Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Savages

Written by Ian Stuart Black, The Savages was broadcast between the 28 May 1966 and 18 June 1966. England still hadn't won the World Cup. That was to come at the end of the following month. And there endeth my only attempt to contextualize a Doctor Who story with its broadcast dates. Except to note that this story goes out in a decade were the British exit from its Empire was speeding up. After all, we're six years after Macmillan's 'Wind of Change' speech in the South African parliament. A speech that clearly indicated that even the Conservative Party could see which way the wind was blowing for Britain's colonies even if it was to take white South Africa another 30+ years to accept it.

Why do I mention all this? Well, I think The Savages is meant to reflect some of the atmosphere of the time. In a similar way that The Mutants is also about the end of Empire. Except that in this story The Savages are white and the Elders black. Or so it appears from pictures and surviving footage. Obviously, this being 1966 we can't cast black actors so unfortunately and uncomfortably the Elders are white actors in blackface.

The original title for this story was going to be 'The White Savages' so I'm pretty sure that my point about the story is correct. This is about colonialism and about one group of humans' willingness to profit from the exploitation of another. In this case, it is their life energy. The Savages - and we're never given a name for the group apart from this - are effectively farm animals. They are bred to be drained of energy so that The Elders can live in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. The Elders don't even appear to use the Savages as slave labour. They're simply left to get on with it until someone needs an energy boost. I mean this is a story about what a world would be like with the vampires in charge. Perhaps we're expected to see colonialism as vampiric. Perhaps I'm thinking about this far, far too much.

The truth is this is a bit of dull story enlivened by Jano's impression of the First Doctor or to put it more accurately Frederick Jaeger's impersonation of William Hartnell playing the First Doctor. O and a bit of smashing up of stuff in the final episode as the revolution comes. Frederick Jaeger does a fine job as Jano as head of the Elders. A man satisfied with the way his society is until he ingests some of the Doctor's conscience.

It is the Doctor that is the catalyst for the end of the status quo. The Elders have admired The Doctor on his travels through time and have been expecting him to arrive for some years. The odd thing is having followed him they don't seem to have been prepared for him to question the cost of their lifestyle or who is paying it.

Hartnell's quite good in this too but once more gets to spend a chunk of time unconscious or zombified. You get the impression by this point that Innes Lloyd has done everything short of leaving a sticky note on Hartnell's dressing room door to elbow Hartnell out of the show. Hartnell doesn't go yet, though. However, Peter Purves does.

Steven Taylor leaves at the end of this story. He is chosen by both groups to lead them through the undoubtedly messy process of creating a new and fairer world. It's all pretty sudden and the Doctor seems pleased to have Steven off the premises. Not in a horrible way but in a 'and now you are ready' way. It's all pretty sudden and rushed but in an odd way seems a fitting end for Steven who, on occasions, had become the lead character in Doctor Who whilst the production team found ways of keeping Hartnell out of the picture. It's not the worst companion exit ever.*

It leaves us with Dodo. Now Jackie Lane's not bad but Dodo is a character with almost no character. She's pretty good in the first couple of episodes. She refuses to believe in the paradise they're being presented with whilst Steven seems oddly naive for once but then she starts to fall prey to the stupid. Then she treats a clearly unwell Doctor with all the sympathy of a Jeremy Hunt. I'm not sure Jackie Lane ever really got a break with Dodo. There's nothing to get a hold of, which is a shame.

So, all in all, The Savages is a dull-ish story with some interesting ideas that don't quite work.  It's not a terrible story but would be pretty forgettable were it not for Steven's exit. I have barely talked about the other performances: Ewan Solon as Chal, Patrick Godfrey as Tor, Geoffrey Frederick as Exorse, Clare Jenkins as Nanina and Peter Thomas as Captain Edal. Solon is great but Thomas is a bit too obviously marked up as the bad guy from the minute he gets the line about not trusting strangers. Captain Edal would have fitted up the Doctor, Steven and Dodo for something if he'd got the chance believing, like corrupt policemen the world over, that they'd be guilty of something even if he could find out what is was.

The Savages: could do better.

*That's not far away, though.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Gunfighters

In my blog on The Celestial Toymaker I mentioned that fan consensus on that story had changed since I was a wee Doctor Who fan. Where once it was considered a creepy classic. Now it was seen as boring, studio-bound and racist.  On the other hand, The Gunfighters has been making the opposite journey.

Once upon a time when Doctor Who fans didn't have access to so much material we relied on the wisdom of others to tell us what we were supposed to think of Doctor Who stories and one of those wise old men, who will remain nameless, called The Gunfighters the worst Doctor Who story ever made. This was clearly bollocks then. It's even more bollocks when you re-watch it.

The problem with The Gunfighters is that it is The Doctor being dropped into a parody and your tolerance of this story will probably be affected by three things: how much you like comedy in Doctor Who, how much you like Westerns and how much you like songs. If you're a serious-minded Western disliking music-a-phobe chances this is not for you.

The key thing to remember about The Gunfighters is that it is a parody of the Western genre, which was in the late-fifties and early-sixties a mainstay not just of American television but also British television. Even into the seventies and eighties I remember visiting my Nan and there was almost always a Western on the television. I remember Nan loved Westerns. This was a time when there were only three mainstream channels and they filled a large chunk of their time with old films or repeats of programmes like Bonanza

The real 'Gunfight at the OK Corral' or as it is referred to more realistically in a history book that I can't remember the name of 'The Fiasco on Fremont Street' is - possibly - the founding story of the Western myth. Those involved in it (and the later murder of Morgan Earp and the Vendetta Ride that followed) were to become central to film and American Westerns perhaps helped by the fact that Wyatt Earp himself lived to be an advisor to Tom Mix, an early Hollywood cowboy star.

There were television series called Bat Masterson (1958-61), Johnny Ringo (1959-60), The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-61) and Tombstone Territory (1957-1959) to name but four.

These names were familiar to TV audience in the UK as well as the US. It's one of the reasons I suspect the Sheriff in The Gunfighters was Bat Masterson and not Johnny Behan as was the case in real life. After all, Behan had no TV series of his own and Masterson was the more familiar figure. The same applies to Johnny Ringo who took no part in the actual Gunfight at the OK Corral itself but is a suitably well-known figure to add to the story.

Television wasn't the only influence. There are films too. Films such as My Darling Clementine (1946) and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) being the two that clearly had the most influence, which brings me to the song.

Throughout The Gunfighters, the action is chorused by a song, The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. It irritates a lot of people and seems out of place in a Doctor Who episode. I thought, first of all, that this was the result of Donald Cotton having seen Cat Ballou (1965), where Stubby Kaye* and Nat King Cole appear as 'shouters' who sing the 'Ballad of Cat Ballou', almost like a velvet-voiced Greek Chorus. And there might be an element of truth in that but most obviously the same approach was used in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) where Frankie Lane song Gunfight at the OK Corral guided us through the film. It's worth watching to see how they used it (and also because it is an excellent film in the first place) and how The Gunfighters echoes it.

So the song might be out of place in a Doctor Who story but it isn't in a Western for which reason I'm happy to give it a pass.

The Doctor, Steven, and Dodo find themselves in Tombstone on the eve of the Gunfight. It's bad timing and the main cast are totally oblivious to what's going on initially. The Doctor, whose toothache has kick-started proceedings, goes to see a dentist. That dentist turns out to be Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs) who utterly bamboozles the Doctor and gets him to wander off to the saloon where Steven and Dodo are being bullied into singing by the Clanton brothers.  It's worth noting that there's a not dissimilar scene involving the bullying of a drunken Shakespearean actor in My Darling Clementine. Anthony Jacobs is superb as Doc Holliday, who really was - possibly - a gentleman from Georgia and dentist.

The Doctor's been set-up by Holliday who knows that the Clanton's are waiting for him at the Last Chance Saloon. Everyone now seems to think the Doctor is Doc Holliday and not Doctor Caligari as he himself told Wyatt Earp (John Alderson) and Bat Masterson (Richard Beale).  The confusion lasts for two and a half episodes as Wyatt Earp plays along with the Doctor/Doc Holliday ruse as does Holliday's 'girl' Kate (Sheena Marshe) Although it is blown when Clanton ally Seth Harper (Shane Rimmer) gets gunned down by Holliday in front of Charlie the Barman (David Graham). Charlie can't keep a secret, which will alas cost him dearly when Johnny Ringo (Laurence Payne) arrives.

It's all nicely comedic until Johnny Ringo arrives when it takes a much darker tone as did The Myth Makers

Hartnell seems to revel in the chance to do some comedy and his moment of glory is his "People keep giving me guns. I wish they wouldn't." In fact, this story is pack full of nice bits around guns being pointed at people who don't want to have guns pointed at them. And Jackie Lane gets to actually do stuff as Dodo for the first time. The scene where she gets the jump on Doc Holliday is marvelous. Meanwhile, Peter Purves gets to be his usual excellent self, even when singing badly in a ridiculous shirt.

O, I should point out that the American accents in this story are rubbish. Mostly. It's a contractual obligation when reviewing The Gunfighters.  The only one who is really consistent is John Alderson's, Wyatt Earp. Perhaps it is no surprise then that Alderson was to go on and have a pretty extensive career in US television, including more Westerns.

The Clanton brothers though have a set of accents so variable you'd demand a DNA test**. Meanwhile, the Doctor is locked up for a bit, released and replaced in jail by a pistol-whipped***Phineas Clanton (Maurice Good) who is then sprung by his brothers who kill Warren Earp.****

We're leading up to the Gunfight but not before the Doctor tries to stop it by talking to Pa Clanton (Reed De Rouen). (Again there is a similar scene in My Darling Clementine) so the gunfight is doomed to take place.

I haven't got the space in this blog to outline the actual history of the Gunfight - I'm going to do that in another blog - but in reality, the fight lasted less than a minute. It was - fundamentally - an arrest gone wrong. It's main cause a drunken, belligerent Ike Clanton but like almost every event in history one with longer, broader causes. In reality it was Wyatt, Virgil (who was the Marshall not Wyatt) and Morgan Earp with their 'friend' Doc Holliday who faced off against Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne. Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton would die. There would be a trial but that would not be the end of it. Who was at fault and who fired the first shot are still argued about to this day. Different newspapers of different political leanings took up cudgels for each side. But as I said that's for another blog, which is coming. Honest.

The Gunfight being over the Doctor, Steven and Dodo leave.

It's been fun. There are genuinely lots of laughs in this story, even as it takes a very, very dark turn towards the end. Hartnell is my personal highlight but the whole story is rather brilliant if you ask me and I'm inclined to ignore some dodgy accents in order to see it play out.

Is it Doctor Who's first proper parody? Or does that nod go to The Myth Makers? Also written by Donald Cotton it should be noted who can certainly turn his hand to comedy.  It's one of my favourite Doctor Who stories of all time and I suggest if you've not seen it you do. You might not agree with me but I'm old enough and ugly enough to cope with that.

*Stubby Kaye who would later crop up in Delta and The Bannermen. The poor man.
**I know DNA has nothing to do with accents and I don't care.
***Gunfights were actually very rare in the West. Tombstone had strict rules on guns for example, which meant a lot of arrests were done by the officers of law & order using the butt of the gun without needing to fire it.
****O and Warren Earp didn't die then. He would make it to 1900 before being killed in an argument.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Celestial Toymaker

Fan consensus is a funny thing. Once upon a time The Celestial Toymaker was regarded as something of a Doctor Who Classic but now - and with accusations of racism* hung about its neck - it is somewhat unloved.

The truth is I think this is a story that needs to exist in visual form to judge it properly. The missing episodes hint at a weird and creepy tone - like The Mind Robber but without the laughs - but fundamentally nothing much happens. No one in this story really gets to do anything. Steven and Dodo play games against a series of odd opponents but even though there is supposed to be a threat here it never feels that threatening. The Celestial Toymaker could feel terrifying and the idea that losing to the Toymaker gets you turned into a toy for him to use in his new games is the stuff of genuine horror but isn't taken on with the right vigor. Imagine what Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes might have made of this.

The final episode, which is the one that survives, lacks any real tension at all. Everyone is playing games. Even Cyril (Peter Stephens) the Billy Bunter rip-off is more a petty annoyance than a ruthless villain. And there's so much stupidity. Cyril effectively stupids himself to death. Dodo is constantly doing things that are utterly idiotic, despite Steven's best attempts to stop her.

But that's not the reason I dislike this story. I dislike this story because it's an insult to William Hartnell. I'm not sure by this point how difficult Hartnell was but this story - like The Massacre - effectively writes the Doctor out of things for whole episodes. He's reduced to invisibility and then silence. I've heard that they considered writing out Hartnell in this story so obviously, the production team, headed up by Innes Lloyd**, had had enough but it just seems damn rude to treat the star of your show like this.

It wouldn't matter so much if Steven and Dodo had an interesting story (or acted in an interesting way) but they're just not well-used. Even Peter Purves struggles here. And poor Jackie Lane is given a character with the brains of a goldfish. The creepy atmosphere on its own does not a good story make. You need something at the core of it and this has nothing solid enough to grip onto.

There's potential here. Potential for something truly dark and surreal but in the end, it's just a series of dull set pieces revolving around games that no one wants to play. Also, the fact that The Doctor and The Toymaker have met before in some unseen adventure is left floating in the ether and there's a fascination about what the Toymaker is, which has been explored in other parts of the Doctor Who world, particularly the Virgin New Adventures.

I have also glossed over the racial aspects of this story (or reduced them to a footnote below.) Philip Sandifer puts the case across far better than I could but once you start to have an awareness of the problems with this story then it becomes less likable. I'll admit I watched the surviving episode the first couple of times without noticing the problems but now it is hard not to see that this story has issues. And they're not good ones.

So I'm afraid The Celestial Toymaker doesn't do it for me. It never quite lives up to its potential but I think to judge it properly and fairly you'd need to see the whole thing. Based on three audio episodes and the one surviving video episode it'll be a while before I bother to watch this again. As Dodo herself says, "...this is really a very sad place,"

I'd be interested to hear anyone defend this story so feel free to add to the comments below.

*Read Elizabeth Sandifer's blog The Most Totally Closed Mind for a genuinely angry and interesting take on the story's issues with race. I think I didn't see it quite as clear-cut as he does but there's certainly something not quite right here and the use of the unacceptable or Top Gear version of Eenie-Meenie-Miney-Moe is edited out of the BBC CD version of the story isn't a good sign. As Sandifer points out by 1966 we were already aware that it was unacceptable. Using it seems to indicate that the people making this didn't care, which isn't good.

**The story was actually commissioned by Peter Wiles, who didn't get on with Hartnell at all so I'm probably being unfair naming Innes Lloyd here.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Ark

The story involves the Doctor, Dodo (Jackie Lane) and Steven(Peter Purves) landing in what initially appears to be a jungle on Earth but TARDIS readings, the mix 'n' match nature of the wildlife and a steel sky make it obvious that we aren't on Earth itself. Dodo has a cold. This will become important.

It turns out that we are on a ship containing a handful of humans, known as The Guardians and their Monoid 'friends'. Both groups are fleeing the final destruction of Earth and making for the planet Refusis, which is seemingly uninhabited and suitable for colonization. It will be another 700 years before the ship reaches Refusis. To while away the time the Ark's inhabitants are building a massive statue of a human being. No, it doesn't make much sense to me either. They've just started and it should be completed by the time the Ark reaches Refusis.

The Monoids appear to have turned up on Earth after the destruction of their own planet and asked to join The Guardians in their flight. I have to say that the Monoids aren't the best realized of monsters with their Beatle wigs and waddle. They don't appear to be able to speak and have almost become slaves to the Guardians.

The TARDIS crew is initially welcomed by the Guardians, except by Zentos (Inigo Jackson) the deputy-commander. Jackson's acting is symptomatic of the disease that afflicts a number of guest actors in early Doctor Who, which I'm going to call 'Rep Syndrome'. It results in a performance lacking subtlety because an actor hasn't adapted to television and feels he needs to read every line as if he is doing Richard III. It isn't necessarily the actor's fault, it's as much a symptom of the time as anything else but when you compare Jackson's performance with Michael Sheard's as Rhos (brief though it is) you can see what benefits come from bringing less theatrical.

Dodo's cold strikes both Monoids and Guardians and they have no immunity to it. This leads Zentos to turn on the TARDIS crew and have them put on trial as spies from Refusis. Steven tries to defend himself but is struck down by the illness himself. The Doctor's offer to help is initially turned down by Zentos, who wants them dead. But the Commander (Eric Elliot), although ill himself intervenes. The Doctor develops a cure and everyone seems happy. The TARDIS leaves...

And re-materializes back in the jungle. The ship is all quiet and a little dirty. Then Dodo turns a corner and sees the statue. It looks pretty impressive but instead of a human being, it is the statue of a Monoid. Cue end titles.

It turns out that there has been a Monoid Revolution. They now come with voices and heat guns. They are led by One. No names, just numbers for the Monoids. They have arrived at Refusis and One has a cunning plan to seize Refusis for the Monoids and destroy mankind completely. The Doctor and team are locked in 'The Security Kitchen'. Yes, it is silly.

Then the Doctor and Dodo are sent, along with Monoid Two to check out Refusis. It is inhabited by an invisible race. It is one of my made-up rules of Doctor Who that stories featuring invisible aliens are almost always rubbish: The ChaseThe Ark, and Planet of the Daleks.

In the final episode the Monoids fall out amongst themselves and the humans start their own revolution. The full circle has turned full circle. To quote Joni Mitchell, "We're captive in the carousel of time/We can't return from where we came/And go round and round and round/In the circle game."

Whilst the story has some good moments it is ultimately a little disappointing. The Monoids are rubbish, the humans suffer from the problem of being both a bit wet and having abandoned trousers in favor of clothes made out of ribbons and the Refusians are just invisible. It passes the time but never really lives up to its potential, although at points director Michael Imison gets some really interesting shots.

There are interesting ideas that just don't quite come off.

I should award points for the decision to have an adventure that is set in the same location in different time zones that shows the impact of the Doctor's actions has - intentionally or unintentionally. It reminds me of how RTD shows the Doctor's actions in The Long Game leads to the world of Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways, although I wouldn't claim that this would be an influence on those stories but who knows.

It's also the only story to ever really address the risks of time travel to the health of both the travelers and those they meet. There's a lot of diseases lurking about in the universe but the TARDIS crew never seem to get ill nor do they give other people illnesses, which is probably sensible because you can't really bog the series down with a series of medical checks pre-and post-every adventure. Perhaps the TARDIS does the job on the sly.

Hartnell's good but hardly stretched; Peter Purves does his usual quality job as Steven and Jackie Lane does her best with Dodo. This is Dodo's first proper story and the production team seems to decide that after episode one she's too northern for Saturday night on BBC 1 and her Mancunian accent gradually fades away, which is a shame. She gets to use 'dodgy', 'OK' and 'grotty', which riles the Doctor who gives her a patronizing lecture on how he'll teach her to talk properly.

Anyway it is at least reasonable entertaining and I wonder if it suffers a bit because I watched it straight after the admirable The Massacre? But I'd say worth watching for the interesting ideas and imaginative direction even if it never quite works as well as I would like it to.

The Massacre

Well, that was an interesting story. In some respects possibly the most serious of the historical Hartnell's and therefore the most serious Doctor Who story ever, possibly. It's a story devoid of humor (almost) and packed full of actual human beings preparing to do horrible things to other human beings or trying to stop horrible things being done to other human beings.

This is almost not even a Doctor Who story. Yes, Steven and the Doctor are in it but The Doctor is hardly in it at all. Most of our time we spend with Steven or with the 'real' historical figures. The TARDIS crew split up in Part One, in usual style, but then we don't see The Doctor until almost the end of Part Four.

What we do see is the Abbott of Amboise, played by Hartnell himself. Steven thinks the Abbott is The Doctor in disguise. Why he would be in disguise Steven isn't sure but suspects it is some plan to foil some crime or another. It's easy for us as the audience to go along with this. It's not a thing The Doctor's is unlikely to try. So the end of Part Three must have been genuinely as much a shock for the audience as it was for Steven. It's a fine moment.

Because this is a historical everyone in it is acting like they're in something serious and not 'just' an episode of Doctor Who. There are fine performances from Barry Justice (Charles IX), Joan Young (as a dark and nasty Catherine de Medici), Michael Bilton (as Teligny), Erik Chitty (as Preslin), John Tillinger (Simon Duvall), Eric Thompson* (Gaston) and David Weston (as Nicholas) but the highlights for me are Leonard Sachs as Admiral de Coligny and Andre Morell (as Marshall Tavennes).

Coligny and Tavennes are opposed to each other: one a protestant, the other a Catholic; on in favor of war with Spain, the other not; one an enemy of the Catherine de Medici, the other an ally. They argue a lot but neither of them is portrayed as two-dimensional. Indeed in Part Four it is Tavennes that gets some of the strongest stuff in the script as he realizes what Catherine de Medici is about to unleash and his role in it and Andre Morell delivers a superb performance. It's only regrettable that it can't be seen.

Yes, The Massacre is another story that is entirely missing from the archives. I watched this via a very fine Loose Canon reconstruction, which can be found on YouTube (except the first half of Part Four, which has been blocked by BBC Worldwide because the demand for reconstructions of Hartnell historicals is so high the BBC will go bankrupt if it is allowed.) That really helped me to 'see' this story in a way I hadn't the last time I listened to it on audio-only and the story benefited as a result. This, along with The Myth Makers, is high on my list of stories I'd like recovered.

Truth is I love learning about history and I have a love for Doctor Who historicals in general. This also is the nearest I think to serious historical drama than any other story in Doctor Who's run as Steven gets caught up in the plotting that is leading us to The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve.

Steven's constantly blundering into things that make him look suspicious to everyone, particularly because at this point everyone is incredibly suspicious anyway but we get, in Anne Chaplette (Annette Robinson) an ordinary person to sympathize with. Anne is a servant of the Abbott of Amboise that overhears something that terrifies her and might be the key to a plot aimed at French protestants. Steven is - mostly - nice to her and she likes him. She's not the most proactive of characters being (rightly) afraid but we get to sympathize with her and when in Part Four the Doctor rushes her away and seems to abandon her to the Massacre it is easy to side with Steven regarding the Doctor's coldness.

You can't imagine any Doctor but the First doing that. He's still talking about not changing history with a seriousness that the series will give up on soon. Steven is so disgusted he leaves the Doctor, which gives Hartnell a chance to do a nice bit of quiet and contemplative acting as the Doctor thinks about what he's done and is doing. It's one of Hartnell's finest moments and would have made a bleak ending to the story had not the last five minutes been spent introducing us to Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane) who stumbles into the TARDIS thinking it is a proper police box. Her appearance is followed up by Steven's return. When the Doctor and Steven find out Dodo's name they wonder if she is a descendent of Anne's who must have survived. It gives the story and oddly upbeat ending (and is surely grasping at straws a bit.)

I don't know much about the real history of the Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve (or how this works as a telling of the tale with accuracy) so I will be reading James Cooray Smith's book The Massacre, which is going to go into far more detail than I can do. Suffice it to say it thousands of Protestants were murdered - the numbers are disputed - and many Huguenots fled France, including to Britain where many of them settled in the East End of London so it is possible that Dodo is a Anne's relative. It helps us feel better to think so,

I'll talk more about Dodo later but her arrival doesn't bode well. She seems shockingly dim or - if we want to be nice - shocked into dimness as she fails to react in any convincing way to being inside the TARDIS. Not a word of 'but it is bigger on the inside.' She's also pretty northern with Jackie Lane playing her with - what I assume is - her own Manchunian tone. It's a bit of a surprise after all the received pronunciation but it is 1966 and time are a-changin'.

So I really enjoyed this story. It's packed full of excellent performances. Oh. I should actually pause here to applaud Peter Purves who does a brilliant job of being the star of the show for most of the four episodes. His ability to reflect the angry bafflement of a man out of time is under-appreciated. Steven is another of the Hartnell companions that gets too often forgotten when we talk about great Doctor Who companions.

It's full of speeches and lacking in action, although I'd argue that the words of political speeches are action as much as physical violence is action. The talking is the action. But I think the speechiness of it might put some people off but I liked it.

*Emma Thompson's Dad. It's the first time I've ever seen what he actually looked like. Up until this I've only ever know him as a voice.