He Always Managed to Evade Me (A Happy Ending)

a happy endingMuch has been written about the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan Foreman, a character who seems increasingly perplexing as the series marches on. The original companion, she was written out in the second season, and while neither the character’s personality nor Carole Ann Ford’s performance are remembered with particular fondness, Susan’s biological relationship to the Doctor means that she holds a peculiar fixation for many fans (including those who only know her from Wikipedia). In 2005, the Sci-Fi Sea Cruise produced A Happy Ending, their own attempt to solve the Problem of Susan.

In her departure serial, 1964’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Susan falls in love with David Campbell, a 22nd-century Englishman; despite her protests, the Doctor leaves her with David so that she can settle down and help rebuild Earth in relative safety. The Doctor’s failure to fulfil his promise of returning to Susan is at the heart of most discussion of the character. In 1983’s The Five Doctors, an older Susan is time-scooped to the Death Zone on Gallifrey, where she responds politely to her grandfather’s future incarnations, but only seems to feel anything for the original (even if he’s played by Richard Hurndall, standing in for the late Hartnell). Her life with David back on Earth isn’t mentioned, but the First Doctor apparently returns her there afterwards. The Five Doctors is enormously enjoyable nonsense, but really doesn’t take advantage of the emotional storytelling potential of bringing all these characters together. As such, it’s often quietly ignored, with the implication that the characters might not really remember it – in 2006’s “School Reunion”, Sarah Jane Smith’s latest memory of the Doctor seems to be her initial departure from the TARDIS, while Peter Capaldi’s in-character conversations with schoolchildren in 2015 have him tearfully admit that he never returned to Susan.

In 2005, the Sci-Fi Sea Cruise secured Carole Ann Ford, but no-one who’d ever played the Doctor. This put them in a slight predicament. A solo Susan adventure wouldn’t be satisfying, but casting their own Doctor would completely kill the cruise videos’ unique appeal – to see familiar characters depicted, by the real deal, in bizarre live-action fanfiction. A new Doctor would be too momentous – it would break the illusion. That’s what ruined Gene Genius. Their compromise? Cast a new Master for Susan to contend with.

When the Master’s TARDIS materialises, its working chameleon circuit cleverly (and shrewdly) transforming it into an elevator, it’s slightly disappointing that it’s not Anthony Ainley who steps out (or at least someone in a Peter Pratt or Geoffrey Beevers mask). But no: the newcomer, John Messenger, quickly demonstrates himself to be a properly trained actor – the first one the cruise has imported from outside Doctor Who. Bearded, corpulent, and keen enough to actually dress up in a cape and Time Lord-ish waistcoat, he’s immediately likeable in the role. (For one mad moment, I thought he was supposed to be fecking Rassilon, but even the Sci-Fi Sea Cruise has limits). An accomplished theatre actor, Messenger performed alongside the likes of Christopher Walken (a 1982 production of Henry IV), though his only other screen credit is a maître d’ in an episode of the 1993 comedy Key West. His take on the Master is campy, charismatic, and flamboyant; the closest analogue in the show is probably Ainley, but if anything he’s even more ostentatious. Sadly, Messenger never had a chance to develop the character further – he died some months after filming A Happy Ending.

A couple stroll past the Master’s TARDIS, and the women remarks, “I’m sure there were only two elevators here yesterday…” You’d hardly recognise her from those 1960s behind-the-scenes photographs, but yes, it’s the one and only Verity Lambert, the original producer of Doctor Who. She’s also given the pleasingly old-fashioned “script editor” credit, meaning that this video has the direct approval and endorsement of one of the show’s founders, which is more than you can say for any other attempt to follow up Susan’s story. It’s all competently filmed, albeit closer to the teleplay style of The Crystal Conundrum (with slightly better audio) than the cinematic Death Takes a Holiday.

When the Doctor’s TARDIS materialises (via the same rubbish effect from The Crystal Conundrum), Susan emerges, and we’re treated to a massively expository inner monologue as she stares out over the sea: she’s spent a lifetime rebuilding Earth with David Campbell, but he’s just died, and now the Doctor has taken her back to a more pleasant time in history where she can rest and think about starting a new life. On the one hand, we have to give the team credit for finding a sort-of meaningful way to work the fact that they’ve got to shoot this thing on a cruise ship into the story. On the other, the absence of the Doctor (he doesn’t even step out of the TARDIS) makes it all feel like a painful missed opportunity. Not that anything in the previous videos suggests that these are the right people to break the show’s four-decade silence regarding the abandonment of Susan, but they did have Verity Lambert in the writers’ room, so it may not have been entirely disastrous.

Interestingly, Marc Platt’s 2009 audio drama An Earthly Child – another major attempt to deal with all that Susan business, also with Ford reprising the role – similarly opened with David Campbell dead. (This is something of a recurring theme in Doctor Who – the men to whom companions were originally married off are routinely killed off by later writers who want to bring back a character and aren’t interested in whoever they were saddled with.) In this version, David died some years ago, leaving behind a teenage son, Alex Campbell. (Reproduction and propagation are something of a trademark for Platt, who also gave the Brigadier a daughter and grandson in Downtime, made the Doctor the progenitor of the Cybermen in Spare Parts, and did… all that stuff in Lungbarrow.) The Doctor’s biological great-grandchild, Alex later appeared in Platt’s excellent Christmassy audio Relative Dimensions, only for Big Finish to resolve things rather unsatisfactorily in To the Death, killing the character off without having either the Doctor or Susan react significantly to their loss.

It might have been tempting to place A Happy Ending just after The Five Doctors, but Susan mentions that her grandfather’s appearance and dress sense have changed, so unless we take this as a sly dig at Richard Hurndall, the First Doctor is the only one who can’t have brought Susan to the cruise. If we want this to be consistent with the audio dramas, it’s several years before An Earthly Child from Susan’s perspective, but both she and the Doctor have to lose their memories of the cruise adventure somehow (which is, to be fair, the sort of thing that happens all the time in Doctor Who). Aside from this, the Doctor who takes her to the cruise could be anyone from Troughton to Capaldi or beyond.

An unearthly child indeed: Susan spends a good chunk of the video stroking lion statues and rubbing stone pillars to the sound of eerie Radiophonic Workshop ambience. It’s difficult to tell what they were going for here – either Susan enjoys the trappings of pre-invasion human culture so much that it brings her to the point of physical ecstasy or they just told Carole Ann Ford to do whatever. Substantially less interesting are the scenes where sinister aliens played by American tourists nod slowly and repeatedly at each other (an unsuccessful hybridisation of the “take a normal behavioural or physical attribute and make it spooky” Doctor Who technique and the “this will become hilarious if we do it for long enough” Family Guy maxim, but at least they’re not required to be able to act this time).

For no particular reason, the Master moves his TARDIS to another location on the ship, where it adopts the form of an out-of-order disabled toilet. Finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for – Susan meets the Master. When she observes that he’s had a new regeneration, he remarks, “Yes, more than one. Didn’t care for the last body very much. It is so nice to have a beard again. You know, a Master without a beard is like a day without sunshine…” At this point, the most recent on-screen Master had been Eric Roberts in the 1996 film; he was beardless indeed, though the result of possession rather than regeneration. In fact, the next three TV Masters – Derek Jacobi, John Simm, and Michelle Gomez – are all distinctly clean-shaven. As such, we can place the Messenger Master during the Time War (one of the the new regeneration cycle including the Alexander Macqueen Master, if you’re into the audios) or at some undefined point in the Master’s future, a little like Tom Baker’s Curator – perhaps he’s the War King, the benevolent Master who rules Gallifrey in the Faction Paradox series.

The last time the Master encountered Susan (on-screen, anyway) was in The Five Doctors, during his Ainley incarnation. (If you follow the novels, it was actually Susan who burned the Delgado Master into the crispy Pratt/Beevers version – she stole his TARDIS, or one of them, to boot.) Rather than playing the reunion for drama, we have the Master earnestly claiming to have reformed, only for Susan to see through his lies, laugh in his face and brush him off. While not particularly consistent with her behaviour in the show, she’s got a maturity and self-confidence here that suggest substantial growth as a person – it feels like some genuine thought has been put into avoiding the damsel-in-distress trap she often fell into. (Maybe this is also a result of just telling Carole Ann Ford to do whatever, but by God it works.) The Master says that, long ago, he misplaced a dangerous device under the sea “during a little altercation with the Doctor over the Sea Devils”; the implication is that this occurred in the 1972 serial The Sea Devils, though that story is about the Master’s attempt to join forces with the eponymous creatures and doesn’t mention any such weapon. Aliens are searching for the device, he tells her, and will use it to destroy the Earth. For some time, the Master has been trying to contact the Doctor to help sort all this out, but the latter left so quickly after dropping off Susan that he time-rammed the Master’s TARDIS (to Susan’s delight). The time-ram damaged it, which is why he’s seemingly stuck here – presumably this is also what turned it into an out-of-order toilet, so perhaps the Master only disguised it as an out-of-order elevator to keep people out. (It’s odd that he was able to land before the Doctor if he was following him, but let’s chalk that up to time-travel.) In a direct Five Doctors reference, Susan accuses the Master of “doing exactly what [he] tried to do in the Death Zone”, but that was the one time he actually tried to help the Doctor, albeit in the hopes that the Time Lords would grant him a new regeneration cycle; the Doctor’s scorn drove the Master to attack him in the end, so presumably Susan just means “turning out not to be good” here.

While stalking after the dismissive Susan, the Master notices those sinister American aliens, and turns to address the camera: “How did they get here so fast? No, they will not obtain the power to destroy this planet if I can help it!” This isn’t a million miles away from the Doctor’s direct address in 2015’s “Before the Flood”, which was peculiar in itself – perhaps Time Lords are just a bit inclined towards metafictional awareness around water?

Next up, a montage of Susan being unearthly, staring off into the distance, and kissing dolphins in some kind of marina. Presumably this is her peculiar way of grieving David’s death. Things take a turn for the worse when a poorly-voiced dolphin psychically links with her, gives her a mysterious orb via a dodgy video effect, and tells her that it’s her destiny to take care of it. (These videos really do rely a lot on voice-overs, and it’s painfully clear that the story had not been written when this footage was shot, much less the dialogue. At least in this case it’s an interesting callback to the telepathic abilities Susan inconsistently displayed in some early episodes.) The dolphin also says “So long and thanks for all the fish”, which is about the dullest and most obvious thing you could have a dolphin say. It doesn’t even fly to Mondas afterwards, so the extent to which this represents an attempt to continue Douglas Adams’s habit of cross-pollinating Doctor Who and his own original fiction remains unclear.

In another fantastically lo-fi twist on Doctor Who‘s “unseen villain observing the heroes on monitors” cliché, the Master, standing awkwardly in the corridor outside his TARDIS, holds a portable video player displaying a paused video of Susan and the dolphin. “Yes, bring it to me, my dear!” he declares while laughing maniacally. We see a council of the American aliens nodding tediously and discussing Susan, the Master, and the alien device; one declares, clumsily, “Her strength of will and sadness of her heart will protect her.” The Master confronts Susan, demanding “The Orb of Euphoria”, as it’s apparently called. He chases her onto the deck, where they meet the aliens playing ping-pong. Now he seems to think they want to “steal his glory” by destroying the Earth ahead of him; in a rather fun climax, they beat him into submission with ping-pong balls. The aliens explain to Susan that they arranged for her to be given the Orb – they didn’t dare touch it themselves, as it brings such joy that it can drive people insane. (Apparently they directed the dolphin to pick the Orb up from the English coast, where The Sea Devils happened, and bring it to the Caribbean?) They recognised her as a Time Lord (this is the first time Susan has ever been called one on-screen!), and decided that she could take it home to safety; they’ll contact the Doctor to let him know the details after she enjoys her holiday. (It’s not clear if this means it’s Gallifreyan technology, or just that they’re assuming she can bring it to its rightful place. They seem unsurprised to find a few Time Lords in the vicinity, so all this is probably happening pre-Time War, or maybe post-series 9.) The lead alien asks Susan to show her the Orb, so that they can “protect the Earth”. (It looks like a red bouncy ball – perhaps those ping-pong balls were also alien tech?) Before she can touch it, the Master makes a grab for it – instantly reduced to a raving, laughing buffoon, he grabs another alien and starts waltzing with him. (It’s not clear why they didn’t just let the Master take the Orb if their plan involved letting him neutralise himself by taking the Orb – perhaps they were just improvising.)

Susan’s near-imperviousness to the Orb’s effects as a result of her sadness over David’s death actually ties the story’s emotional aspect quite neatly into the science fiction, even if it does feel like a dramatic cheat – grief as solved by McGuffin. When the Master giddily asks Susan to the bar, she replies, “Okay, I’m anybody’s for a margarita!” As well as being one of those indulgent, light-hearted, fannish moments that made Death Takes a Holiday such guilty fun, this line gives Susan more agency and personality than she ever really had in the main series.

As with The Crystal Conundrum, a separate teaser/trailer was released for the video. This one consisted of footage of Susan’s departure from the TARDIS in The Dalek Invasion of Earth followed by the scene where she steps onto the cruise ship. The same footage – Hartnell’s famous “Someday, I shall come back” speech – was also used to open The Five Doctors. Why do people keep showing that clip to set the scene when they have no intention of actually telling the story of the Doctor coming back? No matter: A Happy Ending is a daft but good-natured resolution to the Susan paradox, one that allows the screaming damsel a brief opportunity to become her own (slightly strange) woman, without burying her under heaps of tedious continuity or using her as fodder for try-hard angst – and all with the authenticity brought by the original Unearthly Child star and producer, reunited after 42 years. Weird and wonky though it might be, this is the only cruise video which attempts to fill a genuine gap in the Doctor Who universe… and it actually sort of manages it.

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