The moment the Doctor declares that they’ve reached an an age of peace and prosperity you know there’s going to be a sting in the tail very soon ….
The Savages is an obscure one. Lacking a monster and with only a brief few clips and limited photographic material available to supplement the audio soundtrack, that’s not really surprising. But whilst the storyline – a seemingly ideal society is revealed to have been built on evil foundations – is fairly routine SF fare, it shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.
I will concede that some parts are odd though. The notion that the Elders of this unnamed planet know all about the Doctor (they’ve dubbed him ‘The Traveller from Beyond Time’) because they’ve been following his adventures from the comfort of their advanced city is pretty bizarre. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see in the TV Comic Doctor Who strip.
But I suppose it does help to integrate the Doctor into the plot quite quickly. His already established status means that he’s not required to prove his worth – as soon as he turns up he’s feted as an honoured guest and given an impressive cloak to wear.
At the same time the Doctor is hob-nobbing with Jano (Frederick Jaeger), the leader of the Elders, Steven and Dodo are given a conducted tour of the city.
We’re not that far into the first episode and already the alarm bells should be ringing for the viewer. Avon (Robert Sidaway) and Flower (Kay Patrick) are both attentive hosts, but Dodo’s not entirely satisfied (“every time I want to see something, they stop me”). On the other hand, Steven is quite prepared to endure this guided tour uncomplainingly.
Making Dodo the questioning one offers her a belated spot of character development, but the downside is that Steven then comes across as a little dim, as he seems to accept without question that the Elders have created a paradise where anything they want will be provided for them on a plate.
There has to be a price of course, and this is the torture of the other race on the planet (referred to by everyone simply as the “savages”). Back in 1966, memories of WW2 would still have been fresh in the memories of many (Terry Nation, for example). The way the young savage Nanina (Clare Jenkins) is strapped to an operating table and watched dispassionately by a group of scientists is a disturbing one which can’t help bringing to mind echoes of Nazi experiments.
After Dodo goes her own way and pokes her nose where she shouldn’t (when Flower suggests she wouldn’t have gone down the forbidden corridor, a sadly resigned Steven tells her that “you don’t know her. She’d go anywhere”) we’re given another sign that the outwardly benevolent world of the Elders is only skin deep. Having failed to keep Dodo in check, Avon and Flower are collected by the guards.
Avon attempts to reassure her, telling Flower that “this is a free state, isn’t it, and we are all equal here”. The fact they are roughly escorted away and simply vanish without trace from the story is a disquieting touch. It certainly carries more punch than any on-screen punishment could.
That the Elders draw the life force from the savages (not killing them, but leaving them barely alive afterwards) in order to replenish themselves is the dirty secret at the heart of their paradise. It’s the cue for a pulsating scene where the Doctor and Jano face off (such a pity this doesn’t exist on video, as Hartnell sounds to be on cracking form).
JANO: 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!
Character development in The Savages is fairly rudimentary. The two leaders – Jano for the Elders and Chal (Ewan Solon) for the savages – are the ones who emerge as the most rounded individuals. Solon overcomes the handicap of what looks to be fairly unforgiving old-age make up to give Chal a fairly noble air whilst Jano (once he’s taken on the Doctor’s life force) does something similar.
Frederick Jaeger treats us to a fairly accurate Hartnell impression (plenty of hmming) after this happens. The ultimate outcome – the Doctor’s imported conscience finally brings Jano to his senses after all these years – is a neat way of pushing the story towards a conclusion, although part of me wishes that the Elders could have been swayed by arguments as well. As it is, they only seem to capitulate once their laboratory is destroyed and they no longer have the means to experiment on the savages (this always supposes that it couldn’t be rebuilt from scratch).
Since the rest of the Elders are fairly anonymous types, we never find out what they really think of the situation, so once the Doctor toddles off in the TARDIS pretty much anything could happen. Although since Steven has been left behind as their new leader, let’s hope that he’s able to keep the peace.
The faltering friendship between a guard called Exorse (Geoffrey Frederick) and Nanina, which begins in the penultimate episode, does suggest that the future might be a positive one though. Held prisoner by the savages, the previously belligerent Exorse (who earlier had captured Nanina) gratefully accepts the small kindnesses of Nanina when she treats his wounds. Maybe a little more could have been made of this, although when Exorse returns to the city he doesn’t give his new savage friends away, which shows that his loyalties were already beginning to shift.
So we have to bid farewell to Steven. The nature of his departure is a bit abrupt (although it’s not half as abrupt as Dodo’s upcoming exit). As with previous departures, it’s easy to imagine that Hartnell was as sorry to see Purves go as the Doctor was to leave Steven behind. It’s nice that a few small scraps of 8mm cine-camera footage captured their final scene together.
The Savages might err on the predictable side, but since it’s a four-parter, like most of season three, it never outstays its welcome. I’ll give it 3 TARDISes out of 5.