Tag Archives: historical

Celebrity, history and The Unquiet Dead (2005)

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Remember the celebrity historical? It used to be a thing. A real, live, it-can-be-our-second/third/fourth-episode kinda thing. Through it we met all sorts of famous dead people – Queen Victoria, Madame du Pompadour, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie. And it starts here, with a tale of ghosts and walking cadavers with Charles Dickens in ye olde Cardiff.

It was a shrewd move by showrunner Russell T Davies to include this episode in the revamped series’ first year. Those first three episodes of his version of the show are set in the present, the future and the past respectively; a shorthand statement of what the show’s about. A historical adventure tells a new audience that this series isn’t going to be all spaceships and laser beams every week. But the inclusion of a famous historical figure, plus some alien bad guys, gives that same audience a way into these old world adventures without them feeling like they’re being subjected to some snoozy old history lesson.

It also gives the production personnel something on which they can show off their skills: period drama. Former script editor Andrew Cartmel first vocalised what had been staring viewers in the face for years – that the BBC could pull off a more convincing historical drama than a science fiction epic. Despite new Who‘s increased budget, there’s still some truth in this, plus time and money saved in recreating familiar historical sets and costumes rather than dreaming them up anew. Not to mention that a well known star playing a well known historical figure makes for great publicity.

Writer Mark Gatiss sets the template for the celebrity historical in this macabre episode. He chooses a well known historical figure, one with an inkling for the the supernatural. Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) might be a daunting figure for viewers (me included) who have never finished any of his mighty tomes (I know, I know! I’ll get to them! Right after The Doctor Who Cookbook) but he proves a prudent choice, with the Doctor (an energized Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (an energetic Billie Piper) turning up just at a point of personal existential crisis. He teams up with the our heroes, becoming a de factor companion and along the way, his life is changed for the better by the experience. It’s a pattern which holds more or less up until and including Vincent and the Doctor.

Then things change. With The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, where Richard Nixon, who under the old template for celebrity historicals might have been expected to be the episode’s focus, but now becomes just a notable supporting character. In their respective episodes, Queens Nefertiti of Egypt and Elizabeth I of England are similarly exotic side dishes, not the main meal. By the time we get to Peter Capaldi’s era, the celebrity historical has been dropped altogether. Clara makes do with sly references to her flirty adventures with Jane Austen. That name dropping’s enough; we don’t need to see the Doctor meet another historical British writer. We’ve been there done that.

(Thank Rassilon. I can’t stand Austen. A Doctor Who encounter with her sounds awful. It’d be called Time and Temerity, or Space and Speciousness or something. Clara would be proposed to by some alien dressed up in period costume, via a series of letters delivered by horse and cart and everything would take weeks. Yawn. Unless it was a Blackadder inspired version where Jane Austen turns out to be “a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush”. Yes, I’d watch that.)

So now the celebrity historical, once a mainstay of any Doctor Who season is out of vogue. No doubt famous people from history will continue to turn up, but more episodes showcasing any given figure of history seems unlikely. It’s a shame, because having our heroes rub shoulders with someone we know from history is one of those uniquely Doctor Who ideas. And it’s been with the show since its earliest years, where we met Marco Polo, Nero, Richard I and Doc Holliday. If you squint, it even stays true to the show’s original remit to be slightly educational. The Unquiet Dead, for instance, manages to trickle out an abbreviated biography of Dickens and his work.

Still, it’s fun to fill in future fantasy seasons with celebrity historicals which still one day might come to pass. Oscar Wilde’s episode would riff on The Picture of Dorian Gray.  That other OW, Orson Wells already has one in Big Finish’s universe – by Mark Gatiss, no less – which could be adapted. Sylvester McCoy’s suggestion of the Doctor meeting Richard III could finally come to fruition. What about JFK, given his and the show’s association with November 1963? Galileo? Da Vinci? The Beatles? Surely we can’t let Timelash be the definitive Doctor Who appearance by HG Wells. Nor let Einstein be claimed by the ignominious Time and the Rani.

As for the story itself, it’s pleasingly creepy, with enough black humour in it to recall more than a few camp, schlocky horror films. Its gleefully brash use of walking cadavers as monsters is stronger stuff than the show eventual settled into; to this day Mrs Spandrell can’t get past the opening pre-credit sequence with old Mrs Peace (Jennifer Hill) stumbling through the streets, howling. It strays into interesting moral territory when the Doctor finds virtue in the Gelth’s alleged plan to inhabit the bodies of human dead to save their species, and Rose is opposed to the idea. But the last minute u-turn of the Gelth into treacherous invaders neutralizes that debate which might have lead the story to something other than a “it’s time to stop the monsters now” kind of ending.

Truth be told, as good as The Unquiet Dead is, nearly all its tricks – be they ghost stories, Victoriana or zombified monsters – have been done better by later stories. Its lasting claim to fame is showing us how these celebrity historicals work and inventing a new sub-genre for 21st century Who. If they really have gone forever, then that’s its legacy – creating a Who specific subset right up there with ‘base under siege’, ‘pseudo-historical’ and ‘multi-Doctor’.

But if they ever come back, I’ve still got my list of candidates: Michelangelo, Louis Pasteur, Elvis, even Mrs Malaprop… sorry, that’s Time and the Rani again. It sneaks in everywhere!

LINK TO Into the Dalek: uncertainty about whether the monsters are good or evil.

NEXT TIME… well, he didn’t come by Shetland pony, Jamie! We defrost The Ice Warriors

 

 

Conscience, camaraderie and The Reign of Terror (1964)

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It didn’t take long for Doctor Who to wind up in the French Revolution, a mere eight stories in. Although the show was eager to get there, it proves an uninspiring destination for the fledgling series. It offers little except a series of captures and escapes, strung together with a disconcerting series of coincidences.

It’s really five episodes of runabout, then an opportunity for our friends to stand witness to the downfall of Robespierre and the rise of Napoleon. Still, it gives everyone a chance to dress up, ponce about and end a lot of sentences with the word ‘citizen’. Ah revolutionary France, where everyone speaks English. Along familiar class lines too: posh if you’re well bred, Cockney in you’re not.

Let’s take a detour to the story’s second episode, Guests of Madame Guillotine. In it, the plot inches along. The Doctor (gamey William Hartnell) walks some miles to Paris, taking time out to join a road gang and brain its foreman with a shovel. This is actually of no importance to the plot, but in prison, Ian (dependable William Russell) meets a fellow called Webster (Jeffry Wickham), who gives him a secret message to pass on to a mysterious figure called James Stirling.

This actually pushes the story along a bit, and is played out through a series of filmed inserts, because William Russell was on holiday that week. The only bit of any plot importance in the whole episode, and was done in pre-filmed inserts. The remaining cast shouldn’t have bothered squeezing into Lime Grove Studio D to record that week.

Certainly Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford should have gone on strike. The whole episode consists of them being imprisoned and planning an escape which never happens. Susan, you see, gets frightened by some rats so they decide to give up. Yeesh. That’s not only annoying and sexist, it’s also just dull.

This is not a good story for Susan. Imprisoned and hysterical in the second episode, sick for most of episodes three to four, imprisoned again in the fifth and almost entirely absent from the sixth. No wonder Ford left the series soon afterwards, if this was the sort of material she could expect week after week.

Barbara gets more to do, mostly in the segments when she’s out of prison and once she’s sent poor sick Susan to bed. She’s integral to the story’s most interesting moment, which comes in its fifth episode, A Bargain of Necessity. In it, Ian and Barbara have both allied themselves with a resistance agent called Jules Renan (Donald Morley).

Our two school teachers, usually inseparable comrades, are at odds over the fate of a man called Leon Colbert (Edward Brayshaw, who would later sneer his way through multiple episodes of The War Games). Barbara had got a bit friendly with Colbert, while Ian languished in gaol. But then once Ian escaped and Barbara herself was languishing in gaol (for the second time. It’s that kind of story), Colbert revealed himself to be working for the other side. A shootout ensues, and Renan kills Colbert to save Ian. Babs takes the news badly.

BARBARA: He was a traitor to you. To his side he was a patriot.

IAN: Barbara, we’ve taken sides just by being here. Jules actually shot him. It could just as easily have been me.

JULES: And what about Robespierre? I suppose you think…

BARBARA: Well just because an extremist like Robespierre…

IAN: Oh, Barbara, Jules is our friend. He saved our lives!

BARBARA: I know all that! The revolution isn’t all bad, and neither are the people who support it. It changed things for the whole world, and good, honest people gave their lives for that change.

IAN: Well, he got what he deserved.

BARBARA: You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve.

Barbara is the Ship’s resident historian, and luckily wherever in history the TARDIS lands is on the Coal Hill curriculum so she always knows her subject. She’s often also the conscience of the crew, and the historicals bring out her strength of opinion. The Aztecs famously highlights her willingness to stand against the Doctor’s fatalistic view that history can’t be changed. And here, despite the fact that all their allies have been in the resistance, she can still see value in the ideals of both sides of the conflict, while Ian has long since chosen a team to back.

It’s an interesting theme – the duality of accepted history – one which the series could have explored further. Perhaps story editor David Whitaker wanted to. This incident reminds me of the sentences he wrote for his terrific prologue to his book Doctor Who and the Crusaders. “The next time we visit Earth,” [the Doctor] said, “I hope we encounter a situation where two men are opposed to each other, each for the best reasons… That is the only way to understand the folly, the stupidity and the horror of war. When both sides, in their own way, are totally right.” It sounds like the direction The Reign of Terror could have headed down.

Barbara’s role as history teacher means she is a tangible presence in these early historicals, whereas Ian does not have quite the same resonance. His role as science teacher is only of passing interest to the series. He’s on hand to explain a convenient example of high school science in action, like how condensation works or how to use a pulley, but these are small touches not the whole story. Barbara is able to have her perspective on and reactions to history change a story like The Aztecs or The Reign of Terror, but Ian has no such pivotal involvement in the sci-fi serials.

Barbara’s strong presence in the story is contrasted by the rather weepy one provided by Susan. As the only other female character in the story is a maid, the two provide the story’s major viewpoints of femininity: on one hand determined, brave and fiercely moral, on the other helpless, hopeless and ineffectual. To say 1960s Who is sexist is hardly the newest of observations, but The Reign of Terror shows just how mixed its messages could be.

Given this history, it’s perhaps to be expected that our two Coal Hill School teachers conform to traditional gender roles when it comes to education; she’s into the humanities, he’s about the “hard” subjects like science. If you think times might have changed in this regard, remember that 50 years later, the twelfth Doctor hung around with two Coal Hill teachers as well; she taught English and he taught Maths.

As the French might say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Except they’d say it in English, of course, Citizen.

LINK TO 42: The Doctor faces a fiery death in both.

NEXT TIME: Do not feed the flying pests! It’s the final end of The Evil of the Daleks.

Conniving, complications and Black Orchid (1982)

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What a complicated life Lady Madge Cranleigh (Barbara Lane) leads. Her mutilated, mentally ill son George (Gareth Milne) is repatriated from South America, accompanied by a local tribesman, Dittar Litoni (Ahmen Khalil). So she imprisons said son within her enormous home, employing the tribesman as his nurse. Cut off from the love of his family and fiancée, confined 24 hours a day, is it any real surprise that George goes a little troppo?

He longs for contact with his fiancée, Ann (Sarah Sutton). But Ann has moved on, and is about to marry George’s brother Charles (Michael Cochrane). Madge, unwisely, keeps them all under the one roof. In hindsight, not the best move.

Things get out of hand when George, desperate to make contact with Ann, crashes a costume party. For a madman, he’s surprisingly calculating. Finding his way through a labyrinth of secret passages, he steals a fancy dress costume meant for the Doctor (sporty Peter Davison), one which fortunately conceals his face, and uses it to crash a party Madge is holding. Having stolen a dance with Ann, he attempts to steal away a few moments with her. When she takes fright, there’s a struggle with a footman, who is killed. But George has enough presence of mind to return the costume back to the Doctor’s room. Handy, and unlikely, I think.

Madge meanwhile makes a few odd choices of her own. She and the Doctor discover the body of another servant, hidden in the secret tunnels. Now would seem like a good chance to fess up. Instead, she decides to keep the whole thing to herself, and weirdly, the Doctor agrees to keep her secret. She doesn’t want to disturb her party guests with news of a murder, which is some extreme lengths to go to avoid social embarrassment. But then this is the woman who locked up her injured son to avoid social embarrassment, so she has form.

Inevitably, the footman’s murder is discovered. With two men dead, you might expect that now Madge will finally come clean. But you see, because George was wearing the costume allocated to the Doctor, she sees an opportunity to allow the Doctor to take the fall. Why she feels the need to do this is never explained. As she says herself once the Doctor is arrested, “He will come to no harm. He is innocent”. So at best, she has bought herself a little time. But to do what exactly? Perhaps she is hoping the mystery will go unsolved and she can go back to imprisoning her disabled son.

But no, it can’t be that because her next step is to confess all to Charles. The audience is kept away from that revelation, but perhaps it went like this:

LADY CRANLEIGH: So Charles, I have some news. Your brother’s not dead. He’s alive and horribly disfigured. Goodness knows the fuss this would cause, so I’ve been holding him captive in a secret room in this house. No, it’s fine, I’ve given him a private nurse. Yes sometimes he has to be tied to the bed, but it’s for his own good, don’t you agree? Anyway, it was all going swimmingly until he killed a servant, escaped, dressed up in the Doctor’s costume, assaulted Ann (whom he still believes he’s engaged to. Yes, that will need sorting out at some stage.) and killed James the footman. Anyway, it seemed best to let the police think the Doctor was responsible and Sir Robert’s such a dear old friend, I’m sure he won’t charge me with obstructing a murder investigation. While they work out that the Doctor’s innocent, we should work out some way of making both murders look like unfortunate accidents and then we can go on keeping George locked up out of sight. So thinking caps on! Shall we get James to fetch us some tea? Oh no, that’s right, he’s dead.

*****

The Doctor leads a pretty complicated life too. But sometimes the situations he finds himself in seem served up to him a little too conveniently. In The Doctor’s Wife we find out that the TARDIS chooses many of his destinations. Surely Black Orchid is one of those occasions. How else would the cricket loving Fifth Doctor be manoevered so neatly into a scenario where he can indulge in his favourite sport? And where his companion Nyssa (Sarah Sutton again) can meet Ann Talbot, her exact double? As this Doctor said in another adventure, “what worries me is the level of coincidence in all this.”

Look, Black Orchid doesn’t make a lick of sense. But if we wrote off Doctor Who stories on that basis, we’d be condemning a large swathe of the series. Still, there’s stuff to admire here. Sure, Part One is full of unlikely incidents (the Doctor takes the place of another cricketing Doctor, the Cranleighs readily accept that the Doctor has no name), but in Part Two when these oddities finally start to be questioned they serve to increase suspicions about the Doctor and we feel him sliding into real trouble. Also, the silent killer in the harlequin’s costume is nicely spooky and it gives the story its most enduring image. And the whole thing looks very handsome in an acclaimed BBC period drama kind of way.

Plus it gives Sarah Sutton a chance to display her versatility, playing a gushier, more ebullient character than prim and proper Nyssa. (Although points must be deducted for the perfunctory and confusing way we’re shown Ann before the TARDIS arrives. Where’s the big reveal when Ann turns around and we see she’s Nyssa’s twin?)

Sutton’s a capable actress and Nyssa is a pleasant enough character, so it pains me to say that Nyssa’s a little too bland to be a fully engaging companion. Peter Davison’s on record as saying he thought she should be his Doctor’s sole companion, but surely Nyssa just doesn’t have enough spunk to hold an audience’s interest?

Davison was comparing Nyssa favourably to fellow companion Tegan (Janet Fielding), who too often was left to complain her way throughout a story. But in Black Orchid she’s a delight; feisty but fun loving and fun to be around. She’s exactly the companion you want Tegan to be, but she rarely is. However you have to question her judgement when late in the story she hotly declares that “the Doctor is no imposter!”. When actually, having taken that tardy cricketer’s place and kept quiet about it, that’s the one thing he clearly is and everyone knows it. Better lay off those screwdrivers, Tegan.

Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) fairs worst of all the regulars. He should have been left behind in the TARDIS to do some sums or something, as he’s completely surplus to requirements here. The most he gets to do is eat his own body weight in BBC buffet during the fancy dress ball. Terence Dudley’s vivid novelisation of this story at least offers him a smidgen more interest when he gets asked to dance by a man. 

A conflicted Adric then sets about overcoming his fear of dancing, and despite his earlier reluctance finds he has something of a latent talent in the toe tapping department. “All at once a wave of happiness overcame Adric,” the book gushes. “He was doing it. Yes, he was doing it and felt wonderful!”. I like to think of it as Adric’s out and proud moment. If only to liven the whole thing up a bit.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: “Top hole,” says Charles in Part One. “Top ho,” say the subtitles. Where is this ho exactly?

LINK TO Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Both feature misguided, rather than evil villains.

NEXT TIME: This is the day the Sun expands. Welcome to The End of the World.

The Good, the Ballad and The Gunfighters (1966)

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Perhaps it would be easier for all of us if The Gunfighters was a musical. In 1966, the relatively modern idea that a drama series might, for an episode, abandon its format and take up the trappings of a movie musical was as far fetched as science fiction. But if it had, then maybe it would all make a bit more sense to us, viewing it nearly 50 years later.

But The Gunfighters is not a musical, it’s a comic Doctor Who historical which features a song. It’s a song which exists in the internal narrative, but also functions as a storytelling tool of its own and as an external commentary on the narrative itself. It’s mind bendingly complex. And it doesn’t help that the song is used to excess and is chirpily irritating.

Perhaps the song would be easier to take if the story was set in a time and place related to the musical genre. If say, the Doctor and co landed on the set of a 1930s broadway show, or a Doris Day film. But The Gunfighters is set in the blood soaked surrounds of the OK Corral. Even if we reason that this story pays more attention to Hollywood’s depiction of the Wild West than its unglamorous reality, it’s still in a genre mainly known for high drama and unflinching violence, rather than jaunty singalongs.

But here it is anyway, a spoof Western with a dramatic sting in its tail, a song and visitors from outer space. Never mind that this is the strangest Doctor Who story ever produced. It’s the strangest piece of television I’ve ever seen. And I’ve watched every episode of Twin Peaks.

It was always designed to be wacky – you don’t recommission Donald Cotton, writer of The Myth Makers so you can remake The Massacre. Cotton had apparently included the song – the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, as it’s known – in the story as background colour, but it was director Rex Tucker who allegedly decided to feature it heavily and integrate it into the narrative. It’s hard to imagine the state of mind that led to this decision. Even if you dislike the script of The Gunfighters (which, save for a few too many convenient plot twists, I don’t at all), what made him think “this would be better with more of the song. Pour it all over it! Lashings and lashings of it!”?

For the first episode, the Ballad is acceptable, if shrill, incidental music. And really, what other sort of incidental music would you have used? It’s hard to imagine Dudley Simpson’s standard electronic buzzs and clicks over the top of this. But then at the end of the episode, Steven (a stoic Peter Purves) is forced to sing it (while Dodo plays a mean piano) and he serenades us into the end credits. Now Season Three of Doctor Who is a rollercoaster ride of genre and quality, but this must have left even the most dedicated of watchers bemused.

In the third episode, the song starts to comment on the narrative, when Wyatt Earp (John, Alderson) knocks Phineas Clanton (Maurice Good) unconscious. “So pick him up gentle and carry him slow, He’s gone kind of mental under Earp’s heavy blow” it croons, and so the song explains to us what we’ve just seen happen on TV. If that wasn’t strange enough, when Charlie the Barman (David Graham) is shot, the verse dedicated to commemorating this act is sung three times. We get it! He’s dead!

But in the fourth episode, the Ballad changes function again. Bad guy Johnny Ringo (Lawrence Payne, who I can’t look at without recalling his appearance in The Two Doctors, where he was dressed like a disco version on The Thunderbirds‘ Brains) has followed Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs) and his girlfriend Kate Fisher (Sheena Marsh) to a nearby but strangely unnamed town.

So Johnny’s outside a hotel. He’s the only person in shot, looking off camera when the song starts again: “Johnny Ringo has found her. Johnny Ringo’s found Kate. The gunslinger’s got her, Now what is her fate?” Now note that this is before we can see Kate, but we can see the look of dangerous satisfaction on Ringo’s face.

More song: “Johnny Ringo has seen her, She’s coming his way. Johnny Ringo and Katie were lovers, they say.” And only now does Kate enter the shot, and we can see that the Ballad has been telling us the story for once, instead of retelling it. And for that moment, it’s intriguing and you can see how it might have worked throughout the whole story.

Meanwhile, Doc Holliday has struck up an unlikely friendship with Dodo (Jackie Lane). When he and Kate flee Tombstone, he insists on taking Dodo, for no discernible reason. So Dodo ends up being an unwilling gooseberry throughout Holliday and Kate’s sojourn to a town called nothing. And although Dodo forces Holliday at gunpoint to return to Tombstone, she’s oddly devoted to him. In the middle of the climactic Gunfight at the OK Corral, bullets flying everywhere, she runs out into it to join him. For no other reason than to be briefly captured by Ringo. Honestly, it’s a contender for dumbest move by a companion ever. This is clearly a Dodo with a death wish.

But this is a black comedy, so black it mightn’t have entirely surprised if Dodo had bitten the dust, followed by a hammy punchline, and perhaps another verse of the Ballad. (“She’s as dead as a Dodo, and it’s all gone to ruin! Vacant room in the TARDIS and the Last Chance Saloon!”). Doc Holliday shoots some folk offscreen while fetching dinner and the other Doctor (Hartnell, having fun throughout) rests his hand absentmindedly on poor old dead Charlie. Grim laughs indeed.

It’s often mentioned that The Gunfighters was the story that really did for the historicals. But it also meant the end for comedy stories for a long time until, what…City of Death? Sure, there were plenty of stories with lighter moments, but outright comedies were no more. And they had been semi-regular in Doctor Who up until this point: The Romans, The Myth Makers and then this. And musical stories? The next story which could make a claim to that would be Delta and the Bannermen 21 years later.

There can’t be many stories that have scared Doctor Who off three genres: historical, musical and comedy. And on top of all that, the director took his name off the last episode, apparently over a disagreement about editing. Another inexplicable decision from Rex Tucker. Of the myriad of weird things going on in The Gunfighters, the thing which really got his goat was the editing? The editing?!

LINK TO The Rings of Akhaten: Songs.

NEXT TIME… AHHHIMMM in charge! Bring out your dead, it’s Dark Water/Death in Heaven

Throwing shade, making allowances and The Aztecs (1964)

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Recently, I stumbled across this twenty year old opinion about 60s Doctor Who:

I’m talking retrospectively now, when I look back at Doctor Who now. I laugh at it, fondly. As a television professional, I think how did these guys get a paycheck every week? Dear god, it’s bad! Nothing I’ve seen of the black and white stuff – with the exception of the pilot, the first episode – should have got out of the building. They should have been clubbing those guys to death! You’ve got an old guy in the lead who can’t remember his lines.

Bit harsh! Particularly seeing as the person being quoted is none other than Steven Moffat, showrunner of Doctor Who. But I wouldn’t hold him to this; there’s plenty of boozy conversations I had in 1995 which I wouldn’t want recorded and transcribed on the internet for posterity. Although I don’t think in any of them I advocated clubbing anyone to death. Could be wrong though.

As it happens, this is the third random in a row on stories from the 60s. Are they all awful? I’m probably more fond of The Dominators than I should be, but any balanced assessment would probably conclude that its impressive moments are outnumbered by its duff ones. Before that I was talking about The Tenth Planet and was so flummoxed by it I ended up asking the question ‘is this brilliant or rubbish?’

Now, I can’t agree with Moffat the Younger’s assessment that all 60s Who post An Unearthly Child was bad. But perhaps you do have to be a fan to look past early Who‘s limitations; perhaps this is what I’ve done with all the Hartnell and Troughton stories I’ve randomed (need a handy list? Why, here’s one!).

Which makes me wonder how many allowances does a viewer have to make to enjoy 60s Doctor Who?

And so I’ve been thinking about this in relation to one of the most highly regarded 60s stories. In The Aztecs, our original TARDIS crew of the Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and her teachers Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) land in 16th century Mexico and are, as in so many early stories, cut off from the Ship. They become embroiled in local politics when Barbara is a. mistaken for a reincarnated priest and b. attempts to dissuade the locals from practicing human sacrifice. All in a day’s work.

It may be over 50 years old, but The Aztecs still impresses and fascinates. It’s one that deserved to be let out of the building. It presents an interesting (pro-colonial?) dilemma and cuts along at a pace which far outstrips many other Hartnells. But there is something inherently hokey about the way it was made, which I think is one of those things a viewer has to make allowances for. Luckily there’s something utterly convincing about it too.

For an example of this inherent contradiction, consider Barry Newbery’s sets. They are all rostra, polystyrene and painted backdrops. They are in essence, the stuff of theatre, the influence of which is so palpable in these early Doctor Whos. There’s no reason why these stagey sets should have the power to transport us to this distant civilisation.

And yet they do. They offer the viewer a complete world. I realised watching the story again that I had a real sense that the warriors’ training camp was some distance from the elders’ garden and that both were in different places to the temple and the tomb in which the TARDIS lands. Of course in reality, they were butting up against each other in Lime Grove Studio D. Somehow, through some Newbery magic, it works.

Also something of an acquired taste is chief bad egg Tlotoxl, the High Priest of Sacrifice. He’s played with leering treachery by John Ringham. Much of The Aztecs revolves around Tlotoxl’s attempts to discredit Barbara, so time and again he has some scheme to cook up, to undertake and then to commiserate over. Ringham’s performance is at times hammy, but often this is because of the limitations of early TV technique. Look at the end of the first episode:

TLOTOXL: (while facing the Doctor and Barbara) No, no, this is not Yetaxa. This is a false goddess! (Turns to directly address the camera) And I shall destroy her. (Long lingering stare over a slow fade and roll credits)

The dramatic import of that line is undermined by the fact that the Doctor and Barbara are just there and clearly within earshot. We have to suspend our disbelief because that’s the style of piece. The cameras don’t offer the flexibility to do anything differently. Remember those hulking great things didn’t even have zooms. (There’s another example of these camera limitations when Barbara first exits the tombs wearing Yetaxa’s bracelet. To get it into shot, and thereby signal its significance, Jacqueline Hill has to raise her arm up in front of her torso and allow the camera to creep forward.) As for changing shots, this is an era when editing literally meant cutting tape with scissors and reattaching it with sticky tape, so the more long lingering shots the better.

So anyway, Ringham’s performance is theatrical in style, but it’s full of conviction. Subtle, it’s not, but he speaks of his desire to bring down the ‘false goddess’ with such venom, you can’t help but believe him. His ambition is almost tangible. Again, somehow it works despite of itself.

But you can see what I’m doing here; making allowances all over the place. For familiar Doctor Who bugbears: lack of time, lack of money, lack of technical sophistication, and a penchant for theatre. I’m a forgiving viewer. Young Moffat’s right, I think, to present the alternative view of someone who’s not prepared to be so forgiving. And even my sympathetic eye can pick out some flaws; the fight scenes are slow and unconvincing, a few performances are wooden as, and the whole plot hinges (geddit?) on our heroes forgetting to leave a door open. Twice.

WithThe Tenth Planet, the good and the bad elements sat next to each other in strange opposition. With The Aztecs, I’m saying something different: that I can see that it shouldn’t work as TV (at least to our modern sensibilities), but somehow it does. Let’s put our clubs down, Moff, say I, at least for this one.

And as for the old guy who can’t remember his lines… He’s nowhere to be seen in The Aztecs. Hartnell gives an awesome performance here, moving easily from calculating old schemer to gentle romantic (his romance with Aztec lady Cameca offers some welcome light relief). And occasionally the unpredictable alien peeks out from behind his grandfatherly facade. Early on, Ian is quietly appalled when he realises he’s going to have to hold down a man while he’s stabbed to death. “Do it, man!”, the ever pragmatic Doctor urges. “Do it but don’t interfere”. It doesn’t come to pass in the end, but has a Doctor ever asked a companion to be an accessory to murder since?

A spiky ruthless grey haired Doctor pushing his companions to the limits? That’d never work, right Moff? Take their pay cheques back immediately.

LINK to The Dominators. In both, aliens arrive in a new culture and question that society’s ways.

NEXT TIME… God save the Queen, ay? Let’s light The Idiot’s Lantern.

Old, New and The Visitation (1982)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hartnell, character and The Smugglers (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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