“Another week thievin’ an Englishman’s wages…if you’re not with us, you’re against us. Shouldn’t be mixin’ with the likes of him, it ain’t natural! You wanna stick with your own kind.”
“I am. Decent human beings.”
Smack dab in the middle of the 12 part epic The Daleks Master Plan, Steven Taylor, Sara Kingdom and the William Hartnell Doctor arrive in 1950’s England. Locked out of the Tardis with an inexplicably ill Doctor and with Winter snows and freezing temperatures surrounding, the trio find themselves in desperate need of shelter. Thankfully, a local family offers a helping hand.
But unfortunately, that family is Jamaican, with Audrey (Sara Powell) and her husband Michael (Damian Lynch) only recently arrived. And in the Britain of the era, befriending non-whites comes at a cost…
With the Doctor mysteriously incapacitated, Sara proving herself as inept at cooking as a honeymoon joke and Steven forced to take a menial job in manual labour, the futuristic trio find themselves singularly unprepared to make their way through smalltown life. And with the discrimination and acts of harassment turning ever more violent, things are looking decidedly grim…
Wow, how Love Thy Neighbour is this? Between the nasty, nigh-National Front racism of nigh on every local (from the shifty landlord with different rules and rates for whites and blacks to the blatant and vicious thuggism of the local juvenile delinquents and dockworkers to the authority figures who look the other way at all of this) and the omnipresent Jamaican patois, I kept expecting Eddie Booth to rear his thick head…
Without a Nina Baden-Semper or even that patented Bill Reynolds laugh to enliven matters, An Ordinary Life offers a grim object lesson in the absurdity of racism. Blaming others for the societal problems of the day based solely on their time in the country or the colour of their skin, these rockabilly-era Londoners offer both a history lesson and a pertinent warning against a resurgent tide of similarly minded reactionary sociopolitics.
At the risk of stepping into spoiler territory, there’s even a subplot with Body Snatchers-style pod people taking over the townspeople. But strangely, rather than communist paranoia or an indictment of the crass materialism, essential soullessness and urban isolation engendered by the rise of the yuppie, it seems entirely extraneous to the plot per se.
Are the pod people (as it were) a sort of ersatz positive force, as they recognize no self-imposed societal bounds of race, creed or colour? Are they a sort of commentary on the obvious subtext cum text of the story, as they continually note how they “just want a chance to live”? Or if we really stretch things through a pointedly right wing filter, are they some sort of negative force, showing how (as Fox News might put it) “all them lefties are trying to turn us all into propertyless, soundalike zombie clones”?
Well, I think it’s pretty obvious that the latter isn’t the case, but the other two? It’s anyone’s guess, and that’s a basic failing of what started out as a strong (if admittedly somewhat heavy handed) parable for today’s society, but which takes a bizarre and pointless right turn off topic halfway through.
As author Matt Fitton (The Wrong Doctors, Charlotte Pollard, The Dark Planet, Counter-Measures) has proved himself time and again to be a fairly thoughtful scripter, I’m going to call this one as being closest aligned to the middle option, as commentary on the action.
But that leaves a very central problem. Are we supposed to feel sorry for the creatures, as we should for those who suffer under the stigma, harassment and multi-level difficulties imposed by the small mindedness of racism? Or, as the Doctor points out, does believing oneself to be benign therefore absolve one of culpability?
Peter Purves delivers his usual assured performance both as the earnest and ever youthful Steven and as the somewhat doddering, hmmph-ing Hartnell Doctor. While never quite as uncanny an impression as that of William Russell or as gleefully amusing as that of Maureen O’Brien, Purves nonetheless offers a surprisingly familiar take on his late compatriot with aplomb, and thanks to increasing airtime in the Companion Chronicles, Lost Stories and now Early Adventures, does so on a fairly regular basis. Hats off to you, sir, particularly given the range required to switch between two such age disparate characterizations on the fly.
The former Mrs. Jon Pertwee and Battlefield’s Morgaine herself, Jean Marsh makes one of her all too rare Who-related appearances as the short lived neo-companion Sara Kingdom, and Ram John Holder delivers a lively, wholly likeable family patriarch in Jamaican born British war veteran Joseph. If Powell and Lynch get more airtime as we progress towards the more cliched, action oriented second half, it is Holder’s performance that grounds the affair and lends both veritas and a measure of gravitas to the better written, more realistically oriented first half of the tale.
While well intentioned, competently acted and quite strong stuff in the first half, ultimately An Ordinary Life becomes something of a mixed bag, due to the centrality of some fairly confused metaphorical allegory resulting from the appending of familiar, if perhaps misused science fiction elements.