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10x2. Carnival of Monsters
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Barry Letts
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: The Doctor and Jo arrive on board a long-lost ocean liner, the S.S. Bernice, that is contained inside a "Miniscope," where a miniaturized assortment of species are kept for entertainment purposes by two Lurmans, Vorg and Shirna. The Lurmans have brought their act to Inter Minor, a planet in the midst of political strife due to reforms enacted by its President. The Doctor and Jo face perils both within the miniscope, where the suspcious Bernice crew are re-living the same few events over and over again and where dangerous monsters are on the loose, and without, as the xenophobic Interians consider whether to destroy the Miniscope and the scheming Kallik manipulates the situation to plot an overthrow of the government.

Review: I liked "Carnival of Monsters" a lot, though I should add the caveat that I am probably incapable of disliking a script that includes the line, "One has no wish to be devoured by alien monstrosities, even in the cause of political progress." Fortunately, this is no guilty pleasure but a much-needed rebound after the jaw-dropping badness of "The Time Monster" and the disappointing mediocrity of "The Three Doctors." Robert Holmes, proving that he's much better when he's not writing about Autons, shows why he would eventually be considered one of the series' best scribes, delivering the most delightfully loopy script since "The Mind Robber" and showing that light satire can work in the Doctor Who format.

A large part of what makes "Carnival" so memorable is the characterization of Vorg and Shirna. Vorg is the sort of character that we kind of like even though we know we shouldn't. He's a professional entertainer with a decidedly roguish sensibility -- he's not overtly malicious, but he's perfectly willing to lie and cheat his way through situations and he's mostly indifferent to the lives of those inside his Miniscope. Shirna is more ethical, urging him not to let the situation get out of hand and showing more concern about the danger posed by the Drashigs. Another reviewer commented on the slightly Douglas Adams-esque feel to the serial, and this is certainly evident when Zorg claims to have a permit from the Interian President Zarb -- in fact, it's from a professional wrestler named Zarb that they had met on their travels. The flamboyant pair are a perfect comedic contrast to the uptight, xenophobic Interians, and the scene in which Shirna does a dance routine and they ask the Interians if they found it entertaining, receiving a rather direct "No" in response, is laugh-out-loud funny. This light approach serves the material well, in that the point being made about the reactionary Kallik and the way the Interians seem to have enslaved their "functionaries" is rather obvious and might have become merely heavy-handed if played completely straight.

With so much going on at once, the Doctor and Jo are just two of many principal players in this story. (In fact, a first-time viewer must have been left wondering for a while what the two threads -- the Doctor and Jo on the ocean liner, and the conflict on Inter Minor -- had to do with each other, as the nature of the Miniscope isn't fully revealed for at least the first fifteen or twenty minutes.) Jo will never be Liz Shaw, but I must say I've warmed up to the duo at this point. Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning are adept at pulling off glib exchanges like "That's impossible!" "But what if you're wrong, Doctor?" "That's impossible, too!", and the writers have wisely let Jo become more competent and resourceful over time. (In this serial, it's most visible when she purloins a set of skeleton keys to help them escape after being locked up as stowaways.) Pertwee also continues to prove skilled at evoking the Doctor's humanitarian tendencies, proclaiming that he helped institute an intergalactic ban of Miniscopes and leaving no doubt about his opinion of Zorg. The crew of the Bernice are, I suspect, deliberately stereotypical -- the no-nonsense naval officer, the busy captain, the crusty old major and his daughter, etc. This might be a problem in another context, but it works here since they're always being manipulated by Zorg anyway, and the script effectively sets up a running gag about Jo being locked up until the captain's ready to see her.

"Carnival of Monsters" is also full of subtext for pretentious reviewers like myself to dissect. Holmes is clearly up to something by giving Zorg the power to manipulate his captives' emotions at will (just as writers do to their characters) and by having him proclaim that the Drashigs are the children's favorite because they're so violent. I'll grant that it's possible that he's actually satirizing Doctor Who itself here, in which case the Doctor's condemnation of Zorg and comparison of the Miniscope to a zoo might be meant not only to echo the complaints about the program's violence but to indict television entertainment in general as voyeuristic. On balance, though, I think his intention is probably the opposite. That is, he's arguing that entertainment like Doctor Who is only a problem when there's an amoral hack like Zorg in charge. After all, if Zorg is analagous to a TV writer, then surely he's only analogous to a very bad one, since the actions of those under his control make no logical sense -- at one point the Bernice crew go from preparing to shoot the Doctor to walking away to have dinner for no apparent reason, because Zorg is demonstrating the Scope's powers to the Interians. I think the "message," then, is simply that one should have a proper and responsible understanding of the difference between fictional violence and violence against real people, something which Zorg clearly lacks and which one might argue some of the stuffier critics of Doctor Who also lacked, albeit in opposite ways. Postmodernists reading this would probably observe that of course everyone in "Carnival of Monsters" is, in fact, a fictional character -- I'll concede the point, but I really don't think Holmes intended to focus on that. (Nor, tempting as it is, would I subscribe to the idea that Holmes foresaw the emergence of reality TV.)

Whatever point is being made here, the fact that the script weaves together so many disparate elements into a coherent whole that offers up so many intriguing interpretations is reason enough to praise it. With the TARDIS restored to full function at the end of "The Three Doctors," the Doctor's return to his wandering ways kicks off in first-rate form here. This is the best Pertwee serial since "Inferno," and with only eight more serials to go, I'm just hoping the rest of his era manages to maintain this level of quality.

Other notes:

- I think there's a continuity flub when the Bernice, which supposedly disappeared in 1926, is said to have vanished "about forty years ago." If, as most seem to agree, the UNIT era takes place in the late '70s and/or early '80s, that's really stretching the definition of "about."

Rating: **** (out of four)