The story is famous for killing off three characters who looked like they might become potential new companions after the departure of Vicki: the Trojan Katarina, Bret Vyon and Sara Kingdom. I'll stay out of the debate about which (if any) of these characters count as 'proper' companions for now, though it's something I do have some thoughts about, and which I'll hopefully find time to write up when I've finished seeing all of Doctor Who. For the present, my point is simply that by this stage in the series, viewers were already conditioned to look out for the introduction of a new companion when an old one departed, and any one of these three might well have looked like such a person at the time of original broadcast.
I have a particular soft spot for Katarina - partly because of her Classical origins, and partly because her fate is so very tragic that it's hard not to feel immensely sorry for her. In story terms, she spends the entirety of her time on the TARDIS labouring under the delusion that she is already dead, and that the Doctor is a god taking her on a journey into the afterlife, with the ultimate result that she values his life more than her own and ends up taking herself literally into the afterlife in order to save him. In production terms, she seems never to have been taken very seriously - she crops up rather like an after-thought in The Myth Makers, and I understand that her death scene for this story was the first she actually filmed, so it seems the decision had already been made not to use her as a long-term companion before she started. Finally, to add insult to injury, only one of her four episodes now survives. All in all, it's a pretty rotten hand.
In spite of these circumstances, though, she does manage to feel like more than just a throwaway character. She doesn't ask many questions - something which the Doctor draws explicit attention to in the script, and of course ultimately makes her ill-suited to the normal role of companions in this period. But she is clearly quite bright, and actually adapts remarkably well to her strange new surroundings, learning how to do things like close the TARDIS doors herself - not to mention operate the air-lock on the stolen space-ship. Perhaps with a different production team a slow character development arc in which she grew in knowledge and confidence by watching and learning, and gradually began to contribute more to the action could actually have worked quite well? When her death does come, it is played with an appropriate emotional impact which helps to develop the characters of the Doctor and Steven. It also has a touch of the epic about it, as we see her floating off into space against a background of stars while the Doctor says that he will remember her as "one of the daughters of the gods". This reminded me very strongly of stories from Greek mythology about people who have met tragic deaths being turned into constellations, and I like to think that's what happened to her.
Bret Vyon and Sara Kingdom collectively serve to personalise the very brutal future society which is envisaged here, and against which the Doctor can continue to develop as the enlightened, liberal hero-figure who has been emerging ever since The Time Meddler. Bret is basically on the side of good, but his murder of the Earth scientist, Daxtar, gives the Doctor the chance to make a very forceful statement about the use of violence:
DOCTOR: You brainless idiot! How many times have I told you about taking lives? We have other ways and means of dealing with evil doers.Sara, of course, starts out so convinced of Mavic Chen's trustworthiness that she is willing to kill Bret cold-heartedly, in spite of the fact that he is her brother. It's nice to see that this time it is Steven, rather than the Doctor, who gives her what-for over this later on - after all, the Doctor has already made the point once to Bret, and it allows Steven to acquire a bit of moral weight which I sometimes feel is rather lacking in his character. Once Sara understands what is really going on, she blossoms into a fantastic character - capable of changing her views when appropriate and showing remorse for her role in Bret's death, but meanwhile brave, active, independent and intelligent. Her death, like Katarina's, is noble and self-sacrificing, happening because she didn't want to leave the Doctor alone, and risk the possible consequences for the universe if his plans fail and the Daleks recapture the Time Destructor. But what a pity that it had to happen at all. She could clearly have been amazing if she had stayed on, ably filling the Barbara-shaped hole in the TARDIS crew which has been left gaping since the end of The Chase. But maybe she was just viewed as too self-sufficient and experienced at space travel to work as a long-term companion in this period?
BRET VYON: He deserved worse.
DOCTOR: Possibly! But now we shall never know whom we can trust!
Meanwhile, we get some great villains. Mavic Chen is no cardboard cut-out - in fact he covers a quite compelling trajectory from confident dominance at the start of the story to total delusion as he declares his own immortality moments before being exterminated by the Daleks. But we do get some classically evil lines along the way, which are delivered absolutely beautifully. An attempt at a quite positive vision for the future of humanity is made by having him played by a white actor with darkened skin, white Afro-Caribbean hair and a prosthetic Asian eyelid fold - apparently meant to represent the ultimate result of the races of Earth interbreeding. But this same logic doesn't seem to have been applied to the other human characters, so its effectiveness is limited. And three cheers for the return of the Meddling Monk! He is even more slippery and mischievous here than before, and for me wins out over Mavic Chen by virtue of the sheer fun he clearly gets out of his trouble-making and double-dealing.
I said earlier that the tone of this story varies dramatically, and the biggest example of that is episode 7 ('The Feast of Steven', aka the Christmas episode) which delivers a hefty dose of meta-referentiality. Landing outside a police station offers the first chance in the programme's history to play around with the fact that the TARDIS looks exactly like a contemporary police-box - a motif which will resurface, for example in Logopolis. Inside the station, the Doctor also recognises one of the police-men - as well he might, since he also saw the very same actor on a Jaffa market-stall in The Crusade. Meanwhile, another police-man assumes that Sara is in fancy dress - and charmingly attempts to get 'down wiv da yoof' by telling her to 'have a swinging time' at the party she is going to. The double-entendre in his statement to Steven that 'you seem to know all the queer people' probably wasn't intentional, but it made me LOL all the same. :-)
Next thing we know, it's on to silent-movie era Hollywood, which means lots of fun playing around with in-story commentary on what goes on behind the scenes of a screen production. Obviously the 1920s setting brings it within the scope of my interest in the use of history in Doctor Who, but one question which immediately springs to my mind here is - why use the past at all for this sequence? After all, films were also being produced in contemporary Hollywood, and the TARDIS had just landed outside what appeared to be a contemporary London police-station - so why not just have them travel in space but not in time? I think the answer is that the silent movie era had already acquired an idealised, classic status, so that using this setting also provided an opportunity to celebrate what the Doctor Who production team were doing, by associating their own enterprise with the Golden Age of Hollywood icons. Meanwhile, the lines between story and meta-story are heavily blurred, as Sara is taken for an actress in costume, Steven is taken for a real police-man, William Hartnell doubles up as an expert on Arabian customs who somehow mysteriously looks exactly like the Doctor, and the entire sequence is presented complete with silent era-style caption-cards which describe what is happening on the film set. It's bizarrely surreal, especially in the middle of such an otherwise-brutal main story - but, like I said, as an individual moment it's absolutely fantastic.
Historical settings recur soon afterwards, with almost two full episodes (9 and 10) set in ancient Egypt - and one of them with moving pictures, too! There's actually fairly little real engagement with the cultural setting - the Egyptians get little characterisation and few lines, so that this historical period is literally given almost no chance to 'speak' to the viewers. Egypt serves largely as a backdrop for the action, and its inhabitants could really be pretty much any technologically unsophisticated people who come up against the Daleks. In fact, their success in trapping one of them with stones reminded me strongly of the Ewoks vs. the storm-troopers and scout walkers in Return of the Jedi. BUT we do see something new in the Doctor's approach to history which will be important for later (pseudo-)historical stories. Episode 9 has him going forth with a cane and straw hat, creeping past sleeping Egyptian guards to inspect Pharaonic treasures and tomb inscriptions, apparently mainly out of idle curiosity. In other words, this is the emergence of the Doctor as a time tourist, signalled I think very explicitly by his headgear:
Some other minor points:
- I notice that the activities of the Daleks are already subject to dramatic escalation. In their first ever story, they were merely defending themselves against the TARDIS crew and the Thals; by the second season they were trying to take over the Earth; and now their sights are set on nothing less than domination of the Universe.
- This particular bunch of Daleks also don't seem to have prior knowledge of the Doctor or the TARDIS - and I don't doubt that there are detailed fan analyses out there somewhere of what this implies about the placement of this story in the time-line of the Dalek race.
- The Doctor is quite weirded out by the matter transportation device which takes him to Mira in episode 5. Matter transporters are quite common by the Fourth Doctor era (e.g. in The Sontaran
Stratagem- oops! I mean 'Experiment'), but it seems rather as though this is the first time he's ever experienced one.
- I've noted before that the Doctor's ring occasionally serves rather like a proto-sonic screwdriver in this era (e.g. in The Web Planet), and here it is doing so again, when he uses it to unfreeze the lock on the TARDIS door after the Monk's interference in episode 8.
- After Steven's attempts to charge up the fake taranium core using 'gravity force' on the stolen Dalek ship have caused him to lose consciousness, the Doctor asserts his authority: "Perhaps in future you'll pay attention to what I say and remember that I happen to be the leader of this expedition and I don't want to keep on repeating myself!" Given that they are not even on board his ship at the time, this makes it pretty explicit that he has now come to consider himself as the natural leader in whatever situation he encounters, which certainly wasn't the case in season 1.
- And I see that the story ends with the Doctor convinced that Sara's death has ensured 'the total destruction of the Daleks' - which I believe is the first time for that old chestnut!
Click here to view this entry with minimal formatting.