Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Maureen Kincaid Speller and Gocha R. Tsetskhladze

 I woke up on Monday to the news that Maureen Kincaid Speller had died. This wasn't a surprise - I'd known about her cancer for a while, and her husband, Paul Kincaid, had posted on Facebook to say that she was near the end. But it was still upsetting. I'd known Maureen for as long as I'd been in wider fandom - indeed, she and Paul were among the first people outside local groups I'd really met, when they came and visited one of the pub groups in Manchester. I wasn't around in her glory days of the 1980s and 1990s, when she ran the BSFA, a role from which she was just stepping down about the time I first started getting involved in cons on a wider basis. Mind you, I would venture that Maureen was no less important in fandom, broadly defined, for the past twenty years - she was just slightly less visible, running the APA Acnestis, and more recently acting as the reviews editor for Strange Horizons and assistant editor for Foundation.

Maureen was a good friend, kind and generous. I saw her regularly in the 2000s in London, and then less regularly in the 2010s, when we were at the other end of Kent from her and Paul, and they didn't go to London or conventions as often as they once had. I last saw them I think in 2019, when, unexpectedly, they dropped in to the Eastercon. I'd meant to go and visit this summer, but rail strikes and Maureen going back into hospital put paid to that.

Maureen was a brilliant critic, and an important part of the sf world. If it was not always recognised how important she was, that's partly because a lot of her work was, as I say, less visible, partly because she never pushed herself as much as she could, partly because Paul got a bit more attention, and partly, I'm sorry to say, because she was a woman, and not always taken seriously in the very male world of sf fandom of the twentieth century. But she was important. There was a booklet collecting some of her criticism published by the BSFA a few years ago, and the British Fantasy Society rightly gave her the Karl Edward Wagner Award at the weekend; sadly, she probably never knew that. I am sad that her voice has been stilled, and that we will never get the definitive book on Alan Garner that everyone who knew her knew she had in her to write.

A few hours later, I learned of the death of Gocha R. Tsetskhladze, a titan of the archaeology of the Greek colonies on the Black Sea. I hadn't seen Gocha in over twenty years, but back in the day we were friends, and I participated in the seminar series he ran with Anthony Snodgrass in Cambridge, that became Greek Settlements in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. I think I am right in remembering that was one of the rare occasions I was invited to present, rather than responding to a call for papers, and I thank him for that. It's certainly the only time I ever dined at a Cambridge College High Table.

Both were taken from us far too young, and I shall miss them both.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

Virtual Hadrian's Wall Walk

I am joining in with Classics for All's virtual Hadrian's Wall walk this September. Please sponsor me.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne

I have a post up on the MANCENT blog to promote my forthcoming course on Greek and Roman mythology, talking about Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne. If it ends a bit abruptly, it's because there's a second part, which will come soon.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Notes on Doctor Who and history: 'The Aztecs'

‘But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line! ... Barbara, one last appeal. What you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know, believe me, I know.’

‘The Aztecs’ is the big one in terms of how early Doctor Who views history, as embodied in that quote. John Lucarotti returns as writer, following up a period in which he was interested, having lived in Mexico. So the research is, once again, very solid.

Barbara wants to change the Aztecs, to get them to give up what she considers ‘evil’ in their culture. The Doctor, in the quotation above, insists that you just can’t change history like that, implying perhaps in his last comment that he himself has tried and failed. Although, strangely, he later tells Cameca, the Aztec woman to whom he has accidentally become engaged, that the gods wish an end to human sacrifice, thus indulging in a bit of the attempting to change history that he has told Barbara she should give up.

Eventually, Barbara is persuaded; indeed, she gives up surprisingly easily, once Ian convinces her that Tlotoxol, the High Priest of Sacrifice, represents mainstream Aztec opinion, rather than Autloc, High Priest of Knowledge. This is probably good, because in the end Barbara’s plan is essentially a white saviour narrative. But while she can’t change the Aztecs, she can change one man, Autloc. This is the ‘wiggle room’ that Doctor Who will exploit time and time again.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is still not a moral crusader. His sole objective is get back the the TARDIS, from which he has, once again, been separated. At the same time, he clearly feels some responsibility not to muck things up. It is interesting how very dedicated he is to this. The Doctor’s attitude to how to behave while in fifteenth-century Mexico is an extreme version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Not only must he and his companions sit back and accept human sacrifice, they must actively participate if circumstances dictate. It is hard to imagine any other Doctor taking so extreme an attitude.

Barbara is history teacher supreme again, with a detailed knowledge of the Aztecs. (Meanwhile, Ian reveals hidden l33t fighting skills.) And the costumes and set design excel again, making the most of the studio bound restrictions.

Once again, Aztec Mexico is an interesting choice for a setting. Even more so than ‘Marco Polo’, the setting is devoid of white Europeans (well, if we ignore all the white European actors portraying the Aztecs). This is not a setting that would commonly come up in an educational context, or a televisual one. And having decided to choose the Aztecs, the show takes an unusual angle on them. Most dramas about the Aztecs would have chosen to look at the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. In Doctor Who, the fact that they will come drives Barbara’s actions, but they do not appear, not do any of the Aztecs have the slightest idea of what is about to happen to their world.  

Again, there is excellent design and costume work, even though designer Barry Newbery apparently found reference material hard to find, and costume designer Daphne Dare had to get around the fact that historical evidence suggests that male Aztecs often wore little more than loincloths, and Aztec women went around topless.

One last point: I find it extremely interesting that ‘The Aztecs’ was in production at almost exactly the same time as Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun was in rehearsal for the Chichester Festival. Of course, Shaffer’s play is about the Incas, not the Aztecs, and includes the conquistadores. I have no idea if anyone involved in Doctor Who was aware of the National Theatre production, though it’s entirely possible that they did, as members of the cast of ‘The Aztecs’ may well have auditioned for Royal Hunt. In any case, I find the coincidence of two productions about pre-Colombian American cultures interesting.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Notes on Doctor Who and History: ‘The Keys of Marinus'

‘Wait a minute,’ I hear you say, ‘“The Keys of Marinus” is a science fiction story, set on an alien planet, not in Earth’s history.’ Well, yes, that’s true, but there’s quite a lot here that relates to the show’s engagement with human history.

First of all, there’s the references. Barbara the history teacher is in action again, comparing the building they find on Marinus with the pyramids of Egypt and pre-Colombian America. (In his novelisation, Philip Hinchcliffe, in a somewhat sexist and implausible move, takes that line away from Barbara and gives it to Ian.) And we have the first occasion when the Doctor name-drops some historical character he’s met, in this case the somewhat obscure fourth/third-century BCE Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis. This sort of name-dropping will be taken to extremes in the Pertwee years.

And then there is the way in which the various locations of Marinus draw heavily, and not particularly subtly, on historical cultures. Morphoton, at least in its mirage form, looks like a Roman palace, with luxurious food and clothing all around. The next location feels more medieval, though with some classical-looking statues. The snow-and-ice covered location visited in episode 4, with its heavily armoured knights (shown), seems even more medieval, and harks back to Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (though now it looks more like Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Millennius feels rather like something out of Franz Kafka.

It is perhaps appropriate here to talk about Terry Nation’s planned ‘The Red Fort’. Replaced either by this, or by ‘The Reign of Terror’, or by ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’, depending on which version you believe,* the story was set in India, in the period of the British Raj. The Red Fort itself was (and is) a monument in Old Delhi, built as a palace for the Mughal emperors. In 1803 the East India Company took possession of the Fort after defeating the Maratha Empire, and one possibility, as Christopher Morley suggests, is that the story concerned these events. However, the Red Fort was occupied in 1857 by the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II, at the time of what was known in 1963 as the Indian Mutiny; documentation that exists makes it clear that this was the setting for Nation’s story. The story is one that concerned the British empire, and would have been the first British history story that the show had made. But this is still a relatively obscure part of British history, compared to others that could have been chosen. Unlike other lost stories, the scripts have never been published, and it may be that Nation never wrote much of them. One suspects that, whilst it might have been critical of certain members of the East India Company, it probably would not have overtly criticised the idea of British rule in India - that sort of anti-colonial material was some way off for Who. It might have been very controversial, given the South Asian population in the UK at the time (who presumably would not have been cast in main roles). Perhaps we are better off without this story.   


Sunday, July 31, 2022

Notes on Doctor Who and history: ‘Marco Polo’

(I’ve fallen behind on my Doctor Who rewatch, but I’m going to try to get back on track, and will have some more of these posts.)

And so we come to Doctor Who’s first proper historical, ‘proper’ in that it was actually set in history rather than prehistory, as had been the case for the last three episodes of ‘An Unearthly Child’. 

It’s sometimes said (though generally by people whose knowledge of the show is fairly casual) that Doctor Who in its early days chose periods for its historicals based on what was being taught in schools, or on what could most easily be catered for out of the BBC costumes and props stores. Neither theory really stands up in the light of what Doctor Who actually broadcast in terms of historicals in its first two years. If either notion held true, then there ought to have been a different set of historical periods visited.

I haven’t done too much research into what was being taught in history classes in schools in the early 1960s, and I suspect that, in those pre-National Curriculum days, there was quite a lot of variety. But it seems likely to me that a lot of it centred around Our Island Story, the sort of history satirised in 1066 and All That. This was a history that took pupils through Roman Britain, the Anglo-Saxon settlement, the Norman Conquest, Tudors and Stuarts, the Industrial Revolution, and the British Empire. Doctor Who, at least in its first year, had none of this. Only in the last historical of the first season was a period shown that might have been taught widely in British schools, and then it was the French Revolution. Not until 1965 did the first English king appear, Richard I in ‘The Crusade’, and even when English and British history did feature, it did not dominate the historical periods the show visited until the era of John Nathan-Turner (1980–1989). True, there had been a plan to do a Roman Britain story in the first season; but that was in the event never made, and in any case, it focussed upon the end of Roman Britain, rather than more obvious events such as the invasion of Julius Caesar or the Boudican revolt.

As for the BBC and its stores, the Beeb had produced a number of costume dramas through the 1950s and early 1960s, though its glory days in this area still lay in the future. The backbone of the classic serial at this time, as it continued to be later, was the nineteenth-century novel, primarily Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, but also William Makepeace Thackeray (Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope would follow later). Additionally, the BBC had made The Age of Kings, adapting Shakespeare’s history plays. If the BBC were out to save money on Doctor Who, one might expect the periods depicted in these programmes to be represented in the show’s output. But again, they’re not. The Doctor didn’t visit the nineteenth century until one episode of ‘The Chase’ in 1965, and then not again until ‘Evil of the Daleks’ in 1967. 

The period most commonly represented on television in the early 1960s, largely through broadcasts of movies, was the Second World War. This is a topic Doctor Who steered well clear of, at least in terms of direct reference, until the Master dropped a doodlebug on UNIT in ‘The Time Monster’ (1972). (This is not the place to discuss the role of the Second World War in shaping various aspects of the show; I discuss one element of that in ‘“Went the Day of the Daleks well?” An investigation into the role of invasion narratives in shaping 1950s and 1960s British television Science Fiction, as shown in Quatermass, Doctor Who and UFO.) It is of course perfectly possible, perhaps even likely, that some of the costumes for ‘The Reign of Terror’ had previously been used in the BBC’s 1957 production of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities; but it seems likely that the production team chose a period and then went to see what was available in stores, rather than deciding the setting on the basis of the BBC’s holdings.  

If anything, Doctor Who seems to have deliberately gone out of its way to showcase historical periods that would not be familiar to the viewers, either from other television programmes or from their education. David Whitaker, indeed, was explicit about this, at least in terms of not duplicating other television (in a 1963 memo quoted by James Chapman, Inside the TARDIS, p. 22). Part of this may have been a desire not to turn the historicals into something that felt too much like work to schoolchildren watching. It is interesting to note the list of potential subjects that John Crockett, a staff director with the BBC, put together in 1963, as he was preparing to direct one episode of ‘Marco Polo’ (he later directed all four episodes of ‘The Aztecs’). This was sent to David Whitaker, and is quoted by Chapman (Inside the TARDIS, p. 224). They are mostly British-based, with such topics as the Peasants' Revolt, the Spanish Armada, and Boadicea (i.e. Boudica), but Crockett also included such topics as the fall of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten. Only four of the settings Crockett put forward were actually taken up by the show, and none of those before 1965. Whitaker evidently had other ideas.

‘Marco Polo’ is a case in point. Gavin Burrows of Lucid Frenzy Junior (who likes this story considerably less than I do, though his post on the story is very insightful) has said to me that the early historicals were often the opposition of educational, setting out to reinforce audience prejudices. You can make that argument for the portrayal of the Stone Age in ‘An Unearthly Child’, and it’s certainly the case for some of the later historicals, as I’ll discuss in later posts in this series. But I'm not sure if it’s true for the carefully-researched stories of John Lucarotti, who penned this Doctor Who serial (and Gav agrees). 

For their first true historical, the production team chose not the nineteenth century, or any period of British history, but the story of a medieval Italian who had ended up on the other side of the world. The BBC had made a radio serial in 1955 called The Three Journeys of  Marco Polo, written by John Lucarotti. But as far as I am aware, no television version of his story had been made by the BBC. Nor was he likely to be studied in any depth at school. No doubt Marco Polo was familiar to the audience as a name, perhaps through magazine articles or the occasional television feature, with a vague understanding of what he had done. But he would not have been as well-known a figure as Sir Francis Drake or Richard the Lionheart; hence there is a conversation in an early episode in which he establishes his backstory for the benefit of viewers. 

Doctor Who deliberately chose to take the viewer to a non-European setting, to thirteenth-century China, albeit with a European as chief mediator of that world for the Doctor and his companions. Of course, being the BBC of the early 1960s, this is a China populated by British and European actors made up to look Chinese, with half-Burmese Zienia Merton being the only actual speaking Asian on set.

Barbara the history teacher really comes to the fore here. It is Barbara who recognises Polo, and is able to supply her companions with a few useful pointers about his background. However, she clearly doesn’t know everything, and other characters such as Polo and Ping-Cho (Merton), are needed to further the knowledge available. The background to the assassins whom the travellers will encounter, for example, is provided in a story told by Ping-Cho, further commented on by Polo. (Ian, meanwhile, parallels Barbara by giving science lessons about condensation and the like; but somehow Ian’s lessons come across as much more irritating.)

The standard format for a historical, or indeed any, story of early Who is that the TARDIS and its crew arrive in a setting. Complications then ensue, usually involving the crew being separated from the TARDIS; when the Doctor was less of a moral crusader, such a separation was necessary to prevent him just dropping back into the TARDIS and flying off. From these complications our travellers must extricate themselves by the story’s end. ‘Marco Polo’ sort of follows that format, except for two things. Firstly, as Gav says, the TARDIS (from which the Doctor is only separated for part of the story; for the rest he can't leave because it is broken) is the McGuffin that drives the story; and secondly, ‘Marco Polo’ looks at the format from the other side. Instead of being centred around the Doctor, the story revolves around Marco Polo himself (Mark Eden), and how he deals with the complications and opportunities that the TARDIS crew bring in; this is perhaps why the story came to be called ‘Marco Polo’, rather than its original title of ‘Journey to Cathay’.* It is Polo who delivers bridging narration (this is a story that takes place over a longer period than is typical for historicals), and it's entirely appropriate to the structure of the story that Polo gets the final line, after the TARDIS has left. Polo is even the one who got the Radio Times cover (along with the Doctor and Derren Nesbit’s Mongol warlord Tegana), the show’s first. (One wonders if the story would have felt quite the same had illness not kept William Hartnell mostly out of the second episode.)

One final point to make about ‘Marco Polo’ is the lavish set design (by Barry Newbery) and costumes, almost all of them specially made for this serial. Those of us who watched Doctor Who in the 1980s will remember it as a period when the BBC seemed almost embarrassed to be making the show. This was not the case in 1964. ‘Marco Polo’ may not have been a Classic Serial, but it was treated as if it were, and made with exactly the same level of attention to detail.

(A sidenote: I have not yet done more than skimmed Dene October’s Black Archive volume on ‘Marco Polo’, but it's there on my TBR pile.)     

* One must be careful not to read too much into this, however; overall story titles at this point were not broadcast, and were primarily for production staff; as a consequence, they tend to be descriptive. Titles for stories before overall story titles started being used onscreen (which began with ‘The Savages’ in 1966) did not really become fixed until the 1970s (hence the multiple different titles in circulation for ‘The Daleks’).