Monday, 14 October 2013

The Obligatory Returned-Episodes Post

Hurrah, etc.

As Lawrence Miles says, there's no point trying act all cool at a time like this.  It's great news and I'm very happy about it.  Sincerely.  You'd have to be a miserablist of a more perverse and determined stamp than I not to be as pleased as punch.

Of course, I could whinge about some things.

And will.

This blog has a USP after all.

I could, for instance, mention the way Nigeria - where the episodes were found - has suddenly swung briefly onto the mental radars of people who, until a few days ago, probably had only a dim idea that it existed at all.  It's ironic because, at more or less the time when those missing episodes were made, the Wilson government was helping the corrupt Nigerian military dictatorship crush Biafra.  Britain continued arming the junta for years, despite government denials.  The regime was engaged in a longstanding war against the Ogoni people - one of the forgotten persecuted peoples in the world.  Shell's exploitation of oil reserves in their region has had untold environmental and human costs, making the Niger Delta one of the most petroleum-impacted regions on Earth.  In 1995, the Nigerian government - utterly in thrall to and bound up with Shell - began a campaign of ruthless repression against the growing anti-Shell protest movement.  The 'Ogoni Nine', including Ken Saro-Wiwa, were arrested and executed, causing a (brief) international outcry.  Nigeria achieved formal democracy in 1999 but the corrupt government still wages war against the living standards and rights of the Nigerian people in the service of international oil profits.  Indeed, as in so many places, this war is a condition of IMF debt relief and loans.  The American government occasionally declares itself troubled by the rigged elections and violence in Nigeria, but Nigeria supplies them with large amounts of oil - the country is up there with Saudi Arabia when it comes to oil exports - so they never do anything beyond the pious declarations.  The crippling economic situation in Nigeria, with a huge portion of the population living in slums, is the root cause of ongoing ethnic and religious violence.  Even the BBC is capable of making the connection between the violence and the poverty rate (above 60% and rising).  Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist group responsible for many attacks - including this last month - are based in the predominantly Muslim north-east, hardest hit by poverty.  Go figure.

But they also had 'The Enemy of the World' and 'The Web of Fear' on a shelf somewhere, so I guess its swings and roundabouts, yeah?

Back in what I like to call my TARDIS Whingeorium, I could also mention the relative importance given by some to the release of these old episodes and the wanton sell-off of Royal Mail, which was announced on the same day and which constitutes a swindle on the taxpayer to the tune of millions, possibly billions... with much of the benefit available only to huge international 'sovereign wealth funds'.  And that's without mentioning all the inevitable good stuff that always comes with privatisation (i.e. downsizing and spiralling inefficiency, etc).

On the subject of huxterism and profiteering, there's also the BBC's grubby co-operation with iTunes (*spit*) and the cynical decision to release the episodes as DRM-laden m4v files before the hasty (and reputedly extras-thin) DVD releases which will shortly follow, and which fans with disposable income will buy even though they already downloaded the eps from iTunes.  Shame about anyone without access to iTunes.  Luckily, however, the internet is one commons that can never be entirely enclosed, so torrents of people will get to see the stories anyway, one way or another.  Meanwhile, the BBC suck on Steve Jobs' nasty, hard software and swallow the money shot that ensues. 

Buuuuuut... sooner or later I'm going to drop all this bellyaching and start talking about the episodes themselves, right?  I just have to run through stuff like the above to make myself feel better about it... as you, Constant Reader, know full well.  We know each other pretty thoroughly by now, don't we?

The Enemy of the World

Capitalism.  See above.

Har-de-har.  Sorry.  I'm such a kidder.

The Enemy of the World
Okay, 'The Enemy of the World', as in the Troughton serial in which the Troutmeister plays two roles: the Doctor (as usual) and machiavellian mariachi Salamander, dictator-of-the-world-in-waiting.  

Well, first things first.  Troughton is darked-up to play an evil Mexican who, natch, dresses in quasi-Mariachi clothes and says things like "da son he don fall oudda da sky".  So.  Um.  That's unfortunate.  Especially since there are no non-evil Mexicans in it.  (This isn't the first time we've had a problem regarding the portrayal of Mexicans.)

Also on the racefail radar is Fariah.  She's... debateable.  She's there to bolster the serial's attempt - in quintessential 60s style - to depict the future as an international melting-pot.  Because racial equality is a dream to aspire to, a distant and way-out possibility, the next generation's project, something to put off until we have hovercars and moving pavements.  But kudos for i) putting a black person on TV at all, ii) putting a sympathetic black person on TV, and iii) finding an actual black person to play the black person on TV.  It's sad that such bare minimums should warrant kudos but they probably do.  She's a bit of an Angry Black Woman, but her resemblance to the stereotype is actually pretty tenuous.  The ABW thing rests on the notion that black women are domineering ballbusters whereas Fariah is shown to be clearly in the power of Salamander.  But this does lead us into the most serious possible objection to the character: she's a slave.  A black slave.  A black woman represented as still trapped in that role.  Asked what she does, she replies "I serve".  This could be seen as an acknowledgement of racism continuing even in the future.  After all, we're not meant to pass over her servitude without a qualm, the way we clearly are with Toberman.  She's not happy about it and the story supports her discontent and rebellion.  The anti-racist reading is a bit compromised by the fact that her 'master' is a Mexican (and not a real one at that) and also by the way nobody actually seems to notice that she's black.  That cuts both ways.  It pushes the idea that, in the future, race is no longer an issue... which seems progressive, within limits.  However, it also undercuts the idea that institutionalised racism is why she's in a subordinate position.  In the absence of this critical notion, her enslavement starts to just look like a black woman's destiny.  Hmm.  Also, like so many black supporting characters in TV/film, she dies.  She at least makes it a good way through instead of dying almost immediately (of course, you could say that about Toberman).  The other potential issue is that she's a victim of blackmail.  We don't find out what she did wrong (if anything) because the Doctor, charmingly, instantly comes to her defence when she is questioned about it, saying "we're none of us perfect".  It doesn't end up looking like a smear on her character so much as a facet of her character.  On the whole, I think that there are problems but that they're not egregious, certainly not by comparison with a lot of other TV - Who included - from the same era... or ours.

Fariah is a Strong Female Character™, despite her victim-status, as is Astrid.  Astrid is, in many ways, the hero(ine) of this story.  (Mary Peach is great, but what a shame Astrid couldn't have been played by the equally good Carmen Munroe instead... indeed, the fact that the role of Astrid goes to a white woman and the role of Fariah goes to a black woman - as a matter of course - is the clearest indication of an underlying problem.)  Astrid is, wonderfully, defined by her ethical/political commitments... which makes her quite different to most Strong Female Characters™ today, most of whom are defined by their ability to sassily kick ass, and their slavish emotional dependence on a wonderful impossible man.  So, things are fairly good genderwise, I think.  Of course, Astrid does wear unnecessary skin-tight PVC trousers... in fact, the back view of those skin-tight PVC trousers is pretty much the first thing we see after the TARDIS-arrival scene on the beach (by the way, how 'bout them longjohns?).  But today the Doctor would spend all his scenes with Astrid indulging in innuendo about her plastic breeches, so I guess progress goes both ways.

Of course, I'm a white dude, so I'm not going to take upon myself to tell anyone that there definitely aren't any serious problems here.  I don't want to whitesplain or mansplain if I can avoid it.  My positionality could well make me wrong. 

On the subject of Fariah... her death is one of the many scenes which is definitely enhanced by having the visuals.  It comes over as genuinely savage and tragic.  Carmen Munroe gives a good performance, as does Milton Johns as the loathsome sadist Benik.  Completing the scene is Elliot Cairnes as Benik's Guard Captain.  He gives an excellent little performance as a man reluctant to obey the nastier orders of a superior he obviously finds contemptible.  He looks on as Benik enjoys tormenting the dying woman and objects to the more wanton cruelty... but then what good is that?  The man is decent enough to be bothered by it but not bothered enough to do anything?  (Plenty of those guys, of course.  We all fall into that category sometimes.  I haven't personally done much about Nigeria or Apple lately.)  It's a lovely touch from David Whittaker, yet another example of the social texture that runs through this story, the concentration on character.  And the Cairnes does it well... something that you only really realise when you can watch him.

Milton Johns too is fun to watch.  He plays Benik like a rat with oedipal issues impersonating Josef Goebbels (which is a bit redundant actually because 'a rat with oedipal issues' is just a description of Josef Goebbels).  His lank hair flies about as he gets more and more excited by any opportunity to hurt people.  He simpers over Salamander and clearly relishes the smile of gratitude he gets when handing him Fedorin's file (again, this scene is enhanced immeasurably by being able to see the performances).

While we're talking about performances, we have to pause to crawl on the floor making 'we are not worthy' gestures towards the shade of Patrick Troughton.  This is an ensemble piece but, when Troughton's on screen, you can't look at anything else.  His Salamander is totally different to his Doctor (he reminds me a bit of Tony Montana from Scarface... I always half expect him to conclude one of his threats to Fedorin with "... you fockin' cuckaroach").  Of course, the Doctor and the Leader are both larger-than-life characters painted in broad strokes... but that sort of thing isn't necessarily easy to do just because it is BIG.  It needs an accomplished character actor to pull it off.  Fortunately, they had Patrick Troughton, who is pretty much the definition of an accomplished character actor.  Charlie Chaplin pulls off very much the same trick in The Great Dictator (an obvious influence on this story) but that was comedy; Troughton has a harder job in some ways - he has to play it nominally straight.  And he does.  He doesn't send it up.  And he gets away with it.  Think about that: he doesn't send up this material and he still gets away with it.  Phil Sandifer has pointed out (amidst loads of other good points) the brilliance of Troughton in the scene where the Doctor has to improvise a hurried impersonation for the benefit of Bruce.  It takes a helluvanactor to play a non-actor acting just well enough to pass muster.

The visuals are, for the most part, enriching rather than embarassing.  You have to take the dated style as read, of course, but that shouldn't be a problem for us.  Like other stories from this era, 'Enemy' is decorated with deliciously overripe op-art pop-futurism.  And yet, there's an awareness of history in various instances of something archaic being repackaged or held-over into the future.  The most striking is Astrid's kinky PVC Regency costume (already mentioned), but there's also the entropic mansion in which Salamander stays while in Hungary, Griffin's old fashioned kitchen, the disused and rotting jetty, the monitor screen in the Records Room which looks like a submarine periscope, etc. Something similar is seen in the previous story 'The Ice Warriors'.  This seems to be an idea that was around at the time: the future as built upon and around the remains of the past.

Some of the visuals are astonishingly confident.  There's a lovely bit where Jamie approaches in the distance... and he's part of the back projection!  Salamander's speech to the UN (or whatever it is) and his journey down into his secret bunker are strikingly well done.  You get a true feeling of depth and verticality in the depiction of the shuttle going up and down the mine shaft.  Sadly the bunker itself could've been done better.  It's altogether too roomy and bright, and the people down there are far too clean and healthy-looking.

All in all, though, this looks damn good.  Barry Letts treats it like the character-piece it is, letting the camera get close in on faces at crucial moments of drama.  The snappy editing helps too.  Both techniques (combined with Troughton's performance) contribute to adding a genuine dramatic frisson to the scene at the conclusion when Salamander swings round to see the double (whose existence he has deduced... though nothing much is made of this in the story) standing behind him.  Holding back the meeting between the Doctor and Salamander until the end is very effective.  It's all over a bit quickly, but it has an impact above its fleeting, tacked-on position.

Beyond the visuals, there's a real sense of a global society here.  Of course, we're mostly concerned with the relations between various members of what I'd call the ruling class.  Kent, Salamander, Denes, Fedorin, etc are all global politicians or ex-politicians.  Benik and Bruce seem to be global policemen.  But we do have Fariah and the wonderfully miserable Griffin representing the lesser-mortals caught in the midst of it all, and it helps that they're both such vivid individuals.  There's a texture of character and social relation in this story.  Even the baddies' coppers seem like real people.  Even a guard is likely to have a repressed conscience, a tendency to roll his eyes at superiors (another little present that the restored pictures give us) or a name and a penchant for charmingly-inept chat-up lines.  It brings the proceedings above much of the James Bond stuff on which they so clearly riff.

Politically, it ain't progressive, to be honest.  As in 'Power of the Daleks', Whittaker's depiction of politics is nebulous, deliberately vague, all about structure rather than ideology or policy.  Less of an allegorical space is opened by such vagueness in 'Enemy' than in 'Power', sadly.  This global society is hierarchical, run by professional politicians and policemen, formally utilitarian, prosperous and apparently based on some kind of workable settlement of imperial competition.  In a way, the specifics don't matter much.  This is a pretty simple story about one man's (or two men's) corruption and lust for power destabilising a more-or-less smooth functionalist framework.  As such, it fits happily into a nice, simple bourgeois schema of political normality and villainy.  Things are pretty much okay until a Salamander comes along ("like Napoleon" as Victoria puts it, recalling a symbol of revolution who became an Emperor) promising things, giving charismatic speeches, getting popular with the people by giving them stuff, manipulating the paranoia of a dissatisfied minority (the bunker people), etc.  The absence of democracy in the Zone system doesn't seem to be a problem for Whittaker as long as the people have the good sense to like the right boss (Denes) rather than the wrong one (El Mariachi)... which, sadly, can't be counted upon.  Just look at the peaceniks isolated in their little bunker.  Deluded by a cynical political machiavel, they pass judgement on the nuke-using world and, with callous self-righteousness, set about their own revolution from below.  In so doing, they turn the world into a fiery mess and help bring a populist dictator to power. It's not their fault, of course... the swarthy firebrand outsider has tricked them.  The Mexican bastard.

This is, essentially, a response to the ferment of the 60s which says "calm down guys, there's not going to be a nuclear holocaust and we're gonna work things out for the best... there's no need to throw hierarchy and bourgeois order out of the window... and there's certainly no need to be idolising any Latin revolutionaries because they'll just become the new boss, worse than the old boss".  We were just talking the other day about how 'The Space Museum' opened up a potential within Doctor Who for revolutionary energy... well, much as I love it - and I genuinely do adore it - 'Enemy' doesn't grab hold of that potential, I'm afraid.

Luckily it has all the good stuff already mentioned, plus a pacey plot and lots of lovely, crackly dialogue like:

"Whatever made you take a job as a food taster?"

"She was hungry."


"You must have been a nasty little boy."

"Oh, I was.  But I had a very enjoyable childhood."

Back in the Whingeorium... why wasn't more of Season 5 like this? 

Oh, and did you see how the BBC blew the plot twists in the trailer they released?  Okay, people like me have listened to the CDs about 40,000 times... but what if there'd been someone watching who didn't know?  Y'know, a kid or something.  Boo.

The Web of Fear

The Web of Fear
Blah blah... sets the stage for the UNIT era... blah blah... first appearance of the Brigadier... blah blah... the audience at the time didn't know he'd become a regular goodie... blah blah... he's supposed to be suspicious... blah blah... London Underground refused them permission... blah blah... so they built their own sets... blah blah... London Underground found them so convincing that they... blah blah blah.

Less thrilled by this one, though I'm delighted to have most of it back of course.  This is considerably less interesting, less fun and - despite some bravura Camfieldian effort - less well done than 'Enemy'.  Lots of it is just people in dull uniforms discussing technical stuff about train stations, or walking around in the dark.  It doesn't really matter that the Yeti look daft (though their new, big, round, bright eyes look appropriately like train headlights) but it does matter that we spend two episodes too many watching them wandering around doing nothing much besides looking daft. 

When they do swing into action, things get better.  There's a superb battle sequence in Episode Two.  Camfield stages it beautifully - with lots of quick cuts and even what looks like some very modern shakey camera stuff - and adroitly choses some excellent stock music which really enhances things, the way adroitly chosen stock music sometimes can.  Some of the bits where soldiers get webbing full in the face are quite effectively nasty.  It's great to have this stuff back.  The brightly lit outdoor battle set-piece later on works less well because you can actually see the Yeti properly.

It's a shame that Episode Three is still missing.  Episode Three has Troughton, unlike Episode Two (when he was on his hols), and Two is paddingtastic.  Two does have that first Yeti battle I mentioned though, and the spooky cliffhanger with the foam pulsing in the Underground tunnels.  I'm a sucker for spooky London Underground stuff (i.e. An American Werewolf in London, Creep) so this pleases me.  Episode One is the best of the bunch, with the scenes in the museum at the start, accompanied by Bartok... but we already had that one.

On the subject of Episode One, I suppose we have to talk about Julius Silverstein.  Well, there, I've said it.  Julius Silverstein.  Just saying it covers it.  Makes Fariah look breezily unproblematic.

On the subject of offensive stereotypes, we also have to talk about Evans.  I must confess that I've always been a bit dubious on this one.  I've never been aware of a particular stereotype about the Welsh that they're cowardly.  Of course, there is more to it than that.  Evans is still a comedy idiot, boyo-ing and there's-lovely-ing it all over the place... which ties in with the perennial patronising infantilisation and quaintification of the Welsh in English culture, the culture of the nation that conquered Wales.  Indeed, such depictions of the Welsh as hilarious "baa lambs" (to use Arnold's phrase) were the favoured way of degrading them before jokes about sheep-shagging and the chavviness of Splott were discovered.

Thing is... Evans is kind of my hero (at least until he actively starts trying to sell other people down the river).  Yes, I know he's untrustworthy and selfish, just interested in number one, but there's something Yossarian-esque about him too.  He's the little guy, utterly unimpressed by the conception of duty and honour peddled by the stiff-upper-lip brigade, or the obedience of their willing subordinates. 

"You're just trying to save your own skin!"

"Well it's the only one I got!"

Too bloody right, mate... especially since the whole situation turns out to be a personal grudge match between two big wheels, the Doctor and the Intelligence.  If the little guys of the world all just got some chocolate and pissed off and let the big wheels duke it out... well, the world would be a better place.  The lunatics would have no asylum to rule, no pawns to play chess with, no troops to send into battle against each other.  I realise that the standard, piss-obvious objection to this would be "well, what if all the little guys had refused to fight Hitler?" to which it might be responded "well, what if all the German little guys had refused to fight for Hitler in the first place?"  Don't get me wrong, I'm not putting this forward as a practical plan for ending war; it's just that there is a part of my soul that is incapable of not cheering for a Private who tells a Captain or a Colonel to get stuffed when they order him to risk his neck for them.

Next to Evans, the most authorially frowned-upon character is Chorley, the reporter.  The script tries to tell us that he's despicable.  However, while I'm no fan of slimey, sensationalist journos (see the above picture), nor am I a fan of the axiomatic assumption that the Press should keep out of anything the military says is none of their business.  I like the way that the Robin Day/David Frost analogue Chorley is ostensibly a populist but betrays an elitist contempt for Anne because she's a "smug little red brick university..." something-or-other.  But I'm supposed to hate this guy - and automatically suspect him of being the traitor - because he has the temerity to be down there trying to get the story for me to read about?  Piss off.

As I say, a lot of this actually looks a bit dull... though it's worth having the visuals back for three scenes that are heavy with effective character stuff and great acting.  The first is the lovely scene where Anne Travers deals with Knight's rather awkward, cheesy and patronising attempt to chat her up.  Who never did enough of this kind of thing.  (Anne, by the way, is another Strong Female Character™ from the 60s who puts modern ones to shame.  She has some scenes after the Yeti attack on HQ that get perilously close to sobby dishrag territory, but otherwise she's a forceful, expert and necessary presence all the way through.)  The second is the strangely affecting scene where Professor Travers meets Victoria and Jamie again after 40 years.  Who never did enough of this kind of thing either.  The third is the scene where the Intelligence, in possession of Professor Travers, abducts Victoria.  Troughton and Hines react splendidly, with Hines giving a particularly passionate rendering of anger and distress.

End of the day, this is saved from being just another Season 5 base/monsters runaround by the sheer arbitrariness of it all.  Yeti.  In the London Underground.  Armed with cobwebs.  I'm not the kind of dickhat who says things like "they must've been on drugs when they wrote this" about classic kids' TV, but there is a hallucinatory randomness about much of what goes on here.  It has the jumbled quality of a dream... which even holds true for the silly reveal of the arbitrary and illogical traitor. 

Also, it contributes to the overall feel of stream-of-consciousness free-association that the actors playing Captain Knight and Driver Evans look uncannily like the young Terry Jones and Michael Palin.


So there you go.  There's my response, for what it's worth.  My response now, that is.  When the announcement was made, my response was simpler: pure delight... and, everything above notwithstanding, it fundamentally still is.

EDIT: Thanks to Al No for reminding me that Splott has two 't's.


  1. I find myself stumbling regularly on the issue of blacking up performers in black and white television. Because it's tempting to treat it as equivalent to minstrelsy or the John Bennet debacle in Talons. And I'm not sure that it is - the nature of black and white television makes some degree of blacking up more plausible. Simply put, the effect actually seems to work to a greater extent. That part of it isn't an ethnic stereotyping as such.

    What really struck me about Enemy in this regard was the scene at the end of the fourth episode, in which Astrid is prepping the Doctor to impersonate Salamander. I may be misreading it, but at the very start of the scene it looks like she's applying make-up, which means that the Doctor's performance of Salamander is based on the same technology that enables Troughton's performance.

    It also seems notable to me that so much of Salamander's power comes from his own ability to act. Salamander-in-the-bunker is every bit as much of a performance as the Doctor-as-Salamander, and we see him creating the artifice of it. So much so that it becomes easy to read the stereotyped elements of Salamander as performative - Salamander acts El Mariachi as part of his own power games.

    There's not enough race in the story to hang an outright redemptive reading on. But I think the treatment of race, artifice, and performance are central enough to the story that it's difficult to muster much of a critique either. Instead the racial elements just sort of seem there, as oddly dated as the hovercar.

    1. Yeah, you've got a really good point about Salamander's own performative habits, hence the stereotypes... that could well be read as a bit of crowd-pleasing posturing (i.e. playing the nationalist folk hero or humble man), or as a way of foxing his enemies... and, of course, the whole story is much concerned with issues of pretence, performance, trust, scepticism and evidence.

      As you say, the racial elements are just 'sort of there', with lots of other stuff going on around them to which they don't much relate... which may be why they *seem* less bothersome.

  2. Ten points for linking "Web of Fear" with Creep. If I don't have nightmares tonight combining the two in hellish mash-up, well, you at least tried your best.

    Also, thanks so much for going into detail regarding the colonial history that surrounds the Nigeria discovery. Obviously, hooray for nine recovered Troughton episodes, but I've not been able to banish the wider context from my mind yet, even as I've started working my way through the new find.

    1. Cheers. BTW, thanks for the shout-out in the Sleepy Hollow post. Interesting post... though I can't really comment, not having seen SH.

    2. Your welcome, and thanks. SH looks like it could end up being a very interesting TV show, though there's every chance it won't be even remotely for the reasons its creators are hoping.