Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Long, Lonely Shuffle

Another installment in the "best companion ever" series; this time I hardly got around to talking abiout the companion - in this case Turlough - at all.  In my defence, that's because "Mawdryn Undead" has so much going on under the hood that it was inevitable that I'd get more than a little distracted.

Episode 1: Jennings Sets Up A Murder

Or, if you prefer, "The Episode That Bled Iconography". This whole thing is steeped in the symbols of the past, along with an invitation to appreciate them. We open in the heady "by golly" school day capers of Buckeridge or Richards, all straw boaters and cruel but clean nicknames. If anyone's school days ever did look like that, we can assume it wasn't that way for many, and certainly not by 1983. This is the fictional idyll of the past, nostalgia as set-dressing.

The first character we are introduced to here, in terms of the amount of the screen taken up, is a car. It is having attention lavished upon it, because it is classic. It is old but still shiny. Actual concerns about how well it does its job, or whether that job needs doing at all, are completely irrelevant. It is old and still around, therefore worthy of respect and affection.

Well, you see where I'm going with this. Here we are in Season 20, and the show's in trouble. It knows it's in trouble. It just doesn't know how to escape it. Sooner or later every long-running franchise reaches the point where casual consumers are drifting away and a choice has to be made between entrenchment and revival. Season 20 made it's choice very publicly: every story was to bring back an enemy from the show's history. Fan cat-nip, and a conscious announcement that new viewers need not apply. Ian Levine will be showing up soon, and he sure as hell doesn't want you.

And so what we get here isn't just the reappearance of the Brigadier and the Black Guardian, but an opportunity to tell ourselves how great those characters were when they last appeared, and isn't it wonderful that the show can draw on this rich history? Which would be fine and all, except that there's no effort put into explaining why these icons belong in this story. The Brigadier is awesome because he's the Brigadier. The Black Guardian must be scary and impressive because he's the Black Guardian. Aren't old cars interesting?

(Hell, even the spaceship is specifically designed to remind of the opulent past, as Tegan points out. Next episode, of course, we get the Queen's Jubilee, which is simultaneously proof that the show is completely embracing the "iconography as plot" approach and evidence as to how completely its failing to think through the results.)

And note who it is that doesn't respect the classic automobile, or - implicitly - the Brigadier. Turlough. The new boy. The sneerer. The kid at school who sees something old and precious and filled to bursting with history and sees only a potential target for reckless damage. The kind of kid who even after arranging to leave his boarding school forever will still deliberately fit his mate up for his own crimes, and unashamedly lie about it to the same mate's face. This is the sort of boy the Black Guardian chooses as an assassin for the Doctor; someone incapable of understanding or caring what our beloved renegade Time Lord stands for, or means to us. Turlough's smug indifference is in danger of destroying the Doctor, and so the show itself.

The self-pity is at danger levels here, I think. "You used to love this show, and characters like this one, or this one. Why not now? Why did you stop loving us? What can we do to make you come back?" The show is very publicly processing its fears of cancellation, and doing it in the uniquely geeky way of arguing the threat comes not from its own failures, but from the public acting like those kids at school who never really got us because they're destructive fools.

And yes, I had to deal with those kids too. I don't doubt years of being the chubby asthmatic cleaning up in every subject which didn't require using my hands for more than writing has coloured my worldview. It seems to me inarguable that a great deal of geeks base their morality around what they do and don't consider bullying. In that sense, linking the show's existence to that of the quiet kid hiding in the library to tear through a Target novelisation is eminently sensible. Except that the sense of being badly done to is almost the only thing this episode is offering. There's no case being made as to why the Turlough approach is actually wrong in this instance. The Black Guardian is dragged back into the narrative, but no reason is given as to why. Why can he not be seen to act in this? Why does he switch from assuring his would-be hired killer that the Doctor is evil to confessing he himself is evil? He just shows up and does things because that's the sort of thing a character like him tends to do. The show's apparent answer to becoming irrelevant is to take the icons of the past and use them as costumes for the most generic and well-trodden tropes possible; like filming Othello with Iago replaced with a Cyberman.

With all of that weighing things down, the central mystery of why the Brigadier thinks solid objects can't disappear becomes rather uninteresting. Has he lost his memory? Or is it just one more example of the show claiming slavish devotion to its past without actually understanding that past at all? There is quite literally not a single line in this episode that identifies this character as "our" Brigadier, as oppose to some other former serviceman who is now a teacher. They call him Brigadier, he's played by Nicholas Courtney, and apparently that's supposed to be enough.

Which frankly sums up the experience of watching this episode; a production team adrift and failing on their own talents reminding us of the victories of the past and yelling "Isn't this enough?"

And, as it turns out, the answer is "no".

 Episode 2: The Six Year Itch

This is a big improvement on the first episode; I'll give it that. The song essentially remains the same, but the second verse is a lot less bothersome than the first.

In part this is because, as expected, the Black Guardian has faded into the background here. But that fact is less important than the why of it. Ol' BG has been shuffled off-screen so the story can actually get it's own plot started. It's like the first episode was a throat-clearing exercise, a period for listing their grievances before the business of sorting things out can begin.

Because if part one was about why people should never have abandoned the show, and that those who would write it off are destructive yobs, part two concerns itself with setting out the reasons the show should still be loved.

This admittedly still leaves us in the region of self-absorption and grandstanding. Turlough's realisation that the Doctor isn't what he thought he was is basically an on-screen conversion from "not-we" to "we". Mawdryn's desire to be a Time Lord (how fitting that he clearly needed his head to be bigger on the inside) is easily read on a comment on how awesome the Doctor is. So too is the Brigadier apologies over having forgotten the Doctor and the TARDIS. "How could I have forgotten?" It all ties directly into the show's growing fear that it's being left behind by the public. The second time-zone in 1977 - the end of course of the show's first (or arguably second) golden period; this episode is almost exactly six years on from the second episode of "Robots of Death" - with a neater Brigadier is a reminder that it hasn't been that long since the show was shiny and adored. And all the elements are still here; the present and the past aren't that far apart. Yes, we're scruffier now. The once-beloved hero might be surrounded by scruffiness and a make-do attitude, but he's still here.

And that's the message across this episode. "We are still here". It's still entirely obsessed with it's own position, but it's a massive improvement on "Why don't you love us any more?". Especially since the bizarre final scene and the deepening strangeness of the cross-time caper suggests the show is now ready to start trading on its own terms again. Our heroes are trapped in different years facing off against a murderous alien posing as a schoolboy and a terrifying zombie-thing posing as a Time Lord. An empty museum/arcade/spaceship orbits Earth for reasons unknown. Intrigued? Good. This is what we've always done. Listen to what we've got coming next...

Episode 3: It Wasn't Like This Before

Well, this has gone somewhere very strange, and very dark.

When I wrote up episode two I had some vague idea that this story would end up like "An Unearthly Child" or "The Space Museum"; a four-parter that was actually quite clearly a three-parter with a thematically distinct lead-in. I assumed the stance of the second episode of "This is what we do now" would be developed over the back two episodes. A statement of intent for the 80s, three years late.

Instead, we get a third discrete slice of something much bigger. The first part of this story, it turns out, wasn't a primal scream meant to expunge the frustration before getting down to the business in hand. It was the first stage in mourning for a show which might have already died.

Consider the very title of this story. What does it mean to be "undead"? It means to keep going even after everything that makes you recognisable as a living entity has been removed. A chicken running around the farmyard, only rather than the head being removed, it's the soul. Sometimes something dies right in front of you and keeps shambling around, waiting for it to be finally finished off with a bullet to the brain, or by being set on fire.

Or via cancellation.

The Tegan quote I've used as the episode title sums everything up here. If part one was about how the British public should be ashamed for abandoning the institution of Doctor Who, and part two concerned itself with demonstrating the show could still work, part three is simply saturated with the fear that maybe Who really has reached the end of the line. We've brought back the Black Guardian, but all he can do is cackle. We've brought back the Brigadier, but we can't give him any better lines than "I possess such an object". Are we just fiddling after Rome has burned?

Mawdryn's fellows fit into this all too perfectly. Last episode suggested wanting to be a Time Lord makes sense. Here we see the ugly truth; what it actually means is shuffling forwards forever without purpose or release. Oh, sure, each new trip is on a new planet, with a new face, but the basic crushing pointless monotony is inescapable. The same events shuffled in a slightly different order, to quote Jarvis Cocker.

In an odd way, you can see this as a riff on the Kubler-Ross model of bereavement (though of course I always say that). We start off with the denial of episode one, where the show insists it's just fine and the problem is in the public refusing to engage. Episode two can be kind of seen as espousing a kind of righteous anger if you squint hard enough - it's not a big leap to see "We are still here!" as carrying a kind of ire along with it. The bargaining stage we've skipped, because there's no real way to approach that on-screen (it absolutely was going on behind the scenes, of course), though I suppose what is a season-long parade of greatest hits if not an implicit promise that if you keep watching the glories of the past will eventually return?

And now we come to sadness. But as with the anger phase, it's maybe a slightly distorted form of sadness to how K-R usually works; in that it's concerned not with the wonder we've lost, but in the totally unsatisfactory nature of what remains. An eternity of wandering the galaxy doing the same thing on different planets just isn't any fun after a certain point. Not if your own central being isn't functioning the way it should; the way it used to. I thought it was strange when Tegan said in the first episode that she had no interest in a magical mystery tour of the galaxy; I figured someone should have immediately pointed out that that's exactly what she signed up for just two stories earlier. As it turns out, though, that would have worked against what was coming. Tegan, we learn, is absolutely right, or at least she is under circumstances far too close to the show's own for comfort. This tour is awful. It is mundane. This is what things look like after the flame has died.

So what comes next? Well, it's acceptance, obviously. Which is what makes the cliffhanger of this story so sad and beautiful. I mean, at any time it would be a cracker; the Doctor is threatened not by lava or glob-monsters from the planet Scrota, but by his own desire to do good and show mercy. How perfect is that? A few days short of 27 years before "The End of Time", and the Doctor might be defeated by his own heroic nature. Sure, he's all anger and denial right now, but you don't get that worked up if you're not aware on some level that you might feel compelled to take the leap.

Any day of the week, that's a great dilemma. But it's particularly and horribly relevant here. Since these prisoners have been locked up by his own people for an entirely legitimate reason - they genuinely are thieves - the Doctor showing mercy to them would be a tacit admission that their life of endless travel and brief visitations to alien worlds isn't remotely satisfactory. The voyage has to be seen as punishment too cruel and unusual to be endured. And how can the Doctor end their journey? Only by ending his own. If Mawdryn and his people are released, so too is he. Oh, he'll still live out the rest of his life as the Fifth Doctor. We can give the show long enough for Davison's contract to wrap up. But let's draw a line in the sand and say: after this incarnation, the story ends. It's done. We leave it behind as a fond memory and head off to do something else. We mourn the show and move on.

And of course we know that that didn't happen. But that's not the story's fault. Watching this at the time, someone born in 1949 who managed to think a lot like me despite our cavernous differences in experience might have leaned forward in their seat at this point and said "maybe this really is it."

And, you know. Maybe it should have been. Instead, the story has to make the case that acceptance doesn't mean giving up, but choosing a new way for the show to live. We need a phoenix here, not just a funeral pyre.

That's a tall order for a twenty-two minute script from the dude that gave us "Time Flight". Let's see how it all goes down... 

Episode 4: A Black and Terrible Storm

And so we reach the end of the show's own thoughts on its existential crisis. And, if my theory holds water, this should be the point where the show makes peace with the fact its past glories are no longer accessible, and finds a way to move on without them.

All things considered, I think it does pretty well.

There's a telling line towards the end of this episode where the Doctor says: "We must move with the times". Because whilst that's clearly Nathan-Turner's motto, a commitment to continuous reinvention isn't automatically a good thing. The show's attempts to reflect both Star Wars and Eastenders through it's own particular cheap camp mirror - not that either of the former properties exactly lack for camp, of course - is evidence enough of that.

So it's not enough for the show to shrug its shoulders and say "The past is dead; time for a change." What matters is what that change actually is. And this is where things get interesting, because it seems to me the absolute best method the show could have put in place for making a change was to stay the same as much as humanly possible. The change, in other words, would not be internal, but would rise automatically from how the show would drift further and further from the mainstream.

Because let's face it, eighties sci-fi is not something that Doctor Who should have automatically considered worthy of emulating. Sure, at the time of filming this story we were only in the very earliest days of what would become years of cynical, violent tributes to self-gratification. But the cloudbanks are coming, and perhaps even in 1982, you can smell it in the air. Like Earth, before a thunderstorm. And let's not forget the awful truth; you don't need a weatherman to know the way Reagan and Thatcher will blow.

What we need then isn't a show that worries about how plausibly it can ape George Lucas's pyrotechnics, or generate drama from four people squabbling for no discernable reason. What we need is a show where every week efforts are made to make the universe a better place, because dammit, that's what we're supposed to do.

That's what drives this episode. If the Doctor is going to throw away his future lives, it won't be because he's realised an infinite trip through time and space suffers from diminishing returns. It'll be because there are lives that need saving. A pox - apparently literally - on the idea that the Doctor should retire because enough, already. Every new story is a new chance to save people. A new opportunity to show how things are supposed to work at a time when the government is demonstrating depths of avaristic immorality not seen in the programme's twenty year history. What is Turlough's dupliciitous schemer if not an illustration of what is wrong with the Thatcher era, and what is the Black Guardian Trilogy if not a way to demonstrate how ultimately such sneering self-involvement cannot flourish in the face of what really matters.

The country needs a doctor. It needs the Doctor. It needs a rallying point for those who believe there should still be stories where men and women strive to make other people's lives better. That generous and empathic doesn't have to mean naive. And "Mawdryn's Undead" knows this. It knows the past can no longer be relied upon. But it can still be tapped. The salvation of the Doctor and his two friends comes from the intersection of past and present. Remember who we were, and live as who we are. The past isn't our master, or our enemy. It is our starting point. We're not going to give up just because the world says we've gotten too long in the tooth, that the idea a handful of people cam help to improve the lives of millions has had its day. We're going to stay here until you come to steal our lightbulbs. We'll be telling our stories up to the last possible moment. Saving the universe, one planet at a time.

That's the epitaph, when we finally go. That was who we were, and will one day be again. Or at least, it could have been, if two years later the show hadn't succumbed to the same prion disease busily eating through the country as a whole. But that's later. This is 1983. We'll keep the lighthouse lit for as long as we can.

(I still don't like Episode One, though.)

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