Carnival of Monsters

carnivalTo put this in context, after three years exiled to Earth this is the first story after the Time Lords gave the Doctor his freedom back.  This widens out the kinds of stories he can get involved in, because he is no longer limited to Earth invasions or occasional errands for the Time Lords.  What linked those plots is that they tended towards the large-scale, but not every story has to be about a threat to all humanity or a danger to the universe any more.  In some ways that allows the Doctor to be the Doctor again.  He no longer has to be part of the establishment by working with them every week (either UNIT or the Time Lords).  He can go back out into the universe and be gloriously anti-establishment, getting back to what he does best: being an anarchist in time and space, fighting injustice and bureaucracy and class discrimination.

In Carnival of Monsters, the Doctor finds all of those things to fight, and he is in his element.  Robert Holmes can’t quite decide whether to make Vorg and Shirna villains or victims, but tends towards the latter.  They spend most of the story being bullied by bureaucrats, and it is far more than just a comment about jobsworths in positions of power.  On a thematic level they are the immigrants being denied fair treatment, but their travelling entertainer status also makes them an oppressed minority.  Note the use of polari, which was originally a theatrical patois, but long before the 70s had been adopted by gay men as a means to communicate without prosecution.  And there is no doubt that it would have been recognised by viewers at the time.  Having been used for comedy so much, it had long since been an open secret.  A line like “vada the bona palone” would have been very familiar to anyone who had listened to 60s radio shows such as Round the Horne (so basically just about every adult viewer at the time – nobody ever wanted to miss Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as Julian and Sandy).

Vorg and Shirna are also responsible for the miniscope, so double up as villains, but they are largely unaware of the implications.  However, they do put profit before the welfare of their exhibits, so also provide a parallel with the treatment of animals in circuses, a longterm issue.  Also suffering cruel treatment are the functionaries, which Holmes uses to highlight class attitudes.  “Give them a hygiene chamber and they’ll store fossil fuel in it” is a paraphrase of the infamous political comment, “If the workers had baths, they’d use them to keep the coal.”  The origins of the phrase are obscure, and may just be an urban myth or itself a paraphrase of something said by a politician during the 1910s, 1920s or even some time in the late 19th Century.  The most familiar use of the expression comes from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, used by Orwell as a quotation (1937).

So this is all very much what we would expect of Holmes, particular in light of his later stories: a mild attack on the political right.  But bubbling under the surface is something far more interesting.

JO: And outside there are people and creatures just looking at us for kicks?
DOCTOR: Very probably.
JO: They must be evil and horrible.
DOCTOR: No, not necessarily, Jo. Thoughtless, maybe.

It’s almost a critique of reality television, before the genre even really exists, but it is most certainly a cheeky critique of television as a whole, pushing strongly against the fourth wall.  I don’t think for a minute Holmes is calling on the viewers to take a long, hard look at their motivations for being entertained by programmes like Doctor Who that show people being endangered.  After all, Doctor Who is almost invariably about saving people, putting right wrongs, fighting injustice, etc.  But as soon as you notice that there is a comparison to be made between the miniscope and a television set, you can’t help but also notice that there is also a comparison to be made between the bureaucracy in this story and the upper echelons of the BBC at the time, and more logically not just the BBC.  This is a criticism of those who are in charge of exploitative or trashy entertainment, so in some ways it works as a criticism of the kind of television channel that doesn’t put in the effort to make something with some thought to it such as Doctor Who, but just puts out cheap, ratings-grabbing shows.  Whatever he’s angry at, Holmes certainly seems to be angry at something here, and that defines much of his writing career on Doctor Who.  Cynicism is almost always lurking beneath the surface of his scripts.  Eventually that will prove harmful and to the detriment of his work, but at this stage he is striking a perfect balance.

So we have here a huge step forward for the Pertwee era, and the first four weeks of a run of 16 episodes that are largely unrecognisable from the earlier Third Doctor seasons.  But this version of the Doctor still can’t quite help being slightly flawed.  In fact, I take issue with the following much more than his “gun collection” in The Gunfighters:

ANDREWS: You’ll regret it, sir. I think I ought to warn you, I used to box for my school.
DOCTOR: And I think I ought to warn you that I took lessons from John L Sullivan himself.

Go and research Sullivan if you are interested in that reference, but let’s just say the Doctor’s time might have been better spent trying to persuade him not to spend his life beating people to an unrecognisable bloody pulp for (often illegal) entertainment, rather than taking lessons from the man.  If the miniscope is to be a parallel for cheap and exploitative entertainment, the Doctor himself needs to be better than this.   RP

The view from across the pond:

I’m not a big fan of breaking the fourth wall, but I have no problem with it when things get “meta”.  Meta is when something refers back to itself or other genre conventions.  Nyssa might call it recursion, but we know the truth!  So when Jo Grant freaks-the-hell-out, as she does, it’s all brilliantly meta and makes us, the audience, a part of the story.

Jo: Do you mean that that Major Daly and all those people on the ship are in a sort of a peepshow?

Doctor: That’s right, Jo, and you and I are inside its works.

Jo: And outside there are people and creatures just looking at us for kicks?

We are included in the story in a way we have not really experienced before; among many looking in on this galactic peepshow that is The Carnival of Monsters.  In a way, it creates an internal logic that makes the Doctor and Jo real, and the audience is a bunch of galactic spectators looking in on their adventures.  It’s an idea that I can live with.

A good deal of this story takes place on an ocean vessel within the miniscope, and is so quintessentially British.  The SS Bernice is peopled by the likes of Major Daly and his daughter, along with John Andrews (played by the great Harry Sullivan himself, Ian Marter).  Major Daly is magnificent in his Britishness.   Unfortunately the inhabitants of Inter Minor and the galactic showmen, Vorg and Shirna, are less likable.  Vorg and Shirna aren’t really meant to be likable though, are they?  They are traveling performers trying to make an intergalactic buck using technology that really should have been outlawed.  The Inter Minor cast are annoying and look at outsiders with a contempt that is unhealthy.  (Yes, there’s another message here about xenophobia, I’m certain!)  For the record, I’m typically very fond of blue people (Andorians are a fine looking race, for instance) but these guys look like someone used chalk to paint them.

The appeal of Carnival of Monsters comes down to a number of things.  Although we don’t know it at the start, it takes us away from Earth and, in particular, London and the typical UNIT story.  It is also one of Pertwee’s shorter stories which maintains the pace.  What we end up with is a 4 episode story that takes place in as many places: the SS Bernice, the marshes of the Drashigs, Inter Minor and the internal workings of the Miniscope.  There’s no time to get bored especially considering just how much of the first part takes place in the Bernice, trying to unravel the mystery.  The Plesiosaur adds to the sense of a Saturday afternoon adventure and the giant hand removing the TARDIS continues the motif.  Again, we’re seeing a meta-adventure and that’s unusual and clever.  And let’s not forget, the budget on Doctor Who was next to nonexistent.   Each location has a personality of its own, with the most frightening coming from the barren marshlands from which the carnivorous Drashigs emerge.  Amazingly, these creatures have a popularity and I think it comes down to a monster that is just out to hunt and eat.  (A bit like my cat, really…)  Therefore it was obvious that we needed a hand puppet version one day…

drashig2From it’s earliest days, Doctor Who was willing to be experimental.  It didn’t always succeed but when it did, you knew it.  Carnival of Monsters may not have had the parade of monstrosities that we were hoping for in the title, but it’s a solid adventure, with a great cast and a pace that keeps it moving the entire time.  If more stories of the Pertwee era knew to maintain the tighter format, there might have been so many more outstanding successes because many of the stories were based on great ideas that just dragged on a bit too long.  This is no Curse of Peladon, but it’s not a far cry from it!   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… Frontier in Space

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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4 Responses to Carnival of Monsters

  1. Your sister says:

    Is that “bur bur” ?!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Basil says:

    Dr. Who stories that have sinister aliens usurping humans from Earth into false realities have been intriguing from an SF perspective. In the 60s we had The War Games, Enlightenment for the 80s, and for the 70s it was Carnival Of Monsters. Reusable SF plot devices may work best in the most flexible SF franchises like Dr. Who, Star Trek and X-Files. My thoughts on Carnival Of Monsters is that it’s a rare opportunity for Dr. Who to have a sufficiently realistic message on a science-fantasy level. As for whatever issues Robert Holmes had in writing this one, I understood that had similar intent with The Sun Makers. SF stories that are deliberate attacks on something, as The Matrix in its false-reality-prison portrait has made rebellious headway with in real life, may remind us that SF is indeed a simple extension of everyday dramas.

    This Dr. Who was not one of my favourites. But it was nice to see Michael Wisher as another Dr. Who alien-villain before his breakthrough as Davros.

    Thanks for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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