Oscars, Doctors and Human Nature/The Family of Blood (2007)

human nature family

Showrunner Russell T Davies used to say about David Tennant that he was so good as the Doctor, that he felt an obligation to keep presenting new and challenging material to keep him inspired. It’s easy to imagine that one of the stories he was talking about was Human Nature/The Family of Blood. In it, as I’m sure you know, Tennant plays both the Doctor and John Smith, the human persona he adopts in order to hide from the murderous Family.

I think it’s Tennant’s finest performance in Doctor Who, and he’s always good. But this story really gives him the chance to flex his acting muscles. As John Smith he changes his speech and his mannerisms just enough to create a vivid, new character but one which still suggests the Doctor, lying just under the surface. The scenes where he effortlessly switches from one to the other – for instance when a snippet of Doctor sneaks out when Smith holds the watch – are as clever a conjuring trick as the series ever showed.

But his real triumph is in telling the tragedy of a man who comes to gradually realise that his whole life is a fiction and that he must give up the woman he loves to save everyone else.  Tennant’s greatest achievement is that by story’s end you both want the Doctor back and you want Smith to survive.

So if we were handing out Oscar nominations for Best Performance as Doctor Who, Tennant’s would be in Human Nature etc. What about the others? What’s the story in which they give their best performance?

First of all, we have to excuse Paul McGann for lack of material. You may want to nominate some of his audio adventures, but I’ve only heard one and I have no plans to listen to the other gazillion. John Hurt too, only gets one shot at it so he’s on the bench too. Capaldi has barely started, although perhaps Listen is an early frontrunner. And we’ll excuse the non-canonical Cushing as well (though maybe that calls for a ‘best of the rest’ post at some stage. Hmmm.)

Some Doctors peak early. Hartnell, I’d suggest, earliest. For me, he’s never better than in 100,000 BC. It’s partly because his deteriorating health played havoc with his ability to remember lines as his Who career wore on. But it’s also because in his first story, his Doctor is at his most slippery and dangerous. You really don’t know where you stand with him, and he’s at the centre of the story. It’s quite unsettling.

I don’t think he ever got as strong material again, and although later Whos saw him playing as part of an impressive ensemble (The Crusade for instance, or The Myth Makers), his character was never honed with such care as in those first four eps. (Though of course we don’t have all the episodes to judge. If The Massacre turns up tomorrow in a Mormon church car boot sale or something, perhaps we’d discover a dual performance as impressive as Tennant’s in Human Nature etc.)

Pertwee too, hits his stride early, specifically in Inferno. I don’t think it’s the best story of his era, but the Pert is great in it, particularly in the latter episodes where he’s trying to engineer a way out of the doomed parallel world. Never again do we see the third Doctor as vulnerable or as desperate, and after this story, I’d argue Pertwee becomes very settled in the role and is never as edgy again.

But if the Pert became too comfortable after his first few stories, I think it’s nothing compared to how settled Troughton became. As mentioned when talking about The Highlanders, the Trought in his early stories is too quixotic for the series to maintain, so he quickly becomes a safer, but still quirky Doctor. And that’s how he stays for most of his era.

It’s a brilliant performance, but it stays consistently at a certain level; perhaps because of the formulaic nature of many of his stories, he’s never really pushed. At least not his very last story, The War Games. Here, as the Doctor’s secrets are gradually revealed, Troughton gives a more varied performance than ever before. He’s wary and devious and ashamed and you really get the sense that for the first time, he has much to lose.

A common theme is emerging; when the lead actor gets a script which is a bit different, which pushes them in a new direction, then a great performance emerges. That’s the case with Eccleston in Dalek, a script which gives him a great outlet for that eye popping passion he has.  It’s true for McCoy as well I think, and the script which stretches his character the most is The Curse of Fenric. McCoy could occasionally over egg a line, or mistime a gag, but I don’t think he puts a foot wrong in Fenric. The exchange in Part Four where he bargains with Ace’s life – a softly spoken command to Fenric to ‘kill her’ – shows he can move from slapstick to sinister and be totally convincing.

Colin Baker, on the other hand, is best in an (allegedly) more run of the mill story. I’ll wax lyrical about the much underrated The Mysterious Planet when I get a random chance to, but Baker is terrific in it. He’s the Doctor you always want him to be: funny, charming and compassionate, but still with a biting line in sarcasm. Peri demonstrates a real affection for this Doctor for the first time and the audience can understand why.

As for Davison… Well, it would be easy to say Androzani wouldn’t it? Again, it’s a story which offers his Doctor something more compelling than the usual fare, and Davison rightly seizes the opportunity and turns in a great performance.

But perhaps it’s an even greater achievement to give a terrific performance when everything else around you is a bit rubbish. And so we turn to Warriors of the Deep, long maligned for its rubbery monsters, overlit set and extravagant eye makeup. But block all that out (if you can. And then teach me how, would you?) and concentrate on Davison, who is acting his question mark socks off in this. To be properly compelling and passionate and to be giving it everything, while all falls apart around you… that’s impressive.

And so to Tom, probably the hardest to assess for a few reasons. Firstly, despite being endlessly creative and constantly trying to inject originality into the stories, his performance, like Troughton’s, is consistently comfortable. Take last random’s Image of the Fendahl for example. Is he good it in? Of course! Does his performance stand out from the crowd of other Tom stories? Um, not really.

Secondly, which fourth Doctor are we talking about? The mostly serious/slightly comic one of his first few (and last) seasons or the mostly comic/slightly serious one of his middle period? How do you compare the wildly different fourth Doctors of seasons 14 and 17, say? Well, let’s not try. Let’s allow two nominations from Tom. From his serious seasons, I’d choose The Seeds of Doom, where he’s magnetic and dangerous. From his jokier period, you can’t really go past City of Death, where his madcappery is given full license. He’s in love, in Paris and he’s giving it some considerable comic welly.  Two astonishing turns.

So that’s it. A complete set of nominations for Best Performance by a Doctor. Award those Oscars at your leisure.

What’s that? I forgot about Matt Smith, you say? Well…

NEXT TIME… I’ll never forget when the Doctor was him! It’s time for The Time of the Doctor.

And just quickly…

LINK to Image of the Fendahl. Both are set in rural England. And that’s about it! Tenuous link alert!

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Costumes, stereotypes and Image of the Fendahl (1977)

image fendahl

“I like your new dress” says the Doctor to Leela, early on in Image of the Fendahl. He’s stretching the definition of ‘dress’ to a new extreme. Dress? It’s a beige leather leotard, isn’t it? The Doctor has been travelling with Leela for about a year now so you’d think he’d have noticed. Up until now, Leela’s just had the one ‘dress’, another leather swimsuit affair, but in a dark brown. She was in that one when the Doctor met her on her home planet. Which begs the question, where has this new one come from? Did she make it between adventures? Or, worryingly, is there a wardrobe full of leatherware somewhere in the TARDIS?

Unexpectedly, (or perhaps completely expectedly, given that last exchange) I found myself thinking about costuming while watching Image of the Fendahl. And despite Leela’s costume, it’s actually lab coats which are to blame. The story concerns four scientists: Adam Colby (posh English paleontologist), Thea Ransome (posh English chronologist), Dr Fendelman (German? South American? Electronics expert, but also, um, archaeologist maybe?) and Max Stael (No idea, though perhaps his surname is Belgian and no idea, although he can conduct a post mortem).

Anyway, we know they’re scientists because they’re all wearing lab coats. And they wear them throughout, whether they are working in labs or not. Their commitment to the lab coat as a fashion statement for all times and places is unstinting. The latter three wear them to their deaths, and Colby is still wearing his as he scampers away from the story’s conclusion.

The lab coat love is a bit funny, but it’s an aspect of TV grammar. Costumes are shorthand communication with the audience. You can see that fellow’s in a lab coat, so I don’t have to keep telling you he’s a scientist. It saves time. In the same way, we know that Mrs Tyler’s tied to ‘the old ways’ because she’s wearing well worn clothes. And we know Jack’s from the country because he’s wearing a pork pie hat. That and his mummerset accent.

The characters in Image are well defined and well performed, but that doesn’t stop them being broad brush stereotypes. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s a function of a fast moving show like Doctor Who. Like a handy lab coat, a stereotype saves you time and helps you push along the plot.

Fendelman, for instance, is the ‘mad scientist’ type. Ultimately, he’s shown to not be the true bad guy, but he’s still a shifty piece of work. Hence the mustache. It is he who by use of a sonic time scan is hoping to produce the eponymous image, which we never actually get to see. He’s played by the highly entertaining Denis Lill, he who delivered some high camp in The Awakening. He has many great lines usually played to maximum capacity. But my favourite moment is when he says, “About ten years ago, when I was working on a…” Here the slightest pause and a sheepish wince “…missile guidance system”. Nicely played there.

Thea Ransome is the ‘sexy female scientist’ type. She’s brunette, because as actress Wanda Ventham explains in the story’s DVD documentary, female scientists aren’t allowed to be blonde. While the male scientists all refer to each other by surname as much as by first name, our female brainbox is always ‘Thea’, never ‘Ransome’. There is the inevitable hint of a romance between her and Colby, which adds an unfortunately sexist note to proceedings. Thea is eventually transformed into the Fendahl Core, when her lab coat disappears and is replaced by a grandiose gold lame ensemble, complete with eyes painted on her lids. With hair curling snakelike from her head and a stare with the power to transfix, she’s basically golden Medusa. And thus is transformed into another stereotype, the femme fatale.

Then there’s Adam Colby, not quite our hero (that’s Tom Baker, mid tenure and using his star power to tinker with the script), more wisecracking sidekick. He’s one of the good guys, so naturally he’s blonde haired and blue eyed. But he’s not lily white; he takes little convincing from Fendelman to delay reporting the death of the hiker. And under pressure he becomes a rude snob. “Don’t you threaten me, you swede-bashing cretin,” he snaps at Jack in Part Four, underlining the class division between the RP speaking scientists and the local rustics. But he’s funny and handsome (his shirt exposes a surprising amount of chest at one stage), so we know he’s one our side; Leela even gives him a peck on the cheek to underline the point.

He’s also part of Image’s two most disturbing moments, when down in the cellar, technology and occult superstition meet in unholy union. The first comes when Colby and Fendelmen have been tied up by bad egg Stael (he’s the ‘just nuts’ type). Colby is forced to watch when Stael shoots Fendelman in the head. It happens offscreen, but it’s still an arresting moment; you certainly wouldn’t get it in New Who. Colby, being the resilient specimen that he is, takes this gruesome event in his stride. Whereas surely it would leave any real person deeply traumatised. But this is Doctor Who, the plot rolls on and so do we.

The second nasty moment comes when Stael, transfixed by the Fendahl Core, asks the Doctor to bring him a gun, and thus assist his suicide. It’s ghastly. Whether or not the Doctor’s role in it bothers you (as it does me), it’s clearly unnecessary. Stael could have had the gun on his person, or reached it through a colossal mental effort. Having the Doctor bring him the gun means he plays an active part in Stael’s death, which sits uncomfortably the Doctor as we know him.

There’s a few other moments in Image where another look over by the script editor might have helped. There’s the infamous bit where someone inexplicably lets the Doctor out of a locked room, but we never find out who. But there’s also some obvious padding in Part Three when the Doctor and Leela go back to the TARDIS and travel to the solar system’s dead fifth planet to discover that it’s trapped in a time loop. “We’ve been on a wild goose chase,” says the Doctor, but at least it has helped fill up an episode. Then there’s a whole lot of guff about them being late returning to the Priory (and the plot), which is nonsense considering they’re in a time machine.

But the story’s most contrived moment comes when Leela takes a brief nap. It’s so she can dream about the Fendahl attacking her, but I think it’s never a great idea for one of your main characters go have a sleep in the middle of a supposedly thrilling adventure. In addition, there seems to have been no money for a bedroom set, so she sleeps in the floor of the console room. Really? That cold hard floor? Those bright white lights? Perhaps warriors of the Sevateem are trained to sleep anywhere. And make replacement clothes for themselves.

I said earlier that Image’s characters are played to type, and in lots of ways this is a typical Doctor Who story, at least pre 1996. It’s got a country manor, a big green monster, physical transformation and a long hidden alien influencing humanity. But it’s typical in some less positive ways too – the Van Danniken plot’s a bit dated, the pace is stop/start, some of the effects are dodgy, it’s a bit sexist, it’s a bit classist and – with its baddies being foreign and its goodies being English – it’s a bit racist. Really though what it is, is typical 70s Doctor Who.

LINK to The Girl Who Waited. In both, a character is keeping a disabled robot as a pet (Handbot Rory and K9).

NEXT TIME… You’re rubbish as a human! Long ago in an English autumn, it’s Human Nature/The Family of Blood.

Companions, marriage and The Girl Who Waited (2011)

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Let’s start with Jo Grant. A couple of years back she turned up in The Sarah Jane Adventures where she was reunited with the Doctor, as played by Matt Smith. While catching up on an alien planet, he lets slip that he’s travelling with a married couple, the Ponds. Jo is taken aback. “I only left you because I got married,” she pines.

She’s alluding to an unstated fact about Doctor Who, at least up until the Matt Smith era. That for a companion, finding someone you want to spend your life with meant the end of your TARDIS travelling. Getting hitched meant staying behind with someone, not dragging them along. Which was kind of understandable if one viewed Doctor Who, at least in part, as a kids’ show. Because marriage brought with it the implication of sex, and although the series might occasionally invite speculation on how its main characters ate and went to the toilet, any thought of which TARDIS bedrooms saw some action was right out.

New Who, though, has no such hang ups. Since 1996, Doctor Who has had romantic relationships at its, um, heart. The Doctor has been shown to be someone who loves and who is loved. He has had a string of love interests, not least of all his companions like Rose and Martha, if not Donna. But marriage (or its de facto equivalent) was still the end of the line for a companion, even in the Russell T Davies era; Rose is paired off with the one-hearted Doctor, Martha marries Mickey and Donna marries Shaun.

What, I imagine you’re saying by this late stage, does any of this have to do with The Girl Who Waited? Only that watching it got me thinking about marriage in Doctor Who and specifically, that since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner in 2005, the subject of marriage – once used only as a way of exiting companions from the show – has been embraced. He’s placed two marriages centre stage: the Ponds’ and the Doctor and River’s.

The topic of the Doctor and River’s unorthodox union can wait till another day. The Girl Who Waited is concerned with Amy and Rory’s relationship, and while that’s not unusual in itself, it’s a story where them being a couple is essential.  In the episode, Amy gets trapped in Two-streams, a medical facility, and only Rory can rescue her. This is ostensibly because the Doctor cannot leave the TARDIS for fear of being infected with a Time Lord specific illness. But the quarantining of the Doctor feels tangential.  Of course Rory would dive into Two-streams to rescue her, as Orpheus dived into the underworld, simply because he’s her husband. That’s his job. And that’s the nuance which comes with married companions, that you wouldn’t get if this was, say, first season Tom Baker and Harry had to rescue Sarah (or vice versa).

A subtext running through this season is that the Doctor is becoming more mysterious and less reliable.  And Rory and Amy react by relying on each other. In The Curse of the Black Spot, for instance, Rory specifically asks Amy to perform CPR on him, because he trusts her (not the Doctor) to never give up.  And Amy’s opening monologue in A Good Man Goes To War is all about her faith that Rory (not the Doctor) will come for her and Melody. Having companions married to each other offers a new dynamic; their relationship with each other is more important than their relationship with the Doctor. He will always be an outsider.

A central premise of The Girl Who Waited is ‘will you still love me when I’m 64’ (or how ever old Amy ends up being), with the added sci-fi twist that Rory is still young. Rory, being the thoroughly decent chap that he is, of course stays loyal to older Amy. But then there’s the added complication when the Doctor manages to fold time back on itself (or something) and young Amy appears alongside old Amy. Rory very quickly decides he wants to save both versions of his wife, which is touching and again what a loyal husband, who loves his wife at any age, would do.  Allowing a married couple on board the TARDIS has enabled new types of stories – like The Girl Who Waited – to be told.

The Doctor meanwhile is kept on the sidelines. Well, it’s a Doctor-lite episode after all. But there’s enough of him in the story to show a new, devious side of the Eleventh Doctor. When older Amy declares that she wants both versions of herself saved, the Doctor says this is possible. This spurs Rory and the Amies into action, helping motivate them to outfox the handbots and fight their way back to the TARDIS.

But the Doctor is being crafty. He knows it’s impossible to recue both versions of Amy. Does he lie to Rory and Amy to make sure they get safely back to the TARDIS? It’s left unconfirmed, but it certainly seems that way. If so, the Eleventh Doctor has manipulated his companions as effectively as the Seventh Doctor did Ace. Writer Tom MacRae has written about his admiration for the McCoy years, so drawing parallels between these two Doctors seems deliberate.  But maybe not – after all the Moffat years have clearly established that rule one is ‘the Doctor lies’.

And his lie here leads to a great climactic moment in The Girl Who Waited, where older Amy and the Doctor see each other for the first time. In that moment – a triumph of Smith’s acting and Nick Hurran’s direction – it’s clear that now Rory and young Amy are safely on board, the Doctor is going to lock old Amy out of the TARDIS. She realises it and runs, but of course she doesn’t make it. Those Prussian blue doors slam shut.

Rory is outraged, but the Doctor is resolute. He hands the decision over to Rory, seemingly as a way of assuaging his own guilt. He says to Rory they can only take one and puts his hand on the lock, forcing Rory to make the decision.  It’s a devastating moment, and Arthur Darvill plays it brilliantly. “You’re turning me into you!’,” he bawls at the Doctor. But the door is locked and Rory and older Amy can only press their hands together on either side of the police box’s windows before the end comes.

The classic series of Doctor Who­ did love stories, but it did them pretty poorly. Jo Grant, for instance, fell in love over the course of a handful of episodes and married a man she hardly knew. Other companions fell in love far more perfunctorily than that.  If there’s one aspect in which the new series far exceeds the old, it is in its ability to tell love stories. And with a married couple on board it can tell different types of love stories. We don’t waste time seeing Amy and Rory fall in love, they already are in love. And as The Girl Who Waited shows, that brings a whole new set of complications.

LINK to Logopolis: In both stories, one of the regulars meets a future version of themselves.

NEXT TIME: You must think my head zips up the back! It’s tea and fruitcake and the Image of the Fendahl.

Tom, tricks and Logopolis (1981)

 

logopolis

For some time, my random Who generator was very shy of Tom. Considering he has the most stories of any Doctor, it struck me as a bit odd that for a long time only one had come up. But lately there’s been something of a rush on Tom. We’ve had early Tom in Revenge of the Cybermen, gothic horror Tom in The Deadly Assassin, light entertainment Tom in The Armageddon Factor and now gloomy Tom, in his final story, Logopolis.

So in a relatively short space of time, I’ve seen a fairly representative set of Tom’s stories, and have been thinking about common threads which run through his performance. Because as unpredictable and mercurial as that performance is, it’s still a progression of choices, of specific responses to the material he’s given. It’s not as random as it might seem.

Because having acted now and then myself, I know that actors have a few tried and tested tricks they can pull. These are a few signature moves which they know they can pull off well, and can be used to good effect in a range of situations. I think I’ve spied a few of Tom’s over the years, and by the time he gets to Logopolis, some have been discarded, but some are still hanging around.

For instance, in Tom’s first season, he had a tendency to perch awkardly on bits of furniture, arms and legs dangling.  Seven years later, older and less nimble, this has gone; he leaves Matthew Waterhouse (playing boy genius Adric) to clamber on top of the TARDIS prop in Logopolis (and also, rather hilariously, lie under a bicycle).

First season Tom also had a habit of deliberately playing the opposite of the most obvious reaction, specifically grinning widely at the thought of peril – think of that moment in The Ark in Space when he connects his brain to the Wirrn hive memory, or in Revenge when he smiles toothily while threatening Kellman with a Cybermat. Again gone by the end of his reign. Although there’s a hint of it when he punctuates a batty plan to flood the TARDIS with that big ol’ smile.

There’s the sudden outburst of fury. He does this to great effect in stories like The Seeds of Doom, The Pirate Planet and Full Circle. This is a sudden ramping up of his voice, beyond its usually measured tone, to a roar of pure anger. It’s a trick to use sparingly, but also one to jolt an audience out of its comfort zone. It’s still in place in Logopolis. “Do you want a quick decision or a debate?!”, he bawls at Adric at one point. (“Sorry!”, shouts Adric back, and good for him.)

Then there’s the pulling of a wacky face. This starts around about mid-term Tom, but is there most blatantly in The Armageddon Factor when the Doctor briefly considers the temptation of power offered by the Key to Time. Eyes have never been so rolled. And although Tom’s pulled back those elastic faces in by his final season, he still has one last go, in Part Two when Tegan (Janet Fielding, making a not-quite-there-yet debut) shouts in his ear about being taken back home. Face pull! And quite an amusing one too.

There’stherunningallthewordstogethertomakethelinegoreallyfast. Was it a way of rushing through some dialogue he didn’t like? Was it an indication of the speed of the Doctor’s thoughts? Or just another handy alien quirk? It happens all over the last half of his Doctordom, and it’s in his very first scene in Logopolis.

And finally, there’s the refusal to look at any of your fellow actors. This starts just after The Deadly Assassin, once Leela joins and Tom decides he would rather be without a co-star. And, I’m sorry to say, it happens from there on in with an increasing number of actors. Cue Tom staring off into the middle distance, delivering his lines to thin air, face firmly within the frame, but not responding to his fellow thesps.

In Logopolis, there’s barely anyone Tom wants to act with. He seems fine with Anthony Ainley (the latest Master) and John Fraser (all wild hair and clipped accent as the Monitor), but his three new co-stars Waterhouse as awkward Adric, Fielding as shouty Tegan and Sarah Sutton as the far nicer Nyssa, barely get a ’what?’ or an ’aaaah!’ thrown at them. I feel particularly sorry for Waterhouse, who is not bad in this, and best in his scenes with Tom, even though Tom’s disdain for him radiates through the screen.

Or perhaps it’s his disdain for the whole story, the scripts for which he allegedly wasn’t happy with. (Was he ever happy with the scripts, though?) This is a shame, because as well as giving him an opportunity to pull out some old tricks, Logopolis offers Tom some new angles on the Doctor and some new material to play. That’s no mean feat; this is his 41st story as the Doctor. What’s new to find in this character?

Well, self doubt for one. As the wraithish Watcher appears, a signal to the Doctor that his current incarnation is nearing its end, we see for the first time the fourth Doctor as unsure. “Nothing like this has ever happened before,” he murmurs, almost to camera.

Self disgust for another. In the cliffhanger to Part Three, as the Master brushes some specks of crumbling planet from his arm, the Doctor proposes an alliance in an attempt to save the universe. As he shakes hands with his oldest enemy – in fact the reanimated hand of his friend Tremas – the Doctor’s self loathing is clear through a simple closing of his eyes.

In the documentary A New Body at Last, on the Logopolis DVD, Tom commented on his own performance, and said of himself as the Doctor, that something was clearly worrying him. And again, worry is not something which ever bothered Tom’s Doctor very much.

But he’s worried here, in his final story, another new aspect to this character we know so well. Compare this to the previous series finale, The Horns of Nimon. Whatever its merits, it doesn’t do much to flexTom’s acting muscles. Logopolis occasionally gets criticised for its arcane subject matter, and its dry pseudo-scientific plot. Nonetheless it still delivers some big emotional moments for its lead actor, and gives us something more than Tom’s greatest hits.

(And let me just squeeze this in: this is our third story to introduce a new Master. A nice pattern within our random selection. But talking about this new Master will have to wait till another time.)

LINK to The Myth Makers. Both feature the departure of a series regular and the arrival of a new one. Plus the word Logopolis derives from Greek, and The Myth Makers derives from Greek myth.

NEXT TIME… Eyes front, soldier. We hang around with The Girl Who Waited.

Mystery, Speculation and The Myth Makers (1965)

myth makers

There are few stories more mysterious than The Myth Makers, the first Doctor’s tragi-comic excursion to ancient Troy. Long lost from the BBC’s archives, we have very little visual evidence left of it. A handful of photos and a few seconds of 8mm footage. We have the soundtrack of course, and it’s a terrifically engaging listen. But that audio is all we have, and of course, it will never be enough for fans. To really assess this story, we need the episodes and the day when those old film cans are found in some remote TV relay station in Asia Minor can’t come quickly enough.

But in the meantime, all we’ve got is speculation as to what these episodes looked like. It’s as much as we can manage, but thankfully, it’s fascinating in itself for a fan. And it starts with the very opening moments of this story, with Achilles and Hector fighting on location at Frencham Ponds. What shots did one-time Who director Michael Leeston-Smith choose? Was it cut with pace and vigour? Did one-time Who composer Humphrey Searle’s bold with brass score help or hinder it?  We have no other examples of these gentlemen’s work to help us guess how they handled Who.

In this opening scene, it seems there’s a interesting entrance for the TARDIS. According to the BBC audio release, Achilles and Hector are mid battle as we follow their fight, the TARDIS stands unnoticed in the background. If that’s right, it’s an unusally low key and beguiling start to a story, signalling to the audience that the story has begun without them. It sounds like there’s a clear visual cue that this is a story trying to play against the audience’s expectations.

Soon enough, the Doctor (crusty William Hartnell, reportedly injured and bereaved while making this story) intervenes in the battle and is mistaken by Achilles for Greek god Zeus. Mistaken identity is something of a recurring motif in 60s historicals, whether divine as in The Aztecs, comic as in The Romans, deliberate as in The Reign of Terror, or sinister as in The Massacre. Here, it gives Hartnell a chance to be haughty amongst the Greeks of ancient myth and strike up something of a verbal sparring match with Odysseus (Ivor Salter).

There are only one or two photos of Salter as Odysseus and no moving footage. But he is the story’s main protagonist and the Doctor’s rougish foil throughout. The soundtrack indicates a full blooded turn, more than matching up to the formidable Hartnell. He gets some great dialogue too. When hearing of Hector’s death, he takes pleasure in baiting Achilles.

ODYSSEUS: But what a year is this for plague. Even the strongest might fall. Prince Hector, ha, that he should come to this. You met him here, you say, as he lay dying?
ACHILLES: I met him, Odysseus, in single combat.
DOCTOR: Oh yes, it’s true.
ODYSSEUS: And raced him round the walls till down he fell exhausted. A famous victory.

Salter’s performance is hugely enjoyable on audio, but it makes me ponder a question I asked myself several times when listening to The Myth Makers: would this work as well if I could see the pictures? Because it’s a BIG performance. Would it be too big onscreen?  Would all that bluster detract rather than enhance?

It’s a similar story with Barrie Ingham’s portrayal of Paris, of whom I think not one photo is known to exist. Paris is written as cowardly, camp and ineffectual, and it sounds like Ingham has launched his performance from there. In the second episode, he’s creeping around whispering Achilles’ name when he’s meant to be shouting it out in challenge. When he defends his decision to drag the TARDIS into Troy, he splutters and stumbles in classic sitcom cadence. Again, too much or pitched just right? It’s comic sure, but is there any other way to play dialogue like this:

PARIS: And I will not tolerate interference from a fortune-teller of notorious unreliability!
CASSANDRA: How dare you! I am High Priestess of Troy!
PARIS: All right then, get back to your temple before you give us all galloping religious mania. Oh really, Father. I can’t tolerate another of her tedious tirades at the moment.

It’s clearly not meant to be played with great seriousness. Someone who is playing it seriously, though no less exuberantly, is Frances White as Cassandra. If she’s not shrieking, she’s spitting verbal venom and White never misses an opportunity to turn it up to 11. Photos of her have only come to light in recent years and show her as dressed quite simply, and looking rather mild mannered. This wasn’t how I pictured her at all. In my mind she was tall and fierce with banshee wild hair. How does the image match up with the vocal performance? Let’s hope we find out.

And this question – how did this story balance its audio and visual elements – echoes another: how did it balance the comedy and the tragedy?  The story is famous for its sudden u-turn in tone in its final episode. From the sounds of it, the deaths of funny old Priam, Paris and Cassandra, discovered when the audience see their corpses lying on the palace floor, are as stark as they are bleak. What on earth did audiences make of it? Did they stick with it, or turn off in confusion?

Then there’s the story’s unusually adult approach to talking about sex. It’s odd enough hearing Hartnell’s Doctor tell Agamemnon “your wife is unfaithful to you”. But then there’s Odysseus asking the Doctor to tell “a tale or two of Aphrodite” (“I refuse to enter into any kind of vulgar bawdry,” he retorts). Cassandra calls Vicki “some drab of Agamemnon’s” and probably the less said about the matter of fact way in which a 16 year old girl is left to marry a 17 year old soldier the better.

As the story goes on, it gets more and more ambitious. I can just about imagine what scenes set in Agamemnon’s tent or Priam’s palace or the Trojan dungeons looked like. But what about that horse being dragged into Troy? What did that look like? What about the inside of the horse itself, with the Doctor and Odysseus trading barbs like an old married couple? The audio release contains a line of explanatory dialogue which describes the Doctor’s exit from the horse as “the Doctor climbs awkwardly down the rope”. I bet he doesn’t though. I can’t imagine Hartnell climbing down any rope, no matter how awkwardly.

The sacking of Troy in the final episode, is particularly mysterious. It sounds like a grand affair, but I’m sure, knowing Doctor Who’s budget, it’s just hurriedly costumed extras fighting unconvincingly in studio sets. But, more hopefully perhaps we can imagine that it’s an exercise in being economic about what the story actually shows. After all The Myth Makers does a lot of this.

For instance, we never meet Helen, who, along with Paris indulged in the vulgar bawdry that was the catalyst for the war. Vicki is gushing about Troilus before he’s even seen on screen (as far as I can tell, despite being a pivotal character, we don’t see his face until the third episode). And her departure gives this story one last chance to wrongfoot the viewer.

When she’s finally reunited with the Doctor, amid the chaos of Troy falling, she bundles him into the TARDIS and sends new girl Katarina to get Steven. The next thing we know the Doctor is bidding Odysseus a not so fond farewell and the Ship dematerialises (this gives Odyssues a nice character note to end on as he wonders if Zeus really has walked amongst them), for all we know, with Vicki onboard as usual. It’s not until after the TARDIS leaves that we discover she has stayed behind in Troy, to be with her love, Troilus. It’s crafty misdirection, and like so much in The Myth Makers, unexpected.

Does it work? Were viewers fooled? Or was Vicki’s romance too clearly signposted, leaving no surprise? Or another possibility – does the whole thing leave us feeling shortchanged, with not even a farewell scene between Vicki and the Doctor?

Just another of The Myth Makers’ mysteries. And if the missing films turned up tomorrow, I’d be overjoyed. But we’d lose something too – with all our questions answered we’d have nothing left to speculate on. All this story’s mysteries solved, the way we view it changed forever.

Still, it’s a trade I’d make in an instant.

LINK to Smith and Jones. Both are new companion stories. And each has a slightly self-aware comic tone about them, which marks them as similar despite the decades that separate them.

NEXT TIME: The moment has been prepared for Logopolis.

Companions, selection criteria and Smith and Jones (2007)

smith and jones

So, think you’re companion material do you? Smith and Jones is here to help you work out if you’re made of the right stuff. (At least for Doctor Who as written by Russell T Davies).

Firstly, do you have a slightly dysfunctional family? Nothing too real, thanks – no chronic illnesses, financial issues or substance abuse problems. Just a few quirks which make them seem a bit mad, the sort of people who you love but drive you batty. Take Martha’s family for instance, they’re perfect. Slightly bratty younger sister, slightly clueless brother, grumpy Mum (this one’s essential), mid-life crisis Dad and his trophy girlfriend. All quarreling about something, while you get to play at being the sane one.

Next, you’ve got to hold it together in a crisis. Don’t fall apart at the first sight of Johnny Alien. This is a sure way to earn the Doctor’s disdain. He hates to be held up. Better still, you can catch his eye with a bit of clever – or even just imaginative – deduction. He gets turned on by clever. Unfortunately, he’ll expect you keep this up. Before you know it he’ll be barking at you to work out how to operate an MRI machine with 5 seconds’ notice. So, you know, be ready to think on your feet.

Here’s an important one: sometime during your first encounter with him, you’re going to have to save his life somehow. Remember you’ll have only just met the strange, slightly rude man so you may not immediately feel like putting your own life in danger to save his. But if you can, he’ll feel indebted to you and probably offer you a ride in his motor. It’s a small price to pay.

And to be honest, it will help if you’re a looker. The old Doctors never used to care much for that stuff. But the new ones are more than capable of having their head turned by a pretty girl (and sorry fellas, it’s still girls which take his fancy). When he first claps eyes on Martha, Doctor Ten is obviously very impressed. He gives her a flirty wink, and when she walks away, he’s got a very cheeky grin on, almost licking his lips.

He’ll take a few liberties too. Not like that mind, but a few sneaky moves he won’t mention to you before you sign on. He’ll let his machine rummage through your head. He’ll lie to you (that’s rule number one, actually). And as Martha finds out, he may randomly kiss you. Without your consent. Which makes some people a bit cross.

Overall, it’s up to you to impress him, not the other way around. He’ll just take it for granted that he’ll impress you. He’ll eke out information about himself gradually. He’s not human. He’s brainy. He’s got a space ship. And did he mention it also travels in time? And he’s got a couple of party tricks he wheels out. Expelling radiation into his shoe is a good one. Oh he’s a card, that one. Who wouldn’t want to run off with him?

And if you do, you probably will be living your life a little unfulfilled. Perhaps you’re in a dead end job. Perhaps your family’s arguing is getting you down. Or perhaps you said no to him once and have regretted it ever since. Be a little problem for him to fix, he likes that. And if that sounds patronising (and it is a bit), don’t forget that he’s got problems for you to fix too. He’s lonely. He’s insensitive. And occasionally, he’ll become a ruthless killer who has to reminded of his inner compassion.

Because here’s the thing; it’s not all fun and games. As Miss Finnegan says in Smith and Jones, there are great tests ahead, and although Martha’s not there to hear her say it, many of those tests will be for her. The Doctor will make her work for her companion status. He won’t fully commit to her until episode 6. Won’t give her a key till episode 7. He’ll ask her to fight off pig monsters in 1930, hide him from the universe in 1914 and get a job to pay the bills in 1969. He’ll ask more than most of Martha. By the time this series ends, she’ll be put even more through the wringer.

But don’t let that put you off. Be feisty, funky and spunky, look great in a pair of jeans and you’ll be great. Go get ’em, tiger. You’ll be fine. After all he only takes the best.

PS Inevitably, you will fall in love with him to a certain extent. There’s no guarantee he’ll fall in love with you, though. So keep an eye out for that.

PPS If you have a recurring musical motif that follows you around wherever you go, that’ll would be great too.

LINK to Revenge of the Cybermen. Both are partly set on a moon within our solar system.

NEXT TIME: Is there a Doctor in the horse? There is, and a whole lot of gift bearing Greeks, in The Myth Makers.


Cyberlove, fandom and Revenge of the Cybermen (1975)

revenge

When does one stop being a regular viewer of Doctor Who and become that oddest of things – a fan? I think it’s when you accumulate more knowledge about the series than would be available to a casual viewer. If you’ve invested time and energy into learning about a series, particularly if you’ve started to read the end credits, note the order of episodes, notice the continuity points between episodes, then I think you’ve crossed the fan threshold.

For me, I think it was 1983. And specifically, the moment I bought that Radio Times 20th Anniversary Special. What a great publication that was, full of photos, interviews and behind the scenes details. Best of all – a complete list of serials, including those from the forthcoming 1984 series.

And what news that list brought! Companions leaving and joining! Old monsters coming back! And biggest news of all – a new Doctor!  Now, I had knowledge of the series’ future. I was now more than just an avid viewer. Now, I had entered the fan zone, never to return.

In 1983, if you’d asked me which was my favourite monster, I would have said straight away, Cybermen. No question. They had just made a barnstorming return to Doctor Who in Earthshock. They were the all time greats, I thought, and somehow I had absorbed enough fannish lore to know that Earthshock was a great improvement on the last Cyberman story, Revenge of the Cybermen (see, I knew we’d get round to it eventually). That one, I knew had been somewhat hokey and embarrassing. Not much chop at all.

It was sometime later I realised that due to my age the only Cyberman story I could have actually seen was Revenge. And seen many times via the ABC repeats. It and only it could have been responsible for my Cyber admiration. It must have had something going for it.

Watching it again gave me a few clues as to what. Mostly, it’s the stuff set on Nerva Beacon, not the stuff set on golden planetoid Voga. As the story goes, script editor Robert Holmes didn’t care much for writer Gerry Davis’s script, or for Cybermen in general. When someone found some extra money down the back of the filing cabinet, he expanded the story to include a subplot about the alien Vogans, old enemies of the Cybermen. The production team then secured a great location in some actual caves (Real caves! Not studio bound polystyrene ones, with dead level floors! How often does that happen?) in which to film the Vogan bits and that should have enlivened the whole affair.

Except they really don’t. Voga is inhabited by two different types of rubber faced Vogans, some soldiery ones and some bureaucraticy ones. Their incessant squabbling eventually leads to them shooting at each other, using projectile weapons, the sound of which ricochets loudly and often through Revenge‘s soundtrack (punctuating another saxophone heavy score from Cary Blyton) Now I’ve watched Revenge many times, and once quite recently, and I still can’t remember what that lot are fighting about. Only that scenes of them fighting take up a lot of the story to little impact.

By contrast, some of the Nerva Beacon scenes are eerily effective. The opening scenes, where the Doctor (rangy Tom Baker, vibrant and compelling in these early days of his tenure) and his mates Sarah and Harry (Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter, playing their roles with a rare smattering of sexual tension), come across a corridor full of dead bodies, is very creepy. The exhaustion of the crew, the sliminess of double agent Kellman (Jeremy Wilkin, giving a masterclass in snideness) and the threat of the venomous Cybermats… All this is effectively sold to the viewer by the actors and director Michael E. Briant, by creating an atmosphere of ongoing tension. Not bad considering they created this world despite the constraints of the budget and the studio.

But studios are a Cyberman’s best friends. Take the big silver buggers on location and they are never as successful. Here on the beacon, they are imposing and daunting. Out in the murky caves of Voga, they don’t fill the screen with as much menace. And this is what other cyberstories like Tomb and Earthshock avoided, but think of them striding those green woodlands in Silver Nemesis or strolling through that Welsh quarry for The Five Doctors. Not as intimidating, not as threatening. These are creatures who are meant to stalk the corridors of bases under siege.

Conversely, playing against this quiet menace is the Cyberleader himself (Christopher Robbie). Menacing he does a lot of, but he’s by no means silent. In fact, he’s very shouty from within that tin head of his. And he’s quite emotional for a member of a race which have done away with feelings. “In eight minutes,” he opines at one point, “the accursed Planet of Gold will be utterly destroyed”. He even displays a droll Cyber wit. “You are about to die in the biggest explosion ever witnessed in this solar system,” he tells the Doctor and Sarah in Part Four. “It will be a magnificent spectacle. Unhappily, you will be unable to appreciate it.” And he strides off, hands on his silvery hips.

He’s long been singled out as one of the problems with Revenge. But I think he’s loads of fun, and I think I detect Robert Holmes’ hand in his characterisation. Holmes was skilled at creating enemies who would the audience would engage with, either hate or secretly root for. Where, I can imagine him thinking, is the fun in a villain who doesn’t have any emotional responses? Isn’t that the antithesis of drama? Give us someone to boo, and that’s what Robbie’s Cyberleader does. And good for him. And he’s American to boot.

But back to 1983. The Radio Times special included a list of stories to date. Each story had a one to two sentence summary, written by uber fan Ian Levine. Every so often, one of the stories was highlighted as a ‘classic’. I can’t remember what it said about Revenge, but I doubt it was awarded that lofty distinction.

I suppose that reading that list was the first time it occurred to me that some Doctor Who stories were better than others; prior to this the show had, in my uncritical mind at least, just been one consistently brilliant standard. And not only that there were some classic stories and some not so classic ones, but among people who knew such things, there was a shared acceptance about which ones were which. To fans, there was a hierarchy of Doctor Who. And now I was a fan, I’d be assessing them too. And since then, I’ve never really stopped.

LINKS to The Deadly Assassin. The stories both spring from the same era, so have the same producer, script editor and, significantly, designer. Roger Murray-Leach designed a familiar circular celtic-looking symbol for the halls of Voga, which he reused to great effect in The Deadly Assassin, and has since become a kind of brand element for Gallifrey. So these are two stories linked by a logo. God knows if that’s going to happen again.

SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Lesterson tampers with his Cyber buckle and bites the gold dust.

NEXT TIME: We’re on the bloody moon to witness the meeting of Smith and Jones.

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