Saturday, 14 February 2015

TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 5: Tom Baker and the Williams Years, by Phil Sandifer

When I discuss Phil Sandifer or link to posts on his blog here, I often get comments expressing disdain and contempt for Sandifer. I suspect a lot of the people who like my blog are the sort of people who can't stand Sandifer and the views he represents. I do not share such feelings at all. I very much enjoy reading his writing. Yes, I often disagree with him, but I actually agree with him just as often. I don't share his politics, but is that important? I get frustrated by the way he comes across as so angry and bitter, but I have plenty of my own faults.

Sandifer wisely decided to split the massive Fourth Doctor era in half. This book therefore covers the less well appreciated Graham Williams era, along with the brief period of Season 18, in which Tom Baker worked under John Nathan-Turner.

I criticised the previous volume on the Hinchcliffe era because I felt Sandifer allowed his love of Seasons 12-14 to cloud his judgement and overlook some of the faults of those stories. It lacked the more objective critical perspective of volume 3 on the Pertwee era. In this volume, he gets his critical perspective back. He shows a real awareness of the faults of the Williams material, yet he also shows a genuine appreciation of what is great about it. There were definite flaws to the Williams era, it's low production values, its occasional tendency to silliness and the way it became dominated by Baker as an out of control lead man, yet it was also immensely fun. I don't think Sandifer regards Season 18 as quite the high point of Doctor Who that I consider it, but he is also well aware of its depth and creativity.

Sandifer begins the book with contemporary culture, looking at the Sex Pistols and the Punk movement. He later relates this to The Sunmakers, seeing that serial as the strongest expression of the Punk aesthetic in Doctor Who. I remember in the blog comments when he was covering this period, Sandifer got quite a bit of criticism for his use of Punk as a paradigm for understanding the Williams era. I think the criticism is to some extent fair. One can perhaps vaguely see something punkish about that story, but otherwise, Punk does not register at all in Doctor Who until the Seventh Doctor stories. I remember somebody arguing that intellectuals and writers tend to overemphasise the importance of Punk as a cultural movement. Heavy Metal was much more popular with the working classes in the late Seventies and early Eighties and intellectuals generally despise Metal.

Coming into the first story of the Williams era, The Horror of Fang Rock, Sandifer discusses the common view that this is essentially a Hinchliffe type story. Sandifer points out that Horror of Fang Rock lacks the grandeur of Hinchcliffe stories, offering a far more mundane setting. Where an Hincliffe adversary would be a cosmic threat, the adversary here is just a lone alien scout. The stakes are lower. There is also the suggestion of the story as being in some way a critique of the Hinchliffe era, with the enormous body count and the sheer callousness of the Doctor's reaction to the carnage.

Unsurprisingly, our author identifies The Invisible Enemy as the first bad story of the Williams era. He sees it as being let down primarily by its poor designs, as well as the more general faults of Bob Baker and David Martin. Sandifer is not overly impressed by Image of the Fendahl, arguing that it's use of Von Daniken's ideas are clumsy and problematic.

Leaving Doctor Who to address the appearance of Star Wars on the scene, Sandifer takes a well deserved swipe at Joseph Campbell. He also points out that the new trick of George Lucas was to tell fantastic adventure stories using the visual trappings of science fiction, without the hard Sci-Fi concepts that had previously been the bread and butter of science fiction. Inevitably, discussion of Star Wars leads on to an examination of the Underworld, which like almost everybody else, he regards as a failure. He points out that Bob Baker and Dave Martin's work is effective when backed up impressive visuals from the production team and in this story, the visual effects are a massive letdown. The author praises The Invasion of Time for treating the viewers as intelligent people, with its apparent subversion of the Doctor as moral centre of the story. He sees the story falling down in the way it treats the Sontarans as another race of pointlessly returning monsters and the Time Lords as utterly pathetic.

In contrast to Underworld, Sandifer sees The Ribos Operation as the story that truly gets the new paradigm of Star Wars right in Doctor Who. The grand cosmic drama is shifted to a rather more small scale story about inter-planetary fraud, yet is used to frame this narrative. Graham Williams' bonkers idea about cosmic dualism is subverted by Robert Holmes with the portrayal of the White Guardian as just another colonial master and the Doctor visibly rejecting the notion of subordination to him. Answering Lawrence Miles criticism that Mary Tamm does not take her role seriously, Sandifer argues that she is not supposed to; Romana is there to mock and ridicule the Doctor and the very premise of the story. In a separate essay on whether the Guardians can be regarded as a legitimate part of the Doctor Who canon, he points out some inconsistencies between the Guardians in Season 16 and in the Davison era.

Regarding Pirate Planet, Sandifer defends this story, arguing that its genius lies in fooling the viewer into complacency. It seems like a light-hearted story, but it turns out to be a tale of genocide on a monstrous scale. I was overjoyed by his positive evaluation of The Stones of Blood, as this rather maligned serial is one of my favorites. He writes:

"It's a genuinely enjoyable subversion of the by now standbys of the Hinchcliffe era that goes into some of the most fun Doctor Who has ever had at being anti-authoritarian, and with a new sort of authority figure. We haven#t seen the Doctor do the legal system in a while. It's also another nice step in the larger anti-epic, thanks to the Megara. The Megara are, after all, keepers of justice, and what is justice if not maintaining fairness and balance? And of course, the Megara are shown to be ridiculously blinkered and silly, striking another blow against the basic assumptions of the Key to Time."

He also acknowledges The Androids of Tara as a well made and enjoyable story, if lacking the coneptual depth of The Ribos Operation. Power of Kroll he views as a cynical hack-job, handed in by the usually brilliant Robert Holmes because he was fed up with the show. He also unsurprisingly treats the Key to Time finale, Armageddon Factor as a disappointment, while recognising that at its conclusion, it brings itself in line with Robert Holmes in subverting the premise of the story arc. He takes a brief look at The Auntie Matter, viewing it as a sad, but enjoyable piece of nostalgia, like much of Big Finish's output.

Sandifer moves from Season 16 to talking about Margaret Thatcher and the Winter of Discontent. I'm afraid our author comes across as quite hysterical when he talks about Thatcher, viewing her as the 'raw embodiment of all evil.' He says this description was initially a joke, but he seems to seriously paint Margaret Thatcher as the politial equivalent of Voldemort. I find his attitude rather disappointing. One might expect that it is the mark of an intelligent adult that they can disagree with the policies and view of a political leader while according them some basic respect. I'm not quite sure, however, that Sandifer really understands the concept of respectful disagreement, at least not when it touches anything vaguely political. His attacks on the late Baroness Thatcher, along with his comparing the late Mary Whitehouse to a school bully he once encountered show something of a lack of maturity and perspective.

Fans have endlessly criticised Romana's regeneration scene in Destiny of the Daleks, including Lawrence Miles in About Time. Sandifer offers a great response to this:

"I mean what, does Miles just want Lalla Ward to put on a Mary Tamm wig and roll over before Davros enters and shouts 'Leave the man, it's the girl I want?' Say what you want about the opening scene, and I'm certainly not going to pretend it's the shows finest hour, but there is a job to be done and it gets it done with a minimum fuss."

Personally, I quite like that scene and it is positive prove that Time Lords don't have to have white skin after regenerating. Moffat should have remembered that scene and given us a black or Asian Doctor after Matt Smith. Sandifer appreciates the sheer glee that Lalla Ward brought to the show. Mary Tamm's difficulty taking the stories seriously worked in its own way in the Key to Time, but Lalla's insistence on taking the stories deadly seriously is quite welcome. As might be expected, Sandifer is unimpressed on the whole with Destiny and it's return to Dan Dare style space adventure.

You don't need me to tell you that Sandifer thinks City of Death is a good story. The Creature from the Pit, however, is more contested ground. Sandifer sees a strong political message in this story (which was perhaps lost in the direction), with Lady Adrasta representing the same ruthless capitalism as Thatcher. Moving on to Nightmare of Eden, our author brings up an interesting fact; that Bob Baker has written three Oscar-winning films, namely the Wallace and Gromit animated features. He sees in this the fact that Bob Baker (and his former writing partner, Dave Martin) were at their best when producing stories that were structured around visual events rather than dialogue. This means that the writing duo were quite ill-suited to the William years, with the centrality of Tom Baker's comic dialogue and the generally unpolished visuals. Sandifer agrees with Lawrence Miles that Horns of Nimon is, like Underworld, a failure to understand how to use the epic scope of mythology in science fiction. A large part of this is the budgetary constraints and the disappointing visual aspects of the production. He argues that this accounts for Robert Holmes demoralisation and disenchantment with the program. On the lost story Shada, Sandifer comments "So Shada is at once better than the manifestations of it that we have and clearly inferior to the heavenly ideal that some have made of it." He offers some very interesting discussion of the different variations of Shada, including among them, Douglas Adam's DIRK Gently's Holisitc Detective Agency, which was essentially a reworking of the story. After a discussion of Gareth Roberts' novel The Well Mannered War, we get an interview with the man himself, which offers some insights into Williams-era appreciation.

In a commissioned essay, Sandifer addresses the question of whether it makes sense to talk about a 'JNT era.' Given the considerable differences in style between the script editors employed by John Nathan-Turner, it is difficult to identify a unifying theme for 80s Doctor Who. He finds a paradox in JNT's desire to tone down the humour of the Williams years, while seeing Doctor Who primarily in the paradigm of light entertainment. He finds something of a resemblance between the work of JNT and RT Davies, in that both men treated Doctor Who as 'event television' working the stories into the broader picture of television broadcasting.

Taking a look at other science fiction shows of the late 70s/ early 80s, our author is unimpressed by Quatermass (1979), sadly describing it as 'one hundred minutes of Nigel Kneale yelling at the damn kids to get off his lawn." On the other hand, he admires David Maloney's adaptation of Day of the Triffids. He also has much praise for Sapphire and Steel and suggests David McCallum's performance as Steel was an inspiration for McCoy's Doctor.

The Leisure Hive is viewed as the start of JNT's new 'event television' approach. Sandifer points out that in every way, the serial broadcasts the fact that Doctor Who has re-branded and reinvented itself. He connects this to the new relationship between JNT and fandom, what he cleverly calls 'the fan-industrial complex.' On Meglos, his most interesting comments relate to the way that the Chronic Hysteresis works as a kind of magic. He views the introduction of Waterhouse's Adric in Full Circle as a spectacularly bad casting decision. Nevertheless, he acknowledges both the dramatic strength of Full Circle and Bidmead's new aesthetic vision for the show. He feels that State of Decay has some great ideas, particularly its reinvention of Time Lord mythology, but it is let down by a less than impressive production. Personally, I think State of Decay reaches a pretty high standard, but perhaps I'm not the best television critic.

We get an enjoyable diversion by way of a look at 2000 AD, one of the better known British comics. At the heart of this comic was Judge Dredd, the future law-enforcer with his perpetually humourless expression and huge gun. Sandifer says of it:

"But what's interesting about Judge Dredd is that underneath the extravagant violence there is a rather wicked bit of intelligent satire. The entire premise of it rapidly becomes that the audience is rooting for a character who is obviously a bad guy, while the villains are often perfectly sympathetic characters. In the first major storyline, Dredd violently puts down a rebellion of robots who are shown to have free will, and who are rebelling against conditions that are clearly slavery- a rebellion that would, in any normal sci-fi story, treat them as the good guys."

Examining Warriors' Gate, Sandifer asks what Bidmead really understood by magic and science. He suggests that what Bidmead objected to was plots in which the Doctor wins simply because he's the Doctor. Instead, he wanted to see the Doctor winning the day through the rules and structure of the narrative worlds he enters. This essentially fitted with the original vision of David Whittaker and with the first two Doctors. However, the brash and bold showmen Doctors of the Seventies were incompatible with this paradigm, hence the need for Tom Baker's departure. In the departure of Romana, Sandifer sees the resolution of his 'Problem of Susan;' we finally have a companion who outgrows her role and becomes a potential protagonist on her own. Sandifer argues that The Keeper of the Traken is structured like a Shakespearean comedy, but subverted into a tragedy at the end by the death of Tremas. When we finally get to Logopolis, our author gives us one of his experimental pieces. The Logopolis essay is written as a 'choose your own adventure.' It is written in beautiful poetic language, but it's one of those occasions when I largely fail to understand exactly what he is trying to say.

Finally, in his overall summary, Sandifer praises the sense of fun in the Graham Williams era. For all that he appreciates the dark and epic stories, he cannot fail to enjoy City of Death or Androids of Tara. He suggests that even the weakest stories of this period, such as Nightmare of Eden are enjoyable to watch with friends and snack food.


  1. I was going to do a long rant about how I(and all my friends who like Classic Who) have always rated Nightmare of Eden highly, etc., but why bother? There is one comment you made which saddens me.

    "He feels that State of Decay has some great ideas, particularly its reinvention of Time Lord mythology, but it is let down by a less than impressive production. Personally, I think State of Decay reaches a pretty high standard, but perhaps I'm not the best television critic."

    Why? I love State of Decay. Many fans love State of Decay. There have been novels, audios etc. as sequels to it. RTD even made references to it in the 1996 Doctor Who Annual.. So Sandifer doesn't like it. That's his personal taste. Why should your personal taste count for less? Doctor Who has never been made for the "experts"(and who made them experts anyway?) It has always been made for the public, the normal people. When Doctor Who did try to get clever and make a show that only a minority would "get", it got axed. Really, ask yourself this: "Did I enjoy this? Did I come away from it thinking about it?" If you answered 'yes' to both, it's a good story to you, and it really doesn't matter what someone else thinks.

    1. Yes, I love State of Decay.

      I think we can establish objective criteria for what makes well made television. One can enjoy a show while observing that in some ways it may be flawed.

      I tend to think State of Decay scores well as good television, but I am conscious that Sandifer is somebody who watches more television than I do and who has a better understanding of the criteria by which television is judged.

      Obviously, his opinions are not going to in any way affect my enjoyment of one serial or another.