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...

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