Following on from an unprecedented Doctor-free Dalek adventure, the Audience Research Report for The Myth Makers serial indicates that when it was first broadcast in October 1965, many found the switch to the Trojan setting to be quite jarring. Some questioned whether or not the correct programme had even been put out. However, from the lofty heights of 2012, we can politely pretend the whole thing never existed.
Fandom has not been too kind to this story over the years. It has often been dismissed as a farce – an opinion made all the easier to hold given the generally low opinion on scriptwriter Donald Cotton’s surviving serial The Gunfighters and his eccentric Target novelizations.
This is also fairly understandable – on the face of it, this is another historical epic in which the Doctor and his companions find themselves amidst ‘historical’ events, which they have to be careful not to interfere with.
Going back to those contemporary reports, this is clearly a part of the general response at the time – many were starting to feel the show was outstaying its welcome.
The lack of an identifiable villain or monster is a disappointment to some fans – even the Cyclops is reduced to a man with an eye patch. It certainly feels like a bit of a letdown that more is not made of the scope of Greek mythology – particularly the fantastic elements.
The meshing of disparate aspects of myth that is present does not always work – the romance of Troilus and Cressida does not feature in Homer’s poems, but was an embellishment that started to appear in Medieval and Renaissance retellings.
Sometimes, this can make the serial come across as a greatest hits mash-up – particularly when the inconsistencies are taken into account.
For instance, if Vicki knows about the Trojan war, why does she not acknowledge her role as Cressida? Furthermore, Troilus kills Achilles in this version, where the reverse is the case in the original myth. There seems to be no good reason for this other than to provide Vicki with both a love interest and a happy ending.
Some of the characterisation is also a little thin on the ground at times. Particularly Katrina – who is lumbered with the weakest introduction for a new companion in the series.
However, that Audience Research Report also reveals that when pressed on the matter, many of the adults pressed on the matter admitted that their children were much more positive about the adventure. And kids have always been more literate on the topic of Doctor Who…
It is easy to overlook the approach of treating myth as historical fact now. It is so much more commonplace – most obviously in the 2003 Wolfgang Peterson film – but this was nothing like as old hat in the 1960s – and particularly with Doctor Who.
Take a look at the historical serials it has followed on from. This is the first one not to be set in a specific time and place that definitely happened, with real-life historical figures who actually existed. It takes its sources and puts it on the same pegging as those – where the obvious approach for a genre serial would be to change the names slightly and dress the extras in rubber suits.
This is already a million miles away from the relatively conservative The Crusade – broadcast only six months previously – which indicates just how much the show had developed and evolved in 1965.
The appropriation of the romance of Troilus and Cressida is another twist on the historical story. It is hardly the first time it has been done, granted and the serial is not as radical as The Time Meddler. However, it represents an entirely new way of thinking about the possibilities of adventure in time and space; its purpose is intellectually driven, rather than comic.
This absolutely characterises the John Wiles and Donald Tosh era. It’s easy to see the Verity Lambert and David Whittaker’s historical educational-exploration serials as the default position, while Dennis Spooner would bring a more comedic streak – but here the emphasis of the tone has shifted again, while retaining the blueprint of prior approaches.
It is still based on a spirit of intellectual inquiry and nurtures curiosity – Homer’s Odyssey is ‘seeded’ near the end as if for a sequel. A level of knowledge is assumed that is still refreshing to see now. Classical education is much less commonly taught than it was – so Donald Cotton and Donald Tosh were able to have more fun with the concepts without the risk of alienating its 60s family audience.
The willingness to adapt source material in new ways is not quite as irreverent as something like The Time Meddler, but it remains more hit than miss. While it is sometimes falls flat in a pantomime fashion – especially in the character of Agamemnon – it is generally very effective.
Barrie Ingham is exceptional as Paris – at least as far as we can tell from the surviving audio. It is almost a Pythonesque performance. He slips easily from free verse speech (this is the only historical to make any effort at linguistic accuracy) into a comedy of manners that would almost break character if it wasn’t so effectively delivered and endearing.
His character is properly camp in the most literal sense – of knowing life is a big game of dress-up – and this is best demonstrated in the abortive fight scene with Steven, where he breaks off abashed at all the flattery.
While there is all this comic dialogue and all these comic performances, the serial as a whole – unlike The Romans – is not a comedy. Structurally, it is a tragedy.
The script is generally exceptional, but with the serial being lost we’ll never know exactly how good the finished production was. It is hard to tell just how well balanced the comedy was with the terror. It has been widely noted that the comedy is more prominent in the opening three episodes, before descending into tragedy in part four – Horse of Destruction.
Certainly, by the end, it’s mostly terror, but in the audio, it sounds like there’s hints of this throughout – in a classical-tragic sense of dramatic irony. Vicki – the audience surrogate character – knows about the devastation to come and so do we. All while the cast are making jokes about knowing of all about the infidelities of Agamemnon’s wife.
But its emotional range is wider than the tragicomic. While retaining Achilles’ death could have set up a more dramatically interesting and morally sophisticated love story, Vicki’s exit is one of the most satisfying the series provides and more than makes up for the flatness of Katrina.
Through its inaccuracy, the appropriation of Troilus as a love interest for Vicki ensures that their narrative transcends the historical sweep and allows for a truly epic and romantic closing scene – in the unashamedly Hollywood-at-its best sense. Vicki has been a fantastic character and she remains unfairly overlooked.
Another highlight is the score by Humphrey Searle, which is just perfect. It manages to be militaristic in the right places – especially in the fight scenes that open the serial – and retreats to a softer approach when necessary. You don’t get that now.
Searle also scored the 1963 Robert Wise film The Haunting. However his more significant works include operas of Gogol’s The Diary of a Madman and The Riverrun – an adaptation of the last third of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Upper class artists bringing their creativity into a commercial field was not uncommon in Doctor Who’s early years – and it is one of many accidental elements of production that made the show so fascinating behind the scenes.
The Myth Makers remains the best fusion of Greek mythology and Doctor Who – future efforts (The Time Monster, Underworld, The Horns of Nimon) are all a classic case of diminishing returns. Its epicness, self-knowing humour and potential is all to be celebrated.