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.

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