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.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Space Museum

Chapter The 46th, where the author can't resist suggesting that Doctor Who has been grabbed by the Moroks. And it's painful.

Something goes wrong with the TARDIS causing it to  'jump a time track'. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki sort-of arrive (and sort of don't) in a space museum on the planet Xeros. They don't leave any footprints, no one can hear or see them, and they can pass through solid objects. Turning a corner, they are faced with an exhibit of their own embalmed selves, lined up in a display case, staring back at them. Time catches up, the cases vanish, and they can suddenly be seen and heard again. After that, they all spend an interminable time discussing what they should do to avoid this seemingly predestined fate. It turns out that they just need to do the usual: wander some corridors, get split up, and free the oppressed natives from some invading overlords, the Moroks. The twist is that the bad guys are so rubbish they're quite endearing; and the good guys are even worse. At the end, the Doctor explains that what happened to crack the space time continuum like an egg and scare the bejesus out of everyone was that a component of the TARDIS  incorrectly acted like a dimmer switch. Really, he does; that's the explanation. Go and look, if you don't believe me.

This one was surprisingly popular with the two youngest members of the family (boy of 7, girl of 4) who watched the DVD with me and the Better Half over four consecutive evenings. They got bored by The Deadly Assassin, one of the well-thought-of 'classics', but this - supposedly one of the all time duffers, at least for three quarters of its running time - they adored. They are hard to predict.

First-time round:
Sometimes it seems like the BBC lost all the great stories, and kept all the rubbish ones. Not true, of course, and more to do with familiarity breeding contempt: the ones we can't see seem better than the ones that we can, in all their trying-their best-but-can-only-really-have-one-take-per-scene, line fluffing, dodgy camerawork glory. If the visuals for The Space Museum didn't exist it may well have been better appreciated. Even now, a lot of people think that the first episode is one of the all time best (I'm not so sure, but more on that anon). The popular reading being that episode 1 is an original, weird and atmospheric creep-out, followed by three humdrum episodes of cheap bare sets where some actors with funny stick-on eyebrows fight one another.

The story proceeding it, The Crusade, for a long time had only one surviving episode in the archives, and has always been loved more. In the late 1990s another episode turned up, and they rushed out both these two quarters of The Crusade on VHS in July 1999. With half the story missing, including the ending, BBC Worldwide obviously worried they'd need to throw in a sweetener or two. So, as part of the package they gave us punters a keyring, and all four episodes of The Space Museum: possibly, some of the buyers appreciated the keyring most out of these two extras.

Deep breath, and I'll say my first heresy: episode 1 isn't that great. Second deep breath, and second heresy: episodes 2-4 aren't that bad. The introduction is original and weird, particularly towards the end of the episode where there is an unsettling montage of which Eisenstein would be proud. It struggles to be atmospheric, though. The regulars wander round the same cheap bare sets used in the rest of the story (incidentally, why don't the Moroks put any directions or exit signs in their museum, the crazy fools?). These sets echo and clunk in the silence necessitated by the story decision that there'll be no background noise, which sucks the energy out of everything. There's not much drama either: it's hard to depict a struggle with an abstract idea like predestination. Whereas, as inept as the Moroks are, when they 'arrive' it suddenly opens up the story possibilities of interpersonal dialogue and conflict, and they consequently lift proceedings. The Doctor's sparring with Lobos in particular is a joy, and there are other wonderful moments scattered throughout.

The Doctor and Lobos aren't in the same scene until a good chunk of episode two is over, admittedly, and before that there is some terrible material where Lobos vomits exposition over everything. Ostensibly talking to a minion, he's really filling in the audience on everything from the political background to his personal ennui to the length of a Xeron day in Morok time. It's so bad, it seems deliberate: at least one commentator has previously posited that The Space Museum is intended as a comedy pastiche of science fiction, but if that's the case the director didn't realise. It's not unintentional that the Moroks are rubbish, that is clearly stated in the script: this is a once mighty warrior race that now has given up even dwelling nostalgically on its past victories (including a defeat of the Daleks, if we can believe one of their exhibits). There's also a prominent reference to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As such, the rebels rising up against oppressors plot is given just as original a twist as the flashier sci-fi gubbins, if only it had been treated a little bit more sympathetically by the makers.

As good as both of the two plots could be, they don't gel. At the end, in a forerunner of the approach taken in Christopher Eccleston's season, our heroes save the day not because of their direct action, but by their influence on the guest cast, the Xerons. Just when it all looks bleak, the future they've witnessed is averted because they've inspired the Xerons to rise up. But exactly what has the Morok / Xeron plot got to do thematically with avoiding predestination in a museum? Maybe the parallel is that the Xerons have taken action and avoided their terrible fate too, but if so it's easy to miss - this might have been the point the script should have got more heavy-handed to hammer it home. The other issue is that the Xerons are so wet that Vicki basically has to take control of them to get them to do anything productive; she's far more dictatorial to them than any Morok.

Honourable menshes go to the Doctor's Dalek impression, and his glee at outwitting his captors only to be immediately captured by someone else; Peter Diamond's dim guard; Barbara and Ian's comedy bitching about his proposal to unravel her good cardigan; Barbara and Ian generally (the characters are so doing it by this point); and, unless I'm mistaken, the first ever scene in Doctor Who where a character reprograms a troublesome computer, written by someone who doesn't really understand computers or programming (it would not be the last one of those). 

Both The Space Museum and The Deadly Assassin contain a glimpse of the future in episode 1 which the protagonist(s) then try to avert; there's a big fight in episode 3 of both stories (Ian getting handy, the Doctor in the Matrix), and both lamentably contain zero female guest cast members. Finally (and get this, Jan Vincent-Rudzki), The Space Musuem sets a perfect precedent for the doddery old Time Lords seen in the The Deadly Assassin, with Gallifrey's own Doctor Who complaining about his rheumatism.

Deeper Thoughts:
Revolution, Doctor Number 1. Whether intended as a parody or just a tired retread, The Space Museum's script for episodes 2 to 4 assumes the archetypal plot of a Doctor Who story is one where our heroes help some rebels to overthrow their cruel invading masters; but it's only the 15th Doctor Who story there ever was, and that type of plot's only been done once or twice before by this point. In 1965, every week was a new experiment. There was no need to get generic quite so quickly, but clearly habits were already forming that would harden into formulae in time. Maybe it's not just Doctor Who, but all science fiction adventure that's felt to conform to this template. The rebels all wear black like beatnik student existentialists - it's nothing if not a crude depiction. But is it possible to ever do a revolutionary plotline with any  kind of sophistication?

As we know from history, and as we know from the daily news, revolutions are messy: they very rarely fall into two acts, the only span likely to be afforded by a Doctor Who story. In act 1, the Doctor arrives into a world where a cruel regime has taken over; either this is an internal faction that's become morally bankrupt and oppressive (The Daleks and The Savages would be examples of this type) or more often, it's an invading force from without (The Dalek Invasion of Earth and dozens of other stories thereafter). In Act 2, the Doctor catalyses rebellion, the oppressors are overthrown; and the Doctor then leaves. Just when it's getting interesting. For we know from that history and that news, that Act 3 is the real killer: the overthrown can come back harder, and those doing the overthrowing can become oppressive themselves. Plus, the antagonists in these stories have to be cartoonishly simplistic bad guys to avoid the Doctor and his friend's actions seeming like, well, terrorism. In The Space Museum, Vicki sabotages public property, leads a raid on an ammunition store, and organises an armed attack. If that ain't terrorism, it's getting very close to it.

Doctor Who has only ever occasionally and lightly touched on the more complex aspects of insurrection. In Bad Wolf, in the still experimental Christopher Eccleston series, for example, the Doctor gets to visit the scene of a previous liberation 100 years on, only to find he's made things much worse. Perhaps the most interesting case was never a story at all, just an anecdote an actor often told: Peter Purves, who played Steven later in the still experimental William Hartnell era (in fact, debuting in the story immediately following The Space Museum), came to leave in the aforementioned The Savages, becoming the ruler and calming influence of a planet previously wracked by internecine strife. Purves often claimed he'd have like to have seen a story where the Doctor returns a few years later to find that Steven had become the most awful and ruthless dictator. Even though this was only a joke, or an attempt to secure himself a juicy future guest role, don't you wish they'd done it? 

In Summary:
It's still approximately one part excellent to three parts duff, but all mixed together throughout.

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Deadly Assassin

Chapter The 45th, where the reader finds out what has happened to the magic of Doctor Who.

Just before arriving home after being recalled to Gallifrey, the Doctor has a premonition of the Time Lord President being assassinated. Due to an unsanctioned landing, he's taken for a criminal, and is pursued around the Capitol by slightly rubbish guards. Presumably because he hasn't ever had time to watch The Manchurian Candidate or The Parallax View, the Doctor falls for the old 'tempt the patsy into trying to avert the assassination, thereby putting themselves in the frame' ploy, and he is arrested and hastily tried. He avoids being vaporized only by cunningly putting himself forward as a candidate for the now open presidency. This gives him 48 hours to investigate, and - with help from cuddly old Time Lord double-act Castellan Spandrell and Coordinator Engin - he soon discovers his old foe the Master is behind all this.

Part of the Master's devious plan involves connecting a living Time Lord's brain to the Gallifreyan supercomputer cum morgue, the Matrix, in order to create the Doctor's premonition in the first place. The Doctor connects himself likewise and a vicious game of cat and mouse ensues between the Doctor and the Master's accomplice within the dreamscape. This is all a distraction, though, as the Master's real plan is to access the Eye of Harmony, a power source on Gallifrey, to help him extend his life as he's used up all of his regenerations. In order to do this, he needs the sash that the president normally wears, but he couldn't just nick the sash. He had to do the convoluted plan with the assassination and the Matrix and framing of the Doctor because he couldn't just nick the sash. He really couldn't just have nicked the sash. Really he couldn't.

Watched the whole story on one Sunday on DVD. The whole of the family were around for episode 1, but drifted off during or after it. Only my eldest (boy, aged 10) wanted to watch all four episodes. I asked him why he was much more enthusiastic than normal, and he said the answer was "Tom Baker".There have been a few of Tom Baker's he's not been so fussed about, though, so I think it's more that this story is aimed at the slightly older child. There's lots of political subtext and satire to enjoy as an adult too.

First-time round:
This story was on the same pirated tape as The Curse of Peladon, which I mentioned in a blog post earlier this year, loaned to me by my long-term fan friend David. Just like that older story, with it's beginning in a slightly stretched aspect ratio making everything look like a Hammer movie, the first few minutes of The Deadly Assassin also made me wonder what I was watching. Voice-over? A scrolling text intro accompanied by doom-laded music? No companion? Trippy camera movements and acting, with the Doctor having a weird vision? This was the early 1990s, so I'd have seen the wooden TARDIS console already in The Robots of Death, so at least that didn't take me by surprise. But it did feel like a very different show. It also presents something of a personal mystery. I am as sure as I can be that this was my first glimpse of The Deadly Assassin, but the sell-through VHS came out in October 1991 when I'd only just started university at Durham, and only just met David; the earliest I'd have been borrowing stories would have been at the first long vac in December, two months after that. Is it possible I managed to hold off from buying the official BBC product for more than two months? I was a penniless fresher, so I guess so.

The Deadly Assassin is a game of four quarters. It's structured even more tightly than normal for this period into four roughly 25 minute chunks, each focusing on a new movement of the story: the build up to the assassination in episode 1, the trial and the investigation in episode 2, the hunt in the Matrix for all of episode 3, and the confrontation between the Doctor and the Master in the final episode. This has its pros and cons: the first episode is flawless; very like the first episode of The Daemons, which coincidentally also uses a fictional live media recording to add texture to proceedings, the whole 25 minutes is focused on stopping one event - the shooting of the president, the opening of the barrow - meaning an acceleration and build of tension through to the end, where in both instances the Doctor just fails to avoid the inevitable. Roll credits. Lovely.

Episode 3 just about manages to persuade us that we're watching the same show as the previous weeks, with a few cutaways to Gallifrey. But the false ending very early on in episode 4 doesn't convince. We know from the running time that it's not all over, so there's a bit of water treading there, albeit water treading with marvellous dialogue. Generally, though, the show flows well enough to not seem like four different things stuck together. The other structural experiment of having the Doctor without a companion is less successful. Inevitably, he ends up talking to himself. It occurred to me with a smile on this viewing that he could be addressing all the initial scenes of episode 1 to the TARDIS herself (he explicitly speaks to her at least once); but in the Matrix jungle there's no excuse. It was an experiment worth trying, though, and this type of conspiracy theory plot would not have worked so well if the Doctor had been accompanied by an ally.

It's rare for Doctor Who of this period to take such contemporary and muscular movies for inspiration as it does here. Throughout the previous year, 1930s Universal horror movies were used as imaginative jumping off points, with maybe a dash of Hammer too. But the kind of U.S. political conspiracy theory flicks that influenced The Deadly Assassin were something new. Maybe this is the reason why things get a bit more violent, with all sorts of nasties - fisticuffs, blood, poisoned wounds, attempted drowning  - appearing in the matrix scenes. It dances towards and maybe occasionally over the line, but my eldest didn't bat an eyelid, and the hoo-hah at the time (with Mary Whitehouse managing to get a few seconds of episode 3 censored for all repeat viewings) was somewhat overblown.

It's probably a coincidence that the makers of the 1999 film called their exactly-the-same network of minds connected to a dreamscape 'The Matrix', but if the Wachowskis were channelling some half-remembered PBS show from their childhood, they couldn't have chosen a better inspiration: this story is slick and exciting, and has some great humour throughout (I love the outline of the dead president at the scene of crime that includes his mad Time Lord collar / headdress), but without a companion it suffers a bit from a lack of heart. It's a little cold in the Capitol. 

In both stories the Doctor is chained up, and a soldier with a horse features (Strax and his edible colleague in The Crimson Horror, a scary matrix hallucination in the Deadly Assassin). The two stories are polar opposites in one regard, however; the Matt Smith penny dreadful managed to feature many great female roles, but there is not one woman on screen anywhere in The Deadly Assassin, and the only female cast member is a voice artist playing a computer read-out. For shame.

Deeper Thoughts:
All assassins are not necessarily deadly. What about rubbish ones? The real controversy of The Deadly Assassin concerns all the continuity bombs that the writer Robert Holmes deployed, smashing up and then restructuring the key concepts that the show had put in place over its recent history. What began as the peripatetic adventures of a mystery chap, could only sustain for so long; after six years, at the end of Pat Troughton's reign, some explanations were finally given about The Doctor and his people, the Time Lords, and the foundations were put in place. In the years after that, occasional stories built on it, and by 1976 something of an established mythology was there. In four episodes, Holmes tore it all down, and the fans of the time went mad. Founder of the recently formed Doctor Who Appreciation Society, Jan Vincent-Rudzki, published a rant of a review criticising everything from its title onwards, culminating in the all caps rhetoric "WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?"

The mythology of the Time Lords wasn't all that strong an edifice beforehand, though, and bits were already mildly contradictory. I doubt Robert Holmes was meaning to bait anyone either (except Mary Whitehouse perhaps). Everything he changes, he changes for a reason: he makes the Master a charred mess to enable recasting without drawing too many comparisons to Roger Delgado, the only actor to play the role up to that point. He creates a limit for the number of regenerations to give the Master a motivation for his schemes (thought Holmes should know he doesn't really need one, he's just bonkers) or just possibly to gloss over the President's getting shot and not regenerating. He introduces the Matrix to give him his episode 3 'dog-leg' as he called it, taking the story off in a new direction. The Time Lords are reduced from being the all-powerful super beings they were before, because otherwise there's no possibility for drama. With just a few seconds thought, anyone can see that there is just no story you can tell about a group of all-powerful super beings. They wouldn't need to elect presidents, they wouldn't need to change presidents, they wouldn't need to have a president, or even a society.

Holmes is still being true to the spirit of the established nature of the Time Lords. They are meant to be crushing bores that the Doctor couldn't wait to get away from, and they're exactly that in The Deadly Assassin. It's just that Holmes can get a lot more mileage out of depicting their society as fusty and bureaucratic rather than Olympian and detached, while leaving the essential truth of their relationship to the Doctor unchanged. Why I take against all this, though, is almost the direct opposite reason to why the fans of the time did. Holmes builds his edifice too well, and after The Deadly Assassin, the template of Doctor Who's mythology becomes set. A foolish consistency took hold, and the paraphernalia grew out of Assassin - with its Castellans and Eyes of Harmony and silly collar / headdresses - which slowly choked the fun out of the programme for years to come. This wasn't Holmes' fault, mind. After him, no one dared again to repeat his feat of creative destruction. And why would they, given the reception it got from the so-called fans of the programme? The tragedy of Jan Vincent-Rudzki's complaints, and of the growing influence of organised fan groups like his through the rest of the 70s and 80s was that -  because it became impossible to be so cavalier with continuity again - the Time Lords were thereafter fixed as the version he hated.

In Summary:
A non-companion piece.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Crimson Horror

Chapter The 44th, which finds that the North is big on local colour.

The - I can barely bring myself to type it - Paternoster Gang (ugh) are called in to investigate a mystery in the North of England, where bright red corpses are turning up in t' canal. This seems to be connected to a local gated community called Sweetville run by a larger-than-life villain straight out of The Avengers, Winifred Gillyflower. She is symbiotically linked to a Jurassic grub who's become outsized due to industrial pollution. Hey, that's just like the giant maggots in that other story, and weren't people going a funny colour in that one too? Probably just a coincidence. Anyway, they find out that the Doctor and Clara have also been investigating Gillyflower, and all of them team up and sort it out. Vastra, Strax and Jenny are confused because they thought Clara was already dead, but seen out of context that story arc is dull and unimportant. Come to think of it, it seemed dull and unimportant when seen in context too.

Rather than wait ages for the family to come around to the idea of viewing it, I watched this one on my own. But I still had a couple of false starts: for some reason, the introductory scene with its sub-Hovis ad depiction of the Victorian north was off-putting, and I ended up pausing it a few times and watching something else instead.

First-time round:
The usual drill in 2013 was to watch the episode time-shifted after its first BBC1 Saturday broadcast. I couldn't recall much about watching this one, but then I remembered I'd experimented with keeping a journal that year. After ferreting around some boxed up stuff in the garage and locating said journal, I discovered I'd written... nothing. On the evening of the broadcast, the Better Half and I were visiting my old friend Phil (mentioned before on this blog) for his 40th birthday party, and the entry for the Sunday dwelt mostly on my hangover, not any TV I'd caught up on. A brief peruse brought to light that none of the eight episodes of series 7 shown in this period merited inclusion in my journal. This is more to do with my reaction to the episodes themselves than any reflection of a busy social life (Joe Orton referenced Doctor Who twice in his diaries, and he was definitely out and about more than I was). I remember enjoying this one a bit more than those episodes surrounding it, at least up to the coda: adding annoying kids never makes any drama better, and when would anyone have had a chance to take those photos the kids found, with which they wanted to blackmail Clara, let alone upload them to the internet?

It's not quite a full-on comedy, but The Crimson Horror comes very close. Not all the gags are belters, some should have never been attempted (I'm looking at you, Thomas Thomas), but there's enough of them to keep the romp romping to the end. Dame Diana Rigg relishes the chance to play it 'large' and is wickedly good at comedy, but she's just one of a great cast, all of whom get the tone of their performance right. Graham Turner nearly steals the show with Amos the morgue attendant. Mark Gatiss mines the setting for laughs too, taking affectionate pot shots in the vague direction of his natal patch just as Steven Moffat has often ripped into Scotland, and Russell T Davies did for Wales.

Aside from the refreshing change of setting, and the knockabout comic tone, the other unique selling point of The Crimson Horror is the structure. The beginning 20 minutes uses a different POV than the Doctor or his companion's to tell the story. Madame Vastra and Co. slowly uncover the prior involvement of the Doctor and Clara. It's a shame that they abandon this rather than see it through to the end, but the changeover is fun: the Doctor, instantly back to normal in comic defiance of all logic, fills in his story so far for Jenny, and for the audience the flashbacks appear as if viewed on a kinetoscope. But then it's back to business as usual with his taking the lead.

The three recurring characters already feel like old friends, even though they've only appeared twice before. In fact, if anything, they're feeling over familiar, with Strax's various requests for deployment of absurd weaponry already a bit samey. But the scene of him acting like a little boy, getting overexcited and then being told off, is hilarious. Jenny gets a bit more to do than before. There are however a couple of moments of sexism, with Matt Smith's Doctor uncharacteristically lusting after her, despite her sporting the least sexy leather gear ever. It's not appropriate, and it's not funny.

There are some wonderfully over the top concepts: Mister Sweet is a glorious concoction, and his backstory neatly ties in to Vastra and the Earth 65 million years ago. There's some great imagery like the giant gramophones blasting out industrial noises in an empty factory, or the racks of people being dipped into the red goo. A fun 45 minutes, then, but it doesn't leave much of an impression once it's finished.

A Victorian setting: The Crimson Horror is set in 1893, ten years after Ghost Light. The main villain in both stories puts people into suspended animation, and both are motivated by a misguided desire for a better world. There's non-speaking monsters in both stories that don't do a whole lot, and a scene where a prisoner has a meal delivered through a slot at the base of their cell door.

Deeper Thoughts: 
"Do not discuss my reproductive cycle in front of enemy girls!". Should the Doctor regenerate into a woman next go around? It might be the right time, even if only to silence the many many interviews, articles and think-pieces that inevitably are being churned out on this subject every time the role is being recast as it is now. The chatter, which started as a joke from Tom Baker in the press conference when he threw in the scarf, has built up exponentially as Doctor after Doctor has handed in his notice. Added to this, the show has prominently featured two male-to-female regenerations of recurring characters in the last couple of years; the production team have gone young, and gone old, they've offered the role to a black actor even though unfortunately that didn't work out. A tipping point has been reached: there would be more uproar if Chris Chibnall casts another white male to replace Peter Capaldi than there would be from the more conservative fans if he were to cast a woman.

Why all this is an talking point specifically for the role of the Doctor is an interesting question: no one is clamouring for a female Bond, or for Tilda Swinton to take over from Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. Why do commentators look to Doctor Who to redress some gender imbalance? It's not as if the show has had an exemplary history of finding good roles for women. The Crimson Horror is an exception in having more females roles than male in its main cast, all of them strong, and a good mix of goodies and baddies, regular and guest roles. But huge swathes of stories in Doctor Who's history contain but one woman in four or more episodes (and that's the actress whom they had to use, as she was contracted to play the companion). I suppose that the part of the Doctor is unusual in that it regularly changes hands (though it doesn't have to be as regular as every three years, grumble, grumble) and the lead actor is expected to bring a lot of themselves, and their own individual take, to the role. This makes it more like, say, casting one of the big Shakespearean parts. Glenda Jackson can and did play King Lear without causing Bard fans to melt down online.

But Glenda Jackson still worked with the original text, so was still playing Lear as a man, a father and a patriarch. I doubt it would please anyone for the Doctor to still be a man but just performed by a woman. The Doctor's sex doesn't often arise, though, despite the joke in The Crimson Horror about his screwdriver a-rising: he's not overtly sexual, he's not overtly macho. If you are making it a story point that the character has converted from male to female, do you make it necessary to comment however obliquely on the mechanics of the situation? That's a careful line to tread: it would be ghastly to have the Doctor acting in surprise upon rediscovering her tits every five minutes (and I wouldn't put such a thing past either Moffat or Chibnall based on some of their past work). But suppress the biology too far the other way, and you're back to Glenda as Lear.  Is there much point in that, other than to be able to cast a great female actor? And there's already plenty of opportunities to create work for great female actors in all the other roles being created in every Doctor Who story every week, and those opportunities are arguably not being taken up enough by the writers as it is.

I have checked my cis prejudice, by the way: I am aware that gender is not merely binary, and that there are worlds of reverberating story possibility opened up by having a significant story event take place involving a change of gender. I just don't necessarily think that such a story would be compatible with Doctor Who's format - it would be hard not to cheapen it by grafting on the alien invasion bits. But, I'm willing to be surprised, so will keep an open mind.

In Summary:
Like the Horror itself, this story is bright enough, but only skin deep.