Friday, April 02, 2010


Flash! Douglas Adams Meets Professor Quatermass

It’s an exciting day for sci-fi; you know’ll that Doctor Who returns tomorrow evening, and that tonight the final series of Ashes To Ashes begins. But there are also several other goodies on today which have had less of an advertising blitz. The three closest to my heart are on Radio 4 at 11 this morning – The Doctor and Douglas, celebrating Douglas Adams’ work on Doctor Who – and then competing for your attention at 1.30am on BBC2 and ITV1, the movies The Quatermass Experiment (five years to the day since BBC4’s later remake) and the fabulous Flash Gordon.

Douglas Adams and Doctor Who

Just as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy kicked off on radio in 1978, Douglas Adams finally had a Doctor Who script accepted for Tom Baker’s Doctor – The Pirate Planet, one of the finest stories in one of Doctor Who’s finest series, 1978-79’s The Key To Time. So impressive were his ideas, and so far undiscovered were Douglas’ unhappy relationships with deadlines, that he was offered the job of script editor on the show – a slightly less powerful and certainly less prestigious but in most ways identical job to the modern Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat ‘lead writer’ / Executive Producer. His year as script editor, Season 17, still splits Doctor Who fans to this day; cheap and silly, or witty and brilliant? It’s certainly cheap – late ’70s inflation had just inflicted the series’ biggest ever budget cuts – but I love it to bits (and I’m one of the very few fans who seems to love the 1980-81 right after Douglas left, in many ways a reaction against the season before, every bit as much. They tend to be a bit polarising).

When another of Doctor Who’s most wonderfully playful authors, David Fisher, wasn’t able to do the rewrites on one of his two scripts for Douglas’ time as script editor, Douglas and producer Graham Williams took over the redrafting, lending the resultant story a unique collaborative quality. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are both effortlessly wonderful in it (or at least they seem to be; by all accounts they put the effort into rewriting large chunks of it in rehearsals, too), Julian Glover is a superb villain, the musical score is gorgeous, much of it is filmed in Paris – in Paris! – and it’s the only story of the year that looks like it’s had much money spent on it. Thanks to an ITV strike meaning it was on against nothing but BBC2 and the test card, it won the highest viewing figures in Doctor Who’s history. It’s called City of Death, and it’s still today one of the most highly-regarded of all Doctor Who stories (but can I be heretical and say that Douglas’ The Pirate Planet is even better?).

The Pirate Planet is available on DVD as part of the marvellous The Key To Time box set – recently reissued, so if you hadn’t got it already, you can now – and City of Death, too, is out on DVD (complete with opinion from Steven Moffat, who likes City of Death but thinks Douglas wasn’t a good script editor. In another strike of heresy, I disagree with the Grand Moff, but I don’t have time to go into why here, except to say, watch his stories and aren’t the scripts great?). Of the other stories Douglas script-edited, Destiny of the Daleks is already available on DVD, the extras including grand tales of Douglas’ drinking tours, while another was released just this very week in a box with two other stories. The latest Doctor Who DVD boxed set is titled Myths and Legends, and includes three stories which have in common that each was inspired by Greek myths and each is a bit rubbish not completely at the top end of my favourite Doctor Whos. It’s all a cunning plan to get you to watch them first, and so lower your impossibly high expectations of the new series, you see. The Horns of Nimon, however, is by far the most entertaining of the three for me, and while the budget may be showing and a few of the performances are a little de trop, it’s worth it for Lalla Ward’s blistering Romana, one of the few times the Doctor’s companion is essentially playing the Doctor (while he dosses about), and – as you might expect from rather good former script editor Anthony Read writing the script and Douglas Adams overseeing it – a strong underlying story and some very sharp lines.

Next month, The Creature From the Pit is to be released on DVD, possibly the most hated of all the stories Douglas had a hand in, regarded as terrible science fiction with an embarrassingly badly designed monster. While the eponymous ‘creature’ is indeed hilarious, he’s terribly well-characterised, while the Doctor, the principal villains and Geoffrey Bayldon’s supporting character are superb. It’s a terrific script from David Fisher, too, an intelligent fable about free trade – and you don’t get many of them to the pound – that deconstructs the ‘monster’ story. In short, buy it and make up your own mind, and I’m confident that you’ll find every other fan on Earth is wrong and I am right that is in fact brilliant. Yes, I’m coming out heretic all over today (and speaking of heretics, look out for one of Oolon Colluphid’s books turning up in one of Douglas’ stories, and find out for yourself how important Douglas turned out to be to Richard Dawkins). That just leaves the as-yet-unreleased Nightmare of Eden, which again doesn’t look terribly impressive but is rather a good story, and Shada.

You Can Look at the Lost Bits For Free…

Shada… Shada… Shada… That one went a bit wrong. Douglas’ six-part finale was only half-shot before a BBC strike called it off for ever. Ish. I have to say, it’s far from Douglas’ best script, but it has its moments, so there are two versions worth looking out for. BBC Video released the half of it that had been completed along with some linking narration from Tom Baker a couple of decades ago, and hopefully that, too, will one day emerge on DVD. Alternatively, the lovely people at Big Finish produced an audio adaptation a few years ago starring Paul McGann instead of Tom, and while it’s not nearly as much fun as the ‘original’, it’s not at all bad, and has the undeniable virtue of being finished. Best of all, you can watch their Shada for free on the BBC website, with some flash animation making it a jerky sort-of cartoon and a fabulous song from Lalla Vs Kylie (click “Full screen” if it doesn’t work immediately; if anyone can save it onto a DVD for me, I’d be terribly grateful)!

Douglas never novelised his Doctor Who scripts – in part because he was rather busy avoiding other publishers’ deadlines, in larger part because Target Books couldn’t quite come to terms with a multi-million-selling author’s advance – but, though you can’t technically read them, you can in some practical ways manage it. Douglas, an early practitioner of recycling, put large amounts of City of Death and much larger ones of Shada into some of his books, notably Dirk Gently, while a rejected Doctor Who script forms the basis of Life, the Universe and Everything (as I wrote yesterday). You can also read ebooks of his three Doctor Who stories and the only other two Twentieth-Century Who TV stories that were never released by Target, available as labours of love from New Zealand fan site TSV. They’re not a patch on Douglas’ writing, but some of them are by professional authors themselves, and they’re not bad (though steer clear of another fan adaptation of City of Death produced by Zerinza magazine; I read it once, and it was ghastly).

Anyway, 11 o’clock’s caught up with me, so turn on Radio 4 and you’ll hear Jon Culshaw probably going through all the same sort of things.

There’s newer Doctor Who on BBC3 tonight, of course – a double bill of David Tennant’s grand finale, The End of Time, to get us all ready for Matt Smith tomorrow – but if you want to go back to the week when David got the job, how about The Quatermass Experiment – and if you want to see Timothy Dalton being another aristocratic bastard, how about Flash Gordon…?

The Quatermass Experiment

The first ever BBC TV science fiction – in fact, the BBC’s first ever specially commissioned original drama serial – was written by another of the Twentieth Century’s most inspired authors, Nigel Kneale, back in 1953. Like Shada, though for different reasons, you can only see parts of the original, and yet there are remakes of this, too. The original series in fact went out live, television being in its infancy, and they only recorded the first third of it as it was broadcast (you can still see that much on the terrific DVD The Quatermass Collection, along with a pdf of the script).

If you’ve seen The Quatermass Experiment today, the chances are it was one of the two remakes: one a movie made in the mid-’50s by Hammer Films; the other a live broadcast that took place on BBC4 on 2nd April 2005. That was just days after news broke that Christopher Eccleston was to leave Doctor Who almost as soon as he’d started, and rumours abounded that David was to get the job. So, when his Dr Briscoe walks on to tend to a patient with a strange, alien infection in BBC4’s The Quatermass Experiment, Jason Flemyng’s Professor Quatermass very deliberately greets him not with the scripted “Hello, Gordon,” but with “Hello, Doctor.”

By one of those lovely quirks of TV scheduling, Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment is on tonight at 1.35am on BBC2. You can celebrate today’s Quatermass anniversary by making a double bill of them to see how they compare: the 2005 version is available to watch for free on MSN.

I’ve written about all four of the Quatermass serials before, and while the existing Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit are still among some of the best TV ever produced, I can’t help wondering what the rest of The Quatermass Experiment would have been like: the first episode is rather staid; the second suddenly leaps forward in pace and quality; what might the other four have done? But, instead, there are two complete (though both hugely abridged from the original) versions to judge. The film is often well-shot and atmospheric; it’s a thriller with a superbly played hunted man. But the star casting of Quatermass himself is a terrible mistake (Nigel Kneale’s views about actor Brian Donlevy were, on a good day, only just printable), while too much of the script becomes generic B-movie – not least the ending, which while exciting, entirely misses the point. The BBC4 version, on the other hand, is occasionally a little slow and worthy and, being a live production, it’s a little too obvious that most of it’s taking place in the same warehouse. It does, however, have an excellent cast – Jason Flemyng, David Tennant and Indira Varma, as well as a notably fine performance from Mark Gatiss – and the last ten minutes or so are absolutely gripping, remaining entirely true to the human spirit of the original script.

One day, I might watch the surviving two episodes of the 1953 serial, then the middle of the Hammer movie, then the climax of the BBC4 remake and see if that adds up to the best approximation of the story as written…

Flash Gordon

Hmm, well, this hasn’t gone in a flash, has it? I was dashing to write a few paragraphs before 11, and now I’ve listened to that Douglas programme – listen again on the BBC iPlayer if you missed it – which was just as I thought it would be, with a particularly fine set of interviewees and several opinions I disagreed with, while this article has grown from something crawling along my arm to the size of Westminster Abbey (if not the Tate Modern). But there was one more thing I was going to talk about for tonight. ITV1 is showing the 1980 Flash Gordon movie at 1.30am. I love Buster Crabbe and Charles Middleton; I sigh with disdain at macho later remakes; but this brightly coloured camp extravaganza is one of the most entertaining films ever made.

Peter Wyngarde steals it from behind a mask as the evil Klytus; Max von Sydow has the time of his life as the louchest emperor in the galaxy; the gorgeous red and gold design and Queen and Howard Blake’s score makes it sumptuous sensory treat. There are some lines you must know from the Queen title song that you can’t resist saying along, I know – put your hands on your hips to do the fabulous Kala:
“What do you mean, Flash Gordon approaching?”
And surely most people watching will fancy either Ornella Muti or Sam J Jones? Flash flashing those tiny leather shorts and that hairy chest. Mmmmm. Er… Where was I? While Star Wars was surely a better film, and a great modern legend, this film realised that it could do one thing better: never mind the purity of the Force, Flash Gordon positively drips with pervy sex, and yet never quite enough that could be complained about, so I could still be taken to the cinema to see it aged 8. Fabulous.

But best of all are three screen legends giving enormous and each differently entertaining performances: Topol’s Dr Zarkov, a performance more like Tom Baker’s Doctor than any other I can think of on the big screen; future Bond Timothy Dalton, who on being cast in the campest film of the year as a character in green tights, under the mistaken impression this would be something as gritty as the same director’s Get Carter, tries single-handedly to make the movie macho and serious, shouting random swear-words – in fact, all the film’s swear-words – such as “Freeeeeze! …You bloody bastards!” and as a result becomes more hilariously camp than the ones camping it up; and, of course, in the role he was born for, Brian Blessed. Oh, Brian Blessed. All together now:

Super fact: both Flash Gordon and The Horns of Nimon feature soon-to-be-Blue-Peter-presenters in scenes of deadly peril! Only one of them survives…

Doctor Who on BBC7

Oh, and tune in to BBC7 of an evening for more Doctor Who on the wireless, too. On Sunday at 6pm and 12am there’s the second part of former Doctor Who producer and writer Barry Letts’ memoir, Who and Me; on weeknights at 6.30pm and 12.30am Tom Baker reads Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of Tom’s first (and my first) story, Doctor Who and the Giant Robot.

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