Monday, 11 August 2014

The Ambassadors (TWANG!)of Death

In the past fortnight, whilst watching the Third Doctor's tangle with the British Space Programme, I decided to renew my acquaintance with its progenitor, Professor Bernard Quatermass. While the Doctor was dealing with a mysteriously empty space rocket, I watched (and read, in Penguin) about the Professor dealing with a mysteriously empty space rocket, and not longer after the Doctor went heroically into space to deal with the problem himself, the Professor went heroically into space to deal with his. I don't know if fan fiction has yet recorded the meeting of these two great minds, perhaps in the lounge of some Marylebone pub, but what with their shared experience of ancient inhabitants of Earth, uncanny meteorites, possession, sinister factories and deadly plant creatures, they wouldn't be stuck for conversation.

Just so long as they weren't later joined by the Professor's journalist friend, Hugo Conrad (played marvellously by Roger Delgado). That might have been awkward. (There's a less exciting but somehow more apt casting connection between the two worlds, in the form of Cyril Shaps: in Quatermass II, he's the technician who guides the Professor in his rocket toward the mysterious Thing on the dark side of the Earth - in Doctor Who, he's Viner, landing a rocket with a bunch of other astronauts to dig up the Tomb of the Cybermen, and even more appropriately, he's a discredited scientist blackmailed into helping the villains in - The Ambassadors of Death!)

The more you watch, the more you gasp in disbelief at the ideas, plot twists and images half-inched by Doctor Who (though interestingly, unless I've miscalculated, only in the Second Doctor's adventures and onward - even The War Machines doesn't feel that much like a Nigel Kneale story). And who can blame them? One of the fun things about Doctor Who is that the Doctor himself is fairly unique as a protagonist, and it's fun to drop him into other people's stories and see how he messes them up. The Doctor's alien qualities give a very specific and interesting twist to And The Silurians, The Ambassadors of Death and, of course, Inferno, whilst The Web of Fear, Spearhead from Space and The Seeds of Doom (to name the three most Knealeian stories) benefit from a more flamboyant, flippant or eccentric hero.

The Ambassadors of Death is a terrifically fun story, albeit with only a couple of lapses (somewhere round the middle, and right at the end). It plays off adult viewers' memories of Quatermass as much as it explores its child viewers' expectations. Much as it does steal from Nigel, there's lots of evidence here that the production team care about Doctor Who as a discrete entity with a particular moral stance: so, immediately following And The Silurians, we have a benevolent alien race and a highly negative depiction of military paranoia. When I was watching it, I kept waiting for the Brigadier to be given something to do - it's still weird to have him in every story - and suddenly he got it, stumbling upon a conspiracy of British Intelligence, arrested by his own men and obliged to make a getaway in Bessie. There's no overt connection made between this story and the last, but I think perhaps this is where the Brigadier realises that the Doctor is right: he sees his own paranoia in a dark mirror.

The action is brilliantly directed, and everything seems to take place in a decidedly moody winter's landscape. Bessie's hood is up, Liz Shaw makes sure to keep her hat on, and of course, the Ambassadors are careful not to unzip their space suits. It's bitter! The Doctor's in a terrible mood throughout the story, which somewhat detracts from the action - he takes himself so very seriously, all of a sudden, and there's really not enough banter between him and Liz Shaw, even when she brings him a mug of tea in his redesigned Tardis console room and he can't take his eyes off the telly. I've decided Liz has entered my pantheon of great Doctor Who companions. I want there to be hundreds of spin off novels about her.

Like all good companions, she exists on the fault-line which runs through Doctor Who between high seriousness and high camp. Her performance is wonderfully intense - helped along by some freaky, Ghost Stories for Christmas video effects when the Ambassador temporarily takes his hat off to her - but her outfit wouldn't look out of place on Lulu at Eurovision. Meanwhile, her fellow technicians look soberly into camera while droning on about the space ship intercepting the Doctor's rocket, as though heavily sedated. Jon Pertwee, too, is playing it very straight - but presumably he can't see how rudimentary is the video effect overlaying him into a giant segment of satsuma. And how else can you respond to Docteur Tartalian (never the same accent twice).

However much Doctor Who is inspired by Quatermass, it is always itself, always somehow ludicrous, funny and frightening in its own special way. And along with all that comes something Quatermass doesn't have - aliens who come in peace.

Oh, and Sergeant Benton's arrived!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Doctor Who and the Silurians

Like a holographic image, perspective is crucial with Doctor Who. From a certain angle, it appears to be a single, coherent structure: a series of adventures about a hero with a changing face, stretching continuously across five decades and more. This illusion is preserved because of certain choices by production teams - unlike John Steed of The Avengers, the Doctor never actually experiences the same adventure twice (despite his earliest stories being unavailable to audiences immediately they were broadcast) and changes in cast and location are woven into the series with various attempts at dramatic seriousness (the sadness of a companion leaving, the upheaval of a Doctor's regeneration).

It's all a complete illusion, of course. Successive writers brought their interpretation of the character to the script, the script editor ensured nothing jarred too badly, the actor incorporated it into his performance, and the fans did the rest.

I thought about this illusion again this week, when some friends were discussing how best to watch Doctor Who if you were entirely new to it. I, typically, found myself on the fence. (Ouch.) I couldn't help agreeing that the chronological viewing experience is not really 'orthodox' or even very representative. There have never been more than a small handful of viewers who have seen the show in that way, and it was never made for them. Every audience of the show has had a successive, idiosyncratic, partial, selective and slightly mistaken idea of what the Doctor was doing before the current adventure.

That's how I saw the show. I was six when the series ended, and ten when I became a fan. I watched stories based on their availability at my local library, or based on relatives' decisions at Christmas, completely out of order till 2005.

But there is something alluring about that idea of an ongoing narrative. Like the idea that Ian and Barbara introduce an element of humanity into the Doctor's life which make him the man he is today, or that the Second Doctor and Jamie travlled as agents of the Time Lords between stories. The illusion is particularly strong during Season 7, when some attention has been given to the Doctor's relationship with his new surroundings.

This wonderfully dark (in all senses) story, and particularly its ending, are a moment of lost innocence for the Doctor. For a hundred years or so, it seems, he's been the one in charge - the hero of the hour, with young humans aboard his Tardis, who generally do what he says. Now he's like a companion to the Brigadier, somewhat subservient to his priorities and his morality. In this story, his trust is abused and the slightly starchy young human - with whom he was so matey when they encountered the Yeti and Cybermen - turns out to be disobedient, somewhat powerful, and rather dangerous.

The Brigadier becomes an interesting figure, partly because the writers are not very interested in his psychology, and therefore he comes off as slightly unreal - perhaps even unwell. In The Web of Fear, he's impressively open-minded. In The Invasion, we see that he has established this military 'unit' to deal with the unexplained. By Spearhead from Space, despite his charm, he is something of a loner. He replies to Liz Shaw's scepticism with the practiced calm of someone who has trod a solitary path for quite a while. He is waiting for his one true ally, the Doctor, to come back.

But he treats the Doctor - whose change of appearance he finds impossible and then credible within a short space of time - with suspicion, even as a child. The pair behave as if it was the same early days of their friendship, but in fact they are increasingly uncertain of one another. In this story he trusts the Doctor throughout, in spite of all hell breaking loose. He is patient to the end. But the Doctor learns not to mistake that for friendship.

This is the story of the Doctor being taken to the Wenley Moor research station by the Brigadier, much as the Doctor once took his companions to new and mysterious places. The Brigadier has an impressive eye for weird shit waiting to go off - the eye of a fanatic, almost. And not only are the Silurians an unknown 'weird shit' quantity for all concerned, but the Doctor himself proves to be a dangerous quantity. The Brigadier saves his life and provides the resolution to the story. The Doctor, by contrast, nearly gets the Brigadier killed.

It's a fascinating new development in the life of a man who used to be carefree and now finds himself involved in other people's lives: Liz, the Brigadier, the planet Earth, the Silurians. The Doctor is involved in a bigger adventure now - the ongoing history of the human race. At one point, he recklessly gambles humankind's safety, hoping to set history on a new course, a 1970s or 1980s Earth shared by humans and intelligent reptiles. The denouement is not merely a revelation about the Brigadier's powers, but also the Doctor;s disempowerment.

Of course, it's all in my mind. Jon Pertwee doesn't know how matey he used to be with the Brigadier. He doesn't realise how much things have changed for them - and Malcolm Hulke doesn't know that the Doctor will end the season by meeting a dark mirror of his friend (or begin the next season with his own dodgy doppelganger turning up). It's all a product of watching the series in sequence, a series made by people deeply engaged with its possibilities, its ideas of morality and terror. The effect is perverse and illusory - but also fascinating.