Monday 30 August 2010

Colditz (Big Finish Audio)

The Seventh Doctor and Ace turn up at Colditz prison during the Second World War.

This is my first Big Finish audio review. I just love Big Finish! Listening to a BF play is so much like watching a televised story. You have the music, the episodes and the original regulars. Its incredible. I am so grateful to BF for keeping the classic series alive.

Colditz offers not only nostalgia for McCoy era Who, but also nostalgia for old fashioned British war films. We even have that old war film cliche "The war is over for you!" Its all rather fun. Its amusing that Ace has watched all these films and associates the place with escapes, while the prisoners very definitely associate Colditz with being unable to escape!

McCoy puts in an hilarious performance, showing incredible overconfidence, rather reminiscent of Delta and the Bannermen. If you love Season 24 like me, that is fine, but most Dr. Who fans are likely to be irritated by his cockiness.

Ace comes across as a little dull. The "I hate Nazis" line was rather banal. Her decision to go back to the name Dorothy McShane comes across as odd and seems a bit of a departure from the New Adventures development of Ace. Her horror at the death of the Feldwebel Kurtz is completely unlike the Ace of the New Adventures. Even before her brutalization in the Dalek War, NA Ace was fascinated by carnage.

Klein is fantastic! The greatest creation of Big Finish. I am so glad they gave her an whole series as the Seventh Doctor's brief companion. Tracey Childs is fantastic as the Nazi scientist. I like the fact that she also has a decent backstory, as the child of German parents in Britain. She provides an excellent twist to a story which would otherwise be just about escapes.

Flying Officer Bill Gower provides that old-fashioned British stiff upper lip. In contrast Tim gives us a great portrayal of cowardice. Schaeffer comes across as a little too sympathetic. Its also wonderful to hear David Tennant playing a supporting character as the brutal Feldwebel.

The sound effects are great. The musical score is good, but is a little intrusive at times.

Sunday 29 August 2010

Full Circle

The Fourth Doctor and Romana find themselves in a different universe.

It is in Full Circle that we really see the emergence of both producer John Nathan Turner's vision for an higher standard of production values and script editor Christopher Bidmead's vision for a more serious hard science approach to Doctor Who. Fans will be eternally divided on whether the changes Nathan-Turner and Bidmead brought were for the benefit of the show. My own feeling is that the changes were necessary and inavoidable. As much as I love so much in the Graham Williams era, the show had gone down a blind alley. Had a new Doctor (and Tom Baker inevitably needed to be replaced) taken over and the show continued in the comedy vein, we would only have seen it sent up futher to the point of ridicule. Doctor Who simply had to become more serious or it would have died. A lot of things in the JNT era were really bad, but love him or loathe him, JNT manage to breathe life into the show so that it could continue through the Eighties.

Visually this story is a triumph of JNT's new production values. The camera and location work is amazing. The mist in the swamps is atmospheric. After the hilarious monsters of Season 17, we finally have some well designed monster costumes for the Marshmen. The Starliner is well designed and the cliche of corridors is actually used to make a subtle point about the Starliner's occupants. The costumes are excellent too. The spiders are obviously made of plastic, but never mind.

Full Circle is an intelligent story. A good deal of thought has gone into the concept. In terms of science, the idea of evolution suggested here does not make such sense. For all the desire to ground Dr. Who in scientific concepts, the notion of evolution we get here is rather fantastical. I am a fundamentalist Christian and have serious doubts about evolution (though I don't dismiss the idea), but it I do find it irritating that evolution is so often misunderstood by science fiction writers.

The plot is perhaps not that inspired. It was daring of writer Andrew Smith to create a Doctor Who story without a villain, but I think it does result in a certain lack of conflict. Hence, we are left with a story that creates very little tension.

The subplot with Romana turning into a Marshwoman was rather silly and unnecessary. The idea of Romana turning into a Marsh creature on being bitten by a spider rather deviates from the evolutionary idea in the story of Alzarians evolving from Marshmen.

Tom Baker gives a nice understated performance, showing compassion to the young Marshman and showing real anger when challenging the Deciders. Romana is superb (except as a Marshwoman) coming across genuinely as a Time Lady. She shows complete confidence when the TARDIS is invaded by the Outlers, relieving one of them of his knife and then giving it back!

As everybody knows, this story introduces the much hated Adric. He can be a bit irritating, especially his inability to walk properly. However, in Season 18 he had the Fourth Doctor and Romana to shout at him and keep him in line. He only becomes unbearable with the softhearted Fifth Doctor.

The Outlers are not terribly impressive. Their inability to steal fruit makes one wonder how they can imagine surviving on their own. The Deciders are well conceived and acted.

On the whole, this is a decent story, even if not the most exciting.

Friday 27 August 2010

The Pit, by Neil Penswick (Virgin New Adventure)

The Seventh Doctor and Bernice encounter horrors from the Dark Times.

This is my first review of a New Adventure novel on this blog. As I said in a previous post, the New Adventures Seventh Doctor is my Doctor. Brutalised, violent Ace and Bernice are my companions. I indentify with the New Adventures in a way I don't identify with, for instance, the New Series or with the Graham Williams era.

I am totally fascinated with 'The Pit.' Its not the most higly regarded of the New Adventure stories and it is not the easiest one to read. It is totally lacking in humour and lacks any pleasent characters. The Doctor is portrayed as being in a state of depressed hopelessness. It does not make for an enjoyeable story. Yet I feel that it is almost my favorite of the New Adventures. Maybe it helped that I was on holiday, staying with my old folks at Hastings at the time I read it. I read a good portion of this book sitting in my favorite place in the world, the White Rock hotel bar, drinking delightful ale. Maybe because the book is so depressing, you have to be in a relaxed mood to read it.

The main reason I like this is Lovecraft. H.P. Lovecraft, the master of darkness! I am a huge Cthulhu Mythos fan. The whole reason why I rediscovered Doctor Who was that I realised how similar the two can be. The New Adventures effectively incorporated Lovecraft's Great Old Ones into the Whoniverse in All-Consuming Fire, but this book, written before then, is much more Lovecraftian in style. Not only does it feature ancient, extra-dimentional monsters described as 'Old Ones' who are worshipped by secret cults, but it has that overwhelming sense of cosmic hopelessness. The Doctor, normally invincible and indomitable, is reduced to utter impotence. It totally deviates from the pattern of Doctor Who. If every New Adventure novel was like this, we could not take it, but this one gets it right.

I like the exploration of the 'Dark Times' of the Time Lords history. I think this is the most fascinating aspect of Doctor Who and as long as the mystery is maintained, it is worth exploring by writers.

The inclusion of William Blake as a character is a brilliant choice, even if his entrance into the story is not very well explained. He represents the same liberal, democratic values as the Doctor and seems them utterly wiped out in the dark misery of the future. Lovecraftian Cosmicism again. Unlike the Doctor's religiosly indifferent companions, he asks the Doctor theological questions. This makes perfect sense. A book dealing with such vibrant religious imagery needs a character who can react to it. It has been suggested that the depiction of Blake is a lot less colourless than the real William Blake. I did find it odd that he does not mention his wife in the book. Being separated from her by time and space ought to be on his mind.

Maybe one reason I love this story and most fans hate it is that I am religious and have studied theology to PhD level. It is a book using religious themes in which many characters are religious. It has a spirituality missing from most Dr. Who stories.

My favorite moment in the story is the scene where an Yssgaroth is seated on a throne. It first appears like a lamb, then turns into a winged serpent-like creature with a multitude of eyes. The imagery here is brilliant! It is taken straight from the Book of Revelation. It is like a scene that William Blake would have painted. It has been suggested that having a demonic being appear as a lamb is blasphemous. I don't thing so! I have no problem with the powers of evil masquearading that way. In fact in the Book of Revelation, the second beast or false prophet appears like a lamb (Rev 13:11).

I am not sure about the androids. I am not sure that you would get such sophisticated robots in this early period of colonisation. The androids seem far more advanced than the robots in the far future Robots of Death.

Ignore the people who say this is the worst New Adventure. It is one of the best. Track down an old copy.

Friday 20 August 2010

The Time Monster

The Master is up to his usual tricks and summons up Kronos the kronovore and also has fun with an Atlantean queen.

John Pertwee is my least favorite Doctor. I can't stand Jo Grant, she really was the most awful companion, worse than Adric. I also consider the Master to be a really boring villain. Yet strangely enough, I often do find myself enjoying John Pertwee stories.

The Time Monster is regarded as being one of the really awful Doctor Who stories. I did not come to The Time Monster with great expectations, but I found myself enjoying it. If you like Doctor Who really camp, The Time Monster is for you. The Time Monster is just camp and fun. It is defintely worth watching and should not be dismissed.

Roger Delgado gives what is probably his best ever performance in The Time Monster. It is also really cool to watch the Atlantean queen instantly falling for him and getting seduced by the dastardly arch-villain. As much as we fans want to insist that the Master is best when he is grim and evil, we all really like him to be dashing, camp and mustache-twirling.

Being a huge Lovecraft fan, I really like the idea of Kronos and the Atlantis plot. Ancient gods are cool. Having Kronos become female at the end is really interesting. There seems to be almost the suggestion in Kronos' dialogue that s/he is a kind of divine representation of time itself.

The story is hardly perfect. Like many Pertwee stories, it is far too long. Katy Manning has some awful dialogue (though I do like the "How about, 'curses foiled again'" line). The Atlantis set looks woefully cheap and small.

The minotaur is a dreadful creation. One almost wishes it was the Nimon. I find it strange that a half-man, half-bull would take the trouble to put on a loincloth and a pair of shoes. He is not even in a proper labyrinth. He is just there for a filler moment.

Stuart and Ruth, the two researchers have been dismissed as really dreadful supporting characters. They are actually not that bad. If anybody says they are the worst supporting characters in Dr. Who, they have obviously not seen many stories.

The bit with the Roundheads is rather disastrous. Why does the battle last so long when it is Automatic weapons against Flintlocks?

For all its faults though, The Time Monster is so full of a spirit of fun that it is impossible for me to dislike it.

Its nice to see Ingrid Pitt in a decent role. She is hardly the greatest actress to appear in Doctor Who, but she makes a good impression here.

Latest DWM Comic Strip

Shoes Off At The Door, Please: Doctor Who Comic Strip

Sunday 8 August 2010

My Position On UNIT Dating

A large number of Doctor Who stories involve an organisation called the United Nations Intelligence Task Force (UNIT) that was set up to combat extraterrestrial menaces. The Doctor acted as their scientific advisor. The bulk of these stories are found in the John Pertwee/ Third Doctor era, though Invasion, the first UNIT story involved the Second Doctor and the Seventh Doctor assisted UNIT in Battlefield.

A big controversy amongst Doctor Who fans concerns when the UNIT stories are set. We could spend ages talking about onscreen fashions, the use of decimal or non-decimal currency, regulation haircuts or the layout of the London Underground, but it is best that we focus on the dates that are given onscreen. These are contradictory and leave us with a choice of three views of when the UNIT stories take place:

View 1: 1979 (The Invasion) - c.1985 (Seeds of Doom)

On this view the UNIT stories take place in the eighties. The main evidence for this view is that The Abominable Snowman was set in 1935. Professor Travers says in The Web of Fear that the events of that story took place 'over forty years ago.' The clear conclusion is that The Web of Fear is set in 1975 or some time after. The Invasion is set 3-4 years after The Web of Fear, making 1979 UNIT Year 1.

It has been suggested that the 'over forty years' is an off the cuff estimate of how much time has passed. Lance Parkin in AHistory rightly rejects that dismissal of the View 1 date:

"This line of thought usually leads to 44 being added to 1935 to get 1967 or 1968, and liberal use of the phrase 'rounding up."

This view is further supported by indications that the production team intended that the Season 7 stories be set in the near future. UNIT wear futuristic uniforms in Ambassadors of Death and the level of technology shown is in advance of the early Seventies. Most notably, the British Space Program has been sending manned missions to Mars in Ambassadors of Death. I find it much easier to believe that a successful British space program could people on Mars in the Eighties than in the Seventies. The importance of the space program must not be understated. It does appear that in the Doctor Who universe the Apollo landing took place in 1969 and not any earlier (Blink, also Ben and Polly from 1966 did not appear to be aware that the Moon landing had occurred in their time). It is hard to imagine succesful Mars missions in less than five years of the Apollo landing.

For this reason, I am convinced that View 1 is correct and the UNIT stories take place in the Eighties. One interesting implication is that some of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Doctor's visits to Eighties earth may take place while other Doctor's are active on earth with UNIT.

But we have to consider other possibilities.

View 2: c.1974 (The Invasion) - 1980 (Seeds of Doom)

In Pyramids of Mars, Sarah Jane Smith states that she is from 1980, presumably meaning the last time she was on earth in Terror of the Zygons. The UNIT events take place over a period of 6-8 years. That makes UNIT Year 1 approximately 1974. Inevitably this contradicts the previous date given by Professor Travers.

It has been suggested that Sarah may simply be rounding off, but to my mind this is a little bit odd. If I left earth to travel with the Doctor today, I would be very concerned that I got back to 2010 and not 2007!

View 3: c.1968 (The Invasion)- c.1975 (Seeds of Doom)

Mawdryn Undead states that the Brigadier retired before 1977. That makes the UNIT era contemporary with the broadcasting of the stories.

There is no two ways about this, Mawdryn Undead contradicts both Web of Fear and Pyramids of Mars. Interestingly, script editor Eric Saward confessed in an interview that the 1977 date in Mawdryn Undead was a mistake.

The majority of fans seem to favour View 3 and the majority of Doctor Who New Adventures and Past Doctor Adventures favour the UNIT stories being set at time of broadcast. The Virgin Missing Adventure Millennial Rites is an exception, however, and puts the UNIT stories in the Eighties (where they belong!).

Lawrence Miles makes much of fashion, pointing out that Sarah does not dress like she comes from 1980 in any UNIT stories, but she certainly does in the spin-off K9 and Company, set in 1981. I don't think this gets us anywhere (though the K9 and Company issue is a problem for View 1 and to an extent View 2). If technology is different in the Whoniverse, then so can fashion. Or maybe we can just smile at the fashion issue, just as we smile at Silurians with zips on their skin or Toberman being lifted up on visible strings.

We have to accept that we have to choose between three competing dates. I would suggest that we should give priority to the Web of Fear date. We should look to how UNIT was originally conceived. It makes perfect sense for the production team to opt for a near future setting for the show in Season 7 as it would allow for flexibility about political events and allow for the use of futuristic technology in keeping with the format of Doctor Who. Admittedly, the production team moved away from a near future setting towards a more contemporary feel in the later John Pertwee stories, but the UNIT setting was clearly originally conceived differently.

Mawdryn Undead and even Pyramids of Mars ought not to be given priority in determining UNIT dating for the simple reason that UNIT was not a regular feature of the program at the time of these two stories. UNIT had faded into the background at the time. At the time when UNIT was developing and a fresh idea, it was intended to be futuristic.