Doctor Who – The Daleks (1963)

thedaleks

Synopsis

The crew of the TARDIS prepare to leave the ship to explore their surroundings, but no one notices that a radiation gauge on the console has suddenly jumped from normal to dangerous. Outside there’s a petrified jungle (wasn’t it a swamp last time?), which the Doctor deems devoid of life. However, they do catch sight of a seemingly abandoned but perfectly preserved city in the distance. The Doctor wants to explore it, but Ian with his human sensibilities and British alpha male authoritarianism refuses to let the only person who can pilot the TARDIS (if barely) go off and possibly get himself lost or killed. While Susan is briefly separated from the group on their way back to the TARDIS, someone or something touches her on the shoulder, frightening her, but no one believes her. Back on the TARDIS, the Doctor, who has softened up just a little since the last episode, shows his human guests the basics of life on the TARDIS, by explaining that there are private rooms to rest in (which we don’t see) and by showing a machine that can generate food bars that will have the exact taste of anything the operator asks for. Barbara and Ian’s joy at discovering that there are perks to wandering aimlessly through infinity is short-lived, though, as they hear something banging on the TARDIS’ doors. This, along with Susan’s claims, is enough to cause all three to demand that the Doctor get the TARDIS as far away as possible as soon as possible. Although he still wants to see the city, the Doctor seems to acquiesce. Yet when he tries to get the TARDIS to “launch”, nothing happens, and the Doctor claims that the reason is because some vital part in the console has run out of the mercury it needs to function…but it’s obvious (except to Barbara, Ian, and Susan) that he’s not only lying but proud of himself for doing so. Now, the Doctor explains with feigned regret, they’ll just have to go down to the city and search for any laboratories that might have mercury since there’s no back-up supply on-board.

As they set out, they stumble on a box filled with vials of liquid, which were presumably left by whoever was knocking on the TARDIS’ door. The Doctor has the box placed in the TARDIS to study later, which soon enough proves to be the second massive mistake he makes. At the city everyone, especially the Doctor, feels exhausted, which they just chalk up to the lengthy hike from the jungle. Once inside the city, which has corridors that run underground, the four split up. Barbara, after finding some doors closing behind her, runs into a something that extends a plunger-like arm toward her (and thus pop culture history is made). Meanwhile the Doctor and Ian discover that they’re not just fatigued; they’re suffering the symptoms of radiation poisoning. Realizing there’s more at stake than just satisfying his scholarly curiosity, the Doctor sheepishly admits he lied about the whole “we need mercury” thing and that the part should work perfectly. Before Ian can get too pissed off, he, the Doctor, and Susan realize Barbara is lost…or worse. The Doctor insists that they just leave sans Barbara, but Ian takes the part the Doctor needs and blackmails him with it. While looking for her they run into the Daleks, who temporarily paralyze Ian with a laser when he tries to escape. At least they do find Barbara, if only in the holding cells they all now have to share.

The Daleks soon get around to interrogating the Doctor – who Willam Hartnell plays so well that you just know he thinks their situation is really the others’ fault, for not letting him satisfy his scientific curiosity, even though he never says the words – and accuse them of being “Thals.” Using the interrogation as a way to learn more about the situation, the Doctor realizes too late that the drugs he carelessly put in the TARDIS were antidotes to radiation poisoning provided by the Thals and discovers that 500 years ago the Dalek “forefathers” and the Thals, two “races” native to the same planet (which is soon identified as Skaro), mostly destroyed each other in an apocalyptic war using neutron bombs. The Daleks had to flee underground. The Doctor makes a deal with the Daleks: if one of his party is allowed to collect the drugs needed to save their lives, they’ll happily share the drugs with the Daleks, so they can use them to finally leave the city. The Daleks agree, but their fingers (plungers?) are crossed; they plan on taking all the drugs, replicating the formula, and leaving the prisoners to die of radiation poisoning. It turns out Susan is the only one healthy enough to make the journey, although she’s terrified of running into the Thals, who may or may not have come out of Skaro’s apocalypse even worse off than the Daleks. In fact, she does run into one on the way back, but he looks human and friendly, and even offers Susan his cloak (it’s a good time to point out that almost all the Thals turn out to be blond and hunky).

The Thal, named Alydon, comes from a society that had been so traumatized by nuclear apocalypse and so determined to adapt to the hostile, scarred environment that they’ve gone from being an industrial society to a culture of pacifistic, quasi-nomadic farmers. Alydon is surprised that the Daleks are still alive, and sees a golden opportunity for his people. If the Daleks are still able to survive, Alydon explains, then they may have ways of efficiently producing food, and the Thals happen to be facing crop failures that could finally drive them into extinction. Alydon isn’t naive enough to think that near-annihilation was as enlightening for the Daleks as it was for the Thals, so he gives Susan an extra case of antidotes in case the Daleks confiscate the ones she’s carrying. It turns out, once Susan returns, that he didn’t need to bother; the Daleks only take enough of the drugs to analyze and allow Susan to return to the cell with the ones she have, where once used they help everyone fully recover. It turns out that now that they know that the Thals survived the Daleks have a new plan to have Susan “volunteer” as an ambassador to the Thals and lure them into the city with an offering of crops the Daleks grew using artificial sunlight. From there it will just be a matter of “extermination” (no, unless I missed something, they only ever use the noun, not the verb). Of course, the Doctor and the others don’t trust the Daleks, especially after they figure out that they’re being monitored in their cell. Piecing together that the Daleks’ armor runs on static electricity run through the metallic floors (that concludes the science lesson portion of this episode), they use mud made from the water the Daleks gave them and the dirt from Susan’s shoes as well as Alydon’s cloak to both blind and de-power the next Dalek who brings them provisions. Tossing out the Dalek inside (whose real form we barely see, since Ian and the Doctor wrap it in the cloak), Ian fits himself inside. Even though Ian can barely work the damn thing, the Doctor and the rest hope they can pretend Ian is a Dalek escorting them to an interrogation.

After a few close calls, the Doctor and company actually do make it above ground out of the Daleks’ reach. Everyone wants to warn the group of Thals they see coming to the city…except the Doctor, who now wants to get away from the former object of his curiosity no matter what. They decide that while everyone else leaves Ian will stay and try to warn the Thals. He does, but not before the Thal chieftain, who was confident that the Daleks would help his people establish more reliable food supplies and repair the damage done to Skaro’s environment, gets killed for his idealism. Back at the TARDIS, where the Thals have made a base, the Doctor studies the Thals’ historical records, observing that the Thals were the militaristic instigators of the war that devastated their civilization while the Daleks were once a peaceful people dedicated to scientific study. Once they’re reunited, the group agrees that they feel sorry for the Thals, but really there’s not much they can do. Unfortunately, just as they get ready to board the TARDIS, Ian finds out that the part he took from the Doctor is gone, confiscated at some point by the Daleks.

The Doctor and, perhaps surprisingly, Barbara take the position that the Thals should be manipulated into fighting the Daleks so at least they’d have a chance of recovering the part. Ian is horrified at the suggestion, but finally he agrees that the Daleks will probably find a way to attack and wipe out the Thals anyway. In hot blooded Brit fashion, Ian challenges the Thals’ pacifism by threatening to take their historical records to the Daleks for an exchange. When that doesn’t work, he claims to be planning to take the girlfriend of Alydon, who has assumed the tribe’s leadership, to the Daleks. Then Alydon finally punches Ian, which opens his mind to the possibility of also fighting the Daleks. In the meantime, the Daleks make the unexpected discovery that the Thals’ drug is poison to them; because of a quirk of evolution they actually need the radiation blanketing Skaro to survive. Pragmatic to the last, the Daleks decide to deliberately explode some more neutron bombs, both to insure their survival by bolstering the planet’s steadily dropping radiation levels and to stamp out the Thals.

Back at the TARDIS, Alydon reasons that letting the Doctor and the others infiltrate the Daleks’ city for the part alone would be tantamount to killing them and that there’s nothing noble in letting themselves get wiped out, either through starvation or Dalek lasers (these scenes are more interesting when you consider that they were scripted by someone who lived in a country that faced invasion by the Nazis about a little over a decade previously). The decided strategy splits the Doctor’s party and the Thals into two groups: one group, with Alydon, the Doctor, and Susan, will approach the city the way they’ve come previously, to distract the Daleks and to try to sabotage their communications equipment; the other group, with Barbara and Ian, will try to find a path into the city from the rear, through a swamp and some mountains. Both groups run into nasty problems: several of the Thals in Ian and Barbara’s group are killed by a mutant monster in the swamp and while trying to cross a chasm, although they eventually make it into the city; Susan and the Doctor are captured after disrupting the Daleks’ communication network, all because the Doctor stood around and bragged to Susan about how clever he was in finding ways to do it.

The captured and shackled Doctor and Susan are (for some reason) kept in the Daleks’ control center, as they watch in horror as the Daleks, having seen the neutron bomb idea as impractical, plan to release radioactive fumes from their nuclear reactor into the environment. Luckily enough, both parties of Thals converge and fight the Daleks. Despite some casualties, the Thals eventually win by stopping the sole Dalek in charge of the “screwing up the entire planet’s environment” project and by destroying the power source for the entire city, which causes the Daleks’ armor to shut down, presumably killing them as well. One Dalek, just before its demise, asks the Doctor for help. He only replies, “Even if I wanted to I wouldn’t know how!” Later the Doctor prepares the TARDIS to leave, after giving the Thals some advice on how they can use the Daleks’ technology to grow food without relying on the all but barren soil and eventually revitalize Skaro’s ecosystem. However, as they take off, the console explodes and everyone passes out…

Choice Quotes

“He seems to have a knack for getting himself into trouble.”
-Ian on the Doctor

“Don’t you think he deserves something to happen to him?”
-Barbara on the Doctor

Alydon: “But why [would the Daleks] destroy without any apparent thought or reason? That’s what I don’t understand.”
Ian: “Oh, there’s a reason. Explanation might be better. It’s stupid and ridiculous but it’s the only one that fits.”
Alydon: “What?”
Ian: “A dislike for the unlike.”

Continuity Notes

It’s the historic first appearance of the Daleks, along with the first detailed look at their home planet of Skaro. Unlike the concepts behind the Doctor, the Daleks have changed quite a bit over the decades, namely in that they lose the limitations they have here. Still, arguably the idea of the Daleks hasn’t changed much, if at all, and there are definite thematic parallels between how the Daleks’ motivations are explained here in the dialogue exchange quoted above and how they were reintroduced in the 2005 series (“But why would it [kill everything it sees]?” “Because they’re different!”). It’s tempting to wonder if Terry Nation, as he set about his assignment to come up with a menacing but economical creature, was thinking about a real regime that also rose out of the ashes of a catastrophic war and based entire plans on their “dislike for the unlike” (if so, it creates a sort of unfortunate irony that all the actors playing the Thals are so…Aryan).

I suppose you want me to talk about how this episode stacks up to the years’ upon years’ worth of continuity that has accumulated since, but I won’t, although if I go through with this all the way the topic will definitely come up. For now it’s enough to say that the episode “Genesis of the Daleks”, which chronologically takes place before this one, doesn’t really contradict the continuity established here, which isn’t surprising, since both were written by Terry Nation.

Comments

Believe it or not, my lengthy synopsis actually left certain and important details out, like Barbara’s nascent and never-to-be romantic relationship with one of the Thals and the heroic self-sacrifice of a Thal who had before been terrified at the prospect of his death. Like arguably 99 percent of all old-time serials, “The Daleks” is guilty of padding, especially in the segments that involve Barbara and Ian and company’s adventures in the caves, but Terry Nation is more than good enough a writer to make it all for the most part seem to matter. For a show about entertaining kids and teaching them several scattered facts about history and science, Terry Nation packed in quite a lot of detail about the characters and their relationships, making even some of the Thals, who by rights should just be background material, seem consequential. I wonder if the Daleks would have made as much an impression as they did if their opposite number had been more one-dimensional.

That said, the seven episodes here have aged even worse than the previous serial, in large part because the Daleks here are just so…hobbled. Admittedly even in recent years it’s hard to convince non-Whovians that, yes, the Daleks are supposed to be utterly terrifying, but besides their dependence on static electricity these episodes’ Daleks also seem incapable of seeing anything out of their direct line of vision. During the climactic fight it’s easy to find oneself wondering why the Thals don’t just tip the Daleks over.

Also there are a number of fossilized sci-fi cliches, like the human looking aliens being the “good” ones (although there is a nice twist in that the Thals’ ancestors were responsible for the war) and a very fuzzy concept of evolution that ends up having very little bearing on the plot. Of course, it’s still fun to watch, even if just to see how the Daleks were first conceived, although it probably is best not to watch all seven episodes in one setting.

Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child (1963)

(This is the first of some “Doctor Who” recaps I wrote for a personal blog I all but “decomissioned” some time back.  Originally I had the foolhardy plan to make write-ups for the entire “classic” series, and I might still do that here, but for now I’ll just repost here the ones I have written, covering up until just after the Second Doctor’s era started.)

Synopsis

Ian Chesterton, a science teacher, and Barbara Wright, a history teacher, share their concerns about their eccentric 15-year old student, Susan. Barbara confides that when she went to meet Susan’s sole guardian, her grandfather, to talk about the sliding down of her homework grades, she could only find a scrapyard at the address on file. The two decide to literally stakeout the scrapyard in their car while waiting for Susan to walk back from school. While they wait, the two discuss how Susan is a brilliant student in science, math, and history, but doesn’t seem to grasp common knowledge facts like that Britain doesn’t have a decimal system for its currency and another time when she insisted that a simple math problem required five dimensions, not three. When Susan appears and walks into the scrapyard, Ian and Barbara follow, but only find an out-of-place police box and an old man. Instantly hostile and suspicious, the man denies that Susan came by and asks Ian, “Is it reasonable to suppose that anybody would be inside a cupboard like that?” After an argument Ian, thinking the old man kidnapped Susan, threatens to go to the police, but Susan comes out of the box looking for the man, whom she addresses as “Grandfather.”

Ian and Barbara barge in and discover that the interior of the box is somehow much, much larger than the exterior. “Grandfather” berates Susan for being responsible for Ian and Barbara showing up by insisting on going to that “ridiculous school.” He refuses to explain anything to their “guests”, but Susan calls the box the “TARDIS”, which she says is an acronym for the name she made up: “Time and Relative Dimensions in Space.” When Ian and Barbara demand the truth, “Grandfather” finally says, “We are not of this race, we are not of this earth. We are wanderers in the dimensions of space and time, cut off from our own time and our own people…” Susan begs “Grandfather” to let Ian and Barbara leave, but he sternly refuses, arguing that people in the 20th century can’t be allowed to realize that time travel is possible.  In the resulting argument “Grandfather” accidentally sets off the controls and the TARDIS embarks on the first of many, many accidental trips.

This unwanted destination is a barren (and budget friendly) landscape on Earth. The when is sometime in the Upper Paleolithic Era (at least that’s as far as my very shallow knowledge of prehistory takes me), a generation after one tribe of troglodytes discovered (sort of) how to spark fire. Actually, only one man knew how, so the tribe made him their leader, but by the time the TARDIS arrives he’s dead and never got around to teaching that trick to his son Za, who’s relying on prayers to the tribe’s god, “Orb” (the Sun), to grant that precious spark which he needs to keep up his claim to leadership (it’s a technocrat’s dream; government by technological innovators!). Back on the TARDIS, Barbara realizes something odd is going on while Ian, playing the rational British authority figure to a fault, clings to his skepticism, but poor Ian is so out of his element he doesn’t even know what to call their host.  He addresses him as “Doctor Foreman”, since Foreman was the name on the scrapyard sign, but “Grandfather” asks, “Doctor who?”, making a solid mark on British cultural history. The Doctor decides to step out to get his bearings and lights his pipe, which Kal, Za’s rival for the tribe’s leadership, sees and, thinking the strange traveler has the secret of fire, knocks him out and abducts him. The rest of the TARDIS’ motley crew soon enough follow the Doctor into captivity when they try to find where he went. This time their captor is Za, who plans on just saying the hell with it and sacrificing all the travelers to try to appease Orb. He’s stopped only by Kal, who is at least rational enough to realize that the strangers just might know how to make fire.

Of course, no allegory about modern reactions to technological advancement is complete without a shrill reactionary, and in this case it’s an unnamed old woman who wants to stick to the good old days of relying on furs for warmth. She frees the travelers on condition that they promise to leave and never return, which isn’t a hard demand to meet. However, the old woman is killed by Kal and Za, egged on by his mate Hur (no relation to Ben *rimshot*), gives chase, but they’re stopped and attacked by an unseen prehistoric beast. Ian, Barbara, Susan, and the Doctor hear the encounter and backtrack to find Hur sitting over a badly wounded Za. Despite the Doctor’s pleas that they return to the TARDIS immediately, Ian wants to give Za first-aid (a reasonable decision not just for ethical reasons; as Ray Bradbury taught us, Za’s death in the past might have, say, stopped “Friends” from ever being filmed in the present!). When the others aren’t looking, the Doctor tries to resolve the impasse by bashing Za’s head in with a rock (this ain’t David Tenant!), but Ian stops him in time and forces the Doctor to agree to take Za back to the TARDIS.

Unfortunately, the tribe locates them before they can get that far, and Kal tries to hit the two proverbial birds by both capturing the travelers and getting the tribe to turn against the unconscious Za by accusing him of killing the old woman. Instead the Doctor tricks Kal into showing everyone telltale evidence that he had actually done the deed and convinces the tribe that, if Kal is capable of killing one of them to reach his ends, then he’s perfectly willing to kill any of them. In perhaps the first instance of democracy in action, the tribe drives Kal off by pelting him with stones. When Za recovers to find himself the tribe’s new leader, he thanks the Doctor and his companions by imprisoning them yet again. So they give the cavemen what they want by using dry sticks and friction to make a healthy fire – while in the meantime Kal tries to sneak back into the cave, which leads to some hardcore caveman-on-caveman fighting, with Za as the victor and Kal’s brains decorating the cave floor – but Za, showing real pragmatism over moral thinking like so many politicians to come, determines that he should just keep the strangers around perpetually since they probably know all sorts of other nifty tricks. That night Susan has the idea of taking a skull from a skeleton in the cave and lighting a fire under it, scaring the tribe long enough for the crew to make a getaway. However, instead of being able to pilot the TARDIS back to England in 1963, the Doctor, who is maybe less adept at piloting the TARDIS than he admits, lands the TARDIS in a swamp somewhere. Also no one happens to notice that the TARDIS’ radiation gauge has its needle all the way over in the red range…

(To be honest, I’ve watched both the aired and unaired versions of this episode several weeks ago. Despite differences in dialogue and the Doctor’s personality – he generally comes across as more hostile and even more cruel in the unaired version – I didn’t take good notes and I suspect both versions are sort of muddled up in my mind. Well, it’s not like I’m being paid for this!)

Commentary

I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I decided to follow this 46-year old television show from the very beginning, being familiar with only a handful of John Pertwee and Tom Baker episodes, much of the Sylvester McCoy run, and, of course, the “new” series. I wasn’t surprised at the very low production values (after all, I am a fan of much of the BBC’s output from the ’60s and ’70s) or the occasional flubbed line that would have been corrected on even low-budget TV shows today (I’m also a fan of “Dark Shadows”). Nonetheless it was a little jarring that the show, long before it became a cultural phenomenon transcending audience expectations, would not really be much more child-centric. Maybe – well, no, there is not much of a maybe there – it just speaks to how watered-down and flavorless American children’s programming of my time was, but I couldn’t help but notice the various threats of horrific death, a teenager being all but outright verbally abused by her caregiver, and lots of shots of skulls that had been bashed open.

Still, the show at this early stage is still what we’d call “edutainment”, a purpose that it would more or less jettison within a year, at most. There are occasional little science tips, like Susan and Ian teaching the audience about the scientific principles of making a fire. Above all, while I’m sure people much more informed about the Stone Age than me can pick it apart, it is clear that there was some research done on Paleolithic times. The usual prehistoric stereotypes – active volcanoes, dinosaurs, mastodons, and so on – are mostly absent, although to be fair all that might have largely been due to the showrunners’ commitment to low budgets than to scientific accuracy. Whatever the case, the show takes time to try to present a prehistoric society’s stumbling first steps toward forming a religion (and it does make sense that the first thing a nascent human society would worship would be the sun) and political and social structures. Obviously they’re still hitting some snags, like figuring out that human sacrifice isn’t really a necessary step toward fire making (although then again it arguably doesn’t hurt either), but progress rarely runs smoothly.

The most interesting thing to Whovians is how the character of the Doctor starts out. Generally William Hartnell’s Doctor is known as the meanest and most unforgiving Doctor, which is fair, but before the first season is done he does already evolve into a friendlier and more benevolently paternal figure. Comparing the unaired version of the episode with the one that eventually saw the light of broadcast, it’s even clear that the showrunners had decided to smooth over the character’s rough edges at the very beginning. What’s fascinating isn’t just how different the character is from his successors, but how similar. The absent-mindedness (which I think really came back in force with David Tenant’s interpretation), the use of intelligence and subtle manipulation rather than brute force or weapons to achieve goals, the intellectual and alien aloofness bordering at times on arrogance, the occasional manifestation of a ruthless streak, and the question of whether or not the Doctor is just extremely lucky or if he’s aware of things that aren’t even apparent to his Companions or even to the audience are all there. It is difficult, if not impossible, to judge William Hartnell’s Doctor without comparing him to the others unless you’re a complete virgin to the series, but Hartnell’s version of the character is still unique enough to come across as more than just a prototype of what’s to come, while some less enamored of the messianic tendencies of David Tenant’s interpretation might even find Hartnell’s flawed, irascible Doctor to be the perfect antidote.

Sign of the Times

Britain didn’t actually decimentalize its currency system until 1971, eight years after the first episode aired, so a time traveler like Susan is right to be confused.

Continuity Notes

Obviously the big thing is that we have the first appearances of the Doctor and his first Companions: Susan, Barbara, and Ian. Along with that the Doctor and Susan are the first Time Lords (although they’re not named just yet) to make a debut, along with the first reference to Galifrey (which likewise has a name that hasn’t been thought of yet).

It’s the first appearance of the TARDIS. Susan and the Doctor also explain that, conveniently enough, the TARDIS’ camouflaging capability is malfunctioning, so it’s stuck in police box form. Even as the BBC’s budgets for the show improved, the police box became too iconic to change, even when the whole idea of a police box became archaic.

Susan claims that she “named” the TARDIS. Arguably this is contradicted in later episodes, where it turns out that there are many other TARDISes and they’ve been around longer than Susan or (maybe) the Doctor, but it can be explained that Susan was the first one to name the TARDIS in English, not Gallifreyan.

Quite a bit of the framework for Doctor Who’s mythos is already established from the first episode on: the Doctor and Susan are from an extremely advanced alien race (or, as the Doctor humbly put it, “I tell you, before your ancestors turned your first wheel the people of my world had reduced travel to the furthest reaches of space into a game for children!” ) and from another time, and have for some reason or another become separated from their homeworld. It’s never made exactly clear why the Doctor and Susan are travelling, although later in the series it’s hinted that the Doctor may have been exiled or at least left voluntarily after some kind of falling out with other members of his race. Susan, for whatever reason, shared his fate. There are also a lot of details about Susan that have, to date, not been filled in, like what happened to her parents and how she ended up with the Doctor. While it’s established that she and the Doctor have been in 1963’s London for about five months, it’s not even said exactly how long they’ve been together or if the Doctor had raised her, but there are references to past adventures they had together, making her the first Companion. In fact, it wasn’t until the new series, where various episodes like “Father’s Day” and “The Doctor’s Daughter” had fleeting mentions of the Doctor’s family, that viewers even received definite hints that Susan actually was the Doctor’s biological relation.

Not to upset any hardcore Whovians out there, but the show’s attitude toward time travel shows itself to be pretty inconsistent from day one. The Doctor is worried about the ramifications of people in the twentieth century finding out that time travel is a scientific reality, but when it comes to mucking about with the discovery of how to make fire…well, que sera sera.

At the very end we also have the first “appearance” of Skaro, a world that becomes pretty important early on in the show’s run, but more on that next time.

Yes, This Really Happened: Cousin Oliver Comes to “Married…With Children”

My name is Chad, and I’m a Married…With Children fan.

Wait, what am I apologizing for again? True, by the end of its eleven season run, Married…With Children became rightly associated with lowest common denominator insult humor, a hooting audience cheering on sexual innuendos and the appearance of boobs with equal gusto, and the bashing of a a feminist straw(wo)man , but I really would argue that, for just a few years, Married…With Children was a delightfully black-hearted satire of not only the family sitcom, but the cherished ideals of American culture in general. Just look at the characters and the depressing reality they all represent. Al Bundy doesn’t find any fulfillment in either of the centers of twentieth-century American manhood, the career or the family, and is instead convinced he found it in the few years he was a high school football player, the time he was supposed to be looking forward to being an adult. Peg is a housewife who doesn’t see her job as supporting and nurturing her family, but instead as occasionally feeding into Al’s fragile sense of masculinity and identity as the sole breadwinner. Kelly and Bud are not naïve teenagers gently dipping their toes into the world of dating like the Cosby kids, but instead are sex-crazed and street-smart, seeing dating only as a means to an end (sex, of course). Finally, there’s Marcy and Steve, who are introduced as a sophisticated, politically aware young married couple, but not far beneath the surface all they really care about is money and status symbols, with their vaunted political correctness as just another way of proving their superiority over their social and economic inferiors like the Bundy family. (People really do forget that before she was mainly characterized as a left-wing feminist activist, Marcy was explicitly written as a Republican.)

Now do you see why I like this show?

Married…With Children was part of the backlash against ’80s “happy family” sitcoms (which itself was a backlash against the left-wing, politically conscious Norman Lear sitcom, but that’s another story). Just like The Simpsons, though, it didn’t hit its stride until sometime in the second season, when it stopped just mocking sitcom tropes and became a show in its own right. Personally I think the show’s “golden age” runs from seasons two to five. Sure, in that time you do see the show slowly morphing into the live-action cartoon it would infamously become (especially with Kelly Bundy, who went from being a teen punk into the ur-dumb blonde almost overnight), but in that time I also think you have one of the best dystopian family sitcoms out there, funnier and, dare I say it, smarter than our culture’s own memory gives it credit for. So… where did it all go so wrong?

Personally my candidate for the show’s “Jump the Shark” moment came at the end of season six, with a three-part series titled “The England Show,” which featured a surprisingly convoluted story about all male Bundys being under a centuries-old curse, an English village shrouded in perpetual darkness, and a struggle for tourism dollars that leads into a plot to assassinate both Al and Bud. While there was a fun little subplot with Marcy and Jefferson (the character’s second husband, after actor David Garrison left the show) ending up in a S&M club, the whole affair was a bland brew of ancient jokes about England (yes, there’s even a bit about the Queen’s Guard being harassed by obnoxious tourists), slapstick in lieu of the show’s usual misanthropic humor, and silliness that paradoxically snapped around the bend and resulted in the episodes feeling as if they were actually being too serious. However, there’s a more popular candidate among the show’s fans, one that bears the name of Seven…



I don’t think there are many better examples out there of just how clueless TV executes and even writers can be than the story of Seven. The “Cousin Oliver,” a character thrown in late in a show’s run just to add some demographic-pleasing cuteness, was already established as a not so proud tradition of American television, but even then I can’t imagine any “Cousin Oliver” being more out of place than Seven in Married…With Children. Even Seven’s introduction at the start of season seven (get it?), where he’s literally abandoned at the Bundy house by Peg’s relatives, is a shade too dark. It doesn’t really help that Al ends up breaking the show’s own “no hugging and no learning” rule by pretending he didn’t manage to locate Seven’s wayward parents to make Peg, who suddenly found her long-absent maternal instincts, happy. It’s the exact mirror opposite of using Winnie the Poo to warn kids about pedophiles.

I have to be fair. Especially now that I have the horror that is Jake Lloyd’s “performance” in the Star Wars prequels burned onto my soul, I can say that Seven’s actor, Shane Sweet, was a good child actor. The problem was that it got obvious really quickly that the regular cast wasn’t getting used to him, and after two episodes centered around him the writers didn’t know what to do with him anymore except use him for the occasional throwaway gag. Now after doing some heavy research (okay, five minutes on Google), I haven’t found out anything concrete about the behind-the-scenes dealings that doomed Seven to trash culture obscurity. Wikipedia claims Seven got a poor audience response; a couple of other sources suggest that the whole idea of bringing in Seven was forced on the writers and they were eager to jettison the character at the first chance. Whatever the case, Seven literally vanished halfway through the season. The only acknowledgment that he ever existed surfaces in the season eight episode, “Ride Scare”…

Personally I prefer to believe that Seven ended up getting handed from family to family, becoming the “Uncle Oliver” to dozens of unseen households. There is a hint that this might have been the case. It makes no sense in terms of chronology, since it comes before his last appearance in the Bundy household, but it definitely works as the explanation for Seven’s disappearance:

MARCY: We were just wondering; do you know where Seven is?

PEG: No.

MARCY: Well, let me put your mind at rest. He’s been living with us the past three days. He walked in and wouldn’t leave.

JEFFERSON: He’s been improving slowly. He can’t read, write, or use a knife and fork. But he has learned how to chant “Kill the Bundys” with the other neighbors.

MARCY: If you don’t mind, we were thinking about renaming him ‘Henry’ after my father.

AL: What do we care? Do what you want.

(Post-apocalyptic) Christmas in July

It’s fair to say that television is the medium where you’re least likely to find high-concept experiments with genres, but more often than not there is the quirky sitcom or police procedural or whathaveyou with some sort of fantasy premise or genre-bending element. Even if you don’t count failed pilots like the action-comedy where Peter Boyle’s soul possesses a bulldog, Poochinski, there are still shows like Bewitched, My Mother the Car, Cop Rock, Harry and the Hendersons, and, let’s be honest, Twin Peaks. To be fair, though, these shows only really stand out because television is a medium that loves its rigid conventions and they’re not really all that “weird” if you compare them to novels or films. What does get me are the shows that are so bizarre and unappealing in conception that they seem like they were originally conceived as some writer or executive’s joke that at some point on the assembly line got mistaken for a serious pitch. The proverbial example of what I’m talking about is the failed British sitcom Heil Honey, I’m Home, a romp about aspiring politician Adolf Hitler and housewife Eva Braun living next door to some nosy Jews. However, my Internet celebrity idol and rival, the Cinema Snob, already covered that one in great detail. So instead let me talk about Woops!, a sitcom about six people who appear to be the sole survivors of a global nuclear holocaust. Despite getting canceled in 1992 before it even had one full season run – and remember this was long before the time it became all but standard practice to cancel a show after three or four episodes – it managed to spawn a Christmas episode.

The first episode of Woops! – not to be confused with the somewhat similar and equally obscure but much better BBC series Whoops Apocalypse – explains that the nuclear holocaust happens because a…couple of kids somehow launched a missile in the middle of a parade? Whatever the hell was supposed to happen in the intro, I am genuinely impressed that a comedy about a nuclear holocaust tried so hard and so successfully in its premise to avoid any poignant political commentary. Anyway, our narrator and the first protagonist the audience is introduced to is Mark, whose defining characteristic is that he’s an educated Jew (yes, really). He survives because, while cashing a check at the drive-through window at a bank, he happens to be in a Volvo. Now because I spent my life learning about porn parodies and obscure ’80s slasher films rather than the traditional hallmarks of knowledge for American men like cars, I had to ring up my friend Josh for this one.

CHAD: So do you consider yourself a standard-issue American male?

JOSH: Sure.

CHAD: So you know at least a little bit about cars?

JOSH:  I know some things.

CHAD: Okay, so imagine a guy surviving a nuclear holocaust just because he’s in a Volvo. Is that supposed to be a joke of some kind?

JOSH: Well, in the ’70s and ’80s Volvos had a high safety rating, so I can see what they’re getting at.

So, according to Josh, the joke does make sense. Score one for the writers. But I’m not going to let that stop me from nitpicking a throwaway joke from a sitcom canceled almost two decades ago. For one thing, you can clearly see Mark has the window open and has his arm sticking out, yet he survives an explosion that completely obliterates the bank. Volvos must have had one hell of a safety rating indeed.

According to Mark’s narration, the nuclear blast has turned “the city” into a desert. I’ve seen a stronger grasp of science in a Flat Earth Society newsletter. Yet, even though the nuclear bomb was apparently reinforced with black magic, Mark does find a farm in a valley, where he encounters the other five survivors. Now here I should point out that sitcoms are often criticized for having characters that are defined solely by two or three characteristics that exist just to have jokes pinned on them. For the writers of Woops!, they genuinely just stick to one or two. So we have Mark (Jew and the “sane one”), Jack (ex-hobo and has the personality of an eight-year old), Alice (liberal), Fred (black), Suzanne (dumb), and Curtis (snob). Yes, apparently in the early ’90s fictional women came in only two flavors: Lisa Simpson or Kelly Bundy.

So, how does a show of this caliber handle its Christmas episode?

Well, let me just say I’ve watched all of David Lynch’s “sitcom” Rabbits where people in rabbit suits speak in non sequitors to each other with a randomly playing laugh track, and this was the first time I ever felt inspired to say aloud, “I can’t believe this exists.” My feeling of astonishment began creeping in when the six survivors meet Santa Claus – and not a guy dressed as Santa, the episode soon establishes, but a real-life Father Christmas. If the thought of Santa flying around a desolate Earth dusted with the irradiated remains of millions of men, women, children, and fuzzy pets isn’t enough to create a wave of horror beginning in the very core of your being that somehow washes across time and space to cause your six-year old past self to break down in tears, don’t worry, things are just kicking off. See, Santa is understandably depressed, and the six survivors decide to cheer him up a bit by inviting him to their rather slapdash Christmas festivities (which aren’t that good because, you know, society and culture have been horrifically and quickly snuffed out!) Drunk on eggnog, Santa admits that he’s not really sad because humanity is all but dead, but because when the nuclear bombs hit the North Pole (why would any country target the North Pole?…Oh, whatever) Santa fled into a downstairs shelter and in a panic failed to open the door for Mrs. Claus and the elves, who were all slaughtered in the blast.

What can I say but…

A disclaimer: I love black comedy. Also I can understand, dear reader, if from my summary you’re under the mistaken impression that black comedy is what Woops! is aiming for. It isn’t. For the sake of comparison, let me mention one of my favorite comic books, the classic The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special, where intergalactic assassin Lobo is hired by the Easter Bunny to kill Santa Claus, and in the end he violently dismembers a corrupt Santa and his cowardly elves. The difference is that with The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special the humor is clearly pitch-black from start to finish. With Woops!, the tone never ceases to be light and frothy. This somehow makes the episode more disturbing than anything involving a mercenary gunning down elves.

The saga does get a resolution of sorts. A dispirited Santa sticks around and tries to help out around the farm, but because all of his skills are Christmas-related “hilarity” ensues. Upset by Jack’s loss of faith in the magic of Christmas – you know, because Mrs. Claus and the elves were all killed by a blast of superheated air as a direct result of Santa’s actions- Santa tries to leave but he can’t figure out how to open the door, since he’s so used to coming down chimneys. Alice explains that this means it’s not his fault that he couldn’t open the door to save his loved ones from being melted. You know, except for the part about dying from a nuclear explosion, this would be a cute joke in a kids’ movie or something along those lines. Here, though, it’s like attaching a rape joke to the Easter Bunny’s penchant for candy. With Santa’s depression gone and his faith in himself and the magic of Christmas restored, he leaves to look for other survivors.

Here’s the thing that I’m finding difficult to convey to anyone who hasn’t actually watched this. The whole premise and plot might actually work as a satire of Christmas specials, and maybe at some point in the writing process that was the idea, but it doesn’t come across that way at all. It isn’t so much that the material is played straight, because there is at least a little awareness of just how ridiculous the proceedings are, but that there’s so much dissonance between the tone and the premise that it can make a person’s head explode like Krakatoa. It’s like a typical Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode with a scene where characters casually discuss bestiality and necrophilia, or a third-grade production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It just completely overturns all your expectations as a consumer of entertainment, and not in a good way.

About Woops! in general, I get that this show was probably meant to be more of a spiritual sequel to Gilligan’s Island than an actual attempt at a post-nuclear war sitcom, and in that sense its humor really does fit in with the sub-genre of “weird” ’60s sitcoms like Green Acres and I Dream of Jeannie. Maybe if it was better written it could have worked that way, but even then the timing would have still been all wrong. For one thing, by 1992 Reagan’s hit revival of nuclear war paranoia had pretty much fizzled out. For another, compared to safe middlebrow fare like The Cosby Show, the early ’90s were a time of relatively edgy sitcoms like Roseanne and Married…With Children. When you boil it down Seinfeld was just a sitcom about the social lives of four single New Yorkers, and even that was much darker than this show about 99.99 percent of the human race being wiped out.

Badly conceived and executed as Woops! was, I have to admit I do feel as if I got something out of the Christmas episode. I can’t honestly say I was entertained by it, even in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way, but I do feel like a biologist who just discovered a new species of flesh-eating mold.