Doctor Who episode 90: Horse of Destruction (6/11/1965)
This episode has the best title ever. Sadly, it’s the greatest thing about it, because even Cotton’s script isn’t up to gracefully engineering the clumsy set of cast changes insisted on by a petulant producer. As a result, this is largely caught up in the mechanics of plot resolution rather than the character comedy of the last few weeks.
As a case in point, the new female lead Katarina is introduced offhandedly – she’s not been in earlier episodes as far as we can see. While she might only be a stopgap to tide the audience over into the middle of the next adventure, she’s still just wandered aboard the TARDIS without any proper set up. Similarly, Vicki’s exit is almost as badly handled onscreen as it was behind the scenes. Fair enough, she got a scene with Troilus in both of the last two episodes, and seemed quite taken with him – but even for a character as impulsive as Vicki, to abandon the Doctor and her life of adventure for life in a primitive era in the ruins of a defeated civilisation, with a boy she’s barely met seems barely credible. We don’t even get to see her final scene with the Doctor – and while it echoes Ian and Barbara’s goodbye, that was a very different situation. Their story always had a natural end. Vicki’s doesn’t feel like it comes from anywhere except a sudden desire to get rid of her.
It doesn’t help that firing Maureen O’Brien was a terrible misjudgement by John Wiles. Over the previous 10 months Vicki has been an absolutely awesome companion, with a distinctive character, able to hold her own against the Doctor and the villains, while still being vulnerable or fallible enough to get into scrapes. Sara Kingdom owes an obvious debt to Vicki – they even look alike – but then Dodo, Polly and Victoria are much weaker characters, and probably created the stereotype of the screaming girl just hoping a Yeti wouldn’t shoot ‘er. It’s not until Zoe that the series settles back into the mould O’Brien, Lambert and Spooner created: the ‘feisty equal’. To a greater or lesser extent thereafter, every one of the female leads has been in the Vicki/Zoe vein rather than the Susan/Victoria one.
I think it’s largely because this episode has so much lifting to do to reformat the cast and put the pieces in place for the forthcoming Dalek epic that it loses so much of what worked brilliantly in the earlier instalments. Steven has to get wounded, Vicki needs to get written out, and Katarina needs to come on board.
The Doctor still gets some grouching with Odysseus, but even this has a sharper edge. Suddenly all the deaths that have seemed so inconsequential in the earlier episodes begin to hit home – especially the assassination of King Priam and Paris. The Doctor is furious about helping Odysseus with his ‘insignificant win’ – and given this is the second civilisation (after Anglo-Saxon England) his involvement has helped to bring down, and the second massacre (after Nero’s) that he’s facilitated, so he should be.
I think there’s a credible evocation of the chaos and horror of the fall of Troy – the panic to get an injured Steven back to the Ship; Vicki desperately trying to make sure Troilus is absent during the carnage, and slipping out to join him; the city burning from afar. And I think Donald Cotton does his best with a nightmare brief of writing Vicki out – at least she’s looking forward to helping found the Roman civilisation (but how much more fun would he have had with her in the Cassandra role: actually working at odds with the Doctor, trying to warn the Trojans, and being ignored. It’s a much more likely part for her than ‘Cressida’).
But in the end, after two excellent episodes and a slightly disappointing one, Horse of Destruction is another conspicuous failure to be able to do a really great historical.
Next episode: The Nightmare Begins
Horse of Destruction no longer exists. Not in any of its regenerations. This review is courtesy of the excellent Loose Canon reconstruction.