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Archive for the ‘Doctor Who’ Category

The problem with a book about Doctor Who, even one written by a former Doctor, even one whose son-in-law is also a former Doctor, even one whose daughter is a Time Lord, and who herself is the daughter of her own husband, is that there are just too many of them (books – not Doctors.)

Apparently, it used to be the case that when people really wanted to praise Jimmy Carter, they would say that he was a great ex-President: by which they meant that he did all the post-Presidential memoir-writing and library-opening, and so on, really terribly well, with a much greater level of success, certainly, than most of the things he actually attempted while resident in the White House.

Being the President of the USA is in some respects a job for life – even after your four or eight years, you get to keep the title, not to mention the security detail, and apparently you keep the right to look at CIA intelligence reports too, not that many people exercise it – and the same is arguably true of being Doctor Who (although ex-Doctors don’t have any access to CIA files, as far as I know anyway).

If I were to describe anyone as being a great ex-Doctor Who (the implication being that their stories may have been a bit iffy, but their deportment since leaving the show to be exemplary) it would probably be Peter Davison. I’m not entirely sure why I would choose him over any of the others, and I’m aware that the implication – that his stories were not quite up to scratch – will be met by the usual frothing at the mouth and snarling from people who genuinely love his Doctor and those episodes.

Hey, it’s not as if I dislike the fifth Doctor’s stories – or perhaps it’s better to say that I like them more than I used to, simply because as I get older I find it easier to appreciate the intelligence and subtlety of Davison’s performances. As I think I’ve said before, he doesn’t always go for the most flashy or theatrical line reading, opting instead for more surprising choices.

The question with any actor is one of which of the traditions of Doctor-portrayals they belong to: giving a genuine acting performance, or simply producing a slightly larger-than-life version of their own personality. (It may be something to do with the nature of the modern series, but it strikes me there’s been a definite shift towards the former.) With Peter Davison there was never any real doubt that he was playing the Doctor, rather than being the Doctor, but that hasn’t changed the fact that as a person he has remained curiously anonymous and nondescript compared to some of the others.

William Hartnell was in the first Carry On film and apparently a bit racist, Patrick Troughton was a naval officer and storied character actor, Jon Pertwee hung out with Churchill and Hailie Selassie, Tom Baker escaped from a monastery and married his assistant, Colin Baker shouts a lot and doesn’t like polls, Sylvester McCoy used to put ferrets down his trousers, but Peter Davison… umm… didn’t he go to public school? Oh, I know: he wrote the theme tune to Button Moon.

To be fair, in recent years evidence that Peter Davison is actually a much more engaging character than his public image might suggest has been piling up: years ago, he was perfectly willing to let himself be kidnapped and vilely misused by Mark Gatiss and David Walliams, turned up on the Harry Hill show at least once, and the no-holds-barred irreverence of his DVD commentaries is quite often more entertaining than the stories themselves.

Davison’s transformation into the ex-Doctor I would feel most comfortable going on a medium-length touring holiday with is complete with the release of his autobiography, Is There Life Outside the Box?: An Actor Despairs. As the actor himself notes near the start, any Doctor Who-related memoir is entering a rather crowded marketplace these days, and there’s always the drawback that the people reading the book will most likely have a firmer grasp on the actual facts of the series’ production than the writer.

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Peter Davison manages to circumvent both these problems simply by being a hugely engaging writer. The fact that so many details of his life are relatively obscure also helps: for me at least, the book scored highly on the ‘cripes, I never would have guessed that’ front, as he regales the reader with the facts of his unexpected ethnic heritage, less-than-glittering academic career, occasional career downturns, and so on. (On the whole he opts for a roughly chronological approach to his memoir, running up to about the late 2000s, followed by a couple of chapters dealing solely with convention experiences and his work in West End musicals.)

Much of the entertainment value is derived from Davison refusing to pass up any opportunity to deprecate himself, although a few faintly scurrilous anecdotes about co-stars sneak in and details of his encounters with Dave Clark, Dave Prowse, John Cleese and the cast of Magnum, P.I. are usually both fascinating and funny. He’s usually very generous, however – that said, the story about Matthew Waterhouse giving Richard Todd advice on camera technique is wheeled out again, while he is evisceratingly harsh about Michael Winner. (The Dark Dimension debacle gets both barrels, too.)

Overall, the book is a disarming read: Davison spends most of it being disarmingly self-deprecating, but doesn’t shy away from moments of disarming honesty when dealing with more personal issues and his various relationships. (Caveat emptor: while David Tennant provides a typically charming introduction, he’s much more prominent in the photo section than he is in the rest of the book.) It’s more than enough to make me excuse the various small factual errors (which year some things happened in, which story came first, some oddly misspelt names) which have crept in. The absence of any mention of Peter Davison’s Book of Alien Monsters is harder to forgive, of course.

I’m almost tempted to say this is a book capable of breaking out of the Who/vet niche and appealing to a wider audience, as Peter Davison remains a well-known face and the book is so much fun – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I. In the end all I can add is that this book has reminded me of all the things I like about Davison, his Doctor and his stories, and made me want to watch some of them again. And that must surely be a good sign.

 

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Now, as anyone who’s been following along will know, I stopped writing (and, for the most part, caring) about what I suppose we must call current Doctor Who about two years ago. Who knows, once Moffat finally clears off (only another fifteen months to go!), I may be minded to reconsider, but honestly I doubt it. But that’s a discussion for another time. Now, and not strictly covered by the no-Moffatt-Who embargo, we have the new spin-off to consider.

I don’t want to kick things off with more of a downer than is strictly necessary, but I have to say I was slightly astounded to hear they were even doing another new spin-off. The glory days of the late 2000s are a long time ago, are they not, and the parent show itself is not quite in an all-conquering imperial phase at the moment (or maybe I’m just biased). The fact that the new show is premiering on a network that isn’t actually a network isn’t a good sign either.

Or perhaps I’m getting it backwards and the very fact that BBC3 doesn’t have its own network any more (sacrificed by the corporation as part of its ongoing holding action against the hellhounds of the privately-controlled Tory media) may be exactly why the ‘channel’ ordered the show: the Who fanbase is guaranteed to deliver a big audience, by online standards, and raise their profile accordingly.

Either way, here we are: Class, created by Patrick Ness. Should I be watching this show? Well, it’s a YA piece of SF aimed at people who actually like current Doctor Who, so I’m guessing probably not. Much has been made of the fact that Class has had its premiere ten years to the day after the first episode of Torchwood was first shown, but – at first glance, anyway – the two programmes have little in common beyond the universe in which they occur (always a fairly fragmented entity, and – is this my bias again? – particularly now).

class1

Torchwood, of course, was about a secret quasi-governmental organisation charged with investigating otherworldly phenomena in Cardiff, ‘made for adults’ as they insisted at the time. Class is about the travails of a bunch of London teenagers as they deal with alien menaces, not for kids, but definitely aimed at young adults. Quite different, of course.

Except… well, look at it this way. As was fairly clear at the time, Torchwood was basically an attempt to transpose the style and feel of Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a British context, which was why the members of the secret government team never really acted like secret government team members, and why that strange atmosphere of forced jollity prevailed a lot of the time.

Class, it goes without saying, is attempting the same trick, only playing it much safer: the American show about a high school at the epicentre of weird unearthly happenings has been retooled as a British show about a high school at the epicentre of weird unearthly happenings. There is the kid who is not all they seem, the member of staff who protects them and likewise has a hidden agenda, the popular kid, the geeky kid, the quiet-but-strong kid, and so on. Even some of the specific story beats in the first episode were very familiar.

(Although it does occur to me that Buffy finished well over ten years ago now and a lot of the audience for the new show may not be aware of it, so Class may not get called out for being a blatant knock-off as loudly as I thought would be the case.)

In short, with both Torchwood and Class we’re talking about two shows fishing from the same quite distinctive pond, both ticking all the necessary diversity boxes, both featuring gratuitous profanity, both with an unexpected level of gore, and both with a format built around people keeping an eye on a mysterious space-time rift.

Personally I find first-season Torchwood to be up there with early Next Gen in the painful-to-watch stakes, so I was pleasantly surprised when the first episode of Class turned out to be a rather less gruelling proposition: it looks much slicker, with effects that get the job done, and some of the jokes were genuinely funny. I was rather taken with Miss Quill the psychopathic teacher, and none of the rest of the characters were that annoying. The setting-up-the-plotlines stuff wasn’t especially laborious to watch, either.

In short, the first episode was solid, though I must confess I was looking at my watch waiting for Peter Capaldi to come on. (Interesting that there’s been a change of approach at the BBC – the rule was that the Doctor would never appear in Torchwood, as it might lure small children into watching an inappropriately ‘adult’ (when talking about Torchwood‘s first two seasons, the inverted commas are obligatory) programme, but here he was in a show where somebody shouted ‘****’ at one point.

As things went on, though, it seemed more and more and more apparent to me that this was a programme with very little in the way of its own distinct identity – there’s nothing about it that made me go ‘Hmm, this is strikingly original’, and so many ideas, gags and plot beats that were blatantly lifted from the same tiny handful of sources (Doctor Who itself, Buffy) that I lost count.

I mean, it’s fairly watchable, probably because it’s derived (and I do mean derived) from series which most of the time were quality productions, but… well, look, there’s even a moment where the characters discuss how similar their situation is to the format of Buffy. The intention is probably to be knowingly meta and self-aware about the whole thing (the same is probably true of the gag about the Bechdel test, something else which I haven’t quite got my head round), but I think that doing jokes about how derivative your programme is doesn’t actually excuse the fact that you’re making a very derivative programme in the first place. But perhaps I am too harsh.

Anyway, I expect I will stick with it: there’s not exactly a huge quantity of UK-made SF or fantasy around at the moment, though thinking about it Humans is back soon (even though I kind of lost patience with that near the end of the first series). In short – the makers of Class have some very clever, inventive and groundbreaking ideas. Which they have pinched from a show nearly 20 years old.

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I wrote about Meglos a little while ago and, in a spirit of fair but honest assessment, said some fairly harsh things about it. Needless to say I was quite surprised when all my regular correspondents got on at me and told me off for being too harsh about the poor old thing. Well, maybe I should try to take a more balanced and positive approach.

That’s all very well, I suppose, but with some old Doctor Whos the instinct to just let rip with both barrels is very hard to resist. It’s well over ten years since I watched The Time Monster, an oldie from 1972, and a story which I only recall having watched a couple of times prior to this latest occasion. The Pertwee years are, according to fan consensus, one of the few eras of Doctor Who not to feature any of the very worst stories, but you could argue that The Time Monster is the one that comes closest to disproving that thesis.

You know that thing that happens when someone has a great success, attempts to repeat it only moreso, and only ends up with something awkward and campy and rather less satisfying? I’m thinking of the relationship between The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker in Bondworld (Skyfall and SPECTRE too, now I think of it), and Star Trek IV and V, that sort of thing. Well, that’s what seems to me to have happened with The Time Monster: it’s an attempt to copy and surpass The Daemons.

The parallels between the two stories are too numerous and too obvious to bother detailing – oh, go on then. The Master, utilising a fairly transparent pseudonym, is attempting to make contact with and access the power of a colossally powerful being. Atlantis gets mentioned. The Brigadier and his men get stuck on the outside of a peculiar, and economically-realised, force barrier of some kind. The Doctor and the Master don’t actually come face-to-face until late on in the story, and not for long. In the end everything gets somewhat-unconvincingly resolved by Jo Grant offering to sacrifice her own life.

timemonster

I could go on about the weird structure of the story, the fact that they don’t actually get to Atlantis until the final third, the peculiarly jokey tone of much of it… but you know what, I’m going to stick to my resolution to try to be positive about The Time Monster and step briskly past all of that stuff. You could even argue that this is in fact some sort of plus, as it lays bare the close connection between Pertwee-era Doctor Who and the original incarnation of The Tomorrow People, which this surely resembles more than any other stuff – it is jokey, it does have strange obsessions with pop-pseudoscience, the plot is all over the place, and yet it’s somehow not as annoying to watch as you might expect.

That’s the saving grace of The Time Monster, it seems to me: the great thing about Doctor Who is its ability to incorporate nearly any idea the writer cares to come up with into an SF-fantasy context. And the distinctive thing about The Time Monster is that, somehow, it appears to include every idea Barry Letts and Robert Sloman came up with, even casually, while brainstorming the story. A plotline about Women’s Lib! Time slowing down and speeding up! A comedy speeded-up Bessie! Race memories! People being brought through history to do battle! Atlantis! Impossibly nested TARDISes! Telepathic TARDISes! The minotaur! The daisiest daisy in the annals of Buddhism! Sergeant Benton in his first nude scene! Seriously, were there any ideas they decided not to use?

At least The Time Monster is never completely dull, even if it’s never remotely credible, it has one of the most ridiculous monsters in the history of the programme, and it never really finds enough for the bodacious Ingrid Pitt to do. It would be very, very easy to tear it apart as a story that tries to do far too much with not nearly enough discipline, but it’s almost wholly innocuous – even the third Doctor is at his least objectionable.

I suspect you really would have had to have been there at the time in order to genuinely love The Time Monster, for this is a rather flawed story if we’re really honest about things. But it’s full of the colour and energy and fun of the period, and the regular actors are all clearly having a whale of a time. So I give this one a pass, avert my eyes and indulge it in all its trippy craziness.

 

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There’s a discussion to be had, probably, about the perfect length for a Doctor Who story. The general tendency has been for stories to get shorter, on average, with 150 minutes being about average in the Sixties, with a definite move in favour of 100 minutes as the Seventies progressed, and 50 and 75 minute stories becoming somewhat more common in the Eighties. The revived show usually goes for 50 minutes, except on special occasions.

That said, even today the consenus seems to be that 100 minutes – a modern two-parter, or an old-fashioned four-parter – is pretty much the ideal, with many of the most celebrated stories of the revived show taking this form (let us avert our eyes from less-successful outings like Aliens of London and Daleks in Manhattan). Perhaps they just feel more like old-school Doctor Who.

Oddly enough, the reverse doesn’t seem to be true: the 20th century series’ two-part stories don’t really feel like they anticipate the modern format, possibly because of the structural requirement to have a cliffhanger in the middle. None of these stories are in the top echelon of popular regard, and a couple of them are widely considered to be deeply suspect.

One of the better examples is The Awakening, written by Eric Pringle (and heavily rewritten by Eric Saward) and directed by Michael Owen Morris. Events get under way with the TARDIS en route to the sleepy English village where Tegan’s dear old grandfather lives. But all is not well in Little Hodcombe, with a series of events commemorating a battle in the English Civil War seeming to serve a darker agenda. Proving once again that the Jovanka DNA contains some weird genetic marker rendering them especially prone to getting mixed up in the plots of marauding extraterrestrials, Tegan’s granddad has stumbled upon…

Um, well, that’s only ever really clear in the most general terms. The local schoolteacher disapproves of the war games, although the exact reasons for this are not really articulated, and Morris conjures up a mood of disquiet and tension rather well, but again there is not very much to justify it. A few odd apparitions materialise around the (seemingly deserted) village, and Sir George, mastermind of the games, is obviously a looney, but that’s all.

Eventually it transpires that the Malus, a hostile alien being, has somehow got its rather substantial self embedded in the wall of the village church, and is feeding off the psychic energy generated by the war games. Given enough energy, says the Doctor, ‘it will destroy everything’.

malus

But what exactly is ‘everything’ in this context? The church? The entire village? The whole of Dorset? The world? It’s left frustratingly vague, as is quite how this is going to happen (although I suppose one can assume an army of psychic phantoms may be involved). The story, as noted, is strong on atmosphere and character, but the various fragments of exposition never really come together, and there is an unfortunate tendency towards telling rather than showing: we never see the war games in progress (possibly for budgetary reasons), nor do we really understand quite how the Malus is influencing or being fed by them. There are pieces of unforgivably clunky writing, too: at one point two characters quite independently stumble upon opposite ends of the same secret passage, there’s a very cod moment when the villain, who has the Doctor at gunpoint, hands the weapon to a sidekick and orders him killed before instantly leaving the room (why not just do it himself, or at least stay and watch?), and the manner of that same villain’s death is wholly baffling. The Doctor himself defeats the villain mainly by pushing buttons on the TARDIS console.

There’s something Nigel Kneale-ish discernible in The Awakening‘s ambition to use SF-fantasy trappings to hide a ghost story – the Malus inspiring legends of the Devil being the most obvious steal. All ghost stories are ultimately about the past leaving scars on the present, so it’s perhaps surprising that Doctor Who didn’t explore this genre more fully. The Awakening is certainly at its best when it’s more concerned with atmosphere and eeriness than technobabble and sci-fi backstory – but it feels cramped by the 50 minute confines of the story, almost as though it just doesn’t have time to breathe.

That it works as well as it does is mainly down to some fine performances, the best of which manage to rise above the effects of Eric Saward’s tin ear for dialogue. Polly James manages to bring some warmth, life, and humour to the schoolteacher (this was apparently one of those occasions when a performer understood not one word of the script), but most impressive is Peter Davison. Davison’s performances as the Doctor are, generally speaking, not quite of the same kind as those of many of his colleagues: flamboyance, eccentricity and humour are not what the producer seems to have wanted from the Doctor at this time. You would have thought this wouldn’t leave Davison with much room for manoeuvre, yet here he manages to keep the Doctor engaging and dominant, simply by making unexpected and clever choices in his performance. The villain informs the Doctor that the war games are marking the anniversary of a bloody battle which descended on the village. ‘And you’re celebrating that?’ is the Doctor’s line. You can imagine other Doctors opting for moral outrage, or disbelief, or disgust, in their delivery, but Davison chooses a lighter, almost sardonic approach. You can see him working throughout the story to make it more watchable and dramatic, even as the climax is falling to bits around him.

Another episode (even, perhaps, another draft of the script) and The Awakening might be rather better-regarded than it currently is. Even so, it has some lovely location work, a few spooky moments, and some fine performances to commend it. But the script gestures vaguely in the direction of a story rather than genuinely providing one.

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I have a confession to make (probably). Should I even tell you this? I don’t know. It’s a bit of a quandary that I find myself in, and no mistake. You know what, I trust you: you seem like someone of taste and discretion – I mean, you’re reading this, after all? Okay, I’m going to tell you: last week, I… oh, the shame is almost too great. To hell with it – last week, I watched Meglos on DVD.

Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe that in a modern enlightened society Meglos is available on DVD, but there you go. Just think about it: at any moment, young people all around you could quite possibly be watching Meglos on DVD. This is surely libertarianism gone utterly insane. I’m sure that if, back in 1980, there had been any conception that DVD would some day be ubiquitous as a home entertainment medium, the production of Meglos would have been instantly cancelled.

I suppose it is just possible you are unfamiliar with just what Meglos is. Lucky you. It is a Doctor Who story from the 1980-81 season, from close to the back end of Tom Baker’s tenure in the title role. Although it isn’t actually Baker’s swansong, it always feels like his last gasp to me, probably because I only really saw the first episode on its initial transmission (it hails from those strange and distant days, which admittedly seem to be showing every sign of making a comeback, when missing an episode or a whole story didn’t feel like that big a deal) and it was the final Baker story to be novelised, at least in the sense that we normally understand it. It was also the last Baker story I finally got around to seeing, which happened with the VHS release in 2003. Is this a case of last but not least? In a word, no.

Well, there may be worse Baker stories, I suppose, but off the top of my head even the stories that usually get hailed as duds in our house – The Invasion of Time, Underworld, The Armageddon Factor – all have more to distinguish them than this thing.

One of the weird phenomena of the DVD age is that moment when, either in an accompanying documentary or on the audio commentary for an almost entirely bungled production, an otherwise sensible and respected creative individual says something along the lines of ‘I watched it again quite recently and I thought it stood up rather well’. Sure enough, this happens with Christopher Bidmead on the Meglos DVD. One wonders what his baseline for ‘quite good’ Doctor Who is. It almost makes one want to do that experiment where you mix up a handful of undisputedly great Doctor Who stories (Pyramids of Mars, Caves of Androzani, Inferno) with an equal number of utter stinkers (Meglos, Timelash, and so on), force someone from outside fandom to watch them, and see if they can tell which are which. Are the differences between good and bad Who so subtle? Have our palates become that rarefied?

Well, anyway: here’s the story of Meglos, for the uninitiated. The action is split between two planets. The first of them is Zolfa-Thura, once the home to a race of malevolent intelligent cacti, and left barren after a war between them. How, you may be wondering, would a race of cacti, intelligent and malevolent or not, prosecute a war? This is a very good question. Unfortunately, it is not one which the writers of Meglos show any signs of having given thought to. The last surviving evil intelligent cactus, Meglos himself, lurks in a survival chamber beneath the sands of Zolfa-Thura, plotting to recover the power source for the evil intelligent cactus super-weapon (which sort of resembles the one in that Disney Star Wars movie now I think about it).

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However, said power source (the Dodecahedron, so named because, um, it’s dodecahedral in shape) has ended up on nearby Tigella, accurately described by (if memory serves) a DWM reviewer as ‘one of those tedious single-issue planets’. Everyone on Tigella lives underground, because carnivorous vegetation makes the surface completely uninhabitable, at least until the story’s conclusion when they decide that they can probably manage it provided they do some really fierce gardening first. The Tigellans are split into two groups, the Deons, who are dangerous and sinister religious fanatics, and the Savants, who are wise and enlightened scientific types who wear stupid wigs.

As the story opens, the Dodecahedron has gone a bit wibbly-wobbly, causing the Tigellans no end of heartache. The attentive viewer – and I would say being that attentive is frankly going somewhat beyond the call of duty with a story like this one – must assume that Meglos has somehow brought this about, otherwise the story makes no sense. As it is, trying to unravel the ins and outs and who-does-whats of this story is enough to give you a headache.

Basically, Meglos wants to steal the Dodecahedron from the Tigellans, and he impersonates the Doctor to do so, although this requires him to possess the body of an Earthling. (Why an Earthling and not a member of one of the numerous other outwardly-identical species infesting the galaxy in Who-world? You may have guessed the story’s explanation of this: that’s right, it’s non-existent.) To stop the real Doctor from turning up and complicating matters during his visit, Meglos traps him in a rather silly time loop. How, you may be wondering, does a cactus, intelligent and malevolent or not… well, let me just cut you off there and reveal that, once again, an explanation is not forthcoming.

You have probably grasped the reasons why Meglos is such a very unrewarding story to watch. It’s been said that one of the hallmarks of a great piece of SF or fantasy is the sense that a fully-developed, living, completely believable alien world is going on beyond the edges of the screen. Well, in Meglos, there’s no sense of a fully-developed believable alien world going on actually in front of the camera – the writers just seems to have made a load of stuff up and sort of shuffled it together to make a kind of story thing. Not, it must be said, with a great deal of imagination: note that as well as the dodecahedral Dodecahedron, we have the deistic Deons and the savvy Savants, and a megalomaniac called Meglos. (There’s also a character called Brotadac, so named because the writers anticipated he would be played by a bad actor. Hrrm.)

The story itself is almost totally lacking in resonance or context, and the plot is almost totally procedural in nature: literally the only good moment in the whole thing is when one character gets a nice speech how the Doctor seems to see and repair the threads that hold the universe together. The rest of it is just people trudging from point A to point B for no very good reason other than that the plot demands that they do – there are hardly any reaction beats and very few character moments of any kind.

I suppose there is some interest in observing Meglos‘ place as a piece of mainstream SF of the year 1980, which may explain the strange mixture of styles on display. Boring old Tigella with its cliched science-vs-religion dichotomy could come out of any piece of pulp SF from the 30s onwards, while the look (if nothing else) of Meglos’ Gaztak henchmen – if one believes the writers – was inspired by the ‘used galaxy’ aesthetic just coming into vogue at the time. Then there’s the hapless Earthling, who it’s very difficult not to see as some sort of spiritual cousin to Arthur Dent, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy being very au courant at the time. You could even say that the whole story resembles a fairly clumsy Douglas Adams pastiche, but with all the jokes and wit and intelligence ripped out of it.

(I suppose one is also obliged to express sadness that, of all the stories that bona fide Who legend Jacqueline Hill could have chosen to return in, it had to be this one. Another sign of the changing times is the fact that there’s no in-story acknowledgement of her special status within the series’ history – not a single nod, nor a single wink. Unimaginable these days, of course.)

The slightly maddening thing is that in a couple of respects Meglos does show signs that not everyone involved in making it was asleep at the wheel: some of the set designs and visual effects work is well up to standard, but the inept writing and direction means you don’t really notice them much. I seem to recall a quote from the producer around the time the story came out that it was intended as (I may be paraphrasing) ‘a traditional story about a maniac who wants to take over the universe’ – in other words, just a standard story, nothing special. Could this be where the root of the problems with Meglos began? Set out to make a great story, something unusual, and even if you don’t manage it, you’ll probably end up with something decent. Aspire to mediocrity, and if you fail, the result is something very unedifying indeed. As it is, Meglos‘ main distinguishing feature is that it is so very, very undistinguished.

 

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I usually have no long term plan when it comes to my intake of Doctor Who, which is to say that I usually go where the time winds blow me and keep things varied. So the last time I felt in need of a proper Who fix I flipped through the mega-sized DVD wallet and settled on part of the tranche of Hartnell stories I received at Christmas: 1964’s Planet of Giants, a complete change of pace from Day of the Daleks (the last story I watched).

It didn’t take me long to realise my ‘keep it varied’ principle was not in effect and I had inadvertently ended up watching two Louis Marks stories back to back. I can’t imagine myself doing this with any of the series’ other major writers – and, with four scripts and over a dozen episode credits over a twelve year period, Marks is arguably a major writer. He’s an interesting industry figure as well, with more of an impressive track record in the costume drama department (possibly why Masque of Mandragora is so strong) than in genre series per se – though he was also script editor on the brilliant genre-mashing play The Stone Tape.

Even so, most of the time with a Marks script, the impression is primarily that you’re in the care of a safe pair of hands doing a solid piece of craftsmanship, rather than that of someone with a great creative voice of their own. I’m not sure what the ultimate origins of Day of the Daleks were, but I’m pretty sure that Holmes and Hinchcliffe used to work by assigning story premises to writers, and it’s quite well known that Planet of Giants was one of the original set of story ideas cooked up by Sydney Newman and the others back in the earliest prehistory of Doctor Who.

One thing about Planet of Giants is that it’s not short of claims to uniqueness, or at least distinctiveness. For 23 years it was the one and only three-part story in the canon, while it was the first story to claim the slightly morbid distinction of having its entire guest cast pass away. Most importantly, though, is that here, at the very start of Season 2, we see the final fleeting glimpse of the original conception of Doctor Who, willed onto the screen (one suspects) simply by Newman’s own affection for the idea.

The story is as follows. The TARDIS has a bad landing, resulting in the doors opening in mid-materialisation, something which doesn’t half give the Doctor (in his William Hartnell guise) the willies. All seems well, however – except that the environment outside the ship seems, well, a bit weird, and certainly unearthly. There are dead giant invertebrates everywhere, and some very odd rock formations…

Familiarity with this story probably robs us of one of its great twists and novelties: the surprise isn’t that the TARDIS and its crew have shrunk – the on-screen episode title kind of gives that away – but that the planet of the title is Earth at some point in the middle 20th century. The consensus is that the story is set in the year the story was transmitted, 1964, but there’s nothing to indicate this on screen, and the entirely middle-aged (and rather underperformed) guest characters seem like they would be every bit at home in the 1950s.

Then again, just about the only forward-looking aspect of the story, beyond its place in the Who canon, is the ecological angle. This presumably owes a debt to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, the work which first raised awareness of the dangers of pesticides, so an early-60s date would be fitting. As ecological messages go, Planet of Giants is hardly subtle, but then it’s almost certainly impossible for us to conceive of how different the world and popular culture were in 1964. The ecological stuff is pretty much the only educational element of the story, unless you count the differences in sound pitch which make it so difficult for the travellers to communicate with the normal-sized people. Once again one is forced to conclude that Doctor Who is at its best when it’s not really trying to educate the audience.

As a piece of entertainment, Planet of Giants is, for the most part, cleverly mounted (‘convincingly’ is probably pushing it too far). The direction, especially early on, is relatively dynamic and inventive. And, truth be told, the giant ants and particularly the giant fly are incredibly well-realised given the limitations the crew were operating under. (You also have to admire the inventiveness with which as mundane an action as someone pulling the plug out of a sink becomes the stuff of a cliffhanger.)

Planet-of-Giants-2

It looks better on tape, honest.

Even so, the story ambles along rather than actually gripping (the fact the regular and guest actors never interact is probably a structural hindrance), and this is even talking about the regular three-part version of this story. The well-steeped will know that Planet of Giants was supposed to be longer, but the BBC Head of Serials ordered the last two episodes combined in order to provide a pacier climax.

To which I can only say: good call. This is a more informed opinion than usual, as – and I can hardly believe I’m typing this – the people responsible for the DVD range have invested time, money, and talent in reconstructing the original two episodes based on the scripts, which still survive, so you can put yourself through another version of Planet of Giants which is 33% longer and duller than the televised one. Never has so much effort gone into making a story worse.

However neat a stinging remark that is, I am of course obliged to qualify it. I’ve always said that The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the following story, is a genuine landmark in Doctor Who, as it marks the moment at which the Doctor really starts to assume his role as moral agent and general-purpose righter of cosmic injustices, as opposed to the more self-interested figure he is for much of the first season. But buried in the original script of Planet of Giants is a moment when all the others are keen to get back to the TARDIS and go, and the Doctor refuses: in the lethal pesticide DN6, someone has found a way to destroy a planet, and he cannot stand by and let that happen. Where has this sense of duty come from? Why does he feel so responsible? The story doesn’t go into detail, but it is one of those priceless ironies that here, in a lost scene from an odd story about the shrinking of our our hero, we find one of the first real signs of the much bigger Doctor he was soon to become.

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Current issue of DWM, the ‘Ask Steven Moffat’ column. A reader (who may not want their name appearing on my sordid and increasingly monomaniacal blog, so I won’t repeat it) asks:

Do Time Lords have a pronoun to refer to [someone] who has changed gender…?

Which is a reasonable if slightly fannish question, and indeed the whole issue of gender pronouns has been addressed in the past by proper SF writers (Ursula le Guin being the most obvious example) who have dealt seriously with societies which exhibit a degree of gender-mutability.

tardis

Of course, Moffat is not a proper SF writer but a comedy writer, and so the answer we get is as follows:

Oh, gender pronouns. To hell with gender pronouns, can somebody make them illegal. What are they for? What do they add? Every time I have a conversation about [the Michelle Gomez character supposedly sharing identity with a classic character from the series] I fall to my knees, sobbing from the pronoun effort… She/he, him/her, his/hers, I’ve developed a hand slash reflex for the forward diagonal. It’s like Kung Fu round the office. I’ve injured two people and destroyed a water cooler.

Ho ho ho. Yes, quite funny, but failing to answer the question in any meaningful sense – and note, if you will, the curious spectacle of one of the UK’s best-remunerated, highest-profile writers, complaining about a part of speech which serves to add clarity and elegance to the language he primarily works in.

Yes, failing to take the subject seriously and opting to go for a laugh instead. Do I even need to add anything? Oh, go on, I will.

Reading between the lines, I don’t think Mr M even wants to talk or even think particularly seriously about this particular area, for all that he is the prime architect of giving it whatever spurious legitimacy it currently enjoys. Hidden in his answer seems to me to be a tacit acknowledgement of all the difficulties and absurdities implicit in this concept he has now dumped on Doctor Who. Gender pronouns – it may not seem like a big deal, especially if you’re a native speaker of one of those languages which doesn’t have gender pronouns, but for me it’s long been one of the main reasons I violently recoil from the idea of changing character genders.

We’re talking about fictional characters in stories, and they only really work, only really connect with viewers and readers, if they are in some way capable of being identified with. Note the way in other pieces of SF that robot and computer characters are routinely referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ regardless of appearance or behaviour (R2-D2 being a great example). Only animals and monsters get referred to using the gender-free it. It’s how English works and (more importantly) how people’s minds work, I think.

It’s perfectly fine to talk about an abstract, indefinite person using the ‘he/she’ formula – ‘the successful candidate will use his/her skills to try and arrest the ratings decline’, for instance, from a job advert perhaps. But you can’t use ‘he/she’ to talk about a specific individual, because it goes against all the usages of English and our understanding of how the world works. On some deep level it doesn’t feel like it makes any sense.

This doesn’t mean you couldn’t tell a very thoughtful, most likely literary SF story about aliens who routinely exhibit gender mutability and the difficulty humans have in coming to terms with their society and language. But in that case the gender-mutability of the aliens – their very alienness – would be the point of the story.

Do I need to say that the Doctor is not a very alien alien? His origins are alien but he himself behaves in a very human way – with the sole exception of his regenerative powers, which are ultimately just a postmodern plot device, the main differences between him and his human friends are ones of degree rather than kind. He is stronger, more knowledgeable, more intelligent, but for the most part (excluding the odd plot device power) he still acts and reacts in a very human way (it was seven years into the series before he was definitively identified as non-human, which should tell you something). He is arguably rather less alien than a character like Mr Spock, whose origins are probably not as otherworldly (Spock is definitely half-human, whereas the Doctor…), but whose personality and behaviour are definitely more alien.

It’s not the Doctor’s narrative role to be that kind of Alien, but to saddle him with the whole ‘his/her’ baggage and the implied concepts of inhuman weirdness are at odds with the way the character has been presented and developed for over fifty years. Furthermore, it would transform him from a concrete, identifiable character into a sort of abstract narrative blob which I suspect audiences will find it considerably harder to connect with and respond to.

(Then again, in the same column, Moffat acknowledges the power of headcanon. Whether he would be quite so keen on it if he knew I was using it to ignore every episode he’s exec produced since December 2013 is another question.)

 

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