Tag Archives: Louise Jameson

The Face of Evil

8 Apr

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

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The Face of Evil gets straight to the nitty-gritty, and flings us into its fictional world with an opening scene that’s archetypal Doctor Who. “There can be but one punishment for such a heresy…” says a man in judgment of a beautiful girl. “Banishment!” It’s clearly a big deal, because Dudley Simpson blasts straight in with drums and trumpets. Da-da-da-da-daaah! Da-dah! Oh – you think – this is what Doctor Who’s all about. This is why we’re here. It’s leggy Leela who’s facing the banishment punishment, for doubting the existence of the great god Xoanon; if not his ability to pep up a game of Scrabble. Leela’s tribe is in uproar. Insults fly between the accused and high priest Neeva, and their argument fleshes out the idiosyncrasies of this world. We’re in a primitive, wattle-and-daub hut, but – look! – sci-fi gubbins litter the place. There’s no time to ponder that little tease, because Leela’s old dad is dragged away to face “the test of the Horda” and, backstage, delivers the finest scream in the history of Doctor Who. It’s a shrieking symphony in three movements: an epic yodel of horror, part Tarzan, part copulating fox. “You have until sunrise,” says leader Andor to Leela, his voice rumbling with movie trailer portent. “If you are still within the boundary then, you must be thrown to the Horda.” And so it is that we’re served with everything we need for an adventure in fewer than two dozen lines of script. There’s something to be scared of, a mystery to intrigue us, a heroine to cheer for. You can’t imagine how it might be done better… And then Tom Baker arrives, and brings us down to Earth with a bump.

It appears that our star is not quite himself. An actor of limitless horsepower, by his standards he’s barely revving the engine. Perhaps Baker suspects that he’s no longer the centre of attention, given that, as of this week, there’s now a gorgeous girl right alongside him wearing little more than a smile and a suntan. Every eye in the room is on Leela. “I’m going to enjoy lighting that!” calls a voice from the gantry. Reports of these days of recording place the new girl at the focal point of a semicircle of randy studio staff. And this being the 1970s, you picture a room of Les Dawsons with headsets and clipboards, pebble glasses steamed up, all “phwoar!” and “knickers knackers knockers!” Certainly, we know that actress Louise Jameson was wolf-whistled. Today, this would likely provoke a lengthy disciplinary procedure – and a furious, fully-illustrated article in the Daily Mail – but Jameson tells us she felt encouraged by the heartfelt enthusiasm. However, I’ll bet Tom Baker had a face like thunder. He may have the big hat and the coloured scarf, the teeth and the curls, but he’s now playing against acres of womanly flesh held in check by a few square feet of chamois leather. He’s been asking if he can go it alone without a companion, but instead he’s been given the most eye-catching sidekick imaginable. Doctor Who’s centre of gravity has shifted beneath him. And is that The Face Of Evil’s production code he keeps muttering under his breath?

“Leela is here for the dads,” says the producer. But not just the dads, surely? “Doctor Who is made for intelligent 14-year-olds”, adds the script editor. They’ll know that 14 is a particularly sticky time in a boy’s development, and Leela will certainly hold her audience rigid in front of the television for half an hour every Saturday. The irony is that while Leela is the most brazen – some would say cynical – deployment of sex appeal in the series’ history, she is also the most fully thought-through and skilfully played companion the series has ever had. Jameson makes Leela part pedantic toddler and part hunting hound. It’s a crazy-sounding combination, but her hard work makes the character completely real when she should be totally absurd. However, although Leela is certainly lovable, it’s hard to completely give your heart to her. It’s telling how, in The Face of Evil, there’s no romantic subplot for Leela and dishy tribesman Tomas. He seems devoted to her – as well he might – but she doesn’t notice or care. The need to play against all that obvious sexuality means that Leela has to be completely ignorant of such matters. Even the Doctor has to be careful not to touch. And so, Leela will stay childlike and innocent – and at an emotional remove from us – throughout her travels in the TARDIS, until the day she bizarrely decides to start a new life in the city with a middle-ranking policeman.

The Face of Evil is admired for having a Big Idea at its core, and rightly so. It is, I think, the series’ second attempt at what I’m going to call a ‘broken spring’ adventure. Everything that happens in such a tale is merely the side effect of an unstable system that the Doctor slowly comes to understand, and then repair. It’s a story type that’s been part of the series from the beginning, and now named for the spring that jams the Fast Return switch in Doctor Who’s third story, and spins the TARDIS to the brink of destruction. However, it took until The Face of Evil for the Doctor to encounter his second broken spring mystery. Here, god Xoanon is merely a computer running a corrupted program. It was built to help humans, but thanks to a mistake – and a very special mistake in this case – it is instead doing them harm, without any clear ambition of its own. There are other homicidal computers in Doctor Who, of course – WOTAN, BOSS – but they are portrayed as sentient, and working to a self-serving purpose in the manner of any mad scientist. Xoanon’s breakdown, portrayed here as madness, is the result of a programming error, and the ultimate solution proves to be – as for so many IT problems – to switch it off and on again.

And so, The Face of Evil is one of a rare breed. The only similar stories in the original run of Doctor Who are Underworld – with another computer running degraded software – and Full Circle, where the ‘system’ to be understood by the Doctor is the cyclic evolution of a whole planet, and there’s no one to blame for that. It’s a different matter for modern Doctor Who, where the broken spring idea has featured far more frequently. The Empty Child was the first, and The Girl in the Fireplace, Gridlock and Silence in the Library also gave us machines struggling to fulfil their original program. The idea is there again in The Beast Below, Amy’s Choice and The Lodger, and we saw it five times in last year’s series alone. The Siren, the Flesh, the Handbots, a creepy hotel and the ‘night terrors’ all turned out to be functions or side effects of a misfiring mechanism. It takes someone of the Doctor’s smarts to spot the trap, break the cycle and free the victims. And with no malice aforethought, a happy side effect can be that, sometimes, everybody lives.

Put in this context, and given the calibre of stories that have ploughed the same furrow, it’s no small compliment to say that The Face of Evil is one of the very best of its type. That’s because it delivers a unique and satisfying twist, in that the Doctor is not merely the solution to the problem – he’s also the cause. It’s the Doctor’s fudged repair, in an expedition unseen, that bust Xoanon’s spring in the first place, and left it with a piece of his own personality jammed in its software. This leads to the story’s signature moment, at the end of Part Three, when the Doctor confronts Xoanon. In a beautifully-realised effect that still impresses today, the Doctor’s own distorted face, thrice over, screams back at him in confusion with the voice of a child. It’s one for the all-time clips reel.

Sadly, the story gently trundles downhill through its final episode. There’s a countdown to a nuclear-reactor overload, but it lacks the sense of urgency one normally finds with countdowns to nuclear-reactor overloads – and we’ve seen a few in our time, you and I. Not everybody lives, but Xoanon is cured; or at least that’s how it’s sold to us. We’ll come back to that.

The Face of Evil is, perhaps fittingly, a schizophrenic production, with a fidgety left hand seemingly determined to undo the good work done by the right. The jungle scenes, largely shot on film, are a triumph – moody and sinister – which is no small achievement given that the jungle in question is for the most part a delicate suspension of Hoover hose. These sequences are beautifully lit, but when you step into the huts of the Sevateem, and in front of video cameras, the floodlights sear your retinas. You can close your eyes and still see a glowing outline of Leslie Schofield.

Similarly, while the Sevateem themselves hold our interest, thanks to the sharp script and skilful casting, when we meet their rivals – the whey-faced, uptight Tesh – it’s difficult to stay focused. Sure, the Tesh have an initial impact. They’re playing-card Jacks come to life, like the Queen of Hearts’ harassed footmen. The problem is, unlike the Sevateem, we never feel that that the Tesh have a life outside of the demands of the plot – perhaps because so many are played by extras and stuntmen. And while the story generally keeps us moving along, it fills out its length with little distractions that loop back to where we were a few minutes earlier. The test of the Horda, when we see it, is straight from the medieval zone of The Crystal Maze. “This is a three-minute game, shot entirely on film, and your time starts the second I close the door.” You can imagine a gormless estate agent from Woking wielding the crossbow while his colleagues screech from the sidelines. “Shoot the rope, Darren! Gettin’ thinner as it gets faster, innit!” Later, Leela is hypnotised twice – which looks like carelessness. The second time, the Doctor cures her by sonic screwdrivering a random, unidentified prop. There’s a sneaking suspicion they’re making some of this up as they go along.

But what of Xoanon, and the people he serves? There’s a suggestion that he’s been breeding the Sevateem and the Tesh for specific attributes – one for brawn and one for brains, but it’s not really explained why. Frankly, on the given evidence, he seems to have instead produced one colony of heterosexual men and one colony of homosexual men. The immediate result of bringing them together can only be confusion and disappointment on both sides, like taking a stag party clubbing in Brighton. There’s going to be no end of embarrassment the next morning, and red cheeks all round. However, there is some hope for the future, because although it’s often been commented that when Leela leaves with the Doctor the planet loses its only woman, there is – as Yoda once said – another. A second lady of the Sevateem can be glimpsed in a film sequence. Well, I say lady. Her hair is tight back in bunches, and she stomps past the camera like she’s on her way to the 24-hour garage for a scratchcard and 10 Bensons. But she at least looks the pragmatic type, and might well be game for repopulating the planet. She might even go for a Tesh, if she can see past the velvet knickerbockers and pea-green espadrilles.

That’s if she even gets the chance. For there remains reason to believe that Xoanon still isn’t the full ticket even after the Doctor’s second repair. When commenting on the computer’s crackpot foray into eugenics, Leela says: “That’s horrible!” The Doctor agrees. “It is,” he says – before addressing Xoanon. “Isn’t it horrible?”

“But it’s over now,” smarms the machine, entirely dodging the question. Hmm… That’s a rather suspicious bit of evasion, if you ask me. And was that the sound of a spring going ‘ping’?

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DVD Extras

Into the Wild, the production documentary, is as smart and comprehensive as can be. Special congratulations to the team for finding Anthony Frieze, who provided the child’s voice for Xoanon. It’s the sort of thing the DVD range so is very good at. And if you’ve ever craved a close look at the ‘stone’ head of Tom Baker made for this story, then here’s your chance. The camera caresses the big face so thoroughly, so lovingly, you feel the director won’t be completely satisfied until he’s snogged it with tongues.

An instalment of Tomorrow’s Times looks at press coverage of the Baker years, and rightly lingers over a defining piece of Doctor Who-related journalism: Jean Rook’s hatchet-job interview with Robert Holmes for the Daily Express in 1977, titled: “Who do you think you are, scaring my innocent child?” Rook was one of the great, pompous witches of old Fleet Street, and it’s a treat that she ever bothered with Doctor Who. “I wonder if this inflated ex-children’s programme is over-stretching itself,” she wrote, “and worshipping its own uninhibited cult?” Oh, Ms Rook… Over-stretching itself is what Doctor Who does best. And if you think it was uninhibited then, you should see it now. And while I have you, dear Jean… Let me take this moment to point out that any sentence written by Robert Holmes has more worth, and will live longer, than every single word you ever wrote added together.

The most exciting DVD extra of all is a TV advertisement for the Denys Fisher range of Doctor Who dollies, where a young boy with four teeth that clearly don’t get along is the show runner for a brief – but no less full-blooded and game-changing – adventure. Our tiny Time Lord and a flicky-haired Leela, who looks like she should be held by the feet and used to rinse out wine glasses, are under attack from “a fearful Cyberman, the Giant Robot, and one of the deadly Daleks.” The Giant Robot, while not so giant as it claims, strikes a swishy, hip-swinging pose that clearly puts the wind up the Doctor. “Leela covers him!” gasps the voiceover. “And the Doctor escapes!” What? He leaves the poor girl to fend for herself and just skips off in the TARDIS on his own? It’s like a miniature metaphor for Tom Baker’s dreams.

As a lad, your reviewer begged, cajoled and pleaded for these toys, and they arrived gift-wrapped, one-by-one, over the course of various birthdays and Christmases. Except for poor Leela, that is.  Buying a Sindy or Barbie – albeit one armed with a knife – was a step too far for my parents. Because, although they didn’t know the proper words for it, they already suspected their youngest son was far less Sevateem than Tesh.


The Sun Makers

1 Dec

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine. From 2011.

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Here’s a contradiction. For a story that’s considered one of the breezier diversions for the Fourth Doctor – a step out into the light from the gloomy gothic of his early years – when we join our hero in the TARDIS at the top of The Sun Makers, he looks likes someone’s spat in his jelly babies.

Fiction and reality are blurring for the Doctor and his companion. Tom Baker loathed the character of Leela, believing her – and rightly, I think – too violent for his series. Baker’s contempt bleeds through into the Doctor (if, that is, the two can ever seriously be considered as separate personalities). This is why, throughout her time in the TARDIS, Leela always feels more passenger than friend. We only have to remember the easy companionship the Doctor shared with Sarah – how her bright little smile could detonate his atomic grin – to see how much has changed. In The Sun Makers, Baker can barely bring himself to look at Louise Jameson when he’s talking to her. He makes eye contact with K9 more often. (Although, the Doctor’s hardly encouraging to his new dog either. “Leela – tell your tin pet to shut up!” he barks, having ordered Leela herself to shut up mere moments before.) But while we understand the backstage tensions, how might we explain away this sour atmosphere within the fiction? Perhaps a long time has passed between adventures, and the Doctor’s nerves become frayed when he’s stuck in the TARDIS for too long. They’ve resorted to playing board games, as one does when a holiday is rained off. Before the chess came out, maybe they completed all the Doctor’s jigsaws of old Gallifrey. “Ah! I’ve found a piece of the Untempered Schism.” “Areas of burnt orange suggest sky, Master.” “Shut up, K9.”

The TARDIS lands on Pluto, which brings us to another contradiction. For a story that’s frequently been dismissed as “cheap”, The Sun Makers delivers a wider range of interesting locations and eye-catching sets than many a modern Doctor Who adventure. Certainly, the ‘cheap’ tag can be applied to an opening shot that sees Citizen Cordo arrive at an appointment with a beige, papery wall that’s been misguidedly enlivened with a clumsy cross of red insulation tape. But that’s a small misstep. The rest of the production goes to great lengths to transport us to an alien world; crossing England to find Pluto’s vast rooftops, endless corridors and dingy underground vaults. To help us mentally join these disparate locations together, the designer cannily invests in several tins of orange paint (‘Coral Canyon’, if you’re looking to match it from the current Dulux range), which he splashes liberally about. This allows the bulk of his budget to be spent on half-a-dozen sets, which range in quality from the perfectly serviceable – the rebels’ base, which seems better suited to a student production of Rent – to the rather fine. The best is the office of deputy chief plutocrat Gatherer Hade, which draws the eye back and up across various levels. However, quite what the Gatherer’s non-speaking staff are up to on their background platforms is anyone’s guess. One man leans raffishly on a railing, watching another randomly poke the air with a spider rest liberated from a snooker table. It seems that in the distant future, rich men will still be free to indulge even their most surreal fetishes.

But all this is mere sideshow. Pluto is not really built for us with sets and props. Truly, it is conjured from the air with words alone. No Doctor Who writer has ever spun alien worlds with the wit, precision and poetry of Robert Holmes. Over the past year, these DVD reviews have proudly taken to task Doctor Who stories that open to a screed of egregious exposition passed off as casual conversation – step forward Meglos, Frontios – and that’s because stories like The Sun Makers hold the rest to a better standard, by proving how cleverly and subtly it can be done. And from page one, line one, the bar is set high.

“Congratulations, Citizen. Your father ceased at 1:10” is surely Doctor Who’s drollest opening line. The brilliant black humour, as that cheery “congratulations” shunts into news of the death of a loved one, takes the breath away. And the conversation which follows – between Cordo and Hade as the former attempts to pay his death taxes – is nothing less than a work of art.

“Not on the desk!” bellows Hade, as Cordo tries put his purse down. “It might scar.” Cordo gives a little gasp of recognition. “It is wood, your honour?” “Of a kind called ‘ma-hog-ay-nee’” mispronounces Hade proudly, adding: “I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen wood before, have you citizen?” “Never,” replies awestruck Cordo. “We learned about it at the preparation centre,” he explains, before giving his own modest boast: “There was even a picture of a tree.” What’s so wonderful is that every line of this seemingly trivial exchange takes us a small step deeper into this world, with the punchline hanging on the most humble of words: ‘even’. In what kind of place might as mundane a thing as a picture of a tree command an ‘even’? With one word, Holmes summons an entire dystopia. And from here, the values of the society on Pluto – the impossible taxes, the high price of ordinary human compassion, the insignificance of the individual – are laid out for us at the same time as we mentally map a bleak world of foundries, walkways and correction centres.

This brings us to another contradiction. For a story that’s known as one of Doctor Who’s comedic outings, The Sun Makers certainly serves up some dark and disturbing ideas. That opening Hade/Cordo scene – in addition to everything else it achieves – even finds time to hide away Doctor Who’s blackest joke. Hade explains to Cordo that only two small cash credits will help offset the 132 Talmar price of his father’s “Golden Death”. The first is his father’s “personal contribution” of seven Talmars; his total savings from 40 years work as a municipal servant, cleaning corridors. “Then,” Hade adds, “there’s a recycling allowance, based on a death weight of 84 kilos, of eight Talmars”. Seven Talmars. Eight Talmars. Robert Holmes has chosen those numbers with care. He’s telling us – and you can almost hear him chuckling wickedly in the background as he refills his pipe – that the decaying meat of this man’s corpse has a greater value than his entire life’s work; that Cordo’s father is worth more to him dead than he ever was alive. It’s a bleak view, to put it mildly. And, while we think about that, what might “recycling” of a body mean on a world without trees, where all food must be artificial? This is twisted, sinister stuff, exquisitely woven into Hade’s breezy enumeration of an invoice.

Again and again, it’s the words that prove The Sun Makers greatest joy. There’s a wonderful little scene with the Gatherer and the Doctor, where they each think they are getting one over on the other. “While you’re here, you must get about a bit,” suggests Hade, as if there might be an open-topped bus tour departing any minute. There’s more fun with the ‘noises off’ of Pluto, with mention of such intriguing ne’er-do-wells as “Wurgs and Keeks”, and the “arrogant Ajacks”. Later, the Gatherer and his boss, the Collector, dismiss the downtrodden masses with alliteration and assonance: they are “factory fodder” and “cellar dwellers”. The Collector is a goblin creature who runs the whole cruel business of Pluto; a snivelling Rumpelstiltskin jealously hoarding his gold. The Gatherer’s habit of buttering-up his tiny boss by using synonyms for ‘large’ is such good fun – there’s “Your Colossus!”, “Your Hugeness!”, “Your Amplification!” and many more – but what’s even better is when things begin to go wrong on Pluto and the flattery becomes more slowly more inappropriate and insulting. “Your Monstrosity!”, “Your Corpulence!”. What a joy it is.

Unfortunately, Robert Holmes rather lets his love of the macabre and the gruesome get the better of him when we meet Pluto’s rebel faction, down in the basement. “Show courtesy to my rank,” spits leader Mandrel, “or I’ll cut your skin off inch by inch.” And the threat of slice-and-dice continues, mostly thanks to Leela. “Before I die, I’ll see this rathole ankle-deep in blood!” she vows. And most wince-inducing of all, she promises Mandrel: “I’ll split you!” It’s vivid stuff, to say the least. Doctor Who couldn’t get away with anything close to this charnel house language today, and that’s no bad thing. It does, however, give us what must stand as the most typical Robert Holmes line of all time: “Mouth those mindless pieties down here, Citizen Cordo, and you’ll get yer throat slit!” It’s just another passing threat, but in it we find all Holmes’ favourite tricks in play at once.

Happily, The Sun Makers has a superb cast to deliver its brilliant script. What’s most striking is how relaxed and well-rehearsed they all are. Tom Baker warms up as soon as he’s away from Leela and working with the guest actors, and he’s clearly having a ball when the Doctor confronts the Collector at the end of the story. He and actor Henry Woolf have made the most of rehearsals and worked out so many little bits of business. The bald Collector’s wistful fondling of the Doctor’s curls is particularly cute, and the moment when he slams his fist down on a vital control, only for it to spring up and be caught in mid-air by the Doctor, is a genuine laugh-out-loud moment of slapstick. When you watch these scenes, try to ignore Baker and focus only on Woolf. You’ll rarely see an actor working so hard. Emotions flutter across his face like colours on a squid; pride then bitterness then glee then confusion then panic. It’s one of the wittiest and most entertaining guest performances ever given in Doctor Who.

“So what’s Contingency Plan B?” jokes the Doctor as he unravels the economy on Pluto and the Collector liquidates himself. The Sun Makers is the first of a particular subset of Doctor Who stories where our hero stumbles across a sick society that is a twisted version of our own world – with one shortcoming of modern life extrapolated to become its defining characteristic – and blasts through it like antibiotics. We’ll see this again in Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol, Gridlock and The Beast Below, but The Sun Makers remains the most enjoyable, due in part to the fact that the Doctor’s fourth incarnation lacks the pious streak that can make his successors seem so insufferably smug and superior at times. When he leaves Pluto in the hands of those murderous rebels, with not a single word of caution or advice, there something deliciously reckless about it. It’s refreshing not to be obliged to ponder what we’ve learned this day, or to stop to mourn the terrible sacrifices that have been made in the name of liberty. There’s no call to hail-the-unalive-Pex, to weep for the rubbery mush of the Face of Boe, or salute that brave and noble space whale. Sod ’em. We’re outta here.

Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor explains to Leela how he defeated the Collector. “I fed a two per cent growth tax into the computers, index-linked,” he says. “It blew the economy.” It’s a joke, but it’s not so far from the jargon we now hear on the news every day, in this new era of recession: the quantitative easing, the short-selling, the subprime toxic debt that brought down banks and poisoned economies around the world. And suddenly we see that The Sun Makers packs even more of a satirical punch today than it did on transmission. In 1977, Robert Holmes was stinging from a tax bill, and used Doctor Who to vent his anger. In a decade of spiralling inflation and punishing taxation, older viewers could enjoy the joke of Hade’s list of bizarre taxes, and taxes on taxes. In the Collector, Holmes was clearly mocking the government. But today, we see politicians as almost powerless in the face of the machinations of big business, and watching The Sun Makers, we see Cordo is tyrannised not by a government, but by a corporation – which controls him through his debts, and through his fear of debt. The most chilling detail of all is how the Company keeps its workforce pacified. The PCM gas it pumps into the cities doesn’t simply dope the citizens. Instead, it raises anxiety levels by a tiny degree, so that everyone is so consumed by their own everyday fears and self-doubt, and can never muster the will to rebel. It’s a horrific idea.

Before becoming a writer, Robert Holmes was an army officer on active service, then a policeman and later a crime reporter for a newspaper. One could easy believe that these experiences left him with a jaded view of human nature, but instead it seems to have sharpened the sense of humour he must have needed to survive the jungles of Burma and the mean streets of London. But that special mix of cynicism and optimism ultimately gave us some of the richest, cleverest Doctor Who stories that will ever be written. And The Sun Makers is among that number.

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DVD extras

Principal production documentary Running From the Tax Man is a smart piece of work with a good range of interviewees, and includes some insightful commentary from historian Dominic Sandbrook. The programme guides us through The Sun Makers’ political backstory, and detours for a discussion about Pluto’s demotion from the solar system. However, given that the most significant aspect of The Sun Makers is that it’s very, very funny, this documentary sadly fails to get to grips with the humour of the piece. In 1985, in a rare interview, Robert Holmes made it clear that he knew he was pushing his luck with The Sun Makers: “working at the anarchic boundaries for Doctor Who,” he called it. It’s this anarchy that makes The Sun Makers special, and the documentary doesn’t quite connect with it.

The commentary – which features Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, guest actor Michael Keating and late director Pennant Roberts – is a lot of fun, and shines a light on the relationship between this Doctor and assistant. There’s no doubt that Jameson is among the most talented actresses ever to stand at the Doctor’s side. Leela is an absurd, fantastical character – this pedantic, childlike savage in a leather swimsuit –  and the most high-concept companion there’s ever been, but there’s never a single moment when we don’t believe in her. That’s all down to the skill of Jameson, and her totally immersive and deadly earnest acting style.

But there are all kinds of actors; and when, on the commentary, Jameson is quick to praise the “honest” performance of Cordo actor Roy Macready, Baker laughs. “We didn’t bandy around words like ‘honest’ back then,” he says. Jameson also speaks of “honouring the text”, and we remember that Baker generally liked to ‘honour’ a Doctor Who script by christening it “whippet shit” and frisbee-ing it out the window onto Acton High Street. And the two actors’ differing senses of humour mean that Jameson never seems to know when she’s having her leg pulled. Time and again she takes some bit of Baker whimsy at face value, and we can hazard a guess as to how quickly Baker might have become bored with his jokes not being ‘got’, back in the day. This was never – I think – a meeting of minds, and one can imagine how that might also have been a source of friction on set, above and beyond Baker’s distaste for the character of Leela.

Tom Baker has mellowed over the years, and he and Jameson are now on good terms. For many years, Baker put a great deal of space between himself and Doctor Who, but recently he has returned, and seems eager to – for want of a better way of putting it – give something back to the fans. He’s now “coming soon from Big Finish Productions”; something that would have been thought impossible just a few years ago. Big Finish has always worked hard to recapture the particular atmosphere of Doctor Who’s various eras, but here’s one case where this listener hopes that they fail – in the nicest possible way. Life doesn’t offer many second chances. And so, as Baker and Jameson reassume their roles, it would be lovely to find that, on TV, we only saw the rainy days in the TARDIS. Soon, I trust – and only 33 years too late – we’ll hear the Doctor and Leela laughing together, and finally find them to be the very best of friends.

 

Image of the Fendahl

21 Jul

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

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The DVD release schedule can throw up unique narratives of its own. Recently, for example, we’ve heard from Doctor Who’s three principal 80s script editors – telling us how wonderful things could have been if only everyone else was as clever as them. Each had a very different take on the show, so it’s been amusing to see if we agree with all, one or none. (Send your vote to: Lady Hamilton Bidmead, 45 Eileen Way, E-Space, WV0 2M.) This month we have compare-and-contrast fun with the 1977 adventure Image of the Fendahl, illuminated in an unexpected way by the fact it follows Attack of the Cybermen to the shelves of Sainsbury’s.

Though your reviewer had never considered it before, the two stories have much in common. Once more, the Doctor is slow to join the action, with the TARDIS landing some distance away from this week’s guest stars, allowing our hero a leisurely saunter to the drama. Both he and his companion pack heat – this time using shotguns to fend off slugs the size of shire horses. And again, the plot leaves many key questions frustratingly unanswered. The point is: if we’ve used these sticks to beat one story, it’s only fair they are employed against another.

Image of the Fendahl takes us to Fetch Priory, where Dr Fendleman is operating a time scanner, which allows him to probe history. Passing up the chance to stalk Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln, Fendleman has found a 12-million-year-old skull which, when the mood takes it, blazes with malign power. Either that or he’s found Ozzy Osbourne’s bedside lamp. And Dr Fendleman is something of a mystery himself. What is that accent? “Aderm! Aderm!” he says to his associate, Adam. “Jus’ theenk for a momend, eh? Zee woods uh suppose’a be haun’ed, eh?” They must be very proud of his success back home in the Austrian ghettos of Mexico City. Meanwhile, a hiker in zee haun’ed woods has his juices sucked out by an unseen force – not as nice as it sounds – and the scanner’s dangerous instability draws the Doctor and Leela to Earth to investigate.

The pieces are all in place for some definitive Doctor Who, but Image of the Fendahl fails to pull everything together. While writer Chris Boucher clearly loves his own characters, he rails against involving the Doctor in his spooky tale. As mentioned, our hero takes an episode to reach Fetch Priory, and as soon as he tips up is shoved into a cupboard. Dr Fendleman is the most interesting figure here, but the Doctor spends mere seconds in his company. The Time Lord is then shunted out of the way for most of Part Three on a wild goose chase. This problem of integration could have been easily fixed by having the Doctor properly investigate the death of the hiker and the mystery of the skull. Unfortunately, he arrives already knowing the whole story, and then has to be kept busy until he can blow it up.

A few months ago, apropos of something else entirely, this page described Image of the Fendahl as “creepy and confident”. However, it’s important your reviewer keeps an open mind as each DVD arrives, and not be driven by tastes and prejudices forged in his youth. It’s impossible, but he should try. And while this story is certainly creepy – the various aspects of the monster are all scary in different ways, and Parts One and Two deliver cracking cliffhangers – it now feels more difficult to argue ‘confident’.

Unfortunately, Image of the Fendahl keeps tripping over its shoelaces. The Doctor offers three different explanations for why the monster has manifested here and now, the final of which is the entirely lame: “On the other hand, it could all be just a coincidence.” Never have bets been more hedged. And for each piece of rousing, trailer-friendly dialogue – “There are four thousand million people here on your planet. And if I’m right, within a year there’ll be just one left alive…” – another line falls flat. One remark, made by archaeologist Adam to his technician friend Thea – “I accept without reservation the results of your excellent potassium-argon test” – is so contrived it sounds like a cue for a song. (All together now: “Geo-chronology is deeply fascinating! But forget the skull, dear Thea… It’s this man you should be dating!”) Later, after Adam stumbles upon the blinking-and-bleeping time scanner, he quips: “I always say that if you’ve seen one jukebox, you’ve seen ‘em all.” Always? How often is that, Adam? Is every night in the Fetchborough Arms enlivened by this hilarious bon mot?

It’s Image of the Fendahl’s pure-cut melodrama that keeps it enjoyable. There’s even a touch of drawing room comedy, as characters constantly sidle in and out of rooms to share nuggets of plot. Someone opens and then closes a door 46 times in less than 100 minutes, which must be a record for Doctor Who. It’s a shame Fetch Priory is short a set of French windows. Adam could bound in, tennis racket in hand, and deliver a wry put-down to the time scanner, just as Leela exits stage left, pursued by an ancient evil from Time Lord mythology. Pop it in the West End and it could run and run.

So, while Fendahl shares some of the flaws of Attack of the Cybermen, it at least lacks the whiff of the torture chamber. This may not be Doctor Who at its most fluid and assured, but it certainly sticks to the show’s cardinal rule: if you’re not being scary, be funny; if you’re not making ‘em laugh, make ‘em jump. Some of those laughs may be unintentional – eh, Aderm? – but they’re no less welcome for that.

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DVD EXTRAS

Sadly, the bonus material on this disc lacks some of the educational rigour we’ve come to expect. Having recently learned: i) the secret of great black pudding; and ii) how to equip his favourite baseball cap with sonar, your reviewer now earns a respectable second income by raiding pig farms in the dead of night. At the very least, we might expect Fendahl to deliver a decent fruitcake recipe. And are we supposed to master our potassium-argon tests single-handedly? Standards are slipping.

Happily, there’s plenty to learn about your actual Doctor Who. The award for the most delightful nugget of trivia goes to the ‘info text’, where we learn that the props buyer took 4lbs of Jelly Babies on location. 4lbs! That’s a lot of confectionary considering we only see a single sweet on screen. Perhaps the production manager gorged on the remainder at the end of filming. One can imagine him, driven crazy by a sugar high, screaming “I’ll be in charge of all this one day!” before toppling face down into a ditch.

The production documentary – with the disappointingly sane title After Image – is solid stuff, telling an upbeat tale of a happy team who loved working together. Everyone had a right old laugh at rehearsal, applied themselves in studio, and adored Daphne Heard’s turn as Ma Tyler above all. “She honours a text when she works,” says Louise Jameson (Leela), with RADA profundity. Daphne is certainly marvellous, and it’s nice to think of her sat alone in a corner of the rehearsal room, carefully teasing out every nuance of the line, “I b’aint your grandma! Don’t ee grandma me!”

There’s black-and-white timecoded video of ‘Deleted and Extended Scenes’, offering a couple of alternative takes and some additional moments of woodland wandering. “BLANK SECTIONS FOR COW INSERTS” reads one explanatory caption, which must be unique. It’s not material any of us will watch more than once, but it’s nice to have and thanks are due its donor.

A warm commentary features Louise Jameson, Wanda Ventham (Thea) and Edward Arthur (Adam) reporting from planet Earth, with Tom Baker beaming in from his own dimension. Eccentric he may be, but Baker soon fingers Fendahl’s chief shortcoming. After silently watching 10 minutes of scientists staring intently at oscilloscopes, our star grumbles: “When do I come on?” Later, he muses: “There’s something missing here… Oh yes, it’s me.” And he’s not wrong. Meanwhile, Ventham has a lot to say about her wig and her shoes, though she tackles weightier issues as the story progresses – commenting wistfully during Part Two: “I really want to see a shot of that cooker again.”

If you listen to the commentary as you watch the ‘info text’, there’s a moment of deliciously cruel irony. Boucher’s script was treated roughly during the cast read-through, and a caption recalls a memorable DWM interview with the writer. “For a long time,” he said, “my ambition was to see Tom Baker die in a cellar full of rats.” Seconds later, we have Baker on the commentary: “Who wrote this? Who? Chris Boucher? Isn’t that funny. I can’t remember him at all.” That’s show business! It also reminds us how times changed. Doctor Who writers can be celebrities these days. Russell T Davies was recently mentioned in EastEnders, and that sort of thing never happened in the 70s. Well, unless a lost episode of Crossroads saw Amy Turtle hobble up to reception saying: “I’ve jus’ bought a copy of Doctor Who and the Zarbis, Miss Jill. It’s signed by Bill Strutton an’ all!”

As the story slithers through Part Four, Baker is increasingly contemplative. “Life’s been downhill ever since I left Doctor Who,” he muses, and we’re left to ponder which of the other Doctors would agree with this sentiment. One thing’s for sure – David Tennant will escape Baker’s fate. He’s a Doctor Who fan after all, and so will know the one great lesson to be learned from Image of the Fendahl

As one door closes, another opens.

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