by Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 300
"We will learn to live as equals without bitterness" --Chal.
"The Savages" is probably the most ignored of the missing Doctor Who stories, a fact which is unsurprising when one considers that it received poor viewing and mediocre audience appreciation figures on its initial screening. Both of these facts are a great shame; although it may not be in the first rank of Hartnell adventures, it is a rather good story (and, as the recent reassessment of "The Tomb of The Cybermen" demonstrates, both audience figures and fan legend are not always the best indicators of whether or not a story has merit). An examination of "The Savages" demonstrates that, whatever its flaws, it stands up very well as an allegorical and moral tale from the mid-Sixties.
One thing which does let "The Savages" down is a number of minor errors (the continued use of "light years" as a measure of time rather than distance, for example, or the two-dimensional map of time and space) and unfortunate phrasing (the Doctor makes extensive use of his Reacting Vibrator). There are occasional moments of clunky dialogue, and one might well ask what the point was of introducing the abovementioned Vibrator as it gets carelessly abandoned midway through the story. It is unclear how the people of this planet have been observing the Doctor; they have obviously been doing more than just charting his voyages if they know that he doesn't carry weapons, and yet they do not know that he has companions. Also, Exorse says that they have "been plotting the course" of the Doctor's "time-ship", and that they had estimated his arrival some time ago, which seems an impossible task as the TARDIS moves randomly (and indeed Jano later says that he had never expected to meet the Doctor face to face). The characterisation, furthermore, is hardly multi-layered, a bit of a letdown after such earlier memorable figures as Odysseus, Mavic Chen, and even the Meddling Monk. In defence of "The Savages", however, one might well point out that for an allegorical story the characters hardly need to be more than ciphers. One might also consider that the inconsistent science has little impact on the plot itself; in the manner of Ursula K. LeGuin and Aldous Huxley, this is a story about a future society, not about nuts-and-bolts scientific speculation.
"The Savages" also has a lot going for it in other areas. The story is well-paced (albeit with one or two moments of runaround) and plotted; the incidental music by Raymond Jones is fantastic, Frederick Jaeger's impression of William Hartnell is highly accurate, and there are some quite clever things going on (the non-violence of both societies; for all of Tor's talk of killing, only Steven actually scores any hits on the guards, and nobody dies at any point). There are occasional postmodern elements, such as the Elders and their compatriots following the Doctor's adventures and naming him the "Traveller from Beyond Time". The teaser scene at the end of "The Gunfighters" where the Doctor makes a remark-- seemingly without any justification-- about their having landed in the future during "an age of peace and prosperity", which is then followed by the sight of a savage creeping across the viewscreen, is not as forced as it might appear, given that firstly, Hartnell's Doctor tends to make sweeping generalisations; secondly, that his remark is accurate to a degree; and thirdly, that the scene sets up the dichotomous themes which will recur over the four episodes of the following story.
In a sense, "The Savages" is a bit of a holdover from the earlier John Wiles/Donald Tosh period, and is as such better than the usual run of Gerry Davis/Innes Lloyd adventures. "The Savages" is literally one of the backlog of Wiles/Tosh stories scheduled before the new team took over; contrary to popular mythology, the Davis/Lloyd era did not usher in a period of dramatic change but of gradual transformation, and in fact the first story to be totally down to them, "The War Machines", did little better than the historicals Davis and Lloyd are famous for deriding. Indeed, the main sign of the new production team's presence on this story is its poor script editing.
In order to make a full reassessment of this story, then, we must put aside the myths and criticisms which have grown up around it, as around many a missing story. Instead, we must look at the themes and inspirations of "The Savages" in order to determine what it is really all about.
1. The Black and White of It: "The Savages" as Race-Relations Allegory
One of the most common myths about "The Savages" is that it is a poorly realised story about slavery. This myth (along with the similar error that the civilised society is called The Elders; it is clear from the dialogue that the Elders are a governing body, and in fact that the savage group is also governed by an elder-figure), stems from inaccuracies in numerous Doctor Who reference books, and owes its perpetration to the fact that few people have either seen or heard the story itself (the audio having not been officially released until 2002). In fact, "The Savages" sets up a scenario of a city of technologically advanced people, who maintain their lifestyle by selectively kidnapping and draining the "life energy" from a group of "savages" living outside the city on a reservation. The irony, we rapidly learn, is that the savages are not in fact savage; we see proof that they were once capable of great artistic and scientific achievement, and that their use of stone-age technology is born of necessity. In fact, the process of consuming their life energy is one which could not work had the savages been truly subhuman. Jano's "transference" of the Doctor's life energy to himself, although it is unusual for this to be done between individuals directly, suggests that some part of the individual's intelligence and personality is also stored and transferred with the energy.
As such, this story sets up an obvious allegory of racism, which is as true today as in the 1960s. The people of the city consider the savages as different to them (even subhuman), and the savages similarly have no great love for the city people, and yet the two groups are startlingly alike, even in terms of social structure. This highlights the irony of racist societies, in which members will swallow gross inconsistencies without comment (admiring Asian mythology while denying that Hindus are "civilized", for instance, or in the opposite case, claiming the Greek ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra, to have been Black). The language of the story also indicates this allegory: Edal calls the drained-unconscious Wylda "lazy" and urges him to get up, Senta disparages the savages by saying that "they're not capable of development", both common remarks used to justify racism and other prejudice even today.
One might also consider the plight of the savages themselves. Although Chel's plea that they are losing their capacity for art and creativity is sometimes interpreted as meaning that it is being irreplaceably drained out of them (which, given that the Doctor's old personality returns after he has been out of the transference laboratory for a while, would seem not to be the case), it appears to owe more to the fact that the exigencies of their life does not allow for the passing on of skills or the development of talent. This again parallels the self-fulfilling prophecy of racist societies: to take but a single example, the Apartheid governments of South Africa ensured that their claim that Black people were incapable of proper hygiene was fulfilled by confining them to dirty and poorly maintained shanty towns. More than anything, then, "The Savages" seems to be an allegory of racism and its ironies.
Furthermore, "The Savages" makes the clever point that racism cuts both ways. The savages themselves are not "noble" either; Tor calls for a quite understandable revenge on the city people, while Jano, the leader of the city's Elders and thus the most obvious "villain" of the piece, is a man who takes risks for potentially great gains, but will not allow others in his society to take a risk he would not take himself, and wishes to share in the Doctor's intellect. All the savages unconsciously absorb the attitudes of the city, just as the city people must be absorbing the attitudes of the savages through the transference process. Neither group is thus seen as any more virtuous than the other.
This is also shown in the scenes in which the savages debate what to do with the captive Exorse. Although Tor, predictably, wants to kill him, Nanina-- who has suffered more at Exorse's hands than Tor has-- protects and helps the prisoner, saying, "it would do no good to kill you". This has parallels in the reconstruction of South Africa in the 1990s, with the ANC administration announcing that to seek revenge for past wrongdoings would be only to allow a state of oppression to continue, albeit reversed. Furthermore, by showing kindness to Exorse, Nanina brings him to realise that she and her compatriots are not in fact savages-- indicating that the quest for vengeance is no way to bring about change.
One or two aspects of "The Savages", most notably Frederick Jaeger's dark makeup and the fact that the original title was "Doctor Who and the White Savages", suggests that the story might originally have been a racial-role-reversal story along the line of John Hopkinson's controversial 1965 television play Fable, which portrayed a Britain where Black people are the dominant and White people the oppressed group. Other commentators have taken "The Savages" to task for failing to deliver on this promise; however, this criticism is a trifle unfair. For one thing, Doctor Who is a different sort of programme to Play for Today; for another, Doctor Who can hardly be accused of having avoided racial issues up to this point, with the egalitarian-but-fascist society of "The Daleks' Master Plan" or the strong, well-portrayed South American Indian characters of "The Aztecs". The title "Doctor Who and the White Savages", with its implicit assumption that savages must normally be Black, may sound racist to post-millenial ears; however, taken in a 1960s context, it flags up the paradigm-questioning nature of the story. By pointing out that the savages are, contrary to audience expectation, White, then it brings in the idea that savagery is a cultural condition inherent in everyone, rather than a genetic predisposition on the part of certain biological groups (although it must be said that the show's ultimate title does a better job of conveying this questioning of paradigms; it is never clear within the story which group really are the titular "savages"). The often-made accusation that the then-common practice of "blacking-up" White actors can be construed as racist is more debatable; however, one must note in defence of the programme that much depends on the production team's intent in doing so, and it is worth noting that Jaeger's performance is in no way derogatory to dark-skinned people. It is possible that, if such a backing-down took place, it was due to timidity on the part of the new administration; more importantly, however, the race-relations allegory comes through no matter what colour the actors happen to be, and in fact the ironic similarities between city people and savages are brought across far better for having all the actors racially identical.
2. Like Beasts: Animal Experimentation and Savage Society
One thing which is obvious about the societies of the city and the reservation is that they are given to rigid dichotomies. This is not merely seen in the civilised/savage classification, but in the strong circumscription of male/female roles (Dodo being given a mirror as a present and Steven a dagger; Jano talks about making "the strong man stronger [and] the beautiful girl more beautiful still".). City people are never, that we can see, sent out into the reservation to live with the savages, and no savages rise up to join the city people. In such societies, there is often a powerful fear of outsiders and other boundary-breaching practices; Edal says, "I never did trust strangers", even though the presence of such seems to be a rare occurrence. Exorse and Edal complain about their lot, but there is no suggestion of their breaking out of their roles as guards (except when assuming a governing role in an emergency). It is the sundering of categories which destroys the old order (Steven using Dodo's mirror to defeat Exorse, and Jano joining forces with the savages) and allows them to rebuild.
This sort of thinking in terms of rigid distinctions is one that is a necessary precursor for a society in which such practices as animal experimentation can take place. If we think of animals as being other than ourselves, it is different than if we consider us and them as part of the same continuum. Here, this mentality sees a parallel in the treatment of the savages; the transference process is a scientific procedure that benefits one group at the expense of another which is considered nonhuman. The Doctor is told that the savages are "hardly people", when he objects to the procedure on moral grounds; when he himself is slated for transference, he angrily exclaims that the scientists are not considering his feelings in the matter (treating him, as it were, like an animal). The capture of the savages with light-guns and their re-release into the environment recalls the tagging of wild animals. The scientist Senta keeps files on the savages (which again suggests that strangers are not commonly seen in the city) and regulates the extraction of life energy carefully, much like a factory farmer. As well as one of racism, then, "The Savages" is also an allegory of the issues surrounding vivisection.
The justification for Senta's "foul experiments" also recalls justification for animal experimentation. Jano accuses the Doctor of being unscientific and opposing "human progress"; he appeals to Darwinian ideas, likening the transference process to feeding upon beasts. "Do you not realise that all progress is based on exploitation?" he demands, and brushes away the Doctor's protest that this exploitation constitutes "protracted murder". Interestingly, Senta and the Doctor have a more reasoned conversation, highlighting the moral ambiguities surrounding the issue, with the Doctor acknowledging that he is interested in Senta's work even though he condemns the means, and Senta himself is unsurprised that the Doctor does not approve of the procedure (there are occasional hints of dissent and discomfort among the city people themselves throughout the story).
This is also seen in the Doctor's treatment at the hands of the city people. The Doctor, like the savages, is an outsider to their civilisation; he is welcomed and fêted-- indeed, offered the chance to join the city-- but, as Exorse notes, the time travellers may be "very like us, in some ways" but they are not so in others. By objecting vocally to the transference process, the Doctor makes his outsider status once again visible; consequently, Jano turns him over to Senta for transference-- not, it seems, something habitually practiced with dissenters-- and Senta's reaction is in fact one of shock ("he's a fellow scientist, he's one of us!"). However, the rigid structure of the society-- which allows the Doctor's reclassification as a transferable subject as well as Senta's ultimate compliance with his superior's orders-- means that all outsiders are potentially "beasts" and savages. The ethical horrors of rigid thinking are thus highlighted in the scenes with Senta in the laboratory.
Besides the more obvious commentary on race relations, then, "The Savages" also contains a discussion of vivisection, another current issue of the day. As such, it raises questions about what it is to be human, and whether progress truly is achieved through predation alone.
3. Brave New World: "The Savages" and Ethics
The main theme of "The Savages" would therefore appear to be the idea that civilisation is in no way a guarantee of universally ethical behaviour; we can be well educated and have a strong moral code, and yet at the same time condone unethical practices. One aspect of the society not remarked upon in the programme or, usually, by later commentators, is that the city people are essentially nonviolent, choosing a method of capture which seldom causes death or permanent damage to the savages. And yet, at the same time, the Doctor points out their hypocrisy in doing so, saying that "the sacrifice of even one soul is far too great", and comparing Jano and the Elders to "the Daleks, or any other menace to common humanity". By comparing them to Doctor Who's own embodiment of evil and destruction, the Doctor demonstrates that scientific progress cannot justify poor ethics.
In some ways, the society portrayed draws on Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World, and in more than just the image of an enclosed city with a nearby "savage reservation". Flower and Avon, the two young people who guide Dodo and Steven around the city, are, like the youths of Brave New World, content to abandon themselves to hedonism and not ask questions. Avon (no relation to the Nation/Boucher anti-hero from Blake's 7) asks why anybody would want to go outside the city, dismissing Flower's visibly romanticised speculations about the feeling of real sunlight. Neither of the young people are interested in going into the prohibited areas, their being prohibited being enough to keep them away. However, there are indications that Flower and Avon do know that there is something unpleasant and potentially morally unjustifiable at the heart of their society, but, like the protagonists of Brave New World and of the dystopian film Brazil, choose not to inquire as to its nature; to remain safe by not challenging the status quo. As such, the horror of complicity through non-reaction is made plain to the audience.
Finally, the ultimate message of "The Savages" is that significant change must come from within. For all the Elders and their people admire the Doctor, they will not listen to his arguments for change, due to their classification of him as an outsider; it is only when Jano literally absorbs part of the Doctor's personality that the city people will listen. Similarly, it is only after Exorse-- who has been affected by his experiences outside the City-- lowers his gun and lets Jano smash the lab, that the change can begin. "No man easily gives up the means which gives him power", says Jano, and the Doctor seems to agree, saying that he will not even try to convince the Elders of the true state of affairs. Furthermore, the society has to want the change on some level: Jano had to desire the Doctor's intellect before he would take on the mindset necessary to bring about transformation. This can also be seen in the departure of Steven as well; only by becoming part of the society in question can Steven hope to change it.
In sum, then, "The Savages" is a flawed story in some ways, but not so much that it should be dismissed out of hand by people with an interest in Doctor Who or 1960s media. Far from the heavy-handed, crypto-racist tale it is often made out to be, "The Savages" is in fact a quite clever allegory, which draws on Aldous Huxley as well as on many political issues that are still current today.
Effects copyright Maureen Marrs and Fiona Moore