Tag Archives: k9

Profit, loss and The Sun Makers (1977)

sun makers

So the story goes that writer Robert Holmes got in a huff about paying his tax bill and, seeking revenge, wrote The Sun Makers as a barely disguised rant at the tax system. If true, this was a terrible idea and would surely have only ended up driving Holmes, a well-known hater of bureaucracy, spare. Because it must have lead to a particularly maddening type of recursion where writing a television show about how angry you are about your tax bill, results in you earning more money, on which you’ll need to pay more tax. It’s kind of like trying to get even at your hangover by having another drink.

Some Doctor Who reference book (forgive my vagueness on this, I’ve read so many over the years and have now all but given them up) once said that this story makes the mistake of confusing government taxation with the profit making of a company, which it argued, are completely different things. I think this utterly misses the point of The Sun Makers, in which Holmes imagines a world in which government has taken on the trappings of capitalism so completely, as for the two to become intertwined. Given the state of governments around the world in 2018, this is surely not so unbelievable.

It doesn’t seem much more of a leap to imagine that a company selling the very basics of life – sunlight, oxygen, water – would come to the conclusion that a far more efficient way of selling universal services, is to simply take the cost directly from each worker’s pay packet. As a way of making money, taxation is not a bad business model.

But it doesn’t matter anyway, because for Holmes, the Company and its staff of blowhards, incompetents and sadistic creeps isn’t just a stand in for capitalism or government or even the BBC (complete with a revolving globe of Pluto and its six suns). It’s an amalgam of everything he hates; pointless bureaucracy, compassionless authority and unsanctioned environmental meddling. Wrapped up in one of his most fervent concerns: what are we going to do when the Earth can no longer sustain us? His answer, as always, is make all the same mistakes again. But with new scenery.

***

The Sun Makers sits quietly in Season 15, not drawing attention to itself – but it’s a pivotal story. It marks a subtle change in the series where the creepy thrillers of Holmes’ era as script editor, give way to stories which are lighter in tone, but more narratively ambitious. For the first time in years – probably since Holmes’ own Carnival of Monsters – we have a story where naturalism is abandoned, real life is satirized and characters are exaggerated caricatures. It’s a Sylvester McCoy story ten years too early. This doesn’t feel like a story Holmes would have commissioned for one of his own seasons, but one that refreshes him, now he’s finally free from the pressure of having to make a whole series of the damn thing.

What this liberation means in practice is that Holmes gets to write some of his wittiest dialogue and the cast eat it up. Tom Baker is still playing it quite seriously, but he’ll shortly change his approach to being more outlandishly comic. I think The Sun Makers plays a role in that. Douglas Adams is on record as saying that the problem with writing something funny, is that some actors feel they have the license to send up the material and add comic embellishments of their own (I wonder who he could have been speaking about?). It’s surely the change in tone in this story which Tom picks up on, and takes as a signal to start injecting more of his own humour into the show. Whether anyone asks him to or not.

It’s not just that there’s more humour in the show than before, nor that it’s pointed towards uncommon targets. It’s more that The Sun Makers is showing a way to tell Doctor Who stories which had, up to that point been occasional, but which was about to become the norm. You can see its influence in the next two seasons where villains become larger than life, situations become more absurd and jokes start to set the rhythm of each episode. And like those subsequent seasons, there’s always a grim sentiment behind the jovial approach.

In this episode, the flamboyant pooh-bah of the Company, Gatherer Hade (Richard Leech) is thrown off a building by the company’s revolting workers (even to the end, he’s in wide-eyed amazement at the insolence of this action). And the mole-like Collector (Henry Woolf), a pasty little sadist who likes listening to people being steamed alive, might come with a bag of one-liners, but is also only just prevented from poisoning the entire population with gas, like someone fumigating a house.

Luckily, the Doctor is on hand to feed in a particularly tricky sum into his computer to trigger a lightning-fast global financial crisis. In panic, the Collector does what all companies do in their death throes and liquidates. That’s Holmes’ whole approach – the approach to this new way of doing Doctor Who – right there in that one villain’s demise. It’s gross, funny, highly stylised and self-referential all at the same time.

***

The irony is that there’s another financial crisis impacting on The Sun Makers; the story’s budget restrictions are shockingly apparent. Corridors are made from shabby old flats. Prop guns are cardboardy. A number of sets, such as the Others’ lair, the Gatherer’s office and the steaming chamber, can’t afford walls, giving the show the air of being performed in a theatrical black box. It’s at this point in the series’ history when inflation is galloping (as it does in the story itself) and the lack of money really starts to show on screen. The next story, Underworld, has to be almost completely greenscreened.  The story after, The Invasion of Time, makes villains out of aluminum foil.

Faced with similar restrictions, other Doctor Who makers have limited the show’s scope to fit. Derrick Sherwin exiled the series to Earth. Andrew Cartmel set more stories in history. But just as the show’s new lighter tone doesn’t really stop it from being gruesome, the Graham Williams era’s budget restrictions don’t limit its ambitions. If anything, the show’s scope broadens – more space faring, more alien planets, the biggest monster ever out on screen. The show never looked cheaper, but it flatly refused to cut its suit to fit its increasingly expensive cloth. But when watching Tom Baker concoct a cliffhanger from within a wobbly shower cubicle, or tinker with a couple of pieces of plumbing junctions glued together in an approximation of a security camera, the theme of the story seems to intrude into its production: everything, it seems, comes back to money.

***

Holmes might have enjoyed getting his own back at internal revenue, but I think the taxman would have had the last laugh. Every royalty cheque from every overseas screening must have brought with it the sharp reminder that some of that £2.39 he got from El Doctor Misterio – los Fabricantes de Sol screening in Nicaragua must go to the tax man. I bet the irony wasn’t lost on Holmes, as he filled out his tax return each year. “Praise the Company,” I like to think he muttered under his breath.

LINK TO The King’s Demons: oddly enough, they both start with someone getting in trouble for not handing money over to the ruling class.

NEXT TIME… It’s insane and it’s about to get even more insanerer. We’re off to meet The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.

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Random extra: Completion, conflation and Shada (2017)

shada

In its long and patchy history, Shada has gone from being not important enough to finish to being too coveted to leave unfinished. Abandoned part way through production in 1979, it wasn’t auspicious enough for the BBC to remount the following year. If it had been the end of a season arc like The Armageddon Factoror a Doctoral farewell like Logopolis, it would surely have been finished as soon as possible. Instead, it was deemed no more special than any other Doctor Who story and everyone moved on.

In the years since, as its mystique rose in proportion to the fortunes of its brilliant author, Shada has proved too tempting a property to leave on the shelf. It’s been released in more formats and more regularly than many extant stories. That’s partly because our appetite for Doctor Who isn’t sated by the hundreds of complete episodes we have. We want to see every scrap of the show, from the rejected pilot episode to orphaned clips of missing episodes to blooper reels and unused scenes. Given such hunger, of course an unseen Tom Baker story, even one only 50% complete, is going to get offered up for sale. And so it does, periodically and usually towards the end of releasing the marathon catalogue of Doctor Who on any given format.

It also gets a run because even 50% of a Douglas Adams story is worth a bob or two. I wonder though if we would have seen the panoply of Shadas – the VHS reconstruction, its DVD release, the webcast, the audio drama, the novelisation and now this live action/animation hybrid – if Adams hadn’t died so early. The 1992 VHS release was, famously, only green lit after Adams absent mindedly signed a release form he wouldn’t have had a bar of, had he been paying more attention. When he spoke about the story itself, he was always critical of it, downplaying its appeal. You got the sense he was happy for it to remain unfinished and unexamined.

I can see why has was so cautious. Adams’ media output, which spawned from, but is not restricted to, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is big business. It’s not something to be blithely jeopardised and the release of an early, unfinished work, shot on a budget of a quarter of what it needed and later cannibalised for other, better-formed works, could have undermined the whole operation. It’s generally good creative practice to not show works in progress, and certainly not ones you were a bit iffy on to start with.

If Adams was with us today, would he have revisited Shada? Perhaps the success of Doctor Who’s revival might have prompted him to do so. If so, I think he would have started from scratch, rather than reheat the leftovers from 1979. Perhaps it could have become a David Tennant Christmas special, rewritten by or co-written with Russell T Davies. Or perhaps he may have finally been persuaded to novelise the story, once the show had the commercial heft to deal with an author of his earning capacity. With no disrespect to any of the contributors to the 2017 Shada, I doubt Adams would have sanctioned this jigsaw of existing footage, animation and new FX shots. In part because I don’t think the jarring collision of formats would have appealed to him.

Also, I think he’d have wanted to do more work on the script. The story’s first half is a whimsical adventure through the picturesque sites of Cambridge, full of wit and verve. Had it made it to broadcast, it would have been a visual tonic to the tacky aesthetics of the rest of Season 17 (its Parisian sojourn excluded). But the second half is much more standard late 70s Who; a leapfrogging chase from spaceship to spaceship to sci-fi prison, with a grandiose villain and some shambling monsters. It takes a long time to get to a fairly pedestrian climax: a battle of minds between the Doctor and Skagra (Christopher Neame) with some explosions thrown in.

The role of kindly old Professor (finally! From an actual university!) Chronotis (Denis Carey) needs some clarification too. He is killed mid story, then resurrected without adequate explanation and his eventual reveal as notorious Time Lord criminal Salyavin has no impact on the story. His crimes remain undetailed so we get no sense of why the Doctor shouldn’t lock him back up in Shada at the story’s end. Perhaps if he actually played some part in Skagra’s defeat, he’d have a redemptive story which would justify his slinking back to Cambridge to serve tea and crackers. If he really is a badass, we get no proof of it.

Without Adams to tighten up Shada, what approach does this new version – a conflation of elements old and new – take to his scripts? The answer is, from what I can tell by a quick comparison, a pragmatic one. Scenes are kept, cut or edited to minimise the need to impersonate deceased members of the cast and to reduce the total number of minutes needed to animate. It’s a completely reasonable approach, although it means we miss a few of Adams’ zingers.

Less understandable is the decision to remount the show’s final scene, in the TARDIS control room with Tom Baker, now an octogenarian. Churlish as it is to argue against the great Baker’s return to his most glorious role, his scene’s an awkward, unnecessary addition. Making the scene work requires contrivance upon contrivance: it needs a body double (face hidden), a voiceless K9 and an unseen Romana (Lalla Ward) allegedly delivering her lines from the TARDIS loo, or something. (It reminds me of that episode of Blake’s 7, where the actor playing bad guy Travis injured himself before shooting, and the whole episode is concocted around his absence: dialogue delivered off-screen, gloved hands thumping on tables and so on.) It’s also narratively nonsensical. Just because that last scene contains an arbitrary line about the Doctor as an old man, there’s no reason for him to suddenly turn into one. It’s the sort of liberty taken with Adams’ work that reminds you why he was so protective of it.

With the inclusion of an onscreen return for Baker, it becomes clear that completing Shada is not the only aim here. It’s also to reignite a particularly middle-aged nostalgia and play at making Doctor Who ala 1979. It’s a self-knowing acknowledgement that this whole exercise is for us fans; fans who are so desperate to relive the show’s glory days that we’ll call an old Doctor back in from retirement and build a painstakingly correct control room around him, just to hear him talk to himself and smile down the camera, one more time. We don’t just want to finish Shada, we want to twist it and reshape it, until it provides the maximum fangasm possible.

There’s nothing wrong with that. As Adams might have said, it’s mostly harmless. But I can’t help find myself experiencing Shada fatigue, hoping that we’ve reached its ultimate iteration.

On the other hand, I note the impending release of Tom Baker’s first season as a blu-ray box set. If it turns into an ongoing range, what happens when they get around to Season 17? Will there be yet another Shada variant to absorb? Maybe, we’ll never be done finishing it.

NEXT TIME… normal service is resumed with The King’s Demons.

Isolation, introspection and The Invasion of Time (1978)

invasion of time

Doctor Who is gonna fix it, Doctor Who will put it right
As he moves across the galaxy at twice the speed of light!
Back into the future, the TARDIS travels time
With his beautiful assistant and his trusty mate K9!

The Ballad of Doctor Who (AKA Doctor Who is gonna fix it). Written by S. Watson, D. Ovenden and R. Young. Performed by Bullamakanka

I write this from a hotel room in Alice Springs. For those of you outside Australia, Alice Springs is smack bang in the centre of the country. It’s about as far from everything as you can get, nothing but desert for hundreds of kilometres. It’s a funny old place –  beautiful in some ways, deeply troubling in others. But despite its contradictions, one thing you can say about it for sure, is that it’s remote.

What, you must be thinking, does this have to do with The Invasion of Time? Well, only that being in Alice Springs has reminded me that watching classic Doctor Who was something done all throughout Australia, including in its most isolated pockets. When I grew up watching Doctor Who in the 70s and 80s, I watched it on ABC TV. It was one of two channels we had when growing up (how ridiculous that must seem to today’s kids) but out here in Alice, there would only have been one, the ABC. Luckily, that’s the one which showed Doctor Who.

The Invasion of Time was a landmark story in ABC TV’s regular repeat runs of Doctor Who. It marked the end of a set of familiar stories repeated often, from Robot to this one. So as a viewer, I noted whenever The Invasion of Time lobbed around. It marked the end of the current run of Doctor Who.  To be replaced by… who cares? Something boring. And the start of the wait until the series was shown again. Probably starting with Robot.

For many other, more casual viewers, The Invasion of Time would be quintessential Doctor Who. It has Tom Baker, being funny and eccentric and putting things right. With his beautiful assistant and his trusty mate K9. It has aliens made of tinfoil and the Doctor shoots the bad guy with a big space gun. For many viewers in Australia of a certain age, this is what Doctor Who is. And any doubt that watching Doctor Who could be a distinctly Australian experience was put to bed by Australian bush band Bullamakanka, singing about the shared experience of watching the show.

Well I was sittin’ in front of the TV set, there were nothin’ much else to do
Then along comes this amazing co’, they called him Doctor Who
It was half-past-six on the ABC, just before the news
No ads to interrupt me, on an interspatial cruise

Half past six on the ABC, before the news, no ads to interrupt me… that describes the viewing experience pretty well. Sittin’ in front of the TV set, nothin’ much else to do. That’s certainly how it felt out in regional NSW where I grew up. Which is nowhere near as remote as Alice, where there was surely even less to do, and at an average temperature of stinking hot, next to no motivation to do it.

I’ve been thinking about the Australian experience of watching Doctor Who for a while now, but Alice has made me think about watching Doctor Who in isolation. I bet there are tales like this from all over the world – fans who found Doctor Who while living in remote corners of Asia, Europe and America, for whom the show was a regular dive into fantastic adventure. I bet there are people from Alice Springs who became fans. And I bet there are people in cities who found Doctor Who to be a respite from isolation of other kinds: bullying, loneliness or family dislocation.

It’s an experience now lost, because people who love Doctor Who today – the old series, the new series or both – are linked by the internet. Want to talk/argue/rant about the latest episode? You’ll find thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter and Gallifrey Base who want to join you. You could do it from Alice Springs or from any other far-flung corner of the earth with wifi. You can do it instantly and easily. It was not always like this. For many, watching in isolation was the norm.

It’s not that Doctor Who is special in this regard. All television – all media really – has the power to relieve isolation and to forge connections with people. But for me, I am often bemused by how different the modern experience of watching Doctor Who is to how I watched it growing up.

For a start, nearly all of the show is available at the flick of a cursor. That alone is mindblowing enough. Then there’s that it’s a mainstream phenomenon; not an odd, niche filler of a program, beloved of dorks and loners, but a palpable TV hit. All this plus the instant global community of Whoheads one can join with only a login, a password and a few thousand opinions.

Watched from this perspective, The Invasion of Time is just another story among many. One where all six episodes can be devoured at once, your enjoyment of it supplemented by special features, partwork magazines and online reviews. But watched from Alice Springs or a rural town in Canada or a village in New Zealand or wherever it is, I think it was something else altogether.

It was a weeknightly treat, an interspatial cruise. And something of a special event, too. The Doctor’s transformation into to roaring, bellicose tyrant was unsettling. The return of the Sontarans was a rare rematch with an old enemy. A tour through the labyrinthine TARDIS interior, which for some reason never looked, through a child’s eyes, so much like a shabby old hospital. The mythos of Gallifrey explored. The Vardans… well, they always looked rubbish, but you can’t have everything.

It was a lifeline, this show, to people watching all over the world. In a way which it isn’t as much anymore – or at least not in the same way. Which is good, right? We wouldn’t trade away the show’s newfound popularity and the technology that links us to fans all over the world.

But watching the show now is a completely different experience for those who used to watch in isolation. Sitting in front of the TV set, with nothing much else to do.

LINK TO The Unicorn and the Wasp: because Christopher Benjamin is in Unicorn etc, both feature cast members of The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

NEXT TIME: It’s always been you, Craig. Please finalise your purchases and head to the checkouts, it’s Closing Time.

Adolescence, adulthood and Full Circle (1980)

full circle

During the five years of the Pertwee era, with its 24 stories and 128 episodes, only four new writers were introduced into Doctor Who: Don Houghton, Robert Sloman and Bob Baker & Dave Martin. During Tom Baker’s first six seasons? 35 stories, 144 episodes and again, only four new writers: Robert Banks Stewart, Chris Boucher, Douglas Adams and David Fisher.

(We might quibble over Lewis Griefer, who initiated but wasn’t credited on Pyramids of Mars, and production team members Barry Letts, Graham Williams and Anthony Read, who were all well acquainted with the show when they turned their hands to writing for it.)

That’s a whole decade of Doctor Who that relied on tried and tested writers, rather than seek and try out newbies. It makes the show’s 18th season even more remarkable. On taking up the job of Script Editor, Christopher H. Bidmead had barely any scripts ready for production. Pragmatically, he led with what little he had; scripts from old hands Fisher and Terrance Dicks. But then, he started a wave of writerly regeneration which resulted in more new writers coming to the show in the space of two years than had been seen in the last 10. John Flanagan & Andrew McCulloch, Steve Gallagher, Johnny Byrne, Terence Dudley, Christopher Bailey, Eric Saward, Peter Grimwade and, most remarkable of all, Andrew Smith, who gave us Full Circle.

I say “most remarkable of all” because Full Circle was Smith’s first professional credit and he was only 17 years old when he wrote it. On one hand, it’s a sign of how desperate the script situation was in 1980, that Bidmead even considered an unsolicited script, sent by a novice writer who was barely out of school.

On the other hand, it demonstrates what a remarkable feat it was, for such a young writer to write such a promising script. Think back to when you were 17; I don’t know about you, but there would be no way I could have written something as mature and erudite as Full Circle when I was that age. Of course, it’s possible for teens to write great stories, but it’s rare for them to write for TV, and, as we’ve seen, unheard of to write for Doctor Who.

With all this in mind, it’s tempting to imagine that the script is really Bidmead’s with some scant input from wunderkind Smith. But both writers have spoken candidly about the show since then and both have described it as a true collaboration. So what we have in Full Circle is a real first; a Doctor Who story written by someone in its target audience. What happens when the show is written by a teenage boy?

Well, the first thing to note is that it has teenagers in it. I’ve written before about what a  rarity it was in 20th century Who to have young people on screen. Only the previous year’s The Horns of Nimon had any juvenile actors in sizeable roles. In Full Circle, there are no less than four young characters, who form a group of Outlers. These are young tearaways who want to leave the stultifying world of the Starliner, a place where boring adult authority holds sway. So far we have a pretty typical view of teenage life; the desire to run away, to rebel and to shun what adults say they should do.

The Outlers are an interesting bunch. Their leader is Varsh (Richard Willis), who must be this planet’s heartthrob because he keeps his tunic as open as possible to show a tantalising amount of torso and at one stage there’s an ogling creeping camera move towards his tightly panted arse. There’s Tylos (Bernard Padden), the nervous, mousy type who’s never going to work his way out of Varsh’s dreamy shadow. And there’s Keara (June Page), a pleasant, smart girl who – thankfully – holds her own in this group, without being the predictable apex of a love triangle. Keara is the only one with a parent around; her father is village elder Login (George Baker), but otherwise, these are a self-governing band of wastrels.

Varsh’s brother Adric (Matthew Waterhouse, the other teenage boy becoming a part of Doctor Who history in this story) wants in on the gang, but he’s not an easy fit. He sees himself as superior to the others, and he has a badge for being a maths genius into the bargain. The maths swot joining the street gang… this has never gone well, has it? As ever with these things, there’s an initiation ceremony to go through, and in this case, it involves stealing watermelons from a riverside camp of locals. Which given as watermelons seem to be the key focus of everyone on Alzarius, is not going to be as easy as it sounds.

Teenage stories are often about the transition to adulthood and the initiation test, which Adric fails, is one element which is part of that theme. But another is Mistfall, the natural change of climate and atmosphere which is befalling Alzarius. It mirrors the physical and emotional change from adolescence to adulthood which Adric and the Outlers going through.

Except Varsh won’t make it that far. He dies trying to defend the Starliner from the monstrous Marshmen. When he does, Keara bequeaths his belt to Adric. “This is our badge,” she had told Adric of it before. “It has to be earned.” It seems Adric has finally passed his test, but more than that, he’s no longer a child.

It turns out that the Marshmen and the Alzarians are all part of an evolutionary loop; they are each other’s kin. The planet, its inhabitants and the Outlets, all are undergoing existential change. And by rights, we know what should happen to Adric now. As an adult and a hero in the Starliner’s society, he should be the one who pilots the ship to its new destination. Perhaps even put on the puffy jacket of a Decider.

That would make thematic sense. But this show, with its newfound interest in teenage boys, has other plans for Adric. Instead of staying on the Starliner and cementing his newfound adulthood, he makes a move which actually reverts him into adolescence again. He joins the TARDIS crew and finds a replacement family, complete with Dad, Mum and the pet dog.  It makes him again that awkward young thing constantly trying to prove himself. It delays his graduation to adulthood until he stands on the burning deck of that doomed space freighter.

Still, that’s the end of his story. This is the beginning, a story of not fitting in and coming of age. And of running away from it all to join the Doctor and travel in the TARDIS. Who better to write that story than a teenage boy?

LINK TO The Caretaker. Teenagers on the TARDIS.

NEXT TIME… it’s 1580 and we’re in Venice, for (you guessed it) The Fish Women of Croatia.

Ideas, imagery and Meglos (1980)

meglos

In an alternative universe (such as the one we’ll be heading to next random), we’d be talking about this as the first Meglos story. Yes, Meglos, that mostly mocked one note joke of a Doctor Who villain, a talking cactus of all things, could have made a comeback.

Writer Gareth Roberts wanted to include him as the bad guy behind shenanigans in the Matt Smith story The Lodger. Whether this idea bit the dust because it was too ridiculous, too self-referential or because bringing back a rubbish monster as a statement of irony wasn’t the best idea to start with, is kind of irrelevant. The point is, Meglos lingers in our Whoish memories.

Why? Well, two reasons, I think.

Reason one: because within the schlocky fiction of the piece, there are some interesting ideas being almost talked about.

Doctor Who has often presented the conflict between science and superstition, and between science and magic. It rarely wades into the dangerous waters of comparing science and religion. So it’s an unexpected reminder to find it popping up in this inauspicious story.

The planet Tigella is populated by two castes: the scientifically minded Savants and the religiously inclined Deons (their plainly descriptive names being typical of this story’s unsophisticated approach. Even the title character’s name – he’s a megalomanic cactus – is clearly signposted.)

The Savants see the planet’s mysterious power source, the Dodecahedron, as an artifact to be analysed and its potential tapped. For some reason, they also see hair as being best hidden under shockingly white wigs, cut into bobs and plastered on their heads, so their judgement is called into question from the start.

The Deons believe the Dodecahedron to be a gift from the great god Ti, and thus the subject of reverence and worship. We only really meet one Deon, the majestic Lexa (Jacqueline Hill) and she wears her white hair in an outrageously long pony tail. Good hairdressers are obviously hard to find on Tigella.

It’s unsurprising that Doctor Who comes down on the side of science over faith. The Dodecahedron does turn out to be an artifact and the Deons are nutters who still practice human sacrifice, so the Savants, despite the hair, are the ones to listen to. To hammer home the point, Lexa dies and as she’s the only one of the Deons who speaks, it will be difficult for them to prosecute their ideas from then on. (Incidentally, Lexa dies saving Romana (Lalla Ward), which is remarkably compassionate considering she’s only met her minutes before and never spoke an onscreen word to her.)

In between Savants and Deons, there’s Zastor (Edward Underdown). He dresses like a Deon but listens patiently when the Savants complain about not being allowed to run a tape measure over the Dodecahedron. Zastor represents the sensible middle ground, and when his two quarreling tribes refuse to play nice, he calls in an independent arbitrator:

ZASTOR: Some fifty years ago, I knew a man who solved the insoluble by the strangest means. He sees the threads that join the universe together and mends them when they break.

DEEDRIX: A savant? Or one of her madmen?

ZASTOR: A little of each and a great deal more of something else.

It’s interesting that Zastor positions the Doctor halfway between science and religion. Religion has never been his bag, but science most definitely has. The Doctor is described as a scientist regularly throughout the 60s and 70s eras, but Season 18 is the last to emphasize this side of his nature. After this season, he becomes an adventurer and a traveller. Has the 21st century version of the show ever described a him as a scientist?

Sadly, we never get to see the Doctor adopt his role as mediator between science and religion. It would have been interesting to hear him say, “well, you Savants want to solve the problem like this, you Deons want to solve it like that, and in fact you’re both wrong, you do it like this.” But due to Meglos’s unorthodox approach to plotting, the Doctor arrives so late in the story, that Meglos has infiltrated the Tigellan city and made off with the Dodecahedron before the Doctor’s has even learnt his opponent’s name. From then on, there’s no time to question the bigger issues of rationalism vs faith. It’s just a case of, “Quick! Follow that cactus!”

*****

Interlude: How to plot a Doctor Who story a la Meglos:

Part One: while your villain hires some henchmen and explains his plan, and you introduce the setting, your supporting characters and their main non-hair related problem, contain the Doctor and his friends to the TARDIS.

Part Two: while the villain travels and arrives at aforementioned setting, continue to delay the Doctor getting there by letting him land halfway through the ep, and then some distance away from the action. Split him up from his companions. Have the companion keep some henchmen company for a while.

Part Three:  Have the companion keep those henchmen company for a while longer. Have the villain complete his plan, but hang around for a bit to talk to some minor characters. Have the Doctor slowly take all episode to work out what’s going on, while the villain escapes.

Part Four: Doctor and co chase the villain back to his base. Doc turns table on villain with some rudimentary bait and switch. End with explosion.

*****

Reason two: Tom Baker in cactus make up.

Meglos has an ace up its sleeve in that it’s got a brilliant lead actor to play the villain: Tom Baker. In some ways, there’s no more qualified person to play a Doctor Who villain. After all, at the time of recording Meglos, Tom had seen at least 36 people play Doctor Who villains up close. He knows how it’s done.

He seems to relish being Meglos, playing him utterly seriously, if just on this side of melodramatics. Everything we’ve heard about how temperamental Tom was getting towards the end of his time on the show tells us that he should have been bored out of his brain playing this ranting bad guy. God only knows what he said when they told him they were going to make him up like a cactus.

Actually I have a theory that when he saw how good that cactus make up was, he realised that this was going to be the scene stealer of the show, so if anyone was going to wear it, it might as well be him. It’s a terrific effect, this green, spiny Doctor, and gives this last Baker year a vividly memorable image to match any of the previous 17. There’ll be many a fan, young at the time this story went out, who remembers the Cactus Doctor, struggling to contain the rebellious Earthling (Christopher Owen) within his spiky body.

It’s a much better look than either of Meglos’s other forms; a dull, plasticky cactus prop, or later when he’s defeated, a giant sized snot rag, scurrying across the floor. At least Romana’s impressed at the transformation from Time Lord to mobile booger. ‘He must have modulated himself on a particular wavelength of light… that would make him virtually indestructible!’ she helpfully explains. See, even then they were thinking about Meglos 2. Or The Meglos in the Room Upstairs. Or perhaps a spin off series: Meglos & Company.

Presumably that’s the line upon which Roberts was going to hang the premise of Meglos’s return. Maybe it’s not too late. Peter Capaldi sporting that spiny cactus make up? You can see it can’t you? That Meglos, you know, he can modulate himself on a particular wavelength of light. He’s virtually indestructible.

LINK TO School Reunion: both feature the return of actresses who had played the Doctor’s companion. And they both have K9 in them.

NEXT TIME: The sound of a planet screaming out its rage! Welcome to the Inferno.

Old days, new ways and School Reunion (2006)

school

In New Who‘s first year, references to Old Who were few and far between. The odd Cyberman head, a fleeting glimpse of UNIT and a surreptitious mention of the Isop Galaxy were the few, whispered call outs to the show’s long heritage. New Who was like a teenager who has suddenly become cool, deliberately shunning any links to her previous dorky self. Don’t mention the old show, this reboot seemed to say. It’s not me at all.

School Reunion changed all that, with guest appearances from two figures which, at last, firmly linked the new series to the old. Showrunner Russell T Davies’ choice of returning characters is interesting. He could easily have gone with, say, the Brigadier or Susan Foreman or Ace, or indeed any of the surviving classic Doctors. But he went with Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and K9 (voiced by John Leeson).

In doing so, he links his version of the program, not just to all of classic Who, but a particular part of it. Sarah Jane was a crucial part of the early Tom Baker years, and K9 an integral feature of the later Tom Baker seasons. Between them, they span a period of the program fondly remembered by many adult viewers. And for younger viewers, they provide an entry point for the classic series. School Reunion is signalling the new show’s intention to be as fondly remembered as the Tom Baker episodes while fondly remembering them itself.

****

Sarah’s bittersweet meeting with the Doctor (a nascent David Tennant) is the standout element of this episode, contrasting strongly with cartoony main plot of bat creatures, brain slaved children and the quest for an oblique universe altering equation (“The Skasis Paradigm!” says the Doctor, appalled. I hate those moments when we’re supposed to react to some invented sci fi term like it means something.) You can keep the school, I’ll take the reunion, thanks.

Sladen brings an emotional depth to her character, which she was only ever allowed to hint at in the old series, and explore only in the dying minutes of her tenure. Forget all that unedifying and frankly sexist rivalry with new, younger model Rose (Billie Piper). What makes this story is Sarah’s letting long held trauma burst through her cool demeanour.

It doesn’t take long. Only seconds after meeting the Doctor, it’s bubbling to the surface. “I thought you’d died,” she sobs. “I waited for you and you didn’t come back and I thought you must have died.” Later she calms down, but still her dialogue is punctuated with the raw pain of someone abandoned.

SARAH: Did I do something wrong, because you never came back for me. You just dumped me.

DOCTOR: I told you. I was called back home and in those days humans weren’t allowed.

SARAH: I waited for you. I missed you.

DOCTOR: Oh, you didn’t need me. You were getting on with your life.

SARAH: You were my life.

So among all this nostalgia for the old days of Doctor Who, there’s the longing for past days of youth and adventure. “I got old,” Sarah admits at one point, as if shamefully acknowledging a human shortcoming. K9 too is worn down and tarnished. These are companions left damaged and bereft by their time with the Doctor and the message isn’t lost on Rose. “This is really seeing the future,” she says.

****

School Reunion asks us to remember Old Who, but selectively. Remember The Hand of Fear, it says. And what about The Invisible Enemy, that was a corker wasn’t it? But don’t remember The Five Doctors, because that would spoil the story.

We have to ignore The Five Doctors because School Reunion gets its emotional kick from the idea that Sarah hasn’t seen the Doctor since he left her behind on that street in Aberdeen. We should be recalling the image of Sarah left alone on that road, white tassly jacket, suitcase and stuffed owl. We shouldn’t be recalling that she did meet the Doctor again – a whole lot of them actually – for his twentieth birthday party.

We also have to buy into the new idea that Sarah held a strong romantic affection for the Doctor, as strong as Rose’s.

ROSE: What do I do? Do I stay with him?

SARAH: Yes. Some things are worth getting your heart broken for.

As the Doctor says goodbye, she admits she’s never found someone to settle down with. “Well, there was this one guy,” she says wistfully. “I travelled with him for a while, but he was a tough act to follow.”

Mrs Spandrell gets confused by this moment. She says incredulously, “Are they saying she was in love with Pertwee?” And she has a point, not because it’s hard to believe anyone falling for the Pert or for Tom Baker for that matter, but because Sarah’s relationship with the Doctor was always platonic. In her time with Tom, which this story is specifically asking us to recall, their relationship was one of two knockabout mates seeing the universe together. Never once was their the sense of a deeper connection, certainly not of the boyfriend/girlfriend vibe that Tennant and Piper cultivated.

Remember some things, School Reunion says. Forget others. And completely reimagine some more. Which shouldn’t bother us too much really, as that’s what Doctor Who does all the time.

****

Sladen was evergreen, but time is doing School Reunion few favours. Unusually, the art direction lets the side down, with dodgy school crests blu tacked to walls and corridors randomly painted a lurid green. The guest performances are also a tad hammy and some of the CGI effects, such as the climactic explosion, fail to entirely convince. This doesn’t feel like the bold, mature sci-fi drama presented the previous year.

Instead, it all feels a bit juvenile; appropriate enough for an episode set in a high school. But I mean ‘juvenile’, in terms of its intended audience; this feels like children’s TV. Still, something about it worked enough for the potential of Sladen and The Sarah Jane Adventures to shine through. That’s this episode’s real legacy; not that it at last paid respect to the old series, but that it showed how to create something new and exciting out of its greatest hits.

LINK TO The Curse of the Black Spot: both feature prominent roles for young boy characters (Toby and Kenny)

NEXT TIME: Lush, aggressive vegetation. A plant, a xerophyte to be precise! It’s Meglos, last Zolpha Thuran!

Whiskers, writers and State of Decay (1980)

state1

State of Decay, Season 18’s tale of long lost spaceships and even longer lost vampires, is a collision between two contrasting views of Doctor Who. On the one hand, there’s script editor Christopher H Bidmead and his attempts to bring some scientific rationality to the series and erase the undergraduate frivolity of the previous season. It’s from him we get the pocket universes, the forgotten data banks and a society in technological stagnation. On the other hand, there’s writer and former script editor Terrance Dicks, master of 4 and 6 part structures, who knows exactly where to put the monsters, the jokes and the helpless assistants.

It’s no wonder the two didn’t get on. At this stage Dicks had written or edited about 40 Doctor Who scripts and Bidmead had edited one. Goodness knows how the conversations about the script went down.

BIDMEAD: Terrance, I think there should be a scene here where we investigate the system file structures of the computer’s operating system and discover a theoretical universe inside the negative universe of e-space.

DICKS: Chris, that’s BORING! I think this is where Romana is tied to a post screaming while the vampires menace her! Cue cliffhanger, you see!

BIDMEAD: Terrance, Romana doesn’t scream, she’s a super intelligent Time Lady. But suppose the post she’s tied to is really a TARDIS, with another TARDIS inside…

DICKS: You know, it’s about this point in the story that the Master usually turns up.

BIDMEAD: The Master? As if!

DICKS: That’s it. From now on I talk to Barry and no one else!

Still, something intriguing comes out of the creative marriage between these two men with very different ideas about what makes Doctor Who tick. Originally devised for season 15, we can guess at what State of Decay would have been like if Dicks had had his way; traditional gothic horror, set in England perhaps in an old manor house. Small number of people isolated from the outside world. Music by Dudley Simpson. Horror of Fanged Teeth perhaps.

What we get from Bidmead, I speculate, is the stuff about the latent power of lost technology and a society being held back by ignorance, under the baleful influence of an outside force. These are themes flowing through his one distinctive season of Doctor Who and on his two Davison stories. A Bidmead rewrite of this story was prepared but the director rejected it as not Gothic enough. No doubt it was all consonantal shifts and closed vacuum emboitments but without any, y’know, vampires sucking people’s blood. My bet is he was responsible for the story’s dullest patch where the Doctor temporarily leaves the story to go and do some TARDIS based research with punch cards and ticker tape (what prompts him to go is more interesting, but I’ll get to that)

But I wonder which of them is responsible for the ingenious plot ending. I’m talking about when the castle, which turns out to be a spaceship, has a small scout ship which can serve as the mighty bolt of steel needed to kill the awakening giant vampire (we’ll politely ignore the fact that the ship is conveniently spike shaped, that it lands in exactly the right spot, that its somehow penetrates the ground to reach the underground cavern…). The story’s very setting turns out to hold the solution to the problem, which is neat storytelling I think.

Because it involves technology coming to save the day you may think this was a Bidmead conceit. Except that Dicks pulled the very same trick in Horror of Fang Rock, where the lighthouse itself turned out to be the story problem solver. Something scientifically implausible about a diamond being placed in front of the lighthouse lamp to produce a laser beam. God knows what Bidmead would have thought of that.

********

Meanwhile, Tom and Lalla are in love. You can tell by the way they’re so grumpy with each other. And then so sweet with each other. And then grumpy again. And so on. It must have been a very confusing time. One moment Tom’s vehemently refusing to help his lady love down off a ladder. The next he’s beaming at her with that voracious smile of his as if to say, oh it’s all a bit of a joke, isn’t it? Lalla wisely seems to maintain a cool reserve throughout, not getting too excited as if to guard herself against Tom’s unpredictable changes of mood.

There’s one scene in particular where they both let their guards down and let the affection for each other shine through the TV set. It’s in Part Three, when it’s time, as Uncle Terrance would know, to indulge in a little plot exposition. Our heroes are locked in a dungeon so they have some time to kill. Tom and Lalla have done this scene before, lots of times. They know all its variations. And so rather than play it with the breathless earnestness of “we’ve got to get out of here before it’s too late” etc., they decide to play it like avant garde theatre, both facing away from each other, lost in their own dream worlds.

So the Doctor tells the story of the Time Lords’ battle with the giant vampires and in return, Romana talks about an old job she once had working in an archive (do Time Lords work? Did she get flex time and penalty rates?). She casually mentions that an old book which might help them defeat the vampires was installed on certain time vehicles.

DOCTOR: What time vehicles?

ROMANA: (feigning disinterest) Oh, I don’t know. I forget.

DOCTOR: What time vehicles?

ROMANA: Type Forty, I think.

Tom is quietly delighted.

DOCTOR: Psst. The TARDIS is a Type Forty!

ROMANA: (feigning surprise) Is it? Oh.

Then Tom looks at her and says with genuine adoration:

DOCTOR: You are wonderful.

Lalla in turn is utterly delighted.

ROMANA: Me? Wonderful? I suppose I am. I’ve never really thought about it.

And then Tom punches a guard and the story rolls on. But just for a moment, we were let in on a beautiful romance, happening right in front of us.

******

The planet of State of Decay has no name so let’s give it one. I nominate Whiskeron because of the popularity of unconvincing beards. They are everywhere. From village head man Ivo (Clinton Greyn; long, straight and grey) to vampire king Zargo (William Lindsay; teased into fetching curlicues). Silver surfer Kalmar’s (Arthur Hewlett) face is shaved, but he makes up for it with a strange assortment of plaits lying half heartedly across his pate. It’s a perplexing look for an old fella. Well, for anyone.

But most peculiar of all is the strange brushy beard on feisty rebel Tarak (played by the terrifically named Thane Bettany) which seems to radiate in all directions. Perhaps feeling a little foolish under that unconvincing number, Bettany chooses to play every line with wide eyed intensity. I’m not sure which is my favourite. Is it… “The wasting is… the wasting!!” Or is it “I was a guard once…(turn directly to camera, beard faithfully following) I can be so again!“?

But if this is a scenery chewing competition then the clear winner is Emrys James as chief bad guy Aukon (little chin beard, sticking out in front). There’s not one line he doesn’t milk for maximum portent. He gets lots of zingers, but I love the bit when Habris (Iain Rattray) the captain of the guard asks for help from Aukon’s colony of carnivorous bats to see off the rebels. Aukon gives him the harsh truth. “Then die!,” he coos. “That is the purpose of guards!”

Surely that’s Uncle Terrance again, pointing out that it’s now the part of the story when minor characters become cannon fodder.

LINK to Planet of the Ood. Both are stories of an oppressed people revolting. One men over monsters, one monsters over men.

NEXT TIME… KKLAK! We find ourselves in the golden age of Invasion of the Dinosaurs.