Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Five Reasons to Listen To Home Truths – Doctor Who 52 Extra: E (SE)
Introducing Doctor Who – Home Truths…
A ghost story for Christmas featuring one of Doctor Who’s shortest-lived companions as the heartbeat of one of its most intimate and personal tales. Jean Marsh recreates Sara Kingdom for this creepy Big Finish audio two-hander (3.05 in their Companion Chronicles series) where she poses a challenge to church, state and listener simply by being there. For all that she and the visiting Night Constable scoff at fairy tales, she embodies perhaps the oldest fairytale lesson of all…
“There’s a house across the waters at Ely where an old woman tells a strange story.”
Five Reasons To Listen To Home Truths (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – Sara Kingdom.
From the beginning of December 1965 to the end of January 1966 – but also from the year 4000 – Jean Marsh played Space Security Agent Sara Kingdom in Doctor Who. It may have been a short time for her character on TV, but she made an impact. Ms Marsh is possibly the Doctor Who star with the most glittering career; Agent Kingdom was a startling change from the Doctor’s other companions; and the end of her story is still talked about today, even though it’s long gone and you can no longer see it, just listen. Sara Kingdom reluctantly teamed up with William Hartnell’s Doctor and his friend Steven Taylor, after first being sent to kill them – and in a sort of shocking sort of The Apprentice twist, killing another of the Doctor’s companions to get there, who haunts her still. In many ways she seems a New Adventures companion long before her time: hard as nails; personal tragedy and betrayal; always the shadow of the Daleks and death hanging over her; but some part of her always remains, because she travelled with the Doctor. Sara died an old woman, but there’s still no time after her travels for the Doctor for more adventures. So the most obvious way to bring her back is to give her an exciting Space Security Agent adventure before she ever met the Doctor (see “Lost Story” The Destroyers, also from Big Finish). Older, sadder, gentler, Home Truths is not the obvious way to bring Sara back…
2 – Is she or isn’t she?
“Hear the old woman’s story. Then decide her fate.”Fans argue. And one of the oldest fan debates in Doctor Who is whether or not Sara Kingdom counts as a ‘real’ companion. She travelled in the TARDIS. But only for one story. But it was a very long one. But not even for all of that. But she deserves it. And so on. Or in later years, are the Doctor Who stories that begin as books or, here, CDs ‘real’ stories? To ask the question is to miss something about stories, for me, and while I make lists and write about esoteric story points too, those two questions aren’t ones that engage me, so perhaps I’m predisposed to take one side within this story. Because Home Truths itself takes such questions and ambiguities and weaves a story out of the very criticisms that people are bound to come up with before they’ve even heard it.
So the story starts with Robert the Night Constable, the sceptical listener, arriving with the intention of judging Sara, not of enjoying her company. Jean Marsh is enchanting as she tells her story for him, remembering pain and excitement long ago, gently sparring with him as he concentrates on finding fault. Home Truths has much in common with Ghost Light, though with a very different feel in its sparse settings, adrift from any one time: the stories are confined within a house; there’s a hint of M R James, with a religious scientist investigating the unknown; and like the ultimate villain in Ghost Light and like the fans this story is challenging, Robert has a list of categories that count and, because she doesn’t fit into them, he can’t accept her. It’s not real if you can’t see it. Can he, and the sort of fans who police the list, give her a chance by listening? And so their frame story, and the mystery found by the Doctor, Steven and Sara, and the meta-story of the listeners interweave as he questions what to him are her unreliable narrative devices, and says that he won’t allow the bits that contradict his continuity of facts, without being aware of the gaps in any of his own assumptions, the ghosts of his own superstitions, even as he unconsciously echoes the old wariness of eating ‘fairy food’. He’s putting her on trial as a danger to church and state while not really believing in the church side of his role, but you can see how although he doesn’t like the superstition built into the law, following its rigid doctrine has warped his ability to ask questions and do his job. The rules have even made science into a dogma of its own rather than akin to his sense of enquiry – which makes her real threat more to his own worldview than to his world, and all the harder for him to listen without prejudice.
“Well? What’s it going to be?”
3 – Asking questions about human nature.
The discussion between Miss Kingdom and Robert isn’t just about the people in the stories she’s telling, but about how we’re all wired – and tangentially between the two of them, both night constables of a sort, the conflict between orders and individuality, duty and empathy, and how all choices have consequences for which we must take responsibility. You have to ask questions, even if it’s hard: Sara’s original sin and Robert’s choice can’t be passed off as just obeying orders, and perfection doesn’t suit humanity. These are ideas that go to my wider political fear that utopias never have room for people who complicate things and that if you don’t count, you can’t exist, just as the story within the story speaks to inner fears of thoughtlessness (or of thoughts). And, ultimately, throughout this poignant tale, Miss Kingdom in Jean Marsh’s beautiful voice is the soul of it all, someone with reason to empathise with murderers who don’t really wish to be murderers, and in reaching out to them, might save herself.
4 – Opening up more stories.
Sara Kingdom’s original story, The Daleks’ Master Plan, was Doctor Who’s longest TV adventure (subject, naturally, to debate). So it’s a cheeky ambition for Home Truths to put another story into the middle of it and open it out to be even longer, with a promise of more in there still. Author Simon Guerrier’s Doctor Who writing keeps coming back to William Hartnell’s Doctor, captured here in many facets – loving to explore, treating his companions as children but like a mischievous child himself, irritable when made to look foolish but almost serene at the end – and for Big Finish he’s created several rather marvellous adventures for the Doctor and neglected companions Sara and Steven (Peter Purves). Home Truths itself has two sequels (though not necessarily in that order), The Drowned World and The Guardian of the Solar System.
While the events of Home Truths are resolved as far as the Doctor, Steven and Sara’s travels go, not only is the story of Sara and Robert left unresolved, but the hints of the world they inhabit fire the imagination. It’s far in the future, but after war, flood and disasters we can only guess at. What might have caused the downfall of the civilisation after next? And how did another rise, seeing A Canticle for Leibowitz through a crooked glass, in the stern dogma of strictly defined church and science, though tantalisingly neither defined for the listener? Is this strangely past-future even Earth, or have names been carried over the stars like Robert across the fens? And why is he a Night Constable? Does this world ever see the light? Miss Kingdom herself tells Robert that she has a hundred stories to tell about the people who have stayed with her – though he’s deliberately asked to hear one he doesn’t believe. It’s no wonder that her conversation with him has more than a hint of Scheherazade, and the whole thing a sense of The Twilight Zone (a series in which Jean Marsh herself starred in another lonely two-handed psychological horror story / psychological character study).
5 – This creeps me out more personally than any other Doctor Who story.
“The corridor in which the woman lay led to a wide staircase, littered with flowers and paper-wrapped gifts. The Doctor examined the labels: they were wedding presents for Richard and Alex.”Did you ever think idly how gratifying it might be to find yourself in Doctor Who, in whatever small way? I imagine I did. As the fairy tales warn us, be careful what you wish for.
Home Truths author Simon Guerrier is a friend of ours and gave us a wedding present. Nothing of Home Truths, though, which is perhaps for the best (his lines that we weaved into our wedding reading weren’t from here, either). My husband is a careful driver, and the only time I can remember him swerving the car in shock was on a dark and stormy night coming up to Christmas 2008 and driving up to see our parents. The story is quite creepy enough, with the mysteriously, suddenly dead bodies of two newlyweds in their ideal home. We were already feeling for them, and then Sara Kingdom told us their names in track seven. Thanks, Simon. Of course, they’re not a perfect match: Simon’s been to our place and knows it is not in all honesty uncannily pristine; Alex has been gender-swapped (thinking about it, the story itself might have a trans character, from a certain point of view).
What Else Should I Tell You About Home Truths?
You can buy it on CD or download from Big Finish Productions here.
This is where I often mention things other fans don’t like about a story and turn them on their head, but I’m not as familiar with reviews for extra-televisual Doctor Who. So my contrary view on Home Truths is that the opening mystery and the aftermath are both brilliant, but some of what would ordinarily be the climax (to the ‘old’ story, at least) doesn’t engage me as much, though it captures the Doctor well and I can see how it’s a necessary bridge. Perhaps it’s just because in some ways it’s an extended ‘action’ sequence, which despite being a harrowing moment for Sara, those are always less effective on the radio, and though she has to ‘earn’ the resolution, I can see it coming and am impatient to get there once I think I know the answer (one of them, anyway).
Simon Guerrier is also the author, with Dr Marek Kukula, of a less fictional book on The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who. A lot of people who don’t review his stories have nevertheless found this fascinating, so you might still find him popping up on the radio or at your local library to talk about Doctor Who and science and things, and he’s always worth listening to (and questioning). Whatever you think of this pair’s scientific views, at least they don’t wield them with the authority to unperson you if you disagree.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like Home Truths, Why Not Try…
More Sara Kingdom: The Daleks’ Master Plan. This is a thrilling epic from 1965-66, including in the middle Doctor Who’s first ever Christmas special episode (which isn’t very M R James at all). Unfortunately the BBC burnt most of it, but you can buy the whole soundtrack on CD, and see the three complete surviving episodes on the Lost In Time DVD set. You might also look out for Reconstructions online, which combine the soundtrack with photos to make the missing episodes easier to follow. I recommend Simon Guerrier’s sequels to Home Truths, too, and just this month he has a new Early Adventure out from Big Finish where the Doctor, Sara and Steven face the Sontarans as played by Dan “Strax” Starkey, bringing together some of the oldest and newest Doctor Who.
For more Jean Marsh, there’s the 1965 historical adventure The Crusade (for which most of the same limitations apply), and 1989’s Battlefield (all of which, thankfully, you can see on DVD or download from BBC Store). Ms Marsh plays different characters in all three stories, though all three have complicated relationships with their brothers – see especially her soliloquy at the end of Battlefield, her coldness in the middle of The Daleks’ Master Plan and a terrific The Crusade scene in which she tears strips off Julian Glover.
Sunday, December 25, 2016
Doctor Who 52: 06 – Ten Reasons to Watch Last Christmas
Introducing Doctor Who – Last Christmas…
Tonight will be Doctor Who’s next Christmas, for this Christmas! If you find Christmas a nightmare, it’s time first to watch Last Christmas, where the Doctor meets Father Christmas – or does he? – and some aliens – or does he? – a bit like the Alien (shh, he mentioned it once but he might have got away with it) – and is trapped within dreams within dreams, a bit like Inception – or is he (spoiler: yes)? If it sounds too disturbing for Christmas, it’s also got some of Doctor Who’s zingiest one-liners, cracking dialogue. Christmas crackers, if you will. Too soon? Or too late? Because Last Christmas is actually from the Christmas before last now.
If you want last Christmas’ Doctor Who, which wasn’t Last Christmas but The Husbands of River Song, my husband Richard has a present for you – freshly delivered, his review. My Ten Reasons here were originally planned for last Christmas, when Last Christmas would in fact have been last Christmas. You see? It would have been immensely amusing. Well, cracker-standard, anyway. Before you grab a shepherd’s crook from the nearest nativity play or panto to pull me off the stage, there’s one more thing I should say in this introduction. I originally started these as a celebration of Doctor Who’s fifty-second anniversary, because the number suggested a year-round set of articles. That went off the rails along with my health. Although my health is if anything even poorer right now, I started again this November and am currently not so very far off target (I’m as surprised as you are). All the blog posts I’ve published in this series since then have been ones that I originally wrote last year, which I’ve re-read, rewritten and republished as Special Editions. I’ve actually now come to the one that I aimed to write last Christmas but wasn’t able to. Which means that, in a mind-bending twist, Christmas is the first time this is original programming and not a repeat. It’s all new today. Wish me luck for the rest.
Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski talked about sci-fi series having “Wham episodes”. He doesn’t mean this. It’s good, though.
Ten Reasons To Watch Last Christmas (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – It’s Christmas!
And Christmas is always a day for Doctor Who now. This evening the twelfth Doctor Who Christmas special in a row will be part of BBC1’s festive line-up, so it seemed appropriate to choose one of the Twelfth. Last Christmas is an entertaining Christmas tale, funny, scary (a traditional Christmas horror story), and something to put you off your Christmas dinner – and, for me, easily the best of them since the very first official Christmas special, The Christmas Invasion. I’d better stop typing the word “Christmas” because at this point in the afternoon your eyes are probably already swimming as everything seems to be just Christmas, Christmas, Bloody Christmas (no, that’s TV Smith, not TV) and this won’t be helping. Some of you will be pointing out that there have been countless other, er, Yuletide specials in the worlds of Doctor Who, from Short Trips to audio adventures all the way back to A Girl’s Best Friend and The Feast of Steven, but casual readers will be too drunk to cope with that all right now and that’s my excuse. Anyway, that’s what Google is for.
I wonder if even Steven Moffat realised he’d pulled off a cracker, as the final scene of this one has not one but two callbacks to The Christmas Invasion… Oh no! I said the word. Better move on.
2 – The Doctor.
I love Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, and one of the reasons I so enjoy Last Christmas is that he gives here the most festively themed Doctor performance of all. More on that in a moment.
I was worried in a different way to the usual about the new Doctor when Mr Capaldi was announced for the part. In the past it’s been whether the actor would be right for it and waiting on tenterhooks for their first episode – though I loved Matt Smith from his prime-time interview being announced in the part onwards. But that very day I talked about my fantasy ‘any actor in all of space and time’ casting, too, and they were considerably older than Matt. There’s at least something I love about each Doctor, and my ‘favourites’ among the twelve – thirteen – fourteen – more – keep shifting, but for some years now, my absolute favourite Doctor’s been William Hartnell, and my preference instinctively for someone old, authoritative but unpredictable, acerbic but funny. I’d timescoop Graham Crowden – ironically once offered the role, but he turned it down and was too young anyway – for something like the demented majesty of A Very Peculiar Practice’s Dr Jock McCannon mixed with the child-like enthusiasm of his Tom in Waiting For God. Or go back further and take Alastair Sim (his extraordinary Inspector Poole often makes me wish for a Doctor Who reimagination of An Inspector Calls with Sylvester McCoy’s slightly sinister Time Lord). Coincidentally, my Grandad was rather dashing, came from Glasgow and was both testy and sparkling and I loved him very much. But, I’d keep reminding myself with every new Doctor, the Doctor doesn’t have to be a Scottish actor I’ve thought brilliant for years and who’s just at the right age to be crotchety with a twinkle.
And then they only went and cast bloody Peter Capaldi. This time I was terrified because he seemed just too perfect to be true and it could only go wrong. But you know what? He is nearly perfect after all. And going back to the famous Alastair Sim role inevitably shown again just yesterday, it is impossible to find a better Doctor for the Christmas special than the one who every time is a viper-tongued grouch before he throws everything he has into saving someone else (“There was only one way to get to you…”) and discovers joy all over again (“Yes, but – do you want a go…?”).
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has always played Scrooge.
3 – Alien.
“They’re a bit like Facehuggers, aren’t they?”Of all the brilliant lines in Last Christmas, this is the one that never fails to crack me up. Especially the Doctor’s face going from incomprehension to being utterly appalled.
“Yeah, you know. Alien. The horror movie, Alien.”
“There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.”
4 – Father Christmas.
“There’s not just one Santa delivery team. How could there be? There are five hundred and twenty six million four hundred and three thousand and twelve children all expecting presents before tomorrow morning. So, hmm, that’s twenty-two million children per hour. It’s impossible!This year, going all-out for Christmas, it’s the big one – Santa Claus himself (or is he? etc). Nick Frost is utterly brilliant in the role, showing no signs of his usual casting as the dim but well-meaning hot bear (here at the Pole!) best friend, nor of the fear that surely any actor must suffer on being given a role with double nominative determinism. Nick is serious, powerful and only occasionally jolly. And with Dan Starkey (nearly naked from the neck up) and Nathan McMullan (grubby superhero – no relation to tonight) his equally perfectly-cast elves, the sexy one and the sassy one – your mileage may vary on which is which – Santa has assembled a perfect comic team. Because for all the Christmas spirit, drama, hero reindeer neigh, moral of the story and even army of slinkies, what really makes them and makes the episode is all the zingers.
“Obviously, I’ve got a second sledge.”
“OK. No. Hang on. Stop. Shut up. What? Seriously, you – you’re Father Christmas. You’re – real.”It’s probably my favourite Doctor Who story for Steven Moffat comic dialogue.
“Of course I’m real. Ho, ho, ho!”
“How could he not be real?”
“Huh? How do you think those presents got under the tree every year? By magic?”
“Well, I thought it was my Mum and—”
“Mum and Dad?”
[Derisive cheers and applause]
“Well, of course it was.”
“I mean, it makes perfect sense.”
“Yeah, your Mum and Dad, one day a year, for no particular reason, just out of the blue, suddenly decide to give you a great big pile of presents.”
“No, no, no. Because they love you so much. It’s a lovely story, dear.”
“Yeah, but it’s time to start living in the real world.”
“Not often we get upstaged on a rooftop.”
5 – The Dream Crabs.
One of the most ickily successful monsters of recent years, both conceptually and visually horrible, creatures that envelop your head and feed on your brain while twisting it into mind-bending dreams within dreams. They do, as has been noted, look rather like Facehuggers, and that’s not the only way in which they’re familiar, but they’re a terrific monster for all that.
They wriggle when you think of them, they leap from the ceiling on gooey strands, they tie your psyche up in knots. They have the extra-disturbing level in our household that – bear with me on this. You see, there’s another famous Doctor Who monster that’s a sort of crab that messes with your head and which may not be real. The Macra first appeared in 1967’s The Macra Terror with Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, but we saw them again with David Tennant in Gridlock (both brilliant stories, by the way). That 2007 episode was the first to use the season’s big new epic piece of music, known on soundtrack releases as All the Strange, Strange Creatures but always to Richard and me as ‘Dance of the Macra’. But only to us. No-one else has ever called it that. So when Santa Claus comes to save everyone from them one last time and his ‘hero theme’ sounds an awful lot like ‘Dance of the Macra (Reprise)’ after several years away to fight more crabs, that feels disturbingly like someone’s messing with our own reality. As long as none of the characters are revealed to be a dream that’s actually something like an account manager for a perfume company…
Just because we’re told they look like something out of Alien, though, doesn’t mean we have to take something out of a dream’s word for it. Look at the Dream Crabs. Horrid scary alien egg-heads. Eggs? Doesn’t that make them a bit Easter? No. Focus. What is it that always comes back at Christmas to terrify everyone yet, like all good horror, exerts a strange fascination? Grey-green. Gnarled. Round.
They. Are. Sprouts.
“We know Dream Crabs are still on Earth.”
“There are lots of dangerous things on this funny little planet of yours, Clara, most of which you eat.”
6 – Clara gets some closure.
“Clara? Page number. Make it a good one.”But not as much as you might expect.
This was, infamously, her last Christmas, the episode where she was going to go out, at last a Moffat-era companion letting go… Then going on, again. The touching last dream would have been a far better exit than she got, but I can’t begrudge it for all the marvellous moments she then got in between (before, at the last, being left dangling in between).
I loved the 2014 Doctor Who season – Season Thirty-Four or Series Eight, according to taste – and it’s by some way for me the best season since Steven Moffat took over. There are several reasons: Peter Capaldi being immediately marvellous as the Doctor; some terrific episodes from beginning to end (if not every single one in the middle); and Jenna Coleman and Clara suddenly becoming far more interesting. But no season’s perfect. It’s left dangling awkwardly for both the Doctor and Clara, and this Christmas special helps bring them both back together, telling the truth to each other at last, providing both an end to one strand of their relationship and the beginning of a better one.
That year was also defined by the other relationships for each of them. Two other people, neither quite in every story but both threaded throughout, both seeing themselves as the life partner of one of our heroes, both unable to see just why Clara or the Doctor didn’t fit in with exactly how they obviously ought to be, each finding ways to force them into the right shape. Missy is a terrible force for evil. Danny’s just a bit of a git. I found it much easier to enjoy Missy than Danny Pink. Perhaps this is because I enjoy a massive, deliciously evil villain, because I know where I stand with them, and so does everyone else watching, and so does the Doctor. But I’m not at all sure that the writers didn’t think Danny was a hero and a nice guy and a good catch, even as he bullied and blackmailed and controlled Clara in a very banally ordinary way and she went along with it. So one thing I like about Danny is that, here, he’s not that bad. Because he’s a dream. And Clara’s idealised version of him lets her let go. And she teeters, but decides to leave the dream of a nice Danny and live.
Besides, if Clara had left here we’d never have seen what a fantastic relationship she gets to have with Missy next time. Well, fantastic from Missy’s perspective, anyway. Maybe Thelma and Louise to Clara, Tom and Jerry to Missy. And totally exterminating hilarious. Plus (as – spoiler – she survived) – far healthier than the relationship with Mr Pink.
“Oh, that noise! Never knew how much I loved it.”
7 – It’s a Moffat Selection Box.
What could be more Christmassy than being given the selection box, with just a little sweetie of each flavour, not enough to make you sick, or the greatest hits album, all the better tracks at single edit length so you don’t start skipping them?
Once upon a time, Steven Moffat was best-known as a sit-com writer with funny dialogue and intricate farce. He moved on to Doctor Who and became much better known for scary stories and intricate time-travel puzzles, and then for doing much of that over and again in several combinations. Last Christmas is a remarkable piece of television for several reasons, but one of the reasons that most appeals to me is that it presents some incredibly familiar Steven-Moffatiness and makes it fresh and likeable again. Perhaps because it’s all done in an hour. Perhaps because of the utter confidence it’s done with. But mostly, I think, because for the first time in his Doctor Who work, he rediscovers his sit-com roots not in the relationships but in the sheer blizzard of one-liners he lets loose. For all that this looks dark and has so much about death, at heart the story appeals to me because just this once Mr Moffat does funny again.
A perfect life for the straight couple, but it’s not real– today, in dreams. An everyday experience weaponised to make you neurotic – today, in dreams. And also, in ice cream! But which flavour Cornetto? A terrible scary new monster that you forget about or that appears when you think about it, and third go the Dream Sprouts are so much more fun and so much more horrible than the Silents, aren’t they? But new to Doctor Who, if not to Mr Moffat’s early work, Santa and the elves and zinger after zinger. It may not be quite the very best episode he’s written, but one especially good reason to watch it is if you want a story that shows off his writing to all his different strengths.
“The North Pole isn’t an actual pole.”Even the obligatory meta-reference to Doctor Who itself as a TV show and cultural phenomenon – well, one of them, anyway – is repurposed into a gag about some of the reaction to casting an older Doctor:
“Course it is. Look.”
“If it was an actual pole, it would not be stripy.”
“It’s got to be stripy.”
“Otherwise, you couldn’t see it moving round.”
“Mmm. It’s actually basic physics.”
“Urrghh! …We’ve – we’ve got ghosts!”
“Yeah – yeah – it’s a skeleton man and a girl in a nightie!”
8 – It’s beginning to look a lot like Troughton.
An isolated base, in the ice, a team of scientists, appalling monsters, in the darkness, laying siege… And even a Troughton! Since its return to TV in 2005, Doctor Who has intriguingly reimagined and borrowed from and made a total dog’s Christmas dinner of and hauled off the back of the lorry elements from all periods and formats of the series, but some writers have been more drawn to some histories than others. Russell T Davies was especially eclectic, but kept coming back to the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eras, and to storylines from the Eighth Doctor novels; for Steven Moffat, there’s often a feeling of Patrick Troughton, perhaps with a dash of Sylvester McCoy (and the same Paul McGann novels lovingly ripped off).
Last Christmas both revels in and sends up the much-repeated Second Doctor trope of the ‘base under siege’, and does it brilliantly (so much so that when another one comes along in a couple of stories’ time it looks pre-ridiculed before we even have a chance to ridicule it on its own merits). That format is one reviewers particularly identify with Season Five of the show, and the season in which much of that Season took place was, as here, Winter. Michael Troughton makes his first appearance in TV Doctor Who – though he’s acted in Big Finish’s audio adventures – and as a “Professor”, one who even interacts with a TV screen in the way his father’s Doctor often did (though with less happy results). The Doctor tells everyone to run, and sets off with a moment of Chaplinesque physical awkwardness. Monsters rise from hospital beds, as they did in The Moonbase and Mr Moffat’s own The Empty Child – though what seems like a reference to the earlier story in Clara not in fact fetching a cup of tea for the Doctor seems to misunderstand what happened there with Polly and the coffee…
9 – But is it real?*
“You know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart?”Yes, it’s another of those tales that asks about the nature of reality and dreams and layer upon layer – and both script and direction do all that rather well. There are very effective shocks as people wake up from one dream only into another, but there’s more to it than making you jump. Father Christmas gets to be a metaphor for both religion and the Doctor – is the Doctor now as much a part of Christmas as Santa? That’s what the BBC is banking on. And are either real? And does that matter? Why should you ever stop believing, if it widens your life and might help you escape from it? As is, my husband muses, especially if this is all the Doctor’s dream, Santa Claus yet another aspect of the Doctor? He even has a disguise that’s become a bit of a trademark. He even does the science bit. Until he’s told not to.
“They’re both ridiculous.”
Santa gets to interrupt the opening titles – or at least Nick Frost does – after interrupting the previous story’s end titles by waking the Doctor to cheer him up and stop him leaving things badly with Clara. So perhaps it’s all a dream. But within this story, the Doctor and Clara do indeed start telling each other the truth. So isn’t it…?
*Technically, no. It’s a story. Shh.
10 – “Yippee ai-yay…!”
The story ends with a beautiful scene of the Doctor helping Santa deliver everyone the presence of themselves back home for Christmas, swooping about the landmarks of London and, in surprisingly un-Christmassy turn, not destroying any of them.
“Hey. You want to take the reins, Doctor?”The unfolding joy on the Doctor’s face is wondrous to behold. The sleigh taking everyone home at the end of what may be a dream recalls The Box of Delights. But the Doctor’s cry of delight always brings to mind something else for me, a metatextual reference that I can’t be certain isn’t deliberate.
“You’re a dream construct. Currently representing either my recovering or expiring mind.”
“Yes, but – do you want a go?”
“Yeah. All right. …Look at me! I’m riding a sleigh. I’m riding a sleigh. Yippee ai-yay!”
At the time Peter Capaldi was announced as the new Doctor, he’d been a fantastic actor across many parts and several decades, but he’d become a household name for one role. Malcolm Tucker, the impossibly aggressive Labour spin doctor from political satire The Thick of It, the most explosively sweary man in the history of television and whose vocabulary is as far from the occasional gentle reference to the Doctor swearing in an obscure Martian dialect as could be. Months of hilarious redubbing of Doctor Who scenes with Tuckerisms spread across YouTube (no, really, some were funny, but definitely not for parents). Because of course the Doctor would never, ever say such things.
Yet every time I watch Peter Capaldi dashing through the sky, it is impossible to expunge from my brain a bit of Tucker as his line continues into the famous seasonal benediction from that most wholesome of family Christmas movies, Die Hard:
“Yippee ki yay, mo—”[Hurriedly queue theme from Blackadder’s Christmas Carol]
What Else Should I Tell You About Last Christmas?
Spoilers – in more than one sense – because there’s always someone at the big family Christmas dinner who says something that makes you wince and wonder what decade they’re living in. I like several of the women characters here, and that there are several women characters here. The only person who doesn’t get much of a character and ends up dead is (spoilers) the only man on the base. So far, so feminist. Except that… The first time I watched Last Christmas, I was appreciating the mix of ages and characters among the women scientists, and then remember suddenly shouting some Tuckerism as the rug was suddenly pulled.
Taking the mickey out of Troughton is one thing. But one of the problems with Second Doctor stories set in isolated bases with teams of scientists is that, while the teams were usually quite diverse in terms of nationality and even race, they tended all to be men. By the end, the Doctor’s “You don’t seem much like a scientist” turns queasily from a slightly crass line to something queasily like sexual determinism. When people say ‘You don’t look like a scientist / footballer / President’ to a woman, it tends not to be because it’s that particular woman.
“I thought I was a scientist. That’s rubbish.”It turns out that the base under siege isn’t real. But of course neither is the idea of a woman scientist. And because, in retrospect, the only one of the team we don’t find out is not a scientist is the man (even though it’s probably because he doesn’t survive long enough for us to see his real life). Which leaves an awkward feeling that, in all the silly dream of Troughton bases, the only bit that these bases got right is that it’s a silly dream to imagine there could have been any female scientists in them.
“Finally, something that makes sense.”
Then there’s the Doctor’s line about “texting women of low moral character”. Yes, it’s something to wind Clara up, deliberately. But it’s rather like the Doctor being appalled at a man’s internet browsing history and telling him to get a girlfriend back in The Eleventh Hour. In almost every other writer’s hands, the Doctor encourages difference and making your own mind up, and is more often than not a little baffled by other people’s sexuality, but never judgmental. I think Mr Moffat tries. I really do. And he often gets it right. But so often his Doctor just sounds like he’s telling everyone not to find their own way of life, but to follow the one that Mr Moffat has simply found is the best, so why wouldn’t you? It’s not heteronormativity: it’s just his normativity. And anyone who thinks that’s the point of Doctor Who is for me missing the point by so far I can barely countenance it.
But then there’s the Doctor’s relationship with Clara, which doesn’t feel like that at all, and which seems to me that Mr Moffat has really thought about – not least the way the Doctor’s mean when he tries to be kind and kind when he tries to be mean about her, especially her face. One of the reasons I think that scene near the surface of the sea of dreams would have made such an appropriate exit for Clara is that he’s always seen her with a different eye, and even here he still can’t tell how old she is or how to judge her ‘looks’, and that she doesn’t care either.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like Last Christmas, Why Not Try…
The Return of Doctor Mysterio, on BBC1 (or wherever you are) today at 17.45! It’s Christmas. There’s a Christmas special. I know next to nothing about it. Yippee ai-yay!
The Unquiet Dead. Doctor Who’s Christmas special from April 2005, before they knew the series would be a big enough hit to survive, let alone become a shining Christmas BBC star. Simon Callow is Charles Dickens. The yellow and blue gaslight glow suffusing the whole thing makes it an exceptionally beautiful piece of television. And it received just about the single best review Doctor Who has had in its entire history (as well as one pointing out a problem with its ‘no room at the inn’ attitude that you may have to search harder for).
And from actual last Christmas, a rather fun piece of new Doctor Who for Christmas 2015, where the Twelfth Doctor starts off on his own and is joined in an unexpected guest turn by everyone’s favourite time-travelling archaeologist, someone who’s been a big part in and out of the Doctor’s past, introducing herself with one of my favourite ever Doctor Who multiple-meaning in-joke lines, I recommend…
Big Bang Generation, by Gary Russell, available in all good bookshops.
And The Husbands of River Song is quite entertaining, too. It does, as my husband points out, have rather more decapitations than most screwball comedies, but’s it probably my favourite adventure with River Song. I’m ever so glad I’m Richard’s husband instead, though.
I’ve had to make my series travel in time to write this for Christmas, so once again next time, or previously if you’re pedantically reading them in order (I so hope you do, I’m an appalling pedant and it would make my Christmas): The next tale I have planned is a heart-warming nativity story… And there’s still no such thing as a final evolutionary form, but who’s going to tell them that?
Or, properly… An older and much younger Doctor discovers joy again in one of the series’ most Dickensian tales with absolutely no questions of whether any monsters or people are real.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
Doctor Who 52: 04 – Ten Reasons to Watch Ghost Light (SE)
Introducing Doctor Who – Ghost Light…
The Doctor takes Ace to her worst nightmare: a Victorian ghost story for Christmas. Lush BBC costume drama is only the start of one of the most bizarre, macabre and intelligently designed pieces of television you’ll ever see. At a stage in Doctor Who’s life-cycle when the series looked to be facing extinction, it evolves by taking risks and challenging the audience rather than ever playing it safe – though it’s got the vicar from Downton Abbey, here he’s at a much more satisfying posh dinner party, where everyone’s shockingly talking science and religion.
As part of not just a seasonal but I hope a year-long celebration, I’m still catching up. That is, I’m catching up even with my catching up from last year, but this is one of the last I’d previously published. Only a couple to go now, and I may perhaps be writing something else first that’s not a ‘Special Edition’ at all – wish me luck. But I’m at least slightly gladdened to have reached Ghost Light for Christmas Eve. It feels of the season (though if you watch carefully, it isn’t at all – the clocks suggest both Midsummer and October, which may not entirely help). And I’ve just watched the whole season it’s a part of, an ending that brought me to tears when of course it’s not an ending at all.
It’s hard to think of another Doctor Who story so exuberantly packed with brilliant ideas and witty lines, so I was tempted to suggest as one of my ten reasons to watch (like using your last wish to wish for more wishes) that you should explore it to discover how many more reasons than ten there really are.
Ten Reasons To Watch Ghost Light (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – The Doctor and Ace.
By Ghost Light, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his friend Ace (Sophie Aldred) have been together for quite a while. Under lead writer Andrew Cartmel they’ve both become more complex than in the previous season, him less judgmental, her less the troubled teenager, but both still seem to delight in blowing things up – here the Doctor even worries that he’s lit the blue touch paper and left nowhere to retire to, but it’s really Ace’s fuse that he’s playing with.
I love Sylvester’s Doctor in this story, as much an initiative test for the viewer as it is for Ace. He’s powerful, inquisitive, caring, cruel, funny, melancholy and more, but he always leaves me with more questions than answers here: how much does he know what’s going on, and why does he come to Gabriel Chase in the first place? His thinking aloud that even he can’t play this many games at once and the not-a-reassurance that he always leaves things to the last minute suggest he may have seen all sorts of fascinating threads along the way and couldn’t help tugging at them, but that this is really all about his getting Ace to confront her demons before the house’s angels, and that saving Earth is just a by-product.
Is the Doctor Professor Higgins, forcing Ace / Eliza to evolve into his own idea of a Lady (Pygmalion)? Is he Merlin, pushing Ace / Wart through one form after another to learn from the inside out (The Sword In the Stone)? Or is he just prodding her to find out what she’ll turn into for herself? At least, whatever he’s doing to his companion without asking permission, he’s out to expand her mind rather than wiping it. Whether he learns a lesson in the end from seeing other people being treated as he treats Ace and just how badly that works out is open to question, but on the other hand it’s not just Ace who adapts herself to what’s happening in the house; the Doctor has always been able to rise to whatever situation he finds himself in. When Victorian vicar Reverend Matthews takes him for their host, the Doctor fits himself into the niche and responds to the immediate stimuli of “condescend” by how he acts up to him. Or he may just be having enormous fun. It takes Ace rather longer to enjoy it.
The climax of Part One – though Part Two has the more thrilling cliffhanger – comes in possibly their best scene together, when Ace realises that the Doctor’s taken her to her worst nightmare and demands he face her. Sophie Aldred is terrific confronting her mentor / tormentor, looking suddenly grown up in a dinner suit, grasping the trophy room table like a lectern to rain brimstone on the Doctor as he comes in behind her, dark, quiet, stealthy, prodding.
“Don’t you have things you hate?”And her terms aren’t to do with what the Doctor prompts her to realise about what terrified her five years earlier for her, a century in the house’s future, much closer to home. When she starts to open up about the greatest horror in her past, the haunted house just a symptom, Doctor’s quietly supportive, it puts the hairs up on my neck. And you realise that this isn’t about strange upper-class manners in 1883 London at all, and that Doctor Who is now confronting other demons, real and terrible ones that are sickeningly on the rise again as 2016 comes to a close.
“I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls.”
“I told you I never wanted to come back here again.”
“Then there’s unrequited love, and tyranny, and cruelty.”
“We all have a universe of our own terrors to face.”
“I face mine on my own terms!”
2 – That’s the Way to the Zoo.
Mark Ayres’ score is lush, sinister, sometimes intimate and probably his best for the show. He does wonders to produce an orchestral feel without an orchestra. I often listen to the soundtrack (itself released in three different versions). The captivating chords building as Ace confronts the Doctor and her past, the swirling frenzy as they break apart and the African pipes as Redvers stalks them through his own private world make an enormous contribution to Part One. But even here, he’s upstaged by the genuine and disturbingly appropriate Victorian parlour song he found for Katharine Schlesinger’s Gwendoline to sing.
For the climax of the first episode, the music has been rising and getting more claustrophobic as things come to a head; there’s a magnificent flurry as Ace runs up the stairs; it spellbindingly underscores Ace’s harrowing revelations; it spirals dizzyingly as she flees into the red darkness deep below. But hurled through the middle of Mark Ayres’ own magnificent compositions is a novelty song about zoos, monkeys and nuts that the daughter of the house sings with deranged fervour, counterpointing the terrible memories upstairs and the terrible deeds in the drawing room while foreshadowing worse to come, the camera swooping round the piano and Gwendoline’s unnaturally bright eyes with unforgettable passion. Sorry, Mark. She’s the bit that everyone remembers.
The story only gives one verse, but I’ve just discovered a more complete version by fan podcasters The Splendid Chaps, who tracked down the original music for their hellish cabaret. Click here: That’s the Way To the Zoo.
3 – Bringing the Haunted House story to life.
The whole story takes place within Gabriel Chase, a spooky old Victorian house. Except… It’s not haunted yet. It’s much weirder than that. It’s not an old house in 1883. And it’s teeming with life, more and more vividly as the story forges on. But terrible things have been happening, as a study of life corrupts into death after death, and the Doctor’s brought Ace here to find out what haunts her from a hundred years later – and it’s not just the house. While all the people caught inside try to work out how to cope with their environment – more an experience than a plot, and for some people life is more difficult to handle than what’s written in stone – the story’s major haunting is by the future, as Ace’s past comes to life around her as if the house knows what she’s going to do. And once the life of the house goes out, it remembers and broods for a hundred years…
4 – Sylvia Syms’ Mrs Pritchard.
Ghost Light has a terrific cast all round. Michael Cochrane steals a dozen scenes in an endearingly bewildered role far from the vicar at Downton Abbey; I remembered John Hallam as a hard soldier in Dragonslayer, and of course he drove his car over a cliff into a quarry (twice in one night? That is suspicious), but here his dangerously fey force of nature foreshadows Peter Capaldi’s Angel Islington in both performance and heralding that angels down below are rarely a good sign; John Nettleton is marvellous and seemed the biggest name to me because he’d been at the top of the tree in Yes Minister; Frank Windsor was far enough from Z Cars now that he could play another policeman; and Sharon Duce was a big deal too.
But out of all the bestiary, one actor always grabs your attention – because you don’t dare to look away from her. One of Britain’s major movie stars from the ’50s, playing demure but determined women in films such as Ice Cold In Alex and Victim, here Sylvia Syms plays terrifying housekeeper Mrs Pritchard in spidery black lace that goes beyond Queen Victoria and into half-Skeksis and with a face as hard as her tongue. Her scenes with awkward house guest Reverend Matthews are scarier than any of the aliens: she feels like a stalking cobra as she glides across the floor towards him, and she clearly struck author Marc Platt with the same force, if you read that passage in his novelisation. Who’s been shedding their skin? And her harsh reprimands to young Gwendoline are savage, horribly telling and hilarious all in one (I can never help joining in the whiplash of “Sitting there dressed like a music hall trollop!”). She seems to be a perfect fit for the household. But there’s other significance to dressing in Victoria’s widow’s weeds and another clue right there at hand from the story’s first few seconds, so Utopia’s not the only time a real self is hidden within a locket (the novel fills another character’s head with the sound of drums), and her final moment will freeze your heart…
5 – How Not to Bribe the Doctor.
Marc Platt’s fantastic script is packed to the brim with brilliant lines, many of them his own. You can’t count all the puns on light and change that reinforce the themes – from “Thank you, Nimrod. We would be delighted” to the butler right through to weaponised puns at the climax – and it completely changes your reaction to the word “Java” from something to wake you up. There’s a lot of it I join in on, appropriately for a gorgeously designed affair that at times looks just like Rocky Horror. But today, my favourite exchange is when self-made man – and if he isn’t, who made him? – Josiah Samuel Smith appraises the Doctor’s abilities if not his origins or morals and tries to employ him for a murder. “I’m afflicted with an enemy,” he claims, in a lovely turn of phrase evoking the man of property’s fear of the underclass despite them being the same underneath (depraved or deprived?), still satirically topical in 1989, and proffers a handful of such massive banknotes that the Doctor whistles.
“I’m not interested in money. How much?”The novelisation adds an extra punchline from the Doctor:
“Five thousand pounds to rid me of the evil brute.”
“Now that’s what I call Victorian value. But I’m still not interested in money.”
“Five thousand pounds! he thought. A gentleman only ever pays in guineas!”
6 – The Victorian Age.
Ghost Light is the most deeply Victorian Doctor Who story of all. It doesn’t just glory in the literature and the stereotypes, but embodies the society, family, science, religion and philosophy too, and everything that comes crawling out when you scratch the veneer, everything the ’80s veneration of “Victorian Values” pretended to ignore. And the heart of what makes Ghost Light so much fun and so disturbing is that it revels in doing to the Victorians what they did to everyone else.
“You have no shred of decency.”To the otherworldly survey agent, the house is unexplored and primitive territory, so naturally it’s his to claim and he sticks a flag in it as his property, whatever that does to the natives. And he doesn’t quite understand the customs, applying his perfectly sensible theory in entirely the wrong context… So if you think Josiah’s plan doesn’t make sense, this proto-Thatcherite assuming Darwinism and Social Darwinism are just the same as each other might just be the point. The religious and scientific establishment’s sermons are satirised over dinner, in the horrible comeuppance of Homo Victorianus Ineptus, and eventually on a grand scale when we find out just how appalling it would be if God were a proper Victorian deity. Josiah, the coming man, has become both the Victorian Age’s biggest fan and its harshest critic (so often the way). Just as Thatcherites in 1989 complained that there’s no discipline these days and call for a return to the standards of a century earlier, he condemns the Empire as a mess with no discipline or direction. Every layer of the character is more complex: even as Josiah appears to have evolved into the ruthless, self-centred Victorian capitalist, the same survey observations that identified Victorian Man as the pinnacle of nature makes him a naturalist with a realisation that there’s no such thing, in an unconventional challenge to every established hierarchy. Where Josiah seems to wind up appalled fundamentalist Reverend Matthews even more than in his theories on evolution is in the application he gives them, criticising industrial pollution and arguing that Man is merely another part of nature and just as in danger of becoming extinct.
The opposite inversion to Josiah is Redvers Fenn-Cooper, the finest explorer in the Empire but who’s lost himself. The explorer brings the madness back with him in some of the most heart-poundingly weird scenes for the Doctor, Ace and the viewer (making it a much cleverer take on Kinda, and with far greater semiotic thickness to it to boot). Seemingly the biggest threat at first, he should be the most objectionable character in the whole thing – but his ‘heroic’ Victorian stereotype turns inside-out instead. Rather than espousing the Inspector’s casual racism he sees London and its inhabitants as no different to the jungle, from the strange totems of Gabriel Chase – brilliantly captured in the novelisation as he escapes among them by some unimaginable feat of cunning – to his determination to hunt the crowned Saxe-Coburg. For me, Redvers is the most endearing character in the whole story, marvellously played by Michael Cochrane and adorable even if he raves, screams and introduces himself by wresting a Zulu assegai from where it hung on a tree beside a barometer…
“Burning bright in the heart of the Interior. It burnt through my eyes, into my mind. It had blazing – radiant – wings!”
7 – The Video Age.
Talking about “video” now seems almost quaintly Victorian too, but since the moment it was broadcast, people have talked about this as a story for the videotape era – meaning just that you have to record it and watch it several times to pick up how all the details work and understand it. And enjoying it and unlocking its puzzles in all those ways is a good part of what makes Ghost Light marvellous. But you can take videotape as metaphor, too. The story’s Recording Angel is a video archivist, who thinks the point is to log all the master tapes and never watch them. Or, like the BBC, burn them to prevent anyone watching them – play the tapes, and things happen, time moves forward… Evolution. Like a videotape, you can play it backwards, but just as that used to knacker your tapes, keeping evolution on pause or winding it back are bad news in this story. Ace regresses to her thirteen-year-old traumas, Matthews to an ape, Josiah back under control, and others in their own terrible ways. Going forwards, change, is life, and the only way to see your story unfold.
8 – The Scientific Method.
“My theories appal you, my heresies outrage you, I never answer letters and you don’t like my tie.”And of course this story is all about evolution, not just the science but the catastrophic shock it posed to an entire worldview. The story boasts a menagerie of scientists, naturalists and explorers, and only the open-minded can cope. And for all that it challenges fixed religious orthodoxy, there is a creator here, and he’s not happy. It’s not your ordinary Frankenstein pastiche, either. Here the ‘mad scientist’ and creature are one, as well as two, and he’s actually published his papers for scrutiny, with his workings-out left on show in the cellar and a proper control (and if she’s not proper to start with, she evolves). Not that the peer review is favourable, but for the viewer just as for Ace, finding your own truth here is more rewarding than being told all the answers.
Science and religion are threaded through each other in Ghost Light – it’s not as simple as saying that one should defeat the other. For several of the characters, the two are the same, and an absolute, fixed canon of either or of anything is going to end up breaking under the strain. The story is on the side of irrepressible, unpredictable life and – very Doctor Who – against domination, control and telling people where they fit. Do you label the two most intertwined characters the Control and the Survey in an experiment started by the ultimate naturalist, telling the scientific method by metaphor? Or as Innocence and Experience, presided over by a Blakean angel? So when Light finally emerges, it doesn’t matter what you call him. Except to him, which is the essence of the problem. Obsessive cataloguer or oppressive deity, if it’s not written in the book, it’s got no right to be real! But that’s life. And even travelling at the speed of thought isn’t much use if you lack an imagination.
9 – Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup!
“You got stuffed and it wasn’t even Christmas.”In a house so teeming with life, there’s a lot of catering. The day staff and the Night Maid are kept busy – there’s a dinner party on both evenings, Ace eats a hearty breakfast (perhaps brupper) but still wants a curry, even the Doctor talks about hamburgers, and Control has a crunchy nibble, though it’s Inspector Mackenzie who provides the most work for the kitchens. Well, he did sleep through a meal or two. The dinner in Part One is satisfying, serving up witty lines and gathering tension, but it pales beside the feast the following night which forms the climax to Part Three and the story. Although it’s probably not Christmas, the banquet begins with appropriately seasonal elements: estranged siblings seething at each other; mother running out in distress; squabbling over whether to cut off the Queen’s speech. And it all ends up with a couple of big fights breaking out, the Doctor’s idiosyncratic version of grace and a bomb surprise for afters.
I think this is the only time the Doctor defeats both major and minor villains over dinner. Polishing off Josiah is the hors d’oeuvre for him, but the richest confection for the viewer, with everyone bringing something to the table. Josiah objects to Redvers’ dinner guest so it’s hardly surprisingly when she makes his plans go up in smoke, but it’s not all jollity round the fire – Ace has a last revelation about the police. And after the mounting sense that he’s bitten off more than he can chew, the Doctor’s after-dinner speech is an utter triumph. In between, the guest of honour finally turns up to tell everyone the party’s over. Light has already shown himself a dab hand at carving, but is at his finger-licking worst leering over the soup tureen. Ace realises why the Doctor told her not to touch it; the Doctor confirms it; Josiah revels in it. And that wasn’t the last revelation about the police after all.
“There’s only one solution to Earth. I was going to reduce it to this…”Terrance Dicks’ characters often experienced “a thrill of horror” in the Target books. This was the first time I was consciously aware of one. The horribly macabre joke still does it for me.
[Light raises a ladle full of soup, the medallion of a Victorian police inspector dangling from it.]
“So you started with Inspector Mackenzie.”
“The cream of Scotland Yard.”
10 – The Stone Spaceshippers.
The story ends – no, the story continues – with power used not for domination or destruction but to evolve into Doctor Who, showing how the series can still rush off into the sheer joy of new adventures. The pioneer-not-user gang that goes off to explore strange new worlds and be new life have been inspired by the Doctor and Ace, and I’m always surprised that with all the books and CDs since no-one’s ever brought them back to see their continuing travels, or even a spin-off. Someone should remind Steven Moffat of an idea he might like to pick up. Here’s the gang: in control, the Victorian ladylike who’s actually been around for millions of years. Her other half. Plus the dim but enthusiastic militarist and the one who looks a bit strange but gets away with it in his butler’s outfit. And a bit of sex. If you were to make them all a regular team, of course, you’d probably cut costs by amalgamating the last two into one comic relief character, then bring them back to Earth to explore the curious world of Victorian London through their outsiders’ eyes. Sounds like they could be popular!
What Else Should I Tell You About Ghost Light?
If you watch Ghost Light on DVD, it’s especially rewarding to look at the extended and deleted scenes for this one. There are a lot of them, and several of those add quite a bit (I particularly like the escape from Newgate). The off-cuts are unfortunately imprinted with time-codes and so couldn’t be assembled into a Special Edition, but Marc Platt’s rather marvellous novelisation is able to reintegrate them seamlessly. It also has possibly Alister Pearson’s most striking cover.
Ghost Light is at the heart of one of Doctor Who’s most mesmerising years, 1989’s Season Twenty-Six, and you can see in it many of the season’s running themes, from confronting gods and strange magic to survival of the fittest not meaning what the ’80s took it to mean. In a year that centres on Ace, many of the themes are hers in particular: fire; nuclear holocaust (they’re against it); female empowerment; lesbian subtexts; living your life in the wrong order; and the moral that you should always remember to send a Mother’s Day card, because you have no idea how much your life might get out of hand if you lose track of your Mum. This was the final story actually made for the original series. The last one shown was Survival, Ghost Light’s mirror-twin, which is also set around Ace’s old home of Perivale to show her facing her past, present and future, and this all-studio story even shares a location shoot with it (but it’s not Perivale). But more on those stories later.
I loved Ghost Light from its first night. My husband Richard loves it too, and the first thing I saw in his flat on my first visit, twenty-two years and two months and two days to go-ago, was a print of Alister Pearson painting for the book cover hanging opposite the door. It’s still hanging in our flat today. As it’s Christmas Eve, Richard also asks me to point out that the whole story grows out of a tale told around – or at least starting with – a cheery festive blazing fire. Although many other fans agree that this is one of the very best Doctor Who stories – and one of the few at the time to get enthusiastic press reviews – many others don’t. Some seem to have their masculinity threatened by Light being played by a usually very butch actor here wearing a pre-Raphaelite frock and a fey voice (though rarely seem to complain about the women wrestling in tuxedos). Others complain that the multi-layered script is incomprehensible to them. I don’t find myself threatened by a lack of macho, by making my brain work, or by daring to be different. But if you can’t quite see the scientific method in the madness together here, the Doctor and Ace sum up how it’s supposed to work a couple of minutes into Part Three.
Richard got our current car four years ago. With the number plate beginning “RV”, we inevitably named it for the stylish, slightly old-fashioned but inspiring explorer from one of our favourite stories. I met Michael Cochrane a few months later and, while he signed our Ghost Light DVD, I confided that we’d named our car after his character. “Oh, really? …What sort of car is it?” he asked, evidently fearing an old banger. “It’s a Jaguar.” “That’ll do!” he exclaimed delightedly.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like Ghost Light, Why Not Try…
Well, goodness. This isn’t just probably the Doctor Who story with the most ideas packed into it, but the greatest density of references too. So what isn’t there to try? Obviously it goes down the rabbit hole into so much Victorian literature that it makes Dickensian look like a lightweight, so I’ll pick just out a favourite Victorian short story which supplies a detail turned inside-out and into both a gag and a plot thread and recommend you read The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual. Ghost Light also references the two earlier outstandingly brilliant Doctor Who stories set in the Victorian era, The Talons of Weng-Chiang (explicitly) and The Evil of the Daleks (esoterically). The Night Maid always make me think of an evil Bagpuss, the end makes me want to listen to Talking Heads, and I rarely need an excuse to revisit The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, another cautionary tale of religion and evolution (with a moment in the TV version of the Earth made anew which never fails to make me tear up). And as today is the thirty-second anniversary of the finale of The Box of Delights, which really is gloriously seasonal, you might find more joy in an innocuous little box opening and blazing out light than poor Mr Fenn-Cooper does.
But back to Doctor Who. Today is also the anniversary of not the broadcast of but most of the events of three more Victorian Doctor Who stories, The Unquiet Dead, The Next Doctor, and The Snowmen. Marc Platt has written many other (Merry Otherstide!) fabulous stories through novels and audio dramas, and as Ghost Light helped inspire so much of the New Adventures, from Ace to owls, today I might recommend you pick up some of the best of those with a yuletide flavour – Paul Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation, Mark Gatiss’ Nightshade, Lawrence Miles’ Christmas on a Rational Planet – or of course Marc’s own Lungbarrow, the Seventh Doctor’s finale and itself a multiple reflection of Ghost Light (complete with its own Victorian evolution debate in-joke, with Omphalos metamorphosed into a mystery about the Doctor’s creation or, for his family, a rude nick-name). To continue the festive theme, Big Finish published several Christmas collections in their Short Trips anthologies. I’d particularly recommend The History of Christmas (edited by Simon Guerrier, of whom more later) and A Christmas Treasury (edited by Paul Cornell, similarly), which brims with stocking-filler games and recipes, where Terrance Dicks offers us a grumpy Doctor and shows you can’t trust a beard, even at Christmas, and Marc himself gives us a Christmas Special with Eric and Ernie and a scary ’80s monster. Or, on DVD…
Ghost Light is the first Doctor Who from a brilliant new author working with one of the show’s most brilliant script editors, shown in one of its most brilliant seasons, and excoriates ossified religion while doing remarkable things with evolution. The same is true for both of these.
The Face of Evil. The Doctor (Tom Baker) finds himself in a strange if not entirely convincing jungle and finds that the locals’ myths have an uncomfortable amount of truth to them amid the superstitions. And are they locals after all? He leaves with a new companion, a free-thinker who’s challenged all the local orthodoxies. The Doctor doesn’t really want her on board at first, but she becomes a great favourite with the viewers.
[Watch it and revel in the festive knowledge that it was nearly called “The Day God Went Mad”, but the producer decided Mary Whitehouse was up to quota on pronouncing fatwas already.]
Full Circle. The Doctor (Tom Baker) finds himself in a strange and vividly convincing jungle and finds that the locals’ myths have an uncomfortable amount of truth to them amid the superstitions. And are they locals after all? He leaves with a new companion, a free-thinker who’s challenged all the local orthodoxies. The Doctor doesn’t really want him on board at first, but he becomes… Well, some people liked him.
The next tale I have planned is a heart-warming nativity story… And there’s still no such thing as a final evolutionary form, but who’s going to tell them that?
“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!”Or I might decide that the next few may have to involve some travelling back and forth in time, because Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without actual Christmas. But which?
Friday, December 23, 2016
Five Reasons to Read Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion – Doctor Who 52 Extra: D (SE)
Introducing Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion…
Shop window dummies that come to life, the Doctor given a new ‘family’ on Earth and a touch of bitchy soap opera… No wonder this was such an influence on Russell T Davies that he wrote the introduction for the new edition. Terrance Dicks’ first book novelises the thrilling TV story Spearhead From Space, making it more thrilling still from the title on through – one of the best Doctor Who novels ever written, and creating an irresistible monster that never quite made it to TV: “something between spider, crab and octopus…”
Robert Holmes’ 1970 adventure Spearhead From Space is one of the best-known Doctor Who stories – it introduced Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, the Autons and even colour to the series, was among the first to be released in video, DVD and book form, and with its mixture of action, horror, comedy and really aggressive department store sales windows, inspired 2005’s even more radical relaunch, Rose. It was first broadcast before I was born, so I grew up loving the Third Doctor’s adventures in their Target Books adaptations, and only caught up with the TV versions on VHS about two decades after transmission. The Pertwee books are arguably Target’s golden age; the TV originals rarely matched the pictures the novels had conjured in my head. I still think of this as the ‘Pertwee gap’ where this Doctor’s novelisations far outstripped his TV stories, and Spearhead From Space, too, gains a great deal by becoming The Auton Invasion… But in this case, it doesn’t mean that Spearhead From Space is a disappointment. It’s one of my favourite TV Doctor Who stories. The first two books Target commissioned were for me the two best Third Doctor stories, and they made them better still. The Pertwee gap here means that The Auton Invasion is simply fantastic.
These days you might call The Auton Invasion and some of those other remarkable Target novels as Special Editions… And as this is another of those pieces I first wrote last year and, after admittedly not quite as dramatic a health crisis as the Doctor has here, they then trailed off a few down the line, you might think of this a Special Edition of sorts, too. Just not quite as Special as Terrance’s.
Five Reasons To Read – or Listen To – Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion (warning: spoilers lower down the list)
1 – The Nightmarish Nestene.
If you see this story on TV, you remember the Autons. If you read the book, you imagine the Nestene. You might say this is a spoiler to start with, save for it being on the cover and difficult to miss (and not just on Chris Achilleos’ original 1974 cover, either)…
“Standing towering over them was the most nightmarish creature Liz had ever seen. A huge, many-tentacled monster something between spider, crab and octopus. The nutrient fluids from the tank were still streaming down its sides. At the front of its glistening body a single huge eye glared at them, blazing with alien intelligence and hatred.”Much of Terrance Dicks’ book description simplifies: the not-meteorite energy units are green spheres rather than complex polyhedrons; the factory receptionist expressionlessly doll-like; the walking dummy Autons much more blank. It’s effective. The repeated emphasis on Autons looking like half-finished waxworks, or having an enormous but peculiarly horrible hand – “It was completely smooth and white, and there were no fingernails” – that drops away to fire sizzling bolts of energy from the empty wrist instantly conjure mental images without complicated detail. The exception is deep within the factory that builds the Autons, where a body is growing to house the controlling majority of the Nestene Consciousness, the group mind animating all the living plastic for the invasion. The book teases this repeatedly to build anticipation, most effectively at the close of Chapter 6, where the Autons become more threatening yet and a series of short, understated sentences at the end give closure to an earlier attack. The audiobook version has much less in the way of music and sound effects than later Target CDs, but both steady narration by Caroline John (fabulous scientist Dr Liz Shaw on TV) and a strange alien glugging sound build up particularly eerily there too.
The book climaxes with the Doctor and Liz Shaw reaching the heart of the factory, where something enormous heaves, seethes and bubbles in a great tank (which the fascinated Doctor walks round “as if contemplating a swim in it”). On TV, a few limp tentacles emerge – then, in the sequel a year later, just a fuzzy video effect – without being entirely convincing. In the book, there’s no disappointment when the whole side of the tank shatters open and the “huge, many-tentacled monster something between spider, crab and octopus” rears unforgettably into our imaginations.
Where the cover paintings of most Doctor Who novelisations take pictures from the TV show as their model, Terrance Dicks’ Nestene created not just a nightmare but a challenge impossible for many artists to resist. Chris Achilleos paints one lurking on the cover, then gives it much more detail in a starring eruption as the finale to his internal illustrations, followed by other artists competing with further editions. The first sequel, Terror of the Autons, took similarly vivid descriptions from Terrance and let Peter Brookes’ imagination soar into a comic-book Cthulhoid horror that wraps its way around the front of the book, with Alan Willow having a go of his own inside the pages – then the second edition boasted Alun Hood’s horribly photo-realistic glaring eye, writhing tentacle and ickily teeth-like suckers. Even the back cover excitedly talks up
“a malignant, squid-like monster of cosmic proportions and indescribably hideous appearance.”And yet Terrance’s description provides what’s still the most unforgettable mental image of all the Target books, inspiring artist after artist and proving that however powerful the design in front of your eyes, the most memorable horrors remain the ones you imagine.
2 – All Doctors Are Gits.
The Doctor and the Autons both look human, but the book goes to even greater lengths than the TV version to emphasise that neither really is – from the very first, poacher Sam Seeley sees both the ‘meteorites’ and the Doctor landing, and it’s the Doctor that frightens him more. But that’s not my favourite parallel for the Doctor here. The comatose Doctor is brought in to the local cottage hospital, and suddenly the story has a sort of fun that’s rarely found in Twentieth-Century Who. It’s no surprise to have tea and bullying bosses as signatures of normality, but when there’s so much more than those on top you begin to remember that Terrance had written soap opera, too. The original script had plenty of hospital scenes, but the book expands them with full-on soap gossip, rivalries, and everybody on the make (just like Sam, a doomed businessman and even an army corporal later in the book).
A nurse gets the worst of it to start with, trembling at Dr Henderson’s sharp tongue when he shrieks with anger over the two hearts on the Doctor’s X-ray, then when Henderson’s “old enemy” Dr Lomax in Pathology rings to complain too, she “almost dropped the ’phone from pure terror”. In just a few pages, Terrance sketches in a history of bullying medical horrors, with Caroline John’s reading on CD making it all even more entertaining. But that’s nothing to when the hospital’s senior Surgical Consultant Mr Beavis shows up with his “high-handed, lordly manner” that terrifies even the doctors – not least our own favourite one, when he overhears that Beavis regards him as “some kind of interesting freak. Probably plans to open him up and sort out his innards for him.” Which rather reminds me of some of the more careless consultants not just when I was hospitalised this very month but also and still more disturbingly hack-happily in 2014, so it serves him right when the Doctor nicks his car to get away. If it came to it, I might have legged it too.
I always wonder, though – are we being lulled into liking the new Doctor because every other doctor in this is a total git or a complete monster? Or are we being warned by implication that this Doctor’s imprinted on them just after rebirth and thinks doctors ought to be arrogant workplace bullies?
3 – Terrance Dicks.
One of Doctor Who’s most significant writers, Terrance Dicks wrote several TV stories and was the show’s script editor (similar to today’s lead writer) for five years, but it’s with Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion that his even greater role began: he went on to write nearly half the Target novelisations – and hundreds of books altogether.
Terrance’s first novel is still for me his best. He puts in enormous creativity, and you can see immediately that he’s a natural prose as well as script writer – people often talk about his ‘deceptively easy’ style, but I’ve read an awful lot of Doctor Who authors and few of the others manage Terrance’s ‘effortless’ flow even when trying for all they’re worth. His style’s all the more effective for having plenty of action and humour, but understating both. Crisp, dry and with deft touches of horror and sketched-in one-line character backgrounds to help us empathise (often immediately before they’re blasted down), he’s aware that he’s writing in part for children but is never patronising, though occasionally simplifying, such as calling the more advanced doppelgänger Autons “Replicas” rather than “facsimiles” (it would be another decade before the term facsimile would be in common use, but even then associated with sinisterly smooth businessmen who want to take over the world). He’s responsible for generations finding how exciting reading can be.
One of Terrance’s best-known devices is his use of simple, memorable descriptions – and reusing them. Chapter 6 contrasts a comedy car sequence with a very different action-based one, and here we get the first but not the last outing in one of Terrance’s books of a soldier emptying a full clip of bullets into a monster, plainly seeing a line of holes appearing across its chest – but there’s no blood, and the thing just keeps on coming (Terrance considerately also has the man recognise that it’s not human, to reassure us that the army don’t just fill you full of lead when spooked). The Doctor’s driving, by contrast, is already ridiculously accomplished and appalling for the passengers. But it’s not just set pieces like those that recur, but phrases: fanatical alien villains are already “exultant”; doomed characters already stare “in horrified fascination” or react “with unbelieving horror”; multiple ‘Doctor who?’ puns even come with in-character laugh-tracks. All these will become very familiar, though he’s not yet settled into a pattern of short, punchy chapters each ending in their own mini-cliffhanger: compared to the rest, the final chapter is enormous and would make at least three in one of his later books. But his most famous description is here, when the TARDIS materialises right back in Chapter 1:
“…a strange wheezing and groaning filled the air.”
4 – The Auton Invasion.
You can probably tell from the title where the book’s heading, and it’s a stunning tour-de-force. Like the similarly outstanding Remembrance of the Daleks novelisation, it makes even the series’ most thrilling action sequences seem broader, bigger-budget, and more compelling. Auton dummies coming to life behind high street windows is such a vivid image that it relaunched Doctor Who twice on TV – as well as being remade in multiple pop videos and even Pringles ads – but for me the one that still most enthralls me is on the page.
The Doctor and Liz have worked through the night on a device that could disrupt the Nestenes, but in the London dawn the city is coming to life in more than the ordinary way:
“Soon a normal, bustling London day would be in full swing. But this day, in London, and in cities all over the country, was to be like no other. This was the morning of the Auton invasion.One street and one copper draw us in, but the action telescopes swiftly out to the whole country. Autons blast people down in the streets of every major city; the police are overwhelmed by thousands of calls; it’s so serious that Terrance even mentions ITV as well as the BBC issuing urgent warnings to stay inside and barricade your home, before Autons destroy transmitters along with phone exchanges and fire stations. But the really effective part is when he widens the scope to full-on fifth columnist paranoia, with every response going wrong as ministers and senior officers give confusing or deliberately damaging orders – before their hands drop away to reveal Auton guns. It’s leavened by a few scattered examples of ‘hope in the ordinary people’s pluck and bravery’, but for the most part the invasion is pages of grim despair:
“In the shop windows and in the department stores the mannequins stood waiting. A policeman patrolling along Oxford Street cast a casual eye at the window display in one of the big stores. A group of window dummies, dressed in bright, casual sports clothes, sat under a beach umbrella in a cheerful seaside setting. The policeman thought longingly of his own holidays. Only another two weeks… As he passed on his way the mannequins posing round the table stirred and came to life. Jerkily at first, they rose from their beach chairs and rugs. The tallest raised its hand in a pointing gesture. The hand dropped away on its hinge to reveal a gun nozzle.”
“Chaos… panic… confusion… Then, one by one, the outside ’phones went dead.”
5 – Where Do Autons Come From? …Actually, I wish you’d not told me.
“And Channing smiled a terrible smile.”The book’s main villain is “Channing”, the new partner at a plastics factory. On TV the guest star makes him eerie and detached, perfectly alien. Here he’s an unnaturally smooth businessman, immaculately dressed, with regular, handsome features, utterly bland until he looks at you with those blazing eyes – as if he’s empty but for an animating will inside him. Like a waxwork come to life, the book suggests, or like Tony Blair with Margaret Thatcher’s eyes. He spends the novel dominating factory manager Hibbert with his alien will and revering the thing in the tank that is to come after him. And however terrific the Auton Invasion itself, for me the most gripping moment in the book is the revelation when Hibbert finally manages to free his mind enough to ask him a question…
“‘But what’s going to happen to us—to Man?’ The full horror of it suddenly came over Hibbert. ‘You’ll destroy us.’That always gave me a thrill of horror when I was a boy – and others, too. Russell T Davies’ lovely Introduction to the 2011 edition not only talks about meeting his first fan through Target books (though his “doomed to never marry” shows how far we’ve come already since), confesses to childhood theft and praises Sir Terrance, as he should be, but picks that same line as the one that gave him chills and thrills. Can you spot the lines in Rose that came directly from this book, rather than the TV version? A young Alan Moore uses the same terror at the heart of his Auton tale Business As Usual (pairing him with Alan Davis before V For Vendetta). And the Terrance turns of phrase that I’m willing to bet stuck in a young JK Rowling’s head aren’t just stock descriptions like Professor Flitwick’s Pertwee-like “shock of white hair”; at the climax of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Voldemort, too, smiles a terrible smile…
“Channing’s voice was soothing. ‘Not you, Hibbert. You are our ally. You have helped us.’
Hibbert said dully: ‘And you… you’re not human.’
“‘I am part of the whole, Hibbert. Nestenes have no individual existence. This body is merely a container, Hibbert. You should know that. You made me.’
“And Channing smiled a terrible smile.”
What Else Should I Tell You About Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion?
You can probably tell that I’d put this in my two or three favourite Target novels, and often still simply my favourite of the lot. But it isn’t entirely perfect. This was the book that introduced me to Dr Liz Shaw. When I was a boy, I loved the way she, the Brigadier and the Doctor worked together. Like Polly, Ben and Jamie and Barbara, Ian and Susan, they’re a team from stories that were broadcast before I was born but sang off the page in the novelisations, each group a mix of men and women, but especially each with one woman who shows she’s got a brain and some gumption, who can stand up to the Doctor. They felt so utterly right and I’ve adored them ever since. And yet now I know the TV version too so well, the book is at just a slight disadvantage for each of them. The obvious is that it can’t help missing something that the actors gave it on TV. Liz still comes out of it well – well, after all that, I would say that, wouldn’t I? Lacking Caroline John’s sarky brilliance, but neatly emphasising her scientific ability and curiosity as the outsider finding her way into this weird set-up, the proof of the pudding is that I went to primary school with two Elizabeth Shaws, but I still thought this one was fantastic. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s characterisation, though, is more confused.
On TV, this is possibly Nicholas Courtney’s best performance and probably his best part as Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, the leader of the army UNIT tasked with investigating uncanny happenings. For the first half of the story, he’s the lead, and he’s an intelligent young officer, an urbane, incisive, highly efficient professional, briskly in charge and pedeconferencing decades before it was fashionable. Terrance Dicks wrote this four years later, by which time the Brig was more a comforting fixture and never threatening to steal the show from a domineering Doctor who’d often treat him as the comic relief (though with Nick always retaining some dignity). And in the novel the Brigadier keeps switching between these two poles. He’s never quite a buffoon, but we get internal monologues about what a cushy job he’d been expecting, or his moustache bristling with military fervour when he thinks he’ll get the chance to bomb something, and he loses his own sardonic jokes as he becomes the butt of the narrator’s instead. Crucially, you can see why ambitious, modern TV Brigadier would pick Liz as a scientific adviser, but not how fuddy-duddy stereotype book Brigadier would. But then his best television scene, surrounded by journalists, comes off nearly as well with a very different treatment here, while he has stone-cold serious moments silently spotting the villain or even calmly awaiting death after running out of the machine-gun bullets he’s been blazing away with to cut Autons in two. And for a character that Terrance instinctively thinks of as cosy, it’s noticeable that four chapters out of ten begin with him tearing a strip off his captain (no wonder that one doesn’t come back). The book has a similarly contradictory attitude to the army in general, even more than the script does: on the one hand they turn out to be the Doctor’s friends and shoot up Johnny Alien; on the other, a tired, jumpy sentry shoots up Doctor Alien, too, and they’re not just problematic by human frailty – an Auton Replica hijacking the chain of command implicitly suggests soldiers are brave but too easily misused by abrogating moral responsibility to the group.
Even the most establishment Doctor here gets several anti-establishment moments, starting with a Mr Benn joke, so despite Terrance Dicks overseeing most of the Doctor’s time as UNIT’s scientific adviser, you can credit him with still pointing out that it should never be an easy fit.
And, if you need one, my score:
If You Like Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, Why Not Try…
More Terrance Dicks, obviously. He’s gone down an astonishing long path with Doctor Who, with scripts from 1969’s The War Games to 1994’s Shakedown – Return of the Sontarans, probably the most successful of the straight-to-video while-it’s-off-the-air spin-offs. Mainly, though, it’s other books, his own ‘original’ novels – which usually have fun with elements from his own TV scripts, though World Game playfully rewrites the Prologue of The Auton Invasion – and the legion of Target adaptations. So I’m going to pick…
Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons. Terrance’s 1975 Auton sequel novelisation established them as Big Monsters for a generation of readers who, like me, hadn’t been born when they were on TV. This too is from a script by Robert Holmes, who Terrance has often said inspired his best books because he was simply Doctor Who’s best writer, and has nastier jokes, the Master and a much greater improvement on the TV version. I’ve previously written about it in considerable detail (and with a picture of me as a little boy, as it was something like the second book I ever bought).
Doctor Who – Made of Steel. This one’s from 2007, with David Tennant’s Doctor and the Cybermen. It’s one of Terrance’s most recent books, and the best of his original novels in about the last twenty years. Short and crisp, this “Quick Read” is hugely entertaining: Terrance does a brilliant job writing a punchy new series adventure, with a London landmark in trouble, absolutely nailing Mr Tennant’s speech and persona, borrowing its opening from the first Doctor Who story I ever saw – by Terrance – and, if you read with the right eye, giving simple but elegant put-downs along the way to both Primeval and Torchwood.
Though also see if you can find Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s Business As Usual, a 1980 Doctor Who Weekly comic strip of the nastily ironic final ‘The End, dot dot dot question mark’ kind (think Saki, or Tharg’s Future Shocks), that does a very similar little Auton plot as some kind of macabre joke.
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