Anyone who has read my other Season 18 articles will have worked out by now that I am not a big fan of Christopher H. Bidmead’s approach to Doctor Who, which basically amounts to rooting it in science. Up to this point he managed to put together a pretty decent series of Doctor Who, mainly because his writers were almost always pulling in the opposite direction to him, and the results were either an interesting clash, or Doctor Who as magic with a science-sounding sticking plaster over the top of it. Logopolis was Bidmead’s big chance to really showcase his vision for Doctor Who, because he script edited himself, in a rare Classic series example of the showrunner model.
Writer: Christopher H. Bidmead. Script Editor: Christopher H. Bidmead.
A grim prospect. And inevitably, it is full of all the worst excesses we would expect from a writer that puts science first, before a good, coherent story. Mainly it’s all about Bidmead getting excited by these new-fangled things called “computers”, so he has a race of advanced aliens, ruled by a “monitor”, holding back the collapse of the universe by mumbling a bit of hexidecimal and using bubble memory. This might make more sense than Mel’s Megabyte Modem, but the sense it makes is 1981 sense.
Bubble memory is non-volatile. Remove the power and the bit patterns are still retained in tiny magnetic domains in these chips!
So Bidmead obviously read about this in a scientific journal or something, but it was really just a precursor to flash memory. And I don’t think that’s going to hold the universe together. This is the trouble with going really big with science in a Doctor Who story. You’re always going to be basing your futuristic story on a contemporary understanding of science, which is, well, nonsense, like most science turns out to be. A bold statement?
We have a very-well researched, erudite (and very funny) long-running quiz show over here called QI, which stands for “quite interesting”. The researchers have looked at how well the “facts” they discuss stand up over time, and have found something they call the “half-life of facts”, actually a coinage of a Harvard mathematician. After a year, 7% of the facts they mention in any given episode have been proved wrong, on average. That’s just in one year. Estimations very, but the likelihood is that half of what anyone learns when they study for a scientific degree will have been proved wrong in about a decade. Estimates for different fields of science can be anywhere between about 5 years and 50 years, but the fact is (and this really is a “fact”) that virtually everything we think we know about science will turn out to be wrong eventually, just like it did with everything we thought we knew in the past.
That’s why the idea of holding the universe together with bubble memory sounds so silly now. Bidmead might have thought he was being incredibly clever by rooting Doctor Who in science, but by doing that all he was doing was rooting his particular episodes firmly in the year 1981. And it leads to a lot of ridiculous nonsense, such as the idea of opening the TARDIS under water to “flush out” the Master, and all the measuring of the TARDIS exterior. That’s what happens when a writer falls in love with a clever bit of science and is determined to shoehorn it into a Doctor Who story. When you have that as your first priority then you forget about the narrative logic, and end up with the Doctor taking precise measurements of the TARDIS exterior, which is basically an illusion. The TARDIS can look like anything, but just happens to be stuck as a police box because the Doctor likes it like that. It’s like trying to get a replica of a picture frame made by a carpenter and giving him the measurements of a painting of a house that’s inside the frame. Ok, so it’s only a little bit like that, but you get the idea.
All this is terribly silly and tedious, which wouldn’t have been so much of a problem if it didn’t come at the expense of the characterisation. It is almost as if Bidmead is only interested in science and can’t be bothered with all that tricky business of writing characters that actually talk and act like real people. Tegan is an atrocity here. She wanders into the TARDIS, takes it all in her stride, and gets angry about being late for work, shouting for the captain. All of that could work as some kind of a mental breakdown, but no, Bidmead genuinely writes this as if it is a logical reaction for an air-stewardess who walks into the TARDIS, on her way to her first day at work.
Then we have the Master, who Bidmead tries to write as somewhere between a moustache-twirling villain and Roger Delgado, just casually destroying a quarter of the universe by accident. Oh, that meddling jackanapes! As if to get revenge on Johnny Byrne for writing a fairy tale, Traken is part of that quarter that gets wiped out, thus rendering pointless everything that happened in the last story apart from the final couple of minutes of the fourth episode.
Ironically, the bits that do work well are when the magic asserts itself and refuses to be overwritten by 1981-specific-science. The Logopolitans hold the universe together and construct things by speaking in hexidecimal. But words having power is magic. Science has never allowed for the things a person says to influence the physical world, and never will do (at least, if it ever does it will be the day that science acknowledges magic), so however you wrap it up in technobabble or 1980s computing terms, the Logopolitans are holding the universe together with magic words. They might as well take a leaf out of the Master’s book and chant “Mary has a little lamb” backwards. And then we have the TARDIS within a TARDIS, which demonstrates ably that Bidmead didn’t understand paradoxes. The Doctor and Adric get deeper into the paradox and then eventually emerge on the outside by going inside another TARDIS, which is completely unscientific but a lot of fun. Try to get your head around how that looks for them at that point, going through the TARDIS doors from the outside to the inside, and then emerging from the inside of the TARDIS to the outside. But, like the magic Logopolitan words, this works well because it’s a fantasy scene, and it’s fun. It’s Alice going down the rabbit hole, and finding something impossible at the end. I mean, the impossible thing turns out to be the Barnet Bypass, but we can’t have everything.
But luckily Bidmead really knew how to write the big moments, when it mattered. The Watcher is a creepy foreshadowing, a harbinger of doom (magic again – there’s no escaping it). And the big battle between the Doctor and the Master on the radio telescope ticks all the right boxes and provides a suitably dramatic end to Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor, despite being slightly bodged by the director with a photographic blow-up of the Master. Then we have the best final words of any Doctor:
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for.
And the more I look at that sentence, the more I think it looks hackneyed on paper, but somehow it just works perfectly, coming from the lips of the dying Fourth Doctor. He goes out with a smile, at the end of seven years of amazing adventures. It has been, well… magical. RP
The view from across the pond:
Among the huge number of awesome memories I have of growing up a Doctor Who fan, there are the handful of times that I was able to share some of the Doctor’s universe with a friend or family member. For the most part, this was depressingly rare, but every now and then, something weird would happen and there’s one big stand out that my sister still mentions from time to time. She recalls a ghostly apparition that followed the Doctor around. It created a lasting memory for my baby sister. And why not? The Watcher, as he is known, was a mysterious character that was both alarming to the Doctor yet somehow familiar. For my money, where the Watcher failed was ironically also his greatest strength. It made me want to know what was going on with that mysterious figure far more than I cared about what went on, on the planet Logopolis.
Logopolis (literally city of words, for a planet of people who speak their computations aloud), begins in a very relaxed way: the Doctor wants to take some measurements for the TARDIS. This creates an amazingly simple but deeply intriguing first episode. The whole TARDIS-inside-a-TARDIS will be done again for Steven Moffat’s two part specials Space and Time, but it gives us a mystery that is fun to explore. There’s no actual threat to speak of, although one makes itself known before the episode ends. There is also a major discovery when we learn that the TARDIS has an override to the chameleon circuit and we get a demonstration of how the Architectural Configuration System should work. As far as Doctor Who lore goes, this is a major moment!
But after part one, Logopolis starts to lose cohesion and becomes a pretty standard, nonsensical Master story. Actually just before the end of part one, it starts going wonky. The police are inquiring about the murders of two people: Aunt Vanessa and a police constable. But would they? I mean, all they have is what appears to be two dolls. At the worst, wouldn’t the cops think it a prank of some sort? What even makes them investigate. (I’m beginning to fear that the police will come to my house and investigate the murder of Luke, Darth, Han and all the other Star Wars figures my kids have in the basement!) Then part two starts and it’s like that old adage: entropy increases!
The more you put things together, the more they keep falling apart, and that’s the essence of the second law of thermodynamics and I never heard a truer word spoken.
For instance, there’s this crazy idea that the Doctor has of opening the TARDIS doors underwater to flood the ship and get the Master out. Yes, basically his plan involves drowning the Master. And potentially himself, although with Adric as a companion, maybe he was anticipating a certain need. I will, however, give him credit for his optimism, thinking that he and Adric would be able to hold the doors shut while underwater. I’m glad that by Capaldi’s time, he finds out he has shields and can open the doors to observe fish without flooding the interior. Also, if Logopolis is this super powerful planet of people who actually keep the universe from being consumed by heat-death, please someone, explain why they modeled their radio tower on the Pharos Project on earth? I’ll tell you why: the production team needed a space story but had no budget so they came up with a super-lame story that the Logopolitans have a weird desire to copy Earth tech. Again, I cry a little inside…
Meanwhile, the Watcher hovers in the background, being mysterious and begging for more screen time. So, he goes and finds Nyssa to give her a lift to get to the Doctor and find her father. Trakenites evidently are not taught about stranger danger or the risks of accepting rides from strange apparitions offering to take you to see your daddy! (No, no, there’s nothing creepy about that notion!) And speaking of accepting rides, Tegan has unwittingly gotten a ride that she didn’t want. It’s a weird juxtaposition of characters. Speaking of odd characters, there’s the Monitor. I bring him up not because of his hair but because the juxtaposition gets funny when you realize the Audience is watching the Monitor and the Watcher (who is also the Doctor). Was the Watcher watching the Monitor? Was the Monitor on at the time? Does the Doctor fix the Monitor or leave the Audience wondering about the Watcher and the Master… Oh, the entropy!
Then part four rolls around, and things begin to change. That interest that started in part one returns but for entirely different reasons. The Master is holding the universe hostage for all of 3 minutes when the Doctor realizes he can unplug the microphone. Now, the Master could stop the Doctor but instead watches out of curiosity… and then he runs off. Meanwhile, the Doctor has succeeded (of course) after tripping the Master (in the most unconvincing use of the old “scarf across the gangplank” ploy ever depicted on screen) but now hangs on for dear life before plummeting to his death. And the episode transforms into something incredibly memorable.
Before I go on about it, up until this point, we’ve seen a bright light engulf the first Doctor. We’ve seen the second Doctor spin giddily. The third Doctor undergoes a very gradual shift from one Doctor to the other. Now, the fourth lies dying on the ground. “It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…” And now, this weird apparition that has been sidelined the whole story, steps into the Doctor’s body and a whole new form of regeneration occurs on screen. I must have watched that 30 times so my sister was bound to be exposed to it. But what a sight! The new Doctor sits up, the music springs to life and a new era begins!
Much like closing the CVE’s that were causing the heat-death of the universe, part 4 brought Logopolis around and gave it a truly epic status. Entropy had increased through the story and made some of it as brittle as the structures on Logopolis, but the Doctor, the Watcher and the Master brought it around and saved the day. It’s far from a perfect story, but it gives one heck of an ending to the most popular of the classic Doctors! ML