I’ve been reading the first Kindle volume of Philip Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum, and have been thoroughly enjoying it (Troughton soon please!). I’ve been particularly interested in Sandifer’s surprisingly vehement and provocative views on the run of episodes between The Myth Makers and The Ark:
“For all his skill in making a good programme, the fact of the matter is, the 24 episodes produced by John Wiles are mean-spirited, reactionary, and, frankly, in the final analysis, racist.”
While I think this reads rather too much into Maureen O’Brien being sacked, and the general rubbishness of Dodo, I do think there are significant problems with Wiles’ episodes which Sandifer’s book reminded me of. And in my mind they are problems that are almost exactly similar to the creative issues that plagued the programme during the mid-1980s: a gaping void where the Doctor is supposed to be.
Wiles produced The Myth Makers, a comedy for three quarters of its length, which ends with an infamously bleak massacre of its characters, the abrupt and downbeat departure of Vicki, and Steven mortally wounded. Four episodes later, Vicki’s replacement as “girl companion”, Katarina, is killed off, and eight episodes after that, her replacement, Sara, goes the same way. Then we have a story which is explicitly about practically everybody being horribly killed – even the Doctor (or at least, his double), and finally an adventure that almost has the TARDIS crew casually wipe out the last remnants of humankind just because of their reckless arrival on the space ark. This isn’t just about shaking the show up after the cosy comedy of Season Two. It’s a sustained assault on the Doctor himself by a producer who, you sense, just cannot believe in the character’s essential heroism and “goodness”.
In the Wiles episodes, every victory is achieved only at a terrible cost – if there is any victory at all. The Myth Makers and The Massacre are about the Doctor and Steven merely surviving their ordeals. In The Ark, they stop humankind dying out, but condemn the weakened survivors to domination by the Monoids. Companions die. The Doctor brings destruction in his wake. This is a long way from one year before, when the Doctor could reverse the Dalek Invasion, unmask Bennett, outwit Nero, and trounce the Morok Empire without breaking into a sweat.
Perhaps Wiles thought the Doctor was too powerful. Perhaps Hartnell’s act as a kind of senile delinquent giggling his way through time and space was an inappropriate response to Viking raids and the enslavement of the ant people. It won’t be the last time in the programme’s history that an incoming producer has deemed things “too silly” and vowed to bring a new sense of seriousness. But in so doing, the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. The Doctor is suddenly ineffectual, and shown to be ineffectual because not only can he not save everyone, but he can’t even save anyone. Katarina escapes from Troy, but her death is only deferred. Sara doesn’t outlive her first adventure. Anne Chaplet must remain in Sixteenth Century France to face her doom. That last failure is so jarring and so fixed in fan memory that 40 years later The Fires of Pompeii directly addresses it.
And the problem is not only that the Doctor fails – the serialised format of the classic series means that most stories rely on the Doctor not succeeding for large chunks of time – but that he fails at the critical moments even to save the people he most cares about. The same problem crops up again in the mid 1980s: Adric dies, Tegan leaves after a breakdown, Peri either dies or else is abandoned. The Doctor continually leaves a vast body count in his wake so that every planet he lands on resembles a crime scene, and he bemoans the fact that “there should have been another way”. And in some ways the problem in the 1980s is less egregious because Eric Saward takes it to the logical extreme by having the Doctor put on trial and revealed to be the ultimate foe, after which there’s really nowhere else you can go with the idea (and wisely, Saward’s replacement didn’t even bother to try). Wiles, meanwhile, just seems to shrug his shoulders, sigh and walk away.
To Sandifer, this lack of resolution represents a “ludicrous failure… to quite resolve the ongoing plot arc of the Doctor’s inadequacy.” I’m not entirely sure I accept Sandifer’s premise. The Doctor’s inadequacy in Season Three is less a story arc and more the failure of the imagination of a producer who apparently despised his leading man and had no natural sympathy for the programme. Or to put it another way, Wiles genuinely thinks the Doctor is not up to saving the universe. And perhaps far from being “mean spirited and reactionary”, there’s a different cause. In an interview with DWM, Wiles alludes to an idea he had for the Doctor meeting God, in much the same way as Captain Kirk in Star Trek V. He says, “Of course it would be proven all is not as it seemed.” The subtext I see is that Wiles can’t believe in gods and heroes (and see The Myth Makers for another hint of this), and that includes the Doctor. Only we can save ourselves. I think Russell T Davies addresses this by having especially the ninth Doctor inspire us to take control of our own destinies. But Wiles never comes up with such a compelling alternative, and so ends up as the grumpy old man who tells kids there’s no such thing as Father Christmas. Basically, Kazran Sardick was producing Doctor Who in 1965-66.