Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Rings of Akhaten

Chapter The 33rd, Akhaters gonna Akhate.

The Doctor continues trying to impress his new companion Clara with flash dates; a jet flight and a coffee in London last week, and this week a musical. The venue for which is the Cantina Band scene from Star Wars being played on a continuous loop. Clara meets the star of the show, a little girl called Merry, and gives her a pep talk to get her up on stage. What's the worst that can happen? Well, turns out the worst that can happen is Merry will get eaten by a Sun god (as in a Sun that's a god) for hitting a bum note. Audiences are getting tougher and tougher these days. The Doctor tries to talk the Sun to death, but Clara saves Merry, and the day, by showing the Sun a leaf. (I'm not making this shit up, that's actually the plot.) Everyone has a lovely old sing-song. The End.

A school night. The Better Half is out, the kids are abed, and I fancy watching a Who on my own. The random number generator I use to pick, though, might fall upon a real crowd-pleaser that everyone will want to watch with me, and it would be selfish to keep to myself, what then? ... But no, it's chosen The Rings of Akhaten. No one's in any hurry to watch that one again! But I'll try to keep an open mind - perhaps it's not as bad as I remember.

I watched the episode on Netflix as my daughter is midway through her zillionth rewatch of Frozen and I don't want to eject her disc. I noticed in doing so that the whole of 21st Century Doctor Who is available on Netflix except for The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor. That must make it tricky for anyone for whom this is the sole source of episodes to follow the ongoing narrative, as some quite significant stuff happens in those two. It didn't bode well for The Rings of Akhaten that I was quite so distractible even before I started. But, I did try to keep an open mind.

First-time round:
I watched it, time-shifted to the evening, on the day of its original BBC1 broadcast in 2013. At this point, my every Saturday was like a football fan's whose team is languishing at the bottom of their division in a losing streak. I'd start off full of hope that there would be a win, but end up disappointed yet again. I hadn't minded the season opener the previous week, and my hopes were low for this one anyway because of its name (more on that later), but it still underwhelmed. As did every other episode, alas, in the 50th anniversary year except the big one in November.

Positives first: the music is good. The Long Song, Murray Gold's folk lullaby, sung by successive generations to the greedy god, is perfect. When presented at the Proms as a stand-alone piece, it really shone. And it's not even the best song in it (Ghost Town by The Specials is heard in the 1981 pre-credits sequence). The creature effects can't be sneezed at either. So: good tunes, good masks. That's the end of the positives.

It may be that the intention was to tell a story more about exploration and wonder at an alien world than about a big exciting adventure; if so, the script chickens out halfway through, and tries to start up and resolve an adventure story in far too little time. Or it might be that the aim always was to do the adventure story, but because this is the new companion's first trip to an alien environment, they felt they needed to dwell more on her reaction and background; but, if so, why did they dwell for over half the running time? There's almost as much material about haggling for a vehicle rental as there is about defeating the big bad guy. Though it would certainly have been a refreshing change of pace to have a story where the most dramatic thing is a child getting over her stage fright, I doubt seasoned TV professionals like writer Neil Cross or The Moff would have entertained that beyond an initial brainstorm. So, likely it was always intended to be somewhere between those two poles - they were trying to have their Akhaten and eat it too - and the result is unsatisfactory by either measure.

They were on to a hiding to nothing, anyway. The 'exploration and wonder' approach works with Rose - when she gets a sudden panic attack on Platform One because she's surrounded by aliens, or when she puts her footprint in the snow of 1869 - because she's a real person and is written and played as such. Despite having possibly the best companion actress since Billie Piper playing Clara, she is set up as an unplayable sci-fi enigma, and - just as he did with Amy - Matt Smith's Doctor has an ulterior motive in asking her aboard the TARDIS, which damages our trust in him, and makes the relationship seem a bit creepy. He is seen literally stalking her family through time in the early sequences of this story. I am keeping everything crossed that soon-to-arrive new Capaldi companion Bill is just an ordinary person with guts and a sense of adventure, because that's all you need.

One would think that the plot of Rings, once it gets underway at around the 20 minute mark, doesn't have time to drag thereafter. But one would think wrong. There's some kinetic movement hopping or mopedding from place to place, but dramatically, emotionally, everything is static. The Doctor stands up to a scary nasty, delivering a big speech while it just stays still, not looking very threatening. Then, he realises the Mummy thing isn't the big nasty, and so stands up to another scary nasty, delivering a big speech while it just stays still, not looking very threatening. To have this happen twice over is unforgivable and should have been picked up in rewrites. But perhaps Rings didn't get any of those - it was a rapid commission after Cross's first script for the series, Hide (shown later but filmed first), went down so well with the production team, and it shows every sign of being rushed half-formed to the screen.

Ooh, quite a lot: both stories have more musical numbers than is usual for a Doctor Who story, both involve intergalactic tourists, both feature an alien girl, and both include a trip in a slightly unusual space vehicle (space-bus in Delta and The Bannermen, space-moped in The Rings of Ahkaten). Plus, they both have stupid titles (more on that soon).

Deeper Thoughts: 
'Rose' by any other name... 'The Rings of Akhaten' is just the kind of 'King Thrash-wobbler of the Biddly Bong' name that repels a certain section of the audience, and prevents a mass appreciation of a fantasy product even if deserved, consigning it to the cult ghetto. Now, you might think - and if the mood's right, I might agree with you - screw 'em. If those people are going to switch off just because they can't cope with an odd sounding name here and there, they're not worth keeping. That would be fine for any other show, but not Doctor Who. It shouldn't ever be a cult; it should always aim to appeal to the widest possible family audience - that's what it was made for, from the very beginning.

Avoiding outlandish language that might be off-putting is therefore wise, especially when part of the title. Since its return to screens in 2005, Doctor Who has taken care for the most part to use the episode titles as Big Tent marketing opportunities. It's dropped the ball a couple of times, yes: I still think 'The Father of the Daleks' would have brought in more punters than 'The Magician's Apprentice'; but, generally, it's done okay. The Rings of Akhaten was broadcast during the era of what Steven Moffat dubbed slutty titles, which started with Let's Kill Hitler - big Cinemascope ideas for each story encapsulated in a snappy and obvious title which would invariably appear weekly on a movie poster style image.

In the old days, Doctor Who stories had some pulpy titles, for sure, and many included made-up proper nouns; but, they usually had a sense of excitement about them. 'The Power of Kroll', to take a representative example, is more dramatic a title than perhaps deserved by the somewhat soggy story to which it is attached, and it too would qualify for the centrepiece of a passable movie hoarding. There were also some gnomic beauties too, like the spate of single word titles in the early 1980s, e.g. 'Meglos' (a story that was crying out instead for an 'Attack of the Cactus Man' moniker).

From 2005 onwards, though, all that is banished. Doctor Who didn't blaze back onto TV screens with 'The Return of the Autons'; its opener was instead, very deliberately, called 'Rose'. Something sounding innocuous, maybe even a little dull, because it was the story of someone with an ordinary life to whom extraordinary things then start to happen. Every title in that 2005 batch uses only normal English words ('Dalek' is in the OED). With the exception of occasional uses of the names of established Doctor Who baddies that haven't yet got into the dictionary - Sontarans, Ood, Zygons - that's how it has stayed. (There's only one real exception before Rings, 'The Pandorica Opens'; yes, there's no word Pandorica in the English language, but it's only two extra letters different from its famous mythological inspiration, and it was also mentioned previously in the series before it's titular usage.)

'The Rings of Akhaten' could never be described as a slutty title, not even in the rarefied environs of one's local comic store or Games workshop. The movie poster image seemed to suggest some kind of King Solomon's Mines adventure pastiche, but the story and the title didn't relate to that. Ultimately if it did any good it was to expedite the end of the slutty era - it was limiting to concentrate on only large high-concept ideas, week in week out. And it does seem to have been a one-off; since Rings, it's been back to reasonable titles not written in any alien language. Some might see all this as a lack of confidence, but I disagree for the reasons given above: Doctor Who should never be excluding or elitist in its approach. And it should certainly never again put made-up words in an episode title that sound like someone clearing their throat. Ahem.

In Summary:
The Long Wrong.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Delta and the Bannermen

Chapter The 32nd, where Doddy gets deaded.

The Doctor and Mel win a time-travel holiday to Disneyland in 1959 provided by an unreliable tour operator with a reputation for dangerous disasters. Despite having their own time machine which they could use to go to Disneyland in 1959 whenever they feel like it, they agree to go on this trip, and – who would have thunk it?! – it turns out to be a dangerous disaster. Only for Mel, though, as the Doctor decided to travel in the safety of the TARDIS and left her to face the peril alone, the gallant chap. The trouble is twofold: a collision with a prototype US satellite, and a stowaway refugee, Delta, being pursued by a genocidal gang, the Bannermen. Instead of Disneyland, they land in an episode of Hi-De-Hi set in Wales. The locals help defeat the bad guys by lending our heroes spanners and jars of honey and the like; one of the locals falls in love with Delta and they go off into space to propagate her species; it’s probably best not to dwell on how exactly. An entire space bus full of innocent tourists is slaughtered in the middle of things, but no one really cares.

Watched the episodes on DVD one episode per night mid-week on one of the first weeks the children had gone back to school. This is apt, as the Slyvester McCoy stories have that ‘Back to School’ feel for me; each of his seasons started more or less in line with the start of the academic year when I was an older teenager. As well as the three kids - boy of 10, boy of 7, girl of 4 - who enjoyed it but were particularly taxed by how Don Henderson was managing to fake eating that raw pork joint (seriously, that was the key talking point for them), the Better Half also joined us. This was the first time she had seen this particular story since transmission. Second time round, she thought it was shit.

First-time round:
I must have been in my final year of secondary school, as I remember clearly rushing back from some careers or further education fair in the local Masonic Hall that all the fifth year had been taken to, just to catch an early episode of Slyvester’s first season. I was full of optimism for the new guy, and unlike many cynics I heard from at the time, and those I’ve come across since, I didn’t think the show was in that bad a shape. Not perfect, but with the potential to develop interestingly. That's also a pretty good description of me as a fifth year. Sadly, I didn't regenerate into the young Paul McGann.

Just before transmission, my schoolfriend Alex, who's previously been mentioned in these pages, breathlessly asked me whether I'd seen the trailer for the new Doctor Who story (I hadn't) because it looked absolutely awful: the space bus, which was a silly idea in the first place to Alex's mind, had a crude square box round it where it had been badly superimposed, and Ken Dodd was in it overacting, and it just looked like it was going to be terrible. When I watched it, perhaps because he'd prepared me for the worst, I didn't think it was that bad.

Oh, it’s a mess, though. Like the Slyv three-parter Silver Nemesis, which I viewed for the blog last year, it suffers from a car-crash of numerous characters and subplots. Unlike Silver Nemesis, there’s the added frustration that some of the subplots and characters show real potential. It can't be realised, though, as there’s too much going on for the running time, and too many threads to develop any one of them in sufficient depth. Hugh Lloyd's Beekeeper Goronwy for example is enigmatically played with moments of sparkle, but he adds nothing to the plot whatsoever. It might be passable if it was directed so all the elements cohere, but - alas - as a director, Chris Clough makes a very good producer. Every actor is attacking the material in their own way with no sense that everyone is integrated into a single cast working to one end in one overall tone. Ken Dodd and Don Henderson share a scene, but their performances belong in completely different shows, probably on different channels.
Delta and the Bannermen is nonetheless revolutionary in its quiet way. It is the first story to visit a period of time proximate to the transmission era of real-world Doctor Who, but treat it as history, opening up a whole new arena for the show. Delta is set just four years before Doctor who began in 1963; but, just as the music of John Smith and The Common Men (actually library music) heard in An Unearthly Child is nowhere near as exciting as The Shadows, let alone The Beatles, similarly Delta and the Bannermen doesn’t have any real rock n’ roll in it, nothing like Little Richard or Eddie Cochran, just a slushy Frankie Lymon number.

Now, maybe this is intended as historical accuracy. A holiday camp in Wales would likely not have been a venue for anything too raucous, after all. But what an opportunity wasted! Imagine a story, whether chiller or romp, in the real 50s; imagine a real (and menacing) Ted instead of a Flying Picket. The period, though, was not chosen for drama or realism, was it? It’s just an excuse to make as near as they can to a Hi-De-Hi crossover. It’s like setting a story in occupied France, but eschewing any of the excitement and danger of the Resistance and staging it instead like an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The production values bear out these priorities: the camp scenes are filled with extras, but Gavrok's mighty Bannerman force consists of just six Welsh guys. The Chimeron race they've destroyed fares even worse - it's just two green blokes and a dummy lying in a quarry. Script Editor Andrew Cartmel famously flew off the handle when he visited the quarry filming to find that not enough effort was being put into the big opening scene, but it was his job to realise that a big intergalactic space battle in a story that's going to then have to do three episodes of expensive period setting, is not going to be possible on Doctor Who's 1980s budget. This was his inexperience showing, and we should applaud the reach exceeding the grasp.  But he still goes on about it now. Let it go, Andrew.

Both stories involve a holiday for the Doctor in Summery sunshine; both contain a female royal family member in mortal danger; both contain at least one person waving a sword about.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Some people can take or leave Marmite. It was an inventive marketing idea, making a virtue out of a lot of people disliking a product, but it isn’t true. It’s easy to find people who don’t have a strong opinion either way on Marmite, just as it is for any supposed love/hate thing. Even party politics: viewed from within, it feels like nothing could be as inflammably polar as party politics, but there are always floating voters. In the time we're in of Brexit and Trump/Clinton and Jeremy Corbyn it's hard to believe, but an even split of strong reactions for and against is just as rare as critical consensus. And this goes for the Slyvester McCoy era, too, no matter how it might seem to the contrary if one gets in the middle of an online flame war on the subject.

I like both seasons 23 and 24, the two years of twentieth century Doctor Who that come in for most flak about their quality level; I like a lot of the work of both Eric Saward and Andrew Cartmel, the script editors of the same; I like Colin Baker and Slyvester McCoy, the lead actors who were the face of the show at those times. Even after all these years, though, with the show back on TV and very successful, there are still fierce debates happening in dark corners online about which year / backroom boy / actor was more to blame. The truth as ever lies somewhere in the middle, or somewhere to one side: in all likelihood, no matter who was in charge in front or behind the camera, Doctor Who would have been cancelled in 1989. It's nobody's fault.

I’ve been as guilty as anyone of getting into an entrenched partisan position in the past. I remember not liking it when I heard Alex’s fairly gentle criticisms of Delta’s trailer, as mentioned above; and, as he was speaking, I was mentally putting on my rosette, grabbing my clipboard, and preparing my defence of the Slyvester McCoy party. Maybe to the wider public he looks unelectable, but you have to understand he is very popular and has been given a mandate to save planets by a large number of the members, sorry, fans. Even my Better Half is keen to put in on record that her pithy summary of Delta and the Bannermen given above is not really fair, and it was only out of a shock of disappointment that she reacted that way.  McCoy is one of the Doctors she grew up with, and that sort of tribal loyalty is hard to shift.

No one can agree about anything. No can even agree about how to disagree about things. Sometimes we defend a position without properly interrogating it, and sometimes we assume people are either for us or against us when that isn't remotely true. Life is like a Slyvester McCoy three parter - filled with many, varied characters milling about, going off in different directions, generally being nice but not adding much to proceedings. And it doesn't really make sense.

In Summary:
It's only not rock n' roll, and I don't like it.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Androids of Tara

Chapter The 31st, where a week is spent at Leeds Castle in the Summertime.

The Doctor, Romana and K9 are midway through their search for the Key to Time. Like everyone except maybe Romana and the series producer, the Doctor is getting bored of the concept by now, and fancies a break. So, when the tracer deposits the TARDIS on the planet Tara, he goes fishing and leaves all the work to Romana. She finds the segment easily enough but can't help but be embroiled in the machinations of Count Grendel, an aristocrat of Tara, who is trying to steal the throne with a devious plan of doppelgängers, android duplicates, and doppelgängers of android duplicates. A little later, the Doctor is disturbed during his fishing and similarly embroiled in the machinations of Prince Reynart, the rightful heir, to defeat Grendel's plan with a devious plan of his own which also involves android duplicates but no doppelgängers. So his dog doesn't feel left out, the Doctor whistles for K9 so he too can get embroiled in both sets of machinations. The TARDIS team help the good guy win, and the bad guy lose, and it's all effortless, charming and fun. Hooray!

This story was not a random selection, as will become clear. The whole family (me, the Better Half and three kids – boys aged 10 and 7, girl aged 4) settled down to watch an episode per day from the Australian Region 4  DVD (see here for why that version) over the course of a sunny week late in the Summer holidays. We did this in a cottage where we were staying within the estate of Leeds Castle, the place where The Androids of Tara was filmed back in 1978. Cool, huh? It wasn’t – honestly!  – the only reason we chose this destination for our holiday, but it did definitely contribute to the final decision, I can’t lie.

Obviously, one would expect a story to get some boost from association with the fun of an ongoing holiday, and the opportunity afforded for location spotting (“I’ve been there!” says Dad every thirty seconds). But that alone couldn’t explain the very favourable reaction from everyone. The kids were asking eagerly each day about when we’d get to see the next episode, and that's almost unprecedented, particularly when they're on a holiday with lots of other fun distractions. I've always thought that this story was the perfect one for a summer break (I read the Target novelisation on a caravan holiday in the New Forest, sometime in the 1980s); on the strength of this experiment, I'd stick by that view.

First-time round:
I still have a nagging feeling I might have caught the very last scene of this story (K9 adrift in Castle Gracht's moat) on its repeat broadcast in the summer of 1979. It's a hazy memory, though, of switching on the TV at my grandparents' house on a weeknight and seeing something before switching over. If true, this would make it the very first tiny bit of Doctor Who I ever watched; my first verifiable memory is from Nightmare of Eden, broadcast a few months later. I've subsequently come to believe, though, it was either something else entirely, or a false memory from reading the book later.

The first time I would have seen this in full was when the whole of the Key to Time season was released on VHS in the Nineties. The six stories were released in pairs over three months in 1995, building up to be a complete... pile of tapes. They had a spine illustration split across the tapes that connected jigsaw fashion to show... something unmemorable, and this made them different to all the other vids they shared shelves with and therefore annoyed all fastidious fanboys everywhere, of which - of course - I am one.

It's been argued that for all its undeniable charm, there's not much drama in The Androids of Tara - the stakes are small, and everyone's having such fun that there isn't a real sense of jeopardy. My advice to persons of this view is to let a wild bird into your house within the first few minutes of episode one; it'll inject some thrills and spills. This is what happened to us in the cottage: a robin flew in shortly after my pressing Play, swooped round the shocked heads of the three smaller members of the family, and couldn't get out until the Better Half and I had done a concerted joint effort of shooing and wafting. It proved much scarier for all the family than the cuddlier Taran Wood Beast which popped up once we resumed our watch.
This was all in the spirit of our immersive Secret Cinema-esque viewing, but for me the story would be just as good without these props. Less is more, and - particularly in the middle of a season where there was great emphasis on a galaxy-spanning quest and echoey battles between good and evil on a vast scale (at least that was the idea on paper anyway) - it was a welcome relief to have fun and derring-do and swashes by the buckle load. I can see people who don't like the Tomfoolery of  Baker's latter years having had enough of this sort of thing, but I love it. Baker fluffs as many lines in this as William Hartnell on a bad day, doesn't look once even remotely like he's taking anything seriously, accepts payment and wine in a jokey manner, and larks about in dialogue with K9 including such beauties as "A hamster with a blunt penknife could do it quicker" and "You old sea dog, you!". But he doesn't just get away with it, he turns it into a high art form. Along with City of Death the following year, it's part of the absolute pinnacle of this style of Doctor Who, and I can't get enough of it, frankly.

Maybe if you've read or seen The Prisoner of Zenda it also might lose a bit of lustre; I have resisted ever doing this, as I don't want to show up where this Doctor Who version, which seems like a gentle send-up of a genre in toto, is too direct a rip-off of a specific source text.  But even if it is, that doesn't subtract from witty dialogue, a near flawless set of integrated performances, a great villain delivered with gusto by Peter Jeffrey, fantastic sets and seamless use of locations, and one of the deadliest of deadly Dudley Simpson's wonderful scores.

On the minus side, there are the Key to Time bits of the narrative throughout which, whenever they pop up, thankfully not very often, the viewer surely wants to get back to the much more interesting Grendel and Co. And the final swordfight gets good, but only after a very slow beginning, without music, during which the assembled cast - like the Perry family watching - exchange glances as if to say "Has it started yet? They're just walking about." The Better Half docked it two points for this longueur and another point for the distraction of the young Paul Lavers being in it - she knew him as a big cheese at QVC when she worked there many years ago. Everyone else gave this 10/10.

The Doctor can be seen sleeping in both. There's an odd bit of walled ruin where some of Amy's Choice - the scenes with the mothers and children - was filmed that could be a castle. That's about it.

Deeper Thoughts: 
At Prince Reynart's Hunting Lodge
Time trip advisor. By coincidence, a Doctor Who Magazine special on location work for the series came out a few days before we set off for Maidstone in Kent (where Leeds Castle is situated - a good fact to note). It covered - like many articles, books and guided walks before it - a lot of the different places where Doctor Who, new and old, has been shot over the years. A surprising number of them aren't even quarries. I can see the attraction, and there must be a market sufficient enough for Panini to think it a good idea to base a whole publication around it, but I've never really been tempted to go location hunting myself. And I'm an uber-geek. It's just one of those aspects of Doctor Who fandom that are for others, like cosplay or being unrelentingly negative about any new series.

Living in Sussex, I guess there are some moors of the 'Scotland' of Terror of the Zygons (actually filmed near Bognor Regis) that are close; and there must be a quarry or two nearby.  Plus, of course, I work in London. In fact, every day I pass the Torchwood One tower (known to the Not We as Canary Wharf) but it's honestly not occurred to me as being a Doctor Who site until just now. Unless they are interesting in their own right, I don't see the point of visiting these places; unless, you know, there are pokémon to catch there (yes, of course, I'm addicted to Pokémon GO - I am an uber-geek).

Having a swordfight in the Castle cellar
I don't normally drag the family to holiday in Doctor Who locations either, but Leeds Castle offers a thousand years of history beyond the kudos of a Tom Baker visit in 1978. So many things have happened here - kings and queens, sieges, prisoners, fires, summits - that the tourist literature doesn't make much of any of the filming that's happened here, let alone Doctor Who, and there's been quite a lot - Kind Hearts and Coronets was filmed in the Castle, for chrissakes. I happen to think this is just as important as Henry VIII or Richard II holding court; but then I would, because I'm an uber-. Well, you know what I am by now.
I'd recommend it, anyway. There are a number of cottages available as holiday rents in the estate, and a field of Glamping tents too, and there is a lot to do in the gardens, grounds and in the castle itself, even if you don't have a family that's excited to have a picnic near Prince Reynart's hunting lodge, or recreate a swordfight in the cellars of the Castle's keep. It's on the expensive side, you're living in a tourist trap after all, but the rent includes access to the castle's attractions for every day of your stay.
The very same punt that Tom Baker used (possibly)
But how to get there?  The aforementioned DWM Special magazine has a fun epilogue by Graham Kibble-White, cutting some slack to the first ever official Doctor Who locations guide, the 1986 Target paperback 'Travel Without The TARDIS' by Jean Airey and Laurie Haldemann. These were two US fans who - reportedly - were got the gig by John Nathan-Turner after he met them at a convention. Being a couple of fans from a different continent armed with a lot of enthusiasm, but no professional travel writing experience, they inevitably made quite a few howlers.
These few paragraphs here are probably the nearest I will ever come to being a travel writer, so it's unfair of me to pick holes, but I'm going to anyway: the most famous of these howlers was their misguided belief that Leeds Castle is near Leeds railway station. I have a copy of the book, and from reading the full entry, it's clear that they do not think that Leeds Castle is in Leeds, Yorkshire, it's more that they're unaware that the Leeds in Yorkshire exists at all (Doctor Who has never been filmed there, you see). The final sentence of the entry reads "Alternatively, you can take the train from London's King's Cross to Leeds and hire a taxi from there." Now, you can do that, of course. But it would take about two and a half hours for the train journey and four hours for the taxi ride, all of which would be out of your way, and it would cost about 350 quid. So, as my stint as a travel writer comes to an end, I can at least say: "If you're visiting Leeds Castle don't take the train from London's King's Cross to Leeds and hire a taxi from there." Don't all thank me at once...

In Summary:
It was so good, it was like being there.

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.