Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Caves of Androzani

Damn this is a fantastic story. You can even forgive it the lumbering, stumbling Magma Beast and its contribution to the only dud episode ending out of the four. It's the best send off the Fifth Doctor could have had and perhaps the best story of his entire era.

The direction by Graeme Harper is fantastic. The story moves with a drive rarely seen in Classic Who. It is no wonder Harper got the call to direct New Doctor Who. After all, this story could quite easily be a New Who story, particularly a David Tennant one except that in the end, the Doctor sacrifices his life not to save the Earth, the Galaxy or the Universe but to save a single person: Peri. It's summed up in that fantastic scene that turns into the cliffhanger to Part Three.

But this story is filled with great stuff and great performances. Maurice RoĆ«ves as Stotz, the Mercenary. A surprisingly gritty character that might be more at home in a series like Blakes Seven; John Normington as Trau Morgus the unacceptable face of capitalism playing both sides for maximum profit; Martin Cochrane as Chellak, who does a fine job channeling the military mind & gets one of the most unpleasant (off-screen) deaths in the programme's history; Robert Glenister as Salateen (and his android copy); Roy Holder as Krelper, the most whingy of mercenaries & constantly complaining whilst constantly being bullied by Stotz; Barbara Kinghorn as Timmin, who appears just to be Morgus's PA but ends up stitching him up magnificently as things spiral out of control towards the stories end.

Topping the guest stars off though is Christopher Gable as Sharaz Jek. Initially, Sharaz Jek looks like the first in what will be a long line of villains with a taste for Peri's looks and a bit of a Phantom of the Opera wannabe but there's depth to Sharaz Jek and self-awareness often missing from Doctor Who 'villains'. He is mad, he says so himself. His physical condition and his burning desire for revenge against Morgus have driven made him mad but he remembers being something else, something better. That's what Peri reminds him of. So it isn't lusting that makes him want to keep Peri his prisoner, it is a desire to be himself again. To enjoy life and beauty and love. There might be an element of snobbery there too. His disgust at having to deal with the 'dregs' of society is the whinging of an upper-class chap down on his luck. Nonetheless, Sharaz Jek is a sympathetic character & his reaction when Peri sees his face for the first time without the mask and she screams is heart-breaking.

Sharaz Jek isn't meant to be the real villain of the story anyway. That's Morgus, the capitalist willing to blow up an entire mine to solve an over-supply problem. A man whose only motive is the profit motive. Coldly shutting factories, killing politicians and generally behaving like a cold-hearted monster. Morgus betrayed Sharaz Jek and everything in this story is the result of that decision. Then the Doctor and Peri walk into the middle of things.

Nicola Bryant does a sterling job in this story giving Davison real support as things begin to end. It is a shame we never got to see more of them as a team - at least on television - as I think they work well together. She's got gumption has Peri.

But what of Peter Davison himself? Well, I've enjoyed his performance as The Doctor. I think sometimes Davison suffers from being between Bakers both of whom are much louder and theatrical than Davison. Davison is like the player in a football team who does the simple, boring stuff well but gets ignored because some of his teammates do the great stuff well some of the time. He's a very human Doctor and in a lot of ways the template for David Tennant's Doctor in my opinion. Davison is Tennant is slow-motion or - to get it the right way round - Tennant is Davison on fast-forward.

The Davison era also suffered from the BBC's growing lack of affection for Doctor Who & JNT's desire to please the hardcore fans of the series more than the general viewing public. Too often great ideas were let down by lack of time and money. There's some great Doctor Who during the Davison era: Castrovalva, Kinda, The Visitation, Earthshock, Snakedance, and Caves itself. There's some terrible stuff too Time-Flight; Arc of Infinity; The Kings' Demons; Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks. But through it all, I think Davison does an unappreciated excellent job. At least, in this story, he gets the farewell he deserves and probably the best regeneration story in the series history as well as a memorable and moving regeneration sequence.

So Farewell Peter Davison and thank you...hello Colin Baker.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Planet of Fire

Planet of Fire is a busy little story, isn't it? The writer Peter Grimwade has to introduce Peri (Nicola Bryant) as the new companion, write out Turlough (Mark Strickson); eliminate Kamelion, dispatch Anthony Ainley's version of The Master AND put together a story that works. The fact that Planet of Fire is enjoyable, if flawed, is something of a tribute to Grimwade's abilities.

Let us start with the flaws: Dallas Adams's performance as Peri's stepfather Howard (in both his 'real' and Kamelionised forms) is pretty wooden and Edward Highmore as Malkon, 'the Chosen One' reflects some of his inexperience as an actor. There's also some terrifically hamtastic face-pulling being done by the silent supporting actors playing the Elders of Sarn, which undermines their authority somewhat. It is no wonder Sarn is packed full of heretics if that lot are the best leaders the place provides. I'd be a bit cynical about Logar if I was being ordered about by a gang of pudgy middle-aged men with over-theatrical responses to everything going on around them.

The exception to that is Peter Wyngarde as Timinov, the Chief Elder and Logar's best believer. Wyngarde invests him with a combination of dignity and disappointment that is quite winning. Timinov's decision to die on Sarn rather than leave for Trion in the rescue ship is quite movingly done, especially as arch-skeptic Amyand (played with heroic straight-forwardness by James Bate) makes an attempt to convince him by using Timinov's faith. It's a nice moment and in an odd way reminds me of the scene between President Bartlett and Father Tom Cavanagh at the end of the 'Take This Sabbath Day' in Season One of the West Wing where Father Cavanagh tells the story about the believer that ends with the line: "I sent you a radio message, a boat, and a helicopter what are you doing here."

The decision to use Lanzerote as both itself and Sarn seems a good one but only makes the studio sets look conspicuously small and artificial. The Master's TARDIS in 'column' form looks particularly lightweight for example. But the volcanic island serves well as an alien planet and certainly makes something of a change from Buckinghamshire quarries. It also looks stunning when we first see the wreckage of the Trion ship across an expanse of volcanic sand and rock.

Nicola Bryant does a good job in her first story as Peri. It's well-known that the decision to make Peri American - like the decision to make Tegan an Australian - was made by JNT to pander to a possible export market for Doctor Who. Thus missing the point that one of Doctor Who's selling points is its Englishness in a world of American science-fiction franchises. Nicola Bryant is English of course. But hey ho. Her American accent stands up to my basic scrutiny pretty much most of the time. I could here go on about how much Peri's bikini scene affected this - then - thirteen-year-old boy but I suspect that will freak you out. Nicola Bryant will go on to be put in some of Doctor Who's most revealing outfits, which generally make little sense when clambering about the universe and the bikini probably tops the list. However, it does make sense for her to be wearing it. She's about to go swimming and the shots of her in it don't have quite the lecherous quality that the introduction of Mary Tamm as Romana I seems to have. There are moments when you can tell Bryant isn't the world's most experienced actor but she's a bit of a breath of fresh air. Maybe it is enthusiasm.

Then we come to Anthony Ainley's apparently last stint as the Master. I do like the cliffhanger that reveals the miniature Master in his little control box that explains why he's going to such complicated lengths to get Kamelion to 'the contact point'. There's something quite interesting about the Master being in peril but still having the balls to try and bully Peri into helping him once the truth of his situation becomes obvious. The Master's end is a nasty one and I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with the Doctor just standing and watching. Even if he CAN'T do anything I think he would TRY. Doing nothing is not very Doctor-ish in my view.

Whether the Master will return and how his survival will be explained is - of course - for us to find out at another time. [Pretends never to have seen a Doctor Who episode after this one EVER]

Despite its busyness, the story still tries to find time to have a debate about faith, doubt and about how myths and history can sometimes end up being the same thing but squeezed between the fundamental needs of an adventure series all that high falutin' stuff gets a bit lost but the previously mentioned Amyand - Timinov scene makes a good stab at it.

It's not a bad story this one despite probably having too much going on. It works better than it should in all honesty and brings us virtually to the end of the Peter Davison era.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Resurrection of the Daleks

It took me a long time to get around to watching the second episode of this story. I am not entirely sure why but I suspect, to steal Tegan's virtually last words, it stopped being fun.

This is one of a handful of stories where the Doctor's victory feels like defeat. From the beginning of the first episode, people die.  They die in groups and they die alone. They die by bullet, laser, Dalek and poisonous gas. They die quickly and quietly; they die slowly and screaming. The humans die; their duplicates die. Mercenaries die and Daleks die. Bad people die and good people die. If in 'The Doctor Dances' everybody lives; in Resurrection of the Daleks (almost) everybody dies.

The result is you almost don't notice the plot because every time it starts to get rolling someone dies. It's a trap for the Doctor as the first step in a Dalek plan to do something unpleasant to Gallifrey, an attempt to invade the Earth, a daring Dalek attempt to rescue Davros from his Space Station prison and a desperate throw of the dice by a defeated Dalek race losing a war to the Movellans (who suddenly remembered that the Daleks have an organic content and have created a rather nasty shaving foam creating a virus that has been wiping out the Daleks). The Daleks need Davros to save them having failed, despite their advanced technology, to add virology, genetics and Dalek medicine to their programming.

Reduced in numbers and looking a little battered they have been forced to team up with a bunch of mercenaries led by Lytton (Maurice Colborne). Lytton is a ruthless bastard who seems to have agreed to work for the Daleks either for money OR because he and his men have some kind of uniform fetish. Quite why they are required to wear Dalek eye-stalk helmets as part of the deal is clearly above my pay grade.

The cast - in general - is pretty good, if wasted a bit: Rula Lenska as the cynical and weary Styles; Del Henney as Colonel Archer (a Brigadier substitute of sorts); Jim Findley as Mercer and Chloe Ashcroft as the pointless Professor Laird. But two special mentions should be made.

First of Leslie Grantham's - Dirty Den to be - as Kiston. He doesn't get much to do, being mind-controlled by Davros, but he certainly lurks with effective menace.

Second is Rodney Bewes as Stein. We've seen with the casting of Beryl Reid in Earthshock that sometimes odd casting works. Sometimes. This time it doesn't. He's not helped by some of the terrible lines he is forced to speak but that does not really excuse weird line readings.

O and Terry Malloy in his first stint as Davros. The scenes with him and The Doctor shine out amongst some of the dross surrounding it. Particularly scenes of Dalek's lecturing each other about loyalty and all the dying.

Finally, this is Janet Fielding's last story as Tegan. I loved Tegan back in the day but I suspect that was less to do with the part and more to do with being a young man of a certain age confronted by an attractive woman in a leather mini-skirt*. Now I still like her but less so. She's given to whinging too much to the point at which you just wonder why she bothers to stay onboard the TARDIS but when she's good: in Kinda and Snakedance particularly she is very, very good. I'll miss her I think. Her leaving scene is pretty effective too, even if it just adds a final touch of misery to a story filled with grime and grimness. Perhaps we should be thankful she wasn't killed. Twice.

In the end, this story just depresses me and once again I must steal Tegan's words: "Too many good people died today." They do and I didn't enjoy it much.

*I meant to mention Tegan's change of outfit in the last story. It's a symptom of JNT's blinkers. His opinion that the women are there to keep the Dad's (and hetro boys of a certain age) means that he abandons common sense for "sexiness". Tegan's been with the Doctor long enough NOT to choose a leather mini-skirt and high heels. What next? The assistant in a bikini?