The Myth Maker – The influence of Donald Tosh on Doctor Who

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Image Credit: Jorge Láscar (CC BY 2.0, Flickr)

Image Description: The Trojan Horse

Donald Tosh (1935-2019) was story editor of Doctor Who for a short period, but his influence runs deep says Matthew Kilburn 

Donald Tosh died on 3 December 2019. His brief period as story editor of Doctor Who (on screen, June 1965 to February 1966) fascinates me, beguiled by the self-consciously intellectual air of the stories he commissioned with producer John Wiles. However, there was a conflict between their goals and the character of the programme they inherited from Verity Lambert and Dennis Spooner, which affected some of the series most successful elements. 

Donald Tosh had left television in the wake of his Doctor Who experience and worked largely in the historic monuments sector. He seemed to wish that his television career had been more rewarding than it was. I suspect that like Doctor Who’s co-begetter Sydney Newman, he was a company man rather than an instinctive deal-making freelancer, and the drift of the television writing sector was against him. At Granada, there was little recognition for his role in getting Coronation Street to screen in 1960, perhaps because it was a great team effort and there were others more senior in the chain of command. He would say later that he moved to the BBC in the hope of working on more respectable material than he had at Granada, but instead of the literary adaptations he’d hoped for, he was assigned a stint on Compact, another twice-weekly serial but one without Coronation Street’s respect. Doctor Who wasn’t ideal, but it was at least more imaginative. 

Tosh entered Doctor Who at a time when the atmosphere seems to have been demob-happy; for several leading personalities it was a project nearing its end. William Russell and Jacqueline Hill left the cast as Tosh arrived to story-edit, and the decision had already been made to replace them with one new regular rather than two, Peter Purves as futuristic space pilot Steven Taylor. Verity Lambert was still credited as producer, but more of her BBC staff time was being taken up with new projects. 

Tosh’s predecessor Dennis Spooner had not been on the BBC staff before joining Doctor Who. There was something of a culture gap between Tosh, moving within the serials department, and Spooner, freelance contributor mainly to ITV companies who – like his friend and collaborator Terry Nation – would find the atmosphere on co-produced filmed series pitching at global audiences very congenial. Nation and Spooner were jointly responsible for the twelve-part serial which dominated the brief Wiles-Tosh era, The Daleks’ Master Plan (1965-66), one which neither Wiles nor Tosh wanted to make. Tosh performed extensive rewrites on The Daleks’ Master Plan; the question of how far they were necessary is an open one. It’s tempting to view him as a determined writer-editor seizing the chance to make a much-watched popular and populist series more literate, or at least literate about the things Tosh cared for. 

Although credited on The Time Meddler, Galaxy Four and Mission to the Unknown, the first commission from Donald Tosh was The Myth Makers (1965), a playful and self-aware take on the fall of Troy. This was the first script for Doctor Who from Donald Cotton, who had written for and broadcast on the Third Programme, the BBC radio network which preached high cultural values to the public. This included strands of convention-deconstructing plays and revues, and The Myth Makers was in this tradition. Radio Times readers were advised that it was an “action-filled but not too serious tale”. It’s sometimes reassuring to find heroes feeling the burden of their legends. Menelaus in particular has no great interest in winning his wife Helen back. Although the story begins with a swordfight in which Achilles kills Hector, there are lots of long scenes of wordplay between the classical characters. The Doctor, Vicki and Steven are more bemused and appalled than in control of their situation. In the genre clash between space-time travellers and denizens of the mythological Aegean, Vicki succumbs altogether and becomes Cressida, herself a product of multiple reworkings of Homer’s Iliad during post-classical ages. It’s fun, and has aged well. Despite the doubts of Steven that the combatants he and Vicki will meet will be anything like the heroes of legend, The Myth Makers portrays them as perpetrators and victims of their own spin. 

The Myth Makers is more arch than The Romans earlier in 1965, and less interested in the regulars than perhaps it should be. The Doctor and Steven do their best to stay within the confines of history, but they are visiting a society which doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a construct of legend and fiction. It continues to perplex them because its reference points are constantly shifting, breaking previous rules about journeys into the past. 

Tosh’s adventure stories had to have levels of realism to them which went beyond the priorities of other writers. His work on The Daleks’ Master Plan added extra layers. Mavic Chen, the Daleks’ human ally, was rewritten to suggest a ruthless politician with identifiable charisma and credible manipulative skills, rather than an unsophisticated fanatical villain whom it was easy for the audience to jeer. Chen’s exchanges with his allies sometimes have the laconic and wry tone of the Greeks and Trojans of The Myth Makers, cultivating a supercilious distance from the horrors they dwell among. Several character and place names were altered to suggest a more mythological and suitably epic context to the twelve-episode clash between the Doctor and the Daleks. The future of 4000AD, envisaged by Terry Nation as a thinly-disguised contemporary Earth rather like The Dalek Invasion of Earth’s 2167, became more otherworldly, and Nation’s political parallels with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 buried in Tosh’s universe-building. 

Tosh’s vision of the Doctor diverged somewhat from the elderly refugee scientist imagined by the devisers of the series during 1963, an indicator being Mavic Chen’s line that the Doctor’s humanoid appearance is “only a disguise” (The Daleks’ Master Plan Eight: Volcano). His human accoutrements conceal unsuspected powers, such as his ring, which he uses to break the Monk’s reset of the TARDIS lock. At the climax of The Daleks’ Master Plan he is able to survive the effects of the Daleks’ time destructor when his ally Sara Kingdom ages to death. Where the Doctor under story editors David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner mellowed into a mischief-loving manipulator of the malign but foolish, stories edited by Tosh maintain this – indeed, he’s perhaps more markedly humanitarian in principle – but develop an unsettling alienness which can leave his human companions ill at ease. 

This trend was accelerated under the last story on which Tosh received the story editor credit, The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve (1966). Tosh imposed the subject matter on writer John Lucarotti, who had an agreement with Dennis Spooner to write a story about the discovery of Canada by Erik the Red; Tosh and John Wiles recoiled from heroic narratives and said that if Lucarotti was to write a third Doctor Who serial, it had to be on Tosh’s preferred subject, the sixteenth- century wars of religion in France. Although the original scripts aren’t extant, it seems that with John Wiles disliking William Hartnell’s portrayal of the Doctor, one of Lucarotti’s central elements, the Doctor’s impersonation of the Abbot of Amboise, a partisan Catholic cleric, was changed so that for much of the story Hartnell played the Abbot, Steven only believing that this was the Doctor. The Doctor effectively abandons Steven and the audience in Paris in 1572, his study of human history setting him on a quest to meet one of a “brotherhood of apothecaries” who made early advances in germ theory, while Steven has to deal with human hatred based around arguments which he finds remote and inexplicable. 

The full title of the story is usually shortened to The Massacre, the version of the title which appeared in The Making of Doctor Who (second edition, 1976). The objection to the full title is usually its inaccuracy; the massacre in the title occurred on St Bartholomew’s day, not its eve. However, the title surely refers to the eve of the massacre; the slaughter of French protestants only begins at the very end of the serial, as the Doctor and Steven leave in the TARDIS. The story concerns Steven trying to come to terms with the situation, just as he, the Doctor and Vicki struggled with legendary Troy on the eve of its fall in The Myth Makers. In contrast, earlier historical stories saw the travellers plunged into the middle of momentous events rather than waiting for them to happen; in Marco Polo’s caravan, in the middle of the Reign of Terror or the Third Crusade. There’s a tendency in Tosh stories for the Doctor and his friends to be stunned into passivity early on, without enough opportunities to advance the action. In The Celestial Toymaker (1966), which at one point in its development was to be credited to Tosh, the Doctor and his friends are trapped in cyclical events for most of the narrative and are unable to influence the story except by scrupulously following rules and outwitting the Toymaker’s pawns. 

The Celestial Toymaker was the second full story to feature Vicki’s eventual full-time replacement Dodo, who arose from serial problems with casting and failures to anticipate the consequences of the standards Tosh set for new companion characters. John Wiles had backhandedly failed to renew Maureen O’Brien’s contract for expressing her frustration with the part of Vicki, ignoring that her talent at portraying an engaging and intrepid young woman on screen easily overcame her disenchantment with a role she found limiting. Tosh’s response was to create a new character quickly and write her into the final episode of The Myth Makers, Katarina. Less time seems to have been put into creating Katarina than her predecessors, and problems with placing a bronze age character in a futuristic setting became clear when the scripts from The Ark (1966) came in, lengthy explanations to Katarina clogging up the dialogue. Rather than remove her from The Myth Makers, she was killed off early in The Daleks’ Master Plan as a shock to the audience, and a temporary futuristic female lead created in Sara Kingdom, also to be killed off at the end of the story. Tosh and Wiles seem to have put more thought into Dodo. The TARDIS makes a special trip to London, 1966, so she can enter it seeking a phone. She’s meant to be a contemporary teenager, reminiscent of ‘Biddy’, the life-loving secondary modern schoolgirl in the early writers’ guide to Doctor Who who morphed into Susan. However, there’s a sense she wasn’t quite of the moment in the way that was hoped; her Lancashire accent recalls Tosh’s earlier work at Granada rather than the mid-sixties pop culture shift from Mersey Beat to Swinging London, and that it’s swiftly dropped in favour of something closer to received pronunciation suggests someone realised it was a misstep. 

Donald Tosh lost his story editor credit from the final episode of The Massacre, being succeeded by Gerry Davis. However, he had commissioned the succeeding four stories and they reflected his preoccupations. The Ark by Paul Erickson (and, nominally, Lesley Scott) deals with human ignorance and fear being as prevalent in the far distant future as it was in ancient Troy. The three TARDIS travellers are put on trial for infecting the human and Monoid inhabitants of a generation ship. Steven’s impassioned defence and his despair at human fallibility build on the morally resolute character developed for him through The Daleks’ Master Plan and The Massacre. The Doctor’s dedication to finding a vaccine restores any credibility lost by his apparent inhumanity in The Massacre. In the second half of the story, the Doctor, Steven and Dodo help the oppressed humans of an even further future resist the Monoids, who have turned from patronised servants to crudely brutal oppressors, but the inclusion of the Refusians, a kindly invisible species who have lost their forms as a result of a solar flare, seems almost a personification of a sense in Tosh-era serials that individuals are largely at the mercy of invisible historical forces rather than able to seriously influence the fates of themselves and others. 

Invisibility was a running theme of stories developed by Donald Tosh, which continued into The Celestial Toymaker. There, the Toymaker made the Doctor invisible and intangible in order to limit his effectiveness as an opponent. John Wiles and Donald Tosh intended The Celestial Toymaker to be the last story in which William Hartnell would play the Doctor. At the end of the story the Doctor and his friends would escape from the Toymaker’s control, but the Doctor would find that he had materialised with a different physical form. In the event Hartnell outwitted Wiles by arranging an extension of his contract with head of serials Gerald Savory. Tosh withdrew from the story in response to editorial interference from the new production team, and it went out rediting Brian Hayles, who had provided the initial storyline, as its writer. 

Two more Tosh commissions lingered, though realised under Davis and Wiles’s successor as producer Innes Lloyd. The Gunfighters (1966) was another genre-bending Donald Cotton script, although interpreted as a more literal comedic western by Lloyd, Davis and director Rex Tucker. The Savages (1966) was a philosophical tale about life essences and personality which might again have been an assault on William Hartnell’s leading role. Where Tosh toned down Terry Nation’s parallels with the Cuban Missile Crisis in The Daleks’ Master Plan, he seems less likely to have disapproved of colonial satires such as the eclipse of the humans by the Monoids in The Ark or the farming of a subject (white) people for their life forces in The Savages; perhaps even the appropriation of Chinese culture by a being looking like the unChinese Michael Gough in The Celestial Toymaker (Tosh believed, however, that the Trilogic Game really did emerge from the Far East, rather than western Europe). Other than the Monoids, there are no obvious monsters, only humanoids making mistakes on all sides. It was not a development in which Tosh was involved, but it was appropriate that Steven, in some respects his voice of human reason as well as morally-inspired impetuousness, should remain to reconcile the people of The Savages’ unnamed world. 

I said in a recent Twitter exchange that Donald Tosh and John Wiles were the cavaliers of Doctor Who, in a 1066 And All That sense. They were “wrong but wromantic” – wrong in that their view of what Doctor Who should be undervalued so much of what had made it successful in its first two years, but wromantic in that so much of what they did appeals to a large proportion of Doctor Who fandom. They wanted Doctor Who to have a credibility they thought it lacked, ringfencing the Daleks as ‘monsters’ and seeking ambiguities and climactic horror rather than tidy resolution. They were not in place for sufficient time to prove the worth of their ideas, though perhaps those ideas defeated themselves. Wiles clashed with his star and his department head and resigned in December 1965, Tosh following in support. What they had built was rapidly dismantled. However, the early part of Season Three was a favourite of several early fans of the series. In the 1990s especially, when Doctor Who’s main fictional continuation was a book series, Tosh’s literary take on Doctor Who, with the Doctor as an extradimensional figure walking among humans, was attractive to a fandom intrigued by the enigmatic Doctor of the New Adventures books. Although tied to the mismanagement of the series by John Wiles, Donald Tosh’s pushing of the envelope of Doctor Who’s attitude to realism and genre laid important precedents for much iterations of the series. 

Author’s Notes

This article was written in lockdown conditions and I was consequently unable to check several books and articles. Of those I could see, Alan Stevens’s interview with Donald Tosh and his account of the evolution of the script of The Daleks’ Master Plan at http://www.kaldorcity.com were invaluable. Further reading would include Alan Barnes’s recent tribute to Donald Tosh in Doctor Who Magazine, the relevant volumes of Doctor Who: The Complete History, and James Cooray Smith’s The Black Archive: The Massacre

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