Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ghost Light

Chapter The 43rd, which finally delivers a decent Slyv McCoy 3-parter. Let's cancel the series.

The Doctor takes Ace to visit the scene of her most traumatic childhood memory, like good friends do. The destination is Gabriel Chase, a large house in Perivale that Ace broke into as a teenager in 1983. The Doctor has brought her to the same house 100 years earlier, when it is inhabited by a rum assembly of coves. Some of these are locals, one's a Neanderthal butler, and some are members of a galactic survey team whose ship is in the cellar.

These latter creatures (or constructs - it's never specified) have some interesting powers including being able to develop their own forms to mimic the evolutionary processes of Earth, put animal organisms into a form of suspended animation, regress the forms of humans back through their evolutionary predecessors, and... erm... turn people to stone. Anyway, one of this team - calling himself Josiah Samuel Smith - is planning to assassinate Queen Victoria so he can become king. Now, even though that's a very silly plan that's probably unlikely to work, the Doctor releases the much more dangerous big boss Light from hibernation in the spaceship, to help stop Josiah. Luckily, Light can be talked to death, and everyone else lives happily ever after. Except the ones that get turned into stone. Or soup.

The whole family watched this over a few evenings on DVD, but they took some persuading. For some reason, the Better Half and all the kids (boys aged 10 and 7, girl of 4) moaned and groaned at the very idea of watching Ghost Light, even though most of them didn't even know what it was. Perhaps this is because we've watched a couple of other Slyv McCoy three-parters previously for the blog, and they've been pants. This one is of a different stamp, though, and - perhaps not coincidentally - is the first Slyv McCoy three-parter not directed by Chris Clough, who never managed to make them work.

Once it was underway, everyone stuck with it to the end; it has to be said, though, that it didn't keep the children rapt; there was much talking and fidgeting. This was doubly a shame, as Ghost Light is already difficult to hear, suffering as it does with an iffy sound mix. It is most unfortunate that this particular Doctor Who dialogue, where every line is vital to the story, is buried deep beneath the admittedly rather marvellous score.

First-time round:
I saw this upon its original broadcast on BBC1 in Autumn 1989. Can't remember the details particularly, but I do know I'd have been on my own. At this point, infamously, Doctor Who was put out opposite Coronation Street on ITV, the highest-rated programme of the time. The rest of the family would all have been watching that, and I'd have been in another room watching Doctor Who on my lonesome. As one did with the Slyvester McCoy stories. I also know that I taped it, as I watched it quite a few times in the days and weeks after its broadcast. As one did with Ghost Light.

There are three schools of thought on Ghost Light. School 1: it's complicated, and that's a bad thing - no wonder this was the last regular episode made in the original run, it offers no obvious explanations, you have to watch it twice at least to follow it, and Doctor Who had clearly become pretentious over-baked gobbledygook. School 2: it's complicated, and that's a good thing - it's such a shame this was the last regular episode made in the original run, as - because it offers no obvious explanations, and you have to watch it twice at least to follow it - Doctor Who was finally emerging into the video age, and fashioning itself accordingly, gaining important depth to the stories it told.

The third school comprises those that think it isn't complicated at all, and you just have to pay attention and all the explanations are there. Mostly, this seems to be a pose to start online arguments in Who forums. There's a kernel of truth in it, and if you understood everything about Ghost Light first time, then well done - clever old you. But demonstrably, it is complicated. It is a very dense script, with lots of allusions, shorthand and compression, and it moves breakneck fast to convey information. The ideas within aren't obvious ones either. To pick a random example from another Doctor Who story: the Judoon are space policemen that look like rhinos. That's easy and straightforward to grasp, everyone gets that in an instant. Control and Josiah, on the other hand, are a pair of linked entities that develop in a see-sawing inverse proportion to one another, one replicating the process of  evolution sped up in microcosm to eventually mirror the dominant life-form on a planet it visits, the other staying as it is for comparison. High concept, it ain't. Even if all that was actually spelt out by a character in the drama (and it isn't) it would still cause some noodle scratching.

Let me make it clear, though, that I am firmly in school 2; Ghost Light is a great story, even if it's sometimes baffling. Mind you, I like baffling things; I'm prepared to accept that I might be in a minority in that opinion; had this proved to be a new direction for Doctor Who rather than a one-off experiment, it might not have been a huge ratings winner. As it was, the programme was soon afterwards cancelled, in a decision that seemed to have nothing to do with the quality of the stories being produced, or even the ratings particularly. So, we can probably stop having online arguments about it, and try to take Ghost Light on its own merits.

Whatever one's thoughts are on the script, the production is indisputably class; it's effectively cast, performed, directed, scored, and - most surprisingly of all - it's lit well too. The 1980s most often saw Doctor Who flood-lit like a shiny floored light entertainment show, but Ghost Light couldn't be more different. The sets and costumes are superb, the effects work is above average. There's nothing letting the side down. Regarding that cast, there is almost too much quality to comment on: I could start to wax lyrical about Hogg, Cochrane, and Duce, and Syms, then realise I haven't said anything about Frank Windsor's lovely work. Or John Nettleton's, or Carl Forgoine's. John Hallam's choices as Light (his speech mostly in a very high choir-boy register, with occasional lapses into a snarl) seemed very brave and innovative at the time, but I've only just noticed that it's pretty much the same approach as Ian Reddington's Chief Clown, the big baddie in a Doctor Who story from the previous year also directed by Alan Wareing.

The two lead actors never performed better than they do here. Unfairly or not, Slyv and Sophie would be some people's first place to look to find any weak link; the former has a brief gurn when repelling Light's invisible forces in episode 3, and Sophie has the odd lapse into that 80s stage-school delinquent 'You ain't my probation officer, I ain't never 'ad no mum and dad not never ever' thing she sometimes did. But they are a team, and a fun team, with whom one might want to spend some time; arguably, the TARDIS hadn't had a crew with such a feel-good factor for nearly a decade. The shift of focus onto the companion was a welcome change too, and worked without diminishing the character of the Doctor as it really plays to McCoy's strengths for him to be slightly off to the side in the shadows, manipulating proceedings.

But if anyone tells you they understood it all after only one watch, ask them what's emanating from the snuffbox in episode 1, if Light is still hibernating in the cellar. Eh? Yeah? Eh? Yeah.

Both this story and Planet of Fire are John Nathan-Turner productions broadcast in the 1980s; again, there's a man of the cloth in the dramatis personae, and again the story contains discussions of science versus religion. Both stories don't really have a monster either; the husks were shoe-horned in, I believe at JNT's insistence, but they don't really do anything, so I don't think they count. 

Deeper Thoughts: 
Then Pat said: "Don't do more than three years, though". So, Peter Capaldi has handed in his notice; and it feels too soon, doesn't it? Of course, watching Ghost Light reminds me it's improved since the late 1980s, when the actors playing the Doctor didn't get any choice of when they were to leave. While working on Ghost Light, Slyvester McCoy fully intended to come back and do another full year. This would have been his fourth, and had it happened would have broken a near decade long rule that the lead actor shouldn't - or couldn't in the case of Colin Baker - do more than three years. Reportedly, Colin was told during his sacking that he'd done his three years and that was the normal span, even though no stories were made or broadcast during one of those three.

Peter Davison elected to leave after three years, based on advice given to him by Patrick Troughton who had done the same (although Pat made a lot more episodes in that time). Recently too, the rule of three has endured: it's become the standard to do only three full seasons, but with gaps to extend the overall elapsed time, and with the odd special-length episode slotted in here and there. That was the pattern for Tennant and Smith, and will be the pattern for Capaldi too. Except that only one additional special was squeezed in during his time; most of his 2016 gap year was silence. Perhaps it's this, but I think there's another reason why it feels like he's only just started.

There were always to my mind some superficial similarities between Colin Baker and Peter Capaldi: they'd both had guest starring roles in the show before being cast as the Doctor, they both shared a name (although in Capaldi's case it was a first name) with a previous actor to play the Doctor, they were both best known for one long-running role prior to playing the Doctor (both playing characters you 'love to hate'), and they were both fans of Doctor Who before they got to be in it. There was also a more significant similarity: both actors played the Doctor as a fairly unlikeable so-and-so to begin with. Despite this being a key contributing factor to the show's being paused for a rethink in Colin's time, in Capaldi's second series they back-pedal even more that JNT and Co. did on that first-year approach. From the start of the 2015 season, the Doctor is a different person, hugging, playing guitar and wearing shades -  an embarrassing dad, rather that the ferocious pre-watershed Malcolm Tucker he'd been the year before. Someone somewhere had got cold feet, perhaps the actor himself.

The nicer Dad Rock Who has only been around for a year, and it was such a departure it was like starting over. This is the main reason why I feel that Peter Capaldi is only just bedding in to the role. There's a season of his episodes yet to air, and he may find another completely different way to play it again. Certainly, there will be a different dynamic with a new female companion. Whatever happens, I think he's going to leave us wanting more.

In Summary:
Ghost Light is unsummarise-able.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Planet of Fire

Chapter The 42nd, which ticks off a lot of shopping list items.

The Doctor goes to Lanzarote, and then goes to the planet Lanzarote (also known as Sarn). The Master follows him there somehow using a signal from a platinum dildo thing that was found in a shipwreck, but why and how could it possibly have got to Earth? That doesn't make any sense at all - oh look a volcano! Turlough's mysterious backstory is explained (it ain't all that, really) and then he leaves. Kamelion dies. Peri joins. The Master looks like he's died, but that's happened before and he always comes back, so he probably hasn't died. The people of the planet Lanzarote have their culture and religion all revealed to them as a sham, and their planet blows up. That'll teach 'em for being more primitive than us.

The whole family (me, the Better Half, and kids: boys aged 10 and 7, girl of 4) sat down to watch the DVD over a few evenings, and we decided to watch the much superior special edition "movie" version prepared for that DVD, which cuts out loads of material, but adds in some new scenes and effects in a manner that's... what's the opposite of seamless? Seamful? Yeah. It adds in new scenes and effects seamfully. Also, it's in widescreen which means that the 4:3 original is zoomed in and the picture quality suffers badly and it's a fuzzy, grainy mess. But it's wide.

Of course not; we watched the standard as-broadcast 4-part version with original effects and with all the beginning and end titles intact, just like everyone has and will for ever. No one really wanted the awful unspecial edition "movie" version of Planet of Fire, not even the ex-film student wannabes that put it together, not really. Not if they honestly search their hearts.

First-time round:
I saw this upon its original broadcast on BBC1 in February and March 1984; there's nothing memorable I can think of about that first watch. (No, not even those scenes stuck in the memory of the 12-year old me.) But I do have fond memories of the novelisation, which I bought in the summer of the following year. Some special sporting thing was happening all afternoon at Durrington High School, and a hardcore of opt-outs – who presumably like me were against sport and the causes of sport – spent the afternoon in a stuffy classroom doing self-guided unlearning. I read Planet of Fire while outside my classmates were earning their certificate from Daley Thompson or Duncan Goodhew or someone for doing some physical jerks or other. The Better Half, not at the same school but who did a similar scheme nearby, still has her certificate, signed and presented by Sharron Davies. I still have my well-thumbed copy of Planet of Fire; I’d say that’s about even. 

The middle years of John Nathan-Turner's long tenure as producer of Doctor Who saw a few of what were subsequently and pejoratively labelled 'shopping list' stories. The writer and/or script editor were burdened with a long list of elements from their producer that had to be weaved into a satisfying narrative. This tale's become a bit overblown, growing out of interviews given over the years since where some of the the writers plus the script editor have whinged about the restrictions to their creativity. Obviously, any writer is going to prefer to develop whatever they like with 100% freedom, but telly isn't like that. What may have been an issue was that - as has been fairly well documented, and not to take away from his many other talents - Nathan-Turner had minimal storytelling ability. It must have rankled to be given a big bunch of arbitrary orders by someone they thought couldn't write his way out of a paper bag. But that was the gig, and he was the producer.

For the most part, interestingly enough, this didn't produce bad stories, or at least it produced stories no worse than the others surrounding them. Planet of Fire is probably the epitome of shopping lists; writer Peter Grimwade has to introduce a new recurring character and write out three others, and it's all got to be set somewhere where the director once had a nice holiday, and the tourist board there also has some stipulations. But in the final product all that material more or less works. It's the original bits Grimwade squeezes in that fail: the hoary old trope of a people whose religious beliefs are based on the visit of a spacemen in the distant past is dull as ditchwater. Costuming and sets don't help either: some of the scenes depicting squabbling believers and unbelievers are literally beige. If you lived on Sarn, you'd probably welcome being burned alive as a heretic to relieve the monotony.

The location works well, both the touristy bits early on, and the volcanic landscape later. The Master is given something memorable to do for once. Rather than scheming his usual elaborate schemes, he's fighting for survival in a very specific predicament (I don't want to spoilt it here, unlike the DVD menus which featured the full episode endings of 1 and 3, the biggest reveals in the piece). The new companion Peri shows promise, despite an inadvertent subtext about her relationship with her stepfather that's icky. (Is it inadvertent, though? It's presented with only one possible interpretation that I can see, and I wonder whether it was the actors and/or director adding that to a script that otherwise left the relationship a bit blank.)

Turlough discards his school uniform, and gets to be hero for once, but Grimwade struggles to produce a convincing backstory for him that is consistent with all the hints made in passing about the character through his tenure. This is the fault of the producer and script editor, though: it's fine to make things up as you go along, but Turlough was introduced (by Grimwade, of course, but again he was acting under instruction from the production team) with heavy-handed foreshadowing of a mystery to be solved. And it turns out... drumroll... he's a political exile. Big whoop. He can't even tell the Doctor until three quarters into this, his final story, and he knows from The Five Doctors that the Doctor essentially is a political exile too. He'd rather act suspiciously to the point where the Doctor is ready to abandon him on Sarn. It's silly. Just tell him. Tell him you're a political exile - where's the shame in that? Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward should not have introduced a recurring character of mystery without even lightly sketching out what his background was. For Logar's sake, a couple of years later the same team wrote pages and pages of never-used material about Mel Bush's history, and she was as truthful, honest, and about as boring as they come.

Also: anyone who thinks that the sidelining of the title character of Doctor Who starts in Colin Baker's era should rewatch this story. It seems to be subconscious on Saward's part but I get the feeling he doesn't actually like the main character of the show. I can think of no other explanation for why, on his watch, there are so many stories like this one where the Doctor flaps about ineffectually for most of the running time.

Both stories have a strong theme of rationalism versus superstition, and subsequently both feature a high priest character. It doesn't necessarily follow that both these characters have to be obstinate closed-mind isolationists frightened of any change to the old order, but they both are.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Moaning about nostalgia ain't what it used to be. Since Christmas, I have been mentally sketching out a theory about availability smothering innovation. I have been doing this probably because I don't want to mentally sketch out a theory about whether I am an old fart or not. Let me explain...

BBC4 have for many years being repeating weekly every episode of Top of the Pops onwards from 1976-ish, the point after which they stopped wiping all the tapes (Doctor Who is nowhere near the only Beeb show whose archive is incomplete). They recently reached the early 80s, when as a lad I first started watching TOTP; this was exactly the same time I first started watching Doctor Who, and thereafter I followed both shows in parallel. At the time of writing, BBC4's TOTP repeats have reached 1983, well into Peter Davison's era. Leee John, of course, appeared in both shows around this time. But a few years later, although the same synthesisers were being used prominently in both shows, they were diverging; something was happening to Doctor Who that wouldn't happen to Top of the Pops and pop music for many years to come: it started to be in competition with its own past.

The dawn of the video age meant that a Doctor Who fan could just as easily watch a Tom Baker story as a Slyvester McCoy one. Though the advent of Compact Discs did bring quite a lot of vintage pop re-releases, there was still such a mass of new pop product being produced that it caused no imbalance. But Doctor Who only had 14 new episodes a year. The show didn't stay around for long enough to see whether this would have had a major impact on the style of shows being created, but it is telling that a few years later, a huge number of the available tapes were taken off the shelves, and new releases curtailed when Paul McGann's TV movie was launched. They were seen as a threat.

On December 25th last year, I watched the Christmas TOTP episode, a showcase of the biggest hits of 2016, and it compared massively unfavourably to any random episode from 1982 or 83. What has happened? The diversity of the music in the repeats means that old TOTP is never less than an interesting mix: UK metal, reggae, new wave, rap, electro, pop electronica, indie, novelty hits, easy listening for the oldies, it was all there. The Christmas day 2016 line-up was as bland as the rebel group on Sarn: one after another four minute blur of low intensity garage; to me, everything sounded like Craig David, and I don't like Craig David.

But why should the current output of pop music be anything but bland? It doesn't need to be diverse, because the diversity, all the old songs, UK metal, novelty hits and all, are available too at the touch of a touchscreen. A typical Indie playlist on Spotify I just dialled up for research, includes shuffled into more recent hits the song Last Nite by The Strokes, a song that's 16 years old. That's the equivalent of a 1983 compilation including a song from Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. But it doesn't seem to raise any eyebrows. I always liked the fact that because I first discovered Doctor Who with a multi-Doctor season of repeats, I never got stuck on what the Doctor or Doctor Who should be like. 'My' Doctor was every Doctor. But now, I worry there will be no defining exciting music for my children to call their own. Their generation can pick and choose from the smorgasbord; their music is all music. But this comes at a price: availability smothers innovation.

An alternative theory is that interesting new music of all kinds is still being recorded and released, but because there is so much music of every age out there, it gets lost in the hubbub. This is exacerbated by there not being any regular mainstream TV show like Top of the Pops to allow a mixed-age audience to know about it. Would many pop stars starting out now have the same cross-generational appeal or at least recognition as the stars emerging in 1982 and 83, like the sadly departed George Michael? Maybe availability is merely masking innovation, and it's still out there somewhere.

Or maybe I'm just an old fart.

In Summary:
Lava, Lava, Lava, Lava, devout-ing...

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Curse of Peladon

Chapter The 41st, which has a little bit of politics, ladies and gentlemen.

The Doctor and Jo land on the planet Peladon, a mineral rich but primitive country, sorry, planet which is on the cusp of joining the European Union, sorry, Galactic Federation. A delegation of freakish MEPs, sorry, aliens (including some Ice Warriors, and Alpha Centauri who from some angles looks like a pea and from other angles looks like a cock – so, a pea-cock?) is appraising the planet to ensure they are suitable to join. The inexperienced young King Peladon assures them that all is well, except for the recent brutal murder of a high-ranking local official that looks to be connected to an ancient curse. The Doctor, impersonating the head of the delegation, uncovers that it’s all a plot by a determined Leaver, the high-priest Hepesh, who is in league with one of the delegates in trying to prevent the planet joining the federation. But, as the planet Peladon is not yet ‘post-truth’, when these lies get uncovered, everyone actually does the right thing and joins. King Peladon fancies Jo and proposes marriage, but she turns him down and runs off (so, it’s not all pro-union and pro-remain).

After a few deliberately selected stories at the end of last year, and a bit of a break, 2017 sees the random number generator dusted off and redeployed, and it promptly brings us to Peladon, home of topical EU metaphors. The family - minus elder son, 10, who might be achieving what his father never did and growing out of Doctor Who - watched the DVD over a couple of days, and it went down surprisingly well with everyone. The Better Half wondered early on whether it was set on the ‘Planet of the Badger People’; no it isn’t, says I. “Then why do they all look like badgers?” A very good question.

First-time round:
I borrowed a pirate copy from long-term fan friend David sometime in the early Nineties; this must have been an nth generation copy as the quality was particularly bad, but this enhanced the experience for me – it was like I was involved in an archaeological unearthing of something precious from within a wobbly snowstorm. I also seem to remember that the aspect ratio of the source was a little off: when the Doctor and Jo were edging along a cliff edge near the beginning of the story, they looked a bit taller and thinner than normal; but this too added to it, particularly with the wind, thunder and lightning effects; they looked like they’d gone widescreen for a moment, as if they’d stepped into a Hammer film.

Once one gets used to the look and feel of this story, it’s very enjoyable; but it does take a while to get used to it. The studio has a particularly cramped, and cheap feel, when the action really needs a bigger canvas to work on. As ever with Doctor Who, any perceived tattiness is a sign of ambition rather than the opposite; the list of demands from the script is long: a palace with impressive throne room, secret tunnels, a mountain, an arena, a frightening wild beast, multiple alien delegates... and all for a budget of seven and six and a bag of grapes. But I wouldn't want it any other way. Yes, King Peladon - the romantic male lead, lest we forget - is dressed as a principal boy in velure hotpants and thigh-high boots, and he has a ginger badger's hair-do. Yet, from within all this, David Troughton's performance is ruddy, bloody marvellous, a testament to his talent, but the script as well.

Indeed, the best part of the whole story is the romance plot between Jo and King Peladon. It's spare, but well-constructed, covering just the right emotional beats, and these are performed perfectly. All the acting Troughtons are excellent, and all have subtly different strengths and qualities; but probably David is the one who's as good as - or even better than - his Dad. This early performance as the boy king, all earnest but naive lisping delivery, is equalled by Katy Manning's work, as her character gets to do something interesting, and act like an adult at last.

Now, if the best bit of Curse for me is the romance plot, then yes I am discounting the usually favoured aspects: the whodunnit 'traitor in the camp' storyline, or the satirical bits mirroring the relationship of the UK to the European Community, as hot a topic in 1972 as it is now. The reason why this latter part doesn't fully work is that it isn't accurate enough to be an allegory: Peladon isn't a former superpower that's lost it's empire, and the UK - even in the 1970s - wasn't a barbaric pseudo-medieval state wobbling between superstition and secularism. Given the focus on Peladon's valuable mineral assets, it looks more like a representation of an African ex-colony, which would maybe make the Galactic Federation - what? The UN? Essentially, it doesn't really hold together for more than the brief moment when a watching adult raises their eyebrows, and mutters "I wonder where they got that idea!". And that's probably all the writer Brian Hayles was aiming for; he didn't want to write a message story, he just wanted a new angle on his adventure tale.

The hunt for the traitor works better, particularly as it does something fairly rare for Doctor Who and revolutionary for the time: finding a new use for an old enemy. The grammar of the first shot of an Ice Warrior lumbering into Peladon's corridors screams out that these are the bad guys. But are they? The Doctor's prejudices towards his old foes is probably the second-most successful aspect of the story. But the traitor plot is ultimately undone by an odd decision of story structure. For three of the four episodes we've been wondering who's behind the nefarious scheme; at the end of episode 3, the Ice Warrior appears to shoot at the Doctor. Ooh, it's them after all! Episode 4, begins, and we find that what we saw wasn't quite what we thought we saw (it doesn't help that this isn't visually very clear, but we're still good). Then there's an jump cut, it's much later, and the Doctor is doing a big info-dump revealing the traitor and explaining everything. There are still twenty minutes left to go.

Aggedor only knows why this all happens so abruptly and so early; but, with the mystery blown, and with the only plot left a battle with someone who is essentially a secondary adversary, the energy of the story collapses like a punctured balloon. If only they could have held out a little longer and revealed things 5 or at a push 10 minutes from the end, it wouldn't have lost the audience in my house. This was such a shame, as - no word of a lie - they were loving it, loving it up to that point. And I never expected that of The Curse of Peladon.

The Return of Doctor Mysterio has a character who wears a cape; The Curse of Peladon pretty much has every character wearing a cape. And Arcturus, aside from some vestigial limbs, is basically a brain in a jar.

Deeper Thoughts: 
"I'd rather have Doctor Who than Star Trek". Doctor Who is a show about monsters; like the best fairy tales, it encapsulates discussions about and guidance for dealing with the unknowable and often unstoppable dark forces that work on all our lives. Star Trek on the other hand, deals with politics; like the best allegories it encapsulates discussions about and guidance for dealing with interactions at the personal and national level. Doctor Who is theology, Star Trek is political philosophy. This is clear and self-evident, but also not true, obviously. For huge swathes of the show's lifetime, it has been the case that the Doctor encounters Evil with a capital E, and there's never much interrogation of greyer areas of morality. But not all the time.

The latest Doctor Who Magazine focuses on the 1970s, and there is a very good article by Jonathan Morris which posits that every story in Jon Pertwee's tenure has a post-colonial subtext; I disagree with the suggested extent of the productions' intent: as I mentioned above, Curse, which is one of the most overt about its themes, is still only adding a little bit of politics, the majority of it is just an adventure story. But clearly, the bad guys are not a black box of unexamined evil, and there are shades of grey. The inadvertent impression the article also gives is that this is something that started in 1970; but, although either side of Pert's reign it's all about the monsters, Doctor Who had prior form: the very first two stories, right in the beginning in 1963, were both political allegories. The Daleks, at first glance, might seem like a perfect example of an unthinking destructive force, but this would be a misreading - in their debut they are emphatically a Cold War parable; how much more Star Trek can you get?

Star Trek too has dabbled with the other side of things, notably with The Borg who aren't going to attend any galactic peace conference, or come to a compromise. They were "Doctor Who Villains" slamming into Star Trek, and were all the more powerful for it. But even in the original series, there was a lot of photon torpedo and phaser fun when the talk ran out. The interesting thing is that, even if he's facing something clearly malevolent, the Doctor believes he's in an episode of Star Trek, and that there can be a negotiated settlement. Despite being disappointed over and again every week in this aim, he has to keep resetting to believe it's possible at the start of every new adventure. If he didn't, and a writer were to be tempted to make him disillusioned, or put forward that this is just pretence, that he doesn't really mean it, he'd go from Doctor to Great White Hunter, the man who sets out to slay the monsters. The character and the optimistic nature of the show would be badly damaged.

At the time of writing, the world is at the very start (two days in) to a four year "adventure". For some who are organising, it will be a four year mission; it's clear there's a villain, but is he from the Star Trek or Doctor Who universe? Is he going to be a force of destruction that can't be reasoned with, or will he manage to find compromise? Though it's hard, we have to be like the Doctor and keep hold of our optimism.

In Summary:
Doesn't really badger you with a political message.

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Return of Doctor Mysterio

Chapter The 40th, after one year - and a few more days - it's finally here...

[Beware: spoilers, sweeties!] The Doctor inadvertently messes up the life of a child in the past, then has to deal with the consequences when he meets that person later in adulthood. No, not The Girl in the Fireplace or The Eleventh Hour, but - you know - similar. This time it's a boy, Grant, and he gets superpowers. In present day New York, the Doctor and Nardole help him with his overcomplicated love life, and he helps them defeat an overcomplicated invasion plan by some alien brain-in-a-jar face-aches running a front corporation called Harmony Shoals.

As this was the only new episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 2016, I thought I should blog it. Random selection will be reinstated in the new year. A couple of days after Christmas, following my first viewing (see below), the whole family gathered round to watch The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Eldest child (boy of 10) was annoyed that he had to turn off Mario Kart 8 to allow us to watch, but within about two minutes was staring, mouth agape, happy with the comic book shenanigans. Everyone else enjoyed it too, the Better Half enjoying the romance parts particularly.

First-time round:
Each year, at least in my family, Christmas Day sees less and less TV being watched. At the time of writing, we still have a PVR hard drive stuffed full of TV specials and films, which we'll catch up with slowly throughout January and onwards (we may still have stuff on there from last year we haven't watched yet). I know it sounds disgustingly straight-laced and Waltons Christmas special, but on the big day itself, we tend to play games. While Doctor Who was being broadcast this year, a fiercely contested table croquet tournament was underway chez Perry.

It may come to pass in the next few years that my children develop into Mike Teavee Mini-Mes, but until then I'm happy to catch up with the Xmas specials time-shifted. This year, that meant tuning in after everyone else had turned in on Boxing Day evening, and watching while stuffing my face with port and blue cheese, both of which were presents from my lovelies. The seasonal gift from Steven Moffat did not go down quite as smoothly. I enjoyed it much more the second time, though; it can't have anything to do with the necessary Yuletide alcohol levels - I was pretty well lubricated on the second watch too (I love Christmas!). So, it must be something to do with the company - Doctor Who, and a Christmas special particularly, gains from being shared. Which is nice.

There was an interesting recent discussion on a movie podcast to which I subscribe about how there are three types of Christmas movies: movies about Christmas, movies set at Christmas time, and movies that are merely associated with Christmas because of the quirks of historical TV scheduling. Superhero movies fall firmly in the third category, just like disaster movies, which also previously formed the basis of a Doctor Who Christmas special: Russell T Davies gave us his version of The Poseidon Adventure; Steven Moffat does Superman The Movie; it must be very hard after so long to think of new takes, so I applaud the invention; however, I don't think it's that good a fit.

The scientific explanation for Grant's super-powers is borderline magic and has to be - the logic of the two genres being incompatible. And just getting these two worlds together proves to be enough work that there's no real room to do anything particularly new with the superhero or intrepid reporter characters, while the standard invasion plot is relegated to the B storyline. In the climactic sections there's no blending at all - the Ghost and Lucy's bits are completely separate from, though intercut with, the Doctor and Nardole's outwitting of the aliens.

Unless I missed it, the bad guys didn't even get a name. This was the biggest giveaway that they weren't the main reason for proceedings. I suppose their species might be called the same as the corporation, but Harmony Shoals sounds more like a bunch of top-end 1960s session musicians, and - intriguingly - also has echoes of the 'River Song, Melody Pond' naming scheme. Other hints - the bit at the end where one is shown to get away, and (if I'm remembering correctly) a character in last year's Christmas special, referenced throughout this year's, who similarly opened up his head to retrieve something from within - make it look like there will be a rematch with these guys in 2017.

This might be a good thing, as their plot did seem sketchy with a few loose threads left hanging. Or, of course, it might just be sloppy. I doubt we'll get an explanation for how the alien brain creature, if it is positioned so its eyes line up with the sockets of the human host, as was consistently shown, can also sometimes not be there at all, so a gun can be kept in the head to look cool. Lesson for the Harmony Shoalians: you could shoot people much quicker if you invested in a shoulder holster. Just sayin'.

The most successful parts were the twisty rom-com bits, depicting a man in a love triangle with his alter ego; these verged on farce at times, in a good way, with Grant disappearing off, only for The Ghost to turn up instantly stage left. It reminded me a lot of a ghost of Moffat past: his sit-com Coupling. And one would have to have a heart of stone not to cheer or punch the air when Lucy dresses Grant up as a "superhero" at the end. The quibbles come if like me you're overfamiliar with Superman The Movie: the 1978 film did the romance and the comedy incredibly well indeed - those parts of the movie have arguably aged much better than the action, which has been bettered in the decades since (even on a Doctor Who budget). What Moffat and director Ed Bazalgette intended as homage, comes over as pale imitation.

Again, the villians' plan involves pretending to be beneficial so they can later take over. Both stories start with a sequence before the main plot gets underway where a character is transformed. If we include the series trailer at the end of the Christmas special, they both include Daleks.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Travelling into the future. It has been an awful year for the world: seismic political shocks, multitudinous celebrity demises, and only one episode of Doctor Who broadcast. Terrible. At least on the Doctor Who score, we know things will improve (at least mathematically): there will be 13 episodes shown next year, completing Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner, introducing Bill, the new companion (who from the trailer seems refreshingly down to Earth, which would be a change after Amy and Clara), and including Matt Lucas in a semi-regular role (I'm still in two minds about whether that will be effective). The series trailer didn't give much else away: there will be Daleks, aliens, and trips to the past, but that much could have been guessed, anyway.

The blog's had a reasonable year. Unexpectedly, I have covered a Doctor Who event, holidayed in a Doctor Who filming location, and reviewed a new Classic Who DVD, when I'd thought the range was dead and buried. They had not come up randomly at all last year, but 2016 has seen me watch  three wholly missing stories; none this year where only some of the episodes were missing - it's been an all or nothing sort of year, has 2016. I've seen at least one story of each Doctor, with the exception of Peter Davison (Paul McGann doesn't count - he got finished off early on last year). Hopefully, the fifth Doctor will make an appearance at some point in 2017.

Having done the maths, if I keep up the current rate of Doctor Who stories - and Chris Chibnall does likewise - it will take twenty more years for the blog to catch up. So, I might try to speed up a bit. Blogging doesn't take too long, it's finding the time to watch the episodes that's a challenge. But maybe 2017 will be slightly less eventful than this year was; it couldn't be the opposite - could it?! Regardless, have a happy New Year! And I'll see you in the future...

In Summary:
Not quite super, man.

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Power of the Daleks

Chapter The 39th, after fifty years - and six more weeks - it's finally here...

The Doctor has been through a renewal process where his body, face and personality have changed. His companions Ben and Polly are suspicious, and to persuade them he is who he says he is, the Doctor does something characteristic and defeats some Daleks. These particular Daleks are a party of three who are marooned, and have been hibernating in a capsule on the planet Vulcan for hundreds of years, during which time a colony of humans has established itself. While colony politics are getting fractious, a scientist, Lesterson, is experimenting on the excavated capsule and the creatures within. Posing as an examiner from Earth, the Doctor tries to stop this, but the Daleks are wily, and pretend to be servile in order to be given raw materials and power. They start a Dalek production line, and amass an army. They've killed loads of colonists before the Doctor manages to stop them. Moral of the story: always listen to your Doctor, and never trust anyone who's nice. Maybe not that last bit.

After getting an unexpected last-minute invite to the BFI screening on the 5th November this year, see below, which included in the ticket price a copy of the DVD to be sent out later, I cancelled my pre-ordered DVD and put on hold any plans I might have had to buy it from the BBC Store. At the event, I saw the first three episodes, but once the disc arrived in the post, I rewatched those first ones, and then the rest, with the whole family, an episode per day approx. across a week (with a gap to watch the Strictly final live) finishing just before Christmas.

First-time round:
I think every time I've seen The Power of the Daleks has been the first time: it's been a different beast each time I've grappled with it. The very first experience was audio only, and would have been in 1993 or thereabouts when the cassette version came out. I've mentioned these tapes before: unfortunately, their makers misunderstood their market, and overdid the new aspects (freshly written narration links by a more modern Doctor, in this case Tom Baker, written as remembrances of an almost forgotten adventure) when the purchaser was likely much more interested in the old episodes themselves. The framing device got in the way, plus Tom did have a tendency to ham things up which did not help. This may be why I have no memory of first hearing that tape, though I definitely bought it, and I definitely didn't give up halfway through. (A decade later, it came out on CD with better quality recordings, and a much more considered narration voiced by Anneke Wills.)

The second time I saw Power, a couple of years later, there were some pictures, though not moving ones. It was a reconstruction from off-screen still images on a video tape which I'd borrowed from someone, or maybe saw at their house - I forget. (A decade after this, a reconstructed version also came out on CD with the same narration by Anneke Wills, and I bought it again). Finally, another ten years on approximately, and I see the animated version. Watching the first half with an audience really highlighted how funny it is - it got big laughs in all the right places. Watching it with the family really highlighted how scary it is: towards the end of episode 1, when the TARDIS team are investigating the capsule, accompanied by eerie anticipatory Dalek electroinca, the middle child - a boy, aged 7 - literally hid behind the sofa. I was so proud.

I'll get on to the animation later, let's start with the story itself: it's brilliant.

Want more? Okay. First of all, the story is significant. Doctor Who fans are lucky in some ways: it wasn't planned, but most of our favourite show's key episodes survived the indiscriminate junking one way or another. We still have the very first story, we still have the first appearance of the Daleks, we still have The War Games and Spearhead from Space where the show is rebooted. The most seismic change to the format, though, is where our luck runs out. The seven episodes where the lead actor is first recast, where one Doctor changes into another, and the first adventure of that new Doctor where we see the aftermath and find out something of what the new guy will be like - they're all missing. Even though they've all now been nicely animated, even though another set of seven could complete seasons, or give us all of, say, Marco Polo, if I were to be gifted any seven episodes to be returned, I would still choose Tenth Planet 4 and The Power of the Daleks 1-6, just for the sheer history of them.

So, this story is always going to be important. Is it enjoyable too? Yes, yes, yes. That this is so, is because of two particular gentlemen and one insanely clever decision. The decision was to recast the lead role but with a completely different characterisation. He looks, acts and talks differently to William Hartnell's version. The script, and the Doctor in the narrative, don't let us off easy on this either - the differences are pushed to the fore. Then, the Dalek story starts, and presents the true character underneath the characterisation, and we see it's the same hero we always knew. Genius. Imagine how tempting it must have been to play it safe, just get a similar actor in and glue on Hartnell's wig. The series would have lasted a year more, tops.

It could have backfired, of course. The main reason why it didn't is the first of those gentlemen: Patrick Troughton. A consummate character actor, Troughton can make you love someone who, let's face it, is being irritating for quite a lot of the running time of this serial. He's Hartnell's equal in terms of comic timing too, which is essential to make Doctor Who work. I bristle against too much emphasis being put on Pat's casting being the main reason the show is still going (something Steven Moffat mentioned at the BFI), not because it's not true necessarily, but because it downplays his predecessor who had to make the thing work from a blank slate. It's down to both: both the first two actors to play the Doctor, the Grumpy one and the Flautist, were essential to its longevity. We are so so lucky that lightning struck twice in the Sixties.

The second of the two gentlemen responsible for Power's brilliance is the writer David Whitaker. His worrying obsessions with mercury and static electricity (both of which turn up in Power) notwithstanding, he delivers a faultless script. There were a lot of midwives to the delivery too - Innes Lloyd, Dennis Spooner et al - but what comes over most of all is Whitaker's passion to do his take on the Daleks. It's the first time that Terry Nation has let another writer compose a whole new Dalek serial, the first time he's properly let someone else play with his toys, and Whitaker responds with the best written Daleks in the best Dalek story ever. Like 'Dalek' in 2005, it shows how powerful they are by putting them in a weak position at first: they are only three, they're deactivated, they have their guns removed; yet, they still end up dominating.

How they go about this isn't the most original plot ever; but, from the Penguin running for mayor of Gotham, right back to the wolf in Grandmother's clothing in Red Riding Hood, it's always fun to have a bad guy pretend to be good; even better is it to have the good guy telling everyone how bad the bad guy is, only not to be believed. Of course, it could be pure panto, but it's paced and played so well. Peter Hawkins' vocal work, with gradual changes in inflection of the "I am your servant" refrain, as the Daleks get more and more cocky, sells it. The ultimately irrelevant machinations of various venal colonists bounce around the through-line of the Daleks growing and growing in strength, so we're never bored by what is essentially a linear narrative - in fact, the inevitability becomes part of the beauty of it.

Without the visuals, it's hard to know how good the direction is, but even audio-only one suspects director Christopher Barry rose to the historic occasion. The same can be said of the team behind the animation. With the addition of these new visuals, the only flaws I'd previously been troubled by disappear (for example, some of the locations and characters aren't that distinctive when you can't see them). The animation is not perfect, but it is certainly a marvel for the time and budget they had (which was very limited): the humanoid characters don't move very convincingly from a to b, for example. But even this actually turns out to be a strength as it throws into sharp relief the much smoother gliding motion of the Daleks, and makes them seem all the more alien. It's as hard to write originally about the new work done on this story as it is about the work that's 50 years old; it is a classic, and it has had new life breathed into it. Animation producer Charles Norton, like Lesterson, has found something languishing for decades, and obsessively - maybe a bit more obsessively than Lesterson even - worked on it until it's ready to take over the world.

Both stories feature alien races pretending to be good to get people to let their guard down, before going on the attack.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Earth Examiner's Report: BFI's The Power of the Daleks event, 5th November 2016. It was the morning of Saturday 5th November, and David - my long-term friend and fellow fan mentioned often times on this blog - texted me to ask if I wanted to go to the event happening in London in a few hours time, as he had a spare ticket going begging. The family, once consulted, very kindly gave permission to defer our planned garden fireworks to Sunday night, so I high-tailed it to the railway station. I live in the South-East and there was a train strike that day (there's a train strike most days) but I didn't let that deter me.

Surprisingly quickly considering, I was at the South Bank - there's some great urban art now where Ogrons and Draconians once roamed (the New Brutalist underpasses were used as locations in the 1970s Pertwee serial Frontier in Space) but other than that its not much changed from when I hung around here a lot; when I was an aspiring and perspiring screenwriter I would often be at the BFI (it was the NFT in old money) and a writing group of which I was a member used to meet in the Royal Festival Hall nearby. With memory lane successfully sauntered down, I met and had a nice spot of brunch with David, Chris P (also mentioned here previously) and David's friend and another fellow fan Trevor, who I was meeting for the first time. Saturday lunchtime is quite a civilised time for an event like this, with enough time before for leisurely catching up, appraising the effort gone into by the cosplayers, and celebrity spotting - Anneke Wills was eating in the same joint we were, but that was about it - plus a large expanse of afternoon post-event for drinking and talking.

(L to R) Johnson, Fiddy and Skinner
The event itself consisted of  screenings of the first three episodes interspersed with panels of various personages involved with the story, the Troughton era, or the animation. And Frank Skinner. I got the distinct impression that Frank just came along to watch, but was instead thrust onto stage to introduce proceedings; in so doing, he proved, as ever, that he's every bit as much a fan as those in the audience watching this warm-up act. From no other comedian will you get recognition humour about the rush of joy that accompanies the point where a reconstruction of a missing Doctor Who lurches into a few seconds of blurry moving footage. Also providing funnies were our hosts, the BFI's Justin Johnson and Kaleidoscope and Missing Believed Wiped's Dick Fiddy, who did a Doctor Who quiz. You had to "shout for Dick" (ho, ho) if you knew the answers, and one question about Steven Moffat bagged the prize of a DVD for the person who got it right... who happened to be Steven Moffat. This quiz was apparently a staple of the 50th anniversary Doctor Who screening events the BFI did in 2013, which makes me wish I'd attended them at the time.

Before any of that, the first thing that happened at the event was perhaps the nicest: Graham Strong was asked to stand up and take a bow, which he did to a hearty round of applause. Graham was the young fan that 50 years ago recorded the audio of The Power of the Daleks, and so inadvertently was the instigator of the project we'd come to see. The HD visuals to accompany the sounds that Graham preserved stood up to the big screen treatment, though unfortunately, due to a mix up, we didn't have the 5.1 audio, only a mono mix-down, but I was satisfied. It seems churlish to mention, but there is a continuity error in episode 1, which everyone noticed with a murmur in the theatre: at one point, very briefly, Ben and Polly are shown in their new colonist gear before they've changed into it. I'm sure the team are still killing themselves over this tiny lapse (but I can happily report that no one noticed this when I replayed the episode at home). When the first three episodes completed, all I wanted was to see the rest. So, a definite success.

(L to R) Ritchie, Norton, Ayres plus Fiddy
There was a discussion with three of the production team on the animation (producer-director Charles Norton, audio remasterer Mark Ayres, and 3D animator Rob Ritchie) then later a panel covering the whole of the Troughton era so they didn't have to leave out Frazer Hines; Power is the only one of Troughton's stories he doesn't appear in as Jamie. With him were Anneke Wills, who played Polly, designer Derek Dodd, Graeme Harper - who was the floor runner or call boy on Power (who knew?) - and Steven Moffat, a viewer at home as a lad - although, as he told the crowd, he missed epsiode 1 back in 1966, so seeing it on the BFI big screen, he'd finally caught up. It was a good-natured panel with a nice mix of the new (I'd never heard or read Dodd speaking about Doctor Who before) and the well-worn (we got the anecdote about the "Come Back Bill Hartnell All is Forgiven" T-Shirts). What came over most, as it always does, was how much love everyone had and has for Pat. At the end I veritably skipped to the exit, the event having been a well-needed boost to my happiness quotient.

(L to R) Dodd, Harper, Moffat, Hines, Wills plus Johnson
In the bar afterwards, there followed that post-event drinking and talking with friends and fellow fans, new and old. As I do every time I see him, I agreed with Chris P - the only one of the trio I met up with who lives in London - that I really should go to the monthly fan gathering at the Fitzroy Tavern, which would be a similar group of people, similarly happy and buzzing; but I think I'll end up too shy to turn up on my own, as ever. I persuaded Trevor to give the series Community another try, and promised I'd do the same with Fringe (and I will Trevor!). I discussed with David the best touchscreen gloves to allow me to play Pokémon GO during the winter months (he is a die-hard player of the much cooler but similar Ingress). And finally, slightly the worse for wear for the many craft ales I'd supped, I made my way home, my happiness quotient off the scale, even when the train strike entailed a 90 minute walk to get all the way home

In Summary:
'Power' to the people, right on! (And, incidentally, a Happy Christmas to all of you at home!)

Saturday, 17 December 2016

The Unquiet Dead

Chapter The 38th, where a Christmas gift is opened before the big day.

Thanks to the power of time travel, it is Christmas during April; Christmas 1869 in Cardiff to be precise. The Doctor and Rose arrive and find, in quick succession, Charles Dickens and some blue ghosts made of gas, The Gelth, who are homeless as well as bodiless after the Time War, and seeking sanctuary on Earth. With the help of a clairvoyant parlourmaid in the local undertakers, a gateway is opened to allow the Gelth in. Though they pretended to be legitimate asylum seekers, it turns out they are aggressive invaders determined to destroy our way of life. Hmm... it was acceptable in the Noughties but you couldn't get away with it now. The Gelth turn corpses into zombies and attack. The undertaker and the parlourmaid are killed, but Charles Dickens saves the day. And so does the maid, somehow, even though she's already dead - best not to think too much about it. Reinvigorated, Dickens vows to write all about the events of that night, but history dictates he will die the following year before he can weave the 'blue elementals' into The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Last time, in a manner similar to Mission to the Unknown, I teased that there would be a Dalek adventure coming immediately. But, in a manner similar to following The Mission of the Unknown with four episodes of Trojan War dramedy, The Power of the Daleks blog post has been put off a little while longer: I managed to sneak in a festive themed selection while I was waiting for the Daleks disc to arrive. I watched this one on DVD (from the individual vanilla disc of episodes 1-3 of the 2005 series, not from the enormous mock-TARDIS box set of the whole series - the bit rate is better, and you don't have to struggle with the ridiculous packaging, which is falling apart on my copy - but, yes, I did buy both versions). Joining me were the Better Half and middle child (boy of 7).

First-time round:
The (re-)launch of Doctor Who in 2005 was a very exciting time. You'd have expected me to be sat in front of the TV minutes early waiting for each new episode to come on, breathless with excitement, ready to start the video recording; but, because of circumstances, I did not first see either of the earliest two episodes that year on their actual date of transmission; The Unquiet Dead marked the first time I'd experienced a new episode live as it was broadcast. Like a lot of people (it made the news!) I peeked at the leaked online copy of Rose three weeks before transmission; and for the second story, The End of the World, I was in New York visiting friends - a long planned visit, which I couldn't rearrange to avoid it intersecting with a Saturday when Doctor Who was being broadcast (and I did try).

We returned home late on the following Friday, a bit too jet-lagged to watch The End of the World (but I did anyway). Then, because we were still a little exhausted and because we didn't yet have kids, we were just able to spend the whole of April 9th 2005 doing nothing much in particular. I seem to remember idly watching the Grand National and a royal wedding (of Charles and Camilla) - even though I had no interest in either - before Doctor Who finally came on.

For all its period spectacle (I remember seeing the scene in the pre-series trailer where a coach and horses galloped towards the camera and thinking - ooh, expensive!),The Unquiet Dead is at heart a small, localised drama. It's only got three real characters in it beside the regulars, and the majority of the action happens in one location. This is in keeping with that first trilogy of episodes - one contemporary, one in the future, one in the past - where the stories allow room to explore what these types of show will be like. A lot of the fans likely thought the plot was too slight, but they were familiar with the overarching mechanics. For a new audience, it's important to ask out loud whether the Doctor can change the past, and whether Rose can die in Victorian times if she's lived in the future. There was a message for those longer term aficionados too; the show was saying - we can do it 'trad' too, see here: it's a little bit like Talons of Weng Chiang but with zombies. This probably explains the many little 'kisses to the past' with Easter egg lines like "On with the motley" and "Phantasmagoria" and such; or maybe Mark Gatiss just couldn't help dropping those in.

There's also room for the character and narrative arcs to build up. In the early console room conversation between the Doctor and Rose about visiting days that have been and gone, the Better Half picked up a possible subtext: is this the moment that it first occurs to Rose that she can go back to see her dead Dad? I thought TBH might be reading too much into it, but then later Gwyneth mentions Rose's father and its loudly established for the first time that he passed only many years previously; maybe she was onto something after all. The Doctor too had his moments dealing with post Time War syndrome bubbling up as petulance and, in the end, gullibility: he is blinded to the Gelth's ulterior motives because of his survivor's guilt. Plus, there's the biggest 'Bad Wolf' mention to date.

This isn't just slotted in as window dressing, it's woven into a moral dilemma subplot with conflicting outlooks from the Time Lord and his companion, and a similar clash of values between Rose and Gwyneth. This stuff, plus a pitch black darkness at the tale's heart, could be too much for kids: Gwyneth asks Sneed in such a workaday manner if he's 'dealt with' any witnesses to their ghost problem - it's become just a chore to drug and kill innocent bystanders. At one point, middle child, a somewhat sensitive boy, said "I didn't think a Christmas special would be this scary!" but he didn't want us to stop it playing. This means, I think, that they got the tone and balance of humour right, no small feat. The writer deserves kudos for this, but the director too. Euros Lyn, in his first recording block of many that he'd work on for new Who, achieves some flawless performances and great visuals: I love the way he moves the camera to reveal the Doctor framed in the doorway behind Dickens in the morgue.

Simon Callow, the go-to guy for playing Boz, makes it look effortless, and it's thanks to him in no small part that the 'celebrity historical' took hold as a series staple - this is the style of story set in the past that's built around a big guest star playing a big figure of yesteryear, and would be applied in the next few series to Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill. Though he didn't play anyone famous, or get a gig on another show because of it, Alan David's performance as Sneed is also a favourite thing in our house; The Better Half and I still - after nearly twelve years - say to one another "The Whole blummin' world can see that!" whenever we spot something comically obvious. 

Both this story and Revenge of the Cybermen feature an alien race enduring the aftermath of a war. Both contain elements that would feature in future spin-offs: Sarah Jane from the Cybermen tale would later appear in two connected shows; Eve Myles, the Cardiff rift, and Tosh - briefly glimpsed in the Next Time trailer at the end of The Unquiet Dead - would all feature in Torchwood.

Deeper Thoughts: 
The Measure of Specials. I worry unduly about lots of nerdy details. For example, I use labels to allow the many different posts on this blog to be searched and filtered, and one such label is the numbered season or series from which the story comes. To a certain extent, these 'seasons' were used as dividers by the production teams making the shows, both new and old, but mostly they are a division applied after the fact by fans. Inevitably, there are decisions to make: seasons that were broadcast with a gap in the middle (like Tom Baker's season 14 or Matt Smith's New Series 6) are generally clumped together, despite being shown as separate runs. Where to group or how to number one-off shows like Paul McGann's TV Movie or The Five Doctors or The Day of the Doctor can be considered one way or the other until the Daleks come home.

These aren't necessarily neutral judgement calls either: I have seen flaming online arguments about renumbering the new series separately from the 26 seasons of the old: one is a continuation of the other, after all, so 2005's stories are surely season 27 - to number them so there's an implied break point is seen as a political move in some corners of fandom. (I do number then differently, because I'm a bear of little brain, and find it difficult to do the maths - if someone refers to season 31 of Doctor Who, it would take me several minutes and some counting on my fingers to work out which episodes they're talking about.)

I knew that sooner or later the random wanderings of this blog would arrive at Yuletide. Since 2005 and to date, there has been a special Doctor Who episode shown on the big day, always adrift from the series broadcast before or after, usually by many months. This is a great thing, of course: this year's will be the twelfth consecutive appearance of the good Doctor on BBC1 on Christmas Day, a record-breaking feat for a non-Soap and only two shy of Only Fools and Horses' total number of non-consecutive appearances on December 25th.

But it does make it difficult to categorise. Does the Christmas Special of 2005 belong with the 2005 series, neatly linking all the stories shown in the same calendar year; or, does it belong with Series 2, which was made alongside it but shown the following year? I couldn't decide. I also considered not bothering at all and lifting out and lumping together all the Christmas shows under their own label, but that felt like a defeat. If a DVD box set plays this trick, I hate it; if I think I'm getting every episode of, say, Porridge, but I find out that I don't have the Christmas specials, I'll be pissed off (not a hypothetical example - I'm still seething; I can't be alone in this madness either: at one point, the Doctor Who 'complete series 7' was going to be released without The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe but enough people complained that it was stuck on after all). So, I have to pick a number.

Then, the story currently under examination came up for viewing, and I realised that the problem is solved: season 27 / New Series 1 / 'The Christopher Eccleston Year', or whatever you want to call it, already had its Christmas special, they just didn't show it in December. This was, after all, the advent of a festive setting in the modern version of Doctor Who. All in all, on the sly, The Unquiet Dead was very influential: as well as seeding concepts and actors for a soon to come spin-off programme, in addition to reframing past time travel for a new audience and setting the groundwork for the celebrity historical, it kick-started the Christmas Special subgenre too.

In Summary:
Quietly and unseasonably innovative.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Revenge of the Cybermen

Chapter The 37th, with Dalek delivery delayed from the BFI, a shipment of Cybermen instead.

A n'er do well called Kellman decides he wants to create a plan more crazy and convoluted than any the Cybermen have ever come up with (and they've concocted some absolute stone-cold beauties in their time). He'll show 'em. He colludes with a revolutionary hothead miner's leader on the planet Voga, which orbits Jupiter and is heavy on gold. The miner will create a rocket to blow up the nearby Nerva space station after Kellman has lured the Cybermen there, tempting them with the opportunity to destroy Voga for good. The Cybermen don't like Voga, as they have an aversion to gold that they've never previously mentioned up to now.

Kellman fakes a plague on the space station, murdering scores of people using Cybermats that inject the victim with poison, because... well, it's not clear. Perhaps to make sure the plan's not disturbed, but it seems a bit extreme just for that. The Cybermen order Kellman to keep three people alive, because they have got an interplanetary spacecraft and world-shattering bombs, but have not thought of any way to shoot them through space, so they need people to carry them and walk. Even though he doesn't want the Cybermen to blow up Voga, Kellman does as he's told and the Cybermen very nearly blow up Voga. Luckily, with help from the Doctor, Sarah and Harry, who drift in en route to and from better adventures, the remaining crewmen and the less hot headed Vogans blow up the Cybermen in their ship, and save Nerva from being destroyed. Kellman dies having failed to best the insanity of Cyber planning - he didn't hide any vital rods on a mysterious spaceship, or make a sun go supernova, or drug the sugar, or anything. Amateur.

The Better Half, me, and our daughter (aged 4) watched the episodes from the DVD roughly an episode a night mid-week. The boys (7 and 10) drifted in and out; but, when they were in the room, the story didn't grab their attention - they talked and fidgeted and finally gave up. The youngest loved it, although she was on the Cybermen's side ("I know they wouldn't kill me"), was rooting for them all the way through, and was very upset when they were blown up at the end.

First-time round:
Revenge of the Cybermen was the first ever official Doctor Who video release from the BBC, and the first official tape I ever saw (with the old BBC Video logo at the beginning accompanied by a synthesised marching band - ooh!). I don't know the exact date, but it must have been sometime between late 1985, when my family first got a VCR, and Summer 1987 when - as I've already relayed - I started collecting the videos properly. My best guess is sometime towards the end of 1986. A schoolfriend and fellow fan Dominic first lent me and then finally sold me his copy. I can't remember whether he ever got it back in between; maybe I just took it hostage until he named his price.

Legend has it that the decision to release this story first, despite its somewhat tatty reputation, was down to a survey done in 1983 at the 20th anniversary celebrations in Longleat (Classic Who's version of Woodstock) where Tomb of the Cybermen came top. Either the fans voting didn't know that story was missing at the time, or were just trying to will the film cans into existence (and it took 9 more years, but it actually did work, so don't knock it). BBC Enterprises presumably looked at the results and decided that Anything of the Cybermen would do, particularly if it was in colour and starred Tom Baker.

It's a bit ropey, but it's still lots of fun. The plot is riddled with holes, but I'm not sure it matters; they may even enhance the experience. For instance, it's cute and memorable that Kellman disguises his close-circuit TV monitor in a hairbrush, but his whopping great Cyber-morse transmitter is just allowed to sit in a drawer (unless it's supposed to be disguised as a photocopier or mainframe); he doesn't make any effort to hide his gun beyond sticking it in an unlocked wardrobe, and that set of electrodes behind a panel can't be standard issue, can they? What sort of space station is this? Clearly, he thought 'if I'm going to be a spy, I want something disguised as something else, dammit' but he could only afford the one hairbrush. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a criticism: he is a rubbish double agent, and I love him all the more for it.

Every character comes over as just a little bit endearingly pants. The crewmen are clearly knackered after trying to keep things running during an apocalypse - they put up a show of doing the standard Doctor Who trope of refusing to accept that our heroes are the good guys, but they can't keep it up for even a whole scene: two seconds after threatening Sarah with a gun, Commander Stevenson hands it to her politely so she can carry it for him. The Cybermen we see aren't supposed to be the elite troops anymore, they're the remnants of a once proud army; this lends a little more fun to their manner and actions which scream of over-compensation. ("Go Cybermens" said our youngest, every time they appeared on screen with their hands butchly on their hips.) Michael Wisher plays his Vogan with an effete cough, clutching a hankie all the time like an infirm aunt in a Jane Austen adaptation. These guys are clearly not an A-list Doctor Who cast of characters, but they're trying their best.

It's probably a misstep that the story revisits the same venue as The Ark in Space earlier in the year, to allow redressing of already built sets. Not the first or last time such a cost-saving measure was tried. But, alas, the latter story is by far the weaker of the two - it's something like having The Parting of the Ways early on in 2005, and saving The Long Game, set in the same place, for the finale. Every time there's an echo of a scene in Ark it shows Revenge up; for example, the Doctor and Harry are accepted as a new medical team when it was much more fun in the earlier story when the Doctor's degree was purely honorary and Harry was "only qualified to work on sailors". Much more successful are the exteriors - Wookey Hole is one of the best locations chosen for an alien planet in the history of Who.

There's some weak effects and the odd bad line of dialogue, but there's a lot of good in there too. The Better Half thought the plague make-up effects, using front axial projection to create the pulsating glow, were good, and also approved of the silver-clad Cyber-bums (it was like having Toyah Wilcox in the room). The journey to the centre of Voga, with the ever -present ticking of the bombs, is tense, and the twists and turns of the ending are exciting. Clearly, this was the only tape JNT could find when he was briefing his new script editor on bringing back the Cybermen in the 1980s, as essentially Earthshock is just a better run through of Revenge, even down to the plot holes. Though it never reaches the pulse-racing thrills of Earthshock, Revenge is hardly ever boring. The only truly dull scenes for this viewer are those of the members of different Vogan factions arguing about isolationism, but even these can be livened up by playing some kind of "how many Doctor Who stories has that Vogan been in" drinking game. It is fun, for this Doctor Who fan at least, to watch scenes where Chief Mover Poul is giving orders to Davros and bitching about Tobias Vaughn, while Megaphone Man from Snakedance is somewhere off in another cave.

The story is interesting historically, too, as it really feels like the final transition point where the Pertwee era style moves into full-on Baker. The plot, with its preoccupations of caves and miners and internecine alien groups, could have come from anywhere in his predecessors tenure, but Baker's little flourishes - staring at his hands in that weird way, shouting that his companion is an imbecile, declaiming cod Shakespearean dialogue over a dead Cyberman - make it his own.

Both this story and 42 feature a spaceship, and in both there is a companion accompanying the Doctor who's also a doctor.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Welcome back physical format? I'd probably never have predicted when I first watched Revenge of the Cybermen in 1986 that I'd still be collecting Doctor Who stories on physical media thirty years later. But seeing into the future is tricky: this time last year, I thought I'd bought my last ever official classic Who DVD release, and that prediction turned out to be wrong too. Instead of the range ending with the whimper of a cobbled together Underwater Menace, Classic Doctor Who on shiny disc is back with a bang: an animated version of wholly missing Power of the Daleks has been lovingly made for the 50th anniversary of the story's original broadcast, with the new pictures married to the still surviving audio.

Does this mean a possible future for releasing the missing 80-odd episodes of Classic Who that haven't turned up on disc yet either as an animation, recon or slide show? That would be fantastic. But the main driver for this animation wasn't predicted DVD sales, though no doubt they will be one measure of whether it's been a success (so everyone buy it, if you haven't already, so they animate some more stories in future!). No, the main driver was to have the animations for sale in the BBC Store. Just one of more and more online services becoming available for downloading or streaming content.

Another nail in the coffin is Class, the Doctor Who spin-off set in Coal Hill School, which finished recently. I watched it, and enjoyed it, and it is also getting a disc release after the fact, but it was delivered on a streaming service too - albeit it one that used to be a broadcast TV station. Clearly, it's only a matter of time before every show I want to own and hold is only available as a jolt of ether in a cloud somewhere. I'll still collect them, of course, but I doubt I'll enjoy it.

Mind you, that's another prediction, isn't it? Maybe I'll surprise myself. People can change. The Power of the Daleks may turn out to be the last ever classic Who DVD release, but it's been the first in a long, long while that I haven't preordered, received and watched on the first day it was out. This is not a sign of a new found restraint and maturity on my part, though, it's just because of a combination of events. I had it on preorder, as ever, but then I got a last minute opportunity to attend the BFI's Power screening and panel event early in November where the first three episodes were shown. As part of the ticket price, everyone attending got a copy of the DVD which would be sent out once it was released. They've only just been sent out, however, so I've had a little wait. It's no biggie. I'm very excited to see it, and blog about it and the event, very soon.

In Summary:
The liberation of the Planet of Gold; in other words... Karat's Lib.