Friday, 1 January 2010

Ten Stories #4: "The wilful procrastination of endless procedure"

Written by Andrew Smith, directed by Peter Grimwade, 1980

This is a big leap, and feels like the first ‘modern’ story I’ve watched so far. There is suddenly much more in common with modern TV (though not necessarily modern Doctor Who), and it feels like there’s a more definitive divide between this story and the preceding three – although this is hardly surprising, given the full 10 years gap separating this from Ambassadors. It almost feels unfair to represent the Fourth Doctor’s era with one story, as his time in the role was not only so long, but so varied.

I adore Warriors’ Gate’s visual invention and willingness to deal with concepts that aren’t necessarily easy to grasp, so I’ve always had high hopes for this, the initial story of the ‘E-space trilogy’ (though State of Decay fumbles what should be the effortless combination of Doctor Who and vampires). However – bearing in mind my choices for these ten stories are entirely arbitrary – this is the worst of the four I’ve watched so far. In fact, on general terms it’s pretty good, but compared to the preceding eras it’s just too eighties, in all the ways that label has become notorious in Doctor Who circles.

There are just a few too many things that don’t do it any favours: namely, it’s populated by default peasantry, in one of those annoying futures where everyone dresses the same (which seems particularly hideous by direct comparison to season seven’s realism). Worst of all, the swotty horrible Outlers. Doctor Who never really focuses on adolescents – which is probably for the best on this evidence, as it’s so hopelessly out of touch with real teens: the ‘rebel’ Outlers are preppy, sexless am-dram tossers. Having said that, I’d take any of them over Adric, the greasy little twot; the fucking Marshchild would have made a better companion… By contrast, Romana doing a Leela and wielding a knife is possibly the best thing I’ve ever seen, in anything, ever.

The story also heralds the typical eighties hallmarks of the regulars not being involved for the whole first episode (it’s weird seeing the Fourth Doctor rendered so impotent). There’s also a tendency to put emphasis on inexplicable things (the technobabble about the scanner and the concept of E-space being treated so as to be as dreary and boring as possible). Not to mention hordes of people in the TARDIS, and everyone immediately acting like they’ve known each other for ages (Romana and Adric are particularly guilty of being written as fellow companions even in their first story together).

On the other hand, there are a lot of lovely things too:

The dressing of the woods with cobwebs, smoke, and exotic houseplants looks great. It actually seems hazy and muggy, and the (slightly homoerotic, or is that just me?!) swimmers in the water at the beginning is a nice touch. The Decider being dragged into the lake is surprisingly unpleasant and creepy – it isn’t too neat and sanitised – but actually quite a beautiful scene too.

Everyone always raves about the Marshmen, but I’ve never been convinced by photos – on screen though, shiny and salamander-like, they do look great, especially in the woods, lit by the sunlight coming through the trees. Amazingly, even the Starliner’s corridors look pretty good (for corridors); with their ceilings they are claustrophobic and not too plain – though not as good as the slave ship in Warriors’ Gate; and the Doctor on trial by the Deciders looks awesome, in the big, sparely lit Book Room set.

However, though Peter Grimwade makes everything look great, things seems less assured when it comes to the actors. It all looks ace (you have to love the Doctor leaping about through the mist in his moody burgundy greatcoat), but there’s a fatal lack of conviction overall. There’s a very ‘Bidmeadian’ attempted cleverness (when it isn’t particularly clever at all, really), and ultimately feels a bit flat and banal. It’s not witty or funny, and doesn’t have any real danger or violence – or humanity, for that matter. It has no balls, spunk, or pizzazz (take your fancy); this is Doctor Who emasculated.

As for Tom, while undeniably a great Doctor, his albeit undoubted effectiveness and ubiquity has always meant I’ve never found him particularly interesting, and it’s also hard to look at him with any objectivity. He’s possibly the most brooding, dangerous Doctor to date (although Hartnell could give him a run for his money at times) – almost a foreboding figure, which is odd, as he’s considered the definitive Doctor (though I guess not for this quality; more his ‘zaniness’).

However, an element I do like about his performance is the disparity of what is essentially a kids’ hero being played by, arguably, a not especially kid-friendly man (ie, a control freak pisshead), which I think imbues his performance with a certain edginess. It would be more typical for an actor to feel a responsibility to play down to a younger audience, which Tom doesn’t do; at least in his more serious moments, it’s a quite uncompromising, and, strangely, not even that likeable performance. However, I prefer this to the accessible, cuddly version which, arguably, Tennant verges too much on (touchy-feely and new man; I prefer the Doctor to have more steel).

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