Tag Archives: Christopher H Bidmead

Doctor Who: The Legacy Collection

17 Feb

A review for Doctor Who Magazine, 2013

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DISC ONE

vlcsnap-2012-08-13-11h19m55s137Many have attempted to complete Shada. But it can never be completed in any meaningful way. That’s because we can never know, for sure, what happens to Skagra’s hat. Similarly, many have pondered whether Shada might have stood as one of Doctor Who’s great, defining adventures. Again, we can never answer that question with any confidence. That’s because we simply don’t know what happens to Skagra’s hat.

First, though, we need to fill in the backstory for any newcomers out there. In 1979, Shada – a wannabe six-part Doctor Who adventure – was abandoned due to industrial action at the BBC, with only its location scenes and one-third of its studio work in the can. In the 1980s, a hooky video of the completed material did the rounds of fandom, copied and re-copied until its contents dissolved into a hissing smear. Lost scenes were summarised in screens of strobing text output from an early home computer. It was a wondrous thing to behold. Then 1992 brought an official BBC Video, the gaps filled with earnest narration from a Tom Baker battling hypnosis by autocue. It’s this version which has been dragged from the brink of obsolescence and cannily tarted up to form the lead feature of this DVD box set. A decade on, 2003 gave us a spectacularly recast BBC Online/Big Finish animated audio adaptation, also available here as a generous extra. And last year brought Gareth Roberts’ superb novelisation, which enriches and improves upon the source material immeasurably. In the future we can look forward to Shada: The Collectible Card Game, and Shada: The Interpretive Dance Experience, performed twice daily in a shopping centre near you. Shada will just keep on coming. And that’s because, far from being cut short, it has secured its place as the story that will never end.

Skagra is the villain of Shada. It’s a suitably unlovely name for an unlovely sneer of a man. Few characters in Doctor Who have ever looked more intrinsically cruel. His babyish face is fringed with curls, but his features are sharp, like a putto; a vengeful cherub. He has a rip of a scar down his forehead and right cheek. The cause of this scar is, with uncommon restraint for Doctor Who, never revealed, but Skagra wears it with pride. He is clearly every inch the scoundrel, from the hem of his long white cape to the brim of his huge white hat.

It’s a sun hat, of sorts; the kind you might have found Jackie Onassis sheltering beneath on a weekend at the Hamptons. For added pizazz, there’s a spattered constellation of sequins. It’s an uncompromising fashion statement; and Skagra, marvellously, doesn’t give a damn what we think about it. When we first see him in present-day Cambridge, he turns to camera and smirks right back at us. “Yeah?” he’s saying. “What of it?” Truly, he is a man to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, all this boiling self-belief can do nothing to distract us from the fact that he looks absolutely bloody ridiculous.

Skagra has come to Cambridge from space, in search of a leather-bound Time Lord plot device: ‘The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey’. He speaks with a precise, clipped voice, like a Nazi from a Sherlock Holmes movie. It’s a measured performance from actor Christopher Neame, who knows he has to take the character a long way up, and then a long way down, from here. “I have come…” he tells Time Lord-in-hiding Professor Chronotis “…for the bok.” He pronounces the word ‘book’ in just the way a chicken might. “Give me. The bok.” And Skagra gets his bok eventually – thanks to rank stupidity on the part of the Doctor, who’s pelting about Cambridge on a bicycle – after which he takes Romana prisoner and steals the TARDIS. At this point, following a brief dalliance with polyester trousers, Skagra’s back in his hat. He’s clearly very attached to it.

And there’s the problem. Due to the structure of the recording schedule, Neame only recorded one other scene as Skagra before the plug was pulled on Shada. It’s his final moment in the story, by which point he’s a ranting, twitching maniac, driven to distraction – round the bend and loop-the-loop – by the Doctor, who becomes the Inspector Clouseau to Skagra’s Commissioner Dreyfus. And here’s the thing: by this point, Skagra’s not wearing the hat. So when does he lose it? Or, more to the point: for how long would he have worn it? Just how many unrecorded scenes might that hat have stolen? We will never know.

Judging by the script, all the best missing scenes of Shada would have featured Skagra. That calm, confident theft of the TARDIS would have been shocking in the extreme. How rare is it that we see someone other than the Doctor at the controls of his ship, let alone a villain? And though Skagra lacks the charm of the best of the Doctor’s rivals, he roundly outclasses the Master and the like in terms of ambition. Skagra’s plan to become “the Universal mind” – a single intelligence displacing every other consciousness in creation – is an absolute belter of a wheeze, and surely one of Doctor Who’s top five most imaginative evil schemes. Two of the others also come with Douglas Adams’ name on their scripts, but Shada lacks the cosy, cheering upholstery of The Pirate Planet and City of Death – there’s no robot parrot or multiple Mona Lisas – and instead looks toward a colder, higher place in the grand scheme of things. In what might well have been Shada’s most striking scene, Skagra outlines his philosophy to Romana: “Billions of atoms spinning at random,” he says of the Universe. “Expanding energy, running down – achieving nothing. Entropy! But what is the one thing that stands against entropy, against random decay?” And here Skagra would have paused for effect before answering his own question. “Life!

It’s a great irony that, the following year, incoming script editor Christopher H Bidmead would claim to be restoring scientific rigour to a Doctor Who that had become too whimsical. He would give us Logopolis; another story about how the exercise of the mind, the power of rational thought, will be the only way to save the Universe from entropic decay, from running down to nothing. But who would have played this theme better in their season finale: Adams or Bidmead? Well, there’s the rub. Skagra’s big speech about the ultimate destiny of existence is all well and good, but it might have been fatally undermined if delivered while looking like Joan Collins dressed to impress the paparazzi.

But let’s put the unseen and the unknown to one side for a moment, and ponder some of Shada’s more familiar pleasures. The trick – as with most things in life – is to not let the familiarity diminish the joy. The revelation that Professor Chronotis’s Cambridge rooms are a secret TARDIS, for example, is a total blinder. And that first appearance by Skagra on the bridge over the river Cam is a brilliant bit of scripting, as we’ve only just seen him draining brains somewhere and somewhen in outer space. His look-to-camera is really intended to say: “Yes, I’m here too! Good, isn’t it?” It’s certainly some cocksure storytelling, as the Doctor and Romana float blithely beneath in an out-of-control punt.

The punting sequence was, of course, co-opted for use in The Five Doctors, and so is doubly familiar. We know it so well we could recite it as a catechism. The leaves, the colours. May Week’s in June. So was the TARDIS. Definitely Newton. The duck that laughs “waak! waak! waak!” along with Lalla Ward and Tom Baker’s erudite banter. The scene is a goosebumpy breath on the back of our necks, enough to make our fan gene shiver to attention. And here, cleaned up for DVD, and in its proper context, it looks achingly beautiful. The leafiness of those leaves, the colour of those colours. It’s a perfect moment of Doctor Who, caught in a timeless bubble of eternal sunshine.

And it’s perfect for a box set celebrating the legacy of Doctor Who, here on the cusp of anniversary year. For, with this version of Shada, nostalgia settles upon us in layers, because it comes to us from so many different times at once. It comes via The Five Doctors in 1983. It comes from Tom Baker’s wonderfully batty museum-set introduction to the 1992 video, where he wittily re-enters Doctor Who from the exit. “I was irresistible in those days!” he says, which is true enough, but he’s no less irresistible in his recalling of it. In addition, this Shada was put together by 80s producer John Nathan-Turner – and it was a hard-fought labour of love, we must remember – who invited one of his favourite musicians, Keff McCulloch, to provide a score, and so our senses are also jabbed by the flatulent synthesizers of the Sylvester McCoy era. Shada is probably the composer’s most agreeable work for Doctor Who; but then, asking this viewer to name Keff McCulloch’s most enjoyable soundtrack is like asking him to name his most enjoyable toothache.

We now also have a whole new context granted to the story by Doctor Who’s reaffirmed mainstream success. What’s most striking, looking at Shada afresh, is how modern it all is. It’s remarkably assured in the way it plays with familiar situations. For example, we’re tickled by being shown the TARDIS in Chronotis’s room some time before we see the Doctor. Later, when de facto companion Chris Parsons is sent into the ship in search of a first aid kit, the wit is not so much in Romana’s lengthy directions, but in the way actor Daniel Hill exits the police box out of breath, having run all the way back. This playfulness trusts to our intelligence, and is much how Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat might flatter us.

Of course, with two and a half hours to fill, there’s more time for characters to talk. They may do that weird, old fashioned thing of sitting down when they do it, but it’s still recognisably the continuing rolling banter of today’s Doctor Who. The Doctor and Romana’s extended chat with Chronotis is so carefully rehearsed by the cast as to be almost sitcom. A favourite moment is when the Professor is asked why he called the Doctor to Cambridge. “It’s a delicate matter,” says Chronotis, and Romana respectfully looks away, as if the problem might be something only to be discussed between Time Lads. She imagines, maybe, that the Professor wants to show the Doctor a worrisome rash he’s found around his old, y’know, Eye of Harmony.

But Tom Baker looks tired. Around this time, by his own account, our star was burning the candle at both ends while taking a blowtorch to the middle. Or perhaps it’s the same ill-health that would reportedly dog his next and final series as the Doctor, rendering it a muted postscript to his glittering reign. Some of his most Doctor-ish lines don’t quite land with their usual seemingly effortless, perfect placement. But perhaps he would have rallied had production continued – and then, what other great moments of Doctor Who might we have lost?

Well… Quite possibly Doctor Who’s most outrageous climax of all time. And, as ever, it all comes back to that hat.

It’s the big Part Six showdown. On one side of Skagra’s bright yellow command centre, we have the man himself, quite possibly glowering from beneath a large sequined brim. On the other side is the Doctor, who has done everything in his power to out-hat his enemy. The helmet that the Doctor would have built to deflect Skagra’s mind power is described in the script as “having a jagged piece of table attached to it”. Imagine, then, the kind of understated performance we’d have got from a Season Seventeen Tom Baker, on the last day of term, with a piece of table on his head. But even that’s not the half of it. The hat that was actually built is described in the production subtitles of this DVD as having “a rotating drum, covered in flashing lights”. As the Doctor himself would have commented: “With this on my head, it won’t matter whether it works or not. They’ll all be paralysed laughing at me.” And so, it’s sequins versus lights. Evil Quentin Crisp versus a one-man walking wedding disco. As battles go, it’s titfer tat. It would have been perfectly glorious. Or exquisitely embarrassing.

Of course, this is Doctor Who; where, much like Skagra’s hat, it’s quite possible to be both at same time. But the unique thrill of Shada is that we can never, ever know for sure. And – for a series that we have all sliced and diced and roundly ranked and rated to six decimal places, several times over – that uncertainty, that mystery, is perhaps the most valuable thing of all.

DISC TWO

urlThere are many kinds of legacy. And Shada comes with no end of them, as some fine DVD extras remind us.

A first-class set of ‘info text’ production subtitles runs alongside the main feature. It is a consummate piece of storytelling in itself, with the sad story of Shada’s demise – at 11.45am on Friday 30 November 1979 – intercut with a wealth of wonderful trivia. We’re told that Tom Baker was busy in the week before location filming helping to launch a new comic. And so, we can infer, that while the Doctor is pursued on his bike through Cambridge by Skagra’s ‘mind sphere’ in Part Two, he cycles past shops in which the first issue of the very magazine you are holding would have been on sale. There’s a legacy for you.

A wistful production documentary takes members of the cast and crew back to Cambridge, while Baker comments from the bucolic bliss of a walk in the woods with his ebullient lurcher, Poppy. It’s a lovely programme as far as it goes, but sadly stunted in its ambition. Could not more effort have been made into giving some sense of the unmade Shada? Designs exist for Skagra’s command ship and for the titular prison planet of the Time Lords, so wouldn’t this have been the perfect occasion to revive the DVD range’s former obsession with 3D computer modelling of old sets? Couldn’t we have finally had a little poke around Shada? We could have opened cell doors like an advent calendar until a Zygon popped out.

The cast and production team talk about how bonded the crew of Shada became during filming. Actor Daniel Hill – surely a shoo-in for the lead role in Steven Moffat: The Motion Picture – tells us of how he fell in love with production assistant Olivia Bazalgette. They went on to marry, and now have three children together. Now there’s a legacy for you.

(However, Shada’s finest legacy – while we’re on the subject – is to be found elsewhere. For that, you need to seek out Lalla Ward’s talking book version of Gareth Roberts’ novelisation. It is, for sure, the very best way to enjoy Shada. Lalla gives her all playing Skagra’s spaceship; a female artificial intelligence who is persuaded by the Doctor to reprogram herself, and is thoroughly seduced by his Time Lord touch. “Ooh!” says Lalla. “Ooh. Ooooh! That hit the spot, Doctor.” And when you stop to think about who is taking about whom, and what they were up to at the time Shada was in production, you perceive that there really is no end to the madness.)

Strike! Strike! is a first-class documentary looking at the effect of BBC union action on Doctor Who, for good or ill, down the years. It’s a sobering reminder of how lucky we were that Warhead – the serial planned to end Season 20 but abandoned due to strike action – was revived for Season 21 as Resurrection of the Daleks. Can you imagine how many half-baked fan productions of that we would have had to sit through? Meanwhile, former Doctor Who and Sarah Jane Adventures script editor Gary Russell recalls how, back when he worked in a more junior capacity at the Beeb in the 1980s, the management would stamp a little picture of a Christmas tree on the staff files of any likely troublemakers. Russell expresses pride at the fact his file came with two Christmas trees. It’s likely that this is because he was seen as a Trotskyite rabble-rouser – the Roj Blake of the BBC press office – but more enquiring minds might wonder if it was just because of his unreconstructed, unconscionable views on the subject of City of Death.

Watching the documentary Being A Girl must be the closest one can get in this world to experiencing Sutekh’s ultimate doom after the Doctor nobbled his time-space corridor. The start and end of the programme telescope away to infinity, until it feels like one has somehow always been watching it. Its stated objective is to explore the role of women in Doctor Who; their empowerment or otherwise. A female production team would have been a nice idea for a project like this, but instead just two contributors – DWM’s Time Team’s Emma Price and broadcaster Samira Ahmed – are expected to carry the whole thing, fending off a series of eye-crossingly long-winded questions as best they can. Ahmed, discussing the earliest roles for women in Doctor Who over some footage of Barbara Wright, says: “The women in it are kind of whiny, and they’re kind of high-pitched in their voices. And they’re kind of going round like Margaret Thatcher… With their kind of set hair, and sort of corsets.” As statements go, it almost fulfils the 1963 brief for Doctor Who itself; reaching forwards in time, backwards in time, and kind of sideways into a parallel dimension where it might sort of make the slightest sense at all.

DISC THREE

url-1The other star feature of this box set, the documentary More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS, would have been within its rights to harangue its agent for top billing. It’s one of the crown jewels of the BBC Video and DVD range, and simply a glorious job of work from director Kevin Davies and his team.

An extended version of a programme originally made for BBC One to celebrate Doctor Who’s first three decades, More Than 30 Years piles joy upon joy, pleasure upon pleasure. Hundreds of skilfully curated archive clips are wrapped up with witty star interviews and then tied with a wonderful ribbon of specially-shot drama, featuring the perilous adventures of an imaginative young Doctor Who fan and a hit parade of old monsters. And now, in 2013, with the documentary itself being 20 years old, it’s nostalgia squared.

“Squeezed between the football results and the Tellygoons, a legend was born.” “An essential belief in the ‘rightness’ of things.” “A real popped-up engine.” “The colour for monsters is gween.” “I screamed my way out of the show.” These are just a few of the phrases that have earned their place in the Doctor Who book of quotations along with any of the Doctor’s own most memorable quips. But this viewer’s favourite will always be from a conversation about 1960s movie Daleks between actresses Jennie Linden and Roberta Tovey. “They shot foam, didn’t they?” recalls Linden, aka Big Screen Barbara. “Fire extinguishers,” corrects Big Screen Susan, politely enough, recalling the belching blasts of carbon dioxide vapour. “Yes. That’s the word I was looking for…” replies Babs. “Foam.” Whatever the mundane truth of the matter, she’s bloody well going to have the last word.

Thanks to this DVD, it’s a pleasure to see again so many who have since passed, looking so full of vim and vigour, piss and vinegar. And there are many others looking so wonderfully young. In his trademark polo neck, Terrance Dicks could be leaning out of the back flap of a WH Allen Doctor Who novelisation. Nicola Bryant, however, somehow looks exactly the same in 1993 as she does today. Here, she appears in her best-ever scene with her Doctor, Colin Baker, making warm and witty repartee as a troop of Cyberman follow them down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. If they’d been allowed to play Peri and the Doctor like this, without the dead hand of script editor Eric Saward steering their doomed ship, then the history of Doctor Who would have been very different indeed.

But More Than 30 Years’ finest moment comes with its great, final coup de théâtre, as the young boy we’ve been following through the film walks up to the TARDIS, looks back over his shoulder in a seeming moment of doubt, but then smiles and pushes open the door. And then… Oh, and then… For the first time ever, the camera tracks into the control room in what appears to a single, sweeping shot. Accompanied by Mark Ayres’ elegiac music, it’s pure magic, and one of Doctor Who’s most glorious moments. It’s taken another two decades – until our recent Christmas special in fact – for the series itself to deliver a scene for the TARDIS with anything like the same emotional wallop.

More Than 30 Years alone makes this box set an essential purchase. May we dream that the BBC might produce anything half as good to mark the 50th anniversary. However, in an appalling oversight, given the significance of this programme, there’s no commentary from Davies, Ayres or any of the team. There’s a host of tall tales to be told from behind the scenes. How could there not be? One day in TV Centre alone brought together Toyah Willcox, Mike Gatting, Jennie Linden, Roberta Tovey, Roy Castle, Ian Levine and the Emperor Dalek all in a single studio.

Finally, this third disc is rounded out with a few more orphan DVD extras that have drifted in to fill out this already packed release.

Nicholas Courtney Remembered is the least of them; a shoddy tribute to our late Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, based around a few minutes of interview with a clearly very unwell Courtney. The interview couldn’t be completed, and makes for uncomfortable viewing. It should have been abandoned – with regret, of course – but has instead been stitched into this ghastly Frankenstein’s monster of a programme. A tribute compiled purely from archive material, and memories of Courtney’s colleagues, would have been far more appropriate.

One last highlight is Those Deadly Divas, which – as the title alone suggests – does more to celebrate the emancipation of women in Doctor Who than Disc Two’s Being A Girl. It appears to have been on the shelf at 2entertain for some years – probably because of the poor sound quality, having seemingly been recorded in a nightclub toilet.

Kate O’Mara, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Camille Coduri discuss some totemic Doctor Who villainesses. The fun is that they’ve actually watched the episodes in question. There’s a special joy to hearing Jackie Tyler discussing Silver Nemesis in some detail, or the Rani expressing envy of the potent sexuality of Captain Wrack. Shada novelist and TV writer Gareth Roberts entertains with typically droll asides, while former DWM editor Clayton Hickman floats the idea that, in creating Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Doctor Who character – Army of Ghosts’ flamboyant Torchwood boss Yvonne Hartman – writer Russell T Davies was giving us a female version of himself. It’s a persuasive theory, but it only raises another question: has Steven Moffat also written his anima – his suppressed feminine unconscious – into the series?

Hmm… Scots firebrand Amelia Pond, you say? Don’t be silly. It has to be Madame Kovarian. She gets things done. She favours season finales. She’s got the hairdo. If Daniel Hill’s not available for The Moffat Movie, then surely Frances Barber’s a cert.

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Frontios

10 Sep

A review of the DVD, from 2011

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“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 act of Frontios; the 1984 adventure that dispatches the Fifth Doctor to the eponymous planet. Curious onlookers may wonder why the Doctor appears to be travelling through space and time with a school uniform fetishist and a prostitute. However, we more experienced hands know these to be his friends, Turlough and Tegan. Well, if ‘friends’ is the word. They seem to take most of their pleasure from pointing out each other’s mistakes and limitations. The Doctor is definitely avoiding them; offering only the flimsiest of excuses for staying out of the control room. Something about a hatstand, he claims. A likely story. Starved of civilised company, he probably sneaks off to the cloisters, where he carefully describes Romana to an obliging Kamelion.

We learn the politics of Frontios via a belch of exposition. Two uniformed men are arguing: one tall, haughty, granite-faced; the other short, bespectacled, harassed. “Are you suggesting that the son of Captain Revere is unfit to rule?” thunders Tall. “As chief science officer, I…” replies Short, but is interrupted. “Oh, don’t go waving your title at me,” huffs Tall. “From now on, this research centre is under military jurisdiction!” And so it goes on. It’s the kind of establishing scene you find when a Doctor Who writer is more interested in plot than character. Here, Christopher H Bidmead hopes that by having his characters bicker impatiently as they tell each other things they already know – their names, their jobs, the absolute fundamental business of their shared lives – it will somehow seem like a perfectly natural thing for them to be doing. This never works. (Although, to Bidmead’s credit, at least no one says “As well you know…” or “Do you think I could ever forget…?”) Perhaps a more subtle approach would be for the writer to turn up at your house in person, switch off the TV, copy out his script in biro on the palm of your right hand and then repeatedly slap you across the face with it.

One thing’s certain: all is not well on Frontios. The ratty band of colonists who represent humanity’s second-to-last hope for survival are being clonked on their bonces by high-velocity meteorites on a half-hourly basis. Food and medical supplies are limited. People are dying. It’s into this mire of misfortune that the TARDIS wheezes, and the Doctor immediately gets to grips with what he believes to be the most significant issue facing the doomed colony. He tries to fix the lights.

It’s peculiar how much of the first episode is devoted o the subject of lighting. Most stories plunge into the business of investigation and adventure. This one seeks merely to establish a steady amperage. And, generously, we’re even offered four ways of achieving this. Will we use phosphor lamps, with electron excitation? Maybe – but take care. “They’re a terrible fire hazard in this sort of container, you know,” cautions Turlough. (“In this sort of container,” is such a gloriously bathetic caveat.) We wouldn’t want to risk a fire, so perhaps a portable mu-field activator and argon discharge globes? Alas no. They’re in the TARDIS and, as Tegan reports: “The interior door’s jammed!” She squawks this information as if it’s the single most dramatic event of her life. News of the murder of her favourite aunt was greeted with nary a flicker. “It’s as if some tremendous force field has pulled it out of shape!” boggles Turlough, regarding said door. It’s a leap of logic that suggests he’s been reading ahead in his script. But never mind that, you cry – what about those lights? Can’t we use the hydrazine steam generator? No! It’s strictly forbidden! But that means we only have one option left… An acid jar, charged by wind power, with some sort of interrupter to raise the voltage. Good news! There’s one in the colony ship. Bad news: someone has to fetch it, and that might take a while.

With this quest to switch the lights on – which continues as Tegan and Turlough struggle to move a heavy battery from one room to another via some complicated business with ropes and pulleys – one imagines that Christopher H would have us believe his characters are using intelligent scientific method to solve a problem. But really, it’s shameless padding and false drama, because the problem is as bogus as all those solutions. The lights are never even switched on in the end. They’re not important, so it’s all just forgotten. Part Two sees attention turn to investigation of the meteorite attacks, and the trail leads underground. But once more the writer is vamping. There’s talk of chemical tests on the soil. There’s discussion of the secret researches of colony’s former leader, the late Captain Revere. There’s suggestion that only scientific method will unravel the mystery of Frontios… And again, it’s a con. The mystery only exists because of Revere’s totally illogical – and entirely reckless – decision not to reveal a single thing he discovered to another living soul, except in cryptic terms to a child.

And so how do our heroes learn the truth about Frontios? Well, Turlough happens to suddenly recall that the same thing once happened on his planet. He even tells us that the monsters lurking down the tunnel are called Tractators. It’s all terribly convenient. “Growing… breeding… spreading the infection,” moans Turlough, channeling a race memory through a froth of spit. “They are the appetite beneath the ground!” It all sounds promising, but sadly implies a far more subtle and sinister threat than the one that bobs into view soon after.

In terms of costume design, the Tractators were apparently inspired by woodlice, but each looks more like a giant halibut up on its tail and struggling to carry a five-drawer filing cabinet on its back. They stagger a kind of solo waltz – one step to the left, two forward, one to the right – and there’s no hiding from the fact that they look very silly indeed. But forget argon globes and acid jars, Frontios only lights up when the Tractators are around. They’re thoroughly endearing, and their leader is a camp classic.

The Gravis (who, depending on how you catch him, sometimes looks like Martin Clunes, sometimes Andrew Lloyd-Webber) has – again very conveniently – heard of the Doctor, “at least by reputation.” He’s also heard of what he calls “the Tardeece”, and he’s mad for it. Our Gravis loves to travel, you see. Those well-buffed walls of his are to channel the gravitational power of the Tractators into an engine that will allow the Gravis to pilot Frontios across the galaxy. (They can control gravity by waggling their antennae, you understand. It’s a typically realistic and ‘hard’ science fiction idea from Bidmead. ) While in the Doctor’s company, the Gravis is positively coquettish, as if they’re on a date. “We will have to know each other a little better before we can discuss that,” teases the fishy beast when the conversation takes a turn for the personal. He’d flutter a fan if he could but hold one.

In an unforgiving costume, actor John Gillett does his best to lend the Gravis some expression, but only has two stunted fins to work with. There’s a charming moment when, after the Doctor apologises for Tegan’s bolshiness, the Gravis says “not at all”, and waggles his flippers palms-out like a Pope humbly waving away a devoted supplicant. Later, circumstances twice cause the Gravis to pitch forward helplessly onto his rubbery snout, and you feel nothing but sympathy for the poor love.

Tractators aside, there are other good things about this story. The production design is imaginative, with the main sets looking like they’ve been chipped from layered slate. Paddy Kingsland’s synthesised pan-pipe music is memorable, and feels fitting. And there’s one bang-on line of dialogue that would go straight into a trailer for the season: “Frontios buries its own dead”. It’s lightly delivered by William Lucas as Mr Range; part of a generally strong support company. Sadly, the cast are regularly served material that sounds like it’s been only loosely translated from Pidgin English via Double Dutch. “Do you think they are connected? The unaccountable deaths and these creatures?” is one lowlight. You sense the hand of script editor Eric Saward in this, but it’s hard to say for sure, as neither he nor Bidmead are celebrated for their naturalistic dialogue. Despite this handicap, Peter Davison is a focused and passionate Doctor – even when nose-to-nose with the Gravis – and actor Jeff Rawle gives a subtle performance as sickly young leader Plantagenet, even though he has to work with some of the most rum material of all. “Try and get some rest,” the Doctor tells him, invoking the First Cliché of Soap Opera. Plantagenet, suffering from malignant melodrama, spits back his reply: “Death is the only kind of rest you bring to Frontios, Doctor!”. You imagine he could go on forever in that vein, given half a chance. “Have a sandwich,” the Doctor might suggest. “Death is the only kind of sandwich you bring to Frontios, Doctor!”

The story’s best moment comes as we enter the home stretch, and the Gravis’s beloved Tardeece is found scattered in pieces through the tunnels of Frontios. (It was apparently destroyed at the end of Part One, you see; although, as neither Doctor nor companions seem particularly fussed about it, you forget that detail for a while.) The image of TARDIS walls splintered through rock is surprisingly unsettling. It makes you feel a bit funny inside; seeing one’s own childhood home – in a manner of speaking – corrupted like that.

The Doctor plays on the Gravis’s need for speed, and traps the creature as it reassembles the ship using its gravity powers. He then dumps the old darling on an uninhabited planet – which seems rather harsh. The Gravis is clearly ripe for rehabilitation. He’s just a needy nerd starved of intelligent conversation, so abandoning him on an intergalactic desert island without so much as eight favourite records and the novelisation of Logopolis surely qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. The Doctor also assures us that the remaining Tractators, freed from the Gravis’s control, will live on as “harmless burrowing creatures”. Of course, we can be sure the humans will let bygones be bygones, and there definitely won’t be a dozen pink fish heads decorating the throne room wall by teatime.

Without the fun of the Tractators, Frontios wouldn’t amount to much. For while it appears to have the structure of a solid four-part story, the plot is really no more than a string of distractions and conveniences. Solutions and resolutions present themselves without any real work, and without work there can be no sense of reward. Bidmead’s gaseous writing leaves us unmoved. And this is the man who once accused Russell T Davies of taking first draft scripts through to production. You have to admire his gall.

Of course, others will have a different take on the matter. Mr Range is particularly forthright on the subject. “Your minds are being eaten away by this daily disaster we call Frontios,” he insists.

Which is a little harsh. It was only broadcast twice a week.

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DVD EXTRAS

Driven To Distractation wins the award for the most painful title yet for a DVD documentary; a highly contested category. The programme is thorough, thoughtful and well-structured, with a wide range of interviewees, but stumbles when it makes critical judgments of its own. Speaking of Christopher Bidmead’s time as script editor of Doctor Who, the narrator tells that “having seen off the show’s comedy excesses, [Bidmead] guided the programme through a sobering season of scientific sorties.” The guilty words there are “seen off”. The writer of that line clearly held this view back in 1980, but then the wind changed and he got stuck like that. This reviewer is convinced there is no significant caucus of Doctor Who fans who still rally to the cry of: “Hooray, we got rid of Douglas Adams! We swapped the writer of City of Death for the writer of Frontios and saved the show! Clever old us!” Because that would be absurd.

A series of Deleted and Extended Scenes – sadly not presented within the context of the transmitted material this time – offer more flirting from the Doctor and the Gravis, and some fun business with Tegan. Generally, however, it’s a load of Cockerill. (He’s a bolshy guard from a turgid subplot that goes absolutely nowhere, and no one ever said about Frontios: “It’s okay, but what it really needs is more scenes with Cockerill.”)

The Production Subtitles are rigorous and endearingly earnest, especially when they take time to explain what a vol-au-vent is. The commentary – featuring Davison, Saward, Gillett and Rawle – is not the most thrilling ever committed to disc, but the conversation is sincere and civilised.

However, this reviewer is saddened that neither documentary or commentary brings Eric Saward and Christopher H Bidmead together in the same room, so they can play a unique doubles match of their favourite sport of blame-dodging. They should have been styled like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show; heckling from a high balcony despite being entirely in complicit in the middling business unfolding on stage before them.

BIDMEAD: “Who’s responsible for this nonsense?”

SAWARD: “The writer!”

BIDMEAD: “The script editor!” 

And then TOGETHER, with much gleeful cackling: “The producer!”

Meglos

2 Aug

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine from 2011.

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Meglos begins, and largely remains, on Tigella. It’s one of those dreary single-issue planets – think Karfel, Jaconda or Xeros – found on the unlovely outer rim of Doctor Who. Tigella’s history and culture is laid out in a clunky exchange at the top of Part One. “For thousands of years our lives have been dominated by a mystery,” says Deedrix, assistant under-secretary of exposition. He continues: “The Dodecahedron belongs to all of us, not just the Deons!” “But their religion deserves respect!” replies the elderly Zastor, not wishing us to go uninformed about the nature of these Deons for so much as a second. “Religion! Ha!” scoffs Deedrix, quick to clarify his attitude. And there’s Tigella, ladies and gentlemen. Your reviewer was once knocked down by a speeding Tesco delivery van that introduced itself with more subtlety and wit.

This mysterious Dodecahedron supplies power for the whole Tigellan race – who clearly favour eggs over baskets – but while its output has dwindled for years, its imminent failure is shock news to some. “I tell you that our city is on the edge of total extinction!” wails Deedrix. Zastor responds to this with a startled look of “Holy heck! I’d never considered that!” – which, given that this the only conversation ever held on Tigella, suggests he has a worryingly laissez-faire attitude toward key social issues.

Nothing about Tigella persuades us it could possibly be a real place. If the end is indeed nigh, you think they’d stop squandering their waning wattage on laundry and hair care. The scientist Savants dazzle in Persil biological white, while the cultist Deons shimmy about in acres of chiffon. I say “hair care”, but Tigella is a world of hats, helmets, hoods and headdresses, plus a set of uniquely grievous wigs. In the olden days, the believability of an alien planet in Doctor Who could be measured by the equation T = n ÷ h, where T is the time is minutes until viewer credulity snaps; n is the on-screen population of said planet; and h is the number of hats worn. The Inverse Hat Law means that if everyone is on a given planet has something distracting on their head, there’s no point in trying to tell a considered story about global extinction. (You can, however, have some fun with android princes and crazy weddings.) Modern Doctor Who knows to respect the Inverse Hat Law. Alien planets are a rare sight these days. Alien hats rarer still.

The actors tasked with breathing life into the Tigellans generally acquit themselves well as they fight a losing battle against the syrups and script. Sample dialogue: “Your concurrence, Lexa, can not revoke the laws of physics.” Lexa is the leader of the Deons, and played with quiet dignity by Jacqueline Hill – who in another time was the acme of Doctor Who companions, Barbara Wright. One wonders what the actress made of this trip to a space both strange and familiar. Did she offer Lalla Ward tips on how to act lost in 20ft of jungle? As a High Priestess plotting a human sacrifice, did Hill recall her finest hour as Barbara, battling to prevent one? Did she feel a frisson upon hearing Tigella’s neighbouring world described as “the dead planet”? Hill’s presence short-circuits the first 17 years of Doctor Who, and shows us how little changed over that time.

Here’s something that was as true in 1980 is it was in 1963 – and is in 2011: all good stories need a good villain. Meglos, alas, has Meglos. “I am a plant!” he burbles proudly to his henchmen, the Gaztaks. The conversation that follows, between Meglos and General Grugger of the Gaztaks, is one of the silliest in Doctor Who history. We repeatedly cut between Grugger (actor Bill Fraser arching a pitying eyebrow beneath the flashiest headgear in the whole show; a feral cat asleep under a jelly mould, with a foil star glinting atop the lot in case our attention should wander) and a static shot of a rubber cactus. The scene invites mockery, and deservedly so. It echoes back to us in Victoria Wood’s “I haven’t got the ming-mongs” sketch, David Tennant’s appearance on Extras and countless other send-ups. But it could have been worse. The cactus might have been made to wobble as it talked.

Thankfully, things pep up after Meglos disguises himself as the Doctor. When channeling the rebarbative wit of Tom Baker, he’s at least entertaining. Needing a lift from the Gaztaks, Baker gives Meglos the manner of an arrogant, middle-class homosexual forced to deal with a particularly malodorous and, well… common team of removal men. He can barely bring himself to look at them. On Tigella, when Meglos realizes he needs to pledge himself to a religion he holds in contempt, Baker’s switchback delivery of the line, “I, swear allegiance to Ti? I’ll… I’ll swear allegiance to Ti with great pleasure,” is enormous fun. It’s often said that there’s little difference between Tom Baker’s Doctor and Tom Baker the man, but while the Fourth Doctor is a loveable eccentric 99% of the time, tales from the set paint Baker as an altogether more difficult personality. I think we see some of that cold, cocksure, bullying Baker in his performance here. You can imagine him waving his script in the face of the director. “I, read out this whippet shit?” (Some suitable words of flattery are offered to the recalcitrant star.) “I’ll… I’ll read out this whippet shit with great pleasure.”

All that is interesting about Meglos comes from Tom Baker. Otherwise, he’s Doctor Who’s most lazily sketched villain ever. The Doctor asks him: “Why would a good-looking chap like you want to control the Universe?” Meglos’s reply: “It is beyond your comprehension!” is an epic cop-out that suggests the writers don’t have the foggiest idea either. More irritating still, his fundamental physical nature changes from episode to episode, to suit the whims of what we might indulgently call the plot. First, he’s a self-confessed plant. Later, he seems to be a parasitic intelligence that merely inhabited a cactus in the way then he does a human host. But this is thrown into doubt by a hilarious moment in Part Four when Meglos abandons his human form, and a kind of green carpet bag sidles apologetically from the room. The cast watch it in silent disbelief, studiously avoiding eye contact for fear they might never stop laughing. “He must have modulated himself on a particular wavelength of light,” intuits the Doctor, flying in the face of all empirical evidence. “He must be a latex sack moving on a particular length of string,” would fit the available facts better.

So what’s good about Meglos? As mentioned, there’s a plucky cast doing their best, with Bill Fraser and Frederick Treves as the chief Gaztaks proving the most fun. The first cliffhanger, when Meglos appears as the Doctor, is splendid. The music, from Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell, the 80s’ most melodic composers, is ahead of its time in Doctor Who terms, offering some catchy themes that would go down well at the Proms.

In the end, however, that counts for little. Fundamentally, Meglos is difficult to love because it’s impossible to care about anything that happens. Our sympathies certainly aren’t roused by the science/religion debate on Tigella – which occupies the lion’s share of this story – as the wig people and the hat people squabble their way to collective suicide. Even the writers appear to lose interest in the Tigellans. We know their underground city and civilisation depends entirely on the power of the Dodecahedron, but then the Doctor disposes of it without offering any substitute. In the final scene, old Zastor is up in the jungle, waving the Doctor farewell as if poised to while away the rest of his days doing a little light gardening. He’ll be fertiliser by sundown.

On the commentary track of this DVD, the story’s co-writer John Flanagan says: “Back then, you could make people believe you were on an alien planet just by having characters say they were, and having a few lights flashing.”

No you couldn’t. And that’s why Meglos went wrong. For a writer, creating a convincing backdrop for a Doctor Who story is the most important task of all. You can’t just decide a cactus wants to take over the universe and think your job is done. We have to be helped believe that characters have an existence beyond what is required by the plot, that they lived in the days before we met them, and will go on living after the Tardis departs.

This principle is what separates good Doctor Who from the bad.

It always has. And it always will.

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DVD EXTRAS

Meglos Men, the disc’s principal documentary, reunites writers Flanagan and Andy McCulloch for a tour of old London haunts. The conceit requires each to tell the other things that they already know. “We’re on our way to the house you’d lived in when we wrote Meglos,” John tells Andrew. “That’s right,” Andrew tells John. It’s all very Deedrix and Zastor.

In the dead of night, they creep up to the home of their Doctor Who script editor, Chronic Hysteresis Bidmead (Address: A Cold High Place Overlooking The Universe). We’re welcomed inside, and it’s nice to have a snoop at the soft furnishings. Sadly, the little Bidmead says is as muddle-headed as ever. “Before I took over Doctor Who, a lot of magic and sorcery stuff had got into it,” he huffs. It’s an ill-informed prejudice based, one imagines, not on the solidly scientific hyperspace storyline of Nightmare of Eden or the neutron star of Creature From the Pit – praised by New Scientist magazine at the time – but upon an unmade Pennant Roberts script left in his desk drawer back in 1980. It was unmade for a reason. It’s not like the season ended with a planet of wizards chanting spells that conjure objects out of thin air. That would be silly.

Finally, there’s mention of Flanagan and McCulloch’s abandoned story Project Zeta Sigma, which was planned to feature a character called ‘Ranwek’ – whose name, the writers tell us with a gleeful chuckle, was an anagram. Gosh. Sometimes this stuff reviews itself.

The undoubted highlight of this DVD is the tribute Jacqueline Hill: A Life In Pictures, which features interviews with the actresses’ husband, Alvin Rakoff, and her friend Ann Davies. It’s a mature piece that stirs emotions. Davies tells how, when her beloved friend was weakened by cancer, she would gently wash Hill’s hair for her. Something about this resonates with the iconography of Barbara Wright – that proud, outrageous hairdo – and the perfect tragedy of it twists at the gut.

Hill died in 1993. But only in one world. In a recent episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Sarah told us that Barbara Wright is alive and well and – magically – has never aged a day.

How true that is.

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