Tag Archives: season 25

Oddballs, Whizz Kids and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988/9)

greatest show

Back when I was a teenage whizz kid, I watched The Greatest Show in the Galaxy on transmission. Avidly. This makes me feel dodderingly old, but thinking back on it reminds me that it was a rare period of optimism for fandom.

Suddenly, it felt like the show was riding a new wave of creative quality. There was a Doctor and a companion viewers were connecting with. And the show itself was experimenting with a new type of story that someone had christened “oddballs”. During Andrew Cartmel’s reign as Doctor Who script editor, stories oscillated between traditional adventure stories where deeper themes were hinted at (so Remembrance is about things blowing up and racism, Battlefield is about more things blowing up and fear of nuclear war) and these so called oddballs.

I’m working from memory here, but I think “oddball” was the term John Nathan-Turner used in pre-publicity to describe a story which more bizarre elements than usual. I’m pretty sure he first applied that description to Delta and the Bannermen, but that feels more traditional to me than Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol and Greatest Show, oddballs one and all. By Season 26, the oddballs had become less outre, with Ghost Light and Survival blending their bizarreness with more traditional Who storytelling. To become “tradballs”. (Do you like that? I just made it up.)

Being like traditional Doctor Who, or more specifically being like Holmes & Hinchcliffe’s version of Doctor Who, mattered to fans in the 80s. Despite the show’s creative renaissance, oddballs were always greeted warily. I seem to recall someone sniffily calling Greatest Show “the oddball that worked”. And that’s probably because it’s creepy and well acted and it’s got good incidental music, so altogether quite Hichcliffey. Plus no one does anything too silly like dressing up like a big liquorice allsort or smashing jars of honey all over the aliens or doing galactically OTT zombie acting.

But although fans at the time were a bit iffy about oddballs, they brought a new mode to Doctor Who: a sort of highly stylistic aesthetic. Suddenly everyone and everything seemed to be unreal, but not in a Time and the Rani kind of unreality, where people were called Beaus and Ikona and big bat creatures loped alongside Kate O’Mara while she impersonated Bonnie Langford. In this new aesthetic, people had occupations rather than names (the Chief Caretaker, the Tollmaster, the Ringmaster, Control) or they had names which pointed towards their character traits or social heirarchy (Pex, Helen A, Deadbeat, Squeak). Threats became more oblique and more parochial: sweets, pool cleaners and bus conductors will kill you. And the oddballs were so clearly unconcerned with realism that it was obvious they must be allegorical.

To put it another way, Time and the Rani is bizarre but essentially wants the viewer to take the story it’s telling literally. Paradise Towers is bizarre in a way where a reading along the lines of, “this is clearly a message about urban discord and isn’t meant to be read literally” is absolutely valid. And this riled a certain set of fans who just wanted a sequel to Pyramids of Mars.

By the time we get to Greatest Show, the production team was approaching the oddball with confidence. They were working out that a certain set of stories could be told allegorically and still deliver the scares for those wondering what had happened to the magic of Doctor Who. For instance, writer Steven Wyatt saw this story of a hippy circus being infiltrated by a sinister force as expressing the death of 1960s idealism…. And also clowns made great Doctor Who monsters, because were creepy and cheap to realise. So win win.

The members of Wyatt’s space circus have long since sold their Bohemian souls. Corruption is a potent theme in Greatest Show. Just as the Gods of Rangnarok have corrupted the members of this circus troupe, so each of its victims – including the Doctor (a smart, vivid performance from Sylvester McCoy) – are drawn to the circus ring in by their own desire for fame. One of the most terrifying aspects of this is that the corruption doesn’t produce a standard Doctor Who villain – just a triad of desperate middle managers. The Ringmaster (Ricco Ross), Morgana (Deborah Manship) and the Chief Clown (Ian Reddington) have to strategise in panic to get people in the ring, until the latter has no other option but to feed his colleagues to the ever hungry beast. There’s no grand plan here, only desperate improvisation against a relentless taskmaster.

While most of the story’s elements pull in the same direction, others are oddballs within this oddball. Mags (Jessica Martin) is a end of episode monster grrrl hidden in plain sight, but her connection to the selling out of hippy ideals is unclear. Still, she’s nothing compared to Captain Cook (TP McKenna), a walking, talking, pith helmeted representation of colonial arrogance. He’s as out of place as Mags, but he’s perhaps the most extreme example of this story’s high symbolism. How can this towering stereotype be read literally? He’s too starkly stylised to be anything but a walking parody.

Talking of walking parodies, there’s also the Whizz Kid (Gian Sammarco), a stereotypical representation of Doctor Who fans, and specifically, the sort who wished the whole place would Hinchcliffe itself up a bit. Where Captain Cook seems to be one random allegorical element too far, the Whizz Kid manages to push Greatest Show into a new shape, where the circus becomes a stand-in for Doctor Who itself. It’s almost a cry for help from the production team: trapped in an aging show, trying to sate an audience demanding endless entertainment, mercilessly judged by ratings and beset by barkers. Among everything else it’s doing, Greatest Show’s also a meta commentary.

This, I think, is the power of the oddball. It allows so many things to happen simultaneously. You can tell a story about the death of idealism, our society’s constant appetite for entertainment and the strained relationship Doctor Who had with its fans, all at once. You can set it in twisted versions of familiar worlds, dress your characters up in wacky costumes and give them oblique names, and all would be forgiven as long as you kept the lighting low and offered the occasional scare. From here, we get Gridlock, The Doctor’s Wife and Smile. They’re great because they’re smart and funny and see the world a little differently. And maybe it’s because all whizz kids eventually grow up to be oddballs, I still find so much to love in them.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy Mini Quiz:

  1. How can the Ringmaster switch off Mags’ screams?
  2. When he does, why can Ace still hear them?
  3. Why does the Doctor expect Segonax to be a green and pleasant land when he saw on the scanner that it looked like a quarry?
  4. Why is that section of dialogue in Part Two between the Ringmaster and the Doctor (and a little bit of Ace) in the ring written in rhyming verse?
  5. How exactly was it the Doctor’s show all along?

LINK TO The Space Museum: annoying teenage boys.

NEXT TIME… Don’t leave me hanging! We meet an underwater menace in Under the Lake/Before the Flood.

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Renovation, nostalgia and Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)

Remembrance

New Doctor

Between seasons 24 and 25, the Doctor regenerated but didn’t change his face. Between them, script editor Andrew Cartmel and lead actor Sylvester McCoy sought to change the seventh Doctor from the fun and frothy version we met in his opening year, to the more serious, thoughtful and mysterious version that makes his debut in Remembrance of the Daleks. Prior to this, Doctors had gradually evolved, not made sudden character u-turns. Never before had there been such a tacit admission that a Doctor’s performance was, for whatever reason, not what the show needed and that a major re-think was required.

McCoy is no passive participant here; he embraces this new approach. In his first year, he looked for and accentuated any opportunity for comedy. Here, he looks for and relishes the quiet, pensive moments, the lines where he harshly points out unpalatable truths and where he can hint at his character’s hidden motives. It’s a distinctly different performance to the one he gave previously. A renewal, we might say.

For Cartmel’s part, he pulls off a corresponding renovation of the Doctor’s character in the scripted word. Remembrance is the first story where the Doctor is positioned as a planner and a manipulator of people and events, in order to gain the outcome he wants. For the 24 years prior to this, the Doctor had simply bumbled into events and made things up as he went along. Now, the Doctor has an agenda. And goddess help you if you happen to be on the wrong side of it.

New Companion

Appropriately enough, this new Doctor comes with a new companion. The previous one, frankly, wouldn’t fit with this secretive schemer. Bright and sensible Mel, as played by Bonnie Langford, was too much of an organiser. She’d want to infiltrate the Doctor’s plans, make them more efficient, plot them on a spreadsheet. It would never have worked.

Instead, we have teenage tearaway Ace (Sophie Aldred). Mel was all reason, but Ace is all instinct. She works with this Doctor because she’s someone who simply reacts to whatever he’s planned. They are opposites in this regard: grand planner alongside gut instinct. She also comes looking for trouble. Like previous companions Jamie and Leela, she carries weapons. But unlike them, she’s packing home made bombs and a baseball bat. Which makes sense, because a grand planner wouldn’t walk into a situation unarmed.

Watching Ace join the series when Dragonfire was broadcast, I remember wondering how this new companion was going to work out. She was so different to companions past, I couldn’t quite envisage how her relationship with the Doctor would play out. When Remembrance screened, it was instantly clear. She was as truculent and bolshie and emotionally fragile as you’d expect a teenager to be. Although fiercely loyal, she wasn’t going to go quietly along with what the Doctor wanted. The Doctor’s relationship with Ace was vibrant and stimulating in exactly the way that the Doctor and Mel’s wasn’t.

Looking back on Ace now though, there is something inherently false about her. She’s altogether too polished and perfect to be a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. And the Eliza Doolittle aspect of her relationship with the Doctor seems a tad patronising. But on the other hand, here’s a companion allowed to fire an anti-tank rockets, leap through windows and bash up Daleks. A compelling, though unconvincing mix she might be, but she’s an important element in Remembrance‘s campaign to do nothing less but reinvent Doctor Who.

New Daleks

The Daleks are as old as Doctor Who itself and as I’ve mentioned before, it’s hard to find new things for them to do. Writer Ben Aaronovitch’s solution is to set two factions of them at each other, and have them fighting over an ancient Time Lord artefact. We’ve seen Dalek vs Dalek before, in the recently randomed The Evil of the Daleks, but there it was because some had learned to question their orders, since being injected with the Human Factor. Here, they’re not just ideologically different, but biologically different. As Ace puts it, one set of blobs hate the others for being bionic blobs with bits added.

It’s the genetically modified imperial Daleks, who have decided to experiment with their species’ very form. They’ve created a Special Weapons Dalek, basically a cannon on casters. And when the Emperor Dalek turns up not only is it a big TV Comic style bauble, it springs open to reveal Davros (Terry Malloy) who is sporting many coils of wires and is descending into complete mechanisation. When compared to the traditionally shelled Renegade Daleks, we have a clear contest between conservatives and disrupters.

Tinkering with Dalek design is dangerous territory, as Victory of the Daleks proved. No-one had dared do it since Dalek creator Terry Nation breathed life into Davros in Genesis of the Daleks, and before that when Dalek midwife David Whitaker gave us the original Emperor in Evil. Remembrance gives us no less than three new takes on the Daleks, but while staying faithful to the original design.

So with all this new stuff going on, what exactly are we meant to be remembering?

Old Times

There’s no story reason why this story’s called Remembrance of the Daleks. (That’s hardly the worst crime – there’s no strong reason why the last three Dalek stories were called Destiny, Resurrection or Revelation of the Daleks.) Like so much in this story, the title is self-referential. The remembrance in question is not within the fiction of story, but commenting on the story itself.

It’s about remembering television. Not just remembering Doctor Who‘s past, although there’s loads of that on offer, far outweighing that often derided continuity-fest Attack of the Cybermen. It’s not just the many links to An Unearthly Child, and numerous Dalek stories. The presence of a kind of proto-UNIT with a faux Brigadier, his scientific adviser and a sneaky officer called Mike, brings to mind the days when the Doctor would regularly hang out with the military. “Do you remember the Zygon gambit with the Loch Ness Monster? Or the Yetis in the Underground?,” sighs the Doctor at one point. “No,” the casual audience member says, but “yes and yes” say his loyal fans. (The Doctor only ever wants to remember the classics. He never says, “Do you remember when London was invaded by unconvincing dinosaurs? Or when the Master stole Concorde?”)

Alongside these references sit shoutouts to Quatermass and Grange Hill. Ace talks about watching TV in the future and sits down to watch vintage BBC programming and just misses watching a new science fiction serial. The army has a surveillance rig disguised as a TV detector van and when the Doctor confronts Davros at the story’s climax, he does it via an old television. Not to mention that when that Dalek glides totteringly up those stairs at the end of Part One, it’s putting to rest an old joke perpetrated by years of television tradition, from sketch shows and comedians’ bits of yore.

What this story beautifully evokes is our memories of watching classic TV. That’s where the remembrance lies – in the viewer’s own experience. It’s an odd but exhilarating mix of brave innovations and pure nostalgia.

LINK TO In the Forest of the Night: both are harking back to An Unearthly Child.

NEXT TIME: You intellectual microbe! You asinine cretin! It’s something devious and overcomplicated in The Mark of the Rani.

Juxtaposition, timidness and Silver Nemesis (1988)

silver nemesis

In Industrial Action, the ‘making of’ featurette on the Silver Nemesis DVD, writer Kevin Clarke says, ‘I would never again have the chance to write a show that included neo Nazis, creatures from outer space, Jacobean theatre characters, the Courtney Pine quartet and featuring an appearance by the Queen.’ But why stop there, Kevin? Throw in a couple of skinheads, a talking statue, a chess motif, a wacky American tourist and a pair of indifferent looking llamas. That’s Silver Nemesis for you – probably the strangest melange in Doctor Who history.

It takes the show’s penchant for juxtaposition to an extreme. And the funny thing is most of it’s irrelevant. How odd to think that there’s loads of unused footage from this story – nearly enough for an additional episode – when what would really perk this tale up is to strip it back to a taut two-parter. So much of the story’s incident is superfluous; the visit to Windsor castle, the skinheads stuff, Mrs Remington – all this and more could hit the cutting room floor and all the better for it.

You’d expect some colour and variety from Who’s 25th anniversary story. But despite all the hoopla listed above, it’s actually a low key affair as far as celebration’s concerned; more a subdued afternoon tea listening to jazz, than the raise-the-roof knees up of The Five Doctors. That’s all right, though. In 1988 we didn’t need a new multi-Doctor story or legions of returning companions. We were just happy the show was still on air.

More recently, to mark the 25th anniversary of Silver Nemesis, we got The Day of the Doctor, and it’s a kind of hybrid of two types of anniversary stories. One, the full-on retro-looking multi-Doctor shenanigans, your Three and Five Doctors. And the other, a traditional runaround that also draws a line under the series’ past and pushes it in a new direction, as Silver Nemesis does. Or, I should say, as Silver Nemesis tries to.

Andrew Cartmel, script editor for Old Who’s final years had correctly diagnosed a problem with the program; that we had grown to know too much about the Doctor, a character whose initial premise was one of mystery. So fundamental was the mystery around him that they named the series after it, but now the show seemed to be actively working against this idea.

But Cartmel’s solution to this problem was frustratingly impotent. It was to hint that there was more to the Doctor than we knew, that he still had secrets left for us to discover. In Silver Nemesis, this idea is given a specific voice in the character of 17th century sorceress Lady Penelope Peinforte (Fiona Walker). Well, someone had to give her a first name. Somehow, Painfart has found out something scandalous about the Doctor. She skites about it at every opportunity, mainly to hairy offsider Richard (Gerard Murphy), who unsurprisingly, has no idea what she’s talking about.

(Although he’s bewilderingly devoted to mad old Panadeine Forte. He’s meant to be a hardened crim, but he dotes on her, saves her life and looks heartbroken when she meets her inevitable demise. It can only be love, but once back in his own time it doesn’t take him long to hook up with a cute recorder player. Men, eh?)

It’s a risky gambit, saying to the audience: ‘Hey! There’s something you don’t know’. OK, what is it then? ‘Not telling’. What is this dramatic piece of news which will have such an impact on our hero?

The answer is of course… Nothing. Even if there was some ground shaking bit of info we didn’t know, revealing it would inevitably be an anti climax. It’s why, as Russell T Davies once said, we’ll never find out that the Doctor’s real name is Keith, because ultimately, the revelation adds nothing to what we know or care about.

Silver Nemesis hints at a massive revelation about the Doctor, but then leaves it unspoken. Convenient really, because there isn’t actually one. The futility of this exercise is commented on in the last episode when Lady P finally gets around to spilling the beans, no one cares. ‘The secrets of the Time Lords mean nothing to us’ drones the Cyberleader, and sadly it’s true for the audience as well.

The Day of the Doctor, on the other hand, pulls no such punches. It’s full of big, series shifting developments; the retconning of the Time War, the saving of Gallifrey and of course, introducing us to a hitherto unknown Doctor. It fires the bullets which Silver Nemesis merely loads. It’s got a confidence that Doctor Who in 1988 could only dream of.

Unsurprising really, as modern Doctor Who has the unstinting support of the BBC and all the fanfare and marketing support of a major television event. Silver Nemesis was just another three episodes in a series it wanted rid of. As such, who can blame the production team – if not Cartmel then certainly producer John Nathan-Turner – for being risk averse. There would be no big narrative shifts which might make the programme’s position even more precarious. A couple of years before JN-T had vetoed a cliffhanger style ending to The Trial of a Time Lord  for fear it would give the higher-ups an excuse to axe the show. This timidness survives in Silver Nemesis.

Never mind, there are plenty of distractions to found along the way. It’s very 1980s for the Doctor and Ace to cart an enormous ghetto blaster around with them wherever they go, but I suppose patent law stops him from making her an iPod instead. Lady Paintcart goes completely eye rolling doolally in the final episode, delivering each line to some distant point on the horizon with increasing gravitas. Star of many a WW2 epic Anton Diffring was apparently baffled by the whole experience of making Doctor Who, but that steely gaze of his helps him transcend the whole videoy, synthy soundtrack look and feel of the thing. But really, it’s all a bit mad. You can see the whole approach to Doctor Who that ultimately leads to Dimensions in Time.

But, amongst all the nonsense, Part Three suddenly livens up, with a sequence with Ace battling the Cybermen with a slingshot and an arsenal of goal coins, through an abandoned warehouse and atop its rusty old gantry. Suddenly there’s tension, with some nifty handheld camerawork making the viewer feel like they’re racing alongside the action. Ground breaking and courageous, Silver Nemesis is not. But it never stops surprising.

LINK to The Impossible Planet/Day of the Moon. In both, the TARDIS flits around like mad between time zones and locations. The Eleventh Doctor asks for a fez and the Seventh Doctor wears one. And in both the monsters are tricked into initiating their own demise.

NEXT TIME… You would make a good Dalek.