WHO 50: 1998:
The Scarlet Empress

Books Over the years, one of the props I’ve kept returning to in an attempt to explain quite why I love this or that bit of Doctor Who is to evoke the bit of Doctor Who I love above all others, the bird scene from The Scarlet Empress. As I’ve been oft to explain, the scene, as best I remember it, because I haven’t returned to it for quite some time just in case it’s not quite as brilliant as I remember, is that the Doctor, trapped by a group of alien birds wanting to hear his stories, evokes Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale and breaks down this own adventures into their constituent parts, incarnation, companion, locale, adversary and genre, so that they can make up their own versions.

As I’ve also explained on those occasions, the reason this resonates with me is because it metafictionally expresses the process that every writer from the beginning of the series has had to endure, sometimes with pre-selected elements, but mostly providing a narrative roadmap so that they don’t always have a blank page. The brilliance of the franchise is that however strict all of that seems, it’s still capable of near infinite possibilities to the extent that what’s recognisable as Doctor Who can differ far more widely than most other franchises. What other shared universe could encompass both The Scarlet Empress itself and Seeing I and Legacy of the Daleks all in the same book series with the same main character in the same year?

But that’s true of most years. Only now and then does Doctor Who seem to be telling the same story over and again but even then only just. The so-called monster seasons during the Troughton era still included The Enemy of the World and season seven offers the nihilistic pleasures of the visit to the parallel universe of Inferno. There’s a sense of following a particular mood perhaps, but even when Philip Hinchcliffe took over he still had to produce some stories which were more evocative of his predecessors, just as he handed on the Horror of Fang Rock to Graham Williams means that changes in style tend to be more gradual. Variety is hardwired into the show’s DNA. It’s the ultimate in flexible formats, even though the format is otherwise pretty rigid.

Except what Paul Magrs and so the Doctor notice is that this most flexible of formats still contains a certain normalisation. On television, in the modern series, every story has to have a monster of some description it seems, a practice which now results in the likes of the Whispermen, a literally empty creation almost designed to make up the numbers, as though a given episode wouldn’t work, or couldn’t be frightening, if it didn’t have some alien monster in there somewhere, something which is even reflected in the nuWho spin-off material leading to some gossamer thin creations which due to the brevity of some of these narratives barely have time to make their mark.

The knock on effect of that is the show also doesn’t do pure historicals or stories set in the past where the only fantastical phenomena are the TARDIS, the Doctor and his companions. Spin-offs still dabble, but that’s a whole strata of story types often referenced but barely made actual, almost as though because they went of the boil in the mid-sixties they wouldn’t work now, when the lack of a monster would have its own interest, especially if a companion and the audience spends the whole episode expecting them to turn up when it’s revealed that it’s humanity itself which is the problem. Only now and then are such things glimpsed, in montage sequences as part of some much larger narrative (A Christmas Carol, The Power of Three).

But as I said, such things do still subsist off screen, in novels and on audio and although for the most part they’re in lines which pastiche their given era and to an extent have to exist in order to fulfil the requirements of that function. The genesis of these stories still fulfil The Scarlet Empress’s promise. It’s the First Doctor. He’s with Susan, Barbara and Ian. It’s Salem during the “witch” trials. The adversary is superstition. It’s a pure historical. It’s Steve Lyons’s The Witch Hunters. Which was incidentally also published in the same year as The Scarlet Empress, again two stories which couldn’t be more different, could they?

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