Sunday, April 20, 2014

Invasion of the Dinosaurs - "Don't worry, Brigadier, it's a vegetarian."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Invasion of the Dinosaurs - Details

Season 11, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #71)

Words don't ...
via @classicdw

This isn't the sort of story you give a high grade and wax poetic about, but it is one that strikes me as a perfect story to get a bit drunk and watch with your mates. It's not that you have to be drunk to enjoy it, though it certainly wouldn't hurt, because it's a decent enough story and, for a six-parter, moves along briskly enough. But, you have to sit through those dinosaurs. In Doctor Who's long, storied history of not quite getting it done in the special effects department, this is a jim dandy of a face plant. I gave JN-T hell for the Kamelion debacle, so it's only fair to lay this at feet of Barry Letts and his team. I understand from the DVD extras that the f/x were farmed out, so it's not entirely their fault, but seeing what they got back, I think somebody needed to make the executive decision to minimize the screentime of the dinosaurs and pad the episodes with longer reaction shots or something, anything. (Exactly what Philip Hinchcliffe did later, it turns out, when the Zygons' Skarasen was similarly ill-achieved.)

So let's get it out of the way, acknowledge that those puppets aren't fooling anybody -- heck, don't even seem to be designed to be convincing --and not let it detract, but instead enhance the experience. There's a scene in the final episode where the bad guys have let loose a last wave of dinosaurs before executing the final stage of their plan. The Doctor encounters a T-Rex and a Brontosaurus (remember, this was 1973, the bones hadn't all been sorted out yet) and manages to get clear of them when the T-Rex decides to go after the other dinosaur instead of him. That scene, where the puppet T-Rex gently caresses the neck of the puppet Bronto, its rubbery teeth bending away so as not to give the impression that any puppets were harmed in the filming of this story, is either an inexcusable failure ... or it's hilarious. I choose hilarious.

Don't let the story's name fool you, plot-wise the dinosaurs are just a distraction dumped in Central London so the real villainy can proceed. It's not like this is Jurassic Park trying to skate by using kids' toys instead of ponying up for CGI. Nobody, back when it was new, should have been coming into this expecting DW to suddenly be turn into a Toho production; anyone watching this today must do so in full knowledge of what they're getting themselves into on this front.

There's another viewing experience hurdle today's viewer needs to clear as well. Episode 1 has to be watched in either b&w, or with some of the worst colorization ever seen. I watched in 'color', but I'm going to suggest that, unless a new and improved version is released, you stick with the b&w.

Now, that all out of the way, we can settle into what they got right. The opening scenes in deserted London are suitably eerie and disconcerting. Pertwee and Sladen have good chemistry, despite this being only the second story with Sarah Jane Smith as companion. When the Doctor and Sarah Jane are arrested as looters and brought up before a slapdash military tribunal (London is under martial law due to all the dinosaurs stomping and flying around), they have so much fun getting their mug shots taken you can't help but smile along with them.

Dramatically speaking, letting on that Yates is part of the conspiracy so early in the story was probably not the most effective way to handle that. However, that decision did make it possible for us to wonder the rest of the way if he would ever change his mind and decide he couldn't go through with it. On the whole, the build up of the conspiracy story was handled rather well.

There's a nifty bit political sleight-of-hand going on here. This might seem like a conservative-minded story with environmentalist baddies pursuing a radical agenda of liberal fascism, but when you when you look closer, what's happening is the Minister and General behind the whole thing are co-opting environmentalist issues and appealing to the understandable desire to have clean air to breathe to advance a purely regressive agenda -- a return to a Golden Age. What they're after is getting rid of all the peons (you know, working people, non-whites, etc.) and establishing a new society without all the complications of modern society. One where the elites can have the world to themselves. The thing about Golden Ages is there never were any. Anyone trying to sell you on the idea we had utopia and let it get away, and we can return to it through any sort of eliminationism (let's get rid of the immigrants, the infidels, the hippies,the gypsies and the ... you see where I'm going with this, right?) is not someone to be taken seriously.
DOCTOR: Look, I understand your ideals. In many ways I sympathise with them. But this is not the way to go about it, you know? You've got no right to take away the existence of generations of people.
YATES: There's no alternative.
DOCTOR: Yes, there is. Take the world that you've got and try and make something of it. It's not too late.
 
Whatever else Malcom Hulke and this era get wrong politically, they get this right. It's not exactly news, but it seems to escape the conservative mind across time. The answer isn't to stop trying, to just let the oligarchs set the course and rig the society so that nobody can hamper their accumulation of capital; the answer is to gather all the information you can, figure out what steps you can take to achieve a society that balances individual liberty with the general welfare, so that everyone benefits from progress, and nobody is left behind, then roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Day of the Daleks - "A touch sardonic perhaps, but not cynical. Yes, a most civilised wine. One after my own heart."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Day of the Daleks - Details

Season 9, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #60)

Two things: first, this wine swishing Doctor is redeemed by his Marxist attitudes on display later; second, nothing redeems Jo's outfit. One, btw, that affords one her many famous 'knicker shots' later.
Image via the Doctor Who tumblr

Heralded, well, at least occasionally mentioned, as a minor classic, this time travelling Daleks story (sans the input of Terry Nation) seems, to me, a bit short on Daleks, long on Ogrons, and duller than I expected. Not terrible, and certainly with its moments, but one I was less enthralled with than other reviewers.

Moments, like the Doctor dandying it up as a wine connoisseur while waiting for the "ghosts" to make their next move, save this one from itself. His downright Marxist critiques society under the Daleks when arguing with the Controller contrast with his elitist tendencies, but still work and together make the Doctor a quixotic sort of aristocrat defender of the working man that probably shouldn't cohere, but for me at least, does.

There's the usual Pertwee era vehicle chase -- this time he rides a little ATV/trike around and seem to be having some fun -- but the dynamic of the varying factions presented working to either prevent or ensure a peace conference is bombed never engaged me. The bombing the guerrillas have come back in time to stop meant a series of wars that followed decimated the Earth's population and made humanity easy picking for the Daleks. The Daleks, in the wings behind the villainous Controller, send their shock troops, the Ogrons, back to thwart the guerrillas. Where all this fits in the continuity of Earth history relative to prior and future Dalek invasions is ... problematic. That is to say, I'm sure if I consulted Woods and Miles they'd have it all worked out, but I suspect it's going to have to be a torturous process to explain how this Dalek invasion ties out with "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," for instance.

But maybe the whole point is by saving the conference, the Doctor, Jo, and the guerrillas from the future undid the series of events, this timeline's Daleks would have seen the Earth as not suitably weak for their invasion plan, and it all disappears *poof* in a ball of timey-wimey. Which is fine, because this strain of Daleks just doesn't do it for me. Better that the resolution of this one is that whole future mess never happened.

I watched "Invasion of the Dinosaurs," shortly after watching this one and can at least take satisfaction from seeing that jerk Yates get exposed and his conspiratorial plotting foiled. In "Day," he's insufferable in how he pulls rank and shamelessly commandeers takes the wine and cheese Jo fetched for our man Benton. Rank has its privileges? Screw you, Yates, I thought. That he turned out to be a villain, if a half-hearted one with pangs of conscience, in the end was nicely pulled off in the later story. I may be alone in my opinion, but I'd put "Invasion" ahead of "Day" on a prioritized watchlist partly because it matches this one where it gets overtly political, but it has more, goofier action -- puppet dinosaur-on-dinosaur! -- on display.


Friday, April 18, 2014

The King's Demons - "He wants to rob the world of Magna Carta. Small time villainy by his standards, but nevertheless something I intend to stop if at all possible."

The King's Demons (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Season 20, Story 6 (Overall Series Story #129)

Five shines Kamelion via Doctor Who GIFs
The standard dismissal of this story is that it's so unambitious, Kamelion so hopeless, the Master so ineffectual, and his scheme so small-fry that this two-parter is barely worth acknowledging. At first glance, the we might think a plot to keep King John from putting his seal on Magna Carta really is the Master's least grandiose plan. But, let's treat Magna Carta as everything it symbolizes -- the beginning of the end of the divine right of kings and the rebirth of democracy -- and view it as a crucial to the ascent of the Rule of Law, then the Master's attempt to scuttle it does fit his M.O. and the consequences would be as terrible as the entire population of the planet being turned into the Mister Saxon version of the Master. (Well, sort of.)

It's a stretch, there's no getting over this story being as unremarkable as critical consensus labels it. Kamelion looks like a practical joke that was played on JN-T, an embarrassment that had to be hidden away until it could be destroyed. Yet, while I can by no means give this story a ringing endorsement, I'm loathe to condemn it. Even if it's less than entertaining, it has the shadow of a good idea. The Rule of Law may be humankind's greatest accomplishment. We've seen how horribly screwed up Gallifreyan jurisprudence is so the Doctor recognizing it's not some minor thing, but worth protecting, is the right call on his part. It's the right call on the right call on the part of the series to present this as a crisis. It ends up coming across as parochial and self-important in the execution, a case of Brits representing a threat to their history as something catastrophic for the rest of the world, but this is a case where, if we're still imagining that without Magna Carta there's no Constitutional Democracy in the future, it really would be that catastrophic.

I've not had much in the way of praise for JN-T to this point, so I'll give him credit for green-lighting a story where the great threat posed by the villain is to the concept of the Rule of Law. That it ended up being this story is just another example of his, and his production team's, inability to produce a quality TV series with any degree of consistency. Even when they've got a good idea, it ends up looking like rubbish. Kamelion is another example of incompetence. Let's consider what happened here. Someone advertised they had a built a human-shaped robot that could walk and talk. They sold it to the producers of DW, and what we see on screen is a a glorified mannequin that needed to be carefully balanced in a chair so it wouldn't fall over.

It's my understanding one of Kamelion's inventors, the software guy, passed away and wasn't available to help support the prop. That's not exactly JN-T's fault, but it's worth noting that this was a show with a small budget that had to put a science-fiction show on TV in the wake of Star Wars and the Star Trek movies, so there was a certain standard to live up to. So, looking at the pittance he had to spend, JN-T went out and bought a bit of risky technology that shouldn't have passed even the most cursory sniff test for being a reliable prop. It's easy to say with hindsight, "He should have know the thing would never work," but if you were producing a low budget web series today, how much would you spend on prototype android someone claimed they could make walk and talk on demand. It's 2014 I'm not aware of anything even close to be plausible. Who in their right mind thought such a thing would be ready in 1983? (Nobody.)


Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Chase - "I beg your pardon? Awful noise? That's no way to talk about my singing!" "No, Doctor, not that awful noise, the other one."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Chase - Details

Season 2, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #16)


Frankenstein vs. Dalek
via The I Like Doctor Who Project

Ah, "The Chase" ... you're long and kind of random and nobody would dream of making television like you today. You're frustrating, goofy, a bit high-handed, and make almost no sense at all. And, yet, you're important. You send off Ian and Barbara, which is an even bigger shake-up than jettisoning Susan, the Doctor's own granddaughter, was. You also make the Daleks hilarious, a feat not managed again until RTD pits them against the Cybermen at Canary Wharf where, incidentally, they are intimidating, something they're certainly not in this story. As Frankenstein ably demonstrates.

We'll revisit the haunted house, the Mary Celeste, that Dalek v. Mechonoid battle, Steven and his stuffed panda, Morton Dill and the Fat American on top of the Empire State Building, what I call The Adventure of the Rubbish Robot in the Fungal Jungle, and the fish people of the desert planet in due time. But, I want to talk about Terry Nation for a minute first.

Nation, the writer of this story and, most famously, the creator of the Daleks (sort of, he created the name and described them in general terms, but their iconic design is nothing to do with him and everything to do with desinger Ray Cusick), is a fascinating writer of tedious television. The other night, I noticed that MeTV shows the old Roger Moore The Saint series at some crazy hour, so I set my DVR to record it and relive a bit of the old 'Rule, Britannia' block of TV I used to watch as a kid on PBS -- episodes of The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Saint, and Doctor Who, shown all in a row on Saturdays. I was surprised to see Terry Nation pop up in the credits as the writer of the screenplay ("The Man Who Could Not Die," if you were wondering), but then I wasn't because it was obviously a Terry Nation story, that is to say: cold-blooded, workmanlike, conflicted about and a bit hostile to women, yet having something interesting to say about heroism and masculinity.

Nation also wrote for The Avengers, Blakes [sic] 7, and -- go figure -- MacGyver. So, quite apart from Doctor Who and the Daleks, he's got quite a resume of writing for and creating some culturally durable TV. And yet, watching the stories he wrote, it's almost impossible to understand why until we look at his heroes and see how vulnerable, principled, courageous, and crafty they are. Nations heroes are not supermen, they take lumps, seem like they could be on the verge of failing at any moment, are often wrong (before they get things right) and are utterly human, therefore identifiable and sympathetic. Now, the Doctor isn't a human -- but weirdly, the Daleks seem to think he is in this story.

Hartnell's Doctor is often irascible and downright ornery, but he shines here. Early on, when the Aridians -- the fish people of the desert planet ... it's arid, get it? Aridians -- receive an ultimatum from the Daleks, the Doctor shines:

MALSAN: The leader of the Daleks has communicated with us. They have issued an ultimatum. 
DOCTOR: Yes, I suspected something of that kind might happen. What is it? 
MALSAN: We hand you over to them, or they will destroy what remains of our city. 
DOCTOR: They mean what they say. They don't make idle threats. Have you replied? 
MALSAN: Not yet. The elders are still discussing it. We have a half-sun in which to give them our answer. 
DOCTOR: You haven't much choice, have you? Well, I don't propose to inflict our troubles on you, sir, so I think we'll leave and take our chances. 

No entreaties, no attempt to whip them into a fighting force to fight and die on his behalf. Just an understanding that it wouldn't be right to impose on these struggling fish who are already out of water. In that moment the Doctor could be Simon Templar under Nation's pen, or Blake surrendering on the prison transport so the other prisoners aren't executed during their attempt to seize contrl. Taking the defeats in stride but never giving up, Nation's heroes are resilient.

This is far from Nation's highlight writing for DW -- that'd have to be "Genesis of the Daleks" -- but it's at least better than, while being structurally similar to "The Keys of Marinus." Nobody tries to rape Barbara in this one, so it's got that going for it. (Though there's a moment during the crew's ludicrous escape from the Mechonoid city where Vicky is tied up, while screaming, to be lowered down from the top of the building that is a bit uncomfortable.) In addition to not writing Vicky very well, Nation gives us another "Marinus"/"Dalek's Master Plan"-style hodge-podge of setting hops hung together by the slenderest of threads (when it is hung together at all) that you might think I'd be OK with given my repeated insistence that DW is capable of, to borrow from the Star Trek universe, IDIC -- infinite diversity in infinite combinations. My complaint, against all three of Nation's long, wild chases, is they are virtually incoherent. We can care about the characters (somehow Steven, a grown-ass man, going back into the conflagration to get rescue his stuffed panda doesn't feel inexcusable), but it is impossible to care about the stories.

I rate this one slightly higher than the other two stories though because a couple things very well. I mentioned the Doctor's shining moment already, but it also sends off Ian and Barbara in a touching, fun, and quirky scene goes beyond the standard set of visual storytelling tools the show has used to this point. It also has an interesting beginning, picking up as it does from the end of "The Space Museum," where the Doctor had acquired the Time and Space Visualiser. Why is that interesting, you ask?  Because that device was basically a TV. This story starts with us watching the TARDIS crew sitting around watching TV. (To be fair, Ian was also reading some pulp sci-fi.) "But, wait, that sounds boring," you could point out with absolute accuracy. We wouldn't have a time traveling adventurers show to watch if they could just tune into the Gettysburg Address, or the Beatles performing live, or Shakespeare (whoa ... does this Shakespeare have anything to do with the guy we meet later in "The Shakespeare Code"?) meeting Queen Elizabeth I (whoa ... here's the first time DW shows us good ol' Bess who's got quite a bit screentime in her future/past) and not have to deal with the TARDIS's complicated navigation or getting thrown in a dungeon. Watching TV is shown as the more effective way to get a glimpse into history than actually going back and visiting history. Watching TV is what we're doing and it's what the TARDIS crew would be doing if they didn't have to run from the Daleks, which the TV (fortuitously and improbably) happened to be revealed during their planning stage of taking off after the TARDIS.

We all have seen these disingenuous TV ads about how TV networks want us to get off our fat, lazy asses and do sports, but of course they don't actually stop showing promos for the next show, they don't go dark after telling us we ought to go out and play, because they want us to keep watching TV. They don't really want us to go outside, they want to pretend they do, and they want us to say, "Yeah, later, that sounds good, for later. The outside. But this next cartoon looks pretty fun, so after that." Unless I'm mistaken, DW is coming right out and saying, "Isn't watching TV pretty effing cool?!" Freaking time travelers will stop and watch the Beatles and Shakespeare given the chance. Try to go see Shakespeare in actual history and you've got to deal with slop in the streets and alien witches and whatnot.

While I'm back on the subject of fat Americans, I'll mention one of the high-handed moments in "The Chase." The scene atop the Empire State Building is famous for introducing Peter Purves, who will return to play Steven just a few episodes later, in his Morton Dill incarnation as a hick. But he's not the most insulting American stereotype in that scene, the fat guy who rudely pushes a woman out of his way takes that honor. Is this something to get worked up over on its own? No. But as part of a dizzying string of set pieces that can't do anything right, it's a cheap shot that exacerbates the unsatisfying experience of watching a lazy writer's not bother to tell a funny joke (which he managed while Barbara and the Doctor were sun-bathing on Aridius), turn a neat twist, or get anything to sound right, or even plausible.

The Twilight Zone-style twist Nation tries to pull is to pin the mystery of the Mary Celeste on the Daleks. That whole sequence is a miserable drag. The crew of the ship, including a woman and child, sent to their deaths so the camera can linger on the ship's nameplate and reveal that we've just seen a historical mystery solved. But, this isn't the Doctor solving a historical mystery, it's the Doctor leading the Daleks to a bunch of innocents, then hopping off to save his own skin, reasonably, but still ... he effectively leads the Daleks to the ship and gets a bunch of people killed without ever realizing what he's done. Sort of undoes the effect of seeing him nobly heroic earlier in the story.

The haunted house sequence is famously a mess, every bit as much as everyone who ever reviews this story says it is.  Lousy job leaving Vicky behind, lucky she managed to get aboard the Dalek ship, luckier still the Daleks -- scourge of the galaxy, the Doctor's greatest enemy -- manage to escape a carnival haunted house. Granted, it's a near future haunted house, so a little scarier and more advanced than the haunted houses we're used to. But these Daleks aren't like the one we meet in Van Statten's Utah bunker. What the lack in competence and menace, they more than make up for with comedic timing. The disconsolate Dalek reacting to their inability to destroy the TARDIS delivers the greatest utterance of "Failure" ever.

Before this post goes on as long as "The Chase" itself did, going to resort to a list for the final few stray mentionables:


  • There are many, many reasons to miss Barbara when she leaves with Ian and we see many of them in this story. No companion had better chemistry with this Doctor, no actress better chemistry with William Hartnell. The sun bathing scene on Aridius where she mocks his humming is delightful. The way she calms him down when he reacts to their desire to leave is something only she could pull off based on their history together. Ian needing her cardigan (again) is delightful. 
  • That Dalek/Mechonoid battle is as intense an action sequence as the classic series ever delivered.
  • The Daleks' robot Doctordroid is ... well, unfathomable. Why even ... I mean, it doesn't even look like him ... and the dubbing. Oi. So much failure. 
  • In addition to the Daleks seeming to think the Doctor is a human, how in the world of continuity are we supposed to credit the Doctors claim that he built the TARDIS we know he stole? (Or was he only talking about the part? It's not clear. Lazy writing will do that.)



Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Armageddon Factor - "Your silliness is noted."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Armageddon Factor - Details

Season 16, Story 6 (Overall Series Story #103)

Astra and Romana via The Gallifreyan Gazzette
So the White Guardian needed the Key to Time to stop the universe and restore balance but, after all the work of collecting the pieces, the Doctor disperses it again, randomises off, and that's that. The universe didn't really need re-balancing then? I mean, what was the point of this whole arc? Well, at least the Black Guardian didn't end up with the thing.

At six parts, this wears out its welcome long before we get to the disappointing conclusion. By the time the Doctor's, errr ... Theta Sigma's, old college chum Drax, the Cockney Time Lord who bounces from Brixton to Zeos doing non-union electrical work, shows up we're off the rails ...

The Atrion soap opera intro to this story was a fun idea and works well. Atrios's real military leader, the Marshal, is a classic instance of a villain so obviously under the control of another power that it's kind of hilarious nobody thinks it odd he spends long stretches staring into the the mirror, touching the device on his neck, and issuing megalomaniacal proclamations when he snaps out of his little trances.

We're also introduced to Lalla Ward playing Princess Astra, the embodiment of the final segment of the Key to Time, in this story, so have the delight of seeing the current Romana with what we the viewer know will be her successor in the role. Much as I love Ward's Romana II, I can't help but feel a pang that this is it for the late Mary Tamm's Romana on screen. In addition to being strikingly beautiful -- does anyone not fall head over heels for her in that white dress? -- she's utterly charming and, when not dutifully fulfilling the damsel-in-distress function of the role, a brilliant foil for the Doctor.

Ms. Tamm passed away in 2012, far too young, but she did make some Big Finish Audios with Tom Baker prior to passing so there's a bit more of her Romana out there for me to track down. (I've been reluctant to start getting too deep into the audios though ... still have a long way to go re-watching the series! Can't get sidetracked or I'll be working this 'til I'm 80.)

This story bogged me down in my blogging mission. I kept turning it over and over looking for a way to write about it that would transmute it from a mostly boring and occasionally cringe-inducing story into something worth recommending and I keep coming up empty. Tom Baker, as usual, has some moments of manic charm that we can hang our hats on. Romana, as I mentioned, but it bears repeating, is lovely -- if blogs came with eye tracking that allowed us to play a tune when you reached a certain point in the post, you'd be hearing a snippet of Kevin Rowland crooning, "with you in that dress / my thoughts I confess / verge on ..." each time Tamm's Romana is referenced. The Key to Time sequence ended with a whimper. We never even got a proper farewell for Romana I.


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