Tuesday, March 21, 2006

 

Doctor Who: The Scripts (Going Cheap)

No, I’m not flogging my collection. The other week I spotted Doctor Who: The Scripts 1974/5 in discount bookshop The Works, knocked down from £16.99 to £2.99. Bargain! If you have a Works nearby, pop out and pick up the full scripts for Tom Baker’s first season. I’m not on commission; it’s simply that these are terrific scripts, the stories that got me hooked on Who at an improbable age, and (unlike many cash-ins) this handsome hardback has a lot that’s of interest in its own right. Detailed introductions, notes on script changes, photos and Genesis of the Daleks. What more could you want? Well, personally I want at least the next two seasons’ worth available in the same splendid format, but as it was released in 2001 and clearly sold so poorly that it’s now being remaindered for next to nothing, I doubt I’ll get them :-(

It’s solid and well-produced, with a fair choice of black and white stills and the odd design sketch, but as you’d expect of a script book, it’s mainly about the words. There are five stories here, with details of many of the changes to the lines as they went along (probably the biggest of many improvements on the showier but less interesting book of scripts for the 2005 series), footnotes, transmission details, audience reaction, even notes on stories that were nearly made, but weren’t. All that, and surprisingly readable. The cover shows off not just a Dalek and a Cyberman – both back in the new series, along with Sarah Jane Smith, who accompanies the Doctor here – but an impressively boggling shot of Tom Baker, the same one familiar to all visitors of the barking mad but irresistible tribute site to Tom’s voice (and thanks to Will for letting me know about it).


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At the time, I enjoyed Doctor Who because it was unlike anything else, I loved the inquisitive wanderer as lead character, and, no bones about it, it was terrifying. Novelisations and DVDs are often easily to hand to enjoy these stories again, but (at the risk of sounding utterly decrepit) when I first watched them, that was all you got. I can still remember the recurring nightmares three of these stories gave me. You might think that's a bad thing, but in the days before video players nightmares were the only way to see Doctor Who again, and they were brilliant!

The stories of Doctor Who's twelfth season printed here have unusually strong connections to each other, not just through linking scenes but shared themes. Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, then the new producer and new script editor, were determined to make their mark with a year all about new birth and cold science. On screen, this is echoed by a stark monochrome, with the Doctor’s bright red jacket often the only splash of colour. Despite the appearance of sterility, every story features blasted worlds (from putative nuclear holocaust to one so long-dead it’s alive again) and some form of rebirth. Each script explores some form of rule by elites who believe science is the way forward, pitting alien / machine logic and intelligence against human instinct from many different angles. It constantly raises the question, does humanity deserve to survive? Is the survival proposed by faceless technocracies worth it? Each story is naked in portraying antagonists as fascists, and though fascism’s the defining opponent in British sci-fi television, they aren’t just clichés; added to the repeated motifs of torture, horror and rather phallic missiles, this is the season of Doctor Who if you want impressive speeches. You’ll find well-crafted set-piece speeches in most of the scripts, but the two that stand out in equal conviction but opposite morality are the Doctor’s soliloquy about humanity in The Ark in Space and Davros’ scenes in Genesis of the Daleks. Rarely has a script dared to make a fascist so compelling…

Robot
“There’s no point in being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”
The first story here is Tom Baker’s debut, and it’s often dismissed as very much a children’s serial – there’s some truth in that, with a lighter tone than the other scripts and a strong resemblance to a ‘Junior’ Avengers plot (while the novel based on it was indeed rewritten for younger readers as ‘Junior Doctor Who’). There’s more to it than that, though. Superficially similar to various Earthbound stories for the previous Doctor and (again) dismissed as the last shot of the outgoing producer, it gives the whole format a kick in the pants. On screen, you get the obvious impact of fantastic swirling title sequence and Tom Baker giving more sheer energy than you’ll ever see again, but it’s there in the script too. The Doctor’s energy is not just physical but intellectual, as his firecracker brain works out the plot, bewilders old friends and sweeps the villains before him. Add to that the dark side of the green parables often told in the previous few years, with a bunker full of establishment eco-fascists willing to bring down nuclear destruction on the world to ‘save’ it (I don’t think proto-Thatcher Miss Winters can be that concerned about global warming), and while it still has a strong moral sense of humanity and remains huge fun, it’s already pointing to a more dangerous series.

The script, borrowing freely from Frankenstein, King Kong and James Bond but pre-empting Isaac Asimov with a twist he didn’t come up with until a decade later (it’s pretty clever, you know, this show), has the disadvantage of not showing us a real masterpiece of design in the titular robot – the stills don’t do it justice – but also the advantage of missing out the robot's less than convincing on-screen growth to giant size. It’s to the script’s credit that it’s much better-structured than the special effects, and surely every IT tutor has at some stage reassured students with the Doctor’s line that computers are “very sophisticated idiots”. Well, I know I have. Either Part Two or Three was the first Who I ever saw, too, and I’m still watching 31 years later, so I never look kindly on reviews that say it’s not very impressive. It made a hell of an impression on me.

The Ark In Space
“It’s almost too horrible to think about.”
Robot was fun, but this is startling. Suddenly everything’s done with utter conviction. Pop the DVD on and you’ll find some towering lead performances, hugely memorable design, beautiful music and modelwork that’s… dreadful, but there’s new CGI to cover it up. Even the monsters really shouldn’t work, but do, largely because the script supplies characters that you believe in when horrible things happen to them, in a story that revels in having everything they do to make things better make things worse. Writer Robert Holmes has a love of language, contrasting humans 15,000 years in the future with the Doctor’s companions, down-to-Earth journalist Sarah Jane and endearingly Boys’ Own Harry, and creating a first episode that’s practically a two-hander just to delight in dialogue. It’s so good that it flows as if the scenes were full of people, and on screen pulls out of Tom Baker perhaps the best acting he’s ever done. Part of it’s that, in a story all about humanity, the Doctor here reasserts an alien point of view. After years when the previous Doctor was exiled to Earth constantly to save the place and harangue us into looking after it, the new regime starts off with a future where the Earth’s been destroyed and the Doctor doesn’t bat an eyelid. Subtle.

Focusing on the sleeping survivors of a global catastrophe, it’s more complex than a simple paean to humanity, despite the Doctor waxing lyrical on his favourite species. You root for the last remnants of Earth to survive, but not because of their natural charm; in order to survive, they’ve become uncompromising techno-fascists, and for a story where humanity triumphs over the insects, the humans themselves have insectlike specialisations (though the Doctor, of course, encourages them to reach beyond what they’re ‘meant’ to be). This whole season has an uncanny number of echoes in the plots and ethos of the 2005 series, and The Ark in Space most of all… Clearly a great favourite of Russell T Davies. The ending – where the monsters are destroyed despite no longer being a threat – has always disturbed me, and I suspect it was deliberately revisited in Coronation Street-beating The Christmas Invasion. At the close of that story by Davies, Harriet Jones, High Prime Minister, also blows up a retreating alien ‘threat’ and the Doctor turns on her for it; it’s usually been called a ‘Belgrano moment’, but I suspect the 1975 echo was just as influential, as was the Tony Martin-style murder of ‘shoot them in the back when they’re running away’. There’s much to admire in the human struggle here, though, with the character of Vira magnificent, especially as Holmes’ brilliant writing was usually tempered by an inability to write decent parts for women (though the script’s mixture of races contrasts with the on-screen casting, where the Doctor’s line “All colours and creeds finally forgotten” suggests they ‘forgot’ to include anyone who’s black, or blond, or who disagrees with them).

This was the first Doctor Who story that gave me those nightmares, but even the monsters that lived on in my head were less terrifying than the concept behind them, as they infect the human leader and he gradually becomes one of them. Ian Marter's novelisation towers above most of the series, expanding on the ‘body horror’ and taking as its single purpose to scare you out of your wits, which is probably why I read it so often. On screen, the half-transformed actor is suitably repulsive (if his acting’s variable, unlike most of them), and if anything he’s more poignant in the script, where he begs to die in a scene thought too disturbing to be transmitted. If that’s influenced by The Quatermass Experiment, the other strain is later borrowed by Alien, as the creatures grow within the sleeping humans in an unsettling twist on vampirism, feeding on the sleepers' intelligence as well as their bodies: “You mean Dune’s knowledge…” “Has been thoroughly digested, I’m afraid.” The cold, clean, clinical whiteness is just begging to be corrupted, as though maggots have taken over a hospital. There’s also much religious imagery, suggesting the Rapture (and horrid green corruption in Heaven is even more disturbing than in hospital). It’s such a confident change of direction for the series that it reads like a manifesto for a new and scarier show. Twelve years in, and Doctor Who is hitting its stride.

The Sontaran Experiment
“While you were dozing away, our people kept going, and they made it. We’ve got bases all across the galaxy now. You’ve done nothing for ten thousand years while we made an empire!”
This creepy little story is the shortest by far of the ’70s, as if to point out all the padding in its predecessors, and though its two episodes make up about the same length as a modern Who story, it uses its brevity very differently. Seen on TV, the most memorable elements are the remarkable performance and mask for the alien, and the blasted wasteland of Earth that’s almost a character in itself, but the script uses the landscape for the supremely eerie first episode much better than it constructs a rushed and lightweight conclusion (while the new series generally misses out on the ‘mysterious’ build-up in order to have a more satisfying main body). Despite being a very action-based, outdoor script, there’s some lovely byplay between the Doctor, Sarah and Harry, and after the last story made the sleepers vital, it’s a great twist that they’re as irrelevant a legend as Atlantis to the humans who’ve come back from out among the stars and aren’t taking any of “that ‘Mother Earth’ rubbish.” You can see that there’s going to be a clash when Earth is resettled between the pioneers who got their hands dirty and the rigidly pure sleepers who’ll see them as deviant scum.

The villain is a Sontaran, one of the series’ best-known aliens (shiveringly revealed at the cliffhanger, though the title is just a bit of a giveaway - Richard suggests ‘The Human Experiment’, more appropriate in many ways), and almost everything comes together to make him work. The actor is superb, the mask is alien and expressive, and the characterisation unnervingly references Dr Mengele in his experiments to see what makes humans tick. Despite this grim conviction, the script really doesn’t know what to do with him, and the ending hurtles towards a cop-out, as this feared military race back off from invading purely because the Doctor’s polished one of them off, giving them the impression of being remarkably cowardly or ludicrously bureaucratic (he didn’t get a chance to send back his paperwork). I love stories set on the fringes of great events, but this lacks proportion, as if an invasion of a country was called off because a small child in a tiny village there complained about a money-spider in her bedroom. Still, before all that lets it down it does a great job of building worlds, not just the howling, barren Earth in front of the camera but the culture of the humans who’ve returned to it evoked in the script.

Genesis of the Daleks
“Davros, if you had created a virus in your laboratory, something contagious and infectious, that killed on contact, a virus that would destroy all other forms of life... Would you allow its use?”
If you’re only aware of one Doctor Who story, it could easily be this one, the most-repeated, most-merchandised of all the original series, including books, videos, CDs, LPs, cassettes, this script book and, soon, a DVD, meaning some fans of a certain age know much of it word for word and can’t help using lines like “Thank you, that’s what I wanted to know” or “This seems an opportune moment to end this session” in conversation. Yes, I’m like that. There’s also a chicken-and-egg connection to it being regularly voted among the series’ greatest stories, as the Doctor is sent back to a terrible war in order to prevent the creation of the Daleks by the wizened, half-Dalek-wheelchair-bound scientist Davros.

Well, I’ll spring no revisionist surprises; it really is good, and though the lead actors, music and dark direction for the story as produced are all outstanding, the script’s rock-solid – though this book reveals much of the grim war-movie style was added by the director, the Nazi parallels are all in here, and a 2006 perspective may find something additionally disturbing in the way Davros essentially kills off his own people to stop them setting up an independent tribunal over his weapons of mass destruction. It’s deeply grounded in the morality of the story, rather than just giving glib satirical asides, and it focuses on the character of Davros. On screen, he’s superbly realised by mask and actor, but he succeeds still more through perhaps the best script given to any Doctor Who villain as he orchestrates both his ascent and his own destruction in a cleverly truncated portrait of a fascist’s rise to power. It’s like an historical thriller in the Bunker. Davros is a frighteningly plausible and often audacious political operator, unlike the stereotypes who usually pass for politicians in Who. I’ve given quite a lot of speeches, and his oratory is so well written and delivered that you could imagine it working on a platform or in quiet debate to persuade people. Er, if you were a fascist megalomaniac, obviously (though that gives an unfair impression; most of the time he’s terribly calm and in control, which both makes him appear serious and gives plenty of room to go a bit further towards the end. A young general who raves on, by contrast, is someone nobody takes seriously). After centuries of nuclear and chemical warfare, his race have been turning out the resulting mutants, yet Davros experiments to find where the mutation is leading – yes, all right, writer Terry Nation had some strange ideas about evolution going in a straight line to a set ‘goal’ – and then creates a tank-like machine to protect them and enable them to exterminate their enemies…

Despite a great number of action scenes, including an unwise one with some giant clams better read than watched, the story turns on its dialogue and moral arguments, and perhaps the most compelling in all Doctor Who is one where the Doctor teases out of Davros what he really wants the Daleks for, whether it’s survival or power (and if elements seem familiar from The Brothers Karamazov and Bride of Frankenstein, why not borrow from the best?). There’s a slow-burning moral message running through it that all the characters who are absolutely certain in themselves do terrible things so doubt is fundamentally vital, a more Liberal message than most normally see in it. I’ve always thought the Doctor’s agonised questioning himself over whether to commit genocide even of the most evil monsters, “Do I have the right?” was crying out to be a cliffhanger instead of the predictable threat to his life that was used, and it’s interesting to see here that it was scripted that way (I suppose it’s too much to hope for that the DVD might have the ‘proper’ cliffhanger edit as an extra?). The Daleks themselves are conditioned to obey unquestioningly and to hate every creature that is different, and – appropriately for a war story where the living beings within them are so central – both in the script and in superb photography come across more like tanks than ever before. Whichever way you encounter it, it’s a stunning story, and hurrah for a moral dilemma from Terry Nation more complex than ‘Bang bang bang! And hey, kids, war is hell.’

Revenge of the Cybermen
“I wanted to free them from this tyranny of dark, dripping rock.”
Another iconic Doctor Who monster, another desperate fight for survival at any cost, another face-off between competing political heavyweights… Everything went so right with the previous story that you’d swear it has a picture of this one in its attic. Watch it and you’ll find the oddly piece of stylishly clunky Seventies design, but tired actors, poor music, a kebab impersonating a planet and some of the worst matches between footage shot on location and in the studio that’ll ever completely fail to fool you, but even if the production had been firing on all cylinders it would have had a job to conceal such a feeble script, though there are moments where it’s so steeped in death it almost grabs you. This script book reveals the many hoops it jumped through before it got into such shape as it finished in, but even Holmes and Hinchcliffe fumble this one. I once wrote a long review that’s both a send-up of the story itself and a send-up of the way fans find elaborate excuses when something doesn’t turn out as well as it should, along with, I admit it, that old chestnut ‘how I’d have done it better’ - both alien races in this one should be a perfect fit for the survivalist themes, but the writers don't seem to have noticed - and the moral is simply that anyone can have an off-day.

The devious infighting among the scared aliens hiding underground is hardly John le Carré; the script makes little of potentially interesting clashes between security and liberty - or at least trade - and while the leader’s actions against his rival are rather like sending in the army on the Mayor of London, the parallel’s less striking when he looks like Father Christmas, the rest look like Godfrey from Dad’s Army, and none of them are doing much acting. I’ll never forget the sinking feeling on returning to it as an adult as the usually reliable Kevin Stoney delivers the line “It’s going to hit!” not with the screaming panic of the novel, but in a tone of faint disinterest. The only two watchable characters are the only two who aren’t desperately bland, Vorus the bombastic nationalist who’s a sort of alien David Owen and Kellman the twisty double agent (I remember once writing a story about a traitor for whom I combined the names of two Doctor Who characters who sold out to the Cybermen to call ‘Kellway’. How I laughed when the bastard candidate who defected and derailed our Euro- and by-elections in 1994 was a Cllr Kellaway). Even the regulars aren’t as sparky as usual, with the Doctor acting out of character with oh-so-convenient bits of technobabble instead of clever solutions – the transmat as cure-all, suspiciously not used that way in The Ark in Space – or callously torturing Kellman.

The story’s ultimate failing, though, lies in the Cybermen. When a tale’s just an excuse to bring some old monsters back and it makes a terrible hash of it, there’s not a lot left. They’re very badly acted, but then, they’re useless in the script. Highly logical half-man, half-machines kill off a load of humans instead of turning them into spare parts, flounce about histrionically, hatch absurd plans and don’t listen to problems with them, and even manage to develop an allergy to gold. Initially they were a technological horror, mummy-wrapped zombies from a vampire planet, but here it’s forgotten that they’re basically dead men walking and the toxicity of gold isn’t there as a vampire allegory, but for sheer convenience. Sigh. Oh, and at the finish most of the interesting characters are dead and it’s all resolved by two different sets of people playing Atari games, which is exactly as exciting as it sounds. The ‘climax’ is so abrupt it’s more of an embarrassed stop. I was so enthused when I first saw this that it retains a special place in my heart and I never fail to enjoy watching it, but even its Mum would have to admit that it’s rubbish.
“My colleague is a doctor of medicine, and I am a Doctor of many things...”
I was coming up to three and a half when I saw all this, and I’ve got no idea what my life would have been like if I hadn’t. Tom Baker’s first three seasons are written through me like a stick of rock, and the Doctor, Harry and Sarah seem as natural a team as I could imagine. Season Twelve here is usually portrayed as the poor relation of the next two, but it got me hooked and has a lot of strength on its own, not just as a jarring change from the previous Doctor and ‘the start of Hinchcliffe’, with only one story really failing its potential. On screen, it's the cold, monochromatic style that hits you, but the design theme reflected the scripted themes of fascistic elites placing survival at all costs over what makes us human, and this script book does a great job of putting them all together: the nuclear blackmailers out to ‘reform’ society on scientific lines; the chosen survivors set to resettle a world; the alien mechanically testing humanity to destruction; the ultimate form of scientific ‘progress’ overwhelming individual feeling and decision; the battle between humanity and its half-machine ‘descendants’. I love this period. It scared me as a kid, inspired me growing up, and I still find new ideas in it today. What more does a television series need?

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