Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Gerry Haylock

Mid-week illustration!

Though I have no firsthand experience of them, I kind of love the style and approach of apocryphal early Doctor Who tie-ins like TV Action and all that. Maybe because you just wouldn't get painted artwork of this type now, it seems particularly bold and vibrant.

Also, before stories in all media became carefully moderated to ensure they fit with on-screen continuity, comics and so on like this seemed to occupy their own, slightly alternate continuum - which I also like, in a slightly perverse way. When would the Third Doctor ever do something as ordinary as mix with bowler-hatted businessmen, outside Horse Guards Parade, in the series proper?!


Sunday, 26 September 2010

“Make way for the Doctor, ye swabs!”

Audio soundtrack of missing story, written by Brian Hayles, directed by Julia Smith, 1966

I love listening to an episode of sixties Doctor Who before I go to bed – it seems right, curling up in the dark with a blanket and the ‘throbbing menace’ of the original theme coming through the headphones. Hartnell’s era particularly has the right atmosphere to be a bedtime thing.

The Smugglers is immediately unpretentious and direct, in a way that means it doesn’t seem dated, and translates well to audio (recalling the comparable Highlanders). There are no baffling decisions here; it does what it needs to straightforwardly and effectively: Ben and Polly are introduced as time-travelling companions proper (with a healthy amount of scepticism); the Doctor is re-established as an authoritative but charmingly heroic character; and the TARDIS is dealt with with a minimum of fuss (the newbies’ reaction to it is obviously less effectively than Ian and Barbara’s, but in a way more appropriate to the direct adventure we get here, rather than the almost punishingly dramatic An Unearthly Child).

It’s noticeable that Hartnell’s performance is particularly strong here; very confident and assured – which makes the endless harping on his Billy-fluffs a particularly horrible disservice to a consummate actor). The directness of this story – bam, Ben and Polly in the TARDIS; bam, seventeenth century Cornwall; bam, pirates – also does favours for the Doctor, showing how great Hartnell was in the role: fiery, authoritative, amused, gracious, pompous, perceptive. His chuckles and constant amusement also make him very likeable (although he never becomes twee).

This story also made me appreciate the truth that this far back the Doctor just isn’t the action hero we’ve become used to; I like the idea that over his lives, he’s developed into a more explicitly heroic figure (although I suppose also more conventional, so whether that’s a good thing depends on your outlook).

I love Ben and Polly’s respective reactions to their predicament – her thinking it’s all a great adventure, balanced by his grumpy pragmatism. Their adaptation to the Doctor’s lifestyle may be less realistic than Ian and Babs’ (their sixties Londoner precursors), but then this is a different sort of period and story. The “pretty young vagabonds”’ investigations are great, with their looking for clues – but I particularly love Ben (ie, the sorcery scene, posing as the Doctor’s apprentices; and, “What are you screaming for?” “Oh, nothing, mate, we’re just happy”). Ben and Polly actually feel like there’s a clear concept behind them, perhaps unusually for early companions (a cooler, more dynamic, modern duo) – in a way Steven, Vicki, or Dodo, don’t.

As Patrick Mulkern points out on the Radio Times episode guide, there is nary a note of incidental music here, but I didn’t even notice; simple atmospherics like the creaking timber and seagulls’ calls during scenes on the Black Albatross, crows in the graveyard, and the echo in the crypt, work brilliantly instead. It feels like a conscious decision (as in, say, The Birds), rather than a budgetary constraint.

The story may be lousy with clich├ęs (which put me off the telesnaps – though that’s hardly the fullest way to experience a story), but in practise, the story comes alive nonetheless, because rather than in spite of the familiar setting and devices it employs. Cherub in particular (great name for a pirate!) is appropriately vile and larger-than-life for the lurid genre exercises the historicals had become by this period, with his “touch like an angel’s wing … with that knife”: “I’ll have the words spilling out of him, like blubber from a whale!”

It may in part be to do with its effectiveness on audio (the first episode warrants barely any additional narration, and introduces only Joseph Longfoot and Cherub in addition to the regulars), but The Smugglers is so much better than stories like The Tenth Planet that, though not necessarily ‘acclaimed,’ still have inestimably greater status. Though understandable (The Tenth Planet is sci-fi, not a ‘boring’ historical, and features the Cybermen’s debut and the first regeneration), it’s such a shame that a direct, effective story like this (though equally understandably) barely has any reputation at all.

There aren’t any big, crowd-pleasing concepts (flying buses or historical celebrities), but this story could be made today with only the most superficial of changes, down to the script itself – it’s just a shame it wouldn’t be, exactly because of its lack of ‘big concepts’.

Even though a relatively undemanding story (with a lot of its colour already filled in, due to the archetypes it’s dealing in), it strikes me as going some way to explain my love for the period of Doctor Who it comes from. I really love the sixties and so, whilst listening to this story, I couldn’t help but try and work out why.

There is a brilliance peculiar to the best of the sixties - this is the closest I can come to defining it:

Sixties DW is well-written, but economically so – there’s no obsession with development and arcs. The new series’ focus on ‘real people’ can seem overplayed, while the eighties is mainly lacking in realistic characterisation; the sixties is well-balanced between this – likeable, easy to grasp, well-written characters, but without an excessive desperation to load dialogue with button-pushing ‘significant,’ emotional moments.

    There is a misconception of the sixties as being twee or quaint (which is arguably truer of Troughton’s years?), but, though I guess it has its moments in this respect, so do all eras, and it’s probably more to do with the production values than the tonal content. In fact, Hartnell’s era is often quite full-on (another thing I admire it for) – for example, Judith’s apparent rape in The Time Meddler, Vasor forcing himself on Babs in The Keys of Marinus, and her considering stabbing a child to death to save her from soldiers in The Crusade. The Doctor’s less developed ‘moral obligation’ helps to give this impression, too: misanthropic endings where the Doctor leaves carnage to play out unaided (The Massacre, The Myth Makers) would be unthinkable today, at least not without a lot of overwrought blubbing and emoting, or a lesson being learnt (cf The Fires of Pompeii).

      In fact, there’s a sense of all-round conviction and commitment, especially in the era’s most high-minded stories, which trumps all the other periods for drama (in grown-up stories like The Crusade, etc). It’s not over-eager or flagrantly crowd-pleasing (at least from a modern PoV, which can only be an asset), and doesn’t talk down to its audience (eg, An Unearthly Child – which is unthinkable as a kids’ show, or even family viewing today; it’s so bleak and harrowing!).

      The unknowableness of the lost stories gives the era a fascinating sense of mystery. Similarly, this era isn’t – and never will be – overexposed through interviews or behind the scenes footage or justifications, which stops me feeling jaded about it. The experimental variety of the stories (ie, the run of The Myth Makers' tragedy-as-farce followed by the pulpy Saturday-serial sci-fi of The Daleks’ Master Plan, and The Massacre’s deadly serious, Doctor-lite religious drama) adds to this unknowability.

        More than anything, I think it’s the dated look of this period of the show that puts people off, but to my mind stylised visuals liberate it from the constraints of effective special effects or even realism (think false perspectives and painted backdrops, which don’t impair the stories – and which I love the theatricality of). This also makes it seem intriguingly unique and timeless because it doesn’t use the same visual language of anything on TV today. It actually looks quite beautiful, and is more intrinsically stylish and (despite being low budget and small scale) cinematic than arguably any other period (no-one could mistake the fuzzy colour showing up the seventies’ insubstantial sets, or the eighties’ flat overlighting, for a feature film, whereas the sixties is broadly comparable to then-contemporary features).

          The first two Doctors, while admittedly favourites of mine, I would also contend are among the best (and yes, that’s a different thing) – much as I love every Doctor, many of the later ones seem quite contrived as expectations of ‘Doctorishness’ are all too established. There are less limits to the earliest ones; they’re so wildly different, and both brilliantly likeable (Hartnell’s giggling is so infectious). Equally though, I love Hartnell’s inaccessibility – the opposite of today’s focus-group culture; he is difficult, yes, but it makes him more intriguing. 

          Even the variety of companions makes the era seem broader than, say, the Sixth and Seventh Doctor’s two-companions-each: the First by contrast has ten companions (including Sara Kingdom; and why wouldn’t you?!). That alone gives so much variety; it feels like there are numerous eras within the era.

          Even though Steven (much as I like him) is essentially Ian mk II, and Vicki (ditto) and Dodo are essentially retreads of Susan, the variety of companions (and partly because of the obscurity of some of them) adds to the era’s alluring mystery. (The First Doctor/Steven/Dodo combo, say, is practically unknown to me – something which can’t be said of really any combination since the sixties. That obscurity is so appealing; Peri, for example, has a ubiquity that can’t measure up to the mystique certain early companions have just because they aren’t fully knowable (and even if they aren’t perfect).)
              I recently came across an unfortunately typical comment, apparently calculated as being as annoying as possible, saying: ‘I never have and never will be interesting in the first two Doctors and the dull and inferior B&W era of the show’. I really shouldn’t rise to that, but it does rile me.

              If that is actually your considered opinion then fine, but someone who doesn’t have the critical faculties to back up such a ridiculously generalising and closed-minded comment like that is clearly a moron. I suppose I get the last laugh though, as the sixties has all the things I want from Doctor Who: visual strength, directness, intelligence, conviction, imagination, and variety.

              Ha, ha.

              Tuesday, 14 September 2010

              Just a stop-gap post, cos Blogger's being a total pain in the arse since they introduced new formatting controls, which I can't be bothered to deal with right now.

              So, yeah. A pretty picture! Hurrah.

              Next Time: "Oodles of trouble" in THE SMUGGLERS

              Sunday, 5 September 2010

              "Don't they like being happy and prosperous?"

              Review: DAY OF THE DALEKS
              Written by Louis Marks, directed by Paul Bernard, 1972

              I love Doctor Who’s capacity for undermining my expectations. Though (if I’m honest) it is a huge part of my life, there are still areas of the show I expect to enjoy in only an ‘ironic’ sense; the majority of Pertwee’s era – which seems to me one of the flimsiest periods of the show – being one of them.

              I’m not hugely into this era, but I was in the mood tonight. The grainy VHS copy I watched it on actually added to the strange pre-natal nostalgia of it – that I did so late at night, under a blanket, while eating birthday cake during a relaxed weekend at my parents’, probably helped.

              However, only a little way in, after the clumsy introductory scene involving the Doctor and Jo’s doubles (which is a rehash of the similar scene from The Ambassadors of Death anyway), I found myself surprised by how decent this story is. As I say, I love Doctor Who – so I should know this! But I still find myself expecting something only enjoyable with suitably lowered expectations, and then being surprised by finding it pretty decent, once the scene is set.

              True, I stand by my comments about this period’s flimsiness – but it’s a question of looking at things in context. Yes, the colour is garish and diffuse. Yes, people swim in and out of focus, and, yes, the editing is ponderous by today’s standards, but all these are unavoidable elements of its age.

              However (and perhaps I can be too swayed by these things), there are several handsome visual touches, especially on location around the railway bridge, which are conversely pleasing (using the ambient noise of a train passing as the Ogrons depart for the first time effectively as part of the soundtrack is an inspired touch, while also suggesting a world beyond the story). There’s lots of lovely shots though the sunlit grass on the wasteland too – though maybe a few too many lovingly-uplit moustaches! The Controller’s set is also comparable with, say, The Long Game, aside from some smears and scuffs.

              Being more of a season seven fancier, Pertwee’s costume here (red velvet and purple silk) really couldn’t be more garish. I’m not sure if we’re really still in that Pertwee-backlash thing, but though this is a story that’s often held up by critics of his ‘Establishment arrogance’ (etc, etc) – actually, I prefer this Doctor’s louche confrontationality to his (slightly forced) urbane jocularity earlier on in the story. (However, the line, “A most good-humoured wine. A touch sardonic, perhaps, but not cynical,” is genius. The classiness of defeating someone in hand-to-hand combat whilst holding a glass of wine is fantastic too.)

              I love his short-tempered weariness under interrogation, and the, “Do you run all your factories like that?” scene is great. Yes, it seems unfair, as we’ve been allowed to see the Controller in a less negative light from Jo’s PoV, and, yes, the Doctor comes across as bullying (“You, sir, are a traitor”), but… Given that the classic series didn’t investigate the Doctor’s emotional side in the way we’re used to now, I think it’s ambiguous moments like this – the difficult bits – which make him most interesting in the past series.

              As part of this, the Doctor can seem excessively patronising to Jo – but then, she is a moron. I actually have something of a soft-spot for her… but I also can’t stand her either. She’s the archetypal ‘Doctor Who girl,’ in the sense of an even more braindead Bond girl – wide-eyed, fashionable in an all-too-easily dated way, ‘kooky,’ with a heart of gold, and a tendency to repeat everything with added incomprehension. Though she’s likeable in spite of her dippiness, she still gets on my tits, frankly. “That’s right, Jo; I mean a ray gun.”

              Day of the Daleks does seem like it was made for morons (children?), so perhaps Jo – as the audience identification figure – is just pitched at the audience Barry Letts was aiming at. (Behold: comedy disappearance sound effects! Overly-accessible explanations of really not too taxing concepts! And all the ghost stuff and incomprehension of basic things like people disappearing should be bread and butter to UNIT!)

              As for the Daleks – because of their ubiquity, it’s hard to judge them objectively. In fact, I don’t really feel much about them either way. They certainly look shit here, with their horrible gloss paintjobs; they’re much neater and more precise in their sixties appearances, and, to be honest, they only look really good again in Remembrance (in the classic series; I was reserving judgement on the bulkier, more fiddly new series ‘bling’ models… until the bubblebath/dodgem/Mighty Morphin iDaleks came along).

              It’s quite typical for people to bemoan the fact that, despite being ‘popular’ recurring creations, the Cybermen are rarely – if ever – used to their full potential. I can’t help wondering if the same is true of the Daleks. I don’t want to seem hopelessly biased toward the sixties, but that was the Daleks’ decade, during which they were genuinely nasty and scheming in a way that’s never quite been matched since – as well as balancing their pulpiness so they didn’t become too cartoonish (as they have in some of their most recent appearances).

              Certainly, this story is an insubstantial dribble of nothing compared to Evil of the Daleks, their preceding story. Here, they are static, weedily-voiced and flimsy, and disappointingly unemotional; they aren’t unhinged or machiavellian as in Master Plan, Power, or Evil)

              In fact, all their sixties stories are cracking (and yes, I’m including The Chase in that - albeit in a different way). The Dalek Invasion of Earth seems the ropiest and most disjointed to me these days. in that – albeit in a different way).

              Beyond the sixties, though there are good Dalek stories, it often doesn’t follow that they’re particularly well used within them (ie, in Genesis and Revelation they are almost irrelevant in themselves). Dalek is great, in its unique approach, but then the series one and two ‘finales’ put them back to square one. they are almost irrelevant in themselves).

              However, even in drearier stories like Destiny and Resurrection, their innate appeal always pulls through – they are another of DW’s inadvertently ever-lasting nuggets of genius (along with the endless freedom of structure afforded by the TARDIS/time travel structure, and the concept of regeneration). They are one of those marriages of various elements – concept, design, realisation, vocals – that are somehow unbeatable. Even when there are only three of them staging an ‘attack,’ wobbling through a field with some Planet of the Apes rejects in tow.

              Saturday, 4 September 2010

              Designing the Thirteenth Doctor

              This is my submission for a 'design the Thirteenth Doctor' thread on the site I haven't drawn anything in years, but the range of the submissions made me want to make a contribution (I particularly like the more outre ones).

              Tilda Swinton as the Doctor is something I’d kill to see, so to start with that's what I tried to draw, in Orlando mode - but I couldn’t quite make it work. So instead I went for Toshiro Mifune (think of his gruff persona in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and High and Low especially) in a Brighton Rock-style suit and patent DMs. Sort of thirties-punk.

              You can see the other submissions here.