Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Time Warrior

Nowadays, by which I mean 1974, it strikes me as slightly odd that I used to remark so much on the bad-tempered old Third Doctor. I remember a lot of people in Jon Pertwee’s second season getting the sharp edge of his tongue, and then some hard words for Day of the Daleks’ Controller, as well as bureaucrats fighting The Sea Devils and experimenting on The Mutants. But as if mellowed by the charm of Jo Grant, or perhaps the impervious Master (no use shouting at him), the Doctor’s been getting increasingly sweet-natured and tolerant.

I suppose it depends on who’s rubbing the nape of his velvet jacket the wrong way; any civil servant or wunderkind scientist with a jacked-up ego was ever liable to have the air taken out of their tyres. Perhaps it was the frustration of memory loss, or the thought that he'd never see Jamie McCrimmon's hairy knees again. In this story you might expect him to be more irritable once more, given the big events of The Green Death: strange to find him on Earth at all, really.

And to be so tolerant of the Brigadier, going through one of his bumptious phases, and Professor Rubeish’s  fiddle-faddling, not to mention an investigative reporter smuggling herself into a 'top secret' government think tank as if it was a tupperware party. She's only there because scientists working on government related research are mysteriously going missing! But then that's suddenly the key to Pertwee's Doctor: suave and cool and jokey when everyone else is getting aerated.

That's the delight of the Doctor's scenes with our two testosterone-tastic warriors, Lynx and Irongron, and particularly the latter, who bellows and stomps about and swings his sword in all directions. When the Doctor's disguised as a robot and Irongron suggests chopping its head off, the Doctor suddenly becomes the unflappable upper class gent: 'Isn't that a bit unsporting, old man? I mean, sitting ducks and all that...' It's a playfulness I fondly remember from the days of his previous incarnation – although, catch this Doctor pretending to be a fool. He'd sooner drag up in a pair of old tights.

There's another rather Troughtonish moment when the Doctor is chucking stink bombs over his shoulder at Irongron's troops; not with the schoolboyish pleasure that the Second Doctor would have taken, but with quiet contentment all the same. He's almost whistling to himself as he dispatches an army – a very, very small army, yes, but it's the Doctor who really makes us see that. He's rather affronted when Sarah Jane implies he might have caused some permanent damage with his gas: he's not a soldier. He's just having fun.

Taken entire, this rather muted performance sometimes under-sells the drama of The Time Warrior. Even when he's not onscreen, we very rarely get a real sense of menace from Lynx the Sontaran – his 'ocular' hypnotism of Sarah Jane Smith notwithstanding. Lynx doesn't seem to pose a great threat to the world: we never get a real sense of what effect his 'time meddling' will be, nor does anybody really seem to care overly about the scientists he's abducted from the 20th century.

In fact, the story has a weird effect, like a rather crudely taken photograph. Everybody at the centre of the shot – essentially the Doctor, the villains, and the new girl in town – are acutely in focus, but the other elements of the composition range from slightly to extremely blurry. It's the Brigadier I feel sorry for. A few years ago, it felt as if he and the Doctor were co-stars of this series, and now he's basically required for thirty seconds in episode one, to set the scene and raise an eyebrow. Nick Courtney plays the scene with good grace, but the Brig in conversation with Lynx is a missed opportunity.

As would Lady Eleanor in conversation with Lynx. Or, indeed, with Bella Emberg. Lady Eleanor is just short of being one of the Pertwee era's great female characters – few and far between though they are. In Season 10, we had none at all in The Three Doctors, the lovable Shirna in Carnival of Monsters, the President of Earth (okay, I'll admit, that's not bad) in Frontier in Space, one rather soppy Thal in Planet of the Daleks and Nancy, the companion that never was, with her deadly mushroom bake and existential flute-playing (or whatever it is Clifford says she's doing with her instrument). Eleanor is strong, wise and charming; I could also wish for a bit more of the Mary Berry of her day, Meg, played by Sheila Feay and a really bizarre wig.

But the woman of the match is obviously and incomparably Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Katy Manning is irreplaceable, and without an eye for Doctor Who history, you might worry about the show after her departure. Remember when they recast Jamie for an episode? Remember when Vicki's place in the Ship was taken by Katarina? But Sladen walks into the show and owns it, instantly. 'Oh, I could murder a cup of tea!'

It's funny, because Robert Holmes wastes no time on any of Sarah's background. It should be fairly pitiful that all we know about her is that she's a journalist with an aunt, and that she frequently says, 'Ooh, men!' like a character from Acorn Antiques. But he gives Sarah so much to do and say, that between Holmes and Sladen, Sarah Jane is vividly there, from the get go, and she's there by accident, as all the best companions are.

She took a chance, a wrong turning or a right one, and there it was – an unexpected new friend, unexpected new trouble, a man who looks like a currant bun with legs, and a man who takes it all in his stride.

Of course the Doctor doesn't get all grumpy with her. He knows a new best friend when he sees her...

Coming next, a story I've never seen... Apparently it's just 
called INVASION!! (Deja vu...?)

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Green Death

She's off.

It feels like ages since Jo Grant came into the Doctor's life and began changing things. In those earlier stories, she quite often bears the brunt of his bad temper – and she in turn doesn't quite 'get' him. It's not until Colony in a Space that she can accept the Tardis is real, that he's not a fantasist. And to be fair, even a mad alien scientist in an Edwardian cape is a bit of a leap to one who travels  in time and space.

Perhaps it's a change of view for Jo – that scientists can be as heroic and crusading as soldiers. After all, her original ambition, facilitated by her Uncle, is to join the services – and before falling for Professor Jones, she tries dating Captain Yates. (Can't quite see that relationship going places.) Since then, she's been a humanising force on the Doctor, who has generally cheered up and calmed down. In return, she's become a woman of the universe, to the extent that she can reject the Master's hypnotism and generally talk down to him, before walking out of the Tardis doors, alone, into the alien night of Spiridon...

I still don't think she was ever quite on the same page as him though. Not like Zoe, for instance, who bravely stowed away in the Doctor's old sea-chest to discover the Universe. Jo's travels in time and space tend to be accidental and slightly reluctant. She's not fazed by them – she disputes with planetary colonists and rude-looking aliens without hesitation. Jo is always self-assured, passionate and morally certain: to coin a phrase, down-to-earth. But generally that's where she wants to be. 'There's only one little world I want to see right now,' she says, almost wearily, after all the fun on the Planet of the Daleks. 'Home.'

We're so used to show-runners' arcs these days, the original series can seem rather rackety and thrown together by comparison. But this season, beginning with The Three Doctors' liberation of the Tardis and its crew, travels rather satisfyingly to this announcement of Jo's. The Green Death is the story in which Jo Grant leaves not just the Doctor, but UNIT – and if it wasn't for Professor Jones, it might not have been such a clean break. The Doctor is clearly on the threshold of a new life away from Earth, and one feels rather certain that's not a life Jo would have joined him in.

From the Dawning of Aquarius to her stack-heeled boots and now, her passion for environmentalism, she's associated with the here and now. 'Well,' she says about the Tardis in Frontier in Space, with flippant prophecy, 'I'm never going in that thing again.'

Not that she hasn't learned from her adventures. I've reflected a couple of times on the visions of future Earth she's had: over-developed, uninhabitable, unsustainable, even ungovernable, threatened by fear and greed and waste. These are thematic connections rather than literal ones – Jo never even witnesses the ministerial self-interest that hands complete control over to Global Chemicals in Episode Two. But a lot of care has been taken with references back to Jo's arrival. Only the production team of the time and fans of today can really appreciate these: when Jo talks about her job description being 'tell the Doctor how brilliant he is,' for instance, she's quoting a line from three years earlier!

It feels a far cry from some of the 1960s seasons, where individual stories shine but the lives of the regulars – and their ongoing stories – are treated with ambivalence. The overriding feeling with the Jo Grant era, for me, is that the writers believe in the strength of their leads, in the security of this family (in part, because of the actors performances), and enjoy throwing them into new situations. In all the years I've been watching Who in sequence, this is a moment when it really feels like a series rather than a show. It would have made a perfectly fitting last story for the Master, too. As it is, it brings to an end the chronicles of that UNIT family.

What about the Doctor, though? If Jo Grant was a reluctant traveler in time and space, the Doctor has been reluctant to leave without her. After bridling so long at his confinement, it feels as if his main tie to the Earth and his main excuse for not returning to a bootless existence among the stars has been suddenly taken away – and after his solitary voyage to the fabled Metebelis 3 (has nobody ever said how brilliant that planet's name is?) he seems grateful to scramble back to Earth, to a world of mines and silly disguises and mathematical flautists called Nancy. Where exactly does he belong?

Yes, he's changed. He's at risk, you might think, of losing his Doctorishness, his capacity to transcend the present day. Yet that's exactly what his extra-terrestrial, mystical blue sapphire connotes: a very 70s sort of transcendentalism, requiring a physical bauble (whereas in the 60s they just did it, lived it, breathed it) but still effective. His conversations with BOSS, where he seems to take real pleasure in disdainfully scuppering its plans, are good to see and great to watch. And despite the coming departure of his longest ally, Pertwee seems more comfortable than ever in this scene – baiting a disembodied voice (but what a voice!).

So perhaps, he's off too. Perhaps this is just what he needs. But to where, and with whom? Who could possibly take the place of Katy Manning's consummately performed Josephine Grant...?

Scarier than any story this season, but also cosier and camper (escape in milk float to hippy commune, for example), this is a strong story by a team with real fondness for the world they've constructed - and a forlorn recognition that nothing goes on forever.