Monday, 25 May 2015

Planet of the Spiders

'Came to the end of Jon Pertwee last night,' I told my boyfriend over breakfast.

'Emotional?' he asked, obviously fascinated.

To my surprise, and his disappointment, answering this simple question required the summarising of the whole six-episode story, skipping the car chase but going back to talk about The Green Death and also some of Doctor Who's previous seasons. It turned out it wasn't a straightforward answer, however easy it is to say, 'Yes, it's very sad when he dies at the end.'

That's because a huge effort is made in this story to build upon the preceding stories, in a way we hadn't seen since the first years of William Hartnell. It's not a very solid construction – more like Wile E. Coyote laying railway track as he rides off the cliff – but it does make a sort of sense, born of Barry Letts' deep Buddhist conviction, which suffuses this era. In this story we see quite explicitly that it's time for the Doctor to change: not because of his health or his luck, but his absolute self. What might be called his soul.

It's something that I've been feeling for several stories now, at least partly because the production team did such a good job in their first couple of seasons, when the Doctor was still chafing at the bonds of his exile and never stopped going on about the injustice of his incarceration on Earth. Every other story, when he sees his chance, he's ready to run out on Earth and return to his life as a cosmic hobo, albeit one dressed by Pierre Cardin.

And then he gets his freedom back and – stays on Earth! Still fossicking around the same old laboratory, now fussing with his car instead of his time machine. Has he opted to settle down with Lethbridge-Stewart for the foreseeable? Has he lost even the curiosity to foresee the future?

His exile by the Time Lords seems to have had a conditioning effect. He's become as non-interventionist and incurious as they. Once upon a time he was happier to call himself a citizen of the universe ('And a gentleman, to boot!') but now he identifies himself more strongly than ever with their Lordliness and ideology. In The Time Warrior, he disses them gently as 'galactic ticket inspectors' but essentially he's doing their job: clamping Linx's space-ship and, in the next story, issuing the British government's time travellers with an on-the-spot penalty (getting eaten by T-Rex).

Of course, he's in denial about all this. He tries persuading Jo to join him on the open road, but she's having none of it. She wants a mission and a relationship and every other linear thing the trans-temporal life is an escape from. He takes Sarah-Jane away for a weekend on Florana, a mini-break to Peladon, but he always comes home to his claret and sandwiches, and presumably a gentleman's hairdressers with whom he has regular, eccentric conversations. Spiders shows him on a night out at the Tarminster Civic Centre. Having finished his space car, he's taken up a new project to distract himself with.

To distract himself from that feeling of terror which we see – in a comedy sequence, of all things – on his visit to Metebelis Three in The Green Death. A fear of the unknown that he represses, because he knows that's not who he is. A fear which he ultimately, alone as he was that morning in Oxley Woods, goes to face.

I think it's true to say that this is a story about the end of the Doctor's life, while The War Games (which I watched about a year ago) is a serial. Just as Doctor in 1969 and earlier is a show, every instalment a new splash of spectacle, and Jon Pertwee's era is a series. A tremendous amount of care and attention has gone into devising this show, and oddly enough it necessitates this rather melancholy last season.

Death to the Daleks, and the end of the Exxilons too; the sourness of the Golden Age and the defection of Mike Yates and Jo Grant's wedding gift sent back in a Jiffy bag. Even Aggedor gets shot in the head. The Master seems to have vanished without a trace. The Buddhist philosophy asks its disciples to consider impermanence, and so does the last series of Jon Pertwee.

'And,' I told my boyfriend, 'the whole last story is about how the "old man must die, and the new man discovers to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed." And when they meet the Abbot of the meditation centre, he turns out to be the Doctor's old teacher from when he was a boy...'

'This is beginning to sound like a dream you had,' Jon replied, in bafflement rather than derision.

And it's absolutely true. All the mystery and wonder of Planet of Spiders comes from its complete illogicality. Coincidence piles on coincidence, without even the daring to call it 'serendipity'. The story begins with answers that are never answered: what's Lupton doing with his followers down in that cellar, if he doesn't know about contacting the Spiders, and why have the Spiders picked him as their agent anyway?

It ends with questions, too: why did the Abbot set up that meditation centre, and where does he go at the end of the story? What exactly is the Doctor's great fear, and what would happen if 'facing it' also entailed the rise of the Great One to dominate the universe with her ungodly will? How exactly do you teleport from Earth to Metebelis Three just by stepping on a bit of carpet? Why not do it all the time, if you can?

To a great extent, Doctor Who can never quite escape the fact that it's a 'show'. Lurid, sensational, ephemeral, daft. A showman and his assistant playing their part against a shimmering screen, with a puppet dancing on the table. How's it done? What's that? What will happen next?

But it also acts a bit like a mandala: a picture of the universe, in microcosm. (Funny that the Third Doctor's era began with a modern counterpart to this image, the Earth photographed from space.) This is one of the Doctor's lives, in microcosm, from Cyril Shaps to Kevin Lindsay, Drashigs to the Doctor's tutor. The transcendentalist figure of the Doctor makes as good a figure for contemplation as any, a place from which to consider the self and try to get beyond it.

And at the end of the story, we roll up the magic carpet or rub out the mandala drawn in the sand, and consider everything afresh...

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Monster of Peladon

After the savourless stodge of Death to the Daleks, we come to a dish carefully prepared. A proper story, with mystery and political allegory: a secret traitor, an icy villain and – what more could you ask for – a giant green phallic monster with six arms who worries that humans are alarmed by it.

It's a sequel, the one instance of this Doctor returning to a previous adventure, and Sarah Jane's sharp tongue prevents it all getting too sentimental. There are brave queens deceiving their viziers, political skulduggery, ghosts and brave dashes and mad miners. When a beautiful young woman is dragged through secret passages beneath an ancient citadel, a mad-eyed man on her arm, a slavering beast on her trail, it makes you wonder how Philip Hinchcliffe could ever be thought the last word in gothic Doctor Who.

So why is it all so flipping dreary?

Why do we long for the episodes to spool by faster? Why do we yawn, tut, scratch ourselves and think of other things? Why does this whole story feel so unnecessary?

It must at least be the inevitable comparison with the fabulous Curse of Peladon. Nothing stands up to four episodes of plotting, red (or rather emerald green) herrings, and the gorgeous David Troughton being utterly serious in a jumbo purple velvet collar and silk hotpants, whilst talking to a man of a certain age with a pink streak in his hair. While the torches flicker...

It was like nothing we had ever seen on Doctor Who before, and recycling the sets only reinforces that we haven't returned to the real Peladon, not to that assemblage of alien beings, that sense of something daring and weird and authentically panto. If only Brian Hayles had taken a gamble and tried the Peladon approach with a whole new planet. To be honest, Terry Nation tried that last story with an arid alternative to swampy Spiridon and it was a total disaster – but at least he tried (and to be honest, he didn't try very hard).

Then there's the unavoidably crude politics. It's about the miners strike – so here are some miners, on strike. Do you see? Only sadly, caricaturing them as badger-like superstitious hotheads, the script manages to treat them with such insensitivity they might as well give them all Welsh accents, hire Talfryn Thomas and be done with it. Then we have Sarah Jane offering the Queen of the planet a crash course in women's lib; thank goodness for Lis Sladen's delivery or we'd all be cringing into our purple velvet sleeves.

I mean: yes, fill a story with cartoons, but have fun with it. Don't pretend you're making any kind of political analogy. Go big. Go wild. Go colourful.

I have to make an exception here for Alan Bennion, back for the third time here as an Ice Lord from Mars. He knows what he's about, and if it wasn't beneath me to make some cheap puns, I'd call him truly chilling. He's arranging the Doctor's execution and threatening the murder of hostages, and that's before the mask slips and he's revealed as a bad guy.

The Third Doctor has really lacked for enemies of his calibre. What a shame Azaxyr, leader of a Martian splinter group, isn't more the focus of this story.

Almost done now. The days of this incarnation are numbered. At one point, when the Doctor and Sarah Jane think they're slipping away unnoticed, the canny Queen Thalira cries out – with some emotion – 'Goodbye, Doctor!' And yes, you think, it's almost that time.

In one scene, with vague presentiments of Caves of Androzani, the Doctor actually seems to go past the point of mortal strength and collapses lifeless in his chair for an hour. Sarah Jane is quite rightly in bits (albeit for the second time, for the same reason, in one story) and when she says, 'I can't believe he's dead. He was the most alive man I ever knew...' Well, you feel that emotion – and you can almost kid yourself that this was his last hurrah, among the badger-men, penis people and screaming queens of Peladon.

Goodness, though, that would have been bloody weird.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Death to the Daleks

Oh, for the love of Gond.

This was the last Dalek story I had never seen, and I'd actually been quite excited about it, though I never used to give two stuffs about the Daleks. As a kid I saw them as the monsters who had weathered the least well, the ones that creaked and doddered while others skulked. Watching 60's Doctor Who in sequence made me realise how special the Daleks actually are. That they are the only point of continuity for the Doctor for several years, and the ones who symbolically separate him from Susan, Ian and Barbara, and Bret Vyon, Sarah Kingdom and Katarina too.

Oh, and Brian Cant!

They rival us as the Doctor's biggest fans, watching him on space telly in The Chase – in fact every Dalek POV is like a little fan vid – and he in turn is the only one who really appreciates how human these tin pots can be. Where other Hartnell aliens are misunderstood or misled, and Troughton monsters are mindless drones or insatiable animals, the Daleks are a bit like Hartnell or Troughton themselves if they were half-robot and faintly insecure.

And for most of the 1960s they also had a whiff of movie magic about them. They were the only truly special effect in the show, barring the Tardis console itself (sound effects included) - when either of those becomes the focus for the story, Doctor Who suddenly feels like  a weird space: like Radio Caroline  breaking in upon the Light Programme.

Well, if you didn't already know, Death to the Daleks doesn't really work this way.

I don't think there's anything really wrong with it being primarily a visual story. It can actually make it more potent than Pertwee's talkier tales. The first episode, the seeming death of the Tardis and the terrors of the Exxilon mists are gripping and disturbing, and a perfect counterpoint to a Doctor who is always in control, particularly when Sarah has just begun to trust him.

Writing an entire story around some mining (better to call it panhandling) on a desert world, and a deserted, fully automated city, really is a gamble with the money stacked against you, though. This is a dismal story in every sense: bleak and monotonous.

It's worth picturing it designed by someone who liked colour. Someone who could make it as lurid as Planet of the Daleks or, going back a bit, Claws of Axos. The interviews with designers on both Time Warrior and Dinosaur discs include the wistful memory, 'I was so excited to be assigned Doctor Who and so disappointed it wasn't set in space.' This one seems to feel the reverse, if his naff interiors are anything to go by.

You can't blame the director. He's doing everything he can. Some shots are quite thrilling – but a suite of studio footage on the DVD shows what an atmosphere of inertia the Daleks could conjure (never mind Terry Nation's lacklustre script). They lumber forward, they look the wrong way, their guns get jammed. You sense how difficult it was to get anything to ignite on set. You have to feel for Pertwee himself. It's like sparring with a filing cabinet.

(Although, memorably, a Dalek does burst into flames – when you hit it with a stick. Worth knowing. And in the best outtake I've seen in many a year, they whisper! The Daleks confer by squawking at each other sotto voce for the first, last and never time only: the scene was reshot with the usual shouting.)

I fell asleep around the end of episode three, and on rewinding to see what I'd missed, found that I hadn't. I can't help but be reminded of Patrick Troughton's final season. Not a bad season, all told, but a confused and aimless one. Say what you like about the Doctor's lack of mystery after his trial, and the cosy UNIT family (including Master) but at least it gave the show and its heroes a solid identity. Now these narratives are ended, those gains are slipping away. Death to the Daleks is a dangerous example of people treating Doctor Who as a given, without knowing the characters and without having the enthusiasm to do something new with them.

It's about time for a new broom.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Invasion of the Dinosaurs

… And nobody really knows what the dinosaurs actually looked like, do they?

I said in my Green Death review that we were saying goodbye to the UNIT era. I thought then that it was appropriate it ended with clinking glasses and the Doctor disappearing off on his own in Bessie, his most faithful companion in all his time on Earth. Well, I just didn't know what I was talking about, evidently.

How's about Mike Yates pulling a fun on the Brigadier, eh?

And while we're about it, how about the Brigadier risking mutiny by rescuing the Doctor from a senior officer?

What, indeed, about a story where all the Green Utopianism that's typified the Dicks/Letts era becomes a government conspiracy to commit global genocide?

Everything's cracking up. The halcyon days are gone. Even Bessie's been put in the garage, passed over for something spangly and futuristic. (Why not just stick some fold-out wings on his jaunty Edwardian roadster? Is he scared he'll have Dick Van Dyke on his doorstep, threatening litigation?)

The crucial thing is, for quite a while we don't know that Operation Golden Age are mass murderers in waiting. In fact, even at the end their leaders seem to see this as a point of philosophical debate. Of course, the scheme itself is so loopy it strains credulity - but if it seemed more credible, might it also seem more reasonable?

For at least half the story, there's the chance the Doctor is on the wrong side - and perhaps there is an ambiguity even at the end. The fact that the story ends with two men, however dangerously minded, getting beamed back to the Jurassic era, and apparently to the Doctor's satisfaction, only underlines this.

In fact, Mike's continued harping on to his superiors about the Doctor - not fingering him as a threat so much a potential ally - implies the Time Lord has been a dangerous inspiration to our sad captain. The Doctor spent all that time trying unsuccessfully to encourage a cosmic outlook in his young companion, but perhaps it rubbed off on the wrong person.

I don't know the circumstances that led to Mac Hulke leaving the series' writing roster (a lust for conference centres seems improbably involved) but it almost feels here that he's exposing, fatally, the ideological problems of UNIT and the Doctor. The question of what the Brigadier might try to achieve if his mandate was active rather than responsive (and just what are all those scientists developing at the research centre in The Time Warrior?) haunts this surprisingly grim tale.

A part of me really wants the Pertwee era to end with the Brigadier's complete disillusionment with the British establishment and his resignation from UNIT, perhaps to form his own splinter group. In Wales. With Nancy and her nut roast. Watching Troughton and Pertwee in sequence made me particularly curious about the Brigadier as a character, from the way he accepts the Doctor at face value to his conversation with the sceptical Liz Shaw, plus everything we read between the lines.

This is quite a good story for the Brigadier, insofar as it doesn't reduce him to a Nigel Bruce Dr Watson, but any real insights into his mentality are forever deferred. The big omission is  Lethbridge-Stewart's closing chat with Yates. But then the show has set up and then skipped these sorts of conversations, ever since The Silurians.

The Doctor arrives a week later than he intends to, and we all come close to being rolled back and nixed. (We would be in even more trouble if Sarah Jane a Smith hadn't stowed away the week before.) What would UNIT do if the Doctor finally made up his mind and returned once more to wandering time and space. And what exactly do they do with Professor Whitaker's time machine after he's gone? Hello, UNIT dating controversy.

Our hero is ready to go. He finishes the story with an almost exact re-tread of his invitation to Jo to Metebelis III. Only this time, instead of being oblivious, his friend can't stop herself listening to him. (She presumably hasn't heard how little the last paradise planet turned out to resemble the brochure.) And the series has shifted already, so that when they come back to the modern day, it feels alien and unfamiliar. As if we're seeing through Sarah's eyes now that she's stepped outside the everyday.

Can you believe this is the first time we've seen the Third Doctor in modern London? The first and only time, I believe. No stalking down Whitehall with Liz Shaw, or sipping espressos in Soho with Jo Grant. It makes him seem even more out of time, waiting at a bus stop with his frills out and his magnifying glass swinging on its pendant, yet somehow even more of that era - a glam Doctor, a combination of John Steed, Gambit and Purdey, a man who could be scientific adviser of UNIT forever if he didn't feel the need to tempt Sarah Jane to sample the higher dimensions.

There's a fair bit of padding in the last couple of episodes, including a superfluous chase in the woods. But I don't think I'll ever feel too harshly toward a story with lots of location filming. There are some gorgeous shots of the Doctor framed by woodland foliage that take us right back to Spearhead from Space. This is a Doctor who has come to feel and look strangely at home on Earth.

Not for long. The Police Box is beckoning. It's time for Sarah to meet the Daleks...