Thursday, February 21, 2008

Times Two

Time flies. Time waits for no man. Time, gentlemen, please. Yes, 'Time' carries great and varied significance to us all. Once upon a time, if said with sufficient weight, that single word could trigger a barrage of images of clocks and watches, accompanied by the chimes and bongs and tick-tick-tick of many a timepiece. Of course, that was usually only on Pipkins, but still. Meanwhile, on Doctor Who, for some reason, the inclusion of the word 'Time' in a title came to be roughly synonymous with 'not very good'.

The ~ Monster, The Invasion Of ~ , ~lash, Trial Of A ~ Lord, ~ And The Rani, whole segments of The Key To ~ , every excruciating second of Dimensions In ~. And the tradition even continues today, with Last Of The ~ Lords.

So what was I doing buying and then, to exacerbate matters, *watching* The ~ Meddler and The ~ Warrior. Both, in quick succession, I might add. Glutton for punishment?

Actually, no. I had positive memories of each of these from the first time I'd seen them and, in the ~ honoured fashion of any Who fan armed with fresh DVD purchases, wanted to revisit them and test those memories against the reality. And I'm happy to say, both passed. One with flying colours, one with flying, er, black and white.

In terms of viewing one story after another, they're a surprisingly good pairing. They're both fun romps, both bringing in new companions as TARDIS stowaways and both are what's known in the Doctor Who language as pseudo-historicals - light on the history, heavy on the pseudo - featuring anachronistic travelers tampering with the fragile course of human history - both by tipping the balance in a conflict with supplies of advanced weaponry. One opts for an atomic bazooka, one arms the temporal natives with breech-loading rifles. One ends his story stranded in his chosen time zone, the other begins his story stranded in a time that's not best-suited to his purpose. The Meddler's ambitions are central and large-scale, while the Warrior, fairly naturally, has other priorities and for him meddling, as a means to an ulterior end, is pretty much a sideline.

Now, in the case of The ~ Meddler, it so happened that Stuart, who's practically a one-man board of certification when it comes to assessing what's good and bad in Doctor Who, had recently received his copy and had posted a review on his blog shortly after I'd watched it myself. It's a very good review and I'd be afraid of accidental plagiarism if I just went ahead and agreed with him. All the same, I do agree with him and you'd probably be as well to go and read his review while I make some effort to express much the same views in my own words.
One area in which The ~ Meddler scores, of course, is that it's the first of its kind. In Who, at least, it's inventing the pseudo-historical. And I know Stuart remarked on this, but I watched it very much into the mindset of what it must have been like for contemporary viewers encountering this phenomenon for the first time. The Hartnell era up to that point would have braced them for historicals, so the discovery of the gramophone in the monastery must have been a real "What the - !" moment and then you get the major excitement of an end-of-episode reveal that the Monk HAS A TARDIS!!! As Douglas Adams might have put it, you might think space is big, but this was REALLY BIG. It's a shame that the Doctor meeting with others of his own race (note, not Time Lords at this stage) became almost routine in later years and especially in the books. Here it's fresh and new and thrilling - and playful.

It's in great part down to the casting, with pre-Carry On Peter Butterworth putting in a warmly comic performance as the Monk, and there's humour aplenty in the script, with the Doctor clearly entertained by the notion of running into one of his own - even if the chap is a confounded scoundrel. The Monk does make a notional comeback in The Daleks Masterplan, so that's some proof of his deserved popularity at the time - but it's interesting to note that he's one of those characters, a bit like the Ice Warriors, saddled with a name and identity entirely based on his first appearance. I mean, presumably, this fellow could have - if you'll forgive the pun - change his habit to return as something other than 'the Monk'.

Some of the supporting cast aren't, er, up to Butterworth's standard, shall we say, but for one thing fight sequences in such antiquated Who were rarely up to scratch and if, on top of that, you're going to ask your Vikings to act as though they're tanked up on mead, then really you're raising the bar a tad too high. It's comforting to know, though, that back in those days the Doctor, so well regarded by so many children, could be seen to enjoy a jar or two. Who knows, maybe there were floods of complaints.

What might have caused complaint, although in all probability - like the mead-guzzling Doctor - it was looked over as entirely innocent, is the implicit rape. Edith (Alethea Charlton) is attacked by said drunken Vikings and - at one point, you think - left for dead. Then later her hubby is hovering over her demanding, understandably, to know "Who did this?" She's not been killed and you have to assume she wasn't mugged for any cash she might have been carrying. And in any case you don't have to be Barbara Wright - i.e. a history teacher - to know what drunken Vikings are (in)famous for. It's only an interpretation, but an unwelcome and inescapable intrusion on what is, essentially, as I say, a fun romp. The title The ~ Meddler characterises the story well, 'meddling' being something we're not supposed to take too seriously - and harsher realities don't sit well with that.

But really that's a minor glitch and it's really not down to anything actually presented on screen. Just a product, I suppose, of watching it in a 'more informed age'. Anyway, the moment of discomfort soon passes and we can get back to enjoying the interplay between the two (Not Yet) Time Lords as much as Hartnell appears to be.

And, since we mention Barbara - she's not in this one. She and Ian returned home in a Dalek time capsule at the end of the previous story. And the TARDIS crew is now made up of Maureen O'Brien as wide-eyed and earnest, but quite sweet Vicki and Peter Purves surprisingly good as Steven, doing his best to overcome the fact that his character makes for a fairly unconvincing space pilot.

The ending's a little rushed and not as tidy as it could be. (I had thought the story left a spare atomic bazooka on the clifftop, for instance, but according to Stuart I'd missed a line from the Doctor stating that they still had a bit of clearing up to do. But on the plus side that led to a little joke about how all Doctor Who stories could, in theory, be ended that way - so nothing was lost.) But the trick the Doctor plays with the Monk's TARDIS is inventive and satisfactory, and represents an early bit of exploration of the nature of TARDIS technology. The sort of thing that would doubtless spawn a zillion fan theories, but we mustn't hold that against it.

Overall then this succeeds with whimsical charm by the flagon-ful and earns special credit for introducing us to certain concepts entirely new to the series at the time, not least of which was a new brand of Doctor Who story.

A brand which, he segued nicely, was to see some notable service in the Troughton era (e.g. The Abominable Snowmen, The Evil Of The Daleks) before returning to form the basis of just the one story in the Pertwee era: yes, The ~ Warrior.

Being of a story type already established then, The ~ Warrior is hardly as ground-breaking but it's all played with a similar sense of fun, along with the dash and flair of the Pertwee era. The humour is sharper, offering a veritable medieval banquet of great dialogue as well as priceless moments like the Sontaran Warrior claiming the Earth and its satellites for the Sontaran Empire. As surely the first race to plant a flag on Terran soil, the idea of the Sontarans later securing the services of a Megaran solicitor and endeavouring to assert their claim through the intergalactic courts is just too tempting.As our first introduction to Sontarans, it works a treat - and, through Bob Holmes' gift for one-or-two-line world-building, we learn a few choice details about them, including their 'endless war' with the Rutans and the fact that they can 'breed' like militaristic rabbits. Clones or no, they're not all the same, as later shows will prove - and while they're well on their way to looking - and sounding - rubbish in The Invasion Of ~, by the time The Two Doctors comes around, they've completed that journey. But here, Linx looks fab and Kevin Lindsay really puts some (figurative) spittle into his portrayal of this alien soldier, making this space toad very much of the venomous kind. Even if, rather like the Monk, the Sontarans' return appearances (The Sontaran Experiment aside) are a bit wanting, you can immediately appreciate the potential for a comeback. (Sadly though, we never get to see this horrible Humpty riding into battle on horseback - a missed opportunity there.)

As well as this new alien foe, the story, as has been mentioned, also introduces us to a new companion. Not just any companion either, but Sarah Jane Smith. Lis Sladen is finding her feet in the role here, but she's given plenty to work with and the gutsy way in which she brings feminism to Olde Englande and tackles head-on what she takes for a bunch of medieval reenactment freaks is superb and funny. As is the way her suspicions of the Doctor inspire her to launch a 'commando raid' to capture him on behalf of the 'good guys'.

And 'good guys' and 'bad guys' are appropriate terms. Although the timelines are under threat from the Sontaran's interference, this story concerns itself even less with actual history than The ~ Meddler, focusing on a localised feud and cracking on with an adventure that probably owes a little bit to a quick skim through Ivanhoe. It's let down here and there - like The ~ Meddler before it - by a few extras who seem to have been given lines by mistake and maybe we can blame the mead again, but their acting prowess appears to indicate that they may indeed have been medieval reenactment freaks and not professional actors at all.

Luckily, they're offset by that brilliant (Bob) Holmesian dialogue and some truly hearty performances from David Daker as Irongron and John J Carney as his thick-as-a-brick lieutenant, Bloodaxe. There's also Alan Rowe - seen recently - by me anyway - in Horror Of Fang Rock and of course, dear old Dot Cotton, June Brown, in the days long before Who producers thought it was a 'brilliant idea' to include guest stars from Eastenders. In the days, in fact, before Eastenders. For those of us who know her as Dot Cotton, it's a little unsettling at first, but once you get used to her you realise she's doing a grand job, playing a sort of good-hearted Lady Macbeth to Alan Rowe's rather ineffectual Edward Of Wessex.

It also features Boba Fett, back when he was only trained in bow and arrow. Jeremy Bulloch (who continued his archery antics in Robin Of Sherwood, I believe). Hal The Archer is not the strongest of Bob Holmes' characters, it must be said, but he's there to act as representative of the dozen men Wessex is supposed to have at his command and to deliver that final fatal blow to poor old Linx's probic vent. By this stage, it being a Pertwee story, the Doctor has been more than involved and instrumental in a successful resolution, that it's kind of fitting that the actual slaying of the enemy is handed to this supporting character. So the ending, while a bit rushed, is fairly satisfactory.

The main disappointments, I found, were in the robot knight that Linx manufactures for Irongron - a fault of being made in a time when stiff and jerky were the only modes of movement available to robots - and some of the effects. The shot of the Sontaran spaceship, for example, as seen through a window and the 'magic' of CSO, plus the shot of generic masonry being blasted to stand in for the blowing up of an entire wing of a castle. However, that said, don't be tempted - as I was - to go back and see what the CGI wizards have done for the DVD release. The Sontaran ship crashing to Earth is nice enough, but is then completely at odds with the remainder of the production, while the castle gateway belching flame is at least as pitiful as the old masonry shot and is one of those examples of bad CGI that make you cringe and wish they had asked the Blue Peter team (Purves, perhaps?) to rustle up something in papier mache instead.

But never mind. The show stands up well enough without these flashy gimmicks. Meddler and Warrior make such a great pair - which is not to say the Monk should team up with the Sontarans (although... ) - I am not going to conclude this blog review by choosing between them. I'm just going to celebrate the fact that two stories that stood so many years apart can, in this magical age of the DVD, can stand side by side. Although at the same time, I'm happy to say, there are actually a fair few stories between them on my shelves.

13 comments:

Stuart Douglas said...

I;ve never been called practically a one-man board of certification before - and I suspect I may not deserve the title now either, since I never realised that that scene was the aftermath of a rape, but instead just assumed she was meant to be dead but then myteriosuly recovered. Now oyu point it out though it's blindingly obvious.

Also nice to see someone agree with me that shoddy looking cgi is no tinherently better than shoddy 70s model work - neither is brillian tbut at least the 70s stuff fits with the rest of the surrounding scenes.

My quest to convince someone that the first episode of Timelash is brillaint has yet to bear fruit though, I see :)

SAF said...

Stuart: "Now oyu point it out though it's blindingly obvious."

Well, a more innocent interpretation sits better with the story, and I kind of wish I hadn't seen it that way. She does seem to take it in her stride, rather, and recovers well. Resilient sort.

Stuart: "shoddy looking cgi is no tinherently better than shoddy 70s model work - neither is brillian tbut at least the 70s stuff fits with the rest of the surrounding scenes."

Oh, the gateway explosion is, um, crap, I think is the word I'm searching for. Really crap. Definitely worse than if they'd just left well alone.

Stuart: "My quest to convince someone that the first episode of Timelash is brillaint has yet to bear fruit though, I see :)"

Heheh. To be fair, it's not one I'm likely to rewatch, like, *ever* so you can take comfort in the fact that your review is fresh, whereas my impressions of it will be forever based on a twenty (?) year old memory. Which will hopefully fade in time. ;)

iCowboy said...

I think you're being far too hard on the Vikings. That poor lady in the Time Meddler could just have been having a nice-lie down after helping Sven and Ragnar assemble a piece of Ikea furniture. All of which makes me wonder why the Vikings got such a reputation - were they really any worse than any of the other invaders that took a fancy to the East Coast of England.

Magnus Magnusson (who might just be a little biased) said that the Vikings got a bad rep in England because they were romantically more successful with women - in part because they did such unEnglish things as combing their hair and having baths.

Ooops but back to DW. I don't remember Time Warrior when it was first shown, so I guess I must have first seen it after reading the Target novelisation and being horribly disappointed. Not by the setup (a sort of dark Yankee in King Arthur's court) and certainly not by the Sontarans, but by the lack of scope onscreen. And I think that's why I generally don't like the Pertwee era - it was trying to do epic on panto money and sadly I don't think it pulls it off.

And I still remember being annoyed (aged about 11) that someone in the DW office let a reference to potatoes appear in a medieval plot. Compared to that, the Time Meddler's viking helmets with horns appear almost authentic.

As you can see, my inner pedant got off to an early start.

SAF said...

iCowboy: "And I think that's why I generally don't like the Pertwee era - it was trying to do epic on panto money and sadly I don't think it pulls it off."

The potato thing and panto money, I'll grant you, but for one thing "Time Warrior" isn't trying to be epic, for another I'd wonder why that criticism would single out the Pertwee era, and for another I'm more generally inclined to admire the ambition that such a criticism serves to highlight.

"Claws Of Axos", to cite another relatively recently viewed adventure, fails not because it's cheap, but because it blows it's big reveal in the first 30 seconds. "Invasion Of The Dinosaurs", I think (although it's not one I've seen recently I know the story well) is *let down* by the dinosaurs, but the story falls far short of failure. "The Web Planet" (Hartnell), meanwhile, is very much a theatre production with a camera stuck in front of it, but what I'm getting from that at the moment is a scope of ambition, fearless inventiveness and a bold effort to tell a sweeping, atmospheric story of a hidden invader on an alien world that blows something like the presumably quite expensive "Gridlock" out of the water.

Obviously it all comes down to a case of mileage varying as to what makes a story fall down. Me, I can forgive even the "Time Warrior"'s anachronistic potato. :)

Stuart Douglas said...

iC: "they did such unEnglish things as combing their hair and having baths."

That's also the reason we Scots are more successful with the ladies than our Southern neighbours. A little personal hygiene goes a long way :)

Re doing epics on panto money, I think Pertwee maybe suffers from the introduction of colour, which is obviously less forgiving of shortcuts and cheapness in sf costumes and sets (the delegate scene in Dalek Master Plan looks immense, for instance, but would look quite shoddy, I suspect, in full colour).

Of course I love Pertwee - I think they rarely try for epic in the Pertwee years but when they do (the Frontier/Planet 12 parter) it doesn't work as spectacle but does work very well both in portraying the mundanity of life in an interstellar space empire, where sheer distance is the main factor, and in showing the most realistic basis for a war between species seen in Who. The writing more than makes up for the lack of cash, imo.

SAF said...

Stuart: "That's also the reason we Scots are more successful with the ladies than our Southern neighbours. A little personal hygiene goes a long way :)"

Hey! ;)

iC: "Magnus Magnusson (who might just be a little biased) said that the Vikings got a bad rep in England because they were romantically more successful with women"

I think it had more to do with their picking up women actually involving picking them up. :)

On the plus side, when they got home they probably got a good ear-bashing from their wives, demanding to know what they'd been up to on that overseas trip.

Stuart: "Re doing epics on panto money...The writing more than makes up for the lack of cash, imo."

As to the rest: what Stuart says. I'm glad to say that's something that in any Doctor Who debate, I can fall back on quite often. :)

Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "On the plus side, when they got home they probably got a good ear-bashing from their wives, demanding to know what they'd been up to on that overseas trip."

Ah, the 11th century equivalent of the European football trip!

SAF: "As to the rest: what Stuart says. I'm glad to say that's something that in any Doctor Who debate, I can fall back on quite often. :)"

Shucks, I'd blush if the opposite wasn't equally true :)

Though the desire not to argue endlessly over every single minor thing I say is one reason why I'm toning down my presence on the mailing lists we both frequent for a week or two...

SAF said...

Stuart: "Though the desire not to argue endlessly over every single minor thing I say is one reason why I'm toning down my presence on the mailing lists we both frequent for a week or two..."

Amen to that. Er, not you toning down your presence. I'm toning down mine - still skimming the digests, but I really don't feel inclined to get bogged down in 'those kinds of debates' right now.

Proof if any was needed, we're the sensible ones :)

Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "Amen to that. Er, not you toning down your presence. "

Too late - my feelings are wounded!

SAF said...

Stuart: "Too late - my feelings are wounded!"

Oh no, how can I make amends? ;)

Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "Oh no, how can I make amends? ;)"

When's your new book out again? I'll let you off if it's any good :-)

SAF said...

Stuart: "When's your new book out again? I'll let you off if it's any good :-)"

Oh crap, you really know how to pile on the pressure ;)

It's out some time this month. 10th March, I think. I should probably make another announcement here when I sound a bit more sure of my facts :)

Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "It's out some time this month."

Excellent, time to get the credit card out and get myself off to Amazon!