Mothering Sunday, Doctor Who style.
Here we go. I’m by no means the first to make this joke, as Google will testify, but it really was too good an opportunity to miss.
A significant proportion of my audience is American, and may have never heard of the Wurzels, in which case this might help.
‘Love and Monsters’ is, of course, a story that many of us would like to block from our memories, but you may recall that two of the members of L.Y.N.D.A. sing the song on which this is based, ‘Brand New Key‘, early in the episode. This parody is arguably more successful, certainly on this side of the pond. The cheers it raises in Bristol nightclubs are frankly phenomenal.
The Wurzels are not to be confused, of course, with Worzel Gummidge, a popular scarecrow who starred in a series of novels and, eventually, a TV series, starring this chap.
Worzel Gummidge wasn’t Pertwee’s only TV work during the 70s and 80s. He also provided the voice of Spotty in the memorable Superted, a show about an anthropomorphic teddy bear who can transform into the titular superhero at the mere whisper of his secret magic word. Pertwee’s co-stars included Sheila Steafal, who appeared in Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., Derek Griffiths, a children’s TV veteran who’s turned up in at least one Big Finish production, and Melvyn Hayes, who was married to Wendy Padbury.
Derek Griffiths (who voiced Superted) may have had his heyday years before my children were born, in the likes of Heads and Tails and Play School, but they did get to see him in the CBeebies pantomime late last year, in which he appeared as the Ghost of Christmas Past – that’s him on the left.
They were doing A Christmas Carol, of course, with the role of the spiteful Ebeneezer Scrooge going to Andy Day. Here he is looking rather less than spiteful.
Andy can currently be seen in Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures, a show in which he travels back to the Cretaceous era using a grandfather clock that glows with sparkly blue energy, and that appears to be bigger on the inside.
Andy usually ventures into the past in order to obtain a vital artifact for a museum display, to replace the one that got damaged at the beginning of an episode. His encounters with the dinosaurs are wonderful – CBeebies have taken the CGI footage from 1999’s Walking With Dinosaurs and superimposed Andy over the top in order to make the programme more accessible for children. The results are very effective and highly entertaining, if a little conventional – the butterfly effect is completely ignored, and I would love, for example, to see an episode where Andy swats a fly and returns to a future where everyone has lizard tongues and the world is ruled by a despotic Mr Tumble.
1999 is the year the Master messed around with the Eye of Harmony, of course, in a story that marked Paul McGann’s debut. This is more than likely nothing but coincidence, but it’s telling that when Daniel was playing with my figure collection in late December, during yet another airing of the CBeebies Christmas Carol, he came running into the kitchen clutching five inches of plastic, declaring “Look, Daddy! It’s Ebeneezer Scrooge!”
It takes a while, and the links may be occasionally tenuous, but in the end, everything comes back to Doctor Who.
I was doing a little admin on my YouTube channel and it suggested that I make a Channel Ad. This, for the uninitiated, is a homemade trailer, ideally no more than a minute in length, which tells visitors about what you do.
What I came up with only tells half the story, of course – it ignores the montages that I occasionally put together when I’m being serious – but as a summation of the re-dubbing that forms the core of my work, I think it’s reasonably successful. You could look at it on the channel page directly using the link above, if you like, but for the casual reader I embed it here.
It’s been three years since I started doing this, and I’ve loved every minute. Here’s to the next!
Last night, Thomas and I were watching ‘The Web of Fear’. It was episode two, and the yetis were wandering through the London Underground.
Thomas said “Daddy? Is the Abominable Snowman lost?”
“”I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he’s lost in the Underground, yes. But I reckon they’ve been brought here. They’re robots, remember, so the Great Intelligence has probably got plans for them.”
“No, Daddy, the story.”
“Oh, that. Yes.”
With that in mind, here are today’s unused monsters, one of whom has a distinctly wintry theme.
Watch this first.
There’s a bit about a third of the way through the first episode of ‘The Mind of Evil’ that more or less encapsulates Doctor Who as it was in the 1970s. The Doctor is attending a demonstration of a new machine that purports to suck the evil out of men’s minds. When the Doctor raises valid ethical concerns, the egotistical professor in charge asks what he could possibly find objectionable. Pertwee adopts a theatrical flourish in his response. “UNIT, sir, was set up to deal with new and unusual menaces to mankind,” he says. “And in my view, this machine of yours is JUST THAT!”
[DRAMATIC MOOG MUSIC AS THE DOCTOR STOMPS AWAY]
If you’re so inclined you can watch it here. Skip to the eight minute mark.
Anyway, Emily and I were watching this very episode a number of weeks ago, and when this happened we both roared with laughter.
“What I’d really like,” said Emily, “is for them to do a modern episode of Doctor Who that plays like one of these. Maybe he gets stranded in time and winds up in 1980s U.N.I.T. And they have wobbly sets and weird special effects and a funky score.”
Just because the Doctor gets to leap around in time, it doesn’t mean the show doesn’t age. The problem with any episode of a programme about time travel is that whenever it’s set historically, it’s always going to be aesthetically bound by the period in which it was filmed. In other words, if you shoot a story that’s set in medieval Italy, but do so in the 70s, it’s still going to have that visual style attached to it, even if your costumes are authentic. Likewise, if you shoot a story on a distant alien planet, but fill the background music with orchestral hits and Korg samples, it’ll come across as being very 80s. Big explosion? Drop in a white-out. Someone’s having their mind probed? Put swirly effects all over the screen. And don’t forget the facial zooms, the sort of thing that Mike Myers and Dana Carvey would later parody extensively on Saturday Night Live.
This was standard practice, of course. There were certain things you did back then, simply because everyone else did. I couldn’t find a decent version on YouTube, but anyone who’s seen the first Superman film will remember the moment when Christopher Reeve discovers Margot Kidder’s car with her lifeless corpse inside: his reaction as he takes in the scene is filmed from multiple angles, and while it might seem old hat now, it heightens the emotional pathos no end. Or there’s the scene in Carrie where John Travolta and Nancy Allen approach the blood-soaked titular teenager on her way home from the prom, and Carrie’s acts of telekinetic revenge are preceded by jerky zooms. Watch it and not only will you see what I mean, you’ll also recall you’ve seen a hundred things from the same period that did things this way. Fast forward a quarter of a century, of course, and every action film post-Matrix features tedious bullet time camerawork and excessive use of slow motion, with the refreshing (and intentional) exception of The Expendables.
This is not a criticism. Not really. You’re tied to what’s perceived as cutting edge. It’s become very fashionable to sneer at the stop-motion used in the likes of Robocop and Ghostbusters. But I do wonder if we’ll look back in twenty years at episodes like ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and laugh at them as naff and silly. And I can’t help thinking that this will be futile. The point is that while sneering at the Thunderbirds effects at the end of ‘State of Decay’ may make for an amusing documentary soundbite, it ignores the fact that at the time they never let plastic doors and rickety staircases stop them telling a good story. It’s common knowledge that the ‘cheap production values’ of Doctor Who were laughed at even back in the 70s in the wake of Star Trek and Star Wars, but by and large the people cracking the jokes today are the very same people who were hiding behind the sofa during the likes of ‘Earthshock’. Or, as Colin Baker puts it, “I get a bit impatient when people say ‘I loved watching Doctor Who because of the shaky sets’. No you didn’t, you liar. You loved watching because you believed it and you were scared.”
In any case, Emily’s ruminations on contemporary Who filmed in a 70s style got me thinking. We might call it a parody. But it needn’t be. Part of the appeal of Hot Fuzz (a film you really should see, if you haven’t already) is that while it takes the conventions of the action blockbuster and changes the setting to a sleepy English market town, it works precisely because it refuses to send up the genre it’s referencing – it’s a tribute, rather than a parody. (The same cannot be said of Scary Movie, a sneering, puerile effort that fails partly because it sends up a film that was itself a parody, although the main reason it doesn’t work is that it simply isn’t funny.)
So it’s a fine line to walk. Still, the idea of reworking modern Doctor Who and changing it a little bit was an appealing one. ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’ has dated in many ways (giant rats, anyone?) but the episode five cliffhanger in which Leela pulls off Magnus Greel’s mask to reveal a hideous, deformed face underneath is one of the great episode endings, right up there with the ascending Dalek and, well, this:
Second rate story, but oh my.
Anyway: when it came to actually picking an episode, ‘Hide’ seemed the obvious choice. It’s structurally flawed, but it has some lovely Doctor / Clara moments, is appropriately scary at given points, and it has Jessica Raine. The Doctor’s hop through time is a gratuitous use of the CG budget, but the monster is reasonably convincing, and the National Trust property they used for the mansion’s interior could have come straight out of the Baker / Pertwee era.
I’ll try not to bore you too long with the technical stuff, but here it is. The trickiest stage was choosing a suitable clip, because so many of them are riddled with fancy camera angles and quick jump-cuts, so that they’d still look contemporary even if you changed everything old. In the end I plumped for a scene about halfway through where the Doctor and Clara get a scare on the landing, before the ‘ghost’ appears downstairs, accompanied by a spinning black disc. It builds in intensity, without being too effects-heavy. I stripped out the score and replaced it, and then re-sequenced things so that the jokes were gone and the spinning disc formed the cliffhanger. After that it was a question of filtering to death – I think I used about three different filters, stretched and reprocessed across two software packages – in order to make it look as if it were shot under the harsh lighting of an old studio. The ‘effects’ – polarising filters, a spontaneous zoom at a crucial moment and one of those grainy things that break up the picture at the end – were the last thing to be added.
In case you were wondering, the score samples used are (in order):
Does it work? More or less. The filtering isn’t as I’d have liked it, and I’m sure that someone with more technical expertise could have improved the processing. But even if it doesn’t really look like an old episode of Doctor Who, it does at least look a little bit like a new episode that’s purposely trying to look old. Which was the entire point, so I guess we can call that a win.
As spotted during filming for series eight, and featured in a report by Metro, who gush that it “looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before”. Which is true in the sense that it’s a composite of various other creatures that have been blended together to form something a little different. In other words, it looks like bits of stuff you’ve seen before, but never at the same time.
It took me a while, and a bit of help, but once you get past the obvious Slitheen arms, the rest is simple.
I’m not knocking them. The Rhino is featuring in the new Spider-Man film, and Star Wars is seldom out of the press these days, so it’s all publicity. This beast is thoroughly generic (and more than a bit Minotaur-like) but goodness knows we need something that isn’t a Dalek or a Weeping Angel. Besides, who doesn’t like Admiral Ackbar?
Of course, as Gareth pointed out, there’s always the possibility that this was an influence.
Anyway, this basically gave me the idea for a new series, formally entitled “Monsters we didn’t see in Doctor Who“. They will be posted in pairs, as and when I do them. Here are the first couple, and I make no apologies for what is basically a series of appalling jokes, and the fact that you have to know your BBC history to appreciate the second one.
I will consider requests, with the probable exception of “Stop posting this crap!”.
(And no, I didn’t do that one.)
A friend of mine has been posting hayfever pictures. “This is six hours after taking an antihistamine,” he said.
Later, he posted this: “10 hours post-Clarityn,” was the caption.
So I did this.
I’m thumbing through the latest issue of Doctor Who Adventures yesterday afternoon, and this is what I see.
I’m sorry. What?
In the first instance, I should mention that I don’t buy the figures these days. Not since they dropped the size from 5 inches down to 3.75. Overnight, the Whoniverse characters shrunk from respectable, chunky ones that took up a good portion of a fist when you were holding them down to piddly little things that easily fall out of pockets. To give you an idea:
I’m reliably informed that the new figures are about the size of the original (and, for all I know, contemporary) Star Wars figures that your friends used to have in the playground back in the 1980s. Maybe that’s why they changed them; it allows for greater cross-play between universes, presumably inspiring numerous scenarios in which Clara goes doe-eyed at Lando Calrissian and it is established that neither Han nor Greedo shot first; it was the Doctor, playing around with a laser pistol on the other side of the room and not realising that the safety was off.
I haven’t bought any of the new size figures; they look ridiculous alongside the original range, and it gives me an excuse to concentrate on DVD purchases, as well as dithering over whether I really want to spend £25 on that ‘Three Doctors’ set with the Brigadier and Jo Grant. The fact that I won’t be able to buy a decent scale version of the Twelfth Doctor annoys me, but there’s no sense getting too cross about it. It just means they don’t get any more of my money. Their loss, and I’m sure it’s minimal.
But these? Colossal fail.
Let’s start with the good stuff. They have, at least, not managed to fuck up the Dalek. Presumably doing so would incur threats of insane legal action from the Nation estate (even though Nation had bugger all to do with how the thing actually looks, beyond a vague description). If I were going to be picky I’d question whether you could really justify releasing two practically identical models where the only difference was the dome colour and the weapon attachment, and then charging £12 for each, but I think that ship already sailed back in 2010. The Weeping Angel, too, is reasonably functional. Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, meanwhile, resembles the androgynous singer in a New Romantic pop group, all impeccably smooth skin and hints of what looks suspiciously like lipstick, although if you examine closely, I don’t think it is.
Capaldi’s Doctor is facially intact, if again the skin looks far too smooth for a man of his age. I recognise that some loss of detail is inevitable when you scale down your sizes, but one of the most interesting aspects of Doctor Who was their tendency – at least until 1981 – to avoid casting oil paintings. Sorry, but colouring his hair grey won’t do it; it looks like he’s had the sort of disastrous facial surgery that lands you on the right hand column of the Daily Mail’s home page, photographed by the paparazzi. The whole thing reminded me of an episode of Dad’s Army called ‘Keep Young And Beautiful’, in which the most elderly men in the platoon get makeovers from the undertaker in order to make themselves appear young enough to avoid being drafted into the ARP; the sight of the elderly Arnold Ridley, skin stretched so much that (in the words of Captain Mainwaring) “he looks like Madame Butterfly”, is enough to reduce me to fits of hysterical laughter every time.
But it’s arguably poor Clara who’s suffered the most. I mean, have another look.
She’s practically obese. At the very least she looks like she’s suffering from the mumps. Now, I’m not suggesting that all Doctor Who companions need to be slim and beautiful. I got as cross as you did when Disney did an extreme Photoshop job on Princess Merida from Brave. But the fact is, Clara is pretty slim – no Kate Moss, by any means, but the fact of the matter is that this doesn’t look anything like Jenna Coleman, and if I were here I’d be seriously mortified, or at least stomping around my house like David Huddleston in Santa Claus: The Movie, muttering “Is that how they think I look?”.
Well, it is, if you do this.
And yes, it looks dreadful, but so does the figure.
(Seriously, there must be people out there who could do a better job of fattening up Clara’s face than I’ve managed in two minutes with a three-month-old baby on my lap. Anyone want to have a go?)
“The Zygon looks quite good,” said my eldest child.
“Josh, it looks like Bungle,” I said, having been apprised of this by Gareth some time before. And, of course, it does.
I’m not a toy manufacturer. I know nothing about plastic moulds, cost control or the limits of manufacturing technology. Still, even I can see that this is a massive turkey. I’m not asking for a return to five inch scales (although I do think that might fix some of the facial detail problems). But I think the only way they could make this lot any creepier would be for the things to come alive on the back seat of the car on the way back from the toy shop.
Now, there’s a concept.
There’s trouble at t’mine.
For the uninitiated, the photo you can see above shows Blists Hill Victorian Town, part of the Ironbridge experience. Ironbridge is situated in the eastern half of Emily’s native Shropshire, on the banks of the Severn; the eponymous bridge spans the river like an enormous version of one of the Meccano structures it doubtless inspired. The town’s claim to be the “Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution” is a little sketchy, but there is a lot to see and do – and Blists Hill, with its blacksmiths and wood turner and foundry and schoolroom, all surrounded by woodland and back-to-back with an impressive incline railway system – is a great day out.
It’s also where they filmed ‘Mark of the Rani’. Oh, and it was all going so well.
Part of my problem with the story is the Rani herself. Despite her Dynasty associations, as far as I’m concerned, Kate O’Mara will always be Laura Wilde in Howards’ Way, and I simply can’t take her seriously in black leather sneering at Anthony Ainley over an operating table. Gareth rightly points out that she has potential. The Master is a rogue Time Lord who wants to take over the universe simply because it looks like a bit of a laugh. The Rani doesn’t share his immoral principles – indeed, she’s the amoral scientist personified, likening her disdain for humans to that of the humans’ own use and abuse of livestock. “What harm have the animals in the fields done them?” she says to the Doctor when the two first meet. “The rabbits they snare, the sheep they nourish to slaughter. Do they worry about the lesser species when they sink their teeth into a lamb chop?”
It’s a valid point, but Emmy material this is not, and no better are the angry ramblings of the sleep-deprived Luddites, whose role is chiefly to cart the Doctor from one place to another, usually on a hospital trolley. This also leads to the first episode’s cliffhanger, set up as it is on the pretext that the Doctor asks Peri to push him away from the approaching Rani, only for her to get it spectacularly wrong and send him barrelling off down a steep path. At the beginning of part two, he’s saved by George Stephenson. Then things get silly.
Gareth Roberts says (and I paraphrase) that “What’s great about ‘Mark of the Rani’ is that the Rani is a character who just doesn’t want to be in Doctor Who. There’s these two clowns gallivanting around and plotting against each other, and she turns her nose up at the whole thing and just wants to get on with her work. The next time we see her? Wigs? Dressing up as Bonnie Langford? She’s probably watched all the episodes in the interim. I bet she has them all on videotape, stacked on her shelf, all very neatly labelled.”
Whatever my misgivings about both the Rani’s adventures – not to mention the telethon special where she’s outdone by an Eastenders actress – it’s a location, and we were in that neck of the woods, and even though we’ve been before it was the first time I could actually show Thomas the set, and so the first thing we did was wander around the town and draw a depressing blank when we tried to work out where the bathhouse was. Indeed, the most tangible and memorable exterior location in the place is the overgrown exit to the mine where Colin Baker runs beats a hasty retreat with Peri at the story’s climax.
Not too far from here is the path that leads off to the forest, in which the Rani is conducting some particularly gruesome experiments. First she forces the Doctor to take part in a crappy circus skills workshop.
What’s worse, he’s missed out on the chance to cop a feel of Peri, so instead the honour falls to a semi-anthropomorphic tree.
I am not going to bother explaining this; it’s (literally) monstrous. Suffice to say that there is an amusing denouement in the Rani’s TARDIS featuring a baby dinosaur, and then it’s off to sunny Spain for ‘The Two Doctors’. The photo below features no reference to the path or forest whatsoever, but I include it because I rather like the lighting.
We left not long after and headed for Enginuity, a hands-on exhibition about ten minutes’ drive from the Victorian town. It has robots and ecological-themed experiments and you get to learn about water and electricity and wind power. It is fantastic and the boys love it. But it’s set in the middle of a large collection of old buildings that make up the slate museums and monuments that showcase the heritage of the town and its industrial past, and it’s a little disconcerting when you walk out of the high-ceilinged, air-conditioned hall full of rolling video and hi-tech wizardry, and this is what you see.
“I can’t help thinking,” I said to Thomas, “that this would have made a great place for a UNIT shootout or something in a 1970s Doctor Who story. You know, with someone falling off the stairs and the Brigadier down in the yard on the front line.”
“You could always make one,” he said.
So I did.