Friday, 30 December 2016

The Return of Doctor Mysterio

Chapter The 40th, after one year - and a few more days - it's finally here...

[Beware: spoilers, sweeties!] The Doctor inadvertently messes up the life of a child in the past, then has to deal with the consequences when he meets that person later in adulthood. No, not The Girl in the Fireplace or The Eleventh Hour, but - you know - similar. This time it's a boy, Grant, and he gets superpowers. In present day New York, the Doctor and Nardole help him with his overcomplicated love life, and he helps them defeat an overcomplicated invasion plan by some alien brain-in-a-jar face-aches running a front corporation called Harmony Shoals.

As this was the only new episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 2016, I thought I should blog it. Random selection will be reinstated in the new year. A couple of days after Christmas, following my first viewing (see below), the whole family gathered round to watch The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Eldest child (boy of 10) was annoyed that he had to turn off Mario Kart 8 to allow us to watch, but within about two minutes was staring, mouth agape, happy with the comic book shenanigans. Everyone else enjoyed it too, the Better Half enjoying the romance parts particularly.

First-time round:
Each year, at least in my family, Christmas Day sees less and less TV being watched. At the time of writing, we still have a PVR hard drive stuffed full of TV specials and films, which we'll catch up with slowly throughout January and onwards (we may still have stuff on there from last year we haven't watched yet). I know it sounds disgustingly straight-laced and Waltons Christmas special, but on the big day itself, we tend to play games. While Doctor Who was being broadcast this year, a fiercely contested table croquet tournament was underway chez Perry.

It may come to pass in the next few years that my children develop into Mike Teavee Mini-Mes, but until then I'm happy to catch up with the Xmas specials time-shifted. This year, that meant tuning in after everyone else had turned in on Boxing Day evening, and watching while stuffing my face with port and blue cheese, both of which were presents from my lovelies. The seasonal gift from Steven Moffat did not go down quite as smoothly. I enjoyed it much more the second time, though; it can't have anything to do with the necessary Yuletide alcohol levels - I was pretty well lubricated on the second watch too (I love Christmas!). So, it must be something to do with the company - Doctor Who, and a Christmas special particularly, gains from being shared. Which is nice.

There was an interesting recent discussion on a movie podcast to which I subscribe about how there are three types of Christmas movies: movies about Christmas, movies set at Christmas time, and movies that are merely associated with Christmas because of the quirks of historical TV scheduling. Superhero movies fall firmly in the third category, just like disaster movies, which also previously formed the basis of a Doctor Who Christmas special: Russell T Davies gave us his version of The Poseidon Adventure; Steven Moffat does Superman The Movie; it must be very hard after so long to think of new takes, so I applaud the invention; however, I don't think it's that good a fit.

The scientific explanation for Grant's super-powers is borderline magic and has to be - the logic of the two genres being incompatible. And just getting these two worlds together proves to be enough work that there's no real room to do anything particularly new with the superhero or intrepid reporter characters, while the standard invasion plot is relegated to the B storyline. In the climactic sections there's no blending at all - the Ghost and Lucy's bits are completely separate from, though intercut with, the Doctor and Nardole's outwitting of the aliens.

Unless I missed it, the bad guys didn't even get a name. This was the biggest giveaway that they weren't the main reason for proceedings. I suppose their species might be called the same as the corporation, but Harmony Shoals sounds more like a bunch of top-end 1960s session musicians, and - intriguingly - also has echoes of the 'River Song, Melody Pond' naming scheme. Other hints - the bit at the end where one is shown to get away, and (if I'm remembering correctly) a character in last year's Christmas special, referenced throughout this year's, who similarly opened up his head to retrieve something from within - make it look like there will be a rematch with these guys in 2017.

This might be a good thing, as their plot did seem sketchy with a few loose threads left hanging. Or, of course, it might just be sloppy. I doubt we'll get an explanation for how the alien brain creature, if it is positioned so its eyes line up with the sockets of the human host, as was consistently shown, can also sometimes not be there at all, so a gun can be kept in the head to look cool. Lesson for the Harmony Shoalians: you could shoot people much quicker if you invested in a shoulder holster. Just sayin'.

The most successful parts were the twisty rom-com bits, depicting a man in a love triangle with his alter ego; these verged on farce at times, in a good way, with Grant disappearing off, only for The Ghost to turn up instantly stage left. It reminded me a lot of a ghost of Moffat past: his sit-com Coupling. And one would have to have a heart of stone not to cheer or punch the air when Lucy dresses Grant up as a "superhero" at the end. The quibbles come if like me you're overfamiliar with Superman The Movie: the 1978 film did the romance and the comedy incredibly well indeed - those parts of the movie have arguably aged much better than the action, which has been bettered in the decades since (even on a Doctor Who budget). What Moffat and director Ed Bazalgette intended as homage, comes over as pale imitation.

Again, the villians' plan involves pretending to be beneficial so they can later take over. Both stories start with a sequence before the main plot gets underway where a character is transformed. If we include the series trailer at the end of the Christmas special, they both include Daleks.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Travelling into the future. It has been an awful year for the world: seismic political shocks, multitudinous celebrity demises, and only one episode of Doctor Who broadcast. Terrible. At least on the Doctor Who score, we know things will improve (at least mathematically): there will be 13 episodes shown next year, completing Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner, introducing Bill, the new companion (who from the trailer seems refreshingly down to Earth, which would be a change after Amy and Clara), and including Matt Lucas in a semi-regular role (I'm still in two minds about whether that will be effective). The series trailer didn't give much else away: there will be Daleks, aliens, and trips to the past, but that much could have been guessed, anyway.

The blog's had a reasonable year. Unexpectedly, I have covered a Doctor Who event, holidayed in a Doctor Who filming location, and reviewed a new Classic Who DVD, when I'd thought the range was dead and buried. They had not come up randomly at all last year, but 2016 has seen me watch  three wholly missing stories; none this year where only some of the episodes were missing - it's been an all or nothing sort of year, has 2016. I've seen at least one story of each Doctor, with the exception of Peter Davison (Paul McGann doesn't count - he got finished off early on last year). Hopefully, the fifth Doctor will make an appearance at some point in 2017.

Having done the maths, if I keep up the current rate of Doctor Who stories - and Chris Chibnall does likewise - it will take twenty more years for the blog to catch up. So, I might try to speed up a bit. Blogging doesn't take too long, it's finding the time to watch the episodes that's a challenge. But maybe 2017 will be slightly less eventful than this year was; it couldn't be the opposite - could it?! Regardless, have a happy New Year! And I'll see you in the future...

In Summary:
Not quite super, man.

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Power of the Daleks

Chapter The 39th, after fifty years - and six more weeks - it's finally here...

The Doctor has been through a renewal process where his body, face and personality have changed. His companions Ben and Polly are suspicious, and to persuade them he is who he says he is, the Doctor does something characteristic and defeats some Daleks. These particular Daleks are a party of three who are marooned, and have been hibernating in a capsule on the planet Vulcan for hundreds of years, during which time a colony of humans has established itself. While colony politics are getting fractious, a scientist, Lesterson, is experimenting on the excavated capsule and the creatures within. Posing as an examiner from Earth, the Doctor tries to stop this, but the Daleks are wily, and pretend to be servile in order to be given raw materials and power. They start a Dalek production line, and amass an army. They've killed loads of colonists before the Doctor manages to stop them. Moral of the story: always listen to your Doctor, and never trust anyone who's nice. Maybe not that last bit.

After getting an unexpected last-minute invite to the BFI screening on the 5th November this year, see below, which included in the ticket price a copy of the DVD to be sent out later, I cancelled my pre-ordered DVD and put on hold any plans I might have had to buy it from the BBC Store. At the event, I saw the first three episodes, but once the disc arrived in the post, I rewatched those first ones, and then the rest, with the whole family, an episode per day approx. across a week (with a gap to watch the Strictly final live) finishing just before Christmas.

First-time round:
I think every time I've seen The Power of the Daleks has been the first time: it's been a different beast each time I've grappled with it. The very first experience was audio only, and would have been in 1993 or thereabouts when the cassette version came out. I've mentioned these tapes before: unfortunately, their makers misunderstood their market, and overdid the new aspects (freshly written narration links by a more modern Doctor, in this case Tom Baker, written as remembrances of an almost forgotten adventure) when the purchaser was likely much more interested in the old episodes themselves. The framing device got in the way, plus Tom did have a tendency to ham things up which did not help. This may be why I have no memory of first hearing that tape, though I definitely bought it, and I definitely didn't give up halfway through. (A decade later, it came out on CD with better quality recordings, and a much more considered narration voiced by Anneke Wills.)

The second time I saw Power, a couple of years later, there were some pictures, though not moving ones. It was a reconstruction from off-screen still images on a video tape which I'd borrowed from someone, or maybe saw at their house - I forget. (A decade after this, a reconstructed version also came out on CD with the same narration by Anneke Wills, and I bought it again). Finally, another ten years on approximately, and I see the animated version. Watching the first half with an audience really highlighted how funny it is - it got big laughs in all the right places. Watching it with the family really highlighted how scary it is: towards the end of episode 1, when the TARDIS team are investigating the capsule, accompanied by eerie anticipatory Dalek electroinca, the middle child - a boy, aged 7 - literally hid behind the sofa. I was so proud.

I'll get on to the animation later, let's start with the story itself: it's brilliant.

Want more? Okay. First of all, the story is significant. Doctor Who fans are lucky in some ways: it wasn't planned, but most of our favourite show's key episodes survived the indiscriminate junking one way or another. We still have the very first story, we still have the first appearance of the Daleks, we still have The War Games and Spearhead from Space where the show is rebooted. The most seismic change to the format, though, is where our luck runs out. The seven episodes where the lead actor is first recast, where one Doctor changes into another, and the first adventure of that new Doctor where we see the aftermath and find out something of what the new guy will be like - they're all missing. Even though they've all now been nicely animated, even though another set of seven could complete seasons, or give us all of, say, Marco Polo, if I were to be gifted any seven episodes to be returned, I would still choose Tenth Planet 4 and The Power of the Daleks 1-6, just for the sheer history of them.

So, this story is always going to be important. Is it enjoyable too? Yes, yes, yes. That this is so, is because of two particular gentlemen and one insanely clever decision. The decision was to recast the lead role but with a completely different characterisation. He looks, acts and talks differently to William Hartnell's version. The script, and the Doctor in the narrative, don't let us off easy on this either - the differences are pushed to the fore. Then, the Dalek story starts, and presents the true character underneath the characterisation, and we see it's the same hero we always knew. Genius. Imagine how tempting it must have been to play it safe, just get a similar actor in and glue on Hartnell's wig. The series would have lasted a year more, tops.

It could have backfired, of course. The main reason why it didn't is the first of those gentlemen: Patrick Troughton. A consummate character actor, Troughton can make you love someone who, let's face it, is being irritating for quite a lot of the running time of this serial. He's Hartnell's equal in terms of comic timing too, which is essential to make Doctor Who work. I bristle against too much emphasis being put on Pat's casting being the main reason the show is still going (something Steven Moffat mentioned at the BFI), not because it's not true necessarily, but because it downplays his predecessor who had to make the thing work from a blank slate. It's down to both: both the first two actors to play the Doctor, the Grumpy one and the Flautist, were essential to its longevity. We are so so lucky that lightning struck twice in the Sixties.

The second of the two gentlemen responsible for Power's brilliance is the writer David Whitaker. His worrying obsessions with mercury and static electricity (both of which turn up in Power) notwithstanding, he delivers a faultless script. There were a lot of midwives to the delivery too - Innes Lloyd, Dennis Spooner et al - but what comes over most of all is Whitaker's passion to do his take on the Daleks. It's the first time that Terry Nation has let another writer compose a whole new Dalek serial, the first time he's properly let someone else play with his toys, and Whitaker responds with the best written Daleks in the best Dalek story ever. Like 'Dalek' in 2005, it shows how powerful they are by putting them in a weak position at first: they are only three, they're deactivated, they have their guns removed; yet, they still end up dominating.

How they go about this isn't the most original plot ever; but, from the Penguin running for mayor of Gotham, right back to the wolf in Grandmother's clothing in Red Riding Hood, it's always fun to have a bad guy pretend to be good; even better is it to have the good guy telling everyone how bad the bad guy is, only not to be believed. Of course, it could be pure panto, but it's paced and played so well. Peter Hawkins' vocal work, with gradual changes in inflection of the "I am your servant" refrain, as the Daleks get more and more cocky, sells it. The ultimately irrelevant machinations of various venal colonists bounce around the through-line of the Daleks growing and growing in strength, so we're never bored by what is essentially a linear narrative - in fact, the inevitability becomes part of the beauty of it.

Without the visuals, it's hard to know how good the direction is, but even audio-only one suspects director Christopher Barry rose to the historic occasion. The same can be said of the team behind the animation. With the addition of these new visuals, the only flaws I'd previously been troubled by disappear (for example, some of the locations and characters aren't that distinctive when you can't see them). The animation is not perfect, but it is certainly a marvel for the time and budget they had (which was very limited): the humanoid characters don't move very convincingly from a to b, for example. But even this actually turns out to be a strength as it throws into sharp relief the much smoother gliding motion of the Daleks, and makes them seem all the more alien. It's as hard to write originally about the new work done on this story as it is about the work that's 50 years old; it is a classic, and it has had new life breathed into it. Animation producer Charles Norton, like Lesterson, has found something languishing for decades, and obsessively - maybe a bit more obsessively than Lesterson even - worked on it until it's ready to take over the world.

Both stories feature alien races pretending to be good to get people to let their guard down, before going on the attack.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Earth Examiner's Report: BFI's The Power of the Daleks event, 5th November 2016. It was the morning of Saturday 5th November, and David - my long-term friend and fellow fan mentioned often times on this blog - texted me to ask if I wanted to go to the event happening in London in a few hours time, as he had a spare ticket going begging. The family, once consulted, very kindly gave permission to defer our planned garden fireworks to Sunday night, so I high-tailed it to the railway station. I live in the South-East and there was a train strike that day (there's a train strike most days) but I didn't let that deter me.

Surprisingly quickly considering, I was at the South Bank - there's some great urban art now where Ogrons and Draconians once roamed (the New Brutalist underpasses were used as locations in the 1970s Pertwee serial Frontier in Space) but other than that its not much changed from when I hung around here a lot; when I was an aspiring and perspiring screenwriter I would often be at the BFI (it was the NFT in old money) and a writing group of which I was a member used to meet in the Royal Festival Hall nearby. With memory lane successfully sauntered down, I met and had a nice spot of brunch with David, Chris P (also mentioned here previously) and David's friend and another fellow fan Trevor, who I was meeting for the first time. Saturday lunchtime is quite a civilised time for an event like this, with enough time before for leisurely catching up, appraising the effort gone into by the cosplayers, and celebrity spotting - Anneke Wills was eating in the same joint we were, but that was about it - plus a large expanse of afternoon post-event for drinking and talking.

(L to R) Johnson, Fiddy and Skinner
The event itself consisted of  screenings of the first three episodes interspersed with panels of various personages involved with the story, the Troughton era, or the animation. And Frank Skinner. I got the distinct impression that Frank just came along to watch, but was instead thrust onto stage to introduce proceedings; in so doing, he proved, as ever, that he's every bit as much a fan as those in the audience watching this warm-up act. From no other comedian will you get recognition humour about the rush of joy that accompanies the point where a reconstruction of a missing Doctor Who lurches into a few seconds of blurry moving footage. Also providing funnies were our hosts, the BFI's Justin Johnson and Kaleidoscope and Missing Believed Wiped's Dick Fiddy, who did a Doctor Who quiz. You had to "shout for Dick" (ho, ho) if you knew the answers, and one question about Steven Moffat bagged the prize of a DVD for the person who got it right... who happened to be Steven Moffat. This quiz was apparently a staple of the 50th anniversary Doctor Who screening events the BFI did in 2013, which makes me wish I'd attended them at the time.

Before any of that, the first thing that happened at the event was perhaps the nicest: Graham Strong was asked to stand up and take a bow, which he did to a hearty round of applause. Graham was the young fan that 50 years ago recorded the audio of The Power of the Daleks, and so inadvertently was the instigator of the project we'd come to see. The HD visuals to accompany the sounds that Graham preserved stood up to the big screen treatment, though unfortunately, due to a mix up, we didn't have the 5.1 audio, only a mono mix-down, but I was satisfied. It seems churlish to mention, but there is a continuity error in episode 1, which everyone noticed with a murmur in the theatre: at one point, very briefly, Ben and Polly are shown in their new colonist gear before they've changed into it. I'm sure the team are still killing themselves over this tiny lapse (but I can happily report that no one noticed this when I replayed the episode at home). When the first three episodes completed, all I wanted was to see the rest. So, a definite success.

(L to R) Ritchie, Norton, Ayres plus Fiddy
There was a discussion with three of the production team on the animation (producer-director Charles Norton, audio remasterer Mark Ayres, and 3D animator Rob Ritchie) then later a panel covering the whole of the Troughton era so they didn't have to leave out Frazer Hines; Power is the only one of Troughton's stories he doesn't appear in as Jamie. With him were Anneke Wills, who played Polly, designer Derek Dodd, Graeme Harper - who was the floor runner or call boy on Power (who knew?) - and Steven Moffat, a viewer at home as a lad - although, as he told the crowd, he missed epsiode 1 back in 1966, so seeing it on the BFI big screen, he'd finally caught up. It was a good-natured panel with a nice mix of the new (I'd never heard or read Dodd speaking about Doctor Who before) and the well-worn (we got the anecdote about the "Come Back Bill Hartnell All is Forgiven" T-Shirts). What came over most, as it always does, was how much love everyone had and has for Pat. At the end I veritably skipped to the exit, the event having been a well-needed boost to my happiness quotient.

(L to R) Dodd, Harper, Moffat, Hines, Wills plus Johnson
In the bar afterwards, there followed that post-event drinking and talking with friends and fellow fans, new and old. As I do every time I see him, I agreed with Chris P - the only one of the trio I met up with who lives in London - that I really should go to the monthly fan gathering at the Fitzroy Tavern, which would be a similar group of people, similarly happy and buzzing; but I think I'll end up too shy to turn up on my own, as ever. I persuaded Trevor to give the series Community another try, and promised I'd do the same with Fringe (and I will Trevor!). I discussed with David the best touchscreen gloves to allow me to play Pokémon GO during the winter months (he is a die-hard player of the much cooler but similar Ingress). And finally, slightly the worse for wear for the many craft ales I'd supped, I made my way home, my happiness quotient off the scale, even when the train strike entailed a 90 minute walk to get all the way home

In Summary:
'Power' to the people, right on! (And, incidentally, a Happy Christmas to all of you at home!)

Saturday, 17 December 2016

The Unquiet Dead

Chapter The 38th, where a Christmas gift is opened before the big day.

Thanks to the power of time travel, it is Christmas during April; Christmas 1869 in Cardiff to be precise. The Doctor and Rose arrive and find, in quick succession, Charles Dickens and some blue ghosts made of gas, The Gelth, who are homeless as well as bodiless after the Time War, and seeking sanctuary on Earth. With the help of a clairvoyant parlourmaid in the local undertakers, a gateway is opened to allow the Gelth in. Though they pretended to be legitimate asylum seekers, it turns out they are aggressive invaders determined to destroy our way of life. Hmm... it was acceptable in the Noughties but you couldn't get away with it now. The Gelth turn corpses into zombies and attack. The undertaker and the parlourmaid are killed, but Charles Dickens saves the day. And so does the maid, somehow, even though she's already dead - best not to think too much about it. Reinvigorated, Dickens vows to write all about the events of that night, but history dictates he will die the following year before he can weave the 'blue elementals' into The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Last time, in a manner similar to Mission to the Unknown, I teased that there would be a Dalek adventure coming immediately. But, in a manner similar to following The Mission of the Unknown with four episodes of Trojan War dramedy, The Power of the Daleks blog post has been put off a little while longer: I managed to sneak in a festive themed selection while I was waiting for the Daleks disc to arrive. I watched this one on DVD (from the individual vanilla disc of episodes 1-3 of the 2005 series, not from the enormous mock-TARDIS box set of the whole series - the bit rate is better, and you don't have to struggle with the ridiculous packaging, which is falling apart on my copy - but, yes, I did buy both versions). Joining me were the Better Half and middle child (boy of 7).

First-time round:
The (re-)launch of Doctor Who in 2005 was a very exciting time. You'd have expected me to be sat in front of the TV minutes early waiting for each new episode to come on, breathless with excitement, ready to start the video recording; but, because of circumstances, I did not first see either of the earliest two episodes that year on their actual date of transmission; The Unquiet Dead marked the first time I'd experienced a new episode live as it was broadcast. Like a lot of people (it made the news!) I peeked at the leaked online copy of Rose three weeks before transmission; and for the second story, The End of the World, I was in New York visiting friends - a long planned visit, which I couldn't rearrange to avoid it intersecting with a Saturday when Doctor Who was being broadcast (and I did try).

We returned home late on the following Friday, a bit too jet-lagged to watch The End of the World (but I did anyway). Then, because we were still a little exhausted and because we didn't yet have kids, we were just able to spend the whole of April 9th 2005 doing nothing much in particular. I seem to remember idly watching the Grand National and a royal wedding (of Charles and Camilla) - even though I had no interest in either - before Doctor Who finally came on.

For all its period spectacle (I remember seeing the scene in the pre-series trailer where a coach and horses galloped towards the camera and thinking - ooh, expensive!),The Unquiet Dead is at heart a small, localised drama. It's only got three real characters in it beside the regulars, and the majority of the action happens in one location. This is in keeping with that first trilogy of episodes - one contemporary, one in the future, one in the past - where the stories allow room to explore what these types of show will be like. A lot of the fans likely thought the plot was too slight, but they were familiar with the overarching mechanics. For a new audience, it's important to ask out loud whether the Doctor can change the past, and whether Rose can die in Victorian times if she's lived in the future. There was a message for those longer term aficionados too; the show was saying - we can do it 'trad' too, see here: it's a little bit like Talons of Weng Chiang but with zombies. This probably explains the many little 'kisses to the past' with Easter egg lines like "On with the motley" and "Phantasmagoria" and such; or maybe Mark Gatiss just couldn't help dropping those in.

There's also room for the character and narrative arcs to build up. In the early console room conversation between the Doctor and Rose about visiting days that have been and gone, the Better Half picked up a possible subtext: is this the moment that it first occurs to Rose that she can go back to see her dead Dad? I thought TBH might be reading too much into it, but then later Gwyneth mentions Rose's father and its loudly established for the first time that he passed only many years previously; maybe she was onto something after all. The Doctor too had his moments dealing with post Time War syndrome bubbling up as petulance and, in the end, gullibility: he is blinded to the Gelth's ulterior motives because of his survivor's guilt. Plus, there's the biggest 'Bad Wolf' mention to date.

This isn't just slotted in as window dressing, it's woven into a moral dilemma subplot with conflicting outlooks from the Time Lord and his companion, and a similar clash of values between Rose and Gwyneth. This stuff, plus a pitch black darkness at the tale's heart, could be too much for kids: Gwyneth asks Sneed in such a workaday manner if he's 'dealt with' any witnesses to their ghost problem - it's become just a chore to drug and kill innocent bystanders. At one point, middle child, a somewhat sensitive boy, said "I didn't think a Christmas special would be this scary!" but he didn't want us to stop it playing. This means, I think, that they got the tone and balance of humour right, no small feat. The writer deserves kudos for this, but the director too. Euros Lyn, in his first recording block of many that he'd work on for new Who, achieves some flawless performances and great visuals: I love the way he moves the camera to reveal the Doctor framed in the doorway behind Dickens in the morgue.

Simon Callow, the go-to guy for playing Boz, makes it look effortless, and it's thanks to him in no small part that the 'celebrity historical' took hold as a series staple - this is the style of story set in the past that's built around a big guest star playing a big figure of yesteryear, and would be applied in the next few series to Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill. Though he didn't play anyone famous, or get a gig on another show because of it, Alan David's performance as Sneed is also a favourite thing in our house; The Better Half and I still - after nearly twelve years - say to one another "The Whole blummin' world can see that!" whenever we spot something comically obvious. 

Both this story and Revenge of the Cybermen feature an alien race enduring the aftermath of a war. Both contain elements that would feature in future spin-offs: Sarah Jane from the Cybermen tale would later appear in two connected shows; Eve Myles, the Cardiff rift, and Tosh - briefly glimpsed in the Next Time trailer at the end of The Unquiet Dead - would all feature in Torchwood.

Deeper Thoughts: 
The Measure of Specials. I worry unduly about lots of nerdy details. For example, I use labels to allow the many different posts on this blog to be searched and filtered, and one such label is the numbered season or series from which the story comes. To a certain extent, these 'seasons' were used as dividers by the production teams making the shows, both new and old, but mostly they are a division applied after the fact by fans. Inevitably, there are decisions to make: seasons that were broadcast with a gap in the middle (like Tom Baker's season 14 or Matt Smith's New Series 6) are generally clumped together, despite being shown as separate runs. Where to group or how to number one-off shows like Paul McGann's TV Movie or The Five Doctors or The Day of the Doctor can be considered one way or the other until the Daleks come home.

These aren't necessarily neutral judgement calls either: I have seen flaming online arguments about renumbering the new series separately from the 26 seasons of the old: one is a continuation of the other, after all, so 2005's stories are surely season 27 - to number them so there's an implied break point is seen as a political move in some corners of fandom. (I do number then differently, because I'm a bear of little brain, and find it difficult to do the maths - if someone refers to season 31 of Doctor Who, it would take me several minutes and some counting on my fingers to work out which episodes they're talking about.)

I knew that sooner or later the random wanderings of this blog would arrive at Yuletide. Since 2005 and to date, there has been a special Doctor Who episode shown on the big day, always adrift from the series broadcast before or after, usually by many months. This is a great thing, of course: this year's will be the twelfth consecutive appearance of the good Doctor on BBC1 on Christmas Day, a record-breaking feat for a non-Soap and only two shy of Only Fools and Horses' total number of non-consecutive appearances on December 25th.

But it does make it difficult to categorise. Does the Christmas Special of 2005 belong with the 2005 series, neatly linking all the stories shown in the same calendar year; or, does it belong with Series 2, which was made alongside it but shown the following year? I couldn't decide. I also considered not bothering at all and lifting out and lumping together all the Christmas shows under their own label, but that felt like a defeat. If a DVD box set plays this trick, I hate it; if I think I'm getting every episode of, say, Porridge, but I find out that I don't have the Christmas specials, I'll be pissed off (not a hypothetical example - I'm still seething; I can't be alone in this madness either: at one point, the Doctor Who 'complete series 7' was going to be released without The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe but enough people complained that it was stuck on after all). So, I have to pick a number.

Then, the story currently under examination came up for viewing, and I realised that the problem is solved: season 27 / New Series 1 / 'The Christopher Eccleston Year', or whatever you want to call it, already had its Christmas special, they just didn't show it in December. This was, after all, the advent of a festive setting in the modern version of Doctor Who. All in all, on the sly, The Unquiet Dead was very influential: as well as seeding concepts and actors for a soon to come spin-off programme, in addition to reframing past time travel for a new audience and setting the groundwork for the celebrity historical, it kick-started the Christmas Special subgenre too.

In Summary:
Quietly and unseasonably innovative.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Revenge of the Cybermen

Chapter The 37th, with Dalek delivery delayed from the BFI, a shipment of Cybermen instead.

A n'er do well called Kellman decides he wants to create a plan more crazy and convoluted than any the Cybermen have ever come up with (and they've concocted some absolute stone-cold beauties in their time). He'll show 'em. He colludes with a revolutionary hothead miner's leader on the planet Voga, which orbits Jupiter and is heavy on gold. The miner will create a rocket to blow up the nearby Nerva space station after Kellman has lured the Cybermen there, tempting them with the opportunity to destroy Voga for good. The Cybermen don't like Voga, as they have an aversion to gold that they've never previously mentioned up to now.

Kellman fakes a plague on the space station, murdering scores of people using Cybermats that inject the victim with poison, because... well, it's not clear. Perhaps to make sure the plan's not disturbed, but it seems a bit extreme just for that. The Cybermen order Kellman to keep three people alive, because they have got an interplanetary spacecraft and world-shattering bombs, but have not thought of any way to shoot them through space, so they need people to carry them and walk. Even though he doesn't want the Cybermen to blow up Voga, Kellman does as he's told and the Cybermen very nearly blow up Voga. Luckily, with help from the Doctor, Sarah and Harry, who drift in en route to and from better adventures, the remaining crewmen and the less hot headed Vogans blow up the Cybermen in their ship, and save Nerva from being destroyed. Kellman dies having failed to best the insanity of Cyber planning - he didn't hide any vital rods on a mysterious spaceship, or make a sun go supernova, or drug the sugar, or anything. Amateur.

The Better Half, me, and our daughter (aged 4) watched the episodes from the DVD roughly an episode a night mid-week. The boys (7 and 10) drifted in and out; but, when they were in the room, the story didn't grab their attention - they talked and fidgeted and finally gave up. The youngest loved it, although she was on the Cybermen's side ("I know they wouldn't kill me"), was rooting for them all the way through, and was very upset when they were blown up at the end.

First-time round:
Revenge of the Cybermen was the first ever official Doctor Who video release from the BBC, and the first official tape I ever saw (with the old BBC Video logo at the beginning accompanied by a synthesised marching band - ooh!). I don't know the exact date, but it must have been sometime between late 1985, when my family first got a VCR, and Summer 1987 when - as I've already relayed - I started collecting the videos properly. My best guess is sometime towards the end of 1986. A schoolfriend and fellow fan Dominic first lent me and then finally sold me his copy. I can't remember whether he ever got it back in between; maybe I just took it hostage until he named his price.

Legend has it that the decision to release this story first, despite its somewhat tatty reputation, was down to a survey done in 1983 at the 20th anniversary celebrations in Longleat (Classic Who's version of Woodstock) where Tomb of the Cybermen came top. Either the fans voting didn't know that story was missing at the time, or were just trying to will the film cans into existence (and it took 9 more years, but it actually did work, so don't knock it). BBC Enterprises presumably looked at the results and decided that Anything of the Cybermen would do, particularly if it was in colour and starred Tom Baker.

It's a bit ropey, but it's still lots of fun. The plot is riddled with holes, but I'm not sure it matters; they may even enhance the experience. For instance, it's cute and memorable that Kellman disguises his close-circuit TV monitor in a hairbrush, but his whopping great Cyber-morse transmitter is just allowed to sit in a drawer (unless it's supposed to be disguised as a photocopier or mainframe); he doesn't make any effort to hide his gun beyond sticking it in an unlocked wardrobe, and that set of electrodes behind a panel can't be standard issue, can they? What sort of space station is this? Clearly, he thought 'if I'm going to be a spy, I want something disguised as something else, dammit' but he could only afford the one hairbrush. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a criticism: he is a rubbish double agent, and I love him all the more for it.

Every character comes over as just a little bit endearingly pants. The crewmen are clearly knackered after trying to keep things running during an apocalypse - they put up a show of doing the standard Doctor Who trope of refusing to accept that our heroes are the good guys, but they can't keep it up for even a whole scene: two seconds after threatening Sarah with a gun, Commander Stevenson hands it to her politely so she can carry it for him. The Cybermen we see aren't supposed to be the elite troops anymore, they're the remnants of a once proud army; this lends a little more fun to their manner and actions which scream of over-compensation. ("Go Cybermens" said our youngest, every time they appeared on screen with their hands butchly on their hips.) Michael Wisher plays his Vogan with an effete cough, clutching a hankie all the time like an infirm aunt in a Jane Austen adaptation. These guys are clearly not an A-list Doctor Who cast of characters, but they're trying their best.

It's probably a misstep that the story revisits the same venue as The Ark in Space earlier in the year, to allow redressing of already built sets. Not the first or last time such a cost-saving measure was tried. But, alas, the latter story is by far the weaker of the two - it's something like having The Parting of the Ways early on in 2005, and saving The Long Game, set in the same place, for the finale. Every time there's an echo of a scene in Ark it shows Revenge up; for example, the Doctor and Harry are accepted as a new medical team when it was much more fun in the earlier story when the Doctor's degree was purely honorary and Harry was "only qualified to work on sailors". Much more successful are the exteriors - Wookey Hole is one of the best locations chosen for an alien planet in the history of Who.

There's some weak effects and the odd bad line of dialogue, but there's a lot of good in there too. The Better Half thought the plague make-up effects, using front axial projection to create the pulsating glow, were good, and also approved of the silver-clad Cyber-bums (it was like having Toyah Wilcox in the room). The journey to the centre of Voga, with the ever -present ticking of the bombs, is tense, and the twists and turns of the ending are exciting. Clearly, this was the only tape JNT could find when he was briefing his new script editor on bringing back the Cybermen in the 1980s, as essentially Earthshock is just a better run through of Revenge, even down to the plot holes. Though it never reaches the pulse-racing thrills of Earthshock, Revenge is hardly ever boring. The only truly dull scenes for this viewer are those of the members of different Vogan factions arguing about isolationism, but even these can be livened up by playing some kind of "how many Doctor Who stories has that Vogan been in" drinking game. It is fun, for this Doctor Who fan at least, to watch scenes where Chief Mover Poul is giving orders to Davros and bitching about Tobias Vaughn, while Megaphone Man from Snakedance is somewhere off in another cave.

The story is interesting historically, too, as it really feels like the final transition point where the Pertwee era style moves into full-on Baker. The plot, with its preoccupations of caves and miners and internecine alien groups, could have come from anywhere in his predecessors tenure, but Baker's little flourishes - staring at his hands in that weird way, shouting that his companion is an imbecile, declaiming cod Shakespearean dialogue over a dead Cyberman - make it his own.

Both this story and 42 feature a spaceship, and in both there is a companion accompanying the Doctor who's also a doctor.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Welcome back physical format? I'd probably never have predicted when I first watched Revenge of the Cybermen in 1986 that I'd still be collecting Doctor Who stories on physical media thirty years later. But seeing into the future is tricky: this time last year, I thought I'd bought my last ever official classic Who DVD release, and that prediction turned out to be wrong too. Instead of the range ending with the whimper of a cobbled together Underwater Menace, Classic Doctor Who on shiny disc is back with a bang: an animated version of wholly missing Power of the Daleks has been lovingly made for the 50th anniversary of the story's original broadcast, with the new pictures married to the still surviving audio.

Does this mean a possible future for releasing the missing 80-odd episodes of Classic Who that haven't turned up on disc yet either as an animation, recon or slide show? That would be fantastic. But the main driver for this animation wasn't predicted DVD sales, though no doubt they will be one measure of whether it's been a success (so everyone buy it, if you haven't already, so they animate some more stories in future!). No, the main driver was to have the animations for sale in the BBC Store. Just one of more and more online services becoming available for downloading or streaming content.

Another nail in the coffin is Class, the Doctor Who spin-off set in Coal Hill School, which finished recently. I watched it, and enjoyed it, and it is also getting a disc release after the fact, but it was delivered on a streaming service too - albeit it one that used to be a broadcast TV station. Clearly, it's only a matter of time before every show I want to own and hold is only available as a jolt of ether in a cloud somewhere. I'll still collect them, of course, but I doubt I'll enjoy it.

Mind you, that's another prediction, isn't it? Maybe I'll surprise myself. People can change. The Power of the Daleks may turn out to be the last ever classic Who DVD release, but it's been the first in a long, long while that I haven't preordered, received and watched on the first day it was out. This is not a sign of a new found restraint and maturity on my part, though, it's just because of a combination of events. I had it on preorder, as ever, but then I got a last minute opportunity to attend the BFI's Power screening and panel event early in November where the first three episodes were shown. As part of the ticket price, everyone attending got a copy of the DVD which would be sent out once it was released. They've only just been sent out, however, so I've had a little wait. It's no biggie. I'm very excited to see it, and blog about it and the event, very soon.

In Summary:
The liberation of the Planet of Gold; in other words... Karat's Lib.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016


Chapter The 36th, an old one by the new guy.

Answering a distress call, the Doctor and Martha arrive on a spaceship populated by ex-soap actors, the S.S. Pentallian, that is hurtling towards a star. They get separated from the TARDIS, and have to work out a way to help the crew get the Pentallian's drive working again, but they only have precisely the length of time that a Doctor Who episode lasts to do it. As if that premise wasn't quite enough, the star is also possessing members of the crew and turning them into homicidal killing machines with a scary catchphrase, "Burn With Me". The Doctor survives being possessed himself; Martha survives doing a space pub quiz, and being jettisoned away from the ship in a pod, 2001-stylee. The Doctor works out that the star is a living being, and when the captain had earlier nicked a bit of it to use for fuel, that made it all angry. The captain (her off Eastenders years ago) sacrifices herself; the rest of the star fuel is given back, and the survivors (him from Shameless, and him from Waterloo Road) wave goodbye to the TARDIS travellers and presumably have a lot of explaining to do when they get rescued...

It took so long to work our way through the episodes of City of Death, I'd resolved to watch and blog the next story quickly. As it happens, the rest of the family had an early night last Sunday, so I popped on the DVD and watched it with a beer, just me on my lonesome - but not that bad a way to spend 45 minutes, all told, if you're a fan of Doctor Who. Or beer. Or both.

First-time round:
I first saw this on its initial BBC broadcast in 2007. No particularly interesting anecdotes about it; the Better Half and I would have watched it together, probably live rather than timeshifted as we only had the one child who was still young and would likely have been asleep well before it went out. I remember being interested to see writer Chris Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who; probably, I was quite apprehensive too – it wasn’t that long after the broadcast of Torchwood season 1 for which he was the main writer and which was... variable to say the least! My only other memory is that 42 was shown after a week with no Who, as it had been taken off for Eurovision. The trailer at the end of the previous story, The Lazarus Experiment, contained scenes from the whole of the second half of the 2007 season. Doubtless there were a few people disappointed when watching that they didn’t get scarecrows and Captain Jack aboard the  Pentallian.

In the tone meetings at the start of production for each new Doctor Who story, they used to - maybe, they still do - specify a single word to sum up the feel of that story. I should think the word for 42 was 'sweaty'. The overall impression is of a lot of grimy, perspiring people running down industrial corridors, stopping for a bit of breathless chat, then running again. With the red spacesuit making an appearance, and Graeme Harper directing too, it strikes me as somewhat of a prototype for The Waters of Mars, but not quite as good. No comedy robot, though: curse or blessing? You decide.

Is 42 doomed to forever be seen as a rehearsal for something better to come? (Or a rehash of something that did it better first, if you're a big fan of The Satan Pit, which also played in a similar sandbox?) The idea is sound: do a Doctor Who in real time, with the clock ticking. It's just not as exciting overall as you'd expect for that concept. It's maybe because the crew are a colourless bunch. Only Riley and McDonnell get material enough to sink their teeth into, and Michelle Collins as the latter plays it so flat. Everyone else blurs into one, really - which is a particular waste of Anthony Flanagan's talents. Maybe it would have been better to dispense with the monster of the week - brave, I know - and just done a purer story of crew versus the external conflicts of machine breakdown and the hazards of space.

The main cast fare better than the guests. This is around the beginning of David Tennant's imperial phase, which subsequently didn't stop even after he left the role. Most of the more annoying mannerisms from his first year are under control, and he struts around being heroic while Murry Gold's strident 'All The Strange Strange Creatures' booms out. He also gets to do a bit of vulnerable acting too, when the Doctor gets infected by the star thing, and it works well. Freema as Martha is good here too; she got the short stick, generally: of the three of RTD's companion actresses she has the least interesting character arc, but here she is natural and has a great little scene in the pod, and some nice material on the phone with her mum. Those little bits of the Saxon arc are intriguing and unobtrusive and don't weigh things down.

The only slightly silly bits for me (I can just about ignore the implausibly powerful magnetic power the Doctor gets the ship to emit in order to save Martha in the pod) are the scenes with the computer asking various trivial questions in order to let people through the ship. Actually, these were probably more horrific to me than silly. I'm someone who can come a cropper when he finds out sometime in the forgetful past he's been forced to set a security question online somewhere, and can often find myself wondering exactly what the answer is to a poser like "Where were you born?". Did I put Wembley, or Brent, or London, or some combination of the above? Is it case sensitive? If there was no 'Forgot Password?' button on that bulkhead, I'd definitely have been toast by the time 42 minutes elapsed.

Overall, then, it's a decent mid-season episode: nothing to knock one's socks off, but solid enough entertainment. I doubt the brief given to Chris Chibnall asked for anything more; but, it does therefore give no clues to how he might attempt to thrill us when he takes over running the show in 2018.

There’s the obvious Douglas Adams connection (42 was a significant number in his most famous work); there’s a spaceship in both stories, and an alien creature masquerading as something else (a Count in City of Death, a star in 42).

Deeper Thoughts: 
It's all wide open until his stories air. It's still more than a year away, but we'll soon have a new showrunner for Doctor Who. Steven Moffat has been running things a long time, and he had a significant role in his predecessor's time in the job too. By the time Chris Chibnall, writer of 42, takes over in 2018, it will be another series and two Christmas specials further on. The Moffat era will feel like it's been going on forever. And because of his visibility and consistency throughout Doctor Who from 2005 to 2009, writing a big story every year, there was a good idea in everyone's head about what the Moff’s take on Who would be like when he took over. It might not have been a completely accurate idea, but let's face it: he's being doing it for so long now, he's probably done every single one of people's preconceived ideas and many more by now.

Chibnall however is much more of a mystery.  He's written four Doctor Who stories, one of them a two parter: five episodes. Almost as much as Moffat had when he took over, but they have been in very different eras and had very different tones. As a scribe for hire, maybe he's very good at fitting in with the prevailing style. Maybe he's been given differing levels of freedom at different times. But 42 is worlds apart from the Silurian two-parter he wrote for Matt Smith's first year, and both are very different again from the linked but not quite a two parter episodes he did later in Smith's tenure.

If you look at his other work, even his other work just in Doctor Who spin-offs, there are a lot of different Chibnalls out there. Which will we get? The showrunner of Torchwood series 1, or Torchwood series 2? The writer of Broadchurch series 1, or - heaven help us - Broadchurch series 2? It's probably just wishful thinking, because I like them, but I think the best hint is those latest two episodes he wrote in 2012 – Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and The Power of Three. These are the stories which to my mind served the characters of Amy and Rory best; even in the hands of their creator Moffat, they never come across as real people.  I’m aware that this is intentional: when we meet members of Amy’s family in the finale of her first season, they come over as characters from a dark fairy tale, rather than people you could ever actually meet. Her parents are called Augustus and Tabetha Pond – documentary realism is clearly not being attempted. Moffat’s first year followed swiftly after Russell T Davies’s more kitchen sink estate approach and was a nice counterpoint, but I don’t think it was as effective for the drama.

It’s only really in Chibnall’s work - particularly those last two scripts but also in the extra-curriculars Pond Life and P.S. - that I fully care what happens to Amy and Rory. Amy has to deal with a space-time crack that has done weird things to the universe – so what?! Amy has to juggle her home life with a secret life travelling in time? Now I’m interested. Chibnall also introduced Brian Williams, a family member for Rory, a grounding force that makes the action real and relevant, and someone who lifts every scene he’s in. Will Chibnall’s reign see more of this approach? Or will he surprise us with something else again?

Other questions beg too: will Capaldi stick around? It would be great to see a leading man continue into the era of a new production team to see how that changes things; hell, it would be good just to have someone stick around in the role for more than three seasons and a bit. If not, will Pearl Mackie stick around as Bill to provide continuity? Will Moffat ever write for the show again as a hired hand? Will RTD ever be tempted back? Which new writers with Chibnall bring in? The most important question of all, though, is how soon into the Chibnall era will it be before someone slags off the writing online, linking to the clip of Chris on viewer's feedback show Open Air in 1986, slagging off the writing of Doctor Who's Trial of a Timelord season? My guess is approximately five minutes into episode one.

In Summary:

Thursday, 24 November 2016

City of Death

Chapter The 35th, which concerns a work of art.

On holiday again in Paris in 1979, the Doctor and Romana get mixed up with a con-man Count and his wife, who are planning to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. They team up with a private detective, Duggan, and try to stop the Count - who is really Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth, a wiggly green alien with one eye wearing a really good mask.

After an accident with his spaceship's warp drive on primeval Earth, Scaroth is splintered through time, with each of his splinters leading separate lives in separate time zones, Clara Oswald stylee. He needs the proceeds of selling the Mona Lisa, as well as six copies of the same that his Renaissance splinter coerced Leonardo into painting, to fund a time travel experiment to avert the spaceship's accident, save his people, and reunite himself. But, it turns out his accident was inadvertently responsible for kick-starting life on Earth, so can't be stopped. Our heroes rack their brains for a way to prevent Scaroth from undoing millions of years of history and prehistory; Duggan decides just to thump Scaroth. It works!

Me and the boys (one aged 10, one 7) watched the first couple of episodes on a rainy Saturday. Then various members of the family drifted in and out for the last two episodes which we caught up with over the following few days. A markedly different reaction to Spearhead from Space which kept them glued to their seats throughout each episode, and demanding the next one immediately afterwards. Why was the difference in their reaction so pronounced? I asked the boys during the second episode - after they'd looked at me askance while I was guffawing at one line or other - whether they thought this story was particularly funny. They hadn't noticed any humour at all. I was reminded of when I rewatched, when I was a few years older, the comedies I'd seen when I was about their age - Blackadder, The Young Ones, etc. - and wondered exactly how I'd found them funny first time round, given that most of the jokes must have sailed over my head. Maybe the same thing was happening to my boys. The humour of City of Death is mostly verbal and cerebral; if you miss that, what you're left with is more talky and much less action-packed than Spearhead from Space.

The time it took to watch the story is the main reason why it's taken a while to get this post published; that, and the depressing and ghastly news from across the Atlantic impacting my productivity for a while; but, I can best serve the world by tending my own garden, and my favoured horticulture involves posting nonsense about Doctor Who, so here you go...

First-time round:
My first viewing of City of Death was on VHS. It came out early in 1991 on the same day as Planet of the Spiders, which I've already covered for the blog here; as I said then, I bought both of them in Volume One in Worthing on the first day of their release, while playing hooky from Sixth Form. A pretty fine double bill, that's for sure. In the nearly 18 months since I wrote the Spiders post, I have come to think that - though I did no doubt agonise over the decision - I would have watched City of Death first. It's two episodes shorter, and has a better reputation. Be warned: don't judge a VHS by it's cover; City of Death is widely acknowledged to be one of the best classic Who stories, and it has what's widely acknowledged as one of the worst cover illustrations of the period.

I haven't rewatched City of Death for a number of years, and after the first two scenes, I was worried. The dialogue, which I expected to sparkle, was technobabbley to the point of alienation in the first scene, and smug and forced in the second. Both scenes looked great. Despite his being dressed in that first scene with a beaded monstrosity that better belonged over the back of a mini-cab driver's seat in 1979, Scaroth's take off is wonderfully depicted in both studio and model theatre. And, though it looks a little cold, Paris is beautiful, and affords us a few more 'shoe leather' scenes of our heroes wandering about than would normally be acceptable. But looks aren't everything. Were my expectations artificially high? Was it simply not as good as I remembered? Shortly, though, the plot kicked in, and everything was fine.

Though it's fun, funny, and full of verve, the real jewel in City of Death's crown, or eye in its tentacled head, is its inventive plot. Never before had Who spliced the crime caper subgenre into its DNA, and the graft is seamless; also original is the art world setting. The Douglas Adams touch serves to lift the main story. But the main story is more than good enough anyway, so this lift pushes it up towards the stratosphere - this isn't like, say, Robots of Death, where if you stripped away the clever design and memorable lines, you'd be left with a standard genre potboiler; City of Death would be a good story even with dialogue by Pip and Jane Baker. The wit is never there just for its own sake, but is always pushing along a plot that is corkscrewing through a set of wonderfully paced turns and reversals.

The idea of Scaroth's splinters, for example, was good enough for Steven Moffat to squeeze a whole series out of it. The script never rests: even in the resolution scene, there's another little twist where the only Mona Lisa to survive is one of the 'fake' ones. The acting, too, is fantastic, because it's uniformly working for the script, not just sitting as a layer of comic icing atop it. Julian Glover is pitch perfect, but he's pipped to the post of best performance in the piece, by - and who would have thought it - one Tom Baker. Clearly, the material and the small but great cast inspired him to up his game. Just watch the subtle modulations of tone, turning on a sixpence, as he goes from playing the fool to playing it deadly straight. Tom Chadbon is good enough to be a companion - clearly at the time, they'd noticed that the Doctor and Romana are too otherworldly and need a male doofus to balance things. David Graham overplays it a little in places, but it's fine. (An aside: the boys felt the Count and Kerensky were like another double act:  Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman in Pointless - I can see it, sort of). Lalla Ward, excellent, Catherine Schell, peerless. Even Herman the Butler and the little lady in the louvre sparkle.

The music is stunning, the sets are great, the episode endings are fantastic - particularly the end of part 2, and I love how glasses fall down Kerensky's nose as he ages to death at the end of part 3.  I could keep going forever.

Both four episodes, both broadcast in the 1970s, both really good. What more do you need? Alright: both feature professional investigators, both involve an effort to bring together fragments of one overall entity that's had an impact over millions of years (elapsed since Scaroth's spaceship blew up, the length of time the Nestenes have been conquering other planets). Both have 'borrowed' a lot of  their plot - City of Death was a riff on a plot provided by David Fisher's unmade story proposal 'The Gamble with Time', and the featured plan to sell six forged Mona Lisas was possibly inspired by possibly real life events.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Playing tennis with twenty nets, one on top of the other. The success of City of Death's script is all the more gratifying when you consider the circumstances of its creation. Its principal author, Douglas Adams, was famously never very good at plotting - ideas and jokes he could do better than anyone, yes, but plots? No. Adams had taken up the role as Doctor Who's script editor that year, a job for which he was ridiculously wrong: he was relatively inexperienced, he could not at the time (never really could) get to grips with the disciplines of story structure or deadlines. Of everyone who wrote for Who, he was the most in need of a good script editor. It's so insane that anyone would think he could fit that role himself, it's almost poetry. Added to all this, he was ferociously busy - at around the same time he was supposed to be script editing a season of Doctor Who, he was suddenly very much in demand.

That anything got made of season 17 is surprising enough. Somehow, though, City of Death came together so very successfully. There was some luck involved for sure (John Cleese being nearby to do a cameo, a strike demolishing the competition on broadcast), but mainly it came down to talent and hard graft applied in fertile circumstances. Any Doctor Who fan understands that creativity can be enhanced by restrictions: we’ve watched a 50+ year experiment gradually but irrevocably confirm the hypothesis. But City of Death had so many obstacles, it could quite easily have fallen apart altogether. That it didn’t is one of those quirky wonderful events that could make one believe in sanctifying grace.

Two days before the director was due to start work, there was no workable script. Producer Graham Williams and Adams had to lock themselves in for a weekend, and – as legend has it - hose themselves down with whisky and black coffee in order to produce the blueprint for what got made. It would not be the last time that Adams was locked in a room and forced to complete a story, but I’d argue that it was the most successful. Why? Well, for a start, he had the script editor he so needed on hand in the person of Williams. The producer of Doctor Who at this time had very strong storytelling skills, and clearly kept Adams on track.

The second big plus was that Adams had a ready-made plot from David Fisher, so didn’t have to struggle to come up with one. In fact, he had too much plot: most of the concepts in City of Death originate from Fisher, but Adams cuts out loads more, and simplifies and polishes what remains. For Destiny of the Daleks, broadcast immediately before City of Death, Adams had the opposite issue – not enough material. His rewrites, filling in the blank spots on Terry Nation's canvas with silly jokes, are much less impressive. He was clearly more of a sculptor than a painter. In his later career this becomes more obvious, as he remoulds many plots – including key bits from City of Death – over and over; and, in the whole of his subsequent professional life, he iterates through reshape after reshape of the material of Hitch-Hiker's Guide in different versions and different media.

In a way - and I know it’s almost sacrilegious to suggest imposing non-original material onto such an imagination and intellect, which wanted to zoom off anywhere in time and space - it would have been very interesting to see him attempt an adaptation. In some parallel universe, just an Improbability Drive away, they’re screening a P.G. Wodehouse series as conceived by Douglas Adams. I’d pay to see it.

City of Death deserves its record-breaking audience, even if it was over-inflated. The biggest piece of luck we have is that it exists, alongside Adam’s other fingerprints on our favourite show. Had Hitch-Hiker taken off just a little quicker, Adams might never have written for Doctor Who at all, and we’d have been deprived of one of its most enjoyable stories.

In Summary:
Exquisite. Absolutely exquisite.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Spearhead from Space

Chapter The 34th, where Nigel Kneale calls and wants his plot back.

The Doctor, newly regenerated and exiled after being put on trial by his people, arrives in Pertweeshire - an area of the home counties of England containing a higher than average number of cottage hospitals, tracking stations, factories, and research centres. Excitement! UNIT are also there investigating a couple of meteorite showers, deemed suspicious because the meteorites have landed on Earth - though, to be pedantic, if they are meteorites they must have landed on Earth by definition, so not very suspicious at all really. Except that they fly in formation. And land in the same place six months apart. And contain an alien intelligence that can control plastic. Okay, a little bit suspicious.

The Doctor recovers in hospital, then joins forces with old chum the Brigadier, and newly conscripted UNIT science whiz Liz Shaw. They defeat the Nestenes (for it is they) in their plan to bring shop dummies to life, and to replace various members of the government and civil service with walking plastic facsimiles. The Doctor then agrees to work at UNIT as an unpaid intern, but does get a company car at least.

All the family watched, an episode per evening across the middle of a week, from the Blu-ray edition. The clarity of the high-definition picture is a wonder to behold. The rest of the family can't tell any difference, but all of them - including the eldest child (boy of 10) who was moaning at Doctor Who being put on again - were silent within minutes, and at the end of each episode, they chanted "Next ep, next ep". But I strictly rationed it. It went down very well, it's fair to say.

First-time round:
Spearhead from Space must be the single Doctor Who story I've purchased the most: VHS in the 1980s, unedited VHS in the 1990s, DVD in 2001, special edition DVD a decade after that, and finally the Blu-ray edition a few years ago. I've bought the same story five times. I even taped it when it was repeated on BBC2 in 1999. This is why the Better Half thinks I'm crazy. That first release was edited to remove the beginning and end credits as well as other minor cuts. Although this robbed the world of the UNIT soldier's "Who told you to fire, you -" at the end of part 1, and a snatch of Fleetwood Mac, it did make Spearhead - created 100% on film - into the blockbuster movie it was maybe always meant to be.

It was brought out during that first rush of affordable releases in the late Eighties, and was the fifth Doctor Who story I ever purchased on VHS. I bought it in WHSmiths in Montague Street, Worthing, as I think Volume One - which became my mainstay for Who buying later on - hadn't yet opened in 1988. I can remember popping into Superdrug on my way home to get a Panda Cola (these are real things, youngsters, I'm not making it up); in the queue, I was practically caressing the video box, and trying to discern anything I could of the story from the blurb and the very few photos upon it.

In a reverse of my approach when watching The Rings of Akhaten, where I was trying to keep an open mind to its good points, I watched Spearhead from Space constantly thinking "What's wrong with this?" else this blog post may have become far too hagiographic. As I watched, I listed any even slightly negative point, and the list did get quite long.  So, why isn't it a flop? Why - for me at least - does it rise above any problems to be one of the top 10 Doctor Who stories ever.

The biggest exhibit produced for the prosecution is Spearhead's thieved plot. In Nigel Kneale's Quatermass II, broadcast on the BBC in 1955, there's a shower of meteorites that turn out to be part of an alien invasion plan. At the beginning, they're observed by a radar unit, and one is found by a local country type. There's a factory run by the bad guys that the good guys investigate; there's a plot to control high-level government figures. An official that starts off helping is 'turned' and then blocks the investigations. All of which will be stiflingly familiar to anyone who's ever watched Spearhead from Space.

In retooling Doctor Who as an Earth-bound scientific investigations show, the Quatermass serials were the key touchstones of producer Derrick Sherwin. He will have briefed Robert Holmes - writer of these relaunch episodes - on this, and Holmes has obviously taken him very literally and re-staged a Quatermass serial wholesale. But does it matter? There is a tradition older than literature of writers reusing each other's plots, making them their own. That's true here: Kneale would never take such blackly comic glee as Holmes, and would never have written something quite as fun as Spearhead's big finale with shop widow dummies coming to life. Spearhead is tauter and punchier than Quatermass II (generally accepted to be the weakest one of the initial 50s trilogy) but Holmes still finds time to introduce a mysterious 'man from space in a hospital' subplot.

Spearhead from Space must have been doing something right. It has, in its turn, had its material pillaged twice by subsequent Doctor Who stories (The TV Movie and Rose); it is the template for the 'jumping on point' story, cleaning the slate and setting up the concept again for the Johnnie- and Jenny-come-latelies. That brings me to the second major potential flaw: that new direction of the show in 1970; maybe it's not the right direction. The show that could go anywhere has been grounded in one time and place; the charming amateurs of the black and white years, muddling through their adventures, have been replaced by a colder professional organisation investigating - and inevitably shooting at – the unknown. And the primary driver for all this was not a narrative reason, but budgetary. Earth is cheaper than space. Can this be seen as anything but a backward step? It works, though. Even hobbled as they are with immense running times (7 episodes each), the remaining stories of Jon Pertwee’s first year are all excellent, and all make clever use of the rejigged format. It probably would not have survived long had it remained on Earth for good, but as just one, albeit long, stop on the Doctor’s 50+ year tour, it made a refreshing change.

It’s on film. This being Doctor Who, it wasn’t a clever backroom ploy to relaunch the show in style, it was just an accident, a way to salvage the story at the last moment and avoid the impact of a strike by the BBC studio camerapersons. As such, it has been criticised that the set-ups are mostly static: people sitting still in big echoey rooms, and it loses the friendly intimacy of a multi-camera video approach. Balderdash! A couple of scenes, on repeat watching, might stand out like that, but for the most part it is directed magnificently by Derek Martinus who embraces the use of film and really gets the most out of it. There are some wonderful cuts, which wouldn’t have been possible on video, that tell the story with economy; for example, going from the soldier in the woods asking “Is he dead?” to Doctor Henderson answering the question with the Doctor tucked up in bed, much later. And there’s visuals like Channing’s distorted face, viewed through a glass door, or the blank eyes of a doll mould in the factory staring straight out at the audience.

I’ve almost run out of significant negatives, the rest are minor niggles - the big boss at the end is rubbish, yes, but there’s a fantastic gunfight with the excellent Autons to cut away to, so the ending doesn’t suffer. The superlatives never run out: I haven’t talked about the universally great performances – minor characters like Mullins or Meg Seeley are more interesting than the entire cast of the Rings of Akhaten put together. The great script, with some lovely subtle and not so subtle lines: Meg says she’s going to “blow a hole” in the intruding Auton, and does just that, Channing tells General Scobie he will arrange to have him see his plastic copy before it goes to Madame Tussauds, and it turns up on his doorstep, large as life, and takes his place.

There's a focus at the beginning of both stories on some rocks moving about in space. At the end of both stories, the Doctor ends up in confrontation with a new and powerful creature not like the ones he's seen in the story so far, and needs his companion's help to defeat it. It demonstrates how rubbish the sun thing in The Rings of Akhaten is that the weird tentacled mess at the end of Spearhead is a much more convincing enemy.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Carrie - Redux The world behind the scenes of Doctor Who is as full of stories as the fictional world of its narrative; the era that started with Spearhead from Space perhaps most of all. Many of the anecdotes, made famous though much repetition, date from this Pertwee period, The saddest – and ultimately happiest – story of all is that of Caroline John, who played Liz Shaw, my favourite companion. After Spearhead, Derrick Sherwin moved on, and Barry Letts took over as producer. He has gone on record as saying that he didn't agree with a lot of the changes to the format that his predecessor had made. The 7-part episodes were ditched first; the Earthbound nature of the stories was gradually relaxed, and the more professional focus dispensed with - UNIT were reset as a pseudo family.

This was a curious echo of decision made early on in the development of Doctor Who, before it first aired; Sydney Newman had commissioned a Saturday sci-fi serial, and the proposal on the table, involving a trio of scientific investigators, was very similar to Derrick Sherwin’s later concept for Doctor Who in 1970. This wasn’t accepted, and after many tweaks and suggestions what instead resulted was the 1963 version of Who. Famously, Newman insisted that the series needed a youngster to get into trouble and make mistakes. Letts noticed the same gap in 1970’s Who; so, Liz Shaw, intelligent, capable, sometimes caustic, but also compassionate and warm, was sent back to Cambridge, and Jo Grant – a youngster who would get into trouble and make mistakes – took her place.

Much as I like the character of Jo, and Katy Manning's performance, and much as I can see the logic of a character arc where the Doctor educates his companion until she's ready to leave and have her own adventures, I wanted more of Liz and Caroline. John was pregnant by the end of her stint filming, and would likely have resigned anyway, but all she knew was that the new producer didn't want her to continue. Not knowing of Letts' feelings about the character and the dynamic, she assumed she just hadn't done a very good job. It was only in the early nineties, as she later told it, when she discovered the convention circuit, and finally met her fans, that she was disabused of this notion. This is the tragedy for me; for twenty years, at the back of her mind, even at the same moment as I was watching the VHS of Spearhead from Space for the first time and being super impressed by Liz Shaw's introduction looking like a spy in the back of a mysterious car, my favourite companion incorrectly thought she wasn't well liked.

Caroline John is also the only companion actor that I have actually met; I have met a few Doctors over the years, but only one companion. It was in 2003, Doctor Who's 40th Anniversary year, and I was at the anniversary convention (the 'Panopticon') with my old friend David (mentioned before many times on this blog) and another great guy Chris Petts, who later worked on the CGI for the first couple of series of new Who. The Edgware Road Hilton, where it was based, was not a suitable venue - it was too small, and the lifts could not cope with the sheer number of fans using them. The three of us, though, had discovered a secret lift shaft being kept for use of the talent rather than hoi polloi, and we proceeded shamelessly to abuse it, rather than have to queue with a lot of Doctor Who fans, who can be a bit scary en masse.

At one point, we arrived at these lifts only to find Caroline John and her husband, actor Geoffrey Beevers, waiting there too. Caroline turns and smilingly addresses me: "Oh darling, it's you! I haven't seen you for ages!" Golly gosh. My favourite companion actress has mistaken me for someone famous that she knows. Time suspends. For a scant few nanoseconds I agonise about how I can best capitalise on this, but come up short of ideas and mumble something about mistaken identity. The lift arrives, we all travel up to different floors, and that's that. I didn't even read until long after that about all those years she was mistaken about her worth, or else I'd have screamed after her "Carrie - you weren't a failure, you were THE BEST!!!!!". Caroline John died of cancer in 2012, by which time I'd realised that the capital I'd earned that day in 2003 was a huge amount of happiness and luck in chancing to meet her, however briefly. Liz Shaw: she didn't get into trouble, she didn't make mistakes, and she could certainly rock the plastic-panelled mini-dress look. 

In Summary:
Plastic = fantastic.