Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Myth Makers

Previous viewings - none

Late 1965 Doctor Who seems more like a radio series, so little visual material has survived. The Myth Makers is the third consecutive story for which all episodes are missing, and the third in a row I've experienced via the BBC audio. I really don't mind, in fact with this story in particular I'm surprised how well it transfers to audio - it's witty dialogue and exquisite characters lose nothing from the lack of visuals, even the action-heavy last episode is still very exciting.

The Myth Makers is a welcome return to the pure historical genre. However it's not a typical one - one companion leaves, another joins, and the regulars get involved in their biggest historical event yet - the climax of the Trojan War, an event more mythological than historical, which gives writer Donald Cotton more freedom to place the Doctor and his companions in situations usually against the rules for the genre. It's also a funny story, but while The Romans was farcical, this story uses more sophisticated humour and mixes it with the drama.

The story begins with the Doctor mistaken for Zeus by the Greeks because of his magical appearance from the TARDIS. While Steven and Vicki wait in the TARDIS, the Doctor is taken to meet Agamemnon. This was diverting, but we've seen this before with Barbara in The Aztecs and it was done really well there, however the story changes direction after the first episode and the Doctor admits he isn't Zeus. It's great fun while it lasts - the Doctor tries to excuse himself but soon realises he has no choice but to play up to the mistaken identity, and he almost seems to revel in it. Of the Greek characters, Odysseus makes the biggest impression; he doesn't think the Doctor is who he says he is, but knows that doesn't mean he can't be useful. He's the biggest threat to the Doctor, but through doing his job rather than being a villain, a distinction that makes him more believable.

The plot of The Myth Makers doesn't simply progress as usual, rather it shows us a situation that escalates as time goes on, with the stakes getting higher and higher. What starts out as a simple misunderstanding threatening the Doctor's life takes a turn for the worse when Steven leaves the TARDIS and is taken by Odysseus as a Trojan spy, while the TARDIS is taken to Troy with Vicki inside. His life is saved in the most curious cliffhanger yet - the Doctor drops the charade of being Zeus, and the Greeks don't seem to mind much. It could easily have been an anticlimax, but fortunately the best is yet to come.

Now that's over, the story expands its horizons by taking us to Troy and introducing us to some new characters, the somewhat theatrically performed Trojans - Priam is like a subtle version of Nero in The Romans, Paris is camp as hell and the suspicious Cassandra is completely over-the-top. However a very clever situation is set up: Vicki, having revealed she is from the future, is asked to use her powers to save the Trojans from the Greeks, while the Doctor is asked to use his skills to come up with a way for the Greeks to besiege Troy. There seems no easy solution, and interestingly there isn't a good side and a bad side, as they're both holding the TARDISeers against their will. Apart from Cassandra and Odysseus, everybody is likeable, because the actors are performing purely to entertain.

The dialogue continues to shine with some funny lines, but it doesn't make this a comedy; this being a retelling of Homer's Iliad, the Doctor relates to Steven how it will inevitably end with mass death, but the story isn't presented as grim or gritty, perhaps because some of the ideas are so funny it couldn't be - a giant wooden horse with an invasion force inside, the Doctor's suggestion of a flying machine which he withdraws when he is told he will be expected to test it himself. However, even without seeing it I know Hartnell is playing the comedy differently than usual - in stories like The Time Meddler he makes it seem as though the Doctor is enjoying himself, but here the Doctor's worried that he might have got himself involved in a situation too big to handle, and is very uncomfortable with it. Hartnell isn't breaking new ground with his performance in this story, but he's showing he can perform different sorts of comedy, if anyone was still in doubt.

With Steven allowing himself to be captured by Paris to get closer to Vicki, Peter Purves continues to find his feet as Steven. I'm still not quite sure what kind of person he is, he's firmly established himself as one of the good guys, but I draw a blank when trying to think of him having only the most essential qualities of a male companion.

As in her debut story, Vicki takes a central role. She tries to keep Cassandra's suspicions at bay, along with Priam's questions about her, while also falling love with Troilus. On paper this is the same exit that Susan got, but the execution is totally different. This is Maureen O'Brien's best performance in the series, and the story where she most seems nothing like Susan. Troilus is unmemorable, but Vicki's character has been changing since she joined and her finding a place where she can belong seems like the conclusion of an arc, if a subtle one.

The conclusion of the story is appropriate, but still comes as a surprise. The wooden horse is taken into Troy, allowing the Greeks to attack, and a bloodbath begins. We hear about decent enough characters being killed unceremoniously, and a situation of hysteria in Troy as the Doctor tries to find his friends. For once, this seems to be about more than the Doctor getting back to the TARDIS - the battle being historical rather than sci-fi gives it added weight and there's still Vicki's departure to deal with. Vicki sends handmaiden Katarina to find the wounded Steven while she says goodbye to the Doctor off-screen. It's a shame we didn't get to see the conversation, but there isn't time it would have been out of place among the chaotic scenes in the city to have a relatively slow and intimate farewell. It isn't until Vicki has met up with Troilus that it hits home that another companion has left.

The final TARDIS scene has Steven coming to and realising that Vicki is no longer with them, but Katarina is, and she's confused as to what's going on. The Doctor reassures them but doesn't seem too sure himself.

As the first story produced by John Wiles, I can already see the changes he has made. His is the era where the events the TARDIS crew get mixed up in are bigger than them, and more than usual travelling in the TARDIS feels like a dangerous profession, as we'll see in the next story.

Horror quotient - The jokes are gone in the last episode, and although there's no horror, there are many deaths.
Comedy quotient - Donald Cotton sure knows how entertain! There are so many hilarious one-liners, although this is isn't a comedy as some people say it is, it's just written funny.
Drama quotient - Again, the story hits the right balance between the three key elements. The danger feels more real here than in most stories.

A shame it's missing - The Myth Makers is one of the finest. Top three Hartnell.


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