Thursday, 31 December 2009
Review: FOUR TO DOOMSDAY
Written by Terrance Dudley, directed by John Black, 1982
My comments regarding Full Circle notwithstanding, I hate the constant criticism of the eighties, because I genuinely think there is a fairly even mix of good and awful stories throughout Doctor Who’s entire run. However, Davison’s era is for me what ‘eighties Doctor Who’ conjures up, in a negative sense. In fact, if I ever say anything derogatory about the eighties, I mean Davison, with the possible addition of seasons twenty-three and –four – though at least twenty-four was a new direction.
I’ve realised that I’d struggle for any way of accurately describing Davison’s era. It continues the trend set by Full Circle, in that it isn’t funny or witty, clever, whimsical, violent, or dark. It’s not even mindless popcorn entertainment. It’s just a bit nondescript, possibly po-faced, but with no real direction. It baffles me who the production team thought they were making this for. There’s a strange prissiness or prudery at work in this period too, no doubt deriving from John Nathan-Turner’s horror of ‘hanky-panky in the TARDIS’; ie, all the things Russell T Davies introduced. There’s no acknowledgement or suggestion of anything too real, like alcohol or sexuality and people fancying each other. The sixties may have been morally upright, but you could imagine Ian and Barbara at least thinking about having a sex life, whereas Nyssa, say, probably didn’t even have a vagina.
Obviously I'm generalising, but, for me, the Davison era is the period when Doctor Who really lost its way – in that, it seems like no-one had the faintest clue what they were trying to create. There is no vision behind this. The Fifth Doctor’s eighties have no quirkiness or surreality, or even any of the unexpected little twists that characterise Revelation, say, Greatest Show, or Ghost Light. It’s safe, tame, and bland.
As for the Fifth Doctor himself, I realised when I got back into Doctor Who that, much as I genuinely love each and every Doctor, it’s Peter I probably love… the least. Just because there’s the least there. Yes, he does amazingly with pretty thin material, but I just find very little to notice, let alone love. I find the idea of a youthful, sporty, blond Doctor far more interesting in theory than practise (to me, he works far better in The Tides of Time comics cycle than he ever did on TV). Although here we get onto discussing his ineffectualness, the writers not knowing what to do with him, and that’s all old ground.
Actually, he is kind of great here, but the problem is I’m not sure that’s typical: he’s a bit shiftier and more manic than usual in his first performance, as if he manages more sparkle while unsure of himself. His performance in this story brings out a lot of the best attributes of the Doctor (curiosity, sarcasm, distractibility, and pained concern), but unfortunately this pretty much amounts to saying ‘he’s downhill from his first performance on’. (Interestingly, he does seem more modern than his predecessors, in describing the Urbankans as "frogs with funny hairdos" and talking about safety pins as earrings.)
The radical change of direction for the series, introducing such a vague, dithering Doctor was obviously always going to be a gamble. So the inexplicable decision to saddle him with not one but two alien companions boggles the mind. Surely ‘everyday everyman’ audience identification figures make sense, as demonstrated, in fact, by the impossible-to-relate-to main characters here, doing inexplicable technological things in ridiculous costumes. At least Tegan demonstrates some confusion and human emotion – I don’t especially like her, but if only there’d been space for her to be developed, one-on-one.
Alien companions just don’t work, unless it’s an easily graspable concept (ie, Leela – who I know isn’t an alien, but, you know: ‘savage primitive’ is easy to get from the chamois swimwear) – whereas, Adric is… a maths expert. In pyjamas. Nyssa is… some other sort of expert. In velvet. They end up (by necessity) talking about earth as if they’re from it (or have a reason to give a shit) – so, let’s mark this down as a failed experiment and move on. Oh, wait, no – Turlough’s on his way.
Perhaps this demonstrates what differentiates the eighties (at least, the Fifth Doctor era) from the preceding eras (more specifically than just ‘style over substance’): there is no focus on characterisation. The historical personages here (Mayans, etc) are basically extras. Compare to The Aztecs (or any historical), where Autloc, Cameca, etc, are recognisable, believably human characters. There is nothing human here.
And nothing dramatic happens either! (There’s a swordfight… which the regulars are no more involved with than to watch, while the villains spend their time watching the regulars.) The WHOLE SHITTING THING amounts to endless exposition; constant babble about silicon chips which is as dull and meaningless as it sounds. It remains likeable enough – it’s not hateful – but as I’ve chosen to watch it, this begs the question, who thought any casual viewer would care about this, and not find it utterly tedious and inexplicable?
There are lots of fudged moments where things could almost get interesting, but don’t: Adric’s apparent betrayal of the Doctor is robbed of any drama (possibly wishful thinking anyway, where Matthew Waterhouse is concerned) by the Doctor telling him he’s an idiot, and Adric… accepting it. Similarly, the ‘daring’ spacewalk is filmed so turgidly that it is in no way exciting, epic, or triumphant, as it should be. It is literally as interesting as a walk in the park. At least Monarch is funny and naturalistic (in fact, he’s a pretty amazing villain, in that he is actually quite charming, but deranged – that actually comes across).
Yes, this story could be characterised as demonstrating style over substance (ie, shallow storytelling), but, embarrassingly, the direction is actually far more pedestrian than in the sixties, or season seven, which had a sense of style to them! Obviously things can’t always automatically get better as they progress, but surely there must have been some red faces when they realised they were making a series that looked considerably worse than it did 12 years ago? I guess that’s the problem; no-one was aware or pragmatic enough to realise.
That this story isn’t going to rile anyone makes it worse; it’s entirely ambitionless. There’s no sense of fun, or alternatively, darkness and violence. Four to Doomsday encapsulates the Davison era’s sense of naive straightforwardness, but also how it got the basics wrong. It lost not so much realism (a dubious concept within Doctor Who), but conviction.
Also, why the chuffing hell doesn’t anyone have a bee in their bonnet about the Fifth Doctor casually chucking poison over Monarch? Sheer favouritism!
Wednesday, 30 December 2009
Review: MARK OF THE RANI
Written by Pip and Jane Baker, directed by Sarah Hellings, 1985
Thank Christ! Real people, in a real, believable environment, the location filming for which is very ‘handsome’ and authentic. It also shows how much perceptions change; I had this video as a kid, and thought it was all a bit flimsy and dull. Now the scene-setting opening scenes look absolutely gorgeous (the villagers backlit by the sun, with illuminated insects buzzing around). The whole thing in fact is amazingly stylish, for this period (shooting through hedgerows, etc), and the pastoral music helps. (It’s certainly one of very few Doctor Who stories that has any call to be compared, even in passing – and totally unexpectedly – to Terrance Malick.)
Considering this is reviled eighties Doctor Who, it is actually quite beautiful (which is rarer than you might hope). Even the cartoonish elements don’t feel jarringly silly, and for once, even the extras know what they’re doing; there’s an attention to detail even here, with their tugging of forelocks – hats off to director Sarah Hellings.
Compared to the Fifth Doctor’s seasons, this has a genuinely sense of style, and an authenticity and surfeit of imagination (albeit of a bonkers Pip’n’Jane variety). This story has quite a solid rep – undeserved, I thought, on the basis of years’ old memories, but it is actually kind of great. I love season twenty-two’s distinctive darkness and, yes, violence, but it must be admitted that, though an uncharacteristically tame story for the season, this does seem far more timeless than Varos or Revelation. (Also, it’s lovely to see some trees!)
Its reputation is sullied (for me) by its association with the ludicrous cartoon that is Time and the Rani, but – despite a few silly coincidences, etc – it is an amazingly subtle, well-characterised, and attractively shot story, with above-par direction. Which is pretty impressive for a Pip’n’Jane story featuring Antony Ainley, Kate O’Mara, a rubber tree, and a baby T-rex. I’m so glad the classic series is still capable of surprising me, or at least of overturning my preconceptions!
However, while I do hate the really obvious mindset of introducing a ‘female Master,’ not least because it demeans his and the Doctor’s dualistic opposition, the Rani is actually far more dangerous and credible a threat than Ainley is here. Her contemptuous, superior snideness is a ball, and I love how she and the Master act like a bitchy married couple (“You see what she’s like?”). And, yes, the Rani’s TARDIS is a triumph of design and realisation.
It helps – and I’m not just being charitable or making allowances, as people tend to do for the runt of the litter – that Colin is a genuinely great Doctor here. He’s an engaging mix of the shrewd, compassionate (with Luke), reckless (setting off the Rani’s booby-trap unnecessarily!), passionate, frivolous, and righteous (“They should never have exiled you. They should have locked you in a padded cell”).
I even actually quite like the Sixth Doctor’s costume. Or at least, I’ve come to terms with it. Yes, it’s an odd decision on the part of the production team, motivated presumably by the desire to create a brandable look rather than anything else, but, as a magician’s costume, it isn’t inappropriate for the Doctor. It works against Baker’s snappish persona, creating an interesting tension – though a visually darker, more ‘serious’ costume would undeniably have acted as a helpful visual signifier of the antiheroic elements of his characterisation, perhaps making the Sixth Doctor easier to swallow. As it is though, what bugs me is how perfect and precise it is. A ‘tasteless’ costume would work much better if it didn’t seem quite so homogenous; clearly made as a whole outfit, it’d be more believable if it appeared like random parts.
The Sixth Doctor’s characterisation is funny, actually; he is presumably meant to be ‘dangerous’. Except… he isn’t; he’s likeable, just a bit snappish. Tom and Billy are far more dangerous than Colin is. I’m sure people would have far less problem with his performance if he weren’t so obviously being shoehorned into a role that doesn’t sit quite right. He seems like what he is: a nice, genial man trying to act like a bastard.
It’s very, very weird that this story has the exact same format as contemporary two-parters like The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, et al (especially because I always forget season twenty-two’s altered format, as I never noticed the different length as a kid). Once you realise though, it’s like an unlikely retrospective re-edit of an unpopular Doctor. Odd that, technically, this could be screened today and be acceptable in format (and stand up in most other ways – which probably couldn’t truly be said for a lot of bona fide ‘classics’).
However, having said all that, much as I was pleasantly surprised by this story’s relative solidity and coherence, I don’t find Mark of the Rani that interesting. Personally, I find the jumble of ideas and approaches of Revelation (and, to a lesser extent, The Two Doctors) more appealing. Mark of the Rani could be from any era; some people no doubt prefer that, but I’d rather stories have an approach individual to their era (surely something must be wrong if they don’t?).
(Also – Jeez, Luke Ward fills his britches! I mean, literally.)
Sunday, 27 December 2009
Written by Ben Aaronovitch, directed by Michael Kerrigan, 1989
Though I’ve seen Battlefield before, it was always such a crushing disappointment compared to the rest of season twenty-six that it has remained very unfamiliar to me. Opening a season with a scene set in a garden centre is baffling enough, and I can’t help but question the logic of presenting the Brigadier and UNIT without explanation, fifteen years after they stopped being regular fixtures of the series.
However, rewatching it now, despite not being a prime example of its era, the change of emphasis from the last few stories I’ve watched is notable: Doctor Who is suddenly aware of and drawing on its own mythology in a positive way – rather than through meaninglessly returning monsters. There’s a complex, adult awareness of the Doctor as a mythic, legendary figure; for the first time the Doctor is explicitly presented in the mythologised way which will culminate in Russell T Davies’ ‘lonely god’. Similarly, UNIT and the Brigadier are rejigged and reimagined in line with the current production team’s approach, not rehashed verbatim; UNIT is international and hardware-oriented, while the Brigadier is given a domestic life.
Suddenly Doctor Who is trying to be bigger and more ambitious than just telling ‘thrilling adventures’ – it’s epic and mythic, and has themes (nuclear armageddon, etc). Even in a shit story it’s noticeably more sophisticated an approach, being experimental in a way Doctor Who hasn’t been since, arguably, season eighteen (not that that season is a flawless template, as evidenced by Full Circle).
It’s such a shame the production is fumbled here, cos Aaronovitch’s skill at characterisation and the continued mythologisation of the Doctor has the potential to be as effective as in Remembrance of the Daleks. I’m not sure the cast of characters are even especially likeable, but never before this period would such a multitude of characters have been as economically but effectively characterised as broadly believable real people. There’s also a lot of good – if somewhat hyperbolic or portentous – lines, which remind me quite a lot of Steven Moffat’s scripts: “The situation is normal. It doesn’t get much worse than that”; “She vanquished me. And I threw myself on her mercy”; “I cannot be bound so easily!”; “Night has fallen here”; “Look to your children, Merlin!”
What’s particularly frustratingly is that the superficial awfulness of this story masks the good stuff underneath. If there was ever a story crying out for a dark tone, and a bit of subtlety to emphasise its mystery, it’s this. Instead we get bizarre little decisions which really damage the story’s credibility, like characters inexplicably spinning into the tinselly vortex. The sunny weather really doesn’t help the atmosphere, either, and the infamous music ruins it.
However, though a lot of things aren’t right with this production, it’s not hard to imagine it pruned and reshaped (beyond the realms of what’s possible with the DVD edit, which I haven’t seen), with a subtler score and more atmosphere (night filming, stormy weather), and performances taken down a less-is-more route. Unfortunately, the production design is obviously unalterable, which is tragic as the initial shot of Excalibur makes my heart sink; it’s so cheap and tawdry, in its Quasar set. (A far cry from Mike Tucker’s brilliantly original, organic design sketches.)
I also really wish the budget had stretched to the intended technological suits of armour, with mirrored visors and built-in displays; it would not only have been much more memorable, but also helped to visually present the idea of extradimensional knights. Similarly, though the Destroyer really is excellent, it’s a pity his gradual transformation from businessman to demon couldn’t have been realised (especially since this could have been done inexpensively with some horned shadows and creativity). More prosaically though, he’s crying out for an action figure!
In terms of format, it struck me whilst watching this how bizarre it is that the 25 minute episode-and-cliffhanger format remained entirely unchanged from 1963 to 1989 (even more so given the exception of season twenty-two’s 45 minute episodes). I’m not sure if that’s a case of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ or whether it just shows a dubious reticence on the part of the production team to alter anything fundamental, when they should’ve had the bravery to do whatever would best suit the stories.
Ultimately, it doesn’t work to try to reconcile Battlefield with the darkness and realism of the rest of season twenty-six, but viewed as an ideas-packed, larger than life adventure more akin to the preceding season (with a certain amount of complexity and underlying themes), it works quite nicely. It’s set in the near future! A modernised UNIT are back! And the Brigadier! With Arthurian knights from another dimension! And a big blue demon! And helicopter crashes! These are the bold – but slightly bonkers – concepts that people are so taken with if Russell T Davies’ name is on the credits, but reviled elsewhere.
Looked at in this way, I actually quite enjoyed this story. The realisation is a mess, and it should be a lot better than this, but even in terms of what actually made it to the screen, I found it quite agreeable. Which is a lot preferable to hating it for not being as good as Fenric or Ghost Light (or even its own novelisation). Watched charitably, it’s an imaginative script let down by cartoonish realisation. You can see at least a bit of the brilliance of the writer of Transit and The Also People (ie, the ‘tab’ scene, and the hardware-oriented international UNIT), and that’s enough for me to forgive any amount of sparkly gunfire and weedy swordfights. (It’s interesting noting Aaronovitch’s interest in the Brigadier and African characters, which will culminate with the African Lethbridge-Stewart dynasty, and Kadiatu, in the New Adventures.)
I’m not sure whether it’s watching the eras in context that’s making me more charitable to stories I’ve always disliked, but it is refreshing to actually be able to take back a negative opinion. As this is what a lot of people seem to have used the 2009 gap year for, I’m glad I’m managing to join in with the reassessment.
As for the eighties overall, in a recent DWM interview, there was a box-out containing some of Gareth Roberts’ so-called controversial opinions about Doctor Who, including the fact that the Doctor has never been miscast (with any faults being down to production team), and that with the right marketing, the whole of the decade could have been a success. Both of those points seem quite self-evident to me, but it’s interesting imagining, say, Colin and Sylvester actually having had some standing in the public eye – I can’t imagine quite what the general public would have made of Battlefield, but in fairness I don’t think it’s any worse or less accessible than quite a lot of the new series.
NB: So… is Ancelyn related to Marcus Gilbert’s role in Evil Dead 3?? Does this make Bruce Campbell canon?!
Saturday, 26 December 2009
Review: THE TV MOVIE
Written by Matthew Jacobs, directed by Geoffrey Sax, 1996
It can’t be overstated how inexplicable the TVM is, especially when you consider it functioning as the pilot for a reboot of a then-defunct series. After a story from an era very obviously getting to grips with the idea of utilising, rethinking, and expanding the mythology of the series, the garbled introductory voiceover makes it painfully clear that this is made by people who don’t have a clue what they’re doing. “It was on the planet Skaro that my old enemy, the Master, was finally put on trial.” Two seconds in and it’s already displaying a fatal disregard for anyone not on intimate terms with the original series. It’s inexplicable – did anyone involved with this have the faintest clue how to market a pilot?! Cos this isn’t how. Skaro, the Master? What?
More fundamentally baffling is the introduction of a past Doctor with no pop-cultural status, not from the PoV of an audience identification figure, but in the TARDIS console room – which it wouldn’t even be immediately obvious to a new audience is within the police box-in-space. It’s all too easy to say this, post-Rose, but restarting a series by going back to absolute basics (the Doctor – otherworldly hero; the TARDIS – erratic time machine) is surely a no-brainer. That is really all that the audience needs to be provided with (just look at An Unearthly Child – less is more, people!).
Who really thought muddying the water with thirteen lives – or even starting out with a regeneration! – was a good idea. (In fact, kicking off with a regeneration is the most damning demonstration of the counter-productively fan-pleasing approach adopted by Philip Segal; including something fan ‘wisdom’ demands should be included, even though it doesn’t work narratively, and which has no emotion behind it for the general audience.) Funny how, after four-and-a-bit series, the BBC Wales crew haven’t found any discussion of how regeneration works necessary, yet here ‘12 lives’ is bandied around willy-nilly, as if it means anything at all.
Everyone seems to be in awe of the fact that Russell T Davies managed to reboot DW for a wide audience (probably because the TVM fumbled it so badly) – and yeah, it is a feat in terms of ratings and the fact that family programming has been non-existent for so long… But in terms of creating a good introductory piece of Doctor Who (which I would argue Rose isn’t), surely it’s a no-brainer: a fully-formed, eccentric Doctor arrives in the life of an ordinary, likeable person, fights some memorable monsters, and gets to be heroic and win, in the context of an exciting – but funny and not po-faced – adventure. Obviously that’s what Davies was going for with Rose – I don’t think he succeeded (it’s vacuous and anodyne), but the TVM… clearly no-one had a vision for this worked out.
The TVM’s so concerned with what ‘should’ be included that consequentially, nothing’s bold enough here – as often stated, they tried to play with all the old continuity, but then messed it up; better that they’d had the courage to make big changes. The new series may be flawed, but its canniness in gradually reintroducing the fundamentals of the series from the ground up, and dispensing with those which aren’t relevant, really makes the TVM seem more inept than ever. The 2005 series managed to reformat the structure of the series (increased emotional content and emphasis on the ‘real world’) without actually disagreeing with or rebooting established continuity (allowing for fan-pleasing references which don’t alienate the general audience). The TVM, on the other hand, manages to alienate the general audience whilst trying to give lip-service to the past.
Contrasting the stylistic approach of the TVM and the new series says a lot about their fundamental differences; here, the Doctor is a Byronic dandy, while Davies gave us a bovver boy and a skinny-suited geek; the TVM has Puccini, the new series has Britney, Soft Cell, and the Scissor Sisters. Ordinarily I’d find the higher-brow approach more laudable, and though the new series’ pop-cultural excesses can grate, there has also been genuine intelligence and emotion beyond that – which the TVM, with its apparent greater aspirations, doesn’t ever achieve.
The new series is often too involved with its canny, audience-luring set-pieces and celebrity casting, but this is a bizarre example of things going much too far the other way. There’s nothing memorable about the script, or events, or characters (beyond the Doctor, arguably, who, though well-played, doesn’t feel new or original). Being a one-off has, I think, given the TVM as status within fandom that’s at odds with its ‘importance’ or quality, so it’s very easy to take for granted – even to take for granted that it’s a bit shit. But, watched objectively, it’s even worse than that: there is literally no imagination on display, nothing you haven’t seen before; no creativity or imagination. That is, all the things that make me prize Doctor Who.
By contrast, watching Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys recently, I was struck for the first time by its broad similarities with the TVM, which highlight the latter’s absolute wretchedness: an addled time traveller is hospitalised in nineties America, before getting away with the smart, cynical female doctor who treated him, and who eventually comes round to his way of thinking... Twelve Monkeys is everything an uninspired, half-baked made-for-TV movie isn’t (complex, effective, and visually idiosyncratic), and forms a damning counterpoint.
It’d be missing the point to think that its being made (well, set) in America, with American actors, is the problem– it’s that it’s made with an American mentality applied to a British franchise, which jars horribly (ie, po-faced, self-important, lazy, illogical – which is a slur, but generally true outside of HBO. Christ, I’d pay good money for a HBO Doctor Who…). The US setting doesn’t work, not because of the setting itself, but because though an English element is injected, it’s so patently fake and affected (tea, waistcoats, HG Wells), that it doesn’t ring true at all and is ultimately meaningless. (Whereas British productions like The Gunfighters or Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks are better able to integrate the show’s oft-cited ‘Englishness’ into an American milieu.) At least if an effort had been made to realise the San Francisco setting as something more than a generic American city there would have been some individuality.
What we got is a generic rainy thriller, in a generic American setting, with no individuality or any memorable ideas (the ‘yeti in the Underground’ factor). It’s pretty much the sort of rain-slicked, low-rent thriller Channel 5 used to show late at night; all that’s missing is the soft porn and Jean Claude Van Damme. Or Eric Roberts. (…Oh.) As such, I realised this time round that I’d never watch this if it weren’t (tangentially) Doctor Who.
All this is especially frustrating considering the set design; were the production overall as good and assured as it looks – if it had the plot and ideas to match – it’d be great. (The mirroring of scenes also is at least stylistically interesting – James Whale’s Frankenstein with the regeneration; the reborn Doctor and Master; the Doctor looking for clothes and Chang Lee investigating his belongings.) Regardless of your opinion of the concept of the TVM’s TARDIS interior, it looks fantastic. It’s so lovingly shot that I want to be in it, and smell the beeswax polish.
The quality of the production design also makes me feel we might really have missed out because of the lack of monsters – which is rather a baffling omission, making this story feel fundamentally different to existing Doctor Who. I guess ‘monsters’ were a bit passé in 1996, but a major appeal of Doctor Who is slavering BEMs lumbering out of the shadows. There’s fun, humour, excitement, tension, and scares there, and this story is therefore a good deal less fun, humorous, exiting, tense and scary than it could otherwise have been. Not that I don’t think there should be monsterless stories – but a more tangibly dangerous threat might have been the jolt this story needed. (What would a TVM monster have been like though? They could at least have had a good one-off one, à la Battlefield, rather than an army of CG Daleks landing on the Golden Gate Bridge – probably something bestial, shifty, and mainly unseen. Something a bit ‘edgy,’ more X-Files than B-movie; maybe like that Eighth Doctor DWM strip with Grace, focusing on a monster based on the weird translucent snake, rather than the Master (arguably a better concept…).)
Despite this oversight, at least Grace counts for quite a lot, and I like her – a genuinely grown-up, intelligent woman. She is quite similar to the sardonic Liz Shaw – no bad thing – though, like her, she almost doesn’t feel like a bona fide companion at all – whether because of these atypical characteristics, or a lack of roundels and blobby monsters, I’m not sure). And McGann’s obviously beautiful and brilliant, and clearly deserves better, as he is mainly called upon to shout a lot (which, luckily, he is very good at). Having said that though - I almost can’t believe how transparent the concept of the Eighth Doctor is (did we really fall for this back in 1996?): ‘he’s Victorian like you’d expect… but sexy!!’. The Victorian/Byronic elements of his costume are clearly meant to indicate individuality, but by people to whom this doesn’t come naturally.
Yeah, there are some lovely scenes in this story – the, "Don’t be sad, Grace. You’ll do great things" scene between Grace and the Doctor in her house is charming – but, on balance, the more I think about the TVM (and let’s face it, it’s had a lot of scrutiny), the worse it is. I started off trying to be fairly charitable, but by the end, it’s unforgivable. It’s just bollocks, isn’t it? I like what it gave to the Doctor Who world (in terms of the books and audio ranges), but considering that amounts to the Eighth Doctor and the Gothic TARDIS interior, that doesn’t seem much pay off for seven years’ wait and 89 minutes of my life.
The bottom line: scratch McCoy (much as I love him) and the regeneration (at least on screen), along with the backstory, amnesia, and temporal orbit, then add a monster, idiosyncrasy, wittier humour… and, then, yeah, it’d work. It is an intriguing digression (no other DW looks or feels like this)… unfortunately, that’s not entirely a good thing.
Frankly, I don’t have the patience to discuss it any more, but here as some other thoughts:
• The Doctor being mown down by a gang with automatic weapons would be unthinkable at any other point! Can you imagine the outcry if Tennant ended up knifed by a bunch of 14-year-old hoodies?
• What shitting colour is McGann’s coat? In publicity shots it appears brown, but fandom seems to think it’s bottle green? WE NEED TO KNOW.
• Put in context with the other Masters, it is quite horrible that Eric Roberts’ version strangles Bruce’s wife one-handed… But what’s the deal with his killing semen?
• A lot of the differences from the original run (the theme, romance, half-human) seem a lot tamer in light of what would be considered liberties with the new series, if it weren’t so successful (increased emotion, romance, different format); I get the feeling fandom would have suffered a collective seizure if the new series had screened in 1996.
Review: THE LONG GAME
Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Brian Grant, 2005
I’m not overly familiar with series one, as, though it got me back into Doctor Who, I wasn’t massively involved with it (and certainly not its run-up). But now, I’ve gotten to grips with the new series’ approach; the mix of serious stories with ‘zany’ ones, its emotional button-pushing and crowd-pleasing, and tend to cherry-pick the bits I like. But in 2005, it all felt hugely inconsistent, and a personal affront every time it was too crass or lazy. (It’s funny that now – already – it’s like going back to a forgotten, apocryphal era; like the Cushing movies, or at least an obscure prologue to Tennant’s incumbency.)
As for the Doctor, I’m deeply ambivalent about his 2005 vintage: I can’t help but feel, if you wanted an uneccentric, cocky, aggressive, war-scarred character, why make him the Doctor at all? (“Ooh, he’s tough, isn’t he?”) But at the same time, the unexpectedness of these characteristics makes him one of the most interesting incarnations, because no-one would have predicted his Mancunian swagger.
In fact, a lot of my beef with the Ninth Doctor is with his costume. I mean, I get it – black leather is shorthand for an unpretentious ‘edginess’ that’s accessible to the masses in a way a wing-collared shirt wouldn’t be. But I tend to view things in a visual sense, so maybe this bugs me more than most people, so, as the Doctor’s costume has always been such a strong visual signifier of his characteristics, this seems… unfortunately mundane. However, again, as an exception to the rule it’s interesting – so I’m ambivalent here too. (Mainly I just don’t like the hideous t-shirt/jumper thing. At least a shirt or actual jumper would’ve been more timeless.)
I do like that the Ninth Doctor is ugly though (striking, yes; handsome, no); they didn’t cast a stud Doctor, which would be one of the worst things that could happen to the character (and which is fortunately equally true of Tennant (unconventionally pretty), and Smith (‘Edward Tardishands’)). I should be grateful a leather jacket was as great a concession they made to accessibility.
Eccleston’s Doctor is also childish to the point of vindictive, but I like that he’s not perfect – what does annoy me though are the moments of forced ‘zaniness’; his ‘idiot savant’ routine, which doesn’t seem to come naturally at all (and even if this is deliberate, I still don’t like the effect it gives). Playing it straight, he’s great, so he’s not too bad here (though his anger and survivor guilt obviously comes out most in Dalek). This mostly harder portrayal of the Doctor makes the Eighth, by contrast, feel overly idealised and a bit wishy-washy. In fact, I know that Lawrence Miles considers, compared to the Ninth Doctor – introduced blowing up a department store – the nice, romantic, handsome Eighth Doctor feels like a total gyp.
Overall, it’s funny how old-school this feels (a bovver boy Doctor notwithstanding) – which is quite reassuring; with a bit of distance, it’s easy to really see that, where the TVM does feels like a different beast, this is unavoidably the same series, just given a lick of fresh paint. I even kept expecting cliffhangers (“‘That thing,’ as you put it, is in charge of the human race” – cue music!). (Visually, it doesn’t even look that much better than a lot of vintage Doctor Who; CG, film quality, and editing distinguishes it, but as it’s costumes and sets that are the more obvious, this doesn’t create such a leap as it might seem it should.) Having said that, looking back in a few more years’ time, this will equally appear very much of its time (well, I suppose most things tend to be); it’s accessible and easy to grasp, but with a veneer of voguish ‘darkness’ (just look at The Dark Knight or Watchmen).
A decision of the current production team which is very ‘now’ (being so desperate not to turn people off with anything not quite obvious enough), which I get, but don’t really like, is the contemporary-clothes-in-the-far-future approach. Yes, it avoids pyjamas and silver jumpsuits, but (say) Blade Runner-like ethnic diversity would be far more interesting and memorable (there are some weird haircuts here, but it’s mainly Next T-shirts).
More understandable (and humanising) is Davies’ trademark focus on real peoples’ lives (or lower-middle-class fixation, depending on how charitable you want to be), even in such a far-flung future. However, I can’t help feel the Editor’s rant about humanity rings worryingly true: "Strutting about all over the surface of the earth, like they’re so individual – when of course they’re not; they’re just cattle."
This is probably the most positive I’ve ever felt about the Ninth Doctor – but suddenly, it works. A harder, black-clad, no-frills Doctor (literally); I get it now. After the event, this suddenly seems quite an attractive concept. And at least these characteristics are addressed thematically/fictively (he’s like this due to the Time War), and the hard-wearing, no-nonsense clothing reflects his personality, so doesn’t appear an arbitrary choice (unlike, say, the Sixth Doctor’s costume).
The Long Game isn’t a exceptional story, by any means, but it is pretty representative of the new series’ take on the show, and, even given its cons, I’d so much rather take this over the reverential (but just… wrong) TVM. Immediately, even a ‘lesser’ story like this makes so much more sense than the TVM. This is recognisably Doctor Who – not especially in relation to a given era, but like a distillation of the public’s expectations; it’s big, brash, bold, set on a space station, has humour, action, emotion, monsters and possession, and an old-school villain. I may not like every element of Russell T Davies’ approach, but at least it has some notable imagination and idiosyncrasy.
Review: RISE OF THE CYBERMEN/THE AGE OF STEEL
Written by Tom MacRae, directed by Graeme Harper, 2006
This is the only new series story I missed when it was on TV and never managed to see, up to now. And it’s awful from before the credits (“From beyond the grave!” / the gurning death), and riddled with typical portentous new series hyperbole (“The TARDIS is dead!” / “The silent realm, the lost dimension”).
After finding myself unexpectedly enjoying the not especially highly thought of Long Game, this two-parter feels like a renege of the previous season’s promise. This is possibly an unfair story to judge by, but everything’s so colourless, even down to the Doctor (who really doesn’t make much impression; he’s just some gangly hyperactive schoolboy). Tennant doesn’t come across well at all here – it’s not so much that he’s too young, as too ‘contemporary’. With his prettiness and Cons, he seems all too readymade for the ‘MySpace generation’. Ugh.
Unfortunately, an extreme example though it its, I think this is fairly representative of the majority of the post-2005 era. It feels very shallow and flimsy – very ‘21st century’ Doctor Who. I can imagine this appeals to emo 14-year-old girls, who think it’s the height of emotional sophistication (with its rehashing of Father’s Day’s Rose-Pete interaction, but with diminishing returns), and the people who do those hideous cartoon/manga pictures of Adric and Turlough making out on DeviantArt. (I bet there’s plenty of Mickey/Jake slashfic out there too.)
This is one of those stories where lots of picky little elements add up to seriously damage the whole (somewhat like Battlefield, though there are considerably less interesting concepts or themes under the surface here). It feels very teenage – like a bad nineties CBBC programme; bright, with no real threat, and shallow emoting (Rose’s petulance, etc). The permatanned CBBC twink as a guerrilla – so is this actually a comedy?! Certainly not exactly a Genesis for the Cybermen, or a triumphant return for Graeme Harper. (Not to mention how hard I find it to believe that they predicated Mickey’s double around the Mickey/Ricky ‘gag’. Noel Clarke’s ‘hard’ acting is pretty funny though.) Oh, and Lumic looks like he’s touching cloth. All the time.
Given how lauded the new series is as ‘Doctor Who with less wobbly effects,’ the Cybermen actually look pretty disappointing, with their flares and child-bearing hips and one-man-band racket/stomping, while all the computer jargon stuff – ‘free upgrade,’ ‘not compatible,’ ‘you will be deleted,’ ‘human 0.2’ – relegates the Cybermen to the level of junk mail internet freebies, and about as threatening. (The thinking that they have to have a Dalek-equivalent war cry is absurd too.) And the extras’ electrocution acting is a big mistake – did we learn nothing from Destiny of the Daleks?
Even worse is the computer-generated conversion process and factory, which is laughably, inexplicably bad. It’d be awful if it were made for a DVD menu or something. And ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’… Yes, I get the idea of the juxtaposition, but it’s totally meaningless; there’s no thematic irony. I mean, if the character listened to something, say, romantic or emotional, it’d work (maybe something rat pack; they were all total thugs – at least that’d suit Lilt. I mean, Crane).
This feels like it has a lot less to do with Doctor Who than The Long Game (despite coming off as an Invasion remake); it’s hollow, brash, and shallow. It really encapsulates all the worst elements of a Doctor Who trying to be modern and ‘relevant’ (ooh, mobile phones help them win – how zeitgeist!). Doctor Who’s nearly always at its best when it simply does its own thing (in the new series, even if I don’t necessarily like all the more eccentric stories like Gridlock, Love and Monsters, even Partners in Crime or Turn Left, they are at least much more laudable for being so individual, compared to contrived and mass-produced stories like this or the various specials). Even the parallel world is immensely boring and uninventive – contemporary England, with some zeppelins – and this is yet another new series story with ‘possessed contemporary humans’ zombie-walking around.
In the context of a direct contrast with his nine predecessors, Tennant seems a bit too weedy and inconsequential. Like Eccleston, he’s best when he has the chance to play straight, but he doesn’t have enough gravitas, here at least. Much as I do like him when he has stronger material to play (Human Nature, Midnight, Silence in the Library), I do tend to find the Doctors who are arguably most effective on-screen (in the sense of most obviously living up to what is expected of them) less interesting than those who are flawed, or in some way less predictable (ie, Hartnell is unusual as he is essentially an elderly hero; Colin’s perceived flaws – verbosity and violence – keep him unpredictable; and Eccleston’s Doctor is fascinating as an unexpectedly original interpretation).
By comparison, Tennant seems unfortunately predictable. Yes, he’s among the less typically youthful Doctors, and is one of the most attractive, but these things are so predictable in the context of modern TV that they don’t feel like departures. Beyond that, he’s gobby and energetic, but to an extent those characteristics have always been part of his character, and don’t seem new.
Ten Stories conclusion
So, what have I leant from my travails through these ten stories? To be honest… I’m not really sure. I do find it fascinating trying to reconcile the show’s various disparate eras… but, in fact, they’re possibly too disparate to ever truly be able to relate to each other to any meaningful extent (a Not-We would probably find it bizarre that The Dalek Invasion of Earth, say, and Blink are from the same series, in the way we don’t). Their relationship is that they were made as part of a continuing series; beyond that, I suppose, it’s the wild differences of approach that make them interesting (as well as the fact that one series can encompass so many styles and approaches).
In that sense, watching these stories has given me a renewed appreciation for Doctor Who’s ambition (albeit unintentional, or unplanned), but perhaps in future it’s actually more interesting to try not to contextualise the eras in relation to one another. Their relationship just ‘is’ that they were all made under the banner of ‘Doctor Who,’ but in a way is far less important than the enjoyment a specific story can offer. Perhaps it’s more rewarding to decontextualise; to try to divorce a given story from its position in the canon, and just enjoy it purely on its own terms.
Ignoring preconceptions and the same tired associations (ratings and popular opinion), and what came before, and what we know followed; now, there’s a challenge.
If nothing else though, I think this marathon has shown me why I like DW so much – nothing revolutionary, but for its stupidly mad ideas, imagination, diversity of approach, atmosphere, feel, and, of course, characters and actors. These aren’t remarkable reason, but it’s good to be reminded. DW really is very silly but, though it means a lot to me and I take it quite seriously, my appreciation derives in a big part from that. A lot of people seem to downplay the programme’s silliness, but I really love that even when it’s playing things straight and taking an individual story seriously, its fundamental concepts are still really stupid. I enjoy that tension. It kind of means it can get away with being serious without being po-faced. This is probably a lazy comparison, but Star Trek, from the little exposure I’ve had to it, deals with concepts which, though still ridiculous from a real-life PoV (spaceships and humanoid aliens), are so firmly ensconced in our culture that they don’t seem absurd, and so there is no antidote to the general seriousness of its approach, rendering it worthy and dull. DW is mad. I love DW.
Perhaps most notably, I can be very cynical about new DW, because I’m always slightly suspicious of what’s going to happen, in case it’s messed up, so truly taking the opportunity to appreciate the diversity of the series’ past makes me very, very excited about the forthcoming Moffat/Smith era. Without being trite, that diversity makes me want Doctor Who to carry on doing new, varied things, to try new approaches and go to new places (music swells…). The potential of a change to the series is desperately exciting, coming to a point where everything’s up in the air and alterable, on the cusp of adding a whole new era to those represented here.
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Spin-off Faction Paradox novel by Philip Purser-Hallard, 2004
It might be uncharitable to note that I read crashingly mundane ‘filler’ NA White Darkness prior to Of the City of the Saved..., which could be seen as doing Purser-Hallard an enormous favour. But, to be honest, he doesn’t need it. Of the City of the Saved... is a fantastic novel. And I use the word novel strategically – the density of information and imagination it contains is comparable to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. In other words, the book is considerably more of a literary achievement than the majority of Doctor Who related books.
In fact, it seems rather tragic that, arguably being part of a niche within a niche, so few people relatively speaking will come to read it. I’m a real fan of the Faction Paradox novels, not least because they derive from Lawrence Miles’ creations, but they’re also of an unfeasibly high quality; Erasing Sherlock, Warring States, and Daniel O’Mahony’s Newtons Sleep (sic) all have quite a lot more going for them than the majority of the concurrent BBC Doctor Who ‘proper’ novels. I have no idea how widely-read or well-received these books have been within fandom, but they are completely worth checking them out; I believe you can buy them from the publisher's website.
In its sheer invention, this book threatens to out-Miles Lawrence, as well as having much in common with the wittier style of Miles’ earlier books like (the equally ace) Christmas on a Rational Planet and Alien Bodies – a sense of humour defuses the potential for the novel to become mired in its own creativity, and enhances rather than defuses enjoyment of the book. The City itself is such an endlessly fascinating concept, with a level of information constantly maintained that I at least found fascinating and highly enjoyable (although I realise this could have easily become self-indulgent). The experience of reading this book is enormously compulsive, so I finished it in little over two days; compare and contrast with the equivalent enjoyment derived from Miles' magnum opus, Interference.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the novel was its great numbers of twists – several of which served as red herrings – the majority of which, satisfyingly, I had in no way predicted, the bombardment of general information being somewhat helpful to the whodunit set-up. If there are ever further series of more adult-oriented Doctor Who books than the BBC’s current output, I’d love to see Purser-Hallard’s name on one of the spines – or, in fact (why not?) as part of the current range. The couple of explicitly Doctor Who-related references that I noticed (to the series, as opposed to the EDAs) – the half-Androgum cook, and the appearance of a Mechanoid in the attack at the end – suggest something of an abiding love for the series, so the BBC could do far worse than commission PP-H.
The sheer amount of information, though undoubtedly one of the novel’s strongest points, and part of its uniqueness, is something of a double-edged sword in that it does impact slightly negatively on the novel’s characters. Which is not to say that they aren’t likeable, etc, but does perhaps hold the novel back from absolute greatness. Nevertheless, it’s definitely up there with the best of Doctor Who fiction, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, although any fans of White Darkness out there might want to locate something with a little less originality.
Wednesday, 16 December 2009
Review: THE UNDERWATER MENACE
Audio soundtrack of incomplete story, written by Geoffrey Orme, directed by Julia Smith, 1967
The vilification of this story says a lot about DW fandom’s humourlessness; it’s a blast. Obviously it’s also shite, but to see it purely in that way misses the point that there’s absolutely nothing offensive here, and certainly nothing to justify it as contender for ‘Worst. Story. Ever’. I really would take this absurd comic book runaround over dreary stories like The Three Doctors, The Face of Evil, Planet of Fire – which nevertheless, have perfectly serviceable reputations. The fact that this essentially harmless piece of fluff is singled out as especially dreadful does at least show how extreme its excesses are – but even this is in its favour, as far as I’m concerned; by comparison, all those other stories are too mediocre to even bother hating.
What to say, then? The Underwater Menace is FUN. That about covers it. It’s set in ATLANTIS, for god’s sake – that’s absurd enough to get me on side for starters, but it gets better: the bushy eyebrows! Why? Never mind, here come the crap stereotypes, psychotic music, and gypsy Doctor! (I love how rascally Troughton looks when he leaves his piratical gold hoop on.) All this AND Ben in rubber!
Even the eternally derided Joseph Furst’s Zaroff is fantastic value for money, and at least his utter, overblown lunacy is acknowledged within the story. The moment when the king gives him a look that says, ‘You’re nuts!’, but just says, “Oh, nothing…” is priceless. Zaroff even kills people with harpoons – somebody bring this guy back! All his overblown dialogue is fab (pointedly ignoring ‘that’ line. Though not that well, obviously), but the Zaroff scene that tickled me most was when someone declaims the line, “May the wrath of Amdo engulf you!” at him, but he replies with a contemptuously dismissive, “I’ll take my chances – get out!”. I think it’s the smug self-confidence of his lunacy that makes him so entertaining… In that respect he’s a surprisingly effective flipside to the Doctor.
The general po-faced response to a story which so clearly doesn’t warrant (any) deep analytic study is just depressing – Patrick Mulkern, on the Radio Times’ episode guide page, describes it as "camp bilge," although he at least acknowledges the enjoyable sight of “fit duo Michael Craze and Frazer Hines cavorting around in tight wetsuits”. Everyone always bangs on about how Doctor Who is all about diversity – and, yes; it should be – so the assumption that this is automatically crap or ‘worthless,’ just because it’s a lightweight story strikes me as slightly ridiculous. It’s not so much a case of this being crap, just that it goes into a tongue-in-cheek area of B-movie absurdities, more so than is the norm in Doctor Who – whereas, say, Frontier in Space or Earthshock try to be ‘better’ than that (ie, slightly less hackneyed), but they end up worse because they’re flat and tedious (in my personal opinion, but you get the point).
Tsk. All I wanted to say was how unexpectedly enjoyable this story is (particularly the existing episode three). How grim that I’ve felt the need to justify such an inconsequential opinion to death! That took the fun out of things. Maybe I’ll go and watch it again.
Sunday, 13 December 2009
Review: THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES, SERIES 2
CBBC spin-off series, 2008
It feels slightly unfair judging SJA on adult terms – but, at the same time, it clearly does cater for a wide audience, despite the limitations of its format, so why not. Though not a rabid follower of all things new series, I am surprisingly fond of this spin-off – certainly more so than Torchwood, which was almost incomprehensibly awful in every way, at least up until Children of Earth. (I was apparently mistaken in thinking an ‘adult’ Doctor Who spin-off would address similar stories with a greater degree of complexity, realism and maturity – akin to season twenty-six – rather than being Doctor Who’s deformed cousin.)
Favourably comparing SJA to Torchwood is something of a backhanded complement, but let’s say that despite being as twee as fuck, it is considerably more mature and likeable a series, and leave it there.
Lis Sladen is of course wonderful – although the extremity of her Doctor-/Captain Jack-like knowledge seems a little odd or inappropriate at times; yes, she travelled with the Doctor, but even given her subsequent involvement with aliens on earth, what did she do, take notes?! It would be more interesting were she slightly less assured in this respect – but then I suppose that would simply lead to her having to consult Mr Smith even more, and the less we see of that mobile disco, the better. I’m not entirely sold on Luke, either. Fortunately though, he’s the only one of Sarah’s adolescent posse who really feels like ‘a child actor’.
Clyde, on the other hand, is great (even though he should be massively annoying); in fact, having palmed Martha Jones off on Torchwood, could things go the other way, by having him become a companion? The male companion has only featured in the new series as aberrations like Adam, the unwilling Mickey and Doctor-equivalent Jack, but I reckon Clyde Langer could work (partly because he’s straight enough to forestall the redtops’ inevitable raised eyebrows about two men in the TARDIS).
Maria’s replacement, Rani (no relation), is perfectly likeable too; in fact, she seems more natural than Maria – but is slightly less interesting. Maria went against the grain in terms of leads – as established by the new series’ Rose/Martha/Donna – by seeming a bit art school, where the template established by the Davies companions is anything but.
The budget of this series is noticeably reduced: the first series gave us original monsters the Gorgon, Kudlak, and the Trickster (who everyone seems unfeasibly impressed by; a black-robed extradimensional evil being seems pretty bog-standard to me), whereas there are conspicuously no new creations in this entire series (Clyde’s dad with blue veins and obligatory freaky contacts doesn’t count). More generally, the effects (especially the CGI) don’t match up to the series’ ambition – which wouldn’t matter except they are so obviously trying to match Doctor Who’s, and falling short; a smaller focus might be beneficial in future. (Even the Black Archive looked all too obviously like an MFI warehouse, with the security to match.)
In fact, this series is generally weaker than the first. The Last Sontaran suffers from feeling unpleasantly nineties (all the computer hacking stuff – also, the radio telescope is even less realistic than The Android Invasion’s!), and away from the team’s usual stomping grounds, the story feels very thin, while Kaagh’s literal stomping got tiresome pretty quickly. (Incidentally, his name would be okay if it was pronounced as it’s written – ‘Kaah’ – but ‘Karg’ sounds unfortunately B-movie.)
Also – though this is more the fault of The Sontaran Stratagem – this story runs with the Sontarans’ reworking as noble warriors, with their hyperbolic suffixes and absurd war chant, which seems somewhat incompatible with their establishment in The Time Warrior as the ultimate parody of military buffoonery (spelt out during Lynx’s very first appearance by the brilliantly funny moment with the little flag). They’re meant to be unpleasant little thugs – nobility and honour shouldn’t come into it.
Also, the lack of any follow-up to the events of The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End is irritating; a) given the propensity of the three series to reference one another, this feels like a big oversight, and b), why go out of the way to constantly show alien incursions that are apparently too big for the public to avoid… and then instantly forget about them the next time the same thing happens.
Let’s see – obsessive-compulsive list coming up: in the new series alone, the public have been faced with large-scale alien activity in Aliens of London/World War Three, The Christmas Invasion, Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, The Runaway Bride, Voyage of the Damned (kind of), Partners in Crime, The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, and the aforementioned series four finale. Oh, and guess who wrote EVERY SINGLE ONE of those stories (save one – and Helen Raynor doesn’t appear to have a personality so she doesn’t count). Tsk.
Normality is reset each time – which is understandable, but begs the question, why bother in the first place? Journey’s End combined three series, but with no repercussions, save a reference to "those Dalek things," and the Brigadier’s comment that "now the cat’s out of the bag about aliens…" – so what’s the point?
The Day of the Clown was pretty good, but suffered from over-explanation, which diffused its creepiness (that every single threat Sarah faces absolutely has to be alien, rather than something more nebulous, is gratingly literal), while this and the subsequent Secrets of the Stars both end with possessed people wandering around, as in The Christmas Invasion – an example of slightly lazy feeding off the parent series. In fact, these stories feel too similar for one to follow the other in the run – the main difference being that Bradley Walsh makes a perfectly serviceable villain, whereas (the equally washed-up) Russ Abbot is a bit shit.
The Mark of the Berserker didn’t do that much for me either – do we really need a Sarah-lite story in a run of six stories? In another example of the spin-off’s stringent following of the new series’ formula, this story in particular was hampered by the sledgehammer emotional content – although, arguably, it was a little more ambiguous and thus interesting that usual, in the interplay between Clyde and his hitherto unseen absentee father. (On a side note, isn’t Three Non Blondes’ Jocelyn Jee Esien fab? I sort of fell in love with her here; I’d rather she had a bigger role in the series than Rani’s dippy mum.)
The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith, much like the previous season’s Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? (incidentally – any kids’ show referring to that particular Bette Davis psychological melodrama is automatically a winner in my book), is the strongest story here because it tears up the rule book in terms of format, while its emotional content derives from the situation, rather than being bolted on.
As for Enemy of the Bane – I hate the mentality of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into finale stories, in the mistaken belief that it’ll mean more, so, much like its predecessors, this ended up feeling flimsy, lacking the preceding story’s more effortless epic quality.
The Brigadier’s triumphant return was a huge disappointment, simply because it wasn’t allowed to be triumphant. The man barely even talks to any of the regulars, let alone interacts with them to a significant degree! I fully realise that this is probably due to Nicolas Courtney’s advanced age, but it could have been no barrier to his involvement had the character been written with this in mind (rather than slashing his involvement because he wouldn’t be running around or dodging bullets); he’s barely even present! There’s certainly no character development, and his involvement here seems ultimately a rather thankless missed opportunity.
It would still be wonderful to see him return in a bona fide – and, preferably, character-driven – Doctor Who story, one that was actually concerned with the character beyond his being used as an end-of-season reveal.
On the plus side, his walking-stick gun was, it has to be said, kind of inspired. Given that, in his civvies, the character is deprived of the military background which defines him (to an extent, he is ‘just an old man’ here), it was canny to give him a memorable visual addition (akin to recognisable accoutrements like Sarah’s watch, sonic lipstick, and Nissan Figaro); a gimmick appropriate to a kids’ series, but which also goes some way to diffusing his potential quaintness.
I’m well aware my opinions here are more or less irrelevant – I have no doubt this series is wonderful for its primary target audience – but, still, it is worth watching for more than fanboy completism alone, though I do feel some of the limitations of the new series’ format which it replicates are exposed.
However – the fact that this series is as good as it is is quite a shocker. I need only direct your attention to the trailer for the Bob Baker K9 series to show how bad a children’s DW spin-off could be, appearing as it does to encapsulate everything tawdry and lazy about kids’ TV. ‘Darius, Starkey, and Jorjie’? When even the names don’t have any bearing on reality, you know you’re in trouble. And, rationalising the disparity between a London setting and Australian locations by saying it’s set ten years into a globally-warmed future – for the love of god, just SET IT IN AUSTRALIA. At least then the whole thing’d be comfortably out of the way.
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
ON THE DOCTORS' COSTUMES
I can’t say I’m desperately well-dressed, but I do like clothes, and therefore I like that the Doctor likes clothes. It’s unsurprising clothes are important to the character; given his variants, it’s natural that the outfits he wears define and differentiate his incarnations.
I’m not aware of any major discussion of the Doctors’ costumes, but as a visually-minded person I tend to notice elements of ‘visual continuity’ as much as I do the regular kind. It’s not ordinarily something I’d think about in a conscious way, but I can’t help inadvertently mentally cataloguing Hartnell’s different cravats or Colin’s waistcoats – it’s just part of the way my minds works, so it’s an aspect of the character I find interesting. What’s really got me thinking about clothes is Matt Smith’s costume. At first, I was immediately relieved that something old fashioned had been chosen (as opposed to, say, a ‘yoof’ hoodie uniform or regulation-trendy skinny jeans) – the Doctor’s costume has always been such a signifier of his unconventionality that I still feel cheated by Eccleston’s outfit.
Since it was initially revealed, it’s become more and more apparent how trendy Smith’s costume is – but I don’t think it really matters. It’s fashionable in terms of a specific Topman/i-D demographic, so in fact it’s quite clever of the production team to have smuggled in an ‘old fashioned’ costume under the auspices of what is currently fashionable. I imagine the ‘old fashionedness’ will outlast the trendiness; in future, people’ll probably only see its student/professor contrast, rather than the preppy/tweedy trends it’s derived from.
It is strange how very ‘on-trend’ it is; the All Saints work boots, the jacket, the bowtie – you can’t get away from models dressed exactly like that in every magazine going. In fact, when the costume was released, The Guardian (yes, yes, I’m such a bleeding heart liberal; it’s okay, I didn’t buy it) did a little satirical piece introduced with the line ‘Here is the latest Burberry model…,’ going on to cite the look’s overall trendiness – or rather, berate the costume designers for such blatant box-ticking, saying that the Doctor should be above such things (a concern I find pretty funny coming from a mainstream newspaper).
As I say, the costume will likely become so ubiquitous it’ll surpass the styles it’s mirroring (it already feels very familiar), though I am ambivalent about the decision to make it so close to current trends. (As opposed to, say, the Fifth Doctor’s outfit alluding to the 80s Brideshead thing, rather than completely lifting a style.) It does make it harder to judge objectively, too; I really like it, but is that partly because it’s fashionable, you’re exposed to similar things everywhere at the moment, so it just seems ‘right’? No matter, in purely DW terms, it works – the fusty tweediness, yes; the boots have a good strong Pertwee/Tom precedent, but, being laced, are also different enough, and give the whole thing a bit of edge, contrasting with the Troughton-like bowtie (sort of skinhead-cum-academian). Nice range of textures, too – presumably a high definition consideration, or am I reading too much into this?! Good to see something other than a white shirt, anyway. (Hilariously, The Sun (and, no, I definitely didn’t buy that) did an spread rather desperately trying to make out that the costume includes elements of every single of the previous Doctors’ outfits, including the Seventh Doctor’s white shirt (which is hardly a defining element of his look anyway)… Even though Smith’s is clearly not white in the picture they’d published. Ah, The Sun. Bastion of accuracy.)
I love the Doctors’ costumes, actually – all of them. I’m really pleased that the Eleventh Doctor’s been given a look – potential Hoxton wankerishness aside – that chimes with his predecessors’ eccentricities rather more than the Ninth or Tenth do. The way the Doctor dresses really does mean such a lot within the programme, as shorthand for his ‘otherness,’ not just as an alien, but as a TV hero. With the exception of the Ninth’s, each costume very plainly states that this isn’t a character who’s going to function in exactly the way you’d expect.
The First Doctor’s outfit is, rightly, the most straightforward, and, although it’s easy to consider them broadly similar (check trousers, black jacket) the Second’s is a deceptively clever variation on it. It manages to be an anarchic subversion of the original ‘Edwardian’ silhouette, whilst also maintaining enough continuity to not be alienating. Similarly, the Third Doctor’s initial, season seven costume is another fairly minor twist on the same basic approach (interesting though that Pertwee favoured a plain Nehru jacket) – still Edwardian, black jacket, just dressier, with the addition of an opera cape. Capes are fab; all kudos to Pertwee for pulling that look off. Especially in his later costumes, when he obviously had the run of the costume department, he should look awful (coloured ruffled shirts, velvet jackets, AND checked Inverness cloaks?!), but he does actually look pretty cool.
In fact, it’s impressive that somehow he avoids looking like a total ponce, perhaps because he’s often quite dour and plays the role very straight. I guess, to an extent, his style is akin to Matt Smith’s in that it chimes with general tendencies of the period – frills and velvet and so on. (At least he avoided flares.) I’m not sure about the bouffant (although at least it’s kind of unique and doesn’t date as readily as other contemporaneous 70s dos; the 70s did no-one any favours), but I’d like to be able to stride around like that when I’m 55. (Martial arts might also be a bonus, then.)
Of these costumes, it’s the little variations that I particularly like (something there’s been less and less of as the marketing of the show has become more controlled and canny); for example, I really like the white version of the First Doctor’s astrakhan hat, and his Panama, and he looks particularly great when he wears his cloak and little wire-framed glasses (like the Fifth and Tenth Doctors in their brainy specs). I must also be one of the few people who actually loves the Second Doctor’s early ‘stovepipe’ hat (or, more accurately, according to DWM, a Paris Beau, Capotain, or bird-catcher’s hat – not as catchy, though), partly because of its bizarreness, but probably also as it was so short-lived and only few picture exist of it (perhaps I’d be less keen if it had become totally ubiquitous). Even tiny variations like the Second Doctor’s fur coat or cloak, down to his woolly hat in Fury from the Deep, are representative of the series’ earlier off-the-cuff production, in a way that wouldn’t really happen later on.
The Fourth Doctor’s various costumes are odd, really, because no-one looks beyond his almost cartoon-like features, hat, and scarf; the costume itself just isn’t that defining – consider, no-one ever really describes him as being Victorian in appearance, even though during season thirteen, that’s exactly what his outfit is like. I’m not so keen on the initial short jacket, though I love his cardigan and straggling necktie. Baker’s costume is great in terms of its variability; it gives the character a richness, not to mention a realism, and, pleasingly, especially early on, really looks like he’s been raiding a charity shop. Lots of detail too – cravats, neckties, the TARDIS key as a pendant, high waisted trousers, different hats and coats. Lovely. I’m less keen on the simpler coat and open-necked shirt of seasons sixteen and seventeen, but the variation is nice.
I’m also a big fan (again, one of few?) of his stylised season eighteen look – interesting though that John Nathan-Turner initially wanted a completely new look; wonder what they were considering? It is fairly ridiculous – and take it as read that the question marks are hideous – but it works as a reinvention of an existing look. The massiveness of the Russian army-style greatcoat looks great on Tom (nice green patterned lining, too!), and the red shoes and argyle socks/burgundy boots is a nice variation.
The Fifth Doctor’s costume, on the other hand, I absolutely loathe, for a variety of reasons. More so even than the Sixth’s. It’s the first time a Doctor wears a single unchanging costume, which is just a terrible idea (at least Tennant’s, though essentially the same, has some variation). I’m not sold on the ‘sporting motif’ thing anyway (a polo outfit would’ve been better), but it’s so flimsy and badly made (especially those pyjama bottoms! And the jacket doesn’t even appear to be lined); the whole thing looks like a fancy dress version, not the real thing! Actually, having said that, purely from the point of view of the design, it works (in the DWM strip it’s quite effective). It’s just that in practise the red and beige is horrible, and as an Edwardian cricketing outfit, it’s so patently inaccurate; I hate that it’s someone’s contrived idea of that concept (a frock coat… with a cricket jumper), when they could have done some research and put him in a more believable jumper and stripy blazer combo. His Panama hat is quite good though – if underused. The high-waisted trousers, shirtsleeves and braces look of Planet of Fire is an improvement, too.
I really do think the Fifth Doctor’s outfit trumps the Sixth’s as worst ever. The Sixth's, I’ve come to like if you view it as a magician’s outfit, and in its brashness creates a nice tension with Colin Baker’s difficult persona. In fact, I like it more the more ridiculous it gets (ie, the starry necktie/metallic purple-striped waistcoat combo from Terror of the Vervoids). The problem with it, though a little more substantial-looking than its predecessor, is it’s so obviously a designed whole, like it was bought as an off-the-peg outfit. If it looked like various thrown-together items, that’d at least make more sense.
The other thing is that no-one ever reacts realistically to it. In a physical sense, there’s no reason why he couldn’t turn up in The Godfather or a kitchen sink kind of scenario in his patchwork coat – as long as people reacted realistically to it. Personally, I think that’d make it easier to swallow; as it is, with most incidental characters not even mentioning it, it damages suspension of belief – it feels like the show is being dishonest to us. Even if it happened everywhere he went (which actually couldn’t be a worse running gag than series four’s, ‘We’re not married!’), at least that’d add a veneer of realism, knowing that the people he meets are thinking the same as the audience. In fairness, it is probably true of all the Doctors’ outfits that people seldom react realistically to them, but this is most apparent when it comes to the Sixth. It does seem the production team realised it didn’t function in a realistic sense, but then shot themselves in the foot by trying to ignore that, rather than acknowledge it. (…His cloak in Revelation looks great though.)
I know a lot of people dislike the Seventh Doctor’s costume, too, but I have quite a soft spot for it, perhaps cos I find the pullover a lot easier to ignore than the shirt collar question marks (although, coincidentally, I did just come across a load of rehearsal photos from Ghost Light where McCoy is without the jumper and it does look a billion times better). It’s a bit too bright and light to start with, but I do like how genuinely dishevelled it is. Interesting too that it’s much later than any of the others – I wonder if this was commented on at the time? It’s quite thirties in style, and the tie, as opposed to cravat or bowtie, is quite modern. I read that it was meant to look normal from a distance and then stranger close up, which I think works – the paisley overload, lapel watch, etc. And how cool are the two-tone brogues? His TVM costume is interesting as a variation, though I agree with what McCoy said at the time about it being ‘an American idea of an English gentleman’. I prefer his white linen suit from the NAs though; it bugs me that we’ll never get to see that in real life. The godawful montaged effort on the cover of The Shadow of the Scourge audio doesn’t count.
As for the Eighth Doctor: there really isn’t much to say. A lazy Edwardian default, but made a bit Byronic, to mix in some sex appeal. Fine, whatever. The Ninth, however: as I say, I’m ambivalent. As a one-off, I like it for how unusual it is, I’m just glad it didn’t set a precedent. Now we’ve had a suited Doctor and are about to get a tweed-clad one at least the Ninth’s leather has become a variation rather than a new precedent for 'modern' Doctors’ outfits. It does sort of work – the hard-wearing traveller thing – but I just wish he wore a shirt or sailor jumper (and completed the U-boat captain look) rather than those horrible Next tops. I suppose at least they avoided the frock coat silhouette – unlike the TVM – which there has been far too much of up to this point, to the extent that it’s become a shorthand default for the Doctor’s eccentricity, and as such, stopped meaning anything (cf any spoof you care to mention, and David Morrissey’s ‘next’ Doctor outfit – which made it immediately apparent that he wasn’t a real Doctor, as it’s just too by-numbers).
The Tenth is a bit Next too. Bad times. I remember being so relieved when pictures of his costume were released, but now it does seem rather banal and safe – and not just through overexposure. Apart from anything else, the world and his wife wear Converse All-Stars! Probably up to and including Amazonian Indians. They just don’t have the hip edge they’re presumably meant to inject. Also, like the Fifth and Sixth Doctors’ it looks a bit too obviously run up by the costume department, rather than being a real tailored suit (and coat). The coat I kind of like, but is a bit too contrivedly ‘iconic’; long, for flapping in dramatic breezes, etc…
I don’t know quite what to feel about the blue suit either. I tend to like the atypical variations, so there’s something to be said for it for that reason, but – though it’s unusual, again that feels like a slightly cynical stab at automatic ‘Doctorishness’. It’s a bit too bright. In fact, Tennant’s just a bit too clean and perfect, really. Bit too modern. Especially his hair; trying a bit too hard to be cool. At least Smith’s hair is kind of inexplicable already, so it can’t really date. (On the subject of hair, Troughton wins hands-down for coolest do – though Hartnell’s wig is pretty inspired, as it’s the most atypical element of his costume as a whole.)
I sort of wish they’d made more of the ‘punk with a hint of rockabilly’ thing from Tooth and Claw, given the Tenth Doctor a bit more edge (what, Elvis quiff, signet rings, tattoos, eyeliner?). Having said that, his quiff in The Idiot’s Lantern looked a bit rubbish. Edginess isn’t something you could really say comes naturally to David Tennant.
So, what have we learnt? I’m not sure. But I enjoyed talking about it! While I’m at it, I always see costumes in films that make me think, Aha, that’d be great for a (hypothetical) Doctor: particularly Toshiro Mifune’s white suit and flat cap in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog; the short, 1930s wide-shouldered checked jackets from Brighton Rock; James Dean’s simple jumper and chinos with a watch on his trousers from East of Eden (which is strangely iconic); or even Paterson Joseph’s steampunk gentlemen from the BBC’s Neverwhere, with half-bleached and half-dreaded hair. That’d be a bit of a departure, but it’d be ace. Think of how many numerous options for doing something unprecedented there are. Better still, regenerate him into a woman and let the fun really begin!
Thursday, 3 December 2009
Collection of comics originally published 1984-85
I’m not generally into comic books/graphic novels, at all, really, although I am intrigued by their potential. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has its charms, but mainly the ones I have dipped into, I’ve found hugely unsatisfying. The potential of ‘a novel… with pictures!’ never seems completely realised. In fact, when I was younger, reading the Eighth Doctor DWM strips, I regarded them with a certain amount of contempt (‘how immature,’ etc – I was a bit precocious as a kid) – although I did still closely follow them, and was probably far more involved than I told myself. However, my reintroduction into the world of Doctor Who, in all its forms, has allowed my a bit of distance to realise what a great medium the strips are. Since then I’ve been dying for the Panini strip reprints, but none of them have, or are likely to best the Voyager graphic novel.
The artwork is immaculate, and looks absolutely stunning in crisp black and white – so much more atmospheric than the horrible colour job from the eighties. (Much as I (now) love Martin Geraghty’s Eighth Doctor stuff, it comes across as much more ‘by numbers’ than John Ridgway’s, here.) And the Voyager arc itself is an absolute masterpiece – grand, mythic, and dare I say illusorily dreamlike, it really puts to shame all the people who’ve praised the imaginative scope of Gridlock, for example. Well bollocks to that, and more besides! This is the real deal.
If only more of Doctor Who, in all its varied media, could be brave enough to embrace stories so huge and strange and fairytale. (And particularly nice it is too for such a story to feature the still-overlooked Sixth Doctor!)
In a way, the brilliance of the Parkhouse/Ridgway partnership has become a cliché, so no-one actually gives it any thought anymore. But, equally, that reputation is utterly deserved. The Tides of Time is clearly fabulous – all big, bold ideas (although, when grouped as a graphic novel by Panini, it is hampered by the changeable and varied quality of the art). The stories making up the Voyager saga (The Shape Shifter, Voyager, Polly the Glot, Once Upon a Time-Lord) on the other hand, stray into altogether darker, more mysterious waters (and are arguably even more inventive), helped no end by the idiosyncratic scratchy detail of Ridgway’s pencils.
It’s such an enormous shame that the comics always seem to be overlooked – I suppose partly because they so wilfully blaze their own trail, continuity-wise. If you can get over this though (and come on, lighten up; in fact, the sense that the strips have decided to do their own thing is one of their biggest assets as far as I’m concerned - these stories are like an intriguing sidestep), Voyager really does take the TARDIS into new realms – everything here is grounded in a magical, unpredictable reality, where events and situations are fluid and unpredictable. Nothing is literal; in a sense, it’s somewhat like the Victoriana dream-logic of The Ultimate Foe, but pushed much further.
Here we get a baroque automaton "inhabited by a living soul"; a corkscrew "Da Vinci original" helicopter; a metatextual Rupert the Bear/Tarzan-style sequence in Astrolabus’ domain; and the absolutely spine-tingling dream sequence where the Doctor is tied to the wheel of a galleon heading over the edge of the world… These bold visual conceits are matched by the mythic style of the text and dialogue. There’s a real grandeur to a lot of the text, which really elevates the stories; I particularly love the Doctor’s "'I am a lord of time!' I screamed. 'And I am a lord of LIFE!' he thundered in reply… And his words soared aloft and were one with the wind."
All in all, the Voyager stories are something else. Voyager itself is probably the best of the lot, combining the most beautiful images with fairytale text and Astrolabus’ nonsense-banter. This really is breathtaking; even just flicking through, the audaciousness not only of the images but of the sense of scale these stories have is completely captivating. It’s like when, as a kid, you can completely invest yourself in a story, become totally immersed (but without having to resort to Uncle Terrance’s old Targets).
However – I say all this, but unfortunately it’s not the full story; I can only echo the DWM review of this reprinting when I say the last third of this book is utter shite. Once Parkhouse departs at the end of Once Upon a Time-Lord, boy, do you feel the difference…
I can’t even be bothered to go into it, frankly: it’s all depressing superhero nobodies and plotless run-arounds. It also overuses the ‘cocktail bar… with aliens!’ approach; ie, recognisable human situations with exotic aliens thrown in - something the TV series’ budget fortunately couldn’t stretch to (witness the wannabe Star Wars cantina scene in Dragonfire). (Somehow, Parkhouse makes this approach work, arguably by approaching these situations in a largely whimsical way.) In addition, there’s a cack-handed re-introduction of Peri, which is at odds with and shows a lack of faith in the strip pursuing its own tangential approach. And on top of that, there are a few broad and severely unimaginative continuity references that had me cringing: for example, Davros and the ‘CyberEmperor’ (!) being invited to a galactic summit to defeat some Skeletor-type stormtroopers.
This unpleasantness is more than balanced out by the uncommon quality of the Voyager stories proper though.
It baffles me that the comics are so under-appreciated within fandom; I whole-heartedly recommend this compilation as a brilliant place to start. I suppose comics still have that slightly derogatory ‘for kids’ prejudice attached, but the very literary quality of the writing here, coupled with the stunningly memorable art, create something very special indeed (and of arguably a much higher quality than we’re used to in the majority of Doctor Who fiction, of whatever form). This is something special.
I've always loved Adrian Salmon's work - it's so much more interesting and idiosyncratic than the majority of Doctor Who-related art or illustration. Honestly, there's only so many not-quite-photorealist portraits-on-a-starfield or crackling electicity one man can take.
Check out his blog here.
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
Review: THE MYTH MAKERS
Audio soundtrack of missing story, written by Donald Cotton, directed by Michael Leeston-Smith, 1965
The Myth Makers is one of those stories which, despite knowing what it’s about, I’ve never really heard much about… So it was a bit of a delight to find it’s a total gem.
I’m an enormous fan of Hartnell’s years, but I find that I can still be swayed by the general view that the stories were ‘a bit shoddy,’ ‘too slow,’ etc (despite the fact that I think, at its best, this period’s production values were at an all-time high compared to the majority of the later years, relatively speaking) – so it almost came as a (pleasant) surprise just how snappy this story is!
It's wonderful to hear a ‘comedy’ Doctor Who story that is genuinely funny – I love The Romans, but I wouldn’t describe it as pant-wettingly funny, as it is often portrayed. I don’t want to just list quotes, but, er, I think I’m going to. Paris is particularly good value for money – I love the re-imagining of a Trojan warrior as an inept Carry On imbecile; he reminded me of Hugo in The Vicar of Dibley, actually, crossed with David Hemmings’ Dildano in Barbarella (“I’ll put it round your secret neck”). I particularly like Paris’ “Now I suppose I’ll have to drive you like a Grecian cur into the city, won’t I… Come, dog!”
All the derogatory stuff about Cassandra was entertaining too (“Oh, go and feed the sacred snakes or something”). Her, “You’re not putting THAT in my temple!” of the TARDIS tickled me too.
Also: the comment about “galloping religious mania”;
“It seems there’s a man lurking behind that flaccid exterior after all!”;
“Catapults? Sounds like a vulgar oath to me.”
Not being particularly action-packed (although, thanks to the wordplay, it never drags either – if anything, four episodes felt too short), the story transfers wonderfully to audio, which is particularly nice as it emphasised the links between this and Marc Platt’s grown-up-Vicki Frostfire audio. I’m not particularly sold on the idea of the audio adventures, so I’ve never become very involved with Big Finish – well, I say ‘very’; Frostfire is the only one I’ve actually listened to. (Audio just seems like a slightly clumsy medium to me – compared to novels and televised stories, it has the worst of both worlds… But I digress.) I could really feel the links between young Vicki leaving the TARDIS here, and the older Vicki/Lady Cressida in the catacombs in the Companion Chronicles story. Maureen O’Brien even sounded exactly the same. Having listened to the audio first, there was a nice sense of continuity (not in the fan sense) between the two stories.
It’s also amazing how far Vicki has come since The Rescue. It’s often said that there’s little character development in the companions, so it’s wonderful that even one with relatively little status within fandom like Vicki really has matured by now – and she’s completely charming. Even her romance with Troilus is sweet and well played, and doesn’t become trite. Also a nice ending for her – I wasn’t convinced at first (it just seems as if she’s been forgotten), but her telling the Doctor that she has decided to leave off-screen is really effective; it fits with the frantic events of the Greek attack, and is slightly less 'literal' than the thinking that these scenes always need to be shown.
Whilst on the topic of companions: Katarina – what the hell?! I’ve previously listened to The Daleks’ Master Plan (ooh, I love a Doctor Who with honest-to-god grammar in the title…); I wasn’t expecting miracles from her debut (in fact, I’d forgotten about her until she randomly showed up), but I thought she might at least have some part to play here. Ah, well… she’ll soon be a space popsicle.
The other main thing that strikes me: Hartnell, wonderful as ever - but why has no-one ever really picked up more on the whole ‘the Doctor is responsible for the fall of Troy’ element?! I know he regrets giving the Greeks the idea for the horse once he’s actually in it, but it sounds like it’s motivated more by self-preservation than guilt at instigating a massacre! Very strange how sometimes the Doctor’ll emote for ages about one little character (or whatever… can’t think of an example off the top of my head. Erm, Lytton), and then doesn’t trouble himself about causing the fall of an entire city! Not to mention The Aztecs’ patented ‘messing around with history’ thing.
All in all, The Myth Makers is deeply underrated; it feels very effortless, loads of fun, but with a pleasingly dramatic ending, which stops it feeling too inconsequential.