Friday, 1 January 2010

Ten Stories #2: "He's got a printed circuit where his heart should be!"

Written by Brian Hayles, directed by Derek Martinus, 1967

Especially in contrast to the audacity of The Chase, I increasingly can’t help feeling the Troughton era was went things started to go wrong for Doctor Who. Not that his era is bad – or that Doctor Who was ‘bad’ after the sixties generally – but, after the wildly varied and experimental Hartnell seasons, this was where reductive thinking started to mould the series into a more fixed format.

Both because Troughton’s so lovable and because so many of his stories are missing, negative feeling toward his years feels almost in bad taste, whereas Hartnell is less easily accessible, and, with more stories to judge, is more often considered fair game. This imbalance in critical feeling towards the two eras does seem somewhat unfair, cos Troughton’s era is so much less interesting…!

But – it’s still enormously exciting seeing a whole new Troughton (well, ‘whole’ in a manner of speaking). I tend not to distinguish between stories I know are completely missing, or are only lacking a couple of episodes, so in my head this story has always been filed ‘I will never see this’. But really, two episodes missing out of six is pretty good!

There are so few Troughtons that it’s easy to take him for granted, not having a great amount of variety to judge him on – but seeing him anew, in a new context, reinforces how fab he is (despite what I might think about his era as a whole). It’s also easy to forget what a massive leap he is from Hartnell (reminiscent of the Eccleston/Tennant handover). Troughton compares very strongly against Tennant, in fact (who isn’t a personal fave, but it’s great seeing a dusty old Doctor genuinely holding his own against the current mainstream one, the current benchmark); I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s just there tends to be so much hyperbole about the current incumbent. He’s so adorable that if you could put him in a story today people’d still love him. (As an aside, it’s interesting that the Doctor here considers himself a scientist – which seems remarkably mundane; now he’s a hero or champion, or even lost prince or lonely god.)

The story is a strong one from a production point of view: juxtaposing a period setting with futuristic trappings is always a striking visual device, and the combination of the manor and pop art printed-circuit costumes is very effective. Also, although this is a seemingly studio-bound story, we get a surprisingly good impression of the future ice age, with its caves and ice-falls. Despite the tell-tale squeak of polystyrene, the ice caves actually look impressively detailed (it helps they don’t have flat studio floors), while the creepy score helps give the story lashings of atmosphere. Also, Penley is a massively likeable character – when he meets the Doctor, it almost feels like two Doctors for the price of one. (Stor is an annoying bumpkin though.)

The Ice Warriors themselves are very effective monsters for this period – solid and memorably designed (the bipedal but inhuman silhouette is very successful), though the big-headed extras are quite a lot crapper. (They also show the later Ice Lords up as a pointlessly less effective variation.) In fact, these Warriors really wouldn’t require much alteration to still be effective on screen today. I love going back to old Doctor Who and it not feeling old; it makes you realise how little current Doctor Who has changed (the TARDIS team turn up, the Doctor sticks his nose in, and takes over the situation; this has never changed).

The Ice Warriors
actually seems to have quite a bad reputation, at least lately (and maybe justifiably within season five), but it is a good story (and not just because it’s new to me); however, it doesn’t sparkle, and perhaps would have worked better as a four-parter.

Having watched stories from both sixties eras consecutively, what strikes me about the earliest two Doctors’ stories is that it isn’t effects which makes the current series more acceptable to modern audiences, by comparison to the old; it’s more the editing and general quality of the filming as a whole rather than individual effects that make the old series ‘unacceptable’ to a modern audience. This should be really obvious, but it’s a personal bugbear of mine that people are so dismissive of things for entirely superficial reasons.

In fact, I love the sixties specifically for its unique feel; the grainy B&W of the sixties is incomparably more atmospheric than, particularly, the crisp, too-bright eighties – and is beautiful in a way no other era compares with. It’s like the difference between vinyl and CD; it has an evocativeness to it even if you had no firsthand experience of it. Perhaps a better comparison is between Polaroid and digital pictures; whereas digital has a basic default colour balance that makes everything look the same, bland and ‘ordinary,’ Polaroid’s unique colour casts and imperfect development make everything look incomparably cooler.

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