Monday, August 31, 2009
Daniel Hannan – A Reckoning?
Mr Hannan can have his opinions (contradictorily, if he likes). So what? I can have mine, too. Free speech doesn’t mean he should be immune from criticism. And if a politician implies different things about immigration to different audiences, gosh, colour me stunned. It would hardly be the first time an ambitious Tory made libertarian noises to one crowd, and sent out a Powellite dog-whistle to others. Did he say, ‘Enoch Powell is my hero, but I would also like to point out that I have a substantially different view on immigration and race’? Of course not. Confronting both audiences with a single message spoils the whole effect for an ambitious politician, whatever their party and whatever the two messages they’re carefully keeping apart, and perhaps most of all in pandering to racism to make yourself look like a right-wing tough guy contrast to that anaemic Mr Cameron.
So imagine my surprise when I got back home a couple of days later to find that I’d grievously offended the Dan Hannan fan club, to the extent that they’ve plastered the thread with outrage at me! Tee hee :D
I’ve ploughed my way through it all, and it’s not terribly edifying. I reckon I’ve made my case, so there’s not a lot of point in replying forty places down to say the same thing again. If you’ve got half an hour to spare, though, you can read it yourself and make up your own mind. There’s a piece by Nick Barlow that links to us both, too.
Unfortunately, I think my problem with what’s there – not repeating my original points – is rather less with the criticism of me than with how Mark seems to react to criticism of him. He exploded onto the Lib Dem blogosphere and national media with an unusual blog piece that combined dogged hard analysis and inspiration. It’s a shame that to ‘prove’ his point about Mr Hannan, Mark’s commitment to linguistic accuracy is so much less rigorous than his statistical accuracy. When both Asquith and Duncan Stott take issue with Mark’s ‘quoting’ of Tony Blair, first putting it in context and then providing what Mr Blair actually said… Well, Mark’s been caught out being very misleading to make a point. But, bizarrely, Mark still sticks to it. I loathed Mr Blair, and argued many times that he was pure poison to British politics. But I didn’t have to change what he said to make my case – it was quite bad enough.
So, Mark, it’s cheap and stupid to state that a Conservative explicitly choosing to pick and praise Enoch Powell as his sole example of a British political hero is exactly equivalent to a Prime Minister expressing a politely mealy-mouthed tribute with caveats when faced with the death of a formerly important political figure. What’s cheaper and more stupid is that Mark pretends political statements never have a context… And that, to prove it (as Asquith and Duncan demonstrate) he has to ignore all context to Mr Hannan’s comments, then deliberately hack away the context to Mr Blair’s. Ignore the things Mr Hannan didn’t say, and hide the things Mr Blair did? That’s not an honest argument. And neither is Mark constantly protesting that free speech means that a politician can say whatever he likes – which he can – but that then somehow wrong for anyone to exercise their own free speech in criticising him (I would never say he doesn’t have the right to say what he did; but if people then disagree with something you’ve said, you don’t bleat ‘Not fair – they must shut up’!). I thought what I had to say about Mr Hannan was sharpened and improved by engaging with Mark in debate about it; it’s a shame his idea of engagement appears to be both one-sided and misleading.
I say the above because I’m disappointed by a Lib Dem blogger who I’ve read being logical, thought-provoking and – though I frequently disagree with him – fair by his own lights. This twisting words and arguments to fake up a point… He’s better than that. All Mr Hannan’s supporters flocking about to spit at anyone who has the temerity to argue with him are just funny, though.
I write a reasoned, evidence-based argument about political context; anonymous Hannan supporters first deny that any politics has any context at all, then make up a context for me (hypocrisy? What hypocrisy?) as a smear, that I’m “left” and Downing Street’s my favourite. Heh! Who knew? It’s almost as if they were utterly unable to answer a single one of my arguments, and had to sling abuse in exactly the same way I didn’t. I can’t remember the last time ‘criticism’ of me’s made me smile so much. I believe the word is ‘pwned’.
The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that this was originally the middle of my previous post, Wuthering, Wuthering, Wuthering… I’d intended to write a quick little compilation post, putting together a paragraph or two on each of three or so things I was thinking about this evening. Being me, they grew. I posted it, then Richard pointed out that ‘light-hearted but lengthy piece about a book / lashings of hard politics / light-hearted but lengthy piece about another book’ didn’t really go together. Ironically given the subject of this post, in woozily writing more and more, I’d lost sight of the context. So here it is, plucked out on its own and probably looking harsher than I’d intended as a result (Richard did suggest the alternative of leaving this where it was and pruning it down to just two key paragraphs, but being me…).
Labels: Bigotry, Blogs, Conservatives, The Golden Dozen
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Wuthering, Wuthering, Wuthering…
It’s many years since I’ve been to Manchester Pride – perhaps even before that was its name. And tempting as it was to pop along yesterday while we were in town, we drove back home instead; it was a lovely couple of days with parents, and friends, and sister, and brother, and nephew, and niece, but unfortunately set off with a dental visit involving lots of drilling, infection, and having to make three follow-up appointments. So with the pain, the painkillers and the antibiotics, Richard sensed I was a little woozy and not up to much. Don’t be too surprised, then, if I only write little nibbles this evening.
On a special Pride note, though, I refer you to John Abrams, who I’m certain was there and who wrote three excellent pieces at the end of last week: on gay people’s progress; celebrating the life of Alan Turing; and, yay for John, winning an apology and a correction from Auntie Beeb when they talked provable rubbish!
I know what you’re thinking. ‘Alex is going to do a 4000-word review of a 162-year-old book. I can’t wait!’ Well… No, sorry. It’s, oh dear, about twenty years since I read it, which means that my main memory of the book is just about the only exam in my life I’ve really enjoyed. It was largely because it was my final A-Level exam (yikes, nineteen years ago! And congratulations to our sixteen-year-old nephew, who we saw this week after doing rather well on his GCSEs), the second General Studies paper, but also because it gave me a chance to camp it up with a bit of creative writing (must have gone down well, too: they gave me an A). I answered all the questions bar one, then entertained myself with all the time I had left writing an essay which asked for an assessment of works of art in different media – so I compared the Emily Brontë book, the Laurence Olivier film and the Kate Bush song. Happy days!
You’ll probably remember, as I do, the famous video of shimmering white Kate dancing against black for her first and biggest hit. You may not be so familiar, though, with the alternative video of our Kate weirding it up in red, in the forest.
And I’m willing to bet that you haven’t seen Robert and Alistair Lock’s rather fabulous, tasteless home-made version, Mothering Swines. You should.
In the meantime, the big question for tonight and tomorrow’s new adaptation is – will they do the whole book, or just the bits people usually remember? The key thing I remember from reading the novel is being surprised that half of the book is Wuthering Heights: The Next Generation. Oops! Is that a spoiler? Depends if they put it in…
…So I’d better not write anything about A Pocket Full of Rye, the first Agatha Christie I’ve ever read – on an impulse from our local library, picking up the first Miss Marple for which I couldn’t remember the story from the TV – as, though the differences between the book and the Joan Hickson adaptation are fascinating, ITV1 are mounting a new version of that next week. Even though they rudely name the series after a place I used to walk to all the time in my teens, rather than Miss Marple the character. All I’ll say is that: surprisingly, Mrs Christie’s novel is very funny in parts (and far less abbreviated); that for a couple of years, I used to live in the same Essex village that Joan Hickson did, and she wasn’t as loveable as the hard-eyed angel of vengeance that she played; that the person behind the murders was indeed one of the three I mentally shortlisted, though (again surprisingly) one of them didn’t make it to the 1985 TV at all; and that the probable reason I didn’t remember their identity from TV is that, though they have the same name and basic place in the narrative, their character is hugely different.
…Er, has been moved!
Professor Bernice Summerfield’s The Joy Device
“I want to be happy.”Ten years ago, Doctor Who was looking a bit shaky. The series had been dropped by the BBC, and the 1996 TV Movie (Time Waits For No Man) hadn’t been picked up for more. The most brilliant, influential and coherent continuation of Doctor Who between 1989 and 2005 – Virgin’s New Adventures novels – had lost their licence, too, and nothing else had really taken off instead. The BBC’s own series of novels was producing flashes of inspiration and long stretches of dreck, and Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio dramas had only just started, not yet hitting their heights. One of the saddest competing shards of Doctor Who were the Doctorless continuing New Adventures novels with the fabulous companion Professor Bernice Summerfield – unloved by the publishing house, constantly on the brink of cancellation, and reading like a grudge war between the two incompatible authors handling most of what was left of the range. Now Benny’s got a large and successful range of Big Finish audios that are still fun and still carrying on, but back in 1999 her book series apparently died with a whimper. And yet just before the end there was a return to fun and quality, entirely unexpectedly, in Justin Richards’ The Joy Device.
If you can track down this novel – which wasn’t so much released as escaped – it’s one of Benny’s most entertaining adventures, despite expectations. By all accounts, Justin Richards was writing half the books at enormous speed (though I’m waiting to get hold of Simon Guerrier’s big book of Benny to find out The Inside Story), and most of his, ah, passed the time adequately, usually with walking corpses. But you wouldn’t rave about them. But then came The Joy Device, the penultimate book of the range, which I read while having a joyless time staying at a god-awful hotel in New Brighton for the job I was in at the time. And it cheered me up enormously. Put simply, Benny decides that being an academic who spends her life sorting through an art collection doesn’t sound thrilling, and goes off on a trip to the Rim of known space for excitement, adventure and really wild things, with her own pet Indiana Jones as a tour guide (yes, he is a male version of Benny). What could possibly go wrong?
Well, of course there are muggers, murderers and a Maltese Falcon-like collection of gangsters hunting a mysterious artefact, but Benny pretty much misses all of that. Because the thing I really enjoyed about this book, and have just enjoyed all over again on grabbing a book to comfort myself with when off to the dentist, is that her friends worry that she’ll either get herself killed or like it too much back on the edge, and set off after her to get there before her and, essentially, spoil all her fun. And, yes, that in itself is a spoiler, but it’s not the biggest challenge to work out: every peril’s defused, every threat moved out of the way, all to make sure that before she gets into a thrilling situation it’s been made as boring as possible. And it’s very funny. Particularly the very literal angel (though don’t look at the pretty cover too closely).
The bit I always remember is – unsurprisingly to anyone who’s followed Benny’s adventures – in a bar, though coffee’s a bigger threat. There’s a lot of fun here. Boredom is, of course, by definition not that exciting, but having to stretch every sinew to set up boredom is very entertaining indeed. Yes, it’s full of appalling clichés (mainly from self-buffing adventurer Harper Dent), but only to send them all up mercilessly, and there’s an inspired idea at the heart of it all, too. Dorpfeld’s Prism, the MacGuffin everyone’s chasing, has the effect of blinding you to reality and making everything seem so much rosier than it really is – which is exactly what Benny’s friends are arranging to happen to her. It’s just that while the gangsters and wheeler-dealers want it as an escape from their vicious existences, it’s boring Bernice senseless.
Pretty much every contemporary review I remember reading of this said how dreadfully clichéd it was. I suspect by that time too many of the books had spiralled into such a grim ordeal that everyone had forgotten they were meant to be amusing. If you read it, don’t make the same mistake. If you want grim and horrid, grab a Brontë.
Labels: Bigotry, Blogs, Books, Conservatives, Gay, Music, New Adventures, Personal, Professor Bernice Summerfield
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Beating Up Bankers Is Good For Them – Regulator
I woke up this morning to find The Today Programme announcing that Lord Turner, Chair of the Financial Services Authority, wanted attacks on bankers with excessive bonuses. Woozily, I heard that because people like Fred Goodwin were “socially useless,” it would be fine to vandalise his Edinburgh home, as happened a few months ago, or perhaps give the man a good going-over with a baseball bat. If the FSA Chair – who’s worked with these scum for so many years – has now concluded this is the only language they understand, who was I to disagree?
Clearly, lots of other people had heard the rather more radical than intended proposal that I did, so by the end of the programme, the headlines had carefully split up the words. Lord Turner said there should be a… new… bankers’… tax. Ah. Attacks. A tax.
Look, after a month of being more ill than usual, I’ve been having raging toothache this week and am zombied out on lack of sleep and surplus of painkillers. It was an easy mistake to make.
In other news, a health warning. If, like me, you’re a bit out of it today, don’t look into the scary boggling eyes of Daniel Hannan. Still less listen to his latest coded message to supporters that, ‘it’s fine, under all the “
Update: Mark is more generous to Mr Hannan. I disagree.
Labels: Bigotry, Conservatives, Health, The Golden Dozen, The Today Programme
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Silly Season Stories – We Have A Winner!
Zombies On The Today Programme: How Could They Tell?
Apparently, research carried out at two universities in Ottawa using mathematical models of epidemiology warned that the only language zombies understand is to
Of course, there is an ultra-violent alternative to this nasty ultraviolence. As any fule kno, sending that wet liberal Judge Dredd off in an armoured killer-truck to deliver a vaccine to the infected will work just as well, provided he can avoid such deadly perils as US Army vampire robots – of which more later, in case you thought they weren’t real – and the even more terrifying copyright lawyers for McDonalds, Burger King and the Jolly Green Giant (I have those issues, though if you own any of the graphic novel reprints, you’ll find four episodes curiously missing).
You’ll no doubt be aware that news programmes are infamous for sexing up their reports and distorting perfectly sensible and serious scientific works, so here’s a link to the full report, the sober and respectable When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infestation. One of the authors is Professor Robert Smith? – question mark included – which may help explain the erratic punctuation of the otherwise dull and unobjectionable title.
This morning’s Today Programme was much less interesting; I switched on shortly after half-six to hear Evan Davis exclaim “-anker,” and cheerily assumed he’d finally taken his mission as Today’s sole interviewer who tells it as it is to its logical conclusion. But instead of telling a Labour minister what he thought of them, it turned out to be an item about tragedies in Sri Lanka, meaning I started my morning with the burden of guilt over inappropriate levity.
US Army Discovers Sustainability At Cyber’s Diner
Naturally, zombie research is far from the only “Silly Season” news story calling out for attention, but having precipitately offered the award, I should explain why I’ve ruled out two other obvious front-runners.
You might think that the clear favourite “Silly Season” story over the past few weeks is the thought that Peter Mandelson might become Prime Minster, but while in itself it’s absurd – OK, so he’s just about the only Labour minister who’s not a/ incompetent and b/ terrified right now, but he’s in the Lords until at the very least the General Election, probably for ever, he’s sufficiently hated in enough of the Labour Party that he could never win a Leadership election, and even Labour MPs aren’t stupid enough to inflict another unelected Leader on their party after how the current one’s turned out – many would object that the Government, while certainly stupid, are too dangerous to be labelled “Silly”. With the zombie infestation “New Labour” still pushing us very close to “the collapse of civilisation,” comparing so vile a condition to something as harmless as a world-threatening undead epidemic is in poor taste.
My favourite story of the “Silly Season” also has to be ruled out of contention for the “Silly” prize by virtue of being truly quite scary. In answer to the twin conundrums of soldiers’ body bags and climate change, the US Army has commissioned a battlefield robot. You know that episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa encourages a bankrupt Mr Burns to discover the effectiveness of recycling, with lucrative but horrific results? Well, imagine something probably less lucrative – except for the weapons manufacturers, natch – but far more horrific.
Yes, the US Army is looking to bring into service an “Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot,” or “EATR,” which can trundle around the battlefield killing people but, replacing soldiers, can’t be killed itself. And, to avoid wasteful fossil fuel use, it will run itself off organic matter that it finds lying about the battlefield.
Now, hands up at the back of the class anyone who can tell me a/ how likely it is to be able to distinguish civilians from combatants and b/ what the most prominent, juicily fuel-filled organic matter lying around any given battlefield will be? A clue to the latter: headlines like “Darpa’s Self-Feeding Sentry Robot Is Not A Man-Eater, Company Protests,” reminding me of nothing so much as Good King Yulfric the Wise the Third’s expostulation “The Evil Flesh-Eating Lord of Kraan is not a cannibal! I don’t know why everyone thinks he is!” from Hordes of the Things. The Guardian helpfully reported:
“‘We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission,’ said Harry Schoell, the chief executive of Cyberdyne Power Technologies, one of the companies behind the machine.”“That is not our mission”?! And, apparently, the EATR can be programmed not to recognise human flesh as a top source of nutrients. Well, I’m reassured.
If you want a break from all this real-world undead horror, tonight at 11pm BBC4 is broadcasting Gods and Monsters, a rather lovely and barbedly witty film about the last days of James Whale, one of Hollywood’s foremost filmmakers and homosexualists. Ian McKellen stars as Mr Whale, with the lovely Brendan Fraser as his incredibly buff gardener. Both actors are superb, in a film that covers 1950s mores, Hollywood hypocrisy, being out as gay fifty years before your time, the trenches of the First World War and the making of probably the finest film of the Twentieth Century, Bride of Frankenstein. While perhaps the key scene is the tragic revelation of the stroke-reduced limits of Mr Whale’s talents, and what they mean for the characters, I still fondly remember the way we hooted with laughter at the death scene, and how everyone else in the cinema looked round and glared at us. That’s the peril of going to an arthouse cinema to see what, despite the po-faced patrons, is – like Bride of Frankenstein – a comedy about death.
Labels: Comics, Frankenstein, Health, Labour, Radio, Stupid Ideas, Technology, The Today Programme
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Please Come To Our Wedding, And Deny Your Own (FOSVP)
The two questions are:
- Did the invitation make it clear – or even give any indication – that couples attending the wedding were, ironically, to be forcibly broken up for the event?
- Who told the press about this?
So all the resultant media explosion about ‘rude MP’ and ‘all Muslims are the same’ is just so much eyewash. If Mr Fitzpanic and his wife didn’t know what was going to happen in advance, just decided to leave on finding out, and then found themselves exploded all over the press, then well done them. They did the right thing and shouldn’t be pilloried for it. If he went along with a plan in mind, tipping off the press he was making a stunt, then he’s a git. And much as I hate to defend my local Labour MP, the fact that this has all exploded after the fact rather than showing photos of him storming out does rather suggest the former.
What Would I Do?
Well, in a similar situation, I’d ask Richard, of course, or he’d ask me, and I hope Mr Fitzpanic asked his wife.
Then we’d tell our hosts to fuck off.
I can think of nothing more absurd, nothing more wrong, and nothing more calculatedly anti-marriage at a wedding than telling couples they have to split up. I mean, really. ‘Celebrate our wedding by denying that you’re together?’ I don’t think so. Even if you don’t share my own moral conviction that being together means you’re both equal.
What does telling a couple they have to be segregated into separate rooms at a wedding tell them:
- Our marriage is the only important one – yours isn’t?
- One of you is important – the other isn’t?
- We assume you’re so sexually insatiable that you’ll rip each others’ clothes off and frighten the horses during the ceremony?
If I were invited to a wedding but told not to bring Richard because people might be offended, not only would I decline, but I doubt I would speak to the people inviting me again (not without a lot of swearing, anyway). If we turned up and were told we had to sit apart, not dance together, not kiss or hold hands like most couples do at the key moments, because – not that the bride and groom were prejudiced at all, but you know, the families were very religious… Depending on how generous I was feeling, I’d ask them if they were joking, or tell them to grow a spine, or we’d just leave. What a thing to ask a couple.
It’s your choice how you stage your wedding, but if you choose to hold it at Bigots-R-Us, don’t act all offended if some of the people you invite won’t give up their choice not to like it.
The bottom line, surely, is that a wedding is a celebration of people getting together, and that nothing can be ruder and more bizarre than insisting that people do that by being forced apart.
We have, though, been to a wedding where the bride and groom have encouraged us to be as couply as we like and be tactile with the ostracized gay cousin just to make sure that the disapproving religious side of the family knew that the happy couple didn’t approve of them.
And all right, there was that one wedding where our presence was a bit of an issue and we were sat some way apart, but that was complicated and we laugh about it now… And even then, we knew in advance what it would be like. And no-one called the papers.
Nude Is Not Rude
I notice sadly that yet another council are prudishly forbidding people from being naked on a naturist beach (“warning: video contains tiny-minded locals”). Top marks to reporter Paul MacInnes, and he’s not “horribly ugly” at all – though rolled eyes to the Carry On-style music, and the predictably homophobic interviewees. Shame on Waveney District Council; there are few enough places you can get nude in public, and petty-minded so-and-sos are always trying to chip away at them. Not only should they get themselves lives and stop ordering people around, but it’s at times like these that I almost wish I was a Star Trek fan. Then I could turn up nude at weddings and bellow that traditional Betazoid dress was my ‘cultural tradition’.
Labels: Bigotry, British Politics, Gay, Meddling In Things That Are Nobody's Business But Your Own, Naturism, Personal, Religion, Richard, Stupid Ideas, The Golden Dozen
Friday, August 14, 2009
DVD Taster: The Black Guardian Trilogy
Back in 1978-9, the series was given over to the rather fabulous quest for the Key To Time, six linked stories which ended with the Doctor apparently turning his back on both the White Guardian (God – or is he?) and the Black Guardian (the Devil – or is he?), with the latter – if, indeed, there was ever any difference between them – vowing vengeance on him. In 1983, the Black Guardian returned for three linked stories (four episodes to each) in which he enlisted a young man, Turlough, to kill the Doctor. Turlough, then, becomes a rather refreshing change to most of the Doctor’s companions, having something of an ulterior motive when he joins the TARDIS crew. These three stories are rather more Turlough’s than the Black Guardian’s, though both are pictured with the Doctor on the rather nice DVD box set cover, and despite being a sequel to The Key To Time, you don’t need to have watched it first. In fact, this Trilogy’s probably best not watched back-to-back with the ’70s stories. Despite both storylines sailing as close to fantasy and magic as Doctor Who ever does, the ’80s set has a very different feel, not least in that the Guardians are no longer mysterious presences each scary in their own right, and possibly both the same person – subtlety has left the production office and strict Manichean dualism is in, with the Black Guardian now very definitely evil and having enormous fun cackling to prove it, while the once cold and frightening White Guardian eventually appears as now a rather ineffectual but nice old gent whom the Doctor regards as thoroughly trustworthy rather than a bullying sky git. Remarkably, while the overarching characters are comparatively crass, the scripts themselves are rather subtle, leading to an intriguing mix of moods in which the Black Guardian himself often stands out like a sore duck, though his ostentatious villainy’s always hugely entertaining.
If you want more of the Guardians, incidentally, Big Finish this year released The Key 2 Time, another set of three linked stories (plus prequel The Prisoner’s Dilemma), also rather good, which as the name implies follow on not only from The Black Guardian Trilogy but from the events of The Key To Time – and for these CDs, you are better off watching the TV stories first. The Judgement of Isskar, The Destroyer of Delights and The Chaos Pool all again star Peter Davison, with some rather fine work by actors such as David Troughton, Lalla Ward and Being Human’s Jason Watkins in some occasionally surprising roles…
Given any set of stories, usually the one I’d pick as ‘the best’ and ‘my favourite’ would be the same. Occasionally, though, while one story appeals to my head as clearly of superior quality, another will win my heart even when it fails. In this set, Enlightenment is clearly the best story, but there’s something fascinating about Mawdryn Undead, even though other bits are curiously disappointing (and I’ll cross Terminus when I come to it). I love the mournful intelligence of this story, but it’s not exactly all pulling in the same direction: a gently haunting morality tale with the overblown look and sound of a rock opera, scripted so every fifth line is incomprehensible jargon. But many of the other four lines are gorgeous.
If you’ve followed The Sarah Jane Adventures, you may find some of this story eerily familiar (or, to a lesser extent, if you’ve seen Doctor Who: School Reunion, while the Doctor and Turlough’s eyes meeting across the TARDIS console is very Time Crash). The Sarah Jane Adventures’ finest moment so far was the gripping, heartbreaking story Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane, and it’s safe to assume that author Gareth Roberts is more than familiar with Mawdryn Undead. The Trickster, a black-robed figure with mysterious powers who glories in chaos and destruction, not only looks and acts like a cross between the Black Guardian and his one-time servant the Shadow, but offers a remarkably similar bargain here (then last year, Gareth’s Secrets of the Stars shimmied around the copyright lawyers of The Masque of Mandragora in similarly stylish fashion). In a story set across two different time zones that feature younger and older aspects of our hero, someone is reckless with a schoolfriend and has a nasty accident – at which point, hanging between life and death, the mysterious black-clad figure appears and offers them a way out at the cost of someone else’s life. They’re given a squarish carved object which, when held in their hand, allows them to communicate with their dark ‘saviour’, who tells them that – yes, in the same words in both stories – “Waking or sleeping, I will be always with you…”
“Waking or sleeping, you can never escape me, Turlough.”
That Golden Moment
Half-way through Part Two, which involves the odd spoiler, and Turlough is gripped by a moral dilemma. It’s one thing to agree – while apparently injured and hallucinating, and under a lot of pressure – to kill someone who you’re assured is utterly evil, but he’s now met the Doctor and suspects he might actually be quite nice after all. Added to that, he’s not been given the ticket off Earth he was promised, and the Doctor looks as good a prospect for that as the mysterious man in black anyway. So with conscience, squeamishness and self-interest all pointing in a roughly similar direction, he no longer feels like going along with his bargain, and confides in his headmaster, a kindly figure in black robes looming over him. This may, in retrospect, be a clue (and, in keeping with the story’s theme of old glories going sour, the same actor once played in effect the Doctor’s headmaster in The Deadly Assassin).
More open-minded than many headmasters, he observes that “I must say, it’s a most remarkable story,” but takes everything Turlough tells him as the truth, making him the perfect sounding-board. It’s a superbly crafted argument over morality, Turlough asking “Haven’t I done enough?” and the other sympathising, “I can see, you’re in a most invidious position” but each time gently pointing Turlough towards the flaws in his trying to weasel out of it and towards making a final choice for himself. Initially, he seems just an inhumanly perfect arbiter, helping Turlough make up his own mind as if imagined by the young man to argue out his inner conflict – until the headmaster prompts him, “Are you absolutely sure?” and Turlough decides that, yes, he is going to abandon his deal… At which the headmaster turns on him, suddenly the Black Guardian. Turlough leaps from his sickbay bed in fright and tries to escape – but finds he’s left his body behind. That inhumanly perfect headmaster was indeed all inside his head, but not a figment of his own imagination, and there’s no getting away from the other guy who’s in there with him… In a story brimming with memorable moments, the confessor turned Devil is the most striking piece of imagery.
Something Else To Look Out For
Whenever Mawdryn Undead dwells on character, it’s an extraordinary success. Turlough’s inner demons, the Brigadier’s beautifully played double life and moment of revelation when confronted by the Doctor, Mawdryn’s torment and, especially, his final line – all of these are brilliant moments. I love the musical score, too, despite opinions being shall we say mixed; Tat Wood excoriates it in About Time 5 as the worst in the entire series, but though the opening scene’s relentlessly perky ‘driving’ music is a bit much, the eerie electric guitar chords for Mawdryn and his people add urgency to a thoughtful story – imagine how po-faced it would be with a portentous choir on the soundtrack – and Turlough’s ‘crystal’ theme perfectly suits his increasing hysteria. One of the story’s most gripping sequences is in Part One, as that theme rises slowly on Turlough, recovering from a car crash to realise his bargain wasn’t a dream, then power chords interrupt the Doctor’s wittering to signal that a ship is about to crash into them, before returning to Turlough as he becomes more desperate.
When Mawdryn Undead turns to plotting or explanations, it’s rather more uneven. There are intriguing mysteries and cleverly overlapping times and scenes, but an oddly thoughtful script has sudden grossly horrific moments thrown in as if at random to liven it up and a distracting flood of references to the series’ past, of which only the affecting portrayal of the Brigadier and the twist of someone using knowledge of regeneration as a bluff really work. The strong emotion, characterisation and moral dilemmas of the script keep being hamstrung by references only fans get and jargon nobody gets: how else could we be given the assertion that the Doctor will no longer be a Time Lord at the cliffhanger to Part Three, but only have explained how and why that’s a threat in the following episode? The design, too, is a mix. Mawdryn’s ship has a sinisterly funereal opulence, mixing luxury with death masks. There’s a richness to the design that’s also bloated and rotten – but then you get a control room that’s less stylish Art Deco than tacky games console, and what appears to be high drama with an exploding toaster. Twice.
Thank goodness for Turlough. Like an alternative Doctor as a reedy, amoral cowardly exile who needs the real Doctor to bring out the good in him, he not only livens up the TARDIS crew, but is interesting enough to save a trilogy where the Guardian/s’ former ambiguity becomes pedantic Manichean dualism. Even where Turlough’s concerned, though, the story has problems with consequences – here’s where he starts a running theme until the end of Enlightenment of repeatedly apparently breaking free of the Black Guardian’s bargain and apparently being utterly consumed by his purpose, only each time to revert to being somewhere in the middle without explanation. The other key figures in the story are not the Guardian but the Doctor’s old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, with what we were all told at the time were the ‘glory days’ of UNIT held up in a distorting mirror – he’s a broken shell of himself, and can’t abide the alien exile he’s stuck with, one who’s a cowardly liar prepared to commit murder in order to escape – and Mawdryn, who’s also desperate to escape but turns the vampire legend upside-down, as the tormented undead who wants to drain the Doctor’s life in order to die, not to ‘live’.
To many Doctor Who fans, all of this ‘story’ and ‘character’ nonsense doesn’t matter – the important thing about Mawdryn Undead is what it suggests for the years in which the Doctor’s previous adventures with the Brigadier were set. Production teams at the time regarded them as in the near future, but that meant variously one year, five years or ten years ahead, or as little as ‘the day after tomorrow’, sometimes all in the same story. As Mawdryn Undead clashes with much of that, implying Lethbridge-Stewart retired before he was promoted to Brigadier, my advice is to ignore the dates and just enjoy the story (anyway, the absurdly old-fashioned public school ambience clearly dates UNIT to the 1920s). So, if someone ever mentions “UNIT dating” to you with a gleam in their eye, back swiftly away – this will not involve sex (unless it’s Richard Franklin, in which case don’t back away, run).
This isn’t an actively bad story, more a disappointing one. Almost anything you can imagine going wrong does, from its gnawingly depressing design to a script that has many good ideas but finds them at odds with the direction and actors – and, unfortunately, needing a few more drafts to close up the gaping nonsenses in it. At the core of Terminus’ problems is that it raises an epic threat, but posed in such a tediously mundane way we don’t believe any of it – it’s not as if Doctor Who can’t pull off that sort of mix, but with irony, not this painfully earnest dullness. There’s an operatic ambition to the concepts, but (bubble-helmets and bubble-perms aside) everything’s played in such a drearily flat-lining way you’re just not interested, as if Wagner had written everything on one note for a Stylophone. The Black Guardian could have fitted in perfectly as the devil at the base of this medieval Hell, but instead is inserted jarringly to perk things up with a bit of shouty melodrama whenever the viewers are in danger of keeling over from sheer misery.
Meanwhile, this story’s Twenty-first Century Doctor Who connection is that Tegan and Turlough seem to be stuck in a dismal version of The Girl in the Fireplace: the new companion on his first TARDIS trip is left with the old one in a sinister ship with nasty robots, while the Doctor ignores them for a glamorous other woman. Thank goodness the 2006 story used colours more vibrant than grey and beige!
“Short-term memory’s the first to go…”
That Golden Moment
Half-way into Part Three, the Doctor comes across one of Terminus’ sinister armoured guards in the radiation-soaked Forbidden Zone. This one’s neither butch nor threatening, instead waiflike and both physically and mentally scarred by radiation poisoning. Similarly, he meanders both literally and conversationally, humming to himself and dragging oddments about in his cloak in an attempt to find something to block the leaks with. His mistakes have actually made things worse, but he’s also the one person who knows what’s really happening – and just how big a threat Terminus could be if it carries on going so catastrophically wrong. In a story where everyone’s depressed and depressing, being nasty to each other on badly designed sets in a badly assembled narrative, the wounded Bor is the unexpected heart of the story – both structurally, in that he’s escalated the problem but can explain it, and emotionally, in that amid all the grating macho clunkiness Peter Benson seizes the chance to make his character genuinely endearing. Endearing’s the last thing you expect in this story, and he wins you over at once.
Something Else To Look Out For
Kathy Burke. No, seriously, apparently she’s a leprous extra somewhere in here, and with DVD picture-sharpness I might at last be able to see where. Other than that, enjoy Mark Strickson as Turlough enlivening dull moments by deciding he may as well do some ‘acting’ even if it’s not written down. He starts fey, gets flirty, then patronising, then hopeful – and that’s all in just his first scene. With him trying so many different performances, did he still think he was auditioning? Mark, love, you’ve got the part, you can stop now!
Between the very ’80s British Empire stiff-upper-lip flavoured private school and sailing ship adventures either side, this could have been the story that went to the other very ’80s British filmmaking extreme and nailed social realism. The usual ‘sinister armoured guards’ are actually near-slaves not to an excitingly megalomaniac villain, but a faceless company, kept working by petty rivalries and drug addiction, doing a horrible job ‘looking after’ the sickest people in the galaxy, those who nobody cares about. But any thought that this is to be Doctor Who’s Boys From the Blackstuff was lost before even the designer and director stepped in, with the script editor at the time simply not ready to embrace naturalistic dialogue, as his infamous line change from “Do they think we’re stupid or something?” to the must-be-declaimed “They must think us fools!” demonstrates. And though the mixture of Norse mythology, NHS waiting lists and oppressed workers seems interesting on paper, the script still has a pile of problems – why does the radiation only affect the Lazars and Bor, rather than the Doctor and his friends? Why would an explosion in a void have exactly the same effect as one in a huge, expanded Universe? When it comes to the end of the story, avoiding spoilers, aren’t there some resource implications no-one’s thought through, or can you make anything you like from pseudo-lepers’ rags and a small aubergine?
We’re clearly meant to be scared by the guards’ ‘walking skeleton monster’ look, but not only does it look like a Halloween costume (even with a blanket knotted on its head for a cloak), the director doesn’t believe it either and blows the effect within seconds, as one opens his helmet. Add to that that they’re so huge, clanking and ‘symbolic’ that, taken with the ‘practical scaffolding’, you expect a spotlight to blaze down at any moment and Eirak to start singing an Andrew Lloyd-Webber knock-off while his underlings dance around on roller skates. Again, this isn’t Mike Leigh. Then the ‘real’ monster finally ambles up, and it’s a bored Muppet that’s one of the series’ naffest: again, the contrast with the monsterless stories either side makes you realise what a missed opportunity Terminus is (and these stories, surprisingly, are just about the least monster-packed since the series went into colour). Within this story, the contrast is with the OTT Black Guardian and the camp bubble-headed space raiders, but while they look like they’ve come to the wrong party, wouldn’t you rather go to their party than have such a relentlessly dismal time here?
As in Mawdryn Undead, there’s a Flying Dutchman / vampire vibe, this time where the oppressed workers trudge round in Hell lording it over the ghastly pale everyone-treats-as-dead people and live off a special fluid they appear to take directly into their hearts. It’s far more half-hearted, though, like the designer’s apparent decision to compensate for a ‘skull’ motif that might be ‘too scary’ by making every other set the dreariest possible ‘municipal offices in Dudley’ sort of corridors and ducts. Despite the presence of a fight arranger, you have to assume that some of the scenes were seriously short of rehearsal and filming time; Mark Pack writes today that, much as he enjoyed The War Games, the fight scenes were terrible, so perhaps he should avert his eyes from Olvir’s ‘ballet’ with Valgard while the monster picks up Nyssa, as well as its aftermath – the young man trying to help her can’t hear her scream from a couple of metres away, then on finally noticing she’s gone can’t spot her and the monster even though they’re still in the same shot as he is on screen. It’s impossible not to shout ‘Behind you!’
Finally, this story writes out Nyssa, one of the Doctor’s most innocent, suffering and (I’m afraid) unbearably priggish companions. I’ll not spoil how she goes but, famously, the ‘innocent fairy princess’ character spends most of the story shedding her clothes, at one point jumping on another character’s crotch in her underthings. As if to admonish any fans who obey the apparent on-screen direction to fancy Sarah Sutton, the cover of this DVD (each has its own separate packaging within the main box) appears to depict her breasts… Merging into a skull. Tasteful.
Ah, my friend, Enlightenment is not so easily found. You must meditate upon it.
Or, alternatively, I’m feeling really ill now and have stopped for a Lemsip and a lie-down, and will fill it in later.
Hmm, catching up again, I realise that one of the problems with writing this on and off for a few days while not being well is that I put a flurry of activity into one part at a time, rather than looking at the whole thing. So this has ended up a lot longer than my usual “DVD Tasters”. I may offer less detail on Enlightenment, then – which suits the story, as if you haven’t seen it, you’re very much better off knowing as little as possible about it before you start watching. Don’t watch the “Coming Soon” trailer on The War Games (which ruins a perfectly decent special effect by ‘ramping’ it anyway); don’t read the back blurb; don’t even read my “Golden Moment” below; skip the menus – just press play, and let it surprise and delight you.
The Doctor is charged with intervening in a race that no-one must win, and the threats to him and his friends are far more complicated and dangerous than facing the barrel of a gun. Finding out what’s going on, for a start – and a disturbingly askew take on a love story. These are subtle and emotional challenges, set amid extraordinary visual invention; you might like to know that it’s the first Doctor Who story from both a woman writer and a woman director. But what does it all mean?
“Do not ask what it is. I will not tell you.”
That Golden Moment
There’s a breathless sequence as the end of Part Two approaches, by which time both Tegan and Turlough have been seriously weirded out in quite different ways, and want off creepy Captain Striker’s racing yacht as fast as possible. The Doctor agrees to take them back to the TARDIS – only for the camera to cut away to Striker silently, sinisterly toasting himself, his complacent air justified when the Doctor and his friends discover the TARDIS missing. Confronting Striker, the Doctor – someone whose strength of will hardly ever breaks, and then only with a fight – is told that his very fear of losing the TARDIS made his mind easy to read not just without a fight, but from a distance. Striker’s coldness, his utter certainty, and his evident, underplayed power freak out Turlough as much as they do the audience, and he tries to bargain with a stolen key given to him in confidence – but even his betrayal’s of no use to him, as of course the officer knows about that, too. The only effect Turlough ratting his friend Jackson out has is to make the Doctor even less keen on him: “There’s no need to look at me like that,” says Turlough miserably, his cowardice breeding self-loathing that’ll be horribly evident by the end of the episode. The Doctor attempts to intervene with Striker:
“Will Jackson be punished?”As Tegan’s taken up on deck to see the night, Striker finds a use for his “inferior” the Doctor in assessing his competitors in the race, and gives the merest taste of what the prize involves, languid as ever then with sudden ferocity as he forestalls a question:
“For entertaining us? Superior beings do not punish inferiors. We use them. Kindly.”
“Enlightenment. The wisdom which knows all things, and which will enable me to achieve what I desire most. Do not ask what it is. I will not tell you.”
Something Else To Look Out For
I can’t help but reveal spoilers here, for a beautiful but disquieting story that restores much-needed ambiguity and fascination to the series, so watch out. This is as much a fable as any Doctor Who, and – like Kinda – a remarkable example of the ‘arthouse’ style of storytelling for Peter Davison’s Doctor. It’s a lot of fun, too. The obvious “Golden Moment” would have been the end of Part One… But if you don’t already know what that is, I’m not going to spoil it for you. In fact, all three cliffhangers are cracking: a fantastic ‘what’s going on?’ moment; a companion’s very character threatening himself; and who can resist Lynda Barron enjoying herself so very much? Rather marvellous music throughout, too, from eerie tones to vibrant sailing tunes to a gorgeous South American dance rhythm.
Another tale of travellers doomed to wander in an “echoing voyage,” the climax of The Black Guardian Trilogy underscores the ‘Flying Dutchman’ feel with wandering spirits, powerful but empty, with yet another dose of subtle vampirism from the parasitic aristocrats. The ships’ officers are the stars of this show, unsettling and soulless – and even the one who’s sold her soul to the devil is less disturbing than the one who appears to have no soul at all. Enticingly, the two principal lords-of-outside-time who look down on the Doctor are played by actors called Barron and Baron, sit-com stars Keith Barron and Lynda Baron each creating terrific performances entirely against the type of roles they’re usually known for – one dead-eyed and utterly cold, the other rejoicing in every variety of excess (Richard points out to me that, as embodiments of order and chaos, they’re rather better concepts of the White and Black Guardians than the Guardians themselves).
And yet the real one to look out for is cold Captain Striker’s first officer Mr Marriner, played by Christopher Brown with a disconcerting mix of blandness and hunger as Tegan’s upper-class, manipulative stalker. He seems genuinely otherwordly, and that old sci-fi cliché “What is love?” goes in quite a different direction to the one you usually find… Though his end is still more chilling than the rest of his scenes (the one bit of cold, hard light that recalls the original White Guardian), watch out particularly for Tegan’s moment of revenge on him, leaving him by claiming she has to see the Doctor, then just sitting down instead. It’s a calculated little piece of cruelty: she knows he reads her mind, so a deliberate and blatant lie is as good as a slap in the face.
Uniquely so far for a multi-story set, all three of the Black Guardian Trilogy stories feature new CGI effects as an option on their DVDs, but Enlightenment boasts the most prominent set of changes. While you can go into the Special Features menus (as ever on Doctor Who menus, if you’ve not seen the story before, go through them very quickly for fear of spoilers) and set Mawdryn Undead and Terminus to play as normal with the occasional substituted effect, Enlightenment gets a second disc with a whole new edit of the tale on offer. Unlike the three previous Doctor Who stories released as DVD Special Editions, each of which added new footage as well as new effects, the re-edited Enlightenment is actually a lot shorter than the original – apparently, Peter Davison wanted one of his stories to have the same sort of pace and effects as one of the Twenty-first Century series, and this is the experiment (trimming about a quarter of it away in the process). Just how this new rapid pace will work on one of the series’ most dreamily arthouse stories will be interesting to find out. I had a go the other week at my own re-edit, using my own ultra-modern editing suite of some highly advanced wires connecting the old VHS to our DVD recorder and stabbing my thumb on the remote’s pause button until I got bored (about ten minutes), and found that while was surprisingly easy to find bits to cut out, it was a lot more difficult to ensure the narrative still flowed when scenes jump abruptly. Still, with a little judicious pruning the opening TARDIS scene as far as the Black Guardian’s cackling threat made quite an effective David Tennant-style pre-credits sequence. I wonder if they’ll do the same? And what they’ll pick for the new CGI in each? More exciting spaceship shots in Terminus, I suspect, and if the usual Doctor Who DVD house style holds, lots of pretty glowy effects that look exactly like all the other pretty glowy effects…
Of course, as this was released on Monday, you may well have a better idea of what the extras are like than I do, given that Richard has the DVDs delivered to his office and, being ill for much of the week, wasn’t at work to collect them. We’ve only just got our copy, and haven’t had a chance to watch any of it yet. I can add, though, that in addition to new effects each story has a full commentary, text notes, ‘Making of’ documentary, set of pdfs and photo gallery, as well as – hurrah! – the full isolated musical scores for each. I’m particularly looking forward to listening to two of them, though even here, Terminus sadly draws the short straw. There are plenty of other documentaries, too, ranging from writers to actors to astronomy, and even extended and deleted scenes for Mawdryn Undead. Wonder what we’ll be doing this weekend…?
Labels: Big Finish, Doctor Who, DVD, DVD Tasters, Obscure Doctor Who Jokes, Peter Davison, Sarah Jane Smith, The Brigadier, The Key To Time
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Being Human and A Damned Good Thrashing
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been rather more ill than usual, recurringly, and so haven’t blogged much – but I’ve still managed to read the odd post or news item and thought, ‘Ooh, I must write about that’. I haven’t, but I’ve been hoarding links with which to bombard you. Rather than going back a month or so, though, I can’t resist starting with the post that made me splutter on my morning Lemsip.
Inviting Mr Ahmed Outside
I can sometimes be a bit aggressive in my posts, but rarely will you find me so determined to utterly destroy line by line than when someone’s picking on a person I love. This can be unedifying to read (my spellchecker suggests “humidifying,” which is apt, too), but flying off the handle to defend your loved ones is sometimes difficult to resist. Witness the Lady Mark Valladares, who hasn’t always done himself favours in his combative defences of Ros Scott (I recognise my own faults in that style), but whose superb horsewhipping this morning is a perfect example of how to do it, and absolutely right. Go Mark! And go reader, to Irfan Ahmed – This Is Your Fisk! (the lovely Mr Quist gives an idea of what Mr Ahmed said before his latest ridiculous retreat).
Among the many posts I’ve not written in the last month or so is “Leave It To Me, Dear,” which would have replied to Mr Ahmed’s suggestion that women should get their husbands to tell them how to vote, sadly nowhere near his most stupidly reactionary comment. I still remember canvassing in a by-election about fifteen years ago where the ‘man of the house’ told me he was voting Labour and refused to let me speak to his wife, because she was voting the same way. Within a second of the door closing, an upper window opened and she murmured down, “I humour him, but I’m voting for your lot.” As good a reason as any to always canvass in ‘enemy territory’ (even if there’s only one name, it makes them worry – and I’ve had people with Labour posters up say they were voting Lib Dem before now, but felt they had to have the poster out of duty)… Still, Mark has far more reason to thrash Mr Ahmed, and besides, he reads Mark’s blog; I suspect he wouldn’t be a big fan of mine, because I’m the sort of person who reads Adam and Andy and recognises a lot of it from my life. And definitely best not tell him that I read Jesus and Mo…
Oh, Put It Away – Officer
Still, at least Mark’s icily polite evisceration this morning only expressed a slight air of regret that we weren’t still in Victorian days of duels and horsewhipping. Our police haven’t actually caught up with the last couple of centuries yet. Last night, post-watershed, you might say, a man stood up to take his turn on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square – and took his clothes off for an hour. Or, in fact, for five minutes, not due to any complaints from the crowd (who supported him), but because the police have nothing better to do with their time. It’s art; it’s free expression; if there’s one place in London to permit something unusual to happen, it’s there; it hurt nobody; and it’s not going to frighten the horses, because not only are there no horses about, but if there were, there are far more startling sights all over London of an evening. Many of them on advertising hoardings.
Presumably it will soon be a policing priority to go round every naked statue in the capital and chisel on little fig leaves.
Moving up the state enforcement tree to MI6, Millennium brings the story that not only are they colluding in something infinitely more degrading than persecuting nudists, but they’re rubbish at covering it up.
Still, at least not even the Met or MI High are as barking as the US Republican Party, who are rapidly descending into a delusionally exclusive club for Birthers and Deathers. Even among their ranks, though, Sara brings news of a Congressman so monumentally lacking in self-awareness than people have been queuing round the block to twit him over the head.
I tried this a week ago, so a swift review – I really need another, or six – but if there’s a Square Pie shop near you, this month’s special is a Moroccan-inspired Lamb Tagine that’s really rather worth trying. Tender lamb, always excellent pastry (tasty and just soft enough, never floppy), with rather a rich taste. Perhaps just too big chunks of sweet potato, but still mouth-watering. And if they don’t have that in, there’s always their Lamb and Rosemary, which is full-bloodedly delicious.
Paying more and premium packaging is sadly no guarantee of quality. Ever heard of Delisanté? Don’t bother. I picked up one of their individually wrapped dainty slices of Game Pie the other week, and though I knew it was overpriced, it looked tempting. Mostly pork, expectedly, but what I didn’t expect was tasteless, cloying pastry and – oh, how very ‘premium’ – the meat to consist mostly on one long, thick, twisted skein of gristle. I shan’t be trying any of theirs again…
Canary Wharf, not too difficult for me to totter to on some days, boasts both a Square Pie shop and a Waitrose in which to avoid Delisanté products, but sadly not yet a branch of Hotel Chocolat. I like a large variety of chocolate types, and have praised Hotel Chocolat’s lemon truffles before – as has Tom Baker – though some of their chocolates seriously overuse dull pralines… But quite often, I like a large amount of chocolate in one go, and that means a bar. White and dark both have a lot of appeal, though usually for me a whole bar at once means milk, whether it’s Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Green and Black’s Butterscotch Milk (the little nibbles of butterscotch really make it) or, I’ll now add, one of Hotel Chocolat’s Cookies and Crème Caramel Giant Slabs. Or, as they peskily appear to have deleted this just as I’ve discovered it, the White and Caramel Cookies Giant Slab, which is due to launch soon and looks extremely similar (the “caramel domes” on the top may have changed, as I’m sure they were little white chocolate spheres in the previous model). I’m inordinately fond of their chocolate gemstones, very moreish little castings of mixed dark, white and milk chocolate, and they’re set into the top of a large bar made of creamy white and – here’s the bit that really works – a stunningly tasty caramel milk chocolate. It’s lovely. Oh, and crushed chunks of cookie are set into it from below, as the gemstones are above. Try it, if you can find one of these giant slabs left in your local Hotel Chocolat shop – if not, pre-order the new version, then bring it round to share with me for a tasting and I’ll tell you if it really is the same.
While I write, coughing and spluttering and wondering what shape my beloved will be in when he gets in this evening – he’s been back at work today, and though I always tiresomely outcompete him for illness, I worry – BBC3’s been showing Doctor Who on The Impossible Planet. Rather a fabulous and scary episode (causing much panic at the time, not necessarily for the reasons you’d expect), with lots of touches of older Who stories, Alien and a feature film feel thrown in, great music, Cthulood monsters and a fantastic vocal performance from Gabriel Woolf, possessor of arguably the most chillingly villainous voice in the world: “Don’t turn around…” The second episode, on tomorrow night, loses its way by comparison, but it’s got the finale of Torchwood: Children of Earth following, so worth a look. I notice this episode particularly because it’s from the same year – 2006 – that Toby Whithouse’s Doctor Who story was first transmitted, and though that reintroduced Sarah Jane Smith, oddly enough he’s not yet written for her spin-off series that’s followed. He has, however, created his own rather-more-than real show, and it’s Being Human that’s ‘promoted’ to BBC1 tonight.
So, a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost go into a house-share… Wind back a year and a half, and Being Human was one of several pilots commissioned by BBC3 that might lead to a trendy new drama. Brilliantly, they decided which one to commission as the ‘success’ before they’d aired, and Being Human wasn’t it. Except… That Being Human was the pilot episode that grabbed people’s attention, saw petitions launched in its favour and won a climbdown. So while its first series comes to BBC1 for a repeat tonight, and a second series is already being made for next year, the pilot the BBC3 high-ups assumed would be a smash and was instantly commissioned for a full show… Has never been heard of again.
Being Human isn’t just an inspiring fable that quality will out, though. I have to admit, I was a little wary of the series before it started: out of four ‘regular’ cast members seen in the pilot episode, three of the actors were replaced before the show returned for a full run earlier this year. And each of the changes made our heroes prettier and the villain less so, which made me distinctly wary of the level of brain-downsizing that might have been the price of the recommissioning.
I needn’t have worried.
So, again, a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost go into a house-share… And it’s brilliant. Fortunately, they kept Russell Tovey as the slightly hysterical lead, even though he doesn’t get his kit off quite as often as he did in the pilot when changing into a wolf in impressively An American Werewolf in London effects – and I got used to the recast ghost, who does become multi-layered and very endearing, as well as the recast vampire, who’s… Well, actually, he’s about as pretty as the last one, but less pretentiously Pete Doherty-meets-Lestat. And, ironically, more hairy and wolfish, which as far as I’m concerned makes him much sexier. Still, Aiden Turner’s an impressive actor as well as a hot one, as you may have spotted if you’ve been watching BBC2’s hilarious art sit-com – er, I mean bio-drama – Desperate Romantics, in this week’s episode of which he and Rafe Spall (sadly with nasty beard, but you still would – as for him in The Chatterley Affair and Wide Sargasso Sea…) tussled with their tops off. As the upwardly mobile prostitute muse puts it,
“You boys, you boys. Why don’t you just poke each other and leave us girls alone?”Er, where was I?
The key villain, leader of a rising vampire band, is now nowhere near as sexy as Adrian Lester was when playing him in the pilot, but he grows on me, too – a dowdy messiah with a grubby charisma, he’s actually very well-chosen (and does some excellent work in the Doctor Who audio trilogy The Key 2 Time… But more of that tomorrow).
Watch out, particularly, for the fourth episode – probably the most harrowing-to-watch piece of TV I’ve enjoyed all year. The final two pack a serious punch, too (see this slightly spoilerish first-broadcast review from Costigan). We’ve recently been watching it again on blu-ray on Sunday nights after a double bill of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And Being Human can hold its head up. Funny, moving, disturbing, with four superb leads, give it a try – it takes an impressive talent to shift so confidently between sit-com, thriller and horror story.
“I’ve got this friend… He says the human condition, human nature, being human… Is to be cold and alone. Like someone lost in the woods… It’s, ah, safe to say that he’s a ‘glass is half-empty’ kind of guy. I see nature differently. I see the ancient machinery of the world, elegant and ferocious, neither good nor bad, it’s full of beautiful things, unspeakable things. The trick is to keep them hidden – ’til the right moment.”
If you don’t fancy all that, of course, Dave (oh dear) are showing Passport To Pimlico tomorrow afternoon. Be careful not to take it as a blueprint for cocking a snoop at your current joyless Labour Government: nowadays they’d all be whisked away under anti-terrorism legislation before you could say “Jack Straw”.
Labels: Being Human, Blogs, Chocolate, David Tennant, Food, Naturism, Reviews
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
There Are Some Words You Really Don’t Want to Put Together…
Sometimes you have to take your fun where you can. Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed I’ve not blogged much in recent weeks; I’ve been rather more ill than usual and, just as I seemed to be getting over it, was re-flattened yesterday by something nasty, this time with extra helpings of guilt for giving it to my firmer-constitutioned beloved too. So when we struggled over to ASDA to dance through enough different aisles to pick up sufficient paracetamol so as not to have to go out again for a week (adults now not being trusted to be ill without lashings of exercise, by law), suspicious sausages made us smile.
Well, made me smile. Richard just rolled his eyes. And the worst of it is, they’re not even very good bangers. Cheap and largely tasteless. On the other hand, their Extra Special Pork and Apple and their Pork, Parma Ham, Garlic and Red Wine sausages are excellent, and the sweet chilli ones aren't bad either.
I’ve just woken after a broken and fevered sleep which took me a good hour to stop coughing my guts out and settle into, and feel like some healthy, reviving bangers. And chocolate. Obviously.
Better Sausage Than Spam
Have also just had an entertaining text from a friend who, switching on his mobile on holiday, discovered fifty e-mail messages from Lib Dem bloggers. Apparently there may have been some exciting new round-robin service while I’ve been in my pit for the past few weeks, and I may have missed my chance to sign up to unlimited Lib Dem spam. I feel so deprived!
Labels: Blackadder, Blogs, Food, Health, Personal
Sunday, August 09, 2009
“You will agree to being me… This side of madness or the other.”Few Doctor Who stories have raised such wild passions for and against them as Kinda. Yes, I was one of those ten-year-olds who helped vote it bottom of Peter Davison’s first season for DWM’s poll back in 1982, largely through a vivid last memory of ‘that snake’; at the other end of the spectrum, some fans have announced that anyone who disagrees with their assertion that this is the best Who story ever is an emotional Nazi. I shall leave it to your own judgement any irony involved in people who use “Nazi” to decry those whose precise tastes do not absolutely accord to theirs…
I started a re-evaluation of Kinda through my wobbly audio copy, in those days before video. The old wise woman’s “Wheel turns” speech was quite hypnotic, and so I gradually found myself thinking Kinda was rather interesting – despite one of Uncle Terrance’s least lively novelisations trying to convince me otherwise [like the director, his prosaic prose isn’t in sympathy with the weird wonder of the story]. Nowadays, with repeated video viewings, I’ll admit that I can’t see how I ever thought the story worse than Four to Doomsday or Time-Flight, and I’ve got a lot closer to the adoring end of the spectrum than the embarrassed end I used to sit at. But will I go all the way? Well, I don’t think so, though I’ll waver between perhaps eight and nine out of ten. Let me explain.
On the whole, Kinda is interesting and refreshing, one of the Who stories with the most ideas, married to one of the Who stories that looks most like a pop video. The Dark Places of the Inside are fantastically imagined and realised, and the ‘time’ sequence is hardly less impressive. Unquestionably, the subversive ‘menaces’ of the trees, the “primitives,” Hindle, Dukkha and The Dark Places of the Inside or wherever, all combine tantalisingly to disrupt expectations and are carried off brilliantly.
In the story’s second half, however, and especially after the main hallucinatory effects sequences end, the action-based director and thoughtful script start to work against each other (notably from the blown cliffhanger to Part Three on), particularly as the author’s ideas become less successful. The fourth episode is definitely the weakest, despite quite a strong scene with Hindle’s toy madness and Panna’s consciousness passing on to demonstrate that no-one actually dies in the story (albeit the three ones who went missing…?). Studio floors, technobabble and ‘that snake’ summing up a glib and dull resolution – not to mention interminable Adric / Tegan bitching scenes – make it a curiously uninventive and unimpressive ending. This story is probably best watched as a whole, rather than an episodic let-down.
I’ve recently taken to watching Who again on an episodic basis. Yes, that’s right – as the BBC gods intended! As you might expect, with all stories written that way, most of them work much better that way. And it’s become clear that a key reason so many of us disliked Kinda on first watching – other than the shame of (all together now) ‘that snake’ at school the next day – was that this story didn’t. For a few stories where not all the episodes work, the resolution is the killer. Watch a rather good story with a poorer Part Four (Paradise Towers or The Creature From the Pit spring to mind to tease you with, or perhaps The Leisure Hive if you want one that fewer people hate so much), and it’s plain that only watching ‘the bad bit’ in one sitting leaves you with a nasty taste in your mouth that wouldn’t be so strong if you’d watched it as a ‘movie’. Watch Kinda episodically, rather than all of a bundle as video encourages you to, and it’s striking that it wasn’t just the increasing sophistication of the viewing fans that has led to Kinda’s startling turnaround since its original broadcast. It was the ‘poor Part Four’ effect at work in a peculiarly devastating way when we first watched it.
Oddly, watching Kinda episodically, I’m also struck that despite every review mentioning how the story centres on Janet Fielding, it isn’t a ‘Tegan story’ at all – more of an Adric story. He has quite a lot to do throughout the whole story (though achieving little, at least he only pretends to side with the villain this time; clearly Hindle responds to another boy to play with), while her strong role in the first two parts vanishes almost completely later on. She is superb when oppressed and then possessed by Dukkha (though an effective ‘rape’ scene apparently unlocking her sensuality is an unpleasantly disturbing message), but her appearance in Part Three is just that. Aris merely steps over her unconscious body at one point, and she neither moves nor speaks in a ‘blink and you’ll miss her’ cameo. As all the companions are buried way down in the cast list to start with, it seems particularly unfair on Matthew Waterhouse that he still gets later (and shared) billing than Janet Fielding for Part Three, and that Sarah Sutton gets no billing at all for the middle episodes.
My other reason for recently re-evaluating Kinda is that I’ve now read the book that’s said to be one of its main sources, Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. Now, this isn’t a story that can simply be explained by reference to any one of the mountain of references it makes, whether Judaeo-Christian Garden of Eden symbolism, Buddhist analogies or Vietnam-era sci-fi. However, as the Buddhism’s been written about in great detail, I found comparisons with Le Guin’s book intriguing, and they helped crystallise why I don’t think Kinda is quite as clever as many take it to be – or quite as enjoyable.
Despite some clear similarities in the setup, including a sophisticated sexual division of labour in the “primitives,” “idiot” / “insane” colonial military leavened by a sympathetic anthropologist, and dreaming, sophisticated “primitives” (as well as blatant nods like “Planet S14” in Kinda for “World 41” in the book, Aris’ captive brother for Selver’s enslaved and murdered wife, or “ILF” – “Intelligent Life Form” – for “hilf” – “High Intelligence Life Form”), the story itself has remarkably little in common with The Word For World is Forest. Quite funny that the villain of the book is “Captain Davidson,” though, as it’s of course the Doctor who enables the snake to enter Eden! Kinda is far less successful in getting across an idea of the local people as sophisticated – with the dubious exception of Panna and the double helix jewellery, it’s merely told, rather than shown. How do they have access to molecular biology? On the face of it, nicking the necklaces from an alien spaceship crashed in the jungle would be more logical an explanation. Shouldn’t we have had some shared dreaming, or something to put the Box of Jhana in context? Instead, these “primitives” really are telepathic, which even the Mara correctly notes is a very boring way to communicate.
Instead of evidence of intelligent thought, the Kinda (surely everyone in this story bar the Doctor, Todd and Panna are just that – ‘children’?) follow Aris like sheep, and flee after a ludicrous attack on the Dome using a TSS-style ‘wicker man’ (instead, in Le Guin’s book Selver’s attacks on the Terrans use their own bombs against them, as well as showing the lethal effectiveness of ‘primitive’ weapons. The Kinda merely appear stupid). Of course, the whole effect is engineered by the Mara to bring about their misery, but instead of a powerful, co-dependent, co-defending (“the dreaming of an unshared mind”) group intelligence, they merely combine into a herd. This is especially obvious in contrast with Aris and Panna / Karuna, who are intelligent and resourceful because they are individuals. The extremely collectivist ideological slant of the story is objectionable both because it isn’t to my personal taste anyway, and because the author’s clear wish to impose it on us has not led him to consider whether it works – in the context of the story, it doesn’t, and it fails even to make an attractive case. It seems not only philosophically disagreeable, but artistically unsuccessful.
The message that progress is horrid and only leads to destruction, and that people are much better off as happy sheep, is despairingly poor. Even the ‘dangers of progress and exploration’ message of The Green Death, for example (which I rather like), is leavened by the saving grace of individuality, while even that other anti-questioning Buddhist parable, Planet of the Spiders, notices the danger of not having a mind of your own as well as of unrestrained ego. Again unlike The Word For World is Forest, which shows the destructive effect of ‘progress’ on the Athshean culture, Kinda is a zero-sum game – there has been no effect on the tribe by the end; again, intelligent life is changed by experience, while the Kinda appear like drones.
Perhaps Christopher Bailey should have read the author’s Introductions to The Word for World is Forest. Ursula Le Guin talks of art as the pursuit of liberty, “escapist” from reality into the freedom of imagination. She also warns of the power an artist has over their characters leaching into desire for the power to influence other people.“The desire for power, in the sense of power over others, is what pulls most people off the path of the pursuit of liberty,”she warns, and notes that when artists believe they can do good to other people, they forget about liberty and start to preach. Bailey has failed to heed her warning, and has been “inextricably confusing ideas with opinions”.
Another of my Summer holiday repeat season, originally written for the now-junked site Outpost Gallifrey in 2000 or 2001, I quite enjoyed that one, despite being more pompous than usual (these days I flatter myself I hide it better). As you can tell, I’d recently read The Word for World is Forest, and wanted to explore that ‘source’ for the story rather than go along with the fan meme that the story was all about Buddhism, despite both being mentioned in the famously po-faced and impenetrable media studies textbook Doctor Who – The Unfolding Text which studied Kinda at length a quarter of a century ago.
‘Arthouse’ Vs ‘Macho’ Peter
Unfortunately, Kinda isn’t out on DVD yet, so it’s not as accessible as some to make your own judgements over (though a second-hand VHS is probably cheap enough). I’ll bet it’ll be paired with its even better sequel Snakedance when it is released, but in the meantime, what I didn’t say above is that it may be the most striking example of one of the two warring styles found throughout Peter Davison’s time as the Doctor. While most Doctor Who seasons have a relatively consistent tone within them, Peter’s stories divide sharply between what I think of as ‘arthouse’ and ‘macho’ – wild imagery and gently elegiac tales versus the sort that, as Peter cackles on his commentaries, have more on-screen deaths than Rambo or The Terminator (and those stories that are neither ‘arthouse’ nor ‘macho’ are mostly just forgettable). Like I suspect most fans, I’m convinced that Peter’s best story is his final one, The Caves of Androzani, but less usually I reckon one of the reasons is that it finally unites those two styles, bringing vicious characters and extreme violence to the screen but with evocative dialogue, a deranged love story and dreamlike music and camerawork. That combination, as much as its extraordinary quality, makes it the ideal Peter Davison Who story. There are some, though, who champion Kinda, the ultimate arthouse Doctor Who – and I think I’ve explained why for me it’s good, but not that good. It is, however, a hugely important story, marking out a new direction in which the series could go, helping pull it away from the nothing-but-macho approach of the incoming script editor at the time – where Kinda’s ‘possession with added hippy weird shit’ Vietnam-flavoured existential crisis (directly following two other existential crisis stories) sometimes makes you wonder if the author was on the same drugs as Philip K Dick, Eric Saward appears to be mainlining nothing but testosterone.
Kinda has a lot going for it as an experience. There’s brilliant imagery, and the psychological horror of Tegan in the Dark Places of the Inside uses ’80s video effects like almost no other story (though, as Not the Nine O’Clock News might say, nice video, shame about the song). There’s a remarkable cast – Richard Todd (a major film star actively subverting leading roles he actually took, such as Sanders of the River), Nerys Hughes, Simon Rouse – with superb roles, and Peter Davison finds his feet as the Doctor by stepping aside for much of this story in a way that it’s difficult to imagine Tom Baker doing. Most criticism I’ve read of Kinda focuses on the design, but though the jungle’s not much cop and the giant snake at the climax is every bit as funny as you can imagine, it’s the ideas that let Kinda down for me – both that it runs out of them by the end, and that some of them aren’t very good in the first place. A lot of it’s compelling, but there’s something off-putting at the heart of it. The sledgehammer-unsubtle moral that it’s better to be passive and pastoral than ask questions, develop speech or even be an individual at all seems more Pol Pot than Doctor Who. The series is all about thinking for yourself, about finding new ideas and new places; this pits itself solidly against both, so it’s ironic that it’s often called one of Doctor Who’s most ‘intellectual’ stories it preaches so earnestly against the intellect.
Labels: Books, Doctor Who, Ideas, In-Depth Doctor Who, Outpost Gallifrey Reprints, Peter Davison, Reviews, Utopia
Saturday, August 08, 2009
Doctor Who and the Silurians
“There’s a wealth of scientific knowledge down here, Brigadier – and I can’t wait to get started on it.”Warning: More Spoilers than usual…
There are few Doctor Who stories about which I have such a wealth of feeling and which have had such profound effects on me. This may, on the face of it, seem a little strange – after all, I wasn’t born when it was first transmitted, and didn’t actually see it until the not terribly impressionable age of 21. This is, of course, because when I watch it now, it seems inseparable from Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, a closely related story in novel form indelibly imprinted on me from the day I bought it (as pictures of little blond me clasping it excitedly to my little bosom on the way home from Blackpool will testify).
It’s a cracking story – slow and grim, but feeling unusually ‘real’ and undoubtedly the series’ best ‘world disaster’. One of the few seven-parters that seems epic enough for its length, this is easily the best Pertwee for me, and one of my all-time faves. It’s the only Third Doctor TV adventure I find as good as the book, a great relief after finding several of those other strange TV stories that came to me as ‘adaptation of the novel’ such a let-down.
Despite my delight in it, I can see a few flaws from the off. Some Who stories work best watched episodically rather than all in a bunch, but this is not one of those stories. It’s not hard to see why, stretched over seven weeks, it didn’t capture such a huge audience in the most recent BBC repeat (but it cheered me up, as at the time I was mostly working in Wallasey, hundreds of miles from my beloved and thoroughly cheesed off in a grotty hotel. Besides, it was jollier than listening to The Massacre on headphones). Although it builds up brilliantly by the end, it doesn’t start by following on from Spearhead From Space with anything like the same punch, verve or on-screen expense. It could do with a bit of a kick near the beginning to draw people in.
Starting off on colourised video, it immediately looks cheaper than the preceding story, and the dodgy T-Rex is no help. Not as dodgy as Bessie seems, though; with the Doctor tinkering to get his car going, you reckon that the Brigadier bought it for him from a scrap merchant to save on the budget. Once the story gets going, it’s terrific, but it seems to take an age to start up, and the ‘mystery’ of the opening episode isn’t pulled off as excitingly as it should be. But at least – despite the opening – it seems much more cerebral than last week (must be all the scientists about).
What makes Doctor Who and the Silurians work right from Episode 1 nonetheless is the quality of the characters, and the actors playing them, even before we come to the first not-all-bad ‘monster’ characters since Varga the Ice Warrior. It’s striking that no one character that can be labelled as just ‘utterly evil’, or ‘completely insane’ (at least to start with), the usual Doctor Who shorthands for the villain. Malcolm Hulke captures a fatal flaw in the Doctor here, perhaps more craftily than at any other point in the show. He writes for Pertwee at the perfect time when he’s still new and appealing and can get away with lines that make him less likeable, without coming over as merely unpleasant. Liz Shaw remains one of the most fabulous companions, despite being treated appallingly at times – already sidelined in just her second story, it’s sad that in a saga full of doctorates, only Dr Shaw is deprived of hers and made to work as a secretary: “Personnel will be handled by Miss Shaw.” Among many guest appearances, Peter Miles stands out in the first of many shrill, manic parts, and Fulton Mackay steals the show with the charismatic Dr Quinn. He’s frightfully good, very laid-back and with a little humour, though with an unmistakable undercurrent of bitterness. It’s a real shock when he dies so early, adding to the unexpected realism. Perhaps the standout performance, though, is Nick Courtney’s Brigadier, who in a story crammed with much better-drawn characters than we usually get still emerges as the most complex of the lot. While not playing the lead in the way he did in much of Spearhead From Space, he manages to move from hero to villain while remaining entirely true to the spirit of the man.
What story we get in the first episode largely consists of a spy plot, which might work a little better if it wasn’t dropped so quickly not because of underterrestrial evidence, but because the plot no longer needs it. Quinn and his would-be strumpet are briefly implicated, his throwaway line about knowledge to be gained providing the most intriguing moment. We hear about a planned programme of sabotage, but it never quite gets going. The Doctor, however, is on a planned programme of really winding everybody up. He’s already far less likeable than he was in Spearhead! “It’s not worth fifteen million pins if it doesn’t work, is it?” never fails to make me smile, but it’s not a line calculated to win co-operation. His threat to Dr Meredith that he can do whatever he pleases is also jarring; in the past, he may have said such things as a “Provincial Officer” or an “official Examiner,” yet that was play-acting, and our Doctor now appears to have become an authoritarian for real. Thank heavens the Brigadier is there to take him down a peg. Can you imagine anyone else getting away with dismissing all his clues and calling him “Dr Watson,” a bright remark which sends the Doctor into such a sulk that he decides to go down into the caves very suddenly. As if just for the cliffhanger.
It’s not as if the first cliffhanger is even much cop. We may have had a little tension from ancient mind-destroying horrors, all very At the Mountains of Madness and Quatermass and the Pit, but they lose their nerve and reach for the unconvincing T-Rex (or “some sort of dinosaur”) when it comes to something to bring us back next week. It’s then lured away by the sound of someone having sex on creaky bedsprings. I’m scared. As if to draw further attention to budgetary shortcomings, Lethbridge-Stewart admits he only has five or six men – and they really have a Brigadier in charge of them? The Doctor even returns from his deadly cliffhanger with no ill effects at all. Fortunately, it’s about this point that things really take off, with Baker swiped in the caves and the reptile person emerging into the light and wandering about so gorgeously shot it’s as if the director’s just woken up. Simmering tensions between Lawrence and Quinn come crashing on Miss Dawson, and all at once the stakes seem raised – it’s only Episode 2, and the director of the centre is already demanding UNIT be recalled.
Admittedly, Farmer Squire’s wife isn’t a patch on Meg Seeley, but I’m always a sucker for that Quatermass-style selective race memory, and the great three-eye-view of Liz as she’s attacked for the cliffhanger is actually rather gripping. Amazingly, the pace keeps up, and the Doctor both spots what’s suspicious and doesn’t help very much, forcing Quinn onto the defensive instead of gaining his confidence. And, gosh, they’ve got a ’copter for the search (which is done rather well). It all looks much darker than Spearhead, and the tone’s darker too, with very little comic relief and rather less pizzazz – but it no longer feels cheaper, and by now it’s drawn you in.
The Doctor’s baiting of Quinn at his cottage is well done, and finally gets under Quinn’s cool, but it’s a shame; if the Doctor had still been Troughton, he might have charmed him into something, not just got his back up. It’s a miracle that he nearly gets something out of Miss Dawson, given that she and Quinn are so blatantly both in love with the same person – Dr Quinn. It remains difficult not to feel rather sad and rather regretful at the Doctor’s tactics when we find Quinn dead, despite the rather good cliffhanger to introduce the new race. Given all that, the bathos of the following scene is shocking. Is “Hello – are you a Silurian?” the silliest line the Doctor’s ever uttered?
Hulke’s characterisation of the Doctor in regularly giving him such ‘foibles’ as being a git and lying to people, rather than making him entirely heroic, again come to the fore when his not informing the Brigadier of Quinn’s death instantly begins to undermine his position with Lethbridge-Stewart. While there’s perhaps a little much dodging in and out of the caves, Baker being trapped in the foaming rock pool looks rather nastily effective (and more interesting than the more prosaic mantrap of the book). The Doctor and Liz going down and then Liz popping up again seems a little easy, but it sets up the arguments which make up most of the next episode, and concludes, in effect, the first story. Yes, that’s right. It’s really two stories meshing in the middle, rather as if the Bob Holmes ‘split story’ technique had come in early: Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters (ooh, what’s going on in the caves?) followed by Doctor Who and the Silurian Plague, with a whole new set of issues once all the first have actually been resolved. Perhaps it’s this aspect that makes the serial seem to go on far less long than many other six-or-seven-parters, even if it means one story ends with a rather unimpressive gurning cliffhanger.
Perhaps resting on the cliffhanger point itself is a little unfair. Watching it now, it’s striking that the real revelation – and of course the ‘message’ – that we have by the end of Episode 4 is that both sides are very similar people, and not in a very attractive way. The immediate ancestors of this story are not the more straightforward monster tales of the Troughton era, but David Whitaker’s earlier-starting historicals and accounts of high-ranking intrigue. I wonder if Galaxy 4 would have had the same effect on me? I suspect not, with its simpler ‘Beautiful can be bad, ugly can be good’ reversal rather than shades of grey and two races each split into myriad fears and hopes, and without the critical innovation of the ‘prior claim’ on what we think of as our planet. It’s on these people that the story turns: a politician trying to do what’s best but with the minimum of embarrassment; young Silurian Morka arrogantly refusing to see any other view than that the planet belongs to his people; the Brigadier increasingly frustrated as the Doctor’s behaviour and lack of trust forces him into a corner; old Silurian Okdel hesitantly prepared to exchange knowledge; Miss Dawson gunning for the ‘monsters’. Having said all that about ‘character’, it’s interesting that Vietnam-era aggressor Morka (the book providing so much more memorable a name than ‘Young’ – presumably he wears a leather jacket and, aged only 65,226,801, is much more hip than Old Okdel’s ungroovy 65,226,858) is the only reptile person that sounds like he’s doing an American accent. Satire, or just bad acting?
Altogether, this patch has got some splendid dialogue, with actors mainly arguing in twos – Young Silurian and Scientist, Doctor and Old Silurian, Lawrence and Masters (a youngish Geoffrey Palmer), plus that great debate, with Liz speaking for the liberals, Miss Dawson subbing for the Daily Mail (‘String the monsters up! It’s the only language they understand!’), Masterly inaction and the increasingly deranged Dr Lawrence hilariously accusing everyone else of delusions. Who says ‘talky’ means dull? The argument between Liz and Dawson fair blazes, for example, while the discussion between the Doctor and Okdel is far calmer, with the revelation of the Moon – and Baker shouting “traitor” (off) at him. Admittedly, I suspect the Saudis would have something to say about humanity giving away hot places, but at least it saves the Brigadier (ironically). It’s still not got quite everything going for it, though, as some splendid reptile people plotting and Baker’s near-escape are made far less watchable by the music reaching new lows – this is ‘When Kazoos Go Bad’. They’re so intrusive, you could call it ‘The Power of the Kazoos’, couldn’t you, making the ear-splitting Sea-quel ‘The Evil of the Kazoos’…
It’s a good job there are so many character moments about, of course, as once again the action seems to consist of people going into the caves and coming back out again. When the mucky Brigadier responds to another childish diatribe with “I lost a lot of men in those caves, Dr Lawrence,” there’s a calm pain about him that’s really impressive, and only slightly undermined by the way he’s already admitted he has very few men, none of whom were seen to die there. Meanwhile, back in the reptile people’s shelter, things are no more harmonious. There’s quite a savage row between the cave leaders, with Okdel basically saying ‘Shut up or I’ll kill you’. He’s clearly shaken by the time he gives the Doctor the bacteria, though (as well as shaking!), and then Morka does the equivalent of shooting him in the back. It’s not even a trial of strength! It’s a shame, as Hulke has given some thought to ‘creature character’, yet neither their characters nor culture are as complex as the humans’, and Morka in particular often comes over as caricatured (but I suppose you can’t get it all right first time). Let’s face it, this is hardly a very stable or civilised system of government. Mind you, the Cabinet might be more fun with third eyes; Brown boggles Blair while he’s not looking, Beckett blasts Brown over dinner, but is toasted by Jack Straw with his three-eyed glasses, and Straw’s then savaged by Blunkett’s guide dinosaur… Which all makes it rather odd that, up top, Masters remains an unusually subtle and well-meaning Doctor Who politician (or possibly civil servant, as it’s never made clear on screen, and the book gives him a civil servant’s rank but makes him an MP!). “My report will of course exonerate you completely – I’m sure you did everything in your power,” though, is just the sort of kindly way of saying ‘Bang goes your funding, good luck finding a university post’ that actually makes you sorry for Lawrence, a wretched man with no faith but suddenly acquiring Job’s job description.
This episode having been stuffed full of more drama than you find in most whole Doctor Who stories, it’s glorious to reach the end and discover that the climax lives up to it. The Doctor arguing about confining Major Baker and not putting him into hospital is done with real conviction, and it’s notable that once he returns to the surface, all the talking starts to pay off. His leaving the caves triggers Morka’s coup, and gets everything moving up top. Baker is very eager to convince himself that he escaped… But it’s hardly surprising, as he’s been self-delusional all along, with his saboteur obsessions. Then he staggers out to die, for a staggeringly grim cliffhanger – surely the scariest in the series so far. And there are still two episodes to go…
Facing the gravest threat to humanity since the Black Death (or possibly the last story), the Doctor immediately trusts the Brigadier to act, and Lethbridge-Stewart appears to trust the Doctor again to get the problem sorted – though he’s not forgotten the trouble his scientific adviser’s been earlier. The Brigadier’s worth his weight in gold, doing the right thing immediately at the hospital (even though that happens to be ordering people about with a gun), and the Doctor sets up his regimen of injections. Part of the implicit bargain here appears to be that when the Brigadier tells the long-suffering Liz to staff the phones and she protests, once again the Doctor backs him up! No wonder she ends up leaving so soon, and of course sooner still it’s all the more ironic that the Brigadier completely stiffs the Doctor at the end, with Liz his apologist – as if even she finally loses patience with the Doctor, despite agreeing with his views (and in the book, of course, she’s pissed off with him throughout).
Even the Brigadier’s unusually efficient bit of martial law is unable to prevent Masters reaching London, and while the journey there may be less tense than in the novel, the arrival is stunning. The Marylebone scenes are extraordinarily well-mounted and scary; aliens with rayguns are one thing, but this is even worse than the more obviously memorable Autons on the high street; this is an everyday place ravaged by a horrible illness, and is horribly plausible in its turn. It looks like a documentary or some disaster drama. It makes you really proud of Doctor Who, that it can be so depressing! Oh, hang on… As the guard pitches over and the camera follows the blue lamp, it looks like the end of the world is approaching.
Mass death and panic are brought home by also focusing on the death of poor Masters, staggering around London before toppling down, and accompanied by Morka’s most chilling line so far, a whispered “I am the Leader now” that finally sounds in control, just as Lawrence is on the verge of finally losing his in winding up Dr Shaw. The effect is to suggest the Wenley Moor director is stupid and the new shelter leader isn’t, but viewers will of course know they share the same critical error of disregarding the Doctor: “They’re only apes,” says Morka.
Lawrence’s final end is striking in a number of ways – it’s yet another real character who hasn’t even made it to the final episode, let alone out of the final credits, and as well as his ghastly blistering from the plague helping bring home its threat, his raving is highly disturbing. As with the disease, this unusual story first warns, then illustrates – it doesn’t just tell us that the place is riddled with nervous breakdowns, but actually shows us one, and very squirmy it is to watch, too. The story’s length and well-drawn characters mean that almost uniquely in the series, Lawrence has time to descend into paranoid madness, and we care about it.
This is perhaps the most frightening episode of Doctor Who, because it’s the most believable. We see the spread of the disease; we see people we ‘know’ die from it or lose their minds from the horror; we see our heroes desperately struggling to find a cure, or the Brigadier trying to keep the country afloat on the ’phone. Extraordinarily, rather than becoming dated, the modern advance of combined drug treatments to check the effects of viruses like HIV only adds greater plausibility – though the same can hardly be said for the line,“Some of these drugs are so new we don’t even know their properties yet.”So they could be, what, dancefloor fun, or antifreeze?
So caught up can you be by the terrifying culture shock of the biological warfare that it’s easy to forget its instigators. Unwise, of course, but so do the regulars, and although it’s interesting to see ‘young stallion’ Morka cutting through rock from the front, it’s difficult not to feel that the cliffhanger reintroducing a less virulent threat and carrying off the Doctor with his most unconvincing boggle actually lowers the dramatic tension rather than raising it as a climax should. Still, more room for the Brigadier to come over well (“With respect, sir, I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation. …But there’s no time to refer it to the Defence Committee!”) before making something of a tactical blunder in allowing his men to be lured out.
In the endgame, it’s obviously easier to convey the drama of a big ticking bomb / gun / molecular disperser than it is to show a disease being cured all round (thrilling zooms on: hospital beds and Horlicks!), even if it still feels like a lower gear than last week’s. More interestingly, you can see points at which the trust between the Doctor and the Brigadier deteriorates further; after being kept waiting so long for the antidote formula, Lethbridge-Stewart would be only human to entertain the odd doubt on the Doctor disappearing in the company of ‘the enemy’. The Doctor then reappearing, in white, framed by psychotic reptile people, not only looks scary – he actually shows no sign of being bothered at first that they’re going to kill UNIT’s CO. It’s Hawkins’ attack that saves him, and only then does the Doctor appear to make up his mind (but, some might say, at least Avon gets killed).
The reptile people’s random killing of base staff at the end is actually quite chilling, too. Monsters usually threaten; they don’t just scythe down characters straight away! It’s rather more like a modern terrorist drama than typical Doctor Who, and serves to emphasise both this serial’s unusually high body count and how few of those have actually died in the ‘thrilling shoot-out’ action you’d normally expect. We’re still some way off the end credits for Episode 7, yet most of the people in Episode 1 are long-dead, and half the cast who made it this far will be dead by the end. It also serves to emphasise the deadly intent of the rather uninspiring prehistoric microwave with which the human race is to be cooked, though in fairness the machine also supplies more evidence of the so far somewhat sparse reptile civilisation. A bit of art wouldn’t hurt, a bit more technology, or more than two sound effects while they do everything by third eye ‘magic’.
“Doctor, what do you think you’re doing?” asks the Brigadier, who by now is clearly far from convinced that the Doctor is play-acting when he goes to help the Elder Earthlings (and in that rather unwise t-shirt, he does look a bit shifty). “You mustn’t help him!” he even orders Liz, who – like the audience – has more faith, but the skilful writing and Courtney’s performance make his not trusting the Doctor an inch perfectly understandable. It’s also rather impressive that the Doctor really does have to overload the power core to scare off the reptile people – for once, it’s not just a bluff – and that the same thing that wakes the reptile people in the first place becomes the cause of their downfall, rather than the power being merely a background detail.
With the machine blown up, the monsters in retreat and the Doctor saying “Yes, I know, I’ll try fusing the control of the neutron flow” (admittedly not then the cosy nod that that sort of line has become in retrospect), you’d expect this to be the end, but the last few minutes are brilliant – just when every other Who story would finish, we get great stuff like Morka finally showing he’s not just a violent egomaniac, as he realises that leadership involves responsibility. It makes his death suddenly poignant, and rather graphic. The Doctor is really, well, Doctorish with his pursuit of scientific knowledge, and what a joy it is to see that – except for the Brigadier, who is having none of it, but not yet blustering. Lethbridge-Stewart gives him a seriously evil look as the Doctor contemplates a reptile revival, and while I’m on the Doctor’s side through and through, now I can see what’s brought the Brigadier to this point, I wonder if the Doctor couldn’t have retained his trust, and so kept Morka’s people alive. It isn’t really their disagreement that precipitates the final crisis, but their distrust – it’s not impossible that the Brigadier’s sealing of the caves is not inevitable, but in part a lesson to the Doctor, to show him ‘who’s boss’. Both actors are at their very best, with shock meeting quiet, deadly efficiency. Has Jon Pertwee a finer moment than that appalled look at the exploding caves, in a fantastic Doctor scene that lures you into thinking it’ll just be the comic relief?
The Doctor loses. He actually loses. And the first person to beat him since The Aztecs’ Tlotoxl is to become his friend; it’s easy to conclude that it’s a shame they had to get on after this. I’m no longer sure that’s true. Perhaps this is simply a better story than any that follow with the Doctor and UNIT, and none of the rest could cope with this level of drama. But perhaps also the Doctor realises that UNIT is in the right place at the right time, and could be doing the right thing if he changed tactics and tried harder to persuade them; it’s a better excuse for his becoming the ‘establishment’ Doctor than any other I’ve heard, and despite his loud distaste for politicians, for once it’s an argument for working ‘inside the system’. This Doctor’s instincts have been spot-on, and he’s tried to do good throughout, but it’s all undermined by his own fatal flaw: arrogance. Ironically, the Doctor realises that the solution is for everybody just to get along with each other, but his confrontational approach and unwillingness to trust people with information shows that he’s incapable of following his own advice. In life, in politics and in Doctor Who and the Silurians, getting everyone’s backs up rarely gets you results, even if you’re right.
Run end credits – and notice how much shorter they are than for than Episode 1. Oh, and I have to get this out of my system: he’s not Doctor Who. They’re not Silurians. But it’s still a cool title.
This story has a lot to answer for… Reading its message that green scaly rubber people are people too turned me into a Liberal. Appropriately, it’s one of the few [Twentieth Century] Doctor Who stories I saw first as an adult that I can remember exactly where I was when I saw it for the first time. It was five am the day after it was released by BBC Video, and I was crashing in a sleeping bag on someone’s floor (the glamour of politics) and blearily determined to get it all watched before it was time to go out for another day’s trudging the streets to canvass and deliver leaflets in the 1993 Christchurch by-election, which turned out to be a great Liberal Democrat victory over the Tories. Devoted as I was to the cause, this story was still something I desperately wanted to make time for as early as possible, and I was thrilled – even though it had actually been a life-changing experience many years earlier. And without having read the book, who knows? Perhaps I wouldn’t have been there at all…
So that – originally written in 2002 – was where my crucial political breakthrough took place, probably aged about seven when I found a copy of the novelisation on holiday. I still love both the book and the TV story, though I often wonder what I’d have made of the Doctor (Jon Pertwee, of whom I have mixed feelings) suddenly stuck on Earth and working for the military rather than travelling through history and to alien worlds if I’d already been watching the series at the time. I might have hated it. But I wasn’t born by 1970, and with the Doctor long since freed to wander again through time and space by the time I was captivated by first seeing Doctor Who, it’s easy to be fond of a time that had finished. I love Doctor Who for its variety – and the period during which he was exiled to Earth, while denying that variety when it was all there was, is now an interesting part of it when I can look back across the lot.
Doctor Who In 1970, In Colour (Separation Overlay)
1970 was an extraordinary year for Doctor Who. A bold relaunch for the series, in colour, with a new Doctor exiled to modern-day-after-tomorrow Earth, it’s by a long way the most Earthbound the series has ever been. Again, you’d think that means I’d hate it. And yet… Each one of the stories is just so good. Doctor Who and the Silurians is undoubtedly the best of them, but I’ve also written reviews of Spearhead From Space and Inferno, and I’m sure I’ll be excited enough to do the same when The Ambassadors of Death makes it to DVD, so I can’t think of any other season where every single story is of such consistently high quality. It’s certainly not my favourite year of Who – yes, I do prefer those with more variety, with different times, different worlds, and a different tone to the fairly relentless butch soldiery – but that’s not any of the individual stories’ faults; the season’s hugely impressive, but it’s a little less than the sum of its parts.
I mentioned a technological as well as a political breakthrough above – on 6th August 1969 there was a five-hour test session at the BBC for a new technique called Colour Separation Overlay, or CSO. Well, it was called that at the BBC; everyone else called it “Chromakey,” or more commonly these days “greenscreen” or “bluescreen”; it’s when you programme a video camera so it doesn’t capture anything in a particular colour, usually green or blue, so you can insert the bit the camera does ‘see’ onto another shot (for example, have someone mime flying against a blue background, then add them to a picture of the sky). But in Doctor Who, of course, the colour of monsters is green and the TARDIS is blue, so in the early ’70s they used a lot of disappearing yellow backgrounds instead. As Doctor Who and the Silurians was the first of the series to be shot on colour videotape (Spearhead From Space, the first colour Who story, was on film, which needs different techniques), it was the first to use CSO. It’s to make the caves look bigger in Episode 6, if you’re wondering, but the man in charge of that August 6th effects test was Barry Letts, who took over as producer of Doctor Who with …and the Silurians and devoutly believed that you could use CSO to do anything. So, over the next five years, he tried to prove it…
Bye-Bye, But Why? Outpost Gallifrey
But back to my review above. It’s a little odd reading it after about seven years. My style’s changed a great deal, and so has the context. I originally wrote it for Outpost Gallifrey, at the time the biggest Doctor Who fan site. Regular readers of my summer repeats season (stalled in the last few weeks) will be aware that, as well as that site’s owner closing down its associated private forum and its successor forum, in an act of vandalism, he’s now obliterated the main site, too. I really can’t see the point: he’s said that the closed forums had to be deleted for privacy’s sake, but the thousands of reviews and articles people had contributed to Outpost Gallifrey were always free for use of the public. I had only eight pieces on there, but one bloke had reviewed every single Twentieth Century Who TV story, and many others as well – and, unlike a lot of Internet reviews, his were rather interesting. That’s about 200 just from one chap that I enjoyed reading and can’t any more, for no particular reason save selfish destructiveness, and the fact that the site domain still exists as a big advert for a money-spinning convention makes it seem like two fingers up to all the people whose work for free had made the original site a success.
But anyway, back in 2002 I wrote this review for what I assumed was an audience of Doctor Who fans who’d be intimately familiar with the story, or at least with the general details surrounding it. So the main thing that struck me was that now I wouldn’t write something quite so utterly preaching to the converted; enthusiastically insular as I may still be, these days I at least make the odd concession to readers who don’t know exactly what I’m talking about before I start (and I’ve added the odd expositionary word above to make some of it marginally less impenetrable). Following on from that, it’s also a lot more spoiler-heavy than many of my pieces now, and without any spoiler warnings for those who’ve not seen the story.
The other huge stylistic difference is how linear it all is. Were I starting out on a detailed review of Doctor Who and the Silurians today, I might base it around the themes, or the characters – I wouldn’t just plough through the story in order any more. In many ways, my reactive approach above (and particularly the funny asides I thought of and crowbarred in) reads like a ‘not the DVD commentary’ years before the story was released on DVD.
It’s not just the DVD release that’s changed the context since I wrote it, of course – Doctor Who’s come back on TV, and I’d assume that people interested in the show would be a far wider group, but also far less knowledgeable of every single story from the series’ whole forty-six years (and, of course, today I’d imagine very different members of the Cabinet slaughtering each other).
Beneath the Surface On DVD
If you want to experience Doctor Who and the Silurians for yourself, then – and, for me, it’s still one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made, even aside from its personal effect on me – pick up the Beneath the Surface DVD box set, which has been out a couple of years now and so you should be able to find fairly cheap. The two sequels with it decline sharply (one exciting but dumb, the other rather less exciting and dumber), though the three collected ‘reptile people’ stories have the distinction of all having their own isolated scores on the DVD, which in the case of the two ’70s stories makes them exceedingly rare – though the quality of the scores rises sharply, in inverse proportion to the stories themselves (perhaps fortunately, listening to the music for this story in isolation you realise how very little there is of it, however shonky the crumhorns are when they sound). You’ll also find that Doctor Who and the Silurians has inconsistent picture quality; restored from a good black and white print and a very, very poor colour home video, it’s a massive improvement on the old VHS restoration, but you can still tell there’s something a bit iffy about it. Despite that, some scenes are arrestingly impressive with the new treatment – Jon Pertwee no longer looking like he’s been coloured in with felt-tips for the terrific Episode 5 cliffhanger, for example, or the sweeping helicopter shots and fantastic zooms for the UNIT search across the moors now looking far more expensive and expansive than they did in grainy near-black and white.
The other advantage of seeing Doctor Who and the Silurians on DVD, of course, is that it’s packed with extras. There’s a particularly fine commentary, mixing people from before and behind the camera. That means it can move naturally from details like the director explaining his painting the upper third of the lens red for a Silurian-eye view – in a story all about seeing things from different people’s points of view – to moments of dry humour like Peter Miles admonishing Caroline John over her flippant wish for a third eye with which to shut people up (“Some of us died because of these things”), or the marvellous Geoffrey Palmer bringing it right up to date with
“My son would have been hiding behind the sofa while watching this… And in the last series that went out, he directed four of them.”And, back to the different points of view, the actors all constantly debate the story’s politics, often though not always siding with their characters’ viewpoints, while script editor Terrance Dicks calls the Doctor “an incorrigible liberal” and “a Guardian-reading liberal”. Hurrah! The text notes are informative and often amusing – thankfully, over seven episodes, they’re written by Martin Wiggins, definitely the best of the DVD annotators, deftly explaining such elements as the slightly confused science without either getting defensive or just slagging the programme off; after sketching out the Silurian Era, he concludes, “So why are the reptiles in this serial known as Silurians? Simply because Malcolm Hulke liked the sound of the name!” Which is as good a writer’s reason as any. And, amongst all the on-screen documentaries and other extras – photo galleries, “Now and Then” location features, the music, the restoration – there’s arguably the best single DVD extra the range has yet offered, What Lies Beneath, a BBC4-style visual essay on the issues behind the story, splendidly narrated by Geoffrey Palmer (I mention him again, but he does have a marvellous voice and knows how to use it), featuring Doctor Who writers from the ’60s to today and even Roy Hattersley. Well, he’s not bad in this.
Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters
Given that the novelisation Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters had such a profound effect on me, though it’s long out of print, I should of course mention that it’s now available on a shiny silver disc of its own, read by Caroline John (Dr Liz Shaw) as a talking book. She even plugs it on the DVD commentary, bringing in some of its extra details. It’s well worth picking up and a rather good reading of an outstanding book that adds much extra depth to the characters and situation, though not perfect. It suffers from printing the novel’s gorgeous original internal illustrations not at full-page size, but rather smaller than postage stamps, which reduces their impact. Caroline’s brilliant as Liz, particularly when she comes close to murdering the Doctor in his smugger moments, and has fun with her pompous Doctor and Brigadier voices, but is slightly uncertain as a narrator, though noticeably gaining confidence as she goes along.
The biggest let-down of both elements is Dr Quinn; the most fascinating character for me growing up, tensely written like the spy drama double agent who’s got the secret communications device from his handlers, ambitious to make his own scientific mark, manipulating Miss Dawson, then finally dying in a thrillingly written sequence accompanied by an outstanding illustration. Neither has quite the same effect when you have to squint at a tiny picture and, unfortunately, Caroline’s terrible cod-Scots accent makes it less poignant and more of a relief for Quinn to be killed off. Still, if you can ignore what Dr Quinn sounds like, I’d thoroughly recommend the book either on the page or on CD – and when I picked it as one of my summer reading choices for another site last year, people even seemed to like my writing…
Labels: Doctor Who, DVD, Fandom, In-Depth Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee, Liberalism, Obscure Doctor Who Jokes, Outpost Gallifrey Reprints, Personal, Reviews, The Brigadier, The Golden Dozen