September 3, 2017

Doctor Who: "Conspiracy"

It is 30 January 1965, and time for another episode of Doctor Who.

The Doctor (William Hartnell) is requested to play the lyre for Emperor Nero (Derek Francis). Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) earns the ire of Empress Poppaea (Kay Patrick), who tries to have her poisoned. Ian (William Russell) is recaptured and sent to become a gladiator.

The most remarkable part of that plot summary is that it all plays out as the broadest of comedies. To an extent there is a method to writer Dennis Spooner's madness: there is a surprising amount of rather callous bloodshed and murder in Nero's court, and playing such events straight would clearly make the episode unsuitable for children. By playing the same events for laughs it superficially softens the blows while actually making it even more unsettling after the fact.

I struggled with much of "Conspiracy" because in all honesty the comedy simply gets too broad and obvious to continue working within the context of Doctor Who. The most egregious example is Nero's salacious pursuit of Barbara around his court. I have never been fond of English sex farce, and it really does feel out of place for the series. Likewise the rather silly comedy of errors that sees the Doctor and Vicki sharing a palace with Barbara, but always just missing her as they run around in their separate escapades. It felt better balanced in earlier episodes. Here it goes overboard.

At the same time I do applaud the production team for trying something new with the format. They seem to have overshot a little here, but the previous two episodes did demonstrate that a certain level of comedy could work very well. We are still early into Doctor Who's history, and a certainly level of experimentation seems to be going on.

Despite it being a valiant effort, and despite having a few solid scenes, "Conspiracy" is the first episode of Series 2 I didn't entirely enjoy. Still, one disappointment after 13 good episodes presents a pretty impressive track record. The quality ratio does slip, but only to 93 per cent.

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