Monday, 21 October 2013

"I've never seen such an incredible bunch" - The War Games

It is appropriate that in the last Second Doctor story, ending the black and white period of Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton gives an absolutely stellar performance. Whether pretending to be an official, manipulating the gullible alien scientist, fleeing in terror or acting the clown before the Time Lords, Troughton displays complete brilliance.

The War Games is a story that fans will always celebrate, after all it is the story in which we first learn of Dr. Who's people the Time Lords and his reasons for abandoning his kind. The fine scripting, the clever blending of historical with science fiction and the impressive acting within this serial are rightly praised. Yet The War Games is let down by the excessive length that was inflicted on it for production reasons. While the extra episodes does allow an interesting exploration of the tense and fractious relationships among the aliens and create a sense of constant peril and chaos for the TARDIS crew, the overall result is a repetitive and seemingly never-ending run of capture and escape routines. It would have worked so much better in six episodes, though this was sadly not an option at the time.

I know it is not the most important detail, but I do wonder if Lady Jennifer Buckingham's hair is authentic for the period. Her hairstyle does look a little modern for 1917. Of course, I could be wrong about that.

The unnamed aliens in The War Games look human, but they definitely have an alien quality to them. David Bree, who plays the Security Chief, gives his character a distinctive slow protracted form of speech. It was also a great decision to cast the Time Lord War Chief as somebody who looks physically distinct to the other alien characters. While the War Chief is handsome, suave and charismatic, the other aliens are pudgy, bald and pasty-faced. They are stereotypical bureaucrats. The best of them is of course Philip Madoc as the War Lord. He is absolutely fantastic. Instead of playing the character with bluster, he is cool and quiet, exhibiting a constant menace. He even smiles when he threatens people. With his scruffy beard, his spectacles and palour, he looks every inch a psychotic. Echoing the Nuremburg Trials, he remains defiant before the Time Lords, refusing even to acknowledge their authority. His terrified cry of 'No! No! No!' as he fades out of existence is a nice end for him.

The other alien who really stands out, even more so than General Smyth, is the fake German officer, Von Weich. He seems to take great delight in putting on different accents, switching from being a German officer, to a Confederate and then to a 19th century British officer. Von Weich must have been so disappointed that there was no Second World War zone and therefore no opportunity to play a Waffen SS officer or a Soviet commissar! This makes a really interesting point about the theatricality of military authority. After all military authority is largely about dressing up and speaking in a certain tone of voice. Also highly effective is the scene where Von Weich and Smyth move about their model soldiers and talk about how they will kill off each others troops. War truly is a game to these people.

The War Chief, the first character ever to be identified as a Time Lord, is very nicely developed. He is a much more complex and interesting character than the Master ever was. It might have been nice if he was an earlier incarnation of the Master, though this is clearly contradicted by the novels, which identify him as Magnus, yet another one of Borusa's errant pupils.

The Time Lords are pretty impressive here, with their incredible power. They are aloof and mysterious. It is unfortunate that they are less effectively used in other stories, though many of the later developments with the Time Lords were not without interest. It is amusing to watch the Doctor clowning around in the court room, dismissing all the faces he is offered, though it is hard not to be bothered by his lack of concern about the Time Lords erasing his companions' memories. It's hard not to laugh at the fact that when attempting to show his people the terrible things in some corners of the universe, he shows them the Quarks. Though admittedly, the Quarks proved themselves in the comics to be resourceful opponents; taking control of domestic robots, making use of a giant wasp and stealing racing cars. Interestingly, he seems to expect the Time Lords to be relatively lenient with him. He predicts that as a punishment, the Time Lords will make him listen to a 'long boring speech.' There is no implication that he would face the same treatment as the War Lord. His terror at capture by his people must have been a terror of losing his freedom.

We know of course, that Dr. Who does not immediately change his appearance after this story. There is a gap between The War Games and Spearhead from Space, referred to by fans as Season 6B. This is shown by two stories, The Five Doctors, in which the Second Doctor is aware of Zoe's departure and The Two Doctors, in which he and Jamie are working for the Time Lords, despite his having no dealings with them during the Troughton era. It seems that after his trial, the Doctor was given limited freedom to travel in the TARDIS, in return for performing missions on the Time Lord's behalf. Season 6B was first revealed in the TV Comic, where the Second Doctor is exiled to Earth before the Time Lords can change his appearance. He takes up residence in the luxurious Carlton Grange Hotel, which remarkably makes it into the newspaper headlines. In a series of stories, the exiled time traveller tangles with criminals and alien invaders, as well as becoming a panelist on a television show. Finally, he is captured by the Time Lords' scarecrow servants, who force him to regenerate. It is logical to conclude that the other TV Comic Second Doctor stories take place in Season 6B, as they do not fit anywhere else in the Second Doctor era. It would seem that some time during this period, Dr. Who was reunited with his grandchildren, John and Gillian. It also seems that Jamie took a break from travelling with the Doctor and temporarily resided in a castle in modern day Scotland. It is possible that other adventures happened in this period, such as Dr. Who's first contest with Fenric and perhaps his first encounter with Lady Peinforte. We have no way of knowing how long Season 6B lasted. Given discrepancies in the Doctor's age, it may have lasted as long as a century.

Friday, 11 October 2013

I Destroy Therefore I Am: The Three Doctors

"If I survive only by my will, then my will is to destroy!"

It was perhaps unfortunate that before watching The Three Doctors at the age of ten, I had read the Target novelization. It was disappointing that the Gell Guards did not form into one tentacled mass, as they did in the novel, nor was Omega's palace a fantastic castle, but instead a makeshift door in a quarry. While in the book, the Third Doctor was transported into a giant gladiatorial arena to battle a hideous demonic creature rather like the Destroyer in Battlefield, Pertwee instead wrestled a man in a sequinned catsuit. Thankfully this discovery of the limitations of BBC special effects did not spoil my enjoyment of the serial and they still do not twenty-two years later.

The first Doctor Who story I ever watched was The Five Doctors, so I'm rather used to seeing more than one Dr. Who around. It is hard to imagine what a treat it must have been for the original viewers to see Troughton, Hartnell and Pertwee sharing the screen. The celebration is rather marred by the sadly unwell state of Hartnell, who can only deliver a few lines from a chair. It is impossible not to notice how Troughton's acting outshines Pertwee's. Quite a few of the original viewers must have been wishing that Troughton had stuck around a bit longer.

Like the stories of Season 18, The Three Doctors seamlessly blends hard science with mysticism. It is striking that the story offers a three-decker model of the universe, with UNIT on Earth, the Time Lords in their heaven and Omega in his hellish Pandemonium beyond the black hole. The writers have quite clearly borrowed liberally from William Blake as is demonstrated in Phil Sandifer's beautiful, but barely comprehensible essay on the serial.

I just adore Stephen Thorne's performance as Omega. Doctor Who has plenty of baddies who shout and rant, but Thorne takes it up to a new level. His voice is so rich, even when he speaks softly, his voice booms. I found him rather scary when I fist watched The Three Doctors. He is helped in his performance by the brilliantly designed mask. With its hollow mouth and eyes, emotion can be projected on to it. Depending on Thorne's delivery, the mask looks angry, disdainful, haughty or sad. Omega truly comes across as a pitiable figure.

The Gell Guards have come in for a lot of criticism. While they look a little comical at times, I do like their appearance. They are how I imagine H.P. Lovecraft;s Shoggoths in At the Mountains of Madness. Admittedly, Katy Manning's Gell Guard vocal contributions on the DVD commentary is very funny. The blog creature is one of those less effective Seventies CSO effects. It looks good when going down drains, but when it becomes larger, it is less impressive. Omega's palace is interesting visually, despite looking a little unconvincing. Perhaps the stagey looks is appropriate given the story's Christmas pantomime feel.

While Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is rather funny in this story, it is unfortunate that he has become such a figure of fun. He is ridiculously obstinate and pig-headed in The Three Doctors. On the other hand, it is interesting how unhinged he seems to become throughout the story. Was his mental health deteriorating? Mawdryn Undead has the Brigadier undergoing a breakdown. This is explained in-story as a result of the timestreams crossing, but had he already suffered trauma as a result of this experience and others? It would explain the quiet and unglamorous circumstances of his retirement that seems to bother some fans for some reason. He was never meant to be a companion and seems to be seriously effected by TARDIS travel.

Jo Grant seems to have overdosed on Cute and Fluffy pills in The Three Doctors. She might as well be one of those generic anime cute girls that people love to draw on DeviantArt.

As with The Five Doctors, it is implied that the First Doctor is older and wiser than the other Doctors. This does not really fit with the First Doctor era, in which he appears to be a lot less mature and less able to handle situations than his successors. This might be explained if The Infinity Doctors is a pre-Unearthly Child story, featuring a younger Hartnell Doctor. It may be that the First Doctor, unlike the other two, has some memory of the encounter with Omega in The Infinity Doctors and can understand the situation better.

This was a celebration of Doctor Who, but in many ways this is a celebration of the Barry Letts era, with all of the usual tropes- Ineffectual UNIT, excessive CSO, blobby monsters, a bumbling scientist, a yokel and the Time Lords needing Dr. Who's assistance. It is held together by an interesting story. In my judgement, it is a lot better than The Five Doctors which was just a collection of set pieces artfully, but not altogether convincingly scraped together by Terrance Dicks. While I can't bring myself to dislike The Five Doctors, I genuinely do like The Three Doctors and consider it to be one of the more enjoyable stories of the Pertwee era.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Philip Sandifer: Writer: Outside the Government: Warriors of Kudlak

"Frankly, writing a 1970s-style Doctor Who story is dead easy. This is the dirty secret of the bulk of the wilderness years - all the oft-praised “trad” writers who cranked out good old-fashioned Doctor Who had it profoundly easy. Writing a Hinchcliffe-era clone of a story is fairly trivial. You find a horror movie concept Doctor Who hasn’t done before, you come up with some technobabble as to why it’s aliens, and then you just have to learn to imitate the voices of Tom Baker and Lis Sladen and you’re good to go. It’s doubly easy if you actually have Tom Baker and/or Lis Sladen working for you, because then they’ll helpfully imitate their own voices.
 This isn’t to knock Robert Holmes, or any of the other Hinchcliffe-era writers. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to imitate the Hinchcliffe era than it was to come up with it. Doing it in 1977 is harder than doing it in 2007. Nevertheless, doing it in 2007 is dead easy. And the same goes for the Letts era: come up with some mundane aspect of the modern world and have aliens take it over. Instant Pertwee story. In that regard, The Sarah Jane Adventures should be able to take any halfway decent writer and let them have an episode without any difficulty. There’s just not a lot of moving parts here."
Phil Sandifer demonstrates the banality of so much Doctor Who, both new and old. I tend to dislike the 'middle period' of Doctor Who in the 70s and it's so frustrating that the current show so often uses it as a template.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Daleks Among Us, by Alan Barnes (Big Finish Audio)

*Spoiler Alert*

Alan Barnes, what have you done to my favorite character?

I was dreading listening to this audio. The recent Klein trilogy beginning with Persuasion has been disappointing, and I had a feeling that the concluding release would seriously mess up Klein's character arc. It took me nearly a week to pluck up the courage to listen to this CD. I suppose it could have been worse, but I was hardly impressed with what was done with our favorite blonde ice maiden scientist.

I think we can all agree that Klein's backstory is a bit complicated. She is a character whose entire life has been re-written, having previously been the sole survivor of a deleted timeline. Now we are told that the current UNIT version of Klein is a clone who was created by the Third Reich (!) using the DNA of Elizabet Wolfenhart, a sadistic female SS officer, who was also the daughter of another Nazi scientist that we met in this trilogy. Klein was then adopted by Ralf Klein, a German officer who was spying for the British. Let's not go into the unlikeliness of the Nazis obtaining cloning technology. This is Doctor Who, even if this is rather stretching credulity.

Why was all this complication necessary? Klein's backstory was complicated already, but what we knew of it had an elegance to it. It was always plausible that the UNIT version of Klein might have been the Klein that would have existed in our timeline anyway in the absence of the events of Colditz. This retelling of Klein's story makes what we saw before feel very distant. The big question left in my mind is what we are to make of the original version of Klein from the Colditz timeline, the one who travelled with the Doctor after A Thousand Tiny Wings. Did Elizabet Wolfenhart marry Ralf Klein in the Nazi victory timeline? If so, why do the two Kleins look the same? We get confirmation in this story that the UNIT Klein was born in 1945. I do still think Colditz implies that the Nazi Klein was born before the Second World War. The strange development of Klein's backstory makes me wonder how much input, if any, Steve Lyons her creator had into this trilogy. Is this really how he imagined the character?

The original Klein triology, beginning with A Thousand Tiny Wings was very much in the mould of the New Adventures, with all their sense of tragedy and moral complexity. The new Klein triology, on the other hand, has all the worst excesses of Moffat-Who. Klein has become a cosmic pixie girl, a Teutonic Amy Pond, a fifty-year old Clara or a less flirtatious River Song. Klein has ceased to be a person and has become a walking plot device.

Dominion largely avoided delving into Klein's backstory. Instead, we got a glimpse of a new and different Klein. The character we met in Dominion had the potential to be developed and to become interesting in her own right, aside from her complex backstory. This character was squandered by the writers of the new trilogy. Character development is not about adding new details to a character's background. Character development is not about creating puzzles for listeners to solve. Character development is about seeing how the narrative shapes the character and how the character moves forward the narrative through her actions. Moffat does not get this and it seems the writers of Big Finish are following his poor example. There was a nice moment when Klein accuses Dr. Who of ignoring the person she is and refusing to acknowledge her as a character distinct from what she was in a previous timeline, but such moments are largely absent from Daleks Among Us.

One of the things that can be admired most about the original Klein trilogy was its moral depth and the complex interplay between the Doctor and Klein. We have none of this here. What is more, the Klein trilogy was free from irritating cartoon Nazis. Here in the Persausion trilogy we have Schulke and also Klein's clone-mother Elizabet Wolfenhart, one of the most cliched portrayal of a female Nazi she-wolf ever.

Thankfully, Klein survives this story and we can hope that better writers will do new and exciting things with the character. Tracey Childs is a brilliant actress and Big Finish know that her portrayal of Klein is one of their best creations. I'll also try and get over my Klein fixation and point out that it was nice to see Terry Molloy reunited with Sylvester McCoy. As tired as the character of Davros has become, Molloy can always be relied upon to put in a great performance.