Sunday 31 March 2013

The Bells of St John

Is Moffat actually trying any more? What struck me about this story is how little one can really say about it. It is simply so generic and formulaic and so built on standard Moffat tropes that there is simply nothing of any real interest to say.

We see the unfortunate return here of the techno-menace gimmick. The idea that a piece of common place technology has a sinister purpose has been used rather a lot in the BBC Wales series. The problem with this trope is the inherent techno-phobia in it. There is nothing about wi-fi technology that is morally questionable and there is nothing about it that raises interesting intellectual dilemmas. Thus, making it a plot element is utterly uninspiring. It is gimmicky and gives the impression that the writer is afraid of the internet.

The lack of any moral complexity is seen furthermore when the villain, Miss Kizlet turns out to have been under some form of possession or mind control. While her transformation from a terrifying villain to a frightened child was dramatically impressive, it removed the need for her character to have any human motivation that could be explored. There has been a lack of any interesting human villains in the series of late and the discovery that Kizlet was somehow possessed came as a big disappointment.

The big event of this story is the arrival of Clara as a companion proper. Clara is the dream companion for a lazy writer like Moffat. This is her third appearance, yet she is essentially three different characters with a vaguely similar personality. There is no need for the writer to make any attempt to give her a real personality beyond being flighty, cute and sexy. Is anybody really interested in the mystery of who she is?

I really struggled to follow this story. It was so fast and not a little confusing. It does not help that much of the dialogue is easily drowned out by the loud score. One thing that certainly surprised me was that given the difficulty of squeezing the plot into forty-five minutes, so much filler material was included. What was the point of the medieval monastery scenes? What did they actually add? Why the aeroplane scene? That time could have been more effectively used fleshing out the plot.

This episode offered plenty of action and a few funny lines, but nothing more.

Saturday 23 March 2013

The Deadly Assassin

In the view of many fans, the great sin of The Deadly Assassin's is its revision of the Time Lords. The all powerful Time Lords of The War Games are replaced with a cast of senile Oxford dons and Anglican bishops. Being the first substantial portray of Dr. Who's home planet, this story must have come as something of a disappointment for many long term viewers.

As a young fan, my perception of Gallifrey was shaped by the post-Deadly Assassin stories. The Invasion of Time was one of my favorite Target novels, and The Five Doctors was the first VHS release that I watched. I was rather disappointed by the lack of Chancellory Guards and Staser guns in The War Games.

As an older fan, my enthusiasm for Chancellory Guards and Staser guns has waned. I have come to prefer the idea that the Time Lords are a god-like race with incredible power. There is a lot in The Deadly Assassin that I dislike. Yet I still find something likable about the idea of the senior Time Lords being a bunch of Oxford academics. It is also undeniable that the visual iconography established in The Deadly Assassin has become a fundamental part of the show. The genius of Lawrence Miles can be seen in the way he has combined Robert Holmes' Gormenghast Time Lords with the elemental Time Lords of the The War Games. In a clever nod to The Deadly Assasin, his Book of the War tells us that the senility of the senior Time Lords is just an act:

"their mumbling, even their occasional deafness is often quite carefully orchestrated. Nowhere on the Homeworld is there a House so ready to work its will by planting the correct whisper in the relevant ear, by making murmured suggestions so subtle that after the fact nobody remembers who spoke. While House Dvora moves with an efficient unstoppable openness, the mandarins of Lineacrux are so softly spoken, so serene, so elderly that in this brutal new War age even those who should known better rarely remember how ruthless these 'senile old men' might possibly be."

It must be pointed out that the view of the Time Lords given in The Deadly Assassin was not a sudden departure. The Three Doctors had shown them to be less than all-powerful, and Genesis of the Daleks and Brain of Morbius had shown them to have a shifty side. This development shows a considerable departure from how the Dr. Who's relationship with his people was originally conceived. The Hartnell Doctor was an exile, but from the beginning he showed a genuine desire to return to his homeworld. When Susan speaks about her planet, it is described as a beautiful place, with its burnt orange sky and silver trees. The Gallifrey of The Deadly Assassin seems such a miserable and grim place that it is hardly a surprise that Dr. Who would want to leave it. If Gallifrey is like that, there is no longer any sense that the Doctor has suffered loss or sacrificed anything in leaving it. For this reason, I very much prefer the idea that Gallifrey is a beautiful and magnificent place, whatever the faults of its ruling elite.

If this serial can be forgiven for its depiction of Gallifrey, and I'm not sure it can, it cannot be forgiven for its appallingly badly thought out plot. The Master's scheme makes no sense and the Time Lords society makes even less. Are we really expected to believe that the Time Lords have been completely unable to figure out the nature of the Rod and Sash of Rassilon and that they have no idea where their electricity comes from? I very much agree with the Prosecution case (presumably Lawrence Miles) in About Time, which castigates The Deadly Assassin's plot as utterly contrived:

"But perhaps the real trouble with "The Deadly Assassin" is that aside from the occasional snack-bite of political satire, everything here is so thoroughly contrived that it's alien in all the wrong ways. The script makes up new rules for Time Lord society minute-by-minute, so what chance does the audience have of feeling as if it's any of their concern? If the Doctor reaches a dead end then a new piece of Time Lord technology or custom can be invented to help him get to the next scene, and if characters aren't in the right places then they can be shifted around by Time Lord "traditions" which everybody knows about except the viewer."

For some reason fans seem to love episode three with the nightmare sequence in the APC Matrix. I don't understand why, as it does nothing to advance the plot and feels tediously long. I have a real dislike of dream sequences in fiction. If what the character is experiencing is not real, why should the viewer or the reader care about it? It is just a string of scary events strung together without actually going anywhere. What is more, this episode indulges the worst aspect of the Hinchcliffe era, a morbid delight in pain and cruelty. It is easy to laugh at Mary Whitehouse, but this episode pushes up the violence in the show to a level that is probably not quite appropriate for younger viewers. The BBC made a wise decision in bringing Hinchcliffe's producership to an end after this story.

What I enjoy most in this serial is Angus Mackay's performance as Borusa. Borusa is such a wonderful character, a school teacher turned into a Machiavellian politician. I love the way the schoolboyish way Dr. Who addresses him as 'sir.' There is such a deep sense of respect between the two characters, which adds to the beautiful poignancy when Davison's Doctor exclaims "What happened to you, Borusa?" in The Five Doctors.

For all its failings, The Deadly Assassin makes a bold attempt to tell a very different kind of Doctor Who story. We get to see the Doctor on his own planet, stripped of the reassurance of his scarf and without a companion to rely on. I don't like this story, but I appreciate the attempt to experiment and do what had not been done before.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Remembrance of the Daleks, by Ben Aaronovitch (Target novelisation)

I read the novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks when I was a nine-year old fan, new to Doctor Who. Having avoided Doctor Who when it was on television, this was my first experience of the Seventh Doctor and Ace. I did not fully appreciate them, as I found this novel very difficult and hard going. As a young fan, I preferred Target novels written By Terrance Dicks. They were so much easier to read than the more ambitious novelisations. Yet as an older reader, I find myself very much appreciating and enjoying the bold and creative style of the Remembrance of the Daleks novel. Its prose is very creative, particularly in those sections that attempt to write from a Dalek's perspective.

Remembrance of the Daleks adds to the original serial by fleshing out a lot of the characters and giving background. In some cases it's not altogether necessary, but it is interesting to get a more direct perspective from the writer. It's also interesting to read this having listened to the Counter-Measures audios that pick up on these characters and some of the details given in the novel. While the book has some sections set in ancient Gallifrey featuring Rassilon and Omega, we don't actually get that much more information about those events than we are told in the serial.

Prior to the Counter-Measures series, Rachel Jensen had been given two different post-Remembrance destinies. According to Who Killed Kennedy, she definitely retired in accordance with her stated intention in the script. However, in Millennial Rites, we are told she became scientific adviser to the Cabinet and was instrumental in the establishment of UNIT. My preference is for the latter version, Jensen does seem to be a bit young to be thinking about retiring. The novelisation, however, has her retiring and also implies that she marries Gilmore. So far Counter-Measures have not gone in that direction. It is also revealed that Jensen had a romance with Gilmore. Maybe I missed it, but I did not see any hint of that in Counter-Measures. To be honest, the whole idea of a romance between Jensen and Gilmore feels just too mundane and uninteresting. It feels disconcerting to read about it in the novel simply because there is no hint of it in the serial. Just watch Remembrance and try to imagine Gilmore and Jensen having a past history and feelings for each other. It just does not work.

The novel does a great job with Ace, showing the anger in her system over the racist attack on Manisha. I was late coming to the televised Seventh Doctor adventures and so my initial experiences of Ace were through this novel and the New Adventures. As a result of this, I viewed Ace as a very angry, angsty character. When I finally got round to seeing Seasons 25 and 26, I was rather surprised at the much milder, very children's television style Ace that was broadcast.

Remembrance of the Daleks is my favorite Doctor Who story and I think its novelisation is a worthy adaptation of it.

Sunday 3 March 2013

The Time Warrior

"Why don't you take off that ridiculous gear and go home to your butcher's shop!"

I watched this story on VHS in 1991 when I was ten years old. I think it might have been a birthday present. It was a story I was very keen to see back then and I enjoyed it a lot. When I bought the DVD, I expected to be a good deal less impressed and to find lots of faults with it (after all this a Pertwee/ Letts story!). Nevertheless, I was surprised to find myself enjoying it as much, if not more than I did aged ten.

It is this story which pretty much chrystalizes the pseudo-historical genre. It is perhaps unfortunate that this kind of story has become thought of as almost the default mode for Doctor Who (hence that dull runaround, The Visitation), yet here most of the elements involved work well. The story has something of a theatrical feel and though this is at odds with what the show often tries to do, this adds enormously to the charm and effectiveness of this serial.

What is most delightful about The Time Warrior is Robert Holmes' glorious script. Watching it, one feels as though every single line is priceless and more than half of them get a laugh out of me. Even more importantly, Holmes gives us a great cast of characters.

Linx, our first introduction to the Sontarans is also the best appearance of that race that we have seen in Doctor Who. Not only is his mask brilliantly realized, but Kevin Lindsay creates this character masterfully, offering not only a great vocal performance, but a real sense of an alien physiology in the way he moves. He is also, as some people have pointed out, a counterpart to the Pertwee Doctor, being stranded on Earth and acting as a scientific adviser to a bunch of soldiers.

Linx is made even more interesting by the fact that he is given an human counterpart in Irongron. Though Linx is an alien and Irongron is an Earthman, they are remarkably similar characters in their relish for military glory. Notice how their behaviour mirrors each other at the beginning of the story. When Irongron sees the 'falling star' he claims it as 'Irongron's Star.' When Linx steps out of his spacecraft, he claims planet Earth for the Sontaran empire. Every single scene shared by Irongron and Linx is a joy to watch. Their is such a beautiful chemistry between the two contrasting, but not dissimilar characters. As much as they may hurl insults at each other and desire the other's death, I am quite convinced that they both have a fondness for each other deep down.

Other characters are enjoyable too. Just watch how Blood Axe adores his captain! June Brown as Lady Eleanor is pleasantly Shakespearean in her performance. Rubeish is a little silly, but still fun. I don't know why Alan Rowe gets criticized in a lot of fan reviews for his performance as Sir Edward. The character he is playing is supposed to be rather pathetic and this comes across.

The Time Warrior is notable for the first appearance of Sarah Jane Smith, generally considered the most popular of companions among fans. Her portrayal is somewhat problematic, as Phil Sandifer argues on TARDIS Eruditorum. The presence of a feminist companion results in the Doctor becoming rather more sexist and patronizing than he was before. Sarah also comes across as remarkably stupid. Why on Earth does she conclude that Dr. Who is a spy? She sees him in conversation with the Brigadier, so it should be obvious to her that he is in a position of trust with the Brigadier. Spies generally try to be inconspicuous, yet the Doctor has a police box with him and flaunts bizarre gadgetry for everyone to see. There is an horrible sense that the viewer is being made to laugh at the stupid trendy modern girl.

There are other flaws to this story, most obviously the padded plot. The robot subplot feels unnecessary, as does the need for a final return trip to Irongron's castle. As with a lot of Doctor Who stories, there are a fair few holes in the plot. Some of these can be explained. I quite like the suggestion of Tat Wood in About Time that Sarah Jane Smith is working for UNIT as an investigator. This would explain how she breaches security so easily.

Linx's comment about Sarah's thorax was rather an eye opener for me when I watched this aged ten. Prior to this I had never noticed the different construction of the female thorax. Doctor Who can be educational!

The Time Warrior is simply one of the most enjoyable Doctor Who stories of the Seventies and one of the best of the Pertwee/ Letts era.