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.

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