Saturday, October 29, 2011

 

DVD Detail: Doctor Who – The Masque of Mandragora

As the nights draw in for the spookiest Saturday of the year, what could be more appropriate to turn to than Doctor Who’s finest and most Gothic season? First broadcast in Autumn 1976, Doctor Who – The Masque of Mandragora opened an outstanding set of stories with Tom Baker’s Doctor a freethinking adventurer fighting both mental and political tyranny in the form of terrific villains and superstition incarnate. In the rich period setting of the Italian Renaissance, the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith face scheming, swordplay and masked monks as they’re caught in a dark world of intrigue and sorcery…

Doctor Who’s finest season so far is its Fourteenth, a year of dark religion broadcast across 1976 and 1977. It opens with Elisabeth Sladen at the Doctor’s side for the penultimate time of her original run, and this story should feel secretly familiar to you if you’ve been watching her starring in The Sarah Jane Adventures. When BBC4 showed her final story (until all the others) this May, my review of The Hand of Fear included my overview of Season Fourteen and its uncannily echoing themes under producer Philip Hinchcliffe – who wanted to expand the show’s horizons – and lead writer Robert Holmes – who wanted to “frighten the little buggers to death”. The Masque of Mandragora isn’t the season’s height, but it lays out those themes like a declaration of intent, even down to setting itself during the Enlightenment: the leading battlefield is for and within the mind, here championing rationalism against a whopping great metaphor for superstition; characters and societies strive to grow up, with Marco’s fight here to outgrow his uncle mirrored on a grand scale in Mandragora’s desire to keep humanity as superstitious children; and religion underpins the story’s Gothic setting of new and old world despising and deposing one another. After a couple of years of exploring the themes in unfamiliar framings, masses of monks coursing through secret passages in late Medieval Italy made this Doctor Who’s most flagrantly Gothic story so far – only to be topped a couple of stories later as this portion of the series reaches its crescendo… Back in September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine Issue 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – voting The Masque of Mandragora up to number 85. I might put it ten or so places lower, largely because the competent but uninspired director doesn’t quite fulfil its potential, but either way it’s an excellent little story that takes one of the series’ firmest philosophical stands.

While this ‘taster’ may not be short, incidentally, my policy in these is not to be too spoilery, in order than you can read on without fear of finding out too many key twists from the end.

That Golden Moment
“It takes away from Man the only thing worth having… A sense of purpose, what else? The ability granted to every intelligent species to shape its own destiny. Once let Mandragora gain control, and Man’s ambition wouldn’t stretch beyond – beyond the next meal. It’d turn you into sheep. Idle, mindless, useless sheep.”
The story’s most breathtaking moment for me has always been the cliffhanger closing Part Three, offering a memorably scary death, fabulous rolled Rs and a major turning point. But for most of those reasons, it’s too much of a spoiler to describe here. A couple of scenes from Part One spring to mind – the old Duke’s deathbed openly establishing one of the story’s key plots while more subtly setting out the other, the Doctor’s arrival at the court with a warning and quicksilver wit – but it’s a few minutes into Part Four that the Doctor muses on the philosophical battle that’s going to expand into the slightly ungainly finale. The science is a bit uncertain, but Tom’s dynamic, and the philosophy spot-on.

In 1492, “the period between the dark ages of superstition and the dawn of a new reason”, at the court of one of Italy’s most progressive Princes, two gatherings are planned: one, of the greatest scholars of the new sciences looking for that new birth of reason; the other, a bloodthirsty Roman cult aiming to climb out of its long death to hold Earth under its spell. Yes, it’s the battle of the worldviews, each with a champion from the stars – angel or alien, demon or energy force, according to ideological stance. And unlike the Mandragora Helix’s titanic booming voice, the Doctor has a sense of humour, which proves he’s on the right side. Even as he uses a primitive telescope to calculate exactly when the Helix will be in position to make its attempt, even as he asks for the simple tools he’ll need for his last dangerous gamble to draw off its power, even after he grimly tells Sarah Jane exactly what control by this alien force would mean were it to become humanity’s substitute for science… He goes to sleep standing up, steals the scene utterly from the poor discombobulated Prince and replies to his worry about putting off the (besieged) masque with gay abandon:
“You’re going to hold a dance?”
The signal for the attack – or when the stars are right – is to be a total eclipse, foretold as “When Mandragora swallows the Moon…” Though it’s much less vivid now, this story was made only a few years after we had first landed on the Moon, when that was a potent symbol of our reaching outward; Mandragora swallowing it was not just a suitably mystical-sounding way to describe the eclipse, but a metaphor for what it would do to our aspirations. The story’s coda famously predicts that the Helix will be in position to try again five hundred years later – how disheartening that by the end of the Twentieth Century, nobody was going to the Moon any more, and humanity seemed to have lost interest in going anywhere else. Maybe the Helix did come back and succeeded in putting our ambition to sleep after all?

Something Else To Look Out For

Often said to be his favourite story, The Masque of Mandragora feels like producer Philip Hinchcliffe’s manifesto for what the Doctor’s about – he’s an intellectual, and everything about it says so: setting; plot; theme; TARDIS reinvented as wood-panelled study; even the new titles font (the stylish DellaRobbia, named appropriately for an Italian Renaissance artist, becomes the look of the programme’s credits through most of Tom; luckily not the similarly Italian-named Times New Roman, for which I have an irrational dislike). And yet he’s also a swashbuckling adventurer, turning his hand to duelling as easily as engineering, dashing through a crowded market and winding terraces that you might think Italian if you’d never seen The Prisoner, racing along on horseback in exciting stunts that you might think entirely convincing if you’d never seen Tom Baker. And if you want to relaunch the Doctor as a Renaissance man, where better than in the Renaissance? The story isn’t perfect – despite the philosophical power, lush feel and obvious inspiration from The Masque of the Red Death, it lacks some of the bite of the season’s finest stories to come, and of course the edge of the immediately preceding season finale, The Seeds of Doom; but as that story was set on going as far as it possibly could (if not necessarily in the right direction, as I posted in a somewhat overlong reply to TARDIS Eruditorum yesterday) thanks to its thrilling but ultraviolent director, anything would feel like it was pulling back a bit afterwards. So it’s a good job this is moving forward, too.

The new approach is greatly aided by Tom Baker’s performance, carrying off his serious and playful sides with equal assurance as his Doctor comes out of what had almost seemed a year-long sulk. The orange is mightier than the sword; a lion peeps over an altar; he gets to tell Hieronymous, “come off it – drop all that bosh”. He gets a great scene towards the end of Part One, taking responsibility for having taken the Helix to Earth – like Adam, or Prometheus – and trying to warn Count Federico and his court of the terrible danger. That should imply a grimly serious attitude from the Doctor, yet wonderfully as the toadies first wait to see the Count’s reaction, then laugh on cue with their lord, and he’s then presented with the local astrologer to test his credentials, we see the Doctor thinking on his feet – first cheerily convincing, then sharp and sombre when he’s not getting through (“Because you don’t have a future…”), then disgustedly swatting down all Hieronymous’ nonsense just to exercise his wits (“All it requires is a quick imagination and a glib tongue”). And it’s a great scene for Federico, too, in his casual power and ability to size up a character – if not to understand anything that challenges his worldview – even down to rewarding that mocking tongue with that prize so rarely given by villains, prompt execution (and it’s not his fault, of course, that it inevitably fails).

With the Doctor so heavily featured, Sarah Jane’s role is a little more muted than in some stories, though Elisabeth Sladen finds yet another – and perhaps her creepiest – way to play ‘brainwash woman’, as well as all the usual spikiness, exploration and not really taking to being laid out for sacrifice. Pre-empting The End of the World’s definitive Twenty-First Century explanation of how the TARDIS lets its crew understand any language, this story is infamously the one where Bob Holmes decided it was time to say out loud those questions everyone put to him in the BBC canteen, as not only does Federico notice the Doctor’s peculiar clothes but also Sarah Jane – or something else through her – asks how she can speak Italian. It’s rather out of character for Tom’s Doctor (if not Pertwee’s) to object to questions, but he takes this not as a sign of her journalistic inquisitiveness but a dark portent that she’s been hypnotised. Again. Even the TARDIS gets a new start, for both practical (as revealed in the extra features) and aesthetic reasons, with the chutzpah of pretending that its new dusty wooden control room was in fact an old one we’d seen previous Doctors potter about in. It’s an evocative design by Barry Newbery, at once a Sherlockian study and a little chapel (his arched Palace corridors, cleverly theatrical temple effect and simple but inspired way of disguising the Village Town Hall are great bits of design, too). Also of note on the production side, the screaming masks of the Cult of Demnos are very effective, particularly the cruelly opulent design for their leader, though Dudley Simpson’s musical score is a little too reminiscent of several of his earlier contributions (Pyramids of Mars in the sacrifice, The Ark In Space as Sarah Jane’s bewitched), if still with some lovely deep chiming as the Brotherhood plot or spidery percussive music while Sarah Jane’s stalking the Doctor, as well as rather a beautiful arching version of his Doctor’s Theme shortly after they land.

A Gothic Story

Tom Baker’s first three seasons, led by Hinchcliffe and Holmes, are often referred to as “Gothic Horror”; this story, and this first half of Season Fourteen, is the clearest point to get across what’s meant by that (if you have a copy of Doctor Who Magazine 282, you might also read Alan Barnes’ excellent article Tales From the Crypt). Though the Gothic elements start off very early in this three-year period, perhaps disguised by the relative late-coming of dark shadows and travels back to older times, they reach a peak here in dark religion, ancient tunnels and mad monks. Gothic scholars would instantly recognise that this story is all about the Old World versus the New Age with the Renaissance itself at stake, that it cuts a fine line between exploiting the supernatural and explaining it, and that it’s overflowing with the Gothic trappings of Medieval Europe, alchemy, tyranny (even by the wicked uncle of the rightful heir), dungeons, torture, ancient passageways and rituals… Though, ironically, the force of irrationalism is named for a play by that arch-rationalist of the time Niccolò Machiavelli, in one of many crafty references by writer and Renaissance academic Louis Marks (whose earlier Day of the Daleks also explored issues of free will versus determinism).
“You mean they could dominate Earth now through an ancient religion?”
The anti-Catholic excesses of Gothic literature are here, too, if masked – which makes it ironic that I felt it was speaking to me at the time, brought up a good half-Catholic boy and as steeped in religion as this year of Doctor Who, if of a rather more modern sort than hinted at here. Of course, the evil Roman religion through which Mandragora will dominate the world is the “pagan” Cult of Demnos and not any vastly larger and more temporally powerful denomination from that city, but to ask the question ‘Why didn’t Mandragora pick the big one?’ is to realise that it’s less an opponent than a stand-in. It’s not a very opaque attack on organised religion: Federico blatantly has in place of a chaplain his “Court Astrologer” Hieronymous (named for the monkly Catholic preacher who effectively ruled Florence around this time), with a non-speaking ‘proper’ priest seen at the old Duke’s deathbed for approximately seven seconds purely, I suspect, for the producer to establish plausible deniability (the Doctor even hangs a lamp on this later with his “No priest available. Will a brother do?”); the Cult is a Latin-chanting mass of monks; and the leader of the Brethren standing in a pillar of fire from above to lay hands on his followers and pass on the unholy spirit seemed entirely plausible to my half-Baptist side. It’s tempting to believe, too, that ex-monk Tom Baker’s newly fired-up performance had something to do with his seeing exactly the same quality in the script, and understanding it all too well.

The TARDIS landing in the crystal spiral mountains of Mandragora – in the void – amid unearthly sound makes an intriguing start to the story, though if the sound design is more impressive than the visuals, they are at least memorable (and more so than the Mandragora energy on the prowl; the DVD range seemed oddly unwilling to offer alternate CGI for Hinchcliffe’s stories as it did for, say, similarly underwhelming effects on The Time Warrior). Resisting its dizzying hypnotic spell from the first by saying the alphabet backwards seems an appropriate mix of fighting it with learning and turning a catechism upside-down, too. But that’s only the prologue; it’s when we go to Italy that the story really kicks off, in the perfect setting for this battle of ideas.
“You can no more tell the stars than you can tell my chamber-pot!”
It’s all beautifully filmed, with what appears to be a medieval Italian town (and works damned hard to stop you recognising it) and glamorous wooded paths (after rain, suggesting they’re British, with exotic rhododendrons which suggest childhood holidays to me, though admittedly no closer to the Mediterranean than Watford). There are even bustling street scenes! Doctor Who seems to mix rather well with Italy – The Romans and The Fires of Pompeii two thousand years ago, The Vampires of Venice and a bit of City of Death in roughly the same Renaissance period, while even the series’ first historical, Marco Polo, had a Venetian lead character. And though several of those later stories were in fact shot abroad and one even in Italy, this is still the one which for me feels most Italian, with its gorgeous architecture, lavish costumes and a setting that’s right at the heart of the story. Though it’s amusing that the DVD picture’s been cleaned up so perfectly that while Sarah Jane calls it “Nice, warm…” you can also see Tom’s breath steaming. Oddly, only one of the actors makes a stab at an Italian accent, the others ranging from RSC to fearful Cockney.

People usually kick against the aristocracy in Doctor Who, but its casual power is everywhere here without comment, from Count Federico’s chess match to nice Prince Giuliano casually ordering his companion to fetch wine. Only the outsiders the Doctor and Hieronymous fail to defer, and both are nearly killed for it. The court intrigue is very well choreographed, with different guards crossing over each other in a physical symbol of the intercutting political plots. The scene introducing the main characters over a death is especially well-written: the Count enters late for the late Duke, prompting a confrontation between him and his nephew Marco over whether he was “enjoying some sport” which clearly sets up the two rivals for the Dukedom; but while that’s the focal point, other, more important lines from subtly different opposing sides almost toss away what the story’s really about:
“Many do not believe it – but the decrees of Fate will be obeyed. We – have no choice.”

“You’re alone, now, Giuliano. Your uncle is strong and ruthless.”
“You forget, Marco, I am Duke now… We make our own lives, Marco. Not the stars.”
Young Prince Giuliano (Gareth Armstrong) and his “companion” “dear Marco” (the now much more famous Tim Piggott-Smith) are Doctor Who’s first obviously gay couple, though the most suggestive scene is when he’s clearly rather taken with the Doctor at first sight: “A most uncommon spy…” No wonder that Marco spends much of the final episode, even after being broken by torture into awful betrayal, offering jealous put-downs on whatever the Doctor’s doing. And when he exclaims “We have weapons of our own,” his eyes flicker downwards on Giuliano. Really. With the theatrical look of a BBC Shakespeare of the time and the principal actors playing it like that, it’s appropriate that top Shakespearean scholar and Doctor Who DVD text note-writer Martin Wiggins famously compared Giuliano to Hamlet – murdered father, wicked uncle, reluctance to act – with this one stronger in rejecting superstition if generally more wet, and lucky to be in a story where Machiavelli’s Prince can lose (if not exactly by divine intervention), or he’d be deadmeat. Marco’s advice to him throughout is to be more firm – steady! – and ruthless, while the Doctor’s is to “Keep an open mind.” Giuliano has the makings of an enlightened Prince, and is certainly on the right side of the crucial fight here between free will and determinism, but you can’t help feeling that Mandragora and the Doctor turning up was the best thing that could have happened to him. Without them, there’d be Duke Federico.
“If you fail me, Rossini, you shall breakfast on hot coals!”
I loved a good bloodthirsty R-rolling villain as a boy, and I still do today – despite so much fun on offer, Jon Laurimore’s Count Federico steals the show. He’s clearly having a whale of a time from the moment we first see him torching and tormenting the peasants, and he’s not just relishably hissable but one of the series’ most competent villains, only brought down in the end by in effect not realising what sort of story he’s in and that he’s actually irrelevant to the key struggle – things come to a climax where, were this a ‘pure’ historical, he actually wins, and the Doctor would be stuffed. His excellent guard captain, Anthony Carrick, is a sort of henchman in Yes, Minster, too (and here shows how villainous ID cards are by demanding the Doctor’s on peril of his life). Jon Laurimore’s given many of the best lines and does great work with them – Richard sighs fondly when I laugh like a hyena at “Before sunrise, I want to see Giuliano’s liver fed to the dogs!” – but he also has moments of surprising quiet, while his final is not just fear, but awe, a man who finally believes in something.
“You can kill me first.”
“No… But we may kill you afterwards.”
Will We Have Any More Trouble From Mandragora?

There’s a lot more to this story than just the story. The DVD special features are rather fabulous; the novelisation a little flat, but with its moments, and reinvigorated by its audiobook reading; it’s had perhaps as many as five different sequels in different media; and it’s even inspired some rather lovely artwork (most notably Alister Pearson’s gorgeous not-at-all papal reissue book cover, perhaps best presented on John Pettigrew’s DVD and video cover site, as is Mike Little’s less technically accomplished but memorable Tom hemmed in by screaming masks, while on the DVD you can see some striking paintings from the Radio Times in pdf – just don’t look too closely at the masked Cult leader’s glowing crotch on the DVD cover).

The novelisation Doctor Who and the Masque of Mandragora is by producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and while it’s not bad, his writing style doesn’t flow anywhere near as well as Terrance Dicks’, with the scenes and lines trimmed for length making it feel a little sparse. There are a few other changes, of varying effectiveness: the ‘straightening’ of Giuliano; a tensely snapping wire; Hieronymous’ escape employing more thrilling cauldron-dashing; and though the mention of the Pope works vividly for one stream of the story (“The Holy Father himself will kiss my hand for cleansing the state of San Martino” as Federico plots to frame his nephew as a worshipper of Demnos), it works against the other by muddying the waters on religion. Tim Piggot-Smith, though, is a powerful actor, who enlivens the CD reading of the novel with considerable panache and an interesting take on the Doctor, old but deep-voiced and authoritative.

As for the sequels, the promise that Mandragora would return in five hundred years’ time inspired several writers. The first and arguably the most ambitious was Doctor Who Magazine’s comic strip (and graphic novel) The Mark of Mandragora; Big Finish’s Sarah Jane Smith series had the Helix threaded through its whole second series, the most promising and the most disappointing of the sequels (scroll down this article to find my spoilerful explanation of its climax, or anti-climax); the BBC Books novel The Eleventh Tiger matched the Helix, unnamed and anachronistically, against the First Doctor; and most recently, generously name-checking the other three, Gary Russell’s novel Beautiful Chaos brings back the Helix against the Tenth Doctor, Donna and Wilf, and is a particularly good story for the Nobles. Unlike other new series BBC Books (monogamous hetero Captain Jack of The Not-Deviant-At-All Strain, I’m looking at you), but appropriately for the TV original, it’s also got a pair of gayers among all the couples, too. That leaves The Sarah Jane AdventuresSecrets of the Stars, a rather good TV story first broadcast three years ago, a blatant sequel but with the serial numbers inexplicably filed off. I may be doing him an injustice, but though I can’t trace it I remember some years ago reading its (very talented) author Gareth Roberts snidely asking, “Why would anyone want to watch The Masque of Mandragora?” Well, to get paid for doing an uncredited sequel and a drag comedy feature on it, obviously. Which brings me to the DVD special features.
“I only found out recently that there were other Doctors.”
“We didn’t like to tell you.”
This DVD features a particularly entertaining and informative commentary from Tom (“It was a wonderful time…”) Baker, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and his assistant Chris D’Oyly-John (revealing his favourite Doctor), all thinking it looks very good, and joined by Gareth Armstrong, who Tom now calls “Devastatingly handsome” but who at the time called him and Tim “Gert and Daisy”. Bless him – my favourite moment is when Tom sighs orgiastically as Lis Sladen’s dragged into the temple, then enthuses over how wonderful it is that she now has a series of her own. Though his opinion on HD TV, except for art, or engineering plans, or neurosurgery, is also a treat:
“I was watching something in high definition, and it was so boring, that I just counted the blackheads on the leading man.”
The ‘Making of’, The Secret of the Labyrinth, is rather gorgeous, mainly shot on location in – gasp – it was Portmeirion all the time! Though, in the style of The Prisoner, you’ll soon spot that they didn’t take all of their interviewees there, with some pictured against backgrounds in the studio. It’s one of the best the Doctor Who DVDs have done, helped both by the number and quality of guests from behind and in front of the camera and by the visual style of it all. Gareth Armstrong, for example, now bearded, has aged very well, as well as being incisive; Tim Piggott-Smith still very enthusiastic about how ambitious it all is, disapproving of how young actors today don’t know how to wear a sword, and giggling at how “Tom was very naughty,” especially making him corpse under torture (and, after doing ‘his’ Doctor for the book, gives a very creditable Tom impression); Barry Newbery is great, and I think I’ve worked out that his (cleverly mirrored) detail for Giuliano’s room is taken from Carpaccio’s The Vision of St Augustine; Anthony Carrick has the best stuntman story (while the director remembers cigarettes in their codpieces); but, appropriately, it’s completely stolen by Jon Laurimore:
“It’s an actor’s delight, actually, to get hold of a part like that… Wonderful, wonderful character – he’s the epitome of all everything that’s evil in Renaissance history.”
You can also watch a Now and Then piece if you can’t get enough Portmeirion, and there’s a nice feature on the history and design of the TARDIS, with Tom Baker, designers, writers and kids, and an interesting conflict between them – acerbic writer Robert Shearman thinks “You want to explore Narnia, not the wardrobe”, while Tom and Christopher H. Bidmead want whole worlds inside there; I loved Chris’ idea that “We still haven’t really seen the TARDIS,” but are just working our way towards what the TARDIS might really be. Gareth Roberts’ and Clayton Hickman’s spoof documentary Beneath the Masque divides opinion, but I thought several bits of it were funny (and not least because, like me, they like to quote the sinister Radio Times blurbs from the time. You get all of those here on pdf, too, of course, with an excellent interview with Philip Hinchcliffe promising “science fantasy and romance” for viewers up to 90 and some fabulous pictures). I’m afraid I laughed aloud at the ’80s video compilation, “Valerie Singleton”, “Andrew Pixley” and particularly the map of Wales. But – sorry, Gareth – the best bit’s still Jim Sangster’s “Tricky Action Engels”.

I wonder if it sparks like the Helix?



Update: A week later, I engage with different arguments about this story from TARDIS Eruditorum, in which he’s astoundingly far more biased than I am; by turns ignores, misquotes and misunderstands the text; constantly repeats unfounded assertions with ever more shrill name-calling as a substitute for evidence; and as a result misses the point entirely. I make my case in the comments. He sticks his fingers in his ears and re-edits his own post to try and make himself look marginally less daft. I eventually decide to stop, but I suggest you simply watch the programme for yourself and decide by empirical observation rather than magic thinking that ignores the words.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

 

Where Now For Travellers?

Before taking a political stand, I usually know the facts. I read a lot, I listen, I think about it. I’m wary of politicians who appeal to ‘common sense’ or ‘gut instinct’ and don’t let the facts get in the way. But I have to admit that, while I followed some news stories about the Dale Farm Travellers, I don’t know a lot about Gypsy and Roma people, so I’m writing more from gut instinct than informed research. And my Liberal gut instinct’s that when the law singles out a particular group of people to bully, it’s just plain wrong.

I know people broke the law; I don’t have a simple solution. But ask yourself – in all the years you’ve heard of planning disputes, NIMBYism or flouted regulations, have you ever heard of someone who built a conservatory without planning permission having it pulled down by riot police at a cost of £18 million? Or the tanks being sent in to blow up those Tescos which are two hectares too big?

The argument about Dale Farm went on for ten years, as far as I can make out, so what was the hurry to send in over a hundred riot police to taser people, cutting the electricity supply where there are ill and dying people, and then the police dragging them out on stretchers? It seems less like enforcing the law and more just ‘Let’s show these awkward Gypsies who’s in bloody charge’. I’ve had ill and dying family members – most of us have. And even if they were guilty of terrible crimes, I wouldn’t want them treated like that in their dying days. But what were they guilty of? Not getting planning permission. It seems horribly wrong to do that to anyone, let alone mostly law-abiding people who just don’t happen to conform, or even to wish it on – to take a hypothetical example for which I would in no way wish – the Basildon Councillors who stuck their noses in the air and denied that planning permission to have a gang of thugs break into their hospices and drag them into the gardens when it’s their time, just so they know what it’s like.

And, look, I may not know much about travellers, but even I can spot the piss-taking in Basildon Council’s mealy-mouthed claims that they’d offered (bricks and mortar) accommodation to children and old people in pretence that they weren’t being evil. First, they’re travellers, so, yeah, great start. And second – take away people’s children? Lock up their aged parents? Send everyone in between to a completely different part of the country? Have you noticed that the more socially conservative politicians are, the more they’re the sort who prate about ‘family values’, the more they want to break up actual, real, breathing families? Just as it’s the ones who most shout about ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ who gang up to destroy any old traditions and cultures of which coincidentally they personally are not members.

I’ve often heard people attack travellers on the grounds that they’re not prejudiced, goodness me no, but it’s just ‘for the sake of the children’. The Dale Farm eviction seems to have given the lie to that, with every evictee basically told to fuck off hundreds of miles away. So how does that go for kids’ schooling, or healthcare? I don’t know what arrangements travellers usually make for those things, but the organs of the state seem to be deliberately making it as difficult for them to sort it out as possible.

Bad Laws Are Made To Be Broken

Pretty much the founding principle of Liberalism is controlling arbitrary power – standing up to bullies. If I see a group of big bullies pushing around a vulnerable group that most people hate for no good reason, my instinct’s always with the underdog whether or not I know or like them. And when people have piously prated that the hundreds of taser-wielding riot police at dawn were only upholding the Rule of Law, they know fuck all about the Rule of Law. Because that’s a Liberal founding principle, too, and it depends on equality before the law and not having the law side with one group against another. If the law happens only to heavily penalise one group, then what reason do they have to obey it?

I’m a strong supporter of the Coalition Government, though I wish the first time we’ve been in government for the best part of a century didn’t coincide with the most god-awful economic mess for the worst part of a century. In trying to clean up that mess, the Coalition Government’s doing a lot of things that I don’t like, but which are necessary, or at least defensible, and people who pretend it’s morally rather than practically wrong are usually just posing (while my view of the Labour MPs who ran up the bill and now run away from it is rarely printable). There’s very little the Government’s done, even the more Tory enclaves of it, that I’d say ‘No, that makes me ashamed’. But last year, coincidentally the same week that the United Nations was criticising the French Government for being evil shits [that’s your actual UN report I’m quoting] to travellers, I heard that the Coalition was going to remove the requirement for local councils to provide sites for travellers, and I was sickened. There’s no excuse for rushing to do this. It’s been in place for decades; it seems inadequate and something that a lot of councils try to get around as much as they can anyway; and if you take it away, suddenly there’s a great excuse and great pressure to push around one of the few groups it’s still acceptable to be horribly racist about. How many other communities have their needs explicitly excluded by law? I remember it was a little over a year ago, because I remember when I asked a Liberal Democrat minister why we’d agreed to this, and then another. I’d tell you what they said, but it may be a sign of how indefensible this policy is that thirteen months later, I’ve yet to have an answer – and that’s the only time that’s ever happened, in two decades of my holding senior Lib Dems to account. So if you’re reading, consider this a public reminder, eh?

I should, however, direct you to the Statement on Dale Farm eviction by Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, which while hardly forceful does at least regret what happened:
“We suspect that many of those who support the eviction would prefer it if the authorised site were removed as well.
“Bearing in mind reports on this case both from the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission and UN Human Rights Commission, we hope that this will give the country and the Government in particular, the opportunity to reflect upon the intense difficulties for Gypsy Roma Travellers to find lawful sites on which they can live. The Government acknowledges that at least 1 in 5 of all Travellers are forced to live on unauthorised sites because there are insufficient authorised sites nationwide.
“It should be noted that whatever is happening in respect of the eviction of Travellers at Dale Farm, the remainder of Dale Farm will continue to be an authorised Travellers’ site.
“We hope that the Local Authority will meet its statutory obligations to the families who will be evicted as a result of their actions.”

If regular readers are wondering why I’m blogging quite a bit at the moment, but much more with Doctor Who reviews rather than my usually more even balance of politics and TV, it’s because (hey ho) I’m not at all well. And when I’ve got pretty much no mental, physical or emotional energy to spare, that has a huge effect on my writing. Often I just don’t do any of it; but also, immersing myself in Doctor Who makes me less unhappy, while engaging in politics does the reverse. Despite that, I’ve been meaning to write about this all week, because – aside from Andrew George’s cross-party concern – I’ve not seen any other Lib Dems writing about it and, basically, I thought it was wrong and wanted there to be at least one.


Update: I’ve had this post by Matt Pearson recommended to me; it strikes a similar tone (if less sweary), but with more facts and a quite remarkable amount of Tesco (which makes Richard suggesting my line above even more appropriate than I thought).

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Monday, October 24, 2011

 

DVD Detail: Doctor Who – Kamelion Tales

Peter Davison’s Doctor battles Anthony Ainley’s Master in this DVD box set of the Doctor Who stories The King’s Demons and Planet of Fire. The Time Lords clash across the gorgeous locations of a medieval castle and the island of Lanzarote; each time, the Master takes advantage of the local religion (who is the true demon? A tricky one, with him on the cover) and a shape-shifting robot, Kamelion. Which of the Doctor’s companions will remove the most clothes? Which of them will announce that he’s not a naughty boy, but the messiah? And will Magna Carta die in vain?

Despite their very different settings, these stories from 1983 and 1984 have much in common, even on top of cementing the arch-enemy relationship between ’80s Master Anthony Ainley and, particularly, Peter Davison’s Doctor. Each of them is the final story written by a Doctor Who director-turned-author, respectively Terence Dudley and Peter Grimwade; each has stories from both the ’60s and the ’70s it might take as models; in both, religion takes a key role in how characters are treated, though ironically it’s the more anti-religious script that treats believers with more sympathy; and The King’s Demons and Planet of Fire turned out to be the only two stories featuring that most ill-fated and Tony Blair-related of the Doctor’s companions, Kamelion. Who, you might ask? Particularly as these stories give much more identifiable roles to fellow companions Turlough and Peri? Well, if you can’t remember the robot that inexplicably gives the title to this set, you’re not alone – the production team forgot about him for months on end, too… Back in September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine Issue 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – voting The King’s Demons down into 181st place, which unfortunately is about right, and Planet of Fire a just-about-middling 134; I’d pretty much agree again, or perhaps slightly lower. And yet that in itself shows me just how brilliant Doctor Who is, because when I come to award scores for stories, Planet of Fire is what I think of as the epitome of an ‘average’ mark – perfectly decent if, ironically, lacking a spark – and yet I’d put nearly three-quarters of Doctor Who stories above that ‘average’.

While this ‘taster’ may not be short, incidentally, my policy in these is not to be too spoilery, in order than you can read on without fear of finding out too many key twists from the end. This poses particular problems for The King’s Demons: the key twists are given away by the nature of this DVD box set itself; the DVD menu gives away the only cliffhanger; and it’s arguably difficult to give away the ending of a story when it doesn’t really have one… While if you’ve not seen Planet of Fire, stop reading before the final heading below.

Doctor Who – The King’s Demons

With arguably the silliest plan the Master ever comes up with – despite a lot of competition – The King’s Demons has one of the weakest scripts of the period, with plot, characters and dialogue at best iffy and often unintentionally hilarious, and after fifty minutes less an ending than the impression that someone’s looked at their watch and called, ‘Time! Everyone back to your TARDISes!’ as if in expectation of another round, only for the protagonists to shrug and go home. So you might expect me to lay into it mercilessly. And I will lay into it… But not without mercy. While plot, characters and dialogue are usually what matter to me, and while most TV stories since 2005 have shown how to do Doctor Who far more effectively over a similar time, it’s possible to watch and enjoy it without any sense of the plot, characters and dialogue at all (much like the writer). Thanks to the magic of DVD, you can watch the beautifully cleaned-up picture and let the setting lend it weight: instead of ‘another cheap spaceship, and the story’s even flimsier,’ you think, ‘Ooh, lush filming,’ ‘jousting’ and ‘that’s a real castle’. And it’s not just the filming that’s appealing, but Jonathan Gibbs’ incidental music, too. So for The King’s Demons’ critical stock to soar, just follow my advice and select the “Audio Option: Isolated Score” from the Special Features menu so that you can watch the pretty medieval pictures and just listen to the pretty medieval synthesizer.

Or, if you must listen to the whole thing, try to ignore the plot and focus on the sexual tension…

That Golden Moment
“Come, you cringing caitiffs, we tell you there’s naught to fear! Do our demons come to visit us?”
It’s the chilly morning of March the Fourth, 1215 – pay attention, there’ll be a test later – and spectators are massing in the lists for the tournament between local heir Hugh Fitzwilliam, with his sparkling blue eyes, and Champion of Bad King John Sir Gilles, with his shaggy red wig (just to confuse the viewer, Blue Eyes is the Red Knight, and Red Wig in Blue). It all looks terrific: the horses gallop; the knights tilt; a broken lance – and then, suddenly, the horses rear and shy as, with a wheezing, groaning sound, the TARDIS appears between them. Doctor Who’d not done anything like that since 1965 (46 years ago last week), and this time has the double bonus of the interrupted combatants being thrilling on horseback and of the BBC not having thrown the tapes in a skip.

Inside and outside the TARDIS, there’s consternation. The Doctor gives us notes on the period, Tegan asks awkward questions and takes satisfaction in his not taking everything in your stride – that’ll earn her some put-downs for not knowing who the King is, in a minute – and they emerge to find everyone running about in horror… All save the King. Blasé, he welcomes the TARDIS crew over as his demons, almost carelessly confirming that the Angevins are the Devil’s Brood. Even with the Doctor used to turning up at the wrong point in history, this is a bizarre reaction. Has the King been watching Doctor Who?

The knights take up the joust again, and this time young Hugh comes crashing to earth, lying prettily in full close-up, moaning, and crying “Come, sir!” – of which more later. Of course, the Doctor intercedes for his life… And, of course, in one of the script’s few neat bits of writing, this comes back to bite him from all sides. Meanwhile, Tegan is freezing in her new multi-coloured frock; David Brunt’s rather good text notes (with a surfeit of peaches) tell us that this was chosen by Janet Fielding in order to spare herself participation in bluescreen / greenscreen shots, actors always hating special effects taking up more time than the acting does. And that notion, too, will come back to bite everyone this story…

Something Else To Look Out For

Part One makes the best of its castle location and vaulted sets, streaming pennants and knights on horseback; Part Two falls to bits rather stunningly, but it does have one thing of note. And that’s Kamelion. Here we get our first sight of the android in his natural form, quite a nice piece of design and clearly without a man inside it, with a voice so arch and oily that he seems for all the world like C3PO’s untrustworthy and even gayer brother. Unfortunately, by his very nature he gets few lines of his own, swaying between the Master and the Doctor, and that’s the central problem with his character: if you’re a shape-changer whose mind is always in thrall to the strongest will in the area, how do you develop a life of your own? So, in so many ways, the problem with Kamelion is ‘What’s the point?’ How, exactly, will a shapeshifter be the key to the Master conquering the Universe? Autons and Axos didn’t do him much good, while he’s already had a walking TARDIS, and he can hypnotise most people he might want to duplicate – as well as himself being, and titter ye not for this story, a Master of disguise. Does he think Kamelion will conquer the pop charts with his ‘Tony Blair Song’? Or could it be that this is the point where he’s finally gone completely fruit loop? Doctor Who novels later came up with a similar idea of a walking, talking, shape-changing machine super-companion and relaunching the series with “After all, that’s how it all started.” They didn’t know what to do with her, either, though at least she couldn’t just be left in the TARDIS…

And it’s not just by singing in praise of total war that Kamelion resembles the last Labour Government. Behind the scenes, he was just like one of their IT contracts. As the DVD documentary Kamelion – Metal Man makes clear across its quarter-hour bitch-fest, the robot looked great when it was demonstrated to sell the producer on the idea, but that was just about the only time it worked (in part because of a tragedy, though it clearly could never do much of what was promised). Actors (Peter Davison’s snigger particularly memorably) and writers all talk about the endless problems: how you had to synch your performance to its pre-recorded speech, which either came too soon or after a long wait; how it could barely move its head, let alone walk, and what happened when it was programmed to malfunction; how he ends up the only companion who just lurks in the back of the TARDIS without ever being mentioned until it’s time to go. Well, that’s not completely true – there was a scene recorded for The Awakening of him creeping out Tegan in the TARDIS, ironically perhaps the one where he displays the most character of his own (just not a very nice one). This was cut for time, showing how vital he wasn’t, but the scene still exists. Frustratingly, there’s only a bit of it on here, with people talking over it. For the full scene, we had to wait a year later than the “Kamelion Tales” that were supposed to be the last word on him – a joke about the robot taking so long to respond after it was cued, perhaps? – and look in the Special Features for The Awakening, which like all the Davison stories released on DVD this year is rather better than The King’s Demons, as well as being paired with a story that has a much better song. All in all, you may join the Doctor Who team from the time in jeering when Kamelion oversells himself on screen:
“And very co-operative. I would make an excellent colleague.”
Turlough / Hugh

Just three stories earlier, the series had introduced another new companion, Turlough. You have to wonder how hard lead writer Eric Saward was working when you consider that both of these started off a bit dubious, working for an old enemy of the Doctor’s before coming out from under his wing, and both were aliens masquerading as humans on Earth – so it’s no wonder that Turlough finds himself forced to the sidelines in this story. It’s a great shame, as Mark Strickson is very good in the role, but while it’s only in his first three stories out of ten that the script has to separate him from the Doctor – charged with killing the Time Lord, Turlough can’t be alone with him too often for fear of short-circuiting his story arc either by doing so or finally deciding not to and confessing – with Mr Saward clearly having a short attention span, he carries on having him locked up with nothing to do in almost all of his other stories because that’s just the way he started, despite his then being on the Doctor’s side. The King’s Demons is one of the worst offenders: with Turlough now a goodie, suddenly they have no idea what to do with him and he’s thrown in clink. The Doctor only vaguely notices, while Tegan doesn’t give a stuff. And yet Mark Strickson works his school socks off to perfect a weapon more to his taste once he’s stopped trying to kill the Doctor. Turlough was rubbish with rocks, disengaging spaceships, pirate gang-ups and Brigadiers, but here we see him deploying sarcasm to deadly effect. Well, mildly hurtful effect, anyway.
“Can you not call on Hell?”
“I could. But then so could you – with a better chance of success, I fancy.”
Ignored by his new friends and the writers, Turlough is pulled off to the dungeons by young Hugh, who feels his manhood’s been threatened by being spared on the battlefield and compensates by waving his big sword at Turlough with every other line. Mark Strickson and Christopher Villiers strike such sparks off each other that if this was shown today, the Internet would be buzzing with Turlough / Hugh slash. No on-screen couple usually hurl so many arch remarks without ending up in bed together, so it’s a terrible shame Hugh’s mum is literally put between them to defuse the sexual tension. Worse, the Lady Isabella is played by Isla Blair, a fine actress given absolutely nothing to do but say “My Lord” in an increasingly concerned tone. Wearing an enormous cylindrical wimple over a chequerboard dress, too, she looks like she’s come dressed as the Castle and turned up a story early for the life-sized chess.

By contrast, Anthony Ainley has plenty to do, but this does him even fewer favours. Both as the Master and in his hilariously penetrable disguise – it’s blown in the DVD menu, and by, well, just looking at Anthony Ainley looking exactly like Anthony Ainley (with a slightly worse wig) – as Sir Gilles, the King’s Champion and a French knight, as you can tell from that outrrrrrageous accent. With the Doctor failing to be a Pythonian French Taunter in The Time Warrior, a story set in a similar period and with many similarities to this one save for being pretty good, here the Master instead seizes the opportunity to tell the Doctor that his mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries. And this performance is justly famed. Still, he and the Doctor have rather an exciting sword fight, slugging it out with heavy broadswords rather than rapiers, and if it’s not quite as strikingly choreographed as in The Christmas Invasion or as entertaining as in The Androids of Tara, it’s a huge improvement on when the Doctor and the Master last locked swords in The Sea Devils (a swordfight that was both less ambitious and ludicrously out of place).

But once you’re past his flashing sword, fromagey accent and ‘So you did escape from [insert planet name here]’, you’re left with the Master’s plan. This one is so ludicrous that it makes all his others look like models of strategy. The line about the Master’s “small-time villainy” here belongs in a much wittier script; mid-Tom Baker, yes, this might have been an entertaining caper with the audience in on the joke of how absurd the villain is. But when the rest of this is all so painfully earnest, it’s less ‘amusingly silly’ than just ‘stupid’. The real problem with the Master’s plot is not that it’s “inconsequential” – the same author’s Black Orchid was exactly that, but succeeded beautifully on its own terms – but that it thinks it’s really, really important, when it’s just daft. That strips the Master of any role but to snigger, leer and do ‘evil things’ just for the sake of it, which is an even greater drawback when Gerald Flood’s ‘Bad King John’ is rather better at each of those jobs here. I’d been hugely excited at the Master’s return in the early ’80s, and remember thinking at the time that, after three really good new Master stories, ‘maybe Time-Flight was just an off-day’. But following that with this lost Ainley’s Master the benefit of the doubt for me, and from then on more often than not his Master’s a joke.
“Twice in one day – it is most – embarrassing.”
For me, messing about in history is Doctor Who’s iconic story form, but this one is less messing and more mess. As well as The Time Warrior, this has more than a touch of the earlier The Time Meddler, though stupider, and also The Crusade with the King’s brother (if stripped to just the Doctor’s storyline and not Ian and Barbara’s). I quite like a bit of revisionist history, but somehow I feel that the argument’s lacking something when all it consists of is the Doctor saying ‘Oh no it isn’t’ about what everyone thinks of Magna Carta (though the Charter gets an entertaining and informative little documentary on the disc). With only two episodes in the story, none of the Norman lords get much character; praise must go to Frank Windsor of Z Cars for giving some bottom to a medieval Mitt Romney who spins his views round so often it’s a wonder they don’t stick him on his own castle roof to measure the wind.

Does Terence Put the Dud Into Dudley or Peter the Grim Into Grimwade?

The King’s Demons and Planet of Fire invite comparison between their writers, Terence Dudley and Peter Grimwade. Each was a BBC director with past work on Doctor Who who then turned to writing – each wrote just three Doctor Who stories, all for Peter Davison’s Doctor though neither is able to give him much fire, and these are the final stories for each of them. Unusually for Doctor Who scriptwriters, they tended to novelise their own work, too. And neither, for me, are top-notch writers, though Peter Grimwade was an outstanding director (while Terence Dudley very much wasn’t). Peter Grimwade’s scripts were often rather tangled, but at least had some interesting ideas in them and gave the impression that he cared; Terence Dudley’s had more of a ‘that’ll do’ attitude to them. For Mr Grimwade, I’d recommend Mawdryn Undead and suggest you leave Time-Flight until last; with Mr Dudley, Black Orchid is rather good, and neither of his other Doctor Who stories are much cop. Much worse, however, was his spin-off script for K9 and Company. The Sarah Jane Adventures have been a triumph; the first go at such a spin-off wasn’t. And with Terence Dudley the producer who forced the strong female lead off Survivors (replacing her with the bloke who’d guested as ‘man with stud farm of obliging women’), making Terry Nation look like a radical feminist, he was surely the worst possible person to write for Sarah Jane Smith.

So it pains me to admit that Terence Dudley was a far better novelist – two times out of three, anyway. Even he couldn’t be bothered novelising his own Four To Doomsday (which Terrance Dicks turns into a functional book peppered with contemptuous asides for the script), and his K9 and Company novel is atrociously written sexist bilge. Fortunately, both his Black Orchid and his The King’s Demons novels are rather good, and remarkably flesh out fifty-minute stories into some of the longer books in the Target range – of the Kamelion Tales, for example, his adaptation of the half-length story is significantly longer than Peter Grimwade’s Planet of Fire. Terence Dudley’s favourite word, incidentally, is “contumely”, which turns up in each of his books as if for a bet, and his novelising the two stories in the reverse order to their transmission shows in glaring mix-ups on the page. Despite that, they’re among the most enjoyable of the Peter Davison novelisations, expanding greatly on the scripts and sorting out some of their problems.

The better of the two and the only one that’s currently available – as an audiobook, impressively read by Michael Cochrane, accompanied by so-so music – is Black Orchid. It’s also the more flawed. On the entertaining side, the first part (and first disc) is rather lovely, making gorgeous use of cricket, and particularly of Nyssa, Adric and Tegan’s competing levels of social embarrassment, particularly the “duck farm” and “That Bisto”, and though he overdoes Tegan’s being Australian, he captures her determination to be detained in sympathy with the Doctor as a rare moment of strength for one of his female characters. Tony Masero’s cover painting is bright, sharp and physics-defying, too. Michael Cochrane is very suited to Mr Dudley’s narration – the slightly pompously overextended vocabulary to up the page count – and most of the voices, notably his very good Lord Cranleigh and an arrestingly crusty and old Doctor. He even makes me feel for Lady Bloody Cranleigh at the end, which is something of an achievement, and manages the innuendoes with admirable deadpan:
“All at once a wave of happiness overcame Adric. He was doing it. Yes, he was doing it and felt wonderful!”
Then, mere moments after “‘Ah!’ ejaculated the Doctor,” Nyssa hears from a young man “about how he stroked, as she understood it, eight men in a boat on a river called the Thames.” At least he’s spared saying “cox”. I mention all this, though, to put off the bad side of the book; Terence Dudley is perhaps the most socially conservative of all Doctor Who novelists, which shows in many ways. He’s such a blatant snob even when mildly critical of the Beauchamp family that I can’t help noticing what utter shits they and their set are, while the servants are only there to serve and be murdered. The extra detail and relentless sucking-up doesn’t hurt the scheming dowager Marchioness of Cranleigh (though there’s no reason beyond snobbery for the Doctor’s conviction she’ll do the right thing in the end), but several other characters come over much worse in the book: her younger son, “Lord Cranleigh,” exposed as a wickedly complicit fake for his own gain; his fiancée both heartless and shockingly thick (crawler Dudley puts down a working class policeman as an idiot but respectfully leaves the family alone, even when Ann here is given absolute proof that the Doctor can’t be guilty); and Sir Robert the Chief Constable a bias and incompetence well outside the course of duty, despite an amusing moment when he wonders if Nyssa is “some diabolical foreign plot… some anarchist plot to substitute a double for Ann and infiltrate the House of Lords?” in which both character and author utterly fail to notice that there is a dastardly plan to substitute a Lord here, and it’s worked for two years. Try to ignore, too, the entirely out of character God-fearing Doctor in a book dripping with C of E sentiment (despite a dash of Catholic history) but disapproving of Johnny Foreigner’s rites, and seeing no contradiction in that.

Ironically, the medieval one with a king and barons is Terence Dudley’s least snobbish book, with The King’s Demons lacking the comic flair of Black Orchid but also without kindling any desire for violent revolution. The first chapter, in particular, is gripping, dwelling on Sir Ranulf’s misery and how the King seems changed, then the aside in the following chapter’s joust about an answer to Sir Ranulf’s prayer is far more deftly done than Lady Cranleigh’s dubious pieties. Another change is an improvement, too – the Master’s ‘unmasking’ is seen only through the Doctor’s eyes. It’s just a shame that the novels of both The King’s Demons and Planet of Fire avert a death from their TV script’s end; this one comes off worst, as a downbeat moment that leaves everyone in the lurch is bathetically healed by the Doctor popping back with a bit of Savlon. You have to laugh, as indeed Isla Blair did on screen, as she admits in the commentary.

Peter Grimwade’s novels, by contrast, lack both the highs and lows of Terence Dudley’s; competent, readable, but rarely inspired. His opening to the book is quite exciting, juxtaposing two very different crashing ships in a way that almost carries off one as a prefiguring of the other rather than the on-screen aftermaths simply forgetting what planets they’re on when a modern-day beacon from a spacefaring civilisation inexplicably turns up on a long-sunken wreck. At one point, the Doctor rather felicitously quotes Paradise Lost; it had featured in the novel of Logopolis as a metaphor for Anthony Ainley’s Master and so gives a pleasing sense of bookending Davison’s Doctor, even if here it’s merely when the Doctor’s being rude about Birmingham. There’s a neat little aside to The Brain of Morbius, too. Mr Grimwade clearly didn’t think much of having to write for Kamelion, though; he has the Doctor sneer at him as a thing, rather uncomfortably (even if he’s nowhere near as interesting as Drathro), and reflects that the Doctor “had quite forgotten about the robot from Xeriphas”:
“It was some time now since Kamelion had declared himself the Doctor’s obedient servant and taken up residence in the TARDIS. But the obsequious automaton had none of the cheerful loyalty of K9 and the Doctor always felt uncomfortable in the presence of this tin-pot Jeeves.”
Doctor Who – Planet of Fire

Peter Davison’s penultimate story, Planet of Fire is saddled with some clearing of the decks, writing several characters in and out while at the same time given a glamorous location which had to stand in for two separate planets. No wonder writer Peter Grimwade is said to have got fed up with it after several drafts and left script editor Eric Saward to paper over the rest. A lot of it looks good, and there are excellent performances – including, surprisingly, perhaps Anthony Ainley’s best – but the script is distinctly uneven and lacking in edge, sandwiched between a would-be Dalek epic and the fifth Doctor’s glorious finale and with too much to do to keep up the accelerating pace towards the Peter’s climax. This is also the last Davison story without monsters, and the only one in 1984; his era is the only one after the ’60s to feature multiple monsterless adventures, which may be one reason that people often think of his time as bland. It’s the last of that peculiarly Davison sub-genre of the arthouse, meandering, meaningful, slightly cerebral sci-fi, though in this case neither weird nor deep enough to match the best of them (like the more inspired Castrovalva, for example, this features the Master, a skip between locations and a bulky silver suit that cuts it even less as an ‘are they aliens?’ stand-in than the Castrovalvan tribal costumes). And among all this, new companion Peri makes a thankfully wrong impression; Turlough finally gets something to do; and Kamelion really doesn’t…

That Golden Moment
“Wretched citizens of Sarn! You’ve turned your backs on the Lord of the Fire Mountain – and listened to his enemy!”
From the day this was first transmitted, one scene has stood out for me. While the script and actors pull many of their punches in the attack on religion you can see in the bones of the story, the climax to Part Two suddenly grabs the theme and glories in it. So often lumbered with absurd scheming and cackling “Heh-heh-heh” in the background, Anthony Ainley suddenly shows what he can do with the direct approach.

The volcanic planet Sarn has been stealthily settled and exploited for its resources by a more advanced alien culture, and the bewildered, endangered natives have made a religion out of the scattering of technology, constant threat of fire, and occasional crashed survivors. As things go increasingly pear-shaped for them, some of the community have become more fiercely and murderously theocratic; others, free-thinkers trying to make more reasoned sense of it all. When the Doctor and the Master arrive on the planet, guess which side each of them takes? The Doctor, helpful as ever, is just on the verge of getting things working and making people reasonable when a figure in a dapper black suit appears at the door…

Anthony Ainley is simply outstanding as a fire and brimstone preacher, charismatic, Satanic, effortlessly taking control and enjoying every moment as he fulfils the deepest desire of every hellfire preacher and consigns his opponents to the flames.

Something Else To Look Out For

Like The King’s Demons, this looks very pretty. But unlike The King’s Demons’ stately heritage, Planet of Fire looks hot. Mostly filmed on Lanzarote, it’s one of Doctor Who’s few trips abroad and has clearly had money spent on it: never has there been so much sun in the series; never have the actors worn fewer clothes; and so never has any story brought out the sexism in fandom as much as Nicola Bryant’s first appearance as Peri (though naturally I prefer the actor playing Roskal, at least if he had a head transplant – sorry, it’s the ’80s). It’s also one of Peter Howell’s most evocative soundtracks, with soaring awe for the landscape, haunting tones to match Peter Wyngarde’s surprisingly underplayed epiphany, and strangely twisted electronic notes in the heart of the volcano (all, thankfully, available as an isolated score).

Peter Davison’s rather good here, with occasional tart moments (“Shall we gaze upon it, too?”), showing off (“I’d hazard a guess by a pupil of Praxiteles”, appropriately a sculptor famous for the nude female form), or figuring things out in his brainy specs. He even manages to maintain his Doctor through suddenly out-of-character moments like taunting Kamelion (and worse), suddenly offering lifts in the TARDIS, or being crabby with Turlough (‘If you’re holding back about my ex, you’re dumped, girlfriend!’). But it’s Mark Strickson who gets the best of the story for the TARDIS crew, with Turlough at last given the chance to grow up, to get out of his uniform (and trousers), and to get a suddenly jarring sci-fi name. Turlough seems to lurch through several years of character development at once: near-psychotic when he thinks Kamelion’s in touch with his captors; reunited with the brother he never knew he had; and offering heroic self-sacrifice by calling on his scary Planet of My Dad to help (much as the Doctor did in The War Games). And, yes, as he bears the sign of the Chosen One, he’s impassioned and commanding when declaring that he’s not a naughty boy, but the messiah.

The Doctor’s other two companions are marked contrasts. Kamelion doesn’t so much struggle to grow into his own identity as to give up, and he’s given almost nothing of his own personality (or Gerald Flood’s fabulously fruity voice) here. He’s also let down by the evident inability of the blasted robot to work, with an actor visibly having to drop his arms into position to ‘transform’ and Kamelion being ‘himself’ largely shown not by his android form, but by Dallas Adams staggering about in silver body paint (he looks rather better as the buff stepfather). The Doctor comes out of this pretty badly, too, struggling with the Master to dominate rather than liberate Kamelion and being absurdly slow to work out what might be up with him in the first place (hmm, could it be the Master again? Better go on holiday instead of worrying).

Peri, on the other hand, has probably the most unflattering opening a companion ever has – even Turlough got to be interesting and was at least fighting his bad side. By contrast, Peri throws a tantrum because she wants to head off for an indeterminate period of months in a different country that minute, without even saying goodbye to her Mom, and is portrayed as nothing but greedy, snide and thoughtless. She’s clearly meant to suggest ‘hey, I’m open to adventure,’ but the writing makes her a spoilt could-be-platinum-digging brat with a strange fixation on an alien dildo (an innuendo even more blatant in Grimwade’s novelisation, especially when a wet Turlough grips its bulbous head). She instantly strips to her bikini (happily encouraging Mark Strickson into his trunks; though Nicola Bryant was the only one who wasn’t skinny-dipping in the hotel, she was famously ‘rescued’ from her drowning scene by a nudist from the next beach), apparently establishing her as a shallow exploitation stereotype. Nicola even mentions “slash” on the commentary, but it’s not what you think. But I’m telling you the plot. Ironically, she’s paired best here with the Master, who gives her something to be stroppy about (my favourite moment’s her shooting “You do realise this creature is about to do a bunk?” at the local religious leader just before the incarnation of evil does indeed run out on that gullible idiot), and luckily for Nicola Bryant, she gets a better part (and more clothes) in almost all of her later stories. So if you ever meet her, when I’ve queued for autographs I’ve heard her express considerable weariness at still being presented with bikini shots; I once cheered her with a picture of her in a very different look which she’d not previously been asked to sign, from a terrific scene first broadcast twenty-five years ago tomorrow. And yet Peri’s debut still inspires some Twenty-First Century companions, with her “Now that’s what I call a real spaceship” mirrored in “At last, some Spock” and the closing lurch shamelessly nicked for Smith and Jones.

Quite Masterly

Anthony Ainley remakes himself here as a much more physically involved Master and is clearly having a whale of a time, eyes sparkling, as he gets to do something different. And not just in the Part Two cliffhanger – he’s the focus of all three of them, magnetic in his different ways in each (the first is the most predictable and great fun, even if his sticky-on beard has never looked more sticky-coming-off). It’s a fitting send-off to the great pairing between him and Davison (famously pictured back-to-back, cream versus black; in the Kamelion Tales, they’re framed face-to-face) – his Master starts impressively in Logopolis, finishes well in Survival, but often loses it in between. He’s got more stylish props, too: we see his gun open up and fire; his sinister black TARDIS control room, unsubtle but striking; and he never looks better than in a smart black suit. It’s all enough to put up with his Master yet again having landed in a hole and looking a bit dumb – where Roger Delgado’s original version improbably emerged from every defeat without a scratch, Anthony Ainley’s Master is Wile E. Coyote, forever dropping off a cliff or being squashed by his own ten-ton weight, yet even more improbably always surviving without apparent consequences.

The key to the Master’s renewal is, of course, religion. Taken for an angel and doing his best to capitalise on it, despite his desire to be born again he’s at his happiest playing in a very Old Testament set-up. It’s hugely to Mr Ainley’s advantage that his scenes are right on the main seam of the story, as it’s the critique of religion that’s the script’s most effective and, unexpectedly, subtle writing. Though you can tell it’s been toned down from the author’s intent, less ‘angry’ than ‘slightly miffed’, much of this is powerful and still relevant, from the freethinkers’ fear as they make the difficult journey to disprove their god to proto-pope Timanov having a scary but credible point of view rather than being an eye-rolling loon. And in him we have another stand-out performance, as guest star Peter Wyngarde astounds everyone by being grave and subtle, played and written with a frighteningly plausible conviction when he explains the need to burn heretics. It’s refreshing when a script so firmly for free will and against religion has the wit to realise believers can be more dangerous precisely when they aren’t mere crazies, and to show shades of faith from his quietly moving epiphany through his fiery zealotry to his Vicar of Bray-like accommodation with the new messiah when his own position is threatened.

The story has problems when it wanders off that through-line, though, and with so much wilderness on screen there’s room for a lot of wandering. The need to add Peri to the line-up literally drags the story off-course; it makes the first episode almost a prologue, as the Doctor takes a completely unrelated side-step to find a new companion, er, sit in a café for a bit. And unfortunately they couldn’t go for additional location filming of Peri on holiday in, say, London, where the Doctor might have run into her – to pick up a new companion from Earth, the Doctor has to be on Earth, so they all happen to be visiting Lanzarote (played by your actual Lanzarote). This wouldn’t present a problem were it not for the fact that they then all move on to the suspiciously familiar alien planet Sarn (played by, er, Lanzarote). It’s as if they’d started the story by accidentally broadcasting an episode of Doctor Who Confidential. Couldn’t the Doctor just have placed a contact ad? And even once they get to Sarn, the plot lacks drive – there’s a setting, and people with motivations, but they just amble about, leaving a location, going back there, occasionally clashing, until it’s time to stop. It doesn’t help that when Peter Grimwade runs out of ideas, he substitutes the Master trying to trade bits of the TARDIS no-one’ll ever mention again like a demented Swap Shop for drama (it worked so well in Time-Flight).

A middling story of the Master – surprise! – posing as an authority figure on a colony world to seek power deep inside the mountains, this has always rather reminded me of Colony In Space, albeit targeting religion rather than big business and with a less interesting alien culture but far more effective design. With its themes of the mind as battlefield – albeit, in Kamelion’s case, a battlefield no-one seems to much care about – growing up and religion, it’s also an echo of Doctor Who’s fourteenth season, though it doesn’t do well by the comparison (by comparison, short on horror, witty dialogue or inspiration). As with many Doctor Who stories, it owes something to The Deadly Assassin, in which an exile returns home, the Doctor is unusually violent, and the Master in particular has a similar role: grievously injured, he’s come to a planet whose technological past has become mythologised to heal himself with its unique resource, even if the resulting earthquakes destroy it – and he’s apparently killed at what should be the scene of his recovery. You might look out for his later fiery blue Hammer Rebirth of Voldemort in The End of Time, too…

The third disc in the Kamelion Tales box set offers Planet of Fire – ‘The Movie’ Special Edition, in which original director Fiona Cumming returns to the story with a pair of scissors and a CGI toybox. Cutting out a third of it to make it pacier and more like the modern series works rather less well than her slightly disappointing re-edit of Enlightenment, while at 66 minutes it’s less ‘The Movie’ than ‘The Episode’. The new pre-credits sequence is a brave but very cheap-looking try, and it’s distracting to keep joining in with lines that suddenly aren’t there (my first: “That girl, Doctor”). The omissions that most harm it, though, are giving Kamelion an even smaller part, removing the lines where the Doctor threatens Turlough (explaining why he might have to go) and where he lets people think the Chosen One is dead (explaining why everyone suddenly obeys Turlough as the new messiah), and most of all taking out most of the incidental music score, which even with masses of flaming CGI added leaves the story lacking atmosphere. To be fair, some of the CGI is effective, and it certainly makes Sarn look hotter and more alien – but someone should have told them where to stop with all the flames, as it’s impossible not to snigger at scenes like the high priest and the Chosen One standing, entirely comfortably and unconcerned in their flapping frocks, right next to a flaming great rock and not catching fire. For once, though, the menus are quite stylishly done, with the same scenes on both Planet of Fire discs but using the SE version on the second (a trick they missed on the recent ‘new’ version of Day of the Daleks). The rest of the extras are quite impressive and, for me, rather more watchable – particularly the ‘Making of’ leading the several documentaries, which is chatty and informative, even a return to Sarn / Lanzarote, and a quarter of an hour of deleted and extended scenes. There are some enjoyable anecdotes across the documentaries and commentary, though I’ve heard one of the best told in person with a fabulous punchline (and written about it here, if you scroll down to the cheery bit at the end). The most exciting extra, though, is the “Coming Soon” trailer for The Dominators. I’ve written that Doctor Who – The Dominators is not a great story, but it is one of their best trailers, with great use of tints, circling graphics and an unsettlingly grating mix of the Theme and TARDIS sounds. And, if you’re desperate to buy more from this story, there’s even a “Doctor and Master” toy set (actual size!).

Lassie Go Home – Or, the Death of (Spoiler)…

Poor old Kamelion. Hardly in any stories at all, and then – look away now, I’ve warned you – they kill him off. And when I say ‘they’, I mean not just the production team but the Doctor. Can you imagine the Doctor plotting to give a “heart attack” to any of his other companions, let alone shooting them? Kamelion’s last lines are much dumber and more mechanical than his rather fey Gerald Flood incarnation (does Gerald get any lines at all in the second half of the story? How positively Dodo); Dallas Adams’ “Kamelion – no good. Destroy me – please” sounds much more like an Ogron or a dim computer, dehumanised so the Doctor doesn’t look so much of a git. The tiny, twisted, sparking body is rather affecting, but not to the Doctor. The more I think about it, the more it seems a calculated decision. “I am Kamelion… Was Kamelion” is sadly evocative, but pronounced several episodes before his ‘death’. We carefully hear the last of Gerald Flood’s performance even before the Doctor’s anti-robot taunting, or it’d leave a still nastier taste in our mouths. Not giving voice in his final hour to Kamelion’s original oily but highly intelligent persona silences someone who may never sound trustworthy but who definitely sounds like a thinking individual. The ungrammatical, almost monosyllabic, dumb plea for death at the end is delivered by Dallas Adams in a much more warm, loyal – but very dim – voice, so you trust that the poor thing wants to be put out of its misery. The characterisation, in short, abruptly goes from ‘evil C3PO’ to ‘Lassie’, at which point it’s OK to have him put down.

And there really is no coming back from that as a Thundercat.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

 

DVD Detail: Doctor Who – Paradise Towers

Traditional Doctor Who often includes fascistic guards, killer robots and ancient evil struggling to awaken, but the brilliance of this 1987 tale was to combine these elements not on a shiny spaceship or in a stylised English village but within an insane sit-com run by Richard Briers, clashing youth gangs against Mary Whitehouse types and bureaucracy gone mad in a run-down tower block. Result! Witty and inventive, the script is an ideal mix of comedy and horror in a still-fresh urban setting. Paradise Towers won a lot of awards back in the 21st Century. But not from Doctor Who fans…

Twenty-four years ago this evening, Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford were deep inside Paradise Towers. It was Sylvester’s first season as the Doctor, and the stories – all still finding their way with a new Doctor, a new lead writer and a new approach – have never been widely loved, with the general view that each of his seasons was a dramatic improvement on the one before (and I’d mostly agree, up to and including the fabulousness of the New Adventures that his Doctor gave rise to in the 1990s). The major exception for me was this story: a near-perfect template for the Seventh Doctor, I’d have loved to have had more like it. When it came out on DVD this summer, I was delighted – but it’s only fair to warn you that many others instead condemned it to a 327 Appendix 3 Subsection 9 death. Some people say this divides fans… Nah. Most of them just hate it! Even when it was first broadcast, the then-cheerleading Doctor Who Magazine put the boot in in a quite unprecedented way: “distinctly tired”; “isn’t much fun”; “PREDICTABLE”; “OVER-ACTED”; “frankly embarrassing”; and “Actually, watching Paradise Towers made me rather angry”. The Magazine was still reflecting that view back in September 2009, when DWM 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – in which Paradise Towers languished at a dismal 193rd. As I’d put it well over a hundred places higher, this story might well be the biggest gap between my taste and prevailing fan opinion. Though I’ve previously written about three of the bottom ten and found the odd nice thing to say about even the one that would be in my bottom ten, Paradise Towers is the only one of that “bottom ten” that absolutely shouldn’t be anywhere near there, where most fans are utterly wrong, and which should instead be celebrated.

While this ‘taster’ may not be short, incidentally, my policy in these is not to be too spoilery. So read on without fear of finding out too many key twists from the end. Which is just as well, as honesty compels me to warn you that, brilliant though much of this story is, the ending doesn’t quite live up to its promise…

That Golden Moment
“It’s – it’s – aaagghh!”
“Yes, I know.”
I was gripped from the first scene when this was first transmitted; ‘proper’ Doctor Who grammar, this, starting your sentence with a capital letter and your episode with a capital crime. But while the opening scenes juxtapose death in the Towers and curious bathos in the TARDIS – if the story were made today, you can easily imagine them as a pre-credits ‘teaser’ – the montage a little further into Part One considerably furthers both the adventures of the Doctor and Mel and the mysterious deaths.

Arriving to see the sights of the acclaimed architectural triumph Paradise Towers, the Doctor and Mel find it’s a right old sight, and run into a gang of girls who’ve created names, crossbows and a culture from their surroundings. I still can’t help laugh when the charismatic Annabel Yuresha sashays menacingly towards our heroes and declaims, “Bin Liner.” Nor at their inventive wordplay, or when she, a Red Kang, bitchily asks, “What is Mel’s colour?” Sylvester’s great introducing himself, too. But in another part of the graffiti-covered, litter-strewn Towers, there’s rather less jollity.

A caretaker is moving nervously along a darkened corridor, walkie-talkie in hand, as much to seek reassurance as to make his report. I loved the dirty set design, the low lighting, the sinister silhouette against the window – in a properly crapulent ’80s tower block, it always felt like Doctor Who had finally landed somewhere close to home, both bringing the series up to date and making it that much more unsettling. And, of course, like so many blocks of flats, the caretakers are bugger all use. Is he fixing the lights, cleaning the wall-scrawl, offering help and advice to visitors? No. He’s as scared as the rest of us. And it’s the running commentary of his fear that really makes this scene, with Joseph Young’s captivating performance as a minor authority figure out of his depth as he finds mounting evidence of murder. Even the sinister bass of the music adds to the atmosphere.

But if it’s not the Kangs fighting among themselves, what could have killed the young woman we saw scream her last in the opening moments? What should be on the side of the caretakers, under their control, but have become a law to themselves and almost a mythical sight? Surely not the Mark 7 Megapodic Cleaners? And while in many Doctor Who stories the sight of them might have been saved for the cliffhanger, and in many Doctor Who stories that take themselves more seriously the sight of an unconvincing robot might wound the story terribly (not that you might in any way be thinking of, say, Colony In Space), the essential absurdity that these are the cosy cleaners that have gone on the rampage prepares you for what is, basically, a very unthreatening hoover with ideas above its station. And the punchline – exactly on the line between horror and comedy – is pitch-perfect.

Poor Caretaker 345/12(3).

Something Else To Look Out For

Sylvester McCoy is immediately endearing as the Doctor, Martin Collins’ sets are spot-on, but for me the best thing about Paradise Towers is the script. Stephen Wyatt was a new young writer at the time, and still does a lot for radio (I caught his excellent two-hander Strangers On A Film on Radio Four a couple of weeks ago), and his invention, dialogue and basic desire to stick it to architects and jobsworths really shine. The innovation of sticking Doctor Who in a dirty old block of flats is one that the new series has often followed in the last few years, and while this is very ’80s as you watch it, in Who terms it’s still very much ahead of its time, with the script well-suited to the feel of Russell T Davies in particular. And yet the buried evil on the (High) rise again could be straight out of Philip Hinchcliffe’s early Tom Baker Doctor Who – this is one of two 1987 stories that feel like folk memories of Pyramids of Mars (imprisoned grandiose killer breaking out through possession and robot servants) – while the sheer camp entertainment could easily fit into the Graham Williams’ stories for the middle of Tom Baker (in which sense, this is probably my favourite Season 17 story). Pity Eric Saward, who as recently departed lead writer had become a one-man Bob Holmes tribute band, yet on his first attempt Stephen Wyatt delivers a script whose love of language, worldbuilding, inappropriate humour, scary horror and even cannibalism captures the spirit of Bob so perfectly (without even trying to) that it walks all over Eric. Yet for all that, it doesn’t stuff itself with references to other Doctor Who stories, just gets on with telling one.

The TARDIS crew do very differently out of this story: it feels like the real start of one, and the last nail in the coffin for the other. It’s Sylvester McCoy’s second story as the Doctor, and this makes a far better start for him – his performance is quirky, inventive and very watchable, while a new habit of fast-talking bafflegab works better for him than the previous story’s misquotations (and to the later delusions of godhood, indeed). He’s got a great scene where he talks his way out of imprisonment, despite the director’s slow pacing making it less tense and funny than it should have been, and another literally reversing the position of interrogator and captive (not the only bit of this story that turned up in 2006’s The Idiot’s Lantern). You can already see how this Doctor will work so well in his later stories and the New Adventures, the whole setting not far from lead writer Andrew Cartmel’s urban nightmare Cat’s Cradle: Warhead, for example, with the added bonus that it’s far funnier and that the ‘Dark Doctor’ is not yet plotting from the start to make Kroagnon peck himself to death with his own cleaners, even if an over-elaborate trap is already in evidence.


Of course in custard, I’m practically undetectable
 
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Bonnie Langford’s Mel, on the other hand, is very entertaining, but the story’s very cruel for her. Bonnie works her socks off here, but in that shocking outfit and with a near-pathological character you can’t help but see the Doctor as fidgety for a new companion. And look! Right on cue, lots of streetwise teenagers with improbable slang and a taste for explosives. He clearly thought Kangs were best, too. I was one of many who criticised Bonnie at the time and failed to see the talent she’s shown so often since – not least in Big Finish’s Doctor Who stories again starring her – but the show at the time tried too hard to make her play a caricature of her own image and not a character. This is her best story for all the wrong reasons, showing everything about her that’s utterly unreal: a prim young woman among feral girl-gangs and dangerously polite old ladies; law-abiding, stuck with caretakers who don’t care; and an over-enthusiastic optimist who, when all the optimism’s gone sour, simply looks unhinged. It’s not kind, but it’s very funny. Can you really believe Mel perking “It’s great!” and “Fantastic!” about an advert for a housing estate? “I can’t wait!” There’s enthusiastic, and there’s demented. Having arranged to meet at the pool – inevitably feared and revered as “The Great Pool in the Sky” and forbidden under pain of death, complete with a stunningly camouflaged cleaner robot for which I’ve nicked a famous DWM gag – she elevates this to an obsession as she makes her way towards it through three episodes of urban degeneration.

Build High For Happiness!

The various residents – tribes, really – of Paradise Towers are where the script alone can’t quite bring it all off. This story has the same director as the previous year’s The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet, and while the direction still has a lot of problems, he’s noticeably improved, with moody moments and some striking high shots. The set design here is quite a bit better; the costume design quite a bit worse. But it’s in his casting that you most wonder if he’s not still a bit shaky, because few Doctor Who stories have such an uncertain mix. It’s not unusual for, say, some big-name guest actors to ground a story while cheaper, younger actors try to make up in enthusiasm what they lack in experience; this is one of very few stories where that almost seems to be reversed. Some actors here are terrific; some miscast but doing their best; one simply taking the piss.

It’s time to take the plunge and come to the Chief Caretaker as played by Richard Briers, the figure at the centre of every terrible review this story has ever had. He inevitably reminds me of my recent review of Colony In Space, but where that alluded to The Good Life, this is Ever Decreasing Circles – and where that story, as I wrote, subverts Doctor Who’s love of the ancient evil awakening theme, this one gives it new life until, well, the ancient evil takes on its new life. A fine actor who decides he’s just going to enjoy himself as a literal Little Hitler, his best scene is that I mentioned where he interrogates the Doctor and you can see Sylv almost physically dragging a more contained performance out of him. He also works in the turnaround cliffhanger to Part One and the nearly-terrific cliffhanger to Part Three (going on just a little too long), one of the few points when the story leaves black comedy behind and it becomes genuinely unsettling. But then comes Part Four. It’s a shame that the script weakens here, as it means rather a lot of wheels comes off when suddenly Mr Briers gives one of the most blankwallandcleaneringly infamous performances in the series (at the time, Pyramids of Mars had just been released on VHS, and I remember vividly the unfortunate contrast of both actor and make-up for very similar roles in a not dissimilar story). Compare the appropriately named Joseph Young, like several of the caretakers miscast for what are clearly meant to be a decrepit old bunch and yet superb. Still, I can’t help but forgive Richard Briers for going off the deep end because he’s such a lovely man: I’ve met him twice, each time at the end of hours’-long autograph queues where most actors inevitably get tired and testy, yet he was charming, enthusiastic and interested. It also helps that at the first ever convention I attended he not only brought the house down by apologising for underplaying, but privately took a complete git of an actor down a peg. This man had been a big soap star but only a minor character in Doctor Who, and was volubly aggrieved that his queue was much shorter than those for people he’d never heard of. After embarrassing most of his fellow guests with a tirade in the green room against “bloody anoraks”, fans who didn’t properly appreciate him as the most important person in the hall, there was silence (by contrast, I also once met his on-screen soap wife, who was delighted and delightful in a similar setting). Then Richard Briers took a sip of tea, and looked up, with a mild but firm tone, to tell him: “Those ‘anoraks’ are paying your wages.”

At the risk of sounding sexist, the women here are generally far better than the men. The Kangs are great fun even if you can’t ignore their being perhaps the most ’80s roles ever created for TV – with their massive spray-painted wigs, it’s like Toyah versus the Bangles – and give the story much of its energy. They get many of the best lines, but also the story’s most creepily powerful tableau, a funeral without a body that makes us as mystified, horrified and drawn in as Mel, the audience like her thrown into the Towers’ twisted cultures at the deep end. Then there are the older twin-set-pearls-and-suspicious-cooking-arrangements ladies, far more politely behaved but ultimately far more subversive as they come into their own in the second episode, where the cliffhanger is an absolute scream. It’s an ideal opportunity to compare ‘young people today’ with readers of the Daily Mail (and just observe how the ‘police’ are far more interested in bullying graffiti artists than investigating mysterious deaths. Well, except for one of them, but you already know what happens to him).

The political attitude of Paradise Towers, then, is obviously one of the elements that make it appeal to me so much – and that make it so very much Doctor Who. The series has always been about standing up for people doing what they choose against huge, monolithic fascist authority that wants to force them into shape; the Daleks were often almost as much about tower blocks and the council as about the Nazis. Now Doctor Who’s doing a show about tower blocks and the council, it brings it home to the viewers by having pseudo-Daleks – like so many Dalek-substitutes, the cleaners are a flop, if here at least they have the excuse that they’re cleaners. It would be stretching it to say that local authorities being so slow to take any sort of action is satirised by most of the action sequences being so slow and feeble, though. In Paradise Towers, there are two rival authorities that boss people around and see them as inconvenient: one, that people are messy, and bossing them by the rules; the other, that people are in the way of a grand single vision. Either way, the story is quite a Liberal line of attack, even down to a ‘why can’t we all get along’ appeal. Add in a study of social alienation, a touch of the final Quatermass (breakdown of society in an urban nightmare a bit into the future, brutal authority that doesn’t have a clue, old people looking out for themselves and feral youth gangs), and of course lesbians who are simply delicious, and it’s very much to my taste. Build high for happiness!

‘Making of’, Music and Me

The extras for the DVD are mainly led by musician and sound engineer of the period Mark Ayres: although he didn’t do the music on this serial, it’s a significant part of the background story; he leads the ‘Making of’; and he chairs the commentary almost as an ‘In conversation with Mark Ayres’ piece. Nowhere is this more evident than on Part One, where the entire commentary is between him and writer Stephen Wyatt, which is an interesting change of style (I particularly enjoyed Mr Wyatt’s mention of the theory that the Yellow, Red and victorious Blue Kangs represented the political parties, and that the extinction of the Yellow Kangs was now outdated as they’re in government). They’re later joined by Resident Judy Cornwell, who’s marvellously anti-authoritarian and great on how sweet and nice old people aren’t, and plain-speaking sound designer Dick Mills. There are eight minutes of deleted and extended scenes, the ’80s segment of the Girls! Girls! Girls! documentary on the Doctor’s companions (thought-provoking points by Janet Fielding, amusing computer graphics, but definitely missing Nicola Bryant). I enjoyed the main ‘Making of’ documentary, too, which adds Richard Briers, lead writer Andrew Cartmel, David Snell – of whom more in a minute – and actor Howard Cooke, who’s aged rather well and gives an interesting account of his role as wet “Musclebrain” Pex. At the time, the obvious problem with him was that he didn’t have the pecs, but it’s easier to forgive the miscasting in hindsight: he doesn’t look the part, but he can act it, right from an opening scene that adds to the bizarre culture shock of the Towers (and which I quoted the last time I raved about this story), through the gradual disintegration and eventual redemption – or is it? – of his character. So why didn’t the director pick someone who looks like a massive musclebound Rambo? Mr Cooke could act, and none of the muscles they saw could (surprise!).

1987’s new musical discovery for Doctor Who was Keff McCulloch, whose frenzied drum machines have a fair bit to do with Season 24’s unpopularity. Even my love of Doctor Who incidental music often comes a cropper with him. And yet I’ve always sneakingly enjoyed some of the soundtrack for this story, even the crassly OTT overcompensating for the cleaners. The Paradise Towers score is infamous for another reason, though – the original composer, David Snell, was actually sacked after he’d completed it because the producer thought it wasn’t up to scratch. And after decades of reading about this, the extra I was most eager for was Mark Ayres’ painstaking restoration of that score as an optional alternate soundtrack. The ‘new’ old soundtrack is… odd. It’s almost sound effects, or at least sounds repeating (rather than themes) for different situations, sometimes overcoming the dialogue, and too often either silent or one-note overwhelming. It’s not ‘strange sounds’ – like The Daleks, say – but nor does it offer tunes. It’s somewhere in between, repetitive motifs to atonal bleepings, and strangely unsatisfying. Again, it makes me warm unnaturally to Mr McCulloch. Both musicians were clearly inspired by the creepy funeral, though, as the broadcast chimes are effective and Mr Snell’s low, slightly eerie tones for it work rather well too, and he sets a much better tone for the Kangs bullying Pex than Keff’s bouncing. By contrast, he badly overdoes the music for the fizzade, which you’d think was the monster (it doesn’t help that I’d always strangely liked the broadcast “Drinksmat Dawning” segue into the Chief and his little pet). Even The Sea Devils didn’t offer such a high-pitched buzz for the cliffhanger that would have children and dogs scurrying for cover. I’m very glad to hear this score at last, but commissioning another was the right decision. I have to make a minor complaint that there isn’t – yet again – an isolated score available on the DVD, let alone the two they could have included, but as five separate audio tracks would be a bit much I reckon they have more of an excuse than usual.

With author Stephen Wyatt the person whose involvement in this story I most admire, his was the voice I was most interested to hear in the extras, and he’s very informative. I was fascinated by his starting point for it – not just his experience of living in crappy tower blocks and dealing with petty control freaks, but about what he’d like to see in the series, too, thinking that it never had dirty corridors like those he walked, and that it had got to the point where you had to know everything about Doctor Who in order to watch it. And perhaps he had a point in thinking Doctor Who had got far too up itself to be watchable; in the previous year, the series had had fourteen episodes, taking A Christmas Carol to start off with and finishing without satisfactorily resolving most of the questions, absolutely definitely killing off one of the lead characters and then bringing them back, with another recurring character turning out to be a mysterious future relative, and the whole thing mucking about with the Doctor’s past, present and future, with a woman he meets in the wrong order. [Miranda Hart look to camera]


Alex and the Pool Cleaner
 
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Rather disconcertingly, I once met Stephen Wyatt through his ex, who was my ex’s disturbing landlord. Said disturbing landlord heard I liked Doctor Who and promptly rang Stephen up and handed the phone to me. This was twenty years ago, and I’d not met authors before, nor spoken to them, so I was more than a little stilted and had no idea what to say when suddenly presented as demanding his attention over the phone. He asked me which story of his I preferred, and couldn’t believe it was this one – his other Who script is widely fêted, this widely hated – so I told him that, no, it wasn’t always delivered very well on screen, but I still loved the script. He also asked, cautiously, if I was his ex’s new boyfriend, which I was very quick to deny. If you can find a copy of Mr Wyatt’s novelisation, by the way, it’s rather good, though with less of a light touch than his script: he fleshes out a lot of the details, and my favourites Tilda and Tabby get an appropriately fairy tale buildup (“Surely not”) and witty asides.

The photos, incidentally, are more from the Blackpool Doctor Who Exhibition. A major part of my childhood, it was closed in 1986 with a new version opened in the 2000s, but the Philistine BBC closed it again and flogged off most of the exhibits two years ago rather than preserve them for the nation.

Why Max Normal Isn’t

I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get this off my chest. Paradise Towers was the first fruit of new lead writer Andrew Cartmel’s desire to see Doctor Who become more like some of the wilder comics of the time, and it often has a bit of a 2000AD feel about it. Like 2007’s even more fabulous Doctor Who story Gridlock, you can see some of The Ballad of Halo Jones here, with Paradise Towers itself a slightly sanitised version of Judge Dredd’s massive citiblocks (and all at least more upbeat than Doctor Who Magazine’s memorably wrist-slitting-tastic End of the Line). And because of that, and the bloke in the bowler hat in Gridlock, the one character people always seem to talk about (rather than, say, the more appropriate Swifty Frisko) is one from the early years of Judge Dredd. His name was Max Normal, he wore a bowler and a pin-striped suit, and every single Doctor Who fan who mentions him misses the point entirely (I suspect even Russell may have made the same mistake). To pick on About Time 6 unfairly purely because it happens to refer to him while comparing Gridlock and Paradise Towers and so a piece I read today while trying to avoid saying the same as everyone else, the ironically-named Max Normal is not “vigorously-average”.

I suppose if you’ve never read a strip in which Max Normal – “the pinstripe freak” – appears, it’s easy to mistake the name and the look of this inhabitant of the crazed world of the Mega-City of early 22nd-Century East Coast America for some sort of boringly ordinary character. That means you’ve missed the triple joke: when he first appeared in 2000AD in the late ’70s, people in suits and bowlers were ‘normal’, and shocked by the small numbers of young people dressed as punks – in Mega-City One, everyone looks like a punk, and are shocked at a young rebel dressed outlandishly in suit and bowler when nobody else does; it’s the 22nd Century, so this is like someone dressing as Beau Brummel today; and he’s Judge Dredd’s informer, who talks jive, so he’s also Huggy Bear incongruously turned white and dressed like an old City stockbroker, which is just as outrageous an outfit in Mega-City One as Huggy Bear’s pimptastic look was in old Bay City.

Which is why Max just isn’t Normal. Perhaps the much-anticipated About Time 7 can correct this misapprehension when it comes to Gridlock itself?

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