Thursday, 20 July 2017

Into the Dalek

Chapter The 60th, where a new Doctor is still proving to be surprising.

The Doctor is suffering from a not previously mentioned or suspected crisis of conscience and hatred of soldiers, the sort of obsessions he has sometimes that only last for exactly one year. He arrives at Coal Hill School and drags Clara off into a Dalek/Human battle in some unspecified corner of Space-Time so they can both be miniaturised and injected into a rusty Dalek that has malfunctioned and is now good. The Doctor fixes the Dalek and it becomes bad again, and he seems unduly surprised by this fairly obvious turn of events. Outside, the Dalek calls in all its mates and everyone starts getting exterminated; on the inside, the Doctor and Clara try to make the Dalek good again, by reawakening its suppressed memories, and connecting its brain to the Doctor's. This works, but only because the Dalek is convinced by the Doctor's overwhelming hatred that all Daleks should be destroyed. In other news, a teacher called Danny Pink starts at Coal Hill, and agrees to go on a date with Clara. He'll likely last exactly a year too.

Watched on my own one evening on Blu-ray, then I watched it again the following night just to familiarise myself with the details, as it was one of those odd episodes that I hadn't rewatched very often, and it had maybe not touched the sides of my mind when it first went out. I don't know why this might be, it should have been a big one: first regular episode after the post-regeneration feature-length special the week before, big name director, and a new Doctor getting his first face-off with the Daleks.

First-time round:
So, why when I watched this on its first BBC1 broadcast in 2014 did it not make much of an impression on me? It's a different angle on a Dalek story. Trouble is, this different angle is utterly hackneyed. Shrinking the heroes had been done at least three times before in Doctor Who, as well as in countless other shows and films. The very first Doctor Who story was originally intended to be the same 'minscules' idea, and it eventually got made (as Planet of Giants) in the first recording block. 

Another reason might have been my mood at the time of watching, a little down at having to imminently go back to work after a couple of weeks of Summer leave. We'd had friends round and drinks for Deep Breath, then the family had spent some time away, in a Doctor Who themed holiday cottage no less, the Pet Shop Boys had cameoed in The Archers and all had been alright in the world; now it was time to get back to the everyday. I think Doctor Who itself was going through something similar. The 50th anniversary hoopla was still fresh in our minds, Capaldi's debut had been shown in cinemas across the globe, and had been preceded by the show's stars going on a world tour for flip's sake. This wasn't sustainable, and perhaps - just a little bit - everything from Into the Dalek onwards feels like the hangover after a big party.

As they do with US presidents in their second term, people often see the outgoing holder of the role, once a successor has been named, as something of a lame duck Doctor. This might be why lately there seem to be more and more rumblings of discontent in that arena of truth and fairness that is the internet about Capaldi's era as a whole. Unscientific analysis time: most people seem to be frustrated wanting more as they enjoyed his final year, but only enjoyed one out of his two years before that. Interestingly, these people seem to break evenly into two camps - one camp loved the stories of the abrasive short-haired Doctor of Capaldi's first series, but hated the offerings featuring the Sonic Sunglasses Kid the year after; the other camp, of course, vice versa. I am in the first camp; I loved the run from Deep Breath to Last Christmas, and was underwhelmed by 2015's stories (Heaven Sent excepted). Maybe the stories were better in 2014 (they were certainly shorter); but, it could be more because of people's expectations of how much darkness they want from the lead. I have a lot of tolerance for a Doctor that can be caustic, particularly if he has a companion to act as his conscience (or - as it's put, in Into The Dalek's best line, "[She's] my carer, she cares so I don't have to.")

That's not to say the darkness of series 8 doesn't sometimes overstep the mark. When the blog gets to it, there's scope for reams of arguments back and forth as to whether Dark Water / Death In Heaven is an unflinching look at mortality or a ghoulishly insensitive mess; but nothing in 2014 to my mind comes close to being as wrong as, say, Sleep No More from 2015. Into the Dalek edges toward that mark with the Doctor's callousness around Ross's death, giving him - and the audience - false hope; but he does that to save everyone else, so you sort of forgive him, until they find themselves in the Dalek's internal equivalent of a charnel house, and the Doctor explains that Ross is also here, liquefied, as the "top layer, if you want to say a few words".

The Doctor is being painted in a negative light both in the Ross section, and at the end where the resolution is dependent on his levels of internal hate. This would make more story sense if he weren't already questioning himself at the beginning of the story, before any of this has happened. It's a very odd structural mistake: Doctor has crisis of conscience before he goes on punishing adventure that highlights his flaws? All it needs is to swap the "Be a pal, am I a good man?" bit to the end, and it makes everything so much better.  Otherwise, it makes his soul-searching seem so hollow when he's being cold about characters' deaths and prejudiced about the possibility of Rusty's redemption. It's not the only flaw too: the characters are a bit nothingy, and the narrative steers too close to quite a few previous adventures of the soldiers of Skaro, particularly 2005's Dalek. It is brave, perhaps, to be pretty much quoting the "You would make a good Dalek" line from that earlier show here, in a not nearly as well told tale.

In the positive column, the visuals are very good (creating tiny worlds blown up large always seems to bring the best out of any designer), and the piece is directed with the quality you'd expect of feature film man Ben Wheatley. The music is excellent too, and the fun scenes between Clara and Danny zip along with considerable verve. By grounding her character, it finally provides Jenna Coleman decent material with which to work: there's really nothing in her stories from the previous year and a bit that's as good as those Coal Hill scenes. Also, there's the refreshing air of promise one gets from the beginning of these story arcs. 'Will time-travelling get in the way of Clara and Danny falling in love?' is so much more immediate and interesting a dramatic question than 'What's the secret of the impossible girl?'. And - as clumsily as it's handled - the Doctor's quest for a sense of self has more meaning than cracks in walls, or astronaut suits, or any other timey-wimey nonsense. 

Grumpy Doctor - check. Callous quips after someone gets killed - check. The Doctor and female companion teamed up with three local rebel characters, rapidly reduced to two, who make their way through an enclosed environment full of dangers, while other characters watch their progress on screens - check...

Deeper Thoughts:
Tales of the Expected. Doctor Who fans - not Whovians, never Whovians - have to brave some hostile territory occasionally. On Sunday 16th July 2017, my people - my poor suffering people - had to watch the post Wimbledon Men's Singles final commentators blather on for, like, minutes before BBC1 showed us who the new Doctor was, and excitingly it was... the person whose odds had narrowed in the couple of days before the announcement, and whose name therefore had been all over the corners of the internet where nerds congregate. It's not really a spoiler if you're tipped off by an accumulation of strong indicators rather than a deliberate confirmation from someone in the know, but it still feels just like a spoiler. You may be thinking to yourself that if I'd wanted the full surprise I should have stayed clear of any forums or feeds; but, it was only through the forums and feeds that I knew there was going to be an announcement in the first place; I'd never have been watching post-match analysis of tennis for pleasure. Anyway, I'd still have been speculation-spoilered by the front page of a national newspaper peeking out at me on Sunday while I queued for groceries (is there any mileage, do you think, in legislation to force English tabloids to be in plain wrapping, like cigarettes, so I don't need to see their ghastly bile and hypocrisy?)

It was the same for Peter Capaldi's announcement; I knew the right name a day before it was official, from internet gossip and reports of bets being placed; in 2013, it was a shiny floor BBC1 entertainment show to wade through rather than sport, but it didn't make it much better. The bad thing this time was that it deflated what should have been a magical moment. My reaction was 'oh it is Jodie Whittaker' instead of 'OMG it's Jodie Whittaker'. Instead, my excitement gradually built through that Sunday afternoon and evening at this excellent bit of casting. Firstly, obviously, they have cast a woman to play the Doctor. I predicted this, of course (see the Deeper Thoughts section of The Crimson Horror post for full details, fact fans). It was an idea whose time had come, oooh, at least two regenerations ago, probably earlier, so it is no surprise it's happening now, but that shouldn't take anything away from how marvellous it is. My post in February this year was a little pessimistic, worrying that the writing would get too bogged down in the biological details of this change; I hope I'm wrong. The Doctor's the hero and should just get on with saving the universe, there's no need to dwell on the chromosome that's disappeared, or Y.

It's a great actor that's been cast. I realise, if is correct, that I've followed her since her very first on screen role, a memorable turn in an Alan Plater TV play in 2006 ("The Last Will and Testament of Billy Two-Sheds") and she's been in loads of great stuff since. I've never seen her play anything remotely like the Doctor, but - hell - that's part of why this is such a revolutionary move: women don't get to play characters like the Doctor enough, but she will hopefully change all that. It was at first disconcerting, but gradually more and more intriguing, not to have the slightest inkling of how an actor is going to approach the role. The closest analogue I can think of is when Christopher Eccleston was cast, not because of Northern accents, or that they've worked together in the past: this is an actor known for grounded performances within mainly realist settings, but now being thrillingly asked for something more, something new. But Eccleston had done The Second Coming, at least, Whittaker's take on far out science-fantasy is a completely unknown quantity. So, the lack of surprise I felt at the announcement is more than compensated for. It will be sad to say goodbye to Capaldi, but I can't wait for Christmas, or the New Year.

Finally, one other point to note, one I'm not proud of or anything but it happens to be the truth, and I may as well get it off my chest now, as I'm sure I'm not alone: I love Jodie Whittaker. I love her. I luurvve her. A massive teenage-boy crush. I will have to learn to reconcile these strange stirrings I'm feeling suddenly for my sexless childhood hero. The Better Half can hopefully help me get through it; after all, she just about navigated a similar reaction on her part during the David Tennant years. Just about. Get behind me, unworthy feelings - I need to be better that that, I need a role model. Luckily, I have one, and she's called the Doctor.

In Summary:
Into the Dalek, betrothed and divine... Ahoy! Ahoy! Land, sea and sky, Ahoy! Ahoy! Boy, man and soldier... 

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Vengeance on Varos

Chapter The 59th, which is a bit clever and a bit meta.

The TARDIS runs out of a fuel element, Zeiton-7, that's never been mentioned before and never is mentioned again, but apparently is crucial. The Doctor finds just about enough energy to land on the planet Varos, the only place Zeiton-7 ore is found. At this stage in its history, Varos has moved on from its beginnings as a prison planet, but is still run by a brutal and repressive civil service / aristocracy descended from the original guards. The populace is kept in check with the televised brutality of rebellions being quashed. The planet's exports are ruthlessly exploited for a fraction of their true worth by free marketeers, represented by the reptilian lifeform, Sil. Varos's nominal leader, the Governor, is randomly selected, and forced through regular votes with physical punishment for those that go against him, and eventual death. The Doctor and Peri leave the TARDIS and rescue the most dull and earnest people on the planet (a couple of rebels) then proceed to get chased, escape, get captured, escape again, get past many tortures and booby traps, and finally liberate everyone. A couple of the Varosian viewers, Arak and Etta, who've been watching and enjoying all this, wonder bleakly at the end whether liberation will be all that good, really.

Watched on special edition DVD on a Saturday afternoon with all three of the little 'uns (boys of 11 and 7, girl of 5). I had my feet - well, foot - up, as I'd strained or possible sprained my Achilles tendon a couple of days before. Colin Baker stories are always a good choice when one's under the weather, I always find; no idea why. Afterwards, I asked the assembled council of youth to vote - somewhat appropriate given the subject matter - on whether what they'd seen was too violent or scary, they voted 2 to 1 against. The youngest was the one who said it was, but she hadn't needed so much as a hug during it, so take that with a pinch of salt.

First-time round:
I watched episode 1 on its first BBC1 broadcast, a Saturday night in January 1985. For some reason, I missed episode 2. I thought it may have been one of the couple of Saturdays that year when a friend, whose name I've now sadly forgotten, invited me to use his Dad's available season ticket, and we went together to a home match of Brighton and Hove Albion at the old Goldstone ground. After the matches, I couldn't make it home quite in time to catch Who (this was what the pre-video years were like, you lucky young things). Minimal internet research, though, tells me there was no home match that day - it also told me that watching the Seagulls beat Cardiff City 1-0 was what made me miss episode 2 of the following story The Mark of the Rani. So, whatever I was doing as a 12-year old on a Saturday in early 1985 that was more interesting than Doctor Who is now lost in the mists of memory; perhaps I was out enjoying my youth, but... that doesn't seem too likely, does it?!

Episode 2 was on one of many tapes lent to me by my university fan friend David during the first Christmas break from studying at Durham; so, I would have finally caught up with the ending some time in December 1991; curiously, I don't remember having an incomplete picture of it from all those years of only having seen the first half. You do get what's being said from the first episode alone, and the rest is just running around and a couple of old blokes in nappies. (I just saw David at a college reunion this last weekend gone, by the by, along with Phil, who I've also mentioned here, and a number of other old chums of various levels of Doctor Who interest: Tim, Kev, Rich and Mark - hello fellahs!)

Watching BBC4's continuing run of Top of the Pops repeats, which has now reached 1984 (thereby covering the period of Vengeance on Varos's writing and production), gives some indication of the cultural forces in play at the time. There was emphasis throughout the early 1980s on the glossy and commercial, but with a big strain of overtly left-wing political new wave underneath, and also avant garde inflected electronica and jazz pop starting off on the fringes, but gradually merging into the mainstream. Philip Martin's script is a product of this time of transition. It riffs with and subverts the televisual form, but not as wildly as much of his earlier work; it satirises Thatcherism, but does not go all out with the agitprop; and, above all, it manages to be a slick and smooth commercial product. The script is - hardly surprisingly given the calibre of its author, and the somewhat patchy nature of the rest of what was offered that year - far and away the best thing written for the 1985 season. It's a shame that it wasn't the script given to the envelope-pushing Graeme Harper to direct, and instead got the rather more quotidian Ron Jones assigned.

Jones's work is not all bad; there are some points towards the end of episode 2 where the required tension and energy is sadly lacking, but it mostly gets by; balanced against that, great casting decisions result in some excellent performances. I'll go out on a limb and say Martin Jarvis's work here is not just one of the best turns in the history of Who, but also some of the best work he's ever done, and he's never given anything less than an excellent performance in anything ever. The Governor is a complex character with lots going on under the surface, and Jarvis never looks like he's acting once. Effortless. Nabil Shaban gives everything he's got to make Sil memorable and effective (Russell T Davies subconsciously must have stored away the idea of a static profit-obsessed villain flanked by two attendants who regularly have to moisturise their employer), and lots of other characters are very well performed. The main issues with acting are with the two goodie guests, Jason Connery and Geraldine Alexander, who are stilted, but even that may be a choice. These are over earnest speechifier Trots; perhaps the aim was to make them satirically a little wooden (Connery inappropriately tries to engage his 'fellow men' in political discourse at a moment of peril when they're just about to eat him). If that was the idea then it backfired a bit, as they tend to suck some of the life out of their scenes.

Nicola Bryant doesn't get to do much, but Colin Baker plays a blinder after a shaky start; once he's emerged from the TARDIS, he's at his most Doctorish, offbeat and disarming, offering quickfire explanations, rushing off down corridors, being brave. The only exceptions to this are the early scenes set in the TARDIS where he sits and sulks because his ship won't work. This is no criticism of Baker, he's just playing what's on the page; but, why, at the start of things when the audience is supposed to be drawn in to the story, is the main character being written as static and apathetic. It's screenwriting 101: do not do this. Throughout the initial few minutes, every time it cuts back to the console room, a little part of one's enjoyment dies. I expect that these scenes were written as filler by Saward, but I don't want to check just in case Martin was responsible for such dross.

The dialogue crackles with some lovely dark comic zingers, far too many to single out. Design-wise, it mostly rises above its set-bound cheap production status, though it does sadly usher in the era of rubbish vehicles in the studio that are supposed to add verisimilitude but which any character can escape at a walking pace. I don't know if these particular ones were provided by Bootsy and Ferret who became ubiquitous for this later. The music by Jonathan Gibbs is a cut above (I hope it was a deliberate joke in a script where the natives worship "The Great Video" that the fanfare accompanying the Governor's broadcast bears a strong similarity to the BBC Video ident music which started to appear on sell-through Doctor Who tapes at around this time). The writing covers a lot, managing to touch on hysteria about video nasties, the moral vacuum of neo-liberal economics, the undemocratic nature of referenda, as well as doing some familiar Orwell / Stasi informer-next-door stuff, and having characters escape into ventilation ducts. Like all good writing it is endlessly applicable: the material about elected representatives being just as much prisoners as those they represent could have been written for Theresa May's incumbency. Quillam and his implausible body transmogrification antics is probably a villain and a concept too far, but it isn't too badly integrated.

Talking of not being integrated, Varos is unique for the presence of Arak and Etta, a (probably) married couple acting as Greek chorus, voting and watching the events of the story unfold on their vid-screen. They get most of the best lines in the piece, and add a nice ironic complexity with their final scene, the last moment of episode 2, and one of the best endings of a Doctor Who story. I think, though, that there is an implicit promise made during the action, given Who's usual structure, that the Doctor will run into their quarters at some point in the action. I'm not sure whether it's a strength or a weakness that he never does, and they maintain their disconnected presence throughout.

Both Vengeance on Varos and The Runaway Bride include politicians (or at least the mention of them in the latter's case), dodgy corporate entities, slow novelty vehicles being driven indoors, and mini-beasts that are not so mini- (although the fly beastie's size in Varos is just a hallucination).

Deeper Thoughts:
Violence on Varos? This is one of a handful of Doctor Who stories notorious for overstepping the mark with regards to violence in some people's opinion. And, with the announcement of the actor to play the 13th Doctor still a few hours away at the time of writing, I have time to muse upon this, and I think the story is fine. I've never had a problem with violence, horror, brutality or gore in anything I've ever watched at any age. I don't believe there is anything morally wrong with any level of violence in a piece of drama; it might be aesthetically wrong, or wrong for a particular character, but never wrong in and of itself, and I very much reject the idea that violence in dramatic or written form can influence the consumer to perform acts of violence. There are many and complex reasons why any person commits violence, and it's always been a gross oversimplification, often motivated by a hidden political agenda, whenever a public individual or group gets into a self-righteous tizzy about TV, horror films, Tarantino flicks, video games, Marilyn Manson songs, etc. etc. Tipper Gore was no friend of mine, neither Mary Whitehouse.

Recently, though, I read a quote which challenged me; it was by Irving Kristol and went thus: "If you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book.” Now, I happened across this as just a quote, out of context of a particular work or body of work, and I'd never heard of Kristol, so I looked him up. He is held by some commentators to be 'the father of Neo-Conservatism'; okay, so it's unlikely we were going to agree given our polar political persuasions. That shouldn't, though, prevent me from giving his point of view a chance. Is what he states in the quote self-evidently true? No. Isn't it possible for an activity to be wholly improving? Good book or bad book, it is I think wholly possible for the act of reading to not allow any possibility of corruption. Reading is training for the mind, and like exercise it can be seen to have a wholly improving effect. Sure, you might have a heart attack while jogging, but that's a risk not a corruption caused by the act; and, in reading like in jogging, the risks are contingent upon one's state - mental or physical - when one embarks on the activity, they aren't created by the activity itself.

Someone can be trained to be violent, of course; but that's going to take more than a TV programme or a film or a book, or even constant exposure to such material. If that wasn't the case, then the armed forces would just be plonking recruits in front of a home theatre for a few weeks, as that's got to be cheaper than boot camp. Violence takes effort, it is not going to be the path of least resistance in a civilised environment like what we live in. So, what then of children? Does this mean I advocate letting children watch whatever they like? Well, no, but that's because there are other factors at play with kids. I don't believe they can be corrupted, but there is the risk of innocent imitation of what's seen on screen, so that always has to be a concern. Beyond that, though, children have different levels of sensitivity, and there's a chance they might be upset (but probably not ever traumatised) by what they see.

The issue with a child getting upset is not that you're going to give them nightmares: kids need nightmares as well as dreams for their development, and a parent has to deal compassionately with both; that's the definition of being a parent. No, it's more that upset and sensitivity will impede their understanding: best to wait a few years and try again. Stories are the medicine balls and dumbbells of understanding, and one needs to try all kinds to get a full work-out. Stories that show pain (which is usually the reason why violence exists in a narrative) are vital. Vengeance on Varos shows pain and torture as the symptoms of a society that's gone wrong, and that's a useful lesson; but, more controversially, it shows that brutality can be attractive; that's just as important a lesson, and just as much true. Stories exist in Who and elsewhere that show that pain can be unjust, shocking, endurable, destructive, pacifying, galvanising, sad and even funny. They have to, because all of that is true.

In Summary:
A video export that entertains as well as instructs.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Runaway Bride

Chapter The 58th, you wait ages for a Christmas special and then two come along in succession.

Just after his final ever pan-dimensional encounter (for a bit) with Rose, the Doctor is shocked to see a woman called Donna, in a bride's dress for her Christmas Eve wedding, appear in the TARDIS. She'd been halfway up the aisle and went all glowing and disappeared. The Doctor tries to get her back to the church on time, but due to confrontations with Santa robots and a high-speed cab chase, she misses the appointed hour. The robots turn up at the reception venue after our heroes, and unleash all sorts of festive paraphernalia that turns nasty (well, if something works one Christmas, it quickly can turn into a tradition).

The Doctor's investigations into why such an ordinary person as Donna is being pursued by this Santa squad lead him, accompanied by Donna and her fiancee Lance, to the HQ of H. C. Clements, the London company where Donna temps and Lance is the head of Human Resources. They find a secret entrance which leads to a vast chamber under the Thames flood barrier, where a giant Spider-woman called the Empress of the Racnoss has been plotting with Lance, to bring her child spiders back to life and rescue them from the centre of the Earth where they've been trapped since the formation of the planet. The Doctor goes all bad ass, flooding the tunnel containing the child spiders; Donna manages to persuade him to leave just before he gets drowned (but imagine if she hadn't?). The Empress transports up to her star-shaped starship, but a nice politician called Mister Saxon (whatever happened to him?) orders it to be blown up before she can escape. The Doctor asks Donna to join him on his travels, but she turns him down (she'll likely regret that decision after a while).

I thought it might be nice to sit down to view this with my eldest (boy of 11) as it was the first episode of Doctor Who he ever saw (see below); but, he couldn't be enticed. He still loves watching new Doctor Who episodes, but is a bit cool on old Who at the moment, even if it's old New Who, if you see what I mean. Instead, I watched with the Better Half and a glass or two of wine on the Saturday evening after the broadcast of The Doctor Falls. Following an hour of Who already that night, and with it getting late, I expected only to get partway through, but before we knew it we'd watched the lot. Maybe this means it is more watchable that I've given it credit for. Though it's certainly packed full of incomprehensible gobbledygook (see below), it had to cover a lot less detail than the story we'd watched earlier. One other difference between Ten and Twelve was that the Better Half commented on average once every ten minutes during the Runaway Bride about how handsome the actor playing the Doctor was; this has not yet happened during any Peter Capaldi stories.

First-time round:
My first-born arrived a few days after Fear Her, in June 2006. I had speculated in the run up to the event how that title may prove to be wise advice related to the Better Half if I'd even thought about bringing a TV into the delivery room to avoid missing Doctor Who. Luckily, Junior avoided arriving on the Saturday. Mother and child were back home from the hospital on the following Saturday, though, just in time to catch the BBC1 montage of England getting kicked out of the World Cup, set to 'Numb' by the Pet Shop Boys, immediately before Army of Ghosts. But the little one was slumbering by the time that episode came on, and similarly slept through Doomsday the following week. Six months later, Christmas Day 2006, marked the first time we ever watched Doctor Who together, with him sitting up in a Bumbo alongside his Daddy. A photo of this event should appear beside this paragraph, assuming the Better Half has permitted me use it. The boy is dressed as Superman, I'm dressed as John Nathan-Turner.

From the photo, I can see that  - as per this rewatch - I was drinking red wine. First time round, it being Christmas, I'd had a larger volume of red, and - for the first time in my history as a Doctor Who fan - I could not follow what was going on. I'm usually the one that has to explain it to others, but everything here from the reception scenes onwards was going over my booze-fogged head. Something about particles of something dragging Donna into the TARDIS? Maybe Sarah Parish's dialogue was explaining everything, but I couldn't understand a word she was saying. Get some new false teeth, Empress, and it would be easier to understand your evil plots .

A scene from The Runaway Bride was shown in advance of the story's broadcast debut, at the Children in Need Doctor Who concert at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff in November 2006. This was the black cab chase, which was projected to live orchestral accompaniment of Murray Gold's fabulous cue. Writer and exec producer Russell T Davies was quoted explaining that this scene, exciting as it may seem, was within the first 15 minutes of the episode and there was 45 minutes packed in after it. This is the problem of The Runaway Bride in a nutshell - it peaks too soon; the cab chase scene is the most exciting thing in it, and it's spunked away far too early, leaving 45 minutes to drag on after that, never to reach such heights again.

The chase itself has nothing to do with weddings or Christmas, and is clearly one of those set pieces that had occurred to the writer independent of a specific plot, and was found a home here. A lot of the structural problems seem to be down to certain scenes or visual moments in isolation were too attractive to resist, but couldn't easily be integrated. Donna's sudden materialisation in the TARDIS made for a great shock ending to the previous season, and an exciting opening to this special. But the hoops jumped through to shape it into some sort of post-rationalised sense make huge swathes of The Runaway Bride unwatchable: Huon particles that need to be fed to someone over the course of six months so their organic body catalyses their reaction with something or other, and traces of these same particles are found in the heart of the TARDIS and create a magnetising effect when the host gets anxious or excited. None of this makes scientific or real-world logical sense; that's never bothered Davies much, but it doesn't make emotional sense, either, and nor does it chime with the emotional theme of the story. Without the feels, Davies has failed on his own terms.

Donna's journey, her gradual realisation that she's missing the big picture by having too narrow and trivial view of the world, feels like it emerged from a second draft, but that there wasn't time for another go or two after that to bolt it down. Luckily, when Catherine Tate decided to return, Davies gets to do this theme properly, evidence of how key it was to the character, and to how underdeveloped it is here. Tate probably proved the most controversial new Who casting choice since Billie Piper in advance of airing, and - to my mind at least - she confounded expectations just as well as Piper did. There is the odd overblown mannerism to remind one of her sketch show grotesques, but generally it's a solid take on what's in the script. Again, she got to peel the onion more on Donna's inner vulnerability when she returned for a longer run.

Aside from Tate, the cast is the wedding party - who are essentially all giving extended cameos, even Don Gilet, though he is suitably nasty in the scene where he rips into Donna's lifestyle - plus Sarah Parish as the Empress. Oh dear. It's not her fault: there's no other way to play a role but large when your head's encased, your mouth's stuffed full of fake teeth, and and your body's strapped to a costume with the size and manoeuvrability of a children's climbing frame. The script overeggs things even more, though, rather than reining it in. I'd say it was the most panto villain the series has ever produced, but you'd never fit that costume on the stage of the Birmingham Hippodrome and have room left for John Barrowman's ego, let alone both the Krankies. As Sarah was unrecognisable, and as she has worked with Chris Chibnall recently, it might be nice to have her back to Who again in future for a part where she doesn't have to suffer quite so much. 

They're both set at Christmas time of course (the randomiser is a useful device but it lacks true discrimination), both contain baubles that are not what they seem, flying machines that get shot at, and a flashback to a 'meet cute' between the central female guest character and the man she's going to have a wedding with (although Donna's ceremony doesn't reach completion).

Deeper Thoughts:
Becoming The Establishment. It was during The Runaway Bride publicity drive, if I remember rightly, that Russell T Davies mentioned that contemporary listings and press releases were talking already about the 'traditional Doctor Who Christmas episode', even though they'd only done one before that point. Ten more have followed since his comments, and there are no signs that the multi-Doctor team-up currently being shot won't be broadcast on the 25th of December this year. So, the feeling expressed back then may have been premature, but it turned out to be correct. The non-special runs of the series arguably have taken longer to reach the same well-worn comfort level: there have been many years without any standard run of episodes, when nobody has yet dreamt of skipping a Christmas one. But, the signs are that the day's arrived where all aspects of current Doctor Who are unarguably a part of the televisual furniture. The ratings for the latest run - including the big season finale - have been in the same ballpark as those of another Saturday night stalwart Casualty, instead of the usual (but gradually diminishing over the years) cut above.

There's no shame in this size of audience, and no one's talking about Casualty being cancelled any time soon. But old school Doctor Who fans, including my good self, can't help but live under the long shadow of the 1980s cancellation crises, panicking that any dip might mean the show is taken off air. New series aficionados meanwhile, including my good self, feel a pang or two that the show isn't any more putting national mass bums-on-seats for its big tent offerings, or taking up a whole wall of Toys R Us with action figures and other merchandise. That popularity level couldn't last forever, and the decline to this point (if it can be categorised as such) would no doubt have happened earlier under young, floppy haired Matt Smith if it weren't for a coincident 50th anniversary boost. It is by some commentators however all being laid at the door of the actor playing the current TARDIS owner-occupier, Peter Capaldi, and the set of stories in which he has appeared.

With a key final episode yet to air, it seems too early for the retrospectives of the Capaldi era, but that hasn't stopped them. I was surprised by the reasonably consistent negative points being made: main actor too old and not good-looking enough, his first year had too may duff episodes like Robot of Sherwood, overall the character of the Doctor was never consistent, Clara stayed too long, and the great dynamic created by putting Capaldi's doctor with a fresh team came too late. I agreed with some points, and disagreed with others (I loved Robot of Sherwood - when did that become this century's Fear Her whipping boy? (I also love Fear Her, by the by)). But do I think any of this would have made a difference to the ratings, audience share or positions in the top 100 programmes? No. The programme's been going now for 12 years, there's only so much one can do to reboot. Maybe casting a non-white non-male Doctor might do it, but I doubt it. Mind you, I'm rubbish at predicting anything. I've only made two predictions about this current run, both wrong. The first was that the villains of 2016's Christmas special - brains transplanted into hinged heads, if you remember - would undoubtedly return: they're still awaited. The second was that the emotional theme of the season would be the friction of Bill's home life and studies against her travels with the Doctor: turns out it was instead a fight for Missy's soul. Still, as someone wise said recently, with one episode left it's too early for retrospectives. They still have 60 minutes to prove me right about either, or both.

In Summary:
Lots of different bits roughly stitched together: the Runaway Bride of Frankenstein.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

Chapter The 57th, a flurry of Christmas sparkle in the middle of Summer.

England, Christmas, 1938. Madge Arwell gives the Doctor a lift back to the TARDIS when he's fallen out of a spaceship with his space helmet on the wrong way round. To repay her favour, he presumably researches her family history in intricate detail, time travels forward to 1941, takes over and renovates Madge's relative's country house where she and her two children are coming to stay for Christmas, and installs all manner of amusements. This is to cheer them up, because Madge's RAF pilot husband, Reg, has recently been lost in action. How the Doctor's had time to find all this out, let alone arrange all the work, when he's usually so busy with saving the world and stuff, remains a mystery. She only gave him a lift for goodness sakes. K9 saved his life many times and beat him at chess (once), but K9 only got rudeness in return.

Anyway, part of the cheering up is a present for the kids, Lily and Cyril, which turns out to be a portal into another world where there are sinister forests, creepy wooden statue people, monstrous articulated multi-story robot walkers, and acid rain. Everyone enters this world and ends up in dire peril. Don't let the Doctor arrange your children's parties, is the moral. The souls of the trees in the forest (ok... what now?!) need to escape inside the consciousness of a middle-aged woman (I'm going to try to stick with it) who can pilot them through the time vortex by thinking of sentimental memories (I'm losing it) and release them into the stars (no, sorry, it's gone). Anyway, inadvertently while doing this, Madge saves Reg, and everyone is cheered up ever after. Madge encourages the Doctor to go and see Amy and Rory, as last time they saw him, it looked like he'd died. Don't you remember, back when everyone in the universe thought the Doctor was dead? No? And the Daleks had no records of who he was? No? Don't worry, they forgot all that pretty quickly on the show too.

Grabbing an hour of shade on a Sunday during a summer heatwave in the UK, I watched the episode with the Better Half and the two younger children (boy of 7, girl of 5). It was the first time either of the children had viewed it, but the second attempt for the middle child. We'd put it on over the Christmas period in 2011, but the eerie scenes in the forest freaked him out so much, we never tried again. He was fine with it this time round, but his sister was a little unsettled.

First-time round:
Christmas Day 2011 doesn't seem that long ago, but it's more than a lifetime in the case of my daughter, who didn't exist when TDTWATW (as no-one is calling it) first went out. The children's maternal great-grandmother, Vi, was still with us then, but it was sadly to be her last Christmas. She came for lunch on the big day, but would have left before Who's broadcast. Vi would not have watched Doctor Who even if she'd stayed a little later, not after having viewed the Christmas special with me in 2007 and found it hard going. "Who thinks up these horrible things?" was her one-liner review, as I remember. Anyway, once visiting relatives had been waved goodbye, and the two boys put to bed, I would have watched the recording late in the evening of the 25th, with the Better Half offering moral support. We fell more or less into this pattern for all Matt Smith's festive ones, with the addition, from the following year, of a forced sit-through of the Downton Abbey Christmas special on my part.

Downton's first Christmas episode was probably being shown around the time we were watching the recorded Doctor Who, as that ITV tradition started also in 2011, but the Better Half didn't disover that show and catch up with its first two series until 2012. The few Christmasses after that were pleasant exchanges of reciprocal incomprehensibility in the overfed, overbeered hours of a yuletide evening: "Why is he in old guy make-up now?" "Why is the crack in the wall back?" "Have we ever met this footman before?" "What relation is the American guy from Sideways to the Granthams again?" The lifetime of Downton Abbey has been and gone since then too, of course, but Doctor Who endures. I have to sit through Call The Midwife these days, though; fair exchange is no mockery.

What's most obvious when watching The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe is how slight it is. Every time I watch it, I marvel that the plot manages to reach an hour's duration without petering out completely. There's some incidentt, with great wintery visuals punctuating proceedings throughout. The atmosphere of the forest of Androzani Major trees is decidedly creepy, as evidenced by the reactions of my children over the years. So why doesn't it work? Perhaps it's that nothing much is at stake. There's a moment where the audience are supposed to feel a rush of righteous excitement because Madge is fighting to save her children from danger. But there isn't any danger. The tree people are victims seeking help, the tree harvesters are bumbling comic idiots, the acid rain only makes a few holes in Madge's coat. These are characters, lest we forget, that are being bombed every night; this frightening Doctor Who adventure is less stressful than their day-to-day life.

Maybe writer and showrunner Steven Moffat is feeling his way with how scary he can make a festive episode. His first effort the year before worked, but he was heavily insured by doing a version of A Christmas Carol, i.e. borrowing a timeless, tamper-proof structure that's been used, reused, and abused for more than a hundred years. His Christmas shows that followed this, like The Snowmen, and particularly Last Christmas, really upped the fear factor, and were much better for it. Maybe Moffat was holding back here.

None of the guest stars has more than a cameo, really; even Claire Skinner doesn't get a whole heap to do as the nominal protagonist, Madge: she's weepy but stoic, weepy but stoic, weepy but stoic with a gun, then happy. It's not the most sweeping character arc, and feels like a waste of her talents. Excellent and eagerly-awaited turns from the likes of Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir are pissed away in essentially a single scene of sub-sitcom quips and exposition. It's a great shame. The kids are good, and Matt Smith is always good value when put in scenes with kids. In fact, scratch what I said before, Matt Smith's Doctor is the protagonist of the piece, and it's the story of how he learns to cry with happiness. The story seems even more slight when put like that. It's undermined by Matt Smith's portrayal in the past, and the history of the Doctor from day one: he's no Spock, he understands and shares in human-like emotions, and he doesn't repress them. So, this is the story of how he comes to do something that we knew or suspected he could do anyway. Big whoop.

There are some good jokes and nice references in the script, both from the world of Doctor Who (Androzani, the Forest of Cheem) and elsewhere (the mention of the Doctor's model not being to scale is surely a Back to the Future reference). The opening sequence has a certain chutzpah, a long spaceship's overhead glide, just like the start of Star Wars, but it's just to set up a gag: you thought this was the Big Bad of this episode? No, the Doctor's blown them up before they can make it to the end of their first threat. The family life scenes are deftly achieved with only a few broad strokes. But any nimbleness in the script is smothered with a suffocatingly thick layer of sentimentality. Sentiment slips into sentimentality, and emotion slips into melodrama, when the reactions of a script or character aren't earned. That's another key problem with this story: Madge and her family are nice enough but not particularly of special merit, and their situation is not out of the ordinary for the time. One can push their ordinariness as the key point - like what was done with the similarly modern historical family in The Fires of Pompeii - there's nothing special about them, which makes it all the more poignant that they're in danger, and that the Doctor chooses to save them. If that was the intention here, they didn't really pull it off.

Another Doctor Who take on pre-existing material. After myths and fairy tales, this is channelling a specific text (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, of course). Both stories contain something that looks like a statue, but which moves. Also, both see the Doctor helping out a family group, though he thankfully leaves the Arwells in better shape than Nyssa's clan: stepmother dead, father a walking corpse inhabited by a psychopath, planet just about to be obliterated...

Deeper Thoughts:
The PM, The News, and the Christmas Radio Times. Anyone in the UK who might have expected a respite from non-stop politics after the recent general election is presumably disappointed. A hung parliament and all the discussions and speculation that creates, Brexit negotiations, and terrible tragedies in London. There's no pause coming any time soon in 2017, and 2016 was not exactly uneventful. But, on Christmas Day 2016, just as happens every year, there was a let-up. It always seems there's not much news to report on the 25th, and people seem to like it that way. I'm a news junkie for 364.25 days of the year, but on Christmas Day I'm happy to take a break too, even though it's a collective self-deception; plenty of stuff is no doubt happening, but we don't want to hear it, and they don't want to report it. The Doctor Who Christmas special is of a similar stripe: nothing too much is supposed to happen, any long-running story arcs are paused for one night only, nothing too serious is to go down.

The world of real political news and Doctor Who Christmas specials don't often intersect, but they did during the most recent yuletide period - in arresting fashion - with an interview in last year's Christmas Radio Times. The middle-class listing mag's double number at Christmas is still an annual treat for me, but imagine my shock when I reached the last page to discover a final twist. Who was being interviewed, but Theresa May? And what show did she say was one of her favourites to watch at Christmas? Doctor Who. I admit, it spoilt my Christmas reading and besmirched Doctor Who's reputation for me, just a little bit. This was a politician who I've never liked particularly, and who I liked even less by December 2016, as she'd by then ascended to the highest position of governmental power by coronation, not by contest.

It's rare that a politician comes out as a Doctor Who fan. There was Tim Collins, of course, back when he was an MP, who was in the documentary on the Earthshock DVD; there were also his co-signatories on the silly letter to Michael Grade in 2004 when he took over as BBC Chairman, remember that? But this was the first time to my knowledge that a Prime Minister had ever expressed an interest. It had be this one, though - this terrible terrible PM. Since Christmas, her stock has plummeted, not just with me but with everyone (and no, I'm not feeling sorry for her at all). Why does she have to like the thing I like, and sully it by association? It occurs to me now, though, there's a strong probability it wasn't her honest choice, and she'd just been briefed by Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill on how to respond to the RT's questions to make herself sound more human. Yes. The more I dwell on what we've learnt since Christmas, the more I'm sure that's the case. I can see it now: they told her going in, pick something non-controversial that'll play well with the ABC1s: Doctor Who, Poirot, stuff like that. So, she doesn't like Doctor Who at all really. Disaster averted. Phew!

(I hope.)

In Summary:
As pleasant and pretty as a snowy winter scene; as substantial as a single snowflake in the breeze.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

The Keeper of Traken

Chapter The 56th, in which a wizened grey creature is lingering too long in power, but may be ousted soon.

The Doctor and (spit!) Adric are invited to Traken by the chief wizard of that planet, the Keeper, to help deal with a crisis. Traken is a magical kingdom of peace where evil cannot flourish. Kassia, wife of Tremas and evil stepmother of Nyssa, has fallen in love with an statue called Melkur that starts talking to her, fooling her into taking over the power of the Keeper, with disastrous consequences (assuming power without a proper leadership election never turns out well, does it?). Turns out that Melkur's really the Master's TARDIS, and he's inside in his decaying Deadly Assassin form. The Master wants to use the power of the Keepership to take over a new body, but the TARDIS team, with help from Nyssa and Tremas, defeat him and it looks like he's dead or scarpered. However, after the Doctor and (spit!) Adric leave Traken, the Master turns out to have been hiding in a conspicuous Grandfather clock; he grabs Tremas, who because of a cosmic coincidence has a name that's an anagram of Master, never a good sign. The Master takes over Tremas's body, and goes off at the end of episode 4 to take his revenge on the Doctor. (Warning: actual revenge taken in the next story - which just involves his hanging round near the bins in a lay-by - may not meet expectations.)

On the night of the recent UK general election, the rest of the family had gone to bed before the exit poll, but I am a politics nerd as well as a Doctor Who nerd (see the Deeper Thoughts section of my The Tomb of The Cybermen blog post for more details) and was looking to do an all-nighter watching the coverage and drinking beer. This was mainly driven by superstition: I've been to bed early when counts have happened twice in the last year, and woke up the first morning to Brexit, and the second to Trump. I wasn't going to jinx things this time. But, having done these sorts of nights many times before, I know that early on there are some longueurs, so I planned to flip over occasionally to the DVD player and watch an episode of The Keeper of Traken to fill time. I thought I'd probably get it all watched before I got too drunk to take notes, and before the declarations started to come in thick and fast around 2am. As it was, the exit poll was knife-edge exciting, and the first few results were swinging one way then another. There was too much happening to get more than two episodes viewed, and I caught up with the others over the next couple of days.

First-time round:
This story was part of the series broadcast just before I became a fan, Tom Baker's final one. But I was seeing more and more glimpses of the show by this point, having been too scared even to watch the credits just a year earlier. I saw a clip of The Keeper of Traken, for example, on Swap Shop when Sarah Sutton was on being interviewed as the new 'Who girl'. All I remembered seeing, thinking back, was a shot of her dressed as a flower fairy looking wistful by a gate. An excerpt from the appearance was on the disc, though, and it's much longer; but, there was indeed a gate - don't know why that stuck in my mind. I finally saw the whole of the story in 1993 when the VHS was released. I was towards the end of my second year at university, when I had no VCR easily accessible, but my friend Mike, whose room I had commandeered for many a video watch in first year, was living out in a student house with a few other of my friends, and I would visit with my tapes sometimes.

The best thing going for The Keeper of Traken is the fairy-tale atmosphere it conjures up. Everything, from sets to costumes to the twinkly Radiophonic score, achieves a refreshingly original Hans Christian Andersen tone. This automatically helps one suspend one's disbelief when, for example, the grove where the TARDIS arrives within this talked-up domain of peace and harmony looks less like paradise than a particularly uninspired entry at Kew. So, why dilute this atmosphere by grafting in an attempt at a techno fiction of binary induction systems, full backflow inducers, warp crossovers, and many more dull technobabbles. The mysterious power of Traken, The Source, is very similar to The Force, but undermined as if the first Star Wars film had started in at the beginning discussing midichlorians. And the reason the Keeper's magic is supported by humdrum server farms, energy reactors and scientific instruments? Three words: Christopher Hamilton Bidmead, the script editor, who hated silliness and magic in the Doctor Who scripts he edited, so encouraged his writers to chuck in meaningless justifications for the silliness and magic in the scripts he was editing.

But the science of the script is rarely convincing, and never interesting; this may be because the two regular cast characters are a genius scientist and his precocious child genius sidekick; they team up with two guest characters, a genius scientist and his precocious child genius daughter. It's distancing for the audience when people start looking at technical plans and spouting incomprehensible bafflegab, because there's nobody to ask them to explain what they're doing, in English. There's also no human in the piece; this should maybe have occurred to someone: protagonist and villain are Time Lords, companion is an Alzarian, everyone else is a Trakenite. Where's the human angle? Barry Letts was Bidmead's executive producer; this was the man who, when he was producer, had fired the wonderful Caroline John because her character was supposedly too smart and he thought it was alienating viewers. Did he just not notice this time?

Curiously, this means that the characters we're not particularly supposed to be rooting for, are much more interesting than the ones we are, simply because they're not banging on about dismantling a source manipulator all the time. Kassia is an interesting character, although she's given two motivations, both fighting each other somewhat: is she doing what she's doing to stop her husband being taken away from her (to become the new Keeper) or is she entranced by Melkur. It's a bit of both, but the story might have been stronger if they'd picked one and stuck with it. At least she cares for her husband, though: Tremas sees his wife die in front of him in episode 3, and he only ever expresses worry about its ramifications to the political situation of Traken. He doesn't shed a tear, he doesn't even mention her again. Sure, it looks like she's been trying to kill him up to that point, but even then he talks about it like they're playing chess. Your wife is trying to kill you, and she's in love with a creepy statue: look bothered!

Another character that fascinates me Proctor Neman. He's written as a one function cipher, the henchman; but the actor Roland Oliver plays it with such a gleeful, knowing smile, and there's a couple of lines in there about how he's fond of money and can be bribed. This, in a society that provides everything its people require: so, why's he like that? It had me pleasantly projecting my own backstory for Neman, one of class jealousy against the consuls simmering away inside him for years; now he's in a position to boss Tremas around, a man he's desperate for respect from, he'll make him give respect. Yes, it's probably less interestingly just down to a script inconsistency, but never mind. There are quite a few inconsistencies in the script, and one could keep one's self amused for a while trying to rationalise them all. The Keeper brings the Doctor and Adric to Traken, warning them that it'll be a difficult task, but actually it's only difficult because he didn't tell anyone he'd sent for them, so they look like the bad guys. He's supposed to pretty much be omniscient, so why doesn't he just tell his consuls he's sending for a clever Time Lord guy who'll arrive with a kid in yellow pyjamas. That would have made things a bit easier for our heroes. But I suppose, if the Keeper has already seen that things would be difficult, he can't do anything that would make things a bit easier, or else he'll influence the future he's already witnessed, and set things on a different path. Crikey, omniscience is confusing, isn't it?

Less confusing, at least to everyone except the Doctor, is the big surprise of the piece, that the villain is not Melkur but Master, and the statue is really his TARDIS. But, even though when it arrives anywhere the (really well designed) Melkur statue DOES THE TARDIS MATERIALISATION NOISE, the Doctor still doesn't twig who the bad guy might be. When the Doctor's scratching his head and saying "I'm sure we've met before", I was shouting at the screen "IT'S THE MASTER!" Sheesh. Aside from this, though, Tom Baker's performance is great, in full 'Soho raconteur' mode, he's being off-beam and jokey all the way through, and it works. Nyssa's debut story sees her a little bit overshadowed, without the set pieces you'd expect from a new companions 'audition' show these days, but then she was never originally expected to join the crew, it was a relatively last minute change.

Another Tom Baker four-parter, with both stories doing sci-fi updates of ancient tales - here it's fairy tale / folk tale tropes, rather than Ancient Greek myths. Plus, both contain decaying ancient figures that get rejuvenated.

Deeper Thoughts:
On disappointment, hope, and surprise. In the aforementioned Tomb of the Cybermen blog post, I wrote the following about the UK general election that was then still a month away: "There isn't any probable outcome ... that isn't miserable and difficult." Later in the same post, though, I said "If we're patient, good things can happen at unexpected times, and we should never give up believing things that are lost can be brought back." I expected to have to be patient for a long time, maybe decades. But I was surprised. When I sat down last Thursday to see the election results come in, armed only with The Keeper of Traken and beer, I was braced for disappointment but couldn't quite extinguish a glimmer of hope. Curiously, that's the same emotional state I am often in when I sit down to watch a new episode of Doctor Who go out.

I'm not equating them; I don't want to put parliamentary democracy at the same level as a TV show (the TV show's too important for that!!!). I'm just being honest about my own twisted psyche. In both instances, I want it to turn out good, but I have this dread feeling that it will be terrible, and I can't not tune in. Generally, a new and better episode of Doctor Who comes along quicker than a new and better intake of MPs, but there's some other echoes. Steven Moffat, for his own sake as well as ours, is probably relinquishing power at the right time. I'm reminded of those (hubristic, as it turned out) comments made by David Cameron before the 2015 election: a Prime Minister should never go for three terms in office. The Doctor Who equivalent is a showrunner should never stay on to appoint three Doctors. And, like David Cameron, we have memories of a bad experience in the 1980s where the producer did just that, and it didn't end well.

Just as the late John Nathan-Turner would not feel good, I'm sure, about me comparing him to Thatcher, our two most recent showrunners would likely reject my next idea, but it sort of fits. Russell T Davies was the 'New Labour' showrunner, presiding over the boom, but maybe petering out a bit at the end; Steven Moffat is the 'Coalition/Conservative' showrunner (taking over in 2010, perhaps not with quite the same pomp as the previous team, but managing to keep carrying on, longer than probably anyone predicted at the outset). Of course, rather than coming close to destroying the union and trashing his own reputation at the end, Steven Moffat instead has produced the best season of Doctor Who for ages; creative people have more stamina than politicians, I guess. But could this mean that Chris Chibnall is just possibly... Jeremy Corbyn? Someone new, in earlier years a rebel who famously was critical of his own party./ show, but now a beacon of hope? Time will tell. Like The Keeper of Traken, the election has ended on a cliffhanger. A character who we thought was surely dead unexpectedly still survives, and we don't know what damage they're going to do next. Roll credits.

In Summary:
Lots of flaws, but it remains intriguing; so, overall, this one's a Keeper.

Sunday, 4 June 2017


Chapter The 55th, it's Jason and the Argonauts in Space (but not quite as exciting as that sounds).

The Doctor, Leela and K9 materialise aboard a spacecraft manned by a group of Minyans, a race which once treated the Time Lords as their gods; the crew are lead by a bloke called Jackson, which sounds a bit like Jason (him with the Argonauts) but perhaps not close enough for the allusion to be clear without some kind of heavy-handed reference made to it. They are on a 100,000 year quest to collect their genetic race bank from another ship that escaped Minyos all that time ago. They find the ship at the centre of a planet made of green-screen, which has been formed by the collision of multiple Doctor Who clich├ęs - put-upon rebels, brutal overseers, bad robots, and a crazy supercomputer. The Doctor liberates the race banks and the populace, who leave with Jackson and his crew. The Doctor then helpfully makes a heavy-handed reference to Jackson sounding a bit like Jason (him with the Argonauts).

After The Time Monster took so long, I wanted to improve the turnaround for Underworld, and get it watched and blogged in a day or two. I sat down on a morning in the half term holiday to watch all four episodes from the DVD in one go. I was accompanied by my two youngest (boy of 7, girl of 5), but garnered no interest from the Better Half nor the eldest child (boy of 10). We couldn't quite manage the feast in one sitting, but took a break for an hour or two before polishing it off with the final episode. Middle child, the boy of 7, wanted it put on the record that he guessed the fake race banks released by the Oracle in the final episode were bombs. He was also very excited, jumping up and down, during the climax of that final episode, so the story does work with one key section of its intended audience.

First-time round:
Underworld was one of the very last original series stories I caught up with; it's hard to put an exact date on it, but it would have been sometime in the mid- to late Nineties; after I'd graduated from university in 1994, but while I was still living in my home town of Worthing, which I left in 1999. I watched it with Zahir (my school and university friend previously mentioned on this blog) at his house. I would in those years occasionally visit him for an evening, and we'd watch stories he'd been lent by a colleague who'd taped them from UK Gold. By that point, most of what was available we'd seen, and most of what we'd not seen was not so easily available. I can't be sure after so long exactly what our reaction was, but likely it was similar to my latest watch: slightly disappointed, but still finding it somewhat fun.

One of the most iconic TARDIS teams appear in this story. The Doctor, Leela and K9, just like Mickey Mouse, can all be easily identified in silhouette, which is sometimes said to be a quality to aim for when creating memorable characters in a visual medium. They were the first regular cast of Doctor Who to have action figures made of them, and I don't think that was a coincidence. Timeless. Classic. Yet, the few stories they all appeared in are hardly the big hitters, or anything close to it: The Invisible Enemy, The Sun Makers, The Invasion of Time, and the story at hand: Underworld. It's a veritable chorus line of underwhelming. This isn't necessarily a rare phenomenon in Doctor Who: the Cybermen are famous Doctor Who baddies, and  - in whatever version - they look great on a magazine cover. But, you'd be hard pressed to pick too many stories they've appeared in that were wholly successful, where you don't have any reservations. What a waste. And so it is here. Or is it? The best part of the story is its three protagonists; if the vehicle allows them to do their thing well, as I believe Underworld does, then does it matter too much if that vehicle itself is a jalopy?

There's no complex plot to get in the way of character interplay. Aside from the incorporation of homages to various ancient myths (as well as the Argonauts, there's Orpheus, Hercules, the Sword of Damocles, etc. etc.), this is a retread of 'default' Doctor Who. The Doctor overthrows a repressive regime and rescues the downtrodden, exactly as he did in the previous story of the season, and countless others before and since. But, despite being continually told by Doctor Who reference books over the years that this story is boring, I never felt that on this viewing, and it's mostly down to the regulars. Saturday nights in 1977 and 1978 were all about sharing some time with those characters; the promise was fun, and they would never disappoint, just as they don't here.

Of the regulars, Louise Jameson as Leela probably gets least to do this time, but still has some fun playing the savage warrior blissed-out after being zapped by a pacifying ray gun. Tom Baker has tinkered slightly with the mix throughout the season, reducing the acid in the Doctor's humour in favour of a certain absent-minded playfulness, but not yet reaching the zany heights that would come in the following two years. Best value of all is John Leeson, who always finds an extra special little something such as K9, such as giving a little squeak as the Doctor clips the bulldog clips to his ears. The guest cast is less interesting, though, with only Alan Lake's gusto as Herrick standing out.

The effects work is consistently good. That's not the abiding viewpoint that's been put forward over the years, but I found no real evidence on this viewing that the quality was much different to the stories around it. The model work is uniformly excellent, and the green-screen backgrounds used for the underworld caves are perfectly serviceable - there's a lot of them, but they're fine. The decision to realise the caves in this way, as a cost saving measure, is often called out as the reason why the direction of the story is static and boring, but there's two things wrong with that analysis: a) cave scenes in a shabby set would not have been much better; in fact, the stylised comic book look of the green-screen version actually gives some visual interest, albeit probably unintentionally; b) there are some shocking examples of Underworld's direction being static and boring in the non-cave scenes too, and they were shot on real sets. Clearly, this story was struggling for adequate resources - the giveaway is the length of the recaps, padding out the episodes to full length - but there's also lots of other shots held just a little too long. Again, though, I didn't see anything here that's worse than The Sun Makers, say, which is usually rated a lot higher.

Both The Time Monster and Underworld take inspiration from ancient myths (the Minotaur, Jason and the Argonauts); this led to them both being released in the same 'Myths and Legends, Yes Okay That's a Bit Tenuous, But You Have to Buy This Stuff Anyway Because You're An Obsessive Completist' DVD boxset, to give it its full title.

Deeper Thoughts:
A Long Time Ago in a studio far, far away. Underworld is part of the season where Doctor Who starts having model spaceships and zap guns pretty much every week. This has been put down to a bid to ape Star Wars; but it can't be that, can it? All of season 15 was in the can before Star Wars reached UK cinemas, so it's just a coincidence. Then, by the time Star Wars could have exerted any influence, season 16, Doctor Who has moved on from space opera for the most part, and started on a different brew - literary adventure narratives, lots of humour - a world away from Luke Skywalker's saga. It was only by the time of Peter Davison's first season in 1982, and thereafter, that there's noticeable input borrowed from Hollywood sci-fi, and then it's sampling a broader set of films, part of the boom that followed the 1977 movie. Star Wars, just in and of itself, gave birth to many imitations on screens both big and small, but it didn't so much as scratch the surface of Doctor Who.

Why should this be? Pragmatism? Perhaps. There was no way the show was going to produce anything like the spectacle of a blockbuster on its budget. But, maybe it's more because Doctor Who had been there and done it all before. Once you subtract the spectacle, what does Star Wars have to copy? Planet-hopping space opera? Doctor Who started that in the Hartnell era, and has done it comprehensively since. Hi-tech update of wizards and quest adventure? Arguably, that's what Doctor Who is and has been since day 1, and - as Underworld demonstrates - it was still trying different flavours of that same approach 15 years later. Many other shows inspired by the success of Star Wars appeared in its wake, and disappeared after one or two seasons; perhaps this was because they only really had a big budget approach to emulate, and everything else that contributed to Star Wars' success was specific to the cast and crew involved with it. Luckily, Who hadn't the option to copy the big budget approach, and had been around so long, and tried all sorts of different styles over the years, that it rarely looked like it was trying to cash in, but with less cash.

Did the influence ever work the other way? Interestingly, one aspect of Underworld that did get emulated later by George Lucas in his Jedi franchise was filming huge sections of a story with actors just against a green-screen. This is how much of the three prequels were made. Like Underworld, they too weren't 100% successful or well received.

In Summary:
Under-powered, under par, underfunded? But maybe underrated, too. (Just like the UK's public services and public sector workers: VOTE LABOUR.)