Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Planet of the Spiders

 Chapter The Fourth, the first (and last) of the Pert.

Washed-up salesman C. Lupton, bent on power, dabbles in Buddhist ceremonies at a meditation centre, opening a route to Earth for some giant psy-powered arachnids from Metebelis Three. They seek a blue crystal the Doctor once stole from that planet to aid them in their domination of the universe. The Doctor has to face up to his fear of bad green-screen and ends up regenerating due to radioactive 'fringing'. 

This was the longest story for the blog so far, so I watched the DVD an episode or two per day over about a week, with different members of the family joining me at different times. The idea was to give everyone a break, but my two eldest, after watching the final episodes, begged to see the ones they'd missed.

No plot holes were spotted as such, but my better half was incensed that Mike Yates got off scott free after the events of Invasion of the Dinosaurs. I can see her point: he was part of a conspiracy to wipe out almost every human being in existence; being sentenced to a couple of weeks in a hippy retreat doesn't cut it.

First-time round:
The VHS came out early in 1991 on the same day as City of Death - my first time seeing either of them, and - excitement alert - Spiders was the first double pack video case; prior to this, for longer stories, you got two single boxes Sellotaped together. From memory, I bought both stories on their first day of release at Volume One in Worthing (the very same place that nearly spoilt the TV Movie for me five years later), and raced home to put them on, probably at a time I was supposed to be at sixth form college learning something. I can't remember which of the two I watched first, but I imagine I agonised about it.

I thought I knew Planet of the Spiders. Before I even pressed 'Play' I had my clever-clever summing up line ready ("Eight legs = good, Two legs = bad, Six episodes = two too long"). Then, I started watching. Admittedly this was spread out a bit, but still compressed compared to how the serial was originally shown. I was waiting for the moment where it dragged or came to a standstill or went pear-shaped. And I'm still waiting. Yes, the chase in episode 2 is a bit silly, but it does sum up the Jon Pertwee era nicely (i.e. it's got a comedy tramp and a helicopter in it) and when we finally get to Metebelis Three, it's a bit cramped and drab; but these are quibbles, and neither section was as bad in reality as it was in my preconceptions.

The rest is absolutely cracking stuff: episode 1 draws together themes and plots from the last few years expertly, with just the right amount of knowing humour, and then throws the viewer into this final exciting stretch to tie it all up. The regulars are all served well by the script, and give their best. Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier is on particularly sparkling form, eyeing up belly-dancers and getting bashful about his activities in Brighton hotels. Jon Pertwee avoids the arrogant and irritating lapses he could sometimes be guilty of in this period; he doesn't patronise his companion or any member of the mostly superb guest cast.

Of those, highest glory goes to John Kane as Tommy; there's still (perhaps deliberately as misdirection) a hint of standard-issue Pertwee comedy yokel early on, but ultimately the writing and performance go far beyond that, and create with sensitivity something rare for 20th Century Doctor Who: a true emotional centre to the narrative. One can't help but care for Tommy and what he goes through more than anyone in, say,  Arc of Infinity. His line "Tommy's learning to read, my Mum bought me a book" gets me every time.

A Buddhist theme works for a regeneration story much better than the Christian imagery of the TV Movie, with the Doctor literally being reincarnated as a new man after coming to terms with his bad karma. It also gives the story a unique visual identity, and intriguing actions and motivations for its villains. John Dearth is excellent, as are all the Spider voice artists. The scene where Lupton turns the tables on his spider, confounding our expectations, is another highlight.

As a Russell T Davies fan, it's perhaps not surprising that I enjoy this; the Barry Letts / Terrance Dicks years are the prototype for RTD's new Who. No other era in the 20th century had season finales that built on plot and character arcs, but it's all here, and young Russell was clearly watching back then and taking notes. I'm consequently led to musing idly whether K'anpo/Cho-Je was called back to Gallifrey to fight in the time war. Big Finish have probably covered it. (K'anpo/Cho-Je is an awfully clumsy way to have to refer to the character; given that he was the Doctor's teacher he should have been called The Professor or The Lecturer, or something similarly aligned to the naming convention of Time Lord academic rankings.)

I'm not saying there aren't flaws: Sarah's involvement in the plot hinges on meditation being hip enough for her to write about in Metropolitan magazine, but it's 1973 (or even 1980) and really TM's popularity had peaked in 1967 around when John Lennon and George Harrison did The Frost Programme. The cliffhangers are mostly awful - they went to great lengths in editing to keep the ending of episode 5 intact, but it's pretty humdrum, and there must have been the option to end on the much more dramatic reveal that Sarah is under the control of the Queen Spider. There are quite a lot of opportunities to play spot the unconvincing stand-in for Pertwee. And an ending with the Doctor having to react alone to a big green-screen (probably actually yellow, but you know what I mean) never works, even with New series resources (cf. The Satan Pit and The Rings of Akhaten).

Another regeneration story with a big chase scene; and some more tasteful use of people's deeply held beliefs as set dressing for camp sci-fi nonsense.

Deeper Thoughts:
Does the Doctor really have a greed for knowledge? I don't have extensive awareness of Buddhism, I'm only going on what is in this story, so forgive me if I offend. While it works for Planet of the Spiders, in general it seems a lousy credo for Doctor Who. From what is presented to us, the Doctor must accept that his greed for knowledge, so called, has directly instigated the events of the story, and so he must sacrifice himself to put things right. It's neatly done, as the Doctor returns the original crystal that he 'stole', and in so doing defeats the big bad and closes the circle. Meanwhile Tommy is the only person who seems impervious to the spider zapping, because his "innocence [is] his shield".

I'm not convinced, though, that the Doctor has a greed for knowledge. Greed suggests excess, and can there be such a thing? The Doctor may have been overzealous taking the crystal in the first place, but it subsequently helped many people, and was instrumental in saving the day a couple of times. Even the death of Professor Clegg was not just research for its own sake, but part of an experiment aimed at helping him and others with latent psychic powers (poor Clegg, destroyed after communing with blue power - there's a lesson there somewhere).

And taken to it's logical conclusion, the story seems to promote something deeply anti-intellectual; according to this philosophy, Tommy would have better off as he was - a pure innocent. This goes against the grain of the programme's original educational remit and its development as a story of exploration, engagement and - unavoidably - picking sides. Staying true to the season 11 finale, season 12 would have found Tom Baker doing nothing but meditating alongside Mike Yates and The Lecturer, the Giant Robot would have nuked Earth after only 4 episodes, and that would have been terrible... imagine a season of Doctor Who only lasting four episodes. Even in the darkest of days we got 14.

In Summary:
After some meditation, I realise it transcends its reputation.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Doctor Who (The TV Movie)

Chapter The Third, where Sisyphus completes one Doctor's entire televisual era earlier than expected.

The Master attempts to take over the Doctor's life using the power source from the TARDIS, risking the destruction of planet Earth. The Doctor defeats him with hindrance from cardiologist Grace - who causes his seventh regeneration with a botched operation - and gun-toting gang member Chang Lee. On New Year's Eve 1999. In the US of A (i.e. Canada).

Another Sunday night 'Songs of Praise time' watch with all the family (my better half being the least willing viewer this time, who shared her attention with social media throughout). I'm worried what kind of Mesmer job I've done on my children, saturating them with Doctor Who fandom for all their young lives so far, because they yet again sat still and quiet throughout the full 85 minutes. My youngest, a girl, was very happy and clapped at the end, saying "they're kissing again!" of the Doctor and Grace's second snog with all the fireworks. That bit was clearly made for three-year-old girls. In ascending order of age, they voted it "Good", "Great" and "Awesome".

Eldest son put on his pedantic hat a bit more for this one, but - you know - it is the TV movie.  Questions included: how does the Master get into the Doctor's TARDIS without a key? Why can you see the night sky from inside the TARDIS in the cloister room? Is that guy dead (of the morgue attendant once he'd taken his pratfall on seeing the resurrected Doctor)?

Questions that occurred within my pedantic hat included: who lights all the millions of candles in the TARDIS control room? Was the sacrilegious line "Now I know what it feels like to be God" from the 1931 Frankenstein blanked out especially for its use in Doctor Who, or was it always shown like that on US television? How can Brian, Grace's ex, get someone to help him move all his stuff, including the sofa, out of their house so quickly? Who's the protagonist?

First-time round:
It's easy to forget now that Doctor Who is a going concern, how exciting it all was. Fans anticipated this more, I think, even than the next episode shown nine years later. In 2005, everyone knew there was to be at least one series; in 1996, there was one shot at the prize, a long shot - yes - but a possibility. The old series was still relatively recent, its 30th anniversary hoopla fresh in the mind. If all went well, it would be back for good, and we'd have loads of episodes every year, made on US TV budgets

In the weeks leading up to broadcast, I read all the previews and teaser articles in the Radio Times and Doctor Who Magazine, I read the special tie-in magazine that Panini brought out (at least until I realised it spoilered the whole plot, then I just looked at the pictures). I bought the video, which for some reason was out first, but I kept it unopened until after the broadcast on TV.

Strictly speaking, my first glimpse was of the scene of the Doctor and Grace stealing a chip from an atomic clock, which was on screen in the shop where I bought the video. But I couldn't really concentrate as I was sticking my fingers in my ears and saying "la,la,la, not listening". Why didn't I wait and buy it afterwards, if I wasn't going to watch it?  Why was it necessary to own, hold and even - when nobody was looking - caress a solid object to represent this new hope? These are valid questions. At least I didn't queue up at midnight to purchase it the very second it came out, as some reportedly did.

On transmission evening, I was at my mother-in-law's watching with my better half. We had both recently moved out of our parental homes and were living together in a studio flat, but it only had a black-and-white TV as we were saving pennies on the licence fee. I took the advantage of a Whitsun bank holiday visit to see the TV movie - and later on the first episode of Cold Lazarus  - in colour.  Two hotly anticipated chunks of UK science fiction in one night; both turned out to be flawed admittedly, but that night it seemed like an embarrassment of riches, not just an embarrassment.

The first thing that leaps out and hammers you over the head is the visual flair injected by Geoffrey Sax as director, with lots of imaginative segues and inter-cutting. It might be a bit too much really - a swirling vortex cross-fades into a fish's eye at one point, for no real reason - and starts to give one the impression that he's jazzing things up to deflect attention from the mediocrity of the material. There's a big dollop of Christian imagery too, and it's not a good fit: Christ was resurrected like the Doctor, yes, but not with a completely different persona. With the aforementioned visual comparisons of Christ's rebirth to Frankenstein as well as Doctor Who, it could almost be offensive, except the TV movie is trying so hard not to offend anyone.

Direction of the performers is less effective: Eric Roberts is the best thing in it, hamming it up just enough, but McGann is inconsistent. When he's good he's very good, and in a series I've no doubt he would have ironed out the kinks. Sylvester McCoy's performance is weirdly mannered, and seems nothing like the Doctor as he'd played him in the 1980s, which defeats the object of bringing him back.

Daphne Ashbrook gives it all she's got as Grace, fighting against the character arc as written. It's all over the place: she is given consistent physical evidence not only that the Doctor is an alien but also that's he the same person she saw as a corpse the night before, albeit with a different face. But she still thinks he must have escaped from a psych ward. When he suddenly regains his memory and they kiss, she asks for another smacker despite thinking he was a fruitcake minutes before and thinking he's a dangerous psychotic moments later. The story seems to be setting her up to stay on as the new companion, robbing her of job, boyfriend, and furniture, but then she just... doesn't. There's a hackneyed but still great shot towards the end of the Doctor, backed up by Grace and Chang Lee, descending a staircase in the TARDIS - our new heroes. But instead of them flying off to new adventure, they go home and return to their old lives.

Lots of the plot doesn't make any sense. The Doctor at many points seems to have both precognitive and telepathic ability; maybe the idea is to suggest he's visited the future of this city and these characters before, but the knowledge he has is too detailed and obscure. The Master can turn his disintegrated remains into a snake creature, but how? The TARDIS's Eye of Harmony can't be opened unless you look into a beam of light with a human retina pattern, but why? The Doctor says he can turn into a different creature, but only when he dies. Really?!

The ending has come in for lots of flak too, but perhaps somewhat unduly. Yes, Grace gets very lucky jump-starting the TARDIS despite the Doctor never having a chance to finish explaining how to do this; then it travels back in time saving the Earth somehow. The problem was originally caused by the TARDIS though, so I don't think it breaks any cardinal rules having it provide the solution too. Grace and Chang Lee are brought back to life by energy from the Eye of Harmony, which can cause howls of derision from the more cynical viewer, but this is the one bit that actually does make sense - we've been told all along that its energy can be used to bring new life. Literally sprinkling fairy dust over the scene was probably excessive, mind you.

Watching again, though, I was struck by the fact that there's an island of greatness in the middle of this muddle. From the point where the Master turns up at Grace's house up to the moment they step inside the TARDIS, it really hits its stride: the Master correcting Grace's grammar, "Now, would you stand aside before I shoot myself", the chase scene, escaping the Master using a fire hose. It crackles with energy, and everyone looks like they're having tremendous fun.
Like Partners in Crime, Doctor Who (The TV Movie) is primarily a Doctor versus villain story, without much of a monster, excepting the odd bit of CGI globbiness. They both take place in a roughly contemporary urban setting.  The villain's plan causes weight loss (the Doctor loses 20 pounds in 20 minutes because of the Eye of Harmony doing, erm, something).

Deeper Thoughts:
Paul McGann doesn't count. Discuss. Well, of course he does, but to me the TV Movie itself doesn't feel like Doctor Who. A bold assertion about the programme that has the flexible format to go anywhere and do anything, but it's something I just feel. I'd never examined exactly why until now, and I have a theory. It's not about tone. There isn't really anything elsewhere in Who like the gang shoot-outs or frightening operations depicted here, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be. This is the TV Movie doing the sampling that Doctor Who has always done: it's a bit cop show, it's a bit ER, it's a bit X-Files. That's not any different from riffing on, say, monster movies, literary tales, or Aliens. And it's not because it doesn't make much sense; heaven knows, that's true of many another story before and since.

Let's play continuity bingo. (Honestly, let's - it will help.) Like the post-2005 new series, the TV movie also had to carefully deliver 26 years of accumulated backstory to its viewers. How did each pace themselves in their first mention of some specific concepts:

  • Time Lords; New Series: 2nd episode (The End of The World); TV Movie: 22 seconds.
  • The Daleks; New Series: 6th episode (Dalek); TV Movie: 29 seconds.
  • The planet Gallifrey; New Series: 28th episode (The Runaway Bride); TV Movie: 27 seconds.
  • The Master; New Series: 39th episode (Utopia); TV Movie: 6 seconds.
  • The limit of thirteen lives for a Time Lord; New Series: 90th episode (Time of the Doctor); TV Movie: 1 minute 48 seconds.
OK, the TV Movie was a lot shorter; the makers wanted to throw a few bones to the fans, but then they also didn't want to frighten off the newcomers. This leads to the introduction of a Hollywood staple, the over-explanatory voiceover, to a script that already didn't leave much to the imagination. Result: there is zero mystery. And this is why it doesn't feel like Doctor Who.

All Doctor Who stories strive to have some mystery. It's usually the focus of the old episode one: what's going on in this new place we've landed?  Lately, for brevity, it might only last the duration of the pre-credits sequence, but there's always something. But not here: we're told from the off what's going to happen, who's the good guy, who's the bad guy and we watch an action film play out where they have a bit of a scrap. Easily fixed too: just start with the Doctor being rushed to hospital. Explain all the necessary backstory including the Master's escape in the TARDIS later as the Doctor regains his memory, and maybe have Chang Lee join the dots of the shooting by relating it to the Master or to Grace. Immediately, the audience is kept guessing, and no one needs to take an info-dump all over us in the first two minutes of the story.

Life's too short for me to do a fan edit, though, rest assured...

In Summary:
A curate's egg, in all senses of the term: good bits, bad bits, and we euphemistically wanted to pretend it was better than it was.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Partners in Crime

 Chapter The Second, where Sisyphus realises the extent of his undertaking: the New Series is included too!

HyperNanny Miss Foster breeds little critters the Adipose from the fat of Londoners, under the cover of a slimming pill company. In the midst of stopping her without breaking too much of a sweat, the Doctor runs into old pal Donna again, whose wedding he'd ruined a couple of Christmasses previous.

Watched the DVD with the kids last thing on Sunday night before bed before school (what I forever think of as 'Songs of Praise time'). My better half, despite being massively in lust with David Tennant -  a lot of ladies are, it's a broad church - had to skip it, as she'd retired early feeling unwell. She's fine now, but sad to have missed skinny boy in action.

Kids again were quiet throughout and nothing confused or scared them too much.  Middle child said "Not again" when the Doctor and Donna separately both trick their way into the Adipose Industries offices for the second time, and he's right it is a bit repetitive and could have been streamlined, but that would have meant losing some of the best material that's in between - the Doctor in the TARDIS starting to explain the plot Macguffin before realising sadly there's no-one there with him, and also the scenes of Donna with her relatives.

First-time round:
Caught up with it late on the evening of transmission, timeshifted on the PVR. The scheduled broadcast time was early for the 2008 series as I recall, so we couldn't watch live as we were putting our - at the time only - offspring to bed when it went out. Crikey, that was seven years, one global financial crisis, and two kids ago now; it's flown by.

I'll make no cucumbers about it, I love the work of Russell T Davies, and this is a trademark RTD Doctor Who series opener: we join a sideshow alien plot midway through, it's not too big a deal for the Doctor to manage; the tone's fairly light, with an emphasis not on the unearthly goings-on, but the companion's home-life in sharp relief to all that (which is what the episode is really about).

This was the last time he would pull the trick off, but it's kept fresh with a beginning sequence where the Doctor and Donna have a series of comical near misses, almost bumping into each other as they run parallel investigations. This culminates in a sequence where they finally spot each other from a distance, and a comic dumb show ensues which has justly gone into the clip bank for anniversary docos, symphonic spectaculars, etc.

I'm no Tate-hater, she's great and a perfect fit for Donna, a larger than life character with a carefully revealed vulnerability. Bernard Cribbins is obviously excellent, because he's never been less than excellent in anything he's ever done. He was the best thing in that shambolic aftershow party on BBC3 on the evening of the 50th anniversary of Who in 2013, which - given that it also included a sequence where One Direction were regressed away to nothing but white noise - is saying something.

The unsung hero of this era, though, is Jax King as Donna's Mum. The sequence where Donna sits statue still in the kitchen as Slyvia flits around berating her is wonderfully written and performed (and exactly like many similar ear-bashings the younger me had with my Mum). I particularly like the dialogue "It's not like the 1980s. No one's unemployed these days, not really. Except you." Untrue, obviously, and probably a corrosive point of view (no one was out of work unless they wanted to be), but it perfectly encapsulates how some people were thinking and feeling in the latter days of the New Labour boom years.

The design of the Adipose, into which the writer contributed significantly, is a triumph attested to by the merch generated (Adipose stress balls and such): the lone fang is what makes it. I can't think of another Doctor Who creature that has been designed to be cute and non-threatening, but becoming dangerous through sheer numbers. The obvious antecedent from Sci-Fi telly in general is of course the Tribble from original Star Trek. For once, Trek got there first, but it doesn't excuse them ripping off the Cybermen in the form of the Borg.

The pendant being an activator of Adipose creation is a bit clumsy, as is the notion at the end that two are needed, conveniently allowing Donna with her pendant to 'complete' the Doctor. But it's a Macguffin, so it's not worth getting too worried about. Also, calling a race of creatures made out of fat 'Adipose' is straight out of Dalek creator Terry Nation's guide to Doctor Who naming: he called a wet world Marinus, a dry world Aridius, and a world taken over by machines as Mechanus. To be a true tribute, they should have been called the Adiposarians, but let's not quibble.

And a world of desperate criminals was Desperus.  And Skaro was scarred by nuclear war.  I could go on...

The final words on plot-hole spotting go to my eldest, who asked why Roger Davey's burglar alarm didn't go off at the end. In an early scene, Roger, one of the slimming pill test subjects, explains at length that he is woken every night by the alarm, which unknown to him is being set off by the Adipose created from his own fat escaping his house through the cat flap.  At the climax, when all the pill-takers are going into spasms, another Adipose emerges from Roger, escapes through the cat flap, and... no alarm. Good spot, boy. Take that RTD, you hack!

Like Arc of Infinity, this is a season opener with the return of an old companion. Rather than the coincidence being ignored, though, Davies hangs a hat on it, overstating it in the opening sequences for laughs ,then mining from it a human story of second chances. Donna is desperus to find the Doctor again, because she realises she was foolish to pass up the chance he'd offered her before, and despite her efforts to improve herself, she'll never have as good an opportunity without him. Anyone who's ever been on holiday can empathise with the haunting moment when she recounts her trip to Egypt; despite good intentions, she ends up indulging in empty tourist activities rather than exploring, and before she's knows it, she's back home and no wiser.

Also, at a stretch, Partners of Crime like Arc also features an appearance from an actor who would go on to be cast as the Doctor (a glimpse of Peter Capaldi in the Next Time trailer for The Fires of Pompeii). 

Deeper Thoughts:
Does the Doctor make things worse? There's two lines of Foster's that create uncertainty about what her eventual plan would have been, had the Doctor not got involved: "We had planned to seed millions" and earlier "In a crisis the Adipose can convert bone and hair and internal organs". Had a crisis not occurred, would she have just left the planet having created billions of innocent new Adipose lives, while simultaneously making millions of humans slim?  What's wrong with that? The Shadow Proclamation apparently says it's against the law, but it seems like a victimless crime to me.

The later story, Turn Left, suggests what might have happened without the Doctor's intervention: Foster would ultimately have gone ahead and killed people. But as that's ten episodes later, it's a bit late for such exposition, and it anyway happens in a parallel universe where the story takes place in the USA, so can't be trusted as definite proof. Ignoring Turn Left, there arises the uneasy idea that the Doctor has pointlessly endangered a million lives, and Donna has contributed to a murder. The thoughtless pricks.

This wouldn't be so bad except that by coincidence, in the same year, we have Planet of The Ood, where the Doctor and Donna take credit for the positive outcome despite not making any material difference to the plot (it's Ood Sigma and Dr. Ryder who are the real heroes of that one); plus, in Midnight, the Doctor unambiguously does make things worse by his presence (the other passengers of the bus want to throw Sky out and he stops them, but in the end that is indeed what has to be done, and someone else has to sacrifice themselves to achieve it). Perhaps, as they did on the series Community after a season of uncharacteristic behaviour, we should just explain away 2008 as Doctor Who's gas leak year.

In Summary:
Slim,but fun.