Friday, March 30, 2012
Doctor Who and the Dæmons and Barry Letts
I’d meant to publish this on Monday – a particularly august Doctor Who feast day – but, being much more ill than usual (as usual, so often), I didn’t. If anyone has been praying for me, of course, I’m thankful for the thought, as for any kind wishes. Anyway, Monday the 26th of March is the day, in the new calendar, that Doctor Who Rose; it’s the anniversary of part of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, one of the series’ finest stories; and, of course, it was also the birthday of Barry Letts, who produced and co-wrote this story. In the meantime, I seem to have slipped into an argument which some claim to be over science and religion – though it isn’t, really – and which might be caricatured as “Magic!” “Science, Miss Farron!”
I don’t have the energy to write a full article on it, particularly when you wouldn’t believe how long I’ve spent looking at Doctor Who and the Dæmons (the priority, I’m sure you’d agree), and I’ve really said my piece as a comment on Tim Farron’s reply to reports of his complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority with other Christian MPs. Now, my view is fairly simple: everyone should be treated equally under the law, without special privilege or exceptional discrimination; and the law should maximise freedom. As far as specific religious claims go, I don’t believe we can know the truth at the heart of religions – we can’t know for certain if there’s an afterlife, for example, nor which of those said to be on offer is the best – so I’m happy for ads about unprovables to duke it out as they like: ‘There’s probably no god’ / ‘There certainly is’ / ‘There is, but it’s my one and yours doesn’t count’, or whatever.
When it comes to claims about how the world we live in works, however, that can be investigated and either refuted or supported. And the argument is whether adverts headed “Healing on the Streets”, which explicitly list different ailments and promise “XXX can heal” them, should be permitted without in-depth, peer-reviewed evidence of healing for the medical problems listed. Or, rather, as no-one – despite many claiming an attack on free speech – has taken up the absolutist free speech of caveat emptor and no advertising regulation at all. So you’ll be shocked to read that the argument is in fact a tiny one (which is why it’s become so fierce): does every single medical ad listing health problems and the explicit claim “XXX can heal” them require evidence before it can be allowed; or does every single medical ad listing health problems and the explicit claim “XXX can heal” them require evidence before it can be allowed except where the “XXX” word is “God”, in which case anyone can say anything at all. Or, rather than “anyone”, anyone “proper”. The latter position, like homeopathy, is not one I can support, as – measuring it against my principles – it demands extra-special favours from the law, and appears to be a further attack on freedom, by saying that some people must have the power to pronounce on who is “proper” and who is not.
So, in short: Christians (or, indeed, anyone else) should believe and say what they like; if some Christians (or anyone else, including other Christians with different views) want to put out ads about theological questions which are unprovable, good luck to them; and if anyone (whether religious or not) wants to make a medical claim, they should have to prove it reasonably. Now, some Christians want to say this position and others like it is an attack on Christianity. I, and the many Christians who would share my views, believing perhaps in equality before the law or that God made the laws of physics and biology, would say that it is nothing of the kind, merely a defence against exploitative charlatanry and against special favours and exceptional treatment for one or another group. I’ve known and admired (and often voted for) Tim Farron for slightly more than half of each of our lives, and as far as I remember he’s been a practising Christian for that whole period. It’s daft to suggest that I’ve suddenly discovered this or suddenly taken against it. I do, however, think he’s let himself down on this one issue, though I give him credit for arguing his corner in public and engaging with his critics, because it looks to me as if he’s talked himself into a curious blind spot in which he believes that he’s against all special treatment, and this is special, so give me my treatment.
Obviously, there is a very wide spread of views among Christians, many of whom would agree with Tim, many of whom would criticise him for wanting special privileges rather than thinking all are created equal, and many, regretfully the sort of self-styled “Christians” who appear the most in the media and embarrass the others, who would attack Tim for not making this a major ‘culture war’ issue, pretend to speak for all Christians (some, even, for all Liberals), scream that any Christian who disagrees with them is an atheist out to destroy religion, pretend victimhood for not getting special favours, bear false witness, mount nasty ad hominem attacks and censor those who have better arguments. You might read the testimony of the righteous George Potter about such people, if you can bear it.
Unfortunately, one of these unpleasant self-styled Christians whose copy of the Nine Commandments does not include “Thou shalt not bear false witness” and who covets powers and principalities and special privilege over their neighbour is the current Archbigot of Canterbury, of whom I am not a fan. And, sadly and embarrassingly to many Christians who believe in democracy, equality and freedom rather than clutching other people’s power and strength to whine about decadence, he’s gone off on one again. He’s got form – but his latest speech is a doozy:
‘Wahhh the uppity darkies and queers and harridans are oppressing me by answering back and life was so much nicer when they knew their place and it’s not fair that they want the same rights as I have and if I don’t have my privileges I’m only the same as them and they’re just darkies and queers and harridans who should be despised as slaves and sinners and shrews and how dare they say I’m only as good as scum like them boo hoo boo hoo what a world what a world I’m the real victim here.’Unlike my previous fisking of his mendacious pleas for extra-special rights and privileges to (literally) lord it over the rest of us, they’re not his precise words, but I’ve accurately encapsulated their meaning. What a comfort it must be to the BNP to know they have such a learned presence in the House of Lords. Though, word to the wise, which rather exposes his academic pretensions for what they are: women aren’t a minority. In other news: free speech means that you can talk crap, and the rest of us can answer back; and you’re a minority, too, which means that by your “logic” you should shut up.
But now back to a less sinister Church of England vicar.
The Opening of the Barrow
When you get to “The Sacrifice” below, there’ll be some spoilers. You’re warned. And if you’ve never seen the story and get the DVD, well, hit “Play All” as soon as the menu comes up – yes, even the main menu telegraphs the ending (and, less blatantly, there’s some of it in this otherwise excellent The Dæmons DVD Coming Soon Trailer)! Usually, I’d say ‘don’t look at the menus until you’ve seen it’, but this one really stretches it. If you watch the DVD, now with the colours restored to something considerably more clear and vivid than anything those of us born since its broadcast in 1971 have ever seen before, you’ll see that though there are many reasons this story is so fondly remembered, one stands out there above all: for an iconic story of the Doctor, the Master, and raising the Devil (or is he?), the iconic imagery of a gorgeously archetypal English village is irresistible. Before Cardiff, Aldbourne in Wiltshire was the number one Doctor Who pilgrimage site, and about a dozen years ago my long-suffering beloved even drove us there for a couple of hours (note that since that photo was taken I, like Azal, have swelled to vastly greater size).
When I was a boy, this was officially the best Doctor Who story ever; everyone said so. Well, the fans who wrote the magazines and the team who made it did, anyway. And I thought that must be true, then, even though it wasn’t my favourite story even from its season (though it just might be, now). It’s gone out of fashion and some way back in since (at number 34 and the second-highest-placed Pertwee story in the most recent mighty poll of 200 stories), but over the years it’s grown into a comfortable and comforting place in my heart; no doubt that has its own problems for a story that ought to be terrifying (Millennium sings, “What do you do… when the devil squishes you… in an English country… gar-ar-den…” with a notable absence of terror), but for me it still does what people always said of it – shows off what was most appealing in a certain type of Doctor Who. And a few things that remain less appealing, too. Yet I suspect the other major appeal this story has, competing with the village for the deepest fan love, is not the cast or the concept but the extraordinary novelisation, Doctor Who and the Dæmons. The original story was written in 1971 by “Guy Leopold”, a pseudonym for producer Barry Letts circumventing BBC regulations by co-writing the story with Robert Sloman (a partnership that suited them so well, they went on to repeat it every year of Barry’s time as producer), but Barry got to write the novel under his own name three years later, just as he was giving up the day job. His sole book for the original Target range was for many years the longest Doctor Who novel – at almost dead-on 50,000 words, it’s not far off twice the usual count of middle-period Target novels – and has not just length but depth and enthusiasm, still widely regarded as among the handful of the best novelisations to this day.
The original cover’s all right, though not one of Chris Achilleos’ best, as Azal’s green fog swoops round the Doctor; still, my first copy, bought at the St Peter’s Church Fair, seemed ancient and thrilling (though I doubt it was more than three or four years old at the time), and both later covers were still more powerful – Andrew Skilleter’s rearing Dæmon, now used on the CD, and Alister Pearson’s striking, colourful composition (compare the three here). Unusually, though, for me the most memorable illustrations were the black and white interior drawings by Alan Willow, not usually one of Who’s greatest artists, rose to a series of images that stuck in the mind, with the seriously hairy chest of the Dæmon Azal one that had an impact on me even as a little boy. Yes, this cruel recaptioning is quite right about that. Meanwhile, flipping the book to its indigo or purple back (depending on how faded your battered copy may be), you’d find one of Target Books’ most quotable blurbs, though for a story that comes down firmly (if not always plausibly) on the side of science against magic, no-one’s told the copywriter:
“DOCTOR WHO is strangely concerned about Professor Horner’s plan to cut open an ancient barrow near the peaceful English village of Devil’s End; equally worried is Miss Hawthorne, the local white witch, who foretells a terrible disaster if he goes ahead; determined that the Professor should is Mr. Magister, the new vicar (in truth the MASTER) whose secret ceremonies are designed to conjure up from out of the barrow a horribly powerful being from a far-off planet . . . The Brigadier and Jo Grant assist DOCTOR WHO in this exciting confrontation with the forces of black magic!”This is not, perhaps, the most original story in the world, but it’s satisfyingly formed and hugely influential on Doctor Who stories ever after – more so than its prototype, The Abominable Snowmen, this is what people think of when they imagine the archetypal mix of legend with an alien explanation. It sets out to scare, but also to absorb a genre alien to Doctor Who and convert it, to have its cake and eat it. The concept is nicked from another great BBC show: at its core, this is inspired by Quatermass and the Pit, from the big idea of demons as aliens directing human development to countless details (the interrupted TV broadcast of a dig, the buried spaceship, the telekinetic storm, “with horns!”). Yet the trappings of Dennis Wheatley and the series’ own set-up, of the Doctor settled down in exile with the UNIT armed force, give this a more conservative feel: rather than tension between militarism and rationalism amplified by alien strain into brute possession, this fleshes out the soldiers into a cosy ‘family’; a superstitious woman confronting the scientist with evidence that makes him widen his horizons though not swallow her view becomes a superstitious woman as loveable main character and a ‘scientist’ who knows it all already because he just does; in place of the savage mass hysteria of teeming modern London, the safe little postcard village has just a couple of momentary possessions and an embarrassed lynch mob who really can’t wait to be told to put their torches down.
Later riffs on the central concept tend to move further from the Quatermass model, but also from cosiness, aiming more single-mindedly to frighten. Like other ideal Doctor Who Halloween fare, The Dæmons is not, of course, set at Halloween – no Who TV story is, bizarrely – but at the opposing (May)pole of Beltane, just as arguably Doctor Who’s scariest adventure, Image of the Fendahl, takes place over Lammas. The other contender for that title is Pyramids of Mars, which though broadcast over Halloween doesn’t look nearly chilly enough to be set then; both, however, have much in common with The Dæmons, each exploring the theme of an alien ‘dark god’ on the rise. Though far less cosily. I’ve set out before several of the ideas that The Dæmons has in common with Pyramids of Mars, and how in each case the latter story goes much further – I’d add that The Dæmons’ third cliffhanger (or more or less the end of Chapter 8) is much the same as Pyramids’ first, with the crucial difference that we almost root for the villain in one, while the other pushes the same concept shockingly on. And even in Twenty-first Century Doctor Who, people still want to do The Dæmons all over again, from the latest claimant to the ‘Here is the Devil’ story of The Impossible Planet to The Hungry Earth, 2010’s illiterate love letter to the Letts era.
The Appearance of the Beast
One of the reasons this story was for so long so fêted is that all the regular cast had fun, and had plenty to do – which was not just repeated in endless interviews, but showed on screen, and meant that for every viewer their ‘favourite’ had a special moment or three. Though Corporal Bell isn’t seen here or ever again (two female leads would surely have outnumbered the five men terribly), the rest of the “UNIT Family” – including, and especially, charming regular the Master – all had arguably their most memorable moments. Well, I say all. There are two notable exceptions, in very different ways but very much tied together: the third Doctor and his companion Jo Grant.
Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is the one with whom I have the most difficult relationship, having loved him as a boy from the books and the fabulous photos, been aghast as a young man to discover the arrogance of his actual portrayal on videos, then slowly come to an understanding of his character which lets me love, if not like, him. The Dæmons minimises one problem I have with the era – though the novel is still so marvellous it’s superior to the TV version, the TV version remains terrific for me, so the ‘Pertwee Gap’ is far less here than my expectations from most of the books created when faced with the video reality of most of the TV stories – but sends the other off the scale. In his first season, the third Doctor is abrasive but enthusiastic, making him not unlikeable; in his later seasons, he develops a cosily patrician trustworthiness; but in several stories in his second season, he’s nothing but an arrogant git. And The Dæmons is one of two performances at which my jaw still drops at what an utter swine the man is. And I don’t entirely blame Jon Pertwee; this book makes it plain that the characterisation was firmly embedded in the script.
It’s true that the Doctor has his charming moments – singing while driving, because the sky is blue, always sticks in the mind, and at one heroic point throwing away a paternalist advantage to risk telling the villagers the truth and let them make their own decisions – but while they take a bit of finding, you don’t have to look very far for the reverse: start with the Doctor’s very first scene in the book, on page 9. Though Jo doesn’t get her TV line of “How infuriating can you get?” at him, Barry still describes him as “infuriating” several times, which makes it all the more incredible that he’s plainly on the Doctor’s side in such exchanges as this:
“The Doctor smiled to himself somewhat ruefully. He was obviously wasting his time trying to turn Jo into a scientist.The old fraud is obviously wasting our time professing to be a scientist, with lines like that to close down anyone asking questions (the job of a scientist). He’s just as bad later, arguing everything from authority. When he exclaims,
“‘But how do you know there’s nothing in it?’
“The Doctor started to fasten down Bessie’s bonnet.
“‘How? I just know, that’s all.’”
“What does any scientist do with an experiment that fails? He throws it in the rubbish bin.”I really want Jo to chip in, ‘But, Doctor! You’ve been telling me to learn how to be a scientist, and scientific method says “Write it up for a peer-reviewed journal so than people can learn from the proving of the null hypothesis”.’ So it’s no surprise that the story’s big scene establishing the show as one based on science rather than magic degenerates into a ping-pong “Magic!” “Science!” match based on who can shout the loudest rather than marshal the most persuasive argument. Andrew Hickey’s excellent (and much shorter) article on the story shares a particular despair with this ex cathedra approach to ‘science’ (and two of his three “problematic” characters are the two I’m in the middle of looking at here. Who’d have thought?). Similarly, having had lots of training and trained many people myself, I find myself wishing physical violence upon the Doctor for the way he throws his boorish technobabble at poor Sergeant Osgood, clearly having absolutely no clue of how to communicate an idea (an advanced alien sneering at a human instead of helping him understand, like a bullying teacher mocking a five-year-old for not getting Einstein).
Jo’s utter devotion to the Doctor seems only to bring out the worst in him, reflecting terribly on both – one coming across as an abused spouse, the other a domineering bully. She shows the slightest disagreement, and he insults her in front of everyone and shuts her up; she follows him slavishly, and he, er, insults her in front of everyone and shuts her up. Take this, where he stamps her down for cheerleading his own words:
“‘Lethbridge Stewart, you’ll do no such thing! Of all the idiotic plans. In the first place, the energy released could only strengthen the barrier. In the second place, you could provoke the most terrible reprisals; and in the third place, I have a better idea. Over.’Doubtless he’d have had a go at Jo for disloyalty to him if she’d backed the Brig instead. On the telly, of course, this scene is matched with the Doctor flinging his cape on indoors, again, the better to strike a pose.
“The familiar feeling of frustration the Brigadier so often experienced when dealing with the Doctor began to creep over him…”
“…‘Of all the idiotic plans,’ said Jo, ‘as if blowing things up solves anything.’
“The Doctor looked at her severely. ‘The Brigadier,’ he said, ‘is doing his best to cope with an almost impossible situation. And since he is your superior officer, you might show him a little respect. Are you coming?’ and he swept out.
“A slightly rebellious, but definitely subdued Jo Grant followed him.”
Of course, as he’s so beastly to his actual friends, you’d expect him to really pour flames on someone really bad… But no, he disagrees with the Master quite chummily, and though he frankly understatedly calls Hitler a “bounder” and, by extension, doesn’t think much of Genghis Khan, in the context of other stories on either side of this one you’re surprised that he doesn’t name-drop them as his mates, too, as he does – incredibly – with Mao and Napoleon. It’s one of the series’ most boggling spot the difference games; swap the names round, and it’d be just as much in (or out of) character.
Several Doctor Who companions were conceived as “Avengers girls” – the actresses often told so – and with only one exception utterly failed to deliver. Yet only Jo Grant managed the vertiginous fall from that state of grace all the way down to ‘ditzy child’ even before her first scene was shot. As a boy only reading about her, I held this against Jo quite strongly, comparing her unfavourably to brilliant Dr Liz Shaw and her devastating put-downs before Jo and to still more plain-speaking, independent Sarah Jane Smith after her (there was probably an element of ‘blame the victim’ in not thinking much of Jo because she just adoringly takes it from the Doctor, while loving Liz’s near-psychopathy towards him in Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters. Go Dr Shaw!). But while my view of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor has changed for the worse on watching him, the biggest single positive change in my attitude to the Pertwee stories from the books to the TV versions came on discovering Katy Manning as Jo Grant. On screen, Katy grabs what’s often next to nothing in the script and gives us a great character, which takes real talent. And I have to say that, on the several times I’ve met her – not least when once trapped in a lift with her – she’s been absolutely lovely, thrillingly charismatic, and of course mad as a brush. How could I fail to love her? Yet, despite my love of this story – and hers – The Dæmons is arguably where Jo is most childishly credulous and least well served by the script.
Obviously, part of Jo’s problem here is the Doctor; she loves him to bits, and if he’s bombarding her with put-downs like a total swine, she’s going to look rather pathetic in not standing up to him. It would be easy to say that The Dæmons is simply sexist, and while to me the Pertwee era is the only part of Doctor Who that is deliberately and consistently sexist in its scripts, this one is more complicated – while Jo has perhaps her worst part, and worse still in the book, another female character is one of the strongest of the period, and stronger still in the book. All of which makes Jo’s role in the second half of the story the more incomprehensible, as she’s written to take a knock on the head, wake up confused, and go off dazedly thinking she’s being heroic but actually going into peril for no reason. Yes: usually a fictional blow to the head means ‘I lose my memory’, but here it means ‘I will completely artificially arrange to need rescuing’. It’s appalling, too, that once she’s on the wander, not one person’s concerned that she’s concussed, either that that’s triggered her actions or that it might yet have side effects. No, they jump straight from ‘roadkill’ to ‘silly little girl’: Captain Yates calls his co-worker a “little idiot” on finding her gone, then again to her face on finding her, rather than, say, checking her head or asking if she feels dizzy (except as in ‘blonde’). And the book makes it even worse, with Jo herself saying “I’m an idiot,” just to stop the reader having any doubts that girlies are stupid. I suppose the reader has the choice as to whether she’s just very dumb or concussed, hallucinatory and therefore even more lacking in agency. Gee, thanks. Still, the book’s much clearer that she’s grabbed by ivy that’s suddenly animate as one of her page-filling perils, even without the helpful illustration of her as a boggle-eyed dollybird; on screen, it looks like she just has a blurry stagger in an earthquake. Admittedly, that may make more sense than groping fronds which have never groped before and never will again, but at least the book communicates the authorial intention.
Despite her characterisation and the wave of insults from every side, Jo pulls the Doctor’s fat out of the fire on several occasions: the bastard has a go at her map-reading, but the only reason they get anywhere near the dig is that when his arrogant shittery pisses off everyone in sight, her charm persuades them to give directions to her instead; and, obviously, the infamous ending, for which the Doctor rewards her with another shower of shit and a command to strip off. I can’t see it as irony or redemption, though. Instead, such a terrible role for Jo yet her still ‘solving’ the story only undermines the narrative still further.
Without the actors playing them, the other UNIT regulars – Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton – are mostly less vivid than on screen, but they, at least, all get something to do… Even if the Brigadier’s role is the reverse of Jo’s – not to wander pointlessly into trouble to fill up time, but to be kept pointlessly out of it to fill up time. He does, though, get to go off to a regimental do, get some brilliantly irritable italic radio conversations, and of course get to utter his most famous line – though I’ll leave that for the DVD review, should I ever get to it. Benton gets a sort of love interest with Miss Hawthorne, a terrific sequence to save the day with his gun and her wits, and an entertaining dream; Yates is less likeable, but is made the butt of misunderstandings about village life to punish him for it, and is also given some impressive action man moments (and Barry adds an extra in-joke to the character’s final line, supplied in the first place by the actor). There’s a justly famed moment as he goes into a dream, too (poor PC Groom is another character to drift away, though his dream ends less well than the soldiers’), with Barry brilliantly capturing the confusion of falling into a doze:
“He put down the cup and leaned back. Just the chance he needed to get his thoughts in order, he said firmly to himself. Those hoofmarks, for instance. Either there was a monster lurking in the woods, or a hoaxer was at work. If it were to turn out to be a monster it simply became a question of whether the anteater’s tongue was longer than the jelly baby or, on the other hand, vice versa…
“Mike Yates’s eyes snapped open. For Pete’s sake, he was on duty, wasn’t he! This was no time to fall asleep.”
The White Witch
One of basically two memorable one-off female characters of the Pertwee era, Olive Hawthorne is the local white witch – though Church of England, naturally – and there to warn of dire calamity, dance with Sergeant Benton and, like so many others, to be someone at whom the Doctor sights along his nose and lets off both barrels of Mr Patronising. Like Jo, Miss Hawthorne is massively assisted on screen by the actor playing her, in this case Damaris Heyman, being so endearingly memorable; unlike Jo, the book expands mightily on her role and makes her more memorable still, even giving her something important to do at the end (and though technically that then stops before she gets to do it, its real narrative function is to enhance the ending, which it does very successfully both by adding a break to wind up tension and by obliquely explaining what happens).
Miss Hawthorne’s primary role, however, is to be the viewer’s and reader’s way in to Devil’s End, providing the voice of the nice side of the village (and the gossip of the rest), and along the way to be quite massively endearing. It’s a joy to read her going into peals of laughter at Mike Yates’ pompous attempts to boss the village about, and explaining its local politics (though not party politics), then her way of getting the Squire on side and what happens with his “migraine” (always the morning after a night of stimulatin’ conversation down the Cloven Hoof Pub, by an odd coincidence; too much for the old nerves).
Squire Winstanley himself is the village weathervane – though the actual weathervane also has a part to play – as he swings from light to dark. It’s always entertaining to wonder just who are the group summoned so swiftly and secretly – without even Miss Hawthorne knowing, let alone the prowling soldiers – to the Master’s ‘The sermon that follows is of vital importance to you all…’ meeting at the Squire’s. Winstanley’s obviously too pickled to draw up a list, so has the Reverend been experimenting with blazing evangelical versus lily-livered high church sermons and marking off who applauds the one and tuts at the other? My bet’s on his getting hold of some ready-made set: the local Conservative Association, probably, or he’s leant on coven member Mr Ashby at the General Store for his list of subscribers to the Daily Mail. And I know about Mr Ashby, of course, thanks to Barry’s deft one-phrase biogs of the coven (with a couple, like young Stan Wilkins and his thoughts of love potions, then given much bigger roles on the page), making the author an echo of the Master’s one-line exposés of his audience – most notably the somewhat fruitier expansion on just why Mr Greville’s wife won’t be back from her sister’s in a hurry.
The New Vicar
The Master was introduced in the first story of 1971 as the Doctor’s dark mirror, and had been in every story of the season – so it was inevitable that in this, only Doctor Who’s third purpose-built ‘season finale’ (though Barry Letts would be the series’ first producer to do them every year from this point on in his time, and to write each of them), he would be back, and bigger than ever. Mr Magister the local vicar, in horn-rimmed glasses and mellow tones; the imposter revealed, with scowl and snapping fingers; the Satanic priest, in gorgeous robes and deep in evil. And, even in the book, blatantly loving it.
This isn’t the first time in Doctor Who that religion has been both the heart of the local establishment and utterly corrupt, though it is the most complete – yet it’s still worth noting that the most trusted local figure remains the ‘real’ old vicar, who retired so suddenly a few weeks earlier, almost certainly to a very, very small plot in his own graveyard. The Master is the book’s most intensely charismatic character, and enjoys playing with religion from different angles – first sending up the ‘trendy vicar’ with a nice cup of tea and “the modern view,” then mocking the Squire’s drinking with a pious quote from “Saint Paul” that’s really from Othello (sadly not Iago), then preaching a fierily conservative appeal against “Decadence… democracy, equality, freedom. What this country needs is decision, power, strength” (and if you listen to the DVD commentary, be prepared to explode at just what a fascist fathead one of the actors has become, thinking this shows how the series predicted Britain today and that the Master was quite right). And throughout, Barry conveys the Master’s hypnotic eyes and how they seem to change colour as they bore into his victims’, something that influenced many later New Adventures writers for the Doctor.
There are losses, too, of course, for the book against Roger Delgado’s performance on screen; on the page, the Master takes a deep breath as the stakes are raised at one crucial moment, while I prefer his TV counterpart’s counter-intuitively breaking into laughter that his reckless gamble is still on – that mixture of fear and unhinged delight is something I can easily imagine John Simm playing, too. And while it offers a different side to him to remember his and the Doctor’s youthful friendship, I’ve never been as attracted to the perigosto stick as others…
It’s nearly time for the spoiler, so don’t say I haven’t warned you. But as I approach the end of the story, it’s worth a quick look at the structure. Because to me, The Dæmons is structured very well – or, rather, it’s structured brilliantly to start with, and then preposterously for most of it, but cleverly enough to get away with it. The first episode, or the first three chapters, is essentially a Prologue (despite, of course, the first two pages being officially labelled as such), but deftly disguised – basically, there are a set of characters there who are only around to tell you what’s going on and to trigger the main event, after which they vanish, and it’s only at that trigger point that the Doctor and Jo reach the main plot. But then the next eight chapters, or three and a half episodes, are an intricately fashioned interlocking set of characters and events designed to prevent the end of the story following immediately (which, if you step back, it easily could), and so successfully that only Jo’s concussed blundering really draws attention to itself as a writer’s delaying tactic.
The first of these two structural gambits is largely fed by a television programme – a televised archaeological dig that’s not digging up what it thinks it is, and will all go hideously wrong on the stroke of midnight, May 1st. And Barry Letts, having long worked in television, delights in pitching two bitchy ‘viewers’ favourites’ against each other in much entertaining behind-the-scenes detail, passing the time, providing the inciting incident, and of course being the perfect vehicle to explain what’s going on. As they leave, their jobs done, Barry also, incidentally, provides the answer – or at least an answer – to a little mystery left hanging by the TV programme’s version of the TV programme, to which I may return…
The second structural gambit is to, with a near-miraculous degree of success, stop the Doctor, the Master and Azal meeting up to talk it over, at which point the story ends. This is perhaps most noticeable in that Episode Four (translating it into chapters is complicated, as I’ll come to) is almost entirely an obstacle course to stop the Doctor getting back to the Cavern: earthquake; technical hitches; a shooting; Morris Men of Doom… And yet most of it’s rather gripping, even if afterwards you’re hard-pressed to say what, if anything, actually happened – and, perhaps crucially, it enables the Doctor to fight a proxy fight with the Master for the soul of the villagers. In some ways it’s more of a problem that, after spending three and a half episodes trying to get to the village rather than stand about uselessly outside it, the Brigadier finally arrives at the village in order to stand about uselessly inside it (Bok replacing the heat barrier with exactly the same functional effect). And then there’s the problem with the Master, after twenty-four episodes of him as the big villain: the meat of the finale is the dialectic between the Doctor and the Dæmon, and that suddenly pushes him off to one side, a spare part, not just humiliated by Azal suddenly jilting him at the black altar but by a narrative switch that leaves both him and the audience unsatisfied. And at last, of course, that that central dialectic seems to end in an abrupt collapse rather than logic.
The Dæmons has one of the most infamous anti-climaxes in Doctor Who, and it’s not even original: the Doctor was offered supreme power and rejected it in Colony In Space, the previous story, too. So, is the ending as much of a let-down as everyone thinks? And does Doctor Who and the Dæmons improve it?
For me, yes, it is still an anti-climax. Though Azal is termed a Dæmon, he’s more of a dispassionate god looking for someone to lead what he sees as ‘his’ people or send fires and floods to wipe Earth clean for a new batch, and the Doctor doesn’t want to be the messiah (an interesting article identifies not just Azal but the Doctor and the Master as the story’s Dæmons). The previous story makes it clearer that he doesn’t want the responsibility, almost as much as he wants everyone else to have free choice – it’s still a winning moment when even this most paternalist Doctor rejects Azal’s paternalism though he doesn’t help humanity’s case by droning on about how crap we are, in the first of the really overboiled Pertwee homilies. Free choice, though, is not in Azal’s plan, so power reverts to the Master and the Doctor gets the finger. Fortunately, Jo throws herself in front of him, at which point Azal instantly blows up. I paraphrase slightly, but in its essentials you can see why many people still have a problem with it, over forty years later. When the book says of this, “Azal was behaving very strangely”, many readers will retort, ‘Too right, matey’. Neither am I impressed by the empowering nature of Jo’s transmutation from, er, petrified victim to willing victim, though she could be read as a sort of Everywoman to illustrate that all of humanity are stupid children who can’t do anything for ourselves but react to the closing argument between the Grown-Ups From Outer Space, which is a teeny bit patronising but at least no longer sexist. There are, however, defences, justifications, explanations and, in the case of the book, an addition that comes with its own structural cleverness.
Ironically, the only Pertwee story that (just) beat The Dæmons in the Mighty 200 poll was Inferno (though I’d put a couple of others ahead of both), and the irony is that that story also ends in an anti-climax. Though I prefer this one, as at least it’s so bizarre you still talk about it, rather than a damp squib. However, you can do better than that, and there are two main alternative sources. One is Millennium Dome, Elephant’s Mysteries of Doctor Who #9: So why exactly does Azal blow himself up at the end of the Dæmons? As well as revealing Azal’s experimental requirements, he posits two plausible explanations, one based on the Doctor’s exposition of the Dæmons’ science (and thematically ‘right’), the other taking an idea established elsewhere in Doctor Who and applying it with neat logic.
The other alternative, more ambiguous and more of an allusion than a direct explanation, comes from Barry Letts in Doctor Who and the Dæmons, and does indeed improve on his TV version. When directing Doctor Who, Barry would occasionally swap scenes around, even if this meant different orders in different episodes – certainly in Planet of the Spiders, possibly in Carnival of Monsters – but his most ambitious re-editing comes towards the end of Doctor Who and the Dæmons. Some scenes slip from what was one episode to another; some now jump back in time rather than cutting between roughly simultaneous events; and another scene being added as a metaphor for what’s going on.
That crucial extra piece is Miss Hawthorne attempting to use some magical judo against the flying gargoyle Bok, whose power she hopes to use against himself on the magical principle that an attack that doesn’t find its target rebounds on the sender. I think you can see what this is getting at. What I rather like about this, other than the characterisation, is that it neither directly connects this with Azal, nor allows the attack to be completed – so there’s a double ambiguity, rather than just coming out and saying ‘…and so magic works’. It’s still not ideal, nor in how the scenes are rejigged. Miss Hawthorne’s magical attack really should come before the Dæmon’s still dreadfully unconvincing decision to pop his cloven clogs, particularly if it signals how it’s supposed to work; the Devil’s end is still far too abrupt, though it’s helped, at least, by cutting away to Miss Hawthorne for some time (if not quite at the right time) in order to give us a pause to think about things. And there are two omissions from the coda which the TV offered, perhaps suggesting they were written by the script editor in last-minute tidying-up rather than by Barry; the book loses the barrow and the spaceship within it blowing up, and the Master’s put-down of the Doctor’s optimism. In all, though, the book remains for me a striking improvement on the story, expanding it, widening it, giving it far greater characterisation, and leaving me more satisfied as it closes with
“a dance of thanksgiving, a dance of liberation, a dance of joy.”Doctor Who Magazine 417’s in-depth and informative Fact of Fiction by Alan Barnes on The Dæmons (which I must compare to the DVD text notes when we get to them), is generally worth reading and even starts by mounting a bold justification for the story’s ending as an ironic and “deeply satisfying dramatic inversion” (with the ‘Devil’ not evil but amoral, so it’s less Satan defeated by love than a stern dad, I’m not convinced this argument works as well as Millennium’s version, but it’s a brave stab), but does have the odd mistake and omission: standing out for me, he doesn’t make clear the identical Quatermass “with horns” scene; he fails to note the two quotes from The Dæmons fitted together to made a cut-and-shut flashback line in 2007’s Utopia; and he talks about Benton’s “rifle,” which is not only very visibly a pistol on screen but, in the book – from which Mr Barnes quotes extensively – Benton even complains to himself that the Doctor’s demanding a tricky shot and must be assuming he’s got a rifle. Despite the power supply running through a cable to be cut off by the heat barrier being surely a more significant problem, he also smirks that the Nuton Power Complex, supplying power to the Doctor’s machine, “is operational again, so soon after its destruction!” Given that only its laboratory blew up and left most of the place untouched, that’s not surprising, but it’s a mistake everyone seems to make and, as getting it right would involve watching The Claws of Axos, you can let him off.
The Third Appearance
After TV and book, the third version of The Dæmons is Barry Letts’ unabridged and rather excellent reading of his novel across five CDs and six hours, which is one of the best in the range. As always, these productions have their ups and downs – no Doctor Who theme, but interestingly different sound effects and musical stings (a great improvement on the TV’s mood-destroying wibbly synthesiser), and with most of its chapter-points inserted rather irritatingly not at natural ‘scene breaks’ but just roughly three-minute intervals, making navigation far less straightforward than it should be – but, unlike Barry’s kindly and occasionally meandering commentaries on the DVDs, when reading from a script he suddenly comes into sharp focus and you realise what a very good actor he was to begin with. It’s really very enjoyable, with the one notable downside that somehow having the Doctor’s still more patronising lines read out makes them more egregious than on the page. Astoundingly, even all the running on the spot is great fun to listen to as well as to watch, and Barry not just loves his characters but is able to bring them all to life. True, a man of over eighty recording lines for Jo Grant has a higher register that cracks a bit, making it unintentionally amusing when the Master replies to her “You beg so prettily, my dear.” Barry’s Master, though, is outstanding, especially with an echo on him: a page earlier than the moment that caused me unfair mirth, when Jo defiantly announces that the Doctor will come, the book’s “I hope he will. I shall be able to . . . ah . . . kill two birds with one stone” is delivered with a marvellous little chuckle in the middle.
I don’t read a lot of fan fiction, but I must also recommend Not To Be Enterprised Lightly, “In which the Master discovers there’s more to being a vicar than wearing a dress with a funny collar”, a short and entertaining combined character piece, wedding comedy and rather more attentive look at the Church of England and its canon than perhaps the main story itself can boast. You might also admire a sample for a The Dæmons graphic novel, while I’ve taken the liberty of printing here Adrian Salmon’s fabulous artwork for The Dæmons in Doctor Who Magazine’s Time Team.
Epilogue: By Barry Letts
Barry Letts died two and a half years ago; he would have been 87 this week. I met him just the once, at a convention early in the year he died, but in some ways I’d known him almost all my life. Few Doctor Who producers had such a distinctly personal effect on the series (Richard noting that those few tend to be the ones that really mattered), and fewer are remembered so almost universally fondly, with a rather lovely tribute to him now, appropriately, available on The Dæmons DVD. Although I started watching Doctor Who, aged three, only with his very last story as producer, he had a huge impact on me from childhood on, especially through the books based on his era, and not least politically. And not just me – not only was his period regarded as ‘the golden age’ by many influential fans as I was growing up, later overtaken by revisionists who’d agree with one of Barry’s own stories that “There never was a golden age,” but of all the vibrant mix of old Doctor Who that influenced the new when the series returned under Russell T Davies, Barry’s tenure was arguably the most significant. And now, of course, Doctor Who’s made in Barry!
There are many things about Barry Letts that I liked and admired – and loved – and some with which I disagreed. I suspect that, had I been a couple of decades older and watched the programme from the start in 1963, I’d have been deeply disgruntled with Barry’s reign of exile to Earth rather than adventures in time and space; but having started watching the series as the Doctor once more became the wanderer in the fourth dimension he was always meant to be, I’ve always been free to love much of the UNIT days and characters, not least because I know that he’s not with them for ever. It’s the example I remind myself with whenever there’s a patch of newly made Doctor Who that really doesn’t suit me; by definition, a constantly changing, wandering series will go somewhere else before too long, and then I’ll be more happy with what I didn’t fancy at the time, able to appreciate what I like about it and think, ‘Well, it’s in the past, and wouldn’t it be dull if everything was the same?’ about what I don’t. And, of course, with Barry having taken over immediately after the ‘exile to Earth’ format was decided, all his later interviews have suggested a not dissimilar approach – he loved the characters, but was champing at the bit to get the Doctor out and about again.
Aside from his era in general, there are two sorts of thing I associate particularly with Barry Letts, and for which he deserves enormous gratitude and fondness. First, the four stories he co-wrote for Doctor Who on TV with Robert Sloman make a fascinating set, each capping one of the seasons he produced, each serving as season finale (before such things were expected) and summation of his themes, each multi-layered and asking interesting philosophical questions – though I didn’t always agree with the answers – and three of the four rather wonderful in their own ways. The Dæmons will, I think, always be his most celebrated story for so many reasons, his first and probably best; The Time Monster, as I’ve written, a bit of a mess, not totally hopeless but unsuccessfully trying to recapture The Dæmons (with a long list of elements recycled from their first go that I’ve already set out, so won’t cruelly recycle here myself); The Green Death arguably his most coherent story yet also the most unlike the rest, more sharply political than philosophical; and Planet of the Spiders, a Buddhist fable that’s perhaps his most deeply personal work, and which I’ve always loved despite being at odds with much of it.
The other thing for which I’m eternally grateful to Barry is that he seemed such a nice man, giving so much of himself to Doctor Who all the way from taking over the producership through to his final months in 2009. On paper, in interviews and in person, he always came across the same way, and almost every story about him agrees; he was kindly, though not without steel, intelligent, and always generous to the series and its fans. The only time I got to talk to him was at Fantom Films’ Who and Them – Celebrating the Work of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, when I nerved myself to join him in the bar with Terrance Dicks (though he was less in the bar than some producers) to ask some of the questions I’d always wanted to ask. He looked frail, though much less so than in some of his earlier interviews taken at the previous low points of his cancer, but spoke spryly, welcomingly, interested and interesting. He’d said on stage that The Dæmons was his favourite story, and seemed pleasantly surprised when I congratulated him on his reading of it, new at the time – as well as giving some interesting views on one of my favourite years of Doctor Who, 1980-81’s Season Eighteen, for which he’d returned in an advisory role. It has a unique feel for me, and I’d often wondered just what sort of impact he had on it. Mainly a link between producer John Nathan-Turner and the BBC higher-ups, he said, but praised John for knowing what he was doing and mostly not needing help, except on scripts, which he had no interest in at all. On those, he gave far more fulsome praise for lead writer Christopher H Bidmead:
“Chris was full of ideas and had a very strong imagination, though he’d talk away and I often wouldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. But he’d never done anything like this before, so I gave notes on some of the first few scripts particularly. Then, once Chris had left, John went off to a convention in America, leaving a trainee script editor in charge – ‘Don’t bother me with scripts,’ said John – and he had this script that was due next by a director, and it was dreadful. I mean, it was unusable. It was a sort of skit on Welsh rugby [I react with disbelief; “Yes,” he emphasises]. So I said we couldn’t possibly do that, but there was another one that was ready by Terence Dudley that just might work, so we put that into production instead.”Barry’s dedication and generosity is very clear to DVD viewers – with many of his stories in need of heavy restoration work and so coming out after his death, we still get to see and hear him on pretty much the whole range of the stories he oversaw. It’s impossible not to see how much he cared about Doctor Who to the end, and all the extra features still being produced with his contributions are testament to how much material he determinedly recorded in advance because he knew how ill he was and still wanted to give as much as he could.
Now, I’ve said that I don’t agree with everything of Barry, and though I won’t critique him in detail here, there are a few observations I should add for balance. Barry was also a director, and evidently loved it more than producing, though for me his direction was more workmanlike, with flashes of inspiration. For me, Barry was, as a man, generous. As a producer, steady. As a director, all right. As a writer, variable. I’ve set out my philosophical problems with Planet of the Spiders before, even as I can’t help love the story; I disagree with his view that his successor Philip Hinchcliffe “Went a bit far”, as it’s that going a bit far that first enthralled little me about the series; and then there are some of his later stories. If I tend to prize the TV stories he co-wrote even though they don’t bear his name, I tend to wince at the later stories for radio and novel which do. For me, they’re really not the best way to remember him, and I’d go for his other works above long before you get to the hit-and-miss radio serial The Paradise of Death, the absolute bomb The Ghosts of N-Space (though neither as bad as his Blake’s 7 attempts), or any of his later ‘original’ Doctor Who novels, which have little of the depth, style or storytelling of Doctor Who and the Dæmons. Above all, I’d urge you to put his audio play Sarah Jane Smith: The TAO Connection to the bottom of your list, because it’s just horrible. Badly written, badly plotted, but also simply bad. I nearly wrote a post late last year called ‘Doctor Who Vs The Gays’ to comment on a then-current and, I think, unjustified controversy, but one of the reasons I was reluctant to was that portrayals of LGBT characters are usually far more complex than mere ‘good / bad’, and the prime problem is that there are still so very, very few characters that each one bears far more weight than a character should. It doesn’t help that we’ve almost completely vanished again in the latest new regime on TV. Now, I’ve met Who actors and writers who’ve been explicitly homophobic (and in person), heard conflicting tales about others, and known others still who’ve been unfairly maligned. Such is the complexity and ambiguity of art. And across almost every other series, too; thank you, to pick the latest example, Upstairs Downstairs, for your groundbreaking characterisation of lesbians as titillating and gay men seedy corrupters of youth for whom a punching is too good (but funny). What I’ve been putting off, then, is that everything else I’ve seen about Barry’s life, his casting choices, his views as far as I can see them, and what I made of him in person, mean that I can’t see him as homophobic. When writing The TAO Connection, however, I suspect that simply coming from a different generation and just being rather thoughtless explains the most vilely homophobic stereotype ever depicted in any form of Doctor Who. It didn’t help that for many years, Big Finish’s productions boasted almost zero gay characters on their CDs despite the many LGBT people making them. So perhaps it was that dearth that meant when only their second gay character (and second villain) in five years of releases was the equivalent of your second Jewish character being a child-murdering usurer, I felt someone might have asked whether playing up to the nastiest possible caricatures used to attack an oppressed group as your sole illustration was entirely well-considered. One day there’ll be so many ordinary and extraordinary LGBT characters that one horribly negative stereotype won’t bother anyone. But, right now, I’d never bother listening to it again.
One later work by Barry, however, is well worth looking out – on CD, in expanded book form, or waiting for the next time it comes round on Radio 4 Extra. His autobiography, Who and Me, is charming, self-deprecating, and shining with love for Doctor Who and many of the other works he was part of in his early career as actor, director and writer. As ever, I don’t agree with every case he makes, but he makes them engagingly and persuasively, and if you catch the audio version he is, again, a lovely reader, his writing’s conversational style perfectly brought out as the man himself chats to you. And I never fail to get slightly misty-eyed when, half-way through his time on Doctor Who, this volume comes to an end with a never-to-be-followed
“No; I’ll tell you next time…”If you want a taste of Barry’s era of Doctor Who, you might go to this page of the BBC’s Doctor Who site, scroll down to the bottom right and click on Doctor Who Years: The Seventies which, despite promising Tom Baker, spends its first quarter-hour putting pop hits to clips of every story from Barry’s time, when Jon Pertwee was the Doctor. It’s endearing, exciting and entertaining, and for the ’70s edition, at least, doesn’t have too much editorialising of the compiler’s particular preferences (though watch out – it sometimes gives away the endings). Though forgive me for possibly having a preference for some of the stories from 1975 onwards, and the music from 1977 on (even two acts I’ve seen live, and one song which in a later version was the first time I was identified in public as gay in a friendly way: after dancing to it at a school disco, one boy observed, “You’re not entirely straight, are you?” Wonder what happened to him?). Shame they don’t have the real Rock’N’Roll Years online, really, isn’t it? Surely it’s about time BBC4 mounted a complete repeat of The Rock’N’Roll Years – and of Doctor Who, come to that…
For many fans, Barry Letts’ legacy is straightforward: he was producer for one of the most popular Doctors, Jon Pertwee, from his second (and in my view best, not least thanks to Barry’s moral underpinning) story on; and, in leaving, he chose the next and arguably most popular of all the Doctors, Tom Baker. And on Barry’s death, I remember Tom’s heartfelt tribute to the man who changed his life (“a nudist as well as a Buddhist” – well, I’m with him on one of those), as well as über-fan Toby Hadoke’s lovely obituary in The Independent – and, of course, those by Andrew Hickey and Millennium Dome, Elephant. And Will Howells’ song. Remembering Barry’s Buddhism, I’ll not say ‘Rest in peace’, but, if he was right, ‘Come back as something exciting’.
Labels: Adverts, Big Finish, Books, Doctor Who, Gay, Jon Pertwee, Obituary, Pictures, Quackery, Quatermass, Religion, Sarah Jane Smith, Science, The Brigadier, The Dæmons, The Master, Tim Farron, Tom Baker
I've been caught by slightly editing Barry's quote to make him even nicer, partly because the person he mentioned has also since died: but as Barry did give the name and I took it out, I should clarify that, according to the notes I jotted down straight after talking to him, the words he used were "this script that was due next by the director Pennant Roberts". So I don't know if it was Barry, Bidmead or Root that nixed the Meglos Men, but it was Roberts' script that Barry thought even worse than Terence Dudley's (just think: there could have been three directors suddenly turned writers with feeble scripts that year).
And to be fair to JNT, Barry gave the impression he had a grip on with everything except the words... Though admittedly I'd say they're the most important bit!
Still, one day Big Finish might find it, give it to Tom, and be told it's "whippet-shit".