Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Because the order in which I first saw Doctor Who stories was all cattywampus, Battlefield was my first proper view of the Brigadier in action. I had fond memories of Mawdryn Undead, but I had no context as to who he was when The Doctor seemed to recognize this befuddled school teacher from 1983. It took me a few seconds, then, to first realize, then remember, who this aging man in a flat cap was, being dragged around a greenhouse by his wife like so many emasculated suburban males before him.
Battlefield doesn't make assumptions about the character of the Brigadier: it assumes you know him and his history, and that his appearance in the very first scene would inspire a heartwarming reaction from the viewing audience. But Mawdryn Undead and The Five Doctors, the last two stories to feature the Brig, aired six years earlier, and Doris, the Brigadier's wife who also appears in this opening scene, is named in a throwaway reference in 1974's Planet of the Spiders (which hadn't even been released on video at that point). Regular viewers (never mind burgeoning super-fans like I was at the time) may have experienced confusion, as is possibly evidenced by the record low ratings the original series started off its final season with.
That said, Nicholas Courtney's presence is never unwelcome, and the scene towards the end of the episode where he dons his old uniform again (complete with swagger stick) is very sweet, and the red herring of his impending death is nicely foreshadowed (thank the maker that they never killed off the character). That foreshadowing scene is emblematic of another scene in this episode set in the TARDIS console room. It is the last such scene set inside The Doctor's time ship, and barely at that. While the console is the same one used in the series since 1983, the surrounding backdrop is a cloth with light coloured circles on it, the original set walls having been destroyed between seasons. While the series would endure a "rest" after this season, it is quite clear, in retrospect, what intentions the BBC had for Doctor Who all along...
Posted by Steven at 2:46 PM
Friday, April 19, 2013
I possibly spoke ill of John Nathan-Turner in the previous post, but, really, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is one of his greatest triumphs as a producer. Threatened with cancellation thanks to asbestos removal in BBC Television Centre, JNT rallied the troops and managed to remount the production on the parking lot at BBC Elstree when no other recording situation seemed possible. He even suggested the somewhat bombastic title for this story, and it speaks more that it suggests: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. It reflects Nathan-Turner's great love and passion for the show he was running, even though he longed to leave its glitzy grasp and had been looking for new and different opportunities for years.
The star of this episode though, and the whole story, is Sylvester McCoy. Wonderfully talented enough as he is, he adds magic tricks to his already impressive repertoire here, and there has never been a more iconic image for his Doctor - for any Doctor - than McCoy casually and confidently strolling out of the Psychic Circus tent seconds before it explodes in a massive display of pyrotechnics. It's a stunt that would never, ever be performed today because of the insurance risks involved, but McCoy, always keen to do his own stunts, performs the stunt flawlessly, especially when you consider that, with the set being destroyed by the explosion, the scene could only have been done on a single take.
Much like Stephen Wyatt's other story though, Paradise Towers, I have a hard time deciding whether this story is a creepy pantomime or just pantomime, which is another one of Nathan-Turner's loves. It's also, more or less, the last story of its kind, the small sub-category dubbed by fandom in subsequent years as "oddball stories". Season 26 took on a slightly darker bent, then the franchise got even more dark and grim in the original novels that followed in the 1990s, an approach that carried on through to the new series. I could never say I was a fan of these oddball entries into Who lore, but I appreciate them for what they are - yet another different approach to storytelling that Doctor Who has somehow managed to pull off to remain fresh over the decades. Even in its 25th year on television, it was trying to do something weird and wonderful, and for that, and for many other reasons, this story and the programme that it's a part of is just lovely.
Posted by Steven at 3:25 PM
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
My recent extended hiatus during the progress of this blog allowed for enough time for Richard Marson to research, write, and publish his excellent biography on producer John Nathan-Turner. (As I type this, the first batch of copies of this are being sent out to people who pre-ordered the book; I strongly recommend picking it up, and you can place an order here: http://www.miwkpublishing.com/store/index.php?_a=product&product_id=30). To say that the book has altered my perception of the John Nathan-Turner era is an understatement. It hasn't changed the way I enjoy the episodes in a superficial fashion, but knowing what was going on behind the scenes at the time brings some verisimilitude to onscreen events.
The character of Whizzkid had a more prominent role in an earlier draft of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, but various script changes ended up making the character somewhat redundant. Whizzkid lived on, although he was now transformed from a boy genius looking to impress the crowd at the Psychic Circus, into a thinly drawn parody of a typical obsessive Doctor Who fan. For years, I thought this was a harmless little joke. However, knowing that Nathan-Turner and his partner Gary Downie used to thrive on going to Doctor Who conventions in the United States in the 1980s (and partake in some fairly rambunctious activities, as outlined in Marson's book), sometimes at the expense of helming the very show they were producing, makes me think that the satire was directed towards fandom with a little more acidic approach than initially thought.
Gian Sammarco, who plays Whizzkid, was 18 at the time this story was being made. (His costume is actually prescient: the pullover could be seen as an homage to Sylvester McCoy's own garment, but the bowtie, shirt, and glasses wouldn't look out of place on a current day Eleventh Doctor cosplayer). He may or may not have been viewed as a "doable barker" by JNT and Downie, but Sammarco is handsome looking enough. I am not for one second implying that Sammarco was cast for clandestine reasons (he was a talented actor at the time, having just come off a successful stint as the lead role in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole), but his appearance as Whizzkid seems to sum up both aspects of fandom that JNT and Gary Downie would have encountered at the many Doctor Who conventions they attended at the time.
I used to think that JNT unequivocally cared about the fans at the time. He may well have indeed, but his suggestion of the Whizzkid character smacks of a blatant disrespect to the fanbase that had elevated Nathan-Turner to near superstar status. Never before had the show's producer have as much of, if not more so, a public profile than the lead actor playing The Doctor himself. Whizzkid may also be a reaction to the treatment that those same fans were now giving Nathan-Turner at the time as the pages of Doctor Who Magazine and, especially, DreamWatch Bulletin, were filled with angry letters demanding his resignation for supposedly ruining their favourite show. Whatever the reason, the character of Whizzkid represented a troubling time for both the state of Doctor Who, and the status and mindset of its longest serving producer.
Posted by Steven at 3:37 PM
Thursday, April 4, 2013
Doctor Who had always flirted with popular music over the course of its long history, from The Beatles' off-key caterwauling in 1965's The Chase to the character of the DJ spinning classic records in 1985's Revelation of the Daleks. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, though, sees Doctor Who take some tenuous steps into the world of rap music, not just as background music, but worked into the narrative. Performed by Ricco Ross as the Ringmaster, it actually comes off not too badly, even if the backing music sounds like an approximation of what a white guy thinks rap music sounds like.
And that white guy is Mark Ayres, who makes his musical debut in Doctor Who with a very unusual score, certainly in comparison with his subsequent scores in Season 26. Ayres relies on his drum machine for the backbone of a lot of the music, but Ayres's device is much more subtle and tasteful than the bombastic digital percussion that Keff McCulloch employs. The score is offbeat, no pun intended, just like the story it features in, which is as precise and perfect a matchup between story and score as heard in the series up to this point.
And I've been resisting the urge to talk about how chillingly awesome Ian Reddington is as the Chief Clown because I could include something exemplary that he does in each episode review. The best aspect of his performance might be the different registers he speaks in depending on what he's talking about and whom he's talking to. He's got the creepy clown laugh down for his public persona, welcoming guests into the tent, and his "normal" voice when he's directing his robot clowns or asserting his authority over the rest of the troupe of the Psychic Circus. But it's his hoarse whisper when he's threatening Ace or demanding answers out of Bellboy that is downright frightening. When Ace escapes after being surrounded by clowns and interrogated about Flower Child's earring, instead of barking an order at his minions to catch her, he merely utters a quiet "After her!", which is much more effective than any ranting villain performance could have done. Reddington is just wonderful, and provides one of the top guest performances seen in some time.
Posted by Steven at 2:49 PM
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
It doesn't seem immediately apparent, but Part One of this story features the final scenes in the TARDIS set built in 1983 for The Five Doctors. After this, the classic series would see the inside of The Doctor's time machine once more, in Battlefield, where the walls are little more than drapes disguised by low lighting. I always adored the 1983-89 console room set, especially the ultra-futuristic console as designed by Mike Kelt. It had computer monitors on it! But the TARDIS interior has always been a place of safety and inactivity, and as a result, the energetic Seventh Doctor and Ace always seemed out of place on the rare occasions that they found themselves within its safe confines. Seeing The Doctor practice juggling and Ace rummage around the TARDIS wardrobe for her rucksack while events are occurring on Segonax seems just a tad too "traditional" Doctor Who for the Cartmel era.
The characters on Segonax, though, are anything but traditional. I particularly love Peggy Mount's crusty stalls lady character, and Nord, Vandal of the Roads, is outrageous, but so much fun. Like with the various eccentrics in stories like Delta and the Bannermen, they provide Sylvester McCoy an opportunity to play it straight by comparison. This is particularly evident in his brief few scenes opposite T.P. Mckenna's wonderful Captain Cook, about whom more later.
In fact, McCoy is the real star of this episode, despite all the madness that's going on in this initial installment. His best scene is when he discombobulates the bus conductor robot with a flurry of increasingly speedy bafflegab, then, once he blows the robot up, his subtle delivery of the quip "Just the ticket." is sublime. Both McCoy and Sophie Aldred are on form here, especially compared to their previous outing in Silver Nemesis (which was shot after this story, and, indeed, delays in production of Greatest Show prevented the two leads from having a full rehearsal period for Nemesis). Part One of this story might be less than the sum of its parts for me, but it at least helps cleanse the palette after the previous story...
Posted by Steven at 2:18 PM
There is only one thing worse than the broadcast version of Silver Nemesis, and that is the extended version of Silver Nemesis released on VHS in 1993. That special release had extra scenes soldered into the broadcast version, sans incidental music (which some might see as an improvement), but viewers were disappointed to see that the previously deleted scenes contained no dramatic confrontations or exciting story developments. No, the only added bonus was seeing interminable dialogue scenes between Nazis in a van, ludicrous pantomime involving The Doctor and the Queen's guard, and seemingly countless extra scenes involving Lady Peinforte hitching a ride with a wealthy dowager, played by aging film icon Dolores Gray.
That so many scenes involving Gray's Mrs. Remington were scripted and shot, let alone the few that were actually included in the finished programme, is a testament to the sheer overindulgence on the part of the production team. They thought they could do no wrong when everything was going wrong. The scenes in Mrs. Remington's limousine are among the very worst ever shot for Doctor Who, and certainly the most pointless. Kevin Clarke wrote the script for this story, his first and (thankfully) last effort in Doctor Who, but producer John Nathan-Turner was keen on getting Dolores Gray into the programme. Director Chris Clough seemed to be just along for the ride. Even script editor Andrew Cartmel, who was on his way to shaping a fairly notable era in Doctor Who history, apparently suffered amnesia as the basic plot of Nemesis is the exact same as the Cartmel-commissioned Remembrance of the Daleks two stories previously. Ace even states in this story that The Doctor defeated the Cybermen "just like he nailed the Daleks"!
Everything in Silver Nemesis seems to be thrown in for either cheap laughs or cheaper thrills. Ace slaughters an entire division of Cybermen armed only with slingshot and a bag of gold coins. The Cybermen die spectacularly, frequently, and completely unrealistically. Lady Peinforte becomes increasingly deranged and useless as the story moves to its limp climax, and her only line of dialogue seems to be "All things will soon be mine!". The Nazis are stupid and ineffectual. Everything looks like a slightly higher budget fanfilm, and the script has been written to match those lofty expectations.
When I started this blog far too many years ago, I already knew that The Caves of Androzani would most likely remain my favourite story ever, and I was fairly sure that the award for my least favourite story would go unreservedly to Timelash. But this entire blog has been an eye opening experience for me, forcing me to see things in stories that I had watched dozens of times but never picked up upon until it came time to put my thoughts down in an episode review. Intended to celebrate 25 years of Doctor Who, Silver Nemesis feels nothing like Doctor Who. Despite being only three episodes long, it is remarkably padded. It's cheap, tawdry, and a slap in the face to everyone who worked on the show for the previous 25 years.
I can honestly say that my vote for not only my least favourite, but the worst classic series Doctor Who story of all time, is Silver Nemesis.
Posted by Steven at 11:40 AM
The beginning of Part Two perks up with the first appearance in three years of the Cybermen, now shinier and, perhaps in a tribute to the Fifth Doctor's affinity with cricket, equipped with cricket gloves painted silver. (As an aside, I made a Cyberman costume as a teenager and felt justified in taping up my hockey gloves - that's ice hockey for you outside of North America - with aluminum foil based on what was done to create the new Cybermen costumes here.) A Nazi soldier opens fire on the Cybermen, which has no effect, after which the Cyberleader (played again by David Banks, who is always awesome) shouts what was possibly intended to be their new catchphrase "Eradicate them!". Great! Now this story is starting to pick up steam after a shaky start!
Ah, wait. A weak smoke effect emits out of a Cyberman's gun, and a somewhat limp and ineffective gun battle ensues. I remember watching The Making of Silver Nemesis, which heavily featured this scene, and director Chris Clough promised that the new Cyberguns would be a "flying photon pulse" akin to the new Dalek weaponry seen earlier in the season. Video effects wizard Dave Chapman is even seen on set to validate these claims! But no. A puff of smoke is now the new Cybergun effect. A puff of smoke.
But remember when the Nazis' guns failed to even dent the Cybermen's chest units? Well, they should have tried gold tipped arrows fired from a long distance, because that is precisely what wipes out at least two Cybermen in this battle when Lady Peinforte manages to destroy a Cyberman with a bow and arrow at 50 paces when she couldn't hit a dormant pigeon at 20 paces in the previous episode. As Harry Sullivan said in Revenge of the Cybermen, gold is a particularly soft metal. So why would anyone make arrowheads out of it??? It's just another of the staggering coincidences that propel this story along, like the enormous amount of trust the Nazis place in the fact that the Nemesis bow they're all protecting is probably still in its case so there isn't any reason to check it if it's there until the very end of the episode.
And then there are the skinheads, who serve precisely zero purpose whatsoever to the story, and are only slightly less superfluous than the Cyber-controlled Walkmen (yes, they're called the Walkmen, because these particular men walk, apparently), who appear and disappear with no regularity through the course of the story.
And the story gets even worse from here on in.
My first experience with Silver Nemesis was watching The Making of Silver Nemesis, a New Jersey Network documentary that profiled the production of the 25th anniversary story of Doctor Who. I saw this in the fall of 1988, several months before I even saw the story that was being profiled, and, as a result, I had never looked forward to watching a new Doctor Who story more than this one.
When I finally saw Silver Nemesis for the first time, my pure excitement to finally watch this epic story most likely blinded me from any objective thinking or any other standard brain functions. Today, I can see that Silver Nemesis is actually terrible. Part One is possibly the least worst of the three episodes, but there's still some relentless running around so The Doctor can spout exposition to Ace in a variety of different locations and times. (The TARDIS is also conveniently pinpoint accurate in this story.) The episode also includes a ridiculous pseudo-cameo from "Queen Elizabeth II" walking her corgis, unexplained escapes from Windsor Castle, a cafe full of people who react with what could be described as restrained indifference when two people dressed like they're from the 17th century magically (yes, magically) appear in the middle of the room, and so on.
Part One, though, shows off not only the worst aspects of John Nathan-Turner's era as producer of Doctor Who, but also of Russell T Davies's tenure as show runner some 20 years after this story aired for most of the reasons listed above. Davies's worst excesses included needless pop culture cameos (just as Courtney Pine makes a confusing appearance here, playing a gig on a sunny, summer lawn in late November), impersonations of world leaders, multiple time periods as settings signposted by onscreen captions, and, most egregious of all, black magic in place of science. Most of these transgressions occur in the David Tennant/RTD era finale "celebration" The End of Time, while Silver Nemesis was billed as the official celebration of Doctor Who's 25th anniversary.
And the story gets worse from here on in.
Posted by Steven at 9:34 AM
Thursday, March 21, 2013
The Happiness Patrol is one of the angriest Doctor Who stories every made. It has since come to light that writer Graeme Curry and script editor Andrew Cartmel, among others, had a healthy distaste for then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and were working in ideas, however subtle or blatant, of how to lampoon and protest the Iron Lady. Sheila Hancock, who played Terra Alpha's leader Helen A, says she based elements of her performance on Thatcher. In retrospect, it seems somewhat obvious that this is what the production crew were going for, but at the time, such subversiveness was very uncommon for Doctor Who.
It is a story of anarchy as a solution. The Doctor challenges himself to take down an oppressive government in a single night and succeeds, but has no plans on who should take over in that government's stead. No one - not the Killjoys, the Pipe People, the disenfranchised Happiness Patrolers - are shown any favour in terms of story or by The Doctor's actions as being the right person or persons to lead Terra Alpha into a new age. Earl Sigma stays behind only to teach the planet "the blues". All this is a typical solution for the ultimate punk rock anarchists, the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Both the characters of the TARDIS team come from outside the normal boundaries of their respective societies, just as the actors portraying them do. Both characters are orphans from their pasts, eager to leave their history behind but keeping the rebellious nature that isolated them in the first place. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred came into the acting profession via less-than-orthodox means, too, and it helps their respective performances. McCoy's Doctor is the Sex Pistols to Colin Baker's Pink Floyd. They're anarchic uprisings against the (perceived) bloated excess that preceded them.
Graeme Curry deserves full credit for writing one of the sharpest and smartest scripts ever seen in Doctor Who, and joins Barbara Clegg as people who wrote only one story for Doctor Who, and both were imaginative triumphs. Acclaim must also go to director Chris Clough, whose previous attempts veered from satisfactory to disappointing, but who shows artistic flair and the confidence to keep the lighting darker and moodier than anything else seen in the John Nathan-Turner era. His initial idea of shooting the entire story as a black and white film noir sounded enticing, too. Fortunately, The Happiness Patrol is strong enough on its own without the need for a gimmick, and is also one of Doctor Who's most underrated stories.
Posted by Steven at 3:34 PM
The same contemporary British press and public that lauded Remembrance of the Daleks as a long-awaited return to glory for a fading icon were the same group of people who then immediately decried the Kandy Man's appearance in Doctor Who as the final nail in the coffin for the show. How could a pantomime villain that looks like Bertie Bassett ever be taken seriously? For that matter, how could a television programme with an evil Bertie Bassett be taken seriously?
I love the Kandy Man, especially for the reasons I just stated, not in spite of them. In a place where everyone is required to be happy, but the people who are the least happy are the eponymous Happiness Patrol, how could you not have a robot made out of candy that makes sweets that kill people? The Kandy Man is such a wonderfully subversive idea that it borders on brilliance. I am so glad the original scripted description of the Kandy Man, a typical scientist in a white lab coat, was tossed out in favour of the design we get here. The Kandy Man succeeds where the possessed Croagnon in Paradise Towers fails - an obviously ridiculous force of evil, but this time with actual, real menace. It doesn't hurt that the Kandy Man is brought to life by a wonderful performance by David John Pope. The Kandy Man's repartee with Gilbert M is like that of an old embittered married couple ("What time do you call this?" is one of my favourite lines), and Pope's outlandish delivery veers from wild ranting to his almost sensual descriptions of what goes into his deadly sweets; he is excellent.
And then there's the scene where The Doctor stares two snipers down and not only talks them out of shooting innocent protesters but practically dares them not to. The two gunmen start out the scene as macho misanthropists, wishing for better guns to help them mow down their fellow man. During their encounter with The Doctor, they back down, unsure - almost scared - of the task they have been ordered to do, and become better people because of it. It is a scene full of righteous anger on the part of Sylvester McCoy, who is superb in this story, as he perfectly portrays his Doctor as someone who abhors any and all violence because he is so confident in his abilities that he knows he will never need to use it.
Posted by Steven at 3:20 PM
The way The Happiness Patrol starts is almost in complete, and deliberate, contradiction to how a "normal" Doctor Who story would begin. Usually The Doctor lands on a planet, sees that not everything is as it seems, gets captured, learns more as the story progresses, discovered who the oppressors/antagonists are, defeats them. In Happiness, The Doctor emerges from the TARDIS telling Ace that he's heard of Terra Alpha already and how he needs to take down the government there - tonight. And, to further turn things around, The Doctor and Ace have to go out of their way to get arrested, even when threatened by a trigger happy bunch of gun toting aging cheerleaders.
This approach lends itself so well to how the Andrew Cartmel era was starting to take shape at this time with it putting The Doctor front and center as the catalyst that makes everything happen. It also is a great example of how to properly exploit the new three-episode format. More stuff happens in the first few minutes of this episode than would in almost any other four-parter. It's been said quite often that a new series episode of Doctor Who is essentially a four-part classic story cut and edited into a tight, 45-minute episode. The three-part stories of the 1980s are like a transition into that way of storytelling. There's enough going on in stories like The Happiness Patrol, and enough characters to support the storyline or storylines, that it could easily be filled (or padded) out into four episodes (as the deleted scenes on their accompanying DVD releases would attest), but everything is so tightly written and edited that there is seldom room for a stray line or superfluous scene that doesn't advance the story.
The setting for this story is also very bizarre, and the abrupt ends to scenes that were brought on by judicious editing actually help in setting an overall tone of unease. Just when you think you're getting to grips with this weird place and its cheerleader security squad, the scene changes to a crazy robot made out of licorice all sorts, then to a grotesque parody of Margaret Thatcher, who appears to be running the whole place. It's all so unsettling so early on, and that's what always compels me to watch it even more.
Posted by Steven at 3:06 PM
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Part Four of this story features one of the most memorable cameos ever in the form of the Special Weapons Dalek. Appearing in only a couple short scenes, this new entry into Dalek lore is part Dalek, part anti-tank cannon, and all powerful. It's also an easy out for the Imperial Daleks (and the writers) as it wipes out an entire squadron of Renegade Daleks with one cannon blast, and then obliterates a door leading to a large Dalek-on-Dalek battle that has been teased throughout all four episodes. The SWD is almost too powerful, and while it is way cool to watch here, it's so dominant that drama and story would surely be casualties in the carnage of any potential future appearances. (Though a dormant Special Weapons Dalek appears as one of the derelict pepperpots in Asylum of the Daleks. It is somewhat gratifying that such mass destruction weighs on the mind of even the most murderous of Daleks.)
Remembrance of the Daleks is surely one of the best Dalek stories ever made, and is certainly the best Dalek story made in the 1980s. It's also rightly seen as a defining moment in the Sylvester McCoy era, and is often called a shining beacon of late-80s Doctor Who. However, I've always had a problem with the fact that The Doctor not only knows too much in this story, he knows everything. Nothing surprises The Doctor in this story. The greatest surprise he encounters is when he discovers Harry is off shift when he visits the cafe in Part Two, but then he remembers that his wife is in labor with twins. Even when the Dalek shuttle landing catches him off guard, he only relents that he "might have miscalculated". Even Davros's "surprise" appearance towards the end of Part Four fails to impress him. The Dalek creator's appearance was, like most of the other events in this story, expected.
Every event that happens in this story occurs because The Doctor has engineered it. As we learn more and more about The Doctor's plan, it becomes less of a question of whether The Doctor can defeat the Daleks (both factions), and more of how stupid the Daleks will look when they play right into The Doctor's hands. After elevating (literally) the Daleks once again to their lofty heights not seen since the 1960s, the actions of the Seventh Doctor bring them, and their creator, Davros, right back down again. Davros was a brilliant, scheming scientist in his debut appearance in Genesis of the Daleks, then descended into a ranting megalomaniac in his subsequent stories before reverting back to a nefarious manipulator in Revelation of the Daleks. In Remembrance, though, Davros appears at the end only to rant again, and The Doctor quite easily tricks Davros into destroying Skaro by using Davros's stereotypical temper against him. And while one Dalek had a squadron of soldiers effectively pinned down in a junkyard in Part One, The Doctor merely walks up to the Supreme Dalek at the end of Part Four and talks it into committing suicide. In making the Daleks so demonstrably inferior to The Doctor, the Daleks are now more more easily thwarted than any staircase has ever managed to do.
The era of the Dark Doctor has begun, and with no great subtlety, either. However, this approach does give the series a focus that it hasn't had in several years, and the team of the Seventh Doctor and Ace starts strong as Ace is given lots to do, and even has a romance (with a traitorous, xenophobic, racist who dies horribly in the end) in her first proper story. Remembrance of the Daleks is also a story that most fans wouldn't feel embarrassed for, and, after the occasional pantomime antics of the past season, that is perhaps the best thing to say about it.
Posted by Steven at 1:50 PM
It's not often that Doctor Who predicts the future, either by accident or design, when it comes to the technological world. The notion of a world wide web of computers connected to one another and communicating with each other was first raised in Doctor Who in 1966's The War Machines, and revisited in 1973 in The Green Death - both stories decades before the Internet that we know and love became commonplace. However, it is more common to have Doctor Who be in step with current technology, perhaps even a couple months ahead. It is then when it looks slightly silly in retrospect.
Bubble wrap had just entered the market in the mid-70s when the special effects designers on The Ark in Space decided to make each of the progressive stages of the Wirrn out of the packing material. The current ubiquity of bubble wrap thus causes many a smirk and a guffaw from viewers who are watching the story today. When the props buyer for Remembrance of the Daleks was nosing about looking for a futuristic looking device to use for the Renegade Daleks' time controller, he settled on an otherworldly device that was just beginning to show up on store shelves - a plasma globe. Of course, once the story aired in the autumn of 1988, plasma globes were everywhere, which had the knock-on effect of allowing kids everywhere to be able to buy (at a premium, at the time) a Dalek time controller of their very own. (I'd laugh at this today if I still didn't want one of these lamps in the worst way.)
There's quite a bit of exposition in this episode where we see various factions talk amongst themselves about what they'll be doing in future, more exciting episode to come. The Doctor even sits Ace down to explain his plan while soldiers rush about at Coal Hill School, setting up a defence for an impending Dalek attack. (A troubling aside: The Doctor explains to Ace that he's using the military merely as a distraction to keep the Renegade Daleks busy, but several soldiers are killed in the ensuing battle for this "distraction".) The episode ends, though, with an impressive, live action effects sequence featuring a rare, full-sized model of an Imperial Dalek shuttlecraft landing in the middle of a playground. You really get the impression that everyone is giving it their all to make a big, expensive looking story, and they're just about succeeding.
Posted by Steven at 12:10 PM
Friday, March 15, 2013
Several stories of the Barry Letts era have been cited as having a message behind them, be it colonialism (The Mutants), environmentalism (The Green Death), or the inherent, everyday dangers of dealing with anti-matter (The Three Doctors). However, these messages were told as allegories instead of being explicit. The Mutants does its best to reflect the apartheid policy that South Africa was ruled with at the time, but has any direct references muted both by its director and the 29th century, otherworldly setting of the story. The Green Death was much more overt in its demands for environmental change, but it's still a story that is chiefly remembered as "the one with the maggots".
Fifteen years after The Green Death, Doctor Who deals with another issue - racism - in Remembrance of the Daleks, but, this time, the programme attacks it head on by placing the story smack dab in the middle of one of the more contentious decades for race relations ever. The squabble between the "racially pure" Renegade Daleks and the modified Imperial Daleks is echoed by the low level racial paranoia portrayed by Mike Smith, his mother, and Mike's friends who run a fascist organization. Ace's discovery of the "NO COLOUREDS" sign in the window of Mrs. Smith's boarding house is almost shocking, not only because Mrs. Smith seems so kind and helpful to all others (like her son), but because Doctor Who has never been so unflinchingly honest in dealing with a controversial issue.
This brings us to one of the most wonderful scenes in Doctor Who history where, late night at a cafe, The Doctor talks with John about the consequences of decisions under the innocent guise of adding sugar to one's coffee. After all the talk of racial segregation, here is meeting of two minds - one, a traveler from a different planet and time, brought here by the consequences of his own actions hundreds of years ago; the other, a black man from Jamaica whose grandfather was sold into slavery and who was now working the late shift at a coffee shop, happy to be there. It's a rare insight into The Doctor's mind as he is one, especially in his seventh incarnation, to want to protect his companions from the real truth.
It's also a crucial development in Sylvester McCoy's relationship with the show of which he had been the star of for a year at that time. This scene was almost cut for time and content, but McCoy realized the importance of it and demanded that it remain intact. The scene doesn't actually add anything to the overall story, nor does it introduce a character who comes into play later on (John, as played by The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's Joseph Marcell, appears only in this scene), but it so subtly crafted and beautifully acted and important, in the larger sense, to The Doctor's actions not only in this story but in all his subsequent stories, as well as how the decisions he makes affects others for many years in many places. That McCoy saw this (along with writer Ben Aaronovitch and script editor Andrew Cartmel) shows that this story is the true beginning of the Seventh Doctor era. He isn't a dark Doctor, he's just coming to terms that his actions have consequences, and sometimes he has to take further action to minimize, or maximize, the results.
Posted by Steven at 3:21 PM
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Remembrance of the Daleks is the start of the 25th season of Doctor Who, but it is also has, unofficially, two other worthy distinctions: it is Doctor Who's true 25th anniversary story (step aside, Silver Nemesis), and it is the real start to the Sylvester McCoy era. A friend recently showed a great interest in anything and everything Sylvester McCoy and asked me to lend me any or all McCoy era DVDs that I had. I responded by giving him Seasons 25 and 26, and explained what I thought he needed to know about Season 24 with five simple words: "Ace joins at the end". It's not that I didn't like McCoy's first season, but if you can introduce someone to the era of the Seventh Doctor, it would seem a crime not to start with this story.
The dark, manipulative Doctor that dominates the rest of the Seventh Doctor era on screen and in print from here on in has his fertile roots in this story. It's rare that we start a story with The Doctor knowing what's going on, even actively working on something, without the audience (or anyone else) aware of it. The Doctor isn't just a step ahead, he's several hundred years ahead as he ties up loose ends from something he started in his first incarnation on a cold, foggy night near Totters Lane in 1963. This immediate, yet subtle, connection to the very first episode not only makes this story a worthy celebration of its long history, but it also does a great deal in making William Hartnell's character that much more interesting. Much like people would reflect on The Doctor's relationship with the TARDIS in previous stories after seeing The Doctor's Wife in 2011, watch An Unearthly Child again after Episode One of this story (as well as the other episodes) and try to imagine that the First Doctor was dropping off the Hand of Omega casket before stumbling into an awkward social scene with two school teachers who happened upon his hiding space. Unfinished business, a common expression during the last two years of the classic series, actually starts from day one, twenty-five years before.
Another interesting change occurs in the way The Doctor and his companion interact with the story. Apart from the opening pre-credit sequence, the very first scene features The Doctor and Ace having already landed, and within seconds, they're exploring Professor Jensen's van and entering the story. This not only marks an obvious change from the Colin Baker era, where several minutes would pass before the TARDIS even lands at its intended destination, let alone its occupants actually leaving the confines of the ship, but it continues a trend of introducing the main characters into the story from the very start. It makes for an engaged and proactive Doctor, not one who gradually reacts to events that have been underway long before he arrives on the scene. In fact, apart from brief TARDIS scenes at the start of two subsequent stories, we've seen the last of the TARDIS interior. Once a device to provide a safe haven for the main characters, as well as a setting to safely explain (and expand) the plot, the TARDIS is now merely an implement to deliver The Doctor and his companion into the story where they belong.
Oh, and, yeah, the Daleks are fantastic in this episode. No longer under Davros's shadow, as they were increasingly so in the previous post-Genesis of the Daleks stories, they are allowed to be powerful and frightening once again. The famous sequence where the Dalek climbs the stairs was intended to show that the Daleks no longer had any hurdles, both in story terms and in their status in the public eye, to overcome to become the most dominant force in the universe, but the Dalek still just shouts "Exterminate!" enough times to allow The Doctor to look scared and (eventually) escape. No, the Daleks immediately become cool again in their very first scene when, unseen, one of them starts exterminating soldiers from inside a building. Death precedes its first appearance, and what a death, punctuated by a wonderful stunt and effects sequence that sees stuntman Tip Tipping flung back several feet into a pile of sheet metal. Never before had we seen the destructive power of a Dalek gun (which also has a glossy makeover), nor had we known the full effects of it. (The Doctor's simplified diagnosis of what killed another soldier - "his insides were scrambled" - is a chilling notion indeed.) It's great, too, that only one Dalek keeps an entire squadron at bay and it's eventually only destroyed by a couple cans of nitro-9. Once again, one Dalek is capable of exterminating all.
Posted by Steven at 2:55 PM
"I suppose it's time I should be going." And with that line, one of the more notable companion departure scenes for one of the least notable companions begins. The scene itself is played well enough by Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford, but there is never a sense of real emotion to be found anywhere. It looks like two characters who have reached a mutual decision to split up, but neither wants to be the one to say it first. You could ask the obvious question of why Mel wanted to leave in the first place, to say nothing of why she would want to become the traveling companion of a rogue pirate in a giant spacecraft shaped like a starfish, but as Mel was a two-dimensional companion from the start, any explanation would have seemed both surprising and expected.
Once Ace was introduced in this story, and to a lesser extent Ray in the previous story, it was clear by comparison that Mel was just not the companion for this new era of Doctor Who. There was no attitude or no edge to Mel. You would never have to worry about telling Bonnie Langford to shave her armpits like John Nathan-Turner famously did to Sophie Aldred. Aldred was yet another iconoclast joining the new wave. Aldred's first appearance in a studio was her first studio session for Dragonfire. Sylvester McCoy fell into acting rather than being properly trained for it, and Andrew Cartmel and his new team of writers came from outside the world of Doctor Who and were completely fresh to this 24-year-old programme. Even the directors were relatively new to the show as well, and John Nathan-Turner, the only obvious holdover from years gone by, was keen to have a new outlook given the strife and controversy of the past two years.
The other sudden relic, in addition to Mel, was a story like Dragonfire. It seems like a Season 15 story stuffed into the late 1980s, even down to the quality of the sets. Season 24 had been a season of great transition, but whereas other notable seasons that ushered in a great deal of change (Season 7 and 18 spring to mind) set the standard for things to come, Season 24 feels like a purge of the old rather than a surge of the new. From now on in the classic run, even when the show brings back established favourites like the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Brigadier, they all add to the mythos of Doctor Who rather than rely on it. Season 24 is made up of 14 episodes that, for the most part, must be endured to understand and appreciate where the show would go from here.
Posted by Steven at 1:52 PM
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Ever since seeing the dazzling visuals of The Caves of Androzani for the first time, I started developing a keen interest in television directing. As I was pretty much exclusively watching Doctor Who at that point in my life, the only frame of reference I had for directing for TV was Doctor Who, and seeing this Graeme Harper person go above and beyond in setting his style apart from the others represented the epitome of televisual art. (It still does). I wanted to know more about the art of directing and, indeed, the directors of Doctor Who, but there were precious few glimpses into the world behind the camera in either book or televised form. I was resigned to live in ignorance.
Then along came The Making of Doctor Who, a New Jersey PBS production from 1988 that aired on my local PBS station in the late summer of that year. It profiled the making of an upcoming Doctor Who story called Silver Nemesis, and featured not only interviews with the cast and crew, but also a fascinating sequence of takes of a relatively simple scene that was a great insight into how television was made. The director for this story was Chris Clough, a name that was new to me at the time, and it was Clough who was my gateway drug into seeing how people directed Doctor Who. I was fascinated. He seemed to know what he was doing, he wore a Los Angeles Rams hat - he was cool.
Little did I know, of course, that Clough, who admittedly has gone on to become a successful television producer, is not looked at as one of the upper echelon of Doctor Who directors. We'll deal with the afore-mentioned Silver Nemesis when the time comes, but Dragonfire must surely be Clough's worst offering. Some of the composite shots look okay and were certainly something relatively uncommon at the time. But no one seems to know whether Iceworld is slippery, cold, or both. Or neither. Sylvester McCoy plays it as the name of the place suggests - a world of ice. He blows on his hands upon leaving the TARDIS in Part One, while Bonnie Langford strolls out as if its any old BBC set. When The Doctor, Glitz, Ace, and Mel wander around the lower levels, McCoy is slipping everywhere (with diminishing comedic effect), while everyone else is as surefooted as mountain lions. A good director would have worked this out beforehand by saying something like, oh, "Everyone, Svartos is slippery and cold. Act like it." But that didn't happen.
Early in the episode, Ace and Mel discover The Doctor's umbrella hanging on the railing near the ledge where he inexplicably was left hanging at the end of the previous episode. In between establishing composite shots at the beginning and end of the scene, Clough covers the entire scene with just one camera, whose operator apparently received the following instructions: "Wide shot.....ok, zoom in a bit.......maybe tilt down a bit...ok, zoom in a bit more.....stop......zoom in a bit more there.....and, good. Cut. Next scene." It's so amateurish, it's positively Richard Martin-esque. When John Nathan-Turner took over as producer of Doctor Who before Season 18, one of the things he wanted to eliminate was the lazy attitude of some of the crew that more or less said "that'll do". Well, Chris Clough's lackadaisical direction here shows that the same creative indifference was invading the show again at a time when it desperately needed to make its mark on the British public and on the BBC bosses who were hell bent on burying the show for good.
Posted by Steven at 4:08 PM
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
It's funny how one's opinions about some Doctor Who stories change over the years. Thankfully, I find myself enjoying some stories more today than I did when I first saw them as a child. The Aztecs left me a bit bored when I first viewed it in my late teens, but I recognize its brilliance today. The Ribos Operation is like a fine wine that just gets better and better with each passing year.
And then there're Delta and the Bannermen and Dragonfire. Delta has gone from a bit of camp fun to a fun, camp, proto-new series story since when I first saw it. I was quite impressed by Dragonfire in my mid-teens, looking all shiny and new as it did at the time. Now, it just looks cheap. Maybe it's just my Canadianism showing through. TV through the ages, particularly classic series Doctor Who, has never done snow and ice particularly well. The snow in The Seeds of Doom looks like pellets of polystyrene (because it is), and the ice walls on Iceworld in Dragonfire look like cheap, vacuum-formed plastic (because they are). I mean, does no one else in the world know what winter looks like?
Cheap sets aside, Ace gets her debut here, her first time on camera being in a wide shot with several other characters. I can't tell if this is a directorial failure on the part of Chris Clough, or a nice subtle way of introducing a character who will go on to be one of the most prominent companions in Doctor Who history. I'm leaning towards the latter, and I'm also choosing to believe that Kylie Minogue's Astrid Peth (a waitress, like Ace) wandering through the camera shot for her initial appearance in 2007's Voyage of the Damned was an obvious homage to Clough's direction here.
And, despite the screengrab at the top of this page, I'm staking my claim that this is the first ever review to not bother to talk about the cliffhanger.
Posted by Steven at 3:07 PM
Friday, March 1, 2013
Not only was Delta and the Bannermen one of the first stories to be made completely on location, and the first to be produced in three 25 minute episodes, but it was also the first time the series had truly embraced pop culture. In the rare moments in the past that The Doctor has referenced something that was "popular", it seemed oddly false. Apart from the famous instance of The Beatles appearing in The Chase (which instantly made William Hartnell hip, if only because William Russell's dancing wasn't), The Third Doctor's bizarre mention of Batman in Inferno is the only notable mention of something mainstream that was created after the Boer War.
Delta and the Bannermen is an all-out celebration of the 1950s. Hitting the screen at a time when the tropes of the 1950s were enormously popular thanks to movies like Back to the Future, this story is not only referencing Great Britain's recent past and the rock and roll years for the first time ever, it's trying to ride the wave of what was then a current trend. Even Keff McCulloch's score, easily his best (or perhaps his least worst, for you detractors out there) serves to join in on the fun, and, for once, the overall jauntiness of McCulloch's music adds to the action, rather than grates on the nerves.
It helps that this meshes well with Sylvester McCoy's coming out party as The Seventh Doctor. Just like the disguises and overall clowning of Patrick Troughton being largely discarded midway through his first season as Doctor #2, McCoy's pratfalls and malapropisms are almost completely absent here. He is also at his most Doctor-ly, awkwardly dancing with Ray, unsure how to comfort her when her affection for Billy goes unnoticed, relishing the overall atmosphere of the garish holiday camp that the bus has become stranded in, and so on. The Seventh Doctor is shown as someone who isn't looking for a home, but as someone who is sad that he no longer has one. His mannerisms suit the 1950s (the "real 50s", as he describes the holiday camp in comparison to the traditional American icons of hula hoops and Chevy '57s) - an era empowered with youthful enthusiasm, but still maintained by old guard ideals. The way McCoy mournfully hugs a Stratocaster near the end of the story is almost touching - clinging to a time that he was never really a part of.
Delta and the Bannermen is one of the funnest stories to watch for me. At a time when there were only four stories and fourteen episodes of Doctor Who in one calendar year, this story might have been seen as a waste of a quarter of a season when more important, vital stories in the canon of The Doctor could have been told. But this is a new programme, casting off the burden of its past and enjoying its new, unfettered future, unsure of what's to follow, but eager to take on anything that might come its way. It's a sweet, innocent story of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and is one of the jewels of the McCoy era.
Delta and the Bannermen was the first story to ever be written and produced as a three-part story. Planet of Giants was edited down to three parts after the last two installments were deemed to be lacking in pace to sustain the story for 50-odd minutes, and the three installments of The Two Doctors were 45-minutes long. Delta is devoid of the dreaded Part Three lull which usually manifests in a series of pointless chases, people getting incarcerated, and a few characters getting killed off before the big finale in the last episode.
Oh, wait. So, everyone is chasing after everyone else in this episode, either by motorbike, by foot, or by space ship, and an entire bus load of happy-go-lucky space tourists are killed in an explosion, but apart from that...
After all the fun and dancing that took place in Part One, there's a lot of nastiness that happens once Gavrok makes his presence known. He leads his Bannermen soldiers around, leaving dead toll booth agents and destroyed tents in his wake, while viciously devouring raw meat on the balcony. Given his predilection for exerting his excessive will on others, it's surprising that he lets The Doctor walk off with the imprisoned Mel and Burton at the end of this episode, let alone observe the white flag of truce under which The Doctor arrives.
It's somewhat unfortunate that The Doctor is reunited with Mel at all as he and Ray have formed a perfectly capable Doctor-potential companion team in this episode. Apart from the differences in character and accent, Ray and eventual companion Ace share a love of motorbikes and fixing (or, in the case of Ace, destroying) things, each with a full set of tools designed for their respective purpose on their person at all times. It's clear to see that the next companion would have started from similar beginnings, but where Ray would have gone after this would have been interesting to see. Would Ray have become the focal point of most of the stories in Season 26? Would Sara Griffiths' faux-Welsh have started to grate by then? Would her cute-as-a-button looks have grown tiresome? There are so many unanswered questions with Ray, but there is a series of alternate universe Big Finish audios waiting to be written about a Seventh Doctor-Ray pairing.
Posted by Steven at 8:34 AM