Sunday, 28 February 2010

"And the air would not reply"

Audio drama written by Simon Guerrier, directed by Lisa Bowerman, 2008

Given the maddening SHEER AMOUNT of Doctor Who out there, in its various media (TV, novels, audios, comics – all of which takes in various sub-series and spin-offs), I’ve never really delved into Big Finish’s output. However, the Companion Chronicles monologues are a far more attractive use of the audio medium, to my mind, than full-cast plays (Big Finish seems all too mired in their own continuity and interminable returning foes), so it seems like a good place to dip my toes in the water. It’s also particularly fascinating to hear a modern approach to the ever-overlooked First Doctor era.

This is only the second one I’ve listened to, after the atmospheric but not entirely satisfying Frostfire – largely because the return of Sara Kingdom is too good to be true. I’ve always had a soft spot for Miss Kingdom, because, though she isn’t exactly Emma Peel (more’s the pity), an even vaguely kickass Hartnell companion is gloriously, radically unexpected. Not that this story – a probing psychological character study-cum-ghost story – is quite what you’d expect. Having Sara – of all the companions – developed as a human being is unexpected, to say the least.

Fortunately, it’s not a disappointment because of the story’s complex use of the monologue format (well, technically, it’s a two-hander); it isn’t simply a conventional story reduced to being related by one person, like an audiobook. Instead, it’s a short story in the form of a dual narrative, with a previous adventure being related in a ‘present day’ section. And, interestingly, it’s the present story, rather than the one being related, which is the more interesting and important (though obviously the two strands rely on one another), which has the effect of almost making the story not seem like it is Doctor Who at all; the past story barely has any plot at all (being more an explanation of the present situation), and the Doctor plays very little part.

I really like tangential approaches to Doctor Who stories, and the interwoven duality of the two threads makes Home Truths feel sophisticated and complex, and, despite the simplicity of the story per se, manages to raise intriguing questions very quickly. (Where and when is the present setting, in relation to the story itself? How is Sara alive? Who has killed the couple? What’s the deal with the magical house?) Incidentally, it’s very odd having a fairytale approach applied to this era, although, to be fair, this is more about the way the story is grounded, rather than its content.

The sound design – ticking clocks, whispering voices, and oppressive, Eraserhead-like rumbles – is impressive (if slightly overdone, though subtlety doesn’t seem to be a feature of audio work). Jean Marsh sometimes feels slightly overwrought too, compared to Maureen O’Brien’s vaguer, more natural chatting to herself in Frostfire.

However, Home Truths manages not to feel too slight, despite a fairly short running time, and (mainly) one-person narration. It belies this simplicity with a surprising amount of sophistication, and is all the more impressive for going down an unexpected route with regards to Sara – both in terms of her character and the method of her ‘afterlife’ (as opposed to, say, recordings, or a crude sci-fi device like cloning).

I didn’t love this story – it feels too spare to be cherished, even though that suits its tone – and it is slightly disappointing not to see Sara in action. But, then, it is churlish to knock such a brave and unusual approach. As director Lisa Bowermen says in the included interview, less-is-more is an overlooked concept these days, so this is something to be lauded, and I’m looking forward to returning to the house in Ely to hear more of Sara’s stories in The Drowned World.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Shit Parade! #1: “HUNGRYYY!”

Written by Stephen Wyatt, directed by Nicholas Mallett, 1987

Further to my comments on DWM’s Mighty 200, I bring you… The Shit Parade! An occasional look at those stories perceived to be the shittest of the shit, and therefore predicated around – though not exclusive to – the bottom end of that survey.

These tend to be stories whose excesses fandom can’t seem to forgive – but this is a dubious perspective in itself, as there are far more stories which deserve the ‘worst ever’ label, but which slip under the radar because they’re so forgettable. I’m looking at you, Underworld. Personally I find that type of story more unforgivable than the inexplicable insanity of, say, Time and the Rani. But those stories aren’t even interesting enough to develop much of a reputation at all.

Also, I’m discounting stories like The Chase, The Underwater Menace, or even Timelash, because they are perfectly entertaining given the right mindset.

So, every now and then, I intend to take a look at the stories with intransigently awful reputations, and, as it’s all too easy to be negative, I want to either debunk those reputations, or, if that’s not possibly, forcibly view the stories in question from a wilfully positive standpoint. And, perhaps fortuitously, I’ve actually picked an easy one because – call me biased – I’ve always had a soft spot for Paradise Towers.

Interestingly, the new series stories notably haven’t crystallised into definitive opinions (the season three finale is considered awful... but also brilliant; perhaps the closest to total howlers are The Runaway Bride, The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, and The Doctor’s Daughter). There’s no such ambivalence about this story, though.

Though I liked it when I was younger, when I got back into the series I expected to hate it… And was surprised to find that I didn’t. Now, every time I watch it, the same thing happens; I'm always surprised by how enjoyable it is. I can see why Paradise Towers is disliked, of course, but I can’t bring myself to hate it: watched as a comedy-cartoon, it’s enjoyably funny, but still quite dark on those terms.

I’ve always liked the idea of Doctor Who as a madcap live-action cartoon more in theory than practise, but it’s great here. While season twenty-four doesn’t work in its entirety, at least this story is brave enough not to simply try to replicate seventies Doctor Who (which I suppose is what upsets a lot of people. Get over it). My problem with the first half of the eighties (encapsulated by Davison, mainly), is that it rolled along without anything radical happening: it was Doctor Who by numbers, and as such, it was a bit dull. At least the Colin Baker era (well, season twenty-two) had energy and violence – but it’s quite a relief to get to something that feels genuinely new.

When people talk about season twenty-four they tend to mean Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen: Time and the Rani is a season twenty-three leftover, while Dragonfire is halfway between seasons twenty-four and -five. Delta is a bit too flimsy for me; its execution just doesn't work. So, to my mind, Paradise Towers is the pinnacle of the season twenty-four approach – and it makes me wish they’d done more in this vein. Come on; it’s fun, funny, and so much more assured than its reputation would have you believe.

Of course, as fans we can’t help but compare different eras, but, in a way, this doesn’t work here because its approach is so unprecedented. A lot of the time you can swap Doctors in your mind (‘Imagine a Hartnell-era Genesis of the Daleks!’, etc) – but the joy here is that this story is so different that you can’t imagine Pertwee or Tom in it. Equally, complaints about realism – which are applicable to more realistically-grounded, harder-edged stories – are pretty much irrelevant here, because this environment blatantly has no truck with realism.

Possibly the most striking thing about this story is that it debunks yet another fan myth I’m annoyed to have found myself accepting: that the Seventh Doctor was crap in this season; an embarrassing, talentless pantomime clown. Well, I’ve done my best to avoid Time and the Rani for quite a few years - but here, he’s genuinely great. Considering this came straight after that story, there is an amazing leap: here, McCoy is instantly likeable, despite how fashionable it is to disparage him. He seems entirely at home in the part. It would be horrible if he were as ‘up’ as Mel, so I like his initial contrasting grouchiness. I love how crumpled and forlorn he is, and the sense that this charming anarchist is having fun with the kids (I can’t imagine many other Doctors tolerating the Kangs). (Mel is surprisingly acceptable here, too: she’s only required to be chipper and enthusiastic, which is what Bonnie Langford was born to do.)

So many people seem to view this story in terms of what could have been, but there’s loads that’s great here. Tilda and Tabby are obviously fab (especially Elizabeth Spriggs): episode two’s cliffhanger – Mel threatened by two crocheted shawl- and toasting fork-wielding psychotic lesbian-cannibal-pensioners – is utter genius. “She’s a nice, polite, clean, well-spoken girl. Just the sort we like…” I love their exchange after Pex bursts in, too: “I do wish you would stop breaking through our door to save us!” “It’s not as though we’ve ever been in any trouble!” “Apart from bits of door flying all over the place!”

Clive Merrison’s deputy caretaker is great too; alternately bored and overly officious, like a crap school bully. “Oh no, no, sunbeam! You’re coming with us…” And, for all the Chief Caretaker’s notoriety, I would say Richard Briers’ performance is completely appropriate to the story at large, and his repressed panic (before he’s possessed) works well. “Careless chat about the robotic self-activating Megapodic Mark 7Z cleaners having got out of control is not going to help anyone!”

Given this season’s damning reputation, the production has a much less flimsy feeling than, say, (the incomprehensibly overrated) Earthshock; there’s a surprising sense of size and scale in the sets – glimpses of long carrydors, the two-level bridge set, etc. The green-lit carrydors with neon signs are effective (and not as notoriously over-lit as most earlier eighties stories), while the mobility of the camera is notably beneficial too.

It’s funny how powerful reputations are: as I’ve been typing this, I’ve actually found it hard to believe how positive I’m being, or tried to downplay praise – but I really don’t have any excuse for how much I enjoyed this story. Yes, it’s throwaway, superficial even – but despite its silliness (not necessarily a bad thing), it still feels less like kids’ TV than, say, the previous season’s Mysterious Planet, which really is a dreary (yet, garish) runaround, with no depth and very little originality.

Yes, it’s a far cry from Inferno, say, or Kinda, or most of the sixties (which has seldom felt more distant), but then – it’s not trying to be like them. Instead, with its absurdist humour, it’s trying something different. Yes, Paradise Towers is silly, and fun. Don’t be a cowardly cutlet – get over your prejudices, and just enjoy it!

Friday, 19 February 2010

Reaction: THE MIGHTY 200

So, Carey Mulligan was the cover star of Little White Lies’ An Education issue, which was out at the same time as DWM 413. Among all the raving for a star on the make, there was the obligatory potted summary of her career to date, including the statement that she, “paid her dues doing costume drama (Bleak House, Pride and Prejudice) and Saturday night kitsch (Doctor Who)”. Now, obviously, as a fan, I’m massively defensive of the show, but – perhaps because it’s coming from a publication I respect – this tiny phrase particularly needled me.

Is Doctor Who really just “Saturday night kitsch”? Sentimental, vulgar bad taste, created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste… Much as I might like to think otherwise, it doesn’t take much soul-searching to admit that, yes, that’s as good a description as any. (And there’s no point getting your knickers in a twist about that; it’s like when it’s called a kids’ show – well, yes, it is.)

I would contend, strongly, that Doctor Who can rise above that rather damning description, but it’s never going to be Six Feet Under or Generation Kill (etc, etc). Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s not to say it isn’t possible to enjoy the programme to a deeper, more analytical or emotionally involved level. I think it’s also true that – perhaps especially with a certain amount of distance – things that were tawdry at the time can be re-evaluated in retrospect; exploitation films like Shunya Ito’s Female Prisoner Scorpion trilogy is an example of dazzlingly inventive, beautiful, devastating films, but which were/are ‘just’ cheap pinky violence. Similarly, I find a lot more intrinsic appeal and value in the older series of Doctor Who than the current.

All this made me think about the Mighty 200 poll in the concurrent issue of DWM (413), ranking all the stories from An Unearthly Child (#61) to Planet of the Dead (#99). (I realise this is quite belated – but whatever.)

To the Not-We this would be an absurd qualification of a collection of equally kitsch stories. As Gary Gillatt points out in the issue, the first and two-hundredth places are occupied by stories which aired consecutively – which begs the question, would the writers of LWLies even differentiate? In all honesty, I think they would, but maybe I’m being idealistic. For an opinionated film magazine it’s probably obligatory to look down on mainstream Saturday night pop culture entertainment – and probably rightly so. Whereas, as I say, a little perspective goes a long way; Androzani (#1) or Weng-Chaing (#4) would be a lot easier for an outsider (albeit one of broadly the right mindset to start with, ie, not an idiot) to appreciate, precisely because those stories aren’t tuned into the dispiriting idiom of modern TV. (Which can’t even be escaped entirely in the best of the new series, like The Girl in the Fireplace (#11) or Human Nature (#6).)

Anyway, more specifically – Androzani at number one surprises me, but in a pleasing way. Not just because it’s not a Tom or new series story, but because it’s so uncompromising: it’s brutal, direct, with no faffing about with continuity, and features a less than obvious Doctor. In some ways it shows people appreciate tension and violence – there are always calls for more ‘darkness,’ although from other quarters there’s a backlash that Doctor Who should always be optimistic… Personally, I quite like that such a genuinely bleak story wins out. (Not that it’s bleak in the usual meaninglessly nihilistic way of Eric Saward; I suppose that’s the difference - it’s narratively-earned as part of the doomy Doctor’s-going-to-croak atmosphere.)

Actually, Blink (#2) is quite surprising too… I just don’t think it’s as good as any of Steven Moffat’s other stories. Maybe because contemporary settings are, almost by definition, boring. And though Carey Mulligan’s portrayal is likeable, Sally Sparrow gets more and more irritating – if you think about it, if anyone you actually knew said things like “Sad is happy for deep people,” you’d want to punch them in the face.

Where this survey does dispirit me though, is in its reiteration of various ingrained – but dubious - opinions (the Sixth Doctor’s highest story, Revelation, charts at number #46, when Vengeance on Varos (#124), Mark of the Rani (#148), and even the messy Two Doctors (#125) are of comparative good quality).

The Twin Dilemma being last is also predictable and tedious. It is bad, but there are so many stories a billion times more boring or lazy. I recently watched Full Circle (#101) for only the second time, and was forced to revise my initial opinion downwards. While it isn’t fundamentally dreadful, it’s a story where no element is well-realised; the acting is dire, the general look over-lit and flimsy, and the plot isn’t much better. It may not be screamingly bad enough to have attained a ‘bottom ten’ reputation like The Dominators (#191) or The Space Pirates (#195), et al, but this is still very bad Doctor Who, and it makes a mockery of this survey that it came in at 101, above, variously, perfectly decent or underrated stories like The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (#119), The Lazarus Experiment (#150), Boom Town (#141), The Sontaran Experiment (#103), or brilliant ones like The War Machines (#108) and The Myth Makers (#126).

Nevertheless, I was ready to be righteously indignant about the results of this survey, and, on balance, it’s unexpectedly heartening. Obviously, besides perhaps the top and bottom ten, it’s all meaningless. It doesn’t ‘mean’ anything that I can now state “The Time Meddler (#75) is thirteen places better than Castrovalva (#88)”; that’s just gibberish. But, it’s interesting, if more as a historical record of current prejudices than anything.

Still, I expected to be upset, and in fact there’s very little here that depresses me. The poor performance of nearly all the McCoys is disappointing (The Happiness Patrol at #170, Ghost Light at #76), as is the relatively poor performance of Hartnell and Troughton – but considering the wild difference between TV as a format back then, that was always going to be a given.

Getting more specific again, Earthshock at #19 aggrieves me, because it’s awful. Obviously all the stories’ little write-ups are a matter of opinion, but the one for Earthshock read as barefaced lies to me. Possibly written by someone who’s never seen it. Although I’m not in a postion to dig my copy out, so maybe I’m exaggerating. On general principles though, I don’t think there’s a more overrated story. Everything about it is shaky, from the stilted acting to the lightweight Cybermen. Beryl Reid is the only redeeming feature, even if she isn’t molesting nuns. (More’s the pity.)

Equally, there are some other dubious claims, like the statement that Tennant’s performance in Human Nature/The Family of Blood “marks him out as the most accomplished actor to have played the Doctor in 46 years”. Really? He can ham it up with the best of them. For my money, it’s Troughton.

On the other hand, having never experienced any hyping of new stories prior to the new series (and TVM (#135)), it’s gratifying to see new series stories which received the obligatory blanket build-up literally put in their places. It may not ‘mean’ anything, but it’s still satisfying to be able to announce that The Runaway Bride (#115) and Voyage of the Damned (#114) are officially worse than Frontier in Space (#113)…

Admittedly, the inclusion of Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways (#10!), The Stolen Earth/Journey's End (#13!) and Turn Left (#12!) in the top fifteen does rile me a bit, not in a specifically Davies-bashing way, but simply because I don’t think they’re good stories, and the fact that so many people count spectacle and guest appearances over plot or atmosphere, is very grating.

That’s all quite predictable (perhaps less so with the not-quite-so irrevocably crystallised new series stories), but I did expect the rankings to be a riot of fandom’s bad taste (say, The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (#27) at number one?), so I shouldn’t complain. There’s a few odd ones I’d dispute, but the top 50 is mostly great. There is a noticeable bias in the favour of the new series (some of the new series stories in the top end just aren’t as good as the surrounding classic stories, but I suppose have the edge of fitting into a modern televisual idiom) – but it’s mostly heartening.

Obviously every single fan could contest every single placing – The Seeds of Doom at #16 surprises me, for example; I love it, but it has a feel very much of its own, a surprising attribute of such a high ranking story, and doesn’t seem to have that legendary rep most of the top 20 share... But that’s missing the point.

Although, speaking of ‘the point’… I don’t really have one. I’m a fan; I just can’t help having pesky opinions about everything. Also, I have a cold, so I feel justified in not bothering to attempt a proper conclusion to all this.

As I say, only the top and bottom of the survey really means anything, so take a look for yourself:

#1 The Caves of Androzani
#2 Blink
#3 Genesis of the Daleks
#4 The Talons of Weng-Chiang
#5 The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
#6 Human Nature/The Family of Blood
#7 Pyramids of Mars
#8 City of Death
#9 The Robots of Death
#10 Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways

#191 The Dominators
#192 Fear Her
#193 Paradise Towers
#194 The Underwater Menace
#195 The Space Pirates
#196 Time-Flight
#197 Underworld
#198 Time and the Rani
#199 Timelash
#200 The Twin Dilemma

(You can see the full list here, on Combom.)

Sunday, 14 February 2010

"If you ever loved me – kill me!"

Written by Eric Saward, directed by Graeme Harper, 1985

During DWM’s Time Team viewing of this story, Clayton Hickman described it as ‘funky’. Now, while I’d dispute the choice of word, I know what he means. This is a rare example of a Doctor Who story that is cool. Not as a catch-all positive, but in the sense of a timeless attitude and style – like, I don’t know, nouvelle vague movies, or the Velvet Underground, or Toshiro Mifune.

It’s hard to pin down why, but let’s put it down to a combination of Eric Saward’s unrestrained writing (compare and contrast with the relatively controlled – and less interesting – Visitation), coupled with Graeme Harper’s stylistic verve.

Things are often cool for unexpected reasons – for example, Orcini, the gun-toting, black-leather-clad mercenary, should be really lame. What redeems him (aside from the weary nobility of William Gaunt’s performance) is his unexpected age, dignity, and faulty leg. There are lots of similar little twists in this story – the mutant’s gentility, Davros’ smoothness and persuasion, or the disquieting acceptance of the Daleks gliding around Tranquil Repose (recalling their "We are your ser-vants!" routine from Power of the Daleks).

Then there’s the DJ, who – whether you like him or not – forms an intriguingly arch and self-aware Greek chorus figure. The focus on any music beyond the incidental is also interestingly atypical for Doctor Who – and could have been taken a lot further; its incongruity in the stock futuristic setting is unexpectedly effective.

Revelation belongs to Davros, boasting his best portrayal – as a real character, rather than stock nutter. His scenes with Tasambeker are electric; it’s chilling hearing him talk about love and obsession rather than race hate and world domination. "If someone had treated me the way he has treated you… I think I would have killed them." And that Dalek eyestalk pushing into view. Genius. (Tasambeker’s great too, precisely for being so rubbish – but you still feel for her because Jobel’s such a bastard: "This one thinks with her knuckles.")

Davros certainly gets all the best lines:
• “Watch him… Then tell me if your hate doesn’t grow!”
• “His infidelity is bad enough, but his treason is unforgivable!”
• “It is an offer that must be fulfilled through blood!”

(Eleanor Bron does give him a run for his money though, with Kara’s, “It’s a bomb! A GREAT BIG BOMB!”)

Incidentally – I love, love, love Davros’ Daleks. They don’t look as spiffy as in Remembrance, but I appreciate the iconoclastic ditching of gunmetal grey for white and gold. Like much of Revelation, its appeal is that it seems kind of wrong.

It’s these little inspired touches that make Revelation a bit… awesome, really. Above-par touches in the set design, like the bodhisattvas and religious iconography in Davros’ lair, are wonderful too because there’s no particular reason for them. Even the snow outside lends the story an additional interesting visual element.

Some stylish violence also helps this story enormously: Kara’s on-screen stabbing with a flick-knife; the hypodermic incident (!); Lilt beating up Natasha and threatening to mark her face; Stengos’ mutated head in the glass Dalek... Body horror is all to the good.

In fact, the energy, violence and unpredictability of season twenty-two (despite its flaws) is such a relief after the Davison era. I just watched The Visitation, Black Orchid, and Enlightenment back to back – all stories I like, but what a slog. Beige is the word. By comparison, every time I watch this, I get so involved, curling up on the sofa, and grinning all the way through.

It’s interesting, directly comparing the Sixth Doctor to the Fifth: here we have a Doctor who, unlike his predecessor, takes the brutal ‘Sawardian’ universe on at its own game, rather than submitting to it. And, despite all the grumbling about the sidetracking of the Doctor (and Daleks), the Sixth Doctor is great here. Though it’s annoying we can’t just accept something without there being a convenient label to slap on it, in light of the new series’ official Doctor-lite stories, his limited involvement doesn’t really matter, does it? Plus, Colin looks fab in his cloak. There aren’t enough cloaks on our screens these days.

Admittedly, there are slightly too many crappy eighties elements for the story to be perfect – Natasha and Grigory are a bit wet and mannered; the funerary pyjamas are too flimsy to convince, and while unconvincing visual effects normally don’t bother me, the weedy lasers are a let-down because everything else is so assured. But criticising these things feels churlish when such an odd melange of darkness, humour, and intrigue works without feeling disjointed (or rather, its disjointedness is part of the appeal).

I can’t help feel how bizarre it is that all this sprung from An Unearthly Child; in fact, it does make me wonder, can we really pretend this is even the same series? On the one hand, of course it is an ongoing story, albeit with natural tonal and visual changes. But at the same time – apart from the regenerations running together and the occasional back-references, only the presence of the Daleks and the TARDIS links this story to the original season! But, ultimately, I enjoy that disparity: no-one could have predicted such an unorthodox mishmash as this – but that’s why it’s so effective.

I always gripe about the new series in relation to old classics, but I can’t help wishing this risk-taking, irreverent approach was more evident in 'the Russell T Davies era'. No new series story is this cool – not that they haven’t tried (Daleks versus Cybermen! The Master becomes prime minister!), but that’s the problem: trying too hard. With its lazy Daleks in Manhattans and Sontaran Stratagems and Doctor’s Daughters, the outgoing Davies era has nothing on this; thus far, twenty-first century Doctor Who has been too safe to achieve anything with such idiosyncratic flair.

Monday, 8 February 2010

"Cower before my most supreme ejaculations!"

New Adventure novel written by Dave Stone, 1995

Dave Stone’s approach is quite marmite, but Sky Pirates! was a real relief, after reading a run of wishy-washy mid-period New Adventures. Coming across something this vibrant and individual was like, oh, I don’t know – getting home on a cold day to find a gang of furry animals had cleaned your house and made you a hot dinner (welcome, but slightly disturbing).

Though solo Bernice NA The Mary-Sue Extrusion might be the better book, benefiting from a tighter focus, this is an absolute blast. A big element of my enjoyment was the relief of getting to Chris and Roz (I’m a big fan – though sometimes it feels I’m the only one). The Chris and Roz New Adventures are ‘my’ period, coming after a run of po-faced wannabe-serious, tedious sci-fi runarounds; the series hit a particularly near-unbeatable run from Just War on (in my humble opinion).

Both Adjudicators are captured perfectly here, and are remarkably fully-formed considering this is only their second appearance. I love how atypical the xenophobic Roz is, while collectively they’re a great, complementary duo. Ben and Polly are a double act who could work equally well individually, but Roz and Chris’ effectiveness comes from the countering of his youthful naivety and enthusiasm with her jaded cynicism.

This is only the second time I’ve read this book, and, to be honest, I wasn’t hugely looking forward to tackling it again – but it is so much better on the reread (it seemed quite a slog first time, though reading it alongside Madame Bovary – a slightly ungodly combination – might not have helped). I really appreciate its vibrant ambition now; in fact, the more I read, the more impressed I was. I have a preconception that humourous approaches are inherently taking the piss out of their subject – which of course this book is, but not in a damaging sense – so it’s nice to just enjoy the humour and absurdity of it all. I expect Dave Stone to be very cynical, but that does him a bit of an injustice, because his writing isn’t lazy in that way. In fact, there’s some really lovely prose here, and his strong authorial voice helps make this a unique read.

Stone’s verbose style, with its self-deprecation and mockery of the genre’s clich├ęs and limitations, is like a sleazier Terry Pratchett in its detail, delight in wordplay, obscure, archaic vocabulary, and broken English (ie, the villainous Sloathes’ speech: “Is dread and diabolical mutiny below the scuppers ahoy there matey?”). The frontispiece alone gives a good impression of his style: “A most Excellent and Perspicacious Luminiferous Aether Opera, Detailing the Strange and Very Exciting Adventures of The Doctor and His Trusty Companions amidst the Multifarious Perils of a System in the Foul Grip of the Hideous Sloathes!”

In a lot of Doctor Who books, situations feel familiar or fit into certain sub-genres and categories… But this doesn’t feel familiar. Here, we’re in a clockwork System with a smiley sun, a bouncing rubber moon, and planets including a wobbly blob of water, a giant tree, and a jolly snowman (where we encounter waiter-penguins, and the repulsive Snata – an ‘abhorravore’ that has evolved into a grotesque parody of Father Christmas, accompanied by crazed woodland animals in human-skin clothes who make perverse toys). There are also crocogators who breathe through stripy reeds, vampire chickens, and all manner of other insanity. However, though everything is shot through with Dave Stone’s trademark sense of ridiculousness, it doesn’t demean the plot; this is a big, epic story with high stakes.

I love environments you can really feel immersed in; the System of this novel is very ‘colourful’ (lots of brothels and drugs); big, bold and involving, and larger than life – it feels like a world with an existence beyond the confines of the book. I came to love the System because, for all its outrageous weirdness (which is justified by its not being part of the regular universe), it is grounded by recognisable styles or objects from an eclectic range of periods. There are Bakelite telephones, flintlocks, pig-iron manacles and India-rubber inflatable ocelots – and, admittedly, also living armour and a collapsible campaign table, but it doesn’t fall into the trap of being too ‘alien’ to be interesting. (Even the steampunk/clockwork technology makes a nice change from more typically flashy, soulless ‘sci-fi’ technology.)

As an aside, being a big fan of Mad Larry, I was surprised how comparable the prodigious imagination of this novel was to Lawrence Miles’ work (especially earlier stuff like Down, before he veered away from humour), considering Stone doesn’t get anywhere near that kind of kudos or status.

Stone’s take on the Seventh Doctor is rather wonderful too, encapsulating everything I love about the character: his capacity to move from imbecilic goofiness to melancholia, to calmly taking control and being all-knowing and goosebump-inducingly powerful. (“You have squandered any last chance of mercy I might have allowed you,” brings to mind the Tenth Doctor’s Family of Blood vengeance routine.)

He is also presented as hugely alien, unaffected by anything as trivial as local gravity; his hat never blows off, his suit remains preternaturally clean; food and objects appear around him at will (including a wind-dried amputated foot from his pocket); he can secrete electrostatically-active substances from his pores; and it is suggested that he is something monstrous in human form. (While anyone who notices any of this is likely to loose their train of thought…) Even the presentation of the TARDIS interior must be one of the weirdest takes: burning kites and whistling spiders, indeed.

While I do understand how people find Stone’s style off-putting, I skipped through this book in a few days, thoroughly enjoyed it, and am looking forward to Death and Diplomacy (which I don’t think I’ve read, although I do remember something about Roz grabbing a nude Chris’ cock, thinking it’s a doorknob… Ah, the impressionableness of youth!).

In the days of Doctor Who as a regulated global hyper-mega-brand, it’s refreshing to come across something so rampantly individual and unhinged. Fab.

Sky Pirates! fibrillates. And coruscates.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Rob Davis

Like Adrian Salmon, Rob Davis has an instantly recognisable, individual style; bold, stylised, expressive and with excellent, economical likenesses. I think it's to DWM's credit that they are open to using a range of artists for the comic strip - the rightly lauded Time of My Life and Will Eisner-style Deep Hereafter are both excellent, and it will be really exciting to (hopefully?) see him have a hand in the Eleventh Doctor's strip adventures.

I haven't managed to get my hands on The Widow's Curse collection, so I haven't read The Immortal Emperor, which this panel is from, but it looks gorgeous and I can't wait to check it out. Have a gander at Rob's blog here.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Geek Factor #1: "Splendid fellows," etc


The world probably doesn’t need another favourite-Doctor rundown. But, it struck me recently, as I haven’t been doing this for very long, it would probably make sense to provide some thoughts on the Doctors, simply as a way of giving these reviews context.

There’s a good list here, on the blog Postmodern Barney, where it’s very nice to see the Seventh Doctor in the top spot, though the sixties Doctors are somewhat unfairly relegated. However, when I came to try and rank the various Doctors, I just couldn’t. It seems ridiculous to compartmentalise the Doctors in that way, given that I genuinely love all the versions of the character. I do love some of them more, but even so, it all seems rather meaningless and arbitrary, given that it’s almost impossible to disassociate each character from the success of his stories or specific era, and it’d vary depending on which stories I’d seen most recently anyway!

Christ – a fan who can’t abide a list; what a failure!

Besides, if I created a precedence for ranking everything, soon I’d be doing Favourite Masters (Deadly Assassin, Survival), Favourite Companions (Barbara, Ben, Liz, Leela, Ace), Favourite TARDIS Interiors (original, secondary, new series)… And that’d just get silly. So here are simply some thoughts on each Doctor.

The Eleventh Doctor
Well, what can I say? I suppose it is quite interesting being in a position of ignorance about something that soon everyone will have an opinion on, when, at the time of writing, all there is to go on is the final moments of The End of Time and the 2010 series trailer. The “geography teacher/Hoxton clubkid” costume is really the only element up for comment, and I’ve done that already (here) – though it can’t really be overstated: great boots.

Perhaps the thing I find most heartening about this new Doctor is, if you imagine Matt Smith stood next to William Hartnell (who, as the original, I can’t help but measure all others against), clubkid meets Edwardian gentlemen should just seem really… wrong. But it doesn’t. Even on a purely visual basis, it makes sense that Smith is a version of the same character. That seems like a pretty good basis to start out on.

The Tenth Doctor
There’s quite a lot I don’t like about the Tenth Doctor; the overstated emotionalism, and sometimes hammy performance (and, for someone as contrary as me, his current pop-cultural status doesn’t help). However, he does have the advantage of being given a range of stories which deliberately allow the Doctor to be characterised as an actual person, and to develop in hitherto unseen ways. That counts for a lot, but, although it might be a superficial view, his cheeky-chappie shtick just grates on me.

The Ninth Doctor

The thing I always emphasise about the Ninth Doctor is how ambiguous I feel about him – but, on balance, I like him (almost against my better judgement) because he’s so unprecedented. All those unbound or hypothetical Doctors that people make up or have appeared in different capacities in certain books and novels, they’re always basically versions or combinations of the existing Doctors. While you can see some of Tom or McGann in Eccleston’s portrayal, not in a million years would anyone have predicted a leather-clad Mancunian Doctor. And I’m fairly sure fandom would have been horrified at the prospect if it wasn’t quite so desperate for a new series by 2005. That’s probably all to the good though. His zaniness is overstated, but his at least outwardly distinct approach works.

The Eighth Doctor
The Eighth is an odd one. He’s a fantastic Doctor, and it’s very unusual feeling genuinely able to say that on the basis of one story, in which he nails the part. However, I do feel the understanding of the character displayed by the production team of the TVM was superficial at best, and, in retrospect, he could have done with some of the new series’ clarity in that respect.

It’s been noted before that there is something quite weak about the Doctor by the end of the TVM; obviously, the Doctor has been vulnerable before (something I quite like, as I’m dubious about him being infallible) – but in, say, Androzani, it at least chimed with the general doomy, end-of-an-era atmosphere. To have a new Doctor seem out of his depth at the end of his introductory story seems a mistake, and he could have done with some new series-style conviction and belief in the character as a hero, someone who is never weak or clueless.

It’s slightly unfair, but I also feel the character of the Eighth Doctor has been compromised by the ‘niceness’ (in the most mediocre sense of the word) and hugginess of a lot of his BBC novel series, where he was mired with wet companions like Sam Jones, or Charley in the audios. I know Compassion was a bit of a bitch, but she never lived up to her potential, and was arguably too little too late. I can’t help but feel a more uncompromising companion along the lines of the New Adventures’ Roz Forrester or Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart might have enabled him to show a bit more steel.

The Seventh Doctor

I can understand the problems some people have with McCoy. His era dared to do something that wasn’t a replica of the series’ seventies approach (and, inevitably, his stories form a large part of how people judge his performance), and was a bit too ‘madcap’ for some. He also had a weak start, and yes, the scripts didn’t always capitalise on his strengths as an actor.

But in spite of all that, I genuinely think he’s brilliant, and he’s absolutely one of my favourite Doctors. He inhabits the part, and is the polar opposite of the handsome romantic of say, McGann or Tennant, which is great – a more ‘difficult’ approach, but, I think, a more worthy one. He’s particularly brilliant at the little moments, which seems appropriate to the manipulative backseat his Doctor takes.

The Sixth Doctor

The constant knocking of the Sixth Doctor gets pretty tedious. I enjoy quite a lot of season twenty-two, and I think Colin Baker makes a good Doctor – unfortunately, there’s nothing remarkable enough about him to make him stand out particularly. To my mind, the idea of a dangerous, unpredictable Doctor is an appealing one; what’s more problematic is that he wasn’t allowed enough opportunities to actually characterise his Doctor, or even enough chances to really act.

I probably prefer this Doctor more in theory than practise, the upside of his not being afforded a great deal of variety or particularly strong writing on-screen meaning there’s a lot of potential to explore in other media. As such, the Sixth Doctor is a lot more interesting in terms of novels and so on than the versions which were unarguably effective on TV; obviously the most popular Doctors are going to be the ones people want to revisit the most, but what’s the point in missing adventures featuring the Fourth Doctor, say, which, to be successful, are simply going to have to stringently ape something that already works perfectly well.

The Fifth Doctor
My least favourite Doctor - although, inevitably this also reflects my feelings on his weak, directionless collection of stories, given how difficult it is to separate the character, actor, and era. Actually, of those angles, I quite like the idea of the character, I just don’t think he was sold terribly well, and was lumbered with a run of bland, directionless stories, and wooden companions.

Steven Moffat’s described him as the first of the ‘modern’ Doctors, but I find it hard to equate him with Eccleston or Tennant, who were characterised with a very sure hand, and where there is a feeling that everyone involved knew exactly what they wanted for the part. The Fifth, on the other had, struggles against not only, arguably, the weakest period of the show, but also against the cluelessness of a production team that didn’t know what to do with this vulnerable, effete version of the Doctor.

The Fourth Doctor

I have relatively little to say about the Fourth Doctor; Tom is clearly a great Doctor, but he doesn’t do as much for me as he seemingly does everyone else. I think I’m just all too aware that outside of his performance he has an unfair amount of advantages: he not only played the part for seven seasons (which is insane, when you think about it), he was also afforded a large variety of approaches and tone, a certain amount of stories which would be excellent whoever was in then, and a large number of successful, varied companions.

The ubiquity of such a long-running character plays a part in my feelings about this Doctor, but, more notably, I’d suggest there is often no real sense of genuine feeling in his performance. I find it hard to imagine the Fourth Doctor as an emotional being, even under the surface, as he mainly remains apathetic and detached.

The Third Doctor
Another one I’m quite ambiguous about. I do love the Third Doctor, but a certain amount of that comes from spurious feelings of warm fuzzy nostalgia, despite not being born for eleven years after his on-screen demise. It’s hard to be objective about long-term Doctors, but when you get through the familiarity, he does seem a lot different from the others; more grounded (appropriately, given the earth-exile format), more action-oriented, and perhaps the most serious of all the Doctors. People tend to ascribe a po-facedness to the First Doctor, probably because they don’t know anything about him, but I would say Pertwee’s performance is much more humourless.

As one of the most ‘classic’ classic Doctors, I’m often surprised by the underlying lack of appreciation for him there seems to be within fandom. As with the Fifth, I’m not a great fan of the majority of his seasons, but nevertheless, there is a blend of playfulness and authority in Pertwee’s (underrated?) performance which I find appealing. Perhaps one of the most out-and-out ‘heroes’ of all the Doctors, while I’d dispute whether that’s really what I want from the character, he certainly appeals to my inner child.

Though he has a reputation as a bastard, given the choice, I’d most like to travel with Three, as there’s a reassuring straightforwardness to him. The Second may be more lovable, but has a devious streak. And the Eighth would just lead to a Sam Jones situation, and we don’t want that.

The Second Doctor
Troughton is brilliant as the anarchic flipside to Hartnell, and has a far deeper characterisation that usually attributed to him (probably in part due to The Three, Five and Two Doctors). I do think he’s a totally brilliant actor; I’ve used this phrase before, but I love how he can switch from impish to chocolatey purring at the drop of a (stovepipe) hat. As with McCoy, he’s one of my absolute favourites, to the extent that I find it quite hard to qualify why. Given that Troughton managed to create an entirely lovable character also capable of a great deal of depth and sensitivity (as in his handling of Victoria’s desire to leave in Fury from the Deep), it’s tragic that the scrapping of so many of his episodes leaves him often overlooked.

The First Doctor
I’ve seen morons on messageboards ranking Hartnell lowest of all the Doctors, while freely admitting to not really having seen any of his stories, or (worse) only having seen him in The Three Doctors. Meaning they have entirely no right to rate him at all.

This particularly infuriates me because, given the increased marginalisation of older figures in popular culture, I can absolutely understand why the idea of an old Edwardian man, in black and white, is considered a complete turn-off. But, I adore Hartnell, and I genuinely think that’s he’s one of the absolute best Doctors, and for me certainly a favourite alongside, or even above Troughton and McCoy.

There seems to be a sense that people think Hartnell can only be appreciated with a major downturn in expectations, that to get anything from his period of the show you need to humour the series, or view it ironically. Well, bollocks. He might be one of the hardest Doctors to ‘get’ initially, but when you do, Hartnell is authoritative and, yes, irascible, but he's also loveable and very funny. His main strength though, apart from his unusualness as a TV hero, is his variability, which is probably unparalleled by any other Doctor, at least until Tennant. It’s not only the major shift from mysterious and accusatory in his initial stories to the more kindly granddad he become, but numerous permutations within that. I don’t think any other of the Doctors shifts so much within their characterisation. He’s always entertaining and compelling – an absolute star.

With the Seventh Doctor, my love for the character may in part derive more from the presentation of the Doctor within the series – that is, an acknowledgment of a grander, more mythologised character for the first time. With the First and Second though, it’s almost entirely due to Hartnell and Troughton’s masterful performances. I couldn’t love these men any more. Particularly Troughton, in my opinion, may well be the most effortless actor of all the Doctors.