Sunday, 5 September 2010

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

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.

1 comment:

  1. I despise Jo Grant with a passion. Definitely my least favorite companion.