Watching The Savages was somewhat of a rare treat. Not only was it a serial that I’d never before watched, but also one that I’d neither read nor heard spoken about. I entered its viewing, therefore, with no preconceptions and an entirely open mind. I’m very pleased that I did because I was thoroughly taken by this 1960’s tale of morality. I enjoy looking for the political in serials, even if a message was not intentionally left. The Savages, however, proudly flaunts its political design. Whether it was intended to be a tale against South Africa’s apartheid regime, the association of eugenics with Nazi Germany, or a cutting condemnation of the British Class system, it matters not. What is important in my mind is that The Savages is as equally as relevant today as it was in 1966.
The Doctor and his companions find themselves on an unnamed planet amongst a civilization which the Doctor considers highly advanced. Although the landscape is somewhat arid and populated by people leading an almost caveman like existence (the Savages), there is built on the planet a sparkling city. Freedom is afforded to the city’s occupants sufficient to allow them as much leisure time as they so desire. Their wants are always met, however they are unable to exit the city to the real world. The city is entirely enclosed with no access to natural air, light, sun, rain or wind, however the occupants don’t consider themselves to suffer materially or physically as a consequence. The occupants of both the city (the Elders) and the outside world (the Savages) are human and save for the vast differences in their qualities of life, are nonetheless identical physically and psychologically.
The Elders consider themselves superior in all ways to the Savages, who are treated as barbarians. The Elders welcome the Doctor’s arrival and claim that they have been tracking the course of his spaceship for many eons. His arrival is considered a time of momentous historical importance. The Doctor is treated as a folk hero and a man of very high regard, and is afforded the honorary office of High Elder. The Council of Elders, however, is nonetheless surprised that the Doctor is travelling with companions. Dodo and Steven are welcomed and given gifts of a mirror inlaid with precious gemstones (for Dodo) and an ornamental dagger (for Steven). The mirror plays an important role in the story at a later stage.
The Elders are proud of their intellectual and scientific progress and extol its virtues to the Doctor. Jano’s discussion of race perfection is chillingly reminiscent of eugenics:
“Doctor, do you realise that with our knowledge, we can make the brave man braver, the wise man wiser, the strong man stronger. We can make the beautiful girl more beautiful still. You will see the advantages of that in the perfection of our race”.
Whilst initially impressed by the Elders’ “vast scientific research” and their race of “great intelligence”, the Doctor soon became suspicious and had an uncomfortable feeling about this place which otherwise evidenced a greatly advanced society. On coming upon one of the Savages in the Elders’ facility the Doctor was quickly cognisant of what was occurring. The Elders had “discovered a way of extracting life’s force from human beings, and absorbing it into themselves, leaving the victim, as you see, almost dead”.
Once aware of the horrors that were perpetrated against the Savages, the Doctor was quick to condemn the travesty. In doing so, however, he found himself an unwilling participant in the Elders’ immoral “medical” procedure. The Doctor’s powerful conversation with the Elder leader, Jano, is worthy of quoting verbatim.
JANO: We do not understand you, Doctor. You have accepted our honours gladly, how can you condemn this great artistic and scientific civilisation because of a few wretched barbarians?
DOCTOR: So your rewards are only for the people that agree with you ?
JANO: No. No, of course not. But if you are going to oppose us.
DOCTOR: Oppose you? Indeed I am going to oppose you, just in the same way that I oppose the Daleks or any other menace to common humanity.
JANO: I am sorry you take this attitude, Doctor. It is most unscientific. You are standing in the way of human progress.
DOCTOR: Human progress, sir? How dare you call your treatment of these people progress!
JANO: They are hardly people, Doctor. They are not like us.
DOCTOR: I fail to see the difference.
JANO: Do you not realise that all progress is based on exploitation.
DOCTOR: Exploitation indeed! This, sir, is protracted murder!
JANO: We have achieved a very great deal merely by the sacrifice of a few savages.
DOCTOR: The sacrifice of even one soul is far too great! You must put an end to this inhuman practice.
JANO: You leave me no choice. Take him away, Captain. And tell Senta that we have an emergency. I shall be sending him special instructions.
The Doctor is placed on a gurney and strapped down. Wheeled into the vaporization unit, the Doctor undergoes transference. This procedure is considered by the Elders to be the most impressive ever undertaken because no person of such high intellect has previously been subjected to it. The Doctor is rendered unconscious and upon waking he is weak, groggy and disorientated. He is unable to speak for the rest of the episode.
Given the unique nature of the Doctor’s transference the Elder leader, Jano, volunteers to be the recipient of the Doctor’s life force. Unbeknownst to all, Jano receives more than he bargained for. Perhaps because of the Doctor’s non-human DNA, Jano develops a conscience and the speech mannerisms of the Doctor. Rob Shearman argues in Running Through Corridors that this was a ploy by the Doctor Who production team to see if the Doctor could be performed by someone other than William Hartnell. In my review of The Celestial Toymaker I noted that Hartnell was lucky to have escaped the chop during that production run. Shearman goes on to state that Frederick Jaeger, the actor who played Jano, was unsuccessful in pulling it off. Had he done so, and replaced Hartnell, then the series is unlikely to have lasted more than a short period of time. It was the radical reworking of the title character in the form of Patrick Troughton, Shearman argues, that secured Doctor Who’s future.
It is the emergence of Jano’s conscience that facilitates his treason against the Elders and support of the Doctor, his companions and the Savages in the destruction of the Elders’ scientific equipment. The Doctor’s acquiescence to the wilful destruction evidences a distinct change to his previous “no interference” policy. The Doctor is changing history and quite proudly doing so. The devastation of the equipment is undertaken in a most luddite like manner and is perhaps a hint that this serial is just as much about the perils of technology, and its effect upon the working classes, as it is about issues pertaining to racism or eugenics. Given that the writer, Ian Sturt Black, died in 1997 we are unlikely to ever know for sure.
It has been argued that The Savages is essentially the same story as The Ark. Both involve a society residing in an artificial environment in which one group oppresses the other. There is no logical basis for this discrimination and in both serials the oppressed rise up and usurp their overlords. Both end with the need for co-operation between the former enemies. When reviewing The Ark I noted that there was no guarantee that the Monoids would accept the Guardians’ proposals for peace. In The Savages, however, peace is assured by the intervention of an independent third party as mediator. Much to Steven’s dismay, the Doctor volunteered him to remain and facilitate the transformation to a fair and just society. Although initially hesitant, Steven quickly accepts the challenge and the Doctor and Dodo depart to the Tardis. Although Steven’s retreat is only slightly less hasty than Vicki’s, at least he is not the victim of a quick romance and marriage. As our next serial, The War Machines, will show, there are a lot worse companion exits to come.
For the record, The Savages is the first serial to not have its episodes individually titled. Henceforth the viewers are better able to know when a serial starts and finishes. Unfortunately for diehard fans of the series it also means that there will no longer be any arguments on what the serial’s correct title is! A sign of the more innocent times of the 1960s can be seen in the Doctor’s unique calculating apparatus – a Reacting Vibrator. Is it any wonder that it was never seen or heard of again. This serial is also unique in that there are absolutely no monsters. The inhumanity of humans to their own kind is monstrous enough. The four episodes of The Savages are among the 106 episodes that are no longer held in the BBC archives. This marathon was undertaken by viewing Loose Cannon’s excellent reconstructions.
©Vivien Fleming, 2013.
Robert Shearman and Toby Hadoke, Running Through Corridors. Rob and Toby’s Marathon Watch of Doctor Who (Mad Norwegian Press, Des Moines, Iowa: 2011),