Tag Archives: k9

Opera, silliness and The Horns of Nimon (1979/80)

horns of nimon

I wonder what Barry Letts thought of The Horns of Nimon. Presumably he viewed it, when he was about to rejoin the show in a specially created Executive Producer position and this was, at that time, the most recent story the production team had managed to complete. I imagine him, stony faced in some tiny BBC viewing suite, watching a tape of this story which drew the curtain on the decade of Doctor Who he launched, and wondering quite where it all went awry. Probably also wondering how long it would take to fix the old girl up and how soon he could head back to making Great Expectations or something.

If you watch any number of the extra features on the recently released Season 18 blu-ray box set, you’ll hear script editor Christopher H Bidmead tell the story of his job interview, in which he said the previous season of Doctor Who had been “silly” and claims Letts nodded sagely and agreed. It’s pretty easy to guess that they were both thinking of The Horns of Nimon. There are number of moments here which are clearly intended to be funny but which fall flat (and that’s my personal definition of “silly”). There’s the whizz bang noise when the console blows up. There’s “oh my gravitic anomoliser!” There’s the Doctor giving K9 mouth to mouth and a prize rosette. And so it goes hilariously on.

But others choose different words to describe contributions to this story. Tom Baker, also on the Season 18 box set, likes to use “operatic” to describe big, bold offerings like June Hudson’s costume designs, which make everyone on the planet Skonnos look like their heading to a mardi gras themed funeral (or a funeral themed mardi gras, I suppose) and Graham Crowden’s performance as Soldeed, which leaves no scenery unchewed. Crowden is often singled out for praise by Tom, because he doesn’t so much say his lines as propel them through the screen at you with ballistic force, powered by bulging eyes and bared gums.

So what’s the truth of The Horns of Nimon? Is it silly or operatic? It’s got to be said that apart from the efforts of La Hudson and Lord Crowden, there’s little that’s operatic about it. Certainly not Anthony Read’s script, which is as safe and sensible as you’d expect from a previous script editor who knows exactly how big the budget will be for the studio bound fifth story in a season of six and has scaled everything back by 5% just in case. Read’s well-documented favourite approach to Doctor Who was to raid mythology for stories which would easily translate by rearranging a few consonants in the names of characters and locations, and the result here is a thoroughly producible script. Its plotting is sound, its pacing spot on and its dialogue thoroughly unremarkable. I can imagine Letts nodding in appreciation of it in that viewing suite, perhaps grumbling about an old pro’s script being meddled with and an egocentric lead actor given too much head.

Whether it’s silly or operatic or both, it’s undeniably tatty. In fact, its whole look is a homage to late 70s glam rock on a bargain bin budget. The Nimons themselves balance precariously on vertiginous platform boots which force these towering bulls to swap charging and bucking for tottering. The Anethan tributes (made up of Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent), Teka (Janet Ellis) and five nameless, voiceless others, whose entire job is to fill up a tight nine shot with eyes wide with fear) wear costumes made out of that textured wallpaper you used to see in suburban Chinese restaurants. Seth’s only needs a zodiac symbol medallion to complete the picture, a rare oversight from Hudson. Back in 1965, The Beatles turned up for a cameo on Doctor Who and if KISS had done the same in The Horns of Nimon, they wouldn’t have looked out of place. (Nimon’s made for lovin’ you, baby? No?)

It’s worth reflecting again on Season 18 and how much better it looks than, well… all of Season 17, except perhaps City of Death. Producer John Nathan-Turner is sometimes criticised for prioritising style over substance, but when looking at Nimon’s all pervading shoddiness, you can see that the show’s look really did need attention. Perhaps the success of this makeover can be put down to Nathan-Turner’s much documented ability to spend money where it would show on screen, but whatever it was, the show needed it. Compare this story to, for instance, next season’s penultimate studio bound tale The Keeper of Traken and see how much more attention is given to making the show look presentable. For better or worse, this stuff matters.

The wobbliness of the whole production – costumes, sets and performances alike – has made The Horns of Nimon a target for disdain for the longest time. Since then, many have made attempts to rehabilitate its reputation which have bordered on the, well, operatic. It’s loads of fun, they say and yes, it absolutely is. The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping (mentioned here for the first time in nearly 300 posts, which is something of an omission) calls it, generously, “rather wonderful with some friends and a bottle of wine”, but I fear such a dinner party would be doomed to break up around the end of Part One, with your friends looking exaggeratedly at their watches and saying, “oh, is that the time?” while you are left trying to coax the last few drops out of the bottle solo, hoping you can hang out long enough to hear Lalla Ward shout, “how many Nimons have you seen today?” at Soldeed while he cackles his way through his death scene.

The truth of it is that The Horns of Nimon is a story which people have been attempting to breathe life into from conception all the way through to reception. It starts with a fine but basic script by Read. Then Baker, Crowden & Hudson try to resuscitate it through ad libs, overacting and sweeping grand designs. (Only Lalla Ward finds a way of dealing with the material given to her, giving it authority and conviction without going over the top. No small feat when you’re trying to acting intimidated by unsteady ballet dancers in body suits, spangly loin cloths and big plasticky bull heads). Then since its initial reception, we’ve been trying to counter the evidence of our own eyes, desperately clinging to the occasional line that lands or the rare genuinely witty beat to say, “no, c’mon, it’s really quite good and it’s funny.”

I can’t imagine this is what Letts thought. Neither Read or director Kenny McBain were invited back for Season 18. But maybe he and Chris Bidmead sat down for dinner, cracked opened a bottle of wine and smashed through four episodes of The Horns of Nimon. On to be a fly on the wall. That really would have been, to quote Cornell et al, rather wonderful.

LINK TO The Waters of Mars: more Australian actors! Bob Hornery (Pilot) is of this village.

NEXT TIME: I’ve always fancied the idea of Norway. So, let’s take ourselves away to It Takes You Away.

Tom, Lalla and Warriors’ Gate (1980)

warriorsgateNearly 40 years after it was made, many of us are still slightly bewildered by Warriors’ Gate, that oblique, minimalist E-space oddity. It’s well placed at the sombre end of the Tom Baker era, where it’s free to start ridding the series of its trappings. It lets go of Romana (Lalla Ward) and K9 (Voice: John Leeson), in its march towards a new era full of young companions and question mark motifs. But its melancholy tone stretches beyond the fictional story it tells of time sensitives and lion men. It’s also the sadly permanently record of a romance going wrong.

The romance, of course, is Tom and Lalla’s. To date, they remain our only Doctor and Companion hook up (at least the only one I know about. Were there other, more clandestine trysts over the years? Be warned: once you start thinking about this, there are some pretty worrying combinations to ponder on.) They are our only Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, our only Brangelina (Tomalla? No?). An off screen romance which seeps on screen. Watching Seasons 17 and 18, we see a relationship spark and fade in front of our eyes.

Think back to the previous year’s City of Death, which seems to come from an entirely different universe than the one which contains Warriors’ Gate. In that Parisian holiday, Tom and Lalla are clearly in the first flush of love. They run around holding hands, they flirt and flitter about, clearly delighting in each other’s company. Never before had we seen the Doctor besotted, and its slight wrongness only serves to make it more invigorating. And it’s like that for the whole of Season 17. Had we ever actually made it to Shada, we would have seen Tom and Lalla messing around romantically around in boats and larking around Cambridge, reveling in being together. It’s no exaggeration to call it beautiful.

Back to bleak old Warriors’ Gate and there’s very little affection to be seen, let alone love. Tom won’t even look at Lalla. He spends the majority of the story avoiding it. Part One’s introductory TARDIS scenes are static, awkward “Mum and Dad are fighting again” affairs. In these, and in later scenes, they stand rigidly side by side, Tom staring off into the middle distance to deliver his lines and Lalla, looking almost pleadingly at him, trying to generate some interaction. Until Part Four when she finally gives up and just starts trying Tom’s game. Only in their most vigorous exchanges, when there’s really no other option, do they look each other in the face. And they reckon Tom’s antagonism toward Louise Jameson was evident on screen. Surely if you showed Warriors’ Gate to a not-we, their first question after, “what the hell is going on in this story?” and “why are you making me watch this?” would be, “why do those two hate each other?”

Reports from the rehearsal room tell of Tom and Lalla refusing to talk to each other (save for occasionally shouting matches) and stalking opposite perimeters like warring Generals. Like working on Warriors’ Gate wasn’t stressful enough what with the Director trying to be Pasolini in TV Centre and the lighting director writing letters to the director-general dobbing him in. But even in season 18, as moody and reserved as a sulky teenager, it wasn’t always like this. Just last story, Tom and Lalla managed to sneak in a coy reference to their relationship. Trapped in a dingy exposition scene together, Tom had whispered to her like a schoolboy passing notes in class, “Psst! You are wonderful!,” to which Lalla had responded with unguarded delight. It’s this year’s only return to the playful banter of season 17. Most of the season, you wouldn’t even though these two were friends let alone lovers.

Given this lack of interaction, it’s no surprise that Romana’s farewell scene is swift and deeply unsentimental. It’s performed in only 11 lines of dialogue on that flat white CSO backdrop. These two who once ran around the city of love and lounged about punting, deliver their lines as if ordered by a court to do so while maintaining a safe distance from each other. “I’ll miss you,” the Doctor finally manages to force out, sounding like he won’t miss her at all. From one viewpoint, it’s interesting to see how two alien superbeings might deal with saying goodbye, with aloofness rather than emotion.  But from another, it’s utterly unfitting for the series’ second lead and a character who’s been in the show for three years. Imagine them trying that in 21st century Who.

So basically, we’ve watched as a romance died before our eyes. Paris is a distant memory. But then, in typical Tom Baker fashion, he pulls an unexpected trick. He and Lalla get engaged and married shortly after. To the astonishment of anyone who had ever shared a studio, a rehearsal room or a conversation with them. What on earth happened here?

Warriors’ Gate is set in a pocket universe which is collapsing in on itself. It’s not hard to see a metaphor here for Tom Baker’s world. He’s ill. Leaving a job he had been in for 7 years. Facing uncertainty and unemployment. Clashing with everyone around him. A production in turmoil. And on top of it all, he’s saying goodbye to seeing his love every day at work. Under these circumstances, who can blame him for disengaging? For not wanting to stare the inevitable straight in the face. Better to look off into the middle distance.

Still, right at the end, there’s a glimmer of better days to come.  When musing on Romana’s departure, the Doctor gives perhaps my favourite line of dialogue in the entire series: “One solid hope’s worth a cartload of certainties.” Which for Tom Baker, facing a world with very little certainty at all, must have been some comfort.

And as for Lalla, Tom allows a moment of his real feelings to slip out when he says, “she’ll be superb.” He means it. It’s his one solid hope.

LINK TO The Pyramid at the End of the World: The Doctor is injured – and has his injury healed – in both.

NEXT TIME: One thing’s sure. We’re not at Southend. We join the search for The Keys of Marinus.

Desperation, depravity and Underworld (1978)

Underworld

Oh, to be a fly on the wall in the Doctor Who production office in 1977, when designer Dick Coles broke the news to producer Graham Williams that finally – after 15 years of eking out alien worlds and space operas out of budgets smaller than the tea lady had access to – the budget of an average Doctor Who story had finally proven impossible to work around.

DICK: So the good news is that the set designs look terrific.

GRAHAM: That’s brilliant! You’re a genius.

DICK: The bad news is there’s no money left to build them.

GRAHAM: All the designers say that.

DICK: They are all right. But this time it’s not, “there’s no money to make the sets, but I’ll find a way.” This time it’s “there’s no way in Television Centre we can make this work.”

GRAHAM: OK, well what are our options?

DICK: Well, you can cancel the story.

GRAHAM: I’m pretty sure my contract says to deliver 26 episodes this year.

DICK: Or you could cancel the next story.

GRAHAM: The Killer Cats of Gin-Sengh?! No way! It’s gonna be an epic.

DICK: Or we make all the sets as models and use CSO to matte the actors in.

GRAHAM: Will that be convincing?

DICK: Not for a minute.

GRAHAM: Give me a moment to think it over. (Opens drawer, takes out a bottle of whisky and takes a large slug.) OK. Let’s go.

In one way, it’s a pity that Underworld‘s makers had to resort to this, because their decision has come to define the story. It’s the thing it’s remembered for. Often, the only thing it’s remembered for. And like many of Doctor Who’s most egregious shockers, it’s so infamous that it makes you search even harder for the story’s redeeming features. Surely, so the theory goes, if only Underworld (or insert name of story here) hadn’t had the misfortune of having to rely so heavily on CSO (or insert other production misfortune here), it would have been a success, because at heart, it’s a really good story.

Well, if there is a decent Doctor Who story buried deep within Underworld, it’s very difficult to unearth. It was a story borne of pragmatism; writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin, knowing script editor Anthony Read’s predilection for stories based on myth and legend figured they could get an easy sale by basing a Doctor Who story on the tales of ancient Greece. They were right, but the sheer convenience of their inspiration shines through. Yes, as a retelling of Jason and the Argonauts it’s obvious enough but you can just sense no-one gives a hoot about the Minyans and their deathless quest for the race bank of their ancient peoples. Not Baker and Martin, not the actors and certainly not the audience. They’re too boring a lot for that.

The Greeks, of course, loved a monster: the Hydra, the Minotaur, Medusa and so on. But for some reason, there’s no such big bad in this underworld. So we have to be content with human baddies, who, in the story’s second biggest design fail, are dressed in hooded felt jumpsuits. We can’t see their faces most of the time, so most of the time, it’s hard to care about who they are and what they want. Perhaps, the hopeful audience member might think, when they eventually pull off those shapeless hoods, there’ll be some ghastly but exciting monster underneath. But no, beneath those hoods are the faces of fairly ordinary looking middle-aged white men. You kind of wish they’d kept the hoods on, which is saying something.

I have this theory (unburdened by any actual evidence, mind) that there must have been some rule in the 1970s that extras whose faces were entirely obscured were paid less than those who showed their face. This would explain the prevalence of fully masked guards in late 70s Who. It’s a costume design quirk which starts here in Underworld, but see also The Pirate Planet, The Androids of Tara and The Creature from the Pit.  It would be the only good reason to explain why we see so few faces of the ruling guards in Underworld. It’s particularly mystifying when director Norman Stewart cuts to a close up of one the featured guards (Rask? Tarn? Who would know?) for them to deliver their line, and it’s like looking at talking sack. I mean really, what’s the point? (If not that when present on the set of the Oracle, complete with chains and swords, the hooded men fit right in with what is apparently Doctor Who’s only sex dungeon. Oh sure, they had enough money to build that one.)

To be fair on Stewart, he had his work cut out for him. If this is Doctor Who’s most poorly directed story, then we need to remember he didn’t have a full complement of cameras to work with, because at least one, and sometimes two, had to be pointed at the miniature sets for the actors to image they were on. It’s easy to criticise the astonishingly boring cliffhanger to Part Two and the clumsily shot cliffhanger to Part Three, but given the pressure he was working under, it’s amazing we got to see anything at all.

Where the whole plot is going, is that the Minyan crew has come to edge of the universe to find their race bank, which is held by the R1C, a spaceship which a planet has formed around. The ship’s despotic computer, the Oracle, has fashioned a society out of this protoworld and its crew, with a caste of gun-toting guards and a lower class of rock mining Trogs. Never mind ripping off the ancient Greeks; here Baker and Martin baldly rip off the previous year’s The Face of Evil. In that story, a mad computer created a society of warriors and technicians as an experiment in eugenics and things were only put to rights when the Doctor (Tom Baker) cured it of schizophrenia. Here, things are far more pedestrian. The Minyans fight their way towards the Oracle over the course of three episodes and then the computer tries the ol’ switcheroo and tries to blow them all up. The Doctor fixes everything by doing a reverse switcheroo. Vamp until explosion and end credits.

Sadly, the conclusion must be drawn that an overreliance on CSO is only one of Underworld’s many problems, and even with a budget which stretched to caves of expertly pained jablite, this would still have been a dog of story. To redeem it, it would need a design, writing and directorial overhaul. And an approach to Doctor Who which sees the program as worthy of more of just a retelling of some old mythic tale with a few name changes.

If only its makers had had the confidence to play one final wild card: a wild card named Tom Baker. In Underworld, the great man has yet to decide that he’s the most interesting thing on screen and attempt to steal every scene with a joke, a smile, an overplayed gesture or all of the above. Only he could spark something of interest in Underworld, but that version of Tom hasn’t arrived yet. Move this story to Season 17, give Tom his head and a few stiff gins and see what happened. If only they’d lit that blue touch paper. No amount of CSO could have dampened that.

LINK TO The Return of Doctor MysterioAll right, this is a bit desperate, but Underworld  and Superman were both released in 1978, and Superman‘s a big influence on Mysterio. (Better links are welcome, comment away!)

NEXT TIME: Get in! We’re treading on Thin Ice.

 

The tin dog, its legacy and The Invisible Enemy (1977)

Even by Doctor Who’s variable standards, The Invisible Enemy commits a lot of sins. Its acting is even hammier acting and its effects even dodgier than usual. It’s got a standard runaround, shoot ‘em up plot, when it’s not moonlighting as a disaster movie or ripping off Fantastic Voyage. But for many, the greatest crime a Doctor Who story can have is a rubbish monster and The Invisible Enemy has a particularly egregious one, twice. It’s the Nucleus of the Swarm –  first a bin bag with a hairy eyeball and then a giant prawn which needs assistance to walk around. I mean, any monster which needs two attendants to help it trundle down a corridor is never going to convince as a serious threat. When it first appears, fronds waving in Tom Baker’s face, he’s trying to swat it away like the embarrassing irritation it is.

But this story’s place in Doctor Who is assured because it introduced K9. K9’s a controversial figure in Doctor Who, some loving him like a surrogate pet and others thinking him a childish indulgence. But one thing is undeniable. K9 is, by any measure, hopeless.

He moves at a top speed of “glacier” and even that causes his motors to whine loudly throughout. Good thing he never has to sneak up on anyone. His nose laser is strangely anaemic and its aim is variable. Sometimes it will strike someone in the knee but injury them in the stomach. His movement is erratic; at one stage he drives straight into a wall. And he can’t roll over the lip of the TARDIS doorframe, meaning he has to enter and exit the Ship via means of discrete cutaways.

What makes K9 worth persevering with is his voice, delivered by John Leeson. Think of all the different ways Leeson might have gone with this. Looking at the squared off metal terrier, he might well have adopted an excitable, yappy tone. Or perhaps delivered all his lines as a kind of halting bark. But instead, he went for the tone of a mildly exasperated mid-career accountant. Unexpectedly, this works beautifully and makes you want to hear from K9, hoping he’s going to contribute to a scene. And of course it allows some character relationship to develop between him and the other characters.

K9’s function within the show veers from being exposition machine to mobile (or immobile, depending on the terrain) gun, but frequently he rises above this to demonstrate the wry charm of a sufferer of the Doctor’s silliness. Plus Leeson’s deadpan delivery allows K9 to occasionally deliver nicely self-referential gags. Like in The Pirate Planet (yes, I’m still going on about that one!), when he predicts the Doctor’s imminent arrival because he can sci-fi smell him coming, and when the Doctor finally booms in with a “Are you surprised to see me, K9?”, K9 dryly replies, “Amazed, Master” and steals the scene. Or in The Armageddon Factor when the Doctor idly says, “I think one of us is being extremely stupid” and K9 says quietly but knowingly, “Affirmative.”

So technically a nightmare, but narratively useful and, with Leeson behind the microphone, a charismatic addition to the TARDIS crew. The production team had every chance to get rid of K9, and given the challenges presented by the prop, they’d have been sensible to do so, but they brought him back for three seasons in a row, until John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H Bidmead thought he was altogether too convenient and sent him packing  (and even JN-T brought him back for a special, hoping a spin-off series could be cobbled together around him). The reason why, of course, was that the audience, and particularly kids, loved him.  In 1977, Doctor Who needed to be popular with kids.

K9 was an acknowledgement – the first for a very long time – that children are part of the Doctor Who audience. He’s a potent signal that the show is conscious of its younger audience; incoming producer Graham Williams had been instructed by his bosses to take them into consideration by lightening the tone of the show. If K9 seemed like an unnecessarily childish element to older viewers who had got used to the show’s mix of gruesomeness and black humour, then he did exactly what he was designed to do.

He’s also the first of a different breed of companion, which I like to call the “secondary companion”. In Season 15, Leela (Louise Jameson) is the primary companion and main foil for the Doctor; she’s in every episode and gets plenty of dialogue and action. K9, however, gets plugged in and out of stories as he’s needed. He isn’t in it all the time. If the terrain is too boggy this episode or you don’t want him to compete with the Daleks for attention or you don’t want to take him on holiday, you leave him in the TARDIS. No biggie. No wonder the Doctor refers to him as his second best friend. He utterly is.

It’s a companion configuration that the 21st century version of the show uses all the time. Jack and Rory are secondary companions and Mickey even self-identified as the tin dog.  They’re the Doctor’s second best friends. But the character where K9’s influence is most keenly seen is Nardole.

Like K9, Nardole acts as the Doctor’s confidante and aide-de-camp. Like K9, he does the boring technical stuff the Doctor doesn’t want to do and turns up occasionally to spout exposition. Like K9, he’s a fussy, uppity butler-type and he drops in and out of the series depending on whether he’s needed or not. I don’t mean to damn him with faint praise, but Nardole basically is K9, but better able to cope with hills and able to walk in and out of the TARDIS without assistance. And just as it’s difficult to imagine a spin-off series for Nardole, the various K9 solo vehicles, are, I fear, doomed to ignominy. His value is as an adjutant to the Doctor and as brilliant as he is at that, he’s not lead character material.

Back to The Invisible Enemy, and the story’s end where Professor Marius (Frederick Jaegar, of which university) appeals to the Doctor to let K9 travel aboard the TARDIS. Leela is delighted, but the Doctor says nothing. Tom Baker looks distinctly grumpy about the whole idea. He’s already got one scene stealing companion, in a skimpy outfit which makes it impossible for her to not steal focus from him. Now he’s got a robot dog as well!

For years after he’ll complain about the unreliability of the prop or the need for shots with him crouching down, but I’ve always thought that his antipathy towards K9 is mainly about competition for being adored by children. In that regard, he at last has a companion to give him a run for his money. Just not one that could actually run.

LINK TO The Leisure Hive and The Pirate Planet: Three stories in a row with Tom and K9! But we’re about to random it up again…

NEXT TIME… If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you? It’s back to the very beginning for 100,000 BC.

Recreation, lack of and The Leisure Hive (1980)

The Leisure Hive

I’ve been counting the number of fun holiday activities you can indulge in on Argolis and I’m afraid the list is short. As far as I can see, you can play zero gravity squash and after that, you can look out through the windows at the devastated surface of the planet and contemplate the awful effects of nuclear war. Or you can attend a lecture on tachyonics where they’ll examine wave form equations for an hour and a half. Equations chat for an hour and a half? Slow down, thrillseekers! Just point me towards the swim up bar please and pre-order me an extravagant cocktail. Two stars on Trip Advisor.

If Argolis is such a great place for a holiday, why isn’t it fun? Why is it all so sterile and po-faced? I think the answer lies in the handover between script editor Douglas Adams and his successor Christopher H. Bidmead.

In Adams’ wild and wacky Season Seventeen, I think The Leisure Hive could have been a hoot: jokes accentuated, performances with more brio. The anagrammatic Foamasi would have kept their insect heads but stayed dressed in gangster suits. But, it was not to be. Bidmead and new producer John Nathan-Turner were on a campaign to stamp out any silliness in the show and I suspect it was they who sucked all the fun out of this holiday world. I imagine if you went on holiday with Bidmead, he probably would want to listen to someone yammer on about equations all day.

Still, there’s one light-hearted moment left which seems like the sort of joke which might have appealed to both Adams and Bidmead. In Part Three, when the Doctor (a newly question marked Tom Baker) needs to incapacitate a guard (as so often needs to happen in Parts Three everywhere), he scribbles an enormous sum on the outer plasmic shell of the TARDIS and the poor yellow-clad fellow is so overwhelmed by the implications of what he sees that he faints in astonishment. Y’see, that joke survived because it’s about equations; a nerdy subject both script editors approved of.

Still, someone on the crew is yearning for the old days. Amongst the Doctor’s maths they’ve scrawled a sly warning: “beware of the dog”.

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They might as well have written “beware of the director”. Not that I’m about to slag off Lovett Bickford for trying to do something different than the standard approach to classic Doctor Who directing which can be summarized as, “just point the camera at it, get it in the can and let’s get back to the bar”. In fact, only last post I was whinging about Pennant Roberts’ pedestrian approach to shooting The Pirate Planet. Imagine if they’d let hot shot Lovett have a go at that one. A wildly imaginative script matched with a wildly innovative director. Think of the resulting four episodes of that! The director general of the BBC might have fainted during the playback, like that poor Argolin extra.

Bickford’s approach is, for the most part, refreshingly distinct. He refuses to let the show’s multi-camera format discourage him from trying to make a Kubrick film in TC1. He mimics a single camera approach, often going for intense close ups, creeping tracking shots, oblique angles and rapidly cut together reaction shots.

When it works, it’s electrifying. Like when shifty earthling Stimson (David Allister) stumbles into the quarters of equally shifty earthling Klout (Ian Talbot) and finds his fake face hanging up in a wardrobe; Bickford shoots it from the wardrobe’s point of view: its door slides open, we see the mask, then Stimson’s shocked face. Or look at the end of Part Two, with the Doctor stuck in the malfunctioning Recreation Generator and there’s a series of rapid cuts between the assembled cast, then we get the Generator’s POV shot of Romana (Lalla Ward) looking shocked and Mena (Adrienne Corri) looking downcast, then the Doctor emerging, greatly aged.

The Leisure Hive is filled with moments like this and the story is mostly enriched by them. But Bickford’s ambition occasionally backfires on him. Sometimes, his drive to be innovative obscures the story writer David Fisher is trying to tell. Take for instance, the moment when Mena arrives on Argolis to assume the role of Chair of the board. She marches down a corridor and Bickford lets her come straight for the camera, then a flip and we’re following her back as she continues down that same corridor. Stylish, but it means that Mena’s dialogue gets lost, and it’s useful explanatory stuff, saying she has brought with her scientist Hardin (Nigel Lambert) who is offering some Hive-saving time travel experiments.

Then there’s the scene in Part Three, when the Doctor, Romana and Hardin are discussing the need to re-enter the generator, and it’s done with all three actors’ backs to the camera. If The Leisure Hive is already an arcane experience for audience members (with all its talk of tachyons, baryon shields and Schrodinger oscillators) it can’t help that the direction is making it harder to understand what’s going on. I could go on… and will.

The hijinks about the faked time experiment don’t land properly because the screen is barely visible, making the tell about the two necklaces impossible to see. The complex series of cuts that opens Part Four as the West Lodge Foamasi are outed and defrocked bewilders rather than excites. And the very final scene has so much squeezed in: the explanation of the climax, the reveal of the red herring about the Foamasi shuttle, the cute bit with the baby and the cheery banter back to the TARDIS… all rushed through… giving the impression of a story suddenly turned off, rather than allowed to close at its own pace.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually love Lovett’s work, but both its pros and cons are on screen for all to see. I wish they’d let him do more Doctor Who stories, where we could have kept his directorial flair but honed his skills at telling the story. And for a story which is trying so hard to be new at everything, he successfully changed the whole look at feel of the series… for four episodes. Next story it was back to, “just point the camera at it, get it in the can before Tom cracks it about having to do a two shot with K9 again.”

****

There’s just time to mention my favourite performance in The Leisure Hive which is David Haig as Pangol. Haig will go on to infamy as one of the hapless grooms in Four Weddings and a Funeral – the one who gets lucky against all odds at the first wedding and has energetic sex with his new bride in the second, while Hugh Grant is trapped inside the closet. Here, he’s young and vital, lacing each of his lines with disdain for anyone who’s not an Argolin.

Plus he never misses an opportunity to add a smirk; he could smirk for England, this guy. When his head lifts off in the tachyonics demonstration – smirk! When he traps the Doctor in the generator – smirk!  When the penny finally drops that he’s the only young Argolin in the Hive, he smoothly asks “How old do you think I am, Mr Brock?”  Giant smirk!

Y’see, Pangol gets it. He knows that in this so called Leisure Hive, you have to make your own fun.

LINK TO The Pirate Planet: Both Tom stories! In fact, we’re on a bit of a Tom-a-thon because…

NEXT TIME… Head for the imurginsee eggsit, we’re facing The Invisible Enemy,

Design, destiny and The Pirate Planet (1978)

pirateplanet

It’s a funny old place, this pirate planet of Zanak. It has a Bridge which is stark and moody, the control centre of a vast, world transporting machine. But outside on the streets, it looks like a Greek coastal village that someone has deliberately dirtied. Luckily though, the people of Zanak (Zanakians? Zanackers?) refuse to live in this grubby state and rebelliously decorate the interiors of their living quarters with garish murals and beaded curtains. They further express their resistance by dressing in vivid reds, oranges and yellows. It’s like they’re living in a 1970s issue of Women’s Weekly.

Outside though, where things are shot on film, it’s different again. Those rolling green hills make this ghoulish, vampiric planet look a lot like Wales. They have fully automated mines on Zanak too, but funnily enough they look like your standard old disused Welsh mine. Or like you’re suddenly watching The Green Death. And the throbbing engines of this destroyer of worlds looks like a bigger than normal, but still disappointingly mundane, power station interior.

When a Doctor Who story has a through line of consistent set design elements, it’s easy for those elements to go unnoticed while they quietly add to the telling of the story by visually reinforcing its themes. It’s only in cases like The Pirate Planet, where the show’s look swerves wildly from the vivid to the dull to the simple that’ll do, won’t it? The bar’s about to close that it becomes a jarring experience. It serves this story which is otherwise full of galactic sized ideas poorly, by drawing attention to the two-star accommodation those ideas are housed in.

This sense of inconsistency extends beyond the sets, to the performances. On that stylish looking Bridge, we meet the Captain (Bruce Purchase), his factotum Mr Fibuli (Andrew Robertson) and his Nurse (Rosalind Lloyd) and they are endlessly entertaining. The Captain is verbose, roaring blowhard, Fibuli his fidgety aide and the Nurse his shadowy puppeteer. Every line they say is played to excess, every joke relished. When joined by the Doctor (a fiery Tom Baker) or Romana (a cool Mary Tamm), the dialogue sparks and the scenes ignite.

The rest of the supporting cast though, the Zanakis and their pallid psychokinetic subset the Mentiads, can’t summon up the same energy. It might be because they are mostly confined to the dullest of the sets and wearing the daggiest of costumes. Or it might because in this script full of larger than life star turns, they are left with the perfunctory dialogue of exposition while the larger roles get all the jokes. You can hardly blame them for being envious. Douglas Adams’ script is a gem and when the stars get a joke, which happens roughly every second line, the supporting cast member’s main job is to stand there, keep a straight face and keep the plot ticking along.

The general ennui of the supporting cast and the set design, is matched by other key creatives. Composer Dudley Simpson contributes one of his more standard scores. Even director Pennant Roberts offers only the most basic of camerawork, inspired only to deliver lingering close ups of the Captain and his bionic arm. No, it seems like everyone except the leads are treating this like any other old Doctor Who story. Rather than what it is – the debut of a vibrant new voice for the series.

Maybe its just hindsight, because this is Adams’ first major piece of work and we know what was to come. We know that between tapping out scenes where the Doctor’s robot dog scrapped with the Captain’s robot parrot, he was also frantically writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the rest of the world was about to become enchanted with him in exactly the same way the crew of The Pirate Planet didn’t. So it’s hard to watch The Pirate Planet without wanting to shake everyone involved who isn’t relishing the opportunity to work on this story, and shout “Moons of madness! Get your act together! You’re on a winner here!”

To be fair, producer Graham Williams works it out and gets him in as his new script editor. Williams had previously worked with two old hands, considerably senior to him in both age and experience: Robert Holmes, whose self-avowed approach was to terrify children watching the show and Anthony Read, who was more interested in retelling classic stories from literature and legend. By all account, each were productive working relationships, but I wonder if in Adams, Williams saw someone younger and more on his wavelength with whom to collaborate.

Because The Pirate Planet is not about scaring kids. And it’s not about retelling a classic story – although, if you squint, there’s a bit of Treasure Island in there (perhaps that’s how Adams got it past Read in the first place). It’s boldly imaginative; in the previous story, Holmes told a story about someone who claimed to sell planets. Adams tells a story of a planet which eats other planets. And he’s not afraid to justify the concept with astrophysics in quickfire explanations – particularly towards the end of the story. You might view that messy rush to the end, with its talk of gravitic anomalies and different planetary masses cancelling each other out as just so much technobabble. Or it could be read as Adams respecting his audience and trusting they’ll keep up.

Even the most astute viewers might have struggled with so many last minute twists crammed in at the end: the Nurse isn’t real! She’s actually the villain! The Captain had a secret plan to kill her! The segment of the key to time is disguised as a planet! And despite all these revelations, the climax turns out to be about people in standing inside sci-fi rooms pressing buttons, with the pasty Mentiads using psychokinesis hitting a control panel with a spanner. You can forgive these difficulties in ending the story because the rest of it has been so invigorating.

But it can’t help ending a little prosaically and that design inconsistency rears its head again. The Doctor decides to blow up the Bridge, to give the story a nice big explosion to go out on. So it’s back out onto the lush Welsh hillside we go. With what does he plan to blow up this planet harvesting machine, which the Captain described as “technology so far advanced you would not be able to distinguish it from magic”? A tatty old prop denotation box, complete with plunger handle. We cut unconvincingly between model shots and the witless extras in the Welsh valleys.

Tom Baker though, still has the energy to steal the last shot with a cheer and a fist pump in the air. Only the most grumpiest of viewers wouldn’t join in. He at least knew when the show was on a winner.

LINK TO Kinda. In both, there are gags about people dropping apples on other people’s heads!

NEXT TIME… I like the sound of Argolis. Time to book a quick break in The Leisure Hive.

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.