Monday, 13 February 2023

Doctor Who, ‘The Myth Makers’ (1965)

In late 1965 Doctor Who featured a four part story about the end of the Trojan War. All four episodes are lost, though the audio track survives intact, along with a selection of photos and video snippets. In spite of that The myth makers, by Donald Cotton, is widely regarded as a highlight of Doctor Who’s early years.

My aim here is to highlight how it plays on prior models. One target is Homer, of course, but it also plays on the 1956 Hollywood epic Helen of Troy starring Rossana Podestà, as well as Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida.

Some surviving materials of The myth makers are set photos, rather than stills from the actual episodes. Notice the lighting rig overhead. (My composite of a set photo with the logo from the 1985 novelisation)

This story isn’t the Doctor’s only visit to the ancient Mediterranean world, though it is his only onscreen encounter with ancient Greeks. He has also encountered Romans in The Romans (1965), The fires of Pompeii (2008), The Pandorica opens (2010), and The eaters of light (2017); and ancient Egyptians in The Daleks’ master plan (1965–1966) and Dinosaurs on a spaceship (2012).

The first three episodes are comical in tone. Helen is conspicuous by her absence. Achilles runs away from Hector. Odysseus thoroughly enjoys competing with the Doctor’s trickery. Cassandra is a bloodthirsty executioner, Agamemnon a bully, Paris an imbecile. The fourth episode is much darker, and represents one of the very worst failures in the Doctor’s long career.

The Doctor, Vicki, and Steven land the TARDIS near Troy, interrupting the duel of Hector and Achilles. The Doctor and Steven become prisoners of the Greeks, while the Doctor’s TARDIS — with Vicki still inside — is seized by the Trojans. Vicki adopts the persona of Cressida and ends up staying behind with Troilus. Steven fights a duel against Paris. And the Doctor desperately tries to get Odysseus to adopt any stratagem except a wooden horse, because he finds the story so utterly silly.

Steven. Why not the wooden horse?
Doctor. No, my dear boy, I couldn’t possibly suggest that. The whole story is obviously absurd. Probably invented by Homer as some good dramatic device. No, I think it would be completely impractical.
[ ... ]
Doctor. Have you, ah, thought of tunnelling, hm?
Odysseus. It’s been done. What we want is something revolutionary.
Doctor. Ah yes, dear me, dear me. Well, tell me, have you thought about flying machines, hm?
Odysseus. No, I can’t say I have.
The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Odysseus (Ivor Salter) compete in outwitting each other, much to Odysseus’ delight. They’re both way ahead of Agamemnon (Francis de Wolff, seated).

Subverting Homer: Achilles and Hector

Right from the opening scene, The myth makers subverts expectations based on the Iliad. In Homer, Achilleus chases Hektor three times around the walls of Troy before he turns and fights (Iliad 22.136–207). In Doctor Who, the roles are reversed: a hulking Hector chases a relatively slender Achilles. Cotton’s 1985 novelisation of the story draws the contrast especially clearly:

They were both big men; but one was enormous with muscles queuing up behind each other, begging to be given a chance. This whole, boiling-over physique was restrained, somewhat inadequately, by bronze-studded, sweat-stained leather armour ... Seams strained and gussets gaped. ... [H]e could only be the renowned Hector, King Priam’s eldest son, and war-lord of Troy.
His opponent was a different matter; younger by some ten years, I would say, and with the grace of a dancer. Which he certainly needed, as he spun and pirouetted to avoid the great bronze, two-handed sword which Hector wielded — in one hand — ...

The story continues to poke jabs at Homer. Watching from inside the TARDIS, the Doctor points out how long-winded Hector and Achilles are:

Vicki. Doctor, be careful! They look terribly fierce.
Doctor. Oh, what nonsense. If you take notice of them, I think they’re doing more talking than they are fighting.

His reaction mirrors that of many Iliad readers. In Homer, heroes sometimes make long speeches to daunt each other before fighting. Glaukos spends 67 lines reciting his genealogy to Diomedes instead of attacking (Iliad 6.145–211).

When Odysseus arrives on the scene, a good-humoured but remorseless pirate, he makes fun of Achilles’ claim to have killed Hector. As he does so he provides cues to provide an in-story explanation for how Homer ended up making things different in the Iliad.

Odysseus. But what a year is this for plague! Even the strongest might fall. Prince Hector — hah, that he should come to this. You met him here, you say, as he lay dying?
Achilles. I met him, Odysseus, in single combat.
Doctor. Oh yes, it’s true.
Odysseus. And raced him round the walls ’til down he fell exhausted? A famous victory!

This, we are to understand, is where Homer gets the story of the plague in Iliad book 1, and Achilleus chasing Hektor around the walls in book 22.

Subverting Hollywood: Paris, Cassandra, and Helen

Episode 2 introduces the Trojan prince Paris (Barrie Ingham) as a purely comic character, practically out of the pages of a P. G. Wodehouse story. Paris is a boastful and bewildered Bertie Wooster without a Jeeves to guide him: desperate for his father Priam’s approval, resentful of his sister Cassandra’s superior intelligence.

Paris. I sought Achilles, father, even to the Grecian lines, but he skulked within his tent. Ha ha ha, he feared to face me!
Priam. ... (observing the TARDIS) What — what is that you have got there?
Paris. Ah! A prize, father. Captured from the Greeks!
Priam. Hah, captured, you say? I wager they were glad to see the back of it. What is it?
Paris. — what is it? Ah, well. It’s, er, it’s a, sort of a, erm — a shrine, or so it seems.
[ ... ]
Priam. ... Get back to the war!
Cassandra. And take that thing with you!
Paris. Oh, really! If you — if you knew the weight of, this, this, this — thing
Cassandra (Frances White), the distrustful high priestess of Troy. Until recently Frances White was appearing opposite another veteran Doctor Who villain, David Graham, the very first Dalek voice, in Peppa Pig (2004–2021) as Grandma Pig and Grandpa Pig.

Cassandra is his bloodthirsty sister, the high priestess of Troy. She repeatedly gives a command that the Doctor’s companions be executed, only for it to be countermanded by Priam or Paris every time. She foreshadows the future when she explains why Paris should never have brought the TARDIS into the city:

Cassandra. Why do you imagine that they allowed you to capture it? [ ... ] I dreamed that out on the plain the Greeks had left a gift, and although what it was remained unclear, we brought it into Troy. Then at night, from out its belly, soldiers came and fell upon us as we slept.

On one level, these depictions are somewhat true to Greek legend, if only as caricatures. The Paris of the Iliad has to be rescued from his duel with Menelaos, and he spends his time having sex with Helen while the Trojans are fighting for their lives. Kassandra appears only in one scene in Homer (Iliad 24.698–708), but in post-Homeric Greek legend she is a seer whose prophecies are never believed.

It isn’t Homer that’s being subverted here, but the 1956 Hollywood epic Helen of Troy. Paris in the film has nothing laughable about him. He’s a romantic hero, brave and noble; the love of Helen and Paris is pure and tragic. Cassandra is a vulnerable teenager who fears for her brother’s future, and Paris sees her prophecies as a sign of an unfortunate illness.

Paris. And I suppose that evil horse of hers will spring out and trample me. Huh, very well. Let it come, my lord. If that’s the price of living in a world of fables.
Cassandra. Do not say that, Paris. Do not seek peace elsewhere, dear brother, until first you have pacified Athena.
Paris. My little Cassandra, there can be no postponement. So come along, and give me your blessing for a happy voyage.
Cassandra. I cannot bless what I see in your future, Paris.
Helen of Troy (1956)

At the end, Paris is on the point of defeating Menelaus in a one-on-one duel when one of Menelaus’ men treacherously stabs him from behind. Cassandra is seized and (offscreen) raped by a Greek warrior in the fall of Troy. Ingham’s Paris and White’s Cassandra in The myth makers are their opposites in every way: Paris a coward and a fool, Cassandra vindictive and vicious. Both are played for laughs.

Top, Helen of Troy (1956): Cassandra (Janette Scott), Paris (Jacques Sernas), and Helen (Rossana Podestà). Bottom, The Trojan horse (1961): Cassandra (Lidia Alfonsi) and Paris (Warner Bentivegna) (and an anonymous handmaid in the background: maybe Katarina? I kid, I kid).

It’s just possible there may also be an element of parody of The Trojan horse (La guerra di Troia, 1961), a peplum film which depicted Paris as a treacherous, chinless poser who takes pleasure in betraying his family, Cassandra as aloof, and Helen as malicious and conniving. Helen of Troy was the better known film.

And that brings us to Helen herself. Helen of Troy puts Helen front and centre. It’s practically a Rossana Podestà vehicle, coming on the heels of her success as Nausicaa in another Homeric film, the 1954 Ulysses, opposite Kirk Douglas. The whole concept of Helen as a character revolves around her matchless beauty: ‘the face that launched a thousand ships / and burnt the topless towers of Ilium’ (Marlowe, Doctor Faustus).

Priam. I don’t particularly notice good looks. Only gets you into trouble. Look at Paris. Handsome as the devil, but a complete coward.
Vicki. I thought he was rather nice.
Priam. Yes, women generally do, that's what got us all into this trouble. Oh, of course, you've not met Helen yet, have you?
Vicki. No, I'm looking forward to it.
Priam. Yes, well, she’s a — oh well never mind. If only he’d met a nice, sensible girl like you.

The thing is, of course, that we never do meet Helen. She’s mentioned three times, but she never appears: these lines are the most we get. Priam’s talk of good looks directly draws attention to Helen and her legendary beauty — and in doing so, he also underlines the failure of that beauty to actually appear. The audience, watching these characters, are denied the opportunity to see the legendary sight that the whole thing is supposedly about: Helen’s face.

This too is a dramatic subversion of Helen of Troy. The myth makers turns Paris, previously a romantic hero, into a bombastic, cowering nitwit. Cassandra, once a vulnerable teenager, becomes a snarling executioner. And Helen, the Hollywood beauty known for her appearance, becomes ... invisible.

Subverting Shakespeare: Troilus, Cressida, and Diomede

In Greek legend Troilos is a youth that Achilleus ambushes, pursues, and kills while Troilos is outside the walls of Troy, watering his horse at the shrine of Thymbraian Apollo. The Iliad mentions him once in passing, as someone who has already been killed (Iliad 24.257). His story isn’t told fully in any ancient literary work. But it was extremely popular in Greek art: 20% of all ancient depictions of Achilleus are occupied with the story of his ambush of Troilos. (See Gainsford 2015: 60–61 for further details.)

Set photo of the dungeon where Troilus visits Vicki.

In The myth makers, Troilus is Vicki’s love interest. She begins to take an interest in him at the end of episode 2. In episode 3, when she and Steven are imprisoned in a Trojan dungeon, Troilus visits and becomes friendly with her. In episode 4 she tries to save him from the destruction of Troy by asking him to go on an errand outside the city. Outside the walls he encounters Achilles, but unlike his ancient counterpart, Troilus wins the fight. Vicki finds him and remains with him in antiquity, while the Doctor time-travels onwards.

The thing is, by the time Vicki meets Troilus, she has already changed her identity. In episode 2, when she emerges from the TARDIS and Priam befriends her (much to Cassandra’s disgust), the Trojans decide that Vicki is too ‘heathenish’ a name. Priam decides to call her Cressida. Meanwhile, Steven is trying to get inside Troy to help Vicki, in the guise of a dead Greek warrior named Diomede.

Enter Shakespeare, stage left.

Cressida isn’t in any ancient source. She developed out of a 12th century French epic, Le roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. Dares of Phrygia, a late antique Latin source, had made Troilus a major character in the Trojan War: Benoît added a romance with Briseida (a character with virtually no connection to the Homeric Briseis), and a love triangle with the Greek hero Diomedes (Burgess and Kelly 2017: 204–212, 216–217, 226–228, etc.).

Angelica Kauffmann, ‘Diomed and Cressida’ (1789)

150-odd years later, Boccaccio compiled the bits about Troilus and Briseida into a poem called Il filostrato (‘the one laid prostrate by love’). In Boccaccio they’re named Troilo and Criseida. This poem in turn served as the basis for various English versions: Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Lydgate’s Troy book, and Caxton’s Recuyell of the historyes of Troye. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (ca. 1602) is based on these.

In Act V of the play, Diomedes tries to seduce Cressida once she arrives at the Greek camp, and Troilus spies on them and vows to seek Diomedes’ life in battle. In The myth makers, when Troilus visits Cressida in her cell, he is concerned about her relationship with ‘Diomede’ — that is, Steven —

Troilus. Look here, is this Diomede a particular friend of yours or something?
Vicki. A very good friend, yes.
Troilus. Well, I don’t see how you can be friends with a Greek.
Vicki. Oh, look, Troilus. When you come from the future you make friends with a lot of people, and he’s one of them.
Troilus. I see. But he’s not in any way special?
Vicki. No. Why do you keep on?
Troilus. Well, because that’s what I was — I mean, that’s what the others were worried about.

— and in episode 4, when ‘Cressida’ sends him outside the walls to save him from the fall of Troy, his errand is to look for ‘Diomede’, who has escaped from prison. Troilus laments over the fact that Cressida has apparently betrayed him, echoing his fury in the play.

As in the play, Troilus survives. Unlike the play, Troilus and Cressida have a happy-ever-after together.

Left: Agamemnon (Brian Cox) in Troy, 2004. Right: Agamemnon (Francis de Wolff) in The myth makers, 1965. Presumably there’s no direct influence, so it’s a little eerie how similar their designs are. The Agamemnons in Helen of Troy and The Trojan horse look very different.

So, that’s The myth makers and intertextuality. There are many other intrinsic points of interest that I haven’t touched on: the design of the wooden horse (much more interesting than the one in Helen of Troy, and infinitely better than the clumsy junkpile used in The Trojan horse); the sudden introduction of Katarina as a new companion for the Doctor; the Doctor’s convivial relationship with Odysseus. These things I’ll leave to more Whovian-focused forums.

Where to hear or read The myth makers


  • Burgess, G. S.; Kelly, D. 2017. The Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. Cambridge.
  • Gainsford, P. 2015. Early Greek hexameter poetry. Cambridge.

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