Pace, technology and The War Machines (1966).

war mach

And they say Sixties stories are slow. Not The War Machines, at least not Episode (pause for drum roll…..cymbal clash!) 1. It’s more like one of those disorienting sci-fi films where the hero is trapped in some virtual world and the only clue to its unreality is the sudden jump cuts between locations with barely time to think. Think Forest of the Dead, but made in 1966.

For instance, no sooner has our doddery old Doctor (William Hartnell, at his most erratic) and diminutive young Dodo (Jackie Lane, about to be dumped unceremoniously from the show in Episode 2) arrived in London, than the Doctor decides he must investigate the Post Office Tower, because, of all things, he gets a prickling sensation on his hand.

Suddenly, he’s there, being welcomed into the very heart of operations by Professor Brett. “Ah, Doctor!,” declares Brett, on first sight of this odd old man and his teenage sidekick. “I understand from Major Green you’re a specialist in computer development.” And that kids, is apparently all you need do to gain access to the room that holds the world’s most powerful computer. Just find credulous old Major Green. Security’s not his strong point. Spin him some old bollocks about being an expert. Maybe slip him a fiver.

The computer in question is WOTAN, so powerful that it can derive the square root of a five digit number and knows what TARDIS stands for (it clearly as access to Wikipedia). Dodo, no doubt feeling a bit intimidated, starts to get a bit woozy. Her forthcoming replacement, Polly (Anneke Wills, all legs), finds her a seat and gets her a drink. As she recovers, Dodo says the most unlikely thing:

DODO: I’m so out of touch. What I’d really like is to go to the hottest night spot in town.
POLLY: Oh that’s easy, the Inferno.

Jump cut! And we’re there. Now, I’m too young to have ever visited a hip, basement-style club in 1960s London. For all I know, they were exactly like this. Groovy tunes played on a turntable, just enough room to dance at a respectable distance from members of the opposite sex and telephones on the bar where you can make and receive calls. But here’s the thing about the Inferno: it’s open in the middle of the day. Polly and Dodo seem to skive off their during Polly’s lunch hour and the joint is already jumping. Come down during afternoon tea for a sneaky gin & tonic and a quick flirt with a sailor! I suppose it makes sense in a decadent, Mad Men kind of way.

It’s certainly still daylight outside when the Doctor catches a taxi to the Royal Scientific Club to catch a press conference about WOTAN. There Sir Charles Summer (William Mervyn) talks about C-day, when WOTAN will be linked to all the world’s other major computers, forming an internet of about half a dozen. He illustrates this world wide web with a big cardboard poster, with big black texta lines. Take that, PowerPoint!

Anyway, Sir Charles soon falls prey to the Doctor’s charms. The two exchange about three sentences at the press conference, but that’s more than enough for the wily old Doctor to inveigle his way into Sir Charles’ life. The next thing we hear Sir Charles and his family have invited the Doctor and Dodo around to visit. Is this normal behaviour? Does Sir Charles often pick up strays at pressers and invite them home for a sleepover? What did the Doctor say to him between those few introductory sentences and collecting Dodo from the hottest dayspot in town which so endeared him to them? It would be prurient of me to suggest anything untoward is going on, but I’ll just quietly mention that we never meet Mrs Sir Charles and the Doctor takes to putting his arm around Sir Charles’ shoulder in a very familiar fashion in Episode 4.

Meanwhile, WOTAN is up to no good. It’s been quietly running a subroutine plotting plans for world domination. Its opinion is that mankind has reached the zenith of its advancement and will progress no further, which is pretty rich coming from a machine which is still using a dot matrix printer. But it’s hard to take over the world when you’re an inanimate object the size of a newsdesk, so it hypnotises Dodo, Green and Professors Brett and Krimpton to be its hands, legs and everything else.

Let’s pity, for a moment, the actors playing Brett and Krimpton (John Harvey and John Cater respectively). Once hypnotised they have nothing to do but stare rigidly into the middle distance and spout expositional dialogue at each other.

And let’s marvel, for a moment, at Doctor Who’s long tradition of the casual use of the title “Professor”. Exactly which professorial chairs and which universities do Krimpton and Brett hold? How many years of work and research did they need to achieve the heights of academia. Answer: who cares? Everyone in a lab coat’s a bloody professor in Doctor Who.

And let’s linger, for a moment, on the idea that a computer could hypnotise anyone. Some ideas about technology in The War Machines are quaintly outdated; WOTAN for example takes up an entire room, a visual expression of the belief that a big computer is a powerful computer. We can put that down to The War Machines being a product of its time.

But other ideas are pure superstition – like the notion that a computer might develop sentience and turn bad was a kind of phobia that lingered in popular culture well into the 1980s. Could you sell a mad computer story today, I wonder? Surely not. Let alone a story about one which could exert control people’s minds. And yet… New Who has dabbled with technophobia. Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel made a threat of bluetooth headsets. And more recently, The Bells of St. John made the wi-fi the method of attack. So it’s obviously still good fodder, even if it runs the risk of eventually making a story seem as dated as The War Machines.

But back to WOTAN’s plan. Remember that it has just procured itself some human slaves. It’s only now it can start building its War Machines (and what a terrifying, slimline design it chose. Like a trundling vending machine). And this is where The War Machines slows down as we get two episodes of building the machines. First you see, you hire some workers, then you find a warehouse (make sure it’s conveniently located near the hottest nightanddayspot in town). Then you have to build the things, test them and kill a tramp before you can unleash them on an unsuspecting public. Has there ever been another Doctor Who story which basic structure is “Ah ha! I’m the villain! Now can you amuse yourselves for a couple of episodes while I build some monsters?  Won’t be long.”

It all works out in the end. The Doctor, in a deeply unthrilling sequence, traps a War Machine is a kind of electric pen after it wobbles slowly into it. Then, in what is eventually established as one of the show’s most reliable tropes (which started, as we did, back in The Dalek Invasion of Earth), the Doctor turns the villain’s foot soldiers against it. Specifically, he reprograms the War Machine to attack WOTAN. He must have also programmed it to fit through the doors of the Post Office tower and squeeze itself into a lift. It’s all a bit odd really, because of all the Doctors, Hartnell seems the least computer savvy of the lot. But he stabs randomly at a few buttons on the side of the vending machine and that seems to do the trick.

It’s been a busy story. Companions have come and gone. A new modern tone is established. The army have become allies. The Doctor seems to be wearing a bit thin. It’s all been a bit clumsy and disjointed, but it smells of the show’s future. How ironic then, that this is a story about our deeply held unease with the future itself.

Links to Terror of the Autons: Both introduce new companions. And The War Machines as a proto-UNIT story is in some ways an ancestor to Pertwee’s earthbound stories.

NEXT TIME: I think one of us is being extremely stupid… We’ll next discover The Armageddon Factor

Change, expectations and Terror of the Autons (1971)

tautons1 tautons 2

Terror of the Autons is a story I’ve grown up with. And it’s grown up with me.

My first exposure to it, and I suspect that of many other fans of my vintage, was its Target novelisation. Second edition, the one with a terrifically moody painting of a gruesome monstrosity, staring balefully out at the reader with its solo eye. Creepy stuff.

Inside the cover, writer Terrance Dicks told the story of UNIT ingénue Jo Grant’s first meeting with the Doctor. Which was odd because another novelisation, Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, told that story too. Never mind, it’s a vivid read. I particularly like Dicks’ description of the story’s climactic moment when the Nestene Consciousness descends to Earth via a radio telescope: “It crouched beside the radio telescope tower, dwarfing it, a many-tentacled monster, something between spider, crab and octopus. At the front of its body a single huge eye glared at them, blazing with alien intelligence and deadly hatred.”

The first time I saw the story would have been its 1984 repeat screening on Australian TV (with thanks to this glorious site for jogging my memory), in grainy black and white. It still strikes me as odd that the ABC in the 1980s were happy to interrupt their otherwise full colour broadcasts with monochrome episodes of Doctor Who, but I was glad they did. That’s me there, sitting inches from the TV screen. 10 years old, a fan but with no concept of fandom. Just an avid watcher.

Anyway, Terror of the Autons was perfectly fine in black and white, although I couldn’t help but notice that the many-tentacled monster on the book’s cover turned out to be a fuzzy white vaguely hand-shaped blob above Mike Yates’ head. Well, the disappointment experienced when finally watching a Doctor Who story after having expectations unreasonably raised by its novelisation is a familiar sensation to Whoheads. I’m sure it didn’t stop me watching the story on its next repeat in 1986. By then, I was a genuine, fanzine reading tragic. I may have even tried to watch the story while simultaneously flicking through the book to see how close the two versions were. The things fans do.

So the book matured into the black and white TV version, at least from my perspective. And even if you happened to have seen the story in the UK on its original transmission, chances are you saw it on a black and white TV anyway. For most fans therefore, Terror of the Autons was a colourless experience until 1993, when a colourised version was released on VHS.

Now, the Pertwee era is a patchwork of picture quality, especially for its first three seasons. Most of the original colour videotapes for these stories were wiped, leaving us with a mix of black & white film prints, some NTSC versions sent to North America and the occasional episode that survives in its original PAL format. (Oh, I love a PAL episode. Despite the immense efforts which have gone into restoring these episodes, you still can’t beat them. Watching the first three episodes of The Dæmons is fine, but when episode four comes on, it’s like you’ve taken off a pair of grimy spectacles).

For the viewer, this makes for a slightly disjointed experience if watching the stories in order, as you’re constantly adjusting to the slightly different look each episode has. We’re lucky to have every Pertwee episode in some watchable format – and now every one in some sort of colour – but nonetheless, Terror of the Autons is one of those Imperfect Pertwees.

The growing up continues with the 1993 VHS release (I’m 19, at university and while rich enough to buy beer, too poor to buy a copy. Luckily the local video store had a one.) where the restoration boffins merged a NTSC colour version with a black and white film print. And colour really suits it. Although as you might expect from working with vintage AV material, the colour hardly leaps off the screen. But even in these muted hues, it’s still a vivid experience, all pinks and yellows and wood panel browns. It’s indicative of a series’ growing confidence in its use of colour. And while a story like The Dæmons (also colourised in 1993) was a unique, and in some ways better, experience in black and white, Terror of the Autons, was bigger and bolder in colour. Its highs (like the skirmish with the policemen Autons in the quarry) were higher, its lows (that fuzzy blob of a Nestene again) lower.

Then it’s a big jump to 2011 and the DVD release. And Terror of the Autons looks and sounds better than it ever has. It even has a bit of PAL footage from episode one in it. And me, being a man of what we might laughingly call means these days, buys it. In fact buys the UK version because the cover art is better and has it air mailed around the world to my door. Extravagance!

All the Imperfect Pertwees – your Silurians, your Ambassadors of Death – have gone through similar evolutions, from scratchy monochrome to digitally remastered clarity. But here’s the thing, they’re still imperfect. Compare them to the all PAL Day of the Daleks, and you’ll see what those DVD wizards are aiming for. Problem? Oh no.

Because it means there will always be some further enhancement to make – and a further variation to sell. We’ve already seen it happening. I’m not 100% sure I can see the picture quality improvement on the special edition DVDs for The Claws of Axos and Inferno, but I bought them anyway. If they hand colourised episode one of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and special edition-ed it, I’d probably buy that too. Imperfect those Pertwees may be, but they offer a repeatable income stream.

And the story itself? It’s a mixed bag. Less an Auton story than a series of increasingly bizarre assassination attempts by the Master. The start of the UNIT family. The beginning of the dumbing down of the Brigadier. A grumpy, snobby Doctor. But you know all this. You’ve heard it all before. Because you, like me, have grown up with Terror of the Autons.

LINK to Dr. Who and the Daleks. In both, the Doctor attempts to make a trip in the TARDIS mid story, only to be foiled by a faulty component.

NEXT TIME: Doctor Who is required! We dig the fab gear of The War Machines.

Same, different and Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

dr who daleks

Did you hear? There’s going to be a Doctor Who film. Dr. Who: The Weeping Angels Take Manhattan. Andrew Garfield as the Doctor, as Emma Stone as Amy, Eddie Redmayne as Roddy and Helena Bonham-Carter as Prof. Alexandra River. Together they take on the Weeping Angels, but they’re redesigned – bigger, muscular gargoyle type things. Ogrons with wings. And it’s not just in New York! They go all around the world, backwards and forwards in time. It ends with a showdown with a giant Statue of Liberty monster, wreaking havoc on the city. 3D natch. 48 fps. Awesome!

This is something Steven Moffat says will never happen. “Any Doctor Who movie would be made by the BBC team, star the current TV Doctor and certainly not be a Hollywood reboot,” he tweeted, back when he was still tweeting.

But it did happen once. Well, not the Hollywood bit. But back in 1965, there was a big screen reboot of Doctor Who, made outside the BBC, with a new actor in the lead. It’s Dr. Who and the Daleks and it’s a gaudy, action packed ride. And when watching it recently, it was Moffat who kept springing to mind.

He’s clearly very influenced by this film and, presumably, its sequel. OK, so we get that he thinks the TV Doctor should also be the movie Doctor, so he clearly doesn’t like that about it. But he likes the TARDIS exterior and nicks that. He likes the big colouful Daleks, and nicks them. And this no-good imposter Doctor, him with the narrow trousers and the short jacket and the young/old face and the natural affinity with children… Isn’t he a bit Matt Smithy? All he needs is a bow tie.

“Why did they adapt an existing story?” asked Mrs Spandrell, casting an irritated glance at the screen. “Why not write a new one?”. It’s a fair point. I’m sure expediency – getting the film produced and in cinemas before Dalekmania petered away – is part of the answer. Not to mention it’s a safe bet; the original Dalek story rated its castors off.

But I think it’s also to do with the ephemeral nature of TV. With no repeat screenings, if you missed The Daleks on its TV transmission, there was no way of watching it again. Make a film of The Angels Take Manhattan and it would seem a bit pointless when you can watch the original. But Dr. Who and the Daleks meant 60s audiences could relive one of the show’s greatest hits.

Well, I say ’relive’. It’s not exactly the same as the original, to put it mildly. In fact, it goes out of its way to be different. Every frame seems to be saturated in colour. The petrified jungle is various shades of green and purple throughout. The theme music and the TARDIS interior – these days so integral to the show’s identity – are both disposed of. The Daleks themselves have given away the suckers for mechanical claws. And there’s a number of shots taking advantage of the 35mm, such as the one when the Daleks emerge from their city and you can see them on one level, and the cliff face below, stretching the full length and height of the screen. Try doing that in Lime Grove Studio D.

And the characters are different too. Susan (Roberta Tovey) becomes a child. Ian (Roy Castle) becomes a bumbler. Barbara (Jennie Linden) becomes – well, no-one in particular, sadly. And the Doctor, of course, becomes someone else entirely. Patrick Troughton may have shown a TV audience that the Doctor could be a new person, but Peter Cushing got there first. Cushing plays a paternal, doddery and genial Doctor. There’s a tendency to think of him as a substitute Hartnell because he’s playing Hartnell’s role in a Hartnell story. But this isn’t a substitute first Doctor, such as Richard Hurndall gave us in The Five Doctors. Cushing’s is a new Doctor entirely.

And we know this because… Well, he’s just much nicer than Hartnell’s Doctor. Cushing is a scamp. His trademark gesture is a conspiratorial wink. He’s kindly but cunning. He’s entirely the right choice for a film seeking as broad an audience as possible. History doesn’t tell us if Hartnell was annoyed to be overlooked for the part, though I’d bet he was. But it’s hard to imagine his irascible presence in this bright, funfair ride of a film.

It’s interesting to see which other elements did and didn’t make it to the big screen. The famous moment where a Dalek claw emerges from under a cloak is included, but the equally famous moment where Barbara is menaced by a Dalek plunger is gone. Left in is the bit which always mystifies me where the Daleks give the Thal anti-radiation drugs they’ve discovered to the time travellers (why, exactly?). But gone is any rancour towards the Doctor when he reveals his deception about the fluid link. And twitchy Thal Andotus survives his fall down the ravine which killed him on TV.

Interestingly, a pivotal moment in the TV story, where Ian threatens to take Dyoni to the Daleks in order to show the Thals they still have a fighting spirit is given to the Doctor. It’s still Ian who gets punched, but it’s the Doctor who thinks up the scheme. A small indication that while the TV story might have been an ensemble piece, the Doctor is the film’s hero.

So it’s a rare thing this film; an alternative version of an existing story. Imagine if they’d kept going after the first two. If they’d done The Chase it might have improved upon the original. If they’d done The Daleks’ Master Plan, or Power or Evil of the Daleks, they’d be the only complete versions of those stories around. And would they have kept or ditched Cushing?

Actually, it doesn’t matter. He made an impact with these two films and people like me still think of him as a legitimate Doctor. Moffat’s one of those people. As he recently said in DWM, that he tried to find a way of shoehorning Cushing into The Day of the Doctor. Well I say there’s still time. We never actually saw John Hurt change into Christopher Eccleston did we? That’s right, it goes McGann – Hurt – Cushing – Eccleston. Moffat’s onto it right now. *conspiratorial wink*.

LINK to Love & Monsters and Mindwarp and Turn Left, as it happens. All four feature popular contemporary TV comedians in lead roles. It’s a record!

NEXT TIME: You ham-fisted bun vendor! Settle back into your plastic sofa for Terror of the Autons.

Happy, sad and Love & Monsters (2006)

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So, Love & Monsters. I’m very tempted to write about representations of fandom in Doctor Who. But I think there’ll be other opportunities to do that. And I’m very tempted to talk about its structure, which is a thing of beauty; unique in its narrative approach, metatextual and rhythmic in its plotting. But instead, I’m going to talk about tone and, believe it or not, a bit more about Mindwarp.

My last post was all about structure and how Mindwarp’s was pretty clever (or at least cleverer that it’s usually given credit for). But I refrained from talking about tone, because, well… I’m trying not to include every single idea I have about a story in one blog. But watching Love & Monsters straight after Mindwarp reminded me that tone goes a long way in helping or hindering a story.

Mindwarp’s tone is all over the place. It’s an uneasy mix of violence and comedy. Time and again it shows an unpleasant event followed by a joke, usually delivered by Sil. It says something that on Varos Sil was a real figure of threat; Thoros Beta is so grotesque that his threat becomes impotent and he switches to being a punchline machine. It culminates in Peri’s death, a truly chilling moment, which is then punctuated by Sil grumbling about her supposed ugliness. Add to this the eye-watering colour palette, and the bombastic incidental music, and you’ve got a real assault on the senses. It jars.

But Love & Monsters’ tone is spot on; just as dichotomous as Mindwarp’s, but more balanced and consistent. We know from then showrunner Russell T Davies that part of New Who‘s pre-production process is a tone meeting, where he would equip the key production staff with a word or phrase to sum up the feel of an episode. I wonder what Love & Monsters‘ was?

My guess is that it was two words. The clue is in the title: Love & Monsters. Salvation & Damnation. Happy & Sad. Comedy & tragedy.  Side by side.

Let’s start with comedy. Or if it’s not quite a comedy, it’s still pretty comic (or comedic, I suppose. What’s the difference?). Which comes as a relief on its original broadcast, as the preceding story The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit was very dark indeed. New Who, like Old Who, is full of humour, but this was the first time it became the focus of an entire episode.

The humour is delivered not by the plot (a group of friends is infiltrated by an alien seeking to use them to track down and kill the Doctor) which is as serious as any other Who story. It comes instead from the characters themselves. The friends themselves are a ragtag group of oddballs brought together by their awareness of the Doctor. They come from different walks of life and all have different stories. But their common factor, and the reason they’re funny, is that they’re all dags.

For those unfamiliar with the term “dag”, it’s a brilliant Australian slang word. It originally meant, ignominiously, a bit of dried poo hanging off a sheep’s bum. But its usage these days is, as wikipedia puts it: “as an affectionate insult for someone who is, or is perceived to be, unfashionable, lacking self-consciousness about their appearance and/or with poor social skills yet affable and amusing.” I can think no better word to describe the members of LINDA; they’re not social misfits, they’re not outcasts, they’re dags.

Take Elton (Marc Warren, being endearingly goofy), our chief dag. He’s speaks just a little too earnestly. He tucks his shirt into neatly pressed jeans. He dances like a white man. To ELO, of all things. He’s still a nice guy, but he says funny things without realising it. Like when he says: “I had to invent this rudimentary pulley system, just to reach my boots.” What a dag.

Then there’s Victor Kennedy, funnier than all of LINDA put together (and as he’s played by comedian Peter Kay, you’d expect him to be). He’s a fan turned bad. His obsession and self-importance have turned him into parody. He dresses like an impresario. He’s inherently theatrical; his first line is “Lights!”. He can’t be touched because of his ’exzeema’. “I don’t like to be touched,” he pronounces. “Literally, or metaphorically, thank you very much.” Even when he transforms into the corpulent Abzorbaloff, he’s still cracking funnies (although now in a working class accent). “Tastes like chicken”, he quips after devouring Ursula.

So we have a load of funny characters but we also have some deliberate references to classic comedy. The opening sequence of the Doctor, Rose and monster-of-the-week the Hoix running in and out of doors is classic slapstick. And there’s a mimicking of the comedy structure. The sequence, staged twice, where separate characters christen the villain the Absorbaloff, could have been lifted out of any number of sketch comedy shows. Later on, there’s this exchange of dialogue, which is only missing an “I say, I say, I say” to kick it off:

DOCTOR: Not from Raxacoricofallapatorius, are you?
VICTOR: No, I’m not. They’re swine. I spit on them. I was born on their twin planet.
DOCTOR: Really? What’s the twin planet of Raxacoricofallapatorius?

This comic tone allows the story to get away with what might otherwise be seen as some plotting misteps. The story requires a massive coincidence – that Elton finds Jackie almost immediately the vastness of London – but that moment is played for laughs (Elton talking about how massive the task is, then a jump cut to him meeting Mrs Croot who identifies Rose from a photo), so we forgive this huge plot contrivance. It’s a joke; we get it and we move on. The tone helps paper over a few other bits and pieces. Who is the Abzorbaloff? How did he get to Earth? What’s he doing here in the first place? And Elton’s encounter with the Doctor and the Hoix might make for “a brilliant opening” but shh, say it quietly, it’s unnecessary to the plot.

Using a story’s tone to disguise its narrative gaffes is a neat trick. But Love & Monsters’ real success is that among the laughs, it tells a couple of very sad stories too. One is about Elton’s Mum. Being reunited with the Doctor at the story’s climax allows Elton to find out what happened on the night she died. Director Dan Zeff shows a haunting deftness when Elton’s Mum disappears and the picture flares white to the closing chords of Mr Blue Sky. It works because we’ve grown to love Elton through the story’s comedy.

And it works with Jackie as well, a character often used as comic relief in New Who’s first two years. And she’s funny here too, but she gets a cracking scene where she confronts Elton after she discovers Rose’s photo in his jacket. Camille Coduri, always brilliant, is especially so in this scene. “Let me tell you something about those who get left behind”, she bawls at him. “Because it’s hard. And that’s what you become, hard.” Just as with Elton, she’s gone from a figure of fun to someone we genuinely feel for.

Appropriately, the story ends in both victory and triumph. The Absorbaloff absorbed by the earth, but Bliss, Bridget and Mr Skinner, lovely dags the lot of them, all killed. Ursula lives, albeit trapped within, of all things, a paving stone. And as Elton worries about Jackie and Rose’s safety as long as the Doctor’s around (salvation and damnation are the same thing), he’s told not to be so morbid; there’s still time for his final video diary entry to raise a smile with some surprisingly filthy innuendo.

That’s Love & Monsters for you. Sticking to that happy/sad tone right to the end. And appropriately enough, it’s a story which fans love or hate. Well, chalk me up as one of the lovers, because it shows how to use a story’s light hearted highs, to make us we feel its lows all the more poignantly.

LINK to Mindwarp and Turn Left, as it happens. All three feature popular contemporary TV comedians in lead roles.

NEXT TIME: So close you can feel the heat! We’re off to the cinema for Dr. Who and the Daleks.

Narrative, Mystery and Mindwarp (1986)


The trial has a great many twists… There are lots of layers, and it’s very, very complicated, which I rather like. I like things you can’t understand. Colin Baker, DWM 118.

The Trial of a Time Lord is Doctor Who‘s great experiment with presenting a dual narrative. Over 12 of its 14 episodes, it presents three Doctor Who stories as evidence in the Doctor’s trial for breaking the Time Lords’ law on interference. Interlaced with these three stories is the Doctor’s trial itself; we cut from the action regularly to see how the evidence is affecting the trial and specifically, three characters: the Doctor, court prosecutor the Valeyard and magistrate type the Inquisitor. We are effectively watching fictional characters watch Doctor Who.

So while the three stories are being told, there’s a longer narrative – a slower burn – also playing out. Watching just one of Trial’s  segments out of order means that the viewer gets a Doctor Who story in its entirety (the evidence, set here on the garish planet Thoros Beta), plus just one part of a much larger story (the trial). Whatever the merits of this approach (and they have been debated at length), I think it’s fair to say that it’s audacious and innovative move for Doctor Who.

Trial‘s second segment, known informally as Mindwarp (you didn’t really expect me to tap out The Trial of a Time Lord parts 5-8 each time, did you?) deals with the dual narrative approach neatly, and does something interesting with its main story too. But first, to the trial.

Someone once said to me about playwriting that each character, no matter how minor, needs to go on a journey throughout the story. They each need to be transformed; in some way changed by the events of the story, so they are a different person at the end, from who they were at the beginning. Thinking about the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor – the characters in the ’trial story’ – I don’t think they can be said to be transformed in either The Mysterious Planet or Terror of the Vervoids. Which is another way of saying not much happens to those characters in those two stories to change them.

But much happens to them in Mindwarp, and the story it tells in the trial room is one of the Doctor gradually losing confidence in himself and his actions.

It starts with the Doctor treating the trial with mocking irreverence. He’s hugely confident in himself and his own actions and that both can withstand any criticism. But when the evidence shows him being subjected to a brain transference machine, the trial room Doctor realises he can no longer remember anything that happened on Thoros Beta after that point. To him, the evidence is no longer simply the replaying of recent events. It has turned into an allegation of his role in events he cannot recall, but which are played out for him on screen. And to him, the evidence looks flawed. His levity vanishes.

VALEYARD: Does any of your sudden and convenient recall agree with anything that the court has already seen?
DOCTOR: No! I mean yes, but, but the emphasis is all wrong.
VALEYARD: And what does that mean?
DOCTOR: The events took place but not quite as we’ve seen them.

This is quite a frightening idea; that you might be confronted with video evidence of yourself behaving wildly out of character or even committing a crime. But if you had no clear memory of the events, how could you refute the evidence of your own eyes, or hope to offer an alternative version of events? In the Doctor’s case, events on Thoros Beta hardly show him in a good light.

Let’s jump to the Thoros Beta story. The Doctor and Peri arrive to find out who’s supplying arms to people called the warlords of Thordon. But this is soon forgotten when they see Sil (Nabil Shaban), the reptilian capitalist villain from Vengeance on Varos. Sil’s boss Kiv (Christopher Ryan) is there too, suffering from a condition where his brain is swelling within his skull. Surgeon Crozier (Patrick Ryecart) is attempting to find a suitable body into which to transfer Kiv’s brain.

After being subjected to the brain transfer machine, the Doctor initially appears to lose his marbles for a bit, before deciding to betray Peri and new found ally Yrcanos (BRIAN BLESSED!!!) and side with Sil. It is suggested by the trial room Doctor and by Sil himself that this is a ruse, designed to gain the bad guys’ confidence. And so it appears to be; late in proceedings the Doctor switches sides again and appears to be back to his normal self.

For the period when the Doctor is working with Sil, he’s quite horrible, particularly towards Peri. And we never find out for sure if this behaviour was indeed a ploy, or if the Doctor’s brain was scrambled by the machine, or if the evidence had been tampered with to make the Doctor appear to be a bastard. Hang on to this, I’ll come back to it. Because something nifty is about to happen.

In Part Eight, the Doctor on Thoros Beta seems back to normal. With Yrcanos in tow, he’s off to stop Crozier operating on Peri. We’ve been here before; the story is rushing towards its conclusion. Then, mid corridor run, the TARDIS appears in a shaft of blue light, the Doctor is drawn into it, and the ship disappears, to land a second later on the space station where the Doctor’s trial is taking place. It’s a great moment as we realise this is where we came in back at Part One of Trial. It’s the classic series’ cleverest use of time travel to double back on its own narrative, and perhaps the most elegant of its kind in all of Doctor Who. To use a Moffatism, a true timey-wimey moment.

But the really neat bit is that the two storylines – trial and Thoros Beta – now converge. The Doctor can merely watch the conclusion of events play out on screen. The Inquisitor suddenly takes a more active role, describing how the Time Lords decided to intervene, saying events had gone too far. And then the story ends in devastating style; Peri’s brain is wiped, and replaced with Kiv’s. Effectively she’s transformed into a monster. Yrcanos breaks in a shoots the place up. Everyone dies.

In the trial room, our three characters reach the end of their journeys. The Doctor is shattered, but vows to fight on. The Inquisitor has become the Time Lords’ voice, justifying their actions, no longer an impartial observer. The Valeyard is triumphant, and the trial no longer seems like a joke, but in fact a cover for something far more serious.

The trial room story (or this part of it) has ended. But the conclusion to events on Thoros Beta feels unsatisfying, because we never found out the reason why the Doctor was acting the way he did. Later in Trial, it’s confirmed that the Thoros Beta evidence was altered and that Peri survived. Which changes the way we look at Mindwarp. It becomes the only story where the viewer is presented with an unreliable version of events. Let me tell you a story, Mindwarp says, but it might not all be true.

Mindwarp is famously the story where disgruntled script editor Eric Saward walked off the program. His mind clearly was not on the job during this story. Colin Baker has often said that he couldn’t get an answer from script editor nor director on what was causing the Doctor’s erratic behaviour. This uncertainty is often pointed out as a production error. And it probably is just that.

But what that narrative vagueness has left us with is something unique: a Doctor Who story we’ll only ever know part of. Bits of the full story are missing. It’s a story which, because of its very design and construction, we’ll never get to the bottom of.

If I didn’t know about the behind the scenes turmoil engulfing the show at this time, I’d be tempted to say it was deliberate, with writer Philip Martin wildly experimenting with the program, keeping everyone in the dark about the lead character’s motive – even the actors and production crew – to create something which genuinely wrongfoots the viewer. There’s a part of me that would really like that to be the case. Because as noted by Colin Baker himself, it is possible to like something you don’t fully understand.

LINK TO Turn Left: Both feature the faux death of a companion.

NEXT TIME: Love & Monsters. Elton! Fetch a spade!

Apocalypse, grimness and Turn Left (2008)

turn left pic

Doctor Who is a genre hopping series. One week it’s a sci-fi epic, the next it’s a western, the next it’s a screwball comedy. But although the show can be many things, it can’t be everything. There are some genres which would stretch the format too far, at least in its TV incarnation. It will never be, for instance, a slasher pic. We’ll never see a Doctor Who martial arts epic.  If there’s a Doctor Who erotic thriller, it will exist only in the dark corners of the internet (and if it already does then please, by all that’s holy, don’t point me towards it).

One genre the show has dabbled with, but which comes close to breaking the show’s format, is post-apocalyptic, where a story is typically set in the aftermath of a global holocaust, society has broken down and a small group of characters struggle for survival. We’re talking Day of the Triffids, Threads, The Road and Mad Max. None of which I’ve seen. Because I dislike the post-apocalyptic genre. I find it makes for unsettling viewing and although I know that’s the point, I don’t enjoy it. So I tend to avoid it.

So it’s a bit annoying when my favourite show occasionally experiments with it. Thankfully, such experiments are rare. There’s a hint of it in Frontios, in which the planet’s inhabitants start looting when the figures of authority start losing control (but thankfully the presence of some big fleshy cockroaches tend to negate any disturbing sense of realism which threatens to emerge).

Old Who’s most concerted effort at it though is Episodes 5 and 6 of Inferno.  They are set in an alternative universe in which an attempt to penetrate the earth’s crust goes disastrously wrong and the Doctor can do nothing – nothing – to save the people around him and strives simply to escape back to his own reality.  Brutally directed by Douglas Camfield and Barry Letts, this story uses compellingly desperate performances and a haunting soundtrack to create a genuinely disturbing vision of humans fighting against the inevitable. The cliffhanger to Episode 6, where the remaining humans watch as a wall of lava creeps irrevocably towards them remains one of Doctor Who’s most visceral moments.

But it doesn’t feel much like Doctor Who, because it’s so grim. And grimness is a characteristic it shares with Turn Left, the Doctor-lite episode from David Tennant’s third season (and interestingly, also set in an alternative reality). Both are as bleak as the series gets, much grimmer than something like say, Earthshock, which features the death of a companion but in other respects is a standard Doctor Who action adventure. So how grim can Doctor Who get?

Turn Left  has two interesting spins on post-apocalyptic fiction. Firstly, the apocalypse in question is caused by the Doctor’s death, itself caused by Donna (Catherine Tate, in a virtuoso performance) taking a seemingly tiny decision to turn right at an intersection instead of left. So Donna, the hero we follow through the story, actually caused all the dreadful events that befall her.

The story’s second twist is that rather than the apocalypse happening at the beginning of the story, here the apocalypse never stops happening. The Doctor is not around to stop a series of alien incursions. As such, disaster is piled upon disaster and millions of people die. It’s unrelenting; while watching this for the first time I wondered mid-episode how far writer Russell T Davies could go. Donna’s own situation deteriorates with each global disaster; she loses her job, then her home and finally all hope.

Donna’s companion through this snowballing series of events is Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper who returns to the series after a season and a half. Rose has greatly changed since we last saw her.  Here she jumps between dimensions and in and out of the story. She has mysterious foreknowledge of events. She speaks obliquely and won’t reveal her name. She seems untrustworthy. After she encounters Donna for the second time, Donna’s had enough. “I think you should leave me alone”, she warns, coldly.

In script writing terms, Rose turns up regularly in the story’s first two acts, each time revealing more each time and gradually earning Donna’s trust. It’s interesting to see the structure Davies uses here, which is basically:  the Doctor’s death, encounter with Rose, situation worsens, encounter with Rose, situation worsens, encounter with Rose, situation reaches a critical point where Donna makes a decision, encounter with Rose which leads to the story’s climax.

That critical point is interesting. Rose has warned Donna that eventually she will come with her willingly to fix things, but as a result Donna’s going to die. The point where Donna can take no more is when her fellow refugee Rocco and his family are taken away to a labour camp. It’s a heartbreaking scene, in which director Graham Harper chooses shrewdly a shot from the back of the retreating prisoner-laden truck, where we watch Donna chasing helplessly behind it. Finally defeated, she goes with Rose.

It’s a clever choice from Davies, but I can’t help wonder if there’s another catalytic event that would have suited the story even better. Throughout the story, Donna’s been accompanied by her mother Sylvia (Jacqueline King) and her grandfather Wilf (Bernard Cribbins). Cribbins is terrific as a man reliving the terrors of war with both stoicism and mounting dread. But it is King that steals the show, with one of Doctor Who’s best performances.

Sylvia, for all her bluster, has none of her daughter’s or father’s resilience. She slowly shuts down over the course of the episode to the point where she can’t offer her daughter any words of love, only mutely signal her despair. All the signs are pointing to her suicide. Surely that would have led even more fittingly to Donna’s decision to go with Rose and do whatever she needs to make things right.

But the suicide of our hero’s mother is clearly more than Doctor Who’s format can bear. And thus we have the answer to how grim Doctor Who can get; as grim as Turn Left and no more. I, for one, am grateful.

LINKS to Arc of Infinity: I know, I know. Can there be two more different stories than these? But there’s a clear link – both feature the return of a companion. Other than that, of course, they are chalk and cheese!

NEXT TIME: Nobody likes brain alteration! But that’s just what we’ll be served up when we take our first random trip with the sixth Doctor, Mindwarp.

Nothing grim happens in that one, right?

Script meeting, speculation and Arc of Infinity (1983)


ERIC SAWARD: Johnny! Thanks for coming in.
JOHNNY BYRNE: My pleasure, Eric. How’s the new job coming along?
SAWARD: Oh fine, fine. Just settling in, really.
BYRNE: How are you getting on with the producer?
SAWARD: Oh very well. I’m sure we’ll be the best of friends. Right now though, I’m looking for scripts for the new season.
BYRNE: Oh yes?
SAWARD: And I enjoyed that Traken one you did for Tom. And seeing as we’re paying you every time we use Nyssa, I thought might as well put you to work, eh? Eh? (Awkward silence) Anyway, did you have any ideas?
BYRNE: Well, yes as it happens. I’ve been thinking of a story about a creature from another dimension, who’s trying to force its way into our universe. Have you read The Mist?
SAWARD: No. But your idea sounds great! Before you go too far with it, there are a few bits and pieces we’d like you to… incorporate.
BYRNE: Such as?
SAWARD: Well, you did such a great job of bringing back the Master, and it is the show’s twentieth anniversary, how about bringing back Omega?
BYRNE: Who’s Omega?
SAWARD: Omega is a kind of Time Lord demi-god who exists only in a universe of anti-matter and who appeared in the tenth anniversary show.  Have you seen The Three Doctors?
BYRNE: No. But I can see how that will fit into my story. An immensely powerful being, but poison to his own kind. He’d be a kind of lonely outcast once he got into our world… Maybe he’d meet a little boy, and rather than kill him, be entranced by his innocence… have you seen Frankenstein?
SAWARD: No. But that all sounds terrific. Of course, it will need to be set in Amsterdam.
BYRNE: Right. Why exactly?
SAWARD: The producer wants to shoot overseas somewhere. And we get the cast and crew to buy their own meals and travel everywhere by bicycle we can just about afford to go to Amsterdam.
SAWARD: No honestly, it’ll be great! They went to Paris a couple of years back and it was brilliant. The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower. Much better than some old country manor or disused warehouse. Have you seen City of Death?
BYRNE: No. But Amsterdam, doesn’t have those iconic fixtures like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. What has it got?
SAWARD: Legal grass?
BYRNE: Not really Doctor Who territory is it? Tulips?
SAWARD: Organs?
BYRNE: I seem to remember that it’s below sea level. Maybe that becomes important to this Omega chap because it’s somehow necessary to his plan for emerging into this universe.
SAWARD: Great! Use that! It will need a monster of course.
BYRNE: Will it? Won’t Omega do?
SAWARD: Oh no, no no! He’s just the villain. We’ll need a monster too.
IAN LEVINE (OOV): Omega can conjure up monsters simply using his own will!
BYRNE: What was that?
SAWARD: Nothing, just ignore it. But yes, Omega can create his own monster.
BYRNE: Hmm, maybe a henchman type of thing. Created from the raw matter of the universe. All flesh and sinew but covered in an exoskeleton. Have you seen Alien?
SAWARD: No. But that sounds just the ticket.
BYRNE: Can the budget manage it? We don’t want it to look like, oh I don’t know, a big rubber chicken. Ha ha.
SAWARD: Ha ha. No, that’ll never happen.
LEVINE (OOV): Gallifrey!
BYRNE: Is there someone behind that door?
SAWARD: No, of course not. But that’s the other thing – we want to set some of it on Gallifrey. That’s the planet of the Time Lords.
BYRNE: What’s that like then?
SAWARD: Oh, it’s terrific. All gothic chambers and big impressive cathedral-like spaces. Have you seen The Deadly Assassin?
SAWARD. Just as well, because we won’t have any money for any of that after we go to Amsterdam. A few corridors, some space boardrooms and a few lounges will do.
BYRNE: Sounds lovely. Well, we can do some court intrigue stuff there. The Doctor summoned home to be executed. A traitor in their midst, that kind of thing. Have you seen I, Claudius?
(Door bursts open)
LEVINE: Don’t forget the temporal grace!
BYRNE: Excuse me?
LEVINE: In Earthshock, guns were fired in the console room, but it’s meant to be in a state of temporal grace! We need a line to cover it!
SAWARD: No problem, we’ll do something about that.
LEVINE: And if the Doctor’s going home to be executed, we should say that’s only the second time that’s happened! ‘Cause it is y’know!
SAWARD: OK, thanks Ian.
LEVINE: And you should call one of the characters Colin! That will give you a handy LINK to the 1966/7 story The Highlanders!
BYRNE: What an odd thing to say.
LEVINE: Have you seen The Highlanders?
LEVINE: Of course you haven’t! How could you? It was junked years ago!
SAWARD: (leading him to the door). OK, thanks Ian.
LEVINE: And mention Romana! And Leela’s wedding!
SAWARD: Yes, we’ll mention them all. Thanks again. (Closes door)
BYRNE: What an extraordinary fellow. Who is he?
SAWARD: He’s our unpaid series continuity adviser.
BYRNE: You have an unpaid series continuity adviser?
LEVINE (OOV): And bring back Tegan!
SAWARD: Oh, that’s right. We need to bring back Tegan. She’s a companion we don’t pay a regular fee to use. She’s coming back after we dropped her off in the last year’s finale. Have you seen Time-Flight?
SAWARD: It’s, um… Well it’s really something. And the same director’s going to do your story.
BYRNE: Oh that is good news.
SAWARD: Great. Well, I’m sure you’ll do a terrific job on it. Thanks for coming in, look forward to the script and I’ll see you NEXT TIME.
BYRNE: Super. How do I get out again?
SAWARD: Straight out this door – mind our unpaid series continuity adviser – and Turn Left.

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