Friday, 19 August 2016

Amy's Choice

Chapter The 30th, which involves seeing two old friends again.

The Doctor drops in to visit Amy and Rory in Upper Leadworth, some years after their travels with him: Amy is pregnant, Rory has become a doctor, and they are settled in a domestic life. Then, they fall asleep and dream they are back in the TARDIS freezing to death because of some space gubbins. Then, they fall asleep again there, and dream they're again in Upper Leadworth. Which is being overrun by an invasion of the (vicious alien) OAPs. It goes back and forth like this for what seems like the half-life of a cold star. A slippery sprite called the Dream Lord, played by Toby Jones, appears and challenges them to work out which is the dream and which is reality, or they'll die. But really the choice is Amy's and it's between a safe life with Rory, or a dangerous one with the Doctor. They avoid being clobbered by this over-pronounced subtext, or either of the other two dangers, work out both scenarios are dreams, and wake-up in reality. Amy decides she loves Rory, but she's also going to keep travelling with the Doctor, dragging Rory along with them. So, she didn't really make a choice at all, did she?!

I watched this via Netflix, as I was too tired to get the blu-ray down off a shelf - we'll get to why in a bit. I was accompanied by two of the kids (boy of 6, girl of 4) as well as two of my (and my Better Half's) best and oldest friends, Alex and Rachel. Alex is my oldest friend, in fact - I met him at around the same time as I first watched Doctor Who, when I was nine years old, and Alex joined my class at Durrington Middle School. As I remember, we first bonded over a shared reluctance to partake in PE. By January 1982 and Peter Davison's debut series, our shared interests included TV's most famous Gallifreyan. Alex has never been quite as obsessive about Doctor Who as me, but he's not far off! He and I both went to the 20th anniversary celebrations at Longleat House in 1983 (Classic Who's version of Woodstock), but on different days, alas, so we didn't meet up.

Rachel is one of the few poor souls I've been foolish enough to try and convert. She was a contemporary of my Better Half, and was friends with her first; when we became friends, I tried a few old stories out on her, but to no avail. When she and Alex started going out, he did similar. In the end, it took a man better than both of us to make Rachel interested in Doctor Who: David Tennant. Since the Tenth's debut, a marked upswing in interest has been recorded; who would credit it? And since then, we've had a number of Saturday evenings when A & R have come to stay, when there's been a new episode on offer from the BBC.  This was the case back in 2010, when a visit coincided with the broadcast of Amy's Choice.

First-time round:
It would have been late in the evening, with the episode timeshifted from its broadcast time using the PVR. The two boys were still a bit too young to watch alongside us, so we'd have put them to bed first. And the purpose of the evening - even for me - was not primarily Who. Alex and Rachel still have lots of family down our way, but they don't live nearby any more, so the purpose for all of us of any evening they stay over is catching up. And alcohol. And food. In a rotating order of preference. So it came to pass that the first time I watched Amy's Choice, I'd had a little too much wine and kept almost nodding off. You'd think this would enhance it, given the premise, but I remember thinking at the time it fell a little flat. Then, we went back to chatting and drinking.

My intended experiment this time was to recreate the circumstances as accurately as possible, six years later, i.e. to watch it on Saturday evening when pissed. But the night was so pleasant, and the catching up seemed much more enjoyable that we stayed in the garden and drank and talked under the stars. This didn't mean that I didn't have a little too much wine and nod off again however. We instead watched on Sunday morning; me with a medium-level hangover that precluded even getting discs down from high shelves, so some echo of the 'chemical memory' of the first time round remained.

Towards the end of the pre-credits sequence, there's a long shot where the camera circles woozily around the three leads, during which I advise anyone with a hangover to shut their eyes. But I regained my balance during the title sequence, and watched the rest of the story while acutely (painfully) sober. And it fell a little flat. Neither Alex or Rachel, by the way, could even remember that they'd watched this particular story at ours, nor could they recall much of the plot. Having rewatched, I think we have to consider that this is the fault of the story itself, not us, nor the wine. Amy's Choice itself is a bit forgettable. But why?

Toby Jones is fantastic, and has some great one liners which he delivers with aplomb. There are lovely ideas and visuals in play; for example, the cold star that the TARDIS orbits, leaving the console room and its inhabitants covered in frost ("they're all frozen" said my youngest, girl of 4, appreciatively - she likes anything icy because of subliminal connections to Disney's Frozen). The central premise of a group of care home oldies being secret hosts of nasty aliens is great. Or maybe it just resonates at the moment, the middle-aged and young being terrorised by a group of aged baby boomers who only care about their own survival... little bit of politics there, ladies and gentlemen.

As I often do with stories from Matt Smith's first couple of years, I wonder whether this would be better with a less incomprehensible central companion character portrayed by a more experienced actress. Amy's name is right there in the story's title, it's about her. But Amy is sci-fi construct of time cracks sucking in missing members of her family, who has been unable to get past the trauma of meeting the Doctor when she was young. It's difficult to get one's head around what's supposed to make her tick, and it would take a very good actress indeed to make her compelling.

But in Amy's Choice, I don't think any actress could have lifted it. The issue is the story's structure, going back and forth between two dreams - it's all on one level, and there's no room for any drama to build. It doesn't work on a metaphorical level either - the choice should be between a stable but mundane life versus fantastic adventures (a juxtaposition which would be more successfully presented in the later Amy and Rory story The Power of Three). Here, though, both scenarios include sci-fi dangers, which makes them almost indistinguishable, and dilutes the overall concept. The final revelation of the Dream Lord's true nature, which might have provided a dramatic high point, is rushed to the point of being thrown away. And the explanation of what has caused the dream state ('psychic pollen') is as silly or sensible as either of the dreams too. Perhaps they're still sleeping?

One historic introduction in this episode that does need to be noted is that this marks the first time Rory dies in the series; the first of many. He isn't quite the "Oh my God, they killed" Kenny of Doctor Who, but he comes closest of anyone. 

Matt Smith is very like Patrick Troughton in his approach to the role. Like in Fury from the Deep, the Doctor in this story has two companions, one boy, one girl, the latter having a big decision to make. In both, a group of humans are controlled by green monsters that emit gas.

Deeper Thoughts: 
It was all a reset. It's storytelling 101; you're never allowed (after the age of seven, say) to write an ending where it all turns out to be a dream. Charles Dodgson nailed it when he wrote such an ending, long ago, so it's now verboten. Doesn't stop people trying, though. I can only think of one story in the main body of twentieth century Doctor Who (The Mind Robber) that did this, and even there the jury's still out - it could have all been real, and it's left up to the viewer to decide. Post 1989, though, and this particular ending has endured through mutating into the 'reset switch': due to some time shenanigans, things are reverted to normal and nobody (except maybe the protagonists) remember.

Doctor Who (The TV Movie) rewinds time to save the day, kicking off the trend. Then, the next biggie is The Last of the Timelords, where an entire year of the Master's evil reign is reversed. It's perhaps almost forgivable, as it was only possible for all the carnage to happen because time had been put out of whack in the first place, with the future destroying the past. Plus, the main cast remember and are scarred by the events they've witnessed.

When Matt Smith arrives, though, it goes crazy - in his first year, there's the time crack that eats up and erases anything a bit rubbish (The Cyber King, everyone on Earth being familiar with Daleks, etc.) from years before. At the end of that year, Moffat restarts the universe, so everything before the Christmas special in 2010 didn't happen. The following story, we find out that the Doctor definitely definitely died at Lake Silencio - and he definitely does die, then he doesn't, then he does, then he doesn't. And time gets scrambled, and that entire year has also been of no consequence, really. Aside: I'll try to remember to talk more about this when I get to The Wedding of River Song, but if none of that story actually happened, then when exactly does Amy recall the "aborted time line in a world that never was" in order to talk to River about it later? Surely she should remember in The Curse of the Black Spot, the next story on chronologically. But that wouldn't make any sense, would it?!

The biggest deal of all was The Day of the Doctor, which rewrites the time war with a happy ending.   In a new mutation of this style, the Doctor still remembers it the old, sad way, but still: this was rewriting the cornerstone of the show's backstory since 2005. It's such a fun celebratory story that maybe it didn't fully register with me first time round, but it could be seen to be a deliberate erasing by Moffat of everything contributed by his illustrious predecessor. Mister Moffat himself has mused in an interview recently whether Russell T Davies is upset with him for flicking that particular reset switch. Quel dommage!

In Summary:
Stuart's Choice - wine and old friends win over this particular story, every time. (Of course, like Amy, in the end I get to have both.)

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Fury from the Deep

Chapter The 29th, which has reconstructed visuals but still some unreconstructed attitudes.

The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria never land anywhere nice. Often it’s a cold beach somewhere, as in this case. They even managed to find a cold beach in Australia a couple of stories ago, but this one’s even worse, as it contains sentient seaweed that will… well, not kill you, but make you talk in a drama-school ‘hypnotised’ voice and stare impassively into the middle distance. Vicious.

Anyway, the weed feeds on gas, and has taken over a nearby refinery and complex of rigs in this near-future England. The TARDIS team investigate for simply ages, even though it’s screamingly obvious (pun intended) what will defeat the weed creature: Victoria’s frightened yelping always makes it retreat. Once they use that in an amplified lash-up, the creature is destroyed, the day is saved, everybody lives and everyone’s happy. Except Victoria, who is finally tired of all the foam and smoke and bases run by officious people who have mental breakdowns, week in, week out, and decides to stay on Earth with a wife-swapping couple who have indecent plans for her (note: this last part is my interpretation only).

I wanted to watch the best possible representation of Fury from the Deep available, which meant it wouldn’t be an official product. Every one of the six episodes of this story is missing from the BBC archives as either a video master or film copy. Only the audio of the story is retained. Though Doctor Who DVDs and videos have been released that patch up single or double episode holes with animation or edited stills and clips, this hasn’t been done for stories missing in their entirety. All these missing stories were released on CD with narration, and they did try just one on an MP3 CD which synced up still images too, but it clearly didn’t sell well enough. It fell to the not-for-profit fan market to provide longer reconstructions (or recons). Fan collectives would make them and distribute them via blank tapes provided. I never sent off for one, but watched a few that other people had got. They were quite hard going, but very inventive.

Now, all this may seem like an infringement of copyright, but it is worth noting that the BBC wouldn’t have the audio at all if not for fans infringing copyright in the first place by recording it off air – that’s the only reason they can exploit these stories commercially in any format. It seems churlish not to give creative fans the chance to recreate the visuals to marry to those soundtracks and make them available for other less-creative fans like me to enjoy (which now can be done over the web rather than bothering with video tapes).

Clearly the most famous short video streaming site out there disagrees; the trouble is, they don’t disagree consistently. So, one can be watching episode 1 happily, but find that the first half of episode 2 has been taken down for copyright reasons. And some fans who have uploaded everything in a collection so all the individual video files play in order, have mixed and matched different versions. These can vary wildly: there are recons out there which have been edited together and given top and tail credits with David Tennant’s theme tune; there are also many animations, including some in a rudimentary “Captain Pugwash” style. It’s all wonderful, but switching from one to another mid-story can be somewhat disconcerting. In the end, I had to turn to the second most popular short video streaming site who don’t seem to care at all about copyright!

I was trying to find a recon which had decent visuals, including the few existing Fury clips, married to the commercial soundtrack with Frazer Hines’s narration (not Tom Baker’s – see below); in the end, the only contiguous and consistent online experience I could find was the one made by the most famous recon creators, Loose Cannon. No narration, but action described by scrolling text, and some nice subtle touches – flickering monitors, flashing lights, animated foam and tendrils – which make things more dynamic.

All the chopping and changing shenanigans would have put off the Better Half and the kids completely, had they not been uninterested in watching a “slide show” to begin with; so, I watched this one alone when everyone else was asleep or otherwise occupied – it was like being back in the Sylvester McCoy years in my childhood home all over again.

First-time round:
In the early nineties, when some of the aforementioned fan-made recordings had been discovered and returned to the BBC, these missing stories started to be released on cassette tape (for younger readers - this was a medium for storing audio that was invented just after people stopped banging rocks together for entertainment). The visual bits were bridged with narration, always performed by an actor who had played a later Doctor, and structured as the retelling of an old adventure – this narration varied from being obtrusive to absurdly, floridly obtrusive.

As was not uncommon with Who product in those days, the distribution of these cassettes was patchy; they certainly did not stock every title available in my usual purchasing place, Volume One in Worthing. Fury from the Deep I found unexpectedly, not even knowing it was out, nor even that it could be out. I spotted it in Newcastle on a shopping trip during term-time while at university in nearby Durham.

Unlike the videos back then, these stories didn’t lure many fellow students to communal watching. But my good friend Phil did sit in as I listened for the first time back in my room. He is an opera and classical music fan, and was very sniffy about the audio quality, which was worse - he said - than some orchestral performances he had on CD that had been recorded in the 1920s. I didn’t know about the home-made nature of things at that point in order to counter, and anyway I was more perturbed by the performance of Tom Baker doing the links, which was ripe as an old Stilton.

“An interesting thing happened at my day job this week; our manager - he’s a character - was really doing my head in over the Impeller project. We’ve also got this external consultant in, and he and my manager disagree about everything, they have some right ding-dongs. The consultant keeps wanting to put the project on hold, but my manager won’t hear of it. Technically, only the manager has any real authority, although the board might be influenced by the consultant; they brought him in after all. Then, yesterday, they both turned into hypnotised alien vegetable monsters…”
The trouble with a rambling anecdote, and I love a rambling anecdote, is that the journey has to be as interesting as the destination, unless you’re deliberately playing with your audience and making them wait, which is a dangerous approach that can easily backfire (ask anyone whom I've ever told an anecdote). Fury from the Deep has a slow, slow start – it only really gets going in episode 4 of 6. The early episodes have the odd moment of creepy horror, but mostly they are taken up by workplace bickering. Unless you work in the same place, anecdotes about a job are usually dull. I fully expect anyone unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of one of my tirades about my day job to glaze over immediately, so why should the audience hearing all about Euro Sea Gas’s issues be any different?

Certainly, there are workplace-set programmes, ‘precinct dramas’ as they are sometimes known, and one could easily see a macho Sixties series set in a world similar to that depicted in Fury from the Deep. It’s not that these scenes aren’t done with verisimilitude, depicting characters you can recognise (although it’s a little shrill and histrionic for my taste); but, for heaven’s sake, the thing that’s blocking the pipes is a bloody sea monster: why dwell so much on the corporate governance procedures of going and dealing with it?
It’s also a problem because this set up has been recycled in Patrick Troughton’s era too many times now: base with varied but mostly male crew – check; focus on an aspect of their work that’s just a tiny bit more advanced that in our current time – check; base comes under siege by nasties – check; stubborn authority figure gets aggressive under pressure – check. It’s the Pedlar effect: since Kit Pedlar became scientific adviser to the show, this was found as a useful structure to showcase the ideas he was being asked to bring to the show; so, it rapidly became the template. By the time of Fury from the Deep, it was ubiquitous. The preceding and the next story fit this template, as does almost all the season. It was well past time to give it a rest.
Not only does the plot meander in the early episodes, the weed creature does as well. As good as the scenes are of Oak and Quill scheming away in the control room background, I’m not sure their actions add up to a coherent plan. Maggie walking into the sea as Robson stares on impassively is a memorable episode end, but why exactly does she go off to the rigs at all, let alone by that route – why couldn’t she also commandeer a helicopter, or a boat at least? Does the seaweed somehow breathe for her underwater?
Once it gets going, it’s a fine action adventure with an added dash of poignancy provided by the scenes of Victoria getting tired of her travels, and Jamie trying to persuade her not to leave. Megan Jones is a good character too – a capable woman, and a figure of authority with common sense; it might not seem that outstanding, but this was very rare for Doctor Who at the time! It's a shame that the other female characters revert to the stereotypes of getting into peril and needing to be rescued.

Both stories are infected with horror tropes and heavily involve alien possession of human beings.

Deeper Thoughts: 
A Victoria Departure. There were some criticisms of a scene in Rose, Russell T Davies’s much heralded comeback episode of Doctor Who in 2005. Rose’s boyfriend has been replaced by a living plastic facsimile and she doesn’t notice, though many in the audience that were vocal at the time thought she was clearly savvy enough, and should have. RTD’s response to this, and I’m paraphrasing, was that Rose doesn’t know what genre of story she’s in. In normal life, however smart one is, one doesn’t expect and therefore isn’t on the lookout for one’s significant other turning into a life-sized Action Man doll.
This is the challenge of one of the key story engines driving Doctor Who, the gap between everyday life (represented by the companion) and wonder (represented by the Doctor, and the places to which he travels). The right balance is clearly very tricky to achieve. Victoria, in Fury from the Deep, finally twigs what genre of story she’s in. This is not a romance serial where she’ll end up married to a boy who fought at Culloden; she’s in a scary sci-fi adventure series and it’s never going to stop. Realistically, of course, she likely would have had this epiphany sometime after her dad was brutally murdered by Nazi pepperpots; by Fury from the Deep she’d have become a drooling basket-case. Interestingly, the story Rose makes this point: the real Mickey is not companion material by the end, as he’s – like most of us would be – in shock, rather than being heroic and spouting one-liners at the monsters.
So, 100% realism is not the answer. The companion represents ‘us’ in Doctor Who, but it’s us at our best. Too far the other way, though, and the audience identification figure can become too unlike the audience, taking everything in their stride. Just like Jamie by the time of Fury from the Deep, in fact; but the actor’s charm in his performance glides you past that – beside, the scripts and Jamie himself never question whether he should carry on, so it’s never highlighted. At the start, with Ian and Barbara, the companions were arguably the lead roles, let alone joint-lead. This was replicated in the re-pilot too: at the end of 2005, Doctor Who had survived a change of Doctor, but it might not have survived losing Billie Piper.
As such, an ending like Victoria’s where she’s just had enough is rare, because too much of that and you undermine the concept of the show. It’s even rarer since 2005, as the way they’ve rationalised the balance between everyday and wonder is by highlighting how special the life with the Doctor is, and how only a few are good enough to deserve it. I like lists, so I did a little unscientific survey of the reasons for the companions leaving, to illustrate. The results are as follows: 9 companions developed a sudden strong interest in a person, interest, cause, etc. never previously mentioned (marrying off, the classic series’ most popular approach); 8 were forced to leave by circumstances such as time lords, memory loss, time lords and memory loss, etc. (this is the new series’ staple); 5 finally got to where they were going (e.g. Ian and Barbara); 4 left offscreen; 3 died, and a mere 2 got sick of it and naffed off (the other being Tegan). This departure style is less popular by half than the companions that didn't even get to say farewell in actual footage in the actual programme. Still, better to leave like Victoria than have an offscreen exit - no one wants to go the way of the Dodo.

In Summary:
This weed and gas epic is a slow burner, but a grower.