Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Waters of Mars

 Chapter The 26th, in which we find out that after something disastrous occurs, you can't just pop back in time and change it, alas.

Bowie Base One, Mars, 21st November 2059. On this day, history states, the base commander Adelaide Brooke gave the order to instigate Emergency Action 5, blowing up the base and killing herself and the rest of the pioneer crew, the first off-world colonists ever. No one has ever found why.

The Doctor turns up and discovers it was all down to a problem with the plumbing; an ancient lifeform has taken over the waters of Mars, and converts any human the water comes into contact with, making them dribble a lot. The Doctor decides to change history, because he's mad as hell as he's not going to take it anymore. But he only makes things worse, and Adelaide commits suicide. An Ood appears in the snow to tell him off, but he goes on the run rather than face his fate. Plus, comedy robot.

Watched with all the family on Blu-ray in the Sunday night ‘Songs of Praise’ slot. This required careful deliberation, as it is one of a handful of 21st century Doctor Who stories which previously the Better Half and I had reviewed and judged too scary to be shown to the kids. The boys (one aged 10, the other aged 7) are ready for it now, but their sister (aged 4) would be miffed if she wasn’t allowed to watch alongside them.
In the end, as she is more mature than her brothers were at her age, and perfectly capable of choosing to stop watching if she wasn’t happy, we decided to proceed, with hand hovering over the remote control all the while. But the pause button was never needed; there were some ‘behind the sofa’ bits, for sure, but mostly the children were excited rather than scared. The same cannot be said for their parents however, who were both creeped out. Some excellent choices really up the horror. For
example, the convulsions every victim goes through as they’re converted, and the great monster make-up: black mouths, pin-prick contact lenses, and the craggy lower jaws, as if all the water pouring out of their mouths has etched paths into their skin.

As it finished, every child agreed it was not too scary. Eldest child (boy of 9) was very proud that he'd recognised the sound of the cloister bell. And everyone who'd previously seen it (that's everyone except the 4 year old) lobbied to put the next story, The End of Time, on straight away.

First-time round:
Like me, my younger son, middle child, 6 years old, is a Summer baby, born between regular showings of Doctor Who, so he doesn’t properly have a ‘birth story’. As he was born in 2009 when there were longer than usual gaps between episodes this is not so surprising. The Waters of Mars was the first one shown after he was born, and he was only a few months old. I remember we put him down to sleep just before it started, and I kept everything crossed that he would stay abed for an hour so we could watch it uninterrupted. I didn’t get my wish, as I remember!

It was an apt story to be his first, as he was a very dribblesome child, with ropes of drool emanating from his mouth every minute of every day until he was a toddler. Sometimes, when learning to walk, he would stumble over, arms outstretched, zombie-like, to give one a saliva heavy smacker. So, he was known by the code name of ‘Waters of Mars’ for many a year in our house.

As has been noted before, Doctor Who fans don’t take too kindly to their show not being on the TV, even for a bit; protest songs have literally been written. Since the return of the show in 2005, there has been lots of monkeying about with scheduling, mid-season breaks, seasons splitting across years, and gaps with only the odd special shown. We’re more used to it these days, but when it was first done in 2009 it caused some worries in fandom. We’d had four full runs of 13 episodes plus Christmas specials, and they’d proved increasingly popular, year on year, culminating in the hoopla that surrounded the cliffhanger of Tennant seeming to regenerate, and much speculation about the next Doctor and The Next Doctor. For the first time ever, Doctor Who had been the number one rated show on television (for the finale of Tennant’s third series, Journey’s End), so of course they decided to take it off air.

It was spun and speculated on every which way, and it doesn’t matter why it happened now. But it did put pressure on the hour-long specials shown intermittently through that year to be, well, special. The preceding story, Planet of The Dead, was fun, but artificially disappointing as it was all the viewer was going to get for several months. I’ve wondered on rewatching it whether the opposite effect has happened with The Waters of Mars, and it is maybe overinflated in my esteem, just because of scarcity. But no, I’ve decided that’s bollocks – it’s good because it’s so bloody good.

This is a Doctor Who story mainly for adults, not because it’s scary but because it's too good for children! Adelaide Brooke's assertive confrontation with the Doctor, demanding to know her own future; her stoic acceptance of the same; the Doctor just watching as everything starts going to hell, then walking away. He just walks away! The ramifications of this superb drama may be lost on the children, but they still grasped it. "She has to die or the universe explodes" was how the eldest summarised it. And everyone enjoyed the flashes of future news articles; at the children's insistence, we replayed those bits and paused while they were on screen, so we could read what they said.

Tennant is astonishing in his penultimate regular Who gig. It's a truly star performance, but with lots of moments of subtlety too. From the point he goes rogue, and returns to the base, he has to sustain the mania for a very long time, a very big ask of any actor; Tennant pulls it off with aplomb.

Both stories take place on sparsely populated planets where most of the people on those planets finish up getting killed, and both end with the Doctor rescuing someone from this carnage against their will (alright, alright, maybe it’s only me reading that into the end of The Rescue…).

Deeper Thoughts:  
What is it that Ed can't be forgiven for? A bit of a generalisation, I know, but one borne out by years of experience: Doctor Who fans like facts. There are many Doctor Who historians and journalists who have researched every minute aspect of production, and have for almost as long as the show has been going; it must be in the running as one of the most examined things ever, not just one of the most examined television shows.

Though less focused on than the behind the scenes info, questions and theories about the fictional world of Who have also been thoroughly documented. This wasn't just a professional pursuit, either; when I was at school, I was often challenged by friends to explain plot inconsistencies in the Doctor Who stories of the day. I got quite adept at it, and it may have helped me develop a storywriting brain. Other fans took this a stage further: there is a cottage industry that started in the wilderness years after Doctor Who finished (for a while) in 1989, producing stories for novels and audios that tie all the loose bits of continuity up, sometimes in passing, and sometimes as their raison d'etre.

A brief web search backs up my doubt that there are any fan-fics out there explaining exactly what it is that Ed Gold and Adelaide did that upset each other so much. All through the story, the two characters have played (expertly and entertainingly, I might add) a spiky professional relationship, and with his dying breaths Ed says he hated the job because "You never gave me a chance; you never could forgive me." What can it mean? And it's not the only mystery either. What exactly happened after Adelaide's suicide in the altered timeline? How did anyone explain away the three crewmembers very rapid secret return to Earth? On freeze frame, we picked up some hints that reportage on the mysterious Doctor was given as an explanation for some of this.

Back to Ed. The problem between Adelaide and him still feels very raw, which suggests it is something that may have happened on the base; this leads to a possibly too obvious explanation. The way he phrases it, though, is all about the job not the colleague. It's intriguingly unknowable. Note: I didn't check the disc's special features, so perhaps RTD or Phil Ford are featured saying "Yeah, they were old lovers" or something equally prosaic, but I hope not: sometimes it's better not knowing everything. It's just another way Doctor Who provides exercise for the imagination.

In Summary:
Don't drink the water!

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Rescue

Chapter The 25th, wherein the Doctor visits an old destination and meets a new companion.

Still readjusting after the departure of Susan, the top TARDIS trio of the Doctor, Ian and Barbara arrive at a planet the Doctor has been to before. On his previous visit, the native population of Dido was small in number and peaceful in nature, but the one local the travellers meet this time, Koquillion, is anything but peaceful. What can have happened to change things?

A crash-landed Earth spaceship nearby contains the only two remaining members of its crew, the injured Bennett and an orphaned girl Vicki. It seems the Didonians lured the rest - including Vicki's father - to a gathering and blew them up. Koquillion claims he is keeping these last two humans safe from his people, but he has his own secret plan. The Doctor works it out and defeats Koquillion. Bennett is killed, leaving Vicki on her own. The Doctor invites her to join the crew of the TARDIS and promises her an abundance of adventure, which never remotely looked like it was desired given she has seemed on the verge of post-traumatic stress disorder throughout the two episodes. But she comes along anyway.

On the Sunday morning of a bank holiday weekend, the whole family watched both episodes on DVD, back to back. Middle child (boy of 6) complained as soon as the opening credits started that it was a "boring black and white one" but soon he, and the others (boy of 9, girl of 4) were watching rapt.  Unfortunately this only lasted until approximately 20 minutes in to each of the two 25 minute long episodes, whereupon they all got very restless. It was interesting though that they reset between episodes and started paying full attention again, still and silent. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but both episodes are very strong, but fall apart a bit at the end.

Episode 1, The Powerful Enemy, finishes with Ian getting caught by a traditional Saturday Morning Pictures peril creator, with blades pushing him towards the edge of a pit below inhabited by a nasty snarling creature. Given that no person pictured or referred to in the story has ever had motivation nor opportunity to build it, it does seem to have been plonked into the story as, well, a cliffhanger generator. The second part, Desperate Measures, is great while the surprises of the plot are revealed ("Saw it coming" said my elder son), but after that an ending turns up in a blinding burst of Deus Ex Machina to punish the bad, and free the good. Still, it's a good little story, and much better than the quota quickie to introduce the new girl that it could have been.

First-time round:
I saw this first when it came out on VHS in September 1994 in a double pack with subsequent story The Romans. I'd graduated from university earlier that year, had some fun in what I could still pretend was the long summer vac, but by September I was stuck back at home, temping and wondering what to do next with my life. I therefore had a bit of money to go and get this from Volume One on the day of release. My temp job was in town, but a little way out from Worthing's main shopping centre, and it would have been difficult to go and pick up a video in my lunch hour. I'd also have been a little shy bringing it back into the office for the second half of the day. So, I probably waited until the end of the day, or left it until the weekend.

I remember being surprised at how good The Rescue was on first viewing; it has a reputation as being somewhat disposable, and The Romans was the story selling the set. But the first few minutes in particular are superb with Hartnell's lovely moment as the Doctor forgets himself, starting to ask Susan to open the doors ("it's good, because he's sad" was elder son's verdict). Then there's the fun scene where the Doctor eavesdrops as Ian and Barbara muse on his potential senility.

If anything, it has improved further since that first watch. The story throws the audience in to proceedings when they are nicely bubbling away; the direction is good, with lots of nice close-ups of Maureen O'Brien as Vicki, and her performance is pretty good, running through lots of different emotional bits. The regulars are refreshed after the season break, and those early scenes still sparkle. There's something about a story where the  TARDIS arrives in some caves, and everyone goes off to explore, only to get split up, that fills me with joy. It's a little remiss, though, of Ian to leave Barbara on her own with Koquillion to get attacked.

The Rescue also finds time to innovate; it's the first story structured around the Doctor revisiting the setting of a prior unseen adventure, which has been reused many times since. The resolution of the plot, though it's probably a bit obvious, is still very successful. I can't remember whether it was ever a surprise to me; I think I'd been spoilered even before I first read the Target novelisation in the 80s, so I don't know if I'd have seen it coming.

Best of all is Hartnell and the writer's continuing evolution of the character of the Doctor. There's some wonderful physicality and directness: when Hartnell's Doctor is presented with a locked door, he doesn't reach for a sonic screwdriver but instead picks up a girder and smashes it down. And the scene where he confronts the killer, beginning with Hartnell in the foreground, not looking around, giving it the full "Come in, I've been expecting you" is marvellous. The character has fully assumed the lead as well as the title role of the series.

This is also the setting for another bit of character development that wasn't followed up: Barbara as brutal murderer, gunning down Vicki's pet Sand Beast. Although, as the adult one in the cliffhanger booby trap is clearly supposed to be a man-eater, maybe Vicki was deluding herself that she'd trained hers to eat plants, and Barbara saved her from an inevitable 'Grizzly Man' scenario.

Both this story and Horror of Fang Rock feature crashed ships and flare guns.

Deeper Thoughts:  
Afternoons, Coffee Spoons and Spine Quotes. J. Alfred Prufrock  and the Crash Test Dummies were a bit silly measuring their time in coffee spoons; weeks and months are clearly much better; also, Weeklies and Monthlies. The 500th issue of Doctor Who Magazine has just come out, which is an opportunity for nostalgia from its makers, and its readers. Like many, I can measure my life out in DWMs; and, to help in this process, an additional supplement given away with the main mag this month shows every cover from number 1 to the present. Flicking through, I realise that a theme of my journey is - amongst other more positive feelings -  embarrassment.

That's okay, though; a strong emotion like embarrassment is great for tracking memories. This is why I can remember the first ever issue of DWM I ever saw. Nowhere near me stocked the magazine at the time, but on my family's annual half-term shopping trip to the Carrefour in Eastleigh (we knew how to spend our holidays back then) I saw issue 62 in a newsstand on my way to the loo. I was on my own, so couldn't pester anyone to buy it for me, so I just stared at my beloved Tegan who was there in a tiny inset photo, while most of the cover showed TV's Peter "Davidson" and him off of On The Buses.

Once I got to the toilet, I found that the cubicle didn't have a lock, and my legs wouldn't stretch far enough to bar the door. But I had spent too long gazing at Tegan, and I was past the point of no return. I wasn't however fast enough going, and someone opened the door, revealing me with my trousers down to all and sundry, hence the embarrassment, hence the strong recollection. And, thanks to obsessive cataloguing and the internet, I can date this event precisely to Tuesday 23rd February 1982, the day of transmission of episode 4 of the story depicted on the DWM cover, The Visitation. We got caught in traffic driving home, and I missed finding out how the cliffhanger was resolved. For once, it being half-term, I didn't have cubs and yet I still didn't get to see two full episodes in a week. I was miffed.

It took another eight months for a shop near me to catch up with the hypermarkets of Eastleigh, and the first copy I bought and owned was issue 70 (cover: slightly soft portrait of Peter D). I bought it sporadically over the next few years until issue 117 (Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant in oh-so showbiz boaters and canes pose) when I managed to persuade a grown-up to add it to our delivery order at the local newsagent. That lasted until issue 133 (Slyv and Richard Briers gurning at one another) when I was instructed - embarrassment again - that if I wanted to keep reading a child's comic, I had to fund it myself. That put paid to things for a few years, and the next issue I got was 160 (artwork of Pertwee and Ice Warriors) which I skimmed through in Smiths, realising that the content was much improved, and was covering the video releases that I was starting to collect.

I caught up on a lot of back issues by ordering them from John Fitton - a company also nostalgically remembered by Jonathan Morris in the current issue - but I still dipped in and out as income would allow until issue 236 (Paul McGann holding a paperweight) and from then on I have every issue and all the specials. Things came full circle embarrassment-wise with issue 318 (cross-dressing Sontaran); the intensity of the attractive girl behind the counter at Borders' amusement at the cover was matched only by the beetroot red colour I went. Since then, I have subscribed.

In Summary:
There's nowt wrong with a quickie every so often.