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I've been critical of Russell T Davies in the past, and the latter part of his era is one of my least favourite periods of Doctor Who, but watching Rose the day after the TV Movie does underline that the former is a near-perfect introduction to the series, with hardly a mistake.  People criticised the belching wheelie bin even at the time, but it's the anti-plastic that has always annoyed me; it just seemed too glib.  I'm wary of saying we need more technobabble, given Davies' later indulgences, but we need something more to sell it to us, to stop it being just another plot device.

The thing that caught my attention on this viewing, however, was something else entirely.  The first season of the revived show went to great lengths to avoid being laughed at.  Dalek in particular was careful to remove any possible reason for laughing at the Daleks.  And yet, right in the first episode, Davies is making a joke about all Doctor Who fans being men.  "She's read a website about the Doctor?  She's a she?" says Clive's (presumably long-suffering) wife.  It is quite a funny line, even given that even old school Doctor Who fandom was not as male dominated as the general public, and some fanboys, thought, but it's oddly out of place in a series that is trying hard to reinvent Doctor Who as something free of negative stereotypes and preconceptions.
09 April 2018 @ 02:41 pm

I've been watching what survives of 1961 BBC science fiction drama A for Andromeda and reading the scripts of the missing episodes.  It's extremely good.  It's somewhat different to Quatermass, perhaps more sophisticated in a way and a bit more scientifically rigorous (co-author Fred Hoyle was an astronomer; one assumes/hopes that the schoolboy errors in the script came from co-author John Elliot).  No true aliens are seen.  The story tells of a signal from Andromeda which, when decoded, allows the creation of a super-computer, which in turn creates a living being, named Andromeda by the scientists.  As with much 1960s Doctor Who and The Quatermass Experiment, much of the story is missing.  Only one full episode survives, along with a few short sequences from other episodes and the last fifteen minutes of the final episode.  The full scripts are available as pdfs on the DVD and are probably the best way to experience it; there are also telesnap reconstructions on the DVD, but unlike similar ones on Doctor Who DVDs, they have no sound and remove a lot of the nuances of what is basically a character drama.

A lot of the story consists of people standing around discussing what is going on.  There are some standard thriller plots (one of the scientists is passing secrets to a corporate cartel that wants the alien technology; then in the second half of the story the idea that Andromeda intends to wipe out life on Earth is introduced), but a lot of the story is relatively slow and conceptual.  This is partly due to the limited production values, which precluded a lot of action, but on some level it seems to be a deliberate choice.  At any rate, the Quatermass serials were more melodramatic (with the partial exception of Quatermass and the Pit).  That said, as with Quatermass and the Pit, the danger is as much the blinkered politicians in charge than the actual alien menace and as with the Quatermass serials, Cold War imagery lurks in the background and indeed is more prominent.  The story raises questions about the pursuit of science without morality and the hijacking of research by the military.  It's very much a Frankenstein-type story of scientific hubris being punished.

The story is very much character-based with the deliberate casting of women in roles that would normally have gone to men.  Once the hero, Fleming wins over some allies, destroying the computer is relatively easy.  The real moment of climax in the final episode comes not when the computer is destroyed, but before that, when Andromeda sides with Fleming against the computer, something that is easy to miss on first viewing.  Incidentally, Fleming seems to have a drink problem that no one really comments on which makes him a slightly more rounded character than the usual scientific genius.

There are no precise Doctor Who parallels, but if the early Pertwee stories are aping Quatermass, then this is like season five, with people standing around discussing the plot and whether to turn some machinery off.  The computer makes the same noise as WOTAN from The War Machines, which was vaguely distracting.

I still have the sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough to watch (all of that survives) and at some point I will probably get the 2006 remake.  I'm tempted to wait a few days before watching it, though, to savour it, which is not something I usually do.  I definitely enjoyed this, although I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who doesn't have a high tolerance for vintage television that looks and sounds very different to contemporary television.

08 April 2018 @ 11:55 pm

I watched the TV Movie again as part of a all-TV-Who marathon as research for the book version of my Changing Style of Doctor Who posts.  It's not very good, although I don't hate it the way I did when I was twelve and it was first broadcast.  I get a certain amount of enjoyment out of it (these days I can get a certain amount of enjoyment out of most Doctor Who).  But a few things came to mind.

Everyone says that the main thing wrong with this is the presence of the seventh Doctor.  But I beg to differ.  I think the main issue is the focus on the Doctor rather than Grace.  Start with Grace and focus on her as she deals with the shot seventh Doctor (in a non-speaking cameo).  Then stay on her as she meets the eighth Doctor.  Suddenly it becomes her story, which is good as she's the only believable character in it.  You'd have to smooth out her character development, though, as she seems to flipflop a bit in the middle of the movie between believing the Doctor to be an alien and believing him to be out of his mind (and why does she bolt the front door when she's waiting for an ambulance with what she thinks is an escaped maniac?  Surely she would want an escape route.  Actually, why doesn't she insist on waiting outside, or getting a neighbour to join them?).  You could even give her the opening voice over (which would also necessitate removing a lot of the pointless continuity).  It's probably best not to ask why the Master thinks Grace is familiar with the bondage gear, though.

Russell T Davies clearly thought the same thing, as that's basically how he wrote Rose.

Some more silliness that no one seems to have noticed: when the Doctor sets off the fire alarm at the Institute, Professor Wagg tries to stop everyone leaving.  Because that's a really sensible thing to do if there's a fire alarm.  Moments later, someone can be seen hoovering the dinner hall, despite the fire alarm and despite the fact that the party is underway and it's a bit late for last minute cleaning.

The Happiness Patrol was one of my favourite stories, back when I was a teenager and wanted Doctor Who to be 'political.'  It's fair to say that the story hasn't dated brilliantly, although even at the time it was controversial, at least among the few who were still watching, just not for the reasons the writer and production team intended.  I don't know whether David Cameron was telling the truth when he claimed that Doctor Who was required viewing among young researchers at Conservative Central Office in this era despite the left-wing political slant, but the controversy in fandom has always been more around the production values and experimental styling than the political views.  (Let's face it, Doctor Who fandom is pretty strongly left-wing; those of us dissent know to keep our opinions to ourselves.)  It arguably is the most love-it-or-hate-it Marmitey story in the canon, the Love & Monsters of the classic series.

I haven't the time to write a lengthy deconstruction of the story, the characters who exist purely to further the plot (Trevor Sigma and Earl Sigma in particular), the surreal trappings that only intermittently work, the plot holes and digressions.  People point out that the guy at the Forum is really grumpy, but actually almost everyone in authority on this supposedly happy planet is moody: the Kandyman, Gilbert M, Priscilla P, the two snipers.  One wonders if Graeme Curry was making a satirical point, but if he was, it seems an odd one to make in a satire; is he suggesting that Norman Tebbitt and Nigel Lawson were secret socialists?  And it does one of my pet hates, bandying psychiatric terms like "depressive", "schizophrenic" and "obsessive" around without caring what they actually mean.  Clinical depression is a life-threatening illness, not the same as "the blues."

But fear not, I come here to praise The Happiness Patrol, not to bury it.  It's great to see Doctor Who, fighting for its life, produce something so experimental and at least trying to push boundaries, stylistically as well as politically.  It's hard to watch this and believe that this is the same programme that had so recently produced uninspired banalities like Timelash and Time and the Rani.

The satire is somewhat dated, but works nowadays mostly because it's not just about Thatcher's Britain; the observant can spot references to "disappearances" in Pinochet's Chile, and enforced sterilisation programmes in India and elsewhere.  This is a story about anyone who fails to listen to alternative viewpoints and forces their own views through (I could see it working as a satire on Chavez-era Venezuala, for example).

Moreover, the real point of the story is the text not the subtext: the attack on the meaningless plasticky fake happiness forced on us by consumer culture and people who are too afraid to look at their own dark side.  It's here that the story comes into its own, with scenes like Helen A finding Fifi's body and, to a lesser extent, the scene with the snipers.  It's wonderful to see the programme, under the influence of Andrew Cartmel's love of comics culture, finally embracing its weird streak again for perhaps the first time since Graham Williams and Douglas Adams left; while this story arguably goes too far, later triumphs like The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (admittedly made before this) and Ghost Light will strike a better balance between the comic strip and mimetic realism.  There had been hints of this the previous year, in Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen, but it's here that the 'oddball' is firmly embraced as the new normal.
02 March 2018 @ 01:14 am
Paradise Towers is the real start of the McCoy/Cartmel era.  As with Stephen Wyatt’s other script, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, it is driven by a sense of utopian strivings betrayed, the social liberalism of the 60s inevitably turning into the economic libertarianism and social atomisation of the 80s.  Brutalist tower blocks were pioneered by left-wing architects as vertical villages, the solution to the problem of shortage affordable housing for working class, but instead saw the collapse of the communities they were intended to save with graffiti, crime and vandalism prevalent.  Paradise Towers is a science fictionalised extrapolation.  This nuance of failed utopia makes Wyatt’s satire more subtle than some of the other stories in this era, as does his use of an argot for the Kangs and bureaucratic language for the Caretakers that helps give this world a sense of place often lacking from corridor-jogging stories set in ‘the future/outer space.’

The problem is that too much is uncertain and confused.  This is a more intelligent script than any other in this season, but Delta and the Bannermen succeeds (yes, succeeds!) by having a (mostly) consistent tone, whereas this veers between kids TV girl gangs that are not feral enough to be realistic or violent enough to be a real threat and, on the other hand, extreme horror, itself undercut by overplaying.  Tabby and Tilda are perhaps just a bit too over-the-top to be as horrifically grotesque as they might have been, the Great Architect even more so.  It doesn’t help that the direction is never more than workmanlike, the lighting, as ever, is too bright and the incidental music is far from incidental.

Still, I do enjoy Paradise Towers for its script and its potential, as well as a couple of great scenes for the seventh Doctor (the one where he uses the rulebook to escape and the interrogation that he turns around) that show McCoy and Wyatt finding a new angle for the character.  It points the way to the more successful stories of seasons twenty-five and twenty-six and ensures that Doctor Who was not running on empty when it vanished from our screens.
21 February 2018 @ 08:48 pm
I don't have time to develop this thought, so here it is briefly: Pip and Jane Baker may not have been the world's greatest plotters, and their dialogue was distinctly baroque, but they wrote a good sixth Doctor.  I certainly prefer their interpretation of him as a pompous, but lovable, and occasionally self-aware, academic-type to Eric Saward's ruthless bully.  Pip and Jane's view of the Doctor seems rooted in Jon Pertwee (and perhaps in Colin Baker's off-screen personality), whereas Saward's, by his own admission, was rooted more in James Bond (he said this regarding the fifth Doctor, but it's even more true of the sixth).
19 February 2018 @ 09:06 pm
Hello!  I’ve been wondering lately what to do about this blog.  I wrote it regularly from 2006 to 2013.  Then I went on a break for a few years, only coming back to it relatively recently and sporadically at that.  You see, I’m trying to expand and revise my Changing Style of Doctor Who posts into a book, which is taking up a lot of my Doctor Who-related time and thoughts at the moment.  Most of the things that have been posted here in the last few months are, so to speak, off-cuts from that.  Plus, unfortunately my life away from the blog is very difficult at the moment and is likely to stay that way for a while, so my time to write here is limited.

I even have a couple of other Doctor Who-related projects to work on after the book.  I’d love to write a book on the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, for my money the most neglected and often the most imaginative area of the Whoniverse and something is calling me on to the Everest of Doctor Who, a 1,000 word essay on every story in the canon.  Not so much a review as an analysis, free to go off at tangents like whether Terry Nation was a better writer than fandom credits him for or what to do when the political or religious views in an episode jar with your own.  That’s something like 26,000 words, and rising!  (I did review every story from 100,000 B.C. to The Time of the Doctor on the blog years ago, but in retrospect too many of those reviews turned into vague comments of like or dislike, bad jokes and lists of plot holes I’d spotted.  I’d like to do something more rigorous and analytical.)

I’m not sure how the blog fits with those plans.  It’s obviously a way of giving a taster of my writing to promote the books which will hopefully one day materialise.  However, I feel bad about some of the more critical comments I wrote about some stories years ago and wonder if I should make them private.  The easiest way to do that would be to just make everything before, say, 2010 private, maybe making certain specific posts public.  I don’t want to put off potential readers with the fact that I didn’t like much of Who circa 2007-2009, especially as I’ve warmed to much of it now.  Still, the fact that I have so little new material here troubles me a bit, and I’m looking for little scraps from my book research viewing to add.

On that note, watching The Trial of a Time Lord, I realised that episode 5 (the first of the Mindwarp segment) is the best of the season, maybe one of the best of Colin’s doctorate.  I’d never noticed that before.  Strong plot, with lots of points of interest, restrained use of continuity, good design and direction (I like that the Raak is largely kept off-screen, as I suspect it probably wasn’t a great costume), good acting (Brian Blessed only gets about three lines in this episode!) and even the music is fitting.  Great cliff-hanger too, one of the best of the season.  A proper Doctor-in-peril cliff-hanger, not a contrived close up on Colin Baker.  I mean, it is a close up on Baker, but it’s dramatically necessary and there’s a real threat.  It’s not just him looking fierce after the Valeyard says something rude.

Unfortunately, it’s harmed by the following three episodes.  Unreliable narrators are all very well, but it’s impossible to tell, even after episode fourteen, what is going on in this story.  Is the Doctor affected by the (ahem) mind probe at the end of the first episode?  Or was his apparently helping the Mentors a cunning bluff as he claimed?  Or is it all faked evidence? (#fakeevidence #sad)

The problem is they all seem to be true, but they are mutually exclusive.  If the Doctor risked Peri’s life with a dangerous bluff, the Valeyard would have no cause to fake the evidence, except for the closing minutes, after the Doctor was taken out of time.  But if the Valeyard faked the evidence, how can the Doctor seem to remember bluffing?  And what really happened?  What was he doing in reality when, in the fake version, he was helping the Mentors?  Was he really bluffing, just without treating Peri so badly?  Or is his claim that he’s bluffing itself a bluff, to his amnesiac self and the Inquisitor, to convince himself/her that he was acting responsibly.

My head hurts!

For years I hated this story because of this confusion.  Now it just frustrates me.  As I say, all the pieces are there for a good story, more than any other Colin Baker story except maybe Revelation of the Daleks.  It’s just that the story isn’t ambiguous (good), it’s confused (not good).  Still, there aren’t many stories where you can say that the sixth Doctor is stunned into silence (after Yrcanos breaks the conditioning of the slaves).
Part I can be found here.

 6. Horror of Fang Rock, fourth Doctor, four episodes, 1977

In many ways this is the definitive ‘base under siege’ story, where the Doctor and friends are trapped in an enclosed location with an enemy outside attempting to break in.  This story stands at the meeting point of the horror stories of the mid-seventies and the more character-based stories of the late seventies and is the stronger for the mix of styles.  The design work effortlessly evokes the Edwardian era and the setting, a lighthouse, is unusual enough to be memorable in itself.  The story is also, perhaps surprisingly, the only time the Sontarans’ archenemies the Rutans have been shown on screen.

7. The Curse of Fenric, seventh Doctor, four episodes, original episodes 1989

I feel slightly uncomfortable with The Curse of Fenric’s presentation of the Soviet Union, but it’s indicative of the positive trends in late eighties Doctor Who: a fast-paced, frightening plot shot entirely on location with high production values and an emotional subplot focusing on the Doctor’s companion Ace, pre-empting the style of the new series.  If you get the chance, watch the feature-length special edition on the DVD, which not only includes more than ten minutes of unseen material edited from the original episodes, but also re-edits the used material to better effect and redoes some of the special effects as well as using CGI to fix the variable weather experienced during filming.

8. The Deadly Assassin, fourth Doctor, four episodes, 1976

The best Gallifrey story of the original series, if not of all time, and the first to be set entirely on the planet and its computer-generated dreamscape, The Matrix (yes, Doctor Who got there before the Wachowskis) this is probably also the best Master story as the Doctor and his arch-nemesis fight for the future of their home planet.  This is notable for introducing much of the mythology of the Time Lords, but also for being a strong story in its own right, a satirical political thriller with boundary-pushing surreal dream sequences as the Doctor tries to clear his name after being framed for assassinating the President of the Time Lords.

9. Revelation of the Daleks, sixth Doctor, two forty-five minute episodes, 1985

Colin Baker’s time as the Doctor saw falling viewing figures and attacks by the BBC management.  While Sylvester McCoy’s Doctorate, which fared even worse in terms of ratings, has been positively reassessed by fans, Baker’s is still controversial for its violence and apparent belief that simply bringing back tons of old monsters would keep the audience happy and I can’t really argue with this assessment.  Revelation of the Daleks is the exception that proves the rule, developing Davros and his relationship with the Daleks, setting the stage for Remembrance of the Daleks (which narrowly missed inclusion on this list) and functioning less as a stereotypical action runaround like the other stories of the 1985 season and more as a sick black comedy, set in a galactic morgue, with a perfectly cast set of grotesque characters and excellent experimental direction by Graeme Harper (again).  Really the only problem is that the Doctor gets almost nothing to do except make tasteless jokes

10. Doctor Who and the Silurians, third Doctor, seven episodes, 1970

The longest story on this list, this one takes a bit of stamina to watch, but is worth it.  Watch an episode a night and the story slowly, but coherently shifts from one of ancient horror lurking underground to a political story about the ethics of first contact with another race, a race who, thrillingly, are natives to our own planet and who have been here longer than we have.  Later stories (featuring the Silurians and other races) would pose the same questions about putting aside fear and prejudice to make peace, but the positions would never be posed as thoughtfully as here, with the Doctor and the Brigadier coming down on different sides of the debate.  Seven episodes is a bit long, but it does lead to a higher budget per episode, with two manhunts (the first featuring lots of extras, two sets of uniforms, dogs, a land rover and a helicopter) and a bravura sequence of innocent bystanders dropping dead of a horrible plague at Marylebone Station.  The definitive Doctor-as-peacemaker story, and a useful demonstration that just because Doctor Who is a family show, it doesn’t mean it will always have a happy ending.
I’ve often seen new series fans ask where they should start with the classic series.  With around 160 stories (depending on how exactly you count them) and nearly 700 episodes (or more, if you count the sort-of-completed Shada), it can seem daunting.  Everyone will have their own opinions on this, but this is my view.  I’ve picked ten stories that demonstrate the breadth and depth of the original series.  I have, more or less by chance, picked one story per Doctor for the first seven Doctors (albeit that the first Doctor gets only a single episode... bear in mind that these are multi-episode stories, usually of twenty-five minutes per episode), but I was more concerned to show different story types as well as to include some of the key stories for the ongoing narrative (although there are too many of these to limit to ten) and to include stories that are considered the best by fans and that I (usually) enjoy too (again, this could have included far more than just ten stories).  I have also tried to avoid stories that have dated too badly for various reasons, although some bad effects will inevitably slip through with fifty year old programmes.  I have put the stories in a suggested order of viewing for someone not used to vintage television, starting with more accessible stories and working up to more challenging fare (e.g. more than four episodes or black and white).

  1. City of Death, fourth Doctor, 4 episodes, 1979

Holidaying in Paris, the Doctor and Romana encounter time-slips and a mysterious count planning an audacious heist.  But Scarlioni’s plans are far greater than stealing a pretty painting...  Long considered the easiest place to start on classic Doctor Who, City of Death boasts location filming in Paris, Tom Baker at the height of his powers, a script co-written (pseudonymously) by Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame and a cameo appearance by John Cleese, all serving a complex, but comprehensibly told and highly original and intelligent story.  It’s funny, it’s clever and it looks good – what more can you ask?

  1. An Unearthly Child, first Doctor, 1 episode, black and white, 1963

I’ve pushed the very first episode into second place for various reasons, most importantly that City of Death feels more like contemporary Doctor WhoAn Unearthly Child feels less like a complete story, not least because it isn’t one – the story continues for another three episodes in the stone age and the character arcs of the main characters go on for at least a couple more stories, but I’d argue against watching them at this stage, unless you have high tolerance for talky, stagey, black and white drama.  The first episode itself, though, feels incredibly immediate and while dated in certain respects is still compelling drama as schoolteachers Ian and Barbara try to unravel the mystery around their precocious student Susan Foreman and her mysterious grandfather.
A word of warning: if you get the DVD, the play all episodes option will play the untransmitted pilot first (the pilot was reshot with various changes to the script and various production bloopers rectified).  Go into the episode selection option to choose the transmitted version.

  1. Genesis of the Daleks, fourth Doctor, 6 episodes, 1975

I’ve always felt Genesis of the Daleks to be a little over-rated, but it would be worth watching as the origin story of the Daleks and the first appearance of Davros. The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar in particular assumes familiarity with this tale and Russell T. Davies saw it as the start of the Time War.  Fortunately, there is more to it than that.  Although a bit padded, this is a morality tale of scientific hubris and apocalyptic war.  Script and direction combine to plunder the imagery of every major war of the previous century, creating the impression of unending carnage.  Into this come the Doctor, Sarah and Harry, sent by the Time Lords.  Their mission: to destroy the Daleks before their creation.  But does the Doctor have the right to tamper with time and commit genocide?

  1. The Caves of Androzani, fifth Doctor, 4 episodes, 1984

The only regeneration story on the list, The Caves of Androzani has guaranteed tension from the fact that we know that this time the Doctor isn’t going to make it out alive.  From about five minutes in, he’s dying, even before he gets himself involved in a petty drugs war.  Directed excellently by Graeme Harper (the only classic series director to work on the new series), the tension constantly rises reaching a peak with the cliff-hanger to part three, which is perhaps the greatest Doctor Who cliff-hanger of all time.  An action-packed war story, but also a thoughtful character story, superbly performed.  The Doctor’s sheer heroism, his “reckless innocence”, as Peter Davison put it, has never been better showcased.

  1. The Mind Robber, second Doctor, 5 episodes, black and white, 1968

I confess to a nostalgic regard for this story, as its 1992 repeat was the second Doctor Who story I saw and the first to really capture my imagination.  I still think that it is one of the best, and certainly the most accessible, of Doctor Who’s surreal or ‘oddball’ stories, as well as being a good entry point into the world of 1960s Doctor Who.  Sixties Who was arguably more experimental than later years, if only because audience expectations had not been set in stone yet.  Eleven sixties stories are historical dramas with no overt science fictional elements other than the TARDIS and its crew, while others, like this one, get to subvert the generic conventions of the programme in various ways, here by sending the Doctor to another universe where fictional characters are real.

To be continued...
04 February 2018 @ 05:46 pm

It was all going so well.  I've spent the last fourteen months or so watching Doctor Who in broadcast order as research for a writing project.  Over the last couple of years I've felt myself morphing into one of those strange people who actually likes all of Doctor Who (or at least all of the original series — there are some new Who episodes that are likely to be more of a challenge for me to like).  Stories I previously had down as unbearable clunkers like The Celestial Toymaker, Underworld and Arc of Infinity turned out to be more enjoyable than I remembered, not necessarily good, but watchable (or listenable, in the case of Toymaker).  And then I hit The Twin Dilemma.

Coming off the back of The Caves of Androzani, one of the most perfect Doctor Who stories ever, was always going to be hard, doubly so at the end of the season when all the money's gone (but wasn't JNT hired in the first place because he was supposed to be able to get around problems like that?).  "How can we make this cheap set look more science fiction-ey?  I know, let's take the stock set elements we've already seen earlier this year in Warriors of the Deep and wrap them in aluminium foil!  That'll work!  And let's make the space police headquarters look like an ordinary call centre, only with a couple of toy rockets on the commander's desk to suggest 'space.'"  (Because real police stations have toy police cars everywhere so the police don't forget what their job is...).

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