Friday, 27 March 2015

Planet of the Daleks

Apparently, with this story I officially arrive at the midway point of pre-2005 Doctor Who. I am deep in the thick of the alien jungle, green light bathing my face, up to my pac-a-mac elbows in deadly plant spume, weird Dick Mill bird noises screeching round my bewildered head. But doesn't it feel a good deal further from Survival than An Unearthly Child? More to the point, doesn't 1964's The Dead Planet feel very near?

After the mordant political allegory of the previous story – well, alright, after the Master and his sardonic, thoroughly 1970s attitude to everyone he meets –
this story is utterly wide-eyed. Political machinations and humanity's latent fear of the Other are displaced as threats by invisible aliens, eye-plants and – 'Daleks!' Even in the 1960s, the show was never as Flash Gordon as this, with its improvised air rafts and ice volcanoes. What with the gaudy colour scheme, this feels more like the Chad Valley Give-A-Show Projector era.

I already miss the Master. Without him around, pretty much everybody in the story is just too nice. Too selfless. Too sweet. The Master is above such things, and one can imagine him rolling his eyes at any number of homilies from Uncle Pertwee in this story, not to mention the stone-age sexual politics governing the Thals romantic relationships. The Master isn't just evil – he's amoral, completely uncommitted to a principle, an objective or another person. He has the detachment of a TV viewer: he smokes and drinks and laughs, rather cynically, at anyone taking themselves too seriously.

But this is a story completely without that cynicism, and we are encouraged to set ours aside for the duration of the story too. The production team are aiming for high grade escapism, and do you know what? I think they do a fantastic job. The story moves at a fair pace, six episodes feeling like four, and the many outrageous set-pieces, the weird planet of Spiridon and its subterranean city, are painted on the screen in wonderfully gaudy hues. It's a massive improvement on Solos, and even Omega's anti-world.

Another improvement concerns the Daleks.  Back in the Day, they looked and sounded about as threatening as a clothes airer with a cat stuck in it – a far cry from the devious, quasi-demonic villains of the 1960s. In this story, David Maloney pulls them back from that ignominy. They still don't behave like the sharpest egg-whisks in the kitchen, with so many plans to attack the Universe they can't pick one to go with first, and end up a) locking themselves in a room with their own deadly contagion, b) situating their army fatally close to a deadly volcano, and c) leaving their spaceship unguarded so their enemies can just stroll in and fly away in it.

But they sound proper. Crunchy. And hysterical. They rant like coked-up executives having mental breakdowns. Their Supreme, who looks utterly edible, goes so far as to exterminate one of his inferiors after too much bad news in the board room: sort of like the denouement of The Apprentice, but with ring modulators and luminous eyestalks. Brilliant.

There's even a scene where the Doctor has to clamber into a nest of groggy Daleks, their sucker arms twitching at his velvet coat-tails. It's one example of a story doing style over substance, but doing it pretty deliciously.

As well as being midway through the series, I have my own particular fondness for this story. Shown on Friday nights for the thirtieth anniversary, Planet of the Daleks was the last Who I watched not as a fan. I saw it with the detachment of any other television viewer, even with some amusement. (When I bought The Dead Planet script-book in 1994, it was 'for a laugh'. Ha.) I thought of it as entirely representative of the Pertwee era, and in fact, of Doctor Who in general.

Funnily enough, sitting here and writing this now, I can't tell whether I was right or wrong.

But I do think it's a pity we don't have a shot of the Thals entering the Dalek spaceship at the story's end, a fair-haired man already at the controls. A man who turns to greet them, lifts a black-gloved hand, sweeps off the blonde wig, to reveal...

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Frontier in Space

Doctor Who is a lovely example of the wise adage, ‘Less is more’, along with the philosophy, ‘Wise adages are for wimps, let’s give it a try anyway.’ Every now and then, its makers decide to go epic, grand, Cecil B. DeMille crazy. The temptation is there: your canvas is the size of the history of the Universe, can you really restrict your painting to one corner at a time? And when Doctor Who goes epic, the running time always goes up – possibly to stretch the budget a bit further, possibly to fit in extra world-building and character stuff.

From The Daleks’ Master Plan to The End of Time, via Evil of the Daleks, The Invasion and The War Games, with Day of the Doctor thrown in for good measure: small is beautiful but big is special. And so with Frontier in Space and its sequel Planet of the Daleks.

These last two are interesting, in that they’re essentially a remake of that big Hartnell mega-story. Future dystopias, Global Presidents struggling to hold onto power, prison ships, weird-looking aliens in galactic peace treaties, and the Daleks: they’re all here. The Monk has been supplanted by the Master. Jo, like Katarina, is imprisoned in an airlock, though she comes out of that a bit better. It’s a bold idea, for an era without VHS: to return to the ideas, and ‘reimagine’ them for the new era.

They skipped the Dixon of Dock Green parody, but then, life isn't fair.

I’m a big fan of The Daleks’ Master Plan, and a 1970s tribute is justified. I wouldn’t have minded another remake with Davison, Ainley, Davros and Beryl Reid – and another with Smith, Kingston and some CGI Varga Plants. The Pertwee era brings swagger, helped by some familiar faces and ideas: look at Jo Grant, chewing gum in her calf-length platform boots, telling the Doctor off for a ‘traffic accident in space’, then asking whether the Earth Empire is the same one she saw on Solos, and are the Ogrons working for the Daleks...?

It’s a very good story for Jo. She gets a lot of funny lines, two good outfits, she talks sense to the Draconian Emperor and puts the Master in his place: ‘Oh well, can’t win ‘em all!’ In fact, she gives us perhaps the big moment of the story, even the season. Rejecting the Master’s hypnosis, she then overcomes his little box of frights. This is a story about the power of fear, but ‘It doesn’t work on me any more,’ says Jo.

It’s a timely bit of progression, with only two more stories of Ms Grant still to enjoy. When a companion isn’t scared any more, it’s probably time for somebody new.

Unfortunately, it’s not timely in a narrative sense. Really this should be the conclusion of the story, not thrown away as a cliff-hanger resolution. It’s typical of a story that never quite knows when it’s underway. Rather peculiarly, the Daleks travel across space to wave from a cliff-top, then set off for home: a twist delayed too far, another cliff-hanger missed. This is the thing about over-extending Who: it never ends well. Or, it might end well and open well, but for several episodes in the middle you’ll be checking your watch.

Never when Roger Delgado is onscreen, though. I’m not big on the Doctor having a recurring nemesis, but there’s no two ways about it – this works. Has worked. It’s the end of an era. The end of a true peer for the Doctor, now that the Brigadier’s been rewritten as a military buffoon; the end of a superb, sharp counterpoint to the Doctor and Jo’s almost oversweet moral certainty; the end of a delicious performance, which Malcolm Hulke supplies with endless riches: the Master has more character moments, victories and funny lines than the Doctor's had all season.

Perhaps that's the real reason this story never quite galvanises. The Doctor fades into a rather bland hero: even his outfit seems less dandyish, somehow, shirts less frill-fronted, frock coat less frockish.

But of course, the story’s not over – not in any sense. In the last five minutes, where nothing makes sense, the Doctor is fatally wounded. In a Tenth Planet-esque effort of will, he clutches the console, desperately contacting the Time Lords. The Tardis flies into the darkness – the atmosphere is grave – the scene is set...

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Carnival of Monsters

In retrospect, it seems odd that Doctor Who's anniversary story should be so world-building, so forward-thinking, so unlike the stories of the First and Second, even to a large extent, the Third Doctor – only for the following story to encapsulate, in many regards, intrinsic qualities running throughout the series, and to reflect on them too. But that's what Robert Holmes, and the rest of the production team, managed to do.

It's not just that the Doctor and Jo are back in time and space. They went to the planet of the flea people last year, and the lost city of Atlantis not long after (Jo even got her hair done there). Carnival of Monsters, like my beloved Curse of Peladon, has a cosmic worldview, one that mirrors the unbounded multiplicity of a writer's imagination. Vorg the showman is really Robert Holmes in a false moustache: he can gather who he likes together, make them fight, pick them out of one world and drop them in another. As Jo says, at one point, 'I suppose we're due for monster bit in a minute.'

Like the Doctor (another double of his, in many regards) he's a figure who represents endless invention and mutability. If you can imagine it, the Tardis can take you there, and in this story multiple worlds are conjured up: Inter Minor, 1920s Earth, Drashiggia, and those places only gestured toward – the backwaters and fairgrounds that Vorg and Shirna tap dance in and out of, the Doctor's home planet, where he once ran a political campaign, and the worlds of Ogrons, Cybermen, Prehistoric Earth. In the Miniscope (which is, what – the story, the telly, broadcast media in general?) they can be interwoven.

It's all imagined and woven together so apparently effortlessly, each with its own little narrative, that the viewer really thinks – yes, the Universe really is a big place. And yes, it really is all one thing. Either because we can make it one narrative, or because we can bring it all together and look at it, or because we can travel between them all – these many worlds are all combined in us, our minds, our lives.

Holmes makes the continuity of worlds part of the colour and liveliness of the story. Alien travellers in the far future still use polari – in fact, they sometimes work fairgrounds on Earth (and do we realise they are not Earthmen when we see them?). Grey people called Shallak can fall for the same old cup-and-ball routine you see in old movies. Shirna, the hoofer from beyond the stars, even shares the viewer's POV, entertained by the Doctor's heroics, lifted out of her despondency by the magic of the Tardis dematerialisation at the end.

But it's all one thing in a serious way, too. We are shown that the actions of the audience are not disconnected from the lives of the people they watch, or the governing body that permits the show to run. The personal is political.

This is really a satire on how storytelling runs the world, the unreal representing and sometimes governing the real – from the romantic novel read by a man of the Empire ('Good heavens, a memsahib!' he exclaims, on discovering Jo) which ends disappointingly with a character becoming a missionary, to the machinations of the grey people to make bad news for the President (and play down bad news about the working masses). Power, oppression, pleasure, are all in the same industry.

The Three Doctors has no real story: its pleasure is all in the interplay of Doctors, companions, Omega himself. The problem at the heart of the story is a sad paradox: the freedom of the Time Lords is founded on the suffering of one man. The question is never asked, Is it worth it, or Can we find a compromise? Omega has already gone mad and tried to destroy the universe – the cartooniness of Bob Baker and Dave Martin, which works in its own way – leaves us nowhere to go but a big bang and a scream. In Carnival of Monsters, the oppressive Miniscope is partially transformed into a Tardis, a symbol of liberation. Then it's destroyed – and everything is changed.

Even Vorg becomes temporarily heroic. But like the Doctor, he finishes the story as a man of words rather than status – a vagabond, exactly as the Doctor identifies himself, surviving on his wits.

What's distinctively Doctor Who about this story, is the lightness of touch. It's a complex story, but deftly presented for a general audience: playful rather than self-important. Visually, it's a treat - and it's actually funny. The little guys win the upper hand, and not just by escaping a dimensional compression field. When the Doctor faces the Tribunal at last, he beats them immediately on the strength of his rhetoric – a Doctorish victory more persuasive than the combined Three Doctors managed last story, and a brilliant moment for Jon Pertwee.

Just when you start to think the show has changed completely, or that in leaving UNIT behind it might fall back on old stories, it reminds us why this show means something: invention, reinvention, liberation and alienness.

Can it last...?

Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Three Doctors

Season 10 is an interesting time for Doctor Who to be introspective. For all that Patrick Troughton's era has a different emphasis to William Hartnell's, superficially it's still just, 'But Doctor, where have we landed this week...?' It was noticeable as early as Spearhead in Space that the producers were courting a new audience, and we've made it through three seasons with no glancing back, no references to successes of recent memory (Yeti, Cybermen, Jamie's hairy legs). There was one encounter with the dreaded Daleks, and the one with the Ice Warriors saw them in a new light.

The format of the show has changed, of course ('But Doctor, who is it that's landed where we are this week...?'), but the much bigger difference is the complete reimagining of Doctor Who into Doctor Time Lord; the man of mystery becoming the man who ran away from Shangri-la, who grew up on a mountainside, talking to hermits, went to school with a kid who grew up to be the universe's most dedicated moustache-twirler, and now lives in exile, doing occasional cosmic courier work and driving vintage cars down country lanes at twice the speed of sound.

Quite strikingly, while it celebrates the past, this is a story it would be impossible for the show to have told in any previous era.

With this story, we get a potted history of his home world, not to mention an insight into Time Lord society: when their President foresees the loss of their 'time travel facility', he fears becoming 'as vulnerable as those we are pledged to protect'. They are the ultimate, the omniscient superpower, not 'intervening' but nevertheless 'Lording' it up. Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts have steadily developed this culture to the extent that practically everything the Doctor is or does is within its context. This cosmogony - a spectrum of enlightenment with the portentous President and Chancellor at one end, the Brig and Benton at the other, and Jo and the Doctor in the middle - seems bound to keep producing stories about magic, technology and god. What is the best way of seeing the world? What is the nature of power?

The result has been a new version of our hero with wants and cares. The First Doctor, for example, was never seen to think particularly of redemption of the Monk, as the Third  does of the Master. The Third Doctor is pained by Omega's impossible yearning to be free: for only a second, but a second longer than the Second Doctor ever considered his adversaries.

Omega is the Doctor seen through a CSO effect darkly: stranded on an alien world by the Time Lords, driven insane with resentment and pride, and Master of all he surveys. He is not content to be a hero, like Jon Pertwee. He quite fancies being a God. Perhaps the Doctor should tell another little anecdote, about Azal and the Daemons, and how they ended up.

There is a case for saying that these ideas remain under-developed in favour of daring escapes to inevitable dangers, and it's a strong case. I must say it would be good to see the Third Doctor envying his younger self's cavalier attitude to time travel, to see Jo disputing with the President of the High Council, or have the Brigadier say goodbye to his scientific adviser as if he means it ('Wonderful chap - both of him,' being more than adequate, I suppose). But equally, the show's treatment of all these ideas would be nothing without the lightness and irreverence they receive here. Troughton's performance is emblematic, but Manning and Courtney know their stuff too, and the whole shebang has genuine charm. Even Hartnell, perhaps my favourite Doctor, is included in the warm glow. I love the way he calls everyone into the Tardis at the end, sounding more 1970s grandad than 1890s grandfather: 'Everything okay?'

And then, in one tiny scene, the story arc of three seasons is resolved. The Doctor is given his Tardis back. Even though the script is rather awkward about it, Jon Pertwee knows what this means to his Doctor, and Katy Manning is on the same page. The show has been entirely rewritten, and the reward is a feeling of narrative progression, expansion of the Doctor's character along with his universe, and all in what could have been the most self-indulgent, self-regarding story of the series.

But Doctor, the question is, where next...?

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Time Monster

In my blog last week, I talked about the unsinkable Jo Grant, and her ability to remain sunny in the continually reconfirmed knowledge that planet Earth in the future is a cosmic shithole run by total bastards. How does she remain so buoyant, I wondered, when others like myself find it hard enough to deal with an office job and the daily round of news headlines? Then this week, Jo unexpectedly crumbled.

'What happens if the Master wins?' she asks the Doctor. Chaos, he explains, on a grand scale, and it depresses Jo. 'Makes it all seem so pointless, doesn't it?' she says. Perhaps the banality of the Master's evil has hit home – the imminent catastrophe doesn't only mean death and destruction: it's a universe without meaning.

This is the prelude to the Doctor's childhood reminiscence, the story of how his blackest day was redeemed by the hermit on the mountainside, who taught him to see 'a heaven in a wild flower'; that is, the 'daisiest daisy'.

It's the first casual chat the Doctor and Jo have had since The Mind of Evil, and it's a rare moment of the Doctor dropping the 'Who' for a moment. In referring to past troubles, it recalls a fatherly moment in the tombs of planet Telos; in describing the countryside of home, it connects with a much earlier tale of burnt orange skies. We have a better sense than ever of who the Doctor is – paternal, happy in that role (he looks entirely at ease, telling stories in that prison cell), drawing on a lifelong wonder at the universe, empathy with the figure of the mountain hermit.

Here's the anchorite in his new form, perched on the side of the mountain that is our planet in a single era. Does that 'black day' he's so cagey about still threaten him? He worries at his circuitry and drinks his tea. Or reassures his friend with a story. Meanwhile, upstairs, his childhood friend is seducing Ingrid Pitt and planning the death of the actual Minotaur in order to – what?

It's not clear. The Master has a Tardis – i.e., the run of Universe – and can inveigle his way into any position he likes. He begins the story by trying to tame a god-like being from outside space and time. It does seem like an awful lot of hard work, especially given how things when he tried it last month, and that he must know the result will probably be chaos anyway, a mirror of his own megalomania. This is a story where Roger Delgado really lets rip, strutting up and down and cackling to himself. Entertainingly, but not becomingly. 

What's the nature of this madness? It's a story about messing about with time, and produces some of the most surreal and comic images of the whole series. There's capacity for exploration of some huge ideas, about how we use time and chronology to sort the Universe into order, to give our lives meaning. 'The whole of creation is very delicately balanced, Jo...' 

Or perhaps chronological narrative is a fantasy, and the Master plans to liberate himself from an illusory world into a state of naked existence. True enlightenment?

This is a sort of sequel to The Daemons. The Doctor was rather adamant in that story that science was a superior way of looking at reality, but in this story he can remotely interfere with the Master's Tardis by balancing a cup of tea on a wine bottle and making some mystical passes. The Tardis itself – pressed into use in a climactic moment that makes it suddenly seem more wonderful than it has since the 1960s – is indestructible, telepathic, illogical. The authors of this story leave us in no doubt: it's not just a spaceship – it's an idea that has somehow gained material form.

Now, The Time Monster is a bit over-extended, and sometimes the dialogue is a bit weird (like someone who's seen a lot of TV but never met a human being), but it has some amazing performances, from Dean Lerner and Miss Babs to Roger Delgado and Ingrid Pitt. It has that audacious Doctor Who spirit ('Who cares if the money's run out? We're going to have a bird-god-monster from another dimension destroy the city of Atlantis!') and the real sense of camaraderie that is unique to Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning ('Glad to have you aboard, Miss Grant.' 'Glad to be aboard, Doctor!').

And even if it doesn't really explore those ideas about time, meaning, madness, the life of the mind ('I shouldn't listen too hard to my subconscious thoughts, Jo, I'm not too proud of some of them'), it nonetheless suggests that there are two responses to the meaninglessness of existence and the daily toll of unhappy feelings. You could try and Master it, by chucking out the structure and narrative. Or you could tell a story about it. Better yet, you could throw yourself in and Doctor the story. Same mountain, different view.
There's also bags of extreme CSO. I think it really is the Pertweeiest Pertwee story.