Airdates: May/June 1966 (4 episodes)
Written by: Ian Stuart Black
Directed by: Christopher Barry
The Story So Far: The TARDIS lands on an unnamed planet in the distant horizon of “an age of peace and prosperity”, but the ruling elite have a rather grisly secret behind their achievements, to which the Doctor is about to be introduced firsthand.
Novelization by: Ian Stuart Black (March 1986)
As we reach the end of Season 3, the ongoing behind-the-scenes turmoil is finally settling down to a (momentary) lull. The Savages is the first true story of producer Innes Lloyd’s and story editor Gerry Davis’s era. With John Wiles and Donald Tosh gone, things have gotten easier for William Hartnell, but for everyone else, things have changed rapidly. Peter Purves is working on his final contract extension, and his character, Steven, is written out at the end of this story. Jackie Lane was notified during production that this would be her penultimate story (and her last full one). And, with Lloyd on the verge of concluding that Hartnell was no longer capable of the demands of taping 45 episodes of television a year, we will again see the Doctor sidelined in this story, but in a different and more creative way than we’ve become used to.
There are two other major changes underfoot that can be traced to Innes Lloyd. First of all, gone are the individual episode titles. Episode 1 here is called, quite literally, “Episode 1” and, until they started calling them “Parts” instead of “Episodes” in 1974, this is basically a permanent change.
The other major change is… well, the implementation of the Steven Moffat playbook, 44 years before The Eleventh Hour. Although the changes would become even more pronounced in the following story, The War Machines, here we get a Doctor who is a known presence in the Universe (the Elders on this planet have been watching his adventures, and are expecting his arrival on their planet). The scene pacing is faster, and cliffhangers are the deliberate culmination of several short, tense scenes immediately preceding. The Doctor becomes something of a distant, mysterious Troughton-esque figure, prone to guessing the plot early on but only revealing his suspicions in dribs and drabs. Beginning in this story and continuing through to… well, today, basically, the Doctor will be given to long pauses, refusing to answer questions, and, most importantly, becoming the moral plot engine whose ethical code quite literally changes the motivations of the bad guys. In that regard, watching Doctor Who in order from the beginning, The Savages really does stand out from the Season 3 stories that preceded it, as something special. And even gentle — this is the Classic Series stories where, “Just this once, everybody lives!” (to quote Moffat…).
Unfortunately, when experiencing The Savages as either a reconstruction or an audio, there’s one change that we’re not used to from Season 3. It’s actually… a bit dull.
In an ideal world, The Savages would still exist, and would be a beloved four-part story — a model of tight, fast-paced storytelling, with clever use of intercutting and nary a wasted moment — but Doctor Who is not quite there yet (if it ever does get there). There are several quite clever elements, but — maybe coming so soon after The Gunfighters and the other insanely intense stories of the Tosh/Wiles era, The Savages as a whole isn’t quite as engaging as you’ve come to expect from 1965/1966 Doctor Who.
The TARDIS has landed on an (unnamed) planet, and the Doctor knows exactly where they are — but he won’t tell Steven and Dodo, and in fact leaves them behind as he goes off to explore (clutching an instrument known, amusingly, as the Reacting Vibrator, which presumably is the great grand-uncle of the Harry Potter Nimbus Broom). While the Doctor is quickly hailed as a famous time-traveling hero by the planet’s Elders, Steven and Dodo are menaced by Stone Age-style savages — not what they thought they’d find in this distant age of peace and prosperity (wouldn’t it be funny if, on the other side of the hill, the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara, were only just escaping from The Tribe of Gum?).
Soon, the Doctor is being feted by the Elders and told all about the city’s technological advances. At the same time, Steven and Dodo are brought inside by a pair of nasty-seeming guards, and are then given a guided tour. Dodo inevitably wanders off from the tour and, in a very clever sequence of intercutting between scenes with the other character groupings (the Doctor with the Elders, Steven with his tour guides, and the city’s shockingly banal mad-scientists), we quickly learn about the very grisly secret at the heart of this paradise. Even a few months before, this sequence would have been a succession of very long scenes, but here, the intercutting works as a narrative force, and makes the Episode 1 cliffhanger that much better — each of the four scene settings in this sequence, many of which are dialogue-free, help build to a single crescendo.
Episode 1 was probably a visual feast, you would have to guess. The director was Christopher Barry, who helmed The Daleks, and it’s a full 7 and 1/2 minutes of exotic location footage before the first studio-bound scene. With actress Clare Jenkins doing a lot of leggy running around on location (see above photo), the loss of this story is certainly a tragedy on multiple levels. The incidental music is by Raymond Jones, who Barry brought back from his previous directorial effort, The Romans (along with actress Kay Patrick, who had played Nero’s wife, but is much under-used here), and we get lots of excellent discordant violin music to punctuate the early chase sequences.
Unfortunately, after this high– and a suspenseful 90-second dialogue-free sequence to open Episode 2 — things start to droop. One of the savages is named Tor, a Silly Space Name previously used in The Space Museum. Tor drags the plot down in the middle episodes by staging a mini-rebellion amongst the savages’ leadership, which is quickly forgotten by the final installment. Frederick Jaeger makes his series debut, playing the first of this three Doctor Who mad scientists — he’s actually quite good here, and without the Indeterminate Foreign Accent that would mark his two appearances during the Tom Baker era. Edal, the captain of the Elder’s guard, is almost acting in a different story altogether — his character is one of the meanest, most sadistic, humorless pieces of work we’ve met to date. So the guest cast makes for a bit of an odd soup…
There are, however, great little moments lurking in the middle episodes. When the Doctor is finally confronted with the true nature of the Elder’s secret, he goes off on them with righteous fury. His mini-speech (and who says “How dare you?” better than William Hartnell?) isn’t that long, but as he delivers it, it seems positively Shakespearean. And, although Steven at one point says “Even Dodo wouldn’t be as stupid as that!”, I’m willing to bet that, had this story still existed, fandom might hold Dodo’s character in higher esteem. She’s pretty solid here, standing up to the Elders ,and helping to organize the savages in a revolution against the people who’ve been exploiting them.
There’s a lot of running around and hiding in the savages’ caves in Episodes 3 and 4. This might have looked inventive on TV as staged by Christopher Barry, but it can’t help but bog down the reconstructions. With Hartnell sidelined for all of Episode 3 and the first half of Episode 4, Steven again becomes the star of the show, and starts off very clever in helping the savages fight back against Exorse, the less sadistic and more pliable of the two named guards. However, by the middle of Episode 4, he’s become a humorless Buck Rogers in space, firing his light gun indiscriminately (though those guns do make a really keen sound effect) and barking orders at Dodo and the Doctor. For an actor who always found a way to exploit the humor in any scene, Peter Purves does seem, from the surviving material, as if he’s at a bit of a loss here.
As for the Doctor, Hartnell was scripted to do a lot of “sick” acting over his final four stories, and The Savages is the first and most pronounced example of that. Once the Doctor unleashes his anger on the Elders in Episode 2, they subject him to the same life-force distillation process that they’ve been using on the savages. The Episode 2 cliffhanger — Hartnell being operated upon, while the scientists exult in the success of their process — is another fast-paced Christopher Barry masterpiece — taut, riveting, and disturbing, even in reconstruction format. This gives Hartnell… well, not quite a week off. He’s present in the studio for all of Episode 3 but, apart from ghastly moans, has no dialogue, and doesn’t even move from the operating gurney until the final few minutes. Part of the cliffhanger is Hartnell looking wild-eyed and dissociated, as he and Steven and Dodo are ensnared in the Elders’ trap.
One of the running themes behind Season 3 was the production teams’ various efforts to replace Hartnell. We’ve already heard about how John Wiles ordered him to be made literally invisible in The Celestial Toymaker, hoping to replace him with a different actor at the end. This time, Frederick Jaeger does an actual Hartnell impersonation, after Jano, as the leader of the Elders, altruistically (or selfishly) decides to absorb the Doctor’s stolen life-force all by himself. Rob Shearman suggests in Running Through Corridors that the impersonation is jarring, and that Doctor Who could never have survived in this format — would never have run another 50 years with a succession of actors merely imitating Hartnell. I think he’s right, in the sense that Jaeger actually drops the impersonation after just a few scenes, and by Episode 4 is no longer even trying.
The story ends with a well-staged (or so we assume) action sequence, in which Jano and the savages together wreck the life-force distillation laboratory with their bare hand. About 44 seconds of The Savages still survives via off-air recordings, taken by a fan at home pointing a 8-millimeter camera at the television set, and almost all of that footage is from the end of Episode 4. What we have of the lab (i.e. an entire studio set) being wrecked, look quite well done. But that’s not the only wrecking to be done — at the end of this sequence, Steven Taylor is drafted by savages and Elders alike to be the new leader of the planet, to forge a new civilization from the ruins of the old, and to reconcile the grievances between the two groups. Which means Steven exits the TARDIS crew, and the series, never to return.
I have mixed emotions about this. Steven had been one of my favorite companions even before I embarked upon this marathon, and he’s certainly much overlooked even today. And the manner of his character’s exit is the biggest honor yet bestowed upon one of the Doctor’s companions. Purves elects to play the scene somewhat dazed and confused, and Dodo actually cries. Interestingly, the Doctor is rather bloodless about the whole thing, forcing a clearly reluctant Steven to accept the honor and not even letting him back into the TARDIS to collect his stuffed panda and other belongings.
In the supplemental materials included with the Loose Cannon reconstruction of this story, Peter Purves (as he’s said in many other forums) hopes that at some point in the future, the TARDIS returns to the planet, only to find that Steven hasn’t actually done a very good job as leader, and in fact has become something of a despot. This is a cute idea, although it sells Steven short. Peter Purves was given a series of uneven scripts and, as his character bridged three different production regimes, was often dealing with producers, story editors, writers, and directors who just didn’t know what to do with his character. And yet, he brings unifying threads of humanity, heroism, fallibility, and humor to the part, and he is most certainly going to be missed going forward. Doctor Who is, however, notoriously unsentimental about its past companions, and after the first episode of the next serial, his name will not be spoken again — and quite, quite inaudibly, at that, by Sylvester McCoy — until The Curse of Fenric, 23 years later.
Of course, while The Savages is something of an abrupt 180-degree turn from The Gunfighters before it, and while it’s the first step in Innes Lloyd’s and Gerry Davis’s re-imagining of Doctor Who from the ground up… things are about change even more abruptly in the very next story…