Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Silent Stars Go By, by Dan Abnett (BBC novel)



This novel by popular science fiction tie-in writer Dan Abnett, was originally published as a deluxe hardcover volume, then republished as a paperback in a series of Doctor Who reprints.

This was actually the first New Series novel that I have read. I don't care for the New Series, so I was hardly likely to take an interest in its spin-off novels. However, this being the first appearance of the Ice Warriors in a BBC Wales Doctor story and it also being a Dan Abnett novel, I definitely wanted to read it.

Silent Stars is a novel that very much wears its influences on its literary sleeve. With the Christmas feel, it very much feels like a Moffat Christmas episode (though it is better than all of those dreadful affairs). On the other hand, it is not only the presence of the Ice Warriors that makes this feel like a classic four or six part Doctor Who serial; it is also set on a planet that appears to be inhabited by about ten people and has a council consisting of an elder hostile to the Doctor and an elder sympathetic to the Doctor. The simple and effective storytelling puts one in mind of a Terrance Dicks Target novelisation. The playful use of language, such as 'Guide E-manual' and 'Unguidely' also reminds me of Paradise Towers. Rather less fortunately, the novel seems to borrow from the New Series in giving a rather too easy resolution to the story. In the end, the Doctor finds a solution just by tinkering around with machinery, which feels a little uninspiring.

Dan Abnett is experienced in writing franchise fiction, so it should be no surprise that he crafts a very enjoyable and exciting tale here. It is very effective and efficiently told and captures the actors voices very well. Dan Abnett could easily be a Terrance Dicks for the Twenty-first century. What I felt was missing was Dan Abnett himself. When the BBC hires a writer of his reputation, you expect to get something special. I didn't really see that here. Perhaps if he had given us a darker and more militaristic novel, we would have felt more of the writer's individual style.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 5: Tom Baker and the Williams Years, by Phil Sandifer




When I discuss Phil Sandifer or link to posts on his blog here, I often get comments expressing disdain and contempt for Sandifer. I suspect a lot of the people who like my blog are the sort of people who can't stand Sandifer and the views he represents. I do not share such feelings at all. I very much enjoy reading his writing. Yes, I often disagree with him, but I actually agree with him just as often. I don't share his politics, but is that important? I get frustrated by the way he comes across as so angry and bitter, but I have plenty of my own faults.

Sandifer wisely decided to split the massive Fourth Doctor era in half. This book therefore covers the less well appreciated Graham Williams era, along with the brief period of Season 18, in which Tom Baker worked under John Nathan-Turner.

I criticised the previous volume on the Hinchcliffe era because I felt Sandifer allowed his love of Seasons 12-14 to cloud his judgement and overlook some of the faults of those stories. It lacked the more objective critical perspective of volume 3 on the Pertwee era. In this volume, he gets his critical perspective back. He shows a real awareness of the faults of the Williams material, yet he also shows a genuine appreciation of what is great about it. There were definite flaws to the Williams era, it's low production values, its occasional tendency to silliness and the way it became dominated by Baker as an out of control lead man, yet it was also immensely fun. I don't think Sandifer regards Season 18 as quite the high point of Doctor Who that I consider it, but he is also well aware of its depth and creativity.

Sandifer begins the book with contemporary culture, looking at the Sex Pistols and the Punk movement. He later relates this to The Sunmakers, seeing that serial as the strongest expression of the Punk aesthetic in Doctor Who. I remember in the blog comments when he was covering this period, Sandifer got quite a bit of criticism for his use of Punk as a paradigm for understanding the Williams era. I think the criticism is to some extent fair. One can perhaps vaguely see something punkish about that story, but otherwise, Punk does not register at all in Doctor Who until the Seventh Doctor stories. I remember somebody arguing that intellectuals and writers tend to overemphasise the importance of Punk as a cultural movement. Heavy Metal was much more popular with the working classes in the late Seventies and early Eighties and intellectuals generally despise Metal.

Coming into the first story of the Williams era, The Horror of Fang Rock, Sandifer discusses the common view that this is essentially a Hinchliffe type story. Sandifer points out that Horror of Fang Rock lacks the grandeur of Hinchcliffe stories, offering a far more mundane setting. Where an Hincliffe adversary would be a cosmic threat, the adversary here is just a lone alien scout. The stakes are lower. There is also the suggestion of the story as being in some way a critique of the Hinchliffe era, with the enormous body count and the sheer callousness of the Doctor's reaction to the carnage.

Unsurprisingly, our author identifies The Invisible Enemy as the first bad story of the Williams era. He sees it as being let down primarily by its poor designs, as well as the more general faults of Bob Baker and David Martin. Sandifer is not overly impressed by Image of the Fendahl, arguing that it's use of Von Daniken's ideas are clumsy and problematic.

Leaving Doctor Who to address the appearance of Star Wars on the scene, Sandifer takes a well deserved swipe at Joseph Campbell. He also points out that the new trick of George Lucas was to tell fantastic adventure stories using the visual trappings of science fiction, without the hard Sci-Fi concepts that had previously been the bread and butter of science fiction. Inevitably, discussion of Star Wars leads on to an examination of the Underworld, which like almost everybody else, he regards as a failure. He points out that Bob Baker and Dave Martin's work is effective when backed up impressive visuals from the production team and in this story, the visual effects are a massive letdown. The author praises The Invasion of Time for treating the viewers as intelligent people, with its apparent subversion of the Doctor as moral centre of the story. He sees the story falling down in the way it treats the Sontarans as another race of pointlessly returning monsters and the Time Lords as utterly pathetic.

In contrast to Underworld, Sandifer sees The Ribos Operation as the story that truly gets the new paradigm of Star Wars right in Doctor Who. The grand cosmic drama is shifted to a rather more small scale story about inter-planetary fraud, yet is used to frame this narrative. Graham Williams' bonkers idea about cosmic dualism is subverted by Robert Holmes with the portrayal of the White Guardian as just another colonial master and the Doctor visibly rejecting the notion of subordination to him. Answering Lawrence Miles criticism that Mary Tamm does not take her role seriously, Sandifer argues that she is not supposed to; Romana is there to mock and ridicule the Doctor and the very premise of the story. In a separate essay on whether the Guardians can be regarded as a legitimate part of the Doctor Who canon, he points out some inconsistencies between the Guardians in Season 16 and in the Davison era.

Regarding Pirate Planet, Sandifer defends this story, arguing that its genius lies in fooling the viewer into complacency. It seems like a light-hearted story, but it turns out to be a tale of genocide on a monstrous scale. I was overjoyed by his positive evaluation of The Stones of Blood, as this rather maligned serial is one of my favorites. He writes:

"It's a genuinely enjoyable subversion of the by now standbys of the Hinchcliffe era that goes into some of the most fun Doctor Who has ever had at being anti-authoritarian, and with a new sort of authority figure. We haven#t seen the Doctor do the legal system in a while. It's also another nice step in the larger anti-epic, thanks to the Megara. The Megara are, after all, keepers of justice, and what is justice if not maintaining fairness and balance? And of course, the Megara are shown to be ridiculously blinkered and silly, striking another blow against the basic assumptions of the Key to Time."

He also acknowledges The Androids of Tara as a well made and enjoyable story, if lacking the coneptual depth of The Ribos Operation. Power of Kroll he views as a cynical hack-job, handed in by the usually brilliant Robert Holmes because he was fed up with the show. He also unsurprisingly treats the Key to Time finale, Armageddon Factor as a disappointment, while recognising that at its conclusion, it brings itself in line with Robert Holmes in subverting the premise of the story arc. He takes a brief look at The Auntie Matter, viewing it as a sad, but enjoyable piece of nostalgia, like much of Big Finish's output.

Sandifer moves from Season 16 to talking about Margaret Thatcher and the Winter of Discontent. I'm afraid our author comes across as quite hysterical when he talks about Thatcher, viewing her as the 'raw embodiment of all evil.' He says this description was initially a joke, but he seems to seriously paint Margaret Thatcher as the politial equivalent of Voldemort. I find his attitude rather disappointing. One might expect that it is the mark of an intelligent adult that they can disagree with the policies and view of a political leader while according them some basic respect. I'm not quite sure, however, that Sandifer really understands the concept of respectful disagreement, at least not when it touches anything vaguely political. His attacks on the late Baroness Thatcher, along with his comparing the late Mary Whitehouse to a school bully he once encountered show something of a lack of maturity and perspective.

Fans have endlessly criticised Romana's regeneration scene in Destiny of the Daleks, including Lawrence Miles in About Time. Sandifer offers a great response to this:

"I mean what, does Miles just want Lalla Ward to put on a Mary Tamm wig and roll over before Davros enters and shouts 'Leave the man, it's the girl I want?' Say what you want about the opening scene, and I'm certainly not going to pretend it's the shows finest hour, but there is a job to be done and it gets it done with a minimum fuss."

Personally, I quite like that scene and it is positive prove that Time Lords don't have to have white skin after regenerating. Moffat should have remembered that scene and given us a black or Asian Doctor after Matt Smith. Sandifer appreciates the sheer glee that Lalla Ward brought to the show. Mary Tamm's difficulty taking the stories seriously worked in its own way in the Key to Time, but Lalla's insistence on taking the stories deadly seriously is quite welcome. As might be expected, Sandifer is unimpressed on the whole with Destiny and it's return to Dan Dare style space adventure.

You don't need me to tell you that Sandifer thinks City of Death is a good story. The Creature from the Pit, however, is more contested ground. Sandifer sees a strong political message in this story (which was perhaps lost in the direction), with Lady Adrasta representing the same ruthless capitalism as Thatcher. Moving on to Nightmare of Eden, our author brings up an interesting fact; that Bob Baker has written three Oscar-winning films, namely the Wallace and Gromit animated features. He sees in this the fact that Bob Baker (and his former writing partner, Dave Martin) were at their best when producing stories that were structured around visual events rather than dialogue. This means that the writing duo were quite ill-suited to the William years, with the centrality of Tom Baker's comic dialogue and the generally unpolished visuals. Sandifer agrees with Lawrence Miles that Horns of Nimon is, like Underworld, a failure to understand how to use the epic scope of mythology in science fiction. A large part of this is the budgetary constraints and the disappointing visual aspects of the production. He argues that this accounts for Robert Holmes demoralisation and disenchantment with the program. On the lost story Shada, Sandifer comments "So Shada is at once better than the manifestations of it that we have and clearly inferior to the heavenly ideal that some have made of it." He offers some very interesting discussion of the different variations of Shada, including among them, Douglas Adam's DIRK Gently's Holisitc Detective Agency, which was essentially a reworking of the story. After a discussion of Gareth Roberts' novel The Well Mannered War, we get an interview with the man himself, which offers some insights into Williams-era appreciation.

In a commissioned essay, Sandifer addresses the question of whether it makes sense to talk about a 'JNT era.' Given the considerable differences in style between the script editors employed by John Nathan-Turner, it is difficult to identify a unifying theme for 80s Doctor Who. He finds a paradox in JNT's desire to tone down the humour of the Williams years, while seeing Doctor Who primarily in the paradigm of light entertainment. He finds something of a resemblance between the work of JNT and RT Davies, in that both men treated Doctor Who as 'event television' working the stories into the broader picture of television broadcasting.

Taking a look at other science fiction shows of the late 70s/ early 80s, our author is unimpressed by Quatermass (1979), sadly describing it as 'one hundred minutes of Nigel Kneale yelling at the damn kids to get off his lawn." On the other hand, he admires David Maloney's adaptation of Day of the Triffids. He also has much praise for Sapphire and Steel and suggests David McCallum's performance as Steel was an inspiration for McCoy's Doctor.

The Leisure Hive is viewed as the start of JNT's new 'event television' approach. Sandifer points out that in every way, the serial broadcasts the fact that Doctor Who has re-branded and reinvented itself. He connects this to the new relationship between JNT and fandom, what he cleverly calls 'the fan-industrial complex.' On Meglos, his most interesting comments relate to the way that the Chronic Hysteresis works as a kind of magic. He views the introduction of Waterhouse's Adric in Full Circle as a spectacularly bad casting decision. Nevertheless, he acknowledges both the dramatic strength of Full Circle and Bidmead's new aesthetic vision for the show. He feels that State of Decay has some great ideas, particularly its reinvention of Time Lord mythology, but it is let down by a less than impressive production. Personally, I think State of Decay reaches a pretty high standard, but perhaps I'm not the best television critic.

We get an enjoyable diversion by way of a look at 2000 AD, one of the better known British comics. At the heart of this comic was Judge Dredd, the future law-enforcer with his perpetually humourless expression and huge gun. Sandifer says of it:

"But what's interesting about Judge Dredd is that underneath the extravagant violence there is a rather wicked bit of intelligent satire. The entire premise of it rapidly becomes that the audience is rooting for a character who is obviously a bad guy, while the villains are often perfectly sympathetic characters. In the first major storyline, Dredd violently puts down a rebellion of robots who are shown to have free will, and who are rebelling against conditions that are clearly slavery- a rebellion that would, in any normal sci-fi story, treat them as the good guys."

Examining Warriors' Gate, Sandifer asks what Bidmead really understood by magic and science. He suggests that what Bidmead objected to was plots in which the Doctor wins simply because he's the Doctor. Instead, he wanted to see the Doctor winning the day through the rules and structure of the narrative worlds he enters. This essentially fitted with the original vision of David Whittaker and with the first two Doctors. However, the brash and bold showmen Doctors of the Seventies were incompatible with this paradigm, hence the need for Tom Baker's departure. In the departure of Romana, Sandifer sees the resolution of his 'Problem of Susan;' we finally have a companion who outgrows her role and becomes a potential protagonist on her own. Sandifer argues that The Keeper of the Traken is structured like a Shakespearean comedy, but subverted into a tragedy at the end by the death of Tremas. When we finally get to Logopolis, our author gives us one of his experimental pieces. The Logopolis essay is written as a 'choose your own adventure.' It is written in beautiful poetic language, but it's one of those occasions when I largely fail to understand exactly what he is trying to say.

Finally, in his overall summary, Sandifer praises the sense of fun in the Graham Williams era. For all that he appreciates the dark and epic stories, he cannot fail to enjoy City of Death or Androids of Tara. He suggests that even the weakest stories of this period, such as Nightmare of Eden are enjoyable to watch with friends and snack food.



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

Meglos




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.