Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Spearhead from Space

Before I begin: look at this extraordinarily gorgeous piece of artwork for Spearhead from Space. It's one of the most attractive pieces of Doctor Who artwork I've seen since the days of illustrated video covers. It was made by an artist called Geoffrey Cole whose website is here: 
I found it on his blog, here.

So - what a huge treat this story is.

The Troughton years have their high points, visually. There's a dynamism to The Seeds of Death, brilliant direction in The Web of Fear, and eye-popping design in The War Games. Whenever the show gets on film, as in the closing scenes Enemy of the World, it looks terrifically atmospheric. This is a story that goes just that bit further, and the contrast made me swoon. It has the tangy natural light and the swishy visual style of a Hammer movie.

It has real menace too. It's the return of that idea in Doctor Who - begun with Lesterson in Power of the Daleks, I think - that some monsters are so scary they can send you slightly round the bend with fear. It really feels justified with these monsters, too. The Autons are deeply uncanny objects, their vaguely human body language only exaggerating their powerfully inhuman appearance. It might have been better to have our first glimpse of one be that glancing shot as the UNIT driver crashes his car. But there are multiple other horror moments, perfectly orchestrated. That poor dog. Those poor commuters!

The Ealing Broadway scene is really frightening. If I'd been a child in 1970 it might have been touch and go whether I watched the show again! It's not telegraphed beforehand - there is no plotline about the factory supplying mannequins to anybody - and it happens, innocuously, not only a high street, but in broad daylight.

What is all this fear in aid of? I suppose it's a sort of ghost story about how little we can judge from a person's physical appearance. The Brigadier doesn't recognise the Doctor - and monsters masquerade as men. It's also about the human ability to make the world itself more monstrous, by creating uncanny, lifeless simulacra of the things that used to matter to us. The Nestene's toehold on Earth is our cultural taste for the inhuman.

The pacing is unusual, the last episode full of action, the rest a slow build, with the Doctor unconscious for much of episode one. It's a brave choice, signalling that the production team want a whole new audience. Fortunately, it restores a little of his mystery, after so much of it was taken away. We may know his life story, but do we know this new incarnation?

It really is very odd to watch Jon Pertwee play the Doctor, after a year and a half (for me) of someone scruffy, schoolboyish, very rarely sober and composed, even more rarely bolshy ('I suppose you want to see my pass - well, I haven't got one...' is a fun scene you just can't imagine happening before this story). This is a camper Doctor, a more grown-up Doctor, perhaps more serious - certainly keener to be taken seriously.

But the fun of the show is that this man is a scientific genius, and he really doesn't behave like one. He's James Bond but he understands astrophysics. He's John Steed but he's been a time traveller. I always thought him so much more conventional than his other incarnations, but I'm beginning to realise that's the trick. And he does have a wonderfully schoolboy streak.

He's particularly naughty - and more like his First Incarnation - when he tricks his new friend Liz into betraying their boss, the Doctor's old pal, the Brigadier, and helping him (almost) escape from his commitments, potentially leaving the Earth to the grasping tentacles of the Nestene. Slightly shocking, isn't it? The fact that the Brigadier predicts such behaviour - perhaps even incites it, by keeping the key - makes it all the more interesting.

Room for some interesting stories there, I think.

And I don't want to go on too long and bore you, but Liz Shaw is an a brilliant addition to the team. I mean, I love Zoe Heriot, but with Liz comes the realisation that the Doctor hasn't travelled with a grown-up woman since, perhaps Sara, but probably Barbara. She's modern, she's wry, she's curious, she's clever, and Caroline John performs her perfectly.

The Brigadier without her put-downs is almost unthinkable.

This is the only story in Season 7 with which I'm really familiar. I know - oh boy, do I know - that it won't look and feel quite like this, and that some of the potential of the set-up remains unexplored. But I'm very excited for the rest of the run. And one last thing: I'd forgotten how much I love the Third Doctor's title sequence. I really think it might be my favourite, I would watch it for days.

And I suppose I will!

Next time: Doctor Who and 
the Cave Monsters

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

End of Two Eras

Alien planets. Monochrome sets. Childlike companions. Daleks - and Cybermen, perhaps more so. I've come to the end of two eras: Patrick Troughton's time in the role of Doctor Who, and the wider time-frame of the 1960s. For the last couple of years I've been watching these shows in order, and now I'm embarking on a whole new series in a whole new style. It's a lot to let go of.

I've never been a very great fan of the Third Doctor, and I've always been hugely fond of the 1960s in general. These statements are linked very clearly, because everything about the Third Doctor's years is basically antithetical to the years of Voords and Quarks, the days of flight through eternity, of grand follies like the Web Planet of Vortis or the burning of Rome all in Studio 2D for less than the price of a bag of mint imperials.

The Third Doctor is a fighter, not a thinker - dapper, not a scruff. He works with the military, hangs out with the establishment, and has all the mystery of Superman (and twice of the cape, you might say). Is he (dramatic chord) Doctorish at all?

And is this going to be the worst summer's telly viewing ever?

Watching the first two Doctors in order was both a pleasure and a revelation. Before I began, I would probably have pinpointed Patrick Troughton as my absolute favourite, and more than that - as the absolute typical Doctor, with the series crystallising into something that is familiar across twenty-six years, plus fifteen years of books, and then nine years of TV again.

I absolutely fell in love with Hartnell's era, though. It's the only point in the whole series when the Tardis does what it should - goes to the future, the past, the present day, and sideways too. It's a time when we really care about the companions, when the actors are always slightly revelling into being the most mundane sci-fi heroes ever. A time of rampant invention.

Things settle down with Troughton, I've realised. We get patterns, types, and an increasing reliance on formula. Some of it's brilliant, but little of it would come alive without Troughton himself, and occasionally you catch him looking bored. It's still an incredible mass of scary, charming, sometimes surreal and totally unique stories.

What will I discover about Jon Pertwee, now that we're moving into a new world (almost literally) and a bold new style? The funny thing is, while I've never been a fan of his Doctor, I'm fascinated by his oddness - fascinated by the way he does, of course, remain Doctorish. He is quintessentially Doctorish, somehow. When I was a child in the early 90s, Pertwee was the only actor who seemed to take pride in his association with the role. His stories were repeated and somehow 'in the air'. He was, is, and always will be Doctor Who.

Some of his stories are favourites of mine, too. Spearhead from Space. Terror of the Autons. The Curse of Peladon. He's also the Doctor I've seen least of. The Daemons. The Time Monster. All still to see.
I've never been a fan of the Third Doctor, but I'm a Doctor Who fan - I have no choice. I love it all, and I'm fascinated by what I don't love. And I'm really - really - excited about this new era of Doctor Who.

Grown-up companions. Sergeant Benton. Car chases. The Master. Silurians. Pointing. I hope you'll join me in this new era, and my adventures with the Dandy...