One thing I’ve wanted to do with this blog for a while is sit down and watch every Doctor Who serial, in order, until I get bored with them or reach Survival (whichever comes first). I’m going to try to do one serial a week, and stick to a few simple rules:
1) If the story exists on DVD and I don’t own the DVD, I buy it
2) If the story is not on DVD, I torrent it, but buy it as soon as it’s released
3) If the story does not exist any more, I torrent a reconstruction and use that plus the text of the Target novelisation (also torrented because these are long out of print and my parents threw out my copies twenty years or so ago) to try to review it as best I can. I don’t feel under an obligation to buy the official BBC CDs of these stories – though I may, and have bought some in the past – as I think if they want paying for those episodes they shouldn’t have set fire to them. I do own the Lost In Time triple-DVD set though.
I’m also going to stick to a word limit of 1000 words in total for each of these posts.
In the case of An Unearthly Child, the first Doctor Who story, I’ve already written about it here – and if you want to know my thoughts on this story you should read that as well as this, but I’ll try to find more to say about it without duplicating that too much.
AN UNEARTHLY CHILD
Writer: Anthony Coburn
Director: Waris Hussein
DVD Availability: As Disc One of the The Beginnings box set
For something described as ‘quintessentially British’ every five minutes, Doctor Who had a very multicultural background. From an initial idea by Canadian Sydney Newman, the first story was written by an Australian, Anthony Coburn, and directed by a gay Indian, Waris Hussein, who also happened to be the youngest director working for the BBC. Verity Lambert, the producer, was British, but she was also both the youngest producer working for the BBC *and* the only female producer. Forget ‘the gay agenda’ – for 1963 that’s a shockingly mixed team.
And whether consciously or not, the sense of outsiderness that this must have engendered seems to have come out in the first episode of this serial, in which two teachers investigate an odd pupil, who turns out to be far odder than either of them could previously have expected.
The first episode is an absolute masterclass in how to make TV. We start out with THAT music – Delia Derbyshire’s realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme tune still sounds shocking today, it’s almost unimaginable how strange it must have sounded in 1963, when Cliff Richard was still considered something of a rebellious young rocker (Ian Chesterton was originally going to have been named Cliff, to show he was ‘with it’ and let the young relate to him). Then we have a story that starts out looking very, *very* like the opening of then-popular police show Dixon Of Dock Green, before turning into what looks like it could be a fairly harrowing drama about child abuse, before once again taking a complete change in direction and becoming science fiction in the last third.
And it *LOOKS* astonishing – the cameras here swoop and move in a style completely unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in TV. At times it almost looks like Orson Welles was behind the camera. Hussein takes the disadvantages inherent in the medium at the time – the programme was recorded ‘as live’ with only one break in recording (for the cut when Barbara enters the TARDIS, though it looks to me like there was also an edit done in one of the earlier scenes in the classroom) – and turns them to his advantage. The close-ups on Susan in flashback while Ian and Barbara talk about her in the car are done that way so the actors don’t have to get from one set to another, but they also give the episode a unique look.
Sadly, that isn’t maintained in the three later stories in this serial – which really ought to be regarded as a separate story, albeit one with the same writer and director. Once the travellers reach the time of the cave people, we suddenly divert into something that is much closer to how one would imagine a children’s TV series with an educational remit from 1963 would appear – worthy, stagey, and dull when watched in one dose (it works *much* better when watched episodically, as was of course originally intended). And we already see the Doctor Who Formula starting to take shape – Susan, so mysterious and otherworldly in her first appearance, has her first scream at something unthreatening in episode three.
But even so there are interesting aspects. Firstly, the Doctor is still far from the hero – Ian Chesterton is clearly in the heroic role, while the Doctor is somewhere between mentor and villain. Never again (at least in the ‘classic’ series) would we see the Doctor even consider killing someone just for convenience’s sake.
And the story seems to be about *ideas* – in fact, bravely, the central conflict is between two *wrong* ideas. The old crone argues against fire on conservative grounds, but she’s arguing against someone engaged in a cargo-cult, rather than the more obvious choice of someone who can actually create fire.
There are some very, *very* interesting moments – for example, the shot of Kal looking at the TARDIS is very reminiscent (to my eyes) of Moon Watcher looking at the obelisk in 2001. And of course the inhabitants of the TARDIS bring the knowledge of fire to the tribe, in a similar way to the monolith giving the ape-people the knowledge of weapons. But this was many years earlier than 2001…
And there are some very well-written lines, too – “If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cry of strange birds and watch them wheel in another sky” is a great phrase.
But on the whole, the impression given by An Unearthly Child is of a program that initially had huge amounts of promise, but quickly settled into mediocrity, and was just like every other kids’ programme. That impression would soon prove to be wrong…
A proper post *will* come tonight, but I had to say something about this.
Gerald Kaufman, my local MP, alleged in the Commons yesterday that Qassim Afzal, our parliamentary candidate in Manchester Gorton, for whom I voted and campaigned, went around personally telling Muslim voters not to vote for Kaufman because he’s Jewish.
Those allegations were made under Parliamentary Privilege, which means Sir Gerald does not have to worry about normal slander laws, and given the source I am disinclined to believe them. I do not consider Sir Gerald a trustworthy source.
However, they are *extraordinarily* serious allegations, and I just want to make clear that I never heard a *single word* about this during the election campaign. Had I heard of such behaviour I would have confronted Qas about it, and were I to have *believed* that such behaviour was happening I would have refused to campaign at all in that constituency, and would have voted for one of the small protest parties, while still remaining a member of the Liberal Democrats.
I am *ABSOLUTELY* against anti-Semitism in all its manifestations, and do not want any of the readers of this blog to believe that I went along with such behaviour. Qas is innocent until proven guilty of this, and I would be very surprised if Sir Gerald has any evidentiary basis for his claims. But I just wanted readers of this blog to be aware that I never even heard a whisper of such claims during the campaign itself. I am also certain that nor did any of our Council candidates, many of whom are active anti-discrimination campaigners.
I’m going to try to keep a rough schedule for the next few months:
Weekends – comics posts.
Mondays I’m going to start reviewing every ‘classic’ Doctor Who story in order, starting with An Unearthly Child tomorrow, until I get bored (probably somewhere in series 2).
Tuesdays will be Spotify playlists.
Fridays will be book reviews – I’m not going to try to continue reviewing *every* book I’ve read this year, as the backlog is already greater than the number I’ve reviewed, but I do want to talk about, for example, I, Claudius (*especially* since after reading that I read two Faction Paradox books in a row, one of which I’ve already reviewed, which relied heavily on that book for inspiration),
The other days will be whatever comes into my head – possibly politics (though I’m trying to steer clear of that for a while) more likely linkblogging or rest days.
ETA The plan already has a problem – spent the time I planned to write the post doing phone tech support for my dad…
So, after that semi-enforced break, I’m here to talk about Batman.
I’ve promised that I’ll review every Batman title Grant Morrison writes until the end of the Return Of Bruce Wayne storyline, but in truth RoBW #1 gives rather little for a writing-focussed reviewer such as myself (I simply don’t have the critical vocabulary to deal with art in a more than cursory manner), so this isn’t so much a review as a collection of points that came to me.
The first of which is – why isn’t Morrison’s Bruce Wayne bald?
I’m not asking this because Morrison writes so many bald characters into his work, but because the character as written should be. Take Morrison’s phrase ‘hairy-chested love god’, and then think of the fact that Morrison’s Batman is the alpha male in excelsis. He’s supposed to be able to dominate and subdue everyone just through the power of his pheromones and ‘old money’ breeding.
And as I (who resemble a silverback mountain gorilla from the eyebrows down, but one that has been prepared for some experimental brain surgery by having parts of its cranium inexpertly shaved when you see the complete me) can testify, anyone with that level of testosterone – anyone with as much body hair as Chris Sprouse portrays Bruce Wayne (and, indeed, all the male characters in this story ) as having, should have practically none on top (see also, for example, Sean Connery). Maybe Bruce had a hair transplant? I can just see him explaining to Alfred how it wasn’t anything to do with his personal vanity, just that he had to *look like* someone who was vain, purely to keep up the secret identity, you understand…
And there are a *lot* of those hairy male characters, aren’t there? In fact, in the whole main story of the issue there were only two panels containing females, who were purely sex objects for Vandal Savage. This issue doesn’t just fail the Bechdel test, it turns up for the test thinking it’s a Geography O-Level and draws a giant spunking cock on the answer paper. Knowing Morrison’s work, this will not be the case for the other issues.
It’s a truism about Morrison’s work – especially his work on Batman – that it stands or falls almost entirely on how sympathetic the artist with whom he’s working is. Cameron Stewart, J.H. Williams or Frank Quitely turn his scripts into things of beauty, graceful, funny, clever stories that practically sing off the page. Philip Tan or Tony Daniel though – both actually competent artists, if hardly masters – turn his scripts into turgid unreadable messes that are actually painful to plough through.
The artists for Return of Bruce Wayne are, for the most part, people who will definitely turn out exemplary work, but I was slightly worried about Chris Sprouse. Not because of any lack of talent on his part – his work on Tom Strong and Supreme shows he is an extremely gifted storyteller – but just because he’d never, to my knowledge, worked with Morrison before, and you can’t know how a collaboration like that will work until it happens.
I shouldn’t have worried. Sprouse is *absolutely* perfect for this. HIs Bruce Wayne is stocky and physical in a way that only Frank Miller and Dick Sprang have ever drawn him before – the robust Wayne here is a complete contrast to the gracile Dick Grayson appearing in the Batman & Robin title, just a solid squat lump of muscle rather than Grayson’s lithe gymnast. And that’s absolutely perfect for this story, which is little more than grunting and posturing, one long fight scene where the fearsome intellects of Wayne and Vandal Savage are deployed only for violence.
Which isn’t to say there’s no story there – a huge number of seeds for future issues are being planted here, even if at times this feels like a generic Elseworlds story (there *must* have been a Batman-is-a-caveman Elseworlds where one of the other cavemen is called ‘Joker’ and another becomes Robin, right?), and there’s some great characterisation (Wayne getting arrows in his unprotected back while protecting a child, instinctually protecting the innocent even while amnesiac).
But the pleasures of this comic are ultimately those of seeing Sprouse do proper action scenes of the kind we see all too rarely in superhero comics these days. This is a comic about a load of men built like brick shithouses beating each other up for thirty pages. And sometimes that’s enough.
I’m interested – and rather worried – to see that Dan Jurgens’ new Rip Hunter miniseries is actually going to tie in with this, rather than ‘tying in’ in the normal DC manner where that means ‘completely ignore’. I’m actually planning on buying Jurgens’ series for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with its actual qualities – partly a love for the character, partly because I have some affection for the Minnesotan Superman-Killer from when I was eleven and his comics were the best thing *ever* for a bright nerdy eleven-year-old, and partly because his recent Booster Gold run wasn’t that bad and the series is probably going to tie in with Giffen and DeMatteis’ run on that title. But Jurgens and Morrison are almost polar opposites as creators – Jurgens is the most tediously traditionalistic of people, doing craftsmanlike competent work (or incompetent in the case of his backups in 52), while Morrison is innovative even when he tries to be formulaic. And Jurgens actually walked off the Superman title he was working on in the mid-90s for an issue, because he refused to work from Morrison’s plot for a DC One Million tie in. So it’ll be interesting to see how that works out.
The time-travel element also suggests that RoBW will be connecting with Multiversity, which would be nice…
Anyway, I’m sure that as the series progresses I’ll have more to say about the story, as the pieces and themes start coming together. But for now, all I can say is “that Chris Sprouse draws pretty pictures!”