In 1981 the Doomsday Clock was at four minutes to midnight, so Doctor Who gave us a story called Four to Doomsday, featuring a TARDIS crew of four people encountering Monarch’s spaceship four light-days from Earth, with four ethnic groups on board. Unfortunately the Doomsday Clock is now at two minutes to midnight, so I suppose if this was being made today it would be Two to Doomsday, which would at least have the advantage of getting rid of two of the companions. Being as two of them are insufferable, that might have been an advantage.
The least-worst of the three companions here is obviously Nyssa, and it is a blessing Peter Davison fought to keep her on the show, presumably realising she was the only companion that was actually functioning properly as a companion. A lot of creative decisions during the 1980s were in poor taste, which comes down to the producer, and in this relatively early stage in his time running Doctor Who you can see how John Nathan-Turner is already displaying an astonishing lack of good judgement. There was an obvious need to cut down the number of companions, as the writers weren’t coping with a TARDIS team of four (in fact, Four to Doomsday sums up Doctor Who as a whole at this stage!) but to look at a lineup of Adric, Nyssa and Tegan and decide the one that needed to go was Nyssa is, well, extraordinary. She is the only one of the three who doesn’t come with largely insurmountable problems.
Tegan is the lesser problem (but only in the sense that, say, influenza is a lesser problem than pneumonia), and one that is easier to fix with a bit of decent writing. We are not getting decent writing here, but we will come back to that. So Tegan is our first companion for a long time who doesn’t actually want to be travelling with the Doctor. There have been other examples of this, at least initially. Even relatively recently both Harry and Romana didn’t start off by making deliberate decisions to go off adventuring with the Doctor. But the difference is that their reluctance was quickly forgotten and never defined their characters. Even going right back to the Sixties, when we find our only examples of companions who really just wanted to go back home (Ian, Barbara, Ben, Polly), their scripts didn’t keep harping on about that to this extent. It’s never going to work as a conceit, because travelling with the Doctor is an amazing and exciting thing, so a companion who does that and is just grumpy and reluctant about it is inevitably going to be very, very annoying. This is easily fixable, and in fact could have been a springboard to a character arc in which she mellows and enjoys her adventures more and more and doesn’t want to leave, and we will kind-of get to that point, although it gets fudged to some extent.
And as for Adric, his characterisation is a mess. You might have noticed that I have barely mentioned him in most previous reviews, mainly because I prefer not to think about him too much, but in a story that goes big with how he reacts to the situation he finds himself in this is going to have to be the one where we look at what has gone horribly wrong here with Adric. We’ll leave aside the acting abilities of Matthew Waterhouse – that’s just a value judgement. Let’s look at what’s happened to the character of Adric.
So in some ways Adric seems to have been created as a sort of proto-Turlough: the one who’s a bit unreliable. It has happened on a few occasions, most notably in State of Decay and Castrovalva, but typically his trickiness is as a result of being used as a male damsel in distress, the one who gets captured and used by the villains. This is something different, and our clearest example of Adric as an unreliable friend for the Doctor. I can see why everyone might have thought this was a good idea here, because with the Doctor and Adric you have two intelligent beings from different cultures, who could come to different value judgements about the situation they are in and act accordingly. It has the potential to spark off an ethical debate, with the viewers not sure who is right. That’s probably the idea behind it, but the execution of the idea is a mess, because the villain is so clearly the villain to anyone with a grain of common sense that Adric’s decision to follow Monarch just seems ridiculous. So there is nothing for the viewers to think about in this moral debate other than to come to the conclusion very quickly indeed that Adric is an idiot.
DOCTOR: Now listen to me, you young idiot. You’re not so much gullible as idealistic. I suppose it comes from your deprived delinquent background. Monarch is the greatest being in the known universe for evil.
Except Monarch is not the “greatest being in the known universe for evil”, but an obvious small-time Doctor Who also-ran monster. The mention of Adric’s background paints the Doctor as a revolting classist snob, the use of “young” is patronising to a hyper-intelligent teenager, and Adric is not being idealistic, but simply an “idiot”. That’s the only word needed. And if that wasn’t enough to completely turn the viewers against him, two other things will. Firstly, he is an irritating know-it-all who flaunts his knowledge of pretty basic science:
ADRIC: Er, could anyone pass the sodium chloride, please?
TEGAN: Sodium chloride?
And secondly, he is a sexist pig:
ADRIC: That’s the trouble with women. Mindless, impatient and bossy.
TEGAN: You chauvinist. I heard that.
ADRIC: You were meant to.
NYSSA: I heard it too. You mean this? Mindless.
ADRIC: Well, yes, but you’re not a woman.
NYSSA: I’m not?
ADRIC: No. You’re only a girl.
Isn’t that revolting. So there is no reasonable reaction to Adric at this point other than to hate him as a character. And it’s there because the writer Terence Dudley had a brief to make Doctor Who more character-driven, and did this with it. Luckily in the next story another writer will take the most difficult two out of the three companions and have a decent stab at character-based drama, showing that there is actually some potential here.
Normally at this point I would try to look for the gems hiding under the surface, the interesting ideas, the missing opportunities, but there are slim pickings, and we are very much in the territory of how other writers might have pulled this out of the fire, from the starting point of a premise that doesn’t have much going for it. The one thing that does stand out for me is that shapeshifters emulating art is an idea that has legs. Citing drawings coming to life as a good idea might seem odd in light of the many detractors of Fear Her, but it’s a sort of magical fantasy concept that has lots of potential, and could actually be very creepy, or indeed very beautiful. Instead it’s just a limp cliffhanger ending here, and that’s a great shame. So I’m afraid we are going to have to let Nyssa have the last word here, which follows on from Adric info-dumping the premise of Doctor Who to the villain in order to pad out the story.
Why don’t you shut up!
The view from across the pond:
Every now and then a Doctor Who episode comes along that makes me yawn. In the vast list of stories, this is thankfully few and far between. There are definitely those I like more than others, but not a lot that actually bore me. In the case of Four to Doomsday it might have something to do with the fact that I had seen Davison from Mawdryn Undead until his end, then jumped back to Pertwee, T. Baker and then Davison again. By that point, there were so many better stories that I had seen that Four to Doomsday felt tired and weary. In fact, there are a lot of repeat moments that said they had exhausted their list of good ideas. That’s not to say there were no other things working against it. For instance: Adric. Adric was proving to be a … I really wanted to make that work with his name, but I’ll be good… he was a loser. He consistently sided with the people the Doctor opposed. It was like he was traveling with the Doctor just to see him fail, even if that meant he had to help the bad guys. Maybe he had a deep-seated loathing for the Doctor since his brother died, but his brother died because he forgot how to move his legs. Adric may not have known he was in the wrong with Monarch, but even if he had, it’s questionable whether or not that would have changed anything. Tegan also didn’t help this story. She’s constantly desperate to get away from every adventure. Beyond being an artist who must travel with her own Prismacolor pencils, she adds little to the story. But the biggest memory we all have of this story is the cricket ball in space. The thing with that scene is not that the idea is bad; frankly I think the idea is brilliant. It’s the execution. If the budget could not accommodate spacesuits, maybe the script could have called for a change? Not to mention, those helmets are open-faced! Even if the Doctor could have used it against poisonous air, he couldn’t use it floating in space! Ok, ok, it’s Doctor Who… we have to see beyond that. Fine, but then there has to be something to draw our attention away from that.
Actually the thing that I found most tedious was the cultural display that goes on. This was like filling in time; it was a bit embarrassing if I’m honest. And yet the poor execution went beyond that. The story is a rewrite of The Ark, this time with Monarch’s people traveling the universe and deciding to settle on earth. Monarch has all his people on slides, exactly like that Hartnell classic. And look, it’s fine to borrow from the classics, as long as you balance out what is borrowed with new ideas. (I know, Ark in Space has a similar plot, but you can’t knock that story because it was brilliant on every other level so borrowing an idea at that point is fine!) And Monarch, Persuasion and Enlightenment don’t feel like real threats. And as for threats: the whole lure to classic Who was that it left you pining for more, by giving us a cliffhanger that whet our appetites and kept us on the hook. Well! Episode one has a cliffhanger where Persuasion and Enlightenment come out wearing the clothing Tegan sketched for them. Yes, the big shock is that they can dress up! Episode two just can’t let Bigon be Bigon! He’s an android like so many others throughout Doctor Who history. When Sarah Jane was an android in The Android Invasion, that was a shock. When the several thousand year old Greek philosopher ends up being an android, that’s nothing to be thrilled by. It was almost expected! Nothing yet to keep me on the hook. We don’t get the first slightly-proper cliffhanger until part 3 where, borrowing from Masque of the Mandragora, the Doctor is to be beheaded. I’ll give it this: by part four, I was more than happy to watch the Doctor bounce a cricket ball off the side of the ship to get to his TARDIS! At least it was a new idea. Even watching Monarch shrink reminded me too much of The Sun Makers. And, just for one final theft from the past without anything new, perhaps in an attempt to recapture a bit of the magic of the early days, part four ends with a linking narrative for the next story, Kinda. So overall, the entire story is one of “been there, done that 4 or 5 times before”.
It’s an odd title too. It represents that Monarch will arrive on Earth in 4 days. But there have been so many countdowns to the destruction of Earth and none of the titles followed that. “93 rels to Earthdeath” was never a title because it lacks … well everything! Utopia wasn’t called “10 seconds until launch” because it would have been a terrible title. But then, even the lighting in this story was bleak and dismal, so maybe it all goes hand in hand. If I have one thing that really does make me happy about this story, it’s Burt Kwouk. Burt played Kato in the Pink Panther movies, and while I would have absolutely loved for him to have hidden in the TARDIS to attack the Doctor later (just to keep him alert, you understand), just knowing Kato was doing something in Doctor Who was marvelous.
Alas, Four to Doomsday had miscounted terribly. It was on the doomsday setting right from the start. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Kinda