Saturday, 13 May 2017

Knock Knock

Chapter The 53rd, in which everyone gets wood.

[Warning: This is a current episode, and there will be some spoilers ahead.] Bill Potts moves in to a house-share with five other students from St. Luke's University; the rent's cheap as there is no central heating, and it has a major problem with woodlice. Plus, it eats people. The landlord is clearly a Norman Bates type (ooh, what a giveaway), but these kids are desperate not to have to deal with letting agents any more, and who can blame them, so they sign the contract anyway. Then, on a dark and restless night, when the Doctor's there too to embarrass Bill / help her move / investigate, they're picked off one by one, sucked into the wooden fabric of the house. The landlord hides a dark secret in a tower in the house, a secret that has meant the deaths of six tenants every twenty years: so, eighteen students have been killed in the last seventy years; now, that doesn't sound that high a death toll when you spell it out, and - yes - statistically this house is safer than the M4, but it's creepy, okay? Sheesh. Nobody explains why it's only six tenants required each time, or why every twenty years exactly, but it was getting a bit hectic at the end there, and there was definitely no time for a lengthy info dump. Oh.

Before Doctor Who came back on TV this Easter, I used the random number generator to pick which episode I would blog; it came up with a 4, which meant I would be posting about The Haunted Hub, as the story was rumoured to be called then. I wonder if that was ever a proper title, though, as the house is not a hub, unless the idea was that it's the central base for the Dryad creatures to roam about to infest the trees in the area. It was shown that this was the case a couple of times, but that was early on before it was clear what the nature of the threat was exactly. It's not haunted either, come to think of it. A few days after the original broadcast, I watched the special version of the story formally known as The Haunted Hub on the BBC iplayer with binaural 3D special sound. I couldn't tell any difference to be honest, but I enjoyed the fun intro with an announcer doing a Peter Serafinowicz Darth Maul voice telling me to make sure my headphones were on the right way round. I suppose it could have been Peter Serafinowicz himself doing the Peter Serafinowicz voice, that's a thought.

First-time round:
We watched the first three episodes of this current series live on BBC1 on Saturday night, with all the family together; but, the trailer after Thin Ice made Knock Knock look pretty scary, so myself and the Better Half screened it, timeshifted using the PVR, on the evening of broadcast. We thought it was borderline, so prepped the kids and they watched it with me in the middle of the day when it was bright outside, to take the edge off it. All three (boys of 10 and 7, girl of 5) enjoyed it, and thought we were making a fuss about nothing.

The big draw of this story is the special guest star: David Suchet is excellent throughout: a subtly malignant presence as he slides in and out of the action during the earlier part of the narrative ("For a man such as myself, discretion is second nature"); he doesn't play it as Rigsby from Rising Damp, so much as an actual patch of rising damp, spreading creepily over every scene he's in. He's pitch perfect doing the traditional bad guy act (and, of course, it is an act) in the middle, with a nice change of tone at the end when the true nature of the character is revealed. Perhaps he pushes on that last note a little too hard in places during the conclusion, but it's a minor quibble. It's been a while since a guest actor has been served so well by a script; this year's other contenders so far - Ralf Little, Nicholas Burns, Mina Anwar, Jennifer Hennessy - have all had little more than cameos.

This is doubtless deliberate. These early stories have all been about showing off the new TARDIS duo, and the dynamic between them. This explains why no-one - including the other regular cast member, Matt Lucas - has got much of a look in until now. Pearl Mackie and Capaldi have a natural and effortless chemistry that's presumably the result of lots and lots of effort, not just from the two actors, but from the writing, and from every one of the crew too: the production is showcasing something new here, the engine for the show's new direction. The stories so far have been enjoyable because of this, but perhaps a bit low-powered - there's a definite tension felt when watching that events have yet to shift into a higher gear. It seems that's going to happen soon, with hints about regeneration being dropped, and whatever's locked in the Doctor and Nardole's underground vault - this year's MacGuffin - looking like it (she?) will be escaping before too long. Unfortunately, most fans at least will know none of this can last. At least one, if not both, of these main two actors is not going to be employed on the show after Christmas, and that's a shame - it's working so very well.

For the moment, we have to put that out of our minds and enjoy what we have. A new twist is given  in Knock Knock with the Doctor being forced into the role of embarrassing older relative dropping off his charge at college, hanging around too long, and showing her up; Bill doesn't mean to be ashamed of him, she just wants to be independent. I recognise this, as I'm sure anyone would, from when I was young and starting at university, and I'm also preparing myself for the day - soon to come - when I'll be the old buffer having to make myself scarce. The script milks so much out of this simple set-up: as well as the recognition factor and the deepening of the central relationship, there's humour with the Doctor's vanity that he only looks old enough to be Bill's father, and a magnificent fan frisson at the companion calling the Doctor 'grandfather'. Most of all, it foregrounds the counterpoint between the two different big adventures Bill is embarking upon, which I suspect is the thematic touchstone of the whole series, encapsulated in the little moment of Bill talking to herself: "Stop it - there's no living puddles, or weird robots, or big fish. It's just a new house. And people you don't know. Not scary at all."

Capaldi is at his best here, with Suchet bringing out his A-game: there's some great moments, such as when the Doctor crunches a prawn cracker to disrupt the tension, or later when he challenges the landlord to name the Prime Minister. The remaining cast is also good, with each of the students nicely drawn in a few quick strokes, believable and sufficiently different from one another. I'm confused by a few details, though: is Bill enrolled properly in college now, or is she still just being tutored privately by the Doctor? If there's a freshers' party happening, then it must be September or early October, which means that Bill and the Doctor have known each other for the best part of a year at least (The Pilot covered a stretch of time that encompassed Christmas). Consciously being aware of this - which admittedly wasn't until after I'd finished watching the story - did damage it a bit, as they still feel like they've only known each other a limited time. And it seems either very generous or very cruel of the university to be kicking Pavel out of halls at the start of the Autumn term: they'd have kicked him out before the Summer vac, or not at all. These minor details aside, first time Who scriptwriter - but massive TV and theatre talent - Mike Bartlett has delivered a fine story, and he can definitely come again (though he may well be too busy).

Both stories follow the template that's commonly tagged 'Base Under Siege' in Doctor Who critical writing, but in the wider world is known more simply as 'horror': a group of characters are trapped somewhere, and stalked by an unknown - and possibly supernatural - assailant or assailants, who do for them, one by one.

Deeper Thoughts:
Not just a London (or Bristol) Hopper. On the Saturday evening after watching Knock Knock, I read some fans on an online forum bemoaning that the companion in Doctor Who never fully commits to the adventure anymore, and always ends up coming back home every three or four episodes. There are dramatic reasons for this, grounding the audience identification figure to throw the extra-terrestrial shenanigans into sharp relief, and creating further options for story texture within "the part of my life you're not in”, as Bill refers to it when talking to the Doctor. The show could prosper without this, of course: Ian and Barbara were perfectly well grounded, but the Doctor never managed to get them back home once, and we knew very little of their personal lives. It's telling, though, that even in 1963 it was felt necessary for there to be a reason for the characters not to go home (the wonky steering of the TARDIS) or else they should want to, or at least the production team must have thought the audience would question it if they didn't.

The new series has generally taken the 'pop back home' approach, but the classic series also did this, starting in the 1970s, with the Doctor's companions returning periodically to their normal lives as he returned to his Earthbound mission with UNIT; this is very similar to the set up now, with the vault needing to be guarded and the Doctor doing a bit of lecturing on the side. Companions both old and new have been kept linked to the Earth by a strong vocation (medicine, teaching, journalism, being an air-hostess). Even when not applying this approach, the classic series usually got its excuses in; there were a few orphans, a few 'professional' adventurers like Leela or Steven, and even a reintroduction of the TARDIS's navigational issues for a while. Tacitly - subconsciously, perhaps - the series is putting forward the idea that being rootless, travelling without some sense of a place of your own, is not a good thing. Travel broadens the mind, but endless travel maybe flattens it out, removing all the individual features. This is even more explicit in the new series; the following is probably the strongest example, but representative. From 2006's Army of Ghosts:

JACKIE: Do you think you'll ever settle down?

ROSE: The Doctor never will, so I can't. I'll just keep on travelling.

JACKIE: And you'll keep on changing. And in forty years time, fifty, there'll be this woman, this strange woman, walking through the marketplace on some planet a billion miles from Earth. But she's not Rose Tyler. Not anymore. She's not even human.  

I don't know if Russell T Davies believes this wholeheartedly, he's probably just having Jackie playing a part she plays well, that of Devil's Advocate; but, he must believe there is some truth in it, or else the conflict in the scene would not work. Right now, this is a charged political discussion; the incumbent Prime Minister of this country, whose name I can't bring myself to type, said in a conference speech last year “If you believe you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere." She had her own political reasons for saying it, and I bristled at the suggestion, just as I did when listening to Jackie Tyler ten years earlier. I examined why I felt this way: home is very important to me, for many reasons. I believe that patriotism, even nationalism, can be perfectly fine if they don't lead to intolerance and violence. It's intolerance and violence that are the problems, whatever the motive behind them. But they are two abstract nouns, whereas a Union Jack is a real physical thing. It's a concrete reality that a love of country can often cause people to do terrible things.

Also, I have to go with Ian Brown or Rakim here: it's not where you're from it's where you're at. If you're too rooted in one place, you'll never get anywhere; progress requires diversity. Bill returns to Bristol because that's where she is studying, developing herself. Everyone should have that right, that equality of opportunity, even if it takes them far from home. Any tension or conflict between the nowheres and the somewheres is a false battle; the real enemies are intolerance and violence, and those that would stoke them up. In the end, everyone and every community must find an acceptable balance between the familiar and the alien. It's possible for me to be English, and British, and European (no matter what happens); and it's even possible for me to be "a citizen of the universe, and a gentleman to boot"! 

In Summary:
Well constructed, laying foundations for building excitement to come; not at all creaky.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Tomb of the Cybermen

Chapter The 52nd, where some Cybermen long thought lost are located again.

The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria arrive on the planet Telos and bump into an archaeological team searching for the last resting place of the Cyber race, which has long since vanished from the galaxy. The team find the tombs but have to complete logical tests before they can be accessed. They open them with help from the Doctor (even though he thought it was a bad idea, but he can't help showing off). The tombs turn out not to be tombs, but cryogenic pods, and the Cybermen not dead, only sleeping. Two members of the team, Eric Klieg and Kaftan (not their real names but stage monikers from when they toured their magic show round the working men's clubs), plan to use the Cybermen to take over Earth, but the Cybermen are planning to convert them and the rest of the humans into new Cybermen so they can, well, take over Earth. Neither side gets to take anything over, as the Doctor refreezes the Cybs and reseals the tombs that aren't tombs.

Watched the 'Revisitation' version of the DVD, which reinstates the video look of the studio-recorded scenes using vidFIRE, which you're likely either to know already or not be interested in so I'll shut up about it now. The whole family (The Better Half, two sons, 10 and 7, and our youngest, a girl of 4) sat down to watch this enthusiastically. As has become the norm, we stripped the watch over several days during and after the Bank Holiday weekend. Everyone thought the Cybermats were cute.

First-time round:
It was Monday 11th May 1992, the day of Tomb's VHS release; it must have been - I didn't wait to buy this, and I didn't wait to play it. I probably purchased it in Woolworths in Durham, as I would have had to go in there anyway to buy The Twin Dilemma, which was an exclusive release for Woolies released on the same day. Because of the hoo-hah in college when it was first found - see the Deeper Thoughts section below - there were a number of people more than the usual crammed into my friend Mike's room to watch. It was unheard of - we had to bring in more chairs! I can't remember, but I very much doubt that many stayed after to watch The Twin Dilemma.

The Tomb of The Cybermen clearly had some money spent on it: large cast, lots of film both on location and in studio, lots of lovely expensive looking detailing on the sets - look at the cyber symbol spray-painted onto the cling film that the Cybermen pierce through during the justly-celebrated wake-up scene. Lovely. Some effects, which had been talked about reverentially when they were but the memories of a lucky few, turned out to be a bit ropey when they were finally aired for a mass audience (e.g. some obvious Kirby wires and empty cyber-suits used in battles). Toberman's half-conversion into a cyberman is never very clearly shot, and quite a few characters have to act in naive ways to push certain moments of the plot along. The overall impression, though, is of a highly polished production.

What it isn't, mind, is particularly scary: in a story about a descent into underground tombs, one might expect shadows, or the turning of corners in fear of what lay beyond, of sudden movements out of the corner of one's eye, or strange noises disturbing the eerie silence. There's none of that on offer from the story, which takes place in the most brightly lit final resting place money can buy, with no corridors either: probably because a fair chunk of the budget's been spent on the very impressive main hall set, there's only one scenery flat, which characters gamely race in front of and behind, pursued by Cybermen. Everything is too big and shiny to allow for menace of the creeping, cobwebbed sort. Even the aforementioned 'cybermen emerging from pods' scene, though wonderfully shot, cut and underscored with their 'Space Adventures' music, is more balletic than frightening. There are a few unsettling moments wrung from this set-up: the trippy weapons testing room stuff, for example, or the magnificent impassive face of the Cybercontroller in close-up at the end of episode 2, with his buzzing alien vocals: "Eew-ah will be like uzzzzz".

Mostly, though, it's a straightforward linear action story, with only some attempts early on to bring depth to the script by adding lots of talk about symbolic logic. It's a peculiar brew: one part Bertrand Russell, two parts James Whale Universal horror pic; when Klieg is tapping on buttons and the tomb's opening, he entones lines about "If and only if" and "Fourier series" etc. as if he's saying "It's alive! It's allliveeee!!!" It must have seemed a good fit, to introduce a fixation with logic as the driver for these emotionless beings, but it does create a rod for the cyber-back ever after. The Cybermen always manage to do something stupidly illogical in every story - here, it's not putting an opening control on the inside of their casket when they buried themselves alive. It might be better to quietly ignore the logical theme, rather than draw attention to these flaws.

On the subject of Klieg, it is somewhat unfortunate that he and his other conspirators are the only three characters in the piece with skin pigmentation any shade darker than paper white. The story's not racist, at least not intentionally so - George Pastell, who played Klieg in fantastic villainous form, had been in a few Mummy movies previously, and was cast at least partially to call back to that - but for a production team, which a season earlier were positing a future with black and white astronauts shown as equals, to include a black actor playing the silent manservant muscleman is a backward step, and one they should have avoided. But Tomb's not really deep enough to be offensive. What we basically have here is as season opener in the modern mold: a simple action-packed story to kick things off, with larger-than-life villains and monsters, and an emotional bit with the new companion. 

In The Tomb of the Cybermen, just as in Death to the Daleks, the TARDIS crew join up with another team that have arrived on a quarry-like planet, where there are lots of A-list Doctor Who monsters waiting in the wings. In both stories, this joint group, including an untrustworthy male on that other team, gains entry to and then investigates a large building on the planet where everyone faces booby traps and tests of their intelligence.

Deeper Thoughts:
A personal story: The Tale of Two Elections. The country in which I live is fast approaching a general election, followed by negotiations to leave the European Union. There isn't any probable outcome from either process that isn't miserable and difficult. In times like this, it's good to remind oneself that sometimes - rarely, and perhaps insignificantly in the big scheme of things, but sometimes - things happen that are wholeheartedly, unquestionably good. This is a story of one of those times, from back in 1992, another election year, and another time of misery for any left-leaning person like what I am. I was lucky enough to share this event with many friends, chief among them my good pal, fellow fan, and collector of many mentions previously on this blog, David, the man who provided me with my first ever pirated videos of Doctor Who.

In Autumn 1991, I started my fresher year at St. Aidan's College in the University of Durham. I travelled up from the beautiful South on the train for that first day alongside Zahir, a schoolfriend of mine who was starting at Durham too. Zahir was also a fan, and a mutual friend of the other schoolmates I've mentioned on the blog before: Alex, and Dominic (he who provided me with my first official purchased Doctor Who videos). By the time of starting at this seat of learning - though I didn't have all of them with me - my Doctor Who VHS collection had reached 30-odd tapes. As great as it was as a long-time fan to see those episodes, and the ones from David, no excitement could match being finally able to own and view The Tomb of the Cybermen.

Perhaps the excitement of starting a whole new chapter of my life, and studying for a degree, should have exceeded that of watching four times 25 minutes of 1960s creaky teatime TV. I was wrestling in my head on that train journey in 1991 with the notion of putting aside childish things. I'd mentioned to Zahir that there was a Doctor Who convention early on in our first term, and wondered whether it would be fun to go. He, probably quite rightly, said we'd be too busy and too poor for such a thing. I could have reinvented myself then, left all of my old life behind me, but I had the fortune (I suppose it was fortune) to arrive at a college and university that was as Doctor Who-obsessed as I was. In my first week I met David, as recounted in the 'First Time Round' section of my earlier blog post here; additionally, future Doctor Who Magazine editor Gary Gillatt was at the same college at that time, and was involved with the university paper Palatinate, which published at least one extensive Doctor Who article during my first term. In previous years there had been a weekly Doctor Who night in the JCR, which we kept going in a smaller way with viewings of every new video I obtained in my friend Mike's room, as he was the only person with a video player of his own.

In that heady environment, the news of Tomb's return was sheer Lazarus stuff: a miraculous return from the dead; and not just of any story, but the one that was top of so many fans' lists for the most desired find. Since the first big search after the gaps in Who's archive were discovered in the late 70s, early 80s, returns of episodes seemed to have dried up. Late in January 1992, though, in my second term of my first year, I got back to my room after lectures one day to find a photocopied article blu-tacked to the door. Tomb of the Cybermen was back, back, back! David had made copies from the newspaper, and stuck them up thus on every door whose owner he thought would be interested (these were in the stone age days before WhatsApp, and much more fun because of it). When I finally caught up with David in the college bar, he still had a handful of his homemade flyers. I asked him how many episodes of the story had been found - the most recent finds had been one or two orphaned ones at most, never stories in their entirety - and when he replied "All of them" we both literally danced around that bar in joy. It may seem silly to you, but I stand by the reaction, which was honest in that moment.

The video was rush released a term later, and I snapped it up on the day of release, as recounted above. But in between, there had been that general election in April 1992; I watched for most of the night at Zahir's house back home during the hols; we were the only two left-leaning people remaining in Worthing at that time, or at least that's how it seemed. It was a night where brief initial optimism turned to crushing disappointment for us. The polls leading up to the day had consistently put Labour narrowly ahead, and the exit poll showed it was a hung parliament, still leaving hope that over a decade's worth of ruinous Thatcherism could soon be rolled back. But result after result coming in gradually filled in a different picture: we had five more years of Conservative rule. I've obviously been reminded of that night a lot recently, not just in 2015 (although the exit poll had the decency to be more accurate in 2015, not getting my hopes up), but in every recent wrong-headed decision at home and abroad.

The story of The Tomb of the Cybermen tells us not to be rash enough to let loose forces we can never hope to control, but I fear it's too late for that moral. The story of its recovery shows us that, 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'll cling to that.

In Summary:
Ignore any unrealistic expectations arising from its loss and rediscovery: it's the Smith and Jones or Partners in Crime of its day, and succeeds wholeheartedly if taken as that.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Death to the Daleks

Chapter The 51st, in which the Doctor faces gun-totin' Daleks and a psychotic hose beast.

The TARDIS is forced to land on a seemingly dead planet, where the Doctor and Sarah are confronted by a petrified creature immediately on leaving the ship, and shortly after are stalked by mysterious cloaked locals, one of which manages to get inside the TARDIS. A lot of this is familiar if you’ve ever watched a Terry Nation Dalek story, but the TARDIS team haven’t had that pleasure, so they act surprised. They meet a military team, who have similarly suffered a power drain in their space ship, and become trapped there. They are looking for a rare element to help cure a space plague. Daleks arrive, just in time for the end of episode 1, claiming to be on a similar mission. A member of the military team is called Tarrant. (Regular Terry Nation Dalek story watchers are shouting “Bingo!” at this point.)

The twist is that with no power for their energy guns the Daleks have to enter an uneasy alliance with the humans. But then they work out they can fit themselves instead with bullet guns, and the twist is forgotten about. The Doctor and Sarah Jane defeat the Daleks, destroy the source of the power drain and everybody leaves. There’s also some Von Daniken-esque stuff, and a trek through a set of booby traps (including a floor… of Death!).

Watched on DVD, an episode a time spread over several evenings, with all the kids (boys of 10 and 7, girl of 4) interested, but the Better Half, not so much. A lot of criticisms of the music from eldest boy, but he kept watching. I expected mockery of the lame cliffhanger at the end of episode 3 where, because of the episode under-running, the show ends at an arbitrary point when the Doctor spots a pattern on the floor of the Exxilon city; but, at least in my younger son's case, it unexpectedly created some tension as he chanted "Don't step on the floor, it's a trap, it's a trap" and then satisfaction as he exclaimed "Told ya!" when the credits rolled.

First-time round:
The blog’s random travels are slowly picking off the stories that formed the milestones on mine and the BBC’s gradual path towards a Doctor Who VHS collection. Before my family owned a VCR, the original few Doctor Who videos had been released, each with a wince-inducing price tag; but later, once we had the necessary machinery, they began to be re-released within my budget. The first to be re-released in this way was Revenge of the Cybermen, then a couple more including Pyramids of Mars. The fourth release at the affordable price of £9.99, the first to debut at that price, and the fourth one I ever purchased, was Death to the Daleks. It's release was felt important enough for a launch event at the Virgin Megastore in August 1987 where Jon Pertwee was pictured surrounded by some frightening Doctor Who fans who had made themselves look less frightening by dressing up as fun Doctor Who monsters.

This story has a bad reputation, but you don't need to even know that for your judgement to be coloured: if the leading man acts though he's irritated by proceedings, as Pertwee mostly does here, then it's hard not to be affected as a viewer. But it's really not fair, as the story isn't half bad. Pertwee is well known to have disliked doing Dalek stories, and he's not gelling that well with new girl Liz Sladen as companion Sarah Jane, who is sidelined through most of the action and replaced by a one-off supporting character, a little grey fellah (with whom Pertwee has much better chemistry); plus, the writer Terry Nation was famously frugal with story elements, reusing the same tropes over and over again, as if they were rationed; nonetheless, some interesting ideas and visuals do slip through.

Some judicious decisions made by the director Michael Briant lift the location from being just another quarry: the day-for-night beginning sequence where a spaceman has an 'arrowing experience, the Exxilons' outfits being colour-matched to the terrain, allowing for some nice moments where they pop up unexpectedly from a camouflaged niche. The modelwork of the city isn't too shabby either, particularly with the ever present throbbing radiophonia of the pulsing beacon. Even though it's barmy, the scene with the claustrophobic Dalek that when crowded by a few extras self destructs (!) is worth it for the following scene where the natives dance round the burning prop like it's the Wicker Man. There's one tiny moment too when Pertwee forgets he's having a terrible time: his face lights up with joy as he watches the Dalek and Root battle, as if it's the Wimbledon Men's final or Act V scene II of Hamlet.

Another divisive element that I love, is the music. I love it: both the saxophone quartet stuff and the chanting, it's all great. Carey Blyton was an eccentric genius, and every one of his three scores for Doctor Who is a favourite. If only the characters were as excitingly different. But no, they are straight out of stock,and it's knock-down stock at that. The MSC team are the most effete bunch of marines you're likely to meet, and their personalities range all the way from A to A flat: the solid dependable old one, the solid dependable young one, the solid dependable older one, the woman. And Galloway. Clearly, the script, actor and director are trying to make something interesting out of the untrustworthy character of Galloway, but his behaviour is too inconsistent, and the subplot is never given sufficient room to explore what makes him tick.

The biggest narrative question that occurs is: why don't the Daleks kill the humans once they have guns again? They tried to shoot them on sight when they first landed, and there's no sneaky deal they do thereafter that requires their grumbling bipedal partners. At a push, being generous, I suppose that the Exxilons are too primitive to set the bombs that the Daleks need to blow up the beacon and restore power, and these Daleks can't fly up and do it themselves: it truly is a lot less bother when they can hover.

Both contain metal foes, at least one soldier, a grey haired Doctor with one female companion, and… that’s about it.

Deeper Thoughts:
Malfunctioning tech as metaphor for the Arab Spring or something. Even though it was a stretch to think of any connections between it and The Caretaker, the last story covered by the blog, Death to the Daleks has some remarkable similarities to the latest (at the time of writing) TV offering, Smile. Both focus on a futuristic and possibly sentient city, built for inhabitants that it has out-evolved, which becomes self-sustaining, employing defence mechanisms that turn on those intended inhabitants. The main difference was stark, though, and that was how each city was treated by our hero: Capaldi's all for accepting this colony of bots both nano- and emoji- as a new species, and encourages the humans to negotiate a peace with them as equals; Pertwee says "I think the time has come to do something about this city", rolls up his sleeves, and kills it.

Does this difference reflect changing feelings about the threats posed by technology? I don't think so. In the nearly 40 years between the two shows, it's become more possible that something akin to the events depicted could come true. Automation has already turned my regular bank clerk or supermarket checkout cashier into a robot, and the Internet of Things has made anything from one's fridge to one's lightbulbs hackable. It's not too far-fetched to conceive that right now a Silicon Valley billionaire is somewhere building a self-protecting robot-maintained mansion that will one day eat him. If we don't anticipate nervously a future coexistence with some Artificial Intelligence, perhaps already in development, then we probably should. Or our children should.

The robots won't necessarily want to kill us; closer to the mark is the threat connoted by that emoji-bot's pixelated eyes cha-chinging into dollar signs. How's the economy going to have to be shaped to sustain billions of unproductive humans while the machines do all the work? Maybe we ought to start prepping the Space Arks after all, but to escape our tech competition, not to take it with us. [Death to the Daleks scores better re: plot holes, though, with it's typical 1973 obsession with power cuts helpfully explaining where the self-sustaining technology gets its energy supply, drained from passing spaceships; no such explanation is forthcoming for the 2017 bots - who was paying their lecky bill?]

So, if it's not any dent in the technical feasibility, what is it that's changed? The Doctor of Death to the Daleks is very sure that the city is a drag factor. He's certain that humanity will flourish without its malign influence (alright, not humanity, but a close enough analogue); he doesn't stop to think that the city might flourish without people's malign influence, wandering round it, swapping circuits and making it go all nail varnish on expanded polystyrene. Faith in humankind to be the good guys has become much less the default since Death to the Daleks. It was already far from absolute in 1973, and most of the regular writers in Pertwee's time (Robert Holmes, Barry Letts, Robert Sloman and particularity Malcolm Hulke) were much more questioning of man's primacy than Terry Nation, for all the hard-boiled cynicism to which he seems to aspire. In 2017, it would be impossible to be so idealistic. Neither story, though, can take the final imaginative step - the malfunctioning tech in both stories is codependent: obsessed with our happiness, or grooming us to take over as its ultimate control node. I fear it's too much to hope in real life that the machines will care about us that much, when they eventually rise up and take over. 

In Summary:
More fun than a power cut.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Caretaker

Chapter The 50th, a Capaldi episode, but probably not the one you were expecting today.

Clara is frantically juggling her adventures with the Doctor, dating Danny Pink, and teaching at Coal Hill School, when - suspiciously - the Doctor calls a sudden halt to their travels, and turns up posing as the new school caretaker. He's secretly trying to trap a Skovox Blitzer, which sounds like a cheap food processor exclusive to QVC, but is actually a dangerous war machine thing. He manages to defeat it, but only with help from Danny. The Doctor and Danny each find out simultaneously all about Clara's secret life with the other one, and size each other up. With hilarious consequences.

After work one night, during the early part of the Easter hols, I stuck on the Blu-Ray of the episode, and - for the first time in a while - the whole family watched together: me, the Better Half, and all three kids (boys of 10 and 7, girl of 4). Everyone enjoyed it, and there were quite a few moments that got big laughs from the whole room, e.g. when the  Doctor says "Is this part of the surprise play?" which doesn't sound like much out of context but is hilarious and delivered with precision.

First-time round:
At this point, the family had got into a rhythm with new Doctor Who episodes: I would timeshift the BBC1 broadcast and screen, usually accompanied by The Better Half, on the evening of the Saturday; then, if it wasn't too scary - and quite a few were in 2014, but not The Caretaker - we'd watch again with the kids on Sunday morning. No anecdotes particular to this story, but it was the first time in a long time I'd found six Doctor Who stories in a row (the run from Deep Breath to The Caretaker) an unqualified success. Capaldi's first was a very strong series to my mind.

From the opening moments of The Caretaker, I was reminded of a theory I've had at the back of my mind for a while: the shorter Capaldi's hair, the better his performance. (I'm sure it also applies to all the other Doctors whose lock length fluctuated.) We're in the pre-bouffant period here, and the close-cropped, snarky Capaldi is perhaps counter-intuitively much more charming than he later became. In an early exchange he tells Clara she's looking lovely, "Have you had a wash?". In reply, she wonders why he's being nice, and without missing a beat he says "Because it works on you". Instantly, you just love him. Put away the sunglasses and guitar, Granddad, you're trying too hard; you had us at "pudding brains". Apart from laughs, the opening sequence also has crackling energy, and a lightness of touch in dealing with the inter-personal drama; Gareth Roberts' script and Paul Murphy's direction combine to keep these levels of excellence going throughout.

Danny Pink, who's been gradually cemented into this series with extensive cameos in previous episodes, as well as a large dose of backstory in Listen two episodes back, finally arrives into a full supporting role. He makes a welcome addition to the dynamic, keeping both the Doctor and Clara on their toes. Twenty-first century Who often did this, using the addition of a second, male companion to provide a different type of conflict, prevent the central Doctor-female companion team from getting complacent, and to give more colour and depth to that primary companion's home life. Though they all developed in different ways, this was the initial function of Adam, Captain Jack, Mickey and Rory. The latest in line is ably played by Samuel Anderson, an interesting new spin being his suppressed guilt at actions from his previous life as a soldier. As with the later 'Pond Life' period Rory, Danny also brings a domestic counterpoint to the far flung time travel adventures. Clara, like Amy before her, has to balance her two lives. I've always thought this approach was the most effective for Doctor Who, and 2014's arc is well thought through and satisfying.

One point where I disagree with a recent Guardian piece that has upset a few people online - I do think Danny Pink is a classic character, but the rest I broadly agree with. The timing is a little nasty: two days before Doctor Who relaunches itself, when the journalist has even seen the first new episode and is positive about it, the headline wonders when the show will stop being "smug" and "stale". Thanks a bunch. But some of the comments about Steven Moffat's two leading ladies to date are spot on; in a misguided attempt to make them special, he makes them unrelatable. Rory and Danny are much more interesting and performable characters than Amy or Clara, because they're down to Earth but can still be extraordinary because of the otherworldly adventures they are thrust into; until now, it hasn't occurred to Moffat to cut out the middle man (literally) and just have the main female companion be down to Earth and relatable but still extraordinary, with no time cracks or time splinters to overcomplicate things. With Bill Potts, though, according to the same article, he's finally managed it, and hurrah for that.

Also grounding the action in The Caretaker is the backdrop of Coal Hill School, a refreshing reminder of what is was like before it disappeared down the rabbit-hole of darkness and angst in Class. Courtney Woods is a fun recurring comedy character, and it's great to see Nigel Betts' Mr. Armitage, the Headteacher, alive and well. There's loads of other good stuff too: funny lines and situations, the whole strand with the Doctor thinking Clara's in love with a dead ringer for his previous incarnation... I know I haven't said much about the defeating the alien bits, but they are only a minor subplot; sorry to any emotionally inarticulate fanboys - this one is all about the relationships. 

This is a tough one: what links The Caretaker and The Massacre? Aside from the old faithful that both the actors playing the Doctor are the same age, they are both tales where the Doctor and companions pause their usual travels for a few days and nights to stay in a European capital city. That's about it.

Deeper Thoughts:
The stories so far. The blog has now covered its 50th story; had I been working chronologically, that would mean I'd have finished the black-and-white stories by now. I'd have completed all the missing ones, and put recons and soundtracks behind me. It's tempting to think that would be preferable, as they can be a slog, but they're even more of a slog if done one after another. There are stretches in the Sixties where sadly you get a few scant moments of moving image every two hours on average - I'm glad to stick to hopping about. Another benefit of viewing in a random order is that it highlights that the themes of Doctor Who run consistently through its many eras. Historical stories, which were thought so out of place in the show as it became increasingly about the monsters, in fact resonate well with those running themes: The Massacre (like The Aztecs which I watched early on) is all about intervention - the rights and wrongs of meddling, or failing to meddle, and the lives that get impacted in the crossfire of the decision-making.

When the Doctor talks of this, after being criticised by his companion for refusing to involve himself in the history of The Massacre, he is clearly conflicted: it's something he's scared to do, not dead set against. When he mentions in the same scene that he can't go back to his home planet, he's inadvertently chiming with the reasons given later for his leaving there: his people are even more unwilling to get involved than he is. As such, The Massacre and The Deadly Assassin (another recent watch) are linked by a chain of consistency, the latter showing the atrophied, corrupt society that results from Gallifrey shutting itself off from the rest of the universe, even though that's done for the universe's own good. How wonderful is that in two stories, years apart, without planning, made by a completely different set of people? There may be superficial inconsistencies (Atlantis has been destroyed two different ways so far in the stories I've covered, with another one yet to come) but ultimately, majestically, this is an adventure - singular - in time and space.

And this goes for the new series stories too, up to the current era. Although by the time of The Caretaker the Doctor seems to have become reconciled to interfering, the plot still draws from the same thematic well: the Doctor - perhaps for a greater good, or perhaps out of an arrogant single-mindedness - puts Clara and her whole school in danger by his actions, and Danny Pink calls him on it. At the time of writing, just before the start of a whole new series of Peter Capaldi episodes, it's fun to anticipate where the story - singular - will go next. Mixing in my random viewings of old episodes does present a challenge when new episodes are being made and shown, though; I could have just blogged the opening show of the series, as I did in 2015, but that's not in the blog's spirit of  'any old order'. So, I have decided that the best method would be to pick one random episode of series 10 in advance. The random number generator didn't come up with the opener, so you'll have to wait for any report on The Pilot, but I'm very excited to see it tonight. Hope you are too - have a happy Who and a happy Easter!

In Summary:
In a class of its own.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Massacre

Chapter The 49th, fun for all the family (as long as your family's interested in obscure histories of religious intolerance).

The Doctor and Steven land in Paris, August 1572. Leaving the latter alone in a tavern, the former goes off to talk to a pioneer scientist living in the area, promising in best horror movie fashion to be right back. Inadvertently, Steven finds himself almost immediately embroiled in religio-political intrigue. He becomes friendly with a group of Huguenot (Protestant) politicos, and protects a runaway servant girl - Anne Chaplet  - who has overheard something of import said in the household of her employer, the (Catholic) Abbot of Amboise. Suspected by both sides, Steven continues to protect Anne and investigates the Abbot, who looks just like the Doctor - is he a doppelgänger, or is the missing Doctor somehow involving himself in the machinations too?

It turns out that the Abbot is part of a conspiracy to assassinate a prominent Huguenot, the Admiral de Coligny. The attempt fails, but a massacre of Huguenots then follows, secretly instigated by the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici. The Doctor - who turns out not to be posing as the Abbot at all - returns, finds out what the date is, and swiftly gets himself and Steven the <France> out of there, leaving Anne to her fate, despite Steven's Protestant protestations. They escape by the skin of their teeth from the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, when thousands of Huguenots in Paris were killed, probably including Anne. Disgusted with the Doctor's callousness, Steven leaves at the next stop (London in the 1960s), but quickly returns when a girl rushes into the TARDIS mistaking it for a Police Box. This is Dodo Chaplet, who just might be a descendant of Anne's, meaning she survived after all. If that weren't a massive massive coincidence.

No moving pictures from The Massacre survive, and precious little visual material at all. The off-screen photos often taken as a visual record, and later used to create slide show 'reconstructions' for other missing stories, were not commissioned during the tenure of John Wiles, Doctor Who's second producer, who made The Massacre. There seems to be very few on-set photos too; none seem to exist of William Hartnell as the Abbot for example. And nobody took cine film of any scenes, as happened for some other highly missing ones (e.g.The Myth Makers). There are recons out there, but they have to fake the images to such an extent that it's distracting. As such, the only option seemed to be to listen to the official soundtrack with Peter Purves's narration.

I didn't think anyone would want to listen along with me, but the Better Half surprised me. After listening together over a few nights (it is a doomed love story, so quite a romantic listen) I gave it a spin again on my own just to ensure I'd followed things correctly. And The Massacre is a challenge to follow: lots of characters, mostly male, all with French names, and no visuals to help centre each one in your mind.  If you can listen and never find yourself wondering which side Teligny or Simon Duvall are on, or forgetting that Gaston is the same person as the Viscount, when characters refer to him as both, sometimes in the same scene, then you've a better brain than me.

First-time round:
I've written before about the cassette tapes of missing Doctor Who stories that started to come out in the 1990s, with their overripe and intrusive narration. The releases dried up around the middle of the decade. Once the dust had settled after the Paul McGann TV movie, when it was clear it wasn't going to series, meaning BBC Worldwide would need to go back to its original revenue stream, there was a relaunch of 1963 - 1989 era Doctor Who merchandise. One positive development was that new cassettes and (bleeding edge technology alert!) even CDs of missing stories were released. These had much more considered narration, delivered by a regular cast member who was actually in the piece. The first of these was The Massacre which came out in 1999. Distribution, even by 1999, was somewhat patchy, but I saw it in Borders in Brighton one day, and I snapped it up. [Incidentally, the cover of the box calls the story The Massacre, as does the other major tie-in, the novelisation, so that's the title I'm sticking with. But it is also known by at least one other variant.]

In the 1970s and 80s, reputations of older stories were made or broken based on the recollections of a handful of fans who'd seen them on first broadcast and subsequently achieved official or semi-official roles related to Doctor Who - as journalists, archivists, advisers, and so on. It's fair to suggest that all these gentlemen (and they were all gentlemen) were of a similar kidney: they'd have been children when watching in the Sixties, were of a fact-assimilating mindset, and were fairly driven to have made an occupation out of their hobby. This lead to a homogeneity of their opinions and the received wisdom into which these opinions hardened. Before the 1990s when the episodes finally became available to the mass market, it was writ holy that, for example, The Daleks' Master Plan was the greatest, and The Gunfighters was the worst. It's not a coincidence that, to serious twelve-year-old boys in the mid-Sixties, Dalek stories with loads of killings are super cool, but a story with iffy American accents and a lady singing The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon is, urggh, totally embarrassing.

There was a critical reaction against this as the 1990s wore on, and a new younger generation of fan commentators emerged; as part of this, The Massacre, which had always been overlooked by that previous generation, took on more prominence. The Discontinuity Guide a representative publication of that time states that The Massacre is "the best historical ... the best Hartnell, and, in its serious handling of dramatic material in a truly dramatic style, arguably the best ever Doctor Who story". This hyperbole is just as flawed as was the overindulgence of The Daleks' Master Plan, and it masks how atypical and downright odd The Massacre is. For a start, it's a serious historical drama, which had become a rarity.
Doctor Who hadn't done a straight historical story for a good year without adding comedy, adventure yarn pastiche or sci-fi elements, and they never would again. There's intrigue and espionage, yes, but no swashbuckling. In fact, arguably they never played any story this straight again in the history of the programme. It's about a pretty grim subject, so it can't get too frivolous, but The Massacre leavens it's tale of religious persecution with (drumroll) crisis-point conflict between it's regular cast. None more black. It's like The Fires of Pompeii without the water pistol jokes, and crucially without the Doctor saving anyone at the end. Now, clearly that makes it better in some people's eyes, but me? I'm only sure it makes it different. It is definitely good, though: a great cast gives it their all, the script has some exquisite dramatic scenes, and the main plot of Steven coping as a man stranded, out of time, is very well done. It's good to see Peter Purves given the lead role too, and he runs with it.

Everything builds to the penultimate scene in the TARDIS control room. The Doctor, for seemingly no reason (more on that later) has left his friend alone in a dangerous city for days, so Steven is rightfully miffed. When the Doctor abandons Anne, for the sake of not rewriting history, it then leads into a wonderfully sparky, spiky exchange between possibly the best Doctor and possibly the best companion. The way Steven spits out the word 'researches' to describe the Doctor's disinterested wanderings is possibly my favourite delivery of a single word in the whole of the series. Then, Steven leaves the Doctor alone, and Hartnell has that haunted monologue, where he lists all the companions, slips in a running gag about getting Ian's name wrong, and culminates with the biggest tease about his origins since the first story: he can't go back to his home. We won't find out why for another three years, but thematically and in its plot detail, this harmonises with those later revelations nicely. Shame that the return to normality with Dodo's arrival, and Steven's volte face, shits on the drama a bit, but that's episodic TV, you have to return to the status quo at the end.

Is it for kids, though? The script underplays the romance between Steven and Anne to the point where it almost vanishes, probably because they spend a night alone together off-screen and there was no desire to hint at impropriety. But nobody has any qualms about the kids seeing a medieval massacre. Suitability aside, what about enjoyability? It's quite a dry history lesson for anyone under the age of consent; you can't picture children in 1966 playing Catherine de Medici versus the Admiral de Coligny in the playground on Monday morning. If it's only speaking to part of its family audience, Doctor Who has surely failed. On the other hand, the kids had just had twelve weeks of Dalek action, and they were only four weeks away from the glory of the Monoids; it was never going to be boring French history every time. The next historical, though, the aforementioned Gunfighters, would prove even more divisive. It's hard not to see The Massacre as a big step towards the decision soon to come that would remove the historical stories from the series altogether.

Two tales on the trot that involve Frenchmen and royal history, with dashes of violence and themes of impersonation in both.

Deeper Thoughts:
Who is the Abbot of Amboise? Or is he? As well as Purves, William Hartnell also gets something new to do in this story, playing a different role. Or does he? One of the most interesting / frustrating parts of The Massacre is how the doppelgänger plot is handled. The Doctor leaves Steven, and we see scenes of him meeting Preslin in his shop (let's ignore that later Preslin's neighbours believe the shop's long abandoned and Preslin arrested or dead, they must be mistaken). Anyway, the Doctor finds out Preslin, as a scientific heretic, is being persecuted by the Abbot of Amboise. The last we see of the Doctor for sure before the final episode, he's considering visiting the Abbot. For the rest of episode 1, plus episodes 2 and 3, there is someone whom everyone treats as the Abbot, but he looks like the Doctor. Could this be the Doctor having taken the Abbot's place? Steven certainly believes this to be so, and the script throws in lots of hints that the Abbot is becoming incompetent, sabotaging his own scheme, as if this is really the Doctor's contribution.

Then, the Abbot turns up dead, after the failed assassination. Hartnell's Doctor would never be one to play dead in the street, so I think one can safely assume that this is the body of the real Abbot, and - though we're robbed of the visuals - he must still look the same, like the Doctor, based on Steven's reactions. There was also a hint early on that they looked alike, when one of the Abbot's aides follows the Doctor out of the tavern. It's still just about feasible that the Doctor has been playing the Abbot up to this point, and there's been a last minute substitution; but it seems implausible that he could achieve this without an accomplice, and there's no sign of that; and it would be uncharacteristic of him to be involved in a murder, even just as an onlooker.

What really puts the tin hat on it, is the surprise with which Hartnell's Doctor later reacts to the date and to Stephen's description of the assassination attempt. If he's been scuppering that assassination all along, why react like this?  But, if he hasn't, where the hell has he been hiding for the last few days? Where's Preslin? What was the plan the Doctor was musing on in episode 1, and why hasn't it progressed? These things are never explained, which makes the misdirection of the Abbot lookalike plot seem like a huge con to the viewer. It's a highly original way of handling what was already a staple of adventure fiction, and certainly would be done lots more in Doctor Who: normally, the confusion of who's the real one and who's not is deliberately harnessed to confuse the characters in the piece, here it is used only to keep the audience (and their identification figure) guessing; but it can't help but feel like a cheat.

How it came about was alas quite prosaic; like quite a few Doctor Who stories The Massacre involved a disagreement between the writer, John Lucarotti, and the script editor, Donald Tosh. Lucarotti - who was never happy with the subject matter given to him by the production team in the first place - seems to have conceived the Doctor / Abbot confusion as much more traditional, with Hartnell appearing as the Doctor throughout, and split-screen effects used. Perhaps because of the feared cost and technicalities of that approach, or perhaps as he was dissatisfied and was doing extensive rewrites anyway, Tosh changed this, and what ended up on screen is probably the result of two people's drafts pulling in different directions.

In Summary:
Why can't someone find the footage of that penultimate scene from episode 4 - is that too much to ask?

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The King's Demons

Chapter The 48th, where we learn about Magna Carta (she didn't die in vain).

The Master has escaped from the most recent predicament he was left in by the Doctor, whoever  remembers what that was, I certainly can't. He's also managed along the way to snag a telepathic shapeshifting robot, Kamelion. Imagine the multitude nefarious schemes presenting themselves (he talks like this, trust me). So he does what any renegade Time Lord would do: hangs around in 13th century England disguised as a Frenchman, and gets his robot to impersonate King John so he can... make some money? Take over the country? Take over the world? No, that would be silly. He contents himself with bullying a minor nobleman in his castle, and waits for the Doctor to arrive, so he can unmask himself, and let the Doctor get on with defeating him.

The plan, such as it is, is to establish the bad old King John myth, by demanding extra monies from barons, kidnapping wives, and playing aggressive songs on the lute. This will mean that Magna Carta won't get created (erm...) and modern democracy as we know it will not exist (eh?). The Doctor does indeed defeat this, just by nicking the robot and leaving in the TARDIS - but the plan was such bollocks it would likely have imploded on its own anyway.

Watched on DVD, with a few days separating the episodes. This is becoming the norm, rather than devouring a multi-episode story in one go. Either we're getting busier, or it's proving to be the better way to view the show. I think it's the latter; like a fine wine - or, if such is your prejudice, a writhing beached flounder - Doctor Who needs to be allowed to breathe.

First-time round:
It was mid-March 1983, and I caught both episodes on their first BBC1 broadcast - the previous year, my cubs evening had coincided with one of Doctor Who's twice weekly slots, which was particularly hard on two-parters. I'd missed all the roller-coaster thrills (cricket! dancing!) of Black Orchid episode 1 in 1982, but didn't have that impediment with The King's Demons (feasting! a lute! more feasting!). I remember, once the season was over, bridging the gap until The Five Doctors later in the year by drawing my own comic strip adventures of the latest TARDIS team, and finding it hard to think of things for Kamelion to do; little did I know, the producers of Doctor Who were having a similar problem - he'd only be seen once more before being scrapped.

This was the story broadcast nearest to the twentieth anniversary celebration at Longleat House, Doctor Who's Woodstock. Only a couple of weeks after watching The King's Demons, I was with all my family (Dad of 47, Mum of 44, sister of 8) queueing in traffic to get into the venue, then queueing in the venue, then queueing to get out of the venue. Happy days! It still rankles that I missed opportunities to meet Patrick Troughton, to hear Tom Baker speak, or to see episodes of The War Games in a stuffy marquee, because my Mum and sister insisted we had to break off from the fan herd to spend hours schlepping round a stately home and looking at Victorian doll's houses. Bah!

Writer Terence Dudley's remit on Doctor Who at this time comprised two-part tourist trips into school text history. He'd done similar the previous year in Black Orchid: it's set in the 1920s, so there's flappers having a costume ball and drinking cocktails, followed by an Agatha Christie style murder mystery. What more do you want? This time, he gives us the medieval greatest hits: a jester, a feast with a practical roast chicken in scene 1, a joust, etc. etc. It's successfully depicted, and much better integrated than in Black Orchid, whose plot paused for five minutes so people could do the Charleston, but it's still not quite there. Someone else got the two-parter gig the following year, and came up with a new take on the English Civil War, but it might have been interesting to see if Dudley incrementally improved third time round.

So, if you want a high quality depiction of a castle, knights and so forth, you'll be fine if and only if you switch off the part of your brain that analyses plot. For The King's Demons has one of the most rubbish plots in Doctor Who history. The Cybermen have probably topped it in the stupid antagonist plan stakes (there was that one in the funfair, and that other one in the department store), but this is definitely the worst Master plan ever scripted, and the Master's had some doozies in his time. For this, Dudley should be commended for his ambition.

It's not just inconsistencies, but it has those: there's strong hints in the opening TARDIS scene that the Master has deliberately dragged the Doctor and crew to his location, but in the second episode it turns out not to be the case, and the Master's just making the best of a happy accident. Putting aside the lunacy of the script deliberately and unnecessarily creating coincidences, and making the villain's plan more haphazard rather than less, why is the Master in disguise if he's not expecting anyone? The Master's opportunistic ploy is to have his fake king welcome the TARDIS team as demons, bolstering the rumours put about by the monks that John is ungodly. But this means that the Doctor is instantly put in a position of power, by the deliberate action of his arch enemy, assisting him to stop the evil scheme. The script, and the Master, thereafter has to jump through hoops to discredit the Doctor and prove that he, the Master, is instead the demon to be trusted.  But before that the Master was already in place as the King's champion and able to give orders to all and sundry. If the fake King John had just thrown the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough straight into the dungeon as soon as they arrived, none of this would be necessary. The Master truly would get dizzy if he ever tried to walk in a straight line

The two companions have nothing much to do except follow the Doctor around - Turlough gives someone directions to the stables, Tegan moans about the cold. This allows the Doctor to be heroic and drive the action for a change; unfortunately, nothing he does makes much of a difference. He wins a swordfight but the vanquished party just escapes, he frees a knight only for him to be shot with an arrow seconds later. He ultimately saves the day only because he happens to walk past the right door, and finds the shapeshifting robot that's masquerading as the King: a massive helpful clue left unguarded in exactly the same way Kings aren't.

Even if the Doctor hadn't stopped it, would the plan have worked? The Master seems to want to make King John so unpopular that Magna Carta doesn't get signed. I don't know my history in detail, but didn't Magna Carta exist because the King was unpopular, not despite it. Even I, with my small amount of knowledge, know this is a difficult period that's been debated back and forth: was King John a villain, or was he a reformer who ruffled too many feathers with the establishment? Dudley may have been reflecting this to give depth to his narrative, but to go as far as to suggest that the King was in favour of Magna Carta seems to be pushing it. Had any historian ever argued that? It's a matter of record John asked the Pope for Magna Carta to be annulled after he'd signed it. Maybe there was some some time travel cleverness intended in the script: the King John in the Doctor Who universe was different to ours, and the impact of the Master's meddling changed history. But that's a stretch seeing as all the Master's plans were stopped before they got going, and seemed to have minimal impact anyway.

Would Magna Carta not existing really have impacted the creation of modern democracy? Its significance to those later developments was mostly symbolic, and democracy as we know it took root because it was an idea whose time had come. So, all the shenanigans don't amount to much. The script even acknowledges this, calling it 'small time villainy'.

They are both two-part stories where the Doctor wears plimsolls. Both also feature a character that once could regenerate but has used up all their goes (The Master, River Song).

Deeper Thoughts:
A Chaos Theory. It feels a bit like poking a puppy in the eye being so critical of The King's Demons; it's a quota quickie with jousting and swordplay, and aside from its ill-advised dabbling in historical complexity, it makes no claims to present big ideas. There's a line buried in there, though, that's intriguing. Towards the end, the Master explains his ultimate motivation is to "undermine the key civilisations of the universe", and goes on to state that "Chaos will reign, and I shall be its emperor". Now, as a raison d'etre for the Master, that's as good as or better than anything else that's been tried before or since.

Arch villain behaviours in genre fiction are always tricky to explain. It's easy to see why: no one's 100% a villain in real life, even the most divisive figure, the current POTUS say, is hero to some. Anyone could be the villain of one particular story, but it's tough to think of a solid and believable reason why someone would be the villain of every story. The usual criminal motivators of gain or vendetta don't really cut it in the larger-than-life world of comic book capers without some other factor. So, the options are reduced really to two, both of which are side-steps to avoid thinking of a rationale at all: the guy's mad, or he's born bad. Psycho or just evil.

The Master was mostly categorised as the latter in his early days. It was how he came to be created, not emerging organically from any single story, but created as a recurring bad guy - a 'Moriaty' to the Doctor's Holmes, as the production team styled it, even though Moriaty was not really like that. The Master coincidentally is more like Bad Prince John in the Robin Hood mythology - bad for the sake of it, wanting to thwart the hero, with no explanation offered, nor even felt necessary. Barry Letts, the producer who introduced the character, had earmarked his old mucker Roger Delgado for the role, and knew he could make him more three-dimensional than on the page. In the 21st century, the former path has been taken - the character's nuts, driven mad by the sound of drums in his/her head.

What if they'd taken things in the direction hinted at in The King's Demons? The character calmly deciding to spread chaos would have been a refreshing angle, and somewhat believable - this is a Time Lord, after all, who can see the full sweep of cosmic history. It makes sense for entropy to win in the log run, why not help it on its way? As it was, when the Master sees entropy in force, his first thought is to use it as a ham-fisted method of blackmailing the universe, and his attempt to be the Emperor of Chaos didn't get past doing an outrageous fake accent in a draughty castle. It was rapidly back to moustache twirling antics; just another of the many avenues not taken by Doctor Who over the years.

In Summary:
Cheap holiday in other people's history.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

Chapter The 47th, from when a Moffat scripted story was a rarer and more wonderful thing.

A little girl in her normal suburban living room starts having visions that her imaginative fantasy - a planet-sized library containing every book ever written - is real, and has been invaded. The Doctor and Donna are two of these invaders, having come to the library following a call for help on the psychic paper, with a mysterious kiss at the bottom. A team of space archaeologists arrive hot on their heels, led by a Professor River Song, who sent the message; she's met the Doctor loads of times, but he's not met her yet because time travel. They're investigating as 100 years previously something happened in the library, something to do with the shadows. All the people were locked in, but there’s no one inside to be seen, and no bodies. It’s all down to the Vashta Nerada, a carnivorous swarm, which has somehow infested the place. Trying to save the crew, who are getting picked off one by one, and bickering with River who appears to be his wife from the future, the Doctor at least manages to send Donna back to the TARDIS to save her. And it does save her, but not perhaps in the manner he was expecting. To be honest, to say anymore would spoil it, sweetie. If you haven’t seen it before, go and find it and watch it now… Go on, I’ll be waiting here for when you’re done… I mean it, go and watch it – it’s on Netflix for a start off, or Blu-Ray or DVD. Go!

Watched on DVD, with a week separating the viewing of each episode, not because it was planned to recreate the original experience, it just turned out that way. As well as myself and the Better Half, only the middle child (boy, aged 7) watched the whole thing, but his older brother (aged 10) joined us for episode 1. They liked it, but were not as effusive as their Mum and Dad.

First-time round:
I remember being very interested in this one before it was broadcast: there was some puzzle you could do, if I’m remembering correctly, on the official BBC Doctor Who website, which earned one a viewing of a clip. I went ahead and did it, I was that excited to get a glimpse of the new Moffat story. I don’t remember the last time I even visited the official website, let alone stayed long enough to do a puzzle. These days, of course, I’d see the clip online because the first person to do the puzzle would have uploaded it somewhere, and it would appear on one social media feed or other before the official website had even got its boots on.

Puzzles on official websites have almost the same dusty whiff of history about them as VHS tapes or novelisations now, and yet in other ways this story feels recent. Perhaps David Tennant was so popular that he cast a long shadow, as it still seems like he only left a short while ago, but it was eight years, and his last full series, of which the Library story is part, nine years ago. I have to remind myself that when this was first shown, only one out of three of my children existed. Our eldest would have been under two, so I’d imagine there was some time-shifting involved, but we’d have watched each episode later on the same evening of its initial BBC1 broadcast.

This presents the tricky situation for the blog of trying to be measured and calm when I FLIPPIN’ LOVE THIS ONE!!!! It’s definitely a top 5 favourite, and that’s of all Doctor Who, not just of the new series episodes. I will try not to gush too embarrassingly, but it really is very good indeed. I have many reservations about Moffat’s work following this story; but as a writer for hire from 2005 to 2008, he was unsurpassed, melding his take on his showrunner’s emotional approach with intricate and deft plotting. Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead is a little bit messier than, say, Blink or The Girl in the Fireplace, but that’s a good thing: those earlier stories can seem too pat. The Library story is about life - particularly married life, but family life too - and that’s never straightforward.
In the course of two 45 minute episodes, the script manages to marry off its two main characters, the Doctor and Donna, and then effectively kill off their spouses. Then, it has its cake and eats it too, as both those spouses – River Song and Lee McAvoy – don’t really die. A criticism sometimes levelled at Moffat is that none of his Who characters ever really die.  But – and I won’t spoil it – though he survives, what happens to Lee McAvoy in his final brief scene is devastating, to the point where you want to (okay, I did) shout ‘No!’ very loudly at the screen, the first time you see it. This manages to counterbalance the literal fairy tale ending for River Song.
Putting out of one’s mind the future recurring role of Alex Kingston as River, and just concentrating on the character as one-shot concept, it’s very strong. Two romantically involved time travellers who don’t meet in the right order, though not necessarily 100% original – it’s The Time Traveller’s Wife squared – is something Doctor Who had never done before. Making the first meeting for him, the last ever meeting for her, is a wonderfully dark twist. River has to sacrifice herself to save the Doctor, because if it’s the other way round, they will never have a life together. Being in a relationship with someone where you want to be together, but you know one of you has to die first to make it even close to possible: it’s a perfect metaphor for marriage in my book. [But, then, I have a happy marriage; I explained this theory to a fan friend once, and he told he certainly didn’t feel that way… about his first wife; I had to concede the point.]
If you do consider all the future adventures of River Song, it’s remarkably consistent; nothing in the plotting contradicts anything we see in later stories, and there’s a remarkable amount of foreshadowing. I very much doubt Moffat had it all mapped out in 2008, but it’s testament to his attention to detail. It’s also testament to a storming performance by a wonderful actor: Alex Kingston arrives with the character fully formed, and owns it. She manages to have an equal level of chemistry with three very different Doctor actors over the years; that’s not luck, that’s skill.  In fact, there’s many parallels with John Barrowman’s Captain Jack, another recurring character turning up first in a Moffat two-parter, with a well-rounded story life away from the Doctor. It’s a shame the two characters never appeared in the same story.  If it wasn’t for Moffat seeming to have completed River’s arc in his two latest Capaldi Christmas specials, I’d be hoping he has this team-up saved for December 25th this year. Never mind – Big Finish will probably do it (if they haven’t already).
If I had to pick holes, there’s probably too many ideas. Apart from River Song, there’s the Vashta Nerada who provide enough material for a story just on their own - swarms that look like shadows and strip flesh from bone in a nanosecond, shadows that lock on to a victim, counting the shadows as a defence mechanism, people turned into spacesuited skeletons. Then there’s a child plugged into a dreamscape in a massive computer, who becomes a de facto viewer of Doctor Who’s adventures on her TV; the data ghost concept, allowing the catchphrase-tastic repeating of everyone’s dying words over and over; and Doctor Moon, and the nodes with donated faces, and the ‘saving’ of people, including the corruption of Miss Evangelista which gives her a bigger IQ.
This makes episode 1 a bit of bombardment, with idea after idea hitting the viewer. But episode 2 pulls everything together to a breakneck, apocalyptic but emotionally complete conclusion, and contains scene after scene of the most effective dramatic moments ever in Doctor Who.  Far too many to list, but two that I must call out as they showcase what a wonderful actor Catherine Tate is: the gut wrenching, horrific scene where her two ‘children’ disappear, and she claws at their bedding in desperation, and the last scene between Donna and Lee as they slip further and further away from each other, disappearing into the white void: “Am I real?” “Of course you’re real…I know you’re real… oh God, I hope you’re real.” All accompanied by the best single music cue Murray Gold ever wrote.

You can't get much better a connection than a story in a museum followed by a story in a library, and I didn't cheat either, completely random.

Deeper Thoughts:
Play Some Old! I said above that I was very excited in advance of this story’s original broadcast. Steven Moffat at the time was reserved one slot of the year, and annually delivered a cracker: The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink; each one built on the last in terms of crowd-pleasing scripting, and the productions were getting more sophisticated too. A lot of people at the time, at least online, thought the Library episodes were a slight disappointment, but only because a very high standard had been set. Then, before anyone had too much time to dwell on that, Moffat was taking over as showrunner, and would be delivering much more than one script a year; how could it fail to be utterly brilliant? Hmm.

We are now fast approaching the time when there will be no more Moffat Doctor Who scripts. I don’t think he’ll be tempted back to do any more once he’s delivered Capaldi’s Xmas swansong. Russell T Davies set a precedent of not writing for the show again once he’d vacated the boss role, which Moffat will probably emulate; plus, Steven will have delivered a lot more than Russell by the time he types his last INT. TARDIS. DAY. He’s done his duty. It’s doubtful that his work on the show as a whole will be thought of as well as those first four stories written for someone else’s production. As showrunner, he’s come in for a lot of flak, at least online, just as RTD did before him. Doctor Who is an extensive canon, and baked into its format is variety. No one likes it all, not even its biggest fans; often, the bits that were broadcast a while ago are said to better than the stuff being broadcast right now. This didn’t start with the World Wide Web. John Nathan Turner, producer in the 1980s, faced horrible levels of “it ain’t what it used to be” hostility. This didn’t even start with mass organised fandom; as was mentioned in my post about The Deadly Assassin, even at their start, the fan organisations were already used to the sharpening of knives.

This is common in all walks: every band who ever made more than one record is plagued by the cliché that the new material isn’t as good as ‘the early stuff’. But it sometimes seems that Doctor Who attracts more than its fair share of ire. Amusingly, someone recently tweeted a newspaper review complaining that the quality of Doctor Who had dipped. It was published during the broadcast of An Unearthly Child, the very first story in 1963. They didn’t even wait for the first whole story to be finished before they got stuck in to Verity Lambert’s work. So, Steven Moffat is in august company.

Not that it matters much anyway, but all this matters even less for Moffat, I think. If, heaven forfend, his obituary came to be written next year, I suspect it would describe him as “Sherlock and Doctor Who writer” in that order. Sherlock is the flashier show, with a fervent international fanbase, and two movie star leads; plus, Doctor Who, though his admirers and detractors alike will admit he’s made it his own during his tenure, does not belong to Moffat alone. Good luck to him in his future endeavours, but it’s hard to see how he will knock Sherlock from the top of his list. And that despite the later episodes being definitely not as good as the early ones – don’t get me started, blah, blah, blah …

In Summary:
DONNA: Is "all right" special Time Lord code for... "really really good, near peerless, best the show has ever managed, utterly utterly marvellous"?


DONNA: Cos Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead is all right.