Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 020—The Myth Makers


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 020—The Myth Makers

By T. Scott Edwards

I have listened to the audio track for The Myth Makers before, and whilst it was entertaining enough, it was never one of my favourites. Watching the series in order from the start, however, one sees just how groundbreaking it is – Donald Cotton's writing is magnificent, and it is almost impossible not to fall in love with the serial; indeed, it may well be one of my favourites from the Hartnell era now. I got hold of the soundtrack to this in the same way that I got hold of them all – a friend, James, sent me them, and I devoured the whole lot, not necessarily in order, but without paying a great deal of attention to some. Whilst Marco Polo soaked me in completely from the first 2 minutes, The Myth Makers was rather more background music than absorbed entertainment. I gave an occasional chuckle, but that was all.

Despite not existing save for scant telesnaps, the occasional brief moments of low quality 8mm footage and the audio track, it is an absolute pleasure to 'watch'. Interestingly, almost all existing footage is of Maureen O'Brien – it would appear that whoever took the time to record this clearly felt passionately about Vicki's character! The wonderful costumes and sets really help to sell the production, too – what we can see of them, of course – John Wood's realisation of the Trojan horse is particularly spectacular, and the costumes are exceptionally splendid, realised wonderfully by Daphne Dare and Tony Pearce.

Opening the serial here was a brave move – following last week's brief distraction, featuring an unknown cast of characters and the reappearance of the Daleks, a contemporary audience must have been totally thrown by the absence of them for this serial. Mission to the Unknown had promised outer space, Dalek battles, a Secret Service in the future, and no appearance of the Doctor and the TARDIS. To follow it up with an historical must have really confused the kids at home, desperately hoping to see the Doctor's involvement with that story. But instead, we arrive on the plains outside of Troy, to two soldiers sparring both physically and verbally.

The opening scene is fantastic – the action opens on Hector and Achilles battling furiously, verbally assaulting each other with prosaic, Shakespearean dialogue – "Your bones would be the meatier, Trojan. Though meat a trifle rough at that. Well, all's one. They will whiten well enough in the sun!" has a fabulous ring to it – but what makes this work so well, although we cannot see it, is the comedy which then underlies it; rather than face off admirably, Achilles decides to turn and run away as Hector gains the upper hand. The action then cuts to the interior of the TARDIS, with the Doctor, Vicki and Steven watching the struggle on the scanner. The Doctor even openly criticises the action outside, in a knowing and metatextual nod to the style of the serial, commenting that "they're doing more talking than they are fighting."

When the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS and is mistaken for the father of the gods, Zeus, there is some wonderful comedy, and Hartnell, as always, thrives on the chance to sink his teeth into the meaty text. The idea that he is told that he looks like "the guise of an old beggar" is beautifully delivered with dead-pan aplomb by Cavan Kendall, and unlike with Barbara in The Aztecs, the Doctor is quite willing to go along with the mistaken belief. It is the distraction of the Doctor which allows Achilles to win in his battle with Hector, and upon the arrival of Odysseus, it is evident that despite being an historically famous fighter, many have little faith in Achilles' abilities as a warrior. It is suggested that Achilles tired Hector out by running away and exhausting him in pursuit, and again through the lampooning of historical figures, the comedy is bountiful – Odysseus' mocking echoes that of King Priam and his son in the next episode. Cotton is purposefully confusing the audience, suggesting that there is a fine line between fact and fiction, one which is readily blurred through mythology. This becomes a theme later with the Trojan horse.

Sadly, some of Cotton's finest work would have been in his use of wordplay – the titles of the episodes would have forewarned the audience of the inherent comedy of the serial, but most were vetoed – originally, episode 1 was to have been entitled "Zeus Ex Machina", with episode 3 entitled "Is there a Doctor in the Horse?" As it was, only the second title is particularly amusing – "Small Prophet, Quick Return".

The action soon moves to the tents of the Greek warriors Agamemnon and Menelaus discussing the tedium of battle – the ten years war has driven the troops to distraction, and all over Helen, Menelaus' wife, who has run off with a Trojan. Of course, the tale of Helen of Troy, whose face could launch a thousand ships, is infamous, but it is the distracted way in which Menelaus says that he is "heartily glad to see the back of her" which raises laughs. The two are portrayed as bickering siblings, rather than fear-inducing monarchs, and the "stop interrupting" of Agamemnon adds to the humour, whilst also reminding us of the underlying threat. We are frequently faced with powerful men for humorous purposes – such as Nero in The Romans – yet there is always the underlying threat of death should our travellers fail to please them. These are powerful men, who need only click their fingers to have someone put to death, but by showing them as such tired and bored men helps to create a sense of levity. As Agamemnon, Francis de Woolf is superb – last seen as Vasor the trapper in The Keys of Marinus, here he is superb. Rather than milking the scene by hamming it up, he plays it straight, which makes it all the funnier.

Further comedy arises in the form of Cyclops, played by Tutte Lemkow. As always, there is no existing footage of the character – poor Lemkow barely exists as far as Doctor Who is concerned! – but the mute spy approaches Odysseus. Where the comedy is milked from this scene, however, is all down to the outstanding Ivor Salter as Odysseus – his one-sided conversation with the spy is brilliant, as we are forced to imagine just how exactly Cyclops was able to mime all of the information which his master gleams from his report.

The first episode ends with the abduction of the TARDIS by the Trojans, with Vicki still inside. Through its placement within the Trojan camp, this allows us access to the opposing side, and Cotton is just as scathing about them. Led by another dangerously bored character, Priam oversees his court with wonderful dead-pan humour. His open mocking of the soft and pathetic Paris is superb, as he questions "what sort of brother are you? Furthermore, what sort of son?!" due to Paris' failure to avenge Hector's death. Paris' pride at bringing the TARDIS as a prize underlies his utter incompetence – and foreshadows his idiocy at the end of episode 3, once again bringing a 'gift' into the city without thinking of the consequences.

What is so spectacular about The Myth Makers is that whilst it is certainly a comedy, and a rich one filled with fantastic dialogue at that, at no point does anyone ham it up, or play it for laughs. It is performed as though it were a straight piece, making the comedy all the funnier. Even the characters that perform no comedic part, though, are brilliant – Frances White, as Cassandra, is a part that gets nothing comedic to deliver, yet becomes the butt of many a joke. Priam's declaration that he suspects "it's a kind of insurance, so that if things do go wrong she can always say 'I told you so.'" is wonderfully delivered. The most tragic thing about this, of course, is that Cassandra is right to worry about the strangers, and worryingly, her predictions are true – she dreams that a gift containing Greek soldiers will arrive and destroy their lives as they know them, but it isn't the TARDIS of which she has predicted – it is the Trojan horse. Likewise, we are expected not to like Odysseus, as he is a brute of a man, a closed-minded warrior. Yet he too is right not to trust the Doctor – his disregard for superstition is founded on sense.

Vicki's christening as Cressida is a clever move by Cotton too – Vicki sounds far too much like "a heathen sort of name" – and almost any viewer will know that Cressida will marry Troilus. Here, though, so many of the conventions of Greek mythology are muddled that it throws us; whilst that is how the story goes, we have no way of knowing how their story will end. Achilles isn't the hero we believed. Odysseus is a pillager and a brute, not the hero we expect. So how will their story end?

As Paris, Barrie Ingham gets some wonderful comedy to play with – the scene in which he attempts to challenge Achilles, but his voice gradually becomes quieter and quieter as he realises what the fight would mean, is wonderful, and when he manages to get into a fight with Steven, posing as Diomede in an attempt to infiltrate the Trojan city, is also wonderful – the bluster he manages to convey simply with his voice is phenomenal – as Steven wins over his 'captor with unfounded praise (Oh, I could tell them a tale or two of your valour that that would make even King Priam blanch to hear.) it is Paris' response of "Oh, I say – could you really?!" which makes the scene so funny.

The most intriguing thing about this serial, as I've mentioned, is the frivolous way in which it changes the conventions of Greek drama, and our expectations of characters. This serial is actually the first in which the Doctor actively attempts to manipulate the past; despite the slow-dawning realisation that he gave Nero the idea to burn down Rome in The Romans, it was only by pure accident that it happened. Here, though, Hartnell is actively engaging in the events of history, attempting to create a method for Odysseus' men to attack Troy. When Steven suggests the Trojan horse, the Doctor instantly pooh-poohs the idea, claiming that it was obviously exaggeration and created by Homer as a dramatic device. But when his plans for flying machines fails – principally due to his fear that he will be put in one – he changes his tune and decides to design the horse after all. It is this creation which has a direct result upon history; and whilst the story is fixed in books anyway, it is because of the Doctor's invention that it exists at all. The model work on the horse is superb, and the scenes inside it are intriguing – we can only wonder what it looked like in there, as the exterior is so superbly crafted. Incidentally – and again, riskily, considering Doctor Who is principally for children – Odysseus even gets to make a throw-away joke about an orgy! It's genius!

The climax to episode 3 has one of the greatest – and cheesiest – lines ever – Cassandra's doom-laden "Woe to the House of Priam! Woe to the Trojans!" is swiftly countered, again by Paris, saying "It's a bit late to say 'whoa' to the horse" as it is being brought into the city.

After such lightweight and frivolous scripting in the first three episodes, episode 4 comes as something of a shock to the system. The fight scenes sound incredible, and Peter Purves' narration on the audiotrack is superb, verging on extremely graphic. The scene in which Troilus slays Achilles is incredible, and the moment where he looks down at the city of Troy burning to the ground is horribly distressing – bellowing "Cressida!" into the air as he believes that she has brought about the end of everything he knew. It is easy to forget that this is exactly what the serial has been working its inevitable way to; lives are readily disposed of, characters dispatched brutally, sometimes off-screen, such as with Priam and Paris, and the fate of Cassandra is inevitable. It seems a bitter pill to swallow.

Vicki's exit seems somehow strange, though – although it was equally inevitable, the Doctor seems rather blasé about it at first. Her fate is to remain with Troilus, and create the tales which are still told to this day, yet what makes it truly heartbreaking is that, as the Doctor and the wounded Steven, along with Katarina, stumble into the TARDIS and disappear, Vicki is left to be with her true love – yet he cannot trust her. He genuinely believes her to have caused the fall of Troy and the House of Priam, but she persuades him that all is not lost.

The oddest thing about this serial, though, is the character of Katarina. After all that the crew have faced in this serial, it is Katarina that is used to replace Vicki – despite her only arriving some five minutes before the end of the serial and barely speaking. Her purpose, of course, is intended for The Daleks' Master Plan, the epic 12-part adventure which follows this serial, but regardless it all seems rather odd. To some extent, she is a very primitive Jamie McCrimmon – her lack of understanding of science leads her to believe that she has died and is being transferred to the next world in this "blue temple". Her naivety is wonderfully touching.

And so the Greeks are victorious, the Trojans paying the cost of not listening to Cassandra's predictions, and the TARDIS crew, with newly joined Katrina and mortally-wounded Steven, head off on their own Mission to the Unknown, with the Doctor aware that it is essential that they get Steven the technologically advanced medicine that he so desperately needs...

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk he also runs facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.


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