There comes a time in every young Doctor Who fan’s life when they discover that it is utterly impossible to complete their experience. Not because of the lack of home video in the old days, or because the show is so popular that it is going to be around beyond all possible human lifespans, but because some of the episodes are lost forever.
Quite a few of them, actually.
The hows and whys of that are all quite complicated – and I refer anyone who has a keen interest in the story to Richard Molesworth’s excellent book Missing: Presumed Wiped, but suffice to say, many of our favourite old Doctor Who stories from the 1960’s are inaccessible.
But we can still try to recapture what they were.
When I was little, at the very beginning of the VHS era, old Doctor Who stories could be shared (ahem) and exchanged between fans despite very few official BBC releases. This was to become less necessary over the 90’s as more and more stories were indeed released on VHS, and then gave way to the magnificent DVD range. Also from the 90’s onwards, audio versions of the missing stories (recaptured from fan tape recordings!) were released with narrated action, so you can hear if not see them. Many fans worked hard to create visuals for these in unofficial “recons.”
(Personally I’ve never seen a fan recon that was as easy to consume as the official audio releases with linked narration – the stills are good but the long silences are agony!)
Before home video, there were the Target novelisations, and this epic series of short books was for a long time the only way that a completist fan could practically experience the older stories. While I saw quite a few scratchy black and white videos as a kid, and fell in love with stories like The Chase and The Mind Robber, many more were only available to me through the Target books. I read those things by the bucketload, even the ones for stories with the Fourth and Fifth Doctors, that were on high TV rotation and that we had recorded on a VHS.
And so thanks to the power of books, The Myth Makers (written nearly 20 years after its original story screened in 1966) became my favourite First Doctor story as a kid, even as The Highlanders became my favourite Second Doctor one. Neither of them exist in the archives.
The Myth Makers is the Doctor Does Troy, and long before I heard the soundtrack version of the story, I read the slender paperback version over and over. I didn’t know much about the Trojan myths at the time, but enough to realise even as an eight-year-old that this was an audacious book.
The best and most fun of the Target novelisations were not necessarily the ones that actually captured what had happened on the screen of the TV show. Some got a bit experimental, and Doctor Who: The Myth Makers did exactly that. For a start, the story is narrated in second and first person, by Homer himself. Yes, the greatest and most iconic poet of human history didn’t start out writing epic heroic verse, he first honed his craft on a TV novelisation. As you do.
Donald Cotton wrote the screenplay as well as the novelisation, and was more aware than anyone that Homer does not in fact feature in the TV story, despite apparently witnessing it in its entirety in the book. The insertion of Homer as the “Cyclops” character, a one-eyed spy (who only appears briefly in the TV story & is ignominiously speared to death halfway through), adds a whole level to the book, showing that it had a secret history going on the whole time. But, hey. It’s this kind of glorious weirdness that I love most about Doctor Who.
Once you get past the bizarre premise, it’s interesting now (with all my clever grown up book learning and such) to see how much about the Trojan cycle Cotton actually packed into this book. It’s a slightly old fashioned, fairly straight retelling of the myth, and doesn’t bat an eyelash talking about gory deaths and adultery, which explains a lot about why the Target series was so popular with kids.
What surprised me most about The Myth Makers, though, when I listened to the soundtrack later and heard more analysis about the story, is most people think of it as a historical comedy romp along the lines of The Romans and The Gunfighters. This had never occurred to me, because I took the novel quite seriously and had no idea that Up Pompeii actor Max Adrian was, for instance, cast as Priam.
On rereading the book… well, yes. I get it now. The voice of “Homer” is quite sarcastic and amusing, undercutting the heroic story traditions at every turn resulting in a narrative that feels rather Douglas Adams.
Take this passage about the famous duel between Hector and Achilles, shortly before the TARDIS turns up:
Seams stretched and gussets gaped. On his head was a towering, beplumed horse’s head helmet, which he wore as casually as if it were a shepherd’s sheepskin cap: and this of course meant that he was a horse-worshipping Trojan, not a Greek. Furthermore, in view of everything else around him, he could only be the renowned Hector, King Priam’s oldest son and war-lord of Troy.
His opponent was a different matter; younger by some ten years, I would say, and with the grace of a dancer. Which he certainly needed, as he spun and pirouetted to avoid the great bronze, two-handed sword which Hector wielded – in one hand – as casually as though it were a carving knife in the hands of a demented chef.
On the other hand, the story is dark, too – it’s certainly not a fluffy farce in the same way that (my beloved) The Romans was. People are slaughtered left right and centre, and while many of the performances are amusing, some of the funniest characters such as Priam and Paris are lying dead by episode 4, which takes the gloss off the comedy. Plus, the ingenue lovers Vicki “Cressida” and Troilus are so very earnest… if this is a comedy, it’s more of an Ancient Greek take on that genre than a modern one.
In 1965, the time travel aspect of Doctor Who was considered of equal important to the space adventures, with the characters often taking on the costumes and manners of the day to fit in. Where The Myth Makers is quite diabolical is that the TARDIS travellers get absorbed far too deeply in the story, each of them taking on or being given names that allow them walk-on roles in the war. Of course, for poor old Vicki, that meant a permanent change of address…
The Doctor, named Zeus after Achilles witnesses the arrival of the TARDIS and takes the opportunity to skewer Hector into the dust, has far too much fun in this story. Not content with being responsible for the death of one of Troy’s great heroes, he flits around in the Greek camp, hesitating to suggest the whole wooden horse concept to them (too obvious, & he’s convinced Homer made that bit up). Instead, he spends a couple of episodes happily playing with flying machines, and bantering with Odysseus.
Steven, meanwhile, is given the name of Diomedes, and disguises himself as a Greek warrior despite the extreme danger this puts him in as a futuristic astronaut with very few sword skills. Understandably, he spends most of his time in the Trojan cells, and ends up with a sword in his belly.
Vicki, also from the future, is made a pet of by Priam who names her Cressida, and despite the extreme lack of this character in the original myth cycle, the 1960’s interpretation of history involved a lot of Chaucer and Shakespeare (themselves great liberty takers) and that means Vicki’s future is set. She will marry Troilus. She and the lad therefore spend their whole time blushing and dancing around each other, and at one point poor old Steven has to sit in an adjoining cell while they flirt and make puppy eyes.
As a kid, without much historical context, I was a bit bewildered by this aspect, as surely that meant the Doctor was leaving her to die or be a prisoner of war in a burning, sacked city. Indeed, this is the one big failing of the novelisation, as being grounded in the point of view of a contemporary means that there is no sense of what happened next. Instead, we get the reunion scene of Troilus, grieving for his lost love, and Vicki, who has decided to stay with him, and no mention at all that they might have joined Aeneas, whose arrival in the final scene of the TV/audio version is fairly key to Vicki’s future.
Our girl is going to help found Rome.
There are so many clever bits in this story, in between the wacky character banter. The character of Paris is strangely likeable (I say this as a committed Paris-loather of long standing) mainly because he can do no right in the eyes of his family. The whole war is, after all, his fault. But the Doctor and crew insinuating themselves into the Greek-Trojan war, the TARDIS being taken into the city to foreshadow that business with the horse, the importance given to Cassandra as the voice of cynicism… it’s all great stuff. Cassandra is a terrible over-actor, and ignored by all even when she’s making a lot of sense.
This version of Troy is actually pretty good. I appreciated the exchange between Menelaus and Agamemnon that makes it clear Helen was merely an excuse for a war that had deep political motives. The scene where Paris is sent out by his family to challenge Achilles to a duel and quietly whispers his declaration so as not to actually find Achilles, is now part of my personal historical canon.
Most of all, I like that the time travellers are fairly honest about their origins. Sure, the Doctor takes absolute advantage of the fact that the Greeks think he is Zeus (and is regretting it by the end), but he also openly discusses space and time travel, and Vicki’s acceptance into the Trojan royal family is based largely on her innocent honesty about who and what she is. Later she is forced to dissemble, mostly so that the Trojans don’t kill Steven, but there’s very little sense that the TARDIS crew are trying to protect history – instead, history is sucking them in.
I love the book of this story, and very much enjoy listening to the soundtrack which is made coherent by the linking narrative of Peter Purves, but I would love to see the visuals. Maybe not the visuals we actually would have got in 1965 (though many of the performances are wonderful, even the dreadful ones), but this would be a fabulous story to see animated in the 21st century.
“Then woe to Troy! Woe the house of Priam!”
“I think it’s a bit late to say ‘whoa’ to the horse!”
ELSEWHERE ON 1965:
Galaxy Four [Wife in Space]
Galaxy Four [Kasterborous]
Mission to the Unknown [Chronic Hysteresis]
The Feast of Steven [Chronic Hysteresis]
Dr Who and the Daleks [Wife in Space]
Daleks in Technicolour! [TansyRR.com]