Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Mind Robber

On paper, The Mind Robber sounds like a really fascinating concept. The idea of being turned into fiction is a remarkably ingenious existential terror. Yet I find The Mind Robber incredibly tedious to watch. It is very much one of those Doctor Who stories that is dearly loved by fans, but which is actually a bit rubbish.

The first episode was hastily written and tacked on. This is very much in evidence, as the episode does not gel neatly with the tone and plot of the other episodes. This episode has a surreal nightmarish quality that earns a lot of praise, but which does not disguise the fact that the story is not going anywhere. It is like Edge of Destruction without Hartnell and Hill to carry the story. The problem with nightmare sequences like this is that we know they are not real; they can never really engage the viewer. A child watching the apparent destruction of the TARDIS might be upset, but an intelligent older viewer can be pretty sure that this is just an illusion.

Things get worse in the next episodes, as the TARDIS crew meet one bizarre peril after another- tin soldiers, being turned into a cardboard cut-out and mythical monsters. This rapidly becomes tedious, as there is no sense of narrative or plot development to it, but just a string of weird events, one after the other. I find it hard to understand how fans can enjoy repeat viewings of these episodes. Why care about a monster that does not exist and which disappears when you stop believing in it? These episodes go nowhere and the attempt at resolution proves unsatisfactory when it comes.

To be far to all involved, this was a production in which almost nothing went right and which was beset with problems. Despite these problems, all of the cast seem to be approaching the story with a sense of enthusiasm and fun. This is the spirit of Doctor Who, but it is still a rubbish story. It is also hard to overlook some of the shoddy design elements too, such as the naff Minotaur and the model shot of the forest that does not match the set.

It's a pleasure to watch Bernard Horsfall (I note sadly his recent passing away). As somebody who was born in Nottingham, I appreciated his attempt at the accent, even if he did not get it quite right. Rapunzel is really cute, but I get so annoyed when I hear her say she is a 'princess.' Rapunzel was not a princess! Did Peter Ling never read any fairy tales?

It is refreshing to have a Troughton story without an alien invasion, a returning monster or a base under siege. The Mind Robber was an attempt to do something genuinely different, but it's a story that fails badly in this and bores me to tears.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Genesis of the Daleks

My first experience of Genesis of the Daleks was listening to the audio recording. I was given the cassettes for Christmas in 1991, shortly before going on holiday to Cyprus. I was ten years old at the time. I later watched the repeat in 1993 and read the novelization again and again. The thing is, I loved Genesis of the Daleks not because I thought it was a great Doctor Who story (I have no idea what stories I considered to be great when I was ten or twelve; I probably did not think in those terms). The reason I liked Genesis was because it had lots of guns and Nazi-like uniforms. As a boy I loved guns and Nazi uniforms. I am one of those Englishmen who have a suspicious enthusiasm for Nazi uniforms. As an adult, I have rather fallen out of love with Genesis of the Daleks, even though I still quite like the look of Nazi uniforms.

I really do understand why people love this story so much. Great work from the regulars, an amazing performance from Michael Wisher as Davros, great direction, some nice designs and most of all, a sense of grand cosmic drama. Yet for all these strengths, quite a number of things really bother me about this story.

The biggest problem I have with this story is the basic premise. Dr Who is instructed by the Time Lord to prevent the creation of the Daleks. This seems to go against everything we know about these guardians of history. To eradicate the Daleks from history would surely completely disrupt the web of time, altering the very history of the universe. Yet Dr. Who says it is 'feasible.' Even though it would surely alter his own personal history? What would happen to Susan if there was no Dalek-ravaged earth for her to settle on? How would Ian and Barbara get back without the aid of the Dalek time machine? I understand the show has moved on from the sensible days when you couldn't change one line of history, but this is surely going a bit far. Maybe it was the Black Guardian in disguise, or Faction Paradox, or maybe the Time Lords were just having a laugh at the Doctor's expense. Perhaps they would have whisked the Doctor away if he had come close to actually destroying the Daleks. But that still doesen't explain how he thinks it is 'feasible.' You can try to retcon this and talk about the Time Lords foreseeing their own destruction in the Great Time War, but that is still a retcon at the end of the day. What we see in this story is at odds with everything that has gone before.

In general, I am not a big fan of origin stories. Sometimes they work, but they do run the risk of undermining their subjects. Sometimes an origin is best left to the imagination. We could never have a satisfactory origin story for Dr. Who himself. I do think that Genesis of the Daleks undermines the concept of the Daleks somewhat. In their debut serial, the Daleks were a kind of force of nature, a physical manifestation of the military devastation unleashed upon Skaro. Here they are reduced to the creation of yet another mad scientist. This is made worse by the return appearances made by Davros in future Dalek stories, overshadowing his creations.

I also dislike the crass literalism of this story. It has been obvious since the very second Doctor Who serial that the Daleks are supposed to be a bit like Nazis. Was it really necessary to make this obvious by making their forbears dress in fascistic uniforms and jackboots? The viewer is being treated like an idiot. This is the same kind of crass literalness that makes Azal look exactly like a traditional image of Satan, as if the viewer did not already get all the other Satanic references in The Daemons.

As with the Nazi uniforms, I think the serial goes a little too far in trying to capture the visual feel of the First World War. I really do appreciate the efforts to create the sense of a dark, brutal and hopeless environment. I also think the scene with the Thal soldier tormenting Sarah is essential. It shows that the Thals are just as bad as the Kaleds. In fact, they are probably the aggressors in this war, given that we are told in The Daleks that they were warriors, while the Daleks (Kaleds?) were philosophers and teachers. Yet I can't help thinking that the grim imagery is not how I like to see the Daleks. There is a definite sense of Sixties kitsch about the Daleks, that actually works well with their scariness. There is something comical about the Dalek appearance that makes them all the scarier and this does not work well with the darkness of the setting. I rather miss the original image of Skaro as a strange and exotic place. On this score, the origin story in TV21 fits the Daleks rather better.

It is often claimed that Genesis of the Daleks has a great moral depth. Moral depth my foot! Look at Dr. Who's famous 'Have I the right' speech. Prior to making this speech he had been quite happy to destroy the Daleks. Then as soon as he has made this speech, his Kaled allies tell him that will halt the Dalek production and presumably destroy the incubated Daleks. The Doctor is delighted. This makes him look like a moral coward who prefers others to do his dirty work. Then later he decides to blow up the incubator room. Finally, it turns out that destroying the incubator room won't stop the Daleks anyway. Can anybody see any meaningful contribution to ethical philosophy in all this?

In the end, Dr. Who claims that the Daleks have been set back a thousand years in their development. Really? Are the Daleks really unable to clear away a bit of rubble? The destruction of the incubator might seem more of a problem, but the Daleks don't seem worried about it, so they can probably breed some new embryos within a year or so. While the Discontinuity Guide absurdly claimed that Dalek history had been re-written after this story, Remembrance of the Daleks makes clear that the Dalek invasion of Earth happened on time. I think the events of Genesis change absolutely nothing. I think the Doctor is simply trying to make Sarah feel better.

It is rather hard to get past the absurdity of the idea that this is a war that has lasted thousands of years despite the fact that the Thal and Kaled cities are within walking distance of each other, especially given that weapons of mass destruction had originally been used to fight it. This is made even sillier when we find out that the Kaled have an hidden passage into the Thal city. This is a cardboard planet. When we first saw Skaro in The Daleks, it was a diverse place, with mountains, plateaus, petrified jungles and swamps. Now it is just a rocky battlefield (that looks like a quarry) and two cities. It is amazing how Skaro actually looked so much bigger in a television studio.

Just how rubbish is Davros' scientific elite? They have been in operation for fifty years (and not just working on Daleks), yet it is perfectly obvious that the Thals are technologically superior in every way. They have laser guns (courtesy of the Drahvins), they can build a rocket armed with distronic explosives and the Kaleds suspect them of using robots. You would think that somewhere along the line, the Kaled leaders would have asked Davros what he was doing with their funds.

Peter Miles has rightly been praised for his fantastic performance as Nyder. He really is a pleasure to watch in this story. Yet Miles' fantastic performance only draws attention to the lack of characterisation of Nyder. We are given no sense of Nyder's motivation. We want to know why Nyder is so fanatically loyal to Davros. It cannot be put down to blind fascistic loyalty, as Nyder has clearly made an active choice to give his loyalty to Davros over and above the Kaled government and military leadership.

One actor that deserves a bit of extra praise is Guy Siner as General Ravon. He's such a great character; I adore the way he can't deliver two sentences without launching into a speech. He's not altogether a bad guy, either, note his sympathy towards the Doctor in the Kaled city.

I don't deny that this production has it's strong points and is certainly enjoyable, yet it is a story I have major issues with and one that I do not care for. The Daleks was a much better story than this.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Ambassadors of Death

Ambassadors of Death is not the most highly regarded stories of the Pertwee era. It is not among the most well remembered stories of this period and is often considered to be the weakest story of Season 7. This is a real shame, as it seems to me to be among the best Pertwee serials (a short list in my opinion) and is a strong rival to Dr Who and the Silurians as the best story of Season 7.

What is so striking about Ambassadors of Death is how unlike typical Doctor Who this story feels. This story keeps its science fiction elements to the barest minimum possible since the era of Pure Historicals. We get only fleeting glimpses of the alien race and their spaceship. Instead of such fantastic trappings, the serial focuses on the more gritty and realistic elements of a near future society. This is a story foremost about brutal thugs, corpses being buried in quarries, paranoid generals and a space program that seemed realistic at the time. There is something very odd about watching the gun battle between UNIT and Carrington's goons- it feels like a different show with nothing to do with Doctor Who. This is the basic premise of Earthbound Season 7 taken up to the maximum level.

The influence of James Bond is apparent, with the presence of a multitude of gadgets, endless fights and escapes. Yet the serial strives to be much more than just Doctor Who doing James Bond. This is a story about the dangers of paranoia, xenophobia and militarism. But more than this, Ambassadors of Death is a story about the nature of space exploration. The influence of The Quatermass Experiment will be apparent to the educated viewer. The serial borrows many visual elements of Quatermass, such as the empty spacecraft and the sense of the mysterious otherness of the cosmos beyond our planet. Yet Ambassadors does not subscribe to the Quatermass view that outer space if a realm of of abject terror. The story offers the hope of peace between different planets. Nevertheless, Ambassadors portrays outer space as a realm of mystery beyond human comprehension. Ambassadors raises the question of whether humanity is ready or able to deal with that world of mystery. The trauma and mental breakdown of Carrington suggests the conclusion that humanity is too petty and small in its concerns to face the beauty and magnificent wonder of space.

This is a story on an epic scale, taking us from a futuristic space centre to country roads and even to the vastness of space. It has production values that match this sense of scale. Watching it, I am struck at just how well everything is realised visually, even with the unfortunate continuity errors like Liz's hair-length and choice of tights. This is a story with plenty to look at and it does not let us down. With the addition of Havoc to the team, we get some wonderfully well orchestrated fights.

Ambassadors offers us some fantastic guest performances. Ronal Allen is memorable as the controller, Ralph Cornish. In a much smaller role, Michael Wisher, the future Davros, is astounding as the news correspondent. There is a beautiful intensity to his delivery of every line. John Abineri also gives a really subtle performance as General Carrington. Doctor Who has plenty of crazy villains, but Carrington is one who has clearly suffered a deep psychological scarring, and this comes across in his performance.

It is Reegan, however, who steals the show and becomes the most memorable hired thug in the history of Doctor Who. What is shocking about Reegan is the sheer casualness to the way he kills people. Unlike other Doctor Who toughs, he does not get angry and point guns at people. He is absolutely in control of every situation, even when he is finally dragged away. He has no big ambitions like taking over the world; he just wants to exploit the situation and make money. Just look at his excitement at the thought that he can break into banks at leisure- he looks like a child in a toy shop! The novelisation gives him a fitting background; he was an IRA terrorist who helped himself to the funds.

Pertwee seems a lot more settled into his role in this story than in the previous two serials. He plays it absolutely straight and it comes off well. I am not a fan of Pertwee's Doctor and he is obnoxious in quite a few places, such as his rudeness to Cornish. Caroline John's Liz gets a few good moments, but as with other stories, her character is horribly underused. She is mostly there to get captured and to escape.

Ambassadors of Death is by no means perfect. While the fights are great, I think it could have done with a lower body count. Doctor Who should not trivialize the death of characters, as it too often does. The story is a bit padded and probably became wearying over the weeks. The motives of Tatalian are also a bit unclear. I don't think this is the best story of Season 7, in my opinion Dr Who and the Silurians has a stronger plot. I do think, however, that it is better than the rather overrated Inferno. Compared to this serial, Inferno feels hopelessly like a standard Doctor Who story with green slime and a monster of the week.