Monday, March 31, 2014

A Christmas Carol

I think A Christmas Carol is my favorite Doctor Who Christmas Special so far. Obviously, it's a Doctor Whoified version of Dicken's original story but deliberately so. The Doctor needs to save 4,003 people and the best way of doing that is to go all 'Ghost of Christmas Past' on Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon). I think you'd call it meta if you were that way inclined. Fortunately, I'm not.

Like most Doctor Who Christmas specials it has that extra layer of Fromage, which I normally find a little too much for my slightly bitter and twisted palette, but this time doesn't irritate the hell out of me. Like it often does.

Yes, there's a certain amount of silliness - the shark-rickshaw fly by I'm looking at you - but it is a very specific kind of Doctor Who silliness. After all in what other programme would you see Katherine Jenkins singing 'In The Bleak Midwinter' to a shark. None. Not one. I've said before I have a high tolerance for silliness in Doctor Who - after all, I adore The Happiness Patrol - as long as it fits the vibe of the story and this does even if the shark-rickshaw skirts very close to the edge and stumbles over to stupidity. I suspect it is the sort of thing people with lower tolerance levels than I would disapprove of.

As might Katherine Jenkins be. She plays Abigail and I'm not going to pretend her performance sets the world alight but she does what she needs to do. I'm aware that there are people out there that don't like Katherine Jenkins, mainly because her looks are deemed to have got her work her voice doesn't deserve. (Honestly, if you want to see this take a look at opera/classical 'fans' talking about her.) I'm not enough of an expert to tell you but I do know that she does a good enough job with Abigail. After all, she's the angel that really saves - and almost condemns - Sardick. I expect to call her Angela instead of Abigail might have been too much of a giveaway. It's not the Doctor that saves Sardick really. It's Abigail. Even if their story must end on a bittersweet note.

The best thing about this episode though is Michael Gambon's performance as Sardick. It says a lot about the new Doctor Who that an actor with the stature of Gambon is happy to take apart - an impressive and large part I admit - in it. (Actually and Katherine Jenkins to be fair.) Not is Gambon just a brilliant actor but his interactions with Matt Smith are rather lovely. All three Sardick's do a fine job with Matt Smith so kudos to the casting director.

And Matt Smith.

There are three actors playing Sardick. Laurence Belcher, who is Young Kazran, and for a teenage child actor both surprisingly good and not very irritating. Then there's Danny Horn, as Adult Kazran, he gets probably the least to do but gets to snog Katherine Jenkins a lot. Actually, he also does a fine job of conveying the change in Kazran when he realizes what Abigail's situation is and that when he freezes her back in the cryo-chamber thing, he's also freezing his own heart. The Doctor's reaction to all of this is also rather well-played by Matt Smith: a combination of concern for Kazran and hurt at his - apparent - dismissal.

Kazran's an interesting Doctor Who villain because he's not without hope of redemption. From the moment, early in the episode, when the Doctor watches as he doesn't slap a small child, there's a possibility that there's more to Kazran than his grumpiness might indicate. Indeed you get the impression that this moment, coming as it does shortly after the Doctor has laid down the threat on Kazran changes the Doctor's whole approach. That and the nudge from Amy.

Amy and Rory don't get much to do in this episode except to be both the people the Doctor is trying to save and also to be a running joke about their costumes and why they are wearing them. Ah, the benefits of introducing sex into Doctor Who. So many smutty jokes, so little time.

Anyway, you know the rules by now. Eventually, the Doctor saves the day. People sing. The shark flies and off we go. Leaving behind another world and an unfinished story. You wonder what happens to Kazran after everyone has gone. How will he cope? Who knows? Who cares? We're off on another set of adventures. If we dwell on all this stuff the whole thing will unravel. I'm still trying to work out why the Doctor left Chloris in the hands of the man who was the chief thug and plant wrangler of the main villain. Does he not think these things through?

The Moff's Doctor is much less hung up on this interfering nonsense. Now if he needs to save Rory and Amy's lives he'll interfere with another man's timeline to his heart's content. Jumping in and out of timelines.

AND WHAT'S HAPPENED TO THE BLINOVITCH LIMITATION EFFECT?? (Sorry, I came over all grumpy Doctor Who fan there. I really do need to get out more.)

Anyway, I really enjoyed this singing, Sardick, and shark all.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Gunfighters : A First Draft

Once upon a time before fandom had access to DVDs a Doctor Who uber-fan claimed that The Gunfighters was the worst Doctor Who story ever made. I can't remember who said this and nor do I intend to be rude about a person with such deficient taste. All I will say is that they were, are and will always be wrong.

The Gunfighters is a wonderful story. I won't claim it to be flawless but it is as far away from being the worst Doctor Who story as it is possible to be unless you are The Armageddon Factor. In which case your prize awaits.

It features one of William Hartnell's finest performances as the Doctor because he gets a chance to show how good his comic timing is and there I suspect is the reason why some people hold it in such low esteem. Because - for the most part - The Gunfighters is a comedy. A parody in fact.

A lot of lip service is paid by Doctor Who fans to the flexibility of Doctor Who's format. It can be anything we say and there is a certain amount of truth in that. Doctor Who has the potential to do any kind of story and fit it inside that Blue Box. But I'd argue that the series has never been as radical as it was during The Hartnell era when they seemed happy to try different things with every story and The Gunfighters is one of those experiments: a comedy western parodying the Westerns that were regular visitors to the screens of Britain big and small.

The late-50s and early 60s saw a rash of Western Television series, particularly featuring genuine historical figures from the 'Wild West' and The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral became a particular focus. Relevant to the cast of characters in The Gunfighters in particular were Johnny Ringo (1959-1960) and Bat Masterson (1958-1961). Both characters that feature in The Gunfighters but had nothing to do with the real Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

But there was also The Life & Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961) and Tombstone Territory (1959-1960) and that's just those Western series based on and around figures and places involved in The Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall. A glance through the Radio Times from 1963 onwards shows the regularity of Westerns on British television: Wagon Train, Laramie, The Lone Ranger, Wells Fargo, The Virginian and on the same Saturday that saw the broadcast of the first episode of The Gunfighters: A Holiday for the Doctor at 7pm, BBC1 was showing Belle Star's Daughter in a regular Western film slot.

British television viewers were as familiar with Westerns as American viewers. And the people who featured in The Gunfighters would have been known names. Wyatt Earp had cropped up in films since silent films - you might argue that the cultural significance of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral as an event starts with films - but My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) are two obvious examples. The scene at the Clanton's house in The Gunfighters is a distant echo of a scene in My Darling Clementine.

It's always dangerous to try and pinpoint the influences on a writer but Donald Cotton's choice of Bat Masterson as Tombstone's Sherriff, instead of the actual Sheriff John Behan, and the involvement of Johnny Ringo indicates an awareness of names viewers might be familiar with from film and television.

But perhaps the most two most obvious sources for influence are Carry On Cowboy (1965) and Cat Ballou (1966). Both are comedy Westerns, which hints at something in the air which Donald Cotton might have picked up on. Most obviously though Cat Ballou features a chorus - Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye (who would eventually turn up in Delta and the Bannermen) - who pops up occasionally to sing a song that comments on and narrates the story.

So The Gunfighters 'Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon', which is one of the most criticized bits of the story, might be better seen as lampooning Cat Ballou or at least 'borrowing' the idea. Parodying a major film of that year makes a small amount of sense.

The barman, Charlie, is surely also an echo of the barmen who crop up in countless Westerns, including My Darling Clementine. And the Clanton's persecution of Steven and Dodo forcing them to sing The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon definitely reflects a scene in My Darling Clementine, when the Clanton's - again - bully a drunken English actor of the old school who is reciting Shakespeare.

I mention all these sources because I want to emphasize that the best way to enjoy The Gunfighters is to watch it knowing that this isn't a proper historical but a parody. It's Doctor Who as a comedy.

Now I suspect how you feel about The Gunfighters is reflected in your feelings about comedy in Doctor Who but I enjoy it, particularly when it is done well, and I'd argue that Donald Cotton, who wrote the story, writes good comedy. Take a look not just at The Gunfighters but at The Myth Makers too. Indeed for me, The Myth Makers is the missing Hartnell story I'd most like to see.

Yes, the problem with the comedy parts of The Gunfighters is that there is a wee bit of a jarring clash once Johnny Ringo arrives and everything becomes much darker. Johnny Ringo brings genuine nastiness (which might unintentionally reflect the fact that the real Johnny Ringo was actually as nasty as fiction would have us believe based on what little is known about him). The real Johnny Ringo wasn't present at the O.K. Corral, as I've already mentioned, but his life was to end in unpleasant and mysterious circumstances, possibly as part of the on-going fall out from the deaths of the Clanton's at Tombstone. (I may say more about this is in the second part of the blog or not. I suspect it depends on the space I have.)

But in the main, it is genuinely quite funny. Hartnell shines now he has a chance to let down his comedy hair so to speak and there's hardly a fluff to be heard. The first two episodes, in particular, are filled with genuinely good stuff from Hartnell. His scenes with Doc Holliday in his 'surgery' are very funny and nicely played by all concerned.

Peter Purves to is expertly deadpan. The supporting performances are of variable quality and the accents drift all over the place. Sometimes very, very far from the mid-West of the USA. Even Dodo doesn't annoy me as much as usual and her attempts to get Doc Holliday to take her back to Tombstone are well-done.

However, John Alderson does a stout job as Wyatt Earp. Indeed Alderson had a career in the US appearing in Western series such as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Wild, Wild West (amongst others). Anthony Jacobs is great as Doc Holliday too. It's funny to think Holliday was genuinely a dentist. There's seems something odd about that. (In My Darling Clementine they make him a medical Doctor btw so it isn't just The Gunfighters itself that is packed full of historical inaccuracies). Laurence Payne's got a fine touch of nastiness about him as Johnny Ringo and Richard Beale does an OK job with the rather dull part of Bat Masterson.

The rest of the Clanton's and the Earp's are playing it much more straight and are therefore much less interesting.

Apart from Dodo, there's only one other female character in it and that's Kate (Sheena Marsh). In real life 'Big Nose Kate' was a long time 'friend' of Holliday's and so she's partly there for that and partly to play a sort of traditional Western role: the woman to whom the gunfighter can return. The triangle between her, Holliday and Ringo might have been picked up from My Darling Clementine too  (where Linda Darnell plays Chihuahua*, Doc Holliday's lover and barroom singer). Or from The Gunfighter, a 1950 film starring Gregory Peck as 'Jimmy Ringo' and Helen Westcott as Peggy who is - to quote the poster - "His only refuge..."

Once again making guesses about what influenced a writer's decisions in terms of character or plot. It could be none of these things but if you watch The Gunfighters alongside some of these films there are enough resonances to make you think. But equally, that's because some of these things had become clichés by 1966 and part of the fun of The Gunfighters is that it is mocking these clichés.

The other good things about The Gunfighters are that the sets look great and the gunfight itself is really well directed (and varying accurate but again more detail on that in part two). The build-up to the fight is delightfully tense and Hartnell's visit to Pa Clanton to try and stop the fight is nicely done.

As I said at the beginning. The Gunfighters isn't flawless and your tolerance for The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon might affect how you see this story but if you step back from looking at it purely as a Doctor Who 'historical' and see it for what I think it is: a parody of Western television and film using Doctor Who's flexible format to do it then I think it is one of the Hartnell eras more entertaining stories.

In the second part of this column I shall try and put some genuine history behind the story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral or as one writer describes it better, 'The Fiasco on Fremont Street'.

*Yes, she really is called Chihuahua.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Pandorica Opens-The Big Bang

Here we are. The end of Matt Smith's first season. And Karen Gillan's. And Arthur Darvill's. And, of course, Le Grand Moff himself. A two-part story featuring Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans and El Sinko de Kitchen, plus River Song and the end of the entire Universe. So nothing too drastic then. Just a quiet end to a rather enjoyable season.

We begin with a pre-title sequence featuring a number of figures from previous stories: Van Gogh, Bracewell, Churchill, Liz 10 and, of course, River Song. We sow the seeds. The TARDIS is going to explode. Can it be stopped? Who is doing it? Why? And will any of these questions be answered? Well no, not all of them. It's Le Grand Moff. He likes to leave threads a-dangling as the final scene at the end of The Big Bang makes clear.

It all rolls along at a fair old speed. The Pandorica is a legend. It's a fairy tale. It's a box containing something or someone the whole universe is pretty scared of. Or interested in. In the end, it's another trap. A big trap. The Doctor's many enemies gather together to save the Universe from what turns out to be a bit of a misunderstanding. The Universe gets destroyed anyway. Except for Earth. Naturally.

The best bits of The Pandorica Opens happen once Rory turns up. Arthur Darvill is rather brilliant at this stuff and just when you think he's just there as big-nosed comic relief he gets something serious to get his acting teeth into. Proof that a male companion can work. I particularly admire the scenes between Rory and The Doctor as they meet again for the first time and it takes the Doctor a little while to realize who Rory is. Then there's Rory's attempt to get Amy to run away from him when he realises that he's about to do something terrible.

Indeed for me, the multi-jeopardy cliffhanger at the end of The Pandorica Opens is one of the best in the whole series history. How the blithering 'eck are they going to get out of this one. The Doctor's now a mad man in a very small box, Amy and River are in deep trouble and all the stars in the sky are going out. It's not looking good.

And the beginning of The Big Bang whacks us with a rather lovely little surprise too. It all starts off so well and then we get to see how it was all done, which is slick and clever but feels a lot like cheating to me. As a Doctor Who fan of a certain age bought up on the Blinovitch Limitation Effect and the impossibility of the Doctor saving Adric what Le Moff does, whilst done well, just isn't quite right. If he can do what he does in this story why isn't the Doctor doing it all the bloody time? What was all that Time Lord Victorious stuff about if the Doctor's going to have a relaxed attitude to the Laws of Time? Are there even any Laws of Time to uphold if there's no one there to police them, except the Doctor himself?

It didn't ruin the story for me. It was entertaining enough. It just felt like a trick. A clever trick. All smoke, mirrors, and misdirection. There's no harm in that. It's just less fun. For me.

There were lots of great scenes in both episodes. The Doctor's Stonehenge speech seems to be a popular bit of Doctor Who but it didn't grab me quite so much this time. Perhaps it's the perennial shouty Doctor problem.  I so prefer Matt Smith when he's quiet. He has more power then. As evidence for that, I give you his monologue to the young Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood) towards the end of The Big Bang. It's both lovely writing and good acting. That's power.

Oh and a quick word of praise for Caitlin Blackwood who does a fine job as young Amelia, again.

Karen Gillan herself gets some nice bits and bobs too. Her 'something old, something new' speech at the wedding is great. As is her interaction with the Doctor when he's in the Pandorica.

Then there's Alex Kingston as River Song. There are some people that don't like River Song. I'm not sure why. She's an interesting character - although there's a bit of Bernice Summerfield in there if you ask me - played by a brilliant actress. Yes, sometimes the 'Hello Sweety' stuff seems a bit naff but I like River Song. But I digress. I think part of the problem is that if River Song were the only women in Moff's Doctor Who who was a mysterious puzzle that required solving I think she'd be even better. Unfortunately, Amy and Clara come with riddles of their own. It's like a Sphinx convention.

Anyway, Kingston's great in this. I love her reaction to the Doctor's fez and her cold and angry dispatch of the stone Dalek. Oh, the Daleks in this are the horrible Victory of the Daleks clunky ones, which is a shame. They're like Boris Bus Daleks to the Cusack Dalek's Routemaster.*

So these are two enjoyable episodes with some genuinely solid scenes but, as I said, sometimes the outs feel a bit like cheating.

*For my foreign readers Google images of Boris Bus London then the Routemaster London and you'll see exactly what I mean. One is a classic piece of design. The other a bloated half-arsed tribute.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Lodger

And we're back.

Hello everyone. It has been a while.

Well, I enjoyed that. Doctor Who as sit-com. It's Mork and Mindy redux. Well, the Doc and Craigy but you know what I mean. An alien in a human home. The Doctor trying to be an ordinary bloke whilst changing the lives of almost everyone that comes into contact with him, but especially Craig (James Corden) and Sophie (Daisy Haggard)

James Corden comes in for a lot of flak from chunks of the general public but he's rather good in this. Perfect casting in fact. And perhaps the thing I like about this story above all is that Craig's inability to tell Sophie how he feels about her seems quite real to me. I know I've been there myself. [And that's all I'm ever going to say on this subject].

Also, there's the inertia of normal life. The way we get trapped in the cycle of work-sleep-work-sleep and afraid to try and fail. To me this is a story about how the real failure is not to act: Craig can't tell Sophie how he feels because she might reject him; he can't tell his boss his ideas for the workplace because he's 'just a phone drone'.

Actually, perhaps that's why I like this story so much. It's horribly familiar to me as a long-term 'phone-drone' with a share of missed relationship opportunities and a dangerous resemblance to my couch. [This blog is in danger of turning into an episode of Oprah so I'll stop now before it's too late.]

Sophie's got her own dreams too but her equally unspoken love for Craig is holding her in place. The Doctor manages, in his own inimitable way, to get her to take first steps and as a result, almost puts a spanner in the works of true love.

It's only because this is an episode of Doctor Who that the Doctor doesn't ruin everything. There has to be something nasty in the domestic woodshed. Although in this case, it's something nasty in the upstairs flat. By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes.

In this case, the villain, like a number of villains in 'New' Doctor Who, isn't actually evil. It just is. No feelings, no empathy and no understanding of consequences. It's just doing its job. We never - at this point - find out what is really behind it or where it comes from. It just is and let us be content with that.

Matt Smith is brilliant in this as he goes into full fish out of water mode. This couldn't have been a Tennant story because Tennant's Doctor would have been able to pull off the ordinary bloke thing too well. It wouldn't have been as funny. Plus Smith's chemistry with Corden is good enough to make me think they could make a good fist of an actual sitcom together. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the Doctor - or this Doctor anyway - turned out to be good at football. It's not just amusingly un-Doctorish but a nice nod to Matt Smith's own background.

This is a bit of an Amy lite story as she only pops up occasionally, although she does get a nice little moment at the end of the episode so there's not much to say about Karen Gillan's performance, although I think she is starting to grow on me as an actress. The more she does, the better she gets.

So in conclusion - as I always used to say when ending my degree level essays with clunking literalism - I loved this story. Doctor Who: The Sitcom. It could work you know. Although I'm aware there's a lot of people out there that have a sniffy view about Doctor Who and comedy, which I a subject I may come back to in another blog.

Coming soon.

In black and white.