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Posts Tagged ‘Dennis Spooner’

Doomwatch finds itself touched by greatness with the eleventh episode of the second series, The Inquest. One wonders how many of the themes of these episodes were handed to the writers by the production team, for the idea at the heart of this one – a rabies outbreak in England – also pops up in a late episode of Survivors, albeit realised rather differently.

A young girl has died of rabies and Quist has sent Hardcastle down to the area to try and locate the source of the infection, as there have been no reports of mad dogs. The local research institute has been implicated in the outbreak and he is checking it out when he is wounded after someone starts taking pot-shots at the place – the institute’s use of live testing has made it the target of sustained protests and sabotage from animal lovers in the vicinity. Luckily it’s only a flesh wound, but he’s still confined to hospital.

With Chantry and Ridge both away on business or leave, it falls to Quist to send Colin Bradshaw (Joby Blanshard), Doomwatch’s token Northern stereotype, into the field to take over. He soon discovers that tempers are running high, with no obvious leads on the mad dogs (no pun intended) and the local dog-lover determined to pin responsibility on a mutant virus carried by tsetse flies from the local lab…

The Inquest is the sole contribution to Doomwatch from Robert Holmes, who in 1971 was just at the start of his imperial period as the greatest writer of Doctor Who stories in the history of the world. One is so familiar with the particular tropes of Holmes’ Doctor Who work – larger than life characters, a genuine love of language, occasional signs of real political sophistication and cynicism, for instance – that it can be a little disconcerting to watch his work on another series and find these things much less evident. It’s a little difficult to discern just how good a fit Holmes and Doomwatch were for each other, for in some ways this is a very atypical episode. Ridge and Chantry aren’t in it at all, and Quist and Hardcastle play quite minor roles, leaving Bradshaw to enjoy his big moment as chief representative of the team. Even then, he’s off-screen for quite long periods, with the meat of the episode being the proceedings of the inquest for the dead girl – extremely long scenes of people talking to each other in the same room.

It’s a testament to Holmes’ talent that The Inquest remains an engaging drama despite these constraints. Before becoming the world’s greatest Doctor Who writer, and doing some other jobs in TV, Holmes was a police detective and then a newspaper journalist, and his familiarity with these kinds of proceedings shines through. The mystery of where the rabies outbreak has come from is handled well and the solution, when it comes, is logical and satisfying. None of it really qualifies as actual SF, of course, but given how different it is from the norm, this is a strong episode, at the very least (hey, they can’t all be Pyramids of Mars).

A major figure from an earlier era of Doctor Who writes the next episode, The Logicians: Dennis Spooner, script editor during the programme’s second and third seasons, and the first person to see a place for comedy in the palette of the series (you could therefore perhaps say the current tendency for S***** M***** to write the programme as a sitcom is ultimately Spooner’s fault, but that might be considered overly harsh). (Spooner had previously written Burial at Sea, one of the ‘lost’ series one episodes.) As I’ve said before, Spooner is really one of the unsung heroes of British TV SF and fantasy: he was the creator of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and a notable writer on Thunderbirds and other Gerry Anderson programmes, as well as both The Avengers and The New Avengers.

This may be why The Logicians feels distinctly like an early Avengers episode itself, and why Simon Oates seems to be having such a ball (Oates played Steed in an ill-fated Avengers stage show between seasons of Doomwatch and later appeared in The New Avengers himself). A group of schoolboys plan and execute a robbery on the pharmaceutical company which one of their fathers manages – the plan is both audacious and meticulously worked out, and the formula for a lucrative new drug is successfully stolen. What the boys have not reckoned on is the presence of Ridge, who puts together enough evidence to make Doomwatch interested in the experimental school they go to – there is little conventional discipline and the children are extensively trained in logical problem-solving. But can Quist and the others outwit such young and gifted brains?

This works quite well as a light caper drama, with Doomwatch attempting to keep up with their youthful quarry – it’s made clear that the robbery is motivated not by self-interest, but a desire to raise funds to keep the school open. (One of the boys is played by Peter Duncan, most famous as a Blue Peter presenter, but also the possessor of an interesting acting CV featuring episodes of The Tomorrow People, Space: 1999 and Survivors. This episode also features Michael Gover, another Survivors regular.) The shift away from conversation and character to plot and action is very noticeable and not at all unwelcome.

However, you do find yourself thinking that Doomwatch’s involvement in what’s arguably a police matter is somewhat contrived, and the usual note of baleful concern, when struck by Quist, feels a little forced – are experimental schools and the use of computers in education going to turn children into high-functioning amoral recidivists? I would say that was an example of the show trying to create a concern rather than reflect one – an example of ‘wouldn’t it be worrying if…’ rather than ‘isn’t it worrying that…’ But Spooner is a good enough writer to keep you watching and entertained.

The second series concludes with Public Enemy, written by Patrick Alexander (a writer, for once, with no connection to that other show which I never mention any more). This episode marks the last involvement in the series of co-creators Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler, and the temptation to assume that they were heavily involved in its scripting is very strong.

A teenage boy dies after climbing onto a factory roof to retrieve a football; this happens in a small southern town is already under investigation for an unnaturally high rate of pulmonary illness, and the new death gives the team a focus for their efforts. The factory is operated by a metallurgical company working on a potentially valuable new alloy, and the research is being overseen by Lewis, an ambitious young scientist played by Trevor Bannister (Bannister is best remembered for appearing sitcoms like Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine, but he is notably effective in more serious and antagonistic roles both here and in The Tomorrow People).

Quist’s investigation uncovers the fact that production of the new alloy creates  beryllium salts as a by-product, which are quite capable of causing lethal side-effects unless precautionary measures are significantly stepped-up. Lewis is outraged, suggesting Quist is scaremongering, but the management and the workforce are more sympathetic.

…until the parent company of the factory decides that the cost of the safety improvements involved in meeting Quist’s requirements is too great, and they’re going to close it down and shift production to their site in Leicester, many miles to the north. Everyone prepared to relocate will keep their jobs, but this is still terrible news for the rest of the town and its businesses. Quist is obliged to address a meeting of the angry principals, all of whom want him to either justify his report or (preferably) moderate its conclusions.

Up to this point the episode has been a reasonably engaging drama, but in its scene it transforms into an undisguised parable about environmentalism and social attitudes towards it. Everyone wants a cleaner, greener world, but no-one wants to pay for it – whether that means paying in cash, or in inconvenience, or in loss of potential progress. (Quist also dismisses the obsession with progress as something else impelling humanity’s zombie march towards disaster.) Tough decisions have to be made. ‘We all have a choice to make,’ Quist says, in the final words of the episode, ‘…all of us.’ By this point John Paul is looking straight down the camera lens, and the implication is obvious – it’s not just Quist speaking to the angry workers, managers, scientists and townspeople, but also the makers of the programme addressing audience at home. It’s a memorably powerful conclusion to the episode and the season, the fact that the episode’s story is left unresolved feeling very secondary.

Is it somewhat preachy? Well, maybe – but then the whole series has been motivated by the same kind of concerns. Its earnestness and willingness to be partisan may be unfashionable nowadays, but many of the issues it has touched on are as important today as they were in 1971. Regardless of how well the remains of the third series prove to have turned out, this remains a landmark series.

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There was a moment in the middle of last week when it occurred to me that it was past time for some Doctor Who on DVD, but I honestly couldn’t decide which story to go for. I have been meaning to share some thoughts on the subject of Christopher Eccleston for a while now, so something from his brief and strangely overlooked tenure was on the cards for a bit. But then it occurred to me that the tenth anniversary of his series is only a few weeks away, so I may as well hang on until then. I consulted an old and wise friend for suggestions, and he came up with some very sensible ideas, but unfortunately all for stories which I’ve watched relatively recently. A bit more thought and he came back to me with The Time Meddler, which I hadn’t viewed in a slightly longer while. So off I went.

Ah, The Time Meddler. I first saw this story on its repeat at the start of 1992, 27 years after its original broadcast: and it gives me a bit of a start to realise that if you were to repeat 27-year-old Doctor Who nowadays you’d be showing McCoy’s second season. Crikey – tempus very much fugit. To say that seeing the story was an unexpected pleasure is a bit of an understatement: modern UK viewers may find this slightly incomprehensible, but there was a time when the BBC didn’t repeat Doctor Who. No, not even the recent stuff: in fact, there was a seven-year stretch between Summer 1984 and New Year 1992 when I don’t believe they showed a single re-run of the series. So that’s a point of distinction for the story, at least.

We are for once spared the semi-obligatory when’s-it-set sidebar, as the specifics of the story’s setting are central to the plot. It is Northumbria in late summer of the year 1066, and the Doctor turns up with his young friends Vicki and Steven. Life seems to be going on as usual – a little light peasantry, the occasional Viking raid – until the TARDIS travellers uncover evidence of very strange occurrences in the area. They find a 20th century wristwatch lying around in the woods, and the local monastery appears to have a gramophone…

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One has to raise something of an eyebrow at the fact that most of the anachronisms dotted throughout the story date from no later than the 20th century: an atomic bazooka has a significant plot role, but apart from that, it’s analogue wrist-watches, vinyl gramophones, electric toasters, and army surplus first aid kits all the way. The Monk, who is the source of all these weirdnesses, even goes so far as to describe the Doctor’s TARDIS as resembling a ‘modern’ (as opposed to ‘a 20th century’) Police Box. Could it be that writer Dennis Spooner was either unaware of the Doctor’s implied alien origins, or chose to overlook them in order to serve his story? Is he privately thinking of both the Doctor and the Monk as human time-travellers from the not-too-distant future? At this point there was nothing in the canon to exclude the possibility – and, when it comes to discussing his shared origin with the Monk, the Doctor’s only comment is the oddly-phrased ‘I would say I am fifty years earlier.’

You can have a jolly discussion about the retroactive contribution of The Time Meddler to the Doctor Who canon: it would take a more obstreperous person than me to seriously argue that the Monk isn’t a Time Lord, or at least of Gallifreyan origin, and this story marks the point in the development of the mythos at which you can meaningfully start talking about ‘a TARDIS’ (as an example of a type) as opposed to ‘the TARDIS’ (meaning the Doctor’s unique vehicle). To this extent the veil occluding the Doctor’s origins is teased back by the tiniest amount – there are others out there like him, and some of them are less particular when it comes to obeying the laws of time travel than he is.

The story doesn’t really address the apparent contradiction between it and The Aztecs. In the earlier story, the Doctor is adamant with Barbara that she can’t change history – ‘not one line’ – while here the Monk’s plan to blow up the Viking fleet and change the outcome of the Norman invasion appears to have him genuinely worried. So is history mutable or not? In these Moffatilised times, I expect the writer would trot out something about fixed or unfixed points in time, but it seems to me that there’s a much easier explanation, and a fairly obvious one. Barbara is trying to change a history she is a product of, and thus any alteration in the timeline will affect her and probably negate the original alteration (a variant on the grandfather paradox, of course): thus, what she’s trying to do is impossible. As an outsider to Earth history, on the other hand, the Monk will be much less substantially affected by changes to the planet’s history, and thus able to intervene more tellingly. Perhaps this is what being a Time Lord actually means: many other races seem to have time travel capacity of some description, but they appear to lack the ability to make significant changes to history on the scale the Time Lords occasionally do (erasing whole planets from history on at least two occasions).

The story’s biggest indisputable non-retrospective contribution to the series – that’s not at all a heavily qualified clause, is it? – is that it blurs the line between its SF-fantasy and historical threads more explicitly than any previous story. (Then again, I’ve argued elsewhere that Marco Polo and The Aztecs are both much more fundamentally driven by their SF elements than conventional wisdom generally holds, but I don’t want to have to go back and hedge this paragraph’s opening sentence any more than I already have.) That said, it is a notably non-momentous moment – so is the revelation, such as it is, of the Doctor and the Monk’s shared origins. No season finale, this, or at least not as we’ve come to know it: the only concession to its status at the end of the run is the rather charming starfield tableaux of the time travellers at its very conclusion.

Then again, this is an extremely laid-back story, even by the standards of the 1960s. There is, admittedly, some heavily implied sexual violence, and a couple of killings sufficiently nasty to be snipped by the Australian censors, but the rest of the story is almost wholly innocuous: the Monk is hardly malevolent, and is treated by the Doctor as a nuisance more than anything else. And it does amble along at an extremely leisurely pace: it goes without saying that the 21st century version of the show would have rattled through this particular plot in less than half the time. Even the fight sequences have an endearingly relaxed quality about them. More critical minds might accuse The Time Meddler of being slow: but I quite like this change of pace, the fact that you can make your lunch or clean your teeth or perform minor surgical procedures while watching the story and, more likely than not, not miss any crucial plot details.

You may be feeling that this review has rambled and wandered about without getting to the point, even moreso than usual: but then I feel that’s the only appropriate way to capture The Time Meddler‘s special charm. If every story was like this, it would indeed drive me mad, probably. But they’re not, which makes this story just a little more special simply as a viewing experience, as well as something which sneaks quite a few important innovations into the programme without making a fuss about it.

 

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Well, with NaNo out of the way well ahead of the deadline (I believe I may have mentioned it), I find myself at a bit of a loose end, writing-wise. So, obviously, the logical thing to do is to write about an episode of The New Avengers, a British fantasy series from the mid 70s which these days obviously struggles to maintain any kind of online profile given the onslaught of material related to another ‘new Avengers’ project.

I say that The New Avengers is fantasy, but to be honest that’s more a matter of tone than anything else. Rather like its progenitor series, (doh!) The Avengers, it wanders back and forth over the line between credible espionage drama and borderline SF and fantasy, although in general the concepts are a bit less way-out (the one with the giant rat obviously excepted). This time around I thought I would write about Target!, generally considered to be one of the best episodes, which was written by Dennis Spooner and directed by John Hough.

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The main premise of Target! is the existence of an automated firing range populated by gun-toting androids, its function to provide a training facility for security agents – training being so much more realistic, after all, when the targets shoot back at you. It is essentially a very high-tech version of paintball, or so everybody thinks.

However, the range has been subverted by enemy agent Draker (Keith Barron), with the result that anyone running the android gauntlet usually winds up dropping dead hours or days later. Due to this delay, no-one has any idea what is causing the deaths of so many highly important operatives, which is naturally a source of concern to Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Gambit (Gareth Hunt). Purdey (Joanna Lumley), on the other hand, is a bit less worried, but that is mainly because she has some leave coming up. Once she’s completed her final competency check down at the firing range, anyway…

The majority of The New Avengers was written by either Spooner or series creator Brian Clemens, which may explain quite how formulaic many of the episodes are – but then again, wouldn’t the two of them have noticed quite how often they were repeating themselves? Most of the episodes feature one or other of a traitor working for Steed and company’s organisation, and a member of said organisation stumbling onto a nefarious scheme, getting himself mortally wounded, and then staggering off to Steed’s house to croak out just enough information to get the episode started before pegging out.

Both of these old favourites turn up in Target!, although perhaps this is a little forgivable given it was only the sixth episode into production. Also present is another classic Avengers plot beat, in the form of an eccentric character who’s there to provide an info-dump, in the course of which he gets murdered – in this case, an expert on life up the Amazon (don’t ask).

To be honest, the plot itself does not make a great deal of sense except in the most impressionistic way, with various threads left blowing in the breeze or not quite connecting up with each other. Your credulity will be somewhat stretched even if you accept the idea of the robot sharpshooters which are central to the storyline.

However, the episode works as well as it does simply because the idea of the robot gun-range is such a fun and interesting one. Outrageous though it is, some thought has gone into making it look and feel borderline-plausible: the range is disguised as a collection of buildings and streets, with fake graffiti and roadsigns, and a few ‘friendlies’ for test subjects to waste their ammunition on. (It also appears to give Spooner the opportunity for an in-joke about a previous job, as a police box is spectacularly detonated at one point – rumour suggests this is the actual TARDIS exterior from the Amicus Dalek movies.)

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We don’t get to see Steed take on the machine, unfortunately (Patrick Macnee takes a bit of a back seat in this particular episode), but plenty of other characters do, and Hough’s direction of these sequences is smartly done, particularly the finale, in which Gambit has to run the gauntlet, knowing full well his opponents are effectively using live ammunition.

One of Patrick Macnee’s regular observations about The New Avengers is that he shouldn’t have been in the series at all: it would have been much better with just Gambit and Purdey as the two leads. No-one but Gareth Hunt’s bank manager would agree with that, I suspect, but it is true that the scripts often struggle to find stuff for all three regulars to do, and more often than not it’s Gambit who comes across as a bit of a spare wheel.

However, Target! is constructed so it comes across as perfectly natural for Gambit to be the one saving the day in trigger-pumping style. When it comes to dialogue scenes and natural charisma, pairing Hunt with Macnee is like putting a cigarette lighter next to a blowtorch, but he always handles himself perfectly well in action sequences, especially ones as well-directed as those here.

Target! isn’t a really great piece of TV, but then The New Avengers isn’t a truly great series anyway: though it’s certainly a competent and fun one. But this is a solidly assembled, highly entertaining episode, with lots to enjoy going on, even if some of it is in the casting (sitcom favourite Barron is a surprisingly effective villain, while playing his sidekick is TV and film fantasy stalwart Deep Roy, making his screen debut). It’s been said that the only watchable sequence from the 1998 Avengers movie was based on this episode – which is, to be honest, too faint praise. This is the kind of thing nobody really does any more, which I think is rather a shame.

 

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You know, I try to be positive. But sometimes it can be tricky. The Reign of Terror is one of those stories with which I have a slightly odd relationship, because my knowledge of the actual plot is minimal – there aren’t many of these, they’re almost exclusively in black and white, and – perhaps the killer fact – they didn’t get novelised until the mid to late 80s. It’s still the case, I think, that when it comes to many stories from the 60s and 70s I have read the novelisation more times than I’ve actually watched the episodes in question. Having the plot burned into your brain at a tender age by Terrance Dicks or Ian Marter really does make a difference to how much you retain it.

So when I finally sat down to watch The Reign of Terror on VHS, it was very much a case of entering unknown territory. It wasn’t even as if I’d been hankering after the experience: it was, probably, early 2005 and with the revival looming I was simply keen to cross off the final few episodes of the 20th century series that had still managed to elude me. I distinctly recall watching the first episode, and a couple of scenes from the second, but then… well…

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I’m sure I must have watched all the surviving material back in 2005. It’s absolutely not like me to bail out of some first-run Doctor Who partway through, no matter what the quality is like (okay, I may have switched off Nonsense of the Daleks ten minutes before the end back in 2012, but I had to go to a party). It’s just I have no memory whatsoever of anything from episodes three or six (four and five were replaced with linking narration on the VHS). Having definitely just watched the whole thing again now, I can kind of understand why.

The TARDIS lands in France in July 1794, where the peasants are revolting. (And some of the supporting artistes aren’t that easy on the eye, either.) It is surely with some surprise that we learn that this period of history, a violent political conflict which saw over 40,000 people killed across the country, is in fact the Doctor’s favourite, but this is still very early days for the series. This is still Season One, just.

Needless to say, the time travellers hurl themselves into harm’s way with their usual enthusiasm and Ian, Susan and Barbara are grabbed by the revolutionaries and packed off to Paris to be guillotined. This leaves the Doctor to attempt to rescue them, which he duly does, employing his usual combination of wiliness and shouting at people. But by this point various local entanglements have developed – a search for an English spy, an attempt to save a counter-revolutionary network from the agents of the Terror, and…

…oh, dear. It’s kind of fashionable these days to lament the loss of the pure historical story from Doctor Who‘s DNA at a relatively early point in its history, but the fact is that the pure historical as it is commonly conceived was virtually a non-starter anyway. The brilliant thing about John Lucarotti’s first season ‘historicals’ is that they are really nothing of the sort – both of them deal, in a fairly central way, with the ramifications of time travel – either the effects of anachronistic technology on a primitive culture, or the question of altering the past. And many of the later historicals qualify either as attempts at genre-busting (The Romans and Donald Cotton’s stories toy with farce) or literary pastiche (even Black Orchid to some extent concerns itself with the conventions of the English country house murder-mystery).

So what about The Reign of Terror? Well, here we do perhaps get one of those fleeting glimpses of Doctor Who as it was originally intended, as something vaguely worthy and educational and, yes, historical. You could perhaps imagine the proverbial casual viewer switching on one of the middle episodes of The Reign of Terror and assuming it to be an actual proper costume drama, provided they didn’t spot the odd references to cavemen or Aztecs, because outside of the bookending installments there is very little to explicitly flag this as SF or fantasy. It is remarkable to find a series which can so totally reconfigure itself as early Doctor Who, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that this goes hand in hand with great drama, because The Reign of Terror is a bit… er… dull.

By this I mean it just doesn’t have the big central hook of, say, the Lucarotti stories, or a strong storyline – it just putters along with various captures, escapes, and reversals throughout its length, and sometimes a whole episode goes by with virtually nothing of significance taking place beyond the occasional mildly cute comic set-piece. The appearance of Napoleon Bonaparte in the final episode, and a brief discussion of the possibility of changing history, comes too late to really have any impact – while not much is made of an attempt at moral ambiguity, either. The revolutionaries remain a bad bunch while those trying to help the aristos are clean-cut good guys (one could, I suppose, observe that this says something about class consciousness in British culture in the 1960s).

Of course, no piece of Doctor Who is entirely without moments of interest, and those here mostly come very early in the story. The driving theme of the show’s first season is Ian and Barbara’s desire to get back to London in 1963, and the Doctor’s attempts to get them there. But it’s clear by this point that the production team are beginning to realise that this is potentially a series with real legs (though quite how long those legs would prove to be they may not have rumbled to), and the get-us-home arc plot is potentially an unnecessary limitation on the format. And so the story opens with Ian and Barbara coming to the realisation that they aren’t necessarily that keen to get back to 1963 after all – that the adventure of travelling in the TARDIS is actually a positive thing, in its own way. I’ve said in the past that one of the defining principles of modern Doctor Who is that travelling with the Doctor is presented as a wonderful experience (regardless of being banished to parallel universes, having your reproductive health interfered with, etc), and it’s here that we begin to see the first glimpses of that idea taking shape. So while The Reign of Terror is overwhelmingly a period piece in more ways than one, it does show that connections stretching from the dawn of the show to its current incarnation exist in the strangest places.

 

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