March 13th, 2012
People often think these days that Russel T Davies was the first auteur to run Doctor Who.
In fact, while Barry Letts was producer, he also not only wrote (with Robert Sloman) most of the important ‘story arc’ stories (companion departure, regeneration and so on) but directed one story a year as well for four of the five years, something no other producer has ever done. And as we’ll see later, he turned the whole series into a metaphor for his own religious beliefs. The only astonishing thing, given that Letts started as an actor, is that he didn’t end up starring in the series as well.
And Letts had a very, very distinct aesthetic. The show under Letts became obsessed with strange mix of James Bond style action adventure, Liberal, environmental-based politics, soap-opera-esque character development, explosions, making fun of people who don’t live in London, stock footage, bad green-screen effects, the Master turning up all the time and helicopters.
The Daemons, which Letts co-wrote is, rightly, regarded as one of the best stories of the Letts era. It combines all the typical elements of a Letts story – at one point having a chase scene involving a car, a motorbike and a helicopter, which suddenly turns into stock footage of a helicopter taken from a Bond film and explodes, and climaxing with an exploding church – along with a huge chunk of Hammer Horror, to great effect. It has some great lines (the Brigadier’s “Chap with wings there, five rounds rapid” is one of the most quoted of the series) and it pulls the whole thing off with aplomb.
But it does so while basing the story around the three most problematic characters in the series.
The first is Jo Grant, the Doctor’s assistant. Note that word. While previous companions had been *companions*, Jo was the Doctor’s *assistant*, and was specifically created to replace Liz Shaw because Liz Shaw was an intelligent woman and, as the script editor Terrance Dicks puts it, “the place of women in drama is to be tied to the train tracks”.
I took 26 screenshots of this story while rewatching for this essay, and Jo appears in none, because she does nothing in the whole story except get kidnapped and rescued, until the end, when her emotions make Azal, the alien demon working with the Master, explode because he can’t cope with her illogicality.
Jo is depicted as ‘dippy’ or ‘dizzy’, and credulous in the extreme – her very first line in this story is “But it really *is* the dawning of the Age of Aquarius!”, which should tell you everything you need to know. Katy Manning does a lovely job with the part, but the part is a problem.
The second most problematic character is the Master:
The Master, quite simply, shouldn’t exist. He was created as a Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes, but of course Moriarty is killed in the first story in which he appears. The Master, on the other hand, is the villain in every story in 1971, and recurs throughout the series.
That would be okay, if he was just mildly villainous. And certainly in the show he’s *coded* as mildly villainous. In the story in which he first appears, the Doctor refers to him as a ‘jackanapes’ and says that he makes things more interesting, the way one talks about a lovable rogue. (Then again, he talks about Hitler as being a ‘bounder’ in this story…)
However, over his TV career the Master is guilty of genocide, multiple murders in various gruesome manners, the destruction of an entire third of the universe, several political assassinations, and several attempts to either destroy or enslave all sapient life. Batman at least has an excuse for not killing the Joker – he’s implacably opposed to any kind of violent death, no matter what the reason. The Doctor here is working with a paramilitary organisation, whose leader himself has committed genocide (killing all the Silurians). By the second or third time they see the Master, they shouldn’t be trying to arrest him, it should be a simple case of “chap with the beard there, five rounds rapid”.
(I normally take Batman’s side on the matter of taking life, but when it comes to psychopaths who have killed so many people that they dwarf the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot combined, and who keep trying to get aliens to invade the earth and subjugate all humans to their will, I’m willing to make an exception.)
And the third problematic character is the Doctor himself.
The Doctor in all his incarnations has had an arrogance to him, but in all the other 20th century Doctors this arrogance is tempered by the fact that they actually are as capable as they think they are. Pertwee’s Doctor, by contrast, is often just a bully.
This can be seen especially in his interactions with Jo. Here, Jo is convinced that magic works, and the Doctor argues that there’s no such thing as magic, and that everything has a scientific explanation.
Now, in real life the Doctor is correct in this argument, but this story has the Master conducting Black Masses (by reciting “Mary had a little lamb” backwards) and conjuring up actual demons, and bringing stone gargoyles to life. One might think that Jo had something of a point.
Except that the Doctor ‘explains’ all this as ‘psionic energy’. Which is of course no explanation at all.
A handwave like ‘psionic energy’ is OK in a science-fantasy show like Doctor Who if it is a handwave, if it’s something put in just to say “thing which the Doctor has to fight”. But this story explicitly sets up a conflict between on the one hand magic, the inexplicable, the supernatural, and on the other side science, explanation, human reason. And then it has the science side appear to win – and mock the other side – not by providing a better explanation, but by using a more ‘sciencey’ sounding set of content-free words.
Unfortunately, this kind of unscientific ‘science’ was quite popular in the 70s, and in particular this story shows the influence of the pernicious Erich von Daniken, and his ‘ancient astronauts’ hypothesis (memorably lampooned by the Goodies in the “was God an English Astronaut” chapter of one of their books, claiming that bowler hats were shaped that way as a race memory of flying saucers. Douglas Adams later nicked this idea for his Doctor Who And The Krikkitmen script). von Daniken claimed that everything mysterious in human history, and a great number of things that weren’t at all mysterious, and a few things he just made up out of his head, could be explained by saying “aliens done it”. This again, of course, is no explanation at all – ‘aliens’ merely sounded more ‘scientific’ than ‘gods’. von Daniken will, sadly, be appearing again…
And so the most dandyish, surface-obsessed Doctor has an understanding of science that is all surface. Science versus superstition is not, in the view of Doctor Who in this period, a matter of right and wrong, of competing explanations for the natural world, of what is actually true. It’s a matter of aesthetics. Say ‘magic’ and you’re just a silly little girl, fit only to be kidnapped by cultists and rescued just before they sacrifice you. But say ‘science’ and you get to stroll around like you own the place wearing a frilly shirt and boss all the soldiers around. “Science” has become a magic word.
All of this sounds like a massive criticism of The Daemons, and of Letts, and it’s really not. The Daemons works wonderfully on its own terms, and is rightly considered a classic. But it’s one with a bit of a hollow centre, and it’s hollow in ways that will become increasingly problematic over the next couple of years…