Thursday, June 04, 2020


Doctor Who – The Savages: SJW Since 1966 #Fragments

Doctor Who has always been political. From the very start, the Doctor has fought fascism and stood up for freedom. But you wouldn’t know it from the periodic explosions from some fans or media headlines that the series has been ‘ruined’ by ‘suddenly’ turning Social Justice Warrior.

It’s not new. Fifty-four years ago tonight, the SJW Doctor upset a bunch of fans who just didn’t get it, condemned an unequal society, and gave the villain a piece of his mind.
“The sacrifice of even one soul is far too great! You must put an end to this inhuman practice.”

To Begin With…

Doctor Who – The Savages Episode 2 was first broadcast on June 4th, 1966. The Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions Steven and Dodo have landed in what’s claimed to be an age of great peace and prosperity, but not everyone seems to be enjoying it. In the ‘civilised’, technologically advanced City, people profit from great vitality with no cost, contented as long as they ask no questions. In the wilderness outside, cave-dwellers age before their time. What could be the City’s terrible secret? …Yes, the twist came in Episode 1 of four. But there are two interesting things left (and one awkward one), and, surprisingly, Episode 2 is the exciting part.

The Savages is not an especially well-known story. It might be the most forgotten of Doctor Who’s largely forgotten third season – perhaps because it has no ‘monsters’ (at least, not to look it; keep The Dark Crystal in the back of your mind), perhaps because it was novelised very late in the range, perhaps because it was one of too many Doctor Who stories the BBC transmitted in the 1960s and then burnt (yes, I know). All of them survive as soundtracks recorded at home, usually with an assortment of photos to give a taste of what they may have looked like, but aside from a handful which have recently been animated to give them a new lease of life, they’re not as accessible as stories that move about a bit. And speaking personally, it was the Classic Who story I came to ‘see’ last and have probably watched least.

Particularly in these future times that don’t even pretend to great peace and prosperity, I try to find something cheering to Tweet each day. And not being one for uplifting mottos, the easiest prompt for me is to find the anniversary of a Doctor Who story or something else I enjoy and Tweet something interesting about it. Last week I had a look through some old notes from when I last watched The Savages in search of inspiration, and (slightly to my surprise) I found it. So this piece started off as a Twitter thread this time last week, which I’ve collated and polished and expanded here into something not quite an article, but which is now appallingly topical…

For many years, all I knew about The Savages was what I’d read in one-paragraph summaries in programme guides – and, a bit like Galaxy 4 at the top end of the same season, it’s a simple story with bold moral (but a complicated way of showing it) which when I eventually came to watch it, I found out there’s not a lot more to it than the one-paragraph pitch. But there is a bit more. The first thing about it is that it’s got several Doctor Who ‘firsts’ (even though most of them are more memorably done later).

A Few Doctor Who ‘Firsts’

This is the tail end of Doctor Who’s third season, a hefty way in for most series, but this Episode 2 is the first not to have a new title of its own. Up until now, modern viewers would recognise the way it’s been: from 1963 on, every episode had had its own title, no matter how long or short the story it’s part of. The Savages Episode 2 sets the pattern right up until the end of Classic Who: ‘Story Title + Episode X’.

Not an absolutely fascinating fact? Well, how about this: The Savages is the first Doctor Who story to have location filming at a quarry somewhere in England which, by the magic of television, becomes an alien world (and, by the magic of critics, becomes a cliché).

It’s the first Doctor Who script by Ian Stuart Black, a major TV writer who only contributes three Who stories, but all within a year. While his first here is a bit middling, his second is considerably more exciting (and influential in its own ways), while his third, The Macra Terror, is one of my all-time favourites (and one of those burnt stories now thrillingly recreated by animation).

And perhaps most significantly for the series’ continuing moral development, while it may not be a huge leap from what’s gone before, this is firmly the first story where the Doctor could leave but chooses instead to stay, save people and fight ‘human’ oppressors as he does Daleks. It’s also in its own way the show’s first vampire story (spoiler, but that’s already obvious in last week’s episode), though like most of Doctor Who’s many vampiric tales, it avoids using the V-word.

Where Fans Miss the Point

I feel bad for criticising “fans”. I love Doctor Who fans. I am one. I married one. And Doctor Who made such an impact on my life that one of my best-known articles remains How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal. But there are some fans who seem to have watched Doctor Who without ever thinking about it for a single second, and who shout hateful politics that are the utter antithesis of the Doctor’s. I wonder if this story made a deliberate point as far back as 1966 – perhaps not about Doctor Who, but about how people watch ‘message’ TV and even when it makes its message so blatant that critics roll their eyes, some viewers still just don’t get it.

When I first watched Babylon 5 (another deliberately, institutionally liberal science fiction series) back in the ’90s, one early episode was the butt of criticism. Infection had a bad reputation as preachy, unsubtle and generic. It has several morals of the week (one at the end almost direct to camera), but the central one was so very heavy-handed that I remembered it with eye-rolls of my own. As if we needed to be told racial supremacists are bad! Rewatching it in the last couple of years, I thought, ‘No! It was too subtle! Louder! With diagrams! Neon letters ten metres tall!’ Because we haven’t learned a bloody thing! And The Savages has a very obvious moral that it seems could do with diagrams and neon letters ten metres tall even after the Doctor explains it pretty much direct to camera.

In earlier drafts, this story started as a racial allegory, which changed to became more generally applicable… But the make-up on the City-dwellers is awkward (it’s not exactly black-face for ‘role reversal’, but it’s not quite not; their leader seems to have by far the heaviest make-up, so it might imply a ‘tanned’, super-healthy look, like Dracula’s ruddy glow after feeding). I grew up knowing this sort of information from those one-paragraph synopses which told me pretty much everything. Except they all made the same crass mistakes.

The City-dwellers are not named “the Elders”.

Yes, some of the City-dwellers are indeed titled that. The rest of them aren’t called anything in particular. But… A clue: if you didn’t know the name of the city where I live, but you knew Sadiq Khan’s title, the people who live here would still not be called ‘the Mayors’.

That’s not the crass bit.

This is a story of rough-looking cave-dwellers exploited by ‘civilised’ City people. It’s an allegory. You see, I explain patronisingly, the ones who appear ‘civilised’ are, if you think about it, in a shock twist…
You might think I’m hammering the point home way too heavily. But despite neither peoples being named, leaving it to the viewer / listener to find the answer for themselves who the title of the story fits, ‘Who are the real “Savages” here?’ (it was the Sixties)…
In neon letters ten metres tall, for the avoidance of doubt: the conclusion this serial is subtly guiding viewers towards is that brutally draining the life-essence from people conveniently defined as not really people is savagery. Trying to live despite long violence and exploitation crushing your culture is not.

The City people are the real “Savages” here.
[Take a breather, rub your nose after I was too on it]

Yet in a triumph for unthinking literalism, every fan and book synopsis – even the soundtrack CD narration – labels the cave-dwellers “the savages”.

All of which made it a thing of utter joy when I looked at this adventure and realised that the story’s villains who fail to see the problem here are the first in-universe Doctor Who fans. The City people have followed the Doctor’s travels and think he’s brilliant! They’ve even given him their own fan-fic title: “The Traveller From Beyond Time”. But they’ve never wondered if, just maybe, the things he says might apply to them.

The City’s Elders are nice, comfortable, polite people who put their robes on the Doctor and expect our hero to praise their way of life. They think he’ll literally fit in. They’re appalled when, instead of protecting their feelings, the Doctor first asks awkward questions and then compares them to the Daleks. The Savages might be better-remembered had the Elders looked like the Skeksis, but then they’d be much less uncomfortable for the viewer. If it were made today, an affronted Jano would be asking, ‘But, Doctor, don’t you think #CityLivesMatter?’

I love William Hartnell’s blazing righteous anger. You can see why some don’t.
No utopia can tolerate people asking difficult questions.
It’s always far worse to hurt people’s feelings by calling them out than it is for them to actually hurt, exploit and murder others.
From a certain point of view.

“We do not understand you, Doctor… How can you condemn this great artistic and scientific civilisation because of a few wretched barbarians?”
“So your rewards are only for the people that agree with you?”
“No! No, of course not… But if you are going to oppose us—”
“Oppose you? Indeed I am going to oppose you – just in the same way that I opposed the Daleks or any other menace to common humanity.”
“I’m sorry you take this attitude, Doctor. It is most unscientific. You are standing in the way of human progress.”
“Human progress, sir! How dare you call your treatment of these people ‘progress’?”
“They are hardly people, Doctor. They are not like us.”
“I fail to see the difference.”
“Do you not realise that all progress is based on exploitation?”
Exploitation, indeed! This, sir, is protracted murder!”
“We have achieved a very great deal merely by the sacrifice of a few savages.”
“The sacrifice of even one soul is far too great! You must put an end to this inhuman practice.”

Nobody likes being called a monster, but in this story, the Daleks look just like us, and when he makes them uncomfortable they immediately turn on their hero, the Doctor. So by the end, the only answer it to smash it all up.

Doctor Who: being ruined for some fans by the Doctor being an SJW since 1966.

Bigger On the Inside

After this terrific impassioned moment, the story has a certain amount of trouble filling its second half, but it has one more great idea: the City-dwellers have long been draining and living off the energy, creativity, intelligence and life-force of the wilderness people. City leader Jano orders the Doctor to the vampiric lab and consumes his essence. But the Doctor is especially vivid…

Jano failed to get the point of Doctor Who as a viewer and fan, but on absorbing the Doctor directly he finally starts to think ‘What would the Doctor do?’ Because the Doctor’s essence is bigger on the inside. Though we don’t get nearly enough Hartnell later, we do get brilliant flashes of Hartnell from Frederick Jaeger as the Doctor’s life and morals struggle with his own (in a reverse-Buffy, the victim possessing the vampire). And that makes you feel what Doctor Who is about.

Plus, the Doctor carries his “reacting vibrator”, which is always entertaining.

If you’re intrigued, later stories engaging with similar ideas range from The Tenth Planet just a few months later (which expands from a vampire society to a whole vampire planet, and with mummy-wrapped zombies to make it memorable) to 1977’s The Face of Evil (two peoples split in a more interesting way though this time not really either of their faults, with the opposite ending where, rather than the Doctor leaving a natural leader to help from outside, leaves with the natural leader because she doesn’t want to be the chosen one) and then to 2011’s The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People (where some people count as human while those they exploit don’t, and the process makes another Doctor who makes life uncomfortable).

This is the third of what might be a series of Fragments – not-quite-finished, not-quite-polished, from ideas I’ve written up over time and maybe I’ll share some of them anyway. If you’d like more, please let me know, and if you’d like to help, please ask me, ‘Have you at some point written something intriguing about Story / Series X, and could you find it, consider it and post it?’ You might suggest one that I can (TS;RM [Too Short; Read More]? Here). This one was partially inspired by Iain Coleman, who asked for comedy historical Hartnells, and while I’ve not exactly got there, one out of three’s a start.

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