Friday, June 14, 2013

Doctor Who: 1981

Episode 553: Logopolis, part 4
First broadcast: 5.10 pm, Saturday 21 March 1981
<< back to 1980

The death of Doctor Who
Logopolis, part 4
I was four when Logopolis was first on TV, five when it was repeated. I didn't see it again for a decade and yet this story, in which Tom Baker's Doctor dies, haunted me for years.

Watching it again, I'm struck by how complicated it is. Logopolis is all about the heat-death of the universe being held back by pure mathematics - numbers so powerful that they warp reality and can't be processed in a computer. It's about as high concept as you get, and I'm still not entirely sure how much it makes sense (I struggle with physics at the best of times).

But that never bothered me as a child. I never expected to understand Doctor Who anyway. It was a grown-up show, watched by my elder brother and sister (who seemed part of that grown-up world though they weren't yet in their teens) that I was allowed to sit in on so long as I didn't speak. If it presented a strange and dangerous universe, governed by unfathomable rules, that was how the world seemed to a child anyway.

Then again, what do you actually need to know to follow the story? That the Master is a baddie and up to something bad, and the Doctor is trying to stop him. Everything else, all the natter about block transfer computation and the properties of bubble memory, were - to this child, anyway - so much hand-waving between the running around.

Yet it was still compelling. Doctor Who rarely addresses the TARDIS itself in any great detail, and Logopolis makes the experience deeply unsettling. It is full of extraordinary moments that linger long in the memory: the TARDIS landing inside itself, with the police box prop stood inside the control room; the ivy-shrouded cloister room where the Doctor can brood; the TARDIS shrinking with the Doctor trapped inside; the radio telescope looming over an alien town. The TARDIS's cloister bell, warning of disaster, works so well it's still used in the series today.

My chum Matthew Michael has written intelligent things about Logopolis and points out the best of cliffhangers is a striking visual moment: the Doctor shaking hands with the Master. The Doctor siding with his mortal enemy is all the more disturbing because the Master here is a monster, not the softly spoken charmer as played by Roger Delgado. His monstrousness is underlined by him killing close relatives of two companions (Nyssa's dad Tremas and Tegan's auntie Vanessa). He chuckles to himself as the Doctor falls to his death.

There are oddly silly bits, too, like the plan to open the doors of the TARDIS while it's under water, or Tegan's getting lost in the ship being played for laughs. But the general tone is muted, and that's largely down to Tom Baker. For all the apparent hard science in the script, the story packs a punch because of how it feels. The Doctor's weary resignation as events unfold is so out of character, it feels so wrong, that it utterly enthralled this small boy.

Next episode: 1982


Rob Stradling said...

Ever since seeing this, I've been fascinated (in a purely layman, just-scraped-A-Level-maths fashion) by the metaphysical idea of "numbers=reality"; if matter is just an arrangement of energy, then what makes it different is just quantity and relation. We can't see that, so we invent numbers. In what sense then are the numbers not the matter? Arguably no sense that matters (DYSWIDT?), within the reality they describe. Ow, my head hurts. Gareth used a similar theme in "The Shakespeare Code", I suppose. Nothing is "real" unless it can be described, so the man who describes things the best, can control reality.

That, and nasty men with beards can turn you into Action Man and trap you in your packed lunch. Come to think of it, that's probably the more useful lesson.

Danny Kodicek said...

The notion of using the an understanding of the underlying patterns of reality to manipulate reality is a pretty old one, going back to the Pythagorean and Hermetic traditions at least, and I suppose it's a bit like the proposition that since we could theoretically create a simulated universe in a computer, by the law of averages we probably are living in one (I think David Deutsch may have proposed that)

My solution to this problem (which is essentially the same as The Matrix, or Descartes' brain-in-a-box) is to say that a perfect simulation is just the same thing as a reality. If this universe exists for me at essentially infinite detail, or at least to as much detail as I ever need to examine, then it's 'real' in as good a sense as we can define. (Although maybe if we *are* in a simulation, that might explain quantum mechanics - the Planck Length is the level of detail our software can manage - it's one pixel of our universe)

I'm rambling. But yes, if you're into these kinds of things, look into alchemy, it'll blow your mind.