The 2020 Black Archive Reviews – Part One (January to June)

This review block covers the set of Black Archives released in the first half of 2020. The stories covered by this set are Doctor Who and The Silurians, The Underwater Menace, Vengeance on Varos, The Rings of Akhaten, The Robots of Death and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. At the end of the reviews, I pick out my personal favourite and explain why.

You can buy all of these from Obverse Books here.

The Black Archive #39: The Silurians by Robert Smith?

Key Themes: Technology, the 1970s energy crisis, the military, land rights, animal testing, science and ethics, and whether the Silurian plague could’ve killed us all.

Mathematicians typically review each other’s work. Whether it’s checking calculations or peer reviewing a new research paper, mathematics is very much a subject about teamwork and collaboration. Perhaps this goes against the prevailing stereotype that mathematicians are reclusive souls who solve hard problems on their lonesome, but the more common reality is that you need to work with others to ensure your arguments are communicated clearly and precisely; that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet so to speak. This is the norm when it comes to mathematics, but it’s pretty rare when it comes to Doctor Who. And since Black Archive scribe Robert Smith? and myself are both mathematicians, this is one of those rare occasions.

Smith?’s specialism is mathematical biology, so it’s no surprise he’s opted to write about the second outing for Jon Pertwee’s incarnation. This entry by Smith? specialising in science and the spread of plague contains seven succinct chapters on seven separate themes over a seven-episode serial called Doctor Who and The Silurians, first broadcast in the year 1970, which makes it the most sibilant book in the series so far. Not content with last month’s controversial decision to omit Utopia (2007) from the analysis of the Series 3 finale, this Black Archive pretends that the initial three words of this serial’s title were never there, as the book predominantly refers to the story as “The Silurians”. I can however understand the latter decision a lot more given it was an in-house production error that led to this unusual title occurring.

The themes covered are diverse, ranging from the links to the 1970s energy crisis, morality in science, and the role of technology in the story. I strongly felt that the book developed in strength as each chapter went by, which gives it a nice crescendo in quality. The particular highlights were when Smith? enters his specialisms, providing unique and informed insights into questions on whether Doctor Who is a science show and whether the Silurian plague could have actually killed us all, a topic that has become surprisingly prescient with the current coronavirus outbreak happening right now. The book is also beautifully and thoroughly referenced, as is evident by the surprisingly lengthy bibliography on display.

However, by structuring the book around some rather broad questions, the analysis does sometimes lead to some rather general conclusions, such as those in the book’s initial two chapters saying that technology both can and can’t solve all our problems and that a Doctor Who story should be as long as it needs to be. The discussions had about these topics were certainly good reads, and I was particularly intrigued by Smith?’s passionate defence about the story’s exceptional length. But I really did feel these could have led to more interesting results. For example, I would have suggested that the book’s second chapter should really have been framed as “Does The Silurians really need to be seven episodes long?” instead. What I’m trying to say here is, I think there should have been another way.

In a fair number of my reviews I have neglected to mention the cover art and icon design by both Cody Schell and Blair Bidmead respectively. I’m actually quite the fan of this entry’s cover, which features the cave drawings of a Silurian with woodland creatures as it’s icon, brilliantly captured by Bidmead, as seen in the serial’s first episode. The choice by Schell to then overlap parts of the three creatures using white, brown and green outlines is inspired. It quite neatly represents the overlap of science and nature presented in the story here as well as the harmonious coexistence between the Silurians and the animals billions of years ago.

Concluding Thoughts

Smith?’s Black Archive entry breaks exciting new ground by looking at the themes of science and ethics in The Silurians, bringing unique and specialist insight on this particular serial. The discussions on morality, animal rights and pandemic plagues are well worth your time here and shows Smith?’s pedigree as a long-time critic of the show. I also do hope this encourages more scientific takes on the show in future entries. After all, “science leads” according to Kate Stewart, Head of Scientific Research at UNIT. She learnt that from her father, but did her father learn it from reflecting on this story’s events? Perhaps, but who knows?

 

The Black Archive #40: The Underwater Menace by James Cooray Smith

Key Themes: How does surviving material influence fan perception, should we even be allowed to take this story seriously, and is traditional fan wisdom bollocks?

There’s no doubt about it – The Underwater Menace (1967) is one of the strangest televised adventures in the entirety of Doctor Who’s 50+ year history. Its setting is mythical, taking place in the lost underwater city of Atlantis. Its science is ropey, with absurd ideas of draining the ocean into the Earth’s core. And its villain is utterly preposterous, a near-contemporary scientist, whom the Doctor is already aware of by reputation I might add, whose ideas of ‘supreme power’ will actually leave no-one in Atlantis alive to see the repercussions of his actions. But it does score highly on originality.

With all that in mind, why should a range like The Black Archive, which delivers thoughtful and serious critiques of any and all Doctor Who stories, dare to take it seriously? The idea that recurring contributor (and former editor of the range) James Cooray Smith would decide to hang his hat entirely around this premise initially seems a rather silly one, yet it actually achieves remarkable results. Much like his last contribution to the range, which examined The Ultimate Foe (1986), Cooray Smith delivers a sublime blend of analysis, document-based research and behind-the-scenes history, with its 110-or-so pages just flying by.

Given the frivolous nature of the story’s ideas and plotting, it is perhaps unsurprising that each of the book’s nine chapters are fairly short ones (about ten pages each) but what brings it all together is the use of a few key over-arching themes. Namely, these are how does missing material affect fan reception, taking full advantage of the rediscovery of Episode 2 back in 2011, and how collective fan wisdom can at times be sorely misplaced, which leads not only to some superlative myth-busting but also a few finger wags at the fandom-at-large. This even extends to the author himself who slaps himself on the wrist in a delightfully cheeky footnote.

The questions covered are an eclectic mix that honestly speak for themselves. Here are just some of the questions that this book presents well-informed and dutifully researched answers for your reading pleasure:

  • Why does fandom universally hate a story they’ve probably never seen?
  • What exactly happened at the BFI in 2011 when Episode 2 showed up?
  • Why was this story filmed despite being formerly abandoned?
  • Why do fans keep writing badly accented versions of the episode’s third cliffhanger?
  • Whatever happened to the Doctor’s hat in this story?
  • How does this story ultimately shape Troughton’s portrayal of the Doctor?

For me, there were two undisputed highlights during this read and both are towards the very end of the book. First, there’s a substantial appendix based on the Doctor’s note to Professor Zaroff signed “Dr. W”, which looks at whether the main character of the show is called ‘Doctor Who’ and whether the character is referred to as ‘Doctor Who’ both within and outside the fiction itself. The appendix doesn’t so much as cover but utterly annihilate the discourse surrounding these related questions, and with considerable aplomb too. Although, I must say the complete omission of the opening scene from World Enough of Time (2017) is a little baffling. I also sincerely hope his ‘Dame Shirley Bassey’ argument just catches on in general.

The second highlight was the book’s final chapter looking at the life, work and collaborators of its author, Geoffrey Orme. Little is known about the life of Orme as he was never interviewed about his work, not even by a single Doctor Who fan, and he died in 1978. The search into the archives detailed in this chapter in the hope to the reveal hidden depths about the story of The Underwater Menace is commendable and reveals subtle and astute observations. This chapter is the literary equivalent of an astounding new Toby Hadoke documentary, such as those which have looked into the previously shrouded lives of Peter R. Newman (Writer of The Sensorites (1964)) and Lennie Mayne (Director of four 70s Who serials). It is truly an excellent capstone to the book itself.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite perhaps being as utterly mad as Professor Zaroff’s plan, this book manages to be a resounding success. This entry takes full advantage of the story’s poor fan reception and partially missing status as an opportunity to re-examine the serial with fresh eyes. Covering a diverse range of topics surrounding its troubled production, obscure cult status, and its mysteriously disappearing hat, The Underwater Menace comes highly recommended to those who want to discover whether it has hidden depths. But if it should happen that fan historiography isn’t to your literary tastes then don’t worry, because there’s plenty more Fish People in the sea.

 

The Black Archive #41: Vengeance on Varos by Jonathan Dennis

Key Themes: Orwellian literary influences, capitalist realism, depictions of violence in 1980s television and “video nasties”.

There’s a certain footnote in this book that I think quite neatly encapsulates the experience of reading of this Black Archive. On page 95, there’s a lone sentence which clarifies that 1982’s The Running Man takes place in the fictional totalitarian United States of America in the year 2019 and not the actual totalitarian United States of America in the year 2019. Dennis is here to talk to you about 1985’s Vengeance on Varos, and he ain’t pulling no punches.

The contents page of this entry looks exactly like what you’d expect if you were to identify the central ideas of Philip Martin’s first Who serial: Orwellian literature and dystopias, the portrayal of rampant capitalism, sadistic violence and “video nasties”. A light introduction on the garish nature of the Sixth Doctor’s coat gets things underway and neatly sets the style and tone for the analysis that follows. I can’t quite figure out how but this book manages to just feel so eighties, which is odd considering I don’t actually remember them – I was born in the decade that came after!

The first main chapter strikes while the iron is hot, swiftly drawing allusions between the political system found on Varos and the political mess we in the UK and those in the USA currently find themselves in. The second covers neoliberalism and Doctor Who’s unfolding relationship with capitalism as both theme and setting, drawing natural comparisons to both Oxygen (2017) and Kerblam! (2018). In my review of the Black Archive on the latter story I suggested that those interested in the story’s politics would be disappointed but now it seems there’s a book for those people as well.

The next chapter was my personal favourite as it helped contextualise the social and political zeitgeist around television violence in the 1980s and the relatively short-lived anxieties surrounding “video nasties”, which are excessively violent films that eluded classification from the BBFC due to a loophole and these caught the attention of a certain Mary Whitehouse. The chapter’s title “They also affects dogs” initially left me mystified until I subsequently learnt within the prose that this was a quote from a Tory backbencher who on national TV claimed there was research that shows “video nasties” not only caused children to become more violent, but dogs as well. This certainly made me feel that we live in a more enlightened age, albeit for a few precious seconds. A short discussion on how television is nothing without somebody to observe it brings the book to a sublime conclusion.

Concluding Thoughts

Other entries in the range do all the hard work of researching their themes and topics in depth, before leaving the reader to come to their own conclusions. You won’t get that with this one. Dennis is pretty blunt when it comes to his perspective on politics, economics and the media but he puts in such clear crystal prose that you are left in no doubt why he thinks that way and he’ll leave you wanting more. It’s a thoroughly recommended read and it confirms in my eyes that the somewhat underappreciated Sixth Doctor is getting some of the strongest critique in the range to-date.

 

The Black Archive #42: The Rings of Akhaten by William Shaw

Key Themes: The Doctor as New Atheist, feminist and post-colonial theory, the episode’s critical reception with fans, and the story’s engagement with ‘anniversary anxiety’.

I’ve personally always been a fan of The Rings of Akhaten; it’s far from my favourite Doctor Who story but I wouldn’t hesitate in telling you that it’s a pretty good one, with many charming aspects, and probably the strongest episode in an otherwise maligned series. To see it land in the bottom ten of DWM’s story poll in 2014 was somewhat baffling, and so I did hope that this episode would be critically reappraised one day soon. Not only then am I delighted that William Shaw has stood up to bat for The Rings of Akhaten as part of the Black Archive’s first foray into Series 7, but I’m also terribly surprised that someone else who rather likes the story has such radically different reasons for doing so. It seems that Doctor Who is once again a broader church than I had previously conceived.

Shaw frames the episode as a critical reflection of the show during its fiftieth anniversary year, highlighting numerous aspects that have previously been underappreciated, looking back at its flaws and shortcomings, whilst also looking ahead towards its future of as-yet unrealised potential. I could have easily predicted that such a book would examine the episode’s religious and patriarchal overtones as well as the poor critical reception among vocal fans; I just didn’t expect New Atheism.

Chapter 1 provides a fresh, exciting and radical viewpoint on the episode never-before-seen, arguing the episode is a subtle critique of the New Atheist movement. Those who remain unconvinced by the inspired introductory section linking Dawkins to post-2005 Who will have to be very patient. An early subsection entitled ‘Doctor Who and the New Atheist Movement’ runs for around seven pages without a single actual mention of Doctor Who itself. But I feel my patience was rewarded, Shaw’s introduction of several key texts manages to bridge the gaps between the episode and his reading, shedding light of the show’s broader relationship with the movement. It is by far the book’s most substantial chapter that could have been hastened by getting to its Doctor Who analysis more snappily.

The second chapter examines the episode through feminist and post-colonial theory. It kicks off with a fantastically astute observation of the post-titles opening scene of Clara waiting for the Doctor with her book ‘101 Places To See’. It’s a much stronger engagement with the episode than the first but a short section focussing on the episode’s ‘Long Song’ knocked its stride, telling the reader what the music is doing and when, with little how and why. Some reference to the music’s emotion and how this is achieved would benefit the musical analysis. This is a minor nitpick though.

Chapter 3 then seeks to rationalise why the episode did not have a good critical reception among fans, notably highlighting that most public reviews were actually quite positive. It comprehensively looks at multiple lines of inquiry including the show’s format, on-screen representation, thematic shortcomings and even the divorced popularity of the episode’s ‘Long Song’ speech on YouTube (don’t forget to subscribe to the Official Doctor Who YouTube channel), providing an ample set of reasons for the story’s arguably muddied execution.

Not content with one radical concept about The Rings of Akhaten, Shaw delivers us another one in his final chapter on ‘Anniversary Anxiety’. It’s easily my favourite of the book, lucidly realising that the subtext of Clara as a proto-Doctor was always there from the get-go and makes her subsequent development in Series 8 and 9 all the more expected. It also grapples with tedious yet recurring internet arguments of Clara as a Mary Sue and Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Whilst the episode may not be perfectly executed, Shaw does establish how it pointed to the show’s narrative trajectory of Series 7 and beyond, again linking it to the story’s denouement of unrealised potential.

A set of three appendices makes the book all the more substantial with an examination of whether Akhaten is a sun or a planet, an interview with director Farren Blackburn, and a previously unseen production document for the episode; all providing key talking points in the book’s wider analysis. I find it difficult to imagine what else could be added to this book. A real-life autumnal leaf? Perhaps not, for I fear it may radically alter the entire projection of my life.

Concluding Thoughts

It is rare to find an entry in the Black Archive range that is simultaneously this comprehensive, holistic and unconventional in its take on a story. Shaw reframes The Rings of Akhaten as a story with radical and reformatory politics that fell short in the execution of delivering its message. Perhaps you won’t be as taken by its viewpoints as I was, but you’ve got to admire its sheer ambition and endeavour alone. The continuous introduction of bold, new ideas is what keeps discourse about the show fresh and exciting. Shaw’s conclusion points to an episode about listening and learning from others. I certainly learnt a few things reading it myself and I hope to follow through on its message in the years to come.

 

The Black Archive #43: The Robots of Death by Fiona Moore

Key Themes: Development from script to screen, Modernist and Expressionist influences, the character of D84, themes of class and power, diverse casting and the serial’s legacy.

With the recent release of Season 14 on Blu-ray, a lot of fans will have been rewatching The Robots of Death (1977). So, with the release of this Black Archive by writer and academic Fiona Moore (which would have been out in the same month were it not for a short delay), it seems like excellent timing to re-examine one of the most beloved Classic Who serials within the fandom-at-large.

First airing in early 1977, The Robots of Death was broadcast during one of the most popular eras in the show’s history. Furthermore, it was also one of the first Doctor Who stories to be made available for purchase on videotape, and then it was the very first Doctor Who story to be made available on DVD. The Robots of Death then is a serial that has enjoyed an exceptionally long shelf-life, especially for a forty-year-old piece of cheaply-made television. It has also probably been examined by fandom a lot more than other serials as well, so the question here really is whether there’s anything more that can be said about The Robots of Death. The answer, rather delightfully, turns out to be yes.

Moore’s monograph opens with a chapter contextualizing the conception and development of the serial, suggesting that a perfect storm of ingredients and individuals involved helped the story achieve its renowned status. It also takes the opportunity to bust some long-touted myths about the serial such as being an ‘Agatha Christie-style’ murder mystery and a story about ‘robot rebellion’. It then swiftly moves onto an analysis of the rehearsal and camera scripts to see how Taren Capel’s backstory became obscured between drafts as well as what happened to ‘Jan’, the crew member that never made it to screen!

The middle three chapters were what held my attention the most with an examination of the serial’s influences from Modernism and Expressionism, a character analysis of D84 and a discussion of the themes of class and power in the works of writer Chris Boucher. I particularly enjoyed how Moore delves much deeper into the collected works of Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert in order to uncover more than just the usual surface-level links typically mentioned in reference material. It is precisely this kind of discourse that keeps me returning to the Black Archive range. All three of these chapters delighted me with new pieces of context and points of reference that allowed me to appreciate the story a bit more, in spite of me not being a huge fan of the serial.

The final two chapters have a more compilatory feel to them with a chapter on diverse casting followed by a concluding chapter on the serial’s legacy in the TV show and expanded media. The former has little to say specifically about the serial in question and so quickly spills over into the show’s broader casting history as well as the portrayal of Leela more generally, a topic that has been covered more comprehensively in The Black Archive #27: The Face of Evil by Thomas L. Rodebaugh. Meanwhile, the latter is an exercise in gathering all the bits of various continuity in novels, such as Corpse Marker (1999), TV stories, like Voyage of the Damned (2007), and of course the Big Finish audio dramas, such as Robophobia (2011).

Concluding Thoughts

The primary challenge with this Black Archive entry was to find new things to say about a serial that is much-loved, well-documented and oft-discussed in the Doctor Who fandom, and to that end it has succeeded admirably. It’s clear that Moore has a deep appreciation for the serial being discussed and this shines through in the writing of this monograph. This comes recommended to those who want to learn about the serial’s literary influences, the blurred line between man and machine, and how Boucher develops his ideas of class and power within his other works. You can throw your money for this at Obverse Books right away, but please do not throw hands at them.

 

The Black Archive #44: The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang by Philip Bates

Key Themes: The Epic and the Intimate, Pandora’s Box and other fairytales, anomalies, the trouble with time travel, the story’s relationship with time, and the beginning and the end of the universe.

Steven Moffat’s first series finale remains one of the most popular episodes he ever wrote for Doctor Who. On its tenth anniversary, and just after a fairly recent re-release on Steelbook Blu-Ray (with the most glorious artwork by Sophie Cowdry), the Black Archive has given us its take on The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (2010) looking at how it deals with the grand and small scales, fairytales, time travel and, quite naturally, the Big Bang itself. Penned by first-time scribe Philip Bates, this book is a passionate and emphatic celebration of what Bates describes as his personal favourite Doctor Who story.

Bates opens with a sketch of the universe, asking us to consider its various perspectives. Ranging from expansive far-off galaxies to the movement of quantum particles, from the giants of history to the ordinary unknown faces of society, from the epic and the extraordinary, to the small and the intimate, wherever we look we are part of the universe and we are all stories in the end. Perhaps Bates can apply for the role of lecturer at St Luke’s University in Bristol, now the Twelfth Doctor has left a vacancy?

The first chapter looks at the storytelling devices in Moffat’s box of tricks to help convey the scale and complexity of the narrative here. It may shock you to read this but it never actually occurred to me that the fez in The Big Bang and The Name of the Doctor (2013) serve precisely the same narrative function and disappear as soon as their work is complete! It was great to read how Bates broke it all down, illuminating the connections and themes with Series 5 as a whole as well as Moffat’s other scripts. Chapter 2 looks at, perhaps unsurprisingly, at the legend of Pandora’s Box as well as the broader fairytale motifs on display in this story too.

It’s from chapter 3 onwards where things start to get a bit knotty as the remaining chapters look at anomalies, the rules of time travel, the various representations of time and how the universe is thought to have started and later how it might end. This, in my mind, was always going to be the trickiest part of analysing a story that plays fast and loose with the typical rules of the show without much of a rational or scientific basis to go off. Consequently, Bates goes for a defence arguing why the episode is entertaining, emotionally satisfying and earns the right to break some of the standard rules.

Whilst the overall book is certainly an easy read for Doctor Who fans, I would like to have seen more points of comparison with other time travel stories, like the Back to the Future films, to strengthen the analysis on the rules of time travel rather than solely relying on Doctor Who for reference points. Furthermore, the book’s latter chapters provide some sound insight into current scientific understanding on matters ranging from black holes, neutron stars and even 10-dimensional string theory, and I felt this was a remarkable improvement on the range’s previous entry covering The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (2006). Yet I was personally frustrated that the two lines of inquiry, those being the narrative and the scientific, didn’t seem to intersect. Why put the two together if they don’t seem to connect?

The back of the book has a brilliantly thought-out appendix, providing us with not one but six different reasons for why the TARDIS exploded in the finale, trying to reconcile the loose threads and thematic connections across the entire Matt Smith era. Will a subsequent novelisation confirm one of these theories or provide an entirely different one? Who knows!

Concluding Thoughts

The Black Archives come in many shapes and forms; some allow readers to re-contextualise the serial during the original time of broadcast, whilst others provide subject-based lenses to examine a particular story. However, Bates’ entry on The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang is a celebration of one of Who’s most popular stories, helping us to better understand the ideas that made it resonate with fans in the first place, and an ideal jumping on point if you haven’t started the range already. I’m not convinced it will persuade others who don’t see it as one of the greats but otherwise I have no hesitation in recommending, should this one take your fancy. Now where did I put my fez…?

 

My Top Pick – #42: The Rings of Akhaten by William Shaw

If I had to, I could bat for any of these Black Archives for being the best one of the set – they’re all worth a purchase if you fancy them and they are all brilliantly different. But I’m going for #42: The Rings of Akhaten for its sheer level of ambition and originality. It even inspired me to write my own piece on the episode, helping to bridge the gap between my enjoyment of mathematics and the story itself. Clearly, it struck a chord with me, and I hope because of that I’ve managed to help someone else learn something about the episode, in much the same way that I did from Will’s book. I do hope there are many more places to see.

You can buy all of these from Obverse Books here.

Review: The Black Archive #40 – The Underwater Menace by James Cooray Smith

Key Facts:

  • Story No. 32. Written by Geoffrey Orme. Directed by Julia Smith.
  • Episodes 1 and 4 are missing. They are survived by episodes 2 and 3.
  • Key Themes: How does surviving material influence fan perception? Should we even take this story seriously? Is fan wisdom bollocks?
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The Underwater Menace: I’d planned to include more fish puns in this review but later decided to scale back on them.

The Review

There’s no doubt about it – The Underwater Menace (1967) is one of the strangest televised adventures in the entirety of Doctor Who’s 50+ year history. Its setting is mythical, taking place in the lost underwater city of Atlantis. Its science is ropey, with absurd ideas of draining the ocean into the Earth’s core. And its villain is utterly preposterous, a near-contemporary scientist, whom the Doctor is already aware of by reputation I might add, whose ideas of ‘supreme power’ will actually leave no-one in Atlantis alive to see the repercussions of his actions. But it certainly does score highly on originality.

With all that in mind, why should a range like The Black Archive, which delivers thoughtful and serious critiques of any and all Doctor Who stories, dare to even take it seriously? The idea that recurring contributor (and former editor of the range) James Cooray Smith would decide to hang his hat entirely around this premise initially seems a rather silly one, yet it actually achieves remarkable results. Much like his last contribution to the range, which examined The Ultimate Foe (1986), Cooray Smith delivers a sublime blend of analysis, document-based research and behind-the-scenes history, with its 110-or-so pages just flying by.

Given the frivolous nature of the story’s ideas and plotting, it is perhaps unsurprising that each of the book’s nine chapters are fairly short ones (about ten pages each) but what brings it all together is the use of a few key over-arching themes, namely how does missing material affect fan reception, taking full advantage of the rediscovery of Episode 2 back in 2011, as well as how collective fan wisdom can at times be sorely misplaced, which leads not only to some superlative myth-busting but also a few finger wags at the fandom-at-large. This even extends to the author himself who slaps himself on the wrist in a delightfully cheeky footnote.

The questions covered are an eclectic mix that honestly speak for themselves. Just take a look below at some of the questions this book presents well-informed and dutifully researched answers for you:

  • Why does fandom universally hate a story they’ve probably never seen?
  • What exactly happened at the BFI in 2011 when Episode 2 showed up?
  • Why was this story filmed despite being formerly abandoned?
  • Why do fans keep writing badly accented versions of the episode’s third cliffhanger?
  • Whatever happened to the Doctor’s hat in this story?
  • How does this story ultimately shape Troughton’s portrayal of the Doctor?

For me, there were two undisputed highlights during this read and both are towards the very end of the book. First, there’s a substantial appendix based on the Doctor’s note to Professor Zaroff signed “Dr. W”, which looks at whether the main character of the show is called ‘Doctor Who’ and whether the character is referred to as ‘Doctor Who’ both within and outside the fiction itself. The appendix doesn’t so much as cover but utterly annihilate the discourse surrounding these related questions, and with considerable aplomb too. Although, I must say the complete omission of the opening scene from World Enough of Time (2017) is a little baffling. I also sincerely hope his “Dame Shirley Bassey’ argument catches on in general.

The second highlight was the book’s final chapter looking at the life, work and collaborators of its author, Geoffrey Orme. Little is known about the life of Orme as he was never interviewed about his work, not even by a single Doctor Who fan, and he died in 1978. The search into the archives detailed in this chapter in the hope to the reveal hidden depths about the story of The Underwater Menace is commendable and reveals subtle and astute observations. This chapter is the literary equivalent of an astounding new Toby Hadoke documentary, such as those which have looked into the previously shrouded lives of Peter R. Newman (Writer of 60s serial The Sensorites (1964)) and Lennie Mayne (Director of four 70s Who serials). It is truly an excellent capstone to the book itself.

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The Fish People: Far from being background characters, they actually rose up and seized the means of food production.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite perhaps being as utterly mad as Professor Zaroff’s plan, this book manages to be a resounding success. This entry takes full advantage of the story’s poor fan reception and partially missing status as an opportunity to re-examine the serial with fresh eyes. Covering a diverse range of topics surrounding its troubled production, obscure cult status, and its mysteriously disappearing hat, The Underwater Menace by James Cooray Smith comes highly recommended to those who want to discover whether it has hidden depths. But if it should happen that fan historiography isn’t to your literary tastes then don’t worry, because there’s plenty more Fish People in the sea.

Review: The Black Archive #39 – The Silurians by Robert Smith?

Key Facts:

  • Based on the Story: Doctor Who and The Silurians (No. 52).
  • Written by Malcolm Hulke. Directed by Timothy Combe.
  • Key Themes: Technology, the 1970s energy crisis, the military, land rights, animal testing, science and ethics, how long should a Doctor Who story be, and whether the Silurian plague could’ve killed us all.

The Review

Mathematicians typically review each other’s work. Whether it’s checking calculations or peer reviewing a new research paper, mathematics is very much a subject about teamwork and collaboration. Perhaps this goes against the stereotype that mathematicians are reclusive souls who solve hard problems on their lonesome, but the more common reality is that you need to work with others to ensure your arguments are communicated clearly and precisely; that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet so to speak. This is the norm when it comes to mathematics (and indeed science), but it’s pretty rare when it comes to Doctor Who. And since Black Archive scribe Robert Smith? and myself are both mathematicians, this is in fact one of those rare occasions.

Smith?’s specialism is mathematical biology, so it’s no surprise he’s opted to write about the second outing for Jon Pertwee’s incarnation. This entry by Smith? specialising in science and the spread of plague contains seven succinct chapters on seven separate themes over a seven-episode serial called Doctor Who and The Silurians (1970), which perhaps makes it the most sibilant book in the series so far. Not content with last month’s controversial decision to omit Utopia (2007) from the analysis of the Series 3 finale, this Black Archive pretends that the initial three words of this serial’s title were never there, as the book predominantly refers to the story as “The Silurians”. I can however understand the latter decision a lot more given it was an in-house production error that led to this unusual title occurring.

The themes covered are diverse, ranging from the links to the 1970s energy crisis, morality in science, and the role of technology in the story. I strongly felt that the book developed in strength as each chapter went by, which gives it a nice crescendo in quality. The particular highlights were when Smith? enters his specialisms, providing unique and informed insights into questions on whether Doctor Who is a science show and whether the Silurian plague could have actually killed us all, a topic that has become surprisingly prescient with the coronavirus outbreak happening right now. The book is also beautifully and thoroughly referenced, as it evident by the surprisingly lengthy bibliography on display.

However, by structuring the book around some rather broad questions does at times lead to some rather general conclusions, such the book’s initial two chapters saying that technology both can and can’t solve all our problems, and that a Doctor Who story should be as long as it needs to be. The discussions had about these topics were certainly good reads, and I was particularly intrigued by Smith?’s passionate defence about the story’s exceptional length, but I did feel these could have led to more interesting results. For example, I would suggest the book’s second chapter should really have been framed as “Does The Silurians really need to be seven episodes long?” instead. What I’m trying to say here is, I think there should have been another way.

I have also so far in these reviews neglected to even mention the cover art and icon designed by Cody Schell and Blair Bidmead respectively (and if you haven’t seen the latest covers by them then go here and look at them!). I’m actually quite the fan of this entry’s cover, which features the cave drawings of a Silurian with woodland creatures as it’s icon, brilliantly captured by Bidmead, as seen in the serial’s first episode. The choice by Schell to then overlap parts of the three creatures using white, brown and green outlines is inspired. It quite neatly represents the overlap of science and nature in the story here as well as perhaps the harmonious coexistence between the Silurians and the animals many billions of years ago.

Concluding Thoughts

Smith?’s Black Archive entry breaks exciting new ground by looking at the themes of science and ethics in The Silurians, bringing unique and specialist insight on this particular serial. The discussions on morality, animal rights and pandemic plagues are well worth your time here and I do hope this encourages more scientific takes on the show in future entries. After all, “science leads” according to Kate Stewart, Head of Scientific Research at UNIT. She learnt that from her father, but did her father learn it from reflecting on this story’s events? Who knows.

Review: The Black Archive #38 – The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords by James Mortimer

Key Facts:

  • Black Archive Entry: No. 38, written by James Mortimer.
  • Based on the Story: The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (No. 187, or is it 188?).
  • Writer/Director: Written by Russell T Davies. Directed by Colin Teague.
  • Key Themes: The roles of the Saxons (Lucy and Harold), the roles of the heroes (Martha and the Doctor), and the reinvention of the Time Lord mythos.
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The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords: This cage doesn’t make me think of either of the episodes at all. It just makes me think of the Dead Parrot sketch.

The Review

The series 3 finale has always seemed to have something of a mixed reputation in my eyes. On the one hand, it saw the spectacular return of one of Doctor Who’s longest-serving villains: the Master, portrayed by John Simm for the duration of these episodes. It also continued RTD’s trend of continually upping the stakes for each subsequent series finale; it’s first half styled as an urban-based politically-themed thriller before leading into plans of total world domination in the second half is strikingly different from the other RTD-era finales that all revolved around Dalek invasions. However, its resolution of the Doctor becoming a messianic figure and its sidelining of abused female characters like Lucy Saxon and Francine Jones whilst the two Time Lords battle it out draws routine criticism towards the story. The question here is: how will first-time Black Archive scribe James Mortimer work his way through all this?

Mortimer divides his analysis into three distinct themes: The Saxons, The Heroes and The Mythos. What makes Mortimer’s book stand out from previous entries in the range is his strongly focussed and close reading of the text; his three chapters rarely stray from the episodes at hand here. I honestly found this quite refreshing on the whole, but the relative absence of comparative texts means it can seem lacking in, what I will term, the ‘bounce of ideas’ within the analysis. For example, Niki Haringsma’s Black Archive on Love and Monsters uses the narrative theories of Bertolt Brecht to discuss its atypical storytelling style and it has dramatically influenced my understanding of the episode. By comparing and contrasting the episode with these ideas, the arguments made felt all the more robust. I hasten to add that this is not so much a missed opportunity by Mortimer, but rather he has chosen a path less travelled by contributors to the range.

Nevertheless, he provides clear analysis on Lucy Saxon’s agency within the narrative and the portrayal of the Master as symbolic of toxic white masculinity. The observation that the kiss on the cheek by Rose to Mickey mirrors the kiss on the cheek by Martha to the Doctor was one of multiple inspired observations. I liked the observations of similarity in character beats (and even straight-up lifts in dialogue!) between this particular story and RTD’s other TV shows, such as Bob and Rose and Years and Years. The subtitle game here is also strong (Arc of Affinity and The Finite Quest are just two) and Mortimer’s clear deferral to the views of POC writers in order to discuss Martha’s representation is progressive and important, especially in light of that recent Question Time clip doing the rounds on social media. It at least gives me hope for the future.

Concluding Thoughts

Mortimer’s debut Black Archive is an enjoyable and recommended read for fans wishing to delve deeper into the series 3 finale or even RTD’s tenure as a whole. His analysis is thoughtful and focussed and he combs the text for every detail he can find. Some further comparative texts may have bolstered his arguments but it functions just fine without them. I would also add that I’d like to see James Mortimer return to the range, if he so wishes, as I’d like to read more of his Doctor Who thoughts. And he doesn’t need a signet ring to ensure that he can come back either.

Review: The Black Archive #32 – The Romans by Jacob Edwards

Key Facts:

  • Black Archive Entry: No. 32, written by Jacob Edwards
  • Based on the Story: The Romans (No. 12).
  • Writer/Director: Written by Dennis Spooner. Directed by Christopher Barry
  • Key Themes: The introduction of comedy in Doctor Who; the representation and accuracy of Roman history; the counterculture of the 1960s; an episode-by-episode analysis of the writing, production and execution of The Romans.
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The Romans: If music be the food of comedy, play on. Or some words to that effect.

The Review

For me, Dennis Spooner taking over from David Whittaker is as important as Patrick Troughton taking over from William Hartnell within the history of Doctor Who. In each case, the successor had to go beyond the style of their predecessor, to redefine what the show and the character were about respectively, otherwise it would not stand much chance continuing once they had long gone. As such, I am particularly fond of The Romans and The Time Meddler by Dennis Spooner, as this is where I can start to recognise the roots of the show that I know and love today. With this in mind, I had high hopes for Jacob Edwards’ critical monograph on The Romans. It did not disappoint.

Many of the strongest entries in The Black Archive range I have encountered so far open with a short introduction that encapsulates why their chosen episode is of particular interest to them and hence ripe for analysis; this one is no exception. Edwards’ astute observation that Rome wasn’t built in a day but The Romans more or less was, and yet it still endures to this day really sets the tone for the analysis to come. Over a respectable nine chapters, he explores the episode’s use of comedy and whether it endures to this day, its use of history and whether it’s entirely accurate, the episode’s relationship with 1960’s counterculture (covering race, class, gender, sexuality, second-wave feminism and disability), and finally an episode-by-episode critique of the finished product.

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Inferno: We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning, since Nero was gurning.

The analysis is strong, providing a great deal of insight into the influences upon the scripting process, the production decisions that forever changed the direction of the show, and the varying attitudes to the text over a period of fifty years. Edwards’ pool of reference points is also comprehensive, drawing upon a wide range of media that depicts Ancient Rome (I, Claudius, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Quo Vadis, Carry On Cleo, Gladiator and the Asterix books!). He also makes ample references to the works of Tacitus and Suetonius who both reported on the morally reprehensible behaviours of the emperor Nero, yet also highlights the reasonable possibility that these were exaggerated or malicious lies (though I hardly find this comforting). There are also once again the seemingly compulsory references to Elizabeth Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorium and Tulloch and Alvarado’s The Unfolding Text.

I only had a few minor critiques of the finished work, all regarding the structure of the text. Firstly, the last chapter provides Edwards’ personal viewing analysis of The Romans and whilst he does provide good commentary… It felt like a ‘cheat’ chapter. If all the other Black Archive entries wrote thirty pages commenting on their episode’s writing, direction, production and execution in such a standardised format then the overall range would I feel suffer as a result. The sudden change from matter-of-fact subheadings (e.g. Acting and Characterisation) in the first half of this chapter to far more witty and thematic subheadings (e.g. Ashes to Ashes, Farce to Farce) in the second half is also jarring.

This brings me to the book’s overall structure where the first seven chapters combined are as long as the final two chapters.  I personally would have collected these first seven as two broader chapters examining the comedy (1-3) and then the history (4-7) within the episodes, allowing for a more consistent pace of chapters and potentially provide more opportunities for the witty subheadings that help punctuate each chapter, though perhaps this is more subjective. As I said, these are minor critiques.

Concluding Thoughts

To paraphrase the second episode title from The Romans itself, all reviews lead to a conclusion. This is a delightful entry in The Black Archive series of monographs and it comes highly recommended, even to those who may even not be too fond of the episodes themselves. Edwards’ analysis is unafraid to critique the episodes’ shortcomings on racial and disability representation but also quite successfully argues that The Romans was indeed a key turning point in the Doctor Who’s unfolding history and recognises why its quality has endured long past its production sell-by date. The Great Fire of Rome was set alight thousands of years ago, but it is The Romans that still burns bright to this day.

Review: The Black Archive #37 – Kerblam! by Naomi Jacobs & Thomas L. Rodebaugh

Key Facts:

  • Black Archive Entry: No. 37, written by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh
  • Based on the Story: Kerblam! (No. 283).
  • Writer/Director: Written by Pete McTighe. Directed by Jennifer Perrott.
  • Key Themes: The Doctor’s political stance; the depiction and use of automation, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and robotics; who is responsible for Kira’s death?
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Kerblam!: The episode name should not to be confused with the company name ‘Kerblam’, also stylised as ‘Kerb!am’, and not conflated with the ‘Kerblam System’.

The Review

Doctor Who probably has the broadest variety of episodes of any TV show in the world in terms of style, genre and tone (well, how else would it survive 50+ years?) and I’m delighted to see that The Black Archive range similarly reflects this with its variety of authors, subject matter and writing styles. Whereas last month’s Listen guided us through the world of dreams and memories, this month’s Kerblam! takes us on a tour of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence firmly rooted in the style of ‘popular science’; a genre with which I’m a lot more acquainted.

Patel: You are a political, aren’t you?

Doctor: Not really, no.

The main text opens with the rather appropriate quote above from Frontier In Space – (which made me wonder – what would Malcolm Hulke have thought of this episode?). Those looking for a strong anti-capitalist take on the episode will be disappointed here as instead the authors highlight several examples of the Doctor’s behaviour across many incarnations that show a lack of a consistent, clear-cut stance. For example, in terms of their economic stance, the Doctor is someone who approves of commerce (New Earth, The Rings of Akhaten) yet doesn’t carry money (The End of the World) and also steals from markets (Thin Ice). But eventually, the authors appear to settle on them being very broadly centre or centre-left.

Then comes the main feature of this Black Archive, namely the four successive chapters on four technologies that feature in the episode: automation, robotics, Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, earlier this year I read Hello World: How to be Human In The Age of The Machine by Hannah Fry, a marvellous mathematical book that also covers AI, algorithms and their applications to real world situations, ranging from criminal court sentencing to creating critically acclaimed art. I would very much consider this a benchmark text regarding the topics covered by this entry of The Black Archive range.

As such, discussions on key ethical issues, such as Uber not being criminally liable when their self-driving car killed a pedestrian, or AI discriminating against people of colour in situations ranging from soap dispensers to extended jail sentences, were already familiar to me but remain highly topical. The book also briefly mentions some of the classic problems within maths and philosophy, namely the ‘P vs NP’ problem, the ‘travelling salesman’ problem, and, as popularised by The Good Place in recent years, ‘The Trolley Problem’. I would have liked to have seen more on ‘P vs. NP’ as I felt this section glanced over it without conveying the wider ramifications of this problem. Given my aforementioned background, I would never say no to more mathematics; others are free to disagree.

However, I cannot reasonably criticise this book for being shallow on content. The bibliography speaks for itself, as there are well over 80 books, periodicals and web articles cited throughout the 150-page text. This is a thoroughly researched and well-guided discussion on these topics, uniquely framed through the events of a Doctor Who episode, and which will help inform fans unaware of current developments within the technological spheres.

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Inside the Factory: I imagine the TARDIS team are absolutely encapsulated by a fancy conveyor belt or something here. Also, where can I get Graham’s jumper?

The last chapter finally comes to the question ominously posed on the back cover: who killed Kira? It examines whether the episode presents a deliberate or unintentional message, or indeed whether any episode can claim to have deliberate messaging regarding politics and ethics, citing The Green Death and The Happiness Patrol. It also suggests that Pete McTighe prioritised the episode’s dramatic structure without considering the implications of not only the potential political and ethical interpretations, which is shown to be dubious, but also their depiction of automation, AI and robots, which is shown to be both outdated and far-fetched using current understanding and reference points. Unfortunately for any Kerblam! fans, there wasn’t a surprise twist reserved for them within the closing act of this book.

I’d also like to add a quick note about quality control, as I noticed a fair number of errors within the text this time round. I am not ashamed to say that I’m the sort of fan who audibly winces when someone refers to the 2007 Christmas Special as “The Voyage of The Damned” (especially when it was referred to correctly on the very next page!), or when the prior showrunner’s name is spelled “Steven Moffatt”. It started to get silly when I saw a paragraph didn’t open with a capital letter, and when the back cover neglected to italicise the ‘D’ in Doctor Who, well frankly I just lost my mind. It seems the style guide went away on holiday this month – I eagerly look forward to its return.

Concluding Thoughts

Jacobs and Rodebaugh’s take on Kerblam! will not satisfy those looking for an in-depth discussion on the politics presented by the episode. Rather this book is something of a technological sandwich, filled with great discussions of the challenges, limitations and representations of robotics, automation, AI and IoT, surrounded by two somewhat dry pieces of politically-themed bread that, whilst facilitating the meal being served, do not add any real favour to the proceedings.

If you have found this review not to your liking then all I can really say is: The review isn’t the problem. How people use and exploit the review – that’s the problem.

 

Review: The Black Archive #36 – Listen by Dewi Small

Key Facts:

  • Black Archive Entry: No. 36, written by Dewi Small.
  • Based on the Story: Listen (No. 245).
  • Writer/Director: Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Douglas Mackinnon.
  • Key Themes: Freud’s “The Uncanny”, repressed memories, authorship of The Doctor’s identity, the apocalypse.

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Listen: The soldier so brave that he doesn’t need a gun takes prominence on this cover.

The Review

On the back of the book, there is a short biography about Dewi that, among other things, says: “This is his first book.”

You certainly wouldn’t know it.

Indeed, despite reading this before bed after a challenging day at work where I was in the office for nine hours (thank God for Flexi-time!), the fact I read this book in one sitting without a lapse in concentration is itself a testament to Dewi’s clean and easy-to-read prose as he guides you rather fluently through his examination of Series Eight’s Listen. Whilst on the shorter side compared to other entries in the range (perhaps the shortest yet if I’m not mistaken), it is absolutely no less worthy of your time.

The first chapter of this book provides the core of his examination, viewing Listen through the lens of Freud’s ideas on the Uncanny (“Das Heimliche”), the unconscious mind and repressed memories. It is arguably the greatest part of the book and would in itself make a fine essay to read. Dewi communicates Freud’s ideas well and supports them with great examples within the show. I particularly enjoyed his observation of the troll doll in Terror of the Autons within the context of the 1970s household being a textbook example of what makes something ‘uncanny’. I was even somewhat moved by the idea that the Doctor subconsciously remembers being back in the barn during the events of Listen imagining the stars he can see through the window that are now sadly absent as he dies on the battlefield during the end of The Doctor Falls.

The subsequent supporting chapters then follow on from this by looking at whether the Doctor is the author of his identity, how Clara moulds the identities of Danny and the Doctor, and finishes with a discussion on the presentation of the apocalypse in this episode by contrasting it with the RTD-era episode Utopia. All of these continue the clear and concise prose from the first chapter, whilst also drawing upon Classic era episodes (An Unearthly Child and The Edge of Destruction), episodes from Clara’s arc as a whole (The Name of The Doctor, Flatline, and Dark Water), and outside references such as HG Wells’ The Time Machine, Brown’s two line story Knock, and even the 2014 IPCC Climate Change report published around the time of this episode’s broadcast.

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I used to think this bit was just for a gag about mirrors but perhaps this is supposed to show that The Doctor, Clara and Danny are just three reflections of the same character.

I’ve also seen a few reviews about this one that appear to criticise the lack of any discussion regarding the production and development of this episode. I would like to refer them to the following statement on the Obverse Books website:

“Though story treatments, draft scripts and new interviews with scriptwriters and directors may all be of interest, the Black Archive’s focus is on the story’s themes and ideas, rather than the behind-the-scenes history catalogued in admirable depth by others.”

I am also unsurprised by the possibility that perhaps Steven Moffat and Douglas Mackinnon were unavailable for any comments/questions about this. As such, I struggle to imagine where else this Black Archive entry had to go. Information on the production side is far more readily available for the classic era serials; given much more time has elapsed for these since their initial broadcast.

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“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door…” – Frederic Brown

Concluding Thoughts

Listen by Dewi Small is a focussed and enjoyable light read that successfully manages to examine a number of angles on a TV story that is seeped in such ambiguity that evades any clear definition. Dewi is also more forthcoming than other books in The Black Archive range with a few of the weaknesses in his line of analysis, which actually provided a refreshing sense of balance in my personal opinion and allows the reader to come to their own judgements on these ideas.

I struggled to imagine how someone might tackle this episode in such a series but, after reading this entry, I can’t imagine any other angle being taken for this particular story. That in itself is surely a sign of success, is it not? And if you are a fan of this particular episode, I suggest you go pick this one up. After all, we wouldn’t want to let it hide in plain sight.