Sunday, 13 April 2014
TARDIS Eruditorum Vol.4 : Tom Baker and the Hinchcliffe Years, by Philip Sandifer
Phil Sandifer will never know just how much joy each new volume of his TARDIS Eruditorum brings me, even if I have already read most of the essays on his blog. I often disagree with him, but he never fails to bring fresh insights into the show.
I would suggest part of what made the previous volume on the Third Doctor so strong was Sandifer's personal dislike for much of that era. His strongly critical position helped to give him an objectivity towards the material. This seems to be sorely lacking in the fourth volume. Sandifer, like so many Doctor Who fans, loves the Hinchcliffe era and regards it as the high point of the show. I got the impression that he was actually surprised on his blog when those of us who are more critical of the Hinchliffe stuff came out of the woodwork in the comments section. Sandifer manages to criticise some of the serials and I daresay he upset some of those who love Talons of Weng-Chiang and try to excuse its racism. Yet on the whole he tends to praise most of the story as much as he can justify while still addressing some of their more problematic elements. I therefore found this volume perhaps a little less interesting than the three previous volumes that had been rather more nuanced in their analysis.
The Fourth Doctor era of course begins with a Barry Letts, not a Hinchliffe story. Sandifer sees two important aspects to Robot; the establishment of UNIT as superflous and unnecessary and the establishment of 'cleverness' as being central to the new Doctor's character. He argues that the Fourth Doctor is particularly endearing to geeks who see 'cleverness' as their own defining value.
As is typical of fans, Sandifer celebrates Ark in Space as one of the high points of the show. He sees this story as introducing a new tendency to disturb and frighten. He offers some discussion about the nature of scariness in Doctor Who. Personally, I have never quite understood why so many fans hail Ark in Space as a classic. It's a good story, but I always feel it is a little overrated. Likewise, he showers praise upon that eternal favorite Genesis of the Daleks. He makes the interesting claim that this story introduces postmodernity to Doctor Who, arguing that this story destabilizes a central concept of Doctor Who, namely the Daleks. He takes the view that Dalek history was altered by this story, a concept that I regard as anathema, as one who confesses one absolute unchanging Doctor Who continuity. He does offer, an interesting explanation for how Dalek history is altered. He proposes that the effect of Genesis was for Davros to be killed earlier than in the original history, resulting in the Daleks becoming weaker in his absence and later needing to resurrect him.
You can always rely on Sandifer to come up with an interesting redemptive reading. I'm not sure that 'redemptive reading' accurately describes his take on Revenge of the Cybermen. He persuasively argues that the main purpose of this story is to show that bringing back the Cybermen is a rubbish idea, thus justifying the lack of 'returning monster' stories in the next season. Revenge proves to the viewers the need for Doctor Who to move on.
I have never watched Terry Nation's Survivors. Having read Sandifer's 'Pop Between Realities' essay I don't ever want to. It really does sound like an awful program. Having read this essay, I would be curious to get his thoughts on Wyndham's Day of the Triffids.
He makes some interesting comments about the similarity of Terror of the Zygons to the Pertwee era. Planet of Evil will never be on anybody's list of classics, but Sandifer does come up with some fascinating ideas about that story. He talks about the collision in this story of two incompatible universes and the Lovecraftian sense of the alieness of the antimatter universe. He suggests that while the production might not be altogether convincing in realizing this, it still has an impact. In discussing the novel Managra, he says a little more about postmodernity. He argues that while the Doctor Who of Graham Williams was more playful and self-aware, the Hinchcliffe era was when Doctor Who became postmodern.
In his essay on Pyramids of Mars, he acknowledges a segment of fandom that is less impressed by Seasons 12-14, singling out Pyramids of Mars as the story that is up for debate. This is probably correct; plenty of fans of Hinchcliffe-Who admit there are problems with Genesis of the Daleks, but disliking Pyramids indicates a dissatisfaction with this era. He offers a defense of Pyramids (while characteristically and rightly acknowledging the racial stereotyping in it). I personally don't feel that he engages with all the problems with this story. He makes the interesting suggestion that Pyramids comes into two categories of imperfect story, those which are flawed but innovative and those which are unoriginal but well executed.
Thankfully, Sandifer makes no attempt to defend the unwatcheable Android Invasion. Unsurprisingly, he celebrates the brilliance of The Brain of Morbius. He links this brilliance to the theme of alchemy, which he has often identified as a long-running theme in Doctor Who. It is in dealing with Seeds of Doom that he adopts a more critical stance. It is this story he suggests, that comes closest to the violent sensationalist show that Mary Whitehouse thought Doctor Who to be. I am glad he acknowledges this as a problem with Seeds of Doom, however, I do think this is a wider problem with Hinchcliffe-Who. I feel very uncomfortable with the delight that these stories seem to show in portraying painful, agonising deaths. There is something very morbid about the way so many characters are killed off horribly. Sandifer seems to feel that this is better than the way so many UNIT soldiers and yokels are killed off left right and centre in Pertwee stories, but personally I dislike both. I tend to value stories that have lower body counts altogether, such as Three Doctors or Androids of Tara.
My childhood memory of listening to Doctor Who and the Pescatons is very fond. Sandifer is unimpressed by this early audio and I suspect I might not be if I listened to it today. He discusses the nostalgia aspects of this release and praises Baker's performance in Pescatons. Coming back to the televised stories, he addresses the subject of hard Sci-Fi and materialism in Masque of Mandragora. He follows this with an essay on the complexities of TARDIS translation. I have always been a bit uncomfortable with the idea of the TARDIS doing the work of translation; this just does not seem to be how it works in the Classic Series. Coming to Hand of Fear, Sandifer contrasts this story with Claws of Axos, showing how that serial was more effective. That makes me happy, as I rather like Claws of Axos. On Sarah's departure, he comes back to the 'Problem of Susan' that he sees as having been a problem for the show from the beginning. Unsurprisingly given its significance, the Deadly Assassin essay is rather long. He offers some complex thoughts about narrative collapse and conspiracy theories before addressing the issue of continuity and how this story relates to previous depictions of the Time Lords. While he is not somebody who obsesses over continuity, he defends Deadly Assassin from the charge of rebelling against past continuity. Moving on to Face of Evil, Sandifer talks about Cargo Cults, on Robots of Death he analyses the handling of Leela's character.
Sandifer deserves a lot of respect for his criticisms of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Unlike me, he is somebody who has a genuine liking for that story, yet he is ready to call it out for its shocking racism. He has taken a lot of flak from fans over this and has been accused of being 'politically correct.' Politically correct or not, he is somebody who is willing to confront racism whenever it manifests itself and I admire that. He also rightly attacks the turning of Leela into an Eliza Doolittle figure. He sees the underlying fault of the story as a cynicism and a desire to amuse and entertain without offering any kind of political or social critique.
The part of the book that really bothers me is the essay on Mary Whitehouse. For Sandifer, Mary Whitehouse is the Great Satan, the destroyer of Doctor Who. He portrays her as part-Darth Vader, part-pantomime villain. He even describes her as a 'crazy woman.' I thought that was ableist language that we were not supposed to use. Where are those nice ladies at STFU Moffat when you need them? Even if we allow him to get away with calling somebody mentally ill as an insult, isn't it a bit nasty to caricature people whose views we disagree with? I found the whole chapter really unpleasant reading.
Sandifer is probably right that Mary Whitehouse had a poor grasp of what makes great television, but we are not all natural media critics. Whitehouse did change her mind sometimes. She initially criticised the children's game show Knightmare, then changed her mind after she watched the program and decided it was alright. Yes, she sometimes went too far. I am sure most people laughed their heads off when she called for the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral to be banned. Yet she evoked genuine sympathy and concern in the nation over television standards. I would suggest that with the appalling levels of violence and sexual immorality in television, she has been vindicated. I am very glad that I am not a licence fee payer and don't have to fund some of the filthy and wicked programs that the BBC puts out these days. Obviously, as a Doctor Who fan I would want to defend my favorite show from her criticisms, but I can't be the only one who felt the drowning scene in Deadly Assassin was excessive.
If accusing Mary Whitehouse of having been mentally ill and calling her an 'idiot' were not bad enough, Sandifer actually goes further and compares her to a bully he encountered in school. I just found this so unpleasant. He does seem to have an uncomfortable tendency to project his anger about personal circumstances on to political and social issues. I have never met the man. Perhaps he is a really delightful chap, but sometimes his writing does give one the impression that he can be quite an angry and bitter person.
In his concluding essay, Sandifer argues that the Hinchcliffe era was great because of the combination of Tom Baker who makes everything fun and safe, and the script writing of Robert Holmes who brings in terrible and scary things. It gives us the chance to enjoy being scared. This is true, but I think it is also legitimate to feel this era was a little too dark and excessively violent. Hinchcliffe had three seasons and I think that was enough.
As ever, Dr. Phil Sandifer has many fascinating insights and things to say about the show we love. I'm really looking forward to the next volume. I just wish he hadn't included such a sour essay on Mary Whitehouse.