Thursday, December 22, 2011

Storm Warning


So we begin the Eighth Doctor's Big Finish run with 'Storm Warning', released in 2001.

A tale of aliens and an airship. Specifically the ill-fated R-101. In the real world the R-101 crashed into a French hillside on the 5 October 1930 killing 48 of the 54 people on board. It effectively bought an end to British airship development. In the Big Finish universe the crash still happens but everyone dies. Well, not quite everyone. One, Lord Tamworth (played with a fine stentorian air by Gareth Thomas) who is off to travel the stars. The other, Charley Pollard (India Fisher) leaves to travel with the Doctor. Except she's a paradox. She should have died on the R-101.

It's a nice gentle adventure. Not brilliant, not bad. In fact it does have the feel of a first story for a new Doctor. The story itself is less relevant that the introduction of a new incarnation. So even though the television movie introduced us to Paul McGann's Doctor this seems like his first proper adventure, even if it is audio only and lots of Doctor Who fans will never have heard it.

McGann is good again. There are similarities to David Tennant's portrayal in that he seems - at least here - to be a more human version of the Time Lord. He's certainly open about himself, spilling his secrets to Charley within minutes. It's early days yet so let's see how this pans out.

India Fisher does an excellent job with Charley Pollard as well. She's a couple of steps away from being jolly hockey sticks posh but combines brains and enthusiasm with a fine sense of adventure. She and the Eighth Doctor seem to work well together here.

The supporting cast does a good job to. I like Gareth Thomas's Lord Tamworth who is less of a pompous fool than his initial appearance leads you to suggest, although the idea of the Tamworth fighting with the Triskele's Uncreator Prime is as spectacularly odd as the fight between Patrick Moore and one of the aliens that takes place in the Independence Day UK and I'm not sure it would work in a television story but this is audio so things can be got away with.

Barnaby Edwards with South African accent makes Rathbone, the British Intelligence agent and key human bastard of the piece, pleasantly nasty but I think the script overdoes the 'in my country...' lion stories a bit. There's a hint towards the end that Rathbone is under the influence of the Uncreator Prime to explain his ruthless execution of the Triskele Lawgiver and he's given enough shades of grey to make him realistic enough. He's another in Doctor Who's long line of people who thinks the end justifies the means.

Nicholas Pegg as Frayling, the mild-mannered slightly put upon engineer and military officer doesn't have to stretch himself too much in a part that is as thin as the membrane of the airship itself.

I like the idea of the Trikele themselves. A species split into instinct and logic taking instruction from one single Lawgiver. A species that has passed beyond the 'let's invade and kill everyone stage' and is trying to be something else. A race whose nastier side is still pretty rubbish because they're a new generation who've not had much practice with this killing stuff and whose leader, the Uncreator Prime, gets beaten up by an old-ish member of the British aristocracy.

So this does a reasonable job. We meet our new Doctor and his new companion and sow seeds for future problems by the very fact that Charley is a paradox.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Doctor Who - The Movie




So...it is 27th May 1996 and here we all are. It's new Doctor Who and it is about time. After all the rumours, including rapping TARDIS's, every actor in the known world lined up to play the part and all that jazz we got this. And in theory it should be great but it doesn't work.

That it doesn't work is not Paul McGann's fault. He's pretty damn good actually and has the requisite Doctor-ish qualities. A little reminiscent of a young Tom Baker. He certainly looks the part. But the story and the script are pretty poor.

There's too much continuity for a re-boot. Whilst it is lovely to see Sylvester McCoy get a proper regeneration from an old fanboys point of view it slows the story down dramatically, requires too much exposition and just isn't necessary. Now I'll admit I'm saying this with a degree of hindsight. At the time I suspect I'd have been mortified if Sylvester hadn't got his regeneration but watching it now it isn't necessary. It's a re-boot in concrete shoes.

And if you're going to have continuity then at least make some effort to do it properly. Those terrible Dalek voices, the use of 'cloaking device' instead of 'chameleon' circuit; the Master demanding things; the Daleks allowing the Doctor to collect etc etc. These little things are irritating to the initiated, pointless to the new viewer.

Then there's the Master. Now I'm not going to complain about Eric Robert's performance here. I think it makes a nice change for The Master not to be suave, bearded and English. I like some of his scenes with Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), which are amusing enough. Yes, he gets progressively more over-the-top as the story goes on and in the final 'drezzzz for dinner moments' the scent of fromage is almost unbearable but I like it. At least he's interesting, which beats virtually ever other character in the blessed thing.

What I think I object to most is the total unoriginality of the whole thing: a bit of Frankenstein here, the Terminator there, the X-Files etc. I mean who's Grace Holloway if not a Scully wannabee?

And again that's not the actors fault. Daphne Ashbrook does a pretty good job with the material she's given but at some points the character is ridiculously dumb. I'll accept that the shock of the Doctor's non-humanness might be a shock but she's just LOOKED AT HIS BLOOD AND ADMITTED HE HAS TWO HEARTS FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE. That's taking cynicism a step too far. She's not given much to do either, even allowing for the fact that she's supposed to be our guide to this new world and character. It's a shame.

That unoriginality annoys me because it is so transparent. Doctor Who has always 'borrowed' from film, theatre and literature but done properly something new and interesting comes out of it. Done badly and you've got a chopped up series of homages that don't amount to a hill of beans.

In a way it's failure taught RTD valuable lessons for when the programme was to return again. No regeneration there, just hit the ground running. Not too much continuity. Does it matter that the Autons had appeared in Doctor Who before. No one had to know anything about the Autons to enjoy Rose...but I'm getting ahead of myself. Several years ahead of myself.

The TARDIS looks cool though, even if all the 'Eye of Harmony' stuff gets on my geek nerves, which I suppose brings me on to the 'half-human' thing. Why? Did the producers feel that the US of A couldn't cope with an entirely alien lead character or that echoing Spock's half-humanness might bring some kind of sf kudos? I don't know but its an unnecessary addition and another blurring of the character. Clearly everyone quietly carries on in the present series as if: This. Never. Happened.

The ending is so twee and nonsensical as to be both vomit and headache inducing. Bringing people back to life by travelling to a time before they were deaded and then the TARDI...I mean please. If you don't want to kill people off, don't. This story has a surprisingly low body count for a Doctor Who story. Poor old Bruce gets snaked to death  - and don't get me start on the goo thing...now the Master can turn himself to goo for fu...anyway; a few body guards get gooed to possible death but no one else. So the ending feels like a cop out, a failure of courage.

Which is, in the end, what this whole story is. A failure to have the courage of your convictions. A belief in Doctor Who as a 'brand', but not as an idea. A falling between two stools half-arsed re-boot that didn't really please most old school fans or break the US of A, which was its main objective. The fact it got decent UK viewing figures didn't get us a new series.

So poor old Paul McGann gets judged on this and this alone by most of the general public but as I said at the beginning he's fine. More than fine as Big Finish were to demonstrate.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Survival


Here we are watching between 22nd November to 6th December 1989 and Classic Doctor Who is coming to a end with 'Survval'. The culmination of the BBC's gradual falling out of love with Doctor Who as a programme, the cancellation came at a time when the series had recovered some of its joi de vivre after the nadir that was Season 24. Both Season 25 and Season 26 are filled with good stories, performances and ideas but then logic is never one of the television industries strongest suits.

'Survival' is written by Rona Munroe and with its connection to the real world of multi-racial West London housing estates and its focus on Ace could arguably seen as the template for New Doctor Who. I have already said that Rose is just Ace with less explosives but there is an element of truth in that description. Ace's character arc, her 'realism' (by BBC/Doctor Who standards) and her centrality to many of the stories is Rose. The main difference is that New Who has allowed companions to have a deeper emotional life: the 'soap opera' elements for which it is much criticised by some.

So 'Survival' is interesting as an example of a hybrid of Old and New Doctor Who.

It links with 'Ghost Light' in its Darwinian themes - this time evolution in its warped format as 'survival of the fittest' with added Master.

This is Anthony Ainley's last appearance in Doctor Who and in my opinion is pretty much his best. Having the Master on the verge of turning into an animal, trapped and desperate brings out something good in Ainley's performance. He's (mainly) more measured and subtle than he has been on other occasions. It is as if the Master's loss of control has made Ainley more controlled. He's one of the stories strengths.

One of the weaknesses is the animatronic cat (or kitling to give it is proper name). It looks incredibly unconvincing, partly because we all know what a cat looks like and how it moves so when this animatronic thing hisses at us and it looks wrong we know it is wrong. It is definitely a problem. As - to a lesser extent - are the cheetah people themselves who are a little bit too cuddly to feel truly threatening, although I do not think they are bad costumes they just don't quite achieve what they are meant to.

However neither of those things are as irritating as the motorcycle sequence, which is ridiculously silly and unrealistic. Combined with the fact that the gang of lads from the youth club look like the members of a failed boy band - and just as threatening - as they make to attack Ace. It says a lot about Sophie Aldred's acting ability that she manages to be realistically terrified of them as opposed to pointing and laughing.

For a JNT story 'Survival' is without too many starry special guests. Although Hale and Pace - who were famous comedians at the time kids - have a short cameo as Len and Harvey who own a corner shop. It's not the most impressive of acting performances from either of them but the sequence works well enough.

Generally the performances are OK, although Will Barton's Midge isn't great, but to his credit he does improve once he's been cheetahed and Mastered. Julian Holloway as Paterson is pretty good though. Everyone knows someone like Paterson.

Sophie Aldred is wonderful again, especially in her scenes with Lisa Bowerman's Karra, the only Cheetah person to get any lines. Sylvester's pretty good to but I have to admit to finding his shouty scenes a little difficult to watch. He's much, much more impressive doing quiet, brooding and 'dark' than raging. But as I've said before perhaps it is good that the Doctor is a rubbish shouter. Sylvester's Doctor is definitely the quiet one.

So it isn't a bad story given a nice finish as the Doctor soliloquies into the sunset with Ace. Somewhere they've got work to do but it isn't going to be on BBC television for some time...and it'll be almost eight years before Sylvester gets to deliver his next lines as the Seventh Doctor and to hand over the TARDIS to Paul McGann.

Next stop May, 1996 and Doctor Who, The Movie.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Curse of Fenric


The Curse of Fenric is an excellent story. The peak of McCoy's darker Doctor and the culmination of a story arc that we did not even know was there going back - all the way back - to Iceworld and the Doctor's first meeting with Ace. Ace is a link in Fenric's chain of revenge. One of his 'Wolves', if an unknowing one and the Doctor always knew, apparently.

This is a story about faith and love. Ace's faith in the Doctor and her love - or not - for her mother; Sorin's faith in the Revolution, the Rev Wainwright's faith in a good God buckling under the realities of total warfare, Judson's faith in logic and science and Millington's faith in ultimate victory (and perhaps his love for Judson, although I'm reading lines within lines there) and finally the Doctor's faith in Ace.

It's nice when a Doctor Who story can be read on more than one level. After all on the surface this is just another Vampire runaround. With added World War Two. Ace gets to be Buffy before Buffy. Well, a bit. But there's undercurrents. (Some of which may be expanded later if I can persuade...well, let us leave that for another time).

It's another excellent set of performances from the main guest stars. Dinsdale Landen as Dr Judson, the crippled scientific genius with his bullying, patronising Nurse Crane (played by the wonderful Anne Reid), is suitably sharp and unpleasant. He, like Alfred Lynch's Commander Millington, is clearly more focused on the ends rather than the means. Alfred Lynch's performance makes Millington's journey from the fringes of sanity into madness scarily believable. The scene where he locks the doors on the two Russian soldiers and his self-justification for it is a real blinder. There's an intensity to both Millington and Judson.

Then there's Nicholas Parson's as Rev Wainwright who puts in a - surprisingly - good performance. Here is a man battling to understand his God in a world where God seems to have gone on holiday. Nicholas Parson's has got such a recognisable voice though - especially to someone whose listened to lots of 'Just a Minutes' - that it is hard to think of him as a character but it is a credit to him that (most of the time) you do forget.

Credit to Tomek Bork as Captain Sorin to. Being a leftie I like the fact that it is his faith in the Revolution that protects him from the Haemovores. I like the fact that it is faith itself, not the objects that protect you. But Bork does a great job throughout.

Sylvester McCoy is good here to, especially in the final scenes with Ace. You do believe that this is a Doctor capable of being a total bastard and who can out-manipulate even the most sophisticated of games players. One step ahead, even when he's behind. It is something of a joy to remember quite how much I like the Seventh Doctor whilst revisiting the era. There so much depth to his performance.

Again though Sophie Aldred does a grand job with Ace. The scene when she berates the Doctor for not telling her stuff is short but magnificent; the 'faster than the second hand on a watch' stuff is mesmeric (even if it doesn't really make much sense) and her responses to the Doctor's 'teenage psychology' are exceptional. Ace is a wonderful companion, especially as they lose some of the more rubbish attempts at making her 'down with the youth'.

The Haemovores look great, especially the Ancient Haemovore. The nice way in which Haemovores change from human looking to a more...amphibious...look is a positive to. The music by Mark Ayres helps the mood, rather than stomping all over it. The World War Two setting means that the BBC's strengths are shown again - no dodgy attempts at designing the future on fifty quid required.

My one quibble is that the chess move required to win the game IS NOT A BLOODY CHESS MOVE but I suppose trying to create a virtually unsolvable chess problem that you can turn into a metaphor is a big ask.

So to conclude all hail The Curse of Fenric: mud, blood and teenage psychology.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ghost Light


In this blog I have frequently complained about Doctor Who stories being padded out. However 'Ghost Light' is a rare case of a story that could have benefited from an additional episode. With room to breath an already excellent story could have ended up an absolutely classic.

From the moment Ace and The Doctor arrive at Gabriel Chase this story rolls beautifully along, even if sometimes you find yourself asking questions. This is Moffatesque Doctor Who. You can imagine this story, with Amy, Rory and the Doctor with little alteration.

It has much going for it, particularly the exceptional cast who - without exception - do fine work: Ian Hogg oozes a seedy menace as villain de jour Josiah Samuel Smith whose appearance turns out to be very deceptive; Michael Cochrane as Redvers Fenn-Cooper, the Victorian explorer driven insane and then sane again by his experiences; Carl Forgione  as Nimrod, 'a mighty hunter before the Lord'. The last surviving Neanderthal collected and now working as Josiah Smith's butler; Sharon Duce as Control who goes from creature, to ladylike to leader as the story progresses evolving up the social ladder as Josiah Smith devolves; John Nettleton as Rev Ernest Matthews come to tackle Smith for his Darwinian views. Nettleton not only plays Matthews with style but with impressive mutton chop whiskers looks exactly like the imaginations picture of a meddlesome Victorian clergymen. Rev Matthews ironic fate is both clever and unpleasant; Katherine Schlesinger as Gwendolin, Josiah's 'ward' who is both the nastiest and saddest character in the story alongside her mother, Mrs Pritchard. Sylvia Syms does a fantastic job of Mrs Pritchard. The scene between Schlesinger and Syms when they have broken their conditioning and talk about what they have done is a strong one; Frank Windsor as Inspector Mackenzie, whose job is simply to provide a bit of comic relief and - in his (almost) absence the punchline to a rather tasteless joke and finally there's John Hallam as Light whose performance is a little on the arch side but works for me. After all it isn't a part that calls for naturalism.

What a cast! But with all those characters squeezed into three episodes it can seem pretty croweded. It does need more time and space.

Then there's the atmosphere, which is odd and dark. There's a lot of nasty things going on, not least of which are the mysterious trips to Java that the Gwendoline's father and Rev Matthews have taken, which is an interesting euphemism for murder. A more domestic version of that ominous phrase 'resettled in the East'. It is Gwendoline's joyful attempts to send Ace to Java that open an insight into her character, which the Doctor nails shut by pointing out that - although hypnotised - she had enjoyed organising those trips to Java a little too much for him to forgive her.

The Doctor feels genuinely alien in this story to, which suits McCoy. Gabriel Chase it turns out is the haunted house that Ace was telling the Doctor about. So the Doctor takes her there. Back to Victorian England. Its manipulative and when Ace realises it borders on bullying. He's bought her here to face her terrors but as Ace points out after the Doctor's rather wonderful - and applause for McCoy's performance here - 'Burnt Toast' speech, she wants to face her terrors on her terms. Not his. This 'testing' of Ace was all part of script editor Andrew Cartmel's 'masterplan' for the character.

It was a parallel thread to the changes in the Doctor who has become more proactive, more manipulative and more powerful. In 'Battlefield' he went all Obi Wan Kenobi to persuade Peter and Pat to leave the Gore Crow. He also seems to have gained a Vulcan 'death' grip of his own. He's also got a new darker jacket.

He's still got the stupid question mark jumper though, which I have not mentioned at any point so far during the McCoy era because it makes me angry. Still. I thought I'd let all the rage out after I'd left college but the title sequence wink and the question mark jumper remind me of many a late-80s argument about how good Doctor Who was. And the bloody jumper is the costume equivalent of putting LOLZ after a comment just to make sure everyone knows it was meant to be funny.

Back to positives. Sophie Aldred is fantastic in this. This is Ace's story. In fact Season 26 sees a Doctor and Companion relationship that is much more balanced than previously. It feels like a New Who relationship, although devoid of any 'love' angle. The combination of the Aldred and McCoy is wonderful. They work well together. Their arguments seem to be less about bickering a la Peri and the Sixth Doctor and more about proper stuff.

It makes for a powerful combination and an excellent story. Yes, it is complicated and not everything is explained but it works and it works pretty well.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Battlefield


Just ignore the number plate
So Season 26 kicks off with a story that doesn't quite reach the heights of its ambition but which is enjoyable enough nonetheless.

There are Arthurian knights from an alt-Earth, where Morgaine (Jean Marsh) is Queen. We never really learn much about this alt-Earth except that it appears to use organic magic as technology (this is a guess as only hints are dropped - the ornithopter etc), although how this fits with Doctor Who's previous sniffyness about magic I don't know. Perhaps we are in the realms of the kind of sufficiently advanced technology that appears to be magic. To steal someone elses words. Morgaine doesn't appear to rule everyone. Ancelyn (Marcus Gilbert) appears to be against her and on Arthur's side and arrives on our Earth. I assume he's arrived looking for Arthur and Excalibur but that's never made entirely clear either. Unless I missed it. There's a lot of fogginess here. Has Morgain lived one thousand plus years longer than Arthur or is the alt-Earth contemporaneous with...oh does it matter. Basically it's Arthurian legend and the Doctor - a future Doctor - is Merlin.

I like that conceit and the moment when Ancelyn reels off the list of the Doctor's known qualities thus revealing that he is - or will be - Merlin is well-scripted and performed. In fact the play between the alt-Earth and our Earth is interestingly done. The alt-Earth speaks that slightly stilted English that passes for how people spoke in the past, talk much of war and honour and act in a more theatrical style than their 'our Earth' contemporaries. Poor old Mordred (Christopher Bowen) gets lumbered with longest 'laugh like a maniacal villain' scenes ever inflicted on an actor in Doctor Who. He manages to pull it off, just.

Then there's Brigadier Winefred Bambara (played with a certain butch charm by Angela Bruce) and her mislaid nuclear weapons convoy. Bambara is in UNIT. Battlefield is one of the few stories where UNIT appears to be genuinely multi-national and properly prepared to take on any eventuality. The Brigadier's listing of the weapons they have bought with them is a good touch.

Ah...the Brigadier. Yes, Nicolas Courtney is back as Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and it is a joy to see him again. If anything Battlefield is the Brigadier's tale. Bought out of retirement by the prospect of meeting up with the Doctor again he's up for the fight from the off. He gets a number of nice scenes with the ladies in this story does the Brigadier - with Doris (Angela Douglas), with Flight Lt Lavel (Dorota Rae), with Morgaine and with Ace - which makes a fine change. The scenes between him and Morgaine in particular, involving discussions of honour and respect, around the war memorial.

In fact the script is fine. In fact there's some clever stuff in there. The comparison of nuclear weapons as the technological 'mutually assured distruction' and the Destroyer as the 'mythical' one echoing Robert Oppenheimer's post-first nuclear test quote about 'I am become death, the Destroyer of World's'. The Doctor's explanation of the impact of nuclear strike to Morgaine is one of the strongest scenes in the series history: "Is this honour? Is this war?"  There's also a nice throw away reference to the Doctor's excellent speech in 'The Happiness Patrol' when the Doctor threatens to kill Modred and gets his bluff called. Mordred says: "look me in the eye, end my life."

Most of the acting is fine to across a large cast. James Ellis does a fine job as archaeologist Peter Warmsley with his appropriate Tennyson quotes; Ling Tai gives Ace some company of her own age and explosive obsessed type in the form of Shou Yuing. Later on Sophie Aldred and Ling Tai play out a sinister, creepy scene inside a chalk circle as Morgaine tries to get hold of Excalibur in fine style. It feels unusually real for a Doctor Who story. Even the minorest of minor parts are well-played.

What lets the story down is it looks a bit like some of the people involved seem not to have picked up on Ben Aaronovitch's instructions or not been too bothered. The direction of the final battle sequence, whilst impressively busy, is rather silly as soldiers run in left and right. The sound design is rubbish. The Knight's from the future have rubbish designed guns. The futuristic stuff doesn't look convincing and the underwater model doesn't look very underwater. The editing is a bit half-arsed.

All of which makes me think that Battlefield, remade with current technology, a bit of care and a couple of explanatory tweaks could have been something of a masterpiece. Still it is pretty good but with a little more care and attention it could have been an absolute masterpiece.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy


I was a little disappointed with 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' as I had fond memories of it from 1989. It is still pretty good, just not quite up to the standards of the first two stories of Season 25, although it is a significant improvement of 'Silver Nemesis'.

I think what I found mildly irritating was that the set-up of the story leads us to believe that a piece of intergalactic junk mail finds its way into the TARDIS and intrigues the Doctor enough to get them to go to Segonax to see it. Even if Ace clearly does not want to go because she's scared of clowns. However as the story plays out the implication is that this is the Seventh Doctor cleaning house again and is going after an enemy he's fought several times, 'The Gods of Ragnorok'. There's no explanation about what these creatures are. There's no explanation as to why they hijacked a pretty harmless hippy circus and turned it into a killing zone. Oh there's much talk of 'entertainment' but it is all a bit of a flimsy premise on which to hang the story really.

Yes, I'm aware there's a subtle satire on Doctor Who itself going on here. Gian Sammarco's Whizz Kid being a unsubtle piss take of a Doctor Who geek with his talk of 'not having seen it in the olden days but it was better then'. And perhaps you can take it further and see The Gods of Ragnorok themselves as the viewers with the Circus representing the BBC but all that gets us is an extra layer that amuses rather than adds anything to the plot.

However having said that this story does have an atmosphere of creepiness that works in its favour. The clowns truly are sinister, although they were created just to entertain by Bellboy (Christopher Guard). Bellboy may be the most tragic character in Doctor Who history. He's broken by what the Circus has become even before he discovers that Flower Child (Dee Sadler) has died. He's an emotional wreck. His memory has gone or been taken from him. He's played with absolute conviction by Christopher Guard to and his suicide at the hands of his own creations is truly desperate and sad.

It made me realise that if you hadn't balance out some of this story with the lighter stuff it would have been so dark and terrible as to be virtually unbroadcastable. So whilst Nord (Daniel Peacock), Whizz Kid and the Stallslady (a fantastically grumpy Peggy Mount) are all slightly silly in there own way they do cast a bit of light on the shadows.

After all this is a Circus where everyone's skills have become twisted. The Ringmaster (Ricco Ross) raps people to their doom, Flowerchilds kites have become hunters of the escaped and Ian Reddington's Chief Clown is the worst of them all. Both Bellboy and Deadbeat/Kingpin (Chris Jury) mention that he was a great clown once but now he's a terrifying figure and Reddington really makes the most out of the part. They had such high ideals and now they're fronting for a trio of murderous 'Gods'. How can that not be a tragedy? How can that not seem incredibly bleak?

So you add someone like Captain Cook (T P McKenna) who is an intergalactic explorer. He's played for laughs to start off with positioned as a crushing bore and a coward but all he's willing to sacrifice everything and everyone for a slice of power. The buffoon turns out to be a bastard. His companion, Mags (Jessica Martin) turns out to be a slavering werething from the planet Vulpana and for once the make-up is pretty good.

Sylvester isn't too bad in this. Good in the quiet moments, less good in the shouty ones and his walk away from the exploding Circus entrance is possibly one of the Doctor's coolest moments ever. Not a flinch. But I think it is Ace who is best in this. Frightened, but covering it up. Pushed into getting involved by the Doctor himself - a slight hint of cruelty there from the Seventh Doctor, especially if he's got this whole thing planned all along. In 'Silver Nemesis' he was suggesting she go back to the TARDIS in a concerned manner. Here he's one step away from making those 'cluck, cluck' noises kids make as part of playground taunts. It just does not feel quite right, although it will turn out to be a taster for Season 26, which is all about the Doctor's plans for Ace.

Season 25 has seen a deliberate attempt to reposition the Doctor as a darker, more mysterious figure. One with his own, alien motivations. Someone who might not be entirely trustworthy. It doesn't always work but it does make McCoy's Doctor more nuanced and interesting.

So in the end I enjoyed 'Greatest Show in the Galaxy' and it ain't bad but for me, after the heights of 'Remembrance of the Daleks' and 'The Happiness Patrol' it feels like a let down, but I wonder whether that is the fault of my cheating memory.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Silver Nemesis

It's the Cybermen. Boy, are they rubbish
So after magnificent stories Season 25 stutters with 'Silver Nemesis', which features a cunning plan by the Doctor to deal with one of his old foes once and for all using an old piece of Gallifreyan technology as bait. Yes, they've remade 'Remembrance of the Daleks' with Cybermen. The fact that no one seems to have noticed this is a black mark against Andrew Cartmel, the script-editor and JNT, the Producer.

It wouldn't have mattered quite so much if 'Silver Nemesis' had been as well-made as 'Remembrance of the Daleks' but it isn't. In fact it feels a bit half-arsed. Like a Season 24 script: under-prepared, ill-thought out and stuffed with pointless special guest performances from actors who don't know what programme they are appearing in.

Even Sylvester and Sophie are a bit off the beat in this one, which is a shame.

It isn't helped by the fact that the Cybermen in this story are the most pathetic bunch ever. They get out-manoeuvred and out-paced by a septuagenarian Nazi war criminal for heaven's sake. They're supposed to be emotionless killers but this lot are a musical number short of being the cast of 'Glee'. The Cyberleader is played with traditional fist into palm stylee by David Banks even shows a kind of smug pride when De Flores (Anton Differing) starts throwing Wagnerian compliments at them. Most insultingly not only does gold seem to kill them the mere presence of gold has them flapping about like drunks trying to fend off a wasp.

It's a sad decline for the Cybermen, particularly as this is their last story in Classic Who. I have said before that the Cybermen are generally get rubbish Doctor Who stories for one of the shows greatest villains. Compare their stories with Dalek stories? Where is the Cyber equivalent of 'Power of the Daleks' or 'Evil of the Daleks' or 'Genesis' or 'Remembrance'? As @TMDWP quite rightly pointed out on Twitter whilst we were discussing this story the best Cybermen stories generally become less interesting once the Cybermen actually appear. It's a shame as the idea of the Cybermen - they are us stripped of what makes us human - is a coldly terrifying one.

Unfortunately the humans in this story aren't particularly interesting. Lady Peinforte (Fiona Walker) isn't given much to do except like an aged Ophelia go quietly mad, which is the waste of a damn fine actress. Her companion Richard though is brilliantly played by Gerard Murphy. He's the only character in the whole thing that feels like a real human being.

There's De Flores (Anton Differing) and his gang of neo-Nazi's who have all the character of cardboard. Anton Differing was a regular player of Nazi's in film - he even plays the commentator in Escape to Victory for heaven's sake - but here he looks like he's only in this story for the pay cheque. It's as if the production team thought that cast Differing was enough as if we were all going to accept whatever performance he put in because of the history. If this was an echo of 'Remembrance of the Daleks' themes it's a pretty weak and unsubtle one.

Then there's all the padding. This is a three part story and there's so much padding it could be a six part Pertwee story: what's the point of the two stupid skinheads, of American tourist Mrs Remington (Dolores Grey) or of all the sitting about in the countryside?

I do like Ace's battle against the Cybermen in the final episode, which is well-directed. I do like the little scene when Ace confesses how scared she is to the Doctor, I do like Richard...but after that I'm struggling. This has too many characters behaving in stupid ways. It's a mess.

And the Cybermen are rubbish.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Happiness Patrol

The Kandyman - mad, bad & possibly a copyright violation
I bloody love The Happiness Patrol.

I love the fact that the sets look like sets for a reason. Terra Alpha is an artificial paradise. Of course it does not look right.

I love the fact that it is a satire of all that Thatcherite 'family values' guff that we had to put up with throughout the 1980s and which are making a comeback under the new cuddly Cameronite Tory Party. This is driven home by Sheila Hancock channeling Thatcher herself as Helen A. Helen A just wants the best for her people but the ungrateful lot insist on being unhappy. Of course it is their fault, not hers. She's strong, she's disciplined but like Thatcher herself there were tears at the end. Helen A's tears are for Fifi, the small yappy-type dog gone psycho. The one thing she loves. She can cope with Joseph C (a laconic Ronald Fraser) doing a runner but it is Fifi's death that gets the tears flowing. Unhappiness has prevailed.

I love the pink TARDIS.

I love the music. I love the use of the blues as a metaphor for comfortable melancholy.

I love that the silly guns, the silly costumes and artificiality covers a genuine nastiness. The pretense that if you cover something with a coat of pink paint it can't be threatening.

I love the Priscilla P (Rachel Bell) and Daisy K (Georgina Hale) even if they are murderous thugs. I love Harold Innocent's Gilbert M who with his whinging and complaining is a perfect illustration of the banality of evil. You can bet that the offices of the Gestapo and the KGB were filled with the same kind of petty complaints whilst they overlooked the reality of what they were doing. Which is why I love Susan Q (Lesley Dunlop) who is a member of the Happiness Patrol who has realised that she can no longer ignore what she is doing.

I love the Kandyman in all his Bertie Bassett glory. With his squeaky, petulant, childish voice. Yes, it might seem silly but why not? Doctor Who has often squeezed darkness out of harmless looking stuff: school boys, cuddly toys etc. Why not a walking, talking sweet. There's no explanation about what he 'really' is but do we have to have all the i's dotted and t's crossed to enjoy something. Here's a cheer for gaps and untied loose ends.

I love the Kafkaesque logic of the Happiness Patrol that means they kill Silas P - who is an undercover member of the Happiness Patrol - because he looks unhappy when they stumble upon him but can't bring themselves to kill the Doctor and the Drones at the end because they're HAPPY.

I love the fact that you can say this story has depths. That it can be about how society treats its minorities. It's a story that could only have come out of the nineteen-eighties but has a resonance even now. For killjoys read...gay people, black people, immigrants...pick your minority.

I love Sophie Aldred. I love the fact that Ace hates everything that the Happiness Patrol stands for, that she reacts with genuine anger when poor old Harold V (Tim Barker channeling Deputy Dawg) gets killed and Priscilla P starts making James Bond style jokes afterwards. I love her awkward grumpiness. I love her line about wanting to make them very, very unhappy.

I love the fact that this is the Doctor being proactive again and showing a ruthlessness that he hasn't shown before as he basically topples an empire in one night. I love Sylvester in this story. He gets so many great scenes but the two that stand out for me is his disarming of the snipers with a combination of words and moral force: "look me in the eye, end my life."

But I also like the finality of his "It's done" whilst he watches Helen A break down over Fifi's body. There's a link between this story and Vincent and the Doctor as an illustration that happiness without sadness is meaningless, that every life consists of both. This and Remembrance of the Daleks prove that whatever a certain kind of fan mythology might have you believe Sylvester McCoy is a bloody good Doctor.

I love that this is a story about ideas and politics. That it isn't just monsters v the Doctor. This is about what we - as human beings - are capable of. The 'disappearances', the bureaucratic blindness - willing or unwilling - illustrated by John Normington's Trevor Sigma; the fear; the propaganda, the courage, the resistance and the depth.

I love the fact that it isn't perfect but its imperfections are irrelevant.

I love the whole blessed thing.

So sue me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Remembrance of the Daleks

The Seventh Doctor & Friends
Well. Where the hell did that come from? After Season 24 you could be forgiven for expecting Season 25 not to be up to much. I know that I felt a sense of 'duty' about watching it but from that pre-credit sequence onwards you know things have changed.

There's no silly special guest appearances from inappropriate celebs. Every guest fits there parts to perfection: Pamela Salem as Dr Rachel Jensen who is Chief Scientific advisor to Group Captain 'Chunky' Gilmore (Simon Williams) are the two main 'guests' but able support comes from Dursley McLinden as Sgt Mike Smith - whose revelation as a traitor gives Sophie Aldred an exceptional scene. Other good support comes from Karen Gledhill as Allison and George Sewell as Ratcliffe, the British fascist.

There's no Bonnie Langford, which means Sophie Aldred is free to bring Ace properly to life and lose some of the slightly irritating qualities we saw in 'Dragonfire' and there are less 'wickeds' here. Sophie and Sylvester (or Ace and the Seventh Doctor) have a brilliant chemistry and I think they're one of the best Doctor - Companion relationships in the series history. The aforementioned scenes with Mike are both fantastic. As is the scene when she - encouraged by the Doctor - explains why there are two factions of Daleks. It's so naturalistic it comes as something of a shock post-Langford.

Then there is McCoy himself. Here given a quality script and quality direction he is absolutely mint. For once the Doctor is proactive, rather than reactive. Here is the first attempt to return some mystery to the Doctor's character. Here is the Doctor ruthlessly destroying Skaro in order to end the Dalek menace once and for all.

McCoy is pretty convincing, especially in the smaller, quieter scenes: his discussion with Ace on the school steps; the 'sugar' conversation in the caff and the scene when he collects the coffin/Hand of Omega from the undertakers. I find that the more famous speech when he confronts Davros works slightly less well because McCoy is less convincing once he raises his voice. But for me the most Doctor-ish moment is in Part One when he just says 'Humans'. That's all.

It's a brilliant script by Ben Aaronovitch, which uses the Daleks to make points about racism and fascism whilst having a pretty straightforward plot told in a straightforward way. It also uses continuity in the right way. Yes, this story has loads of references to 'An Unearthly Child' but you don't need to be drowning in Doctor Who geekdom to follow the story. Compare and contrast how continuity is used in Remembrance with how it is used (or abused) in Attack of the Cybermen. It's a lesson for all future Doctor Who writers to take on board. Continuity adds depth but use it lightly.

It also features - at the end of Part One - the best cliffhanger for bloody ages. The Doctor stumbles, Ace is beaten up & a Dalek rises up the stairs to kill the Doctor. Yes, the exterminates go on a bit too long but sod it that's how to do a bloody cliffhanger.

It is aided by Andrew Morgan's fantastic direction. It is paced to perfection. It looks great to. As if someone somewhere actually decided to spend some cash - and time - on a Doctor Who story for a change. And it's got Michael Sheard in it for heaven's sake. How can you not love it?

This was the story that restored my jaded faith in Doctor Who and it was the story that - during the long, long hiatus - allowed me to keep saying to those of little faith that one day it would come back. O yes. If you are one of those people that has avoided Sylvester McCoy's era because you've swallowed the myth that it is all terrible then I'd start with this. It's effectively a total re-boot of the series. It's New Who before Russell T Davies. Ace is just Rose with worse dress sense and more explosives.

It's one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time: an ideal combination of script, performances, 'history' and direction and a total blast of wonderfulness to drown out memories of Season 24. Watch it. Watch it now.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Dragonfire

Hello Ace, Goodbye Mel
So Season 24 ends on something of a high with 'Dragonfire'. It isn't perfect but by the standards of Season 24 it is a masterpiece. I know mocking Season 24 is like shooting fish in a particularly small barrel but it is not Doctor Who's finest hour.

I don't blame Sylvester McCoy for this. I like his Doctor so far. He is capable of doing good stuff when given the right material. The end sequence when he's saying farewell to Mel and inviting Ace on board the TARDIS is perfectly pitched. As is his final confrontation with Kane (Edward Peel). Yes, there's a little too much slipping and sliding about in this story and yes, the cliffhanger at the end of part one is the stupidest in the shows history but apart from that I think he's pretty good. Also, as I said a couple of stories back, McCoy shows the Doctor's mind working. You can see him think. I like that.

Dragonfire sees the departure of Bonnie Langford as Mel and her replacement with Sophie Aldred as Ace. I have said all I intend to about Bonnie Langford but she is not too bad in this. A little toned down and a little sidelined if truth be told. Sophie on the other hand is a breath of fresh air. Whilst there are some slightly off moments and the 'down with the kids' style slang can be a bit wearing she does a fine job. Here's a companion with a bit of depth. A woman with issues. She's not easily cowed, carries home made explosives in her bag and does a fine line in minor verbals. We will see how she works out but already she feels more in sync with McCoy's Doctor than Mel ever did.

It's nice to see Tony Selby return as Sabalom Glitz even if - once again - he's an odd character tonally. It's all banter and bluster on the one hand but then we discover he's sold his crew to Kane. It is a bit thrown away really and although initially the Doctor seems to disapprove it doesn't take long before he's wheedled himself back into the Doctor's good books. Although perhaps leaving him in Mel's company at the end is the Doctor's punishment. It isn't the most convincing of reasons for Mel's departure and you'd expect Glitz to dump her on the nearest planet he can. But Selby's performance is as entertaining as it was in Trial.

I also liked Edward Peel's portrayal of Kane. The villain as romantic anti-hero. He's nasty, ruthless and fixated on revenge for his exile and his lover's death. The perfect illustration perhaps of revenge as a dish served cold. The scene where he tries to convince Ace to take his coin and join the ranks of his mercenary army is chilling. No pun intended. It's made more effective by the fact that Ace's possible fate is foreshadowed by Belazs's (Patricia Quinn) story.

There's not much of a plot: ice-cold villain seeks escape from prison in order to wreak his rewenge on those who put him on Iceworld. The Doctor and Mel just happen to stumble in to the end game.

Iceworld itself isn't the most convincing of places. It's either half-supermarket, half-studio or an impressive collection of plastic disguised as ice. The 'Dragon' itself is from the school of 'man in a costume' Doctor Who beasties. Actually the gigantic hole in the plot of this story is quite why it takes Kane three thousand years to get around to hunting down the 'Dragon' in order to escape. Especially as it seems pretty straightforward a task.

My biggest quibble with this story is the cute child sub-plot. Why? And did the child really need to be a Bonnie Langford mini-me? That final shot of the whole story is vomitously twee. The whole sub-plot could be removed from the story and it would make not a jot of difference. In fact it would positively improve the story.

So not a bad story that ends Season 24 with a glimmer of hope. Imagine how you'd feel if Delta and the Bannermen was the last story of season.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Delta and The Bannermen

The Doctor, Burton & Mel flee from Keff McCulloch

I'm sorry but that was pretty poor.

I'm not sure what was worse: the script, most of the performances or Keff McCulloch's bloody soundtrack.

Filmed on locations - in quarries, car parks and at a holiday camp - it does at least avoid looking staggeringly cheap but I really found it to be the worst story of Season 24 so far, which in some people's eyes would probably make it the worst Doctor Who story ever.

In its favour you have a nicely enigmatic performance from Hugh Lloyd as Geronwy, the Welsh beekeeper. Enigmatic enough for people to think there might be something of the Time Lord about him. Perhaps like Sherlock Holmes an elderly Time Lord has retired to the countryside to keep bees. Whether he's a Time Lord or not it is a nice, unshowy performance.

Don Henderson - who I remember as Bulman more than anything else - is suitably grim and nasty as Gavrok, leader of the genocidal Bannermen but he does appear to have walked in from a darker and nastier story than this one as the rest of Delta doesn't really live up - or down - to the grimness of Gavrok.

This is one of the major problems with this story: tone. This is a story that begins with an attempted genocide. Even if it is genocide in a quarry. Whilst you can't expect Doctor Who to talk about genocide in the same tone as 'Schindler's List' the subject isn't really there to be used as a throwaway introduction to three episodes of hi-di-high jinks, a cross-species love story and some gratuitous zipping around on motorbikes.

Plus the Bannermen themselves are a pathetic bunch, apart from Gavrok with their tongues out 'roar' moment being a particularly embarrassing moment. You find yourself thinking, 'did I really see that'. And dismissing the whole thing hoping that you didn't. But you did. And the image will never leave you.

Delta (Belinda Mayne) is supposed to be the last survivor of a race wiped out by an army led by Gavrok but such is the lack of urgency and care that it doesn't feel that big a deal. When Gavrok's men blow up the Navarino bus, killing everyone on board we're supposed to be upset. Mel tries to be. But it is such a throwaway moment it doesn't mean anything. The single ruthless murder of the likable - if incompetent - pilot Murray (Johnny Dennis) might have made the point better.

However this is 'just' a runaround with - to misquote an old Pertwee story - genocide as a side show.

There's supposed to be a love story between Delta and Billy (David Kinder) but that to doesn't work for me. Partly because the the only chemistry between the two actors is pretty inert (mainly I'm afraid because of the woodenness of Kinder's performance.) and partly because it - like the bee/Chimeron comparisons - are laid on with a large, cheesy trowel.

They also manage to upset the rather lovely Ray (Sara Griffiths) in the process. Ray's supposed to get over this because of the gift of a motorbike and sidecar. Perhaps she doesn't love him that much after all.

Maybe it is because it is only three episodes long but it feels under-worked. It is like a first draft that due to desperation - or lack of care - got produced to fill in a gap.

I don't like being so down on this story because I like Sylvester's shot at the Doctor. Yes, he's less convincing when he does shouty stuff but I think that makes sense. The Doctor is always at his most impressive when making his threats quietly, rather than shouting and raving.

Sylvester is still finding his way a bit but there's some nice moments: his slight awkwardness when trying to comfort Ray and the scene with Billy where he says 'love isn't known for its rationality' for example.

I should also praise Richard Davies as Burton, who gives a solid performance as virtually the only 'ordinary' person in this story. His sword waving scene is wonderful. But on the other hand you take an actor with the pedigree of Stubby Kaye and waste him in a minor role like Weismuller. Or you hire Ken Dodd and just get him to Dodd about a bit before bumping him off. It's pretty poor use of good talent.

Perhaps that is why I don't like this story. It feels like a wasted opportunity and that inside 'Delta and the Bannermen' is a good story struggling to get out. I reckon RTD might have been able to do it. It does feel like the poor first draft of one of his more 'rompy' stories.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Paradise Towers


Paradise Towers isn't too bad a story. It even sniffs around the borders of being pretty good. The fundamental idea is a Doctor Who twist on J G Ballard's 'High Rise' but with added Richard Briers. There's a large, impressive Tower block rotting away and deep in its basement something unpleasant and hungry lurks. Into this stumble our heroes Mel and the Doctor.

The main problem with this story is that it is unbalanced by two performances. The first is Bonnie Langford's. I'm trying not to repeat tired cliches about Bonnie Langford. I'm going to blame - as I did back in the Trial blog - the team that created Mel in the first place and seemed content to make her a caricature of how Bonnie Langford is perceived to be. As a result she's over-enthusiastic and over-theatrical. She's asked to do too much screaming and not enough acting.  Accordingly played with Sylvester's quieter and more naturalistic Doctor she jars. Sorry Bonnie. It doesn't help that in 'Paradise Towers' Mel seems both stupid and irrationally focused on going for a flipping swim.

In my head I have this idea that in an alternative universe they still cast Bonnie but they made Mel a stronger character and gave her some proper guidance or direction. That alt-universe Mel doesn't get the same flak as the one in our universe. But enough of my weird theories.

The other odd performance is Richard Briers. Richard Briers is a bloody good actor and there are moments in 'Paradise Towers' where he shows that, especially when he's playing the rule bound, still alive Chief Caretaker. Where I think it goes wrong is when he's playing the zomibified, taken over by Kroagnon Chief Caretaker. At that point he seems to be channelling one of Monty Python's Gumbys with all the subtlety and lack of threat that implies. To me it looks like over-acting. And it doesn't make for a memorable villain.

That being said I like the society of Paradise Towers with its Kangs, Rezzies and Caretakers. The Kangs - called things like Bin Liner, Fire Escape etc - are divided into gangs. There's Red, Blue and Yellow (although the last Yellow Kang bits the dust pretty early on) Kangs. They've got slang and attitude. I like the slang stuff. It makes Paradise Towers seem a realer place.

Elizabeth Spriggs and Brenda Bruce make Tabby and Tilda, two ostensibly sweet old ladies magnificently sinister, although Mel seems a rather skinny thing for them to be so excited about. Clive Merrison as the Deputy Chief Caretaker manages to underplay his part in contrast to Richard Briers and is all the better for it. One of my favourite scenes in the whole story is the Seventh Doctor's use of the Deputy-Caretaker's rulebook to out-manoeuvre his captors and escape.

Mention should be made of Howard Cooke who plays Pex. Pex is the one resident of Paradise Towers who doesn't really fit in. He's a coward who hid aboard a transport to Paradise Towers rather than face military service and pretends to be a heroic protector of the other occupants of the Tower. This pretence mainly seems to be aimed at himself as the rest of the population of the Tower seems to mock him. In  the case of the Kangs directly to his face. Calling him a 'cowardly cutlet'. In chorus.

I've always found bullying gangs of chanting girls pretty sinister and there's a lot of that in 'Paradise Towers', mainly aimed at Pex. But in the end Pex dies a heroes death and all is well in the Doctor Who universe. Oddly I felt a weird parallel between the way Pex is effectively bullied and shamed into being a martyr and the scene between Ian and the Thals in 'The Daleks' where Ian demonstrates that despite their claims of pacifism there are some things that they will fight for. I know I'm taking this far to seriously but I feel a bit uncomfortable about the way Pex is treated in this story. It doesn't feel very Doctor Who-ish even if it seems heroic.

However despite my complaints this isn't a bad story, it just isn't a great one. I hadn't watched it since it was first broadcast back in 1987 so it was nice to have a few memories dusted off. I can't see myself rushing to watch it again soon.

Build high for happiness.