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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ER Closure

How do you quit a soap? If we're talking the Imperial Leather, Dove or carbolic variety, then the answer's simple: quit bothering about personal hygiene. But if it's the TV brand, it's not that easy. They're this organic, living world in which we freely immerse ourselves, hoping to follow the trials, tribulations and triumphs of people for whom we're prepared to set aside, for example, 45 minutes per week, 22 weeks a year from Pilot to - presumably, if it ever gets to that stage - final curtain.

Shows like The West Wing help us out by having an effective set term built in: after Bartlett's maximum two terms, it would be difficult to imagine many continuing to watch after the cast being replaced wholesale. Now, on that one, I've yet to reach the end, but I know there is a last episode and I'm sure I'll feel an overall sense of satisfaction, not to say achievement, when I get there. But, as undoubtedly brilliant as The West Wing is, it will never quite compete with ER. Those White House bods have earned my respect, whereas the staff at Cook County General won my affections.

There have been so many characters, over the years, I've absolutely loved. Even the ones I hated - because ER always had a gift for showing us the human side of even the Weavers and the Romanos of its world. Yes, some of that love was of the romantic persuasion, but if a hospital is going to include the likes of Susan Lewis, Carol Hathaway, Jeannie Boulet, Lucy Knight, Abby Lockhart, Deb Chen and Elisabeth Corday on its staff then I - a sensitive soul who fell in love with Sarah Jane Smith at the tender age of seven - can scarcely be blamed for growing similarly fond of some of its medical professionals. And alongside that there was always the best-friend, buddy, uncle, mentor, nothing-remotely-gay-about-it-honest love for some of the male medicos - principally Carter, Pratt and, of course, Mark Green.

But the steady ebb and flow of characters is carefully managed so that, some little time before one of your favourites departs (whether as a result of marriage, the need to be with a new born niece or, quite frankly, a brutal stabbing) steps have usually been taken to introduce a new rising star with which to hook your interest and soften the blow. Like Abby with her alcoholism, there's no real ideal time to quit.

But it's that last fellow in that list, Mark, funnily enough, who provides me with an answer to my question: how do you quit a soap?

Because, while I've been faithfully following the latest season (is it really 14 now?), I've also been catching up on a rewatch of the first 8 seasons on DVD. That half-marathon, as it were, concluded yesterday with episode 21 of Season 8, On The Beach. I'm not going to say what happens in it - everyone probably knows - but it made me blub the first time and it managed to do the same without the slightest difficulty this second time around.

There was another episode after that, Lockdown, but that's a big season cliffhanger and at the end of On The Beach I arrived at a decision. Or a conclusion, you could say.

No more ER for me.

You could argue that, perhaps, it's one I should have arrived at on the first viewing. But I think you'd be wrong. I don't regret continuing to watch after that point: the show still had plenty of good - nay, superlative - drama to offer after that point. *But* it did begin to drop the ball and, particularly, mishandle certain characters in Season 10 - and that, to me, was more disappointing than a character's departure. And slowly but surely as the series rolled into its 13th and 14th seasons, I was getting a sense that one of us - either the show or me - was going through the motions. Watching the earlier shows on DVD while the new series was still unfolding finally brought the contrast home to me.

I'm watching the lives of these mostly new characters play out and I realise, as much as I still *like* some of them - Pratt, Neela, Abby - I find I don't really care about them. There's a warmth, a dynamism, a chemistry missing that, irrespective of the still-high standards the production maintains, gives me a sense of treading water. Which, when a thing used to be as good and thoroughly addictive as ER, is as close to sinking as you want it to get.

Now in the past, it's fair to say I have waxed, if not lyrical, then a fair bit about ER. Far less so than I've harped on about Doctor Who, but that's no reliable measure of where those shows place in my affections. On a purely personal note, I remember I began watching ER when my Dad was away on business the Wednesday night it started and my Mum invited me over for company and we looked for something to watch on the telly. And although my Dad was only away a couple of other Wednesdays after that, those midweek visits of mine became something of a ritual. And an entirely welcome one at that. I can't quite remember now how long that went on, but of course I continued watching in any case for all those characters I mentioned - and a few more besides. And it's only in the last two years - since, incidentally, they dropped the theme music, with its distinctive siren song opening - that I've wondered when I should think about giving up the habit.

My answer then: pick a character and follow the course of their life through to their departure. If I'd picked Susan at the start, my fanhood (is that a word?) would have lasted all of two and a half years. If I'd picked Carol or Doug, then I'd have stayed faithful for six. But the fact is, although it's easier to say in retrospect, I think if you had to pick a single character out of all of them, I'd have still opted for Mark Green. He was such an anchor to the whole team, in the midst of all the chaos. So, even though it's on a second viewing and even though I've actually watched considerably past that point, it's his departure - on DVD - that marks (ha) my own very fond farewell to the series at long, long last.

And, heck, with those discs snugly at home on their own shelf - eight seasons happened to fit *perfectly* - I can always go back and revisit any of the gang from Series 1 to 8 any time I like. And that's where all of my best medically trained friends can be found.

Apart from a couple of friends who completed their first aid course last week. Well done them.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Rocky Horror

Graham Williams comes in for a lot of stick from me, largely because he was the producer who first showed me just how rubbish Doctor Who could really be. Now, it's not his fault that I happened to be growing up at the time - and, probably, waking up to some of the show's general shortcomings - but he is at least in part to blame for the fact that, as I was growing up, Doctor Who was travelling in the opposite direction. That said, for all his Underworlds, Nimons and Creature(s) From The Pit, he was also the producer in residence at the time of The Horror Of Fang Rock.

It is, frankly, superlative Doctor Who. Not bad for a rush job from Terrance Dicks.

Uncle Terrance had originally submitted a vampire story, but Auntie Beeb was already doing Dracula and didn’t want another set of monsters baring fangs in competition, so that was set aside for a later date and eventually became State Of Decay. But it’s easy to see how this one’s title might have come about.

So, no vampires. But what it has instead is such a near perfect mix of sf horror ingredients it’s almost as though Terrance has a recipe book to hand.

Now, I talked before about how much Planet Of Evil must have influenced Drift, but that was something to which I'd only cottoned on while watching it the other day, whereas at the time of writing the book I consciously looked to Fang Rock as my 'role model', so to speak.

It has the isolated setting (a lighthouse! - and I say this without any trace of a pun - how brilliant is that!), the nicely drawn characters getting killed off one by one, the lurking horror, atmosphere by the bucketload and, not entirely unrelated to said atmosphere, the weather. It also has Tom at his most sombre and it's really this performance that most informed my characterisation of him in the novel. As in Pyramids, he’s bordering on harsh at times in his dealings with the supporting characters, as he gets on with the serious business of defeating the alien menace. As though he is very much there at the heart of the darkness in this story, along with the alien he’s hunting – as it hunts everybody else. There are softer shades from Tom as well, like the way he tells Leela that Skinsale (Alan Rowe) “died with honour”, when that’s a fairly generous colouration of the truth, but he’s wonderfully alien – remote and removed from us mere humans, and yet capable of warmth and concerned to save us all the same.

According to director, Paddy Russell (who also helmed Pyramids), Tom wasn’t happy with the script, but if this moody Doctor is evidence of that, then Tom Baker should have been handed “rubbish” like this every time. Maybe he was sulking because he’d wanted to do the vampire story too, but whatever’s going on behind the scenes, something’s working. Heck, apparently he wasn’t getting on with Louise Jameson either, and yet the on-screen between-character dynamic is worthy of the best comedy double-act. And it’s worth noting that there is room for humour – somehow - in all the creepy, suspenseful pervading gloom. It’s simply not permitted to rule, as seemed to characterise later Williams’ adventures.

Given the challenges in production, it’s all pretty effective, visually speaking, with only what amount to minor quibbles to prove that, no matter how good it might be otherwise, this is in fact a Doctor Who story and hence subject to the same budget limitations as every other episode. But to be honest, despite a few telltale CSO-type outlines, an obviously *model* boat and a glowing spotlight for an alien mothership, really the team worked wonders. Of course the fog and the menacingly economic lighting, as well as ladling on the atmosphere, no doubt help cover a multitude of sins. But if such elements can serve a story visually as well as narratively, then pile it on, I say.

The creature itself, the Rutan scout, is a blob with tentacles and, like many a Doctor Who monster, could have done with having a bob or two more spent on it, but the jellyfish configuration is wholly in keeping with the marine setting and, who knows, maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t find it anywhere near poor enough to interfere with my enjoyment of the story. And the fan in me appreciated the tie-in with the Sontarans, another little sprinkle of world-building on the notion of a coherent Who universe like glitter on a home-made Christmas card.

There are a few moments when certain actors let the side down: John Abbott (Vince) blubbing “Oh no” a tad pathetically at the discovery of the first death, some of Annette Woollett(Adelaide)’s histrionics, for example. But on the plus side, Leela (who positively shines in this one – notable highlights: threatening especially aggravating wreck survivors with a knife, popping down the stairs for a quick gloat over her fallen Rutan foe, to name but a couple) gets to slap her and the supporting cast are pretty dependable in the main, even if (again harking back to Pyramids) there are no Bernard Archards or Michael Sheards. There is, I think, a curious continuity glitch when it appears that two characters must have passed the Doctor and Leela on the stairs without either of them noticing, but without an actual plan of where each room is situated on the stairs, I couldn’t swear to that with a hundred percent certainty. Although I guess I could go back and rewatch it again soon.

When a Doctor Who is this good, it can be sure of getting a rewatch more than once. Of course, on the other hand, it can also be fairly sure its flaws and glitches will be entirely forgiven. So, perhaps instead of reporting on possible continuity hiccups, I should be apologising to Graham Williams. So, here it is: I’m sorry, Graham.

Now, in due course, at the appropriate juncture and in the fullness of time, maybe he might in turn apologise to me. For Underworld, The Creature From The Pit, The Horns Of Nimon

But I don’t know. Maybe The Horror Of Fang Rock makes up for all those put together.