All posts by johnnyspandrell

Thespians, amphibians and It Takes You Away (2018)

ittakes

Laurence Phibbs takes a long draw on his cigarette, jammed between his webbed fingers and smiles. “When my agent rang to say I’d got the part, I was jumping off the walls with excitement. Literally, and there aren’t many actors who can say that!”

We’re sitting at a quiet table in charming old school pub, not far from Laurence’s pad in South London. Well, I’m sitting and Laurence’s squatting. If any of the regulars are surprised to see a larger than normal frog sitting on a toadstool – sorry barstool – talking to a journalist, none of them are showing it.

Is Laurence a fixture here? “I hop in every now and then. It’s never very busy, so you’re unlikely to be bothered by people wanting to take a selfie or get your autograph. Although with Doctor Who, now everyone wants a high four!” He laughs and holds up the four fingered hand which expelled Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor from a mirror universe in the now-famous climactic moment of series 11 oddball It Takes You Away. “You’re kind of public property once you’ve been on the telly.”

Laurence should know. Already a familiar variegated green face from appearances on stage and screen, he’s now finally made it to Doctor Who. Laurence played the sentient universe the Solitract, which takes the form of a frog for a crucial resolution with the Doctor. Lucky for him that the universe decided to take on amphibian form. Laurence would have been out of luck if the production team had gone for, say, a talking donkey?

“They wouldn’t have gone for a donkey,” says Laurence matter of factly, whipping out his long, sticky tongue to catch an unwary passing fly. “Very difficult to dub voices over, donkeys. Their mouths are very inflexible. That’s why they’re so often CGI. Like Shrek, right? Can’t do that in studio. Though many have tried.”

Why didn’t they go for a CGI frog on Doctor Who? Laurence rolls his eyes, which is quite a feat considering they’re on opposite sides of his head. “Well, they did think about it but it’s a very emotional scene. With CG, you just can’t get the full range of emotion that a trained actor like myself can bring to a role. I mean, that’s what you’re paying for when you book me. You don’t want to embarrass an actor of Jodie Whittaker’s calibre by having her perform a scene with some shoddy imitation of a frog. You want the real thing!”

If Laurence sounds slightly arrogant about his acting chops, he can afford to be. His track record in film and TV is admirable. Roles in programs as diverse as live action versions of The Wind In the Willows and Danger Mouse have made him the go-to actor for frog roles in the UK. Is there enough work around for him? “You’d be surprised actually. I mean, wherever there’s a story with a handsome prince there’s a role for me in it, so panto’s a godsend for me. Plus I always get kissed by the princesses!” he adds, with a grin.  Is it true he’s attached to the new Kermit bio pic, Rainbow Connection? “I can’t talk about that,” he says coolly, scratching his eye with one of his hind legs.

Laurence may be the charming green face of the Solitract, but its voice belongs to Sharon D Clarke, who has played Grace throughout the season. Did Laurence mind not delivering the vocals to go along with his physical performance?

For a moment, he inflates his throat sac in bubble of what could be frustration. “Look, it was a hangover from when they were thinking of it being CG. They’d booked her and recorded it and everything, so I just said, “fine”. I mean, it’s part of the story too, but I told them I was happy to do it and of course, I said the lines on the day, to give Jodie something to work with. But they stuck with Sharon, who of course did a marvellous job, and that’s great. But I thought I brought a nice croaky quality to those lines, so I do regret it a bit. Perhaps it will turn up on a DVD extra one day.”

Take us through the day of the shoot. “Well, it was quite hilarious really. Because as you know, security is so tight on Doctor Who. They smuggled me in in the back of a car, in a shoebox which thankfully they’d remembered to punch some airholes in. Then they took me straight to make-up, where they spent a long time giving me a slightly rubbery, artificial kind of look. They were going for a slightly unreal, fantasy feel, in tune with the whole episode really. And then it was straight to the studio where Jodie was waiting. I must admit she seemed little taken aback when she saw me – overawed maybe, I don’t know – but after that initial hesitation, I thought she did very well. I gave her a few tips, cracked a few jokes to put her at ease.”

He pauses for a moment, to secrete a moisturising fluid from the glands at the back of his head. “Actually, I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you this… but hey, what does it matter now. They were thinking about keeping me on.” What, as a regular? “Yeah, as a member of the TARDIS crew. You see, they were sort of worried that they didn’t have quite enough companions, and they were thinking of the range of stories they could tell if the Doctor had a talking frog sitting on her shoulder But the dates wouldn’t have worked out. I’m mean they shoot for six months of the year, I hibernate during winter plus I shed my skin every few weeks, so continuity would be a nightmare.” But if those logistical problems could have been ironed out, would Laurence had said yes? “I’d have jumped at the chance. I mean, I’ve loved Doctor Who ever since I was a tadpole. It would have been amazing.”

I get the sense that Laurence might be holding out for an even greater prize. Would he ever consider playing the Doctor? “Well, it’s very interesting, isn’t it?” he says, gently lifting his suction pad fingers off the stool, and bringing his hands together, contemplatively. “We’ve now got a female Doctor… why not a frog Doctor? I think it could work. Frogs naturally metamorphose anyway, so regeneration’s a doddle. Plus imagine how quickly I could out hop those Daleks! Yes, I’d certainly consider it if it ever came my way.”

Our time is up, and Laurence’s got to get to a photoshoot for National Geographic. I ask him for some final thoughts on his time on Doctor Who. “It was a hoot and I’m so pleased to have been a part of it. And who knows, maybe the Solitract’s reality isn’t entirely incompatible with the known universe and will turn up again to be Jodie Whittaker’s eternal BFF. I think she’d be delighted with that.”

He raises his hand for a trademark high four, which I happily take. Then he flies through the door with a few leaps of his powerful frog’s legs, as enigmatic as the Solitract itself. Onwards, to his next froggy theatrical triumph.

LINK TO The Horns of Nimon: the Doctor uses string to leave a path when entering into the anti-zone, a tactic famous from the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur which, the astute among you will have noticed, bears a faint resemblance to The Horns of Nimon.

NEXT TIME: The Daleks are doing something drastic in The Daleks’ Master Plan. Now will you, SHUT UP, SIR?!!!

Opera, silliness and The Horns of Nimon (1979/80)

horns of nimon

I wonder what Barry Letts thought of The Horns of Nimon. Presumably he viewed it, when he was about to rejoin the show in a specially created Executive Producer position and this was, at that time, the most recent story the production team had managed to complete. I imagine him, stony faced in some tiny BBC viewing suite, watching a tape of this story which drew the curtain on the decade of Doctor Who he launched, and wondering quite where it all went awry. Probably also wondering how long it would take to fix the old girl up and how soon he could head back to making Great Expectations or something.

If you watch any number of the extra features on the recently released Season 18 blu-ray box set, you’ll hear script editor Christopher H Bidmead tell the story of his job interview, in which he said the previous season of Doctor Who had been “silly” and claims Letts nodded sagely and agreed. It’s pretty easy to guess that they were both thinking of The Horns of Nimon. There are number of moments here which are clearly intended to be funny but which fall flat (and that’s my personal definition of “silly”). There’s the whizz bang noise when the console blows up. There’s “oh my gravitic anomoliser!” There’s the Doctor giving K9 mouth to mouth and a prize rosette. And so it goes hilariously on.

But others choose different words to describe contributions to this story. Tom Baker, also on the Season 18 box set, likes to use “operatic” to describe big, bold offerings like June Hudson’s costume designs, which make everyone on the planet Skonnos look like their heading to a mardi gras themed funeral (or a funeral themed mardi gras, I suppose) and Graham Crowden’s performance as Soldeed, which leaves no scenery unchewed. Crowden is often singled out for praise by Tom, because he doesn’t so much say his lines as propel them through the screen at you with ballistic force, powered by bulging eyes and bared gums.

So what’s the truth of The Horns of Nimon? Is it silly or operatic? It’s got to be said that apart from the efforts of La Hudson and Lord Crowden, there’s little that’s operatic about it. Certainly not Anthony Read’s script, which is as safe and sensible as you’d expect from a previous script editor who knows exactly how big the budget will be for the studio bound fifth story in a season of six and has scaled everything back by 5% just in case. Read’s well-documented favourite approach to Doctor Who was to raid mythology for stories which would easily translate by rearranging a few consonants in the names of characters and locations, and the result here is a thoroughly producible script. Its plotting is sound, its pacing spot on and its dialogue thoroughly unremarkable. I can imagine Letts nodding in appreciation of it in that viewing suite, perhaps grumbling about an old pro’s script being meddled with and an egocentric lead actor given too much head.

Whether it’s silly or operatic or both, it’s undeniably tatty. In fact, its whole look is a homage to late 70s glam rock on a bargain bin budget. The Nimons themselves balance precariously on vertiginous platform boots which force these towering bulls to swap charging and bucking for tottering. The Anethan tributes (made up of Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent), Teka (Janet Ellis) and five nameless, voiceless others, whose entire job is to fill up a tight nine shot with eyes wide with fear) wear costumes made out of that textured wallpaper you used to see in suburban Chinese restaurants. Seth’s only needs a zodiac symbol medallion to complete the picture, a rare oversight from Hudson. Back in 1965, The Beatles turned up for a cameo on Doctor Who and if KISS had done the same in The Horns of Nimon, they wouldn’t have looked out of place. (Nimon’s made for lovin’ you, baby? No?)

It’s worth reflecting again on Season 18 and how much better it looks than, well… all of Season 17, except perhaps City of Death. Producer John Nathan-Turner is sometimes criticised for prioritising style over substance, but when looking at Nimon’s all pervading shoddiness, you can see that the show’s look really did need attention. Perhaps the success of this makeover can be put down to Nathan-Turner’s much documented ability to spend money where it would show on screen, but whatever it was, the show needed it. Compare this story to, for instance, next season’s penultimate studio bound tale The Keeper of Traken and see how much more attention is given to making the show look presentable. For better or worse, this stuff matters.

The wobbliness of the whole production – costumes, sets and performances alike – has made The Horns of Nimon a target for disdain for the longest time. Since then, many have made attempts to rehabilitate its reputation which have bordered on the, well, operatic. It’s loads of fun, they say and yes, it absolutely is. The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping (mentioned here for the first time in nearly 300 posts, which is something of an omission) calls it, generously, “rather wonderful with some friends and a bottle of wine”, but I fear such a dinner party would be doomed to break up around the end of Part One, with your friends looking exaggeratedly at their watches and saying, “oh, is that the time?” while you are left trying to coax the last few drops out of the bottle solo, hoping you can hang out long enough to hear Lalla Ward shout, “how many Nimons have you seen today?” at Soldeed while he cackles his way through his death scene.

The truth of it is that The Horns of Nimon is a story which people have been attempting to breathe life into from conception all the way through to reception. It starts with a fine but basic script by Read. Then Baker, Crowden & Hudson try to resuscitate it through ad libs, overacting and sweeping grand designs. (Only Lalla Ward finds a way of dealing with the material given to her, giving it authority and conviction without going over the top. No small feat when you’re trying to acting intimidated by unsteady ballet dancers in body suits, spangly loin cloths and big plasticky bull heads). Then since its initial reception, we’ve been trying to counter the evidence of our own eyes, desperately clinging to the occasional line that lands or the rare genuinely witty beat to say, “no, c’mon, it’s really quite good and it’s funny.”

I can’t imagine this is what Letts thought. Neither Read or director Kenny McBain were invited back for Season 18. But maybe he and Chris Bidmead sat down for dinner, cracked opened a bottle of wine and smashed through four episodes of The Horns of Nimon. On to be a fly on the wall. That really would have been, to quote Cornell et al, rather wonderful.

LINK TO The Waters of Mars: more Australian actors! Bob Hornery (Pilot) is of this village.

NEXT TIME: I’ve always fancied the idea of Norway. So, let’s take ourselves away to It Takes You Away.

Rules (fictional), rules (personal) and The Waters of Mars (2009)

watersmars

If action packed, edge-of-your-seat thrills is what you want from Doctor Who, then The Waters of Mars is satisfying stuff. It tells the story of Earth’s first colonists on Mars, systematically picked off by a sentient micro-organism which transforms its victims into water exuding monsters. History says that the colonists are doomed and the Doctor (David Tennant, nearing the end of his Doctordom) is torn between saving these legendary astronauts and allowing established events to play out as recorded. Directed by the show’s great galvaniser Graeme Harper, it’s fast, frightening and foreboding. It’s as good an example of that particular genre of Doctor Who as we’ve ever got and given that particular strain gives us The Seeds of Doom, Earthshock and The Caves of Androzani, that’s impressive.

So, as I’ve mulled over this one, I’ve been surprised to find myself returning to something much more contemplative about this noisy, nervy tale: about what it says about the Doctor and his inherent contradictions.

Let me take a step back: I’ve been debating the merits of The Waters of Mars with Nathan Bottomley of the Flight Through Entirety podcast. He’s got a problem with its central premise, which hangs on one of Doctor Who’s long established rules: that you can’t rewrite history, not one line. But that rule has no basis in the real world; it’s just a made-up piece of sci-fi flim flam. So we have a Doctor Who story seeking to create drama out of a fictional conceit and that weakens the whole story, making it less compelling for the audience.

He has a point, I think. Who can blame an audience for not caring about the transgression of some obscure Whovian law. But for me, the drama of The Waters of Mars feels more important than that. As the Doctor’s curiosity about solving the mystery of what happened on Bowie Base One gives way to anguish about whether or not he should save these brave, compassionate humans, this becomes more than an argument about the console room’s state of temporal grace or the favourite colours of the Prydonian chapter. It feels like there’s more at stake than that. I think the reason why, is that the made up sci-fi laws are not as insubstantial as all that: they’re a stand in for the Doctor’s moral code.

Which brings us around to asking, “what exactly is the Doctor’s moral code?” And to answer that, we need to know who he is. And that’s difficult to answer because who he is changes. Initially, he was a scientist, an engineer and a researcher, as well as a fugitive from his people. Later, he becomes a hero and a renegade. Sometimes it’s more straightforward than that, when he’s positioned as “simply a traveller.” None of these suggest someone who sticks to too many rules. But he definitely has an authoritarian streak: he can’t abide people mucking about with time.

It’s a contradiction which has grown to mythic status; in the New Adventures range, he was called “time’s champion” but it’s more accurate, at least in the classic series view, to call him “time’s policeman”. He’s not a defender, but an enforcer. In The Time Warrior, he characterises his own people as “galactic ticket inspectors” and that’s basically the role he takes.  One of his earliest recurring enemies was specifically a time meddler, whose meddling the Doctor was intent on stamping out.

Of course, his stance on the sanctity of history is not without its own contradictions. He meddles in future history and the history of other planets all the time. The basic rule is if it was taught on the history syllabus of one the show’s writers, it was inviolable. And he himself frequently brags about his influence on history – dropping apples on Isaac Newton’s head, for instance – and he loves starting famous historical fires, be they in Rome or London.

These hypocrisies aside, I think the weight of evidence tells us that the sanctity of history is part of the Doctor’s moral code. From The Aztecs all the way through to The Fires of Pompeii, the Doctor hangs on to his lost civilisation’s rule about history, as if it were a lifeline to his own. For a universally famous rule breaker, this is the one rule clings to. It’s as important to him as treating all life with respect or that blue people have the same rights as purple people.

And he believes it like a dogma, something so ingrained into him that he struggles to explain it. Like when he says to Adelaide Brook (Lindsay Duncan), this mission’s steely commander, “Your death is fixed in time forever. And that’s right.” It’s the sort of thing you say when you can’t quite describe a complex operating principle, but you know that it’s true. It’s the sort of thing a religion might preach. Don’t question it, because I fundamentally believe it to be true, the Doctor is saying.

So that’s why it’s such a lurch when he then rejects his own rule and turns around to rescue what’s left of the crew. It’s not dramatic because he’s breaking the fictional laws of time, it’s dramatic because our hero is breaking his own moral code. That’s a conflict as old as the hills, and it’s a good one. Because it signals two things: 1. That the Doctor’s in conflict with himself and you can tell that in Tennant’s hair quivering performance. He’s forcing himself to do things which he knows are against his own personal beliefs. 2. That if the Doctor’s prepared to throw this part of this moral compass aside, then – blimey (as he himself might say) – what’s next? The sanctity of life? The commitment to peaceful co-existence?.

When the Doctor abandons his moral code, bad things happen. When ground down by acts of violence and injustice all around him, or when isolated from his human companions, he’s prone to going too far. It happens here but also in The Girl Who Died, where he makes a rash decision to create an immortal teenager and in Hell Bent, where he steals, shoots and bullies his way into rescuing his friend who should be dead. And of course, the foundation of the new series was that he destroyed his own people in a moment of war-inflicted desperation, an act so incompatible with his morals that it caused him untold anguish.

The Waters of Mars asks the question, how can these various aspects of the Doctor’s personality be squared away? In the choice between being a hero and being a rule enforcer, the Doctor has chosen enforcer time and time again, from the streets of Paris to the streets of Pompeii. Here for the first time, he chooses to be a hero, but in doing so he unleashes his inner monster. It’s that internal conflict which provides the real drama here, and we care about it because we care about the Doctor. What he stands for matters to us.

(At least until The Day of the Doctor when he decides to change history, rescue everyone and everything stays fine. And in the next story, there’s a whole plot based on Whovian lore on the regeneration limit of 12. But hey – Vive la contradiction.)

SACRIFICIAL BLAM: Poor hapless Ed, played by Australia’s own Peter O’Brien.

LINK TO Kerblam!: written by Australia’s own Pete McTighe.

NEXT TIME: So this is the great journey of life! We’re stuck on The Horns of Nimon, you meddlesome hussy!

Big Business, The Green Death (1973) and Kerblam! (2018)

Part Two

“Suppose we’ve only got ourselves to blame,” says factory worker Dan (Lee Mack) in Kerblam! “While we were busy staring at our phones, technology went and nicked our jobs.” Suppose we’ve only got ourselves to blame. Some might say the whole of series 11 has had that feel about it. So racism’s a thing, and Trump’s a thing and exploitation of workers is a thing, but *shrugs shoulders* whatya going to do? It’s kind of your fault for wanting a new fez in the first place.

Dan’s one of the 10% – the mandated proportion of job holders that Kandokan society requires to be human. The other 90% it fills with creepy robots of long held Doctor Who tradition. Dan and his fellow Kerblam! worker Kira (Claudia Jessie) are grateful for their jobs, even though they are lowly paid, monotonous and their performance is constantly monitored by passive aggressive androids. Not for them the kind of protests you see out the front of Global Chemicals. They’d never dream of going on strike. In their own way, they’re as trapped and as compliant as BOSS’s brain drained zombie workers.

There’s 45 years and a world of difference between The Green Death and Kerblam! The Green Death said clearly – emphatically – that the power big business wields is a problem. It showed us a business which had politicians in its pocket, its own militia to deploy and a colonial upper class (all the management types are English, all the milkmen and cleaning ladies are Welsh) calling the shots. The Green Death is saying, f*ck that. It’s angry and is advocating radical change. It starts a sub-genre of Doctor Who which we might call “protest” stories, in which we can include The Sun Makers, The Happiness Patrol and The Long Game. All of which involve overthrowing an oppressive regime.

And, up until its last ten minutes, Kerblam! seems to be telling us a similar story, that the power Amazon wields allows it to reduce working conditions to the minimum because employees are afraid of losing their jobs. Make no mistake, there’s enough for Kerblam! to be angry about. (In fact, in preparation for this piece, I read a number of online stories of Amazon’s appalling treatment of its employees until I had to stop because it was so infuriating.) But this story pulls its punches in two significant ways.

Firstly, it makes the person protesting against this awful state of affairs the villain. That’s Charlie (Leo Flanagan) and misguided and murderous though he is, his arguments about what’s wrong with Kerblam! are hard to argue with. “Ten percent?” he says incredulously. “They want us to be grateful that ten percent of people get to work? What about the other ninety percent? What about our futures? Because without action, next time it will be seven percent, then five, then one.” If this was a Malcolm Hulke story you might expect Charlie to be overpowered at the end of the story and quietly walked away, the Doctor gently noting his misguided good intentions. But here, there’s no acknowledgement of moral ambiguity. He’s blown up like every other bad guy. It’s like if Professor Jones turned out to be the villain in The Green Death, and all his environmental concerns were blown away with him in the inevitable Part Six explosion.

Secondly, the Doctor declines to sanction Kerblam! for the shocking way it treats people. Here is the hero who once brought down Harriet Jones with one sentence, because she disagreed with her politics. Only last season, she fought against the suits, and started a chain reaction which meant that “corporate dominance in space is history, and that about wraps it for capitalism”. But capitalism lives on at the end of Kerblam! The Doctor could end the story with a piece of sabotaging software or some other magic switch to meter out justice on Kerblam! Instead, we’re left with a promise from Judy, Head of People (Julie Hesmondhalgh) that “All our workers have been given two weeks’ paid leave, free return shuttle transport. And I’m going to propose that Kerblam becomes a People-Led Company in future.” Two weeks off and a promise to do better. I’m sure that will do the trick.

Look, let’s not be too lefty bleeding heart about it. I think it’s fair to say that Kerblam! chooses a different ending to a Big Business Doctor Who story partly out of a search for originality. If we’ve come to expect, from lengthy experience, a protest story complete with a Doctorly takedown and an exploding factory and the end, then perhaps it’s time to subvert that expectation. And perhaps, it’s just not realistic to wipe out a huge company over the course of an afternoon. Maybe slow, incremental change makes more sense. And perhaps, as I noted last post, the 10% of the human workforce still needs jobs and money and livelihoods, so blowing the company up is too blunt a resolution.

But I can’t help but think back to the episode’s beginning, where a packing slip with a desperate message for help found a sympathetic receiver in the Doctor. That opening premise could have led us to a story of how the Doctor helped an ordinary person being crushed by a corporate giant. Instead, it turned out to be a call for help from the company itself, asking the Doctor to protect it from someone trying to point out that it had a social responsibility to give more people jobs and to treat them humanely when it does.

The Doctor gives voice to the story’s model in the confrontation with Charlie. “The systems aren’t the problem,” she says. “How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.” That’s precisely the opposite of the position taken by The Green Death. It says the system is fundamentally flawed and dangerous to boot. You don’t change how people use the system, you’ve gotta change the system. Even if we cut Kerblam! some slack and say it’s trying to present a more nuanced political argument than Doctor Who normally does, and that it’s trying to invert our expectations of what a protest story is, there’s still a fundamental conservatism to saying “the system’s basically fine, we’re the ones who have to get used to it” which feels very odd in a series which usually challenges the status quo.

The Green Death will always be the first and loudest of Doctor Who’s battle cries against the world’s wrongs. Kerblam!, despite its explosive title, is not the fiery exclamation mark on the end of that cry. It’s something far more ambiguous, signalling a series which, while responding to its times, is exploring murky moral territory. That will be interesting and thought-provoking, but let’s hope it never loses its anger. We need it as much as we needed it in 1973.

PREVIOUSLY ON RANDOMWHONESS: Part One of this post can be found here.

NEXT TIME: The very first humans on Mars? We’re soaking ourselves in The Waters of Mars.

Big Business, Kerblam! (2018) and The Green Death (1973)

greendeathkerblam2

Part One

Big Business is a character in Doctor Who. I know this because it’s listed as such in the official Doctor Who Programme Guide by Jean-Marc L’officier, a primary source document for many fans of my vintage. It’s right there, between the Bi-Al Foundation and Biroc the noble Tharil. Its concise entry reads “Big Business: often portrayed as the villain,” and then it lists the production codes of stories which do so, such as TTT, otherwise known to you and me as The Green Death.

If only the Programme Guide was extended to cover New Who (ah, but wait! It has been), it would find many other stories to list under that entry: The Long Game, Rise of the Cybermen, Planet of the Ood, The Bells of St John, Time Heist, Oxygen and the list goes on. It goes on so long in fact, that it shows that 21st century showrunners have clearly learned their Who lessons well: that Big Business is a distinct character in the show and specifically, it’s the enemy. Big Business is always up to no good. It will enslave you, bewitch you, rob you, while all the time selling you thinning tablets or elixirs of youth.

Or so it seemed, until 2019 when series 11 arrived to challenge our preconceptions about the way Doctor Who operates. And in Kerblam!, it presented us with a much more ambiguous view of Big Business, stubbornly refusing to paint it as the villain. In telling us a tale of murder in the gangways of a space age Amazon, it seemed all the way through to be positioning that old enemy Big Business for yet another devastating take down by the Doctor. We fully expected to see her run frantically away from the place as it exploded into smithereens, just as her third self had run away (oh, that peculiar Pertweean trot) from the smoking ruins of Global Chemicals.

It didn’t end that way, of course. It ended on a far more conciliatory note. And it was so at odds with where that story seemed to be heading, and where a legion of similar Doctor Who stories had previously landed, that it left many fans bewildered and contemplating a new, more conservative slant on Doctor Who’s normally liberal politics. In one of this random blog’s occasionally pleasing orderings The Green Death and Kerblam! have arrived in sequence. So I’ve grabbed the opportunity to talk about them both, over two posts, and compare their very different views of our old mate Big Business.

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Both stories signal their intentions upfront. The opening scenes of The Green Death show its corporate behemoth, Global Chemicals, as an object of protest. In fact, it’s an object of multiple protests.

Local coal miners are there to protest about Global Chemicals killing their industry and their livelihoods. The local greenies, led by Professor (of Which University) Cliff Jones (Stewart Bevan), are protesting about the company’s environmental impact. And back at UNIT HQ, Jo Grant (Katy Manning) is appalled by reports of pollution emanating from Global Chemicals and decides on the spot to abandon her job and throw in her lot with Jones and his long-haired, hippy compadres.

Compare this to the start of Kerblam! where the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) receives a delivery from a Kerblam! postman and reacts with unbridled excitement. “Kerblam! It’s the Kerblam! man!,” she gushes before delighting in the delivery of a new hat and gazing at the Kerblam! logo spin around in the air. The thirteenth Doctor is a brand fan, right from the start. It’s hard to imagine the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) jumping up and down with glee at the start of The Green Death about the prospect of helping out Global Chemicals. That’s one thing that’s changed between 1973 and 2018 –  we’re much more used to brands commanding that sort of joyful devotion. In the 70s, the sort of evangelism which say, Apple generates would have been unheard of.

In that opening scene, the coal miners are soon placated by the promise of jobs at Global Chemicals, but Jones is concerned about the pollution which will ensue. The environmental concerns of The Green Death are front and centre. Its deadly green slime and its giant maggots may provide the imagery which has made it one of Doctor Who’s most well-remembered stories, but it’s a sideshow. Polluting the world and filling it with overgrown insects is not the BOSS (voice: John Dearth) of Global Chemicals’ plan. It’s a side effect and not one that it or managing director Stevens (Jerome Willis) are that concerned about. No, BOSS’s plan is much closer to the erosion of worker’s rights and opportunities which is at the heart of Kerblam!. He wants a workforce of unthinking, unprotesting slaves, who won’t care about irritating distractions such as fair pay, safe working conditions and so on.

(I can’t go any further without talking about BOSS – a talking computer who’s behind the whole dirty operation at Global Chemicals and who is the undisputed star of The Green Death. In a nice inversion by writer Robert Sloman, this machine has the most personality of anyone, be they villager, corporate stooge or undercover UNIT operative. Like your Nan’s favourite chocolate bar, BOSS is both fruity and nutty. If he wasn’t threatening to take over the world, he would be pleasantly batty company. He hums along to classical music, opines about Nietzsche and toys – almost flirts – with Stevens, which makes you wonder what the two get up to on those long lonely nights, examining productivity figures spat out of a dot matrix printer. It’s a shame, in fact, that his ambitions to turn humans into an unthinking slave force extend beyond Llanfairfach, because once extended to the whole world, it stops making sense as a profit making measure. With the whole world under his command, who’s left to buy any of the oil Global Chemicals produces?)

The problem of neutralising the company’s pollution is solved when some of the Professor’s wacky fungus proves to be an effective biological counterstrike. The problem of there being no jobs for the people of Llanfiarfach is just as neatly solved with a narrative expediency from Sloman at the story’s end. The phone rings and the Professor’s delighted to hear of unlimited research funding from the UN, meaning jobs for the unemployed miners are on their way. Which is handy considering the coal mine is still closed and the Doctor just blew up the other employer in town. He’s lucky there’s not a pack of angry miners on his tail. (They’d catch him too, with that running style of his.)

And that’s the problem, I suppose, with the Doctor utterly destroying Big Businesses from here to Pluto and Kandoka and beyond. What happens to the people who depend on those businesses for food and oxygen and sunlight and so on? Maybe a more realistic Kerblam!-y ending where some sort of middle ground is sought makes sense.  Does that dogmatic entry in the Doctor Who Programme Guide need to be rewritten? People can’t live on nuts, after all.

LINK TO The Witchfinders: both feature characters called James.

NEXT TIME: Part Two.

Camp, villainy and The Witchfinders (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tittilation, taunting and Timelash (1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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