Sep 10

Time Reconsidered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Who Eps: #9 FOUR TO DOOMSDAY

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or “Ah! Conformity! There is no OTHER freedom!

… being a show-by-show TARDIS-esque (ie in effect random) exploration of Doctor Who Soup to Nuts, begun at LJ’s diggerdydum community and from now on also crossposted at FT.

First from actual real 5IVE in this project (that isn’t just me miscounting), and also first with Adric! Where oh where is my trusty MAXIMUM CONTRARIANISM GENERATOR? (First stab: at least he’s better than K9). In 1982’s FOUR TO DOOMSDAY, a giant big ship travelling back and forth between Urbanka and Urth, where STRATFORD GODFROG & HIS TRILLION TINY CHIPS are set to unleash tyranny (and then the bad kind of time travel), via the waves ofandroid slaves fashioned from four key stages of human civilisation (“here’s one we abducted earlier!”): Oceanic, Aztec, Medieval and Industrial Aboriginal, Mayan, Athenian and Mandarin… Now read on

i: First I should note I am v.fond of P.Davison, who was a welcome relief after so many centuries of POPEYED JELLYBABYBOY: and (maybe as a consequence) I started watching regularly again, and enjoying again: 4tD follows straight on from Castrovalva, which I can’t recall at all now but back then liked a lot. Tegan has not yet worked out she will NEVERMORE SEE HEATHROW…
ii: … which I guess leads into the the problem of COMPANION FOURSOMES (this four inherited from the end days of PJ, I believe). It’s like a double date: it’s a really hard dynamic to sustain; you also end up with stories drumming up busywork. The story begins with a competition between Adric and Nyssa to prove who is the mathsiest (oddly enough: by reading B.Russell’s Principia Mathematica, a book about as useful as The Technological Horizons of Phlogiston. Clever Nyssa is kept busy doing clever things; clever Adric is kept busy saying clever thing, and being flattered (by STRATFORD GODFROG aka MONARCH) into inadvertent treachery. His massive — and instantly obvious — wrongness in this regard actually shunts Nyssa even further out of the limelight, by demonstrating that Tegan’s irrational intuitions about the frog people are correct, from the very start. (T thinks they’re ugly, so they must be evil…) (and btw has a startlingly run-on-the-spot escapade in 4tD, ftb having nothing to do otherwise: she escapes to the TARDIS and tries unsuccessfully to fly it on her own) (she’s an air hostess, so her failure is shockingly unrealistic)
iii: OK this is a much-mocked tale, but the set-up and mise-en-scene are pretty good, and all unwinds well enough for two and a half episodes. The team meet the aliens and the androids, including a philosophical greek, and are given the runaround in various ways; and threatened with being chipped and enslaved themselves. The final ep is a bit of a shocker in terms of staging, too much action and too many lowgrade stunts packed into too short a space, and bad basic science… BUUUUT
iv: I shall argue that the chaotic rubbishness of the final scene actually suits the story well (in one sense); it’s really let down by poor comedy choreography
v: And so, BRING ON THE DANCING GIRLS (and boys)! In a 4-ep story, some 3.734 eps is given over to ANDROID DANCING ROUTINES (very occasionally interrupted by whispered plotting), in ALL the styles. I’ve seen complaints abt this in Tom’s polls: the hatas are WRONG. Well, actually they’re not quite wrong — the dancing isn’t very good, and this is a blunder. But the time spent watching dancing — and the stagespace packed with dancers — is EXACTLY RIGHT. There is not enough non-contemporary non-human dancing in Doctor Who: it is a window to the muscle-soul people! Or would be if choreographed with a bit of imagination (cf NOT the stupid lame music of the stupid Ood).
vi: — and quickly past the bad science, since it needs nailing. Tegan has moved the TARDIS a cricket-pitch length off-board. 5IVE jumps out halfway in a spacehelmet but gets marooned — he uses the throw of a cricket ball to get him the rest of the way BUT gets the main impetus from its bouncing off the spaceship and him catching it. CONSERVATION OF MOMENTUM TEACHES US that most of velocity he would get from the throw itself (as the ball goes in one direction he goes in the other). Even if the bounce occurred with perfect elasticity (unlikely with a cricket ball off metal, even in a vacuum) this would only double his
velocity when he caught it. Bah.
vii: OK here is my argument. Frog-God — travelling backwards and forwards alone in a vast spaceship for hundred of thousands of years, surrounded only by androids he has programmed, is very very VERY shut in and mad. His favourite activity is watching Mayan dancing girls doing the SAME ROUTINE for the millionth time: like some loser loonie who has seen The Sound of Music 347 times EXCEPT plainly derangedly worse. Obviously he thinks he’s God and can engineer time: he hasn’t met ANOTHER LIVING SOUL for centuries (exception, the Greek Philosopher, who even as an android despises him so much he’s soured towards nihilism) . The dramas being played out here is — as so often — a certain arid kind of intellectualism, good with machines and machine logic, terrible with social interraction, and poor old Frog-God ends up deciding Adric is a genius bcz he agrees with Frog-God. So it’s totally appropriate that his defeat is a clumsy humiliatiing silly run-about, with everyone having to push through milling dancers, and Monarch turned into a pin-point nothing with a hat placed over him. Tegan’s EMOTIONAL abreaction is on the money from the off: the villain is a plump numpty. She knows, as much as anything, because he takes her little fashion sketch as a blueprint: NOTHING more sinisterly worrying than when someone who thinks themselves smart adopts a notion you know is rushed and lame.

I enjoyed this, and think people are a bit hard on it. The FX and physical comedy ARE a bit sketchy, and — philosopher Bigon aside — the acting is generally below par. The potential offered by the set-up IS thrown away, but this is really the point: the villainous plan is paper thin and unravels into higgledy-piggledy absurdity. (This is written up ten days after I saw it, as I’ve been laid up with bad
back — I suspect I’ve forgotten quite a lot, good and silly.)

UPDATE: During a lull at work, I rescued from my scribbled notes some of the VERY awesome dialogue in this story (not always clear who said what, but makes clearer I think the two buried idea-lines that we’re offered but never quite get):
1: “How can earthlings have penetrated us? Have they learnt the error of their ways?”
2: “You are very kind!” “I am merely civilised!”
3: “This artefact is too primitive to defy my technology” (sed by MONARCH of the TARDIS)
4: “”We’re all going to heaven!”
5: “He is too jocular!”
6: “We have no comparable culture — such concepts are for the primitive” (sed by one of the Urbankans, of dancing)
7: “You weren’t made immortal to engage in gossip!” “There is no Ultimate to find!” “BLASPHEMY!” (exchange between Monarch and Bigon)
8: “What a fatuous remark!” (one of the Urbankans, annoyed when 5IVE explains something thus: “Must be the altitude”
9: “A class system is essential!”
10: “Monarch overthrew the greatest tyranny in the universe — internal and external organs!”
11: “Love? It is the exchange of two fantasies!”
12: “Can you arrange a collective activity?” “I do not see why one thing should not lead to another” (fnar! this 5IVE and Bigon, respectively, fomenting REVOLUTION by programming a MASS SWINGERS’ ORGY: for some reason when all the robots are doing the same thing, their programme CAN NO LONGER BE OVERRIDDEN! This is described as a “failsafe”, though it’s rather hard to work out why, at least from Monarch’s PoV…)

OK, so the two threads of contest I think hinted at here are world-of-atomised logic versus fleshtiems (“the flesh time” being what the Urbankans call their own ancient past, when they weren’t all programs on chips); and REASONED DESPOTISM versus squishy democracy. And up to around the middle of ep 3, we may be anticipating a genuine highminded drama of same, feat.the historical characteristics of Aborigines, Mayans, Chinese and Athenians; what we instead get is a hilarious (if clumsily staged) chaos of deflating silliness, and a stange full of milling dancer-extras. For this very good reason: when it comes to tyranny MONARCH is not one of the shrewdies; he’s a fool surrounded by (engineered) yesmen (he tolerates the strange Greek philosopher for his bizarre refusenik strangeness, but punishes him by deprogramming him if he ever tries anything on politically). He is not in a position to ensure the arrival of high intellectual drama; his regime is as hopelessly adolescent as Adric’s admiration implies.

So anyway: some other good or awkward stuff
a: the MONOPTICON! This was a minor running gag — all the ways to disable the floating robot eyeball (plus all the silly non-dirty jokes you can make about it)…
b: the dinnerparty of the salad of all the civlisations! (at which Tegan excellently proved to be able to speak the Aboriginal tongue of c.25,000 years ago…) (naturally, since she is an airhostess)
c: three excellent cliffhangers — as tom says on LJ, only one was an actual “with one bound he was free” classic (when the doctor’s head is not cut off); the other two were more like promises of plot excellence (promises reneged on somewhat in both cases: see above); when the two junior Urbankans arrive at the dinner party looking exactly like Tegan’s drawings of modern human fashion; and when Bigon reveals he’s an android
d: 5IVE calling Persuasion “Percy”; Monarch calling Nyssa and Adric “the children”
e: Adric’s very adolescent excitement that a world without organs will mean no more wars or hunger!
f: How is this collective-activity failsafe setting not a preprogrammed “DANCE YOUR WAY TO DEMOCRACY” setting? This bit was hurried over and I didn’t get Bigon’s explanation why the robots had the feature. In a way the problem of the story is that it becomes a mess of layered allegories when the plot needs (and gets!) a PUNKY DANCERIOT; the allegories (about the stupidity of tyranny, and how different human eras tackled the problems of leadership and social decisionmaking; about the ethical grounding of for regime change) are abandoned. He is called MONARCH: he encounters ANARCH. But the transition is not a logical (narrative) development, it’s a rupture — which we experience as an intrusive disappointment in a promising high-table debate…

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