Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Visitation

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

Plot: 
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?

Context:
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.
 
Reaction:
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

Connectivity: 
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.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Twice Upon A Time

Chapter The 74th, in which a swansong goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Plot: 
The original Doctor meets the latest Doctor at the South Pole, when both are at the point of regenerating but resisting it, and they team up in a desperate action-filled race against time while they hold back death. Incident after incident is overcome, as they defeat Daleks, Cybermen and various other Big Bads to save the universe, all the while being careful not to interfere in the events of the Doctor's own past. Through this, the two Doctors find a begrudging accommodation for each other that masks a real affection, and end up facing their separate fates as wiser individuals... Or maybe I nodded off after a few minutes of talky bollocks and dreamt all that, but it would have been better, wouldn't it? Instead, all action is suspended for an hour until the new showrunner takes over. There's a lot of talking in different rooms. So much talking. A First World War soldier and Bill Potts appear somehow, and there's presumably something significant that happens somewhere along the line, but it's convoluted and unclear. Then, the Doctor regenerates into Jodie Whittaker, and it's exciting for a split second, and then it's over.

Context:
To say I was disappointed by Capaldi's swansong is putting it mildly. As such, I'm going to reiterate that I was disappointed by Capaldi's swansong over and again in different ways in every section of this blog as a form of therapy; maybe eventually I'll come to terms with it. After the first watch on Christmas day, I watched the recording again in a quiet moment during the days after Christmas. On second watch, without the weight of expectation, it was still shit. In fact, knowing that it didn't amount to much no matter how long it went on, made it excruciating to wade through.


First-time round:
It was a couple of hours after the BBC1 broadcast, on the evening of December 25th 2017; the whole family gathered round, old school style, after the traditional turkey and mince pies feasting, and the playing of newly unwrapped board games, and watched the episode timeshifted on the PVR. This was myself, the Better Half and three kids (boys of 11 and 8, girl of 5), plus two grandparents. This is the biggest audience an episode of Doctor Who has had in our house on Christmas Day (or any day) for a good few years. I put this down to excitement about the new female Doctor, and I hope it endures for next year's series, which I wish was starting sooner quite frankly.

Reaction:
I really hated it. Nothing happens. Stupidly. It must be hard to make nothing happen stupidly. The Better Half was losing patience before me, even ahead of the beginning credits, but I was still giving it a chance. Second time round, though, I found it irritating that early on too. There's a lot of pointless nattering. Mark Gatiss turns up as a soldier out of time and no one ever asks his name, so any twist about his identity is immediately telegraphed. We then flash back to this nameless soldier during his time in Paul McCartney's Pipes of Peace video. No matter how important a historic event this day and year of the war was, it's become so crowded a locale (every one from Sainsburys to The Farm has parked themselves on this battlefield over the years) that it can't help but seem somewhat risible.

There's a timing malfunction (always the two most thrilling words to grace a Doctor Who script - who needs 'alien invasion', eh?) and we're back to where we started with the Time Lord nattering to himself. Then, all three go into the TARDIS. Ten minutes have passed, and the only significant action by any of the characters is that they've retreated inside the TARDIS. At this point, I'm wondering who in their right minds apart from really hardcore fans (i.e. even worse than me) would give a toss about anything being discussed. I'm also really conscious that Capaldi needs a haircut. I can't be engaged if I'm noticing that sort of stuff. In the TARDIS there's an interminably long trivial scene about brandy and the decor. Then, Moffat seems to be confusing some attitudes displayed by William Hartnell as played by David Bradley in a bio-pic with those of the first Doctor as played by David Bradley now. But even the real Hartnell himself, reportedly quite old fashioned in his attitudes, wasn't as bad as the character depicted here. Did the Doctor ever expect Polly to dust in the TARDIS? Where's that come from? It may seem like a bit of fun, but this is one of my heroes being trashed.

Ten more minutes of chat and an arbitrary change of location informs the audience that something called Testimony is harvesting people's memories at the point of their death, which is a vague, conflict and excitement free concept. But it does introduce Bill Potts again, or a duplicate of her. It's not very clearly foregrounded, but it looks like the dramatic question presented is whether to give up the soldier to his death or not, maybe in exchange for Bill. Despite being talked around for swathes of everyone's precious Christmas day, it's still not clear or tangible because no one has gone to the effort of making the dilemma visual. Next are some flashbacks from old episodes to show how bloodthirsty the Doctor is (a trick Moffat seems to have played 100 times now) and another arbitrary change of location. We're only a third of the way through and my soul has died. From this point on, it's just more of the same really: natter, natter, change location arbitrarily, trash reputation of the first Doctor, more brandy, another Mark Gatiss dopey comic double-take, rinse, repeat. There's a detour which ties up a loose end that literally nobody cared about ever: what became of Rusty, the malfunctioning Dalek that was in one episode three years ago. And it carries on.

There is some investigation, but no sense of urgency or escalation at all. And any facts uncovered are pointless; the Testimony project or collective or whatever turns out not to be evil, so the story doesn't actually have anyone driving it forward either for good or bad, it was all just some stuff happening. And it keeps happening, for ages, until both Doctors decide finally to regenerate for a reason that's somewhat underwritten. Bradley's exit is odd, as Ben and Polly don't reappear (and they should do), but Capaldi gets to see his old friends again, and does a speech that's this time somewhat overwritten. Jodie Whittaker is great in her brief moment as the new Doctor, and the cliffhanger ending is good, but it isn't enough to save things. 

Connectivity: 
Both Peter Capaldi stories which see an aspect of the original classic series returning (the writer, the first Doctor); both feature battlefields, soldiers who go through some timey-wimey weirdness, and an armistice between previously warring sides.

Deeper Thoughts:
Looking back, looking forward. I'd said last time that I expected to be done with looking back over Capaldi's tenure, and I do think I've said all there is to say about that. I forgot, though, that this story also marks the end of Steven Moffat's tenure. Not that I haven't said a lot about him too over the years of doing the blog, but there's probably more to be said, as he's just been so inconsistent and uneven for me that it has felt like there have been several different Moffats running the show over the years. One thing that has been broadly consistent is that he can't bring himself to write anything simple. There should be no shame in doing a straight-ahead big tent pole alien invasion, zap 'em defeat 'em action adventure story. It is the bread and butter of Doctor Who, and can certainly be more enjoyable than something overwrought or overthought (not that I don't enjoy some of the clever clever ones too, but not all the time). When the pressure's on to produce something big, it must be difficult, and Moffat faced the most pressure ever, as he had to write the 50th anniversary show where expectation was at its highest. But he pulled that off with aplomb. Then, with the following story he had the comparatively minor challenge of doing his first ever regeneration story, and The Time of The Doctor was markedly less successful.

Like Twice Upon a Time, The Time of The Doctor gets itself tied in knots trying to be an elegy rather than just being an exciting adventure for the overfed holiday audience. Neither has any story per se, just a long repetitive sequence of events delaying the inevitable final moment, plus some continuity tidying and speechifying. This is frustrating when we know the same author can sometimes cram enough plot for whole seasons of Doctor Who into one 45 minute segment, but for some reason if it's a swansong, he's happy for people to just stand about talking. It's doubly frustrating this year, as Moffat had really turned things around after a moribund patch and delivered the most interesting season in years, and triply frustrating when he has all the potential of David Bradley's First Doctor to play with, and just squanders it. This is the roller-coaster ride that Doctor Who fans have been on since 2010

Looking forward, things look much more promising. I'm so used to overblown post regeneration dialogue that I was convinced Whittaker would add something silly about her hair or kidneys to spoil her well-judged and well delivered first word and a bit, but luckily Chibnall resisted. Less is more. The Doctor is separated from the TARDIS and falling to her doom. Roll credits. Nice. Similar but different enough to the last regeneration handover point, when Moffat took over from Russell T Davies, to be homage rather than rip off. If I ever watch this again, I suspect it will only be these final two minutes or so. That's a shame, as Capaldi, Bradley and Moffat himself deserved better. Anyway, dear reader, have a very happy new year in 2018. See you back here in January for more randomly picked stories - it can only get better from here.

In Summary:
Here's a fan edit suggestion: the Doctor, having just defeated the Cybermen at the end of The Doctor Falls, has visions of Bill, Clara and Nardole, does his nice speech about never being cowardly nor eating pears, then regenerates into Jodie Whittaker, and she gets her great first line and cliffhanger ending. The Christmas special would only be four minutes long, but one could use the rest of that time to eat mince pies or play the family at Cluedo. And that would be nice, wouldn't it?

Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Eaters of Light

Chapter The 73rd, several species of time travellers gathered together in a cave grooving with some Picts.

Plot: 
The Doctor, Bill and Nardole go to 2nd century Aberdeen to investigate the mystery of what happened to the famously disappeared Ninth Roman Legion, only to find out they were all killed by aliens (surprise surprise). The local Picts guard a cairn that conceals a gateway to another dimension in which a swarm of light-eating beasties live. One of them was allowed through to deal with the Romans, but has stuck around to terrorise everyone, including the local tribe and the legion's few survivors. The Doctor and Bill persuade members of both these groups to team up and fight the monsters on the threshold of the portal, and the ensuing battle - due to time dilation effects - lasts for centuries, and keeps the creatures trapped.

Context:
A little hiatus was caused in the blog-stream by the combined factors of my PC dying, and my setting myself the challenge of watching 24 Christmas specials and films during advent, which took up a lot of viewing time. On top of that, the Blu-ray box set of series 10 containing Capaldi's 2017 episodes (bar one final important one, of course) had arrived, and also demanded attention. As I did when the series aired, I randomly picked one episode from the box set to blog, which happened to be this Celtic swirl. I grabbed a morning early during the pre-Christmas period to watch the story, and typed it all up double-quick as - at the time of writing - I still have everything to wrap, and After Eights and whatnot to buy.

First-time round: 
This went by in a flash first time round earlier in the year. I've mentioned before that the structure of the series somehow warped things a little for me, the trilogy of Monk stories in the middle dominate to the detriment of the much more fun unconnected single-episode tales either side. Coming as it does sandwiched between that big (and slightly bloated?) centrepiece and the two-part Cyber-finale, The Eaters of Light - like the similarly fun but story-arc lite Empress of Mars that came before it - feels a little tossed away, which is a shame. Watched in isolation, it made much more of an impression, and made me pine for more episodes with this Doctor and this team. At least Capaldi and Mackie have one more outing, but watching this I'm missing Gomez and Lucas too.

Reaction:
For long-term fans, the writing of this episode was significant, as it saw the first time an author of a twentieth-century episode returned to the modern show. This was Rona Munro, who penned the story Survival (the final story of the original run, aired in 1989) and who since then has built up a great body of work in film and theatre. Objectively, though, I don't think anyone who wasn't aware of this would see any join, it just seemed like any of the other stories not any kind of throwback, nor a piece with a distinctive authorial voice shouting out. It's tempting to think therefore "Why bother?" but it's always good to vary the writing duties. I don't know whether it was the Scottish Munro or her Scottish showrunner who suggested the subject matter, but it's a nice fit for her, and gives the story a distinctive locale (although it presumably was filmed no further North than the Brecon Beacons).

The guest cast, by dint of the story structure, don't stand out too much - they are supposed to be the young, unheroic remains of the two decimated groups - but there's still some great material involving them. Most memorable of all is the scene where Bill's assumptions about her new found allies' morals and broad-mindedness are called out. Bill has a great episode all told - challenging the Doctor, working out about the telepathic TARDIS field that translates everyone's words with added lip-sync, and giving a great speech to rally the troops: "I can't promise that you won't all die, but I can promise you this: you won't all die in a hole in the ground." Nardole's material, though superfluous, is fun (was this perhaps one of the scripts written before they agreed with Matt Lucas that he'd be in every episode - he could be lifted straight out without impacting the plot one iota). And Capaldi is on good if slightly grumpy form too.

I'm not 100% sold on the talking crows, and the slight corny (or should that be 'caw-ny', it should, shouldn't it... or shouldn't it?) twist that they have been venerating Kar's name all this time. I'm also not sure that we need the bookend sequences with the children visiting the stones and hearing the music. The end bit with Missy, though, is a lot more successful. It goes on too long, but seeing a tear run down Missy's cheek at hearing the music trapped in the stones is a touching and characterful way to integrate the ongoing series arc.

Connectivity: 
Both written by those rare Doctor Who authors who have become renowned for a non-Who body work in their own right. And a third story in a row where a character is decked in incongruous nighttime attire (Nardole's in a dressing gown throughout - another Arthur Dent homage?)

Deeper Thoughts:
Another Doctor over, and a new one just begun. And So this is Christmas. In total disregard for random ordering, I have decided to blog Twice Upon a Time sometime before the end of the year; but, I have a feeling that any deeper thoughts it inspires will involve looking forward rather than back, so I'll look back now. No matter how good Peter Capaldi's swansong is, and how well David Bradley and the production invoke the role and the era of the first Doctor, it is all inevitably going to be overshadowed by the first few moments of Jodie Whittaker's thirteenth Doctor at the end. Doctor Who handovers are cruel that way - 58 minutes of action inevitably becomes so much prologue. It feels this time, though, that the effect is even greater than usual. The most comparable past point would be The End of Time, the last time a story marked a Doctor and senior crew bowing out and handing over the reins to a totally new actor and team. But watching that previous story did feel like the end of an era, more than the start of a new one. This is because David Tennant felt like he'd owned the part over a decent run. Despite the duration and number of episodes done by Capaldi being broadly similar, I don't get that feeling with him.

Why might this be? I've decided upon a one word answer: Clara. Watching the box set of series 10, I am amazed all over again at how Steven Moffat after so many years in charge has produced a set of episodes that feel so fresh. This feels like Capaldi's year one, and leaves me wanting him to do at least two more. I'm not alone in thinking that Jenna Coleman not leaving in Last Christmas was a mistake. Her second year with Capaldi is damaging to the show as it was in desperate need of the shake-up a new regular would have given it. But I'm coming round to the idea that she shouldn't have done the year before that either. Much as I like series 8's domestic grounding in Coal Hill, it's too much about Clara, who'd already dominated the previous year with all that impossible girl guff. Capaldi should have started out with a blank slate, and a new companion. He only got this in 2017, and so it feels like he's leaving when he's only just started.

Series 10 was generally successful in it's story arc as well as it's character dynamics. A bit less monk would have been welcome, but all in all it's probably my favourite year of Moffat's reign. One plotting thing that bothers me, mind, is when and how exactly Nardole was resurrected, and when exactly the Doctor Mysterio story happens relative to the events we later learn about the vault. It's said in that Christmas show that the Doctor rebuilt Nardole as he was lonely, and it's hinted very strongly that this is because River's gone. But if so, how could River send Nardole off to stop the Doctor executing Missy in Extremis, if she'd already gone to meet her fate. (Incidentally, it's best not to think about how River leaves the Doctor then spends an unidentified length of time hiring a new archaeological crew and having adventures with them before finally reaching the library, as it completely destroys the bittersweet parting stuff.) And if Nardole only teamed back up with the Doctor in Extremis, then why is he so happy to be with the Doctor adventuring in New York with superheroes when they should be guarding the vault? Answers on a postcard, or in a Big Finish play in four years time.

Blog Stats? I've watched a personal best of 33 stories for the blog this year, which will be 34 assuming I manage to file copy on this year's Christmas special before December 31st. This would form a healthy 20 / 14 split, old series to new - a nice mix. I've watched only five black-and-white episodes, and three of those five had episodes missing (one of them being wholly missing). I usually tend to have a story from most of the Doctors bar one - this year it was a Christopher Eccleston story I neglected to land upon. The most popular new series Doctor in terms of stories blogged was the incumbent, Peter Capaldi, and the most popular old series Doctor was the longest running, Tom Baker, so that all seems right and proper. Next year, Chris Chibnall is reducing the number of stories he produces a year, so if I can keep up my current pace, I might just catch up before I claim my pension. And on that optimistic note, it only remains for me to add the traditional "Happy Christmas to all of you at home". Cheers!

In Summary:
Good and solid, like a slab of granite.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Shada

Chapter The 72nd, the unfinished story that's been finished more times than any other.

Plot: 
The Doctor, Romana and Laryngitis K9 visit a a retired Time Lord and old friend of the Doctor's, Professor Chronotis, at his rooms in St. Cedd's College, Cambridge. Chronotis wants them to take a book he borrowed from Gallifrey back for him, as it has special powers and could be dangerous. But Chris Parsons, a young scientist, has already borrowed the book, and is examining it with his colleague Clare Keightley. Also, Skagra, a villainous clever-clogs with outrageous dress sense, armed with a mind-stealing sphere and backed up by an army of Krarg creatures, and an invisible ship with a fruity talking computer, wants to steal the book too. When he gets his hands on it, Skagra kidnaps Romana and steals the TARDIS, and uses the book as the key to take him to the Time Lord prison planet Shada. That sounds quick, but it takes ages and they seem to stop at several different spaceships in between. So many spaceships. Anyway, Skagra needs to steal the mind of an old Time Lord villain imprisoned there, Salyavin, to help him turn everyone in the universe into one connected mind, controlled by him.The Doctor stops him and saves the day, everyone has tea and biscuits, then gets arrested by a policeman.


Context:
Watched on the NFT1 big screen at the British Film Institute on the South Bank in glamorous London, accompanied by long-term fan friend and regular mentionee on the blog, David, and shorter-term but just as much friend, and just as much fan, Trevor. We had gone to the similar screening last year of Power of the Daleks (see here for more details) and when Shada was advertised, we decided it would be fun to do it again. David and Trevor booked the tickets, and it seemed from their reports that this was easier to get in to than the Power event last year. There were a lot of empty seats in the venue, despite it being advertised as sold out. Last year, Steven Moffat was in the audience and on a panel to represent the fans watching at the time, this time it was Matthew Waterhouse. As such, it was clear that there was slightly less buzz for this animated project than the last one, but that's understandable given the fully animated Power was the very first of its kind, and Shada's only ever been half missing not wholly gone like The Power of the Daleks.

First-time round: 
The first experience I ever had with this material was reading Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency when in came out in 1987 (Adams reused swathes of the Shada script in that novel). Then, very early in the 1990s, I saw a pirate video which  presented some of the material of Shada with text to explain the gaps. And - if I remember correctly - it also used a scene of the model TARDIS from the story Full Circle occasionally too, but I've no idea why as it didn't really need to. It was interesting watching a scene on location with the Doctor talking to K9 but getting no replies (as they had not been recorded at that point) , and trying to work out the other half of the conversation. I don't know if this really counts as watching the story as it was impossible to follow. In July 1992, I rushed out and bought the newly released VHS. This presented the remaining footage, with some new effects and David Brierley's voiceover as K9 added, interspersed with cut-aways to a pinstripe-suited Tom Baker - it was during the Medics suit years - explaining the increasing longer gaps as the story went on. It also included a script book, but I'm not sure I ever read it. Again, does that really count as watching it? It was the only version of Shada available for over a decade, and I rewatched it many times, so it is the de facto standard version seared into my psyche; even after all that, though, I was still not 100% clear exactly what was happening in the last third - which spaceship were we on now?


In 2003, there was an audio version with pictures that I watched on dial-up from the BBC Doctor Who website; it recast the Doctor using Paul McGann, explaining it with some admittedly clever ret-con, but it is a quite different take on the story. Finally, in 2012, I read Gareth Roberts' great novelisation. But only with this 2017 version do I feel like I've seen Shada properly for the first time: original cast, moving pictures all the way through, I don't see how more could be done to make it definitive (except maybe by adding episode endings).

Reaction:
Shada was infamous at the point early in the 1980s when I first became a Doctor Who Monthly reading full-on fan of the show: the unfinished story that may never see the light of day. A couple of years earlier, this final story of Tom Baker's sixth season had been abandoned due to a strike impacting its studio sessions. It was the final show for the Producer Graham Williams and the script editor Douglas Adams (who also wrote it) so they were robbed of their swansong. In the years since, Adams had become more and more famous and so another new story to add to the couple he'd already penned was seen as something worth seeing. The new producer John Nathan-Turner was still considering somehow reworking it as late as Colin Baker's tenure, but - although a lot was in the can already (all the location filming and the material from studio covering the Think Tank, Chronotis's Rooms and the spacecraft cell) - there was no coverage of the climax and nothing of the eponymous Shada.

This was due to the production process at the time, which would usually front load the film sequences in the first few episodes, and would shoot in studio arranged by set rather than in story order. So, the 1979 Shada, and the 1990s VHS, starts well but peters out, misses the revelations and the big confrontation between villain and Doctor, but resumes again for the comic resolution scene (or one or two of them at least). As such, only an animated version really could work. By the end of the video, Tom Baker was summarising a hell of a lot. This works in the new version's favour, only a few animated scenes sneak in early on, gradually getting the viewer used to things, but by the end it's mostly new animated stuff which helps to convey the somewhat larger aspects of the denouement. The transitions are not jarring at all, which was surprising. The very first transition is given something of a flourish, which works well to set out the stall to the viewer before things settle down to normality: the live action footage pans up to the sky, which barely seems to change as we cross-fade to animation, then there's a pan down to the first animated scene.

The animation is a little improved on Power of the Daleks, I think - just a little. Movement of the characters is still not quite natural, but seems better this time round. The backgrounds are great, comic strip stuff, exactly in keeping with the tone of the original. The new incidental music is truly Dudley Simpson-esque in a way that Keff McCulloch never managed in 1992, taking its lead from similar cues in City of Death: it is perfect. Likenesses are pretty good, which is handy considering there is much more direct comparison with the original actors scene by scene. Lalla Ward's animated nose isn't right, though. And some of the older voices filling in the characters' gap scenes are very slightly different to their 1979 versions, but it's barely noticeable. These are my only quibbles.

The final scene of the story is interestingly presented, but I'll say no more than that. The DVD of this version has only just been released at the time of writing, so it would be a spoiler to go any further, no matter how widely it was advertised beforehand (I wish I hadn't known in advance). It took me out of proceedings much more than any of the animation did, but it's easy to indulge it despite that. Any significant issues all come from the original production, not the stuff created in 2017. Now it is whole, Adams original conception can breathe and the comedy shines through, but towards the end the plot is slowing and there's too much hopping from location to location (most of them indistinguishable spaceships or space stations or space bases) so it tests the patience. Many a six-parter flags around the episode four of five mark, though, and Adams handles this better than most around this time: it certainly feels like the best season finale of Graham Williams' era; shame it never got to screens back then. There are some fascinating ideas too, which one would expect of Adams later, but was above and beyond for a Doctor Who script editor back in the 1970s. The "One lump or two?" gag is never funny, however, no matter how many times it's spun out.  When he rewrote Shada as Dirk Gently, Adams tightened the plot, added loads more ideas, but stuck like a limpet to this running 'gag'; he must have really loved it. 

Connectivity: 
Both stories include action on spaceships with computers and recorded messages; both have a section with a character floating in a protected space extended out from the TARDIS. And both have a character appear in bedtime attire. (Amy in a dressing gown on Starship UK is very Arthur Dent; Moffat's dialogue and plotting has a very Douglas Adams vibe in many of his stories, including The Beast Below, so this is probably a conscious homage.)

Deeper Thoughts:
Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies paper: BFI's Shada event, 2nd December 2017. Last time I went to a BFI event, for the Power animation screening, it was a last minute decision and there was a rail strike on; this time, getting up to London was much more calm and relaxed. I arrived and had a coffee and chat with my amigos before the programme began at 12.30pm. There were fewer cosplayers and no famous faces in the BFI bar with us, unlike last time: all part of the slightly lesser buzz I perceived about this release. I was still excited, mind. Once in the theatre, our hosts were as last year: the BFI's Justin Johnson and Missing Believed Wiped's Dick Fiddy. Again, as per last year, they interspersed the screening and panels with rounds of Doctor Who trivia questions, winning the correct replier a DVD. I had all the offered prizes already (apart from the box set of Class, which nobody seemed to want to win - poor Class) so stayed quiet; but my nerd bone was tickled when I guessed sotto voce to David the answer for one query ("What date would Shada have started broadcasting had it made it to screen?") and got closer than the person who actually won. It would have been Saturday 19th January 1980, fact fans.


As seems to be customary, someone won a rigged question: 'Matthew' in the audience who correctly answered a question about Adric, turned out to be Adric actor Matthew Waterhouse. As also seems customary, Justin repeatedly did jokes based on the false premise that the name 'Dick' is inherently funny. I made check-marks on my notepad every time this happened - there were six attempts in the first section alone. Luckily, this all ceased for the filmed intro (and there was also later an outro and filmed Q&A) by Tom Baker, in which he's still full-power Tom, even now he's passed 80 years of age; no new insights, really, just Tom being Tom - more than sufficient. Lalla Ward provided a pre-written statement that was read out, in which she chimed with Tom's comments and many others through the day: everything we saw today ultimately was down to one person, Douglas Adams, and the love he and his work inspired in others. It was a similar tale last year, when the tributes were all going to Pat Troughton. Doctor Who certainly had some talented people work on it, many of whom are sadly no longer with us.

(L to R) Fiddy, Ayres, Tucker, Norton
Next came the screening - Shada is presented as feature-length, with no episode endings, but was still almost as long as the whole of The Power of the Daleks, which made me wonder why we only got three episodes of Power at the BFI last year instead of all six. After the screening was the first panel focusing on the 2017 material, which featured - as Dick dubbed them - "the Shada Proclamation": Mark Ayres (incidental music and sound wizardry), Mike Tucker (model effects) and Charles Norton (director / producer). Norton gave nothing away about any future planned projects. But he did reveal that they had never considered presenting Shada as widescreen with cropping of the 1979 material, as that - he deadpanned - would be "the work of Satan". He also confirmed that they had started from scratch editing down the 7 hours of footage that remains of Shada's original production. As well as the animation, they also added some new cut-ins of a Krarg and K9 battling, which used the original costume and prop. The other addition was new model work, which Tucker produced as faithfully as possible. Though nothing was shot in 1979, all the models had been made, and photographed in detail for posterity. Studying these Tucker could work out the specific model kits that been used, and replicate. Similar dedication was displayed by Ayres, who arranged and recorded a live ensemble similar to those Dudley Simpson, house composer for Doctor Who in 1979, would have used, including some instrumentalists who had regularly worked with Dudley. The story is also dedicated to Simpson, who recently passed away, which was a lovely touch.

(L to R) Coombes, Dixon, Burgoyne, Waterhouse, Skinner, Johnson
The second and final panel concentrated more on the 1979 work and included three members of the original cast: James Coombes (voice of the Krargs), Shirley Dixon (voice of the Ship), and Victoria Burgoyne (Clare). This started off promisingly with James' revelation that he'd never got to do any voice work back in 1979 despite getting paid, so he'd finally made up for it by completing the job in 2017, plus Victoria expressing the cast's solidarity with the striking technicians who ultimately did for Shada. But, annoyingly, just as it was starting to get going, the organisers - presumably worried there wasn't enough star power on display - dragged the unconnected complementary ticket holders Matthew Waterhouse and Frank Skinner to the stage, to provide the perspective of the fan watching at home at the time. They were both funny (although Matthew Waterhouse's microphone technique produced deafness for anyone sitting in the first three rows - tone it down, Matthew) but it would have been much more interesting to have heard more from the people who were, you know, in it.

(L to R) Johnson, Russell, Fiddy
There was a nice, if a bit bizarre, tribute to Edward Russell to round things off, as he's leaving his role of Doctor Who cheerleader at the BBC (or whatever his specific role title is), then it was back out to the bar. People didn't stay and celebrate en masse as they had last year, but it's nearer Christmas, so this may just have been that the place was full before we emerged with not many places to sit. I was lucky enough to speak briefly to Gary Gillatt (Ex-Doctor Who Magazine editor and reviewer) and Dave Houghton (FX supremo for the first few years of new Who) as David knows them both from meeting at these sort of shindigs before - Gary was also a contemporary of mine and David's at Durham University back in the day, but he doesn't remember me, I don't think, as we didn't move in the same circles. After that, the three of us repaired to another hostelry, drank and talked happily until late. I travelled home with the included-in-the-price DVD in my bag, given out at the box office after the show - someone had clearly learnt from the mistakes of last year, when the animated Power DVDs took weeks to be mailed out to attendees.

In Summary:
It's new old Who, and new old Douglas Adams Who at that, as an early Christmas present: how can one fail to be happy? One final word, then: Shaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-dah!!!!!

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Beast Below

Chapter The 71st, in which the UK government are corrupt robots running a horribly exploitative scheme (so, not like real life at all).

Plot: 
The Doctor takes Amy on her first trip in the TARDIS to Starship UK in the far future. This is a vast spaceship housing the survivors of the United Kingdom travelling to a new home after the Earth was threatened by a giant mutant space goat or solar flares or something. The Doctor uses the special deduction powers he's acquired since the showrunner started simultaneously working on Sherlock and discovers that there's something wrong with this society. Helped by a schoolgirl and the queen, Liz 10, the Doctor and Amy discover that Starship UK has no engines and instead is strapped to the back of a space whale whose brain is being regularly zapped to make it fly them ever onwards. The Doctor is faced with a dilemma: free the creature, risking millions of humans, or let it carry on in its torment. Before he does anything he might regret, Amy realises that the whale is friendly and wants to help, and everyone lives happily ever after. Of course, they will be living happily ever after in a police state which feeds kids to space creatures if they use the wrong lift, and this hasn't been fixed when the Doctor leaves, as the same government and head of state are still in place. It'll probably all work itself out for the best without bloodshed, though, as that's what usually happens with repressive regimes, isn't it? Isn't it?!

Context:
Watched from the blu-ray on my ownsome. The house is very busy at the moment, and I haven't found any time to watch Doctor Who for a good bit, so grabbed a slot late on a Friday night, when everyone else was abed, for 45 minutes of early Matt Smith. Full disclosure: I had consumed wine, and continued to do so through the performance. The blu-ray box set featuring this story uniquely removes the Next Time trailers from the end of each episode, but as this story anyway ends with a whole scene as a taster for the following Dalek story, it's not much of a loss.

First-time round: 
On its first broadcast on BBC1 in Spring 2010, possibly live, probably timeshifted a few hours so  the Better Half and I could watch when the kids (at the time, there were only two) were safely asleep. No particularly strong memories. I was cautiously optimistic with the series and the new Doctor at this point (but I hadn't see the following Dalek story yet, of course).

Reaction:
I may be wrong, but that quite long scene at the end of The Beast Below teasing the next story suggests to me an episode that was running short. Even if it was as always scripted, it betrays a lack of confidence in the material of The Beast Below, doesn't it? It's a trifle undignified to end practically begging the audience "Yeah, okay, this was a bit nothingy, but next week there's Daleks and WW2, so come back, come back - please!". The writer Steven Moffat has subsequently expressed disappointment with this story, so he clearly has issues with it. But in and of itself it's perfectly serviceable. It may be that its position in the overall series was no longer working for Moffat, as he would from this point onwards start to tinker with series structure.

The previous showrunner had a very rigid template for the start of a season: three relatively lightweight single-episode stories, one in the past, one in the future, one contemporary, then hit them with a bigger story - two parts, big cliffhanger, develop the themes of the season, then carry on. Moffat follows this for his first series in charge, but generally dispenses with those first three lightweight stories thereafter (with some echoes of it in his final year, when he's to a certain extent trying to reboot things). Instead, he moves his episode(s) slightly more to the middle, usually, and has a second big launch point (Let's Kill Hitler, The Bells of St. John) or in later years explores a more left-field idea for a Doctor Who story (Listen, Extremis). Steven Moffat, unlike Russell T Davies, didn't want to write any simple, small stories. Which is fair enough. The Beast Below is probably his only one, I'd say: it doesn't kick off or conclude a series, has no tinsel, and it isn't trying to push at the boundaries of what Who can be. It just sets up the Doctor and Amy, how they operate on an away mission, as it were, and restates the Doctor's mission through Amy's eyes.

It's probably a little too simple. Take out the faffing about in the TARDIS at the beginning and end, and the story has been and gone in not more than 35 minutes. Still, Moffat crams in lots of ideas and reversals in this short duration. But the dramatic question of how to defeat the bad guy and solve the dilemma is that it isn't a bad guy and you don't have to solve the dilemma. It's a little too easy. The real bad guys don't really get any comeuppance either, which is not satisfying as they are quite bad. The Smilers on a conceptual and visual level - a representation of oppressive authority as cheap, old arcade automata - are very strong. One of my earliest memories is of a terrifying laughing clown in a similar booth in Weston Super Mare, and having shared this memory with people over the years and found similar devices - or in one case possibly even the same device - frightened them too, I attest that Moffat is again being successful at harnessing the power of childhood creep-outs for dramatic value.

Smith is great, absolutely hitting the ground running; the art direction excels too, with its tourist shop meets Terry Gilliam's Brazil approach. There's some great lines, like the Doctor's description of what he does "Stay out of trouble... badly" and many others. But how the little girl reading the poem at the beginning is supposed to fit into things is not clear, and those black scorpion-like prongs that spring out all over the starship are out of scale for the beast as we eventually discover it, and don't look anything like any bit of a whale.

Connectivity: 
Both stories are Steven Moffat showrunner era future-set stories where innocents are snared into exploitation on an intergalactic scale. At the beginning of both there is a focus on water (although it's in drinking glasses in The Beast Below). And both have a proposition meaning 'lower than' in their titles.

Deeper Thoughts:
I can't not write about Brexit again, really, can I?.  As well as a joke about Scottish independence, The Beast Below gives us another  prescient metaphor: the UK breaks away from other nations, thinking it can go it alone, but fumbles it: essential parts of its infrastructure can't be funded, and things risk coming to a standstill. The government becomes increasingly authoritative while the head of state turns a blind eye; they just about keep things running but only with a fearful populace in utter denial, and an underlying, barely visible exploitation at the base of everything (of an immigrant creature, it should be noted, but I won't get into that today). This is all supported by referenda made pointless because heavy-handed propaganda (dubious in its veracity) persuades a majority of the voters that they have no choice. Anyone with an opinion against the will of this majority is dismissed.

Does this remind one of anything? Obviously, Remainers aren't fed to ravenous space beasties, but that's only because there are no ravenous space beasties to hand: if there were, the Daily Mail would be regularly calling for 'traitors' to be fed to them on their front page, you can bet. How did Steven Moffat know?! The story was written and aired during the fag end of the New Labour years, shortly before the hung parliament and the formation of a coalition which unseated Gordon Brown. No one, literally no one, predicted the events of Brexit on the night before the referendum (Nigel Farage was as shocked as anyone the next morning), so how does this look like a satire of the impacts of Brexit six years before that vote?

The terrible truth that might explain this is that the UK's bumbling, fumbling approach, often also corrupt and costly to human life and happiness, my country's way of ploughing on regardless and not accepting reality, is hard-wired into us. It doesn't matter which party or figurehead is in place, the impact will still be the same, and the satire will still resonate. The Beast Below tells the story of the UK as a faded power, long past its glory, wallowing in nostalgic imagery that's chipped and worn. I can't with honest heart say that isn't an accurate picture. Is there an answer? Is Brexit a no-win situation, like the 'which button to press' dilemma presented in The Beast Below? How long can we keep going before we have to realise there's no engine and we need to eject? Time will tell. It usually does.


In Summary:
Starship OK (but only OK).

Monday, 13 November 2017

Under the Lake / Before the Flood

Chapter The 70th, which pulls itself up by its own bootstrap paradoxes.

Plot: 
The Doctor and Clara arrive at a sub-aquatic mining facility in the twenty-second century based in a flooded Scottish village. The crew have recently found a mysterious alien artifact - which turns out to be a space hearse - and opened it up (as you don't). Since then, they've seen ghosts, and one by one they are being turned into ghosts themselves. A warrior creature called the Fisher King (but not the Fisher King presumably as this one only arrives on Earth in 1980 long after the mythology of our Fisher King has been established, so the name's just a coincidence) faked his own death and came in the hearse to the village before it flooded, and the ghosts are part of a convoluted intergalactic transmission mechanism to alert his own people of his whereabouts. The technology used is very advanced, so you'd think the Fisher Subjects or Fisher King people or Fisher Kingarians or whatever could have just invented an intergalactic transmission mechanism that ran on electricity rather than build in the risk and tedium of having to kill someone and then get their ghost to kill someone else and so on. Anyway, basically a haunted house story in space, except not in space.

Context:
Watched both episodes on the same day (with a short gap in between parts one and two) on blu-ray with middle child (boy of 8). He hadn't been allowed to watch this two years ago, as we thought it was too scary for him; but watching it this time, he could remember details, and confessed he'd sneaked down and watched a lot of the first episode through the living room door in the evening. But mine and the Better Half's original instincts were probably right, as this time he decided it was too tense for him and stopped watching about twenty minutes before the end of episode 2; it's good that the children are now generally all old enough (including the youngest, his sister, at 5 years old) to self-select, and aren't too disappointed to bail out and miss the end if they're finding it a bit too much.


First-time round: 
This is one of the few stories so far to come up randomly for coverage that was aired after the blog began. If I were organised and forward-thinking, you'd imagine I'd have started from those days in 2015 noting down the circumstances of watching any new episodes, for better completing these 'First-time round' sections in years to come. Reader, I am not that organised and forward-thinking. I know for series 9 we were watching each new episode timeshifted in the evening of its BBC1 Saturday broadcast for suitability, and then showing the kids for the first time the following day if it was deemed acceptable (unless they were sneaking a peek at it from outside the door, of course).

Reaction:
One thing I was doing around the time of the broadcast of this story was blogging about its predecessor (see here). I can't help feeling these two episodes would have been a better pair with which to lead the season. Often in its long history, Doctor Who production teams didn't kick off with an all-singing all-dancing extravaganza: a 'jumping-on point' story was all that was felt to be required - no baggage, the TARDIS team just arriving and getting on with it, as the Doctor and Clara do here. The Magician's Apprentice was nothing but baggage, with reams of Time Lord and Dalek history, and a lot of false spectacle imposed, as it was the opener, on a story which at heart was a quiet chamber piece. "How can these ghosts exist?" would surely have been a better intrigue to put into the audience's minds than "What on Skaro is going on?". It would also have made Under the Lake / Before the Flood feel less of a slog. Watched in isolation, this story zips along much quicker than it seemed back in 2015 when it followed hard on a similarly paced story. Having two double-episoders in a row was something the series had never done before since returning in 2005, and it's easy to see why.

I'm warming to this idea more and more: bringing this story up front would work better with the character development. Ephemera like the guitar and sunglasses aside, the Doctor prowling the corridors of the Drum is the previous year's version - a little callous, focused more on the end goal than individuals' feelings, and not good with people (hence requiring cue cards featured in an early  funny gag). Clara too is still grieving over Danny, though she's using her travels with the Doctor as an escape, as highlighted by some subtle performance touches that I missed first time round when I was less engaged. This has a direct input into the resolution of the romantic subplot - seize the day before your beloved gets deaded, and so forth - which works very well.

There might be evidence in places of a writer who's not Steven Moffat trying too hard to do a Steven Moffat style story (The Girl Who Waited is another earlier example of this phenomenon): there's lots of timey-wimey for one's money - not just characters popping back in time to get explanations of the mystery, but also then popping back again and crossing into their own timestream, weaving in between the earlier scenes. Writer Toby Whithouse takes it up another notch, though, with the material on the paradox that we later find has driven the plot; this is delivered as a cold opening monologue by the Doctor, before episode 2 begins. There's never been anything like it in Doctor Who before or since (even William Hartnell and Tom Baker's breaking of the fourth wall was only for  brief comic moments, and Capaldi does one of those later in this story as well - witness the shameless knowing shrug he gives at the end which cannot be aimed at anyone except the audience). The show as a whole is riddled with 'meta' gags as the Doctor and the crew are all geek-aware enough to appreciate they are in a Cabin in the Woods style horror story.

Other good stuff: a great cliffhanger; the abandoned cold-war military training village is an original and visually interesting location, but there's no explanation as to why it is abandoned in 1980 with the cold war far from over; whatever the explanation is, it's also presumably the reason why no one ever fixes the dam and reclaims the flooded area, so it might have been worth making it explicit with a line or two. There are some sublime moments of tension throughout (probably the reason why our middle child found it a bit too much), and it's great to have a deaf actor cast as a deaf character, and just have them be part of the action rather than having to make anything more of it.

Connectivity: 
Both stories mention UNIT and the Doctor's status as a representative of that organisation; they also  feature the application of conductive solutions to trap the week's nasty or nasties (the Doctor's lash-up that encircles the Keller Machine in The Mind of Evil, the Faraday cage in Under The Lake / Before the Flood).

Deeper Thoughts:
A cross word or two, or some other cryptic nonsense. Coming late to the party, as ever, I realise I've missed a scandal in the world of Doctor Who Magazine. Recently, Private Eye ran a story throwing light on the change of editorship a few months back at my favourite programme's official magazine; the last editor, Tom Spilsbury - at least according to said article - may not have left entirely of his own choosing. On a few occasions over the last year, there had been outspoken comments in interviews in the mag (about Trump and Brexit and all the other stuff that everyone is outspoken about one way or another). Seems that this made compliance teams in the BBC nervous, and the DWM editorial team at the time were taken to task, possibly leading to Tom's exit. The article then goes on to describe subsequent budget cuts, which have meant that some regular articles are being canned, including The Watcher's humorous back page of every issue. It also outs the person who writes under the Watcher nom de plume, and if correct then it's who I always suspected it was, but it's not my intention to unmask them here. Culling good regular features, though, and timidity about the irreverent approach DWM has always taken, is obviously worrying - DWM has always previously had more independence than one might expect in an official licensed product, but it has felt a bit dull of late.

(Sorry, this doesn't have much to do with Under the Lake / Before the Flood, but that story doesn't really inspire much in the way of Deeper Thoughts - what am I going to write about: Slipknot?) Anyway, the Watcher, just about to have his outlet taken away from him, decided to comment on this state of affairs (particularly galling as he was in the middle of a long running feature called A History of Doctor Who in 100 objects, which will have to stop at number 87). Reading the final entry in this series, I was none the wiser, despite a few oblique references I'd seen on social media to its being controversial, but Private Eye spelt it out. Each beginning letter of a sentence in the article formed an acrostic, which was a very very rude message aimed at BBC Worldwide and the magazines publisher, Panini. He must have been incandescent with anger to have burnt his bridges in such a public way. A bit unprofessional, perhaps, but I can't say the whole thing wasn't compelling to me in a gossipy way. Right now I'm sticking with the magazine, but I don't want a bland cheerleading fact-sheet, I want my old, funny DWM back; but, it might not be the sort of world any more where the tie-in mag for a children's show aired by a major broadcaster can afford to be sly and naughty sometimes. Drabness and conformity encroaches, alas.


Observant readers may have spotted (go me!) that the first letter of each sentence in this silliness forms an acrostic too; it spells out "Acrostics Are Hard". Oh, except for that last sentence just now where I explained my own cleverness, which spoilt the effect somewhat. Perhaps I should stop now, as the sentence that followed that sentence also spoilt the effect, and this one too. Stopping now.

In Summary:
If only this story wasn't any good, I could say "it's a bit wet' or "a damp squib" but it has to go and be competently above average: there are no watery puns for competently above average.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Mind of Evil

Chapter The 69th, which is miraculously in colour throughout.

Plot: 
Lots is happening simultaneously: a) the Doctor and Jo are visiting Stangmoor Prison for a demonstration of a new - and clearly evil - convict rehabilitation device that sucks all the criminal impulses from the inmates; b) the Brig is handling security for a London-hosted world peace conference; c) Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton are managing the convoy to take a dangerous missile off for decommissioning. Finally, d) the Master is planning to use (a) to capture (c) and use it to threaten (b). He doesn't pull it off, but along the way he does manage a prison riot and makes everyone hallucinate a pink dragon. Just an average day then for the men and women of UNIT: action, adventure, mind parasites. So, why not try out for a career in the army? Talk to a recruiter today, etc. etc.

Context:
The Mind of Evil is a rare treat in that, while it may not be spectacular (unlike the same writer's script from the previous year, Inferno, it doesn't exactly set the world alight - ho ho), it is nonetheless competently put together and entertaining throughout, and crucially - for this viewer, at least - has not been watched so regularly that it's become over-familiar. It's the equivalent of, say, Baby You're a Rich Man by The Beatles. She Loves You is more popular, and Strawberry Fields Forever is more interesting, but I've heard them each a hundred times, just as I've often seen, say, The Ark in Space or Kinda. But Baby You're a Rich man, a B-side slapped on a compilation, or The Mind of Evil - six episodes of previously black and white mid-season Pertwee - still have the quality of freshness. And this is even more so for the latter now that it has colour returned to it (more on that later). Because of this, and because it's six episodes, which the kids and the Better Half usually think is too much, I saved this for myself and watched the first few episodes from the DVD on my own. But everyone else popped in and watched later sections of it here and there, the Better Half and middle child (boy of 8) particularly enjoying what they saw.

First-time round: 
I first saw this story when it came out on VHS in May of 1998. It must have been around a bank holiday (probably Whitsun) as I remember not having anything else to do that day but watch two and a half hours of black and white seventies TV with my university mate Phil, who's been mentioned a few times before on the blog, and who by this time was living down South too a few years after we'd graduated, a short time after he'd finished his PhD. Because they were cheap, I bought a big box of Boddingtons Bitter for us to consume while watching, and because of this I always associate The Mind of Evil with the distinctive yellow cans and bloated feeling. Phil, a proud Yorkshireman, must have put aside prejudice for the sake of thirst in order to drink a Lancastrian brew for a day. This instigated a few years of our meeting up regularly for alcohol-fuelled Doctor Who and film evenings whenever a new DVD came out. Happy days. Happy bleary days.

Reaction:
The Mind of Evil is the story that seems to create single-handedly the impression that many people held and still hold that Jon Pertwee's is the James Bond influenced era of Doctor Who. Nothing of his before or after this, despite many a stunt or vehicular chase, is particularly Bondesque. Up to now, Pertwee's era has shared more ancestry with Quatermass, which I think is in many ways the antithesis of Ian Fleming's famous creation, despite them both being products of the 1950s. But the Master here, in his cigar chomping, wire-tapping saloon-car chauffeured, high-concept international scheming, is very much the Bond villain; there's also a femme fatale, and gadgets and explosions aplenty. The Chinese characters add some international mystique, but there's not much in the way of globe-trotting to glamorous locales (the furthest they get is a hanger on a deserted airfield near Stanham). But just like a Bond film, there's a lot happening to keep the audience from stopping to think how silly it is.

The Master never likes a straightforward plan, that became very obvious early on in my random shuffling adventures when I stumbled across any Master story for the blog. Here, though, he has two relatively (at least for him) sane plots, but he's clearly decided to do both at the same time to liven things up a bit. The first plan is to hijack a missile to threaten a peace conference and thereby take over the world; the second is to use a nasty alien disguised as a machine to infiltrate a prison and then, well, take over a prison. Why does he want to take over a prison as well as the whole world? It's not clear. It may be to use the prisoners as guns for hire, which he indeed does. Though, there's got to be risks there that his workforce will scarper; the Better Half kept shouting at the screen comments along the lines of "They've escaped from prison, why are they going back in to prison?!" and she has a point. Anyway, the Master has already hired a separate band of disguised mercenaries, so he doesn't need the prisoners. Pulling on this thread only leads one to the terrible conclusion that the Master doesn't need the Keller machine alien at all. He only needs the missile to achieve his goals, and he gets that using old-fashioned bugging not parasitic mind control. He seems only to have included a monster as he knows its expected.

One would want to rewrite to make sense of things better rather than get rid of the Keller machine from the story, of course - it's a wonderful creation, and shows that clever direction can get malevolence out of even the most static prop; the throbbing radiophonia that accompanies it is magnificent too. The script risks the machine's overuse, perhaps: many cliffhangers and interim climax scenes revolve around someone collapsing as it vision-mixes in their greatest fears (including a dragon for the US ambassador - sure it might be a metaphorical symbol of his fear of communism, but it does look like he's got a morbid fear of cardboard dragons, which is odd to say the least), but they just about get away with it.

Dover Castle is a good location for the prison exteriors, and the interior sets are good too; it gets noisy when all the inmates shout as they're affected by the machine, but it's very real. The cast is populated with believable characters played by believable character actors: Michael Sheard, Neil McCarthy and William Marlowe are all excellent doing their audition pieces for coming back in bigger roles in the Tom Baker era. The material's taken seriously, individual deaths are given weight, and the verisimilitude of details like the reading of rights to the inmate condemned to the machine treatment works to give it heft and import. The regulars all shine with lots of stuff to do, and there's only the smallest bits of smug Pertwee behaviour here and there. Jo is great, one story in: compassionate, solid and competent, and not doing idiot moves just to serve the plot. Like many a companion, she was only as good as whoever was writing for her that week.

Connectivity: 
Both The Mind of Evil and Robot are crash-bang-wallop UNIT extravaganzas; both feature as antagonists a group of people with a mechanical device that nonetheless has a mind of its own, who - though they have an ostensibly noble purpose - want to use it to hold the world to ransom. Plus, in both stories, one of the UNIT team does some intelligence work, but gets knocked out.

Deeper Thoughts:
I'm fairly sure that's Chroma. Yes, watching The Mind of Evil could be a prompt for an in-depth treatise on crime and punishment, and musings on whether justice can ever be obtained in a world of conflict. But I'm instead going to muse about Doctor Who on VHS and DVD. Again. The story's script anyway uses those lofty themes only as window dressing, it's not deep; that it, and all the Jon Pertwee stories, are available to view in colour is much more interesting. When I first became a Doctor Who obsessive and was reading Doctor Who Magazine in the early 1980s, it coincided with the news stories about the final lost Pertwee episodes turning up. Unlike his two predecessors, who still had dozens of episodes left to find at that point, and have only slightly less missing now, Pertwee was complete. Sort of. Though his era was represented with moving image from beginning to end, a lot of those images were still missing one key ingredient: colour. The majority of the Doctor Who episodes that have ever been recovered exist because copies were sold abroad, and black-and-white film was a much more portable and compatible medium to the foreign TV stations in the early 1970s, when those sales were made, than was either colour VT or colour film.

There were as such several greyscale gaps in the Third Doctor's spectrum, and that's how it stayed for a decade. These were, in transmission order, as follows: all of Doctor Who and the Silurians, most of The Ambassadors of Death, all of The Mind of Evil, most of The Daemons, and one episode each of Planet of the Daleks and Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Now, even back then there were artificial colourisation techniques that vandals inflicted on old Hollywood movies never intended to be seen in colour. These were expensive processes, though, and out of the budget of BBC Video. But, a lot of people working at the BBC or in video technology are clever nerds who like Doctor Who, so it wasn't so long before new technology and techniques were being developed. The first breakthrough occurred with The Daemons. It involved taking an inferior colour video recording and merging it with the black-and white film, to produce a broadcast standard version. This was then subsequently applied successfully to Doctor and The Silurians, and bits of The Ambassadors of Death. The colour recording of the latter story didn't cover everything, so when it was released on VHS in 2002 (late on in the range's life, as the team working on restoring on the releases were probably holding out to see if they could somehow improve things), the picture went in and out of colour like The Wizard of Oz or my consciousness after too many cans of Boddingtons.

There wasn't any significant amount of recorded colour material from the missing bits of any of the other three stories, so the process could not be applied to them. Mind of Evil, as we have seen, was released on VHS in black and white, and the other two stories as a mixture. This was also the case for Planet of the Daleks when it was repeated on BBC1 in 1993 as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations: episode 3 was broadcast in black-and-white with a brief explanation beforehand, which seems amazing now. In time for its DVD release, though, another technological marvel had come about, indistinguishable (at least to me) from magic: they could pull the colour information out of the black and white film. Shazam!

It turns out, when the original monochrome film recordings were made, if the technician didn't do it quite properly, some slight interference was introduced, and burnt into the film forever. These are 'chroma dots'. And using some serious computer data crunching, and lots of remedial picture work afterwards, the clever nerds could derive and re-add the correct colour from these patterns. Isn't that cool? Planet of the Daleks was already planned for release with an artificially colourised part 3 (the technology had got cheaper by then, but it was still only possible due to the dollar exchange rate being favourable enough at the time to employ a US firm). In the end, the results of the chroma dot process were merged with the colourised version, and the result is near indistinguishable from the real thing. Invasion of the Dinosaurs episode 1 just had the chroma dot process applied and was less successful, but perfectly watchable. And Ambassadors of Death finally had its gaps filled in with the magic crayons of applied maths.

That left The Mind of Evil, which many had assumed would never ever get a colour release. With six whole episodes, it was a mammoth undertaking. Additionally, the first episode had no chroma dots - the technician had for once done his job properly. But colourisation was by then possible for an individual with the right kit and some more clever techniques (in this case, it was the supremely talented Stuart Humphryes - check out his youtube channel, he posts as Babelcolour). This meant that colour could be added to episode 1, while the chroma dot method was used to complete the remaining episodes. The DVD finally came out in June of 2013, Doctor Who's anniversary year. I love that it exists as a celebration of the cleverness and hard work of the artists and technicians that worked on it, and the sheer dumb prosaic happenstance of a no-doubt overworked guy in the 1960s not flipping the right switch on his console when making some recordings of that kid's science fiction programme. It seems like a perfect metaphor for all the ingredients, good and not so good, that make Doctor Who special.

In Summary:
Baby, You're a Rich Man with occasional slightly bloated feeling.