The Androids of Tara
Pastiche is often applied to The Androids of Tara as if it’s a dirty word. It’s only a pastiche, wafer thin, of The Prisoner of Zenda. A few names changed, a few science fiction tropes added, but otherwise, little more than a pastiche. The pastiche of the Hinchcliffe era tends to be heralded, but Tara’s guilty of self-conscious limitation, to a set text and a limited scale; it is, at best, considered slight but amiable. There’s a seeming predisposition towards regarding it as minor because it isn’t dealing with death and destruction. The Robots of Death pastiched Agatha Christie but also slotted in Asimov, distinctive production design and high stakes. Tara, through being so quietly assured, lays itself open to accusations of not trying too hard, but marking it down for cutting a light-hearted dash so well and with such confidence seems rather churlish.
To be fair, a fair few people do seem to have affection for The Androids of Tara, which Graham Williams professed to be his favourite of the season. But Season 16 is forever confined, like the story itself, to “minor” status; there aren’t many who readily testify to it containing classic stories, none of which ever show much danger of impacting highly on polls. Tara, I seem to recall (please correct me if I’m wrong), even came bottom of the DWAS poll for that year, beating out nobody’s loved (except by acolytes of the tentacled beast) The Power of Kroll.
The Discontinuity Guide referred to David Fisher’s second story on the trot as “Wonderful, Doctor Who as heroic romance, with plenty of swashbuckling, wit and colour” and “Summery and charming”. Robert Shearman (DWM’s The Complete Fourth Doctor Volume Two) recognised it as “gorgeous, unpretentious stuff... The whole thing radiates charm and warmth”. Elizabeth Sandifer, somewhat grudgingly, gave it her blessing as “really quite well done” and admitted “a delightful cleverness to the whole thing”.
Naturally, Lawrence Miles offered the prosecution against in About Time 4, invoking his standard-issue reservations with the Williams era, complaining that everything has to be tight if you’re swashbuckling (he made that up), and it is “far too relaxed” (Miles needs straight drama with stakes). That said, even he couldn’t bring himself to truly loathe the thing. Craig Hinton could, though (DWB 83): “I have never been a fan of the historical, but I can appreciate a good one. The Androids of Tara wasn’t”. Well, Craig was right that it wasn’t a historical.
Grendel: Well, Doctor, you’re a remarkable fellow.
The Doctor: I am?
Grendel: Yes, a man after my own heart.
The Doctor: I am?
Grendel: Here you are, new to Taran politics, and in no time at all, what do you become?
The Doctor: Go on, tell me.
Grendel: Kingmaker extraordinary.
Elizabeth Sandifer makes a reasonable assertion that Tom’s approach at this point is better suited to the set piece than a wholly formed unit, which Tara is by dint of its Anthony Hope-appropriated shell; there’s perhaps something to this in principle, in terms of recognising how well Tara works as a “nippy, twisty, roller-coaster plot” (as Tat Wood-Beast puts it) but it ignores that the story possesses the same basic tone as the best of the Williams era: lightness of touch, and a knowing one, that allows it to have it both ways. It’s less reliant on foregrounding its artifice because the whole production is pitched at a certain angle anyway.
Alan Barnes (DWM 290), in his protest essay in favour of taking the season at face value, argued “we’ve been told that Count Grendel of Gracht is a knowingly self-aware creation; nonsense. When Grendel makes his escape over his castle battlements with the (admittedly rather wonderful) promise “Next time, I shall not be so lenient!”, the truth is, he actually means it”. Well, it’s something of both. He does mean it – as one who knows he’s just been thoroughly trounced and is desperate to save face – and it’s done with the undeniable ham flourish. Jeffries, “the most likeable villain ever”, as Shearman put it, is evidently enjoying himself immensely, and the story, while it doesn’t burst at the post-modern seams quite as much as its immediate two predecessors, is every bit as knowing in respect of its clichés and devices as The Ribos Operation.
So with regard to Sandifer’s point about Tom, perhaps there’s less of him stopping the proceedings and shouting “Look at me” as a consequence, or perhaps the heat simply took his edge off. His intrusions are more germane, more in keeping with the relaxed, verdant sheen, but there remains a tendency towards gently recognising the artifice this has working for it; the Doctor’s early judgement on whether the doppelganger plan will work is “Well, it has been done before”. Which leads to his being informed of a secret passage enabling the reaching of the coronation unhindered (“Aha. I thought there might be something like that”). Later, when he’s set up for a meet with Lamia, he smells something fishy (“I shall have to go alone, of course. It’s funny. They always want you to go alone when you’re walking into a trap. Have you noticed that?”)
Did I say relaxed? Too relaxed? Some attest to not being able to get through the thing, but that can be true for pretty much any classic series story given the wrong mood. I wouldn’t gauge it as any more or less slow than most of its greater era, regardless of producer, and as Wood noted, it boasts a robust plot that keeps going and never runs out of steam. As such, I can’t really account for Miles seeing it better placed/paced as a three parter. But Sandifer’s coming from a not dissimilar position when she argues that “In the end, this is a good story, but it’s just not easy to feel very good about. For the first time in a while, the whole is actually greater than the sum of its parts, but there’s an uncomfortable sense that it only accomplished that by avoiding trying to add up to too much in the first place”. Which is the problem you have when you define yourself by such devout pseuding. Anyone would think Tara was as bereftly complacent as Black Orchid or The Awakening on reading that.
Romana: Where are you going?
The Doctor: Fishing. You find it. I’m taking the day off.
Back to Tom, and I’d suggest this is actually one of his very best Williams era showcases. He’s clearly relishing his onscreen collaborators for a start. Yes, there are the classic “Tom” (improv?) lines (“Do you mind not standing on my chest? My hat’s on fire”), but there’s a benign insolence attached to his interactions with “respectable” society throughout that’s appropriately infectious. Right off the bat, he’s disavowing the urgency of the quest (because he rightly feels he should be beholden to no one) in favour of a spot of fishing. And, when he’s inveigled in the plot, he cheekily opts out of moral grandstanding or setting the universe to rights, but rather accepts the offer of pecuniary recompense:
Reynart: One thousand gold pieces if you can mend our android.
The Doctor: One thousand gold pieces? Pfft. Do you think you can buy me for money? Ha! Five hundred.
As delightful is his explanation of having “travelled” for behaviour or knowledge that might otherwise seem inappropriate to a gentleman. Zadek (Simon Lack) and Swordsman Farrah (Paul Lavers) certainly buy it; it’s the equivalent of coming “from the North” in The Ribos Operation.
Zadek: You know about such things?
The Doctor: Well, I’ve travelled.
Farrah: He said the was a doctor.
Zadek: You know about machines, electronics?
The Doctor: A little.
Zadek: You don’t look like a peasant.
The Doctor: Well, of course not. I’ve travelled.
Which leads one to note that this is a story that, unlike nu-Who, or Cartmel Who, amongst others, doesn’t assume its audience needs to be bashed over the head with a moral compass to get the point. Tom isn’t required to make a speech about peasants’ rights or the injustices of the feudal system; in another era, he might become a mouthpiece for such moral indignation, most probably an era where he is generally revered as a deity and so must act accordingly. Grendel may comment “That’s the trouble with peasants these days. They don’t know their place any more” but it isn’t as if Reynart and Strella are promising to install democracy when they come into power (added to which, there’s no rebuke of what one assumes is an arranged marriage being a bad thing). And there’s no censure of Zadek’s “If we’d have meant to have be peasants, we’d have been born peasants”; we’re implicitly trusted to know he’s all wrong.
The Doctor: Er, His Majesty’s very tired. Can he talk about this tomorrow?
Grendel: Who the devil are you, sir?
Grendel: Who the devil are you, sir?
The Doctor: I’m the king’s doctor.
The glee with which Baker delivers the above line is the key to Tara’s success, and the two levels on which the story is working. The Doctor knows he’s in a retread of The Prisoner of Zenda, while everyone else just gets on with being in a retread of The Prisoner of Zenda (with the exception of the Count, who knows he’s the VILLAIN of a retread of The Prisoner of Zenda). The Doctor doesn’t actually speak to the antagonist of the piece until the third episode, another indication of how well paced this is, and their next encounter, culminating in a versatile swordfight (helped considerably by Tom clearly being on camera for much of it, even if he was reluctant to work on the choreography), is equally satisfying for having stoked the anticipation of confrontation (holding back in such matters is an oft-neglected art).
The Doctor: Hello, everyone. Sorry I’m late.
Grendel: You seem to make a habit of interfering with my affairs, Doctor.
The Doctor: Yes, I do really.
Amid this, though, there’s a clear sign the Doctor’s modulating his behaviour to account for his company. When he meets with Madam Lamia, he begins with fripperies regarding their mutual arrival ahead of schedule (“Yes, but I had nothing better to do, so I thought I’d come earlier. What’s you reason?”) before attempting to coax her into going into exile with Grendel (“It’s a good offer, Lamia”).
Farrah: Such swordsmanship, I never thought I’d live to see the day anyone beat Count Grendel.
The Doctor: Why? Was he supposed to be good?
It should also be noted that, for the second story in succession, the Doctor’s on the sauce (“Modest, demure, palatable…” “So much for the local wine”). It’s p-potent stuff; the last time he was spiked was The Brain of Morbius. Both stories also feature an imbecile (here Declan Mullholland’s Till) abused by his insulting master. There may be a connection between the boozing and the abusing.
Farrah: I don’t know what it is about androids. I know it’s silly. You know what I mean.
The Doctor: Mmm. Funny thing, some androids feel like that about humans.
If he isn’t actively bringing about revolution, the Doctor is appreciably engaged in undermining trenchant attitudes. The repeated refrain of how androids feel about humans is both very much the sort of thing Douglas Adams might have come up with if Fisher hadn’t got there first (the latter’s sense of humour has been compared), and also a devil’s advocate to the plausibility of machine consciousness. The fear of the android mind was, of course, previously posited as robophobia in The Robots of Death. Here the idea is much less traumatic, with the Doctor taking the rise out of the prejudiced, the sorts who see peasants as fit only for engineering tradecraft and androids as useful but not to be trusted, particularly when they end up smarter than the regent they’re masquerading as:
Zadek: Doctor, the king seems to be, er, how shall I say this, a trifle more–
The Doctor: What, more intelligent than the real one? Well, of course he is. I programmed him.
Zadek: We don’t want him too intelligent. You can’t trust androids, you know.
The Doctor: That’s funny. That’s what some androids say about people.
Leading to the very funny moment where Farrah asks concerning the Doctor’s parlay with Till, “I suppose he can be trusted?”; android Reynart responds “Who, the servant or the Doctor?” It isn’t just kings who aren’t all that bright; the clergy, as represented by Cyril Shaps’ Archimandrite, appear dutifully oblivious to the machinations over which they’re presiding.
Farrah: A swordsman does not fear death if he dies with honour.
The Doctor: Then he’s an idiot!
While there’s a line or two of backstory explaining how this society ended up as it did (a plague 200 years before led to the loss of nine-tenths of the population), using androids to replace people, Fisher probably wisely doesn’t get bogged down in details that would invite even more holes poked in them. The only conclusion one can reach, given the ease with which duplicates can be developed, is that such intrigue as takes place here hasn’t occured before because the precepts of honour have prevented any from being as unscrupulous as the Count. Otherwise, there would surely be an android detector at each coronation.
Grendel: You see before you the complete killing machine. As beautiful as you and as deadly as the plague. If only she were real, I’d marry her!
As noted, the joy of Count Grendel is that of the villain who relishes being the villain (I think I noted something similar of Vivien Fay; there’s something to be said for thin motivation when it’s as enjoyable as this). Essentially, he’s George Sanders as Shere Khan, and its irresistible when a performer of Peter Jeffreys’ formidability is doing the honours. Grendel’s capacity for disreputable behaviour knows no bounds, albeit he doesn’t actually kill anybody. He does plan it a lot however, mostly relating to future uxoricide (“Tara’s most eligible spinster. Shortly to become, in rapid succession. My fiancé, my wife, and then deceased. Yes, it will be a tragic accident. A flower blighted in its prime”) and setting up a coup (“Er, the palace guard proved to be indisposed”).
His disdain for Reynart’s nobility is infectious (“Don’t be so tediously heroic, my dear fellow” – the delivery only pays off as well as it does thanks to Neville Jason’s highly enjoyable straight-man performance). As is his House of Cards-style etiquette of politicking (“I think I shall reject the crown once. Rejecting it twice might be misconstrued. I’m not sure I can trust the Archimandrite to offer it me a third time”). Jeffreys is most fun when infuriated, though, be it at the Doctor’s meddling (“Im-possible!” he exhales on finding “Reynart” in the coronation room) or his exasperated head slapping cry of “Doh, idiots!” when the assassination attempt on the Doctor at the Pavilion of the Summer Winds goes pear shaped.
The Doctor: The Count’s just offered me the throne!
Zadek: That’s treason, Count!
Zadek: That’s treason, Count!
He’s also appealing capable, of course. Not once, but twice, he impresses himself upon the hovel of Reynart, whisking away the prince and then, under a spear of truce (a bit of a poor show on Farrah’s part not to notice) incapacitating the android version with a refutation of his treason: “Only so long as the king is alive!”
Grendel: Aren’t I a lucky man, to have two such beautiful women as my brides?
Romana: Apparently, your staff doesn’t agree.
Grendel: Well, she’s prejudiced, my dear, just because I once showed her a certain… courtesy.
To be a consummate villain, Grendel also needs to be a cad, and continuing a Williams tradition, the story is well served with female roles. Lois Baxter makes a strong impression as the lovelorn but self-aware Lamia (“All he’s doing is using you”: “I know. But it’s better than nothing”), of whom Grendel characterises their one-time liaison as “a certain… courtesy”. It’s the kind of discreet wit the current series could do well to observe when it comes to sexual suggestiveness, but Steven Moffatt wouldn’t have known subtlety if it chased him around television centre like a mechanical digger. Indeed, Wood points out “the Doctor knowing what people in love do, whilst not really paying much attention to why they do it” is a key to the story; it’s the kind of deft touch that’s the antithesis of nu-Who. And as Shearman notes, it’s particularly unjust that Lamia should be the character to pay for her unrequited love (“What would I do without you?”: “Find another peasant who understands androids, no doubt”).
The story has four more main female parts, all of them played by Mary Tamm. Or, as Hinton put it, “lots of parts for Mary Tamm to play – all of them stuck up and snooty”. I rate Tamm as Romana, but in contrast to some, I think she’s at her best forming a double act with Tom (so being better at chess than the Doctor, or being wound up by him at the end over the location of the Key – “You were very careless”). Here, she admittedly rather dissolves into regal like-for-like, although the split screen work is commendably seamless. And then there’s Romana’s baffling inability to understand what a horse is.
The Doctor: And don’t fall in the water.
K9: I am familiar with boats, Master.
The Doctor: You old sea dog, you.
And K9. Lovely K9, who elicits one of the story’s three best lines (the title line, the “hat’s on fire”, and “Do hurry up! A hamster with a blunt penknife could do it quicker!”) His plaintive, adrift pleas of “Master! Master! Master!” as Tom laughs away are perhaps the best genuinely funny intentional comedy ending to a story ever (and, as episode endings go, this one’s are all good, even if two involve destroying an android).
As far as the key itself is concerned, Sandifer comments that the segment is “shamelessly a pointless MacGuffin this time, a random bit of a statue that then gets taken by the bad guys and doesn’t even influence the plot after the first episode”. Which is fair comment in literal terms, but it should be noted that Gracht identifies it as a “family emblem – supposed to guard over the fortunes of Castle Gracht”. And now it has gone, these fortunes go downhill (perhaps stating the bleeding obvious, but those in possession of a segment are all left worse off once they lose it – Cessair, the Captain, even Garron is forced to look on the bright side).
Alan Barnes observed that the general verdict on the story was “Trivial but fun”, and Sandifer probably rightly recognises that amongst Williams stories it cops less flack because “It’s not overtly silly, and it’s pretty well made”. The Androids of Tara deserves considerably more than damning with faint praise, though. It’s been described as one of the warmest and summeriest Doctor Who stories, but it’s also one of the most satisfyingly surefooted. For my money, the first four of Season 16 are all classics, but they seem destined to never be widely recognised as such. The fifth however, even I can’t get behind. At least, not that much.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.