Tag Archives: autons

Audience, avatars and Rose (2005)

rose

Doctor Who was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its burial was signed by the BBC bigwigs in 1989 and countersigned by the 1996 TV Movie. It was unloved by audiences and TV commissioners alike. It was seen as cheap, hokey nonsense whose time had well and truly past. Doctor Who was as dead as a door-nail.

But then –  2003, when Russell T Davies used its revival as a bargaining chip to come over to the BBC. That he and a few key allies within the BBC like Lorraine Heggesey and Jane Tranter conjured it into existence at a time when it was still seen as a laughable remnant of TV past, was an enormous achievement. But there was a bigger mountain still to climb.

The broadcaster might have ordered 13 episodes for an initial season, but had the ratings not been there – if an audience could not be found and sustained further than the first few episodes – the show would likely be rapidly moved to a late night throwaway slot and its death sentence reapplied. Davies’ career would have suffered a severe setback. And Doctor Who would be the show with two failed reboots, making it TV poison. The stakes were never higher.

So with episode 1 of this new series, Russell T Davies had to achieve one thing only: he had to make a modern audience fall in love with Doctor Who in 45 minutes. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that he pulled this off brilliantly. But he also did something else in that first episode, something even cleverer and more cunning.

He taught a whole new audience how to watch Doctor Who.

****

His first step: reassurance. This episode doesn’t start like the TV Movie, in deep space, with planets and shadowy aliens and so on. It starts with a swan dive from Earth into space, down into an ordinary council flat. In a music clip montage, we meet Rose (Billie Piper) and she goes about the familiar routines of her life: getting ready for work, catching the bus, lunch with her boyfriend, folding up clothes.

The importance of this sequence is that it disarms. It captures viewers who would turn off at the first sight of a laser beam or a spaceship. It sends a powerful signal that this is a series for people who go to work, catch buses and do jobs they don’t particularly love. The lack of dialogue and the pacey cutting all help. Stick with us, this opening sequence says. It’s going to be OK.

Rose is our central character and casting Billie Piper was crucial to both selling the character and the show itself. Piper manages to look like the girl next door while also being charismatic enough to signal that she’s much more than that. Positioning this as her story – making the female sidekick (always a secondary presence in the classic series) the focus of the first episode is a huge signal of intent.

Not only is this a story set in the real world, the world which viewers live in, one of our own is the hero. One of our own is someone important enough to be the centre of this story and to give her name to the story. The old series, even in its later years, never gave us a story called Ace. Or even Mel (can you imagine?). That Rose is fundamentally about Rose is a quiet but fundamental shift.

Next step: the hook. Post our music clip opening, there’s the sequence with the Autons in the basement of the building. It’s textbook Doctor Who: monsters made out of everyday objects, creepy simulacra of human beings, someone trapped within a darkened room and the creeping threat of death at the hand of something bizarre but terrifying. This will be familiar to those who remember the classic show, and in its capacity to intrigue and excite, it crosses televisual generations. Davies shrewdly doesn’t lead with this. In a narrative sleight of hand, he lulls his audience into a sense of comfort with science fiction with the “day in the life of Rose” sequence and then grabs them with some ol’ fashioned thrills. He tops off this sequence, by introducing us to the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston).

Davies keeps the Doctor at arm’s length. He’s an enigma who Rose has to decode in increments. She meets him in a series of events, getting deeper each time. This is what Davies wants his audience to do. He wants them to seek him out, in the same way Rose does. He wants to them to go on the internet to find out about him, just as Rose does. (And didn’t the BBC had several dummy websites from the show’s fictional world set up for them to discover?) By the time we get to the pivotal “turn of the earth” speech, we’re hooked. This drip feed of information avoids the TV Movie’s info dump approach, but it also positions the Doctor as a man you have to spend time with to understand. He’s a man of secrets and you’re going to have to hang around all season to find them all out. But if Rose is willing to, then so are we.

Having made Rose and us fans, Davies warns viewers about capital F, Levine level super fans. Clive (Mark Benton) is one such fan, who Rose meets on the internet. Clive’s way of following the Doctor is not the right way. He lives in a shed. He’s a bit obsessed. A short meeting with him is enough to convince Rose to keep her distance. Clive’s inclusion here is crucial to normalise the process of watching Doctor Who for new audience members. When Rose walks away from Clive, repelled but with her curiosity about the Doctor maintained, she’s showing that you don’t have to be an anorak to watch this show.

And as Rose continues to decipher the Doctor, to explore the TARDIS, and to help him defeat a big tub of angry goo, Davies is stating what viewers can expect from the show. Expect Rose to be an active participant in the story, he’s saying. Expect her to battle aliens. But also expect her to have a family, have a home base and be grounded in the real world.

Then in the very last frame, she runs into the TARDIS, completely buying into future adventures. Again, this is what Davies wants the audience to do. Throughout this whole episode, he’s used Rose as an avatar for the viewer. It’s almost like neural linguistic programming or subliminal messaging – making Rose the stand-in for an audience learning about Doctor Who. It’s what makes Rose such a crafty, disarming and ingenious piece of work. It’s a trick which got – and kept – so many of us watching.

And this weekend, the show will attempt the same trick again. A brand new Doctor, but for the first time, a woman. Reassurance, intrigue, old-fashioned thrills and enough mystery to keep us hooked for a season worth of adventures. My prediction? There’ll be plenty of Rose in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. A trick that good is worth pulling again and again.

LINK TO Kill the MoonTension between the Doctor and his companion’s boyfriend.

NEXT TIME… Are you secretly a badass? We’ll find out in Extremis, baby doll.

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Pulling chicks, new tricks and Spearhead from Space (1970)

spear

I’m onto my fourth copy of Spearhead from Space. Having grown up on various repeats of it on ABC TV, I’ve now shelled out for the VHS release, the original DVD, the special edition DVD and now the Blu-ray.

I’d be annoyed about this, except the story keeps looking better and better. I remember my shock upon watching the first DVD release and seeing for the first time after many viewings that the fancy new Doctor’s (fancy Jon Pertwee) fancy new jacket was not black, but deep blue.

The reason why this story stands up to multiple scrubbing ups is… oh hang on, I’ll get to that later. Let’s instead watch the Doctor pick up a chick. Our hero may have just survived a traumatic regeneration, but as soon as he recovers, he wastes no time in proving his fitness. With the ladies.

His first goal is to warm up the show’s cool new lady scientist, Liz Shaw (Caroline John). Her new employer, the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), has been having a decidedly tough time breaking the ice with her; she smirks dismissively at everything he says and generally treats him like the village idiot. But then the Doctor breezes in with his new body, waggles his eyebrows at her and soon they’re getting on like a house on fire. “Do I really have to call you Miss Shaw?” he complains with mock indignation, and Liz giggles coquettishly and readily consents. The Brig needs to take notes for when he’s out on the pull.

But he needn’t worry. Turns out the Doctor was just buttering up this bird to get her to steal the TARDIS key for him. As soon as he gets it, he’s trying to abscond. Alas he can’t because the Time Lords have put the mockers on his beloved machine. As he creeps out to face the music, he slumps into a dejected funk and puts on the whole naughty schoolboy act. As a routine, it’s pure Troughton and a reminder that Spearhead from Space is not entirely the bag of new tricks for the series it’s often hailed as.

Sure, it’s the first story made in colour but on transmission most people were still watching in black and white. Yes, it introduces the new UNIT format, but that had already been trialled in The Web of Fear and The Invasion. And it’s very similar to The Invasion. Both feature quite a lot of stylish faffing about until the Doctor builds a gadget to beat the monsters. They even share locations.

The real difference with Spearhead is that it’s all shot on film. For the first time, the show’s characteristically patchwork style of cutting between video recording shot in studio and film sequences shot on location is dropped and we get a single, consistent look. In future years, the show would achieve this consistency by adopting video for the exterior shots, which only served to make a cheap show look cheaper. Spearhead remains the only classic Doctor Who with that cool, textured look of film which makes a cheap show look very swish indeed.

The difference it makes is palpable. Suddenly Doctor Who looks like The Avengers. Director Derek Martinus is energised to give us the best of his work on the show. We get sequences the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

In Episode One, the Brigadier is jostled by a scrum of newspaper reporters, and the camera is right amongst it in a way in could never have been in studio. In other scenes, he goes for high angles, peering down at his subjects, and rapid cuts to emphasize the action, which would have much harder to do in Doctor Who‘s traditional multi-camera style.

But it has its disadvantages too. Shooting interiors on location means they look like real places, because they are real places, rather than studio sets. That doesn’t mean they always look like the places they are meant to.

For instance, the halls and corridors of the BBC’s Wood Norton training facility never look like a hospital for a minute. UNIT’s makeshift lab has a number of moveable panels serving as would-be walls, helping hide the fact it’s in a big old hall of some kind. Goodness knows what would a truly alien setting – the interior of a Nestene spaceship, say – had looked like mocked up in a vacant office or something.

Indeed, what would Doctor Who have looked like if the producers had managed to convince the powers-that-be that the show should always have been shot on film? Or perhaps at least one story a year? Presumably interior sets would have been built at Ealing or something. But what would have happened to the electronic effects that Doctor Who came to depend on so heavily in the 70s and 80s? What about all that CSO? Spearhead‘s effects are all bangs and flashes and squibs. It’s hard to think about the show being full of practical effects. Nevermore a laser beam. Goodbye to roll back and mix.

It’s impossible to know how much of Spearhead‘s reputation relies on its total film look. But it does represent a sudden jump in quality from what Doctor Who‘s viewers were used to. I’m sure you’ve seen the previous adventure The War Games and whatever its merits (and there are many) it’s last few, mostly studio bound episodes look quite ramshackle.

By contrast, Spearhead offers some sequences which are startlingly effective. They would have been palpably different to even viewers still watching in monochrome. The most successful sections are in the mid episodes, with that sole Auton stalking through the woods, and jumping boldly in front of a UNIT jeep, killing the driver. And of course, there’s also the famous sequence in Episode Four when they break out of shop windows and hunt down early morning commuters on the street.

But these sequences would have been shot on location anyway. What we really need is a version of the story with all the interior scenes VIDfired so we can see what it would have looked liked if made the conventional way. And here’s the genius of it – it would be an excuse for yet another DVD release.

Get to it, BBC Worldwide! This sucker will pay for it again. I want to see how blue that jacket can get.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: This is not actually a mistake, I just want to point out my favourite of the Brigadier’s lines. It’s after Mrs Seeley is attacked, and he offers to:

BRIGADIER: I’ll lay on an ambulance.

Well, OK. If you think that will help…

LINK TO: Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks. Tentacles really are difficult, aren’t they?

NEXT TIME: The Repulsive Red Leech. Nah. On balance I think I prefer The Crimson Horror.

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.