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.

Advertisements

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.

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!

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)

girlwaited2

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.

%d bloggers like this: