Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Serial 26: The Savages

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companion: Steven, Dodo

Written by: Ian Stuart Black
Directed by: Christopher Barry

Editor's Note: Hello again! Welcome back to another week! As you probably heard from last week (or whatever) I have the week off and my guest blogger Cassandra is filling in for me on a reconstruction (her first, and it's good). I'll be back next week though. With another reconstruction. Because we do those now. YAY!

And in case you've forgotten, don't forget to check out The Doctor's Companion, where I'm on every week talking about the new and recent episodes!

Background & Significance: Nobody really ever talks about "The Savages." Not that that's a bad thing. But really, it's not a particularly good thing, either.

There's not a lot of buzz on this story, which, having seen it twice, I can understand. It's extremely slow to start, and rather dull in places. It's not an especially remarkable story, really rather standard, but not without its really nifty sci-fi ideas and concepts. Oh, and it doesn't exist anymore.

The plight of the nonexistent story is one of the most bittersweet things about Doctor Who. Yes, the audio survives and various people can make reconstructions from telesnaps and existing pieces of the video and the audio track, but let's be honest, that's not any way to experience a television show. We've done a few reconstructions here at Classical Gallifrey already, but I've never personally reviewed one, so you'll be getting some more of my thoughts on that a bit later.

As far as significance goes, despite the fact that this story is pretty average, it's actually pretty significant for a number of reasons. "The Savages" is not only writer Ian Stuart Black's first story on the show, but it's also the first serial to be overseen by producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis, so it marks a changing of the guard, if you will. It's also the first ever Doctor Who serial to not have individually titled episodes, which is pretty awesome. Aside from the behind the scenes production significance of this story, it also serves as companion Steven's (as portrayed by actor Peter Purves) last adventure with the Doctor, and companion departures are usually always a pretty big deal across the board.

But enough of all that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1

I really wish this first part weren’t so boring.

That’s really one of my main problems with this story; there’s a lot of really cool ideas and concepts presented, and some very important and topical issues that they choose to explore with this story, like equality and human rights, but… Does it have to be so dull?

A part of that might stem from the fact that this story doesn’t exist in its full audiovisual format anymore, which is a shame. In fact, I don’t think it would be as boring if we could still watch the action happening on screen instead of staring at screenshots while listening to audio, but what can you do. Luckily the reconstruction I have is narrated.

I think the thing about reconstructions is that people tend to give them a bit of a pass as far as the quality of the stories are concerned and go easy on them because they don’t exist anymore. Take “The Abominable Snowmen” for example; people talk about that story all the time like it’s the greatest thing ever, but aside from the adorable fuzzball Yetis, I don’t think it is much of anything special. Just because it's Troughton and doesn’t exist anymore doesn’t make it awesome, even though that seems to be the general opinion on the matter of missing stories.

My point of view stands when it comes to this story; just because it doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it gets a free pass. Is it sad it’s a missing story? Of course it is. That doesn’t mean the story is excellent though.

What we have here in this first part is some standard, albeit very slow, set up. The Doctor lands on an alien planet, the Doctor is “captured”—he is brought to the city kind of against his will, after all—the Doctor and his companions are separated, some mysteries are introduced to keep us watching, there’s something not-quite-right about this whole benevolent civilization situation, a companion gets curious and decides to investigate, and we end with her being in some sort of mortal peril. All very standard stuff. But it feels a little like this part is padded somewhat; they’re definitely holding back on the more interesting and intriguing aspects of this civilization, and while that is apparent and the intent is most likely to sustain the mystery as long as possible to keep people watching, I think they hold a little too much back. My interest is tenuous enough to begin with, why not throw me a few more scraps and tidbits to help retain it? Everything ends up being revealed before the serial is said and done, but at this point, there isn’t enough to really work with. And I think that really contributes to the extremely slow and unstimulating first part of this story. I don’t really mind the slow pace of the story, I’m used to it, but at least have something happen in this part.

Really, the most exciting part of this is probably supposed to be the cliffhanger, but even that fails. So one of the titular “savages” is lurching down a dark hallway all Frankensteinesque towards Dodo… So what? I’m not convinced that she’s in any danger, and it just feels like a lame trick and attempt to keep our interest enough to watch the second part. But I really think that they shouldn’t have to rely entirely on a lame cliffhanger to bring the audience back, it should instead be the mysteries, the aspects of the story that really pique our interest, but there aren’t enough of those at this point.

Which is a shame, because I actually really like some of this stuff, even though it probably doesn’t seem like it, from all the stuff I wrote up there. I like Dodo and Steven’s interactions with each other, they have some amusing banter at the beginning of the story. And I like the characters of Dodo and Steven themselves. Dodo, I think, is surprisingly plucky and not entirely useless; she does decide to go off exploring the forbidden corridors of the city by herself, after all, but that could just be stupidity on her part. (She’s also apparently super prejudiced and imperialist, since she immediately calls the people in animal skins outside the city “savages”. Jesus, Dodo, what did they do to you?) I like how Steven’s thing seems to be questioning and challenging the Doctor; in his first proper story, “The Time Meddler” he refuses to believe that they’ve actually traveled back to the time of the Vikings. He does something similar here, but he’s not completely cynical, and it shows that he does care about the Doctor quite a bit, because he wanders off away from the TARDIS in search of him. It’s an example of some character growth, while still retaining his established traits and characteristics.

I also like the fact that this civilization is so advanced as to be able to track the Doctor through his travels in time and space. That’s insane. I’m sad that they don’t play this up more, because for a civilization to do this accurately means that they’re extremely advanced and could be a most formidable opponent for our TARDIS team. Alas, they don’t really touch on this much. But at least the idea is pretty sweet.

Part 2

Easily the best aspect of this serial, and this part especially, is the Doctor.

Unfortunately, you don’t really get a lot of chances to say that about a Hartnell story, especially in the later seasons of his tenure, when he was often absent from one of the episodes because of sickness or infirmity. But in this part, he totally rocks, and it’s really interesting.

Another thing I really like about this part is that it takes the few subtle hints and leads that were planted in part one and builds on them really effectively. Yeah we start off at the resolution of a super lame cliffhanger (you were fooling nobody with that one, guys), but from that point on we get to the good stuff, the real meat of this serial, and conclude with an actual real and present danger to the Doctor. It’s perhaps a bit standard, but I really appreciate it. Definitely an ‘oh crap’ moment, I think.

But even before he gets taken into the lab to get experimented on and the life force extracted out of him (does that sound really painful to anyone else? Maybe these guys are like… scientific Dementors, what with their crazy extraction machines), Hartnell really steals the show. When he stands up to Jano and the Elders, after having witnessed the unspeakably cruel treatment of the poor guy Dodo ran into at the end of the last part, the Doctor feels the need to speak out and denounce this civilization and the inhuman treatment it’s built on.

I actually find this conversation extremely interesting, because Jano offers up an argument that’s basically “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few”, and all in the name of scientific advancement. Jano is busy appealing to the scientist aspect of the Doctor, obviously not having accounted for the sense of justice and do-gooding that the Doctor has picked up along his travels, as well as from spending time with his companions. I find this the most interesting because if the Doctor had dropped by this planet closer to the beginning of the show, like in season one or maybe season two, I think this argument would have worked to persuade the Doctor quite effectively. It’s actually quite stunning how much the Doctor’s character has shifted the more time he spends with his various companions, and this conversation illustrates that shift really well.

The clinical, purely scientific, and at times cruel (as illustrated by the asshole captain of the guard… seriously, what a douchebag) attitude that these people and the civilization as a whole have towards the other people that live on this planet, the so-called “savages,” mirrors the Doctor’s own only a few seasons ago. He condemns this as “inhuman” and vows to put a stop to it, to fight against the injustice just as he would the Daleks or any other threat to humanity or the universe; I think the greatest part about this is that it not only shows us just how far back the Doctor’s crusade against evil in the universe extends, but it really illustrates just how much of an impact his—decidedly human—companions have had on him, alien though he is. The Doctor, unlike this extremely scientifically-minded civilization, is able to sympathize, show compassion for the exploited savages that fuel the city’s greatness, and express his outrage. More than the moral soapboxing this conversation does, the most interesting aspect of it is the mirror that these people hold up to the Doctor, allowing us to see how much he has grown and changed as a character. Great stuff, that.

Not that the moral soapboxing itself isn’t interesting or worthy of recognition. I really admire them for delving into this topic of exploitation of supposedly lower beings, the “savages”, the “outsiders.” It’s really just textbook Imperialism if you think about it, which, considering everything, is pretty ballsy coming from the BBC. Convinced in their ways and the supposed scientific fact of things, this civilization is unable to see just how human the savages outside their walls really are, and it takes the Doctor’s presence and perspective to show them otherwise, as we’ll see in the subsequent parts. But I really like this whole idea and the delving into these sorts of human rights issues that this serial does. It really illustrates quite effectively what a great vehicle science fiction is for illuminating pressing moral and political issues and providing an intelligent discourse and commentary on them (even if this is a bit on the nose and obvious in this serial). Mad props to Doctor Who for being this awesome.

And speaking of awesome… This cliffhanger. I cannot get over how ballsy it is. I know they’ve done the Doctor-in-danger so many times before and since this serial aired, but it’s one thing to present a threat and have the episode end there (part one, I’m looking at you), and it’s an entirely different matter if they follow through with said threat. And they definitely followed through here.

Part 3

The thing that intrigues me the most about this part is what happens to the Doctor and Jano. Again, what we have here with this serial as far as the structure goes is a super standard part three with some run around and wheel spinning, what with all the Steven and Dodo stuff in the caves. While this is supposed to be exciting, I suppose, and super tense, I think it’s one of those places that really suffers from not being able to witness it playing out on screen. Television is a visual medium, after all, and audio and pictures can only do so much. Which makes me kinda sad, but what can you do?

So while Steven and Dodo are busy being Ian and Barbara in the caves fleeing for their lives, the most interesting stuff in the serial is happening in the laboratory. I don’t know which I find more compelling—the fact that the Doctor is basically pretty much immobilized and at the mercy of these scientists, or the fact that the Doctor’s consciousness and intelligence and personality and mannerisms basically get transplanted into some other dude. Cuz both are pretty awesome.

I guess I should clarify about the ‘awesomeness’ concerning the Doctor being completely immobilized and having the wits sucked out of him. As I was saying to a friend who’s getting into the new stuff, you don’t see the Doctor losing very often, which is what makes the stories that are the exception to this rule so powerful and interesting (especially regenerations). Perhaps it’s one of the more comforting aspects of the show, that you can go into most any particular story and expect the Doctor to come out of it all right and on top and good with everything. Even though the situation might be particularly dangerous and tricky and “how is he gonna get out of this one?” he always finds a way, because he’s the Doctor. That’s what he does.

But in this part, he’s decidedly not all right. He’s just been experimented on, had the life force drained out of him, and we know the savages eventually recover, but what about the Doctor? This hasn’t ever been done before. And he’s not human. For all we know, he may be a wordless vegetable for the rest of his life, which is a pretty terrifying and heartbreaking thought. Hartnell also plays it really well. I just think it’s a really excellent and intriguing concept, and they do a good job of executing it in the serial. There’s something just so wrong about seeing the Doctor incapable of independent movement or speech, dispossessed of that insufferably haughty attitude of his. And I think it really works and it adds to the tension and urgency of the situation at hand.

As far as the Doctor’s consciousness getting transplanted into someone else…

I’ve heard that apparently the higher-ups behind Doctor Who at the time were seeing if they could get away with carrying on the show with a Hartnell impersonator of some kind, before they arrived at the idea of a completely different man with a completely different personality and regenerations and all of that. So knowing that, watching the scenes where Jano takes on the mannerisms, speaking patterns, etc. of Hartnell’s Doctor is really quite interesting. One of the best parts of watching the Classic stuff, for me anyway, is watching them play around and experiment with various aspects, trying to arrive at what I know as the established process, or canon, or whatever. And this is one of those things that really interests me. I think it also works as a bit of a shocker as well as a bit of humor too, because listening to this actor attempt to sound like Hartnell is pretty amusing, and he does a decent job of it, I think. I can only hope he got the physical mannerisms and ticks down as well, but I suppose we’ll never really know for sure (so sad).

Having someone else take on aspects of the Doctor’s personality also heightens the tension and wrongness of the whole thing. It’s one thing to watch a regeneration, having a completely different man swanning off in a freshly regenerated body and calling himself the Doctor, but it’s quite another seeing a completely different person endued with the Doctor’s traits and intelligence while the Doctor is still around and unable to do things for himself. It’s unsettling, and I think it was a rather interesting move.

This whole thing also reminds me of the part in the new series 4 finale “Journey’s End” where Donna manages to take on aspects of a Time Lord. That’s basically what happens here, and yet Jano’s puny human intellect seems to be taking the strain okay. I mean, aside from the fact that the Doctor’s consciousness has basically taken over, but hey, that’s a risk to take, I guess. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this point, but I like finding unlikely connections and trends between the Classic and the new stuff; they always pop up in unexpected places, like here for example.

Part 4

So I know I haven’t talked a lot about a few things in this story, like the actual savages themselves, for one. But really, they’re nothing special to sing home about. I dunno if I’d go so far to say that the title of this serial is basically a big fat misnomer, but it’s really about so much more than the savages. But because it’s the title of the thing, I almost feel compelled to talk about them at least a little.

I’m not entirely sure what else to say about them. The performances are decent, and the characters are definitely stock characters, and there’s not a lot of actual development to them. There’s the leader Chal; there’s Tor, the upstart violent dude who wants to bash the enemy in with his club; there’s Nanina, the pretty lady who makes something of a connection with the enemy and eventually gets him to sympathize with her people. I’ve seen them before many times in many different incarnations, not only in Doctor Who, but elsewhere, which I guess proves that they work, but what else? Yeah these stock characters do the job, but how about some originality, how about some depth to them? I get that these people are supposed to be somewhat simple and a bit crude and unsophisticated because of the many times they’ve been subjected to the procedure that strips them of their life force and intelligence and vitality, but to me, that doesn’t fly as an excuse for not fleshing out characters we’re supposed to be rooting for and sympathizing with. It gets the job done, but little else.

Then again, the scientists and the guards and the people in the city aren’t much better. All of the characters aside from the principal three fall a bit flat for me; like I said, they do get the job done, but aside from that…

I do like how this part resolves everything though. There’s some cool bit of anarchy when everyone is destroying the lab (I love when the answer to a Doctor Who story is to beat up advanced technology with sticks, it’s always so amusing), but the aim is a peaceful and egalitarian existence, which is always good and very optimistic and very Doctor Who. I also like how this part again showcases how much our three principals have grown along the way, at least with the Doctor and Steven. After the Doctor recovers, his companions urge him to return to the TARDIS and get the hell out of there, but he flat out refuses, because he can’t just leave this planet and these two groups of people like this, with one openly exploiting the other. Again, I love this, because just a few seasons ago, the roles were reversed. It was the Doctor wanting to get the hell out at all costs, while his companions implored him to stay and help fight injustice. And I really enjoy that, not only because it very clearly illustrates how much the Doctor has changed and grown, but it also serves as a sort of legacy and tribute to his earlier companions; the roles are reversed, and now the Doctor gets to pass along the example and the compassion he learned from his prior traveling companions to his current ones. It’s a nice little chain of people learning from each other, and I think it’s great.

Now, I mentioned earlier in the background that this is Steven’s departure story. As far as that goes… It really makes me wish that I’ve seen the rest of his stories, because I really like Steven. And I think it’s clear from what the Doctor says about being proud of him that he’s come a long way from the beginning, and it makes me want to experience the rest of his stories to see for myself how far he’s come. As far as companion departures go, I think this is kind of moving and rather sad, in the way that companion departures are (mostly) always sad. And while Steven does have a pretty prominent role in the running-and-gunning portions of this story, I just wish that a little more attention had been focused on him, considering this is his last one.

It doesn’t even feel remotely like anyone’s last story until we get up to the end and Chal nominates Steven to be the mediator between the two groups of people on this alien planet. In that respect, it feels tacked on, and I really wish it wasn’t. And I know they’re capable of doing powerfully moving companion departure stories at this point in the show’s history, because look at Susan’s last scene in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”. In no way does that feel tacked on to me, it makes sense, and it’s all the better for it. It’s highly character-centric and it shows, and I wish more companion departures were like it, especially for lesser-known companions that are actually quite entertaining and awesome, like Steven.

All things considered, though, I think they did somehow manage to pull off a decent departure for him. At least he doesn’t get completely shafted and glossed over like Dodo does in the next story (and she really does have a completely ridiculous name, doesn’t she).

Final Thoughts?: All in all, I'd say this story is decent. It's not mind blowing in any respects, but neither is it god awful, which I'm thankful for. It's fairly standard Doctor Who, but that doesn't mean it's not without it's noteworthy points.

I actually find myself mulling over these ideas and themes brought up in this serial probably more than I should. Dealing with problems of the 'other' as well as discussion about human rights and what really constitutes a human being is a sci fi staple, but I really appreciate that they address it here, too. It's a welcome reminder even (especially?) now, and I think they do a good job with it, even though it's a bit too on the nose. I prefer my commentary a bit subtler, but ah well. At least there's intelligent commentary on society at all.

I do think that this serial suffers from not existing anymore, but not by a lot. The story itself is where a lot of the problems I have with this serial lie, not in the fact that I can't see what's happening. Which, let's face it, would still be problems for me even if this story magically fell out of the sky in my backyard with all four episodes intact.

Ultimately, I think this story has a lot of potential that they unfortunately didn't touch on or play with. Tighten this up, raise the stakes a bit, give everyone a bit more character development, and you could have a rockin' modern two-parter on your hands using this same story. Which just goes to show you how relevent and cool these ideas and concepts are, even though they weren't brought out to their fullest potential.

Next Time!: Second Doctor! Jamie! Ben and Polly! Another companion(s) departure! Missing plans! MORE RECONSTRUCTIONS! Matt's back next Tuesday with his look at "The Faceless Ones"!

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