Monday, December 6, 2010

7C5 - The Trial of a Time Lord 13

It's not often that anyone can knowingly leave this mortal coil at an all-time high. Those who work until they drop are faced with the prospect of no retirement benefits as well as with the fact that whatever they're working on at any given moment could be viewed as their last ever output. For every "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding, there's a good few more Plan 9 From Outer Spaces haunting the Bela Lugosis of the world.

Rarely in Doctor Who, though, has someone left us without even being able to finish that final work. Robert Holmes, the classic series' unchallenged best writer, was slated to write the final two episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord, but sadly succumbed to illness in May 1986 before he could complete the latter of those installments. We would never see how Holmes would end this epic season, a season that Holmes had a great deal of involvement in its creation.

And so the last word of spoken dialogue as written by Holmes was a long, drawn out "Nooo!" from Colin Baker in the last of his 11 close-up cliffhangers of the season. In some fans' eyes, this exclamation could be seen to be emblematic of the season as a whole up to this point, and indeed the preceding 24 minutes in particular. But not in my eyes. Part 13 stands as some of the most epic Doctor Who ever produced. The revelation of the true nature of The Valeyard is remarkable Doctor Who, a dynamite moment brought to life by actors Colin Baker and Michael Jayston, and perfectly enhanced by Dominic Glynn's doom-laden score (Glynn is the real star find of Season 23).

I've said this before, but the Holmes/C. Baker pairing was electric (as if Holmes could write any Doctor poorly). Baker's oft quoted, oft repeated rant against the powers of be that run Gallifrey is monumental, and just on the right side of blustery. The Trial season started with a knowing wink from Holmes to the darkness that was going on behind the scenes, and his final episode ends the exact same way. Listen to the lines "Decadent, degenerate, and rotten to the core! Power mad conspirators!" and you won't have to stroll far down the hallways of the sixth floor at the BBC to find Holmes's inspiration.

Robert Holmes, through Colin Baker, was raging against the machine in his final moments, that same machine who had the audacity to roundly criticize is earlier work in the season. Holmes's work is sad and angry, defiant and electric, summery and charming - all these elements are seen in Part 13. It isn't Talons or Androzani, and it doesn't have to be. It's as brilliant for its own reasons as any other Holmes written script, from Gonds to Milo Clancey, from Auton killing sprees to Masters of disguise, from Miniscopes to Bloodaxes, from arks in space to pyramids on Mars, from giant rats to tax evasion, from dirty gangs to giant squid, from Sharez Jek to Androgums. And I love all of them to bits.

Good on ya, Bob. Doctor Who wouldn't have been the same without you.

Monday, November 15, 2010

7C4 - The Trial of a Time Lord 12

The most straightforward, and therefore most disappointing, segment of the Trial season ends with The Doctor's trial supposedly changing immeasurably, as he is now accused of genocide in addition to his crimes of meddling. Or has the latter charged now been dropped? Much less attention is paid to it after the shocking new charge, so shocking that it warrants a warp speed zoom into Colin Baker's face at the conclusion of the episode - very serious stuff, indeed.

At the time, I only relatively enjoyed the Vervoid segment, even though I was never quite keen to rewatch it. I'm not sure my opinion of the onscreen product has changed since in the 20 years since I first saw it. There's a lot of death going on here, and, while none of it is particularly graphic, it certainly seems to go against the new ethics put in place by the Sixth Floor of the BBC to make Doctor Who a more family friendly programme. What does it say that the only main characters on the Hyperion who seem to survive the bloodbath are the highest ranking (Commodore Travers) and the lowest (stewardess Janet)? Take that, middle class, but should Travers really be that pleased with the situation at the end of this episode when practically every ranking officer and crew member under him has died (apart from that strange bearded extra who's in practically every other scene in this episode)?

Really, as the years have gone on and more details have come out, it's the behind-the-scenes drama that occurred during the production of the latter half of The Trial of a Time Lord that far outweighs what was going on in front of the cameras. For starters, there wasn't a script editor for Parts 9-12 as Eric Saward had walked off the job, the camel's back having been broken by any multitude of straws from mistreatment of the recently deceased Robert Holmes to rejection of Saward's original cliffhanger ending to Part 14. Really, a lack of a script editor on a Pip and Jane Baker story might be a match made in hell, but thanks to the efforts of an exasperated John Nathan-Turner, it's amazing that this thing holds together at all.

Slag JNT for his slavish devotion to continuity and fandom (which was reaching its peak at this time in the days before the massive fan conventions in the USA were starting to wane in popularity) or his sometimes questionable stunt casting, but he bent over backwards to try and make Doctor Who as good as it could possibly be, often without any backing or support from his direct superiors. He saved the show from outright cancellation in 1985 by leaking the news early to get the fans on his side, and he was spinning plates behind the scenes from then on just to try and get the show made, often at the behest of his own interests (he had been trying to leave the producer's chair since the end of Season 20; Doctor Who would never have another producer during its original run). The Trial of a Time Lord is John Nathan-Turner's last stab at making Doctor Who because he really thought it was, finally, his last actual stab at making the show. Sadly, events that transpired shortly after production of this segment (which was mostly produced before the final two episodes of Trial) would leave more than a few people unhappy.

7C3 - The Trial of a Time Lord 11

Some of the many and massive delays between posts on this blog can be attributed to me not having the time and energy to be able to devote to writing reviews (thanks to real life, work, etc). On other occasions, though, the main reason is that I simply can't find anything noteworthy to write about, even after several passes through an episode.

Part 11 of The Trial of a Time Lord is just one of those instances. Nothing much is revealed about the murderer; in fact, we're distracted from the main plot by Bruchner foolishly hijacking the Hyperion to fly it into a black hole just so we can have something dramatic to end the episode on (and director Chris Clough doesn't even do that, choosing to end, as was the style at the time, on a close-up of Colin Baker's overly concerned visage). We nearly lose Mel to the pulverizer, which may seem like a good thing, but she displays a remarkable amount of pluck and quick thinking by using a gym headset to record some incriminating Vervoid chatter that will play an important part in the next episode. My main memory of the episode is actually that one Mogarian who was frightfully rude to the stewardess, Janet, by knocking her tray over for no reason at all. What an odd scene, I thought, although Janet didn't look half enticing bending over to pick up the...ahh, now I see the reason.

Even the Valeyard and the Inquisitor keep their interruptions to a bare minimum. Either they're just not interested in the story playing out on screen or they simply have no objections, or perhaps The Doctor seems to think that the video evidence is enough in itself to prove his innocence. Although, one must point, out, it's not necessarily his innocence that The Doctor is fighting for, it's his justification for his meddling. Sadly, he does little meddling in this episode at all, and the drama suffers because of it. Roll on Part 12, already.

Friday, October 29, 2010

7C2 - The Trial of a Time Lord 10

Some of the flaws of this segment of Trial start to manifest in this episode. The characters are very broadly drawn out in this story, and we get to know one of them, Professor Lasky, a great deal more than we wanted to. Lasky is brash, but no one is that brash. It's like writers Pip and Jane Baker have gone well out of their way to show how rude and belligerent she is. It's an approach the writers take to most of the characters, setting them so far apart from each other on the basis of their motives that everyone's bound to not get along on the voyage. It seems contrived.

The Bakers (all three of them including Colin) are also quite smug about a pointless sequence where The Doctor deciphers that one of the Mogarians isn't a Mogarian at all. It takes several minutes for The Doctor to get to the point, after which he almost seems to rest his defence on his brilliant skills of detection. I'm with the Valeyard on this one, who's unimpressed expression matched my own after witnessing these events go by. Twice. The Doctor's been much more clever in the past, and with much more expedition and subtlety.

Most of all, this is probably the tackiest looking four episodes of Doctor Who in the series' long history. And, yes, that includes The Claws of Axos. Everything has a thick coat of 80s gloss applied to it, from the fashions to the sets to the music. Especially the music. Malcolm Clarke opened the book on full Radiophonic Workshop scores in 1972 with some bold and experimental work for The Sea Devils, and closes that book with the Workshop's last ever score here. This is undoubtedly Clarke's worst score of his career. In fact, for years, I was almost under the assumption that it was supposed to be bad, but I just wasn't clever enough to work out the irony. Some of Clarke's work in the Peter Davison era was some of the most iconic music heard in Doctor Who (his Cybermen theme is still the benchmark for such character themes to be measured by), and it's sad to see him go out like this.

But, then, as I've said before, it was 1986, a year when the decade long civil war between art and good taste was at an all time low...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

7C1 - The Trial of a Time Lord 9

As mentioned already, The Trial of a Time Lord season can be seen as a metaphor for what was really going on at the time in the show's real life history and how it was on trial in both the eyes of the BBC head office and those of a more cynical viewing public. Brought into evidence first was the Ravalox tale, a story written by long time stalwart Robert Holmes which is just dripping in classic Who nostalgia that if you were take away the modern day trappings of OB location work and pastel clothing, you could slot this story in anywhere from the Patrick Troughton era through into the later Tom Baker days. The verdict at the end of that adventure: The Doctor wins, and even the Valeyard can only boast that further damning is too come.

Parts 5-8 contains everything critical that has been leveled at the show over the years, particularly in the 1980s: violence, gore, and questionable actions from the lead character. In fact, the conflicting motives of The Doctor aren't just referenced, they're an actual aspect of the plot itself. Just when everything is at it's most mental, The Doctor is "put on hiatus" (taken out of time) - he may as well have been about to say "Blackpool" as he was rushing down that corridor to Crozier's laboratory. The Time Lords wipe out everything after that, starting The Doctor (and the programme) on a clean slate.

Parts 9-12 start off by lingering only slightly on the death of Peri at the end of the previous episode, then barrels into a bright, new adventure as part of The Doctor's defence. This is supposedly the envisioning of what new Doctor Who will be all about, a modern retelling of a classic murder mystery. Even the new companion, Mel, can be seen as a breath of fresh air. Say what you will about Mel, but she's the first companion in a good few years who actually seems happy to be traveling in the TARDIS. She wants to explore and is keen to find adventure, and even the relatively unromantic locale of a cargo hold on a cruise ship is going to dampen her enthusiasm. Mel is a 180° turnaround from Peri. As a standalone companion, she's one of the more headstrong companions The Doctor has ever known. After a long line of complainers like Adric, Tegan, Turlough, and Peri, yeah, Mel can be downright obnoxious...

This episode is a good start to the story, though, as it mainly serves to outline all the main character's motives and intentions while the murders start to pile up. It's also noteworthy (as you can tell from the picture at the beginning of this review) that this is one of three cliffhangers in The Trial of a Time Lord not to feature a close-up of Colin Baker's dramatic facial expression, and the first one to not even have him in the same scene...

7B4 - The Trial of a Time Lord 8

Part 8 just might be the most calamitous episode of Doctor Who ever made. Absolutely nothing goes right for The Doctor: at variance to reason, which is what The Doctor would have preferred, everything and everyone is destroyed by the Time Lords, with the results swept under the carpet, The Doctor taken out of time and space, and Peri killed in order for everything to sort of come out in a draw. The Armageddon Factor (sorry, I've always wanted to try and work the end of that Tom Baker speech into a sentence).

The build-up to the end is almost tragic. Sure, there's a revolution going on, Yrcanos seems happy to be at war, and it looks like all the right people will stay alive while the appropriate bad guys will have their day, as per a usual Part 4 of a four-part story. But it's the fate of Peri that ramps up the tension, thanks to the fact that Crozier doesn't waste any time in making decisions. Despite promising that if The Doctor can come up with a different person to be used for the brain transplant operation with Kiv, once Crozier realizes that Peri is the perfect fit, he starts to work immediately. Promises be damned. Yet it's not malice that drives Crozier's actions in this instance or, indeed, this entire story. Crozier is there purely to advance the cause of science, no matter how dodgy that particular stream of science is.

Because of Crozier's drive for the perfect brain operation, Peri is in more danger than she has ever been. If Sil or Kiv had been the one holding her prisoner, it wouldn't be worrying in the least because you know they wouldn't have done anything. Crozier isn't evil. He's driven, and thus terrifying because he can't be reasoned with. Each scene Peri has with Crozier increases in tension by the end, to the point that Peri's last scene in Doctor Who is of her head about to be shaved. With other villains, they would threaten to shave her head, slowly move the razor closer, seemingly almost waiting and expecting to be interrupted. Crozier doesn't waste any time, and Peri dies as a result. She has the brain of an alien in her head the next time we see her.

Colin Baker, though, is the tour de force in this episode. His Doctor might just be the best at righteous anger. You can almost see and hear him choke back the tears at the realization of Peri's death, which then turn to pure focused fury as the episode ends. The Trial season has often been seen as a mirror to the behind the scenes fracas that the programme itself was in the midst of at the time, but those final scenes of Part 8 make one realize that it wasn't just Doctor Who that was on trial, but Colin Baker's Doctor himself. It wasn't Baker's actions that caused a ton of death and violence on the screen in front of him, but there he is, standing alone in the middle of a court of his supposed peers, being berated and judged by The Inquisitor (Jonathan Powell) and the Valeyard (Michael Grade) alike, and being forced to answer for something that he never wanted to happen in the first place, yet still determined to do what's right and try and find out why things are turning out the way they are.

Sadly, in the years since his 1986 sacking, Colin Baker still hasn't found out why things were the way they were, and we are all the worse for it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

7B3 - The Trial of a Time Lord 7

There seems to be a tradition in Doctor Who where a companion actor/actress who is appearing in his/her swansong story gets a large chunk of the action (with Dodo being the very remarkable exception to this rule). This tradition continues in this story, Nicola Bryant's last, as Peri is finally given something more to do than just persistently whine while working her cleavage into as many camera shots as possible.

The results are impressive, mostly because The Doctor and Peri are split up for most of the story, thus allowing Peri the room to breathe a bit as a character, but also by pairing her up with the fiery Yrcanos. One may scoff at what could be seen as an overused motif, that of two wildly opposite characters clashing before suddenly falling for each other, but while that scenario starts off like that here, it doesn't veer too far into cliche afterwards. For the most part, the burgeoning romance is a one-sided affair: Yrcanos is the first to let his guard down and seems quite taken with The Doctor's companion, and while Peri isn't rejecting him, she does at least respect the warrior king and realizes that she needs his help to defeat the Mentors so everyone can live happily ever after. She's not even thinking of whether she'd leave with The Doctor or form a new bond with Yrcanos. She just wants to be safe and away from the unpleasantness on Thoros Beta. If she happens to fall in love with someone, then so be it: self preservation is still at the top of her list of priorities.

For a programme that has been at best a tad prudish during the 1980s when it comes to relationships, this, the first companion romance since Season 10's glorious The Green Death comes as a bit of a shock. (Yes, you heard me right - Season 10. I'm not even going to begin counting that faux-arranged marriage of an exit that Leela had in The Invasion of Time.) If it was known to the viewers at the time that Bryant was leaving the show after this story, then the seeds were being cleverly sown as to how the writing out of her character would be achieved. Little did they know what was really in store for her the following week...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

7B2 - The Trial of a Time Lord 6

Lying dormant for most of Part 5, apart from uttering one word ("Scum!"), Brian Blessed makes his bombastic debut in this episode by throwing scenery everywhere before promptly eating it. And why not? Yrcanos is a larger-than-life character. Who on Earth could you possibly imagine playing this role other than Blessed, and make the warrior king as complex a character as he does? I can think of only John Rhys-Davies, and only because he could only succeed in doing a passable impersonation of Brian Blessed, not Yrcanos.

As if Brian Blessed wasn't enough, Nabil Shaban makes his proper return to Doctor Who in this episode, too, with a much better looking headdress than the one he wore as Sil in Vengeance on Varos. Shaban has been lauded up an down in every review written about both Varos and this story, and I'm not one to stop that trend. Shaban is one of the great treasures of Doctor Who, and Sil one the programme's most biting character parodies. Sil is cut from the same sniveling capitalist cloth whence came The Sun Makers' The Collector, but with that extra bit of repulsion that makes him a perfect fit in the midst of Thatcher's Britain of the 80s. If The Happiness Patrol intended to bring down the Thatcher government, then Sil was the political cartoon that started it all.

So, with both Blessed and Shaban dominating this episode in alternating scenes (they rarely appear in the same shot), it's actually Colin Baker's post-mind scramble performance that I find most endearing and entertaining. Baker's Doctor has always been manic (most notably, and unfortunately, in The Twin Dilemma), but he's seldom been as manic as a happy drunk. Watch him slither down the wall for almost 30 seconds while Yrcanos and Peri carry on with their own conversation. Bakers' silly, giddy grin during that scene is infectious.

Colin Baker is perhaps the most generous of actors to play The Doctor in that he allows Blessed and Shaban more than ample space to ply their trade, yet knows when to make is own mark as the star of the programme. When you consider that, thanks to much indecision and indifference on the part of a soon-to-be-departing script editor Eric Saward, Baker had no idea what The Doctor's motivations in this story were once he underwent the brain alteration process, you begin to understand that Colin Baker is a consummate professional, and completely undeserving of the fate that was to befall him mere weeks after shooting this story.

7B1 - The Trial of a Time Lord 5

It's tough to view The Trial of a Time Lord as one complete story when the styles of each individual production block change so drastically. After the reused opening few seconds of the ludicrously expensive (and undeniably cool) effects shot of the Time Lord space station, the story jolts into a somewhat cold, flat wide shot of the trial room with The Doctor and The Valeyard engulfed in another argument that seems only slightly less witty and entertaining than those of the week previous.

Director Ron Jones is saddled with the job of opening a story that has already been going on for a few weeks and one that didn't necessarily end on a dramatic note in it's previous episode (no matter how dramatic a zoom the camera move into Colin Baker's face was). In fact, the opening episode of this installment seems to want to establish the fact that the main action that we're watching is merely evidence and testimony to what's really going on - the trial. In Parts 1-4, the action on Ravalox carried on for minutes at a time without trial room interruptions. The Thoros Beta storyline doesn't even get through it's first scene before The Doctor himself interjects. A sign of things to come...

Even more shocking, style wise, is the dreamy, ethereal score provided by Richard Hartley in his only outing in Doctor Who. It's a dramatic departure from Dominic Glynn's rock solid score from the previous story which helped anchor the events we were witness to. Part 5 seems as odd and disjointed as a dream, like the kind you get when you take expired Neo Citran before bedtime. Hartley's score aids in setting the mood, as well as setting this story as far apart from Parts 1-4 in terms of tone and feels as is humanly possible.

And then there's the beach scenes that, thanks to the wonders of Quantel and Paintbox, turn a normal looking Brighton beach into a wash of colour with white rocks, pink water, and a purple sky. Even more amazingly, the gaudy colours of Thoros Beta are even louder than the clothes that both Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant are wearing in this story. I get a headache every time I watch these scenes, but they are still a massive leap forward in what the BBC could do, visually, with Doctor Who.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

7A4 - The Trial of a Time Lord 4

Robert Holmes has, quite rightly, been praised up and down over the years for many of his hallmarks: witty dialogue, double acts, satirical elements, and so on. What's not as often mentioned is Holmes's pitch perfect understanding of the importance of pacing. Some of the more successful Holmes stories really rattle on, particularly in the concluding episode. The Caves of Androzani is the most recent example of this (Episode 4 of that story starts at 11 and only increases in intensity over the next 24 minutes), but the last of his initial four episodes of Trial is right up there in building excitement.

There are several different storylines and character threads building to a conclusion in Episode 4. Can The Doctor get into Drathro's main control room? Can he make the robot see reason? Can Merdeen, Peri, and Balazar save the inhabitants of UK Habitat? What's behind the motivations of Glitz and Dibber? Why is dialogue between the two being excised from the versions of events shown as evidence in The Doctor's trial? It all makes for a riveting watch, and while a great deal of credit can be given to Colin Baker and director Nicholas Mallett (the latter making his Doctor Who debut in this), Holmes's immense talent is at the backbone of this story's success.

It's insulting that the higher ups at the BBC had the gall to pick apart Holmes first crack at this story. Even though he was, sadly, in the last year of his life, Robert Holmes still showed that he was at the top of his game. From great dialogue that mirrored the programme's tenuous standing within the BBC at the time, to a couple of his all time great "double acts" in Glitz and Dibber and Humker and Tandrell, this is one of Robert Holmes's finest stories (even if the basic plot is remarkably similar to that of his 1968 debut story, The Krotons).

I loved these four episodes (fine, I'll call it The Mysterious Planet) when I first saw them in my youth, and I still love the story today. It gets the massively ambitious Trial season off to a roaring and running start, creating such a great sense of optimism and excitement that hadn't been seen in Doctor Who to this extent for years.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

7A3 - The Trial of a Time Lord 3

The relaunch of Doctor Who after the hiatus was not only evident in the visual presentation, but it was also enhanced in the audio department, as well. Dominic Glynn made his debut on Doctor Who by providing the incidental music for the first four parts of The Trial of a Time Lord. Being the first composer not a member of the Radiophonic Workshop, be it directly or indirectly, since the end of Season 17, Glynn's music is a breath of fresh air.

Not that the work of Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland, et al were of an inferior nature, but Glynn's output has an entirely different feel compared to the music of the first five years of the John Nathan-Turner era. For instance, Glynn uses basic drum beats to underscore his music in some scenes. It seems like a minor point to make, but only Paddy Kingsland's rock and roll score for Mawdryn Undead seemed current, for lack of a better word, in relation to what was being listened to at the time. Glynn's score uses a lot of sounds heard in pop music, if not the melodies and rhythms, for the first time, really, in the show's long history. For Doctor Who, a pulsating hi-hat rhythm was the programme's first tentative olive branch to the hear and now.

In addition to the incidental score, of course, Glynn provided the series with only its third markedly different version of the iconic theme tune. Glynn's new version is as shocking a change from its predecessor as Peter Howell's rendition was to Delia Derbyshire's original work. Glynn's version sparkles with a brightness that characterizes all of his work during this story, but there's a certain darkness to it that rises the theme above the rushed nature of its production. At the time, it was my favourite version; now, it's probably dropped a couple notches but still remains a memorable take on the best theme tune ever written.

Monday, July 19, 2010

7A2 - The Trial of a Time Lord 2

I mentioned recently (well, the last post, which was over two months ago!) about Doctor Who's permanent switch to videotape for location shooting. Many have decried this as making the entire series look cheap, as opposed to just the studio sequences, in relation to the crisp(!) 16mm film location footage that we've been treated to for most of the programme's history up until this point.

I disagree. Yes, videotape does seem to lack a certain depth in picture quality, but at least now the outside sequences look similar to the ones shot indoors. It not only makes for a much more polished and consistent visual product, but it also makes it less obvious where certain scenes were shot. For instance, there are a couple of sets seen in this episode, namely Katryca's hut and the smaller hut that serves as a prison for Glitz, Dibber, and Peri, that I'm still unsure whether they're studio sets are mockups/alterations made on location. Frankly, I don't want to know - television is about fostering an illusion and with wall-to-wall videotape, it's much less obvious where certain scenes are shot. If something looks cheap now, don't necessarily blame the designer. It must look that cheap in real life.

Another quality of using videotape for location sequences is that these scenes could now be shot using a multi-camera setup as opposed to the single camera technique used in the film days (although some single camera stuff was still evident). Whereas this now gave the actors and directors less control over each individual aspect of a particular scene, it allowed the natural rhythm of the actors to be captured in one single take. With a script written by Robert Holmes, still, even in these, his last days, one of the snappiest writers on Doctor Who, not having to rely on editing to capture the pace of a scene can only be seen as a benefit.

Speaking of benefiting from a new approach, I'll start my praise of Colin Baker now, only to warn you that it will continue for the rest of his all-too-brief tenure, as well. Baker is absolutely delightful in this episode and in this whole season, in general. It was a conscious decision on the the parts of Baker and Nicola Bryant to smooth over their tempestuous onscreen relationship, and it was a move that was long overdue. This relation is even at variance with the scripts. Look at what would have been a normal, spiteful conversation between the two in Episode One in their opening scene together. Both Baker and Bryant play against the vindictiveness of the dialogue and turn it into a rather playful exchange. One gets the impression that the Season 23 Doctor is the one that Baker had wanted to play all along. Baker's natural effervescence is now finally matched the scripts that he's given. Look at how Baker interacts with Merdeen and the train guards in this episode, and (especially) with Drathro and his two minions. He's sharp, witty, charming, funny - everything you want in a Doctor, and everything that Baker wasn't allowed to be in his first year in the role.

This is probably the same Colin Baker that John Nathan-Turner saw holding court at a wedding in 1983 enough for the producer to offer Baker the role of The Doctor. Seeing Baker in this, it's easy to see why JNT made that decision. I'd rank the Season 23 Colin Baker Doctor right up there with the best. As this season (his last) continues, it will become more and more apparent how much of a missed opportunity this characterization of the Sixth Doctor was.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Another Update

Boy, I'm really humming along with this blog now, aren't I? At one writeup a month, I should probably be able to finish this thing by 2136, which means, unless my math fails me, I should be at least well into my 70s when that time rolls around.

There's one main reason why my progress on the blog has stalled in recent weeks - laziness. Ok, two reasons - laziness and Matt Smith. I have become so enveloped in Matt Smith's performance as The Doctor, and in the most recent series of Doctor Who in general, that I can barely bring myself to watch any other era of Doctor Who. That's nothing against all the Doctor Who episodes that have come before (barring a few notable exceptions, of course). It's just that, at this time, I can't envision any other incarnation/era as the definitive representation of the programme. I'm sure that viewpoint will mute itself in the weeks after Series 5 finishes airing, but until then, any reviews (if I felt compelled to write them in the first place) would not be as unbiased as I would have hoped.

My initial goal a few days ago was to finish this blog by the end of August as I'm leaving on a big, long vacation in September. But now comes word that two infinitely more funny and talented writers, namely Who luminaries Rob Shearman and Toby Hadoke, are planning a book trilogy to be released in December that, essentially, will be doing precisely what this blog has tried to do over the past year and a bit - write a humourous and witty review of every single episode of Doctor Who ever - I know have an actual, fearful deadline of the end of November to get this blog done so it can be forgotten and eclipsed by a more superior work on the subject.

So, let's set it back one week from the end of November and set November 23, 2010 as the goal end date for me to complete this blog (well, complete up until the end of Series 5). I started it on the anniversary of the return of Doctor Who on March 26, 2009, and I'll finish on the anniversary of it's original first broadcast. Fitting, really.

Right, then. Four more months of loafing until a month worth of cramming. See you in October (hopefully sooner).

P.S. The above picture is the closest this blog will ever get to reviewing or mentioning Dimensions in Time.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

7A1 - The Trial of a Time Lord 1

After 18 long and tortuous months away from UK screens, Doctor Who returns feeling, tonally, much closer to its roots, but also looks up to date and totally a part of the age in which it was made. 1986 was a time of bright pastels and increasing gaudiness, and certain elements of Episode 1 of The Trial of a Time Lord bear witness to that. All the location scenes are now shot on bright, clean videotape, which only accentuate the shocking colours worn by the members of the cast. At least Nicola Bryant has decided to cover up in the intervening months (whereas it's obvious that Colin Baker decided to spend his time off by sampling the various culinary delights that have passed him by during the usual hectic Doctor Who recording schedule).

Before pastels and videotape, though, we are treated to what is and shall always be the most jaw droppingly awesome special effects sequence ever seen in Doctor Who. The opening shot of the Time Lord space station was stunning to see in 1986, and it still looks impressive today. The first few seconds of the shot are spectacular enough on their own. The station looks HUGE. Not just a small model shot in extreme closeup, but a full on, massive recreation of a space station. The lighting is perfect and the camera creeps up to the station (which also, thanks to the perils of CSO, never used to happen in the olden days), but then THE CAMERA MOVES. That first camera swoop makes my heart skip a beat every time. The second, long turn towards the back of the station leaves me breathless. Then, just to reassure you that, yes, you are actually watching Doctor Who, a bright white beam shoots up from the station to engulf the object most familiar with us all - the TARDIS - and sucks it down into the station.

The sequence stands the test of time because it not only predates complex CG by a good decade, but because it was such a comparative leap forward for Doctor Who. The most impressive visual effects on today's Doctor Who have their impact muted because the viewer has come to expect, and usually receive, dazzling computer generated visuals. In 1986, the hopes and dreams of many a Doctor Who fan were raised to an incomparably high level by that opening sequence.

Detractors of this season often lament that, yes, after the admittedly wicked effects sequence, the very next shot is of a standard overlit set in a BBC studio. Whatever. The space station sequence did what it was supposed to do - make fans and casual viewers alike stand up and take notice that Doctor Who was back. Judging by the viewing figures, sadly, it seems that not as many people took heed of that statement as the those who love the show would have hoped...

Friday, April 30, 2010

6Z2 - Revelation of the Daleks 2

You don't realize it at the time, but the scene where Orcini destroys a Dalek with a machine gun fitted with bastic heads (his words) is quite historic. Not only because a Dalek is felled by a mere machine gun, but because it's the last scene in the classic series to be shot on location using film. For the last four season of classic Who, everything on location would be recorded with Outside Broadcast (OB) video cameras. What was gained in uniformity between studio and location footage came at the expense of visual texture. Doctor Who, for better or worse, would never look the same again.

The overall look of classic Who would also never again see the vast talents of director Graeme Harper, who directed his second of two stories with Revelation of the Daleks. Harper's work in this story isn't quite as stunning as it his earlier work in The Caves of Androzani, but it's still furlongs ahead of anything else in Season 22. Revelation is perhaps a more subtle piece for Harper. Harper's strength as an action director often overshadow his ability to underplay a scene. Look at how both the Daleks and Davros are introduced in the opening scenes of Episode 1. The first shot of a Dalek is from behind as one trundles down a hallway, flirting with disappearing off the screen entirely, to give his report to a strange console at the heart of which lies a head. The head spins round - it's Davros in long shot. Cut to the next scene. The camera doesn't linger or celebrate the fact that the Daleks are in this, are an entirely different colour to what we're used to, and that Davros is now reduced to a head in a jar. After decades of overbearing cliffhangers designed to introduce the very monsters which the episode is named after, this sharp left turn into nonchalance is perhaps the most shocking Dalek introduction of them all.

At the heart of this story is Davros, though, and Harper's direction, coupled with Terry Molloy's performance, makes this possibly the best Davros story ever (yes, even rivaling Michael Wisher's turn in Genesis of the Daleks). Molloy was in full rant mode in Resurrection of the Daleks because the script required it - a macho story required a macho villain. In Revelation, Molloy almost whispers his lines to the point where he's almost inaudible (a pervading echoey audio mix doesn't help matters), aided by some extremely tight close-ups to further dial the bombast down. It's a stunning performance, and when Davros is revealed in his usual form towards the end, the contrast between that and his decoy self is shocking. Harper shoots the real Davros from below, just as he often does with the Daleks, making the withered, wheelchair bound scientist look like he's in full control of the situation. Later, when he's hovering in midair, zapping a prone Orcini with Emperor Palpatine-like electricity from his fingers, Davros almost ascends to one of the most powerful and frightening villains ever seen in Doctor Who.

It's obvious that I'm a Graeme Harper fan, but his work commands such respect. I had the very great pleasure to interview the man on Radio Free Skaro #187, an interview that the podcast team is so fiercely proud of that I heartily recommend you listen to it now (find it here). In it, Harper describes his directorial style during the interview, particularly his decision to direct from the studio floor as opposed to overseeing everything from the upstairs control room. Being able to interact directly with his cast and floor crew, as opposed to relaying his instructions from the gallery, simply saved time, which allowed for more time to be spent on lining up more artistic shots that would have been impossible to do under the standard style favoured by most directors. Yes, Harper had a flair for the artistic and the dramatic, but it was only because of efficient time management skills that he was able to pull off some of the most dazzling sequences in Doctor Who history.

Revelation of the Daleks is quite probably the high point of Colin Baker's abbreviated time in Doctor Who, and easily the best thing that Eric Saward ever wrote for the programme. By the end of the next season (which finally aired 18 months after Season 22's conclusion), both Baker and Saward would be gone from Doctor Who for varying reasons. That last shot of Colin Baker looks so tragically hopeful, in retrospect. It's of a Doctor confident in his future, knowing full well where he's going and what he'll do when he gets there. Outside forces beyond his control were the only things that could stop him.

"All right, I'll take you to --"

A quick BBC editing job cuts off the Sixth Doctor, and Doctor Who in general, in mid-sentence. In more ways than one.

6Z1 - Revelation of the Daleks 1

Revelation of the Daleks, especially Part One, is probably one of the least Doctor Who-like episodes of Doctor Who ever. It probably has more in common with Mission to the Unknown, if anything, although Mission had more Daleks in it, and about as many scenes where The Doctor's presence is relevant.

Instead of The Doctor and Daleks, we are treated to, admittedly, a vast array of interesting characters and situations, almost all of them set in Tranquil Repose, a poncy name for a funeral home. Whether or not it's conscious homage to his new hero, Robert Holmes, writer Eric Saward pairs up most of his characters in perfectly matched double acts - Jobel and Tasambeker, Takis and Lilt, Natasha and Grigory, Kara and Vogel, and Orcini and Bostock. Perhaps, with all these characters demanding (and receiving) a great deal of attention and screen time, it's almost inevitable that something would have to take a back seat. The fact that it's The Doctor and the Daleks, the two mainstays of, and reasons for, Doctor Who's longevity, that get the chop is ironic given this story was the last to be made in the era of Doctor Who when it was virtually assured to return the following year.

Given the misgivings that Saward had with writing for the Daleks (a trait not uncommon with other writers over the years), it's not surprising to see the Daleks' dialogue dramatically slashed. However, knowing now that Saward had a such a low opinion of Colin Baker's Doctor at the time, it's telling that he puts him so prominently on the sidelines. Just as Davros's monologues prove a convenient way of getting around having the Daleks speak too much in their grating monotone, Saward's characters all act as a surrogate Doctor - getting into trouble, uncovering mysteries, moving along the plot, etc - all while The Doctor and Peri wander through a winter wilderness doing what they've done best all season long: bicker.

Could Saward have been purposefully underusing The Doctor because he didn't like the character? Even the cliffhanger to Episode One struggles mightily to finally bring The Doctor into the action by dropping an unconvincing polystyrene statue on him. The cliffhanger, and the lack of involvement of The Doctor in the first 45 minutes of this story, is proof, too, that, even after having a whole season to work with, none of the writers ever grew comfortable with the 45-minute episode format. While the rest of the story seems to play out as normal, The Doctor's storyline merely seems to be a typical 25-minute story building up to that first cliffhanger, but just stretched out to almost double the length. As a result, the story almost stops completely whenever The Doctor and Peri are onscreen. By the end of the episode, barring a namedrop of The Great Healer, they have no more idea what they are getting themselves into than they did at the beginning.

A good episode, but one that feels more like a set-up for what's to come as opposed to having any tangible events of its own.

Monday, April 5, 2010

6Y2 - Timelash 2

It took a good few months of watching, and a lot of years of Doctor Who, to finally unseat The Chase as my least favourite Doctor Who story, but Timelash has taken the title with remarkable ease. And the tragic thing is that we were almost let off the hook, or at least our pain could have been lessened slightly, based on the fact that Episode Two initially ran six minutes short. I could have quite easily lived with 38 minutes of pain, but instead, Eric Saward had to concoct 6 more minutes of complete pap to pad out the episode.

The problem is, this padding only delays the second end of the episode, because, as far as everyone was already concerned, the story ends when the Borad is killed by The Doctor's time Kontron crystal device. Alas, no. Apparently, that was a clone, we're told, which makes about as much sense as The Doctor's seemingly impossible escape from certain death at the hands of a Bandril missile. "I'll explain someday" is the glib answer we're given. It's like The Doctor feels as indifferent to offer an explanation as everyone involved in this production is disenchanted with providing a decent, watchable television programme. Everyone seems to be giving about 80%, and if you add those missing percentages up it results in 100% crap.

Sock puppet aliens, dreadful acting, horrible dialogue, ludicrous plot twists, and some of the most stale direction ever adds up to one of the worst examples of Doctor Who ever made. If I was tuning in to Doctor Who for the first time after hearing the news that the programme was being canceled, and Timelash is what I would have seen, then I would have wanted it banished, too.

6Y1 - Timelash 1

The timing of the original airing of Timelash, coming mere days after the furore of the near-cancellation at the hands of Michael Grade in 1985, could not have been worse. Anytime a television show, celebrity, or music act crosses the boundaries of the entertainment section in the newspapers and enters the mainstream news for whatever reason (usually bad), people flock to that entertainment entity to see what the fuss is about, whether or not they've been fans of said entity before.

With a flurry of new viewers tuning in to see why such a long running show like Doctor Who was being threatened with cancellation, Timelash (and this is putting it very politely) might not be the best choice for Exhibit A in the case for the defence of Doctor Who's cancellation. This next statement is equally as polite as I can make it: Episode One of Timelash is unrepentant garbage.

In a cavalcade of dreadful scenes and moments, the opening scene of the episode is, amazingly, still probably the worst. The Doctor and Peri, having made so many positive strides in their relationship over the past couple stories, are straight back to full on arguing. And it's not even an argument with a resolution. As Peri herself says, it is complete "aimless wandering", there simply to show that, yes, The Doctor and Peri do exist, but they are included here only because there is no point to have them in the story otherwise.

After all, there all the wonders of Karfel to take in. Karfel, by definition of the plot, may be the blandest, dullest place ever visited by The Doctor (twice, apparently). It's matte finish motif rubs off on the inhabitants of Karfel, or at least those who live in the Citadel (all 500 hundred of them, as Brunner so subtly informs the viewer early in Episode One). Most of the characters are terrible, veering from merely drab to impossibly poorly acted. Jeananne Crowley as Vena might, just might, have the staying power to unseat Rick James and Jenny Laird as the worst actor to ever appear in Doctor Who. Crowley stares blankly off camera during every line she weakly delivers, presumably being silently coached by a frantically waving floor assistant trying to get her to properly emphasize the right words while still maintaining a normal breathing pattern.

The script does no one any favours, but that's what happens when you employ an inexperienced writer-cum-ambulance driver to write a Doctor Who story. The episode is littered with painful moments. The first scene in the council chamber is full of hamfisted introductory dialogue such as lines like the afore-mentioned informal census taken by Brunner, but even more so when Mykros explains to Vena, who must surely know anyway, about "Karfel's former allies, the Bandrils". It's as if Glen McCoy, who must have wrote most of this script on a particularly slow midnight shift, isn't even attempting to weave the pre-history into the story. Just mention it - that is enough, in his eyes. Even the bafflingly unnecessary reference to The Doctor's prior visit to the planet during his third incarnation is handled poorly, and with no sense of any style or panache. No wonder Paul Darrow chose to blatantly (and, in context with what was going on around him, wonderfully) overact every time he's on camera (and even sometimes when he's not).

This lurid mess does have to be laid at the feet of The Unluckiest Director in the World, Pennant Roberts, though, whose direction is the only thing flatter and duller than the walls of the council chamber. Roberts was displeased with the script, fair enough, but he is completely going through the motions in this, his last Doctor Who directing job, perhaps accepting his lot after the previous two Doctor Who assignments turned out so badly. His decision to have three people applaud Maylin Renis's grand entrance was terribly misguided, as was the decision to sign off on Liz Parker's tepid music score.

It all adds up to one of the longest 45 minutes I've ever had to endure during this entire viewing marathon.

6W3 - The Two Doctors 3

My appreciation of The Two Doctors has completely changed over the years. As a teenager first watching this story for the first time, I was impressed with the relationship between the Doctors, I was in love with the Spanish countryside and cityscape of old Seville, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first ever glimpse of Patrick Troughton's Doctor.

Today, I'm still impressed with the relationship between the Doctors, I still adore the vistas of Spain, and I'm saddened at what was the last time that Patrick Troughton would play The Doctor. Troughton's Doctor was perhaps the most influential Doctor of them all, almost directly inspiring the performances of no less than four Doctors that followed him (including current Eleventh Doctor actor Matt Smith). His Doctor was also the most aloof, yet, at the same time, curiously accessible. Troughton appeared opposite four other Doctors in three stories after he left the role in 1969. No other actor's Doctor could mesh in with the other Doctors as Troughton's Doctor did in those stories. Can you imagine a multi-Doctor story with Tom Baker and William Hartnell and/or Richard Hurndall forming a double act? Jon Pertwee and Sylvester McCoy? No, because any other Doctor, particularly Pertwee and Baker, would be so keen to install themselves as the most dominant Doctor. That's not only a quality of the actors, but it's a characteristic of the Doctors whom they portrayed.

Troughton simultaneously played second fiddle and scene stealer in every scene he appeared in, which is what made him utterly brilliant. He also brings out the best in his fellow actors. You can tell that Colin Baker is clearly relishing every second of screen time with Troughton, who Baker has often called "his Doctor". And Troughton's Doctor makes Colin Baker's Doctor a much more likable person. Baker is tremendous in this story, and, knowing what was to come for his Doctor and his era, it makes watching his carefree bounding about the Spanish countryside all the more disappointing.

To be honest, though, it's the vegetarian theme of The Two Doctors that registered with me most on this viewing. I wasn't a vegetarian for the first few times I had seen this story, but I am now. I definitely don't want to get on a soapbox in this blog (and, no, I'm not a supporter of PETA or their methods), but the veggie theme here was just another brilliant piece of satire by Robert Holmes to make you watch a show decrying something that he didn't agree with while being entertained at the same time. Like Holmes's righteous, comedic anger at the invasion of privacy in Carnival of Monsters and the UK tax system in The Sun Makers, he very neatly deals with the perils of eating meat, something that was very important to him late in his life.

The fact that Shockeye was of a different species that humans (or, to use one of Holmes's favourite demonyms, Tellurians) makes his actions, and rampant lust to devour Jamie for lunch, as acceptable as any human being looking to sink his teeth into a lamb chop (to paraphrase The Rani). It therefore makes The Doctor's controversial killing of Shockeye near the end of Part Three just as understandable. The Doctor, his mobility severely hampered by a slash to the leg administered by Shockeye, who was chasing him with severe bloodlust on his mind, had no choice but to kill Shockeye in order to survive.

This scene is another example of the double standard that existed between the two Baker eras. In The Brain of Morbius, Tom Baker's Doctor not only kills Solon with cyanide, he doesn't even have the guts to do it while in the same room as the mad scientist. No one bats an eye. Colin Baker's Doctor kills Shockeye with cyanide in a fight for survival, and he is dealt yet another blow in the public character assassination going on at the time. It was just another round of ammo in Michael Grade's increasingly loaded gun.

Neither the character attack nor the cancellation (sorry - hiatus) were deserved, but then, that's the Colin Baker era in a nutshell, isn't it?

Friday, March 26, 2010

One Year On: An Update

Can you believe it's already been one whole year since I started this Chronic Hysteresis blog? As the blurb near the top right of the page boldly states, it was my intention at the time to watch and review every single episode of Doctor Who in one calendar year, ending just in time for the premiere of the new Matt Smith series.

Well, as you can quite clearly see, I haven't quite succeeded in my goal. Real life has thoughtlessly intruded into my best laid plans (nothing bad, I've just been busy), so I've obviously had to alter those plans. I'll still complete the review of every episode - worry not. But I'm finding that while I'm still able to watch each episode (although also at a reduced rate), it's the writing of reviews that's really been hampered during all this. While you've just read my review of Episode Two of The Two Doctors, I've just watched Episode Two of Battlefield this morning!

So here's what I'm going to do - once I'm done watching the classic series episodes sometime in early April, I'll be putting my Doctor Who viewing on hiatus and focusing purely on catching up on the reviews (although I'll also probably be watching each new Matt Smith episode 2-3 times a week during that time). Ironic, isn't it, that I'm announcing a hiatus of Doctor Who watching in between my reviews for Parts Two and Three of The Two Doctors, just like when the BBC announced in the week between the original broadcast of those two episodes back in 1985 that they were putting Doctor Who on hiatus. Well, I found it noteworthy, anyway.

Basically, though, nothing will change on the blog - the same erratic posting schedule will continue for a while, but I just wanted to let all you faithful readers know what was going on behind the scenes. My new goal now is to finish my review of The End of Time, Part Two right around the time of the Series 5 finale in late June/early July so that I can start all my Series 5 reviews shortly afterward.

Thanks as always, everyone, for reading this blog. I do hope you enjoy my write-ups and the episodes of Doctor Who on which they are based.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

6W2 - The Two Doctors 2

Episode Two is very similar to Episode One in that there are several tremendously long scenes. There were two scenes in Episode One that were each over six minutes long and featured just The Doctor and Peri. A similar scene happens in this episode, but it's even longer, when The Doctor postulates his theory about the universe collapsing, then Peri leaves to check on Jamie, then The Doctor discovers the "torture booth" optical illusion, then Peri and Jamie come back in, then The Doctor decides to try and contact his other self via mind link (deep breath), and so on.

It almost feels like we're watching a filmed stage play at times. There's another almost criminally long scene in the cellar that changes locations slightly, but the recording never breaks from a scene with Dastari and Chessene, to one with Dastari and Stike, to one with Stike and The Doctor. This story is almost a throwback to the Second Doctor era in more ways than one, as huge scenes without recording breaks was the style of production back in the 1960s. It's a technique that jars when seen in a 1980s context, but results in a story that is at least breathable.

Speaking of breathable, it's good to see Colin Baker ditch his coat for the scenes set in Spain, just as his predecessor did for his hot weather filming stint in Planet of Fire. Bizarrely, though, Frazer Hines is encumbered with Jamie's most thorough costume ever in the series. He wasn't this well dressed in the ice tombs of Telos or the Himalayas, but poor Hines must have baked underneath his costume in the southern Spain sun even more than the two actors playing Sontarans did.

Oh, and speaking of the Sontarans, one wonders why they have been made taller than their previous incarnations (but not equally tall, as Clinton Greyn still towers over Tim Raynham). I've always assumed that these Sontarans were rare special ops troops, cloned to be taller to be able to reach tree branches and the top shelves of bookcases. Plus, to my young eyes when I first saw this story, Sontarans were always tall because this was the first time I had seen them and remembered their stature. So, to me, I looked back at earlier stories and wondered why all the Sontarans we so small...

While it can be argued that the Sontarans are less effective in this story than in previous appearances, at least their theme music, as composed by Peter Howell, makes up for it. Howell's final score for the classic series is his best. He contrasts the heavy, drum laden backing track for the Sontarans with some gorgeous Spanish guitar music for scenes set around the hacienda. It's one of my favourite scores to this day, and it, as well as the beauty of the location footage shot in and around Seville, almost solely inspired my love of Spanish guitar music and prompts me still to want to visit the olive groves of Andalusia. Ah, Doctor Who - is there anything you can't inspire me to do?

6W1 - The Two Doctors 1

In a season that has a habit of keeping The Doctor and Peri on the sidelines while the story is set up in Episode One, perhaps the most devastating insult to the Sixth Doctor in The Two Doctors is that when The Doctor actually does become involved in the story straight off, it's not even his Doctor that does it! No, it's left to an aged Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines to carry the bulk of the story in the early going in an extended prologue before the main action of The Doctor and a nearly topless Peri fishing takes over.

It's great to see Troughton and Hines together again, although it's odd to see nothing done to disguised the actors' aged appearances, nor is much thought given to how the back story created for this episode would intersect with established events. Watching the first TARDIS scene in this episode practically begs someone to come up with the "Season 6B" theory.

The Two Doctors is, in essence, the first six-part story broadcast since 1979, and the last ever in the classic series. If you thought the pacing of Season 22 episodes seemed off in comparison to those containing the traditional 25-minute episodes, then the way the plot moves in this story will astound you. It's not so much that the story lags, but that this episode is populated with several incredibly long scenes and very few characters. Usually, the first episode of a story features the most characters, the bulk of which gradually get killed off over the rest of the story. Here, we meet eleven characters (including Doctors and companions) who will carry the events through until pretty much the end of Episode Three.

The results of all these factors makes this episode and enjoyable watch, but almost completely lacking in intensity. Part of this can also be attributed to director Peter Moffatt, surely the most laid back director Doctor Who ever had. The Sontarans make their return to the screen for the first time since 1978, but they're introduced as an afterthought, nameless extras in a scene on location at the hacienda. It's almost as if Moffatt had sun stroke while directing this. Maybe he actually did...

6X2 - The Mark of the Rani 2

Doctor Who has had several directors who have directed only one story, and, in most cases, for better or worse, the results have usually been rather unique. These unique results vary from the awkward (Tristan de Vere Cole of The Wheel in Space fame) to the visionary (Lovett Bickford's sterling, and wildly over budget, work on The Leisure Hive) to the disastrous (Mary Ridge on Terminus). Sarah Hellings's only Doctor Who directorial effort was The Mark of the Rani, and her work is among the very best seen in the 1980s.

Colin Baker certainly seems to benefit from Hellings's work. For the first time, the Sixth Doctor is actually fun to watch here, bounding around the countryside with a vigour for life that was all but absent in Baker's first three stories. Colin Baker shows off the wit and charm that won him the part in the first place. His exploration of The Rani's TARDIS (a dazzling set, by the way) is just lovely, as is his efforts to free himself from being tied up to a pole amidst a minefield of plant mines.

Yeah, the plant mines and the moving tree - they're one of the things that certain sectors of fans loathe about this story, but I personally think they're an ingenious idea. And the idea of Luke being able to move his "arm" to save Peri isn't that outlandish, as it could still be the last vestiges of his humanity working to save Peri before he fully becomes a tree.

In fact, this story as a whole has been, in my opinion, unfairly slammed over the years. This marathon of Who watching and writing has yielded many surprises, even after having watched them several times already over the past few years, and The Mark of the Rani pleasantly surprised me more than most. It's an utter delight to watch, easily the most charming story in the Sixth Doctor's era, and in dire need of a reappraisal from those who have been bashing it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

6X1 - The Mark of the Rani 1

The historical stories have always been one of the staples of Doctor Who's success since the earliest days of the show, but ever since the programme moved away from the straight historicals of the 1960s, there have been a tiny handful that have successfully captured the feel, mood, and atmosphere of the period in which the story takes place. In my mind, there are only two such stories made since 1967 that have come close to achieving perfection in those qualities: The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Mark of the Rani.

Both stories were blessed with being able to film more scenes on location for a more authentic feel. Most of the Palace Theatre scenes in Talons were actually shot at a Victorian theatre, and Rani benefited from an extra week's filming at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum. The results are extraordinary. The opening shots of men lifting up coal from a mine, complimented by Jonathan Gibbs's painfully beautiful music score, set the scene incredibly well. This story feels entirely different than any Who seen in some time, and it is absolutely delightful.

Writers Pip and Jane Baker, who receive a fair amount of flack from fan and script editor alike, make their penchant for overblown dialogue seem right at home in the early part of the 19th century when such language was commonplace. Their writing style suits Colin Baker's Doctor rather well, too. Baker is sublime in this. You can tell that, after a couple shaky outings, he feels he's arrived in Doctor Who, and he is at his most Doctor-ish in this episode - bragging about his genius, showing off his time tracer device like a seven-year-old waving a freshly drawn picture in front of his distracted mother's face, and verbally sparring with The Rani and, later, The Master.

Yes, The Master is back somehow, having apparently been burnt to a crisp in Planet of Fire, but magically back and intact here. Whatever. We all knew he was coming back somehow, and seeing him appear from out of his scarecrow costume here sure beats another "So, you escaped from (insert planet name here)" line. Plus, he and The Rani form a great duo. Neither are on 19th century Earth out of malice, which is nice. The Master is only after revenge against The Doctor (and, by extension, Peri). The Rani is motivated by science, and her questionable methods are borne only out of disregard as opposed to evil.

A rollicking good episode, and one that finally sees The Doctor involved in the story from an early stage.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

6V2 - Vengeance on Varos 2

Watching the acid bath sequence, it's quite clear that it's impact has been overblown over the years. It's obvious that The Doctor doesn't actually push one of the guards into the acid bath, but the other guard actually pulls him in himself (Raising another question altogether - why does the guard want so badly to have his friend share a grisly death in an acid bath together?). It's The Doctor's smug reaction and James Bond-esque humourous quip afterwards that is now seen as more troubling, but is it really? The Fourth Doctor and Romana were rampantly indifferent to seeing Rohm Dutt dragged to his doom by one of Kroll's many tentacles in one of many instances that Tom Baker's Doctor proves that his incarnation is probably the most callous of them all.

Near the end of the episode, when The Doctor rigs up some poisonous vines to instantly kill his pursuers, he does it as a last resort, having been literally backed into a corner. Once the deed is done, he is almost overcome with regret. He has done what he had to in order to survive and protect his friends, which goes a long way to erase his questionable acts from Episode One.

But while The Doctor's actions improve in this episode, other characters move in to take his place. Quillam is an angry, vile man. His motives are entirely sadistic, and his description of what he wants to happen to The Doctor and his rebel friends is florid and grotesque. If Quillam wasn't going to kill them, then those two nappy-wearing cannibals were next in line. Overall, Varos is a very grim place, which was the artistic intention, but that point is stressed far too much over the course of the story.

Not all of Vengeance on Varos is bad, though. Nabil Shaban is the obvious highlight, bringing so much to the character of Sil that he instantly makes the little Thoros Betan the most memorable villain in Doctor Who in some time. Martin Jarvis is marvellous as the weary governor and brings some nice little touches to the role, my favourite being his awkward parting handshake with The Doctor, unfamiliar with the custom, but then offering a much more confident hand towards Peri.

But the best bit of the whole story are the two average citizens of Varos, one (Arak) who is a simple, common, working man who disagrees with everything the government, and his wife, Etta, who is loyal to the core, and would sell her own husband down the river (and she almost does) if it meant maintaining her support for her beloved governor. These two characters never interact with anyone else throughout the whole story. They are there merely to provide commentary from the outside, which is incredibly rare in Doctor Who. Even rarer, and even more delightful, is their puzzlement at the end when the old way of life is cast aside. Such a thing happens all the time in Doctor Who, but we never see it from the viewpoint of those who it effects most - the common man. The last shot is of Arak and Etta staring blankly up at the the TV screen that has kept them placated for so many years, now blank.

"What do we do now?" "Dunno." A brilliant ending to a so-so story.