Doctor Who: A Fresh Scarf – “Harry Sullivan is an imbecile” (Whovember #4)

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The Whovember arc-athon moves onto one of its finest hours.  A new Doctor, an incredible set of stories and no fear of taking big decisions.  It was the first big arc, filtered through several stories that would change Who as we knew it.  It was Season 12.

#6: Season 12: Robot, The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, Genesis of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen.

LEST WE FORGET IN THE HAZE OF THE GREAT CURATOR, THAT WHEN THE FOURTH DOCTOR EXPLODED ONTO SCREENS IN 1974, EACH PREVIOUS DOCTOR HAD PLAYED A MASSIVE PART IN ENSURING THE SHOW’S LEGACY. William Hartnell had not only founded the character, but also oversaw the show’s steady and assured shift from education and family adventure to constant hero in the country’s sitting rooms.

Following him, Patrick Troughton is rightly thought of as the most important casting decision in the franchise (possibly history), picking up the reigns reluctantly dropped by Hartnell and showing that this ridiculously risky regeneration business could work, while banishing any historical story that didn’t have a science-fiction angle. After his three years – an unfortunately short time – Jon Pertwee brought not only a new face but also format change to his colourful tenure, with no continuation of companion but the promise of an expanded cast and permanent Earth-bound setting.  He may have set up the 1970s, but…

Tom Baker though… Tom Baker did something different.

If the advent of his namesake a decade later was a text book example of getting regenerations wrong, Tom Baker’s arrival got everything right. Though cast by outgoing producer Barry Letts – his head already held high – the new Doctor couldn’t have hoped for a better incoming producer than Philip Hinchcliffe. And alongside Hinchcliffe sat the solid rock of Robert Holmes, newly installed script editor and fast-rising Who legend. While the onscreen Doctor may have been losing a UNIT family (one that in truth had been slowly ebbing away for a season) he had a stroke of luck in the companion stakes: inheriting feminist journalist Sarah Jane Smith. He also quickly met her and his perfect foil, public school (lovable) idiot Harry Sullivan. Never has Doctor Who come together so perfectly, and it’s just as well. The TARDIS crew’s first season saw them undertake a full season story arc for the first time in the show’s history. For 20 weeks they were quickly propelled across five adventures with very little TARDIS, food or sleep.

The Arc in… Season 12

The bold, format change that season 12 represented can’t be ignored. Once again Doctor Who was changing, and as always there were things to consider.  I was recently lucky enough ask current show runner Steven Moffat about those days when the Doctor had an office.  He quite rightly pointed out that the production team who found themselves saddled with UNIT exile in the early 1970s took many opportunities to break the format and take the Third Doctor back to space-time.

“ I mean “No, less space travel and less time travel and he works in an office. You know, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks who inherited that format were immediately taking it apart and saying “He can repair his TARDIS sometimes… By the time you get into the second or third year of it he’s spending as much time in space as any other Doctor.”

While Moffat found the juxtaposition of the ‘professed’ hippy and soldiers interesting, he particularly praised the relationships that grew in the fixed format – particularly a great friendship with the Brigadier (that always seemed greater with other Doctors, other than the Third).  In fact, it’s Season 12 that has the luxury of being able to explore both.  Like the new, enthusiastic Doctor himself they couldn’t wait to break the mould – but they still managed to produce two classic UNIT serials amid the vision and new direction that he season laid down.  That classic season.

There, the secret’s blown. Season 12 is a classic.  The fresh producer found himself saddled with two six part stories and opted to split one of them into a two and four-parter.  A wise choice, and one that adds emphasis to each side of the season.

Ostensibly, the changes are simple. This brash Doctor establishes a speedy line in falling unconscious (much hair, thin skull – hardly dissimilar to earlier Doctors who’d happily disappeared for a whole episode, but a trope in the making) while Sarah-Jane fights the good fight as a believable female companion who can generally resist screaming and the worst excesses of her new Doctor…  And Harry who is, of course, frankly, an idiot.

There must have been something incredibly appealing about knocking out or gassing this garrulous Doctor, having the able bodied companion fall down any crevasse that’s going and letting the female companion bring the conscience.  It’s not only necessary to these stories, but it also works very well.

Coincidence riddles the season, but to no greater degree than any other classic Who run. While there’s Sarah initial spur of the moment decision to investigate Think Tank in Robot or the TARDIS crew’s timely arrival on the Ark, there is also the Time Lord’s intervention at the start of Genesis of the Daleks as well as the distancing of the TARDIS itself. Most importantly there’s the steady, growing arc of Harry Sullivan being just, well, an imbecile. It had become a firm cliché in the series before, but now it was a strength.  Season 12 It’s an incredible year in Doctor Who’s life. It may be full of contradictions but that’s always in style and never coherence.

And it starts with a regeneration…

Robot (Season 12, 1974-5)

Robot is a blast. A good old Terminator-vision, blast of freshness.

Baker arrives in a story that’s very Pertwee, but thanks to his performances makes it undeniably Baker.  It has stand out moments of comedy, often between the Doctor and Harry Sullivan. “No Doctor, I’m the Doctor” and the Brigadier. Such humour would soon develop when Harry was removed from his comfort zone. There’s also the odd aside – see the speed typewriting scene. Elsewhere Sarah’s flirting with a noticeably more laid back Brigadier.

Behind the scenes, Terrance Dicks and Holmes had inverted their roles with Holmes now the Script Editor. And what a remarkable stroke of luck that was.  In writing of Robot, Terrance Dicks ‘homaged’ Asimov’s Rules of Robotics, but as has been said – what else can you do when you’re writing a story about a robot.  Behind the scenes, Holmes was a rare occurrence – someone who could bring his considerable writing ability to enhance scripts as well as originate them.  These were incredible safe hands with which to open up the format again.

Immediately, Baker’s Doctor isn’t as attached to UNIT as Pertwee’s had been, even in his last season. He can’t wait to escape and as he says, “I hate goodbyes”. Watching it, I can’t help but think what any other Doctor would have done. Had it been the Sixth, he may well have buckled down a lot sooner. Still, the Fourth had his own slightly too silly costume selection. Overlong and reaching, fortunately once chooses, it’s the speed and comfort that’s the punch line. Years of familiarity have enhanced the joke.  And then the more telling phrase for this Doctor: “There’s no such word as can’t”. Hanging between that and “No point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes” the Fourth Doctor comes straight out of a Gallifreyan can. One that’s bigger on the inside obviously. They are words to live by, and live he does. Lounging around Bessie in a way Pertwee would have tutted at, losing his hat where Pertwee would pick up his cape – but still carrying off  the role of the scientist when he needs to.

Robot’s plot may be simple, but contains may familiar and surprising scenes that work in its safe familiarity.  The female villain is a great idea, the cadre of rather apathetic fascist super scientists Who-bizarre.

As well as its simplicity, long recaps at the beginning of episodes show that this is one of the slighter stories in the season.  But the references are all packed in.  Aside from the robotic shadow of Asimov (but one that increasingly and oddly dwells on emotional shock in the robot), there’s the classic Kaiju element of the giant Robot (Living metal sneaking into the script fairly late in episode three) and then giant handfuls of King Kong (a suppressed Oedipal complex as the Doctor puts it). The Robot is defeated not by bi-planes but by the Doctor jousting in Bessie. Just one question before he disappears in the TARDIS – when does he get the time to fill his pockets?

The Ark in Space (Season 12, 1975)

Thanks to Harry’s first major ‘accident’ the Fourth Doctor’s is propelled immediately into a classic: The Ark in Space. The Brigadier’s already embraced the inevitable at the end of Robot (“I’ll tell them you’ll be a little late”) although we’ll later learn he has the equivalent of a pager to summon the Doctor back. Ark’s not immediately promising, starting as it does with another POV alien.  But it soon pulls off its masterstroke: the TARDIS crew hold the first episode on their own – something not seen in Who for years.

Holmes’ marvellous script and clever production design helps immeasurably. Two serials in and the Fourth Doctor already has a list of classic quotes. Booby traps and science-fiction ingenuity are built in effortlessly as a fine foil. The Transmat is established as the most common mode of transport and Sarah Jane’s endangerment shows a care taken in crafting alien concepts.

The alien Wirrn, giant rubber insects that they are, are a familiar concept in Who, but here their motivation and MO is simple and effective. There is a poignancy added by those other humans that mentioned in the story, but not seen until the next serial.  The dialect and syntax element may not quite fit with TARDIS translation, but helps evoke a story of natural selection that affects the whole of humanity.  The Harry and the Doctor are regressives, and we’ll see the other side of that when the crew reach Earth.  Ark is clearly of interest to new series writers. That Starship UK is one of the other colony ships is one of the few interesting things in Series 5’s The Beast Below. Before Toclafane, gas creatures, potential Haemovores, the humans of the 30th century are essentially compartmentalised in an idea that dates back at least to Wells.

This serial was finished three or four years before Alien, but explores many similar themes. Here, rather than individual xenomorphic qualities, the concept of race memory is explored alongside body horror and the idea of using an alien race’s  knowledge against them. Special mention has to go to the direction, which elevates Holmes’ already impressive script. The juxtaposition of the Earth High Minister ancient transcript to Noah’s conflicted transformation is brilliant. Ark gets to the core of Who (“it may be irrational, but humans are quite my favourite species”) but there’s one main thing that it gets right. Cliff-hangers. Classic cliff-hangers are the thing you need in a strong Doctor Who serial. Although the last one is slightly cheated, the strength of the race-against-time-plan final part soon makes you forget. And it even finds time for a joke about unions.

Ark in Space is a great serial that grows on me like bubble-wrap with every viewing.  And If you don’t like bubble wrap, you won’t like potatoes.

Because, with the offer of a jelly baby to the saved Homo Sapiens the Doctor simply pops down to Earth to check the Transmat…

The Sontaran Experiment (Season 12, 1975)

This mid-season two-parter is and constantly and understandably overlooked. As it sits sandwiched between two classics, The Sontaran Experiment has a lot of things against it. But this is Season 12, and Season 12 has momentum. Here we see a typical fledgling group of humans (presumably they’re ultimate survivors of Starship South Africa!) and a Sontaran in its screen second appearance again running the show on its own. That’s the funny thing about Sontarans. Arrogant and brave enough to attack on their own, but very much designed as a group animal. Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin were hardly running loose here, with the creatures’ creator Robert Holmes on script editing duties.

As a brief and sadistic piece where the Fourth Doctor makes the most of being knocked out, Harry’s clumsiness is established as a running joke. He’s the original Rory, just fortunately without the constant death.

Hollywood science-fiction is predated once again here.  The serial’s villain uses the probes of The Empire Strikes Back six years early, making the most of its location – and Dartmoor is a great asset when the serial is governed by budget concerns.  Dartmoor makes for a phenomenally alien location considering.  Add in the myths of Nerva, where we’ve just spent the previous four episodes, and the distant future context and it’s chilling. Sontaran is a bit of a directorial triumph on that score, entirely filmed on location after the set constraints of Ark.  Some of the physical effects, although sparse, just look, well, solid. Only Styre’s step back make-up is unfortunate – but that would become a running theme, and it’s certainly better than The Invasion of Time’s clones. Talking of costumes, you wouldn’t even guess that Tom Baker broke his collar-bone during filming, covered as he is in his sprawling coat.

Perhaps Sontaran’s main legacy is to that ravaged, damaged, forgotten Earth of the future.  It would again reappear as an idea in Ravalox, and the New Series.  The Sword fighting conclusion and the Doctor’s casual and rather arrogant, and sudden, dismissal of the Sontaran fleet conjures up the image of the post-2005 revival as well.  But in terms of sadism and running outdoors frolics, it’s a precursor and a warm-up for the other classic to follow.

Genesis of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen (Season 12, 1975)

Two huge tales with two huge enemies, so I’ll consider them together.

Genesis was Terry Nation’s third Dalek tale in three years and he couldn’t have picked a better time to mix it up. Gerry Davis, co-creator of the Cybermen also decided to add something his classic creations. But what’s interesting when watching Genesis and Revenge back to back is how opposite their approaches were. Genesis, with its many 60s throwbacks and reinforced World War II analogy still shines as tale that would set the future for the Doctor and Daleks. Revenge on the other hand, for all its futuristic sensibilities, is a very backward-looking tale.

How strange it is to meet Davros two stories after the bumbling Professor Kettlewell of Robot. Davros is a marvellous creation of course, so good he would go on to bestride this new Dalek chronology until the series revival.  Although sadly Michael Wisher wouldn’t.

But the revelation of the Dalek’s creator is not the only master-stroke. The links between Daleks and National Socialism had been there since Nation introduced this new self-proclaimed master race in 1963.  But here he had a larger, more academic canvas to spell it out. What’s brilliant is the strong science-fiction conceits that lie under it. There’s the thousand year war with the de-technology that has come from prolonged conflict. There’s the Kaled perception of the universe with the belief that Skaro is alone in the seven galaxies as a life supporting galaxy. There’s the scale of a tale that’s essentially a first contact story and inevitably, the Doctor is almost the first Dalek victim.  The Kaleds discover that aliens exist just as their transformation is ensured, allowing Nation to tie in concepts of nature versus nature as well retaining some science-fiction shtick. There are the domes and the retro rocket straight from 1950s B-movies or Steam punk Victoriana.

Then there’s the debate between the Doctor and Davros, where the crippled scientist really steals the show. And then there’s that really fascinating debate: How big a role does the Doctor play in their development. Does he actually name them rather than predict that infamous moniker? He delays them a thousand years, but is his role woven into their history already? That ties into the Looperesque moral quandaries of the final cliff-hanger, but flows through all six episodes. Of course, it was also the first act of the Time War.

Time Lord first blood.

And all the while, intrigue packs out the plot twists, with both sides as mottled as the other – light and dark abounds on the devastated planet. Most of all however, alongside the Nation-esque giant mutant clams there’s the return of the big Nation cliff-hangers. Again, all you need for good Doctor Who… Even the silly tearing around for the Time Ring and the not so silly tearing around to destroy the tape, both timely padding, don’t get in the way of that.

Following all that, it’s not unexpected that things go a little awry on the trippy (Mind Robber-esque) return to Nerva.

I’m a big fan of the idea of cyber wars and the rich depth they add to Who’s scattered history. While I think of Daleks attacking, invading and exterminating, I think of Cybermen locked in massive, attritional wars with space empires. It’s a notion that only Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver has recently picked up recently, although sadly it wasn’t very well received (actually, it’s very good. It’s Neil Gaiman).

In Revenge, there isn’t a strong fleet or troupe of Cybers plotting the invasion of Earth. Instead, there’s a rag tag gang in a rickety underwhelming ship and a hokey plan. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that it’s here that emotion begins to creep into the Cyber language. Much charm is added by the reuse of the Nerva sets and the chilling early scenes of scattered corpses and threat of plague.

But while Kellman’s early reveal and subsequent counter-betrayal (and rather shocking death) are novel in structure, the rag tag support characters are very perfunctory. On Voga, the structure is neat and the make-up ambitious, but incomprehensible. Wookey Hole may make a great location, but there’s an inherent ridiculousness to the Vogans.  And that’s not simply the make-up and Seals of Rassilon.

Surrounded by gold, the dust of which can incapacitate a Cyberman alone (unless they brush it aside of course), why would the Cybermen attempt to set foot on the planet and why would the Vogans be remotely scared?

I wouldn’t attempt a global-scale Reggie Perrin – I’d buy some glitter guns – with gold – and stick up some neon signs saying ‘Come get us’.

Still, the peak of the running Harry joke makes the planet fall worthwhile.  Almost simultaneously causing a rock fall and destroying the planet is comedy ‘gold’. It’s a shame the young Doctor would soon be considered surplus to requirements alongside the new athletic Doctor.

Plot wise, Revenge gives The Sontaran Experiment a run for its money and even manages to unravel at the end.  Still, despite the remote control rocket (complete with stock NASA footage!) and Flash Gordon-style space station orienteering, it’s not too shabby.  It makes for a satisfactory conclusion, even if it’s not a stunning one.  Ah, if only Terror of the Zygons had made it in as a season closer… You can almost see the glam appeal that led it to march proudly on the VHS market some seven or so years later.

Still, all things considered, it’s amazing that there was no follow-up to Genesis until the rather underwhelming Destiny of the Daleks. But it’s no surprise that Revenge saw off the Cybermen until the rather fabulous Earthshock in 1982.

The concept of the arc itself would have a dramatic effect.  In terms of scope, it I don’t think the prolonged serials of the 60s or Pertwee can count against this five part web.  Season 12 was the bold, new beginning that Doctor Who needed to move on to even greater success. That’s exactly what you need within a few years of an anniversary and hopefully that lesson’s now been learnt.  Season 12 is probably the greatest and most cohesive season in Doctor Who and guess what?

Things would only get better.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on for the Fifth Doctor and his companion’s snake issues in Whovember #5!

5 thoughts on “Doctor Who: A Fresh Scarf – “Harry Sullivan is an imbecile” (Whovember #4)”

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