The Feast of Steven

A review for Doctor Who Magazine, Christmas 2015.

Down the years, great minds have pondered at length the unsolved mysteries of literature. Did wily Heathcliff, late of wiley Wuthering Heights, murder the brother of his beloved Cathy? Who would Dickens have fingered as the killer of Edwin Drood, if indeed he was killed at all? And, in James Joyce’s inimitable Ulysses (“an oddball romp, 6/10”), who is the enigmatic ‘man in the macintosh’ who looms as 13th mourner at the funeral of Paddy Dignam? Theory upon thesis upon treatise have hazarded an identity for this brooding, brown-coated figure. It’s like UNIT dating for literary wonks. Is he a physical manifestation of grief? Is it Joyce himself, haunting his own story? Anything is possible. As the novel’s sometime protagonist Leopold Bloom muses, peering through the grey air of the graveyard: “Always someone turns up who you never thought of.” 

This observation is no less true of Doctor Who. The 1965 episode The Feast of Steven even has its own ‘Man in Mackintosh’, who turns up with his own unfathomable – indeed, almost unbearable – engima. Man in Mackintosh is named as such in the credits of this demented seventh episode of the 1965 serial The Daleks’ Master Plan, which we’ve gathered to discuss in this festive DWM thanks to its status as the first episode of Doctor Whoto be broadcast on Christmas Day. And as this Dalek-free instalmentself-consciously stands apart from the other eleven-twelfths of the Dalek epic, it can be also be described as Doctor Who’s first ever Christmas special. Indeed, if Russell T Davies hadn’t got his arse so spectacularly into gear in 2005, it would have proved Doctor Who’s only Christmas special.  

’Tis the season and all that, but Man In Mackintosh is not feeling particularly jolly as he pitches up at a provincial police station somewhere in the north of England. “They keep movin’ me ’ouse…” he groffs, jowls presumably a-wobble, to the Duty Sergeant. “Me green’ouse!” Our raincoated chum then adds, in a conspiratorial tone, a further cryptic detail: “It’s the revels.” These ‘revels’ perhaps hint at some callous Bullingdon Club-style bacchanalia, but beyond that we know nothing. The riddle of exactly whochose to hide Mackintosh’s greenhouse – along with how and where and why– will forever remain, unlike the structure in question, entirely opaque. And here’s another question. Are we supposed to be entertained by this? The greenhouse business is structured vaguely like a joke, and certainly played as if it’s meant to be amusing – but it simply isn’t. The whole episode suffers the same fatal flaw. The Feast of Steven is a shaggy dog story told by someone who doesn’t quite know how to be funny. There are punch lines of a sort, but they serve as a cue for tumbleweed, not laughter. You keep wanting to ask our storyteller “And then what happens?”, in hopeful anticipation of some pay-off that never comes. 

So eager is our episode for a titter or two, it even attempts a metafictional turn when the Doctor bumps into Mackintosh at the police station. “Haven’t I met you somewhere before?” harrumphs the Doctor, before the penny drops. “Ah yes! The marketplace in Jaffa!” It’s a reference to the fact that the Mackintosh actor, Reg Pritchard, also appeared in Doctor Who nine months earlier as market trader Ben Daheer (which is not, by the by, a name to be shouted out in polite company). The camera script for The Feast of Steven credits Terry Nation,but switches to a different typestyle for this brief exchange, one of many late rewrites that were likely made by director Douglas Camfield, who cast Pritchard in both roles. And it must be said that, as a writer, Camfield does indeed make an excellent director. Like the episode as a whole, it’s clearly meant to be funny but it merely grazes the lower limits of charming. It also raises the question of why the Doctor doesn’t similarly recognise his own travelling companion Sara Kingdom, whose face he also saw in Jaffa – and far less fleetingly – worn by Princess Joanna, the all-too devoted sister of Richard the Lionheart. 

Having once been a cast as a princess, actress Jean Marsh makes Sara Kingdom Doctor Who’s poshest ever companion. Her accent is so cut and polished it could substitute for a segment of the Key to Time. She’s a top agent for the Super Special Space Security Service, presumably having taken the traditional route for fastidiously-reared Central City gels of the year 4000, via Space Rodean and Space Swiss Finishing School. Sadly, Sara is not long for this world – or any other – and will die while in the Doctor’s care, just five episodes later. (At this point in the series, he’s having a bad run of that sort of thing.) Happily, actress Jean Marsh has since returned to the role of Sara for Big Finish, fetching up unexpectedly reincarnated as a big old house in Ely; a most fitting fate for the co-creator of Upstairs Downstairs.

No stranger to either Jean Marsh’s upstairs or downstairs is Peter Purves, who plays the Doctor’s other companion, Steven. Purves boasts in his autobiography that he enjoyed a fling with his co-star while they worked on The Daleks’ Master Plan. Perhaps their wrestling with the lifeless script of The Feast of Steven spilled over into a post-production tumble. In which case it’s nice to know that at least two people got a thrill out of it.

While Purves may have been quite the Lothario, Steven Taylor is a tough man to love. Catch him on a bad day and, well, you’ve met actual wasps that are less waspish. On a good day he’s merely a pompous nag. He replies to the Doctor’s orders with a respectful “Yes sir”, but you hear enamel grinding from gritted teeth. Steven is a top pilot and a bit of a dish – in a generic kind of way – so he’s not short on ego, and while he defers to the Doctor as his senior officer, you sense that Steven feels that he should be the star of his own story, and is waiting for a chance to dispatch the old bugger on a one-way trip to the planet Dignitas.

The Feast of Stevenfalls into two sections. Act One brings the TARDIS to the aforementioned police station, where, on venturing outside the ship, the Doctor is arrested for vagrancy and taken to the Inspector for questioning. Our hero is in a whimsical frame of mind, and gives us the episode’s best scene when he’s asked if he’s English, Scottish or Welsh. “You really must think in a far bigger way than that!” the Doctor giggles. “Your ideas are too narrow! Too small! Too crippled!” “What are you then?” asks the inspector, his patience at an end. “I’m a citizen of the Universe!” chirrups the Doctor, “and a gentleman to boot!” He’s showing off, but in retrospect there’s something sweetly understated about the Doctor seeing himself merely as a citizen of the Universe. These days, he’s a hot mess of survivor guilt, self-regard and oh-poor-me-and-my-burden-of-wisdom – blub blubsquish squish. And he’s become entirely insufferable because of it. But back then, the Doctor saw his responsibilities as no more those of any other civilised citizen: to play his part; to do his bit; to do no harm. While this all seems so sweet and innocent in retrospect, the scene also shows how far the series has come since its first episode, just two years earlier. Then, the Doctor was whipped into a fury by the fear that his secrets would be discovered; that a policeman might question him. Here, he cheerfully spills all to the rozzers about what his Police Box really is, and what it can do. “E’s a nutter!” scoffs one copper, and the Doctor seems delighted. “Are you imputing that I am mentally deranged? Hmm? Heh!” The scene is intended as a joke, of course. What would it be like if the Doctor just told the truth for a change? And to policeman?! Ha-ha! But this subversion of the show’s rules proves so appealing that it immediately establishes itself as the norm. 

All this whimsy clearly delights our star William Hartnell. We find him here, this Christmas Day, at the zenith of his success as Doctor Who. The character may have grown out of what was gifted to him on 35 pages of pastel Foolscap each week (like Hartnell himself, the Doctor was by turn flinty and frivolous, a man of quicksilver mood but essentially benevolent) but by this point in his Doctor Who journey the actor had experienced, in a very real way, the true Pied Piper power of the Doctor. During recording of the previous serial, our star had been flown from London to RAF Finningley, near Doncaster, to take part in the annual air show. In surviving silent cine film we see Hartnell in full costume waving from the back of a jeep, like a Pope blessing the faithful. The air show soon comes under attack from some uncharacteristically zippy Daleks made from modified go-carts. Jolly fun it may be, but we can only guess at the fierce pride felt by former Private Billy Hartnell – invalided from the Army after a nervous breakdown – when the moment came for him to call down an air strike from a Vulcan bomber, before being driven back through a crowd of adoring children for lunch at the Officers’ Mess. And we might also think of his delight when the script for The Feast of Stevenarrived and there was, within, not a Dalek to be found. This Christmas Day, Bill will be the star of his own show. No wonder he’s having such a good time.

In this spirit, you feel that the Doctor might cheerfully chat the whole night away with the police. Unfortunately, Steven – having stolen a police uniform – comes to his rescue. For some reason, he adopts a full ‘dey do dat doh don’t dey’ Scouse accent. When challenged by the Doctor, Steven explains: “Everyone else is doing it!” Trouble is, they’re not. There’s range of northern accents to be heard, covering Bolton to Bradford, but Steven is the only Liverpudlian. We know that this episode was originally intended to feature the cast and sets of the hit police drama Z-Cars, which ended its first life as weekly drama just four days before transmission of The Feast of Steven. The Z-Cars production team swiftly arrested this development, but Steven’s jokey accent surely stems from the fact that Z-Carswas set on Merseyside. The only other lingering ghost of the original idea is a reference by one policeman to the New Brighton Ferry. (Oddly, in the script, this is “the Brighton Ferry”.) All this confusion only adds to the sense that, after the Z-Cars pastiche/crossover was lost, nobody knew quite what to do with these 10 minutes of TV. Without its cast of famous faces, we’re left with four rambling policemen and a possible flasher who can’t find his greenhouse. 

Meanwhile, Sara is crawling about on top of the Tardis – off screen, unfortunately – trying to fix “the scanner eye”. Her woolly jumpsuit is admired as fancy dress by another copper, who then – as she slips off into the ship – wishes her “a swinging time”. With Peter Purves on board, that’s guaranteed. Back in the relative sanity of the control room, our heroes pause to recall the wider context of their current adventure. “Is the Taranium safe?” asks the Doctor, reminding us that they have recently filched an ‘emm’ of Taranium from the Daleks, destined to fuel the terrible Time Destructor. (Emma Taranium is one of the great Doctor Who drag names. Along with Madeleine Cluster and Carmine Seepage, she buys her gowns at Tracy’s of Lucanol.) “The Daleks!” gasps Sara. “I’d forgotten them!” Which is a bit rum given that, just a few hours ago, Sara was hoodwinked into murdering her own brother as part of a Dalek scheme. She was clearly raised not to brood on such minor inconveniences. For the patient viewer, mention of the Doctor’s great enemy raises the hope that they might soon crash this moribund Christmas shindig. Alas, what awaits us is something more terrible than even the Dalek conquest of all time and space.

In a sawmill somewhere, a damsel is in distress. We soon join her. Blossom – a face of tear-streaked slap – is threated with imminent bisection by D’Arcy, in derby hat and wicked moustache. “My sawmill will take care of you!” vows d’astardly D’Arcy. “And my secret will be safe forever!” Once again, we never learn the nature of this secret – perhaps he revels in the moving of greenhouses – because the action is interrupted by the arrival of the TARDIS crew, who give the rascal a sound thrashing. A wider shot reveals that we are on the set of a movie, and that Blossom and D’Arcy are merely actors in a film directed by the bullish Steinberger P Green, who conducts all conversation at demolition decibels. This pull-back out of fiction to reveal fact is the same gag Terry Nation used with the haunted house in The Chase, but here the TARDIS crew at least get to be in on the joke.  

The BBC junked its video recording of The Feast of Steven long ago. Today, only the soundtrack of the episode and twenty smeary off-screen photos of this second act remain as record. The irony is, for an adventure set during the age of silent cinema, it makes a right old racket, bordering on the unendurable. The Doctor and his companions run hither and yon, yelled at by all and sundry. Sexy Sara is hassled to join a Shiekh’s harem in the latest exotic epic from arty director Ingmar Knopf (‘Ker-nerf! Ker-nerf!’), Steven’s police uniform has him dragooned into the Keystone Kops, even though a BBC budget means that the troupe’s famous exploding car routine takes place off screen, with a cheapskate sound effect and cloud of dust. The Doctor quickly loses patience with the whole sorry affair. His response almost makes you glad the episode isn’t around to be GIF-ed: “This is a madhouse!” he wails to Sara. “It’s all full of Arabs!” The line isn’t in the camera script, so one wonders if it was a Hartnell addition. 

Looking back from a distance of 50 years, a police station and an old Hollywood studio may seem peculiar choices of setting for a Christmas edition of a show that considers all time and space its playground. But when we consider what else was on TV that Christmas Night, we better understand the context of it all. Doctor Who was broadcast at 6.45pm. Earlier in the afternoon, BBC1 viewers enjoyed an episode of warm-hearted police drama Dixon of Dock Green – which would have looked very like the first half of The Feast of Steven. Over on BBC2 at 6.30pm, When Comedy Was King consisted of a compilation of clips from the greats of the silent cinema – which would have looked very like the second half of The Feast of Steven. The Doctor’s Hollywood caper incorporates mentions of Keaton and Fairbanks, and even a brief appearance by someone we’re expected to recognise as Chaplin. It concludes with the Doctor listening to the woes of a sad clown who plans to give up comedy for singing. The joke comes when he tells the Doctor his name. The big Christmas Day movie on BBC1 – one hour after Doctor Who– was Road to Bali, starring Bing Crosby.

So it is that, even without the Z-Cars cast, The Feast of Steven works as a BBC Christmas 1965 mash-up, just about. It’s less what we now recognise as a Doctor Who Christmas episode than it is a Children in Need sketch. Indeed, its closest Doctor Who DNA match is the ne plus ultra of telly crossovers, Dimensions in Time

But if you’re looking for something closer in tone to a modern Doctor WhoChristmas special, then such a thing could also to be found in the festive season of 1965. Issues 732 to 735 of TV Comic saw Doctor Who banter with Santa, battle deadly snowmen, and ride a giant squirrel through the sky. Keep Santa and the snowmen, but swap the flying squirrel for a one-shark open sleigh, and you’ll find much of the flavour of the Moffat era Christmas special – all snowy rooftops and Victorian fairytale. It’s a Christmastown more familiar from the feats of Steven than anything in The Feast of Steven.

There’s not a lot of Christmas to be found in Doctor Who’s first Christmas episode. There’s some brief carol singing and a few decorations at the police station, and then nothing in the second act. But it comes spectacularly good on its festive promise in the end. Having left Hollywood, the Doctor does something wholly unexpected. He produces a bottle of champagne and three glasses, and then peers straight down the lens of camera two to wish “a happy Christmas to all of you at home.” It’s dazzling in its chutzpah.

Happy Christmas to you too, Doctor Who! Just don’t get too mashed on that champagne and go moving any greenhouses now, will you?

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