Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Caretaker



Given the way the previous episodes have been set up, it was inevitable that Danny Pink's first meeting with Dr. Who was going to take a definite shape. We were basically waiting for an episode in which Danny finds out about Clara's double-life and is completely mind-boggled. We knew he was going to say something along the lines of "I just don't know who you are any more." We knew the Doctor was going to disapprove of him because he was a Soldier (shock horror!), but he would prove himself to be a decent sort of chap by saving the day. The Caretaker does all this and it's really rather predictable. It felt like a painful exercise to get through.

So Dr. Who has a big problem with soldiers, no not just soldiers, to be precise ex-soldiers. It seems a bit odd given he was happy to travel with Harry Sullivan, a serving naval officer, and Sarah Kingdom, a serving military intelligence agent. He also seemed to get on fine with Wilf. Not to mention spending a lot of time hanging around with all those military personel from UNIT. We are never actually told that Ian Chesterton, also a school teacher was an ex-soldier, but there is quite a bit of evidence that he had done some military service, as well as the likelihood that he had done national service. If the Doctor does not like ex-soldiers, he is going to have an horrible time if he ever visits Finland, Brazil, Singapore or anywhere else where they have compulsory military service. You can just imagine the Doctor going to Singapore and saying "No! No! There are ex-soldiers everywhere! Ah!"

I'm getting tired of the capitalization of the word Soldier that we are seeing in Doctor Who. As I said regarding Into the Dalek, they are not some special category of human beings. They are just ordinary people rightly or wrongly doing an extraordinary job that people have done since the dawn of history. I think this comes down to the remoteness of the military from the lives of middle-class television writers, especially given how the armed forces have come to recruit predominatly from the working-class communities. It is not helped by campaigns like Help the Heroes which seem to sentimentalize and infantilize members of the armed forces. Notice how often the army are referred to as 'our boys.'

In short, Dr. Who's attitude to Danny Pink seems unreasonable. The unreasonableness of it makes his objections and antagonism toward him seem rather false and unconvincing. Worse than that is the awkward racial sub-text of the Doctor, a white man, making prejudiced assumptions about the intelligence of a black man. No doubt the writers were intending this to be on account of Danny being a Soldier, but the racial sub-text cannot be ignored. What is more, in the same episode we get a black girl who is a 'disruptive influence' who the Doctor casually suggests might go shoplifting. Along with a white police officer harassing a couple of black kids. Call me a Sandiferian or a Jack Grahmite if you like, but I found this painful. This is of course, from the same producer who gave us Mels, the black delinquent incarnation of River Song and an episode in which the rare inclusion of a group of black characters turn out to be a dim-witted bunch of petty crooks.


We get to spend a bit more time with Danny Pink in The Caretaker and it's not a fun experience. What we have seen so far seems like a rather surly and miserable character who can't cry convincingly. Now it seems that in a relationship he is rather controlling and manipulative. It's getting really hard to warm to this bloke.

This episode was fun in places, and the acting and direction was really quite good, but I found it rather depressing on the whole.



Saturday, 27 September 2014

Inferno



A lot of Doctor Who stories are padded out to fill extra episodes, but Inferno takes padding to a completely different level. The orginal story about a drilling station and green slime turning people into werewolves would have needed padding to fill out four episodes, but this serial had to stretch to an impossible seven episodes. The ever resourceful Terrance Dicks came up with the idea of filling this out by taking the Doctor to a 'mirror universe' version of the same setting, with Fascist versions of the main characters. Conveniently, this removed the need for new sets and hiring new actors. All it required was a slightly higher costume budget and Nicholas Courtney to spend a bit longer in the make-up chair.

A lot of fans think the idea of the 'mirror universe' is a fantastically clever one. I don't. As Phil Sandifer points out (there is very little in his Inferno essay that I disagree with), the idea of a mirror universe is one that television writers continually turn to. It's a very standard trope. It's not used in a particularly creative way in Inferno. The Doctor's witnessing of the destruction of the mirror Earth does not give him any new insight that enables him to save the regular Earth. It simply feels like a way to draw the story out and we are denied the pleasure of seeing the Fascist characters meeting their other selves.

That is not to say that the Inferno-verse is not fun to watch at times. The actors are clearly enjoying the chance to be evil for a while. Nicholas Courtney is particulary memorable as the sneering Brigade Leader. This is possibly a problem for Caroline John's Liz Shaw. Liz never really had much personality or character development. It is actually only when she becomes a Fascist that she appears to be an interesting character who we want to watch. Furthermore, the Fascist world is never really explored. It never really offers more than a fleeting glimpse of what this world is like. It seems perhaps a little surprising that the royal family were executed in this world. In our world, the British Union of Fascists supported the monarchy and our royal family were hardly left of centre in their views. Perhaps the mirror universe regime is closer to Communism than Fascism. Or more accurately, given the Terrance Dicks input, they are a British version of those nasty foreign bureacratic types that we British patriots all hate and UKIP imagine are running the European Union.



Of course, Inferno has some great direction, thanks to Douglas Camfield, with Barry Letts filling in when the director became ill. This story has some enjoyable moments, but for me it is just too long and bores me. This is not a classic by any stretch.

It has been said that the first four episodes of a new Doctor's run follow a pattern. The first story is a frenzied runaround (Spearhead from Space- not much plot going on), the second story is one more suited to the previous Doctor (Dr Who and the Silurians- the old base under siege) and the third story an experimental new kind of story that is not really repeated (Ambassadors of Death- realistic elements at the forefront and science fiction elements kept in the background). It is the fourth story that defines the new era. With its theme of industrial research, energy sources, green slime, Venusian Akido and pointless car chases, Inferno sets up the Third Doctor era perfectly. All that is missing is Jo Grant and the riotous colours that came in with Claws of Axos.



It does seem remarkable given all the massive historical differences between our universe and the Inferno-verse, that all the main characters are all together in an almost identical scientificc installation. The novel Timewyrm: Revelation offers a handy explanation that this universe has been artificially constructed. I did come up with my own theory as to the nature of the Inferno-verse. In The Chase, the Doctor conjectures that the TARDIS had entered a realm formed from human fears. It seems surprising that the Doctor would suppose that such a psychological world existed and that the TARDIS could take one there, but perhaps the Inferno-verse is this 'land of fears?' Could the Inferno-verse be a sort of projection of the Doctor's own fears about the drilling project? It occurred to me that the Republic Security Force represent the Doctor's anxieties about working with a military organisation. It's worth noting that the Brigade Leader is not that far removed from the Brigadier in personality. Notice the scene in Inferno where the real Brigadier rants at Benton and orders him to act like a bully and to coerce Stahlman. Of course, this theory contradicts the novels in which the Inferno-verse is a real place.


So what is going on with all that green slime? Some of the New Adventure novels hint at the idea, championed by Lawrence Miles, that the Earth is an artificial planet. After the Time Lords first experimented with Time Travel, they unleashed the vampiric Yssgaroth from a hellish other-universe. After Rassilon defeated the Yssgaroth, he fixed up the holes in the universe with artificial planets, Earth being one of these. Thus, the weird green slime that seems to defy the laws of physics is matter from another universe. This is supported by Planet of Evil, in which material from another universe has a similar effect in turning people into werewolves.

I think the Yssgaroth/ Hollow Earth theory fits Inferno perfectly. The very title of this serial captures the idea of hell being underground. The drilling station is not simply causing an ecological disaster, but is awakening demonic forces. Notice that the Primords and Stahlman in particular act like they are under the control of some unseen force. They are being controlled the Yssgaroth, who want to escape and unleash havoc on the universe (no pun intended).

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Time Heist



Wow, I actually liked this one!

The very enjoyable Rings of Akhaten showed that once they get the Doctor and the TARDIS away from Earth, the production team can sometimes come up with a decent Doctor Who story.

Taking the standard tropes of a heist/ crime thriller, this episode delivers an exiciting piece of science fiction action. This story does not do anything amazing or radical, but it is a solid and entertaining story all the same.

Time Heist is well served by an interesting set of guest characters. What is more, we get an interesting and very enjoyable villain in Madame Karaborax and her clone. The alien monster, the Teller is very effective and scary looking, even if it has become something of a cliche in the new series for monsters to turn out to be nice creatures in the end.

I'm not a big fan of plots which revolve around the mechanics of time travel and backward story telling, but the time travel elements are not too confusing here. I'm a bit concerned though, that Dr. Who might have altered history by freeing the Teller. I don't think he should be able to do that. I was very pleased and relieved that Karabarox did not die a gruesome death, as I expected, but got the chance to feel remorse for her actions.

There are a few problems with the plot, such as how the Doctor got into the bank to place the architect's gadgets. However, these are the sort of problems with most Doctor Who stories.

Along with Rings of Akhaten, this is among the better stories of the Moffat era.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Klein by the Sea



I asked the excellent French artist Claire Lyxa to once again draw Elizabeth Klein from the Big Finish audios. This time, I asked her to draw our favorite Teutonic scientist walking by the sea.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Listen



Listen draws heavily on all the Moffat tropes that we have become very used to; frightened children, characters meeting other characters as children, sitcom dating and monsters that exist beyond the boundaries of human perception. Nevertheless, despite the familiarity of these tropes, the finished product is something that comes across as quite surprising. Arguably it's not bad television, but I do not very much like it at all myself.

The episode begins with the Doctor speculating about whether unseen beings might be listening to him. He engages in some very illogical, if intuitive, thinking. His thoughts that there might be things listening to him when he speaks alone come across to me as rather childish. I'd like to think that Dr. Who had something more intelligent to say.

Everybody has the same nightmare? I can't remember ever having a nightmare about something scary being under my bed. My nightmares have involved things happening to me within the dream, rather than things located in my bedroom. Perhaps when I was younger I might have been afraid of unknown terrors being in my room or in the house, but being aware that I was in bed, these were not nightmares as such. Maybe this is just semantics and the Doctor is not talking about nightmares, but about nightime fears in general. It seems a bit clumsy though.

Once again, Moffat follows the odd reasoning that because Doctor Who is a program for children, it should feature children and deal directly with chidhood fears. I think this probably puts off a lot of young viewers. Children are not generally interested in watching other children, unless it is a child they want to indentify with. Children will enjoy watching a child going off and having adventures, doing the things they would like to do themselves. They are less likely to enjoy watching a child who is afraid of the dark, which will either remind them of their own fears or else be considered a bit wet. I rather think the show has lost something with the current policy of only having adult companions in their twenties. Why can't we have a teenage companion like we had in the Sixties?

We get a glimpse of the Doctor's childhood. It's an odd sequence. It doesen't really fit with anything we have previously been told about the Doctor's childhood. The couple talking about him don't seem much like Lance Parkin's Ulysses and Penelope. But I'm not going to wrestle with the continuity questions, as I don't consider the New Series to be canon.

It is nice to get a reference to the Hartnell era in this story with the line 'fear makes companions of us all,' but I can't help feeling that line is reduced here to mawkish sentimentality. The point of that line was that in that story, the Doctor and Ian and Barbara were effectively enemies. Dr. Who was a dangerous figure who kidnapped people, yet circumstances meant he had to form an alliance with the people he had kidnapped.

This kind of story rests on the assumption that Doctor Who is all about terrors entering the domestic space. Moffat takes the whole idea of 'Yeti in the loo' to the next level. A lot of people see Doctor Who that way, but I don't. It's an idea about Doctor Who that is a far cry from the show in the Sixties, in which the Doctor and his companions went to places and had adventures. Stories of this kind, which focus on domestic terrors usually at least offer some kind of monster. This does not offer one at all. It is not even certain that the thing in Rupert's bedroom really is an entity at all and not just some psychological manifestation. This is simply a story about fear itself. That might be an interesting idea, but as a Doctor Who story feels rather unrewarding and falls a little flat. This feels far too introspective a story.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Shakedown, by Terrance Dicks (Virgin New Adventure)



Shakedown, originally a Virgin New Adventure, was republished by BBC Books as part of a series of novels called 'The Monster Collection.' These all featured images of New Series monsters on the cover art. Having a New Series Sontaran on the cover is fine with me, though the New Series Eocene on the cover of the newly repuglished Scales of Injustice seemed a bit weird. Nevertheless, I was glad to see Virgin novels being republished by BBC books. I was disappointed that the Remembrance of the Daleks novelisation rather than a New Adventure was re-released as the represenative Seventh Doctor novel. That said, the New Adventures were not really about reviving famous monsters, they were about doing new and exciting things with Doctor Who.

Shakedown began life as a fan made video production, featuring the Sontarans, but not the Doctor. It was scripted by Terrance Dicks, apparently for a very minimal fee. Terrance Dicks was later approached by Virgin, who wanted him to adapt it as a novel featuring the Doctor. Instead of changing the story of Shakedown to include the Doctor, Dicks did something rather more interesting. He wrote a basic novelisation of Shakedown, then included this as the middle section of a longer novel. This novel created a literary backstory for the fan movie. This involved the Doctor and his companions pursuing a Rutan spy.

Shakedown is written in that minimalistic, unfancy prose which characterised Terrance Dicks' novelisations. The middle section, based on the fan movie, is very reminiscent of his Target novels. However, it also draws on his Virgin novels too, with the playfulness and the endless references to other Doctor Who storie, especially Uncel Terry's own scripts. And with it being a Terrance Dicks, a female character inevitably gets threatened with rape.

As with some of his other novels, Dicks tends to make the Seventh Doctor seem more like Pertwee than McCoy, though he gets Bernice, Chris and Roz spot on. The Sontarans were portrayed more sympathetically here than in the Classic Series, one can see the emergence of the friendly Sontarans of the New Series. I was rather glad to see the Rutans getting a bit more attention here. I think they are a great monster.

There is some great world-buiding here, especially the planet of insectoid Oxford dons. Likewise, Dick's portrayal of the corrupt and anarchic Megacity has a cynicism to match the late Robert Holmes. The most striking character we are introdued to is the Ogron police chief, a polite and educated Ogron, who sips tea and eats cakes. Before we can applaud Dicks for breaking stereoypes, it turns out that this Ogron has been surgically altered. This is rather disappointing. Dicks just assumes Ogrons are all dumb because they conform to racially suspect stereotypes. Wouldn't it have been nice if Dicks had given us an Ogron who really did fail to conform to the cliche (without having been 'civilized' by surgery)? But we can hardly expect Uncle Terry to be progressive.

This is a fun novel with plenty of action. Readers who have grown up with Terrance Dicks' Target novels will very much enjoy this.



Sunday, 7 September 2014

Robot of Sherwood



I generally find Mark Gatiss' stories unbearably awful, so I was not looking forward to this. It turned out to be rather better than I expected. Much of the strength of the story lies in Tom Riley's delightful performance as Robin Hood, effectively managing to rival Capaldi's Dr. Who as the leading man.

A colleague of mine offered his opinions to me about the new Doctor. He said he thought there was too much of a tension between the attempt to make the Doctor more serious and a continuing tendency to make the Doctor very quirky and funny. I think he is largely correct. Robot of Sherwood seems to attempt to address this, by putting the Capaldi's grim and dour Doctor next to a character who is flippant and jokey.

Mark Gatiss' preferred genre is the celebrity theme park historical. He seems to place with this here by having the Doctor suspicious of just how much this Robin Hood conforms to genre. I ended up feeling slightly disappointed when Robin turned out to be the real thing. The story had set up the idea of a false Robin and then given us a real one. I think this was trying too hard to be clever. If you want to put Dr. Who in an Eroll Flyn type Robin Hood adventure, just do it. You don't need to lampshade it. Of course, I'm not sure how familiar this old fashioned picture of Robin Hood will be to younger viewers. For them Prince of Thieves seems as ancient as Casablanca.

On the whole this is a rather dull story. Like any New Series pseudo-historical, there is some alien mucking about who gets sorted out very easily by Dr. Who. The alien robots here are developed enough to be interesting, though it is implied they might be connected to the robots in Deep Breath.

I was not quite convinced by Clara's scene with the Sheriff. The way she was pumping him for information seemed just a bit too obvious. His line about "First Nottingham.." was good though.

Having a short Little John is not funny. The whole point about the character is the irony of him being big.

Robot of Sherwood manages to be fun, but that is more down to the strength of the performances than the quality of the writing.



Thursday, 4 September 2014

Galaxy Four (revisited)



I reviewed Galaxy Four quite a long time ago, but having watched the rediscovered episode three and the new reconstrution on the Aztecs DVD, I thought I ought to write something about it.

The reconstruction on the DVD is very impressive, despite the scarcity of material. It's better than the Loose Canon recon and better than many other recons with far more available photographic material.

I am struck how much this is a story aimed at the kids. Not in the way that today's show aims stuff at children, with dumb laughs and non-stop action, but with a simple plot and simple morals. As I said in my previous review, there is an element of fairytale (not the Disney or Moffat style) in these Hartnell stories.

The recovered episode demonstrates that Stephanie Bidmead's performance as Maaga is less than impressive. As Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood say, she comes across as a "slightly irked school dinner lady," rather than a villain with true menace.

I think the Drahvins are a future offshoot of humanity. Maaga strongly imples that she (unlike her soldiers) is human. That means that this story, like a number of other Hartnell stories is set far into the future. For some reason, the First Doctor seems to end up in the far, far future far more often than his later incarnations.

I think this story would have worked well as a Graham Williams era story. Romana would have been able to fight Maaga, K9 could make Computer Love to the Chumblies and Tom Baker's Doctor would have been completely dismissive of the whole story. Quite a few Graham Williams stories feel like send-ups of the Hartnell era.

I still feel very sorry for the Drahvins who are left to perish with the dying planet. I wish Dr. Who could have found a way to save them.





Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Romana I Demotivator



Mary Tamm, we miss you.