Thursday, August 27, 2009

More Blogs

There's nothing like the internet for blowing your own trumpet. Of course, with so many others doing the same it's like trying to make yourself heard in the midst of 76 Million Trombones. So what's the answer? Why, don't limit yourself to one instrument, of course.

Quite a while ago - late last year, I think - I set up 4dprefect's Blog as a platform for a few random creative bits and pieces, but after a few initial posts nothing was heard. I guess I ran out of puff. So what on earth do I want more blogs for?

Well, I gather quite a few writers are raising the profile for some of their work through blogging, so I really owe it to my material to do likewise. So, for the time being, I've set up 4d Evil and Tortenblog, which will play host to writings from, respectively, the worlds of Evil UnLtd (TM), my SF comedy, and Tortenschloss (TM), my YA fantasy. There's nothing on either site yet, but hopefully that will change soon and, with a bit of creative juggling (no mean feat when playing the trumpet) I may even get around to posting further morsels on 4dprefect's Blog.

Rambling, generally non-creative waffle will remain here where it belongs.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Foiled Again

Doctor Who fans tend to think of the Master as the perfect foil for the Doctor. But really it's the Vardans. Cheap gag, yes, but surely not as cheap as the production values on the six-part Invasion Of Time.

It is a tad unfair to pick on any Doctor Who story for a failing in the fx department and, nine times - well, eight, or maybe seven times out of ten I can generally look past budget constraints and watch as the merits of the story outweigh the petty visual flaws. But ultimately too much of this story relies on the aliens being a convincing foe and they are, to put it in the simplest terms possible, not.

If it wasn't bad enough that they are, for the most part of their screen time, floaty bits of bacofoil, poorly CSO'd and brought to 'life' by voice-acting so leaden it could be used as radiation shielding, when they finally materialise in their true form, I found myself longing for their return to their floaty bacofoil existence. Because these fearsome enemies turn out to be goons in ill-fitting space uniforms commanded by a guy whose special power is to invest his facial expressions with a fraction of the emotion he put into his voice acting.

Now, on DVD, we do have the option of activating new CGI effects to cover for some of Who's old deficiencies. I'm not normally a fan of them, because I generally prefer to rewatch these - at least in the first instance - in their original form - and because in the main, the CGI effects have been A Bit Rubbish (TM). (Also, I discovered, if you're watching these stories an episode at a time, as I like to do, you end up having to reset the DVD options every time, which is a bit of a pain - take note, 2 Entertain.) However, it has to be said, the CGI people did a great job on the Vardans in their energistic form and, even if you can still see a little bit of the bacofoil poking out, they are much more effective. But even then, it only works until they speak and nothing could be done to remedy the trudging goon form.

Ah well, at least they are all (yes, all three of them) replaced in a dramatic plot twist by Sontarans at the end of Part Four. Unfortunately, I remembered them as being A Bit Rubbish(TM) in this one and it turns out I was not deceiving myself. There's a reason they keep their helmets on for the most part. Although not as sub-Spitting Image as they appear in the later Two Doctors, it seems the production team on this one only had money for one cartoonish mask, while the junior grade Sontaran troops get to traipse (and sometimes stumble) uselessly about in full armour. The actor here eschews Kevin Lindsay's previous decent stabs at portraying a credible militaristic potato-headed alien in favour of a poor man's Ray Winstone with a lisp.

But to hear me go on, you'd think this was one of the worst Doctor Whos ever. And it's not. It's really not.

There is, in the midst of the more disappointing aspects, a great story struggling to get out. And occasionally it even manages to pop up for a wave.

Tom Baker gives a surly, commanding performance and clearly revels in the role of a Doctor possibly gone bad - although his laughing up the invasion at the end of episode two smacks of over-egging it a bit. Louise Jameson is, of course, fab as Leela - although she is cruelly wasted. (There's oodles of potential in the whole primitive savage vs. advanced soldiery angle, but beyond the odd knife in the probic vent it's not properly explored.) And then she's married off in a way so lame I was still cringeing after all these years in anticipation of having to see it again. (It's one of those 'moments' in Who history you'd prefer to deny.) That's no disrespect to Chris Tranchell (another of the Survivors) who puts in a good turn as Andred, captain of the guard. Special mentions in the acting stakes also to John Arnatt as an exquisitely aristocratic Borusa and Milton Johns as Castellan Quisling, who's so obsequious you can only imagine if there had been more aliens queuing up to invade Gallifrey he'd be ready to change allegiances a few more times. And Rodan, the young Time Lady, is almost a precursor to Mary Tamm's Romana - which can be no bad thing.

The dialogue is frequently witty and on the whole - when the Vardans aren't around - the adventure's rarely anything less than entertaining and enough fun to keep you watching through the six episodes. But, much as a Sontaran is prone to falling over a plastic chair, this trips up over a few too many obstacles. And the great story struggling to get out ultimately spirals away down the plug hole of a hastily written script and some potential cleverness poorly realised.

At times, Gallifrey is granted some measure of the scale afforded it in The Deadly Assassin, but at other times the endless passages of this technologically advanced citadel of the Time Lords resemble the boiler room of an old hospital. Equally unfortunately, similar can be said of the TARDIS interior. And while there can be some justification for the TARDIS interior resembling anything it likes, the 'we've been here before' gag as the Doctor & Co parade through the same basements and corridors is overplayed and backfires. And no wonder the Shobogans dropped out of Time Lord society - they serve very little purpose.

These are minor issues though next to the manner in which the story itself disintegrates, with the hunt through the TARDIS taking place in entirely the wrong episode (Part 5 would have been a better choice) and it all culminating in one of the Doctor's flimsiest plans (build a big gun) versus one of the all-time stupidest plans by an alien (I'm fed up with chasing after the Doctor and control over Time, I think I'll just head off to the Panopticon and blow myself, the world, my own battlefleet and the rest of the universe up with this handy grenade).

It's this that ultimately lets down what could have been the (whimsical) epic it clearly wants to be. Suspension of disbelief is tough to achieve on a length of substandard bungee cord and you really need a meatier resolution at the end of a six parter. Here, the main enduring memory we're left with to sink our teeth into is the tinfoil and I don't know about you, but just the thought of that makes me cringe.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Amityville Slugger

The Graham Williams era of Doctor Who was not a favourite of mine. He threw a few curve balls (Invisible Enemy), some odd balls (Underworld) and too many downright dodgy balls (most of Season 17) for my liking and it's those that chiefly colour my memory of his stint as producer. In short, to seriously mix my baseball metaphors, a poor batting average. But just occasionally - to mix my baseball metaphors - he'd step up to the plate and seriously up his batting average with something like The Horror Of Fang Rock - as fine an example of quintessential Who as you're ever likely to encounter. Now, possibly that one met with my hearty approval because, frankly, it all feels a bit more Hinchcliffe than Williams - and Image Of The Fendahl is similar in that respect.

It has that 'something borrowed' feeling of familiarity to it as well as producing something new, but unlike much of the Hinchcliffe era its sources are not immediately obvious (to me anyway).

On some level, it's as though someone found an old recipe for Doctor Who and did their best to follow it to the letter, tossing in fairly creative substitutes where certain ingredients were unavailable. The exact measures are lost in time, but basically you'll need some fog, an old priory, a mad professor, a coven, death, more death, a glowing skull, banks of old computers and a sprinkling of pseudoscience, a dash of Time Lord mythology, race memory, giant alien slugs and, crucially, a pinch of salt. Heck, with its occult elements, ancient long-buried evils that have influenced mankind's development, themes of race memory and gestalt creatures, they may have just thrown The Daemons and The Ark In Space in a blender and hoped for the best.

But that assessment does a disservice to Chris Boucher, a Who writer I rate, and he manages to enliven the mixture with flashes of inspired dialogue and a (mostly) colourful selection of characters (helped along by some larger than life performances). The night filming certainly doesn't do any harm to the Gothic horror atmosphere either.

Now I love Ark In Space, but Fendahl even manages to score over that in the horror stakes, both because it's not set in a brightly lit space station and the idea of someone finding themselves absorbed into an alien gestalt is more effective here. Ark boasts its memorable shocks in that respect and explores the notion more fully, but Noah is portrayed in such a stylised, starchy way it distances us somewhat from the character, whereas I found more sympathy with Thea Ransome's fate here.

In a mailing list discussion, it was pointed out to me that a heterosexual male will generally be more sympathetic to the fate of a pretty female - and it's true to say I was always very concerned from a very young age for Sarah Jane's safety. And I think Thea is further painted as a victim by virtue of the patronising sexism to which she is subjected by her colleagues. Doubtless Wanda Ventham was used to it from her fellow officers in SHADO, but ultimately I'd rather be forced to wear a purple wig than end up transformed into a golden medusa. YMMV, as they say.

As to the others, it's a little disconcerting at first to hear Charles from Survivors speaking with a faux Germanic accent, but Dennis Lill lends intensity and credibility to what would otherwise be a standard mad professor shtick. Edward Arthur's got an entertaining line in sarcasm as Colby, even if some of his lines are misfires, and Scott Fredericks as Stael is so positively inhuman, with his cold smarm-school manners, it comes as a shock that I actually felt anything for him when he meets his ultimate fate. Daphne Heard seems over the top as the Worzelly white witch - but I suspect that has something to do with most West Country accents on TV sounding dubious to my Cornish ears - and she's undoubtedly a wonderful character - or caricature, I can't quite decide.

Tom is appropriately dark and sombre (a la Fang Rock), but with enough levity along the way to (just about) offset that truly chilling moment when he fetches Max the gun from the altar. Surely one of the coldest moments in Who. Against that, we have the warmth of Louise Jameson who shines as Leela and although that's about par for the course, we mustn't underestimate the incongruity of her savage ways in the contemporary world setting, to say nothing of her first encounter with cows.

The Fendahleen (aka giant alien slugs) themselves are a great design. The addition of those cobra-like wings was apparently implemented to avoid a phallic appearance, but whatever the reason, it completes their alien appearance rather well. They're somewhat wanting in the execution, with their rather impotent shambling, but they're by no means the worst in that department to have graced our screens in Who.

Storywise, I would have liked more clues sown earlier about the coven/witchcraft angle and it turns out there were some, at least according to the deleted scenes (Ted invokes some prayer to a strange occultish pendant). The ending seems a little rushed and there's a two-level threat which really only works on one level. The large-scale 'all-Earth will be consumed by Death' threat is rather too abstract - a bit like Sutekh (Pyramids Of Mars), in that we are given dire warnings about it and, courtesy of a side-trip to the Fifth Planet, given some indication of Earth's possible future. told about it and unfortunately the isolated setting plays against the Fendahl. More effective is immediate, localised threat, with characters prey to the big alien slugs so terrifying they can root even the Doctor to the spot in fear.

All in all then, a good solid Who story and one of the better deliveries in the Williams innings, but not as enduringly memorable as Fang Rock. Perhaps, in the end, it's just too much of an all-rounder when what was needed was to hit the ball out of the park. Not quite a home run then, but it does cover all the bases.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Virtual Master Piece

Doctor Who fans are funny creatures. Apparently The Deadly Assassin was poorly received at the time of broadcast, and yet for me at the tender age of seven it was an instant hit and pretty much the standard by which all other Gallifrey stories came to be measured. It's a common enough effect and by and large boils down to a question of age: i.e. which 'era' of the show played a significant part in your formative years. We'll call it the regeneration gap.

A fan interviewed for the documentary in the extras bemoans the fact that a Time Lord complaining about his dodgy hip, for instance, conflicts with previous on-screen evidence (such as it was) of the Doctor's people. Which is fair enough, except to me it seems to overlook the example of the First Doctor, whose doddery old frame was increasingly on the point of failing its MOT before he finally regenerated. Added to which, prior portrayals of the illustrious Time Lords skimped on detail and I rather suspect that the fan's chief complaint pertains to the lifting of that shroud of mystery that still, at that point, lay draped over the Gallifreyans like a dust sheet.

Here, Robert Holmes dares to whip off that sheet, shake off some of the dust and reveals a lot of old relics. But they're interesting relics, I find - the sort that would keep you watching Antiques Roadshow. What he does is invest the Time Lords - the people and their society - with character. And yes, it humanises them to a great extent and in a sense reduces them to our level, but at the same time, for me, it enriches them.

Holmes is famous for his deft flourishes, like the casual reference to the Filipino army and Reykjavik in the later Talons Of Weng Chiang, which manages to fire the imagination with a vision of an unusual and intriguing future. And there's a similar effect at work here, with references to Rassilon, Gallifreyan mythology and the Doctor's own past, all of which to my mind help refuel the mystery. And there's colour, figurative and literal - the green of the Arcalians, scarlet and gold of the Prydonians, the heliotrope of the Patrexes - that immediately set this young imagination running, thinking about the bigger picture of Gallifrey and its inhabitants and so many other story strands that (at the risk of stating it too colourfully) coursed like veins through my child's eye view of the Who universe.

Hence, rewatching it now it's difficult to set aside that perspective and a great deal of what I admired about it then still pushes the creative buttons. I guess there's a very thin line between the writer in me and the child in me.

It has its flaws - of course it does, it's Doctor Who. And it wears them on its big capacious Time Lord robe sleeves. There's the big rubber spider, for instance, dangling on a length of fishing wire that we can only assume is the result of a bug - ha - in the otherwise super-sophisticated virtual world of the APC Net. And I can see where some would have a problem that, ultimately, it all concludes with nothing more than a wrestling match between the Doctor and the Master above a gaping hole.

But as well as a sci-fi rendition of The Manchurian Candidate, this is surely paying homage to The Final Problem, with the Doctor facing his own Moriarty over the Gallifreyan version of the Reichenbach Falls. There are definite echoes of the way (Sherlock) Holmes speaks of his archenemy in the way the Doctor describes the Master to his Time Lord 'allies'. And we have Goth as the Colonel Moran figure, armed with a rifle and stalking the Doctor through an electronic Switzerland. And even if the local setting is considerably less scenic, by naming it the Eye Of Harmony, the story manages to elevate it above a mere hole in the ground.

Likewise, the production design and direction do a lot to invest the studiobound sections with a sense of majesty and scale. The high vaults of the Panopticon are perhaps not as high to adult eyes as they were to a young lad's, but the effort and the intention still make their mark. The design of the decaying Master is well realised and strikes the perfect note of horror in the shadowed surroundings - those skull-like features one of those truly enduring images from my childhood viewing, it must be said, and, combined with Peter Pratt's coldly venomous portrayal, still managing to evoke a chill.

Of the other Time Lords, Co-Ordinator Engin (who is far from Fearsum) and Castellan Spandrell are the comedy double act, but manage to be more than just that and we're glad to see them - like Jago and Litefoot in Weng Chiang - survive to the end. And then, of course, there is Bernard Horsfall, who has all the power and presence we'd expect from someone who calls themselves a Time Lord. He's also ultimately a sympathetic character, a victim of the Master and his own political ambition, and we're kind of glad to know his role in the crisis will be painted in a different light when his fellow Time Lords attempt to rewrite history with their own friendlier version of events. (And between him and Spandrell, we have all the evidence we need that Time Lords can have a wide range of Terran accents - or, as New Who might put it, every planet has a Yorkshire and a Rhine Valley.) He's a formidable foe too, as the Hunter, within the otherworld of the Matrix, his face a sinister shadow behind that mosquito netting - even when you know his true identity.

He's brutal and sadistic. And the Doctor stoops to what might be seen as some fairly questionable methods himself - traps rigged with hand grenades, poisoned darts. It's easy to see why even the production team wondered if they might have gone too far. But speaking as one of the innocent children who was corrupted by such horrific images, it did me no harm. That dark edge is what helped etch this story so indelibly on my imagination and nowadays of course I can properly appreciate the contrast between the depiction of an advanced technological society (albeit in decline) and the desperate, bare-knuckle battle-of-wits struggle for survival that all takes place inside, of all things, a super computer.

Plot-wise, in some respects, that virtual battle does put the real-world action on hold for an entire episode and you could even dismiss it as padding, but that amplified panotropic realm is such a fantastic creation and characterises the story as much as all the shadowy vaults and catacombs of the Gallifreyan Citadel itself. Not that I would have been conscious of its significance at the time, but what we're treated to here is an early dose of virtual reality - long before Keanu Reeves agonised over whether to take the red pill or the blue one. And although the budget is undoubtedly limited, the location work - along with the aforementioned set design - is a sign of a Who adventure that is pushing the financial boat out. And it pays off because for the most part, it impresses. Although that is in part down to the startling mix of imagery - Samurai warrior, clown, biplane, operating table and gas masked soldier and horse (can't go wrong with gas masks, folks), to name a selection - assembled to create this very Doctor Who-ish brand of surreality.

Shades of brilliance, I think, best sums up my overall impressions of this story and I think it stands up well. So the Time Lords are not quite the all-powerful beings we were once led to believe and are in fact a bunch of crusty old fogies with foibles and frailties like the rest of us. I can see where that might amount to a disappointing revelation for some, but I think above all it lends them character which they had, up to that point, been lacking. Sure, they could have - and possibly should have - been more alien, but much of the story relies on the very human politics to make it work.

And now that it has passed into official Who mythology, with the added factor of hindsight, its effectiveness can also be measured in terms of what followed and what subsequent writers made of it. If memory serves (and I've yet to rewatch that one), The Invasion Of Time does a good job of taking one of Assassin's casual throwaway references - to Shobogans - and turning it into an exploration of another facet of Gallifreyan society. But (again, if memory serves) falls down in other areas. (But I'll get to watch that one soon and be standing by to amend my impressions as and when.)

In some respects, The Deadly Assassin is like Genesis Of The Daleks. Yes, it lifts several lids on a mysterious past perhaps wished had been left unlifted and yes, perhaps in some ways it lessens the Time Lords - in the way that some felt Genesis lessened the Daleks. And as with the Daleks, later Gallifrey stories, in my humble, do a good job of illustrating the law of diminishing returns. But it's all, as I said at the outset, a matter of perspective.

Probably, if I'd been seven or eight when Arc Of Infinity came along, I'd be condemning The Deadly Assassin as the affront to all things Gallifreyan that (apparently) some fans considered it at the time. As it is, it remains in my mind - and I say this fully aware that some fans object to the term - a classic.