Friday, 9 March 2018

Terror of the Vervoids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Planet of the Daleks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

An Unearthly Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 February 2018


Chapter The 77th, an Arthurian adventure; well, isn't that wizard?!

A future version of the Doctor finds himself in another dimension and becomes Merlin to a King Arthur who is much closer to the legends written in our reality, but with added zap guns and grenades. The King and his sword Excalibur are sent by that Doctor to our universe in the 8th century in a spacecraft, which is hidden under a lake in England, with a secret concrete tunnel to allow his past self (as played by Sylvester McCoy) to enter 12 centuries later, plus booby traps to make it more challenging for his past self (as played by Sylvester McCoy) to enter 12 centuries later. He was clearly in two minds about his past self (as played by Sylvester McCoy), this once and future Doctor.

Anyway, the sword gives off a signal, which is picked up by the TARDIS, and the 7th Doctor and Ace arrive nearby in the Home Counties of the near-future (relative to Ace's timeline). The signal may also cause a UNIT nuclear missile convoy to break down nearby, or it may just be a coincidence. When the Doctor investigates, a new Brigadier, Winifred Bambera, radios in about this mysterious stranger, and the old Brigadier, Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, is called to the area to help out. So, two Doctors, two Brigadiers, and (probably) two King Arthurs - are we keeping up so far?

Somehow, wicked witch Morgaine travels through a gateway into our dimension; some of her knights (and one of Arthur's knights) also arrive, but they don't come through a gateway, they fly through space and land like rockets crashing into the Earth (possibly because they think it looks cool). Whether they have time travelled as well as crossed dimensions or whether they've just been waiting a long time is not clear (in fact, there's indications in dialogue and staging to point to both, so take your pick). Everyone has a big fight, Morgaine nearly sets off the nuke, but the Doctor talks her out of it, and everyone lives happily ever after. Ish. And I haven't even mentioned The Destroyer, or Doris, or Shou Yuing. It's got a lot of plot, this one, as you can probably tell.

Watched with the whole family over the course of a weekend from the DVD. There was some internal debate on my part about whether to view the original episodic version as broadcast, or the extended special edition feature-length version on the second disc. I went for the former. For the early episodes a couple of family members drifted in and out, but by the last two episodes, everyone - me, the Better Half, two boys, 11 and 8, and a girl, 5 - watched in enthralled silence. The eldest boy didn't like any hints of kissing or romance bits, wondered why Angela Bruce was saying 'Shame' "instead of the S-word" and was frankly baffled by her wanting to arrest people at the end of episode 1: what would they be charged with exactly? He has a point there.

First-time round:
I first saw this on its debut BBC1 broadcast in Autumn 1989, but can't remember much about it, if I'm honest. I can tell you that I would have been poised with the video recorder, finger hovering over the record button, ready to tape each episode as it went out. I know this, as that's how I prepared to watch all the final four seasons of original series Who, and would have done for many previous seasons had my family possessed a VCR earlier. This was during a brief period when I was not buying Doctor Who Magazine, but we were regularly getting the Radio Times (I remember avidly reading Michael Palin's Around the World in Eighty Days travel diaries in the RT during some weeks of season 26's broadcast). This meant that I hadn't read much in advance about the new season, except for the sheer blaze of mainstream un-publicity that the Beeb put out to accompany the launch (this comprised one short trailer and a half page interview with Sophie Aldred in the John Craven kids' section of the aforementioned listings magazine). Given that since 2005 I have had the internet (and in 1996, a magazine was published in advance of the TV movie detailing its entire plot from start to finish), this would be the last time I watched Who being fully unspoilered. And I don't even remember it. I don't even recall whether or not I knew the Brig was coming back. Oh well; so much for surprises.

It's a somewhat hackneyed view, but nonetheless one I share, that the 1989 season was the best season of Doctor Who for many a year, ironing out the issues of McCoy's previous seasons and presenting strong enjoyable story after strong enjoyable story. The obvious thing happened next - the show got cancelled. But the quality of the output had nothing to do with that decision, I'm convinced. At least it went out (temporarily, as it turned out) on a high. Except... it wasn't quite perfect, was it?  Battlefield was a bit pants. That's the fly in the ointment for any that love season 26 and regret that there was no season 27 the following year. What about the season opener with the ridiculous flying knights and Sophie Aldred overplaying "BOOM!" in unforgiving close-up? Well, this time round, I gave it a chance, watched with an open mind, and - reader - I loved it. Rather than being the clunker I thought it was, it was instead at least an 8 out of 10. Flawed, yes, but almost up to the quality of the other three stories shown that year.

Aside from the risible flying knights, and a couple of moments of 'large' acting which should have been reined in by the director, the only other major drawback, and possibly the key reason it isn't as well thought of as the other stories broadcast in 1989, is the incidental music. This is the only story shown this year with music composed by the much maligned Keff McCulloch. He is the least good of the three regular composers of this period to my mind, and usually the stories he scores are the weaker ones; is that a coincidence or something connected to his music? There's some good cues here, mostly when what's on screen is ominous and brooding, but everything else he tends to smother in tinny synth stabs and drum machine. Ignoring the music applied, though, Battlefield seems weaker when it's doing action or comedy compared to the ominous and brooding moments, so maybe Keff is just reacting to what he sees, and trying to lift the less good material.
McCoy has a few dodgy moments, but just as many brilliant ones: his reaction to the nuclear missile convoy's "graveyard stench" is particularly nice. The moment when Ace emerges from the lake, sword aloft, is very confident for a TV series which is supposed to be on its last legs. Angela Bruce is magnificent casting; she doesn't get to do a whole lot now I watch it back, but what she does is perfect; when she wields a sword and gets stuck in promising to do her job with some style, the new Brig has arrived. I'm sure she and the new UNIT would have been back in season 27 had it happened. The old Brig holds his own too; a couple of Nicholas Courtney's finest hurrahs are here; the big confrontation with the Destroyer, of course, but also the wonderful reaction on first hearing that the situation he's being drafted in to help out involves "the Doctor". Even Keff's twiddly synth enhances the magic of the moment. The Destroyer himself is a great creation, lifting the last couple of episodes - possibly he's a metaphor for nuclear destruction, or perhaps just a horned beast with a buff chest.

What comes over most of all when watching is how modern it is: underpinning the action - however cartoonish it gets - are the real emotions of plausible characters. The aside made at one point that whenever the Doctor turns up "All Hell breaks loose" is a refrain that the new series plays often, word for word sometimes. Also picked out are some regular McCoy era themes: a villain frustrated by the ravages of time, the Doctor as game player and arch manipulator (this time of himself), and a three-dimensional female villain brought down by her own grief. But why anyone would want to start this story (and the season, lest we forget) with a scene of two OAPs in a garden centre, baffles the mind. It's not representative or exciting, and it ruins the marvellous gag a few moments later when a UNIT soldier calls for the Brigadier and the person who turns up confounds all expectations. This is even staged as a long shot in a rear view mirror to add to the build up, and it would surely have been intended to come before the reveal of the older Brig in his retirement. I checked the special edition and they even retain it in the same place there too. Why not start off with Excalibur?

Both Battlefield and The Day of the Doctor introduce new UNIT personnel, build on the backstory of an incarnation of the Doctor of which we've not previously been aware, and contain the return of a series regular from another era. Both stories contain Jean Marsh interacting with UNIT (there's a picture of just such an event on the companion pin-board in Day of the Doctor), and Sylvester McCoy saying "Across the boundaries that divide one universe from another" - a clip of Battlefield is used as part of the sequence of all the Doctors working together in the 50th anniversary story.

Deeper Thoughts:
Old, New, Borrowed, Who. The producer of Battlefield, John Nathan-Turner, had been in charge for a long time by the time of its broadcast, and had publicly declared he was going to leave, before being persuaded to stay, at least twice by that point. Hanging on to Doctor Who was killing his career, but if he left it would kill the programme. No one in BBC management wanted to hand the show over to any other in-house producer, and not many would have wanted to pick it up anyway. Before casting Sylvester McCoy, Nathan-Turner's production had gone into nuclear meltdown with the script editor leaving, and the star being sacked. So, bringing in Sylv and appointing Andrew Cartmel, the script editor for the remaining three years of Classic Who's lifetime, must have been a relief as well as a breath of fresh air. Rather than sinking down to a combative level as he had done with the previous script editor, he let this younger man run with things. Cartmel got to reshape Doctor Who with a group of like-minded young writers without too much in the way of micro-management from his boss.

Interestingly, the initial attempts to deliver this new angle on the show - those stories that form the 24th season of Doctor Who, McCoy's first run - are popularly thought to have been a misfire. Things only came together (at least according to popular consensus) when Cartmel and his writers started to dig into the show's history - Cartmel's second year marked the 25th anniversary of the show's creation, which prompted some looking back - and they found that some of those archive stories were much more to their taste than the more recent shows before they took over. Battlefield launches the third and final year of Cartmel and McCoy, building on that anniversary season, and producing the best single run of stories in many a year. Again, as I mentioned above, this is all according to the popular view, and your mileage may vary, but - whatever we think of these stories - I think any but the most rabid anti-McCoy fan would agree that they could have been a lot worse. Presumably, it was Nathan-Turner's idea to bring back another archive element in the form of Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier character, and one can imagine the continuity-heavy bore-fest story this might have proved had it happened pre-Cartmel in 1985 or 86.

Why did it work so much better here? I can be a little slow sometimes, and it's only just occurred to me on this watch that writer Ben Aaronovitch's research before he completed the shooting script for Battlefield must have included watching 1971 Doctor Who story The Daemons. It existed (albeit not all in colour) in the archives in 1989, and had a good rep, making it an obvious touchpoint for a writer embarking on the first UNIT story in over a decade, and various elements of Battlefield mirror those in the earlier serial: the action centres on a village pub in which the regulars stay overnight, a helicopter goes up in flames, there's a cute ending scene where the regulars are suddenly seen in a more domestic context; Battlefield's foregrounded hints of the near-future setting (carphones, inflation, 5 pound pieces, the UK having a King) are the equivalent on the fictional channel BBC3, and The Destroyer bears quite a resemblance with Azal, the big bad of The Daemons.

Crucially, though, all this is done subtly, the plot does not rely on these details being known or even noticed, and an effort is made to do something new: the multi-country, multi ethnicity, multi-gender UNIT on show here, which has learnt from its previous skirmishes, is forward looking, and could have returned in this new form regularly had the show continued. Late in the scripting period, Battlefield still climaxed with the death of Lethbridge-Stewart. But a realisation dawned on Aaronovitch, which he's mentioned in quite a few interviews over the years, that it would be the wrong thing to do: Doctor Who can be remade afresh without the need to destroy or even ignore its history.

In Summary:
Despite its reputation, Battlefield is not at all bad. Everything else propaganda.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Day of the Doctor

Chapter The 76th, the Doctors' biggest birthday bash yet.

At the height of the Time War, three incarnations of the Doctor (current one Matt Smith, previous one David Tennant, and - as per the standard for these kind of shindigs - a Richard Hurndall-type stand-in played by John Hurt) are brought together by The Moment, a super-weapon with a conscience that looks just like that Billie Piper off the telly. They thought they were busy defeating a Zygon invasion plan in two time zones, but that was pretty easy stuff compared to their real mission, which is to ensure Gallifrey is never destroyed, but instead is tucked away in a pocket universe or some such. Pleasingly, there's time along the way to explain lines and in-jokes from previous years, have cameos from all the old Doctors, and have a sneak peek at the guy who hasn't even taken over yet. And it was in 3D, too, which was a bit of a waste of time: the BBC and everyone else pretty much abandoned 3D TV the minute after it was screened, but never mind.

Having enjoyed going to the BFI Southbank to see two Doctor Who animation projects unveiled (The Power of the Daleks in 2016 and Shada in 2017), when this screening of The Day of the Doctor was announced as part of a wider BFI John Hurt season, my fan-friends David, Chris and I got a ticket each (Trevor couldn't make this one, but with luck we'll all be reunited in ten month's time to see whatever Charles Norton's team are working on this year).  As it was not one of the special Doctor Who events per se, a few of the usual treats were not present: there was no quiz, no DVD giveaways, no 'shouting for Dick' (Dick Fiddy was in the audience rather than co-compering with the BFI's Justin Johnson), and - most surprising of all - no Frank Skinner involvement (it was his birthday, so he was understandably elsewhere).

Added to this, it was on a Sunday with no new product to show off; consequently, it was relatively low-key. NFT1 was more full than I expected, though. It's definitely a good one to watch on a big screen, which may have been a draw. No presence from super- or celebrity fans that I noticed, but a few good cosplayers turned up. And Chris did get to briefly introduce David and me to the very talented costume-maker Steve Ricks, who was resplendent in a Season 18 Tom Baker outfit. The BFI bar did us a nice brunch beforehand, but yet again it was too busy in there after the screening to hobnob, so we went a little way along the South Bank and had some cocktails, before getting the train home. A slight hangover ensued on Monday morning, but all in all a great day out again. Thank you BFI.

First-time round:
November 2013 was a rather wonderful time. I spent the week leading up to the Saturday of Day's broadcast in Paris for my day job. It was a warm late Autumn week, I got to travel there and back in style on the Eurostar, business class, the year's Beaujolais Nouveau had just become available, the work was not too taxing, and I had colleagues to go to nice restaurants with in the evening. It was 15 minutes on foot into the office from the hotel, so I walked it every day, feeling very sophisticated, as if I were a native. Lower on the sophistication scale, perhaps, I also had my bumper 50th anniversary edition of Doctor Who Magazine with me, which I would read over my hotel breakfast like a chic Parisian probably wouldn't.

I don't care about seeming sophisticated, though, really; case in point: I had as my laptop bag a rather wonderful faux retro manbag (pictured) that I'd picked up a few years before at the Earl's Court Doctor Who Experience. Coming home, I had just got through passport control at the Gare Du Nord on the evening of Friday 22nd November, with this bag over my shoulder, when I was freaked out by a uniformed local who stopped me, and said: "Your bag...". Oh my gosh! What was wrong with my bag?! I'd packed it myself, there were no sharp objects or liquids of volume greater than 100ml. I wasn't smuggling anything. Nothing to declare. Was I going to be detained and strip searched? "Your bag... is AMAZING!" I had been stopped by a fellow Doctor Who fan, who was admiring this neon logo adorned Tom Baker satchel. He proceeded to jump up and down on the spot with me in excitement at all tomorrow might bring. I love the wonderful unsophisticated French.

The following day, I was back home with plenty of wine and snacks. With my visiting friends Alex and Rachel, who've been mentioned a number of times before on this blog, alongside most of the family (me, the Better Half and the boys who at the time were 7 and 4 - our youngest child, a girl, was only 18 months old, so would have been asleep), I watched live as it was simulcast across the world. The story instantly became everyone's favourite, especially the two boys. Then they went to bed, and the adults would have watched  - no doubt at my insistence and to my shame - the After Party thing on BBC3.

It was so so awful: the sheer un-rehearsal of it all, and the various segments all competing to be the nadir: favourite companion actors being treated like props to be moved around a set (you could have powered a TV transmitter for a year using Fraser Hines' resentment alone), the sub-TFI Friday bar where schmucks got asked dumb questions, the stupid bit where they tried to find the best companion by getting all the actors who played them to stand up, and asking them questions, which was leading up to a stupid punchline but never really got there as nobody knew any of the answers to the questions, and they all really needed to sit down, particularly Bernard Cribbins, who as wonderful as he is is getting on a bit. Plus, the one good bit: where members of One Direction were regressed away into a squeal of white noise. I have only seen the thing once, more than four years ago, and I was pretty drunk by that point in the evening. For me to still remember it in such detail, it must have been excruciating. Luckily, I knew about the red button premier of Peter Davison's Five-ish Doctors comedy film later, and we finished the evening with that - perfect from start to finish.
If I had world enough and time or could be arsed, I would go back and look through the reviews of every Steven Moffat story I've covered for the blog so far to count up how many I've adored and how many I've slagged off. Despite it possibly feeling like I'm very negative, my gut feel is it would cleave at about 50:50, maybe 60:40, advantage on the love side. But, just because I don't like everything he's ever written for Doctor Who doesn't mean I don't understand he's a truly talented writer, a witty interviewee, and a wonderful ambassador for Doctor Who (which he'll probably be for ever more - it's a show that doesn't tend to leave one behind). All that talent, and any amount of good will, though, might have counted for nothing when it came to his writing a multi-Doctor anniversary show. It has defeated many a talented Doctor Who writer over the years, trying to write a good multi-Doctor anniversary show. That Moffat created something superb, with moral and emotional weight, as well as ticking all the fan service boxes, is testament to him. He's probably written a few stories that are better, but this will be the one that almost certainly proves the most memorable.

The plot has its author's usual level of complication - switching between multiple time zones and subplots, time travel back into earlier scenes, and so on - but uses deft touches to keep it all coherent and easy to follow. The visual spectacle is a triumph of production to get the very last penny of budget exploding onto the screen. Performances are strong across the board, with John Hurt dominating seemingly effortlessly as you would expect. The dynamics of the bickering Doctors is traditional, but none the worse for it, and handled well. And the little continuity tidy-ups are fastidious in their detail. In The Day of the Doctor we find extrapolations of dialogue from Doomsday in 2006: "I was there at the fall of Arcadia; someday I might even come to terms with that," and 2009's The End of Time "He still possesses the Moment, and he'll use it to destroy Daleks and Time Lords alike," and provides the punchline to a running gag - or more likely lots of random gags over the years - about Elizabeth the First that also featured in The End of Time plus The Shakespeare Code and The Beast Below.

Beyond the complications, though, there's real complexity. The Day of the Doctor picks up as its main theme a thread that goes all the way back to Rose and the first new series finale The Parting of the Ways, replaying the no-win scenario where an intervention to save lives costs millions of lives in turn. In short: coward or killer? There is something of a sidestep of the moral quandary ultimately: the Doctor refuses the choice, and is saved at the last minute by thinking of something clever; but that's Doctor Who, and a happy ending was obligatory in an anniversary romp. Anyway, mirroring this in miniature in the Zygon subplot allows for tangled repercussions of these sort of choices to be explored in future less rompy episodes, though I'm dubious as to at what level that sequel and the death of Osgood was all planned up front (as Moffat claimed in the later Q&A).

Tom Baker's walk-on at the end helps keep up the surprise factor, just when we thought it was all over; it makes sense too - just about - within the rules that the episode has set up. The only possible explanation of who Tom Baker's playing is a future incarnation of the Doctor re-wearing a favoured old face (which might go some way to explaining how the Gallifreyan paintings get to Elizabethan England too); if this is so, then it's been set up that, as the younger of the two, Matt Smith's Doctor can't properly retain the memories of their conversation. This would explain why in the next story he still thinks he's going to die at Trenzalore despite this strong evidence that he'll carry on. It would also explain why he doesn't do much following this to seek out Gallifrey, as he only remembers a last ditch gambit to save it, not the fairly resounding clue he was given that it did in fact survive. Obviously, he gets positive proof in one story's time anyway, and still doesn't do much to actively seek it out. But Moffat explained all that at the Q&A: the Doctor really hates the place.
My main quibble would be that David Tennant is not very well served during proceedings. Fans of his, like me, would probably be happy enough just to see him back in the suit again; but, it might have been nice for a bit more heroism and less out and out comedy. Also, Moffat has the Tenth do the same "I'm grandstanding with a big speech oops I've got the wrong end of the stick" gag three times over (once with the horse, once with the rabbit, once with the real Liz) to increasingly diminishing returns. Joanna Page is badly miscast as Elizabeth too, which further weakens this section. More minor quibbles: bad inhaler usage, which always ticks me off as an asthmatic myself, and finally: why would Coal Hill School have gone to the trouble of moving its location a few streets along, particularly if it meant that it was now right next to a junk yard? If the idea is it's always been there, then none of the first ever episode of Doctor Who makes any sense whatsoever - can I give you a lift home, Susan, in my car, to next door? No, I like walking 100 yards in the dark, it's mysterious. I'm sure nobody wants that: after all, that's where it all started.

They've both got a horse in them, and both show a city on fire (London in The Visitation, Arcadia in The Day of the Doctor). Both touch upon alien artifacts left on Earth in history being unearthed in the present day.

Deeper Thoughts:
Secrets from the Black Archive: panel with Steven Moffat and Marcus Wilson, Sunday 28th January 2018. It was nice to see Marcus Wilson interviewed again, he seems like a nice fellow, but the event was bound to be all about the Moff. Given that this is possibly his first public appearance since he officially stepped down from the showrunner role at Christmas, most of the interest (and all the audience questions) were for him. The most obvious thing, and for obvious reasons, is how relaxed he seemed. It's a very big weight that's been lifted, even though he hasn't left the world of Who behind quite yet. One of the first things mentioned was that he is working on a novelisation of The Day of the Doctor. I thought this was a gag at first, but it's true: Moffat is one of four writers producing Target-style novelisations for key post-2005 stories.

The rest of the panel discussion and subsequent audience Q&A garnered little that was new, but did offer up a few nuggets of interest. The idea of the War Doctor was born out of terror, when Christopher Eccleston declined to be involved. It was felt Eccleston was a good gruff Northern contrast to the other two "pretty-boys", in a way that Paul McGann, say, who was arguably the first modern dashing hero type Doctor, would not have been. The other obvious choice, but seemingly impossible at the time, was to get the first ever Doctor back. Without that option, the only choice was to find a missing wilderness years Doctor, someone famous enough during that period to conceivably have been offered the role. They only had John Hurt in mind, and if he'd turned it down "a glove puppet would have played it".

If Tom hadn't cameoed, the Moment would have come in at the end to talk to Matt. There was only ever going to be a subset of Doctors fully involved (as some just don't answer their phone anymore) which lead to Peter Davison's fan film being given a proper budget, as a good way to represent everyone. Moffat believes he achieved everything he wanted during his time as showrunner; if he had any regret it was only not using the Autons more, and not bringing back the Garm! He never planned a scene during Capaldi's era of his Doctor's POV of his eyebrows cameo - it's not a story. Moffat did not enjoy the After Party either; after the broadcast, he was, to quote him exactly: "So clenched, I could have snapped a proctologist off at the knuckle" All he wanted was a drink but instead he had to talk via video link to half a boy band of whom he'd never heard. He had nothing to do with Jodie Whittaker's casting, that was rightly all Chris Chibnall, but from what he's seen she is really funny, which he believes is essential. And finally, he sums up Doctor Who thus: "It's not about restraint, it's 'In Your Face' entertainment...we're not at home to Mr. Subtlety."

In Summary:
Call Lou Reed: this is as near as possible to a perfect 'Day'. (Geddit?! Also, please don't be surprised if you don't get an answer from Lou Reed.)

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Visitation

Chapter The 75th, which features a dandy highwayman grabbing your attention.

The Doctor, aiming to return Tegan for the first day of her air-steward job at Heathrow Airport, gets there over 300 years too early (only a little bit longer than you're advised to allow when you're taking a long haul flight). Along with Nyssa and Adric, they stay to investigate when they find evidence that they are not the only aliens recently in the vicinity. Accompanied by local actor / highwayman, Richard Mace, because four people sharing the exposition was clearly not enough already, they discover a crash-landed party of lizard criminals, the Terileptils, who are genetically augmenting the plague that was already around, with the aim of killing all the human population and taking over the planet. The Terileptils also have an android which they dress up as Death to frighten away any snooping natives; the rest of the time they dress it up as one of Boney M, just because. The Doctor foils the plan but inadvertently starts a fire in London. It turns out to be 1666; who would have thunk it?

With the Christmas holidays nearing an end, there was a day or two left to watch a classic Who story with the whole family before we all returned to work and normality after the festive fun; strangely, not one of them (including the Better Half) moaned, resisted or absented themselves, they were all up for it. We watched the first three episodes in one sitting, following up a couple of days later with episode 4, from the special edition revisited Re-Visitation DVD. Then, weeks went by and various urgent stuff happened at home, and I had to go to Romania for the day job, believe it or not, and suddenly it's not even New Year anymore, let alone Christmas and I have only just started looking at my notes; luckily, The Visitation does not have intricate interweaving layers of plotting that would be hard to recall after a few weeks - it's pretty much as straightforward as Doctor Who gets.

First-time round:
Peter Davison's debut year was the first time I watched new broadcast episodes of Who semi-regularly. I choose the prefix carefully: I would have to miss every other episode because - Doctor Who being broadcast that year for the first time on two weekday evenings per week - one episode would conflict with a pre-existing commitment, my attendance at Second Durrington Cub Scout pack meetings. I missed episodes 1 and 3, but caught 2 and 4 - not ideal, but it could have been worse. Except, I didn't really. I feigned illness, I moaned and groaned, I weedled and persuaded as best I could. It might need spelling out to younger souls than me, but in those days if I didn't see an episode when it went out, I might have missed my only chance. There was no video recording or playing equipment in my house for another five years, and no one I knew for at least a couple more years had even heard of a video in early 1982, let alone got one. Episodes got repeated, but these were seemingly chosen and scheduled at random, so were also easy to miss.

The latter two episodes of The Visitation fell in the half term holidays when cubs wasn't on, so I should have been able to watch them both; unfortunately, a traffic jam on the way home from a family outing (a day detailed further in the Deeper Thoughts section of the blog post covering The Rescue) meant I missed episode 4, and had to wait until the story was repeated 18 months later, after a whole other new season had been broadcast (see what I mean about random scheduling), to find out how it ended.
The Visitation is an adventure in history, with a cute twist at the end to link in to a standard school text topic; what could be more Doctor Who than that? It’s what Who does: every other story or so, they go back in time, in between the alien planet or spaceship shenanigans. Right? Well, no, not really; between William Hartnell relinquishing the role and Peter Davison’s first season, you can count the number of stories set wholly in Earth’s past on two Sontaran three-fingered hands. Only after The Visitation does this start to become a regular story type again. This seems to be part of a ‘back to the basics’ push happening to make the show more like it was when it very first began, which I’ll go into a bit more depth about later.

It’s not exactly a failure and the year is diverse in its story concepts, but – particularly when watching a story in isolation – there are frustrations. In The Visitation, the first scene is an exciting cold open, where the threat of the week (remaining unseen all the while) attacks some newly introduced characters, who we’ll never see again. It’s not from the TARDIS crew’s POV, though, and when we cut to them we’re treated to a long sequence where the regulars are talking about the events of Kinda, the previous story. It squanders the energy that’s been built up and is also confusing in its detail: who cares or even remembers the TSS, a minor aspect of Kinda, so why are they banging on about it when - unbeknownst to them, but fresh in the audience’s minds - the squire’s family have just been butchered by assailants unknown? Get out of the TARDIS and start investigating, dammit. For all that they may seem slow now, those early Hartnell stories rarely dwelt in such a static way as this at the start of an adventure; they’d generally just recap the short cliffhanger end from last week, then get stuck in. 

Once it gets going, the story is a refreshingly straightforward adventure of aliens stranded in history making mischief; the Terileptils are conceptually and visually interesting and their leader is well performed by future Queen Vic landlord Michael Melia, who gets a couple of good confrontation scenes with Davison. Richard Mace, who was not an original creation but pre-existed as the lead character from writer Saward's earlier radio plays, is also fun but doesn't have much reason to be present at all: he doesn't contribute any help beyond a comic double-take now and again, and doesn't learn or grow based on his experiences. Everyone else in the piece is an underwritten cipher - has anyone living ever got referred to just as 'The Poacher'? Don't these people have names?

The end of episode 3, which I had to wait ages to see resolved, where a mesmerised Tegan reaches to open a cage and release a plague rat that will infect them all, frightened the whatsits out of me when I was a nipper; I was roundly mocked by all family members (even the 5-year old) when I confessed this. This time round, it occurred to me that never before or after this in the story do we see anyone infected by the plague, so it was quite an intangible threat (which maybe left my imagination to inflate it out of proportion). Also, does it even make sense? Could the infected fleas not jump out of the cage anyway, without a rat needing to be freed? Would the rats particularly go for anyone in the room if released anyway, or more likely just scuttle off into a corner? Best not to question, I think, or it will all fall apart

Both have a guest character travel in the TARDIS who has been plucked out of history, and who is comically bewildered by everything that's going on. That's about it.

Deeper Thoughts:
One of those Sixties medley mixes released in the early 1980s. As I mentioned above, whether consciously or unconsciously - and there must have been some deliberate action to shape this whether or not those shaping knew of the precedent - Peter Davison’s first year in the role, ‘season 19’, echoes the first year of the programme ever in the William Hartnell incumbency: there are three companions alongside the Doctor, one or more of whom are unwilling participants that got caught up in the Doctor’s travels whom he now is aiming to get back to their professional life in contemporary London; but, he’s having difficulty in doing this as he can’t steer the TARDIS. Additionally, each story picks up were the last one left off; it’s one adventure - singular - in Time and Space. The problem with repeating this approach in the 1980s is that Doctor Who had moved on significantly since its beginnings to accept a certain degree of direction and purpose in the Time Lord’s travels, i.e. he fights bad guys and monsters in a more heightened genre. It was perhaps too late to drop all that, and they don’t really try; instead, we get an uneasy mix of old school peripatetic wanderings through educational history and science, but with standing up to alien invasions and mad scientists too.

This was the next phase of a process started the previous year to reduce the silliness of Doctor Who. Part of this involved scraping off some of the gadgets that had been felt to make things a bit too easy; the hyper-intelligent companion had gone, K9 had gone, and The Visitation says goodbye (at least for a long while) to the sonic screwdriver. William Hartnell did without the magic wand to get past locked doors, after all. Well, yes; but, for Hartnell and crew, certainly at the beginning, the locked doors were the point. They weren't on any heroic mission, they were just trying to get back to the TARDIS, and so a device which made that easier by opening any cell door would have spoiled things. When they're locked in various places, the first four regulars in 1963/64 get to spark off each other with unique takes on their situation, because that's the point - to explore the situation, more than to defeat the bad guy; by 1982, that genie would not go back in the bottle.

The four regulars in Davison's first year don't have the different and specific purposes that the First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan did, because the show didn't need that anymore. As Hartnell morphed into the hero rather than the unreliable uncle character, they did away with one role to form the rough template for the rest of the sixties: intellectual hero, action sidekick + one to ask questions / get into trouble. Once the Doctor was being played by a younger man and could plausibly do his own action bits, you only needed two regulars and this was how it was for most of the 1970s. In 1982, Adric is closest to being the one that gets into trouble (he twists his ankle in The Visitation, the biggest call back to 1960s Doctor Who tropes imaginable), Nyssa asks the questions (but is also very clever in a consistency-busting way). Tegan moans. In fact, at times in The Visitation, all of them are moaning, criticising or in some way undermining the Doctor.

My guess is that writers and script editors presented with all these characters use them as a certain standard of screenwriting theory or instinct would dictate: to generate conflict. After all, what’s the point of four characters if they agree on everything.  If they can disagree or even row about the steering of the TARDIS, or the Doctor’s heavy-handed style when acting as pater familias for Adric, or whether to walk or take the TARDIS (no, really, at one point they do argue about that) then it creates story beats which form scenes. This may be true, but it starts to have a cumulatively corrosive effect. None of the people he chooses to travel with appears to respect the Doctor, our hero, and nobody seems to be having any fun. So, why exactly am I watching this show? 

Worst of all, this set-up becomes a warm petri dish in which to breed padding. In simultaneously having too many characters who need something to do, and being stripped of the devices that speed up the narrative, stories like The Visitation end up with long, long sequences of Nyssa in the TARDIS building a thing to blow up the android. It's even a sonic thing she builds, exactly like the thing the Doctor keeps in his pocket. It feels like she spends hours of screen time over several episodes working on building a big sonic screwdriver, and then, once built, it's used, and it works. There's no reversal, it's a purely linear subplot of the most dull kind. If one were to reinstate the sonic and instantly cut all that, plus limit the companions in number so you could focus on making them interesting and believable, you'd get much more compelling adventures that could be told in half the time. It's no surprise that, come 2005, that's exactly what happened.

In Summary:
Linear and padded, but still a fun throwback.