Depression, determination and The Eaters of Light (2017)

eaters of light

Can you imagine being asked back to a job you last did 28 years ago? In my case, I had a very brief career as a waiter at a smart restaurant back then. It involved two nights of serving vegetables using silver service, navigating around the warring, slightly sozzled husband and wife team who ran the joint, and being locked inside a walk-in refrigerator in a hazing ritual. Surprisingly, I wasn’t invited back for second weekend, and it would be even more surprising if I were to be asked back now.

Rona Munro’s career as a writer is staggeringly more accomplished than mine as a waiter, but it was still a surprise to hear that she was to become the first writer from 20th century Doctor Who to write for its 21st century regeneration. Actors, directors, costumiers and special effects staffers have all made the transition. But given how different the show is in focus, pace and structure, it’s always seemed like it would be a difficult leap for a writer to make. And 28 years is quite a gap; even in the classic series that gambit would never have been contemplated. It would be like Andrew Cartmel asking David Whitaker to write for season 27. (“David, we only have 14 episodes a season now. We can’t spend 15 minutes talking about the food machine!”)

Back when Munro was writing for the show, the Doctor was played by a brooding Scotsman, his assistant was a contemporary, streetwise girl who he was educating in the ways of the universe, the Master was undergoing a complete physical change and ratings were on the slide. Plus ça change. So it makes sense that her first story, Survival and her second, The Eaters of Light, share similar concerns.

Both are about creatures breaking through portals from other worlds to make murderous attacks on human prey. And both concern groups of teenagers struggling to understand and to deal with these alien incursions. 28 years ago, Munro demonstrated her ability to write lyrically and symbolically – about the need for a home, about sexual awakening and using intelligence to prove the old “survival of the fittest” maxim wrong. Here, I think she’s presenting a story of teens dealing with despair.

It centres on two characters, both baby-faced leaders of their tribes: Kar (Rebecca Benson), chief of the Picts and Lucius (Brian Vernel), leader of the remaining scraps of the Ninth Legion. Both have been floored by the slaughter of their comrades: Kar’s people were decimated by the Romans, Lucius’s legion by the lone Eater that Kar unleashed upon them. In the absence of older, wiser heads, they have been pushed into leadership roles, and both are plainly terrified.

In these characters, the allegorical side of the Eaters becomes clear; as creatures which feed on light but then suck that light away from others, they are stand-ins for depression. In a pair of consecutive scenes, our two young heroes are forced to confront the source of their troubles. Bill (Pearl Mackie) points out to Lucius that hiding out in a cave is not going to help anything, and that he needs to regroup and go on the offensive. Next, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) tells Kar that it’s time to face up to her situation and fight back. “I’m afraid,” she admits. “But you’ve still got to face your beast anyway,” says the Doctor, never one for letting people off the hook.

Sufferers of mental illness will know the futility of being told, “just pull yourself together and feel better.” I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. What Bill and the Doctor are doing is helping Lucius and Kar recognise that although their problems are dauntingly huge, something needs to be done. Their problems can’t be sidestepped or hidden from, and that a personal decision to “face the beast” needs to be made. In this way, we see the turning points in both these young people’s stories. We see the moment where they get back up off the mat and decide to fight the force which is stealing their light. Good for them.

I’m not so sure about the ending though. Kar and Lucius are now able to speak to and understand each other, thanks to the Doctor’s powers of language translation. This enables them to sympathise with each other’s plight, in a kind of live example of the “sit down and talk” approach extolled at the end of The Zygon Inversion. They then decide to join forces and dive into a rejected title sequence to fight off the Eaters one by one. This will apparently go on until the end of time, because time moves faster inside the portal than out. But at a going rate of 70 years per defeat of each beast, and only a handful of brave fighters entering the fray, I can’t make the maths work.

Still, that’s not the most pressing problem. Surely once they’re cut off from Doctor they’ll lose their multilingual abilities. Difficult enough to coordinate a joint attack against a swirling pack of dimension jumping nasties at the best of times, let alone when you can’t understand what your newfound comrades are saying. But then again maybe “argh!” “ow!” and “gerroff, I’m having all the light sucked out of me” are universal.

The Picts also remember to take a couple of pipers down the cosmic plughole with them, which seems like an unnecessary luxury for such a dangerous mission. “Hey, band! Play that one I like, will ya? It’ll really help pass the time while I’m fighting for my life!” But that allows one of the episode’s more mystical elements – music emanating through the hillside – to make a kind-of sense. Except that again, isn’t that music still being played in a slower time stream than in the real world? Wouldn’t it be like listening to a record at super slow speed?

I shouldn’t be spoiling things. As the Doctor explains to Missy (Michelle Gomez, in an all-too-brief appearance), only the joyless can’t hear the music around them. It’s another metaphor for depression; Missy has to learn again to tune into that music which springs from the ordinary beauty of life. When she does, she’s moved to tears, but the sense is that she’s better off by going through the experience and coming out the other side. Again, those going through a mental illness journey of their own may sympathise.

Survival was about this too. Characters stuck in a dead-end suburb, battling with the slow, inescapable trudge of daily life. Characters who went through terrible ordeals, but came away from them invigorated and reconnected with the world around them. Characters who fought off ravenous beasts and were changed by the process. Munro has lost none of her ability to tell stories across multiple levels and to use fantasy to reflect on our own reality. Let’s hope it’s not 28 years before we hear from her again.

LINK TO Victory of the Daleks: aliens interfering in historical battles.

NEXT TIME… it’s back to the dark places of the inside for Kinda.

 

 

 

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Icons, iconoclasm and Victory of the Daleks (2010)

victory

When Steven Moffat was first spruiking Victory of the Daleks, he was confident of a hit. Writing in DWM before it aired, he called it the “Mark Gatiss classic”, predicting that’s how everyone would describe it in future. You can see how he would have come to this conclusion from looking at this story’s component elements: Daleks – old and new, the London blitz, Churchill, spitfires in space. A sure fire winner.

As it turns out, the reception to this episode was much harsher. It came bottom, not top, of DWM’s season poll. There are lots of reasons why, covered in lots of easily located reviews, if you’re looking for a catalogue of what’s wrong with this story. I’m more interested in what happens when you mess around with the show’s iconography.

By which I mean, the big, series-defining elements which are strongly identified with the program – and by which the program is in turn identified. What the list of the show’s icons contains is arguable, but I’d say it consists of: the Doctor, the TARDIS, the Daleks and the theme music. I think those are the elements that are closest to the hearts of most viewers. Changes to these elements are contentious because they are loved so dearly by so many. Muck around with these elements and you muck around what makes Doctor Who Doctor Who.

(To illustrate further, here are some elements I don’t think make that list of icons: regeneration, companions, Time Lords, monsters other than Daleks. These are important – sometimes crucial – ingredients in the show, but you can play around with these. Alter how they appear and the role they play, discard them all together or completely redesign them. Viewers and fans accept changes to these components more readily than to those icons.)

Victory of the Daleks dares to tinker with one of those icons, when it wheels out its new paradigm Daleks, in (nearly) all the colours of a Trivial Pursuit board. The redesign of the Daleks, as bulkier, more garish but less elegant versions, was one of the most widely criticised missteps of 21st century Who. Had it been attempted in the show’s maiden season in 2005, it could have scuppered the series’ return.

The surprising thing about it is they didn’t even change that much. They followed what had gone before, copying the size and brashness of the 1960s Dalek films in an act of homage. But somehow between the oddly concertinaed neck and the humpy back, they misplaced the essence of that classic Cusick design.

It was a misstep made with staggering confidence. The multicoloured Daleks glide onto screen with triumphant arrogance, like new model Audis at an automotive fair. More tellingly, they demolish the classically formed Ironside Daleks, literally and symbolically, as if to say, “we won’t be needing these old things anymore!” Millions of viewers disagreed, perhaps sensing that an unnecessary change was being foisted upon them in attempt to reinvigorate toy sales. Even though their title, the “New Dalek Paradigm”, doesn’t sound like it would make youngsters race to the cash register. It sounds more like the subject of a textbook.

It’s not like the Daleks hadn’t been redesigned before. But no-one had ever deviated this far from Ray Cusick’s original template. It was a swift lesson in the risks of messing with one of the show’s icons. You can only go so far before you lose the essence of what people loved about them in the first place. Hearing the audience’s critique (how could they not?), the production team shifted these new paradigm Daleks into the background in future stories.

What of our other untouchable icons? The theme music has had its ups and downs, but is essentially still the dum-de-dum-ooo-ee-ooo fanfare we’ve all grown up with. An alternative scarcely bears thinking about. Similarly, the TARDIS, both inside and out, has been through many iterations, but none has looked utterly different from what has gone before. It’s hard to imagine a version of the show where the spaceship’s exterior looks like, I don’t know, a Tesla recharging station and the interior like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. See, you’re shuddering already, aren’t you? Even though the Moff likes to throw in the occasional jibe at fans who worry about the size of the Ship’s windows, he never dared make it anything other than a Police Box.

Which leaves us with the Doctor. He isn’t a design element like the TARDIS or a technical element like the theme music, but he still comes with a basic template to follow. You know it by heart: never cruel or cowardly, never gives up and never gives in. Sometimes though, he has, in the eyes of some, veered too far away from his original conception, such as when Colin Baker and Peter Capaldi presented harsher, less outwardly compassionate versions of our hero. So the Doctor’s not infinitely flexible; you can’t perform on him the character equivalent of painting him blue and giving him an awkwardly shaped hump.

So it’s interesting to watch the most recent episode, Twice Upon a Time, wade into these murky waters. It did so by taking liberties with the first Doctor, by giving him a line in sexist remarks, which, no matter how redolent of the original series they were, were not characteristic of the Doctor himself. Those crass clangers may have added a few laughs to the episode, but it showed an unusually cavalier attitude by the production team to bringing back an element from the show’s past. It’s hard to imagine them getting away with such retconning had they brought the fourth Doctor back, or the tenth.

It would have been tempting to think that the first Doctor was such a relic of the past that no one would mind a little character revisioning in the name of a jolly Christmas episode. But judging from the widespread online criticism of this move, I think they underestimated people’s affection for the first Doctor, much as Victory of the Daleks underestimated people’s affection for the original Dalek design. In a sense, having the first Doctor smirk about women being made of glass is the equivalent of the paradigm Daleks blowing up their previous well liked incarnations. In their negative reaction to both these moves, I think fans of the series are saying, “these are the icons you can’t mess with. Treat them with respect.”

Of course, Twice Upon a Time makes one other, far more significant, alteration to the Doctor and that’s to make him a woman. To some, this will be the destruction of one of the show’s untouchable elements. For me, it doesn’t feel like the destruction of anything, just a logical progression for the show; a new shade of blue on the Police Box, rather than changing it into a recycling station. Even so, you make these changes carefully and with respect for the past… Otherwise, it seems you’re doomed to retreat from the bold ideas, like a new paradigm Dalek gliding to the back of shot, hoping to stay unnoticed.

One last thing to note about the bold, iconoclastic but unpopular Victory of the Daleks: Master Spandrell loves it. Has for about 2 years now. Because it’s an action packed, exciting and – dare I say it – colourful adventure. If it has a resurgence in popularity in future years because the children who loved it have all grown up, it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened. They may even refer to it as “the Gatiss classic.” The Moff may yet be proven right.

LINK TO The Pilot: both have Daleks in them. Classic, old paradigm Daleks.

NEXT TIME… it’s death by Scotland in The Eaters of Light.

Bill, agency and The Pilot (2017)

pilot 

It’s odd, but we just don’t get that many “current Doctor meets new Companion” episodes in 21st Century Doctor Who. We get episodes where the whole cast is new, like Rose and The Eleventh Hour (and I presume, Jodie Whittaker’s debut ep). And we get staggered entries like Donna’s, Rory’s and Clara’s. But The Pilot is the first time since Smith and Jones that we have a straightforward introduction for a new companion. Twice in ten years, which seems unusual compared to the original series where such opening nights happened on a regular basis.

It’s a Doctor Who subgenre which stretches back to 1965’s The Rescue. It seems strange to say it, but it’s that ancient two-parter which The Pilot reminds me of most. Perhaps it’s just that The Rescue sets the template for new companion stories so comprehensively that there’s no reason to deviate too far from it. Doctor meets girl (well, they’re usually girls), both have gaps in their lives the other can fill, there’s an adventure to be had, “it’s bigger on the inside” and off they go.

The companion in question is Bill, played with verve by Pearl Mackie. Like Vicki in The Rescue, her parents are long dead and she’s desperately lonely, even with her substitute parent nearby. Like Vicki, when the adventure engulfs her, the protagonist is someone close to her; then it was Vicki’s fellow castaway Bennett, here’s it’s Bill’s crush Heather (Stephanie Hyam). And like Vicki, she quickly strikes up an unlikely friendship with a curmudgeonly, old Doctor (Peter Capaldi ) who will take her under his wing and become a tutor in the ways of the universe for her. (Although neither of them see the need to investigate the spaceship which has been landing surreptitiously in St. Luke’s university, only its sentient oil leak. Marks deducted for missing the big picture!)

Who Bill is not, is Clara. This shouldn’t be surprising; lots of companions are conceived in reaction to the one they replace. But here, for some reason, a complete change felt needed. Clara was complicated – from the start of her tour of TARDIS duty where she was splintered across the Doctor’s own history to the end, where she was a failed would-be Doctor, dead but not dead, etc etc. Bill is much simpler: she’s a bright, friendly but quietly melancholy girl, who’s a bit of an oddball. The Doctor sees in her unmet potential and that’s enough to reignite his passion for travelling the universe.

The actors who play them are also intrinsically different. Jenna Coleman came from the world of TV soaps, with an air of magazine glamour about her. Pearl Mackie came to the show from theatre, specifically the presentation of new plays. Doctor Who is her first major TV gig, so she’s slightly less polished and less perfectly formed than Coleman was for TV stardom. But this background is perfect for Bill, who is an edgier and less self-confident character than Clara. And Bill seems like a character more grounded in the real world than Clara, and for whatever reason, this seems to suit Capaldi’s grizzled teacher of a Doctor; Bill needs and wants to be taught, whereas Clara seemed to already know it all.

There are other companion echoes as well. With her badged jacket and her eagerness to be the Doctor’s student, she’s reminiscent of Ace. Like Jo Grant, she’s cheeky and perky and prone to making mistakes. Of course, there’s a deliberate visual reference to Susan. Plus she’s named after Billie Piper, who brought that other working class, diamond in the rough companion Rose to screen. She’s an amalgam of many who have gone before… just not Clara.

(On the other hand, she does end up gaining an immortal girlfriend and running away with her to see the universe, so she does eventually end up like Clara. I like to think the four of them get together at bars and make fun of the old grey hair and eyebrows:

BILL: Get this. Once he took me to a nautically themed cafe in Cardiff and tried to tell me it was Australia!

CLARA: That’s nothing. He once tried to convince me that the moon was an egg. The Moon!)

As has been noted before around these parts, fandom’s feelings about Clara are mixed, but Bill, it seems, was an instant hit. Clearly there’s something about Bill which a significant group of fans prefer to Clara, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. Certainly Bill seems to be a humbler, more down-to-earth character than Clara and I have a sneaking suspicion that some thought her constant attempts to be or to teach the Doctor made her a bit too big for her boots.

It’s not a sentiment I share, but I wonder if Bill is in part a reaction to Clara’s Doctorly ambitions? And that leads me to this worrying observation: are we actually more comfortable with a companion who is subordinate to the Doctor? I would argue that as breezy and charming as Bill is, she is a far more passive character than Clara. Whereas Clara would (in general) take the initiative in her stories, often instigating her own plot lines, Bill is much more likely to follow the Doctor’s lead, or to wait for him to act before she will. Sure, this is a symptom of her newness to the Doctor’s world and also indicative of the fact that Nardole (Matt Lucas) is also around to share the action with.

Let me offer a few examples. What positive, independent action does Bill take in Smile, other than to find the database of exposition? What at all in Oxygen? Or in Knock Knock? It’s not until The Pyramid at the End of the World that she impacts a plot in any meaningful way, through her appeal to the Monks to cure the Doctor, but this is made as a last resort. She is more integral in The Lie of the Land, but in World Enough and Time, she’s a victim the whole way through – things happen to her, she doesn’t make things happen. I can’t help but think that if Clara had been the companion in Thin Ice, she, not the Doctor, would have punched that racist. How much more would it have meant if Bill had slugged that sucker?

What I’m suggesting is that in Clara we had someone who challenged the Doctor and in Bill we have someone who complements him. And I think (judging from what I read on social media… admittedly, never a great research technique) we seem to prefer the latter. Generalisation’s a curse, and there’s always the possibility that Bill is simply a more likable character than Clara to factor in. But if we do prefer the old fashioned, patriarchal notion of the Doctor as a learned teacher and the companion as his devoted student, we might as well be watching The Rescue.

LINK TO: The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People. People made out of goop.

NEXT TIME… would you care for some tea? Broadsword to Danny Boy, it’s time for the Victory of the Daleks.

 

Johnny, me and The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (2011)

rebelfl

ME: OK Johnny. The Rebel Flesh etc, right?

JOHNNY: Sure thing. Let’s go.

As The Verve once sang, “I’m a million different people from one day to the next.” Which version of you is reading this? The relaxing at home version? The commuting from work version? The killing time when you should be doing other things version?

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People has something to say about the creation of different versions of ourselves. In this story, the versions are made out of a programmable goop called flesh. But anyone who’s active on social media creates digital versions of themselves all the time. What, after all, is Johnny Spandrell, if not my own digital avatar? (Hopefully he won’t take gluey white form and run amok trying to kill me with acid) (JOHNNY: Ha ha ha. No, of course not.)

What, then, of the two versions we get of the Doctor (a thoughtful Matt Smith) here? I don’t mean his Time Lord and Ganger versions, but the two very different versions we get in relation to the rights of these duplicated almost people. The Gangers are normally the plug, play and throw away copies of Morpeth-Jetsan’s crew of acid farmers, but have been brought to independent life by a Frankenstein-esque lightning bolt to a conducting rod atop a spooky old castle. For most of this story, the Doctor argues for their right to live – that they are legitimate, sentient beings. (JOHNNY: Too right!)

But at the end of the story, the Doctor reveals that companion Amy (Karen Gillan) is also a flesh avatar. This one, he can’t suffer to live, so he liquifies her with his sonic screwdriver. Why one rule for them and another for her? Perhaps in order to rescue the real Amy, he can’t allow a potential spy on board the TARDIS (JOHNNY: so drop her off somewhere safe and secure, whydonttya?). Or perhaps as the 22nd century Gangers represent the genesis of this technology, he needs to ensure the timeline which eventually leads to Ganger Amy stays intact. (JOHNNY: Pah! Timey wimey whippet shit!)

Ganger Amy’s transformation into a puddle is further bad news for Rory (Arthur Darvill), on what has already been a trying day at the office. Throughout this adventure, he was duped into a friendship with Ganger Jennifer (Sarah Smart), who turned out to be the only truly bloodthirsty one among them. He spent a long time trying to be the sympathetic voice for these synthetic people, but that girl gone done him wrong, by turning out to be a bad ‘un all along. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t speak up for Ganger Amy when the time comes, in the same way he tried to for Jen. (JOHNNY: Hey, who gets the unfortunate job of having to mop faux Amy up off the TARDIS floor? Bet the Doctor wishes there was a handy Ganger hanging around now!)

Of the other factory workers, the most interesting is boss woman Miranda Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy). Cleaves is the one who starts the trouble with the Gangers when she electrocutes one on impulse. But she and her Ganger are the ones who quickly realise that any conflict between the two identical teams is useless. They stop warmongering and settle into a wry commentary on events. When the original Cleaves runs into the room with the electrocuting whatsit, her Ganger looks wearily at her and sighs: “You see, that is just so typically me.” (JOHNNY: Well. when you’re reduced this quickly to quoting Britney Spears songs, you know the game must be up.)

It’s an early indicator that Cleaves is too sensible to pursue a battle with the human originals for long. When Ganger Jen is on the warpath, Ganger Cleaves simply can’t be bothered with it anymore, particularly once she’s learned that she’s picked up her original self’s brain tumor. She realises the empty rhetoric of “us and them” as the tired refrain of those on a path to self-destruction. “I’ve had it with this,” she declares, at a late stage in the story when we’d normally be expecting tensions to escalate again. “What’s the point in this ridiculous war?” It’s particularly shrewd characterisation. Anyone who’s smart enough to rise to a leadership position isn’t going to embark on some murderous campaign. If this story is a homage to all those base under siege epics of the Troughton era, then it’s clever enough to avoid those stories’ most illogical trope. (JOHNNY: Yup. Those base commanders were nearly always batshit crazy. Who put them in charge?)

The fact that Cleaves, Jimmy (Mark Bonnar) and Dicken (Leon Vickers) all turn out to have sensible, fair-minded Gangers also helps avoid another potential plot snare. Why are so many doubles in sci-fi stories evil? Why should perfectly reasonable, pleasant people produce duplicates who are up to no good? Again, I’d like to think wee Johnny Spandrell is as decent a fella as me, and if he did turn out to be a psychopathic monster, what would that say about me? (JOHNNY: Y’know what? I bet you’d turn out to be the monster. You’d be forever getting me to run errands, clean up the place and tap out a weekly blog post, while you sat back and ate chips or something. I might murder you just because you were being an arse!)

What, for instance, does it say about Jen? Why is it that among the Morpeth-Jetsan team, she’s the only one whose Ganger goes postal? It’s a slight narrative misstep that we don’t find out why the process treats her differently to everyone else. The only hint of latent violence we get from her is when she playfully pushes Ganger Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster) into a vat of acid, so perhaps that’s meant to indicate her hidden, darker side. But what a dark side it must be, because unlike her colleagues, she turns into (as Ganger Cleaves says) the stuff of nightmares; head on a tentacle, clinging to the ceiling. She’s so broken inside she mutates into the sort of gallumphing hybrid monster we thought we’d seen the back of after The Lazarus Experiment. (JOHNNY: Oh, must you? I’d blocked that out!)

This story is not just saying that our self-created avatars are eventually going to reach the point that they’ll want equal rights. It’s also saying, be careful about creating them in the first place. This cloning stuff never works out well. But there’s also the idea that artificial intelligence is eventually going to outthink us, partially because it knows us so well. It’s a fear as old as Frankenstein; that when we start playing God by creating new versions of ourselves, we’ll create much more trouble than we bargained for.

Meanwhile, if Johnny turns on me, I’ll be sure to let you know. Why here he comes now with a *argh gurgle choke bleargh….*  (JOHNNY: Don’t worry. I was always the brains of this operation.)

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: when the Doctor answers the holocall from Jimmy’s son, he does so with a hearty “Hello Adam!”, not as the subtitles insist, “Hello Madame!” That would be weird.

LINK TO The Sun Makers: corporate behemoths.

NEXT TIME… Like a model, only with talking and thinking. We drop The Pilot.

Profit, loss and The Sun Makers (1977)

sun makers

So the story goes that writer Robert Holmes got in a huff about paying his tax bill and, seeking revenge, wrote The Sun Makers as a barely disguised rant at the tax system. If true, this was a terrible idea and would surely have only ended up driving Holmes, a well-known hater of bureaucracy, spare. Because it must have lead to a particularly maddening type of recursion where writing a television show about how angry you are about your tax bill, results in you earning more money, on which you’ll need to pay more tax. It’s kind of like trying to get even at your hangover by having another drink.

Some Doctor Who reference book (forgive my vagueness on this, I’ve read so many over the years and have now all but given them up) once said that this story makes the mistake of confusing government taxation with the profit making of a company, which it argued, are completely different things. I think this utterly misses the point of The Sun Makers, in which Holmes imagines a world in which government has taken on the trappings of capitalism so completely, as for the two to become intertwined. Given the state of governments around the world in 2018, this is surely not so unbelievable.

It doesn’t seem much more of a leap to imagine that a company selling the very basics of life – sunlight, oxygen, water – would come to the conclusion that a far more efficient way of selling universal services, is to simply take the cost directly from each worker’s pay packet. As a way of making money, taxation is not a bad business model.

But it doesn’t matter anyway, because for Holmes, the Company and its staff of blowhards, incompetents and sadistic creeps isn’t just a stand in for capitalism or government or even the BBC (complete with a revolving globe of Pluto and its six suns). It’s an amalgam of everything he hates; pointless bureaucracy, compassionless authority and unsanctioned environmental meddling. Wrapped up in one of his most fervent concerns: what are we going to do when the Earth can no longer sustain us? His answer, as always, is make all the same mistakes again. But with new scenery.

***

The Sun Makers sits quietly in Season 15, not drawing attention to itself – but it’s a pivotal story. It marks a subtle change in the series where the creepy thrillers of Holmes’ era as script editor, give way to stories which are lighter in tone, but more narratively ambitious. For the first time in years – probably since Holmes’ own Carnival of Monsters – we have a story where naturalism is abandoned, real life is satirized and characters are exaggerated caricatures. It’s a Sylvester McCoy story ten years too early. This doesn’t feel like a story Holmes would have commissioned for one of his own seasons, but one that refreshes him, now he’s finally free from the pressure of having to make a whole series of the damn thing.

What this liberation means in practice is that Holmes gets to write some of his wittiest dialogue and the cast eat it up. Tom Baker is still playing it quite seriously, but he’ll shortly change his approach to being more outlandishly comic. I think The Sun Makers plays a role in that. Douglas Adams is on record as saying that the problem with writing something funny, is that some actors feel they have the license to send up the material and add comic embellishments of their own (I wonder who he could have been speaking about?). It’s surely the change in tone in this story which Tom picks up on, and takes as a signal to start injecting more of his own humour into the show. Whether anyone asks him to or not.

It’s not just that there’s more humour in the show than before, nor that it’s pointed towards uncommon targets. It’s more that The Sun Makers is showing a way to tell Doctor Who stories which had, up to that point been occasional, but which was about to become the norm. You can see its influence in the next two seasons where villains become larger than life, situations become more absurd and jokes start to set the rhythm of each episode. And like those subsequent seasons, there’s always a grim sentiment behind the jovial approach.

In this episode, the flamboyant pooh-bah of the Company, Gatherer Hade (Richard Leech) is thrown off a building by the company’s revolting workers (even to the end, he’s in wide-eyed amazement at the insolence of this action). And the mole-like Collector (Henry Woolf), a pasty little sadist who likes listening to people being steamed alive, might come with a bag of one-liners, but is also only just prevented from poisoning the entire population with gas, like someone fumigating a house.

Luckily, the Doctor is on hand to feed in a particularly tricky sum into his computer to trigger a lightning-fast global financial crisis. In panic, the Collector does what all companies do in their death throes and liquidates. That’s Holmes’ whole approach – the approach to this new way of doing Doctor Who – right there in that one villain’s demise. It’s gross, funny, highly stylised and self-referential all at the same time.

***

The irony is that there’s another financial crisis impacting on The Sun Makers; the story’s budget restrictions are shockingly apparent. Corridors are made from shabby old flats. Prop guns are cardboardy. A number of sets, such as the Others’ lair, the Gatherer’s office and the steaming chamber, can’t afford walls, giving the show the air of being performed in a theatrical black box. It’s at this point in the series’ history when inflation is galloping (as it does in the story itself) and the lack of money really starts to show on screen. The next story, Underworld, has to be almost completely greenscreened.  The story after, The Invasion of Time, makes villains out of aluminum foil.

Faced with similar restrictions, other Doctor Who makers have limited the show’s scope to fit. Derrick Sherwin exiled the series to Earth. Andrew Cartmel set more stories in history. But just as the show’s new lighter tone doesn’t really stop it from being gruesome, the Graham Williams era’s budget restrictions don’t limit its ambitions. If anything, the show’s scope broadens – more space faring, more alien planets, the biggest monster ever out on screen. The show never looked cheaper, but it flatly refused to cut its suit to fit its increasingly expensive cloth. But when watching Tom Baker concoct a cliffhanger from within a wobbly shower cubicle, or tinker with a couple of pieces of plumbing junctions glued together in an approximation of a security camera, the theme of the story seems to intrude into its production: everything, it seems, comes back to money.

***

Holmes might have enjoyed getting his own back at internal revenue, but I think the taxman would have had the last laugh. Every royalty cheque from every overseas screening must have brought with it the sharp reminder that some of that £2.39 he got from El Doctor Misterio – los Fabricantes de Sol screening in Nicaragua must go to the tax man. I bet the irony wasn’t lost on Holmes, as he filled out his tax return each year. “Praise the Company,” I like to think he muttered under his breath.

LINK TO The King’s Demons: oddly enough, they both start with someone getting in trouble for not handing money over to the ruling class.

NEXT TIME… It’s insane and it’s about to get even more insanerer. We’re off to meet The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.

One book, two trips and The King’s Demons (1983)

kingsdemonsLate afternoon, getting dark. I’m on a train, and not a good one either. A red rattler. It’s noisy, there’s no heating and my seat’s lumpy. It’s going to be a long trip home from Sydney. Three hours.

It’s the end of a day’s shopping. My mum, y’see, likes to escape from the country and head for the big smoke. Dad can’t abide cities. So I’m my mother’s travelling companion. It’s 1986 and I’m 12.

I’m happy to trail around behind her on these occasions, as long as I get to go to the Galaxy Bookshop. A specialist sci-fi bolt hole and a haven for nerds of all varieties. Like the TARDIS, it periodically shifts locations, but I’m always able to find it. I’m a Target seeking missile, and it has more Doctor Who books per square metre than any other store.

Galaxy was always worth the trip because they flew books in from the UK, ahead of the Australian release schedule. Doctor Who books you couldn’t get anywhere else! Beyond exciting. On this particular day, I’ve secured book 108, The King’s Demons. Oh yes, I know the numbers.

I’m a King’s Demons fan. Saw it on the telly. It stars my favourite Doctor. It’s set on my birthday! It has a shapeshifting android! It’s a long trip home, but for me, it disappears. I’m engrossed.

****

Back in 2017, we’ve just got four new Target novelisations of new series Doctor Who stories. I wonder what new fans will make of them? I, like all fans of my vintage, love and revere the original range. To new fans, our attachment to these strange little novellas must seem fusty and archaic… no matter how many times we might say, “but before there were videotapes, they were our only record of the TV stories!” I mean, referring back to the age of videotape must, in this digital age, seem like quaint nostalgia indeed. But the stories we read as kids have an uncommon hold on us, and with so many Doctor Who novelisations to collect and devour, is it any wonder that hold is so unshakable? I hope kids reading the new series books get an ongoing chance to find out.

The list of things so commonly said about the Target books – their ability to bring the TV stories back to life, their ability to inspire kids to read – never seems to include something intrinsic to the experience of reading them. They were utterly inconsistent. Their covers kept changing. Their logos kept changing. Their authors kept changing. Their numbering made no sense. Stories they adapted came out in random order. (I know, right? So annoying. I hope that had no lasting effects.)

And the quality… oh, the quality of them jumped around like nobody’s business. Early books were artful embellishments on the originals, courtesy of some of the TV show’s best writers: David Whitaker, Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. But they later settled into a regularly pedestrian mode, where Dicks wrote most of them in an economical, almost perfunctory way, only occasionally interrupted by more visceral efforts from Ian Marter, and even more occasional efforts by other TV show alumni.

In 1982, though, the same year The King’s Demons was being made, things began to change. Those occasional books by the un-Dicks were distinguished by being written by the TV stories’ original authors, who seemed to be striving for something more engaging than Dicks’ standard 128 pages of gently expanded script. Steve Gallagher’s Warriors’ Gate was an intelligent deviation from the TV original. David Fisher’s The Leisure Hive a tongue-in-cheek retelling, imitative of Douglas Adams. The Visitation, Full Circleand Logopolis, all written by their original authors, all showed there were smart, idiosyncratic alternatives to Dicks. It was a watershed year.

Consider now 1986, the year The King’s Demons novelisation was published, and extend it at either end by a couple of months. This is the golden age of the Target novels. Donald Cotton’s masterful adaptations of The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters.Robert Holmes’ only novel, a razor sharp expansion on The Two Doctors.  Rehabilitations of The Twin Dilemma, Timelash andGalaxy 4.Marter’s best in The Invasion. A epic sized Fury from the Deep. A range in such rude health, it could afford to experiment with an original novel celebrating, of all characters, Turlough. Even Dicks was regenerating, with stylish adaptations of The Mind of Eviland The Seeds of Death. The King’s Demons is another notable entry in this renaissance.

No wonder young Spandrell collected them devotedly each month. For once, the range was approaching something close to consistency.

***

Late afternoon, getting dark. I’m on a plane, travelling for work. Aged 43, I’m re-reading The King’s Demons and thinking about the story it emerged from.

The TV version, loved by young me, now feels inconsequential – a whimper that ended celebratory season 20. Even its big move, the introduction of a new robot companion, is undermined when the shiny mannequin has to be shuffled quietly off stage because all it can do is lean precariously and say its lines at the wrong times.

No wonder it’s not allowed out unaccompanied. When released on VHS and DVD, it’s been forced to fill out twin packs with other, more substantial stories. Like Kamelion, it seems The King’s Demons can’t stand up on its own.

But the Target books are great equalisers. The King’s Demons might be an underwhelming appendix of a TV story but in book form, it commands the same shelf space as any other story, four, seven or ten parter. More than most, in fact – at 153 pages, it’s luxurious by Target standards.

Inside those pages, Terence Dudley elaborates and embellishes. For him, this is no small deal. He relishes historical detail and obscure vocabulary, and wraps it all in elegant, if occasionally pompous, prose. Freed from the limitations of TV production, Kamelion’s a fully functioning technological wonder, the Master’s disguise is foolproof and the Doctor sounds just like Jon Pertwee. On top of it all, it finds time to mention the Doctor’s bum.

I smile at its sheer audacity. This mouse of a TV story that roars as a book, finally legitimised. My journey home evaporates. I’m engrossed again.

A version of this post appears in the forthcoming charity anthology, You on Target. Find out more about it here.

LINK TO Dinosaurs on a Spaceship: both feature historical figures (kind of).

NEXT TIME… I sense the vicious doctrine of egalitarianism! Praise the Company, it’s The Sun Makers.

Random extra: Completion, conflation and Shada (2017)

shada

In its long and patchy history, Shada has gone from being not important enough to finish to being too coveted to leave unfinished. Abandoned part way through production in 1979, it wasn’t auspicious enough for the BBC to remount the following year. If it had been the end of a season arc like The Armageddon Factoror a Doctoral farewell like Logopolis, it would surely have been finished as soon as possible. Instead, it was deemed no more special than any other Doctor Who story and everyone moved on.

In the years since, as its mystique rose in proportion to the fortunes of its brilliant author, Shada has proved too tempting a property to leave on the shelf. It’s been released in more formats and more regularly than many extant stories. That’s partly because our appetite for Doctor Who isn’t sated by the hundreds of complete episodes we have. We want to see every scrap of the show, from the rejected pilot episode to orphaned clips of missing episodes to blooper reels and unused scenes. Given such hunger, of course an unseen Tom Baker story, even one only 50% complete, is going to get offered up for sale. And so it does, periodically and usually towards the end of releasing the marathon catalogue of Doctor Who on any given format.

It also gets a run because even 50% of a Douglas Adams story is worth a bob or two. I wonder though if we would have seen the panoply of Shadas – the VHS reconstruction, its DVD release, the webcast, the audio drama, the novelisation and now this live action/animation hybrid – if Adams hadn’t died so early. The 1992 VHS release was, famously, only green lit after Adams absent mindedly signed a release form he wouldn’t have had a bar of, had he been paying more attention. When he spoke about the story itself, he was always critical of it, downplaying its appeal. You got the sense he was happy for it to remain unfinished and unexamined.

I can see why has was so cautious. Adams’ media output, which spawned from, but is not restricted to, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is big business. It’s not something to be blithely jeopardised and the release of an early, unfinished work, shot on a budget of a quarter of what it needed and later cannibalised for other, better-formed works, could have undermined the whole operation. It’s generally good creative practice to not show works in progress, and certainly not ones you were a bit iffy on to start with.

If Adams was with us today, would he have revisited Shada? Perhaps the success of Doctor Who’s revival might have prompted him to do so. If so, I think he would have started from scratch, rather than reheat the leftovers from 1979. Perhaps it could have become a David Tennant Christmas special, rewritten by or co-written with Russell T Davies. Or perhaps he may have finally been persuaded to novelise the story, once the show had the commercial heft to deal with an author of his earning capacity. With no disrespect to any of the contributors to the 2017 Shada, I doubt Adams would have sanctioned this jigsaw of existing footage, animation and new FX shots. In part because I don’t think the jarring collision of formats would have appealed to him.

Also, I think he’d have wanted to do more work on the script. The story’s first half is a whimsical adventure through the picturesque sites of Cambridge, full of wit and verve. Had it made it to broadcast, it would have been a visual tonic to the tacky aesthetics of the rest of Season 17 (its Parisian sojourn excluded). But the second half is much more standard late 70s Who; a leapfrogging chase from spaceship to spaceship to sci-fi prison, with a grandiose villain and some shambling monsters. It takes a long time to get to a fairly pedestrian climax: a battle of minds between the Doctor and Skagra (Christopher Neame) with some explosions thrown in.

The role of kindly old Professor (finally! From an actual university!) Chronotis (Denis Carey) needs some clarification too. He is killed mid story, then resurrected without adequate explanation and his eventual reveal as notorious Time Lord criminal Salyavin has no impact on the story. His crimes remain undetailed so we get no sense of why the Doctor shouldn’t lock him back up in Shada at the story’s end. Perhaps if he actually played some part in Skagra’s defeat, he’d have a redemptive story which would justify his slinking back to Cambridge to serve tea and crackers. If he really is a badass, we get no proof of it.

Without Adams to tighten up Shada, what approach does this new version – a conflation of elements old and new – take to his scripts? The answer is, from what I can tell by a quick comparison, a pragmatic one. Scenes are kept, cut or edited to minimise the need to impersonate deceased members of the cast and to reduce the total number of minutes needed to animate. It’s a completely reasonable approach, although it means we miss a few of Adams’ zingers.

Less understandable is the decision to remount the show’s final scene, in the TARDIS control room with Tom Baker, now an octogenarian. Churlish as it is to argue against the great Baker’s return to his most glorious role, his scene’s an awkward, unnecessary addition. Making the scene work requires contrivance upon contrivance: it needs a body double (face hidden), a voiceless K9 and an unseen Romana (Lalla Ward) allegedly delivering her lines from the TARDIS loo, or something. (It reminds me of that episode of Blake’s 7, where the actor playing bad guy Travis injured himself before shooting, and the whole episode is concocted around his absence: dialogue delivered off-screen, gloved hands thumping on tables and so on.) It’s also narratively nonsensical. Just because that last scene contains an arbitrary line about the Doctor as an old man, there’s no reason for him to suddenly turn into one. It’s the sort of liberty taken with Adams’ work that reminds you why he was so protective of it.

With the inclusion of an onscreen return for Baker, it becomes clear that completing Shada is not the only aim here. It’s also to reignite a particularly middle-aged nostalgia and play at making Doctor Who ala 1979. It’s a self-knowing acknowledgement that this whole exercise is for us fans; fans who are so desperate to relive the show’s glory days that we’ll call an old Doctor back in from retirement and build a painstakingly correct control room around him, just to hear him talk to himself and smile down the camera, one more time. We don’t just want to finish Shada, we want to twist it and reshape it, until it provides the maximum fangasm possible.

There’s nothing wrong with that. As Adams might have said, it’s mostly harmless. But I can’t help find myself experiencing Shada fatigue, hoping that we’ve reached its ultimate iteration.

On the other hand, I note the impending release of Tom Baker’s first season as a blu-ray box set. If it turns into an ongoing range, what happens when they get around to Season 17? Will there be yet another Shada variant to absorb? Maybe, we’ll never be done finishing it.

NEXT TIME… normal service is resumed with The King’s Demons.

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