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James Chapman’s Top Ten Classic Doctor Who Stories: Logopolis

James Chapman’s Top Ten Classic Doctor Who Stories
Doctor Who, Logopolis, TV, Tom Baker
5. ‘Logopolis’

BBC1. 4 episodes: 28 February-21 March 1981.

Starring Tom Baker as ‘Doctor Who’, Matthew Waterhouse as Adric, Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, Janet Fielding as Tegan.

Produced by John Nathan-Turner

Written by Christopher H. Bidmead

Directed by Peter Grimwade.

Series 18 was seen both at the time and since as a turning point for Doctor Who. Everything about it suggested a change of direction. We had a new producer (John Nathan-Turner) and a new script editor (Christopher H. Bidmead). We had a new title sequence and a new arrangement of the theme music. Costume designer June Hudson redesigned the Fourth Doctor’s attire along more subdued lines than before. The look of the series suggested a more ‘filmic’ style. In particular some Doctor Who directors seemed to be inspired by European art cinema. The long take/slow pan that opens Episode 1 of ‘The Leisure Hive’, for instance, is reminiscent of the work of highly formalist directors such as Alain Resnais or Peter Greenaway. ‘Warriors’ Gate’ is widely understood to have been an homage to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). And over the course of the series we had a whole Scooby Gang of new companions. Following Romana II’s departure at the end of the ‘E-Space Trilogy’ (‘Full Circle’, ‘State of Decay’. ‘Warriors’ Gate’), the Doctor was joined by mathematical boy genius Adric. They picked up the comely Nyssa in ‘The Keeper of Traken’, and for ‘Logopolis’ were joined by bolshy Australian airline stewardess Tegan Jovanka.

About the only thing about the series that wasn’t new was the Doctor himself. Tom Baker was now in his seventh year and had imprinted his personality so strongly on the role that it seemed impossible to imagine him ever relinquishing the TARDIS key. His reign had coincided with the series’ longest period of consistently high ratings in the mid-1970s, and, even though the viewing figures fluctuated more towards the end of the decade, the previous season’s ‘City of Death’ had recorded the highest audiences for any Doctor Who story. (OK, so ‘City of Death’ coincided with a technicians’ strike that kept the ITV network off the air for several weeks: this was still the day when Britain had only three television channels and before the advent of cable and satellite. How the broadcasting ecology has changed!). Baker is often voted the favourite Doctor of the classic series – a point acknowledged by his cameo at the end of the fiftieth-anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor’ in 2013. In other words Tom Baker WAS ‘Doctor Who’. But nothing lasts for ever.

It’s well known that Nathan-Turner and Bidmead wanted to take Doctor Who in a new direction. Nathan-Turner was keen to rein in the more excessive aspects of Baker’s performance. (In his autobiography, Tom admits to having become proprietorial about the role, having played it for so long, and the BBC Written Archives include several internal memos complaining that he refused to stick to the scripts.) Bidmead, for his part, wanted to move away from the undergraduate humour of previous script editor Douglas Adams and orient Doctor Who back in the direction of ‘hard’ science fiction. Hence Series 18 included stories using concepts such as the theoretical science of tachyonics (‘The Leisure Hive’) and charged vacuum environments (‘Full Circle’). In particular the notion of entropy – the idea that the structure of the universe is unravelling and decaying – as popularised by ‘new wave’ science fiction authors such as Michael Moorcock, editor of New Worlds magazine, runs throughout this series. ‘New wave’ SF was characterised by its experimental story-telling (some critics describe it as ‘plotless’) and a generally pessimistic tone. To this extent ‘Logopolis’ bears a strong affinity with ‘new wave’ science fiction.

Doctor Who, Logopolis, TV, Tom Baker

I’ve chosen ‘Logopolis’ as one of my top ten classic Doctor Who stories because I think it’s the best of what I might describe as the more ‘intellectual’ kind of story – others in this vein would include ‘Warriors’ Gate’, ‘Castrovalva’, ‘Kinda’ and ‘Ghost Light’. Not only is it a remarkably complex and multi-layered story in its own right, but was also the first Doctor Who story really to explore the series’ own internal mythos. To that extent it anticipated the direction that Doctor Who would take in the 1980s.

‘Logopolis’ is the one where the Doctor finally decides to repair the ‘chameleon circuit’ – a sort of cloaking device that is supposed to allow the TARDIS to change its external appearance in order to blend in with its surroundings. The problem with the Doctor’s TARDIS is that the chameleon circuit is broken and it remains looking like a police box. We know from the second episode of Doctor Who (‘The Cave of Skulls’) that it must have broken while the First Doctor was living in the junkyard at Totter’s Lane: William Hartnell expresses surprise when he leaves the TARDIS in the Stone Age and sees that it hasn’t changed appearance. ‘Logopolis’ maintains continuity with the series’ past when the Doctor makes a reference to having left his chameleon circuit in a ‘totter’s yard’.

This prompts me to a diversion on the place of the police box in Doctor Who. We know, of course, that it was chosen because the series needed a consistent visual reference point – and to save costs by re-using the same prop and models. (This concern was not unique to Doctor Who: the real impetus behind the Klingon/Romulan alliance in the third season of Star Trek was to allow the same spaceship models to be used for each race.) The police box has been understood as a signifier of Britishness – one of the ways in which Doctor Who asserts its quirky British identity. Even in the 1960s, however, the police box was already being phased out as walkie-talkie radios were introduced. By 1981 it was entirely anachronistic – and the remaining police boxes today are heritage attractions rather than functioning utilities.

In order to repair the TARDIS, the Doctor needs the spatial dimensions of a real police box. This, apparently, will allow the master mathematicians of Logopolis to work something out using a technique called block transfer computation. (Mathematics never was my strong suit.) So the Doctor materialises his TARDIS around a real police box somewhere on a layby on the A413. However, it turns out that the Master has already materialised his own TARDIS at the same place, locking it into a recursive loop with the Doctor’s. This is part of the Master’s master plan to discover the secret behind Logopolis. It turns out that the Logopolitans are a race of pure mathematicians whose endless calculations hold the fabric of the universe together. Once a flaw is introduced into their work – as it is through being given the wrong dimensions for the TARDIS – the universe will start to unravel. “If you destroy Logopolis, you unravel the whole causal nexus,” the chief mathematician tells the Doctor.

One of the things I like about ‘Logopolis’ is that for once the Doctor is not in control of events. Indeed he has inadvertently set in process a chain of events that leads to the destruction of Logopolis itself – and is unable to prevent this. There is a suggestion that, even when the Master’s plan is thwarted, the Doctor has succeeded only in delaying the inevitable and that the universe will be overwhelmed by entropy in the end. This pessimistic tone pervades the whole serial. It is accentuated when the Doctor meets a mysterious figure known as ‘The Watcher’ – who at the very end of the story is revealed to be the Doctor himself (“So he was the Doctor all along,” remarks Nyssa as if that explains everything. It doesn’t: though we might remember from ‘Planet of the Spiders’ that Time Lords close to regeneration are able to project a possible future self.). The ending of ‘Logopolis’ reveals that the Doctor knew the end of his fourth incarnation was imminent (“The time has come – but the moment has been prepared for”). In this sense the transition from the Fourth to Fifth Doctor is much more satisfying than, say, from Second to Third or Sixth to Seventh.

It would be fair to say that ‘Logopolis’ is stronger on mood and atmosphere than it is on plotting and exposition. There are too many plot loopholes for it to be entirely satisfying as a narrative. But it is brilliantly directed by Peter Grimwade, whose strong visual sense had been revealed earlier this series in ‘Full Circle’ (the scene of the marshmen emerging from the water is one of the creepiest I remember in Doctor Who and deserves to be ranked alongside the Daleks on Westminster Bridge and the Cybermen awakening from their tombs as one of the series’ iconic moments). The opening scene of ‘Logopolis’ is highly effective: a policeman approaches the telephone box and is suddenly dragged inside to his death. This violates our feeling that the TARDIS (we are, I think, meant to assume that the police box is the TARDIS until we learn otherwise) is a safe environment that protects those inside from danger without. Elsewhere the haunting chimes of the Cloister Bell and the dark interior of the Master’s TARDIS enhance the feeling of danger and suspense.

‘Logopolis’ was the middle part of a trilogy also comprising ‘The Keeper of Traken’ and ‘Castrovalva’. Anthony Ainley, who had played Nyssa’s father Councillor Tremas (note the anagram) in ‘The Keeper of Traken’, would portray the Master throughout the 1980s – the decaying Master having taken over Tremas’s body at the end of that story. The Master was also up to his usual tricks in ‘Castrovalva’, though we had to wait a full nine months before Peter Davison’s debut story. I remember that at the time it seemed like an eternity, though the gap was partly filled by repeats of old stories under the banner of ‘The Five Faces of Doctor Who’. These days, of course, nine months between series has become the norm. ‘Castrovalva’, also written by Bidmead, is a companion piece to ‘Logopolis’ where the Doctor and his companions become caught in a ‘recursive reclusion’ as space literally folds in on itself. It was inspired by the work of Dutch artist M.C. Escher whose paintings such as Ascending and Descending and The Waterfall play around with perspective: stairs that lead to the same place and water that appears to flow up hill. Like ‘Logopolis’, ‘Castrovalva’ is a complex story that assumes a degree of intellectual sophistication on the part of the viewer.

Doctor Who, Logopolis, TV, Tom Baker

As I’m not sure, as of this moment, whether I’ll be including any further Nathan-Turner ‘era’ stories among my top ten, this seems an appropriate moment to offer some thoughts on ‘JN-T’ and his significance for Doctor Who. Nathan-Turner was by some distance the longest-serving producer of Doctor Who, presiding over the series from the start of Series 18 in the summer of 1980 to its cancellation in late 1989. There is no question that JN-T is a divisive figure in Doctor Who fandom. For his critics he is remembered as the producer who presided over the decline of Doctor Who. Nathan-Turner is often seen as a weak producer who was unable either to impose his own stamp on the series or to resist the influence of unofficial Doctor Who consultant Ian Levine whose influence is seen in the increasing obsession with the series’ internal continuity by the mid-1980s. This tendency reached its nadir in stories such as ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ which assumed knowledge of two previous serials, one of which was at the time ‘lost’ (‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’) while the other had not been seen since 1966 (‘The Tenth Planet’). It’s held that this tendency alienated viewers who felt that Doctor Who was being written just for its hard-core fans. JN-T is also derided for his penchant for casting ‘celebrity’ guest stars from the world of light entertainment (Beryl Reid as a tough, hard-bitten starship commander in ‘Earthshock’, anyone!?). And to cap it all, he was the producer who cast Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor.

I don’t hold with most of these criticisms. For one thing Doctor Who was not a series in decline for much of the 1980s: viewing figures were higher for most of Peter Davison’s tenure than they had been towards the end of Tom Baker’s. (It’s one of the ironies of Doctor Who that for all its innovations in style, Series 18 saw a significant decline in audiences – commonly attributed to the competition of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century over on ITV. It seems that post-Star Wars British audiences preferred uncomplicated space opera to the more intellectually challenging content of Doctor Who that year.) It was not until the mid-1980s that viewing figures went into sharp decline. Nathan-Turner cannot be blamed for the eighteen-month suspension of Doctor Who in 1985-86, which was due as much to internal BBC politics as to any real decline in quality. And I don’t hold, either, that Colin Baker was a mistake. I liked the Sixth Doctor – at least after he overcame his post-regeneration instability – and would have liked to see him continue for longer in the role. Where Colin was let down was in the quality of the scripts: no other Doctor has had to contend with a succession of turkeys like ‘The Twin Dilemma’, ‘The Two Doctors’ and ‘Timelash’ in such a short time. And he had the interminable ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’: if the original plan for Series 23 had transpired instead – including the return of the Ice Warriors and ‘The Nightmare Fair’ (a sequel to ‘The Celestial Toymaker’) – then the history of Doctor Who might have been very different. This is a case where the producers of Doctor Who should have learned from the series’ history: elongated serials such as ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ and ‘The War Games’ had also haemorrhaged viewers. ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ had to be cobbled together in a hurry, and when Robert Holmes passed away while writing the climax the best that could be found at short notice were Pip and Jane Baker.

As for the charge that continuity references alienated viewers, I’m not entirely sure that this one holds up either. ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ was an extreme example of this tendency but I still prefer it to some of the other Sixth Doctor stories – including the overrated (in my view) ‘Vengeance on Varos’. There again I’d read the Target novelisations of ‘The Tenth Planet’ and ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ so it sort of made sense to me. Terrance Dicks showed how knowledge of the series’ history could be used to good self-referential effect in the twentieth-anniversary special ‘The Five Doctors’. And we have to see the prominence of continuity references in the context of changing viewing habits in the 1980s. As home video recorders became more affordable, more past episodes of Doctor Who were in circulation. And, from the mid-1980s, the BBC started to release past stories on commercial video. For some reason they chose to start with ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’.

In the last analysis, I’d suggest that the decline in Doctor Who’s audience from the mid-1980s was not due to the series’ increasing resort to self-referentiality but to other factors. These included – in no particular order – the restricted pool of writers who really ‘got’ Doctor Who, hostility towards the series inside the BBC, budgets that lagged behind inflation, and the decision to move it around the schedules instead of leaving Doctor Who in its rightful place on a Saturday evening. It’s hard to see the decision to put Doctor Who up against Coronation Street in the late 1980s as a deliberate attempt to kill it. For none of these can Nathan-Turner reasonably take the blame as they were all factors outside his control. There’s no excuse for Beryl Reid, though.

Inside the Tardis, James Chapman, Doctor Who, Book, I.B.Tauris

James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, second edition, I. B.Tauris, 2013.

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