. But this also gets at the thing I will concede is a problem with the story, which is the same thing that’s a problem with most of the drama in the Davison era - it’s not there. The story desperately needs a real confrontation between the Brigadier and the Doctor instead of a simulacrum of one about the Brigadier’s mental health. It needs the Brigadier to accuse the Doctor of being a danger to everyone around him so that the Doctor can successfully answer the charge and get the Brigadier to accept the moral validity of the Doctor. But these sorts of scenes in which the drama is actually pushed to a breaking point just don’t happen in 1983.

There’s a school of thought, of course, that says that this is a good thing and that contemporary drama likes to hammer home its moral point so as to shred any ambiguity. I’m not wild about this line of reasoning, mostly because I think that the “there’s so much depth to what’s implied” defense really amounts to “but if we imply it we don’t actually have to deal with the consequences of saying it out loud and confronting it.” But if you’re going to give a story a pass on grounds along those lines it’s tough to find a better candidate than Mawdryn Undead. Here we have a story where there’s meaningful emotional subtlety up and down the story - where even the villains aren’t straightforward moustache twirlers and where Mawdryn gets a sympathetic and tragic final line. In an environment like that, at least, there’s room for implication like this.  It’s worth contrasting that to Tat Wood’s attempted praise of the Brigadier’s salute to the Doctor in The Three Doctors, in which he tries to suggest that it’s more powerful because it’s understated. Which is nonsense. I adore The Three Doctors, but nothing about a Baker and Martin script gestures towards understated and subtle emotional resonances.

But here at least there’s room for it. The story is so densely populated with concepts (an actual benefit of Grimwade getting the nightmare brief) that the idea that things are pushed into the subtext doesn’t jar. Especially because it’s a story that treats the audience with such genuine respect (some of the Black Guardian’s lines aside). This is a story playing with timey-wimey plotting a quarter century before Steven Moffat got around to it, and doing so almost casually and incidentally. It’s a story that has absolute faith that its audience is going to stick with it and wait to see how the disparate strands eventually entwine, and one that actually pays it all off as well. The degree to which it assumes that the audience will be primed to accept Turlough simply because he’s clearly an announced event and will thus be read straightforwardly as “the new and untrustworthy companion” from his first scene is a triumph of narrative efficiency - a fantastic example of how to use familiar structures as shorthands to tell stories. Yes, it would be better if it actually did something with its returning companion premise and foregrounded the emotion. But when the series is actually treating its audience with respect and assuming maturity in them it can at least get away with sublimating some of the emotional commentary, if not benefit from it. Indeed, the last time the series was regularly assuming an intelligent audience - the Williams era - was also the one in which it managed to build tremendous sexual chemistry between its two leads without putting a single moment of actual romance on the screen. Mawdryn Undead marks a return to that, and is one of the most overlooked gems of a Doctor Who story in the classic series.

67 comments:

  1. Don't worry Phil, I'm pretty sure there isn't anyone Ian Levine hasn't insulted at one time or other.

    Hell he called me The Biggest C*** in Fandom for suggesting his plans to get fans to colourise the B&W Pertwee episodes for free would come to nothing.

    (They came to nothing.)

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    1. And I've been told that anything I say is worthless because I prefer the Seventh Doctor era to the Tom Baker one!

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    2. Actually, not only am I the only one never to have been insulted by Ian Levine, I think that Ian Levine is the only living person never to have insulted me.

      Weird, huh?

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    3. SK: "Actually, not only am I the only one never to have been insulted by Ian Levine, I think that Ian Levine is the only living person never to have insulted me.

      Weird, huh?"

      Maybe - but not if you, yourself, are Ian Levine! Hah! Your secret identity is revealed!

      Hm, does that count as me insulting you?

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    4. I don't think I've ever been insulted by Ian Levine, but this is mostly because - to the best of my knowledge - Ian Levine has never said anything to me or about me.

      I am not sure whether this counts as a good thing or a bad thing.

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    5. I, too, have never been insulted by Ian Levine, but that's largely because I haven't engaged mainstream Doctor Who fandom at all, except maybe by reading DWM. Ah, the benefits of being (relatively) new to the show.

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    6. I have also never been insulted by Ian Levine, though this may be down to the fact that I am a member of no Doctor Who forums.

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  2. "I mean, we’ll never really know what “pure” Grimwade would have looked like."

    While we may never know what 'pure' Grimwade would look like, may I suggest trying to track down a copy of "The Comeuppance of Captain Cat" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0394450/) for a pop between reality in 1986. It was a half hour one off drama transmitted in the children's series "Dramarama" featuring an out of control egomaniac star of a children's sci-fi tv show, written by Peter Grimwade. Some say Captain Kat was based on the antics witnessed first hand by Grimwade of Tom Baker, others say the titular character was based upon John Nathan Turner. But whichever, a study of Doctor Who would surely be lacking by its absence.

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    1. It's possible. 1986 is currently astonishingly crowded in the rough schedule, but there's an entry planned into which it might fit.

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  3. I'm intrigued. What would American readers think a "public school" was?

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    1. In the US, public school is exactly that - a school for the public to attend - as opposed to some weird double-speak euphemism for private elitist school.

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    2. It's not a 'weird double-speak euphemism for private elitist school' at all.

      In England, a public school was exactly that -- a school for the public to attend. As opposed to most schools, which were for the children of members of a particular guild, or for the children of clergy, for example.

      A 'public school' was indeed open to any member of the public. The idea that it should be free to attend as well is an incredibly modern one.

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    3. SK -- Yes, that's where the term comes from, but the point of Phil's comment is that most people think "public" and "private" in the context of school, health care, etc mean publicly-run v privately-run, rather than open to the public v restricted.

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    4. I know that, and it's good to make the distinction. I simply took objection to the characterisation of a perfectly understandable and correct term as 'some weird double-speak euphemism' simply because it happens not to accord with the ideas of the last century or so. It's an astonishing display of chronological snobbery.

      (Not that I have an personal reason to defend public schools, being a grammar school boy myself).

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    5. It's not an astonishing display of chronological snobbery at all, whatever the heck that might be. How is it an "astonishing display" of anything, other than that being the sort of clichéd phrase one finds being bandied around these sorts of discussions? Off your high horse, laddie, don't take on so - and stop being so offended by language use, it makes you come off as a jerk.

      I wasn't being entirely serious, by the way, but I shall make sure I adhere to your rigorous strictures in future, sir.

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    6. Actually I went to grammar school myself as well, but I remember my parents referring to it as a "Private" school as opposed to a "Public" one, although at the time I couldn't see the difference (since we had to pay fees for me to go). Nowadays I understand that of course they are the same thing, but the term "Public" is reserved for a certain top 10% (e.g. Rugby or Eton).

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    7. It's not so much reserved for the 'top' 10% (there are minor public schools), as a historical term. So it tends to be the older ones, rather than the top ones.

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    8. Genuinely curious (my daughter goes to an American private school, frighteningly expensive)... If a UK "public school" is open to everyone who wants to go, but costs money, then it isn't really open to everyone, unless it doesn't cost very much money. Like say, cheap enough that 90% of the population would be able to afford it without stretching. Is that correct?

      My daughter's school is not open to everyone, they screen applicants to decide if they want to accept those children. If they do accept you, you have to pay the aforementioned fabulously expensive tuition.

      So does that mean a UK "public school" costs money, but if you have the money, you're in without any kind of application/screening process?

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    9. Well Eton's admission procedures don't let you bypass the exams by paying more. Though presumably spending money on private tuition will give your child a greater chance of getting in.

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    10. The explanation, as I understand it, is that public schools date from the days when most people who were educated were educated by private tuition. In addition, many of them started out as charitable foundations for poor scholars although most now make no more than gestures in that direction. Anyway, public is as in not private tuition.

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    11. I thought I'd explained this. Before there were public schools, there were private schools: ie, schools that were only open to the children of members of particular guilds, or children of clergy, for example. No matter how much you offered to pay,if you weren't a member of the Shoemaker's Guild, your child couldn't go to the Shoemaker's Guild school. So it was a private school.

      So it was nothing to do with private tuition. These schools were all for the middle and merchant classes (as can be seen by them being attached to guilds): the upper classes had no need of schools because their children were educated by private tutors.

      So if you were a merchant, so couldn't afford private tuition, but your guild dint' have a school, then you were stuck, because all the schools that existed were private: that is, they were only for the use of members (this is what 'private' means, as in 'private members' club'). So you were a bit stuck...

      ... until, that is, the public schools opened, at which point you could send your children there. Because they were public, not private.

      Being 'open to everyone' has nothing to do with 'not costing very much money'. Imagine, for example, an exotic island. On that exotic island are two resorts. One is open to the public, but of course as it is a luxury resort on an exotic island it costs an absolute fortune to go there, and so neither you nor I are likely to ever be able to afford to go. Nonetheless, if we had the money, we could, so it is open to the public.

      The other resort, on the other hand, is owned by a Russian billionaire and you can only go there if he personally invites you. Doesn't matter how much money you have to spend, if he doesn't like your face, you can't go in. Though if he does like you, he won't charge you anything: once you arrive (on the charter flight he paid for) your every whim will be cared for by the staff in your rich friend's employ.

      So you see by this example where the private resort is free but the public one is expensive, being public or private has nothing to do with how much something costs.

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    12. Perhaps it would cause less confusion to say that 'public' means 'open to anyone' rather than 'open to everyone'?

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    13. My daughter's school is not open to everyone, they screen applicants to decide if they want to accept those children.

      But there's no restriction on who can apply for the screening, correct? You don't have to be a member of a particular guild, or club, or know a particular person?

      Again, this notion of screening is independent of the public/private issue; you could have a private school which uses screening (where only the children of members of a particular guild are allowed to apply for the screening, and those who pass the screening are accepted) or a public school which uses screening (where anyone can apply for the screening).

      So again: 'private' means 'you may not come in unless you are on a particular list'. That's what it means when a door is marked 'private': only a certain specified group of people are allowed through (eg, people who work in the shop). 'Public' means 'not private', ie, anyone is allowed to come through -- it doesn't mean there are no conditions for entry (you might have to be appropriately dressed, or pay the entrance fee, or whatever), but it does mean that anyone who meets the conditions can enter. Entry is not restricted to a particular group.

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    14. Not intending to muddy the water here, but I suppose in a sense the old 11-Plus exam was also a form of screening. My parents didn't want me to go to the "Local Comp" (Comprehensive - i.e. State School) but in order to be eligible for the few "private" (i.e. "public") schools in the area I had to have passed the 11-Plus entrance exam. I was the only person in my year who did it, and consequently I got in. After a further 5 years of wearing a school uniform and calling prefects "Sir", I came out with 4 very poor exam results, which was far better than several other kids in my year (and far worse than my friends who remained in the State System).

      So Private and/or Public also doesn't mean Better.

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  4. Great entry! Several random thoughts:

    1) I like the idea of taping over Doctor Who stories with thematically similar things: Mawdryn Undead with a school track and field, Terminus with a video diary about cancer, Enlightenment with a regatta, The Two Doctors with a visit to see the doctor where you end up getting referred to another doctor.

    2) I agree that Grimwade is a better writer than he's given credit for. I'm a little unclear about the chronology of him being fired as a director and hired as a writer, but the impression I get is that Saward threw him Time-Flight as an apology for how JNT treated him, and so Time-Flight comes over as a first draft partly because it was written in a rush and partly because Saward already felt guilty about Grimwade being pushed around and didn't have the heart to edit his script much. I could be wrong about that, though, and would welcome correction. However, in this and particularly in Planet of Fire he shows a control of the dynamics of a scene that, as you say, is pretty much unsurpassed. Someone, I can't track down who, said "Audiences love scenes where the balance of power shifts", and the early Peri/Howard scenes in Planet of Fire are full of these little power shifts, with characters being smart and coming up with solutions to the problem immediately in front of them. That's unusual for Doctor Who, where most scenes move the main plot forward but aren't mini-episodes in themselves. And in Planet of Fire he even manages to make the Master sinister again, while also making him helpless.

    I think one other reason why Grimwade isn't well remembered is that he isn't very good at jokes. His non-Time-Flight scripts function extremely well, but they don't zing.

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    1. You asked for a correction, you get one (and from Shannon Sullivan, no less): :-P

      “The Return” (original title of Resurrection of the Daleks) was assigned the production code Serial 6K, and was to be helmed by Peter Grimwade, who had worked on Doctor Who as both a director -- most recently on Earthshock -- and as a writer, having contributed Mawdryn Undead to Season Twenty. Unfortunately, during the fall of 1982, the BBC was crippled by labour action on the part of its electricians' union. A work stoppage in November resulted in the postponement of the studio dates for Enlightenment, the fifth story of the season and one which tied up a number of crucial plotlines. When the strike finally ended in December, Nathan-Turner had little choice but to give Enlightenment the two studio blocks originally allocated to “The Return”, from January 16th to 18th and January 30th to February 1st.

      Sadly, this meant that “The Return” would have to be dropped. The official decision to curtail Season Twenty to just twenty-two episodes came on January 3rd, the day before Grimwade and his team were slated to begin a two-day location shoot in London. In commiseration, Grimwade decided to take his crew (which would have included designer Malcolm Thornton, visual effects designer Peter Wragg, costume designer Jan Wright and make-up designer Jean Sheward) out for lunch. Nathan-Turner was not invited because Grimwade had intended to take the producer to supper instead; this was not communicated to Nathan-Turner, who felt that he had been intentionally snubbed. This unfortunate misunderstanding marked the start of a steady deterioration in Nathan-Turner's relationship with Grimwade, and came at a time when the producer's rapport with Saward was also beginning to sour.

      Meanwhile, script editor Eric Saward felt badly that director Peter Grimwade's preproduction work on “The Return” was now all for naught. A misunderstanding had also led to discord between Grimwade and Nathan-Turner, which Saward felt was a result of the producer overreacting. Saward wanted to make things up to Grimwade, and offered him a scripting assignment for the fifth slot of Season Twenty-One; i.e., Planet of Fire.

      Neither Time-Flight nor Mawdryn were bones thrown at Grimwade in the slightest.

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    2. Yeah, that makes sense. Well, it makes sense of everything except how awful Time-Flight is...

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  5. (ctd)

    3) I'm not that familiar with the debate about the story that you reference, but surely the point should be that both the exciting military adventures and the public school yarn are known categories of genre escapism. And, specifically, both enjoyed by public schoolboys. So the Brigadier shouldn't be read as fading from adventures to teaching, he should be read as being pushed across to the other natural genre for him while still keeping his appointed role as benign authority figure. Or even to an extent being pushed out of story into reality.

    When you come to do the book, you might want to do a Pop Between Realities on To Serve Them All My Days, which was the definitive public school saga of the early 80s (and featured Matthew Waterhouse's only pre-Doctor Who TV appearance). Mawdryn Undead always read as a conscious response to that series, because it's also about an ex-military man who becomes a public school teacher and suffers from PTSD: the opening scene, with John Duttine's shell-shocked stare as he drags himself up the road to the school (or somewhere else; memory fades) is striking enough that it sets a context that remains with you for the whole 13 50-minute episodes of the series, even if it isn't explicitly referred to. I think that particular reference made the appearance of the Brigadier in this story, and the use made of him, seem much more natural. Ian would actually not have worked as well, though it would have been great to see him again.

    4) I think that the “there’s so much depth to what’s implied” defense really amounts to “but if we imply it we don’t actually have to deal with the consequences of saying it out loud and confronting it. -- well said.

    5) Having said all that, I still admire things about the story much more than I love the story itself, just as with Snakedance, Terminus and Enlightenment. There's great attention to detail, but not enough attention to the throughline. The actual threat to the Doctor (apart from the one from Turlough, which is always cartoonish) doesn't show up till the start of episode four. I think it's actually better watched as a whole rather than as four individual episodes, because if you watch it as a whole at least you get the bit where something happens. Maybe I'm too addicted to my cheap pleasures.

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    1. Here's the To Serve Them All My Days clip:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYgV55Uhq4U

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    2. To Serve Them All My Days was a good show. I vote for Popping Between Realities to do it in the book version.

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  6. But, if you are going to randomly feature a past companion, the Brigadier is a good one to pick. He's used to the Doctor briefly turning up in his life, and has met several different regenerations, and so this isn't a big deal for him in quite the same way as it would be for Ian. From what I can gather the Ian version never got to script stage - I wonder if that storyline has been published anywhere.

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  7. That presumably means 'Doctor in Distress' is going to be one of those 'Doctor Who appearances not in continuity' entries then? Good-oh.

    Though perhaps the only way to do it justice would be, in true Points of View style (and why haven't you mentioned Points of View yet?), to just repeat the phrase 'why oh why' for several thousand words.

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    1. I take objection denigration of a perfectly valid forum for public feedback on publicly-funded televisual programming as some sort of rote, inarticulate background noise. In reality, Points Of View contributors offer a varied and often deeply valid critique of the spending of their license fee. To classify it as nothing but meaningless yammering is an astounding display of cultural snobbery.

      Annoying, isn't it? ;)

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    2. I don't know where you got the idea I was denigrating Points of View, as I used to be an avid watcher of it. Oh, how Anne Robinson has fallen.

      And my favourite letters were the 'why oh why' ones as it seemed so often the most expressive response (I'm not sure I could come up with a better response to 'Doctor in Distress' other than to stare in open-mouthed horror).

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    3. I preferred Points of View when it was Barry Took. But I'm with you on the "why oh why"s - as well as "Doctor in Distress.

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    4. Why oh why isn't there more SNOOKER on TV? PS I am MAD.

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  8. As a way to vote, which party will ensure continued BBC funding of Doctor Who isn't completely wrong-headed. (It's not like voting to ensure Fox has more money to spend on Buffy.)
    If a party is supporting BBC funding, they are by that token committing themself to the view that public service can do public service better than private enterprise. Reithian ideals are in embryo progressive. The history of classic Doctor Who is a demonstration that the path from a Reithian program about a history teacher and a science teacher to Cartmel's anti-Thatcherism is not a hijacking but the result of a process of self-criticism.

    If someone votes for a party that proposes to have Doctor Who privatised and sold off to Fox because the voter thinks Doctor Who will done with a bigger budget there, that would be sociopathic (and stupid).

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    1. My objection was not to the idea that what party controlled Parliament would have some impact on Doctor Who so much as with the priorities one has to have to make that one's major voting issue.

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    2. Well, yes. Call it a redemptive reading.

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  9. Jon Blum has a fascinating post where he points out that the prototype for the Brigadier in Mawdryn is Jim Prideaux in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (the BBC adaptation of which Peter Grimwade worked on earlier in his career): "Shellshocked ex-secret-agent, a tough man gone to seed, broken by a mysterious past tragedy, taking up residence as a teacher at a boys' school... doing his best to forget his past until a man from before his downfall comes by to stir his memory, and drags him back into the game." Grimwade even includes a parallel to the scene where the schoolboys ride off in Prideaux's classic car.

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  10. I think this is one of your best so far – and William Whyte’s response one of your best (sets of) comments. Both great for flipping over a new view of a story I’m very familiar with. For me, Grimwade’s writing has a lot of flaws, but it’s lovely to see someone championing his strengths, too, and I’m massively fond of this story. I love your interpretation of all the key characters being so traumatised by the Doctor and his world (and relating it back to the Colonel’s first story); William’s counter-point about yarns was fascinating, too, while his idea of taping over Doctor Who stories with thematically similar things was hilarious. You might also consider Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Grimwade worked on the BBCTV adaptation and cast several of its actors in his stories, and Mawdryn’s Brigadier has a clear relationship to Jim Prideaux (and Hippo can really only be explained as a nod to the far more involved Jumbo).

    You’re right about how well it suits Davison to have person-scale decisions to make and priorities to consider, though I’d look askance at “The Doctor’s life is never in danger as such - only his ability to regenerate.” If you were told, ‘It’s all right, I’m only saying you’ll die in five years’ time instead of fifty,’ wouldn’t you think of that as putting your life in danger? William’s right to say this works better as a whole, and that “The actual threat to the Doctor doesn't show up till the start of episode four”, making the last cliffhanger incomprehensible unless you’ve already heard the resolution.

    I love the mournful intelligence of this story, but it’s not exactly all pulling in the same direction: a gently haunting morality tale with the overblown look and sound of a rock opera, scripted so every fifth line is incomprehensible jargon. But many of the other four lines are gorgeous. And when I reviewed it alongside the rest of The Black Guardian Trilogy, all three stories evoke the Flying Dutchman and hint at vampirism, though they do so in very different styles.

    Possibly for the first time since The Time Warrior, too, there’s a character who overtly mirrors and critiques the Third Doctor: this time an alien exile who’s an amoral, cowardly liar, yet again he and the Brigadier are stuck with each other (but can’t abide each other).

    And I wouldn’t defend Ian Levine, but I’ve worked in enough elections to say that his reasons for voting seem positively practical compared to many I’ve had on the doorstep or in letters…

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  11. Ooh, beaten to the reference by Nick! I'll have to look out for that Jon Blum article.

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  12. One of the few serials from this era that I like. To me the best thing about it is that Gothic (in the literary sense, not the architectural sense) spacecraft in the sky. I get the same pleasure watching the characters move about in it that I get watching characters explore the mausoleum in Phantasm.

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  13. I just to know how they ever persuaded Valentine Dyall to spend twelve episodes with a dead blackbird glued to his head.

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    1. He actually couldn't see it, according to Shannon Sullivan (NB: Shannon Sullivan said no such thing).

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  14. Does anyone want to explain to the clueless Canadian who Ian Levine is? I mean, I read his wiki entry, and the only thing I could figure out is that he's a complete tosser, but that seems a less rounded explanation than I'd like. Also, he did the music for K9 and Company, which makes him an utter wanker, too.

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    1. He's a particularly obsessive Doctor Who fan, who became a big name in fandom during the 80s, when he had a semi-official role as continuity advisor for the series. This appears to have gone to his head, as he shows all the classic signs of "big fish, little pond" syndrome.

      His most notable contributions include saving a lot of missing episodes from destruction, claiming to have written Attack of the Cybermen, putting together charity record Doctor in Distress during the hiatus.

      He has a tendency to get into arguments with other fans and shoot his mouth off about the other side. When it comes to Doctor Who, he refuses to accept that any point of view other than his own might possibly be valid.

      In short, he is pretty much the nearest thing we have to a real-life example of the stereotype of the over-obsessive Doctor Who fan.

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    2. His most notable contributions include saving a lot of missing episodes from destruction, claiming to have written Attack of the Cybermen, putting together charity record Doctor in Distress during the hiatus.

      Well, the first of those three makes up for a lot of other annoyance.

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  15. An excellent piece, Mr. Sandifer; well said.

    Splendid points, all of them!

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  16. It seems like you want "Mawdryn Undead" to be like what Steven Moffat's Series 6 turned into: A treatise on how The Doctor ruins peoples lives and brings death, destruction and chaos down on whatever unsuspecting place he lands in. You make a lot of valid arguments as to why this would have been a good story to tell, especially during this era of the show and I won't dispute those but I just...I think this is an approach to the show you and I are never gong to agree on.

    I know you enjoy stories like this, "The Daleks' Masterplan", "The Massacre" and "The God Complex", but I, even being the staunch post-structralist I am, can never get behind deconstructing The Doctor that way. I can see *why* you like those stories-They make excellent character drama pieces from a storytellng perspective, but I have a very weird conception of "story" that simply does not mesh with this take on Doctor Who.

    I don't think The Doctor should *ever* be thrust into the focus of a character study: It's his job to do that to *other* people. I don't feel he should ever be the focus of the show's story in any form whatsoever: He's the unpredictable, unknowable outsider who exists outside and between stories. This is why I can never get behind any attempt to humanize The Doctor or turn Doctor Who into a character-based soap opera/cult Sci-Fi show (no matter how well it's done): In my mind that's the absolute antithesis of what the show is and should be. That kind of thing is what Babylon 5, the Rick Berman/Michael Piller/Ron Moore/Ira Behr Star Treks, Battlestar Galactica and Mass Effect are for (among other things) and they do it much, much better.

    Your alternate take on "Mawdryn Undead" is a really excellent one and would have made a great Peter Davison era serial. However, the Peter Davison era, even when it was good, is simply not the kind of Doctor Who I want to see.

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    1. Not to mention when you start problematizing The Doctor and his role in the narrative, I can't understand how that isn't also at the same time problematizing the anarchist utopia he stands for (unless you're criticizing The Doctor for not living up to his ideals, which is a valid critique to level at, say, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Colin Baker and David Tennant) which is sort of a thing I thought we were all proud of and praised the show for.

      Also, that should read "post-structuralist". I wish Blogger had an edit feature and Firefox had a spellcheck that wasn't utterly useless.

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    2. I don't think The Doctor should *ever* be thrust into the focus of a character study: It's his job to do that to *other* people.

      But if you make it a rule of the show "never look at the light," the temptation to look at the light becomes irresistible.

      when you start problematizing The Doctor and his role in the narrative, I can't understand how that isn't also at the same time problematizing the anarchist utopia he stands for

      But should anything in the story be immune to problematisation? I remember seeing an interview with Alan Moore in which he was asked why he had the anarchist hero of V for Vendetta do such morally questionable things, and why he made a couple of the fascist antagonists somewhat sympathetic. I forget the exact wording of his answer, but it was essentially to the effect that he wanted to write literature, not boring propaganda.

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    3. I like V For Vendetta precisely because it resides in a moral grey area and there are no discernible "good" or "heroic" analogies. It's great, classic, textbook philosophical fiction that takes a critical look at two ideologies. My problem is no attempt to critique The Doctor and his anarchic role in Doctor Who has ever been done with anything remotely resembling the tact and nuance with which Alan Moore did it.

      Both John Wiles and Steven Moffat (and to a somewhat lesser extent Russel T. Davies I would argue) approached their stories by going out of their way to show how dangerous and irresponsible The Doctor was, and even went beyond that to show how this is not how he was acting, this is something intrinsic to his very *being*: He has a natural predilection to destroy. Tennant's Doctor died because of it, we got "The Massacre" and "The Ark" because of it and while Moffat tried to duck out of the problems he raised at the last minute by hitting us with a cheap saving throw by way of Gareth Roberts, to my mind it failed spectacularly. This is the biggest problem I have with this approach: Any reasonable anarchist will tell you chaos and anarchy are NOT equivalent and are indeed naturally opposing states.

      I don't feel the show is above criticism or problematisation, quite the opposite (after all if I did, why am I here?). However, if you're going to critique The Doctor and his anarchy I feel it needs to be done in such a way to show that the ideals he stands for are good ones, he just isn't living up to them as well as he could at this particular time: That he needs to be practicing *better* anarchy, not abandoning it whole-cloth. As an anarchic utopian myself, I find it difficult to get behind any story which says anarchy is an inherently dangerous, frightening and bad thing and to my eyes every single attempt to deconstruct The Doctor thus far has done nothing more than exactly that.

      As to the other side of this point, I would leap at the usage of the term "hero": V is a hero and a main character, albeit a flawed one. In my opinion The Doctor is neither of those things and a great many problems in the show's history have come about because people keep thinking he is. He can't be The Hero because he doesn't belong to the story and in fact doesn't belong to any story: He's just as ancient and unreadable as the Lovecraftian entities he winds up in conflict with. There is in fact, in my view, no such thing as a proper Doctor Who story, just The Doctor subtly inserting himself into other people's stories (or at least that's how it *should* be I feel) The Doctor isn't a hero, he's the engine of creation that allows stories of heroes to be told. That's why I find it so frustratingly incongruous to see people trying to tell soap operas with him as the tragic lead.

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    4. IDEOLOGIES! Good or heroic IDEOLOGIES! Seriously, I hate this spellcheck.

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    5. This is the biggest problem I have with this approach: Any reasonable anarchist will tell you chaos and anarchy are NOT equivalent and are indeed naturally opposing states.

      Since I'm an anarchist, I obviously have no quarrel with you about that. But since Moore is an anarchist too, I don't think he intended V for Venedtta's critique of its anarchist hero as a rejection of anarchism. The fact that a position is correct doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't be problematised; even the true and the good have their darker sides.

      And as I said before, I don't think the idea of the Doctor as someone who only slips into others' stories and is never to be focused on himself is sustainable. There's no way the audience -- and the writers themselves -- won't quite naturally be driven to ask "who the hell is this guy who slips into other people's stories?" In fact, it's right there in the title.

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    6. Likewise, I don't think there's any way you could have a weekly show about Cthulhu while maintaining Cthulhu's unreadability. Especially not one running thirty-three years. (Just as Marvel couldn't do that with Dracula when they made him the star of a long-running monthly comic book.)

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    7. I totally agree with your reading of V For Vendetta, Moore's politics and his intention while writing it. I think that's exactly it-no disagreement there. I mantain however that Doctor Who has never been deconstructed or examined quite as elegantly or tactfully, at least within it's own context.

      As for the second point, I definitely see where you're coming from. It's not a position I'm especially fond of and I'm not even 100% convinced my approach is wholly unsustainable (after all huge swaths of the show have pulled it off successfully and continuously in one form or another, even if at first glance it might seem like they haven't), but I have to tacitly agree that your central question is one that's naturally going to come up (even just knowing how fans are). I personally don't like it, but I guess so long as it's never fully *answered* and I can keep seeing stories like "Robophobia" alongside ones like "The God Complex" I can begrudgingly accept it!

      I guess I'm just one who's far more willing to let some mysteries remain mysteries and remain unsolved (especially in fiction) than maybe others. Once a mystery is solved, it becomes far less intriguing and has the tendency to become ever so dull. Takes the magic out of it for me, if you will!

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    8. As to your point about Cthulu, I think you're absolutely right! That's why I am so adamant Doctor Who *not* be about The Doctor! Even Godzilla got a couple TV shows based off of him, and they worked because despite his name being in the title it was really about the team of cryptozoologists who traveled around the world investigating zoological mysteries and their lives. Godzilla himself only showed up during the climax for the token monster battle.

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    9. I agree that the mystery behind the Doctor should never be fully revealed. But I see nothing wrong with revealing tiny bits, while at the same time compensating by adding new mysteries. Thus, for example, I like the bits of the Cartmel Masterplan that made it onto the screen, and I wouldn't have minded a bit more. Those were bits of answers that prompted new questions. But I'm glad they never filmed Lungbarrow; that's TOO much revelation.

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    10. That's my attitude exactly, down to agreeing wholeheartedly about "Lungbarrow", which I thought was an ill-conceived disaster waiting to happen. The fact that Mark Platt pushed ahead with it for Virgin (and then turned "Thin Ice" into a shaggy dog story ostensibly to make it tie in to his book) is why I have something of a beef with him despite him being a great writer and penning one of my favourite Doctor Who stories of all time. I'm OK with revealing some things, so long as there's always more things we don't know then things we do.

      I guess the only thing you and I are disagreeing on then is exactly how *many* little tidbits to give.

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  17. Or did they work because Godzuki was just so cute and funny?

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    1. Godzuki was only in the Hanna-Barbara one, not the later FOX Kids one. It's hard to go wrong with Don Messick though.

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  18. I just had an interesting thought: Given the production team's efforts to deconstruct the last Tom Baker season, what do we all think about the subtext in digging out Baker's plum overcoat for Mawdryn to wear? Since Mawdryn is portrayed almost as something ... unclean, for lack of a better word, what with the vampire/zombie overtones to the character, is the sight of him in part of Baker's iconic costume a way of further undermining the importance of the Fourth Doctor?

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    1. That's an interesting way to look at it-I hadn't thought of it that way before, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised. I would have hoped this far into the Davison era JNT and his crew would have left Tom Baker behind, but it's easy to forget just how entrenched and iconic he'd become and it wasn't until 2006/2007 or so that stopped being as much of a force as it had been.

      Of course, my opinion that Davison's Doctor as written is no more loyal to the character's core personality than Tom Baker's makes me kind of want to roll my eyes if this is the case, but it's still an interesting and plausible theory.

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  19. I wish it had been Ian. Mind you, Ian's story didn't get to America at all until 2 years after "THE FIVE DOCTORS" aired. The only "Ian" that Americans knew was Roy Castle!


    Aaron:
    "And I've been told that anything I say is worthless because I prefer the Seventh Doctor era to the Tom Baker one!"

    Well, at the moment, Tom Baker's my 3rd favorite (and Troughton's my 2nd-- wanna guess who my 1st is?). I haven't really narrowed it down that much, but I think Peter Cushing may be my 4th-- and he might be higher, except, he only 2 stories. 3 if you count the one set in Pellucidar.

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  20. This is one of the only episodes I watched as an adult. I loved it as a kid, mainly because it had the Brig in it and he was always one of my favorites. I found watching it as an adult to be a painful experience. The idea was quite good, but something about the dialogue or it's presentation, felt really awkward. As much as I love the Brig, the idea of Ian being in it instead seems like a great idea.

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