Saturday, 14 July 2018

Invasion of the Dinosaurs

Chapter The 93rd, is one that just might be from a golden age.

The Doctor, trying to get new companion Sarah Jane Smith back home, arrives in central London only a few weeks after they were last on Earth, but the city is deserted: Londoners have fled after some menace has spread, and the area's under the control of the military. The two time-travellers get arrested suspected of looting, which is the biggest problem in the evacuated area (with the exception of all the giant lizards that keep popping up only to disappear again). Eventually found and rescued by the Brigadier, the Doctor and Sarah help UNIT to investigate what's causing the dinosaur invasion. Unfortunately, seemingly everyone involved in the investigation except the Doctor, Sarah, the Brig and Benton are part of a conspiracy.

The Doctor goes on the run after being framed as the monster maker (despite there literally being zero evidence against him, except his being caught near a dinosaur, which - given they are popping up in London at random - doesn't amount to a hill of beans smoking gun-wise). Sarah ends up imprisoned in what appears to be a spaceship three month's out from Earth. Benton ends up having to arrest himself. The conspiracy is led by an MP, Sir Charles Grover, who plans to revert the whole of the planet and its population, reversing millions of years, so that he and a group of people (those he's duped into thinking they're on a spacecraft to a new world, when in actual fact they're in a bunker under London) can start humanity off again along a better path. The Doctor stops the plan, just in time, and reverses the polarity on the time manipulation equipment, so Grover and the mad professor helping him are sent back in time on their own.

The Better Half and I watched from the DVD an episode an evening every so often. For some reason, we kept getting interrupted by other priorities, and this stretched to a number of weeks all told. In the middle of the watch, I squeezed in 10 episodes of The War Games in one evening, before spending another week or so finishing eps. 4-6 of Dinosaurs. Although it was ages ago now, I can remember that we chose to watch the first episode in colour: the DVD uses the clever technique applied to a few other Pertwee episodes that only exist as black and white film of recovering the colour information somehow burnt into each frame. This was the least successful attempt at the process, so the colour version of episode 1 is presented on the disc as a non-default option. To my eye, though, it's perfectly serviceable and doesn't detract (although episode 1's bleak abandoned London lends itself well to a black and white presentation anyway, so one can't really lose).

First-time round:
I missed any showings of Invasion of the Dinosaurs on UK Gold, so it was left to home video to allow me to watch it for the first time. By the time of Doctor Who's 40th anniversary late in 2003, the VHS range was approaching its end. The next range, re-releasing everything on DVD, had already got underway a few years earlier, but the BBC had decided to reward / exploit the loyal fanbase by completing the run on tape nonetheless. Invasion of the Dinosaurs was the final full story released in October of that year, probably left until last just in case they found the first episode in colour, or found a way to colourise it. In the end, it was released with the first episode in black and white. Then, by the time that DVD range was starting to peter out in 2012, Dinosaurs came out in DVD with the aforementioned option to watch it all in colour, and that completed the experience for me. The first season box set of what may turn into a full-blown range of Who Blu Ray re-releases has just come out, but they're starting with season 12, Tom Baker's first, the year after Invasion of the Dinosaurs. This is undoubtedly because that's the first year that is trouble free in terms of missing episodes or missing colour. So, it may be that I've collected my last ever version of Invasion of the Dinosaurs. What a thought!

There were many sniggering schoolyard criticisms one could level at the many different series of cartoon franchise Scooby Doo, but the thing that always got me more than anything was a frequent plot standby they used where the baddies invented a photo-realistic holographic technique, but instead of exploiting this for commercial gain, they just used it to scare people away from a minor league smuggling operation based in the abandoned funfair. In Invasion of the Dinosaurs, the villains don't just have bleeding edge time manipulation equipment, they also must have engaged some very good set designers and visual effects artists to mock up their pretend spacecraft fleet. And they presumably have invented some kind of workable suspended animation technology too. What a waste of effort just to use all that for a monumental misdirection, while they do an insane scheme to reboot life of Earth.

The first episode famously is titled merely 'Invasion', which was intended at the time to preserve the surprise; watching now, though, it's tempting to think it was just because they didn't want anyone to get their hopes up. The dinosaur models used in this story, and all the different methods of integrating them into the live action, produce results on a scale from 'risible' all the way up to 'laugh out loud funny', but crucially it doesn't harm the action as they are - literally - a side show. It may even enhance it: the dinosaurs are victims, after all, just minding their own business when wrenched out of time. It's quite apt that they are more cute than frightening.

A much bigger problem is how many holes there are in the villains' plot: how did they get everyone, even those who weren't in suspended animation, into the pretend spacecraft without anyone twigging, for example? How were they planning on getting them out again without spoiling the illusion? That this doesn't matter either, really, is testament to the writer Malcolm Hulke's skill in creating character. Everyone has solid enough motivation to keep things on the right side of credible, just about. He pulls the rug out from even the long-term watchers of this era, by making the bad guys motivated by what previously had been the series' number one good guy priorities: the anti-pollution, anti-nuclear, anti-war characters are on the wrong side of the argument in this one. Is is too grand to compare this to Animal Farm? Hulke was none-more-lefty, but he could still write a parable where the world reshaped by those with good intentions rapidly deteriorates to include sinister 're-education' of the individual, and even the threat of execution to weed out the disruptive elements. Just like his work in The War Games and elsewhere in Doctor Who, Hulke is gleefully anti-establishment, whatever that establishment might be.

However one rationalises the holes in the spacecraft subplot, it does give the story its best cliffhanger (episode 3's) where Sarah has woken up and may be three months into deep space. And not just because it's the only cliffhanger that doesn't involve an entire suspension bridge of disbelief on the audience's part that the rubber toy dino on screen is real - it wrong-foots everyone, and comes out of nowhere, though it will be satisfactorily explained later. It doesn't matter either that footage of the Doctor and UNIT is intercut with the spacecraft scenes (a move that has been criticised in the past): we're supposed to see early on that it's all a con. Elizabeth Sladen's performance is very good in the second half of the story, doing her best to wake up the underground sleepers to the truth. In fact, all the performances are top notch: Peter Miles, Martin Jarvis, Noel Johnson; best of all for me is Carmen Silvera's icy turn as Ruth. Director Paddy Russell gets the best out of her cast, and also makes the most from some guerrilla filming in the early hours of the morning, providing episode one its remarkable deserted London scenes.

Like The War Games, this one has scripting duties contributed by Malcolm Hulke (writer of Invasion of the Dinosaurs) and Terrance Dicks (its script editor). Also, it's the third story on the trot (including Turn Left) to feature soldiers, an area visited by our heroes that's under martial law, and a plot involving the abuse of time travel.

Deeper Thoughts:
It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate, it takes guts to be gentle and kind. In Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Sir Charles Grover, famous environmentalist, author of Last Chance for Man, admired even by the Doctor, let's everyone down. I've often wondered how I would feel if a famous person I really admired, like someone from TV's Doctor Who, was embroiled in some scandal, present or historical. There hasn't been a shortage of questionable Television Centre-based activities by certain persons reported as happening during my childhood in the 70s and 80s, but so far it hasn't involved anyone I really cared deeply about, certainly nobody from Who: mostly, it has to be said, the alleged perps were hardly surprising news at all to anyone who lived through TV of that era, a lot people on the box back then exuded a less than healthy vibe.

The day has now sadly come: it is not a hero of my childhood but of my older years who has besmirched his reputation, such as it was. That person is Steven Patrick Morrissey. His pronouncements have got more and more reactionary of late, but his latest crossed a line, defending as it did the indefensible, and supporting the insupportable. Heaven knows I've stood up for him in the past, like many an obsessive fan (as another hero of mine from that time, Sean Hughes - whose own  reputation took a hit when his obituaries came to be written - said: everyone gets over their Morrissey phase; except for Morrissey, of course). The Moz was misquoted, he was misunderstood, he's playing a persona, it's irony - I trotted out all those lines. Maybe he too always exuded a less than healthy vibe, and I just didn't see it back then.

So, what do I do now? Ignore it? The work is not the same as the creator, of course; but, Morrissey's modus operandi was always to include a lot of himself in his art. Should I get rid of all my albums as Stewart Lee advises? That seems unfair to the people who wrote the music, particularly Johnny Marr. All I can therefore do is feel foolish for my past; but maybe I shouldn't feel too bad. It's only empathy, after all, taken a little too far. Like any bad direction or decision, excessive hero worship starts with something natural, good... or at least understandable. This is why a plot like Malcolm Hulke's Dinosaurs story, despite its being OTT nutso sci-fi, still resonates - the bad guys don't know they're bad guys; they started with a desire to create a better world. Even nationalism, to pick one example, starts off from a desire to protect the ones we know or associate with most. The only way we can understand or counter these dangerous directions is by being open to empathy. If the price of that is that sometimes we feel foolish for singing the praises of a person or idea which turned out not to be as good as we first thought, that's probably a price worth paying.

In Summary:
All in all, it's something of a (temporal) paradox: a story with loads of big flaws, but it's still absolutely excellent. Final word on the matter: KKLAK!

Sunday, 8 July 2018

The War Games

Chapter The 92nd, a 1960s Doctor Who double album.

Okay, there's 10 episodes of plot to summarise here, so buckle up: the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe land in what appears to be 1917 No Man's Land during World War One, but things aren't quite right - the soldiers they encounter seem to be under some form of hypnotism, and have no memory of how long they've been at the front; there's also an anachronistic communications monitor hidden behind a painting in a senior officer's quarters. The Doctor is condemned to death as a spy by a dodgy General's dodgy court-martial, but is rescued when a sniper starts shooting at the firing squad. This sniper turns out to be a Redcoat, who thinks it's 1745. The Doctor and his companions make a couple of allies, Lady Jennifer and Lt. Carstairs, and all of them escape crossing through a misty force-field into another area, where another war is playing out, this time featuring some ancient Romans.

After doing some exploration, our heroes work out that some of the officers are aliens, manipulating the remaining human soldiers into fighting one another. The Doctor and Zoe find themselves in a TARDIS like travel machine, bigger on the inside, which dematerialises and rematerialises in each zone depositing soldiers. It finally arrives in a central zone, where the aliens in charge have some kind of evil training programme going on. Hiding themselves in a lecture hall, they witness the mental reprogramming of the captured Carstairs: this process reportedly has a 95% success rate. (In the American Civil War zone, Jamie and Lady Jennifer meet some of the 5%, who have broken their programming and formed pockets of resistance.)  An important official, the War Chief, drops in on the lecture. He sees the Doctor and there is a shock of mutual recognition between them. The War Chief sends guards after the Doctor and Zoe, who run away.

The War Chief bitches at his colleague, the Security Chief, both of them not trusting the other, as they try to find the Doctor. (The War Chief is not from the same race as the others, he is a Time Lord, and it is he who has given them the time travel technology to allow the kidnapping of so many humans from different eras.) With help from his friends, the Doctor escapes back to the 1917 zone with the reprogramming machine, which he has altered to use in deprogramming humans, and starts to form the disparate resistance groups into one large army.

The War and Security Chiefs are joined by the evil head honcho, the War Lord, and they make a plan for an ambush in the 1917 zone, kidnapping the Doctor and taking the machine back. The War Chief speaks privately with the Doctor: the former knows of our hero, knows he too is a Time Lord, one who ran away from their planet in a stolen TARDIS. The War Chief explains that the War Lord's people are training up the humans into a perfect army, with which they plan to take over the galaxy. The War Chief intends to depose them once all that's done, and asks the Doctor to help him rule. But this is all a bluff: he really wants the Doctor's TARDIS as the machines he's made are breaking down.

In order to stop a neutron bomb being dropped on all the zones by the Security Chief, the Doctor plays along that he's turned traitor, and gets key members of the resistance to come to the central zone. There, with some bluff and subterfuge, they turn the tables on their captors. The Security Chief has recorded the War Chief's treachery, and deposes him. In the chaos as the resistance are battling guards, the War Chief kills the Security Chief, but too late - the War Lord has heard the recording, and kills the War Chief. With the War Lord held captive, the Doctor reluctantly calls in the Time Lords - returning all the soldiers to their real times is too much for him, and he needs his people's help. The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe try to escape in the TARDIS, but the Time Lords use their all-pervasive power to drag the ship back to its planet of origin. There, the War Lord is put on trial and sentenced to being erased from existence. Then, it's the Doctor's turn. He justifies his breaking the laws of non-interference by presenting evidence of all the evils he has fought. His companions are sent home, their memories erased of everything but their first adventure with him; then, the Doctor is exiled to Earth where his appearance will be changed again. He drifts off into the void, his regeneration starting...

When the random number generator guided me to The War Games, it happened to be not long after it had been covered by the ongoing Twitch marathon. (I just dipped in to the current tweet stream for #doctorwhoontwitch, and it seems they've reached late Tom Baker and the latest meme is "Salami Sandwich"  - a silly line of Tom's in The Masque of Mandragora that was showcased in a trailer.) I realised, from reading comments from others who'd actually tried it, that in all the times I'd ever watched this seminal Doctor Who story, Patrick Troughton's swansong, I'd never attempted what might have seemed an obvious, albeit gruelling, way to watch - I'd never done it all in one continuous binge. The idea of such a challenge tickled me, and so I started to plan the right moment. The Better Half was out for the day, one Saturday during the recent UK heatwave, and once the children took to their bedrooms, exhausted from water fights and BBQ, I stuck on the DVD and let the next 4+ hours of adventure play uninterrupted. I had a chilled bottle of Sauv Blanc and some snack food, which I would regularly rush to the kitchen to replenish during episode end credits, and there was a minute or two's disruption when I changed to the second disc. But, I did it, and survived.

First-time round:
In early 1990, The War Games was one of probably the most exciting brace of Doctor Who VHS releases ever to come onto the market. For the last few years of the 1980s, I'd started my collection, slowly getting hold of the mere three tapes that were available for an affordable price at that time, whenever and wherever I could find them. The first one I bought upon its release - or at least as soon as possible afterwards (distribution was patchy) - was Death to the Daleks in 1987. There followed a couple of years of releases, which I picked up one by one. In 1989, a dizzying four tapes covering three stories suddenly appeared on the shelves of WH Smiths.

This batch included the first Hartnell release, which was the first ever presented with all its episode endings and beginnings left in, and the first available as a double tape release (at the time, this meant two ordinary VHS boxes sellotaped together). It must have sold well, as the following year  - when something of the regular release pattern of a couple of stories every couple of months was established - it was almost all 1960s episodic adventures brought out, a lot of which were in twin boxes (but they stopped bothering to sellotape them together, as I remember). The year kicked off with An Unearthly Child and The War Games. For a fan who had read extensively of these epochal stories, the bookends of the 1960s era, the one that started it all and the one that tied things up and flung the show off into a new direction, it was beyond amazing to suddenly own both of them to view for always.

I have a little theory going of the parallels one can draw between Patrick Troughton's era, hairstyle and all, and the work of contemporary popular beat combo, The Beatles. William Hartnell's era is like the earlier rock and roll of the 1950s - it blazed a trail, pretty much did every possible innovation, but wasn't as finessed as what was to come. Troughton's first year is like the early albums - loads of great stuff, but the odd duff story / naff cover version here and there. After that, Season 5 is Sergeant Pepper, and Season 6 is the White Album: the first very popular and consistent, with some definite classics, but arguably somewhat 'style over substance', and not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts; the second, much more sprawling and inconsistent, much less loved (although with something of a recent revisionist view from some fan champions) and much much more interesting. If that's the case, then The War Games is the most White Album-esque of all: double the normal length, with many people including its creators worrying and wishing that bits should have been cut out to make it tighter, but still a classic.

Just like its 1990 VHS release mate An Unearthly Child, a large amount of this story is written off by certain fans. The first ever story is seen as one really great episode followed by some caveman nonsense, and this is seen as a lot of long, boring war stuff followed by one really great episode. Neither assessment is fair. The War Games packs in a lot of plot. The first few episodes really feel like the beginning of a four-parter, such do they speed onward never seeming like anyone wants to hoard any twists and turns for later. Within minutes, our heroes have arrived in a war zone, been captured, been rescued, met some heroes, met some villains, and the mystery has been seeded with some lovely little hints. Having seen this many times, but not having a very strong memory of the details, I'm surprised that the court martial and firing squad happen as early as episode 1 (neatly, the story starts and ends with the Doctor being tried and sentenced).

Quick out the gate, then, but does it keep up that pace thereafter? Pretty much. I can attest from having watched it all as one four-hour piece, it rarely ever gets dull; there's no sagging middle, which even I was prejudiced enough to assume was definitely there. When it is dull, it's just for moments, and it's just because the action's stopped for a punch-up or some other stunt work, which was an expectation of the adventure television form in those days, not anything for which The War Games is to blame. The War Chief and Doctor have that shocking moment of recognition in episode 4, the words 'Time Lords' are first mentioned ever in episode 6. There's a resistance, there's a threatened neutron bomb, there's real and fake treachery. In the blog passim I've often quoted Terrance Dicks, co-author of this story, beating himself up about all the loop scenes he and his co-author Malcolm Hulke had to put in to this story which killed time but trod water plot-wise. But I didn't spot any on this watch: it builds and builds, and twists and turns right to the end. Of course it could it be told in less time than it is, but the task was to fill ten weeks with exciting adventure, and these writers - already battle-hardened pros by this point in their career - do that splendidly.

It's not just the writers, everyone else is giving everything they can, and rising above the limitations forced up on them. Whatever some commentators of the time and more recently think, this does not look like the last tired gasp of a show risking cancellation. The director David Maloney sets out his stall early on with some interesting camera angles and movements (check out the materialisation of the TARDIS reflected in a puddle) followed hard on by the sudden explosion of wartime verisimilitude. Throughout the remainder of the story, he keeps this up, getting great performances of great characters, and framing them in interesting ways. He's forced to do this, of course, to keep things interesting over such a long running time, but that shouldn't subtract kudos for his achieving it. There are too many great creations to list them all: Philip Madoc's icily still take on big villain, the War Lord, Lady Jennifer, who is missed when she disappears from the narrative half-way through, Carstairs, plucky temp companion... The list could go on and on. Even minor characters shine, like David Troughton as Private Moor who has you cheering when he bests the baddie, or Rudolph Walker as Harper, who leaves you saddened when his brave resistance fighter is killed.

Then, there's the regulars. Oh gosh! There was no reason to suspect when Victoria Waterfield actress Deborah Watling left Doctor Who, that it would even work to just swap in another female companion alongside Patrick Troughton and Fraser Hines, but somehow it's much better with Wendy Padbury as Zoe. There is a sheer joy from watching any story where this trio stars together, and they are faultless in every scene in The War Games. This makes the ending even more devastating, where the two companions lose their memories of travelling with the Doctor and go back to their ordinary lives (the first time the show had pulled that particular trick). Then, there's the magnificent sets - whether recreating Great War trenches, or providing pop art majesty to the swirly 60s decor of the alien's central zone. Then, there's the music - I've been humming composer Dudley Simpson's military ditties ever since.

Anyone who is still willing to discount all of that, and everything else I haven't had space to eulogise, still has the final episode and its revelations. Oddly in opposition to the received reputations, it's only in this final episode that the plot is in danger of petering out, and the loop scenes are required - there's the mucking about in the TARDIS, cut with reused footage, or the final one - perhaps one too many - of the story's escapes scuppered at the last second by the bad guys stepping into our heroes path. As a whole, though, episode 10 is still monumental, and unsettling (Troughton's regeneration is truly horrific - his head disappears), and contains arguably the first and best set of "game-changer" reveals in the show's history. Next stop: Earth exile. Exciting.

Both Turn Left and The War Games include soldiers, an area visited by our heroes that's under martial law, and mucho timey-wimey shenanigans.

Deeper Thoughts:
The Battle of the Binge. I've never been one massively for marathon watches or box-set binging. Nor, since I've had young children at least, can I say I'm one for snapping things up on the first day of purchase or being early to stand in a cinema queue for the latest release. Just ask a few of my enthusiast friends, who are badgering me to see - to pick one representative example - Rogue One, so they can finally talk about it in front of me (I finally got round to seeing it the other day, 18 months or so after it's cinematic premiere, and it was very good - there you go). Obviously, I know I am effectively doing a marathon watch of everything for this blog, but to use (abuse?) a marathon metaphor: I'm not expecting to make a record-breaking time or finish in the first few; after the forecast five more years it'll take to catch up with the Doctor Who currently on TV, I will be like one of those people in a gorilla onesie hobbling to the ribbon three days after everyone else has gone home.

Some stories, like Turn Left recently, I can enthusiastically whizz through and write up in record time, but the story I started after Turn Left has taken ages longer, an episode here and there, for no identifiable reason (certainly not its quality). In fact, I managed to watch the ten episodes of The War Games in one evening in the middle of weeks of struggling to finish that one (you'll find out which story it was next time). So, it can certainly be said that I have a love-hate battle going on inwardly with the correct speed at which to view episodic serials: there's a pleasure in making good things last, savouring every last moment, but there's an equal pleasure in ripping off the packaging, slotting disc into player and devouring it in one go. The interesting thing is it's a similar battle to that which everyone seems to be having now; box set consumption and deciding the correct etiquette surrounding it, has gone mainstream.

There aren't necessarily literal boxes to these box-sets any more; like a music 'album' the terminology has transcended its original physical constraints - once upon a time a purchaser would get a photo-album style booklet containing multiple 78s to group together a larger body of audio work than one disc could contain. To my mind, this is the key reason for the mainstream crossover: since the days of Laserdiscs and Betamax versus VHS, enthusiasts have wondered which physical medium would be the one that got the ultimate mass market buy-in; like with music, it turned out that the biggest buy-in would be when there ceased to be a physical medium at all. Sure, DVDs, like CDs, had their day, but there was still that whiff of collector eccentricity about them compared to just watching things on the telly. Of course, because of the march of technology, watching a drama serial (Stranger Things, say) as a broadcast, or watching it as a catch-up years later are indistinguishable events - the same interface and the same viewing experience goes with both. And, as has been seen with the Twitch coverage of Classic Who, just because something is old, doesn't mean it can't be appointment viewing and create 'water-cooler' moments for a cohort.

It doesn't take the sort of big push that Twitch got either; if my day job is anything to go by, many an office is working out as they go how they can collectively enthuse about what they've watched recently - it isn't hard, just requiring patience, and sensitivity around spoilers. If I have to wait a while to compare notes with a colleague or friend about American Gods or The Good Place, which I'm all caught up on, they reciprocate by not spoiling Jessica Jones or Lost in Space for me. In fact, the culture of recommendation and counter-recommendation building up reminds me more of novels than anything I've experienced with TV drama until now. No one expects anyone to read, and now to watch, the same things at exactly the same time, but when they have something excellent they are going to mention it, and hope you'll read / watch and like it too, so you can rave about it together. Along those lines, I would like to suggest Cloak and Dagger, which is intriguing and building up very nicely (new episodes each Friday on Amazon Prime), Halt and Catch Fire (which is magnificent and criminally under-seen, four series in total available also on Amazon Prime), and the Better Half would pitch Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (three series available on Netflix) for your consideration. Enjoy.

In Summary:
I'm not one for all that "maybe it was too many episodes". What do you mean? It's great, it sold, it's The bloody War Games. Shut up!

Monday, 25 June 2018

Turn Left

Chapter The 91st, when a stupid decision followed by a series of avoidable events turns the UK into an impoverished fascist nightmare, which could never happen in real life. Oh.

In a bustling market on the planet Cultural Appropriation, Donna is attacked by a time beetle which creates a parallel universe around her in which she never met the Doctor, and so never saved him from the climactic events of The Runaway Bride. The events of Smith and Jones, Voyage of the Damned, Partners in Crime and The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky then play out devastatingly without the Doctor to help, and the UK bit-by-bit turns into a totalitarian state, where Donna and her family are refugees without voting rights, and non-UK born residents are rounded up and put in labour camps. Throughout this, Donna is visited by a mysterious blonde woman from another dimension, who keeps popping up and then disappearing, and drops hints about a coming threat that's even worse than the ones so far - this is Rose Tyler, Earth Defender. Using TARDIS tech and with help from UNIT, Rose sends Donna back to the crucial decision point - where she turned right instead of left in her car - and Donna manages to put events back to their original course, but only at the cost of her own alt-life. Back in her real universe, she passes on the final message from Rose to the Doctor: "Bad Wolf"- oooh!

Watched from the DVD on a Saturday afternoon with my three children (boy of 11 from the beginning, boy of 8 and girl of 6 wandering in halfway through and staying put). Randomly landing on a David Tennant one has finally done the trick, and I'm not watching on my own for once. My eldest remembered watching this before, sometime in the last few years when he caught up on all the new series episodes that he'd been too young to watch first time round. He also expounded intelligently on the butterfly effect as he viewed. The youngest kept asking of Rose, "Is that the new Doctor?", and we had to keep disappointing her by explaining that this was an old one, and that Jodie Whittaker's series hasn't started yet; I hope she's blown away when it finally lands. As I'd hit 'Play All' on the DVD menu, the following episode The Stolen Earth started up instantly that Turn Left finished, and my co-viewing buddies insisted on watching the next two episodes: I was physically prevented from touching the remote.

I won't be blogging those other two parts yet, but it was a tricky decision. Doctor Who since 2005 (with one exception) doesn't bother with labelling anything part 1, part 2, and so on; it also has lots of arcs running through multiple episodes. Sometimes, there's no right answer to how many of those episodes comprise one story and therefore equal one blog post in my currency. In Doctor Who's third new series since its relaunch, showrunner and Turn Left's writer Russell T Davies, had played a similar trick as he does the following year: Utopia, which occupies the same position in the season. also acts as something of a teaser to the final two episodes. But, a lot of fans, and the official magazine, treat Utopia and the two episodes following it as one three-part story (as will this blog when it reaches that point). Why is Turn Left different?

It's all down to personal rules of course, but to me Utopia is an essential part of the 'Mad Master's drums' saga. Without it as the first part, the true nature of the monster revealed in the final episode of the season doesn't make sense nor have any dramatic weight. Also, Utopia doesn't really stand alone - the plot about the reappearance of the Master and the plot about the future of humankind both remain unresolved at its end and are only tied up later. Turn Left, on the other hand, is a self contained story of a parallel universe version of Donna facing adversity and making the ultimate sacrifice. It chimes with the final events of 2008's finale thematically rather than providing any essential exposition. As I watched The Stolen Earth and Journey's End, and marvelled at so many bravura sequences, it didn't feel right to allow them to overshadow the just as brilliant but different Turn Left - it deserves to be judged on its own merits.

First-time round:
I remember this one pretty clearly; I watched it slightly time-shifted but more or less live on its BBC1 broadcast debut with the Better Half and my good friend from university days Phil, who's been mentioned a few times before in this blog. It was slightly time-shifted as Phil and I were on a last-minute mercy dash to the - now sadly gone - local Oddbins to get essential supplies, and got caught in traffic on the way home. The Better Half and I only had one of our three children at the time, and he was just a toddler, so was probably abed before we watched. This is all almost exactly 10 years ago to the day as I write; how time passes.

To my mind, Turn Left is Doctor Who's only counter-factual narrative to date. There have been a few parallel universe stories over the years, and they've invariably showcased fascistic dystopias, but they've never dwelt on nor even confirmed exactly what caused the divergence. Turn Left isn't a tale of the UK if the Nazis had won the war, it's just our world given one tiny nudge in a different direction at what looks like a meaningless point, and the Earth still ends up as a fascistic dystopia! It's a bleak but bracing experience watching ones own country, that one recognises and loves, turning incrementally but brutally and plausibly into a place where an emergency government have ruled that the displaced don't have voting rights, and immigrants - even those who've lived and worked here for many years - are treated deplorably.

Despite the bleakness, the story finds some lighter moments too ("Well, isn't that wizard!") and the mix is very satisfying with scene after scene delivering the goods. To pick a few memorable examples, and these are more of less contiguous: the collected inhabitants of Number 29 joined together singing Bohemian Rhapsody only to be interrupted by gunfire, the young squaddie levelling his gun at Donna while Wilf and Rocco are shouting at him to stop, the scene where those same two men salute each other as Rocco's family is being taken off, everyone putting on a brave face despite the terrible fate they are heading toward. Finally, and probably best of all, there is the scene that director Graeme Harper lets play as a close-up on Jacqueline King as Sylvia, barely moving, defeated, with Donna behind out of focus talking about being a disappointment to her mum. But ultimately, Donna proves herself: even without ever knowing the Doctor, she is a hero.

It's all the more miraculous that this is so good given it's the year's cheapo filler story. Every year, there was a 'double-banked' episode made at the same time as another, not always including as much of the main cast, some or all of whom may be needed on other sets. This time, they have split things neatly in two: David Tennant is making Midnight while Catherine Tate was making this. Davies makes this limitation a virtue, the story is all about the absence of the Doctor. Recycling clips, actors and plot points from previous episodes from the last year or two doesn't seem like a tired retread, but instead gives everything greater scale, a sense of foreboding, and a slow progression to the climax of the two-part finale to come. Many of the themes and memes of the season are paid off here (something on Donna's back, Rose reaching out across the divide between dimensions) but also nods to previous years of the new series, and its spin-offs too: Martha Jones, Sarah Jane Smith and her gang, Captain Jack and the remaining members of Torchwood, all are brushed aside off-screen, leaving only Donna and Rose to save the day.
One barely misses David Tennant, as there's so much performance power packed in to this 45 minutes. Billie Piper and Catherine Tate work very well in their scenes together, although - as was pointed out by many at the time - there's something off about Piper's vocal delivery, which she seems to fix by The Stolen Earth / Journey's End: it's like she's got someone else's false teeth in. Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King are amazing in this; Joseph Long too: is it possible for more than one actor to steal the same scene? If so, that's what happens with this three actor crew, executing perfect joint scene-heists all the way through.
It's so nearly perfect - I haven't got space to go too much into the peerless dialogue, the electrifying score, the Back to the Future inspired ending sequence. There are only a few tiny flaws: the wicked Fortune Teller is a bit too fairy tale and broad for this story, the time beetle when finally revealed is a bit fake, it looks like novelty backpack. But, I'm nitpicking; overall, it's great.

Another new series show that's part of a trilogy of episodes, and ends on a cliffhanger, but also just about works as a stand-alone story. Both story's feature Joseph Long (appearing in the "previously" sections of The Pyramid at the End of the World as the Pope, and making a memorable contribution in Turn Left as Rocco Colasanto. Both also feature UN personnel, if UNIT are still part of the UN since they've changed their name to Unified whatever.

Deeper Thoughts:
Politics again, naturally. Turn Left was written and produced in the last few months of 2007 when not much was well known about the scale of the global economic crisis - which would impact and influence pretty much everything for the next ten plus years to date - but some bad signs were gradually becoming apparent. The emergency at UK mortgage lender Northern Rock had only happened just over a month before Russell T Davies started writing. Flicking through the collected correspondence of this period between Davies and journalist Benjamin Cook in their essential and superlative book, The Writer's Tale, you'll mostly find discussions about the craft of writing, as you'd expect; later on, when 2entertain's budget input into Doctor Who production was in doubt because Woolworths UK was going to close, it got a bit closer to home; but, early on, Doctor Who is clearly too all-consuming for those making it not to be in a bit of a bubble.

Maybe just a little of the news seeped in to Davies's outlook when he was writing his counter-factual narrative, though. At the beginning of the season, in Partners in Crime, Sylvia berates Donna because "no one's unemployed these days except you", the last fading echo of the New Labour boom years; by Turn Left things are more desperate, as they were to become in real life. Russell would build in a minor subplot about Barack Obama's recession busting plans in The End of Time, and that's not aged very well; but, Turn Left in 2018 still resonates. If I can be so bold as to quote myself from a few paragraphs and sections earlier on this page: "It's a bleak but bracing experience watching ones own country, that one recognises and loves, turning incrementally but brutally and plausibly into a place where an emergency government have ruled that the displaced don't have voting rights, and immigrants - even those who've lived and worked here for many years - are treated deplorably". Does this remind you of anything?!

That Turn Left coincidentally chimes with Trump's or the Daily Mail's worst recent excesses, or the shameful treatment of the Windrush generation, is maybe not so surprising. Economic strife brings out the worst in people, and we're seeing a long tail of the impacts of inequality and the resultant (and wrong-headed) austerity to which that inequality gave rise. It wasn't so hard to predict, perhaps. Of course, Turn Left also features courage, spirit and heroism in the face of insurmountable odds. That's a nicer reflection of humanity. The longer the slow-motion car crash footage that is Brexit carries on, the more I'm hoping we, somehow, can get an ending where we're all happy and all together putting the planet back onto its correct axis, as opposed to looking out into the darkness as the stars go out, one by one.

In Summary:
About right.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The Pyramid at the End of the World

Chapter The 90th, features some meddling monks, and the U.N. and some I.T.

Along with Bill and Nardole, the Doctor - who's hiding that he was blinded a few stories back - is summoned by the UN secretary General to help investigate a pyramid that's appeared from nowhere in a global hotspot border area where US, Russian and Chinese troops are massed. The pyramid is really a disguised spaceship that contains alien invaders who appear as corpse monks. The Monks have been running a computer simulation of everything that can possibly happen on Earth and have arrived when a disaster is just about to befall the planet. The Doctor was part of this simulation, and managed to get a message out to his real self, but his real self hasn't done much to prepare seemingly (he's been too busy practising his mournful guitar work, perhaps).

Anyway, the Monks will help avert the disaster, at the cost of enslaving everyone, but only if Earth opts in with full consent (the monks were GDPR compliant a year early!) The Doctor works out that a mistake in an experimental lab is where the end of the world will start, and all the massed armies stuff is just a diversion. He goes to the lab with Nardole, leaving Bill with the Monks. The end of the world is averted; but, because of an unfortunate sequence of events, the Doctor ends up stuck in a room unable to open its combination lock as he can't see, with an explosion imminent. To save him, Bill gives consent to the Monks who restore his sight. He escapes from the room just in time, but now the world's going to be enslaved. To be continued....

Late on a weekday from the series 10 blu-ray, with beer, on my own (I'd add "natch", but I didn't even ask any of the family whether they wanted to see this one; maybe there'll be an upswing in their interest after a bit of a gap, who knows?!). Watching it, the story already felt like one from a bygone era (albeit a good one), and it's only a year old. It reminded me a little of watching The Smugglers a few weeks back - the ongoing tapestry of Doctor Who has barely gained more than a couple of stitches representing this team (be it One, Ben and Polly or Twelve, Bill and Nardole) and any moment now it's going to be "all change". Still, it was good while it lasted, and it was nice to be reminded of it again (even though you'd think it would be fresh in my memory).

First-time round:
You'd think it would be fresh in my memory, but no - a year later, and it's a blank. Only with a little digging into my online history of last year am I able to ascertain that around the time of broadcast I was blogging The Time Monster (oh, the pain!) and was also bored of the ongoing - and seemingly endless - campaigning leading up to the general election to take place a few weeks later. Likely, I watched the episode time-shifted on the evening of its BBC1 broadcast and showed the kids the following day, and likely I saw a news programme sometime in that period too, and no doubt Theresa May was on it, and she likely said "strong and stable" at least once. Strange days indeed.

There's a thread that runs throughout the first two-thirds of this story where the audience are being shown the ominous build up of chance occurrences which will lead to an as yet unknown disaster. This structure seemed oddly familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on from where at first. Towards the mid-point, though, it hit me. All the little coincidences of broken glasses and broken bottles and where they're leading is no deep art film symbolism about a cosmic joke, they're instead a run-through of another Saturday night series' staple plot: it's not causality, it's Casualty. The long-running BBC series focuses, like this Who story, on ordinary characters away from the main action of the regulars, who step-by-step are leading themselves to the point where they'll need a Doctor. This structure was once satirically skewered (a No-Prize for anyone who can tell me where) as "Look at these mint imperials scattered on the floor. Oh that's dangerous. I wonder if someone will slip on them in the next 49 minutes!" Once I was aware of this, it did detract and distract a little, which is a shame, as the performances by Tony Gardner and Rachel Denning were particularly good.

What also took the edge off the enjoyment, was the knowledge of how royally this story is going to screw up the following one. The Monks are presented as just too powerful for their defeat after 45 minutes of The Lie of the Land to ever feel satisfactory, and that latter story would be massively improved by being a one-off rather than part of a trilogy, and having its (different) alien menace already in situ at its start, exerting control. But Pyramid was screwed up in its turn by Extremis, its preceding story: for example, if the Monks can simulate every aspect of our planet in such detail, including the Doctor's impact on events and the fact that he's blind (they knew that enough to simulate it last week), then why isn't the last twist part of their plan all along (and it's definitely not - the doomsday clocks start running backward and the Monks act surprised when the Doctor saves the day, then act suddenly suitably smug again when Bill clues them in that they have some leverage after all).

Other than that, though, it's a rather good little tale. As familiar as it is from its Saturday night schedule stablemate, Doctor Who's not really done the Casualty plot structure before, so it feels fresh, and those scenes have a brooding, intensifying atmosphere of doom. The intercut UN scenes effortlessly give the illusion of scale beyond the budget they actually will have had. The Doctor looks amazing - a craggy stick of determination in sharp threads and dusty boots. He comes over even more here as the aged gunslinger, persuaded to take up arms once more to face off the bandits, than he did in Hell Bent, where his playing that role felt somewhat forced. He gets to show off a little too - the scenes of the team working out what the threat might be, honing in by process of elimination, and finally the Doctor's master stroke: to turn off all the camera feeds to all the suspect labs, to see which one the monks turn back on. Well, I thought it was clever!

Right at the start there's a nice little sequence squeezing some great moments out of the "Previously:" section by interspersing parallel material set in the now. In these scenes, Pearl Mackie is at her best: you believe wholeheartedly that this is a student out on a date, even though the scene was co-written by two middle-aged men: she is effortlessly charming, but somewhat gawky and ordinary too. I miss her.

Not that Steven Moffat recycles tropes or anything, but this is the second story in a row from his showrunner period to include a pyramid that's the scene of a battle with some scary grey-faced aliens. And that group of aliens in both stories is styled as a religious order.

Deeper Thoughts:
London 1965, and a Twitch of Mortality.  I was a fairly early-adopter with social media, but I'm still rubbish at it. I've been on twitter for nearly 10 years and haven't reached a thousand tweets as yet. I think there was one year when I didn't get round to tweeting at all. I figure nobody wants to see a picture of what I had for lunch, or hear what I did during a dull day, or what I overheard on a train, or whatever. I consume a lot of my news, comment, humour and articles through the filter of social media, though, and sometimes this means I don't understand a meme or some millennial chatter, and - yes - it makes me feel old. But that's okay. For example, "London 1965" has become a thing over the last couple of weeks, a Doctor Who running gag (but somewhat respectful and celebratory) based on an amusing line reading of that location and year by William Russell (playing Ian, one of Doctor Who's first ever companions) at the end of The Chase.

This meme has come about because something called Twitch - which I don't fully understand as I'm not young nor savvy enough - is live-streaming loads of classic Doctor Who's online over a number of weeks  - and I mean loads of them, almost the lot. As this platform, as I understand it, is normally for watching gaming videos and other youthful content, it's bringing these episodes to a whole new audience; and, by and large, this new audience is loving it. Part of the fun is a constant text stream running alongside the pictures where viewers comment pithily on the action, try to catch everyone's imagination with a new meme, or repeat the memes that have already caught on. "London 1965" came from a trailer for the First Doctor's adventures, so had taken root long before The Chase was shown. I have found all this out from some digging (which essentially involved me finding middle-aged fans on twitter explaining it for their fellow codgers), but - inevitably - by the time I've got round to writing about it, nobody's saying "London 1965" anymore. (At the time of writing, Twitch is well into the Jon Pertwee episodes.)

So, poor old Grandpa Web 2.0. with his fusty blog is having trouble keeping up with new-fangled shenanigans. This, coming so soon after the new Time Team made everyone feel old has given me just a little cult-TV inflected pause to reflect on my own mortality.  My Dad died in the same year - 2005 - as the Better Half and I found out we were going to have our first child; of the two events, it was the latter that brought home my own mortality much more than the former. As sad as a parent's death is, your child is someone who you expect, and want, to have adventures you won't get to know about. I remember thinking it was the same as knowing, and somewhat sadly accepting, that there would be episodes of Doctor Who I would never get to see, not because they were made and lost before I was born, but because they'd be made after I die. In 2005, that had suddenly become a possibility again, and now I'm certain it will come to pass.

This idea, when it hit me, struck me as one that was fairly original and that I'd never seen expressed before. I filed it away, and four years later Gary Gillatt beat me to print: it formed a central theme of an article he wrote in Doctor Who Magazine's 400th issue. At least he's not younger than me. Though, as a university contemporary who went on to edit Doctor Who Magazine when hideously and obscenely young (and did it so well, too - it was the best ever period for the mag) he is yet another measure of my ageing. Still, ageing is at least preferable to the alternative. 

In Summary:
Better than an episode of Casualty.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Wedding of River Song

Chapter The 89th, is a bit like Elton John's current plans: a long farewell tour by someone you suspect ain't going anywhere anytime soon.

The Doctor, approaching the point where he has to face his predestined fate of getting shot by Lake Silencio in Utah by someone in a damp spacesuit, investigates exactly who the Silence are, and why they believe he needs to die there in such a convoluted and silly manner. After interrogating some rum coves, the trail leads him to the severed - but still talking - head of his old mucker Dorium Maldovar. Dorium explains that the Silence are trying to stop him from answering a specific question in a place called Trenzalore which he'll one day be predestined to visit despite the fact that he's predestined to die by a lake in Utah first (they really should have seen his escape coming, the silly Silence).

The Doctor goes to Utah, but fakes his own death - he's really inside the Teselecta shape-changing robot from Let's Kill Hitler, so doesn't get zapped nor burnt up. In between, a weird time glitch allows River (for it is she in the spacesuit emerging from the lake) to simultaneously refrain from shooting the Doctor, as well as actually shooting him. For a while this causes an alternate reality where all of history is happening at once, and there's a big battle with the Silence and Madame Kovarian in a pyramid. But none of that really happens, so it's nothing to get too worried about. River goes to visit Amy and Rory on Earth after the Doctor has left them behind. Because of their general timey-wimeyness from growing up near a time crack and being conceived in the TARDIS respectively, Amy and River can remember the events of the aborted reality, and River is able to reassure Amy that the Doctor isn't dead.

Another Bank Holiday weekend in the UK, more record-breaking sunshine, the roots since bathed in showers sweet as liquor are parched again, and the harts and rams and small fowls yearn to be cooled by zephyrs' breath;  it is at this time that folk like me like to hide inside and watch archive television. On a sultry night that later crackled with lightning, when everyone else in the house had gone to bed, I watched the story from the series 6 Blu-ray. 

First-time round:
On the evening of its debut BBC1 broadcast in October 2011. No special memories of this one, except that I can remember being disappointed. I had enjoyed all the season finales from 2005 up to Matt Smith's first one the previous year (The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang) but everything changed with The Wedding of River Song, and I don't think I've ever whole-heartedly enjoyed one since, though things picked up a bit with Capaldi's ones. I like big, fun extravaganzas, for a start off, and Steven Moffat doesn't seem to share my taste; also, because of Moffat's playing the long game, planning out a lot of Matt Smith's era in advance, each finale asks more questions than it answers, which isn't very satisfying. It is clever, though, for whatever that's worth: for example, there's a mention early on about Elizabeth the First waiting in a glade to elope with the Doctor - the punchline to that joke would only follow in The Day of the Doctor, two years after The Wedding of River Song. 

Imagine you saw an alternative universe version of a Doctor Who story; Pyramids of Mars, say, but it's set in a 1911 with Trump and dubstep and mammoths and flying cars. Would you care what happened? Probably not. But this is what happens for most of the running time of The Wedding of River Song. It's one big loop scene (a term that classic series maestro Terrance Dicks has used to describe bits of business he occasionally had to employ to fill up time in an under-running narrative, sequences that eventually just loop back round to leave the characters where they started). Nothing amounts to anything in a loop scene, it's just treading water; and nothing can have any relevance or resonance in The Wedding of River Song, because it's not happening in the real world of the protagonists; nothing's going to move on until we get back to that lake in Utah (and we've been waiting a whole season to get past this point, so yet another episode not getting anywhere, just when we thought things were going to be resolved, is adding insult to injury).

It's not that there aren't some nice bits in the big loop scene. The funny bits setting the scene at the start, of a jumbled world with things from different time zones rubbing up against each other (but it doesn't matter as it's not real), the thrilling sequences of the Doctor and Churchill realising they're surrounded by Silence (but it doesn't matter as it's not real), the romantic parts where Amy suddenly finds her Rory has been under her nose the whole time (but it doesn't matter as it's not real), the dramatic parts where River shows the Doctor how much he means to the universe (but it doesn't matter as it's not real), the exciting parts where the battle between human and Silence is joined (but it doesn't matter as it's not real). It's a waste of all those nice scenes, in a way: it might have been better for them to have been saved until they could be played for real somehow; they are undermined by taking place in a world without consequences.

Before we get to the big loop scene, there's all the Doctor's farewell tour material: all the bravery talking smack to a Dalek (but it doesn't matter as he isn't really going to die), all the funnies playing futuristic chess with heavily latexed guest stars, and hanging around in seedy space bars reading "Knitting for Girls" (but it doesn't matter as he isn't really going to die), the touching reference to the Brigadier's death and other nice continuity kisses, including a very nicely set up in-joke where everyone in the alternative reality has to wear eye-patches, like the Brigadier's alter-ego in Inferno  (but it doesn't matter as he isn't really going to die). When we finally get the curtain pulled aside on the conjuring trick of how the Doctor has escaped being killed - and we've been waiting a whole season, lest we forget, and we seem to have been shown the lakeside scenes in Utah a dozen times from different angles in all that time - it's just not that clever or earth-shattering a reveal. It's just a lookalike, not the real Doctor - thunderingly disappointing after all that build up, and an implicit promise from the beginning of the season ("That most certainly is the Doctor, and he is most certainly dead") has been broken.

What's left of the 45 minutes if the farewell tour material and the alternate reality material are stripped away? What actually happens that we haven't seen happen, albeit with some information withheld, before? I like to think of this as the story of the Doctor getting a library book out, then reading it, then returning it. In this instance, the library book is his old friend's decapitated but sentient head in a box, and the library is a weird catacomb filled with carnivorous skulls; but, in essence, that's all we're seeing. The Doctor consumes some information, some exposition, and that's that. It will come to have meaning to him, and we'll understand what it all means too, in a couple more years' time, and we'll probably be underwhelmed then too. Anyone wanting answers - anyone just wanting to see a nice wedding! - is going to be disappointed.

Both The Wedding of River Song and Resurrection of the Daleks have terminally misleading titles (there's no real wedding, and not much of a resurrection), both contain destroyed Daleks, and both pick up from a lead-in from the previous episode.

Deeper Thoughts:
A TV theory of everything.  I have already mused here on some of the questions that the whole 2011 Silence arc, and Matt Smith's era in general, have left unanswered or unclear, but I keep thinking of new ones. (If all history is happening at once in the aborted reality, and Neil Armstrong's first step onto the moon is part of that history, why aren't the Silence still being shot on sight by humans? The Doctor's video insert into that historic footage has definitely happened before Lake Silencio both in terms of Earth history and the Doctor's personal timeline. So, there should be no threat from the Silence at all, even in an alternative reality, and just adding a line to cover this discrepancy isn't much of a help. And, what happens to Madame Kovarian in the real universe? The Silence turn on her in her aborted reality using the booby-trapped eye-drive; but, given that nobody ever reverse engineered the eye-drives in the real universe, would they ever need to booby trap them? Perhaps they offed Madame Kovarian a different way, but maybe this ruthless villain got off scot free and lived happily ever after - her plan did appear to work in our real universe, after all.)

Anyway, as complicated as these plots can be, they could always be worse. There's a six-degrees of separation style theory out there in the geekoverse, which - through various coincidences, homages or cross-overs - can demonstrate that pretty much all TV happens in the same unified fictional universe, and that universe is all in the imagination of one teenage boy. This is the Tommy Westphall Universe hypothesis, which I've been vaguely aware of for a few years, but for some reason I was intrigued enough lately to read into a bit more (maybe because The Wedding of River Song is too thin and superficial to prompt any deeper thoughts? Yes, when in doubt, blame Moffat!). Tommy Westphall was a fairly minor character in 1980s hospital precinct comedy-drama St. Elsewhere, which I liked a lot back in the day. I probably saw the finale first time round - memory's a bit hazy but it rang bells when I read about it. The final scene of the final episode suggests that the entire series has been a part of autistic Tommy's internal imaginary space, inspired by a snowglobe he owns, which has a model hospital inside it.

So far, so so: better than Lost's finale, anyway. But the thing is here, and here's the thing: characters from St. Elsewhere appeared in Homicide: Life on the Street (both programmes shared production team members) so that show must be a figment of Tommy's imagination too. And characters from Homicide appeared in The X Files and Law and Order. It rolls on and on. Google it, and you'll see how far all those large and small cross-references that have been unwittingly added to shows here and there build up to an all-encompassing web. People have even pointed out that some of these shows have featured real-life personages playing themselves. So, does that mean the real world is part of Tommy's mental landscape too? Pinch yourself.

Here's one way to link Doctor Who in: doctors from St. Elsewhere once appeared in Cheers, Frasier Crane stopped hanging out in that Boston bar, and started his own radio show (within the fictional world of the show Frasier within Tommy's head) and in one episode, John Hemingway - main character of something I've never seen called The John Larroquette Show - called in to Frasier's radio show. At another time, Hemingway mentioned on his show a law firm called Wolfram and Hart who are also mentioned in a few other fictional franchises. In Angel (so the Buffy universe is all sucked into Tommy's ever-growing pulsating brain) the same law firm is confirmed to represent a firm called Weyland Yetani (and the Alien and Predator films therefore all belong to Tommy). A Weyland Yetani ship is seen in Red Dwarf in the episode Psirens, and a similar Easter Egg in the Dwarf story Demons and Angels is a blink-and-you'll-miss it glimpse of the TARDIS in a model shot. Bingo!

In recognition of all this, director Ben Wheatley, who helmed Peter Capldi's first two stories, snuck in an Easter Egg of his own: a replica of Tommy's snowglobe was created by the art department and added to the many knick-knacks dressing the TARDIS control room. Maybe it's still there! Anyway, the moral of the tale is appreciate what you've got: as convoluted as his plots could sometimes be, Steven Moffat was restrained in comparison to the sprawling, tangled genius of Tommy Westphall: only Tommy knows what happened to the real Madame Kovarian.

In Summary:
The finale of St. Elsewhere was better.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Resurrection of the Daleks

 Chapter The 88th... is a real low point.

The Daleks break in to a space station prison and release Davros to help them cure a virus that's wiping them out. Davros won't cooperate, so they quickly decide to kill Davros. But they don't manage to kill Davros. The Daleks also trap the Doctor and try to duplicate him to assassinate the High Council of the Time Lords. But the Doctor gets away, and so they don't manage to do that either. The Daleks have also created lots of duplicates of Earth people who are going to infiltrate the planet, so they can invade. But the duplicates are unstable and can't stand the confusion in their mind, so they don't infiltrate the planet, and the Daleks don't invade. After escaping the duplication process, the Doctor decides - without much in the way of build up - that he's going to kill Davros. But he doesn't manage to kill Davros.

The only person who manages to actually achieve something is a likely kind of lad called Stien, a turncoat from the Dalek duplicates, who sets off the prison's auto-destruct and blows up anyone left alive. But this isn't that many people, as during all these previous half-events or non-events, almost everyone else has been killed, stupidly, brutally, and unnecessarily (some of them in ways that aren't suitable for a family audience). The only people left alive at the end are the TARDIS team and the three most amoral killers involved, who get away disguised as policemen no doubt to threaten many more innocent people in 1980s London. With hilarious consequences! Tegan is fed up with all this killing (although she didn't see the half of it) and decides to leave the Doctor and Turlough. Even she fails to go through with her decision, and runs back, just in time to see the TARDIS dematerialise and the Doctor leave her forever.

I watched the two-part version from the special edition DVD, the episodes separated by a week as per its first broadcast. Nobody in the house sat down at the beginning to watch it with me (we need Jodie's first season to be on television, I think, to inspire some enthusiasm for Doctor Who in them again), but my two sons (aged 8 and 11) came in partway through the first episode and watched to the cliffhanger. The eldest thought that the depiction of female characters who just get in the way and do nothing was "sexist stereotyping", and he and his brother had a long discussion after the credits about how the Doctor could easily have escaped from having a gun to his head at the end of episode 1, by using Ninja moves.

First-time round:
I first saw this story upon its broadcast debut on BBC1 in February 1984. The show was made as four 25 minute episodes, as was standard at the time, but because of scheduling changes necessitated by coverage of the Winter Olympics, it was broadcast weekly as two double-length episodes. I remember getting caught out by this: I would always do my homework once Doctor Who was finished, before going to bed; because of the double-length, though, there was a late finish, and I didn't have time to complete the homework, and got into trouble at school the following day. Another negative point about Resurrection of the Daleks! I may as well come clean: I don't like this story at all. When I saw it in 1984, though, as it had Daleks, shooting and explosions and I was eleven, I found it amazing. It didn't blow me away and stay in my memory like Kinda or Snakedance, though, which I hope means I had better taste even as a young 'un.

A lot of Doctor Who fans think - published polls will attest to this - that The Twin Dilemma or Time and the Rani are the worst ever classic Doctor Who stories. But, those do at least have clearly defined villains, however rubbish their slug costumes or florid their dialogue; those villains have a plan, even if it's a plan as nutty as a squirrel's larder. Both have a hero, and in both that hero is actually the Doctor (who would have thunk it?!); he might be a bit wobbly, although there's a decent scripted reason for this in both instances, but in the end he pulls himself together to defeat the villainy which was reaching some kind of a climax. None of this is true, though, of Resurrection of the Daleks, which in my opinion is a good candidate for the worst ever classic Doctor Who story.

The Daleks in Resurrection don't have one clear plan, they have about four muddled ones; they're not the clear villain, because there's also Davros and Lytton vying for attention, scheming different and sometimes conflicting schemes from their domed co-conspirators. The Doctor isn't the hero; he skulks about barely involved on the outer boundary of the story for half the running time (this is often the case in writer Eric Saward's scripts), then spends another quarter strapped to a bubble-wrapped gurney. There are a couple of significant guest characters (the aforementioned Lytton and Rula Lenska's prison doctor) who he doesn't even meet. In the final quarter, none of the many plans are reaching any kind of climax: exactly the opposite, they're all being abandoned or going into reverse. If the virus is such a huge threat that the Daleks have gone to the trouble of freeing the potentially treacherous Davros to solve it, how come they can just abandon that plan and kill him when he won't play ball?

It's not just the plot structure that's bad, the tone is all wrong too. A small frivolous sidebar article in Doctor Who Magazine in the 1990s compared Resurrection to many movies written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It found that the Doctor Who story had a much higher body count than any of those violent movies. In the first two minutes of Resurrection, what appears to be three policemen have gunned down a dozen space people and one innocent bystander. Innocent bystanders get gunned down in Tarantino movies, of course: there's a great example in Reservoir Dogs, where the undercover cop who's got a little too deep into his gangster persona, fires back at a civilian shooting at him, and kills her. It's a devastating dramatic moment for the story and the character. The Doctor Who death, on the other hand, says more about the programme-makers than the piece; the old fellah lighting up his roll-up in a doorway being gunned down is just setting out the production crew's stall: look how macho we are, it chuckles at the viewer, look how callous and brutal this story's going to be - buckle up. It's adolescent. It's more callous and adolescent that anything Quentin ever produced, even at his most indulgent (not something to be proud of).

Thereafter, the script is studded with wannabe hard-boiled dialogue and cynical moments, which clunk and clank. There are no good guys here: the bomb disposal team look like they might step up to be plucky ordinary heroes, but then they all get killed. "Then they all get killed" must be typed out in the script's stage directions so many times. There's the cynical prison station's officers, but - no - they all got killed. Lytton's mercenaries look like they might be starting to turn on their Kaled bosses - no, they all just got killed. What about the Play School presenter? No, she deaded too. The worst bit of all, towards the end, is when the Doctor decides to commit an extra-judicial execution of Davros, for seemingly no other reason than that he might help the Daleks to survive a plague (which he only really knows from hearsay anyway). This is a huge step from all his previous moral quandaries about having the right to kill the Daleks or not, and light years from his normal moral standpoint. That he chickens out of doing it doesn't make it right, particularly when he's wholeheartedly blowing up Daleks with no qualms only seconds later.

Why is Resurrection better regarded than those other two 80s Who stories that sit in the relegation zone of every poll? Maybe a lot of fans are eleven-year-old boys at heart? Maybe anything with Daleks rates higher than anything without? Myself, I think it's about production values. Resurrection's are not as embarrassing as those other two stories mentioned above; in fact they're excellent: score, direction, locations, pacing, model and special effects work, all great. The cast are playing blinders too, given the material. An elegant gift box, then; it's just a shame about the contents.

Another story which picks up from a cliffhanger from the last broadcast show, and another where the Doctor has two companions, one girl and one boy. In both stories, the TARDIS lands by the waterside not far from docks.

Deeper Thoughts:
Is Lytton a duplicate? It probably won't light up anyone's imagination as much as the decades of the 'Is Deckard a replicant?' debate, but this latest was the first watch of Resurrection of the Daleks where I noticed the script may be suggesting that Lytton is just another of the Dalek duplicates, like Stien. As Lytton recounts to Davros, the Daleks now have need of humanoid troops because of the large number of Dalek casualties in their recent war with the Movellans. The Doctor later finds that the Daleks are operating a duplicating programme, seemingly at some scale, for the purpose of infiltration, but also for populating these troops. He asks Stein "Are you all duplicates?", to which Stien says "Yes". "Interesting, " replies the Doctor, "I wonder what happened to the real you?" Probably killed, if the treatment of the bomb disposal squad is anything to go by. This would also be an explanation for who the escapees were in the first scene, kidnapped victims to be duplicated and become troops, and that would explain why Lytton is annoyed that they have been slaughtered rather than just stunned.

This subjugation and mental control of their victims to expand their manpower is not a new trait of the Daleks, it's something they've done a few times before, most memorably the Robomen they hypnotically press gang in the 1960s; it's also something that's picked up in later stories too, with Dalek duplicates seen in Asylum of the Daleks, eye-stalk erections periodically emerging from their foreheads (Resurrection's troops have to make do with having their phallic extensions as part of their hats). Lytton's high status doesn't preclude his being just another duplicate either. There's later dialogue confirming that Stien, definitely a product of Dalek technology, is a member of Lytton's special guard; so, why shouldn't the Daleks' overall commander of troops also be a duplicate? Well, there is the issue that the process is unstable and the duplicates revert to their old personalities. If they are all unwilling conscripts, then this is a huge risk. Why are the Daleks taking such a risk? Let's say they are too arrogant to accept the flaws in their own technology - that fits both with their history and some comments made during this story. But would they really leave someone in control of their entire humanoid army if he might mutiny at any moment?

This is why I've always assumed up to now that Lytton is exactly what he appears to be: a hired mercenary, paid to lead the duplicate troops, who might be killed by the Daleks any minute (and he knows this), but who's currently surviving as he's useful to them in advising on tactics (and is presumably allowed free will so can give this advice effectively). This would fit with the implicit need they have to use organics for more emotional thinking, to break the logical impasse they've got into in their wider war. And every scene Lytton appears in is consistent with this; if he's under their control why would he be in conflict with them about what actions to take, and why would he be so keen to justify himself to them; if he's under their control, why bother giving him a command role at all, why not have a Dalek do that, and have every duplicate just be a grunt? At one point, the Black Dalek gives Lytton a mission with which to "redeem" himself for his past failures - is that really how you motivate someone you have under mental control? But then, towards the end, there's another line from the Black Dalek "Lytton grows too arrogant; his mind resists our control".

So, Lytton at some point was under their control. This, coupled with the explicit declaration that "all" the troops are Dalek duplicates, seems to leave no doubt: Lytton is a duplicate. This leaves only two possible reasons for how the Lytton scenes throughout the story have played out: either he's only just started to break free of control and revert to his old personality, and rather than kill him the Daleks have put up with this because of the need for his expertise at a key moment of their plan; or, he's always had slightly more sense of himself than the other duplicates, in order to fulfill his command role, but the Daleks now know he's breaking free even of that. Either way, though, logically it looks like the real Lytton must have been a mercenary anyway. So, they've duplicated someone to be a gun for hire, when he was already a gun for hire, and in so doing have created a dangerous instability in the commander of their troops. What it also means, more intriguingly, is there could be another real Lytton surviving out there, or at least an old life and old cohorts of his waiting for the duplicate to re-engage with. He's one of the very few to survive the story, so there's the possibility of a sequel which could be very interesting indeed...  oh.

In Summary:
An elegant gift box containing a turd.