Sunday, 19 July 2015

"Heroin Screws You Up": Nightmare of Eden





When I was at University, I showed two Doctor Who videos to my housemate and best mate, who had never watched Doctor Who in his life (he was a Trekkie). They were The War Machines and The Nightmare of Eden. These probably seem a weird choice of first stories to show a non-fan. They just happened to be the two VHS tapes I had bought from the Virgin Megastore (remember those?)that day. He laughed out loud when Nightmare of Eden opened with the model shot of the spacecraft. He suggested it looked like a washing up liquid bottle. Actually, that is one of the best model shots in Seventies Doctor Who. After watching the two serials, he concluded that Nightmare of Eden was the more interesting story, but he preferred the 'kindly grandfather' of William Hartnell's Doctor to Tom Baker (a shame he didn't watch An Unearthly Child). I think watching that VHS of Nightmare of Eden was a profoundly negative experience for me. I had loved the novelisation of Nightmare of Eden as a child and watching the actual serial just seemed so disappointing. Everything looked so depressingly cheap. After, that I never bought a Doctor Who VHS again.

The Eden jungle set looks good and it might have been a better story, had we spent more time there, but unfortunately, most of the time we are on a spaceship set that is very flat and dull looking, as well as far too brightly lit. The Mandrell costumes are no worse than most other Doctor Who monster costumes, but the way they filmed lets them down. We see so much of them and under such bright lights, they inevitably look hilarious. Equally hilarious are the uniforms of Officers Fisk and Costa. They look very... Village People.

It is not just the sets and the costumes that are bad, we also get some uninspiring acting. The worst offender is Lewis Fiander, playing Tryst. He completely sends up the character he is playing, refusing to take the story seriously. Even the regulars don't help much. The scene with Tom Baker getting roughed up by Mandrells is embarassing. Romana comes across as just a little too smug. If there is any story to give ammunition to JNT's argument that the TARDIS crew had become too clever, this is it.

A lot of fans praise Nightmare of Eden for offering an 'intelligent' story about drugs. As a professional drugs worker, I find it really annoying. It offers a very cliched Daily Mail idea of drug addiction. It follows the common assumption that you only need to try drugs once and you will be addicted forever. This really is not true. Heroin can be very addictive, but I have known users who only use heroin occasionally without becoming opiate dependent. It also offers the rather extreme scenario of a drug that is certain to kill you. Did the writers really imagine that people would actually use a drug that causes certain death? This is a horribly patronizing and insulting view of drug users. Drug users may make choices that are unwise, but they are not stupid. Maintaining an habit with inherent risks is a bit different from using a substance that kills you.




There are a few good lines in this story, but otherwise, there is not much to love here.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Doctor Who beyond the BBC

Our government is presently pushing for much needed reforms to the BBC. It is clear that the BBC is bloated and over-extended and needs to be cut down to the essence of what public broadcasting should be.

At some point, the question is likely to be raised as to whether the BBC should continue to produce a program as commercially viable as Doctor Who.

I think it would be in the interests of the public, as well as for fans for the rights to Doctor Who to be sold to a commercial production company.

Some of the best Doctor Who has been produced outside the BBC. Under Marvel and others, the comic strips have included some fantastic material. Virgin provided a genuine and natural continuation of the Seventh Doctor era in its novels. Big Finish are continuing to give us great Doctor Who.

One of the problems with BBC Wales Doctor Who is its obsession with the status of Doctor Who as a national treasure. The BBC considers itself to be a iconic national treasure and it treats Doctor Who as its fictional avatar. A lot of BBC Wales Doctor Who seems to take an horrible triumphalist nationalist tone. This goes hand in hand with the fetishization of the Doctor as its central character. I think if Doctor Who were to move into commercial hands, it would no longer be able to propagandize itself as a national treasure and would have to sell itself on the strength of its stories. This would mean a much fresher Doctor Who than we have seen.

I suspect also that a commercially run Doctor Who would be more targeted at us fans. As a public property, the producers of Doctor Who seem to feel that they have to make Doctor Who for everybody, trying to please everyone, throwing in lots of laughs, a monster for the kids, soap opera emotions and the odd throwaway continuity reference for the fans. While this is in many ways in the spirit of the classic series, it tends to make the tone of the episodes a little too wobbly. The episodes feel more like spectacles and events rather than stories. A Doctor Who that was targeted at fans (who will spend money buying merchandise) and the young adult Sci-Fi watching audience (who will also potentially spend money buying merchandise) would work harder to write better and more interesting stories.

I think the time has come for the BBC to finally take its hands off Doctor Who.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Revenge of the Swarm




I doubt many fans were campaigning Big Finish to bring back the Swarm from Invisible Enemy. It's not the most memorable monster, but it was not an uninteresting one. As laughable as the Nucleus shrimp-like appearance was, there was something appropriate about it. Some crustaceans may be good to eat, but there are a lot of crustaceans which are nasty parasitic creatures, which fits quite well with the Swarm. Could it be that the Swarm is not actually a virus, but a microscopic crustacean, a mini-Macra? I think there was a real potential for Big Finish to make the Swarm a terrifying adversary. Unfortunately, Jonathan Morris chose to send it up, continually mocking its Napoleon complex. It does appear that the origin of the Swarm has been changed. The Invisible Enemy told us that the Swarm had been floating in space for millennia. According to this audio, the Swarm was created in a laboratory. I find this new origin banal. The idea of a virus mutating in a test tube is not nearly as interesting as the very Quatermassy notion that space is filled with terrible things just waiting to infect us.

Revenge of the Swarm does not just send up the Nucleus. It does not seem like anybody involved is taking this story very seriously. We get an awful lot of silly voices here, like this is being made for young children. It does seem like the worst aspects of the Graham Williams era are being invoked in this.

I haven't followed the Hex arc, as I don't like the way that these stories fail to fit wwith the Virgin New Adventures development of Ace. I therefore have no idea how Hex came to have his personality replaced by Hector. It seems a bit odd to have a new character become replaced for much of his first story proper, though the New Adventures did exactly the same thing with Bernice n Transit. Which leads me to another interesting point about this audio. Although the plot of Revenge of the Swarm is disappointingly close to being a remake of The Invisible Enemy (as well as a prequel and sequel combined), it is also a plot that was done quite a few times in the Virgin New Adventures. An alien entity attempts to take control of cyberspace. This is basically a Virgin New Adventure story with the tone of a Graham Williams story.

Revenge of the Swarm manages to be fun, but it rather fails to do anything interesting with its source material.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Romana III and K9




I asked Inspector97 to draw this picture of Romana III with K9.

There is disagreement among fans about whether the Romana III voiced by Juliet Landau in the Big Fish audios is the same character as the ruthless Romana III in the BBC books. I would argue that they are the same incarnation. Hence, I asked the artist to give her an outfit inspired by the BBC books.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

"I will be needing your frilly shirt and yellow motor car"- Day of the Daleks




What I love most about this story is just how similar it is to the Terminator films. Rebels going back in time to prevent nightmare future and evil robots trying to stop them. I'd definitely rather watch Day of the Daleks and I think this serial is actually more believable than the Terminator movies. The idea of machines taking over the world is nonsense. Computers don't have minds. A robot, no matter how advanced is no more likely to take over the world than an electric kettle.

On the other hand, while the superficial Terminator similarity is fun, one is painfully aware that not everything is great about this story. For everything that is good about it, there is something that is not so great. It is very much in the middle rank of Doctor Who stories.

Most obviously, the use of the Daleks is not so great. The story was not originally intended to be a Dalek story, but a decision was made at a late stage to write them in. It has been a few years since the Daleks had been used in Doctor Who and the story does not quite seem able to get them right. Their voices are off and they lack menace. We are also denied a scene in which Dr. Who confronts the Daleks. Admittedly, this might be for the better. Pertwee was not the strongest actor to play the Doctor and he felt awkward interacting with the Daleks. It is hard to imagine Pertwee doing an job of confronting the Daleks. The final battle between UNIT and the Daleks is simply awful to watch. Few fights in Doctor Who have been as disappointing.

There are also a few problems with the plot. The whole time travel plot makes little sense. It also seems bizarre that the rebels would blame Reginald Styles for the explosion and not a terrorist group. Was terrorism not the problem that it was for us in the Doctor Who universe?

The Ogrons are an interesting addition as allies of the Daleks, but it is hard not to be uncomfortable with the Doctor dropping his usual pacifist stance and shooting down Ogrons. It's presumed okay to kill them because they are a big, stupid and dark-skinned.

What is great about the story is the moral complexity. The Controller is a villain with genuine reasons for being a villain and is quite understandable. The rebels on the other hand, come across as pretty thuggish. I imagine being right-wing and pro-establishment, I would easily be taken in by the Controller's lies just like Jo.

This is also a serial in which Pertwee is at his best. While he does not get to confront the Daleks, he does have so many brilliant scenes, such as his argument with the Controller and his weary, exhausted interrogation. I'm not much of a Pertwee fan, but in this story, we really see him at his best.

Day of the Daleks is a story with some bold ideas and a radically different approach, even if its execution seems a little poor at times.







Monday, 25 May 2015

The Rani Elite



It is perhaps a little surprising that it took Big Finish this long to bring back the Rani, especially given her popularity among a significant segment of Doctor Who fandom. This story was originally written for Kate O'Mara. The great actress sadly passed away before she could make her glorious return and so the story was hastily re-written to allow a regenerated Rani. Big Finish wisely decided to be upfront with the Rani's return and to make it a selling point rather than a surprise.

The new Rani is a post-Kate O'Mara Rani meeting the Sixth Doctor out of sequence. While the script makes mention of the Rani's knowledge of the Sixth Doctor's regeneration, it does not deal with the oddity of an out of sequence Time Lord encounter. The history of the classic series seems quite consistent in always having Time Lord's meet in chronological sequence. It has been suggested that the very nature of TARDISes ensures this. I really wanted to know if there is a special reason why this should happen here. There are of course two ways that they could have avoided an out of sequence Rani story. They could have had Peter Davison meet a pre-Kate O'Mara Rani. I always imagine the pre-Kate Rani/ Ushas looking Indian, but I suppose it would be racially problematic to have an Indian actress playing the Rani. Or is it actually a form of blacking up to have a European actress calling herself the Rani? Which is worse? Alternatively, they could have had the Seventh Doctor encounter the newly regenerated Rani. Evidently, they felt that the Sixth Doctor would work best with the Rani. I think the results show they are right, as the Sixth Doctor and the new Rani spar quite nicely together. She is cool and cold, he is loud and bombastic.

Siobhan Redmond seems a little too in awe of Kate O'Mara to be quite comfortable in the role, but hopefully this will change should she return for future audios. What she brings to the role, other than her Scottish accent, is a cool detachment which probably fits better with the core of what the Rani represents than Kate O'Mara's campiness. Not that I don't love watching Kate being camp and dressing up as Mel, but I think Redmond brings a nice seriousness to the role. Of course, she loses her cool once she is defeated and starts ranting about getting revenge.



I think perhaps Redmond suffers a little from this story being very much meant for Kate O'Mara. The plot is not that far away from Time and the Rani. To introduce a new Rani, it would have made more sense to have her involved in a more radically different plot than what we have seen from her before. However, you can understand Big Finish working with what they had. Like so much of what Big Finish does, the big fault of this story is its unwillingness to do anything adventurous. This is yet another story where Peri gets threatened with somebody trying to possess her body, with lots of running around and getting captured. However, in spite of this, I still found it genuinely enjoyable.

To my delight this turned out to be a continuity feast that would have impressed even the late Craig Hinton. Along with Speelsnapes, we even get the Deca stuff from Divided Loyalties (so that stuff is canon now!). I punched the air when Dr. Who addressed the Rani as Ushas!

It looks like the Rani gets hauled off to prison at the end. I hope she enjoys having her mugshot taken and getting strip-searched. Hopefully, when she gets tired of being alpha bitch in Stormcage, she can escape and come back for some more misadventures with the Doctor. I genuinely hope we do see more of the Redmond Rani.





Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Dalek Invasion of Earth




Despite its title, this serial concerns the Dalek occupation of Earth, rather than the Dalek invasion. In this, it strikes an original note, as there are plenty of films about flying saucer invasions, but very few films about what the flying saucer people do after they've turned up and knocked down the Statue of Liberty and burned down the White House.

There is a very effective sense of bleakness about Dalek Invasion. The characters find themselves in an utterly hostile, yet not unfamiliar environment, harassed at every turn by Robomen, Daleks, flying saucers, hungry dogs, collaborators, crocodiles and spivs. The scenes of a silent London remind me of the 80s Day of the Triffids series. Indeed, the scene where Barbara drives her truck into a group of Daleks is remarkably similar to a scene in Day of the Triffids, where a truck runs over a bunch of triffids. I actually found myself looking at the credits to see if David Maloney had any involvement.

There are two things that are not so effective. The long, lumbering plot with it's grab bag of Terry Nation action sequences and the rather weak direction of Richard Martin. In the rather unworldly atmosphere of the first Dalek serial, Richard Martin worked alright. However, he was much less adept at the more realistic action drama of this story. The fight scenes are simply terrible. This is a story that simply cries out for Douglas Camfield.

The final scene of the departure of Susan is moving, especially for me, as I am one of the few fans of Susan. However, it is hard not to feel Dr. Who's actions were a bit drastic and heavy handed.

The Daleks are perhaps less interesting than they were in the first Dalek sequel. They have become a generic space conquering race, the likes of which we would see rather a lot of in Doctor Who. The obvious difference from later Daleks, however, is their reliance on satellite dishes to move about in the open (in contrast to the city-bound Daleks of the first serial). Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood offer a good explanation for this, arguing that the more familiar space Daleks adapted a number of Skaro city Daleks to boost their forces.

What do we make of the Daleks bizarre plan to turn the Earth into a spaceship? When we considered Inferno, we connected that to that story to the theory that the planet Earth is constructed on a hole in the universe and that beneath lies an entrace into the hellish Yssgaroth universe. I pointed out that in Inferno, the Primord mutants appeared to be under some kind of psychic direction. The Yssgaroth vampires were trying to break out into this universe. I would suggest that something similar is happening in this story. The Daleks are being telepathically manipulated by the Yssgaroth into drilling into the Earth's core. Their Dalek minds are being fooled into thinking that they can turn the Earth into a spaceship, when actually they are breaking out a far more terrible enemy.



Saturday, 16 May 2015

Seeds of Doom



I am one of the few Doctor Who fans who is not keen on the Philip Hinchcliffe era. To be honest, given that horror is not everybody's cup of tea, I am surprised there are not more of us. I really struggle with the Hinchcliffe/ Holmes delight in gruesome painful deaths. They really pushed the show too far in a violent direction. Philip Sandifer, who often says things I agree with, ends up being a very uncritical defender of this period of the show. Yet when it comes to Seeds of Doom, he admits that the critics of Hinchcliffe have a point here. He points out that in this story, the producer cannot plead that the horror is fantasy and not realistic violence, with Dr. Who brandishing a gun, beating somebody up so badly he ends up in hospital and instructing a mercenary to make a Molotov cocktail. This is Doctor Who doing a big dumb action thriller. It does feel quite right, with Dr. Who at the beck and call of government agencies, investigating clues like a detective and the final resolution coming from an air strike.

Yet for all that I detest the excessive of violence of this story, I still can't bring myself to dislike it. I certainly enjoy a lot more than anything in the season that follows it. On the most basic level, it's got a big tentacled vegetable monster in it. I like man-eating plants and I like big tentacled monsters. The concept of an alien monster being dug up out of the Antarctic ice and menacing an isolated base (yeah, The Thing) always works. The direction and effects are superb, as you would expect with Douglas Camfield at the helm. We also get memorable characters like Harrison Chase, Scorby and Amelia Ducat. Although it is a six-part story, it does not feel too long or padded. It maintains a much better sense of pace than Genesis of the Daleks or Talons of Weng-Chiang. So I just can't dislike this. Seeds of Doom is a guilty pleasure of a Doctor Who story.



Sunday, 10 May 2015

Planet of the Daleks




I watched the re-run of Planet of the Daleks on BBC1 in 1993. I was twelve years old at the time. I think at the time I was disappointed that it was not the original Dalek story. I was a huge Doctor Who fan at the time, but even then I found myself getting bore of the story as I watched the last two or three episodes. It just seemed so long and drawn out. This seems to challenge the argument(an argument I have sometimes used)that the overlong and padded stories can be more easily enjoyed and appreciated when watched over a course of weeks. Planet of the Daleks really is as padded out and tedious as any Doctor Who serial can get.

Planet of the Daleks is basically a re-working of The Daleks, with every one Terry Nation's favorite tropes thrown in for good measure. This is the ultimate cliched Dan Dare space adventure. Carnivorous plants, explosions and the inevitable virus.

Yet it does benefit from the superb direction of David Maloney, who was doing everything he can to make this a decent production. Admittedly, some of the effects are a bit weak, such as the Dalek army model shot. I don't think these detract too much overall from its overall visual strength.

Like so much of the Pertwee era, this story is colourful. I used to like the early gritty Season 7 Third Doctor material best. However, I have come to appreciate the colourful Glam Rock Third Doctor stories that don't really fit with the common perception of the Pertwee years as realistic TV action.

I love Phil Sandifer's essay on Planet of the Daleks. He does a great job of re-assessing it in a positive light. Sandifer points out that Nation does not quite get how to use the Third Doctor and so has him spending much of his time making speeches about the nature of courage:

"So Pertwee does not get to run around and be ostentatiously imperious as he prefers. Nor does he get to be ignored and occasionally tortured, as he's best at. Instead he stands around and gives speeches about the meaning of courage. Pertwee certainly isn't bad at this, but it's neither in his wheelhouse nor something he visibly enjoys."

Yet he argues that Pertwee finds the way to make this work:

"The solution he settles on, however, is perfect: he plays the story with a cool detachment. The result is a perfect postmodern commentary on the episode- as if the Doctor recognizes that he's in an unusually easy adventure of far less complexity than he routinely deals with, and that it does not actually require his full attention. The tendency to make speeches about fear instead of doing what are now the core elements of "Doctory" behaviour becomes not a mischaracterization but a case of the Doctor taking it easy and figuring he doesen't have to work, he can just sit back and encourage everybody else."

I think this is such a beautiful insight from Sandifer. I love the idea of Dr. Who having outgrown this sort of story.

By no means a great story, but I love the fab black and gold Dalek Supreme.






Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Glorious Revolution



The Glorious Revolution of 1688 has always been a significant event for me. When I was a Protestant, I celebrated it. Now that I have converted to Catholicism, I regard the Glorious Revolution as a disaster. I do find it distressing though, that so many people are unaware of this event. The writer admits that before researching for the story, he had not heard of it, having not been taught about it at school. The Stuart dynasty used to be a staple part of the British history curriculum, but it seems that modern schools avoid the Stuarts. Popular culture seems more interested in the Tudors, presenting a sanitized image of the Elizabethan 'Golden Age,' ignoring all of the achievements of the Stuart era. Thankfully, Big Finish have paid tribute to this most fascinating era with this Companion Chronicle.

Jamie's background as a Jacobite had not really been explored prior to this audio. It was nice to see Jamie in a situation where he understood what was going on and was less of a fish out of water. Yet he soon gets into trouble and has his own Aztecs moment, attempting to change history. This is brought to us via Frazer Hines who is on top form. He not only reprises Jamie brilliantly, but gives an uncanny impression of Troughton. Frazer is assisted by Andrew Fettes, who plays too roles extremely well; the tortured and embittered James II/VII and the cynical civil servant-like Celestial Intervention Agent.

On the whole, I enjoyed this story and thought it was well done. It was great hear the Second Doctor dragging up again and disguising himself and Jamie as washer women. However, it does suffer from a problem with pacing and feels rather rushed. The interesting idea of a change in timelines is not really developed. More importantly, I felt Jamie was far too quick to accept that history could not be changed. There was no sense of conflict or discomfort in his betrayal of James II/VII.

According to this audio, Jamie lived a very happy and contented life Post-War Games (+ Season 6B). This definitely conflicts with what we saw in the comic strip, The World Shapers, but I doubt anybody will complain about that.