Thursday, August 25, 2011

 

DVD Taster: Doctor Who – The Dominators

This Saturday, Doctor Who comes back for Autumn – the second-earliest it’s ever returned, only beaten by 1968’s The Dominators, in which the Doctor and his companions land on the peaceful planet Dulkis and encounter the cruel Dominators and their deadly servants. So just how terrible are its politics? Which actors nearly save it? What do Doctor Who writers old and new think of it? What exciting work by Paul Cornell do I reprint below? What connects it all to The Da Vinci Code? What’s my shameful secret? And is it worth buying on DVD? Look out! It’s the Quarks!

Doctor Who – The Dominators may not set the happiest of precedents for this weekend’s Let’s Kill Hitler. With mediocre ratings and bad reviews, it may be set on an obscure planet in a distant galaxy rather than in the recognisable history of the Third Reich, but its authors would claim it’s all about what happens when a culture lacks the moral backbone we showed in 1939, while its detractors point out that the authors set up a fight between fascists and hippies, then side with the fascists. I once wrote about How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal; ‘not like this’ would be a start. Even the less political broad sweep of fandom don’t much care for this story: back in September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – and placed this at a lowly 191 (at 49.99%, the first to score under half marks). Against all reason, I’m fond of it, so I might put it 20 or so places higher…

While this ‘taster’ may not be short, incidentally, my style in these is not to be too spoilery. So read on without fear of finding out the key twists.


The Terrifying Quarks
 

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That Golden Moment
“It is not unknown for a leader who is unfit to be replaced.”
“It is not unknown for a mutinous subordinate to be executed!”
Easily the most striking figures in The Dominators are the two Dominators themselves, representatives of an empire that stretches across galaxies and towering above the rest of the cast, both physically and in acting presence. We never hear about this empire again, so it’s easy to assume they fall into civil war (possibly giving way to their thrilling robot servants) – the two of them are arguing from the very first scene to the end of the story. Probationer Toba, of the hungrily sadistic expression, wants to destroy everything in sight. His boss, Navigator Rago, is the intelligent one who wants to evaluate and make use of things before just blowing them to bits, and it’s thank to a superb actor that he doesn’t come across entirely as the junior Dominator’s mum, given that most of his role consists of coming home and finding that young Toba’s broken another toy or impatiently directing Toba’s attention to yet another vital fact he’s failed to spot.

This argument comes to a head early in Episode 4, in a much more tense mirror of a scene in Episode 2, both set in the Dominators’ incredibly groovy spaceship control room. In that earlier scene, the Dominators subject the Doctor and Jamie to a series of physical and intelligence tests, a disturbing sequence that might tip into unpleasantly sadistic but for Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines’ inspired ability to clown around and make things entertaining. Toba, on the other hand, is not one of nature’s jollifiers (despite providing some mirth by apparently peering up Jamie’s kilt in Episode 2). The drama when Toba oversteps the mark and gives Rago reason really to slap him down is more gripping than anything else in the story: the ambitious young subordinate makes the mistake of calling his boss weak during an unfavourable performance review, and suddenly finds himself subjected to exactly the same treatment as their victims. Officially, there’s no music in this story, but quite a bit of it’s actually supplied by Brian Hodgson of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the deep clattering tones as a Quark (of which more later) closes threateningly on Toba are very effective. It’s a vicious humiliation, and you wonder just how far Rago is going to push it – the half-crazed joy that comes into Rago’s eyes when he unleashes just a tiny bit of the sort of sadism Toba’s been boasting shows that he is a far more dangerous individual.

Senior Dominator Rago is for me the performance of the story, played by guest star Ronald Allen – a playboy in The Avengers, a send-up in The Comic Strip, and a mainstay of… Crossroads. Yet whatever you’ve heard about that soap, he has massive charisma that’s all the more effective for being underplayed. Playing one of the two characters who has a brain – and doomed by never quite realising that the Doctor is the other – he’s made up to look almost like a zombie, with staring, sunken eyes. Ironically, not only is he far less of a zombie than the Dulcians, and not only does he notice the Doctor’s eyes when his are the most noticeable in the show, but also, out of scary make-up he returned to Doctor Who a couple of years later (in a much better story) and turned out to be very handsome when being laid-back instead of intense. This time round, though, his charisma is very cold indeed.

Something Else To Look Out For

Forty-three years ago this evening, The Dominators was broadcasting its… Middle bit. At the risk of giving the impression that the production was a bit sloppy, what would have been “Episode 3” is forever untitled, as they forgot to stick the caption on it. Inauspicious, you might think (though Terror of the Zygons and The Leisure Hive also began in late August and they were both terrific, so take your pick). At the time, The Dominators was broadcast between a repeat – something so rare, before BBC3 and DVD, that they worked it into the story – of The Evil of the Daleks, Patrick Troughton’s best story, and the first broadcast of The Mind Robber, his next-best story. So it was just one of many stories, with a brilliant one either side. Today, it’s one of the rare survivors of the BBC purges that burnt most of Mr Troughton’s time as the Doctor, forcing attention onto it as it never was in 1968.

This opened the third and last season for Matt Smith’s favourite Doctor, and Mr Troughton’s variable here: brilliant thinking on his feet with the Dominators, entertaining taking an aircraft to bits while flying in it or doing other bits of business with Frazer Hines’ Jamie; bizarrely fond of Dulkis, a planet of dull, two-hearted reactionaries who never do anything, particularly in view of their far scarier counterparts at the opposite end of the season; and noticeably losing interest and hamming it up at some points, having grown the catchphrase “Oh my word!” over the summer. His other companion Zoe gets a bit of a raw deal, as (the special features reveal) did the actress, so no wonder she doesn’t look like she’s having much fun. And another new member of the team, the sonic screwdriver, already has amazing magic powers way beyond its design specs – to think, Deputy Script Editor Terrance Dicks complains about how they use it these days…

Arthur Cox – later seen in last year’s The Eleventh Hour – is often slagged off for his part here as Cully, Dulkis’ James Dean, the oldest, plumpest, most follically challenged teenage rebel in space, but for me he’s up with Beryl Reid as Sigourney Weaver, Bernard Cribbins as Luke Skywalker and using Weta’s The Lord of Rings army-building CGI to make cute waving alien babies as perfectly wonderful Doctor Who casting. And he’s very entertaining, too, from his early “An adventure with Cully is something never to be forgotten” to a glamorous woman (they’ve clearly shagged, and she looks embarrassed about it) right through his exasperation at his civilisation to turning into a gleeful bomber. Cully gets involved by sailing into a danger area in a dodgy ship (it looks like a lemon-squeezer, making one of his party’s use of the word “zest” difficult, difficult, lemon difficult to get away with. Still, it blows up spectacularly, in what may be Doctor Who’s earliest example of serious BBC pyromania) and getting his handsome but dumb passengers killed; they also include a very camp handsome young man who’s clearly heckling because he’d expected to get the part and the girl, who in later life becomes a leading Shakespearean actor and the despicable Bruno Kransky in Brogue Male, and a dumpier, grumpier actor who also had a significant part in The Horns of Nimon, yet didn’t turn up at any of last year’s signings. Perhaps he’s embarrassed. No, for me the only thing about Cully that doesn’t work is that his part of the story was inspired by The Boy Who Cried Wolf: we never hear of his earlier pranks, just that he breaks the rules and so people sneer at him; everything he says on screen is the truth; and, undermining the fable entirely, not only does he never cry wolf, but the whole point of the story is that the Dulcians would never come running to deal with a threat, anyway.

Another element of the story that everyone slags off is the Quarks, the Dominators’ terrifying robot servants (not a spread, a subatomic particle nor a Star Trek character). And, all right, they’re not very terrifying, but they’re an attempt at something different, and I love them. Short boxes with spinning spiked heads and arms that pop out at strange angles, they have memorable voices: intended to sound like homicidal children (and with real schoolboys, mental state unmeasured, within their boxes), their giggling mania is mostly so high-pitched as to be incomprehensible. And then there’s the famous sound effect Quark Goes Berserk and Explodes. They were expressly commissioned as a marketing rival to the Daleks, but this was their only major appearance; as, despite their obviously 360-degree sensors, by the end of the story they’re being tripped up and destroyed in ways so pathetic that you can’t help going ‘Awwhh’ at them, they split fandom. Essentially, some fans think they’re completely rubbish… And on the other side, there’s me. You see, when I was a little boy, I saw photos of three green Quarks striding across the Radio Times Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special, and I thought they looked brilliant. Sources differ as to whether they were actually green or grey, but I know for a fact they’re really maroon and orange. Because those were the two colours of paint my Dad had enough of when I was a schoolboy, mental state uncertain, in a home-made Quark box – aged eight, I came second in the local fancy dress competition to my mate Ste’s fantastic Dalek creation (which had the curves). And they’re still really groovy. Even now I’ve seen them.


Design Masterpiece
 

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My Secret Shame: I Was A Pre-Teen Quark



Pre-Teen Quark
 

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The Quarks have some great point-of-view shots, at least – used to fabulous effect in the brilliant DVD Coming Soon trailer (though this DVD really needs a trailer for The Mind Robber, too) – and an eerie electronic bubbling sound as they open fire; the first, and most expensive, time they kill someone is a chillingly memorable effect. Andrew Skilleter’s moody cover for Ian Marter’s taut and gripping Target novelisation of the story helped, too, and the book encouraged me to play with chemistry sets (I bet one friend’s bedroom ceiling is still covered in marks after I persuaded him to let me mix the more poppable substances in his). I can’t see them coming back on telly this Autumn, or next, though. Not least because after the Macra returned in 2007’s marvellous Gridlock, I wrote about how I’d redesign the ‘homicidal children’ Quarks in the forms of spheres with spikes and expandable implements, like evil penknives… And then along came the Toclafane two months later.

How To Make Doctor Who A Bit Fascist

I like Cully. I like the Quarks. And yet even for me, The Dominators remains fatally flawed. I’ve not gone over how dull the script can be, how repetitive the ‘action’ ping-ponging between Island and City, how jaw-droppingly unflattering the dresses the Dulcians wear, how it’s not remotely as kinky as the title might make you hope. The problem is deep in the story’s very conception. I have problems with the series’ moral compass for this year’s stories, but this story’s moral compass isn’t uncertain – it’s pointing in absolutely the wrong direction, save the points where the producers intervened or the writers simply messed up their own conservative allegory. The production team wanted ‘the new Daleks’; the writers wanted to write a Terry Nation story, with much of it taken from the original The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth (though later Doctor Who borrows from The Dominators, too; not just the Toclafane, but look at the plot behind Aliens of London, or at The Sontaran Experiment, telling a similar story at 40% the length, with more style, but not as fab a robot). And what they took from The Dalek Invasion of Earth is not just the solution, and not just ‘what if the Nazis had landed,’ but ‘what if the Nazis had landed after those bloody hippies had taken over’.

The intimidatingly prolific Doctor Who blog TARDIS Eruditorum loathes The Dominators with a fiery passion and a plausible argument:
“…instead of pacifists being good people who can be made better, pacifists are deluded fools and it's funny to watch them die. It is easily the most cynical and mean-spirited scene I have seen yet in Doctor Who. It is a scene that exists only to take people who are acting out of a genuine moral conviction and mock them for their own morality.”

“It is an overt attack on the ethical foundations of Doctor Who. Not only is it an attack on the entire ethos that underlies the Doctor as a character, it's an attempt to twist and pervert the show away from what it is and towards something ugly, cruel, and just plain unpleasant.”
And that’s about the toned-down version of the story, once the production team had taken a hatchet to it. If you read his article, you’ll find my partial defence underneath, though there’s not much I can do to salvage the politics. Basically, writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln hated hippies and thought their peacenik ways a threat to all that made Britain great, so wanted to write a story showing them rightfully getting their noses bloodied. It’s the horribly misbegotten Doctor Who equivalent of Carry On Camping, which made exactly the same mistake at almost exactly the same time of putting a resolutely anti-authoritarian series on the wrong side of the youth divide (though if you want to see Wendy Padbury’s Quarks, you’ll have to watch The Blood On Satan’s Claw). In part, they were toned down by the production team; in part, they just weren’t talented enough right-wing polemicists not to torpedo their own message. But it’s bad enough, and, yes, “mean-spirited” probably hits it, and that’s just not something Doctor Who should be.

Whether it’s just the nature of Doctor Who or the writers making a hash of it, there are points at which the series’ innate Liberalism breaks through. Though Dulkis is presented as a world long after the hippies have taken over – men in frocks, horrors – they’re also rich and conservative, and while the younger generation (well, one of them) are rebelling to rediscover excitement, asking questions and resisting authority is not just Liberal but, well, counter-cultural. Not only do they not ‘get’ what the hippies stand for nor the courage of non-violence, but they don’t understand that backing a youth rebellion against stuffy old men undermines their attempt to pit the series against ‘young people today’. Even the younger Dominator does it; hopefully, the writers failed to spot that he is, in practical terms, right – the more intelligent, analytical Dominator is brilliantly played and written like the grown-up, but if he’d just shot everyone in a spasm of bloodlust as Toba wanted, he’d have won. So the script’s ‘We should stand against the Nazis and the hippies!’ message manages to fall apart both in a more Liberal and in an even-more-fascist-than-it-thinks-it’s-being direction. And as for the sexual politics… Well, the text notes reveal what the BBC thought of the purposes of their actresses, while star student Kando on screen is so blatantly as thick as two short planks that when she’s praised by her tutor after not even getting her parrot-fashion lines right, it’s difficult not to conclude that he must be shagging her (add that Jamie suddenly knows what “homework” is and that Zoe, with her perfect recall, shouldn’t think much of her). Though perhaps she is qualified to Dulcian standard, as Educator Balan turns out to be absurdly literal to the point of idiocy, too.

Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln having previously written two rather good stories, this is where they hit a brick wall and never wrote for the series again – the latter, hilariously, starting the whole Knights Templar / Holy Grail / Jesus’ bloodline conspiracy fad with The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – though not necessarily for their politics being watered down, nor for their final couple of episodes being shredded. No, it was because they and the BBC fell out over who would profit from the Quark goldrush. Titter ye not. I’d still love a toy Quark, but I bet Character Options won’t touch those two’s contracts with a barge pole.

New Bits!

If this hasn’t been a wholehearted recommendation of the DVD, there are more reasons to buy it – not least because it has one of the biggest leaps in picture quality from the VHS. I watched my twenty-year-old tape recently, and it’s shocking how almost unwatchably fuzzy the first episode was, in particular; the improvement for the opening titles and space fleet is fantastic. Some of the old film stock remains quite perished, but if you have the story on tape, compare and marvel. Slightly more of the picture’s been captured here, too, as I suddenly noticed on spotting part of Barry Newbery’s lovely sets that I’d never seen before. There’s also about half a minute of ‘new’ footage, all from late in Episode 4 and the start of Episode 5 where censors slashed the shooting of Brian Cant (Brian Cant!), the torture of Teel – even in this restored version we only hear it, but if anything watching Toba’s greedily gleeful face is more disturbing – and Balan’s killing, which now goes on horribly long but is still very badly edited, not to spare our feelings but because it was just clumsily cut between shots in the first place.

As well as a photo gallery, pdfs and a feature on press clippings, Recharge and Equalise is a proper ‘Making of’ which essentially turns into one big bitching session about who’s to blame between the co-writer and the script editor, on separate cameras! Frazer’s a sweetie, though, while Brian Hodgson is handsome and dignified, and the late director comes across as a horribly sexist martinet. The commentary is similar but more variable, thanks to swapping people in and out – it only really catches light when teaming companions Wendy Padbury (now an agent, who discovered Matt Smith) and Frazer Hines, and that’s not often enough. Episode 4’s is probably the best, but perhaps I just enjoyed the shagging gossip and young David Troughton’s long-suffering reaction to one glamorous woman… I enjoyed the text notes revealing just how much Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines worked out between them in rehearsal, too – including the laxative joke that About Time and TARDIS Eruditorum claim helped put him off the part – but am disappointed that, given that the sixth episode was dropped and the fifth written by the script editors rather than the writers, who took their names off it, there’s absolutely nothing about the storyline of the original ending.

I remain very fond of bits of The Dominators, but there’s a lot that just doesn’t work on screen (and sometimes that’s a blessing). Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping’s seminal Doctor Who – The DisContinuity Guide (the first to include analysis – and mockery – rather than just an episode guide) called it sadistic and dull, and those two words stuck in my head. I remember some years ago talking about the story – goodness knows why – with Doctor Who writer Rob Shearman. Now, Rob’s written a great many erudite and a great many more piss-taking Who reviews in his time, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell which is which. There’s no other person I know with such a talent for barefaced Devil’s Advocacy. But when, unconsciously echoing Cornelltoppingday’s words, I told him how much I’d like to like it, but whenever I watch it, it just seems sadistic and dull, “But that’s what I like about it,” he replied judiciously, “its dullness, and its… sadism…” At which point he corpsed, defeated. Not even Rob could lie with a straight face about enjoying The Dominators.

Finally, these days Paul Cornell is a major TV and comics writer and author of the superb Doctor Who TV stories Human Nature and Father’s Day. Back in 1995, he was known to a smaller audience for short stories, reviews and silly songs, and author of the superb Doctor Who New Adventures novels Human Nature and Timewyrm: Revelation. While he didn’t think much of The Dominators in 1995’s The DisContinuity Guide, at around the same time that was published, the story and Blur’s Parklife inspired him to write some lyrics to a possibly familiar tune. As it’s hard to find these days, Paul’s kindly given me permission to reprint it here…

Quarklife

(from the tune by Blur)
Resilience is a preference for the spiked practitioners of what is known as…
Quarklife!
And big-shouldered suits should be avoided if you want to make it through what is known as…
Quarklife!
Toba’s got a padded suit, he gets intimidated by the Dulcians, they’d love a bit of him.
Who’s that fat Time Lord snooping? You should cut down on your porklife, mate, get some exercise!

Dominators
The Dominators
They both go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their
Quarklife…

I activate when my power’s replenished, except on Wednesday when I’m rudely awakened by Dominator Rago.
I check my disintegrator, flap my arms about, and then think about leaving the saucer.
I spin my head, I sometimes spin my whole body. It gives me a sense of enormous well-being.
And then I’m happy for the rest of the day, safe in the knowledge there will always be a part of my programming devoted to it.

Dominators
The Dominators
They both go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their
Quarklife…

It’s got nothing to do with your Ka Faraq Gatri, you know…
And it’s not about you Chumblies who go round and round and round…
– Paul Cornell, 17th April 1995

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Comments:
So pleased to find someone else who sees and defends some of the virtues in this show, while not forgiving its faults.
 
Thank you very much.

For some years now, I've made a point of asking, 'Why is this brilliant?' even with stories I don't much care for. I think it's important not to lose sight of that; bitchy reviews are fun (and easier) to write, but unless they're very witty, not so much fun to read. Though I surprised myself by writing twice as much about this as about The War Games!
 
I agree that as an anti-hippie manifesto it rather trips itself up. For one thing, the chief feature of the ruling elite is not that they are pacifists but that they are hidebound traditionalists and conformists who refuse to consider anything new -- until they are forced to see it with their own eyes, whereupon they accept the new fact with the same passive resignation with which they previously accepted the opposite. Their chief feature seems to be inertia, and their aversion to violence seems less a matter of antiwar convictions than simply a byproduct of a broader aversion to doing anything. The 60s youth counterculture this is not. (And Cully would more likely be hanging out with the Weathermen.)

Incidentally, isn't it Cully, not Toba, who appears to peer up Jamie's kilt?
 
Oh, absolutely - the intent may have been to say, 'If the hippies take over our brains will ossify!' but, if so, the point's lost in making the Dulcian establishment like, well, every other establishment. There's certainly, as you say, no philosophical stand for pacificism.

Incidentally, isn't it Cully, not Toba, who appears to peer up Jamie's kilt?

It is, I believe, both. Cully when Jamie's on the ladder in Episode 4, yes, but also Toba when Jamie's spreadeagled on the table in Episode 2. It was the latter I mentioned because it was more inappropriate, and so funnier.
 
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