Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Carnival of Monsters

Chapter The 23rd, roll up, roll up for the monster show...

Three squabbling bureaucrats on a once isolationist planet review the case of the first ever economic migrants who’ve just arrived: a pair of carnival entertainers with a device called a miniscope. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Jo find themselves off course, arriving on what seems like a perfectly normal ship bound for Bombay in 1926. But the passengers and crew are reliving the same few minutes over and over again, including an attack from a prehistoric and anachronistic sea monster. The TARDIS has materialised inside the scope, which is a miniaturised Zoo slash structured reality series, with specimens/housemates including that shipful of humans, a Cyberman, an Ogron, and a colony of Drashigs - fearsome predators who chase the time travellers through the works of the device, causing havoc. The Doctor escapes from the miniscope, goes back to his normal size, returns the scope’s inhabitants to their correct times and places, and – somewhat in passing – quashes the treasonous plans of one of the bureaucrats.

Back to random selection: the whole family (me, better half and three kids – boy of 9, boy of 6, girl of 3) sat round and watched the Special Edition Re-visited DVD over two nights, two episodes a night. This was accomplished in an atmosphere of silent appreciative concentration from all. Wow.

First-time round:
A couple of months before Peter Davison’s first series, the producer John Nathan-Turner arranged for a set of archive Doctor Who stories to have a repeat broadcast on BBC2. They went out in an early evening slot, each a four part story stripped across the week, Monday to Thursday. This was The Five Faces of Doctor Who season, the first full season of Doctor Who repeats in the UK ever. It was intended as a reminder to audiences after seven years that someone other than Tom Baker could play The Doctor. One story from each of the Doctors up to Tom, with the only (at the time) multi-Doctor adventure, The Three Doctors, thrown in for good measure. Tom's finale Logopolis rounded off the season; it ended with him turning into Peter Davison to lead in to Davison’s debut, which was broadcast a few weeks later after Christmas.

Starved of adequate TV (more on that to come), I stumbled across this season just after it had got underway and found myself watching a black-and-white adventure show about cavemen. I couldn’t have known it then, but this was the first ever Doctor Who story, An Unearthly Child, midway through episode 3. I tuned in the next day, and the next week, and thereafter I was hooked. Carnival of Monsters was the third offering, so was only the second complete story I ever watched, and the first in colour.

There’s a theory that Doctor Who, the supposedly ever-changing format, will never be as good or as ‘right’ as when you first watch. ‘Your’ Doctor will always be better than the next one when he or she comes along. ‘My’ Doctor was the first five chaps (more on that to come), so I’ve never really had a problem with change; but, I may have excess love for stories like Carnival of Monsters, as they were the first ones I ever saw. As such, when I was rewatching this time, I was trying my hardest to step away from that residual nostalgia and review it cold. But that extended silence that met its airing, from my usually noisy and distracted family, is a very good indicator. It’s brilliant.

Most of the brilliance comes courtesy of the writer, Robert Holmes. This is presumably the story Producer Barry Letts had particularly in mind when he said that Holmes was good enough to be doing serious TV plays of the week as well as genre television: a high concept piece with a hard kernel of seriousness under its playful day-glo exterior. Despite its meta claim that it is “simply to amuse, nothing serious, nothing political”, Carnival of Monsters shares themes with more famously metaphorical The Curse of Peladon, inspired by - still relevant now - issues of the UK joining up with a supranational community: isolation / strength versus compromise / unity. Whereas the Peladon stories were pretty heavy-handed, Holmes uses this theme for character motivation and world creation, sketching it in with only a few deft strokes.

The script is rich with wit and depth, and replete with fully-formed characters. Letts also deserves kudos for this; it’s maybe his best direction of actors for Who. One can feel the sheer rehearsal glowing off the screen: Vorg and Shirna click and spark like a double act; Kalik, Orum and Pletrac feel like they’ve been bickering for years of unseen backstory. At the climax, when the SS Bernice’s crew and passengers collapse as the scope dies, it is affecting in a way that transcends any tatty d├ęcor or wonky visual effect.

The regulars are well served too; Pertwee is at his least uncharming here, and Jo is clever and resourceful. Maybe this is the feeling of the show breathing clean air again; after years being cooped up on Earth, this is their first voyage of freedom into the unknown. There’s a lovely look of disappointment from the Doctor in the final episode when he realises that even after getting control of the TARDIS back, he still can’t steer it, and has ended up not on Metebelis 3, but planet Vote Leave instead. 

Both Heaven Sent and Carnival of Monsters place the Doctor into an enclosed environment where events repeat in a cycle.

Deeper Thoughts:  
New Faces, Old Faces. When I was a young boy, I peered through a crack in the door of my parents’ bedroom one evening, to see a frightful sight that was to terrify me for some time to come. At that moment, I didn’t fully know what I’d seen but I later worked out what it was: Nightmare of Eden episode 3.

The theme tune freaked me out, and as if that wasn’t enough a little miniature tin horse was rolling around spitting out fire and killing people; I ran off after only a minute, thinking I’d never watch this scary programme ever again. As well as I can calculate, that was the first Doctor Who I ever saw. After that, I caught the odd glimpse before switching over to ITV – bits of Full Circle and The Keeper of Traken in Tom’s final series, for example – but by the final months of 1981, that was all.

On the 4th November 1981, I was at my maternal grandparents’ house, just round the corner from our place in Durrington-on-Sea, West Sussex. I was nine years old, the same age as my eldest boy is now. We’d always go round with Mum to Nana and Grandad’s for tea after school. Dad worked in London so wasn’t ever back until what seemed like the middle of the night, but probably was around the time that I get home now from my daily commute (pause for a pang of existential angst while Circle of Life from The Lion King plays in my head).

You can picture what kind of boy I was in those days, and you’d probably picture right: I collected stamps, organised school football tournaments rather than play in them, and tracked the results of cup matches on a chart rather than watch the games. I didn’t get glasses or a school briefcase until much later, but they were there in spirit. And I was obsessed with television. I watched a lot, memorised schedules, read Look-In; my sister still calls me Mike Teavee.

One of the reasons for the attraction of the medium was scarcity. With only three channels and no satellite, cable, VCRs, PVRs, computers or tablets, the good shows were like diamonds, and there was an ever present danger that one would run out of things to watch. Kids telly on BBC1 went on until about half five. The programme after John Craven’s Newsround was usually decent – it would have been something like Screen Test or Jigsaw in 1981, great shows – but that was your lot. After that, it was a lull filled with dull things for grown-ups before the sit-coms and game shows started later. It always felt half an hour too early to finish with the good stuff. News at six, fair enough, but half-five should be for fun. (I clearly wasn’t the only one who thought this – later in the 80s, the slot would be filled with funner things like Fax, Go For It, Masterteam, and eventually, and for a long time after, it was the evening Neighbours slot).

Desperate for something to watch, and banished to the spare room and its portable set, while the adults watched Nationwide in the living room, I flipped channels and found the aforementioned caveman adventure. It had started before I switched on, vaulting me over the issue of the theme tune. I don’t even know if I realised it was Doctor Who immediately – at that time, I was always finding enjoyable old monochrome films nestling in the schedules, including examples of Saturday morning film series, like The Batman or Buck Rogers, which were the inspiration for Doctor Who’s episodic structure. If I took it as one of those at first, it would explain how I came to be rapidly hooked on something which a couple of years previously had scared me witless. Or maybe scared and hooked are not so different.

John Nathan-Turner could have gone a different way; arguably, he should have. Only a year on from taking over as producer – when he’d made many, many efforts to make the show seem new - he was now trotting out a load of repeats that accentuated its heritage, maybe hastening the eventual perception in some quarters that it was an old show past its prime. Had he held his nerve, I might have missed Doctor Who altogether. Yes, I may have caught the next series on weekday evenings, while waiting for those sit-coms and game shows to come on. But then again, I would have missed the first episode of Davison because of cubs, so maybe starting with episode two would not have seemed worth it. The TARDIS would have sailed on past me and off into infinity.

It’s no exaggeration to state that the rest of my life would have been very different.  But, seeing as I’ve enjoyed it, more or less, I’ll have to say a thank you to Carnival of Monsters and the four other stories, and here’s to producers not keeping their nerve. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

In Summary:
Devices showing moving pictures of monsters could very well change your life.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Heaven Sent

Chapter The 22nd, which goes round in ever increasing circles.

Consumed by grief and guilt after the death of Clara, the Doctor is forcibly transmatted into an eerie clockwork castle, where he is stalked by a creature from his nightmares. He can gain brief respite if he confesses things that will annoy online fanboys, but he runs out of those quickly, and realises he's going to have to spill about the 'hybrid'. He doesn't want to do this, because it's been clear for weeks that no one gives a toss who or what the hybrid is, so anyone that's gone to this much trouble to find out about it must be completely insane and dangerous. Instead, he strives to elude the nightmare creature and follow clues to find room 12. When he finally does find the room, it contains the exit, helpfully positioned behind a thick wall of pure space diamond. The Doctor escapes by punching the wall for four and a half billion years, while dying and - arggh! While dying and recreating himself - arggh! While dying and recreating himself, over and over and over again.

This is another story not randomly chosen. For the - gosh! – nearly a year I’ve been doing the blog, I’ve only now had to deal with a Doctor Who box-set arriving and disrupting the flow. Yes, the latest series came out on Blu-ray recently, and naturally I received it immediately on release date after a pre-order. So, in the last few weeks, rather than skipping, fleet of foot, across the decades from story to random story, I’ve had to plod along the slow path of 2015’s ninth series.

I still had to inject some variation. Though not a set of stories I found unenjoyable, it did lack a certain spark - except for one story. It didn’t help that the music that underscores every Blu-ray menu is taken from the climactic sequence of the best episode of the year; but, even without that cue, I wouldn’t have watched many episodes in order before I cracked and jumped ahead and watched Heaven Sent. That I ended up watching it four times with different members of my family, is testament to how good it is. Additionally, I think I’ve watched that last sequence (“and the shepherd’s boy says…”) a few more times in isolation. It deserves and rewards multiple looks as a bravura piece of editing. Plus, even on a rewatch, it achieves a level of pure excitement that is rarely matched in the show; it’s up there with the last 15 minutes of Utopia, all of Androzani episode 4, and the bit in The Curse of Fenric where Ace sees her gran off safely to London just before the incidental music goes all Italian House piano.

Afterwards, my youngest two children (boy of 6, girl of 3) and I played ‘The Veil’. One of us would start talking about a mountain of pure diamond that takes an hour to walk around, while another would creep up behind with hands outstretched, claw like, grab the speaker’s head and ‘zap’ them. Great fun.

First-time round:
I’d heard that this one was going to be special, so stayed up and watched the recording late on the Saturday night of broadcast. Then, I watched it again with the kids on Sunday morning. And finally, we persuaded Mum (who’d given up on the series around the Zygon two-parter) to come and watch it too. Then, I watched it again on my own just before Hell Bent’s broadcast.

I’m seeing a pattern here: I do realise that the episode is all about endless repetition, so my adding another level of repetition by watching it again and again is somewhat apt. Anyway, I’m not sick of it yet.

One feels Tom Baker would have loved to have a crack at something like this, back in his day. He only got an outing without a companion as an experiment after moaning about having to share the limelight; but imagine the production meeting, imagine the smile on his face: Tom, we want it just to be you, no other characters, and you’re talking to yourself for 50 minutes.

In fact, the idea is so strong, it makes one want to see every actor who’s ever played the part have a crack at a one-man show. For now, though, it is Mister Capaldi in the limelight, and he delivers in spades. It’s like you’re watching someone who’s been practising being Doctor Who by themselves for their whole life. And in many real ways, you are. He gets a ton of gifts from the script as an actor, going through defiance, bravado, dread, fear, panic, relief… and that’s just in the first five minutes. The finest moment of his performance for me is the heartbreaking moment of reluctance and weariness as the Doctor fully realises his predicament “Why can’t I just lose?”. And in a beautiful bit of Moffat puzzle-box plotting, it makes sense first time you watch, but has even more impact second time around when you realise exactly what the Doctor has to do to win.

There are criticisms one could make with the logic, but they’re mostly ‘refrigerator moments‘ (things that only trouble the mind after watching, when one goes to the fridge for a snack). The entire premise is based on the rooms of the castle reverting to their original state when the Doctor first arrives, except for the stuff that doesn’t, like the painting. And the spade and the dry clothes must be reverting to their position on his second visit at the earliest. There’s also something that doesn’t feel quite right about the Doctor being trapped in his confession dial but also able to see recognisable stars from a real vantage point in the universe. All this doesn’t matter, though, as the story is operating on a metaphorical level. Moffat himself believes it's representative of the Doctor working his way through his grief, but it seems more fundamental even than that. It's a perfect visual and lyrical metaphor for life: every day we're born anew, punch a wall of futility, and die again, only to get up the next day and do it all once more.

Both contain threats that are at least partially mechanical, both see the Doctor trapped in a physical space locked off from the normal universe.

Deeper Thoughts:  
Retrospective. Watching series nine again from the vantage point of now, all Doctor Who fans can feel lucky. Even those, like me, who found the year mostly disappointing compared to Capaldi's first, don't need to worry. Whatever happened on screen in 2015, something probably unique in the history of the show took place: a commitment has now been made that Doctor Who will still be on TV in three years time. Has that ever happened before?

Ok, so the first of those three years will only have one episode broadcast, but still we've never had it so good. As the announcement mainly focused on Chris Chibnall taking over as showrunner, though, the fanfare and celebrations got a bit lost. News of the gap year too, seemed to fly out under everyone's radar: if it had happened in the 1980s, there would have been a distressing protest song written.

So, series nine can be viewed in context as just another year that Doctor Who passed through in its ongoing adventure in time and space. Not a lot of it worked for me 100%, and the show struggled to find as large a UK audience as it's reliably found in previous years (though it still performed well compared to other drama). Maybe the focus on two-parters was one of the reasons for that: not enough variety of stories or locations. If the idea was to allow more room for complex stories to breathe, I'm not sure it worked. They just felt longer. It was galling, for example, when watching the deleted scenes, to see how wonderful some of the character moments were that ended up on the cutting room floor, such as Clara and the Doctor talking about Danny Pink in The Girl Who Died, or the Doctor apologising to Prentis for what's to come in the underwater base one. (If you haven't seen these, I recommend getting hold of the DVD or Blu-ray, as there's lots of material from many episodes, and all worth a look.)

The season as a whole felt more inward looking and geeky than normal. A big reveal of the series trailer assumed that its audience would also be Game of Thrones viewers, and would be excited that Maisie Williams appeared - I'm not, and I wasn't. The big reveal of the series assumed that its audience would know that the gleaming spires in the big bubble were Gallifrey, and know why this was a big deal. I knew it was Gallifrey, but I was underwhelmed - the planet was better off lost.

Perhaps everything would have zinged a bit more with a different companion to shake up the dynamic. Jenna Coleman stayed too long, I think. Mind you, Last Christmas, which was also on the Blu-ray, would have been a bit too bleak had it ended with an aged Clara saying goodbye to the Doctor. As it was, apart from Heaven Sent, it and The Husbands of River Song were probably my favourites of the set; hooray for the Christmas specials. Just as well, as - grumble, grumble - that's all we're getting in 2016 (twelve months is too long to wait, bring back the Doctor, don't hesitate, etc. etc.).

In Summary:
Heaven Sent is like an expensive wristwatch: beautiful, precise clockwork. The season either side of it meanwhile is dull as strap.