All posts by johnnyspandrell

Stories, swimwear and Planet of Fire (1984)

planet of fire

Put aside, for a moment, the standard line on this story: that its main distinguishing feature is its requirement to incorporate a lengthy wishlist of script elements – your writing out of him, your introducing her, and your specified location of the other. Forget all that, and without reference to Wikipedia, see if you can answer this question:

What is Planet of Fire about?

No, go on, I’ll wait.

If you’re like me (lucky, lucky you), although you’ve watched Planeta de Fuego many times, you’re never quite sure what story it’s trying to tell. I think the reason is, it’s trying to tell several stories at once, and none are the dominant one. There’s lots going on – most of it interesting and well played, but the central dramatic idea behind the story, whatever it is, is lost. Let’s try to find it.

Perhaps it’s that a community needs to be rescued from an impending volcanic eruption, but is paralysed by religious superstition. This has real dramatic potential, but it’s played and directed like the cast and crew are on a leisurely holiday somewhere picturesque and summery. No one acts as if they’re sitting on a geological time bomb, even though they talk about it a lot. Compare this to Inferno, which has a similar underlying threat that permeates the whole thing with tension and a sense of doom.

Or perhaps it’s that a mad zealot is trying to gain control of his society so he can execute anyone he pleases, ostensibly in the name of religion but clearly for power’s sake. Again, not a bad plot and one which can and has been the basis of Doctor Who stories from The Aztecs to The Curse of Peladon. And there’s no doubt that Timanov (Peter Wyngarde) is as bad an egg as that long line of high priests ever produced; listen to him speak in his opening scene, justifying how he incinerates people. “It’s still a wise precaution to send the occasional free-thinker to the flames,” he opines to new apprentice Malkon (Edward Highmore), while strolling around some 1980s version of an AirBnB, complete with exotic ceiling sculptures.“It can be a rewarding experience for those consumed in the flames. Unbelievers are such unhappy souls.”

I mean, the guy’s a monster. He should clearly be the story’s villain, but in fact, he gets treated more sympathetically as the story goes on. This man who sides with the bad guy, dismisses any view which is contrary to his and, most tellingly burns people alive is basically humoured for four episodes and then asked to stick around because he can get stuff organised.

His punishment is having his religion disproven in front of his eyes, but when this happens, he does nothing to redeem himself for all the deaths he’s caused in the name of a bloke in a silver jumpsuit. He just gets forgotten about, disappearing between scenes. He got off lightly. By rights, he should die in the flames trying to stop the Master, but no, he just wanders off. Even Old Hepesh got savaged by a bear.

Perhaps this story is about the Master (Anthony Ainley), seeking to heal himself. The problem is here, that it needs some connection to the plight of the Sarns. The simplest way would be to make the Master’s renewal spark a process which would cause the death of everyone else (like, say, oh I don’t know, a volcanic explosion maybe?), thereby posing a moral threat which the Master wouldn’t care about but the Doctor (Peter Davison) would.

The other thing about the Master’s story is that the stakes should be higher. He should be on death’s door, and the healing fire of Sarn should be a last desperate gamble. But no, the problem’s more comical than that; the problem is that he’s shrunk himself to the size of a particularly gamey mouse. So instead of Peri (Nicola Bryant) stumbling on a cadaverous ghoul of a man, hiding in his TARDIS, she ends up chasing him around with her shoe. I mean, it’s funny, but screamingly odd.

Or perhaps it’s Turlough’s (Mark Strickson) story, one of homecoming and former sins redeemed. And it kind of is, but again, we get no real sense of what’s at stake. Would Turlough die if his fellow Trions came to save the Sarns? Or would his natural treachery mean he’d be tempted to let everyone die a fiery death as long as he could escape? Over at Flight Through Entirety (which you should definitely be listening to, if you’re not already), they made the interesting point that when Turlough calls in the Trions, he makes the same choice as the Doctor in The War Games. But there, we knew the Doctor was desperately terrified and the Time Lords punished him for his old crimes. Here, a man in a green jumpsuit simply tells Turlough that everyone’s moved on while he’s been away.

The truth is, Planet of Fire is telling all these stories at once, rather than emphasising the one with the most potential to grip its viewers. There’s something about this story – perhaps its light touch direction, or its wordy script – that consistently underplays its dramatic elements and robs it of focus. It has so much to say that it constantly stumbles over its words.

But y’know what though?

I rather love it.

I love that the production team travels half way around the world to film in a new, exotic quarry. I love that it’s sunny for once, so suddenly everyone starts taking their clothes off. Between shirtless Howard (Dallas Adams), bikini clad Peri and Turlough (of all people) in his sluggos, the show has suddenly gone all pervy. No doubt sexual appetites of all varieties were awakened in the show’s many teenage viewers.

I love that Kamelion, an awkward silver mannequin, which can barely stand up and no-one knows how to operate, gets a proper, pathos-filled farewell story rather than a throwaway line about having dropped him off to study graphology or something, because it’s an official companion now and we write out companions properly, dammit. And I love how everyone without fail is wearing too much eyeliner. The Master won’t even have to touch up his until The Doctor Falls.

And I love Davison, dashing in his shirt sleeves and question mark braces (best not to wonder about his sluggos. They’re probably smothered in question marks). Properly frustrated with Turlough’s secrecy. Properly invested in getting the Sarns to safety, while matter of factly scaring the daylights out of them (when talking about the volcanic vents the Sarns uses as shortcuts, he says, coolly, “It’s the same route the molten lava will take to burn you alive.”).

But most of all, I love that moment of shocked realisation after he watches the Master, his oldest friend, being burned alive by a trap he set. He stands at the TARDIS console, saying nothing, but clearly stunned and dismayed. As gentle and as moving a moment as any in the show’s history. There’s Davison, 90 mins from leaving the show, and still striving it make it more than strangely named white men in quarries wearing too much eyeliner.

In that single moment, there are the multiple complexities of the Doctor’s friendships; with the Master, Turlough, Kamelion and now Peri. And the revelation that those looking for easy answers – a magic flame, a benevolent god or running away from your past – will always be disappointed. Perhaps that’s what Planet of Fire’s about.

LINK TO Oxygen: critically injured Time Lords.

NEXT TIME: Buckle up for a Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.

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Blindness, business and Oxygen (2017)

oxygen

Long term readers will recall my pathetic attempts to predict what’s going to happen in Doctor Who. Previously, I’ve expected David Tennant to become a power mad despot and Missy to be Romana. So far, so wildly inaccurate. But there was some mild excitement earlier in the year, when something I suggested in a post about, of all things, The Doctor’s Daughter, came to pass during series 10. On that occasion I said:

What else might have a chance of disrupting the Doctor’s world? Could, for instance, he incur a disability of some kind? What would, for instance, a blind Doctor be like for a couple of stories, or even a series?

Now, thanks be to Moff, we know. In mid season thriller Oxygen, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is blinded and stays that way through the next two episodes. He does it saving companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) from suffocation in deep space and there’s no quick and easy reset switch for this problem.

Although there is a workaround. In Extremis, the Doctor learns to rely on his sonic sunglasses, which give him an onscreen readout piped straight into his brain. It’s only a partial fix; he still needs confidante Nardole (Matt Lucas) to give voice to self-knowing lines like, “oh look, it’s a mysterious light, shining round a corner, approximately ten feet away.” So really, I should have guessed what would happen to the show with a blind Doctor; the dialogue suddenly sounds like Big Finish.

It also means certain scenarios have to be meticulously constructed. Consider the tricksy climax to The Pyramid at the End of the World. The Doctor has concocted a way of destroying a deadly virus by blowing up the room it’s encased in. Problem is, he’s trapped on the wrong side of a locked door. He knows the combination to the lock, but he can’t see it. Time is running out and he’s helpless.

To make this situation work, though, there has to be a very particular number pad attached to this lock. It has to have no raised numbers or braille which the Doctor could feel. It can’t be electronic, which could register on the sonic sunglasses. It has to run horizontally across; if it was a standard 4×3 pad the Doctor could deduce the placement of the numbers. And it has to be out of view of the Doctor’s new friend Erica, so he can’t be guided to the answer.

So I don’t know about the Doctor’sblindnesss bring to the series that element of disruption. But it certainly meant a lot of contrivance.

But hey, don’t let me be churlish about this. I think it’s still a welcome and innovative development for the series. And as I’ve said before, finding new things for the show to do is hard. But it would have been nice is the Doctor’s blindness was presented as something more than a constant obstacle to be overcome. What did the Doctor learn from the experience? Was their any upside at all? Wouldn’t it have been great if the Doctor could have defeated the mummified Monks using some skill or insight he gained from being blind?

*****

Anyway, none of this is being very fair to Oxygen, a taut and nervy episode about the fragility of human life in space. It owes a considerable debt to Gravity, the 2014 blockbuster in which Sandra Bullock persevered through an increasingly unlikely but nonetheless nerve wracking series of misadventures in space. In its original conception, Oxygen was to be about the Doctor and co jumping from spaceship to spaceship, which is exactly what happens in Gravity, where Bullock’s character strives to survive an orbital calamity and get back to Earth.

Both take their starting points from how inimical space is to human survival, to jolt us out of our usual unthinking acceptance of other sci-fi conveniences like artificial gravity, omnipresent oxygen, consistent atmospheric pressure, lack of radiation and doors that go shuck shuck. It’s nice to be reminded of all these cosmic realities, but give us a few episodes and we’ve forgotten the lot; compare this careful approach to realism with the giant magical layer cake which is the spaceship in World Enough and Time.

Even though it’s temporary, Oxygen’s concern that everything outside our biosphere’s ready to kill us is a good starting point for a story that races from one predicament to the next with barely time to draw precious breath. Along the way, it will, ahem, breathlessly tell a story about an unseen, unfeeling corporate entity, killing a space station’s crew as an efficiency measure. Cue one of Doctor Who’s long standing tropes, big business as the baddy. Oxygen’s ruthless but nameless “Company” could be the same one as featured in The Sun Makers or Terminus. There are no distinguishing features; its placement of profit over people is enough for us to recognise the stereotype.

In the Company’s modus operandi, you can see the reflection of a couple of contemporary concerns: that we’ll all lose our jobs as robots take over (look, for instance, at that scene of the occupant-free suit moving boxes around, without care nor paycheque) and AI will outwit us all in the end (sinister satnav gets another run). But the added sting in this tale is that the company’s ruthless commercialism is constantly apparent. Not just that it sells oxygen, the very stuff of life, in an environment where you can’t do without it. But also because it knows the marginal cost of maintaining the life of one crew member is more than that of murdering them. The most heinous of sums. That’s far more frightening than a troupe of dead men walking in animated suits.

Still, it makes the Doctor’s solution to the problem very neat. He just has to change one of the factors in that sum, and make it more expensive to kill the humans than keep them alive. It’s elegant, and rather heartbreaking when in response, the corpse-carrying suits hand over their remaining oxygen to the survivors. It’s an ending which works so well thematically, it’s hard to forgive the terrible cheat of pretending to kill Bill. Just keep her alive and leave her with the Doctor and co, racing against time, zombies breathing down their necks… that’s enough to make us hold our breaths.

****

Now weirdly enough, I’m on a roll with this prediction lark. Along with the Doctor’s blindness I also managed to predict a Capaldi/Bradley mash up. Unbelievable! I see no reason to stop now, but I’ll stick to some safer ground.  So hear are some not-so-bold predictions. In Doctor Who, capitalism will always be bad. Monsters will always stomp. Crew members will always be forgettable cannon fodder. And bringing scares to the small screen will remain Doctor Who’s lifeblood, as essential as oxygen.

LINK TO The Tomb of the Cybermen. Mechanical bad guys.

NEXT TIME: I’m not spending all afternoon exploring a Cro-Magnon cave with some octogenarian from Miami Beach. Instead I’m spending it on a Planet of Fire.

 

Women, men and The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967)

tomb2

Here’s a story which has taken a long and winding path. Fondly remembered from its original screening, then lost for 25 years. Found in Hong Kong and rush-released to an eager fandom, some who found it matched every rosy memory they’d ever had, some who found it disappointingly hokey.

Some subsequent critical analyses found it lacking; the plot sags in the middle, the Doctor’s (Patrick Troughton) modus operandi is illogical and its attitude to race is highly suspect. But still, it commands affection, scoring highly in various polls. Steven Moffat still loves it and talks about it all the time. Famously, it’s the story that turned Matt Smith into a gushing fan. We’ve been around the block with this one.

Me, I came to it in 1992, like so many others. I bought it on VHS, even though my family didn’t own a VCR to play it on.(My mother, always suspicious of television, having read an alarmist book on its effect on children, luridly titled The Plug-in Drug, only had a TV set in our house under sufferance, to borrow a phrase from Tomb. The thought of shelling out for a machine which recorded TV programs for repeat viewings was a bridge too far.) So I rented a VCR for a weekend. God knows how many times I watched that tape that weekend. Etching it into my memory.

What a glorious thing watching a previously missing episode for the first time is. That sense of utter amazement at what you’re seeing. And how equally amazing that it’s become a periodic treat for Doctor Who fans in the 25 years since Tomb was found and rushed into our homes. Tomb, The Lion, Day of Armageddon, Air Lock, The Underwater Menace 2 and most stunningly The Enemy of the World and nearly all of The Web of Fear. Those exhilarating days when you hit play and watch long lost Who. May there be many more.

****

So raking over the ashes of Tomb is something we’ve been doing for a long time. Every frame of it has been pored over and no doubt by undertaking that detailed look, we’re also trying to recapture some of the magic of that first, revelatory viewing. But here’s something I don’t see talked about much: among its towering monsters, tangled storyline and bad guys with foreign accents and dark skin, it’s a peculiar place to find an old fashioned battle of the sexes.

That we only get two female characters – tremulous new companion Victoria (Deborah Watling) and exotic villainess Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin) – is a stereotypical norm, hardly surprising for 60s Doctor Who. But there’s also the funny positioning of how a woman should behave. In The Tomb of the Cybermen, of all things.

Victoria develops a sparring relationship with Captain Hopper (George Roubicek) who clearly thinks Victoria is too mouthy for his conception of femininity. “Who’d be a woman?” complains Victoria at one stage, having been prohibited from heading down to the Cybermen’s subterranean tombs. “How would you know, honey?” he snaps back.

Such a strange observation about Victoria, who this story positions as the terrified female of so much pulp fiction; worried about what to wear, potentially frightened by the TARDIS taking off, needing to be coaxed and chaperoned into the adventure itself. Suddenly, she’s so pushy she’s not even female anymore? Not to worry, it’s not long before she reverts to type and needs to be rescued from something.

Except that she gets her own back on Hopper later on, saying sarcastically to him, “It’s comforting to know that we have your superior strength to call on, should we need it.” Apart from being a very strange thing for Victoria to say, it’s part of a macho strain running through Tomb, where male characters are judged and needled about their physical strength.

It starts with a light-hearted moment, where Jamie (Frazer Hines) finds himself unable to open the doors to the tomb. Embarrassed, he claims, “well, I’ve no’ had much exercise lately!”, to which the Doctor archly replies, “Quite.” Muscleman Toberman (Roy Stewart) is on hand to take over and succeeds at this feat of strength, where Jamie, no slouch in the physical fitness department, failed.

Later on, chief whiner Viner (Cyril Shaps) is similarly taunted about his lack of brawn. When investigating the restoration room with Kaftan, she tells him that she’s sent Toberman away. “We do not need any other protection now that you are with us,” she says, with a subtle but loaded squeeze of his bicep. At once, she positions the women as needing protection and Viner as the one to supply it. But Viner is a slight, weedy chap. It’s clear the comment is meant to undermine him.

Why all this focus on whether men are physically strong or not? Perhaps it’s simply part of the boy’s own adventure theme of this story. Or perhaps it’s related to the fact that there are two feats of male strength which will bring the story to its climax: Toberman’s defeat of the Cyber Controller (Michael Kilgariff) in single combat and his shutting of the tomb’s doors. It’s odd that a story which is meant to be about intelligence and logic, hinges on the physical prowess of blokes.

Back to our lady friends and we still have Kaftan to deal with. She’s clearly the Lady Macbeth of the piece, as she’s the one who has to strategise on behalf of fellow conspirator Klieg (George Pavell). Even though he’s supposed to be the master planner, it’s her who has to constantly pull him into line and tell him which bit to do next. She’s also the one who has the money to fund the expedition in the first place, so in many ways she’s a powerful instigator within the story.

She’s a strong, influential presence in the story; no one taunts her about her gender, as she does to others. She’s also a figure of devotion by Toberman. It’s his fury at her death at the hands of the Cybemen which provokes him to defeat them. And in a way, it’s a failure of that physical power that he has such a glut of. He was meant to protect her, in both the literal sense that he’s her bodyguard, and in the thematic position this story takes that that’s what men are supposed to do. He’s basically made impotent; all he can do now is destroy.

So who’d be a man? Who’d be a woman? And what does it mean to be either? Amidst all the thrills and spills of Doctor Who’s adventures underground with Cybermen, here’s a story that wants to talk about gender roles. Maybe not in a very sophisticated way, but still it’s there.

This is why we’re still examining and debating Tomb after all these years. Because despite it being a familiar and straightforward story, there’s still lots of it to unearth.

LINK TO The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang: Subterranean Cybermen.

NEXT TIME… Space. The final frontier. We take a big gulp of Oxygen.

ADDENDUM: How would you know, honey?

Over on Twitter, two learned Whoheads, Will Brooks and Darth Egregious have pointed out something about the “how would you know, honey?” exchange referenced above. I’ve read this moment to be Hopper having a dig at Victoria’s ladylike-ness for being too mouthy. Both these guys have read it as a reference to her age, saying Hopper is pointing out that Victoria’s still a girl. Which has led me to consider the question, how old is Victoria meant to be?

As far as I can tell, her age is never mentioned on screen. Deborah Watling was 19 when The Evil of the Daleks entered production, so we could suppose that Victoria is the same age. Moreover, there are a few other indications that she’s an adult, albeit a young one, rather than a child.

Firstly, she’s a replacement companion for Polly, who was an adult character. While this in itself doesn’t prove anything, we know that the production team was looking for another young woman (rather than a girl) to be the new companion, because their first choice was Pauline Collins as Sam. Again, they could have changed tack after Collins declined the offer to join the show, but it does seem that the production team wasn’t planning on matching Troughton and Hines with a child.

Secondly, Victoria’s subsequent stories position her as character with sex appeal. In The Ice Warriors, Jamie jokes with her about wearing more revealing clothing. In The Enemy of the World, she’s frequently referred to as Jamie’s girlfriend. Again, it proves nothing definitively, but it’s to be hoped that the show saw her as above the age of consent and wasn’t deliberately sexualising an underage girl.

Finally, if the line was meant to signify that Victoria’s a child, why isn’t it “how would you know, kid?” or something similar? The use of the word “honey” is a little more suggestive of a romantic relationship. And that fits better with Hopper and Victoria’s ongoing sniping at each other throughout Tomb.

So as far as I can work out, Victoria’s an adult and Hopper’s line is a kind of eye-rolling snark to a woman being too argumentative for his taste. Think I’m on the wrong track? Comment away!

Zeg, Tarrant and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (2010)

pando opens 2

TARRANT: Dalek Zeg! We had best get on with organising this alliance of alien races for our latest campaign against the Doctor.

ZEG: Oh, bugger it! How did we get lumbered with this, Dalek Tarrant? I’ve already been doing overtime on the redesign of our casings!

TARRANT: Yes, and look how well that went down, Zeg.

ZEG: It was going fine till they made me add that hump on the back.

TARRANT: Anyway… what we need is an alliance of alien badasses that will scare the etheric beam locators off anyone who dares to question the might of the Daleks!

ZEG: Don’t we already have an alliance, lying about the place somewhere?

TARRANT: We used to have one, but it was pissweak. Remember? There was that spiny faced guy…

ZEG: Oh that’s right. And the seaweed in a big robe.

TARRANT: That big black Christmas tree…

ZEG: And that guy covered in half globes! He looked ridiculous!

TARRANT: So none of those numpties get invited again.

ZEG: All right, who do you want for this lot then?

TARRANT: Well, the Nestene Consciousness, I suppose, ‘cos we’re going to need duplicates.

ZEG: Wait a minute, don’t we make duplicates?

TARRANT: Yes, though lately ours have tended to have eye stalks erupt from their foreheads at inappropriate moments.

ZEG: Fair enough, it’s a terrible giveaway. Who else have you got?

TARRANT: Um, the Cybermen?

ZEG: Ooh, that’s going to be totes awks.

TARRANT: Why do you say that, Dalek Zeg?

ZEG: A few years back they proposed an alliance to us. And we exterminated their arses.

TARRANT: They won’t care.

ZEG: They might!

TARRANT: No, they literally won’t care. They can’t, remember? That’s their whole thing.

ZEG: OK, who else you got?

TARRANT: The Sontarans?

ZEG: Ugh. I don’t get those fuckers. They’re supposed to completely obsessed with that “interminable war with the Rutans” TM. But then they’re always getting involved in these other hijinks. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll jump at the idea. Anything to avoid actually prosecuting that war they’re meant to be a part of.

TARRANT: Silurians?

ZEG: Those lizard things? That’s going to be pain. We’re going to have to wake them up. Have you got a big drill or a cyclotron or something? Then we’ll have to explain the whole thing to them… They’ll want to do their whole, “kill all the apes and reclaim our planet” routine… On the other hand, they’re on their home planet, so we won’t need to pay their per diems.

TARRANT: Judoon?

ZEG: Didn’t you already say them?

TARRANT: No, I said Sontarans.

ZEG: What’s the difference?

TARRANT: Not a great deal. But the Judoon have better boots.

ZEG: Oh they’re the police ones, aren’t they? I’m not sure they’re going to want to be in a kind of super group of villains.

TARRANT: Sycorax?

ZEG: Those guys in the big flying rock? Jeez, if you want. None of that voodoo bullshit though. Just let ‘em stand at the back and keep quiet.

TARRANT: The Hoix?

ZEG: The who?

TARRANT: The Weevils?

ZEG: You’re just making shit up now.

TARRANT: Terileptils, Zygons, Chelonians, Drahvins…

ZEG: The Drahvins? Oh come on, I draw the fucking line. A bunch of skinny chicks with elaborate eye make up? Fat lot of use they’ll be. Are they bringing their special magnetic net?

TARRANT: Dalek Zeg, I sense you are not approaching this task constructively.

ZEG: Give me a fucking break, Tarrant. The bloody Drahvins? What a bunch of b-listers. It’ll be the freaking Slitheen next.

TARRANT: Well, actually…

ZEG: Seriously? Why not call the Bandrils? I hear they’ve been free since about 1985. What about the Vardans? I bet we can get the Krotons for equity minimum. Ooh, no I’ve got it… the Monoids! With their cattle prods of doom!

TARRANT: If this is the sort of attitude you brought to the redesign of our casings Zeg, I can see how we ended up looking like giant M&Ms.

ZEG: What’s all this in aid of anyway?

TARRANT: Well, it appears that the Doctor is going to bring about the end of the Universe.

ZEG: Hey, that’s our job!

TARRANT: I know, right? So we’ve got to prevent him from being able to do it.

ZEG: How so?

TARRANT: We’ll lock him in a big box.

ZEG: Genius. Where is this box?

TARRANT: Stonehenge.

ZEG: Um, why?

TARRANT: Well, a scenario has been constructed from the memories of the Doctor’s companion.

ZEG: And she once went to Stonehenge?

TARRANT: No, she liked Roman occupied Britain when she was a kid, and it’s kind of close by. Plus, she likes the box thing, so there’s that as well.

ZEG: But wait a minute, we think this will ensure the Doctor shows up?

TARRANT: It’s a trap the Doctor cannot resist!

ZEG: It just sounds a bit complicated, Tarrant. If we want the Doctor to show up, why don’t we just do something evil? He’s turned up every other time we’ve done that. Without bloody fail!

TARRANT: Yeah, it would be simpler but we just don’t have anything on the drawing board that’s ready to go.

ZEG: OK, so what’s the plan once the Doctor is inevitably drawn to this devious trap?

TARRANT: Well, we shove him in the box.

ZEG: And then?

TARRANT: That’s it.

ZEG: Right. It suddenly goes from hugely complicated to sort of alarmingly simple. And what do all the other alliance members do?

TARRANT: Well the Nestene duplicates…

ZEG: Which we could at a pinch supply ourselves….

TARRANT: Well, they’ll actually put him in the box. Bit hard with the old plungers, y’see.

ZEG: OK, and everyone else?

TARRANT: They just sort of turn up for a gloat.

ZEG: Right. Tarrant, you remember the last time we had an alliance? Remember what our alliance members did then?

TARRANT: Um yeah. They stood around a big desk for a bit. Then they went to a conference and clapped idiosyncratically. Then some of them betrayed us and had to be exterminated. And then we got bored of them and locked them all up.

ZEG: And none of them were strictly speaking necessary either were they?

TARRANT: Not critically, no.

ZEG: Tarrant, this is the dumbest thing we have ever done.

TARRANT: Says the Dalek who painted us the united colours of Benetton.

ZEG: Fair enough. Shall we just exterminate each other now?

TARRANT: Agreed.

*Ka-shoom! Screen goes negative*

LINK TO The Claws of AxosPresumably the Axons are in this formidable bunch of alien badasses somewhere. (With thanks to Will Brooks

NEXT TIME: Mercy, just look at this place. We unearth The Tomb of the Cybermen.

 

Best, brightest and The Claws of Axos (1971)

axos

In a swirl of psychedelic colour and with a fanfare of tinny electronica comes The Claws of Axos. So Pertwee it hurts, this marks the point when the third Doctor’s era turns from hard nosed grittiness to something more comfortable and familiar. The bouffant starts here, you might say, as the show becomes more fantastic and more confident in its bold, brassy house style.

Somewhere, there’s a fan for whom The Claws of Axos is his or her favourite story. I mean, every story is probably someone’s favourite, maybe even Time-Flight. But a recent online conversation has got me thinking about the difference between “favourite” and “best”. With all the love in the world for it, I don’t think Axos has featured too much on anyone’s “best of” list.

So let’s award it a few unexpected best ofs, because there are a few lurking in there, waiting to emerge in a flurry of orange tentacles.

Best obnoxious government official. In a highly competitive field, including a strong contingent from the Pertwee era, Axos comes out of top here. Chinn, as played by Peter Bathurst, is surely the grubbiest, most infuriating of the lot. He blusters and bullies his way through four episodes. He’s obnoxious, he’s annoying and he doesn’t even have the good grace to be killed by Stuart Fell in a rolling orange duvet. But here’s the real kicker about Chinn, with his bull at the gate, Britain for the British nonsense. He was right all the time.

First thing he wanted to do when Axos flew its big yellow leechy self into the atmosphere was blow it up. That namby-pamby Doctor (Jon Pertwee, something dancing in front of his eyeline) wanted to make friends with the bad guys just because they were asking for help. If only Chinn’s plan had worked, a nuclear power station would have been saved, a tramp would have lived and, most tellingly, the Master (Roger Delgado) would have been destroyed.

Best performance in a yellow unitard. You can’t look past (literally, no matter how hard you try) Bernard Holley as the cheerily named Axon Man. I imagine it takes some guts to climb into a lycra bodysuit, but ironically once inside, you must spend a lot of time sucking that gut in. Fair play, Holley pulls it off, after pulling that saffrony horror on. And on top of all that, a mumsy golden wig and ping pong balls for eyes. That he manages to come out of the affair with his dignity intact is testament to his acting talent and a rigourous fitness regime.

Best unnecessary American. Step up Bill Filer (Paul Grist, clearly auditioning for an unmade cop drama). To create a character who features so heavily in a story, and yet is so uncalled for, is quite a feat.

Filer, y’see is a US special agent, billeted out to UNIT in order to capture the Master. Why the US is suddenly interested in the Master is as unremarked upon as why they are never interested in him again. At no point does he need to be American for the plot to function. At no point does he do anything which would require him to be American. He gets captured, duplicated, has a fight with himself, gets a bit suspicious of the Doctor. Nothing which couldn’t have been done by say, an expanded role for Captain Yates (Richard Franklin).

Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin would go on to create other great unnecessary characters, like Mr Ollis or Tala in Underworld. Characters who add little, but are there anyway. But none so prominent as Bill Filer and none with an unnecessary nationality. It’s a real achievement.

Best unintelligible yokel. Imagine going into a script meeting these days and saying, “here’s an idea. Let’s spend 5 minutes of an episode on a character who interacts with no one else. He’ll be a kind of mad, homeless person and he’ll talk to himself, but we won’t be able to understand anything he says! Then he’ll ride his bike into a pond and get eaten by the monster. It’ll be awesome!” I don’t think we’ll ever see the like of it again, so well done Axos.

Best Mastery Stunt. In Episode Two, the Master jumps off a bridge and onto a moving truck, clambers down the side of it, clings on like a limpet and hypnotises a UNIT driver (Nick Hobbs) via the side mirror. Roger Delgado seems to perform a significant portion of it too, crawling along the top of the truck’s canopy, inches from the top of a tunnel the truck’s travelling through. The Pert used to say Delgado was a committed coward, but this sequence shows what a mistruth that was. And if an impressive stunt starring the Master wasn’t enough, there’s also in this sequence, at least according to some corners of Twitter which have bred the most lascivious things…

Best hunky UNIT soldier. Apparently, the sight of Nick Hobbs jiggling up and down on that car seat, eyes glazed over through hypnosis gets a certain set of the viewing audience’s hearts racing. Pity for them that when he returned to the show, they covered him up in a big furry bear outfit. And while we’re talking about lascivious things…

Best giant cock shaped prop. You know the one I mean. You can’t miss it, it’s hanging from the bubbly ceiling of Axos, staring at everything with its big circumcised eyeball. Put a cloak on it and it could be Alpha Centauri.

Best unnecessary Special Edition DVD. Now with slightly better picture quality! All the better for you to see the big penis dangling from the ceiling!

And finally…

Best throwaway line. Really, this blog is supposed to avoid the same old, same old about Doctor Who. But in compiling a list of Axos’s best ofs, I can’t avoid the old “freak weather conditions.” A piece of impromptu genius from script editor Terrance Dicks to paper over deficiencies in the location footage. It says something about the way fans view the show, that they’ve embraced that line as a knowing insight into the way the show’s made. But still, it says something about this story that it’s most memorable piece of dialogue is a workmanlike covering line which has discovered a second life as a celebrated in-joke.

LINK TO The Vampires of Venice. Axos’s original title was The Vampire from Space. The loved things either from or in space in the early 70s, didn’t they? Spearheads, colonies, frontiers, arks…

NEXT TIME: Okay, kid. This is where it gets complicated. It’s The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.

 

 

Toothless, spineless and The Vampires of Venice (2010)

vampires

In 2010, Doctor Who was catching up on the resurgent popularity of vampires. Twilight was, by this stage, a publishing and film phenomenon. True Blood was giving those who liked their vampire fiction a little less sanitised something to… oh god, I can’t stop it… get their teeth into. The Vampire Diaries was kicking around too, giving a more soapy take on bloodthirsty things. Fangs were on trend, so perhaps it was inevitable that new Who would get around to it.

Thing is, vampires bring with them two fundamental elements that Doctor Who has trouble with: blood and sex.

Blood is all but forbidden in new Who, even though it was, at times, splashed around liberally in the classic series. A family show in an early evening slot can’t show too much gore. Even today, blood is used sparingly and events which might produce some are cut around. When the 21st century version of the show had featured a bloodsucker – the carefully named Plasmavore in 2008’s Smith and Jonesthe fiend in question drank her victims’ blood with a straw pressed tight against a neck, and not a drop of red stuff was seen. So the monsters in The Vampires of Venice leave two discrete puncture marks on the skin, but little else. In a vampire story, the absence of blood in Doctor Who seems more conspicuous than ever.

The Saturnynes, however, are pointedly not vampires. They are hologram-disguised fish aliens. Which helps avoid the need to splash lots of blood around, but it does give this story a slight feel of bait and switch. C’mon, give us vampires in Venice! That’s what it said on the box and it sounded awesome! Don’t over complicate it with “they’re fishy aliens disguised as vampires for, um, some reason.” (See also writer Toby Whithouse’s next episode The God Complex for similarly unnecessary complications .)

So it’s a blood-lite affair, this ep. Sex, on the other hand, is much more familiar territory for Doctor Who. At least in a suggestive or metaphoric way, rather than through explicit demonstration. Sex, or at least sexiness, is all over The Vampire of Venice, and not just because it features a coterie of busty, spunky vampire chicks. Signora Rosanna Calvierri (Helen McCrory) is a flirty, seductive presence – not just with the Doctor (Matt Smith, with whom she goes as far as to suggest an, ahem, alliance) but also with her son. Not to mention that the whole plot is about her procuring wives for her fishy alien offspring.

Lust is coursing through everyone’s veins, like water through those Venetian canals. Our heroes aren’t immune, either; there’s the love triangle between Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill) and the Doctor. It starts when the Doctor gate crashes Rory’s stag night to break the news that Amy kissed him. Tact and timing; these have never been his strong points.

In your standard vampire story, you’d expect a strong male lead to seduce young ladies into inappropriate dalliances. Here, we have to make do with the Doctor, but he is still a source of temptation for Amy. If there’s someone who might get her into trouble, of both the romantic variety and the old fashioned dangerous variety, it’s him. 

The Doctor’s reaction to Amy’s amour is (again with trademark subtlety) to take Rory aboard the TARDIS and hope that a romantic getaway will rekindle Amy’s affection for her fiance. But it’s difficult to stay focused on the boy next door when there’s this other boy, just over there with two hearts and a time machine. Rory’s already got some tough competition and that’s before the script does its best to emasculate him.

A quick detour. Back in 2010, one of my mates was watching Doctor Who ardently in order to ardently watch Karen Gillan. After The Vampires of Venice went out, he texted me indignantly. “Rory is a soggy biscuit,” he complained. “Amy should dump him and go out with me.” And he was right (about the first bit. Definitely not about the second.) Rory’s repeatedly presented as less than a man and certainly no romantic match for Amy.

The evidence? As soon as they land in Venice, the psychic paper calls him a eunuch. Later on, no-one thinks it’s feasible that he could pass himself off as Amy’s fiance; he has to pretend to be her brother. The Doctor has a torch which is bigger than Rory’s, cue dick joke. He never gets to properly challenge Amy about her infidelity. He gets into a fight with a vampire and is hopeless. And the story ends with him admitting that he’s Amy’s “boy”. (The Doctor too, but as he just got to heroically save the day, we know that’s not true.)

So in a vampire story, where sex is a powerful theme and constantly reinforced, Rory is a cuckold. A couple of randoms ago, I was talking about how romantic rivalry brought out Danny Pink’s manipulative side and yes, that was icky. But Rory’s tendency to be a doormat isn’t great either. It doesn’t seem like how a fiance would react to infidelity, nor does this kind of walkover seem like someone Amy would be attracted to.

Luckily, as his time on the TARDIS goes on, we discover that Rory is not the soggy biscuit my mate claimed he was. But I sometimes wonder where his character would have ended up, had they not cast someone as skilled as Darvill. He brought such charm and comic timing to the role, that I suspect he ended up more heavily featured than was first intended. If Darvill hadn’t been so compelling, perhaps Rory might have been ditched at the altar, with Amy flying off with her Time Lord temptation.

But this emasculation of Rory has an interesting effect; it slightly desexualises the whole episode. It stops a Doctor Who story about vampires getting too raunchy, by adding a few jokes and about the henpecked husband to be. It’s like the fish aliens not quite being vampires, which takes the edge off an otherwise bloody tale. It all adds up to a sense of this episode not quite going the distance, of being slightly apologetic for what it is. A vampire tale that’s not really… no, stop it! Can’t help it… full blooded.

LINK TO Full Circle: watery monsters who aren’t what they seem.

NEXT TIME: we brave some freak weather conditions for The Claws of Axos.

Adolescence, adulthood and Full Circle (1980)

full circle

During the five years of the Pertwee era, with its 24 stories and 128 episodes, only four new writers were introduced into Doctor Who: Don Houghton, Robert Sloman and Bob Baker & Dave Martin. During Tom Baker’s first six seasons? 35 stories, 144 episodes and again, only four new writers: Robert Banks Stewart, Chris Boucher, Douglas Adams and David Fisher.

(We might quibble over Lewis Griefer, who initiated but wasn’t credited on Pyramids of Mars, and production team members Barry Letts, Graham Williams and Anthony Read, who were all well acquainted with the show when they turned their hands to writing for it.)

That’s a whole decade of Doctor Who that relied on tried and tested writers, rather than seek and try out newbies. It makes the show’s 18th season even more remarkable. On taking up the job of Script Editor, Christopher H. Bidmead had barely any scripts ready for production. Pragmatically, he led with what little he had; scripts from old hands Fisher and Terrance Dicks. But then, he started a wave of writerly regeneration which resulted in more new writers coming to the show in the space of two years than had been seen in the last 10. John Flanagan & Andrew McCulloch, Steve Gallagher, Johnny Byrne, Terence Dudley, Christopher Bailey, Eric Saward, Peter Grimwade and, most remarkable of all, Andrew Smith, who gave us Full Circle.

I say “most remarkable of all” because Full Circle was Smith’s first professional credit and he was only 17 years old when he wrote it. On one hand, it’s a sign of how desperate the script situation was in 1980, that Bidmead even considered an unsolicited script, sent by a novice writer who was barely out of school.

On the other hand, it demonstrates what a remarkable feat it was, for such a young writer to write such a promising script. Think back to when you were 17; I don’t know about you, but there would be no way I could have written something as mature and erudite as Full Circle when I was that age. Of course, it’s possible for teens to write great stories, but it’s rare for them to write for TV, and, as we’ve seen, unheard of to write for Doctor Who.

With all this in mind, it’s tempting to imagine that the script is really Bidmead’s with some scant input from wunderkind Smith. But both writers have spoken candidly about the show since then and both have described it as a true collaboration. So what we have in Full Circle is a real first; a Doctor Who story written by someone in its target audience. What happens when the show is written by a teenage boy?

Well, the first thing to note is that it has teenagers in it. I’ve written before about what a  rarity it was in 20th century Who to have young people on screen. Only the previous year’s The Horns of Nimon had any juvenile actors in sizeable roles. In Full Circle, there are no less than four young characters, who form a group of Outlers. These are young tearaways who want to leave the stultifying world of the Starliner, a place where boring adult authority holds sway. So far we have a pretty typical view of teenage life; the desire to run away, to rebel and to shun what adults say they should do.

The Outlers are an interesting bunch. Their leader is Varsh (Richard Willis), who must be this planet’s heartthrob because he keeps his tunic as open as possible to show a tantalising amount of torso and at one stage there’s an ogling creeping camera move towards his tightly panted arse. There’s Tylos (Bernard Padden), the nervous, mousy type who’s never going to work his way out of Varsh’s dreamy shadow. And there’s Keara (June Page), a pleasant, smart girl who – thankfully – holds her own in this group, without being the predictable apex of a love triangle. Keara is the only one with a parent around; her father is village elder Login (George Baker), but otherwise, these are a self-governing band of wastrels.

Varsh’s brother Adric (Matthew Waterhouse, the other teenage boy becoming a part of Doctor Who history in this story) wants in on the gang, but he’s not an easy fit. He sees himself as superior to the others, and he has a badge for being a maths genius into the bargain. The maths swot joining the street gang… this has never gone well, has it? As ever with these things, there’s an initiation ceremony to go through, and in this case, it involves stealing watermelons from a riverside camp of locals. Which given as watermelons seem to be the key focus of everyone on Alzarius, is not going to be as easy as it sounds.

Teenage stories are often about the transition to adulthood and the initiation test, which Adric fails, is one element which is part of that theme. But another is Mistfall, the natural change of climate and atmosphere which is befalling Alzarius. It mirrors the physical and emotional change from adolescence to adulthood which Adric and the Outlers going through.

Except Varsh won’t make it that far. He dies trying to defend the Starliner from the monstrous Marshmen. When he does, Keara bequeaths his belt to Adric. “This is our badge,” she had told Adric of it before. “It has to be earned.” It seems Adric has finally passed his test, but more than that, he’s no longer a child.

It turns out that the Marshmen and the Alzarians are all part of an evolutionary loop; they are each other’s kin. The planet, its inhabitants and the Outlets, all are undergoing existential change. And by rights, we know what should happen to Adric now. As an adult and a hero in the Starliner’s society, he should be the one who pilots the ship to its new destination. Perhaps even put on the puffy jacket of a Decider.

That would make thematic sense. But this show, with its newfound interest in teenage boys, has other plans for Adric. Instead of staying on the Starliner and cementing his newfound adulthood, he makes a move which actually reverts him into adolescence again. He joins the TARDIS crew and finds a replacement family, complete with Dad, Mum and the pet dog.  It makes him again that awkward young thing constantly trying to prove himself. It delays his graduation to adulthood until he stands on the burning deck of that doomed space freighter.

Still, that’s the end of his story. This is the beginning, a story of not fitting in and coming of age. And of running away from it all to join the Doctor and travel in the TARDIS. Who better to write that story than a teenage boy?

LINK TO The Caretaker. Teenagers on the TARDIS.

NEXT TIME… it’s 1580 and we’re in Venice, for (you guessed it) The Fish Women of Croatia.