All posts by johnnyspandrell

Poetry, brutality and 100,000 BC (1963)

100000bc

So we come, at last, to Doctor Who’s first story, consisting of a creepy one-episode prologue and a three-episode thriller set in pre-history, with early homo sapiens. Except it’s only really the first Doctor Who story for those lucky enough to have seen in back in 1963. (Or perhaps, for some unsuspecting gamers who have come to it on Twitch). For most of us, it’s our umpteenth Doctor Who story, come to us via video or DVD or latter day repeats, after having been hooked by dozens of stories which came after this one.

From that perspective, as one part of the sprawling armoury of the series, rather than its opening salvo, it’s a very unusual story indeed. It’s not goodies vs baddies. There’s no injustice to overcome. There’s just a group of mismatched people thrown into a bewildering and potentially deadly situation, forced to work together to escape. And disconcertingly, its first episode feels like the rest of Doctor Who we’ve seen, but its caveman installments feel like something completely different and unique.

For a start, the production team makes the brave move of presenting a supporting cast of early humans who can barely communicate. In a wise scripting decision, these grunts don’t grunt, but instead talk in short, simple sentences, not unlike small children. This just about works, although you can’t help but shake your head every so often when the spell breaks – which it tends to when the tribespeople struggle to describe something outside their experience, and end up speaking in a kind of gentle poetry. My favourite is when chief nimrod Za (Derek Newark) realises he needs more information and says, “I must hear more things to remember.”

This quest for knowledge is one of the story’s themes. It’s Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian’s (William Russell) curiosity which draws them to the TARDIS in the first place, following unearthly student Susan (Carole Ann Ford) home one night, only to discover that she’s living in a police box and there’s a grumpy old Doctor (William Hartnell) is hanging around suspiciously. Once sprung, the Doctor wants to protect the secrets of his technology, which he sees as the key to his and Susan’s safety.  It’s so important to him to preserve this knowledge, that he takes off with the teachers on board. In the other, more hairy tribe, Za and rival Kal (Jeremy Young) are in a race to acquire knowledge of fire making, because with that knowledge comes leadership. As Za says, “the leader would have things to remember.”

The struggle for the position of alpha male happens in both tribes but the one between Za and Kal is a basic contest for dominance. The one between the Doctor and Ian is more interesting. Both can’t help but squabble with each other about the way out of their predicament. Ian is rightly suspicious of this haughty, dismissive alien, and the Doctor views Ian as as primitive and uncultured as any caveman. They eventually reach a detente through recognising the other’s skills, but it’s trickier than a simple development of mutual respect. There’s much more strategy going on.

Take, for instance, when the Doctor saves Ian’s life in the second episode. There’s a scrap with the cave folk and Ian’s about to get a stone axe to the head. Just in time the Doctor bellows, “If he dies, there will be no fire.” It’s easy to see this as an early indication of the Doctor’s true, underlying character, but I think it’s far more pragmatic than that. The Doctor quickly realises that in order for him and Susan to escape this situation, he will need Ian’s physical strength. He admits as much in the next episode.

Similarly, after sparring over the best way to order themselves on their first escape attempt from the tribe, Ian eventually appears to concede the Doctor’s leadership role. It’s in the fourth episode, when the Doctor has tricked Kal into revealing himself as the Old Woman’s (Eileen Way) killer, thus turning the tribe against him. Apparently impressed by the Doctor’s quick thinking, Ian agrees that the Doctor is their leader. But I don’t think he’s given up so soon. Surely Ian’s just thinking that if they ever get back to the Ship, he and Barbara need the Doctor to let them on board again and to attempt to get them home. As Rose once said, you don’t argue with the designated driver.

Naturally enough for 60s Who heroines, Barbara is never in the running for leadership position. But she does operate as the TARDIS’ crew’s conscience. In the third episode, she’s the one who can’t leave Za to perish (he’s been mauled by a vicious jungle beast, sensibly kept off camera). She’s almost hysterical with fear just before this happens, so her decision to give up the dash back to the TARDIS to help their pursuer is initially seen, certainly by the Doctor, as an act of madness. Her act of compassion seems to have been futile; it buys them no particular favour from Za who incarcerates them again as soon as they’re back at the cave. But Hur (Althea Charlton) seems particularly fascinated by this act of kindness, so there’s the sense that the tribe might also end up learning the importance of compassion from our heroes, chiefly Barbara. Add this to the idea of collective action – that no one person is stronger than the whole tribe – and Za has a whole heap of things to remember, including some new socialist ideals.

Barbara’s desire to help people might have an impact on the tribe, but it’s lost on the Doctor. He’s famously callous in these early episodes in a way which we’ll never see again. It’s not just the famous moment where it looks like he might kill the injured Za in order to escape. Also in that sequence, he seems prepared to abandon Barbara and Ian to help the caveman, while he and Susan run to the TARDIS. And any chance that he might have been learning some kindness from these earthly teachers is dashed in the last episode. That’s when Barbara stumbles and falls on the final run to the TARDIS and the Doctor, tellingly, runs straight over the top of her.

I suppose, to be generous, he might just be in shock. He and his companions have been held in particularly gruesome conditions. They’re kept in that cave of skulls, even though the decomposing corpse of the Old Woman is in there too. Perhaps even worse is that the four of them are forced to watch the final, brutal fight where Za beats Kal to death, eventually smashing his head in with a rock. It’s then you realise how bleak this story is; never again will the show depict one man savagely killing another with his bare hands, no matter how cartoony the circumstances.

It ends up, as most Doctor Who stories do, as a peculiar but fascinating mix. On one hand, it’s startlingly grim – I just can’t imagine the show lasting long if it had kept putting its heroes through bloody ordeals like this week after week. On the other, with its almost lyrical caveman dialogue, it never loses the sense of the unreal. In some ways it’s very sophisticated; it takes the show’s educational remit and uses it both literally (this is how you start a fire, kids!) and also uses education as a theme. In other ways, it’s hammy and repetitive.

Whichever order we watch Doctor Who in, we always come back to 100,000 BC, in an attempt to try and uncover where the show came from. But it will never work – at least not entirely – because in its unique mix of poetry, tutorage and brutality, there’s never been another story like this first one.

LINK TO… The Invisible Enemy. Both feature the work of designer Barry Newbery.

NEXT TIME… Are we in Scotland? It’s time to go Tooth and Claw. But before that… a random extra: a look at the pilot episode.

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The tin dog, its legacy and The Invisible Enemy (1977)

Even by Doctor Who’s variable standards, The Invisible Enemy commits a lot of sins. Its acting is even hammier acting and its effects even dodgier than usual. It’s got a standard runaround, shoot ‘em up plot, when it’s not moonlighting as a disaster movie or ripping off Fantastic Voyage. But for many, the greatest crime a Doctor Who story can have is a rubbish monster and The Invisible Enemy has a particularly egregious one, twice. It’s the Nucleus of the Swarm –  first a bin bag with a hairy eyeball and then a giant prawn which needs assistance to walk around. I mean, any monster which needs two attendants to help it trundle down a corridor is never going to convince as a serious threat. When it first appears, fronds waving in Tom Baker’s face, he’s trying to swat it away like the embarrassing irritation it is.

But this story’s place in Doctor Who is assured because it introduced K9. K9’s a controversial figure in Doctor Who, some loving him like a surrogate pet and others thinking him a childish indulgence. But one thing is undeniable. K9 is, by any measure, hopeless.

He moves at a top speed of “glacier” and even that causes his motors to whine loudly throughout. Good thing he never has to sneak up on anyone. His nose laser is strangely anaemic and its aim is variable. Sometimes it will strike someone in the knee but injury them in the stomach. His movement is erratic; at one stage he drives straight into a wall. And he can’t roll over the lip of the TARDIS doorframe, meaning he has to enter and exit the Ship via means of discrete cutaways.

What makes K9 worth persevering with is his voice, delivered by John Leeson. Think of all the different ways Leeson might have gone with this. Looking at the squared off metal terrier, he might well have adopted an excitable, yappy tone. Or perhaps delivered all his lines as a kind of halting bark. But instead, he went for the tone of a mildly exasperated mid-career accountant. Unexpectedly, this works beautifully and makes you want to hear from K9, hoping he’s going to contribute to a scene. And of course it allows some character relationship to develop between him and the other characters.

K9’s function within the show veers from being exposition machine to mobile (or immobile, depending on the terrain) gun, but frequently he rises above this to demonstrate the wry charm of a sufferer of the Doctor’s silliness. Plus Leeson’s deadpan delivery allows K9 to occasionally deliver nicely self-referential gags. Like in The Pirate Planet (yes, I’m still going on about that one!), when he predicts the Doctor’s imminent arrival because he can sci-fi smell him coming, and when the Doctor finally booms in with a “Are you surprised to see me, K9?”, K9 dryly replies, “Amazed, Master” and steals the scene. Or in The Armageddon Factor when the Doctor idly says, “I think one of us is being extremely stupid” and K9 says quietly but knowingly, “Affirmative.”

So technically a nightmare, but narratively useful and, with Leeson behind the microphone, a charismatic addition to the TARDIS crew. The production team had every chance to get rid of K9, and given the challenges presented by the prop, they’d have been sensible to do so, but they brought him back for three seasons in a row, until John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H Bidmead thought he was altogether too convenient and sent him packing  (and even JN-T brought him back for a special, hoping a spin-off series could be cobbled together around him). The reason why, of course, was that the audience, and particularly kids, loved him.  In 1977, Doctor Who needed to be popular with kids.

K9 was an acknowledgement – the first for a very long time – that children are part of the Doctor Who audience. He’s a potent signal that the show is conscious of its younger audience; incoming producer Graham Williams had been instructed by his bosses to take them into consideration by lightening the tone of the show. If K9 seemed like an unnecessarily childish element to older viewers who had got used to the show’s mix of gruesomeness and black humour, then he did exactly what he was designed to do.

He’s also the first of a different breed of companion, which I like to call the “secondary companion”. In Season 15, Leela (Louise Jameson) is the primary companion and main foil for the Doctor; she’s in every episode and gets plenty of dialogue and action. K9, however, gets plugged in and out of stories as he’s needed. He isn’t in it all the time. If the terrain is too boggy this episode or you don’t want him to compete with the Daleks for attention or you don’t want to take him on holiday, you leave him in the TARDIS. No biggie. No wonder the Doctor refers to him as his second best friend. He utterly is.

It’s a companion configuration that the 21st century version of the show uses all the time. Jack and Rory are secondary companions and Mickey even self-identified as the tin dog.  They’re the Doctor’s second best friends. But the character where K9’s influence is most keenly seen is Nardole.

Like K9, Nardole acts as the Doctor’s confidante and aide-de-camp. Like K9, he does the boring technical stuff the Doctor doesn’t want to do and turns up occasionally to spout exposition. Like K9, he’s a fussy, uppity butler-type and he drops in and out of the series depending on whether he’s needed or not. I don’t mean to damn him with faint praise, but Nardole basically is K9, but better able to cope with hills and able to walk in and out of the TARDIS without assistance. And just as it’s difficult to imagine a spin-off series for Nardole, the various K9 solo vehicles, are, I fear, doomed to ignominy. His value is as an adjutant to the Doctor and as brilliant as he is at that, he’s not lead character material.

Back to The Invisible Enemy, and the story’s end where Professor Marius (Frederick Jaegar, of which university) appeals to the Doctor to let K9 travel aboard the TARDIS. Leela is delighted, but the Doctor says nothing. Tom Baker looks distinctly grumpy about the whole idea. He’s already got one scene stealing companion, in a skimpy outfit which makes it impossible for her to not steal focus from him. Now he’s got a robot dog as well!

For years after he’ll complain about the unreliability of the prop or the need for shots with him crouching down, but I’ve always thought that his antipathy towards K9 is mainly about competition for being adored by children. In that regard, he at last has a companion to give him a run for his money. Just not one that could actually run.

LINK TO The Leisure Hive and The Pirate Planet: Three stories in a row with Tom and K9! But we’re about to random it up again…

NEXT TIME… If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you? It’s back to the very beginning for 100,000 BC.

Recreation, lack of and The Leisure Hive (1980)

The Leisure Hive

I’ve been counting the number of fun holiday activities you can indulge in on Argolis and I’m afraid the list is short. As far as I can see, you can play zero gravity squash and after that, you can look out through the windows at the devastated surface of the planet and contemplate the awful effects of nuclear war. Or you can attend a lecture on tachyonics where they’ll examine wave form equations for an hour and a half. Equations chat for an hour and a half? Slow down, thrillseekers! Just point me towards the swim up bar please and pre-order me an extravagant cocktail. Two stars on Trip Advisor.

If Argolis is such a great place for a holiday, why isn’t it fun? Why is it all so sterile and po-faced? I think the answer lies in the handover between script editor Douglas Adams and his successor Christopher H. Bidmead.

In Adams’ wild and wacky Season Seventeen, I think The Leisure Hive could have been a hoot: jokes accentuated, performances with more brio. The anagrammatic Foamasi would have kept their insect heads but stayed dressed in gangster suits. But, it was not to be. Bidmead and new producer John Nathan-Turner were on a campaign to stamp out any silliness in the show and I suspect it was they who sucked all the fun out of this holiday world. I imagine if you went on holiday with Bidmead, he probably would want to listen to someone yammer on about equations all day.

Still, there’s one light-hearted moment left which seems like the sort of joke which might have appealed to both Adams and Bidmead. In Part Three, when the Doctor (a newly question marked Tom Baker) needs to incapacitate a guard (as so often needs to happen in Parts Three everywhere), he scribbles an enormous sum on the outer plasmic shell of the TARDIS and the poor yellow-clad fellow is so overwhelmed by the implications of what he sees that he faints in astonishment. Y’see, that joke survived because it’s about equations; a nerdy subject both script editors approved of.

Still, someone on the crew is yearning for the old days. Amongst the Doctor’s maths they’ve scrawled a sly warning: “beware of the dog”.

****

They might as well have written “beware of the director”. Not that I’m about to slag off Lovett Bickford for trying to do something different than the standard approach to classic Doctor Who directing which can be summarized as, “just point the camera at it, get it in the can and let’s get back to the bar”. In fact, only last post I was whinging about Pennant Roberts’ pedestrian approach to shooting The Pirate Planet. Imagine if they’d let hot shot Lovett have a go at that one. A wildly imaginative script matched with a wildly innovative director. Think of the resulting four episodes of that! The director general of the BBC might have fainted during the playback, like that poor Argolin extra.

Bickford’s approach is, for the most part, refreshingly distinct. He refuses to let the show’s multi-camera format discourage him from trying to make a Kubrick film in TC1. He mimics a single camera approach, often going for intense close ups, creeping tracking shots, oblique angles and rapidly cut together reaction shots.

When it works, it’s electrifying. Like when shifty earthling Stimson (David Allister) stumbles into the quarters of equally shifty earthling Klout (Ian Talbot) and finds his fake face hanging up in a wardrobe; Bickford shoots it from the wardrobe’s point of view: its door slides open, we see the mask, then Stimson’s shocked face. Or look at the end of Part Two, with the Doctor stuck in the malfunctioning Recreation Generator and there’s a series of rapid cuts between the assembled cast, then we get the Generator’s POV shot of Romana (Lalla Ward) looking shocked and Mena (Adrienne Corri) looking downcast, then the Doctor emerging, greatly aged.

The Leisure Hive is filled with moments like this and the story is mostly enriched by them. But Bickford’s ambition occasionally backfires on him. Sometimes, his drive to be innovative obscures the story writer David Fisher is trying to tell. Take for instance, the moment when Mena arrives on Argolis to assume the role of Chair of the board. She marches down a corridor and Bickford lets her come straight for the camera, then a flip and we’re following her back as she continues down that same corridor. Stylish, but it means that Mena’s dialogue gets lost, and it’s useful explanatory stuff, saying she has brought with her scientist Hardin (Nigel Lambert) who is offering some Hive-saving time travel experiments.

Then there’s the scene in Part Three, when the Doctor, Romana and Hardin are discussing the need to re-enter the generator, and it’s done with all three actors’ backs to the camera. If The Leisure Hive is already an arcane experience for audience members (with all its talk of tachyons, baryon shields and Schrodinger oscillators) it can’t help that the direction is making it harder to understand what’s going on. I could go on… and will.

The hijinks about the faked time experiment don’t land properly because the screen is barely visible, making the tell about the two necklaces impossible to see. The complex series of cuts that opens Part Four as the West Lodge Foamasi are outed and defrocked bewilders rather than excites. And the very final scene has so much squeezed in: the explanation of the climax, the reveal of the red herring about the Foamasi shuttle, the cute bit with the baby and the cheery banter back to the TARDIS… all rushed through… giving the impression of a story suddenly turned off, rather than allowed to close at its own pace.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually love Lovett’s work, but both its pros and cons are on screen for all to see. I wish they’d let him do more Doctor Who stories, where we could have kept his directorial flair but honed his skills at telling the story. And for a story which is trying so hard to be new at everything, he successfully changed the whole look at feel of the series… for four episodes. Next story it was back to, “just point the camera at it, get it in the can before Tom cracks it about having to do a two shot with K9 again.”

****

There’s just time to mention my favourite performance in The Leisure Hive which is David Haig as Pangol. Haig will go on to infamy as one of the hapless grooms in Four Weddings and a Funeral – the one who gets lucky against all odds at the first wedding and has energetic sex with his new bride in the second, while Hugh Grant is trapped inside the closet. Here, he’s young and vital, lacing each of his lines with disdain for anyone who’s not an Argolin.

Plus he never misses an opportunity to add a smirk; he could smirk for England, this guy. When his head lifts off in the tachyonics demonstration – smirk! When he traps the Doctor in the generator – smirk!  When the penny finally drops that he’s the only young Argolin in the Hive, he smoothly asks “How old do you think I am, Mr Brock?”  Giant smirk!

Y’see, Pangol gets it. He knows that in this so called Leisure Hive, you have to make your own fun.

LINK TO The Pirate Planet: Both Tom stories! In fact, we’re on a bit of a Tom-a-thon because…

NEXT TIME… Head for the imurginsee eggsit, we’re facing The Invisible Enemy,

Design, destiny and The Pirate Planet (1978)

pirateplanet

It’s a funny old place, this pirate planet of Zanak. It has a Bridge which is stark and moody, the control centre of a vast, world transporting machine. But outside on the streets, it looks like a Greek coastal village that someone has deliberately dirtied. Luckily though, the people of Zanak (Zanakians? Zanackers?) refuse to live in this grubby state and rebelliously decorate the interiors of their living quarters with garish murals and beaded curtains. They further express their resistance by dressing in vivid reds, oranges and yellows. It’s like they’re living in a 1970s issue of Women’s Weekly.

Outside though, where things are shot on film, it’s different again. Those rolling green hills make this ghoulish, vampiric planet look a lot like Wales. They have fully automated mines on Zanak too, but funnily enough they look like your standard old disused Welsh mine. Or like you’re suddenly watching The Green Death. And the throbbing engines of this destroyer of worlds looks like a bigger than normal, but still disappointingly mundane, power station interior.

When a Doctor Who story has a through line of consistent set design elements, it’s easy for those elements to go unnoticed while they quietly add to the telling of the story by visually reinforcing its themes. It’s only in cases like The Pirate Planet, where the show’s look swerves wildly from the vivid to the dull to the simple that’ll do, won’t it? The bar’s about to close that it becomes a jarring experience. It serves this story which is otherwise full of galactic sized ideas poorly, by drawing attention to the two-star accommodation those ideas are housed in.

This sense of inconsistency extends beyond the sets, to the performances. On that stylish looking Bridge, we meet the Captain (Bruce Purchase), his factotum Mr Fibuli (Andrew Robertson) and his Nurse (Rosalind Lloyd) and they are endlessly entertaining. The Captain is verbose, roaring blowhard, Fibuli his fidgety aide and the Nurse his shadowy puppeteer. Every line they say is played to excess, every joke relished. When joined by the Doctor (a fiery Tom Baker) or Romana (a cool Mary Tamm), the dialogue sparks and the scenes ignite.

The rest of the supporting cast though, the Zanakis and their pallid psychokinetic subset the Mentiads, can’t summon up the same energy. It might be because they are mostly confined to the dullest of the sets and wearing the daggiest of costumes. Or it might because in this script full of larger than life star turns, they are left with the perfunctory dialogue of exposition while the larger roles get all the jokes. You can hardly blame them for being envious. Douglas Adams’ script is a gem and when the stars get a joke, which happens roughly every second line, the supporting cast member’s main job is to stand there, keep a straight face and keep the plot ticking along.

The general ennui of the supporting cast and the set design, is matched by other key creatives. Composer Dudley Simpson contributes one of his more standard scores. Even director Pennant Roberts offers only the most basic of camerawork, inspired only to deliver lingering close ups of the Captain and his bionic arm. No, it seems like everyone except the leads are treating this like any other old Doctor Who story. Rather than what it is – the debut of a vibrant new voice for the series.

Maybe its just hindsight, because this is Adams’ first major piece of work and we know what was to come. We know that between tapping out scenes where the Doctor’s robot dog scrapped with the Captain’s robot parrot, he was also frantically writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the rest of the world was about to become enchanted with him in exactly the same way the crew of The Pirate Planet didn’t. So it’s hard to watch The Pirate Planet without wanting to shake everyone involved who isn’t relishing the opportunity to work on this story, and shout “Moons of madness! Get your act together! You’re on a winner here!”

To be fair, producer Graham Williams works it out and gets him in as his new script editor. Williams had previously worked with two old hands, considerably senior to him in both age and experience: Robert Holmes, whose self-avowed approach was to terrify children watching the show and Anthony Read, who was more interested in retelling classic stories from literature and legend. By all account, each were productive working relationships, but I wonder if in Adams, Williams saw someone younger and more on his wavelength with whom to collaborate.

Because The Pirate Planet is not about scaring kids. And it’s not about retelling a classic story – although, if you squint, there’s a bit of Treasure Island in there (perhaps that’s how Adams got it past Read in the first place). It’s boldly imaginative; in the previous story, Holmes told a story about someone who claimed to sell planets. Adams tells a story of a planet which eats other planets. And he’s not afraid to justify the concept with astrophysics in quickfire explanations – particularly towards the end of the story. You might view that messy rush to the end, with its talk of gravitic anomalies and different planetary masses cancelling each other out as just so much technobabble. Or it could be read as Adams respecting his audience and trusting they’ll keep up.

Even the most astute viewers might have struggled with so many last minute twists crammed in at the end: the Nurse isn’t real! She’s actually the villain! The Captain had a secret plan to kill her! The segment of the key to time is disguised as a planet! And despite all these revelations, the climax turns out to be about people in standing inside sci-fi rooms pressing buttons, with the pasty Mentiads using psychokinesis hitting a control panel with a spanner. You can forgive these difficulties in ending the story because the rest of it has been so invigorating.

But it can’t help ending a little prosaically and that design inconsistency rears its head again. The Doctor decides to blow up the Bridge, to give the story a nice big explosion to go out on. So it’s back out onto the lush Welsh hillside we go. With what does he plan to blow up this planet harvesting machine, which the Captain described as “technology so far advanced you would not be able to distinguish it from magic”? A tatty old prop denotation box, complete with plunger handle. We cut unconvincingly between model shots and the witless extras in the Welsh valleys.

Tom Baker though, still has the energy to steal the last shot with a cheer and a fist pump in the air. Only the most grumpiest of viewers wouldn’t join in. He at least knew when the show was on a winner.

LINK TO Kinda. In both, there are gags about people dropping apples on other people’s heads!

NEXT TIME… I like the sound of Argolis. Time to book a quick break in The Leisure Hive.

Caution, character and Kinda (1982)

kinda

It’s hard to know where to start with Kinda. There’s so much going on in it, all of it interesting. But so much has already been written about it in attempts to solve its mysteries, track down its allusions and just generally work out what’s it all about?  I could have another go, but I’ll only repeat what others have said, or get it all wrong or both. So instead, I’m going to talk about a character in Kinda who is often overlooked: the Doctor.

The Doctor, as played by Peter Davison, holds Season 19 together. Behind the scenes, three script editors worked on this set of 7 stories, plus a one off special about the tin dog. It’s no wonder that this season produced such an eclectic clutch of stories: from the lyrical brain teaser of Castrovalva,  to straightforward monster mash The Visitation, to cozy murder Black Orchid to whatever Time-Flight is via the return of the Cybermen and the death of a companion. And Kinda, this esoteric parable, sits in the middle. Not since season 3 has the show veered so wildly from one thing to another.

In any other prime time, family show, this might be a problem, alienating viewers from one week to another. But this show has Peter Davison as its lead, and at that time, he was as big a TV star as you would have found on British TV. Producer John Nathan-Turner used to say that when he was recasting the towering Tom Baker in the role of Doctor Who that he wanted someone younger and with straight hair. What he didn’t say, for whatever reason, was that he was also looking for a star; someone with a following they could bring to the show.

Davison’s profile in the early 80s is something which might be lost of newer fans who weren’t around to experience it, but it pushed the show into mainstream popularity. For want of a better analogy, it would be like Kris Marshall becoming the Doctor (what a crazy idea!). He was a familiar face and he was well known for taking on charming, young larrikins. He had a presence about him which was informed by his other TV roles and that was part of his appeal.

He’s the sort of Doctor who allows you take risks like telling a story like Kinda because his presence kinda forces it into the shape of a standard Doctor Who story. Kinda is a strange, mystical story, but Davison is a solid, dependable presence in it. He’s your boy-next-door hero, who your Mum remembers from All Creatures Great and Small and he plays it dead straight while all sorts of weird shit goes on around him. It’s hard for Kinda to be completely mystifying with the fifth Doctor around; he’s intrinsically a patient explainer of things. (Compare it to that similar head scratcher Warriors’ Gate, in which the aloof fourth Doctor sheds no light on proceedings.)

Why is this important? Because as well as being a stabilising factor in an unusual story, it gives Davison licence to play the Doctor in a radically different way to Tom Baker.

Some have argued that the Doctor is a peripheral presence in Kinda, but that’s not how I see it at all. He’s actually a catalytic presence in the story; his arrival on Deva Loka brings Tegan to the planet which allows the Mara to emerge. And it’s he who bridges the gap between the colonially minded dome dwellers and the Kinda themselves. Finally, it’s he who devises the plan to deal with the Mara itself.

Thing is, I think that from the outside it can look like he’s being more passive. Partly that’s because he expresses himself in far more passive way than Tom Baker – sometimes verging on meekness. Like this exchange, when the bellicose dome commander Sanders (Richard Todd) promotes his febrile 2IC Hindle (Simon Rouse).

SANDERS: Oh yes, incidentally, while I’m away, Mister Hindle will be in charge.
DOCTOR: I don’t think that’s…
SANDERS: Yes? What?
DOCTOR: (backing down) Nothing. 

It’s the sort of tentative approach the show hasn’t seen since Troughton left (was Tom Baker ever tentative?). Later, when Hindle flips his lid and starts raving about the menace presented by the trees, the Doctor doesn’t seek to shut him down; instead he perseveres with his gentle approach to understand the man’s psychosis.

HINDLE: Seeds, spores and things. Everywhere. Getting hold, rooting, thrusting, branching, blocking out the light.
DOCTOR: Yes, but I…
HINDLE: Don’t you see?!
DOCTOR: Nearly, nearly, nearly!

That “nearly, nearly, nearly” is the plea of someone trying to understand, trying to help. It’s the tiniest moment, but it’s distinctly fifth Doctor-ish. Can you imagine Tom or Pertwee taking this cautious tack with a madman? Early on in his tenure, Davison is pitching empathy as one of his Doctor’s defining traits.

Eventually, the Doctor and his newfound friend Todd (Nerys Hughes) escape from the dome and encounter the wise woman Panna (Mary Morris). She’s instantly insulting towards the Doctor. When she brands him an idiot, he takes it with bemused good humour. And when he can’t work out Adric’s (Matthew Waterhouse) coin trick, he’s intrigued, not indignant. When his joke about an apple a day keeping the Doctor away backfires, he retreats sheepishly. In all these ways and more, he’s marking himself out as different from Baker’s stridently prominent persona.

There’s another crucial moment for him at the story’s end. When he took over the role, Davison confided in Nathan-Turner that he didn’t know if he could summon the heroic strength to stand up to the show’s various villains. Nathan-Turner assured him that the character of the Doctor would naturally bestow that strength on the actor. As if to prove his point, Kinda features just such a moment, when the Doctor stares down the Mara, glaring at him through the eyes of Aris (Adrian Mills).

DOCTOR: I’m called the Doctor.
ARIS: Why do you involve yourself?
DOCTOR: Because I share the Kinda’s aim where you’re concerned.
ARIS: I now control the Kinda.
DOCTOR: Well, you did for a while, but no longer.

Davison’s Doctor is an active, heroic presence in Kinda, but his modus operandi is different to other, more boldly interventionist Doctors. He spends nearly all the story collecting information, working things out. It’s only in the fourth episode that he takes action, having gathered the data he needs.

This quiet, deliberate approach is important because one of Kinda’s themes is men trying – and failing – to assert their authority. Sanders shouts. Hindle shouts. The Mara roars. But the Doctor takes the subtler route: he listens, he empathises, he demurs, but he stands up to the bad guy when he has to. It’s a beguiling combination. It makes Kinda an important story in the development of Davison’s Doctor, among the many, many other things it is.

Walk quietly and carry a big stick of celery. He’s the Doctor who turned young Spandrell into a fan. And when he’s part of a story as smart, scary and sexy as this, I don’t think he can be beaten.

LINK TO The Eaters of Light: Demons crossing over from other worlds.

NEXT TIME… By the left frontal lobe of the sky demon, it’s The Pirate Planet.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.