Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Doctor Who Live

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 23, 2010

There have been several attempts to bring Doctor Who to the stage, some more successful than others, but all very typical of the time in which they were made. Curse Of The Daleks was a gripping base-under-siege story by Terry Nation and David Whittaker, with Daleks but no Doctor, from the 1960s. In the 1970s, on the other hand, we had Seven Keys To Doomsday, by Terrance Dicks,where the Doctor has to collect MacGuffins before the Daleks do. And in the 1980s there was The Ultimate Adventure, a ludicrous pantomime by a past-it Dicks, a lot of fun but making no sense whatsoever.

And in 2010 we have Doctor Who Live, an arena show full of explosions and spectacle, with almost no dialogue, little plot, and tons of special effects, but with a flying Dalek and a Dalek-vs-Cybermen fight, and lasers…

That sounds a little cruel, and it really shouldn’t. Doctor Who Live isn’t aimed at me, and nor should it be. It’s a circus by any other name, with people in costumes, music, silly jokes, and a light show and fireworks, and it’s aimed at very small children, who were there in droves. My own favourite Doctor Who stories are things like Genesis Of The Daleks, The Aztecs, The Keeper Of Traken or The Massacre – small-scale, character-driven, dialogue-heavy stories about ideas. Doctor Who Live was never going to be any of those things.

What it is – and all it is – is pure spectacle. There’s an attempt to give it a plot (a sequel to the 1973 Robert Holmes story Carnival Of Monsters), but really it’s just an excuse for as many monsters (all from the post-2005 series, obviously, and with a heavy weighting towards Stephen Moffat’s stories) to come through the audience and scare the children, for pyrotechnics, for loud rock music (Murray Gold’s music for the new series, rearranged very effectively by Ben Foster for a 16-piece band and choir, improved immensely from Gold’s original overblown arrangements).

That’s not to say there’s nothing to recommend it to adults- Nigel Planer gives as wonderful a performance as you would expect as the showman Vorgenson, and Nicholas Briggs does a rather magnificent Churchill, and Planer’s live interaction with Matt Smith on film has a real Doctor Who feel to it (reading a recent DWM interview with Smith where he mentioned that Peter Sellers is the actor he most admires unlocked something about Smith’s performance for me, and this is the first time I’ve seen any of his work since reading that, and I’m a lot more impressed now) – but it’s really best suited for adults who have brought their children along with them.

It’s very hard for me to judge the show, because what I want from art or entertainment is very different from what it was offering. In the comments to a recent post, various of us have been talking about how much of modern entertainment is geared towards the facile and childish, and how the highbrow is being devalued in favour of the trivial. This show would not have been something I’d have chosen to do by myself (a gang of friends were going) and it’s about as trivial and childish as you can get, with absolutely no intellectual content whatsoever.

But at the same time, while there’s probably something wrong with someone in their thirties or forties who lives off Flumps and Curly-Wurlies, there is nothing wrong with having those things *on occasion*, and this show is the equivalent of eating a Sherbet fountain – not something you would want to do every day, and something you might feel a bit embarrassed about doing at all, but as a little bit of a nostalgic treat it’s fine on occasion.

The show is much better put-together, with much higher production values, than it needed to be to satisfy its target audience of children. There were a number of points where I was genuinely highly impressed by the craft and thought that had been put into the performance. But there’s a bit in one of the About Time guidebooks where Wood and Miles talk about how Doctor Who toys would have been missing the point, because the best bits in Doctor Who weren’t spaceship races or light-sabre battles but elderly character actors being frightfully clever at each other, so you couldn’t recreate them with toys, you had to recreate them by reading the books. This show, on the other hand, is almost designed for action-figure recreation, while the script probably barely fit onto five sides of A4.

I am not so totally grown-up that I can fail to appreciate the show – so many of my formative years were spent thinking about Daleks and Cybermen that seeing Real Live Ones!!!, even if they look different from the ones I liked as a kid, is enough to put a grin on my face – but I’m adult enough that, while this is an extraordinarily well put-together, charming, spectacular show, I wouldn’t recommend it to any adult who doesn’t have a deep-seated, irrational love of Doctor Who.

This seems like a deeply ambivalent review, and it is. I thoroughly enjoyed myself while I was there – and I really did – but where I can fit most other things I enjoy into an aesthetic or intellectual framework, this had about as much for the rational part of my mind (by far the biggest part) to latch on to as a fireworks display would. And seen *as* a fireworks display – as a bunch of pretty images, flashing lights and loud bangs – it’s as good as any I’ve seen. But whereas the TV show at its best could appeal to children while still having some genuinely intelligent writing worth repeat viewing as an adult (and while I’m not one of those who thinks Doctor Who is the best TV programme ever made, I would certainly say that at its best, in stories like City Of Death or An Unearthly Child or Vengeance On Varos it was in the top rank of TV of its time), tonight’s show was a spectacular for the kiddies.

That I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to the readers of this blog (who, I flatter myself, like something with a little more intellectual roughage most of the time, rather than just sweets) merely says that we’re not its intended audience. That I still managed to have an enjoyable evening (and that despite having a migraine, meaning I was doped up to the eyeballs on painkillers) shows how well it does what it does. Nicholas Briggs in particular is to be commended – as well as his Churchill, he also provides all the Dalek, Cyberman and Judoon voices (at least some of them apparently live) and this show demonstrates what a fine voice actor he actually is. And Nigel Planer, who for most of the show is the only live-action performer on stage with any lines, carries off what is almost a one-man show at times superbly. I didn’t come out thinking I’d wasted my time and my money, which I was seriously worried I would do ahead of time.

But the people who enjoyed it most were the thousands of tiny children in their cardboard cyberman masks.

Childe Peter To The Dark Tower Came – The Five Doctors

Posted in Doctor Who by Andrew Hickey on November 27, 2008

John Nathan-Turner, the producer of Doctor Who for most of its last decade, gets a bad rap from much of the fanbase. Sometimes this is deserved – some of the worst episodes of the show ever produced were done on his watch, and often at his instigation.

It is possibly going to appear over the next few days that I am joining in this chorus of disapproval, mostly due to my choices of episodes, so before I do that, I just want to say firstly that for every bad decision Nathan-Turner made he also made a good one; and secondly that Nathan-Turner’s Doctor Who is the version of the show I grew up on.

And that means a lot to me. I was a Doctor Who fan of the most obsessive kind before I was in primary school (the obsession dropped down between the ages of 12 and 25 or so, but much of my love for the programme dates from a very young age). I knew Nathan-Turner’s name written down before I knew how to pronounce it (I still half-consciously read it as Natthan (with a short a) in my head). Peter Davison and Colin Baker were ‘my’ Doctors in a way that Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker were to earlier generations. And my love as a child for that show – flawed as some of it undoubtedly was – inspired my passion for reading (give a Target novelisation to a five-year-old who doesn’t know he’s not meant to be able to read it and you’ll be surprised how quickly his vocabulary expands…), fantastic fiction, eccentric characters in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, non-violent solutions to problems, physics, evolutionary biology, linguistics (specifically a bit in the novelisation of State Of Decay where the Doctor explains to Romana about consonantal shift), logic… while I am actually nothing like the Doctor (in real life I am more like the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, but without the social graces and physical attractiveness) , the idealised self-image I have comes from wishing to emulate the Doctor as a child.

So whatever Nathan-Turner’s faults as a producer (and how much he can be blamed for the problems the show had during his tenure is definitely open to question) his years on the show did make at least one small child extraordinarily happy, and that’s something to keep in mind…

The Five Doctors, the show’s twentieth-anniversary special, is the first episode I have a conscious memory of watching when it was broadcast, a little over a month after my fifth birthday (though I’d definitely seen earlier episodes – it’s just no others remain in my memory). I remember being absolutely thrilled – Daleks! Cybermen! K-9! The Master! All the old Doctors who I’d only heard about! – and for years later I could remember the black triangle getting the Doctors, and Peter Davison collapsing, and a couple of other moments, even though I didn’t have a clue what the plot had been.

That is, of course, because there wasn’t one – or at least not one to speak of. While the tenth anniversary show, The Three Doctors, had had a simple brief – do a story with all three Doctors in it – The Five Doctors had to do more – it had to ‘celebrate’ the show by featuring as many old villains and companions as possible, as well as all five Doctors to date. The need to do this made one scriptwriter, Robert Holmes, quit early in the process – Holmes simply couldn’t come up with a coherent story featuring everything that the production team decided was necessary for the show. So Terrance Dicks – another former Who script editor, and at the time a freelance writer who made his living from novelising the TV show (mostly just adding the words ‘he said’ to the scripts if my memory of his books is correct – he was not someone who was known for labouring over his prose in an effort to turn out an exquisitely memorable phrase if instead he could just type “The Dalek shot the prisoner, who screamed and died”) took on the job.

Dicks was actually even more insistent that the production feature *everything* than the production staff themselves were – he had to do a story with Time Lords, the Master and Cybermen because that’s what Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward (the script editor) wanted, but he also insisted that it had to feature at least one Dalek (who gets killed in a most perfunctory manner after about ninety seconds of screen time), K-9 (who gets about two lines) and the Yeti (who most people don’t even notice).

Dicks was entirely right about this, incidentally, from the point of view of absolutely captivating small children, but it gives the story the same flavour as much of nuWho – a bunch of exciting moments strung together by something pretending to be a plot but without any real coherence.

Of course, it can’t have helped that Dicks had to do a story about Five Doctors when he only had three available. The absence of William Hartnell, who had died years earlier, was expected, and they got round it by casting Richard Hurndall to play his part (Hurndall did a passable impersonation of Hartnell, who hadn’t been seen on TV for many years, though the effectiveness of it was hampered by a little pre-credit snippet of Hartnell reminding people what he actually looked and sounded like). What hadn’t been expected, though, was for Tom Baker to turn the story down (mostly because he’d left the show less than two years earlier, but also because he didn’t get on very well at the time with Nathan-Turner). This absence was eventually also covered – by using some footage from the unaired Douglas Adams story Shada (with much better dialogue than the rest of the show) and saying that Baker’s Doctor was caught in a time distortion – but it meant that the script needed extensive rewriting.

Parts of the show work extremely well – especially the interplay between Troughton’s Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (with Troughton ad-libbing furiously most of the time, coming out with stuff about the Terrible Zodin and beasts that used to hop like kangaroos), and the show comes alive in the last few minutes, when all the Doctors are brought together at last (Nathan-Turner thought there’d be ego problems, and so made sure they only had one day of filming together) – the performers get over a mediocre script and spark wonderfully off each other, in a way that makes you wish just for an hour and a half of Davison, Troughton and Pertwee trapped in the TARDIS rather than this disjointed mess.

Most of the classic Doctors could rise above a bad script with a great performance, and Terrance DIcks was familiar enough with the characters to provide them with opportunities to do that, and the script contains several pretty good lines (“A man is the sum of his memories, you know… a Time Lord even more so”) – although several of the best were inserted by the actors. It was great fun for kids at the time, and it has a lot of nostalgia value – I’ve probably watched it more than any other episode, because if you don’t concentrate and just look up for the good bits it can deliver a great rush of childhood affection for the various characters – but it’s just a disposable children’s romp, not something that should be given a ‘twenty-fifth anniversary special edition’ DVD release on two discs with two different edits of the show and three different commentaries.

Five Years Later – The Invasion

Posted in Doctor Who by Andrew Hickey on November 24, 2008

The Cybermen were introduced in the same storyline as the Second Doctor (The Tenth Planet, in which William Hartnell regenerates into Patrick Troughton towards the end of the story) and the two went together from then on. In his three years as the Doctor, Troughton did four further Cybermen stories, and when Troughton left the show, the Cybermen went too, only making one lacklustre appearance between 1968 and 1982 (the point where the production team started plundering old stories on a regular basis).

The Tenth Planet also set the scene for Troughton’s era in another, unfortunate way – the last episode (featuring the regeneration scene) was burned by the BBC to save storage space and only exists as an audio recording made off-air by fans with tape recorders. This, alas, happened to the vast majority of Troughton’s stories, with barely any surviving intact. (The institutionalised Philistinism at the BBC at that time was astonishing. They also destroyed live footage of the Beatles, classic sitcoms like Hancock and Steptoe & Son and even their coverage of the Moon landing. Because no-one could ever want to watch those things again. ITV were as bad back then, but at least they were a commercial organisation, not a public service broadcaster).

The Cybermen were a perfect fit for Troughton’s Doctor as well. Created by Kit Pedler (one of the many ‘idea men’ employed by the show over the years who were great at high concept but rotten at writing, qv Nation, Terry) they were an embodiment of Pedler’s technophobia – Pedler fearing that pacemakers and transplantation would soon lead to human beings becoming nothing more than robots.

This technophobia might seem an odd component for a Doctor Who story – after all, the series’ protagonist is a scientist with a hugely inquiring mind, and one early proposal for the show which had featured the Doctor disliking technology had been rejected by Sydney Newman because he “didn’t want the Doctor to be a reactionary”. But while the Doctor is a free-spirited inquisitive investigator, the format of the show is of necessity a more conservative one than its lead character would suggest. If you’re doing an adventure story in the SF genre, you’re going to end up with lots of evil mad scientists, nuclear explosions, robots running amok and so on. At some point, even the most technophiliac protagonist is going to come to the conclusion that maybe there are some things with which man should not meddle.

With later Doctors this attitude would be refined, so that more specifically there are things with which man should not meddle (BTW, apologies for the sexist nature of the cliche) – The Doctor is allowed to meddle all he likes, and so are the Time Lords, should they wish to – but Troughton’s Doctor presents what now appears a contradictory figure – one who’s instinctively progressive, liberal, and anti-authoritarian (another way in which the regimented, controlled, Cybermen provide the perfect nemesis for him), but who’s seen enough damage caused by technology that he’s lost any faith in its ability to do anything other than destroy. This actually places him (oddly for a man who finds himself allied with the military on more than one occasion) in close ideological sympathy with the hippie movement, many of whom also mistrusted technology for roughly similar reasons (napalm, DDT and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation not giving science a particularly good image at the time).

While many of Troughton’s stories follow a predictable pattern – an isolated base under siege from some monster or other (one gets the feeling the production team had seen The Thing From Another World and decided just to do that over and over), The Invasion, Troughton’s last Cybermen story, departs from this formula only to set up another formula, one which would be followed for most of the next few years.

The formula – Earth in ‘the near-future’ (ie ‘the present day’ but with a little fudging ) gets invaded by some ‘orrible monster or other, aided by a human (or humanoid) ally on Earth, who the monsters double-cross as soon as the ally has completed his side of the bargain, before the invasion is repelled by UNIT (a multi-national armed force set up by the United Nations) with the help of the Doctor – quickly became even more tiring than the base-under-siege stories had, but here it’s a breath of fresh air, leading to some fantastic moments. The shot of the Cybermen marching down the steps in front of St Paul’s Cathedral is still one of those images that can send a shiver up the spine. And Tobias Vaughan (the head of International Electromatics, the Cybermen’s front company on Earth) is suitably creepy, thanks to a wonderful performance by Kevin Stoney.

In fact, all the performances are top-notch – Troughton is always great as the Doctor, and might be my favourite were more of his shows to survive (I always think of Hartnell, Troughton and the two Bakers as embodying the Doctor in their performances – everyone else is, at best, an actor playing the part of the Doctor, albeit sometimes playing the part very well), but Nicholas Courtney is great here as the Brigadier (in his second appearance – his first since being promoted from Colonel), and Peter Halliday is marvellous as the thug Packer, displaying an almost sexual excitement at being able to hurt people, and a childlike petulance when this pleasure is postponed.

There are tons of great moments in the story – my favourite is when for once one of the Doctor’s female companions gets to act like an intelligent human being, when Zoe destroys a computer by speaking an ALGOL program at it (and anyone who thinks this is unrealistic has never worked in IT – it seems to me *entirely* believable that a multinational computer company would develop a more sophisticated voice-recognition and natural-language parsing system than any yet invented, yet forget to block execution of arbitrary code by non-privileged users…) – and it’s visually gorgeous, thanks to director Douglas Camfield (and thanks to cutting corners where necessary – having Vaughan’s offices in different parts of the country be identical *almost* works as a reason to save sets).

However, like many of the early Whos, The Invasion is overlong at eight episodes – the first four of which don’t even feature the Cybermen at all. Several times in the DVD special features, people mention that the original synopsis by Kit Pedler only had enough material for a four-parter, and it does show. While I’m no fan of the one-shot episodes of nuWho, I do think that six episodes is the absolute longest a Doctor Who story should be, and even six-parters often felt padded. There’s only so many times the Doctor’s companions can be kidnapped, rescued, kidnapped again, escape, get exposited to, get into cases of mistaken identity etc in the average storyline (although at least this one features helicopters and boats in which to make daring escapes, rather than the ciched corridors so beloved of those who make fun of the show without watching it).

However, this very nearly *is* a six-parter – two of the episodes were ‘lost’ (the BBC’s euphemism for ‘set on fire’) – but the audio tracks were recorded by fans, sat by their TVs with tape recorders, and in an experiment for this DVD those two episodes were animated by Manchester cartoon company Cosgrove Hall (makers of Dangermouse, Chorlton and the Wheelies and the two Discworld cartoons among others).

While the results are TV-style limited animation rather than the full animation I would prefer, and obviously miss the physicality of Troughton’s performance in particular (the man had the best eyebrows since Alistair Sim), they work surprisingly well, and are certainly less jarring than the more common fan method of watching a video made up from photos taken on-set combined with the soundtrack. It’s a shame the DVD hasn’t sold especially well, as I’d like to see more of these done (especially as, since the animation’s all done on computer, a lot of the material that would be needed for other stories has already been created so the cost would be lower), but it doesn’t seem very likely at present…

A Big Finish A Week 15: Spare Parts

Posted in Doctor Who by Andrew Hickey on November 19, 2008

One of the things nuWho has done repeatedly since its inception is to base many of its stronger episodes on material from spin-off and ancillary media – it’s no coincidence that Dalek, Human Nature/Family Of Blood and Blink (the three most highly-regarded stories from the new series, as far as I can tell, among fans generally) are based on, respectively, a Big Finish audio, a novel and a short story from an annual. The surprising thing, actually, is that they’ve not done this more – there are nearly twenty years worth of novels and audio adventures that could be mined for TV episodes, and even discounting all the ones that are more obsessed with the prehistory of Gallifrey and the origins of the rod of Rassilon and other such nonsense, one would think there was enough interesting story material floating around to give the TV show material for a couple of years at least.

What’s even more surprising, though, is when the TV series takes inspiration from the ancillary media and then proceeds to discard everything that makes the inspiration effective, as they did with the two-part Cybermen origin story in series two of nuWho, which claimed to take inspiration from Marc Platt’s Spare Parts.

In fact, other than merely having the idea of doing an ‘origin of the Cybermen’, the two stories have nothing in common. nuWho’s Cyber-origin (set in an alternate universe, so both that and Spare Parts can be ‘canonical’ if you’re the kind of person who cares about that, which I’m not) actually tries to do something reasonably intelligent, updating the fear of transplantation that was the basis of the original Cybermen ( who made their debut at the turning point between William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton’s eras as the Doctor, a point where the show had a rather small-c conservative attitude towards technology, reflecting in a way the back-to-nature ideas that were becoming more popular in the culture of the late 60s) and replacing it with a fear of consumer electronics that is more appropriate to the current culture.

However, this idea soon gets swamped in a banal story which is mostly a third-rate rehash of Genesis Of The Daleks, but with Roger Lloyd Pack as the wheelchair-bound megalomaniacal evil genius (Trigger from Only Fools And Horses just doesn’t have the same menace as Davros…).

Spare Parts, the alleged inspiration for that story, is infinitely better, and is right up in the first rank of Big Finish audios with Doctor Who And The Pirates, The Kingmaker and a handful of others. But while those stories are mostly lighter, often comedies, Spare Parts is unremittingly bleak and downbeat – it has the spirit of Genesis Of The Daleks rather than taking images from it and jamming them into an unrelated plot. It may even be (whisper it) better than that classic TV story, if only because its shorter length (it’s one of the shorter Big Finish stories, coming in at just a touch over two hours) makes for a tighter story.

Platt has worked out a relatively consistent portrait of a post-ecological-collapse world, one with a higher level of technology than our own, but with a society that’s something close to that of Britain in the 1950s – something that is much better fitted to the post-apocalypse genre than you might imagine. ’50’s Britain was the polar opposite of 50s America (at least as it’s portrayed in the media and in the popular imagination) a time and place of austerity, of coping with inevitable decline, of putting a brave face on the loss of Empire, of rationing and shortages, of a society trying desperately and over-harshly to reimpose order after the disaster that was the Second World War. As a template for the last surviving city on an otherwise dead planet, it works surprisingly well (though Platt overplays this a bit by explicitly stating in the story that Mondas is like the 1950s on more than one occasion). So we have a black market flourishing here too – but this black market is in organs for transplanting. We have police on horseback – but the ‘police’ are prototype Cybermen.

Spare Parts, unlike Genesis Of The Daleks or the televised Cybermen origin story, is a tragedy in the classical mould – as soon as the Doctor and Nyssa arrive, the end is absolutely pre-ordained, and every step they take to prevent it actually brings it closer, but they can’t not try to prevent the creation of the Cybermen, even though they know the effort is futile.

Unlike the Fourth Doctor’s dilemma in Genesis, the Doctor here is dealing with actual humans – ones whose entire civilisation will almost certainly die if they don’t become Cybermen. It’s also significant that it’s specifically the fifth Doctor and Nyssa who are in this position – having seen their companion Adric killed by the Cybermen (in Earthshock) they have a more personal incentive to stop the creation of the Cybermen. So the Doctor is genuinely torn between his compulsion to prevent damage to time, his need to help people, and his desire to prevent the horrors the Cybermen will cause, in a way we’ve rarely seen before or since. And the people of Mondas are mostly aware of precisely how horrible their situation is, and powerless to change it – their individual actions, well-intentioned in the main (or at worst motivated by human emotions like jealousy of a big sister, or desire for a quiet life, rather than grand universal-domination schemes), all lead to a result of unimaginable horror.

The choice to use the sing-song voice of the Cybermen’s earliest appearances is also inspired – it’s infinitely spookier than the gruff “Excellent!” voice of the 80s versions.

While the story has some of the usual Big Finish flaws (terrible ‘comedy’ regional accents – I can’t be the only Northerner who finds their treatment of us rather patronising and insulting at times – and a couple of duff lines like “I’m freezing your assets”), it succeeds in creating a bleak, kitchen-sink-Sophocles atmosphere that is quite unlike anything else I can think of. And some of the images (the young woman, drafted and partially converted into a Cyberman, not fully comprehending her situation and wanting her father to see her in her new ‘uniform’ in particular) are absolutely haunting.

It’s not exactly a laugh-riot, and it’s not much *fun* to listen to, but if you want a tightly-scripted, well-performed, powerful audio play, there’s very little out there with anything like the quality of Spare Parts.

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