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.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Smugglers

Chapter The 87th, with a yo-ho-ho and, if I might be so bold, a veritable bottle of rum into the bargain.

The Doctor and his new travelling companions Ben and Polly materialise in a Cornish coastal village in the 17th Century and get mixed up with a local smuggling operation, and a recently arrived bunch of pirates trying to track down their old captain's treasure. Because of his grey hair or venerable cloak or ability to work a TV camera close-up like an absolute boy or something, the Doctor is unfeasibly trusted by the local churchwarden, an ex-pirate, with a riddle that leads to the treasure's hiding place in the church's crypt. (Although the churchwarden gets the riddle a bit wrong when he whispers it, the Doctor's mild telepathic ability works out what he meant to say.) Anyway, after some capture, escape, threatening, bluff and whatnot, the TARDIS team delay all the bad guys in the crypt long enough that an armed band of revenue men can arrive and kill and / or arrest everybody.

Nobody's been willing to watch Doctor Who with me for what seems like ages, and the randomiser goes and picks The bloody Smugglers (working title), a non-descript filler story from the black-and-white era with no surviving video, which would need to be experienced either as slide show or talking book. A crowd-pleaser it is not. Surprisingly, though, I did find a willing viewing mate, the Better Half, who watched it with me during one week, an episode per night, on a laptop in bed. We viewed the Loose Cannon reconstruction, a fan made non-profit creation which matches the surviving audio with the surviving off-screen stills and the odd clip. As ever with a recon, video sharing sites are quirky as to whether they store every episode of these, and sometimes some surfing around different sites is required to reach the end. As it is one of those overlooked stories, it was a pretty fresh watch for both of us. It was during a pretty busy time here, and I'd got behind on my blogging:  I hadn't got round to writing up the last blog post for Gridlock until a week after I watched The Smugglers. So, I had another listen on my own to the official BBC audio-only version with narration to remind myself of the plot - such as it is! - before I wrote about it here.

First-time round:
As the season opener for Doctor Who's fourth year, The Smugglers is rather low-key. It feels harsh to call it forgettable, but I have literally forgotten it - I have no memory of first experiencing the story. It could have been reading the novelisation in the late 1980s, but my gut tells me I didn't get the book back then, and obtained a copy later (and maybe haven't ever read it - sorry, I feel like I've let the fan collective down!). So, my introduction to the story must have been around 2002 when the audio CD came out. Again, though, there's nothing that sticks in the mind about it, and before my recent viewing I'd have been hard pressed to recall any details. The major abiding memory of it is in fact not really from the story at all; it's a publicity photo of George A. Cooper as the pirate Cherub threatening William Hartnell's Doctor. It's a striking image - the blade looks like it's pricking Hartnell's skin - and caught my imagination when I first saw it in a Doctor Who Magazine in the early 1980s.

Why, I wonder, isn't this story called The Pirates? There was a long period before the Pirates of the Caribbean films were successful when pirate movies were considered too much of a box office risk, but that was mainly because of the disastrous production and performance of the film Cutthroat Island in the mid-90s, so that attitude certainly didn't extend back to the 60s when The Smugglers was shown. The story is a faithful mash-up of two literary influences, or film adaptations thereof: Treasure Island (breakaway pirate with location of treasure is tracked down to a coastal spot by old crew and killed) and Jamaica Inn (chubby local authority figure is secretly behind a smuggling operation, with an armed posse turning up at the denouement to stop it), plus a pinch of Peter Pan too (Captain Pike). You'd have thought that the dry land larceny was slightly less exciting that the ocean-bound kind when it came time to choosing a title. Although, the pirate ship featured never sets sail, I suppose.

That might be an apt summary of the piece in general: it's a becalmed ship, not going anywhere. Neither the smuggling nor pirate treasure plot build up to much more than a squabble about a cryptic crossword clue in a crypt. Or maybe that's not fair: all of the story's swashes and buckles are reduced to noises off, with or without a blurry fixed frame image; the action sequences might be great, for all I know. Maybe all the story's imagery is as good as that publicity shot of Cherub threatening the Doctor. The few remaining clips back this up, but as they only exist because Australian censors snipped them out of the film copies, and they therefore comprise lots of vicious stabbings, it's not surprising that they're quite striking. Unless the episodes themselves are ever found, we'll never know for sure.

This is the first of Ben and Polly's regular adventures after their introduction in the preceding story The War Machines, but it isn't much of a showcase for them. The best sequence is their playing on the superstitions of their gaoler to escape, which is a cute bit. Alas, the rest of the stuff they get to do is a bit meh. They've both only just joined as the bright new hopes and they already find themselves in a stopgap story. Worse still, over the course of the next couple of stories everything is going to change fundamentally with a new actor taking on the lead role, and it won't be long before they're sidelined; in some ways, theirs feels like the shortest era ever.

The performances are in keeping with the overall feel of things, which is to say they are large. It's not just because of Captain Pike's similarities to Captain Hook that this feels like a panto. It even has a principal boy: Anneke Wills' Polly is assumed to be male throughout because she's wearing trousers. Now, it's difficult to avoid veering into sexism discussing this, but this is a character played by Anneke Wills in the Sixties, lest we forget: she is so demonstrably a blonde bombshell that I defy any randy pirate or innkeeper to remain under the illusion she's a boy for more than about one minute. This time, the lack of moving images probably helps sell that particular element of the plot.

Both The Smugglers and Gridlock contain references to pirates, and a character soon to die telling the Doctor a gnomic riddle that will only be explained after a few more episodes have passed.

Deeper Thoughts:
The Making of Acorn Antiques. In a long ago Christmas special of Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, one segment is a spoof documentary on the making of the wonky fictional soap Acorn Antiques that featured weekly on Wood's show. I was well read about the making of TV from Doctor Who Magazines and elsewhere by the time I first saw this sketch in the late 1980s, and so lots of it resonated, and stayed in my memory long after. The panicked vision mixer's "coming to 2, no 3, no it was 2... now coming to 3", for instance, encapsulates the stressful nature of working in a multi-camera production. Later in the sketch, the fearsome (and fictional) executive producer of Acorn Antiques, Marion Clune, grips the mixing desk as her star enters the scene without the tea tray that's mentioned in dialogue. But they don't break recording; instead, Mrs. Overall just mimes holding the invisible tray, as the rest of the cast discuss how nice it looks. "We professionals notice," says Marion (played with brio by Maggie Steed) in the gallery, "Joe Public never clocks a damn thing."

Of course, the people who made Doctor Who would never display so unprofessional an attitude. But, such were the pressures of making Doctor Who to a tight budget with only so much studio time, that often mistakes and fluffs did get left in as they moved on to the next scene. This is particularly true of the 1960s stories; editing of the time involved cutting and taping the physical video tape - any more than about five splices, and it would fall apart. So, often it was just like the actors were doing it live, they had to keep going no matter what. The Smugglers has a particularly stand-out example, as the actor playing Longfoot gets the riddle - the exact wording of which is going to be crucial to the ending of the piece - wrong in the first episode. By an amusing coincidence, the director that made the ultimate decision to leave that mistake in was Julia Smith, who the character of Marion Clune was based on (in her role as exec producer on Eastenders, and in particular her appearance in a real Eastenders doco, Just Another Day, several scenes of which The Making of Acorn Antiques riffs upon).

Who was going to remember a line from two or three weeks earlier? It's not like anyone could record the stories in the 1960s to experience them again, yes? Except, of course, it subsequently came to light that people were indeed recording Doctor Who in the 1960s. Not on video, of course, as that technology was too expensive for home use back then, but on audio tape. Just as the restrictions of making television in those days nurtured the creativity of individuals like Julia Smith, helping them to move on to bigger and better things, so the restrictions faced by the Doctor Who enthusiast in preserving television inspired a level of technical ingenuity in this small group of dedicated fans. It's because of them, and them alone, that we still have all the audio of every Doctor Who story.

The best recordings are those made by fan Graham Strong, when he'd given up on using a microphone, and wired the TV's audio output direct into his reel to reel machine. His recordings are so good, that they're better quality than some of the soundtracks on the surviving film copies, and have therefore been used as the sound masters for DVDs. I was very sad to read over the weekend that Graham had recently passed away at the age of 69 years of age. One of the nicest moments at the BFI event unveiling of The Power of the Daleks DVD a couple of years back was when Graham, sat in the audience, was encouraged from the stage to take a bow. I'm glad he knew how much fun and joy his and other's home taping had brought to so many Doctor Who fans, allowing them to enjoy audio CDs, animated versions, and reconstructions that otherwise couldn't exist. So, for The Smugglers, I have to give thanks to the pirates.

In Summary:
Never sets sail.

Saturday, 19 May 2018


Chapter The 86th, which oo-ooh sends me, takes me to the rush hour.

The Doctor and Martha visit New New York in the year 5billion-and-a-bit. Since he was last here with Rose, everyone but those living in the undercity ghettos have died from a virus. The remaining residents have been unaware of this - or at least fiercely in denial of it - for decades, assuming that the government is still around because of some automated systems, and have taken to the motorway in their flying vehicles to escape to a better life. Traffic is so bad that cars take years to travel even one mile, and so the motorists are all unaware or at least fiercely denying that they're going round in circles and will never get to anywhere.

Meanwhile, the cars' choking collective exhaust fumes are feeding savage Macra creatures in the fast lane way down the bottom of the multi-level 'road' system, and they like to destroy any cars that come down that far. The Doctor and Martha get separated and stuck in this system, but the Doctor is transported out by cat nun Novice Hame, and manages to open the motorway roof so all the vehicles can fly up and out, and everyone can repopulate the city. The Face of Boe - who has been keeping things running using his life force - dies, but not before telling the Doctor cryptically that he might not be the last of the Time Lords after all.

I was feeling knackered in the middle day of the - very sunny - May Day Holiday weekend. Usual pattern for such weekends is as follows: Saturday, go out somewhere, full of enthusiasm; Sunday, stay in watching TV hiding from the sun and other people; Monday, do some gardening, full of rue. This one proved no different. For the middle day, I usually plump for a comfort food watch, an Inspector Morse or Hickson Marple perhaps, or a film like The Princess Bride, but sometimes a Who is what the Doctor ordered. Gridlock probably wouldn't be my automatic choice - the random number generator I use to pick which story to watch next is a useful device, but lacks true discrimination - but it was pleasant enough way to spend 45 minutes. Yet again, though, I couldn't interest anyone in the family to join me as I viewed from my DVD copy.

First-time round:
When Gridlock was first broadcast in April 2007, it followed an FA Cup semi-final on BBC1; if the match had gone to extra time, then Doctor Who would have been postponed to the following Saturday. I remember feeling a small amount of worry that this would come to pass, and relief when it didn't. This demonstrates that I was still watching live, and still very much engaged with every individual show at that point. Our first child (boy, who at the time was still under 1 years old) can't have required putting to bed during the Doctor Who slot as he would the following year; it was in that following year that time-shifting became the default for us, and around this time too that the BBC iplayer launched, and BBC3 was repeating modern Who episodes in heavy rotation. So, the new series 3, Tennant's second year, including Gridlock, was our (and possibly many other people's) last point of regularly watching live as it went out.

Let's get it out of the way at the start: Gridlock doesn't have lots of plot holes, it is one big plot hole. It's really hard to reconcile how - except at the allegorical level at which the story operates - any of the character's behaviour makes sense. How can anyone believe there is still a functioning society in place outside the motorway? If the cars can communicate with each other why not the outside world? If so, why can't the Face of Boe or Novice Hame get a message to the trapped motorway dwellers? Or, even better, open the doors so they can fly out? It shouldn't need them to wait for the Doctor to arrive to sort it all out - what if he'd never come back to New Earth? None of this spoils the story, though, as the production integrates so well - in plot, performance and all aspects of design - to achieve the story's central visual metaphor: we're all trapped in our little boxes, going round in circles, in denial about whether or not there's anything beyond.

The comparable story from later would be Heaven Sent (and Eric Saward's abandoned script for the final episode of The Trial of a Time Lord bears some similarities too); maybe something about the stressful idea-consuming week-in week-out grind of writing Doctor Who inspired these repetitive circular narratives. In Heaven Sent, the circumambulation is a single-occupancy hell escaped only by the unstinting perseverance of the heroic individual, whereas Gridlock is a comment on the society stuck in the system. The motorway residents are joined together across differences - race, class, sexuality - through hope. Yes, it may be a delusional hope, but it's a hope nonetheless. The scene where everyone in the cars stops and sings The Old Rugged Cross, was justly praised at the time, and is still electrifying to watch. It silences the Doctor in his full blown self-righteous rant, trying to wake people up to their situation, but it's not really a pro-religion moment, more a humanist one. This is why it was crucial to have an actor like Ardal o' Hanlon who personifies warmth and friendliness, even under wads of fur and latex.

The consolations of denial are not lost on the Doctor either - there's a fine parallel drawn with his actions in the scenes with Martha bookending the piece: he too lies to his companion (and maybe himself) just so he can wish away an awful truth, the destruction of his planet and people in the Time War. In both scenes, and throughout, Tennant is excellent, bedded in nicely now after his less certain first year. The sequence of him breaking out of the side-to-side tyranny and traversing downward through different cars (accompanied by some great Murray Gold music) is Doctor Who as Ferris Bueller, anarchically making a short cut by jumping over garden fences. This sequence also allowed cheap and efficient world building - a redress of  the single car interior set, and a different set of cast members each time, giving brief intriguing glimpses into the corners of this odd place. Writer Russell T Davies finds a new text for Doctor Who, a voracious consumer of influences over the years, to rip off: the Future Shocks of UK comic 2000AD. It's definitely an interesting new texture. The Macra fit nicely into that world too, and it was a fun gag to bring them back.

It's a shame that this was the final part of a loosely linked trilogy of stories, as it would have been nice to revisit this world again; but, less is more. The show was getting better at using loose sequels and trilogies, plus running dramatic elements, to improve the season arcs and move away from the "Where's Waldo / Wally?" style of the first two years with mentions of "Bad Wolf" and "Torchwood" smuggled in. This third year culminated a lot of hints and plot elements in its 3-part finale, where the meaning of the Face of Boe's dying words was explained.

Both contain a talking appendage in a jar disconnected from any corresponding body, and in both stories this appendage falls out of its jar and onto the floor. The cat nuns were a sort of sisterhood too, although there's only one still around by the time of Gridlock.

Deeper Thoughts:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of thingummy doodah. A recent nerdy conversation I had (actually it was in January, where has the year gone?) discussed the inconsistency of Doctor Who episodes, and other genre fare. It's rare to find a season of anything without a few episodes one thinks of as duffers. With Who, it's almost part of its DNA: it started - and has mostly remained - as an ongoing series of stories in wildly different locales with cliffhangers leading from one to the next. Is there enough similarity in its overarching themes and characters that someone could like equally a tale of witches in Shakespearean England and a sci-fi allegory about people stuck on a floating motorway? Maybe, but what about the week after that? And the week after that? Sooner or later it seems likely it'll come a cropper. This is a curse of episodic genre television: variety brings with it risk, but the heightened aspects of the genre demand variety to an extent which a soap, say, doesn't have to face.

My exhibit for the prosecution, though, was Endeavour, the latest and current series within ITV's Inspector Morse franchise. It's a big favourite in our house, and I don't think there has been a single story in its five seasons to date that hasn't reached a high level of quality. You could argue that it doesn't face the same level of pressure to be varied that Doctor Who does, but I'm not so sure. It's at heart an adventure story with an intelligent non-violent protagonist, it's a period piece within a somewhat heightened version of reality, and it makes an effort to showcase a new locale each week; the latest series shown earlier this year featured, amongst others, stories set in a boy's public school, behind the scenes on a horror film, a railway station in the middle of nowhere, and an army base - any one of these could have been the setting for a Doctor Who, and some already have. The two key differences, though, are that Endeavour's seasons comprise a smaller number of feature-length stories, and they're all written by the same person, Russell Lewis.

From the early reports in 2003 and 2004, this is roughly the same structure I was expecting for the new Doctor Who. It was mentioned at points that the number of episodes hadn't been decided yet, and there was an impression given that a Russell (T Davies, in this instance) would be writing them all. I didn't expect feature length stories, but I thought there would be maximum 8 episodes, maximum an hour in length, so around the same commitment in minutes per year as the usual batch of episodes of Endeavour, or Lewis before it. The added value - 13 episodes and a Christmas special! - that we got from new Who was a nice surprise. For its latest season, though, Endeavour did 6 films, rather than its usual 4, of roughly 90 minutes each in length with the ad breaks removed. That's as close as dammit to the twelve 45-minuters in Peter Capaldi's last season. And - though it pains me to say it - Endeavour's run was significantly better.

Coincidentally, it was Endeavour's antecedent, the TV adaptation of Inspector Morse, that brought in the format in the first place; no pissing about with cramming a detective mystery into 50-minutes (like the roughly contemporaneous Poirot adaptations) nor of having multi-episode stories with cliffhangers (like the roughly contemporaneous Miss Marple adaptations), Morse from its debut in 1987, decided that each story was going to be a self-contained and feature-length film. Eventually, Poirot and Marple would follow its lead, as well as pretty much every other detective series and a large majority of dramas. If Doctor Who had still been going into the early 1990s, I don't think it would have remained as a multi-camera episodic show, it would have been done on film as 90-minuters with no cliffhangers (for its only outing during that decade, that was indeed its shape). Despite the small-batch approach, Inspector Morse was wildly inconsistent, both in tone and quality, particularly early on. But that was because it was still written and directed by different people each week, who were given a larger amount of freedom than now. Nowadays, protecting a brand is of higher value than giving talent (including quite a few newbies who worked on Morse) room to play.

Perhaps because of the success of Doctor Who since 2005, the Morse format has become less ubiquitous, and cliffhangers have had a bit of a renaissance. For example: in its later series, Morse sequel Lewis starting doing stories in two parts, separated by a week. It looked less like an artistic decision than a scheduling one, mind, and - particularly the first year they did it - the evidence pointed to them being made as feature-length, then chopped up. But, could it be done now? Could you restructure a Doctor Who season as a series of feature-length films? There's no reason why you'd need to jettison cliffhangers or overarching plots - Endeavour still retains vestiges of these - and it might help to keep things more consistent from story to story. But, you would lose something of the variety of locales, and a few people would get very upset that Doctor Who was on for fewer weeks of the year. That's happening a bit, anyway, though: Mister Chibnall's first year is going to be 10 episodes, but they're all going to be a bit longer than previously. Let's see how it goes when we get to Autumn. Exciting! (Why is this year taking so long?!) 

In Summary:
More fun, and more thought-provoking, than being stuck in traffic.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

The Brain of Morbius

Chapter The 85th, which outlines how to get ahead in transplant surgery.

The Doctor and Sarah-Jane are forced by Gallifreyan remote control to land on the planet Karn, home of a fountain of eternal youth guarded by a youth dance troupe / sisterhood. These sisters have an uneasy truce with the Time Lords: in exchange for providing some of their elixir in cases where regenerations have failed, they're left to destroy all ships that come anywhere near Karn and keep themselves protected and alone. Alone, that is, bar smooth-talking surgeon, Mehendri Solon, who's been allowed to stay and build a patchwork body from bits of crash victims. Years earlier, Karn was the site of a battle with Time Lord renegade Morbius and his followers; Solon extracted Morbius's brain just before the defeated renegade was executed, and has been keeping it in a jar. He wants to use the Doctor's head to house it. But the Doctor manages to persuade the sisterhood he's on their side, brutally murders Solon, and then engages in a mind battle with Morbius (who's now got a fishbowl for a head). It ends in something of a draw; the Doctor has to be brought back from death with some elixir and Morbius staggers around confused until the sisterhood harry him off a cliff with flaming torches.

Still no one in the family is much interested in watching Who. Over a few days, I watched the DVD, an episode a time, mostly on my own, but with family members drifting in and out, mostly out. The Better Half watched the ending and sought an explanation from me as to how, when the leader of the Sisterhood Maran sacrifices herself at the end, she manages to get into the flame chamber, even though it's not big enough to rejuvenate a cat. I spluttered and filibustered, but there wasn't any answer: it's a sub-genre of impressionistic special effects on Who where they are trying to achieve something mundanely impossible, rather than fantastically impossible, and still don't achieve it successfully.

First-time round:
The initial Brain of Morbius VHS release in 1984, the second ever story released in the range, was notoriously butchered. In those very early days, the videos all presented the stories edited together as one feature-length piece, presumably as someone somewhere believed no punter would want to watch repetitive credit sequences every twenty-five minutes. It wasn't a policy limited to Who either: my first bought tape of The Young Ones had three non-contiguous episodes, with no plot running between them, but the Beeb still felt the need to remove the roller captions bits and stitch what remained clumsily together (even if that meant removing some gags). What made it worse for Brain of Morbius , though, was that someone somewhere decided to put out a version with 30 minutes of story ripped out as well as the credits. Luckily, this was before I started buying the videos, so I never came across this troublesome version, but it was not popular with anyone; paradoxically, it's something of a collector's item now if you can get a copy.

Like all those early edited stories, Morbius was released a few years later with the episodic structure reinstated. By this time I was not only buying the tapes, but eagerly awaiting each release, and snapping it up as soon as I could find it. Morbius was supposed to come out on the same day as the similarly reissued The Five Doctors, but I could only find the latter in my local W. H. Smiths in Worthing. Many days passed, and I remember the slight embarrassment of ringing up to check whether it had come in, and having to say the words "The Brain of Morbius" to an adult non-fan, then repeat them, and then spell out 'Morbius' for good measure.

A few of the Doctor Who stories from this period take inspiration from classic horror texts, primarily their Universal movie versions. Usually, though, this is merely to seed an idea that grows out in a completely different direction. Pyramids of Mars for example, a couple of stories earlier than the Morbius tale, shares no story beats with any Mummy movie ever made, it just scavenges some elements of look and feel. The Brain of Morbius, however, is a pretty full-on retread - crazy, driven scientist reanimates stitched-together body from bits of dead people, the resultant creature finds it hard to communicate, runs amok and is pursued by a torch-wielding mob.

This is one of the reasons why its author (Terrance Dicks) was so frustrated with the heavily rewritten final product. He originally planned a little extra twist - the scientist would be replaced with a robot, following the only logical path open to it to re-body its master. The production couldn't ultimately afford to do a robot convincingly, script editor Robert Holmes did a hasty rewrite, and Terrance had his name taken off the thing. Robert Holmes garnered grudging amusement from Dicks, after being asked to slap on "some bland pseudonym", by taking that literally: The Brain if Morbius was credited to a Robin Bland. Dicks didn't like that the changes made the piece completely unoriginal, and stopped it making sense: why would a human make the insensitive mistake of imagining anyone would want to be transplanted into Frankenstein's monster? But a robot's cold logic could probably have worked that out too, and the lack of originality doesn't matter : it's so screamingly obvious that it's a pastiche, that a viewer just goes with it as a simple bit of fun.

Beyond the big James Whale inspired main course, Morbius offers up on the side a veritable smorgasbord of other horror-fantasy cliches, taking things from everywhere: secret cults to bring back evil dictators, all-female psy covens, brains in jars - it almost achieves some originality from the sheer accumulation of different hoary old tropes. There's only a few characters, but they're well drawn and well played (Philip Madoc as Solon is rightly held as one of the most memorable villains in classic Who). There's some delicious black comic dialogue in keeping with the heightened nature of the tone, and it trots along at a reasonable pace to a satisfactory if slightly questionable conclusion: what did the Doctor expect to happen when he attempted to gas Solon and Morbius to death, that the Sisterhood would come and let him out eventually? What's going on exactly in the mind-bending contest - does the Doctor lose, or win at the cost of his own life?

A much bigger problem with the story than its script, is how tatty everything looks. The sets, models, costumes, props - all of it is looking a bit threadbare; the production is regularly lauded as being rich and lush, and I just couldn't see any of that on screen.

Both The Brain of Morbius and Listen contain at least one futuristic craft grounded on a rocky planet, and in both stories the Doctor's companion is offered a drink at table, but doesn't end up having it (Danny and Clara miss out on water as they're too busy arguing; Sarah-Jane pours her wine surreptitiously away).

Deeper Thoughts:
Time, time, time team, what has become of me. I started this blog to avoid having a mid-life crisis. Doctor Who, an obsession I've had since I was nine years old, a subject I know far too much about in ridiculous detail, something I've never grown out of despite several obvious opportunities to do so (the nigh-on 16 years it wasn't on TV, for example) would never be a topic that would cease to be relevant to me. And watching and blogging every single episode, new and old series, would keep me busy for years, preventing me from having to start driving a sports car or forming a band, or wearing Lycra. Would I cease to be relevant to it, though? No, this too was impossible: I couldn't cease to be relevant to Doctor Who as I'd never been relevant to it in the first place. This has not stopped me banging on in blog posts for three years now, harmless old fart that I am. But, but, but...

In the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine, the new time team has been revealed. For the uninitiated, there has been a team of four people featured regularly since 1999 watching and then commenting on Doctor Who stories one by one. The magazine has once previously traded in the time team for a younger set of four. This new third set are a dozen people, they're all shiny twenty-somethings born in that nigh-on 16 year period Doctor Who wasn't on TV, and a lot are involved in media or social media. Apparently, their taking over has caused a rash of negative comments online, which then prompted a backlash from other commentators accusing the first set of commentators of being intolerant, against diversity, etc. I say 'apparently' because I only saw the second wave, not the first. This was the same with Jodie W's casting - I only saw the complaints about the sexist comments, I didn't see any negativity first hand (at least until the negative tweets were compiled for me by various news outlets in that instance).

I don't doubt there were some bad comments from older fans about the new time team, but I'd guess not enough to warrant the somewhat defensive reaction. My own first thought was representative of neither of those polar opposites: I was confused wondering where the last time team had left off. I was sure they hadn't reached any point of conclusion (the new team is not picking up where they left off), and there was no proper goodbye. Flicking through my old DWMs, it seems the last story they covered was Matthew Graham's Ganger 2-parter from 2011 earlier this year. So, it seems clear that theirs was not a planned exit, and this new team and approach is another impact of the editorial changes that have been happening at Panini Towers recently. I scrutinised the photo of the new crew, and they did look very young; but, the previous time teams started off fresh-faced too and that bothered nobody. They've increased ethnic and gender diversity, which is good, but they've dispensed with even having a token slightly older-looking bloke as a reader-identification figure for grey-hairs such as what I am. Mind you, I often didn't agree with those particular individuals' opinions anyway. But, I admit, I still felt uneasy. Then, it hit me as to why: it wasn't that they looked young or diverse, it was that they looked cool. They didn't look like geeks at all; or, if they did, a twenty-something geek is a cool look these days.

No popular media magazine aims exclusively at an uncool ageing demographic, of course (except Mojo, perhaps), but I am startled to be increasingly finding Doctor Who Magazine covers less and less that is relevant to me, and represents a fandom that differs wildly from my experience of it. No-one wants to feel their favourite thing is growing away from them, which might explain any knee-jerk comments made when the new time team was announced. My guess is, though, that the number of confident young cosplaying media-savvy creative fans is in the same proportion as it ever was to the rest of us. And that there is, and always will be, a large number of middle-aged pale gentlemen who just collect Doctor Who stuff and watch the shows. It's just the cool kids' time in the sun right now, and there's nothing wrong with that. If I'm wrong, and they are taking over the fan gene pool, then that's okay too. The Brain of Morbius's key theme - without ageing and death there is no progress - would seem to be apposite here, and I'm okay with being increasingly irrelevant. Hold on, though: the new time team format seems familiar, doesn't it? Random episodes selected, with maybe only a tangential thematic link between the stories, and not watched in order? That's the whole point of this blog. Maybe I have been a trail-blazer after all.

In Summary:
Don't be in two minds about it: it's a fun pastiche.