The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Nightmare Cafe (1992)

Apologies (again) for going off the radar.  As always, summer is a busy time for me, and it hit harder than I expected this time.  I can’t promise I’ll be able to update regularly, since I’ll be out of the country for most of next month and I have no idea if I’ll have regular WiFi access in that time, but I’ll do what I can.

In the meantime…

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Somehow “All Nightmare” Cafe seems the more intimidating name.

Nightmare Cafe is one of the reasons I’m in this (non-paying) business.  I vaguely remember watching an episode way back when I was a lil’ trash culture anthropologist.  I’m not exactly sure why, but the memory of the show stuck with me, probably because even then I was into horror so the title stuck out for me.   These are the kinds of cultural memories that I feel compelled to pursue, in hopes of unearthing some buried gem.  The fact that both Wes Craven (albeit only at the margins) and Robert Englund were involved really made it worth revisitng for me.  So, bottom line, I really wanted to like it, but there’s only so much that Englund playing a thinly disguised Satan named “Blackie”…

I could watch a 3 hour film that's just Englund playing the Devil.

I could watch a 3 hour film that’s just Englund playing the Devil.

Information online about the show is scarce, but from what I pieced together Craven originally wanted to make an anthology series, but decided – with or without studio interference – to have regular characters who interact with the plot.  See, the titular “Nightmare Cafe” is some kind of sentient cosmic being in place form that is dedicated to punishing or rewarding (of course, in the show’s short six-episode run, we see a lot more of the former) individuals.  The cafe’s spokesman is Englund’s character, Blackie, who is strongly implied to be Satan – but not the Prince of Darkness Satan, rather the Old Testament Satan of the Book of Job fame, whose job is to test the morals and ethics of humanity.  The first episode has Blackie test and ultimately enlist as its cook and waitress  two lost souls, a security guard tempted into allowing something unethical to take place in order to save his job, Frank, and a woman who committed suicide out of frustrated love, Fay.  All of this is set up in the first episode, and the show does take a dark turn by making it clear that, no, the two leads do technically die.  However, it’s here that the first show takes its first misstep by resolving everything that went wrong in Fay and Frank’s lives immediately.  Of course, this is long before X-Filesstyle long-term story arcs became all the craze, but I like to think that even to audiences in 1992 Fay and Mark’s lack of a real story arc looked like a lost opportunity.

But, first, what the show has going for it:  it has a pretty good premise.  Granted it might have worked better as the anthology series Craven envisioned, with the cafe and maybe Blackie as the only recurring elements, but it’s a pretty open-ended concept that could allow for all kinds of tales.  Yet most of the episodes, including the pilot, seem to be aiming for a retro hardboiled detective/film noir vibe, albeit one that’s smoothed down for the uptight sensibilities of early ’90s network TV.  And honestly, while I think the show could have worked if the cafe and Blackie were the only supernatural elements in most episodes, it’s just not that interesting, especially since the cafe itself usually winds up feeling extraneous, a guest star in its own show.

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Have I mentioned how awesome Robert Englund is, though?

The big exception was the sixth and last episode to air, “Aliens Ate My Lunch.”  It’s…well, saying it’s tongue in cheek is kind of an understatement.  The cafe teleports (oh yeah, the cafe can teleport anywhere) to a rural community where aliens have been allegedly stealing cows.  Blackie (in one of the episode’s few truly funny sequences, because, you know, Robert Englund) sets up a sleazy tabloid reporter Harry Tambor to cover the story.  Frank’s also revealed to be a huge admirer of Harry because…well, I guess they have to get the main cast invested in the story somehow.  That’s really where the show messed up its premise.  Almost every  story ended up personally involving Fay and Frank in some way;  one story involves Fay’s sister, one has a woman Frank has fallen for, another has the cafe teleport to Frank’s hometown…Frank and Fay just weren’t meant to be much more than just the audience’s connection to the cafe, and it simply feels awkward to see them instead carry the narrative.

Anyway, I forgot to mention, there’s a trope of little people with broad eastern European accents.  Now I’m the sort of person who rolls their eyes at every “progressive” blog post that complains about Game of Thrones for depicting a medieval-style fantasy society that treats women much like real world medieval societies, or will even defend a genocide or rape joke (as long as it’s in “good bad taste”, of course), but there’s just something off about this one, especially since most of the “humor” from these scenes can be summed up as, “They’re little people…with eastern European accents!”  Just imagine Homer Simpson saying that while bellowing laughter and you’ll know what I mean.

It's a twofer of vaguely uncomfortable stereotypes!

It’s a twofer of vaguely uncomfortable stereotypes!

Well, the plot is that Harry enlists the trope into helping him fake a UFO sighting.  It’s really at this point that you realize that they could have done this whole story without any of the show’s principals, and then you notice that this show that’s ostensibly about the power of karma and second chances for the deserving has a story about midgets helping a tabloid reporter con a bunch of farmers into thinking a UFO has been kidnapping their cows.  To be fair, things speed up and the Nightmare Cafe clique get dragged into the plot when they’re all menaced by a lynch mob led by the most ludicrously corrupt rural sheriff this side of Boss Hogg.  You can get why the cafe inevitably punishes the triggerhappy, jerkass sheriff, but it punishes Harry too, for some reason.  I mean, sure, he tried to deceive an entire community (for no reason at all, since he already had the story about the very real cattle disappearances, but whatever), but what else did he do?  Make a career out of writing “Batboy Impregnates Paris Hilton” style articles?  Does that really call upon the cosmic intervention of this all-powerful cafe?

What karmic retribution would await a nitpicking nerd?

What karmic retribution would await a nitpicking nerd?

Okay, okay, maybe I’m being too uptight about what’s obviously meant to be an intergalactic farce.  After all, the little people turn out to be the real aliens (come on, if you didn’t see that one coming, then you don’t watch enough TV!).  Plus the missing cows are okay, their organs not at all removed and dissected to help further some alien plan to invade Earth, and are returned, since they just wanted to go to Mars, or something.  The cafe torments the sheriff and Harry a bit, and the episode – and the series – closes out with a couple of hints about the nature of the cafe and Blackie and the revelation that Fay and Frank can both die (again), all of which, of course, will never be followed up on.

“Aliens Ate My Lunch” managed to simultaneously be a revelation of the show’s potential and an explanation as to why it failed.  On the plus side, it did do a much better job of showing the premise”s potential than the earlier episodes and their fixation on genre formula.  In the negative column, the whole affair is just a hodgepodge of creaky gags and the mildly surreal, which just all seems to hang loosely from the entire framework of the show.  All six episodes are up on YouTube, so I still encourage people to watch because, hey, you got nothing to lose but time.

Still, I have to admit, if you want to see Robert Englund as the Devil, I have to recommend instead the gloriously goofy “Damn Bundys” episode from “Married With Children”‘s last season.  

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"New" Who, Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Thoughts on the ‘New’ Who Series: The Stolen Earth

Welcome to the first edition of “I Don’t Hate the Russell T. Davies Era, But…Or Thoughts on the ‘New’ Series.”

I’ve had a couple of people actually ask me, based on my write-ups of the classic series, what my thoughts on the “new” series are. In sum, I think the show’s been consistently putting out A+ work, taking the best of the “classic” series and combining it with new elements and approaches. Now there are episodes I didn’t like and some seasons I prefer over others, but that’s natural and I would still say that even when the show is “off” it’s still one of the better programs out there. I decided to give some of my thoughts on the “new” series and, inspired by the lovely Diamanda Hagan’s Twatty Who Reviews, I’m focusing on the Russell T. Davies/David Tennant era, particularly how it wrapped up. I don’t have any plans to start writing about all or even most “new” Who episodes, and definitely not with the level of detail I’ve been writing up the classic series, so this won’t be an open-ended feature.

Now I should probably make clear that, as much as fandoms like to draw lines in the sand, I’m not here to bash Russell T. Davies and exalt Steven Moffat. I will admit that I have come to generally prefer the episodes produced under Steven Moffat’s regime for various reasons, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever write off the entire Christopher Eccleston/David Tenant era. For one thing, there very likely wouldn’t even be a new Doctor Who series if not for Davies, or at the very least we would have ended up with something like the ill-advised reboot FOX and the BBC had in mind during the late ’90s. For another, variety is one of the things that has kept Doctor Who going after all these years, and even if I just happen to really like Steven Moffat’s take on the Doctor Who mythos doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate that Davies had some very different interpretations – and likely enough whoever follows Moffat will as well. Third, Russell T. Davies is actually a very good writer – a great one, even. As evidence, I present “Midnight,” an extremely effective and downright brilliant story that managed to use minimal effects and setting to breathtaking effect. I’d go as far as to say that it should be included in any top 10 Doctor Who episode list and taught in screenwriting classes. And even when I’ve been unhappy with the episodes he penned, I’ve always found something to like – well, except with “The End of Time”, but we’ll get there.

The problem is that Davies kept underestimating his audience. If you keep in mind the fact that he did keep the excellent “Midnight” on the back burner for years because he thought the audience would completely reject it, it’s a fair assessment, and really I always thought Davies’ vision of the Doctor was more akin to American superheroes than to what the Doctor was in the classic series. Now it should go without saying that there’s nothing wrong with a fresh take and certainly I’m sure there are lit grad students who can show how the Doctor and, say, the Green Lantern really do come out of the same giant cultural well, but I genuinely do believe there was a disconnect between Davies and the show itself, which really came out in his grand season closers and especially in the sagas that finished his run.

I was just going to write on “The End of Time”, but I figured I should instead start with “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End.” Honestly, I could always use the excuse to push out more content. However, I also don’t think it’s fair to write on “The End of Time” until I tackle the rest of the huge “End of the Tenth Doctor” mega-epic, especially since the last time I watched most of it was when they first became available to Americans. Let me also point out that I think the season with Donna Noble was the best of the David Tennant seasons. Not only did Catherine Tate just seem to have better chemistry with David Tennant than, yes, even Billie Piper, but there was just something about the Tenth Doctor’s character that made him traveling across space and time with a cynical, embittered office temp so natural. I’ll say more about it later, but that’s why it irks me so much that Davies turned the last season and the final specials with Tennant into a nostalgia fest for his own run. There are only six episodes where Donna and the Doctor are together for most of the story and where Donna doesn’t have to share the spotlight with past companions of the Tenth Doctor. Yes, she does get her own adventure with “Turn Left,” but she still gets pushed aside in her own finale (and really she gets pushed aside hard, but we’ll get to that). So, anyway, with this long, rambling preamble out of the way, let’s get cracking with “The Stolen Earth.”

I’ll give this to Davies: he knows how to lay out one hell of a hook. Right after the events of “Turn Left” (or, well, really the largely non-events…wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff), the Doctor and Donna arrive on Earth looking for the catastrophe they were warned about. Seeing nothing, they return to the TARDIS, but as is usually the case the Doctor has lousy timing. As soon as they step back on the TARDIS, they discover that the Earth has instantly disappeared without a trace. The Doctor does the unthinkable: seek help from intergalactic authorities, in this case the Shadow Proclamation. Meanwhile, his allies on Earth, including Rose who has returned from the parallel universe, find themselves facing a familiar threat of apocalyptic proportions.

I admit, though, the first time I watched it I was less impressed with the premise and more annoyed that we were getting yet another big event storyline about an alien invasion in present-day London. When Donna’s granddad, Wilfred, shouted, “It’s the aliens again!”, I was all like, “Oh my God, you said it.” As the saying goes, if your own characters are complaining about the plot… And if it wasn’t contemporary London, then it would have been Victorian London or a distant future so like contemporary London it might as well have been contemporary London. I know despite its success Doctor Who doesn’t have the biggest budgets, but did Davies believe viewers’ brains would melt if they didn’t have stories that took place in their own day and time? You’d almost think they weren’t watching a show about a man who can travel anywhere and anywhen.

Okay, okay, there were things I liked, then and now. I always love throwaway weirdness in my genre fiction, like bees being an alien race (“Not all of them!” the Doctor obnoxiously corrects) and the Daleks’ hiding the Earth and their base “one second” out of sync with the rest of the universe. Also, being a huge pedantic nerd, I also appreciated that they actually filled in a plot hole of sorts with the old ’60s serial, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” That serial never really gave us a good explanation for why the Daleks invaded the Earth; we get a reference to it here from the Tenth Doctor: “Someone tried to move the Earth once, a long time ago…” So hooray for filling decades-old plot holes. Plus, as usual, the Tenth Doctor is a lot of fun, when he’s not apparently pining after Rose (er, but more about that later). Also the solution that the Doctor’s ex-companions use to help the Doctor find Earth, basically getting every phone in Britain and Ireland to call the TARDIS, is a rather fun way of working the Doctor’s special relationship with the UK (and Ireland, maybe?) into the show, and a hell of a lot less cheesy than the “Doctor defeats The Master with the power of hope and faith!” resolution in “The Last of the Time Lords.” Speaking of which, I also liked the denouement the character of Harriet Jones got. She was always treated as more of a joke than I would have liked, but I appreciated that she was presented as heroic and silly up until the end, and that she could have great respect for the Doctor while still claiming that his strong ethical objection to her past actions is, well, completely wrong. On a similar note, how awesome was it to see Wilfred take on a Dalek with a paint gun? It doesn’t work, but still! And finally…Davros is back!

While I was sick of the Daleks by this point, it was good to have back another villain from the classic series and see once again everyone’s favorite cold yet short-tempered sociopathic scientist.

So looking at the big picture I should have loved this episode, and there was really a lot I liked about it. But for all that, though, the same old flaws we always see with Davies’ epics crop up again, and having watched the series from the beginning it was all getting much too tiresome. For starters, Rose is shoehorned into this story with a jackhammer. To be brutally honest, there’s just no logical place for her here, at least no place that isn’t already occupied by Donna. It’s Donna who’s shown fearing for the safety of her family and it’s Donna who should be having the reaction of shock and horror when she thinks the Doctor has been killed near the end. In fact, I would have preferred it if Donna was the only companion in this story, but at least Martha and Jack are given things to do. Besides a couple of bad-ass movements involving Rose running around with a really big gun, she really doesn’t do anything, a fact that the character herself complains about when she finds herself literally excluded from an Internet conference with the Doctor and the other ex-companions (seriously) and whines, “I was here first!” I’m sure many people, including myself, shouted “Oh, nobody cares!” at their screens.

Now I was going to put this off until next time but let me assure you…I don’t dislike Rose and I find the fan-rage directed at her extremely silly.  Billie Piper did more than a fine job with the character and even the idea of giving her a crush on the Doctor wasn’t a bad one, at least at first. The mistake wasn’t so much keeping it ambiguous, but implying that the Doctor returned her feelings. Yes, yes, the Third Doctor had feelings for Jo, but still at worst the Doctor should have seen her like a human would see the romantic potential of a chimp; at the very best their relationship would have been as likely and productive as that of a 30th century person and someone from the Bronze Age. It’s the reason why I liked the way Steven Moffat handled a companion crush through the Eleventh Doctor and Amy. The Doctor is confused and more than a little horrified, which would be a human’s ideal reaction if a dolphin tried to seduce them. Also, guess what, Amy’s feelings and relationship with the Doctor actually changed and evolved. Just saying.

Anyway, I’m sure more words have been spent on Rose and the Doctor than have been used to talk about Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the past century, and I’m starting to get into things better left for later, so let’s stop at the end of the episode, with the Doctor regenerating as a result of a Dalek attack; Jack, Rose, and Donna cowering in a corner of the TARDIS; and Martha off to activate a mysterious device designed by UNIT. Those of us familiar with Davies’ series closers already knew to brace ourselves for another round of “Oops, I’ve written myself into a corner,” but hey, at least we’d get more Davros!

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – Galaxy 4 (1965)

On the next planet the TARDIS lands on, the Doctor is curious to find that this planet is hospitable to life yet completely silent. Setting out, they encounter a robot that senses its way by touch and sound, and which Vicki christens a “Chumbley.” They assume the Chumbley is harmless, but while exploring another Chumbley threatens them with a gun and forces them to follow it. Suddenly a group of human-looking women calling themselves Drahvins damage the Chumbley and claim that they were sent by their leader, Maaga, to rescue them – and bring them to her. Maaga tells them that they crashlanded on the planet along with the crew from another planet, who are from a “disgusting” species named the Rills, and that the planet, located in Galaxy 4, will explode in a matter of days. The Drahvins’ ship is badly damaged, enough that they need the Rills’ ship to have a chance of escaping, and Maaga adds that the Rills had caused their own ship to crash in the first place. Maaga explains that the Drahvins are a matriarchal civilization that grows a small number of men in labs for the sake of breeding and fighting. Even though the Doctor and the others figure out quickly that their society is militaristic, Maaga insists she and her crew were on a peaceful exploration mission.

Learning more from Maaga, the Doctor and Stephen suspect that the Rills are not actually aggressive, but may have actually offered Maaga their help. The Doctor and Steven head back to the TARDIS so the Doctor can use his equipment to determine if the Rills were lying about the eminent apocalypse. Maaga refuses to let them all leave, for the sake of “safety”, and Vicki volunteers to stay behind, where she watches as Maaga viciously berates her crew for failing against the Chumbleys. At the TARDIS the Doctor confirms the Rills’ diagnosis and are distracted when one of the Chumbleys apparently tries to blast its way into the TARDIS. After returning, the Doctor refuses to help the Drahvins unless they try to negotiate with the Rills and leave together. A furious Maaga holds Steven hostage and orders them to steal the Rills’ ship for them. Considering the circumstances, the Doctor reasons that the Rills must not be hostile. Vicki and the Doctor break into the Rill ship and Vicki is apparently captured. She is horrified by what little she sees of the appearance of the Rills, but calms down when the Rills communicate with her telepathically.

The Rills tell Vicki that they never attacked the Drahvins; instead the Drahvins attacked first and the Rills retaliated, causing both ships to crash, and the Rills offered to take the Drahvins with them once their ship was repaired. The Rills then explain that their ship has been repaired but it’s out of fuel and there’s not enough time to gather enough to leave the planet, so the Doctor charges the Rills’ ship by tapping their ships’ engines into the TARDIS’ power source. The grateful Rills send the Chumbleys to rescue Steven, who was nearly suffocated in an air lock while trying to escape. Maaga engineers a last ditch campaign to capture the Rills’ ship, but fails and is left behind with her soldiers on the exploding planet as the Rills and the TARDIS escape.

Comments

Maybe it was still fresh in 1965, but the first thing even people who are not sci-fi devotees would notice is the appearance of the “hideous aliens are actually benevolent, the familiar-looking if not beautiful aliens are actually pure evil” cliche. What I do know was already a hoary cliche in 1965 was – and this is one of my own personal favorite ’50s and ’60s sci-fi motifs – the cruel, emotionless Amazonians. It’s not quite as grating as it might have been – for one thing, unlike in, say, Queen of Outer Space or Cat-Women from the Moon (told you I really was familiar with this particular sci-fi cliche) Steven actually doesn’t seduce one of the Drahvins and introduces her to the glory of emotions – but the usual sense that the audience is supposed to find it all so cleverly ironic since it’s supposed to be women acting contrary to their “nature” is there.

To be fair, though, it’s actually the characterization of Maaga that adds the spice to the episode. She’s not a sympathetic villain by any stretch, but at the same time there’s a method to her fascism, and both her portrayer’s sincere performance and her character’s frustration at being stranded with soldiers conditioned to be all-but-mindless drones are quite well fleshed-out. On the same note, the idea of a society whose members are all bio-engineered for specific tasks might not have been original even at the time this episode aired, but it’s given some depth here. Unfortunately, there’s so little else that makes this episode special or that’s even worth commenting on. The Rills are notable only as perhaps the most cheaply portrayed alien species we’ve seen yet; the “big reveal” of the Rills’ appearance turns out to be a close-up image of a spider superimposed on the screen. The plot itself gives the game away almost at the very beginning. When they try to make it seem that the Rills could still turn out to be hostile well into the middle act, it becomes pretty much insulting. From the first episode on, the whole story just treads water until reaching a conclusion that only a person who has never seen any work of genre fiction before could not predict.

Fellow classic “Who” reviewer David the Wavid compared this serial to a “Star Trek” episode, and I think that’s a dead-on comparison. Tied in with the twist is an idealistic moral, in this instance “Don’t judge a book by its cover”; said moral, apparently for the slow kids, is shoehorned in with a heavy-handed monologue or two; and there’s even an extremely advanced to the point of near omnipotence and perfectly friendly alien species thrown in. The only difference, I think, is that “Star Trek” was usually much better about its mysteries than the way the one in this serial is presented.

I will say that by this point in the serial I like how the companions have shaped up. Vicki does nicely as the veteran companion while still maintaining a youthful personality. It’s much more interesting than her just being Susan’s replacement. And already I like Steven. It seems like he’s already becoming what Ian and Barbara were supposed to have been originally: someone who constantly challenges the Doctor.

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Time Meddler (1965)

Vicki and the Doctor find that Steven Taylor has not only survived the Dalek-Mechanoid War, but has managed to stow away on the TARDIS. The Doctor is willing to accept Steven as a companion, with the one demand that he not call him “Doc.” Steven is completely incredulous about what the TARDIS is and does, in no small part because of what it looks like. Meanwhile the TARDIS lands on the coast of Northumbria in 1066, as a man in a monk’s garb watches, but he is concerned rather than shocked or confused, and proceeds to spy on the TARDIS’ crew as they leave the ship. The Doctor orders Vicki and Steven to stay behind while he goes to find some locals, but Steven goads Vicki into helping him do some exploring of his own. At a nearby village the Doctor meets Edith, whom he wrings some hospitality and information from without exciting her suspicions. From their conversation he deduces that the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson had recently become king of England and has yet to fight in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Before going the sleep the Doctor hears the chants from the nearby monastery seems to slow down like a recording. Once the Doctor learns from Edith that the monastery was until recently abandoned and that the villagers have only ever seen one monk, he immediately decides to set out there to investigate.

Back near the beach, Steven and Vicki encounter a man who has picked something up from the ground. Steven wrestles the object from him and discovers that it’s a wristwatch. At the monastery, the Doctor finds a phonograph playing the chants, but unfortunately he also finds himself in the wrong end of a cage trap. The following morning the Monk prepares a breakfast for him, using all sorts of twentieth-century conveniences. Elsewhere Stephen and Vicki are likewise captured and brought before the village council, who debate whether they are travelers or Viking spies. Most of the council become convinced when Vicki reveals that the Doctor, whose description Edith recognizes, is with them. Following Edith’s advice, Steven and Vicki head to the monastery and find the Monk, who claims neither he or the “other monks” saw anyone, but Steven apparently tricks him into giving off a clue that he was lying. Vicki, however, senses a trap.

Back at the shore, a Viking scout sent by King Harald III of Norway arrives to prepare for an invasion to claim the English throne. The scouts come across Edith and rape her (which, by the way, we don’t see, but it’s very strongly implied). The enraged men of the village, led by Edith’s husband Wulnoth, find the scouts and manage to kill one, although one of the Saxons, Eldred, is badly wounded. Wulnoth decides to take Eldred to the monastery, where Steven and Vicki are breaking in. The Monk prepares to set the same trap for them, but is distracted by Wulnoth and Eldred, whom he helps with penicillin, giving Vicki and Steven enough time to find out that the Doctor already escaped using a secret passage. They return to the TARDIS, only to find that it’s been submerged in the tide, and decide to return to the monastery in hopes of at least finding out about the Monk’s intentions. Before they leave they discover a bazooka aimed at the ocean. Later the Monk, who is very interested in Harald’s planned invasion, finds his planning interrupted by the Doctor, who pretends to be holding him at gunpoint. However, the confrontation is interrupted by the surviving Viking scouts, who take the Doctor prisoner. The Monk subdues the scouts and heads to the village to instruct Wulnoth to light beacon fires for what he claims to be a ship carrying materials for the reconstruction of the monastery. When he returns, the Doctor, who has once again escaped, threatens him with a sword, while also in the monastery Vicki and Steven discover another TARDIS, disguised as a sarcophagus.

Under duress the Monk confesses to the Doctor that he’s trying to lure Harald’s fleet to the nearby shore so that he can destroy them using the bazooka. In the meantime Vicki and Steven discover treasures from throughout world history on the Monk’s TARDIS in addition to a log book, where the Monk describes discussing the principles of powered flight with Leonardo da Vinci and using time travel to make a fortune out of compounded interest. Back with the Doctor, the Monk brags about using technology to help build Stonehenge and explains that by eliminating the Norwegian threat he could help Harold Godwinson win the Battle of Hastings, changing European history, the Monk hopes, for the better. The Monk escapes and sets up an alliance with the Viking scouts. At the village, Wulnoth becomes convinced that the Monk is a Viking spy and whips up a mob to besiege the monastery. The villagers kill the Vikings while the Doctor, Vicki, and Stephen depart for the TARDIS, which is now on dry land. The Monk returns to his TARDIS to find that the Doctor sabotaged it, causing the control room to shrink to the point that the console is useless and leaving the Monk stranded in 1066 with a village of angry Anglo-Saxons still hunting for him.

Continuity Notes

It’s re-establishing the show’s premise time: the Doctor again asserts to Steven that due to a “technical hitch” they never know where and when they land. Vicki also explains to him that the TARDIS doesn’t change its appearance because of another malfunction.

Here’s the most we learn about the Doctor’s backstory since “An Unearthly Child.” The Monk turns out to be another member of the Doctor’s still unnamed species, the first ever seen besides Susan and the Doctor. While he only makes one more appearance in the series, he eventually also qualifies as the Doctor’s first recurring enemy other than the Daleks and has become a fairly popular villain in the spin-off novels. Also the serial demonstrates once and for all that the TARDIS is not unique or the Doctor’s invention; in fact, it implies strongly that such ships are commonplace among the Monk and the Doctor’s people.

In terms of the show’s production history, this serial is a milestone in one more way: it’s the first “pseudohistorical”, an episode that takes place in a historical backdrop but with sci-fi elements other than the Doctor and time travel. Soon enough the pseudohistoricals will dominate the show while the “true” historicals will stop being made entirely, which has so far remained the course for the 2005 series as well.

Unlike in “The Aztecs”, “The Reign of Terror”, and “The Romans”, the Doctor discusses changing history as more of a moral rule, albeit a very important moral rule, than as a scientific impossibility. I don’t think it’s so much a contradiction in the show’s continuity; the companions assumed that history can never be changed and the Doctor just never corrected them.

It’s mentioned that the Monk’s TARDIS is “Mark IV” and the Doctor’s TARDIS is an older model (the Doctor testily refuses to tell the Monk what model his TARDIS is), definitively setting up one of the show’s most beloved ideas: that the Doctor’s incredible-to-us ship is actually by his people’s standards a jalopy. It’s also implied that the Doctor has been away from his homeworld for so long that he doesn’t know what a Mark IV TARDIS is like.

Comments

After two lackluster serials, it’s nice to have this well-rounded serial that manages to take up the best ideas we’ve seen so far while also adding new depth to the Doctor’s backstory and exploring new potential for the show’s overall premise. This is the first serial in a while – the first since “The Aztecs”, arguably – to really explore the implications of time travel, and it pays off. Of course, it also helps that we don’t have a stock antagonist here or one that’s as clearly hostile as the Daleks or most of the baddies the Doctor has so far encountered. The Monk means well, even if he is totally unscrupulous and willing to kill, and ultimately comes across as someone who has used time travel for selfish ends most of his life but has on a lark decided to do something he considers a grand selfless gesture for a change. Who’s the Doctor to interfere with that?

Besides the atypical villain, it’s also interesting to note how quickly William Hartnell’s Doctor has truly become the center of the show with the departure of Ian and Barbara. He spins off some great moments, including shifting from his usual gleeful self perpetually impressed with his own cleverness to becoming seriously concerned about the oddness of the monastery and treating the Monk with calculated disdain while the Monk tries to engage the Doctor in a duel of the egos. The new companion Steven also makes a strong showing, having good chemistry with Vicki, who is placed in the unlikely but well-played role of the veteran time traveler, and realistically displays a forceful but still light-hearted personality (for me, of course, it helps that actor Peter Purves ain’t bad to look at). Even the implied rape of Edith, which could have easily been just a dark but still a throwaway moment, comes across as genuinely poignant and an organic part of the story.

What more can I say but that this serial has my vote for the strongest serial in the second season, if not in the show’s run so far, right down to the solid direction and the effective sets representing the Monk’s decrepit monastery. Just as “The Web Planet” was the last serial I’d recommend for introducing someone to the First Doctor, “The Time Meddler” is (so far) the first.

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child (1963)

(This is the first of some “Doctor Who” recaps I wrote for a personal blog I all but “decomissioned” some time back.  Originally I had the foolhardy plan to make write-ups for the entire “classic” series, and I might still do that here, but for now I’ll just repost here the ones I have written, covering up until just after the Second Doctor’s era started.)

Synopsis

Ian Chesterton, a science teacher, and Barbara Wright, a history teacher, share their concerns about their eccentric 15-year old student, Susan. Barbara confides that when she went to meet Susan’s sole guardian, her grandfather, to talk about the sliding down of her homework grades, she could only find a scrapyard at the address on file. The two decide to literally stakeout the scrapyard in their car while waiting for Susan to walk back from school. While they wait, the two discuss how Susan is a brilliant student in science, math, and history, but doesn’t seem to grasp common knowledge facts like that Britain doesn’t have a decimal system for its currency and another time when she insisted that a simple math problem required five dimensions, not three. When Susan appears and walks into the scrapyard, Ian and Barbara follow, but only find an out-of-place police box and an old man. Instantly hostile and suspicious, the man denies that Susan came by and asks Ian, “Is it reasonable to suppose that anybody would be inside a cupboard like that?” After an argument Ian, thinking the old man kidnapped Susan, threatens to go to the police, but Susan comes out of the box looking for the man, whom she addresses as “Grandfather.”

Ian and Barbara barge in and discover that the interior of the box is somehow much, much larger than the exterior. “Grandfather” berates Susan for being responsible for Ian and Barbara showing up by insisting on going to that “ridiculous school.” He refuses to explain anything to their “guests”, but Susan calls the box the “TARDIS”, which she says is an acronym for the name she made up: “Time and Relative Dimensions in Space.” When Ian and Barbara demand the truth, “Grandfather” finally says, “We are not of this race, we are not of this earth. We are wanderers in the dimensions of space and time, cut off from our own time and our own people…” Susan begs “Grandfather” to let Ian and Barbara leave, but he sternly refuses, arguing that people in the 20th century can’t be allowed to realize that time travel is possible.  In the resulting argument “Grandfather” accidentally sets off the controls and the TARDIS embarks on the first of many, many accidental trips.

This unwanted destination is a barren (and budget friendly) landscape on Earth. The when is sometime in the Upper Paleolithic Era (at least that’s as far as my very shallow knowledge of prehistory takes me), a generation after one tribe of troglodytes discovered (sort of) how to spark fire. Actually, only one man knew how, so the tribe made him their leader, but by the time the TARDIS arrives he’s dead and never got around to teaching that trick to his son Za, who’s relying on prayers to the tribe’s god, “Orb” (the Sun), to grant that precious spark which he needs to keep up his claim to leadership (it’s a technocrat’s dream; government by technological innovators!). Back on the TARDIS, Barbara realizes something odd is going on while Ian, playing the rational British authority figure to a fault, clings to his skepticism, but poor Ian is so out of his element he doesn’t even know what to call their host.  He addresses him as “Doctor Foreman”, since Foreman was the name on the scrapyard sign, but “Grandfather” asks, “Doctor who?”, making a solid mark on British cultural history. The Doctor decides to step out to get his bearings and lights his pipe, which Kal, Za’s rival for the tribe’s leadership, sees and, thinking the strange traveler has the secret of fire, knocks him out and abducts him. The rest of the TARDIS’ motley crew soon enough follow the Doctor into captivity when they try to find where he went. This time their captor is Za, who plans on just saying the hell with it and sacrificing all the travelers to try to appease Orb. He’s stopped only by Kal, who is at least rational enough to realize that the strangers just might know how to make fire.

Of course, no allegory about modern reactions to technological advancement is complete without a shrill reactionary, and in this case it’s an unnamed old woman who wants to stick to the good old days of relying on furs for warmth. She frees the travelers on condition that they promise to leave and never return, which isn’t a hard demand to meet. However, the old woman is killed by Kal and Za, egged on by his mate Hur (no relation to Ben *rimshot*), gives chase, but they’re stopped and attacked by an unseen prehistoric beast. Ian, Barbara, Susan, and the Doctor hear the encounter and backtrack to find Hur sitting over a badly wounded Za. Despite the Doctor’s pleas that they return to the TARDIS immediately, Ian wants to give Za first-aid (a reasonable decision not just for ethical reasons; as Ray Bradbury taught us, Za’s death in the past might have, say, stopped “Friends” from ever being filmed in the present!). When the others aren’t looking, the Doctor tries to resolve the impasse by bashing Za’s head in with a rock (this ain’t David Tenant!), but Ian stops him in time and forces the Doctor to agree to take Za back to the TARDIS.

Unfortunately, the tribe locates them before they can get that far, and Kal tries to hit the two proverbial birds by both capturing the travelers and getting the tribe to turn against the unconscious Za by accusing him of killing the old woman. Instead the Doctor tricks Kal into showing everyone telltale evidence that he had actually done the deed and convinces the tribe that, if Kal is capable of killing one of them to reach his ends, then he’s perfectly willing to kill any of them. In perhaps the first instance of democracy in action, the tribe drives Kal off by pelting him with stones. When Za recovers to find himself the tribe’s new leader, he thanks the Doctor and his companions by imprisoning them yet again. So they give the cavemen what they want by using dry sticks and friction to make a healthy fire – while in the meantime Kal tries to sneak back into the cave, which leads to some hardcore caveman-on-caveman fighting, with Za as the victor and Kal’s brains decorating the cave floor – but Za, showing real pragmatism over moral thinking like so many politicians to come, determines that he should just keep the strangers around perpetually since they probably know all sorts of other nifty tricks. That night Susan has the idea of taking a skull from a skeleton in the cave and lighting a fire under it, scaring the tribe long enough for the crew to make a getaway. However, instead of being able to pilot the TARDIS back to England in 1963, the Doctor, who is maybe less adept at piloting the TARDIS than he admits, lands the TARDIS in a swamp somewhere. Also no one happens to notice that the TARDIS’ radiation gauge has its needle all the way over in the red range…

(To be honest, I’ve watched both the aired and unaired versions of this episode several weeks ago. Despite differences in dialogue and the Doctor’s personality – he generally comes across as more hostile and even more cruel in the unaired version – I didn’t take good notes and I suspect both versions are sort of muddled up in my mind. Well, it’s not like I’m being paid for this!)

Commentary

I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I decided to follow this 46-year old television show from the very beginning, being familiar with only a handful of John Pertwee and Tom Baker episodes, much of the Sylvester McCoy run, and, of course, the “new” series. I wasn’t surprised at the very low production values (after all, I am a fan of much of the BBC’s output from the ’60s and ’70s) or the occasional flubbed line that would have been corrected on even low-budget TV shows today (I’m also a fan of “Dark Shadows”). Nonetheless it was a little jarring that the show, long before it became a cultural phenomenon transcending audience expectations, would not really be much more child-centric. Maybe – well, no, there is not much of a maybe there – it just speaks to how watered-down and flavorless American children’s programming of my time was, but I couldn’t help but notice the various threats of horrific death, a teenager being all but outright verbally abused by her caregiver, and lots of shots of skulls that had been bashed open.

Still, the show at this early stage is still what we’d call “edutainment”, a purpose that it would more or less jettison within a year, at most. There are occasional little science tips, like Susan and Ian teaching the audience about the scientific principles of making a fire. Above all, while I’m sure people much more informed about the Stone Age than me can pick it apart, it is clear that there was some research done on Paleolithic times. The usual prehistoric stereotypes – active volcanoes, dinosaurs, mastodons, and so on – are mostly absent, although to be fair all that might have largely been due to the showrunners’ commitment to low budgets than to scientific accuracy. Whatever the case, the show takes time to try to present a prehistoric society’s stumbling first steps toward forming a religion (and it does make sense that the first thing a nascent human society would worship would be the sun) and political and social structures. Obviously they’re still hitting some snags, like figuring out that human sacrifice isn’t really a necessary step toward fire making (although then again it arguably doesn’t hurt either), but progress rarely runs smoothly.

The most interesting thing to Whovians is how the character of the Doctor starts out. Generally William Hartnell’s Doctor is known as the meanest and most unforgiving Doctor, which is fair, but before the first season is done he does already evolve into a friendlier and more benevolently paternal figure. Comparing the unaired version of the episode with the one that eventually saw the light of broadcast, it’s even clear that the showrunners had decided to smooth over the character’s rough edges at the very beginning. What’s fascinating isn’t just how different the character is from his successors, but how similar. The absent-mindedness (which I think really came back in force with David Tenant’s interpretation), the use of intelligence and subtle manipulation rather than brute force or weapons to achieve goals, the intellectual and alien aloofness bordering at times on arrogance, the occasional manifestation of a ruthless streak, and the question of whether or not the Doctor is just extremely lucky or if he’s aware of things that aren’t even apparent to his Companions or even to the audience are all there. It is difficult, if not impossible, to judge William Hartnell’s Doctor without comparing him to the others unless you’re a complete virgin to the series, but Hartnell’s version of the character is still unique enough to come across as more than just a prototype of what’s to come, while some less enamored of the messianic tendencies of David Tenant’s interpretation might even find Hartnell’s flawed, irascible Doctor to be the perfect antidote.

Sign of the Times

Britain didn’t actually decimentalize its currency system until 1971, eight years after the first episode aired, so a time traveler like Susan is right to be confused.

Continuity Notes

Obviously the big thing is that we have the first appearances of the Doctor and his first Companions: Susan, Barbara, and Ian. Along with that the Doctor and Susan are the first Time Lords (although they’re not named just yet) to make a debut, along with the first reference to Galifrey (which likewise has a name that hasn’t been thought of yet).

It’s the first appearance of the TARDIS. Susan and the Doctor also explain that, conveniently enough, the TARDIS’ camouflaging capability is malfunctioning, so it’s stuck in police box form. Even as the BBC’s budgets for the show improved, the police box became too iconic to change, even when the whole idea of a police box became archaic.

Susan claims that she “named” the TARDIS. Arguably this is contradicted in later episodes, where it turns out that there are many other TARDISes and they’ve been around longer than Susan or (maybe) the Doctor, but it can be explained that Susan was the first one to name the TARDIS in English, not Gallifreyan.

Quite a bit of the framework for Doctor Who’s mythos is already established from the first episode on: the Doctor and Susan are from an extremely advanced alien race (or, as the Doctor humbly put it, “I tell you, before your ancestors turned your first wheel the people of my world had reduced travel to the furthest reaches of space into a game for children!” ) and from another time, and have for some reason or another become separated from their homeworld. It’s never made exactly clear why the Doctor and Susan are travelling, although later in the series it’s hinted that the Doctor may have been exiled or at least left voluntarily after some kind of falling out with other members of his race. Susan, for whatever reason, shared his fate. There are also a lot of details about Susan that have, to date, not been filled in, like what happened to her parents and how she ended up with the Doctor. While it’s established that she and the Doctor have been in 1963’s London for about five months, it’s not even said exactly how long they’ve been together or if the Doctor had raised her, but there are references to past adventures they had together, making her the first Companion. In fact, it wasn’t until the new series, where various episodes like “Father’s Day” and “The Doctor’s Daughter” had fleeting mentions of the Doctor’s family, that viewers even received definite hints that Susan actually was the Doctor’s biological relation.

Not to upset any hardcore Whovians out there, but the show’s attitude toward time travel shows itself to be pretty inconsistent from day one. The Doctor is worried about the ramifications of people in the twentieth century finding out that time travel is a scientific reality, but when it comes to mucking about with the discovery of how to make fire…well, que sera sera.

At the very end we also have the first “appearance” of Skaro, a world that becomes pretty important early on in the show’s run, but more on that next time.

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