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Posts Tagged ‘Louis Marks’

John Gould’s In the Dark is one of those episodes that starts off looking like it’s going to be about one thing but ends up concerning itself with something completely different. It begins with two men going swimming in the sea off the coast of Ireland, only for them to suffer swift, mysterious, and clearly unpleasant deaths. What could be going on?

Well, Ridge is on the case and he quickly concludes that the dead men were exposed to mustard gas – a ship carrying chemical weapons to be dumped sank in roughly the same area many years earlier, it’s just a question of where. It seems obvious that the best person to ask is the former captain of the vessel, Lyon McArthur, who in addition to being an ex-naval officer is also a captain of industry and brilliant scientist. He’s also an old friend of Quist’s.

However, McArthur is a difficult man to get hold of, apparently living in great seclusion in a remote part of Scotland. He has virtually no contact with the outside world, to the extent that rumours have begun to spread that he has in fact died. A press conference to dispel these rumours, with McArthur turning up in person, turns out to be a sham, employing a lookalike. Is he really dead after all?

Well, that’s a question of semantics, perhaps. Quist, Chantry, and Ridge manage to get access to McArthur’s Scottish estate and make a startling discovery. Several years ago, McArthur was diagnosed with ascending myelitis, a condition in which the nervous system gradually ceases to work. He should be dead, but he is hooked up to machines which have taken over the functions of his vital organs, allowing his brain to keep going even though his body has failed. McArthur and his team are certain he can survive indefinitely, and he is quite happy to go on as (as he sees it) a being of pure intellect, having shed his emotional and physical concerns, but Quist and the others, inevitably, have doubts. The disease has not been cured, for one thing, and McArthur will inevitably lose both his vision and his power of speech. At what point does human life lose all meaning and value?

Much of the episode consists of relatively abstract philosophical discussions between Quist and McArthur, and the makers of the show appear to have reached the eminently sensible conclusion that they needed one of the best actors in Britain to play opposite John Paul in these scenes. Your reaction on discovering they cast Patrick Troughton as McArthur should therefore be ‘Good choice!’, obviously. Troughton is essentially playing a disembodied head for most of this episode (there are faint resonances with elements of CS Lewis’s science fantasy, not to mention Olaf Stapleton’s Fourth Men), with minimal movement, but he (naturally) delivers a magnetic performance.

Of course, there is something a little bit ironic, don’t you think, about the fact that an actor most famous for playing a character who battled the Cybermen (created, of course, by the originators of Doomwatch) is here playing someone who the Cybermen themselves would doubtless consider a promising prospect, if a little sedentary. Quist’s discussions with McArthur concern his desire to rid himself of those troublesome organic emotions, and whether it isn’t in fact biological sensation that gives life its meaning (watching a sunset, smelling a flower, eating a well-prepared meal – or more likely a haphazardly-microwaved meal, if it’s round at my house).

It’s never very doubtful which way the episode is going to go – Doomwatch is largely defined by its humanist ethos, after all – and for once I wonder if the show isn’t being just a bit reactionary. Quist and the others take the view that the kind of immortality on offer must a priori be bad, in perpetuity – which seems to me to be begging the question a bit. You potentially have eternity in which to improve your situation, after all. In McArthur’s position I’d be inclined to give it a try.

Apart from Troughton’s performance, other noteworthy elements of the episode include an appearance by Alethea Charlton (part of the guest cast of the very first Doctor Who story) and a striking scene in which Ridge virtually begs Quist not to get involved – he can’t take on the responsibility of being the world’s moral conscience all the time, and this is strictly speaking outside their team’s remit. It’s interesting to see such an unashamedly philosophical episode, where the ultimate concern is not the safety of society but the fate of one man’s soul.

The next episode, Louis Marks’ The Human Time Bomb, would normally go into the same category as Flight into Yesterday, in that it looks very much like an overwrought overreaction to what we today would consider quite a minor issue. But right now things are not quite normal.

As the episode opens, Chantry has spent the last six weeks doing some research into a new housing project – another high-rise development. She has actually been living in the tower, and is present when another resident (Talfryn Thomas, from the early episodes of Survivors) has a kind of breakdown and effectively throws himself under a car. Almost everyone living in the block is showing the same signs of stress, but the company who built the project dismiss her concerns. A vicious circle beckons, as Chantry’s report warning of the potential dangers of high-rise living may be dismissed, if her own behaviour continues to be so out of character and apparently unbalanced…

Like I say, this is rather overwrought stuff (living in a tower block isn’t my idea of fun, but I doubt it would turn you quite so violently sociopathic as the episode suggests) and recognisably part of a subgenre of dystopian British fiction concerned with the dangers of high-rise living – see also J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, and the various Block Mania-related storylines in Judge Dredd. One thing which would always leave a sour taste in the mouth is the way that Chantry’s being a woman is exploited in the episode: part of the pressure put on her involves constant heavy-breather phone calls, and Ridge suggests her erratic behaviour may be due to her spending too long away from her daughter. There’s a suggestion of sexual threat in the climax, as well.

I would usually suggest that The Human Time Bomb is at best quaint, and it worst crudely exploitative, but just at this moment in time, only a little more than a week after the disaster at Grenfell Tower, I don’t feel it would be particularly appropriate to be quite so dismissive of a story about terrible things happening when the management of a high-rise block of flats are negligent and dismissive of warnings when it comes to the safety of their residents. I’m not saying the episode is particularly prescient, but it does feel unpleasantly resonant just now.

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The first episode of the second series of Doomwatch is an early example of what I would call a ‘consequences’ episode – a character-based piece in which the focus is specifically on how the protagonists come to terms with something particularly momentous which has just happened to them. Another notable instance would be the episode of TNG in which, having spent most of the previous story being assimilated by the Borg, Jean-Luc Picard retreats to his family vineyard, argues with his elder brother a bit, and ends up weeping amongst the grapes. Doomwatch 2.1 is arguably the same sort of thing.

Of course, we are in a slightly odd situation here in that, due to the unique way the BBC used to manage its programme archive, the climactic episode of season 1, Survival Code, has been wiped, although the title of 2.1 tells you everything you need to know: it’s called You Killed Toby Wren. Yes, due to Robert Powell’s refusal to sign on for a second series, the first one ended with him being blown up while trying to defuse a nuclear bomb which somehow got lodged under a pier. Luckily the climax of Survival Code survives as the pre-credits sequence of You Killed Toby Wren.

Naturally the death of Wren and two others causes ructions at the Ministry, which is back under the control of the chap from The Plastic Eaters (John Barron), despite at least two other people having had the job elsewhere in season 1. The Minister sees this as a golden opportunity to bring Doomwatch under tighter control and, perhaps more importantly, get shot of Quist.

Meanwhile, back at Doomwatch HQ, Pat the secretary has been overcome by grief at Toby’s death and quit the series, to be replaced by Barbara the secretary, who quickly grasps the essentials of the job (answering the phone and making coffee for everyone else). It’s not a great time to be starting a new job as Quist’s guilt over Wren’s death is making him even grumpier than usual, and this is exacerbated by Ridge’s deliberate attempts to wind him up over the matter. (Ridge himself seems to have been left somewhat unbalanced by the affair, as he has come in to work wearing a canary-yellow shirt with a dog-collar accessory round his neck – not a clerical collar, the actual thing you’d expect to find on a labrador. It’s almost like a rather awkward attempt at  Simon Oates trying to cosplay as Luke Cage; my understanding is that the dog collar at least was included to win a behind-the-scenes bet.)

What follows basically has a three-pronged structure. We have Quist, articulating his feelings and motivations to a comely psychiatrist (we also learn he sculpts in his free time) – this is quite well-played stuff, though inevitably a bit theatrical. Then there are the various pseudo-political shenanigans surrounding the enquiry into the deaths of Toby Wren and the others. The Minister sounds Ridge out about potentially taking over from Quist, should he be sacked, and Ridge seems not at all uninterested to begin with – the dislike between the two is at its most palpable, with Quist actually sacking Ridge (temporarily) partway through the episode. Given that this story is another example of the auteurship of Terence Dudley (written, produced, and directed by) it’s not entirely surprising to find a Survivors pre-union of sorts in progress at the enquiry itself, with Edward Underdown and Robert Gillespie both on the tribunal (these actors both recurred in a number of third season Survivors episodes, which Dudley also oversaw).

However, the most memorable part of the story concerns an investigation Ridge undertakes on a freelance basis, after being tipped off by Hardcastle, a young scientist involved in genetic research in Norwich (insert your own joke at this point). The researchers are working on genetically-engineered hybrids, and have got to the point where they’ve produced live specimens. Quist seems oddly unconcerned by this, but Ridge manages to gain access to the laboratory (mainly, it must be said, by knocking off one of the female scientists) and is appalled by what he finds: dogs and chickens with multiple human heads. Somehow, the very primitiveness of the special effects used to realise this (real chickens in rubber masks) only adds to how repellent it all feels. Faced with this, Ridge goes sort of berserk and ends up breaking the jaw of one of the lab technicians trying to throw him out; the sequence concludes with the female scientist proudly revealing that she herself is pregnant with a human-animal hybrid. It’s grotesque, nightmarish stuff, but the oddest thing is that this whole strand of the episode just seems to be there to push Ridge over the edge and allow him to empathise with some of the questionable decisions that Quist made prior to Wren’s death. There’s no indication that the issue of this project and the bizarre chimeras it is producing will ever be touched on again; one has to conclude it’s partly there to give an episode mainly composed of middle-aged men talking in offices a bit more water-cooler value.

In the end, Quist’s natural astuteness and quick wits allow him to survive the enquiry with his authority undiminished (the scene where John Paul is questioned by Robert Gillespie is, as you’d expect, a good one), and both he and Ridge have come to know themselves and each other a little better – the hostility between them seems to have drained away, for the time being at least, and the team has recovered from the loss of Wren and found a new determination to carry on doomwatching for the rest of the second series.

Which they do, starting with Invasion, a lavish big-scale episode with loads of location filming. Ridge and new recruit Hardcastle are in Yorkshire, checking nitrate levels in the local water table. To assist with this they’ve engaged the services of a couple of local lads who are into potholing and cave-diving, but there’s a bit of a panic when the duo disappear while exploring a local cave system. Having checked out the geology of the area, Ridge concludes they may have emerged near the Grange, a big local house that has been abandoned for years.

Of course, it turns out the Grange is not as deserted as it appears, for it is subject to a high-security military presence who insist there is no chance of the missing lads having been there. Ridge’s curiosity is piqued by the nature of the military presence, and attempts to do his world’s-worst-spy act in order to sneak in; he is caught, which upsets everyone.

Quist (who hasn’t bothered coming to Yorkshire until this point) discovers that the Grange was used for decades as a testing facility for bacteriological warfare, and the potential for infection is still worryingly high. This is why all wildlife going near the house is shot by the guards (hmmm, that doesn’t sound particularly reliable to me) and no-one is allowed in. Quist is disturbed by the existence of this kind of place, scorning the notion of germ warfare as a defensive weapon, but accepts there’s nothing to be done about it.

In any case, the missing lads turn up quite well, and deny ever having been in the Grange. Case closed, surely? But a slow accumulation of evidence leads Quist and Ridge to conclude that someone isn’t being completely straight with them, with dire consequences for the local community…

Invasion is a solid, straightforward episode written by Martin Worth, later head writer on the latter part of Survivors. The rural setting and comparative lack of political wrangling marks it out as a bit different – there’s not much needle between Quist and Ridge compared to usual, either. The story develops satisfyingly, and concludes with another of those memorably downbeat Doomwatch endings: faced with the fact that the contamination has escaped from the Grange, Quist is forced to call in the army and have the villagers relocated, their old homes placed in quarantine just as the Grange was. Their community is broken up, their livestock and pets all shot. The images of the deserted village patrolled by armed soldiers in hazmat suits is one of the series’ most striking. There’s not much moral ambiguity here, not much personal drama (something of a shame, as the great Geoffrey Palmer appears, but doesn’t get much to do), not really very much SF content – an atypical episode, compared to what we’ve usually seen up to this point, but a good one.

The next episode, Louis Marks’ The Islanders, is so much a companion piece to Invasion that it initially almost feels like a continuation of the same story. It opens in what looks like some kind of internment camp, where Ridge is attempting to fingerprint the inhabitants – who seem to be a collection of everyday country folk. They take violent issue with this.

Well, it’s not much of a pre-credits sequence, but it turns out we’re effectively six months into the story already. The people in the camp are the former inhabitants of a remote Pacific island, forced from their homes by an earthquake, and relocated to the UK. Due to their near-total isolation from modern civilisation, they are effectively a control group allowing scientists to measure the effects of industrial progress on human beings – hence the interest of Quist and the other Doomwatchers.

It soon becomes very clear which way this story is heading – the island elders bewail the way their close-knit community bonds are dissolving in this new world, as their young people become distracted by the pleasures and pitfalls of 1971 society. Ridge comes down with a mild case of the flu, which he inadvertently passes on to the islanders, who have no resistance: there is at least one death as a result.

Naturally, Quist starts to question the wisdom of bringing the islanders to the UK at all, but there’s a problem with sending them back – their old home is in a politically-sensitive region and is being considered for use as a military base. And then it transpires that the whole area has become contaminated with mercury leaking from a sunken ship, condemning anyone who does go back to a premature death…

Another story of Displaced Persons and a community under threat, then, though the tone is less ominous and more one of regret and resignation. There’s something slightly simplistic in the telling of it – it’s hard to shake the impression that the islanders are being depicted rather patronisingly. At one point the young islander who’s the key guest character says he finds working on a factory assembly line much more interesting than being a farmer, and – although he doesn’t notice it – Quist and the others are clearly viewing him with a mixture of condescension and pity. Then again, as this suggests, the story is also big on the idea that living close to nature is somehow better than modern technological life, and it’s just a shame that the former is being crowded out by the latter.

It’s fairly effectively done, the key problem for me being that nothing about the islanders themselves screams South Pacific to me – I could easily buy that they’re from the Scilly Isles or the Hebrides, or the next island over from Christopher Lee’s mob in The Wicker Man, but the South Pacific? I suppose they’re meant to be analogous to the Pitcairn islanders, but I still don’t think the episode quite convinces on this front. It doesn’t help that Quist’s visit to the island near the end of the episode has clearly been filmed somewhere rather closer to home, BBC budgets not extending to location shoots in the south Pacific in 1971. Nevertheless, this is a relatively minor point, and the episode sustains its theme and its tone rather well: no-one really lives on an island any more, these days, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise.

 

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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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One of the things you become aware of as a long-term Doctor Who fan (and by long term, I mean over a period of decades) is the way that certain stories and periods from the series’ past tend to drift in and out of fashion. You can even see it, I suppose, in the way that the once-beloved Tennant-Davies stories now don’t seem to be quite as adulated as they once were, although this could be because the series currently has a lot of very noisy new followers who tend to dismiss everything they weren’t around for first time.

Nearly everything written by Eric Saward was raved about on first broadcast but is now praised with rather more qualification, while Kinda, which was pasted back in 1982, has been recognised as a rather good story for quite a long time now. The Enemy of the World turned out to be a very pleasant surprise for many people when it turned up a few years ago. The list goes on. (Of course, there are also some stories the reputation of which never seems to significantly alter: Pyramids of Mars has – duh! – never gone out of fashion, The Twin Dilemma has never come into it.)

But if you really want to talk about about the bubble reputation with respect to Doctor Who, you have to start thinking in terms of Jon Pertwee: for much of the 80s the Third Doctor seemed universally beloved, with The Daemons being voted the best story of all time at one point. Then there was a notorious reappraisal of the whole era in the early 90s, with Pertwee’s characterisation criticised as that of a hypocritical, patronising egotist. These days, the pendulum seems to have swung back the other way, with the era as a whole scoring very solidly in the last major poll, and most sensible commentators (i.e., ones who agree with me) recognising the huge debt the modern series owes to the architects of the Pertwee stories.

One beneficiary of the passage of time seems to be Day of the Daleks, a 1972 story which at one point was routinely dismissed as being not quite up to scratch, but these days seems to have been rehabilitated to the point where it’s now considered a rather impressive piece of scripting let down by a few duff creative choices. Certainly, viewed objectively, there is more good than bad going on here.

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Another of those iconic publicity photos depicting a scene that never actually appears in the story itself…

Earth in the 1970s (or possibly 1980s), and the spectre of an apocalyptic world war looms large – which, given this is early 70s Doctor Who, basically means we hear about it over the UNIT HQ intercom a few times. Devastation on an unimaginable scale seems inevitable, unless diplomat Sir Reginald Styles can bring the different parties to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, the stress seems to be getting to Styles, as he seems to be seeing ghosts in his country residence…

UNIT are called in, bringing the Doctor with them, and he rapidly concludes that the ghosts are indeed phantoms – not of the past, but the future. But the time travellers coming back are ruthless, heavily-armed guerilla soldiers, seemingly intent on murdering Styles, and in pursuit of them are the brutal, simian Ogrons. Forces in the future are determined to stop the guerillas’ mission – and at the head of those forces are the Daleks…

Day of the Daleks was, as is well-known, a Dalek-free zone in its first draft, and there were various ructions when the production team put them in without clearing it with Terry Nation first. It is true to say that the Daleks are not exactly centre-stage in Day of the Daleks, and when they are on-screen their realisation leaves quite a lot to be desired – the Dalek voices sound peculiar, and the BBC’s shortage of Dalek props becomes painfully obvious when the Daleks invade the 20th century in force during the climax and a grand total of three of them turn up. If you are a Dalek fan, this story is probably going to be a big disappointment to you (I suggest you soften the blow by watching the DVD special edition, which fixes some of the worst problems).

My suspicion is that the story’s worst failings in this respect are down to a combination of the usual production exigencies (no time, no money) and a director – Paul Bernard – who didn’t really have a handle on the material. Bernard lets some of his supporting cast get away with some extremely eccentric performances – the ‘no complications’ Ogron being only the most obvious – he obviously doesn’t quite know what a Dalek actually sounds like, his handling of some of the CSO is almost painful, and he manages to fluff the editing of more than one of the cliffhangers.

For a long time the fan consensus on Day of the Daleks was that it is a sub-par story because the Daleks aren’t in it much and the climactic battle is rather underwhelming. The latter is largely a production/budgetary issue, and the former is probably a result of the fact that the Daleks themselves were parachuted into the script to give the story another hook and a bit more punch. If you were minded to, I suppose you could blame Louis Marks for not totally reworking the story to put the Daleks at the heart of the story, but this would mean a radical change to what’s already a very solid script.

I hate to be bashing Terry Nation again, but if you compare Day of the Daleks with the two other Nation-scripted Pertwees, it’s a considerably more sophisticated piece of work – the pointless end-of-episode-one Dalek reveal is dispensed with, there are subtleties of characterisation and presentation, and underpinning it all is Doctor Who’s first and most elegant time paradox storyline. It’s not exactly an original concept, but then the programme’s always been more about repackaging literary SF ideas for a mass audience than originating its own.

I think I would rather see the Daleks taking a more peripheral – but still very significant – role in a story as interesting as this one, than being the sole raison d’etre of a tired cosmic ramble like Planet of the Daleks. Looking beyond the Daleks to the story itself reveals something which isn’t perfect, but has a lot going for it.

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