Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Androids of Tara

Chapter The 31st, where a week is spent at Leeds Castle in the Summertime.

The Doctor, Romana and K9 are midway through their search for the Key to Time. Like everyone except maybe Romana and the series producer, the Doctor is getting bored of the concept by now, and fancies a break. So, when the tracer deposits the TARDIS on the planet Tara, he goes fishing and leaves all the work to Romana. She finds the segment easily enough but can't help but be embroiled in the machinations of Count Grendel, an aristocrat of Tara, who is trying to steal the throne with a devious plan of doppelgängers, android duplicates, and doppelgängers of android duplicates. A little later, the Doctor is disturbed during his fishing and similarly embroiled in the machinations of Prince Reynart, the rightful heir, to defeat Grendel's plan with a devious plan of his own which also involves android duplicates but no doppelgängers. So his dog doesn't feel left out, the Doctor whistles for K9 so he too can get embroiled in both sets of machinations. The TARDIS team help the good guy win, and the bad guy lose, and it's all effortless, charming and fun. Hooray!

This story was not a random selection, as will become clear. The whole family (me, the Better Half and three kids – boys aged 10 and 7, girl aged 4) settled down to watch an episode per day from the Australian Region 4  DVD (see here for why that version) over the course of a sunny week late in the Summer holidays. We did this in a cottage where we were staying within the estate of Leeds Castle, the place where The Androids of Tara was filmed back in 1978. Cool, huh? It wasn’t – honestly!  – the only reason we chose this destination for our holiday, but it did definitely contribute to the final decision, I can’t lie.

Obviously, one would expect a story to get some boost from association with the fun of an ongoing holiday, and the opportunity afforded for location spotting (“I’ve been there!” says Dad every thirty seconds). But that alone couldn’t explain the very favourable reaction from everyone. The kids were asking eagerly each day about when we’d get to see the next episode, and that's almost unprecedented, particularly when they're on a holiday with lots of other fun distractions. I've always thought that this story was the perfect one for a summer break (I read the Target novelisation on a caravan holiday in the New Forest, sometime in the 1980s); on the strength of this experiment, I'd stick by that view.

First-time round:
I still have a nagging feeling I might have caught the very last scene of this story (K9 adrift in Castle Gracht's moat) on its repeat broadcast in the summer of 1979. It's a hazy memory, though, of switching on the TV at my grandparents' house on a weeknight and seeing something before switching over. If true, this would make it the very first tiny bit of Doctor Who I ever watched; my first verifiable memory is from Nightmare of Eden, broadcast a few months later. I've subsequently come to believe, though, it was either something else entirely, or a false memory from reading the book later.

The first time I would have seen this in full was when the whole of the Key to Time season was released on VHS in the Nineties. The six stories were released in pairs over three months in 1995, building up to be a complete... pile of tapes. They had a spine illustration split across the tapes that connected jigsaw fashion to show... something unmemorable, and this made them different to all the other vids they shared shelves with and therefore annoyed all fastidious fanboys everywhere, of which - of course - I am one.

It's been argued that for all its undeniable charm, there's not much drama in The Androids of Tara - the stakes are small, and everyone's having such fun that there isn't a real sense of jeopardy. My advice to persons of this view is to let a wild bird into your house within the first few minutes of episode one; it'll inject some thrills and spills. This is what happened to us in the cottage: a robin flew in shortly after my pressing Play, swooped round the shocked heads of the three smaller members of the family, and couldn't get out until the Better Half and I had done a concerted joint effort of shooing and wafting. It proved much scarier for all the family than the cuddlier Taran Wood Beast which popped up once we resumed our watch.
This was all in the spirit of our immersive Secret Cinema-esque viewing, but for me the story would be just as good without these props. Less is more, and - particularly in the middle of a season where there was great emphasis on a galaxy-spanning quest and echoey battles between good and evil on a vast scale (at least that was the idea on paper anyway) - it was a welcome relief to have fun and derring-do and swashes by the buckle load. I can see people who don't like the Tomfoolery of  Baker's latter years having had enough of this sort of thing, but I love it. Baker fluffs as many lines in this as William Hartnell on a bad day, doesn't look once even remotely like he's taking anything seriously, accepts payment and wine in a jokey manner, and larks about in dialogue with K9 including such beauties as "A hamster with a blunt penknife could do it quicker" and "You old sea dog, you!". But he doesn't just get away with it, he turns it into a high art form. Along with City of Death the following year, it's part of the absolute pinnacle of this style of Doctor Who, and I can't get enough of it, frankly.

Maybe if you've read or seen The Prisoner of Zenda it also might lose a bit of lustre; I have resisted ever doing this, as I don't want to show up where this Doctor Who version, which seems like a gentle send-up of a genre in toto, is too direct a rip-off of a specific source text.  But even if it is, that doesn't subtract from witty dialogue, a near flawless set of integrated performances, a great villain delivered with gusto by Peter Jeffrey, fantastic sets and seamless use of locations, and one of the deadliest of deadly Dudley Simpson's wonderful scores.

On the minus side, there are the Key to Time bits of the narrative throughout which, whenever they pop up, thankfully not very often, the viewer surely wants to get back to the much more interesting Grendel and Co. And the final swordfight gets good, but only after a very slow beginning, without music, during which the assembled cast - like the Perry family watching - exchange glances as if to say "Has it started yet? They're just walking about." The Better Half docked it two points for this longueur and another point for the distraction of the young Paul Lavers being in it - she knew him as a big cheese at QVC when she worked there many years ago. Everyone else gave this 10/10.

The Doctor can be seen sleeping in both. There's an odd bit of walled ruin where some of Amy's Choice - the scenes with the mothers and children - was filmed that could be a castle. That's about it.

Deeper Thoughts: 
At Prince Reynart's Hunting Lodge
Time trip advisor. By coincidence, a Doctor Who Magazine special on location work for the series came out a few days before we set off for Maidstone in Kent (where Leeds Castle is situated - a good fact to note). It covered - like many articles, books and guided walks before it - a lot of the different places where Doctor Who, new and old, has been shot over the years. A surprising number of them aren't even quarries. I can see the attraction, and there must be a market sufficient enough for Panini to think it a good idea to base a whole publication around it, but I've never really been tempted to go location hunting myself. And I'm an uber-geek. It's just one of those aspects of Doctor Who fandom that are for others, like cosplay or being unrelentingly negative about any new series.

Living in Sussex, I guess there are some moors of the 'Scotland' of Terror of the Zygons (actually filmed near Bognor Regis) that are close; and there must be a quarry or two nearby.  Plus, of course, I work in London. In fact, every day I pass the Torchwood One tower (known to the Not We as Canary Wharf) but it's honestly not occurred to me as being a Doctor Who site until just now. Unless they are interesting in their own right, I don't see the point of visiting these places; unless, you know, there are pokémon to catch there (yes, of course, I'm addicted to Pokémon GO - I am an uber-geek).

Having a swordfight in the Castle cellar
I don't normally drag the family to holiday in Doctor Who locations either, but Leeds Castle offers a thousand years of history beyond the kudos of a Tom Baker visit in 1978. So many things have happened here - kings and queens, sieges, prisoners, fires, summits - that the tourist literature doesn't make much of any of the filming that's happened here, let alone Doctor Who, and there's been quite a lot - Kind Hearts and Coronets was filmed in the Castle, for chrissakes. I happen to think this is just as important as Henry VIII or Richard II holding court; but then I would, because I'm an uber-. Well, you know what I am by now.
I'd recommend it, anyway. There are a number of cottages available as holiday rents in the estate, and a field of Glamping tents too, and there is a lot to do in the gardens, grounds and in the castle itself, even if you don't have a family that's excited to have a picnic near Prince Reynart's hunting lodge, or recreate a swordfight in the cellars of the Castle's keep. It's on the expensive side, you're living in a tourist trap after all, but the rent includes access to the castle's attractions for every day of your stay.
The very same punt that Tom Baker used (possibly)
But how to get there?  The aforementioned DWM Special magazine has a fun epilogue by Graham Kibble-White, cutting some slack to the first ever official Doctor Who locations guide, the 1986 Target paperback 'Travel Without The TARDIS' by Jean Airey and Laurie Haldemann. These were two US fans who - reportedly - were got the gig by John Nathan-Turner after he met them at a convention. Being a couple of fans from a different continent armed with a lot of enthusiasm, but no professional travel writing experience, they inevitably made quite a few howlers.
These few paragraphs here are probably the nearest I will ever come to being a travel writer, so it's unfair of me to pick holes, but I'm going to anyway: the most famous of these howlers was their misguided belief that Leeds Castle is near Leeds railway station. I have a copy of the book, and from reading the full entry, it's clear that they do not think that Leeds Castle is in Leeds, Yorkshire, it's more that they're unaware that the Leeds in Yorkshire exists at all (Doctor Who has never been filmed there, you see). The final sentence of the entry reads "Alternatively, you can take the train from London's King's Cross to Leeds and hire a taxi from there." Now, you can do that, of course. But it would take about two and a half hours for the train journey and four hours for the taxi ride, all of which would be out of your way, and it would cost about 350 quid. So, as my stint as a travel writer comes to an end, I can at least say: "If you're visiting Leeds Castle don't take the train from London's King's Cross to Leeds and hire a taxi from there." Don't all thank me at once...

In Summary:
It was so good, it was like being there.

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