Tag Archives: Eric Saward

Earth Story: The Gunfighters & The Awakening

4 Nov

A review of the DVD box set, from 2011

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When you first heard that the 1966 story The Gunfighters would join 1984’s The Awakening in a DVD box set celebrating their not-entirely-unique status as ‘stories set on Earth’, perhaps you – like me – assumed that Mr Big at 2Entertain had finally flipped his lid; that the wheel was still spinning but the hamster was dead. But one must presume there is method to this madness, and that the relative familiarity of Peter Davison’s Doctor will help guarantee sales for the less easily marketable William Hartnell. The Gunfighters, after all, has never been skilled at pulling in an audience. So maybe it’s all to the greater good. It’s nice to think of one incarnation lending a helping hand to his younger self. But really… Earth Story? Is that they best they could come up with? Did nobody notice that these two stories – and no others – feature horses cantering into their opening scenes? There’s your USP, 2entertain! Horse Tales. The Horse Box. The Reins of Terror. A full page advert in Country Life could have attracted a lucrative new audience.

Riding in on these horses, in both cases, are our gun-toting bad guys. In The Gunfighters, the Clanton Brothers – a notorious family of cattle rustlers – hitch up in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881, trigger fingers itching to settle a score. In The Awakening, it’s a little over a century later, and our riders are Sir George Hutchinson and his lackeys, dressed to reenact a key battle of the English Civil War. Both groups take time to tell us a little something about themselves. The Clantons, like everyone in The Gunfighters, talk in the distinctive vernacular of the Old West, so we’re never far away from an animal metaphor (“I’m ready to jump like a mountain hare!” “They’re closer than two fleas on a porcupine!” or the stickily peculiar: “It’ll be as easy as skinning a summer frog!”). Sir George, meanwhile, like everyone in The Awakening, talks in the distinctive vernacular of Doctor Who script editor Eric Saward. “Why, Miss Hampden, you of all people, our schoolteacher, must appreciate the value of reenacting actual events,” he says. One hopes that Miss Hampden doesn’t regularly need reminding of her name and her job, or we might have cause to question her suitability as a guardian of young children. Sir George is miffed because she’s refusing to take part his restaging of the Battle of Little Hodcombe. She’s worried that things are getting out of hand. “So there’s been a little damage,” scoffs Sir George. “That’s the way people used to behave in those days.” Which, considering which days he’s talking about, is rather an understatement.

In both time-zones the TARDIS delivers the Doctor and his two travelling companions – one of each – into the action. And they’re here on a mission. In Tombstone, the Doctor needs a dentist. In Little Hodcombe, Tegan wants to visit her grandfather. With both landings, the TARDIS is displaying a well-tuned sense of humour. The dentist in Tombstone is the notorious gunslinger Doc Holliday, whom the Clantons are hunting on account of how that no-good rattlesnake murdered their brother, so our own ‘Doc’ is set up for a case of mistaken identity. Meanwhile, in England, Tegan’s grandfather just happens to have stumbled across a baleful alien presence – something this family makes a habit of – so it’s lucky she has the Doctor in harness. Tegan, just this once, takes her handbag with her, and one wonders if she’s come to Little Hodcombe to deliver the body of her Aunt Vanessa for burial. The bag’s about the right size.

With these two stories harnessed together for release, it’s fun to look for their similarities, but that can only take us so far. For while they may begin in much the same way, they’re swift to pull apart and race off in different directions. The Awakening is as earnest and straightforward a Doctor Who adventure as you’ll find. There’s mystery, investigation, resolution – bish, bash, bosh. It’s the show moving at a comfortable trot. The Gunfighters, however, is trying to do something very different…

The Gunfighters is a comedy, at least for its first half hour or so. How much of a comedy, and what kind, depends upon who’s on screen at any given moment. As Steven, Peter Purves plays it broad, and never misses a chance for an exaggerated double take. When he and Jackie Lane’s Dodo are forced to sing and play piano for the Clantons, the scene edges into slapstick, and brings back memories of the little plays that winning couples had to perform in the final round of The Generation Game. Finding a better level is William Hartnell, who doesn’t get a word wrong in this, one of his finest performances. His best scene is early, when he meets Doc Holliday and his friend Kate, and the dentist sets about pulling the Doctor’s tooth. There’s a lovely precision and fluidity to everyone’s delivery and movement, and you can tell that Hartnell’s having a marvellous time. But if one’s mind is inclined to wander, later developments in Doctor Who now leave one pondering what happened to the Doctor’s extracted molar. We’ve since learned that, in the right circumstances, a whole new Doctor can be grown from any leftover bits of his body. So it’s lucky that a Time Lord Meta-Crisis wasn’t triggered anywhere near that tooth, as the effect could be terrifying. DoctorDodo would have the boundless intelligence of a Gallifreyan and the wildly oscillating accent of Chorlton-cum-Hackney.

The humour continues to bubble through the second episode of The Gunfighters, most notably in the Doctor’s insistence on calling local marshal Wyatt Earp “Mr Werp”, and the great moment when, after some amateurish spinning of a gun, the Doctor childishly brags to Earp, “I say, can you do that?” – the response is a hilariously deadpan “No”. But after the first murder – of the Clantons’ associate Seth Harper – all this funny begins to fall flat, and the writer knows it. The broader comedic strokes are abandoned, and through its middle hour, the serial plays it more or less straight; or as straight as it can with a burlesque song as counterpoint.

Meanwhile, over in Little Hodcombe, the TARDIS has dropped the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough at a country church that’s seen better days. They’re soon scooped by a troop of latterday Roundheads and delivered to Sir George Hutchinson.

Sir George is the best thing about The Awakening, principally because he’s played by Denis Lill, with wonderful, measured delivery. “Something is coming to our village,” says Sir George. “Something very wonderful… and strange.” It’s Lill’s underplaying of the line that makes it memorable; with less skill, it could sound like they’ve booked Quentin Crisp to open the summer fete.  Sir George is mad for his war game, and insists that every detail be perfect. He certainly practises what he preaches, and has come as King Charles I himself. Coloured feathers shoot from a truly heroic hat, and loose curls of luxuriant hair cascade over his shoulders. All of which may raise a question in the mind of the more easily distracted… is that a wig, or is it Sir George’s real hair? Certainly, we know it’s a wig on Denis Lill, as we’ve seen his shiny dome in Image of the Fendahl, but that’s not necessarily the case for Sir George, as his coiffure stays firmly in place when he later tumbles from his horse. If it is his hair, it means he’s been growing it out for these war games for – what? – two years? He’s the local magistrate, so has been turning up for work done up like a luckless former King of England? Aren’t there rules about that sort of thing? One imagines many of those convicted by Sir George are now seeking appeal; arguing the validity of any sentence handed down by a man styled as a popular brand of spaniel.

The mystery of Little Hodcombe builds over the course of an enjoyable Part One. The Doctor meets Will Chandler, an oo-ar yokel lad who has slipped through time from 1643, and the real Civil War. Will brings stories of the Malus; a local devil. “He makes fightin’ worse. Makes men fight more.” The Malus is forcing bloody history to repeat itself via Sir George’s war game. The Doctor predicts wholesale slaughter – and at just that moment, as the story prickles with danger and possibility, The Awakening is at is very best. And then… Malus come.

A giant, grey, grinning face trundles forward, huffing smoke, its eyes flicking from side to side. The Doctor, dwarfed by it, comes as close as any man has ever been to knowing what it’s like to be run over by Thomas the Tank Engine. “Rrrrroooar,” says the Malus. “Rrrrooooooaar!” it confirms. There’s no answer to that, and because it’s clear the Malus isn’t going anywhere fast, the Doctor and friends slip quietly away.

The Malus, the Doctor tells us, is a probe from the planet Hakol. (And if that’s what their probes look like, imagine their washing machines.) It’s feeding upon the “negative emotions” generated by the war game, and generates a series of solid “psychic projections”; including one of itself, which shows that its face comes attached to a body. The Malus is a huge creature; a great goblin with arms and legs and tail, with most of it buried under the church. And so, we must infer that when the Malus came to Earth it got stuck – bum first and up to the neck – in the soil of Dorset. And then, presumably after much poking with sticks, the locals built a church over it; and not a particularly attractive one at that. No wonder the Malus is in such a pig of a mood. It now wants to use the emotions of the war game to help set it free. It’s a curious expectation, as it’s something the original battle – with all its bloodshed and heartfelt fury – demonstrably failed to achieve.

It’s here that The Awakening fails to come into focus. The idea of a whole village role-playing an old battle, but then slowly being subsumed by their characters, is a good one. But the story doesn’t follow that thread. Sure, Sir George is nuts for the whole thing, but those of his neighbours we get to know well – Jane Hampden and her friend Ben Wolsey – seem entirely immune. There’s no real sense of the village being whipped into any kind of homocidal rage by the Malus. Instead, it appears that Sir George is supported only by a few eager-to-please local thugs, who are enjoying the chance to throw their weight about with the blessing of the local magistrate. Is Sergeant Willow, for example, being controlled by the Malus when he seems poised to assault both Jane and Tegan? That point isn’t made clear, so it appears that Willow is, by nature, a total bastard– perhaps the local estate agent – who’s merely relishing his time off the leash, and the chance to force women to dress as he pleases. Given his cruel behaviour, it’s odd that Willow isn’t killed by the ghostly cavaliers in this story’s final minutes, rather than the non-speaking extra who goes to the sword instead.

If it’s bloodshed the Malus is after, it would feed better upon the events of The Gunfighters. By the end of Part Two, the townspeople of Tombstone are whipped into a murderous frenzy by the Clantons, and are set to take Steven and “string him up from the nearest tree”. The noose is even fitted about his neck. In Little Hodcombe, it’s all the forces of evil can do to get Tegan in the right frock for her execution. In Tombstone, the deaths keep on coming. Doc Holliday kills a man – off screen – merely for his breakfast. Charlie the comedy barman is gunned down. Warren Earp is shot by the Clantons.

Warren’s death is key to any analysis of The Gunfighters. It’s this event that finally draws the Earps into the Clantons’ feud with Holliday, and leads to the gunfight at the OK Corral. It’s the story’s big turning point. Warren dies in his brother’s arms… but we feel nothing. And that’s The Gunfighters all over. It comes with so many distractions. There’s the terrible American accents and that shill, irritating song, and yet it’s brilliantly designed and imaginatively shot. It’s full of comedy business and rootin’ tootin’ banter. But we don’t feel anything for the characters. We can hardly tell the Clantons apart, and the assorted mustachio’d ‘good guys’ are as dreary as can be. We feel some warmth toward Doc Holliday – chiefly because Dodo gets her best-ever scene when she disarms him, in both senses – but we reach that final, legendary gunfight without truly caring about a single participant. Bang bang bang – it goes – bang bang bang. The bodies fall, and we feel nothing. But look at the lovely film stock, we think, and how skilfully the director has composed that final shot, as the victors stand astride the corpses of the fallen. Isn’t that clever? Now, who were they again?

If there’s one thing these Earth stories have in common, it’s that they ultimately fail to stir us. Both serials are rather marvellous in their way – that’s for sure. They are produced with care and conviction, but we quit them feeling unmoved. “The Malus is pure evil,” says the Doctor, which is the laziest possible motivation for a Doctor Who villain. He defeats it by flicking a few switches on the TARDIS console. It’s difficult to know whether we should feel sympathy for Sir George when he tumbles over a low wall to his dusty death. Did his madness wake the Malus, or is he as much a victim as anyone? In Tombstone, the Doctor is nowhere near the gunfight – the only threat to our heroes comes when Dodo briefly cannons into the film sequence as fast as the 10:37 to Ealing can carry her – and he doesn’t take so much as a moment to lament the bloodshed.

Instead, both tales skid to an abrupt handbrake stop. In the case of The Awakening, it’s with as limp and flapping a scene as has ever wrapped a Doctor Who story. That’s that then – everyone says, in Tombstone, in Little Hodcombe – shaking hands, exchanging quips. We sense that our time travellers won’t spare their latest adventure another thought. Not every Doctor Who story has to be profound, or offer some moral message, but they ought to make us feel something as the final credits roll. If they don’t, then you might as well say that the most significant thing about them is the planet on which they happen to be set.

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DVD extras

The commentary tracks for both serials are kept lively and focused by moderator Toby Hadoke, who really is very good at it. The participants for The Gunfighters are now well into their anecdotage – Bat Masterson actor Richard Beale was 90 at the time of recording – and have lots of stories to tell. The continuing health, or otherwise, of absent co-stars is regularly enquired after with a guarded: “Is he still, er..?” and it falls to Hadoke to deliver the happy or sad news. (Or, in the case of one actor now living in New Zealand, both.) Rather wonderfully, Hadoke seems to know the whereabouts of every actor to have ever appeared in Doctor Who. I imagine his secret HQ is dominated by a huge map of the world, with little lights tracking all the surviving cast. One blinks out. Another Quark has joined the choir invisible.

The principal documentary with The Awakening is Return to Little Hodcombe, which takes members of the production team back on location to share their memories. It’s a sweet and sincere piece, seasoned by interviews with local residents such as Maureen Crumpler. Her response to watching this tale of aliens on TV – “It were all so real! So realistic!” – hints that life in the Dorset village of Shapwick might be stranger than we know. It’s nice to get out and about and escape the usual house style for these documentaries, even if it does lead to some rather self-conscious stomping about from Eric Saward. And you wish they’d let poor Michael Owen Morris sit down, rather than keep him standing beside what looks suspiciously like a pile of manure.

The Gunfighters comes with the documentary The End of The Line?, looking at how Doctor Who changed during its third year on TV. It’s an authored piece – with a script from Johnny Morris for producer Ed Stradling – and it’s excellent work, well-argued and balanced. And the interviewees are all first class. A highlight is Maureen O’Brien’s memory of working on Galaxy 4. She tells how the dwarves who played the Chumblies were “always fighting over the women”. It puts one in mind of Judy Garland’s tales of The Wizard of Oz; of how the Munchkins were at it like knives. As there’s never been an interesting word said about Galaxy 4, it’s rather glorious to suddenly imagine the Drahvins run ragged by randy Chumblies.

A Now and Then look at the locations used for The Awakening is the familiar gentle tour of the home counties, peering idly at grass verges and outbuildings and…“OH MY GOD! IT’S A GLASS SHOT!” Well I never. Generally you can spot a visual effect in Doctor Who from three rooms away – the echo of distant laughter is often the clue – but this viewer was staggered to learn that a distant shot of Little Hodcombe church in Part One, as the Doctor chases the handbag thief, was actually a tiny study in acrylics on a well-placed window. It’s always lovely to learn something new.

The only interesting scene among a collection of bits edited from The Awakening is an uncomfortable moment intended to remind viewers that Kamelion is still lurking in the TARDIS somewhere. (Maybe ‘lurking’ oversells it. ‘Leaning’ was about Kamelion’s limit. Although, as he was from an era when the Doctor’s friends liked nothing more than to tut, huff and judge each other, the fact that all Kamelion could do was roll his eyes perhaps makes him the ultimate 80s companion.) Tegan finds Kamelion in a corridor, and while the robot claims he’s doing nothing sinister, he’s clearly either downloading pornography or attempting to defraud the TARDIS cash machine.

Tomorrow’s Times is a romp through newspaper commentary on the Hartnell years. There’s lots of interesting material here… probably. The trouble is, one’s attention is monopolised by the host, actress Mary Tamm, who seems to be enjoying herself rather too much. She begins by greeting each comment with a sardonic half-smile, but her expressions grow steadily more arch and exaggerated. One eyebrow is auditioning for a long-sought-after solo career, and is poised to make good its escape. And just when you’ve got used to that, Tamm introduces a magnificent pout to her repertoire. It’s like being blown kisses by a flirty duck. And as the programme goes on, there’s a sense of her sliding slowly out of shot to the right. It’s totally captivating.

Making the Malus reunites designer Tony Harding and props builder Richard Gregory with their face of evil, which greets them with its usual goblin grin and glance askance. “I wonder where he’s been?” ponders Harding. Any hope that this is a cue for a montage of snatched paparazzi pictures of the Malus falling out of Stringfellow’s at 4am, or water-skiing on the Côte d’Azur, is soon dashed. We learn that the beast has been looked after by one Paul Burrows – a more devoted acolyte than even Sir George – who nailed him to his living room wall. The Malus once frightened the gas man. “But I introduced them,” says Burrows, “and he made friends with it.” How sweet. It’s lovely to know that out of such great evil, some good has come.

Attack of the Cybermen

20 Jul

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009. 

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Attack of the Cybermen gets off to a flying start. The opening scene, as two workmen are attacked in a London sewer by an unknown menace, is double-distilled Doctor Who. It’s timeless stuff, and we could imagine cutting from there to any Doctor in the TARDIS, from Hartnell to Tennant and beyond. But then it all goes wrong. Grotesquely and shamefully wrong.

The storyline is like a fraying sweater. Pull on any of a dozen loose threads and the yarn unravels entirely. It doesn’t help that the pacing of the story is all to hell. Doctor Who’s 22nd season was gifted with 45-minute episodes, but nobody knew what to do with them, least of all the script editor – and writer of this adventure – Eric Saward. Attack, as with every other story from this year bar perhaps Timelash, sees the TARDIS land well away from the action, requiring the Doctor and Peri to hike miles in search of the drama, sniping every step of the way. Here, they are obliged to chase a distress signal broadcast in a madly complicated way, for reasons never made clear, by alien mercenary Lytton. After 17 minutes, they return to the TARDIS to discuss it further. By the 33rd minute, after more wandering about, the Doctor decides to go back to the TARDIS again, and only then does he finally collide with the plot. To be fair, in the meantime the Doctor and Peri do meet Lytton’s two policeman lackeys, one of whom the Doctor beats up before he has any reason to suspect he’s not a real copper. They capture the second officer but, bizarrely, make no attempt to question him. It’s almost as if the Doctor’s read the script and knows it’s too soon for him to find out anything interesting.

Meanwhile, the Cybermen are up to no good beneath Fleet Street. They’ve been there for a little while, converting sewage workers and building walls – which leaves us with the appealing image of a Cyberman carefully mixing sand and cement, and tapping bricks into place with the back of a trowel. Later we learn these are Cybermen from the planet Telos in the far future (as seen in Tomb of the Cybermen) who have shuttled down via the moon, somehow, as part of a plot to smack Halley’s Comet into Earth (you may want to pause for a breath now) in order to alter history and save the other Cyber world, Mondas (as seen in The Tenth Planet) from destruction. Blimey. To understand how insanely inappropriate this story is, imagine watching Doctor Who in the year 2027, and the next 22nd series launching with a story where some Cybermen who escaped the destruction of the Cyber King (as seen in The Next Doctor) find a time machine and use it to alter history to prevent the rest of the race from crossing from their parallel Earth (as seen in Army of Ghosts). It’s the kind of story that breeds in the darkest corners of the internet, and should never be broadcast at Saturday teatime on BBC1.

Attack of the Cybermen would be just about acceptable if it was played out in the company of charming characters, but this certainly isn’t the Doctor Who your reviewer signed up for. The cruelty and brutality leave a nasty aftertaste. By halfway through episode one, both the Doctor and Peri are carrying loaded pistols in their pockets. At the end of the story, the Doctor employs all the wit and ingenuity for which the character has become famous by shooting the Cyber Controller in the chest. That’s not merely bad Doctor Who, it’s the opposite of Doctor Who.

To prevent this review being an entirely joyless rant – by someone who hates joyless rants – let’s give some praise where it’s due. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant do their best with the material they’re given, and so no blame to them. The guest cast are, without exception, brilliant – and special mention must go to Maurice Colbourne and Brian Glover as Lytton and Griffiths, who deliver one of the most interesting supporting partnerships of the era. And the Cybermen are never less than adorable. You can only love the one who discovers a roomful of explosives in the story’s closing minutes and selflessly waves to his friend as if shouting: “Run, Jeremy, run! Save yourself!” Also, watch the scene in Cyber Control at 32’26” into episode one to enjoy the Cyber-extra who picks his way tentatively across the back of shot, clearly trying to remember which arm to move with which leg. He’s so sweet. It’s like having Adric back.

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DVD EXTRAS

The Cold War, from producer John Kelly, is a masterclass in how to deliver an informative and intelligent behind-the-scenes documentary. For your reviewer, it’s even a piece of interactive television, as he thoroughly enjoys shouting ‘WRONG!’ at every pronouncement by Eric Saward. Discussing the appalling scene where Lytton has his hands crushed by the Cybermen, Saward is unrepentant. “I don’t feel at all guilty,” he says. “It’s what would have happened.” What a specious argument. Yes, if a robot monster with the strength of ten decided to punish an upstart mercenary from Riften V, the result might well be a couple of handfuls of bloody pulp. But such a thing will never happen because this is just a TV programme, so the brutality is entirely Saward’s gift. A Cyberman might equally well decide to rip out Lytton’s large intestine and festoon it about his ear-lugs like tinsel, but only if Saward wanted him to. A line must be drawn somewhere, and it’s the production team’s responsibility to stop violence becoming gratuitous. In Saward’s defence, we learn that producer John Nathan-Turner wanted even more gore on display. The mind boggles.

The Cyber Story, a trip through the history of the monsters, comes with a shocking script. “The first step in the history of the Cybermen was their appearance,” blithers the narration. Producers of these extras wouldn’t employ a cameraman who doesn’t know how to focus a camera, so why use a writer who can’t focus a sentence? Happily, the interviewees prove more engaging. Sandra Reid, genius designer of the 60s Cybermen, explains why the ailing population of Mondas came to style themselves first as rather startled-looking sock puppets before learning to embrace the couture possibilites of three-inch Hoover hose. Other key players from the Cyberman stories offer a few words, but it all rather peters out after discussion of Tomb. The remainder of the documentary is given over to Kevin Warwick, professor of Cybernetics at Reading University, who claims to be our first “human cyborg”. Sadly, this doesn’t mean he likes to lurk in sewers making unlikely plans for Halley’s comet – unless he does that at weekends. Professor Warwick has a computer chip implanted in his wrist that allows him to control electronic gubbins via his own nervous system. What does this mean for the future? Soon, he might be able to order an oven-ready lasagne by daydreaming about Tesco.com. He could cook it merely by narrowing his eyes at the microwave. This Cyber-conversion process may well signal the end of the well-prepared meal.

There’s more – too much more – of the electric professor in both an ‘easter egg’ and a further extra, where he reveals that hundreds of eager volunteers write to him every week asking if they can be upgraded. He should give them a shock by posting back a grey balaclava and a couple of wire coat hangers. In modern Doctor Who, John Lumic had to throw the homeless into meat grinders to produce his Cybermen. It appears all he really needed was a spread in Wired magazine and a million nerds would have rushed for the chance to beta-test Human 2.0. Although Lumic’s conquest of Earth might have been thwarted after his army stopped every 10 yards to Twitter about it.

The commentary features Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant with guest stars Terry Molloy (Russell) and Sarah Berger (Rost) taking an episode each. It’s a rather dry affair, and the participants seem uninspired by what they’re watching, though we do learn that Bryant’s underwear was regularly stolen from her dressing room during her time on Doctor Who. What wretched behaviour. Couldn’t the thieves have popped next door and taken the Doctor’s coat instead? More informative is an excellent set of ‘info text’ subtitles, full of fascinating production trivia. The least-glamorous and unsung DVD extra, these tracks must take months to research, compile and synchronise to the action on screen, and this is a particularly good offering. “Colin Baker wanted to begin as an unlikable Doctor whom the audience would grow to love as the years rolled by,” reads one caption, reminding us of the central tragedy of this incarnation. The audience didn’t appear to want a hero they couldn’t like – a not unreasonable response – and so this risky idea backfired. However, with a warmer and more welcoming Sixth Doctor proving popular on audio 25 years later, Baker must take some comfort from the fact he fulfilled his goal in the end. 

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