Monday, April 18, 2011

7E1 - Paradise Towers 1

The second story of a new Doctor is always interesting. An introductory story is always full of the usual post-regenerative tropes that are habitually relied upon to distract the viewing audience while they, and the actor playing the title role, warms to the idea of a brand new Doctor. Not so with the second story. Those crutches are now gone, and it's now up to the new Doctor and the production team to set the different course that the show will take for the next foreseeable future.

Colin Baker is the exception to this rule because of the fact that his first story closed a season, and, in order to produce a big impact at the start of his first full season, the Cybermen were brought back amidst a flurry of ill-advised continuity references to coax the Sixth Doctor through his sophomore adventure. Paradise Towers is miles removed from this approach. Episode 1 feels like such a fresh start for the series, building on the same feeling that pervaded through Time and the Rani. It's back to The Doctor and his companion, traveling the universe looking for fun and adventure.

In this case, it's Mel wanting to find a decent swimming pool. Trite stuff to some, perhaps, but it's the innocence of Mel's intentions, as well as The Doctor's desire to explore what he hopes to be the impressive Paradise Towers development. Of course, what the two find in the Towers are squabbling factions of young women who are behaving like school children, living in their own innocent world of schoolyard games while members of their various factions are "made unalive" and "taken to the cleaners".

The divergence between the two tones is jarring in this first episode, and could be seen as extremely off putting. The intense opening sequence of the last Yellow Kang meeting her end is totally at odds with the dances and chants of "Red Kangs! Red Kangs! Red Kans are best!" later on. The two tones collide in the "How You Do" sequence that is merely two people saying hello, but is treated as a dramatic, almost violent sequence by the Kang actresses and Sylvester McCoy, punctuated by Keff McColloch's energetic score. Once you throw in the bumbling caretakers, led by Richard Briers, the first of list of primary guest actors in Season 24 who play their parts almost entirely for laughs, you don't know where things are headed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

7D4 - Time and the Rani 4

What I love about Time and the Rani is that it's fresh. Everything about it seems new and exciting. It's a visual feast. The set design is superb, with several large scale sets such as the Rani's laboratory, the Tetrap's pit, and the Lakertyan recreation centre giving the series a great sense of scale. First time Doctor Who director Andrew Morgan manages to turn the standard rock quarry into a genuine looking rock quarry-like alien planet, as well as giving us some excellent forced perspective shots of The Rani's headquarters. The model effects shots are also superb. This is Doctor Who, doing it's level best to keep up with the visual standards of the day and doing a pretty fine job of it.

The costumes are also quite impressive, particularly those for the Tetraps. It's a shame that their unique 360° eyesight wasn't made more prominent (apart from the cool point-of-view shots), as people seemed to keep eluding them whenever the Tetraps were on the chase. But for a four eyed bat with a forked tongue in a gorilla suit, it's a bold attempt at a new and wondrous creature for Doctor Who. Less successful are the Lakertyans, perhaps, as it's never really apparent that the giant manes on their heads are supposed to be their hair and not some elaborate headdresses. Still, the attempts to have them run with their arms behind them and other little touches are a neat way of portraying a different and alien culture that doesn't require a great deal of clumsy exposition.

Time and the Rani routinely finishes near the bottom of fan polls, and I still have yet to realize why. It's a refreshing change of pace after the past couple years of having an axe dangle over the show's future. Here, the axe might very well still be ready to swoop, but it's as if the programme doesn't care anymore. Time and the Rani is the first step towards the three seasons that were to follow, a time of rebirth and of casting off the yoke of history to reveal a new, yet familiar, core of a show we've come to know and love.

Most of all, Time and the Rani is just a lot of fun to watch. And I will never complain about that.

7D3 - Time and the Rani 3

There's a clear parallel between a scene here in Episode Three and a very similar one in Vengeance on Varos from Season 22. Ikona prevents The Doctor from stepping into a land mine at the last second. Then, a Tetrap looms menacingly upon The Doctor before being blasted by Ikona and his glitter gun. Discombobulated, the Tetrap is then pushed by The Doctor into land mine, after which the four-eyed unfortunate is spun off to explode into a nearby rock. It's eerily similar to the infamous acid bath scene from Varos, but the key difference is in the reaction of The Doctor. In Varos, The Doctor, who actually never lays hands on the guard who gets dragged to his acidic death, responds with a throwaway quip, and is lambasted by fan and critic alike.

The fact that The Seventh Doctor, who is perhaps the least prone to violence out of all the Doctors, actually shoves the Tetrap directly into the land mine is almost downright shocking. I had to rewind it to ensure that what I saw was correct. But it's what The Doctor does and how he reacts immediately afterward that spares him from criticism, and it's all down to Sylvester McCoy's performance. Right after he shoves the Tetrap, McCoy dusts his hands as if he's just absent-mindedly pushed the Tetrap to his death. It's an accident, and McCoy plays it as such. Once the trap is sprung, McCoy has a look of shock and horror on his face that his miles away from the smug smile Colin Baker affected after his escape from the acid bath. And while the posthumous salute isn't played quite as seriously as it could have been, the intent is there.

This is a different Doctor we are being treated to here. Whereas in past, The Doctor was ready to only admit that he was abhorrent to violence except in self defence, McCoy's Doctor isn't even willing to go that far. He's a negotiator and a strategist, and, even when these tactics fail as they do when he's duped by a hologram of Mel in a hostage negotiation, he still stands by his new approach. I'm not a fan of comparing one actor's performance of The Doctor to another, but it's difficult to not notice the similarities between McCoy's Doctor and Patrick Troughton's at this early stage. As we had lost Troughton to a heart attack in the days leading up to the production of Time and the Rani, perhaps that comparison is a fitting one.

7D2 - Time and the Rani 2

There's already signs of Sylvester McCoy settling down into the role, even at this fairly early stage, which makes for a nice change of pace after the previous two post-regeneration stories have had the changeover between Doctors be their primary focus. Once The Doctor and (the real) Mel finally meet here in Episode Two, the last mention of any amnesia or trauma is discarded, and one gets the impression that if the two hadn't been separated early in the story, the regeneration would have been done and dusted quickly.

With everything now in place, the persona of the Seventh Doctor starts to take shape. McCoy's own penchant for playing the spoons is first seen, and his Doctor actually forms a not bad pairing with Mel. Whereas Mel would run off with boundless energy only to be unsuccessfully restrained by Colin Baker's Doctor during their brief time together, the push-pull factor here is more tolerable. I like how The Doctor hands Mel a stethoscope so she can listen for herself the mysterious door at the top of the stairs in the Rani's laboratory. It's not only a handy way of creating dialogue between Doctor and companion, but it shows a great deal of trust by The Doctor to his companion, a companion whose identity was only confirmed to him minutes before.

I'm halfway through this story now and, call me blind or stupid (please don't, though - it'll hurt my feelings), but I can't see why this story is so universally loathed by everyone. Hey, at the very least it's better than The Twin Dilemma, isn't it?

Friday, March 11, 2011

7D1 - Time and the Rani 1

John Nathan-Turner took a well deserved vacation in late 1986, having just endured a horrific few months as producer of Doctor Who that culminated in him being ordered to fire Colin Baker from the role of The Doctor. He assumed that his bosses had finally confirmed their oft-repeated promise of removing him the responsibility of producing Doctor Who and were about to put him in charge of another serial. Imagine his face when, upon his return, he was told that, no, he was to remain producer, that he had to find a new Doctor, a new script editor, and, most importantly of all, actual stories to tell. And production was due to begin in three months!

Quick! Call in Pip and Jane Baker!

I referred to the Bakers' herculean efforts in the last post, and I'm forced to defend them again here. They once again pull off the impossible by creating a script out of nothing, with no real hint about who they're writing for, and all in a tiny amount of time. The Mark of the Rani is my favourite Colin Baker story, and it's also the only time that Pip and Jane were ever to write a story that wasn't a last minute replacement. Am I mad to think that they haven't been given a fare shake from fans over the years? So it is just me? I'm ok with that.

Less than six weeks before this story was to go before the cameras, JNT didn't even have a lead actor in place. That Sylvester McCoy's name kept coming up in conversations was just about the best thing that could have happened to Nathan-Turner at that time. That he scheduled screen tests with McCoy alongside two other woefully unimpressive auditions in order to appease his bosses that he was going through the correct casting procedure? Genius.

McCoy is a revelation. He is full of positive energy from his very first scene, giving the series a much needed breath of fresh air. Without any real direction in terms of the character of this new Doctor, the script is forced to resort to the old standby of post-regenerative amnesia and erraticism, and McCoy falls back on his immense comic skills to portray this. Yes, it's goofy, but McCoy is so unpredictable and interesting that you can't take your eyes off of him. It's nice to see The Doctor have a half decent costume again, too.

The Rani's plan to dress up as Mel might stretch things a bit too far. Was this her plan all along? Had The Doctor not regenerated and thus wouldn't have been suffering through trauma, would this plan really have worked? With all the carrot juice that the Sixth Doctor was drinking, his eyesight wouldn't have deserted him. (And why, when seen through The Doctor's hallucinating eyes, does Mel suddenly look like Bernadette Peters?)

This also just happens to be the most impressive looking episode in the programme's history. Ignore the 80s trappings of the revamped logo and Keff McCulloch's new version of the theme tune because nothing (repeat: nothing) that came out of the 1980s is considered tasteful today. The new opening titles are all done on computer! So is that neat SFX sequence in the cold open! It may look slightly dated now, but remember this: three years before Season 24, the best computer graphics that the BBC could come up with was done on the BBC Micro for Warriors of the Deep. The Tetrap land mine effects are simply stunning, too - a triumph in the marriage of practical and visual effects.

A refreshing and fun opening 25 minutes to a completely brand new era for Doctor Who.

7C6 - The Trial of a Time Lord 14

Let's get this out of the way right now: Part 14 is a masterpiece. Forget the enduring jokes of megabyte modems, reincarnated Peris, and carrot juice to the power of three. This is an epic end to an epic serial that feels, for once, well, epic.

It's amazing that this episode even exists at all. Fault Pip and Jane Baker all you like, but they achieved the impossible with this script. How many writers have been given the task of finishing another person's story over the course of a weekend, based only on notes and script ideas, and with a lawyer standing over them ensuring that nothing is told to them about how the story was originally intended to conclude? The only real victim in Part 14 is James Bree, who, as the Keeper of the Matrix, was intended to have a much larger role in Eric Saward's version of Part 14, but, based on his comedy reaction to Mel stamping on his foot to steal the key, this may have been a good thing.

Even with an extra five minutes worth of running time, this episode hums along with a pace unseen in the series for some time. Colin Baker is brilliant in what would sadly be his last episode. His urgency sets that pace. He and Glitz make a great team, just as Glitz later proves to be an excellent foil for The Master. When Baker shouts at Mel to return to the trial room and warn the Time Lords of impending doom, you believe him! If Mel isn't going to hurry up and run, with Baker's inspiration, you'll be the first to overtake her.

As much as I enjoy this episode, I can't help but think how Eric Saward's original cliffhanger ending of The Doctor and The Valeyard tumbling through time, a la the demise of Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, would have played out. If anything, it would have forced whichever incoming production team in Season 24 to deal with the outcome, but it would have given Colin Baker's Doctor a reasonable exit from the show. Baker's last scene may be a springboard to a decade and a half worth of Big Finish audio stories, but in retrospect, his last line has become a fitting epitaph to what was publicly seen as a low ebb in the series' history. Retrospect offers a perfect chance for me, and hopefully others, to change that opinion.

That the story ended as it did does provide some closure, though - not only for the season long arc, not only for Colin Baker's era, but for the 23-year history of the programme up to this point. When Doctor Who returned in September 1987, it was with a new Doctor, a new script editor, an entirely new visual and aural approach, but not, as John Nathan-Turner would have hoped, a new producer. Having been through hell and back over the past year and a half, Nathan-Turner's reward from the BBC for helming the ship through rough waters was to remain producer of a show that was now impossible to find a producer for. With the amount of kicking it was getting from the sixth floor at the BBC, what sane individual would want that poisoned chalice? Colin Baker was the public casualty of the Trial, but Nathan-Turner endured the longer lasting wounds.

I may enjoy the Colin Baker era, but it's become a sad realization that not many others do. It's not like I can claim that it's my favourite era, either. It's never anybody's favourite era. It's the black sheep in the history of Doctor Who, which is possibly why I give it more of a chance than I would any other era. Colin Baker, being the public face of the era, took the brunt of the criticism that resulted in him losing his job. His was a tenure of pure happenstance. He was in the right place at the right time (a wedding), doing the right things to (unknowingly) impress John Nathan-Turner enough to get the job as The Doctor, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time as the BBC lost faith in the show. If Peter Davison had stayed on for Season 22, would the show still have been canceled? We may never know the answer to that question.

The Colin Baker Era:

Best Story : Revelation of the Daleks
Worst Story : Timelash
Favourite Story : The Mark of the Rani

And now, Sylvester McCoy...