Why I Like… Doctor Who

It starts with a trip down a rabbit hole — a weird, angular, metallic rabbit hole that keeps changing the shape of its iridescent walls as you fall. Meanwhile, there’s a distant alarm going off — either that, or someone’s trying to shoot you with a ray gun. From the echoing bass rattle you can hear, you might be surrounded by miles of distant, faulty plumbing. If so, someone’s emptied a boxful of pins into the system, because you keep hearing these wooshing washes of tinkliness pass by. Then up from the darkness looms an enormous face. Tom Baker, eyes agoggle. There for a moment, then he’s gone, dissolved into many colours like a prismatic ghost. And still you keep falling.

Doctor Who is weird.

The first episode of Doctor Who I saw was from Tom Baker’s introductory adventure, Robot. As that was broadcast between the end of December 1974 and mid-January 1975, I must have been three and half years old at the time, which means that seeing the programme is one of my earliest memories. (Sitting in a bath watching my chicken pox peel off comes a close, but not so fondly-remembered, second).

I pretty soon wanted to be the Doctor. (I don’t mean I wanted to act the part. I mean I wanted to be the Doctor.) But it was the monsters that most fascinated me. The two are, of course, inseparable. The Doctor is the corrective called for by the imbalancing evil of the monsters; the monsters are the shadow cast by the heroic light of the Doctor. It’s why the Doctor always has an intuitive knowledge about the enemy he faces, often before he sets eyes on it/them — as soon as he steps out of the TARDIS he knows, like he can sniff it in the air, something’s afoot. And he often knows the sort of something it is, as well as the sort of foot, sucker, or pseudopod it’s afoot on. The reason for this is that the Doctor and the Monsters are one. They’re part of the same psychological picture.

Looking over the first few seasons of Doctor Who that I saw — seasons presided over by the dream-team of Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as script-editor — there’s a lot of blurring the line between men and monsters. In The Ark in Space, the far-future human Noah turns by painful stages into an insectile Wirrn (courtesy of a generous helping of green plastic bubble-wrap). In Genesis of the Daleks, Davros, already half robot himself (the other half a distinctly withered Mr Potato Head), fast-forwards his people’s evolution into slug-like creatures encased in “Mark III Travel Machines” (banality-of-evil-speak for Daleks). There’s the Jekyll & Hyde Professor Sorenson possessed by anti-matter in The Planet of Evil, and Marcus Scarman with his mind taken over by the evil alien Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars. There’s the humanoid androids all set to take over the Earth in The Android Invasion, and a man turning into an alien plant-monster in The Seeds of Doom… Virtually every story has men turning into monsters or monsters masquerading as men. (With some, such as the Cybermen, the process is complete before the story begins.)

The Doctor and the Monsters, like Angels and Demons, are opposing absolutes. The real story takes place in between, in the human realm. Here, there’s the constant threat that you, a human being, might turn into a monster. And not just a green bubble-wrap one. There are far more insidious forms of human monster. That first season of Doctor Who I saw (the twelfth since the show began) was particularly full of fascists, cold intellectual elites, and power-mad scientists — all ways in which people can really become monsters.

To the child I was, unable to understand any of this consciously, having that inner battle between humanity and monstrosity spelled out in such clear, vivid, excitingly fantastic terms was, I think, a vital part of the appeal of watching the programme. It also perhaps explains why I felt so disgusted when Colin Baker began his tenure as the Doctor by attempting to strangle his companion. That was 1984. Dark heroes were very much of the times (Watchmen was only two years away), but I couldn’t see the point in a Doctor indistinguishable from the monsters he was supposed to be fighting. Having watched every episode since Robot with almost religious devotion, I gave up. There are still some Colin Baker stories I haven’t seen, and never will.

But Doctor Who had done its job.

Whenever I read about the formative influences of my favourite writers & artists, there’s usually a point where they discover a cache of story — a collection of myths and legends, a book of fairy tales, a copy of The Arabian Nights. Doctor Who was my story-cache, and that weird, down-a-metallic-rabbit-hole theme tune was its “once upon a time”. (The TARDIS, bigger on the inside than the out, is the through-the-wardrobe portal to the only thing that is truly bigger on the inside, the imagination.) In its gleefully pulpy way, Doctor Who regularly plundered myth, fairy tale, popular entertainment, literature, history and science for ideas and storylines. (The Hinchcliffe-Holmes era had a particular penchant for Gothic Horror, Hammer style.) As such, it was the ultimate all-in-one cultural education for the final quarter of the 20th century.

That and Blue Peter, anyway.

Two more Doctors

After the first three, here’s the next two. Tom Baker:

And Peter Davison:

Tom Baker’s other doctor

Between Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra (covered in a previous mewsings) and the evil Prince Koura in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Tom Baker played the part of the Egyptian Doctor in George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess, which was put on as a Play of the Month by the BBC in 1972, and is available as part of a George Bernard Shaw BBC box-set. (Which, fortunately, can be rented as individual disks from LoveFilm.)

It’s another example of Baker’s career following a train of thought, as he’s cast, once more, in the role of a fascinating foreigner; but, in a departure from the two film roles that bracket this TV performance, the Egyptian Doctor is not a villain. He even manages to have a touch of Doctor Who about him, being a benevolent scientist with absolutely no interest in, or knack for, money, but a strong desire to do good for the needy.

There’s little room in Shaw’s wordy play for much in the way of character development on the part of the actor, though — and certainly none for the sort of improvisation that brought life to Baker’s Doctor Who. Despite Shaw’s claim that The Millionairess “does not pretend to be anything more than a comedy of humorous and curious contemporary characters such as Ben Jonson might write were he alive now”, it is, as always with Shaw, far more a political argument than a play about people. I always find Shaw’s plays to be made up of wit and tedium and very little in between, with only the few, better, plays having enough of the former to really make up for the latter. (Heartbreak House and Saint Joan are my favourites.) At his best, Shaw can be very engaging in an argument — never failing to bring in an arresting paradox or two to really strike home his point — but after a while, in a drama at least, the constant paradoxes and cross-arguments leave me completely confused as to what point he’s trying to make. (The prefaces to the plays are far more informative, and entertaining, on that score.) If a Shaw play works at all, it’s because interesting characters emerge from the points he’s trying to make, rather than the other way round. And The Millionairess is not really one of his successes.

Still, there’s something a little Shavian about Tom Baker’s later interpretation of Doctor Who, some of the seeds of which can be found in his Egyptian Doctor — the grandiloquence, the generosity, the constant sprinkling of humour. And, of course, as always, that bulbous-eyed under-the-brow stare:

The Films That Time Forgot

Time for a Doug McClure triple bill! Once upon a time, it seemed you could always catch a Doug McClure, a Ray Harryhausen Sinbad, or George Pal’s The Time Machine on a Sunday afternoon. As a kid, I watched them all, religiously, each and every time they were repeated — to the extent that, once, my dad had to set up a black & white portable telly in the car so my brother and I could watch At the Earth’s Core as he drove us back from visiting our Gran & Grandad in Selsey.

Writing about Tom Baker in Nicholas and Alexandra a few mewsings ago led to me wanting to watch one such film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, again, and that urge led to me buying the whole Harryhausen Sinbad trio and watching the lot. (Golden Voyage remains my favourite, with Tom Baker the best Sinbad sorcerer-villain, and Kali the coolest Harryhausen monster.) That led to the even stranger urge of wanting to watch a Doug McClure film or two. I say “even stranger” because, well, at least with the Sinbads, I knew the monster sequences would stand up to a re-watch, but even as a kid I knew the monsters in those 70s Doug McClure films were not exactly convincing. Still, the urge was there, and The Doug McClure Fantasy Adventure Triple Bill box-set called…

The Land that Time Forgot was the first. Released in 1975, based on the 1918 Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, it starts with a German U-Boat torpedoing a civilian vessel, from which only a handful of survivors escape. Among their number, of course, is the heroically-chinned Doug McClure, who immediately sets about organising a rowboat attack on the Germans. What I didn’t know about this film all those many times I watched it as a kid was that it was scripted by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn. And the script is one of two things that really stands out in this film — the story develops at a good, even pace, with it being a full half hour before there’s even a hint of the fantasy element to come. Before that, it’s all about the tension between the British and Germans as they struggle to gain or regain control of the U-Boat. And the good script goes hand in hand with the other plus point that makes this the best of the three films in this box-set: the actors. Like so many British films (such as the Harry Potter films nowadays), even the minor roles are taken by faces you know or half-know from British TV and films. Here, we have Anthony Ainley (later to play the Master in 80s Doctor Who) and Susan Penhaligon (who played Lucy in the 1977 BBC adaptation of Dracula — the best adaptation of the novel, in my opinion), to name just two.

It’s only after that half-hour of tussling for control of the U-Boat that we get a brief shock-glimpse of the first of the film’s monsters. This, the one element that got me watching these films as a kid, is the part that least stands up now, but it’s not the total disaster I was afraid it’d be. In The Land that Time Forgot, the monsters are mostly puppets, and when they’re on their own, while they wouldn’t ever be described as convincing, they’re at least not bad, as long as you enter into the spirit of things. It’s when they do what Harryhausen does so well — a battle between humans and monsters — that things don’t go so well. The dinosaurs of The Land that Time Forgot have a tendency, when fired upon, to just stand there roaring and waving their paws until, after a tedious back and forth between roaring monsters and firing humans, the monsters cave in and fall over (usually rather stiffly). It’s almost as if, as puppets, they know there’s a line they can’t cross, and their human prey are on the other side of it. There are a couple of examples of life-size props being used in human-monster fights (a pterodactyl taking a neanderthal in its jaws and gliding woodenly away, a bendy-necked lake dinosaur jabbing at Doug McClure), but the monsters are always at their most effective in short bursts. The trouble is, the film tends to milk them a little too long. (That first, very brief, appearance of a lake monster lunging at the U-Boat’s periscope is the best monster moment in the film, if not the entire box-set.)

At the Earth’s Core, another Burroughs adaptation, was released in 1976, and this, perhaps because it’s studio-bound, has much more of a period feel. Here, there’s barely ten minutes build-up before we’re in the lost world of Pellucidar, with its glaringly artificial pink light and its drastic step backwards in monster effects: for the puppets have been replaced by men in suits, complete with stiff but rubbery-flappy taloned feet and dry wobbly rubber tongues. But Earth’s Core is less of a serious affair, with Peter Cushing playing a stiff-backed professor almost like a reprise of his earlier take on Doctor Who (for the same studio, Hammer’s rival, Amicus). Meanwhile, there’s a lot more action, which means a lot of rather dull fights between square-chinned Doug and an array of thuggish men in varying degrees of masks & make-up.

This, really, is how Edgar Rice Burroughs should be adapted. I know there’s a big-budget version of A Princess of Mars in production at the moment, and I’m sure its CG Barsoom will look brilliant; all the same, there’ll always be a part of me that feels Burroughs is better served by this style of slightly naff effects, by-the-numbers acting, and general air of filmic pulpiness.

If The Land that Time Forgot worked pretty well as a film, At the Earth’s Core is at least fun. We’ve got Peter Cushing’s comic turn, Caroline Munroe giving us a twirl, and the malevolent Mahars… I don’t know what it is about these reptilian super-parrots with their stiffly blinking eyes and complete rubber-suited lack of grace, but they still have an air of menace about them. Plus, they explode when they die!

Between At the Earth’s Core and the next film in the box-set, Warlords of Atlantis, everything changed. Earth’s Core was 1976. Warlords was 1978. And in 1977, of course, there was Star Wars. As a result Warlords of Atlantis was not an Amicus film, nor was it predominately British in cast. It also had a proper budget behind it, which meant some pretty good sets and plenty of location work. What it didn’t mean, though, was better monsters. We’ve still got the men in suits. The suits are slightly better (with more reptilian warts, if nothing else), and they are, also, occasionally doused in water, which makes them a little bit more realistic, but some of them — particularly the four-legged ones — move with less grace and realism than a pantomime horse, and the humans-versus-monsters sequences are still a question of cutting between shots of the humans firing guns and the monsters standing back and roaring. If this is how the dinosaurs behaved, it’s no wonder they became extinct.

Ah well. But at least there was a surprise waiting for me in the credits. The screenplay was written by Brian Hayles, who provided some classic Doctor Who scripts, including The Celestial Toymaker, The Ice Warriors, and the two Peladon stories, as well as writing a number of Target novelisations. And the plot of Warlords could well be a repurposed Doctor Who submission, with Atlantis the remnant of a destroyed planet, hidden on Earth, kidnapping mariners (by use of a giant octopus) to use as slaves to repair and defend their crumbling, once-great cities. The Atlanteans themselves have mastered such mind-powers as levitation and being able to see into the future, but nothing, nothing, nothing can prepare them for the mighty chin and fist of Doug McClure. He socks them good, and they go down.

Warlords of Atlantis is the only original (non-Burroughs adaptation) of the three. It’s also, despite its bigger budget — or perhaps because of it — the most disappointing. Perhaps because the nice sets and glittering costumes hint at the better film that could have been made if only they hadn’t stuck to the men-in-rubber-suits philosophy, or perhaps it’s just that the pulpy man-fights-Empire-with-his-bare-fists storyline was so much better suited to a low-budget, creaky-effects approach than something that looked as though it had, at last, seen the light of Star Wars. (The monster sounds are a lot better, which helps. Perhaps that was a Star Wars influence.)

Overall, the films are enjoyable, pulpy, adventurous fare. Perhaps it’s because I grew up watching them, but I was more than happy to make allowance for the naffness of the effects as long as the storylines were working. In a way (and I want to write a mewsings on this at some point), I prefer effects that are obviously artificial — not necessarily creaky, but stylised, artful, like Ray Harryhausen’s Kali. They give an air of magic, of something other than reality, and call for an imaginative response from the viewer which super-dooper CG lets you all-too-easily opt out of.

There was another Amicus Doug McClure film, The People that Time Forgot, in 1977. I can’t say I’m quite inspired to track it down and actually pay to see it, but if it comes on TV again, some idle Sunday afternoon (not that I have many of those anymore), I’m certain to watch it.

Tom Baker’s Rasputin

One of my earliest memories is of Tom Baker’s first appearance as Doctor Who when I was three, which may be why he seemed so perfectly suited to the role — for me, he defined it. As a result, there’s always been the need for a little mental adjustment whenever I see him in anything else, and I find myself thinking of how much this other character he’s playing is like his version of the Doctor. (Of course, Tom Baker is one of those actors who excels in a part precisely to the degree he’s allowed to play the one character he does so well — I’d say himself, only I don’t know the man, so can’t tell whether it is himself or, as is more likely, some fantasy version that’s only allowed to be let loose as part of a performance.) It’s odd to think that his gaining the role of the Doctor was a bit of a departure from the direction his career seemed to have been heading, considering the two major film parts he had before it — Koura in The Golden Voyage of Sindbad, and Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra — were both villainous types, something his smouldering glare seemed perfectly fit for. As the Doctor, he occasionally played up this darker side — the side that made up the whole, really, of his sorcerer Koura in The Golden Voyage, a role that was only hampered by Baker not being able to incorporate his other, more humorous side, which was the other essential element he brought to the Doctor.

This may be one reason why, although I hadn’t seem him in 1971’s Nicholas and Alexandra — till last night, that is — I thought Rasputin would be a perfect part for him, encapsulating, as it does, that almost bipolar mix of brooding gloominess and sudden impulsive generosity that characterised his Doctor. Rasputin is (in the film, at least) a peculiar combination of visionary religious fervour and an all-too-human weakness for that old trio of wine, women, and political influence. The character has the potential to become a sort of Falstaff, endlessly and engagingly self-justifying his faults while at the same time promoting a heroicised, fantasy version of himself. Rasputin knows he is a sinner, but also knows God loves sinners, because he made so many of them into saints. This is certainly how a Tom Baker Rasputin could have been, if only he’d had the film to himself. As it is, Nicholas and Alexandra is, of course, mostly about Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra, and although Rasputin plays an important part in their story, it’s their far more sober, not to say somber, restrained character that presides. Baker’s Rasputin is a bit like a Dostoyevskian madman straitjacketed into a more urbane Tolstoyan world — and as a result, he never quite manages to take off. If he were allowed to, he’d certainly swallow up the whole film. (Though there are an awful lot of excellent British character actors in the other parts, so this isn’t to detract from them; it’s just that they are mostly playing more well-bred types.) As it is, he’s allowed plenty of opportunities to glare his bulbous eyes hypnotically at whoever he’s talking to — this glaring-from-under-the-brows look was no doubt the thing that landed him the role, as the director makes sure to include one shot of it in each scene where Baker appears — but doesn’t really get a chance to do anything other than smoulder. The burning vitality beneath the glare only comes close to being unleashed in Rasputin’s final scene, where we get a rather muted moment of decadence, a roar of defiance, then a drawn-out death.

Baker was nominated for two Golden Globe awards for his role in Nicholas and Alexandra (one for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and another for Best Newcomer, according to Wikipedia, though Baker’s own site says he was only nominated for one), but to me the film seemed to be straining at the bounds of its genre — it was a late version of the big historical epics of the 50s and 60s, and was perhaps a little too polite for what the actor was really capable of.