Wednesday, 30 November 2016


Chapter The 36th, an old one by the new guy.

Answering a distress call, the Doctor and Martha arrive on a spaceship populated by ex-soap actors, the S.S. Pentallian, that is hurtling towards a star. They get separated from the TARDIS, and have to work out a way to help the crew get the Pentallian's drive working again, but they only have precisely the length of time that a Doctor Who episode lasts to do it. As if that premise wasn't quite enough, the star is also possessing members of the crew and turning them into homicidal killing machines with a scary catchphrase, "Burn With Me". The Doctor survives being possessed himself; Martha survives doing a space pub quiz, and being jettisoned away from the ship in a pod, 2001-stylee. The Doctor works out that the star is a living being, and when the captain had earlier nicked a bit of it to use for fuel, that made it all angry. The captain (her off Eastenders years ago) sacrifices herself; the rest of the star fuel is given back, and the survivors (him from Shameless, and him from Waterloo Road) wave goodbye to the TARDIS travellers and presumably have a lot of explaining to do when they get rescued...

It took so long to work our way through the episodes of City of Death, I'd resolved to watch and blog the next story quickly. As it happens, the rest of the family had an early night last Sunday, so I popped on the DVD and watched it with a beer, just me on my lonesome - but not that bad a way to spend 45 minutes, all told, if you're a fan of Doctor Who. Or beer. Or both.

First-time round:
I first saw this on its initial BBC broadcast in 2007. No particularly interesting anecdotes about it; the Better Half and I would have watched it together, probably live rather than timeshifted as we only had the one child who was still young and would likely have been asleep well before it went out. I remember being interested to see writer Chris Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who; probably, I was quite apprehensive too – it wasn’t that long after the broadcast of Torchwood season 1 for which he was the main writer and which was... variable to say the least! My only other memory is that 42 was shown after a week with no Who, as it had been taken off for Eurovision. The trailer at the end of the previous story, The Lazarus Experiment, contained scenes from the whole of the second half of the 2007 season. Doubtless there were a few people disappointed when watching that they didn’t get scarecrows and Captain Jack aboard the  Pentallian.

In the tone meetings at the start of production for each new Doctor Who story, they used to - maybe, they still do - specify a single word to sum up the feel of that story. I should think the word for 42 was 'sweaty'. The overall impression is of a lot of grimy, perspiring people running down industrial corridors, stopping for a bit of breathless chat, then running again. With the red spacesuit making an appearance, and Graeme Harper directing too, it strikes me as somewhat of a prototype for The Waters of Mars, but not quite as good. No comedy robot, though: curse or blessing? You decide.

Is 42 doomed to forever be seen as a rehearsal for something better to come? (Or a rehash of something that did it better first, if you're a big fan of The Satan Pit, which also played in a similar sandbox?) The idea is sound: do a Doctor Who in real time, with the clock ticking. It's just not as exciting overall as you'd expect for that concept. It's maybe because the crew are a colourless bunch. Only Riley and McDonnell get material enough to sink their teeth into, and Michelle Collins as the latter plays it so flat. Everyone else blurs into one, really - which is a particular waste of Anthony Flanagan's talents. Maybe it would have been better to dispense with the monster of the week - brave, I know - and just done a purer story of crew versus the external conflicts of machine breakdown and the hazards of space.

The main cast fare better than the guests. This is around the beginning of David Tennant's imperial phase, which subsequently didn't stop even after he left the role. Most of the more annoying mannerisms from his first year are under control, and he struts around being heroic while Murry Gold's strident 'All The Strange Strange Creatures' booms out. He also gets to do a bit of vulnerable acting too, when the Doctor gets infected by the star thing, and it works well. Freema as Martha is good here too; she got the short stick, generally: of the three of RTD's companion actresses she has the least interesting character arc, but here she is natural and has a great little scene in the pod, and some nice material on the phone with her mum. Those little bits of the Saxon arc are intriguing and unobtrusive and don't weigh things down.

The only slightly silly bits for me (I can just about ignore the implausibly powerful magnetic power the Doctor gets the ship to emit in order to save Martha in the pod) are the scenes with the computer asking various trivial questions in order to let people through the ship. Actually, these were probably more horrific to me than silly. I'm someone who can come a cropper when he finds out sometime in the forgetful past he's been forced to set a security question online somewhere, and can often find myself wondering exactly what the answer is to a poser like "Where were you born?". Did I put Wembley, or Brent, or London, or some combination of the above? Is it case sensitive? If there was no 'Forgot Password?' button on that bulkhead, I'd definitely have been toast by the time 42 minutes elapsed.

Overall, then, it's a decent mid-season episode: nothing to knock one's socks off, but solid enough entertainment. I doubt the brief given to Chris Chibnall asked for anything more; but, it does therefore give no clues to how he might attempt to thrill us when he takes over running the show in 2018.

There’s the obvious Douglas Adams connection (42 was a significant number in his most famous work); there’s a spaceship in both stories, and an alien creature masquerading as something else (a Count in City of Death, a star in 42).

Deeper Thoughts: 
It's all wide open until his stories air. It's still more than a year away, but we'll soon have a new showrunner for Doctor Who. Steven Moffat has been running things a long time, and he had a significant role in his predecessor's time in the job too. By the time Chris Chibnall, writer of 42, takes over in 2018, it will be another series and two Christmas specials further on. The Moffat era will feel like it's been going on forever. And because of his visibility and consistency throughout Doctor Who from 2005 to 2009, writing a big story every year, there was a good idea in everyone's head about what the Moff’s take on Who would be like when he took over. It might not have been a completely accurate idea, but let's face it: he's being doing it for so long now, he's probably done every single one of people's preconceived ideas and many more by now.

Chibnall however is much more of a mystery.  He's written four Doctor Who stories, one of them a two parter: five episodes. Almost as much as Moffat had when he took over, but they have been in very different eras and had very different tones. As a scribe for hire, maybe he's very good at fitting in with the prevailing style. Maybe he's been given differing levels of freedom at different times. But 42 is worlds apart from the Silurian two-parter he wrote for Matt Smith's first year, and both are very different again from the linked but not quite a two parter episodes he did later in Smith's tenure.

If you look at his other work, even his other work just in Doctor Who spin-offs, there are a lot of different Chibnalls out there. Which will we get? The showrunner of Torchwood series 1, or Torchwood series 2? The writer of Broadchurch series 1, or - heaven help us - Broadchurch series 2? It's probably just wishful thinking, because I like them, but I think the best hint is those latest two episodes he wrote in 2012 – Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and The Power of Three. These are the stories which to my mind served the characters of Amy and Rory best; even in the hands of their creator Moffat, they never come across as real people.  I’m aware that this is intentional: when we meet members of Amy’s family in the finale of her first season, they come over as characters from a dark fairy tale, rather than people you could ever actually meet. Her parents are called Augustus and Tabetha Pond – documentary realism is clearly not being attempted. Moffat’s first year followed swiftly after Russell T Davies’s more kitchen sink estate approach and was a nice counterpoint, but I don’t think it was as effective for the drama.

It’s only really in Chibnall’s work - particularly those last two scripts but also in the extra-curriculars Pond Life and P.S. - that I fully care what happens to Amy and Rory. Amy has to deal with a space-time crack that has done weird things to the universe – so what?! Amy has to juggle her home life with a secret life travelling in time? Now I’m interested. Chibnall also introduced Brian Williams, a family member for Rory, a grounding force that makes the action real and relevant, and someone who lifts every scene he’s in. Will Chibnall’s reign see more of this approach? Or will he surprise us with something else again?

Other questions beg too: will Capaldi stick around? It would be great to see a leading man continue into the era of a new production team to see how that changes things; hell, it would be good just to have someone stick around in the role for more than three seasons and a bit. If not, will Pearl Mackie stick around as Bill to provide continuity? Will Moffat ever write for the show again as a hired hand? Will RTD ever be tempted back? Which new writers with Chibnall bring in? The most important question of all, though, is how soon into the Chibnall era will it be before someone slags off the writing online, linking to the clip of Chris on viewer's feedback show Open Air in 1986, slagging off the writing of Doctor Who's Trial of a Timelord season? My guess is approximately five minutes into episode one.

In Summary:

Thursday, 24 November 2016

City of Death

Chapter The 35th, which concerns a work of art.

On holiday again in Paris in 1979, the Doctor and Romana get mixed up with a con-man Count and his wife, who are planning to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. They team up with a private detective, Duggan, and try to stop the Count - who is really Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth, a wiggly green alien with one eye wearing a really good mask.

After an accident with his spaceship's warp drive on primeval Earth, Scaroth is splintered through time, with each of his splinters leading separate lives in separate time zones, Clara Oswald stylee. He needs the proceeds of selling the Mona Lisa, as well as six copies of the same that his Renaissance splinter coerced Leonardo into painting, to fund a time travel experiment to avert the spaceship's accident, save his people, and reunite himself. But, it turns out his accident was inadvertently responsible for kick-starting life on Earth, so can't be stopped. Our heroes rack their brains for a way to prevent Scaroth from undoing millions of years of history and prehistory; Duggan decides just to thump Scaroth. It works!

Me and the boys (one aged 10, one 7) watched the first couple of episodes on a rainy Saturday. Then various members of the family drifted in and out for the last two episodes which we caught up with over the following few days. A markedly different reaction to Spearhead from Space which kept them glued to their seats throughout each episode, and demanding the next one immediately afterwards. Why was the difference in their reaction so pronounced? I asked the boys during the second episode - after they'd looked at me askance while I was guffawing at one line or other - whether they thought this story was particularly funny. They hadn't noticed any humour at all. I was reminded of when I rewatched, when I was a few years older, the comedies I'd seen when I was about their age - Blackadder, The Young Ones, etc. - and wondered exactly how I'd found them funny first time round, given that most of the jokes must have sailed over my head. Maybe the same thing was happening to my boys. The humour of City of Death is mostly verbal and cerebral; if you miss that, what you're left with is more talky and much less action-packed than Spearhead from Space.

The time it took to watch the story is the main reason why it's taken a while to get this post published; that, and the depressing and ghastly news from across the Atlantic impacting my productivity for a while; but, I can best serve the world by tending my own garden, and my favoured horticulture involves posting nonsense about Doctor Who, so here you go...

First-time round:
My first viewing of City of Death was on VHS. It came out early in 1991 on the same day as Planet of the Spiders, which I've already covered for the blog here; as I said then, I bought both of them in Volume One in Worthing on the first day of their release, while playing hooky from Sixth Form. A pretty fine double bill, that's for sure. In the nearly 18 months since I wrote the Spiders post, I have come to think that - though I did no doubt agonise over the decision - I would have watched City of Death first. It's two episodes shorter, and has a better reputation. Be warned: don't judge a VHS by it's cover; City of Death is widely acknowledged to be one of the best classic Who stories, and it has what's widely acknowledged as one of the worst cover illustrations of the period.

I haven't rewatched City of Death for a number of years, and after the first two scenes, I was worried. The dialogue, which I expected to sparkle, was technobabbley to the point of alienation in the first scene, and smug and forced in the second. Both scenes looked great. Despite his being dressed in that first scene with a beaded monstrosity that better belonged over the back of a mini-cab driver's seat in 1979, Scaroth's take off is wonderfully depicted in both studio and model theatre. And, though it looks a little cold, Paris is beautiful, and affords us a few more 'shoe leather' scenes of our heroes wandering about than would normally be acceptable. But looks aren't everything. Were my expectations artificially high? Was it simply not as good as I remembered? Shortly, though, the plot kicked in, and everything was fine.

Though it's fun, funny, and full of verve, the real jewel in City of Death's crown, or eye in its tentacled head, is its inventive plot. Never before had Who spliced the crime caper subgenre into its DNA, and the graft is seamless; also original is the art world setting. The Douglas Adams touch serves to lift the main story. But the main story is more than good enough anyway, so this lift pushes it up towards the stratosphere - this isn't like, say, Robots of Death, where if you stripped away the clever design and memorable lines, you'd be left with a standard genre potboiler; City of Death would be a good story even with dialogue by Pip and Jane Baker. The wit is never there just for its own sake, but is always pushing along a plot that is corkscrewing through a set of wonderfully paced turns and reversals.

The idea of Scaroth's splinters, for example, was good enough for Steven Moffat to squeeze a whole series out of it. The script never rests: even in the resolution scene, there's another little twist where the only Mona Lisa to survive is one of the 'fake' ones. The acting, too, is fantastic, because it's uniformly working for the script, not just sitting as a layer of comic icing atop it. Julian Glover is pitch perfect, but he's pipped to the post of best performance in the piece, by - and who would have thought it - one Tom Baker. Clearly, the material and the small but great cast inspired him to up his game. Just watch the subtle modulations of tone, turning on a sixpence, as he goes from playing the fool to playing it deadly straight. Tom Chadbon is good enough to be a companion - clearly at the time, they'd noticed that the Doctor and Romana are too otherworldly and need a male doofus to balance things. David Graham overplays it a little in places, but it's fine. (An aside: the boys felt the Count and Kerensky were like another double act:  Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman in Pointless - I can see it, sort of). Lalla Ward, excellent, Catherine Schell, peerless. Even Herman the Butler and the little lady in the louvre sparkle.

The music is stunning, the sets are great, the episode endings are fantastic - particularly the end of part 2, and I love how glasses fall down Kerensky's nose as he ages to death at the end of part 3.  I could keep going forever.

Both four episodes, both broadcast in the 1970s, both really good. What more do you need? Alright: both feature professional investigators, both involve an effort to bring together fragments of one overall entity that's had an impact over millions of years (elapsed since Scaroth's spaceship blew up, the length of time the Nestenes have been conquering other planets). Both have 'borrowed' a lot of  their plot - City of Death was a riff on a plot provided by David Fisher's unmade story proposal 'The Gamble with Time', and the featured plan to sell six forged Mona Lisas was possibly inspired by possibly real life events.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Playing tennis with twenty nets, one on top of the other. The success of City of Death's script is all the more gratifying when you consider the circumstances of its creation. Its principal author, Douglas Adams, was famously never very good at plotting - ideas and jokes he could do better than anyone, yes, but plots? No. Adams had taken up the role as Doctor Who's script editor that year, a job for which he was ridiculously wrong: he was relatively inexperienced, he could not at the time (never really could) get to grips with the disciplines of story structure or deadlines. Of everyone who wrote for Who, he was the most in need of a good script editor. It's so insane that anyone would think he could fit that role himself, it's almost poetry. Added to all this, he was ferociously busy - at around the same time he was supposed to be script editing a season of Doctor Who, he was suddenly very much in demand.

That anything got made of season 17 is surprising enough. Somehow, though, City of Death came together so very successfully. There was some luck involved for sure (John Cleese being nearby to do a cameo, a strike demolishing the competition on broadcast), but mainly it came down to talent and hard graft applied in fertile circumstances. Any Doctor Who fan understands that creativity can be enhanced by restrictions: we’ve watched a 50+ year experiment gradually but irrevocably confirm the hypothesis. But City of Death had so many obstacles, it could quite easily have fallen apart altogether. That it didn’t is one of those quirky wonderful events that could make one believe in sanctifying grace.

Two days before the director was due to start work, there was no workable script. Producer Graham Williams and Adams had to lock themselves in for a weekend, and – as legend has it - hose themselves down with whisky and black coffee in order to produce the blueprint for what got made. It would not be the last time that Adams was locked in a room and forced to complete a story, but I’d argue that it was the most successful. Why? Well, for a start, he had the script editor he so needed on hand in the person of Williams. The producer of Doctor Who at this time had very strong storytelling skills, and clearly kept Adams on track.

The second big plus was that Adams had a ready-made plot from David Fisher, so didn’t have to struggle to come up with one. In fact, he had too much plot: most of the concepts in City of Death originate from Fisher, but Adams cuts out loads more, and simplifies and polishes what remains. For Destiny of the Daleks, broadcast immediately before City of Death, Adams had the opposite issue – not enough material. His rewrites, filling in the blank spots on Terry Nation's canvas with silly jokes, are much less impressive. He was clearly more of a sculptor than a painter. In his later career this becomes more obvious, as he remoulds many plots – including key bits from City of Death – over and over; and, in the whole of his subsequent professional life, he iterates through reshape after reshape of the material of Hitch-Hiker's Guide in different versions and different media.

In a way - and I know it’s almost sacrilegious to suggest imposing non-original material onto such an imagination and intellect, which wanted to zoom off anywhere in time and space - it would have been very interesting to see him attempt an adaptation. In some parallel universe, just an Improbability Drive away, they’re screening a P.G. Wodehouse series as conceived by Douglas Adams. I’d pay to see it.

City of Death deserves its record-breaking audience, even if it was over-inflated. The biggest piece of luck we have is that it exists, alongside Adam’s other fingerprints on our favourite show. Had Hitch-Hiker taken off just a little quicker, Adams might never have written for Doctor Who at all, and we’d have been deprived of one of its most enjoyable stories.

In Summary:
Exquisite. Absolutely exquisite.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Spearhead from Space

Chapter The 34th, where Nigel Kneale calls and wants his plot back.

The Doctor, newly regenerated and exiled after being put on trial by his people, arrives in Pertweeshire - an area of the home counties of England containing a higher than average number of cottage hospitals, tracking stations, factories, and research centres. Excitement! UNIT are also there investigating a couple of meteorite showers, deemed suspicious because the meteorites have landed on Earth - though, to be pedantic, if they are meteorites they must have landed on Earth by definition, so not very suspicious at all really. Except that they fly in formation. And land in the same place six months apart. And contain an alien intelligence that can control plastic. Okay, a little bit suspicious.

The Doctor recovers in hospital, then joins forces with old chum the Brigadier, and newly conscripted UNIT science whiz Liz Shaw. They defeat the Nestenes (for it is they) in their plan to bring shop dummies to life, and to replace various members of the government and civil service with walking plastic facsimiles. The Doctor then agrees to work at UNIT as an unpaid intern, but does get a company car at least.

All the family watched, an episode per evening across the middle of a week, from the Blu-ray edition. The clarity of the high-definition picture is a wonder to behold. The rest of the family can't tell any difference, but all of them - including the eldest child (boy of 10) who was moaning at Doctor Who being put on again - were silent within minutes, and at the end of each episode, they chanted "Next ep, next ep". But I strictly rationed it. It went down very well, it's fair to say.

First-time round:
Spearhead from Space must be the single Doctor Who story I've purchased the most: VHS in the 1980s, unedited VHS in the 1990s, DVD in 2001, special edition DVD a decade after that, and finally the Blu-ray edition a few years ago. I've bought the same story five times. I even taped it when it was repeated on BBC2 in 1999. This is why the Better Half thinks I'm crazy. That first release was edited to remove the beginning and end credits as well as other minor cuts. Although this robbed the world of the UNIT soldier's "Who told you to fire, you -" at the end of part 1, and a snatch of Fleetwood Mac, it did make Spearhead - created 100% on film - into the blockbuster movie it was maybe always meant to be.

It was brought out during that first rush of affordable releases in the late Eighties, and was the fifth Doctor Who story I ever purchased on VHS. I bought it in WHSmiths in Montague Street, Worthing, as I think Volume One - which became my mainstay for Who buying later on - hadn't yet opened in 1988. I can remember popping into Superdrug on my way home to get a Panda Cola (these are real things, youngsters, I'm not making it up); in the queue, I was practically caressing the video box, and trying to discern anything I could of the story from the blurb and the very few photos upon it.

In a reverse of my approach when watching The Rings of Akhaten, where I was trying to keep an open mind to its good points, I watched Spearhead from Space constantly thinking "What's wrong with this?" else this blog post may have become far too hagiographic. As I watched, I listed any even slightly negative point, and the list did get quite long.  So, why isn't it a flop? Why - for me at least - does it rise above any problems to be one of the top 10 Doctor Who stories ever.

The biggest exhibit produced for the prosecution is Spearhead's thieved plot. In Nigel Kneale's Quatermass II, broadcast on the BBC in 1955, there's a shower of meteorites that turn out to be part of an alien invasion plan. At the beginning, they're observed by a radar unit, and one is found by a local country type. There's a factory run by the bad guys that the good guys investigate; there's a plot to control high-level government figures. An official that starts off helping is 'turned' and then blocks the investigations. All of which will be stiflingly familiar to anyone who's ever watched Spearhead from Space.

In retooling Doctor Who as an Earth-bound scientific investigations show, the Quatermass serials were the key touchstones of producer Derrick Sherwin. He will have briefed Robert Holmes - writer of these relaunch episodes - on this, and Holmes has obviously taken him very literally and re-staged a Quatermass serial wholesale. But does it matter? There is a tradition older than literature of writers reusing each other's plots, making them their own. That's true here: Kneale would never take such blackly comic glee as Holmes, and would never have written something quite as fun as Spearhead's big finale with shop widow dummies coming to life. Spearhead is tauter and punchier than Quatermass II (generally accepted to be the weakest one of the initial 50s trilogy) but Holmes still finds time to introduce a mysterious 'man from space in a hospital' subplot.

Spearhead from Space must have been doing something right. It has, in its turn, had its material pillaged twice by subsequent Doctor Who stories (The TV Movie and Rose); it is the template for the 'jumping on point' story, cleaning the slate and setting up the concept again for the Johnnie- and Jenny-come-latelies. That brings me to the second major potential flaw: that new direction of the show in 1970; maybe it's not the right direction. The show that could go anywhere has been grounded in one time and place; the charming amateurs of the black and white years, muddling through their adventures, have been replaced by a colder professional organisation investigating - and inevitably shooting at – the unknown. And the primary driver for all this was not a narrative reason, but budgetary. Earth is cheaper than space. Can this be seen as anything but a backward step? It works, though. Even hobbled as they are with immense running times (7 episodes each), the remaining stories of Jon Pertwee’s first year are all excellent, and all make clever use of the rejigged format. It probably would not have survived long had it remained on Earth for good, but as just one, albeit long, stop on the Doctor’s 50+ year tour, it made a refreshing change.

It’s on film. This being Doctor Who, it wasn’t a clever backroom ploy to relaunch the show in style, it was just an accident, a way to salvage the story at the last moment and avoid the impact of a strike by the BBC studio camerapersons. As such, it has been criticised that the set-ups are mostly static: people sitting still in big echoey rooms, and it loses the friendly intimacy of a multi-camera video approach. Balderdash! A couple of scenes, on repeat watching, might stand out like that, but for the most part it is directed magnificently by Derek Martinus who embraces the use of film and really gets the most out of it. There are some wonderful cuts, which wouldn’t have been possible on video, that tell the story with economy; for example, going from the soldier in the woods asking “Is he dead?” to Doctor Henderson answering the question with the Doctor tucked up in bed, much later. And there’s visuals like Channing’s distorted face, viewed through a glass door, or the blank eyes of a doll mould in the factory staring straight out at the audience.

I’ve almost run out of significant negatives, the rest are minor niggles - the big boss at the end is rubbish, yes, but there’s a fantastic gunfight with the excellent Autons to cut away to, so the ending doesn’t suffer. The superlatives never run out: I haven’t talked about the universally great performances – minor characters like Mullins or Meg Seeley are more interesting than the entire cast of the Rings of Akhaten put together. The great script, with some lovely subtle and not so subtle lines: Meg says she’s going to “blow a hole” in the intruding Auton, and does just that, Channing tells General Scobie he will arrange to have him see his plastic copy before it goes to Madame Tussauds, and it turns up on his doorstep, large as life, and takes his place.

There's a focus at the beginning of both stories on some rocks moving about in space. At the end of both stories, the Doctor ends up in confrontation with a new and powerful creature not like the ones he's seen in the story so far, and needs his companion's help to defeat it. It demonstrates how rubbish the sun thing in The Rings of Akhaten is that the weird tentacled mess at the end of Spearhead is a much more convincing enemy.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Carrie - Redux The world behind the scenes of Doctor Who is as full of stories as the fictional world of its narrative; the era that started with Spearhead from Space perhaps most of all. Many of the anecdotes, made famous though much repetition, date from this Pertwee period, The saddest – and ultimately happiest – story of all is that of Caroline John, who played Liz Shaw, my favourite companion. After Spearhead, Derrick Sherwin moved on, and Barry Letts took over as producer. He has gone on record as saying that he didn't agree with a lot of the changes to the format that his predecessor had made. The 7-part episodes were ditched first; the Earthbound nature of the stories was gradually relaxed, and the more professional focus dispensed with - UNIT were reset as a pseudo family.

This was a curious echo of decision made early on in the development of Doctor Who, before it first aired; Sydney Newman had commissioned a Saturday sci-fi serial, and the proposal on the table, involving a trio of scientific investigators, was very similar to Derrick Sherwin’s later concept for Doctor Who in 1970. This wasn’t accepted, and after many tweaks and suggestions what instead resulted was the 1963 version of Who. Famously, Newman insisted that the series needed a youngster to get into trouble and make mistakes. Letts noticed the same gap in 1970’s Who; so, Liz Shaw, intelligent, capable, sometimes caustic, but also compassionate and warm, was sent back to Cambridge, and Jo Grant – a youngster who would get into trouble and make mistakes – took her place.

Much as I like the character of Jo, and Katy Manning's performance, and much as I can see the logic of a character arc where the Doctor educates his companion until she's ready to leave and have her own adventures, I wanted more of Liz and Caroline. John was pregnant by the end of her stint filming, and would likely have resigned anyway, but all she knew was that the new producer didn't want her to continue. Not knowing of Letts' feelings about the character and the dynamic, she assumed she just hadn't done a very good job. It was only in the early nineties, as she later told it, when she discovered the convention circuit, and finally met her fans, that she was disabused of this notion. This is the tragedy for me; for twenty years, at the back of her mind, even at the same moment as I was watching the VHS of Spearhead from Space for the first time and being super impressed by Liz Shaw's introduction looking like a spy in the back of a mysterious car, my favourite companion incorrectly thought she wasn't well liked.

Caroline John is also the only companion actor that I have actually met; I have met a few Doctors over the years, but only one companion. It was in 2003, Doctor Who's 40th Anniversary year, and I was at the anniversary convention (the 'Panopticon') with my old friend David (mentioned before many times on this blog) and another great guy Chris Petts, who later worked on the CGI for the first couple of series of new Who. The Edgware Road Hilton, where it was based, was not a suitable venue - it was too small, and the lifts could not cope with the sheer number of fans using them. The three of us, though, had discovered a secret lift shaft being kept for use of the talent rather than hoi polloi, and we proceeded shamelessly to abuse it, rather than have to queue with a lot of Doctor Who fans, who can be a bit scary en masse.

At one point, we arrived at these lifts only to find Caroline John and her husband, actor Geoffrey Beevers, waiting there too. Caroline turns and smilingly addresses me: "Oh darling, it's you! I haven't seen you for ages!" Golly gosh. My favourite companion actress has mistaken me for someone famous that she knows. Time suspends. For a scant few nanoseconds I agonise about how I can best capitalise on this, but come up short of ideas and mumble something about mistaken identity. The lift arrives, we all travel up to different floors, and that's that. I didn't even read until long after that about all those years she was mistaken about her worth, or else I'd have screamed after her "Carrie - you weren't a failure, you were THE BEST!!!!!". Caroline John died of cancer in 2012, by which time I'd realised that the capital I'd earned that day in 2003 was a huge amount of happiness and luck in chancing to meet her, however briefly. Liz Shaw: she didn't get into trouble, she didn't make mistakes, and she could certainly rock the plastic-panelled mini-dress look. 

In Summary:
Plastic = fantastic.