Writer Ian Stuart Black’s first story for Doctor Who contains a pure science-fiction premise as straightforward as they come. The Doctor, Steven and Dodo visit a seemingly-idyllic, advanced society on a distant world, only to discover that it’s maintained by foul means: the sophisticated, highly intelligent Elders live in comfort thanks to the life-essences they extract from local primitives, The Savages.
One caste prospers at the expense of the other, and naturally, the Doctor sides with the underdog. This general concept was nothing new in science-fiction in 1966, the year The Savages had its sole broadcast, nor to Doctor Who; despite subverting the familiar Daleks vs Thals-type scenario, in that the apparent ‘beautiful people’ are actually rotten to the core while the ‘uglies’ are really the good guys, it’s not too dissimilar to the Drahvins vs Rills set-up in Galaxy 4. The series would reuse this ‘Doctor helps the rebels to overthrow their oppressors and defeat injustice’ schtick well into the seventies and eighties, so it’s perhaps not The Savages’ fault that it feels pallid and unimaginative if you’ve seen The Sunmakers, Vengeance On Varos or even The Happiness Patrol before this one.
Unlike those stories, it doesn’t have a strict real-life parallel to rain blows upon via satire, either; it’s not anti-tax, doesn’t ask questions about our attitudes to televised violence as entertainment, or send up the incumbent Prime Minister. Instead, it raises a moral argument regarding the exploitation of one social group/species by another for the latter’s benefit, which can be applied to any suitable issue you like – our right to use animals as food, for example, or the evils of human slavery.
It starts with pleasing directness; the Doctor, in the TARDIS, taking readings of the alien planet and chuckling. He will appear a good deal less energetic later in the story. Dodo sees a man ‘like a savage from the Stone Age’ and we’re instantly reminded of the Tribe of Gum from the first adventure. While two Savages, Chal and Tor, debate whether to run from the Doctor or kill him, two markedly different men, Exorse and Edal, welcome him as though he’s expected. The Elders have been observing him for ages and estimated his arrival a long time ago. This may have sent a shiver down the spine of contemporary, loyal viewers; it’s customary for the First Doctor to be a stranger wherever and whenever he arrived, and the fact that this lot have foreknowledge of his meanderings and have been waiting for him suggests they’re very powerful indeed.
Hartnell’s Doctor is on typically effervescent form, though it’s best not to dwell on his Reacting Vibrator! He describes his companions thus to the Elders: ‘I’m sure you’ll like them! Apart from their juvenile exuberances, they’re very pleasant.’ This is hilarious precisely because he’s more juvenile here than Steven and Dodo are!
There’s impressive incidental music by Raymond Jones as the Doctor meets the four Elders, led by Jano (played by Frederick Jaeger, later to become K9’s first master, Professor Marius!) for the first time. We suspect this may turn into the Brains of Morphoton segment of Keys of Marinus; these Elders seem too good to be true, whereas there’s clearly more to the Savages than meets the eye. In fact, if there’s one thing this story is most guilty of, it’s that it simply isn’t suspenseful enough; it’s clear fairly sharpish that the Savages are the good guys, and before too long you may be tempted into playing ‘Spot the Dr Who recurring guest actor’. (Apart from Jaeger, I counted Ewen Solon as Chal – later Vishinsky in Planet of Evil alongside Frederick Jaeger, Robert Sidaway as Avon, later The Invasion’s Captain Turner) and Clare Jenkins as Nanina, later Tanya Lernov in The Wheel in Space and The War Games.)
The idyllic nature of the Elders’ city is outlined by Avon: ‘Here, everyone has a chance to do what is best for him to do,’ and their scientists have made a simple discovery which gives them greater intellect, energy and talent. In stark contrast to this utopian idyll, we see the Elders’ guard Exorse shooting the savage girl Nanina with his light gun, rendering her docile, while in the city, Jano tells the Doctor, ‘Life preys on other kinds of life…We have learned how to transfer the energy of life directly to ourselves. We can tap it at its source… to recharge ourselves with life’s vital force.’ It isn’t too hard for the viewer to figure out what’s really happening at this point. Stuart Black would rehash the theme of something rotten and insidious underlying the attractive veneer of a society to greater effect in The Macra Terror, but at least the normally lacklustre Dodo gets her finest moment here, as she is the first of the TARDIS crew to sense that something’s amiss and starts to investigate.
At the heart of this story lies a polemical dialogue between the Doctor and Jano. The latter is a true politician, full of platitudes. ‘We can make the brave man braver, the wise man wiser, the strong man stronger. We can make the beautiful girl more beautiful still.’ The Second World War, with Hitler’s Aryan philosophy of genetic purity, was just over 21 years old at the time of this story’s broadcast. ‘You will see the advantages of that in the perfection of our race.’
As it becomes apparent to the Doctor that the Elders are hijacking the life essences of the Savages to exist in perfection, he tells Jano, ‘They’re human beings, like you and me!’ (“Human”? A script editing error?) to which the Elder replies, ‘They are hardly people, Doctor. They are not like us…You are standing in the way of human progress… Do you not realise that all progress is built on exploitation?’ The Doctor says it’s protracted murder, likening the Elders to the Daleks. For him, this is as evil as anything else he’s encountered. Unfortunately, there’s no real sense of this evil in the story; we never see a Savage actually being killed, as they’re merely weakened by the energy transfer process or by the Elders’ rather feeble light guns. I can’t help thinking the Doctor’s argument would have been strengthened by a good old-fashioned high body count or even a blood and thunder monster, sent to do the Elders’ bidding.
Furthermore, as is the Achilles’ heel of many a Doctor Who story, the underdogs helped by the Doctor are a fairly unengaging bunch and we almost wonder why he bothers at all sometimes. For example, Steven has the nous to reflect Exorse’s light gun to overpower him, but why haven’t the Savages thought of that before? The Savages then proclaim the strangers to be Gods, because the latter can defeat their enemies. Dunces! Of course, it could be the case that the life-draining process used on them by the Elders has regressed their intelligence to such a low level, but this isn’t made as explicitly clear as it could be.
The most exciting part of the story occurs when the Doctor’s life essence is transferred to Jano, who starts to display some of the Doctor’s mannerisms and moral attitudes. Jaeger gives quite a good impersonation of William Hartnell, down to a perfect ‘Oh!’ and referring to Dodo as ‘the child with the ridiculous name’. Is it too fanciful to suggest that this persuaded new producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis that the series could continue with a new lead actor? The Cushing movie Doctor and poorly realised Dalek copy in The Chase aside, this is the first time we’d ever seen an actor other than Hartnell playing a version of the Doctor on TV, and is therefore the single most striking feature of The Savages, apart from the lack of individual episode titles for the first time, and Steven’s departure.
The Savages ends in a pleasingly intelligent fashion. We see that the Savages are as morally flawed as their masters when Tor tries to turn his fellow Savages against Nanina because she insists on protecting Exorse from them. Jano visits the Doctor and the Savages as a friend, telling them, ‘I have grown aware of the evil that we have done, and I am determined to end it,’ or, as the Elder scientist Senta puts it, ‘Jano has absorbed dangerous ideas from the Doctor.’ This may remind modern viewers of the Ganger Doctor’s benign influence in The Rebel Flesh. Evidently, Jano has absorbed the Doctor’s goodness – he no longer thinks as the Elders normally do, and he’s certainly no Doc Savage either!
Steven is elected as leader by the new Elder-Savage coalition after saving Jano’s life, although the Doctor is briefly in the running for the job. The Doctor tells him ‘Think of the challenge, to be able to set up the people on this planet for a new life. You’re quite ready for this task.’ Of course, this is rather handy for the Doctor as he gets to continue his travels while knowing that things will be put right on this planet via his delegating responsibility to Steven! This sounds as likely a departure for a companion as Leela marrying a guard and staying on Gallifrey, until you actually hear that the Savages and Elders want someone whose decisions come from his heart as much as his head; isn’t that a perfect summation of Steven, consummately played as ever by Peter Purves? I presume as the new Chief he’ll get his pick of the women?