One alien hardly constitutes an emergency.
It wouldn’t be a Robert Holmes Doctor Who story without a colorful central character given to fanciful dress and mannerisms, and we’re even not talking about the Doctor. From Milo Clancey in “The Space Pirates” through to the debut of the Master in “Terror of the Autons,” Holmes’ protagonists often vie for center stage, and in his “Carnival of Monsters” (Story Production Code PPP), the travelling carnies Vorg and Shirna sustain the rather thin framing story that surrounds this otherwise rote tale of miniaturization and monsters.
Holmes juxtaposes two story threads to begin: the Doctor and Jo disembarking from the TARDIS in the hold of a ship on the Indian Ocean in the 1920s; and Vorg and Shirna arriving on the xenophobic planet Inter Minor with their entertainment device, a Miniscope, as part of the planetary president’s attempt to open the world to outside influences. The two stories link together at the end of the first episode, where the Doctor and Jo realize that they are trapped inside the Miniscope, like sentient goldfish in a bowl, capped off by a non-manicured Vorg reaching into the scope to remove a “fault” in the circuit, namely the TARDIS.
The creatures trapped in the titular carnival of monsters are both miniaturized (to fit inside the small machine) and stuck in a time loop surrounding an interesting occurrence (the better to amuse viewers), harkening back to two earlier stories: “Planet of Giants,” where the TARDIS crew finds itself shrunk down in a mad scientist’s laboratory, and “The Space Museum,” a tale of time tracks gone awry. But where those two stories attempted to use both miniaturization and temporal anomalies as the crux of the tale, Holmes deploys them as set dressing here, to less than successful effect.
The first episode focuses mainly on the Doctor and Jo encountering the passengers and crew of the S.S. Bernice, a ship thought lost at sea in 1926, as they relive the same brief moment over and over. That moment happens to involve an aquatic dinosaur bursting from the ocean, placed there by the Miniscope curator to create an exciting tableau. The care spent on the humans trapped in the loop, with one of them almost realizing she has lived this moment over a near-infinite number of times, suggests that they will form a major part of the story, leading to the prospect of watching the stowaway Doctor and Jo unravel the mystery of the time loop, escaping their shipboard pursuers, ruminating on the nature of time, and working out ways to use the loop to their advantage.
Alas, it doesn’t happen, but we do get to see future companion Ian Marter throw dynamite at a beastie in an enclosed space. (Given this stunning tactical nous, it should come as no surprise that his future role, as Harry Sullivan, is as a former UNIT soldier…)
The Doctor and Jo manage to break out of the loop-circuit containing the Bernice, finding themselves inside the Miniscope’s workings, surrounded by giant circuit boards and transistors. While interesting in theory, the boards don’t provide the same frisson as seeing a giant telephone or cat as in “Planet of Giants” or even the huge letters in “The Mind Robber“—the enlarged electronic parts just look futuristic rather than familiar. They are, in effect, merely corridors, and soon enough the Doctor and Jo are running down them away from a drove of Drashig, mindless monsters they’ve accidentally freed from another loop-circuit in an attempt to escape the Miniscope.
The Doctor exhibits both fascination and anger at the Miniscope, for he is well aware of their existence and actually helped convince the High Council of the Time Lords that these devices form “an offense against the dignity of sentient life forms.” It’s a nice bit of mythos development, complete with Jo asking why the Time Lords would intervene in such a manner if their basic precept is noninterference. The Doctor’s reply boils down to his having been a nuisance until they finally did something, neatly reinforcing his ethical concern for all manner of life.
Meanwhile, on the outside of the Miniscope, Vorg and Shirna are trying to keep from being deported from Inter Minor, as the Miniscope violates local laws regarding the importation of “livestock,” making it liable to destruction. An initial, ineffectual attempt to destroy the machine causes much consternation inside the Miniscope, with the Doctor and Jo falling all over the set, leading them back to the Bernice to find rope to climb down to a ventilation shaft at the bottom of the machine before it explodes.
And then, all of the sudden, two of the three functionaries delegated to deal with the outsiders hatch a plot to overthrow the president of Inter Minor in protest over the new policy of alien openness, which is only being instituted in order to provide entertainment to an underclass of speechless workers who have begun to become agitated. (Got all that?)
To foment a crisis, these two plan to release the Drashig from the Miniscope, to show the danger of dealing with aliens at all. They have had less screen time than the time-bound Brits on the Bernice and all look vaguely alike, and yet the audience is supposed to follow along with this sudden, rather crucial, plot shift.
There’s both too much going on in this story and, frankly, not enough. Three potentially intriguing stories are present at once: temporally-constricted life inside the Miniscope; space carnies tramping from planet to planet with a forbidden machine; and alien palace intrigue featuring an enlightened ruler, a threatened upper class, and an unruly lower class. All three stories receive short-shrift.
When the Doctor finally escapes from the Miniscope (sans Jo, who distracted the sailors on the Bernice to allow the Doctor to escape with the rope), he verbally bamboozles the Inter Minor authorities, providing him enough time to figure out how to hook the Miniscope to the TARDIS to return all the captive beings and creatures back to their respective times and places. But he needs to go back in to remove Jo, for reasons not really explained.
Vorg takes the Doctor to be a fellow carnie, and even attempts to speak to the Doctor in the carnie palaver. Oddly, the TARDIS does not automatically translate this speech, making for perhaps the only time in the series where the Doctor is flummoxed by speech he doesn’t understand.
While the Doctor is back in the machine, the conspiratorial Inter Minorans help the Drashig escape from the Miniscope; with the conspirators having removed the power source from the planet’s sole energy weapon, the Drashig threaten to run rampant over the city. But, of course, while digging in his bag of tricks, Vorg finds a memento from his days in the “national service”—a beam weapon power pack—and he rises to the occasion, powering up the “Eradicator” and shooting down the marauding beasties. Vorg even remembers to flip the switch that will bring the Doctor and Jo back out of the Miniscope, which promptly melts down thereafter.
Vorg (Leslie Dwyer) and Shirna (Cheryl Hall) really do make the most of their fairly ample screen time. Though mostly one-note grifters, they nevertheless have good chemistry and strong stage presence, such that you’d want to see them again in the series. If nothing else, one wonders if the Sixth Doctor doesn’t take some mental note of Vorg’s wardrobe when choosing his own multi-colored coat in the show’s future.
By contrast, Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning come off mostly as bystanders. This story was shot out of airing order, coming at the end of the prior season’s recording block, so some weariness can be understandable, but between the lackluster script and the indifferent acting, it’s not their finest outing.
Jo, at least, shows a great deal of fortitude (after complaining about the Doctor’s optimism when they are wandering in circles inside the Miniscope), offering herself as bait to let the Doctor go free and finally unveiling a set of skeleton keys, the better for her to practice her vaunted escapology skills.
The term “companion” continues to be used, this time, most notably, by the Doctor himself:
The Doctor: As a direct result of your carelessness, my young companion is trapped inside this machine, in a situation of extreme peril.
Most often, other people use the term, so for the Doctor himself to do so suggests that it’s firmly becoming the proper term for his co-travellers.
With the focus off of Earth and threats thereto, “Carnival of Monsters” lacks a bit of verve and seriousness, not necessarily to its disadvantage. Certainly the Drashig prove to be menacing, and the bureaucratic bungling of the Inter Minorans has a bit of an edge, but the danger remains confined mostly to the Doctor’s life and limb, not that of the universe or even a planet. Small stuff relative to Autons and the Master and malevolent Atlantean deities. To that extent, the story feels “fun” in a way that the UNIT/Master stories lack.
Neither, however, does the story feel satisfying. The Miniscope inhabitants are returned, Vorg and Shirna look poised to use their carnie smarts to make a nice living off the gullible Inter Minorans, and the Doctor and Jo slip out before anyone mentions the whole attempted coup thing. And really, nothing is different than when the story began. Ultimately, the Third Doctor’s first independent sojourn off of Earth since the end of his exile makes for something of a wasted trip.
(Previous Story: The Three Doctors)
Post 68 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project