Friday, March 30, 2012

A Space Helmet For a Cow (The King's Demons)

At least someone stepped in and stopped Nathan-Turner
from his original plan of using Twiki.
It's March 15th, 1983. Bonnie Tyler remains at number one with "Total Eclipse of the Heart," with The Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" nipping at its heels, and the rest of the charts being a similar burst of pure and unadulterated 1980s of the sort that you really probably need to cut with some do-wop or something lest you risk an overdose. Also in music news is the debut of Michael Jackson's moonwalk dance two days prior to this story beginning transmission. In real news, Thatcher's government passes massive tax cuts. That's about all we've got.

Speaking of not having much, it is difficult to say anything about The Kings Demons, which stands as one of the most strikingly unambitious scripts of the Davison era. It was, admittedly, not supposed to be the season finale, so we can at least give it a break on those grounds and acknowledge that this is not another case of the foolishness that led to things like Time-Flight and The Twin Dilemma being used as finales. But it does represent the degree to which the two-episode stories that every season of the Davison era is saddled with are unfortunate at best.

One gets the intense sense that this script is a dumping ground. Terence Dudley, with whom Saward did not get on, is brought back and given the short script. Anthony Ainley’s Master, who here becomes nearly impossible to take seriously, gets abandoned in it. And so too is the introduction of Kamelion. To be fair, not all of this is intentional. The degree to which Kamelion was not going to prove at all workable was not really clear until the story filmed, and the decision to keep bringing Ainley back demonstrates that he was not intended to be snubbed with this assignment. But intentionality counts for less than one might hope in these things. Shoved after the Black Guardian trilogy, at the end of the season, and a two parter to boot, this story gives nothing so much as a sense of all the steam going out of Doctor Who.

For the most part the “something old returns in every story” idea this season has not been the disaster it could have been. Everything, at least, had a fresh take on its returning concepts, even if, in the case of The Arc of Infinity, that fresh take was to abandon all notion of the concepts themselves in favor of soul-crushing tedium. But here we’re back to the awkwardness of The Visitation’s redoing of The Time Warrior - an ugly case of everything in this story having been taken from other stories and just redone with an “it worked before so it must work again” attitude.

This contributes to something I’ve been accusing Doctor Who of for a while now, which is the use of simulacra of actual content. Whether it be Earthshock’s hollow aping of the form of a dramatic death, Arc of Infinity’s empty recitations of past concepts or, really, several other bits over the past two years. Here, though, we get at something that starts to tie this in with the 1980s at large, and harkens back to what we talked about back in the entry on The Cleopatras, which is that this is part and parcel of what the 1980s were doing. The focus on artificiality that underlaid so much of 1980s popular culture is inexorably connected with the collapse of things into hollow recitations.

This pulled in multiple directions. On the left you had a growing critical discourse that was capable of articulating the ways in which the establishment used the contentless forms of ideology to advance their causes. A perfectly textbook example is the way in which the Thatcher government objected to the BBC’s declining to cover the Falklands War with naked jingoism, and further how effectively The Sun was able to use a sense of patriotism for nakedly propagandistic ends. There was, in the 1980s, an increasingly mainstream awareness of the idea that there is something inherently unreal about the corporate. To use just one example from Doctor Who, in 1970 the Autons were scary because they were plastic people. But in 1980, when Alan Moore did an Auton story, the idea was that Autons were the perfect image of business in general. They weren’t just the product gone mad, they were the entire teleology of the economy gone mad.

But this was contrasted with the open fascination with the artificial discussed in The Cleopatras entry. Or, rather, it laid right alongside it. The result of this was that there was continually a very, very fine line between postmodern subversion and a garish and ill-advised travesty. Which goes a long way towards explaining how Doctor Who finds itself lurching back and forth between stories like The Arc of Infinity and Snakedance, or, for that matter, Enlightenment and this. (Or, to fess up and admit where this line of argument eventually lands us in a few week’s time, between The Caves of Androzani and The Twin Dilemma.)

I don’t want to follow the argument of Miles and Wood too closely here, but it is worth remarking specifically on the way in which this story relates to history. Miles and Wood make much of the fact that this story comes from the history books, rather than from actual history. It presupposes in a way that was terribly untrendy in 1983 that disrupting this history of Britain is coextensive with disrupting the history of the world. This was, admittedly, the point behind The Time Meddler as well, but there’s a difference. In 1965 when the national myth (like any national myth, based largely on truth) of Britain standing alone against the Germans and holding them back long enough for the rest of the world to get its act together was still relatively recent it was one thing to position the idea of undermining Britain as being the same as undermining the planet. Nearly twenty years later, in a world where a great military victory for the UK was beating up Argentina over some islands, there’s just not the same punch. It’s a bad sign when even the Doctor has to admit that the Master’s scheme is naff this time around.

Instead we have the program setting something in what Miles and Wood slyly describe as “Heritage Themepark Britain.” This story represents Britain for the export market - a stitched together checklist of period details, at times assembled with essentially no care for piddling little questions like whether all the details are from the same period. It’s a story entirely of willful quaintness - the sort of British-esque stuff that sold well abroad, particularly in the United States (where, of course, the program was becoming increasingly popular). The problem, of course, is that Doctor Who may function for the export market, but it’s still first and foremost a BBC program sent out in a rather nice timeslot on BBC1. And this sort of “look at us, we’re being terribly British history here” approach is just... dull in that context. (It’s notable that in the Hartnell era the only two historicals to draw primarily from tourist-friendly British history were The Crusade, which cut it heavily with its Middle Eastern material, and The Time Meddler, which subverted its entire genre.)

It’s a sign of just how uninspired this approach is that Dudley is able to get away with just reversing the trick he used in Black Orchid. There the first episode is spent making everything look like it’s going to be a standard Doctor Who story only to have it turn out to be a historical. Here we’ve just inverted it - everything in the first episode save for the mystery of who’s impersonating the king gives the appearance of being a historical, then the bottom is pulled out at the end it turns out to be a sci-fi explanation. That this reversal is even possible when Doctor Who has done only one “pure” historical story in recent memory shows just how crushingly flaccid all of this is. The fact that the show can play off of these conventions when it hasn’t done any work establishing them as Doctor Who conventions suggests that they are beyond commonplace. We’re in a version of history here that’s so utterly and vapidly familiar that it doesn’t even need to put effort into itself.

Unfortunately, any hope that this one feeble twist might be pulled off is extinguished by the unfortunate decision to have James Stoker, who plays Sir Gilles Estram, self-evidently be Anthony Ainley. Whatever one might say of the idiotic Kallid revelation in Time-Flight, at least the makeup Ainley was wearing that time around successfully obscured his identity. This time you have someone who is obviously Anthony Ainley gone ginger doing an appalling French accent. Never mind the theme of returning villains in this season. Between this, Michael Gough, and Mawdryn’s rather spectacularly poor Doctor impression the theme of the season is, at this point, utterly rubbish revelations of the secret villain.

Of course, it doesn’t help that it’s the Master, who has, over his last three appearances, been systematically undermined as a character. The Delgado version of the character was the Doctor’s equal and opposite number - a charmingly perverted parody of the Doctor. But Ainley, while perhaps a plausible choice for an inversion of Tom Baker, isn’t close to a viable inversion of Peter Davison’s comparatively staid Doctor. But on top of that, the Delgado version only became a tacky plot extender in the dying embers of his eight story run. The Ainley Master, on the other hand, basically started that way after a compellingly menacing turn in Logopolis.

Much of this comes down to the irritating practice of disguising the Master. Miles and Wood observe the way in which this speaks volumes as to the difference between Ainley and Delgado as actors, remarking on the degree to which “hiding” Delgado in a story would have been impossible. This is slightly unfair - the elaborate makeup job in Time-Flight, for instance, would have hidden just about anybody. But it does get at the degree to which there’s a real lack of confidence in the ability of the Master to actually hold down a scene or justify himself on his own terms.

Put this way it becomes possible to see the real problem with the Master over these last three stories, which is that he’s only being used to stretch out other stories. When Castrovalva runs out of things to do with its actual concept of eccentric geography it wheels the Master back out to extend things. Time-Flight gets an extra two episodes in after defeating Kalid. And here the Master gets wheeled out dutifully at the halfway point in order to spice up a historical gone flat. In none of these stories do we get a situation where the plot is actually about the Master in any meaningful sense. The Master is nothing more than a device to salvage a plot gone wrong. Here he nearly gets upstaged by a robot.

This is unfortunate, especially as Ainley does eventually show - even if it takes until Survival by some arguments - that he can do the part. Just as, actually, he showed he could back in Logopolis. But the damage done by the series’ supreme lack of confidence in the character over his first three Davison-era appearances is difficult to shake off. This is, admittedly, where the idiotic “disguise and anagram” era of the Master ends, at least until Russell T. Davies does his little homage to it with Mister Saxon/Master No. Six. But that homage works because it’s not about trying to hide the Master - it’s an easter egg for the bulk of fandom that figured out that Season Three was going to end with the Master somewhere around Rise of the Cybermen. But as with much of the Cartmel-era renaissance, it's too late. The character has already been revealed as one not even the series is taking seriously anymore, and for at least the next three times he shows up there’s going to be a sickening sense of “goddammit, it’s him again” that takes hold before he even does anything. It’s a terribly unfortunate circumstance for the character to be in. And while Ainley’s performance does the character no favors at times, he is capable of doing worthwhile things when he’s actually given the material.

But he’s not, nor is anyone else. Instead we get an EPCOT Center version of British history and a sense that this is two episodes mostly as mercy. And with that our anniversary season comes to a premature end, the closing Dalek story felled by a union dispute. There is, of course, still the small matter of the actual anniversary story, which we’ll come to in two entries’ time. But on the whole, there’s an awful sense that this has been something of a drab affair. It’s not that the season has been bad - three of the stories are quite good, two are utter train wrecks, and one is Terminus. But there is the sense that the series doesn’t know what its strengths are - that it seriously thinks that bringing back Omega, the Master, and the Black Guardian were the high points of the season and not the fragmented dream-myths of Snakedance, the Teutonic grandeur of the Terminus that might have been, or the combination of the epic and familiar in Enlightenment. It’s not that it’s difficult to love Season Twenty. It’s really not.

It’s just that the show doesn’t seem to be among those loving it.

17 comments:

  1. Season Twenty was, for me, so lacklustre that I seriously questioned being a Doctor Who fan, and started to miss episodes. Of course, I was thirteen at the time, and discovering other things such as the opposite gender, literature, arthouse cinema and classic tv repeats on Channel 4. The last of which, in a way, is something that should be be covered in an essay: around 1982 the fourth channel launched on British tv, and because (as with most new tv channels) lacking the funds to have all new productions, yet still had to fill all the broadcasting hours allotted to them, they chose to repeat the best of genre tv available from the ITV archives from the last twenty years or so. And so, contemporaneously to the broadcast of much of the Davison era genre fans could watch repeats of the Diana Rigg era Avengers or, more importantly, The Prisoner.

    And John Nathan Turner's maxim that the memory cheats was proved wrong, and these tv programmes were not just as good, but better than the Doctor Who then being made. And, more importantly, they were fun.

    Which was the main problem with season 20, in my opinion, both as an adult thirty years after the fact, and at the time. All the life and energy had been sucked out of the show and it was, quite frankly, boring. Something I've always believed to be the worst accusation you could hurl at Doctor Who. Criticise it all you like for failing to reach its ambitions, but at least in the past much of Doctor Who had disguised that with energy and fun (or Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker, both of who exemplified that description). And when it didn't we had to sit through the Monster of Peladon or Underworld, but these were exceptions to the rule. Season 20, with the exceptions of Snakedance and Enlightenment, was a season constructed entirely out of Monster of Peladons and Underworlds. And was thus, in the main, unwatchable.

    As a postscript, my adolescent ennui with Doctor Who lasted until November, when the sheer fun of the Five Doctors reawakened my love for the show. Unfortunately, the production team took all the wrong lessons out of that story (didn't they always by this point?), but I'm sure that will be addressed next week.

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    1. Couldn't agree with this more, really. I was eleven at the time, so not missing episodes. I wish I had. It clashed with The Tube which would be a much cooler thing to have been watching. I loved The Prisoner.

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  2. I think you encapsulate The Problem With The Master very well, and very succinctly. Russell T Davies has said much the same thing, during his early "I'm not bringing back the Master 'cos he's pantomime and crap" interviews, and his eventual U-turn (which wasn't actually a U-turn, more an admission that he was lying until he felt he could do the Master justice) didn't invalidate his position.

    Part of The Problem With The Master is that although all you've said about him during the Ainley period is true, most of that never mattered to a large proportion of Doctor Who's juvenile viewers, for whom the Master was a perfectly serviceable villain, twirling his moustache and being generally evil within perfectly serviceable stories. The kids didn't care that his plots were rubbish. He was The Master, and he was a Baddie, and as far as characters go, he wears his motivation pretty much on his sleeve.

    This is why it is so difficult to get fandom to accept that what you've said about the Master here is pretty much spot on, because fans of a certain age will continually defend him, because at the age they were when they watched him, he was scary! And since Ainley's Master spans damn near a decade, from Logopolis to Survival, that's a lot of fans who can't see through the nostalgia barrier.

    Like me. I'll defend anything from the Pertwee years, not because I believe it was all perfect, but because my inner child makes it very difficult to do otherwise. But of course I'm right to defend the Pertwee Era's Master, because he was never at his best after Delgado. Everyone knows that.

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    1. Oh, come on; EVERYONE knows that the best Master was the original: The War Chief! :-P

      Davies admitted, yes, that the Master was "pantomime and crap"... but what does he do as SOON as he brings him back? Turns him from an awesomely creepy, evil villain into... Daffy fuckin' Duck. Ugh.

      Something tells me he learned the wrong lessons, too... :-/

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    2. Yeh, but my point being that the Master was never an awesomely creepy evil villain...unless you were 9.

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    3. Jacobi's Master certainly was, in the brief glimpses we saw of him (in spite of some of the bizarre dialogue he had to deal with); Simm, on the other hand...

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    4. I got what they were going for with Simm. Instead of the Master being Moriarty to the Doctor's Holmes, he was the Joker to the Doctor's Batman, which is perhaps more topical. It's just that I find the Joker ... tiresome, and was disappointed to see the Master recast in that archetype.

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  3. I like the idea of the Doctor being a defector from the Land of Fiction, and stories like King's Demons and Black Orchid are fun for me because the TARDIS crew are genre tourists. It's not real history that's being visited so much as Doctor Who Does Mediaeval.

    It's a bonus if the stories are good too, I'll admit!

    As for Kamelion, I was surprised that the non-functioning prop should prove a problem. After all, it was a shape-shifter! And the story possibilities (and especially cameos in Five Doctors!) were plentiful.

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    1. Yeah, I was always baffled that supposed marketing genius JNT failed to capitalize on the endless possibilities of a shape-shifting companion. Every episode could have featured Kamelion trying on a new form which would just happen to look like that story's "special guest star." In The Awakening, Kamelion is sexing it up in the form of Joanna Lumley, and two weeks later, he's running around cracking jokes while looking like Ronnie Corbett.

      OTOH, I do think it's funny that the people who got rid of both K-9 and the sonic screwdriver because they made things "too easy" were okay with the tremendous asset a shapeshifting companion might be if used halfway intelligently.

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  4. Yes indeed. You've nailed the Problem of the Master most succinctly but I think it's even simpler. The Master within The show is a redundant character from the start. The Doctor doesn't need an arch villian because he isn't Flash Gordon or Roadrunner. Delgado just about worked because he was a charismatic actor. Ainley not so much. The reason that every time the Master turns up we groan is not because we hate the character but because of what it forces the Doctor to become. Rather than the Master being the Doctor's dark and charmingly perverted parody the Doctor is called on to act out the bright but awkward geeky inversion of a villian. Which is pretty much what Davison does all the time hence the Master's redundancy in this season. Oh and no mention of Kamelion? There's gotta be some mileage in discussing a lute playing shape shifting robot that is invited aboard the Tardis and never seen again. My guess is he's still in there somewhere, in a trunk. Only a matter of time before Moffat ressurects him.

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    1. JNT made a point of having Davison mercy-kill him with the Master's tissue compression eliminator.

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    2. That wouldn't stop the Moff. Come to think of it what a perfect finale reveal. "Oh but...(insert regular character here)...didn't really die and it wasn't a Tesselector or a Ganger or an Auton this time it was Kamelion! You remember Kamelion? The shape shifting lute playing robot! Course you do!"

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  5. I wish I could disagree with you and Carey about the drabness of the year, but I felt the same way at the time – it all feels so… Beige.

    And, for me, this is the silliest plan the Master ever comes up with – despite a lot of competition – if not yet the most absurd poor Ainley will become (though in my view he has two terrific performances still to give).

    If you want to appreciate The King’s Demons, as I’ve argued in my own Kamelion Tales review, the DVD gives us a way. The script is feeble; the performances variable; but both the real castle and the sets look impressive, and I’ve always liked Jonathan Gibbs’ incidental music, too. So for The King’s Demons’ critical stock to soar, just follow my advice and select the “Audio Option: Isolated Score” from the Special Features menu so that you can watch the pretty medieval pictures and just listen to the pretty medieval synthesizer.

    If, on the other hand, you want to realise just how poor the script is, I can’t think of any other story which just comes to a stop in such a bathetic way, where they run out of time and so everyone just goes away. I’m not sorry this is Terence Dudley’s last.

    One more thing; after I doubted your gay reading of Turlough, I have to admit that my own review dwells at length on the crackling sexual tension between him and Hugh. But even here, Kamelion is much more coded (and played) as the tradition Evil Gay – so arch and oily that he seems for all the world like C3PO’s untrustworthy and even gayer brother.

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    1. The only way C3POs brother could be any gayer than C3PO himself is if he sang show tunes. In Bacce. Otherwise, I agree.

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  6. This is actually the point where I fell off from Doctor Who.

    After it having been the one consistent background narrative in my life till that point, at age ten or so, this series lost me.

    I liked Davison as a Doctor, but the stories themselves began to bore me more and more. I tuned in for the 5 Doctors, of course, and thought that was brilliant, but over the next season I just drifted further and further away. I was reading the Hitch Hiker's series, and listening to it on the radio when I could find it, and wandered more into novels as my escapes from this point: building out of Narnia and into Ursula K. le Guin's Earthesea books, and up to Tolkien of course. There were just better stories to hold me there.

    I watched erratically throughout the next season, and even gave Colin Baker a try when he came on, but found him so un-likable as a Doctor, and his stories so garbled that I officially gave up.

    So this is the last story that I know I watched as it went to air, till the modern series. It seems such a shame to me, because I was a devoted watcher, with a deep fondness for the series, and I wanted to stay interested. I even went back and watched these stories again five years later when the ABC in Australia went through a period of airing them as single story blocks on Saturday. Still, when it can to this part of the series, I found my attention waning, and I would forget to set the video recorder.

    Even in 2003, when the ABC aired every extant story of Doctor Who in order, over a couple of years in the lead up to the launch of the new series, I diligently taped and watched all of them up until... yeah. This point. It lost me AGAIN.

    So I will be interested to see if you can drag me past this point, Phil.

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  7. I've been following this blog with great interest and fascination this past week.

    I'm vey down on this period of the show (I'm very much of the opinion that it would have been better to have ended the show on Logopolis after all- the show might have had a good afterlife from there as a novels range, especially if Christopher Priest was still onboard and interested in writing for the show- and so many problems with the era such as poor characterisation and motivation, and struggling to manage the many companions might have been solved in prose form) but I find reading this to help put a lot of it into perspective.

    One thing I've been wondering lately is whether Season 20 might have been better as a whole if Resurrection of the Daleks had closed the season after all (and likewise would Resurrection of the Daleks have been improved by its connection to the rest of the season). The problem with Season 20 is that it feels directionless in an unprecedented way, but if it was all building up to that Dalek story (in the same way as I think Earthshock in showing the disparate humans fighting together against the Cybermen almost seems to culminate the recurring theme that season of 'we're all in the same tribe' as we saw in Kinda and Castrovalva), would it have felt like it was going somewhere after all? Would we be able to dismiss the season's weak villains if they were simply warming us up for the Daleks at their most deadly?

    The Doctor having to kill Omega reluctantly and his inability to kill Davros might have felt like bookends. Likewise by revisiting the idea in Terminus of an isolated lawless outpost, it might have felt like a thematic echo. Questions about the nature of life and existence asked in Mawdryn Undead and Enlightenment, as with Turlough's choice, likewise could have felt like they'd carried through into that confrontation with Davros and how the scene between the two enemies shows morality to simply be a point of view and a state of mind.

    There's theories abounding that Kamelion was meant to take on Stien's role instead, so maybe had all gone to plan, The Kings Demons wouldn't have felt quite as pointless as it ended up. And like Snakedance it could have felt like the and the moment where the Doctor is being mind scanned to his infancy and decides to 'undo' his mistake in Genesis of the Daleks, could have felt like going for the idea that this more frail and fertive incarnation of the Doctor needs to get in touch with his buried withdrawn essence and strength before he can be like the Doctor of old.

    Just pontifications of mine, and it'd be cool if you touched on this 'what if' when you get to reviewing Resurrection (can't wait!!!)

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  8. My issue with Anthony Ainley's Master was that it feels like DC comic's repeated unsuccessful attempts to do something with Kirby's Fourth World material - the lack of satisfactory resolution of the original stories allows their successors licence to not really do anything with the character(s) apart from having him/them turn up and use nostalgia as a short cut to ramp up the 'importance' of a story.

    When they are used in an 'actually important' story such as The End Of Time or Final Crisis they end up at a point where they can't be used again for a long time - time locked with Gallifrey & the Time Lords and killed by Batman in a once-in-a lifetime exception to his no firearms rule (the cover of Batman #15 not withstanding) are situations that you can't glibly write yourself out of if you respect your audience.

    Needless to say I look forward to the Final Crisis Pop Between Realities post.

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