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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Baker’

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).

meglos

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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Just today I got my (virtual) hands on a copy of Cubicle 7’s Fourth Doctor Sourcebook, which I am still assimilating and may yet return to in order to comment in more detail. (As you might expect, given my vintage I am a sucker for almost anything with Tom Baker’s Doctor on the cover.) This is, putting it briefly, a guide for creating storytelling game scenarios either featuring the fourth Doctor, or imitating the style of his stories. It’s actually a little surprising that the book is either too vague when it comes to summarising what makes this era distinctive, or rather too specific. ‘Be knowingly derivative’ is about the limit of the book’s advice, which if you ask me is simply waving vaguely in the direction of the surface, let alone barely scratching it. Then again, perhaps I am being too harsh: but nevertheless, if you know what you’re about it is relatively straightforward to distill the essence of the Hinchcliffe-produced seasons, at least, and whip up some new ideas in the same vein.

Or perhaps I’m taking too much for granted, as convincingly recreating the style and atmosphere of this most celebrated, not to mention dissected, era of Doctor Who is one of those challenges which quite a few have taken on, with outright successes being notably thin on the ground. Quite by chance, I’ve also recently been listening to Destination: Nerva, an audio from 2012 which also has a go at synthesising the magic.

nerva

Written and directed by Nicholas Briggs, this story sees the Doctor and Leela drawn to the aftermath of a battle between British soldiers and aliens, which has – somewhat surprisingly – taken place in Kent, in 1895. The victorious Brits have stolen the alien starship and headed off to parts unknown, and the Doctor, as usually, feels morally obligated to go after them.

However, the TARDIS takes the duo hundreds of years into the future, to a construction complex in Jupiter orbit where a new space dock is under construction: the Doctor knows that eventually the dock will become the Nerva Beacon, repository of the most precious cargo in human history, but that all still lies in the future for now. (The story is charmingly vague about when Nerva was actually constructed, most likely because the exact dating of one of the TV stories set in its early history is still somewhat controversial. Personally I’d date Revenge of the Cybermen to the mid-to-late 25th century and suggest this story occurs anything up to a century before that. But I digress, as usual.)

No sooner have the Doctor and Leela made themselves known to the authorities on Nerva than an unknown spacecraft is approaching – and, not entirely unsurprisingly to the listener, it turns out to be full of the nasty imperialist toffs and their followers from the start of the story, mysteriously unaged, and now carrying a horrific mutagenic disease of some kind…

Now, I would have said that all you needed to create a properly authentic fourth Doctor story in a performed medium was the presence of Tom Baker. He’s still so iconic, and still inhabits the role so utterly, that you really don’t need anything else, do you? However, Big Finish seem to have thought different and, no matter what horrific contortions the victims of the virus go through in this story, they’re not quite as extreme as the way that the story itself bends over backwards to try and cement its place as a bona fide extension to Season 14.

It opens with a virtual reprise of the end of Talons of Weng-Chiang, for one thing, with explicit references to Jago and Litefoot and the leads’ mock-Victorian attire from that story. As if that wasn’t enough, the story goes on to revisit the spiritual starting point of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era, the Nerva Beacon (as seen in The Ark in Space), and serves up a body-horror-influenced story about possessed astronauts. Okay, okay, guys: we get the idea.

The really weird thing is that, despite crowbarring in so many references to the on-screen stories from this period, Destination: Nerva really doesn’t feel much like any of them. One can’t really blame Nick Briggs for not being Robert Holmes, hardly anyone ever has been, but this just feels like a fairly bland runaround, with no sense of the ‘genuine gothic’ so beloved of Philip Hinchcliffe himself. (The swipes from Holmes, by the way, extend to reusing a plot idea from one of his Blake’s 7 scripts, but I’m not entirely certain this has been consciously done.) It’s pretty much a wit-free zone, too: I may be doing the script a disservice, but most of the Doctor’s funniest lines sound like ad libs from Tom. And, for a story so intent on immersing itself in the spirit of 1977, there are signs of a modern sensibility at work: there are two significant female characters, which isn’t exactly evocative of an era where many of the stories had no guest roles for women at all.

(Man, there’s a big can of knotty worms – I would never judge the sexual or racial politics of a 1970s story by modern standards, or at least not too harshly, but on the other hand is it acceptable to criticise a period pastiche for being too diverse? In this case I would cautiously say yes, given that Destination: Nerva plainly has being a Hinchcliffe pastiche as its prime raison d’etre. The inclusion of a more diverse cast may or may not help the story as a story, but they’re certainly a mark against its authenticity.)

On the other hand, the story’s desperation to prove itself a genuine part, or at least a continuation of, this era of the series may be understandable given that neither Tom Baker or Louise Jameson sound quite match-fit in this story. Their performances aren’t quite pitched right – 2012 Leela sounds shrill and up-tight where 1977 Leela was matter-of-fact and sincere, while the Doctor… I don’t know, the dividing line between the fourth Doctor and Tom Baker himself has always been, umm, porous, but to me it sounds like there’s a lot more Tom than the Doctor in the performance here. The effortless domination of every scene, and that subtle alien aloofness – both of them are not quite there any more. Some of it may simply be down to the fact that, inevitably, Tom’s voice has changed as he’s aged, and it doesn’t quite have the richness or power it once had.

Oh dear, I’ve been almost entirely negative about a story for which I am, theoretically at least, the ideal target audience: I’m a die-hard fan of the series who started watching at the end of Season 14, which is exactly when this is set. Are my standards too high? I don’t know. I have to say that I’m not particularly a fan of Nick Briggs as a writer – his stories are always solid enough in terms of narrative cerpentry, but they’re almost never especially witty or inventive, or indeed pack much of a punch in terms of subtext or emotional content. All this is true of Destination: Nerva – it feels like a statement of intent rather than an actual story, with the realisation not living up to the ambition.

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One thing you quickly get quite good at as a fan of 20th century Doctor Who, if you’re going to have any longevity to speak of in the role, is overlooking dodgy production values and visual effects. Without wishing to labour what’s usually a relatively unimportant point, the fact remains is that this is a TV series usually made in a multiple-camera videotape format, and it’s the moments when the visuals on the show are unexpectedly good that are the shocking ones, not those when everything goes horribly wrong.

As I say, this is usually a relatively unimportant point: the real achievement of 20th century Doctor Who is to be a landmark, classic, legendary TV series largely on the basis of its scripts, direction and performances (not that the production values are consistently awful by any means, but they rarely exceed the ‘good enough’ level). On the other hand, this isn’t to say that there aren’t a few stories where a potentially decent script is sabotaged by its realisation.

I’m not necessarily talking about wild overambition, although one of the guarantees of getting a ropey slice of Who is the reluctance of a script-editor to sling out a script concerning, say, Concorde crash-landing on prehistoric Earth, especially when it’s earmarked for an end-of-season the-money’s-run-out slot. Subtler things can be just as pernicious, which brings me to Nightmare of Eden, from the back end of 1979.

The plot runs thusly. Disaster strikes the spacelanes over the planet Azure when two spaceships come out of hyperspace at the same co-ordinates: the luxury liner Empress and the much smaller Hecate. As luck would have it, the Doctor and Romana turn up on the scene to find the two ships partly fused together, with distorted interface areas all over both vessels. The Doctor naturally comes up with a plan to separate the two ships, but is distracted from this, firstly by the discovery that the Empress is being used to smuggle the lethally addictive drug vraxoin, and secondly by the fact that savage alien beasts known as Mandrels are running amok on the ship. One of the passengers on the Empress is a scientist who has used something called a CET machine to make four-dimensional recordings of the planets he has visited – and the dimensional disruption caused by the hyperspace accident is allowing the Mandrels to escape from the recording of the planet Eden…

When you properly sit down and think about it, there are a couple of problems with Nightmare of Eden – why is it only animals from the Eden recording that escape? Is the Eden projection left running continuously throughout the story? And, if the projection is only rendered permeable by the accident, how is the villain planning to use it to smuggle vraxoin? But I don’t think either of these is fatal to the plot; other, better regarded stories have significantly worse plot holes. This story has a couple of big, bright ideas, plenty of incident, some strong cliffhangers, and an interesting theme – yet, the last time anyone checked, it came in at number 190 on the all-time list.

I think this is at least partly due to the sheer look of the thing. This is a story which came out at the very end of the 1970s, after all, when the concept of what a space-set story could look like was being comprehensively reimagined by films like Star Wars and Alien. Where films and TV shows had previously tried to create convincing futures through exotic visuals and gleaming technology, the genius of George Lucas in particular was to realise that future technology and clothing is most likely to look just as shabby and nondescript as its present-day equivalents. The weird thing about these films is that they are convincing in their otherworldiness largely because they are, on one level, so ordinary.

Compare this with Nightmare of Eden, where everything looks brand new, bright colours are a key element of many of the designs, and practically every guest costume features an element of spangles, spandex, or bacofoil. This is a story still trying to make its vision of the future convincing by making it look very, very different from today, and it doesn’t work: it just looks silly and superficial. The closest it comes to being authentic is in the cramped and metallic interior of the Hecate‘s shuttlecraft: everything else just looks like a collection of studio sets. Imagine, if you can, a version of this story which has been designed with the vision of a story like Robots of Death, and where the Eden jungle looks more like the one in Planet of Evil, and perhaps you’ll get a sense of what I mean when I say it’s the designs that make a major contribution to killing this story as serious drama.

This is not to say that Bob Baker’s script doesn’t commit a few heinous crimes against credibility, of course. This is the Doctor Who story that tackles themes of drug-dealing and addiction head on – something it’s difficult to imagine the modern series doing – and this is, I would argue, a brave and interesting choice on the part of the programme-makers. It wouldn’t be realistic to expect anything too complex in its handling of this theme, but what ends up on screen is simplistic to the point of being embarrassing. Taking vraxoin turns people into idiots, pretty much: we’re never given any insight into why Secker, for instance, got started on the drug. There’s never really any doubt that it’s Tryst who’s the main villain – there aren’t exactly many candidates – nor is there much of an attempt to make him a rounded character. If he had been presented in a remotely sympathetic manner earlier in the story, it might have made the justly noted moment when the Doctor blankly refuses to acknowledge his attempts at self-justification even more powerful.

eden

As it is, perhaps it’s the need for the story to be absolutely clear in its morality that results in the fourth Doctor being on unusually on-the-nose form in this story, repeatedly denouncing the evils of vraxoin. For all this, it is the Doctor’s dismissal of Tryst – utterly detached, not looking at him, barely even speaking – which is the most striking, coming as it does from a character normally so dynamic in his self-expression.

Perhaps this is just the result of trying to tackling a difficult real-world issue like drugs in a Saturday teatime show. Even so, there’s nothing that excuses the way that virtually every authority figure the Doctor and Romana encounter is presented as an idiot – self-serving, easily-duped, actually moronic at times.

How many of this story’s dud performances are a result of the well-documented problems the production encountered it’s difficult to know. In the end it was probably a combination of the the directorial meltdown, some serious scripting missteps, and the badly mishandled production designs that resulted in what could have been a memorably different story being reduced to something which Tom Baker himself only recalls as being ‘very funny’. If this really is the story that led to Graham Williams deciding to quit the show, it’s not really surprising.

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The Semi-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Discussion

On the face of it, this looks pretty straightforward. The Doctor claims to be an agent of a company which actually went bust in 2096 – ‘twenty years ago!’ according to Rigg. This seems to date the story squarely to 2116 or so. Or, to put it another way, a little over a century in the future (at the time of writing, anyway).

Given that Doctor Who has occasionally suggested Earth colonies will be going concerns by the early 21st century, dating Nightmare of Eden – with its indications of interstellar tourism, a history of interplanetary drug dealing, and so on – to the early 22nd century is not entirely ridiculous. But given the modern show has dated the first (failed) Martian colony to 2059, it does seem very improbable that this sort of interstellar network could develop in less than 60 years.

Technology levels seem to rise and fall in Who-world on a fairly regular basis – ray guns and machine pistols seem to go in and out of style several times, for instance – and so I am inclined to suggest that, whatever calendar Rigg and the Empress are using, it can’t be AD (or CE, if you prefer). I don’t see any insuperable problems with placing Nightmare of Eden a few (or even many) centuries further into the future than initially appears to be the case.

 

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Terry Nation is a writer who I’ve been considering writing about for ages. He remains an interesting figure; high profile (as TV scriptwriters go) and divisive – no less a figure than Stephen Fry has praised Nation’s mastery of a certain type of storytelling, while on the other hand Sue Perryman’s catchphrase (‘Terry ****ing Nation!’) more than adequately encapsulates the views of those people who find his scripts rather hard work.

I find Nation’s work to be rather exasperating: while he wrote several really important Doctor Who stories, only one of them is genuinely great, and much of the rest of the time his scripts feel like they’ve been phoned in (there’s a funny interview on one of the DVDs where Barry Letts recalls pointing out to Nation his tendency to try and sell them the same script year after year). Outside of Doctor Who, the two key Nation series are surely Survivors and Blake’s 7 – now, I like both these shows a great deal, but I also find that their quality significantly spikes once Nation himself cuts back on his creative involvement. One would be tempted to peg him as an ideas man with no real facility for actual plotting, were it not for the dearth of actual imagination in so many of the Dalek stories.

On the other hand… well, I’ve been watching Destiny of the Daleks again, Nation’s 1979 contribution and quite possibly the first thing by the writer I ever saw. On paper this looks like it should have ‘classic’ written all over it: the most iconic Doctor taking on his most iconic enemies, with a script handled by arguably the two biggest names ever to write for 20th century Doctor Who, Terry Nation and Douglas Adams.

destiny

Having recently equipped the TARDIS with a device which can make it land somewhere entirely random at the start of each new adventure, the Doctor quite naturally finds himself on a planet he has already visited on three previous occasions: the unhappy planet Skaro, birthplace of the Daleks (though he doesn’t realise this for a bit). With his newly-regenerated companion Romana he sets about poking about on the ruined planet, intrigued by signs of drilling operations and the presence of not just a slave labour force but a starship crewed by the enigmatic Movellans. Why are all these people, not to mention the Daleks themselves, here on Skaro?

Destiny of the Daleks is not a story which enjoys a stellar reputation. I seem to recall that even Terry Nation himself was not exactly enthused by the realisation of his scripts, nor the rewrites Adams performed on them (‘Adams added a lot of silly jokes’, according to John Peel). And I suppose it’s easy to see why: the Daleks themselves are not exactly in great form, with the prop casings themselves clearly in frightfully bad nick, and Nation’s grasp of continuity (never his strong point) hits a new low. Never mind that the story seems to have forgotten that Davros’ bunker was located several miles from the old Kaled city (who knows, the Daleks may have moved the body – it certainly doesn’t look like the same place), but it pretty much explicitly states that the Daleks at this point are wholly robotic – ‘the Daleks have encountered another race of robots!’ exclaims Davros at one point (my emphasis). Quite when this final mechanisation occurred, or why Davros isn’t more surprised by it, is never addressed.

Personally I’m the sort of person who tends to treat shaky continuity as an engaging problem to be solved, rather a deadly flaw in a story. Certainly there seems to be almost a tendency in fourth Doctor stories for previously-cyborg creatures to become wholly synthetic in nature: the Cybermen are also described as ‘total machine creatures’ on their return appearance. We know from other stories that different factions of Daleks have shown a tendency to evolve in different directions (observe the biological and technical differences between the Imperial and Renegade factions a few stories down the line, not to mention the physical differences between Dalek mutants in the 20th and 21st century series), so it’s not entirely impossible that this particular group have uploaded their consciousnesses into fully robotic casings.

This does present the problem of explaining the manner of the Movellans’ ultimate victory over the Daleks, which was, we are told, based on the Movellans’ exploiting the Daleks’ biological nature by deploying a virus against them. Possibly the Daleks broke the logical impasse with the Movellans by reverting to a partially-biological state of existence, thus giving the Movellans an opening which they exploited.

Then again, the Movellans are a peculiar sort of creation in many ways. My natural instinct when it comes to one of John Peel’s elaborate Dalek-related retcons is to run a mile: his suggestion that the Movellans themselves are Dalek constructs and that this entire story is a bizarre put-up job designed to stop the real Skaro being destroyed is startling, to say the least. On the other hand, it does solve several of the hanging mysteries concerning the Movellans themselves. The Movellan civilisation is evidently quite capable of matching the Daleks when it comes to technological sophistication and ruthlessness, and yet we never hear of them outside of this particular story (the old FASA RPG makes a valiant attempt to boost them to the same level of major threat as the Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen, but even here you can sense the writers’ hearts aren’t really in it). Even in the story itself, it’s indicated that the Movellans routinely attempt to conceal their robotic nature from others, although they’re quite happy to ‘resurrect’ dead soldiers no matter how odd this looks (and how does this work, exactly? We see no sign of the bodies of Lan and Agella being retrieved from the ruins prior to their reappearance, so are these just copies, rather like the Cylons in 21st century Battlestar Galactica?). What happens to them after they defeat the Daleks? Just who exactly are these guys, and how does their society work?

Well, it’s certainly somewhere with its own special ideas about fashion, anyway. The Movellans are interesting from a cultural viewpoint as they represent one of the very last examples of a certain kind of SF aesthetic in Doctor Who: the shiny-clean-exotic-camp look. Always more of a feature of bad pulp SF, this look was practically obliterated overnight by the appearance of the grimy-used-utilitarian aesthetic in the original Star Wars. The simple look of the Movellans is perhaps one reason why this story is not better regarded, along with (while we’re talking about bad pulp SF) such awkward plot devices as the convenient brains-on-belts idea (Sharrel’s arm also comes off improbably easily in his final struggle, too).

So the continuity is largely a mass of unanswered questions and the story itself is driven along by a collection of frequently-shaky plot devices. And yet this is still a story I have considerable affection for. Whatever the problems with the script, there’s not much wrong with the direction, particularly the steadicam work with the Daleks. And while episode one contains so many Nationisms you almost feel like flinging your arms around it and greeting it as an old friend, elsewhere in the story there are moments of genuine innovation and quality: the stand-off between the Doctor and the Daleks in episode three treats all involved with respect. The Daleks are properly ruthless and intelligent (as, for that matter, is the Doctor). And the central idea of the logical impasse is an intriguing one.

Then again, there’s always the question of how much of a Terry Nation script was actually written by Terry Nation himself. There are certainly enough stories in circulation where rueful script editors recall receiving ‘scripts’ on the backs of fag packets or envelopes and being left to expand these into a workable state while Nation zoomed off to the airport in his sportscar. The truth of this can surely be seen from looking at the four Dalek scripts with Nation’s name on them from the 1970s, for each one of them clearly bears the mark of the script editor involved: the ones overseen by Terrance Dicks are carefully plotted with solid characterisation, if not a lot of new ideas, while the script developed by Robert Holmes is morally sophisticated with a very strong villain (and, by the way, the Daleks are hardly in it). Here, with Douglas Adams as the script editor, we get a story with a very interesting central conceit, some good set pieces, but a slightly shaky grasp of plotting and continuity.

I didn’t really intend this to be a hatchet job on either Terry Nation or Destiny of the Daleks, and yet I find I have largely opted for not much more than faint praise and backhanded compliments. Perhaps this isn’t the greatest story Doctor Who ever told, and perhaps Nation’s talents as a writer were more limited than his reputation might indicate. But in their own way they are both great entertainers.

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The Semi-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Discussion

With Destiny of the Daleks we again run into the problem of the Dalek dating issue I talked about when I discussed Revelation of the Daleks, with the associated problem of the destruction of Skaro in Remembrance of the Daleks and its reappearance in the TV Movie and that silly story with the asylum. I am inclined to stick to my inclination to take on-screen events at face value: the Skaro that’s vapourised on screen is the same planet visited in this story and others, and we have to attribute its reappearance to Dalek meddling in the timelines at some subsequent point.

Given the Daleks are apparently not active in Earth’s galaxy for a millennium prior to the year 4000, and that it seems reasonable to assume that the resurrection of Davros (in this story) occurs towards the end of the Daleks’ pre-Time War history, I am going to go with the consensus on this story and suggest it occurs somewhere around the 45th century, ninety years before Resurrection of the Daleks and roughly a century or so before Revelation. If only all the associated continuity issues were so easy to resolve…

 

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I have watched Doctor Who in a lot of different places, as you can probably imagine: mostly lounges, of course, but also hall-of-residence viewing rooms, bedrooms, and internet cafes. This last was mainly during my globetrotting period, of course, when I became a fixture in said establishments in Chiba, Bari, and Bishkek. (Perhaps most memorable of all was watching The Sound of Drums courtesy of the complimentary internet in a hotel lobby in Hiroshima, but I digress.)

Even so, the opportunity to watch some first-run Who on a cinema screen was something I couldn’t really miss – even if it was in 3D, which as you may know I’m ambivalent about at best. I suppose this was partly because, if ever there was a time to watch the show with other people, this was it. This was before the sheer scale of the event sank in – what was it in the end, 94 countries, from Argentina to Sweden? As I write the final global viewing figures are yet to come in, but this was obviously something special.

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So, the full experience of cinema Doctor Who! Well, out of fear of losing my ticket I didn’t actually collect it from the machine until about ten minutes before the special started. Imagine my appalled horror when I saw the start time on it listed as 7.30 (i.e., ten minutes earlier). Fortunately this was just the door time and I was able to recover my composure and dignity and take my seat in a suitably suave manner while the house lights were still up. Someone down the front was wearing a fez, which was nice (I have heard reports of six-year-olds in Colin Baker costumes at some screenings).

Now, what I had reckoned without was the fact I still had to watch trailers before the actual special started. This particular pill had a little sugar sprinkled on it, as several of them were clearly bespoke ones assembled specially for the occasion. The one about a time-travelling, hyper-intelligent dog was simply bemusing, the one where Ron Burgundy said ‘Peter Capaldi is Doctor Who?’ was an unexpected pleasure, and the one with Ben Stiller playing a pathological fantasist with no social life was possibly focussed a little too closely on its intended audience.

One of the things the audience at home missed was the usual do-not-tape-this-and-switch-your-phone-off-now film, which on this occasion was presented by comedy Sontaran butler-nurse Strax. This was far superior to the usual one and should replace it at all screenings forthwith. There was also a special introduction featuring Matt Smith, David Tennant, and the back of John Hurt’s head. If nothing else Tennant’s appearance gave a large section of the audience a chance to practise their gasping and squealing ahead of the programme proper.

And the special itself? Well, as I hope I have managed to communicate, for me the quality of the episode was almost secondary to the event itself – the closest thing to a real-life version of the climax of Last of the Time Lords that we are likely to see (this side of 2038, at least).

However – and slightly to my surprise, for I had anticipated having to curb my usual habit during recent episodes of occasionally shouting abuse at the screen – the special turned out to be rather marvellous and did exactly what Steven Moffat had intended it to, which was to provide something for every viewer – whether that was a rattling plot with some good jokes for complete newcomers, the reappearance of some familiar faces and events from the recent past, or some deeper, more obscure references to its further past for the real hard core.

There are, inevitably a few things about The Day of the Doctor I am a little unsure about – the Zygon plotline in particular had more than a few dangling threads. As the episode appears to imply that the history of the Zygons was changed by the Time War, I would be prepared to ignore the fact that the Zygons’ rules of engagement in this story aren’t consistent with those in their debut appearance. But they’re not even consistent within the episode itself – do they actually need image galleries or not? Different bits of the story indicate different things.

I suppose it would be possible to criticise the depiction of the Time War as we saw it here – this wasn’t the chaotic, metaphysically apocalyptic, mind-scrambling conflict it’s been described as in the past, but something bearing rather more of a resemblence to part of the Clone Wars: epic and spectacular, but still comprehensible to the human mind. In the circumstances, for this particular story, this was an entirely justifiable choice, though.

I think we are still justified in asking whether or not history has been changed by the events at the climax of the story – was Gallifrey ever actually destroyed? Is it even a meaningful question? I’m not sure on either count. It is also a little bit of an ask to expect the effects of a sentient, galaxy-devouring doomsday weapon to be perfectly and indistinguishably replicated by all the Daleks miraculously shooting each other simultaneously. At first glance there is also some heavy-duty finessing involved in making the climax of Day of the Doctor dovetail perfectly with that of The End of Time (part of the point of which was that the events of the War had so corrupted the Time Lords that they didn’t deserve to survive), but on reflection I think this is doable to the satisfaction of even the most demanding fan.

Prior to the special I had speculated we were in for what I termed ‘a War Games moment’ – something which would fundamentally change the nature of the series. Did this happen? I suppose so, although I think this may prove to be more of a character issue than a real shift in the format. The prospect of a Doctor bereft of the burden of guilt and loneliness which has defined the character recently, with a capacity for real hope, and a genuine mission, is an intriguing one. It’s a neat way of giving the series a huge potential future story without compromising the fact that the absence of the Time Lords has really been a good thing for the series. Or, to put it another way, one of the advantages of existing simultaneously in multiple parallel timestreams is that you really can have your cake and eat it.

In any event, the focus of the special – and the focus of all the fiction surrounding this anniversary, come to that – felt entirely right to me. That focus was on the essential unity of all Doctor Who, the fact that it is all just one big story, and a wonderful story at that. That unity is there in the special’s direct quoting of Terrance Dicks’ still unparallelled summation of the Doctor’s character, or the transformation of the eighth Doctor into the War Doctor (thus linking the 20th and 21st century iterations of the series), or the flash ahead to the twelfth Doctor, or even in the appearance of the eleventh Doctor at the climax of An Adventure in Space and Time.

And, of course, in the appearance of Tom Baker in the final moments of the special. Tom, of course, spent half the interviews he’s given in the last week denying absolutely any involvement in the special, and the other half bellowing the news of his participation (naturally, when interviewed just after the special broadcast, with the secret out, he denied all knowledge).

So I didn’t know what to think. However, the instant Clara mentioned ‘an old man’ looking for the Doctor, I had my own little moment (although less destructive than the Doctor’s). It was so gratifying that the appearance of this most iconic and legendary Doctor was greeted with gasps and cries of delight throughout the cinema. I myself was too busy trying not to sob too audibly at the sight of my hero in his most familiar form again to make much noise myself. Nevertheless, it was the highlight of the entire anniversary for me.

So that was the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who. Earlier this year I was rather glibly citing the desire not to miss the anniversary as a reason not to leave the UK, but even so I had no idea it was going to be quite as massive an event as it ultimately proved to be. I know it’s only a month until Christmas and the Fall of the Eleventh (please finally explain why the TARDIS blew up in The Pandorica Opens, Moff) with the attendant publicity that will inevitably surround it, but right now the prospect of returning to a mundane, non-Doctor Who-obsessed world, is a distinctly unappealing one. And, if nothing else, I suppose that this shows that it was a worthy, memorable, marvellous shindig. Roll on 2023.

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Mass-appeal action-adventure heroes all tend to be cut from roughly the same cloth – virile, accessible, and smart without being intellectual – and so the presence in their midst of a non-acquisitive oddball brainbox without much interest in girls would be striking. The fact that two such peculiar figures are currently major presences in UK popular culture would normally, therefore, be highly unusual.

However, I refer (of course) to the Doctor, from Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes, currently appearing in Sherlock (both BBC productions), and the two characters share one further similarity: both are currently in the stewardship of Steven Moffat. As a result, it has actually been argued that there’s no significant difference between the two – one early review of the Holmes project actually described it, dismissively, as Sherlock Who – that Moffat and his colleagues are simply writing the same character in different contexts.

Both the hat and its absence are making a point...

I think anyone who paid attention would accept that this is a gross oversimplification and isn’t particularly flattering to either show. Nevertheless, the connections between Who and Holmes run deep and have done so for a long time. As the junior creation, to what extent is the Doctor based on Sherlock Holmes? And can the makers of Doctor Who learn anything from the endless reinventions of Conan Doyle’s characters?

One of the most telling things, when considering the relationship between the characters, is that a lot of Doctor Who fans are also to some extent Sherlockians. Back when I used to go to the Preston Who Group, one of the many peripheral conversations I overheard was between two friends, one of whom had recently got the complete run of Jeremy Brett Holmes adaptations on DVD. Both were clearly enthusiastic and knowledgeably so. Indeed, an early 90s poll asking who should play the Doctor in a revived TV show or a movie was won by Jeremy Brett. (The question, of course, is whether they were attracted to Holmes because of its resemblence to Doctor Who or vice versa.)

Indeed, there is some history of actors being associated with both roles – starting, obviously, with Peter Cushing, who played Holmes numerous times over a quarter of a century and the Doctor in two 60s movies. Moving the other way, one of Tom Baker’s first major TV roles after leaving Doctor Who was the Great Detective, in the BBC’s 1982 classic serial version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. More peripherally, Richard E Grant played a version of Holmes in a BBC play (also playing Mycroft and Stapleton in other venues), and an alternative Doctor in an internet animation (interviewed about this part he announced his take on the character was that he was ‘Sherlock Holmes in space’…), while current Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch claims to have been offered the role of the Doctor (although it’s unclear when this could have happened). Received wisdom (always a dubious messenger) has it that no-one has been successful in both roles: as I’ve said before, I think Cushing gives us a terrific take on the Doctor, while I find his Holmes can be a bit manic, which is the opposite of the acceptable view!

Explicit parallels between the two characters go back a long way – on screen, the most obvious example is in the 1977 story The Talons of Weng Chiang, in which Tom Baker’s Doctor swans about foggy Victorian streets in an ulster and a deerstalker, teams up with a police surgeon, and at one point encounters a giant rat (though, sadly, not from Sumatra). Most of these are visual cues, though, and fairly superficial. In terms of plotting and tone the story – full of sinister orientals and grotesquely disfigured geniuses lurking in cellars – owes considerably more to Gaston Leroux and Sax Rohmer than Arthur Conan Doyle.

Rather more in tune with the canon, though not on screen, is Andy Lane’s novel All-Consuming Fire, in which Holmes and the Doctor actually meet up and have an adventure together. After a very authentic and enjoyable opening, the book rather turns into a fanboy geek-out and Victoriana mash-up rather in the vein of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, but its main flaw – and the novel itself acknowledges this – is that as the story proceeds Holmes gets progressively less and less to do. (The novel also just about qualifies as an entry into the thriving Holmes-meets-Lovecraft subgenre, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Doctor teams up with a stock photo of Basil Rathbone on the cover of All-Consuming Fire.

However, going all the way back to 1970 and the era of Jon Pertwee, script editor Terrance Dicks has frequently recalled a conversation he had with producer Barry Letts, where they discussed the relationship between the Doctor and the Brigadier, which Dicks likened to that of Holmes and Watson. This parallel seems to have struck creative sparks, leading to the creation of the Master as a Moriarty figure (something we shall return to).

Nevertheless this seems to have been a new idea at the time, made possible by the casting of Pertwee himself – Tom Baker described Pertwee as a ‘Holmesian figure’ and this is broadly speaking true. The third Doctor is a commanding, incisive, physical presence in a way that his predecessors were not. This is the main problem with the ‘Doctor Who is just Sherlock Holmes in space’ accusation – at no point in the series’ origins, or for most of its first six years, does there seem to have been a deliberate attempt to specifically ape Doyle’s style or characters.

The Sherlock Holmes influence on Doctor Who only really becomes noticeable with the arrival on the series of a writer with the apposite (but unfortunate, when it comes to clarity) name of Robert Holmes. From Holmes-R’s first contribution to the series, the Doctor becomes distinctly more like Holmes-S – more of an investigator, more proactive, more dominant. Robert Holmes also wrote The Talons of Weng-Chiang and his love of gothic horror and Victorian pulp fiction have been well-documented.

 

Robert Holmes. Secret plan to destroy Doctor Who not pictured.

 

While Holmes-R did not become the actual script editor on the series for another seven years, it’s his conception of the Doctor – aided by the casting of Pertwee – that becomes central to the series. The cloaks and martial arts and the Moriarty figure are all eventually abandoned, but the Doctor remains the powerful, intellectual adventurer Robert Holmes reimagined him as.

This said, it’s interesting that the Doctor-as-Holmes parallel draws more on the popular conception of Holmes than the Doyle canon: most obviously in the inclusion of the Master as an equivalent to Moriarty. As any self-respecting Sherlockian could tell you, Moriarty barely appears in the Doyle stories, only really existing as a plot device to kill the Great Detective off – at the risk of being overtechnical, in the canon Moriarty is a nemesis, rather than an arch-enemy. The Doctor is also usually a rather more amiable figure than the ‘classic’ Holmes – certainly more Basil Rathbone than Jeremy Brett.

It says something about the power and potential of this vision of the Doctor that even after Holmes’ departure from the series in the late 70s, the Holmesian version was retained as the default. The Davison Doctor is arguably an attempt to move the character on, but Colin Baker surely returns to type. Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor is another departure, but much has been made of the startling resemblance that Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor bears, not just to the Doctors of the 70s, but Anthony Higgins’ Holmes in 1994 Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Returns.

When Russell Davies and the other writers of the revived series announced they were going to create a Doctor in the classic mould, this was tantamount to saying they would be creating a Holmesian Doctor (in both senses). There’s a lot to be said for playing the Doctor this way, but other approaches are available.

And, to draw still another British immortal into the discussion, it’s interesting to compare the Cumberbatch take on Holmes with Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Both work inasmuch as they’re exercises in taking the characters back to their essentials, disencumbering them of all the paraphernalia and unhelpful ‘traditions’ they have accumulated over the years (Sherlock riffs on iconography to some extent, but only in passing). It’s interesting to consider whether this approach might be attempted with the Doctor.

One could of course argue that the conclusion of Matt Smith’s second series saw exactly this happening, with the Doctor ‘reset’ as a lone traveller with his box, quietly saving the universe one planet at a time. Except, of course, this isn’t strictly a full reset – it moves the Doctor back to where he was in about 1977, not 1963. The pre-Holmes Doctor of 1963 is a fundamentally different figure, erratic, at times decidedly unsympathetic, shadowy and strange. It would be very difficult to return to this characterisation without creating severe problems in terms of audience expectation.

Sherlock Holmes is still adored because there’s something in the conception of the character that every new generation falls in love with. Holmes is never really reinvented, just rediscovered: in all the most popular adaptations, the core of the character barely alters. The Doctor is different. He can be a gentleman adventurer, like Holmes – but you can tell stories where he takes a wide number of other less easily-defined roles, too. He can be genuinely reimagined in a way that Holmes can’t: and it’s this mutable quality (not just in terms of actor, but in narrative role) that has given the character his longevity.

Sherlock Holmes has endured because he never needs to change. The Doctor has endured because change is fundamental to his nature – he may frequently resemble Holmes, but it’s not essential that he does. And if these occasional convergences between the two form a tacit acknowledgement on the part of the Who writers of the genius of Conan Doyle, I don’t think anyone would take much exception to that.

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