Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Crimson Horror

Chapter The 44th, which finds that the North is big on local colour.

The - I can barely bring myself to type it - Paternoster Gang (ugh) are called in to investigate a mystery in the North of England, where bright red corpses are turning up in t' canal. This seems to be connected to a local gated community called Sweetville run by a larger-than-life villain straight out of The Avengers, Winifred Gillyflower. She is symbiotically linked to a Jurassic grub who's become outsized due to industrial pollution. Hey, that's just like the giant maggots in that other story, and weren't people going a funny colour in that one too? Probably just a coincidence. Anyway, they find out that the Doctor and Clara have also been investigating Gillyflower, and all of them team up and sort it out. Vastra, Strax and Jenny are confused because they thought Clara was already dead, but seen out of context that story arc is dull and unimportant. Come to think of it, it seemed dull and unimportant when seen in context too.

Rather than wait ages for the family to come around to the idea of viewing it, I watched this one on my own. But I still had a couple of false starts: for some reason, the introductory scene with its sub-Hovis ad depiction of the Victorian north was off-putting, and I ended up pausing it a few times and watching something else instead.

First-time round:
The usual drill in 2013 was to watch the episode time-shifted after its first BBC1 Saturday broadcast. I couldn't recall much about watching this one, but then I remembered I'd experimented with keeping a journal that year. After ferreting around some boxed up stuff in the garage and locating said journal, I discovered I'd written... nothing. On the evening of the broadcast, the Better Half and I were visiting my old friend Phil (mentioned before on this blog) for his 40th birthday party, and the entry for the Sunday dwelt mostly on my hangover, not any TV I'd caught up on. A brief peruse brought to light that none of the eight episodes of series 7 shown in this period merited inclusion in my journal. This is more to do with my reaction to the episodes themselves than any reflection of a busy social life (Joe Orton referenced Doctor Who twice in his diaries, and he was definitely out and about more than I was). I remember enjoying this one a bit more than those episodes surrounding it, at least up to the coda: adding annoying kids never makes any drama better, and when would anyone have had a chance to take those photos the kids found, with which they wanted to blackmail Clara, let alone upload them to the internet?

It's not quite a full-on comedy, but The Crimson Horror comes very close. Not all the gags are belters, some should have never been attempted (I'm looking at you, Thomas Thomas), but there's enough of them to keep the romp romping to the end. Dame Diana Rigg relishes the chance to play it 'large' and is wickedly good at comedy, but she's just one of a great cast, all of whom get the tone of their performance right. Graham Turner nearly steals the show with Amos the morgue attendant. Mark Gatiss mines the setting for laughs too, taking affectionate pot shots in the vague direction of his natal patch just as Steven Moffat has often ripped into Scotland, and Russell T Davies did for Wales.

Aside from the refreshing change of setting, and the knockabout comic tone, the other unique selling point of The Crimson Horror is the structure. The beginning 20 minutes uses a different POV than the Doctor or his companion's to tell the story. Madame Vastra and Co. slowly uncover the prior involvement of the Doctor and Clara. It's a shame that they abandon this rather than see it through to the end, but the changeover is fun: the Doctor, instantly back to normal in comic defiance of all logic, fills in his story so far for Jenny, and for the audience the flashbacks appear as if viewed on a kinetoscope. But then it's back to business as usual with his taking the lead.

The three recurring characters already feel like old friends, even though they've only appeared twice before. In fact, if anything, they're feeling over familiar, with Strax's various requests for deployment of absurd weaponry already a bit samey. But the scene of him acting like a little boy, getting overexcited and then being told off, is hilarious. Jenny gets a bit more to do than before. There are however a couple of moments of sexism, with Matt Smith's Doctor uncharacteristically lusting after her, despite her sporting the least sexy leather gear ever. It's not appropriate, and it's not funny.

There are some wonderfully over the top concepts: Mister Sweet is a glorious concoction, and his backstory neatly ties in to Vastra and the Earth 65 million years ago. There's some great imagery like the giant gramophones blasting out industrial noises in an empty factory, or the racks of people being dipped into the red goo. A fun 45 minutes, then, but it doesn't leave much of an impression once it's finished.

A Victorian setting: The Crimson Horror is set in 1893, ten years after Ghost Light. The main villain in both stories puts people into suspended animation, and both are motivated by a misguided desire for a better world. There's non-speaking monsters in both stories that don't do a whole lot, and a scene where a prisoner has a meal delivered through a slot at the base of their cell door.

Deeper Thoughts: 
"Do not discuss my reproductive cycle in front of enemy girls!". Should the Doctor regenerate into a woman next go around? It might be the right time, even if only to silence the many many interviews, articles and think-pieces that inevitably are being churned out on this subject every time the role is being recast as it is now. The chatter, which started as a joke from Tom Baker in the press conference when he threw in the scarf, has built up exponentially as Doctor after Doctor has handed in his notice. Added to this, the show has prominently featured two male-to-female regenerations of recurring characters in the last couple of years; the production team have gone young, and gone old, they've offered the role to a black actor even though unfortunately that didn't work out. A tipping point has been reached: there would be more uproar if Chris Chibnall casts another white male to replace Peter Capaldi than there would be from the more conservative fans if he were to cast a woman.

Why all this is an talking point specifically for the role of the Doctor is an interesting question: no one is clamouring for a female Bond, or for Tilda Swinton to take over from Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. Why do commentators look to Doctor Who to redress some gender imbalance? It's not as if the show has had an exemplary history of finding good roles for women. The Crimson Horror is an exception in having more females roles than male in its main cast, all of them strong, and a good mix of goodies and baddies, regular and guest roles. But huge swathes of stories in Doctor Who's history contain but one woman in four or more episodes (and that's the actress whom they had to use, as she was contracted to play the companion). I suppose that the part of the Doctor is unusual in that it regularly changes hands (though it doesn't have to be as regular as every three years, grumble, grumble) and the lead actor is expected to bring a lot of themselves, and their own individual take, to the role. This makes it more like, say, casting one of the big Shakespearean parts. Glenda Jackson can and did play King Lear without causing Bard fans to melt down online.

But Glenda Jackson still worked with the original text, so was still playing Lear as a man, a father and a patriarch. I doubt it would please anyone for the Doctor to still be a man but just performed by a woman. The Doctor's sex doesn't often arise, though, despite the joke in The Crimson Horror about his screwdriver a-rising: he's not overtly sexual, he's not overtly macho. If you are making it a story point that the character has converted from male to female, do you make it necessary to comment however obliquely on the mechanics of the situation? That's a careful line to tread: it would be ghastly to have the Doctor acting in surprise upon rediscovering her tits every five minutes (and I wouldn't put such a thing past either Moffat or Chibnall based on some of their past work). But suppress the biology too far the other way, and you're back to Glenda as Lear.  Is there much point in that, other than to be able to cast a great female actor? And there's already plenty of opportunities to create work for great female actors in all the other roles being created in every Doctor Who story every week, and those opportunities are arguably not being taken up enough by the writers as it is.

I have checked my cis prejudice, by the way: I am aware that gender is not merely binary, and that there are worlds of reverberating story possibility opened up by having a significant story event take place involving a change of gender. I just don't necessarily think that such a story would be compatible with Doctor Who's format - it would be hard not to cheapen it by grafting on the alien invasion bits. But, I'm willing to be surprised, so will keep an open mind.

In Summary:
Like the Horror itself, this story is bright enough, but only skin deep.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ghost Light

Chapter The 43rd, which finally delivers a decent Slyv McCoy 3-parter. Let's cancel the series.

The Doctor takes Ace to visit the scene of her most traumatic childhood memory, like good friends do. The destination is Gabriel Chase, a large house in Perivale that Ace broke into as a teenager in 1983. The Doctor has brought her to the same house 100 years earlier, when it is inhabited by a rum assembly of coves. Some of these are locals, one's a Neanderthal butler, and some are members of a galactic survey team whose ship is in the cellar.

These latter creatures (or constructs - it's never specified) have some interesting powers including being able to develop their own forms to mimic the evolutionary processes of Earth, put animal organisms into a form of suspended animation, regress the forms of humans back through their evolutionary predecessors, and... erm... turn people to stone. Anyway, one of this team - calling himself Josiah Samuel Smith - is planning to assassinate Queen Victoria so he can become king. Now, even though that's a very silly plan that's probably unlikely to work, the Doctor releases the much more dangerous big boss Light from hibernation in the spaceship, to help stop Josiah. Luckily, Light can be talked to death, and everyone else lives happily ever after. Except the ones that get turned into stone. Or soup.

The whole family watched this over a few evenings on DVD, but they took some persuading. For some reason, the Better Half and all the kids (boys aged 10 and 7, girl of 4) moaned and groaned at the very idea of watching Ghost Light, even though most of them didn't even know what it was. Perhaps this is because we've watched a couple of other Slyv McCoy three-parters previously for the blog, and they've been pants. This one is of a different stamp, though, and - perhaps not coincidentally - is the first Slyv McCoy three-parter not directed by Chris Clough, who never managed to make them work.

Once it was underway, everyone stuck with it to the end; it has to be said, though, that it didn't keep the children rapt; there was much talking and fidgeting. This was doubly a shame, as Ghost Light is already difficult to hear, suffering as it does with an iffy sound mix. It is most unfortunate that this particular Doctor Who dialogue, where every line is vital to the story, is buried deep beneath the admittedly rather marvellous score.

First-time round:
I saw this upon its original broadcast on BBC1 in Autumn 1989. Can't remember the details particularly, but I do know I'd have been on my own. At this point, infamously, Doctor Who was put out opposite Coronation Street on ITV, the highest-rated programme of the time. The rest of the family would all have been watching that, and I'd have been in another room watching Doctor Who on my lonesome. As one did with the Slyvester McCoy stories. I also know that I taped it, as I watched it quite a few times in the days and weeks after its broadcast. As one did with Ghost Light.

There are three schools of thought on Ghost Light. School 1: it's complicated, and that's a bad thing - no wonder this was the last regular episode made in the original run, it offers no obvious explanations, you have to watch it twice at least to follow it, and Doctor Who had clearly become pretentious over-baked gobbledygook. School 2: it's complicated, and that's a good thing - it's such a shame this was the last regular episode made in the original run, as - because it offers no obvious explanations, and you have to watch it twice at least to follow it - Doctor Who was finally emerging into the video age, and fashioning itself accordingly, gaining important depth to the stories it told.

The third school comprises those that think it isn't complicated at all, and you just have to pay attention and all the explanations are there. Mostly, this seems to be a pose to start online arguments in Who forums. There's a kernel of truth in it, and if you understood everything about Ghost Light first time, then well done - clever old you. But demonstrably, it is complicated. It is a very dense script, with lots of allusions, shorthand and compression, and it moves breakneck fast to convey information. The ideas within aren't obvious ones either. To pick a random example from another Doctor Who story: the Judoon are space policemen that look like rhinos. That's easy and straightforward to grasp, everyone gets that in an instant. Control and Josiah, on the other hand, are a pair of linked entities that develop in a see-sawing inverse proportion to one another, one replicating the process of  evolution sped up in microcosm to eventually mirror the dominant life-form on a planet it visits, the other staying as it is for comparison. High concept, it ain't. Even if all that was actually spelt out by a character in the drama (and it isn't) it would still cause some noodle scratching.

Let me make it clear, though, that I am firmly in school 2; Ghost Light is a great story, even if it's sometimes baffling. Mind you, I like baffling things; I'm prepared to accept that I might be in a minority in that opinion; had this proved to be a new direction for Doctor Who rather than a one-off experiment, it might not have been a huge ratings winner. As it was, the programme was soon afterwards cancelled, in a decision that seemed to have nothing to do with the quality of the stories being produced, or even the ratings particularly. So, we can probably stop having online arguments about it, and try to take Ghost Light on its own merits.

Whatever one's thoughts are on the script, the production is indisputably class; it's effectively cast, performed, directed, scored, and - most surprisingly of all - it's lit well too. The 1980s most often saw Doctor Who flood-lit like a shiny floored light entertainment show, but Ghost Light couldn't be more different. The sets and costumes are superb, the effects work is above average. There's nothing letting the side down. Regarding that cast, there is almost too much quality to comment on: I could start to wax lyrical about Hogg, Cochrane, and Duce, and Syms, then realise I haven't said anything about Frank Windsor's lovely work. Or John Nettleton's, or Carl Forgoine's. John Hallam's choices as Light (his speech mostly in a very high choir-boy register, with occasional lapses into a snarl) seemed very brave and innovative at the time, but I've only just noticed that it's pretty much the same approach as Ian Reddington's Chief Clown, the big baddie in a Doctor Who story from the previous year also directed by Alan Wareing.

The two lead actors never performed better than they do here. Unfairly or not, Slyv and Sophie would be some people's first place to look to find any weak link; the former has a brief gurn when repelling Light's invisible forces in episode 3, and Sophie has the odd lapse into that 80s stage-school delinquent 'You ain't my probation officer, I ain't never 'ad no mum and dad not never ever' thing she sometimes did. But they are a team, and a fun team, with whom one might want to spend some time; arguably, the TARDIS hadn't had a crew with such a feel-good factor for nearly a decade. The shift of focus onto the companion was a welcome change too, and worked without diminishing the character of the Doctor as it really plays to McCoy's strengths for him to be slightly off to the side in the shadows, manipulating proceedings.

But if anyone tells you they understood it all after only one watch, ask them what's emanating from the snuffbox in episode 1, if Light is still hibernating in the cellar. Eh? Yeah? Eh? Yeah.

Both this story and Planet of Fire are John Nathan-Turner productions broadcast in the 1980s; again, there's a man of the cloth in the dramatis personae, and again the story contains discussions of science versus religion. Both stories don't really have a monster either; the husks were shoe-horned in, I believe at JNT's insistence, but they don't really do anything, so I don't think they count. 

Deeper Thoughts: 
Then Pat said: "Don't do more than three years, though". So, Peter Capaldi has handed in his notice; and it feels too soon, doesn't it? Of course, watching Ghost Light reminds me it's improved since the late 1980s, when the actors playing the Doctor didn't get any choice of when they were to leave. While working on Ghost Light, Slyvester McCoy fully intended to come back and do another full year. This would have been his fourth, and had it happened would have broken a near decade long rule that the lead actor shouldn't - or couldn't in the case of Colin Baker - do more than three years. Reportedly, Colin was told during his sacking that he'd done his three years and that was the normal span, even though no stories were made or broadcast during one of those three.

Peter Davison elected to leave after three years, based on advice given to him by Patrick Troughton who had done the same (although Pat made a lot more episodes in that time). Recently too, the rule of three has endured: it's become the standard to do only three full seasons, but with gaps to extend the overall elapsed time, and with the odd special-length episode slotted in here and there. That was the pattern for Tennant and Smith, and will be the pattern for Capaldi too. Except that only one additional special was squeezed in during his time; most of his 2016 gap year was silence. Perhaps it's this, but I think there's another reason why it feels like he's only just started.

There were always to my mind some superficial similarities between Colin Baker and Peter Capaldi: they'd both had guest starring roles in the show before being cast as the Doctor, they both shared a name (although in Capaldi's case it was a first name) with a previous actor to play the Doctor, they were both best known for one long-running role prior to playing the Doctor (both playing characters you 'love to hate'), and they were both fans of Doctor Who before they got to be in it. There was also a more significant similarity: both actors played the Doctor as a fairly unlikeable so-and-so to begin with. Despite this being a key contributing factor to the show's being paused for a rethink in Colin's time, in Capaldi's second series they back-pedal even more that JNT and Co. did on that first-year approach. From the start of the 2015 season, the Doctor is a different person, hugging, playing guitar and wearing shades -  an embarrassing dad, rather that the ferocious pre-watershed Malcolm Tucker he'd been the year before. Someone somewhere had got cold feet, perhaps the actor himself.

The nicer Dad Rock Who has only been around for a year, and it was such a departure it was like starting over. This is the main reason why I feel that Peter Capaldi is only just bedding in to the role. There's a season of his episodes yet to air, and he may find another completely different way to play it again. Certainly, there will be a different dynamic with a new female companion. Whatever happens, I think he's going to leave us wanting more.

In Summary:
Ghost Light is unsummarise-able.