Friday, April 20, 2012

Burn With Me (Planet of Fire)

See, Peri? Kamelion, lying there in the sun. He can change
shapes, you know, and be all things and everyone. Now
run, Peri. Run, run away.
It’s February 23rd, 1984. Frankie Goes to Hollywood is still at number one, but they’re finally unseated by Nena’s “99 Red Balloons.” Lower in the charts is equally satisfying - Rockwell’s beautiful bit of paranoia “Somebody’s Watching Me” and Slade’s “Run Runaway” chart, though to be fair, the latter is far better when Great Big Sea does it as an overly fast paced fiddle orgy. Also, The Smiths have their first full-length album out, and it debuts at #2. In real news, the US pulls out of Beirut, Pierre Trudeau retires as Prime Minister of Canada, and, four days after this story wraps, the miner’s strike to end all miner’s strikes begins.

While on television, Planet of Fire. Peter Grimwade is nobody’s favorite writer of the Davison era, and Planet of Fire is nobody’s favorite story of the era. Neither of these judgments is necessarily unfair - I think you’d have a hard time arguing Grimwade as superior to any of Holmes, Bidmead,  or Bailey, and arguing Planet of Fire as a classic of the era crosses the line from redemptive readings to outright psychosis. But in an era with Eric Saward, Terrence Dudley, and Johnny Byrne submitting multiple scripts treating Grimwade as one of the era’s lowlights seems equally strained.

But there’s always a complexity to flying in the face of critical consensus. This gets at one of the fundamental tricky bits of understanding audience responses, which is that audiences are very good at identifying whether they like or dislike something, and very bad at explaining why. When it comes to making art, giving people what they say they want is almost always a disaster, particularly when those people are a self-selecting group of hardcore fans who are volunteering their opinions. (This is not to say that populism is a bad thing, but there’s a difference between giving people what they like and giving them what they say they want. In one you attempt to reproduce what has been successful. In another you base your aesthetic and goals off of what people say they like. The issue is letting the audience’s self-description and interpretations play in as opposed to using data like what they actually do.) For example, I would argue fairly readily that the complaint that Davison’s Doctor was “bland” at Longleat and the resultant attempt to correct it via Colin Baker’s portrayal was a case of misunderstanding that the writers weren’t giving the Doctor good stuff to do and not a reflection on Davison as such.

So we’re faced with a bit of a puzzle. Grimwade’s scripts are clearly jarring in some sense, but the degree of judgment against him seems in excess of the observable flaws in his scripts. What’s the actual flaw here?

I dealt with this a bit in the Mawdryn Undead entry, where I observed that Grimwade is the one writer who’s actually capable of working in the soap opera style that the Davison era half-heartedly aspired to. And Planet of Fire is a prime example of this. It’s a four episode story in which several plot threads at various levels of development coincide. There’s the short and self-contained plot arc of Sarn, the end of the plot arc of Turlough, the end of the plot arc of Kamelion, another step in the Master’s plot arc, and the start of a plat arc involving Peri. These are sufficiently unified to make sense, but this is unusual for Doctor Who in that the series is approaching the structure of a show with A, B, and C plots in a given episode. Which is to say, this is how soaps work. And it’s how you have to structure plots to manage long-term storytelling with a cast of larger than about three. (And the Davison era usually has a cast of about five, with the Master as a recurring character and Kamelion making it so there are at least three companion plots)

But it’s not how Doctor Who usually works. Including how it works under the other writers of the Davison era, which is why the long term arcs of Nyssa and Tegan never really materialize. Despite setting itself up to be a show that could work as a sci-fi soap, every writer other than Grimwade has stuck to the traditional Doctor Who model of having a single storyline in any given story. Which means that when Grimwade shows up and does an incremental advancement of a bunch of different plotlines it doesn’t quite work in the context.

But this ignores the fact that what Grimwade manages to juggle here is solidly impressive. He manages to relegate to pure refrigerator logic the fact that the side trip to Lanzarote to pick up Peri makes no sense, and while the chain of coincidence that has the Master trapped on a planet that also happens to house Turlough’s brother is relatively ludicrous the fact that the two plotlines rarely affect each other keeps this from feeling excessive.

And we shouldn’t ignore the extent to which Grimwade is set up to fail here. Faced with the need to do a triple replacement of Turlough, Tegan, and the Doctor along with the introduction of a new companion and a new Doctor, plus the need to tie off Kamelion and provide a potentially permanent end for the Master, Nathan-Turner elected to stagger their departures. The word “stagger” is a bit of a massive misnomer, though, for what is in practice a sixteen episode run of continual upheaval in which four episodes bear the weight of four of the seven changes. This is a ridiculous structure and someone should have pointed out that it might be a good idea to deal with the Master or Kamelion in one of the first three stories of the season instead of embarking on a massive block of changes. (Or to give the show another story to breathe and not decide to throw in Colin Baker’s introduction on top of an already overstuffed season)

The last time the series was looking at this large a mass of changes - a new visual style, two companion departures, three companion introductions, and a regeneration - it actually did stagger them, with Meglos, State of Decay, and (with its feint of leaving Nyssa on Traken) Keeper of Traken all serving as stories that maintain the state of play from their predecessors so that it’s only every other story that the structure of the show gets upended. And if they hadn’t done this and had just pulled the rug out in all likelihood the show would have died. And indeed, when they don’t do it the next time the show goes under a year later. (Though even that could have arguably been avoided had  it not been for the poor decision making involved in introducing Colin Baker)

But the irony is that Grimwade’s approach here, had it been followed by the rest of the show, would also have worked. The writer who gets the lion’s share of Nathan-Turner’s massive miscalculation to clean up actually does it the only way that possibly could have worked. But when everyone else is pulling against this and insisting on being relentlessly high concept Grimwade’s approach runs aground because suddenly he’s the one story of the season that you can’t summarize in a one-sentence pitch and so looks like the boring one.

But so much of what Grimwade is doing is exactly what Davison’s Doctor needed all along. The argument I made last time about how making the Doctor at times relatable doesn’t undermine his otherness as long as there are clear-cut times in which he is starkly alien plays in perfectly here, and the death of Kamelion, with the Doctor at once utterly ruthless and unhesitating in ensuring it and still clearly hurt by it, is a prime example. Similarly, the Doctor standing icily by as the Master burns, or his rebuke to Turlough that if Turlough is keeping a secret the Doctor needs their friendship is at an end are fantastic moments that give Davison an opportunity to move between the warm, kind version of the Doctor and one that is quite a force to be reckoned with.

The problem is that those moments are building off relationships that were never established. As easy to slash as Ainley’s Master and Davison’s Doctor are, one has to pour on the extra-diegetic readings to get that pairing to work. Instead we get a teasing “won’t you show mercy to your own...” as he burns, but nothing that it connects to. Nobody has been trying to write stories that lead up to an eventual denouement, and so there’s no drama. What really needed to exist somewhere in the Davison era is the Doctor trying to save the Master from Castrovalva or Xeraphin and being betrayed so that his standing by as the Master burns is a moment of him being once bitten, twice shy. But the Doctor has never looked at the Master as anything other than a villain to defeat, so there’s no impact.

Likewise, Kamelion has had all of seven lines of dialogue in which he’s not being actively used as part of one of the Master’s schemes. The Doctor having to kill a pseudo-companion is a moment of drama, but Kamelion never got the chance to be one. Yes, there were technical problems with him, but as has been pointed out in comments, he’s a shape changing robot. Have him take a human form and choose to stick with it and actually build the character. Grimwade is right that a scene in which the Doctor is pained to have to sacrifice his friend (but willing to do it anyway in this case) is a fantastic one. But nobody has bothered to help Grimwade set that scene up.

And, of course, there’s Turlough. The exchange I noted in which the Doctor rebukes Turlough for still keeping secrets is a fantastic one. But of course it is, because Grimwade is the one who actually understood Turlough as originally conceived - a companion you can never quite trust. Everyone else just went with a generic “ruthless coward” characterization, whereas Grimwade is, in having the Doctor make the active but wary choice to let Turlough have his secrets, is actually thinking about the relationship. And as it turns out, Mark Strickson can act and would have benefitted nicely from, you know, actual material.

Similarly, Ainley suddenly reveals himself as being quite good at his job here, finally getting a script in which the Master gets to do Mastery things and play the Doctor role in reverse instead of just getting to be unmasked halfway through with a dramatic synth stab. It’s too little too late for his version of the Master (and the revelation that the real Master is a tiny little man flailing about in a box is a depressingly apropos metaphor), but again, with Grimwade actually giving him decent material, Ainley shines.

In this regard Grimwade goes on the list, along with Strickson, Ainley Fielding, Sutton, and, most damningly, Davison as creative figures who were wasted by their colleagues. Grimwade’s vision of Doctor Who would have worked beautifully over a twenty-six episode season. But as four episodes of a twenty-six episode season where the other twenty-two had no interest in contributing to the same goals (despite those goals ostensibly being the goals of the production staff) they don’t work.

Which is not to completely exempt Grimwade from the blame. Grimwade writes as though his plotlines have the support of the episodes around them when they don’t. Yes, there’s not enough buildup to make the plots with Kamelion or the Master or Turlough work. But the way to respond to that isn’t to pretend that the rest of the show was behaving like it was supposed to if your brief was ever going to work. It’s to crank up the volume and go all-out with the emotional storytelling. Instead we get a bunch of good ideas - Turlough following the course the Doctor did in The War Games (his beginning having been as an Unearthly Child), Kamelion having to be sacrificed, the Master begging the Doctor to save him - that are all underplayed as if they’ve been built to.

Even the Sarn storyline is flaccid. Grimwade's break from the high concept obsession of the rest of the season is in some sense refreshing, but this goes a bit too far in its lack of idea. A critique on religious dogma is all well and good, but why the heck is he blatantly targeting Islam with it? For all the world it looks like the main idea this story has is to go and pick a fight with another culture’s supposed extremism. Sure, the pick of Islam isn’t incidental - the 1980s were a classic era for depicting Muslims as dangerous extremists. But the fact that such xenophobia existed isn’t a justification in and of itself. Particularly because Grimwade had a more domestic target available, indeed, Miles and Wood suggest he had one in mind.

This suggestion seems to me largely credible. This is 1984. The AIDS crisis is decimating the gay community and nobody is paying attention because it primarily effects gays and drug users. Instead they were at best ignored, and at worst accused of things like, as James Anderton, Chief Constable of Manchester's police, would put it, "swirling in a cesspit of their own making." And Grimwade was well aware of the way in which this moral judgment, based primarily on appeals to traditional and religious values, was killing people. He couldn’t not be. But instead of pointing his critique at the domestic level he goes with the xenophobic attack on other people's fanaticism and blindness instead of using the exact same themes to make a commentary that had some teeth. It’s at best a missed opportunity, and at worse just crass, and it's no wonder Saward toned it down.

Which actually serves as an epitaph for the Davison era in many ways. And, having finished the watching of it now, captures my feelings on it well. Throughout it the possibility of what it could do and of how great it could be is present, crackling under the surface. At moments it breaks through. Or, as the joke goes, parts of it are excellent. Rewatching it was an extended process of wondering where the spark and wonder I knew I’d seen as a child was. And in the end, I realized that as a child I just didn’t see the mess the spark was fighting to get through quite so clearly. But the ability to see the flaws doesn’t mean that the brilliance of the era didn’t exist. Just that it wasn’t always the case that anybody knew what to do with it.

36 comments:

  1. Less a redemptive reading than a ‘meh’ one today, and I’m not that surprised. It’s always been a very middling story for me, too, and you give some excellent reasons why it turns out that way – obviously, the key point is that, as you say, “Grimwade is set up to fail here” (and apparently pretty much gave up by the end, as both rumour and the way he re-uses the ‘jiggling about with TARDIS parts instead of drama’ from Time-Flight instead of drama suggest).

    For me, as I’ve argued in my own review of the Kamelion Tales box set, this box is quite a good place for a relatively redemptive view of Peter Grimwade, as it invites comparison with the other director-turned-three-times-Davison-writer, Terence Dudley, and he comes out of that rather well. Even so, I think part of the reason why people don’t warm to this is that the plot meanders rather than drives, perhaps a side-effect of the soap strands, so it doesn’t feel like it’s part of the acceleration towards Davison’s exit that it should be with the would-be Dalek epic (for all its faults) on one side and Caves on the other.

    I’d agree with most of your arguments, here, particularly over Turlough – with Strickson pulling off several years’-worth of character development in one go – and Kamelion – who has not so much character development as character cut-off. But, of course, Turlough and Kamelion are essentially the same character, so only one can get a redemptive exit. I examine them both in my own review, right down to Kamelion’s death in which he’s in no way treated as a companion – after a story which (presumably to make the Doctor seem less of a git and to keep the focus on Turlough’s departure) relentless downgrades him from ‘evil C3PO’ to ‘Lassie’, at which point it’s OK to have him put down. I even quote Grimwade’s view on him from his novelisation, which gives the Doctor a far harsher tone than any he expresses on screen. And, yes, the Doctor’s icy moments are sometimes impressive, though I don’t think Davison has the edge here that he does in the rest of this season (for me, his best year’s performance), despite that ruthlessness. Perhaps the most telling thing you say of the companions in your piece, though, is about Peri – nothing. Probably kindest, as she has surely the least endearing intro for any companion, and (unlike most) pretty much only gets better.
    The one point at which I’d really disagree with you is when you say this is all about Islam; up to a point, perhaps, but surely the story takes in all the Abrahamic religions? I’ve talked about the religious interpretations here too when I reviewed this and, after all, given that so much of it involves being “born again” with fire from god, it doesn’t take an intricate knowledge of Christianity to see something here, and for me arguably the best scene Ainley’s Master ever has – despite it technically not being him at all – is his outstanding turn at the climax of Part Two as a charismatic preacher. Toned down it may have been, but it still comes across as pretty pointed to me.

    And you may say it gets away with it as refrigerator logic, but for me it’s not just that the need to add Peri to the line-up literally drags the story off-course; it’s that, as they couldn’t go for additional location filming of Peri on holiday in, say, London, to pick up a new companion from Earth, the Doctor has to be on Earth, so they all happen to be visiting Lanzarote (played by your actual Lanzarote). This wouldn’t present a problem were it not for the fact that they then all move on to the suspiciously familiar alien planet Sarn (played by, er, Lanzarote). It’s as if they’d started the story by accidentally broadcasting an episode of Doctor Who Confidential.

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  2. My biggest issue with this story - and, to be fair, this is a recurrent problem in Who - is the simplistic way that religious faith amongst the Sarns equals oligarchic backwardness and atheism equals progressive democracy. Couldn't there have been - just for once - an acknowledgement that religion can be used as an ideology of liberation? The story actually skirts with this in the scene where Timanov speaks of Logar caring for the sick, etc... but, in the end, the Sarn's we're meant to side with are all the atheists.

    This, I think, is why the story looks - from some angles - like a poke at Islam. If the Sarns represent Arabs, their religion is going to be construed as Islam (despite the reality of religious diversity in the Arab world) and, in this story, it's straightforwardly a kind of violent cargo cult.

    However, I think it's a little more complex than that. There are some pretty open connections between the Trion exiles and Judaism. The Misos Triangle is made up of two overlapping equilateral triangles. Rearrange it slightly (and hollow out one of the triangles) and you’ve got a star of David. Meanwhile, Trion sounds irresistibly like Zion. Who exactly are these "very special people" who were persecuted by the Trions? Were they criminals, dissidents or a religious/ethnic minority? Perhaps the Misos Triangle can be seen as an echo of the Nazis forcing the Jews to wear yellow stars. If so, the transportation of the Trion "undesirables" recalls the lunatic scheme (briefly considered by the Nazis) to deport Jews to Madagascar.

    Of course, it's not entirely coherent. They've been sent away from Trion... yet they've been sent to a place that one wants to connect with Mount Zion. But, in a funny way this works... because it mirrors the myths at the heart of Zionism.

    At the end of the story, the Sarns are a colonised people without a homeland, a race of refugees. If the Trion exiles were the Jews, the Sarns seem to have become the Palestinians... Moreover, the story explicitly makes this an issue of the colonialism of a great power. The 'winning' Trions look like the gentiles of the imperialist West. The 'refugee' Trions look like the Jews of Europe. The Trions send their 'undesirables' to a colony, displacing and taking control over the people already there. It's like the British involvement in the foundation of Israel!

    Of course, the historical parallels are far from exact and tend to whitewash the real history. The story doesn't even begin to depict the political reality of the Israel/Palestine issue either in 1984. All the same... by this reading, if the Sarns *are* Muslims (or Arabs) they are also people who've been unscrupulously used, displaced, marginalised and ruled-over by colonialists from a self-involved imperialist West.

    Characterising the Trion refugees as Zionists is harder, of course, primarily because they do not volunteer to go! All the same... why did so many European Jews volunteer to go to Palestine? Surely the answer is partly because they'd been subject to persecution, including branding them with symbols that marked them out.

    Of course, in line with Dr Sandifer's previous 'gay reading' of Turlough... perhaps the Misos Triangle is not only a Yellow Star but also readable as a Pink Triangle?

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  3. 'Peter Grimwade is nobody’s favorite writer of the Davison era'

    I can't help but feel that Grimwade would be better regarded as a writer if he wasn't also one of the most accomplished directors of his era - remove Grimwade from the talent pool, and your chances of ending up with a lethal director like Ron Jones or Peter Moffatt become much higher...

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  4. I don't agree with Alex about Peri -- I think she comes over very well in the first two episodes, before she gets sucked into the main plot.

    And in the review of why Grimwade isn't so fondly remembered, I think you're overlooking one key thing (which I mentioned under Mawdryn Undead): he wasn't very good at jokes. Maybe the key to where the spark had gone in the Davison era is this: of all the writers of the Davison era, the funniest was Terence Dudley. In a sense, the failures of the Davison era are continuing process of overlearning from the problems of Season 17.

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  5. After setting us up way back when with Chariot of the Gods, do we have a more perfect example of van Danikenism? Their whole culture has grown around an Alien visitation. The Alien is mistaken for God. I love the Astronaut symbolism -- is this one of Who's most important motifs? We had an Astronaut at the creation of the Universe in Terminus, the Astronaut in Face of Evil, another story of a false god, and of course the Ambassadors of Death.

    And I agree with Jack Graham, it's also got that whole cargo cult vibe going on. Having no exposure to Islam growing up, I didn't take this as a jab at Islam at all. I saw it as poking the eye of mainstream Protestantism, and as an aspiring atheist I was quite appreciative of the story. It's still one of my favorites of the era.

    As an aspiring mystic, I love the alchemy
    of Planet of Fire. The silvery Kamelion functioning as a mirror for the people he encounters is classic. So too is the Lanzarote/Sarn juxtaposition, one a place of Water, the other a place of Fire. The most basic principle of Alchemy is the union of opposites -- like the Fires of Sarn, which are both deadly (yellow/red) and healing (purple/blue).

    Like any good alchemical story, there's an Ascension motif played out, in this instance a false Ascension for the Master. His mind-control device is like a technological crown of thorns, not unlike the ones we see for McGann's sole turn at the wheel, or River's demise in The Library. He rises from his little black box resurrected -- born again by fire, thanks. It goes wrong cos he wants more.

    I wonder about some of the naming conventions. Numismaton gas? If someone could explain to me the relationship to coin, currency or custom I'd be grateful. Logar, the name of Sarn's deity, seems to me malformation of the Spanish lugar, meaning "place" or "position" -- Logar occupies the highest place, coming from the Mountain, synonymous with the axis mundi of the world, the center that runs through all things.

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  6. "Planet of Fire" is one of the closeted-gayest things ever. Look at all the manflesh on display, the gay triangles everywhere, the insanely dildonic Trion beacon that Peri steals (a real whopper), the talk of "chosen ones" that doesn't sound quite so much messianic as it does friendly to Dorothy. Every male character comes across as decidedly homosexual, not only Turlough (uninterested in Peri's swimsuited charms), but Howard (watch him with his sailor buddies and talking to the Doctor), and Malkon who is on the receiving end of some peder-tastic pederastic subtext from Timanov. And, y'know, the Master: he was totally going to finish with "husband". Everyone just pretends they don't notice what's going on...

    And lest we think this was somehow an accident...

    John Nathan-Turner and Peter Grimwade were both of course gay, and cast some quite gay guest stars. Dallas Adams, playing Howard, was also gay, and unfortunately died of AIDS in the early 90s. The icing on the big gay cake is Peter Wyngarde as Timanov. Wyngarde's TV career in the 60s and 70s had been derailed when he was arrested for cottaging in 1975. So yes, a lot of the people involved knew exactly how they were coming across, and were no strangers to gay subtext.

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  7. "This suggestion seems to me largely credible. This is 1984. The AIDS crisis is decimating the gay community and nobody is paying attention because it primarily effects gays and drug users."

    And haemophiliacs. Incidentally, there were only 30 cases confirmed in the UK by Ocxtober 83. Not yet decimation. But at that stage people were still saying it would be alright if you didn't have sex with Americans. However, everyone was certainly paying attention – even Kelvin MacKenzie's Sun in its loutish way. But the viral cause wasn't isolated, and hence no informed treatments could be pursued, until April 84.

    But I do think you're moralistically reading back onto the behaviour of people then with the benefit of hindsight. It's far too soon for religious scruples to be inhibiting condom use, or needle exchanges, because people didn't know then that such methods would be effective. And AIDS patients were being transported from hospital to hospital by medics in full biological protective gear. Is it transmitted through the air or from surfaces? You don't know! Plagues like this cause justified terror and in critical situations most health care professionals don't want to risk their lives by helping. Look back to 17th century England, or at disaster zones today. The only thing that's changed is that the medicines work – there's been no accompanying advance in morality. And yes, in the end, science prevailed and PWHIV even live to old age, but in times of disease people resort immediately to the tried and tested methods of rejection, isolation and stigmatisation.

    And then people realise they don't get it from toilet seats and the words of people like Anderton sound quaint.

    "And Grimwade was well aware of the way in which this moral judgment, based primarily on appeals to traditional and religious values, was killing people."

    That's anachronistic. For all he knew, homosexual practice was lethal in the end, just like the Bible always warned you. And probably most gay men in the UK, even in 1984, tried not to think too much about it, while quietly modifying their sexual behaviour if they had previously been promiscuous. It's not like there was a cure.

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  8. Philip Sandifer:
    "The problem is that those moments are building off relationships that were never established."

    This wouldn't change until Seasons 25-26.


    "And as it turns out, Mark Strickson can act and would have benefitted nicely from, you know, actual material."

    It strikes me how many people involved with the show from this period was at a convention in New Brunswick, and all of them, during a "Cabaret" show, got to show off more talent, personality and charisma than they ever got the chance during their entire time on the show. (Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Mark Strickson, Bonnie Langford...)


    "In this regard Grimwade goes on the list, along with Strickson, Ainley Fielding, Sutton, and, most damningly, Davison as creative figures who were wasted by their colleagues."

    YEAH. When did DOCTOR WHO become SPACE: 1999 ?


    "Turlough following the course the Doctor did in The War Games (his beginning having been as an Unearthly Child)"

    Now that's a fascinating observation I never notice before (probably due to all the horrifically awful writing).


    Grimwade was apparently given a "checklist" of things to accomplish in this single story, and had to deal with it, all to the detriment of any possible real human drama. Oh, and you forgot that he also had to fit this year's overseas location shoot into the plot, too. You'd think they would have worked something like that out first!



    Jack Graham-- wonderful observations about the Palestine thing. I saw the movie EXODUS once and the complexities of the situation were mezmerizing. It was also almost mind-boggling how escaped nazi war criminals just would not let go, striking out at people who weren't even responsible for their downfall, presumably because they had to hate somebody, and also, to give them a potential place to rebuild their madness.

    Dr. Happypants-- also fascinating observations. By some strange quirk, Peter Wyngarde was in the very 1st AVENGERS story i ever saw-- the insanely over-the-top "EPIC". As a kid, watching that on a B&W set, I had no idea just how crazy it really was.


    Meanwhile... it was nice to see The Master finally wearing a different outfit (he looked so much better in a regular suit). Also, Peri was, to my eyes, a huge improvement over Tegan in every possible way. And I loved how she turned out to be immune to The Master's mind-control, simply because she was so bull-headed. No wonder he spent so much of the sequel trying to kill her!

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    1. Agreed. In this story and the next, I thought Peri was a breath of fresh air over Tegan and would have loved to have seen more Peri/Davison stories. Unfortunately, it all takes a nosedive when Colin gets here because I can't recall a single moment where they had chemistry, nor a single moment where Peri displayed any emotions other than mindless terror (often of the Doctor himself) and sullen peevishness. She's the only companion I can think of whose response to "the universe will soon be destroyed" was relief at the fact that it wouldn't happen for 200 year so she, personally, was safe.

      Also, Ainley in a crisp black suit was (a) genuinely menacing and (b) to my astonishment, dead sexy! Who'd have thought that taking the Master out of a ridiculous stage magician costume would do so much to improve the character. Pity his rather good death scene will be ruined in "Mark of the Rani" when they handwave it away by having him say something to the effect of "I'm the Master. Of course I survived being burned to death in a volcano!"

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  9. "Sure, the pick of Islam isn’t incidental - the 1980s were a classic era for depicting Muslims as dangerous extremists."

    Uh huh. I can't remember a single disrespectful thing that George W Bush or Tony Blair have ever said about Islam. Of course we know why that is – they're condescending to a generalisation. If Peter Grimwade had enough anger in him on the subject to criticise Islam, good for him. But I don't suppose he actually gave it much thought. We can maybe both agree it would be better if he had.

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  10. Also, I was pretty young when I first watched this, but I never really picked up on any allegories about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Honestly, my take on the people of Sarn was that they a fairly generic take on the idea of a "sci-fi desert planet culture." Sarn might as well have been Arakis or Tattooine, as far as I was concerned. YMMV.

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  11. Alan:
    "it all takes a nosedive when Colin gets here because I can't recall a single moment where they had chemistry"

    The only time I sensed any chemistry was in "THE TWO DOCTORS" and "THE MYSTERIOUS PLANET"-- both by Robert Holmes. There you go. JNT needed better writers.



    "Pity his rather good death scene will be ruined in "Mark of the Rani" when they handwave it away by having him say something to the effect of "I'm the Master. Of course I survived being burned to death in a volcano!"

    "You should know by now I'm indestructible." Uh huh. Now, maybe they could have said "RANI" took place before "FIRE", but I'm sure it wasn't supposed to. Would it have killed Pip & Jane to have just come up with some explanation? Then again... would it have killed Pip & Jane to have actually come up with a PLOT? I swear, I watched that one 3 times before it hit me, "This story doesn't have a plot!" The only time they ever seemed to have an actual plot you could remember in any of their scripts, was when they were doing their Alistair Maclean tribute (which they repeatedly tried to pass off as an Agatha Christie tribute... and they're not the same thing). So, has anyone here seen "GOLDEN RENDEZVOUS"? If nothing else, it made me like Richard Harris.

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    1. maybe they could have said "RANI" took place before "FIRE", but I'm sure it wasn't supposed to

      I assume you mean in the Master's personal timeline, not the Doctor's.

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  12. You know, they actually could have done that. they could have said, the power of The Keeper made The Master "indestructible" so that fire could not destroy him. But that would have been asking too much. If they had, then part of the plot from then on could have involved trying to figure out exactly what it would take to destroy him. Then again, we didn't actually see his body charred and blacked to ashes in the fire, did we? Maybe he was indestructible. If so, his cries for pity could have been just toying with Davison, trying to dump a guilt-trip on him, a lot of sick, twisted minds pull stuff like this. Also, he might have teleported away. Or someone else might have teleported him away with reasons of their own. But whatever, you just can't NOT have any explanantion.

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    1. In a series in which Nyssa never meaningfully reacted to the fact that the Master slaughtered her species and wore her father as a skin suit, I think it's difficult to argue that the lack of explanation as to how the Master survives being immolated is somehow adding new issues to the character.

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    2. I remember someone suggesting that the Time Lords rescued the Master from the flame, and that for him The Five Doctors happened after Planet of Fire. I'd have to watch TFD again to see if that works or not, though.

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    3. That's ... barely plausible, I suppose. Of course, it requires the Master to be incredibly magnanimous to the Fifth Doctor who (from the Master's perspective) just tried very hard to murder him in a very painful way.

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    4. Can't we just agree that the Master is a deeply, deeply tedious character whose increasingly improbable indestructibility inevitably provokes the reaction "oh, good grief, no, not him again" whenever he appears?

      There is no redemptive reading possible for the character. Roger Delgado's tragic death had the unfortunate (and of course, trivial) side-effect of denying us the whole "The Master is the other half of the 3rd Doctor, now he has turned into Tom Baker the Master is gone forever, subsumed back into the Doctor's character" resolution that would have been the only thing that could have saved the idea. But now it is far too late: the Doctor, apparently, must have his Moriarty. Except that Moriarty only ever appeared in one Sherlock Holmes story and one "flashback" story, and so never afflicted stories about the World's First Consulting Detective the way the Master leaves a trail of tedium across huge swathes of Doctor Who.

      "How will the Doctor defeat the Master this time?" Well, really, who can possibly care any more? He'll die at the end of the episode, and he'll come back with no real good explanation when the need to drag him out again, and it'll just keep going round and round with no resolution and diminishing emotional impact every time we have to sit through it. Just make it stop.

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    5. Except that Moriarty only ever appeared in one Sherlock Holmes story and one "flashback" story,

      Only if by "story" you mean "story written by ACD."

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    6. That is an interesting point, BeserkRL: but here we have hit upon the fundamental difference between Doctor Who and the Sherlock Holmes stories, which is that the Holmes stories can reasonably claim to have a single authorial voice and therefore a "canon", while Doctor Who never can (unless it is "everything until Verity Lambert leaves", perhaps).

      So whenever I say "Sherlock Holmes story", I do tend to leave the "as written by the character's creator" bit implied but unsaid. To me, Doctor Who is not like "Sherlock Holmes", but much more like "Robin Hood" or "King Arthur": there is no single author, therefore no "real" corpus of work to set aside as distinct from what the Holmes community calls "pastiches".

      This viewpoint leads me to the position that anything written by ACD is "real" Holmes, whereas once Verity Lambert leaves the TV production, there is no "real" Doctor Who, just a range of "pastiches" that adhere more (or less) to the origins of the character. I don't have a problem with the infamous "Looms" issue that seems to cause such consternation in fandom simply because the Time Lords themselves are a retcon, and so no more (or less) "real" than "Looms' are.

      We are in deep waters here, though, and my original point still stands: a little Moriarty went a long way, whereas the Master is the poster boy for the law of diminishing returns.

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    7. There's also the fact that Moriarty, being sensible, does not announce his presence to Holmes until Holmes has already thwarted a number of his plots and deduced the existence of a criminal mastermind behind him, at which point Moriarty immediately takes very direct and sensibly planned efforts to have him killed. The Master, OTOH, seeks out the Doctor and sets absurdly elaborate plans to kill him in ways that Fu Manchu would consider over the top.

      In principle, the idea of an evil Time Lord isn't bad. It's just that the Master was a horrible execution of that idea because he comes off as a pathetic lunatic who is more interested in playing elaborate practical jokes on the Doctor (like that Khalid nonsense) than actually getting anything done. The most interesting thing about "Mark of the Rani" was the implication that she'd been running her experiments for quite some time while completely off the radar, and the only reason the Doctor ever got in her way was because the Master deliberately drew the Doctor to the scene, apparently for no other reason that to be a gigantic douche.

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    8. It's all true, Alan, it's all true.

      Gad, I hate the Master. Roger Delgado made it work because he was cooler than cool can be, but after he was gone, just no.

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    9. I do feel that Survival is sufficient justification for every appearance of the Master with the exception of the television movie. (Nothing, not even Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, can justify the television movie.)

      The Deadly Assassin doesn't need justification, but I don't think it gains much from using the Master. (Whereas Survival is the better for incorporating a villain who has in the past been campy and preposterous.) In fact, in so far as Deadly Assassin does gain something from using the Master, it would have worked better if it had used the War Chief instead.

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    10. Being brought back to kill the Fourth Doctor was probably the Master's last hurrah before he became totally redundant, and really he should have stayed dead after Castrovalva. Or if they were going to carry on using him, they should use him only when needed. If you need him in The Five Doctors, then that would make sense- the Time Lords actually time scooped him out of Castrovalva. Then the show can forget about him until Survival, and then have it be that he was exhiled to the Cheetah planet by Rassilon.

      Or perhaps his Season 22 appearance in Mark of the Rani was needed to ease in the new Doctor with familiar things (like Power of the Daleks and Season 12 had done)- and to be fair the Doctor-Master verbal sparring is one thing Pip and Jane were fairly good at, and if he really was that integral to Trial of a Time Lord, then yes they could use him there (and it might even retroactively make sense of why Rassilon felt his continued existence was important and could do more good than harm), and have that be the story wherehe was punished by exhile to the chettah planet. At least this way he hasn't already been quite as overexposed.

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    11. This viewpoint leads me to the position that anything written by ACD is "real" Holmes

      Does it work both ways? i.e. do you just mean to rule out non-ACD Holmes stories as non-canonical, or do you also mean (as it sounds here) to include all ACD Holmes stories as canonical? Because there are a number of ACD Holmes stories that are generally not treated as canonical.

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    13. I don't think ACD was thinking in this way at all. Some of his Holmes "apocrypha" (particularly The Field Bazaar) is more like The Curse of Fatal Death in spirit than intended to be "a real Holmes adventure", but I don't think that bothered him any more than it bothers Steven Moffat. Both of them should probably be understood as far too busy creating their respective series to worry about how "canonical" a charity spoof of their most famous characters is. That is for us as fans to worry about (or not).

      Another point to make is that many of the Holmes pastiches are in fact more enjoyable and rather better-written than a few of the more tired later entries in the canon by Doyle himself, so "canonicity" and "quality" are by no means synonymous in my mind. Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, for example, is a far superior story to The Adventure of the Lion's Mane, but the latter is "real" Holmes and the former is not -- for what that may be worth (and it is probably worth very little to anyone aside from people charged with calculating how many actors have played Holmes in dramatizations of "every single story" and so forth).

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    14. 'But now it is far too late: the Doctor, apparently, must have his Moriarty.'

      But the Master hasn't ever really been a Moriarty, he's pretty much always been the Joker.

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    15. You know, that is the sharpest insight I have ever read about the Master. And like all clever observations, it is utterly obvious - after it has been pointed out.

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    16. I thought Simms was clearly the Joker to the Doctor's Batman. With Delgado, I think they were going for Moriarty, or possibly Fu Manchu to the Doctor's Nayland Smith though that's a bit more obscure. With Ainley, I really don't think there was any more thought put into the character than "that guy who was popular ten or so years ago so we better bring him back."

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    17. 'Moriarty to the Doctor's Holmes' has definitely been stated by a lot of people as the original concept behind the Master, but considering that even Conan Doyle seems to realise almost immediately that Moriarty isn't going to work as an antagonist (he is, after all, the equal of Holmes so he really ought to be the protagonist of any story he appears in) considering the very first thing they do when they meet is not bother to have a conversation because they both know exactly what the other one will say. A meeting between exact equals like this is going to end in either a stalemate or mutual destruction. I'm pretty sure that writers like Terrence Dicks and Robert Holmes would realise this pretty quickly as well.

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    18. With regards to canon, while it has no place in the overall framework of Doctor Who, surely a Letts canon, a Cartmel canon, a Moffat canon or even a Virgin canon could be employed? That way, it satisfies both sets of fans with regard to pro- or anti-. Just a thought :)

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  13. The only 2 stories I really like Ainley's Master in are "THE FIVE DOCTORS" and "SURVIVAL", because in both, he was allowed to "tone it down".

    It's a shame, because he really was good in "THE KEEPER OF TRAKEN" (until the end, anyway).

    It's too bad Philip Hinchcliffe decided not to have The Master in "TALONS", that would have been the perfect send-off after "DEADLY ASSASSIN". ("Too predictable", he apparently said... sheesh. This is what happens when a story really wants to go a certain way... but someone decides not to "let" it.)

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  14. Planet of Fire is not my favorite Davison story, but I rank it very highly. The story definitely has a soul and a life to it.
    I'm not sure if Islam was a focal point at all, for the story...

    The gay theme is definitely there (and I understand the undertones and Grimwade's beliefs quite well...)

    The story seems more about Christianity, a religion that also had things done to unbelievers. I'm, not sure how Islam fits in, just because they had the death penalty as well.

    Amyand and the other unbelievers knew of the religion's scope for compassion, which is why Amyand wanted to save Timanov and work with him as a fellow citizen at the end of the story. Timanov choosing to die is harsh, but understandable given Timanov's persona. Maybe Timanov felt grief over not just a "heretic" offering to help despite everything Timanov did, but Timanov feeling betrayed by a religion that never was real; a religion based on Sarns observing the Trions and making stories to rationalize their appearances.

    It's credit to Grimwade's talents as he took the usual shopping list of plot points and managed to write them into something that feels more natural than contrived. That's no easy task and plenty of stories in the Fifth Doctor's era come across way too contrived (especially "Arc of Infinity").

    The AIDS crisis seems best as an allegory to the Doctor saying "Hello, the planet is going to blow up, listen to me!" yet nobody does, preferring their own happy beliefs. Only Amyand and his ilk listen, and Amyand is definitely the allegory of a gay man -- an outcast trying to tell the truth. What makes Amyand more than the sum of his dialogue is his compassion, even for people that hate him.

    And yet, for the obvious gay allegory, the way it's written, it doesn't force anything on the viewer. One can take the story as a tale of Turlough's origins and the effects of his people's influence on Sarn (neighboring Karn, perhaps?) or read into it to find anything they want to see. And that's the best type of story - that allows one to see what they want instead of having it told to them in a preachy way.

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  15. Elvwood:
    "I remember someone suggesting that the Time Lords rescued the Master from the flame, and that for him The Five Doctors happened after Planet of Fire. I'd have to watch TFD again to see if that works or not, though."

    Just watched these again. Works for me! The Master's escape from "CASTROVALVA" is explained in "TIME-FLIGHT". He finds Kamelion there, as explained in "THE KING'S DEMONS". He says Kamelion has never been out of his control since then, in "PLANET OF FIRE". So for The Master, "FIRE" appears to be a direct sequel to "DEMONS". We don't actually see him burn-- he shimmers and vanishes in the fire!! I'd say that could have been The Time Lords pulling him out of time to help them in "THE FIVE DOCTORS", especially since just about every one in that story was yanked from somewhere-- either the past or present. Why not the future (as far as The Doctor was concerned) for The Master? And this would fit perfectly with "THE ULTIMATE FOE", since The Valyard was also from The Doctor's (relative) future.

    It's just a shame fans have to explain what the writers should have,m and could have, with just a single line of dialogue. Shame, Pip & Jane! Shame!!!


    David Anderson:
    "so far as Deadly Assassin does gain something from using the Master, it would have worked better if it had used the War Chief instead"

    This sounds intriguing. Could you elaborate?


    Tommy:
    "to be fair the Doctor-Master verbal sparring is one thing Pip and Jane were fairly good at, and if he really was that integral to Trial of a Time Lord, then yes they could use him there (and it might even retroactively make sense of why Rassilon felt his continued existence was important and could do more good than harm)"

    Ah, Pip & Jane-- great dialogue, no plot. (sigh) You know, Rassilon might have foreseen The Master's role in bringing down the corrupt High Council in "THE ULTIMATE FOE". He was the one, after all, who spilled the beans. (I still miss Robert Holmes.)


    Good and bad, but enough good to be watchable, and enjoyable. Most of my fave bits involve Peri. "You will obey me." "NO!" "I am The Master." "So what? I'm Perpegilium Brown, and and I can shout just as loud as you can!" ..or... "Help me, and I'll spare your life." "Spare my life? Come out HERE and say that!" And when she starts chasing him with a shoe... hilarious!

    Davison's not bad in this one, but if there's one scene his Doctor lets me down, it's the one where The Master first arrives in the hall with Timonov. I feel sure Pertwee or Baker would have exploded with intense outrage and pointed out to everyone there that this man posing as "the outsider" was the personification of evil, and a mass-murderer, how he'd killed countless innocent people, and if they listened to anything he said, every person on Sarn would die in horrible agony. Instead, he mostly stands there. What's WRONG with him???

    And when The Master is about to be burnt to a cinder, I can't imagine any other Doctor not saying something, or yelling out in anger and rage at all the endless chaos and death and destruction that bastard has caused, and that he's had ENOUGH, and it ENDS here!!!! Then he'd have reason to seem worn out when he returned to the TARDIS. After all, the bastard used to be a good friend of his... long, long before we ever met him. A thing like that would be bound to hurt, but by this point would definitely be something that absolutely had to be done.

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