Congregation, cinema and Day of the Daleks (1972)

day of the daleks

Two Days stick in my mind. Day of the Daleks and The Day of the Doctor. Because I saw them both at the cinema.

The Daleks’ Day  escaped onto DVD a few years back with a very special Special Edition, complete with new very special effects and new very special Dalek voices and other bells and whistles. To celebrate, there was a new very special screening of the story at cinemas around Australia. Now, I wasn’t that keen to go. I’m not that keen on public displays of fandom. As you can probably tell by my nom de plume and headless profile pic.

But unusually it was Mrs Spandrell who insisted we go. She had no desire to sit through Doctor Who movie-sized except for two things: one, she’ll do anything to eat cinema popcorn, with which she is obsessed and two, she was curious to see Who fans out after dark.

Fans fascinate her, even though she has been shackled to this one for years and has had ample time to examine it up close. She likes to see how far people will go for their love of something, particularly those who express it by dressing up in public. And she was in luck this night. As we walked in with the rest of the audience, she gripped my arm ever tighter with each Tom Baker scarf she spotted. I suffered bruising.

Anyway, it was a hoot. But one of the things it showed was that Day of the Daleks, even in its new ever so very special Special Edition, is irrevocably a TV programme. It’s not meant to be seen on a cinema screen. Blow the picture up to that size, and all sorts of flaws become evident. You notice every little thing. That pencil that rolls off the TARDIS console has never been so obvious. Props have never looked so plasticy. And Katy Manning’s unintended underwear cameos gain undue prominence.

But it’s not just production flaws though, it’s also the odd grammar of studio based TV which is exposed by the big screen. There’s a moment in Episode Three where the Doctor is in a tunnel hiding from the Daleks. Director Paul Bernard chooses a big close up of the Pert’s face. As his pursuers give up, he notices something. We pull away to reveal that the camera was peering through the rungs of a ladder, inches in front of the Doctor’s face – although he acts as if he just noticed it.  Cue peals of laughter from the assembled nerds. It’s a moment which looks fine on TV, but terribly contrived writ large.

Still, the niggles enlarged on the cinema screen are made up for by the joy of watching Doctor Who  in public. Now this, I have done before. As a teenage nerd I would sometimes attend earnest meetings of the Doctor Who Club of Australia. These were held in echoey halls at Sydney Uni, abandoned for the weekend. In darkened lecture theatres they would show the latest episodes smuggled in from the UK. The seating was hard and unforgiving, political commentary was carved into the benches, the TV monitors bracketed to the ceiling were distant. We loved it of course – sneakily watching The Trial of a Time Lord, Dragonfire et al. There would be laughter at the funny bits, groans at the awful bits. It was fun, this group reaction to something you normally watched in private.

And that’s how it was with Day of the Daleks. The audience cheered when the Pert karate chopped a guerilla without spilling a drop of his wine. They dutifully giggled at the ‘rank has its privileges’ line. They knew this story and its greatest hits and were all to happy to sing along in chorus.

The next Day at the movies, was on anniversary weekend, November 2013. This time I knew I’d attend, it being my only chance to watch the thing in 3D. Mrs Spandrell was happy to join in. The popcorn, you see.

But this time, there was very little chance to play spot the cosplaying fan. The cinema was packed, but with new fans, not old. And kids! Kids everywhere. I subconsciously know that kids love Doctor Who but it’s not till I see them en masse and dressed like Cybermen that it really kicks in. Parents, students, yuppies and pretty young things. This was a mainstream crowd, not us ming mongs. It was one of those moments when the new widespread popularity of the show hits home.

And there’s one more recent example: Deep Breath at the State Theatre, part of the Doctor Who world tour. Again, Mrs Spandrell was keen, again there was popcorn, again there was much cosplay. We bought merch, we took selfies. Terrible seats, right at the back, high in the heavens. The usher actually laughed when he checked our tickets. But then it was on and of course there were cheers and laughs and a crowd having a whale of a time. 2,775 Whoheads entranced.

When it ended, Peter Capaldi took to the stage (well, I have it on good authority it was him. I couldn’t quite be sure from our seats) and was witty and modest and charming. And then he let us in on a secret. While the episode was screening he’d snuck into the back of the auditorium, and watched a bit with us. But no one had noticed, their attention entirely focussed on the screen. A collective gasp from the audience. How close they had been to the man himself and never knew! They sobbed into their Tom Baker scarves at an opportunity missed.

So that’s my history of watching Doctor Who off TV. From grotty auditoriums crowded with hard core fans, to a one off movie screening for a mix of the we and the not-we, to a packed weekend screening with the general public lining up to watch the Daleks invade Gallifrey, to a lavish extravaganza with the Doctor himself watching along with his fans.

It still makes me shake my head in disbelief. This strange little show. It used to be ours. Now it’s freaking everyone’s. As commonplace as a trip to the cinema.

LINKS to Planet of the Daleks. Hmmm, not even worth typing is it?

SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Haven’t had one of these in a while. But here, rebel Shura blows up Auderley house at story’s end.

NEXT TIME… I preferred it when it seemed impossible! Brace yourself for a Nightmare of Eden.

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Hues, Heroes and Planet of the Daleks (1973)

planet daleks

Planet of the Daleks bursts on to your screen in a barrage of green, purple and sandy yellow. This is a story set on a jungle planet, so the green is given. The purple comes from the Doctor (the Pert at the height of his powers) dressed head to toe a kind of grape Austin Powers outfit, and from the native Spiridons, who wear bolts of purple fake fur around their otherwise invisible frames. That sandy yellow is from a squadron of Thals; the colour of their hair and of their bulky Michelin man style spacesuits. It’s a garish combination.

The overall effect is that each episode is a televisual assault on the eyes. Luckily the gun metal grey Daleks provide some chromatic relief, at least until their big badass gold and black Supreme turns up. He’s an escapee from the 1960s Dalek movies. Can you imagine if the production team had taken more of his multicoloured ilk? All the colours of a Skarosian rainbow.

So it’s a colourful story, but also a cramped one. I don’t know if the studios were particularly small or the sets particularly bulky or that the necessity for the Daleks to have thoroughfares of clear floor meant that no one had much room to move. But so much of the action takes place very close to the cameras, with the jungle being a sort of impenetrable border leaving not much space for the actors to work in. It reaches a peak in a scene in Episode Five where Thals Taron (Bernard Horsfall) and Codal (Tim Preece) mug a Spiridon for his fetching purple furs. It’s shot so close that it looks ridiculous. Actors struggling to swing clubs, manoeuver those shag pile furs and ski jacket spacesuits and stay in shot. The things you do for your art.

All this makes Planet of the Daleks a difficult story to look at. But as an adventure story, it lays on action in spades. Writer Terry Nation, returning to the series after eight years, doesn’t let the pace falter; it’s incident after incident. An attack, then a rescue, then a plan, then a stunt, then a dispute… You get the idea. It’s not always particularly interesting incident, but Nation’s skill was always in the broad brush strokes of plotting, not the close detail of dialogue and character. That’s not to damn him with faint praise. Shrewd plotting which gives a story momentum is incredibly hard and Nation makes it look easy.

It’s often said that this is a retread of Nation’s very first Dalek story. But the similarities are actually pretty superficial. There’s a Dalek city for example, and a Thal-led expedition to infiltrate it. And a few set pieces are the same, such as the use of a Dalek casing as a disguise. Otherwise quite distinctly different things happen in them.

And their key messages are different. The initial Dalek story said that there is a point where even peace loving people have to stand up to an aggressor (an allegory, it seems, for Britain’s decision to join WW2). Planet of the Daleks seems simply to say, war is hell. The Doctor’s advice to Taron at the story’s end, to be careful not to glamourise war, may well be cloyingly moralistic, but it shows a significant shift in Nation’s position. Influenced, perhaps, by nightly TV news images of jungle warfare in Vietnam.

If Planet of the Daleks is a reheating of old Nation classics, I think it’s of his favourite elements of the last Who story he wrote, The Daleks’ Master Plan. That also had humanoid heroes on a secret mission to a jungle planet, a planet where the hostile vegetable life acted more like animal life, a Dalek stronghold, invisible aliens and a plan on a grand scale. But unlike that story, in which the Doctor was front and centre, here he shares the focus with the blond wigged Thals, and specifically their tall rugged front man, Taron.

Taron is more than your average guest character, he’s a genuine challenge to the Doctor’s status as leading man. He gets as much screen time as the Doctor, and he holds many scenes exploring plot points which directly impact his character, but not the story, like his reproaching of Rebec for turning up and turning his head, and the ongoing power struggle with second in command Vaber (an twitchy Prentice Hancock). When the action reaches the Plain of Stones, Taron takes charge when mutinous Vaber goes to blow up some Daleks (he helpfully leaves a note stating his intention):

TARON: Codal, will you come with me? Doctor, would you stay here?

DOCTOR: If that’s what you want.

“If that’s what you want”? That’s not the gung-ho Pert we’ve grown to know and (mostly) love. It’s odd to see the program try to balance two action hero leads. But it’s no contest really: Taron’s the military hero, the Doctor’s his scientific adviser and defers to Taron’s authority. The Doctor comes up with all the ingenious schemes, Taron’s the muscle. It is as if Nation is still writing for Hartnell’s Doctor, who was always accompanied by a young male companion to do the athletic stuff.

So it’s a story written like it’s still the sixties but filmed in all the vibrant hues of the seventies. But if that doesn’t float your boat, it also has Jo Grant hanging out with an invisible alien. This is Wester, the friendly Spiridon with a name like an accountant. How does she keep track of him? Well luckily he’s in the habit of carrying around random objects. A bowl. A stick. And so on.

That’s not when he’s wearing his purple yak outfit. Then he just looks like any other Spiridon. But there must be something distinctive about the way that fur clings to his frame, because when the Doctor sees him from across a Dalek filled room in Episode Five, he spots him immediately. “That’s Wester!”, he exclaims. Ha! (Or should I say ‘Hai!’). Recognise an invisible alien just by the way a day-glo rug hangs off him? Like to see you try that, Taron.

LINKS to The Time Monster. Well, they’re both six part Pertwee stories featuring a returning villain. Seeming a bit less random isn’t it? Still, after 12 Pertwee episodes in a row, I’m looking forward to something different.

NEXT TIME… Good grief! It’s Day of the Daleks.

Sexism, soggy biscuits and The Time Monster (1972)

time monster

In 1971, producer Barry Letts and writer Robert Sloman co-wrote a season finale for Doctor Who.  It was about the Master disguising himself to infiltrate a small community from where he could summon up a powerful alien creature. It transpires that the Master can’t control the creature, whose long presence on Earth had caused it to be entwined in ancient mythology and who caused the destruction of Atlantis.

The next year, they did it again and called it The Time Monster.  And I think it might win some ignominious prize for being the most sexist Doctor Who story ever. Quite a feat for a series whose basic premise – super intelligent man is accompanied by a subordinate female companion – is inherently sexist to begin with.

Let’s start with the Lady Jo Jo Grant, played as ever with perky enthusiasm by Katy Manning. The script doesn’t miss any opportunity to call her stupid.  “Look, I know I’m exceedingly dim, but would you mind explaining?”, she says to the Doctor (the Pert in full white bouffant glory) in the very first scene. Even ironically, why would you ever give a companion that line? A few minutes later there’s this horribly condescending exchange when Jo is set an impromptu test about the Doctor’s latest gadget.

DOCTOR: Well, what’s it do then?

JO: Well, it, er.

DOCTOR: Mmm hmm?

JO: It, er, detects disturbances in a time field.

DOCTOR: Well done, Jo. You’re learning!

What’s most annoying about this is that Jo’s not stupid. There are plenty of examples of her being smart and resourceful, which presumably is why she can hold down a job at UNIT. But I think Manning was so good at looking boggle eyed at any gobbledegook the Doctor spouted each week that it became easy for the writers to script her as a dizzy blonde.

Later on, she’s told off for making conversation.

JO: It’s a doomy old day. I mean, just look at that sky. Just look at it.

DOCTOR: Do stop wiffling, Jo, there’s a good girl. We’re not out on a pleasure jaunt, you know?

JO: Sorry, Doctor.

“Sorry Doctor”? How about “Sod off Doctor, I was just making a passing comment?” Still, we’re only in Episode One so the story is still young. By now, we’ve also been introduced to the second of three major female characters, Dr. Ruth Ingram (Wanda Moore). She’s almost an alternative version to Jo; she’s still the assistant to a capricious scientist (Professor Thascalos, aka the Master), but she’s smart, qualified and witty (well, as witty as this laboured script gets). She’s a bolshy, wise cracking Liz Shaw.

But one thing is emphasised about Ruth at every opportunity. She is that strangest of alien creatures, a FEMINIST. It is commented on, again and again, most commonly in a resigned sigh of a comment after she makes a strident observation. Take this for example:

RUTH:  There’s no need for you to be so patronising, Professor. Look, just because I’m a woman, there’s no need to treat me like…

HYDE: Here we go.

But her attempts to point out how patronising the men around her are only cause them to be more patronising. Like this:

RUTH: It’s all the same, really. A bland assumption of male superiority.

HYDE: May God bless the good ship women’s lib and all who sail in her.

Or even, irritatingly, this when her male colleague, mustachioed beanpole Stuart Hyde (Ian Collier) attempts to coax her into doing what he wants:

RUTH: Well, it is his project. I mean, he’s the boss.

HYDE: Nominally. But you think how much you’ve put into it. It’s a joint affair. I reckon you’ve as much right to take a decision as he has.

RUTH: Well.

HYDE: Of course if you need a man in charge.

RUTH: That does it. We go ahead.

HYDE: That’s my girl!

And still, we’re not out of Episode One yet. That a writing, editing and directing team of men in 1970s couldn’t realistically or maturely depict a feminist character isn’t surprising. But watching it from a modern perspective, what is weird is the use of women’s equality as a defining character note; women’s lib is Ruth’s “thing”. It sets her apart, rather than simply being a sensible way of looking at the world for any character, male or female.

It is of its time, sure. But by the end of Episode One we’ve been presented with two different female characters; Jo and Ruth. One is labelled as a feminist and one isn’t (again, feminism as optional, not the norm). And Ruth the feminist comes off as much less fun than Jo. So not only is feminism something only some women adopt, it’s also something of a bore. Of course, what we really need is a few scenes of Ruth and the Doctor together.

DOCTOR: Do stop wiffling, Ruth, there’s a good girl. We’re not out on a pleasure jaunt, you know?

RUTH: Stick it up your stovepipe trousers, Doctor.

HYDE: That’s my girl!

RUTH: Bite me, stringbean! (Pow! RUTH punches HYDE in the face.)

By Episode Five we have travelled to ancient Atlantis and met our third major female character Queen Galleia (the Hammer film star Ingrid Pitt). Galleia is smart, calculating and ambitious. But any chance that we might be about get an interesting, well thought out female character is undermined by her costume, which brazenly shows off her considerable cleavage. The Time Monster is telling us from the beginning that this is a character defined by sexuality. She’s there – at least in part – to be ogled. A clear double standard when you compare her to Atlantis’s young male lead, Hippias (Aidan Murphy), who is about as dowdy and unappealing as one could get. Never has there been a soggier biscuit (though to be fair Ryan Gosling would struggle to be sexy under that wig).

It’s not just Galleia’s eye popping costume which signals her as this serial’s sexpot. Her interactions with the male characters are mostly sexual. Firstly, there’s her attraction to the Master, which emerges in her very first scene. She and the Master seduce each other, both motivated more by power than romance, but still there’s a sexy undertone. Fair dues, she’s married to 500 year King Dalios (George Cormack) so perhaps we can’t blame her for a little window shopping.

Between Episodes Five and Six she’s shacked up with the Master and staged a bloodless coup. But it also turns out that she’s been round the block with Hippias as well. In a fairly stilted exchange, Hippias basically implies that she’s slept her way to the top to serve her ambitions for power. And least she gets to tell him to bugger off. So just to sum up: Dalios, Hippias and the Master – Galleia’s had ’em all.

All this adds up to an uncomfortable image of Galleia. She’s a power hungry social climber and her main weapon is sexuality. Sure, she’s a minor villain in the story, so we can hardly expect her to be a sympathetic character. But has Doctor Who ever drawn a clearer picture of female sexuality as dangerous and corrupting? How this sits with the story’s treatment of Ruth’s feminism – as something to be warily mocked – is just as unpleasant. I wouldn’t like to read too much into something as insubstantial as The Time Monster, but in transferring its attention from Ruth to Galleia, it seems to say, ‘Look at all this women’s equality nonsense! Let it get out of hand, and this is where it will lead!”

So to be blunt, The Time Monster gives us three female stereotypes: the bimbo, the shrill feminist and the slut. Just yuck.

LINK to The Visitation. The Time Monster features a scene with Roundhead soldiers. It’s the third story in a row to reference the seventeenth century.

NEXT TIME… I got rescued by this bowl! We touch down on the Planet of the Daleks.

Old, New and The Visitation (1982)

visitation

Set in the seventeenth century, but scored throughout with twinkly electronic music,The Visitation  feels both old and new – or at least 1980s new.

It also has one the best opening scenes in Doctor Who. A gentrified family in restoration England are home at night. We get to know this little family; grumpy father, son, daughter and manservant. We start to like them. Then their house is infiltrated by an alien something and all are killed. We fade through a few shots of the empty house in daylight, as alien machinery thrums. Tightly written, stylishly directed.

But leisurely. New Who does these sort of opening gambits – monstrous nasty kills people we’ve just met – all the time, but they’re much shorter and pacier and usually done before the opening credits. Think Tooth and Claw, Gridlock or The God Complex, to name but a few.

But back to The Visitation. After the opening scene, it’s over to the TARDIS to see what our heroes are up to this week. The Doctor (Peter Davison, early in his term, but firmly established as the Time Lord next door), awkward teenager Adric (played by awkward teenager Matthew Waterhouse) and alien noblelady Nyssa (Sarah Sutton, in the sensible shoes) are preparing to take mouthy air hostess Tegan (Janet Fielding, all hair and purple power uniform) back to Heathrow Airport in 1982. It’s all very domestic: the Doctor and Adric are bickering about things which happened last episode. Tegan is busy putting on some very 1980s make-up. Nyssa is standing in the console room reading a magazine (of all things. Woman’s Day? DWB?).  There’s a family squabble when they realise that they’ve landed at the right spot, but three hundred years early. Tegan cracks it and storms out of the TARDIS in a huff. The other three follow her out and into the story proper.

Scenes like that one – Neighbours with roundels, I think they’ve been called – seem too inconsequential for modern tastes. Enough with the day-to-day dramas of the TARDIS crew, and get on with telling the story, the argument goes. And fair enough too. But it’s worth remembering that this sort of interaction between TARDIS crew members, unnecessarily argumentative though it is, was a novelty by Doctor Who’s 19th season. For years, the Doctor and his companion would just leap out into a story, leaving us no hint of any life lived between adventures, let alone any ramifications of such. It’s refreshing to briefly peep through that console room door, and see what goes on when they’re not battling power mad loons or giant frogs.

Once outside, our pals quickly meet actor turned highwayman Richard Mace (a fruity performance from Michael Robbins). Now as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve no beef with having three companions on board, and The Visitation – at least in its first two episodes – does a good job of splitting the action up between them. But I find it perplexing when writers feel a need to add a de facto fourth (The Impossible Astronaut, I’m looking at you too). It’s clear that writer Eric Saward is more interested in Mace than any of the three companions he has to hand, and gives him all the best lines.  “It is only with the aid of these properties,” he says waving his flintlocks around, “that I am able to command the attention of an audience nowadays.”

He also performs useful plot functions such as explaining the set up. He’s on hand to describe the strange events of the last few days, from which the Doctor can deduce that there are likely to be survivors nearby. And so there are, the reptilian Terileptils. As Doctor Who monsters go, they’re not bad, their leering lizardy heads being most effective. Unfortunately their arms seem permanently affixed to their bodies down to the elbow, making them look like they’re continually miming the carrying of a box. When they lash out at someone it’s not done with a savage swipe of a claw, more a gentle nudging of the forearm.

Still, everything rolls along at quite a clip in those first two episodes. Tegan and Adric are captured by the chief Terileptil, giving the Doctor a chance to escape in the TARDIS with his favourite companion. He doesn’t though. He decides to attempt to elicit help from the local Miller and sends Nyssa back to the TARDIS to build a machine which will vibrate (stop it) the Terileptil’s bejewelled android to pieces.

This leads to some of the dullest scenes ever committed to videotape. Nysaa collects her tools. Nyssa puts the frame of the machine together. Nyssa pushes the frame from the console room to her bed room. Nyssa tinkers with the machine. And so on. This is her whole contribution to Part Three. On and on these scenes go, with only the incidental music to (and I use the word cautiously) enliven them.

Adric drops by briefly, having escaped from the Terileptils, but he’s of no use building the machine and after a quick mope leaves again and is quickly recaptured.  ‘Poor old Adric’, sighs Nyssa in that first TARDIS scene, and I can’t help but agree. There’s a gradual degrading of Adric’s character over his time in the series. Back in season 18, he was technically competent; remember it was he who built the story ending gizmo in The Keeper of Traken with Nyssa’s help. But here their roles have reversed; Nyssa is the technician, Adric the assistant. ‘And I try so hard’, he sulks at one point, his outsider-ness a neat foreshadowing of his forthcoming demise in Earthshock.

Anyway, back to Nyssa and her box of tricks. She puts on some big ear muffs and tests the machine, vibrating a few nik naks of her dressing table. Goodness know how she plans to attack an android with this thing, which is the size and shape of a small petrol-powered generator. Luckily, in an extremely contrived bit of plotting, the Android comes to her. It boards the TARDIS, helpfully walks rights into Nyssa’s room and is shaken to death. It lies smoldering on the floor. Nyssa rushes to get a fire extinguisher. Nyssa puts out the fire. Nyssa sits on her bed and quietly wonders why she never got her own spin off series.

The story picks up towards the end when the Doctor and his four companions take the TARDIS to London where they blow up the Terileptils and their hideout. There’s a particularly gruesome shot where the lead lizard’s face bubbles and pops in the heat of a freshly started fire. Leaving Mace to fight the fire, the Doctor and company leave, and the final shot is of the sign ‘Pudding Lane’, instantly indicating to anyone au fait with the period that the fire in question is the Great Fire of London (but leaving little 9 year old Spandrell watching in Australia completely mystified).

And like The Visitation’s opening scenes, its closing scene is something special. It’s Doctor Who‘s first use of the ‘closing moments’ surprise reveal. And it’s still an impressive trick if you can pull it off; Steven Moffat’s The Girl in the Fireplace repeats it years later, right down to the tell tale writing on the wall.

Something old, something new and half an hour of Nyssa building a story stalling gizmo. The Visitation is ahead of its time, but also deeply embedded in it.

LINK to The Smugglers. Both are set in the seventeenth century. And both feature Squires. Love an easy one.

NEXT TIME… Suffering catfish, it’s The Time Monster. Come Kronos, Come!  

Hartnell, character and The Smugglers (1966)

smugglers2

In Jessica Carney’s biography of her grandfather William Hartnell, Who’s There?, there’s a photo of the actor on location in Cornwall for The Smugglers, June 1966. Dressed in his Doctor Who costume, big black cloak flapping, one foot up on a boulder, he stands on a beach looking out to the ocean. Let’s go back in time, for a moment, to when that photo was taken.

It is the end of ten long months working on Doctor Who. Effectively a year’s work, Hartnell’s third on the series and a difficult one. They’ve made 44 episodes this year and Hartnell’s been in 42 of them.

At the start of this production block, there was a new producer and script editor; both lasted about six months and have been replaced. He lost a beloved Aunt, and recording on Doctor Who meant he couldn’t attend the memorial service. He clashed with producer John Wiles, a factor in Wiles leaving the show. Long time co-star and friend Peter Purves was let go from the show a couple of months back. In all he’s had 7 companions go and come this year.

But right now, things are not so bad. Doctor Who rarely goes on location and when it does, Hartnell’s not always required. This story though, The Smugglers, has the luxury of a five day shoot in Cornwall and Hartnell features heavily. There’s still time though to pause from the daily grind and enjoy the sights. He writes a note on the back of the photo which says, ‘Cornwall. I’m looking out at the beauty God made! The colour and sound brings only the feeling of happiness into my heart and soul. Dr Who. 1966.’

The next season is due to start production in three months. In just one month, Hartnell will be convinced to relinquish this role which has consumed his life for the last three years. Did he know, when making The Smugglers, that the end was nigh? Even if he didn’t know his hand was about to be forced, surely as he looked out over that beach he must have wondered if he had another 44 weeks of this in him. Not just because of his deteriorating health, but the continual parade of new faces in front of and behind the cameras must have reminded him that of the show’s original staff, he is the last one standing.

In the recent docudrama, An Adventure in Space and Time, the moment when Hartnell is told that the show will continue without him is played out with Sydney Newman having to deliver the sad news. In truth this unenviable task would surely have fallen to producer Innes Lloyd. And I suspect, there was probably no one momentous meeting. There never are with these things. It’s a conversation here, a meeting there, “don’t make any decisions yet”, “nothing’s set in stone but…” Until one day the deed is done.

So what we have in The Smugglers is arguably Hartnell’s last story. Sure The Tenth Planet is officially the final stand, but it’s a muted affair for his acerbic Doctor; he’s a commenter on events, not a protagonist. He’s not even in Episode 3. In fact, I’ve even read somewhere that Hartnell is booked as a guest star for that story. That says it all; a guest star in one’s own show.

Not so in The Smugglers, where the Doctor is an active force. He’s given the secret of where Avery’s treasure is buried, and so is kidnapped by nefarious pirates Captain Pike and the brutish Cherub. He enters into a shortlived alliance with innkeeper and smuggler Kewper, and escapes the pirates’ ship only to find he and his companions are in the middle of a power struggle between the pirates, smugglers and the taxman.

In the middle of all this, a way out presents itself: a secret passage has been discovered which leads directly to the TARDIS. It’s an immediate escape route and companions Ben and Polly are only too willing to take it. But the Doctor refuses. He strongly suspects that Pike won’t be satisfied with finding the treasure; he and his men will also sack the nearby village. The Doctor thinks that he can use his knowledge about the treasure’s whereabouts to bargain with Pike, and allow revenue man Blake time to return with troops, thus saving the village. It is, the Doctor says, their moral obligation to stay. So they stay and the Doctor confronts Cherub, bargains with Pike, reveals the treasure’s location and basically plays everyone for time until Blake arrives. In short, the Doctor’s the story’s catalyst and its hero, not a bystander.

And Hartnell plays it with his usual vigour. He’s stumbling over his lines of course, that’s what we’ve come to expect. But he plays everything with energy and commitment. Compare this to the last story he recorded, The War Machines, where he looked a bit bewildered by the whole thing. I’d be willing to bet he liked doing the historical stories better, where he could act with real people, not featureless boxes.

In fact he said as much in that recently discovered interview footage (an extra on The Tenth Planet DVD) where he complained about the lack of reaction an actor gets from a Dalek. What a revelation that footage is; a glimpse at the formidable old grump so many people have said he was. But compare that brief snippet of real life Hartnell to his performance as the Doctor, and it’s instantly clear just how much work he put into his characterisation.  That footage – the only surviving video of Hartnell himself – is demonstrable proof that he and the Doctor were not one and the same.

It’s easy to see how that mistake could be made. The Smugglers’ director Julia Smith recalled how Hartnell refused to use a switch on the TARDIS console for what he believed was not its purpose. “It was obviously so real to him,” she said. And that makes me think of how he signed off his note the back of that photo: “Dr Who. 1966.” Was he merely noting the production he was working on, and the date the photo was taken? Or was he intentionally adopting his fictional persona, even down to the signature? Perhaps reflecting that when faced with having to give up a job you love, sometimes it’s safer just to stay in character.

Link to The Creature from the Pit. Oh just writing that looks so facile! But let’s be content with the fact that both are about various parties squabbling over precious metals.

NEXT TIME… Fire and brimstone! We visit The Visitation.

Energy, kinkiness and The Creature from the Pit (1979)

creature

For me, there are very few spots in Doctor Who’s history where there’s a string of mediocre episodes in a row. But I must confess I find the end of season 16 is a bit hard going. It all gets a bit, well, dull.

But turn the corner into season 17, and things change almost immediately, most noticeably in the dialogue. Suddenly it crackles with an energy that the last couple of seasons lacked. It’s not hard to pinpoint the new factor at play here; it’s script editor Douglas Adams. He certainly brings more humour into the scripts, but it’s not just that. There are more elegant turns of phrase, there’s more bite to the lines. It gives the actors more to play with.

The funny thing is, I was brought up to hate season 17. When I undertook that fateful move from casual viewer to fan during the Davison era, the fan press I was reading put the boot into this season as being too silly, too cheap and not taking the whole thing seriously enough. And it’s true that this season lacks that creeping menace which imbued Tom Baker’s early seasons, which are often hailed as the pinnacle of Who.

But over the years, the tide has changed a little bit, not least of all because we’ve all grown to adore City of Death and have looked around and thought, surely its stablemates can’t be that bad? And sure enough we’ve come to appreciate the groundbreaking direction in Destiny of the Daleks, the surprisingly adult themes of Nightmare of Eden and the zany brio of The Horns of Nimon. Season 17 has gone from being bad Who, to being just Who.

The Creature from the Pit though, few people have anything nice to say about. I’ll attempt to break the drought because I rather like it. But first, we have to forgive the creature itself; a deeply unconvincing mélange of garbage bags painted green. And famously, it extrudes a tentacle which is distractingly phallic. Yep, it’s awful and yep, that’s a big green dick. But Doctor Who has lots of awful effects (although rarely so, um, cocky) so we should just move on, as best we can.

(Except to ask, what was producer Graham Williams thinking? It’s often mentioned that this was period when inflation was playing havoc with the show’s budget, so given that, why did he think an enormous, shapeless blob was possible on a Who budget? And hadn’t they just tried a similar trick – with some particularly underwhelming results – two stories ago?)

The first thing that strikes you about Creature is that terrific first TARDIS scene; terrific, that is, if you like Doctor Who written like a sitcom. It’s joke after joke in rapid fire succession, between the wacky old Doctor, his sensible and long suffering companion and a cute robot. And if you think this approach to writing Who is dead, I refer you to the last randomed The Time of the Doctor, and its opening scene which, with a couple of spaceships added, is exactly the same in tone.

It’s also apparent from that first scene that the show expects its audience to be very well read. That first scene references Greek myth, the biblical tale of Samson and the Peter Rabbit books. And later we’ll be introduced to characters who take their names from ancient Greece (Erato and Organon) and one whose name suggests the latin for ‘to the stars’ (Adrasta, in conception ad astra). Frustratingly, there seems to be no common purpose to these allusions, thrown in seemingly at random. But none the less, they are clues the story leaves for its audience to collect; like the best Who, this story respects its audience’s intelligence.

The plot itself differs from the standard ‘land on a planet, discover a problem, identify a villain, solve problem, defeat villain and go home’ formula. Here, the story’s villain, Lady Adrasta (played with relish by Myra Frances) captures our TARDIS team, and is initially interested in the Doctor’s scientific expertise.

But when he jumps down the pit, she turns her interest to K9. She sees in him a weapon which she might use on Erato, the well hung blob, whom she has imprisoned in the pit. So she forces Romana and K9 into an underground search to find and eventually get K9 to kill Erato. It’s not the world’s greatest plan, particularly as K9 seems to drain power as regularly as a vintage iPhone and Erato’s the size of a cathedral.

At any rate, this leaves the Doctor and his new astrologer chum Organon (Geoffrey Balydon, basically getting another chance to play Catweazle. Now’s there’s a show which needs a reboot.) to attempt to communicate with Erato. And although the show’s budget couldn’t stretch to convincingly constructing an alien who’s basically an enormous pile of snot, at least it is varying its approach to monsters from ‘bung an extra in a rubber suit’.

Erato, it transpires, is an alien ambassador, and  needs a shield-like translator device to communicate with others. This is rather neat, as it fits with the character (a traveling ambassador would need such a device) but also gets around the problem of how every alien speaks BBC English (doesn’t explain for everyone else on Chloris does, but hey).

Once Adrasta’s storyline and the Doctor’s converge, and the shield is wheeled on by some possessed bandits (the story’s weakest and least necessary element), the gig is up. Erato explains that Adrasta trapped him in the pit to maintain her stranglehold of the planet’s scarce metal reserves. An angry Huntsman sets a pack of carnivorous weeds on her, and she dies as best as one can when being molested by some green papier mache balloons.

Everything’s wrapped up, but we’re only 8 minutes into Part Four. The Doctor knows it can’t be over yet; he usually ends things back in the TARDIS wrapping things up with some more jokes and a big old grin and it’s far too early for that.

This tactic – you think the story’s over! But it’s not! – rarely works well in Doctor Who, or anywhere else for that matter. Creature does it as well as can be expected; Erato has been lying by omission and a neutron star sent by his fellow blobs is on its way to devastate Chloris. The Doctor must talk him into a dangerous manouevre with the TARDIS to neutralise it.

It’s hard to restart a story which has already met its natural climax, especially when the new threat is entirely countered from within the TARDIS console room with some enthusiastic turbulence acting and some quaint video effects. Still, it gets the episode to 25 mins, along with some more nonsense from those pesky bandits. (But even that has a clever line in it. While chief hairy Torvin is rhapsodizing about his haul of metal, old slyboots Karela stabs him in the back, adding “there’s six inches more to add to your collection”.)

It’s not the duddest of endings, but you do get the impression this is a three episode plot stretched to four. But I come to praise Creature, not to bury it. If nothing else it has some extraordinary costumes in it, courtesy of June Hudson. Her costume for Adrasta seems to be referencing Disney’s evil queen, complete with stockings, heels and a breastplate. The Huntsman is dressed head to toe in leather, it seems, and wields a mean whip. Romana’s wafty white dress is primly virginal. Add Erato’s aforementioned appendage and surely Doctor Who has never looked so kinky.

So, literate, funny, structurally novel, extravagantly designed, way too ambitious for its budget and a bit suggestive – but never dull. So far, so season 17.

LINK to The Time of the Doctor. Both feature extravagantly dressed female protagonists. Hmm, not great is it? But it’s all I’ve got.

NEXT TIME… I can foresee oodles of trouble! Arr me hearties, it’s The Smugglers.

Regeneration, resolution and The Time of the Doctor (2013)

time of the doctor

It starts with a mysterious signal emanating from an insignificant planet. The signal attracts an armada of alien spaceships piloted by a Who‘s what of monsters. But this isn’t The Pandorica Opens.

It’s the 2013 Christmas special (my random Who generator loves these; its chosen 3 out of 9 of the buggers) and Matt Smith’s farewell story. In the DWM preview for this story, showrunner Steven Moffat said of it: “It’s the greatest single performance ever given by anyone who has ever played the Doctor”. And as it happens, I spent my last post ruminating on when each Doctor gave their best performance. So was Moffat spouting promotional puffery or was he on the money?

Crafting a performance takes time. And that’s the one luxury Doctor Who has never afforded its actors. As many of the show’s actors have relayed in interviews, on old Who the low budget meant time was precious. So although there were days allocated for rehearsal, once on location it was get the scenes in the can and move on. Studio recording was even more brutal; get it done, effects and all by 10pm or the lights go out.

And on new Who, although there’s a bigger budget, the sheer amount of material to shoot means time is still of the essence. Both Smith and David Tennant have spoken about the daunting workload on the show; how during production it’s basically shoot all day, go home to learn lines and repeat for nine months of the year. It’s a crushing schedule; on The Name of the Doctor there were 15 days between the first draft script and the start of the shoot. What I’m saying is, be it old Who or new, it’s amazing we got/get anything half watchable, let alone the many fine performances it does offer.

With that in mind, let’s look at the acting challenges facing Smith in his final episode. He’s in nearly every scene. He’s being the Doctor at three different ages, under two heavy make ups (but this isn’t The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords). He has to create a relationship with an inanimate cyberhead (hmm, should it have been K9’s head?). He has to be seductive with Tasha Lem, fatherly with Barnable and man up with the monsters. And with Clara he’s performing in a screwball comedy duo, making us care about their relationship enough that it breaks our heart to see them parted at story’s end. And much of the scenery’s not actually there, because nearly everything’s on green screen. And on top of it all, this job which has consumed his life for the last four years is coming to an end, so emotions are high.

Smith does a terrific job at all this and more. But somehow this story doesn’t quite feel like the tour de force that Tennant had in Human Nature. Last entry, I talked about how a good story that pushes the Doctor in new directions helps makes a standout performance. And The Time of the Doctor is that, but it’s also the culmination of 4 years of hint dropping and mystery making by Moffat. So often the story seems to stop to pick up some loose end or other, be it ‘who blew up the TARDIS’ or ‘what was behind that door in The God Complex‘ or ‘has the Doctor run out of regenerations’? (Personally I’m still waiting to find out why the duck pond in The Eleventh Hour  had no ducks. We need to know.) Smith doesn’t get as clear a run at it as Tennant did with the uncluttered Human Nature.

For me, Smith’s best performance is to be found elsewhere. And I haven’t quite decided where it is. But I think it’s somewhere around the beginning of his second season. It’s here where there seems to be a definitive confidence in his characterization; an solidifying of that peculiar mix of gentle otherworldliness and childlike delight. Perhaps it’s when he’s playing at Christmas gift bringer in A Christmas Carol. Or perhaps its when he’s trying to piece together what’s happening to his life and his friends inThe Impossible Astronaut. Or perhaps – and this is where I’m leaning at the moment – it’s to be found in the highs and lows of meeting his own TARDIS in The Doctor’s Wife.

Still, there’s much of interest going on in The Time of the Doctor. Clara gets tricked into returning to Earth as a way of ensuring her safety (but this isn’t The Parting of the Ways). Then she piggy backs on the outer hull of the TARDIS through the vortex to rejoin the story (but this isn’t Utopia). The stop/start nature of her story might seem a little offputting, but it’s an elegant device for showing the passage of long periods of time. In a way, it’s a pity we (the audience) don’t stick with her throughout, distancing us from the Doctor’s story and making his increasing age and infirmity a more immediate shock.

But we need to see what’s happening on Trenzalore in the gaps, because the Doctor’s defence of the town of Christmas is the heart of the story; to prevent another Time War the restless wanderer will settle down and commit to a cause. And because this takes hundreds of years (in which time the town barely changes, but shush now), we see the youngest ever Doctor become the oldest. Surely this is Moffat both playing to Smith’s strengths (he has often claimed that Smith is best at portraying the Doctor’s great age) but also indulging in some delicious irony;  how else should the youngest Doctor die but through old age?

This leads to the episode’s neatest trick – the regeneration. It’s not so much that it delivers the Doctor a new lifecycle, though that does feel like a cumbersome burden gratefully abandoned. It’s that the regeneration is the resolution of the story, the first time that’s happened. It’s the way of solving the problem. As it carves through those Dalek ships, it brings the siege of Trenzalore to an end. Every other time the Doctor’s regenerated, that’s been the consequence of the Doctor’s role in the story – the price he’s paid for winning through. Here regeneration is the sweet dessert at the end of the meal, not the unwanted bill.

It ends with the young, handsome and funny Doctor restored pre-change, but this isn’t The End of Time. There’s no drawn out valedictory tour of past companions, just a short scene where the differences between Doctor and actor become hard to discern. “I will not forget one line of this”, says the Doctor, but that word ‘line’ seems to deliberately reference the lines which Matt Smith has spoken in the role. “I will always remember when the Doctor was me”; again it could be Matt speaking, not the Doctor. And thinking back, whether he was being mobbed by adoring children, or walking past walls plastered with fan’s artwork or even revealing his newly shaven head, this story has deliberately blurred the lines between actor and Doctor. And thus it acknowledges fictionally what the viewers already know in fact; it’s goodbye to both.

But then a whiplash crick of the neck, and the new man arrives. After an hour rich in sentiment, the show rolls on, with its trademark lack of sentimentality.

LINK to Human Nature/The Family of Blood: Both involve making the lead actor up to be aged greatly. (And these make up jobs are always brilliant, but, despite the best of efforts, are never 100% convincing are they? It’s something about the eyes which seem unageable; islands of youth in an ocean of wrinkly skin.)

NEXT TIME: Point the dog against the rock! We get big, green and rude with The Creature from the Pit.

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