Sunday, 11 January 2015

Counter-Measures Series 3

I was quite slow buying this box set. I suppose my enthusiasm for Counter-Measures was dampened a little by the last series. I really love the characters, especially as Remembrance of the Daleks is my favorite Doctor Who story, but I find it hard to get enthusiastic about the sort of stories they have run since Series 2. I suppose I just don't care for the science fiction lite medium. I really want aliens and monsters and they just give me gangsters with alien technology, top secret weapons and Communist plots. The stories are a little like 'monster of the week' X-Files stories, but with a more rationalist worldview. X-Files kept us watching the more mundane stories because we knew behind it all was an amazing story arc about aliens. Counter-Measures has story arcs, but nothing of the grandeur of the X-Files mythos. This is particularly seen in the final story, Unto the Breach. The initial premise, an alien in the custody of the Communist powers is really exciting and then it turns out to be just a trick. I felt a bit cheated.

It is difficult to see Counter-Measures as a Quatermass homage, as it was in its first series. The Concrete Cage certainly owes a lot to Nigel Kneale, but otherwise there is not much Quatermass going on. Quatermass was always about the cosmic 'other,' about the inhuman intelligences beyond the borders of our world, about slimy tentacled beings. Without aliens, you can't really have anything close to Quatermass.

I wish Counter-Measures would do some stories about space travel and exploration, after all Rachel Jensen references British Rocket Groups in her very first appearance. If you take the common view of UNIT dating (which I disagree with), Britain is going to send spaceships to Mars in about ten years from when Counter-Measures is set. Space travel ought to be a hot issues in this time period.

Templeton, who had taken over from Sir Toby at the end of the previous series is kicked out at the end of the first story. Although he makes a return in the final story, I was still disappointed. What was great in the previous series was his interaction with Sir Toby. They were great together; too similar characters who are still quite different. Unfortunately, they do not interact at all in this series.

Gilmore seems to have gained a few more men, which is a good thing. In the previous two seasons, he was rather reduced to being a chauffeur for Rachel. On the other hand, as a senior military officer, he ought to have a few more staff officers around him (not that UNIT never had that problem in Doctor Who).

It was nice to see Alison's backstory being developed in The Forgotten Village. It was also great the way they dealt with the subject of dementia. However, Alison does come across as a bit whiny in much of this series. In fact, Ian and Rachel come across the same way. The problem is that the first story establishes that the team really want Sir Toby back. Then, after they get him back, they go on about how dreadful and untrustworthy he is. It really makes them look rather fickle. I don't see how Counter-Measures can go on with continual suspicion of Sir Toby's motives. Sooner or later (and it is surprising they have not already done so), the team are going to have to get used to Sir Toby.

The theme music has changed for Series 3. The new theme seems to reflect the generally dark tone. The original theme seemed to suggest that Counter-Measures was a light-hearted pastiche of Sixties spy drama. I almost wish it was. I do find myself wishing we could have a bit more humour. It would also be nice to have a few more references to the wider Doctor Who world. Obviously, you can't have Zygons or Daemons appearing in every story, but it is Doctor Who fans buying these audios and sometimes they deserve rewarding with a bit of continuity fodder.

I like this series for the great characters, and generally the writers serve them well, but Counter-Measures is not quite the spin-off I would like it to have been.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Last Christmas

As I watched Last Christmas, I had the strange feeling that it was the first time since Runaway Bride that I had actually enjoyed a Christmas special. Then, someway through the episode, I realised why. Last Christmas is essentially a re-working of Field Trip, one of my favorite episodes of The X-Files.

In Field Trip, Agents Mulder and Scully investigate the mysterious death of a young couple and find themselves experiencing strangely unreal sequences of events. They later realise that they have been captured by a gigantic fungus colony that is digesting their bodies, while giving them dream-like fantasies. They free themselves, but then find that they are still imprisoned by the fungus creature and are only having a fantasy of escape. At the end, they are freed by their colleagues.

Despite the similarity of plot, what separates the two stories is the tone and atmosphere. The dream sequences of Last Christmas are, despite the presence of some horrific elements, gaudy sentimental fantasies, with the presence of Santa Claus and the idea of a perfect romantic Christmas day. In contrast, the dream sequences of Field Trip are realistic in tone, like standard X-Files episodes with somewhat offbeat plots; Mulder encountering the dead couple alive and then finding proof of alien life, Scully investigating Mulder's death and being congratulated on wrapping up the case. There is a sense of the mundane becoming oddly dreamlike in that episode. Where Last Christmas offers non-stop action and lots of running around, Field Trip is an unusually slow paced story, it takes its time and allows the strange dream-like atmosphere to build up.

The way in which the characters discover they are in a dream is different. In Last Christmas, the Doctor just tells them that they are experiencing dreams. In Field Trip, Mulder and Scully have to work this out for themselves. Mulder realises that he is in a dream when Scully accepts his proof of alien life without question, while Scully realises that she is dreaming when everybody uncritically accepts her rational explanation of Mulder's death. We also get in Field Trip more of a sense of just how horrifying the carnivorous dream-producing entity is. In the opening sequence, we see the young couple clinging to each other in their fantasy, before turning into skeletons, still wrapped in each other's helpless arms.

The resolution is also very different. With typical Christmas special sentimentality, the solution for the characters is to embrace the fantasy of the dream, hence the sleigh ride prior to their escape. In Field Trip, such an escape is impossible. You cannot will yourself to wake up from a dream. In the end, Mulder and Scully are helpless and have to be rescued by their FBI colleagues. It is perhaps not the strongest resolution to an X-Files episode, but it does fit with the more pessimistic tone of the show compared to Doctor Who.

I enjoyed this episode and feel it is one of the stronger Christmas specials the BBC Wales series has offered. However, the thematic similarities to Field Trip show it to be lacking in elegance of execution.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Why the Hartnell era is so much better than the Troughton era

So you think The Sensorites is a bit boring?

Just imagine if The Sensorites had been made in Season 5.

The Sensorites would be another bunch of evil alien monsters, except with psychic powers. We would spend six episodes running around that tiny spaceship with the Sensorites trying to turn the crew into zombies, until Dr. Who finds a way to blow them up.

Does that sound better or worse than the Season 1 story?

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Creature from the Pit

For me, the Graham Williams era seems very hit and mess. On the rare occasions when Graham Williams got things right, as in City of Death or Androids of Tara, the results are glorious. Sometimes there is a delightful sense of fun pervading some of the shoddier serials of the era, yet often the shoddiness is all that comes across. In the midst of all this era's problems is the unrestrained Tomfoolery of the show's lead actor. The Creature from the Pit is unfortunately one of those stories which particularly showcases the problems with the show in this period. It ably demonstrates just how necessary it was for John Nathan-Turner to come on board at bring the program into shape.

For a serial of this era, the production values in this are a little higher than usual. The jungle sequences filmed in Ealing studios are very impressive and the 'indoor' sets are not bad either. The costumes are also particularly lavish. Unfortunately, the alien monster Erato is rather less impressive and his resemblance to something else makes him a little embarrassing to watch.

Myra Frances is enjoyable in her camp performance as the evil Lady Adrasta. Unfortunately, her adversaries, the gang of bandits are a silly bunch, who offensively modeled on Fagin. They demonstrate the repeated failing of Season 17 to take the stories seriously. As Phil Sandifer argued in his recent book, they are the oppressed underclass of this planet. The viewer should be led to sympathize with them, not laugh at them.

Organon seems to be a creation of Douglas Adams; there is no character quite like him in any of David Fisher's other scripts. He serves no purpose in moving the plot, apart from a little exposition. He is there to deliver Douglas Adams style satire. If you like Douglas Adams' stuff you will love him, if you don't, then every minute of his presence on the screen will be annoyance.

This serial had Lalla Ward's first performance as Romana. With her haughtiness, she plays the role a little closer to Mary Tamm's style and she is dressed up in a dress that was rather more like what Romana no.1 would wear. This is not the Romana no.2 we see in other stories, yet I quite like the way she comes across as a sort of fairytale princess in The Creature from the Pit. It rather fits with the incredible earnestness and innocence with which Lalla Ward approached the role.

As usual for this period, Tom Baker spends his time wandering around the set delivering comics lines. The gag about Teach Yourself Tibetan is just daft.

There is probably a good story wrapped up in here, yet the failure of all involved to take it seriously means that it just ends up being a silly comic story in which any kind of social or political critique is lost.

On the positive side, it is a story about the Doctor exploring a strange alien world, something which happens very rarely in the BBC Wales series. For all that Graham Williams era ended up looking cheap, it did try it's best to give us exciting new worlds. With an exotic jungle planet with a peculiarly appropriate name and lavisly dressed natives, this feels like a story that might have been done and played straight in the Hartnell era. Erato would certainly have looked much more convincing in black and white.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Gallifrey Exile: 10 Things I Hate About Who. Part One: Lack of Bel...

'But Verity Lambert, Anthony Coburn, Waris Hussein and Co. took this off the wall idea and made us believe in it. We believed in this utterly bizarre idea because it was grounded in everyday reality, the reactions of our everyman characters of Ian and Barbara were what our reactions would have been if we had stumbled across this impossibility. 
There is nothing about this first episode which is trying to be clever or funny; it is just good honest drama and immediately sells Doctor Who as a believable sci fi concept. But it could have been done differently, the producers could have decided to make everything wacky which is pretty much what Moffat does today and then the credibility is gone. 
So for the first few seasons Doctor Who goes backwards and forwards in history and out into space, any viewer with a bit of imagination can believe these things are going on, and outside our normal everyday world is a whole universe of adventure.  Later things get a bit more complicated because Doctor Who starts to visit contemporary Earth a bit more and aliens start to invade. The problem is that any viewer knows that there hasn't been a worldwide alien invasion so Doctor Whocould lose that connection to reality.  The producers therefore do the sensible thing and most of the alien invasions occur in the future or in isolated areas. With a stretch of imagination we can still believe in the reality of Doctor Who and that everything occurs just out of view. Okay a lot of the UNIT stuff is now contradicted, but at least at the time they tried to make their ideas palatable. 
The new series has ceased to be believable since probably the first episode Rose back in 2005. In the old days we were slowly edged into the mythology of the series; in RTD's version it comes in one fell swoop: invasions, TARDIS time travel, there is no time for a viewer to be slowly drawn in like there was in An Unearthly Child so it's all chucked in in the space of 45 minutes.'

Saturday, 22 November 2014


I am a huge fan of Season 18 and consider it to be the strongest season of the show (the only other contender being Season 25, which is let down by Silver Nemesis). Meglos is unfortunately the weakest story of an otherwise brilliant season. However, Meglos is not nearly as atrocious as it is sometimes considered by fans and shows the consistent improvement in quality between Seasons 17 and 18.

Central to John Nathan-Turner's agenda for his first season as producer was in improvement on production values after the sloppiness of the Graham Williams era. This is very much evident in Meglos, with the spacecraft design, the costumes and the the appearance of Zolpha-Thura. Tigella is perhaps less effective as a planet, with the jungle looking a little unimpressive. More importantly, the brilliant musical score helps to give the worlds of this serial an haunting sense of atmosphere. As even critics of Meglos agree, the spiny make-up effect on Tom Baker is extremely impressive and disturbing. Meglos is certainly an interesting character, a disembodied intelligence manifesting in a cactus. It reminds me a bit of Vulthoom from the Klark-Ash-Ton story in the Cthulhu Mythos.

We also get Jacqueline Hill returning to the show in the role of Lexa. Admittedly her part as a closed-minded fundamentalist is a rather cliched one, with little for her to develop, yet she still gives a lovely performance.

The Chronic Hysteresis is rather less impressive, as well as being scientific nonsense. The scene goes on rather to long, even if Lalla Ward does a good job of appearing distressed by the absurd situation.

I always love carnivorous plants, so I quite like the Bell Plants, even if they are not terribly impressive. It would not be long before the BBC put Doctor Who completely to shame with the brilliance of its Triffid monsters in their own series.

Part of the charm of Meglos is that it is an old-fashioned space adventure that goes to strange and exotic worlds. The presence of Jacqueline Hill is rather appropriate, as it very much evokes the spirit and style of the Hartnell era. This willingness to create exotic worlds is something sadly lacking in the new series.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Death in Heaven

Phil Sandifer recently complained about reviewers criticising this last season of Doctor Who as derivative. In his opinion, those who make such a charge have nothing meaningful to say about Doctor Who. What I say is that I know when Doctor Who is not derivative. Warriors' Gate does not feel derivative, nor does Snakedance. Yes, those stories have influences both inside Doctor who and outside it. Yet this is very different from being essentially a rehash of other stories, in the way that Attack of the Cybermen is. Death in Heaven feels rather more enjoyable than Attack of the Cybermen, but it still feels very much a recycling of similar stories and themes. There is a lingering sense of deja vu about this episode. One feels that one has seen something pretty similar before, but can't quite remember exactly which episode.

Death in Heaven very much feels like a Russel T Davies story with Moffat elements thrown in. Arguably, it is a stronger version of Closing Time with UNIT and the Master thrown in. Perhaps it is inevitable that a story that brings back the Master, the Cybermen and UNIT will feel unoriginal, which perhaps raises the question of whether doing all three together was such a great idea.

Death in Heaven has some exciting moments and it is Michelle Gomez's Missy that makes it really enjoyable, but on the whole it is a slightly disappointing piece of work. The pacing is definitely uneven and the ending is a little confusing and clumsy.

The death of Osgood has definitely bothered a lot of fans and it is easy to see why. Killing off a likeable character is a risky move. I would argue that the last season has been a little too heavy on big emotional moments; they should be used sparingly. Yet in this instance, we arguably ought to have had a more emotion put into the death of Osgood.

Killing off Osgood was a questionable move and so was killing off Missy. I used to be very much in favour of the death penalty. I'm not sure I disagree with it, but I'm not convinced any more. Perhaps this is due to my conversion to Catholicism. Catholicism is ambivalent about the death penalty; acknowledging that it may be necessary, but not identifying it as an ideal. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the death penalty, I was very uncomfortable at seeing an unarmed and helpless woman killed in cold blood. The viewer is clearly encouraged to sympathize with Clara who demands Missy's death. I am sure Moffat did not intend this to be advocating the death penalty, but that is how it came across, much like the way Kill the Moon seemed to unintentionally oppose abortion. Would it really have been such a bad idea to have Missy handcuffed and frogmarched off to jail at the end? Why does the Master need to be killed at the end of every appearance, only to have the writers find some contrived way to bring her back? Lawrence Miles rightly complained about the laziness of writers who kill off too many characters.

As a theologian, I am very glad that the Doctor denied that love is an emotion. Yes, love is not an emotion, but a disposition of the will. Christian orthodoxy holds that God is love, yet he is also impassible, that is without emotions.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Dark Water

The first fifteen minutes of this story are pretty amazing. We see Danny killed, Clara venting her rage at Dr. Who and appearing to have him at her mercy until he turns the tables on her and then his announcement that he will help her get Danny back from 'hell.' This is incredibly powerful drama and gives Capaldi exactly the kind of material he can deliver like diamonds.

Things get a bit more wobbly once we enter the bizarre pseudo-underworld. It did seem remarkable that the Doctor believed he could take the TARDIS into the afterlife. I was a bit confused by the scepticism he later showed once he got there. Did he believe in the afterlife or not, and if not, why did he expect to find Danny somewhere?

The afterlife is somewhere that Doctor Who should not explore. I'm rather glad that this afterlife turned out to be fake, but the episode probably went a little too far. I know that if I had watched this as a child, I would have been troubled by the apparent conflict with my Christian beliefs. I agree with the Radio Times review that said the idea of cremated people being in conscious torment was insensitive and distasteful. This episode could have been very upsetting for people who had seen a bereavement. The level of darkness here was probably a bit much for younger viewers.

So Missy turns out to be a female incarnation of the Master. Most fans had guessed this as possible, but I had expected her to be some disappointing throw-away character like Kovarian. A female Master is an exciting idea and nobody can fail to love her twister Mary Poppins guise. Her pretense at being a droid is a nice reference to either Scream of the Shalka or Planet of Fire and the sort of camp trick the Master would play. On the other hand, her kissing Dr. Who is a bit of a throwback to flirty River Song, reminding us of the difficulties Moffat has had writing female characters. I also feel a sense of dread at the thought of the Master coming back. A female Master is still the Master; a character with ludicrous schemes that always scuppered and who comes back again and again. No doubt Missy will be killed in the big season finale only for the next producer to find a contrived way to bring back a new Master.

I don't have high hopes for the next episode. The Cybermen harvesting the dead and invading London is hardly a very original idea. This story is starting to feel a lot like a story that RTD did a few times.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

In the Forest of the Night

Phil Sandifer's review of In the Forest of the Night, which delves into the Blakean aspects of the imagery, really made me want to like this. Unfortunately, the depth of Sandifer's review does not quite match the quality of the episode.

I do like the fantastical magical feel of this story. I really do like fantasy in Doctor Who. Unfortunately, this is a story with a solar flair in and so we can't just throw away the science. Doing a fantasy type Doctor Who set on Earth is tricky. Greatest Show in the Galaxy could afford to deal with magical themes because it was set on another planet; a different world with different rules. Even Survival, another magical story was partly set on another planet.

It's a little hard to fathom trees growing so quickly that nobody notices them until they have turned into a forest. Even more incredibly, London seems almost deserted. I know we get the government warning to stay inside, but what happened to the legions of homeless people? What about the people who were not at home when the trees started growing. Of course, what I would really have loved to have seen in this episode is the gigantic trees growing out of the oceans. Such a shame we didn't get to see those.

Once again we get a Problem with Sutekh moment. Clara points out that the world cannot end because she has seen the future. Dr. Who replies that the future has been erased by this event. That makes no sense. No time traveller has intervened to alter history. If history can alter at random like that, then the Doctor could never have any knowledge of past or future history. In fact, history would be meaningless. Would it even matter that humanity would die; their future history erased? Maybe another even would alter this course of history and humanity would survive.

I'm a little bothered by Clara's objection to Dr. Who saving the children. Yes, they would be upset by the deaths of their parents, but would Clara really be happier to see those kids scorched to death with the rest of the planet?

Some aspects of this story were confusing, particularly those related to Maebh. It was difficult to make sense of just how she fitted into the plot. I'm utterly baffled about how the return of Anabel fitted in. The theme of childhood mental illness is a very sensitive topic and I'm a little surprised it came up. I can't say I feel at all qualified to comment on how well this topic was handled.

On the whole it was probably not the best idea to write a story requiring a lot of child actors. And those CGI animals looked terrible.