Thursday, January 31, 2008

Who's Afraid Of Gabriel Woolf?

Forgive the obvious header, but - frankly - I was. Not that I knew the man's name when I was eight. To me, he was just the almighty Sutekh The Destroyer and so scary and inspiring a villain was he, I would end up imitating him in the playground - at least as much as the Daleks. The jokes about Sutekh & Sweep came later. It's a great performance from behind a mask to rival Omega's, that voice, with its almost seductive resonance, speaks chilling volumes of a demonic all-powerful alien being tormented by thousands of years of imprisonment . There's a very good reason the current production team asked this man back to play the Devil in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and that reason was and is Sutekh.

He is also one of the two things - no, three. He is one of the three - four things. But heck, I'm in danger of going all Spanish Inquisition here, because as I reflect back on this adventure I'm reminded of another reason to like it - and another. So I'll just limit myself to a manageable handful and say, Sutekh is one of the *four* things that carry this story and help it stand up, if not actually out. Before that, what's wrong with it and why does it need help standing up?

As with Planet Of Evil, Pyramids Of Mars is another Who story with that 'Old, new, borrowed, blue' combination and the borrowing is similarly centred on a classic horror source.
Only in this case, it's The Mummy, of course, and in giving it such a thorough SF treatment it endeavours to turn the whole thing on its head. And you can't do that with pyramids without a little instability creeping in.

It's a bit wobbly. And I'm not talking about the sets - it's the premise. While I get that the Osirans were a decent bunch, resistant to the idea of executing this serial planet killer, for a super advanced race they leave a few too many loopholes to allow for his escape. This isn't Norman Stanley Fletcher, you fools! This is Sutekh, Set, who exterminates all life wherever he finds it. All right, part of the problem lies in - once again - over-reaching ambition, because the traps, locks and puzzles in place within the eponymous (note, singular) Pyramid of Mars - which Sarah rightly compares to the City of the Exxilons (Death To The Daleks) - aren't up to much. Of course, even if we set aside the question of why they're in place at all, the mechanisms ideally ought to have been beyond us mere mortals. But they're not: they're blessedly simple.

And, paradoxically, for such a race with such a sense of honour and decency, a bit cruel - entirely unable to discriminate between innocents and the servants of Sutekh, and ready to dispose of Sarah if the Doctor can't solve a simple riddle. The swines.

I know, I'm biased. Sarah's lovely. She shines in this too, the chemistry between Lis and Tom still on a high, with some brilliant dialogue ("Sweaty gelignite... highly unstable... one good sneeze might set it off... Any sign of detonators?... "No. Maybe he sneezed." Etc.) and all manner of magic moments. Oddly though, this is a story in which her character is both well-used and at times poorly used. Never mind all the standard victim stuff - that's par for the companion course - but she's suddenly a crack shot with a rifle, which is simultaneously a good thing, from the strong, independent female point of view but a thoughtless touch, from the where the heck in her background did she pick up that skill perspective. According to Lis Sladen, she suggested that Sarah fumbles on the first shot and that would have made a bit more sense, but she was overruled by director, Paddy Russell.

Still, speaking of not making sense, there's another 'Huh?' moment for Sarah early on, where she swans into the control room having picked out a lovely Edwardian dress (that, apparently, used to belong to Victoria) and suddenly, WHOOMF!, the TARDIS, instead of conveying them to UNIT HQ on contemporary Earth, is knocked off-course to materialise in... Edwardian England. What're the chances. Or does the TARDIS suddenly operate like the costume shop in Mr Benn?
Never mind, we forgive Sarah a lot. She's lovely, did I mention. She's also part of what sells this story, despite its flaws. Because, with a lot of running around in the early stages, being chased by shambling Osiran servitors, it would have been all too easy to mistake this for a Scooby Doo escapade - if it wasn't for the meddling Time Lord and his companion.

There's tremendous humour, but Sarah and the Doctor are taking the menace very seriously. Tom, especially, is superbly gloomy - harsh, even, when dealing with the well-meaning, bumblesome Lawrence (Michael Sheard) and practically biting the poor man's head off for being too trusting of his undead brother, Marcus Scarman. Marcus Scarman, by the way, such a great name for a villain it's worth repeating and played to Boriskarloffish perfection by Bernard Archard. In fact, the supporting cast on the whole are rather good, lending proceedings that all-important conviction I (probably) keep harping on about. Add to that the agonies in which the Doctor writhes at the feet of Sutekh, from one flash of those eyes delivered with a snake-like hiss, and an effective portrait is painted of a truly dominant figure, someone to be feared.

The narrative plays a little trick too, at one point, delivering Sarah to an alternative 1980 and treating us to a rare glimpse of the results if the Doctor didn't interfere. At a time when the Doctor's control of the TARDIS is erratic, it does rely on what would seem to be a bit of precision piloting, but it's ultimately a worthwhile side trip that serves the story well. (I'm reminded that, in a comparable way, in my very own Emotional Chemistry, companion Fitz is treated to a vision of a scorched Earth.) Nothing like a good visual to reinforces the gravity of the situation and more effective than merely stating that, if released, Sutekh will turn the Earth into a blasted wasteland.

The story needs those reactions and the 'what if' perspective because, dark as it is, in terms of all the grim death being handed out everywhere, to be properly effective in the horror stakes it could have done with being darker. Those chases through the woods take place in daylight, for instance, and the house interior, although treating us to the sort of beautiful period detail we expect from the BBC, isn't nearly shadowy enough. Of course, they would have known Brain Of Morbius was coming up, and they probably wanted to save most of their actual darkness for that. But it leaves this one a bit wanting for atmosphere at times.

In the meantime, the lighting here at least gives us a good look at the Mummies themselves and, for all that they only had to be men in bandages, there's some nice design work in evidence on those. The shallow craters to invest them with the merest suggestion of a face, those huge barrel chests letting us know there's a framework under there. That framework, when unbandaged, looks flimsy, but on the other hand these are supposed to be super high tech, so why shouldn't they be built as incredibly light as they are strong.

They're a serviceable metaphor for the story, as it happens. Peel away the layers to reveal the structure underneath and you'd never believe they'd stand up, let alone have the clout they do. But somehow the whole package, in its quintessential and colourful Doctor Who wrapping, is fairly convincing and testament to that winning 'formula' of 'old, new, borrowed, blue'.

Even if those Mummies shamble past the winning post, rather than run flat out.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Something Borrowed This Way Comes

Whenever asked that ripe and difficult question, “What makes a great Doctor Who story?”, I always opt for that tried and tested principle of “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” Where the blue can, of course, be a glib reference to the TARDIS or – more importantly, because the TARDIS itself is not an essential ingredient, except (generally) as a vehicle to transport us to adventure - a quality of mood or atmosphere. Or both, why not. In any case, not ‘blue’ in the sense that Torchwood would have you believe.

Watching Planet Of Evil on DVD, I can’t help but think that this answer of mine must have had its roots in my having grown up in what – if you feel like poking certain sectors of Doctor Who fandom and watching them jump – you might call the “Golden Age”. One of the commentators on the extras refer to this Hinchcliffe era as such, but he’s not ‘trolling’ – he firmly believes it. And why shouldn’t he: he worked on the show in that era and one of the other essential ingredients, I believe, of a great Doctor Who story is a conviction on the part of the writers, producers and pretty much everyone involved in what they are doing. (If you’re in it to piss about and have a laugh – see Graham Williams – then something’s missing.) Still, the key point here is that any “Golden Age” is bound to be measured subjectively.

For some it will be Williams, for some it will be JNT, for many in years to come it will be Rusty. Even though to me they might seem like the sort of people who think Invisible Touch was the best record Genesis ever made. And, in the event that any of them ever read this blog, they would likely snort derisively at everything I have to say. But, heck, what are blogs for? On a Who mailing list I could just randomly insert the words "Golden Age" and could fairly safely guarantee that nobody would read the rest of the post. Here, I can throw the words around liberally and do a little dance like the old guy who gleefully chants "Jehovah!" in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian.

But that would just be giving in to my wicked side.

Instead, I think I’d best just get back to the topic at hand, trusting that, courtesy of my long-winded introduction, now you, the reader, are as conscious as I am that any views I have to offer on a Who story from the mid-Pertwee to mid-Baker era will come with a degree of bias. Not an unshakeable bias – a few stories (e.g. Claws Of Axos) have not been as good as I remembered. While there have also been those, like Robot, that have struck me as a good deal better than I recalled from a previous rewatch. Swings and roundabouts.

The documentaries on The Planet Of Evil DVD seem to spend a lot of time focusing on how heavily this story rips off Jekyll & Hyde, but somehow I doubt Robert Louis Stevenson is turning in his grave. For one thing, it also nicks shamelessly from Forbidden Planet, but that’s a good movie to ‘plagiarise’ and that in turn borrows from The Tempest, so no big deal. For another, SF borrowing from classic stories is something of a given and Doctor Who has always been a repeat offender in that respect, and with The Mummy and Frankenstein to follow in this season, this particular era could be regarded as something of a creative kleptomaniac. But it tends to half-inch things with the endearing impudence of some sort of Artful Dodger – and then goes on to craft its stolen goods into something unique. Like setting a gem in a different trinket, with a charm and character all its own.

Here, Louis Marks conspires with Robert Holmes and they’re such shameless tea-leaves they haven’t even bothered to file the numbers off. It’s patently clear where all the bits came from: Sorenson even concocts an 'anti-quark serum', so that he can be seen imbibing a smoking brew, as he undergoes the Jekyll-Hyde transformation in front of a mirror.

The result is a story that’s not brilliant or genius but all those classic elements that have fallen off the back of a lorry have nevertheless been blended into something original. And if the central aim was to produce a sci-fi retelling of Jekyll and Hyde, then it’s definitely a story of opposites. Matter and anti-matter, Man and Anti-Man, film on an Ealing sound stage and video in the studio.

Aye, there’s the rub. The combination of camera work and design on Zeta Minor’s jungle is entirely worthy of the award for which Hinchcliffe apparently recommended Roger Murray-Leach. You want a wholly convincing alien environment in which to immerse your actors and your audience? You want it all for a few hundred quid? Roger’s your man. And David Maloney (who does love his freeze-frame cliffhangers) does a grand job of adding to the depth and believability of this simultaneously dark and colourful world. I love it now at least as much as it impressed me as a kid.

Against that, in its efforts to keep the narrative moving, the story doesn’t make nearly enough of the Jekyll-Hyde nature of the planet - the contrast between day and night is a tad underplayed for my liking. But even if the script had allowed itself a bit more time to explore that, the main contrast that would have come to light (haha) would have been that shortfall between the excellent film sequences and the limited, too well lit studio scenes. It’s not an unforgiveable production flaw, but the difference is at least as stark as the film sequences are effective.

Luckily - for me anyway - imagination comes to the rescue and it’s easy enough to bridge the gap between what’s on screen and what we’d be seeing if this creative team had been granted more pennies.

In fact, courtesy of Pitch Black – another night-day split personality world if ever there was one – it’s even easier to imagine.

There’s further contrast to come between the earlier planet-based half and the later ship-bound action, with that second half of the story not quite as effective. Again, Roger Murray-Leach does a commendable job on the ship interiors – making simple but effective use of the third dimension and building his sets on more than one level – but ideally at this stage you’d need a greater variety of claustrophobic spaces and hunter-prey action to rival the haunting jungle atmosphere. Something a bit more Alien, perhaps, but again a charitable imagination can make allowances for the fact that this is 70s TV and not a late 70s blockbuster horror movie. And this is horror, make no bones about that. It doesn’t scare the living wotsits out of me now, but my childhood’s not so long ago that I’ve forgotten the effect the sight of those emaciated husks had at the time of broadcast. Terrific stuff, guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.

Ah, but the big budget remake would be to die for.

Or would it. Because, you know, it wouldn’t have Tom in such fine moody and flippant form. It wouldn’t have Lis Sladen in equally fine form, with all that Sarah Jane-Fourth Doctor chemistry out-frothing any Jekyll-Hyde formula. (And yes, shallowness fans, she also happens to be exceptionally cute.) It wouldn’t have Ewen Solon’s commanding (nothing second about it) performance as Vishinsky. Or Frederick Jaeger lending that all-important conviction to what amounts to the ‘mad scientist’ role in this one. In fact, he’s not mad, just a bit deluded and he creates a sympathetic character.

On the plus side, it wouldn’t have Prentis Hancock who plays Salamar who’s not so much at the top of the Morestran chain of command, but over it. It’s not the actor’s fault – although if you’ve seen him in Space:1999 or Who’s Planet Of The Daleks, you could be forgiven for thinking so. In contrast with Sorenson, the character is insane and unsympathetic, clinging obsessively to his suspicions of the Doctor and Sarah in the face of mounting evidence that, even without the aid of a CSI: Zeta Minor team, would safely eliminate beyond all reasonable doubt the remotest possibility of them having anything to do with the deaths.

The remaining crew are variable, but they include Michael Wisher – sans Davros mask – and there’s at least some passing effort made to sketch them as individuals before they all have the life sucked out of them.

And here is where I go off on a bit of tangent, because one of the things I was most struck by was just how much this story must have influenced my own Fourth Doctor novel, Drift. Lurking semi-invisible horror in remote, isolated location; spindly icicle tendrils instead of a (surprisingly effective) shimmering outline of a monster; and a military expedition whose personnel I endeavoured to properly characterise as individuals – real people – before they all got killed. (As always, a lot comes down to what’s planted in the imagination at the grand age of eight, rather than what’s actually on screen, but I could recognise the seeds.) In truth, there’s not a heck of a lot of evidence of the latter in the script, but the variety of actors help and I’m persuaded this is one of the stories that inspired me to adopt that approach.

With the sketchy references to the energy-starved Morestran civilization there are also hints of that wider world-building that Ian Potter explores in his essay for Time And Relative Dissertations In Time And Space. It would have been so easy to just make them a generic human expedition, but no, now we have Morestra – another world in the Doctor Who universe we’re free to visit in our imaginations.

Overall then, this is another of those stories that excites in terms of its possibilities as well as everything it paints on screen. And all the essential ingredients – according to yours truly’s recipe! – are present: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Of course, there’s more than one way to mix them, and Planet Of Evil would certainly support the fact that it’s impossible to obtain perfect results every time. But I feel the parties responsible at least forged something that will last.

And they even managed to include a bit of foreshadowing, promising more borrowed wonders to come: Planet Of Evil, as an anagram of Vile Plant Foe, must surely be a reference to the season closer, six-part Triffids/Quatermass/The Thing From Another World ‘rip-off’, The Seeds Of Doom. Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe, such a clever pair.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

An Author By Any Other Name

In most respects I'm a modest kind of guy, but when it comes to writing I'd be the first to admit that one of the major buzzes to be had out of this business is seeing your book on the shelves at the local bookshop with your name on the cover. And yet here I am, only a few days after announcing the March release of The Shrieking Stones, my little foray into the world of Puffin under the name of Steve Rogers, and it turns out I've been commissioned to produce another pseudonymous work of children's fiction. Can't say anything more about it at this stage, obviously. Different genre, different pseudonym, different everything. But still me in disguise, so to speak. Never mind. As well as being modest I do like to share good news and celebrate, so: yay! :)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Familiarity Breeds... Daleks!

Genesis Of The Daleks poses a challenge, in that I’d be hard pressed to find anything new to say about it. It’s brilliant. And I’m pretty sure that will have been said before. For one thing, I used to think that and having watched it again over the past few days, I still do.

Fact is, I was afraid to watch it. It’s one of the Who stories I know very well. A little too well, I feared. It may have been the most-repeated story of the lot – it may not have been, but there were times it felt like it. I’m not sure when it was last repeated on BBC TV, but enough time must have lapsed since I’d last seen it, because although it was all very familiar, there wasn’t an ounce of contempt. I’d intended to watch an episode a day – as a sort of lunch-break treat. But I got through it a little faster than that because twice I caved and allowed myself “just one more”.

It’s not flawless – it’s Doctor Who. But it’s one of those “why don’t they make them like that any more?” stories. Well, we all know why: Mary Whitehouse won. We’re an audience of wusses and we certainly couldn’t let our children watch this sort of horrific material.

My parents let me watch it – I watched it with the family when I was seven – and yes it scared me. Woohoo! But it didn’t scar me. And boy, it fed my imagination. As we’ve already established, my imagination had already enjoyed a diet of giant maggots and spiders. Throw in the likes of Davros and of course it was bound to grow up strong.

This is a serial that revels in its darkness and is all the richer for it. The only thing that might make it darker is if it was lit like The West Wing. And now that I’ve said that, someone should really do a West Wing on Skaro, exposing the ins and outs of the Kaled corridors of power. As it is, we have corridors aplenty and the lighting helps paint a consistently claustrophobic atmosphere. Even the radioactive wastes of the Skaro No-Man’s Land is generally enclosed by smoke or fog.

The lighting only really gets it wrong at one point when it inadvertently allows us a glimpse of a very human-shaped head inside one of the Daleks. It’s a nit-pick and, like most nits, it’s not easy to catch – it surprised me, and I don’t recollect noticing it before. Who knows, maybe I did and forgave it, trundling swiftly on, along with the action.

Because, rather like The Green Death before it, this is a story that makes highly effective use of its six parts. Sure, it doesn’t have the breathless, almost desperate pace of some modern TV, but it strikes a terrific balance between keeping things moving and taking the proper time to explore its themes and situations. Allowing itself to breathe, while maintaining that wonderful claustrophobic atmosphere.

A couple of the cliffhangers aren’t as well-judged as The Green Death’s: Sarah plummeting to her death is a gasp out loud moment (certainly was when I was a nipper and had to wait a week to find out what happened to my favourite companion!), but the pay-off is weak – it needs Sevrin to lunge and grab her or something; and the Doctor being electrified is fair enough, but the sight of the Kaled dome being destroyed, when the Doctor knows he has sent Sarah and Harry into the holocaust, would have been a much more suspenseful moment for the break and considering it only comes all of two minutes into the next episode, I wonder why a trim wasn’t made here or there to accommodate that.

Still, in all honesty, it’d be difficult to know what to trim. Okay, we could afford to lose the giant clams. And we could afford to lose the image of the Doctor, Sarah and Harry flailing around in space at the end. But they’re the sort of flaws – again, nit picks – where we’d only want something else in their place. In the former case, the rejected experiments serve as a useful illustrator – a misstep in the – and I hesitate to use this phrase – evolution of the Daleks – as well as a decent slice of additional horror. A bit like the Slyther in Dalek Invasion Of Earth. In short, they didn’t have to be clams. And in the latter case, all we’d need is the same scene with a better visual – a warpy, swirly vortex effect or something not off the top of my head.

Ultimately though, it comes down to flaws shmaws. The nits, if you choose to pick them, are massively outweighed by the riches on offer. The best – blatant – use of WW2 imagery (uniforms and gas masks – and we all know how creepy those can be!) in sci-fi, pre-Star Wars – and, in any case, forget the Imperials, these Kaleds embrace the Nazi ideology and the ‘personality’ as well as the dress code. Peter Miles as Nyder, is exceptional, a brilliantly cold and memorable second to Davros himself. The Doctor agonising over the morality of genocide as he holds two wires an inch apart. Surely (one of?) the best hero-villain sit-down discussions ever (and obviously there’s going to be no wrestling over the Reichenbach Falls for these two – it wouldn’t be fair and wheelchair access is a bitch). Genuine shivers when Davros’ Dalek half boils over into the upper half and explodes out of him in a 'Fuhreristic' rant. He truly dominates, in the way all the supreme villains do.

At the time, I gather there was some disappointment that Davros hogged the action and the Daleks didn’t feature much. Well, d’uh. The fact that this was their creation story should have been a giveaway. In spite of that, the Daleks themselves make a significant stamp on the story – all the more effective, I think, because they are held in reserve – and when they do appear are more of a force to be feared and reckoned with. Apart from the regulars (naturally), they are the only characters in the piece whose future is assured. As they assert themselves, they will survive – and that is a powerful guarantee that lends them the commanding presence of a bona fide unstoppable force.

It’s not their fault they’re destined for a downhill slide after this.

And there lies the chief, significant problem with Genesis Of The Daleks. In terms of what followed, no Dalek story comes close. Even Davros – a supreme creation (who would have been eminently horrific even if I hadn’t had a grandmother who constantly reminded me of him) – becomes the elected representative of the law of diminishing returns. The mask is a cheap imitation of John Friedlander’s, the performances poorer cousins of Michael Wisher’s and the role steadily reduced to the dregs of what Terry Nation had cultivated. Their creation story should have granted them with a new lease of life, but instead their beginnings heralded a creative dead end. But the blame doesn’t rest on the shoulders of Genesis. That lies squarely with the writers/script editors/producers who couldn’t rise to the challenge laid down by this story: i.e. simply put, "Go on, do better than this, I dare ya."

Fortunately, its real legacy – the one that counts – is in the lasting impression it left on me and, probably, one or two others. And I’m glad to say, as familiar as the story is, that legacy is very much alive and well. And who knows what ideas I have, bubbling away in the incubation chamber of my imagination, that will ultimately owe their existence to this one monumental slice of Doctor Who from my childhood.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Siver Metal Lover

Apart from An Unearthly Child, obviously, I always considered Spearhead From Space as the best introductory story of any Doctor. Since my earliest clear memory of Doctor Who is an image from Ambassadors Of Death, Spearhead, being a teeny bit before my time, must have impressed me at some later date, whether on VHS or UK Gold. Robot, Tom Baker’s debut, on the other hand, was very much a part of my childhood, so you can take as granted a certain degree of bias when I say it’s very, very good. It’s not, though, as good as Spearhead.

Where Spearhead, in heralding the new era of an earthbound Doctor, pays homage to Quatermass, Robot goes digging in the vaults of Isaac Asimov for its inspiration and emerges smelling of something like an Avengers episode. It’s a pleasant enough scent to pick up and it’s really no surprise, given Terrance Dicks’ writing background. It’s also King Kong, of course, and in that respect demonstrates all the ambition so typical of Doctor Who – “Hey, we’ve got four whole pounds to spend on the next story. Let’s do an SF take on King Kong!” – that we’ve come to know and love. It’s, as always, the sort of gumption you have to applaud and admire, and it’s also the sort of gumption that should brace you for the inevitable few scenes that might not be quite up to visual scratch.

Let’s get all that out of the way first. For the maximum Kong effect, Terrance’s script calls for his titular Robot to become a giant one. So right there you know we can expect plenty of paper cut-out CSO work where, of course, we will see the join. To really test the limits of the production, Terrance also calls for a tank and that’s the part I remember as being embarrassingly poor, because the armoured fighting vehicle they wheel on is an Action Man tank, and I knew, because I wanted one. Oddly enough though, that was not the worst part: that honour goes to the Sarah Jane doll and, as much as I might now want one of those, flopping about in the claw of the Robot it makes for a very unconvincing visual effect.

All that, however, is towards the end. And fortunately this is a story that begins really well. Originally we had the wonder of the recent regeneration and a slight nervousness hinged on how we were going to take to this new Doctor. All that’s history now, but at least we still get to marvel at the energy Tom Baker puts into his arrival on the scene. There’s a Marxist (by which I mean, Harpo) dynamism to the man and when coupled with some great dialogue (this Harpo speaks), we get a swift portrait of an energetic madman who’s apt to go careening off in all manner of unexpected directions. But it’s not long before he’s firmly establishing himself in the role and putting his authoritative stamp on the situation – in fact, I think I can pin it down to the moment when, after an appropriately bizarre sequence of costume changes, he tells the Brigadier to “try cultivating a sense of urgency”.

At the same time, you have this mechanical menace stalking about the country, raiding this top secret facility and that. Aided and abetted by the stalking menace in the soundtrack and some effective use of the Robot’s POV, these scenes could only have been more effective with a touch better acting from the Robot’s victims. Although the guard dog does a fair job.

You also have Sarah Jane Smith engaging in a spot of honest-to-goodness, intrepid journalism – uncovering a conspiracy as well as landing herself in peril. SJS is no martial artist, but there’s still a touch of Emma Peel to her role as she zips about in her sports car, investigating the government-sponsored Thinktank, who are making use of top secret technology – just far enough on the wrong side of credibility – for their own nefarious ends. This Eau d’Avengers is further supplemented with a brief but amusing splash of Harry Sullivan, showing up – undercover – in John Steed mode and part of me has to pause and reflect that it’s a bit of a shame they didn’t capitalize on that angle a bit further. That would have been huge fun.

Still, what we get is fun too, with the story unfolding at a fair pace, showing off its Asimovian and Kong ancestry with pride: showing off the ‘monster’ in a theatre and, in the absence of an Empire State Building, having the giant Robot deposit Sarah on the nearest rooftop. It plays faster and looser with the Asimov side of things, building the robot’s programming around the Three Laws but, ironically, turns to scientists for its villains and ends up revisiting the very trend in Sci-Fi that Asimov, in devising his laws, was doing his best to steer away from. Complete with Mad Professor and a robot that destroys its creator. Heading up the Nazi scientists, Patricia Maynard makes for a good Susan-Calvin-gone-bad and Edward Burnham does a terrific job as the archetypal Mad Professor, Kettlewell, also managing to achieve an amazing combination of balding and bad hair day.

Talking of achievements, the Robot itself is one of those stunning designs that Doctor Who seemed to pull out of its creative hat almost routinely through much of its history. It’s a great, clunking monster with a terrific voice, and lent more than enough character by Michael Kilgariff to sell us on the love story. Because even if this tin man doesn’t actually have a heart, the story does. And it’s not over-egged. If anything, it’s underdone – but it’s just what’s needed to make the story tick.

The seeds of the solution are sown rather clumsily, with Kettlewell slipping a mention of his metal-eating virus (one that, note, attacks plastic buckets but leaves metal handles of said buckets unaffected) into conversation as casually as that sort of thing usually crops up. And it must be clumsy – it’s Benton who picks up on the information and relates it to the Doctor. The principal absurdities come to light around episode three, wherein we are expected to believe that the world’s nations have entrusted Britain with the arming codes for all their ICBMs and even the ruthlessly efficient Miss (Nuclear) Winters hasn’t thought to check the bunker’s food supplies before committing herself to this insane plan. Clearly, the first is a workaround for the lack of an internet via which control of the world’s weapons might otherwise have been seized. The second, I don’t know what the excuse could be.

That said, despite this slippery slope towards the end, in terms of plot and production, the story – along with its brand new Doctor – manages to win through with a certain irrepressible magic and energy and the overall impression is of one of those stories where the majority of this gem’s flaws can, even when rewatching as an adult, be forgiven by the inner child. And, as the Doctor himself points out, “There’s no point in being grown-up if you can’t be childish from time to time.”

Saturday, January 12, 2008

How Green Was My Childhood

It’s true that the word ‘classic’ is too often bandied around with no regard for its meaning, and it’s also true you hear a lot of that sort of thing in the world of Doctor Who fandom. But if there are any stories that deserve that ‘acolade’, then The Green Death has to be on the list. I’d seen a bit of this one relatively recently when they repeated it on BBC3 or some such, but didn’t manage to catch it in its entirety at the time. There was no need for panic though: it was a story I knew I was going to have on DVD at some point. It was one of those must haves – but in truth, I’d forgotten quite how essential it was. Brilliant stuff.

In contrast with The Claws Of Axos, this is a story that knows exactly what it’s about and, after declaring its environmental, economic and horror manifesto right up front in the first few minutes, stays firmly on-message through six episodes. And, within the limitations of contemporary visual effects and shoestring budgets, its great potential is properly realized. Its nicely constructed to fill out its lengthy runtime, ensuring a satisfactory serving of action adventure, jeopardy, fun and scares in each of its six courses. But I’m not going to get too mealy with my metaphors, because this is The One With The Maggots.

They’re disgusting. Horrible. Ugh. They’re also a perfect monster for the job, squirming and crawling forth from the mines to feast on the rotting corpse of a world in state of commerce-and-industry-driven decay. And they play an important role in making this adventure a classic, because they’re very much a part of what helped the tale endure in a few million imaginations. Frankly, I pity the people who were sitting down to tea the first time they saw it. They’re by no means the be-all and end-all of it – you only have to look at Planet Of The Spiders for comparison: with its equally memorable arachnids, the last time I saw that one it was badly let down by a number of other factors. The Green Death, without the aid of nearly so many legs, stands up remarkably, remarkably well.

Again in contrast with The Claws Of Axos, its production shortcomings are much easier to forgive in light of its narrative strengths. Basically those shortcomings amount to some ragged-edged CSO shots – including some weird switching between studio-bound CSO and perfectly fine location filming up on the maggot-riddled slag heaps – and the fly. The fly is, it must be said, one of those examples of Doctor Who’s ambition far exceeding its allowance and is unfortunately a bug too far. Unfortunately, it’s also a worthwhile element, in terms of stepping up the scale of the crisis, illustrating the ease with which these local environmental incidents might blossom into global disasters if not ‘nipped in the bud’. So I can fully appreciate why the production team chose to go ahead and include the fly, even though it was never really going to look any good.

But that, as far as I’m concerned, is pretty much it. Flaws easily remedied by 40 years and several hundred thousand quid to play with.

The rest, far from being green, is evidence of an experienced team at work, with something to say and doing a grand job. Yes, modern demands would necessitate a lot of trimming and fast edits, but honestly there’s not a great deal I would change. Even the Doctor's antics on Metebelis III which, on first impressions, might seem like an unnecessary side-step, both serve a role in the story (that blue crystal proves very handy) and, coupled with the brainwashing of poor old Captain Yates, offers some nifty foreshadowing of the end of the era. (Although it's a shame Planet Of The Spiders dispenses with the good work done here in painting a wonderful impression of the 'famous blue planet' and, from what I recall, depicts it as a world of brightly lit sets and bad acting.) It's fitting because, of course, The Green Death is about endings too - and not only the end of the world. It has flair, panache, charm – all the qualities of Pertwee’s Doctor and like the best-conveyed serious messages, it's related with a sense of humour and fun.

The script is heavily populated with colourful characters, from hippies to corporate execs, brought to life by solid performances all round. A minor exception, perhaps, is Hinks, the Global Chemicals ‘heavy’ who lacks a certain weight and I did groan a little at our first encounter with the milkman, who seems determined to cram every bit of clich├ęd Welsh into his dialogue, but once that’s out of the way things seem to settle down and we’re treated to plenty of local colour without the use of the heavy handed marker pen. Special mention must go to Talfryn Thomas as Dave the Miner and Roy Evans as Bert (Rest In Green Peace).

Yes, it’s passingly amusing to see BOSS attempting his pre-WiFi takeover of the world, but I take that as an indicator of just one more Doctor Who story ahead of its time and, brilliantly invested with a booming Zen-like (if Zen was played by Brian Blessed) voice by John Dearth the stock sci-fi trope of the mad computer rates as a fully paid-up character, up to and including when he 'does a HAL'.

Top marks as well to the leads, with Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning enjoying plenty of engaging banter and, of course, with Jo sharing a nice chemistry with Stewart Bevan as Professor Jones. (They were an off-screen item, and she suggested him for the role.) Now, it must be said I'm not Jo Grant's greatest fan - I guess I must have liked her well enough as a young nipper, but heck, she's no Sarah Jane Smith. But here she's at her best and her farewell, beautifully understated, is charged with genuine emotion and at least as potent in the tear-jerking department as Rose's (now apparently temporary) permanent separation from the Doctor in Doomsday. Although not quite as moving for me, personally, as Sarah Jane's departure, natch.

Thank goodness there are a few fun extras on the DVD, including an entertaining 'documentary' from Mark Gatiss and a lesson in How To Make Your Own Maggot from the man who originally created them. Like a lot of Blue Peter projects, I don't think I'll actually be trying that myself as, frankly, I'd rather not see one of those lying around the place. Even after all these years, those things give me the creeps.

But I shouldn't be worried. There's a chance, I suppose, our cats would quite happily deal with such a creature. Well, I'd hope so. And if not, as vegetarians, we should have plenty of fungal protein around the place. If any giant maggots show up here, Quorn will be our main line of defence.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

March Of The Puffins

It seems ages ago now, but the excitement of being commissioned to write a children's book - even if it was a case of ghost-writing and the finished product wasn't going to be sporting my own name - was nothing compared to the eager anticipation when I was told the book was going to be published by none other than Puffin and due for release in March 2008. Because, you see, it meant that, some day, I was going to be able to use that heading.
Well, now that I've gotten that out of my system, I can announce that the mysterious ghostwritten project in question is called Fright Night - The Shrieking Stones - under the rather unassuming pen name of Steve Rogers. Yes, that's me, folks. Well, it will be for the first two books anyway. It's intended as a series, with the second currently scheduled for release in September. After that, who knows. But buy it - for your kids, for yourselves, and perhaps in some small way, for me. :)
Anyway, just the fact that I'm to have something published by Puffin is enough to make me proud. Choughed, you might say.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Insanity Claws

The words Doctor, Who, Christmas and Special seem to go together with a degree of regularity these days and a small part of what made my Christmas special this year was the veritable feast of Doctor Who DVDs I was lucky enough to receive as gifts. Skipping right past the part where I found myself, mere moments after removing the wrapping paper, absently arranging those gifts in order of broadcast - I'd really thought my days of Doctor Who geekdom were far behind me, but it's clearly chronic - I thought it might be fun to post my impressions of each here, as and when I got the chance to watch them.

First up then is The Claws of Axos. (It was going to be The Aztecs, but my wife wants me to wait on that one until we can watch it together.)
This is one of those mad stories made at a time when Doctor Who wasn't only in colour, it was lurid and playing with all the latest video effects. Presumably to go some way to disguising how theatrical it all was back then - there's a sense in this, more than others I've seen, of someone attempting to produce a blockbuster movie on stage, and where certain costumes or make-up effects aren't up to scratch they try to cover with swirly lighting and wibbly psychedelic 'wizardry'. Which somehow just comes across as being theatrical in a different dimension.
What it has in spades, like many an old Doctor Who, is ambition. Buckets of it. It's something you have to admire - well, I do - and I'm constantly amazed that no-one (apparently) ever looked at a script and said, "No, no, we can't possibly do that on ten shillings."

It's just one of the numerous qualities that helps me look past the visual shortcomings. So if the Axons we see on screen parade around in zip-up yellow leotards, I know that, if the same story was made today, those 'skin' patterns would be animated and flowing all over their shimmering CGI bodies like liquid gold. And in any case, from the neck up, they look rather creepy. Their faces have a rather Medusa-like quality and I can see why RTD might have borrowed the design, give or take a chakram halo or so, for his Heavenly Host robots.

To the story's credit, design is a strong-point in other areas, with the Axons in their "rusty (with a small r) Krynoid" form being reasonably monstrous and generally effective, except where they look like a man rolling around the floor in a big orange bag. (It's just the one scene, but it's lodged in the memory now and there's no shifting it.) And parts of the interior of Axos are well-realised, although the liberal use of CSO is distracting, lending characters an edge they could have done without and the claws that restrain various prisoners are too obviously rubbery, as though limbs were cannibalised from the entire stock of lobster costumes from the local party shop.
The Axos exterior is what really deserves praise. CSO deficiencies aside, a grand job was done making it look like an organic ship - a sort of space-faring leech - and they even go to some trouble to make it look as though it's breathing as it hurtles towards Earth in those opening shots. Fantastic.

Unfortunately, it's in those same opening shots that the story falls down. Because as well as the ship we get a montage of shots of the Axons in their ugly, spaghetti monster guise. And the immediate upshot is a story that strangely misses its own point.

It's a great premise, with bags of potential. But that bag is burst like an overloaded Tesco carrier and the contents spilled all over the place. If the Axons had arrived on Earth and they had been beautiful, golden humanoids ready to bestow their wondrous gifts on humanity *without* our prior knowledge that they were in fact horrible tangled blobs of spaghetti, we - the audience - might have been fooled for at least the length of an episode. Possibly longer, if the writers had played their cards right.

But they show us their hand at every turn. The Doctor, even though he is firmly against the shoot first policy - and quite right too - isn't fooled for a minute, and neither are we. Which is a damn shame, because all we're left with is a just sufficiently entertaining romp while we wait for the situation to be resolved. The Doctor recognises the signal from Axos as a heartbeat, but the heart of the story is given no room to breathe. We really needed to be taken in by the deception with the rest of humanity, even if only for a while.

We're fortunate at least in that the story features *this* Doctor and *this* Master. Pertwee and Delgado are in fine form, both a pleasure to watch. The way the Master is slipped into proceedings almost incidentally, as a prisoner of Axos, is nice and when Delgado stares and declares, "I am the Master. You will obey me", you're inclined to agree. Even so, the solution to the Axos problem - the time loop trap - seems to be sprung, by and large, out of nowhere and the end result is, like the spaghetti monsters, a bit shapeless and not nearly as satisfactory as a plateful of bolognese. And I say that as a vegetarian.

Of the supporting cast, it's good to see Donald Hewlett, of It Aint Half Hot, Mum fame and Peter Bathurst as Chinn provides some entertainment as the essential - and at the time, somewhat ubiquitous - government minister. Bureaucrats being, if not quite the Daleks, then the Cybermen of the Pertwee era. There's a decent bit of action in the mix - as you'd expect from a UNIT adventure - but, with the story's potential so thoroughly wasted at almost every turn, it all seems a bit purposeless.

According to the information on the Deleted/Extended scenes, the story's working title was The Vampire From Space and the amended title was mistakenly transcribed in a memo as The Clause Of Axos. A better title might have been The Seeds Of A Really Great Story, but unlike the Krynoids that the Axon costumes, with the application of a bit of green spray paint, were to become, those seeds never take root.

There are probably other points of appeal I'm overlooking in the interests of being brief, but overall it's a colourful relic I'm glad enough to have but it's by no means the best of what is - and will always remain - one of my favourite eras of one of my favourite shows. Some of those loopy video effects seem a bit drug-induced, but the Doctor had better trips than this, even when stranded on Earth.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Happy New Year!

So you've greeted all your seasonings and securely tied your yules. And if you're anything like me, now comes the hard part: getting back to work, full of good intentions and a lurking curiosity at the back of your mind as to how long it will take this year for all those resolutions to dissolve in a puff of "Oh well, I tried." For me, getting back to work just involves switching back into a working frame of mind, although sometimes that feels just as tough as making yourself walk to an office in the morning! This morning it also involved returning to my (relatively recent) habit of taking a n early swim up at the local leisure centre. That was tough. And not only because of the extra weight I was dragging through the water! Where some things are concerned, it's probably easier not to take breaks at all.
Still, I know some folks already started back to work before Christmas week was over, so I'm not here for sympathy. Quite the opposite. I'm only here to offer a few words of cheer and encouragement, in the shape of best wishes to everyone for a Happy New Year. May 2008 bring you happiness, success in your endeavours and any heart's desires that don't clog the arteries.