Up-words - A Very British Science Fiction

Up-words- The Best of the Paper Issues of This way up 2002-10

July 2002

It’s difficult to argue in a Doctor Who fanzine that Robert Holmes is an under-rated writer, given the number of eulogies aimed at the programme’s most backlash-proof contributor. As writer and script editor, he established some of the series’ most enduring ideas (the Autons, the Master, the Sontarans etc), and rewrote previously cherished continuity with lasting consequences. And yet, whilst we treasure his sparkling dialogue, subversive political themes and audacious concepts, doesn’t he deserve wider recognition than the hack writer of episodic, formulaic drama series he painted himself to be?

For those Who fans more interested in the writing than in the sub-TV-Quick-fandom of cast photos and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, Holmes is in the top rank. A few writers stand out, not just for their contribution to the series, but for a consistency of theme across their body of work. Such criteria make Terry Nation an important writer, even if his work seems to lack complexity or originality. Or John Lucarotti and David Whitaker, who grasped the potential for character-driven drama in the early historicals. Then there are idiosyncratic writers, like Ian Stuart Black, Christopher H Bidmead, Chris Boucher, Douglas Adams, Stephen Gallagher, Christopher Bailey, or (in the tiny list of slumming-it ‘proper’ writers) Louis Marks and Rona Munro. The rest tend to be hacks meeting a specific brief, though we’ve all enjoyed the contributions of Terrance Dicks, David Fisher, even Eric Saward. It is from this group that the fan favourites come, deceptive writers able to keep to the formula whilst pursuing their own vision: Malcolm Hulke, Brian Hayles and, of course, Robert Holmes, a self-professed churner-out of “good, clean, escapist hokum”.

The problem is that Doctor Who - like many series that Holmes contributed to, from Bergerac to Blake’s 7 - was a continuing episodic series. As Rosalind Coward argued in an article about Dennis Potter, tv writers cannot be seen simply as communicating their ideas to an audience, because of the institutional way meaning is constructed, with the involvement of producers, directors, cast and crew. Although – courting seriousness as part of its legacy from the theatre - tv drama promoted the writer, the truth was more complex (some say The Singing Detective was as much Jon Amiel as Potter). Each Doctor Who episode opens with the serial title and the credit ‘by [the writer]’, but the writer was never in control. As those diatribes against JN-T revealed, series can be seen as a producer’s medium, with each episode a frenetic battle marshalled by a writer and director, with only the producer holding the plans to the overall war. Holmes suffered from the demands of production teams, often being lumbered with such writing-by-numbers projects as ‘Terror of the Autons’ and ‘The Two Doctors’. Many writers complained that the show (er) doctored their scripts to a formula; given this, is it possible to analyse the contribution of any of its writers?

The answer to this, we hope, is ‘yes’. Of course we have to acknowledge the influence of producers (Who fandom is arguably ahead of television studies in talking of the Letts or Hinchliffe ‘eras’) or even lead actors. Then there’s the role of the director. Although the writer is less privileged since the decline of the single play, critics rarely take television directors as seriously as their cinema counterparts. And if Alan Clarke and Stephen Frears have lived in Dennis Potter’s shadow, don’t expect a South Bank Show special on Pennant Roberts. Mind you, there should be scope in fandom for analysis of directors, given the ‘classics’ associated with David Maloney and the pioneering reputations of Lovett Bickford and Graeme Harper. It is possible to privilege the role of the writer whilst taking into account the role of producers, cast and directors (I should call this a “hierarchy of discourses”, but I’d rather not). You don’t have to be a theorist to notice that a Doctor Who story written by Robert Holmes is a different beast to a Doctor Who story written by Terrance Dicks. His writing has its own dominant themes and style.

How to describe what Holmes brought to Who without saying “isomorphic controls” or “revisionist history of the Time Lords”, or asking what he had against poachers? There’s his witty dialogue, luxuriating in its own verbosity, crackling between characters in his (lazily if not inaccurately dubbed “Dickensian”) propensity for double-acts. It also conjures up a sense of place more efficiently than allegedly futuristic design. Like all great science-fiction writers, Holmes uses the future to comment on the present, playfully in ‘The Sun Makers’ or with a sense of colonial discourses in ‘The Power of Kroll’. His is a very British science-fiction, and the nation is symbolised in his recurring use of once-great figures whose greed for power has resulted in grotesque decay, in the vegetable-envying Morbius, the putrefying Master of ‘The Deadly Assassin’ or Sharaz Jek. The same applies to his knowingly revisionist historical settings, from ‘The Time Warrior’ to the story that sums up his intertextual (aka plagiaristic) use of genre and myth, ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’. Common across these times is a concern for the nature of humanity, and how it is compromised by political and economic systems. 

 As I once said in Faze, consciousness, and its ideological struggle against groups threatening homogenisation, are the dominant discourses in Holmes’ writing. Often this homogenisation is attempted through the use of the media, which Holmes configures in horror terms (a plot device that has aged well in these media-literate times). The Auton stories set their controlling evils around broadcast signals and satellites. In ‘Spearhead From Space’, a threat to the Doctor’s life sneaks into hospital in the company of journalists. In ‘Terror of the Autons’ (in which the Doctor is attacked by a phone), the evil threat is to be transmitted via radio signals. ‘The Caves of Androzani’ is a tangled web of false messages broadcast by Sharaz Jek, Chellak and Morgus, around which people lose their identities, becoming replaceable by replicas.

Holmes often sends up television, for instance Runcible’s witless political reporting in ‘The Deadly Assassin’. His ultimate metaphor for television is the Miniscope in ‘Carnival of Monsters’. A box in the corner of the room, it is distrusted by Inter Minor’s grey-faced rulers (who are in favour of public service broadcasting), bringing colour and a ruthless commercial profit motive (as the bureaucrats predict, it also unleashes monstrous dangers on society). Echoing Survivor, it is the location into which our heroes are dropped and forced to survive. Like people in ‘reality TV’ the Doctor and Jo are ‘livestock’ to be exploited for commercial gain - as Jo puts it, “outside there are creatures just looking at us for kicks?” The Doctor is appalled: “Roll up, roll up, roll up, and see these funny little creatures in their native habitat! …Poke ‘em with a stick and make ‘em jump!” There are many delightful tv in-jokes. In a sniggeringly simplistic portrayal of tv violence’s corrupting effects, Vorg turns a dial to show that “the peaceful Tellurians can be made to behave in an amusingly violent way”. This followed the controversy over ‘Terror of the Autons’, in which Holmes’ wish to ‘frighten the little buggers’ resulted in primetime asphyxiation. His overzealousness in the carnage department, particularly the blood and guts of ‘The Brain of Morbius’ and the drowning sequence in ‘The Deadly Assassin’, ultimately did the show more harm than good. This is one of the few criticisms of Holmes to stand up, along with his apparent racism – take the inscrutable Orientals in his treatment for the film Invasion, and ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’.

As I’ve said before, ‘Carnival of Monsters’ is also an entertaining examination of Doctor Who’s relationship with its audience. Vorg and Shirna arrive with a faulty machine just like the Doctor and Jo, and the fact that they appear on a production line might be a comment on the writing process… “Roll up, roll up, and see the monster show!”, Vorg announces, saying the Drashigs are “great favourites with the children”. The crew of the SS Bernice are trapped in repetitive scenes shot slightly differently, which could be a statement on such formulaic drama as Doctor Who. Jo spends the story being captured, escaping and being re-captured – she acknowledges this pattern now (“here we go again!”), but by the next story has to accept it with a straight face. Jo points out that “they’re saying exactly the same things as before”, but is herself soon asking “What’s happening, Doctor?” once again. The monster attacks on the SS Bernice, which the crew soon can’t remember, may be an ironic comment on Doctor Who’s format, and its audience’s response – an interruption to the mundane that is quickly forgotten.

In many of Holmes’ scripts, the story turns on characters becoming self-aware, reasserting their ideology after noting the constructedness of the landscape around them. In ‘The Deadly Assassin’, the Doctor survives the Matrix by asserting that “I deny this reality”. However, he cannot inspire this process in ‘Carnival of Monsters’, as none of the Miniscope’s “exhibits” are ever fully aware of their fictionality. Often, the homogenisation threatened by monsters is an extension of the society they are attacking. In ‘The Ark in Space’, the Wirrn threaten a society that has homogenised itself. Man’s “chosen” descendents have “eliminated” all “regressive transmitters” through ethnic cleansing. So, the sleepers (in their functional boxes) are in danger from “the infrastructure” (a social threat personified in the Wirrn). Noah, the humans’ Prime Unit (whom Libri won’t disobey), becomes the Wirrn’s Swarm Leader (a term repeated from ‘Spearhead From Space’), and they too blindly follow him into space. As in The Quatermass Experiment (let’s draw a veil over Holmes’ outrageous stealing from Nigel Kneale for now), the human struggles against his takeover, and ultimately sacrifices himself, motivated by “some vestige of human spirit”. So, although Holmes’ scripts call for self-awareness, Noah is just one of his characters to find it a painful process. In the Auton stories, those who escape the control of the Nestenes or the Master die. In ‘The Ribos Operation’ and ‘The Mysterious Planet’, characters who seek outside knowledge are belittled. Most disturbingly, in ‘The Two Doctors’, when Chessene becomes self-aware and rejects Androgum augmentation, it is an act of bestial regression which leads her to lick up blood. 

Often, individual consciousness is restricted by the state or by society, making Holmes Doctor Who’s most political writer. In ‘The Sun Makers’, the state engenders conformity, as much through the media’s propagation of economic consensus as through the release of mind-numbing gas. The Doctor appropriates the means of communication, transmitting false messages to incite revolution among an oppressed factory proletariat. There’s something sneakily subversive about ‘The Sun Makers’, the delicious idea of leftie revolutionary politics being transmitted to millions of young people during a primetime family action show. Ultimately, though, it’s more a comedy about the tax system, as its misquote of Marx (“What’ve you got to lose?”/”Only your claims!”) shows. Holmes is of course using the standard Who trope of overthrowing oppressors, but, as Philip MacDonald noted, when Terrance Dicks novelised the scene in which the Gatherer is gleefully murdered by cheering rebels, he toned it down so that the rebels “turned away in disgust” with the “feeling things had got out of hand, gone a bit too far”. In fact, the conflict between capitalism and workers’ rights is a common thread running through Holmes’ work. Take ‘Spearhead From Space’, in which the menace comes from the automation of a factory, with the Autons uniformed drone servants, a workforce made passive (as General Scobie points out, you “don’t get machines going out on strike”). Another android workforce appears in ‘The Caves of Androzani’, an explicitly political script with Thatcherism embodied in Morgus, using unemployment and (Falklands?) war as political tools, while asset-stripping industry. People are as much a commodity as the guns and spectrox. Throughout his scripts, power relations are defined by ownership and value, scarcity and plenty, but here he also topically challenges the allegiances of powerful multinational corporations.

Examine the essence of Holmes’ work and you find the template for what fans see as “good” Doctor Who: pacy narrative, sharp one-liners, idiosyncratic characterisation, and the triumph of human individualism over the hive mentality. This is unsurprising, as Holmes set that template as script editor during its most successful period, establishing a sadly restricted but hugely entertaining formula. But how to gauge the impact of Holmes’ script-editorship? This is too big an issue to address here, raising an aspect of authorship theory so far neglected by academic writing: the extent to which script editors ‘author’ drama series. In productions by prestigious writers, the script editor has less power than the tea boy, but the script editor had an uncharacteristically powerful influence on the long-term development of shows like Doctor Who. Eric Saward once stated that he rewrote a huge percentage of most of the stories he script-edited. So, surely the ‘eras’ of script editors provide a clearer ‘periodisation’ than the incumbency of any lead actor? Holmes wrote some of his best scripts to cover the failure of other writers to meet a deadline, but he also rewrote the scripts of others to varying degrees (with the original authors walking away from ‘The Ark in Space’, ‘Pyramids of Mars’ and ‘The Brain of Morbius’ for starters). A full study of Robert Holmes would have to analyse the stories he script-edited as fully as the ones he wrote. So, although a lot has been written about Robert Holmes, it is a mark of his contribution to Doctor Who that there is still much to be said.

Words: Dave Rolinson 

1 comment:

  1. When I did my first fanzine article (back in the late 20th Century) I drew on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin to argue that Doctor Who is essentially 'dialogical', and most of my examples were drawn from Robert Holmes' work.

    Holmes doesn't just draw on generic conventions such as plots or iconography, he draws on their particular languages.

    No two speakers use precisely the same language: even among English speakers we have our own regional, ethnic and class dialects, or sociolects, and our own ideolects peculiar to ourselves - and in different contexts we draw on different registers, or speech genres, appropriate to the occasion.

    All these languages embed particular assumptions, worldviews or ideologies of the speaker, and dialogue is largely a struggle over the meaning of words.

    What Holmes does better than any other Doctor Who writer, and most other TV writers for that matter, is present us with characters who have their own idiolects and who therefore represent particular worldviews.

    Carnival of Monsters is an obvious example. Despite the fact that Vorg and Shirna are using translation devices there are many ideolects existing side by side (or in 'polyphony', a term Bakhtin cribbed from music): there's the gutteral language of the Functionaries, incomprehensible to the other characters (and to the viewers), accompanied by wild gesticulation; the drab, formal and contractionless language of the Officials, Kalik and Orum ('Reluctantly, one agrees); the upper-class English of the passengers of the SS Bernice complete with its sense of Imperialistic entitlement (‘Oh, dash it all – the fellow is a Sahib, you know!’); and the informal and expressive language of the showfolk, Vorg and Shirna, which even parodies itself when Shirna mocks Vorg's earlier assurances ('Top of the bill, he says! Received like a Princess, he says.').

    On top of that the characters even shift registers from time to time: the Doctor aping the Major Daley ('Topping day, what? Well, twenty-three skidoo, must get on, eh? Pip, pip!’), and then there's that marvelous Parlare/Polari exchange from Vorg ('Parlare the Carny? Varda the bonapalone? Niente dinari here, y’jils?’) - this being the historical cant of various 'outsiders', criminals, homosexuals, Punch & Judy 'Professors' (Glitz also uses some Polari in Trial of a Time Lord).

    So, a script which already includes different ideolects is further complicated by parody, by shifting registers, and by language largely incomprehensible to other groups.

    Talons of Weng-Chiang does the same with Cockney, stage Chinese, police malapropisms, theatrical alliteration, musical lyrics, etc. The cumulative effect is that Holmes' work brings into question the very idea of neutral language by showing that meaning varies according to the speaker.

    He's not shoving a particular worldview down our necks: he's presenting several side by side. That, I think, marks him out as a major writer, an artist comparable to Potter or Kneale.