Tag Archives: season 16

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.

Advertisements

Skin, swamps and The Power of Kroll (1978/9)

kroll

Well, after we finish filming they get us in the coach and we go to RAF Bentwaters which is about 10 miles down the road. And we go in… That’s an American Air Force base. We go into the gym and there’s all these 6’ 10” negroes all playing basketball, saying, “Hey man! You must come from Mars! Wow! One black bloke said, “Now you know what I feel like.” Unnamed Swampie actor, talking about how he and his fellow actors washed off their green body paint. (Variations segment on the making of The Power of Kroll, TX 15 December 1978.)

In one of those odd pairings that comes from watching Who in random order. We go from The Mysterious Planet to The Power of Kroll, making our LINK between the two nice and easy: they’re both by veteran writer Robert Holmes. But also, they both feature “primitive” Indigenous cultures at threat. In The Mysterious Planet, it’s the Tribe of the Free – humans in the far future who have been released from their hermetic survival chamber to eke out life in the wilderness. In The Power of Kroll, it’s the Swampies, scantily clad, green skinned humanoids, living in the swamps of a far distant moon.

Both show us what Holmes thought were the key ingredients for sci-fi depictions of Indigenous races. They live in huts, worship heathen gods and perform ritual sacrifice. They are aggrieved by their treatment and want to wage war on their enemies. They are on the verge of rebelling against their oppressors – both eagerly await guns which will allow them to attack the opposing side – though they lack the skill and strategy to win through. (And oddly enough, both have wildly miscast actors as their leaders. Carry On’s Joan Sims as a space age Boudicca? Dignified, straight laced John Abineri stripped to his underwear and painted green?)

The Tribe members of the Free are just colour-by-numbers standard Doctor Who primitives, but the Swampies are far more worrying. On first glance, they seem to be stand-ins for native Americans. But the set dressing around their camp seems to have a Polynesian influence. On top of all that, when chief bad guy Thawn (Neil MacCarthy) talks about them, his sneering hatred seems to be a critique of the treatment of Africans under South Africa’s apartheid (“Not you!” he growls at a Swampie butler who tries to follow him into a room, and he laughs when the Doctor tries to include said Swampie in a head count of personnel). But then, he accuses one of his crew of being a “Swampie-lover” which sounds like it’s referring to race relations in the USA’s Confederate South.

So in the first instance, it’s irritating that multiple, diverse cultures are conflated to produce a generic Indigenous species… like anyone who’s not white is more or less the same. And there’s also something slightly icky about the decision to paint all the Swampies green, from toe to matted bewigged head. By 1978, it’s clearly too offensive to brown or black all the tribesmen up. But is greening them up any better? Green or brown, aren’t they both just symbols for “not white”?

To me, painting them all green is not all that different to blacking up. The significant thing is that they’re not white and there’s no good reason to make the ruling class white and give the oppressed natives coloured skin. Surely it’s not that hard to imagine a version of The Power of Kroll where the Swampies are loin clothed, but white (a la the Sevateem of The Face of Evil). Or even a version where the refinery staff are green skinned aliens and the Swampies are white (or is that too redolent of The Savages?) Or better still, where the refinery staff and the Swampies are played by actors of all skin tones, representative of the diversity of our communities. (Blimey, you might even make one of them… a woman).

Doctor Who’s heart is nearly always in the right place though. Kroll, like that other 70s take on colonialism, The Mutants, might be a bit iffy in its details but in broad terms is rightly critical of racism. It’s clear enough in its characterisation of bad guy Thawn, who makes no attempt to hide his prejudice towards the Swampies (as per the Marshal from The Mutants). He openly admits to the Doctor (a rangy Tom Baker) that his plan is to use the Swampies’ arming themselves as an excuse to wipe them out. He lays out that plan in Part One, so there’s no secret about it. (What he does conceal is that he’s behind the arms dealing in the first place.) Throughout he’s presented as unadulterated bad guy, ranting, unhinged and unapologetically racist – even his co-workers look at him with the sideward glances of those counting the exits. So Thawn and the racism he represents is clearly condemned, and he gets his just deserts when he’s skewered by a Swampie spear.

But that American serviceman’s comment – “Now you know what I feel like” – sticks in my mind. And here’s another interesting quote from 1978, when politician Margaret Thatcher said on a TV news program that, “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.” Swamped. Maybe Robert Holmes was watching. Maybe out chatty American friend was.

Or maybe they’d watched The Goodies’ episode South Africa – featuring Kroll’s Phillip Madoc as a ranting racist – a few years back. Or maybe they were watching repeats of Love Thy Neighbour or Till Death do us Part. Or maybe they caught the final episodes of The Black and White Minstrel Show, which ended in 1978. Whatever, it’s fair enough to say that television in the UK in the 70s was questioning and critiquing race relations with gusto, sometimes sensitively, often not. And The Power of Kroll is a vivid part of that.

Also, there’s a big squid in it.

NEXT TIME… There you go, big fella! A new Doctor and a new festive tradition in The Christmas Invasion.

Fun, fandom and The Androids of Tara (1978)

tara

Here’s the first thing every fan knows about The Androids of Tara: it’s based on Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. We learn that in Fandom 101, along with Daleks are Georgian State Dancers and Colin once shot Peter but not to get his job, ha ha.

It’s also the least important thing about The Androids of Tara. Why?

Because you’ve never actually read The Prisoner of Zenda, have you? Haven’t even seen the film with Ronald Colman that everyone talks about. In fact, if it wasn’t for The Androids of Tara, you would probably never had heard of The Prisoner of Zenda. Or Ronald Colman, come to that.

Me either. And there’s nothing wrong with that.Tara’s an example of how literary allusion in Doctor Who works sometimes when, in a very timey wimey fashion, we come at it backwards. We’re introduced to works in the literary canon, through Doctor Who. Who said this show gave up its educational remit after those bug eyed monsters moved in? If I wanted to read Zenda, my knowledge of events on Tara would give me a way in.

There are plenty of other examples – some of them where I’ve even read the book. Revelation of the Daleks led me to The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. (It’s a strange book that one – a sort of acid social commentary with a deeply unlikable hero – but it really only faintly resembles events in that Sixth Doctor oddball.) The Brain of Morbius didn’t exactly lead me to Frankenstein, but I knew of its relationship to that classic novel before I tackled it. I was surprised though, to find it’s more like another Terrance Dicks story, Robot.

I could go on, and usually do. Classic Doctor Who pulled this trick often enough – borrowing plots from classic literature and making new stories out of them. But spotting these literary forebears doesn’t help us understand a Doctor Who story on anything more than a superficial level, because Old Who doesn’t critique or comment on those works; it simply borrows from them. (New Who on the other hand does playfully comment on the literary canon of famous works, not by merely borrowing their plots, but by staging ‘author tribute’ episodes like The Unquiet Dead, The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp.)

Anyway, here’s what I think is really the most important thing about The Androids of Tara: it’s fun.

*****

Fun is a concept Doctor Who fans sometimes have trouble with. ‘Fun’ can imply lightweight and insubstantial. It can be a signal to not take things too seriously. And fans long for Doctor Who to be taken seriously, so anything with a label of ‘fun’ feels, paradoxically, dangerous.

It can also be a term used to passive aggressively damn something for being enjoyable but unworthy of critical praise. “Oh, it’s fun,” people say on such occasions. Fan favourites like Androzani, Blink and Genesis of the Daleks might be scary and thrilling, but they’re not fun. Tara, on the other hand, is so much fun DWAS voted it their least favourite story of its season.

Fun is brought to Tara by lots of people; by Peter Jeffrey who plays chief villain Grendel on just this side of piss taking. By director Michael Hayes, who keeps proceedings bright and breezy, and by composer Dudley Simpson, who provides lots of harpsichord-like trills. But principally by two other men who between them shifted Doctor Who‘s centre of gravity in the late 70s.

Producer Graham Williams had been instructed to make the show less violent and more humourous, and Tara is smack bang in the middle of his stretch. When he started the show, the Doctor was a moody, aloof presence, accompanied by a trained killer from the jungle. By Tara, the show’s stars are a wise cracking madman, enjoying a sparky, almost flirty relationship with his genius sidekick and a robot dog. No wonder we’ve shifted from misshapen fiends kidnapping women and breeding monstrous vermin to princesses, castles and sword fights (with mild electric charges, no blood please).

The other man responsible for this outbreak of fun is Tom Baker. Taking his cue from the general lightness of tone, he’s conducting a four episode search of Tara for any opportunity to liven things up with a few funnies. Some people say he went too far during this era of the show, trying to turn it into Tom Baker’s Comedy Half Hour. But while he occasionally went a little too far, it’s his constant desire to enliven the show’s action which makes the whole thing more watchable. And this concentration on fun works, if not for fans, then definitely for a casual audience. I know this to be true, because Mrs Spandrell told me it was.

*****

Mrs Spandrell and I have been together for twenty years. Last year we released our large format coffee table book The Spandrells – A Celebration. (It was full of dodgy fan art and factual errors) We’re looking forward to the next five years when we’ll release The Spandrells – 25 Glorious Years which will only actually cover the first 24.

Ah, pity poor Mrs Spandrell. In fact, pity the poor spouses of all hard core Who fans. Perhaps they thought we’d grow out of it. Perhaps they thought it would just fade away. Then the series’ 21st century revival took off and it must have seemed that now the whole world had been infected with this inexplicably mad obsession. Mrs Spandrell has seen both old and new Who. She’s had a lot of Doctor Who inflicted on her.

But here’s a thing: she likes The Androids of Tara. She discovered it a year or so ago when looking for toddler friendly Doctor Who to show Master Spandrell, and because of its lack of scary bits (unless you count the rather tame Taran Wood Beast, and probably, even if you do) it fitted the bill nicely. So we can add this to the eclectic list of Mrs Spandrell’s favourite stories, which includes Paradise Towers, The Two Doctors and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (though to be fair, it was Master Spandrell who inflicted that one on her).

(She’s recently added Heaven Sent to that list, though it must be said her interest in modern Who was sparked by a crush on David Tennant, peaked with a fervent appreciation of Matt Smith, and she has waned since Peter Capaldi took over. The tipping point might have been when I told her of P-Cap’s love of The Web Planet, a story she despises due to the irritating Zarbi chirruping throughout. I’m dreading it coming up on randomwhoness. Divorce may beckon.)

I asked her what she liked about Tara. “It’s fun,” she said, before launching into an unexpected tribute.  “Prince Reynart?,” she said in a passable Tom Baker. “Never heard of him. Decent sort of chap?” Then she mentioned frightening the fish and p-p-potent stuff and Lamia’s oddly arranged hair and Grendel’s final line and did that actor who played Reynart die recently he seemed so nice. This is more interest than she’s taken in any Doctor Who story since Matt Smith took his kit off.

“And it’s Prisoner of Zenda, isn’t it?” Well well well. Either she’s better read than me or fun has turned this long suffering spouse into fan.

LINK TO Colony in Space. In both, the Doctor is on a mission for someone else.

NEXT: Here we are, four days from Earth on a spaceship with three billion and three frogs. And four Earthlings. Why? Because it’s Four to Doomsday.