Friday, 19 August 2016

Amy's Choice

Chapter The 30th, which involves seeing two old friends again.

The Doctor drops in to visit Amy and Rory in Upper Leadworth, some years after their travels with him: Amy is pregnant, Rory has become a doctor, and they are settled in a domestic life. Then, they fall asleep and dream they are back in the TARDIS freezing to death because of some space gubbins. Then, they fall asleep again there, and dream they're again in Upper Leadworth. Which is being overrun by an invasion of the (vicious alien) OAPs. It goes back and forth like this for what seems like the half-life of a cold star. A slippery sprite called the Dream Lord, played by Toby Jones, appears and challenges them to work out which is the dream and which is reality, or they'll die. But really the choice is Amy's and it's between a safe life with Rory, or a dangerous one with the Doctor. They avoid being clobbered by this over-pronounced subtext, or either of the other two dangers, work out both scenarios are dreams, and wake-up in reality. Amy decides she loves Rory, but she's also going to keep travelling with the Doctor, dragging Rory along with them. So, she didn't really make a choice at all, did she?!

I watched this via Netflix, as I was too tired to get the blu-ray down off a shelf - we'll get to why in a bit. I was accompanied by two of the kids (boy of 6, girl of 4) as well as two of my (and my Better Half's) best and oldest friends, Alex and Rachel. Alex is my oldest friend, in fact - I met him at around the same time as I first watched Doctor Who, when I was nine years old, and Alex joined my class at Durrington Middle School. As I remember, we first bonded over a shared reluctance to partake in PE. By January 1982 and Peter Davison's debut series, our shared interests included TV's most famous Gallifreyan. Alex has never been quite as obsessive about Doctor Who as me, but he's not far off! He and I both went to the 20th anniversary celebrations at Longleat House in 1983 (Classic Who's version of Woodstock), but on different days, alas, so we didn't meet up.

Rachel is one of the few poor souls I've been foolish enough to try and convert. She was a contemporary of my Better Half, and was friends with her first; when we became friends, I tried a few old stories out on her, but to no avail. When she and Alex started going out, he did similar. In the end, it took a man better than both of us to make Rachel interested in Doctor Who: David Tennant. Since the Tenth's debut, a marked upswing in interest has been recorded; who would credit it? And since then, we've had a number of Saturday evenings when A & R have come to stay, when there's been a new episode on offer from the BBC.  This was the case back in 2010, when a visit coincided with the broadcast of Amy's Choice.

First-time round:
It would have been late in the evening, with the episode timeshifted from its broadcast time using the PVR. The two boys were still a bit too young to watch alongside us, so we'd have put them to bed first. And the purpose of the evening - even for me - was not primarily Who. Alex and Rachel still have lots of family down our way, but they don't live nearby any more, so the purpose for all of us of any evening they stay over is catching up. And alcohol. And food. In a rotating order of preference. So it came to pass that the first time I watched Amy's Choice, I'd had a little too much wine and kept almost nodding off. You'd think this would enhance it, given the premise, but I remember thinking at the time it fell a little flat. Then, we went back to chatting and drinking.

My intended experiment this time was to recreate the circumstances as accurately as possible, six years later, i.e. to watch it on Saturday evening when pissed. But the night was so pleasant, and the catching up seemed much more enjoyable that we stayed in the garden and drank and talked under the stars. This didn't mean that I didn't have a little too much wine and nod off again however. We instead watched on Sunday morning; me with a medium-level hangover that precluded even getting discs down from high shelves, so some echo of the 'chemical memory' of the first time round remained.

Towards the end of the pre-credits sequence, there's a long shot where the camera circles woozily around the three leads, during which I advise anyone with a hangover to shut their eyes. But I regained my balance during the title sequence, and watched the rest of the story while acutely (painfully) sober. And it fell a little flat. Neither Alex or Rachel, by the way, could even remember that they'd watched this particular story at ours, nor could they recall much of the plot. Having rewatched, I think we have to consider that this is the fault of the story itself, not us, nor the wine. Amy's Choice itself is a bit forgettable. But why?

Toby Jones is fantastic, and has some great one liners which he delivers with aplomb. There are lovely ideas and visuals in play; for example, the cold star that the TARDIS orbits, leaving the console room and its inhabitants covered in frost ("they're all frozen" said my youngest, girl of 4, appreciatively - she likes anything icy because of subliminal connections to Disney's Frozen). The central premise of a group of care home oldies being secret hosts of nasty aliens is great. Or maybe it just resonates at the moment, the middle-aged and young being terrorised by a group of aged baby boomers who only care about their own survival... little bit of politics there, ladies and gentlemen.

As I often do with stories from Matt Smith's first couple of years, I wonder whether this would be better with a less incomprehensible central companion character portrayed by a more experienced actress. Amy's name is right there in the story's title, it's about her. But Amy is sci-fi construct of time cracks sucking in missing members of her family, who has been unable to get past the trauma of meeting the Doctor when she was young. It's difficult to get one's head around what's supposed to make her tick, and it would take a very good actress indeed to make her compelling.

But in Amy's Choice, I don't think any actress could have lifted it. The issue is the story's structure, going back and forth between two dreams - it's all on one level, and there's no room for any drama to build. It doesn't work on a metaphorical level either - the choice should be between a stable but mundane life versus fantastic adventures (a juxtaposition which would be more successfully presented in the later Amy and Rory story The Power of Three). Here, though, both scenarios include sci-fi dangers, which makes them almost indistinguishable, and dilutes the overall concept. The final revelation of the Dream Lord's true nature, which might have provided a dramatic high point, is rushed to the point of being thrown away. And the explanation of what has caused the dream state ('psychic pollen') is as silly or sensible as either of the dreams too. Perhaps they're still sleeping?

One historic introduction in this episode that does need to be noted is that this marks the first time Rory dies in the series; the first of many. He isn't quite the "Oh my God, they killed" Kenny of Doctor Who, but he comes closest of anyone. 

Matt Smith is very like Patrick Troughton in his approach to the role. Like in Fury from the Deep, the Doctor in this story has two companions, one boy, one girl, the latter having a big decision to make. In both, a group of humans are controlled by green monsters that emit gas.

Deeper Thoughts: 
It was all a reset. It's storytelling 101; you're never allowed (after the age of seven, say) to write an ending where it all turns out to be a dream. Charles Dodgson nailed it when he wrote such an ending, long ago, so it's now verboten. Doesn't stop people trying, though. I can only think of one story in the main body of twentieth century Doctor Who (The Mind Robber) that did this, and even there the jury's still out - it could have all been real, and it's left up to the viewer to decide. Post 1989, though, and this particular ending has endured through mutating into the 'reset switch': due to some time shenanigans, things are reverted to normal and nobody (except maybe the protagonists) remember.

Doctor Who (The TV Movie) rewinds time to save the day, kicking off the trend. Then, the next biggie is The Last of the Timelords, where an entire year of the Master's evil reign is reversed. It's perhaps almost forgivable, as it was only possible for all the carnage to happen because time had been put out of whack in the first place, with the future destroying the past. Plus, the main cast remember and are scarred by the events they've witnessed.

When Matt Smith arrives, though, it goes crazy - in his first year, there's the time crack that eats up and erases anything a bit rubbish (The Cyber King, everyone on Earth being familiar with Daleks, etc.) from years before. At the end of that year, Moffat restarts the universe, so everything before the Christmas special in 2010 didn't happen. The following story, we find out that the Doctor definitely definitely died at Lake Silencio - and he definitely does die, then he doesn't, then he does, then he doesn't. And time gets scrambled, and that entire year has also been of no consequence, really. Aside: I'll try to remember to talk more about this when I get to The Wedding of River Song, but if none of that story actually happened, then when exactly does Amy recall the "aborted time line in a world that never was" in order to talk to River about it later? Surely she should remember in The Curse of the Black Spot, the next story on chronologically. But that wouldn't make any sense, would it?!

The biggest deal of all was The Day of the Doctor, which rewrites the time war with a happy ending.   In a new mutation of this style, the Doctor still remembers it the old, sad way, but still: this was rewriting the cornerstone of the show's backstory since 2005. It's such a fun celebratory story that maybe it didn't fully register with me first time round, but it could be seen to be a deliberate erasing by Moffat of everything contributed by his illustrious predecessor. Mister Moffat himself has mused in an interview recently whether Russell T Davies is upset with him for flicking that particular reset switch. Quel dommage!

In Summary:
Stuart's Choice - wine and old friends win over this particular story, every time. (Of course, like Amy, in the end I get to have both.)

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Fury from the Deep

Chapter The 29th, which has reconstructed visuals but still some unreconstructed attitudes.

The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria never land anywhere nice. Often it’s a cold beach somewhere, as in this case. They even managed to find a cold beach in Australia a couple of stories ago, but this one’s even worse, as it contains sentient seaweed that will… well, not kill you, but make you talk in a drama-school ‘hypnotised’ voice and stare impassively into the middle distance. Vicious.

Anyway, the weed feeds on gas, and has taken over a nearby refinery and complex of rigs in this near-future England. The TARDIS team investigate for simply ages, even though it’s screamingly obvious (pun intended) what will defeat the weed creature: Victoria’s frightened yelping always makes it retreat. Once they use that in an amplified lash-up, the creature is destroyed, the day is saved, everybody lives and everyone’s happy. Except Victoria, who is finally tired of all the foam and smoke and bases run by officious people who have mental breakdowns, week in, week out, and decides to stay on Earth with a wife-swapping couple who have indecent plans for her (note: this last part is my interpretation only).

I wanted to watch the best possible representation of Fury from the Deep available, which meant it wouldn’t be an official product. Every one of the six episodes of this story is missing from the BBC archives as either a video master or film copy. Only the audio of the story is retained. Though Doctor Who DVDs and videos have been released that patch up single or double episode holes with animation or edited stills and clips, this hasn’t been done for stories missing in their entirety. All these missing stories were released on CD with narration, and they did try just one on an MP3 CD which synced up still images too, but it clearly didn’t sell well enough. It fell to the not-for-profit fan market to provide longer reconstructions (or recons). Fan collectives would make them and distribute them via blank tapes provided. I never sent off for one, but watched a few that other people had got. They were quite hard going, but very inventive.

Now, all this may seem like an infringement of copyright, but it is worth noting that the BBC wouldn’t have the audio at all if not for fans infringing copyright in the first place by recording it off air – that’s the only reason they can exploit these stories commercially in any format. It seems churlish not to give creative fans the chance to recreate the visuals to marry to those soundtracks and make them available for other less-creative fans like me to enjoy (which now can be done over the web rather than bothering with video tapes).

Clearly the most famous short video streaming site out there disagrees; the trouble is, they don’t disagree consistently. So, one can be watching episode 1 happily, but find that the first half of episode 2 has been taken down for copyright reasons. And some fans who have uploaded everything in a collection so all the individual video files play in order, have mixed and matched different versions. These can vary wildly: there are recons out there which have been edited together and given top and tail credits with David Tennant’s theme tune; there are also many animations, including some in a rudimentary “Captain Pugwash” style. It’s all wonderful, but switching from one to another mid-story can be somewhat disconcerting. In the end, I had to turn to the second most popular short video streaming site who don’t seem to care at all about copyright!

I was trying to find a recon which had decent visuals, including the few existing Fury clips, married to the commercial soundtrack with Frazer Hines’s narration (not Tom Baker’s – see below); in the end, the only contiguous and consistent online experience I could find was the one made by the most famous recon creators, Loose Cannon. No narration, but action described by scrolling text, and some nice subtle touches – flickering monitors, flashing lights, animated foam and tendrils – which make things more dynamic.

All the chopping and changing shenanigans would have put off the Better Half and the kids completely, had they not been uninterested in watching a “slide show” to begin with; so, I watched this one alone when everyone else was asleep or otherwise occupied – it was like being back in the Sylvester McCoy years in my childhood home all over again.

First-time round:
In the early nineties, when some of the aforementioned fan-made recordings had been discovered and returned to the BBC, these missing stories started to be released on cassette tape (for younger readers - this was a medium for storing audio that was invented just after people stopped banging rocks together for entertainment). The visual bits were bridged with narration, always performed by an actor who had played a later Doctor, and structured as the retelling of an old adventure – this narration varied from being obtrusive to absurdly, floridly obtrusive.

As was not uncommon with Who product in those days, the distribution of these cassettes was patchy; they certainly did not stock every title available in my usual purchasing place, Volume One in Worthing. Fury from the Deep I found unexpectedly, not even knowing it was out, nor even that it could be out. I spotted it in Newcastle on a shopping trip during term-time while at university in nearby Durham.

Unlike the videos back then, these stories didn’t lure many fellow students to communal watching. But my good friend Phil did sit in as I listened for the first time back in my room. He is an opera and classical music fan, and was very sniffy about the audio quality, which was worse - he said - than some orchestral performances he had on CD that had been recorded in the 1920s. I didn’t know about the home-made nature of things at that point in order to counter, and anyway I was more perturbed by the performance of Tom Baker doing the links, which was ripe as an old Stilton.

“An interesting thing happened at my day job this week; our manager - he’s a character - was really doing my head in over the Impeller project. We’ve also got this external consultant in, and he and my manager disagree about everything, they have some right ding-dongs. The consultant keeps wanting to put the project on hold, but my manager won’t hear of it. Technically, only the manager has any real authority, although the board might be influenced by the consultant; they brought him in after all. Then, yesterday, they both turned into hypnotised alien vegetable monsters…”
The trouble with a rambling anecdote, and I love a rambling anecdote, is that the journey has to be as interesting as the destination, unless you’re deliberately playing with your audience and making them wait, which is a dangerous approach that can easily backfire (ask anyone whom I've ever told an anecdote). Fury from the Deep has a slow, slow start – it only really gets going in episode 4 of 6. The early episodes have the odd moment of creepy horror, but mostly they are taken up by workplace bickering. Unless you work in the same place, anecdotes about a job are usually dull. I fully expect anyone unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of one of my tirades about my day job to glaze over immediately, so why should the audience hearing all about Euro Sea Gas’s issues be any different?

Certainly, there are workplace-set programmes, ‘precinct dramas’ as they are sometimes known, and one could easily see a macho Sixties series set in a world similar to that depicted in Fury from the Deep. It’s not that these scenes aren’t done with verisimilitude, depicting characters you can recognise (although it’s a little shrill and histrionic for my taste); but, for heaven’s sake, the thing that’s blocking the pipes is a bloody sea monster: why dwell so much on the corporate governance procedures of going and dealing with it?
It’s also a problem because this set up has been recycled in Patrick Troughton’s era too many times now: base with varied but mostly male crew – check; focus on an aspect of their work that’s just a tiny bit more advanced that in our current time – check; base comes under siege by nasties – check; stubborn authority figure gets aggressive under pressure – check. It’s the Pedlar effect: since Kit Pedlar became scientific adviser to the show, this was found as a useful structure to showcase the ideas he was being asked to bring to the show; so, it rapidly became the template. By the time of Fury from the Deep, it was ubiquitous. The preceding and the next story fit this template, as does almost all the season. It was well past time to give it a rest.
Not only does the plot meander in the early episodes, the weed creature does as well. As good as the scenes are of Oak and Quill scheming away in the control room background, I’m not sure their actions add up to a coherent plan. Maggie walking into the sea as Robson stares on impassively is a memorable episode end, but why exactly does she go off to the rigs at all, let alone by that route – why couldn’t she also commandeer a helicopter, or a boat at least? Does the seaweed somehow breathe for her underwater?
Once it gets going, it’s a fine action adventure with an added dash of poignancy provided by the scenes of Victoria getting tired of her travels, and Jamie trying to persuade her not to leave. Megan Jones is a good character too – a capable woman, and a figure of authority with common sense; it might not seem that outstanding, but this was very rare for Doctor Who at the time! It's a shame that the other female characters revert to the stereotypes of getting into peril and needing to be rescued.

Both stories are infected with horror tropes and heavily involve alien possession of human beings.

Deeper Thoughts: 
A Victoria Departure. There were some criticisms of a scene in Rose, Russell T Davies’s much heralded comeback episode of Doctor Who in 2005. Rose’s boyfriend has been replaced by a living plastic facsimile and she doesn’t notice, though many in the audience that were vocal at the time thought she was clearly savvy enough, and should have. RTD’s response to this, and I’m paraphrasing, was that Rose doesn’t know what genre of story she’s in. In normal life, however smart one is, one doesn’t expect and therefore isn’t on the lookout for one’s significant other turning into a life-sized Action Man doll.
This is the challenge of one of the key story engines driving Doctor Who, the gap between everyday life (represented by the companion) and wonder (represented by the Doctor, and the places to which he travels). The right balance is clearly very tricky to achieve. Victoria, in Fury from the Deep, finally twigs what genre of story she’s in. This is not a romance serial where she’ll end up married to a boy who fought at Culloden; she’s in a scary sci-fi adventure series and it’s never going to stop. Realistically, of course, she likely would have had this epiphany sometime after her dad was brutally murdered by Nazi pepperpots; by Fury from the Deep she’d have become a drooling basket-case. Interestingly, the story Rose makes this point: the real Mickey is not companion material by the end, as he’s – like most of us would be – in shock, rather than being heroic and spouting one-liners at the monsters.
So, 100% realism is not the answer. The companion represents ‘us’ in Doctor Who, but it’s us at our best. Too far the other way, though, and the audience identification figure can become too unlike the audience, taking everything in their stride. Just like Jamie by the time of Fury from the Deep, in fact; but the actor’s charm in his performance glides you past that – beside, the scripts and Jamie himself never question whether he should carry on, so it’s never highlighted. At the start, with Ian and Barbara, the companions were arguably the lead roles, let alone joint-lead. This was replicated in the re-pilot too: at the end of 2005, Doctor Who had survived a change of Doctor, but it might not have survived losing Billie Piper.
As such, an ending like Victoria’s where she’s just had enough is rare, because too much of that and you undermine the concept of the show. It’s even rarer since 2005, as the way they’ve rationalised the balance between everyday and wonder is by highlighting how special the life with the Doctor is, and how only a few are good enough to deserve it. I like lists, so I did a little unscientific survey of the reasons for the companions leaving, to illustrate. The results are as follows: 9 companions developed a sudden strong interest in a person, interest, cause, etc. never previously mentioned (marrying off, the classic series’ most popular approach); 8 were forced to leave by circumstances such as time lords, memory loss, time lords and memory loss, etc. (this is the new series’ staple); 5 finally got to where they were going (e.g. Ian and Barbara); 4 left offscreen; 3 died, and a mere 2 got sick of it and naffed off (the other being Tegan). This departure style is less popular by half than the companions that didn't even get to say farewell in actual footage in the actual programme. Still, better to leave like Victoria than have an offscreen exit - no one wants to go the way of the Dodo.

In Summary:
This weed and gas epic is a slow burner, but a grower.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Pyramids of Mars

Chapter The 28th, one where Tom's really putting the effort in, now.

In Von Daniken style-ee, the ancient gods of Egypt turn out to be very powerful aliens; during a big war, the main nice one Horus defeated the main nasty one Sutekh, but had moral qualms about actually killing him. So, he imprisoned Sutekh instead in a pyramid in Egypt, somehow kept immobile and controlled by a power source on Mars, the Eye of Horus. Not literally his eye, of course, that would be hideous.

In 1911, archaeologist Marcus Scarman stumbles into Sutekh's hiding place and becomes controlled by him. Somehow, an ancient society of Sutekh worshippers exists in Cairo and somehow they have lots of useful equipment like robot mummies and bomb parts. Somehow all this equipment is transported to Scarman's estate in England, including a sarcophagus that's really a disguised portal into a time-space tunnel. Scarman arrives from Egypt through this portal, puts a forcefield around the house, and then kills every person in the grounds bar two: the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith, who have been dragged there off course on route to UNIT HQ. Somehow.

The Doctor winds up being taken over by Sutekh too, and takes Scarman, Sarah and a couple of mummies to Mars. Somehow Sutekh neglects to kill either of the time travellers once there, so they are witness to the destruction of the Eye of Horus. They race back to Scarman's house to monkey about with the time tunnel and this kills Sutekh. They are in a great hurry as they only have the time it takes for the signal to reach from Mars to Earth to implement their plan. Although they do have a time machine, so, they could have taken it more leisurely. Also, it was lucky Sutekh, once freed, travelled by the time tunnel rather than start his reign of destruction in Cairo. He should have thought of that really, the silly god.

Watched the DVD, an episode every so often over the course of about a week. It was just me and the Better Half as the kids were not interested, though middle child (boy of 6) wandered in at one dramatic point and said "dun-dun-dahhhnn!!!!" without any hint of sarcasm.

First-time round:
This was an exciting one; it was late Summer 1987, not yet six years on from when I'd first discovered Doctor Who; the show was still on TV, with a new Doctor, Slyvester McCoy, to debut soon. As the incumbent at the dawn of the affordable Doctor Who video age, Slyv was the first who had to contend with such direct competition from older Doctors for fan's affections. Videos of early stories had begun to be available to buy from 1983, but they were very expensive. By late 1986, they started to re-release those early titles at £9.99. The family had got a VCR for Christmas 1985 (I taped Minder on the Orient Express and watched Only Fools and Horses' To Hull and Back live, in case you were interested). Everything was aligned for my addiction to collecting Who - an addiction still alive today - to be enabled.

In those early days, though, it was not a case of rushing somewhere to snap it up on the day of release. Distribution, just as with Doctor Who Magazine, was hit and miss. My school friend and fellow fan Dominic had a source. He'd bought Revenge of the Cybermen, the first ever title, for himself from a shop near where he lived, and had then sold it to me second-hand a little while after, deciding he'd watched it enough. Before that, I'd found The Seeds of Death in a WHSmiths when I was staying at my Dad's. Unlike Dominic, I did not find (still have not found) the point where I have "watched enough". I must have viewed and reviewed those two tapes so many times in those first few months of owning them. One day in the Summer holidays, Dominic contacted me breathless with news: there was a new video in the shop near him: Pyramids of Mars. Did I want him to buy it for me? I did, I did, I did.

The videos in those days were edited together to remove all the beginning and end credits of the middle episodes, plus scenes that might offend like the Doctor measuring things with his scarf and doing some mental calculations. There were indeed some odd cuts in that original edited version, but I watched it so much, and so happily, it became for me the default. The unedited version was released on tape in 1994. A long time ago, but even now seeing a section that wasn't part of that original experience, it still leaps out at me.

Pyramids of Mars is one of those stories that have been held in very high esteem by fandom for longer than I've been a fan, so it's very hard to watch without prejudice - especially when memories of those heady enthusiastic days I first got to own and replay this story clearly still colour my enjoyment to this day. This time, I tried to watch with a critical eye.

The plot, as a cursory examination of the synopsis above will show you, is illogical and convoluted. Does it matter? The writing has to jump through lots of hoops to justify why the action is happening in a priory house in Edwardian England, rather than in Cairo. Yes, it's fun, and in keeping with some films of the 'Mummy's curse' genre, to have the horrors following the archaeological adventurers into the incongruous world of stately homes and poachers. Plus, the Beeb is better at doing fusty English drawing rooms than it would be doing pyramids and Egyptian bazaars in TC3. Unfortunately, the resolution of the drama is inextricably linked to the mechanism of travelling between the two locales, which makes it more difficult to forgive.

Many Doctor Who stories - hell, many of any kind of stories - have been built on shakier ground than this, though, and for the first three episodes the story just whizzes by with one visually impressive scene after another. I doubt anyone at the time would have been wondering about why, when and where any of these events are occurring; instead they'd have been too busy being impressed by the design of the Mummies, who - with their sunken eyes and bulbous chest units - are striking and memorable. Watching the scenes as they stalk various characters through the woodland grounds is very exciting. Add to that, explosions that go backwards, and cobwebbed rooms with sarcophagi shuddering as they open behind unsuspecting servants, and you get a great dramatic experience.

It's not deep enough, perhaps. The producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script-editor Robert Holmes now responsible for the show had started to make their mark; inheriting a few scripts from their predecessors' reign, the first year they produced for Tom Baker still has vestiges of the socially and politically conscious themes that were common in Jon Pertwee's time. But by Pyramids they've dispensed with such themes in favour of all-out horror-inflected adventures.

There is some depth provided at a character level, though. Pyramids is very like a modern story, not just in terms of the pace in getting our heroes involved, but also in its focus on the character of the Doctor.  Repeatedly, we are dramatically reminded that the Doctor is not human, to the point where – inadvertently or not – it becomes a theme of the story.  Michael Sheard’s wonderful performance as Laurence Scarman is a polar counterpoint to the other scientist adventurer in the cast: he’s meek, optimistic, open, smiling, worried about his brother, in contrast to the Doctor’s brooding, doomy and brusque characterisation and his concentration on the wider issues beyond the personal.

Arguably, Sutekh is just like the Doctor, but pushed to the extreme end of the spectrum: he’s the extreme example of the dark alien whose overriding aim is more important to him than human life. All this thematic stuff comes to a head with Laurence’s death and the Doctor and Sarah's discovery of his body, the best scene in the story and one of the best scenes in Doctor Who: "Sometimes you don't seem -" "Human?". The problem is that Laurence dies before the end of episode 3. This leaves the final episode to fall flat, just a traipse through some booby-traps - fun, and in keeping with the genre, sure, but nothing like as good as the rest. A shame, because otherwise this would be a perfect story to begin Baker's peak period.

Both stories include a break-in to a burial chamber and funereal accoutrements that may be more than they seem.

Deeper Thoughts:  

Would the Doctor be ‘no-platformed’ in a UK university right now? Recent events across the globe are highlighting that identity politics are an ever stronger motivator of people’s decisions. Alongside this, increased care has become required in any discussions that touch on an individual’s identity, whether that be their nationality, culture, gender, or whatever. There’s greater and greater consciousness that one’s group identity should be protected in some way from those outside of that grouping. Discussions can get quite heated, particularly on the internet, and sensitivity shouldn’t be ever seen as a bad thing; but, where should the line be drawn? And should artistic endeavours be exempt from any such scrutiny?

If it’s taboo to wear a plastic sombrero when you’ve been to a Mexican restaurant, then it’s obviously unforgivable to make up a Caucasian actor to play a Chinese magician (as happens in 1976’s The Talons of Weng Chiang)? Or is it? Offensive as ‘blacking’ or ‘yellowing up’ may be, some actors have recently defended this, based on the freedom that no thespian should be prevented from playing any part, regardless of any aspect of that role; because that’s what acting is. Whether one agrees with this or not, it is fairly easy to see that hurt could be caused to some members of an audience to see their identity reduced to a funny accent and a particular hue of slap.

Less clear cut though, is the identity (and therefore the possibility of protected status) of the works themselves. Artists and dramatists don’t come along fully-formed, and have always developed through imitation of existing art, at least at first; so, where does the process of artistic inspiration by assimilation end, and cultural appropriation begin?  Can any particular identity group claim ownership of a story or a genre? That ship may have already sailed; if rock n’ roll came along as a new phenomenon now, white men would probably not be allowed to sing the blues, or at least they wouldn’t be able to play the university circuit if they did. But my enquiry is searching for a relevant morality for now, so dismissing this as something you could get away with in times past does not help.

Pyramids of Mars comes from a period of Doctor Who where the producer and script-editor were (very successfully, and inspiring great popularity in the resultant product) sampling. It wasn’t the first or last time this would happen on Doctor Who, but it may have been the most full-blooded attempt. Should they have thought twice, and considered the morality of borrowing so heavily from Universal monster movies, amongst other sources?

And where did the tropes from those movies come from? Tracing it back, a lot of them come from fairy stories and folk tales that grew through retelling amongst communities. Those stories are known to us now because individuals from outside those communities collated them, tweaked them, published them and made some money off the back of it. If we had always carried the protectionism of cultural identity too far, we would never have had the monster stories evolving from that root, only the purist original. In other words, there would be no Doctor Who. So, dare I say it: wear your plastic sombrero with pride – identity is important, of course; but we can only learn and grow if aspects of our identities are shared.

In Summary:
3 parts Mummy, 1 part musty.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Revelation of the Daleks

Chapter The 27th, The relatively well-Loved One.

Davros has taken over a tacky funeral parlour cum cryogenic storage unit, where he runs a nice little earner turning half the residents into Soylent Green and the other half into a new breed of Daleks. He tricks the Doctor into visiting to play a practical joke on him (no, really). All at the same time, a disgruntled relative of one of the departed along with her drunk pal break in to investigate, a mercenary and his squire arrive to kill Davros on the orders of Davros's mutinous business partner, and the President of an unspecified area of the locale is coming to see his dead wife lying in state. Everything collides together at the end with explosions and killing, and then the Dukes of Machina, the old Daleks, turn up and cart Davros off to their equivalent of the Chilcot enquiry. Alexei Sayle, Clive Swift and the girl from Upstairs Downstairs are also in it, but it's hard to say exactly what their characters contribute.

Me and the kids watched over a couple of nights on DVD with the alternate CGI effects switched on, as they are pretty unobtrusive and make one moment a little clearer. The Better Half sat out episode 1, but joined us for the start of the second part. I gave the eldest child (boy, aged 10) the challenge to summarise to his mother where the story had got to, as I didn't know where to start; he just said "A statue fell on him" and left it at that. Collective attention was not held by episode 2 and all drifted off leaving me on my own; the Better Half caught the end, though, and tutted at the Doctor shooting guns, then was intrigued by Orcini ruffling the dead Bostock's hair, and surprised by an odd shot just after where Orcini hauls Bostock's body along the floor with him. I quote: "It looks like he's humping him". Evidence of JNT's gay agenda, probably.

First-time round:
I saw these episodes on their first BBC1 broadcast in 1985, and - though I don't remember it as such - it must have been in the shadow of then recent cancellation / hiatus crisis. I was stumbling towards being a teenager, and was often out with friends on Saturday afternoons, not necessarily keeping an avid eye on the clock anymore, so I missed a few episodes from Colin Baker's first full season. At around the time of Revelation's broadcast, I'd read a letter in Doctor Who Magazine by someone criticising the stories of the year so far, but holding out hope for the Dalek finale. The correspondent criticised the Mark of the Rani's fake plastic trees, but they are in episode 2, which I missed. I remember being annoyed by this letter; I thought it had been a great year up to that point. But perhaps I just managed to miss all the bad bits. When it came to the final story of the season, I also really enjoyed it, and didn't think this was a programme that needed to be taken off the air, even if only for 18 months. But I was young.

To research this blog post, I read the novella that Revelation of the Daleks is pastiching, Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. (Well, no, of course I didn't - life's too short; it should be one of the test questions in a Cosmo Quiz style 'How Insane a Fan Are you?' questionnaire  - have you read the not-exactly-set-text curios The Loved One or The Prisoner of Zenda just because they were used as the inspiration for Doctor Who adventures?) What cursory research shows me is that The Loved One is eschatological in intention. Coming as it did at a crisis point behind the scenes of Doctor Who, Revelation of the Daleks similarly has a feeling of the end of times. It was written on a Greek island, like its namesake by St John the Divine, the season finale of that other popular series The Bible. The fates were clearly pointing in an apocalyptic direction. Seemingly, writer and script editor Eric Saward has had enough of Doctor Who, and wants to destroy it and create it anew.

The other prominent influence on Revelation of the Daleks is The Caves of Androzani, a very successful story from the previous year, which provided the new shape into which the script editor wanted to hammer the show. In both stories, the Doctor arrives in a brutal, cynical world, where a disparate bunch of mostly venal self-serving characters are coming to the point where years of backstory are going to blow up in their face, leaving most of them dead. There’s a superfluity of double-acts, and - while he can’t match the earlier story’s mordant wit - Saward leavens the grimness with dashes of camp humour.

The author of Caves, Robert Holmes, is a better writer than Saward (as I think Eric would be first to admit) and he ensures his story has a simple plot through-line, a single- minded purpose (the Doctor and Peri are dying and he needs to find them a cure) around which the machinations of the different characters collide. Revelation of the Daleks has no such coherence; the Doctor does not instigate the events we witness; in fact, no one does – the subplots we see are all happening simultaneously by coincidence. It feels like the imminent presidential visit should have been used as the catalyst, but in the final version that subplot could be removed and make no difference. In fact, a lot of the characters can similarly be lifted out, and it wouldn’t change the resolution, including – unforgivably – the Doctor and Peri.

Make no mistake, the protagonist of Revelation of The Daleks is not the Doctor; this is instead the story of Orcini, a once noble warrior, now a gun for hire. And the story is mainly of how he walked to the place where he had a job to do, then did the job, semi-successfully, at the cost of his life. The Doctor is just briefly an assistant to Orcini, having spent most of his time similarly walking to where the action is (if everyone had parked nearer, the story could have been over in a quarter of the time). Saward’s unhappiness at Colin Baker’s casting is well documented, but that is no excuse for sidelining the character people are tuning in to watch. What also sticks in the craw is how various characters talk up how great Orcini is, even Davros: yeah, he’s a knight of the order of thingummy-doo-dah, but the Doctor’s a Lord of Time.

I want so much to like it: I like Colin and his portrayal, and this tends to be his most popular story in polls. I have good memories of watching it first time round, and it does have some wonderful moments: the scene where Natasha’s father turns into a Dalek before her eyes, begging her to kill him, is highly praised, and rightly so. And, where everyone’s favourite charming interviewee Clive Swift overplays it, if you want a masterclass in camp acting, Hugh Walters’s memorable turn is the one to watch. Full disclosure: he was the Better Half’s acting tutor for a while, but there’s no bias. Just see that final sad look he gives Kara as he dies, it’s excellent. Elsewhere, though, there’s inappropriate violence, references to alcoholism, maybe even necrophilia. One hates to agree with the architects of the hiatus, but maybe it was time for a rethink.

Both stories contain a levitating Dalek, mutated humans with nasty looking faces, and a comedy robot (if you count Davros's rotating head as a comedy robot, and I do).

Deeper Thoughts:  
There is artron energy in a union. Doctor Who stories don't often dwell on where the money comes from to build an evil empire; Daleks usually rely on slave labour, not as any kind of script comment on slave labour, just to explain it away so we can all get on with an action adventure, and there's nothing wrong with that. But Revelation dwells on the political and economic twists that Davros has gone through to build up his new breed of Daleks. Like everything in this story, it's not very well integrated, nor properly developed, but it does make an interesting change. In his debut, Davros is something of a political animal, but Saward is the first to develop this further, just one example of an ongoing effort on behalf of all the creators and writers of Doctor Who to address real world concerns within its narrative. Even Saward.

Recent seismic political events in my birthplace and home have given me pause for sombre reflection. I have always believed any union of like-minded persons or countries is worth fighting for, though as with any joint enterprise there will always have to be compromises. We learn and grow in relationships with others, and the more diverse a range of other people we interact with, the better and further we progress. Consequently, I have never trusted any cult of individuality from whichever political wing it has emerged. Have so many years of exposure to Doctor Who contributed to this credo?

Because of its structure, Doctor Who can suggest that solutions mainly come from a lone charismatic individual, a figure that has consciously rejected the wider society he was born into, and continues to resist conformity and convention. At a superficial level, this could place the Doctor as one who wants to claim sovereignty of his own little patch. Does he like to be the one in charge at all costs? Well, great swathes of the show’s stories (including the whole season in 2014) have dwelt on that question, but it’s always been a battle within him, that mirrors a fundamental choice within all of us: control versus cooperation, loneliness versus community. And from the start, he’s never been an isolationist, nor has he ever got on well with those with a dislike of the unlike. His rejection of his own society was balanced with a passion to explore and help every society to which he journeyed. He’s no Little Gallifreyer.

The original series starts with “Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe” and ends with “if we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals”. All the way through, the Doctor has never worked alone, and indeed he spent a long time working for the United Nations. He’s never held back from criticising institutions, but neither has he rejected them. He’s no lone (bad) wolf. In the new series, this is even more pronounced: it is returned to repeatedly that when the Doctor is working alone, it never ends well. He needs a team around him, as much as they need him.

The Jon Pertwee story The Curse of Peladon, of course, directly referenced the United Kingdom’s entry into a union with Europe; it was used less as an allegory than just as a springboard idea, but Peladon still joins the union in the end. I can’t think of any examples which would align to a leave scenario, though there’s certainly many revolutions against the status quo and a lot of criticism of bureaucracy; I’m sure someone could make a case for it, if they were that way inclined. This is a comfort in a way; even as we enter a long period of uncertainty, something like Doctor Who (and many other much more highbrow examples in the lively arts, of course) contain multitudes. Stories can help us make sense of the world, which right now feels more vital than ever.

In Summary:
It's not the apocalypse, it's just a very naughty story.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Waters of Mars

 Chapter The 26th, in which we find out that after something disastrous occurs, you can't just pop back in time and change it, alas.

Bowie Base One, Mars, 21st November 2059. On this day, history states, the base commander Adelaide Brooke gave the order to instigate Emergency Action 5, blowing up the base and killing herself and the rest of the pioneer crew, the first off-world colonists ever. No one has ever found why.

The Doctor turns up and discovers it was all down to a problem with the plumbing; an ancient lifeform has taken over the waters of Mars, and converts any human the water comes into contact with, making them dribble a lot. The Doctor decides to change history, because he's mad as hell as he's not going to take it anymore. But he only makes things worse, and Adelaide commits suicide. An Ood appears in the snow to tell him off, but he goes on the run rather than face his fate. Plus, comedy robot.

Watched with all the family on Blu-ray in the Sunday night ‘Songs of Praise’ slot. This required careful deliberation, as it is one of a handful of 21st century Doctor Who stories which previously the Better Half and I had reviewed and judged too scary to be shown to the kids. The boys (one aged 10, the other aged 7) are ready for it now, but their sister (aged 4) would be miffed if she wasn’t allowed to watch alongside them.
In the end, as she is more mature than her brothers were at her age, and perfectly capable of choosing to stop watching if she wasn’t happy, we decided to proceed, with hand hovering over the remote control all the while. But the pause button was never needed; there were some ‘behind the sofa’ bits, for sure, but mostly the children were excited rather than scared. The same cannot be said for their parents however, who were both creeped out. Some excellent choices really up the horror. For
example, the convulsions every victim goes through as they’re converted, and the great monster make-up: black mouths, pin-prick contact lenses, and the craggy lower jaws, as if all the water pouring out of their mouths has etched paths into their skin.

As it finished, every child agreed it was not too scary. Eldest child (boy of 9) was very proud that he'd recognised the sound of the cloister bell. And everyone who'd previously seen it (that's everyone except the 4 year old) lobbied to put the next story, The End of Time, on straight away.

First-time round:
Like me, my younger son, middle child, 6 years old, is a Summer baby, born between regular showings of Doctor Who, so he doesn’t properly have a ‘birth story’. As he was born in 2009 when there were longer than usual gaps between episodes this is not so surprising. The Waters of Mars was the first one shown after he was born, and he was only a few months old. I remember we put him down to sleep just before it started, and I kept everything crossed that he would stay abed for an hour so we could watch it uninterrupted. I didn’t get my wish, as I remember!

It was an apt story to be his first, as he was a very dribblesome child, with ropes of drool emanating from his mouth every minute of every day until he was a toddler. Sometimes, when learning to walk, he would stumble over, arms outstretched, zombie-like, to give one a saliva heavy smacker. So, he was known by the code name of ‘Waters of Mars’ for many a year in our house.

As has been noted before, Doctor Who fans don’t take too kindly to their show not being on the TV, even for a bit; protest songs have literally been written. Since the return of the show in 2005, there has been lots of monkeying about with scheduling, mid-season breaks, seasons splitting across years, and gaps with only the odd special shown. We’re more used to it these days, but when it was first done in 2009 it caused some worries in fandom. We’d had four full runs of 13 episodes plus Christmas specials, and they’d proved increasingly popular, year on year, culminating in the hoopla that surrounded the cliffhanger of Tennant seeming to regenerate, and much speculation about the next Doctor and The Next Doctor. For the first time ever, Doctor Who had been the number one rated show on television (for the finale of Tennant’s third series, Journey’s End), so of course they decided to take it off air.

It was spun and speculated on every which way, and it doesn’t matter why it happened now. But it did put pressure on the hour-long specials shown intermittently through that year to be, well, special. The preceding story, Planet of The Dead, was fun, but artificially disappointing as it was all the viewer was going to get for several months. I’ve wondered on rewatching it whether the opposite effect has happened with The Waters of Mars, and it is maybe overinflated in my esteem, just because of scarcity. But no, I’ve decided that’s bollocks – it’s good because it’s so bloody good.

This is a Doctor Who story mainly for adults, not because it’s scary but because it's too good for children! Adelaide Brooke's assertive confrontation with the Doctor, demanding to know her own future; her stoic acceptance of the same; the Doctor just watching as everything starts going to hell, then walking away. He just walks away! The ramifications of this superb drama may be lost on the children, but they still grasped it. "She has to die or the universe explodes" was how the eldest summarised it. And everyone enjoyed the flashes of future news articles; at the children's insistence, we replayed those bits and paused while they were on screen, so we could read what they said.

Tennant is astonishing in his penultimate regular Who gig. It's a truly star performance, but with lots of moments of subtlety too. From the point he goes rogue, and returns to the base, he has to sustain the mania for a very long time, a very big ask of any actor; Tennant pulls it off with aplomb.

Both stories take place on sparsely populated planets where most of the people on those planets finish up getting killed, and both end with the Doctor rescuing someone from this carnage against their will (alright, alright, maybe it’s only me reading that into the end of The Rescue…).

Deeper Thoughts:  
What is it that Ed can't be forgiven for? A bit of a generalisation, I know, but one borne out by years of experience: Doctor Who fans like facts. There are many Doctor Who historians and journalists who have researched every minute aspect of production, and have for almost as long as the show has been going; it must be in the running as one of the most examined things ever, not just one of the most examined television shows.

Though less focused on than the behind the scenes info, questions and theories about the fictional world of Who have also been thoroughly documented. This wasn't just a professional pursuit, either; when I was at school, I was often challenged by friends to explain plot inconsistencies in the Doctor Who stories of the day. I got quite adept at it, and it may have helped me develop a storywriting brain. Other fans took this a stage further: there is a cottage industry that started in the wilderness years after Doctor Who finished (for a while) in 1989, producing stories for novels and audios that tie all the loose bits of continuity up, sometimes in passing, and sometimes as their raison d'etre.

A brief web search backs up my doubt that there are any fan-fics out there explaining exactly what it is that Ed Gold and Adelaide did that upset each other so much. All through the story, the two characters have played (expertly and entertainingly, I might add) a spiky professional relationship, and with his dying breaths Ed says he hated the job because "You never gave me a chance; you never could forgive me." What can it mean? And it's not the only mystery either. What exactly happened after Adelaide's suicide in the altered timeline? How did anyone explain away the three crewmembers very rapid secret return to Earth? On freeze frame, we picked up some hints that reportage on the mysterious Doctor was given as an explanation for some of this.

Back to Ed. The problem between Adelaide and him still feels very raw, which suggests it is something that may have happened on the base; this leads to a possibly too obvious explanation. The way he phrases it, though, is all about the job not the colleague. It's intriguingly unknowable. Note: I didn't check the disc's special features, so perhaps RTD or Phil Ford are featured saying "Yeah, they were old lovers" or something equally prosaic, but I hope not: sometimes it's better not knowing everything. It's just another way Doctor Who provides exercise for the imagination.

In Summary:
Don't drink the water!

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Rescue

Chapter The 25th, wherein the Doctor visits an old destination and meets a new companion.

Still readjusting after the departure of Susan, the top TARDIS trio of the Doctor, Ian and Barbara arrive at a planet the Doctor has been to before. On his previous visit, the native population of Dido was small in number and peaceful in nature, but the one local the travellers meet this time, Koquillion, is anything but peaceful. What can have happened to change things?

A crash-landed Earth spaceship nearby contains the only two remaining members of its crew, the injured Bennett and an orphaned girl Vicki. It seems the Didonians lured the rest - including Vicki's father - to a gathering and blew them up. Koquillion claims he is keeping these last two humans safe from his people, but he has his own secret plan. The Doctor works it out and defeats Koquillion. Bennett is killed, leaving Vicki on her own. The Doctor invites her to join the crew of the TARDIS and promises her an abundance of adventure, which never remotely looked like it was desired given she has seemed on the verge of post-traumatic stress disorder throughout the two episodes. But she comes along anyway.

On the Sunday morning of a bank holiday weekend, the whole family watched both episodes on DVD, back to back. Middle child (boy of 6) complained as soon as the opening credits started that it was a "boring black and white one" but soon he, and the others (boy of 9, girl of 4) were watching rapt.  Unfortunately this only lasted until approximately 20 minutes in to each of the two 25 minute long episodes, whereupon they all got very restless. It was interesting though that they reset between episodes and started paying full attention again, still and silent. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but both episodes are very strong, but fall apart a bit at the end.

Episode 1, The Powerful Enemy, finishes with Ian getting caught by a traditional Saturday Morning Pictures peril creator, with blades pushing him towards the edge of a pit below inhabited by a nasty snarling creature. Given that no person pictured or referred to in the story has ever had motivation nor opportunity to build it, it does seem to have been plonked into the story as, well, a cliffhanger generator. The second part, Desperate Measures, is great while the surprises of the plot are revealed ("Saw it coming" said my elder son), but after that an ending turns up in a blinding burst of Deus Ex Machina to punish the bad, and free the good. Still, it's a good little story, and much better than the quota quickie to introduce the new girl that it could have been.

First-time round:
I saw this first when it came out on VHS in September 1994 in a double pack with subsequent story The Romans. I'd graduated from university earlier that year, had some fun in what I could still pretend was the long summer vac, but by September I was stuck back at home, temping and wondering what to do next with my life. I therefore had a bit of money to go and get this from Volume One on the day of release. My temp job was in town, but a little way out from Worthing's main shopping centre, and it would have been difficult to go and pick up a video in my lunch hour. I'd also have been a little shy bringing it back into the office for the second half of the day. So, I probably waited until the end of the day, or left it until the weekend.

I remember being surprised at how good The Rescue was on first viewing; it has a reputation as being somewhat disposable, and The Romans was the story selling the set. But the first few minutes in particular are superb with Hartnell's lovely moment as the Doctor forgets himself, starting to ask Susan to open the doors ("it's good, because he's sad" was elder son's verdict). Then there's the fun scene where the Doctor eavesdrops as Ian and Barbara muse on his potential senility.

If anything, it has improved further since that first watch. The story throws the audience in to proceedings when they are nicely bubbling away; the direction is good, with lots of nice close-ups of Maureen O'Brien as Vicki, and her performance is pretty good, running through lots of different emotional bits. The regulars are refreshed after the season break, and those early scenes still sparkle. There's something about a story where the  TARDIS arrives in some caves, and everyone goes off to explore, only to get split up, that fills me with joy. It's a little remiss, though, of Ian to leave Barbara on her own with Koquillion to get attacked.

The Rescue also finds time to innovate; it's the first story structured around the Doctor revisiting the setting of a prior unseen adventure, which has been reused many times since. The resolution of the plot, though it's probably a bit obvious, is still very successful. I can't remember whether it was ever a surprise to me; I think I'd been spoilered even before I first read the Target novelisation in the 80s, so I don't know if I'd have seen it coming.

Best of all is Hartnell and the writer's continuing evolution of the character of the Doctor. There's some wonderful physicality and directness: when Hartnell's Doctor is presented with a locked door, he doesn't reach for a sonic screwdriver but instead picks up a girder and smashes it down. And the scene where he confronts the killer, beginning with Hartnell in the foreground, not looking around, giving it the full "Come in, I've been expecting you" is marvellous. The character has fully assumed the lead as well as the title role of the series.

This is also the setting for another bit of character development that wasn't followed up: Barbara as brutal murderer, gunning down Vicki's pet Sand Beast. Although, as the adult one in the cliffhanger booby trap is clearly supposed to be a man-eater, maybe Vicki was deluding herself that she'd trained hers to eat plants, and Barbara saved her from an inevitable 'Grizzly Man' scenario.

Both this story and Horror of Fang Rock feature crashed ships and flare guns.

Deeper Thoughts:  
Afternoons, Coffee Spoons and Spine Quotes. J. Alfred Prufrock  and the Crash Test Dummies were a bit silly measuring their time in coffee spoons; weeks and months are clearly much better; also, Weeklies and Monthlies. The 500th issue of Doctor Who Magazine has just come out, which is an opportunity for nostalgia from its makers, and its readers. Like many, I can measure my life out in DWMs; and, to help in this process, an additional supplement given away with the main mag this month shows every cover from number 1 to the present. Flicking through, I realise that a theme of my journey is - amongst other more positive feelings -  embarrassment.

That's okay, though; a strong emotion like embarrassment is great for tracking memories. This is why I can remember the first ever issue of DWM I ever saw. Nowhere near me stocked the magazine at the time, but on my family's annual half-term shopping trip to the Carrefour in Eastleigh (we knew how to spend our holidays back then) I saw issue 62 in a newsstand on my way to the loo. I was on my own, so couldn't pester anyone to buy it for me, so I just stared at my beloved Tegan who was there in a tiny inset photo, while most of the cover showed TV's Peter "Davidson" and him off of On The Buses.

Once I got to the toilet, I found that the cubicle didn't have a lock, and my legs wouldn't stretch far enough to bar the door. But I had spent too long gazing at Tegan, and I was past the point of no return. I wasn't however fast enough going, and someone opened the door, revealing me with my trousers down to all and sundry, hence the embarrassment, hence the strong recollection. And, thanks to obsessive cataloguing and the internet, I can date this event precisely to Tuesday 23rd February 1982, the day of transmission of episode 4 of the story depicted on the DWM cover, The Visitation. We got caught in traffic driving home, and I missed finding out how the cliffhanger was resolved. For once, it being half-term, I didn't have cubs and yet I still didn't get to see two full episodes in a week. I was miffed.

It took another eight months for a shop near me to catch up with the hypermarkets of Eastleigh, and the first copy I bought and owned was issue 70 (cover: slightly soft portrait of Peter D). I bought it sporadically over the next few years until issue 117 (Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant in oh-so showbiz boaters and canes pose) when I managed to persuade a grown-up to add it to our delivery order at the local newsagent. That lasted until issue 133 (Slyv and Richard Briers gurning at one another) when I was instructed - embarrassment again - that if I wanted to keep reading a child's comic, I had to fund it myself. That put paid to things for a few years, and the next issue I got was 160 (artwork of Pertwee and Ice Warriors) which I skimmed through in Smiths, realising that the content was much improved, and was covering the video releases that I was starting to collect.

I caught up on a lot of back issues by ordering them from John Fitton - a company also nostalgically remembered by Jonathan Morris in the current issue - but I still dipped in and out as income would allow until issue 236 (Paul McGann holding a paperweight) and from then on I have every issue and all the specials. Things came full circle embarrassment-wise with issue 318 (cross-dressing Sontaran); the intensity of the attractive girl behind the counter at Borders' amusement at the cover was matched only by the beetroot red colour I went. Since then, I have subscribed.

In Summary:
There's nowt wrong with a quickie every so often.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Horror of Fang Rock

Chapter The 24th: To the lighthouse.

The Doctor and Leela arrive by accident at the Fang Rock lighthouse, somewhere on or near the south-coast of England, in the year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Something. They find that one of the three keepers has seemingly been electrocuted by the new-fangled generator. Actually, he’s been zapped by a crash-landed gween alien that despite – or perhaps because of – its usual appearance as a cling-film parcel of mashed banana and jam can shapeshift into human form. In disguise, it picks off the remaining lighthouse crew and a group of shipwrecked mariners, leaving only the TARDIS team. They convert a flare launcher into a blunderbuss and destroy the creature, then convert the lighthouse into a laser beam and destroy the fleet arriving to rescue it. With everyone but his companion and him dead, the Doctor grins like a mad fool and recites a poem.

Middle child (boy of 6) is doing lighthouses at school as part of a sea and shore module this term. The Better Half suggested he watch this to complement the learning, but I’m not convinced as to its educational content.  It may have had more to do with this story being (whisper it, as she is a closet geek) one her absolute favourites of all time. She has very good taste (Hey, who said “except in men”?).

The whole family watched the DVD an episode per night through the week. The kids were pretty gripped, but not quite as much as they were by Carnival of Monsters.

First-time round:
I can’t remember. The VHS came out in 1998, quite late on in the range, but I’m sure I must have seen it before then. It has not had a terrestrial repeat since I started watching Doctor Who in 1981, so there are two possibilities: someone lent me a pirated copy, but I can remember pretty much everything I ever saw that way (it was illicit and exciting, why would I forget?!); or, I saw it on UK Gold. But, as I only got cable in 1997, it wouldn’t have been that long before the VHS came out. Maybe I’m just remembering the Target novelisation.

That brings me something that I can remember: in school, sometime in the early 80s, I spent multiple periods very carefully copying Jeff Cummins’ astonishingly good portrait of Tom Baker on the cover of that book as accurately as I could in pencil. Then, I found one day that someone had scribbled on it, and I overreacted. A kid called Marc, who’d only been trying to help me with it, got a very bad telling off from the teacher when he owned up. I calmed down and felt bad afterwards as it was only really some squiggles in Tom’s hair, and no one would have really noticed. So, after all this time, I wanted to say sorry to Marc. Sorry Marc.

I got the feeling watching Horror of Fang Rock that it’s the most archetypal Doctor Who story ever. Something about Tom Baker’s Doctor in the foreground staring into the distance enigmatically with Leela a pace or two behind seems very representative of Doctor Who in general, and this period particularly. The story too: isolated location – check, small group of bickering victims – check, nasty alien picking them off one by one - check.  It’s the epitome of the sub-genre of Doctor Who stories labelled “base under siege” but is what would in wider genre criticism be called a sci-fi slasher, Saturday teatime or no. There’s even the hoary old horror trope, not so often seen in Who, where the victims are killed only after a moral lapse: Harker lets his anger get the better of him, Vince accepts a bribe, Skinsale is avaricious about the discarded diamonds, and Adelaide is really, really annoying.

Archetypal could slip to generic quite easily, but somehow going at the clich├ęs full-bloodedly works. Maybe it’s the period trappings that give it a lift. It’s not your everyday pitch: Upstairs Downstairs meets Halloween. Undoubtedly, the regulars are upping the overall quality too. Louise Jameson is perfect in every scene, whether counselling against superstition, slapping a hysterical woman, or shovelling coal. She is arguably the first companion to merit joint lead status since the Sixties; no wonder Tom got so jealous. Baker himself channels the bad time he’s having making this famously troubled production, which saw everyone uprooted from their usual London home of Television Centre and instead filming in Pebble Mill, and uses it to give a great moody performance.

The design is a triumph; it takes some chutzpah to film a multi-camera piece in a set that’s made of glass 360 degrees around, but it’s achieved in a convincing fashion.  The other rooms too are filled with lovely touches, like the naughty postcards in Reuben’s quarters. Even the Rutan’s a lot of fun in his globby, blobby way.

It seems like a show at the full height of its powers rather than a last hurrah. At this point, though, the show was on the cusp of another era with a new producer in charge. The next story broadcast after Fang Rock dispensed with the atmospheric chillers of recent years to focus more on space opera, with lots of lasers and a cute robot sidekick added to the crew. Unlike many other shows that adopted this template, Who was not reacting to Star Wars - which was still months away from its US premiere when the episodes in question were being written and made. Anyway, being a mini-Star Wars, coincidentally or deliberately, was also soon dropped; but, rather than going back, Doctor Who mutated again, as it must; Horror of Fang Rock thus stands as one of the last of its kind.

Both stories are great (!); both feature seafaring vessels from Earth’s history, and explosions. Actually, come to think of it now, how does the SS Bernice return to normal after Drashigs and dynamite tear big holes out of it? The scope can control people’s memories but how would it reconfigure the damaged ship?  Why doesn’t it sink once it’s returned to its natural time? Hmm…

Deeper Thoughts:  
The Horror of Time Travel Theory. For all that it can make you go cross-eyed if you think too much about it, time travel in fiction can be grouped into only two categories: stories where the time traveller can’t change history, and stories where he (usually a he) can; Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy versus Back to the Future. In the latter category, there are variations. If historical path A is changed and branches off into new path B, B can either be the audience’s real world understanding of history, i.e. things have been put ‘right’, or B can be a new changed parallel universe path where the dinosaurs survived, Hitler won the war, or where Ringo was a really good drummer.

A standard for the latter category is that the time traveller’s memory of path A does not change, or changes gradually, from path A to path B. It might be comically interesting to see a time traveller who instantly forgets the old past, so has no idea of the damage he’s doing to his timeline, but I can’t think of any work where that’s been tried. Modern Doctor Who goes in the other direction with its hero: it's hinted that he can remember everything - all the fixed points in time, all the alternate paths never taken, and it almost drives him mad trying to hold it all in his head

Doctor Who usually sticks to time being changeable but almost always it’s changed to be historically right; and – even in Moffat’s timey-wimey era - things are usually linear. Horror of Fang Rock is pretty straightforward: the Rutan killing everyone and the Doctor leaving the lighthouse an abandoned mystery does not offend our knowledge of history as the events are too localised, but we have to assume that the world that the TARDIS departs from is our world with our history. Carnival of Monsters presents the problem that the Doctor changes the history of the SS Bernice; he remembered it as being a maritime disappearance, but after he puts it back in its proper place and time, it presumably never disappeared and there was no Marie Celeste style mystery. And the Doctor after a while may forget the historical disappearance that never happened, or may remember it both ways. (Another explanation could be that after its put back the SS Bernice disappears for a completely different reason – freak tidal wave, or Drashig damage causing it to sink perhaps; but I’m emotionally invested in Claire and Co. so I will stick with the happy ending.)

Pyramids of Mars tweaks the approach again: the 1911 where the TARDIS lands, where the villain Sutekh is running amok (well, sitting amok, but never mind that now) is effectively a parallel universe, and if left alone until 1980 that path of history will see the Earth reduced to a barren wasteland rather than the world Sarah Jane knows. Sutekh isn’t a time traveller, he belongs in 1911, and the disruption was always meant to be.

At first reading it’s a clever trick – it means the Doctor always has an imperative to intervene to protect the future as we know it, and allow his companion to get back to their home. Russell T Davies and Mark Gatiss liked it, and tried and failed to shoehorn a similar scene into The Unquiet Dead from the first season of New Who. But if you think about it, this means that the viewer can never trust that the world where the TARDIS lands is the ‘real’ one, so why give a toss at all?  And it risks reducing the Doctor to a time cleaner, fixing up mistakes, like Sapphire and Steel, or Sam Beckett; but he’s always better making a stand from a moral standpoint rather than just because it's his job. Probably it's good that the show only pulled this trick once.

Then again, actually, Fang Rock does follow the same pattern as Pyramids, it just tells rather than shows: the Rutan hasn't time-travelled, it's a historical character, and had the Doctor not intervened, the fleet would have descended and - by 1980 - the Earth would have been utterly changed, becoming a strategic outpost for the Rutans. Dialogue hints that this would be a Bad Thing, it just lacks a scene where we actually see it. So, in order to have a dramatic engine, in order to be the great and long-running heroic yarn it is, every episode 1 of Doctor Who has to see the TARDIS effectively land in a parallel universe that the Doctor has to put back on track. It just isn't living in the real world at all.

See, I'm going cross-eyed thinking about it (I did warn you).

In Summary:
Fang Rock be rated anything other than excellent? Nonsense, it was made in Birmingham.