Thursday, 31 March 2016

Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel

 Chapter The 21st, is set in a world that's not quite as good as our own.

The Doctor and Rose at the height of their smug couple phase, with Mickey tagging along as gooseberry, end up in a parallel universe where they discover alternate versions of family members, and also a terminally ill billionaire, struggling to survive, who has invented parallel versions of the Cybermen. Like all dying men struggling to stay alive, he wants to enslave humanity also. Why wouldn't he? Anyway, these Cybermen turn out to be even more rubbish than the ones in our universe, and can be killed by a mobile phone signal or something (and it's not even a gold mobile phone). Mickey graduates to full hero, and stays behind to look after his Nan / fight the remaining Cybermen / sightsee in Paris. Even though things feel a little unconcluded, the Doctor and Rose leave this world behind never ever to see it or anyone from it ever again, because it's completely impossible. Never again. Definitely over. Absolutely finished with. Honest.

Along with the Better Half and middle child (a boy of 6), I was horribly ill with cold during the week of viewing this; we all snuggled up on the sofa and watched this on DVD to cheer ourselves up. Didn't really work in my case.

First-time round:
In a fair example of 'difficult second album' syndrome, Doctor Who in 2006 did not quite maintain the levels of audience excitement seen in 2005. The return to screens in March of that first year was hard to top, but by Christmas and David Tennant's first story, the fervour had managed to increase: the show even made the front cover of the Christmas Radio Times. And at the end of The Christmas Invasion, there were the first clips from Tennant's first full series including its Cyber story: gosh, he's wearing a dinner jacket, and there are Cybermen and explosions, and - ooh - Billie Piper is dressed as a French maid for some reason.

Inevitably, once Tennant got past tantalising glimpses and into the weekly episodic grind, it could never be so special. Coinciding with this, at least to yours truly, was a small but noticeable dip in quality, and the 2006 stories are collectively my least favourite year of 21st century Who. Or maybe I was just distracted by more important matters - my better half was heavily pregnant at this point with our first child. I don't remember any specifics of seeing these two episodes for the first time, but I must have started completing the Panini Sticker book for Doctor Who at this time, as it came free (plus six stickers) with the Radio Times issue that advertised the Rise of the Cybermen episode. Yes, I was preparing to become a father simultaneously with collecting stickers aimed at young children. Like the show, it was a period of transition for me; hopefully, like the show, I improved slightly.

I'll preface this with the fact that my son, though subdued by illness, enjoyed the story, and my Better Half kept telling me I was being overly harsh on it; but, alas, ten years has done nothing to improve this disappointing mess in my eyes.

From the first scene where Roger Lloyd-Pack outrageously overacts the killing of a unwitting minion, one wonders what unkindnesses the intervening years have delivered to Graeme Harper; the fantastic director of 1980s Who can no longer seem to get a decent performance out of anyone. But the fault clearly lies in the screenplay. Reportedly, there were many script problems with this two-parter; no-one could really ever work out what it should be. The story seems to have gone through many major changes in direction, echoes of which remain in what was finally made, and no character in it ends up with a satisfactory motivation for their actions.

Lumic, Lloyd-Pack's character, is a case in point: he is dying, and wants to survive. He's frightened to experiment on himself, so he gets his goons to round up the homeless and experiments on them. So far, a bit whacko, but not beyond the limits of genre. He perfects his cyber process and then seeks the right authority to proceed to use it; you'd think he'd crossed the line of caring about legality when doing vivisection on unwilling humans, but he still seems very keen to get the governance right. Okay. Permission is denied, so he enslaves all of London's population with hypnotic signals, marches them into a power station, extracts their brains and sticks each into a steel suit. Overreaction, much? Imagine what he'd do if he failed to get planning permission for his underground lair in a hollowed out volcano? To give the writer the benefit of the doubt, in the process of redrafting it's probable that a change was made from desperate amoral bad guy to full-on cartoon supervillian, but the end product retains a sticky-taped patch-up of both.

The characters are not the only thing that's inconsistent, the whole world of the story doesn't make coherent sense. It must have seemed a good idea not to spell out exactly what decided the parallel path that this alternate world took, but there are heavy hints that we are in some kind of unequal totalitarian state (talk of curfews, underground resistance groups, black market whiskey for the special few, etc.). But this presents two problems - first, it doesn't square with the more free market liberalism of downloads, upgrades and crowd scenes of everyone having the latest accessory; but second and more crucially: if this is happening to a lot of Nazis / Vichy French, why do I care when they get cybernised? Again, there's a conflict between different directions tearing this story apart.
Positives: Camille Coduri and Shaun Dingwall are solid amongst the regulars; the rest including Tennant are having something of an off day. Noel Clarke is half good - Mickey's great, Ricky, not so much. Some of the pointless continuity references (IE, Torchwood, "Above, Between, Below") are fun to spot. The downbeat ending with Pete Tyler rejecting the girl who's his alt-Daughter is a nice change, but everyone knows (knew even at the time) that it's not going to be left that way.

Both stories feature top tier Doctor Who baddies, and both - while purporting to be stand-alone - are clearly setting up stories that will be continue later down the line.

Deeper Thoughts:  
There's never been a good Cyberman story. Discuss. All that follows is in my humble opinion, but it’s an opinion that I’m not alone in holding within Doctor Who fandom: 50 years on from their first appearance, the Cybermen are still waiting for a TV story that’s worthy of them.

Where they’ve been in a good tale, it’s usually a man versus alien action story where they may as well be any old iron giants (think Earthshock or The Invasion). And when a story dwells on what they are, or what they mean, it usually only does this briefly, or at a superficial level, or it picks on one aspect of them (they’re emotionless, they want to convert people). Dark Water / Death in Heaven probably comes closest to exploiting the concept successfully, but even there the Cybs are the reanimated dead. But Cybermen are worse than zombies; they are people who have willingly converted themselves into machines, bit by bit, in order to survive, and in so doing have removed all their emotions. They are not walking dead, they are volunteer monsters, and their actions are cruel but always logical.

On paper that’s great, but no story has ever managed to bring that to life visually. A lot of the difficulty stems from their creation: they were developed as an idea in themselves – during a brainstorming period where the show’s scientific adviser Kit Pedlar and its Script Editor Gerry Davis were coming up with more plausible story concepts – rather than emerging organically from a particular story being written. This is why they almost seem shoehorned into their own debut, which doesn’t really foreground what they are, bar some brief backstory expositions. They are also a concept deserving a slow reveal, more prose than telly: you’d need a lot of screen time to cover their gradual relinquishing of humanity at the appropriate pace to do justice to the scary truth: they do it to themselves, they do, and that’s what really hurts

The vacuum created by the lack of a Genesis of The Cybermen on TV has led to many attempts in other media to tell that tale properly. I have never heard the Big Finish story Spare Parts, but it’s generally felt to be the best attempt, and formed something of the basis for Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel. As I understand it, though, over many, many redrafts and reimaginings, the 2006 TV story came to bear no real resemblance, despite the credit thanking Spare Parts’ author Marc Platt.

The major issue is that, whatever point they started from, every choice ultimately made by Tom MacRae and Russell T seems to be the wrong one: the conversion comes about not because of the necessities / caprices of a whole species, but the insanity of one man; the change isn’t gradual, it’s sudden; it’s forced not voluntary; emotions are removed not because of accident or because they are no longer felt to be needed, it’s just a side effect of the process. Essentially, one is left with something that’s a pale imitation of a Cyberman. But perhaps that’s all that a family show on a Saturday evening can handle. Done properly, perhaps the Cybermen are too chilling a body horror concept for Doctor Who.

In Summary:
Further evidence that the Cybermen are too frightening to do properly in Doctor Who. (There’s still hope, though: all we need is a spin-off from Doctor Who aimed at adults; just imagine what it could make of them - that story could not fail to be utterly amazingly superb.)

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Mission to the Unknown

Chapter The 20th, sans video, sans regular cast, sans happy ending.

A three-man rocket crew including Marc Cory, the Space James Bond, are stuck on the hostile planet Kembel. But any minute the Doctor will come along and save them. As well as killer plant life, there are Daleks based on the planet scheming with a bunch of evil co-conspirators to take over the solar system. But any minute the Doctor will come along and defeat them. The crew scramble to fix their ship, but it gets blown up by the Daleks before the Doctor can arrive. Desperately, they record an SOS, but all are killed before they can transmit it. The Doctor doesn’t show up.  Next Week: Ancient Troy. So, erm, The End.

This is one of the few whole stories for which no visual material exists, no master tapes, no film copies, no clips, no off-screen ‘telesnaps’, only audio. But, as luck would have it, it’s also the shortest ever Doctor Who story to date - ignoring charity skits and online prequels - at only 25 minutes long. There are fan-made animated versions of Mission to the Unknown online, but I stuck to listening to the BBC audio release with narration by Peter Purves. I did this using my generic fruit-based MP3 device during a commute to the day job, and I had the time to give it a couple of listens all the way through for clarity. (For the uninitiated, although it was scheduled as a stand-alone story, Mission to the Unknown acts as the prologue to the twelve episode epic, The Daleks Master Plan, two stories later, but I’ll blog that separately when the randomiser drags me back to Kembel).

First-time round:
For perhaps obvious reasons related to the majority percentage of communication that is conveyed visually, my memories of first experiencing audio-only Doctor Who stories are not as potent as for those that I could actually see. The multi-CD set of Mission to the Unknown / Daleks Master Plan came out in late 2001. This was before I started regularly buying anything online, but I was already commuting to work in those days; so, I likely bought it either from the MVC on London Bridge, or from Borders in Brighton. Crikey, I feel like I’m writing about the 18th century: neither of those establishments exists anymore.

I suppose it’s a good one to lose if you have to lose one, with only three main characters to keep track of; mind you, it doesn’t make it easy that their names all end in a ‘y’: Cory, Lowery, Garvey. Also, because I’m over familiar with the footage from Master Plan episode 1 of another doomed spaceman on Kembel, Kurt Gantry, I picture everyone as being played by Brian Cant. (Hey, Gantry is another one that ends in ‘y’, the space security service really needs to review the diversity of its hiring practices.)

It’s a shame not to have the mad delegates with their spots and stripes and Christmas tree hats to look at, but there is footage of them surviving from Master Plan later. Aside from them, one mainly has to picture Daleks, a jungle, and a rocket. And if one’s imagination isn’t good enough to do that, it doesn’t matter, as Terry Nation handily included Daleks, a jungle, a rocket, or some combination of the three in every Doctor Who episode he subsequently wrote, so you just have to remember those instead.

The story succeeds in channelling a Flash Gordon style Saturday morning picture vibe, with shrill stock incidental music, aliens, and transformations. But there are some issues: it feels a bit out of character for the Daleks to be forming a grand alliance, but one immediately rationalises this assuming that all their seven emissaries are rapidly gonna get offed. However – like most things in Mission to the Unknown – it’s not concluded in these 25 minutes.

Cory and Lowery bitch like theatrical luvvies, in a way hardened spacemen shouldn’t, and they’re the most unlucky crew in the universe: they choose to land on Kembel, but somehow manage to crash in such a spectacular way that their ship and the radio is rendered inoperable and they’re reduced to using a Space Message in a Bottle. But the story works nonetheless, and the piece is not long enough to outstay its welcome. One wonders, though, how many people at home in 1965 were watching confused as to why the Doctor never featured.

Both stories are about three members of a spacecraft crew stuck on a planet with something alien that will transform them. Both can lift out of the schedule without causing any head-scratching regarding following the overarching plot.

Deeper Thoughts:
What do you call someone who strives to collect something that can never be completed? Human.  Star Trek fans can own every episode ever made of their favourite SF show in the original broadcast format, the poor deprived souls. Where’s the imagination in that? Doctor Who, on the other hand, and despite its longevity, has scarcity built in. Even if they stop making episodes tomorrow, you’ll never have them all without some kind of miracle. This could be frustrating: clearly, Who attracts those of a collecting mindset, but it can’t ever possibly satisfy them.

The reasons for this are more than adequately documented in 'Wiped: Doctor Who's Missing Episodes' by Richard Molesworth, a very good book that tells the story far better than I can hope to do here. But to summarise: the BBC didn’t have a process for throwing recordings away, they only had a process for keeping them. Throwing recordings away was the default option, the path of least resistance; keeping them required effort and justification.

This wasn’t a callous or wasteful policy, it made perfect sense in the context of how TV drama originated, as broadcast live theatre. Programme recordings, filming in advance, video editing, all of these came gradually, and less from any desire to introduce film aesthetics than due to the convenience of not having to get a cast to perform the damn thing again a day or two later for the repeat. The BBC and Doctor Who were also not unique in this regard, of course.

The Beeb may not have been a commercial entity, but it was a corporate one, and it had a duty of cost effectiveness to the public. The tapes that Doctor Who were made on were as big as a bin lid, as heavy as a bin lorry, and as costly as a bin Laden, so they were wiped and reused. Film copies were made, but they took up valuable space, so they wouldn’t be kept forever either.  With hindsight, they should have woken up a few years earlier to the importance of their archive, but that’s easy to say now.

Now, this could be frustrating, and no doubt often is (we Doctor Who fans can be a miserable lot sometimes), but it’s also wonderful. Those lost episodes have inspired so much. For a start, dedicated individuals have made it their own mission to the unknown in trying to locate every last missing scrap. Thanks to all those efforts, the soundtrack to every episode has been located, as have clips and off-screen photos from most, and remarkably, the missing total of whole episodes has been reduced to only 97 at the last count. Beyond that, many technological advances of restoration have been inspired - bringing colour and video look where they had been lacking - and creative endeavours of reconstruction and animation.

I hope it's not too much to say that, in this regard, Doctor Who is a metaphor for life. You can strive for completion, and you'll never fully achieve it; but, the striving is the point.

In Summary:
Missing Mission.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

State of Decay

 Chapter The Nineteenth, The Nineteenth Chapter is The Nineteenth Chapter.

The Doctor, Romana and Adric face an attack of the definitive articles: The Three Who Rule serve The Great One and regularly hold The Selection to find The Chosen One for The Time of Arising. And there's something about The Wasting. The Wasting is The Wasting. Basically, nobody knows what The Fuck The Wasting is, but apparently it's bad. Vampire story with some spacey-wacey bits, essentially.

Watched the DVD episode by episode over a few days with various of the three kids drifting in and out, but only middle child (boy, 6 years old) gripped enough to sit still and pay attention. During our watching together, he told me that Tom Baker is his favourite Doctor, with Slyvester McCoy next, and David Tennant after that. He's making lists! I'm so proud. Once he's putting all 12 main actors in one ordered sequence of preference (plus fretting over whether John Hurt should be in there or not) then my work will be done. Apologies to his mother.

First-time round:
I may be misremembering, but I seem to think that towards the end of my first year at university in Durham, just before the long Summer vac, my good friend and fellow fan David (see this post for more details) had a cache of videos, and sufficient cables, and I had sufficient blank tapes, to transfer over some of his unreleased Who episodes, so I could own them myself like a happy little pirate. Presumably I'd convinced another friend, fellow first-year Mike, the only other person I knew with a VCR in college, to let me borrow it to complete the set-up.  I seem to think Mike sat there in David's room monitoring to ensure I didn't break anything.

David was at the end of his final year, close to graduating, and this would have been a farewell present (though he came back to visit us several times during my second and third years, and we're still firm friends to this day). Funny how some things stick in your mind: as I transferred various episodes - somehow with a slight tracking issue, so every one had a crackling noise of the soundtrack, but never mind - David said I was "seizing the day" in doing this. We'd just been discussing Dead Poets Society and Carpe Diem, probably with me gnashing my teeth in self pity at how I wasn't making anything of my life (I did that a lot as an undergraduate). I appreciate that he was trying to cheer me up, but I don't really think having even more Doctor Who vids was necessarily going to help much in the self fulfilment stakes.

Anyway, I copied both Full Circle and Warrior's Gate, the first and last stories of the E-Space trilogy, but didn't do State of Decay which comes in between them. This means that either David or I had made a decision that this was the one of the three that was dispensable, and that we wouldn't be carting it around. I think it was his decision, but we'd have both been pretty much correct.

So, the first time I would have seen this story was when the trilogy came out to buy on video in the late nineties. I'm sure I would have been excited about seeing it for the first time; but I may have been equally excited about seeing the few minutes of bonus footage they'd bunged on of Anthony Ainley in character as the Master from the computer game that was soon to be released, or indeed seeing Warrior's Gate without crackly audio. This is State of Decay's issue in a nutshell: it lifts right out, and you hardly even notice.

The first thing of note is the titles which still feel wrong; Tom Baker, like his predecessor, changes his familiar title sequence in his final year for a new style that subsequently is reused and becomes much more associated with his successor. In retrospect, it feels like he’s wearing some other guy’s clothes.

The next thing I notice is that the script is fine; it takes a bit of time to get going, and clearly suffers from the script editor and writer pulling in different directions. All in all, though, it’s a solid effort.  The execution, mind you, has some big problems.

Peter Moffat’s work often comes in for some stick, but he usually is given a free pass for his first directional outing. Hmm. There are bits that might be odd choices or might just be errors, e.g. Baker is at one point talking to the arse-end of K9. The use of slow, balletic movement of actors is also something I’m not sure was fully intentional. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels very stagey, e.g. the deliberate, stilted positioning of Lalla Ward’s head into close up as she’s about to get her neck bit.

The other major let-downs are Adric and the bats. On balance, of the two, the bats give the least worst performance, but they rarely convince, whether they are portrayed by rubber toys on strings, stock footage, or radiophonic tinkling. As for Adric, I mused as to whether viewers at the time were wondering in the first few minutes where the new boy had got to, or whether they collectively sighed when he finally showed up and thought “Oh God, he’s back”. Matthew Waterhouse, in his first recorded Doctor Who performance, and only second ever gig, cannot walk across a room convincingly, and cannot say a line without my wanting to punch him.

Something else that doesn't sit well is having too much focus on the 'lord' in Timelord: the Doctor and Romana act and are treated by the downtrodden natives like royalty, and it's only with them to inspire and lead them that the beardie proles manage an uprising. The Doctor is even shown to have blue blood. It's all part of Terrance Dicks's aristo agenda, I tells ye! 

Another tale of a vampiric entity that dwells at the centre of a celestial body in a smaller universe linked to our own; and, in both stories, the entity controls the people living there. The Doctor again is trapped in that universe, turning up with one male and one female companion.

Does both e-space and House being green count as a connection?  Not really: the colour for almost everything in Doctor Who is gween.

Deeper Thoughts:
You say technacothaka, I say museum, let’s call the whole thing off. State of Decay was not the first or last time there was an equal and opposite tension between Doctor Who writer and script editor, but it's probably the most interesting; much more interesting at least than watching the episodes themselves without knowing the behind the scenes gossip. In the red corner, we have Christopher Hamilton Bidmead, whose mission statement in the script editing role, and anything he’s said about the writing of Doctor Who since, I profoundly disagree with; but, he wrote three of my favourite 1980s stories. In the blue corner, is Terrance Dicks, who could more than hold his own against his opponent, as an old hand; but, most of Dicks's actual story credits on Who are a bit rubbish compared to the stories he magnificently script edited.

It would have been perhaps better instead to see a story Bidmead wrote and Dicks edited, but that never was to be, and we have to take what we can get. State of Decay is consequently a game of two halves that don't quite meld together. All the Gothic stuff is how Terrance Dicks wanted it; all the bearded procrastinating science men, and the inclusion of spaceships and escape hatches, is pure Bidmead. Normally, I'd think one more draft would have sorted it. But, from what I've heard of their process, one more draft would have pulled things further apart.

Bidmead made himself look silly trying to remove the silliness from Doctor Who. He didn't twig that silliness is a key strand of its fibre. Time man travels in phone booth = rigorous educational primer in science? Not likely. He didn't edit two stories before a cactus man was threatening to blow up a planet.  You will never remove the silliness from Doctor Who. Even if its leading man is not the type who can't see a set with a swinging door without introducing some improvised comic business where it bonks him on the nose (as Tom Baker does in State of Decay). Big but, though: Bidmead instigated - nay, insisted on - the Grimm brothers sequence (O'Connor becoming Aukon, etc.), which I think is magical. And it's because of his idea to make the tower an abandoned spaceship that the story has its bravura ending.

Dicks also doesn't come out of things blameless: he'd taken and rewritten top-to-bottom many a script in his time, but does seem to get a bit more precious when it's done to him in return. All in all, State of Decay does benefit from Bidmead's input. And season 18 does benefit from a dash of Dicks Gothic (as indeed it benefited from the odd cactus man) to offset the many earnest bearded men talking about science.

In Summary:
A little pale and bloodless, but still with surprising bite.