Saturday 12 May 2012

The Time Meddler

Douglas Camfield is regarded as one of the greatest of Doctor Who's directors and rightly so. What strikes the viewer of The Time Meddler is that it appears to be largely filmed on location, unlike most other Hartnell stories. This is an illusion, however, for this story was filmed entirely in studio. The appearance of lush location filming is achieved through the realistic sets, the moving sky effect and the generous use of stock footage. The Time Meddler's strong visual impact is a testimony to Camfield's brilliance, a brilliance let down only by some clumsy fight scenes.

The Time Meddler is hugely important in setting the direction of later stories. For the first time, we see one of the Doctor's own people and discover that the TARDIS is not unique. In this serial, historical and science fiction elements are mixed for the first time, something that caused a lot of confusion for many viewers at the time. This was a significant innovation for Doctor Who. What is perhaps unfortunate is the fact that this innovation came to be seen as the essential way for Doctor Who to deal with historical themes. Thus, true historicals came to be rejected in the Troughton era. The Doctor Who pseudo-historical has become a predictable genre, with the only real variation being whether the interfering being is a good alien or a bad alien and a lack of any real interest in the historical elements themselves.

The Time Meddler also altered the way in which time worked in Doctor Who. Barring the wobbling of The Space Museum, the show's logic had assumed that the course of history could not be altered. It was not merely objectionable, but impossible. Here in this story, we see a being like the Doctor attempting to alter history and the Doctor appears to believe that he could succeed. In my opinion this was a mistake. While Big Finish have gone to town on stories about altered timelines and the new series has followed suit, such notions appear very infrequently in classic Doctor Who. It has been pointed out by fans that the Doctor appears inconsistent in viewing earth's history as sacred, but freely interfering in the destiny of alien worlds and future human societies. I would argue that the Doctor's willingness to interfere in alien worlds actually supports the idea that history cannot be altered. The reason that the Doctor has no fear of toppling Helen A's tyranny on Terra Alpha is because he knows he cannot change history and his success is already a part of history. If he is unaware of the future of Terra Alpha (and in general, the Doctor shows a limited awareness of future human history), then he can at least try, knowing that he cannot alter history. This flys in the face of the accepted understanding of Pyramids of Mars (I have my own theory to explain the desolate Earth in 1980), but it makes sense of a good deal of classic Doctor Who. The Time Meddler can be blamed for the unfortunate idea that history could be altered at any moment.

The Time Meddler is very much dominated by the two conflicting personalities of the Doctor and the Monk. The Monk is an highly unusual villain in being rather likable and it is hard not to feel a lot of sympathy for him. This is very much enhanced by how unlikable the Doctor comes across in this story. He shakes with rage at the Monk's activity and comes across as a bit of a bully. It is interesting to note just how violent the Doctor is here, brawling and hitting people with clubs. While we are used to liking the Doctor, I rather find the Doctor's meanness in this story very enjoyable.

It is rather striking how manipulative the Doctor and companions come across in this story. They appear to the Saxons as allies, helping them deal with the 'Viking spy.' Yet in reality they are trying to ensure that these people are invaded by Vikings, an event in which they might suffer. The story does not deal with this moral tension at all.

I don't care much for the companions in The Time Meddler. Steven's first appearance as companion proper has him coming across as very thick and obstinate. I have never liked Vicky, but here she comes across as especially bossy and irritating. While we get a good performance from Alethea Charlton's Edith, the Saxon characters are uninteresting and the Vikings very unimpressive. These historical elements of the story lack any real interest in themselves. Yet whatever its faults, The Time Meddler was an important landmark in the history of Doctor Who and is visually quite delightful.

Friday 4 May 2012

The Talons of Tired Tropes

Another fan favorite, another beloved Hinchcliffe story that I am about to complain about? In my defence, I will point out my praise for The Brain of Morbius in the last post. However, once again I must express my disagreement with a fan consensus, in this case, that The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a classic story.

My low opinion of The Talons of Weng-Chiang is shared by many fans who have more love for the Hinchcliffe era than I do. There are plenty of fans who feel that Talons does not compare favourably with the more popular Genesis of the Daleks or Pyramids of Mars (as it happens, I think Talons is better than Pyramids of Mars). So the faults in this story are not simply my bias coming out as a Hinchcliffe critic.

It is easy to understand why The Talons of Weng-Chiang is so popular. There is some wonderful humour in this story, including that delightful moment when Leela has supper with Lightfoot. We have incredibly strong performances from Louise Jameson, John Bennett, Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter. The production values are very strong, though this being a period drama, it does have an unfair advantage over the more overtly science fiction stories. David Maloney's direction cannot be faulted and he would later go on to produce the BBC's astounding adaptation of The Day of the Triffids. Mr. Sin is wonderfully creepy.

Despite all its manifest strengths, Talons is let down by some very significant weaknesses. Perhaps the most obvious one is the appalling racism of this story. Talons is an unashamed throwback to Fu Manchu stereotypes of sinister orientals kidnapping young women. In defence of this it is sometimes pointed out that Lhsen Chang is a well developed and complex character. That may be true, but he is still a stereotypical superstitious and treacherous oriental, who cringes before a white man and who is played by a white actor to top it all.

The Eliza Doolittle subtext with Leela is also a bit suspect. The whole idea of the Doctor teaching Leela to be civilized has some rather unappealing connotations, however funny it might be for the Doctor to promising to reward Leela with an orange. Leela's sudden enthusiasm for dresses and going to the theatre seems completely out of character.

The plot is seriously padded, unsurprising given that it is a six-parter, but still not excusable. It takes Greel six episodes to recover the time cabinet and then to delay the action further, his men just happen to forget the key! We are treated to a parade of captures and escapes that delay the action as long as possible. This padding makes Talons one of the more tedious stories to watch.

Talons of Weng-Chiang betrays the somewhat sadistic delight of Hinchcliffe-era Doctor Who in painful deaths. There is an awful lot of disturbing material, from the life force being drained from young women (why women, we might ask?), the suicides of the Chinese gang-members and Chan dying slowly after his leg gets chewed up. None of this is portrayed very graphically, but there is clearly a very tasteless enthusiasm for pain and butchery on display. Stripping Leela to her underwear and splashing her with water was not a good move in my book either.

What I dislike most about this story, however, is that it is just a mass of Victorian cliches thrown together in the belief that this is rather clever. I have never quite understood the appeal of Scooby-Doo-Victoriana, but for some reason its incredibly popular, hence the rise of the absurd genre of Steampunk. Perhaps this was all rather original in 1977, but with the endless parade of cartoonish Victorian tropes in horror, fantasy and science fiction, Talons of Weng-Chiang feels a bit too much for me.

As for Leela's first outfit in the first episode, not a good choice if he wanted Leela to be inconspicuous. Wearing bloomers for riding a bicycle or doing sports was not unknown in Victorian times, but it would have been a shocking choice of outfit for walking around London and would have aroused disapproval.