Survival, Friday The 13th, Doctor Who, and Black Cats

My entry on the topic of Survival

doctor-who-animatronic-cat

Surviving Friday The 13th has historically meant avoiding black cats. But the Doctor Who story “Survival” — which was the last story aired during the “classic” period ending in 1989 — was all about cats, cat people, and human beings surviving their excursions into animal nature. The not-so-subtle message telegraphed toward the end was “If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!”

Some cast members barely survived location filming at Warmwell Quarry, where temperatures reportedly soared into the hundreds. Lisa Bowerman, who was decked out in Fun Fur as a Cheetah Person named Karra, came down with heat stroke. Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor, was troubled by the heat, but more so by fellow actor Anthony Ainley’s approach to method acting. With an impish half-grin, McCoy recalls how Ainley (who played The Master) beat the crap out of him.

Sophie Aldred, who played Ace (and famously beat up a Dalek), is allergic to cats and barely survived playing a scene with a black cat without giving out a sneeze that would have blanketed Perivale. In addition, the animatronic cat used in some scenes (pictured above) was none too convincing, and had to be augmented by bringing in a sack of live cats, coaxing them to perform on cue — not much harder than getting cats to march in a parade. As finicky as these cats were, they demanded tea breaks and to be paid union scale.

Though none of the actors knew it at the time, Doctor Who itself would not survive. Producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Andrew Cartmel suspected as much, and Cartmel dropped in some closing lines for “Survival” intended to address the possibility that this would be the last episode:

The Doctor to Ace: There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace — we’ve got work to do!

But like the Doctor himself, the series ultimately managed to survive by regenerating. Such regeneration was far from instantaneous, but when the series finally returned after a 16-year hiatus, one time-honoured Who tradition thankfully did not survive: the tendency to produce the show on a shoestring budget.

“The BBC Steadicam — a bit of rope and a lens,” Sophie Aldred famously remarks in an outtake from “Battlefield.” Yet when the series returned in 2005, it was given a budget that allowed for special effects comparable to major film releases. No more cheap rubber monsters (though the monster in “Vincent and the Doctor” is a bit goofy-looking, and does slightly resemble the carpet monster from the 1964 camp horror flick The Creeping Terror).

Perhaps more important to the new Who’s artistic merit, the character of Ace influenced the way that new Companions like Rose Tyler and Amy Pond were written. They had to have a good back story, be emotionally complex, and really drive the series, not just be window dressing or foils for the Doctor. Still, in an analogue to the classic Peter Cook & Dudley Moore routine about a “unidexter” applying for the role of Tarzan, things haven’t reached the stage where unattractive women need apply.

At least, having complex female characters who drive the series is progress for Doctor Who. Things weren’t always that way. Back in the 1970s women wanted challenging roles, and though actresses auditioning for Companion were often promised same, their roles frequently degenerated into screaming and being rescued by the Doctor. This was even true of Sophie Aldred’s immediate predecessor, Bonnie Langford, who played Melanie Bush. Though Andrew Cartmel originally had high hopes for bringing out Mel’s complex side (she was supposed to be a computer programmer), that complexity never emerged and Mel became instead the paradigmatic shrill screamer, able to shatter glass at thirty paces.

The character of Ace marked a genuine turning point for the show, and the final (26th) season was all about seeing Ace develop emotionally. “Survival” was written by Rona Munro, whose interest in feminist theory was not so heavy-handed as to spoil the story as entertainment. The strong female Companion is one good feature of “late period classic” that survived the regeneration.

An encounter between Ace and one of the Cheetah People

An encounter between Ace and one of the Cheetah People

Another surviving feature is the occasional dalliance in Doctor Who with political themes, usually left-leaning. “The Happiness Patrol” (also from season 26) is about a totalitarian world where it’s a crime to be unhappy. The main baddie is a female monarch who’s a scathing sendup of (then Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher.

The new Who has its share of political themes and subtexts. “The Beast Below” (S05E02) is arguably about the exploitation of labour, or exploitation of Third World resources by First World powers. It’s also about repressive tolerance. You are free to protest, but those hitting the “protest” button are quickly whisked to Starship UK’s dank lower extremities. The story is also about survival and the ethical compromises a developed nation will make in order to survive. The implication is that few people can bear to know the truth about the means used, and those who see the truth find it more convenient to forget it.

Survival is a major theme of Doctor Who, and of science fiction in general. The survival theme may be handled crudely or elegantly, with comic-strip characters or complex human ones, but it tends to inform much great drama.

Trivia: In the dry spell between 1989 and 2005, some of the forms in which Doctor Who survived were novels and audio productions. The Seventh Doctor got a new Companion called Bernice Summerfield, who followed in the Ace tradition by being complex, rebellious and anarchic. Eventually, the character became independent of the Doctor and branched out on her own. In the numerous Bernice Summerfield audio plays produced by Big Finish Productions, Lisa Bowerman, the actress who played Karra in “Survival,” plays Bernice.

Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, his arms brimming with cans of cat food

Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, his arms brimming with cans of cat food

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2 comments on “Survival, Friday The 13th, Doctor Who, and Black Cats

  1. More uninformed, ignorant nonsense about the “sexism” in classic Who. Have you ever actually seen any, or are you just parroting the usual bollocks?
    The latter, of course. By the way, Rose is a more patronising and sexist character than any female in the original series, totally hanging off the Doctor’s every word like a desperate little bunny-boiler. Same goes for Martha, and Donna is depicted, like Rose, as being a useless waster until the Doctor arrives.
    Nah, never mind, go back to your usual brainwashed feminazi learned-by-rote gobshite.

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  2. Thanks for commenting, Matthew. I wonder if you picked up on the playful, humorous quality of this post. I’ve seen a lot of Doctor Who classic and new series, and like them both. I admit I find some episodes from the new series more emotionally moving because Companions like Amy Pond have a back story that makes them more compelling characters. But I also appreciate that Liz Sladen from the classic period took a limited role and invested it with her own energy, originality, and chemistry. The great thing about Doctor Who with its rich history is that everyone can have their favourite Doctor, favourite Companion, favourite period, and favourite story.

    What I’m saying about the role of Companion evolving is not meant as a put-down of the classic period, which I do very much enjoy. I’ve watched interviews with many Companions from the classic period, as well as script editors Terrance Dicks and Andrew Cartmel. While most Companions seem happy with the time they spent on Doctor Who, many did leave because the role was too confining. I’ve also seen “An Adventure in Space and Time,” which makes the point that when Verity Lambert launched Doctor Who in 1963, the Beeb was still very much a boy’s club.

    Things were different 40 or 50 years ago, so we can appreciate classic Doctor Who in its own right, without subjecting it to a yardstick of political correctness. But it does no harm to point out the ways it has evolved. The Doctor will always be the lead character, but the stories are stronger when the Companion has a carefully written back story and a greater degree of emotional complexity. If believing that makes me a feminazi, then somebody send me a t-shirt. 😉

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