Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Enemy of the World

Chapter The 83rd, populist would-be dictators squabble for power in a tale set in 2018: surely some mistake...

Plot: 
The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria land on a chilly beach in Littlehampton, Australia, and are attacked by a group of people who mistake the Doctor for someone else. The TARDIS crew then get rescued by Astrid, an Avenger (the Steed and Peel kind rather than the Ant Man kind), and brought to meet a suspicious character called Giles Kent. Kent and Astrid explain that the Doctor is the dead spit of Salamander, who runs a research centre that controls weather to help crops or some such. They think Salamander is positioning himself as world ruler by causing earthquakes and other natural disasters to undermine other powers. They want the Doctor to take Salamander's place, but the Doctor - concerned that he's being manipulated - demands evidence. So, Jamie, Victoria and Astrid infiltrate Salamander's staff during his visit to Europe. They find out he is planning to kill the European leader, but Jamie and Victoria get found out, and the assassination takes place successfully.

The Doctor has no choice but to impersonate Salamander to rescue his friends from the research centre back in Australia where they've been taken. There, it is revealed that Salamander has kept a group of people underground who think a nuclear war is raging above. It is these people who are creating the natural disasters, under Salamander's instruction, to fight back against the supposed warmongers above. Astrid and the Doctor rescue (most of) these underground dwellers, who reveal that Giles Kent was involved with Salamander at the very beginning and helped trick them. Kent is killed, but Salamander very nearly tricks Jamie and Victoria into believing he's the Doctor. Luckily, the real one arrives in time, and the two lookalikes tussle as the TARDIS takes off...

Context:
Random selection has been momentarily suspended to take in a new DVD release. The Enemy of the World came out towards the end of March this year in special edition with better restoration and new extras. Myself and the Better Half watched the story, an episode a night over the course of a week, on a laptop in bed just before turning in. This meant that I saw nothing of the improved picture quality, but never mind - I'm sure I'll watch it again on a proper screen soon. When the bare bones release of the DVD came out in November 2013, the Better Half can't have watched beyond the first few episodes, as everything from the reveal of the underground group in their kimono-style PJs was new to her. 

First-time round:
The third episode, the only one known to exist for many years, was first made commercially available on The Hartnell Years, one of the piss-poor VHS compendiums made by John Nathan-Turner in the early 1990s as a showcase for orphaned episodes. In fact, scratch that: for what they intended to do - give John Nathan-Turner a chance to produce something for an appreciative audience again - the Years tapes were perfect, and the audience (including yours truly) did appreciate them. The episodes within, though, being used as fodder for the showbizzy appreciation of an actor rather than for any more story-based purpose, were deprived of context. Not being familiar with the plot of Enemy, I imagined after multiple rewatches of episode 3 that it was about the comic adventures of Jamie and Victoria alongside Griffin the Chef.

I was very surprised when finally experiencing the whole story that Griffin and his cooking and whinging don't appear anywhere else; the third episode as a whole is atypical, padded as it is with this lighter material. This revelation would have come early in the 2000s, when the narrated audio version came out. But more surprises were to come: in Autumn 2013, a rumour murmured around online that a significant number of previously lost Doctor Who episodes had been discovered; things got inflated in the whispered retelling such that some people thought every episode was going to be returned. When it was eventually announced officially, it was nine episodes that had been found: still a monumental haul, but a disappointment after the madness. Some people are still convinced the rest are being held back for slow release bit by bit over the years, but it's been nearly five years now, so they're likely to be wrong about that.

Anyway, five of the returned episodes were the missing ones from Enemy, completing the story; the others were four of the five missing episodes of the following story The Web of Fear, and both stories were released on itunes at midnight of a day early in November 2013. I stayed up, even though I had work the next day as I remember, and was faced with all the quandaries that wouldn't occur to normal people: do I watch Web first, even though that's out of order, because it's the better serial? And if I do, do I skip episode 1, as it had existed in the archives for ages and I'd seen it loads of times? If I do watch Enemy first, do I skip episode 3, depriving myself of the whole experience, but skipping the most boring episode, which had also existed in the archives for ages and which I'd seen loads of times? I finally decided on the sort of compromise that would please nobody and will make anyone reading this think I'm crazy: I watched episode 1 and 2 of Enemy, then episode 2 of Web, then went to bed, and watched everything again from the start the following day.

Reaction:
I can't help but think that at some point during rehearsals for this story, the recently and sadly departed Debbie Watling turned to Frazer Hines and whispered to him of Patrick Troughton's Mexican accent for Salamander "He's not doing that voice in the real thing, is he?!". In fact, I'm convinced it must have happened to the extent that I'm wondering if it's a real interview with her that I'm half-remembering (a quick Google has not found anything). If it didn't happen, it should have. Troughton was one of the best character actors on TV at the time, but he's manifestly hamming it up as his naughty alter-ego. An outrageously accented take of "But we wouldn't wanna put it to the test, eh?" has become a catchphrase for both me and the Better Half, trying to make the other laugh, since watching the DVD. The Trout clearly wasn't in any hurry to seriously show off his range, but he must have been desperate to have some fun. And, to be fair, it's pretty fun for those of us watching too.

The loss of the story's episodes for so many years has had the opposite effect that it did to a story like Tomb of the Cybermen. That story, wholly missing until 1992, was lauded during its absence as a masterpiece; once recovered, it couldn't ever quite live up to is reputation. Enemy, on the other hand, was perhaps unjustly dismissed while it was mostly gone, based on the remaining episode being largely padding, and based on the story being an oddity from its inception - a sci-fi spy story in a year of monster mashes. Such low expectations meant it couldn't do anything but impress once brought back into the light, and dodgy accents could happily be overlooked. It doesn't ever reach soaring heights, but it's solid: every episode - even the third when seen in context - is a ripping good yarn, furthering the overall story with some nice moments and characters.

Some commentators have called it pseudo science fiction - i.e. a sci-fi veneer on top of the court intrigue, food taster and all, of a historical Doctor Who plot (a type of story that writer David Whitaker had experience with, but which had fallen out of favour by this period of Doctor Who's production). But this is a misunderstanding of how both Doctor Who and stories work. Historical or present day or alien planet, these are locales rather than genres. Even science fiction is a supra-genre, and doesn't dictate any story structure for the tales told within it. The Enemy of the World, with lip service paid to the sort of weather control technology that fixated the writers throughout the latter years of the 1960s, is arguably more science fiction than quite a few of the other tales from this season, whose baddies may as well be supernatural for all the difference it makes to the adventure runarounds of which they were part. This pseudo science fiction theory is just more baggage from the period when Enemy was lost and unloved.

With gunfights, hovercrafts and exploding helicopters within the first few minutes, it out-Pertwees a lot of Jon Pertwee stories; the link is of course Barry Letts, producer for most of Pertwee's era, and directing his first ever Doctor Who story here. He was pushing the envelope with what could be done in the studio: the scene with back projection to grant verisimilitude to an interior version of a park, for example, foreshadows his intensive use of green-screen backdrops in the colour era. Letts has expressed frustration with the Enemy scripts over the years since this Who debut, but I think that mostly stemmed from their being very late coming in, which necessitated a lot of on-the-fly work to keep the production in shape.

The content itself is politically and emotionally literate, with opportunities for all the cast to shine, particularly the major female guest characters, Astrid and Fariah. This came a little at the expense of the companion regulars, particularly in the later episodes. Mary Peach, a very big name at the time, was cast as Astrid before the final episodes - which initially omitted her character - were written. When she was reinstated, she presumably took action that Jamie and Victoria would have had; this, plus their absence on holiday for episode 4, means all they get to do of note is joke about in a kitchen. They do better, though, than poor Colin and Mary, the weak links of the guest cast. There's some problems with their scripting, but it's mainly down to the performances, which are one-note and flat. It is isn't therefore much of a problem to the audience that their fate is so abrupt and unclear: there's a brief, inconclusive insert of them in the blow-up at the end, but thereafter no other shots, and nobody mentions them again either to celebrate or to grieve. 

Connectivity: 
Both The Enemy of the World and Rose feature a secret underground base and a sympathetic character with a secret file who gets killed partway through (Fariah, Clive). At a push, they also both include a doppelgänger character, though one is made of plastic rather than made of massive coincidence.

Deeper Thoughts:
Collector Mania. I was a bit surprised to see a special edition version of the Enemy of the World DVD come out at all. When this blog started in Spring 2015, the classic Who DVD range seemed near death, with only one extant episode remaining in the archives unreleased on shiny disc; the team that had restored the episodes and created extras for the discs (including the story with that final ep, The Underwater Menace) had disbanded and moved on to other things. When the Underwater Menace DVD was finally for sale, I assumed  - and went on at length bemoaning the fact - that this was the end of my 30 years collecting Doctor Who in audiovisual form. I think I did protest too much. In the end, the two animation-assisted classic Who stories, Power of the Daleks and Shada, which came out once a year after that point, reignited the range. Not only is there this special edition of Enemy, including new extras worked on by that restored old team that they didn't have time for when it was first released, they're also upscaling a whole season (Tom Baker's first) for release later in the year as a box-set on Blu-Ray.

There's only Doctor Who story broadcast before 2009 that can be released at true Blu-Ray quality, and that's Spearhead from Space (as it was recorded wholly on 16mm film, which contains enough picture information for high definition). I bought that one. Everything else, though it will look a bit better than DVD, hasn't seemed worth my buying again thus far. I have resisted purchasing the Paul McGann TV movie, and any of the four early post-2005 series when re-released on Blu. But, am I kidding myself that these decisions are being made in any rational way? I was similarly dismissive of the Tom Baker box-set until I saw that it included the full version of the Tom Baker Years tape from the early 1990s - you know, his entry in the range which I described as "piss-poor" above - then I had to have it and promptly pre-ordered. Old episodes without much quality improvement is one thing, but if they're accompanied by naff but nostalgic extras, I'm onboard. It's not exactly a rational internal bargaining process I'm undergoing, but it's not 100% obsessive compulsive either.

Do I sometimes have pangs of angst that I don't own that Paul McGann TV movie Blu-Ray? Of course. Does my heart sink a little at having to wade through a season of Doctor Who in yet another medium plus all those extras, and pay for the privilege? Yes. Will I still go ahead and buy it? I'd be lying if I said not. There's new Target books coming out now as well: am I expected (expected only by myself, or course) to buy and read all those too? This is the curse of the collector - you want to collect everything, but you don't want to have collected everything. The Doctor Who fan also has to contend with the sheer volume of product. Even the most ardent completist wouldn't have time to read / watch / listen to it all. There aren't enough days in the year. So, even if everything was bought, it would just fill a house and then sit gathering dust and regret. Reading between the lines of my blog post from 2015, there's a lot of sadness at the possibility that the 30-year journey was over, but more than a little relief also.

I don't want to be an armchair therapist, even of myself, but it's clear there's symptoms of various spectrum disorders being demonstrated here. Whether that's accurate or not, there's something; but, I couldn't honestly say it was something that has had a wholly or even mostly negative impact on my life. For all the pangs of angst, there's been many more doses of endorphins and dopamine. And there's surely many worse things one could do with one's money or time. To quote a few of my favourite lines from Doctor Who non-fiction writing - from Chris Howarth and Steve Lyons' The Completely Useless Encyclopedia - “Doctor Who was created to entertain, coins to formalise a system of barter, trains as a method of transport, and stamps as a means of funding the postal service. People find entertainment in all four. Which is most understandable?”

In Summary:
Solid, occasionally stolid, but much better than episode 3 in isolation led us to believe.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Rose


Chapter The 82nd, in which a TV programme comes back from the dead at Easter-time.

Plot: 
Late one evening after the end of her shift at a department store in London, Rose Tyler goes down to the basement to deliver the staff syndicate's lottery money to the Chief Electrician, Wilson. As she walks around, the shop window dummies in storage down there come to life around her. Backed into a corner, she is surrounded and they come in for the kill. A Manc fellah in a leather jacket saves her just in time, and they escape in a lift. He blows up the roof of the building just after she gets clear. Before disappearing off, he introduces himself as 'the Doctor' and explains that the dummies are living plastic, brought to life by an alien intelligence transmitting a signal. The Doctor then turns up at Rose's house the next day, trying to track the signal. Rose presses him for answers, but he isn't forthcoming, and goes off again, seemingly into a mysterious disappearing big blue box.

Intrigued, Rose researches on the internet, and meets up with a conspiracy theorist, Clive, who has been combing history for signs of the Doctor, and believes him to be an immortal alien who brings death in his wake. Rose's boyfriend Mickey waits outside Clive's house in case Rose is in any danger from this man she met on the internet, but the plastic wheelie bin nearby has been taken over, and swallows him up. He's replaced by a slightly unconvincing plastic duplicate, who questions Rose about the Doctor later when they're out for dinner. But the Doctor has tracked them to the restaurant and rescues Rose when plastic-Mickey starts smashing the place up. They escape into the blue box (called the TARDIS) which is bigger on the inside than the out, and the Manc fellah turns out to be a space-wizard, and grumpy to boot.

Tracking the source of the signal to an underground chamber beneath the London Eye, the Doctor and Rose rescue the real Mickey. The Doctor confronts the Nestene Consciousness - a big vat of talking gloop - but is captured, and a signal is sent using the Eye's structure as a transmitter. All over London, shop window dummies come to life, and attack people including Rose's Mum Jackie, who survives, and Clive, who is killed. Rose uses her childhood gymnastics skills to swing on a chain,  knock over a couple of dummies and free the Doctor; in the confusion, the Consciousness gets destroyed, the signal cuts out, and the mannequins become inanimate once again. The Doctor invites Rose (but not Mickey) to travel with him; she hesitates at first, but on the second offer runs into the TARDIS leaving Mickey behind.

Context:
The random number generator method used to select which story to watch next for the blog settled on Rose, an intriguing choice with lots of associations; this was good, as I'd been busy and it had therefore taken me ages to write up the last story for the blog; something to inspire me to write with more efficacy was to be welcomed. I also happily realised it was a perfect blog post to publish during an Easter weekend, it being the biggest episode ever broadcast at Easter, and one that started a tradition that lasted for a good few years afterwards that the kick off of a new run of episodes should debut on the Saturday following Good Friday. This in turn reminded me that in the year when Rose first aired, that Saturday had also fallen towards the end of March. It then dawned on me that the 13th anniversary of that historic broadcast was the very day on which I was having all these thoughts, the 26th of March, and if we started watching in the next few minutes it would be bang on to the exact minute. Hurry, hurry.

As it was, it took a while to gather the interested parties together in the living room, and we started at 7.08pm, eight minutes later than Rose had started in 2005. Close enough, unless you're some weirdo obsessive about these things (hush). Anyway, the interested parties in question were all the kids (boys of 11 and 8, girl of 5) and the Better Half who, hearing the urgent preparations, joined us as the title sequence was rolling. We watched from the DVD, and there was a lot of visible evidence that it was doing what it was supposed to do: the youngest was scared by the quiet bits, the middle child was jumping up and down during the exciting bits, and even the cynical eldest pre-teen said "this is the Doctor I like the best", only to be corrected by his sister: "He's not called the Doctor, he's called Doctor Who". Based on the credits of Eccleston's era at least, this was quite accurate of her. The eldest was also taken by Clive's son when he said "Dad, it's one of your nutters". There's clearly something in the story for everybody!


First-time round:
There was immense build up of interest before Rose's initial BBC1 broadcast. It is mirrored somewhat by what's happening now in anticipation of Jodie Whittaker's debut series, with little teasers (new logo, hero images, snatches of audio) released months before the really big marketing push. When things really got going in 2005, it was verging on the ridiculous - stupid great billboard advertisements, talking points on review shows, special edition Mastermind tie-in episode. I wonder what sort of hoop-la we'll see this Autumn. Things peaked when Rose was leaked early in March, a little under three weeks before it was due for transmission. I read about the leak, but resolved to be strong. The next day, however, a colleague and friend at my day job of the time, Lee -  that guy one knows in every office who has an evangelical belief that copyright is an affront to personal liberties - came in and handed me a DVD-R, then walked away without a word. I was not strong enough to resist, and started watching it on my laptop during the working day. In the evening at home, I showed it to the Better Half, and rewatched it again more than once before the Easter weekend.

I saw the live broadcast with the Better Half, my sister and her partner James, in my sister's old flat in Worthing. My sister, never the biggest Doctor Who fan, was hosting us with such enthusiasm, even down to providing bowls of jelly babies, that I couldn't bring myself to tell her that I'd already watched the story multiple times. I don't regret it, though; the version I saw first didn't have an audio interruption from Graham Norton spoiling the most tense bit.

At the time, the BH and I were living in Kent, so had to stay over; I went out in Worthing early afternoon on Saturday 26th March 2005 as I needed to buy something, rushing as I didn't want to risk missing a minute of the pre-match build up including that Doctor Who: The New Dimension show narrated by David Tennant (whatever happened to him?). While I was out, I saw the front cover of a red-top rag, I forget which, bigging up the competition for Saturday night audience between Who and Ant and Dec. I had a sinking feeling: what if it bombs?! Luckily, the ratings revealed the next day were stratospheric; they didn't quite sustain at that level, so there must have been many curious souls in Rose's audience that decided it wasn't for them. One of these was my university friend Mark - the least enthusiastic whenever we had a video watching session in Durham - who texted me at 7.45pm on that Saturday to say "It's still shit".

Reaction:
There's only one way I think one could be disappointed by the story Rose, and that's by stubbornly assuming its plot is supposed to be about Autons, which it clearly isn't, and thereby accusing it of having a thin plot, which it doesn't. Just look at the synopsis above - there's lots of story beats, they're just not centered on defeating aliens. Sure, anyone can dislike the show because of its tone, or production values, or the performances of the leads. But if you disagree with the plot being structured around the person with an ordinary life getting pulled into the mysterious stranger's orbit (or 'turning Doctor Who into a soap', as it was called by online crazies ad nauseum) then you have to seriously think about what would have happened had it been done differently. This outside-in approach is the only viable option to bring the show to a new audience. It's how it was done successfully in 1963, and the opposite of how it was done unsuccessfully in 1996. Paul McGann's TV movie is the epitome of an inside-out approach: start with the Doctor rather that the audience identification figure, alienate some of your viewers, and add swathes of narration to paper over the cracks. Avoiding this is a big reason the show is still running to this day, allowing many different types of story to be told, including many big 'defeat the aliens' plots for traditionalists (though not ever a proper rematch with the Autons, curiously enough).

I never understood the soap opera accusations at all. It's not exactly brutal realism, nor even a misery-fest confection like Eastenders (the comparison most often made by the online crazies). All the tourist biscuit tin shots of red buses and the houses of parliament clue us in that we're watching a somewhat heightened version of reality. I miss this bright, fun adventure look and feel, which has got progressively gloomier over recent years of Who's new episodes. What I feel many don't like, but can't bring themselves to say, is that Rose, Jackie and Mickey are common - if they were realistic and the centre of the narrative, but were middle class professionals (like Sarah Jane Smith) I think some people would have less of a problem with it. But never mind those people - it's all about the characters, and these characters are great.

Like many of the stories in the 2005 run, all the surrounding spectacle belies the deliberately small nature of the story. There are only five significant roles in this piece - the two regulars, the two semi-regulars, and a nice guest performance by Mark Benton as Clive - and their interactions drive the story forward. All five are expertly cast, and perfectly performed. Noel Clarke has been harsh in reflecting back on his choices in these early episodes, but as part of his overall arc throughout the season, I can't fault his work here. Camille Coduri gets the best lines: "Skin like an old bible", "I know she is Greek, but that's not the point" and so on. Her brief scene with the Doctor in her bedroom was the funniest thing there'd been in Doctor Who up to that point. Eccleston and Piper are so good, I can't really express it without being dull, they are too good if anything; while not looking like as well-matched pairing as, say, Tennant and Piper, they have bags more chemistry. They are another two big reasons why Doctor Who took off again.

It's not quite all there from day one. The music is not yet enhanced by real recorded orchestral parts, it's all synthesised, and now sounds a little tinny and cheap in comparison to what came later. There's a few parts where they haven't quite got the tone exactly right, but they're brief, a few seconds of the running time in all, and the show would get better very quickly at this. Piper's treatment of Mickey at the end jars a little, but not as much as it did first time I watched. It's not exactly subtly expressed that Mickey is not a good boyfriend, and Davies has gone on record of not wanting Rose to be too perfect, but her kiss off line is just the wrong side of cruel for me. When it comes together, though, it's magic. There's one glorious moment, a tiny thing that you could blink and miss: just after the plastic Mickey's head's been pulled off and the male diner has screamed, there's a look on Eccleston's face of madcap joy, like he adores the chaos all around him.

One other thing I noticed this time, because I'd so recently watched the first first episode of Doctor Who, was the parallels between the debut deaths in the twentieth and twenty-first century versions: Old Mother and Clive are both prophets of doom, and probably the wisest non-Gallifreyans to appear in their respective stories; they try to warn other characters in the narrative that they're in danger, but in the end it's they who come a cropper. It's an interestingly bleak theme of Doctor Who that might be inadvertent here, but is picked up deliberately elsewhere too: you can be as clever as you want, but without the Doctor, you'll never be safe.

Connectivity: 
Both Rose and The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky are Russell T Davies era earth-based stories involving invasions by slightly reworked monsters from the original series. In both, the Doctor confronts the aliens at the end with a MacGuffin device that will destroy them, but won't activate it until he's given them a chance. In both instances, he can't bring himself to do it, and someone else has to intervene.

Deeper Thoughts:
Who Knows Part Three. Well, a few weeks back I'd have said that another of those mysteries of Doctor Who to which we might never get answers was what exactly happened between Christopher Eccleston and the production team in the early days of filming the return series of Doctor Who. But he's only gone and spoken about it, thirteen years on. He must have finally got frustrated with people asking him over and over and/or thought that, as so much time has passed, he could share some details. From small comments made in the intervening years by many parties involved, it's consistently clear that whatever happened to cause Christopher Eccleston to quit happened in the first production block (covering Rose and the two-part Slitheen story, all directed by Keith Boak). It's been hypothesised that Eccleston fell out with Boak, or producer Phil Collinson, or many other people on the senior production side; his interview suggests he fell out with all of them, including Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner. As he puts it: "They lost trust in me, and I lost faith and trust and belief in them".

Eccleston felt the weight of being the most seasoned member of the cast, yet in a role that was out of his comfort zone; the part was one he felt required "a natural light comedian" which is not how he saw himself. His resultant insecurity made it a stressful experience. From other testimonies about this time, though, it's clear nobody knew what they were doing; there was no frame of reference for making a show like Doctor Who's 2005 model, as there hadn't been anything quite like it done before, certainly not in the UK. With a lot riding on it being successful, it's not surprising everyone was stressed. There were many issues and delays; the planned schedule was clearly inadequate, as it's been reported they were something like three weeks behind after only a day of filming. This was not an atmosphere conducive to on-set harmony. But if the producers really lost faith in Eccleston's performance, as he seems to have done himself, then this viewer at least thinks they're dead wrong. If he was out of his comfort zone, he used it to spur him on to something special. It makes sense: the Doctor is a character putting on a brave face while inside he's not enjoying himself as much as he appears; that's a pretty good summary of Eccleston himself as he did it.

Where even Eccleston's acting wasn't good enough, was the publicity drive after the series had wrapped. He’d made an agreement with Davies not to damage the reputation of the series, and he did his best; but, as anyone who saw those interviews and appearances can testify, he couldn't help but come over as awkward and defensive. I hope getting the negativity off his chest in this recent interview has helped him. A good sign is that he has agreed for the first time ever to attend a sci-fi convention, with an appearance at London Film and Comic Con planned for July. It's just a shame he's charging an arm and a leg (and two hearts and a respiratory bypass system) for an autograph.


In Summary:
If the kids don't like that, then the kids don't deserve to have any television ever shown to them again.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

Chapter The 81st, details the Sat Navs of the Potato Men.

Plot: 
Martha uses the Time-Space Telegraph app on her phone to call the Doctor and Donna back to Earth, where they all help UNIT investigate a hot-house private academy of clever kids using environmental car accessories to take over the world. The tech genius in charge of this is Mark Zuckerberg, sorry Luke Rattigan, and he's secretly in league with the Sontarans. Devices in millions of cars around the globe are activated and start spewing out poison gas, which will eventually kill all humans and turn the Earth into a clone hatchery. The Sontarans have promised Luke a passage to another planet so that he and his followers can start up a new society (he's gone from Zuckerberg to Elon Musk now). His followers are not so keen on this, particularly the breeding programme he's planned, so leave him alone. Despite lots of gun battles and use of clone infiltrators, the Sontarans are defeated: the Doctor burns off the poison gas using a gizmo, and the tech whizzkid redeems himself by doing selfless acts to make up for his years of evil; so, a bit like Bill Gates, is what I'm thinking - the three ages of tech whizzkid.

Context:
Watched from the DVD, separating the episodes by a couple of days. The first one was watched only by myself, the Better Half and middle child (boy of 8), the three biggest fans in the house, I'd say. But the second and final instalment attracted the remaining members of the family (elder boy, 11, and girl, 5). There were long periods of complete silence, edge of the seat concentration; this is always a sign that something's going down well. And after the story ended, something unprecedented happened - they watched the next episode too, a few days later. Every time they watch one they really enjoy, there are choruses of "Next ep, next ep" at the end, but after that they don't usually bug me for days and days until I get it down off the shelf. This time, they did, and very much enjoyed The Doctor's Daughter too. Tennant is a crowd-pleaser. I was under the weather when they watched that following story, and had a nap instead, so won't be blogging it next (it would have felt like too much of a rule break from the random order concept anyway).


First-time round:
The 2008 run was the first full Doctor Who series we saw from our new family home, which we'd moved into just before the previous Christmas, and where we still live. The family at the time was only three in number, with our first child less than two years old. This Tennant / Tate series was broadcast in an earlier slot than it had been previously, and we'd taken advantage of this to watch the first couple of episodes live, with the little 'un sat on a lap. The Adipose one - one of the earliest shows to come up randomly for the blog - went okay, but then The Fires of Pompeii's lava monsters scared the poor mite, so we abandoned live watching and started timeshifting for viewing later in the evening without him, and that was the settled pattern by the time we got to the Sontaran two-parter.

Errata: re-reading that early Partners in Crime blog post, I realise I misrepresented its first-time round watch there, forgetting all about trying to watch episodes live, but we did do it. I had previously written about this very same scaring of my first-born on my old blog, so you'd think I'd have remembered.
 
Reaction:
When I watched this in situ, as part of the fourth series of the twenty-first century return of Doctor Who, I was underwhelmed; the year as a whole was top-drawer, but this two-parter felt at best ho-hum, maybe even a little duff. Fast forward to now, and watching it - trying to be as objective as I can - it feels like something from a golden age. We were really spoilt back then. In fact, such do I feel the need to mentally interrogate myself on this era, being a big fan of the first few years of the new series and Russell T Davies' other work, I'm not just trying to be objective, I'm actively trying to hate it. And I can't. Tennant is charismatic and in full control, totally in his rock star pomp.

The story itself, which again seemed like one of the most unremarkable at the time, is a rollicking tale. The Sontarans are handled expertly - great masks, great costumes, great performances. Both the two main Sontaran performers, Christopher Ryan and Dan Starkey, returned to the show, the latter becoming a very successful recurring character, Strax; this says something about how successful they both were in their first outing. The script serves the aliens well, playing up their 'Colonel Blimp' conception, but adding in nice little details like their "Sontar-Ha" haka. Teaming them up with another villain of diminutive stature in Ryan Sampson's Rattigan was a clever stroke too; Sampson relishes his role, and the emotion of his arc is nicely delivered as is the (broad) comedy stuff too. Also returning is UNIT, which has its biggest extravaganza of the new series to date. The Doctor reacting badly to guns and salutes is possibly not needed (it's never been something he's worried about before), but the script calls out the Doctor's hypocrisy on this. The abrupt death of Ross, and Tennant's righteous anger in reaction to it, is very good too.

The evil Sat Navs hook is very tenuously linked to the main plot, and hasn't aged terribly well, but despite that, this story is closest to the urban thriller genre that Doctor Who has got; it's closer probably than The Bells of Saint John, which was marketed as the first ever Who urban thriller, but is pretty much exactly the same template as the Sontaran story - killer wi-fi upgrading the Sat Nav idea. The one major weakness is the inclusion of Martha. Freema Agyeman 's performance is a little bit wobbly compared to her full year - maybe she, as a less experienced actor, needed a bit more attentive direction than she got as a returning guest character. Catherine Tate on the other hand is faultless, and has great chemistry with Tennant. Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King are perhaps the best semi-regular family cast in Doctor Who history (Camille Coduri and Noel Clarke were excellent too, but it's Bernard flippin' Cribbins - you can't do better). More of stuff like this, please, Chris Chibnall - it's been reported that "family" is going to be the next series' watchword, which already sounds okay by me.

Connectivity: 
Another story that ends on a cliffhanger linking in to the next broadcast tale, and both stories involve sequences where the air inside a sealed vehicle is clouded with a gas that's poisonous to humans. They are also both stories that include Christopher Ryan in the cast, if one were to count Trial of a Time Lord as one big story. As I made a big deal of saying I don't consider it such in my last post, it's a bit of a cheat to use Chris Ryan as a connection here. But I have anyway.

Deeper Thoughts:
Who Knows Too. Continuing my loose theme of unanswered questions from the making of Doctor Who over the years, here's another biggie: why have so few women written for the series? Despite having a female producer right at the beginning and employing some key female directors early on,
no woman was employed to write a single episode of Doctor Who until it had been going for twenty years. (Yes, yes, I know one writer insisted on a co-credit for his wife alongside him on a 1960s story, but there's no evidence that she contributed whatsoever to the actual script, and the commission was purely his.) If, since that first story in 1983 (Barbara Clegg's very wonderful Enlightenment), it had been wall-to-wall female writers, it might not have been so bad, but it really really hasn't been. In the final few years of the original series post 1983, Jane Baker - half of a married couple writing team - co-contributed three stories plus a single episode, alongside her husband Pip. There was one more story solely written by a woman in the original run, and that was the very last one of the twentieth century, Rona Munro's Survival. Three women in all.

[Note: I'm not counting Paula Moore, credited author of Attack of the Cybermen, as this person doesn't exist. The person who reportedly receives the cheques for Attack, who has a similar name, very probably didn't contribute to the scripts at all. Who did write it, and - more importantly - why, are two more of those unanswered and probably unanswerable questions that remain contentious talking points within Doctor Who scholarship.]

This was in the dark ages of sexism in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, though. In our more advanced times, things will have improved greatly, won't they? No. Only another three women have been employed so far to write Doctor Who in the twenty-first century, plus there was another story from Rona Munro. Six individual writers in total out of nearly a hundred.  By story, or by number of minutes produced, it's an even worse percentage. The entire Doctor Who writing output of one half of the world's population totals less than, say, a writer like Don Houghton who penned a couple of stories in the 70s. Helen Raynor, author of the Sontaran story under review here, does best with two stories each comprising two 45 minute episodes; so, the most an individual woman has been able to write for TV Doctor Who ever is 180 minutes in total. I've had baths longer than that.

It's shameful, and I can only really moan about this. I can't muse on any possible solutions, as I can't see any reason why it should be; Doctor Who is not a show with a particularly male outlook, I'd have said, and there are plenty of experienced writers who would jump at the chance. I only hope that Jodie Whittaker taking over as lead actor encourages the addressing of this lack of gender diversity behind the scenes; and, maybe having a showrunner who isn't a man would be good to try when the day comes that Mister Chibnall is ready to move on.

In Summary:
Good solid meat and potatoes fare, heavy on the potatoes.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Terror of the Vervoids

Chapter The 80th, where Agatha Christie meets John Wyndham meets a Thesaurus.

Plot: 
The Doctor's on trial for his life because of something or other - best to skip over all that, really - and is presenting his defence, a precognitive projection of an event in his future. This is a bit tricky, legally-speaking: how can one defend against a capital punishment with a potential future which won't happen if one gets executed for one's previous crimes? Is it even a defence if the good behaviour hasn't happened yet, so can't refute any accusations made about one's past? Anyway, this is all admissible, because everything seems to be permitted according to Gallifreyan law, it's bonkers - anything goes. Also, it's mandatory in a Time Lord courtroom to use myriad polysyllabic verbiage, which can make it difficult to follow what's being adumbrated.

The defence concerns an incident aboard a spaceship, the Hyperion III, with a murder mystery or three, an attempted hijack, espionage, and a minor conspiracy to cover-up some dubious scientific experiments. These experiments created walking vegetable creatures, the Vervoids, who escape from the hold and kill pretty much everyone in the ship that hasn't been killed already. It sounds exciting doesn't it? And it is, except when it gets interrupted to bang on about the Doctor's trial. In this future tale, the Doctor and Mel (a friend he hasn't met yet) solve the mystery and destroy the Vervoids. This lands the Doctor in even more trouble in the courtroom, as he's committed genocide, which makes it even more likely that he'll get executed. Except, he hasn't done the genocide yet, that's in his future; and, if he gets executed for the genocide, he won't actually commit the genocide. My brain hurts.

Context:
Watched with the whole family (the Better Half and three kids, two boys aged 11 and 8 and a girl aged 5) from the DVD over a brace of nights, two episodes by two. It went down well, with mostly hushed viewing, and each cliffhanger garnered excited cries of "Next ep, next ep". Both the middle child and the B.H. separately moaned about the frequency (both in terms of pitch and number of instances) of Mel's screaming. The eldest described the Vervoids, amusingly and I suppose somewhat aptly, as being "made of food" (the Vervoids have been victims of worse visual comparisons over the years).

First-time round:
The one thing that leapt to mind about watching this for the first time (on its debut BBC1 broadcast in November 1986) was that my sister saw the final episode before me. This did not happen very often, as she usually didn't watch Doctor Who at all. I'd been out somewhere for Saturday afternoon, probably to do DJ or fund-raising duties at Worthing Hospital Radio, which I was involved with around this time; she was at home, and must have been bored. When I got back, she told me it was the guy from Brookside who done it before I could even cue up the video recording. Luckily, I remained unspoilered despite this slightly unkind divulgence. This was due to a misunderstanding on behalf of myself or Doctor Who Magazine's previewer: the preview for the third part of the Trial narrative (in DWM 118, fact fans) covered all the final six episodes as if they were one lump.

This is not as surprising as it might seem: the numbering of the Trial episodes suggests it's all one story, so there's no rule as to how and where or even if you split it up; the now standard division into four, and their unofficial titles, had not quite been established then. The final six episodes were made as one block, identified with a single production code, with the same director. The action between the fourth and fifth episodes of the six is continuous. Why wouldn't someone think they were all one piece? Unless one had actually seen them, of course, but it's very possible the previewer hadn't. Anyway, the only clue in the magazine (from memory - all the back issues of that vintage are in a cupboard somewhere that I'm not going to search through just to check) was a comment that the story took a different turn towards the end, and the last two episodes included Anthony Ainley's Master. I was expecting six episodes set on the Hyperion III, with a big reveal of the true villain two thirds of the way through. As such, I brushed off my sibling's comments as only part of the picture: I knew it was Beard-Face who was really behind it all. It only dawned on me what was actually going on at the point when it was supposed to dawn on me. Sometimes two wrongs do make a right.

Reaction:
In 1986, the twenty-third production run of Doctor Who episodes was presented as one story of fourteen episodes. This has made a lot of people very angry and was widely seen as a bad move. The show had almost been cancelled altogether the previous year before getting at least one more series as a reprieve; coming back with the biggest ever story in Doctor Who's history, a story where the character - like the show - was being put on trial, must have seemed like a good idea. It is the sort of momentarily seductive brainstorming session idea that everyone rapidly drops. Only they didn't drop it. Drawing attention to the show's dicey position was a risky move indeed, and the biggest ever story in Doctor Who's history doesn't sound so hot if you call it the longest ever story in Doctor Who's history. Anyway, it's not really one story - it's three tales with a framing narrative, followed by a two episode wrap-up. It could so easily have been rewritten, even at a late moment, to lose the over-arching plotting, and re-titled with individual headings (it's nearly universally referred to by four different titles as it is), and it might have seemed like less of a slog. Only, they didn't do this.

Luckily, this didn't kill off the series, but it felt at the time like it was a close thing.  With some distance from the pain of those bad old days (and I know it's not much to be proud of that it meant so much at the time that Doctor Who survived, but it did to me and many others) it's easier to see the positive points. To start with: Bonnie Langford. I mean it. The character of Mel as written and performed is a breath of fresh air after a number of years of more adversarial and bickering companion / Doctor relationships; the Doctor and Mel get on well with one another, and have a natural rapport. Mel also gets enthusiastically involved in the adventure throughout rather than whinging about wanting to get back to the TARDIS. It's a shame the characterisation is one note: this was the first time a companion actor needed a more defined role to put distance between the character and existing audience perception, but alas she didn't get more than "keep fit enthusiast" with which to work. Also, Bonnie is encouraged to scream all the time. Hers is a wonderful scream, the best in the business, but it does get overused very quickly.

Everyone is giving their all in the cast, in true Agatha Christie gang show fashion. Honor Blackman is the big star name, but her two assistants as played by Malcolm Tierney and David Allister are also good value; my personal favourite guest character, though, is Denys Hawthorne as Rudge, the weak man gone rogue. Colin Baker is as restrained and nuanced as he can be acting from inside a technicolour eyesore (they add a new waistcoat and cravat for this story that are even more garish than usual, if you can believe such a thing possible). And it's easy to overlook the sterling work put in by Lynda Bellingham and Michael Jayston, because whenever they appear the story grinds to a shuddering halt; poor things, it's hard not to associate them with the annoyance this causes. The trial framing device of which they are part works against the drama, as scenes set in the courtroom need to be inserted every so often to remind the viewer that what they're watching is actually not what they think they are watching, but is in fact some other people watching that stuff.

In the previous sub-stories it hasn't mattered quite so much as it does in episodes 9 to 12: in the first four episodes, the device was still a novelty; in the four after that, the script goes to the greatest lengths to integrate the action on the screen with the action of the court: Mindwarp is all about the veracity of the evidence, and without the Doctor, Inquisitor and Valeyard's final reactions, it doesn't really have an ending. The onboard action of the Hyperion III, though, stands on its own as a solid adventure, which makes the trial dull by comparison. The few call-back references to evidence tampering feel much more tacked on, and so aren't effective; they are just enough, though, to puncture and deflate at crucial moments. Without the trial sequences, I really think this would stand as Colin Baker's strongest individual adventure. Writers Pip and Jane Baker are terribly underrated and should be given a break. Their dialogue is not as awful as I remembered - although it is very wordy - and the plot and characters are all evidence of a fine job done within the constraints of this era.

Malcolm Clarke's music veers from beautiful, delicate melodies to noisy passages of percussive clunks and synth parps; this, however, is the challenge and genius of every Malcolm Clarke score, and I wouldn't want it any other way. The production design is day-glo, but there may not be any other option: as I understand the design thinking on this, Colin's coat would swamp any surrounding colour palettes if they were even slightly muted, so the saturation has to be turned up to 11 for other costumes, sets and props during his era. With the Olivia Newton-John style 'keep fit to music' action, and the idea that this floating hotel for the nouveau riche would throw towels into the waste disposal after only one use, it all adds up to a none-more-80s tale. Again, though, I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing.

Connectivity: 
Two stories on the trot featuring aggressive flora and a lead-in from the previous story.

Deeper Thoughts:
Who Knows. Even with the vast volume of Doctor Who reference works written over the years, there are still some questions that can never be answered even about the real world of the show's production (let alone the irreconcilable inconsistencies in the fictional universe of the Doctor, if you factor in those you'd be here until doomsday... or the end of time). These aren't just about obscure trivia either, but can be about the fundamentals, like how to refer to stuff. Until near the end of William Hartnell's time as the Doctor, each episode had an individual on-screen title, but the groups of episodes that formed a story - the one with the cavemen, say, or the first Dalek one, or the one where a switch breaks and all the clocks melt - didn't have any overall title, at least not one that was available to the viewers at home. There were various production documents which touched on group headings, and references in the Radio Times and programme synopses, but they were often inconsistent or plain wrong. This didn't matter too much until ten years or so later, when the first of those reference works was published, and it needed to include a story list. Doctor Who books do need to include story lists, it's a rule.

After that, and for many years to come, titles for those Hartnell stories were debated back and forth, suggestions were tried, countered, found favour, or fell out of use. Often, the name of the first episode was just used to refer to the lot, which only works if it is a vaguely representative handle. The worst candidate, you'd have thought, was that one about the cavemen. 'An Unearthly Child' doesn't have anything to do with three quarters of the story, but it's the name that's stuck. Doctor Who Magazine's style and content guides dictated for a while, though not sure whether they still do now, that it should be referred to by the never popular moniker '100,000 BC'; but, 'An Unearthly Child' is what's on the front of the video, the DVD, and the novelisation, and so I've followed that popular wisdom when covering it for the blog. The first Dalek story is known as The Daleks, which is appropriate if dull, but not a title that was ever used by the people making the thing. They may have called it 'The Mutants', but that's also now the name of a later Jon Pertwee story, so would be confusing. It may even have been called 'Beyond the Sun' at one point, but that twistily became applied to the following story too (the one with the melting clocks). That one has settled down more recently as 'The Edge of Destruction'  - it's opening episode title.

This chaos stops once the overall titles are on screen for all to see, until The Trial of a Time Lord. Trial has the opposite issue of those early Hartnell shows; the on-screen label is inadequate and the whole thing needs tags for its sub-segments. These quickly became established as 'The Mysterious Planet' (1-4), 'Mindwarp' (5-8), 'Terror of the Vervoids' (9-12) and 'The Ultimate Foe' (13-14). These are roughly based on working titles used in production, although 'The Ultimate Foe' was actually a working title for the Vervoids story, but somehow came to be associated with the final two-parter probably because it's a better description than 'Time Inc.' which was the other likely contender. Nobody ever calls it 'Time Inc.' even though 'The Ultimate Foe' is just as unofficial (sitting on the fence, BBC Worldwide labelled the DVD boxes just with the Trial title and episode numbers, but added a sticker to each box with the commonly used name).

We've come full circle since 2005, each episode has an individual title, no matter how many of those episodes form a wider story. As they are significantly less episodes than the Hartnell ones, two or at a push three parts only, it has been merely been necessary to have a slash. As in: The Sontaran Stratagem slash The Poison Sky, to pick a random example.

In Summary:
Terror of the Vervoids is great. The bits that are The Trial of a Time Lord episodes 9-12, not so much.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Planet of the Daleks

Chapter The 79th, which is all purple fur coat but no visibility.

Plot: 
After something happens at the end of their previous adventure - which I don't remember being all that big a deal, but hey-ho - the Doctor collapses into a coma, but not before getting a message off to the Time Lords on how the Daleks are planning to invade the galaxy (aren't they always?). The TARDIS lands, remote-controlled by the aforementioned Gallifreyans, and Jo has to go off on her own to find help. The Doctor wakes up, somehow perfectly fine again, and goes after her. They are on a jungle planet with hostile plant life and invisible natives, and there's a broken down spaceship and some Thals there too. In other words, it's planet 'Terry Nation's Greatest Hits'. After six episodes of getting split up, coming back together again, cat and mouse, escape and recapture, the good guys defeat the Daleks. Terry sneaks in a plague subplot too towards the end, just for good measure. There's no character called Tarrant, but there is a Taron, it's only one consonant sound different.

Context:
Watched with the kids from the DVD over a few days, one or two episodes at a time, with the Better Half joining us for the final two episodes. All loved it, though the eldest (boy of 11) is getting more and more cynical. Throughout episode 1, he was being a clever-clogs about how we wouldn't see a single Dalek until the cliffhanger (and he was right, of course). Then, when Rebec is at the Plain of Stones looking out at the rather basic representation of multiple sets of beastie peepers looking back at her, and asks "What sort of creatures are they?", he replied to the screen "Fairy lights". Lights caused confusion elsewhere also, as nobody watching could understand why the Dalek Supreme had a torch taped to his "nose". They love to scrutinise and pick holes, but the DVD, of course, has episode 3 miraculously colourised (see the Deeper Thoughts section of The Mind of Evil's post for more details on that) and not one person noticed any join there. 

First-time round:
Despite not being a going concern for a huge chunk of the years in question, Doctor Who has nonetheless had an anniversary celebration of some kind broadcast on BBC1 every decade since its inception. The 40th was the most meagre offering, comprising but one documentary; this was more than made up for, however, by the contemporaneous announcement that the show was returning as a full series in 18 months time. The other anniversary falling in the 'wilderness years' after the original run was cancelled was the 30th in 1993. This was accompanied by much more of a circus, with the Beeb celebrating over a six week period with old episodes plus new documentary programmes and short films. This was somewhat surprising given that it was not long since the same Beeb had taken the show off the air, but we fans at the time were not complaining.

The old episodes in question were the six parts of Planet of the Daleks, shown in a Friday night slot on BBC1 weekly, even the one that only existed at the time in black-and-white. I honestly do not know what they were thinking: old Who on primetime TV in a similar slot to where newly made Who had supposedly failed only four years previously? And they didn't care if it was all in colour?! For the first few episodes, I watched in my third-year student house, taping each precious one onto a carefully labelled VHS tape; the latter two or three would have fallen during the Christmas hols, so I'd have been poised at a different record button on a different VCR, but with the same carefully labelled tape and furrowed brow of concentration.

Reaction:
I still wonder why it was Planet of the Daleks chosen for that 30th anniversary BBC1 repeat. They must have wanted something in colour, six episodes long, with Daleks, but there's one other much more obvious contender: Tom Baker's Genesis of the Daleks, the go-to classic era story for a terrestrial TV rerun. Maybe they wanted to do something different - Genesis already had a reputation for over-exposure (though it was still repeated once more before the end of the 1990s), it had been shown on BBC2 recently, and was already out on video, unlike Planet. I'm glad they went this way: Planet is the more underrated of the two, and it was genuinely enjoyable to share weekly with my cynical student mates then, and daily with my cynical family now. Both events ably prove that it is a story immune to cynicism, so wholeheartedly does it go about its business, never once being tempted to wink at its audience.

In many an interview later, Jon Pertwee would report on his distaste for performing with Skaro's own pepperpots, but he manages to hide that here (whereas it's all too sadly obvious in another of their Derby matches, Death to the Daleks) and like the rest of the cast commits absolutely. It doesn't matter that the plot is uniformly linear, or that all the conflict is on a level, only operating in the external / environmental sphere of narrow scrapes with death or capture. There's lip service paid to depth at an interpersonal level - one character doesn't feel so very bally brave when it comes to it, another worries about his girlfriend - but it's only to give a breathing space before the next set piece. And there's absolutely no higher moral or intellectual themes at all. Maybe this was refreshing, as for the majority of stories during Jon Pertwee's incumbency there was an (over-?) reliance on (heavy-handed?) thematic resonance. This isn't the story of colonists and down-trodden masses, nor really of Nazis and resistance, it's just Daleks versus Thals: what you see is what you get.

What's more, it works. I was watching with my brood, who represent the key part of Doctor Who's audience, and they were loving it. They were excited by the right bits, and the younger two (boy of 8, girl of 5) were even a bit scared of some of the jungle stuff. The action is Jules Verne-tastic, with a journey to the centre of the planet, and even a trip in a hot air balloon. Daleks who can become invisible is a fun new idea (although the script forgets about it immediately after the first cliffhanger - a scene later where someone suddenly gets zapped by an invisible Dalek might have been worth adding, surely?), and the ice volcano is similarly good pulpy nonsense. The start of the story is effective too, showcasing the now self-reliant Jo, foreshadowing her going it alone in her final story which followed on after this one.

The production caters well for those who want to pick holes too. Prentis Hancock gets a real hand-cock of a character to play. The jungle is horribly lethal to traverse for an episode or two, and thereafter characters wander back and forth with ease. The Doctor doesn't let anyone disturb the Dalek casing in episode 2, as it would set off an alert, but he and the script have forgotten about this by episode 5, when they open a Dalek casing and it does not set off an alert. The Daleks don't bother to guard their spaceship, and are very remiss in keeping the immunisation machine in the same room as the biological weapon from which it protects them. Also, is it plausible that a race of invisible people could be so comprehensively enslaved as the Spiridons, no matter what the Daleks have done to them? Just throw off your fur coats and run away, fellahs, they can't see you!

Connectivity: 
Both Planet of the Daleks and An Unearthly Child have had episodes repeated on BBC1 (not as common as you'd think). Both feature a longer than normal sequence set in the TARDIS control room in episode 1, and in both stories the Doctor's companions are seen in a hostile outdoor environment where their clothes get a bit mucky. Both stories are also very influenced by the episodic Saturday morning movie serials of the early 20th century.

Deeper Thoughts:
The State of the Nation. Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks, is fairly unique as a Doctor Who writer in that fandom is split over whether he's a genius or a terrible hack. In fact, scratch that, that's how fandom is split over every writer, but with Terry Nation it's more so. He clearly was more industrious than any other Doctor Who writer of the 20th Century, he's the only one I can think of that created multiple other successful series, huge hits like Blake's 7 and Survivors. He wrote every one of the first series of Blake's 7 - thirteen episodes of 50 minutes duration apiece - an achievement of sustained effort then and now. But the tales of his 'this'll-do' attitude are rife too: Doctor Who script editors over the years from The Chase in 1965 to Destiny of the Daleks in 1979 (Nation's last credit on the show) bemoaned their having to pad out and beef up the almost treatments / semi-scripts they'd managed to get out of Terry. In the latter case, that script editor was Douglas Adams; if that self-confessed arch-procrastinator thinks you're not pulling your weight, that's something.

When a script was provided, there was a tendency for it to be - how to put this politely? - the same script that had been delivered many times previously. Nation was in love with a few ideas that he used over and over, both in Who and other works: plants that attack humans, radiation sickness, a countdown to a bomb going off, plague infections, a group of spacemen including one hothead that may or may not be called Tarrant. Barry Letts, when he was outgoing producer of Doctor Who, challenged Nation to do better than this, and the result was Genesis of the Daleks, the best and most original Dalek story for many a year, with some fantastic writing. So much better is it than the preceding stories Nation wrote in the 1970s, that many unkind people have assumed that huge swathes must have been written by someone else, but there's no evidence for this and a lot of evidence against it. The simple explanation is: he could do it if he wanted to, but most of the time it seems he didn't make the effort.

It started that way, really. With no offence meant to him or anyone else, as his own comments as part of the historical record back this up: Terry Nation felt like he was slumming it doing Doctor Who from day one. He was a very successful comedy writer and wouldn't have written for a show that was an unknown quantity, and a kids' teatime thing at that, had he not been between jobs and in need of the money. He likely never imagined that he'd make so much money, but he lucked out, creating something memorable and marketable in the Daleks. This definitely caused some fan resentment, colouring people's judgements of him since, I think. It was luck rather than graft that gifted him his best ever creation, but luck is a part of life, and it wasn't as if he hadn't put in a lot of graft before and since. If the BBC wanted a Dalek story they had to come to him first, and what they wanted was what he delivered: Daleks first and foremost; the plot they featured in was never the primary concern.

The other reason Nation is resented by some is the unfair seeming situation that the designer of the Daleks, who arguably contributed as much or more to their longevity as did the scriptwriter (the description in the screenplay is sketchy at best), was a member of BBC staff and made no money at all from them beyond his salary and an Ex Gratia payment. It's just one of those things that Doctor Who fans argue about, back and forth; as both the gentlemen in question have sadly passed on now, there's not much more to say about it. I could probably spin it off into a discussion about the dangers of public / private financial partnerships, but I'll restrain myself. One thing to note, though: if the Daleks are so successful in and of themselves that the author didn't feel the need to try so hard with the stories featuring them, maybe the strength was always in their look rather than the writing?

In Summary:
Straightforward nuts and bolts (and torch and sticky tape) adventure.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

An Unearthly Child

Chapter The 78th, which - seriously - is still compelling, even today.

Plot: 
Two comprehensive school teachers in 1960s London become curious about a pupil based on odd comments she makes in class, and recent bad homework, so they stalk her mercilessly. They find out her address, stake it out, waiting for her to come back one afternoon, then follow her into her home which turns out to be a pan-dimensional craft for traversing the space-time continuum. Disguised as a Police Box. In a junkyard. The schoolkid's Grandad turns out to be a space-wizard and grumpy to boot. Threatened by the possibility of intrusion on his privacy if the teachers tell anyone about him, he starts up the ship, and whisks all four of them off to Earth circa 100,000 BC where they get involved with a tribe of cavemen trying to rediscover the secret of fire. Narrowly avoiding getting their skulls smashed in, they escape again in the ship (named the TARDIS). But it's knackered and the space-wizard (called the Doctor) doesn't know how to steer it properly, so he can't take the teachers home and they all have to go off and have adventures together. The End. The Beginning...

Context:
Some targets are so vast that the problem isn't hitting them, it's whether one's arrows are going to make any impression greater than a pinprick. The blog's random travels have landed it upon the very first story of Doctor Who, a phenomenally successful creation which has continued on from this beginning for more than 50 years giving enjoyment to millions of people across the globe: what is there that I can say about it? "There were leaders before there was fire" and "Fear makes companions of us all" are the Who equivalents of "To be or not to be" or "Is this a dagger I see before me?" - dialogue that's become a quote with its own life, and therefore that takes you out of the surrounding action just a bit. I've watched these four episodes so many times over the years that it's impossible to come to them fresh any longer. For this reason, I wanted to watch alongside at least some of the family, but throughout the half term holiday, no one was particularly interested.

I started watching an episode each evening late, and got halfway before having to start again when suddenly they changed their minds and were interested after all. In the end, we all (me, the Better Half, and the three kids, boys of 11 and 8, girl of 5) watched together; the eldest child wandered off here and there for the middle episodes, but everyone else watched silent and rapt for the duration - the more quiet it is in our house, the better something's going down, so this was a good sign. Another good sign was that everyone wanted to watch the next story the second that episode 4's cliffhanger ending faded from view. Not many comments from the assembled, but the Better Half ventured the opinion that the background hum of the TARDIS would drive her mad in a couple of hours if she had to live there.

The only annoyance with watching on DVD is that the Play All option includes the 'pilot' episode first before the four episodes of the story proper; this was a version of the episode An Unearthly Child recorded earlier, with certain differing script details and production elements, which were then tweaked for the rerecorded version that was eventually broadcast. If one were to actually sit down, hit that button and not touch the remote again, the experience would essentially be to see the same introductory episode run through twice, putting off the caveman episodes by 25 minutes - and who would want that? 

First-time round:
Beyond the odd clip I caught here and there on Swap Shop or before turning over to something else, my first sustained viewing of Doctor Who was when I tuned in partway through The Forest of Fear, episode three of An Unearthly Child. More details of the circumstances of my stumbling across the programme can be read here; it was the 4th November 1981 and this story was the first of a season of archive Doctor Who repeats stripped across weekly evenings on BBC2. Watching this time, I tried to pinpoint the moment I joined the episode; it's been a long time, but my best guess is that it was only a few minutes in, when our heroes are escaping into the eponymous forest, pursued by cave-people. I was intrigued enough to keep watching, and to tune in the following day for The Firemaker, and the following week for a Patrick Troughton story, The Krotons, and then another story, and then another two more. And then I tuned in a few weeks later when the next proper series started broadcast. The rest is history (and science): I was hooked.

I finally got to see the first two and a half episodes in early 1990, when the VHS release of the story was released. That previously un-broadcast 'pilot' version of episode 1 was released on The William Hartnell Years VHS compilation the following year, and a few months after that an alternative edit of it was shown on BBC2 as part of a day of programming dedicated to Lime Grove, the historic but rubbish studios where the story was made. 

Reaction:
For some obvious structural reasons, the first four episodes of Doctor Who are often treated as two separate entities - one part intriguing set up in a school and a junkyard, three parts caveman adventure. Years ago, fan journalism invented a separate overarching title for parts 2-4, "The Tribe of Gum", though that seems to have fallen out of fashion lately. As I'll discuss in more detail later, this is to a certain extent dictated by prejudices of taste. A lot of people don't like the caveman nonsense, and think it detracts from the justly esteemed opener - the caveman idea was done even at the time only because the production team had no other options, and with reservations. But it's not true: although a lot of series bible set-up elements, and ideas from previous drafts by other writers, are incorporated into writer Anthony Coburn's episode 1, all four episodes were commissioned and written by him, and directed by a single person, Waris Hussein. It's intended as one four episode piece. There is a through-flow both in the narrative details - An Unearthly Child subtly establishes that Ian carries no matches, which will be crucial later on - and wider themes.

The tribe is struggling to find the right leader, confused about what the right values are that would dictate the decision. They have previously assumed that it was all to do with the special Orb-given skill, making fire. When it looks like nobody possesses this skill, how and who will they choose? The familiar Za, even though he seems more prone to inaction, or the newcomer, Kal, who's bringing in more food but may also be a liar and an egotist. Mirroring this, the newly formed TARDIS tribe is struggling to find a leader, and a shared set of values. Characters have agency, including all the females (this story has four great roles for women, two regular, two guest cast, and Doctor Who and The Doctor treats them all as reasonably or unreasonably as the males - whenever, if ever, the sexism set in, it wasn't there from the beginning).

What's great is that there's no villains here, everyone is empathetic, but complex. Though efforts are made to display their primitive thinking, the two lead cavemen are still shown to be canny political operators, making the most of the twists and turns to improve their standing. Kal is not necessarily the wrong person to lead, until he murders Old Mother, stepping beyond the moral boundaries (of the audience and the tribe). This is mirrored in the Doctor's musing on similarly killing a defenceless man; Ian stops him before it can be much more than an idea, and thereby saves the Doctor who then steps up and gets to be properly Doctorish for the first time, when he tricks the murderer into revealing the murder weapon and implicating himself. Hartnell is magnetic to watch in that scene, and everywhere else. Watch his very first scene - he walks in midway, and with a few deft gestures, pulls focus and thereafter dominates. The direction is uniformly excellent: only in these early stories does the staging and performance reach this level of reality, the regulars grimy, sweaty, and in genuine panic for their lives and liberty.

I haven't even talked about the first episode's brilliance. It has its flaws (they become obvious after watching it so many times) but they're superficial, and it still is the benchmark of how to do a series opener in 25 minutes. I can't add much more to what's been said and re-said over the years. Even within the space of these few scenes, the characters are shown to have depth: Barbara and Ian both admit to themselves that their motives in checking up on Susan are not 100% pure, and so - like in the best horror stories - the trials that await them are not wholly undeserved, having been brought on by their curiosity. The moment of precognitive doubt as Barbara steps out of the car, wondering what they're getting into, is wonderfully in keeping with this. If you've never watched the pilot version, though, it's worth a go to see how much it was improved in the broadcast version. Every decision made was the right one, creating more mystery about the Doctor and Susan. One thing that rightly remained unchanged between the two versions, though, is the marvellous cliffhanger: the shadow of a caveman falls over the scene of a Police Box standing incongruously in a primitive landscape.

Connectivity: 
An Unearthly Child and Battlefield are both season opening four-part stories (the very first and very last seasons of the original run, as it happens); both contain references to school, history and science (if one counts Ace's bomb-making in Battlefield).

Deeper Thoughts:
It wos not just the Daleks wot wun it. I've read that some foreign countries picking up Doctor Who episodes for broadcast in the 1960s may have skipped the three cavemen episodes altogether. You just about could go from the cliffhanger ending of An Unearthly Child to The Dead Planet, first episode of the following Dalek story, without too much audience head-scratching: our heroes have arrived in another desolate landscape with another someone watching the TARDIS. And, nobody at the time could check the previous episode or pause the current episode to wonder too long why the regulars' clothes were suddenly in need of changing: blink and you'd miss it. For the reasons I set out above and more, though, such a decision would horrify me - whatever one thinks of the caveman story, it's a bit much to go from separating it out to excising it. It doesn't surprise me however. It was after all how the original tie-in novelisation was rewritten. Narratives are powerful things, and a narrative that's popular can be more powerful than one that's true. The overriding creation myth of Doctor Who is that it had an intriguing intro episode that was unfortunately overshadowed by a huge contemporary news item in JFK's assassination aftermath; luckily, along came the Daleks, which turned the show into a hit, and it never looked back... unlike JFK who looked back, and to the left... [sorry, Good Taste Ed.].

There's a lot of truth in this narrative, but it's not the whole story. Doctor Who was performing well for its early episodes, but the Daleks did turn it into a ratings sensation. Arguably, this was even more impressive than it seemed, as that first Dalek story was a rush commission rather than something that had months of thought and planning like the first story. And the Daleks are a great concept, visually and conceptually, for which everyone involved should be justly proud. But the best bad guys are only as good as the heroes who come up against them, and they are defined by those heroes' reactions. This is why the Daleks have never found much of a life without the Doctor. This is the disappointment of reading a comic strip in a Doctorless Dalek annual, and why Dalek author Terry Nation's Dalek-only TV show never found sufficient backing - the heroes were too clean-cut and dull; the Daleks on their own weren't enough, they're only one side of the coin. It was like Moriarty was deprived of Sherlock Holmes and was up against Dan Dare instead (in fact, scratch that - that sounds like it would be awesome!).

The three cavemen episodes set up the regulars, and flesh out their characters. The team then start the Dalek story ready to meet the big bad nemesis and take things up a level. It wasn't planned that way, it was just luck, but it worked. To recap: our heroes are an old man so desperate not to lose his granddaughter he kidnaps two teachers rather than risk her running off if he let's the two of them go, who's willing to kill a defenceless man just so he can escape quicker. Ian isn't a saint either, he's stubborn and aggressive as well as stoic and brave, and needs Barbara to remind him of basic compassion. He likens the cavemen to animals, and has just as many issues projecting his superiority as the Doctor. Barbara can't help but follow her curiosity even when she can feel its going to lead to something terrible. Susan is hyper-intelligent but young and naive. The conflict between the regulars is also very carefully calibrated - not enough to be off-putting, but enough to develop the characters and propel the action.

Step back a moment, forget about the caveman's outfits and speech patterns being a bit risible, and see the quality and depth that's been put into the script. Imagine what the first story of a teatime kids' show could have been like, if they'd underestimated the audience: a bunch of bland people, including one unreliable oldster, adrift in time and space trying to find their way home. It could have ended up like a British Lost in Space. And Lost in Space was shit.

In Summary:
The origin, you might say. And one of the best, all four parts of it. So there.