Monday, March 26, 2012

The Original Viking Settlers (Terminus)

A frame from the recording of the commentary track
this time.
It’s February 15th, 1983. Kajagoogoo are finally at the top of the charts, prancing about for both weeks of this story with one of the great pieces of 80s trash. Michael Jackson and Tears for Fears also chart, making this perhaps the single most 80s chart we’ve dealt with yet. Fitting, that.

News is relatively quiet. Some particularly bad fires in Victoria and South Australia, a multiple homicide in the robbery of the Wah Mee gambling club in Seattle, and the Environmental Protection Agency announces plans to completely and permanently evacuate Times Beach in Missouri due to an excessive amount of deadly poison in the soil.

While on television, Terminus. There was, in the drawer of VHS tapes that constituted the initial guiding principles of my Doctor Who fandom, a tape on which the words “Terminus” and Enlightenment” were written and crossed out. The tape now contained a track meet. This is one of several standing grievances between my parents and me, along with my not being allowed to trick or treat when I was a child and their failure to buy a life-size Dalek when they had the opportunity. Some day I will put them in homes and laugh at them.

The result of this is that when I finally got my hands on a copy of Terminus I was positively chomping at the bit to watch it. The fact that I remembered virtually nothing about it going into rewatching it for the blog, then, was a bit unnerving. As I’ve noted, there are few worse omens when talking about a Doctor Who story than to say that it was forgettable as a child.

And this is doubly true of the Nathan-Turner era. Every era of Doctor Who has its poor stories. The realities of BBC production mean that sometimes Doctor Who has no choice but to go to air with a story that self-evidently sucks. And there’s an inverted history of Doctor Who from the one we’ve usually followed, in which eras are described and understood by the best of what they strove for. We could instead ask what various eras do when it’s clear they have a turkey on their hands. And it is, in many ways, just as revealing as the optimistic history of the show. Verity Lambert, for instance, tries with a sort of manic desperation to do something interesting. The Lloyd/Bryant/Sherwin era just grimly grinds out the story figuring that the audience doesn’t actually care what’s on screen, leaving Patrick Troughton to shout “oh my word” a lot. The Pertwee era tries desperately to avoid ever making a turkey, slowly sacrificing quality at the altar of not fucking up until they make a horrific string of turkeys as a result. The Hinchcliffe era maintains reasonable production standards throughout, and its turkeys are defined almost entirely by whether or not Robert Holmes could be bothered to even try to fix the script. And the Williams era just dials up the charm in a frantic effort to salvage script after script that goes wrong.

The John Nathan-Turner era, on the other hand, has just about the most depressive relationship with its own failures imaginable. Whereas the Williams era, for the most part, is spurred into action when it’s clear that circumstances are conspiring against them, the Nathan-Turner era goes into the grimmest sort of autopilot imaginable, essentially just depressedly going “right, we’re doing a poorly made runaround on a generic space station and we really don’t care.” With Nathan-Turner himself never moving out of the first stage of grief and just grinning maniacally as he insists that the story worked and was good and the memory cheats and please please love me.

What makes this really weird, though, is that for most of the Nathan-Turner era this process is almost but not quite entirely unrelated to the quality of the script. The Nathan-Turner era will periodically go to the mattresses trying to make a classic out of a story with a script that is never going to make one and, equally, will occasionally just decline to lift a finger to help a brilliant script. Which brings us to Terminus, which is tedious, poorly made, clearly as boring to everybody in it as it is to anybody watching it, and by one of the best writers to work on the classic series. Perhaps the most shocking thing, when watching Terminus, is trying to figure out how this could come from the pen of the man who’d written Warriors Gate, and who is one of a handful of classic series Doctor Who writers to have a writing career that spans functionally into the present day. The answer, of course, is that it didn’t. What this story appears to be is not at all what is actually going on in the script.

Lawrence Miles, defender of the Davison era that he is in About Time, gives the start of an explanation, which is that this is meant to be Wagnerian space opera. This is not, in and of itself, a winning concept, but it’s at least an intriguing one. Miles suggests that the story should have been played entirely in sweeping, epic gestures, with everything overplayed and shouted thunderously, preferably made with a cast consisting of an endless sequence of clones of Brian Blessed.

It’s a start, certainly, but only a start. Miles’s vision of what this story could have been is intriguing, and it’s certainly true that there are occasional flashes of that sort of epic glory. The skull image that appears within the TARDIS to provide Nyssa her way off the ship is one of the most chilling images in the series, and the crowd of Lazars clawing and milling around everybody is one of the best efforts at straight scares since the Hinchcliffe era, although let’s be fair, that is a relatively small pool to be swimming in, and has Mandrels in it.

Equally, it’s true that the things that fall short of the epic fall short with an unfortunate vigor. The degree to which the Vanir are bored middle-aged men arguing with each other is deeply unfortunate, as is the failure to choreograph any of the fight scenes with even a modicum of quality. And it’s tough to muster any love for the casting of the space raiders, who are so 1980s that it causes physical pain even if you’re enormously fond of the decade, as I am. It’s also frustrating that Nyssa is left to simper and be abused through so much of the story, again in a story that was ostensibly meant to focus on her. Tegan and Turlough spend the majority of it crawling around in ducts, but for all that she actually does in the story Nyssa might as well have been there too. Her actual departure is handled with pleasant dignity, but as usual Sutton mostly demonstrates how frustratingly wasted she was on the part, and thank god for Big Finish so that we have an idea of just how much that’s true. All three companions seem to shrink in the face of the story just as much as the story’s supporting cast does. But Miles’s account isn’t the full account of it either.

Still, let’s start with what Miles does say and is right about and build off of it. At the heart of this story is a sense of cyclical cosmology built on the idea of ancient orders of things that have survived in partial forms. Miles makes much out of a concept that is elided in the televised version, which is that the space ship is a relic from a previous universe whose destruction brought about the creation of our universe. In this reading the end solution of the Garm managing to hold back the lever and reverse the explosion is not, as it initially appears, just about a superstrong wolfman. It’s about the idea that only something from the old universe can properly interact with the ship. It’s not supposed to just be a question of strength, but of a sort of narrative teleology - the fact that the old universe has its own rules separate from our universe.

It is worth reflecting, then, on the Doctor’s role in this. Unlike Warrior’s Gate, it is not true that his role is one of strategic inaction. But it’s also true that the Doctor does relatively little here. This is, of course, not that unusual for Doctor Who, where the plot often consists of the Doctor figuring things out so that other people can do things. But it’s still worth making the exact format of this within Terminus explicit. The Doctor is a wandering outsider who gains knowledge about the fundamental workings of the universe and uses it to preserve the order of things. Within the Norse context of the story at large, the correct term for this person is “Odin.”

I mention this because there’s a train of thought that really peaks in the late McCoy era and into the New Adventures (particularly those written by Paul Cornell) in which the Doctor becomes an overtly Odinic figure. It is an interesting role to cast the Doctor in. Certainly Odin is a mercurial figure - indeed, he’s rather unique as gods go in that he is at once a martial, patriarchal figure and, for the most part, a trickster archetype. He is still defined first and foremost by cleverness and an ability to outfox people. And he is in many ways a natural fit with the idea of the Time Lords, particularly those of The Deadly Assassin. His ravens, after all, are named thought and memory.

There is an important transformation that happens here - a sort of steady refocusing of the lens of the series made necessary by time. Early on the Doctor is most visibly allied with some form of Hermes. But as he becomes increasingly entrenched in culture this changes. (Indeed, one theory, admittedly based largely on Tacitus making shit up, casts Odin as being derived from Mercury. But even this fraudulent theory carries some potency - a sense of the Roman pantheon slitting its own throat in a desperate bid to evolve into something weirder.) Even as the actors playing him and his superficial tropes become progressively younger he gets played as an older and older figure. Hartnell may be the most “old man” Doctor, but he plays the Doctor as a sort of giddily mercurial patrician. Davison, on the other hand, plays him as a weary young adventurer.

But more to the point, when the program is facing its twentieth anniversary there is an extent to which the Doctor cannot help but be a figure of the establishment. Once you’re the longest-running science fiction show in the world you are, in a necessary sense, an institution and a part of the establishment. That doesn’t mean that the Doctor has to abandon his sense of the anarchic. But it requires a change. To some extent this has been lurking since the Pertwee era, as the Doctor has become increasingly sage. It’s not until the 1970s that it becomes the norm for the Doctor to know a lot about a given situation before he arrives and to be able to rattle off extensive facts about settings off the top of his head. Indeed one of the interesting things about Davison’s Doctor is that this sort of extensive foreknowledge is temporarily and partially stripped away again (particularly in the two Bailey stories, which overtly hinge on the Doctor’s lack of knowledge in a way that would never have happened in the Baker era).

But Davison’s Doctor, equally, is not a return to the Hartnell/Troughton mould. He may be without extensive knowledge, but he’s also wearied in a way that Troughton never was and Hartnell rarely was. And if one extends the scope out from Davison, treating him as the model for future Doctors (and it’s fair, I think, to say that his approach defines how at least five of his six successors play the part), he rapidly starts to look like a reconceptualization of the Doctor as an Odinic figure instead of a Hermetic one. In Davison he is overtly a “young” Odin - the wandering figure gathering wisdom and knowledge. But this merely prefigures the more explicitly Odinic natures of McCoy and all three of the new series Doctors. And Terminus, spiritually, marks that transition point.

But Terminus, as written, has depths beyond what Miles points at. Yes, it’s Norse space opera, but that’s just a cool style. Oddly prescient in its casting of the Doctor, yes, but on its own it’s not entirely functional without slathering of “sentient metafiction” more liberal than even I’m eager to lay down. It’s enough, perhaps, to elevate it to Time Monster territory - brilliant ideas that just go terribly, terribly wrong. But there’s a second layer to Terminus that Miles doesn’t pick up on.

The clue actually comes in something Tat Wood points out when he snarks about Saward’s tin ear for dialogue, complaining about how the line “do they think we’re stupid or something” got changed to “they must think us fools!” It’s a poor rewrite, to be sure, but the most striking thing about it is that it does actually completely meet Miles’s assertion that everything is supposed to be overplayed as if by Brian Blessed. What’s more telling, though, is what it replaces - a line of frustration that is framed and played as working class employees grousing angrily.

This is something Gallagher has played with before. Warrior’s Gate also featured a spaceship crew that was visibly coded as working class. But that was under Bidmead, and now we’re under Saward, who scuppered a script by Pat Mills in part because Mills wanted to do the story with a visibly working class captain whereas Saward wanted to portray only classless futures. So all of the class issues that Gallagher put into the script are systematically removed. The Vanir were, in the original conception, working class gods. On the one hand given names of Norse myth and made to stride around in armor and on the other hand tired, worn out, and screwed over wage slaves. This cuts right to the core of them as designed. They’re literally living paycheck to paycheck - actual wage slaves dependent on the Terminus Corporation’s shipments of Hydromel to survive. They have no choice but to work, and the need for them to do their work obliges them to be completely blind to the needs of the sick people in their care.

Likewise the Garm turns out to be a wage slave from a previous universe, bound into servitude and finally set free from his wage slavery when he saves the universe by waking up and doing something for the sake of it instead of because he’s ordered to. Or, to put it in blunter political terms, the Garm attains class consciousness and is freed by it, thus facilitating the subsequent freeing of the Vanir. The cyclical structure of mythic history is explicitly wedded, in other words, to a sort of Marxist dialectic of history. Only Saward, in his infinite wisdom, preferred a depiction of a classless future and took it all out.

So we’re left with two Terminuses. One is a Marxist Norse space opera that clearly flags the transition of the Doctor from a Hermetic figure to an Odinic one while maintaining an explicit connection to the idea of alchemy as material social progress. The other is a poorly paced story about bunch of middle aged men grousing around a shoddy space station in silly costumes. Unfortunately, of course, it’s the latter one that actually aired. And unlike something like Creature From the Pit, where the fault is fairly concretely pinnable on one person’s head, here it’s a systemic failure - a case of nobody bothering to give Gallagher - whose previous effort had been good in part because of the striking visuals - the sort of production attention he needed. But through the horrid pallor of neglect and tedium the last remnants of Terminus's old universe still rage gloriously. The result is one of the odder critical endpoints I’ve found myself resting on - a story I absolutely despise for the way in which it serves as an effaced memorial to one of my favorite Doctor Who stories ever.

34 comments:

  1. Miles makes much out of a concept that is elided in the televised version, which is that the space ship is a relic from a previous universe whose destruction brought about the creation of our universe.

    Oh, is that what the ship was all about! I just watched this tedious story not twenty minutes ago and came away with the impression that the ship was from our universe but traveled back in time to create the universe as an ontological paradox. Which, of course, made no sense, but then neither did the rest of the story.

    More than anything else, Terminus seems terribly disjointed to me. The first two episodes are about body horror arising from a leper colony in space. Then, in episode three, we get that business of the ship having created the Big Bang and now being poised to destroy the universe which just comes sailing in out of some completely different and more interesting story. As a result, I'm still left wondering how precisely the mysterious, faceless Terminus Corporation found this mystery ship at the center of the universe and decided it would be ideal for a leper colony. I'm also wondering why the big-haired raider guy kept insisting that no one ever returned from Terminus when Nyssa revealed at the end that the Garm did successfully cure some people and send them away. (And how hilarious was it that the Vanir actually chained Nyssa up so that the Garm could find her, like Fay Wray left for King Kong!)

    And speaking of the Garm, I laughed out loud when you referenced the Mandrells, because I actually thought of them while watching this story and, recently, Arc of Infinity. For all the "muppet" comments made about the Mandrells, they were marvels of costuming compared to the frankly adorable Garm, to say nothing of Omega's killer chicken. I want to buy my niece a Garm plushy for Christmas this year.

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  2. Also, I suppose I should comment on Nyssa, but as I have little good to say, it hardly seems worth it. Frankly, I am offended on Sarah Sutton's behalf, as the production team seemed bent on making her last story as humiliating as possible. I found it offensive that she was required to lose her skirt and wander around in her scanties for the whole story for absolutely no reason. And ironically, Sutton was better off in stories that were not intended to be Nyssa-centric. In Snakedance, she held my attention by bringing intensity and subtext to fairly banal lines, but in "her episode," she's compelled to follow stage directions to scream every five minutes, recite most of her lines in a piteous wail ("What IS this HORRIBLE place?!?"), and spend four episodes pretending to be violently sick. I really can't imagine a more demeaning swan song for such a winning actress. And thus departs the last companion I will care anything about in the slightest until Ace arrives.

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    1. I found it offensive that she was required to lose her skirt and wander around in her scanties for the whole story for absolutely no reason.

      She doesn't lose her skirt for no reason; this is explained by Stephen Gallagher in the DVD interviews. At the time he was writing, he had only seen Nyssa's original costume, with the tight high-collared blouse. He needed a scene to show that she was becoming ill, and also he needed her to leave something so that the Doctor knew she had been taken onto the ship; so he wrote the scene in which she finds it difficult to breath and takes off her blouse (presumably leaving her with something reasonably substantial on underneath, as one imagines Taken costumes to be almost Victorian in their supporting undergarments).

      When they came to film it, of course, Nyssa's costume had changed and the only thing she could take off and still leave her semi-decent was the skirt. So that's what they filmed. Despite it making no sense at all (she can't breath so she... takes off her skirt?).

      It seems like an instance of the generally rushed nature of Doctor Who filming, as Peter Davison has complained about ad nauseum: no time to reshoot, no time to go back and give her a jacket that it might make sense for her to take off, just adapt the script whatever way necessary and get on with it before the lights are switched off at 10pm.

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    2. I mean 'breathe', of course.

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  3. It must be a learned blindness to aesthetic failings, but I've always been able to see the qualities of the story showing through the less-than-perfect production.

    However, I think 'Terminus' works quite well as a production... viewed from a certain viewpoint. It certainly isn't a production that 'works' if the viewpoint is that of how to pull in huge numbers of viewers who will come to think of Doctor Who as funtime. On the other hand, 'Terminus' makes a good fist of translating its themes to screen. The form suits the content. That will sound like sarcasm when I say that 'Terminus' is fundamentally about being trapped, powerless, bored to death and going round in circles.

    'Terminus' is about how sometimes, for some people, history just seems to judder to a halt, leaving them stranded in a seemingly eternal Now. The way everyone gets trapped - Nyssa in various cells, Turlough and Tegan under the ground, etc - seems to mirror what the story is really about. The Garm is stranded by the control box, unable to leave or stay and do what he wants to do. The Vanir are stranded by their ignorance and their addiction (hydromel is clearly a drug rather than a medicine). The lazars are stranded, apparently dependant upon a crudest form of make-or-break treatment before they get shipped who-knows-where by the company. The raiders are stranded, unable to raid or escape. Moreover, these people are stranded by their own ideas and assigned roles… that’s why the story makes such a fuss over people (from Olvir to Valguard to the Garm) renegotiating those roles. Even Terminus Inc. is stranded in its crazy vicious circle of shipping slaves and lepers about the universe. It isn’t just an ‘evil corporation’; it’s an expression of history jammed up, which fits with the time paradox stuff.

    Terminus itself is stranded at the centre of the universe (which must be a metaphysical position since it obviously can’t mean anything spatially) and at a nonsensical everywhen. I've never taken it to be a last relic from an older universe. I've always seen a paradox at the heart of the story. Our universe accidentally creates itself (and, by the way, is therefore explicitly godless). Terminus is a product of our universe. The station therefore must be eternal (even its construction can’t really be said to be its beginning, if you get my drift) and that’s why it seems so still and silent; it is bereft of history, of the passing of time. Everybody there gets stuck in the stillness and the silence… and the boredom of eternally rolling the boulder up the hill.

    I personally think it’s quite wrong of Lawrence Miles to say that this should’ve been done as Wagnerian opera… it’s not about heroism or villainy or anything grand. It’s about the alienation of working for a cause that you don't control, for masters you don't see, in ways you don't choose. It's *about* drabness and tedium and neverending routine. The universe itself is the endlessly circulating trap in which people get stuck.

    Of course, you can break out of loops, as the raiders do, as Valguard does, as the Garm does… but, in this story, it’s HARD. What Biroc does comparatively easily in ‘Warrior’s Gate’, the people in ‘Terminus’ have to do slowly and painfully and reluctantly. It’s a gruelling learning process for them, and for Nyssa, who volunteers to be stranded at the end… but only so she can break out of her own loop and help others break out of theirs.

    It's probably quite true that it doesn't make objectively good telly... but I love it all the same.

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  4. I think you’re a bit kind to the script; I’m not sure it was all that brilliant (the book, for example, isn’t a knockout, and you’ve dwelt on how poor it is for Nyssa), though admittedly it’s better than what we got on screen. I disagree with Lawrence, too; I’d have chosen a very different playing style, one which fits in much more closely with your second big observation. I’d love to see Peter Davison as Odin, too, but even if I squint I can only manage Sylv. An intriguing argument, even so.

    This line made me laugh, though: “the crowd of Lazars clawing and milling around everybody is one of the best efforts at straight scares since the Hinchcliffe era, although let’s be fair, that is a relatively small pool to be swimming in, and has Mandrels in it.”

    “Miles makes much out of a concept that is elided in the televised version, which is that the space ship is a relic from a previous universe whose destruction brought about the creation of our universe.” Really? I think that much comes across pretty strongly, rather than being elided. The main problem is that, as you say, it doesn’t come across in the Garm, but the teeny control room doesn’t match the majesty of the concept, either: for a titan struggling to hold back the death of another universe, read a plush doggie and a lever that goes ‘sprong’ as it clicks round like a kitchen timer. But I don’t see how at this point the huge space opera colliding with that, however realised, could ever have been other than bathetic.

    The key to how this should have been done, as I’ve written in my own review of The Black Guardian Trilogy, is your “working class employees grousing angrily” – is there really a quote from Saward saying he “wanted to portray only classless futures”? Because if that’s true, it’s completely bizarre between the very ’80s British Empire stiff-upper-lip flavoured private school and sailing ship adventures either side. This could have been the story that went to the other very ’80s British filmmaking extreme and nailed social realism, with the faceless company and workers enslaved by petty rivalries and drug addiction. But anything that could go wrong with Doctor Who’s Boys From the Blackstuff does, and the Vanir’s design and execution is pretty much (excuse me) the nadir rather than the heart of it: from the first, we’re clearly meant to be scared by the ‘walking skeleton monster’ look, but not only does it look like a Halloween costume, the director doesn’t believe it either and blows the effect within seconds; then, once we’re primed to see what could be machines or walking skeletons as people dressed up, we see another unconvincing stylised headpiece and wonder ‘Who’s inside this “Garm”, then? Oh, dear god, it’s meant to be “real”’; there’s Olvir’s badly-staged ballet with Valgard while the Garm picks up Nyssa when he can’t hear her scream from a couple of metres away or spot her, still in shot, when he finally notices she’s gone; and above all, the Vanir outfits are so huge, clanking and ‘symbolic’ that, taken with the ‘practical scaffolding’, you expect a spotlight to blaze down at any moment and Eirak to start singing an Andrew Lloyd-Webber knock-off while his underlings dance around on roller skates.

    One of the few interesting things I take away from it is that, after the vampire story turned upside-down of Mawdryn’s people yearning to suck out the Doctor’s deaths, this one has medieval warriors trudging round in hell lording it over the ghastly pale everyone-treats-as-dead people – and who live off a special fluid they take directly into their hearts. And there’s more Flying Dutchman / vampire vibe in the next one, too…

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    1. The classless future claim is by Mills, apparently from a 2008 interview.

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    2. is there really a quote from Saward saying he “wanted to portray only classless futures”? Because if that’s true, it’s completely bizarre between the very ’80s British Empire stiff-upper-lip flavoured private school and sailing ship adventures either side.

      Um, Mawdryn Undead isn't set in the future, and the (conspicuously working-class, to contrast with the officers) humans in Enlightenment are from 1911. Neither could say anything about how Saward wanted to portray the future.

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    3. Well, Doctor Who is a time travel show. So you have to go to the past, or throw sci-fi elements into the present sometimes. When Davison-era Saward goes to the future, it's Futurist sci-fi. The Earthshock and Resurrection of the Daleks space marines are the most obvious sign. He just didn't go there that often, presumably because the BBC didn't have the budget for it.

      I'll take Phil on his research, which has been impressively solid for the last 15 months, that there were more class-centric elements in the original Terminus script that Saward removed. The only time there was a future human civilization that didn't uncritically accept militarism and linear progress was in The Caves of Androzani. And that was a script from the un-fuck-with-able Robert Holmes.

      One of the benefits of the Colin Baker era was that this futurist take on militarism disappears, and we get satire like Vengeance on Varos. Maybe this was because of the deepening friendship and influence Holmes had on Saward making his approach to the future more complex. I'm looking forward to Phil's analysis.

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    4. I think it's a mistake to see 'Vengeance on Varos' as 'set in the future' in the same way 'Earthshock' and 'Resurrection of the Daleks' are. 'Vengeance on Varos' is Philip Martin doing a fairy-tale satire using the trappings of Doctor Who because that was at the time the only way to get such a non-realist piece on TV (Play for Today, which might have taken it in the same vein as The Flipside of Dominic Hyde and Theatre 625's The Year of the Sex Olympics, ended in 1984).

      So whereas the space marine futures are supposed to be some kind of Star Trek-esque vision of what the future might be like if we continue to progress into a classless society, 'Varos' is self-consciously a dark mirror of today's society. It's not meant to be the future, any more than the islands visited by Gulliver are supposed to be actual islands rather than actualisations of a satirical point.

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    5. That's interesting. I had always conceived of Varosians as far-future humans having settling another world, like the ones on Androzani Major. Now, while I have another interesting dimension of Vengeance of Varos as more purely a brutal fairy tale, I have one less redeeming feature of the development of Eric Saward. So much the worse for him, I suppose.

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    6. Thanks for nailing down the quote, Philip. Fascinating, if either mendacious or entirely self-unaware. SK, while you're technically correct, of course, I don't believe individual Doctor Who stories are as impermeable as you seem to think; when 'present' (albeit looking like it dates UNIT to the 1920s) and 'future / space / past' are so blatantly riffing off the early 20th Century-based upper-class drama that was so very much in vogue at the time, it's still bizarre, as I've said, to suddenly claim that one part of the show should be "classless". Except in the sense that Terminus, comparatively, isn't very classy. Surely that just leaves the overall tenor of the show very upper-class with nothing to balance it (with even the sailors down below mainly, and briefly, there just to talk about the upper classes)?

      Besides, look at the other 'future' stories that season: Lords; Queen and Princeling; Lords again. Each one stuffed silly with the upper classes. And, in the one foray into the past, King and Lords. So the more it's put in context, whether past, present or future, any claim that Terminus could be deliberately "classless" sticks out like a sore thumb. Why that, and only that? The only way "Neither could say anything about how Saward wanted to portray the future" is to ignore every single other story screened in 1983. It seems a more plausible reading that Saward wasn't "classless" at all, merely gerrymandering out the only non-upper class set of lead characters (though in the even wider context of Saward's other seasons, that looks much less true – but makes the idea of impermeable categories even more shaky).

      Similarly, I'd agree that Varos is really a comment on 'society today' rather than a learned dissertation on the most likely extrapolation of a predicted future… But, er, so what? That's true of almost all sci-fi, and not least so much Doctor Who, that to take out one and say it's different to all the others is baffling.

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    7. I think the easiest explanation is that by "classless" Saward really meant "no working class." Yes, Varos obviously has a class issue, but it's almost entirely a middle/upper class divide. Similarly, Saward may add in characters who are adjacent to the working class in that they're military, but that's not working class as such. I mean, it's been a while since I've watched the mid-80s of Doctor Who, but do we actually get to see the working class again until Paradise Towers outside of a pseudo-historical or a Holmes script?

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    8. I think the easiest explanation is that by "classless" Saward really meant "no working class."

      I think that's the pithier version of what I was getting at ;)

      And there are the Retrogrades, the diamond thieves and the coal miners, off the top of my head, positive and highly characterised representatives, I think you'll agree. No, wait...

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    9. I repeat up here what I wrote out of sequence below: '"Sorry, we're trying to only show classless futures," sounds like exactly the kind of thing an editor who just thinks the story in question is rubbish might say when looking for an excuse to reject'.

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  5. That's very enlightening (forgive the pun, but it's the best word for my feeling) of you to show how Eric Saward preferred to depict the future as classless. It strikes me as a kind of utopian vision in a way, because a society without class differences sounds like a good idea. It was the ostensible goal of the communist movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries, after all.

    But it also indicates all the problems I see with people trying to build utopia in real life. They end up like the most optimistic sci-fi-style utopian of all: proud techno-fascist Fillippo Marinetti. Now I see so much more depth to Saward's space marine adventures like Earthshock. In a world without class divisions, there's nothing wrong with glorifying militarism, because the military would never be used for oppression.

    It fits with the tradition of science fiction Robert Heinlein best represents, given an unironic reading of Starship Troopers that most readers actually took. The future will be a gleaming technological paradise that solves or erases all the petty problems of our current existence. Moving to the future is inevitable linear progress in a single direction. Understanding Terrance Dicks' reading of Time Lords as technocrats is in this tradition too. I can definitely see how this would cause friction within the tendencies of Doctor Who toward recurrence, cycles, and returns.

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  6. Are the criticisms that Nyssa doesn't get a proper role in a story that ought to be about her also true of Steve Gallagher's original script?

    The one bad note in the otherwise wonderful Warriors Gate is when Romana screams when the Tharil approaches at the second episode cliffhanger. I think that's a symptom of the general problems with sexism in late seventies/eighties Doctor Who. Is the treatment of Nyssa here of a piece with that?

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  7. The working class characters in Warriors Gate seem to me very much echt Doctor Who. That's surprising if Saward was deliberately writing them out throughout his tenure. Maybe that's just because it's one of the first episodes I ever saw. I can't think when those kind of people cynically holding down jobs because they have to reappear?
    (They're also very much influenced by Holmes, in a good way; ironic if Saward was also influenced by Holmes.)

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    1. Well, Warrior's Gate was edited by Bidmead, not Saward, and Bidmead was surprisingly committed to nuances of character even though his brain is three times the size of his body.

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    2. What I meant was that my impression of what is proper Doctor Who is based on childhood memories of watching Doctor Who (the earliest I can remember being Meglos). So either the first episode of Warrior's Gate made a big impression on me on its own, or the impression was reinforced by some later episode.

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  8. Random thoughts.

    In seasons twenty and twenty-one there are only two stories each set in the future (counting Snakedance, which is not really set in the future, but among an advanced civilisation, so blatantly counts).

    Saward is on record (interviews on the Frontios DVD) as saying that he doesn't really like science fiction at all, and doesn't really get it (which might explain his initial reluctance to do pure sci-fi futures, preferring to mix in the past or a contemporary slant). He was just trying to tell exciting stories.

    'Sorry, we're trying to only show classless futures,' sounds like exactly the kind of thing an editor who just thinks the story in question is rubbish might say when looking for an excuse to reject (see also: 'We want to go in a different direction,' meaning the direction of, 'good').

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  9. I disagree with your characterization of Odin as:

    'at once a martial, patriarchal figure and, for the most part, a trickster archetype. He is still defined first and foremost by cleverness and an ability to outfox people.'

    This feels almost reductionist, and a bit off the mark besides. If I didn't know better I'd think Campbell had gotten to you.

    I mean, Odin is a martial figure, and is certainly always cleverer than everyone else in the room. As for 'patriarchal'... that discussion is left as an exercise for the reader.

    If I had to pick a trait that 'defined him first and foremost', Odin is defined by his ruthlessness: his willing to sacrifice anything (and anyone, including himself) to further his goals (which, depending on how charitable you are, are mostly selfless goals). The Norse lore is full of stories that basically boil down to 'follow Odin and he will, at some point, throw you to the wolves. Sometimes literally.' Sylvester McCoy's Doctor, as you are no doubt going to explain in due time, captures this the best.


    Also, I was amused by the use of the same 'Garm' in this story. I don't suppose there's also a Gnipa Cave?

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    1. I'm only partially convinced that we're disagreeing. The ruthlessness and willingness to throw anything needed to the wolves is, I think, a key part of the trickster archetype to begin with. At the heart of that archetype, to my mind, is the idea of destruction as a means of progress.

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  10. This was a great read! One of the most enjoyable and entertaining entries in awhile.

    I'm really intrigued by your interpretation of Davison's Doctor as a young Odin. Certainly I would have enjoyed this era of the show more if that was a thread that had been made more explicit and developed more clearly. However, I must say I'm *very* curious to see how you go about arguing the New Series Doctors are as Odinic as McCoy and hypothetical-Devison. I just don't see that argument holding true for any of them, save probably Eccelston. Maybe it's because you and I seem to read The Doctor and his role in the narrative similarly, but ultimately not quite the same.

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    1. Smith has had several scenes overtly modelled on ones that McCoy did, in particular the climax in The God Complex. I've talked about the similarities between McCoy and Smith a few times:

      http://stringofbits.net/2011/09/13/doctor-who-the-girl-who-waited/
      http://stringofbits.net/2011/09/19/doctor-who-the-god-complex/
      http://stringofbits.net/2011/10/05/doctor-who-the-wedding-of-river-song/

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    2. I definitely picked up on the homages, especially "The God Complex" scenes. Those were fairly obvious callbacks. My point is Smith's Doctor seems far more boisterous and, for lack of a better word, clumsy, in the way he handles situations then McCoy would ever have been.

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    3. I would also argue the events of "The Girl Who Waited" are more the result of Smith's Doctor being careless and irresponsible, not callous and manipulative. That's the big difference IMO: Smith's Doctor never seems like he knows what he's doing to me; he just sort of bumbles along and strings together a solution at the last minute. I know this is characteristic of a lot of Doctors. It's not, however, I would argue, characteristic of McCoy's. he's sometimes outmanoeuvred or has to adjust his plans for a contingency he didn't expect, but he's always pretty knowledgeable about the situation at hand.

      Your reading of "River Song", I thought was outstanding BTW: 'm not entirely sure I agree, but it definitely gives me a better appreciation for what the team may have been trying to do.

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    4. I think "The Girl Who Waited" is fairly clear that the Doctor had consciously and deliberately lied to Rory about being able to save both Amys in order to save the younger one. That, I think, is as callous as anything McCoy ever did in the series, and right up there with Love and War type stuff.

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    5. While the Doctor was plainly manipulative in TGWW, I'm not sure I buy the idea that it was pure selfishness that drove him to save the younger Amy at the expense of the older one. At the end of the day, he had to choose one of them, and choosing the older one would mean deliberately inflicting 36 years of torment on the younger one. It's one thing to do something horrible to a friend through mistake or happenstance. It's another to do so through a deliberate calculated act. Is there anyone here who, were they in the Doctor's place, would have kicked young Amy out of the TARDIS to spend 36 years in hell? The real issue with old Amy is that she was so traumatized by her experiences (and likely three decades of PTSD) that she clung so fiercely to her own existence and her memories of more than half her life being s fight for survival in the face of the opportunity to see that none of it ever happened. The philosophical question raised is: If you could go back in time and undo the worst thing that ever happened to you, would you do it, knowing that it would fundamentally change who you were as a person? I also find it interesting to compare this to "Turn Left" which also involved a companion who was asked to negate her own existence, albeit under different circumstances.

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    6. And I do apologize for going off on a NuWho tangent, but the alternative is trying to find something to say about "Terminus" and that's just ... soul-draining.

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    7. I agree that that Smith's Doctor's lying to Rory about being able to save both is plainly manipulative, but again, the main thrust of the plot happens because he fucked up with the TARDIS. He brings them to the resort planet not knowing about the disease outbreak and then bails out without thinking through the temporal ramifications (wasn't there some technobabble explanation about why there were multiple timelines?). He then comes back 35 years later because, again, he screws up. This is practically Smith's Doctor's defining character trait and it really bothers me.

      And I second Alan. I've nothing to add to the discussion about "Terminus", save hearing somewhere Sarah Sutton say the stripping scene was "a thank-you to the fans".

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  11. I had almost forgotten. There's an amusing story (if you're the sort of person who finds professional incompetence amusing) about the Vanir armor. According to Shannon Sullivan, the props guy was led to believe that the armor was supposed to be purely decorative, and he was horrified to show up on the first day of filming and realize that it was not only meant to be functional, it was meant to be used in fight scenes! Which goes a long way towards explaining both why the armor looks so awful and why it is do gosh-darn loud. There are places where you can't hear dialogue over Vanir crunching around in the background.

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  12. The Nathan-Turner era will periodically go to the mattresses trying to make a classic out of a story with a script that is never going to make one and, equally, will occasionally just decline to lift a finger to help a brilliant script.

    It's not the only era to do this, of course: both The Ark and The Underwater Menace were clearly very expensive. After Innes Lloyd there's fewer instances of stories that they tried to make into events without checking that the script was any good.

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  13. I was watching these back in the day, and do you know, I have no memory whatsoever of Turlough. Nyssa, Tegan, Peri, sure. Turlough has completely slipped my mind.

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