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

Romana II Demotivator

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.'