Tag Archives: season 17

Light, dark and City of Death (1979)

Steven Moffat once said that when you write a Doctor Who story, you give up your feature film idea, so rapacious is the series’ appetite for strong, action filled plot. It was never truer than of City of Death, which has a plot almost too good for Doctor Who – an alien splintered through time plunders the art treasures of the world in a plan to go change history. A Doctor-less version would make a cracking popcorn movie, full of action, comedy and romance. The Thomas Crown Affair meets Back to the Future. Moff should make it now his showrunning days are done.

This story, in which Exec Producer Julie Gardner saw a template for 21st century Who, is one of the series’ undisputed triumphs. It was born from a last minute script crisis and a mammoth weekend-long rewriting session by Douglas Adams and Graham Williams, fuelled by coffee, whiskey and desperation, but emerged as an elegant European supermodel of a Doctor Who story. With location filming in Paris, a whip smart script and performances to match, it’s a piece of art.

And of course, it’s funny. A Doctor Who parlour comedy. But to talk about how funny it is would be to repeat everything that has ever been written about it. So instead, let’s talk about how it works as a piece of drama, because it absolutely does.

Here’s my favourite piece of dialogue from it. It’s got nothing to do with Paris telephone directories, violent butlers or beautiful women, probably. The Doctor (Tom Baker, at maximum power) and Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover) have been firing one liners at each other for four episodes. Now the climax is approaching, and the Doctor has realised (somehow) that if the Count goes back in time to prevent his own destruction, the human race will never evolve. Suddenly the funny stuff drops, and both play it dead seriously.

DOCTOR: Count, do you realise what will happen if you try to go back to the time before history began?

SCARLIONI: Yes. Yes, I do. And I don’t care one jot.

I love the wit of City of Death, but I love these moments of sudden sobriety just as much. Take for instance, the cliffhanger to Part Two. Once again it’s an abrupt change from jokes to gravitas. The Doctor has travelled to Florence in 1505 to find out if Leonardo really did paint seven Mona Lisas and to swap gags with a dopey guard (Peter Halliday). The Doctor’s laughing off having a sword at his throat, but when a door opens and a shadowy figure looms. His levity’s instantly turned off.

DOCTOR: You. What are you doing here?

SCARLIONI: I think that is exactly the question I ought to be asking you… Doctor!

It’s one of those beautiful cliffhangers that progresses the plot as well as leaving us begging for more: how can Scarlioni be in both 1505 and 1979? And its Part Three equivalent is equally impressive and far more grim. Scarlioni convinces the hapless Kerensky (David Graham) to step inside his time bubble. With trademark urbanity, the Count tells Romana (Lalla Ward) “You will now see, my dear, how I deal with fools.”

He speaks not with the grandiose roar of a standard Doctor Who villain left in charge of an episode ending, but with chill politeness. He switches on the machine and Kerensky ages to death. Then, pre-closing credits, he smiles smugly at Romana, as if to say, “aren’t I clever?” It’s the understatement of it which makes it work.

Think also about Countess Scarlioni (Catherine Schell), a guileless dupe of her husband. Up until Part Four the Doctor’s been content to humour her, but time is running out and everyone’s about to die. He asks how much she knows about the Count and she mentions the importance of discretion and charm. Baldly, the Doctor calls her out.

DOCTOR: There is such a thing as discretion. There’s also such a thing as willful blindness.

COUNTESS: Blind? I help him to steal the Mona Lisa, the greatest crime in the century, and you call me blind?

DOCTOR: Yes! You see the Count as a master criminal, an art dealer, an insanely wealthy man, and you’d like to see yourself as his consort. But what’s he doing in the cellar?

COUNTESS: Tinkering. Every man must have his hobby.

DOCTOR: Man? Are you sure of that? A man with one eye and green skin, eh? Ransacking the art treasures of history to help him make a machine to reunite him with his people, the Jagaroth, and you didn’t notice anything? How discreet, how charming.

She tries to laugh it off, but then recalls an old Egyptian scroll parchment in her collection. On it, a man with one eye and green skin. The spell is broken.

And although she’s been played for a fool by Scarlioni, he still feels fondly enough of her to come and say goodbye to her before setting off to erase all mankind from history. She’s ready to shoot him, but can’t quite do it. He gets to her first, but not before he’s coldly dismissed her, as nothing but a money loving dilettante. “It has not been difficult keeping secrets from you, my dear,” he matter-of-factly states. “A few fur coats, a few trinkets, a little nefarious excitement.” Then he zaps her. Not much to laugh at there.

And that’s fine. In fact, it’s better than fine, it’s exactly right. Because Adams and Williams knew that the best stories aren’t just funny, or just scary or just sad. They are all of the above. So here they turn up the dial on the funny, while leaving the scary and sad controls on their standard settings. It’s just dumb luck that they happen to perform this experiment on one of Doctor Who‘s best ever ideas.

Composer Dudley Simpson gets it. To accompany that glorious last shot from the top of the Eiffel Tower, gazing down at the Doctor and Romana running from the scene of the crime, he provides a musical finale which sums up the story perfectly. A whimsical clarinet picks out a charming melody, before it slips into a minor key, getting serious. Then a low, ominous sting to end the story, bass notes and timpani drums. He’s summed this story up completely. For all its lightness of tone, the darkness is always right behind.

LINK TO Asylum of the Daleks. Both refer to the Daleks and Skaro.

NEXT TIME: what is this horrendous place? Next stop, Terminus. And probably a bit more about City of Death.

AND ONE LAST THING: I’m indebted to @EalaDubh for pointing out this about City of Death, which I had not previously known and is now one of my favourite things.

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Style, substance and Destiny of the Daleks (1979)

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“You listen to me in there,” shouts Tom Baker’s shambolic Doctor through a doorway to his companion Romana, in the opening scene of Destiny of the Daleks. “What you want is something warm and sensible. Something that will wear well. Something with a bit of style and, well, y’know, style.” Sure, it’s bold for a man in a oatmeal coloured overcoat and an 8m multicoloured scarf to be giving out fashion advice. But then it’s a bold story that kicks off with what’s essentially an elaborate costume change.

Well, a cast change first and foremost, but it takes the form of a costume change. See, before the story can start, there’s the small matter of changing companions. At the end of the previous season, Romana actress Mary Tamm told producer Graham Williams she was going to leave the program. Williams thought she could be talked round. She couldn’t, as it turns out. No more than her predecessor Louise Jameson could be the season before that.

So rather than write Romana out, Williams and script editor Douglas Adams decided to recast. And having a Time Lady for a companion meant that the easiest way around the change of actress was for Romana to regenerate, and that’s where we start. We’d seen the Doctor regenerate three times before, so we know what to expect. A terminal injury, a collapse to the floor, a final line full of pathos, roll back and mix and we’re done. Except like with most things, Romana turns out to be far more competent than the Doctor at regeneration.

Firstly she can choose who she looks like, and luckily for Tom Baker, she chooses Princess Astra, played by Lalla Ward, the girl from the last story that he’s a bit keen on. She can even copy her clothing. “But you can’t wear that body!” the Doctor protests. “I thought it looked very nice on the Princess,” counters Romana, starting the comparison of changing bodies with changing clothes. And suddenly we’re taking a jokey approach to what has previously been a life and death and life again experience.

The fact that the first time we see a female Time Lord regenerating it’s compared to shopping for clothes, has more than a whiff of sexism about it. (And it reminds me that when Mels regenerates into River Song in Lets Kill Hitler, she’s worried about concentrating on a dress size. Sigh.) As does the next bit, where the Doctor objects to how Romana looks and demands she tries again. It’s only that we know that Romana gets the last laugh that makes this section palatable to modern tastes.

So then we see Romana ‘try on’ three different looks – one tall, one short, one ‘exotic’ – and the Doctor objects to each of them in turn.  Yes, it’s a joke but it’s still very patriarchal for the man to be dictating to his female friend what she should look like.  But then the scene inverts in a lovely way when Romana emerges looking like the Doctor, and this finally wins his approval. It’s a smart way to prick his pomposity. In fact though she’s not just  wearing his clothes – she’s reverted to her Princess Astra face. So she gets the last laugh.

The wearing of the Doctor’s clothes is an interesting statement. It positions Romana very firmly as a would-be Doctor. And indeed, while last season she was an apprentice adventurer, the first story of this season says, look, she’s arrived. She resembles the Doctor so strongly she’s even started dressing like him. And she’s determined to see it through – when the Doctor finally accedes to her looking like Astra, but insists that she “gets rid of those silly clothes” (again, sigh), she comes out dressed in a pink and white version of the Doctor’s outfit.  She’s an acutely feminised version of him.

“The arms are a bit long,” she witters in that scene, “but I can always take them in”. Again, regeneration as costume change. In fact, Romana was often positioned as a character who’s interested in changing clothes. She’s already had costume changing scenes in The Androids of Tara and The Stones of Blood. In the latter story, and in The Ribos Operation, she’s chastised for the impracticality of her clothes.  And during her first season, she’s a character who uses clothes in attempts to fit in to any culture in which she lands.

This changes in her second incarnation, where she does precisely the opposite, and seeks to stand out from her surrounding environment. Often this means adopting a highly stylised costume, as if she’s playing a distinct character type: a schoolgirl in City of Death, a fox hunter in The Horns of Nimon, an Edwardian swimmer in The Leisure Hive and of course, the Doctor himself in Destiny of the Daleks. Romana becomes a cosplayer, a character disguised as another character.

As for actually behaving like the Doctor though… Well, she does get to feign death to escape her captors in Episode Two, an old trick of his. And she does leap headlong into a physical scuffle with one of the robotic bad guys, the very funky Movellans, in Episode Four which feels something the Doctor rather than the companion usually gets to do. (But it also ends with Romana kicking one of the unfortunate robot’s arms off, which doesn’t feel very Doctorly at all).

The rest of the time though, she’s pure companion, albeit a smart, snooty and thoroughly capable one. Indeed the cliffhanger to Episode One even has her paying homage to past companion Barbara, who was famously cornered by a Dalek at the end of the first ever Dalek episode, recoiling in fear from an extended plunger. It’s not pulled off with anywhere near the same flair, but that’s Destiny for you: always in the shadow of greater Dalek stories.

But it’s not without its idiosyncrasies. For a start it’s mostly devoid of incidental music. On the few occasions when Dudley Simpson’s familiar woodwind and percussion combo cuts in it’s rather startling. The rest of the time it’s silence, or the ghostly atmos of a Thal Wind ™, even if the action’s taking place in an underground bunker. There’s also the extensive use of Steadicam, a novelty for classic Who, and the sense of motion does help us feel like we’re running around in that sandy pit, chasing Time Lords in flowing scarves and tottering bandoleer Daleks. It has a sparse, windswept tone you don’t get in many other stories.

But then the Movellans are on hand to add a bit of zhoosh to this sandy wasteland. Look, it’s an infinitely variable universe, so who’s to say it’s not feasible that an alien species has evolved to look like Boney M. (Somewhere out there, I suspect, there are worlds where everyone looks like The Manhattan Transfer and Kajagoogoo as well). I think it was brave of costume designer June Hudson to dress actors from head to toe in white lycra and then take them out to a sandpit to film. I’ve got visions of her tirelessly brushing Movellan thighs free of grit, while the camera assistant frantically tries to keep the camera sand free.

And sure, white leotards and silver dreadlocks are one of the series’ odder costume choices but still they are remembered; 20 years later when Mark Gatiss and David Williams made The Web of Caves it was the Movellans they turned to for a parody of outrageous Who villains. If only Gatiss had donned Romana’s pink Doctor’s outfit, their homage to Destiny would have been complete. And although that might have sealed the story’s reputation a case of style over substance, sometimes it’s the style which endures.

Destiny may not always be sensible, but it’s warm, wears well and has a bit of style. Y’know, style.

LINK TO The Talons of Weng Chiang. Disfigured villains again, and of course, Tom Baker, but playing his Doctor in a very different way.

NEXT TIME: You lucky, lucky people. We burn our fingers on Dragonfire.

Collision, crisis and Nightmare of Eden (1979)

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It’s 28 August 1979. Graham Williams, 34 years of age, sits in the gallery of TC6 during the final recording session for Nightmare of Eden. The clock is ticking ever closer to 10pm and he’s got to get this show in the can. He’s recently stepped in as the story’s director, having just had to sack the last one, 63 year old TV veteran Alan Bromly.

Bromly didn’t get on with Tom Baker. By all reports, he was not Robinson Crusoe there. Williams himself is not on the best of terms with his leading man. The year had, after all, started with an awkward ‘it’s him or me’ type of meeting in front of Williams’ boss, after which neither man had walked and so here they both are. Trying to get this tale of madmen and Mandrels on time and under budget.

It took something pretty serious for Williams to side with Tom over a director. But this was something more than the kind of volcanic strop Tom was renowned for. This was something new, with cast and crew united in mutiny against Bromly. Arguments and insults from the studio floor are regrettable, but can ultimately be worked around. Williams must have thought the only way to get the show finished would be to do it himself.

I can imagine Williams sitting in that darkened room, looking at the output of the cameras on the monitors. I wonder if he had time to consider the production in front of him. As he lines up those shots in that horrid yellow spaceship corridor, does he speculate that this could be the cheapest looking story in the series history? With inflation running rampant he was finding it harder and harder to make his budget stretch. This season of stories was showing the strain, from that enormous green weather balloon of an alien to the shabbiest bunch of patched up Daleks that ever graced a quarry. Ah well. At least the Paris stuff looked nice.

Perhaps he wonders what went wrong with those Mandrel costumes. The heads look all right, if a little too cute to be monstrous. The main problem is those inflexible forearms, which look like someone has added a length of plumbing pipe to each arm. In fact, that’s probably what happened. If you could shoot them in low light, add a bit of fog, you might get away with it. But the footage already shot has everything drenched in standard bright flat BBC Sci-fi lighting. Every flaw on those Mandrels is unforgivingly apparent, as they waggle those rigid arms in the air.

The human characters are having costume issues too. The crew of the Empress have sparkly lame tabards over spandex body suits. Turns out that in the future, space cruiser crew members will dress like first year dance students. The idea seems to be the more sparkly a costume the more spacey it is. Even Taxmen Fisk and Costa, bureaucratic bores, have their black uniforms shooshed up with glittery stripes and natty hats. (Incidentally, what sort of society exists on planet Azure, that when a space collision takes place on their doorstep, they send not police or medicos but tax officers?) And who put Lalla in that dowdy, drab grey number?

At least she seems to be getting on well with Tom.

What, he may have wondered, is going on with Tryst, played with zeal and an outrageous German accent by Lewis Fiander? Is he trying to out-Tom Tom? Well, good luck to him. Few have tried and even fewer have succeeded. Has he not noticed that everyone else is playing this straight?

Look, for example, at David Daker giving it his all as Rigg. Daker successfully portrays the downfall of a man having a hell of a day at work. It starts with the space equivalent of a car accident, and continues with intruders, drug smuggling and ends with having his drink spiked and becoming a gibbering, crazed addict. ‘Let’s talk about life’, he slurs at one point, in exactly the tone Williams recognises from too many late night conversations with actors in the BBC bar. It’s an authenticity absent from any number of witless Tryst lines like ‘We worked on this idea together before he died, of course. Then we stopped.’

I like to think that Williams calmly steered his cast and crew through those final scenes, engendering a dogged team spirit to get the work done. Even Tom, I hope, pulled his head in and helped get everything done. Surely a cast must never have empathised with a script as greatly as with Eden’s when Della’s delivers the line: ‘I’m relieved the nightmare’s over.’ Let’s assume Williams got some exhausted votes of thanks as they cleared the studio for the night.

A week or so later he turns up for the post session, where he’ll supervise the addition of visual effects. It’s not without its own challenges. A flying insect looks too big and blobby. A gun shot misses Della’s belly where its meant to hit. But it’s on putting together the shots of the colliding spaceships that I imagine Williams sitting up in his seat, suddenly taken by a thought.

The story starts with the collision of the two ships, and it transpires that a passenger on one ship is smuggling drugs to the captain of the other. But what’s the link between these two events? Did Tryst and Dymond plan the collision? That would make narrative sense.

But the transfer of the Eden projection, drug constituted Mandrels and all, takes place via lasery gizmo between the two ships, with no connection to the collision. It could have been done at any time. In which case the collision was just co-incidental.

So either the the collision was caused by the bad guys, but the script forgets to mention it.

Or the collision wasn’t caused by the bad guys and was just a credulity straining unlucky break.

At this stage, I imagine, Williams drains his coffee, takes two aspirin and heads back to the production office to draft his resignation.

LINKS to Day of the Daleks. Both involve two locations linked by a sci-fi magic door, which the Doctor and his companion travel through. And both have big lumbering monsters.

NEXT TIME… This isn’t going to be big on dignity. We unleash The Beast Below.

 

Energy, kinkiness and The Creature from the Pit (1979)

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For me, there are very few spots in Doctor Who’s history where there’s a string of mediocre episodes in a row. But I must confess I find the end of season 16 is a bit hard going. It all gets a bit, well, dull.

But turn the corner into season 17, and things change almost immediately, most noticeably in the dialogue. Suddenly it crackles with an energy that the last couple of seasons lacked. It’s not hard to pinpoint the new factor at play here; it’s script editor Douglas Adams. He certainly brings more humour into the scripts, but it’s not just that. There are more elegant turns of phrase, there’s more bite to the lines. It gives the actors more to play with.

The funny thing is, I was brought up to hate season 17. When I undertook that fateful move from casual viewer to fan during the Davison era, the fan press I was reading put the boot into this season as being too silly, too cheap and not taking the whole thing seriously enough. And it’s true that this season lacks that creeping menace which imbued Tom Baker’s early seasons, which are often hailed as the pinnacle of Who.

But over the years, the tide has changed a little bit, not least of all because we’ve all grown to adore City of Death and have looked around and thought, surely its stablemates can’t be that bad? And sure enough we’ve come to appreciate the groundbreaking direction in Destiny of the Daleks, the surprisingly adult themes of Nightmare of Eden and the zany brio of The Horns of Nimon. Season 17 has gone from being bad Who, to being just Who.

The Creature from the Pit though, few people have anything nice to say about. I’ll attempt to break the drought because I rather like it. But first, we have to forgive the creature itself; a deeply unconvincing mélange of garbage bags painted green. And famously, it extrudes a tentacle which is distractingly phallic. Yep, it’s awful and yep, that’s a big green dick. But Doctor Who has lots of awful effects (although rarely so, um, cocky) so we should just move on, as best we can.

(Except to ask, what was producer Graham Williams thinking? It’s often mentioned that this was period when inflation was playing havoc with the show’s budget, so given that, why did he think an enormous, shapeless blob was possible on a Who budget? And hadn’t they just tried a similar trick – with some particularly underwhelming results – two stories ago?)

The first thing that strikes you about Creature is that terrific first TARDIS scene; terrific, that is, if you like Doctor Who written like a sitcom. It’s joke after joke in rapid fire succession, between the wacky old Doctor, his sensible and long suffering companion and a cute robot. And if you think this approach to writing Who is dead, I refer you to the last randomed The Time of the Doctor, and its opening scene which, with a couple of spaceships added, is exactly the same in tone.

It’s also apparent from that first scene that the show expects its audience to be very well read. That first scene references Greek myth, the biblical tale of Samson and the Peter Rabbit books. And later we’ll be introduced to characters who take their names from ancient Greece (Erato and Organon) and one whose name suggests the latin for ‘to the stars’ (Adrasta, in conception ad astra). Frustratingly, there seems to be no common purpose to these allusions, thrown in seemingly at random. But none the less, they are clues the story leaves for its audience to collect; like the best Who, this story respects its audience’s intelligence.

The plot itself differs from the standard ‘land on a planet, discover a problem, identify a villain, solve problem, defeat villain and go home’ formula. Here, the story’s villain, Lady Adrasta (played with relish by Myra Frances) captures our TARDIS team, and is initially interested in the Doctor’s scientific expertise.

But when he jumps down the pit, she turns her interest to K9. She sees in him a weapon which she might use on Erato, the well hung blob, whom she has imprisoned in the pit. So she forces Romana and K9 into an underground search to find and eventually get K9 to kill Erato. It’s not the world’s greatest plan, particularly as K9 seems to drain power as regularly as a vintage iPhone and Erato’s the size of a cathedral.

At any rate, this leaves the Doctor and his new astrologer chum Organon (Geoffrey Balydon, basically getting another chance to play Catweazle. Now’s there’s a show which needs a reboot.) to attempt to communicate with Erato. And although the show’s budget couldn’t stretch to convincingly constructing an alien who’s basically an enormous pile of snot, at least it is varying its approach to monsters from ‘bung an extra in a rubber suit’.

Erato, it transpires, is an alien ambassador, and  needs a shield-like translator device to communicate with others. This is rather neat, as it fits with the character (a traveling ambassador would need such a device) but also gets around the problem of how every alien speaks BBC English (doesn’t explain for everyone else on Chloris does, but hey).

Once Adrasta’s storyline and the Doctor’s converge, and the shield is wheeled on by some possessed bandits (the story’s weakest and least necessary element), the gig is up. Erato explains that Adrasta trapped him in the pit to maintain her stranglehold of the planet’s scarce metal reserves. An angry Huntsman sets a pack of carnivorous weeds on her, and she dies as best as one can when being molested by some green papier mache balloons.

Everything’s wrapped up, but we’re only 8 minutes into Part Four. The Doctor knows it can’t be over yet; he usually ends things back in the TARDIS wrapping things up with some more jokes and a big old grin and it’s far too early for that.

This tactic – you think the story’s over! But it’s not! – rarely works well in Doctor Who, or anywhere else for that matter. Creature does it as well as can be expected; Erato has been lying by omission and a neutron star sent by his fellow blobs is on its way to devastate Chloris. The Doctor must talk him into a dangerous manouevre with the TARDIS to neutralise it.

It’s hard to restart a story which has already met its natural climax, especially when the new threat is entirely countered from within the TARDIS console room with some enthusiastic turbulence acting and some quaint video effects. Still, it gets the episode to 25 mins, along with some more nonsense from those pesky bandits. (But even that has a clever line in it. While chief hairy Torvin is rhapsodizing about his haul of metal, old slyboots Karela stabs him in the back, adding “there’s six inches more to add to your collection”.)

It’s not the duddest of endings, but you do get the impression this is a three episode plot stretched to four. But I come to praise Creature, not to bury it. If nothing else it has some extraordinary costumes in it, courtesy of June Hudson. Her costume for Adrasta seems to be referencing Disney’s evil queen, complete with stockings, heels and a breastplate. The Huntsman is dressed head to toe in leather, it seems, and wields a mean whip. Romana’s wafty white dress is primly virginal. Add Erato’s aforementioned appendage and surely Doctor Who has never looked so kinky.

So, literate, funny, structurally novel, extravagantly designed, way too ambitious for its budget and a bit suggestive – but never dull. So far, so season 17.

LINK to The Time of the Doctor. Both feature extravagantly dressed female protagonists. Hmm, not great is it? But it’s all I’ve got.

NEXT TIME… I can foresee oodles of trouble! Arr me hearties, it’s The Smugglers.