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“You should have paid more attention to your history books”: The Highlanders and the end of an era

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 15, 2011

The Highlanders (1966-7) is very much a watershed story for Doctor Who. It isn’t actually Patrick Troughton’s first appearance, but it is Frazer Hines’ – and given that Hines is absent from only one Troughton story (The Power of the Daleks), his arrival seems to herald the true beginning of the Second Doctor era. That impression is strongly reinforced by the fact that this is also the last of the great ‘pure’ historical stories – a regular feature of the show since its beginnings in 1963.

In fact, this story’s approach to history reveals a lot about why the pure historical ran to ground here on these Scottish moors. Back in the show’s first season, William Hartnell’s Doctor was portrayed as aloof and self-serving – interested in other cultures only as scientific curiosities, and becoming involved with them only when he was (temporarily) unable to get back to the TARDIS. His approach to history fitted perfectly with this. When Barbara decides that she wants to try to save Aztec culture from destruction, his response shows that he basically thinks she is an idiotic dreamer:

“But you can’t rewrite history – not one line! Barbara, one last appeal: what you are trying to do is utterly impossible.”

Of course it was, because part of the fantasy which Doctor Who has always shared with its viewers is that its stories are on some level taking place in the same universe which we inhabit. It’s fun to imagine that at any moment we could turn a corner and stumble into the TARDIS. But if the Doctor or his companions change Earth’s history as we know it, that illusion crumbles. We all know what happened to the Aztecs, and if something different plays out on our screens, we have to conclude that the story is not taking place in our world.

That wasn’t a problem for the early Doctor. He didn’t want to change history anyway. But by the end of the show’s second season, he had started to develop some distinctly heroic traits – particularly obvious in The Time Meddler when he comes up against a villainous opposite number. Faced with the Meddling Monk, the Doctor takes on his now-familiar role as defender of the established time-line. But, paradoxically, this sort of behaviour was also turning him into a historical liability. The more audiences got used to him overthrowing oppressors and righting wrongs in future / alien settings (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Daleks’ Master Plan, The Ark, The Savages), the less it made sense that he wouldn’t also do so in Earth’s past.

And indeed he did. In The Gunfighters, he demands that Pa Clanton should call off “this ridiculous duel” – better known to history as the gun-fight at the O.K. Corral. In The Smugglers, he feels duty bound to save the Cornish village from the pirates. And by The Highlanders, the new Doctor and his companions seem to find it entirely obvious that their role in the story should be to save the rebel prisoners from slavery – not simply to escape at the first opportunity.

For the fantasy that Doctor Who is taking place in our universe to be maintained, these plans either had to fail, as in The Gunfighters, or take place around the edges of recorded history, as in The Smugglers and The Highlanders. Historical characters and events are referenced in these last two stories (the pirate Avery, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the battle of Culloden), but the TARDIS crew don’t get involved with them directly. Instead, they interact only with unrecorded people, and experience unrecorded events.

We’re basically working here with an implicit distinction between ‘history’, which has been recorded and cannot be changed, and ‘the past’, which hasn’t and apparently can. Obviously, this doesn’t make much sense to modern audiences used to the idea that any small action can have huge unforeseen consequences, and these days it seems to be covered instead by the idea (first expressed in The Fires of Pompeii) that some events are ‘fixed’ while others are ‘in flux’. But either explanation does the same job of providing room for creative manoeuvre in a historical setting. It leaves the field wide open for whatever the production team want to do – including portraying the Doctor as a moral hero.

Ultimately, though, that can be done even better without the dramatic constraints of a historical setting at all, and I think that must be one of the main reasons why the pure historical story had run its course by this point. I know most commentators focus on poor audience feedback and growing production-level hostility when explaining its demise, but to me the development of the Doctor’s heroism is a major contributor. The time was ripe for the pseudo-historical, in which he could instead fight for recorded history by saving the Earth from an unrecorded alien threat.

Meanwhile, it’s clear from The Highlanders that the original educational remit of the historical stories has been all but abandoned. When Ben asks what is wrong with attracting every English soldier within miles, the Doctor simply exclaims, “You should have paid more attention to your history books, Ben!” The broadcast of the Culloden documentary two years earlier probably meant that those audience members who cared were better-informed than Ben, leaving the script free to concentrate on romps and heroics instead. But not all historical eras could enjoy the same level of audience familiarity. The potential for lengthy explanations to get in the way of action and adventure must be another reason why the historical format was becoming undesirable.

The Doctor’s comment provides another index of changing approaches, too. He implies that history books are mainly useful as a survivor’s guide for time-travellers caught up in politically-sensitive situations. But compare Barbara’s exasperated comment to Ian during their argument over which side was ‘right’ in the French Revolution: “You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve!” This reflects a quite different vision of history – not simply an adventure to be survived, but a moral laboratory, where different ideologies can be weighed up against one another. For Barbara, history books don’t just provide practical survival tips, but offer a balanced viewpoint on issues which are hard to assess in the heat of the moment.

To me, Barbara’s approach allows for more satisfying drama. It’s noticeable that another thing we don’t get in The Highlanders, but did in The Reign of Terror, is much opportunity for the contemporary locals to voice their beliefs and motivations. Polly, for example, has some quite long (and pleasingly Bechdel-compliant) conversations with the Laird’s daughter, Kirsty – but she doesn’t show any real interest in Kirsty’s life beyond the immediate events of the story. They talk a lot about things which Polly has experienced and Kirsty hasn’t – matches, dog biscuits, fillings, women in trousers, money, piggy-backs. But Kirsty’s life experiences – cattle raiding, royalist exploitation, family servants – emerge only in passing and are never pursued by Polly. It’s taken as read that her family are fighting for the Jacobite cause – but why? What does it mean to them? In The Reign of Terror, clashes of ideology were central to the story, and the perspectives of both sides were explored. But in The Highlanders the clash has come to feel a lot more like a mere backdrop to a goodies vs. baddies adventure story.

Still, it’s all very well to sit here over forty years later and imply that Doctor Who should have stuck to doing intellectual historicals, rather than ripping good adventure yarns. I see why the change was made, and I’m sure it was vital to the continuing success of the series. But I can’t help wishing that Doctor Who had carried on for a while longer paying just a little more attention to those history books.

Posted in doctor who, history, reviews, television | 2 Comments »

Doctor Who and the plastic plastic Roman

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 21, 2010

One of the things I liked best about the last season of Doctor Who were the Roman soldiers from The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. Obviously, as a Classicist, my default position is to be happy when anything from the ancient world shows up in a modern medium – and that goes double when it’s happening specifically in the context of my favourite TV programme. :-) But these soldiers went one step further for me. By encouraging us to accept them at first as ‘real’ human beings, but then gradually revealing that, even within the terms of the story, they were in fact fakes (plastic Auton replicas, to be precise), Steven Moffat whisked us off into the realm of the meta-referential – yet another thing which I absolutely love. The suspension of disbelief is all well and good, but better still is an author who occasionally draws attention to the fictional nature of his or her narrative, reminding the audience with a nod and a wink that what we are actually doing is indulging in the pleasure of a really good story. Yay!

A good meta-reference should say rather more than just “Oh, by the way: none of this is real”, though – and I thought that Moffat’s Roman Autons lived up to this. In the context of his story, they made a major contribution to the very important plot-development task of establishing the power of Amy’s memory, since their whole existence turns out to have been extrapolated from the picture books which she read as a child, and the costume which Rory wore to a fancy dress party:

The denouement of this story, and of the entire season, depends on this concept, so it really does need to be properly established in advance. Meanwhile, beyond the story, the Roman Autons also worked for me as a great piece of commentary on the way that we in the present relate to the Romans of the past – and particularly the role Roman soldiers usually play in screen portrayals of the ancient world. We cannot ever encounter real Roman soldiers directly – much as time-travelling fantasy shows such as Doctor Who would like to pretend that we can. So all they can ever be to us are words and pictures in books which we bring to life with our minds – just as Amy does here. And one of the contexts in which we have collectively done that is in our screen portrayals of the Roman war-machine marching off to conquer and subdue – just like thousands of little battlefield miniatures:

Every director who has ever master-minded a Roman battle scene has known that he (or she) is fundamentally playing with life-sized toy soldiers. And now here is Steven Moffat, making that gloriously explicit.

Anyway, with all that swirling around in my head, you can imagine my delight when this little fellow appeared as part of this season’s line of Whovian merchandise:

This takes what was already a fantastic joke to a whole new level. Now instead of watching human actors playing plastic Roman soldiers on my television, I have my very own model of one of those soldiers which is actually made of plastic. A plastic plastic Roman. What could possibly be cooler than that?

That’s not all, either. Because while my new toy was still in his packet, it was perfectly clear what he was. It says so on the front: “Roman Auton”. But out of the packet – well, what is he now? Stripped of his label, he suddenly looks exactly like any other plastic Roman – the very toys that Moffat’s whole clever joke was based on in the first place. It’s only my subjective experience of having seen him in the packet first that makes him remain a plastic plastic Roman for me, as opposed to just an ordinary plastic Roman. I am constantly endowing him with a whole extra level of identity just through the power of my mind – much like Amy in The Pandorica Opens, in fact. :-)

In all fairness, I should probably add here that my little legionary is not the first plastic plastic Roman on this planet, and nor was Moffat the first person to put living toy Romans on television. That path had already been carved by Night at the Museum (2006) and its sequel (2009). In those films, the character of Octavius is a miniature museum display figure who comes to life every night – and he was released as a plastic toy figure in 2009 by none other than McDonalds:

Mind you, I think there’s no contest over which is the higher-quality figure, there.

It’s also worth noting that Character Options, who make the Doctor Who toys, have a track record of releasing somewhat tongue-in-cheek products. These are the people who offered up not only a Cassandra action figure to go alongside the season 1 episode The End of the World, but also a ‘Destroyed Cassandra’ for the season 2 episode New Earth. Yes, that’s right – an empty plastic frame sold in a packet with the words ‘Poseable Action Figure’ printed on the front:

They have, in fact, also released an ‘Underhenge Stone Roman Auton’, from the scene when those alien entities standing near to the Pandorica become fossilised as their home planets wink out of existence all around the Earth:

This time, he isn’t actually made of stone – what a swizz! But then again, should we expect him to be? Maybe when an Auton turns to stone, it takes on the appearance and consistency of stone while still remaining fundamentally plastic at a molecular level: just as it does when it takes the shape of a human being? And in any case, like his equivalent in the original TV episode, he does still constitute yet another lovely comment on the nature of our relationship with the ancient Roman world. Because of course another way in which we’re used to interacting with the remnants of the Roman past is via surviving stone images of soldiers and generals:

These are quite literally “after-images – fossils in time”, which is also what the Doctor calls the stone aliens in the Underhenge.

I’ve managed to resist actually purchasing a plastic stone Roman for the time being. I’m happy enough with the plastic plastic one for now. But I’ll also be keeping half an eye out for the day when Character release an empty packet with the words ‘Dematerialised TARDIS’ written on the front. You know they’re thinking about it…

Posted in classical receptions, doctor who, films, television, toys | 7 Comments »

The Latin in Murray Gold’s ‘Vale Decem’

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on September 9, 2010

On Monday evening, I watched the one-hour cut-down version of the 2010 Doctor Who Prom broadcast on BBC3. It was a great programme, hosted in effervescent style by Karen Gillan, featuring lots of behind-the-scenes interviews with Steven Moffat, Murray Gold and the cast, and complete with an in-character cameo appearance by the Eleventh Doctor. He did this really sweet scene with a small boy chosen from the audience, who had to help him ‘defuse’ an alien explosive device using invisible psychic wire – and the look of rapture on the boy’s face was absolutely fantastic to see.

The highlight for me, though, was the performance of ‘Vale Decem’ – Murray Gold’s composition to mark the death and regeneration of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, and indeed the whole of the Russell T. Davies era. There are a lot of things to love about this piece for me. I am an unabashed Tenth Doctor fan, so it seemed only appropriate to me that he should be sent off accompanied by the full emotive impact of swirling strings and choirs of angels. I was also very impressed by Mark Chambers, a countertenor who sang the main vocal line with enormous presence and musical sensitivity.

Perhaps best of all, though, the lyrics he was singing are in Latin – and from my perspective as a Classicist, that’s a very cheering example of the language’s ongoing relevance today. In fact, in its original context as soundtrack music for part two of The End of Time, ‘Vale Decem’ was heard by around 10 million people, while another 5000 witnessed the live performance at the Prom in the Albert Hall in July, and 0.5 million watched the same broadcast as I did on Monday evening. It’s also soon to be released on a ‘Specials’ soundtrack CD, taking it into people’s homes and letting them listen to it over and over again. So this is definitely reaching a wide audience.

What’s more, fans across the internet clearly loved the piece from its first airing, and have wanted to engage actively with both the music and the Latin lyrics. At first, this resulted in some rather nonsensical attempts to transcribe the lyrics orally, and then translate them, all apparently done by people who didn’t actually know any Latin. But then Murray Gold himself very thoughtfully posted the sheet music up as a series of Twitpics here, here and here in June. Eager fans were then able to transcribe the actual lyrics, and again have a go at translating them. (There may just possibly be video clips of the Tenth Doctor’s death scene with the same transcription and translation on them out there too, but obviously I am not going to link to those because of how distributing copyrighted material over the internet is Bad and Wrong). But the translation still seems to have been done mainly with the aid of Google-fu and a bit of lucky guesswork:

Murray Gold’s lyrics Fan translation
Vale Decem
Ad aeternam
Di meliora
Ad aeternam
Vale Decem
Di meliora
Beati
Pacifici
Vale Decem
Alis grave
Ad perpetuam memoriam
Vale Decem
Gratis tibi ago
Ad aeternam
Nunquam singularis
Nunquam
Dum spiro fido
Vale…
Farewell Ten
Eternally
Heaven send you better times
Eternally
Farewell Ten
Heaven send you better times
Happiness
Peaceably
Farewell Ten
Heavy with wings
To the perpetual memory
Farewell Ten
I give thanks
Eternally
Never alone
Never
While you breathe, trust
Farewell…

Part of the problem facing would-be translators, even if they do know Latin, is that Murray Gold’s original lyrics don’t actually entirely make sense anyway. Now that they’re available to read, it’s obvious that he (or possibly a lyricist whom he commissioned?) composed them by drawing together a collection of appropriate sayings and phrases to create the right sort of mood, but without really aiming for grammatical accuracy or a coherent narrative thread. The result sounds fantastic, and definitely conveys the right sort of epic, tragic feel that was needed for Ten’s death scene. It’s got all the right sorts of words in it: words that we expect to hear in a piece of soaring choral music, like ‘aeternam’, ‘beati’ and ‘perpetuam memoriam’. But those words and phrases don’t really add up to a meaningful set of lyrics.

There is at least one straightforward mistake in there: the phrase “Gratis tibi ago”, should be spelt “Gratias tibi ago” (meaning “I give you thanks”). More common are phrases which might once have made sense, but seem to have had words chopped off (probably for rhythmical reasons), and no longer do. A good example is the line “Alis grave”, which seems to be a truncated form of the saying “alis grave nil”. That would mean roughly “nothing (is) painful / burdensome / heavy (for those) with wings” – an appropriately consolatory sort of phrase for a character facing death. Except that it’s already a bit epigrammatic, and without the ‘nil’, it pretty much loses its meaning altogether. You just end up with two words meaning “heavy with wings”. Either that’s a clever paradox – or it just doesn’t really mean anything.

Similarly, the line “Ad aeternam” appears to have something missing. ‘Aeternam’ here is an adjective, but it has no noun to modify. The phrase as it stands means “to the eternal” – but we are left asking, “to the eternal what?” Perhaps Gold really meant “to eternity” here, but if so, the Latin he actually wanted would have been “ad aeternitatem”. That would have needed a different rhythmical setting, though, as it’s an extra two syllables – and I’m guessing that a generally appropriate sound mattered more to him than achieving grammatical closure!

Anyway, allowing for the oddities in the original, I thought I would try to have a go at offering a slightly better translation than the ones which have appeared on the internet so far. I’ve done an entirely literal one for those who want to know exactly how Murray Gold’s Latin would actually translate. But I’ve also done a much looser one which captures something more like the mood I think he was actually aiming for, is more meaningful and grammatically coherent, and furthermore could still (more or less) be sung to the same tune:

Murray Gold’s lyrics Literal translation Mood-appropriate translation
Vale Decem
Ad aeternam
Di meliora
Ad aeternam
Vale Decem
Di meliora
Beati
Pacifici
Vale Decem
Alis grave
Ad perpetuam memoriam
Vale Decem
Gratis tibi ago
Ad aeternam
Nunquam singularis
Nunquam
Dum spiro fido
Vale…
Farewell, Ten
To the eternal
(May the) gods (grant you) better (things)
To the eternal
Farewell, Ten
(May the) gods (grant you) better (things)
Blessed
(Are) the peacemakers
Farewell, Ten
Heavy with wings
To perpetual memory
Farewell, Ten
I give you thanks
To the eternal
Never alone
Never
While I breathe I trust
Farewell…
Farewell, Ten
On to eternity
The fates be with you
On to eternity.
Farewell, Ten
The fates be with you.
Oh, blessed he
Who brought us peace.
Farewell, Ten
Lay down your burden
We will remember you forever more.
Farewell, Ten
We give you thanks.
On to eternity
You are not alone
Never
Trust to the last
Farewell…

The one-hour cut-down Prom from Monday is available on iPlayer now, but a fuller version will also be shown on BBC3 on Friday at 7pm. I’d highly recommend watching it – but have your tissues handy for ‘Vale Decem’…

Posted in classical receptions, doctor who, latin, music, television | 54 Comments »

 
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