Sunday, 29 January 2017

Planet of Fire

Chapter The 42nd, which ticks off a lot of shopping list items.

The Doctor goes to Lanzarote, and then goes to the planet Lanzarote (also known as Sarn). The Master follows him there somehow using a signal from a platinum dildo thing that was found in a shipwreck, but why and how could it possibly have got to Earth? That doesn't make any sense at all - oh look a volcano! Turlough's mysterious backstory is explained (it ain't all that, really) and then he leaves. Kamelion dies. Peri joins. The Master looks like he's died, but that's happened before and he always comes back, so he probably hasn't died. The people of the planet Lanzarote have their culture and religion all revealed to them as a sham, and their planet blows up. That'll teach 'em for being more primitive than us.

The whole family (me, the Better Half, and kids: boys aged 10 and 7, girl of 4) sat down to watch the DVD over a few evenings, and we decided to watch the much superior special edition "movie" version prepared for that DVD, which cuts out loads of material, but adds in some new scenes and effects in a manner that's... what's the opposite of seamless? Seamful? Yeah. It adds in new scenes and effects seamfully. Also, it's in widescreen which means that the 4:3 original is zoomed in and the picture quality suffers badly and it's a fuzzy, grainy mess. But it's wide.

Of course not; we watched the standard as-broadcast 4-part version with original effects and with all the beginning and end titles intact, just like everyone has and will for ever. No one really wanted the awful unspecial edition "movie" version of Planet of Fire, not even the ex-film student wannabes that put it together, not really. Not if they honestly search their hearts.

First-time round:
I saw this upon its original broadcast on BBC1 in February and March 1984; there's nothing memorable I can think of about that first watch. (No, not even those scenes stuck in the memory of the 12-year old me.) But I do have fond memories of the novelisation, which I bought in the summer of the following year. Some special sporting thing was happening all afternoon at Durrington High School, and a hardcore of opt-outs – who presumably like me were against sport and the causes of sport – spent the afternoon in a stuffy classroom doing self-guided unlearning. I read Planet of Fire while outside my classmates were earning their certificate from Daley Thompson or Duncan Goodhew or someone for doing some physical jerks or other. The Better Half, not at the same school but who did a similar scheme nearby, still has her certificate, signed and presented by Sharron Davies. I still have my well-thumbed copy of Planet of Fire; I’d say that’s about even. 

The middle years of John Nathan-Turner's long tenure as producer of Doctor Who saw a few of what were subsequently and pejoratively labelled 'shopping list' stories. The writer and/or script editor were burdened with a long list of elements from their producer that had to be weaved into a satisfying narrative. This tale's become a bit overblown, growing out of interviews given over the years since where some of the the writers plus the script editor have whinged about the restrictions to their creativity. Obviously, any writer is going to prefer to develop whatever they like with 100% freedom, but telly isn't like that. What may have been an issue was that - as has been fairly well documented, and not to take away from his many other talents - Nathan-Turner had minimal storytelling ability. It must have rankled to be given a big bunch of arbitrary orders by someone they thought couldn't write his way out of a paper bag. But that was the gig, and he was the producer.

For the most part, interestingly enough, this didn't produce bad stories, or at least it produced stories no worse than the others surrounding them. Planet of Fire is probably the epitome of shopping lists; writer Peter Grimwade has to introduce a new recurring character and write out three others, and it's all got to be set somewhere where the director once had a nice holiday, and the tourist board there also has some stipulations. But in the final product all that material more or less works. It's the original bits Grimwade squeezes in that fail: the hoary old trope of a people whose religious beliefs are based on the visit of a spacemen in the distant past is dull as ditchwater. Costuming and sets don't help either: some of the scenes depicting squabbling believers and unbelievers are literally beige. If you lived on Sarn, you'd probably welcome being burned alive as a heretic to relieve the monotony.

The location works well, both the touristy bits early on, and the volcanic landscape later. The Master is given something memorable to do for once. Rather than scheming his usual elaborate schemes, he's fighting for survival in a very specific predicament (I don't want to spoilt it here, unlike the DVD menus which featured the full episode endings of 1 and 3, the biggest reveals in the piece). The new companion Peri shows promise, despite an inadvertent subtext about her relationship with her stepfather that's icky. (Is it inadvertent, though? It's presented with only one possible interpretation that I can see, and I wonder whether it was the actors and/or director adding that to a script that otherwise left the relationship a bit blank.)

Turlough discards his school uniform, and gets to be hero for once, but Grimwade struggles to produce a convincing backstory for him that is consistent with all the hints made in passing about the character through his tenure. This is the fault of the producer and script editor, though: it's fine to make things up as you go along, but Turlough was introduced (by Grimwade, of course, but again he was acting under instruction from the production team) with heavy-handed foreshadowing of a mystery to be solved. And it turns out... drumroll... he's a political exile. Big whoop. He can't even tell the Doctor until three quarters into this, his final story, and he knows from The Five Doctors that the Doctor essentially is a political exile too. He'd rather act suspiciously to the point where the Doctor is ready to abandon him on Sarn. It's silly. Just tell him. Tell him you're a political exile - where's the shame in that? Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward should not have introduced a recurring character of mystery without even lightly sketching out what his background was. For Logar's sake, a couple of years later the same team wrote pages and pages of never-used material about Mel Bush's history, and she was as truthful, honest, and about as boring as they come.

Also: anyone who thinks that the sidelining of the title character of Doctor Who starts in Colin Baker's era should rewatch this story. It seems to be subconscious on Saward's part but I get the feeling he doesn't actually like the main character of the show. I can think of no other explanation for why, on his watch, there are so many stories like this one where the Doctor flaps about ineffectually for most of the running time.

Both stories have a strong theme of rationalism versus superstition, and subsequently both feature a high priest character. It doesn't necessarily follow that both these characters have to be obstinate closed-mind isolationists frightened of any change to the old order, but they both are.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Moaning about nostalgia ain't what it used to be. Since Christmas, I have been mentally sketching out a theory about availability smothering innovation. I have been doing this probably because I don't want to mentally sketch out a theory about whether I am an old fart or not. Let me explain...

BBC4 have for many years being repeating weekly every episode of Top of the Pops onwards from 1976-ish, the point after which they stopped wiping all the tapes (Doctor Who is nowhere near the only Beeb show whose archive is incomplete). They recently reached the early 80s, when as a lad I first started watching TOTP; this was exactly the same time I first started watching Doctor Who, and thereafter I followed both shows in parallel. At the time of writing, BBC4's TOTP repeats have reached 1983, well into Peter Davison's era. Leee John, of course, appeared in both shows around this time. But a few years later, although the same synthesisers were being used prominently in both shows, they were diverging; something was happening to Doctor Who that wouldn't happen to Top of the Pops and pop music for many years to come: it started to be in competition with its own past.

The dawn of the video age meant that a Doctor Who fan could just as easily watch a Tom Baker story as a Slyvester McCoy one. Though the advent of Compact Discs did bring quite a lot of vintage pop re-releases, there was still such a mass of new pop product being produced that it caused no imbalance. But Doctor Who only had 14 new episodes a year. The show didn't stay around for long enough to see whether this would have had a major impact on the style of shows being created, but it is telling that a few years later, a huge number of the available tapes were taken off the shelves, and new releases curtailed when Paul McGann's TV movie was launched. They were seen as a threat.

On December 25th last year, I watched the Christmas TOTP episode, a showcase of the biggest hits of 2016, and it compared massively unfavourably to any random episode from 1982 or 83. What has happened? The diversity of the music in the repeats means that old TOTP is never less than an interesting mix: UK metal, reggae, new wave, rap, electro, pop electronica, indie, novelty hits, easy listening for the oldies, it was all there. The Christmas day 2016 line-up was as bland as the rebel group on Sarn: one after another four minute blur of low intensity garage; to me, everything sounded like Craig David, and I don't like Craig David.

But why should the current output of pop music be anything but bland? It doesn't need to be diverse, because the diversity, all the old songs, UK metal, novelty hits and all, are available too at the touch of a touchscreen. A typical Indie playlist on Spotify I just dialled up for research, includes shuffled into more recent hits the song Last Nite by The Strokes, a song that's 16 years old. That's the equivalent of a 1983 compilation including a song from Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. But it doesn't seem to raise any eyebrows. I always liked the fact that because I first discovered Doctor Who with a multi-Doctor season of repeats, I never got stuck on what the Doctor or Doctor Who should be like. 'My' Doctor was every Doctor. But now, I worry there will be no defining exciting music for my children to call their own. Their generation can pick and choose from the smorgasbord; their music is all music. But this comes at a price: availability smothers innovation.

An alternative theory is that interesting new music of all kinds is still being recorded and released, but because there is so much music of every age out there, it gets lost in the hubbub. This is exacerbated by there not being any regular mainstream TV show like Top of the Pops to allow a mixed-age audience to know about it. Would many pop stars starting out now have the same cross-generational appeal or at least recognition as the stars emerging in 1982 and 83, like the sadly departed George Michael? Maybe availability is merely masking innovation, and it's still out there somewhere.

Or maybe I'm just an old fart.

In Summary:
Lava, Lava, Lava, Lava, devout-ing...

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Curse of Peladon

Chapter The 41st, which has a little bit of politics, ladies and gentlemen.

The Doctor and Jo land on the planet Peladon, a mineral rich but primitive country, sorry, planet which is on the cusp of joining the European Union, sorry, Galactic Federation. A delegation of freakish MEPs, sorry, aliens (including some Ice Warriors, and Alpha Centauri who from some angles looks like a pea and from other angles looks like a cock – so, a pea-cock?) is appraising the planet to ensure they are suitable to join. The inexperienced young King Peladon assures them that all is well, except for the recent brutal murder of a high-ranking local official that looks to be connected to an ancient curse. The Doctor, impersonating the head of the delegation, uncovers that it’s all a plot by a determined Leaver, the high-priest Hepesh, who is in league with one of the delegates in trying to prevent the planet joining the federation. But, as the planet Peladon is not yet ‘post-truth’, when these lies get uncovered, everyone actually does the right thing and joins. King Peladon fancies Jo and proposes marriage, but she turns him down and runs off (so, it’s not all pro-union and pro-remain).

After a few deliberately selected stories at the end of last year, and a bit of a break, 2017 sees the random number generator dusted off and redeployed, and it promptly brings us to Peladon, home of topical EU metaphors. The family - minus elder son, 10, who might be achieving what his father never did and growing out of Doctor Who - watched the DVD over a couple of days, and it went down surprisingly well with everyone. The Better Half wondered early on whether it was set on the ‘Planet of the Badger People’; no it isn’t, says I. “Then why do they all look like badgers?” A very good question.

First-time round:
I borrowed a pirate copy from long-term fan friend David sometime in the early Nineties; this must have been an nth generation copy as the quality was particularly bad, but this enhanced the experience for me – it was like I was involved in an archaeological unearthing of something precious from within a wobbly snowstorm. I also seem to remember that the aspect ratio of the source was a little off: when the Doctor and Jo were edging along a cliff edge near the beginning of the story, they looked a bit taller and thinner than normal; but this too added to it, particularly with the wind, thunder and lightning effects; they looked like they’d gone widescreen for a moment, as if they’d stepped into a Hammer film.

Once one gets used to the look and feel of this story, it’s very enjoyable; but it does take a while to get used to it. The studio has a particularly cramped, and cheap feel, when the action really needs a bigger canvas to work on. As ever with Doctor Who, any perceived tattiness is a sign of ambition rather than the opposite; the list of demands from the script is long: a palace with impressive throne room, secret tunnels, a mountain, an arena, a frightening wild beast, multiple alien delegates... and all for a budget of seven and six and a bag of grapes. But I wouldn't want it any other way. Yes, King Peladon - the romantic male lead, lest we forget - is dressed as a principal boy in velure hotpants and thigh-high boots, and he has a ginger badger's hair-do. Yet, from within all this, David Troughton's performance is ruddy, bloody marvellous, a testament to his talent, but the script as well.

Indeed, the best part of the whole story is the romance plot between Jo and King Peladon. It's spare, but well-constructed, covering just the right emotional beats, and these are performed perfectly. All the acting Troughtons are excellent, and all have subtly different strengths and qualities; but probably David is the one who's as good as - or even better than - his Dad. This early performance as the boy king, all earnest but naive lisping delivery, is equalled by Katy Manning's work, as her character gets to do something interesting, and act like an adult at last.

Now, if the best bit of Curse for me is the romance plot, then yes I am discounting the usually favoured aspects: the whodunnit 'traitor in the camp' storyline, or the satirical bits mirroring the relationship of the UK to the European Community, as hot a topic in 1972 as it is now. The reason why this latter part doesn't fully work is that it isn't accurate enough to be an allegory: Peladon isn't a former superpower that's lost it's empire, and the UK - even in the 1970s - wasn't a barbaric pseudo-medieval state wobbling between superstition and secularism. Given the focus on Peladon's valuable mineral assets, it looks more like a representation of an African ex-colony, which would maybe make the Galactic Federation - what? The UN? Essentially, it doesn't really hold together for more than the brief moment when a watching adult raises their eyebrows, and mutters "I wonder where they got that idea!". And that's probably all the writer Brian Hayles was aiming for; he didn't want to write a message story, he just wanted a new angle on his adventure tale.

The hunt for the traitor works better, particularly as it does something fairly rare for Doctor Who and revolutionary for the time: finding a new use for an old enemy. The grammar of the first shot of an Ice Warrior lumbering into Peladon's corridors screams out that these are the bad guys. But are they? The Doctor's prejudices towards his old foes is probably the second-most successful aspect of the story. But the traitor plot is ultimately undone by an odd decision of story structure. For three of the four episodes we've been wondering who's behind the nefarious scheme; at the end of episode 3, the Ice Warrior appears to shoot at the Doctor. Ooh, it's them after all! Episode 4, begins, and we find that what we saw wasn't quite what we thought we saw (it doesn't help that this isn't visually very clear, but we're still good). Then there's an jump cut, it's much later, and the Doctor is doing a big info-dump revealing the traitor and explaining everything. There are still twenty minutes left to go.

Aggedor only knows why this all happens so abruptly and so early; but, with the mystery blown, and with the only plot left a battle with someone who is essentially a secondary adversary, the energy of the story collapses like a punctured balloon. If only they could have held out a little longer and revealed things 5 or at a push 10 minutes from the end, it wouldn't have lost the audience in my house. This was such a shame, as - no word of a lie - they were loving it, loving it up to that point. And I never expected that of The Curse of Peladon.

The Return of Doctor Mysterio has a character who wears a cape; The Curse of Peladon pretty much has every character wearing a cape. And Arcturus, aside from some vestigial limbs, is basically a brain in a jar.

Deeper Thoughts: 
"I'd rather have Doctor Who than Star Trek". Doctor Who is a show about monsters; like the best fairy tales, it encapsulates discussions about and guidance for dealing with the unknowable and often unstoppable dark forces that work on all our lives. Star Trek on the other hand, deals with politics; like the best allegories it encapsulates discussions about and guidance for dealing with interactions at the personal and national level. Doctor Who is theology, Star Trek is political philosophy. This is clear and self-evident, but also not true, obviously. For huge swathes of the show's lifetime, it has been the case that the Doctor encounters Evil with a capital E, and there's never much interrogation of greyer areas of morality. But not all the time.

The latest Doctor Who Magazine focuses on the 1970s, and there is a very good article by Jonathan Morris which posits that every story in Jon Pertwee's tenure has a post-colonial subtext; I disagree with the suggested extent of the productions' intent: as I mentioned above, Curse, which is one of the most overt about its themes, is still only adding a little bit of politics, the majority of it is just an adventure story. But clearly, the bad guys are not a black box of unexamined evil, and there are shades of grey. The inadvertent impression the article also gives is that this is something that started in 1970; but, although either side of Pert's reign it's all about the monsters, Doctor Who had prior form: the very first two stories, right in the beginning in 1963, were both political allegories. The Daleks, at first glance, might seem like a perfect example of an unthinking destructive force, but this would be a misreading - in their debut they are emphatically a Cold War parable; how much more Star Trek can you get?

Star Trek too has dabbled with the other side of things, notably with The Borg who aren't going to attend any galactic peace conference, or come to a compromise. They were "Doctor Who Villains" slamming into Star Trek, and were all the more powerful for it. But even in the original series, there was a lot of photon torpedo and phaser fun when the talk ran out. The interesting thing is that, even if he's facing something clearly malevolent, the Doctor believes he's in an episode of Star Trek, and that there can be a negotiated settlement. Despite being disappointed over and again every week in this aim, he has to keep resetting to believe it's possible at the start of every new adventure. If he didn't, and a writer were to be tempted to make him disillusioned, or put forward that this is just pretence, that he doesn't really mean it, he'd go from Doctor to Great White Hunter, the man who sets out to slay the monsters. The character and the optimistic nature of the show would be badly damaged.

At the time of writing, the world is at the very start (two days in) to a four year "adventure". For some who are organising, it will be a four year mission; it's clear there's a villain, but is he from the Star Trek or Doctor Who universe? Is he going to be a force of destruction that can't be reasoned with, or will he manage to find compromise? Though it's hard, we have to be like the Doctor and keep hold of our optimism.

In Summary:
Doesn't really badger you with a political message.