The E-Space Trilogy Trilogy: Part Three (Warriors’ Gate)

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Trilogies are a mixed bag. Many have exemplary first installments and then less-than-wonderful denouements, which often happens when a film that was always intended to be standalone – or which would have worked best as standalone – has a couple of sequels tacked onto it years later (Wachowski brothers, I’m looking at you). At other times, a work that is clearly designed to have multiple parts spends the first two hours setting everything up, building to a wondrous (and usually fairly dark) middle segment and then a letdown (colossal or otherwise) of a finale: see The X-Men, and to a lesser extent the Lord of the Rings films, which peaked at Helm’s Deep and never really recovered. You could also group the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films into this category if you wanted, although that perhaps ties the films together with tighter bonds than are perhaps deserved.

Which leads me to my point. Viewed objectively – and within context – the E-Space trilogy, like Raimi’s, was never really a trilogy at all. But it is treated as such by many, including the 2 Entertain folks, and me, at least for the purposes of the three articles I’ve produced this past week or so. (Of course, the 2 Entertain DVD sets are occasionally a little tenuous in terms of their choice of linking material. Chronicling the narratives of Peladon or the Mara is perfectly acceptable, but frequently bad stories are dropped in with good ones – The Bred For War Sontaran Collection springs to mind, as does the combination of ‘Time-Flight’ with ‘Arc of Infinity’, although at least those stories are loosely connected. Most baffling of all is the inexplicably titled Earth Story, which pairs ‘The Gunfighters’ with ‘The Awakening’ – two stories with absolutely nothing in common except that they’re set on Earth, along with about two thirds of the rest of the canon.)

But the advantage of treating these three stories in this manner is that the trilogy closes with its strongest work, one that is stylistically more or less unique to Doctor Who, perhaps to television in general. It is a story that polarises its audience, as (to quote Gareth, who nonetheless loves it as much as I do) “in some ways nothing much happens, and it does it confusingly”. Certainly it is not a story to show to a first-time viewer, or perhaps even a casual viewer, if only because it will either put them off the show forever or unceremoniously dump them into a pit of despair when they subsequently discover that nothing (save perhaps ‘The Mind Robber’) is quite as unusual or distinctive. It is boldly written and even more boldly directed, fusing Oriental mysticism with time travel and blending it with an enigmatic alien race and a crazed, Ahab-like space captain and his crew of nonchalant slavers.

Let’s take that opening. The first two minutes of ‘Warriors’ Gate’ are a mesmerising crawl through a clapped out space freighter of unknown origin or destination. The camera pans out through a cryogenic chamber and up through maintenance decks, harsh lights shining through steel mesh walkways. Graffiti – in ominous red – is smeared across a wall. Peter Howell’s mysterious atonal synth drones in the background, but otherwise the only thing to break the silence is a solitary male voice, counting down.

It is stylish and eerie – the similarity to Alien, released the previous year, is perhaps not a coincidence, and Joyce’s debt to Jean Cocteau is well-established – but you can understand why John Nathan Turner freaked out. His clashes with Paul Joyce are well-documented, with Joyce even being replaced on one occasion when his sense of cinematic ambition clashed with time and budget constraints. He’s filming off set, for goodness’ sake, although you wouldn’t necessarily know unless you were working at the BBC. Even years later, Joyce is fiercely unapologetic in the making of documentary that accompanies ‘Warriors’ Gate’, describing it as “either a partial success or a glorious failure”, and reasoning that he wanted to make the sort of programme that you or I would watch – “you, and my kids, who grew up to love it”.

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Whatever Joyce’s motives and the extent to which he succeeded (or did not, depending on whom you ask), the beginning of ‘Warriors’ Gate’ is, somehow, everything the opening to ‘The Leisure Hive’ should have been, but wasn’t. The heavily cinematic direction extends beyond the opening scenes: late in the story, the Doctor enters a mysterious mirror universe which consists of a series of monochromatic stills (Powys Castle and Oxford’s Rousham Gardens) meant to symbolise the decaying kingdom of the Tharils. Excessive CSO can work against a story – it was arguably the downfall of ‘Underworld’, even though hands were tied – but here the very fact that it looks utterly unreal is all part of the fun. This is to say nothing of the white set that symbolises the intersecting point of E-Space and N-Space, and from which half the TARDIS crew eventually depart. It’s familiar, if you know your Troughton, but it works, even within the context of the narrative: this is null space, steadily contracting, thus giving pace to the narrative. That doesn’t stop the juxtaposition of crumbling ruin and obvious blue green screen from having an apparent influence on the much later Knightmare. You almost expect Rorvik to stop in front of the door, feet together and hands by his sides, and ask “Where am I?”.

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But the direction takes much of its cue from Stephen Gallagher’s script, which manages to stay the right side of quirky, by the skin of its teeth. Metaphor and poetic reflection are abundant; at other times it feels as quirky and sparse as the dialogue in, say, Blade Runner. There are three things going on here: the banter between Ward and Baker, with occasional interruptions from Adric; the detached lamentation of the Tharils, who mourn their past mistakes with the same heavy sense of regret that must have plagued the Israelites in Babylon; and, lastly, the sense of gradual disintegration on board the spacecraft, with a disaffected crew and a captain who wears their casual insubordination almost like a badge of honour.

RORVIK: Well?
PACKARD: It’s a solid object.
RORVIK: Check.
LANE: These readings don’t make sense.
RORVIK: Oh, give me a printout.
LANE: It’s a ship.
PACKARD: What, for midgets?
LANE: Or a coffin for a very large man.
RORVIK: Yes, all right, that’s enough of that. Let’s bust it open.

(All extracts from Chrissie’s Transcript Site.)

A word about Rorvik: Clifford Rose plays him with all the grandiose weariness of the king in a Shakespearian tragedy, or at least an Antigonus or Polonius. A slaver by trade, his downfall is charted through antipathy towards his cargo and obsession with getting home, and is punctuated by poor leadership skills, with the captain pulling a gun on his crew to demand their attention. Capable of utter menace when he is moodily shot from below as the Doctor ascends a ladder, he is then seen – moments later – emerging covered in dust in the aftermath of a failed explosion, in one of the story’s most comic moments, like one of those Laurel and Hardy cartoons where Oliver runs out of the room carrying a bomb, which then explodes offscreen. But the captain is no bumbling-but-lovable fool: he remains, at the last, utterly chilling in his incompetence, his trajectory concluding in fire, and with the words “I’M FINALLY GETTING SOMETHING DONE!”.

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“Do nothing”, indeed, is the mantra for much of the narrative. Rorvik’s determination to take action is his eventual undoing: conversely it is only by stilling themselves and actively doing nothing that the Doctor and Romana, in the company of Biroc, are able to escape the inferno. Those of you who read my reviews will know that I took particular issue with three episodes in the last series (‘Listen‘, ‘Kill The Moon‘, ‘In The Forest of the Night‘) in which inaction turned out to be the only logical course of events, but there’s a difference between jamming a story with decisive action – and then deflating the tension in the closing minutes – and making the idea of inaction central to the narrative, which is what happens here, very early on:

DOCTOR: It’s jammed. I’ve lost control. We’re adrift in E-space.
ROMANA: Come on, Doctor. We’ve got to do something.
DOCTOR: Have we?
ROMANA: What do you mean?
DOCTOR: Maybe that’s it.
ROMANA: What, drifting?
DOCTOR: The way out of E-space.

As much as I like Biroc, sadly, the Tharils do not survive with their dignity intact. Part of the problem is age: the physical resemblance to the beast from Beauty and the Beast is presumably intentional, but would manifest in popular culture in the late 1980s in one particularly memorable form, and it is hard to take the race of hairy time-sensitive creatures seriously after you’ve seen them with their arms round Sarah Connor.

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The first real indication we get of Biroc’s general benevolence, of course, is a scene that follows the episode two cliffhanger, in which Romana wears the same headphones we’ve seen in at least three other stories, as the hairy beast stalks through the decks of the ship in a manner that mimics the opening shot. Other times he’s usually seen walking, or standing very still, as if contemplating something important and OH LOOK THERE IT IS AGAIN.

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I haven’t mentioned plot, because it plays second fiddle to the atmosphere (and because, candidly, I still don’t entirely understand it). As well-written as it is, a dissection here would somehow miss the point. It’s certainly a nice final story for Romana, whose Chinese-style attire mirrors the Asian philosophy running throughout each episode, and who symbolically uses her full name (Romanadvoratrelundar) for the first time since ‘The Ribos Operation’. Her departure is brief, and to a certain extent foreshadowed throughout the three tales we’ve discussed due to her obvious reluctance to return to Gallifrey – although her reasons for staying in E-Space are rather fudged. It’s no great secret that by this point in proceedings Baker and Ward were congregating at opposite ends of the rehearsal room, barely on speaking terms (shouting is another matter, of course), although the two would go on to marry shortly afterwards, for reasons I’ve never really been able to fathom. Whatever Baker’s feelings on the matter, the Doctor is certainly affected more than he lets on, as is demonstrated by his shortness with Adric, although I suppose it’s relatively easy to be short with Adric, even when (as in part four) he actually does something sensible that helps everyone else.

Certainly it is almost inconceivable to imagine the likes of ‘Warriors’ Gate’ being made today. Perhaps the closest in tone was ‘The Girl Who Waited’, with its minimalist sets, at least in the early parts of the story; or (in the very next episode) ‘The God Complex’, which is as brilliantly directed as anything in New Who. Alas, such bold strokes are few and far between. It’s partly the BBC’s reluctance to meddle with an obvious cash cow, and partly because there is perhaps little new that can be said by television – but it’s also true that much of what we would now term ‘innovation’ was born in the creative fires of constraint. ‘Spearhead From Space’, for example, was shot solely on film because they couldn’t shoot on set, while episode one of ‘The Mind Robber’ exists only because the series was running short and an extra installment was needed at next to no cost. The closest we get to that today is the absence of a key figure, such as the Doctor himself, and it’s worth bearing in mind that were it not for filming schedule clashes we would not have ‘Blink’. (Of course, we also wouldn’t have ‘Love and Monsters’, so go figure.)

But perhaps it’s time. Nick Hurran has already directed some of my favourite stories (and the ones that were dreadful, such as ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, were let down chiefly by poor writing) and he’s the safest pair of hands, but it would be interesting to see what would happen were he (or, indeed, anyone else) to push the boat out a little further. The worst that could happen would be bad Doctor Who, and perhaps that’s better than lacklustre Doctor Who. It’s tempting, when you have a formula that works, to do nothing. But inaction will get you only so far. We saw – in ‘Full Circle’ – the results of years of inaction, and ‘Warriors’ Gate’ shows the opposite end of the spectrum, and the detrimental impact of unnecessary action. Sandwiched in the middle like an elderly relative at someone’s party, ‘State of Decay’ nonetheless continues the theme by briefly debating the idea of action vs. procrastination-masked-as-preparation, as epitomised by Kalmar, and then adds vampires.

Well, how about that. Perhaps they really were a trilogy after all.

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The E-Space Trilogy Trilogy: Part Two (State of Decay)

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‘State of Decay’ is a story I’ve loved since my childhood. It has three menacing villains, all of whom happen to be vampires. It has a cautious message about the dangers of allowing myth and superstition to usurp the use of technology. It also has a genuinely exciting ending, at least on paper. Of all the Doctor Who stories in the Classic run, this is quite possibly the one I remember the most vividly, with the likes of “SEE! THE GREAT ONE RISES!” becoming part of my vocabulary long before I reached puberty, which is when that line took on a whole new meaning. Yes, ‘State of Decay’ has been a favourite for years.

But I only saw it for the first time two weeks ago.

Let me explain. When I was ten I received a set of cassette tapes that contained an audiobook recording of a Doctor Who story I’d never encountered before. The cover featured the head and neck of a weary-looking Fourth Doctor, standing just outside the TARDIS, apparently frowning at something off camera. (It would take me years to discover that this was his default expression.) Tom Baker himself was reading, although I would eventually find out that it was something of an abridged version, and one which took certain liberties – the Doctor’s explanation of consonant shift, for example, is changed from the Brothers Grimm to the concept of Chinese Whispers, for reasons known only to its author. But I listened to it, and then listened to it again, and again, until I knew the thing – text, score and even Baker’s cadencing – more or less by heart.

Last year, to my great delight, I found the thing on YouTube, and here it is:

Sadly, the original version – with its godawful but strangely catchy ‘alternate’ theme, which sounds like something from a 1980s schools programme – seems to have been removed, but this is fine. (Besides, I have the original on MP3, so Thomas can listen to it, even if you can’t.)

If the E-Space trilogy is (as I mentioned last time) a series of contrasting stories with only the loosest of connections, that’s partly down to its production history. ‘State of Decay’ is easily the most conventional narrative of the three, coming across as curiously old-school – something that would have been better suited to the Hinchcliffe era. Which, of course, is exactly where it was supposed to go, with Terrance Dicks originally writing the thing with a view to including it in the Gothic period that now encompasses the likes of ‘Pyramids of Mars’ and ‘The Brain of Morbius’, among others. It’s now common knowledge that the BBC were, at the time, commissioning a new adaptation of Dracula, and wanted Doctor Who to steer clear of vampires on the grounds that they didn’t want them to take the piss.

Whether ‘State of Decay’ would have worked better as a Sarah Jane or Leela story is not for me to decide. Certainly it works fairly well as a Romana story, with Lalla Ward at her most clinical and detached – the sort of performance one might have expected more from Mary Tamm, perhaps. She is clearly still getting to know Adric; ‘Decay’ was filmed before ‘Full Circle’, and it shows. Adric is even more obnoxious here than he was in his previous outing, feigning brainwashing in order to subsequently botch a rescue attempt, when he’s not stealing food (again) or using elementary logic to outsmart K-9. The question of Adric siding with the villains is one that would be addressed again in ‘Four To Doomsday’, but here he’s as brattish as ever, snidely gloating “This is one time the goodies don’t get to win, after all”, and failing to come off either as a decent villain, or a decent hero pretending to be villainous. He’s no more than a pest. In fact I have refused to include him in any of the photos I’ve uploaded, so there.

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If Adric isn’t much cop (again) the supporting characters fare better. Arthur Hewlett (Quatermass and the Pit) excels as Kalmar, the ageing leader of a band of rebels who is using the need to accumulate knowledge as an excuse for not actually doing anything: in the Honey & Mumford questionnaire he would emerge on the far side of Theorist. Kalmar’s occasionally insubordinate deputies are desperate to free the village from the tyranny of the Three Who Rule, but Kalmar would rather watch television. This is, to all intents and purposes, an episode of South Park, with Hewlett playing the role of Eric Cartman. Small wonder that he wants to stay put, given that the computer in his den that contains ship’s manifests is none other than a BBC Micro, staple of school classrooms all over the country (when ‘computer time’ occurred once a term and was usually half an hour on the drawing software or a fruitless session with that wretched LOGO turtle). It all comes right in the closing minutes, naturally, when the Doctor persuades the rebels to mount an attack on the castle with a rousing speech.

Unfortunately, the attack is led by K-9. The incredulous looks from the rebels when the ” very useful tool…armoured…immune to hypnotism…dead shot with a nose laser” casually trundles out of the TARDIS is one of the story’s high points. The rebels’ world-weary scepticism is justified, to a point, because the adrenaline-soaked final attack on the tower consists largely of five or six bearded farmers shuffling along the corridor so they don’t fall over the tin dog. It’s like being stuck behind a pensioner on a staircase. Specifically, it’s like this man being stuck behind this pensioner on this staircase.

Most memorable in ‘State of Decay’ are the three villains. They rarely extend beyond camp and sinister – we are given only the briefest of glimpses into their former lives as officers on the Hydrax, and somehow this is not to the story’s detriment. It’s clear that Aukon is the leader of the trio, while the ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ are essentially no more than figureheads, jealous that Aukon won’t share some of his toys. Both Rachel Davies and William Lindsay turn in fine, if functional performances, but Emrys James is a fantastically hammy Aukon, stealing one particular scene by bellowing “YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN! YOU HAVE BOTH BEEN CHOSEN!” with the sort of rapturous joy you saw all over the internet when ‘Night of the Doctor’ was released.

 

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It all looks very polished. Sets are ornate and well-realised (the designer admitting that she ‘nicked bits from other sets’, which was common practice), while location work is sparing but effective. And of course, Peter Moffatt’s direction really is rather good, even if some of his camera angles make me feel like I’m watching a mid-70s Abba video.

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The ending of ‘State of Decay’ rather lets it down a bit, alas. In the first instance, it takes the Doctor an interminably long time to work out that the best candidate for a supersized bolt of steel is sitting right under his nose – or, rather, above it, in the scout ship at the top of the tower. It’s safe to say, in fact, that there is an awful lot of filler in those closing episodes, predominantly in the form of lengthy conversations between Baker and Leeson as they search through the TARDIS archives, presumably having a look at the crossword when the cameras aren’t rolling.

Then there’s the ship itself, which looks like an early production design for Thunderbirds but which moves like something from Button Moon, only somehow less convincing. It plunges back down in a straight vertical trajectory directly into the heart of something we can’t even see, except for the huge hand waving from the hole in the floor. “It’s just a bit silly,” as Gareth explains. “That it could be aimed that well, despite being a giant rocket that goes up and down, and despite the Doctor not knowing whereabouts the heart of the Great Vampire is going to be since it’s underground.  That it could pierce the heart, which would require a particular orientation of the Vampire – if it were more upright, then it would need to go in via the top of the head.  That it’s pointy enough, even though it is very pointy.  And that it’s a ‘stake through the heart’.”

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“He’s been down there,” I suggested, “and he felt the heartbeat, so perhaps he could triangulate.”

One of the Past Doctor Adventures, the confusing, unnecessarily convoluted and not entirely satisfying Eye of Heaven, is particularly silly in that regard. Here’s an extract, from the point of view of the Fourth Doctor.

“The fish were a day old, the birds were tern, recently arrived on their yearly migration, the oil needed changing, the smoke was derived from cannabis, the rotting vegetable matter was carrot, the animal matter was dead rat (being eaten by several more live rats), the pitch was cooling upon the hull of a nearby ship, the dog was old, a canny purebreed turned to the wild (rather like myself, I fancied), and the burning wood was laced with human sweat and with teak oil, normally used to seal the decking of a ship.

“All of which told me that somewhere nearby, a sailor had just thrown part of his lunch to a stray dog before grinding a strong toke out beneath his bare heel upon the deck of a ship recently arrived from the Indies, whose hull he was currently engaged in repairing. The Manganese I had detected came, no doubt, from tiny nodules lodged within the damaged section of hull. The nodules definitely originated on the sea bed and could only have been disturbed by a major storm. The fish go without saying, obviously. And the rats? Well… there are rats at the docks in any century.

“Not all of them are animals.

“I compressed my sensory input to human normal. This is something I do from time to time, a little game which keeps me entertained and alert, and I stepped away from the TARDIS.”

I mean honestly. I know he’s good, but he’s not bloody Superman.

Where were we? Oh yes. The ludicrous death of the giant vampire is followed by a slightly more impressive ageing effect, where the vampire lords decompose in a matter of seconds, leaving the Doctor to quip, Bond style, that “they just went to pieces”. It’s not quite Indiana Jones – nor, for that matter, is it ‘Dragonfire’ – but it’s fairly good. Although, as Gareth points out, “it is rather funny how the three of them all wobble together”.

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Despite the structural unevenness and ridiculous ending, this is a cheerful and enjoyable romp. Baker is back to his usual animated self – he hasn’t been this upbeat since ‘The Horns of Nimon’ – and the narrative is full of amusing silliness amidst the bats and the blood and the screaming. Adric is lamentable, but thankfully has comparatively little to do (Dicks was apparently unsure how to write him in, and it shows). Even the filler material is fun, with Dicks both playing loyal tribute to Hammer motifs (Gothic tower / terrified villagers / foolhardy stranger walking into certain death despite being warned off) and seemingly getting his own back on the BBC executives who threw out his script some years previously. When the Doctor asks K-9 for information on vampires, the tin dog remarks “My folklore section contains vampire lore from seventeen inhabited planets. I will begin with Earth, the legend of Count Dracula.”

“No thank you,” interrupts the Doctor, hurriedly. “Not Dracula…”

 

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The E-Space Trilogy Trilogy: Part One (Full Circle)

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I have a lot of correspondence with Gareth, but one regular occurrence in my outgoing mail is a list of bullet points about whatever Doctor Who story I happen to have watched that week. Said lists usually contain all the random things jumped out at me during a viewing – things I knew about in advance, or things that surprised me. Examples include –

  • She turned him into a tree. SHE TURNED HIM INTO A TREE!!!
  • I know you’re a wise pacifist with excellent diplomacy skills. But you’re wearing a dress.
  • Amusing that they had the Doctor run through the same passenger deck four times, and had the extras dressed in identical suits so that no one would notice.
  • WHY IS HE CLIMBING OVER THE LEDGE? WHY? WHY???
  • What on earth was JNT thinking, getting rid of Dudley Simpson?
  • So a sprout priest who lives in a hole, bunkered away from everyone else, is happy to give up his life and destroy an entire species on the word of a man who he’s only met once? I don’t care if he’s a telepath, that’s bloody stupid.
  • Oh, the adjudicator is the Master. Well, I never saw that coming.
  • I love the bit where the ‘You’ve got mail’ noise clangs for the second time and Troughton turns to Wendy Padbury and says “Sounds a bit like a dinner gong”, when you know full well that’s exactly what it was.
  • Oh my gosh, it’s a GIGANTIC NOB!

I will leave it to you to work out which belongs to which story, except to say that none of them are from ‘Warriors of the Deep’, because I’ve determined that the comments from that probably warrant their own post, which I’ll do sometime. (Suffice to say ‘Warriors’ really isn’t one of my favourites, although it does feature a pantomime horse.)

“It amazes me,” Gareth has said on at least one occasion, “just how much Classic Who you haven’t seen.” Which is a fair point, although one I’ve spent the last couple of years rectifying in earnest. Just the other week, for example, I finally got round to watching the E-Space trilogy, in which a twilight Fourth Doctor gets trapped in a parallel universe courtesy of a Charged Vacuum Emboitment (a concept that is eventually explained in ‘Logopolis’). The three stories contained therein are a hodgepodge of different styles and approaches (for reasons we’ll explore over the course of the next week or so) with only the loosest narrative thread connecting them all, but their main narrative purpose is to bring in Adric and, in the process, ditch Romana.

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When you write it down like that, it really seems like an unfair trade, and so it is. Romana is a sophisticated (if unworldly) intellectual with charm, grace and a fashion sense that borders on the iconic. She looks good in jodhpurs but can also outsmart the keenest mathematician. This is no screaming wallflower, and it is small wonder that men and women love her in equal measure, in both incarnations. (I’ve always been firmly in Lalla’s camp, but Mary Tamm was also marvellous, and sadly missed.)

By contrast, Adric is a precocious brat who dresses like he’s in a school play. He thinks largely of his stomach. Self-confidence in his natural ability is manifest in the most aggravating arrogance. Gershwin was a genius and knew he was a genius, but never boasted – he simply avoided the cardinal sin that is false modesty. Adric is like the kid at the top of the class who wants everyone else to know about it. Not all of this is Matthew Waterhouse’s fault. The kid was eighteen and inexperienced. He’s probably lovely in real life – certainly on the Saturday Superstore segment contained on the ‘Warrior’s Gate’ DVD he comes across as modest and good-humoured and entirely affable. (Of unending curiosity, of course, is his decision to write an autobiography, Blue Box Boy, in the third-person.) But character of Adric, and the way in which he’s written, do young Matthew absolutely no favours. It’s also fair to say that a more capable performer might have rendered Adric’s more irritating tendencies with a greater degree of pathos than Waterhouse is able to manage. Usually the only time anyone actually feels sorry for Adric is the final three minutes of ‘Earthshock’. Too little, too late.

You really don't want to know what he's thinking about right now.

You really don’t want to know what he’s thinking about right now.

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It also doesn’t help that ‘Full Circle’ sees Adric at his most obnoxious, irritating and useless. It’s established fairly early that Adric is part of the ‘clever’ bunch of colonists (or are they?) that inhabit the planet Alzarius, where the TARDIS has landed. One of the first things we see him do is steal watermelons – badly – in an early attempt to establish the character as a kind of Artful Dodger, a trait that was swiftly and probably wisely abandoned, although the vacuum it left was never filled with any real success. “Of course I’m better than you,” he arrogantly assures a supporting character in the middle of a cave. “I’m an Elite.” This wouldn’t matter so much if Adric didn’t subsequently spend much of the episode fainting, getting involved in rubbish hijack attempts and generally being useless. In the episode two cliffhanger, Romana is being attacked by giant spiders, and Adric’s attempt to open the doors results in dematerialisation. Whereupon the irritating fuckwit glances briefly through the fourth wall before admitting “I think I’ve pulled the wrong lever.”

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Well. No shit, Sherlock. I’d like to say things improve, but really the only thing he manages to do right in this story is half-inch a McGuffin that the Doctor needs at a crucial moment. The more I see of Adric the more he winds me up – and if this sounds like the musings of a grumpy old man, I’d point out that I absolutely love K-9, even if the production team didn’t. It’s telling that the only reason Adric is in ‘State of Decay’ – which we’ll cover next time – is because he’s hidden on board the TARDIS, and that the Doctor’s first reaction is to want to take him straight home. This is, to be honest, a little cruel: the chap’s just lost his brother, and it is only by viewing ‘Full Circle’ – and the bequeathing of his brother’s belt – that we can fully appreciate the gravitas of that final scene with Adric, some ten stories later.

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Aside from the less-than-enthralling introduction to an almost universally unpopular companion, ‘Full Circle’ manages to be half evolution fable, half base-under-siege narrative. The central concept is that of a group of colonists trapped on Alzarius, led (badly) by a group of inept bureaucrats ironically known as ‘Deciders’. The Deciders have turned the simple task of ship repairs into a kind of religion – or, at the very least, the beginnings of a mythology. This is played out by having James Bree (Nefred) bellow “Continue…the work…of maintenance”, in the sort of tones one usually finds in a Shakespearian soliloquy.

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The running joke in the story is the general inability of the Deciders to actually decide anything, as is epitomised by this scene – running like something from Yes, Minister – in which Login, the newest Decider, tries to convince his superiors that an imminent attack might be a good reason to close the door…

LOGIN: It might be possible to close this substructure.
GARIF: No, it seems as if the marsh creatures are already inside the main hull.
LOGIN: The bulkheads, sir?
NEFRED: One recourse, certainly.
LOGIN: Nefred, Garif, we must close these bulkheads and these, and we must gather the citizens in here at once.
GARIF: Yes, I see the plan has some merit in it.
LOGIN: And we must do it quickly.
NEFRED: We must certainly respond to this crisis on a real time basis, Decider Login, but appropriately.
GARIF: Decider Nefred is right, Decider Login.
NEFRED: I have been constructing the histories of our relationship with the marsh men.
GARIF: While a single defense response has a certain appeal, we must also consider the long-term consequences.
LOGIN: It’s not a defensive response.
NEFRED: We need a holistic approach, I think.
GARIF: I wonder if you’ve had time to consult this manual on the peripheral unit power supplies.

(Transcript, as ever, from Chrissie’s Transcript Site. Thanks again, Chrissie.)

It’s left to the Doctor to uncover the truth: the Deciders have been getting the colonists to take the ship apart and put it back together over and over again, over the course of hundreds of years, simply because no one knows how to fly it. I can sort of relate to this – the very same evening I watched this, Thomas spent fifteen minutes ‘tidying’ the bricks by putting them back in the tub and then taking them out again to build something. But while the concept makes utter sense to the Deciders, the visiting Time Lords find it utterly ludicrous. Or, as Timothy Spall would have put it, it’s like being stuck on the crap version of Rimmer for four years.

“That bit is a nice idea,” says Gareth. “Although it’s a bit silly when the Doctor just pulls away a rack of pigeonholes to reveal the technology beneath. No-one ever noticed?”

FullCircle_03

Speaking of the Doctor, he’s arguably the weak link in the story. I love Tom Baker as much as anyone, but on the basis of this performance, he appears to have had enough. It’s a recurring theme of this season (see ‘The Leisure Hive’, in which the Doctor is clearly spent even before he ages a hundred years), but it’s particularly prevalent on Alzarius. Part of the apparent gloominess is almost certainly John Nathan Turner reigning him in, after the excesses of the Graham Williams / Douglas Adams era, but rarely has he been so sombre. Even the jokes lack their usual panache (“Short trips don’t usually work,” he quips to Adric. “Ah well. Here’s hopping”). It’s a shame, because some of the emotional pathos is undermined, and the Doctor’s general gloominess in supposedly upbeat scenes makes for a lesser contrast with the moments when he’s supposed to be genuinely angry. Late in the story, he fends off the approaching Marshmen with the severed head of the robot dog, in a sequence that ought to be comic, but which instead plays out like something from a Greek tragedy, or perhaps Dr. Faustus.

FullCircle_02 FullCircle_06

 

Suffice to say this is the least interesting – and, ultimately, least worthy – entry in the set, but it was written by a seventeen-year-old, and its failings are as much down to pedestrian direction and thin characterisation as much as they are to anything else. In the end, the Marshmen are revealed as the genetic ancestors of the colonists themselves (who, as it turns out, “cannot return to Terradon”, because they “have never been there”). The Doctor and Romana give them a crash course – pun only half-intended – in how to fly a starship, and then disappear in the TARDIS to work out how they’ve got into this universe that hasn’t really been explained properly. It all comes out in the wash, along with the Doctor’s scarf, which has shrunk a little, although Peter Davison is about to unravel the thing in any case.

Besides, the Doctor’s stuck here now – at least for another couple of stories – so we might as well get used to it. Or I might as well get used to it. I was in Cambridge a few years ago attending a Christmas gathering, and one of the gifts unwrapped was Tom Baker’s autobiography, Who On Earth Is Tom Baker?. “Of course, the title’s wrong,” someone said. “Who on Earth is Jon Pertwee. Who in E-Space is Tom Baker…”

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Also seen in

It’s Monday evening, and Gareth Roberts is tweeting.

And this.

And this.

“You’d never know I was a bit bored,” he added.

Which is too much fun to leave there, so I have done a few of my own. Here’s Twisted Sister, 1987.

p01xs2zv

 

Pink Floyd, 1983.

Doctor_Who_50th_anniversary__why_hasn_t_the_BBC_shown_more_classic_episodes_

 

Peter, Paul and Mary, 1965.

Doctor-Who-and-daleks-1965-movie-Peter-Cushing-Roy-Castle

 

Japan, 1986.

Doctor Who

 

And the Pet Shop Boys, 1968.

Quark_and_master

 

I think we may have taken this to its logical conclusion, don’t you?

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The CBeebies Amalgamation

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks – or, I don’t know, just not in the U.K. – then you can’t have failed to notice the return of The Clangers, Oliver Postgate’s little piece of 1960s whimsy. Postgate – who (along with longtime colleague Peter Firmin) also gave us Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss, among others – charted the adventures of a family of small grey / pink rodent-like creatures who live on a distant planet and who speak only in whistles, although thankfully Postgate is on hand to translate. (In true Blade Runner style, his voiceover was added only reluctantly, and he always wondered how the show would have been received without it.) The Clangers are aided in their adventures by the now iconic Soup Dragon, along with the Iron Chicken – and if you were wondering, the name ‘Clangers’ derives from the sound made by the lids that cover their underground holes when they slide them off.

The show was notorious for having some quite objectionable language (at least for a children’s programme) in one of its original scripts, as Postgate explains in Seeing Things:

“I could think of only one piece of bad language. One other episodes begins with Major Clanger trying to open the big sliding doors of the main cave-mouth. It jams and his first line is:
‘Oh sod it! The bloody thing’s stuck again!’
‘That’s it,’ said Ursula [Eason]. ‘You know quite well we can’t say things like that on children’s programmes.’
‘But…’ I said, ‘they don’t say it. They whistle it.’
‘But surely people will know?’
‘If they have nice minds they will hear him say “Oh dear me. The naughty thing is jammed again.”‘
‘Oh, all right then, I suppose so, but please keep the language moderate.'”

And, of course, when they released the ‘talking’ Clanger toy a few years ago, the phrase it emitted when its tummy was squeezed was…

Well, you can guess.]

Anyway, I was thinking about all this when a couple of Doctor Who-themed mashups came to mind. Curiously (or perhaps not) they were both from ‘Kill The Moon':

.Moon-Clangers Moon-Clangers_2

 

I’ve said before that I probably watch more CBeebies than is healthy, and I definitely watch more Doctor Who than is healthy, and when that happens you start seeing the two of them together with alarming regularity. Edward is a big fan of Let’s Play, which I rather poorly described to Gareth as “Mr Benn, but with better sets” (“Mr Benn had great sets!”). The premise is that CBeebies veteran Sidney Sloane and relative newcomer Rebecca Keatley have some kind of house share thing going on: in each episode they take it in turns to put on a different costume and travel through a mystic portal into another world, in which they have an adventure as a chef or a builder or a clown, interacting with a bunch of archetypes, all of whom are played by whoever it is that has stayed in the house. It is great fun, even if some of the geekier characters played by Sloane are awfully like Whizz Kid.

Anyway, the other day Sid was on an alien planet dressed as an astronaut, and I started making connections between the alien he’d encountered and some of the creatures from ‘The Web Planet’, even though they look nothing alike:

Lets-Play_2

(I can more or less guarantee that a couple of hours after I post this, Gareth will email me and say “She looks like a ___”.)

Sid is accompanied on his travels by a robot dog, which (despite some variation at the base) looked awfully familiar. I don’t mind, of course. There are only so many ways you can do a robot dog – literally, as it turns out:

Lets-Play_1

No, you really didn’t see this. Keep scrolling.

Meanwhile, in the Best Cafe In The World (TM), Big Cook Ben and Little Cook Small find themselves in a scene from an unwritten Big Finish ‘Planet of Giants’ spinoff.

Big_Doc

 

And completely unrelated to Who, the Twirlywoo submarine is invaded by Tribbles.

Tribbles-Twirly

 

I think I need coffee.

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Doctor Who: an overview (part two)

Today: part two of the talk I was doing this week.

Part one is available here.

Talk_22

Companions are great, but it’s the monsters that we remember. I can still recall the moment the Cybermen appeared on the bridge of the space freighter and caused the death of Adric, or the moment that one villain’s face melted when he was exposed to the sun. (Don’t worry, I’m not showing you that.) There have been hundreds of different monsters and villains over the years, and I don’t have time to go through even a fraction of them, but here are just a few of the most memorable.

 

Talk_23

The Daleks. You’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re robots, but they’re not – they’re horrible brain-like creatures inside protective metal shells. They look like a cross between a dustbin and a pepper pot – and yes, that is a sink plunger. It’s very useful if you want to unblock a toilet, although you have to tip them upright. Now, the Daleks’ greatest weakness is…what?

[A few people chip in with “stairs'” apart from the chap at the back who shouts “Not any more!”.]

Quite right. It was stairs. And then in 1988, this happened.

That clip’s pushing thirty years old now, and the Daleks have been elevating ever since, of course, but I still remember sitting in my bedroom the night that episode aired, sitting bolt upright and shouting “WHAT? THEY CAN FLY NOW?!?!?”

Next: Cybermen.

 

Talk_25

These always scared me more than the Daleks, largely because they were human beings who’d had all their limbs replaced and all the emotions drained away. Daleks are alien, but Cybermen are an extension of us – of who we are and who we might become. Now the interesting thing about Cybermen and Daleks is the way the design has changed. Look at this selection of Dalek designs from the last fifty years.

 

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Now look at the Cybermen.

 

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You’ll notice that the design has changed from the fabric masks on the left through the big helmets in the middle, and the more sleek ones of the present day on the right. They used to look like men who happened to be wearing metal masks. Now they just look like robots. It’s gone a bit rubbish, to be honest…

 

Talk_28

Ice Warriors! Natives of Mars. About eight feet tall, but they spoke in a low hiss. [Does an Ice Warrior hiss, badly.]

Talk_29

The Empty Child. This is a new one that they came up with a few years ago. The Empty Child walks around London in the middle of the Blitz looking for his mummy. Yes, that is a gas mask. It’s actually fused to his face, and if he touches you, you become just like him.

It took Joshua two goes to sit through that one.

Next:

Talk_31

The Master. He’s a Time Lord like the Doctor, and he was intended to be a Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes. He’d usually have other creatures to do his bidding, and he had this rather neat trick of hypnotising you with the words “I am the Master, and you will obey me…”. (It doesn’t work; I’ve tried it.) There have been at least six or seven different Masters – the last one was a woman – but no one played it quite like Roger Delgado, and it’s a tremendous shame that he died in a car accident before they could film his final story.

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Sontarans. Look like enormous potatoes. In battle armour. Only ever had one decent story; the rest is filler.

Talk_33

Silurians. Now, these are highly intelligent lizards who lived on the earth millions of years ago when mankind was still evolving out of apes. They were in suspended animation deep underground, but eventually they woke up, and there were problems. It’s like living in a house for five years and then getting back from holiday to find out that the original owners never actually left; they were just away for a really long time.

Talk_34

The Weeping Angels. Now, these are a new creation that take the form of stone statues – the sort you see in graveyards. Cleverly, they can only move when you’re not looking at them, so they zap you when your back is turned or when you’ve got your eyes shut. And if you don’t think that sounds particularly scary, take a look at this.

Talk_36

Here’s the thing: the Doctor and his companions always managed to defeat the monsters, but offscreen it wasn’t always so easy. Doctor Who‘s had its fair share of scandal over the years, and has had to fight against censorship and budget problems and all sorts of other stuff. So. Here are the real life monsters:

 

Talk_37

Michael Grade. The BBC executive originally responsible for the programme’s cancellation, basically because he couldn’t stand it. He thought it had become a joke, and in some respects he was right. When it came back years later, he really liked it, largely because Russell T Davies had helped turn it into the programme he always thought it should have been.

Talk_38

Hilda Ogden. Who knew? When Doctor Who got moved from Saturday evening to a midweek slot it was up against Coronation Street, and every sensible person knows that you can’t fight Coronation Street. So all the kids who wanted to watch Doctor Who had to go upstairs to their bedroom TVs, while their parents watched Coronation Street on the downstairs set – the one that feeds the audience ratings. This is actually a standard trick for killing off a show you don’t like – you move it to a time when no one will watch it, and then say “Well, no one’s watching it, so we won’t make any more.”

But that’s nothing compared to the greatest horror of all.

Talk_39

Mary Whitehouse! Now, you all remember Mrs Whitehouse, and how she spent her years complaining about anything that she didn’t think was appropriate for family viewing or listening. Doctor Who faced her wrath more than once, usually when it was doing something horrendously violent. She objected to some of the horrors, and one particular scene that involved the Doctor drowning. She famously described it as “tea-time terror for tots”. And to absolutely honest, she might have had a point.

That’s from one story, ‘Terror of the Autons’, way back in 1971. It should be noted that those plastic chairs were very popular at the time, and you could imagine a country full of uneasy households, looking around at their living room furniture. “Is it going to…are we safe here???”

Doctor Who does contain an awful lot of violence and death – I’ve only skimmed the cream off the top of it this afternoon; there are gun battles and fights and horrible mutated monsters. It’s the sort of thing that terrifies kids, but we don’t need to see that as a bad thing, because – and let’s be honest about this – most kids secretly love being terrified. There’s an old joke about watching Doctor Who from behind the sofa, which I don’t think anyone ever actually did because pretty much every sofa I’ve ever sat on has been up against the wall. But my own children love it, even when it’s scary, and perhaps even because it’s scary.

Talk_41

And the great thing about Doctor Who is the way it deals with sometimes very complex moral dilemmas. For example, in the story ‘Fires of Pompeii’, the Doctor discovers that not only can he not prevent the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, he actually has to cause it, with catastrophic loss of life, in order to save the entire planet. In ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, up on the top left, the Doctor’s asked by the Time Lords to destroy the Daleks before they’re even created, but he argues that this is effectively playing God. Top right, you’ll see the Tenth Doctor about to commit murder, even though it goes against all his principles, to save the world. And in ‘Day of the Doctor’, a Doctor we didn’t even know about until two years ago has to decide whether to destroy his entire planet in order to protect the rest of the universe. Genocide for the greater good. It’s a big question. But the Doctor doesn’t just walk in shades of grey. If something’s wrong, he’ll tell you.

There are many, many great Tom Baker moments, but I wanted to show you that one because you don’t often get to see his serious side. When he’s genuinely angry, he’s wonderful to watch.

It’s not all doom and gloom and heavyweight issues. There’s a lot of fun. Here’s the Doctor just after he’s regenerated. I should warn you that in this clip he displays quite appalling table manners.

If you’ve read your A.A. Milne, you’ll recognise that, right? Conclusive proof that the Doctor is…

Talk_44

Tigger on the inside.

Now, Doctor Who is mostly shot on set. These days a lot of it is green screen – where they shoot the actors against a green backdrop and then superimpose whatever image they needed behind them later on – and it looks fantastic, but in the classic series they would usually build what they wanted. Some sets are better than others – there are jokes about wobbly walls and plastic rocks, but the fact of the matter is the team had to do the most amazing stuff on very little money and with hardly any time. A really good director and designer can innovate.

Talk_45

For example, corridors are very popular, because they enable lots of running. And the best part is, if you change around the scenery and shoot from a different angle, you have a completely different corridor, somewhere else! So this is the same vessel as used in two stories – the same set, just shot from the other end.

Occasionally the confines of the studio weren’t quite enough for what the producers wanted to achieve, so they had to go out and about. Now there are several types of Doctor Who locations, and the most popular is:

Talk_46

Quarries! Yes, if you wanted a desolate alien landscape in the 1970s, you had to find a decent quarry. Goodness knows there were enough of them. Then there’s:

 

Talk_47

Famous landmarks. Anyone recognise this? It’s the Rollright Stones. They shot ‘The Stones of Blood’ here in 1978. There’s an urban legend about the Rollrights: if you count them, you never get to the same number twice; there seem to be a different number each time. And in this case, the team were moving their own stones in and out of the set, so people trying to count them were getting hopelessly lost because they kept vanishing!

They’ve also been to Stonehenge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Dover Castle and a bunch of other places. But it’s not just the exteriors.

Talk_48

This is the Temple of Peace, in Cardiff. I’ve never been, but they tend to use it whenever they want anything lofty and grand and slightly futuristic.

The producers also made a habit of visiting English villages whenever the situation called for it. Anyone recognise this?

 

Talk_49

Yes, it’s East Hagbourne, just up the road, and they filmed here forty years ago for ‘The Android Invasion’. And I don’t know if any of you managed to do the Scarecrow Trail there last week, but if you had, you might have seen this chap up on the war memorial.

 

Hagbourne_2

I was lucky enough to speak to the owner while we were taking these photos, and she told me that someone had informed her the scarf colours were wrong. I can’t say I noticed, to be honest. But this brings me to an interesting point: fans. Fans are everywhere. We dress up in costumes, we spend hours talking about what this particular story means or which character was the best, they have parties, and they hunt out lost episodes from the depths of Nigerian archive departments. We love and hate the show at the same time – we get cross when it’s not good, and each new story is like an event; even the bad ones.

There is an abundance of stuff you can buy. You’ll have seen the collection I brought with me today – you’re welcome to come and have a play afterwards if you like. My own collection is quite small, compared to what some people have cluttering up their shelves.

Talk_51

This isn’t mine; it’s the first picture I found on the internet. I’m told that the toys are apparently worth far more if you leave them in the packet and never play with them, but WHAT’S THE POINT IN THAT?!?

As well as books, radio plays, theatrical productions and all sorts of other stuff, the Doctor’s even hit the charts on occasion, sometimes with more success than others. Here’s a selection of just some of the great and not-so-great songs we’ve seen over the years.

Yes. Let’s never speak of this again, shall we?

Talk_53

It’s a programme that’s affected my life on all number of levels. It’s escapism, but it’s also weighty, and there are things you can learn. My whole family love it, even though Daniel still hides in the doorway. People tend to tell me I’m obsessed, and I think that’s probably quite true, but there is so much variety and substance in the best stories – and even in the worst, you can usually find something fun, even if it’s just a bunch of strangely-dressed people running down a corridor away from rubber monsters.

We’re almost at the end now, and I thank you for bearing with me on a hot summer’s day, but just one more thing: in the year 2063, Doctor Who turns a hundred. I don’t know if I’ll still be here by then, but if I am, I’d like to hope that I’ll be in a group like this – perhaps sitting in a church hall on a weekday afternoon while some younger man or woman regales us all with his enthusiasm for the Time Lord and his grand adventures. And perhaps he’ll drag out old clips of the time we first met the Weeping Angels, or the time the Doctor met the minotaur in an old hotel, or the moment the Cybermen crashed through the windows of the Tyler mansion. And I’ll nod, and smile, and say “Yep. I remember that. Still scary.”

 

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Doctor Who: an overview (part one)

If you were reading this the other day, you’ll recall me talking about the talk I gave to the church group.

What follows is the script I was using. I mostly stuck to it, with the odd add-lib. I make no apologies for the simplification of certain concepts, or the general lack of detail, because it was all done with a particular audience in mind. I think they enjoyed it; I certainly enjoyed doing it.

The thing is so long I have opted to split it up a bit – so here’s part one, which, while not exactly finishing on a cliffhanger, does stop in the middle…

Part two is available here.

Talk_01

He walks in shadow. He arrives swathed in mystery and leaves without a backward glance. He topples empires, overthrows tyrants and helps the lost and helpless. He’s nattered with Nero, supped with Shakespeare and played chess with Churchill. He is, to use his own terminology, a mad man with a box. He is the Doctor. And he’s been a part of my life, in one way or another, for over thirty years. And this afternoon, I’m going to be telling you all about him.

Now, I’m aware that you’ve probably all got different levels of familiarity. I suspect some of you probably watched the show years ago, and perhaps you got bored and went on to something else. Perhaps you’re familiar with the old days but you have no idea about any of the new Doctors. Perhaps you watch everything you can, rather like me. Or perhaps you’ve never seen the show before and don’t have a clue what it’s about, beyond something about a police box and a thing called a Dalek that looks like a gigantic pepper pot. In any event, whether you’re a diehard fan or whether you think Davros is a Greek dancer on Britain’s Got Talent, I hope you’ll find something of interest today.

But I don’t want to turn this into a forty-five minute chat about the history of Doctor Who, even though I could easily talk about it for twice that length, because it’d bore you silly. Instead this is going to be something of a whistlestop tour through the show, from its 1963 beginnings all the way up to the present. We’ll talk a bit about the Doctor himself and some of the foes he’s faced – on and off-screen. Some of this is probably going to be familiar to at least some of you – some of it’s going to be new. There’s quite a lot of talking from me, but you’ll get to see the Doctor in action as well.

Talk_02

So come with me on a journey into the past – as we go back. Way back…to 1963. Harold Macmillan is in Downing Street, the first Bond film has just been released, and the Beatles are about to take over the entire world. And the new Head of Drama at the BBC, a man called Sydney Newman, has commissioned a new children’s show about a bunch of time travellers who flit around the universe, meeting important historical figures and generally getting into scrapes. The main characters were to be a dashing young couple, a teenage girl who was good at finding trouble, and an enigmatic middle-aged scientist with a mysterious past. (Is any of this sounding familiar?)

Talk_03

The Doctor was never even intended to be the central character – that’s something that changed as time went on – but the creative team wanted someone with gravitas, so they cast William Hartnell, famous for The Army Game. (My dad says there was only ever one Doctor, and William Hartnell was it.) Hartnell was getting tired of typecasting and he jumped at the chance to play something completely different. But if you go back and watch those old episodes again, what strikes you is how unpleasant the First Doctor is. He’s untrustworthy, crochety and mean. (Perhaps that’s why my Dad likes him. Sorry, that was a joke.)

Here’s where we meet him for the first time.

That was the very first episode, which went out on 23rd November 1963 – the day after….what?

Talk_05

It’s said that everyone can remember where they were when they heard that Kennedy had been shot. Doctor Who went largely unnoticed, because everyone was watching the news. It didn’t make much of an impact at first, and in many ways that didn’t come as a surprise to the BBC. Doctor Who is about a man who is and always will be an outsider. It was co-created by a Canadian, its first director was an Indian and the first producer, Verity Lambert, was a young woman in a world dominated by men. And none of them were expected to actually succeed. However, a few weeks later, the show was facing an early cancellation. And then this happened.

Talk_07

I think you all know what that was, don’t you? And thanks to the Daleks, Doctor Who hit the big time, as the Doctor met Marco Polo, smugglers, and giant flies. But William Hartnell was getting ill and couldn’t keep up with the constant filming pressures – twenty-four episodes a year – so it was decided to replace him with a younger actor.

Talk_08

And in 1966, this happened. After battling the Cybermen, the Doctor collapsed in the TARDIS, and changed into a younger man. Now, in production terms this was a masterstroke. A show that can change its lead actor at any point can go on forever. Every new Doctor’s built on what’s come before while bringing something of themselves to the part. About the only thing that hasn’t changed is the TARDIS – and that, by the way, is only because it’s supposed to be camouflaged, blending in with wherever it happens to be, only it got stuck. (The funny thing is that camouflage changes. A police box was a common occurrence in 1963, but you don’t see them anymore. When my family and I were driving through Shropshire one afternoon, Josh pointed out of the window at a public phone box and shouted “Hey, look! A red TARDIS!”

Talk_09

The other thing to mention at this point is that regeneration is a bit like giving birth. They used to tell you to do it lying down, but these days there are all sorts of positions. Compare this from 1974 with this from 2008. The Third Doctor’s lying down, but when we watched the Eleventh Doctor turn into the Twelfth, my mother asked why the Doctor was standing up, and I told her it was like medical advice; they keep changing it.

Talk_10

 

So. The Second Doctor was younger, sprightlier, sillier, but still ran around the universe, generally saving the day. But eventually Patrick Troughton left the TARDIS and went on to do other things, and in 1970 Doctor Who switched to colour. Things were a bit different – the Doctor was now stuck on Earth, exiled by the Time Lords, and he worked with a military organisation called UNIT, led by Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart. Eventually the exile was lifted, and Jon Pertwee was replaced by Tom Baker, who is probably the best known of all the Doctors, certainly the most visually iconic – as you will see from the way I’m dressed. Apart from that it was business as usual – Daleks and robots and things coming out of the swamp. Now I wanted to show you something that really summed up the way Doctor Who was in the 1970s, and here it is.

(I made that last year, just for the fun of it. I knew it would come in handy eventually.)

Talk_12

The show had never been more popular, but all good things come to an end, and in the 1980s there was a gradual downward spiral. Stories got sillier, there were some questionable performances, the show lost its Saturday evening slot so nobody watched it, and eventually the new BBC controller had had enough. In 1985 it was suspended, and then it came back, and then it was finally cancelled. Now, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t the best of times, but there were still great moments, like this one.

Talk_14

Doctor Who was languishing, alone, for years. The fans kept it going, but there was no sign of it on TV. There was an old joke that went “How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a light bulb? None at all, they just complain and hope it’ll come back on.” Until 1996, when the BBC brought it back with a full-length movie, starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor.

Talk_15

There’s only one problem with the movie, and that’s that it was rubbish. It was made by people who didn’t understand the show, for people who had never seen the show, and it was once again binned. But not for long! Because some years later, the BBC decided to bring it back, only this time they did it properly. The new Doctor Who was completely updated: it looked fresh, and modern, but it was still the show we knew and loved. Still, this was aimed at winning a new audience, and for many children – including at least one of mine – this was their very first glimpse of the Doctor.

It’s new, but it’s instantly recognisable. The dummies that Rose was running from are the Autons, whom the Third Doctor fought many years ago, and which many parents and grandparents would have remembered. They were trying to win over children, but broadly speaking this was definitely geared towards the family.

Talk_17

Since then the show’s gone from strength to strength, through four and a half new Doctors (it’s a long story, don’t ask) and all manner of strange new creatures and enemies. But the central idea is still the same: the Doctor and whichever companion he happens to be with turns up in the TARDIS in the middle of a problem, and then solves the problem, just before moving on to the next one. He’s met Charles Dickens and Vincent van Gogh, he’s seen the end of the world and travelled to the end of the universe. Doctor Who turned fifty just a couple of years back, and the Doctor doesn’t show any signs of slowing down just yet.

But it’s funny how we place so much faith in such a mysterious character. It’s there in the title – Doctor Who? So let’s have a quick look at exactly what we do (and don’t) know about the Doctor.

Talk_18

Talk_19

What is it about the Doctor that makes him so fascinating? Well, he’s famously non-violent (although if you look at the show, this really isn’t the case at all). He’ll give his enemies a chance to surrender and change their ways. He doesn’t suffer fools and he has no respect for empty authority, but he’ll preach about forgiveness. And he overcomes death, and routinely sacrifices himself in order to save humanity. If any of this is sounding a bit familiar, there are lots of arguments about religious interpretations of Doctor Who, although this is something the programme’s creators have always denied. “No,” they said. “We didn’t mean that at all.”

Um. Is it just me…?

The other thing about the Doctor is that he very rarely travels alone; he’ll usually have at least one or two companions along for the ride. And here are just a few of them.

Talk_21

You will note that most of them are women, and most of them are pretty. I will not deny that this is to give the dads something to look at on a Saturday evening. I will not deny that I am one of those dads.

Please don’t tell my wife.

 

Click here for part two.

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Captive audience (because otherwise they’d leave)

Talk_01

It’s a hot Thursday afternoon. The lawn needs mowing. The kitchen needs cleaning. The laundry needs folding, and that novel still isn’t finished. And where are you, James? You’re in a church hall, talking about the history of Doctor Who.

A while back I was asked to host a singalong session over at the church for the group that meets there every week. It’s a group for advancing years, so I gave them a couple of music hall standards, a few from the Great War, and Max Bygraves’ ‘Gilly, Gilly, Ossenfeffer, Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea’, among others. They all sang with good cheer and everyone had fun. The following morning I was in the high street when I bumped into one of the elderly ladies I’d seen at the event. She asked me if I was still in good voice. I said I was. After she’d gone I reflected that this is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a screaming teenage girl throwing me her underwear.

It was Emily who suggested that I offer to do a talk about Doctor Who. “It can’t be any worse than some of the stuff they must get,” she said, in what I only realised later was something of a backhanded compliment. As to the stuff they get, I wouldn’t know. There are all sorts of stereotypical assumptions made about this sort of thing, mostly enforced by Jam and Jerusalem (I really wanted a video of that presentation – with slides – about life in Kwik Save, but BBC Worldwide have blocked it).

But there’s an old saying about writing about what you know, and it’s the sort of thing I could imagine being fun to put together, so I suggested it to the group’s leader and they booked me in for June. And it was only then that I panicked. Because how on earth do you give an overview of Doctor Who in three quarters of an hour?

Avoiding too much history is a part of it. I could recite dates and actors until I’m blue in the face and Eccleston has agreed, at last, to do a cameo, and we’d still be there. The trick is making these things fun. So there was video, and lots of it. There were also Daleks and Sontarans and the Empty Child, because half of these people grew up in the war and the idea of a lonely boy walking around a Blitz-stricken London asking for his mother is one they could probably relate to, even if the boy turns out to be a toxic, highly infectious zombie. I included Weeping Angels, but avoided anything gratuitously horrid (so ‘Seeds of Doom’ stayed in the reject pile, at least this time). And I drew the line at the Silence: not because I didn’t want to terrify people, simply because they’re crap.

Besides, it had been a while since the figures had had an airing, and I have new ones.

Talk_02

In the end it all went off splendidly. You have to strike a balance between confusing people with excessive production history and teaching them to suck eggs. I concentrated on the stuff I knew would relate – the Coronation Street ratings war, the Kennedy assassination thing and the fact that ‘The Android Invasion’ was filmed just up the road. There were lots of Daleks, but I neglected mention Raymond Cusick. On the other hand I didn’t mention Terry Nation either, so it’s all good.

As a courtesy (and simply because I was quite pleased with it) I’ll be sharing the raw text, along with images and embedded videos. But that’ll wait until next time (and, depending on space and a desire to avoid the increasingly common TL:DR scenario, in all likelihood the time after that). In the meantime, would you like a jelly baby?

Talk_03

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“Doctor, we’re at Devesham!”

Here’s Eric Pickles. Gareth pointed out the interesting effect rendered by his headgear.

Pickles

 

He’s obviously a Doctor Who fan. (Eric Pickles, I mean. Gareth can’t stand it. Harrumph.)

One sunny evening last week the six of us jumped in the van and drove out to a village just up the road. East Hagbourne is, for those of you who don’t know your production history, the location for ‘The Android Invasion’, in which the Doctor and Sarah Jane land in a pastoral scene that ostensibly resembles rural Earth but which is, in fact, an alien planet dressed up to look like Earth so that a bunch of murderous androids can have a practice run before they invade the real Earth, which of course looks exactly like East Hagbourne from one end to the other, leaving the androids perfectly equipped to deal with stuff like sand, and traffic, and lifts.

fleur-de-lys-east-hagbourne

If I sound a little cynical this morning it’s basically because ‘The Android Invasion’ isn’t really very good, having as it does a nonsensical plot, rubbish monster, an entirely forgettable antagonists and U.N.I.T. without the Brigadier. It does, however, feature some lovely location work, and one of the greatest cliffhangers in the history of Who.

Warrrrghh.

 

Today, the village is a bustling community, and the pub they used is still open (the interior was a set, of course). Emily and I almost lived in Habgbourne when we were house-hunting some twelve years ago, except the only cottage we found was at the end of the sort of overgrown garden that could have been owned by a witch. It also turned out to be smaller on the inside. Nonetheless the place itself is lovely, and the people are immensely creative, although we’re talking about the sort of ‘interesting-stuff-at-the-side-of-the-road ‘creative’ that almost makes you crash the car when you round a bend on your way to a scouting event and come across a model from ‘Terror of the Zygons’.

8676547534_9218e470fa_m

I mean, I know it was St. George’s Day. But honestly.

The scarecrow trail – which finishes today – is an annual event, and we always try and drive through there at least once if we possibly can. This year’s event featured a beautifully-constructed Olaf from Frozen, a scene from Sweeney Todd, complete with severed heads and unsavoury pie mixture. Oh, and it’s forty years since ‘The Android Invasion’, so it should have been no great surprise to discover this by the war memorial.

Hagbourne_1

We were busy snapping photos when the designer, who lives in a nice house nearby, came out to say hello. “I’m told the scarf is wrong,” she said. “The colours are off, apparently.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “There’s no real one way to do a Fourth Doctor scarf. It’s instantly recognisable, whatever the detail. It’s certainly difficult to tell it’s different, unless you’re prepared to Google it.”

“I confess,” she confided in a somewhat conspiratorial manner, “that I couldn’t really watch much of the story they shot here. I found it very boring.”

“Don’t worry,” I admitted. “You’re by no means the only one. I’ve always thought it’s basically rubbish.”

Still, from second-rate Who, a first-rate scarecrow…

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The Dark Side of Flop: Bing meets Wolf Hall

You know, when I think about it, I’m pretty sure this whole thing started with Mrs Doyle.

I knew about Wolf Hall already, of course, although I’d not seen it. “It’s weird,” they said on the social media pages. “That sinister bloke from that costume drama playing Flop!” Well, yes, but I had no frame of reference. And then there was the day that Bing found the dog in the park, and when her owner arrives to find out where she’s got to, it turns out to be Pauline McLynn.

Father Ted is twenty years old this year, which has led to an abundance of lists – popular quotes, memorable episodes, and a few of those animated GIFs that are so popular on Tumblr. There will be the “small, far away” clip and you can guarantee that at least one person will use the words “Down with this sort of thing” (and that the next comment, in turn, will read “Careful now”). But I know the scene I always think of when I see Pauline McLynn, and it is the one where she swears.

Distressingly, this clip omits Mrs Doyle’s departing remark – but the point is, the moment I heard Pauline voicing Gilly I wanted her to shout “RIDE ME SIDEWAYS, THAT WAS ANOTHER ONE!” at Bing and Flop. And it sort of went from there, really. It went from there primarily because I’m getting a little tired at the constant ‘Find your inner Flop’ mantras that seem to have become a thing. Flop’s a role model in the same way that Jesus was a role model. His approach is totally impractical because he has a limitless supply of patience, of the sort that human beings do not possess. Let’s also not forget that Bing himself, though young, is also an alarmingly obedient child, digesting and dealing with Flop’s advice and reproaches without question, each and every time. Not for Bing the strop in the supermarket or the insistence on having his bed all to himself, even if Pando’s fallen asleep inside it. When Flop tells him ‘no’, he listens, and he listens first time.

And look, here’s the thing – Flop doesn’t have a smartphone.* Perhaps Bing is set in a world thirty years behind ours, or even longer (have there been any stories in which the characters watch, or even want to watch TV? I genuinely don’t remember any). Flop appears to devote twenty-four hours a day to the servitude and care of his charge. Perhaps he’s like Davy Jones in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, cursed to ferry the Flying Dutchman back and forth to and from the land of the dead, or risk being turned into an octopus. (I am now entertaining the notion of a collectible Flop with detachable Cthulhu-like tentacles. It is an amusing, if disturbing thought.)

But I wonder, sometimes. I wonder what he’s really thinking. Someone, somewhere really needs to produce a blog in which Flop recounts the events of an episode of Bing from his own perspective, in which he whines about the rabbit’s stupidity, perhaps referring to him as ‘The little shit’. I would very much like to do this, had I the time, not to mention the inclination to stop-start view all seventy-six episodes of season one – again – so that I can make dialogue notes.

In the absence of that, this will do. Because it’s time we brought the zen-like sock puppet down off his pedestal. He’s been allowed to embarrass decent, flawed parents for too long. He and the other carers in the show are annoyingly, irritatingly perfect. It’s why it’s a shock when this happens in the iPlayer listings:

Bing

It was a mistake, of course, and I pointed it out, only to have the official Bing Bunny page say something random that completely missed the point. “You’re far too young for a Facebook account, Bing,” I remarked. “Does Flop know?”

Anyway, a few technical notes on that video. The longest component of assembling this one was actually watching Wolf Hall, which I did in the space of three or four days, thoroughly enjoying every minute (except when the rented DVD turned out to be scratched). I’ve written about the majesty of the BBC’s Hilary Mantel adaptation elsewhere, so we won’t dwell on Cromwell and his machinations for today. What struck me going through was how little there actually was, in the grand scheme of things – I’d expected Thomas Cromwell to be darker, somehow, forgetting that the whole point to his characterisation is a sense of enigmatic aloofness, with far more revealed in what he doesn’t say – the space between the notes, as Miles Davis used to riff when he was defining music.

Bernard Hill, on the other hand, was a gift from a multi-denominational God. He swears like a trooper. He had to be Pando; there was nothing else for it. The Duke of Norfolk spends much of his time harrumphing and shouting like a child; he has thus rather fittingly become one. There’s no set narrative to this collection, which is instead loosely grouped according to mood – although you’ll see certain scenes are split to keep the pace up. I purposely didn’t use every sound clip I obtained, realising (as I have of late) that less is more. It’s a lesson I could have done with learning on the Red Dwarf / Doctor Who crossover I did last year – one that’s earned its fair share of negative comments, comments which I fear with increasing certainty may be absolutely right.

But if nothing else, this hopefully throws up a subtext to some of Flop’s oh-so-perfect parenting techniques, as well as demonstrating the versatility of the frankly sensational Mark Rylance. Sadly, Pauline McLynn still doesn’t get to say “Ride me sideways”, but you can’t have everything. Maybe I’ll do a sequel next year when they adapt The Light and the Mirror. Patience. It’s a Bing thing. As for the rest of us, we’re all drumming our fingers.

* Edit: it turns out, as I discovered just this week, that Flop does have a smartphone, although it’s left marginally less intelligent when Bing breaks it. I’m still basically right, anyway.

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