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!

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