Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

Review: The Power of the Daleks. Animated version.

4 Nov

10-quinn-and-bragen

“Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future,” observed art critic Robert Hughes. He was discussing the architecture of the modernist city of Brasilia at the time, but it’s a truism that holds for many a Doctor Who adventure.

The Power of the Daleks takes us to the Earth colony planet of Vulcan in the far-flung future of 2020; at least according to the serial’s original TV trailer – broadcast 50 years ago to the day. Vulcan is a world where men are men, and a woman is called Janley. It’s an ascetic, cheerless place, patrolled by jack-booted guards and seething with fear and mistrust, devoted to scientific study. It’s a time when humanity has mastered the secrets of interplanetary flight, but not yet found a cure for male pattern baldness. It is a world of mercury pools and widow’s peaks.

In November 1966, when The Power of the Daleks was broadcast, the year 2020 was a place of fantasy. Here in 2016, it’s just over the brow of the next hill. If we’re lucky. And so today, our dreams for 2020 are more modest. Perhaps the BBC might manage to produce a new series or so of Doctor Who by then. Sure, we’re short on rocket ships and alien colonies, but we can confirm that the first three minutes of the newly-animated version of The Power of the Daleks will be livestreamed on Twitter. ’Tis a brave new world indeed, forged in the white heat of social media marketing.

In the past this viewer has expressed reservations – in the reviews section of Doctor Who Magazine – regarding the value of presenting lost Doctor Who episodes with as animation. The Reign of Terror DVD gave us a nightmare vision of William Hartnell as a talking onion. Six months later, The Ice Warriors took a step forward, but struggled to depict its characters moving in a naturalistic way. The Power of the Daleks takes another step, capturing excellent likenesses of its characters, and the quirks of their facial movements. The cartoon Patrick Troughton is especially persuasive. The animators have captured the way the actor talked from the side of his mouth, as if sucking Popeye-like on a pipe. Troughton’s little black tooth is lovingly rendered. Once you notice it you won’t be able to stop looking at it.

This production is clearly a labour of love (certainly, no one has ever worked on Doctor Who spin-offs for the money) and the production team have given it their all. And that little bit more. At the press screening for the first two episodes – which is all I am able to review here – producer Charles Norton looked ready to slide under his seat with exhaustion. When recalling a particular scene from Episode 1, he couldn’t quite reach the words to describe it, but the shot number came immediately to his lips. He looked haunted, like a soldier stumbling wounded from a harrowing battle. “It’s a triumph!” the gathered civilians assure him, but our producer can, for the moment, only recall the suffering and loss.

The shortcomings of The Power of the Daleks – as has often proved the case with Doctor Who since ever Doctor Who there was – can be ascribed to lack of time and lack of budget. The artwork is exemplary, and some shots are of frameable beauty. But it’s clear that compromises have had to be made to get the job done on a BBC Store/BBC Worldwide budget. Most frames are kept to mid close-up, to avoid having to animate too many arms or legs. It takes a little while to get used to, but you do get used to it. You’ll be won over by the time of the big argument in Episode 2 – where the Doctor tries to convince scientist Lesterson about the dangers of the Daleks – if not before. This scene works especially well thanks to the fast dialogue, which requires frequent changes of shot.

It’s only when characters have to move about in silence that the spell dissipates. If a character has to walk across a room, we will see them bob almost comically across the screen. Every so often, the view will cut to a shot of their feet but, sensibly, we rarely see the whole figure move at once. This puts one in mind of The Sooty Show or The Muppets, when you would sometimes glimpse Sooty or Kermit’s little feet scampering along.

(All of which raises a question in the mind of this viewer. Is 2D animation the only way to recreate these lost episodes? I’d pay good money to see A Very Muppet Evil Of The Daleks. Just think of it. Fozzie as the Doctor. Kermit and Miss Piggy as Jamie and Victoria. Bunsen and Beaker would share the role of Theodore Maxtible. And, on Skaro, the Great Gonzo would be Emperor of the Daleks. No, not Daleks. Chickens. The Doctor must defeat his plan to spread The Chicken Factor through the history of the Muppets. In the final shot, looking down on Gonzo’s burning shed, our hero would utter those immortal words: “The final… end… Wacca wacca wacca.”)

But let’s get back to the matter at hand. The animated Power of the Daleks gifts us a little pre-credits treat of the regeneration sequence from The Tenth Planet, which is practically pornography for fetishists of the TARDIS console. You heart lifts at the simple pleasure of peering deep into the central column, right down to the slotted plastic colander that Rassilon, in his ineffable wisdom, decided was just the thing to restrain the awesome power of the TARDIS engines. When our new adventure begins proper, you recognise some of the colossal challenges of animating old Doctor Who. Patrick Troughton’s first scene contains a good minute of rattling about in a cupboard, and nobody scripting an animation from scratch would ever include a sequence like it. Weirdly, what the new pictures do at times like this is really tune you in to the sound. When this scurrying gerbil of a new Doctor Who barks a sudden “Come here!” at his travelling companions, you sit up in shock.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Patrick Troughton was keen to move on from Doctor Who after only three years. He’d long since done everything he could with the part, given that he completely nails it within his first 20 minutes on screen. Because Troughton pulls off this first (and incredibly risky for the programme) regeneration with such seemingly effortless skill, it might be tempting to conclude that the role is actor-proof. But history has proved that not to be the case. Here, even as a line drawing, you feel the full force of Troughton’s charm – a charm that Peter Capaldi, after two years in the role, transmits only in brief, if dazzling, bursts.

The other Power performance you appreciate anew thanks to this animation is Robert James as Lesterston, the scientist obsessed with reactivating the strange machines he has found in a capsule dragged from Vulcan’s mercury swamp. James clearly understands his character. The jealous, insecure scientist is a core Doctor Who archetype, but Lesterson is surely the best of them. There’s a nice subtlety to the way he momentarily resists using the word ‘Dalek’ to describe the alien machines, because he knows it surrenders just the tiniest bit of control of the situation to the Doctor. The animators clearly relish James’s performance too, as Lesterson seems to receive special attention. There’s a nifty shot in Episode 2 where his face is reflected, distorted, in a Dalek’s shiny dome.

The rest of the colony is, at least in the first hour of this story, something of a confusion of middle-aged men. It’s long faces all round on Vulcan, especially in scenes where Lesterson lines up with deputy governor Quinn and chief-of-police Bragen. Here, the animation caused this viewer to appreciate the text in an entirely new way. With their twitching lips and frequent sidelong glances, a powerful homoerotic tension simmers between Bragen and Quinn. Speaking of his troop of manly guards, Bragen boasts: “I pick them for their physical fitness”. “I thought it wasn’t for their IQ,” Quinn cattily replies. Later, the Doctor greets Bragen with the words “A-ha! Fruit!” This kind of language might have been acceptable in the 60s, but now is frowned upon in our polite society of almost-2020.

The Power of the Daleks truly takes flight once dormant Daleks are – and never was the word more appropriate – re-animated in Lesterson’s lab. You truly appreciate the genius and potency of their design, and those voices. As the Dalek eyeball begins to glow; as the gun arm begins to twitch; as Lesterson and his team’s voices rise with delight and anxiety…. This is when you will, if you haven’t already, forget that you are not watching this story in its original form. This ability to mesmerize, across all times and all media, is the true power of the Daleks.

The Dalek voices, when they come, are just a part of a rich soundscape that’s heightened further by Mark Ayres’ gorgeous restoration and remastering in 5.1 surround. Composer Tristram Cary’s atmospherics and jarring metallic clangs come straight from the soundtrack to a nightmare. The scene towards the end of Episode 1, where the Doctor breaks through to the inner chamber of the seemingly empty capsule, may be a steal from Quatermass and the Pit – complete with its sudden, shocking moment of movement – but you can’t watch it without holding your breath. And it’s Cary’s music and Brian Hodgson’s sounds that make it so especially potent.

Of course, the fact that we can hear this story at all is the great miracle of The Power of the Daleks. We must express all gratitude to fan Graham Strong, who wired up his tape recorder to his TV set and bottled this magic for us all to enjoy half-a-century later. This wonderful, fastidious recreation – and surely many more to come even better than this – could not exist without him. And so to Graham… Thank you.

Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future – or so they say. Well, it depends how you look at it. This new Power is being released in daily instalments on the BBC Store, beginning at 5.50pm on Saturday 5 November – exactly 50 years to the minute from its original transmission. This means that Episode 5 will be available for download on Wednesday 9 November: the day after the US presidential election. Episode 5 of The Power of the Daleks tells the story of a colony taken into the control of a bitter, vengeful fascist.

Hopefully, in this case, fiction will prove to be stranger than truth. If not – then somebody, please, send for the Doctor.


The Power of the Daleks will be available on the BBC Store from Saturday 5 November.

Frontios

2 Jun

Squabbling Rubber

A review of the DVD, from 2011

________________________________________________________________

“Let me show you how we smooth our walls, Doctor,” gushes the Gravis, queen of the Tractators, his flippers flapping with girlish glee. It’s one of the odder things ever to be said by a Doctor Who enemy, but at least he’s up front about his passions in life. Other monsters clearly harbour a passion for decor and design but – to protect their forbidding reputations – wisely keep schtum. Hidden deep in the mighty Cyber Empire is the mighty Cyber Graphic Design Department; responsible for logos and stencilling. And there must have been a moment in a planning meeting for the new Dalek paradigm when Scientist narrowed his iris at a Dulux ‘New Season Brights’ colour chart, sceptical of Eternal’s assurance that Sunburst Yellow would be “quite slimming”.

But we get ahead of ourselves. The Tractators don’t appear until the second…

View original post 2,252 more words

The Daemons

12 May

Squabbling Rubber

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012. (Sadly, there was no room for my theory that Bok is the Master’s Tardis. A glow-eyed, peripatetic statue, like a mini Melkur. At the the end of this story, it sits there, cross-legged, in the churchyard, waiting for the Master to escape from prison.)

___________________________________________________________________________________

There comes a point, in the final minutes of The Daemons, when the Doctor inches perilously close to losing our goodwill. He’s locked horns with the alien Azal – 20 feet tall in his stockinged hooves – regarding the creature’s interference in the development of our race. “Thanks to you, Man can now blow up the world,” our hero heckles. “And he probably will.” Probably? Well, thanks for the vote of faith, mate. Who’s spat in your coffee today?

The Doctor has a chip on his shoulder throughout The Daemons. “I’m…

View original post 2,702 more words

The Trial of a Time Lord

3 Mar

Squabbling Rubber

A review of the DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2008. (The David Tennant/Catherine Tate season had just been broadcast, if that helps you see what I’m trying to do with the opening paragraphs!)

_____________________________________________________________

As a recipe for success, the list of ingredients is sound enough. There are certainly some big ideas in the mix… Earth is torn from orbit and dragged across space. Brain surgery turns aliens into slaves. A mystery story, inspired by the work of Agatha Christie, has our heroes hunting a killer. We meet an alternative version of the Doctor, lifted from a point between two incarnations.

Script all this with skill, cast it well, produce it with care, and you can win yourself millions, billions, koquillions of viewers. Back in 1986, they took the opposite approach, and the fourth episode of this season earned a rating of only 3.7 million and an…

View original post 1,641 more words

The Green Death (Special Edition)

24 Sep

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

_____________________________________________________________________

UK GreenDeathSE DVD-2DLet us take a moment to grieve for Tom the Sea Captain, long since mouldered under the Glamorgan sod. “Who?” you will surely cry, for such is his tragedy. And what of Mrs Cartwright’s ginger cat; nameless and unmourned these last 40 years? Both cat and Captain died a gruesome death. A green death. Each was a victim of the callous indifference of a so-called, self-styled ‘Doctor’. Their blood is on his hands, and it is long past time he was called to account. What he did, he may have done in the name of peace and sanity. But it was not – we can be sure – in the name of Mrs Cartwright’s pussy.

We shall address this lamentable affair in due course. First, we need to get our bearings.

The Green Death is among Doctor Who’s most admired adventures, and rightly so. It’s wildly entertaining, and, as a deft pulling-together of the key themes of its era, it packs real emotional punch. Furthermore, its value has only increased with time. The Green Death is a seed with all the ambition and potential of 21st-Century Doctor Who coiled within, like the infinite whorl of a fractal. And, back in the summer of ’73, that seed fell on fertile ground. In Swansea, it took root in the imagination of Stephen Russell Davies, age 10. In Paisley, it tendrilled through the brain of 11-year-old Steven Moffat And just along the Glasgow Road, it coiled thickly about Peter Capaldi, 15. It would blossom, decades later, with astonishing vigour. Truly, all of modern Doctor Who – a decade of glory, a potent future – is the fruit of The Green Death.

This one story has such significance because it is not just one story – it is three. It’s a love story. It’s a monster story. It’s a ‘message’ story, built to tell us something about how we live our own lives. And if we take some time to tease these stories apart and consider them in turn, we can see that all three have something to say about Doctor Who as it is written today.

“You’ve got all the time in the world,” says the Doctor to his assistant Jo Grant, as he senses that their journey together may be coming to an end. “And all of the space,” he adds, sweetening the deal. “I’m offering them to you.” This sense of the Universe as the Doctor’s gift – something that he might offer to the talented, the blessed, the especially sassy – was, in 1973, something new. Today it is Doctor Who’s main engine. Each new protégée comes to understand, as Jo once did, that she cannot wander forever. She must, in the end, take charge of her own destiny. Generally by sticking her tongue down its throat.

For Jo, destiny takes the dishy form of Professor Clifford Jones, six-foot-something of Nobel laureate: proud and passionate, with a flowing mane, like Aslan trained to walk on his hind legs. From the moment the camera tracks in for his first ‘hero’ close-up, Cliff is presented to us as a god among men. It’s the kind of shot that normally finds and favours the Doctor, but not here, and with good reason. It is often said that women fall in love with men who remind them of their fathers. We know nothing of Jo’s biological father, but there’s no doubt that the Doctor has been emotionally in loco parentis for the past three years. Now, as Jo resolves to travel to Wales to meet Cliff – whose politics she admires – the Doctor says mournfully to himself, “So, the fledgling flies the coop.” It’s clear that he sees himself as a nurturing parent.

p01bqlzbA great joy of The Green Death is quite how brazenly it presents the crusading Professor Jones as a younger version of the Doctor, and then propels him into a karaoke of the Doctor and Jo’s own greatest hits. Their first meeting, over a wrecked science experiment, is a note-for-note encore of that first encounter in Terror of the Autons, but it’s a later duet which proves the sweetest cover version. Famously, Jon Pertwee would lobby his script editor to provide his Doctor with ‘moments of charm’, quiet little scenes where he would be at his most comforting and paternal: a call to a companion’s inner courage perhaps, or a Platonic musing upon the beauty of “the daisiest daisy”. But here, it’s Cliff who gets the goods. Following the death of a coal miner called Bert, Cliff comforts Jo: “You shouldn’t feel ashamed of your grief,” he says, his voice a lulling Welsh sing-song. “It’s right to grieve. Your Bert, he was unique. In the whole history of the world, there’s never been anybody just like Bert. And there’ll never be another, even if the world lasts for a hundred million centuries.” What he’s really saying is that Bert was ‘the Bertiest Bert’ – and Jo is a sucker for precisely this kind of blarney. While the rest of us struggle to keep down our lunch in the face of such nauseating flannel – this moment of smarm – Jo laps it up, and Cliff makes a confident and unchallenged move to first base. Sadly, we’ll never know how much further Cliff might have got that night, with his skilful playing on Jo’s grief. The Doctor harrumphs in and, equally expertly, sabotages any further tangling on the tufted Wilton; perhaps less irritated by Cliff’s theft of his girl than by his stealing his best material.

23But Jo isn’t mere guileless prey in all of this. There’s another neat reminder of how far she’s come, when, trapped up a slag heap with an unconscious Professor, and beset by beasts, she produces a screwdriver and rewires a broken radio, just as she’s seen the Doctor do. It’s a shame the script doesn’t gift Jo the leaving present of allowing her to make the big intellectual leap which saves the world this week; a luxury still reserved for the Doctor. That said, it’s Jo’s ambition to save humankind that ultimately leads her to leave the Doctor for Cliff, and a trek through the Amazon to find a high-protein fungus to feed our teeming billions. But why go such a long way? She should ask at the nearby chemical factory. After all, Quorn was developed by ICI.

When the end comes, it comes suddenly, as true endings are wont to do. Jo is swept off her feet and the Doctor is left – one can’t help but feel – gulping back his tears. Their parting is perfectly shot and perfectly played by Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. It’s a triumph of understatement, and has, in four decades, not lost a scintilla of its bittersweet magic.

Modern Doctor Who, while well-seasoned with the bittersweet, regularly reassures us that love conquers all. It’s also ringingly clear in its thesis that when the Doctor’s friends leave him, and he travels alone, bad things happen. This we also see demonstrated for the first time in The Green Death, when Jo chooses Wales over a jaunt to the Acteon galaxy’s famous blue planet.

The Doctor is so desperate to see Metebelis III that he’s wired the coordinates into the TARDIS’s steering circuit. (If he’d also wired the pronunciation into the telepathic circuit, we might all have been saved significant later grief.) It proves to be a quite hilariously anti-social destination – the Malia or Faliraki of intergalactic holiday resorts – thrashing him with rocks, spears and tentacles. Never has a planet had it in for the Doctor more than Metebelis III. And like all that’s best in Doctor Who, it’s roundly ridiculous and squarely entertaining at the same time. You have to admire the gusto and creativity with which director Michael E Briant and his team deploy their limited resources. As mayhem rages around him, the Doctor escapes with a precious blue jewel. It’s a bit of souvenir collecting that will ultimately prove the death of him, but one does feel that the production team misses a trick here. In the Third Doctor’s final adventure, we’re told how an ordinary spider is believed to have come to Metebelis in a rocket from Earth as an unseen and accidental passenger, and grew to awesome size and intelligence thanks to the planet’s uncanny radiation. Well, that’s the legend. Surely, instead, that spider was merrily spinning its web around the TARDIS lamp in UNIT HQ, and was actually delivered to Metebelis by the Doctor himself. That would make him in every way the architect of his own downfall.

Giant spiders haunt the Doctor’s future, but it’s giant maggots that await him in Wales, when he joins Jo, Cliff, the Brigadier and his crew. The Green Death is an excellent love story, but it’s an outstanding monster story. “Good grief!” cries the Doctor when the creatures first squirm into view, and you can’t blame him. The maggots are wonderfully realised and repellent to almost all our senses at once, with their greasy bloat, malicious hiss, and – as Jo puts it – “that smell… like something rotting.” Trapped down a coal mine, the Doctor and Jo have to punt a mine cart through a lake of green ooze squirming with a million maggots. And while the special effects deployed may be, well… less than wholly convincing, the twisted brilliance of the idea – and the wild ambition – make the heart sing. Doctor Who might sometimes fail, but it does so in areas where others don’t even dare to try.

Escaping the mine, the Doctor and Jo head to Professor Jones’s gaff clutching a trophy: an egg as big as your head. Later that night it hatches, and the baby maggot – like Cliff mere minutes before – makes straight for Jo’s temptingly creamy neck. However, it’s distracted by a passing villain, bites him instead and makes off into the night. “The egg!” wails the Doctor, on hearing the tale. “It must have hatched out!” Goodness. Who’d have thought? It seems that dumping the egg in Cliff’s post tray was not, after all, the most responsible way to deal with it. The maggot is now on the loose in Llanfairfach. “It can’t be helped,” huffs the Doctor – when it really can, perhaps by organising a search party. The next day, an unsuspecting local milkman complains about the Brigadier’s fixation with the coal mine: “But what about Mrs Cartwright’s ginger cat? It’s at death’s door it is, poor dab! Not to mention Tom the Sea Captain!” The Brigadier ignores him, but with Jones the Milk and his ailing, failing Captain and cat, it’s practically Under Milk Wood. Clearly, the escaped maggot has nibbled them in the coal-black, sloeblack night, and now they’re dying a sea-green, pea-green, mean, gween death. We never hear of their fate, but as a cure for maggot bites is still two episodes away at this point, they’re surely doomed. And it’s entirely the Doctor’s fault. What a git.

So much for The Green Death’s tales of love and loss. What about that ‘message’? While Cliff Jones is the Doctor’s mini-me, he’s also the avatar of Doctor Who’s producer – and the co-writer of The Green Death – Barry Letts. A 1972 issue of The Ecologist magazine, subtitled A Blueprint for Survival, had left Letts boiling with righteous fury. This closely-argued polemic predicted that human civilisation had only a short time left, and that it will all be over by, well… roughly ten years ago. If A Blueprint for Survival doesn’t quite suggest that giant maggots will spew from the rotting carcass of the Earth, it’s certainly forthright in its view that a happy ending is rapidly slipping away out of our grip.

The Professor speaks straight from Letts’ heart, as he condemns the dirty practices of the Global Chemicals facility in Llanfairfach (“More muck! More devastation! More death!”) and the skewed priorities of modern society in general. A Blueprint for Survival makes several references to “a green revolution”, years before ‘green’ was adopted in the mainstream as a shorthand term for environmentalist politics. So, while it’s easy to see The Green Death as one of Doctor Who’s most deliciously basic and lurid story titles – green is the colour of monsters, after all – might it also be a smart play on words by Barry Letts?

The Green Death’s ‘message’ ends up a trifle muddled, however. Quite why the goo being pumped out of the Global Chemicals refinery causes maggots to swell to the size of spaniels is never made clear. The whole operation, we learn – in a left-field twist – is run by a crackpot computer called BOSS, who shares a kind of symbiotic relationship with the managing director of Global, Stevens. It’s a right old laugh – thanks to brilliant playing by actors Jerome Willis and John Dearth as man and mainframe – but even the Doctor doesn’t seem to take it entirely seriously. BOSS is defeated using the blue crystal that the Doctor happens to have just collected from Metebelis III. The maggots are killed by the particular fungus that Cliff happens to have stockpiled in his shed. Rather brilliantly, the writers hide the second of these outrageous coincidences in plain sight, with much talk of ‘serendipity’ – a rarely-heard word that’s simply a poetic way of saying ‘outrageous coincidence’. It does, however, bring home the other great lesson that modern Doctor Who has taken from The Green Death: if you get your romance right, and your frights, then your story will be remembered and lauded forever. It really doesn’t matter if your plot doesn’t quite tie up, or if your resolution relies upon coincidence, or the pressing of a great big OFF switch, or Deus himself leaping gaily ex machina. When all is said and done, it’s the love and monsters they’ll remember.

The words of Professor Jones echo on, however. “Who does like the petrol-stinking, plastic-wrapped society we all live in?” we hear him rumble. It’s a question we may ponder as we peel the polyethylene covering from our Special Edition DVD of The Green Death; or later, when we fail to find a local council with the recycling facilities to process the silver polypropylene box from the 2003 DVD that’s now surplus to requirements. “A thick sludge you can’t break down in any way,” is how Cliff sees it all ending. The only sensible response, of course, is for us each to gift our original DVD to a charity shop, or to an eager relative; a boy or girl aged around 10 or 15 would be ideal. It’s a blueprint for survival. The green life. Plant a seed. Let it grow.

______________________________________________________

DVD Extras

The%20Green%20Death%201And, yes, this new edition is definitely worth your investment. The Restoration Team has worked uncanny magic upon the extensive film footage, leaving it fresher and sharper than one would have imagined possible. In addition, there are excellent new commentaries and ‘info text’, and a wealth of interesting new extras crowd out a packed second disc.

What Katy Did Next is a compilation of clips from a 1973 arts and crafts magazine programme hosted by Katy Manning called – for no clear reason, but with surely ultimate serendipity – Serendipity. And it’s pulse-quickening stuff. “We went to a beach in Lowestoft,” our host tells us, cueing a location film, “where I found out how exciting and easy pebble collecting can be.” It turns out to be precisely as easy and exactly as exciting as you might think. Trudging across a gloomy bank of shingle, Manning peers myopically into the distance, perhaps in hopeful expectation of Axos. Then it’s back to the studio for an item on carving, which has her prodding gingerly at a chunk of polystyrene. A dour sculptor asks of the ertswhile Miss Grant: “If I gave you only an old screwdriver and a file, could you make a dog?” She can’t, of course – but she certainly knows a man who can.

The crafting fun continues in a short documentary about the visual effects of The Green Death, brought over from the original DVD release. “I’m chamfering and shaving the bulbous foam mouth parts,” says visual effects designer Colin Mapson – for the first and last time in the entire history of mankind – as he shows us how to build a giant maggot of our very own. Mapson has the soft voice and hangdog expression favoured by former BBC staff designers, but is adamant when expressing his pride for his work on Doctor Who, and the giant maggots in particular – and rightly so. To make a maggot, Mapson explains, one must begin with a plastic weasel skull. That’s all very well, but there’s no clue offered as to how we might first catch a plastic weasel.

In a pleasing new production documentary, The One With the Maggots – which sounds like a rather outré episode of Friends – the creatures become a prism through which we might view the glamour and cruelties of showbusiness. Karilyn Collier, assistant floor manager on The Green Death, tells us of being tasked with collecting maggots (real ones, that is, not chamfered weasel foam) from London Zoo. “It was was a battle to keep them all in one pot to get them back to TV Centre,” she tells us. “Maggots go as fast as anything!” Now, while it’s easy to be wise 40 years after the fact, one feels that some kind of lid might have helped Karilyn there. These eager little wrigglers were to be background extras for crowd scenes, and perhaps dreamed of making it big at the BBC. But when the director called ‘cut!’, it was the last trump for our long-shot larvae. “We popped them with blow lamps,” chuckles Mapson, “and some were put out in the recycling.” Non-speaking artistes the world over will nod in recognition and sympathy.

This new DVD also invites us to revisit Global Conspiracy, again from the original release. It’s a witty mock-documentary investigation of “the Llanfairfach incident”, written by and starring Mark Gatiss, which outclasses anything else of its type attempted by the range; most notably in its brilliant pastiche of the 1970s current affairs series Man Alive. While it’s a wry look back the anxieties of yesteryear, the film also highlights its writer’s own concerns – at which we might now, ten years on, also take a wry look back. The sketch ends with BOSS and Stevens now in charge of the BBC, demanding “efficiency, productivity and profit” and “an orderly TV schedule.” It’s a dig at the Beeb’s lack of imagination, and desire to play it safe. But the script was written in the summer of 2003, mere months before the announcement of Doctor Who’s return to TV, and Gatiss’s own commission to write The Unquiet Dead. A decade on, there’s nothing Doctor Who fans would like more than “an orderly and productive TV schedule”. Thirteen episodes a year and a Christmas special – that sort of thing.

Chiming in with perfect resonance, the behind-the-scenes story of that second coming is told by Russell T Davies and Jane Tranter in Dr Forever! It’s a first-class documentary from James Goss, though many of its treats have been roundly gazumped by DWM, thanks to great minds thinking alike and going in search of the same story.

While we like to think it a truth universally acknowledged that Doctor Who was always fated to return to TV in one form or another, it’s here, listening to Tranter and Davies tell their story, that it becomes clear that it’s only thanks to their immense willpower and enormous personal integrity that the programme came back as any kind of worthy successor to its former self. Perhaps the most telling revelation is of how Doctor Who’s extraordinarily profitable revival was almost stymied by BBC Worldwide, who argued there was no ongoing interest in the show. Some time in the future, a member of the BBC Worldwide marketing team will stumble upon the secret of time travel. Voyaging back through the years, he will make it his mission to assist with the press launch of Doctor Who in 1963. However, due to the misreading of a vital memo, he will instead accidentally assassinate John F Kennedy.

Finally, all our threads come together thanks to the apt bonus inclusion of The Death of the Doctor, the two-part Sarah Jane Adventures serial which saw Jo Grant – Jo Jones – meet up with the Eleventh Doctor and Sarah Jane, her successor in the role of sorcerer’s apprentice. It’s an exquisite script – so smart, so funny – by Russell T Davies: a love letter to his own childhood.

Even here, the story continues. As Jo wobbles off toward new adventures, Sarah’s young protégé, Clyde, comments to his friend Rani: “That’ll be us, one day.” And he’s right, you know. Everything comes back.

The Reign of Terror

3 May

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

_________________________________________________________________________

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-18h36m59s72“The streets of Paris, strewn with the carcasses of the mangled victims, have become so familiar to the sight that they are passed by and trod on without any particular notice. The mob think no more of killing a fellow man – one who is not even an object of suspicion – than wanton boys would of killing a cat or a dog.

“It’ll be our most Christmassy Christmas special yet,” adds Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat.

Of course not. A little joke. But it’s to remind us how what we expect from our favourite family drama series has changed during its five decades on TV. These days, every fifth or sixth episode is Christmas. When Doctor Who began, every third or fourth serial featured a much-loved mass homicide from history.

The quoted passage comes from the The Times of London, Monday 10 September 1792. It’s a report on the September Massacres, a bloody foretaste of la Terreur; the French state’s attempt to establish control over the population through the legal and largely unfettered use of violence – literally reigning through terror. It’s a revolution within a revolution. “Terror is nothing other than justice,” says the 35-year-old Maximilien Robespierre, President of the National Convention. “Prompt. Severe. Inflexible.” He believes it to be a virtuous form of government. The word of a virtuous man, he insists, should be enough to condemn a traitor. But Robespierre’s licence to murder is not used merely to help hasten the obliteration of the ancien régime. The merest whisper of treachery is enough to condemn any enemy – a business rival, an unfaithful lover, an enviably successful friend – to death by the guillotine, as grotesque an invention as has ever been conceived by man. By the summer of 1794, the air in Paris is thick with fear, paranoia, and the stench of thousands of rotting corpses heaped high at the Errancis Cemetery. Soon, Robespierre himself will be added to the pile. In two virtuous pieces.

Forgive the lecture. But it’s important to bring the ferocious brutality of the real Reign of Terror into focus. In 1964, this was considered a suitable playground for a children’s serial. Indeed, BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman thought bleating bug-eyed robot men to be a far less appealing subject matter. And what makes Doctor Who’s teatime Terreur for tots so remarkable is the fact that it does not shirk from portraying the savagery of life in France in 1794. The first episode, especially, is a masterpiece of slowly unfolding horror.

But it begins with whimsy. The Doctor, in a particularly peevish mood, is convinced that he has brought homesick companions Ian and Barbara back to present-day England. They’re not so sure, and to prevent their pilot abandoning them in what could be anywhere or anywhen, they cajole him into joining them outside. Assured writing meets skilled performance in a lovely scene that would shine in any Doctor Who script from the last 50 years. Over one shoulder, Ian soft-soaps the Doctor. “Of course you’re in control,” he smarms. “And your important research must be completed.” Barbara is at the Doctor’s other shoulder, brushing away invisible dust, or possibly space dandruff. When it comes to Barbara, the Doctor’s a pushover. She’s his first human girl crush – and who can blame him? Meanwhile, William Hartnell hilariously double-takes between them. But despite this left-right charm offensive, it’s the suggestion that they might all go for a drink that finally wins the Doctor over. Perhaps it’s a little reflection of real life. Is this is how Hartnell’s colleagues dealt with his more dyspeptic mornings? “Of course you’re in control, Bill.” It’s easy to imagine many a studio quarrel settled over a lunchtime stout at the White Horse, Shepherd’s Bush.

This bright, optimistic start is designed to lend shadow to what follows, as, from the moment the Doctor’s curiosity takes over, the travellers fall into ever darkening danger. In a farmhouse some miles from Paris, they discover documents signed by Robespierre. “The Doctor’s put us down right in the middle of the French Revolution!” boggles Ian. “The Reign of Terror,” adds Barbara. And that’s our lot. We’re trusted – required even – to recognise the name Robespierre and immediately grasp the implications of this. (More explanation would doubtless be needed today; the Revolution has long been absent from the compulsory secondary school history syllabus. The subset of the population now most likely to know the name Robespierre is DWM subscribers. So, one point to Sydney Newman there.)

We meet on-the-run aristocrats Rouvray and D’Argenson. The militia is on their trail; a bickering band of bloodthirsty soldiers, grinning like Alsatians. Which, given that this is northern France, they may well be. Our bold Rouvray almost talks his way out of trouble. Playing on the memory of his lost patrician authority, he orders the soldiers to stand down. One man surrenders his musket, but our arrogant aristo pushes his luck. In an especially nuanced piece of writing, we’re give a flash of insight into both sides of the class conflict. “You can give them uniforms,” sneers Rouvray, “but they remain peasants underneath.” Without any order from his officer, one of the peasants shoots Rouvray dead. “A desperate attempt,” observes the commander. “And it very nearly worked.” The camera shies away as a second shot is fired. D’Argenson has been murdered. We know this from the soldiers’ gleeful laughter.

Already roaring with power, the episode accelerates toward a truly tremendous climax. Ian, Barbara and Susan are taken captive. “If any of them speaks,” says the commander, “shoot them.” Completely helpless, they can only stand in silence as their fate is decided by the squabbling soldiers. And then the farmhouse is set alight. But the Doctor is still inside! The fire spreads rapidly – through a series of generally excellent model shots – and the Doctor collapses, overcome by smoke. The camera pans up as the flames rise ever higher, and the incidental music – from Stanley Myers, and one of Doctor Who’s finest scores – playfully, sarcastically, quotes La Marseillaise. An anthem for life and liberty, just as death and disaster seem inevitable. Hold on flames. Roll credits. What a cliffhanger! They don’t make them like that any more.

The first episode is all about establishing the stakes we’re playing for. It’s made perfectly clear again at the start of the second, when we’re shown the falling blade of the guillotine. It’s mere moments of stock footage, but no less chilling for it. (And this is not some arcane threat from a bygone age. It’s worth remembering that the guillotine was used in France until 1977, and its blade was still hanging in the air until capital punishment was finally abolished in 1981.) “You have no rights,” barks a judge. He’s talking to Ian, Barbara and Susan, but the director has him looking right down the lens of Camera Two, directly at us. “You will be guillotined as soon as it can be arranged.” And with that, we are dragged away to the Conciergerie prison.

Here, writer Dennis Spooner – a true Doctor Who natural, giving us his first work – looks to leaven this brutal business with a few grains of humour. He’s hardly generous with it – though he will be in future – so perhaps script editor David Whitaker is staying his hand. We meet the lumbering jailer, his working class background conveyed through the broadest northern accent, and Jacqueline Hill does a wonderful comic reaction to his bad breath. But really, it’s the merest gesture toward fun. Although the Doctor and others later run rings round the jailer, he’s still a total horror, motivated by lust, greed and fear in turn. He leches over Barbara, offering her freedom if she – though he doesn’t use these words – has sex with him. Barbara merely turns and smacks him round the face. Marvellous.

“Lock ’em away!” bellows the jailer. “In there. It’s a cell I keep… for my special guests! Har har har!” Barbara and Susan are dragged into Doctor Who’s most bleak and dispiriting dungeon of all time. But it’s Ian who seems to get the premium accommodation. His cell is on film, and comes with a hot and cold running storyline. He’s tasked with finding an English spy, James Stirling. “Ask Jules Renan…” whispers a fellow prisoner with his dying breath. “At the sign of… Le Chien Gris.” But what’s with the sudden French? The TARDIS translation circuit must be on the blink – or, like Siri on the iPhone, doesn’t work well at low volume. (“I do not know what that means. Searching Index File for the sign of Lush He Angry.”)

The Reign of Terror comes with a neat little story of plot and counter-plot. It also gets to the heart of the dreadful irony of that time. Robespierre’s idea of justice was based on trust and duty, but no one could be trusted. However, our Doctor Who serial does seem clear on which class of citizen is the more virtuous. Barbara and Susan are rescued from the guillotine by upper-crust counter-revolutionaries Jules and “my young friend” Jean. They’re a sweetly affectionate pair who insist on calling each other by name with every other line (“I’ll go now, Jules.” “Take care, Jean.”), and they put their trust in the English travellers immediately, just as posh Rouvray and D’Argenson did before them. However, any ordinary working man we meet immediately proves devious, truculent and unreliable. The soldiers, the jailer, a roadworks overseer, a shopkeeper and a physician are all ready to abuse or denounce our heroes for personal gain, in the name of the glorious revolution.

But the story, having given us these rules, then subverts them to work its pivotal trick. Citizen Lemaitre, overseeing the Conciergerie, seems to be working for Robespierre, but turns out to be the English spy that Ian is looking for; our Mr Stirling having surely been dispatched on this undercover mission thanks to his having the biggest hooter north of Boulogne. Meanwhile, Barbara takes a shine to Jules’ friend in the resistance, the dashing Leon Colbert. Attentive and seductive, there’s a whiff of Pepé le Pew about Leon as he kisses Barbara’s hand and plies her with wine (“C’est magnifique, mon belle fromage!” he almost but doesn’t quite say.) But Leon proves a stinker in every sense. He’s a double agent for the State, and it was his treachery that led the soldiers to the farmhouse at the start of our tale. Soon, Leon has Ian chained up and ready for torture, but even he is allowed a sympathetic moment. “If you’d seen what France was like six years ago, you’d understand,” he says. “I do understand,” replies Ian. “But I can’t help you.” Actor Edward Brayshaw gives a wonderful, rich performance as Leon. It’s a tragedy that it’s almost entirely confined to the lost fourth and fifth episodes of this story.

So where is the Doctor amidst all this cruelty and tyranny? Early on, Susan tells us that the Reign of Terror is his favourite period of history. One might wonder how such a bloody time can be anyone’s favourite, but the Doctor clearly has a taste for revolution. It’s fitting, given how many he will go on to foment across the galaxy. He’s already managed a couple in the few weeks we’ve known him.  However, the Doctor’s particular affection for the Terror is also a writerly sleight of hand, and one that shows Doctor Who undergoing a revolution of its own. Up to this point, the Doctor has needed history teacher Barbara’s insights to help him cope with life in the past. But Dennis Spooner requires the Doctor to be able to slip straight into a position of authority. And so it is that his special study allows him to know the lay of the land and be able to bluff his way at the highest level. We’ve long since taken this sort of thing for granted; that the Doctor knows everything, and can charm his way to the top. These days, he even has a piece of paper that can do the job for him. Here, it’s mostly played for fun, and leads to The Reign of Terror’s best gag, and it’s a visual gag. When the Doctor barters for the uniform of a Regional Officer of the Provinces, it seems to be only the matter of a jacket and a sash. But the writer and director are deliberately holding back the rest of the outfit for the Doctor’s big entrance at the Conciergerie. He comes down the steps like a Vegas showgirl, swishing his cape and with the greater proportion of an ostrich fanning out from the top of his head. Hartnell is clearly in his element.

Sadly, The Reign of Terror rather fizzles to a close in its sixth and final episode. Ian recalls another clue whispered to him in prison. “Nothing specific,” he says. “Just something about Barras, a meeting and a sinking ship. No! The Sinking Ship.” It’s hardly short on detail, so we’re left to wonder what Ian might have considered a specific message. Perhaps he expected a phone number. He and Barbara head to the pub in question, where politician Paul Barras is trying to recruit the next ruler of the country. As our heroes dress as innkeeper and wife, it all feels a little like a Morecambe and Wise sketch, or one of those clumsy plays that the contestants used to act out in the final round of The Generation Game. Napoleon Bonaparte turns up – thoughtfully dressed like Napoleon Bonaparte to aid recognition – and he and Barras make a deal for France while staring intently at the tips of each other’s noses, as if they’re about to kiss.

But there’s one last shock to come, one last reminder of the horror. Back in the fourth episode, the Doctor met with Robespierre and debated the merits of his policy of state-sponsored murder. Even Robespierre himself is granted an understanding emotional beat. “Do you think I want this carnage?” he wails. “What a memory I shall leave behind if this lasts!” And here is the memory of it, given back to us in a TV series for children that adults adore. In the final episode, we’re shown fate catching up with Robespierre. He is shot, off screen, but then dragged out before us, still alive, his hand clamped over his shattered jaw, and blood running through his fingers. It’s wildly violent and vivid by Doctor Who standards, and a last, sobering reminder of why the series doesn’t tackle real history any more.

It’s not that history is in any way less exciting than aliens and monsters, it’s just that if you subtract those aliens and their devious manipulations, then we’re only left with humans committing acts of barbarity against other humans, and often for no other reason than greed, envy and plain old-fashioned hate. Some monsters are simply too monstrous for teatime; especially now that Doctor Who looks more ‘real’ than ever. These old episodes, black and white and presented as if from under a proscenium arch, still have a power, but keep us at a safe distance. Today, with single-camera filming – and likely 3D filming coming soon – we’d be right in there; amongst the cruelty and the violence, pushed up against it. It can’t be done. Especially not with Christmas coming round as often as it does. You don’t want Robespierre’s splintered jaw with your sherry trifle.

But then, perhaps it’s right that not every Doctor has been allowed free access to the more grown-up bits of history. It’s certainly fortunate that it was his first incarnation who blundered into Paris at this time, and not his third. The Third Doctor would share a cheeky Beaujolais with the dandy Leon Colbert, and then get the good guys and the bad guys thoroughly confused. “Jehosaphat!” he’d say. “I should have known he’d be behind all this!” Jo Grant would be slow on the uptake. “Who, Doctor?” she’d squeak, and her friend would have rubbed the back of his neck in frustration. “Did you also fail basic French at that school of yours?” he’d have huffed. “Lemaitre, Jo!”

 

_________________________________________________________________________

DVD extras

url-1The big bonus promise of this DVD is an attempt to recreate the lost fourth and fifth episodes of The Reign of Terror using animation. This has clearly drawn upon the efforts of many talented and hard-working artists, to whom must go much praise. Unfortunately, the finished product, due to how it has been compiled and directed for presentation here, can only be judged – with a heavy heart – a failure.

The surviving camera script for part four, The Tyrant of France, tells us that there would have been 52 camera shots in an episode of roughly 24 minutes’ duration. So there would have been a shot change, on average, around twice a minute. At one point in the animated episode four, the shot changes three times in one second. Now, this animation shouldn’t follow the original camera script verbatim, and one understands that additional close-ups are necessary to draw our focus. But here, our ‘camera’ spins wildly around the room. Was there no basic storyboard to work from? The result is frenetic, bewildering at best, and thoroughly distracting at worst. You try to follow the story, but each needless shot change is like someone bellowing in your ear.  Early in the fourth episode, Barbara is concerned that Susan is running a fever, but Leon Colbert tells her not to worry. “We’ve done all CUT! we can CUT! Barbara CUT!” says Leon. “Oh CUT! it’s CUT! probably CUT! a chill CUT!” he adds. But Barbara thinks Susan needs a doctor. “You must CUT! know someone CUT! we can trust?” The director seems to have no sense of how many shot changes the poor human brain can cope with. It’s a quiet little character scene.

The animation is also disappointingly inconsistent. In a sequence at the Conciergerie, the Doctor changes face from shot to shot. One moment he looks like an acquisitive turnip, the next a rather crestfallen pufferfish. Within the generous freedoms of the rules of caricature, each of these might be said to be fair descriptions of William Hartnell’s Doctor. But it’s the flicking back and forth between them that’s the terrible distraction; and then there’s the ‘rotoscope’-traced moments of sudden movement, which feel like they come from another place again. It’s as if the director is cutting madly between two or three different animations of the episode, each tackled in a different style.

What most boggles the mind is that, six years ago, the Doctor Who DVD range gave us animated versions of the two missing episodes of The Invasion. It was a production superior to this in every way; calm, consistent and confidently unshowy. Why the huge leap backwards? Some will claim that any reconstruction is better than none, but surely it’s reasonable to at least expect some progress in the field? Some will also say that to call this project a failure is too cold. In justification of that, it’s worth remembering that the sole purpose of Doctor Who is to transport us to another place, even for just a few fleeting moments – to dislocate us from the here and now. It takes a huge amount of work, from every department, to make the entire production process of Doctor Who dissolve away. One misspoken line, one untucked monster costume. An unconvincing model, green screen or unsuitable soundtrack. Any of these things – and a thousand others – will bring us crashing back to our ordinary sofa in our ordinary living room. But this animation makes no effort at discretion. It’s trying too hard to be noticed. It’s just too… animated. For any hope of feeling transported to the summer of 1794 with the Doctor and his friends, then your only option is to, well… close your eyes and just listen to the soundtrack. And if that isn’t a failure, then what is?

The production documentary Don’t Lose Your Head focuses on The Reign of Terror’s sometimes troubled days in the studio, with help from the detailed memories of Carole Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian) and production assistant Timothy Combe. Director Henric Hirsch suffered a breakdown on the recording day of the third episode, but the identity of exactly who stepped into his shoes remains a tantalising mystery. It’s a shame that Hirsch could never work on Doctor Who again, because the opening episode of this story proves that he knew his business. However, Carole Ann Ford, for one, certainly found him a struggle to work with. Brace yourself for her vivid retelling of the “Why so maudlin?” story on this documentary. It’s not for the faint of heart.

The clips from The Reign of Terror used in the documentary look like they’ve been filmed through a sock and then scrubbed with wire wool, which brings home the miracle of the restoration work that has been done to the episodes as presented on this DVD. When Lemaitre asks for “the execution list” at the prison, so clear is the picture, we can now see through the back of the sheet of paper that it is neatly titled EXECUTION LIST. Later, he asks for “the execution figures”. Equally neatly: EXECUTION FIGURES. Say what you like about Robespierre, but he kept tidy paperwork. However, there is a small price to be paid for this new clarity. Now, for the first time, we can spot a member of the production team lurking in the background of the first episode. Or perhaps he’s another time traveller, more skilled at staying out of trouble than our lot.

Another tremendous set of ‘Info Text’ subtitles really brings home the magic that was being worked in Studio G at Lime Grove in the summer of ‘64. Doctor Who had been in continuous production for a year, and there were still ten more weeks to go before a break. Every Friday between 8.30pm and 9.45, in a space about the size of a Sainsbury’s Local, another episode would be staged like a play, with even the incidental music played live into the studio. The subtitles take us through every clever trick the team used to weave their adventure in space and time. One favourite detail is that, on Friday 14 August 1964, the day William Hartnell recorded the Doctor’s great promise (“Our destiny is in the stars. Let’s go search for it.”), producer Verity Lambert finally pinned down BBC Controller of Programmes Donald Baverstock and secured a commitment to Doctor Who’s future. 13 more episodes, with an option for 13 more. And – though he never know it – an option for 722 more. And counting.

The audio commentary brings forth some new voices – Jeffrey Wickham (Webster), Neville Smith (D’Argenson) and the great Ronald Pickup, who plays the treacherous physician – with a well-prepped Toby Hadoke on hand to get the best out of them. Another commentary, fascinating in a different way, runs parallel to the long-lost fifth episode, and features ‘missing episode hunters’ Paul Vanezis and Philip Morris.

Morris sounds like a hero for our times. As with many Doctor Who fans of a certain age, the habit of ticking Target books from a list fostered a natural desire to collect the set, to fill the gaps. But when, in 1981, DWM published a list of Doctor Who episodes missing from the BBC Archive, his world was rocked. We all share the sense of dismay that there are these great holes in our common history, but Morris is resolved to bloody well do something about it. As an adult, his work on an offshore oil rig has taken him around Africa. Now, with that experience, he’s formed a company to work with TV archives around the world to help preserve their material.

A recent article in DWM reminds us that many of these archives are in very dangerous parts of the world. There are Home Office Advisory notices issued against travel to the likes of Libya, Uganda and Ethiopia – all of which once broadcast The Reign of Terror and many other lost episodes. But Morris seems determined to leave no stone unturned. “I don’t believe in a no-win scenario,” he says. There’s such a wonderful emotional through-line to this; from the boy who loved Target books to the man knocking on the door of an old TV station down a hot and humid back street in Nairobi or Lusaka. ‘Raiders of the Lost Archive’ is the old cliché headline for a ‘missing episodes’ story, but never has the heroic, exotic sense of it felt more true than here. You feel that if those episodes are there to be found, then Morris is the man who’ll find them.

Nightmare of Eden

8 Jun

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012

____________________________________________________________________________

There’s something seriously awry with the laws of physics out on the west side of the Milky Way. Things just don’t move in the way you’d expect. The mighty space liner Empress, for example, instead of gliding on a steady trajectory through space, just kind of… wafts about the place. The cargo ship Hecate, heading in the opposite direction, takes a similarly non-traditional approach to kinetics. Newton never framed a law for this kind of motion, nor Einstein an equation. Both vessels are orbiting the blue-green holiday planet of Azure, which spins silently beneath them. Well, I say ‘spins’. It turns in a series of hesitant twitches, which must have grave consequences when it comes to the conservation of momentum, and render life down on the surface entirely vexing; what with crockery flying everywhere, and the water forever slopping out of one’s bath. And I say ‘silently’. Musician Dudley Simpson – realising that all this interstellar spectacle might appear to be no more than a couple of crudely animated and chromakeyed models – is trying to makes things feel suitably solid and stately by bellowing “Fortissimo, cobbers! Fortissimo!” at his brass section. With a suitably blaring and adventurous main theme, Dudley almost saves the day.

Given how randomly the spaceships bob around out here, accidents must happen. Nightmare of Eden opens with a doozy. The Empress, in a partially materialised form, whacks into the smaller ship and solidifies around it, leaving the little red Hecate sticking out of its side like a tranquilising dart in a hippopotamus. This is all far-out sci-fi fun, but when we step aboard the Empress, life feels far more familiar. Indeed, if we excuse how flimsy the interior of the ship appears at points – and if we can accept that there might ever be a time when it will be considered acceptable for a middle-aged man in a position of authority to wear a glittery lycra top outside of his own home – then Nightmare of Eden will surely prove to be Doctor Who’s most accurate prediction of the future of space travel. It’s all so believably mundane. The Empress flies “the milk run”, we’re told. “Station 9 to Azure. Azure to Station 9.” Given the giddy excitement of the passengers in cattle class, this is a clearly a holiday package tour, probably run by a future version of one of today’s low-cost airlines; EasyWarp, perhaps, or RyanSpace. On booking, our passengers would have been miffed to discover additional charges for loan of protective overalls and glasses. This is clearly exploitation, because none of the crew have to wear them. Later, when Dymond, the aggrieved owner of the Hecate, arrives on board to remonstrate with Captain Rigg, the talk is not of science, but of blame and claim. “We’re fully covered comprehensive on all third party damage,” says Rigg. “The company will compensate you.” When the Doctor and Romana join in, they pose as insurance agents, which is great fun. It’s a bit of whimsy, of course, but so fresh and clever and neat, it kicks the story off with great vigour; an energy it maintains across all four episodes.

As the Doctor sets about separating the ships, Romana heads to the Empress’s first class lounge, where she meets a xenozoologist called Tryst and his dreary assistant Della. Tryst speaks with a thick, slurred accent that might be Dutch, German, or the result of a serious stroke. Either way, he could make a name for himself as the Low Countries’ leading Liza Minnelli impersonator. But Tryst is a busy man, on a mission to catalogue “effry speches in da galaxy”. That’s an awful lot of speches, so Tryst is clearly a man of no small ambition. He hopes to meet “a sponshur on Ashur” – something which one hopes will be easier done than said. He’s the inventor of the Continuous Event Transmuter, a machine which can hoover up and compress a chunk of a planet’s surface, and all “der floura und der fawna”, into a crystal, with this miniaturised microcosm then available for viewing on a screen. The Doctor calls it “an electric zoo”, but what Tryst has actually invented is surely the ideal medium for the broadcast of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. It would allow a jungle full of the likes of Gillian McKeith, Paul Burrell and Coronation Street’s Antony Cotton to be captured in a single crystal that could then be easily and conveniently stepped on. Most of the planets offered by the CET Machine – Vij, Zil, Lvan, Darp – sound like brands of oven cleaner you’d find in a pound shop, so it’s no surprise that Romana’s attention is drawn to Eden. When she dials up the projection the camera slowly tracks in, and shadows in the foliage resolve into the shape of a face peering right back at us. It’s a spine-tingling moment. A lovely Doctor Who scare.

Meanwhile, the Doctor’s investigation of the crash has him follow navigator Secker, who is not in a good way. We learn that he’s been using the drug Vraxion (also known by its street names of ‘Vrax’, ‘Moff’ and ‘Paddy Kingsland’s spunky backpack’, although I might have made some of those up). The Doctor knows Vrax to be dangerous and addictive: “I’ve seen whole communities, whole planets, destroyed by this.” It’s an astonishingly adult topic for Doctor Who to tackle at Saturday teatime – even the use of the word ‘communities’ is an interesting shading there – and one wonders if it would be countenanced today. The progressive effects of Vraxoin are played through the character of Rigg – a great, unsung performance by David Daker – whose drink is spiked with the stuff. The initial high seems similar to that of cannabis, in the sense that Rigg becomes a total bore. “Let’s talk about life,” he says with a giggle. Now, when someone sits down next to you at a party and suggests you might want to talk about life, it’s always best to find another seat; preferably another party. Even at this stage, Rigg should stand as a stark warning to the kids watching. “Don’t do drugs, guys, because they make you more interesting only to yourself.” Soon, the Captain is completely off his chump, and laughs as he watches his passengers murdered by rampaging monsters. “They’re only economy class!” he scoffs. “What’s all the fuss about?” It’s a black joke worthy of Robert Holmes. That’s a thought: how much darker and more satirical might the comedy in this story have been had the scripts passed through his hands? Soon after, Rigg’s comedown proves swift and brutal. “I must have something for this terrible feeling,” he wails at Romana. In a moment he’s screaming at her: “Let me have some or I’ll kill you!” And it’s clear he’s ready to do exactly that. He has her by the wrist, and raises his arm to strike. Rigg is shot before he can actually beat Romana to death, but the implication alone of what he’s about to do makes this a staggeringly brutal scene by Doctor Who standards.

Unfortunately, a couple of production missteps typical of the period take the edge off all this. Rigg is shot – killed, we must assume – by customs officer Fisk, whose official uniform makes him look like he’s on work placement from the Village People. And the monsters who excite Rigg’s mirth – the Mandrels – do, unfortunately, look ludicrous. But while the dressing of this storyline might seem absurd, we mustn’t lose track of what is happening here. To reiterate: a decent, honest man, who is secretly drugged by others, laughs at wholesale slaughter and then, desperate for another fix, tries to kill the Doctor’s companion. This innocent man is then shot in the back and goes unmourned. There has long been a view that the 17th year of Doctor Who is somehow less serious than others; that it is gaudy and whimsical. Well, phooey to that. Doctor Who doesn’t come darker than Nightmare of Eden.

However – yes – the Mandrels are silly. The problem is, they’re just too darn cute. If the Doctor Who title sequence were remodelled after that of The Muppet Show, a Mandrel – all fun-fur and googly eyes – would surely lead the stomp across the bottom row of that tiered colonnade, followed by the Garm and the Ergon. (Up above, the smallest arches would be filled by the Graske, a baby Fendahleen and a trio of friendly clams. The diamond logo would be winched down, and through the ‘O’ of ‘WHO’ the Bandril Ambassador would toot on a trumpet.) Normally it’s the feet that do for a Doctor Who monster, but while the Mandrels have the kind of legs that won’t be seen again until the closing number of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it’s their arms that really let them down. They’re too long, and flail hopelessly about. With all the will in the world, from the moment a Mandrel comes windmilling in at the end of Part One, it must surely be impossible for anyone over the age of four to suspend their disbelief.

Happily, monsters alone do not a Doctor Who story make, and Nightmare of Eden delivers a steady stream of other pleasures. The electronic effects used to depict the hazy overlap of the two ships are outstanding, especially when accompanied by a clever soundtrack of distant creaks and clangs. The cliffhanger out of Part Two, when the Doctor takes Romana by the hand and they leap into the Eden projection – “We’ll get torn apart!” – is impossibly thilling. It’s easy to imagine how this scene would be reshot today. The projection would be CGI and the camera would sweep left to right with the Doctor to the edge of it, to make it clear that he’s jumping into a two-dimensional screen. There’d be a blup! as the image of Eden ripples and swallows him up. Here, however, the effect is achieved merely by placing the two sets side-by-side, and the thrill is delivered thanks to how well the script has sold the reality of this to us; by the performances; and by the perfect timing of that final cut to the credits. It’s both sublimely simple and devilishly clever.

That cliffhanger also serves to knit together the various strands of this story – the unstable overlap of the ships, Tryst’s CET machine, the Mandrels and the drug smuggling – in a wonderfully stylish way. While inside the Eden projection, our heroes meet Stott. He’s the owner of the face that peeped out at Romana, and with his bouncy perm and cheekbones he looks more like the Denys Fisher Tom Baker doll than Tom Baker ever did. Stott, a drugs officer with Space Corps, explains that he was left for dead on Eden while investigating Tryst’s operation, but was then caught up in the CET crystal. “There were a few times I felt like blowing my brains out,” he says. It’s another dark and adult moment that pulls you up sharp.

It’s been said – many times – that Lewis Fiander’s enthusiastic performance as Tryst, and that Amsterdam pot-dealer accent he deploys, is to the detriment of Nightmare of Eden, as it signposts too clearly that he is the villain. That’s an easy claim to make with hindsight, but if you can imagine not knowing this fact, then you can appreciate that Fiander is, intelligently, trying to make his character seem too silly to be the prime suspect. The problem is actually with the script and the wider casting, which fail to deliver any other suspects. We ought to think that Della could be responsible, but Jennifer Lonsdale’s performance is so flat, and her dialogue so basic – “It’s just that Eden brings back such terrible memories for me. That was where we lost the other crew member” – that she’s never a serious contender. Equally drably-written and played are customs officers Fisk and Costa, who you can’t believe have lived a single day before the events of the story, or will live a single day after. So it’s not that Fiander is too ‘out there’ for this story, it’s that the rest of the cast – David Daker aside – lack the wit and the material to allow them to deliver at the same level.

In the home straight, we learn that Tryst, in league with Dymond, is using the CET machine to smuggle the Mandrels – which are made of pure Vraxoin – from Eden, and is all set to transfer the contents of the Eden crystal over to the Hecate by laser link. So was this their plan all along? Did they merely intend to pull the two ships alongside for the short time it takes for the drop? In which case, are we to believe that the collision – plus the instability of the Eden projection, and no others – is just a honking great coincidence? And if this whole operation is designed to smuggle the Vrax past the super-sensitive shipboard scanner on the Empress, then how was Secker keeping some in a filing cabinet, and where was Tryst hiding the batch he used to dope poor Rigg?

One wishes there had been a final go at the script, which would have, I’m sure, made the accident deliberate, and vital to Tryst and Dymond’s plan. They would have needed the instability to make the Eden crystal accessible again. Secker would have been in their employ, and then drugged – like Rigg – to make it all seem like an accident. One small sample of Vrax would have been hidden in the Hecate, and brought over by Dymond. And maybe Della, who could have served the drugged drinks, would have been our prime suspect for a few episodes; imagined in league with her boyfriend, spotted lurking in the projection.

Doctor Who stories stand or fall by their scripts, I believe. Everything else is trivia; fuel for cheap jokes at the top of a DVD review. Special effects may fail, shots be missed and lines be fluffed due to time and money running out in the studio, that can’t be helped. But there’s less excuse for not finding the hours, days and weeks to polish storylines until they shine, and dialogue until it sings. Nightmare of Eden is a tremendous piece of work, but flawed. And it’s not the comical monsters and a comedy accent that are the problem, but a plot that fails to resolve properly, characters that fail to come fully to life, and a script that follows up every deft line with a clumsy one.

Nightmare cruises an erratic – and a joyously idiosyncratic – course; but one that’s plotted just a few degrees south of true greatness.

_____________________________________________________________________________

DVD Extras

An interview with Romana actress Lalla Ward on an edition of Ask Aspel from 1980 provides a glimpse of lost age of starchy children’s TV. Ward is quite appallingly snooty about the whole thing; rolling her eyes and tossing her hair in response to Michael Aspel’s perfectly reasonable questions. A clip from a BBC Shakespeare production is cued by Aspel: “Here’s a snippet of Hamlet, where you play – guess who – Ophelia.” The seven-year-old viewers of Ask Aspel must have been puffing on their pipes and huffing impatiently: “Well yes, Ophelia of course.” Ward’s illustrations for the book Astrology For Dogs (and Owners) receive a nice plug. This inspirational work is doubtless now favourite bedtime reading of her husband Richard Dawkins, who loves all that astrology stuff.

The bafflingly-titled The Doctor’s Strange Love brings together writers Joseph Lidster and Simon Guerrier, plus comedian – it says here – Josie Long, for a chat about the hits and misses of Nightmare of Eden. “It’s too explicitly anti-drugs,” says Lidster – right on, dude! – which makes one wonder what kind of equivocation he was expecting from a family drama shown at 6pm on a Saturday in 1979. Guerrier wears an expression of such open and childlike delight in the cutaways, you feel there surely must be a particularly wobbly jelly being jiggled just out of shot.

The finest extra here, by a parsec, is Nicholas Pegg’s ‘info text’ subtitles. It’s a flood of facts and fun. And here’s a word of friendly advice on the subject. If you’re in the habit of watching these production notes while listening to the cast commentary, then try to resist the urge. Many insights and jokes in the subtitles bounce from cues in the scripted dialogue, and you’ll be missing a whole level of sly wit if you separate one from the other. The big behind-the-scenes story of Nightmare of Eden is of how a seething production team and cast rose up against the perceived shortcomings of director Alan Bromly – shortcomings that are not particularly evident on screen, it must be said – which led to his dismissal during the final day of studio recording. Pegg teases this tale up front, but then holds back the juicy details until Parts Three and Four, delivering a narrative every bit as intriguing and entertaining as Nightmare of Eden itself.

For some primary-source bitching, turn to The Nightmare of TV Centre, where thoroughly disconsolate visual effects designer Colin Mapson dismisses his spaceship shots as “a disaster, to be quite honest”, and blames the producer for insisting they be shot on videotape rather than film. But it’s the tales of Tom Baker chafing against the authority of Alan Bromly that again prove most fun. Tom’s studio backchat, at first audible only to his fellow actors but then bellowed at the gallery, make him sound quite wonderfully brattish; but he was furious only because he cared so much. And it’s clear that he was not alone in his anger. Floor manager Val McCrimmon suggests that Bromly’s assistant, sat beside him making notes on the script, would deliberately try to stab him with her pen. Whether she actually drew blood is not recorded, but surely on-the-job feedback to one’s line manager doesn’t get more direct than that.

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: