All posts by johnnyspandrell

High density, high anxiety and Paradise Towers (1987)

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Anyone who’s ever lived in a block of apartments will recognise the anxiety about high-density living which Paradise Towers taps into. Life in a flat is compact and convenient, but you share very close quarters with your neighbours. You witness each other’s faintly embarrassing domestic incidents; the hanging out of underwear, the clink of multiple wine bottles in a wheely bin, the muffled arguments audible through walls. There are often undercurrents of tension and resentment which build up over pointless rules and rituals. There’s gossip and goings on. It’s a perfect setting for a Doctor Who story, and one which (for the first time, surprisingly) reflected the living arrangements of many watching at home.

It’s one of Doctor Who‘s many attempts to portray a future dystopia. Those type of stories usually feature an authoritarian regime in place, stifling the basic humanity of the common person. So in Doctor Who terms Nineteen Eightyfour becomes The Sun Makers (kind of). Paradise Towers, however, gives us a world where authority is missing – the folks in charge have gone off to fight a war – and society is left to decay and the Tower’s inhabitants to fend for themselves. Not that I’ve read High-Rise from which this story is famously descended, but I have read Lord of the Flies, so I know the score.

But dystopian fiction is actually not a great match for Doctor Who. The structure of those stories usually involves the eventual corruption of the main character as he (it’s always a he) succumbs to the savagery around him. That can’t happen to the Doctor. Besides that, dystopian stories are just too grim for Doctor Who. The show’s solution is to accentuate the comedy, soften the violence and have the Doctor put the place to rights at story’s end. So stories like The Sun Makers and The Happiness Patrol, and even darker variations like Vengeance on Varos and Frontios create a variety of “safe” dystopias, in which the Doctor can engineer regime change in a few quick episodes.

So it is with Paradise Towers, which despite its serious themes, is a colourful, jokey affair covered by a plasticky, synth pop soundtrack. Its lightness of tone helps take the sting out of the story’s more disturbing implications. By way of example, mumsy residents Tilda (Brenda Bruce) and Tabby (Elizabeth Spriggs) are cartoony cannibals, wanting to eat companion Mel (Bonnie Langford). Their outlandish costumes and exaggerated cutesy way of talking take the edge of the nasty undertone; that the Tower’s most vulnerable inhabitants are starving, and are resorting to killing and eating rats and even people in order to survive. By way of another example, the Kangs are brightly dressed, slang spouting runaway children, with big hair. But the flip side is these are abandoned kids, left to fend for themselves, fighting among themselves and scavenging for food. You don’t have to scratch very far beneath the jolly surface of Paradise Towers to find a very bleak world view.

This seems to me to reflect a modern fear of the effects of poverty on social cohesion. This is a world where young people have no employment, and so form gangs, graffiti walls and perform random acts of vandalism. Old people have no pension, and so are left to go hungry and eke out their days. High-density housing is presented as the arena these polar ends of society co-inhabit and where the impacts of poverty are most clearly shown. Government is absent.

In its place is pointless bureaucracy, another trope of dystopian fiction. This is represented by the Caretakers, sad middle-aged men, slaves to a seemingly never ending cavalcade of rules. They speak in officialese and are janitors at heart, but in the power vacuum of the Towers they’ve been elevated to the kind of mid-weight authority that everyone ignores. Their Chief (Richard Briers) is a mustachioed, permanently outraged figure of fun. He’s crucial to undercutting the nihilism implied by the story’s premise, so is a welcome ingredient of comic villainy. (Although Briers’ outrageous piss take performance as the possessed Chief in Part Four – against the expressed wishes of both director and producer – has been rightly criticised. Had he played it with a Sutekh-like whisper, and a Taren Capel-like calm, this story may now be held in higher fan esteem.)

The Towers are also divided along gender lines. The Caretakers – impotent, drab authority figures – are all men. The Rezzies and the Kangs – colourful, anarchic rule breakers – are all women. We get very few scenes of these groups interacting but a little snippet in Part Three gives an indication of how it works. The Chief has come to inspect the aftermath of Tilda and Tabby’s demise at the hand (well, claw) of something in the disposal chute. There he meets another Rezzie, Maddy (Judy Cornwall) and seeks to buy her silence about the incident:

CHIEF: I would urge you for the moment to keep the matter quiet. We don’t want to alarm people unduly, do we?

MADDY: Well, I’m not really sure I ought to.

CHIEF: Not that I would wish to bribe you to hold your tongue in any way but rules can be made flexible, and it could be arranged for you to move into this flat instead of your own. (His voice becomes a seductive purr) It is substantially larger.

Here in a few sentences, we see the true nature of life in Paradise Towers: making deals and compromising morals, presided over by a corrupt regime. It’s probably not worth contemplating the sex lives of any of the Towers’ inhabitants (male or female) but if we dared, we could come to the conclusion that this is how such arrangements would be made.

Into this male/female divide slips Pex (Howard Cooke), the little boy who stayed behind from the war and grew up into a muscle bound misfit. Much has been made on how Cooke didn’t have the Schwarzenegger-like physique which seems obvious for the character. But making him a slighter, woosier kind of guy actually plays to the story’s theme of the impotence of masculinity. The Chief, for instance, is a fawning, twee Daddy figure his pet monster in the basement. And his Deputy (Clive Merrison), an ineffectual drip, rudderless without his rulebook. These men are hopeless. And even though Pex redeems himself at story’s end with a SACRIFICIAL BLAM! he’s only forced into it because he loses his nerve and stuffs up the Doctor’s (tricky Sylvester McCoy) plan.

In fact, the Doctor is the only competent man in the Towers. He sees and articulates the problem clearly; the various groups within this society won’t face up to its problems. His challenge is to unite the factions and get them to work together to confront their oppressor. In this sense, it’s not so different from the rabble rousing he’s pulled off on Pluto, Peladon and all the rest.

Except here he has also created a community, the element which was missing from Paradise Towers. It’s a neat ending because it’s not just about defeating the villain but also about healing this world’s fundamental wound. This Doctor stands for community, in the face of heartless authority and social division. Because as much as high-density living can be about sniping about clothes lines and complaining about noisy neighbours, it’s also about people living closely, looking out for each other, sharing a laugh and cooperating. Not high anxiety, but high fidelity, to the idea of living together.

LINK TO Terminus. Mark Strickson, who is in Terminus, and Julie Brennan, who is in Paradise Towers, were once married.

NEXT TIME… Now this is really a bit strange. Sit up straight, it’s time to Listen.

Storytelling, sins and Terminus (1983)

Forgive me Terminus fans (yes, both of you, haha)  but I’m not quite finished with City of Death. On that DVD’s “making of” featurette, a number of Who luminati line up to talk about how great the story is, but when it comes to Douglas Adams’ stint as script editor, their reviews are decidedly mixed. The consensus seems to be that he was a prolific generator of good ideas, but didn’t understand story structure. That anyone can say this with a straight face on a documentary about City of Death is slightly bewildering. Apart from a few languid breaks for sections of travelogue footage around Paris, that story is one of the most tightly plotted the show ever produced.

And while we’re about it, think about the rest of the stories in Season 17. Despite any of their other pros or cons, they are all well structured stories, well told (save for, perhaps, The Creature from the Pit, with its odd narrative dogleg in Part Four). Sure, these were written by some of Doctor Who‘s old hands, but they’re shaped and formed by Adams. If he really is shaky on story structure, I see little evidence of it in his year as script editor.

Compare it, though, to Terminus, and there’s a story whose storytelling is all over the shop (despite its merits, of which, contrary to popular opinion, I think there are several). And because we haven’t done a listicle in while, let’s list the 7 deadly storytelling sins in Terminus.

  1. Too many characters. Most obviously illustrated by the way that companions Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) are relegated to clamber through miles of underfloor ducting for the whole story. What makes this even more annoying is that there are two surplus characters: glam rock space pirates Kari (Liza Goddard) and Olvir (Dominic Guard). Their contribution to the plot is minimal and there’s no reason their places couldn’t have been taken by Tegan and Turlough. Then we’d have had a story which involves all the regulars substantially. And in Turlough’s case, this would have kept him closer to the Doctor. Given that his character’s whole raison detre is to kill the Doctor, it might have helped to have actually been within chucking distance if him.

2. There’s no villain. The story tries to cast our suspicion on the Vanir, a group of disheveled men who act as porters for the cargo of Lazars destined for treatment on board Terminus. But as it eventually pans out, the Vanir are simply drug addicted slaves. The real bad guys are here at the Company, the Vanir’s employers and Terminus’s operators. They are the ones who process the Lazars without care or satisfactory cure, (presumably for profit) and they are the ones who keep the Vanir enslaved through the supply of glow sticks of their drug of choice, Hydromel. Problem is, we never see anyone from the Company, so we have no-one to epitomise the threat they represent. Think, for example, of the Tom Baker story The Sun Makers, where the odious Collector represented all that was corrupt in that enslaved society and gave us a villain to hate. There’s no such figure in Terminus, only a half-hearted attempt to build up the character of Vanir leader Eirak (Martin Potter) into a ruthless bully, but in reality he’s just as big a victim as everyone else on this ship.

3. The problem Nyssa wants to solve isn’t shown. Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) contracts Lazars’ Disease which makes her pale and weak and too hot to wear anything but her underwear. She’s manhandled into the big furry paws of the Garm (RJ Bell) whom we’re led to believe will torture her. As it turns out, the Garm actually administers the treatment which cures Nyssa, but she’s not grateful. The treatment, she says, is haphazard. Some live and some die, but for those who live the treatment might lead to unforeseen secondary illnesses. The process needs refining, she says. But we’re told all this, never shown it, so it’s hard to visualise what the problem actually is. In fact, the only thing we do see, is Nyssa being cured, which seems to suggest there’s no real problem here.

4. The big bang plot is unconnected to the rest of the story. Throughout the story, the Doctor (Peter Davison) is intrigued about Terminus’s position at the exact centre of the Universe. This doesn’t seem to worry anyone else, but later he deduces (somehow) that the explosion of Terminus’s engines millennia ago caused the Big Bang, and a second impending explosion may cause its destruction. Cue Part Three cliffhanger! Then the doggy Garm comes and flicks a big red switch and it’s all fixed again. Then it’s back to the main plot about the Lazars, which is completely untouched by all this flim flam. (For other, more relevant, instances of destructive, history altering events, see The Visitation, Earthshock and indeed City of Death. That can be our LINK).

5. It’s unnecessarily complicated. The sabotaged TARDIS locks on to a Lazar carrying ship. The ship is then boarded by the space raiders from funky town. The raiders’ ship then scarpers. Then the Lazar ship lands on Terminus. What ever happened to just landing the TARDIS in the place where the story’s happening? (One of the problems here, is that the set designs for the Lazar ship and for Terminus are drably similar, so there’s no sense that these are different places. Even the production team was confused. In the next story, Enlightenment, Turlough says, “I explained what happened on Terminus!” but in fact, he never boarded Terminus. To coin a phrase, “all these corridors look the same to me.”)

6. Its climax is hugely unexciting. Because there’s no real threat or villain to overcome, everyone just agrees to Nyssa’s plan to synthezise some Hydromel (in a home made meth lab, I presume) and start a hospital. Eirak is outraged a bit, but that’s all the resistance it meets. It’s a quiet, drama-less revolution.

7. It’s too long, but somehow still runs out of time. It’s quite a feat, but this story maintains a gentle languid, pace during Parts Two and Three, with much corridor wandering and aimless chatter. But suddenly, half way through Part Four, it seems to run out of time. The Vanir, including the previously belligerent and murderous Valgard (Andrew Burt) are swiftly won over. There’s no time to explain how Kari and Olvir will get back home. A quick goodbye to Nyssa and suddenly were back to the TARDIS for a closing snarl from the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall, see problem 1). In short, its pace is all over the place.

Now cast your mind back to City of Death. The right amount of characters, a clear and present threat, no unnecessary subplots, a strong climax… you get the idea. It’s just a better told story than Terminus.

In fact all of season 17’s stories are better told than Terminus. It’s just one comparative example – there are many other stories both better and worse – but when we look at story telling which is genuinely a mess, we can see that Adams wasn’t half bad at his job.

NEXT TIME: Build high for happiness. We move into Paradise Towers.

Light, dark and City of Death (1979)

Steven Moffat once said that when you write a Doctor Who story, you give up your feature film idea, so rapacious is the series’ appetite for strong, action filled plot. It was never truer than of City of Death, which has a plot almost too good for Doctor Who – an alien splintered through time plunders the art treasures of the world in a plan to go change history. A Doctor-less version would make a cracking popcorn movie, full of action, comedy and romance. The Thomas Crown Affair meets Back to the Future. Moff should make it now his showrunning days are done.

This story, in which Exec Producer Julie Gardner saw a template for 21st century Who, is one of the series’ undisputed triumphs. It was born from a last minute script crisis and a mammoth weekend-long rewriting session by Douglas Adams and Graham Williams, fuelled by coffee, whiskey and desperation, but emerged as an elegant European supermodel of a Doctor Who story. With location filming in Paris, a whip smart script and performances to match, it’s a piece of art.

And of course, it’s funny. A Doctor Who parlour comedy. But to talk about how funny it is would be to repeat everything that has ever been written about it. So instead, let’s talk about how it works as a piece of drama, because it absolutely does.

Here’s my favourite piece of dialogue from it. It’s got nothing to do with Paris telephone directories, violent butlers or beautiful women, probably. The Doctor (Tom Baker, at maximum power) and Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover) have been firing one liners at each other for four episodes. Now the climax is approaching, and the Doctor has realised (somehow) that if the Count goes back in time to prevent his own destruction, the human race will never evolve. Suddenly the funny stuff drops, and both play it dead seriously.

DOCTOR: Count, do you realise what will happen if you try to go back to the time before history began?

SCARLIONI: Yes. Yes, I do. And I don’t care one jot.

I love the wit of City of Death, but I love these moments of sudden sobriety just as much. Take for instance, the cliffhanger to Part Two. Once again it’s an abrupt change from jokes to gravitas. The Doctor has travelled to Florence in 1505 to find out if Leonardo really did paint seven Mona Lisas and to swap gags with a dopey guard (Peter Halliday). The Doctor’s laughing off having a sword at his throat, but when a door opens and a shadowy figure looms. His levity’s instantly turned off.

DOCTOR: You. What are you doing here?

SCARLIONI: I think that is exactly the question I ought to be asking you… Doctor!

It’s one of those beautiful cliffhangers that progresses the plot as well as leaving us begging for more: how can Scarlioni be in both 1505 and 1979? And its Part Three equivalent is equally impressive and far more grim. Scarlioni convinces the hapless Kerensky (David Graham) to step inside his time bubble. With trademark urbanity, the Count tells Romana (Lalla Ward) “You will now see, my dear, how I deal with fools.”

He speaks not with the grandiose roar of a standard Doctor Who villain left in charge of an episode ending, but with chill politeness. He switches on the machine and Kerensky ages to death. Then, pre-closing credits, he smiles smugly at Romana, as if to say, “aren’t I clever?” It’s the understatement of it which makes it work.

Think also about Countess Scarlioni (Catherine Schell), a guileless dupe of her husband. Up until Part Four the Doctor’s been content to humour her, but time is running out and everyone’s about to die. He asks how much she knows about the Count and she mentions the importance of discretion and charm. Baldly, the Doctor calls her out.

DOCTOR: There is such a thing as discretion. There’s also such a thing as willful blindness.

COUNTESS: Blind? I help him to steal the Mona Lisa, the greatest crime in the century, and you call me blind?

DOCTOR: Yes! You see the Count as a master criminal, an art dealer, an insanely wealthy man, and you’d like to see yourself as his consort. But what’s he doing in the cellar?

COUNTESS: Tinkering. Every man must have his hobby.

DOCTOR: Man? Are you sure of that? A man with one eye and green skin, eh? Ransacking the art treasures of history to help him make a machine to reunite him with his people, the Jagaroth, and you didn’t notice anything? How discreet, how charming.

She tries to laugh it off, but then recalls an old Egyptian scroll parchment in her collection. On it, a man with one eye and green skin. The spell is broken.

And although she’s been played for a fool by Scarlioni, he still feels fondly enough of her to come and say goodbye to her before setting off to erase all mankind from history. She’s ready to shoot him, but can’t quite do it. He gets to her first, but not before he’s coldly dismissed her, as nothing but a money loving dilettante. “It has not been difficult keeping secrets from you, my dear,” he matter-of-factly states. “A few fur coats, a few trinkets, a little nefarious excitement.” Then he zaps her. Not much to laugh at there.

And that’s fine. In fact, it’s better than fine, it’s exactly right. Because Adams and Williams knew that the best stories aren’t just funny, or just scary or just sad. They are all of the above. So here they turn up the dial on the funny, while leaving the scary and sad controls on their standard settings. It’s just dumb luck that they happen to perform this experiment on one of Doctor Who‘s best ever ideas.

Composer Dudley Simpson gets it. To accompany that glorious last shot from the top of the Eiffel Tower, gazing down at the Doctor and Romana running from the scene of the crime, he provides a musical finale which sums up the story perfectly. A whimsical clarinet picks out a charming melody, before it slips into a minor key, getting serious. Then a low, ominous sting to end the story, bass notes and timpani drums. He’s summed this story up completely. For all its lightness of tone, the darkness is always right behind.

LINK TO Asylum of the Daleks. Both refer to the Daleks and Skaro.

NEXT TIME: what is this horrendous place? Next stop, Terminus. And probably a bit more about City of Death.

AND ONE LAST THING: I’m indebted to @EalaDubh for pointing out this about City of Death, which I had not previously known and is now one of my favourite things.

Tourism, divorce and Asylum of the Daleks (2012)

In Australia, we have “big things”. These are oversized monuments which serve as cut price tourist traps for towns all around the country. They’re usually giant sculptures or buildings retrofitted into the shape of something indicative of the local area. Often, but not always, produce related. The Big Banana at Coffs Harbour. The Big Merino Ram at Goulburn. The Big Boxing Crocodile in Darwin. They are kitsch colossuses and squirm-worthy expressions of Australian culture. (Bemused non-Australians can consult the full list of Big Things for further clarification. You have been warned.)

So imagine my delight when Asylum of the Daleks opens and shows that Skaro, has its very own big thing, the Big Dalek. Like many Big Things, there are hardly any visitors inside. Just the Doctor (a cagey Matt Smith) and the suspiciously named Darla (Anamaria Marinca) and like most Big Thing attendees, they look tremendously underwhelmed. If only they were eating terrible fast food and browsing half heartedly through overpriced souvenirs, the grim picture would be complete.

The Doctor’s visit to the Big Dalek, highlights one of showrunner Steven Moffat’s recurring motifs about the Daleks – an obsession with what’s inside them. This opening scene’s just a precursor to the episode’s major revelation that crash survivor Oswin (Jenna Louise Coleman) is in fact the cognitive remnants of a converted human, living inside a Dalek. The recently randomed Into the Dalek takes a more literal trip to the interior, but there’s also The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar which, for the third time, put Jenna inside a Dalek. Consider also Moffat’s interior adventures inside robots (Let’s Kill Hitler), the TARDIS (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS) and space whales (The Beast Below) and we can see that he’s really into internalising.

Why, I don’t know. But in the case of the Daleks, it does highlight for the viewer they are vehicles, not robots. There are Kaled mutants, and sometimes converted people, inside them. There’s also a classic Moffat inversion on display in this Asylum too. Because as well as people inside Daleks, there are Daleks hiding inside people. Duplicate humans and reanimated corpses sprout eyestalks from their forehead and gunsticks from their palms. Moffat’s Daleks are monsters which both encase you and fester inside you.

Worse than that, they infect you. The Dalek nanocloud is an all pervading smog of tiny robots. They get inside you (that again) and turn you into a Dalek from the inside out. The physical changes come after the mental ones. The mental battle for control is enough to force Oswin to create an elaborate fantasy about being under siege from the Daleks, in order to protect her own identity. We see the start of this process effecting Amy (Karen Gillan) and in a beautifully shot sequence, we see her slipping into madness, and hallucinating that she’s in a ballroom full of dancers, when in fact, she’s in a pit packed with deranged Daleks. Around her, ballerinas pirouette. Add a dancing dwarf and we’re almost at Twin Peaks.

The ballerina, also glimpsed in Oswin’s hideout, is an important symbol here. Dalek creator Terry Nation claimed inspiration for his creatures from the Russian ballet dancers in enormous skirts, gliding across stage. We’re prompted to recall the Daleks’ origins, because this is a story steeped in their history. There are other hints scattered about – Oswin carries an egg whisk about, the better to prepare her soufflés with. Like a young Doctor Who fan creating his own Dalek army out of a miscellany of toys from throughout the show’s history, so Moffat populates Asylum with Daleks of all different colours and designs. Loads of old Dalek stories get shoutouts. This is about mashing up the show’s past and present, as well as discovering whether Daleks are bigger on the inside.

But I digress. I reckon the idea of a Big Dalek has legs, although it wouldn’t actually have legs. It could tower over Cardiff Bay (“Look at the state of it,” could become this century’s “Bye Bye Duggan!”) Exit would be, of course, via the gift shop and if it needs fresh merchandise to sell to hapless visitors, Asylum again shows us the way. Plastic rotating ballerinas. Egg whisks. Eye stalk headbands. And in the cafe, soufflé for all.

*****

But now I must bring up the difficult topic of divorce. Specifically, the Ponds’.

I suppose that one of the problems about having a married couple on any TV program is that marital bliss can’t last forever. Whether it’s likely or not, it’s not very dramatically satisfying. Trouble must eventually set in. Or in the case of the Ponds, suddenly set in.

Asylum implies that it has been some time since Amy and Rory (Arthur Darvill) have seen the Doctor, and since then, their relationship has broken down to the point where divorce is the only option. Only a quick montage in the online extra Pond Life would have indicated to dedicated viewers that anything was wrong with our otherwise loved up comPondians.

Problem is, this relationship breakdown feels inherently artificial, engineered to add a sub plot to this otherwise Daleky tale. The antidote to the nanocloud turning you into a human with Dalek appendages, is love, apparently. So when Amy is threatened with Dalekisation, getting her to reignite her love for Rory is crucial to saving her life.

Problem is, I never really believed they fell out of love. The reason proffered for the break up is that Amy staged a pre-emptive eviction of Rory because he wanted kids she couldn’t biologically produce. This just doesn’t seem like something which would break them up. Surely, the Amy and Rory we know would talk it through. Rory, you’d think, would support Amy, not reject her. Besides, it’s not like the only way to have kids is the old fashioned way. My impression is that couples fray when one partner doesn’t want kids, not when one can’t have kids.

Maybe the problem is we didn’t see Amy and Rory gradually slide into marital discord. We only saw them being perfectly happy together, then divorced, then perfectly happy again. And while it’s interesting to see Doctor Who try its hand at interpersonal drama, the Ponds’ separation seems inherently false. It’s like the Ponds’ grief over losing their baby daughter; it’s just too big a problem to fit into the show’s format, where the adventures must roll inevitably along, pausing not to dwell on emotional distress.

“It’s not one of those things you can fix like you fix your bow tie. Don’t give me those big wet eyes, Raggedy Man,” says Amy.  “It’s life. Just life.” Except it’s not, is it? Because if it was, it would be long and protracted and painful, and it wouldn’t necessarily end cleanly and happily in time for the next episode. And the ultimate irony? The Doctor does actually fix it, with a twiddle of his bow tie. Pah.

But… having not so long ago catalogued Doctor Who‘s post-coital scenes, I was delighted to spot a pre-coital one. When the repaired Ponds get dropped off at home at story’s end, Amy shoots Rory a loaded look and heads into a house. Rory’s clearly got the message and has the very pleased look of a man whose drought has broken. Ah, marriage.

RANDOM QUESTION: Why does the Doctor tell Amy that they need to make the Daleks remember her? I must be missing something. Answers in the comments, please.

LINK TO Knock Knock: humans turning into monsters.

NEXT TIME: let’s end on a cliffhanger. It’s one of the stories I’ve referred to above.

Early morning streaming, Whovians (2017) and Knock Knock (2017)

It’s 5:30 on a Sunday morning. I am awake, due to my life long habit of waking naturally by the time I know I have to be up. All is dark and quiet. I sit up in bed, reach for my iPad and headphones. It’s time for a new episode on Doctor Who, delivered fresh and perky from ABC iView.

It’s a ritual made familiar over the last few years, since the ABC has been fast-tracking new episodes of Doctor Who as they’re broadcast on BBC1. It’s the new way of watching Who, having taken over from Sunday night after the news, or if you could navigate through the ocean full of viruses and malware, bit torrenting.

When I was a youth, it used to be Monday to Friday, 6:30pm, which as I’ve mentioned before, is Australia’s version of Saturday teatime. Somehow though, I can’t see Big Finish producing audio promos in years to come harkening back nostalgically to watching the show this way. Can you imagine? It’s pre-dawn 2017 all over again! You’re hiding under the covers, hoping none of your family wake up!

If I’m lucky, I’ll get through the whole episode uninterrupted. If not, Master Spandrell will stumble in and sleepily climb into his parents’ bed and that will be the end of that. If not that, then Little Miss Spandrell might cry out from her bedroom, looking for an early start to the day. So I keep as quiet as I can, keep physical movement to a minimum and hope desperately to remain unnoticed.

This week’s episode is Knock Knock. And it’s been specifically designed to be consumed by nerds on tablets hoping to remain uninterrupted.

*****

Periodically Doctor Who adapts with a change in format. Spearhead from Space may be the first colour story, but it’s not until The Green Death that there’s a story conceived around being seen in colour. Ghost Light might be the first story designed for the VHS generation, a story you have to pause and rewind to understand. And the show’s 2005 series might be as much designed for consumption as a DVD boxset as a broadcast TV show.

In more recent years, we’ve had ancillary Doctor Who content designed to be watched on computer. It’s arguable which was the first such piece of content (as we call it these days) but The Night of the Doctor is definitely designed to be sought out online. Doctor Who you can’t watch on TV.

I watched the special binaural edition of Knock Knock, on my headphones, tucked up in bed, and very nice it was too. One specific knock made me involuntarily turn my head towards the supposed source. It’s an experience you can get on TV, by streaming from your tablet but to get the full effect (apparently) you need headphones. This is Doctor Who designed to be watched on your phone or iPad.

I suggest we get used to this. Doctor Who’s ratings are doomed to fall in future (although our new female Doctor – hooray! – should deliver an initial boost in numbers) and that has nothing to do with the quality of the show. The fact is all broadcast TV is losing viewers, and an increasing amount of people are watching TV shows on tablets and phones. It’s unsurprising there are special editions of Doctor Who for mobile devices; it’s only surprising that there’s not more of it.

How long, I wonder, until we get a spin off series delivered through catch up services like iPlayer and ABC iView only? When you think about how much time, money and effort went into one series of Class (which awkwardly straddled online and broadcast formats) an iPlayer only series may well offer a lower cost, less risky venture. It could lead to some narrative innovation too; freed of the requirement to fit into a 45 minute time slot, stories could be longer or shorter as the story demanded. Doctor Who for the commute home.

Then there’s factual content like Doctor Who Extra and The Doctor Who Fan Show both made for consumption across all devices, but I suspect mostly consumed on mobile. The show is building and nurturing its web-only fans. There must be fans out there now who have never watched an episode of the show on broadcast. Surely it’s only a matter of time before our first catch-up exclusive episode?

There’s a final destination here. We think of Doctor Who as a TV show, which is also available on other devices. Eventually it will stop being a TV show, and simply be a show, with broadcast TV being merely one way to watch it. If at all. It’s not inconceivable of a future where new Doctor Who is an internet only experience, the same as other streaming only shows.

All of which makes Whovians all the more strange.

*****

In Australia, series 10 was accompanied by a 30 minute home made show about watching and loving Doctor Who. It’s hosted by Rove McManus, one of Australia’s biggest TV stars, who had a highly successful evening variety show for years during the noughties, followed by a US chat show for a couple of years. He has always had something of the nerd about him, but he remains an unlikely host, let alone instigator, for a Doctor Who panel show. For one thing, he’s far too cool to display the Ming Mong level of fandom he clearly possesses. And for another, he’s far too expensive for the ABC.

He can only be doing this for the love of it, which is terrific. But Whovians seems to be exactly the sort of after party programming the BBC has been avoiding. Not only is it content they’d be more likely to put online, it’s actually mimicking what happens online after an episode going out live on air; a community of geeks wants to talk about it. It’s fun and its frothy and I love it, but the fact that it’s new broadcast content about Doctor Who seems to be directly the opposite direction that the show itself is heading in.

None of this is bad. It’s just that for a week in 2017 I watched an episode of Doctor Who designed not to be watched on TV, then tuned into a TV program to hear people talk about it. Welcome to the patchwork landscape of 21st century broadcast TV.

QUICK APOLOGETIC ASSESSMENT OF THE STORY WHICH IS THE SUBJECT OF, YET IGNORED BY, THIS POST: Spooky, exciting and a bit gross. But under no circumstances should you examine the plot too closely.

LINK TO The Ice Warriorsspooky mansions.

NEXT TIME: where do you get the milk? I get mine at the Asylum of the Daleks.

 

 

Technology, the environment and The Ice Warriors (1967)

ice warriors

Climate change skeptics rejoice! The Ice Warriors is here to back you up. The future will not be about catastrophic global warming, but catastrophic global cooling! See, you knew it was all bunkum, right? Now where’s that Doctor Who story that shows the moon landing‘s a fake?

Ah, I shouldn’t be so hard on The Ice Warriors. It’s fifty years since they made it out of polystyrene, fibre glass and some old manor house sets left over from a period drama. And even if writer Brian Hayles set his thermostat in the wrong direction, he focused in on a concern we still have today; that our degradation of the environment will bring about worldwide, deleterious changes in climate. In fact, this could well claim to be Doctor Who‘s first story to comment on environmental issues.

The Ice Warriors has a lot to warn us about the future, not just that glaciers are coming to crush us all. It’s set in a world where humans have been robbed of their ability to make decisions, having outsourced that function to computers. As a result, they have grown impotent and must faff around for scene after scene, prevaricating about various crises until the computer tells them what to do. It’s a peculiar kind of technophobia, and a bit like the climate change angle, we see this differently today. These days we’re worried that robots will take our jobs and AI will eventually do away with us. Back in 1967, Hayles was more worried we’d stop thinking for ourselves and become slaves of the mind.

Interestingly, his next script, The Seeds of Death, is another variation on this theme. In its version of the future, humans have outsourced another of their critical functions, namely movement from place to place. Having adopted the T-mat system for travelling everywhere, they have lost the knowledge and equipment to travel by any other means. Their over-reliance on the system, like Leader Clent (Peter Barkworth) and Miss Garrett’s (Wendy Gifford) dependence on the decision making computer, leaves them vulnerable when it breaks down.

Doctor Who‘s fifth season is often unthinkingly categorised as the monster season, where bases were under siege and aliens played by tall men towered over a supporting cast of desperate humans. But The Ice Warriors and a few of its contemporaries start introducing a couple of new concerns about humans and the world around them. The first is that it’s possible to meddle with the world to disastrous effect. There’s climate change here, and in The Seeds of Death, and in The Enemy of the World  Salamander can manipulate the natural world to produce earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The second idea is that when threatened, the planet will bite back. In The Ice Warriors, this is represented by the relentless march of the glaciers. In Fury from the Deep, when humans start mining for gas, a mysterious sea weed creature emerges to strike back. So these are not just schlocky monster mashes, but the initiators of themes which will be explored in stories like Inferno, The Mutants and The Green Death, touchstones of 70s Doctor Who.

Not everyone in The Ice Warriors has bought into this brave new world. As a counterpoint to the sterile, authority driven characters of Clent and Garrett, there’s Scientist Penley (Peter Sallis) and  Storr (Angus Lennie). They have chosen to abandon the base and live out in the wilderness, eschewing the artificial life within the base. It Storr’s case, it’s because of a natural distrust of anything which doesn’t come from the natural world. For Penley, though, it’s because he was incompatible with a system which suppresses individuality and creativity. In a world of conformity to a global computerised autocrat, Penley wants to think for himself. This sets him on a collision course with Clent.

DOCTOR: This chap Penley.

CLENT: Best man in Europe for ionisation studies. As it turned out, hopelessly temperamental.

DOCTOR: Temperamental or individual? Creative scientists have to be allowed some head you know.

CLENT: Creative? Poppycock. When he walked out of here he proclaimed himself to be criminally, criminally irresponsible.

DOCTOR: It couldn’t have been just a simple gesture of protest?

CLENT: He was always protesting. And he has a really unconvincing beard! Have you seen it? It’s ridiculous. Like someone with a black texta has mistaken his face for a colouring book.

OK, I may have made that last bit up. But there’s a part of this story which is really about an ongoing office tiff between Penley and Clent which has got out of hand. However, it’s also a new take of the familiar obsession of the Troughton era, that outside influencers will rob us our individuality and freewill. In The Ice Warriors, this has already happened, and the result is a society like that on Britannicus Base, where individuality is crushed, freedom is lost and everyone wears one piece plastic jumpsuits. Penley stands out as the one who has refused to conform. Naturally enough, it’s him we sympathise with and he who eventually saves the day, taking the risky decision to use the Ioniser on the Ice Warriors’ spaceship, even though it might destroy them all. He triumphs when the computer is useless and Clent is paralyzed with indecision.

Into this world of man, machines, the world around us and how they all interact, stumble the Ice Warriors themselves. Surprisingly, they are the least interesting thing about The Ice Warriors. They are generic alien grunts blessed with better than average costume design. In future stories, they will develop a backstory which will make them more intriguing, but here are just sort of present to stomp around and loom over people. The Daleks are nightmarish vision of the results of nuclear war, the Cybermen an expression of what humans may become as technology advances. Even the Great Intelligence and its Yeti henchbots can be seen, if you squint, as reactions to contemporary concerns about the horrors which might be unleashed if you expand your consciousness.

The Ice Warriors have no such allegorical background. They are just big old bad guys, and in truth, they don’t really fit with the rest of the story’s themes. They should really be more, well, Silurian. If they weren’t Martian invaders, but bestial remnants of our own world, who thrived during the first Ice Age and now are coming back as a result of our monkeying around with the climate, then that would fit nicely. Or if they acted illogically and unpredictably, confounding the computer’s ability to exercise its authority, and necessitating a return to human leadership. Anything really, to link them to the story other than, “it’s cold, so we need a monster who likes the cold.”

LINK TO The Unquiet Dead: snowy exteriors and Victorian houses.

NEXT TIME: Knock knock! It’s Knock Knock.

Celebrity, history and The Unquiet Dead (2005)

unquiet

Remember the celebrity historical? It used to be a thing. A real, live, it-can-be-our-second/third/fourth-episode kinda thing. Through it we met all sorts of famous dead people – Queen Victoria, Madame du Pompadour, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie. And it starts here, with a tale of ghosts and walking cadavers with Charles Dickens in ye olde Cardiff.

It was a shrewd move by showrunner Russell T Davies to include this episode in the revamped series’ first year. Those first three episodes of his version of the show are set in the present, the future and the past respectively; a shorthand statement of what the show’s about. A historical adventure tells a new audience that this series isn’t going to be all spaceships and laser beams every week. But the inclusion of a famous historical figure, plus some alien bad guys, gives that same audience a way into these old world adventures without them feeling like they’re being subjected to some snoozy old history lesson.

It also gives the production personnel something on which they can show off their skills: period drama. Former script editor Andrew Cartmel first vocalised what had been staring viewers in the face for years – that the BBC could pull off a more convincing historical drama than a science fiction epic. Despite new Who‘s increased budget, there’s still some truth in this, plus time and money saved in recreating familiar historical sets and costumes rather than dreaming them up anew. Not to mention that a well known star playing a well known historical figure makes for great publicity.

Writer Mark Gatiss sets the template for the celebrity historical in this macabre episode. He chooses a well known historical figure, one with an inkling for the the supernatural. Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) might be a daunting figure for viewers (me included) who have never finished any of his mighty tomes (I know, I know! I’ll get to them! Right after The Doctor Who Cookbook) but he proves a prudent choice, with the Doctor (an energized Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (an energetic Billie Piper) turning up just at a point of personal existential crisis. He teams up with the our heroes, becoming a de factor companion and along the way, his life is changed for the better by the experience. It’s a pattern which holds more or less up until and including Vincent and the Doctor.

Then things change. With The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, where Richard Nixon, who under the old template for celebrity historicals might have been expected to be the episode’s focus, but now becomes just a notable supporting character. In their respective episodes, Queens Nefertiti of Egypt and Elizabeth I of England are similarly exotic side dishes, not the main meal. By the time we get to Peter Capaldi’s era, the celebrity historical has been dropped altogether. Clara makes do with sly references to her flirty adventures with Jane Austen. That name dropping’s enough; we don’t need to see the Doctor meet another historical British writer. We’ve been there done that.

(Thank Rassilon. I can’t stand Austen. A Doctor Who encounter with her sounds awful. It’d be called Time and Temerity, or Space and Speciousness or something. Clara would be proposed to by some alien dressed up in period costume, via a series of letters delivered by horse and cart and everything would take weeks. Yawn. Unless it was a Blackadder inspired version where Jane Austen turns out to be “a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush”. Yes, I’d watch that.)

So now the celebrity historical, once a mainstay of any Doctor Who season is out of vogue. No doubt famous people from history will continue to turn up, but more episodes showcasing any given figure of history seems unlikely. It’s a shame, because having our heroes rub shoulders with someone we know from history is one of those uniquely Doctor Who ideas. And it’s been with the show since its earliest years, where we met Marco Polo, Nero, Richard I and Doc Holliday. If you squint, it even stays true to the show’s original remit to be slightly educational. The Unquiet Dead, for instance, manages to trickle out an abbreviated biography of Dickens and his work.

Still, it’s fun to fill in future fantasy seasons with celebrity historicals which still one day might come to pass. Oscar Wilde’s episode would riff on The Picture of Dorian Gray.  That other OW, Orson Wells already has one in Big Finish’s universe – by Mark Gatiss, no less – which could be adapted. Sylvester McCoy’s suggestion of the Doctor meeting Richard III could finally come to fruition. What about JFK, given his and the show’s association with November 1963? Galileo? Da Vinci? The Beatles? Surely we can’t let Timelash be the definitive Doctor Who appearance by HG Wells. Nor let Einstein be claimed by the ignominious Time and the Rani.

As for the story itself, it’s pleasingly creepy, with enough black humour in it to recall more than a few camp, schlocky horror films. Its gleefully brash use of walking cadavers as monsters is stronger stuff than the show eventual settled into; to this day Mrs Spandrell can’t get past the opening pre-credit sequence with old Mrs Peace (Jennifer Hill) stumbling through the streets, howling. It strays into interesting moral territory when the Doctor finds virtue in the Gelth’s alleged plan to inhabit the bodies of human dead to save their species, and Rose is opposed to the idea. But the last minute u-turn of the Gelth into treacherous invaders neutralizes that debate which might have lead the story to something other than a “it’s time to stop the monsters now” kind of ending.

Truth be told, as good as The Unquiet Dead is, nearly all its tricks – be they ghost stories, Victoriana or zombified monsters – have been done better by later stories. Its lasting claim to fame is showing us how these celebrity historicals work and inventing a new sub-genre for 21st century Who. If they really have gone forever, then that’s its legacy – creating a Who specific subset right up there with ‘base under siege’, ‘pseudo-historical’ and ‘multi-Doctor’.

But if they ever come back, I’ve still got my list of candidates: Michelangelo, Louis Pasteur, Elvis, even Mrs Malaprop… sorry, that’s Time and the Rani again. It sneaks in everywhere!

LINK TO Into the Dalek: uncertainty about whether the monsters are good or evil.

NEXT TIME… well, he didn’t come by Shetland pony, Jamie! We defrost The Ice Warriors