Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Savages

Previous viewings - none

I enter somewhat uncharted territory as this is the first story I've not experienced in any form before. New writer Ian Stuart Black is brought in to pen Peter Purves's last story, which I listened to with the BBC audio in conjunction with the slideshow on the BBC website (which was better than I expected, I might use it again for future stories).

We're in the future, a planet inhabited by the cave-dwelling Savages, who are intelligent but caught in a cycle of exploitation by the more advanced Elders. Yep, pretty familiar stuff - just like in Galaxy 4, a twist our expectations of who the good guys and bad guys are subverted. However, while that story "disclosed" that as the main twist, surprising no-one, The Savages has more to offer.

After some of the most experimental stories yet, it's good to see a fairly typical TARDIS landing on an alien planet and the Doctor invstigating his surroundings with a scientific eye. Innovation doesn't end with the setting and format, which has been mainly how the stories so far have distinguised themselves. Curiously, Steven and Dodo wait in the TARDIS while the Doctor goes about his business outside. Even more curiously, the Doctor meets some people who have predicted his arrival and he is taken to an idyllic city. It's a pity the Doctor being known to the Elders doesn't turn out to be that important - given the way the rest of the story plays out, it would have been interesting if this story substituted the Elders for the Time Lords. It wouldn't be so forgotten then! Although the Elder society seems too good to be true, they put on a better show of sincerity than the Drahvins and are at least likeable on the whole.

We're also introduced to the Savages; they're a suspicious lot but they have every right to be as they're being hunted by the Elders and as Elder leader Jano is telling the Doctor why his people are so brilliant, Dodo goes missing on a tour and stumbles across the dark underbelly of the city (although the Elders seem to make no effort to hide it): a lab where the mental energy of captured Savages is drained, which the Elders use to strength themselves. Again, it's hardly original, and its success is in the delivery - for once, Dodo reacts to danger in a normal way, rather than the thrill she got out of the games in The Celestial Toymaker, and as a result I care more than usual about her safety. Also, that the fact the Elders don't simply turn on the Doctor and his companions, and even let them go (rather than insisting on one of them staying, which is what I would have expected), keeps them from falling into the usual villain traps.

The second half of the story is more focused on the Savages, with Steven and Dodo meeting up with them and being taken to their caves, while the Doctor is coerced into returning to the city and enters the energy machine, a bit of a damp squib as a cliffhanger because we know it means the Doctor will only be out of sorts for a while. I like that the Savages do not all share the same views, with some wary about involving Steven and Dodo, and rightfully so as they are almost instantly found by an Elder guard. I thought Steven's trick with the mirror was clever, but thinking about it a bit more it's an obvious solution to a paralysing light gun. However, it's pretty much the only thing Steven has done in the whole story so far, and at this stage I'm not prepared for him leaving at all.

With the Doctor out of most of the third episode, Jano decides to transfer the Doctor's energy to himself. I was looking forward to hearing Frederick Jaeger's character take on the Doctor's personality to hear his Hartnell impression, and I wasn't disappointed, although surprised that he seemed to shift back and forth between Jano's personality and the Doctor's, leaving him unsure whether he wants to re-capture the escaped travellers or discuss peace with them. I was surprised by how good a performance Jeager gave - he had to play a character whose outlook changes by taking on a double personality, not an easy task. Upon reflection, earlier in the story he still seems like the same character, but an unenlightened version of the one we see later in the story.

The story wraps up with the usual social upheaval, and the Doctor suggests Steven take up the role of mediator that the Savages have suggested. Ah, Steven's departure. Ian and Barbara leaving came out of nowhere as this does, but that was a long time coming as they were lost in time with the Doctor and had an opportunity to get home. Steven seems quite content to stay with the Doctor and Dodo, but the Doctor insists that he is the man for the job. For the purposes of the story this is poorly done - the Doctor would run out of companions if he needed to leave someone behind to mediate between societies he turns upside down during his visits, and I didn't get the impression that Steven was keen. Also, they had to outdo The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve, when Steven stormed out of the TARDIS (although to be honest I wouldn't have wanted that to be the last of him either), and this comes off more as the writer getting rid of Steven having already written the script and being told Peter Purves was leaving with ten minutes to the deadline. I ended up feeling bad for Steven, practically pushed out of the TARDIS without even getting a chance to go back for his panda.

Such was the character though that he could have ended up anywhere, the writers never even told us where he was from.

The Savages rests on interesting ideas, as all Doctor Who stories should (and most do). If the story existed, I might view it more favourably, but like with Galaxy 4 it seems more focused on presenting the ideas to the viewers, taking care to label each one good or bad, than simply giving us a fun adventure on an alien planet. The pure historicals are noted as having been phased out around this time because kids expect monsters - well there are none here. The main problem with doing a story like this is as with Galaxy 4 it falls short on excitement, despite giving us much more interesting alien cultures and characters and putting in a few more twists to keep viewers guessing.

Horror quotient - Relatively scare-free. I think the show at this stage is trying to get back on its feet after the grim-fest of the first half of the season, although grim does not equal horror. As we're nearing the end of the Hartnell era, I can probably conclude that Daleks aside the horror aspect of the show started with Troughton (the era, not the man).
Comedy quotient - Not many laughs in a story more interested in other things.
Drama quotient - A strength, helped by Christopher Barry's direction. I felt for the Savages and even the Elders, who managed to avoid the out-and-out evil that permeates many of the humanoid races. It's good to see that third dimension which all too often is seen as optional in characters. The Doctor's defiance at the way the Elder society works was a particular highlight.

One of the best examples of a genre of Who story I'm not keen on.


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