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Myth Makers or Mythbusters? Is this the funniest ever Doctor Who story?

February 19, 2016


This is another one you can’t see.  You can experience a reconstruction made up of still photos and an audio track.  Which is well worth doing because, quite frankly,  it’s hilarious.

PRIAM: I wish you’d both keep quiet just for a moment.

        (He turns to reassure VICKI.)

Now don’t be frightened, child. You shall die when I say so, and not a moment before.

VICKI: That’s very comforting!

The heroic Tale of Troy has rarely been more entertainingly debunked.  In many ways, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is a debunking of the Troy myth as well, but Donald Cotton comes second to Shakespeare in subversive energy in this respect.

The least dim individual on either side of the war is the priestess Cassandra, as played by Frances White (who would go on, a decade later, to play the good-natured nymphomaniac daughter of the Emperor Augustus in I Claudius).  She’s the most po-faced character in the story, constantly predicting treachery from the Greeks and the destruction of Troy.  She is, of course, absolutely right – but very very annoying and Odysseus thinks it’s a terrific wheeze to give her to Agamemnon as a present at the end.

Odysseus is a coarse sailor.  Agamemnon is a bully.  Menelaus is an imbecilic old drunk who no longer wants Helen back anyway.  Paris is a coward, but a sympathetic one.

Who could fail to love a script that contains this line spoken by Odysseus inside the horse.

“What is it now, Doctor? Upon my soul, you’re making me as nervous as a Bacchante at her first orgy.”

The only thing that would have made this adventure even funnier would have been if Donald Cotton and Donald Tosh the script editor had managed to get away with the episode titles they’d wanted.  They were only allowed one punning title “Small Prophet – Quick Return”, but a better one was the immortal “Is there a Doctor in the Horse?”.  Which was vetoed.

But then in the final episode the tone changes, as the inevitable massacre looms.  Vicki has been renamed Cressida by Priam and she departs from the series in order to start a new life with Troilus – creating the Troilus and Cressida narrative – sort of.   Steven is actually badly wounded while the junior Priestess Katarina joins the Doctor and Steven as they escape.   It’s strange to reflect that this most comical of stories introduced the most tragic of characters to the Tardis.  Katarina was not a companion for very long, and at no time during her stay did she have any idea what was going on.  She assumed she was dead and on her way to the next world somehow.  And before very long she really was dead, provoking a superb elegy from William Hartnell and becoming one of the whoniverse’s most memorable victims.

The serious ending of this story is really rather more effective because of its jarring relation to three episodes of exquisite silliness.  Meanwhile, the model of Troy looks very authentic and impressive – as does the actual horse itself – from what we can make out of it.  Finally, the eerie score, composed by the very serious and experimental Humphrey Searle (a champion of Schoenberg inspired serial music) adds another aspect of formal integrity to the adventure.  Together this level of detailed ambition just makes the deliberately ludicrous dialogue even more effective.

The eponymous Myth Makers are perhaps neither Greeks nor Trojans but the Tardis crew themselves.  They intervene not in history but in mythology and help create the version of a myth we already know – albeit one that will have to be dignified and cleaned up by Homer.  There’s a version of the so-called bootstrap paradox at work here – as explained at the beginning of Before the Flood (2015).  Odysseus wants the Doctor to come up with a plan to get inside Troy.  The Doctor initially dismisses the obvious Homeric solution and tries to design a scheme involving gliders and a giant catapult.  But eventually he announces a whopping great wooden horse.  So who came up with the horse?  Odysseus learns it from The Doctor, but The Doctor got it because he knew about Odysseus.

These violent and stupid people are not the stuff of myth.  They need to be made into myth.  To be seen to make a myth is, simultaneously, to debunk a myth – because any myth obscures its own origins.  If you can see something being made, you can imagine it being unmade.  To constuct a myth is to simultaneously deconstruct it as well – like a magic trick being taken apart.

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