Thursday, December 22, 2011

Storm Warning


So we begin the Eighth Doctor's Big Finish run with 'Storm Warning', released in 2001.

A tale of aliens and an airship. Specifically the ill-fated R-101. In the real world the R-101 crashed into a French hillside on the 5 October 1930 killing 48 of the 54 people on board. It effectively bought an end to British airship development. In the Big Finish universe the crash still happens but everyone dies. Well, not quite everyone. One, Lord Tamworth (played with a fine stentorian air by Gareth Thomas) who is off to travel the stars. The other, Charley Pollard (India Fisher) leaves to travel with the Doctor. Except she's a paradox. She should have died on the R-101.

It's a nice gentle adventure. Not brilliant, not bad. In fact it does have the feel of a first story for a new Doctor. The story itself is less relevant that the introduction of a new incarnation. So even though the television movie introduced us to Paul McGann's Doctor this seems like his first proper adventure, even if it is audio only and lots of Doctor Who fans will never have heard it.

McGann is good again. There are similarities to David Tennant's portrayal in that he seems - at least here - to be a more human version of the Time Lord. He's certainly open about himself, spilling his secrets to Charley within minutes. It's early days yet so let's see how this pans out.

India Fisher does an excellent job with Charley Pollard as well. She's a couple of steps away from being jolly hockey sticks posh but combines brains and enthusiasm with a fine sense of adventure. She and the Eighth Doctor seem to work well together here.

The supporting cast does a good job to. I like Gareth Thomas's Lord Tamworth who is less of a pompous fool than his initial appearance leads you to suggest, although the idea of the Tamworth fighting with the Triskele's Uncreator Prime is as spectacularly odd as the fight between Patrick Moore and one of the aliens that takes place in the Independence Day UK and I'm not sure it would work in a television story but this is audio so things can be got away with.

Barnaby Edwards with South African accent makes Rathbone, the British Intelligence agent and key human bastard of the piece, pleasantly nasty but I think the script overdoes the 'in my country...' lion stories a bit. There's a hint towards the end that Rathbone is under the influence of the Uncreator Prime to explain his ruthless execution of the Triskele Lawgiver and he's given enough shades of grey to make him realistic enough. He's another in Doctor Who's long line of people who thinks the end justifies the means.

Nicholas Pegg as Frayling, the mild-mannered slightly put upon engineer and military officer doesn't have to stretch himself too much in a part that is as thin as the membrane of the airship itself.

I like the idea of the Trikele themselves. A species split into instinct and logic taking instruction from one single Lawgiver. A species that has passed beyond the 'let's invade and kill everyone stage' and is trying to be something else. A race whose nastier side is still pretty rubbish because they're a new generation who've not had much practice with this killing stuff and whose leader, the Uncreator Prime, gets beaten up by an old-ish member of the British aristocracy.

So this does a reasonable job. We meet our new Doctor and his new companion and sow seeds for future problems by the very fact that Charley is a paradox.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Doctor Who - The Movie




So...it is 27th May 1996 and here we all are. It's new Doctor Who and it is about time. After all the rumours, including rapping TARDIS's, every actor in the known world lined up to play the part and all that jazz we got this. And in theory it should be great but it doesn't work.

That it doesn't work is not Paul McGann's fault. He's pretty damn good actually and has the requisite Doctor-ish qualities. A little reminiscent of a young Tom Baker. He certainly looks the part. But the story and the script are pretty poor.

There's too much continuity for a re-boot. Whilst it is lovely to see Sylvester McCoy get a proper regeneration from an old fanboys point of view it slows the story down dramatically, requires too much exposition and just isn't necessary. Now I'll admit I'm saying this with a degree of hindsight. At the time I suspect I'd have been mortified if Sylvester hadn't got his regeneration but watching it now it isn't necessary. It's a re-boot in concrete shoes.

And if you're going to have continuity then at least make some effort to do it properly. Those terrible Dalek voices, the use of 'cloaking device' instead of 'chameleon' circuit; the Master demanding things; the Daleks allowing the Doctor to collect etc etc. These little things are irritating to the initiated, pointless to the new viewer.

Then there's the Master. Now I'm not going to complain about Eric Robert's performance here. I think it makes a nice change for The Master not to be suave, bearded and English. I like some of his scenes with Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), which are amusing enough. Yes, he gets progressively more over-the-top as the story goes on and in the final 'drezzzz for dinner moments' the scent of fromage is almost unbearable but I like it. At least he's interesting, which beats virtually ever other character in the blessed thing.

What I think I object to most is the total unoriginality of the whole thing: a bit of Frankenstein here, the Terminator there, the X-Files etc. I mean who's Grace Holloway if not a Scully wannabee?

And again that's not the actors fault. Daphne Ashbrook does a pretty good job with the material she's given but at some points the character is ridiculously dumb. I'll accept that the shock of the Doctor's non-humanness might be a shock but she's just LOOKED AT HIS BLOOD AND ADMITTED HE HAS TWO HEARTS FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE. That's taking cynicism a step too far. She's not given much to do either, even allowing for the fact that she's supposed to be our guide to this new world and character. It's a shame.

That unoriginality annoys me because it is so transparent. Doctor Who has always 'borrowed' from film, theatre and literature but done properly something new and interesting comes out of it. Done badly and you've got a chopped up series of homages that don't amount to a hill of beans.

In a way it's failure taught RTD valuable lessons for when the programme was to return again. No regeneration there, just hit the ground running. Not too much continuity. Does it matter that the Autons had appeared in Doctor Who before. No one had to know anything about the Autons to enjoy Rose...but I'm getting ahead of myself. Several years ahead of myself.

The TARDIS looks cool though, even if all the 'Eye of Harmony' stuff gets on my geek nerves, which I suppose brings me on to the 'half-human' thing. Why? Did the producers feel that the US of A couldn't cope with an entirely alien lead character or that echoing Spock's half-humanness might bring some kind of sf kudos? I don't know but its an unnecessary addition and another blurring of the character. Clearly everyone quietly carries on in the present series as if: This. Never. Happened.

The ending is so twee and nonsensical as to be both vomit and headache inducing. Bringing people back to life by travelling to a time before they were deaded and then the TARDI...I mean please. If you don't want to kill people off, don't. This story has a surprisingly low body count for a Doctor Who story. Poor old Bruce gets snaked to death  - and don't get me start on the goo thing...now the Master can turn himself to goo for fu...anyway; a few body guards get gooed to possible death but no one else. So the ending feels like a cop out, a failure of courage.

Which is, in the end, what this whole story is. A failure to have the courage of your convictions. A belief in Doctor Who as a 'brand', but not as an idea. A falling between two stools half-arsed re-boot that didn't really please most old school fans or break the US of A, which was its main objective. The fact it got decent UK viewing figures didn't get us a new series.

So poor old Paul McGann gets judged on this and this alone by most of the general public but as I said at the beginning he's fine. More than fine as Big Finish were to demonstrate.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Survival


Here we are watching between 22nd November to 6th December 1989 and Classic Doctor Who is coming to a end with 'Survval'. The culmination of the BBC's gradual falling out of love with Doctor Who as a programme, the cancellation came at a time when the series had recovered some of its joi de vivre after the nadir that was Season 24. Both Season 25 and Season 26 are filled with good stories, performances and ideas but then logic is never one of the television industries strongest suits.

'Survival' is written by Rona Munroe and with its connection to the real world of multi-racial West London housing estates and its focus on Ace could arguably seen as the template for New Doctor Who. I have already said that Rose is just Ace with less explosives but there is an element of truth in that description. Ace's character arc, her 'realism' (by BBC/Doctor Who standards) and her centrality to many of the stories is Rose. The main difference is that New Who has allowed companions to have a deeper emotional life: the 'soap opera' elements for which it is much criticised by some.

So 'Survival' is interesting as an example of a hybrid of Old and New Doctor Who.

It links with 'Ghost Light' in its Darwinian themes - this time evolution in its warped format as 'survival of the fittest' with added Master.

This is Anthony Ainley's last appearance in Doctor Who and in my opinion is pretty much his best. Having the Master on the verge of turning into an animal, trapped and desperate brings out something good in Ainley's performance. He's (mainly) more measured and subtle than he has been on other occasions. It is as if the Master's loss of control has made Ainley more controlled. He's one of the stories strengths.

One of the weaknesses is the animatronic cat (or kitling to give it is proper name). It looks incredibly unconvincing, partly because we all know what a cat looks like and how it moves so when this animatronic thing hisses at us and it looks wrong we know it is wrong. It is definitely a problem. As - to a lesser extent - are the cheetah people themselves who are a little bit too cuddly to feel truly threatening, although I do not think they are bad costumes they just don't quite achieve what they are meant to.

However neither of those things are as irritating as the motorcycle sequence, which is ridiculously silly and unrealistic. Combined with the fact that the gang of lads from the youth club look like the members of a failed boy band - and just as threatening - as they make to attack Ace. It says a lot about Sophie Aldred's acting ability that she manages to be realistically terrified of them as opposed to pointing and laughing.

For a JNT story 'Survival' is without too many starry special guests. Although Hale and Pace - who were famous comedians at the time kids - have a short cameo as Len and Harvey who own a corner shop. It's not the most impressive of acting performances from either of them but the sequence works well enough.

Generally the performances are OK, although Will Barton's Midge isn't great, but to his credit he does improve once he's been cheetahed and Mastered. Julian Holloway as Paterson is pretty good though. Everyone knows someone like Paterson.

Sophie Aldred is wonderful again, especially in her scenes with Lisa Bowerman's Karra, the only Cheetah person to get any lines. Sylvester's pretty good to but I have to admit to finding his shouty scenes a little difficult to watch. He's much, much more impressive doing quiet, brooding and 'dark' than raging. But as I've said before perhaps it is good that the Doctor is a rubbish shouter. Sylvester's Doctor is definitely the quiet one.

So it isn't a bad story given a nice finish as the Doctor soliloquies into the sunset with Ace. Somewhere they've got work to do but it isn't going to be on BBC television for some time...and it'll be almost eight years before Sylvester gets to deliver his next lines as the Seventh Doctor and to hand over the TARDIS to Paul McGann.

Next stop May, 1996 and Doctor Who, The Movie.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Curse of Fenric


The Curse of Fenric is an excellent story. The peak of McCoy's darker Doctor and the culmination of a story arc that we did not even know was there going back - all the way back - to Iceworld and the Doctor's first meeting with Ace. Ace is a link in Fenric's chain of revenge. One of his 'Wolves', if an unknowing one and the Doctor always knew, apparently.

This is a story about faith and love. Ace's faith in the Doctor and her love - or not - for her mother; Sorin's faith in the Revolution, the Rev Wainwright's faith in a good God buckling under the realities of total warfare, Judson's faith in logic and science and Millington's faith in ultimate victory (and perhaps his love for Judson, although I'm reading lines within lines there) and finally the Doctor's faith in Ace.

It's nice when a Doctor Who story can be read on more than one level. After all on the surface this is just another Vampire runaround. With added World War Two. Ace gets to be Buffy before Buffy. Well, a bit. But there's undercurrents. (Some of which may be expanded later if I can persuade...well, let us leave that for another time).

It's another excellent set of performances from the main guest stars. Dinsdale Landen as Dr Judson, the crippled scientific genius with his bullying, patronising Nurse Crane (played by the wonderful Anne Reid), is suitably sharp and unpleasant. He, like Alfred Lynch's Commander Millington, is clearly more focused on the ends rather than the means. Alfred Lynch's performance makes Millington's journey from the fringes of sanity into madness scarily believable. The scene where he locks the doors on the two Russian soldiers and his self-justification for it is a real blinder. There's an intensity to both Millington and Judson.

Then there's Nicholas Parson's as Rev Wainwright who puts in a - surprisingly - good performance. Here is a man battling to understand his God in a world where God seems to have gone on holiday. Nicholas Parson's has got such a recognisable voice though - especially to someone whose listened to lots of 'Just a Minutes' - that it is hard to think of him as a character but it is a credit to him that (most of the time) you do forget.

Credit to Tomek Bork as Captain Sorin to. Being a leftie I like the fact that it is his faith in the Revolution that protects him from the Haemovores. I like the fact that it is faith itself, not the objects that protect you. But Bork does a great job throughout.

Sylvester McCoy is good here to, especially in the final scenes with Ace. You do believe that this is a Doctor capable of being a total bastard and who can out-manipulate even the most sophisticated of games players. One step ahead, even when he's behind. It is something of a joy to remember quite how much I like the Seventh Doctor whilst revisiting the era. There so much depth to his performance.

Again though Sophie Aldred does a grand job with Ace. The scene when she berates the Doctor for not telling her stuff is short but magnificent; the 'faster than the second hand on a watch' stuff is mesmeric (even if it doesn't really make much sense) and her responses to the Doctor's 'teenage psychology' are exceptional. Ace is a wonderful companion, especially as they lose some of the more rubbish attempts at making her 'down with the youth'.

The Haemovores look great, especially the Ancient Haemovore. The nice way in which Haemovores change from human looking to a more...amphibious...look is a positive to. The music by Mark Ayres helps the mood, rather than stomping all over it. The World War Two setting means that the BBC's strengths are shown again - no dodgy attempts at designing the future on fifty quid required.

My one quibble is that the chess move required to win the game IS NOT A BLOODY CHESS MOVE but I suppose trying to create a virtually unsolvable chess problem that you can turn into a metaphor is a big ask.

So to conclude all hail The Curse of Fenric: mud, blood and teenage psychology.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ghost Light


In this blog I have frequently complained about Doctor Who stories being padded out. However 'Ghost Light' is a rare case of a story that could have benefited from an additional episode. With room to breath an already excellent story could have ended up an absolutely classic.

From the moment Ace and The Doctor arrive at Gabriel Chase this story rolls beautifully along, even if sometimes you find yourself asking questions. This is Moffatesque Doctor Who. You can imagine this story, with Amy, Rory and the Doctor with little alteration.

It has much going for it, particularly the exceptional cast who - without exception - do fine work: Ian Hogg oozes a seedy menace as villain de jour Josiah Samuel Smith whose appearance turns out to be very deceptive; Michael Cochrane as Redvers Fenn-Cooper, the Victorian explorer driven insane and then sane again by his experiences; Carl Forgione  as Nimrod, 'a mighty hunter before the Lord'. The last surviving Neanderthal collected and now working as Josiah Smith's butler; Sharon Duce as Control who goes from creature, to ladylike to leader as the story progresses evolving up the social ladder as Josiah Smith devolves; John Nettleton as Rev Ernest Matthews come to tackle Smith for his Darwinian views. Nettleton not only plays Matthews with style but with impressive mutton chop whiskers looks exactly like the imaginations picture of a meddlesome Victorian clergymen. Rev Matthews ironic fate is both clever and unpleasant; Katherine Schlesinger as Gwendolin, Josiah's 'ward' who is both the nastiest and saddest character in the story alongside her mother, Mrs Pritchard. Sylvia Syms does a fantastic job of Mrs Pritchard. The scene between Schlesinger and Syms when they have broken their conditioning and talk about what they have done is a strong one; Frank Windsor as Inspector Mackenzie, whose job is simply to provide a bit of comic relief and - in his (almost) absence the punchline to a rather tasteless joke and finally there's John Hallam as Light whose performance is a little on the arch side but works for me. After all it isn't a part that calls for naturalism.

What a cast! But with all those characters squeezed into three episodes it can seem pretty croweded. It does need more time and space.

Then there's the atmosphere, which is odd and dark. There's a lot of nasty things going on, not least of which are the mysterious trips to Java that the Gwendoline's father and Rev Matthews have taken, which is an interesting euphemism for murder. A more domestic version of that ominous phrase 'resettled in the East'. It is Gwendoline's joyful attempts to send Ace to Java that open an insight into her character, which the Doctor nails shut by pointing out that - although hypnotised - she had enjoyed organising those trips to Java a little too much for him to forgive her.

The Doctor feels genuinely alien in this story to, which suits McCoy. Gabriel Chase it turns out is the haunted house that Ace was telling the Doctor about. So the Doctor takes her there. Back to Victorian England. Its manipulative and when Ace realises it borders on bullying. He's bought her here to face her terrors but as Ace points out after the Doctor's rather wonderful - and applause for McCoy's performance here - 'Burnt Toast' speech, she wants to face her terrors on her terms. Not his. This 'testing' of Ace was all part of script editor Andrew Cartmel's 'masterplan' for the character.

It was a parallel thread to the changes in the Doctor who has become more proactive, more manipulative and more powerful. In 'Battlefield' he went all Obi Wan Kenobi to persuade Peter and Pat to leave the Gore Crow. He also seems to have gained a Vulcan 'death' grip of his own. He's also got a new darker jacket.

He's still got the stupid question mark jumper though, which I have not mentioned at any point so far during the McCoy era because it makes me angry. Still. I thought I'd let all the rage out after I'd left college but the title sequence wink and the question mark jumper remind me of many a late-80s argument about how good Doctor Who was. And the bloody jumper is the costume equivalent of putting LOLZ after a comment just to make sure everyone knows it was meant to be funny.

Back to positives. Sophie Aldred is fantastic in this. This is Ace's story. In fact Season 26 sees a Doctor and Companion relationship that is much more balanced than previously. It feels like a New Who relationship, although devoid of any 'love' angle. The combination of the Aldred and McCoy is wonderful. They work well together. Their arguments seem to be less about bickering a la Peri and the Sixth Doctor and more about proper stuff.

It makes for a powerful combination and an excellent story. Yes, it is complicated and not everything is explained but it works and it works pretty well.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Battlefield


Just ignore the number plate
So Season 26 kicks off with a story that doesn't quite reach the heights of its ambition but which is enjoyable enough nonetheless.

There are Arthurian knights from an alt-Earth, where Morgaine (Jean Marsh) is Queen. We never really learn much about this alt-Earth except that it appears to use organic magic as technology (this is a guess as only hints are dropped - the ornithopter etc), although how this fits with Doctor Who's previous sniffyness about magic I don't know. Perhaps we are in the realms of the kind of sufficiently advanced technology that appears to be magic. To steal someone elses words. Morgaine doesn't appear to rule everyone. Ancelyn (Marcus Gilbert) appears to be against her and on Arthur's side and arrives on our Earth. I assume he's arrived looking for Arthur and Excalibur but that's never made entirely clear either. Unless I missed it. There's a lot of fogginess here. Has Morgain lived one thousand plus years longer than Arthur or is the alt-Earth contemporaneous with...oh does it matter. Basically it's Arthurian legend and the Doctor - a future Doctor - is Merlin.

I like that conceit and the moment when Ancelyn reels off the list of the Doctor's known qualities thus revealing that he is - or will be - Merlin is well-scripted and performed. In fact the play between the alt-Earth and our Earth is interestingly done. The alt-Earth speaks that slightly stilted English that passes for how people spoke in the past, talk much of war and honour and act in a more theatrical style than their 'our Earth' contemporaries. Poor old Mordred (Christopher Bowen) gets lumbered with longest 'laugh like a maniacal villain' scenes ever inflicted on an actor in Doctor Who. He manages to pull it off, just.

Then there's Brigadier Winefred Bambara (played with a certain butch charm by Angela Bruce) and her mislaid nuclear weapons convoy. Bambara is in UNIT. Battlefield is one of the few stories where UNIT appears to be genuinely multi-national and properly prepared to take on any eventuality. The Brigadier's listing of the weapons they have bought with them is a good touch.

Ah...the Brigadier. Yes, Nicolas Courtney is back as Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and it is a joy to see him again. If anything Battlefield is the Brigadier's tale. Bought out of retirement by the prospect of meeting up with the Doctor again he's up for the fight from the off. He gets a number of nice scenes with the ladies in this story does the Brigadier - with Doris (Angela Douglas), with Flight Lt Lavel (Dorota Rae), with Morgaine and with Ace - which makes a fine change. The scenes between him and Morgaine in particular, involving discussions of honour and respect, around the war memorial.

In fact the script is fine. In fact there's some clever stuff in there. The comparison of nuclear weapons as the technological 'mutually assured distruction' and the Destroyer as the 'mythical' one echoing Robert Oppenheimer's post-first nuclear test quote about 'I am become death, the Destroyer of World's'. The Doctor's explanation of the impact of nuclear strike to Morgaine is one of the strongest scenes in the series history: "Is this honour? Is this war?"  There's also a nice throw away reference to the Doctor's excellent speech in 'The Happiness Patrol' when the Doctor threatens to kill Modred and gets his bluff called. Mordred says: "look me in the eye, end my life."

Most of the acting is fine to across a large cast. James Ellis does a fine job as archaeologist Peter Warmsley with his appropriate Tennyson quotes; Ling Tai gives Ace some company of her own age and explosive obsessed type in the form of Shou Yuing. Later on Sophie Aldred and Ling Tai play out a sinister, creepy scene inside a chalk circle as Morgaine tries to get hold of Excalibur in fine style. It feels unusually real for a Doctor Who story. Even the minorest of minor parts are well-played.

What lets the story down is it looks a bit like some of the people involved seem not to have picked up on Ben Aaronovitch's instructions or not been too bothered. The direction of the final battle sequence, whilst impressively busy, is rather silly as soldiers run in left and right. The sound design is rubbish. The Knight's from the future have rubbish designed guns. The futuristic stuff doesn't look convincing and the underwater model doesn't look very underwater. The editing is a bit half-arsed.

All of which makes me think that Battlefield, remade with current technology, a bit of care and a couple of explanatory tweaks could have been something of a masterpiece. Still it is pretty good but with a little more care and attention it could have been an absolute masterpiece.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy


I was a little disappointed with 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' as I had fond memories of it from 1989. It is still pretty good, just not quite up to the standards of the first two stories of Season 25, although it is a significant improvement of 'Silver Nemesis'.

I think what I found mildly irritating was that the set-up of the story leads us to believe that a piece of intergalactic junk mail finds its way into the TARDIS and intrigues the Doctor enough to get them to go to Segonax to see it. Even if Ace clearly does not want to go because she's scared of clowns. However as the story plays out the implication is that this is the Seventh Doctor cleaning house again and is going after an enemy he's fought several times, 'The Gods of Ragnorok'. There's no explanation about what these creatures are. There's no explanation as to why they hijacked a pretty harmless hippy circus and turned it into a killing zone. Oh there's much talk of 'entertainment' but it is all a bit of a flimsy premise on which to hang the story really.

Yes, I'm aware there's a subtle satire on Doctor Who itself going on here. Gian Sammarco's Whizz Kid being a unsubtle piss take of a Doctor Who geek with his talk of 'not having seen it in the olden days but it was better then'. And perhaps you can take it further and see The Gods of Ragnorok themselves as the viewers with the Circus representing the BBC but all that gets us is an extra layer that amuses rather than adds anything to the plot.

However having said that this story does have an atmosphere of creepiness that works in its favour. The clowns truly are sinister, although they were created just to entertain by Bellboy (Christopher Guard). Bellboy may be the most tragic character in Doctor Who history. He's broken by what the Circus has become even before he discovers that Flower Child (Dee Sadler) has died. He's an emotional wreck. His memory has gone or been taken from him. He's played with absolute conviction by Christopher Guard to and his suicide at the hands of his own creations is truly desperate and sad.

It made me realise that if you hadn't balance out some of this story with the lighter stuff it would have been so dark and terrible as to be virtually unbroadcastable. So whilst Nord (Daniel Peacock), Whizz Kid and the Stallslady (a fantastically grumpy Peggy Mount) are all slightly silly in there own way they do cast a bit of light on the shadows.

After all this is a Circus where everyone's skills have become twisted. The Ringmaster (Ricco Ross) raps people to their doom, Flowerchilds kites have become hunters of the escaped and Ian Reddington's Chief Clown is the worst of them all. Both Bellboy and Deadbeat/Kingpin (Chris Jury) mention that he was a great clown once but now he's a terrifying figure and Reddington really makes the most out of the part. They had such high ideals and now they're fronting for a trio of murderous 'Gods'. How can that not be a tragedy? How can that not seem incredibly bleak?

So you add someone like Captain Cook (T P McKenna) who is an intergalactic explorer. He's played for laughs to start off with positioned as a crushing bore and a coward but all he's willing to sacrifice everything and everyone for a slice of power. The buffoon turns out to be a bastard. His companion, Mags (Jessica Martin) turns out to be a slavering werething from the planet Vulpana and for once the make-up is pretty good.

Sylvester isn't too bad in this. Good in the quiet moments, less good in the shouty ones and his walk away from the exploding Circus entrance is possibly one of the Doctor's coolest moments ever. Not a flinch. But I think it is Ace who is best in this. Frightened, but covering it up. Pushed into getting involved by the Doctor himself - a slight hint of cruelty there from the Seventh Doctor, especially if he's got this whole thing planned all along. In 'Silver Nemesis' he was suggesting she go back to the TARDIS in a concerned manner. Here he's one step away from making those 'cluck, cluck' noises kids make as part of playground taunts. It just does not feel quite right, although it will turn out to be a taster for Season 26, which is all about the Doctor's plans for Ace.

Season 25 has seen a deliberate attempt to reposition the Doctor as a darker, more mysterious figure. One with his own, alien motivations. Someone who might not be entirely trustworthy. It doesn't always work but it does make McCoy's Doctor more nuanced and interesting.

So in the end I enjoyed 'Greatest Show in the Galaxy' and it ain't bad but for me, after the heights of 'Remembrance of the Daleks' and 'The Happiness Patrol' it feels like a let down, but I wonder whether that is the fault of my cheating memory.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Silver Nemesis

It's the Cybermen. Boy, are they rubbish
So after magnificent stories Season 25 stutters with 'Silver Nemesis', which features a cunning plan by the Doctor to deal with one of his old foes once and for all using an old piece of Gallifreyan technology as bait. Yes, they've remade 'Remembrance of the Daleks' with Cybermen. The fact that no one seems to have noticed this is a black mark against Andrew Cartmel, the script-editor and JNT, the Producer.

It wouldn't have mattered quite so much if 'Silver Nemesis' had been as well-made as 'Remembrance of the Daleks' but it isn't. In fact it feels a bit half-arsed. Like a Season 24 script: under-prepared, ill-thought out and stuffed with pointless special guest performances from actors who don't know what programme they are appearing in.

Even Sylvester and Sophie are a bit off the beat in this one, which is a shame.

It isn't helped by the fact that the Cybermen in this story are the most pathetic bunch ever. They get out-manoeuvred and out-paced by a septuagenarian Nazi war criminal for heaven's sake. They're supposed to be emotionless killers but this lot are a musical number short of being the cast of 'Glee'. The Cyberleader is played with traditional fist into palm stylee by David Banks even shows a kind of smug pride when De Flores (Anton Differing) starts throwing Wagnerian compliments at them. Most insultingly not only does gold seem to kill them the mere presence of gold has them flapping about like drunks trying to fend off a wasp.

It's a sad decline for the Cybermen, particularly as this is their last story in Classic Who. I have said before that the Cybermen are generally get rubbish Doctor Who stories for one of the shows greatest villains. Compare their stories with Dalek stories? Where is the Cyber equivalent of 'Power of the Daleks' or 'Evil of the Daleks' or 'Genesis' or 'Remembrance'? As @TMDWP quite rightly pointed out on Twitter whilst we were discussing this story the best Cybermen stories generally become less interesting once the Cybermen actually appear. It's a shame as the idea of the Cybermen - they are us stripped of what makes us human - is a coldly terrifying one.

Unfortunately the humans in this story aren't particularly interesting. Lady Peinforte (Fiona Walker) isn't given much to do except like an aged Ophelia go quietly mad, which is the waste of a damn fine actress. Her companion Richard though is brilliantly played by Gerard Murphy. He's the only character in the whole thing that feels like a real human being.

There's De Flores (Anton Differing) and his gang of neo-Nazi's who have all the character of cardboard. Anton Differing was a regular player of Nazi's in film - he even plays the commentator in Escape to Victory for heaven's sake - but here he looks like he's only in this story for the pay cheque. It's as if the production team thought that cast Differing was enough as if we were all going to accept whatever performance he put in because of the history. If this was an echo of 'Remembrance of the Daleks' themes it's a pretty weak and unsubtle one.

Then there's all the padding. This is a three part story and there's so much padding it could be a six part Pertwee story: what's the point of the two stupid skinheads, of American tourist Mrs Remington (Dolores Grey) or of all the sitting about in the countryside?

I do like Ace's battle against the Cybermen in the final episode, which is well-directed. I do like the little scene when Ace confesses how scared she is to the Doctor, I do like Richard...but after that I'm struggling. This has too many characters behaving in stupid ways. It's a mess.

And the Cybermen are rubbish.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Happiness Patrol

The Kandyman - mad, bad & possibly a copyright violation
I bloody love The Happiness Patrol.

I love the fact that the sets look like sets for a reason. Terra Alpha is an artificial paradise. Of course it does not look right.

I love the fact that it is a satire of all that Thatcherite 'family values' guff that we had to put up with throughout the 1980s and which are making a comeback under the new cuddly Cameronite Tory Party. This is driven home by Sheila Hancock channeling Thatcher herself as Helen A. Helen A just wants the best for her people but the ungrateful lot insist on being unhappy. Of course it is their fault, not hers. She's strong, she's disciplined but like Thatcher herself there were tears at the end. Helen A's tears are for Fifi, the small yappy-type dog gone psycho. The one thing she loves. She can cope with Joseph C (a laconic Ronald Fraser) doing a runner but it is Fifi's death that gets the tears flowing. Unhappiness has prevailed.

I love the pink TARDIS.

I love the music. I love the use of the blues as a metaphor for comfortable melancholy.

I love that the silly guns, the silly costumes and artificiality covers a genuine nastiness. The pretense that if you cover something with a coat of pink paint it can't be threatening.

I love the Priscilla P (Rachel Bell) and Daisy K (Georgina Hale) even if they are murderous thugs. I love Harold Innocent's Gilbert M who with his whinging and complaining is a perfect illustration of the banality of evil. You can bet that the offices of the Gestapo and the KGB were filled with the same kind of petty complaints whilst they overlooked the reality of what they were doing. Which is why I love Susan Q (Lesley Dunlop) who is a member of the Happiness Patrol who has realised that she can no longer ignore what she is doing.

I love the Kandyman in all his Bertie Bassett glory. With his squeaky, petulant, childish voice. Yes, it might seem silly but why not? Doctor Who has often squeezed darkness out of harmless looking stuff: school boys, cuddly toys etc. Why not a walking, talking sweet. There's no explanation about what he 'really' is but do we have to have all the i's dotted and t's crossed to enjoy something. Here's a cheer for gaps and untied loose ends.

I love the Kafkaesque logic of the Happiness Patrol that means they kill Silas P - who is an undercover member of the Happiness Patrol - because he looks unhappy when they stumble upon him but can't bring themselves to kill the Doctor and the Drones at the end because they're HAPPY.

I love the fact that you can say this story has depths. That it can be about how society treats its minorities. It's a story that could only have come out of the nineteen-eighties but has a resonance even now. For killjoys read...gay people, black people, immigrants...pick your minority.

I love Sophie Aldred. I love the fact that Ace hates everything that the Happiness Patrol stands for, that she reacts with genuine anger when poor old Harold V (Tim Barker channeling Deputy Dawg) gets killed and Priscilla P starts making James Bond style jokes afterwards. I love her awkward grumpiness. I love her line about wanting to make them very, very unhappy.

I love the fact that this is the Doctor being proactive again and showing a ruthlessness that he hasn't shown before as he basically topples an empire in one night. I love Sylvester in this story. He gets so many great scenes but the two that stand out for me is his disarming of the snipers with a combination of words and moral force: "look me in the eye, end my life."

But I also like the finality of his "It's done" whilst he watches Helen A break down over Fifi's body. There's a link between this story and Vincent and the Doctor as an illustration that happiness without sadness is meaningless, that every life consists of both. This and Remembrance of the Daleks prove that whatever a certain kind of fan mythology might have you believe Sylvester McCoy is a bloody good Doctor.

I love that this is a story about ideas and politics. That it isn't just monsters v the Doctor. This is about what we - as human beings - are capable of. The 'disappearances', the bureaucratic blindness - willing or unwilling - illustrated by John Normington's Trevor Sigma; the fear; the propaganda, the courage, the resistance and the depth.

I love the fact that it isn't perfect but its imperfections are irrelevant.

I love the whole blessed thing.

So sue me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Remembrance of the Daleks

The Seventh Doctor & Friends
Well. Where the hell did that come from? After Season 24 you could be forgiven for expecting Season 25 not to be up to much. I know that I felt a sense of 'duty' about watching it but from that pre-credit sequence onwards you know things have changed.

There's no silly special guest appearances from inappropriate celebs. Every guest fits there parts to perfection: Pamela Salem as Dr Rachel Jensen who is Chief Scientific advisor to Group Captain 'Chunky' Gilmore (Simon Williams) are the two main 'guests' but able support comes from Dursley McLinden as Sgt Mike Smith - whose revelation as a traitor gives Sophie Aldred an exceptional scene. Other good support comes from Karen Gledhill as Allison and George Sewell as Ratcliffe, the British fascist.

There's no Bonnie Langford, which means Sophie Aldred is free to bring Ace properly to life and lose some of the slightly irritating qualities we saw in 'Dragonfire' and there are less 'wickeds' here. Sophie and Sylvester (or Ace and the Seventh Doctor) have a brilliant chemistry and I think they're one of the best Doctor - Companion relationships in the series history. The aforementioned scenes with Mike are both fantastic. As is the scene when she - encouraged by the Doctor - explains why there are two factions of Daleks. It's so naturalistic it comes as something of a shock post-Langford.

Then there is McCoy himself. Here given a quality script and quality direction he is absolutely mint. For once the Doctor is proactive, rather than reactive. Here is the first attempt to return some mystery to the Doctor's character. Here is the Doctor ruthlessly destroying Skaro in order to end the Dalek menace once and for all.

McCoy is pretty convincing, especially in the smaller, quieter scenes: his discussion with Ace on the school steps; the 'sugar' conversation in the caff and the scene when he collects the coffin/Hand of Omega from the undertakers. I find that the more famous speech when he confronts Davros works slightly less well because McCoy is less convincing once he raises his voice. But for me the most Doctor-ish moment is in Part One when he just says 'Humans'. That's all.

It's a brilliant script by Ben Aaronovitch, which uses the Daleks to make points about racism and fascism whilst having a pretty straightforward plot told in a straightforward way. It also uses continuity in the right way. Yes, this story has loads of references to 'An Unearthly Child' but you don't need to be drowning in Doctor Who geekdom to follow the story. Compare and contrast how continuity is used in Remembrance with how it is used (or abused) in Attack of the Cybermen. It's a lesson for all future Doctor Who writers to take on board. Continuity adds depth but use it lightly.

It also features - at the end of Part One - the best cliffhanger for bloody ages. The Doctor stumbles, Ace is beaten up & a Dalek rises up the stairs to kill the Doctor. Yes, the exterminates go on a bit too long but sod it that's how to do a bloody cliffhanger.

It is aided by Andrew Morgan's fantastic direction. It is paced to perfection. It looks great to. As if someone somewhere actually decided to spend some cash - and time - on a Doctor Who story for a change. And it's got Michael Sheard in it for heaven's sake. How can you not love it?

This was the story that restored my jaded faith in Doctor Who and it was the story that - during the long, long hiatus - allowed me to keep saying to those of little faith that one day it would come back. O yes. If you are one of those people that has avoided Sylvester McCoy's era because you've swallowed the myth that it is all terrible then I'd start with this. It's effectively a total re-boot of the series. It's New Who before Russell T Davies. Ace is just Rose with worse dress sense and more explosives.

It's one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time: an ideal combination of script, performances, 'history' and direction and a total blast of wonderfulness to drown out memories of Season 24. Watch it. Watch it now.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Dragonfire

Hello Ace, Goodbye Mel

So, Season 24 ends on something of a high with 'Dragonfire'. It isn't perfect but by the standards of Season 24 it is a masterpiece. I know mocking Season 24 is like shooting fish in a particularly small barrel but it is not Doctor Who's finest hour.

I don't blame Sylvester McCoy for this. I like his Doctor so far. He is capable of doing good stuff when given the right material. The end sequence when he's saying farewell to Mel and inviting Ace on board the TARDIS is perfectly pitched. As is his final confrontation with Kane (Edward Peel). Yes, there's a little too much slipping and sliding about in this story and yes, the cliffhanger at the end of part one is the stupidest in the show's history but apart from that, I think he's pretty good. Also, as I said a couple of stories back, McCoy shows the Doctor's mind working. You can see him think. I like that.

Dragonfire sees the departure of Bonnie Langford as Mel and her replacement with Sophie Aldred as Ace. I have said all I intend to about Bonnie Langford but she is not too bad in this. A little-toned down and a little sidelined if truth be told. Sophie, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. Whilst there are some slightly off moments and the 'down with the kids' style slang can be a bit wearing she does a fine job. Here's a companion with a bit of depth. A woman with issues. She's not easily cowed, carries homemade explosives in her bag and does a fine line in minor verbals. We will see how she works out but already she feels more in sync with McCoy's Doctor than Mel ever did.

It's nice to see Tony Selby return as Sabalom Glitz even if - once again - he's an odd character tonally. It's all banter and bluster on the one hand but then we discover he's sold his crew to Kane. It is a bit thrown away really and although initially, the Doctor seems to disapprove it doesn't take long before he's wheedled himself back into the Doctor's good books. Although perhaps leaving him in Mel's company at the end is the Doctor's punishment. It isn't the most convincing of reasons for Mel's departure and you'd expect Glitz to dump her on the nearest planet he can. But Selby's performance is as entertaining as it was in Trial.

I also liked Edward Peel's portrayal of Kane. The villain as the romantic anti-hero. He's nasty, ruthless and fixated on revenge for his exile and his lover's death. The perfect illustration perhaps of revenge as a dish served cold. The scene where he tries to convince Ace to take his coin and join the ranks of his mercenary army is chilling. No pun intended. It's made more effective by the fact that Ace's possible fate is foreshadowed by Belazs's (Patricia Quinn) story.

There's not much of a plot: ice-cold villain seeks to escape from prison in order to wreak his rewenge on those who put him on Iceworld. The Doctor and Mel just happen to stumble into the end game.

Iceworld itself isn't the most convincing of places. It's either half-supermarket, half-studio or an impressive collection of plastic disguised as ice. The 'Dragon' itself is from the school of 'man in a costume' Doctor Who beasties. Actually, the gigantic hole in the plot of this story is quite why it takes Kane three thousand years to get around to hunting down the 'Dragon' in order to escape. Especially as it seems pretty straightforward a task.

My biggest quibble with this story is the cute child sub-plot. Why? And did the child really need to be a Bonnie Langford mini-me? That final shot of the whole story is vomitously twee. The whole sub-plot could be removed from the story and it would make not a jot of difference. In fact, it would positively improve the story.

So not a bad story that ends Season 24 with a glimmer of hope. Imagine how you'd feel if Delta and the Bannermen was the last story of the season.

Notes from Re-watch 

OK. so this isn't as good as I felt about it here. In fact - actually, it's not 'in fact' but 'in my opinion' - I'd say it is with Delta and the Bannermen my least favourite story of Season 24. And for similar reasons: it's a tonal mess. In broader terms, my first line here is an unnecessary bit of snark. Season 24 isn't great but it is - mostly - fun, which is what I ask from a Doctor Who story. Yes, the production values are a bit shaky, but when has that put us off before? Yes, I think this is a production team struggling to find their way. However, they're getting there.

Sylvester has been mostly excellent too. In this story, I like the fact that he's excited by the prospect of Dragons and Treasure Hunts. I mentioned his scene with Kane at the end, which I liked. It's a glimpse at a more ruthless Doctor. He knows he has the knowledge to break Kane and isn't afraid to do it. There's no gentleness there. It's a knife in Kane's heart.

I think I'd still stand by my comments on Bonnie/Mel and Sophie/Ace here. I wrote this original blog in 2011. I don't know if I'd write 'a women with issues' in quite the same manner now. Quite why Mel goes off with Glitz I can't quite know but I like the idea that having graduated to being arrested and chucking explosives about she's decided the time has come to let herself off the leash.

Also, on this re-watch, I have more of an issue with Glitz. This issue touches on the tone of the story. We first met Glitz again shortly after we discover he's sold his crew into slavery. Or worse than slavery as it turns out. Yet, we're supposed to see him just as a sort of intergalactic Arthur Daley. He threatens to smack Ace in the face at one point. He's a terrible human being, but somehow we're supposed to shrug all of that off. That's nothing to do with Selby's performance, which is great.

Edward Peel is great as Kane but once again Kane's an issue for the stories tone. He's genuinely nasty. He's a mass murderer. The explosion of the Nosferatu with everyone fleeing the store on board is horrible and, I'd argue, unnecessary. Meanwhile, here we go romping around the corridors of a prison/supermarket. Plus additional saccharine hideousness as the result of an annoying child actor. God, that child annoyed me this time around. And her mother. Who wonders in at the end blissfully unaware that everyone else is dead. Almost. Even now I'm cringing.

However, perhaps only Doctor Who would do a story where an imprisoned mass murderer and thief sets himself up as a supermarket magnate whilst he searches high and low for the key to his escape. The fact it took him three thousand years to escape probably makes more sense when you take into account the difficulties of running a small retail business in a competitive universe. It doesn't make much sense but it is very Doctor Who.

So, whilst I didn't enjoy this as much as I did when I blogged about it initially it wasn't awful. Mostly. I have had fun re-watching Season 24, which I really didn't expect to say. I'm going to do a separate blog on the Season as a whole I think as I feel like I have 'things to say' about it. So, don't get too excited now.




Sunday, December 4, 2011

Delta and The Bannermen

The Doctor, Burton & Mel flee from Keff McCulloch

I'm sorry but that was pretty poor.*

I'm not sure what was worse: the script, most of the performances or Keff McCulloch's bloody soundtrack.

Filmed on locations - in quarries, car parks and at a holiday camp - it does at least avoid looking staggeringly cheap but I really found it to be the worst story of Season 24 so far, which in some people's eyes would probably make it the worst Doctor Who story ever.

In its favour, you have a nicely enigmatic performance from Hugh Lloyd as Geronwy, the Welsh beekeeper. Enigmatic enough for people to think there might be something of the Time Lord about him. Perhaps like Sherlock Holmes an elderly Time Lord has retired to the countryside to keep bees. Whether he's a Time Lord or not it is a nice, unshowy performance.

Don Henderson - who I remember as Bulman more than anything else - is suitably grim and nasty as Gavrok, leader of the genocidal Bannermen but he does appear to have walked in from a darker and nastier story than this one as the rest of Delta doesn't really live up - or down - to the grimness of Gavrok.

This is one of the major problems with this story: tone. This is a story that begins with an attempted genocide. Even if it is genocide in a quarry. Whilst you can't expect Doctor Who to talk about genocide in the same tone as 'Schindler's List' the subject isn't really there to be used as a throwaway introduction to three episodes of hi-di-high jinks, a cross-species love story and some gratuitous zipping around on motorbikes.

Plus the Bannermen themselves are a pathetic bunch, apart from Gavrok with their tongues out 'roar' moment being a particularly embarrassing moment. You find yourself thinking, 'did I really see that'. And dismissing the whole thing hoping that you didn't. But you did. And the image will never leave you.

Delta (Belinda Mayne) is supposed to be the last survivor of a race wiped out by an army led by Gavrok but such is the lack of urgency and care that it doesn't feel that big a deal. When Gavrok's men blow up the Navarino bus, killing everyone on board we're supposed to be upset. Mel tries to be. But it is such a throwaway moment it doesn't mean anything. The single ruthless murder of the likeable - if incompetent - pilot Murray (Johnny Dennis) might have made the point better.

However, this is 'just' a runaround with - to misquote an old Pertwee story - genocide as a sideshow.

There's supposed to be a love story between Delta and Billy (David Kinder) but that too doesn't work for me. Partly because the only chemistry between the two actors is pretty inert (mainly I'm afraid because of the woodenness of Kinder's performance.) and partly because it - like the bee/Chimeron comparisons - are laid on with a large, cheesy trowel.

They also manage to upset the rather lovely Ray (Sara Griffiths) in the process. Ray's supposed to get over this because of the gift of a motorbike and sidecar. Perhaps she doesn't love him that much after all.

Maybe it is because it is only three episodes long but it feels under-worked. It is the first draft that due to desperation - or lack of care - got produced to fill in a gap.

I don't like being so down on this story because I like Sylvester's shot at the Doctor. Yes, he's less convincing when he does shouty stuff but I think that makes sense. The Doctor is always at his most impressive when making his threats quietly, rather than shouting and raving.

Sylvester is still finding his way a bit but there's some nice moments: his slight awkwardness when trying to comfort Ray and the scene with Billy where he says 'love isn't known for its rationality' for example.

I should also praise Richard Davies as Burton, who gives a solid performance as virtually the only 'ordinary' person in this story. His sword waving scene is wonderful. But on the other hand, you take an actor with the pedigree of Stubby Kaye and waste him in a minor role like Weismuller. Or you hire Ken Dodd and just get him to Dodd about a bit before bumping him off. It's pretty poor use of good talent.

Perhaps that is why I don't like this story. It feels like a wasted opportunity and that inside Delta and the Bannermen is a good story struggling to get out. I reckon RTD might have been able to do it. It does feel like the poor first draft of one of his more 'rompy' stories.

*Re-watch Notes
I stand by most of the above, although I enjoyed it much more on this re-watch. Some positives I should add include Bonnie Langford being good & Mel being given the best outfit she will wear all season. Sara Griffiths as Ray is excellent also & I found myself wondering how Season 24/25/26 would have panned out with her as a companion and not Ace. I give Keff's music a bit of a kicking above but actually, for most of this story, it works OK. It's also a pacy little story. It's three episodes flew by so I can't beat it up for that most unforgivable of Doctor Who sins: being boring.

Also, I think Sylvester is excellent in this story. I'm a bit faint praise in the first review but I think he's mostly fabulous in this. There are hints at him trying to bring something darker to his portrayal during his confrontation with Gavrok.

Fundamentally though this story fails because it is a total tonal mess. It's like someone made a film that's 'Son of Saul' intercut with the motorbike chase from 'The Great Escape'. You'd wonder what the hell they were playing at. O, and the relationship between Billy and Delta just really doesn't feel right. I alson found myself thinking if the green 'men' we see being massacred at the beginning of Part One are male Chimerons is that what Billy's going to end up looking like? And there was a disturbing thought in my head that if Chimeron Queen's are like Queen Bees then isn't Billy's job going to be mating with the new Chimeron Princess? Or does that Princess go off and form a colony of her own. If so how? If Billy's the only male they've got. And don't even get me started on the...Actually, I'll stop now. This is giving too much thought to something that really doesn't need that much thought.

To conclude: I enjoyed it, but it is still terrible.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Paradise Towers


Paradise Towers isn't too bad a story. It even sniffs around the borders of being pretty good*. The fundamental idea is a Doctor Who twist on J G Ballard's 'High Rise' but with added Richard Briers. There's a large, impressive Tower block rotting away and deep in its basement something unpleasant and hungry lurks. Into this stumble our heroes Mel and the Doctor.

The main problem with this story is that it is unbalanced by two performances. The first is Bonnie Langford's. I'm trying not to repeat tired cliches about Bonnie Langford. I'm going to blame - as I did back in the Trial blog - the team that created Mel in the first place and seemed content to make her a caricature of how Bonnie Langford is perceived to be. As a result, she's over-enthusiastic and over-theatrical. She's asked to do too much screaming and not enough acting.  Accordingly played with Sylvester's quieter and more naturalistic Doctor she jars. Sorry, Bonnie. It doesn't help that in 'Paradise Towers' Mel seems both stupid and irrationally focused on going for a flipping swim.

In my head, I have this idea that in an alternative universe they still cast Bonnie but they made Mel a stronger character and gave her some proper guidance or direction. That alt-universe Mel doesn't get the same flak as the one in our universe. But enough of my weird theories.

The other odd performance is Richard Briers. Richard Briers is a bloody good actor and there are moments in 'Paradise Towers' where he shows that, especially when he's playing the rule-bound, still alive Chief Caretaker. Where I think it goes wrong is when he's playing the zombified, taken over by Kroagnon Chief Caretaker. At that point, he seems to be channelling one of Monty Python's Gumbys with all the subtlety and lack of threat that implies. To me, it looks like over-acting. And it doesn't make for a memorable villain.

That being said I like the society of Paradise Towers with its Kangs, Rezzies and Caretakers. The Kangs - called things like Bin Liner, Fire Escape etc - are divided into gangs. There's Red, Blue and Yellow (although the last Yellow Kang bits the dust pretty early on) Kangs. They've got slang and attitude. I like the slang stuff. It makes Paradise Towers seem a more real place.

Elizabeth Spriggs and Brenda Bruce make Tabby and Tilda, two ostensibly sweet old ladies magnificently sinister, although Mel seems a rather skinny thing for them to be so excited about. Clive Merrison as the Deputy Chief Caretaker manages to underplay his part in contrast to Richard Briers and is all the better for it. One of my favourite scenes in the whole story is the Seventh Doctor's use of the Deputy-Caretaker's rulebook to out-manoeuvre his captors and escape.

Mention should be made of Howard Cooke who plays Pex. Pex is the one resident of Paradise Towers who doesn't really fit in. He's a coward who hid aboard a transport to Paradise Towers rather than accept his military service and pretends to be a heroic protector of the other occupants of the Tower. This pretence mainly seems to be aimed at himself as the rest of the population of the Tower seems to mock him. In the case of the Kangs directly to his face. Calling him a 'cowardly cutlet'. In chorus.

I've always found bullying gangs of chanting girls pretty sinister and there's a lot of that in 'Paradise Towers', mainly aimed at Pex. But in the end, Pex dies a hero's death and all is well with the Doctor Who universe. Oddly I felt a weird parallel between the way Pex is effectively bullied and shamed into being a martyr and the scene between Ian and the Thals in The Daleks where Ian demonstrates that despite their claims of pacifism there are some things that they will fight for. I know I'm taking this far to seriously but I feel a bit uncomfortable about the way Pex is treated in this story. It doesn't feel very Doctor Who-ish even if it seems heroic.

However despite my complaints, this isn't a bad story, it just isn't a great one. I hadn't watched it since the first broadcast back in 1987 so it was nice to have a few memories dusted off. I can't see myself rushing to watch it again soon.

Build high for happiness.

*Notes from 27/11/17 re-watch

So, having re-watched this I'm going to change some of the above. Firstly, Paradise Towers is actually a good story. Yes, there are issues re. production values, particularly the Cleaners. Alas, too many actors are reduced to throwing themselves at claws to make it look like the Cleaners are armed with deadly weapons.

It is also slightly over-lit. It could be really creepy if the lighting was less bright in the corridors. The first two minutes of Part One, as the Yellow Kang gets made 'unalive' is genuinely disturbing.

I'm also harsh on Bonnie Langford here. Yes, she's quite theatrical but I think that's because no one in the production team seems to have noticed that Colin Baker has left and that Sylvester McCoy is trying to do something more dialled down. It's also because no one in the production team seems to have given any thought to Mel Bush's actual character beyond 'chirpy'. She isn't a bad actor. She's just got nothing to work with.

I still think Mel's obsession with swimming in the pool is borderline insane. I understand why she wants to get there as it is where she is supposed to meet the Doctor, but the desire to actually take a dip is bizarre, especially as she's just escaped death and seen people die. So, she's aware something terrible is happening but still wants to go for a swim. No. Please.

Also, Richard Briers isn't great in this, which is sad because he's really the only guest star that lets down the story. He's doing an 'it's just Doctor Who' performance and not taking it seriously, which means he looks totally 'off' in comparison with the rest of the cast. But it doesn't really get terrible until the final episode when he becomes the Kroagnon-Chief Caretaker. Then he just becomes a walking ham. It's annoying because this story is a couple of steps off of being a genuinely dark and creepy story. A genuinely terrifying Chief Caretaker in the final episode might have helped.

But the rest of the cast is rather good, which helps balance out the Briers problem. Also, I'd forgotten how good Sylvester McCoy is in this story. The way he runs rings around the Caretakers and their Rule Book should be a signature Seventh Doctor scene. You get the sense Sylvester is still trying to find his way to a performance he is happier with. Something dialled down and dark. He'll get there in the end but at the moment he's not really been allowed to.

So, to conclude notes from my re-watch Paradise Towers is an excellent story dented by a couple of performance issues and some traditional Classic Doctor Who production issues. I don't think I've changed my opinion quite so drastically on a story on re-watch.





Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Time and the Rani



So Colin Baker leaves in ugly BBC political circumstances and understandably refuses to do a regeneration and because there is no 'proper' regeneration Time and the Rani begins with Sylvester McCoy in a Colin Baker wig. It's not the best omen.

Time and the Rani, like Season 24 as a whole, has a poor reputation. There is some small justification for this. However, it isn't all bad. Yes, there is too much prat-falling, particularly in Part One. Yes, it is all very obviously a quarry and yes, Sylvester's costume is almost as distracting as Colin's was. Part of JNT's obsession with uniforms and question marks. The question mark jumper is just too much, although I do like the rest of the costume. If only JNT could have got over this question mark fixation.

However, my biggest issue is that this story takes the Rani who had the potential to be quite an interesting foil to the Doctor and turns her into a Master manque. Complete with a fiendishly complicated plan involving scientific gobbledygook and a penchant for pointless disguises.

So, even though I do enjoy Kate O'Mara's Bonnie Langford impression, it does make you wonder where she manages to get hold of an identical outfit to Mel's (including massive ginger wig) and WHY? Why bother disguising herself at all, except for our amusement. Anyway, it is fun in its own bizarre way. O'Mara even gets the bouncy walk right. But amusing impersonation does not a good Doctor Who story make.

The Rani's plan turns out to be creating a 'Time Manipulator' from the collective brain power of a series of geniuses gathered from across the Universe combined with exploding an asteroid filled with Strange Matter and blah-di-blad-di-blah. Oh, something called Loyhargil comes into play: as a light-weight alternative to Strange Matter, I think. Anyway, it gets the Rani pretty excited even if it is a huge steaming pile of Pip and Jane Baker nonsense. There are huge clunking chunks of exposition that just make me want to bang my head against the desk.

Then there's Keff McCulloch's music. It seems to be one of the prerogatives of old age to complain that background music in television is TOO LOUD. Certainly, at the time I didn't find Keff's contributions as irritating as I did this time around. They are about as subtle as a brick. On a couple of occasions, I found myself wishing it would stop. Or at least feel like it had something to do with what was happening in front of me.

Obviously being a new Doctor we get a new title sequence and theme tune. I don't mind this version of the theme tune. It's not my favourite but it is acceptable enough. The title sequence is OK except for the 'wink'. I didn't like this at the time and I think it undermind McCoy from the off.* (Plus I've found it vaguely disturbing since I heard it described by Tachyon TV - I think - as "McCoy's sex wink".)

What of McCoy himself? He does alright. He's better at the quieter more thoughtful stuff than he is at the shouty confrontational and I like the fact that you can see his Doctor thinking. Yes, some of the silly prat-falling in Part One seems designed to play up the comedy and you can see why that might have put people. However he seems to have enough Doctor-ish qualities to me at this point to pass muster. However, it is a toss-up between this and the Twin Dilemma for the worst introductory story for a new Doctor.

He isn't helped by Bonnie Langford who seems to have gone up a notch in the theatrical stakes. Mel seems to be a character without any bass notes at all. It's like listening to the tish-tish-tish of someone else's headphones when sitting on the train. It's irritating but bizarrely hypnotic. The fundamental problem with Mel is that they haven't bothered to give her a proper character. Langford's a far better actress than Mel lets her demonstrate but they seem to have settled on making Mel just energetic and full of positivity, which helps no one.

There's not much else to say really. Wanda Ventham as Faroon and Donald Pickering as Beyus bring a much-needed dignity to proceedings. Pickering, in particular, does a fine job of imbuing Beyus - who is collaborating with the Rani in order to save his rather apathetic people, the Lakertyans - with a realisation of what he's become and gets a fine death to make up for it.

I also like Mark Greenstreet as Ikona**, apparently the only Lakertyan with any balls at all. His nicely sarcastic two-hander with Bonnie Langford is amusing and there's a dry line in cynicism throughout. Greenstreet also manages to make running at full pelt whilst dressed as a sort of fish-reptile-human escapee from a rather unsuccessful new romantic band look vaguely credible.

A small round of applause should also go to Richard Gauntlett as Urak, leader of the Tetraps. The Tetraps, who are the Rani's guards, are a kind of three-eyed bat-monkey hybrid. They're quite nicely designed if a tad obviously special effects driven when close-up. Urak is a cunning little bugger combining creepy brown-nosing, thuggish violence and a nice little plan of his own. It's nice for a minion to get one up on its chief.

So overall Time and The Rani ain't great but it is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests, although I might have been tempted to alter that opinion if there had been one more scene of Bonnie Langford screaming. It's entertaining if light-weight. However, it wasn't the best story with which to launch a new Doctor on an unsuspecting world.

This is the last time we see the Rani in the Doctor Who.*** Could you bring her back now that the Master is Missy? I think you could but I she needs to be a different character to the Master. In Time and the Rani she's just the Master in drag. But she could be a different character. She could be a man.

But I suspect we'll not see her again, although I could be wrong. I often am.


*The reason I didn't like the wink and still don't like the wink is that at this point in time being a Doctor Who fan wasn't going to earn you the admiration of your school friends. So, I was constantly on the defensive. It didn't matter then that I loved Season 17 partly for its wit and silliness. At this point, I wanted Doctor Who to be serious. In big, block capitals. SERIOUS. I didn't want pratfalls. I didn't want spoons and I absolutely and without a doubt did not want a wink in the title sequence, which might as well have been a large neon sign saying 'this programme is a joke.' And in 1987 when I was in my first year of O-Levels at an all-boys school that I loathed attending because, apart from a handful of boys who were my actual friends, the place was populated by bullies and tosspots. The last thing I wanted was for Doctor Who to be a joke. I needed it to be dark, serious and scary. I needed it to be SERIOUS. That's why I hated the wink. That's why it still annoys me now.

**Although there is a little part of me that thinks there's something of the fascist about Ikona's talk of people 'not being from here' and the Lakertyans desire to find their 'own solutions'. It reminded me of the end of The Space Museum in that respect. Perhaps Ikona isn't the best person to leave in charge of the planet despite his heroics.

***Yes, I know. I'm pretending it didn't happen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Saturday at The Who Shop


The Patient Centurion meets Michael Troughton



On Saturday I spent a couple of delightful hours at 'The Who Shop'

I was there to buy Michael Troughton's book about his father, Patrick Troughton [Info Here] and get it signed by the author himself. Michael turned out to be a lovely chap, much admired over here at Patient Centurion Mansions for playing Pier Fletcher-Dervish in 'The New Statesman'.

Due to a slight hiccup the signing started a bit late, which meant I spent an hour or so drifting around The Who Shop avoiding its many temptation. Or trying to avoid them anyway. I failed. A bit.

I picked up Elisabeth Sladen's autobiography, 'Blue Box Boy' by Matthew Waterhouse, Anneke Wills' autobiography(s) and a couple of Virgin New Adventures (which I have started to re-read, which is the fault of Jamie of The Terrible Zodin ). I managed to resist the siren call of various toys, even though the Colin Baker 'Blue Costume' figure was calling to me quietly each time I walk past it.

Several of the books I bought are published by Hirst Publishing - see the Patrick Troughton link - who seem to have cornered a niche in Doctor Who memoirs. I may review these at a later point if I can be arsed.

The Who Shop owners & staff were friendly and helpful and if you get a chance pop along & take a quick wander around their little Museum.

Tonight I'll be starting off Sylvester McCoy's era with 'Time and the Rani'.

As a guide to how this blog is likely to pan out in the future my current plan is as follows:

Watch & review McCoy's era
Watch & review McGann's TV Movie

Then to give a proper overview of McGann's Doctor I plan to listen to and review his Big Finish stories. I'll cut it off at some point & maybe review new ones as & when they are released.

Then it'll be back to television with a review of 'New Who' from Ecclestone to wherever we happen to be with Matt Smith. After that I suspect I'll do an ongoing review of new episodes as & when they are shown.

After that? Big Finish - the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Doctors? The Virgin New Adventures? Ongoing reviews of CD, DVD and TV releases? Retirement?

Whatever I decide the blog continues tonight with 'Time & the Rani.'

Friday, November 25, 2011

Trial of a Timelord



This is the first time I've watched Trial of a Timelord trying hard to think of it as one fourteen episode story, rather than four individual adventures. It helps. The courtroom scenes, which previously seemed rather tedious breaks between the action, now seemed more effective.

Colin Baker, Michael Jayston (The Valeyard) and Lynda Bellingham (The Inquisitor) give strong performances to. Bellingham can be sympathetic but icey by turn. Jayston has a certain acid charm that makes The Valeyard more than a cardbord cut out pseudo-Master. Whilst some of the initial 'banter' between the Doctor and The Valeyard verges on the tedious Colin Baker does excellent work in the Court. His reactions to Peri's death for example feel right.

Viewing it as one adventure also means that 'Mindwarp', which I loathed on last viewing and still think is the weakest segment of the Trial, made me less annoyed this time around. Colin Baker has spoken of his difficulties with 'Mindwarp' because he didn't know whether the Doctor's unsympathetic behaviour was the result of the Mentor's machine; Matrix fakery or if it was a ruse on the Doctor's part. This 'nasty' Doctor bullying Peri seems like a retrograde step to me and the whole story aggravates me. It still does a bit but viewed as part of the Trial it seems Matrix fakery is a likely explaination, even if it isn't explicitely stated. The problem is this is not the time to be making the Doctor unsympathetic. The BBC wants to cancel your programme for heaven's sake so try and make an effort someone.

With it seen as one adventure there's also the benefit of seeing a conspiracy gradually unmasked. The Doctor's stumbling upon Ravalox - aka The Earth - leads to a panic amongst the High Council. It was they who shifted the Earth (and its solar system apparently) a couple of light years across the Universe in order to prevent the Matrix's secrets being stolen and the Doctor's arrival provides them with both a problem and a solution. The organise a Trial, set up The Valeyard to prosecute and hope the Doctor can be silenced: permenantly or otherwise.

The Valeyard is a problem though. In the final two episodes it is revealed - by The Master amusingly enough - that the Valeyard is The Doctor. An amalgamation of the Doctor's dark side cobbled together somewhere between his twelth and final regeneration. But how? By whom? Why? The Valeyard wants the Doctor dead so he can claim his future regenerations so he can be unencumbered by his 'spurious morality' I assume. How does that work without ripping up the web of time precisely? In fact how does bringing back a future Doctor through Gallifrey's timeline work in relation to THE LAWS OF TIME? The Valeyard is a pitch idea: 'What if the Doctor went evil?' It is the detail that is a bit ragged.

Enough of my idle waffle what of the story? We begin with a fantastic special effects sequence as the TARDIS is dragged to a space station. I'm not sure why a space station & not Gallifrey itself. Perhaps someone forgot to book a meeting room. Anyway the wonder of that special effects sequence is immediately bought crashing to - er - Earth by the flat, white & brown set into which the TARDIS materialises. We are obviously in that period of Gallifreyan history where they outsourced their interior design to those people who design sattelitte offices for major corporations.

Once the Trial is up & running it turns out that the format will involve us - and the Timelords - watching a number of the Doctor's adventures unfolding on a big screen via the magic of the Matrix (TM). Occassionally it will be interrupted for The Doctor and the Valeyard to snark at each other whilst The Inquisitor referees. You've almost got a DVD commentary on 'Trial' before you start. Our first 'episodic segment' is 'The Mysterious Planet'.

'The Mysterious Planet' is a bog standard Doctor Who story. Not great but not terrible. The Doctor & Peri (who has a new haircut & sensible costume) are much friendlier than in the previous season and I think it helps that Nicola Bryant seems to have become much more comfortable with the role.

There's a fun guest appearance by Joan Sims as the 'Warrior Queen' Katryca, who is doomed to meet a pointless and sticky end.

Tom Chadbon - last seen as the punch-happy Duggan in 'The City of Death' - does a fine job as Merdeen. Initially looking like 'The Immortals' chief henchman it turns out he's been syphoning people out of the Underground & up to the surface. It is nice to see him take a few moments to regret having to kill Grell (Timothy Walker) rather than just do the usual kill & move on.

Also putting in a nice, understated performance is Adam Blackwood as Baltazar, reader of the Sacred Books. The way he says "H M Stationary Office' with reverence is comic loveliness.


Stealing the show though is Tony Selby as Sabalom Glitz, an inter-galactic wide boy on a mission to nick some mysterious 'secrets'. He's accompanied by the slightly dim Dibber. The relationship between the two is realistically male. The Sixth Doctor & Glitz make an amusingly spikey pair. Glitz clearly can't be trusted not to sell his own grandmother. There's hints that all the amusing bluster hides a darker Glitz. After all Glitz and Dibber seemed happily intent upon murdering the Doctor at the beginning of the story, but this isn't particularly expanded upon.

The one - or two - major irritants in this story are a pair of blonde fops called Humker (Billy McColl) and Tundrell (Sion Tudor Owen). They're the Immortal aka Drathro's assistants & have no function except to provide some camp amusement & to irritate the Doctor. It is like having a pair of Adrics squabbling away.

With the end of 'The Mysterious Planet' the first inklings of a conspiracy are indicated. In the next story, 'Mindwarp' we start with the Doctor & Peri investigating an arms smuggling operation that has led them to Thoros Beta, which is home to the Mentors.

This means a return to the show for Nabil Shaban as Sil gurgling laugh and all. The Mentors Sil and Kiv (Christopher Ryan) along with Nicola Bryant are the best things in 'Mindwarp', which I have already indicated isn't a particular favourite of mine. There's lots of odd - if not poor - performances from various minor characters, which doesn't help much. There is an absolute clash of acting styles between Patrick Ryecart as Crozier & Brian Blessed as King Ycarnos. One all silky quietness, the other roaring about like a demented lion.

Much as I like Brian Blessed he is just a bit too Brian Blessed in this. He's so full on that everything else looks rather subdued and false by comparison. It's fun but it's too much and it makes the possibility of Peri settling down with him in happy matrimony seem ridiculous.


Having said all of that the last moments of this story when Peri 'dies' and her body is made a receptical for the mind of Kiv are amongst the most powerful in the whole of 'Trial of a Timelord'. Colin Baker's reactions are heartbreaking: a comination of guilt, anger and grief. Peri is dead. Her mind deleted by Crozier, her body zapped by Ycarnos. All part of the Timelord plan to stop Crozier's experiment from succeeding. Nicola Bryant is great in those last minutes.

And so, in the final installment, the Doctor goes forward to the future & 'Terror of the Vervoids'. He has a new companion, Melanie Bush played by Bonnie Langford.

Bonnie Langford gets a lot of flak, some of which is deserved and some of which isn't. She certainly more theatrical than television when it comes to acting styles and that relentless enthusiasm can set your teeth on edge but it isn't entirely her fault. Making Mel some kind of characture of how people imagine Bonnie Langford to be didn't help. It's as if JNT decided that have cast Bonnie he might as well get the most Bonnieness out of her. If they'd given Mel a proper background & personality & not just introduced her as a fait accompli things might have been different.

She's not bad in 'Terror' though. I think working with Colin who is - in his own way - a pretty theatrical actor balances out Bonnie Langford a bit and she drives much of the action in the early episodes.

'Terror of the Vervoids' itself is just a Agatha Christie murder mystery with added psychotic vegetables. It is a four episode McGuffin designed to set the Doctor up for a charge of genocide & his almost inevitable execution. It's not deep or difficult. It just is. I actually enjoyed it even though it was about as substantial as a bridge made of bubbles.

'Terror' moves swiftly in 'The Ultimate Foe' when the Doctor looks done in. The charge of genocide looks open & shut with the poor veggie Vervoids having been wintered to death as a result of The Doctor's plan but just when all looks lost Mel and Glitz arrive courtesy of...(drum roll please)...The Master. The Valeyard gets a bit paniced as The Master nudges everyone along, explaining huge chunks of plot & filling in explainations with a certain degree of smugness. Anthony Ainley does a lovely job of underplaying The Master's joy at getting one over on just about everybody, including The Doctor. For once - at least at the beginning - it looks like The Master plan is coming together nicely.

The Master blows The Valeyards secret. The Valeyard dashes into the Matrix (TM) followed by the Doctor. The scenes in the Matrix (TM) are suitably odd. I particularly like the Mr Popplewick (Geoffery Hughes) stuff. It's part Dickens, part Kafka and entirely Doctor Who.

Michael Jayston makes the Valeyard even more contemptuous of everyone else as his plans fall apart around him. The Valeyard isn't trying to kill two birds with one stone but several: get the Doctor; get the Time Lords; get the Master and get Glitz. This is a villain with big dreams. Unfortunately the Doctor spoils everything by puttig a sonic screwdriver in the works. Although not before Michael Jayston gets to utter one of Doctor Who's most ridiculous lines. "The catharsis of spurious morality" indeed. It sounds like someone has been force fed a dictionary.

So we end with the Valeyard dead, the Doctor triumphant and Gallifrey in turmoil. The Doctor sets off into the sunset with Mel - who he hasn't actually met yet - leaving The Inquisitor to sort out the mess...except that in traditional style it seems that somehow the Valeyard has escaped, although we never hear or see him again. (Although he'd have been a damn fine soldier for The Time War)

The last words we hear from The Sixth Doctor are "Carrott Juice, Carrott Juice...Carrott Juice". Unfortunately they were to be the Sixth Doctor's last words full stop. After 'Trial of a Timelord' the Beeb wanted him gone. Colin, angry at his treatment, refused to do a regeneration story and so the next time Doctor Who returned it would Sylvester McCoy.

Colin's treatment was atrocious, He carried the can for failings that were not his. As a Doctor Colin is pretty good. Given the right material & support he can be brilliant as Big Finish have shown. So sadly whilst 'Trial of a Timelord' does works - Mindwarp blip excepted - fundamentally Colin Baker is on the receiving end of a miscarriage of justice.





Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Birthday Doctor Who

It's 48 years since the first broadcast of Doctor Who today. But you all know that don't you. I recommend you all dig out a copy of 'An Unearthly Child' and watch the first part. If you don't have it, borrow it. It truely is a remarkable piece of television. I think it would be a remarkable piece of television regardless of the longevity of Doctor Who. Seriously. It's only 25-ish minutes long. A mere blip.

I completed my Starburst column draft on Tom Baker over the weekend and sent it off to the very lovely Jamie Beckwith (of Terrible Zodin fanzine fame) to proof read. In that column I explain a little of why Tom Baker is my Doctor so I will not dwell on that here.

What I thought I'd do, briefly is try and explain why I love Doctor Who enough that I'll bang on about it at any opportunity. Why I'm addicted to & a little in love with a children's television series.

In truth part of it is nostalgia. Doctor Who is the television equivalent of comfort food, at least to me. If I'm down, there are Doctor Who stories that will cheer me up however ridiculous and cheap looking they are now (or even then) - I'm looking at you 'The Horns of Nimon'. It works because it makes me feel like a kid again when I didn't have to worry about pay cheques, bills, work or any of that serious adult stuff. When it was me, my little brother and my Mum & Dad all together in front of the television. When I could be safely terrified by melty faced villains from the future; shape-shifting glowing things; glidy pepper pots with harsh electronic voices and all manner of the worst the universe had to offer.

That's part of it.

Another part of it is that it was fun and clever. The Doctor wasn't some gun wielding thug. The Doctor won by being cleverer than the people he was up against and he never gave up. Even when he looked beaten (or zapped or gassed or...) For a serious child the Doctor was a figure of anarchic joy doing a serious thing in an unserious manner. Defending space & time from the humourless and heartless with just his friends, his brains and a bit of luck.

Then there was the social stuff. As I got older I realised that there were people that loved Doctor Who as much as I did. There was Rick - then Richard - at school. He and I would share dodgy C60 audios of lost episodes so full of hiss you'd think they were recorded at a snake convention. Or ninth generation copies of old Pertwee stories that someone, somewhere had taped off of Australian television and that now were virtually unwatchable but we still watched them. And talked about them. A lot.

And it has been the same since, although with added alcohol. Wherever two or three are gathered together then talk may be of the UNIT dating controversy or why the Master is an idiot. Yes, it is rather bizarre that we can mine an old television programme for so much conversation and that we try to fill in the gaps where the production teams haven't told us or that we write our own stories but - and forgive the pun - who cares. We do it because we like doing it and for some of us - the RTDs, the Moffs and even David Tennant - it has become their job. Doctor Who made people want to be writers and actors. Through the Target novelisations it made us readers and opened the doors to other writing, other books.

There are other things I love about Doctor Who: the fact that it demonstrates that imagination is more important than money; that the Universe is a big and miraculous place; the arguements about continuity that matter even though they don't matter at all; the gadgets; the wonderful idea of the TARDIS in and of itself but in the end I like it because it is entertaining television. It's fun.