Saturday, 27 November 2010

"There's never anything good at the end of a countdown – except New Years, and even that's rubbish”

CBBC spin-off series, 2010

This time round, there was a danger that The Sarah Jane Adventures were going to feel like an obsolete pre-Moffat relic, with its Siltheen and Graskes. Even a notable lack of any crossover monsters from series five (I can imagine the Silurians turning up) sits a little oddly, and would perhaps have reinforced the show’s ancestry given how much the parent series has moved on.

Of course, the appearance of the Eleventh Doctor, this season’s selling point, goes some way to addressing this, but opener The Nightmare Man - a very self conscious attempt at a scary story – seems a patent attempt to move the series on and try new things, perhaps to limit reliance on Doctor Who itself. In fact, this is almost the most characteristic thing about this season; aside from a couple of by-numbers lapses, most of the stories have tried to showcase a more varied and mature take on the show.

Growing has obviously been a major topic, too, with The Nightmare Man particularly compounding a more teenage feel with its Skins-rated-U surprise party for Luke. It also shows a lot of confidence in opening the season with a first episode in which Sarah has very little direct involvement – although, in fact, she ended up seeming marginalised in a lot of the stories, especially Lost in Time and the final episode. Perhaps it’s a case of reality mirroring fiction and the actress’s age is actually catching up with her…? Despite this, as ever, it’s quite staggering to remember quite how marvellous Lis Sladen is; in all her little very human and idiosyncratic reactions, she seems far better than CBBC deserves and is of course the pièce de résistance of the show.

Ultimately, The Nightmare Man isn’t entirely satisfying, trying almost too hard to be teenage and scary, which seemed at odds with the series’ underlying positivity and niceness. Julian Bleach channelling Joel Grey’s Emcee from Cabaret or The League of Gentlemen’s Papa Lazarou, but not being as scary as either, though probably quite creepy for the actual demographic (just not the ming-mong quotient), is slightly disappointing. On balance, this is probably the least successful of his Torchwood/Doctor Who/SJA triumvirate of villains.

However, it’s good to see a certain amount of dreamlike surrealism in one of the new series family, something twenty-first century Doctor Who itself has mainly eschewed, perhaps for fear of alienating its carefully built mainstream audience (with even the dreamscape(s) of Amy’s Choice being played straight). The world of the Nightmare Man does demonstrate the potential danger of ‘anything goes’ dream-logic, as it becomes a bit ‘Well why should we care?’, which, I suppose, is always the danger. Sarah’s relative lack of involvement isn’t entirely successful, either, as it falls to Tommy Knight to carry the story - but it’s okay, cos by the end Luke’s gone! (They’ll have to update that cringy catch-up sequence that plays at the beginning of every episode. Or is that just on iPlayer?! The bleeping they’d added to K9 was hacking me off too, so he’s not a great loss either.)

(As an aside, without Luke around, does it not look a bit weird to the inhabitants of Bannerman Road for Sarah to be jetting around with two schoolkids? Maybe the finale of the next season will see her lynched by a mob of concerned members of the community?)

The Vault of Secrets is one of the weaker offerings of the season, with the otherwise irrelevant Pyramids of Mars reference being probably the most interesting thing in it. (It’s also slightly saddening that in a split second of footage the visual of Mars’ surface is miraculous, by comparison to what the show could pull off back in 1975.) The links to the Dreamland animation, in the Men in Black, are less welcome, being the kind of astonishingly obvious pop-cultural ‘pastiches’ (and that’s being generous) which are destined to be repeated, ad infinitum, for decades to come. And all without being anywhere near as creepy as Hugo Weaving.

Death of the Doctor forms the meat of this review, perhaps unfairly – but there’s relatively little to say about SJA's regular stories, which are almost so routine as to be beyond reproach; they do exactly what they say on the tin, and there isn’t a great deal to analyse. In consequence, it is welcome to have a writer like Russell T Davies, who’s not exactly hampered by restraint, coming along and providing an event episode to shake up the format – in a way that previous stabs at season finales, such as the somewhat fumbled reintroduction of the Brigadier, didn’t. An injection of big thinking (in contrast to the standard ‘the gang foils an alien incursion in suburbia’) goes a long way: not only in having the Doctor appear, but doing so in a story dealing with his apparent death and its repercussions, along with the reappearance of another long-gone former companion.

A writer immodest enough to take the format and give it a good shake is a rare thing in SJA, so although self-conscious ‘big stories’ aren’t really my bag, this one is almost a relief. (Big, that is, in terms of its emotional ramifications – turning out the sun, for example, may seem big, but doesn’t mean anything compared to meeting up with a familiar character from thirty years ago.)

I imagine a lot of people’ll focus on the sheer amount of elements crammed into Death of the Doctor, whereas most stories have only one or two main building blocks – say, The Vault of Secrets’ returnees Androvax versus the Men in Black. Here, not only do we have UNIT (and their Gerry Anderson-like base in Mount Snowden), but the Doctor and his apparent death, new monsters (the Shansheeth), old monsters (the Graske/Groske), an alien planet, Jo Grant’s return, and a Luke-alike in Jo’s grandson. While this would seem to suggest that Russell is up to his old Stolen Earth/End of Time ‘more is… MORE!!!’ tricks, these elements actually gel and feel far more organic than that comparison would suggest. In fact, it really shouldn’t work, yet I enjoyed this story far more than my generally low opinion of Davies’ writing would suggest. In fact, I kind of loved this story, apart from anything else for its atypically measured pace, which, in the first episode, gives Sarah and Jo a surprising – but welcome – amount of time to both reminisce and become acquainted.

It’s a relief that such a continuity-heavy concept is fictively justified by a plot which revolves around memory. Similarly, Jo’s appearance feels entirely appropriate to the idea of the Doctor’s funeral, rather than something arbitrarily slotted in, thus dismissing the idea that maybe her’s and the Doctor’s appearances in this series would be better used in separate stories.

For a continuity fest, it’s impressive how fleet-footed it mainly manages to be – even without the Shansheeth drawing out Sarah and Jo’s memories for their own nefarious purposes, it is natural that the two ex-companions would share these things. Likewise, a rare nod to Liz Shaw seems natural in the circumstances – and, oddly, links into her presence on a moonbase in late New Adventure Eternity Weeps. Strangely enough, I doubt that makes her horrific, sulphuric acid-spewing death canon though.

I’m no fan of Jo, though I do have a certain grudging fondness for her; I coincidentally watched the (yes, dire) Time Monster for the first time before seeing this, and the contrast between her twentieth and twenty-first century appearances brings home how much emotionally-driven characterisation the new series has given to the companion role. On the basis of stories like The Time Monster it’s hard to credit Jo with any original thought at all, so though her wild post-Doctor life is laid on a bit thick here, it’s almost revelatory to hear her actually talking about the Doctor in retrospect, when we were never allowed any access to her thoughts about her life with him back in the seventies. (She does look a bit… desiccated, though.)

Perhaps because the character is effectively brought up to date, or brought in line with her modern counterparts, I felt a lot more pleased to see her than I expected. For all that I’m cynical about his generally overinflated reputation as a writer, Davies has certainly got a handle on Jo in presenting her – though exaggeratedly – as a batty, be-ringed free spirit. She’s well on her way to becoming one of Doctor Who’s fabulously mad old dears, á la Amelias Rumsford and Ducat. I like how Rani immediately thinks she’s “fantastic,” and Santiago is unembarrassed by her – I mean, she would be an awesome mad relative, who all the normal grown-ups’d shake their heads about. (Though quite why she brought her grandson to the funeral is anyone’s guess. Santiago is slightly hatefully right-on, though that might be mainly down to the excessively low-cut T-shirt, but at least the cons of his globetrotting life are brought up in the second part.)

That Jo’s aspirational post-Green Death lifestyle, which is sketched in rather than being left to the imagination, is implicitly due to the seize-the-day mentality that rubbed off from the Doctor, is one of those Russell tropes which irritate me slightly, but which overall didn’t stop me enjoying his return to the Doctor Who universe. (See also the sledgehammer emotiveness of concepts like ‘the Doctor died saving hundreds of children’; portentous dialogue (“You smell of time; he is coming”); pseudo-mystical alien-dialogue (“brothers of the wing”); a penchant for spuriously ‘exotic’ names (Santiago Jones); tortuous coincidences bent to shape the story (the sonic being in the TARDIS and Sarah’s lipstick having been ‘drained’); and the Doctor as the stuff of intergalactic legend; etc, etc.)

However, these things are tempered by the more sympathetic attitude to continuity that has become the norm since 2005, with it being more about events’ emotional consequences than an excuse to roll out old monsters. It still heartens me to hear characters react to the most outlandish elements of Doctor Who in broadly real ways; ie, Sarah Jane wondering what face the dead Doctor has – in a way no-one did in the old series.

That the explicit references to previous stories include less-obvious ones like Jo and Sarah’s Peladon jaunts or The Masque of Mandragora is quite lovely, because it’s less the events in question that are important than the characters' tactile memories of those experiences (ie, Sarah remembers the orange grove the TARDIS landed in in the latter story, rather than Heironymous and the Helix energy). Davies effectively couches continuity in terms of memory rather than relating it in dry, ‘factual’ terms. That he also gets in a reference to the unseen Third Doctor excursion mentioned in Timelash takes continuity references to a new level of tortuousness – again, though, it is justifiable as a simply tactile memory for Jo, and so doesn’t feel painfully fanwanky.

Incidentally, as a fan who’s used to numerous returns and reappearances in various media, it’s easy to be all too blasé about characters returning to the world of the show thirty-odd years down the line; but it is insane, and we should be so grateful that Doctor Who brings out the kind of good feeling that makes people want to return to characters decades later. This must be pretty unprecedented, mustn’t it?!

In a way, perhaps because such a Doctor-centric idea is at its centre, and because of its less furiously paced speed than is normal in SJA, this feels more ‘Doctor Who’ than the spin-off show, even if it isn’t necessarily ‘like’ an actual episode of Doctor Who. David Tennant’s appearance in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith did feel like an excursion for the Doctor into spin-off territory, even though in both appearances the Doctor doesn’t turn up until the end of the first part (which, given the ratings-winning kudos of bagging these leading actors, is nicely judged not to overshadow SJA’s regular cast). In some ways, it does feel odd throwing away such a fertile concept as the Doctor’s death/funeral (think Alien Bodies) in a ‘mere’ CBBC spin-off, but it comes off well, and gives a bit of scale and gravitas to a series often more disposable than this.

As for Sarah, with a fourth Doctor under her belt (as it were), Sarah has effectively become a latterday Brigadier-figure; that is, a friend rather than companion per se, who repeatedly encounters different Doctors. I’d love for her to still be popping up when she’s the age Nicholas Courtney is now. Speaking of which, I’m not sure how much longer that ‘the Brigadier’s stuck in Peru’ excuse will hold up – I mean, there are airports in South America.

It comes as something of a surprise for me to say it, but overall this story is outrageously lovely, and probably one of my favourite of Davies’ stories - which isn’t saying that much, but it's nice that his return doesn’t make me want him to piss off even more permanently. It’s in scenes like the Doctor’s talk with Jo where Davies shines, and which I actually found quite moving, especially because of how nicely the reason for her departure in The Green Death links with Amy and Rory’s recent marriage. That Jo tried to get in touch with the Doctor at UNIT is specifically strangely affecting, especially since, as he was based on earth at the time, there’s no reason she’d expect the definitive end to her association which we, as viewers, know to expect.

As for the past-companion namechecking, though shamelessly fannish, hearing mention of Ian and Barbara and Ben and Polly (and even Ace*) on BBC1 in 2010 made me giddy as a schoolgirl. The fact that all those mentioned are doing something inspirational is an example of Davies’ quite literal thinking, which grates on me slightly, but as it isn’t exactly an exhaustive summary I can live with it; personally, I prefer the broader idea that they aren’t all necessarily on top of the world, but obviously that wouldn’t be as appropriate to SJA’s optimistic outlook (on more general principles, it is undeniably limiting to demand that Doctor Who can never be sad). I don’t quite believe in, say, Tegan as a right-on campaigner for Aboriginal rights, but former companions wouldn’t seem human if it wasn’t implied that their travels with the Doctor had affected them, and injecting humanity into them is Davies’ forte.

While bizarre, the idea that a still-young Ian and Babs are mooching around Oxford is also inexpressibly lovely. It could be seen as presumptuous of Davies to furnish these characters with post-Doctor lives, but I guess that’s the price of having someone take a more hands-on approach to the series’ past. Also, it does tie the series together in a charming way to realise even sixties companions who seem like ancient history are still alive and kicking, if only in the Doctor Who universe.

On the other hand, that the Doctor’s rounds in the coda to The End of Time actually took in EACH AND EVERY companion is absurd, and another example of Davies’ utter lack of restraint. The idea of the Tenth Doctor tracking down, say, Dodo, Turlough, Steven, Mel or Grace is ludicrous, but makes me laugh at its audacity rather than heaving a weary sigh. That wilful ludicrousness is quite representative of Davies’ output, but I’m glad it has seen an expression, in this somewhat unassuming form, in a story I really enjoyed. (This even more extended ‘reward’ does smacks of fanboy completism – did the Doctor do it alphabetically or chronologically?!) I’d also throw my vote in with the idea that referencing back to past characters isn’t alienating for newer audiences (if done right), but rather provides a glimpse of history and backstory - which, frankly, Doctor Who has enough of to spare.

More prosaically, I don’t like Matt Smith’s new shirt/jacket; it looks like he’s cosplaying… as himself… badly. (But at least this variation in his costume was due to technical considerations, the usual Paul Smith shirt vibrating with the SJA cameras.) The Shansheeth are possibly the worst new series/spin-off monsters, both in realisation and design, and certainly the most tawdry of Davies’ animal-aliens; they look like refugees from a particularly cash-strapped production of Alice in Wonderland. But let’s just peg that as a cash issue and move swiftly on.

For my money, Death of the Doctor has a hell of a lot more interesting concept - and, let’s face it: is just better - than any of the 2009 specials; maybe Davies really did just need time to recharge. Similarly, perhaps stories without the pressure of building up to regeneration/end of an era, suit him better. Having said that, he does manage to make this return to the fold act as a coda to The End of Time (cos the twenty-minute one actually in that story obviously wasn‘t enough...), in its discussion of regeneration, and an epitaph for the Tenth Doctor. Some people might see this as further self-indulgence from Davies, but I kind of like the emphasis put on the Doctor's ‘death’ and renewal, because it’s natural the characters should discuss it. It's the opposite thinking of earlier versions of Doctor Who, where the production teams bizarrely never felt the need to put these thoughts into the mouths of earlier companions - an extreme example being TARDIS newcomer Tegan’s total non-reaction to the Fourth Doctor’s regeneration, in Logopolis/Castrovalva.

Overall, Death of the Doctor may be an exercise in linking the old series to its Davies and Moffat eras, but the story is a lot less clunky than that implies. The fact that the actual plot boils down to a scheme to get hold of the TARDIS, and the Shansheeth’s plan being somewhat more ambiguous than straight-down-the-line villainy, is welcome. A corrupt UNIT officer is quite a nice inversion of the generally faceless UNIT of the new series, too, and shows a tendency to tackle sacred cows which also sees expression in the story’s (albeit affectionate) mockery of Sarah’s “staggering” piousness and the show’s home-in-time-for-tea ethos.

The main thing this story made me wonder, with fearfully predictable geekiness, was which other old-school characters I’d like to see return? I guess Leela is the obvious one - being popular and memorable, but unusual - though it might be harder to flesh her out as a believable human being. Or, apparent Captain Jack-like immortality aside, Ian Chesterton - ironically, as William Russell’s age could give some real scale to the Doctor’s recurring association with human companions.  


Following Russell's return was always going to be hard to equal, but in taking a completely opposed, sparer approach, The Empty Planet pretty much does. I’m going to skip over that though, as you can read a fuller review I wrote for this episode, on Kasterborous.

Lost in Time, perhaps most explicitly of this run, continues to push the series into new areas: I like its multi-location format, even if it doesn’t go into demented Chase-like territory, and it’s a relief that the Bannerman Road Gang aren’t explicitly ‘fighting aliens’ for once, persevering with a looser approach to the format. There’s a surprising, and welcome, degree of pathos to Jane Grey; in fact, all the strands are surprisingly satisfying considering their brevity, and how easily this could have turned into a bitty, disjointed mess (ahem, The Chase again). I particularly enjoyed the pip-pip derring-do of the budget Eagle Has Landed – especially the gun-wielding schoolmarm-cum-spy! – although this probably only serves to highlight the (relative) limitations of Daniel Anthony, giving him an action-based rather than emotionally probing mini-story. Though there are moments – for example, when the Nazi commandant calls him a ‘negro’ – where the script does veer into more emotional-driven territory.

There is a certain Moffat-ness to this episode (Matt Smith aside, one of few concessions to the spin-off’s relationship with its newly-rejuvenated parent series), in Jane’s shades of Madame de Pompadour, and the climactically timey-wimey (sorry!) delivery of the key. It’s also rather lovely that a kids’ program is prepared to give an emotional kick – even if it could be accused of being a little ‘schematic’ – of a type that Doctor Who itself seldom delivered prior to its revival.

And so to Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith: SJA doesn’t have a very good track-record with finales, and - regrettably - this one doesn’t fail in delivering an underwhelming story, continuing a characteristic and slightly annoying insistence on ‘high-concept’ finales (tag-teaming returning villains; a Sarah-equivalent figure). I think SJA falls down in this department because the big, showboating approach it tries to crib from the parent series just doesn’t suit its own style, which is at its most effective when tackling a more intimate tone and scale. 

Having said that, Goodbye… does try for the kind of sensitivity which the series often succeeds at surprisingly well, but falls a bit flat with Sarah’s fears about ageing. Plus, the manipulation of her life feels like a retread of The Wedding of…, and isn’t quite compelling enough to justify the lack of any major threat for the majority of the first episode. Also, the non-appearance of the Trickster (who I’m starting to warm to, if only because his nemesis-status makes him feel ‘significant’) is countered by a ‘Ruby’s evil!’ reveal that’s a bit meh (a disembodied stomach?!), while also invalidating even more the rather weak cowl-wearing budget alien threat from earlier. Plus, Ruby’s true nature also nullifies her role as a Sarah-analogue, the heavy-handedness of which is a bit much; ‘Mr White’, the Alfa Romeo, the secret cellar.

I mean, Hickman and Roberts – shouldn’t that have been fun?! Instead it was desultory and charmless. (An evil exile? Jesus.)

Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith has none of the ambition of stories like Lost in Time to broaden the series’ tenets. Maybe that’s appropriate to a finale, but as I have serious issues with the way all Doctor Who-family series tend to end with some slightly desperate ‘big’ story, it feels disappointing in comparison to the best mid-season stories of this run. Lost in Time would have made a more memorable and ambitious finale, without ticking the ‘this is a finale!’ boxes, which are so very tedious.

Anyway, I’ve said waaay more than is strictly necessary in regard to a CBBC programme, especially since I’m only really interested in it as an adjunct to Doctor Who (though it still has its own charms) - so I will end on this note: has Luke been doing crystal meth at uni, or what? He looks like he’s dying!

*Ace’s fate as a philanthropist billionaire doesn’t necessarily negate the character’s Space Bitch and 'Time’s Vigilante' phases in the New Adventures, or her time-travelling motorbike and eventual life in seventeenth century France (…or whatever).

Friday, 19 November 2010

Matthew Jackson

SFX recently posted the results to a 'zombify Doctor Who' competition - a bollocksy idea, but nevertheless I rather liked this image. Albeit less because of its zombification, and more because I'm a sucker for slightly stylised, off-kilter takes on familiar designs. There's a new series Cyberman in the same style, too. 

The slightly souped-up costume also reinforces the impression that the series' own Martians could be easily and effectively updated for modern audiences, but without loosing their essence (cough, cough, à la shitty series five Silurians). 


Saturday, 13 November 2010

"You see shadows where there is no sun"

Audio soundtrack of missing story, written by John Lucarotti and Donald Tosh, directed by Paddy Russell, 1966

When considering the sixties, people tend to focus on the stories most obviously comparable to the series at large (ie, the ‘spacey’ stories; anything with Daleks). While this is understandable, it does limit appreciation for this period, because it’s those stories that can’t help but be dated by comparison to subsequent eras. Therefore, the stories which take approaches unique to the period tend to get overlooked – tragically, as a story like The Massacre shows they can still work brilliantly on their own terms.

Given its attendant ‘best story ever!’ hype, I always wanted The Massacre to be amazing, and so was perhaps understandably slightly disappointed on my first listen – exactly because it’s one of the type of stories that don’t have any equivalents outside of the sixties (or even outside Hartnell’s era): straight, no-holds-barred historical drama. Also, I can’t quite get a handle on this story through its soundtrack alone – perhaps because the only roughly analogous stories feature the more familiar Ian and Babs, whereas season three is a more obscure period. As such it feels less like Doctor Who than it would with more highly-regarded companions. (The lack of photographs doesn’t help, either.)

However, having listened to it for a second time, I am more and more impressed. A high-minded, Doctor-lite, religious historical from the sixties – I can see why people go for a Dalek invasion over that; this should be turgid and worthy, whereas actually it’s the other way round. This is a tight, adult piece of drama. It’s so strange that this is from the same overall series as, say… Gridlock or, I dunno, Four to Doomsday – or even from the same season as basic genre pulp like Galaxy 4 or The Ark.

It’s so surprising that the BBC was permissive enough forty-four years ago to broadcast a story with religious content which might today be deemed potentially inflammatory – even an episode called ‘War of God’ would be too strong these days. It’d be like an Eleventh Doctor story dealing with fundamentalist Islam. I do love that ‘silly,’ ‘childish’ Doctor Who has dealt with such a subject, and with total conviction – and in the sixties, a period paradoxically humoured as being twee and harmless, but which contains the most adult, gruelling, and bleak stories of the series’ run.

I know next to nothing of this period (which I suppose can be seen as a vindication for the show’s early educational remit…), but the use of a detailed historical situation, rather than the historical window-dressing of something like The Pandorica Opens (much as I love it) is one of this story’s triumphs. The sheer amount of detail and apparent realism is massively impressive, and has the kind of built-in detail and richness that an entirely fictionalised context can never emulate. The performances also duly rise to the occasion. I adore The Myth Makers, the preceding historical, and obviously part of the joke there is its stiff received pronunciation, but there is nothing so mannered here; in fact, it’s extraordinary how wildly different The Massacre is tonally, and how compellingly naturalistic.

Even the relative incongruity (within Doctor Who) of the range of Parisian streets and French names we are presented with (Roger Colbert, Admiral de Coligny, Abbot of Amboise, Catherine de Medici) lends power and veracity to the plot. The large cast of characters with varied, complex motives outdoes anything sci-fi or contemporary-set stories could hope for, and is extremely compelling, for example in the loaded menace of the conversation between Tavannes and de Coligny. It’s also laudably ambiguous, with the distinction of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ being largely irrelevant – the story is resolutely un-melodramatic. (Even Nicholas – playing a part you’d expect to be sympathetic – is suspicious and untrusting of our sympathetic hero, Steven.)

The game-raising nature of the script extends to the regulars: Steven may not be a desperately interesting or well-developed character, but the understated nuances of Peter Purves’ performance are truly striking, and the part of the naïf is well suited to him. His increasing anguish is very successful, in that the more out of his depth, the more appealing he gets.

In episode one, the Doctor is also particularly charming in his interest in Preslin’s germ research – I like that the story gives him time to track someone down purely on the basis of an interest in their work. Even in such relatively simple scenes, Hartnell’s competence as an actor particularly struck me, in contrast to his perceived reputation, in that he really brings alive relatively undemanding dialogue. (Perhaps because we aren’t spoiled with interviews or behind the scenes footage, more than any other incumbent Hartnell simply is the Doctor, rather than an actor playing a part, so I forget he’s even acting at all.)

Hartnell’s dual performance is one of the elements of this production that seemed like a bit of a let down first time round, not seeming as radical as it is often claimed to be – that is, until you realise it actually is entirely “hmm”-free. Incidentally, it’s surprising how notably unimportant the device of the Doctor’s double is (the Abbot isn’t even the top dog like Salamander), only really functioning to further destabilise Steven’s situation.

The idea of isolating a single story out of two-hundred plus as the ‘best’ is patently absurd, but the more this story sinks in, the more appreciation I have for the fact that people actually vindicate the high-mindedness of this story. Even on this re-listen, The Massacre didn’t blow me away in the event – but then, crowd-pleasing isn’t its style (once again, stand up Dalek Invasion of Earth, and show where that approach got you…), and it’s all the better for that.

The fact that such an accomplished – and uncompromised – story exists within the series’ canon is staggering, and quite wonderful. Even generally comparable dramatic historicals like The Aztecs or The Crusade have more action-adventure content; this is like Doctor Who has temporarily collided with a historical drama, and is elevated by the depth and detail of its real-life machinations and players. A worthy historical-cum-period political thriller, with a double and an astronaut thrown in; I’m not quite sure how those elements gel, but they do.

It’s a laudable story which is entirely worthy of being so acclaimed – even if its relative complexity doesn’t translate so well to audio (despite its ‘talkiness’), as in more straight-forward stories of which The Smugglers is a good example.

It goes without saying then that it’s a tragedy this is a story we’ll never get to actually watch. I’ve heard that the soundtrack of the massacre itself was played over woodcuts on-screen, which particularly intrigues me – one of the rare but brilliantly innovative devices that were only ever attempted in the sixties. Considering similar moments of visual brio in films like Lady Snowblood, or the Hoichi the Earless section of Japanese portmanteau Kwaidan, I can only imagine this might have been as effective as The Chase’s La Jetée-style closing photomontage. Similarly, I have absolute admiration for the brave – and deceptively simplistic – stylistic device of using regional British accents to suggest different classes in sixteenth century France (a device reused recently in Vincent and the Doctor).

As an aside, I coincidently saw the 1994 film of Dumas’ La Reine Margot soon after listening to this soundtrack, which approaches the events surrounding the massacre in a rather different way – all boisterous sensuality and sumptuous violence. In fact, though decent enough for a mainstream French film, it’s almost too sumptuous – in a rugged, grimy-but-sexy kind of way. Considering how radically different these two interpretations are – especially since The Massacre is audio-only, so we’re effectively talking different media – as a kids’ programme/family show, Doctor Who’s take compares surprisingly well with the more obviously ‘adult,’ sexual, violent feature film.

It’s not very often that Doctor Who is directly comparable to anything else – which, naturally, is a large part of the appeal - but I think I actually prefer The Massacre’s taught, controlled political thriller to La Reine Margot’s slightly overplayed sexuality. The Massacre may be more formalised in its performances, but it works as a kind of shorthand for a historical setting.

I suppose it’s perverse to pump for the recording of an otherwise-wiped historical story from a sixties sci-fi show, over a feature film with a budget of millions, but then… I’m a Doctor Who fan. That says it all, really, doesn’t it?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Martin Geraghty

Partly prompted by this here interview, I wanted to post an image by Martin Geraghty, because as arguably the primary DWM strip artist for fifteen years, though ever-impressive, his style is so ubiquitous as to be easily overlooked. Which is doing him something of a disservice, as the straight down the line directness of his work seems entirely appropriate to the way he’s become located as the default artist, whose work contextualises the more distinctively individual styles of less regular artists like Adrian Salmon, Rob Davis, or Roger Langridge. 

So I do mean this positively; any of those artists’ approaches are too apparent to be used continually, whereas Geraghty’s consistent quality and likenesses, and relatively realist approach ground the strip in a reliably orthodox visual language. If this doesn’t sound terribly interesting, it’s worth considering how many memorably stories and concepts he has realised, many of which might have seemed ridiculous if they hadn’t been located within his oeuvre (…if that isn’t too grand a word for a TV tie-in comics artist). 

Suffice to say, it was tough to choose an image to post from ones that include robot mummies on a Hollywood soundstage, female Sycorax in a replica Westminster Abbey on a Caribbean island, a toothbrush-wielding faux-Doctor, mutating beatniks, or a Lego castle in the sky...

Monday, 1 November 2010

"I cried out my eyes. They ran down my face like rain"

Given the range’s relative lack of coherence by comparison to the New Adventures, I always have limited expectations for Eighth Doctor Adventures when reading one for the first time. Though I remember Lloyd Rose’s subsequent novel, Camera Obscura, as being good, it didn’t blow me away – so I was doubly unprepared for quite how excellent The City of the Dead proved to be.

There’s no standard feel to the EDAs – you’d be hard-pressed to characterise the ‘archetypal EDA’ in the way you could with the New Adventures. The BBC’s novels suffer from this lack of identity, but books like this one are welcome in showing that they could still produce titles that went very right, whilst also being quite tonally distinct from the NAs.

The two key elements of this book are Rose’s portrayal of its setting, New Orleans, and her instinctive take on the Eighth Doctor. The City of the Dead proves a refreshing reminder of how compelling and distinct Doctor number eight can be when written well (ie, when the much-derided idiot savant routine is avoided). The character has a ‘Romantic’ sensitivity which lends itself to the written page in a way unlike any other incarnation, and this sensitivity is matched by Rose’s handling of the emotional content of the entire novel. I suppose there’s space for the sort of calm moments which are conducive to this portrayal – in a way that is totally absent from the new series Doctors’ characters, which are tailored to fit forty-five minute bursts of mainstream entertainment. By contrast, the Eighth Doctor has been smelted and mainly realised in prose, which has created a casual, shrewd and calm figure.

The Doctor’s characterisation also gains something from the amnesia arc that this book is part of. It was a little after my time first time round, but it doesn’t matter because it is so effective to have no continuity cluttering things up (which was the whole point), and it’s exciting to see the Doctor exploring himself, still discovering the limits of his ability to heal, or not to age. Similarly, though more about the audience these novels were aimed at, it’s equally enjoyable for an author to take the advantage of showing him at, say, a goth party, or able to display knowledge about heroin, or being asked to model naked for a reclusive artist…

Another element of the Doctor which it’d ordinarily be inappropriate to explore, but which these novels’ demographic allows to be addressed, is his sexuality. What’s satisfying about this in relation to the Eighth Doctor specifically is that though there’s a certain childlike element to him, here at least, Rose has him faced with sex without being infantilised by becoming embarrassed by it, or just failing to understanding. In this book, he’s perfectly aware of sex, it just doesn’t mean anything to him.

In one scene he stops a hokey occultist having his wicked way with an acolyte as part of a ceremony, displaying an evident understanding of sex to some extent (eg, effectively saving the girl’s honour). At the same time his actions are motivated from a moral point of view which, though outside of the remit of the series at large, wouldn’t be unfaithful to the way any of the Doctors would act. Later though, it’s implied he has a sexual relationship with Mrs Flood (albeit in the dream world), something rather more unprecedented, and illustrative of the freedoms both this version of the character and the series in general enjoyed.

As for the well-evoked New Orleans setting, its occult underbelly, all museums of magic and cemetery-art traders, is extremely well-suited to a Doctor Who story which errs towards the mysterious and magical. Alongside a wide cast of believably characterised individuals, there are also various medical and historical occult details scattered throughout which make this environment feel convincingly ‘lived’.

As an American-set story with an occult-cum-crime investigation premise, there are (not unwelcome) shades of Alan Ball’s True Blood; a Deep South-set police procedural with supernatural elements. (To a lesser extent, Twin Peaks too, though I’m seeing that in everything at the moment - understated supernatural elements in a domestic American milieu.) I’m slightly ambivalent about the Doctor visiting America – mostly I like it because it’s so contrary to the usual ‘Britishness,’ and in this case it’s welcome slotting the Doctor into uniquely American surroundings where events perhaps couldn’t be easily replicated elsewhere.

It’s a relief that the supernatural/magical elements of the book are approached intelligently, in such a way that acknowledges this is slightly contentious territory within Doctor Who. (Although in all honesty as we aren’t in beardy old men and magic ring territory, the presence of ‘magical’ elements doesn’t make a damn-sight bit of difference to the story at large, aside from bringing a gratifyingly unique feel to proceedings.)

To some extent, the magic here is part of a universe where Gallifrey has been destroyed and effectively never existed, following the events of (shudder) The Ancestor Cell, with ‘magic’ now existing because the Time Lords weren’t around to suppress it. Though, intriguingly, the Doctor appears to be familiar with elementals like the naiad. I have to say, I quite like the use of magic here, as it’s a practise (defined as a manipulation of energy) rather than just leprechauns or unicorns popping up, so it seems to maintain internal logic with Doctor Who at large.

What’s particularly pleasing about the way Rose’s handling of the occult is that it’s located in the real world; ie, pitiable wannabes with no real power (who, amusingly, the Doctor finds hopelessly gauche). For example, would-be villain and sometime ghost-tour guide Dupre has a room with walls covered in preserved human limbs and organs - but rather than being played for creepiness, the Doctor finds it grotesque but mainly pathetic and tawdry.

Perhaps most distinct about Rose’s writing is a notable perceptivity that she shares with the primary female writer of Doctor Who prose, Kate Orman – appropriately, given that City of the Dead is dedicated to her – as well as (Faction Paradox novel authors) Mags L Halliday or Kelly Hale; which is perhaps too easy to put down to some vague notion of femininity, but very welcome nonetheless.

The comparison to New Adventures doyenne Kate Orman is particularly apposite because, as I say, though distinct tonally, there are numerous links to that formative series of adult-oriented Doctor Who books. Although, ironically I suppose, it is most similar to Orman’s Eighth Doctor novels (which have a calmer, more reserved feel than her NAs) – all likeable, well-drawn characters, in a fairly restrained story in a well-evoked American setting). So, City of the Dead doesn’t quite feel like an NA, but there is a valid comparison to be made with Orman, one of that series’ most definitive writers.

While it doesn’t feel like an NA per se (there’s a more ‘sensitive,’ quieter feel to it, despite cruising the same areas of violence and sexuality), it’s very obviously the work of someone to whom those novels where a formative influence, with nods like the cameo of a white-suited Seventh Doctor in a dream, and a mention of Shango, a Yoruban lightning god mentioned in (most likely) one of Ben Aaronovitch’s novels. Also, most specifically, there’s the moment where the Doctor crosses his own timeline to steal the cat which is horribly killed by vivisectionists in, I think, Warlock. However, none of these references are heavy-handed, and to someone who loves the former series so much, they form a gratifying link between the often very separate Virgin and BBC series. (These references are also specifically cheering as they relate to Orman, Cartmel and Aaronovitch, my favourite Doctor Who prose writers.)

There’s also an appropriately Orman-like approach to gleeful Doctor-punishment: he is beaten up and nearly stamped to death by the white-trash Flood (who is subsequently turned to pulp by the naiad elemental trapped into living with him as his wife); manacled and thrown in a swamp to the mercy of unseen ‘boggles’; has his leg shattered; and, most unpleasantly, has occult symbols carved into his chest with a razor. Also particularly unpleasant is the character fostered by a family who take him in only for the state support fee, whose own children are said to be rapists and to have set fire to a horse (it’s okay though; he smears then all over the inside of their house).

A major element of what I find so fascinating about Doctor Who – besides its general, inherent eccentricity - is locating such a vast range of varied approaches within one ‘canon’ (for wont of a better word), from the sixties, to the comics, the New Adventures, to the new series. Therefore, this kind of violence is a pleasing reminder that – much as I enjoyed the most recent seasonDoctor Who is capable of a less tame tone than the prevailing jokiness of its most recent televisual iterations. After six years of family-friendly Doctor Who, the novels are a nice counterpoint to dip back into.

This book brings home how much the novels lend themselves to a richer textural palette, with more detail and depth than TV is capable of, and is overall a sensitive, intelligent, and compelling reminder of what the novels are capable of – as well as a validation of their continued relevance, in light of their very different approaches in contrast to the series itself.

This book is quite phenomenal, actually; the ending is muddled, but given what comes before, it hardly seems to matter. There are relatively few Doctor Who authors that really excite me, but with this book, Lloyd Rose has become one of them. Maybe it’s time to check out Camera Obscura again.