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Doctor Who (Classic): “Carnival Of Monsters”

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“Carnival Of Monsters” (Season 10, episodes 5-8. Originally broadcast Jan. 27-Feb. 17, 1973.)


“The Doctor and his companion are chased by monsters” is about as basic a description of your typical Doctor Who storyline as you can get. Much like your typical episode of any particular cop show boils down to “a murder is investigated and solved.” Whatever else might happen, however more complex or multi-layered the story winds up being, you can be guaranteed that when you turn on your television, you’re going to see the Doctor and his companion chased by monsters. Which makes the premise of “Carnival Of Monsters” nicely subversive: Here’s a story in which the Third Doctor and his companion Jo are chased by monsters through the inside of a television, and cheekily suggests that only “evil and horrible” people would watch such a thing for entertainment. Heh.

Doctor Who had played around in a major way once before with this metatextual idea, of the Doctor having a televised adventure about being a character who has televised adventures, in the Second Doctor’s “The Mind Robber,” but “Carnival Of Monsters” plays it more lightly and satirically—it’s not the overt focus of the story, but percolates underneath the plot as, for the most part, a subtle and cynical joke targeting both Doctor Who’s audience and its own creators. If nothing else tips you off, that fact alone should make the knowledgeable viewer guess who wrote this one: Robert Holmes, whose best work gave Doctor Who a finely honed edge of dark but tongue-in-cheek humor. 

Thanks in part to this, the well-crafted and consistently entertaining “Carnival Of Monsters” is one of the high points of Third Doctor-era Doctor Who. If it’s clearly done on a shoestring budget even by 1970s Doctor Who standards, it manages to do a lot with very little—the dragonlike Drashigs are pretty effective giant carnivorous monsters despite that they’re clearly hand puppets. As I’ve said before, the key for a modern audience to enjoy these older Doctor Whos (not to mention any other British sci-fi of the era like Blake’s 7 or the Quatermass stories), is to think of them sort of as stage plays that happen to have been put on TV. You’re not gonna get the visual effects of Star Wars, so bring your imagination and let it fill in the details.


Another of Holmes’ favorite motifs is at play here too: “Carnival Of Monsters” is largely a story about chaos versus order, of rogues fighting a system of stifling bureaucracy. In this case, the rogues are a pair of itinerant alien carnival workers, the mustachioed Vorg and his assistant and/or girlfriend Shirna, who have come to bedazzle the grey-faced inhabitants of a planet called Inter Minor with their Miniscope, a sort of traveling zoo that allows viewers to watch miniaturized beasts roam around in their native habitat. Though the animals are real, the experience of watching them makes the Miniscope essentially behave like a TV set—you watch Drashigs in their swamp, then you flip a channel and watch Vorg’s tame Cybermen.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Jo land on the SS Bernice, a ship sailing across the Indian Ocean in 1926, or so they think. This is, incidentally, the Doctor’s first real trip as a free agent since the sixth season—the Earthbound exile he’d been sentenced to during “The War Games” was only lifted at the beginning of the tenth season, in “The Three Doctors.” So this is really the first time we see the Third Doctor getting involved in an adventure the way that all his other incarnations typically do—by showing up, not really knowing where he’s landed, and getting into trouble. In this case, the Doctor is doubly wrong about where the TARDIS has taken him: He wanted to go to Metebelis Three, the legendarily beautiful blue planet. (He’ll get there eventually, later that season in “The Green Death,” but it’s not exactly the paradise he thinks.) But of course it’s not really 1926 Earth either—something fishy is going on, the first clue being the sudden appearance of a plesiosaurus off the starboard bow, and the second clue being that the Bernice’s crew and passengers immediately forget seeing the beast.


Exactly what’s going on has a lot to do with the Doctor’s suspicions that the Bernice is not actually in the Indian Ocean anymore. Unbeknownst to him, it’s actually inside Vorg’s Miniscope, a fact likely to be rather more obvious to the audience than to the Doctor and Jo, since we’ve had the benefit of seeing the Miniscope from the outside. It’s too bad that Holmes’ original idea of setting the first episode exclusively on the Bernice didn’t pan out, because it would have made the cliffhanger of episode one, as a giant hand reaches down from seemingly nowhere and plucks up the TARDIS like a fallen toy, something truly mind-bending. Still, even though the reveal is spoiled a little, it’s one of the series’ more memorably surreal episode-enders.

The poor passengers and crew of the SS Bernice, whatever they might have been like on Earth, are forced by the Miniscope into a hell of pure order, being forced to repeat the same day over and over without any awareness of that fact. Ironically, of course, the Scope’s owner is the story’s most pure representative of chaos, small-time grifter Vorg. In the end, Vorg gets to be the story’s hero by repairing and commandeering the  Inter Minoran’s energizer gun to put a stop to Kalik’s plan to cause a Drashig massacre. But he’s hardly a paladin: Vorg himself bears some of the responsibility for the Drashigs getting free in the first place, and there’s never any indication that he truly realizes how monstrous it was to have kidnapped the victims of his Scope in the first place. And his first instinct after unexpectedly becoming the hero of the hour is to take advantage of the situation for his own profit by running the old shell game on Plectrac to scam a few bucks off of him. Still, I think the incorrigible Vorg is probably exactly what the Inter Minorans need right now—something, anything, that will shake up the system.


So where does the Doctor stand in this divide between chaos and order? That’s a little harder to say. Generally speaking, of course, the Doctor is a genial force of chaos—a vagabond of no fixed abode (he does have an abode, but the abode isn’t fixed). He shows up where he’s not supposed to and gets involved where he has no business doing so. And he is, for the most part, more friendly to Vorg than to the Inter Minorans. But this particular Doctor, Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, is also more likely than any of the others to cling to the aristocratic authority of his status as a Time Lord. Here, he proudly tells Jo that he led a personal crusade to make Miniscopes banned by Time Lord law—a rare case of the rebellious Doctor solving a problem by working within the system, and really only in character for the Pertwee incarnation. Note also that when Vorg tries to talk to the Doctor in palare, the slang used by carnies to keep outsiders from understanding them, he gets only bafflement in reply: This version of the Doctor literally doesn’t speak the languages of rogues. (Jo has a little less trouble with this, handily lying to give them a cover story on the Bernice, and habitually carrying around a set of skeleton keys in case they get locked up somewhere.)

But in any case, there’s a definite parallel to be drawn between the two pairs of vagabonds—a middle-aged trickster-figure and his young female companion, carrying around a piece of near-magical high technology that’s bigger on the inside. Vorg and Shirna are, to some extent, a reflection of the Doctor and Jo. It’s noteworthy that the final shot of the story is Shirna smiling as she watches the TARDIS disappear, recognizing a good trick when she sees one.


(Claire Daly, the young woman on the Bernice, is a second, subtler parallel to Jo, both of whom might seem to be mere flighty airheads if you’re not paying attention. We’re not exactly seeing Claire at her best, since the Scope is keeping everyone on the Bernice baffled and bedazzled. But it’s interesting that she, alone among her shipmates, comes close twice to shaking off her amnesia and waking up to what’s actually happened to her ship.)

Shirna is honest to a fault, which is perhaps not a great survival trait in a carny, and it gets her and Vorg into trouble several times. But it also helps point out that, despite Vorg’s shaky ethics—not just owning the Scope in the first place, but casually and unthinkingly making his captives amnesiac or aggressive with the twist of a dial— the two carnies aren’t all bad. Their outfits do look tacky and garish, partly because some of the design aesthetics of 1973 only made sense in 1973. But it’s also an important aspect of their characters: They’re not the successful kind of carnies. They’re low-rent sideshow players who are probably living hand-to-mouth at the best of times, and when we meet them they’re down on their luck and desperate, with Vorg having gambled everything on the unproven idea that the most boring planet in the known universe just might throw them a few bucks for entertaining them.


Even the name of the grey aliens’ planet is boring. Inter Minor is the sort of name you hand out to some little backwater burg that nobody remembers even though their commute to and from work takes them past it twice a day. It’s also, maybe, a play on the word “interminable.” Even for a Robert Holmes script, the forces of order are mired in a stultifying morass of bureaucracy and dullness, which springs from a xenophobic fear of contagion caused by a devastating plague brought by space travelers hundreds of years earlier. The only Inter Minoran who appears to have any ability to be creative and make changes in his society—besides the reformist President Zarb, who we never meet in person—is Kalik, whose ability to lie is made that much more powerful because the other Inter Minorans don’t seem to have the imagination to disbelieve what he says. Vorg might actually have stumbled on a good idea in coming to Inter Minor, though, because President Zarb has been looking for a way to keep the planet’s working-class species, the Functionaries, from growing restless and causing trouble—and a bit of light entertainment might be just the thing. But Kalik has some ideas of his own…


One unfortunate hole in the story is that the subplot about the increasingly rebellious Functionary workers just quietly peters out. It’s a repeated problem for the Third Doctor era: “Carnival Of Monsters,” “The Green Death,” and “The Curse Of Peladon” all start out as if workers’ rights is going to be a major theme of the story, and every time, the subplot has basically evaporated before we’re through. There is a distinct sense in the early episodes here that Inter Minor’s proletariat Functionaries are growing more and more restless with their place in society, and that big trouble is ahead, possibly of the revolutionary kind. But that quietly fizzles away into the background, serving only as a motivator for Kalik to want to overthrow his brother Zarb, who he considers to be dangerously coddling the lower classes. The building crisis between the stiff, slavekeeping Greys and the clearly dissatisfied but unvoiced Functionaries is left as just that, a potential problem still building. We learn nothing about the Functionaries‘ point of view, or even anything to indicate that they have a point of view. None have any dialogue, we learn no names of any individuals, and in the end I’m not certain if they’re even intelligent enough to understand that the upper classes are exploiting them. Plus, neither the Doctor nor Jo—usually the show’s moral compass—even appear to notice the Functionaries, let alone their status as Inter Minor’s slave class.

Stray observations

• Great lines: “Jo, when you've travelled as much as I have, you'll learn never to judge by appearances. These creatures may look like chickens, but for all we know, they’re the intelligent life form on this planet.”


• “The generators were built by the old Eternity Perpetual Company. They're designed to last forever. That's why the company went bankrupt.”

• “One has no wish to be devoured by alien monstrosities, even in the cause of political progress.”


• Robert Holmes slyly reveals how he feels about the violence in Doctor Who with Vorg’s gleeful description of his Miniscope’s most dangerous creatures: “The Drashigs. My little carnivores. They're great favorites with the children, you know, with their gnashing and snapping and tearing at each other.”

• Casting notes: Ian Marter, best known  as the Fourth Doctor’s companion/thorn-in-side Harry Sullivan, makes his debut on the series here as the sailor Andrews. Michael Wisher, playing the treacherous Kalik here, would later become one of Doctor Who’s defining villains as the original actor to play the Daleks’ insane creator, Davros, in “Genesis Of The Daleks.” And Peter Halliday, the officious Plectrac here, was on half a dozen Doctor Who serials over the years, most notably as put-upon flunky Packer in “The Invasion” and voicing all the reptilians of “The Silurians.”


• A minor mystery left unresolved: What finally happened to the SS Bernice? The Doctor says that everything in the Miniscope should return safely to its own time—and the most optimistic view of that final scene on board the ship implies that the Bernice is back in the Indian Ocean in 1926, with its passengers having no idea that they were ever missing. But that also assumes that the Doctor changed history in saving them, since the ship’s disappearance was, he also says, as famous as the Marie Celeste. Which leads me to wonder if maybe the Doctor was wrong, and they didn’t get back where they were supposed to be. Or, that maybe some other disaster was waiting in store for them….

• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central):

• March 8: “Trial Of A Time Lord part 2: Mindwarp”

• March 22: “The Edge Of Destruction”

• April 5: “Trial Of A Time Lord part 3: Terror Of The Vervoids”

• April 19: Seventh Doctor serial, to be determined.

• May 3: “Trial Of A Time Lord part 4: The Ultimate Foe”

• TBA, when it’s out on DVD: Patrick Troughton's "The Moonbase." 


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