I spent most of my time as a student thumbing through writing guides. Those years were a terrific example of procrastination in action, if that’s not a contradiction in terms: countless hours spent reading about writing instead of actually writing. It was the by-product of an arts degree (so little work, so much time) and no social life. The accumulated knowledge base has all but evaporated in favour of the lessons I’ve learned through putting my fingers on the keyboard – hard knocks, but all worthwhile – and only vague soundbites remain. One of them comes from a book on sitcom writing, and goes something like this: “If you write a period piece, it generally doesn’t date”.
That’s a generalisation, but it works. Besides the quality of writing and the splendid ensemble performance, there is a reason why Dad’s Army is constantly repeated while Man About The House generally isn’t. Situate a programme in the past and it immediately acquires a sort of timelessness. It doesn’t matter if the jokes you’re making about a set period are inevitably hardwired to the period in which you’re writing. It’s less obvious. Filters on top of filters.
“Why hasn’t she got any eyebrows?”
The Robots of Death is categorically not a period piece. It is a murder mystery set at some point in the future. In a bizarre sort of public service announcement, it features a silver-skinned fanatic who pays the ultimate price for experimenting with helium. All the while, a gargantuan sandminer trundles through a makeshift desert, while inside, the eponymous robots are revolting. And what’s curious about Storm Mine 4 is that it’s arguably as memorable for its sumptuous sets as for anything that actually happens within them.
It’s difficult to write too much about the visual approach to Robots – authentic or otherwise – without lapsing into artspeak, so let’s just drop the words geometry, elegance, and sunburst in here and leave the serious stuff to the people who can talk about these things with some sort of authority. If you were looking for a serious discourse on design, I fear you may be disappointed (but by all means write one. I’ll read it!). According to directer, Michael Briant, the inspiration for an Art Deco interior came from designer Ken Sharp: however the conversation went, it certainly fits thematically, instantly lending the story an early 20th century flavour consistent with its Christie-esque narrative. In other words, you’re watching And Then There Were None, in space, with robots and a bohemian detective, 30 years before The Unicorn and the Wasp. If anything, Robots is more Christie than Unicorn, refusing as it does to break down the fourth wall. (It’s much better as a result, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
Then there are the robots themselves, quilted, military green, and with sculpted faces that shine like Venetian masks. They also have hair: a strange design choice until you consider that the story is about a slave race more human than they look: Robots is thus an appropriate forerunner to Planet of the Ood, and while the Vocs’ elegant visual appearance doesn’t even stray close to uncanny, it serves as a telling reminder of the connections between both species. It’s the sort of thing that wins cosplay awards at the conventions, if you can get it right. “With hindsight, of course,” says producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, “that retro look hasn’t dated, but I couldn’t have foreseen than when we made it. But actually it means the programme stands up better than it would have done if we’d done our idea of a modern robot then, which would now look rather out of date.”
Curiously this is more or less what my friend (and Whovian connoisseur) Gareth said when I mentioned it to him. “The robots already looked ‘old’,” he said, “so they haven’t really dated. I would imagine anyone who watched Robots today would laugh at both the clothes and the robots. The clothes do look ridiculous. And the robots look fairly silly, really. It’s just because they look exactly as silly now as they did then that means it hasn’t really aged.”
“You guys wanna play Doom?”
But it’s ironic that we should be talking about fads and trends when discussing a show about time travel. The other day I got into a Facebook conversation about the benefits of Classic vs. New. “I know people,” someone said, “who have grown up with Nu Who and who refuse to watch Classic Who because they think they’ll be put off by the wobbly sets and rubbish effects.” I’ve never met anyone who thinks this way, but I can believe it. The world as it is today is steeped both in nostalgia and the mockery thereof: YouTube playlists filled with long-forgotten classics, accompanied by blog articles telling us how rubbish they are. We sneer at supposedly unenlightened attitudes and fashion disasters, all down on record to be mocked by people with far too much free time: meanwhile, we cannot smell the smoke of irony, festering in our own kitchens, ready for the scrutiny of the next generation.
Even I do it. Talk to me about favourite stories and it’s inevitable that the subject will turn at some point or another towards The Green Death. It has maggots, UNIT battles, a splendid companion departure, and a psychotic computer singing the Brandenburg Concerto. There can be few finer tales in the Pertwee era, or perhaps the entire run. But even I cringe a bit when Professor Clifford Jones – all long hair and flared trousers – starts on about “the petrol stinking, plastic rat-trap life” before nipping off to the kitchen to brew up some more organic fungus. It’s not that I object to the environmentalism, which was as topical then as it is today; it’s just all a bit… hippy. Had the residents of the Nuthutch appeared skipping over the hills of Caerphilly County, breaking into the chorus of I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing, it wouldn’t have been such a stretch.
But there must come a point where retro ceases to be embarrassing. Keff McCulloch’s music renders at least some of McCoy’s work borderline unwatchable. It’s the drum machines or the orchestra hits or (more likely) the heady combination of both. But does my reaction stem from growing up in the ’80s, when such things were commonplace, and (for all of five minutes) almost cool? It’s curious that I don’t have the same reaction to the synth-infested incidental scores that dominate the Pertwee years. “UNIT, sir,” a bristly Doctor declares, early in The Mind of Evil, “was set up to deal with new and unusual menaces to mankind. And in my view, this machine of yours is JUST THAT!”
[DRAMATIC MOOD MUSIC AS THE DOCTOR STOMPS AWAY]
There is, in my head, a rather splendid episode of Doctor Who where Capaldi winds up in 1980s UNIT, all wobbly sets and HAVOC gunfights, but assuming the show is still going in some form or another in 30 years’ time (Doctor #23: Madeline Holliday, hailed as ‘the best since John Boyega’) I wonder how my grandchildren will judge the likes of Rose or The Bells of St. John? Will they listen to Murray Gold and laugh at the quaint orchestrations? Guffaw at the ludicrously small mobile phones? Chuckle at Rose’s tracksuit?
I don’t see why not. We do it now. Doctor Who isn’t written by futurists; it’s fuelled by a desire to relate, which means revisiting it is like laughing at the clothes you wore as a student. Hence the cutting edge technology of WOTAN is still tape-based, because in 1965 that was cutting edge. It’s hard not to at least chuckle at the end of The Ultimate Foe when Bonnie Langford practically has an orgasm at the sight of a megabyte modem. And while we’re on modems, we may look back with a certain fondness at Matthew Perry.
Chandler: All right, check out this bad boy. Twelve megabytes of RAM, 500 megabyte hard drive. Built-in spreadsheet capabilities and a modem that transmits at over 28,000 BPS.
Phoebe: Wow. What are you gonna use it for?
Chandler: Games and stuff.
(As an aside, it’s over 20 years since that episode aired, and I still have yet to deduce exactly what Chandler meant by ‘built-in spreadsheet capabilities’. Pre-installation of Microsoft Excel doesn’t seem to cover it, somehow, unless it was permanently wired into the BIOS somehow. If anyone can provide an explanation, I’ll be able to sleep again.)
“He’s like a potato. A baked potato. A talking baked potato.”
Robots is anomalous – at least as far as design is concerned – because, when it comes to the future, Doctor Who has a reputation for playing it relatively safe. The grimy corridors of beaten up freighters tussle for control with the pristine whiteness of something like The Ark, according to the needs of the story. You go where the money takes you. Indeed, Nu Who‘s depiction of futuristic affluence is light, airy, and predominantly wooden. For the most part it’s reasonably successful (although I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the production meeting where some bright spark suggested “I know, let’s film it in Cardiff. They have the Temple of Peace, and we can use that for everything…”).
Costumes are another matter, of course. They can stem from anywhere: contemporary fashions, the relative elasticity of the BBC purse strings, the contractual requirements of a bankable star, or the whims of a flamboyant producer. Rather like regeneration, costumes are something of a lottery. There’s an amusing scene partway through Nightmare of Eden in which the Doctor runs through the same passenger deck four times in succession: the extras are all dressed in identical suits, in a vain hope that we don’t notice (it fuels the plot, but only just). The outfits in Terminus are nothing short of extraordinary – half ABBA, half goldfish bowl – and the Movellans resemble something from I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper.
However it comes across, I’m not mocking. These things are much harder with a blank slate. There’s a distinct advantage to setting a story in the past; half the work is done for you, and the approaches at your disposal are many and varied. You can purposely fill it with anachronisms in order to make a point, should the dialogue of the period (or at least the Game of Thrones-esque approximation) prove somehow unworkable. The worst you have to deal with is some bright spark complaining that Vikings didn’t have horned helmets, or electric eels (there is a book about cinematic bloopers called Roman Soldiers Don’t Wear Watches; presumably exceptions may be made for 2,000-year-old plastic centurions). If you want, you can drop in all sorts of in-jokes, as the writers of The Big Bang Theory did when they had Sheldon enthuse about the future of the Zune and Firefly – both tenable positions once upon a time, which makes retrospective sniggering a little unfair. (Meanwhile, in the real world, Decca get an awful lot of flak for refusing to sign the Beatles, who weren’t very good, at least not in 1962. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but as Kate Atkinson wrote, “If we all had it there would be no history to write about.”)
More than this – and at the risk of mixing metaphors – given that the future is an undiscovered country, it makes sense to ground it. Thus the interior of Satellite Five resembles Brixton on a Friday night. The Happiness Patrol is set to all intents and purposes in 1940s New York. (The under-city in Gridlock is rather like Redcar, but let’s not go there, in a quite literal sense.) Even at the very end of the universe, the humans the Doctor encounters in Utopia have evolved / devolved into simple carbon-based bipeds, having gone through their rebellious gaseous and digital download phases, and for whom a penchant for silly names is the sole reminder of an unusual past. This is a narrative decision as much as a financial one: it keeps the budget within haggling range, but also emphasises the horror of what eventually follows.
Earlier I said that Robots was anomalous. And it is, until you look a little further afield. That’s when you find the juxtaposition of pirates and the Edwardian navy in Enlightenment. The colonial aspirations of Kinda. The recreation of the Overlook Hotel in The God Complex. Even Genesis of the Daleks has a go, although the Nazification (is that a word? It should be a word) of Skaro extends no further than the costumes. From one perspective, the observation is pointless: every future-set story drops something of the present within it, whether it’s visual (Paradise Towers), cultural (Vengeance on Varos), or ideological (The Sun Makers). An audience needs to latch. The alternative is a leap into the unknown – brilliant when it works (Warriors’ Gate, Heaven Sent) but excruciating when it doesn’t. Russell T. Davies gets criticised for imagining a future in which everyone eats burgers and watches Big Brother, but it’s not so different to Eric Saward’s depiction of a world where people chose to enter enforced comas in order to listen to Alexei Sayle, when surely the reverse ought to be true.
Still, perhaps Robots does it best. But you know that. Or at least you know that we know that. Why else would we have spent a whole week writing about it?