the Doctor dying on TV, on TV

This is a difficult one to write about, in two different ways.

The first is that, of all the stories in this season, it’s the only one I’ve written about for this site before. The second is rather the opposite, that as I said there, “Almost uniquely for Doctor Who of this era, this story is about things. In fact, if anything, it’s about too many things to deal with in a short essay like this — it’s almost overloaded with meaning.”

The “almost uniquely” is stretching it a bit – much of season 22 is, in fact, about stuff – but the fact remains that this is a story that is so stuffed with meaning, so overloaded with thematic resonance, that it would require a book to fully examine.

Among the subjects this story touches on are violence in the media, the “video nasty” tabloid debate at the time, the role of the media in political reporting, the then-relatively-new TV service Ceefax, the miners’ strike, the nature of freedom in a world defined by constraints, the ongoing debate over the reintroduction of capital punishment, the nature of capitalism in the transition between an industrial and a service-based economy, the way class distorts ostensible democracy, the difference between our self-image and reality…there’s a lot in this, in a story that owes as much to Bertolt Brecht as to Terry Nation.

It’s also a story that is not only susceptible of multiple readings, but it makes – and critiques – those readings itself. If we make any reading of the story that’s less lengthy than the story itself, the story will itself argue at some point for an opposite reading.

So I’m going to look here specifically at what this story, and hiring Philip Martin as a writer, mean for Doctor Who as a show, and we’ll just take everything else as read for now. (For the record, I think this is in the top two or three Doctor Who stories of all time).

So…the thing about Philip Martin is that he was, before this, best known for writing the TV series Gangsters. This started as a rather earnest Play For Today about violence and racism and urban neglect, and became a gritty crime drama (starring Maurice Colburn, who played Lytton in the previous story). Martin had strong concerns about the portrayal of violence on screen – he believed that violence should be shown to have consequences, and so the first season of Gangsters was far more visceral than TV usually was at that time, with the physical effects of violence made very obvious. Violence in the Gangsters world had consequences.

But that meant it looked nasty, and made people uncomfortable. Gangsters season one was popular, but got a lot of complaints about the nature of the violence. Too many people who were happy with violence where no-one got hurt were horribly upset when they encountered people sustaining real injuries.

So in season two, Martin went in a different direction. He accepted that mimesis was impossible, and instead went for a style in which there were regular parodies of kung fu films, characters explicitly acknowledged the fictional nature of the story and walked off the set, and Martin himself played two characters – one was a writer called Philip Martin who was dictating the script for the show itself, while another, “the White Devil”, was a literal personification of death, performed as a WC Fields impersonation under the stage-name Larson E Whipsnade (the name of Fields’ character in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man), who killed the main character half-way through the last episode, with the episode just continuing without its protagonist.

Now, it’s very obvious watching season twenty-two that Eric Saward’s conception of the series was in many ways based on Gangsters, and so we have a similar mixture of grittier-than-normal drama, ultra-dark humour, and knowing postmodernism cropping up over and over in this series. And again, the violence works because it’s trying simultaneously to say two things. One is that, in Martin’s words, “So if a kid thinks that if you point a gun at someone they do a somersault and that’s it, whereas I was saying, look, guns kill, families are maimed; I was trying to say what violence is”, while the other is that people should engage on a more sophisticated level with what they’re watching.

Martin in particular was almost contemptuous of the idea of suspension of disbelief, of pretending a TV story is a depiction of real events, and he believed that audiences should not have to pretend they believed in the events depicted in order to watch a series.

And this is the real key to season twenty-two, and in particular to Vengeance on Varos. Baker’s Doctor is, in many ways, similar to those of Troughton and Tom Baker, and both those Doctors seemed at times to have the awareness that they were in a TV show and had an audience.

Here, though, while Baker’s Doctor does have that awareness, he’s not the only character who does. Arak and Etta are watching the same events we are on the TV. They’re also, by their votes, controlling them. The Governor is not only a TV character for us, he’s also diegetically a TV character, one whose very life depends on audience approval ratings. But he’s also the director of the TV show he stars in. The TV show he’s tortured in.

This decentralising of the Doctor in the narrative has its critics, but it allows Doctor Who to tell a type of story it’s never told before or since. It’s a type of story in which every character is aware that they’re living in a constructed reality, every character hates that reality, and that reality is only sustained by the choices those characters nonetheless actively continue to make.

As soon as everyone acknowledges that they could do something different instead, the whole constructed reality of their social system collapses (and in the case of Vengeance on Varos this goes some way towards mitigating the somewhat duff plot resolution – it should be bathetic). But instead of doing that, everyone realises that the system is awful, everyone knows that their decisions are actively making everything worse for everyone, themselves included, and everyone keeps on doing it anyway.

Vengeance on Varos is the epitome of this approach to the series, but we see it to a lesser extent in several other stories here. It’s a story which points to the same problems as the similarly-named Meditations on Moloch (warning: comments section is a cesspool of alt-right hatred).

This is a story that only Doctor Who could tell, and only this particular version of Doctor Who, and in a post-Brexit-vote world it’s a more relevant story now that it was even on transmission.

And cut it…now.

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