Wednesday, 30 November 2016


Chapter The 36th, an old one by the new guy.

Answering a distress call, the Doctor and Martha arrive on a spaceship populated by ex-soap actors, the S.S. Pentallian, that is hurtling towards a star. They get separated from the TARDIS, and have to work out a way to help the crew get the Pentallian's drive working again, but they only have precisely the length of time that a Doctor Who episode lasts to do it. As if that premise wasn't quite enough, the star is also possessing members of the crew and turning them into homicidal killing machines with a scary catchphrase, "Burn With Me". The Doctor survives being possessed himself; Martha survives doing a space pub quiz, and being jettisoned away from the ship in a pod, 2001-stylee. The Doctor works out that the star is a living being, and when the captain had earlier nicked a bit of it to use for fuel, that made it all angry. The captain (her off Eastenders years ago) sacrifices herself; the rest of the star fuel is given back, and the survivors (him from Shameless, and him from Waterloo Road) wave goodbye to the TARDIS travellers and presumably have a lot of explaining to do when they get rescued...

It took so long to work our way through the episodes of City of Death, I'd resolved to watch and blog the next story quickly. As it happens, the rest of the family had an early night last Sunday, so I popped on the DVD and watched it with a beer, just me on my lonesome - but not that bad a way to spend 45 minutes, all told, if you're a fan of Doctor Who. Or beer. Or both.

First-time round:
I first saw this on its initial BBC broadcast in 2007. No particularly interesting anecdotes about it; the Better Half and I would have watched it together, probably live rather than timeshifted as we only had the one child who was still young and would likely have been asleep well before it went out. I remember being interested to see writer Chris Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who; probably, I was quite apprehensive too – it wasn’t that long after the broadcast of Torchwood season 1 for which he was the main writer and which was... variable to say the least! My only other memory is that 42 was shown after a week with no Who, as it had been taken off for Eurovision. The trailer at the end of the previous story, The Lazarus Experiment, contained scenes from the whole of the second half of the 2007 season. Doubtless there were a few people disappointed when watching that they didn’t get scarecrows and Captain Jack aboard the  Pentallian.

In the tone meetings at the start of production for each new Doctor Who story, they used to - maybe, they still do - specify a single word to sum up the feel of that story. I should think the word for 42 was 'sweaty'. The overall impression is of a lot of grimy, perspiring people running down industrial corridors, stopping for a bit of breathless chat, then running again. With the red spacesuit making an appearance, and Graeme Harper directing too, it strikes me as somewhat of a prototype for The Waters of Mars, but not quite as good. No comedy robot, though: curse or blessing? You decide.

Is 42 doomed to forever be seen as a rehearsal for something better to come? (Or a rehash of something that did it better first, if you're a big fan of The Satan Pit, which also played in a similar sandbox?) The idea is sound: do a Doctor Who in real time, with the clock ticking. It's just not as exciting overall as you'd expect for that concept. It's maybe because the crew are a colourless bunch. Only Riley and McDonnell get material enough to sink their teeth into, and Michelle Collins as the latter plays it so flat. Everyone else blurs into one, really - which is a particular waste of Anthony Flanagan's talents. Maybe it would have been better to dispense with the monster of the week - brave, I know - and just done a purer story of crew versus the external conflicts of machine breakdown and the hazards of space.

The main cast fare better than the guests. This is around the beginning of David Tennant's imperial phase, which subsequently didn't stop even after he left the role. Most of the more annoying mannerisms from his first year are under control, and he struts around being heroic while Murry Gold's strident 'All The Strange Strange Creatures' booms out. He also gets to do a bit of vulnerable acting too, when the Doctor gets infected by the star thing, and it works well. Freema as Martha is good here too; she got the short stick, generally: of the three of RTD's companion actresses she has the least interesting character arc, but here she is natural and has a great little scene in the pod, and some nice material on the phone with her mum. Those little bits of the Saxon arc are intriguing and unobtrusive and don't weigh things down.

The only slightly silly bits for me (I can just about ignore the implausibly powerful magnetic power the Doctor gets the ship to emit in order to save Martha in the pod) are the scenes with the computer asking various trivial questions in order to let people through the ship. Actually, these were probably more horrific to me than silly. I'm someone who can come a cropper when he finds out sometime in the forgetful past he's been forced to set a security question online somewhere, and can often find myself wondering exactly what the answer is to a poser like "Where were you born?". Did I put Wembley, or Brent, or London, or some combination of the above? Is it case sensitive? If there was no 'Forgot Password?' button on that bulkhead, I'd definitely have been toast by the time 42 minutes elapsed.

Overall, then, it's a decent mid-season episode: nothing to knock one's socks off, but solid enough entertainment. I doubt the brief given to Chris Chibnall asked for anything more; but, it does therefore give no clues to how he might attempt to thrill us when he takes over running the show in 2018.

There’s the obvious Douglas Adams connection (42 was a significant number in his most famous work); there’s a spaceship in both stories, and an alien creature masquerading as something else (a Count in City of Death, a star in 42).

Deeper Thoughts: 
It's all wide open until his stories air. It's still more than a year away, but we'll soon have a new showrunner for Doctor Who. Steven Moffat has been running things a long time, and he had a significant role in his predecessor's time in the job too. By the time Chris Chibnall, writer of 42, takes over in 2018, it will be another series and two Christmas specials further on. The Moffat era will feel like it's been going on forever. And because of his visibility and consistency throughout Doctor Who from 2005 to 2009, writing a big story every year, there was a good idea in everyone's head about what the Moff’s take on Who would be like when he took over. It might not have been a completely accurate idea, but let's face it: he's being doing it for so long now, he's probably done every single one of people's preconceived ideas and many more by now.

Chibnall however is much more of a mystery.  He's written four Doctor Who stories, one of them a two parter: five episodes. Almost as much as Moffat had when he took over, but they have been in very different eras and had very different tones. As a scribe for hire, maybe he's very good at fitting in with the prevailing style. Maybe he's been given differing levels of freedom at different times. But 42 is worlds apart from the Silurian two-parter he wrote for Matt Smith's first year, and both are very different again from the linked but not quite a two parter episodes he did later in Smith's tenure.

If you look at his other work, even his other work just in Doctor Who spin-offs, there are a lot of different Chibnalls out there. Which will we get? The showrunner of Torchwood series 1, or Torchwood series 2? The writer of Broadchurch series 1, or - heaven help us - Broadchurch series 2? It's probably just wishful thinking, because I like them, but I think the best hint is those latest two episodes he wrote in 2012 – Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and The Power of Three. These are the stories which to my mind served the characters of Amy and Rory best; even in the hands of their creator Moffat, they never come across as real people.  I’m aware that this is intentional: when we meet members of Amy’s family in the finale of her first season, they come over as characters from a dark fairy tale, rather than people you could ever actually meet. Her parents are called Augustus and Tabetha Pond – documentary realism is clearly not being attempted. Moffat’s first year followed swiftly after Russell T Davies’s more kitchen sink estate approach and was a nice counterpoint, but I don’t think it was as effective for the drama.

It’s only really in Chibnall’s work - particularly those last two scripts but also in the extra-curriculars Pond Life and P.S. - that I fully care what happens to Amy and Rory. Amy has to deal with a space-time crack that has done weird things to the universe – so what?! Amy has to juggle her home life with a secret life travelling in time? Now I’m interested. Chibnall also introduced Brian Williams, a family member for Rory, a grounding force that makes the action real and relevant, and someone who lifts every scene he’s in. Will Chibnall’s reign see more of this approach? Or will he surprise us with something else again?

Other questions beg too: will Capaldi stick around? It would be great to see a leading man continue into the era of a new production team to see how that changes things; hell, it would be good just to have someone stick around in the role for more than three seasons and a bit. If not, will Pearl Mackie stick around as Bill to provide continuity? Will Moffat ever write for the show again as a hired hand? Will RTD ever be tempted back? Which new writers with Chibnall bring in? The most important question of all, though, is how soon into the Chibnall era will it be before someone slags off the writing online, linking to the clip of Chris on viewer's feedback show Open Air in 1986, slagging off the writing of Doctor Who's Trial of a Timelord season? My guess is approximately five minutes into episode one.

In Summary:

Thursday, 24 November 2016

City of Death

Chapter The 35th, which concerns a work of art.

On holiday again in Paris in 1979, the Doctor and Romana get mixed up with a con-man Count and his wife, who are planning to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. They team up with a private detective, Duggan, and try to stop the Count - who is really Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth, a wiggly green alien with one eye wearing a really good mask.

After an accident with his spaceship's warp drive on primeval Earth, Scaroth is splintered through time, with each of his splinters leading separate lives in separate time zones, Clara Oswald stylee. He needs the proceeds of selling the Mona Lisa, as well as six copies of the same that his Renaissance splinter coerced Leonardo into painting, to fund a time travel experiment to avert the spaceship's accident, save his people, and reunite himself. But, it turns out his accident was inadvertently responsible for kick-starting life on Earth, so can't be stopped. Our heroes rack their brains for a way to prevent Scaroth from undoing millions of years of history and prehistory; Duggan decides just to thump Scaroth. It works!

Me and the boys (one aged 10, one 7) watched the first couple of episodes on a rainy Saturday. Then various members of the family drifted in and out for the last two episodes which we caught up with over the following few days. A markedly different reaction to Spearhead from Space which kept them glued to their seats throughout each episode, and demanding the next one immediately afterwards. Why was the difference in their reaction so pronounced? I asked the boys during the second episode - after they'd looked at me askance while I was guffawing at one line or other - whether they thought this story was particularly funny. They hadn't noticed any humour at all. I was reminded of when I rewatched, when I was a few years older, the comedies I'd seen when I was about their age - Blackadder, The Young Ones, etc. - and wondered exactly how I'd found them funny first time round, given that most of the jokes must have sailed over my head. Maybe the same thing was happening to my boys. The humour of City of Death is mostly verbal and cerebral; if you miss that, what you're left with is more talky and much less action-packed than Spearhead from Space.

The time it took to watch the story is the main reason why it's taken a while to get this post published; that, and the depressing and ghastly news from across the Atlantic impacting my productivity for a while; but, I can best serve the world by tending my own garden, and my favoured horticulture involves posting nonsense about Doctor Who, so here you go...

First-time round:
My first viewing of City of Death was on VHS. It came out early in 1991 on the same day as Planet of the Spiders, which I've already covered for the blog here; as I said then, I bought both of them in Volume One in Worthing on the first day of their release, while playing hooky from Sixth Form. A pretty fine double bill, that's for sure. In the nearly 18 months since I wrote the Spiders post, I have come to think that - though I did no doubt agonise over the decision - I would have watched City of Death first. It's two episodes shorter, and has a better reputation. Be warned: don't judge a VHS by it's cover; City of Death is widely acknowledged to be one of the best classic Who stories, and it has what's widely acknowledged as one of the worst cover illustrations of the period.

I haven't rewatched City of Death for a number of years, and after the first two scenes, I was worried. The dialogue, which I expected to sparkle, was technobabbley to the point of alienation in the first scene, and smug and forced in the second. Both scenes looked great. Despite his being dressed in that first scene with a beaded monstrosity that better belonged over the back of a mini-cab driver's seat in 1979, Scaroth's take off is wonderfully depicted in both studio and model theatre. And, though it looks a little cold, Paris is beautiful, and affords us a few more 'shoe leather' scenes of our heroes wandering about than would normally be acceptable. But looks aren't everything. Were my expectations artificially high? Was it simply not as good as I remembered? Shortly, though, the plot kicked in, and everything was fine.

Though it's fun, funny, and full of verve, the real jewel in City of Death's crown, or eye in its tentacled head, is its inventive plot. Never before had Who spliced the crime caper subgenre into its DNA, and the graft is seamless; also original is the art world setting. The Douglas Adams touch serves to lift the main story. But the main story is more than good enough anyway, so this lift pushes it up towards the stratosphere - this isn't like, say, Robots of Death, where if you stripped away the clever design and memorable lines, you'd be left with a standard genre potboiler; City of Death would be a good story even with dialogue by Pip and Jane Baker. The wit is never there just for its own sake, but is always pushing along a plot that is corkscrewing through a set of wonderfully paced turns and reversals.

The idea of Scaroth's splinters, for example, was good enough for Steven Moffat to squeeze a whole series out of it. The script never rests: even in the resolution scene, there's another little twist where the only Mona Lisa to survive is one of the 'fake' ones. The acting, too, is fantastic, because it's uniformly working for the script, not just sitting as a layer of comic icing atop it. Julian Glover is pitch perfect, but he's pipped to the post of best performance in the piece, by - and who would have thought it - one Tom Baker. Clearly, the material and the small but great cast inspired him to up his game. Just watch the subtle modulations of tone, turning on a sixpence, as he goes from playing the fool to playing it deadly straight. Tom Chadbon is good enough to be a companion - clearly at the time, they'd noticed that the Doctor and Romana are too otherworldly and need a male doofus to balance things. David Graham overplays it a little in places, but it's fine. (An aside: the boys felt the Count and Kerensky were like another double act:  Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman in Pointless - I can see it, sort of). Lalla Ward, excellent, Catherine Schell, peerless. Even Herman the Butler and the little lady in the louvre sparkle.

The music is stunning, the sets are great, the episode endings are fantastic - particularly the end of part 2, and I love how glasses fall down Kerensky's nose as he ages to death at the end of part 3.  I could keep going forever.

Both four episodes, both broadcast in the 1970s, both really good. What more do you need? Alright: both feature professional investigators, both involve an effort to bring together fragments of one overall entity that's had an impact over millions of years (elapsed since Scaroth's spaceship blew up, the length of time the Nestenes have been conquering other planets). Both have 'borrowed' a lot of  their plot - City of Death was a riff on a plot provided by David Fisher's unmade story proposal 'The Gamble with Time', and the featured plan to sell six forged Mona Lisas was possibly inspired by possibly real life events.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Playing tennis with twenty nets, one on top of the other. The success of City of Death's script is all the more gratifying when you consider the circumstances of its creation. Its principal author, Douglas Adams, was famously never very good at plotting - ideas and jokes he could do better than anyone, yes, but plots? No. Adams had taken up the role as Doctor Who's script editor that year, a job for which he was ridiculously wrong: he was relatively inexperienced, he could not at the time (never really could) get to grips with the disciplines of story structure or deadlines. Of everyone who wrote for Who, he was the most in need of a good script editor. It's so insane that anyone would think he could fit that role himself, it's almost poetry. Added to all this, he was ferociously busy - at around the same time he was supposed to be script editing a season of Doctor Who, he was suddenly very much in demand.

That anything got made of season 17 is surprising enough. Somehow, though, City of Death came together so very successfully. There was some luck involved for sure (John Cleese being nearby to do a cameo, a strike demolishing the completion on broadcast), but mainly it came down to talent and hard graft applied in fertile circumstances. Any Doctor Who fan understands that creativity can be enhanced by restrictions: we’ve watched a 50+ year experiment gradually but irrevocably confirm the hypothesis. But City of Death had so many obstacles, it could quite easily have fallen apart altogether. That it didn’t is one of those quirky wonderful events that could make one believe in sanctifying grace.

Two days before the director was due to start work, there was no workable script. Producer Graham Williams and Adams had to lock themselves in for a weekend, and – as legend has it - hose themselves down with whisky and black coffee in order to produce the blueprint for what got made. It would not be the last time that Adams was locked in a room and forced to complete a story, but I’d argue that it was the most successful. Why? Well, for a start, he had the script editor he so needed on hand in the person of Williams. The producer of Doctor Who at this time had very strong storytelling skills, and clearly kept Adams on track.

The second big plus was that Adams had a ready-made plot from David Fisher, so didn’t have to struggle to come up with one. In fact, he had too much plot: most of the concepts in City of Death originate from Fisher, but Adams cuts out loads more, and simplifies and polishes what remains. For Destiny of the Daleks, broadcast immediately before City of Death, Adams had the opposite issue – not enough material. His rewrites, filling in the blank spots on Terry Nation's canvas with silly jokes, are much less impressive. He was clearly more of a sculptor than a painter. In his later career this becomes more obvious, as he remoulds many plots – including key bits from City of Death – over and over; and, in the whole of his subsequent professional life, he iterates through reshape after reshape of the material of Hitch-Hiker's Guide in different versions and different media.

In a way - and I know it’s almost sacrilegious to suggest imposing non-original material onto such an imagination and intellect, which wanted to zoom off anywhere in time and space - it would have been very interesting to see him attempt an adaptation. In some parallel universe, just an Improbability Drive away, they’re screening a P.G. Wodehouse series as conceived by Douglas Adams. I’d pay to see it.

City of Death deserves its record-breaking audience, even if it was over-inflated. The biggest piece of luck we have is that it exists, alongside Adam’s other fingerprints on our favourite show. Had Hitch-Hiker taken off just a little quicker, Adams might never have written for Doctor Who at all, and we’d have been deprived of one of its most enjoyable stories.

In Summary:
Exquisite. Absolutely exquisite.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Spearhead from Space

Chapter The 34th, where Nigel Kneale calls and wants his plot back.

The Doctor, newly regenerated and exiled after being put on trial by his people, arrives in Pertweeshire - an area of the home counties of England containing a higher than average number of cottage hospitals, tracking stations, factories, and research centres. Excitement! UNIT are also there investigating a couple of meteorite showers, deemed suspicious because the meteorites have landed on Earth - though, to be pedantic, if they are meteorites they must have landed on Earth by definition, so not very suspicious at all really. Except that they fly in formation. And land in the same place six months apart. And contain an alien intelligence that can control plastic. Okay, a little bit suspicious.

The Doctor recovers in hospital, then joins forces with old chum the Brigadier, and newly conscripted UNIT science whiz Liz Shaw. They defeat the Nestenes (for it is they) in their plan to bring shop dummies to life, and to replace various members of the government and civil service with walking plastic facsimiles. The Doctor then agrees to work at UNIT as an unpaid intern, but does get a company car at least.

All the family watched, an episode per evening across the middle of a week, from the Blu-ray edition. The clarity of the high-definition picture is a wonder to behold. The rest of the family can't tell any difference, but all of them - including the eldest child (boy of 10) who was moaning at Doctor Who being put on again - were silent within minutes, and at the end of each episode, they chanted "Next ep, next ep". But I strictly rationed it. It went down very well, it's fair to say.

First-time round:
Spearhead from Space must be the single Doctor Who story I've purchased the most: VHS in the 1980s, unedited VHS in the 1990s, DVD in 2001, special edition DVD a decade after that, and finally the Blu-ray edition a few years ago. I've bought the same story five times. I even taped it when it was repeated on BBC2 in 1999. This is why the Better Half thinks I'm crazy. That first release was edited to remove the beginning and end credits as well as other minor cuts. Although this robbed the world of the UNIT soldier's "Who told you to fire, you -" at the end of part 1, and a snatch of Fleetwood Mac, it did make Spearhead - created 100% on film - into the blockbuster movie it was maybe always meant to be.

It was brought out during that first rush of affordable releases in the late Eighties, and was the fifth Doctor Who story I ever purchased on VHS. I bought it in WHSmiths in Montague Street, Worthing, as I think Volume One - which became my mainstay for Who buying later on - hadn't yet opened in 1988. I can remember popping into Superdrug on my way home to get a Panda Cola (these are real things, youngsters, I'm not making it up); in the queue, I was practically caressing the video box, and trying to discern anything I could of the story from the blurb and the very few photos upon it.

In a reverse of my approach when watching The Rings of Akhaten, where I was trying to keep an open mind to its good points, I watched Spearhead from Space constantly thinking "What's wrong with this?" else this blog post may have become far too hagiographic. As I watched, I listed any even slightly negative point, and the list did get quite long.  So, why isn't it a flop? Why - for me at least - does it rise above any problems to be one of the top 10 Doctor Who stories ever.

The biggest exhibit produced for the prosecution is Spearhead's thieved plot. In Nigel Kneale's Quatermass II, broadcast on the BBC in 1955, there's a shower of meteorites that turn out to be part of an alien invasion plan. At the beginning, they're observed by a radar unit, and one is found by a local country type. There's a factory run by the bad guys that the good guys investigate; there's a plot to control high-level government figures. An official that starts off helping is 'turned' and then blocks the investigations. All of which will be stiflingly familiar to anyone who's ever watched Spearhead from Space.

In retooling Doctor Who as an Earth-bound scientific investigations show, the Quatermass serials were the key touchstones of producer Derrick Sherwin. He will have briefed Robert Holmes - writer of these relaunch episodes - on this, and Holmes has obviously taken him very literally and re-staged a Quatermass serial wholesale. But does it matter? There is a tradition older than literature of writers reusing each other's plots, making them their own. That's true here: Kneale would never take such blackly comic glee as Holmes, and would never have written something quite as fun as Spearhead's big finale with shop widow dummies coming to life. Spearhead is tauter and punchier than Quatermass II (generally accepted to be the weakest one of the initial 50s trilogy) but Holmes still finds time to introduce a mysterious 'man from space in a hospital' subplot.

Spearhead from Space must have been doing something right. It has, in its turn, had its material pillaged twice by subsequent Doctor Who stories (The TV Movie and Rose); it is the template for the 'jumping on point' story, cleaning the slate and setting up the concept again for the Johnnie- and Jenny-come-latelies. That brings me to the second major potential flaw: that new direction of the show in 1970; maybe it's not the right direction. The show that could go anywhere has been grounded in one time and place; the charming amateurs of the black and white years, muddling through their adventures, have been replaced by a colder professional organisation investigating - and inevitably shooting at – the unknown. And the primary driver for all this was not a narrative reason, but budgetary. Earth is cheaper than space. Can this be seen as anything but a backward step? It works, though. Even hobbled as they are with immense running times (7 episodes each), the remaining stories of Jon Pertwee’s first year are all excellent, and all make clever use of the rejigged format. It probably would not have survived long had it remained on Earth for good, but as just one, albeit long, stop on the Doctor’s 50+ year tour, it made a refreshing change.

It’s on film. This being Doctor Who, it wasn’t a clever backroom ploy to relaunch the show in style, it was just an accident, a way to salvage the story at the last moment and avoid the impact of a strike by the BBC studio camerapersons. As such, it has been criticised that the set-ups are mostly static: people sitting still in big echoey rooms, and it loses the friendly intimacy of a multi-camera video approach. Balderdash! A couple of scenes, on repeat watching, might stand out like that, but for the most part it is directed magnificently by Derek Martinus who embraces the use of film and really gets the most out of it. There are some wonderful cuts, which wouldn’t have been possible on video, that tell the story with economy; for example, going from the soldier in the woods asking “Is he dead?” to Doctor Henderson answering the question with the Doctor tucked up in bed, much later. And there’s visuals like Channing’s distorted face, viewed through a glass door, or the blank eyes of a doll mould in the factory staring straight out at the audience.

I’ve almost run out of significant negatives, the rest are minor niggles - the big boss at the end is rubbish, yes, but there’s a fantastic gunfight with the excellent Autons to cut away to, so the ending doesn’t suffer. The superlatives never run out: I haven’t talked about the universally great performances – minor characters like Mullins or Meg Seeley are more interesting than the entire cast of the Rings of Akhaten put together. The great script, with some lovely subtle and not so subtle lines: Meg says she’s going to “blow a hole” in the intruding Auton, and does just that, Channing tells General Scobie he will arrange to have him see his plastic copy before it goes to Madame Tussauds, and it turns up on his doorstep, large as life, and takes his place.

There's a focus at the beginning of both stories on some rocks moving about in space. At the end of both stories, the Doctor ends up in confrontation with a new and powerful creature not like the ones he's seen in the story so far, and needs his companion's help to defeat it. It demonstrates how rubbish the sun thing in The Rings of Akhaten is that the weird tentacled mess at the end of Spearhead is a much more convincing enemy.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Carrie - Redux The world behind the scenes of Doctor Who is as full of stories as the fictional world of its narrative; the era that started with Spearhead from Space perhaps most of all. Many of the anecdotes, made famous though much repetition, date from this Pertwee period, The saddest – and ultimately happiest – story of all is that of Caroline John, who played Liz Shaw, my favourite companion. After Spearhead, Derrick Sherwin moved on, and Barry Letts took over as producer. He has gone on record as saying that he didn't agree with a lot of the changes to the format that his predecessor had made. The 7-part episodes were ditched first; the Earthbound nature of the stories was gradually relaxed, and the more professional focus dispensed with - UNIT were reset as a pseudo family.

This was a curious echo of decision made early on in the development of Doctor Who, before it first aired; Sydney Newman had commissioned a Saturday sci-fi serial, and the proposal on the table, involving a trio of scientific investigators, was very similar to Derrick Sherwin’s later concept for Doctor Who in 1970. This wasn’t accepted, and after many tweaks and suggestions what instead resulted was the 1963 version of Who. Famously, Newman insisted that the series needed a youngster to get into trouble and make mistakes. Letts noticed the same gap in 1970’s Who; so, Liz Shaw, intelligent, capable, sometimes caustic, but also compassionate and warm, was sent back to Cambridge, and Jo Grant – a youngster who would get into trouble and make mistakes – took her place.

Much as I like the character of Jo, and Katy Manning's performance, and much as I can see the logic of a character arc where the Doctor educates his companion until she's ready to leave and have her own adventures, I wanted more of Liz and Caroline. John was pregnant by the end of her stint filming, and would likely have resigned anyway, but all she knew was that the new producer didn't want her to continue. Not knowing of Letts' feelings about the character and the dynamic, she assumed she just hadn't done a very good job. It was only in the early nineties, as she later told it, when she discovered the convention circuit, and finally met her fans, that she was disabused of this notion. This is the tragedy for me; for twenty years, at the back of her mind, even at the same moment as I was watching the VHS of Spearhead from Space for the first time and being super impressed by Liz Shaw's introduction looking like a spy in the back of a mysterious car, my favourite companion incorrectly thought she wasn't well liked.

Caroline John is also the only companion actor that I have actually met; I have met a few Doctors over the years, but only one companion. It was in 2003, Doctor Who's 40th Anniversary year, and I was at the anniversary convention (the 'Panopticon') with my old friend David (mentioned before many times on this blog) and another great guy Chris Petts, who later worked on the CGI for the first couple of series of new Who. The Edgware Road Hilton, where it was based, was not a suitable venue - it was too small, and the lifts could not cope with the sheer number of fans using them. The three of us, though, had discovered a secret lift shaft being kept for use of the talent rather than hoi polloi, and we proceeded shamelessly to abuse it, rather than have to queue with a lot of Doctor Who fans, who can be a bit scary en masse.

At one point, we arrived at these lifts only to find Caroline John and her husband, actor Geoffrey Beevers, waiting there too. Caroline turns and smilingly addresses me: "Oh darling, it's you! I haven't seen you for ages!" Golly gosh. My favourite companion actress has mistaken me for someone famous that she knows. Time suspends. For a scant few nanoseconds I agonise about how I can best capitalise on this, but come up short of ideas and mumble something about mistaken identity. The lift arrives, we all travel up to different floors, and that's that. I didn't even read until long after that about all those years she was mistaken about her worth, or else I'd have screamed after her "Carrie - you weren't a failure, you were THE BEST!!!!!". Caroline John died of cancer in 2012, by which time I'd realised that the capital I'd earned that day in 2003 was a huge amount of happiness and luck in chancing to meet her, however briefly. Liz Shaw: she didn't get into trouble, she didn't make mistakes, and she could certainly rock the plastic-panelled mini-dress look. 

In Summary:
Plastic = fantastic.

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.)