Monday, April 30, 2012

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 29 (Max Headroom, Tripods)

So what went wrong? I mean, the flaws are obvious enough in The Twin Dilemma. And it's easy enough to pin the blame. But what's the alternative? Throughout the Davison era, even when it was having its biggest disasters, it was at least relatively clear what the good parts of the show were. They may have frequently struggled to break through, but we could usually tell what good Doctor Who was supposed to look like. But the highlights of the Colin Baker eras, though existent, are so few and far between that it's difficult to say what they should have done. For a long time the conventional wisdom was "not cast Colin Baker" or "have a different concept of the Doctor," but as we'll see Big Finish proves that Baker's Doctor could have worked. Still, the advance in storytelling techniques over the nearly 30 years since this era aired mean that we can't just say "they should have done what Big Finish did." The question is what Doctor Who in 1985-86 should have looked like. 

The usual technique would be to look at what else was going on in TV sci-fi in Britain. But we have slim pickings for this era, so in this case that becomes where we start. Or, rather, in the difference between them.

See, Doctor Who has always existed in a liminal space between children’s television and science fiction. This may seem a bit of a strange claim given the rather obvious fact that there’s a good deal of children’s television is science fiction, but it’s important to realize that these are two distinct traditions with a subtle but significant philosophical difference at their heart, and that Doctor Who has always had to do at least some active work to bridge them.

If one were to make a horrific overgeneralization about children’s fiction then one of the least inaccurate ones available would be to observe that children’s literature tends to focus thematically on the existence of a threshold between two worlds, whether they be mundane and fantastic or otherwise. The logic of this is not difficult to figure out - it’s as sensible a metaphor for coming of age as exists. But at the heart of this approach is the fact that a children’s story tends to be about obtaining some degree of mastery and sense over the strange second world. Put another way, the basic arc of children’s fiction is that it makes the strange familiar.

Science fiction, on the other hand, when considered as a genre instead of as an iconography, does almost the exact opposite. Science fiction’s main trick is to use the expanded possibilities of its iconography to reflect our own world back at us from an odd angle. So science fiction goes not for making the strange familiar, but for making the familiar strange.

These ideas are not impossible to reconcile, not least because science fiction can serve equally as a vague iconography that is easily made familiar, and because children’s literature often involves making the world that its protagonist starts in strange along wiht making the new world familiar. But there is a difference in approach here, and it’s well illustrated by looking at the two of the major bits of British science fiction television going around these days.

In one corner we have Max Headroom, which, prior to being a short-lived but well-remembered American sci-fi series in the late 1980s was an hourlong TV movie on Channel 4 in the mid-80s. Max Headroom is an exceedingly early example of cyberpunk, a short-lived and hugely influential subgenre of science fiction that took the possibilities of technological progress extremely seriously while completely rejecting the idea that they would be connected to social progress. Focusing particularly on the rise of computers and information technology, cyberpunk tended to be at once high-tech and grungy. (Another way to phrase this is that the rest of the world abruptly realized Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard existed.)

In practice, though, the original Max Headroom, entitled Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, which barely features Max Headroom at all, is basically an attempt to do a television version of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. The giveaway is the sequence in which we see someone explode from watching TV commercials, but the whole thing has similar themes. Both are centered on the physicality of the media - a sensible enough extension of the interminable debate about sex and violence, given that both sex and violence are intensely visceral acts. They imagine a world in which, essentially, media has won - where sexual extremity and extreme violence are widespread aspects of society, and where the mass media itself has gained more physical and visceral aspects. And they end up creating a sort of oddly double-edged world - a “cool” dystopia  that is at once nightmarish and oddly sexy.

In the case of Max Headroom, this seems exceedingly deliberate. Watching the pilot episode one is struck by the difficulty that there’s very little of the title character in it, and he’s barely relevant to the plot. But that’s because the TV movie isn’t actually his debut. He was originally the host of a music video programming block on Channel 4, and was wildly popular, hence the idea to make an origin story. And even between his origin story and being picked up as a TV series in America he made appearances here and there in the popular culture. In other words, For all its dystopic trappings, it’s clear that everyone involved in Max Headroom knew that their job was to make a character everyone was going to think was cool.

(Indeed, if you want to be one of those people who insists that only televised Doctor Who is canonical then it is notable that Max Headroom is canonical. Just ask anybody who was watching The Horror of Fang Rock in Chicago in 1987.)

Implicit in this fact that any of this worked is the fact that we have clearly, in the background, made the switch to where postmodernism is completely mainstream. That’s not to say the point where postmodern things can be popular, which has been true at least since David Bowie, but rather the point where the postmodern doesn’t need any justification or explanation and can simply stride calmly onto the public scene without anyone noticing. (If you really want to dial it in, the switch is somewhere between this entry and The Cleopatras.) Suddenly the blending of different codes of reference and commentary on those codes of reference becomes something everyone can do.

Or, at least, everyone who’s grown up. The rise of postmodernism left children’s media relatively untouched, and to some extent continues to do so. This is on the one hand not surprising. There is an earnestness to children’s media that cuts against postmodernism. And so in some ways nothing illustrates the gap that was opening up than comparing the BBC’s only non-Doctor Who sci-fi program in 1984 with Max Headroom. That program, of course, is Tripods.

Tripods, I should stress, is not a bad show. Indeed, one can fairly reasonably call it timeless, in that its look, feel, and storytelling are almost but not quite impossible to distinguish from children’s television for years on either side of it. It is an earnest action-adventure show about plucky youths and Orwellian mind control that, production values aside, could have fit into the 1970s or the 1990s.

That’s not to say that Tripods is an overly simple show. It does a really nifty job of starting with a very pastoral view of the world and steadily making it a source of horror. It’s a clever inversion, particularly given the fact that the idyllic pastoral world is, as a concept, intimately connected to idealizations of childhood. It’s quite a good show, and clever. The fact that it’s a fairly linear adaptation of books means that the transformation it makes between seasons is big and striking. One can absolutely understand why this was popular.

But look at the last time we looked at children’s drama (as opposed to The Adventure Game), which was Children of the Stones. There what was striking was how astonishingly complex and intricate the children’s show was. And if I’d compressed entries a little and done it alongside an adult sci-fi show, namely Survivors, what that entry would have been talking about would have been just how much more sophisticated the supposed children’s show is.

Yes, this is a matter of selection bias - had I compared The Tomorrow People with Survivors the results would have been different. The big difference is that by 1985 Tripods was the only other piece of science fiction on the BBC besides Doctor Who, and so there’s not any selection bias to be had anymore. There’s just the uncomfortable gap that’s visibly opening up between what children’s science fiction can do and what adult science fiction can do.

And this gap poses real problems for Doctor Who because, as I said, it has a foot in both worlds. On the one hand, Doctor Who has always been firmly science fiction with a clear mandate for estrangement. It’s supposed to be a show about making its audience uncomfortable. On the other hand, its basic iconography is, as we’ve discussed, steeped in a vast history of children’s literature. And this has always been reflected in its somewhat odd audience. It’s not a children’s show, nor is it a family show inasmuch as that term is defined as “a children’s show adults don’t hate to watch.” It’s a show that functions not just satisfyingly for both children and adults but independently for each population.

For much of its run this isn’t that hard a balance to strike. The fact that adults like good children’s television is well documented, and Doctor Who’s tricks in terms of actively bridging the gap are relatively narrow - it mostly comes down to the fact that melodrama is a really effective way to suture the two audiences together. But around this period the gap starts to become very big. And this is something we’re going to see with troubling vividness in the next season.

Simply put, on the one hand Doctor Who’s cultural reputation is as a show for children. This is a problem for it in two ways. First of all, it may be thought of as being for children, but a substantial number of the people writing for it want it to be a serious and often satirical drama. This eventually leads down a rabbit hole of perversity when you have serious actors agreeing to appear in Revelation of the Daleks for their children. Second of all, the program’s self-justification increasingly hinges on its fans, with stars and the producer alike milking the convention circuit. When these fans are easily caricatured as grown men who are obsessed with a children’s program then you find yourself facing a bit of a PR problem.

On the other hand, the fact of the matter is that the next two seasons are going to work far better when they try to work for adults than when they do for children. Doctor Who may be seen as a children’s program, but that’s a misperception. It’s more than that. It’s telling that in some accounts it was the cancellation of Tripods that justified bringing Doctor Who back. Because watching them, the two shows aren’t even trying for the same audience. And the “for children” bits of the next season are by and large the most cringeworthy, which is comparatively terrifying.

But equally, Doctor Who trying to be grown up is, if not cringeworthy, at least a bit embarrassing. In many ways the grotesque failures of The Twin Dilemma come from the series making a hash of an attempt at adult drama. This whole “make the Doctor abrasive and mellow him out” idea, even if taken seriously (and it is, I’ll grant, the most sympathetic reading of the trainwreck), runs into the problem that you’re trying to do angst-based character drama about a man wearing a willfully tasteless costume that was apparently designed to serve as an Edwardian Hawaiian shirt and is fighting giant slugs with deely boppers on their heads.

To put it another way, one of the problems the show is having in this period is that its gestures towards children and its gestures towards adults are becoming completely separate. But, crucially, so was the culture at large. Doctor Who is in a bizarre position of, between its ambitions and the expectations of it, trying to compete simultaneously with Max Headroom and Tripods. And it fails spectacularly.

Or, rather, it doesn’t fail because it doesn’t bother to try or to recognize that this is what it's supposed to do. More than anything what the show needed right now was someone to come at it with a bit of distance and see a structural issue like this. The current production team has been around for three years, and, more troublingly, this is for Saward his second reinvention of the show and for Nathan-Turner his third. It barely matters how good you are at that point - you’re almost certainly too close to the show to be able to see what the show needs to change. When you’re reinventing your own reinvention you run into the basic and unavoidable problem that all of the flaws you’re reacting against are ones you introduced, and thus ones you’re the least likely person to be able to see.

The reality is that this needed to be when Saward and Nathan-Turner stepped aside, leaving Doctor Who’s reinvention for the mid-80s to people with fresh ideas. If they had the Nathan-Turner era would be remembered at least as well as the Letts era. For all that I pummelled them during the Davison era the fact of the matter is that the slow motion disaster that's going to unfold over the next two months of the blog looms unfairly over the rest of their era. It's been pretty good for the past four seasons.

But four years on a program and two reinventions is a long time, and after it the fact is that one probably ought move on. But it seems as though nobody seriously considered this. Nathan-Turner talked a little bit in interviews in the early 80s about wanting to move along after another year or so, but nothing came of it. And so you had a program that tried to keep one foot in two very different traditions without any real awareness of how they were diverging. The problem isn’t even that Saward and Nathan-Turner are out of ideas. It’s that the ideas they have are solutions to problems that don’t exist and they seem to genuinely not see the problems that do exist. They're trying to recapture the nostalgic past of the show while television is pulling itself apart around them. If ever there was a moment in Doctor Who's history where "sod the past, whatever you do come up with something new" was a good idea, it was 1985.

Equally, though, they have the misfortune of facing what is a genuinely hard problem in terms of coming up with something new. It would take a very, very good writer to figure out how to bridge the widening gap at the heart of what Doctor Who was. Even Robert Holmes, fresh from a classic, doesn’t have the answer this time, as we'll see. It’s easy to criticize the decisions made in the mid-80s and to pick over the gossip and assign the blame. What’s harder is coming up with a realistic model of a show that can look like a stablemate to both of these shows that doesn’t rely on production and writing techniques from decades in the future. Just because the production team failed spectacularly doesn’t mean that the problem of how to make good Doctor Who in 1985 and 1986 was easy in the least.

42 comments:

  1. "The children's own programme which adults adore" is long gone here, isn't it?

    You've done a bait-and-switch here in this nicely structured entry. It should always have been clear that Colin Baker was not the core problem, the production team was. The show thrived in the Pertwee years despite Pertwee's often dislikable performance. It ran out of steam in the Troughton years despite one of the most loveable TARDIS teams ever. Doctor Who is primarily a writer's show that good directors and actors help, and flaws come from the writers before the come from anyone else. Which means they come from the script editor.

    (The above statement is a bit strong obviously, and driven by (a) my biases towards writers and an attempt to redress the balance in a world that seems focused on the actors [why are cons packed with bit-part actors and have so few writers, production assistants and so on? The supply side obviously matters here, as there are lots more actors and a lot of them are, er, available a lot of the time, but I think the demand side has its priorities wrong too] and (b) the fact that the novelizations played up the importance of the writers.)

    And what we're seeing here is a continuing exercise in overlearning the lessons of Season 17, the main one of which is: whatever you do, don't have too much fun. This was an attitude that suited Saward fine post-Alien, but it works better for one-offs than for ongoing series. Without the fun, what's the point? They made the Doctor a flamboyant ringmaster without giving him a circus to run. (The costume being just another example of how they made the show by assembling elements they thought would be cool, not by thinking about how they'd fit together).

    The ironic (or maybe that-thing-that-people-always-call-ironic-but-actually-isn't) thing is that it's Saward who produces the closest thing in this era to a template for how the show might work, with Revelation of the Daleks. Revelation isn't great, it's let down in particular by the dialogue and by the peripheral role the Doctor plays, but it's inventive, packed with detail, completely ignores (finally, five years on!) the "have no fun" doctrine, has a kind of cynicism that passes for smart to the right age of audience.

    Which I think points out the real problem for Doctor Who at this point: the fact that there's no longer children's TV and adult TV, there's also youth TV. We're three years after The Young Ones and it's getting increasingly hard to take seriously TV that takes itself seriously. If it's not at least slightly anarchic and postmodern, it's got no chance of being cool. (Looking for a Pop Between Realities on The Young Ones in the Davison book -- it's the obvious omission). At this stage, Doctor Who has not adapted to the new existence of a youth audience, and that's what's leading to it being left behind. And the sad thing is that Revelation shows that Saward was capable of writing in the new audience landscape. But for some reason he couldn't bring the show there with him.

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    1. I think actually that roughly half the stuff in Colin Baker's first season works very well -- The Two Doctors and Vengeance On Varos work for that kind of 'youth' audience, too, with their black humour and postmodern cleverness. Certainly they're along the same lines as 2000AD or other mid-80s young-adult stuff.

      As for The Young Ones, perhaps it'd be better dealt with as part of an entry on Blackadder (which of course had a lot of the same people working on it)? Not only is Blackadder very similar to some of the historicals, but it's a series which was cancelled by Michael Grade but came back a couple of years later on a much lower budget and with a different writing team, to great critical success...

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    2. On the subject of Colin Baker as a ringmaster, I am hoping that we'll get a nod towards Bakhtin and Rabelais and his World at some point in the Colin Baker years. Vengeance on Varos might be an appropriate place.

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    3. Andrew -- Blackadder was great, but it wasn't a gamechanger. (With the possible exception of that magnificent final episode, which was shown the day after the equally magnificent episode 2 of Curse of Fenric -- if Blackadder is a Pop Between Realities at any point, that seems the logical one). But The Young Ones completely changed expectations of youth TV.

      I agree that The Two Doctors and Vengeance on Varos were trying for that attitude too, though you can argue that neither of them made it; Vengeance on Varos is a little old-fashioned in its direction, The Two Doctors doesn't really have a point to its anarchy. But if you take the broader point as being that there actually was a clear way to make Doctor Who well at the time, and there were people on the team who were capable of doing it, then yes, I agree with that. The problem was that the team didn't know which of their ideas were good, and that the execution was indifferent to bad at almost every level.

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    4. Blackadder will get covered eventually.

      I spectacularly missed The Young Ones. The irritating truth is that being in the 99th percentile of Americans in knowledge of British television is at times not enough - this is the first I've heard of it. It looks fantastically weird.

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    5. Dude, you HAVE to see The Young Ones.

      And here's Rik Mayall in his previous role, doing four-minute sketches as Kevin Turvey: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhSOldqndPQ. Kevin Turvey was the moment everything changed for comedy in the 80s; without Kevin, there mightn't have been a Young Ones and certainly there wouldn't have been so many people watching its first episode. Welcome to Ground Zero.

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    7. The Young Ones was on MTV for a while in the '80s, so it has a cult following in the US. This scene was the high point, IMHO.

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    8. Pretty much all of the Young Ones cast were also involved in The Comic Strip Presents, which started about the same time as the Young Ones and ran all through the Eighties (and has been periodically revived for specials since). So you could have a Pop Between Realities on alternative comedy at pretty much any point through the next few years.

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    9. I have what's already a bit of a dogpile entry between Survival and the Virgin books on comedy, so yeah, I'll probably just get something or other in there.

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    10. Although the obvious point would be just before Revelation of the Daleks, given that story's guest star.

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    11. Sadly, Living Doll is released in the hiatus before Trial of a Time Lord so Philip wouldn't find it while looking at the charts.

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  2. On a minor point, it seems that Nathan-Turner stayed on because the BBC wasn't making it easy to find a replacement and there was a real chance the show would be cancelled outright if he left. So although his bad decisions contributed to the hiatus and the eventual cancellation, he also, more than anyone, kept the show around for the McCoy years.

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  3. As an aside, will we get any discussion of Michael Moorcock? Will the blog get as far as Coming of the Terraphiles? My gut instinct is that Michael Moorcock is a major influence on Doctor Who and UK sf/fantasy generally, or at least on that part that feels as if it was made on drugs, but I don't know.

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    1. While I love both Moorcock and Doctor Who (as well as Wodehouse, the third ingredient of Terraphiles), I have to say that I found Terraphiles quite underwhelming. On the one hand, his versions of Amy and Eleven never seemed like Amy and Eleven to me. (Admittedly, Gillan and Smith hadn't aired at the time he wrote it. But even just straight-up imitating Rose and Ten would have come closer to capturing Amy and Eleven than what happens in Terraphiles.) On the other hand, the Moorcockian mythology seemed especially lacklustre; the background is the marvelously inventive iteration he introduced in Blood, but here it's just not doing anything interesting. And on the gripping hand -- well, Moorcock doing a rewrite of Code of the Woosters falls flat; it's just not his forte.

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    2. On the other hand, Neil Gaiman said it was hilarious, so what do I know?

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    3. It does all feel a bit like it's written by someone trying to do an imitation of The Dancers at the End of Time. It's just that it's an obvious point at which you have to mention Moorcock, seeing as Moorcock hasn't been mentioned yet, and, as I say, my gut instinct is that parts of Doctor Who from at least the mid-seventies onward have a Moorcockian flavour.

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  4. "children’s literature tends to focus thematically on the existence of a threshold between two worlds, whether they be mundane and fantastic or otherwise... the heart of this approach is the fact that a children’s story tends to be about obtaining some degree of mastery and sense over the strange second world."

    Answering a call to adventure, the hero crosses the threshold of the ordinary world into a special place in search of a boon. She refines her character while learning the lay of the land, and develops her skills while battling monsters. Having seized the object of her quest she must go back home, where her final challenge is to be the master of two worlds -- only then can the boon be properly applied, granting the freedom to live.

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    1. Oy, don't invoke Campbell; Phil hates him... :-S

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    2. I do, but that doesn't mean he's not relevant to the discussion, since what I described is a part of what he describes.

      That said, I think children's literature is largely an example of where Campbell goes wrong. Yes, the structure he outlines is, on its own terms, a satisfying metaphor for a bildungsroman. But that doesn't have to be all it is, and collapsing children's literature to it loses the gloriously perverse weirdness of something like Alice in Wonderland, which is not about taking some boon back from Wonderland to the real world, it's about spending page after page fucking around with bizarre word games and social satire.

      Broadly speaking, and this gets at what some of the comments last post about the lack of an alchemical reading of the Davison/Baker transition observed, the arc of the alchemist moves between the headily mystical and the utterly practical.

      The role of the mystic is to bring useful knowledge back from another world, but this doesn't mean an exclusive focus on the real world any more than it means getting lost in the other world. When alchemy loses its bearing in one of its two spheres it all goes wrong. Aside from his methodological flaws, the moral reason I dislike the Hero's Journey as an absolute model is that it ultimately wholly roots things in the real world in a way that misses the importance of madness for its own sake.

      Similarly, Doctor Who's evolution has tended to involve corrections caused by going too far in one direction or the other - either too far away from human concerns (end of Troughton, end of Hinchcliffe) or too grubbily mundane (end of Pertwee, and in an odd way end of Williams). But in between these poles are moments of sublime brilliance.

      The problem with the show in 83-85 is that it makes the swing between these extremes so quickly as to almost skip the bit in the middle where the show is great. There's a brief moment at the end of Davison where the rejection of the material becomes an issue that the show deals with, and then almost immediately it overcorrects into the mess of the Colin Baker era.

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    3. he moral reason I dislike the Hero's Journey as an absolute model is that it ultimately wholly roots things in the real world in a way that misses the importance of madness for its own sake.

      I like this point.

      Doctor Who's evolution has tended to involve corrections caused by going too far in one direction or the other - either too far away from human concerns (end of Troughton, end of Hinchcliffe) or too grubbily mundane (end of Pertwee, and in an odd way end of Williams).

      But this confuses me. Sherwin->Letts I can see as "too far from human concerns", and I know that's your reading of The War games, but it's not clear to me that it was the production team's view. After that, I don't think it's an imbalance between real-world and myth-world that drives stylistic changes so much as individual styles having run out of steam -- ITC action (Letts->Hinchcliffe), gothic (Hinchcliffe->Williams), humorous (Williams->Nathan-Turner). The Bidmead->Saward style change is interesting because Bidmead clearly hadn't run out of steam, and maybe that was the problem, because rather than reacting to the immediate previous era the Davison era contained reacting to the era before that (hello again, my Season 17 point).

      TL;DR Material/fantasy is clearly one dichotomy the show has to deal with, but it's a stretch to see it as the driver of all change.

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    4. I'd distinguish change and progress in this case, though. Changes in direction in the show happen for outright idiosyncratic reasons, but I don't think there's any inherent reason why humorous is progress from gothic, for instance. The ways in which the Williams era improved on the Hinchcliffe era aren't to do with the iconographic/stylistic changes but seem to me due to an underlying shift in the nature of what the Doctor is and how he relates to the world.

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    5. Yeah, interesting. Do you think progress is the right way to think of it? It really seems like a show that's just trying things out 95% of the time and only learning 5% of the time, certainly in this era.

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    6. Oy, don't invoke Campbell; Phil hates him... :-S

      I largely agree with Phil as to where Campbell goes wrong: his absolutist tenor, appealing to a "universal" narrative, which is anaethema to postmodern sensibilities. Alice is a great example. Here we have a myth that isn't boon-oriented at all, not literally speaking...

      ...though taking a step back, we could say the boon of Alice is the story itself, bringing that perspective of madness to the real world. Alice imagines telling Wonderland stories to her kids in the future, and puts a Looking-Glass slant on her kittens, casting the real world into the form of a dream -- having been Queened, she comes back to the Real World and immediately begins the process of integration, becoming a Master of Two Worlds.

      Dorothy in Oz is, I think, a better example of where Campbell fails us -- and I'm speaking not of the movie but of the books. In the books, Dorothy returns to Oz and she stays there. But I would never say that Oz isn't mythic, nor that Dorothy isn't a Hero.


      When alchemy loses its bearing in one of its two spheres it all goes wrong. Aside from his methodological flaws, the moral reason I dislike the Hero's Journey as an absolute model is that it ultimately wholly roots things in the real world in a way that misses the importance of madness for its own sake.

      And that's precisely the moral reason I like the Hero's Journey -- because madness for its own sake is a case losing your bearing in the sphere of the mystical world. And maybe I'm a bit confused -- if the secret of alchemy is material social progress, is that not exactly the point of the Heroic Journey as Campbell describes it? Because material social progress is rooted in the real world.

      So let's go back to Dorothy, taking her as a metaphor for the mystical journey. There's a great danger in going to the Other World and not coming back -- from the perspective of the Real World (which is where material social progress happens) there's no benefit to her disappearance. And yet, there's something very true about Dorothy staying in Oz: We die, and we don't come back. If there's anything universal, it's this.

      So here we have a myth that takes us to the Other Side and leaves us there, and in a children's story at that. I find this very comforting and glorious. I suppose the modern equivalent is LOST: Our heroes have to go back to the Island, which is a place of Death, which is exactly where our stories end, each and every one. Jack's heroism lies in saving the Island, and Dorothy's is in saving Oz; both Oz and the Island are metaphors for Death, so in both these myths, Death itself is The Ultimate Boon, which kind of turns Campbell on his head.

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    7. That's a fantastic reading of Alice, although I'd add the real reason she's allowed to become a "Master of Two Worlds" is because of her self-imposed liminality that frees her from the rules both Wonderland and England operate under and allows her to comment on them and walk unhindered between them, both without and within. It's worth noting she's considered very strange, unusual and disquieting in both.

      Alice becomes a Queen in Wonderland not because, as is commonly read, it's a metaphor for growing up (Lewis Carroll bemoaned the loss of innocence and imagination he perceived as accompanying growing up) but because the Queen is the most powerful piece in chess and has the most freedom of movement. What's also really clever is *how* she does this, by taking advantage of an obscure chess rule that allows a Pawn to become a Queen under very specific circumstances, thus literally beating the Red Queen at her own game. Alice's taking control of herself and her destiny allows her to continue to walk the dream-worlds and retain her power and autonomy. She's the perfect anarcho-feminist role model and icon.

      I also think it's important to point out that Alice actually *doesn't* imagine herself retelling the story of Wonderland to her children and grandchildren: That line is actually attributed to her big sister Lorina, who muses as such at the end of the first book where, in a bit of role reversal, Alice happily scampers off after waking up and Lorina falls asleep and dreams of Wonderland. What's crucial about this scene is that while she dreams, Lorina is always cognizant of it being fantasy and make-believe and always has a foot in the "real world". She can appreciate the magic of Wonderland, but only on a theoretical level and only when her eyes are closed (the implication is that Alice is having more adventures of her own even after she wakes and runs off because she inhabits both planes at once at all times.) This is because Lorina has grown up and lost her ability to effortlessly mode-shift between worlds.

      The difference between her and Alice is that even if Alice grows up, she'll maintain her second sight and ability to transcend boundaries while Lorina has used her maturity as an excuse to be subsumed by the mundane and pragmatic. So yes, in that sense Alice is a Master of Two Worlds, but only because she doesn't quite fully belong to either of them and has allowed her life to be defined by transgression, not citizenship. I always figured Alice would grow up to be something like a Victorian Raoul Duke.

      So that's very much to do with Colin Baker and Max Headroom. I guess quickly I do remember watching Max Headroom (both the original movie and the US TV show) when they first came out and I was really pleased with how mature and intelligent at least the movie was when I re-watched it awhile back. Not familiar with Tripods though, unfortunately.

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    8. The 80's in general, outside of children's fantasy films, does seem to be a bit of a no-go zone for alchemy. The age of homogenous conformity, harsh lines and materialism. Sometimes there were popular films about quick-fire swindler heroes, like Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop.

      But generally American cinema for the grown-up crowd seemed to be mass produced to be about homogenizing the idea of society as a haven for violent souls and urban revenge myths. Where the hero inhabits this environment by revelling in being anti-social, alienated, emotionally repressed, angry and belligerent, and the only alchemy they seem to go through is becoming more unhinged and more a vengeful law unto themselves.

      It's all terribly materialistic in the sense of being antithetical to spiritualism. There's no being self-critical about it in the way the 70's forebears of the style were. There's no sense of getting to the heart of them, or of better angels. Our material bodies are all there is (hence the homo-eroticism of the decade), nothing connects people to each other spiritually, there's no understanding. No effective persuasion other than threats, and its a question of who can do the most damage to our earthly bodies by having the bigger, deadlier hardware.

      There seemed something dangerously influential about that, and it seems Season 21 is where that approach infiltrates Doctor Who like an impermeable cancer. Where the universe does indeed become a haven for violent souls and the Doctor kow-tows to cheapened but harshly lined anti-violence ideals, only to eventually cross the line and start using weapons of mass destruction, and in the end his regeneration sees him embrace the savage, calloused philosophy of the day.

      Season 22 will continue that materialist trend with Lytton's hand-crushing being a typical macho 80's staple of how 'pain builds character', in this case it's supposed to represent his 'penance'. Vengeance on Varos will at least be critical of how it's about human suffering turned into material goods for money, and how the prison environment only cultivates brutality and spiritual decay in both its prisoners and guards. Thus making a mockery of rehabilitation. The Two Doctors quite worryingly argues that no ammount of induced intelligence and wisdom will cure its villains of being savages who need to be kept in their place (harsh lines again) because it's 'in their blood'. And Revelation of the Daleks is classic 80's body-horror and has all the medical fears that go with it, but at least it manages to be forward looking about its medical implications for cryogenic science, and suggests that Orcini's honour is something that ultimately cannot be bought.

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    9. I don't think that valuing the mystical for its own sake and valuing it to the exclusion of materialism are equivalent statements, though. I mean, I tend to think both spheres are inherently valuable such that treating one as wholly justifying the other is as big a mistake as simply abandoning one. I'm loathe to apply any sort of hierarchy.

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    10. Phil: I don't think that valuing the mystical for its own sake and valuing it to the exclusion of materialism are equivalent statements, though. I mean, I tend to think both spheres are inherently valuable such that treating one as wholly justifying the other is as big a mistake as simply abandoning one. I'm loathe to apply any sort of hierarchy.

      An excellent clarification, thank you. And I agree, both spheres have inherent value, and neither need justify the other -- rather, they depend on each other.

      That said, when you start invoking "material social progress" as the secret to alchemy, it rather comes across as taking a stand for the Here and Now -- not that I object, for it's a stand I can support. That doesn't necessarily imply a hierarchy so much as a Center -- it's the Here and Now that we call Home.

      We can invert the frame of reference and say that the Other World is center/home, and the Here and Now the Special Place to where we venture, but the circular pattern of Campbell's model still holds, doesn't it? Not in a prescriptive sense, but descriptively it can be quite apt.

      Of course, it's still only a model, and all models are limited. Not every arc is circular, and not every journey follows the steps Campbell lays out (which he readily admits.) There are all kinds of ways to tell and dissect stories. However, by the time we get to the Revival, Campbell's work will be quite influential, not just in structure (The Beast Below as Belly of the Whale, for example) but in approach -- a devotion to symbol and metaphor, and that what happens in the "real world" is a reflection of what happens in "the special place" (the subconscious mind) and vice-versa.

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    11. The 80's in general, outside of children's fantasy films, does seem to be a bit of a no-go zone for alchemy. The age of homogen[e]ous conformity, harsh lines and materialism.

      Seriously? This is the decade that gave us Buckaroo Banzai, The Princess Bride, Return to Oz, Rain Man, Greystoke, Brazil, Terminator, The Color Purple, Out of Africa, Goonies, Something Wild, The Wrath of Khan, Fright Nigh, Empire of the Sun, Cocoon, Big Trouble in Little China, Room With a View, WarGames, Empire Strikes Back, E.T., Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Excalibur, Dragonslayer,The Neverending Story, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Twilight Zone, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Flash Gordon, Witches of Eastwick, Ladyhawke, Blade Runner, Baron Munchausen, The Last Emperor, Aliens, Passage to India, Shock Treatment, A Fish Called Wanda, Dune, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Metropolitan (almost), and the Indiana Jones movies. Only a handful of those are children's films.

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    12. But very few of them represent something other than Hollywood's conformity and business-oriented structure through the 80s (the exceptions in your list would probably be the Terry Gilliam movies, Return to Oz, and Neverending Story, though I'm surprised you didn't list any Henson films).

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    13. Rereading old ones, I came across this months-later comment. My take: If you think something being produced in mainstream Hollywood, under a tight, repressive structure, means it can't be alchemical, you don't understand what alchemy is.

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  5. I would say that the Audio Visuals team at the time (who were very much the precursor to Big Finish) were doing a fairly good job of making a version of Doctor Who that was suited to the mid-80's and had a strong sense of direction and a good handle on the character of the Doctor that the TV show had been lacking since at least Season 20.

    I'd venture that it was more around Season 19 or 20 when JNT and Eric Saward should have moved on- if they had then maybe Peter Davison would have gained more of a direction and realised his potential far more, and maybe even stayed longer. At either point there was an opportunity to do more with either Nyssa or Turlough than we got (then again Leela didn't exactly benefit from a production team changeover, nor did Romana, so that might be wishful thinking). And that way the continuity fixation might have become little more than a passing fad which ends with Earthshock or The Five Doctors.

    But I think by Season 21 they'd already limited themselves and driven the show and the Doctor into a dead end, and if they'd left then, the subsequent producer would have a hard time recovering the show or its protagonist from The Twin Dilemma. And conversely, ironically the best material we got from Colin's era was an Eric Saward story.

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  6. I've long had the feeling that Eric Saward was a far better writer than he ever was a story editor. On his own, he could do some very interesting stuff, which could have stood on its own, apart from anything else being done, and be fine-tuned under some other story editor. But in that job, he either did nothing to fix, or worked actively to destroy other people's scripts, while steering the show in very wrong directions. The best thing he ever did in the job was bring Robert Holmes back.

    It hits me he could be compared to Jim Shooter, who in my view did his best work as a writer under maniacal editor Mort Weisinger, while later, at Marvel, he became an even worse dictator, while his own stories often reeked of hatred for the characters he wrote. (And since he was editor-in-chief, who was gonna tell him "no"?)

    The whole atmosphere on DOCTOR WHO improved the instant Saward walked out the door. Witness "PARADISE TOWERS", which is one sick, twisted, demented piece of work... but at the same time, loads of fun to watch. (Hmm... what if we'd gotten Sylvester McCoy right after Peter Davison?)

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    1. Or if Saward bowed out before season 22...

      I like some of Saward's ideas, and his two Colin-era stories are very good, actually, but as script editor something seemed amiss. Of all the script editors under JNT's reign (Bidmead, Root, Saward, Cartmel), despite a handful of good stories, Saward's is the most gritty and unapologetically gory. I can handle grit, but shock jock gore doesn't really work, and I'd dare say that "Frontios" with the disembodied head driving a mining machine that's using pure maths to create a tunnel would be better used by computer - in short, comparing that sort of "huh, what's the point?" gore with season 22's, at least (most of) season 22's gore feels more appropriate TO the stories, rather than just being shock jock material. Still, it's not for kids, but then I sat through "Blake's 7" at a tender young age as well and for the late-70s, that show had its share of grit and gore as well...

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    2. I disagree with you about it being 'not for kids' -- I was six when Colin Baker's first series was on, and I absolutely loved it, and I know a number of other people who were about the same age who fell in love with the series at this time.

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  7. Max Headroom is an exceedingly early example of cyberpunk

    Not that early. Both "Burning Chrome" and Blade Runner appeared in 1982.

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  8. In my opinion, Eric Saward was far more of a "monstrous carbuncle" to DOCTOR WHO than John Nathan-Turner ever was...

    I mean, if JN-T were as poor a producer as so many claim, why is it that only during Saward's tenure as script editor that things become so poor? Cos they certainly aren't under Bidmead and Cartmel...

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  9. I've often said the worst decision that JNT ever made (among many, many bad ones) was to hire Eric Saward as story editor (instead of getting a real story editor to hire Saward just as a writer), while the only good decision Eric Saward ever made as story editor was to hire Robert Holmes back as a writer.

    I've developed a much greater understanding of the sheer scope and horror of the entire situation lately... but in some ways, I think my original points still stand.

    And as I plow thru Season 17 again (I've lost count of how many times I've seen these), I'm beginning to think how it might have been if JNT had managed to keep Douglas Adams on as story editor. Can you picture what a combo that would have been? (Of course, it would have required that JNT not have his sick compulsion to eliminate all sense of humor from the show, when it was clear that the humor was, so often, the best part.)

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  10. This puts the weird schizophrenia of Season 22 in a perspective I had never thought about before. Doctor Who really was caught in a bind between the public and much of the production staff perceiving it as a children's program, and an audience and a good few of the writers seeing it as a show for adults and mature youth. That's the bind which sends the show bouncing back and forth between extremes of silliness and surreal satire.

    It also indicates what I think were the best lessons Doctor Who could take, and made a signpost for the best ways it could have developed, and did develop. I remember Tripods showing up in the early 1990s on YTV back when it was Canada's pluckiest importer of BBC children and youth oriented programs. And in the late 1990s, another Canadian cable station spent a year running Max Headroom at the perfect times for me to get home from school to watch it. I enjoyed Tripods, but it never made much of an impression on me. Max Headroom I remember to this day as one of the best shows I saw in my teenage years.

    If I can be a test case for a general audience (and I wouldn't recommend it, as I'm not very general), the surreal satire works much better than playing it straight for small children who haven't yet developed a good perception for irony. Even when I was the target audience for Tripods, and that show worked, it made little impression. It was the same when I was eight watching Timelash and The Mark of the Rani when YTV first transmitted them. I enjoyed them, but they made little impression. However, at age eight, I didn't remember Vengeance on Varos or Revelation of the Daleks at all. But after getting them on dvd in my 20s, they're two of my favourite 1980s stories. And what I like best about them are their satirical narratives and weird atmosphere, just the kinds of things that I didn't understand, and so turned me off, as a child.

    Given the choice between being a silly adventure show for children and a freaky sci-fi satire for late teenagers and young adults, it would have been more successful to let their freak flags fly. It looks like the real tragedy of British television in 1985 was that there was no way to compromise between the two approaches. It's a missed opportunity that Doctor Who never had the opportunity to explore that weird satirical approach in future years. If they had taken their lead from the aesthetics of Revelation, they could have turned out something like if Dalí and Warhol made pop sci-fi tv.

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  11. "Even Robert Holmes, fresh from a classic, doesn’t have the answer this time, as we'll see."

    Flawed it may be, but the Two Doctors beats a path for the revival in at least four useful and amusing ways.

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  12. Rereading old ones, I realize I have to comment on something that's just grossly inaccurate:

    The rise of postmodernism left children’s media relatively untouched, and to some extent continues to do so.

    Adventure Time. Regular Show. In a very, very different sense, Avatar the Last Airbender and its sequel. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is (depending on how you classify the New Sincerity movement and whether you accept post-postmodernism as its own thing) either post-postmodern or postmodern.

    And that's just examples from the last few years; there's enough cartoons in the 90s that are heavily postmodern, starting with Ren and Stimpy, that one could argue that postmodernism went mainstream in children's entertainment as early as 1992 or so.

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