Carnival of Monsters, by Ian Potter (and Robert Holmes, and Terrance Dicks)

Next in the series of Black Archive monographs on Doctor Who is the second story from Season 10, where the Doctor has been liberated by the Time Lords from his exile on Earth and is once again able to travel the Universe. I missed it on original broadcast, but devoured the Target novelisation as a kid, and also enjoyed the re-showing of the TV story in 1981. When I came back to it in 1987, I wrote:

I’ve tended to rather rush through writing up the Pertwee stories I have been watching, as they are much of a muchness, but this is different. I remember back in 1981 when it was re-broadcast, we really wondered why – surely there were other, better Pertwee four-parters out there? The Terrance Dicks novelisation is only average. It seemed as if Carnival of Monsters had been chosen mainly because it followed on in continuity directly after The Three Doctors. Spoiled as we were by the Hinchcliffe and Williams years, Carnival of Monsters did not seem all that special.

I must say that now it does. The 1973 season was probably Pertwee’s second best (after his first, the 1970 season) and Carnival of Monsters is surely the best story in it – followed by Frontier in Space and Planet of the Daleks, which are both OK but not spectacular, and ending with  The Green Death which is also a good one, particularly because it gets rid of Jo. The one thing that lets it down is the visual effects, rather a lot of dodgy CSO being used. But if you can shut your eyes and pretend you are still six during those bits, the rest is fantastic – Robert Holmes at his very best in the script, Michael Wisher in pre-Davros days as the main villain, Ian Marter in pre-Harry Sullivan days as a minor character, a real feeling of several different completely alien cultures (the two classes on Inter Minor and the Lurmans), and an absence of the blatant padding that mars so many Pertwee stories. A special shout to Cheryl Hall, later the girlfriend of Citizen Smith, as showgirl Shirna.

And there’s a couple of serious reflections in there too – the MiniScope itself is a futuristic development of the zoo, and gives rise to a rather caricatured discussion of conservation versus entertainment’ more seriously, Inter Minor is clearly a communist totalitarian state, threatened to its very foundations by any influence from the outside. [2022: I would not describe it as “communist” now.] Michael Wisher’s character Kalik is the conservative brother of the unseen president Zarb. It’s nicely observed, although not all conservative backlashes end with the leader of the hardliners being eaten alive by a Drashig. Shame.

When I came back to it again for my Great Rewatch, I wrote:

And Carnival of Monsters takes us to an alien planet, with one of the great Robert Holmes scripts: he specialised in having a couple of characters whose dialogue informs us all about their world, and here he does it twice over, with Kalik and Orum (and to an extent Pletrac) revealing Inter Minor to us, and Vorg and Shirna representing the outside world. The idea of a closed and bureaucratic society dealing with the decadent entertainment possibilities of its neighbours is a rather good one. The first episode is especially good with no apparent connection between Inter Minor and the SS Bernice, until Vorg’s hand removes the Tardis.

Michael Wisher is excellent as the villainous Kalik. Maybe they should bring him back to, I dunno, play a mad scientist who invents the Daleks. I love Cheryl Hall as Shirna as well, though admittedly more for her costume than her acting. The Drashigs rather let it down though. And I noticed a continuity goof: as Jo flees from being thigh-deep in the marsh, her trousers dry instantly (and her close-fitting pockets don’t seem to contain the bulky set of skeleton keys).

Rewatching it now, I was impressed by the theatricality (in a good way) of the story. The scenes on Inter Minor all take place around the MiniScope. Cheryl Hall, only 22, is really impressive in a generally good cast. I did twitch at the racism of the S.S. Bernice sections, but it’s reasonable to say that this is counterpointed by the Inter Minor setting, which is not a communist state but an authoritarian racist apartheid society. I loved the line, “Give them a hygiene chamber and they store fossil fuel in it”!

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation is:

‘My dear fellow, do you really think that’s necessary?’

When I reread it in 2007, I wrote:

A good Robert Holmes script, turned into an average Terrance Dicks novel. I remember seeing this one in 1981 during the “Five Faces of Doctor Who” repeat season; wonder how well it would stand up to re-watching now?

In Dicks’ defence, I would say that he adds some extra bits of background colour to make Inter Minor more fully realised than it was on screen. I enjoyed returning to both the story and the book. You can get the book here.

I’ve greatly enjoyed Ian Potter’s Who-related fiction – several audio plays and a couple of short stories – and was curious as to how he would approach the task of writing up this story. He’s done a great job. I will quote the body of the first chapter in full, because it’s a good statement of how writing about Who can work at its best.

One of the great things about Doctor Who is that it is constructed by many hands for many audiences. It was built to entertain viewers of different ages and consequently has to work on several levels at once to engage them all. That gives us a lot to latch on to.

Carnival of Monsters (1973) is a story all about levels, but it’s not the vision of an auteur with a single story or underlying message to relay. It’s a show full of episodic set pieces having fun with us and with itself that also happens to be a story full of messages.

Once we get into critical analysis of any work of art, we inevitably open ourselves up to the accusation that we’re seeing things in the work that ‘aren’t there’. Our own expectations, prejudices, historical perspectives and personal contexts will always colour our responses and interpretations. I happen to think that’s fine. That’s viewing for you – you bring yourself to the show. I also make no apology for the fact that the discussion of the programme you’re now reading will end up longer than either the programme’s script or its novelisation, and will probably take longer to read than the programme takes to view. There’s always more in a script than is on the page, more in a production than ends up on screen, and more than one way to reinterpret it in print.

Some of the things I hope to explore in this brief look at Carnival of Monsters will be ideas that were quite deliberately placed there by one or more of the show’s many creators. Some will be things that may have slipped in without the creators’ knowledge. Some will have arisen simply through the circumstances of the production, or the climate of the time. Others are perhaps more visible now than they were then. I hope you’ll forgive me missing out or under-emphasising any aspects that interest you.

The second chapter records the extensive source material available about how the show was made. Part of the script was used for Malcolm Hulke’s book on TV writing, including the classic stage direction “‘A STREAM OF INCOMPREHENSIBLE BUT OBVIOUSLY REVOLUTIONARY GOBBLEDEYGOOK.”

The third chapter looks briefly at the soundtrack. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The great triumph of the soundtrack is [Brian Hodgson’s] unearthly Drashig roars which combined treated versions of Hodgson’s own voice, his corgi bitch, an Australian butcherbird and, as Barry Letts recalled it, a squeal of car brakes. Whether deliberately, to help blend the elements, or just as result of slowing down tapes, the roar also has a curious long reverb, suggestive of a large echoing space. Perhaps the one weakness of the Drashig sound effects is that this reverb remains constant whether the Drashigs are in open country, within the SS Bernice hold, or roaming the Inter Minorian city.

The fourth chapter looks at the logistical considerations that led to the S.S. Bernice sections being on film and the Inter Minor scenes on video.

The fifth chapter looks in depth at the theatricality point I made earlier, for good and ill (mostly good), and how the editing process contributed to the final effect (more than usually so).

The sixth chapter looks at how the editing process affected the plot, with a few loose ends left dangling (most of which I must admit I did not notice on any of the four times I watched it).

The seventh chapter looks at Robert Holmes’ potential inspiration for the story. The one taproot text that is (plausibly) identifies is Frederik Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World”. Potter also makes the interesting observation that Holmes saw military service in Burma in the second world war, and therefore would have had first-hand experience both of the Raj and of the bubbling marshes that feature in so many of his stories – a really interesting point that I had not thought of before.

The eighth chapter looks at the extent to which the story is commentary on TV, on Doctor Who and on itself.

The populations of Inter Minor and the SS Bernice are not massively dissimilar: both locations feature a pair of male and female travellers, a handful of authority figures, and about six non-speaking characters who do all the work for them and mostly end up as disposable foot soldiers for the elite. The extent to which this is the writer drawing a deliberate parallel or devising drama for each recording block with similar available resources is up for debate, but Holmes definitely seems to repeatedly invite us to draw connections between the worlds.

The ninth chapter looks briefly at the political satire in the script, with reference to Britain’s relations with the EU and to pandemics.

The tenth chapter looks at the story’s approach to racism, both on Inter Minor and the Raj, and packs a lot of things to think about into a few pages.

The eleventh chapter looks at the story’s unusual use of vertical perspectives in filming. (Actually this did not completely convince me.)

The twelfth chapter looks at language, specifically the language of the chickens, and Polari.

The thirteenth chapter looks at the extent to which the story resets the narrative of Doctor Who as a whole.

The fourteenth chapter looks at the story’s longevity and popularity, especially the Drashigs.

The fifteenth chapter tries to establish the dates on which the story is set, at length.

An appendix, as long as the main text, compares the early and final versions of the script. Unfortunately in the electronic version of the book we can’t see the struck through text which indicates deletions.

This is generally very good, breezy and enlightening, and you can get it here.

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