The Myth Makers

Airdates: October/November 1965 (4 episodes)
Written by: Donald Cotton
Directed by: Michael Leeston-Smith
Novelization by: Donald Cotton (April 1985)
The Story So Far: It’s 1184 BCE.  The Greeks think the Doctor is Zeus, the Trojans think Vicki is a sorceress, both of them are asked to win the war, and nobody wants Steven.

It’s the beginning of Doctor Who‘s third production block and the regulars are back from their summer vacation.  When they return, there’s a new producer, John Wiles, who’s just given Maureen O’Brien the pink slip.  William Hartnell should only have been so lucky to get such a quick exit.  Life is about to get very difficult indeed for the star of the show…

The first three episodes of The Myth Makers don’t really show any signs of looming behind-the-scenes trouble, at least.  Hartnell is on top of his game, owning his dramatic/comedic confrontations with the cream of Greek mythology: Achilles, Odysseus, Agammemnon, and Menelaus.  Donald Cotton, a new writer for the series, gives us an energetic historical comedy with one foot planted firmly in the farce camp. The dialogue does not let up for a minute, and for three weeks this is about as funny as Doctor Who ever gets.  But then the story takes a dark left turn, and nothing will ever be the same…

Vicki, looking at Max Priam on the TARDIS monitor, interprets facially what William Hartnell was thinking.  Allegedly.

Maureen O’Brien gives her best impression of how William Hartnell took the news that Max Adrian had been cast in this serial… (allegedly).

The Myth Makers features an interesting structure, such that most sets of characters never interact with one another.  The Doctor is paired with Odysseus in the Greek camp, and never meets any of the Trojans until the final minutes (there’s allegedly a juicy story behind this, which I’ll get to shortly).  Vicki spends the entirety of Episode 1 in the TARDIS — the character sprained her ankle, for exactly no plot-related reason, at the tail end of Galaxy 4,  and this injury is actually carried over to the new season.  Then she gets captured by the Trojans early in Episode 2 and will never meet the principal Greek characters.  Only Steven gets to straddle both camps, because neither side wants him.

This structure means that characters drift in and out of the plot at unpredictable intervals. Achilles, Agammemnon and Menelaus each get strong, memorable introductions in Episode 1, but then the former does not return until a single scene in Episode 4; the latter two get a sequence each in Episodes 2 and 3 but aren’t even in the final chapter.  We don’t meet any Trojans until Episode 2, and Troilus — the man that Vicki is going to marry and found the city of Rome with, the guy that Chaucer and Shakespeare would  get entire plays out of, albeit with much more tragic conclusions — doesn’t even debut until Episode 3.

ZOMG this is too cute. Troilus and Cressida, in color AND with a happier ending.

ZOMG this is too cute. Troilus and Cressida, in color AND with a happier ending.

But the humor is the first thing you notice about this serial. During the story-opening sword fight between Achilles and Hector, which we know only from the animated mock-up in the Loose Cannon recon, both heroes trade witty barbs in order to avoid a real fight; even from a series that has given us The Romans, this is jarringly comic.  Achilles slays Hector only because: A) Hector mocks Zeus; B) the TARDIS materializes and the Doctor steps out; C) Hector drops to his knees in stunned disbelief; and D) Achilles runs him through with a sword, evidently from behind.  Doctor Who‘s second comedy death scene.

After Achilles slays Hector, Odysseus shows up in full-on wacky-sitcom-neighbor mode. At first you’re afraid this is going to be trouble, because Odysseus is played by Ivor Salter, who has the whiff of failure about him from having played the hapless Morok guard commander in The Space Museum.  But Salter here is a revelation; his Odysseus is sardonically atheistic, and doesn’t miss a second’s comic timing in undercutting Achilles’ lucky victory:

Odysseus: What a year is this for plague. Even the strongest might fall. Prince Hector, ha, that he should come to this. You met him here, you say, as he lay dying?
Achilles: I met him, Odysseus, in single combat.
The Doctor: Oh yes, it’s true.
Odysseus: And raced him round the walls till down he fell exhausted. A famous victory!
Achilles: I met him face to face, I say. Battled with him for an hour or more, until my greater strength overcame him!
Odysseus: Bravo…

We later meet Agammemnon and Menelaus, whose dialogue wastes no time de-mythologizing the causes and heroics of the Trojan War.  Menelaus doesn’t want Helen back and the Doctor, as soon as he shows up in the command tent, references the infidelity of Agammemnon’s wife.  Hartnell may be doomed, but he simply owns his material here.  hat’s Francis de Wolff, who previously played Barbara’s would-be rapist, back as the slightly more heroic Agammemnon; he and Hartnell must have had a grand time verbally fencing in Episode 1, at least based on the audio alone.

The Doctor, playing Zeus: "I will strike him with a bolt from heaven!" Odysseus: "Our weather is so unpredictable."

The Doctor, playing Zeus: “I will strike him with a bolt from heaven!”
Odysseus: “Our weather is so unpredictable.”

Episodes 2 and 3 continue in a similar vein.  The Doctor, who just two seasons ago loftily denounced Barbara’s efforts to play a god, here cheerfully pretends to be Zeus for a few scenes.  In another bit of Joss Whedon-esque dialogue, Odysseus says: “No-one mentioned cutting throats – I had something more lingering in mind.”  The Trojans, when they finally appear, are just as unsentimental as the Greeks.

Cassandra: I woke full of foreboding!
Paris: Never knew her when she didn’t!

That’s Barrie Ingham, last seen playing a glam-rock space alien in the Peter Cushing movie, as Paris, the Trojan prince; the prince is less heroic than his brother Hector and less intelligent than his other brother, Troilus.   As with Achilles on the Greek side, Paris is a whispering coward who’s never allowed to win a single moment; even his own father, King Priam, keeps ordering him to die nobly in combat.

Via Loose Cannon, our best guess as to what sword  fights would have looked like in "The Myth Makers"...

Via Loose Cannon, our best guess as to what sword fights would have looked like in “The Myth Makers”…

As the script effortlessly dances between genres — sword-and-sandals epic, British comedy, farce, and, oh, that’s right, historical — we get a love story sneaking up on us in Episode 3, albeit in deliberately over-the-top fashion.  Romantic music swells on the soundtrack as Troilus brings food to an imprisoned Vicki, who’s called Cressida by the Trojans (to make it even more obvious where this is going).  Troilus is supposed to be 16 years old (James Lynn doesn’t look no 16), where Vicki’s TV age seems to have fluctuated between 11 and 17 depending on who was writing lines for Maureen O’Brien.  Their prison meet-cute takes up a good chunk of time, with Steven (called Diomede here, to complete the classical allusion) rolling his eyes from the next prison cell.  This same episode, by the by, features the most risque’ line on the show to date: “A Bacchante, nervous at her first orgy!”

No, not this orgy.

But not this orgy.

Two other genres sneak in,too.  Ingham’s Paris, and Frances White’s Cassandra, trade catty insults, written so sharply and delivered so naturally as to appear ad-libbed, that they kind of make this story a backdoor pilot for The Real Housewives of Troy.  Meanwhile, Odysseus has a spy in the Trojan camp named Cyclops (mutely played by Tutte Lemkow). When Steven and Vicki are denounced in the Episode 2 cliffhanger as Greek spies, and the caption reads NEXT EPISODE: DEATH OF A SPY, the misdirection is that it’s Cyclops, not Vicki or Steven, who’ll die.  His death is tragi-comic; he’s actually leaving Troy to deliver a message for Agammemnon, but Paris kills him almost accidentally, without even being aware that he was a spy.  Had Cyclops lived to deliver his message, the Doctor’s Trojan Horse gambit would have been called off, and the war might have had a less bloody ending…

(On a side note, this would not be the last time that Tutte Lemkow played a title character but didn’t get to say so much as a single word; he was also the eponymous Fiddler on the Roof in the film version.  This may be the most interesting career niche that any actor has ever carved out).

Who, day and night, must scramble for a living, feed his wife and children, and not get any lines?

Who, day and night, must scramble for a living, feed his wife and children, and not get any lines?

Before we deal with Episode 4, two loose ends to clear up.  First, there’s the story of Max Adrian, who played King Priam.  Notice how all the stories about William Hartnell’s bigoted behavior come from this production block, spanning The Myth Makers to The Smugglers?  For this serial, the rumor is that Hartnell refused to share a scene with Adrian because Adrian was gay (or, in some versions of the story, Jewish); the documentaries done by the Loose Cannon people, if I recall correctly, suggest that the two characters were never slated to meet in any event, so that story may be somewhat apocryphal.  But. later season 3 co-stars Nicholas Courtney and Anneke Wills would recount similar anecdotes about Hartnell’s bigotry.  Whatever was going on, this season sees Hartnell go from unmistakable center of the show, as in this serial, to someone that consecutive producers, both Wiles and Innes Lloyd, desperately wanted to fire and replace…

A few seconds of 8mm footage possibly document Maureen O'Brien's farewell scene as Vicki.

A few seconds of 8mm footage possibly document Maureen O’Brien’s farewell scene as Vicki.

There’s also the curious case of Michael Leeston-Smith.  This is the only Doctor Who story he ever directed, and it’s missing, all missing.  There’s just a few short bursts of 8mm footage which survive, mostly from the first two episodes, from people pointing film cameras at their home TV sets.   The TARDIS, from which Steven and Vicki watch most of Episode 1 on the scanner, appears cramped and tiny here; as the TARDIS becomes less of a character on  the show, gone are the opulence of the ormolu clock and the futurism of the food machine.  Leeston-Smith, who as of this writing is 96 and still alive, might have done a vivid, imaginative job helming this story, or he might not have done; unless Myth Makers was among Philip Morris’ recent film-can finds in Nigeria, we might never know.

And now we come to the end.  Cotton reportedly wanted to title Episode 4 Is There A Doctor In The Horse?, on which he was overruled, but which he used as a chapter title for the novelization (along with, I love this, Hull Low, Young Lovers).  And, just from reading Cotton’s novelization alone, one might well believe that Episode 4 was still more light comedy.  Perhaps Donald Tosh is more responsible for what actually happen in the final installment

The final line of Episode 3 contains the pun on Cassandra saying "Woe to Troy!" and Paris saying "Whoa! to the horse!".  I swear I am not making this up.

The final line of Episode 3 contains the pun on Cassandra saying “Woe to Troy!” and Paris saying “Whoa! to the horse!”. I swear I am not making this up.

Episode 4 is the most downbeat single installment of Doctor Who to this point in the series, and that’s nearly a hundred episodes by now.  We’ve gotten to know and appreciate the various historical characters in The Myth Makers.  They were fully human, not gods, not inaccessible myths.  Paris and Achilles had comic flaws that prevented them from living up to the weight of expectations.  Cassandra was doomed to make accurate prophesies that nobody believed (on a side note, based on Frances White’s shrill screamings on the soundtrack, it is hard to tell if her portrayal of Cassandra was brilliant comedic overplaying, or just woeful acting; at any rate, she never did Doctor Who again). Agammemnon and Priam were grounded, world-weary leaders.  I enjoyed, mostly, spending the first three episodes in their company.

Then,  almost all at once, Achilles is killed in a duel by Troilus.  Priam and Paris are murdered by Odysseus.  Cassandra is sent as a “present” to Vasor Agammemnon (I had not realized, until this marathon, how prevalent the implied sexual assault of female characters would be in the Doctor Who of this era… if someone’s done a monograph on this already, I’d love to read it).  Cassandra warns Odysseus that it will take him 10 years to get home, but he doesn’t believe her.  Odysseus tries to claim the TARDIS as war plunder, only to have his atheism shattered when he sees the TARDIS dematerialize; he now suspects that the Doctor was Zeus all along.

Introducing Adrienne Hill as Katarina, the Doctor's new companion.  Following Susan and Vicki, she is sure to be a warm, long-lived addition to the -- oh, wait, what's that you say?

Introducing Adrienne Hill as Katarina, the Doctor’s new companion. Following Susan and Vicki, she is sure to be a warm, long-lived addition to the — oh, wait, what’s that you say?

And while Doctor Who serials during this period typically ended on a moment of mild jeopardy leading into the next adventure, The Myth Makers takes that concept several steps further.  Steven is apparently mortally wounded by a soldier during the sack of Troy, and the episode ends with him sinking into delirium. Vicki leaves — after announcing her decision to the Doctor off-screen — to go off with Troilus.  This, after she’s failed to win the war for Troy, and sent Troilus out of the city, while his whole family was destroyed, where he was badly injured in the duel with Achilles. Vicki also sends Katarina, Cassandra’s handmaiden, on board the TARDIS in her place. This last bit is Vicki’s attempt to rewrite history, to save one more person from Troy, and we know how well Doctor Who treats the rewriting of history.  Here’s a hint: Katarina, who knew a thing or two about prophesy from attending Cassandra, prophesies her own death…

So now, things have gotten very bad for William Hartnell off-screen, and for the Doctor on-screen.  The next 16 weeks of  television after this serial, i.e. the entire balance of Donald Tosh’s tenure as script editor, are going to take the show into uncharted grim waters.  Perhaps the rise of stories about Hartnell’s bad behavior and biased attitudes, and how they interfered with the smooth running of the show, reveal an actor in mid-burnout, or a man rebelling against the dark direction of what used to be a family-oriented show. Anyway, Hartnell’s deterioration begins here, right here, and the next 9 serials, will bring unimaginable changes to the show.

Your cares and troubles are gone!  There'll be no more from now on!

Your cares and troubles are gone! There’ll be no more from now on!

One last bit of subtext from The Myth Makers.  The Doctor and Vicki are assigned to alternate sides of history, with the Doctor forced to guarantee a victory for the Achaean League and with Vicki forced to win the war for Troy.  The Doctor embraces being called a god, and borrows the Trojan War gambit from history.  Vicki, meanwhile, tries to dodge her assignment and not fight the Doctor head-to-head, by sending Cyclops to call off the Greek attack, and we know how well that works out.  At the end of the story, Aeneas arrives to rescue Troilus and Vicki, and they go off to found the city of Rome… where Vicki has already been, a few serials back.  And, just like that, Vicki is off the show, and it will be simply ages before someone else is able to bring back her happy-go-lucky spirit.

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About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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4 Responses to The Myth Makers

  1. I’ve never read the novelization of The Myth Makers, or seen the reconstruction. So thanks for writing up such an exhaustively detailed, not to mention humorous, entertaining and informative, entry on this story. You offered up some really intriguing insights into both the serial and on what may have been going on behind-the-scenes creatively. I expect that a lot of that would have been much better documented at the time if the people involved knew that their work was still going to be discussed & debated half a century later. (Of course, if they had known that, they also would no doubt have taken steps to ensure that this and all the other missing stories weren’t erased by the BBC!)

  2. drwhonovels says:

    Hope you get a chance to experience the story! I have the novelization, the audio CD, and MP4 copies of the construction if you want to borrow any of them. It’s quite good (even with the the video all lost) and definitely worth giving a spin. The novelization is quite clever; it’s written as a memoir by Homer (taking over the role given to Cyclops in the TV episode) and is full of creative wordplay, even while managing to preserve most of the TV dialogue… I’ll be writing about that more extensively in a post about the 1st Doctor novelizations next month.

  3. Great write up of this story! I liked “The Mythmakers” when I watched the reconstruction, even if it’s not one of my favorite historicals. I really enjoyed the comedic tone, and I liked the way they created tension by forcing the Doctor and Vicki into a situation where each had to win the war for opposing sides. The fourth episode does dramatically shift in tone from comedy to tragedy, which I guess is appropriate considering the rather grim stories to come. I wonder if the body count was actually more in the third season, or if it just seems that way since the stories were played much more seriously?

    • drwhonovels says:

      The body count was definitely more in the 3rd season, or, more specifically, the third production block (which began with this story). Incoming producer John Wiles, and the new-ish story editor Donald Tosh, both wanted a different tone for the series than had been prevalent under Verity Lambert, David Whitaker, and especially Dennis Spooner. Hence, the first 3 stories under Wiles — this one, Master Plan, and The Massacre — were incredibly serious, dark, and downbeat. Both Wiles and Tosh fled after that point. But the behind-the-scenes going-on for this whole production season are worthy of a book, given the chaos going on getting stories commissioned and heavily rewritten, and with all the cast firings (Vicki, Katarina, Sara, Dodo, Steven and the Doctor all getting axed during this year…..). It’s amazing, given all this, that Season 3 has as many good stories as it did!

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