Sunday, 24 July 2016

Pyramids of Mars

Chapter The 28th, one where Tom's really putting the effort in, now.

In Von Daniken style-ee, the ancient gods of Egypt turn out to be very powerful aliens; during a big war, the main nice one Horus defeated the main nasty one Sutekh, but had moral qualms about actually killing him. So, he imprisoned Sutekh instead in a pyramid in Egypt, somehow kept immobile and controlled by a power source on Mars, the Eye of Horus. Not literally his eye, of course, that would be hideous.

In 1911, archaeologist Marcus Scarman stumbles into Sutekh's hiding place and becomes controlled by him. Somehow, an ancient society of Sutekh worshippers exists in Cairo and somehow they have lots of useful equipment like robot mummies and bomb parts. Somehow all this equipment is transported to Scarman's estate in England, including a sarcophagus that's really a disguised portal into a time-space tunnel. Scarman arrives from Egypt through this portal, puts a forcefield around the house, and then kills every person in the grounds bar two: the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith, who have been dragged there off course on route to UNIT HQ. Somehow.

The Doctor winds up being taken over by Sutekh too, and takes Scarman, Sarah and a couple of mummies to Mars. Somehow Sutekh neglects to kill either of the time travellers once there, so they are witness to the destruction of the Eye of Horus. They race back to Scarman's house to monkey about with the time tunnel and this kills Sutekh. They are in a great hurry as they only have the time it takes for the signal to reach from Mars to Earth to implement their plan. Although they do have a time machine, so, they could have taken it more leisurely. Also, it was lucky Sutekh, once freed, travelled by the time tunnel rather than start his reign of destruction in Cairo. He should have thought of that really, the silly god.

Watched the DVD, an episode every so often over the course of about a week. It was just me and the Better Half as the kids were not interested, though middle child (boy of 6) wandered in at one dramatic point and said "dun-dun-dahhhnn!!!!" without any hint of sarcasm.

First-time round:
This was an exciting one; it was late Summer 1987, not yet six years on from when I'd first discovered Doctor Who; the show was still on TV, with a new Doctor, Slyvester McCoy, to debut soon. As the incumbent at the dawn of the affordable Doctor Who video age, Slyv was the first who had to contend with such direct competition from older Doctors for fan's affections. Videos of early stories had begun to be available to buy from 1983, but they were very expensive. By late 1986, they started to re-release those early titles at £9.99. The family had got a VCR for Christmas 1985 (I taped Minder on the Orient Express and watched Only Fools and Horses' To Hull and Back live, in case you were interested). Everything was aligned for my addiction to collecting Who - an addiction still alive today - to be enabled.

In those early days, though, it was not a case of rushing somewhere to snap it up on the day of release. Distribution, just as with Doctor Who Magazine, was hit and miss. My school friend and fellow fan Dominic had a source. He'd bought Revenge of the Cybermen, the first ever title, for himself from a shop near where he lived, and had then sold it to me second-hand a little while after, deciding he'd watched it enough. Before that, I'd found The Seeds of Death in a WHSmiths when I was staying at my Dad's. Unlike Dominic, I did not find (still have not found) the point where I have "watched enough". I must have viewed and reviewed those two tapes so many times in those first few months of owning them. One day in the Summer holidays, Dominic contacted me breathless with news: there was a new video in the shop near him: Pyramids of Mars. Did I want him to buy it for me? I did, I did, I did.

The videos in those days were edited together to remove all the beginning and end credits of the middle episodes, plus scenes that might offend like the Doctor measuring things with his scarf and doing some mental calculations. There were indeed some odd cuts in that original edited version, but I watched it so much, and so happily, it became for me the default. The unedited version was released on tape in 1994. A long time ago, but even now seeing a section that wasn't part of that original experience, it still leaps out at me.

Pyramids of Mars is one of those stories that have been held in very high esteem by fandom for longer than I've been a fan, so it's very hard to watch without prejudice - especially when memories of those heady enthusiastic days I first got to own and replay this story clearly still colour my enjoyment to this day. This time, I tried to watch with a critical eye.

The plot, as a cursory examination of the synopsis above will show you, is illogical and convoluted. Does it matter? The writing has to jump through lots of hoops to justify why the action is happening in a priory house in Edwardian England, rather than in Cairo. Yes, it's fun, and in keeping with some films of the 'Mummy's curse' genre, to have the horrors following the archaeological adventurers into the incongruous world of stately homes and poachers. Plus, the Beeb is better at doing fusty English drawing rooms than it would be doing pyramids and Egyptian bazaars in TC3. Unfortunately, the resolution of the drama is inextricably linked to the mechanism of travelling between the two locales, which makes it more difficult to forgive.

Many Doctor Who stories - hell, many of any kind of stories - have been built on shakier ground than this, though, and for the first three episodes the story just whizzes by with one visually impressive scene after another. I doubt anyone at the time would have been wondering about why, when and where any of these events are occurring; instead they'd have been too busy being impressed by the design of the Mummies, who - with their sunken eyes and bulbous chest units - are striking and memorable. Watching the scenes as they stalk various characters through the woodland grounds is very exciting. Add to that, explosions that go backwards, and cobwebbed rooms with sarcophagi shuddering as they open behind unsuspecting servants, and you get a great dramatic experience.

It's not deep enough, perhaps. The producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script-editor Robert Holmes now responsible for the show had started to make their mark; inheriting a few scripts from their predecessors' reign, the first year they produced for Tom Baker still has vestiges of the socially and politically conscious themes that were common in Jon Pertwee's time. But by Pyramids they've dispensed with such themes in favour of all-out horror-inflected adventures.

There is some depth provided at a character level, though. Pyramids is very like a modern story, not just in terms of the pace in getting our heroes involved, but also in its focus on the character of the Doctor.  Repeatedly, we are dramatically reminded that the Doctor is not human, to the point where – inadvertently or not – it becomes a theme of the story.  Michael Sheard’s wonderful performance as Laurence Scarman is a polar counterpoint to the other scientist adventurer in the cast: he’s meek, optimistic, open, smiling, worried about his brother, in contrast to the Doctor’s brooding, doomy and brusque characterisation and his concentration on the wider issues beyond the personal.

Arguably, Sutekh is just like the Doctor, but pushed to the extreme end of the spectrum: he’s the extreme example of the dark alien whose overriding aim is more important to him than human life. All this thematic stuff comes to a head with Laurence’s death and the Doctor and Sarah's discovery of his body, the best scene in the story and one of the best scenes in Doctor Who: "Sometimes you don't seem -" "Human?". The problem is that Laurence dies before the end of episode 3. This leaves the final episode to fall flat, just a traipse through some booby-traps - fun, and in keeping with the genre, sure, but nothing like as good as the rest. A shame, because otherwise this would be a perfect story to begin Baker's peak period.

Both stories include a break-in to a burial chamber and funereal accoutrements that may be more than they seem.

Deeper Thoughts:  

Would the Doctor be ‘no-platformed’ in a UK university right now? Recent events across the globe are highlighting that identity politics are an ever stronger motivator of people’s decisions. Alongside this, increased care has become required in any discussions that touch on an individual’s identity, whether that be their nationality, culture, gender, or whatever. There’s greater and greater consciousness that one’s group identity should be protected in some way from those outside of that grouping. Discussions can get quite heated, particularly on the internet, and sensitivity shouldn’t be ever seen as a bad thing; but, where should the line be drawn? And should artistic endeavours be exempt from any such scrutiny?

If it’s taboo to wear a plastic sombrero when you’ve been to a Mexican restaurant, then it’s obviously unforgivable to make up a Caucasian actor to play a Chinese magician (as happens in 1976’s The Talons of Weng Chiang)? Or is it? Offensive as ‘blacking’ or ‘yellowing up’ may be, some actors have recently defended this, based on the freedom that no thespian should be prevented from playing any part, regardless of any aspect of that role; because that’s what acting is. Whether one agrees with this or not, it is fairly easy to see that hurt could be caused to some members of an audience to see their identity reduced to a funny accent and a particular hue of slap.

Less clear cut though, is the identity (and therefore the possibility of protected status) of the works themselves. Artists and dramatists don’t come along fully-formed, and have always developed through imitation of existing art, at least at first; so, where does the process of artistic inspiration by assimilation end, and cultural appropriation begin?  Can any particular identity group claim ownership of a story or a genre? That ship may have already sailed; if rock n’ roll came along as a new phenomenon now, white men would probably not be allowed to sing the blues, or at least they wouldn’t be able to play the university circuit if they did. But my enquiry is searching for a relevant morality for now, so dismissing this as something you could get away with in times past does not help.

Pyramids of Mars comes from a period of Doctor Who where the producer and script-editor were (very successfully, and inspiring great popularity in the resultant product) sampling. It wasn’t the first or last time this would happen on Doctor Who, but it may have been the most full-blooded attempt. Should they have thought twice, and considered the morality of borrowing so heavily from Universal monster movies, amongst other sources?

And where did the tropes from those movies come from? Tracing it back, a lot of them come from fairy stories and folk tales that grew through retelling amongst communities. Those stories are known to us now because individuals from outside those communities collated them, tweaked them, published them and made some money off the back of it. If we had always carried the protectionism of cultural identity too far, we would never have had the monster stories evolving from that root, only the purist original. In other words, there would be no Doctor Who. So, dare I say it: wear your plastic sombrero with pride – identity is important, of course; but we can only learn and grow if aspects of our identities are shared.

In Summary:
3 parts Mummy, 1 part musty.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Revelation of the Daleks

Chapter The 27th, The relatively well-Loved One.

Davros has taken over a tacky funeral parlour cum cryogenic storage unit, where he runs a nice little earner turning half the residents into Soylent Green and the other half into a new breed of Daleks. He tricks the Doctor into visiting to play a practical joke on him (no, really). All at the same time, a disgruntled relative of one of the departed along with her drunk pal break in to investigate, a mercenary and his squire arrive to kill Davros on the orders of Davros's mutinous business partner, and the President of an unspecified area of the locale is coming to see his dead wife lying in state. Everything collides together at the end with explosions and killing, and then the Dukes of Machina, the old Daleks, turn up and cart Davros off to their equivalent of the Chilcot enquiry. Alexei Sayle, Clive Swift and the girl from Upstairs Downstairs are also in it, but it's hard to say exactly what their characters contribute.

Me and the kids watched over a couple of nights on DVD with the alternate CGI effects switched on, as they are pretty unobtrusive and make one moment a little clearer. The Better Half sat out episode 1, but joined us for the start of the second part. I gave the eldest child (boy, aged 10) the challenge to summarise to his mother where the story had got to, as I didn't know where to start; he just said "A statue fell on him" and left it at that. Collective attention was not held by episode 2 and all drifted off leaving me on my own; the Better Half caught the end, though, and tutted at the Doctor shooting guns, then was intrigued by Orcini ruffling the dead Bostock's hair, and surprised by an odd shot just after where Orcini hauls Bostock's body along the floor with him. I quote: "It looks like he's humping him". Evidence of JNT's gay agenda, probably.

First-time round:
I saw these episodes on their first BBC1 broadcast in 1985, and - though I don't remember it as such - it must have been in the shadow of then recent cancellation / hiatus crisis. I was stumbling towards being a teenager, and was often out with friends on Saturday afternoons, not necessarily keeping an avid eye on the clock anymore, so I missed a few episodes from Colin Baker's first full season. At around the time of Revelation's broadcast, I'd read a letter in Doctor Who Magazine by someone criticising the stories of the year so far, but holding out hope for the Dalek finale. The correspondent criticised the Mark of the Rani's fake plastic trees, but they are in episode 2, which I missed. I remember being annoyed by this letter; I thought it had been a great year up to that point. But perhaps I just managed to miss all the bad bits. When it came to the final story of the season, I also really enjoyed it, and didn't think this was a programme that needed to be taken off the air, even if only for 18 months. But I was young.

To research this blog post, I read the novella that Revelation of the Daleks is pastiching, Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. (Well, no, of course I didn't - life's too short; it should be one of the test questions in a Cosmo Quiz style 'How Insane a Fan Are you?' questionnaire  - have you read the not-exactly-set-text curios The Loved One or The Prisoner of Zenda just because they were used as the inspiration for Doctor Who adventures?) What cursory research shows me is that The Loved One is eschatological in intention. Coming as it did at a crisis point behind the scenes of Doctor Who, Revelation of the Daleks similarly has a feeling of the end of times. It was written on a Greek island, like its namesake by St John the Divine, the season finale of that other popular series The Bible. The fates were clearly pointing in an apocalyptic direction. Seemingly, writer and script editor Eric Saward has had enough of Doctor Who, and wants to destroy it and create it anew.

The other prominent influence on Revelation of the Daleks is The Caves of Androzani, a very successful story from the previous year, which provided the new shape into which the script editor wanted to hammer the show. In both stories, the Doctor arrives in a brutal, cynical world, where a disparate bunch of mostly venal self-serving characters are coming to the point where years of backstory are going to blow up in their face, leaving most of them dead. There’s a superfluity of double-acts, and - while he can’t match the earlier story’s mordant wit - Saward leavens the grimness with dashes of camp humour.

The author of Caves, Robert Holmes, is a better writer than Saward (as I think Eric would be first to admit) and he ensures his story has a simple plot through-line, a single- minded purpose (the Doctor and Peri are dying and he needs to find them a cure) around which the machinations of the different characters collide. Revelation of the Daleks has no such coherence; the Doctor does not instigate the events we witness; in fact, no one does – the subplots we see are all happening simultaneously by coincidence. It feels like the imminent presidential visit should have been used as the catalyst, but in the final version that subplot could be removed and make no difference. In fact, a lot of the characters can similarly be lifted out, and it wouldn’t change the resolution, including – unforgivably – the Doctor and Peri.

Make no mistake, the protagonist of Revelation of The Daleks is not the Doctor; this is instead the story of Orcini, a once noble warrior, now a gun for hire. And the story is mainly of how he walked to the place where he had a job to do, then did the job, semi-successfully, at the cost of his life. The Doctor is just briefly an assistant to Orcini, having spent most of his time similarly walking to where the action is (if everyone had parked nearer, the story could have been over in a quarter of the time). Saward’s unhappiness at Colin Baker’s casting is well documented, but that is no excuse for sidelining the character people are tuning in to watch. What also sticks in the craw is how various characters talk up how great Orcini is, even Davros: yeah, he’s a knight of the order of thingummy-doo-dah, but the Doctor’s a Lord of Time.

I want so much to like it: I like Colin and his portrayal, and this tends to be his most popular story in polls. I have good memories of watching it first time round, and it does have some wonderful moments: the scene where Natasha’s father turns into a Dalek before her eyes, begging her to kill him, is highly praised, and rightly so. And, where everyone’s favourite charming interviewee Clive Swift overplays it, if you want a masterclass in camp acting, Hugh Walters’s memorable turn is the one to watch. Full disclosure: he was the Better Half’s acting tutor for a while, but there’s no bias. Just see that final sad look he gives Kara as he dies, it’s excellent. Elsewhere, though, there’s inappropriate violence, references to alcoholism, maybe even necrophilia. One hates to agree with the architects of the hiatus, but maybe it was time for a rethink.

Both stories contain a levitating Dalek, mutated humans with nasty looking faces, and a comedy robot (if you count Davros's rotating head as a comedy robot, and I do).

Deeper Thoughts:  
There is artron energy in a union. Doctor Who stories don't often dwell on where the money comes from to build an evil empire; Daleks usually rely on slave labour, not as any kind of script comment on slave labour, just to explain it away so we can all get on with an action adventure, and there's nothing wrong with that. But Revelation dwells on the political and economic twists that Davros has gone through to build up his new breed of Daleks. Like everything in this story, it's not very well integrated, nor properly developed, but it does make an interesting change. In his debut, Davros is something of a political animal, but Saward is the first to develop this further, just one example of an ongoing effort on behalf of all the creators and writers of Doctor Who to address real world concerns within its narrative. Even Saward.

Recent seismic political events in my birthplace and home have given me pause for sombre reflection. I have always believed any union of like-minded persons or countries is worth fighting for, though as with any joint enterprise there will always have to be compromises. We learn and grow in relationships with others, and the more diverse a range of other people we interact with, the better and further we progress. Consequently, I have never trusted any cult of individuality from whichever political wing it has emerged. Have so many years of exposure to Doctor Who contributed to this credo?

Because of its structure, Doctor Who can suggest that solutions mainly come from a lone charismatic individual, a figure that has consciously rejected the wider society he was born into, and continues to resist conformity and convention. At a superficial level, this could place the Doctor as one who wants to claim sovereignty of his own little patch. Does he like to be the one in charge at all costs? Well, great swathes of the show’s stories (including the whole season in 2014) have dwelt on that question, but it’s always been a battle within him, that mirrors a fundamental choice within all of us: control versus cooperation, loneliness versus community. And from the start, he’s never been an isolationist, nor has he ever got on well with those with a dislike of the unlike. His rejection of his own society was balanced with a passion to explore and help every society to which he journeyed. He’s no Little Gallifreyer.

The original series starts with “Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe” and ends with “if we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals”. All the way through, the Doctor has never worked alone, and indeed he spent a long time working for the United Nations. He’s never held back from criticising institutions, but neither has he rejected them. He’s no lone (bad) wolf. In the new series, this is even more pronounced: it is returned to repeatedly that when the Doctor is working alone, it never ends well. He needs a team around him, as much as they need him.

The Jon Pertwee story The Curse of Peladon, of course, directly referenced the United Kingdom’s entry into a union with Europe; it was used less as an allegory than just as a springboard idea, but Peladon still joins the union in the end. I can’t think of any examples which would align to a leave scenario, though there’s certainly many revolutions against the status quo and a lot of criticism of bureaucracy; I’m sure someone could make a case for it, if they were that way inclined. This is a comfort in a way; even as we enter a long period of uncertainty, something like Doctor Who (and many other much more highbrow examples in the lively arts, of course) contain multitudes. Stories can help us make sense of the world, which right now feels more vital than ever.

In Summary:
It's not the apocalypse, it's just a very naughty story.