Historian Michael Herbert looks at Malcolm Hulke’s career and how his socialist views influenced his work. It is a great read.
Yesterday I talked about The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a Doctor Who story that has developed a reputation for having racist undertones. It has been criticized because The Doctor, who normally refutes intolerance of any sort, exhibits potentially racist attitudes in the story. How apropos that DC Comics is now being criticized for hiring Orson Scott Card, who stands against same-sex marriage, to write a Superman story. Superman is a character who stands for truth and justice and would—according to the critics—oppose Card’s personal views on same-sex marriage. Many people believe he shouldn’t be writing for this character. Card is a Mormon, and the Mormonism church is strongly against same-sex marriage. He spends time and money supporting the National Organization of Marriage (he is on the board of directors). This organization works to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage. Many people are calling for a boycott of this comic. Others are calling for Card to be fired outright. I have even seen editorial pieces which call Card a horrible person and a failure as a human.
This bothers me greatly. I certainly advocate a boycott. By all means, people should speak with their money. They should also dialogue with one another about the situation. But what I find a bit troubling is the idea that a creator cannot write a character if said creator does not share a particular worldview, especially when we haven’t yet seen what he will write. As a writer, I would take it very seriously, when writing for an established character in an established universe, to be true and faithful to what that character stands for—whether I agreed with it or not. If I perceived something I was writing for the character would appear contradictory, I would be sure to back it up by referring to previous examples and portrayals. And if people didn’t like how I would use the money I made from the project, I would completely understand if they didn’t read the work. But the problem is that Orson Scott Card is acting according to what he believes—just as people who oppose him are acting according to what they believe. And yes, those convictions lead him to say hurtful things and to take actions (and fund organizations) that discriminate. But we have a tendency in America (and in the Western world) to say “you may believe what you want, but don’t act on those beliefs in the public sphere.” Unless, of course, these are mainstream beliefs or adhere to a certain cause. But if we truly believe something, if we are truly passionate about it, we will be compelled to act. Penn Jillette is an atheist, but he has more respect for Christians who evangelize than those who do not. His asserts is that if you are convinced non-Christians are going to hell, you have to hate those non-Christians to NOT evangelize to them. And I tend to agree. Being passionate about a belief leads a person to act. Card is acting based on what he believes; people who want Card off this Superman book are also acting based on what they believe. But what I desire to see is more respect on both sides. And truthfully, Card will not change his mind if he is made a martyr, which firing him before he writes will do. Suffering for one’s belief is a religious tenant, and blacklisting Card will make him a martyr. The real goal should not be getting him fired; the real goal should be changing his mind and heart. You cannot do that through anger-driven persecution (as he will undoubtedly see this attack).You change him by showing him more respect and more love than he shows you. Remember, at stake here is not the image of Superman, it is the dignity of human beings—both the persecuted LGBT community and Orson Scott Card. If this is truly the present-day civil rights movement, we would do well to look at Martin Luther King Jr. and his guidance in confronting prejudice. He wrote, according to A Martin Luther King Treasury, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” (173).
What’s It About
The Doctor and Leela intend to take in a show while visiting Victorian London, but they become embroiled in an investigation of disappearing women, a Chinese magician, and an ancient Chinese God.
Never trust a man with dirty fingernails
By nature, I am a contrarian. I often take an opposing view, not because I always agree, but because I believe civil dialogue promotes understanding and refines convictions. I have encountered many people who seem to believe things, occasionally quite passionately, but cannot explain why or have a healthy, respectful conversation about their beliefs. Too often, I think we believe out of habit. But if we can be challenged and defend our position, we can grow stronger and more confident in that position. Perhaps we can even change minds. Thus, if you read this review and disagree with something, please consider what you disagree with, why you disagree with it, and give a thoughtful response. Please don’t respond in rage or attack—regardless of your opinion.
On we go, and perhaps we should get the main problem of this story out of the way first: is this story racist? Yeah, probably. But I’m far more interested in looking at why it is racist. Doctor Who has the image of being above such things, and it really galls a lot of people when one of the best-executed stories in the oeuvre has racist undertone. There are two things I want to explore (albeit briefly) in looking at the racism in this story: First, the context; second, the genre.
Context is something that modern consumers of media seem to miss. All texts, whether the written word or moving pictures, cannot escape the world in which they were created, and Doctor Who is as prone to this as others. Yes, over the years Doctor Who has become a type of icon for moral, enlightened liberalism, but it is clear that the show has not always had this flavor. One only has to look back at Tomb of the Cybermen and The Celestial Toymaker to see this. But it is easy to sweep both of those stories under the rug because a) Tomb is in black and white, and most modern viewers probably won’t bother with it, and b) Toymaker is partially lost and it isn’t very good. But Talons is at that unfortunate crossroads of having racist undertones and being very, very good (much like H.P. Lovecraft, although with Lovecraft they aren’t exactly “undertones,” but clearly stated opinion).
The genre of Talons is clearly Victorian fantastic literature (or “gaslight” for short). Robert Holmes perfectly captures this style that he obviously loves. But was Holmes was letting personal ideas slip through or was he just was being true to the genre? Make no mistake, there was quite a bit of anti-Chinese sentiment in gaslight stories, Fu Manchu being a prime example. Holmes probably gave no thought whatsoever to the undertones in Talons. (Is casual, unintentional racism a valid defense?) We only have to look at The Two Doctors and The Sunmakers to see what Holmes did when he wanted to make pointed social/political commentary. He was quite ruthless when he did this, and his writing gives little to no room for argument. No, Holmes’s concern in Talons was writing a Doctor Who story—on short notice, according to some sources—and he chose to imitate a beloved genre; in this he succeeded spectacularly. But by being faithful to the genre, he perpetuated some grievous stereotypes. He produced extremely well-crafted art, and he probably wouldn’t have cared if it the undertones had been pointed out to him (although I have very little to base this assertion on).
And let’s be honest—many fans would say that the Doctor Who is about monsters; the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era certainly is. Monsters are not nuanced; they are black and white. They are an evil to be despised and defeated. It is easy to accept this when we have stories about Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons, or Sontarans. It is not as easy to accept this when the monsters are humans. I enjoy Doctor Who more when it portrays nuanced and sympathetic villains rather than black and white monsters. That is why I love The Silurians so much. It would have been interesting to see Holmes subvert gaslight racism in Talons, but he didn’t. He wrote a story of heroes vs. monsters.
Contextually, Talons belongs in 1970s British television and gaslight fantastic literature; creators of these contexts would have given little thought to the undertones. But we, in 2013, do see the undertones. It is a shame that this nearly-perfect story can offend. But much in art does. As long as we contextualize said art, and make sure we don’t recommend Talons to a viewer who will be hurt by it or form negative impressions from it, then it can still be enjoyed for the work that it is. Ideas in art can change the world, for good or for ill, but we need not fear them if we try to understand them and dialogue about them. And I personally believe contextualizing Talons to a specific genre—warts and all—goes a long way toward undermining its racism. And if Talons truly does bother you (for any reason—it is a fairly gruesome story, which can be argued as anti-Doctor Who in itself) or if you think it will bother you, then please don’t feel you have to watch it just because it is so popular. Art has the power to have a profound effect on us, and we should really understand how art makes us better or worse. We should never blindly consume art.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang is very well crafted, and it obviously provokes discussion and dialogue, as all good art does. The discussion, however, is not what Holmes probably would have intended. But that is what is so great about art: it becomes timeless and lives and grows beyond authorial intent. Thematically, Talons holds everything Hinchcliffe and Holmes tried to do with Doctor Who (create sci-fi horror pastiches), and it did them to perfection. It is a prime example of how to do a six part story. It should be enjoyed for what it is: a faithful imitation of gaslight literature.
Written By: Chris Boucher
What’s It About: The Doctor and Leela arrive on a sandminer in the midst of its tour. The miner is operated by robots that are overseen by a skeleton crew of humans. But when one of the humans is found dead, the crew suspects the two newcomers.
After being disappointed by the Boucher-penned The Face of Evil, I was worried that I would The Robots of Death would no longer seem enjoyable. Thankfully, I was wrong. I think this story is a lot of fun. It has great dialogue (“Please do not throw hands at me.”); it has an imaginative art-deco-sci-fi look; the story is a good play on Agatha Christie whodunnits (a murderer who uses robots as his murder weapon); and the robots are generally well played (the voices are great). I truly enjoy the Agatha Christie aspect of this story. The first few minutes establish the world of this story, but they also provide important clues to the identity of the murderer. And you can easily deduce the murderer if you pay close attention to the costumes.
This isn’t a perfect story, however. Zilda, an important character for establishing a significant red herring, is appallingly performed. The robot revolution and Taren Capel should have been established earlier in the story, possibly with a brief mention during the initial lounge scene. Likewise, some mention of robophobia earlier in the story would have made Poul’s breakdown less random. As it stands, robophobia is only hinted at a scene or two before Poul has his breakdown; this seems too sudden. And, of course, the ending is rushed. A slightly longer denouement would have been nice. But these are just the imperfections on this story. This is one of the highlights of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, and I enjoy it more and more with each viewing.
My Rating: 4/5
Who Wrote It: Chris Boucher
What’s It About: The Doctor encounters the Tribe of Sevateem, which accuses him of being The Evil One and master of The Tesh. As he finagles his way in and out of captivity—aided by a young female warrior named Leela—he discovers that the true evil may have sprung from actions he took a long time ago.
The Face of Evil is full of great ideas, but it is let down by its production. The pacing of the story drags quite a bit. The sound effect for the guns is grating. The story itself doesn’t quite come together. But again, the ideas are wonderful.
The basic story is that The Doctor, some time ago, helped an exploration team. In doing so, he hooked himself to the computer. While he saved the expedition, he left a part of his brain pattern in the computer. With two dual personalities housed in the same system, the computer eventually went insane. It performed eugenics experiments on the humans, crafting two societies that reflected its insanity. The Doctor has now arrived on the planet some decades later and finds the two societies at war, evil invisible creatures (in reality, telepathic projections from the computer) stalking the jungle, and the computer worshipped as a god. There are hints of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Zardoz here. These are great ideas, and it is a shame that the story doesn’t quite come together. The Sevateem are interesting, but The Tesh are dull. I would have liked to see the ideas of religion explored more in the story; Neeva (the Sevateem priest) was a strong force in the opening episodes but faded into the background until the climax. I would have liked to see more of his journey and less running through corridors, shooting cringe-worthy guns. The politics of The Sevateem could have been better developed. And again, The Tesh could use a revamp. This story could have been much better than it was, but instead it moves from interesting scenes to boring ones, and it is a struggle to watch. That said, it has a few things it does well, and if you can focus on the concepts without being distracted by the flaws, it can be a lot of fun.
I guess I should talk about Leela. In the past, I never cared for her character. I didn’t dislike her; I was just indifferent. For some reason, I really took to her character this time around. I think I had, in the past, dismissed her character as a cheap attempt at titillation. Her outfit has long been acknowledged as “for the dads.” But this time around I noticed how well Louise Jameson brought the character to life. I’ll be interested to see if my opinion of the character continues to evolve as I re-watch her stories.
My Rating: 2.5/5
Who Wrote It: Robert Holmes
What’s It About: After having a premonition in which he kills the Time Lord president, The Doctor returns to Gallifrey and discovers The Master has deadly plans for the secret technology at the heart of Time Lord society.
This is a story that I enjoy even though I hate it.
Maybe hate is too strong of a word. I guess I should say that I don’t enjoy what this story does to the Time Lords. Prior to engaging in this project, my knowledge of the Time Lords was derived from The Deadly Assassin and all post-Deadly Assassin stories. The Time Lords were extremely powerful but a bit dull. The stories were not too interesting, The Deadly Assassin being the best of the lot. But when I started watching Doctor Who from the beginning, I discovered Time Lords that were extremely mysterious. Especially after watching The War Games, The Time Lords seemed a force of nature. As much as I hate to admit it, they did seem a bit more “oncoming storm” than grumpy headmaster. For me, the best rule for the Time Lords is “less is more.”
With The Deadly Assassin, Robert Holmes completely redefines the Time Lords and Gallifrey. This isn’t such a great shock. In fact, over the past few years the show has been building toward this. Appearances of Time Lords in the Pertwee era prepared the way for The Deadly Assassin. The Time Lords in The Three Doctors don’t seem too far removed from Robert Holmes portrayal. A story such as this one was going to happen sooner or later, who better to take it on than a world-builder like Holmes?
But at the same time, the magic is gone. We couldn’t avoid the Time Lords forever. It was fun while it lasted. And as good as 70s Doctor Who was (from a budget perspective), it still wasn’t likely to create a Time Lord society that was truly mind-bending or godlike. This obviously wasn’t a goal for Holmes (although, if the portrayal of the Time Lords had occurred for the first time in the Cartmel era, we may have got something truly magical). Robert Holmes took what had been established so far (much of it during the Pertwee years), and he added in a healthy dose of his own love of Victorian adventure stories (The Most Dangerous Game seems to be a major influence on this story). Then throw in a pinch of The Manchurian Candidate, and you have The Deadly Assassin.
It is astounding how much Doctor Who mythology was introduced in this story: the Celestial Intervention Agency, Castellans, the Matrix, The Great Houses, the robes and helmets, Time Lords as stuffy academics and bureaucrats, Borusa, shobogons, the twelve regenerations concept, Rassilon, The Eye of Harmony, The ___ of Rassilon, and many more. With regard to the mythology of the show, The Deadly Assassin is probably the most important story since The War Games (or maybe The Tenth Planet part 4).
As a story itself, The Deadly Assassin is decent and fairly experimental. The concept of a virtual world that is controlled by thought is quite innovative for television sci-fi. It starts as a surreal horror dream and quickly becomes an homage to The Most Dangerous Game, which is fun for what it’s worth, but is unnervingly dark. The story reaches for an epic feel but falls short in the end as part four becomes extremely rushed. But there are some great characters, including Spandrell and Engin (the latest Holmes double-act), Borusa, Chancellor Goth (played wonderfully by Bernard Horsfall), and The Master in a transitional state—with hints of the Delgado Master, but truly a new character. The story works, for the most part. For this reason, it is hard to completely dislike it. I wish it had never been made, but I enjoy it nonetheless.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Who Wrote It: Bob Baker and Dave Martin
What’s It About: After being buried under rocks during a quarry blasting, Sarah discovers a fossilized hand that contains the life-essence of an ancient warlord named Eldrad. Eldrad begins to reconstitute himself, using Sarah as a conduit, but is Eldrad benevolent or malicious?
I’ve had to sit on this one for a week or so. It needed to stew. And I’m conflicted over it. I love the central idea, the question of whether we can trust Eldrad or not. I love Eldrad as a concept, a silicon-based lifeform that can rebuild itself. There are some great supporting performances in this story, and even supporting characters get some development that moves them beyond cannon-fodder. And this is Sarah’s final story, which is a big deal.
Unfortunately, with so much going for it, this story failed to engage me. I can’t quite say what caused this disconnect. Perhaps I’m no longer in a Hinchcliffe/Holmes mood. In fact, when I watched this era a few years ago, I had a similar feeling. I grew tired of the era about halfway through. I think, despite some very different stories told along the way, this era of Doctor Who has a unified atmosphere and tone, which conflicts with what I appreciate about Doctor Who: variety. No matter what the story, every episode feels the same to me. When I watch the episodes out of order, I love this era. In sequence, however, it begins to feel redundant. The series isn’t trying to be experimental or innovative; it is telling the types of stories Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes want to tell. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but apparently it isn’t my cup of tea. I want diversity, even if it leads to spectacular failures. And the fact that this story ends with another dungeon crawl didn’t help it much.
That said, I welcome the change in dynamic, despite knowing what to expect. But I find that my attempts to watch all the remaining stories before the anniversary date are being stymied by a lack of enthusiasm. I think, since I’ve seen all the Tom Baker stories, I want to watch something new. Indeed, much of my enthusiasm for Doctor Who has been the joy of buying a DVD that I haven’t seen before and watching it for the first time. But I won’t be out of the Tom Baker era until sometime in May. That means I will not see a “new to me” episode for another three months. I think I’m experiencing the realization of the mortality of this project: when I finish, there will be no new “classic” episodes. And since new Who doesn’t typically satisfy my Doctor Who craving the way the classic series does, it feels as if a death is looming, the death of discovery. I’ve encountered this feeling before: the end of Babylon 5, the final issue of The Sandman. I don’t think I ever thought I would encounter it with Doctor Who.
My Rating: 2.5/5