Sunday, 30 August 2015

Silver Nemesis

Chapter The Eleventh, wherein turn up perpetual silver medal winning baddies, the Cybermen.

Various comic-book characters - Nazis,a 17th Century black magic-practising noblewoman, shiny cyborgs, Dr. Who and his sassy teenage sidekick, Ace - fight over this week's Timelord superweapon MacGuffin. Everyone but The Doctor and Ace and the noblewoman's friendly henchman (who only drank the blood of one murdered person, so he's okay) get blown up or killed. Throughout, lots of people talk heavy-handedly about the mystery of the Doctor, rather like children who know what your birthday present is, and are desperate to tell you before you open it.

Off work for summer hols, I sat down to watch the DVD with the whole family. Jealous at middle-child (boy, now 6) getting to occasionally derail the random selection of stories, my eldest child (boy, now 9) insisted on choosing this story as it's one of his favourites. Luckily, it still fits my plan to start with one story from each Doctor. My Better Half, by the way, lasted until halfway through the title sequence of episode one; spotting the DVD box, she said something along the lines of "Not this old toss, I'm off" and was not seen again.

First-time round:
I watched on its initial BBC1 broadcast in 1988, when I had just started sixth-form college. I have a vague memory that I missed episode 2 completely, meaning I did not see at the time some of the more infamous scenes (anything to do with the skinheads, for example). I still thought it was rubbish, mind. A few weeks later, during the broadcast of the subsequent story, a friend of my sister's, Nadia, was round our house. I quite fancied her, and somehow managed to find myself chatting alone with her, when she - she! - brought up the topic of Doctor Who. She mentioned that she'd liked the recent show with the Cybermen, and I suavely but coolly said "Jesus! Did you? You're wrong - it was utter shit". As I closed off for ever what might have been a different path of my life, I could not help but think of the words of T. S. Eliot: "Down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened". Eliot never mentioned vomiting all over the passage and door for good measure, but - you know - I'm thorough.

A lot of the location work was done in places around my then home town of Worthing. The cast stayed in a Worthing seafront hotel, where my schoolfriend Dominic was working in the Summer of 1988 after we'd done our GCSEs. He reported back on important topics like how Sophie Aldred was much better looking than her tomboy appearance in Dragonfire made out, but he thought she had a boyfriend.

Much later, I was best man to my friend Phil when he got married in St. Mary's House in Bramber, the location used for Lady Peinforte's home. I was banned from making any reference to this in my speech.


Slvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, as the Doctor and Ace, are one of those TARDIS teams that just clicked instantly with a wonderful on-screen chemistry, and their presence lifts any material. The best parts of Silver Nemesis are the two of them having fun, wandering around WindsorArudel in the bright November sunshine, listening to jazz, jumping into the river for a lark. The only problem is this keeps getting interrupted by bits of the plot taking itself too seriously, or not taking itself seriously enough. And it's a stretch to use the word 'plot', as what happens is so very, very slight: people arrive, they wander around a bit, then everything gets blown up. The End.

There's not much point criticising individual scenes as the whole thing is padding; I did, after all, miss the whole middle episode without having any difficulty keeping up. What's amazing is that there were reels and reels of deleted scenes, as the episodes all went over-length. Enough, it turned out, to do a special edition of the story on VHS some years later. Most of it is just more upholstery, but there is also a sequence cut where some parties join forces then double-cross each other - it might have formed some actual story development, had it been written, directed or performed well. It sadly wasn't.

Silver Nemesis is my least favourite McCoy (yes, I honestly enjoy Time and The Rani more). The Cybermen are very badly used and don't look quite right. In line with this being the story set around and celebrating the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who's start date, they have been buffed to a shine, but they were never ever gleaming silver before, so it doesn't really connect and they look stupid. And there's no excuse for their suddenly having bulbous sausage fingers by the incorporation of cricket gloves into the costume.

But, I'm remaining upbeat, in something of the spirit of the middle years of the Doctor Who DVD range, where they were deliberately releasing less well-regarded stories, to save the good stuff for later. It can only get better from now on.

Both this and The Ultimate Foe are about various larger-than-life characters trying to get hold of Timelord stuff, and - for the third story in a row - it's all too tied up in the show's ongoing mythology for its own good.
Deeper Thoughts:
What secrets would Lady Peinforte have spilled exactly? By coincidence, a lot of the stories I've watched for the blog so far have contained large quantities of continuity / mythology / ongoing plot, whatever you want to call the stuff. It's luck of the draw, as Doctor Who wasn't always like this; but, perhaps inevitably when watching in any old order, the more stand-alone stories are winning it thus far. Ultimate Foe and Armageddon Outahere are the closing sections of year-long stories, Flatline and Let's Kill Hitler suffer to lesser or greater degrees from having to stuff in lots of arc bits. The TV Movie and Arc of Infinity overestimate their viewers' interest in Gallifreyan gear and gadgetry.

Silver Nemesis, although indulging in a bit of nostalgia as it's an anniversary show, is trying for something different: to move Doctor Who into a new phase. Unfortunately, the writer Kevin Clarke, following what was later dubbed the Masterplan of script editor Andrew Cartmel, attempts to do this by creating a new backstory for the Doctor, and then dropping hints about it. This is bound not to work in a long-running series, particularly one that's been going for a quarter century: oh, did I not mention all this mysterious stuff about me any time in the last 25 years? Sorry, it's just never come up in all that time, but in the last couple of weeks people can't stop banging on about it. Strange, I know.

No, it was never going to convince. They've anyway already moved things on and created mystery within the Doctor's character. When the actor changes, it's a blank slate, and a perfect organic point to create a little mystery: what is this guy going to be like? Since his first year in the role, McCoy along with the writers is flagging up the darker manipulative side of his Pierrot-like persona. In Silver Nemesis, when alone with the statue, he says he can't yet let it have its freedom as "Things are still imperfect". That's just enough, and everything else could never be that restrained or subtle. The script even acknowledges this, when the cybermen are not interested in the slightest in whatever Peinforte has to divulge. This is just as well, as knowing now the full details of the Cartmel Masterplan, the scene would have run like this:

PEINFORTE: I shall tell them of Gallifrey, tell them of the old time, the time of chaos.

DOCTOR: Be my guest.

PEINFORTE: Well, Cyberleader, get this: the Doctor is really The Other, who - with Rassilon and Omega - formed a trio of ancient Time lord guys long ago on Gallifrey who were obsessed with building superweapons and stuff. And his house is called Lungbarrow, he's got loads of odd cousins, and he was born in a loom.

[Cyberleader stands with hands on hips, coughs; a tumbleweed goes by.]

CYBERLEADER: Ok, well... thanks, I guess. But we're still going to blow some shit up with your statue.

In Summary:
Dull, not shiny, and as padded as a cricket glove.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Ultimate Foe

Chapter The Tenth, in which Sisyphus jumps out of the way of a catharsis of spurious morality. Eww!

The Doctor is on trial for his lives. Accused of naughty meddling and also genocide, he faces prosecutor The Valeyard after having delivered the evidence for his defence. That evidence seems to have been tampered with, but luckily the Doctor's oldest and deadliest enemy The Master sends him two witnesses in Glitz and Mel. They reveal that, though the genocide thing was 100% accurate, the meddling charge is a bit trumped up. The Timelord High Council were covering up that Andromedean hackers had stolen secrets from big Timelord server, The Matrix. Their violent action dealing with these hackers resulted in some collateral damage, almost wiping out the people of Earth. Almost wiping them out, note: only attempted genocide was committed by the High Council bad guys.

The Valeyard turns out to be an amalgamation of the darker sides of The Doctor's nature, somewhere between his twelfth and final incarnation (so, between new series episodes Journey's End and The Eleventh Hour, fact fans). His plan is to blow up the jury of the Doctor's trial. So, you know, he'll kill twelve old guys. Not commit genocide, which his so-called nicer version has already done. The Doctor enters the dreamscape of the Matrix and tussles with The Valeyard. The Master and Glitz and Mel follow to help and/or hinder. Off-screen, the corrupt High Council is deposed, but whether that's part of anyone's plan or just a coincidence is never made clear. The Doctor defeats The Valeyard and saves the day. They let him off the genocide thing.

A watch of the DVD by the whole family in the early Sunday evening Songs of Praise zone. We all liked Dominic Glynn's version of the theme - the kids sang and danced along to it. The younger children (boy of 5 years old, girl of 3) were suitably chilled by the Matrix scenes, everyone jumping when the hands reached out of the water barrel to grab the Doctor. We all thought the cliffhanger of the Doctor sinking into Camber Sands was great (though I saw properly for the first time the T-shirt of one of the visual FX assistants sticking their arms out of the sand, which spoilt it a bit).

First-time round:
The Trial of a Timelord season was the first Doctor Who broadcast that I taped on home VHS (the family having purchased a VCR for Christmas 1985). As such, it has a special place in my affections because I watched it over and over. At least, I did for the first three of the four sub-stories within it. Episode 13 was set to record while I was visiting relatives who didn't have a recorder. I watched it live and thought it was very exciting, but either I mis-set the timer, or the schedule was changed, and I didn't get the episode on tape. I later dragged our VCR round to my friend Boyd's house as he had been more successful in recording it. We then tried to do the tape-to-tape copying that was the mainstay of distributing pirated Doctor Whos at the time and for many years thereafter. But we didn't have a vital cable, and I got the episode without any sound.

All this is to say that I had a pristine copy of the longest epic Doctor Who story ever made, but with the key revelatory episode mute. And it stayed that way for seven years until they released the story in a nice tin to buy. For a particular kind of Doctor Who fan (this kind) that's a living hell.


The long wait to see and hear this two-parter again probably enhanced its standing with me. Like one of those long-lost episodes returned to the archives, it gets points added just because it was finally available to experience in full. Due to the season's structure, though, these two episodes were always going to have more momentum: after three months of watching people watching stories on a big telly, this is the point where the plot actually moves into the here and now, and actually moves. In a nice bit of writing, this formal change happens simultaneously with a key story reversal (the Valeyard is the Doctor) and a major geographical shift - they finally leave the trial room.

It's this trial room set that hurts the stories, more than any script issues (not that there aren't those too). I can see the logic of creating something grand - particularly if you can spread the cost over 14 episodes - but what we end up with is an empty, echoing space where there are challenges capturing sound and interesting camera angles. It leaves the only real performance option to boom everything out to the back row, upping the stagey feel that the last few years of the programme have been trying to get away from in favour of a more cinematic feel (budget allowing, obviously). Recording location work on video doesn't help on that score either, but the night shoot takes the edge off, and the locations themselves are interesting.

It's not evident on screen that there are massive backstage shenanigans going on with the production of Who at this point; and this is in no small part because of the true heroes of 1986 Doctor Who, Pip and Jane Baker. They delivered a satisfying and dramatic final episode from a blank page over a long weekend, seamlessly linking to what went before, but without being able to ever know the planned plot for legal reasons. Script Editor Eric Saward - in the Trials and Tribulations documentary on the Foe DVD - is very sniffy about their contributions on his watch, while admitting that other writers he'd brought in, who he thought were more interesting, crashed and burned. Saward's successor is also very derogatory whenever he talks about the Bakers. But why? Their dialogue could be appalling, but rewrite it or let it go, because they're reliable, and could write solid Doctor Who to order. As every previous script editor of Doctor Who knew - you need pros like that, or you risk ending up with the test card on BBC1 for 25 minutes of a Saturday.

Both stories start from a cliffhanger in the previous episode. Themes of justice and punishment feature heavily, and both are far too tied up in the show's ongoing mythology for their own good.
Deeper Thoughts:
Six's Hex: At the time of writing, the current Doctor Who Magazine has it's entire three-page letter section given over to discussion about Colin Baker; this is a reaction to last month's interview with that actor. In this, he revealed that he had declined to give the magazine an interview previously since their decision in 2009 to do a poll of all the stories broadcast to date and print the full results. Colin's problem was that in carrying the poll beyond the top 10 or 50 all the way to the bottom means some poor story has to be the loser. Which is tough on the people who have sweated to make that story. Which is The Twin Dilemma, Colin's debut. They did the same kind of poll last year, and - though Colin seems to have missed it - in 1998, too. The Twin Dilemma came bottom every time.

It would be easy to take this as the main reason why Colin is upset. But I can see his point, and see that he's making that point in general, rather than specifically about himself. It is a kick in the nuts to come last in anything, and making TV drama is not sport or politics, so there shouldn't actually have to be a loser at all. It's done now, though, three times over, and the people have spoken consistently. Colin shouldn't worry for himself, though, as he is the one Doctor who is immune from judgement regarding the quality of the show during his tenure. Completely immune. This is because his era was cursed never to be stable enough to take a reliable benchmark. There literally was no control.

Just look at the list of risky, questionable or downright wrong decisions made in the short period of time he had the title role: the decision to show his debut story tacked on to the end of the previous guy's final season, after a big swansong; the inappropriate costume; the decision to make the character unpredictable and even unlikeable, meaning to gradually soften him as time went by; the change of the programme's format to double the length of episodes only to change it back again; the script editor's pushing the programme into more explicitly violent and amoral territory, and his regular sidelining of the supposed hero of the show; incorporating an old Doctor so soon into Baker's tenure; the decision from the high-ups to take the show off air for an extended period after Baker had only done one season; the extensive publicity - correctly or incorrectly - telling the country that the threat of cancellation hung over the show at that point; the reduction in the length of the subsequent seasons; the lack of direction or additional budget from the high-ups when the show finally came back; the decision to make the comeback season one long story, and one that mirrored the real life situation of the show being on trial; the death of one and resignation of the other of the two main architects of that story before it was finished; the background of an increasingly hostile reaction to the producer from a vocal minority of the show's fans.

That's not even an exhaustive list. Yes, they've been thoroughly picked over for years, but it's worth listing them just to see the sheer number. Was there a week when the Colin Baker era could be said to have bedded in? Sometime around the point when they announced they were taking it off the air for 18 months, perhaps? It's amazing that the show managed to get made at all, let alone as the entertaining and fun adventure it more or less always was. None of what was happening was within Colin's influence; a lot of it was not controllable by anyone. It stemmed for the most part seemingly from the deteriorating working relationship between the producer and the script editor. It's just a shame that when that had resolved itself, in the most explosive way possible, Colin didn't get to enjoy any subsequent calm or stability, as he was promptly sacked. Cruel coincidence dictated that his was the name above the title for the exact duration of the shitstorm, and at the time and since he's taken the blame in a lot of people's eyes. He'd be forgiven for bitterness, but he has clearly managed to come through with but a little regret and a lot of compassion for all of life's last-placers. For that alone, he deserves our accolades.

In Summary:
It's a great little story with lots of nice moments, if you're into Gallifreyan mythology, Timelord conspiracies and the like, which - as a 14-year old, and now - I am. But, though it pains me to say it, and it's no single person's fault, certainly not Colin Baker's, it's also the end of an error.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Let's Kill Hitler

Chapter The Ninth, which is wibbly-wobbly and timey-wimey.

The Doctor's companions, Rory and Amy, call him back from a Summer-long search for their kidnapped baby Melody, who they've just found out grows up to be the semi-Timelord, child of the TARDIS, assassin psycho (and the Doctor's future wife) River Song. Suddenly, their previously-unmentioned best friend, Mels, turns up with a gun, hijacks the TARDIS for a trip to 1930s Germany where they meet Hitler, and Rory locks him in a cupboard. Mels gets wounded in a gun fight and regenerates into the form they all know as River. Turns out that she's been Melody all along; she was the little girl from the The Silence's NASA space-suit and after her last regeneration in a New York back alley, she travelled to Leadworth to attend school alongside her Mum and Dad. Anyway, she poisons the Doctor, but is later persuaded to use her remaining regenerations to save him. She adopts the name River Song for the first time after hearing the others calling her it often, and goes off to study archaeology as a way to keep track of the Doctor. Meanwhile, a time-travelling shape-shifting robot manned by miniaturised people is also around, dispensing justice to Nazis and letting slip to the Doctor that River Song is a War Criminal who in the future will kill him at Lake Silencio in Utah. Phew!

The whole family watched the Blu-Ray on a Sunday afternoon. No alternative stories were suggested, and there were no complaints. At the end, The Better Half opined that being saved by River sacrificing her remaining regenerative energy would have been a better way of doing the Matt Smith swansong - and of changing him into Peter Capaldi with a completely new life-cycle - than all that drawn-out bollocks with ageing make-up in the Time of the Doctor. I have to agree.

First-time round:
This was the first new episode of Doctor Who to be broadcast, at least during my lifetime, on my birthday. Being a Summer baby born after the 1960s, Doctor Who was invariably off the air in my youth when my birthday came around, so this was a nice treat. I was at home, had a lovely day, and watched in the evening with The Better Half, after a few celebratory liveners. I laughed a lot; we all laughed a lot; we were very happy.


Straight out of the gate, the action is at a hell of a lick, and the script is packed with wonderful gags, starting with Rory and Amy creating a crop circle just to get the Doctor's attention ("Well, you never answer your phone"). Rory gets all the best lines ("Shut up, Hitler!", "Cupboard, Hitler. Hitler, cupboard", and when asked if he can ride a motorbike: "I expect so, it's that sort of day"). Arthur Darvill has brilliant comic delivery, and makes it look effortless. There are many other great performances: Smith and Kingston are as reliable as ever, and the schooldays sequence sparkles due to Caitlin Blackwood's latest turn as little Amelia. The Teselecta and it's antibodies are fun comic book creations, but again they work more on a comedic rather than dramatic level.

And it's a good thing that there's a lot of knockabout comedy and action to speed its progress, because Let's Kill Hitler is a story in which nothing actually happens. Nothing. No part of the reams of synopsis as written above counts as a dramatic plot event in my book. Okay, I'll be charitable - two things happen: River tries to kill the Doctor, and then changes her mind and saves him. That's it; but, as we've already seen future events, we already knew both these things were going to happen, and there's nothing massively surprising in how either event plays out to make it worth all the foreshadowing. Without that, all you're left with is exposition, the tying up of loose ends that maybe didn't need to be loosened in the first place.

So I lucked out in how I first watched Let's Kill Hitler; being happy, undemanding and drunk is the best place to be for it. Treat it as the silly romp that the title suggests, rather than worrying that this is the hugely significant first meeting of River and the Doctor, something that's been teased for three years, and you'll be fine.

Both stories start from a cliffhanger in the previous episode. Both involve soldiers and robots.
Deeper Thoughts:
Confused? You will be, after this week's episode of... Soap. Part Two. This is one of a few times in the history of Doctor Who (20th and 21st Century models) where it isn't clear to me, and probably many others, where the cleaving point is that separates one story from another. I've decided that Let's Kill Hitler is a stand-alone adventure, but it could be seen as the second part of a two-parter that started in A Good Man Goes to War. Or even part four of a five part story strung throughout the 2011 season.

Or perhaps Doctor Who is one long episodic story where one plot links into another... like a soap opera? Well, I made my feelings clear on that last post. But this is the year in which, as I mentioned last time, two of the main cast have a baby together. It's also the year they lose that baby. Many a soap would have done that plot, and maybe they should be left to it, as I believe it's one of the biggest mis-steps since the series came back in 2005. The ongoing plots are too numerous and too convoluted to leave room to do justice to the story of a young couple losing their baby; and despite the sci-fantasy trappings, that's what it is. Karen Gillan, who is very able at lots of things, just never convinces as a mother who's had her newborn daughter snatched away from her moments after delivery basically never to be seen again.
I don't mean to bash the actor, nor the writer; for all the repartee in his work, Steven Moffat can do emotion expertly. In fact, he could even do the tale of someone losing their child in a Doctor Who context and make it hit home hard. I know this because he did it. In The Forest of the Dead, there's the scene of Donna frantically scrambling at the bedcovers of her - fake but real - children, who've just disappeared from existence. Writing and performance are devastating and it does in a few seconds what the baby Melody plotline never manages to do in a year.

It damages the credibility of Rory and Amy afterwards that they can carry on having adventures without seeming to have been affected by their loss. The stuff in Asylum of The Daleks where it is revealed - briefly, and not satisfactorily - that the events at Demons Run prevent Rory and Amy from ever having another child makes it worse not better. It also sets up an expectation that sooner or later, probably when they come to leave the show, they will somehow be made whole as a family unit again. But this is never shown, and so their tale always feels unconcluded. A lot of people will no doubt be glad of this and think it would have slowed down the action to have them keep banging on about their loss every five minutes. I can sympathise with this point of view, but that's an argument for not doing it at all, not for doing it half-heartedly.

And someone must have agreed with me, because a scene was written but not shot that does indeed give the Pond's a child to bring up, and their closure. Google "Doctor Who P.S. minisode" if you haven't seen it - it's only storyboards and narration, but it's lovely. That it never made it even as a DVD extra, breaks my heart just a little bit.

In Summary:
It's fun and funny; but, like the Teselecta, though it might seem at first glance to be full-bodied, it's basically hollow.