All posts by johnnyspandrell

Profit, loss and The Sun Makers (1977)

sun makers

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random extra: Completion, conflation and Shada (2017)

shada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surprise, spin-offs and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (2012)

dinos.jpg

Six surprising things that happen in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and the further adventures that could spring from them.

  1. The Doctor assembles a gang.

In 2012, Avengers (no, not the cool ones, the Marvel ones) were assembling to stage a loud and colourful assault on the big screen. Naturally those Avengers are all muscly, spandex-clad hotties ready to kick some bad guy ass. And this is, remember, the season where Doctor Who aimed to mimic those big popcorn films, even to the extent of this episode’s title riffing off Snakes on a Plane. So it’s kind of refreshing that when the Doctor (not so muscly, thankfully not spandex clad Matt Smith) tries to go all Hollywood and assemble a gang for his own adventure, he chooses a miscellany of misfits: an ancient Egyptian queen, a big game hunter, the Ponds and their Dad. By the time they get menaced by some dinosaurs and run down a corridor en masse, it’s time for the opening title sequence. You know from that point on, this one’s going to be a rollercoaster ride.

Big Finish pitch one: The Doctor’s Gang. On the way home from the Silurian Ark, the Doctor, Nefi, Riddell, the Ponds and their Dad, get up to all sorts of hijinks. And then River Song turns up! 4 disc box set.

  1. The future’s not all white.

The Doctor gets sent on a mission, not by UNIT or the Time Lords or River Song asking him to pick up some milk on the way home, but by people we’ve never met before: the Indian Space Agency. Suddenly, Doctor Who seems to be taking account of our shifting world order, and posits a future where India is the predominant power in space. We meet calm and pragmatic Indira (Sunetra Sarker) who, despite the dual misfortunes of lacking a rack or a surname, is the leader of the ISA and a kind of stand-in Brigadier (and we all recall how he dealt with Silurians). There’s a sense that the Doctor and Indira have a mutual respect for each other which might have been the basis for a whole other series of adventures.

Big Finish pitch two: Indian Space Agency. Indira, “ISA Worker” and the rest of the ISA staff battle new threats to Earth with their brilliant, but not entirely reliable scientific adviser. On the way, they’ll get surnames and motivations. 3 x 4 disc box set.

  1. Bad guys get the girl

Much is made of the flirty tension between old school hunter Riddell (Rupert Graves) and even older school monarch Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele). Throughout, Riddell’s patronizing and chauvinistic remarks are effectively put down by Nefi. If there’s a spark between then, it expresses itself in threats of violence:

RIDDELL: I shall put you across my knee and spank you!

NEFERTITI: Try, and I’ll snap your neck in a heartbeat!

He’s clearly interested in her, but she thinks he’s the dinosaur on this spaceship. How then to explain how at the story’s end, she ends up emerging from his tent, hair untethered, brandishing a gun? How did this leering buffoon get to score with this smart, powerful woman, who clearly wasn’t having a bar of him? (And don’t they know what happens to characters who shag in Doctor Who?) If anything at all was going to happen between them, it should have been her taking him back to Egypt to keep him as her concubine.

And then there’s Solomon (David Bradley) and his thinly veiled threats to sexually abuse Nefi once he has her on his ship. “I will break you in with immense pleasure,” he hisses at her, having pinioned her to the floor with his space crutch. It’s unpleasant, to say the least, but it’s supplanted by the sheer bewildering wrongness of putting a smart, sexy, capable woman on screen and then a. having her threatened with rape and b. having her run off with her harasser. That really sits badly among this otherwise cheery joyride of an episode.

BBC3 Documentary pitch: “It’s stopped being fun, Doctor”. Janet Fielding, Germaine Greer and Christel Dee decode the sexual politics of Doctor Who over its long history. 250 x 30min eps.

  1. The Silurians get a confusing addition to their backstory

So the Silurians, who we previously thought of as Earthbound creatures, can build a space ark the size of Canada, complete with an ocean to power it. But it’s also one which needs two family members to pilot it and it has computer displays written in English. And still with all this technology at their disposal, they couldn’t predict that the moon wouldn’t collide with the earth. Nor could they work out how to repel an invasion by one man and two comedy robots.

BBC Books pitch: “The Discontinuity Guide – Silurian Edition.” All you ever wanted to know about this imaginary universe and how it all makes sense, really it does. Illustrated hardcover, 250 pages, full colour, RRP £100.

  1. The Doctor gets his… Unlikeliest. Companion. Ever.

When you’re updating your list of official Doctor Who companions (I do mine weekly. It currently includes Captain Yates, Courtney Woods and those bats from the TV Movie), don’t forget to include Brian Pond (Mark Williams). For at the end of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, we learn that he joins the Doctor for a series of wacky and occasionally hand illustrated adventures. Personally, it sounds like a hoot. Sign me up. I hope each episode starts with a new lightbulb being changed the TARDIS and includes a cheeky joke about his testicles. Brian’s, I mean, not the Doctor’s. After all, his (as we now know) are optional.

Big Finish pitch three: “A Pond? My Soul! – The Continuing Adventures of Brian Pond” Brian and the Doctor continue their sight seeing trip around the galaxy, with hilarious results! Along the way, they’ll bump into the Axons, the Mandrels and a deadly new breed of Navarinos. 5 x 4 disc box sets.

  1. It’s nice one minute, nasty the next.

The Doctor’s on a bit of rollercoaster ride himself this episode. One minute he’s cheery and childlike, boasting about his Christmas list. But once Solomon turns up to spoil his fun, he turns into a dark vengeance wreaker. In a rare display of ruthlessness, he blows up Solomon’s ship with him in it, coldly referencing the slaughter of the ship’s original inhabitants as justification.

Actually, the whole story’s cheery and childlike one minute, then dark and violent the next. It’s not just the Doctor’s retribution or Solomon’s creepy abduction of Nefi, it’s the whole tone of the thing, which is perhaps best summed up by the moment when Solomon shoots Tricey the Triceratops, which had, up until that point, been the most joyous and kid-friendly element in the story (Mrs Spandrell won’t watch the episode because of that moment).

It’s an unsettling feeling, to be led to think that you’re embarking on one of Doctor Who’s trademark “enjoyable romps” only to then be confronted by mass murder, random acts of violence and the hint of sexual sadism. Still, I’m sure it’s only a one-off.

BBC One pitch: “Doctor Who” An exciting adventure in time and space by Chris Chibnall. Early evening slot on Saturdays. 10 x 50 mins episodes.

LINK TO… World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls. Both star David Bradley.

NEXT TIME… medieval misfits! We’re beset by The King’s Demons.

BUT FIRST…. Another in the (very) occasional series of Random Extras, by way of a side trip to Shada.

Metamorphosis, antithesis and World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (2017)

weat

There was a moment, not long before World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls went to air, when a preview clip was released, in which Peter Capaldi delivered an innocent line which was the cause of much derision and consternation. It was:

DOCTOR: Don’t forget to subscribe to the official Doctor Who YouTube channel.

No, it wasn’t. It was:

DOCTOR: It’s a Cyberman. A Mondasian Cyberman!

The problem was that made-up adjective “Mondasian.” On Twitter, there was widespread mockery. Fans jeered the Doctor’s use of a term which only a fan would understand; it was an unnecessary, anorak-y embellishment. Fans are often sensitive to indications that the show is catering too closely to them at the expense of the general public. That way, so accepted fan wisdom goes, lies the appalling self referential indulgence of the mid 80s and the slow demise of old school Who. By daring to first invent and then actually use an adjectival form of the name of a fictional planet, the show attracted open derision from its most ardent supporters. Well, so far, so fandom.

The irony is that Peter Capaldi, who dared utter that newly created word, is also a fan. Specifically, he’s a fan of Mondasian Cybermen. As an 8 year old boy, he watched them stagger across his 405 line monochrome TV set in The Tenth Planet. He requested their return to the show, and Steven Moffat concocted a way to bring them back. If the show suddenly looked and sounded like fans were running the asylum, well, the point is, they were. In that environment, it’s kind of impossible to not get words like Mondasian.

I can see why they said it though, and it’s not to prove Capaldi’s or Moffat’s fan credentials. It’s actually for casual viewers, who might not recognise these old style Cybermen as the same as the sort they’ve been used to since they returned to the modern series. That line is reassuring those viewers that yes, these odd, stocking faced things with lamps on their heads are Cybermen, just a different type. If it comes off as a piece of fannish indulgence, fine, but the intention behind that line’s more practical than that. Still, it says something about fandom’s great need for being taken seriously, amplified by social media, that this became a Mondasian storm in a Cyber teacup.

More worrying is now presumably we have to get grumpy at all the other made up adjectives we’ve adopted over the decades. Goodbye Gallifreyan. Sayonara Skarovian. Ta ta Taran, Tythonian, Tellurian and all the rest.

***

Capaldi’s also a fan of Kafka. He recently produced an illustration for a new edition of the Czech writer’s classic novella Metamorphosis, and that book is an element of the plot of Capaldi’s short film, Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Metamorphosis is the story of a young man who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a grotesque insect creature, and the subsequent torment it causes him and his family.

It’s almost too obvious to say that Doctor Who is inherently about change, but World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is infused with it. In fact, it’s about a particular sort of change, one where characters are changed into a new form inimical to their original selves. The story’s most chilling image is of those Cybermen as works in progress, waiting in a cold hospital ward, crying out in pain, but with their volume knobs turned down. That’s Metamorphosis right there. But then it’s taken a step further, and the characters who are transformed into nightmarish reflections of themselves are confronted by that change, in a way where both versions exist simultaneously.

Take, for instance, Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the Master (John Simm). Both are the same person, with the familiar badinage we recognise from multiple multi-Doctor stories (only saucier). The difference here is that Missy is changing into something the Master is not; someone with compassion, who wants to do the right thing – even to stand in battle alongside the Doctor. This existential angst is too much for either one to bear, and they end up killing each other, rather than let the alternative version of each other exist.

And of course, there’s Bill (Pearl Mackie), with a hole the size of Mondas shot in her chest, transformed gradually into a Cyberman. It’s a particularly cruel fate for a companion who has been so singularly individual, marked out by her style, humour and warmth, to become a soulless tin man. Like Gregor, the insect-man in Metamorphosis, she’s locked away, isolated from other human beings. Her personality remains intact, inside that Cyber suit and we viewers see her as she still sees herself, so we get to see the two versions of her, not side by side, but shot by shot. “I don’t want to live if I can’t be me anymore,” she tells the Doctor, expressing this clear hatred for what she’s become.

The Doctor too is changing. With all these people around him, changing into their abhorred opposites, he can’t help but resist the inevitable. His regeneration starts here, after an electrified Cyber hug, but he does everything he can to delay it. It mustn’t help that he’s surrounded by Cybermen, walking, stomping symbols of enforced physical change. Cybermen became all Cyber when they started replacing their organs with new versions, as a way of prolonging their lives. They’re as twisted a reflection of regeneration as the show’s ever produced.

To me, this explains the Doctor’s sudden need to name check his past Cyber adventures, while picking them off like targets at a fairground stall. “Telos! Voga!” etc (though I notice he leaves out some of the less auspicious examples. Can you imagine? “Space station W3! Windsor! That department store I worked in for 15 minutes!”) because he’s defining himself as the anti-Cyberman. He’s their nemesis; as he said to Missy and the Master, he’s always been the only way to destroy a shedload of the buggers. He’ll be damned if he’s going to follow their lead, and transform himself into his own antithesis.

***

Where, I wonder, is the 8 year old girl, watching these episodes on her iPad, who will one day pull off her own transformation, do a Capaldi and become the Doctor? Who will one day be filming Cybermen stories of her very own, when she says, “remember the Mondasian Cybermen?” I suspect she won’t be embarrassed by the adjective. I suspect it will distinguish this episode as an epic; the one with the Cyberised companion, the two Masters and the dying Doctor.

Ages ago I asked if The Tenth Planet was brilliant or rubbish. When it’s still inspiring Doctor Who this vivid, dark and daring fifty years on, its brilliance is proven. So yeah, let’s call them Mondasian Cybermen. Because by being distinct from all the others (“Glass chins! Visible brains! Those skinny ones from the comic strip!”) and by lingering so long in so many memories, they’ve earned their own adjective.

LINK TO Boom Townboth feature villains facing moral qualms.

NEXT TIME… I know! Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

 

Dates, fates and Boom Town (2005)

boomtown

In much the same way that 21st century Doctor Who used to have celebrity historicals, it also used to have “bottle shows”. As Russell T Davies explained in The Shooting Scripts, the bottle show is the cheap episode in a season. One of the side effects of having fewer episodes per season is that the budget seems better spread across each episode. If there’s a bottle show in series 9 and 10, it’s not immediately apparent.

Certainly not in the way that it’s apparent in Boom Town, the eleventh episode of the first series of Doctor Who’s modern run. Watching it again for the first time in yonks, I was struck by just how low-budget it looks. Davies claims that he wanted to show off Cardiff in this episode, in order to thank the city and its people for hosting the show, but sticking close to home is also the cheapest way to shoot something. Not for Boom Town exotic alien spaceships, CGI monsters or the London blitz brought to life. It’s a drama played out in council offices, restaurants and public squares.

On paper, it doesn’t sound like a setting guaranteed to captivate an audience. But Davies spots the opportunity to use those mundane backdrops in a story of interpersonal drama. The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, pitch perfect) and Blon Fel Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, AKA Margaret (Annette Badlands, equally pitch perfect) spend the episode sparring verbally, as the Doctor prepares to pack her off for execution by her own kind. And as Davies has said, with two actors of this calibre, that’s all you need.

To save Cardiff from a catastrophic nuclear explosion, the Doctor must return Margaret to her home planet, where she faces fatal retribution. To save herself, Margaret must convince the Doctor to spare her.

In its understated way, Boom Town positions the Doctor in a stark new light; for once, he has a prisoner, who is begging him for her life. And despite the fact that Margaret is sly and treacherous throughout –  it turns out, she has engineered the whole sitation – her appeals are enough to give the Doctor (and the audience) pause for thought. This episode remains the one which most keenly questions the Doctor’s levels of mercy.

The crucial moment in the episode is when Margaret pleads that she’s capable of compassion, arguing that only that afternoon, she refrained from killing a pregnant woman. The Doctor’s response is shrewd but reveals more about him that he intended.

DOCTOR: You let one of them go, but that’s nothing new. Every now and then, a little victim’s spared because she smiled, because he’s got freckles, because they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while, on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction, you happen to be kind.

MARGARET: Only a killer would know that.

The point Margaret makes is telling because she’s not relying on the mercy of a pure heart. The mercy of a killer is surely harder to secure than that of a simpler hero. Earlier in this same season, we saw the Doctor coldly watch as Cassandra was ripped apart, making no effort to save her, passing judgement on her for her crimes. So we know he’s prepared to draw a distinction between good and bad, and he won’t shy away from capital punishment, as long as he’s given the villain a chance to give up the game. For a person who is such a defender of life, he’s prepared to take other lives in that defence.

That’s an inherent contradiction in the Doctor that long term viewers are familiar with. The question that Boom Town poses is, will the Doctor relent and show Margaret the mercy he didn’t show Cassandra?

*****

While all this is going on, Rose (Billie Piper) is also on an awkward date. She’s summoned Mickey (Noel Clarke) to Cardiff to bring her passport, but it’s a ruse; she just wants to see him again. So they head off into the night to paint the town Welsh red. Not that I’ve ever been to Cardiff, so I shouldn’t really slag it off, but I notice this doesn’t take long and so they end up aimlessly wandering the streets, presumably looking for an open kebab van.

During all the time they spend eluding Cardiff’s nightlife, they recap on the state of their relationship. Initially, it looks like they might sneak away for a dirty overnighter, which would have been an unexpected innovation for the new series (they should watch out, though. We know what happens Doctor Who characters who sneak off for a quick shag.) But then it transpires that Mickey has hooked up with another girl next door and Rose isn’t at all pleased.

There’s a surprising amount of screen time devoted to these scenes; much more than would be given over to similar domestic drama these days. I mean, Amy Pond lost her baby in fewer scenes than this. But we never get to a resolution because soon enough the city is being torn asunder and Rose is racing back to the Doctor’s side. Mickey presumably has to go find a hotel on his own, which will be much less fun.

On the face of it, there’s not much linking the Rose/Mickey story and the Doctor/Margaret story. But if there is, perhaps it’s this: the whiff of sexism. It’s the women who are the instigators of trouble here. Rose and Margaret are the schemers, manipulating the men around them, hoping to have their cakes and eat them too. Neither of them get to do so, of course, but still, the impression is that the women are the ones playing the men.

We never get to find out if the Doctor would spare Margaret’s life. Without warning or explanation, a panel of the TARDIS console flips open and a white light turns her into an egg. She gets to live her life again, a second chance that Rose wants too; another admission that it’s the women of this piece who have sins to atone for.

But more to the point, the Doctor is spared facing the moral dilemma he’s been contemplating all episode. Like the much promised big explosion which never actually happens, so the question of how much mercy the Doctor has never gets answered. The boom fails to go off in Boom Town. Twice.

Still, worst off in this episode is Jack (John Barrowman), who spends most of it in the TARDIS fiddling with wires. If only he’d known his future Torchwood self was outside somewhere in Cardiff, standing precariously on buildings or wiping people’s memories, he could have found and hooked up with himself. Taken poor Mickey’s empty hotel room for a bit. You know he would have. Hopefully, he would have bought himself a drink first. If he could find somewhere open in Cardiff, of course.

LINK TO Smile: In both, the Doctor sits down for a meal.

NEXT TIME: I never will be able to find the words. But I’ll give it a shot anyway with World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls.

 

Brian, Steven and Smile (2017)

smile

BRIAN MINCHIN: OK, love the plans for Episode One. Great start to our season planning conference, Steven. See, not as hard as all that, is it? Steven? Steven, get away from the window.

STEVEN MOFFAT: Is this locked? Why is it locked? I just need a breath of fresh air. Just a short walk to the shops!

MINCHIN: Now Steven we’ve been through all this. All the exits are locked until we get the season mapped out.

MOFFAT: This is ridiculous! We’ve got plenty of time. I don’t know what everyone’s worried about.

MINCHIN: We start shooting tomorrow.

MOFFAT: Exactly! That leaves all of today and tonight and a bit of the morning! Plus I can keep writing while they’re shooting!

MINCHIN: Look, you know the deal. Give us one more season – just one – and we’ll release you from your contract. That door’s also locked, put the crowbar away.

MOFFAT: Just one more season? Then I’m free?

MINCHIN: And won’t it be nice to have all the scripts ready ahead of time?

MOFFAT: Nice for you, maybe. Look, there’s Benedict Cumberbatch!

MINCHIN: I’m not falling for that, Steven. Now sit down, relax and tell me about Episode Two.

MOFFAT: All right. OK then. So it’s set on this planet, a future human colony, where you have to smile or you get killed.

MINCHIN: Riiiight…

MOFFAT: What’s wrong with that?

MINCHIN: Nothing. It’s great. Keep going.

MOFFAT: No, what’s wrong with it? That’s genuine 100% Moffat genius, that is!

MINCHIN: It’s just… that’s The Happiness Patrol, isn’t it?

MOFFAT: No it’s not! It’s completely different.

MINCHIN: How is it different?

MOFFAT: Well there’s no Happiness Patrol, for a start. No Helen A or Fifi. And certainly no Kandyman!

MINCHIN: I’m certainly glad to hear that! Can you imagine? A novelty robot with some cutesy, gimmicky design quirk. What is the monster, by the way?

MOFFAT: I think I see a trap door over there…

MINCHIN: Steven…

MOFFAT: *mumbles*

MINCHIN: Louder, Steven.

MOFFAT: Emojibots.

MINCHIN: Robots which communicate via emojis?

MOFFAT: But they’re not like the Kandyman, OK? For a start, there are heaps of them and they’re white, silent and featureless.

MINCHIN: So they’re more like the Handbots then?

MOFFAT: No Brian, they’re a completely new idea!

MINCHIN: OK, fine.

MOFFAT: And anyway, they’re not even the monster. The emojibots are just the interface for thousand of microscopic robots which make up the buildings of this colony.

MINCHIN: So they’re like the nanogenes in The Empty Child?

MOFFAT: No, Brian. These ones strip the flesh from people’s bones leaving only their skeletons behind!

MINCHIN: Like the Vashta Nerada.

MOFFAT: Look, do you want 12 episodes this year or will we have to make another series of Class?

MINCHIN: No, no! All fine, let’s keep going. What else happens in it?

MOFFAT: Right, so you have to keep smiling, right? Or the bots kill you. So imagine smiling all the time, even when those around you are dying. The physical strain of having to smile through all that… the tension will be palpable! And look, Capaldi will have to actually smile, that alone will be worth the cost of admission.

MINCHIN: It’s just that…

MOFFAT: Oh, here we go!

MINCHIN: Well, that’s Blink, isn’t it? Not being able to do an involuntary physical action on pain of death. And you did it again in Deep Breath. And kind of in Last Christmastoo, where people couldn’t think about the dream crab things.

MOFFAT: Yeah, but it’s still good!

MINCHIN: Hey, that’s a thought: there are no dream states or people trapped in virtual worlds or anything again?

MOFFAT: No, of course not. Not until Episode Six.

MINCHIN: I hope I remembered to bring the Panadol before I locked that door. Ok, what happens next?

MOFFAT: So the Doctor and Bill meet this young kid…

MINCHIN: Of course they do.

MOFFAT: who leads them to a buried spaceship…

MINCHIN: a LINK to Closing Time

MOFFAT: where cryogenically frozen humans, who have fled from a global catastrophe are all waking up…

MINCHIN: Hello, The Ark in Space

MOFFAT: and fighting breaks out between the humans and their former, and now self-aware servants…

MINCHIN: via The Rebel Flesh…

MOFFAT: before the Doctor works out that it’s all due to…

MINCHIN: Malfunctioning technology?

MOFFAT: Great! Yes! And then the Doctor…

MINCHIN: Reboots the system?

MOFFAT: How did you know?

MINCHIN: Lucky guess. I can see you trying to get that ventilation shaft open, Steven.

MOFFAT: (acidly) Just checking for new, un-cliched ideas.

MINCHIN: Seriously? In a ventilation shaft?

MOFFAT: Anyway, that’s Episode Two.

MINCHIN: What will we call it? The Happiness Robots? The Nanobot Patrol?

MOFFAT: I was thinking just Smile.

MINCHIN: Sure, again like Blink and Deep Breath and Listen and so on. Well, we can make it look a bit exotic, emphasise the differences…

MOFFAT: Look, give me a break Minchin! I’ve been on this show since 2005. I’ve written more Doctor Who than anyone ever. Every year there’s another dozen episodes to fill. So yes, I’m going to, occasionally, repeat myself. It’s gonna happen.

MINCHIN: Fair enough. Let’s get someone else in to write it then. Who do you want?

MOFFAT: I was thinking FCB.

MINCHIN: FC Barcelona?

MOFFAT: No, but ooh… we should shoot it in Spain! But I meant Frank Cottrell Boyce.

MINCHIN: You’re right, I’m sure everyone’s forgiven him by now. OK, so Episode Three?

MOFFAT: Right, so, set at the last great frost fair.

MINCHIN: Oh, good, so like you mentioned in A Good Man Goes to War.

MOFFAT: And beneath the Thames, there’s a giant marine creature being tortured…

MINCHIN: So, like The Beast Below?

MOFFAT: I swear, I will erase you from Doctor Who, Brian!

*awkward pause*

MINCHIN: The Happiness Patrol, eh?

MOFFAT: Count yourself lucky it wasn’t Silver Nemesis.

*door opens*

FLUNKIE: Steven, can you sign off on this? Someone wants to complete Shada again, this time using woollen puppets and dioramas.

MOFFAT: Yes, of course. *bolts through the door*

MINCHIN: *sighs* Get Chibnall on the phone. See if he can start early.

NEXT TIME… and I was having such a nice day. We take a trip down to Boom Town.