Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Delta and the Bannermen

Chapter The 32nd, where Doddy gets deaded.

The Doctor and Mel win a time-travel holiday to Disneyland in 1959 provided by an unreliable tour operator with a reputation for dangerous disasters. Despite having their own time machine which they could use to go to Disneyland in 1959 whenever they feel like it, they agree to go on this trip, and – who would have thunk it?! – it turns out to be a dangerous disaster. Only for Mel, though, as the Doctor decided to travel in the safety of the TARDIS and left her to face the peril alone, the gallant chap. The trouble is twofold: a collision with a prototype US satellite, and a stowaway refugee, Delta, being pursued by a genocidal gang, the Bannermen. Instead of Disneyland, they land in an episode of Hi-De-Hi set in Wales. The locals help defeat the bad guys by lending our heroes spanners and jars of honey and the like; one of the locals falls in love with Delta and they go off into space to propagate her species; it’s probably best not to dwell on how exactly. An entire space bus full of innocent tourists is slaughtered in the middle of things, but no one really cares.

Watched the episodes on DVD one episode per night mid-week on one of the first weeks the children had gone back to school. This is apt, as the Slyvester McCoy stories have that ‘Back to School’ feel for me; each of his seasons started more or less in line with the start of the academic year when I was an older teenager. As well as the three kids - boy of 10, boy of 7, girl of 4 - who enjoyed it but were particularly taxed by how Don Henderson was managing to fake eating that raw pork joint (seriously, that was the key talking point for them), the Better Half also joined us. This was the first time she had seen this particular story since transmission. Second time round, she thought it was shit.

First-time round:
I must have been in my final year of secondary school, as I remember clearly rushing back from some careers or further education fair in the local Masonic Hall that all the fifth year had been taken to, just to catch an early episode of Slyvester’s first season. I was full of optimism for the new guy, and unlike many cynics I heard from at the time, and those I’ve come across since, I didn’t think the show was in that bad a shape. Not perfect, but with the potential to develop interestingly. That's also a pretty good description of me as a fifth year. Sadly, I didn't regenerate into the young Paul McGann.

Just before transmission, my schoolfriend Alex, who's previously been mentioned in these pages, breathlessly asked me whether I'd seen the trailer for the new Doctor Who story (I hadn't) because it looked absolutely awful: the space bus, which was a silly idea in the first place to Alex's mind, had a crude square box round it where it had been badly superimposed, and Ken Dodd was in it overacting, and it just looked like it was going to be terrible. When I watched it, perhaps because he'd prepared me for the worst, I didn't think it was that bad.

Oh, it’s a mess, though. Like the Slyv three-parter Silver Nemesis, which I viewed for the blog last year, it suffers from a car-crash of numerous characters and subplots. Unlike Silver Nemesis, there’s the added frustration that some of the subplots and characters show real potential. It can't be realised, though, as there’s too much going on for the running time, and too many threads to develop any one of them in sufficient depth. Hugh Lloyd's Beekeeper Goronwy for example is enigmatically played with moments of sparkle, but he adds nothing to the plot whatsoever. It might be passable if it was directed so all the elements cohere, but - alas - as a director, Chris Clough makes a very good producer. Every actor is attacking the material in their own way with no sense that everyone is integrated into a single cast working to one end in one overall tone. Ken Dodd and Don Henderson share a scene, but their performances belong in completely different shows, probably on different channels.
Delta and the Bannermen is nonetheless revolutionary in its quiet way. It is the first story to visit a period of time proximate to the transmission era of real-world Doctor Who, but treat it as history, opening up a whole new arena for the show. Delta is set just four years before Doctor who began in 1963; but, just as the music of John Smith and The Common Men (actually library music) heard in An Unearthly Child is nowhere near as exciting as The Shadows, let alone The Beatles, similarly Delta and the Bannermen doesn’t have any real rock n’ roll in it, nothing like Little Richard or Eddie Cochran, just a slushy Frankie Lymon number.

Now, maybe this is intended as historical accuracy. A holiday camp in Wales would likely not have been a venue for anything too raucous, after all. But what an opportunity wasted! Imagine a story, whether chiller or romp, in the real 50s; imagine a real (and menacing) Ted instead of a Flying Picket. The period, though, was not chosen for drama or realism, was it? It’s just an excuse to make as near as they can to a Hi-De-Hi crossover. It’s like setting a story in occupied France, but eschewing any of the excitement and danger of the Resistance and staging it instead like an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The production values bear out these priorities: the camp scenes are filled with extras, but Gavrok's mighty Bannerman force consists of just six Welsh guys. The Chimeron race they've destroyed fares even worse - it's just two green blokes and a dummy lying in a quarry. Script Editor Andrew Cartmel famously flew off the handle when he visited the quarry filming to find that not enough effort was being put into the big opening scene, but it was his job to realise that a big intergalactic space battle in a story that's going to then have to do three episodes of expensive period setting, is not going to be possible on Doctor Who's 1980s budget. This was his inexperience showing, and we should applaud the reach exceeding the grasp.  But he still goes on about it now. Let it go, Andrew.

Both stories involve a holiday for the Doctor in Summery sunshine; both contain a female royal family member in mortal danger; both contain at least one person waving a sword about.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Some people can take or leave Marmite. It was an inventive marketing idea, making a virtue out of a lot of people disliking a product, but it isn’t true. It’s easy to find people who don’t have a strong opinion either way on Marmite, just as it is for any supposed love/hate thing. Even party politics: viewed from within, it feels like nothing could be as inflammably polar as party politics, but there are always floating voters. In the time we're in of Brexit and Trump/Clinton and Jeremy Corbyn it's hard to believe, but an even split of strong reactions for and against is just as rare as critical consensus. And this goes for the Slyvester McCoy era, too, no matter how it might seem to the contrary if one gets in the middle of an online flame war on the subject.

I like both seasons 23 and 24, the two years of twentieth century Doctor Who that come in for most flak about their quality level; I like a lot of the work of both Eric Saward and Andrew Cartmel, the script editors of the same; I like Colin Baker and Slyvester McCoy, the lead actors who were the face of the show at those times. Even after all these years, though, with the show back on TV and very successful, there are still fierce debates happening in dark corners online about which year / backroom boy / actor was more to blame. The truth as ever lies somewhere in the middle, or somewhere to one side: in all likelihood, no matter who was in charge in front or behind the camera, Doctor Who would have been cancelled in 1989. It's nobody's fault.

I’ve been as guilty as anyone of getting into an entrenched partisan position in the past. I remember not liking it when I heard Alex’s fairly gentle criticisms of Delta’s trailer, as mentioned above; and, as he was speaking, I was mentally putting on my rosette, grabbing my clipboard, and preparing my defence of the Slyvester McCoy party. Maybe to the wider public he looks unelectable, but you have to understand he is very popular and has been given a mandate to save planets by a large number of the members, sorry, fans. Even my Better Half is keen to put in on record that her pithy summary of Delta and the Bannermen given above is not really fair, and it was only out of a shock of disappointment that she reacted that way.  McCoy is one of the Doctors she grew up with, and that sort of tribal loyalty is hard to shift.

No one can agree about anything. No can even agree about how to disagree about things. Sometimes we defend a position without properly interrogating it, and sometimes we assume people are either for us or against us when that isn't remotely true. Life is like a Slyvester McCoy three parter - filled with many, varied characters milling about, going off in different directions, generally being nice but not adding much to proceedings. And it doesn't really make sense.

In Summary:
It's only not rock n' roll, and I don't like it.

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