January 19th, 2012
I’m back after an extended Christmas and not-being-arsed break! Only one photo this time though as my hard drive is knackered and I’m busy recovering all my files (have you any idea how difficult it is to recover a 2TB hard drive with about ten thousand non-contiguous bad sectors? Thank heaven for ddrescue). I could only get the one image before catastrophic failure.
Since we last saw the Doctor, in The Tenth Planet, he’s fought the Daleks, visited the Battle of Culloden and picked up a new companion, visited Atlantis, gone to the moon to fight Cybermen, fought giant crabs in a futuristic holiday camp, and most recently fought the Chameleons ( a race of faceless aliens, not the post-punk band from Middleton) in an airport, leaving his companions Ben and Polly behind.
And nobody under the age of forty-five has ever seen these stories, because the BBC decided to set fire to them in a big skip, as they did this one. Of Patrick Troughton’s first fourteen stories – totalling seventy-five episodes, or more than David Tennant and Matt Smith have done combined so far – only one complete story, Tomb Of The Cybermen, survives, along with sixteen odd episodes from other stories.
Doctor Who was hardly the only TV show to be a victim of this cultural vandalism, of course. We no longer have any record of the Beatles on Top Of The Pops, or the BBC broadcast of the moon landings, because nobody could possibly have any interest in those things, right? We no longer have Where Was Spring? or BBC-3. Had it not been for a lawsuit involving American rights, the only copies of Monty Python’s Flying Circus that would be in existence would be the ones that Michael Palin sneakily ran off for himself, because they were about to burn those.
But while the loss of those Doctor Who episodes is not on the same level as those other losses (and no, it really isn’t. No matter how much of a fan you are, the moon landings are of more historical importance, and the Beatles and Alan Bennett of more cultural and artistic import. They just are). But Doctor Who is in a unique position in that it’s a programme which makes at least a pretence at being a continuous narrative, one that continues to this day, and for which huge chunks of its history are irrevocably lost.
So even though many people will claim that Evil Of The Daleks was the best Doctor Who story ever, they’re basing this on the single surviving episode (episode two of seven), the soundtrack (which survives because fans put tape recorders near their TVs so they could listen to the story again), a novelisation by the famously terrible writer John Peel, and a ‘reconstruction’ – something put together by fans, matching the soundtrack to photos taken on set, ‘telesnaps’ (photos taken of a TV set by the BBC so directors would get a visual record of their work) and so on. Even the commercially-available versions of the soundtrack aren’t complete (Paperback Writer is playing in a scene in a cafe, and the BBC couldn’t get clearance to use the Beatles’ music on a CD release, so the soundtrack had to be edited).
So why, nonetheless, will people claim this is one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time?
Note the Doctor Who in that question, and you have most of the answer. This isn’t a great science fiction story, being written as it is by David Whittaker, a fine writer but one for whom Aristotle would be a dangerously modern thinker. The time travel device that brings the various parts of the plot together is made of mirrors – by making images go backward (and then by ‘repelling’ the images with static electricity) the inventors can travel in time and bring things from the past and future. This is the kind of thing a five-year-old comes up with. (Quite literally. The time machine I tried to make when I was five was a similarly mirror-based piece of technology, but with such upgrades as a milk-crate driving seat.)
So looking at this as a piece of science fiction, in the sense of scientific extrapolations or of imagining the impact on society of a change of technological levels, or something of that sort, is clearly a non-starter. But then Doctor Who has hardly ever worked on that level anyway.
One thing the show’s format – and the concept of the TARDIS – does allow for, and encourage, is the strange juxtaposition, putting two completely unrelated things together and seeing what happens. Sometimes this is on the rather banal level described by Jon Pertwee (“There’s nothing more alarming than coming home and finding a Yeti sitting on your loo in Tooting Bec”), sometimes it’s on the level of much of the Tom Baker era, with perfectly standard Hammer Horror stories being gatecrashed by a leading man from a completely different series who proceeds to destroy the assumptions on which the stories are built. But it’s a persistent recurring motif in Doctor Who.
And in Evil Of The Daleks it’s almost a collage – fittingly as 1967 was very much the year of collage in popular art (just look at the cover to Sgt Pepper – or even the music inside, with its pasted-in bits of other people’s recordings). Never mind the lack of coherence, just look at the clashing images! New antiques! Daleks in Victorian mansions! Victorian adventurers on alien planets in the future! Daleks acting like children!
Not only that, but Evil of The Daleks is also one of the earliest examples existing of steampunk. In fact, the only earlier film or TV I can think of that could even remotely be described as steampunk are the two earlier Doctor Who films (both written by Whittaker) and the film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ First Men In The Moon. A dozen years before the term was coined – and almost fifty years before steampunk degenerated into a mess of people dressed in brown wearing monocles and smoking clockwork cigars in Zeppelins, most of the crucial elements are here – Victorian adventurers travelling though time using implausible technology, and a combination of a pulp adventure plot with a Victorian design aesthetic. That Victorian aesthetic was, of course, perfectly in tune with 1967, with shops like Granny Takes A Trip and albums like Sgt Pepper reviving memories of a time that was, remember, as close to 1967 as World War II is to our own time.
And on top of this, we have the clearest statement yet of what Doctor Who stands for. And it is an utterly, implacably Liberal, humanist, viewpoint. The Daleks finally become, explicitly, the fascists that they had always implicitly been – their plot is to turn all life in the universe, and especially humans, into unthinking, aggressive drones who take Dalek orders, by implanting them with ‘the Dalek factor’. They want conformity and a universe where nothing unlike them can exist.
Meanwhile, three Daleks are implanted with ‘the human factor’, and (after playing so much they get dizzy and start giggling and saying “dizzy Dalek”) do the single thing that separates the human from the inhuman. They are given an order, and ask “Why?”
For this they are exterminated, but it’s this questioning of orders that eventually brings down the whole Dalek Empire (this is generally considered the last ever Dalek story, at the very end of their history). Totalitarianism can’t cope with being questioned.
This is how you can tell the goodies from the baddies, in Doctor Who. The baddies want you to do as they say – and not just that, they want to control how you think. Whether it’s Skagra, trying to turn the whole universe into an extension of his mind, or the Master and his hypnosis, or BOSS, or the Dalek Factor, or Sutekh, or the Cybermen, restricting another’s freedom of thought is the cardinal sin in Doctor Who. The goodies, on the other hand, want to play and ask questions.
We’ll see many dichotomies through the series – important ones, like order vs entropy (which will be the driving dichotomy of much of Tom Baker’s run) – but they are all subservient to the major one, of freedom vs control. And Doctor Who always in the end comes down on the side of freedom. Not only is freedom morally right, but Ashby’s Law also says it’s pragmatically right. Burning books is almost as bad as burning people, because it stops their freedom of thought, and without that freedom they’re no longer fully human. Restricting people’s thought and speech is the ultimate unforgivable crime.
What this has to do with the fact that the Mindless site is currently blanked out in protest against SOPA is left as an exercise for the reader.