Sunday 30 December 2012

TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 1: William Hartnell, by Phil Sandifer

You may have enjoyed reading TARDIS Eruditorum, the blog of Dr Phil Sandifer. The first two volumes of his blog archives are now available in print, covering the First Doctor and Second Doctor eras respectively. We may hope that the next volumes will soon find themselves in print.

TARDIS Eruditorum attempts to chart the development of Doctor Who as a cultural text from An Unearthly Child to the BBC Wales series. I did wonder at one time whether this project was really worthwhile after the very exhaustive About Time, by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles. However, Sandifer offers analysis of the Doctor Who stories that is a good deal more thoughtful and rather less hurried than that of the About Time books.

Sandifer began his Doctor Who project after graduating with his PhD and finding that job opportunities in his chosen field were rather scarce. I can identify with Sandifer, as I also gained a PhD and then found it to have limited currency in the employment market. Thankfully, I found an alternative career working with drug users and alcoholics.

The blog is written in a somewhat intellectual style. Occasionally, Sandifer loses me, but this tends to be when he gets into discussion with fellow intellectuals in the comment section. He also writes from a strongly left of centre position. Sometimes his socialism can be irritating, but I'm happy to read writers who don't share my conservatism.

That you can read the TARDIS Eruditorum blog for free rather raises the question of why one would want to buy a printed copy. I have no regrets about buying the book and plan to buy future volumes. The book contains some great bonus material, including fascinating essays and some reviews of spin-off material not covered on the blog.

In dealing with the Hartnell material, Sandifer charts the appearance in the show of those things that make the series Doctor Who as we know it- the Doctor's need for companions and his discovery that there are monsters that must be fought. He has a lot to say about what he calls the 'Problem of Susan' (named from the interesting but problematic short story by Neil Gaiman). By this he means textual difficulties inherent in Susan's character which ultimately resulted in her complete disappearance from the show. This ties into wider difficulties connected to the sexuality of female companions in Doctor Who.

Sandifer makes a powerful case that there are no pre-Unearthly Child adventures. He argues that the character we see in that first serial is utterly unequipped to be the Doctor. It is only his interaction with Ian and Barbara that make him into the heroic figure we see in later stories. This was argued on the blog, but is given further exploration in an essay on the Doctor's travels before Totters Lane. I tend to agree with Sandifer on this, though this is problematic for me because I view The Infinity Doctors as a pre-Unearthly Child story (and not an Unbound story). I think Sandifer's thesis of an unheroic older Hartnell is not incompatible with him being a bit more adventurous in the days when he was the younger Hartnell Doctor that I believe we see in The Infinity Doctors. Sandifer has not yet covered The Infinity Doctors, so we shall have to wait to see his view of how that story fits into the Doctor Who mythos.

I very much enjoyed Sandifer's discussion of The Web Planet, seeing it not as a disaster, but as one of the high points of the show. He sees in that serial a delightful exploration of just how weird and unearthly Doctor Who can get. He also joins the chorus of those of us who love the much maligned The Gunfighters. He finds much value in the Dalek spin-off material of the Sixties, arguing that it enables us to imagine the grandeur of the Doctor Who universe beyond the confines of the screen.

In an interesting bonus essay, Sandifer considers the question of whether William Hartnell was a bigot. He condemns two stories in particular for their racial subtext, The Ark and The Celestial Toymaker. It's hard to argue with Sandifer's condemnation of the racism of The Celestial Toymaker. He is appalled that the Celestial Toymaker has been re-used several times by Big Finish. I understand his anger, but I also understand why the character has returned. There is a such a strong sense of nostalgia about Michael Gough's Toymaker. He also cuts a very striking visual image. Yes, it might be racist to have a baddie looking like a Chinese Mandarin, but it is an undeniably impressive costume choice.

Maybe it's because I'm a right-wing bastard, but The Ark is very dear to me. I do think that The Ark can be defended against Sandifer's Post-Colonialist criticisms. Sandifer's reading rests upon the assumption that the Monoid's negative qualities are inherent in their nature and are not a result of their treatment by the humans. I think the Monoid tyranny can be seen as generated by the intolerance and stupidity of the Guardians, an hypothesis that the Doctor seems to allude to in that story. Like it or not, The Ark seems to reflect reality to some degree, as colonialism was often replaced by hideously corrupt and brutal dictatorships. I have heard people who once condemned Ian Smith as a racist bigot admit that in hindsight his opposition to majority rule in Rhodesia made sense.

Sandifer feels so strongly about The Celestial Toymaker and The Ark that he wants to exclude them from the canon of Doctor Who stories. This is unsurprising, as he has argued on his blog against the idea of a 'Whoniverse,' that is, a single unified fictional universe in which all Doctor Who stories take place. He seems to favour instead a canon in the artistic sense of an anthology of recognised texts. This is not my philosophy. Seeing Doctor Who as a unified fictional universe is an important part of how I consume and enjoy Doctor Who. I prefer a canon that is inclusive of as many texts as possible, including more problematic material like that of the Sixties TV Comic. This raises the question of what I would do with Doctor Who stories that contain racism or sexism. For me the answer to that is to regard such texts as unrealiable narrations of the events. Every story is true, but the details may not be accurate. Racially problematic materials can be seen in the same way as zips on the Silurian costumes or Ace remembering Paradise Towers.

For me, the most welcome addition in the book was the essay on whether Doctor Who is the name of the titular character. Yet I was irritated by one statement. Sandifer says "The problem is that there are no dedicated fans advocating for his name being Doctor Who." I am a dedicated fan and I have argued on this blog that his name really is Doctor Who. Maybe I should start referring to the character as such, though this could cause confusion as to whether I am referring to the character or the show.

His glorious essay on The Chase has to be read to be believed. Who could imagine that this silly story was about deconstructing the narrative essence of Doctor Who? That's much more interesting than saying it's 'silly but fun.'

I would heartily recommend Doctor Who fans to buy this book and also the second volume that is now available.

Tuesday 25 December 2012

The Snowmen

*Spoiler alert*

Watching The Snowmen made me realize what a shallow Doctor Who fan I am. After watching most of the story with distaste, I suddenly got excited when I found out that the Great Intelligence was back. Of course, it is difficult to see how this story fits in with the continuity for The Abominable Snowmen, but I'm sure there is solution if you have time to think of one.

Reading other reviews, it seems that The Snowmen has gone down very well and I've seen little criticism of it voiced. I may well find myself being a lonely voice in saying I couldn't stand it.

Clara, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman looks set to be the most annoying companion ever. I hated every minute of her onscreen presence. I can't see why other reviewers seem to like her. In the role of both Victorian governess and tavern wench, Coleman is utterly unconvincing. She is just playing on overdone cliches. She is a walking Victorian trope for a theme park version of the Victorian era. Added to this, Clara is even more poorly characterised than other Moffat characters. A posh governess who moonlights as a low-life barmaid? Why? Once again, it looks like we are going to get a big mystery story arc about Clara's identity. Didn't we have enough of that with River Song?

Likewise, Dr Simeon, the human villain has no real identifiable motivation. He was just lonely and unhappy as a child, so he aided an evil alien entity. Richard E Grant's performance is as dull as his voice acting was in Scream of the Shalka. He acts very cold and menacing, but he brings no subtlety or depth to the character. Thankfully, Ian McKellan's vocal performance as the Great Intelligence is a good deal better.

The monstrous snowmen looked alright, if a little cartoonish, but their concept seemed a little too similar to the Weeping Angels and the Silence. This only adds to the sense that this story is a collection of Moffat set-pieces.

The Snowmen also sees the return of Vastra and Jenny, along with Strax the friendly Sontaran. I don't like any of these characters. They feel contrived and none has been given a strong enough background for them to make any real sense within Doctor Who continuity. I didn't care for the topical bombshell of gay marriage being dropped into this story either. That was really not necessary.

I'm getting a bit tired of the routine of the Doctor becoming cold, uncaring and reclusive following the departure of a companion. It's getting tedious and seems to throw out the development of the Doctor's character over the course of the show. In any case, this attempt to give the story a dark and angsty edge is rather undermined by the excessive and rather overdone humour of the story. If Moffat wanted to give us serious drama, he really should have trimmed away some of the gags here.

I mentioned earlier my childish thrill at the return of the Great Intelligence. One can't help feeling reminded of the return of old baddies like Omega and the Sea Devils in the 80s. With its re-use of characters, its heavy exposition and heavy reliance on previous stories, The Snowmen is very much reminiscent of the continuity-obsessed excesses of 80s Doctor Who.

I'll admit that this story is a good deal better than the last two Christmas specials, yet that is hardly good ground to build on. I don't hold out any hope for much improvement in the next season.

Saturday 22 December 2012

The Krotons

"The hoy brains hiv bin kiptured!"

I am sure I am not the only fan who watches The Krotons and finds himself wanting to say everything in a Kroton voice. The Krotons' mock South African accents have me in stiches for a good deal of this serial. In the unlikely event of their ever returning to the televised show, I do hope they don't change this detail!

There is a lot more to watching Doctor Who than simply enjoying silly-looking monsters, but sometimes this can be a big part of it. For me, The Krotons is a story where that basic enjoyment of silly monsters really kicks in. The Krotons are one of the silliest looking monster races ever to appear in Doctor Who. I love the way they prod and pinch Jamie with their little pincers! Nevertheless, the Krotons, despite their ridiculous appearance, are quite an imaginatively conceived alien race. They are grown from crystalline matter, which rather sets them apart. They are also very cruel and brutal, despite their silliness. This is why their return in Lawrence Miles' novel Alien Bodies worked so well. Miles was able to capture perfectly the tension between the silly appearance of the Krotons and their disturbingly violent nature. The scene in Alien Bodies where a Kroton is destroying a Dalek is a very memorable and haunting moment.

The Krotons might seem a forgettable story if not for two important facts. Firstly, it is the first Doctor Who story to be written by Robert Holmes and secondly, it features the first appearance of Philip Madoc. As a Robert Holmes script, The Krotons comes across as rather unremarkable. It certainly lacks the wit and exuberance of his later work. Some of the ideas in this story would later find their way into Mysterious Planet. Philip Madoc's appearance here has all the charm and quality of his later appearances. He injects layers of depth into his performance that are entirely lacking from the other members of the guest cast. In particular, its fascinating to watch how he reacts to the dawning realisation that it is safe to go into the wasteland.

The snake-like electronic probe is an impressive effect. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the visual designs are a good deal less impressive. The Kroton's ship is supposed to be grown from chrystalline matter, yet it looks like any old metal spaceship. It really ought to look like Omega's palace in The Three Doctors. The model shot of the Gond's village also fails to match up with the interior sets.

The regulars are on top form here and the script offers some great material for the Doctor and Zoe. We have some priceless moments between the two of them, such as their rivalry in the Hall of Learning and their pretend bickering in the Krotons' ship. Jamie is good, but he suffers for having been separated from the Doctor and Zoe.

My big problem with this serial is that the planet is too much like a typical poorly realised world. Like so many Star Trek episodes, this is a planet with a population of ten people all living within one square mile. Remarkably, the much hated Dominators actually does a much better job of realising an alien world. An easily missed piece of dialogue in The Dominators mentions fires, floods and earthquakes. For all its apparent dullness, there are natural disasters on Dulkis. It is a planet where things happen. The Krotons does not give any sense of what life is like for the Gonds beyond the story.

Monday 17 December 2012

The Daleks: The Destroyers (Big Finish Lost Story)

The Destroyers was an unmade pilot episode for Terry Nation's dream of a Dalek TV series. It was produced as an audio by Big Finish, with Jean Marsh starring as Sara Kingdom and the narrator. It is included in the Second Doctor Lost Stories box set.

Given that this story features no deceased Doctor, we might have expected it to be produced as a standard full-cast audio drama. However, Big Finish opted not to do this, as they wanted to keep it as faithful as possible to Terry Nation's very visual imaginings. This audio therefore combines a full cast with narration based on Terry Nation's stage directions. These stage directions are really well written and dripping with melodrama. This is a decision that really makes sense.

This is in every way a Terry Nation story. That means that we get a rather dull and unimaginative plot that is essentially a collection of his action set pieces. We simply get the characters moving between one peril and another. All of the Terry Nation tropes are present- a jungle, carnivorous plants, tough macho types, monsters and caves. The characters lack any real depth.

I had expected Sara Kingdom to be a bit of a Mary Sue in this (plenty of people have noticed the similarity of her name to the writers), but her vulnerable side is very much on display. That ought to be a good thing, though Nation possibly overdoes this; I would expect a Space Security Service agent to come across as a little bit tougher than she appears in this. Interestingly, Sara is given a new brother. She seems a good deal more affectionate towards this brother than she was to Brett Vyonn! One gets the impression that Nation had no interest in tying this story to Doctor Who continuity.

Jean Marsh does a great job of playing both Sara Kingdom and narrating the story. She makes these two roles distinct by using two quite different voices. She puts a good deal of expression into her reading of Nation's stage directions. It makes a massive contrast with Frazer Hines' bland and slightly sarcastic narration on the BBC soundtracks.

This is by no means a great story. It is basically a Doctorless version of all the Nation-by-numbers that we have seen. Yet I am glad that Big Finish made this. It gives us a brief glimpse into a series that never was. The retro Sixties style theme tune is great too.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Prison in Space (Big Finish Lost Story)

Prison in Space is an unmade story by Dick Sharples that was considered for Season 6. It was adapted as an audio by Simon Guerrier and included in the Big Finish Second Doctor box set. It was narrated by Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury, with additional voice acting from Susan Brown as Chairman Babs.

In the second volume of TARDIS Eruditorium, Philip Sandifer includes a bonus essay on Prison in Space. He argues that this story is sexist garbage that was very sensibly rejected. He suggests that the decision by Big Finish to recreate it was unwise and in rather poor taste. As reactionary as I am, I think Dr Phil is absolutely right. This story is an appalling piece of sexist trash and I cannot think of any way in which it could be justified. Which goes to show that Doctor Who fans like me will buy anything.

This story is about a future in which feminists have taken over the world and made men into second class citizens. Rebellious men are locked up in the space prison. Call me politically correct if you like, but in a world where millions of women are the victims of domestic and sexual violence, the whole story just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. While I disagree with the ideology of Feminism and hold pretty conservative views about society, I think joking about crazy feminists is just a way to ignore the realities of real injustices against women.

I wondered if the plot would be adapted a little to make it more palatable, but there was no evidence of this. I don't even detect any hint of irony in this production. Having Jamie give Zoe a spanking to teach her a woman's place is not funny; it is completely tasteless and a slap in the face of everything which Doctor Who is about.

The tragedy is that Prison in Space is actually a really great production. The adaption is very well crafted and uses descriptions that work on the imagination beautifully. Wendy and Frazer give great vocal performances with a lovely immitation of Patrick Troughton. It's just a shame these strong production values are wasted on such a worthless story.

Friday 7 December 2012

The Fragile Yellow Arc of Fragrance, by Morris Farhi (Big Finish Lost Story)

The Fragile Yellow Arc of Fragrance is the second story in the Big Finish First Doctor box set. It is an unused story that has been adapted as a talking book by Nigel Robinson. It is narrated by Carole Ann Ford, with additional voice acting by John Dorney and Helen Goldwyn.

Don't you just love that title, The Fragile Yellow Arc of Fragrance? It sounds so beautiful, so elegant and rather mystical. It's a title that really captures the feel of the story. This is definitely a story about beauty, about love, but it is a story with a gentle sadness and a sense of tragedy to it. It is simply plotted, but it is both effectively realized and imaginatively conceived.

This story is a good deal shorter than most Doctor Who stories. It also has a strikingly different narrative structure to other stories at the time. While other First Doctor stories have the TARDIS crew exploring a new world at the beginning, this story is set after the crew have already got to know the new world and are thinking of leaving. We also see the Doctor departing from conventions of the time and giving a very proud guided tour of his ship.

The Fragile Yellow Arc of Fragrance is about a perfect world in which people live in perfect aesthetic harmony. Yet these people are only able to fall in love once. Unrequited love inevitably leads to a tragic death. One of the inhabitants of this world has the misfortune to fall in love with Barbara, who is unable to return his affection. It has something of a fairy tale quality (by which I don't mean Matt Smith pretending to be Mary Poppins! That Moffat stuff has nothing to do with proper fairy tales). This is a far cry from the science fiction of later stories. The story is also very heavy in metaphor, which reminds me a little of the Seventh Doctor era.

Carole Ann Ford does a marvellous job of evoking Jacqueline Hill and conceiving Barbara. Yet she is also able to re-create the energy and immature passion of Susan. I love the way she leaps to the conclusion that Barbara must stay or else. John Dorney is very good as Rhythm, although if you listen to this after Farewell, Great Macedon, you will inevitable be reminded of Alexander the Great.

This beautiful but bittersweet little story is the perfect follow-up to the grand epic tragedy of Farewell, Great Macedon.

Monday 3 December 2012

Farewell, Great Macedon, by Morris Farhi (Big Finish Lost Story)

Farewell, Great Macedon is an audio story based on an unused script that was written at the time Marco Polo was broadcast. It is narrated by William Russell and Carole Anne Ford, with additional voice acting from John Dorney as Alexander the Great. This story was included in Big Finish's First Doctor box set. This script has been adapted by Nigel Robinson, a wise choice given the many Target novelizations he has written.

I am amazed at the ambition and vision of Big Finish in setting out to create a six-part Hartnell historical in the absence of the lead actor himself. Farewell, Great Macedon is a triumph in its success in capturing the feel and tone of this genre. Listening to it feels so much like the sensation of listening to the reconstruction of a wiped serial, except without the pain of staring at unmoving photos.

There is a sense of inevitable sadness in listening to William Russell and Carole Ann Ford perform with the absence of William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill. Yet they do so quite admirably. The presence of the Hartnell Doctor seems to fill this whole work, not just through Russell's delightful imitation of Hartnell, but also through the way the dialogue captures his eccentricity. His dismissal of the suggestion that the TARDIS crew are in heaven because he does not know the way there is lovely. The moment where he walks enthusiastically over hot coals is very memorable. I laughed my head off when the Doctor shows a little half-heartedness at the notion of sacrificing himself for Ian.

Perhaps the story struggles to capture Barbara as effectively as it does the First Doctor. Carole Ann Ford tries hard to imitate Jacqueline Hill, but she is not so easily impersonated as Hartnell. Yet despite her manifest absence, Barbara has some wonderful moments throughout the story. Her knowledge of history makes her place in this story a tragic one. Knowing full well that the death of Alexander is imminent, she cannot bear to remain in Babylon.

John Dorney is suitably impressive as Alexander of Macedon. While he is portrayed as a man given to wine and strong in his temper, he is also portrayed as visionary and a humanist who longs to unite mankind in peace and brotherhood. His death is presented as a tragedy. Perhaps the story makes a little too much of this tragedy. Alexander created the largest empire known to the ancient near east. It is remarkable that he achieved so much, rather than that he did not achieve more. Furthermore, Alexander made a lasting impact on history through the spread of Hellenistic civilization.

I did find one moment in the story irritating from an historical point of view. This was when Ian offered a rather simple argument against slavery and Alexander and two of his generals offer agreement. Really? There whole society was built around the idea that their is a fundamental difference between freemen and slaves and they just drop it after hearing one argument from a foreigner? I was disappointed at the writer's failure to empathize with those he is writing about.

The plotting of this story, even by the standards of the Hartnell era is a little simplistic. The TARDIS crew arrive, meet Alexander, murders happen and the team find themselves accused. There is a certain sense of deja vu in hearing the regulars get accused of another murder and this is made worse by the fact that we see it coming from the first episode. I also find it hard to believe that so much lengthy dialogue would be included in a televised story, particularly the huge chunks of speech we get at the end. Yet this does not all detract from the beauty and nobility of the story and its dialogue. This is historical Doctor Who done beautifully.

What is especially fascinating is how the story deals with history and whether it can be changed. Following the lead of The Aztecs, Farewell, Great Macedon states in no uncertain terms that history can never be changed. Yet surprisingly, this does not deter the Doctor from interfering. The Doctor feels a sense of duty to help Alexander, even knowing that it is pointless if history decrees his death. I think this is a very elegant approach and helps to explain how time works in Doctor Who. It has often been pointed out that the Doctor does not seem to afraid to meddle in future human history or on alien worlds. But is he really working against the history of those events? We need not assume that if the Doctor cannot change history, he should be deterred from getting involved in it. If his interventions work toward the flow of history, so much the better, if his interventions fail, it does not matter; he cannot alter the course of history. If he cannot change history, he can do no harm by interfering.

This story is a worthy recreation of a lost era.

Sunday 2 December 2012

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

You're not only a scoundrel and a meddling fool, but you're also a crushing bore!

Greatest Show in the Galaxy is a story that feels utterly removed from anything that has gone before in Doctor Who. There are similarities with Warrior's Gate, Kinda and Paradise Towers, but Greatest Show in the Galaxy is quite unique in its approach to storytelling and in it's visual effect.

The Psychic Circus may not be the most impressive looking big top, but this story has a visual look that captures the eye delightfully and makes vibrant use of colour. There are many symbolic flourishes, such as the mystical eye symbols and the hearse and funereal outfits used by the clowns when they go out hunting. The costume work is among the best of the era, even if we have to forgive the less inspiring werewolf effect on Mags.

The plot structure of this story is very unusual and in places it feels a little awkward, yet the sense of uncertainty means that it does not fail to induce excitement and tension. A lot in this story does not make a lot of sense. However, it is quite different from Ghost Light. Ghost Light was confusing on the first viewing, but everything in that story can be pieced together if one makes the effort to watch it several times and listen to the dialogue carefully. Greatest Show in the Galaxy offers no explanations. The reader is left to interpret the significance of much of it.

It's fascinating how so much of the Sylvester McCoy era makes use of a metaphorical depth in its storytelling. We have all that stuff about 'undercurrents' in Curse of Fenric, the power of life in Delta and the Bannermen and Survival's cryptic theme of menstruation. However, it is Greatest Show that really goes to town on metaphor. None of the characters feel like real people, but more like archetypes. Much fan discussion of the story has centred on what the individual characters represent. Do the Gods of Ragnorak represent BBC executives or the public? Does Captain Cook represent the show's past or Star Trek?

While much of the theme is left uncertain and for viewers to puzzle out for themselves, the story most definitely raises a question about the values of the Sixties. The Circus people are hippies who have betrayed what they once stood for and sold out. One suspects that the targets here are individuals like Richard Branson and George Lucas, figures who rose up from the counter-culture to become commercial masterminds. Doctor Who is itself a product of the Sixties and the story throw open the question- has Doctor Who gone wrong? Has it become pointlessly violent like Nord, or obsessed with its past like Captain Cook? Is it hopelessly out of touch, like Whizzkid?

Captain Cook the Intergalactic Explorer is a brilliantly conceived character in that he represents a kind of pseudo-Doctor. He is a restless explorer with a boundless curiosity. He travels with a punky young woman who has a dangerous side. He is also a figure with somewhat colonial leanings, reflecting the Doctor's Edwardian tendencies. The Seventh Doctor would eventually take to wearing a safari suit himself in the New Adventure novels. With his obsession with past adventures, the Captain is Doctor Who gone wrong, sadly like too much of 80s Doctor Who (though the Whizzkids of fandom probably have an inflated view of much of 70s Doctor Who). T.K. McKenna brings him to life marvelously, though this unfortunately makes it a disappointment that he dies. It would have been nice to have seen a return from him. My favorite moment in the story has to be the look on the Captain's face when the Doctor calls him a 'crushing bore.' He looks so surprised and so furious.

Captain Cook's companion, Mags, is equally fascinating. She clearly disagrees with the Capatain's methods, but she sticks around with him and takes his orders. It's never altogether clear what Mags thinks of him. I can't help thinking that they are probably sleeping together. If the Captain represents slavish obsession with continuity, then Mags represents Doctor Who's capacity to terrify. The show has always aimed to scare and thus her character survives. It is noticeable that Mags is dressed like a Goth. As the Seventh Doctor era shifted into the New Adventure era, Doctor Who would develop close ties with the Goth subculture.

There have always been elements of Doctor Who that lie more in the realm of fantasy than science fiction- the Land of Fiction, the Celestial Toymaker and the Mara. Yet it is in the Seventh Doctor era, that the show makes a conscious shift to include overtly supernatural elements. Greatest Show is very much a story that is more fantasy than science fiction. The only real technological element here are the robots. We get no explanation as to how the kites work or how the ringmaster and Morganna disappear. Likewise the Gods of Rrrragnorrrak seem to be real gods. There is no suggestion that they are just aliens like Sutekh (even if they look a bit like him). According to All-Consuming Fire and Millennial Rites, they are Old Ones, powerful beings from a primordial pre-universe.

Sylvester McCoy gives a really great performance in this story. It is here that we really see the 'Dark Doctor' coming to life more than ever before. He appears to manipulate Ace into going to the circus, he seems to have an unstated agenda and he clearly knows a lot more about what is going on than he is letting on. We get a definite sense that what we are seeing is only a part of some larger cosmic game that the Doctor is playing. The Doctor's statement that he has been battling the Gods of Ragnorak throughout time and space is interesting. It is very similar to the way that we meet Fenric in the next season, a villain who turns out to be the Doctor's worst enemy, even though we had never heard of him before. This certainly throws a lot of mystery about the Doctor's activity. However, it could be that the Doctor is referring to Great Old Ones in general, and so would include encounters with the Great Intelligence (Yog-Sothoth) and the Animus (Lloigor). Though it was actually a mistake, this serial gives us the most inconic image of the Seventh Doctor ever, when he calmly walks away from the exploding circus. This image does so much better at demonstrating the presence and power of the Doctor than any rant by Matt Smith about how impressive he is and how scared the monsters ought to be of him.

We are treated to a lovely score by Mark Ayres. I found the rapping a bit annoying at first, but it grew on me. It sort of adds to the surreal atmosphere of the circus. A mention must go to the Chief Clown, played by Ian Reddington. Every moment that he appears onscreen is a pleasure, with his expressive hand gestures and his two distinct modes of speaking. I love the nervous tremor in his voice, when he is speaking without the clown persona.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is a fantastic example of how Doctor Who can triumph over a troubled production. It is not perfect and is not the greatest Seventh Doctor story, yet it has a brilliance that seems to defy categories and draws the viewer into an unearthly and surreal world of its own.

Friday 23 November 2012

UNIT: Dominion (Big Finish audio)

* Massive great spoiler alert!*

When the announcement was made about a year ago that Tracey Childs would be reprising her role as Elizabeth Klein, I was absolutely over the moon. I totally fell in love with the character of Klein in her trilogy.

UNIT: Dominion is possibly one of the most ambitious projects of Big Finish. This four-part audio series features not only the return of Elizabeth Klein, but also a new team of UNIT, the later era Seventh Doctor re-united with Raine and a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor. Furthermore, this unlikely team are faced against a bewildering array of extra-dimension alien beings across several international locations. This is a story on an epic scale that could never have been realized on the small screen.

As anyone who heard the Klein trilogy would have expected, Tracey Childs puts in a glorious performance as our Aryan heroine. This is not the Nazi Klein we have previously seen, but a Klein who worked as scientific advisor to UNIT. She is portrayed as psychologically troubled, haunted by the 'Umbrella Man' and the sense that he is spying on her.

I had assumed that the UNIT Klein is the version of Klein that was mean to exist in our universe and which had existed prior to the Second World War when the timeline diverged. This is not made clear in this audio. No details of Klein's past in this timeline are given, leaving open the bizarre possibility that she just materialised in this timeline as somebody working for UNIT. I do hope the writers did not intend such a notion. Dating UNIT stories opens up a minefield of complexities, but the timing of this story is left vague, leaving open the possibility that this is the same Klein who was presumably born in the 1930s (in my fan fiction I pegged Klein as born in 1935). This story is clearly set before Battlefield. There is no mention of internet phenomena such as Google. The only certainty is that it is set after 1985, as Sergeant Wilson is pictured holding an SA 80 rifle.

On the whole, Klein is written well. She may not be a Nazi, but she is cold and ruthless. Her interaction with Raine shows she likes being the alpha bitch. This is softened by her real emotional problems as a result of her awareness of the Doctor. On the other hand, she does come across as a little two-dimensional at times. We are led to believe that she spends nearly all her life in a laboratory. Clearly she does not, as she obviously goes to the hairdressers to keep her helmet-shaped hair in trim. A few more details about Klein's life would help to humanize her a bit more.

The lack of detail about Klein touches on the other difficulty with the way the character is portrayed. She very much props up a rather sexist trope about powerful and successful women being lonely, isolated and frustrated. There is a definite cultural subtext here about women being unable to have a high-powered career without sacrificing a meaningful and well-adjusted personal life.

Alex McQueen plays the Other Doctor. The characters are led to believe that he is a future incarnation of the Doctor, until they discover the truth. You can certainly sympathize with them, McQueen gives an immensely Doctorish performance. I can't be the only listener who was expecting some really complicated explanation for the Other Doctor, probably involving parallel universes. The last thing I expected was for him to be the Master. Yes, the Master. An explanation so obvious that it does not occur to any sensible fan. It just shows that an old trick can work if it is done right. Remarkably, McQueen gives a performance as the Master which could almost equal those of Delgado. He is certainly the campest Master we have seen, yet he absolutely ruthless and cruel. He is the Master done right.

With Klein occupying the limelight, Raine is left a little in the shadow. I'll admit I am not a big fan of Raine. She comes across as too much of a generic companion. Yet Beth Chalmers still gives a good performance and works well as a contrast to Tracey Childs. I can see why Big Finish chose to run with Raine; they used her for 'Season 27' and they wanted to give her a comeback.

The UNIT we see here are not quite as Dad's Armyish as the Seventies UNIT, but both their commanders are rather inept. We are given a bit of emotional drama with Sgt Wilson, who is about to become a father. This might have come across as more refreshing if it were not for the irritating and sentimental obsession with fatherhood displayed in the last couple of Doctor Who seasons under Moffat.

Near the end of the story, Klein is injured by a gunshot and we are teased with the possibility that the character might be at an end. Yet she survives and we can hope that she will make another appearance with a revitalized UNIT team. My only hope is that they get Klein out of the laboratory a bit and give her a bit more of a life. Maybe even give her scene in an hairdressing salon!

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Separated at Birth? Elizabeth Klein and Martha Stewart

I love them both. Two powerful mature ladies.

Friday 16 November 2012

The Happiness Patrol

Like Delta and the Bannermen, the title of The Happiness Patrol is a reference to Indie music. This is just an example of the way the McCoy era exudes cool. No other era of Doctor Who has this sense of being in touch with pop culture.

As with so many Seventh Doctor stories, The Happiness Patrol completely divides fan opinion, with a large segment of fandom dismissing it for its camp excesses. My own opinion is that The Happiness Patrol is among the greatest of Doctor Who stories.

The Happiness Patrol is perhaps best remembered for the Kandyman. This Bertie Basset lookalike has drawn much mockery. Yet I would suggest that he is one of the greatest Doctor Who monsters ever created. Unlike so many other monsters, the Kandyman manages to avoid looking like a man in a suit. It's high pitched voice is delightfully sinister. A quite wonderful piece of terrifying surrealistic madness. He is also given a fascinating symbiotic relationship with his creator, Gilbert M.

Probably the greatest strength of this serial is how differently it looks and feels from other Doctor Who stories. It feels so fresh and original. It has a striking visual look with an immensely effective use of colour and shade. It also has a plot free from half-thought out hard Sci-Fi elements always end up creating confusion.

The subtext of The Happiness Patrol has been endlessly discussed and dissected by fans. Sheila Hancock is clearly imitating Margaret Thatcher and her husband is obviously Dennis. Yet the story is not simply a satire of Thatcherism. The references to townships echoes Apartheid South Africa and the disappearances bring up the spectre of South American dictatorships. Some have seen in it a subtext about homophobia. It is a multi-faceted story, but not one which becomes didactic or attempts to do too much as the audio Jubilee does.

What is particularly striking is how prophetic this story was. Not long after this story was broadcast, the Communist dictatorships would fall in a similarly bloodless manner to the downfall of Helen A's regime. People in these countries would simply get tired of doing what they were told and living under lies.

Sheila Hancock's performance as Helen A is very impressive. It is rather a shame that she was herself dismissive of the story. It is very clear from her portrayal that Helen A genuinely believes in her ideology of forced happiness. I also very much like Priscilla P. She seems to be the only inhabitant of Terr Alpha who tries to look happy. This perhaps fits with her fanatatical nature. Sylvester McCoy's performance shows considerable improvement from that of the previous season, even if it does become a little bizarre towards the climax.

The sets have been criticized as looking tacky, but I quite like them. They have the look of a faded, worn-out old theatre. It is interesting how the very stagey, simplistic sets are reminiscent of the less polished sets of the Hartnell era. The costumes are wonderful; they are so colourful. Of course, it is absurd that the Happiness Patrol dress that way. That is the point. Dictatorships always have something ridiculous about them. Just look at the way the North Koreans celebrate the birthdays of their leaders. The music also deserves a lot of praise, with both the lift Muzak and the bluesy harmonica. I especially like the moment when Earl switches to a happy tune as the Happiness Patrol go by.

I am glad that Helen A is not killed in the end. In a Hinchcliffe or Saward story, she would died an horrible death. Here she is defeated by her own inconsistency. It is a beautifully poignant moment when she weeps at the death of her pet. Presumably, she is tried and imprisoned for her crimes later.

The story suffers a little in places due to editing, but on the whole the fast pace works very well and it is a great example of how three-episode stories can be effective. The Happiness Patrol is one of the highlights of 80s Doctor Who and one of the greatest of Doctor Who serials.

Friday 9 November 2012

Arrived This Week!

My copy of UNIT: Dominion arrived this week. After my experience with Counter-Measures, I should have known better than to pre-order this release from Amazon UK. As with Counter-Measures, the order ended up being delayed. I was told it would taken another month to arrive. I hastily cancelled the order and got it directly from Big Finish.

I have been eagerly anticipating the return of Tracey Childs as Elizabeth Klein all year. I totally fell in love with Klein after listening to the Klein trilogy. I predict that this series will retcon all my Klein fan fiction though.

Wednesday 7 November 2012


You know, the really big problem I have with Dragonfire is that it is set on an ice planet, yet nobody gives the slightest indication that they are cold. This might seem like a small fault, yet it is glaring all the more for the fact that this story is so visually strong. Dragonfire is blessed with beautiful sets and pretty decent effects that have been achieved on a woefully low budget. Yet the failure of direction displayed in the lack of 'cold acting' lets them all go to waste. If ice does not feel cold, then it is just glass.

Dragonfire is most notable for its introduction of Ace. Ace is a refreshing in having much more depth of personality than other characters. The moment at which she is tempted to serve Kane as a mercenary is beautifully done. Yet Sophie Aldred never really convinces us in her portrayal of a rough teenage girl. Aldred was always at her best when she forgot about trying to sound like an aggressive working class girl and just played Ace as a slightly otherworldly middle-class girl. That was not how the character was supposed to be, but it suited Aldred far better. Aldred saying "I don't need no mum and dad" just sounds embarrassing.

As well as the arrival of Ace, we get the departure of Mel. Her decision to leave the TARDIS is as hurried and unprepared for as that of any companion. It is slightly disappointing because she has such a great rapport with Ace. Perhaps a few adventures featuring Ace and Mel together might have made the latter more fondly remembered. Note that Mel is wearing combat boots with red laces. Everybody in this era of Doctor Who seems to have a slightly Punky appearance, even Mel.

The return of Sabalom Glitz is a disappointment in a season remarkably free from past references. His transition to lovable rogue is rather jarring, even if he has a good chemistry with McCoy.

The plot leaves an awful lot to be desired. One might have thought that after over a thousand years, Kane would have found a way to escape or at least to find the secret of the key hidden in the dragon creature. It does not feel very well thought-out. We also get some appalling direction, such as the literal cliffhangar with the Doctor.

McCoy does quite a bit of clowning in this story. I think on the whole his performance was better in Delta and the Bannermen. However, I love the moment when he regretfully tells Belazs that she will never be free from Kane. This is very reminiscent of the dark Doctor of Cat's Cradle: Warhead who passes judgement on characters in that book. His intellectual discussion with the guard is also a nice touch.

The multitude of film references in Dragonfire is very clever and works well with the strong visual elements of this story. It is just unfortunate that this story does not quite lift itself above mediocrity as Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen do. Dragonfire lacks both the sinister and surreal atmosphere of Paradise Towers and the joyous magic of Delta and the Bannermen.

Friday 2 November 2012

The Crystal Bucephalus by Craig Hinton (Virgin Missing Adventure)

The late Craig Hinton's novels are best remembered for their multitude of continuity references. Personally, I find these rather fun. They were rather well done in Millennial Rites, which I very much liked. They got a little silly in Quantum Archangel, but that novel was alright in places. The Crystal Bucephalus is perhaps most well known for offering an explanation for the absence of Kamelion for most of the stories of Season 21, as well as the change of look to the Console Room in The Five Doctors.

I read most of Crystal Bucephalus in one go. It has the makings of a very good Doctor Who novel. It handles the regulars very well and gives them a much needed temporal change of outfits. It has a fascinatingly soap opera feel, with an odd emphasis on the relationships between the non-returning characters. The premise of the Doctor investing in a time-travelling restaurant is an imaginative one. We also get some hints about the future destruction of Gallifrey and the Time Lords, which are poignant now that we have seen the new series. The influence of Douglas Adams in its themes is very apparent.

What lets down The Crystal Bucephalus is the unbelievably high volume of techno-babble. This could rival a Star Trek novel in its use of jargon. I'm afraid to say I found much of the plot practically incomprehensible. Coupled with this techno-jargon are a number of 'time-wimey' elements that typically add to the confusion.

Still, it has some fun moments and offers a somewhat different take on the team of the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Turlough than what we saw on screen. For instance, where on television, Tegan did a lot of very unfeasible running in high heels. Here, she does a Romana I and kicks them off to run about in her stocking feet!

Tuesday 23 October 2012

The Sensorites

Although a lot of fans hate The Sensorites, claiming it is a sleep-inducing plodder, I absolutely love it. It is one of those stories that I will defend whatever critics say.

The Sensorites has an element of nostalgia for me. The novelization was among the first Doctor Who books that I read at the age of nine. Like most I read, it was in the beautiful WH Allen hardback edition, borrowed from the local library. What is more I read it during my first holiday in France. I remember sitting outside my parents' caravan in the sunshine of Brittany, reading about the City Administrator's treachery, about Ian getting poisoned and the Doctor being given a stylish black cloak as a reward. It was all very charming stuff and I thoroughly enjoyed it then. Watching the DVD twenty-two years later, I still love this story.

Part of why I like this story is because it is very gentle. The story is about 'alien monsters' but they turn out to be relatively friendly. There is only one onscreen death and the villains are treated with mercy at the end. This contrasts with the morbid sadism of the Hinchliffe era and the pointless violence of the Saward era. The story is also quite radical for its time in that it has humans as the villains.

The most common complaint against The Sensorites is its slow pace. This is a charge that could be levelled against most Hartnell stories. Perhaps this is more noticeable with this serial because of its low level of violence. Another complaint is the round feet of the Sensorites themselves. I don't get this complaint at all; the point of the round feet is that they are not human. I think the Sensorite costumes are very effective.

Being one of the few fans of Susan, I particularly like the way this story, unlike the others of Season 1, makes good use of the character. She is given impressive telepathic powers, reflecting her ethereal alien quality and for once, she gets to stand up to her grandfather. It is sad that other writers could not do more with Susan. Notable also, is Susan's delightful line about her planet having a sky like a burnt orange and silver leaves on the trees. That line was used so hauntingly in the New Series.

The Sensorites should be regarded as one of the most creative and interesting stories of the Hartnell era.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Dr Who and the Daleks Cadet Sweet Cigarettes

Sweet cigarettes were one of those things that my mother disapproved of. She thought they encouraged smoking. I always enjoyed them when I got the chance to eat them, but it was a guilty pleasure. I vaguely remember the days when sweet cigarette packets contained a picture card, though this was a dying genre. Cool kids in the 80s ate Milky Ways and Smarties, not sweet cigarettes.

In 1964 Cadet Sweet Cigarettes issued a set of picture cards which told a rather epic story entitled 'Dr Who and the Daleks.' This was not, as its title might suggest, an adaptation of the second Doctor Who serial, but was in fact an original story involving the Daleks (with their egg-headed Emperor) and the Voord.

Some of the artwork on these cards is really beautiful. There are some very impressive space battles and some lovely Sci-Fi landscapes. The Voord look far more impressive in this story than they do in The Keys of Marinus. However, Dr Who bears little resemblance to William Hartnell. We could speculate that this is an unknown incarnation of the Doctor, but there is enough superficial resemblance to Hartnell to suggest that the artist has just done a bad job with the likeness. The Doctor's facial appearance actually varies from one picture to another, showing a terrible lack of consistency.

The prose text that accompanies the pictures is written in surprisingly bad grammar. It comes across like a story written by a nine-year old. Yet the epic scale of this story and its puzzling relation to continuity make it rather fascinating. There is no sign of the TARDIS and the Doctor is seen wearing a spacesuit for much of it. The Doctor is far more physically active than the Hartnell Doctor, which suggests this might be a younger version of the First Doctor. The Doctor Who- Complete Adventures website argues that this is a pre-Unearthly Child story in which the Doctor is on a mission for the Time Lords (perhaps with a Time Ring). If the Doctor's memories of this incident were erased, this would account for his later ignorance of Daleks and Voord.

Part of the story involves Earth in the future. It also features Marinus. This creates a problem if we embrace the claim of The World Shapers strip, that Marinus is the same planet as Mondas and the Voord are proto-Cybermen. We could always resolve this with the usual solution that the Marinus here is a 'New Marinus.'

The last surprise that the story leaves us with is the Doctor making peace with the Dalek Emperor and sharing a victory toast with the Daleks. This is quite disconcerting given that the Daleks are generally seen as the Doctor's deadliest enemies.

Image credits: Hello, I'm the Doctor

Friday 12 October 2012

Battlefield, by Marc Platt (Target novelisation)

When Battlefield was on television, a lot of my friends at school were watching it. They urged me to watch it, but back then I had no interest in Doctor Who. A year later, I suddenly developed an interest in Doctor Who. Hence, three years after the serial had screened, I read the Target novel without having seen the original. I really enjoyed this book. Despite the fantasy plot, it felt much more realistic and gritty than other Target novels I had read.

The Seventh Doctor run of Target novels featured quite a few that had a much deeper level of literary sophistication. While Battlefield is less experimental than Ian Briggs' Curse of Fenric novelisation, it's prose is very rich. The moment of Lt. Laval's death in particular is beautifully described. Battlefield is a much more straightforward retelling of the original story than Curse of Fenric, yet it still adds considerable richness to the narrative.

The big problem with the Battlefield serial was that it had too many characters. None of them really got the treatment they deserved. The great strength of the novelisation is that Marc Platt was able to add a depth of characterisation to them that was very much lacking in the original. The portrayal of Professor Warmsley, for instance is infinitely better than what we saw in the serial. Mordred becomes a bit more than just a mummy's boy.

The novelisation also treats us to a few glimpses of the strange Thirteen World realm of Morgaine. We also get to see the Merlin incarnation of the Doctor. I particularly like the way the Doctor sees his doom as Merlin as an inescapable fate than he can delay, but never avoid.

On the whole, the novelisation does a much better job than the well-meant but lacklustre serial. Battlefield was one of the brightest ideas in Doctor Who, but one of the most disappointingly executed ones.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Dr Who and the Great Old Ones

This has to be the best ever Target novel cover art. I remember seeing this paperback in a shop when I was nine years old. I was quite disturbed by it and decided I definitely didn't want to read that novel.

It is such a shame that this does not actually depict a scene in Spearhead from Space. The idea of some colossal eldritch space monstrosity threatening the Earth is so much cooler than anything in that serial. It reminds me a little bit of the Fendahl Predator in the 8th Doctor novel The Taking of Planet 5.

Sunday 30 September 2012

The Angels Take Manhattan

Amy is gone. At last; I don't know why they took so long about it. Amy was possibly the worst companion since Adric. A flirt with zero characterization, who can do anything that lazy writers need her to do. I don't get the people who think she looked attractive; she was far too skinny and waif-like to be pretty, not to mention those vacant stares.

In order to prepare us for the delight of Amy's exit, we are served up one of the worst stories that Moffat has ever given us. The Angels Take Manhattan is an horrible, thoughtless mess. It's a story that takes no time to generate a believable plot that makes any sense, and which attempts to bombard us with a sentimental emotional overload wrapped in Murray-Gold. We also get a return appearance from Moffat's Mary Sue, River Song, who only serves to get in the way of the presumed objective of giving Amy and Rory a good send off, not that I care. We get some moments of emotional drama with River, but these fall utterly flat because her character is too thin and undeveloped for them to stand on.

Moffat has a particular obsession with plots involving the mechanics of time travel, a trope horribly described as 'timey-wimey.' Such plots seldom make any sense and here this kind of story fails abysmally. The Doctor tells us that once they have read what will happen to them (he assumes the paperback is gospel truth and not fiction or an elaboration), it cannot be rewritten. That is in itself a great idea. I have always liked the Hartnell-era idea that time cannot be rewritten. But has not everything Moffat given us before attempted to make us believe that time can be altered at will? It is as though he has realized the dead end that 'time-wimey' plotting leads us to and made an half-hearted attempt too late to put the breaks on.

Weeping Angels were a delightfully scary idea. Unfortunately, they are an idea that gets old quickly. Hence, this story tries an whole load of new ideas with the Weeping Angels which fail to show any of the original power of the concept. The Angel babies were a little too silly and lacked the power of the proper Angels to terrify. The Angel Statue of Liberty was simply daft, as so many reviews have pointed out. Weeping Angels are great as a silent, unseen killer, but the idea of the Angels creating a battery farm of displaced humans just doesen't have the same impact. Do the displaced humans spend the rest of their lives in an hotel room? Do the Angels provide room service?

I'm just dreading what the next Christmas special will bring.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Paradise Towers

The first time I watched Paradise Towers, I found it extremely enjoyable. I was sucked into this surreal and fascinating world. Yet with each viewing of this serial, I am ever more conscious of it's faults.

Paradise Towers has a lot going for it. It offers a fascinating nightmare world based on the mundane reality of British housing blocks. It has a very clever and witty script that plays with language in a way not seen in any other Doctor Who story. It makes a fairly effective use of Mel and after the difficulties of Time and the Rani, we see Sylvester McCoy really settle into the role and make the Seventh Doctor his own. Watching him with the Kangs, we see a Doctor who is cool in a way the previous Doctors could never be.

Yet Paradise Towers is let down by a number of problems. The score is too loud and fails to fit the mood of the story. The sets are very well designed, but they are far too brightly lit, a common failing in 80s Doctor Who. While the Kangs are very enjoyable, they are quite obviously middle class drama school graduates.

The Chief Caretaker is a brilliantly conceived character. He is inspired by the very British phenomena of the overzealous council official who 'thinks he's Hitler.' Richard Briers performance does not quite do the character justice. While he has some glorious moments together with McCoy, most of the time he overplays the role and sends it up just a little too much.

One definite problem is that the world of Paradise Towers does not really make sense. The ages of the actors do not fit, we are given no explanation of why nobody ever leaves, we have no idea where the characters get their clothes or food or just generally how the whole society of the Towers works. This is not a problem in a story like Greatest Show in the Galaxy, where everything in the story is left mysterious. The problem with Paradise Towers is that we are given an awful lot of information about this society, but it still makes no sense.

Paradise Towers is not the highlight of the McCoy years and it is not even as good as Delta and the Bannermen, the story that followed it. Yet it was an important milestone in treading out a different path for the program. This serial was a bold experiment that offered a new and fresh avenue for Doctor Who.

Sunday 23 September 2012

The Power of Three

For just a few moments, I actually wondered if Kate was the Big Finish character Elizabeth Klein.

The Power of Three has a few clever ideas and I actually wondered for the first ten minutes if this might turn out to be a good story. I really liked the way this episode deconstructed previous Earth-set stories. When Sarah Jane Smith got involved in an Earth-set story, she would drop everything and help out the Doctor. Here the adventure has started, the Doctor has showed up and Rory is getting ready to go to work. I also liked the way the characters were expecting the cubes to turn out to be an alien invasion and were left waiting and waiting for something to happen. It would probably have been a more interesting story if the cubes had actually turned out to be a marketing gimmick or a a clever work of concept art (a Doctor Who story without aliens? It has been done before!). Unfortunately, the expected happens and the cubes start glowing and doing evil things. That is the point at which the story starts to drag. For every good idea in this story, there are at least two bad ones.

It's a bit difficult to see Amy and Rory as a good example of normal life. Amy has had a traumatic childhood, a history of psychiatric treatment and has become a successful model after working as a kissogram. Rory comes close to being normal, except we know he has spent a thousand years guarding a box in the guise of a Roman Centurion and was also an Auton replicant. How do you relate to characters like that? A couple of episodes ago, Rory and Amy were about to go through a messy divorce. Now they are playing the average happy British family. Rory's dad seems a completely different character to the person we met in his first appearance. He is not so much a character as somebody who is there to deliver comic lines.

The introduction of Kate Stewart as leader of UNIT does not get enough time to do it justice. Kate comes across as rather colourless and uninteresting. She is very quick to point out that her position has nothing to do with her father. Does anybody really believe that? Nepotism is not cool. Bringing up the Brigadier, I really hate all the sentimentalizing of the Brigadier. Nicholas Courtney was a great actor, but it is getting a bit tedious. The Brigadier was actually best as a bully and an antagonist of the Doctor. Turning him into a pseudo-companion or a comic sidekick was just wrong.

The alien menace turned out to be a terror from the mythology of Gallifrey. We had the terrible vampires and Yssgaroth and the Hoothi fungus that can animate the dead. It turns out that they are also terrified of some old bald guy with wrinkly skin. Time Lords scare very easily.

Proving that the story has too much going on and not enough time (though they oddly manage to throw in a bit of historical romping with Henry VIII), the Doctor saves the day by waving around his sonic screwdriver. This is the kind of reset button plotting that we became so used to under RT Davies and which we have never quite got away from under Moffat.

This was yet another disappointment of an episode.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Death Comes to Time

Death Comes to Time was a webcast made by the BBC in 2001, with an impressive cast of voice actors, most notably Stephen Fry and Anthony Head. It featured the Seventh Doctor, a surprising choice as it was made after the McGann TV movie.

This webcast is a colossal, epic drama that occurs on an overwhelmingly cosmic scale. Yet it is not epic in the silly over the top way of the new series' season finales. This story has a beautiful poetic feel. With it's orchestral classical score, a far cry from the sentimentality of Murray-Gold, Death Comes to Time feels very much like a Wagnerian opera. It is furthermore, a story that touches on religious and philosophical themes.

The story opens with a voiceover that is reminiscent of Bagpuss. It tells a fairy tale about a land of giants; an allusion to the Time Lords. This very much sets the tone of Death Comes to Time; it is more of a fantasy story than a science fiction story. You only need to watch this to realise just how shallow Moffat's notion of what the word 'fairy tale' means.

The big mistake of the TV Movie was to include too many of the shallow trappings of the show's past- the Master, regeneration, the Eye of Harmony. It assumed that the viewer would be interested to know that Time Lords regenerate and that they come from the planet Gallifrey. In contrast, Death Comes to Time does not tell us what Time Lords are, but shows us. We are introduced to the concept gradually through analogies like the beautiful parable about the painter and his painting.

Granted, Death Comes to Time gives us a radical revision of what Time Lords are. They are no longer a society of old men, but a race of gods who wield terrible power. Gallifrey is not even mentioned (though no doubt the three faces in the Temple of the Fourth are supposed to be Rassilon, Omega and the Other), but rather the Time Lords are wanderers in the fourth dimension. Fascinatingly, the idea of the TARDIS is deconstructed. The Doctor insists that his TARDIS contains no technology at all. It is rather portrayed more as a manifestation of some magic power that Time Lords possess. When the Doctor revokes the Minister's TARDIS, it is impossible not to be reminded of Gandalf breaking the staff of Saruman.

Death Comes to Time is often out of character with much of the history of the show. It is bizarre to think that the Doctor possesses the power to kill by thinking. Yet, we the idea of the Time Lords as gods can be found within parts of the Doctor Who mythos such as The War Games. For all that this story departs from continuity, the Doctor Who mythos is big enough to embrace a story like this; and it is a story that is made with passion and conviction.

This story is rarely accepted as a part of true Doctor Who continuity on account of how it departs from other stories. Yet there are many divergent and conflicting threads within Doctor Who. I'm sure that most of the discrepancies can be explained away. While Ace does not become a Time Lord in the New Adventures, this Ace appears to be older. It could be a Post-Lungbarrow Ace. It has been argued that if the Master or the Rani could kill by thinking like the Time Lords here can, they would have done so. Perhaps they had not yet mastered that power?

What are we to make of the Doctor's death? As is the golden rule in fantasy and science fiction. if there is no body, you can expect the character to return. Perhaps the Doctor does not really die? If you hate the TV Movie, you could see it as an alternative regeneration into the McGann Doctor, one that happens offscreen. Or if you hate everything in the New Series, you could use Death Comes to Time as a reason to exclude the RT Davies and Moffat era from your personal canon.

It is a shame how little the BBC Wales series has drawn from Death Comes to Time, as this is Doctor Who done well.

Monday 17 September 2012

Scream of the Shalka

Scream of the Shalka was an animated webcast put out by the BBC in 2003. It featured a new Doctor voiced by Richard E Grant. For a while there was talk of a new series being launched with this Doctor.

I like the Gothic look of this Doctor, though I find it frustrating that they decided to give him a generic Victorian look. This is disappointing because it does not set him apart from the McGann Doctor. In personality, the Shalka Doctor most closely resembles Pertwee, though he is loaded with a massive dose of angst and guilt. This was not an original move, as both the New Adventures and the BBC EDAs had been full of angst, with the Doctor variously feeling guilt over manipulating Ace, blowing up Skaro or blowing up Gallifrey. On the whole, this Doctor comes across as just a bit too angry to be likable. Paul Cornell's script gives him a lot of humour, but Grant plays it so straight (like Pertwee) and so he comes across as an humourless man trying to be funny. Of course, it's unfair to judge this Doctor by this one performance. Most of the Doctors have taken a few stories to completely get into their role. Sylvester McCoy's Doctor evolved massively during his time on the show. Scream of the Shalka offers us a faint glimpse of what might have been.

The animation for this story is very nicely drawn, but the movements of the characters are not terribly fluid. One could probably enjoy a series of such animations had it ever been made. The real problem with the story is its traditionalism. There is too much effort made in trying to come up with all of the elements of Pertwee-era Doctor Who; the Doctor arguing with the military, an alien invasion, the Master and the Doctor not wanting to kill.

The only really clever idea this story has is the robotic version of the Master in the TARDIS. The idea of the Doctor keeping the Master as a kind of mascot or buddy is quite inspired and deals with the difficulty of taking seriously a Delgado-style Master in a 21st century story.

RT Davies has made it quite clear that Scream of the Shalka is not considered to be canon and that the 9th Doctor is Christopher Eccleston. If you are a fan who loves the Shalka Doctor, you can probably find a few clever ways to incorporate this story into the Doctor Who mythos. Lance Parkin includes this story in his AHistory guide to Doctor Who continuity by suggesting that this might be a future Doctor after the 9th Doctor. His Gallifrey Chronicles novel famously stated that there are three versions of the ninth Doctor, a meta-textual reference to this story, Curse of Fatal Death and Eccleston. In his discussion of Gallifreyan history, Parkin provides another potential solution as to how there could be more than one 9th Doctor. Attempting to tie together the War of Heaven in the BBC novels and the Last Great Time War of the new series, Parkin argues that the Eccleston Doctor could be a regeneration of the Grandfather Paradox version of the 8th Doctor in The Ancestor Cell. This is an interesting theory and raises the question of what happened to the proper version of the 8th Doctor. Perhaps he could have regenerated into the Richard Grant Doctor? It would be disconcerting, however, to think that there could be two Doctors at the same time.

Sunday 16 September 2012

A Town Called Mercy

As I said in my review of Curse of the Black Spot, the problem with pseudo-historicals is that there are essentially only two plots- a good alien is interfering with history or a bad alien is interfering with history. In A Town Called Mercy, we get two aliens who are both good, bad and ugly.

When we meet Kahler-Jex and find out he is a nice alien, it is a certain fact that he will turn out to be not as nice as he seems. We are also well aware that the cyborg alien will turn out to be more than just a brutal killer. I actually found myself reminded of the DWM story The Star Beast, in which the cute and cuddly alien, Beep the Meep turns out to be a wanted war criminal. That was actually a much more interesting story than this.

This story was just boring. It was flat and predictable, especially the very Star Trekl Next Generation debate about whether to hand over an unrepentant mass murderer to save a town full of innocent people. The whole thing was horribly sentimentalised with Issac's death and the horrible Murray-Gold music.

The resolution was terrible too. Kahler-Jex kills himself, thus removing any need for the Doctor to actually come up with a solution to the dilemma. Wouldn't life be so much easier if all the bad people just killed themselves? That is the worst kind of lazy writing.

Once again, we get racial issues swept under the carpet with the presence of a black preacher ministering to an otherwise white town. I am also irritated by Amy wearing a miniskirt. Does she not realize the hostility she is likely to attract when dressed like that in the 19th century? But then as JNT would do, Moffat has Amy wear a uniform in every episode no matter what the circumstances.

Give me The Gunfighters over this any day. The Gunfighters was actually about the historical events and circumstances, while still having fun with western cliches. This story just uses the western setting as a themepark backdrop to a banal science fiction story.