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Classic Who: The Savages

So with all the historicals covered now, and my paper delivered, I can go back and fill in the stories which I had to skip over before the CA conference.

First Doctor: The Savages

This story follows The Gunfighters, and sees the Doctor, Steven and Dodo landing on a planet where an apparently civilised and advanced race of people turn out to be engaged in the brutal exploitation of people whom they consider to be 'savages' - literally draining their life force with a machine, in fact. But this is revealed only gradually. At first - along with the TARDIS crew - we are invited to find the planet's dominant civilisation interesting and admirable. And this is very effective, because it forces us to be shocked at our own blind acceptance of their way of life when we realise what is really going on.

When the truth is revealed, it's really hammered home. There is a great sequence in episode 1 where the leader of the advanced civilisation, Jano, explains that his scientists have found a way to tap the energy of life, while cross-cut scenes show us the reality behind what he is saying - a 'savage' girl named Nanina being hunted down by his guards so that she can be drained. Later, her struggles as she is actually taken for processing are very affecting even conveyed via audio and still pictures, and must really have been quite scary when the original moving footage survived. Even scarier still once we understand what is at stake is the spectacle of the Doctor himself facing the same process later in the same episode. It is all pretty hard-hitting for tea-time family drama.

The field is generally left open for the exploitation in the story to stand as a metaphor for any real-world equivalent - though one reference to the savages being 'on the reserve' might suggest American Indians. And I was pleased to see that the issue wasn't simply reduced to one of goodies vs. baddies - as it so easily could have been. Both of the two societies which the story depicts contain distinct individuals with different personal perspectives. In particular, the leaders amongst both include one moderate who is open to compromise and negotiation, and one megalomaniac who is not. The difference, of course, is that the megalomaniac holds the reins of power in the dominant civilisation, and the moderate amongst the savages. There's also a decent debate between the Doctor and Jano in episode 2, where Jano gets to put his point of view, arguing that "all progress is based on exploitation", and that what they are doing is worthwhile for the achievements they have made. It reminded me rather of the point in Planet of the Ood where the Doctor asks Donna who she thinks make her clothes.

The character of the Doctor has been becoming gradually more and more of a hero-figure lately - being idolised by the Rills in Galaxy Four, for example, breaking out of prison in order to save other people in The Ark, or trying to prevent a shoot-out in The Gunfighters. The same trajectory continues here, including the same sort of in-script references to the idea that he is recognised across the universe as someone special that occurred in Galaxy Four. Here, the dominant civilisation on the planet already know him as 'the traveller from beyond time' - which I'm pretty sure is the first occurrence in the series of the idea of there being some place outside of time for the Doctor to operate. They claim that they have been admiring him from a distance, while on his part he seems to feel a responsibility to accept the gifts and honours which they offer him only if he is sure that it is appropriate for him to be seen to be condoning their civilisation.

There's a sudden sense here of an intergalactic elite who watch and comment upon each others' affairs, and of which the Doctor is a part. This isn't just a matter of the political and military alliances which we saw in The Daleks' Master Plan, but an intellectual community of higher beings. It's something we more or less take as read as part of the Whoniverse today, but is only just emerging as an idea in this story. Meanwhile, the Doctor himself is pretty clear about what his role is within that community. Once he realises what Jano and his friends are up to, he exclaims, "I'm going to oppose you, just in the same way that I opposed the Daleks or any other menace to common humanity." Apparently, then, he now has a general policy of opposing injustices - which he certainly did not in season 1.

This story also builds up the growing idea that he has something more than ordinary human strength, which we saw in The Daleks' Master Plan when he survived the effects of the Time Destructor even while it aged poor Sara Kingdom to death. This time, the technicians involved in draining his life force observe that he has 'tremendous strength', and in fact this is so great that when Jano transfers the Doctor's life essence into himself, he gets the Doctor's personality too - not something which had happened with the ordinary 'savages'. This is something New Who has made use of later on, too - for example in Evolution of the Daleks, when the human-Dalek slaves end up resisting Dalek control because they have a touch of Time Lord DNA in them. And the scenes in which two personalities - his own and the Doctor's - struggle for control of Jano made me suspect that his name is a deliberate Classical reference to Janus, the two-headed god.

It's Steven's last story, of course, and I'm sad about that. It took me a while to get to like him, and he does have his low points - like Galaxy Four. But he has some good stories too, especially The Massacre, and overall he cuts the mustard. Indeed, in this story he's the first one to start asking explicit questions about how exactly Jano and his people's civilisation is sustained, and later on gets quite heroic himself in his efforts to help the 'savages' overthrow their oppressors. His decision to stay at the end comes a little out of the blue, but it isn't implausible - certainly better than Leela's sudden departure at the end of Invasion of Time, anyway.

Steven does consistently and very unfairly underestimate Dodo in this story, though. At the beginning of the first episode, he is quick to dismiss Dodo's claim that she has heard something moving about in the ravine where they land - but then finds out that she was quite right, and there were indeed 'savages' watching them. You'd think that after this, he might learn to trust her judgement a little better, but no. Later on, during a guided tour of the city, she tells him that she has seen a guard carrying away a prisoner outside - and he just dismisses her again. By episode 2, she has been captured, and someone suggests that she may be hiding for a joke. Steven's reaction? "Not even Dodo would be as stupid as that." Meanwhile, the audience knows that Dodo was right all along about the guards taking people prisoner - so we are invited to sympathise with her and feel annoyed with Steven for misjudging her.

That's all well and good, but there are other parts of the script which score poorly on gender issues. The advanced civilisation is certainly very strongly gender-divided - all the guards and leaders are men, and they consider it appropriate to present Steven with a dagger when he arrives, but Dodo with a mirror. It isn't terribly surprising to see a civilisation portrayed in this way, and none of the TARDIS crew seeking to question it, in a story made in 1966. But I found my tolerance exceeded by Jano's little speech about the benefits which his civilisation's life force technology can bestow:
"Doctor, do you realise that with our knowledge, we can make the brave man braver, the wise man wiser, the strong man stronger. We can make the beautiful girl more beautiful still. You will see the advantages of that in the perfection of our race."
And by the end of the story, Jano may have learnt that he needs to treat the savages as equals, but he still doesn't seem to feel that he should extend the same courtesy towards women. Setting out what both groups need from a leader who will bring them together, he explains:
"The man we need must inspire trust. His judgements must come from his heart even more than his head."
In a story which is supposed to be about breaking down an exploitative system, this is a very unfortunate blind-spot, and stops it from being as revolutionary as it would clearly like to think it is. It comes across rather like The Ark, which similarly tried to critique slavery and colonialising imperialism, but ended up slipping into questionable racist tropes along the way.

Still, on the whole, not a bad effort, and certainly an important step forward in the grand tradition of rebellion-fomenting Doctor Who stories.

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 20th, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)
Just watched The Gunfighters last night(which, as a western fan, I rather liked) So I shall have to come back and read this later!

Edited at 2010-06-20 08:22 pm (UTC)
Jun. 20th, 2010 08:24 pm (UTC)
I thought The Gunfighters was ace fun! This one's less jolly, but worth a watch.
Jun. 21st, 2010 05:07 am (UTC)
The Savages may be shockingly sexist, but I found The Daleks appalling sexist nonsense from start to finish, and everybody seems to love (or at least forgive) that. From your investigations of the Hartnell era, which are much more recent than mine, are there any serials which are genuinely forward-thinking with regard to sex and/or race, or did we have to wait a few more decades for a glimmer of that?
Jun. 21st, 2010 09:36 am (UTC)
I don't think there are any Hartnell-era stories which take progressive thinking on gender issues as their main theme. But cumulatively, the way that the character of Barbara is portrayed across her time on the series does amount to a pretty positive take on the female gender. Because Susan was there to be needy and scared, Barbara was much freer to be independent and capable. So we get to see her telling the Doctor just what she thinks of him in The Edge of Destruction, being the one to see through the hallucinogenic illusions in The Keys of Marinus, being capable of seeing both sides of the argument in The Reign of Terror, running over Daleks in a stolen lorry in The Dalek Invasion of Earth and even defeating the big scary monster while the Doctor lies unconscious on the floor in The Web Planet. It isn't 100% perfect - she succumbs to the sprained-ankle trope in Planet of Giants, for instance. But it's pretty good for its time overall.
Jun. 21st, 2010 03:28 pm (UTC)
All the more impressive perhaps for her being a middle-aged woman - a species that Hollywood finds it difficult to let onto centre stage to this day...
Jun. 21st, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC)
Oh, absolutely! And pretty much the last one even in Doctor Who until Donna.
Jun. 21st, 2010 09:16 pm (UTC)
Though it's funny that I'm calling Barbara "middle-aged" when she was, what, in her early 30s? Younger than me, anyway!

I have no idea if Donna is meant to be as old as Catherine Tate (~40) but if she is, that's closer to being over the hill...
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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