The following is a psychochronography — to use Philip Sandifer’s wonderful term — of Doctor Who, particularly those episodes aired from 1990-2004. This is my favorite part of the show — partially because it is so controversial, partially because most of the hardcore Secret Masters of Fandom want to forget it exists. I’m sure when I link this to /r/gallifrey there will be a large brawl. I may even get banned. It’s funny…the looms are addressed, as is the concept of canon. But you’d think that would please someone…
Anyway, here goes.
It is September 24, 1990. The year has been momentous. The Hubble Space Telescope has been launched, the Human Genome Project has begun in earnest, Germany has been reunified, Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait. Total Recall, Ghost, Dances With Wolves, Home Alone and Misery, among others, have been released in theatres.
Today, Mikhail Gorbachev has been given power to usher the Soviet Union into its future as a market economy. “Release Me” by Wilson Phillips is the Billboard #1 single. The future is here and it is marked by things falling apart. The song remains the same, though…over-synthesized kitsch in search of meaning and love.
The computer-animated face of Sylvester McCoy winks at us (what did they do that on? An Amiga? It looks terrible in this lovable way) and we’re off, past bad chrome lettering and a starfield. Just like always. There was some worry that the BBC would finally give the show its walking papers this year…that there would at last be nothing at the end of the lane. And maybe that’s not quite true…maybe it’s too early to be thankful.
We were promised the Cartmel Masterplan. To sum up, in fan conventions and DWM alike, Andrew Cartmel, the showrunner for Season 27, has explained this as a look into the Doctor’s past following on the events of Season 26. The Doctor, we are told, is actually the Other — one of three architects, along with Omega and Rassilon, of Time Lord society. Perhaps even of the universe itself. The Masterplan tells us he’s more than just another Time Lord. It’s been decried by some as a hackneyed backstory, a dark and gritty 90s reinvention, a bad Alan Moore pastiche. Others suspect it would have been a fascinating new direction.
There’s only one problem.It’s not here. Neither is Ace. Where they’ve gone is not explained. David Tennant once said he almost quit watching over this episode. Andrew Cartmel always hedges about what exactly…happened…he implies nothing did. But the Masterplan is conspicuously absent. No one acknowledges Ace is gone. Diegetically and mimetically, there is nothing at the end of the lane.
In fact, what’s fascinating about this episode is the amount of things it doesn’t do. It’s only fifteen minutes, of course, but the amount of formlessness is staggering even for the sometimes clunky late 80s-early 90s era of Who storytelling. One almost suspects that Ian Briggs is taking the piss — in the same way that Curse of Fenric played with all the story elements that make Doctor Who definably Doctor Who and turned them up to 11, prefiguring Doctor as Odin, Doctor as Face of the 20th Century, and Doctor as tightrope between man and Great Old One; Perdita plays with the very structure of Who. It begins manageably enough, with our intrepid but doddering hero meandering a lonely street. Probably Shoreditch somewhere. It’s obvious location footage..you’ll probably have to turn your speakers down if you have a decent audio setup. The usual badly mixed hiss from this time period is menacing. There are almost whispers…but that’s just because you can’t hear anyone else. The audio is just bad. Here’s a bit of McCoy’s breath on the mic — he’s fumbling today. Was the price of continued Who a draft take? He really seems like he’s less all there than he was in the ’98 feature film.
Now there’s a black and white title card. I half expect it to say “Sam Becket never made it home”. But it reads instead “Et In Arcadia ego”. There is no period. They can’t even get that right.
I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be critical. We’ve all seen it. It is that bad. Redacted almost, surreal…there’s nothing there and it hurts to watch. In a 2008 Reddit AMA, Paul Cornell suggested that this was intentional. Andrew Cartmel is not that smart. “Things happen when you travel alone…we’re all stories in the end..” These are Moffat tropes from the new series. The fucking reboot! They don’t matter to this except as a method of backforming our understanding of the…incomprehension on our screens. Doctor Who is about to go full Max Headroom.
*breathes* My tea is getting cold. There. Better. You know, that’s a good way of getting a handle on this…mess. It’s almost like a broadcast intrusion got made into a script. You’re watching a music video…but there is no music. Haunting strains of a synthesizer, maybe, but they’re indistinguishable from the ambient noise of the TARDIS console room. Speaking of which, this is a hell of a bottle show. The one Cardiffstan street, then the Tardis. Which has been covered with a thin aluminum foil, trying to look chrome, maybe silver. The Doctor stumbles around it. Cosmic rays enter the room. I can tell they’re cosmic rays because they look like visual afterimages and pass through walls. It’s a remarkably good special effect…the team responsible must have read up on the Apollo astronauts’ description of the phenomena. Now the color’s all washed out…he’s angry.
“The question is not who I am.” He looks frantically from side to side. There are…weird…what look like shadowy people facing the wall. On his left, a reddish-brown haired girl. On his right, a dusty blonde woman. They don’t speak. Is this an attempt to depict hallucinations? “Who I am shall burn my hand in this moment, as all moments. I AM THE OTHER! I am that which…that which…fascinating. I’m manic. It has been a while.”
He strides into the center as a spotlight descends. “In this moment, June 27. 2016, 11:23 PM, I must decide what that means. No one can help me. I wander in the wilderness. What shall I be? For Who can never be answered and I must make peace with that despair.” This is so oddly specific about irrelevant nonsense and overwritten it’s almost funny. But it doesn’t feel right. Phil Sandifer won’t even write about this shit. He uses the alternate fanon timeline. I’m almost beginning to suspect we repressed this…
He points the sonic screwdriver toward the blond girl, looking at the auburn one. “What must I do?”
The episode ends here, the familiar sound effects not so much a comforting presence as a stomach-curdling drop into terror and the unknown. Nothing at the end of the lane indeed.
Bohemia doesn’t even have a coastline, y’know. Stay tuned for Episode 2 of this serial…October 1, 1990. In the meantime…
exit stage left, pursued by a bear.