Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Leisure Hive

Chapter The 64th, which makes Who feel, yeah it ma-a-a-akes Who feel, shiny and new...

The Doctor and Romana visit Argolis, a planet of tourism where you can hear obscure scientific lectures and can't step out onto the surface because of the fall-out from a nuclear war (exactly what any right thinking person would want from a vacation). The Argolin race is dying out, having been made sterile by the war, but an Earth scientist Hardin is working on some confusing but nice experiments to save them; it turns out, though, that the youngest of the Argolin, Pangol, is also working on some confusing experiments to save them, but evil. Pangol has been cloned by the Argolin's science of tachyonics, as it can clone things as well as make things travel faster than light, reverse ageing, and make your limbs fly off in amusing directions without harming you; this is because it is a thoroughly worked out science, and definitely not made up magic nonsense at all. Also present are a faction of tubby lizard creatures who are trying to sabotage things, so they can buy up the planet, and another faction of the lizards trying to stop the first faction, and the Doctor gets aged for a while, and cloned too. It can get hectic when you have a holiday, can't it?!

Watched from the DVD on a Sunday on my own after the family got back from our own holiday (see the Deeper Thoughts section below for more details). People wandered in occasionally but nobody but me went the full distance. Middle child (boy of 8) stayed longest; he's the biggest Doctor Who fan in the family after me right now, I think. The Better Half came in during episode 4 and claimed no memory of ever watching this one with me before (she says she definitely would have remembered a young David Haig with a green face).

First-time round: 
I moved in to a flat with the Better Half during Easter weekend 1996, a studio apartment with no central heating, a black-and-white TV, and a one-bar electric fire. Bliss. This was the first time I'd lived outside the parental home or halls, and it was jolly exciting; I was taking new steps on life's road, and watching Doctor Who stories I'd never seen before, and in very real ways equating the two. The Better Half and I were sufficiently in love that she didn't mind my Doctor Who video collection. None of those tapes were inflicted on her too soon, though, as we didn't have a VCR to begin with; plus, the Beeb had suspended releases at that point, as the Paul McGann TV Movie was imminent, and its senior production people didn't want old stories to share the shelves with it, when it was released on video. Apart from one other release in the Autumn as a tribute to the recently departed Jon Pertwee, nothing except the TV Movie was released until the VHS range was relaunched in January 1997 with The Leisure Hive.

The VHS release marked the first time I'd got to see the story. I'm ashamed to say that I was watching (and loving) Buck Rogers in the Twenty-First Century on ITV rather than catching Gallifrey's finest on their trip to Argolis when it was first broadcast in 1980. But I didn't know what I was missing, as I didn't get hooked on Who until the following year, when they showed a season of repeats, see here for more on that. In 1997, I got to watch it in colour, as by then I had saved enough pennies to pay for a colour licence and get a VCR. I was temporarily alone, though, and missing my beloved who had started her university course (we'd met during her year out). This is probably why she didn't get to see it then. It probably cheered poor lonely me up a bit, but not enough.

Orson Welles' Touch of Evil starts with a sequence achieved in a single long shot that tracks a car, which we see at the very start has had a bomb planted on it. The camera drifts around various people and locations, following the car, introducing the main characters, setting up the world in which they operate, and all the time building suspense as the bomb ticks. The Leisure Hive also starts with a single long, long tracking shot which shows some deckchairs. One of these shots is justly celebrated, the other is from The Leisure Hive. It's baffling, particularly given the efforts all round by the incoming John Nathan-Turner to make his first story as producer a shiny and exciting new start for Doctor Who, that he let episode 1 go out starting with a ninety second sequence where nothing happens. You even hear snoring (the Doctor's) on the soundtrack.

It doesn't stop there; The Leisure Hive contains visual sequences dotted throughout that halt the action, or at least take place significantly slower than scenes either side. Probably Bickford's exemplar was not Welles but Stanley Kubrick's work in 2001 A Space Odyssey, but that film is constructed wholly of long mostly wordless sequences, so any one sequence feels part of the overall pace. And Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, as successful as he was, was still nonetheless being indulgent: life happens in our consciousness in fast cuts, only a distancing godlike perspective sees things in long fluid sequences; he had to make it absolutely perfect to justify the artifice. So, I'm basically saying Lovett Bickford, director of this story, was being more indulgent. Than Orson Welles. Or Stanley Kubrick. Dwell for a moment on exactly how much chutzpah a director working at the BBC requires for that.

Multiple times on the DVD documentaries accompanying the story, John Nathan-Turner is praised for getting the budget onto the screen in as glossy a way as possible (he gives the show a much-needed kick up the Eighties with a spruced up theme tune and new opening credits sequence, for example) while simultaneously he's criticised for not having any narrative understanding. This possibly explains Lovett Bickford's excesses. He's been given leeway by a producer keen to make a visual splash, but that producer doesn't realise when his visuals are working against the story, and doesn't intercede. Not to say that every choice by Bickford is bad. He inspired June Hudson (Costumes) and Peter Howell (incidental music) to do great things here, and some of his work hits home - the hive's exteriors really feel like they are outside on a desolate planet, for example. It would be lovely to see a screenwriter's cut, though, with every confusing shot or reuse of the shuttle-docking model footage snipped out. Ditto the entire beginning sequence on Brighton beach - five whole minutes - as it doesn't move the plot on at all; there's a bit of exposition and a histrionic bit to write out K9, but essentially it just covers a decision by the TARDIS team to go on holiday, which could have been conveyed on the move in a scene starting on Argolis. There's one tiny moment, the first, long held-back reveal of Tom Baker's face in a big close-up (Bickford loves close-ups) which is worth keeping, but the rest can go.
Other personnel on the story are also trying a little too hard on their virgin run. Christopher Hamilton Bighead, sorry I mean Bidmead, arrives as a missionary in the land of Doctor Who, keen to spread the gospel of scientific rigour and wag a finger at any sinful silliness. But he gets bogged down immediately in unnecessary technical detail. Underneath all the trappings, this is a traditional story, written after all by the go-to writer of the previous couple of years (the 'silly' era that Bidmead and Nathan-Turner were meant to be kicking against). This story takes a long time to get going, though, as for the early episodes everyone is doing experiments. Someone dies in the tachyonic generator, but nobody investigates, and instead they hit the lab and melt egg-timers. Only towards the end of episode 3, when everyone's had their fill of showing off, do things step up a gear. Mafia lizards are unmasked, a xenophobic madman starts threatening to blow everybody up, an army of clones marches. But it's too late to make the story truly great, as it could have been.

Both stories have a subplot where the military has given way to science, and both contain a Doctor that's aged over 1000 (Tom after he's been aged by the generator, and Matt Smith is that old anyway after all that monkeying around with the astronaut in the lake and whatnot).

Deeper Thoughts:
A Tale of Two City Breaks. Last year, without really planning it, I ended up spending my summer holiday in a Doctor Who filming location, Leeds Castle, and watched the appropriate story while there. This year, I considered various destinations where it might be possible to repeat this experience, but in the end just reverted to the family default of a week renting a cottage in the Isle of Wight (as it's not too dear). I didn't think any stories had been filmed there, but a quick perusal of my Bignell (not a dodgy euphemism, but a flick through Richard Bignell's 2001 reference book 'Doctor Who on Location') revealed that it has happened once. As well as filming in Portsmouth and in the Solent, the crew of The Sea Devils took a hovercraft (it's a Jon Pertwee one, so it must have been a hovercraft, surely) to sunny Vectis for various scenes of that 1972 story.

As I'd watched and blogged Doctor Who and the Silurians recently, it felt too soon to do its sequel and publish thirteen episodes' worth of prehistoric hi-jinks in one month; plus, the Isle of Wight filming for Sea Devils was mainly of cliffs, and there'd be nothing for the kids to do if I dragged them there. Maybe next year. The ultimate Sea Devils themed holiday, of course, would be to visit No Man's Land Sea Fort, which has now been converted into a hotel. It would be great; you could sit in your room and enact the moment when the undersea creatures infiltrate, or you could pretend to be stuntman Stuart Fell pretending to be Katy Manning climbing the steps to board. The trouble is it's been converted into a luxury hotel, and at upward of 400 pounds per person per night, it seems a little steep, just so I can watch the DVD and say "I've been there". As a gesture, I took a photo from the Catamaran on the way over to the Isle of said sea fort (or likely one of the other ones, they all look the same from this distance). It is reproduced here for your pleasure.

Anyway, I let the randomiser do its thing, and packed the DVD it nominated in my suitcase, planning to watch it one evening in the cottage after we got back from the beach. It was a somewhat apt choice as The Leisure Hive is one of those stories, like The Androids of Tara from last summer, where the characters are having a holiday too. But it was geographically inappropriate, as The Leisure Hive is one of the few stories filmed in my neck of the woods. Watching it in Shanklin, I would have been significantly further away from the location depicted than I would have been at home. In the end, I did watch the story at home. In another chapter in the death of physical media, this was the first place we've booked in many years that didn't have a DVD player. I didn't even think to check, I never imagined it wouldn't be there as standard, but I suppose it's the way things are going. It had a smart TV box, so we could have watched some Doctor Who, if I could have been bothered to link to Netflix and put in my account details; but Netflix doesn't carry The Leisure Hive, or any classic series episodes. So, I watched it after the holiday. I didn't take my laptop to Brighton beach to do this, so there's no photo except for the usual one of a cold Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. It is reproduced here for your pleasure.

In Summary:
The visuals are good. The story is good. But not ever at the same time, and they sort of cancel each other out. If only their phases could have been locked with a divider circuit on the wafer wave inducer.

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