Camp, villainy and The Witchfinders (2018)

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Like most Doctor Who fans, I’m not quite done talking about Timelash. I must be the first person ever to write about it and fail to mention Paul Darrow’s spectacular turn as the villainous Tekker.

Darrow must have looked around the drab interiors of Karfel and realised that someone needed to liven things up a bit and he was just the man for the job. He doesn’t so much steal each scene he’s in, as mug his fellow actors, grab their collective dignity and run down a corridor, tearing it up and scattering it around, laughing maniacally as he goes. I could choose a dozen of his lines to highlight this scenery chewing, but this one will do: “Well, that can hardly be said of our beloved leader, the Borad of Karfel,” he hams, one hand casually on a hip, the other casually gesticulating with a space pistol. “The most luminous force in this part of the GALAXY!”

Tekker the Tremendous is part of Doctor Who’s tradition of high camp villainy. From Karfel it’s only a hop, skip and a stylish leap to Lancashire where we find the flamboyant personage of King James I, played, as only he can, by Alan Cumming. Others have found Cumming’s fruity performance too much to cope with, but I think it spruces The Witchfinders up no end. “You may prostrate yourselves before me!” he opens with and dials it up steadily from there. It’s not just that he wrings every last inference out of a line (such as when he addresses an alarmed Ryan (Tosin Cole) with “And what is your field of expertise, my Nubian prince?”). It’s also that each is accompanied with pursed lips, a haughty stare, a saucy smile or all of the above. “I rather like the drama,” he says of his habit of wearing a disguise when he travels, but we all know it doesn’t stop there.

One of the great things about watching Doctor Who randomly is the way these sort of hidden similarities between stories emerge, and thus Timelash and The Witchfinders have got me thinking that big, camp performances by villains have been an infrequent but not uncommon part of the show for many years. Let’s call these cheesy bad-uns the Campions.

It starts in The War Games (of all places) which features two such performances from Edward Brayshaw and James Bree, who bitch incessantly at each other for episodes on end. Then there’s Harrison Chase, the millionaire botanist madman of The Seeds of Doom, who loved to play all day in his “green cathedral”. There’s Soldeed of The Horns of Nimon fame (a story we must be getting around to eventually), with a robe sweeping, eye rolling performance of operatic proportions. He’s a direct ancestor of Paradise Towers’ Chief Caretaker. For a modern Who example, perhaps there’s Mr Finch of School Reunion or the paper pushing Seb in Dark Water. And from next random, there’s BOSS, a computer programmed for maximum camp. He purrs at his adjutants with lines like, “the adrenaline flowing nicely? Living dangerously? That’s how you get your kicks, like the good little Nietzschean you are.”

A quick point of clarification: the type of villain I’m talking about here not just an over the top performance. Here we’re looking for OTT + camp. Yrcanos, for instance, or Zaroff are over the top, but neither are Campions. A Campion needs to be a bit fun, a bit flouncy and a bit fey. And they need to be able to engage the Doctor in articulate and witty debate about the pros and cons of their plan. Count Grendel, for instance: pure Campion. (And also, for the purposes of this post, male. There are fabulously camp female villains but once you start listing them – the Rani, Captain Wrack, Helen A, Miss Winters, Miss Foster… it suddenly seems like all female Who villains are camp. The male villains seem to offer a clearer division. Why is that? Opinions in the comments please).

So why use a Campion? Well, some stories are highly stylised to begin with and seem to suit a larger than life, theatrical performance: Paradise Towers, for instance, couldn’t include a Lytton. Others are playfully postmodern – a pastiche of a character like the Pirate Captain was never going to call for a performance of quiet understated menace. Sometimes it’s needed to brighten up proceedings. The Witchfinders, with its tale of the pointless murdering of women, would be grim indeed without James prancing in and out of it regularly throughout.

Interestingly, the one thing they’re not is sissies. They often end up in single combat with the Doctor at story’s end. And the threats they represent are not insubstantial. Doctor Who is a show where camp is fun, but just as dangerous as everything else the Doctor faces. Harrison Chase, for instance, has a machine which crushes people to death and will physically feed you to it if he has to. There’s a dramatic levelling effect here, when villains can be playful and whimsical, but will still send a robot to strangle you without hesitation. That feels very Doctor Who.

James is a good example of the skewing effect a Campion has within a Doctor Who story. It draws focus from the Doctor, offering the viewer a figure of fun to rival him or her. They’re magnetic, charismatic types. You can’t wait to see them onscreen again, because often, they’re the most interesting thing it in. In James’ case, he’s also played by a big star and big stars neither fill small roles nor give small performances. You don’t hire Cumming to be understated and people tuning in don’t want him to be. In The Witchfinders, it certainly gives Jodie Whittaker someone of great skill to play off, and the mercurial nature of the character means she’s sometimes pally with him, sometimes vehemently opposed to him.

In fact, Whittaker’s Doctor really benefits from having someone tricksier than the usual alpha male to play against. Her three friends are pleasant enough company, but they are determinedly everyday folk. They won’t be playfully frocking up like Romana or delivering the punchlines like Nardole. So having a Campion every so often to bring a little zing to the dialogue is no bad thing. And when male Doctors faced off against a Campion, it resulted in a positioning as the Doctor as our standard, masculine hero and the villain as the slightly shifty, less masculine “other”. Played against Whittaker’s goofy, unassuming Doctor, there’s less of a right vs wrong version of maleness, which allows for more of a contest of ideas. Such as here where the Doctor, tied to a post and about to be dunked for a witch, places the seeds of doubt in James’ mind about his vicious doctrine. A less combative, but still interesting, dynamic.

Actually, I’d go as far as saying Chris Chibnall’s Who could afford a bit more fun and flamboyance of the type exhibited in Cummings in The Witchfinders. As an antidote to its current air of earnestness and its roll call of blustering macho types – your Tim Shaws, your Kraskoes, your Trump-lites. Pitting a female Doctor against traditional male bullshit is an obviously pleasing match up, but subverting that is even more fun. Let’s Campion things up a bit more.

LINK TO Timelash: as discussed. But also, appalling treatment of women.

NEXT TIME… This fellow’s bright green apparently, and dead. It’s a trip down t’pit in The Green Death.

Tittilation, taunting and Timelash (1985)

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1980s Doctor Who impresario John Nathan-Turner used to have a matronly rule, banning “hanky-panky in the TARDIS”, to ward off any suggestion that the Doctor might have a romantic interest in any of his companions. It’s a rule which had a cold shower-like effect on the show in the early 80s, which became its most platonic era. The 70s, by comparison, had allowed companions to have gentle romances with guest stars. It dabbled with sexual tension between characters like Jo and Mike Yates, and Harry and Sarah. And by the end of the 70s, the Doctor and Romana were basically an item. But in Nathan-Turner’s early years, romance in any form, even among guest characters, was rare. The only exception to this puritanical regime was Mariner’s obsession with Tegan, which had the unsettling air of stalking about it.

In 1983, something began to change. Nathan-Turner became interested in girls. Specifically, he started mandating that the female leads in the show be costumed in more revealing clothes. Tegan started wearing skimpy shorts and tight skirts and in one story, Nyssa stripped down to her underwear. This increasing sexualisation of the companions (after a period of relative chasteness), culminated in the casting of Nicola Bryant as Peri. Who, in her very first episode, appeared in the scantest of hot pink bikinis. 

Like a (straight) teenage boy suddenly hitting puberty, mid 80s Doctor Who abruptly became obsessed with emphasising its female companion as both desirable and desired. In Peri’s case, it did this in two ways. Firstly, by some particularly exploitative costuming, favouring shorts and bust boosting tops (watching Doctor Who randomly really makes this stand out; returning to a Peri story always puts this costuming brazenness into sharp contrast). Secondly, by presenting a string of male characters who express their carnal interest in her. And these men are not kind, charming heroic types who used to make eyes at Jo or Sarah. These would-be suitors are villains and monsters.

The first is deranged drug dealer Sharaz Jek. The next is giant slug Mestor (who expresses his ardour with the classic line, “I find her pleasing. Pleasing!” regularly mocked in the Spandrell household). Later on, there is the sleazy Jobel, and before him there’s Shockeye, who wants Peri for his dinner, but whose hunger is often indistinguishable from lust. Even Sil, who famously finds Peri repulsive, is compelled to join this horny bunch by judging our Bostonian friend on her appearance.

In Timelash (which I had to get around to eventually), Peri’s admirer du jour is the Borad (Robert Ashby), half man, half saurian. His plans for Peri are the most explicit of all her creepy admirers. In the ultimate homage to b-grade “I married an alien” type films, he wants Peri so that he can procreate. (Why it has to be Peri, and not a Karfelon woman is not made clear). And with that intent we have reached, I think, Doctor Who’s nadir in both its treatment of Peri (a big call as she was once, infamously, strangled by the Doctor) and its treatment of its female regulars.

When the plot revolves around using the companion as a breeding machine, something really has gone seriously awry. And to add even more shame to this already awful scenario, Peri gets nothing else interesting or proactive to do in the story. Plus, there’s the whiff of sexual violence about the thing. She’s tied to a pole and menaced by a phallically long necked monster (twice). She’s shackled by the neck and led around by a man holding her by a rod. It’s icky.

Timelash has its faults (he says, in the understatement of the year) and chief among them is its treatment of Peri. But coming a close second is its uncomfortable alignment of physical deformity with evil. True, Doctor Who (particularly as written by Robert Holmes) has a long history of this, but here, it collides with the story’s degradation of Peri in a truly awful narrative conclusion.

The Borad takes Peri hostage and in response, the Doctor (a bullish Colin Baker) taunts him about his ugliness. “Show yourself to Peri,” he suggests. “If she doesn’t scream, the wedding can take place.” As Peri points out, she has no to say in this. The Doctor then reveals a hitherto boarded up mirror (All mirrors having been banned on Karfel, along with fan art and naturalistic dialogue) and the Borad is consumed with self loathing. As predicted, Peri screams. “I told you she’d scream,” says the Doctor, helpfully.

The Borad’s a killer and a despot. But the Doctor doesn’t defeat him in a contest of ideas. Or by showing him the error of his ways. He defeats him by taunting him about how ugly he is. “The possibility of perfect companionship shattered because of your grotesque, ugly, excuse for a body,” he says. He doesn’t even upbraid him for his crimes. The overriding message is that it doesn’t really matter what wicked things you do, you’ll ultimately be judged on your appearance – just as Peri constantly is. The Borad spirals into anguish and the Doctor pushes him into the Timelash with a last brutal confirmation of the story’s moral, that you’ll never be loved if you don’t fit the bodily norm. “Nobody wants you. Nobody needs you. Nobody cares!” he booms. Yup, that “never cruel or cowardly” thing has definitely gone out the window. Or down the tinsel covered time corridor.

If there’s a light of hope in this dull, matte story, it’s that it marks an end to this thoughtless, exploitative treatment of female companions. Peri’s successors Mel and Ace will both be more proactive presences in the series and neither will be the constant focus of villainous lust. And Peri too, although she still has Jobel to manouver around, has more to do in her final stories, and is at last, costumed without so much consideration to the randy teenage boys in the audience. Timelash at least marks the point where the lot of the female lead starts to improve after a brief but blatant period of decline into sex objects for men (in the narrative and in the audience) to leer over.

I mean, she’s still got to get married to Brian Blessed. But after that.

SPARE A THOUGHT FOR: innocent Scots in 1189, who keep getting bombarded with banished Karfelons, wearing jumpsuits made out of dirty curtains and bewildered expressions. What will they do with them?

LINK TO Let’s Kill Hitler: cases of hidden identity in both.

NEXT TIME: Paper! How fascinating! We’re off to find The Witchfinders.

Fast, foxy and Let’s Kill Hitler (2011)

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I don’t know about you, but most of my days are pretty busy. And on the busiest, I run from thing to thing, from appointment to appointment, from location to location and it’s kind of exhilarating. That’s great – but on some days, I can’t escape the lingering sensation, that while getting a lot of things done, I haven’t actually devoted enough time or thought to any of them, and so none get done particularly well. And at the end of the day, there’s a sense of having just gotten away with it, once again.

Let’s Kill Hitler, with its breakneck pace, and its flitting from location to location, reminds me of that sensation. There’s even a phrase to go with it – a quote about the Doctor from Journey’s End, which we can adjust to fit. This is the story which keeps running, never looking back, because it dare not.

Here’s an initial example: in this episode’s early scenes, showrunner Steven Moffat shows us companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), frantically resorting to writing messages in fields of crops using a Mini, in order to summon the Doctor (Matt Smith). Then he introduces a new character – the best friend the Ponds have always had but never mentioned and who didn’t show up to their wedding. This is the awkwardly named Mels (Nina Toussaint-White), so called to not hint too broadly that she’s an earlier incarnation of Melody Pond, AKA River Song. (And presumably also because to call her “Mel” would have been to recall another perky, curly haired companion from the show’s distant past.)

Moffat’s a plotline contortionist but this is one of his less deft moves, retroactively forcing River Song into the Ponds’ backstory. His hammering of this idea into place facilitates the pleasingly ironic notion that the baby the Ponds have been longing to see has been with them all of their lives, but it doesn’t sit easily. Nor do the (thankfully few) flashback scenes where we see the adult actors made up to be ersatz teenagers.

But that’s fine, because before you’ve had time to process all that we’ve moved on, and a rapid TARDIS trip deposits us in Berlin 1938 and to meet the great dictator himself. Keep running! Don’t look back.

***

We should pause for a moment to consider Doctor Who’s depiction of Hitler (Albert Welling), a historical figure the show has always shied away from, perhaps for fear of trivialising the horrors of the Nazi regime or just never finding a comfortable fit for them within the show’s family entertainment remit.

Moffat makes a couple of shrewd decisions to make Hitler Who friendly. Firstly, he sets this story before the outbreak of war and thus before Hitler’s worst crimes had been committed. Secondly, he takes the Mel Brooks path, and makes fun of Hitler, before locking him in a cupboard for comic effect and removing him from the plot. Again, it doesn’t bear too much thinking about and once again the story moves rapidly on, so that we don’t have to engage with Hitler on anything more than a frivolous level.

There’s no time to linger on the notion in this episode, but Moffat doesn’t seem to shake the worries about the implications of Hitler existing in the same universe as the Doctor. He gives a line to not-quite-a-teenager Mels which gives voice to his concerns: “A significant factor in Hitler’s rise to power was the fact that the Doctor didn’t stop him”. And later, in Kill the Moon, the Doctor points out to Clara that he’s never killed Hitler. It’s an extension of one of humanity’s nagging worries about religion; instead of wondering why God allows bad things to happen, Moffat is wondering why the Doctor allows them to happen. We never get a satisfactory answer of course, because there is no satisfactory answer, only the usual flim flam about timelines and history being set and so on. But don’t dally, we need to keep moving.

***

Next up is Mels’ reveal about her parentage to her parents and her regeneration into River (Alex Kingston). This is another thread in a plot strand which has been hanging around this season, about River’s identity and where she comes from. It’s not entirely clear how River moves from a baby on Demon’s Run, to a little girl in 1960s America, to another little girl in Ledworth but there’s no time to draw that particular flow chart. Instead, we discover that River has been trained to be the Doctor’s bespoke assassin. She does for him with a Judas kiss, complete with poisonous lipstick, and then jumps out of a window, joking about dress sizes and hair does. Because, y’know, she’s a girl. Never mind, keep going.

While all this going on, we meet the crew of the Teselecta, a “time travelling shape shifting robot operated by miniaturised cross people,” as the Doctor puts it. They travel about intercepting history’s great unpunished villains in the moments before death and torture them, which is cheery. But they lose interest in Hitler when they find River Song, which leads to all other sorts of questions – River’s a bigger villain than Hitler? How, exactly? Who exactly is the Doctor married to here?

This story shows us two transformations of River Song – the first external, the second internal. Fatally injured, the Doctor has only his words left. He convinces River to be a better person, and within the space of a few short scenes, it’s quite the turnaround – from galactic supervillain worse than Hitler, to someone who’s prepared to give up the rest of her regenerative power to save the man she’s spent her whole life preparing to kill. Like everything else in Let’s Kill Hitler, it happens fast – a few choice phrases, an unsettling encounter with the TARDIS, a quick word with Mum and she’s convinced. There’s a fascinating story here – troubled by a vision of her future self, River buys into the Doctor’s story, to move from enemy to ally and eventually to lover… but such is the story’s pace we have to just accept it and move on. But we’re used to that by now.

***
Let’s Kill Hitler’s less of a Doctor Who story than it is an episode in the ongoing saga of the Doctor, River and the Ponds. By which I mean, Doctor Who’s standard format of the Doctor finding a problem, fighting to find a solution and eventually saving the day is suppressed in favour of drip feeding some answers to this year’s narrative arcs of “who is River Song” and “how does the Doctor avoid his forthcoming death”. I suppose the alternative would be that the Teselecta plot is pushed to the fore, perhaps with the Doctor being forced into the uncomfortable position of having to protect Hitler from his shapechanging torturer in order to protect the timelines. Or summat.

Instead, this is an episode absolutely enmeshed in its own mythology. Its own season arc has become the story, not just the intriguing background colour of Doctor Who as we know it. But Let’s Kill Hitler tells us to be fast, be foxy and be funny and you’ll just about get away with it.

LINK TO Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel: Both feature the Doctor in formal wear.

NEXT TIME: Prepare the Timelash, you microcephalic apostate!

Retconning, retreading and Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel (2006)

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In new Who’s opening year, Russell T Davies brought back the Daleks and in doing so, set the format for reintroducing an old monster from the classic series. He brought them back by giving new viewers just enough back story, but without wildly contradicting their history from the classic days. And that’s the way most old monsters have been brought back into the show: Sontarans, Zygons, Ice Warriors and so on.

The exception is the Cybermen. In their return appearance, Series 2’s Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, Davies and writer Tom MacRae retcon the big silver fellas, creating them a whole new backstory, in the continuity safe space of an alternative universe. In the classic series, Cybermen were our alien cousins, who had turned themselves into synthetic horrors and were intent on making us like them. Here, they are not just related to us, they are us. Borne of our own obsession with technology, these homegrown version Cybermen position themselves as just the latest in a long line of habitual upgrades.

Truth be told, it’s a better origin story than the one originally presented back in 1966. The Cyber threat is much closer to home in the version presented here; the society of Pete’s World doesn’t feel that different to our own, so it’s not that hard to imagine our own wearable technology turning against us. And if we’re worried about dissing the show’s heritage, it’s not like classic era Doctor Who ever shied away from rewriting established history. The Daleks have two origin stories. Time Lord history got rewritten.

But the Rise of the Cybermen etc doesn’t just want to rewrite continuity (and it doesn’t stick anyway. We eventually meet different Cybermen from our universe and no-one can be bothered explaining their backstory). It also wants to recreate the show’s own history. And in doing so, it gives us a peek into a very different approach to new Who which was never taken.

***

One of Doctor Who’s ancient, mysterious artifacts is the Leekley Bible. It was a guiding document for a potential new series of Doctor Who, which was being planned by Amblin Universal in the 1990s. Written by John Leekley, it detailed a backstory for the series which, depending on your point of view, was either a mangled misremembering of key moments from the classic series, or an innovative new take established Who lore. This summary from Tardis Wikia is indicative: A ruggedly handsome young Time Lord named the Doctor discovers that he is the long-lost son of the great explorer Ulysses, but not before the Master becomes the Lord President of Gallifrey. The Doctor must travel with the spirit of Borusa (who can only exist inside the “Time-crystals” that power the Tardis) and find his long lost father to restore the balance of peace across the universe. Yup, it’s unique.

Anyway, the Leekley bible goes on to suggest the type of stories which a new series of Doctor Who could include and rather than invent brand new ones, it suggests recycling plot lines from years past. It proposes remaking classic stories like The Ark in Space, The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Gunfighters among many others. All of them have gone through the Leekley reassembling machine, so have similarly tampered emphases as the series premise noted above: think The Daemons but during the Salem witch trials, The Talons of Weng-Chiang but in NYC. Who knows whether a full Amblin series would have taken up these suggestions, or created new storylines or mixed them together. But the point is that a valid approach to new Who could have been to simply remake old Who. After all, there are 26 years of it to mine.

All this is relevant because Rise of the Cybermen is basically The Invasion. It’s the story of a power mad tech millionaire, who embarks on a plan to take over the world, using his company’s ubiquitous consumer technology and turn everyone into Cybermen. It even reuses the name International Electromatics from the earlier story. The Cybermen are eventually defeated by being flooded with emotions. Sure there are differences, but I suspect about the same level as we might find in a Leekley version of The Sea Devils set on a Louisiana oil rig. Looked at through this lens, Rise of the Cybermen is, appropriately enough, a view into an alternative universe, where all new Doctor Who was made from reappropriating old Doctor Who.*

In one sense, constructing a series out of cover versions of previous stories would have been a difficult approach for the show to take, playing havoc with the show’s long term continuity (not that that has ever been sacrosanct). And probably in the long run, it would have only demonstrated a lack of originality which wouldn’t have served the series well. But it might have been a way of breathing life into stories which otherwise would only be watched by tragics like you and me. If not a full series, perhaps it could have led to a mini-series of specials based on the old series’ greatest hits. (Though perhaps, with animated adaptations of missing stories like The Macra Terror making increasingly bold editorial choices, it’s already happening in its own way.)

But you know what? I don’t really need to hear the greatest hits again. It’s like all those Hollywood remakes of films which were perfectly fine the first time around. Why don’t they remake bad films and make them good? Because I don’t want talented writers like Davies or Moffat rewriting Pyramids of Mars. But I would absolutely watch them make classics of Arc of Infinity or The Time Monster. Those would be challenges worthy of their skills.

***

I’ve managed to avoid talking about the actual story again. Long term readers will not be surprised; I do this sometimes. It’s not that I don’t like Rise of the Cybermen etc. I like it quite a lot. Just as I like The Invasion. And Inferno. And Genesis of the Daleks. And The Dalek Invasion of Earth. And Father’s Day. It’s well performed and well directed and as familiar as a comfortable pair of slippers and…

Oh yeah. Maybe that’s why we don’t just recycle old stories all the time. Don’t call us, Leekley.

LINK TO Resolution: Difficult companion/Dad relationships in both.

NEXT TIME: What the hell? Let’s Kill Hitler.

*(And yes, another piece of early source material for this story was the Big Finish drama Spare Parts but in its final form, there’s not much similarity between the two.)

Zeg, Recon and Resolution (2019)

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ZEG: Dalek assembly help line, you are speaking with Zeg.

RECON: Zeg, hi. I’m a Dalek recon scout. I’m marooned on a primitive planet. I’ve been separated from my casing and I need to build another.

ZEG: Jeez, that’s no good.

RECON: Yeah, I really need to get back to exterminating some shit.

ZEG: OK, have you located the allen key?

RECON: The what?

ZEG: The allen key is a critical tool for putting together your casing, recon scout. You should find it in a little plastic bag of screws and things inside flatpack box number 1.

RECON: I don’t have any flat pack boxes.

ZEG: What, do you mean they haven’t arrived? Have you recently changed address?

RECON: I… no… I, look, I’m marooned on an alien planet. I have no flat packs!

ZEG: OK, what have you got then?

RECON: Well, I have appropriated the body of one human female!

ZEG: Urgh, don’t tell me that! That’s gross, why did you do that?

RECON: I had to get around somehow! I couldn’t just crawl around on my grubby little protuberances, now could I?

ZEG: What happened to your original casing?

RECON: Nothing. I dunno. Shut up.

ZEG: Dude, what happened to your original casing?

RECON: Some of the human primitives… destroyed it.

ZEG: Ha! Sorry, I shouldn’t laugh.

RECON: There was a lot of them! Dozens!

ZEG: Oh, I’m sure there was!

RECON: And they had swords and clubs and shit.

ZEG: Stop it, you’re killing me! How did they manage to destroy your casing?

RECON: They set fire to it.

ZEG: Um, how? I mean, was it made of cardboard or something?

RECON: Dalek Zeg, you are not being very helpful. If you do not start assisting me to build a new casing, I will leave you a one-star review.

ZEG: OK, OK. So you don’t have any flatpacks and you have latched on to one woman. What other resources do you have at your disposal?

RECON: I have located some remnants of my original casing.

ZEG: Great – how much have you got?

RECON: I have the weapon!

ZEG: Good, good.  What else?

RECON: Um, that’s about it.

ZEG: Well, at least when the humans destroyed the rest of your casing they decided to keep the most dangerous part. No eyestalk though?

RECON: No.

ZEG: What about a suction hand?

RECON: No.

ZEG: That’s OK, they’re pretty useless anyway. What about a radio transmitting saucer thing which clips on at the back?

RECON: Thankfully, no.

ZEG: OK fine, what other resources do you have at your disposal?

RECON: I have conquered a small shed full of bits of metal! Iron, steel and so on.

ZEG: No bonded polycarbide?

RECON: No, but I do have some car indicator lights which I can use for my flashing ears.

ZEG: Um, good. Now how will you shape this metal without your multifunction suction hand?

RECON: I have this human female. I was thinking she could do all the heating and banging of metal.

ZEG: Ooh, good idea. OK. First things first. What are you going to do for a skirt?

RECON: Bugger the skirt. I want torpedo balls!

One hundred rels later

RECON: Uploading image now. OK, how do I look?

ZEG: *sniggers*

RECON: Dalek Zeg!

ZEG: No, seriously. Fine, you look fine.

RECON: Do you think the skirt flares out too far?

ZEG: Nah. You should see the Rolykins ones.

RECON: The star picket hand’s a bit useless.

ZEG: There is that toilet plunging thing you found…

RECON: No way. If I’d known that was what human beings used those things for, I would never have had one in the first place!

ZEG: But on the other hand… TORPEDO BALLS!

RECON: TORPEDO-FUCKING BALLS MAN! (short Dalek dance ensues)

ZEG: Well, I’ve got to plunger it to you, Recon Scout. You’ve managed to build a fully functional and armed Dalek casing using only the scrap metal of a primitive society at your disposal. Complete with death ray, life support and levitation. I can barely credit it!

RECON: Perhaps I should add that hump and paint myself a jaunty colour?

ZEG: I wouldn’t if I were you. Have you exterminated the human female?

RECON: I’ll do it in a minute. I wanted to try on my new casing first! It’s not like she has friends who will come and rescue her or anything.

ZEG: What will you do next?

RECON: Fly to the humans’ communication HQ and turn off the internet!

ZEG: OK. Not super ambitious.

RECON: Not so fast, Dalek Zeg. Then I’m going to contact the Dalek fleet and exterminate all humans!

ZEG: That’s more like it. No sign of the Doctor?

RECON: No. Though I have seen a human in a long coat with a bunch of sidekicks, talking to me from the inside of a big hexagonal shaped control room. But it can’t be the Doctor because it was quite girly.

ZEG: Sounds legit. But if he does turn up, just remember to take care of your casing. I mean, it will be fine if say, human soldiers attack you with bullets and guns and things, but you are susceptible to electrical components switching between high amperage low voltage and low amperage high voltage. So, you might want to stay clear of any microwave ovens.

RECON: Why would the Doctor be carrying a microwave oven around with him?

ZEG: Yeah, you’re probably right. Don’t worry about it.

 

LINK TO: The Face of Evil: companions’ fathers in both.

NEXT TIME: More home-made monsters in Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel. Trust me on this.

 

 

Jocks, nerds and The Face of Evil (1977)

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There’s a nice moment at the beginning of 1977’s prog rock banger The Face of Evil where the Doctor (Tom Baker), travelling alone for once, is forced to talk to himself. He pulls from his pocket a handkerchief with a knot in it and wonders what he was trying to remind himself of. I like to think that it was to remind him to wipe his personality print from the Mordee expedition’s computer, a procedural blunder that leads to the computer becoming Xoanon, the crazed version of itself which is the focus of this smart and thought provoking story.

There are loads of interesting implications to the Doctor’s cack-handed attempt at tech support. For instance, the idea of leaving a personality print on a computer sounds like the typical 1970s proclivity for making machines human and therefore a bit far fetched. But perhaps the Doctor had to create a digital avatar to undertake the repairs, communing with the computer and effectively infiltrating it, as contemporaneous viewers had just seen him do in The Deadly Assassin. What if he forgot to wipe his boots as he left the Matrix and he gave that all-powerful computer multiple personalities? There you go, Big Finish, have that one on me.

As artificial intelligence begins to make its presence felt in our world, it’s not so hard to imagine the need for it to be accompanied by artificial personalities to make its operations more palatable to humans. In fact, my friends Siri and Alexa will tell you it’s already happening. So it seems more feasible now than ever before that the interaction of human and digital personalities might cause a computer to malfunction.

Xoanon – super advanced though it is – can’t seem to self-diagnose the problem and delete the Doctor’s personality itself, which seems a bit of a design fault. And exactly why its two personalities couldn’t live together on the same motherboard isn’t fully explained; is it the overwhelming strength of the Doctor’s personality which causes the malfunction, or is it that his morals are oppositional to the computer’s? Or could it be that the computer senses the Doctor’s own multiple personalities – his past incarnations – and seeks to mimic those many states of mind?

Here’s another possibility: that the Doctor’s own personality is so full of contractions and complexities that the simple act of trying to comprehend it sends Xoanon gaga. The fourth Doctor is easily the most changeable and in this story, it’s particularly difficult to judge whether he’s going to greet any given event with a toothy grin or a glowering stare. For every whimsical moment (such as when he threatens to kill one of the Sevateem with a “deadly” jelly baby), there’s another of ruthlessness to balance it out (most shockingly when he flicks a piranha-like Horda onto a man’s arm). Then factor in, as the Doctor suggests himself, the character’s own egotism, and perhaps it’s not all that surprising that we end up with a being that will brainwash people into carving its own image onto the side of a mountain.

And in that stony edifice, there’s another of the little details which make The Face of Evil so beguiling. That image of the Doctor doesn’t look strong and proud like a dictator or a president. It looks confused. It’s worried.

****

“It’s an experiment in eugenics,” the Doctor says, when he realises the results of Xoanon’s social engineering, by keeping the Sevateem and the Tesh apart. One look at the cast list will tell you that it can’t be a very successful one though; new companion Leela (Louise Jameson) is the only woman on this bifurcated world. Perhaps, like the hapless Yoss in last random’s The Tsuranga Conundrum, the men give birth on this planet.

More likely the planet’s lack of gender diversity is another example of a familiar blind spot in Doctor Who generally and in the Hinchcliffe era specifically. But the fact that Leela is the only woman present makes The Face of Evil an interesting examination of masculinity. This planet’s population is divided between the jocks and the nerds. Like if the football team and the chess club had been allowed to develop separate civilisations.

(The Sevateem are a peculiar band of warriors, though. It says something about changing body images for men that they are all played by actors of slender build. Had this been made today, surely they would have all been muscle bound goliaths (though they would have kept their neatly trimmed hipster beards). And they speak with a sophistication which belies their paleo lifestyle. The Tesh meanwhile are the pallid little swots you’d expect them to be, although somewhere within their spaceship there must be a flamboyant Tesh tailor. I imagine him spending hours in some tiny room within the ship, surrounded by piles of apple green and candy pink material, carefully piecing together the natty page boy numbers the Tesh all wear. Come to think of it, does he have an equivalent on the Sevateem’s side, constantly apologising for the fact that a shortage of leather offcuts have led to occasionally revealing gaps in their huntings duds? But I digress).

The one thing that guides the men of this planet, be they physically or intellectually inclined, is religion. Both groups are devoted to Xoanon, particularly the Tesh whose proximity to the damaged machine has turned them into acolytes and zealots. This paints the men of this planet as inveterate doers, too busy pursuing the rituals of their respective tribes to question their purpose. Those few that do – devious Calib (Lesley Schofield) and mousy Tomas (Brendan Price) – are too self-serving or weak to voice their doubts. They’ll continue to work within the system.

It’s Leela who’s the only one brave enough to speak the truth and challenge the established structures on this planet. If there’s a feminist reading of The Face of Evil (and that’s difficult to imagine, considering it has a sole female character dressed in a leather swimsuit for its duration), it’s that the stupid, self-sustaining power structures set up by men need to be interrogated and disrupted, and women like Leela – smart, capable and inquiring – are the ones to do it.

Given this, it’s a pity Leela doesn’t get to play a stronger part in Xoanon’s eventual healing. It would be fitting if it was her who pressed the final button or something, helping deliver the final blow while the Doctor is strapped by the scalp to the computer again. She was the first one to articulate that there was something wrong with Xoanon, so it would be perfect if she was the one put this planet to rights.

Still, it’s entirely right that she wants to travel with the Doctor and escape this planet of bores and bullies. And in that terrific scene where she starts her journeys around the universe, there’s another of The Face of Evil’s pleasing little details.

When the Doctor refuses to take her with him, she doesn’t take no for an answer. She simply runs inside and takes off. She wasn’t worried when that big old face was carved on a mountain, she’s not going to be pushed around now, just because it happens to be on top of a person, wrapped in a ridiculous scarf. Good for her.

LINK TO The Tsuranga Conundrum:  both feature machine intelligences.

NEXT TIME: New Year’s Day. Turning over a new leaf. We’re bang up to date with Resolution.

The Doctor, her many friends and The Tsuranga Conundrum (2018)

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One of Series 11’s hallmarks is spectacular location shoots – sweeping vistas from all around the world, stunningly shot, providing epic backgrounds for the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) to adventure in. It seems, though, that you can’t have those every episode, unless you want to make one episode out of action figures and papier mache. (Actually, I would totally watch that). Sooner or later, you have to confine our intrepid team of travellers to a cost effective spaceship for an episode. That budgetary expedience gives us The Tsuranga Conundrum and gives our otherwise picturesque series the air of holidays spent inside because of rainy weather.

Being confined to barracks, however, does the Doctor some good. After a couple of episodes where she has been swept along by events, struggling to be an active presence in the plot, The Tsuranga Conundrum offers her a chance to exercise her skills in Doctorly problem solving 101. It’s an exercise in piling problems on top of each other to see how the Doctor will cope.

There’s the ravenous P’ting, Doctor Who’s most notable entry into the established sci-fi pantheon of cute, but deadly creatures, which stretches back through Futurama’s Nibbler, Beep the Meep and Gremlins, all the way back to Star Trek’s Tribbles. But there’s also the threat of destruction by the authorities from afar, panicking about what might be going on on the suspiciously quiet ambulance ship. Then there’s the impending labour of pregnant fella Yoss (Jack Shalloo, an actor whose name sounds like it should be a Doctor Who character of its own). Plus the need to recover a distant TARDIS, and to recover from the lingering effects of stepping on a space landmine. As the sixth Doctor once muttered, Pelion upon Ossa.

The thirteenth Doctor rises to this challenge in reassuring style. She tricks the P’ting into falling for its own trap, luring it into an airlock and jettisoning it. She convinces warring family members General Cicero (Suzanne Packer) and Dorkus… sorry, Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith) to cooperate on flying the ship to safety. She gives newbie nurse Mabli (Lois Chimimba) the confidence to hold herself together long enough to deliver a baby. She basically inspires a ragtag bunch of people to work together to overcome the challenges around them. In this sense, The Tsuranga Conundrum’s an opportunity to reinforce this new Doctor’s credentials, by showing her use all the ingenuity and resolve of Doctors before. If only there was a snarling villain to take down this episode, the checklist of Doctorish core competencies would be fully ticked off.

Along the way, there’s time for her to be funny and cheeky and exercise that old Doctory charm, too. If there’s a moment that doesn’t feel right, it’s where she allows herself to be put in her place by chief medico Astos (Brett Goldstein) for endangering the ship. It’s usually the Doctor who lambasts ineffective or recalcitrant supporting characters, not the other way around. On the other hand, there’s a trademark Doctor moment when she basically puts the episode on pause for a moment to wax lyrical about the ship’s anti-matter converter, her eyes lighting up and her voice rising in praise of atoms and positrons and so on. It brings to mind William Hartnell’s original moment of wonderstruck raving about the birth of a sun, all the way back in Inside the Spaceship (another of those, “we all have to play inside today” stories).

And yes, I should acknowledge that I’m brushing a lot of The Tsuranga Conundrum’s issues aside. Its clunky pacing. Its seemingly neverending exposition. But behind all that, there’s something positive happening for Whittaker’s bright and breezy Doctor – an attempt to restate why she’s the centre of this show, and what her Doctor is here to do.

But if this episode knows what it’s doing with the Doctor, it’s not as certain about what to do with her companions. Sorry, friends. We don’t call ‘em companions these days, for, um, reasons.

Yaz (Mandip Gill) takes on the role of the Doctor’s right-hand woman. Yaz is the one who is at the Doctor’s side as she’s trying to solve this conundrum. That means she gets to handle the guns and drop kick the P’ting down a short corridor (handily wrapped in a blanket designed to eliminate the need for tricky CGI shots).

But her role is also one of companions friends of old: to helpfully explain plot points for the audience in a range of unlikely ways: “Like the Red Cross,” she says when describing the space ambulance. “Like a posh version of my uniform camera,” she says when discovering the hologram database thing. “Like at CERN,” when she sees the particle accelerator whatsit. Need something quickly explained by suggesting a familiar, modern day equivalent? Yaz is here to help. Like a talking glossary.

She’s also confidante-in-chief to a range of characters throughout Series 11. It says something about her policing skills that she’s often the one who coaxes information out of others. Here, it’s Ryan (Tosin Cole) who opens up to her about his mother’s death and his dad’s inadequacies. “Why am I even telling you this?” he asks Yaz at the time and the answer is only partly that the episode needs padding out.

It’s to help Ryan shoulder his way into the plot, with too many competing characters and no ladders to climb or bikes to ride. And so he is pressed into service as a doula for Yoss and is able to inspire him to commit to fatherhood. It’s a predictable moment, and one which sits oddly in a story of multiple things going to hell all at once, but it means Ryan gets a character note in a show which otherwise doesn’t need him much.

That’s two companions (yeah, I’ve given up) in and we’ve still got Graham (Bradley Walsh) to go. He’s there for a bit of comedy relief, what with his love of Call the Midwife and his gags about secretly accessing your loved one’s medical records.

No, let’s be honest, there’s no real reason for him to be there at all. He doesn’t even have the courtesy to hit his head on something and spend the episode in bed dreaming of the Phantom Piper (though in his case, it would be the Ghostly Bus Driver, or something). Truth is, in an episode which really only has room for one companion, or two at a pinch, the simplest thing would have been to give him 48 hours induced sleep in the delta wave augmenter.

And all this is a real shame. I’m a documented fan of the four person TARDIS crew, but here’s an episode which shows how much care is needed to divide the plot between them. The Doctor signals how difficult this is early on in the episode when, in order to separate herself from them, she simply says she wants to go on a limp on her own for a bit. But more often than not, the three of them are left to simply follow mutely behind the Doctor, like an oddly dressed security detail. Why go to all the trouble of creating a TARDIS ensemble and then jam them into stories too small for them?

Like stuffing too many kids into classroom during a rainy lunch break. As Yaz would probably say.

LINK TO: The Keys of Marinus. Apart from the fact that one has an Altos and one has an Astos, both have four TARDIS crew members.

NEXT TIME: Pack your deadly jelly babies, we’re off to face The Face of Evil.

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