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Classic Who: The Myth Makers

Hmm, we have a bit of a Situation here. This time next week, I'll already be in Cardiff for the Classical Association conference, ready to deliver my paper on Doctor Who and historiography on the Saturday. When I submitted my abstract for that paper, I quite assumed I'd have seen and reviewed all the stories up to and including The Highlanders (where my enquiry ends) by the time I needed to deliver it. In fact I've only just finished reviewing as far as The Myth Makers (see below) and watching as far as The Ark - which means I have another eight stories left to watch and eleven to review. In one week, that clearly ain't gonna happen – not with the lengths of reviews I write anyway.

On the plus side, the paper is shaping up fairly well, and given that watching and writing up these stories is part of the research, it's reasonable enough to use bits of my working day this week to get on with the reviewing – that's what I've done today in order to get The Myth Makers finished. So I'll push on as far as I can over the next few days – which is probably going to mean quite an outpouring of Whovianism on these here pages. Then if necessary I can just watch the three remaining historical stories out of sequence, and that way at least I'll have seen all my major source material by the time of the conference.

I've also decided to institute a more fine-detail approach to cut-tagging these reviews, since they're really too long for a single cut to be very helpful. It means no-one can see what sorts of issues I've discussed until they get behind the main cut, and also that I can't link directly to specific bits of earlier reviews when I'm discussing the same issue in the context of a later story. I really wish I'd instituted this a lot earlier (and might start instituting it retrospectively if I get the time), but better late than never, eh?

This is obviously a very important story for my Classical Association paper, especially given its archaic Greek setting. My intention is to play to the audience's interests by giving special emphasis to this story and The Romans in my paper – and there is certainly plenty to be said about both.

I had assumed before I saw it that The Myth Makers would treat its source-material rather like The Talons of Weng-Chiang treats Conan-Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories - i.e. that we would be given a story which knew that Homer's Iliad was mythological, but behaved as though it were a realistic portrayal of a true event. After all, this approach had been played with very recently during The Chase (which puts the TARDIS crew inside a House of Horrors that they never find out is not somehow a Gothic novel come to life), so it seemed reasonable enough to think that the idea might now be pushed a little further. But in that assumption I was grossly in error.

In fact, this story debunks every single myth ever about the Trojan War - and yet it also goes full circle and reinforces some of them, too. The basic approach, common to most other Whovian historicals, is to suggest that what we are seeing on the screen is the 'real' version of events. The mythical tellings of the story are directly acknowledged, but then undermined through the presentation of alternatives. So there is a Cyclops, sure enough. But actually he is just a shaggy mute servant with a patch over one eye, not any kind of monster. And yet, just as the myths are deconstructed, they are also rebuilt. Cyclops may not match his description in the Odyssey, but he does exist. The implication is that the myths are based on real, historical events - but they have just got a little tangled in the telling.

The undermining of standard historical accounts has occurred in Doctor Who before. In The Romans we saw the Doctor inspire the fire of Rome, and in The Chase we learnt the 'true' cause of the abandonment of the Mary Celeste. But in this story it is happening explicitly in practically every line. A full list would get rather tiresome, but another nice clear example just to make my point occurs early on in the story. Steven and Vicki have yet to venture outside the TARDIS, but on the viewing screen they have already witnessed the Doctor interrupting what should be the epic fight between Hector and Achilles. This in itself is deliberately played as a banal inversion of their climactic duel in the Iliad: Hector chases Achilles (rather than the other way round), and is only defeated because the Doctor distracts him by turning up in the middle of things. The Doctor is then taken prisoner and escorted to the Greek camp, prompting Steven and Vicki to discuss who these people are and what they should do:
STEVEN: Well, the Doctor said they were Greeks - we're probably in Greece.
VICKI: Oh, but that would be wonderful, wouldn't it? We might meet the heroes, we might...
STEVEN: Those men who carried off the Doctor wouldn't be heroes, or anything like them.
Steven is, of course, simultaneously right and wrong. These people are indeed far from the usual standards of heroism. As the story goes on, we discover that Menelaus was glad to see the back of Helen and just wants to go home, Odysseus is a greedy brute, Paris is a coward, and Achilles can die of a perfectly ordinary stab-wound (not to the heel). But at the same time they are also clearly the inspirations for the hero stories which Steven knows.

As I say, practically every single line of dialogue furthers this basic theme - particularly early on while the setting and paradigm are being established. And though this is something that's already been touched upon in Doctor Who, it has never been anything like so blatant before. This means that something specific must be going on here to prompt this particular approach to the past. Partly, it probably reflects the appearance of a new hand at the helm - Donald Cotton, who had already produced several radio plays based on Greek mythology, and seems also to have been encouraged by John Wiles to experiment further with the historical format.

But the texts that this story is based on must in any case have been particularly well-suited to this new approach. They present two essential characteristics which just haven't been in place for most historical stories before this one: 1) the audience can be expected to be familiar with at least some of them and 2) they are very obviously not straightforward historical accounts. I think the only other story so far which comes close to this situation is Marco Polo, some of whose viewers must surely have read bits of The Travels of Marco Polo directly. And in fact that very situation does prompt a much more minor attempt at the very end of the story to address the contradiction between what the audience are seeing on screen and their knowledge of Marco Polo's eye-witness account:
THE KHAN: A flying caravan... there's something for you to tell your friends in Venice.
POLO: No, my lord. They would not believe half the things that I have seen in Cathay.
(Which, of course, was true, even of many of the things he did record).

Similarly, a reasonable chunk of the audience for The Myth Makers could be expected to be directly familiar with Homer's Iliad - and not just that, but any number of other literary tellings of the Trojan War, from antiquity and beyond. There are direct references in this story to Aeschylus' Oresteia, Virgil's Aeneid, the medieval / Shakespearian stories of Troilus and Cressida and even Edgar Allan Poe's poem, To Helen, which the Doctor quotes when he asks "what could one man alone and unarmed do against the glory that is Greece, hmm?" This meant that Cotton could assume at least some direct knowledge of these texts, and have fun presenting knowing, subversive references to them for some viewers to spot.

Meanwhile, although most people today do not treat the Iliad (let alone any of the other texts used here) as a ‘primary source’, the Trojan war was still widely considered to have been a real historical event when this story was produced. Finley’s The World of Odysseus, the first serious systematic attempt to work out how and when the Homeric epics were composed on the basis of internal evidence, had only been published in 1954 and had not found widespread acceptance. The predominant belief, in the scholarly community and beyond, was still that the Iliad and the Odyssey preserved imperfect memories of what had essentially been real events. And that is very much the line which this story follows. The idea seems to be that all of the texts which Cotton is drawing on might potentially preserve real memories of the Trojan War – albeit wildly inaccurate ones. So Homer may have failed to mention Cressida, but she was real, and her story somehow survived for later authors to draw upon.

This approach allows a very creative use of the source texts, meaning that Cotton can keep the bits he likes, and change or discard those he doesn't. In particular, it helps to maintain the suspense in this story – which is often a problem with the Whovian historicals. Once we’ve seen a few things changed, we have to lay aside our assumptions about how the story might pan out. We might think, for example, that Vicki has no chance of a happy future with Troilus, given that the standard stories have him being killed by Achilles. But Cotton can perfectly easily allow him to survive, and have the two of them sail away happily together at the end of the story – forgotten and obfuscated by the written sources, but not by us. In this context, even the fate of entire civilisations may not turn out as we think. While the Doctor helps the Greeks, Vicki helps the Trojans - might she perhaps succeed, and end up changing the entire outcome of the Trojan war after all? Well, that is perhaps too big a change to allow even in the myths-as-imperfect-memories scenario. But the nature of this story allows the possibility to be floated – and that is more than can be done in most Earth-based historicals. It’s a bold experiment with the historical format, though one that few other periods or cultures (at least ones which the audience will be familiar with) can sustain.

As I suggested earlier, though, the goal is not simply to undermine the texts, but also to reinforce the idea that they contain a basic germ of historical truth. A good example of this is the story of the Trojan horse, which the script works quite hard to present as plausible. It is Steven who first suggests using a wooden horse to get inside the Trojan city. The Doctor's response directly acknowledges the Homeric tradition to which Steven is referring, but also dismisses it: "I couldn't possibly suggest that. The whole story is absurd. Probably invented by Homer as some good dramatic device." What he actually suggests to Odysseus is first tunnelling under the walls, and then when that is rejected as too unoriginal, giant paper aeroplanes which can be fired from a catapult. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be completely unworkable (very rare for a plan formulated by the Doctor!), and he finally returns to the idea of the horse as a 'plan C'.

I think what all this is meant to indicate is that the horse is a plausible (if radical) solution to the problem of getting into Troy which someone in the situation might genuinely arrive at after trying a series of other ideas. What's more, the Doctor quickly loses enthusiasm for the idea again once he has suggested it, whereas Odysseus, who was looking for something 'revolutionary' in the first place, is really taken by it, and becomes the main driving force in bringing it to fruition. In other words, although the Doctor provides the initial seed of the idea, we are shown that it really appeals to the contemporary characters in the context of the events - i.e. that that they might well have come up with the idea and carried it out by themselves. Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, the decision by the Trojans to take the horse inside their city – which surely everyone who has ever read the Aeneid has thought was totally implausible – is also carefully prepared for. Well before it happens, we have already seen the Trojans carrying the TARDIS into their city when they find it on the plain, and we have also learnt that they are reverent horse-worshippers. So, suddenly, it is perfectly plausible that this is what they might do when faced with a huge wooden model of a horse left by the Greeks.

As a Classicist, I tend to perceive Greek and Roman culture as coming in a matching pair – and it seems that the minds behind Doctor Who did too. Despite being written by different authors, under different producers and for only two of the same regular characters, The Myth Makers has clear resonances with The Romans. The overall feel of the story is very similar - mainly comic and light-hearted, but also showing us the dark side of the world we are visiting - especially when (OMG SPOILER!) Troy falls at the end of the fourth episode. Like The Romans (and indeed many other Who stories), The Myth Makers also presents two parallel story-lines which barely overlap. The difference, of course, is that in The Romans, Vicki and the Doctor shared the same story-line, whereas here Vicki operates all on her own, and barely sees the Doctor for the entire story. (I see that swisstone was right about her sprained ankle in Galaxy Four being designed to allow this – but would still prefer the use of a less sexist plot device). It's a nice way of showing how her character has grown while she's been on board the TARDIS, and helps to make her decision to leave for a new life with Troilus at the end a little bit more plausible. She also ends the story watching Troy burn together with Troilus, much as she had once watched Rome burn with the Doctor. Indeed, she will now be involved with the foundation of the same city she had already seen destroyed, as she heads off with Aeneas, Troilus and others to found the Roman race. That is a particularly appropriate ending for her, given where her character started, too. I've already commented on the resonances between Vicki and Aeneas in The Rescue - and now presumably her travels will take her right to the court of the real Dido.

One big difference between the two stories is the treatment of religion, though. With the exception of Tavius (the obligatory Christian), religion was largely absent from The Romans, where it would probably have got in the way of portraying the Romans as violent brutes and decadent pleasure-seekers. But religion is central to both characterisation and plot in The Myth Makers. As I've mentioned above, the Trojans are a highly religious people, and their prophetess Cassandra plays quite a major role in the story. But the Greeks are religious too. As soon as the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS, Achilles mistakes him for Zeus – something which the Fourth Doctor later relates has happened to Time Lords before, and which the Doctor is here quite happy to play along with. This provides another measure of the Doctor's growing hero-role (which I've already traced in The Time Meddler and Galaxy Four). In The Aztecs, it was Barbara who got mistaken for a goddess, but now the Doctor is mistaken for nothing less than the king of the gods. Similarly, his TARDIS is mistaken for a temple – an idea later echoed in both the audio adventure The Fires of Vulcan, and the Tenth Doctor story The Fires of Pompeii.

I've been tracing the adoption of period costume in some of my earlier reviews (e.g. The Reign of Terror), as a sign of the degree to which characters do or don't seek to integrate themselves into the society which they are visiting. The basic rule is that the companions adopt period costume earlier in the series than the Doctor does, and also wear it more consistently than him, because he is more likely to remain aloof from the unfolding of events than they are. Hence, in this story, Vicki and Steven both don Greek costume, but the Doctor never does - prompting Achilles to comment that Zeus (i.e. the Doctor) has appeared in the guise of an old beggar. Indeed, this time both Vicki and Steven go a step further, and adopt period-appropriate names as well – Priam gives Vicki the name Cressida, and Steven takes the name Diomede from the dead warrior whose armour Odysseus gives him. This is of course another example of Cotton suggesting that the myths of Troy preserve garbled memories of real events – the idea is that even the presence of the TARDIS crew at the scene is recorded, but only viewers of Doctor Who know who Cressida and Diomede(s) really were.

This time, of course, Vicki's integration into the past is so great that she decides to stay behind and become part of it forever. It's a slightly surprising move, especially given that she is not even certain that things will work out with Troilus at the point when she decides to leave (a contrast with Susan and David in The Dalek Invasion of Earth). But we already know fromThe Rescue that she has lost her original family, so perhaps she feels that she has no real 'home' to return to, and that any society or culture which she happens to like the look of will do (though her line, "I think I could get to be quite happy here in time" is not very plausible given that it's delivered from a prison cell!). She's certainly shown that she is eager for adventure, and anyone who's read the Aeneid will know she's going to get plenty of that after this story closes. I'll miss her spark and her enthusiasm.

There are a couple of things I'd like to pursue further with regards to this story – and may try to do so if I have time before the CA. One is Cotton's use of contemporary academic publications, which I learn thanks to a publication by parrot_knight is actually quite easy to follow up in this case. Apparently, a 'reading list' still survives for this story, listing items like the relevant volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History and Encyclopaedia Britannica as potential resources. I assume it must be from these that Cotton drew some of the ideas about the historical basis for the Trojan war which appear in the script – e.g. the Trojans as migrants from central Asia who have settled on the coast, or the idea that the Trojan war was really about control of trade-routes through the Bosphorus. I'd also rather like to read the novelisation of this one, since I see from Wikipedia that it takes the very interesting step of having the whole story narrated from the first-person point of view of Homer. I'd love to see what Cotton does with that, since it certainly has the potential to expand even further than the TV version on the relationship between Cotton's story and his source texts. But I strongly doubt I'll have time to fit that in before the CA.

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( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 31st, 2010 08:28 pm (UTC)
Excellent assessment - I must listen to The Myth Makers again. I think it's the missing story I most want to see, other than The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve.

Cotton's argument that legends were embellished or misunderstood historical 'truth' was fashionable in the 1960s, and had support from respectable scholars, at least where Arthurian material was concerned, only being debunked after John Morris went over the top with The Age of Arthur, which is tremendously enjoyable but is based on Morris's guesswork about what chronicles known or thought to have existed in Breton monasteries destroyed in the French Revolution might have contained.
Mar. 31st, 2010 08:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks. :-) And of course the idea of myth as embellished truth is still pretty widespread in the popular imagination. Indeed, some professional scholars are still well ensconced in that camp - like Andrea Carandini, who believes fervently in the historical existence of Romulus.

Incidentally, should I be crazy enough to want to pursue my thinking on this topic even after delivering the CA paper, could I ask how I might get hold of a copy of Cotton's list of sources for this story? It would certainly be useful to see it directly if I end up delving further into his authorial process. But I know very little about the Doctor Who archives, so would not really know where to start on that.
Mar. 31st, 2010 11:03 pm (UTC)
Cotton's list of sources was either in his personal file or the production file for The Myth Makers at the BBC Written Archives, Caversham. The contacts page for the archives is here. It's one of my favourite places, and I'm annoyed that I've not made myself an excuse to go there in five years. You get to have (or did) a 'lunch pass' to cross over from the cottage where the archives are to the main house which is the home of BBC Monitoring.
Apr. 1st, 2010 08:50 am (UTC)
Ah, fantastic! That's really useful - thank you very much. I don't know if I'll ever get to follow this up, but it's good to know what I need to do if I get the chance.
Mar. 31st, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
This is a lot more sophisticated, I fear, than my own analysis of the story. Oh well. You've seen Nicholas Whyte's posts on this story?

I have the novelization, and can bring it to Cardiff, if you want - it's only 140 pages, and you might be able to get it finished by Saturday. (Nick Lowe is probably worth talking to about this as well, as he's read the novel and had some interesting comments about it.)

Here's a slightly crazy thought. I was supposed, for a collection of papers, to return to Myth Makers, and compare it with the Sarah Jane story "Eye of the Gorgon", looking at what the two stories assume of their audiences' knowledge of Greek myth. That had to be withdrawn, one of the victims of my crash-and-burn through overcommitment, but I have a notion of going back to it some time (and might be able to place it in Foundation). The crazy thought is, wanna co-author? I'm not going to get around to this for a while, as I have other things that must be done first, and I'm quite prepared to pick up a lot of the legwork here. It just seems that it might be sensible to pool resources on this one.
Mar. 31st, 2010 10:36 pm (UTC)
Many thanks. I had indeed seen the first of nwhyte's posts which you link, because he made it quite recently, but not the other two. And I have actually just purchased the novelisation of this story this very evening on eBay, so should have a copy fairly soon myself (post permitting). Thanks for the offer to bring it to the CA, but don't worry - I don't get much reading done in that sort of situation, as I am usually way too tired by the time I get to bed, and anyway it isn't essential to my paper.

As for co-authorship, that's an interesting thought. I have rather too much other stuff of my own to be doing at the moment, too, but if you do find time to get back to it at some point in the future, give me a shout. I'm increasingly realising how very little of my thinking on this period of Doctor Who is really going to be able to be crammed into my CA paper, and am wondering what else I might sensibly do with it.
Apr. 1st, 2010 10:11 am (UTC)
Thanks for the links, swisstone!

strange_complex, I know time is short, but I really do recommend you try and get hold of the two Cotton novelisations of The Romans and The Myth Makers</a> in time to read them on the train to Cardiff. I see both can be got second hand through Amazon for less than a pound plus postage.
Apr. 1st, 2010 10:58 am (UTC)
Well, as I said to swisstone, I've just purchased The Myth Makers on eBay, and there is a reasonable chance it will reach me before I set off for Cardiff (even allowing for the Easter bank holiday). I'd certainly like to read both eventually, and will obviously write them up here if I do. But I am already having to cut swathes of stuff I would like to talk about out of my CA paper, so can't really justify expanding the field of enquiry to include the novels as well as the TV stories.
Apr. 1st, 2010 03:44 pm (UTC)
Actually, I don't have the novelization of The Romans, so I've just gone and ordered it.
Apr. 1st, 2010 07:49 am (UTC)
I did read the start of this post as 'oh noes I must watch dr who for work.'

Which seemed such a burden on poor you.......
Apr. 1st, 2010 08:50 am (UTC)
Hehe, yes - it is a hard old life!
Apr. 1st, 2010 12:34 pm (UTC)
The life of a reception scholar is so hard ...

But sometimes you have to watch bad Doctor Who. And then watch it again.
Mar. 10th, 2011 04:30 am (UTC)
I just finished watching this and had to check your take on it.

You mention how this story changes enough things to leave the viewer uncertain about how much of the "classic" story they know is going to be left at the end, but I think you missed a very important example in Episode 1, where Cassandra insists that the TARDIS is a ruse to smuggle in Greek spies. Given that that's a perfect description of the Horse itself, it's a really disorientating moment: you're left almost expecting the story to end with Vicki accidentally opening the gates to the Greeks, the Doctor saying "This old blue box? Yes, it transports me round... in a way, you could call it my horse", and Odysseus realising this is an opportunity to re-cast a happy accident as the result of his own cunning.

In the end, this incident isn't made to do so much work. If it plays any plot role, it illustrates how bored the Trojans are of Cassandra's warnings and how they'll value the novelty of having anything new inside their city after ten years of siege, and so it can be taken as somewhat laying the groundwork for the later, stranger idea to bring the horse inside too; really, however, its impact is entirely meta.

One other question it raised for me: Vicki clearly doesn't know the story of the Horse, but Steven does. The resolution of the plot depends on him not telling her till too late, in a slightly contrived, sitcommy way. I think this plays well into your take on the historical stories as comments about taking part in a narrative that is already known. But it's not clear that Cotton was consciously thinking about it this way: for example, there's no scene where he discusses exactly why Steven doesn't tell Vicki, even if it's clear why Steven doesn't tell the Trojans.

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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