Friday, January 31, 2014

The Androids of Tara - "I shall have to go alone of course. It's funny. They always want you to go alone when you're walking into a trap. Have you noticed that?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Androids of Tara - Details

Season 16, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #101) | Previous - Next | Index

He saw Capablanca make that move ... 
Even if (like me, I have to admit) you've not read The Prisoner of Zenda and maybe watched only bits and pieces of any adaptation, the elements of this one will be abundantly familiar thanks to Zenda's influence on pop culture over the centuries. And, if the story is based on the original Ruritanian adventure, then the weaponry owes a debt Star Wars. They're zap sabers here though instead of light sabers, regular looking swords with a bit of a spark in 'em, and crossbow blasters instead of ray guns -- but still, the Jedi sniff of disdain is echoed when we're told the nobility use the swords and the blasters are for peasants.

During the RTD and Moffat years, I've wished time and again they would scale it back when it comes to the stakes of the adventures. It doesn't always have to be about saving reality itself. If we are engaged with the characters, the plot is tight enough, and it looks and sounds like a professional effort, we're all going to be fine with a bit of swordplay over whether the Good Prince or the Bad Count ascends to the throne of some backwater planet ruled by a bunch of toffs who rely on the wits and skill of their android-making underclass. And this looks (with a one notable exception, which we get out of the way early on) good and hits enough of the beats to leave me with only minor quibbles over the usual niggling dissatisfiers: retrograde gender politics and less than diverse (that is to say, all white) casting.

The notable exception.
Image via Thiel-a-Vision.
Not holding the hiring practices of the show against the actors, we find the supporting cast is a strength in this story. Grendel and Raynart/Android Raynart are well-played, holding their own with Baker and Tamm. Tom Baker is in top form here, delivering lines like, "Do you mind not standing on my chest? My hat's on fire. I don't think we've met before?" so assuredly you really can't imagine anything else being apropos. I'm not sure whether it's more fun to watch him play chess with K-9 or fence with Grendel, but whether he's fending off K-9's ripostes over the board or Grendel's with the sword, he's never anything but charismatic.

Again, you kind of have to remind yourself this is a Key to Time story, but better that than the needless exposition we sat through last time. On to "The Power of Kroll" ... well, it's been a while since I watched a Pertwee, maybe some Silurians first ...

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Reign of Terror - "The events will happen, just as they are written. I'm afraid so and we can't stem the tide. But at least we can stop being carried away with the flood!"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Reign of Terror - Details

Season 1, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #8) | Previous - Next | Index

In the days before psychic paper ...
Historicals, in a fifty year-old TV series about a space and time-travelling hero/trickster/adventurer/curmudgeon, ought to be part of the bread and butter of thing, at least on paper. And yet, they pose problems because what do you do there besides sightsee, get kidnapped, and try to get out without breaking the future? Generally speaking, we know the outcome is going to be pretty much what history says it was, so there's a certain element of dramatic tension that is closed off by the premise knowing that the Doctor isn't going re-write history in such a way that the things we know happened get undone. The Aztecs are going to practice human sacrifice until their culture is exterminated by the conquistadors. Marco Polo isn't going to die before his time. Rome is going to burn ...

But, just as we know the Doctor and the companions are going to be back next week (generally speaking), and there's never any real tension about whether someone's going to die or not, the tension should come from trying to figure how it's all going to get worked out, not from whether it will or not. So, theoretically, the dilemma of how to make a story set in history interesting shouldn't be any harder than any contemporary or future-set story. If anything, knowing we've got a fixed-point ahead of us in the historical story should ramp up the anticipation of how the Doctor's going to resolve the crisis, whatever it may be, so we get back to the history we know.

It doesn't really work out that way though. "The Aztecs" fairs better because we meet Cameca and there's a freshness to Barbara's desire to effect change that she's conceded she can't do by the time they reach Paris. "Reign" doesn't introduce any characters as interesting as those we met in "The Aztecs" and there's no sense that anybody wants to do anything but see the sights and get back to the TARDIS without losing their head. The characters are separated from one another and imperiled, which can be enough, but there's nothing particularly exciting about the story of how the Doctor negotiates the political climate of Robespierre's rule while pretending to be provincial official. We are told this is the Doctor's favorite period of Earth history, and he does seem like his costume, but there's no joie de l'aventure on display here. Ian gets a little juiced when he realizes it's Napoleon who's taking part in a secret meeting with one of Robespierre's political rivals, but that's about it.

Not surprisingly, given the milieu, this is one of the more violent stories for the Doctor. In the 100,000 BC part of "An Unearthly Child" we saw the Doctor nearly bash a caveman's skull with a rock and were a bit shocked at his savagery. Shades of that moment here when, on the road to Paris without papers, he's pressed into a sort of chain gang and escapes by bashing his overseer over the head with a shovel. It's not clear at first if he's killed the man or not, indeed it seems he has, until  a moment later when we hear his victim snoring and see him stir sligthly before the Doctor continues on his way. Robespierre is also shot in the face, off-camera, but we do see him after holding his shattered jaw in place. I'm no delicate flower and it's not like this gruesome stuff, but the Doctor's shovel moment in particular felt somehow wrong.

I'm rusty on my Revolutionary history, and while I'll take the peasants over the aristos all day long, I'm not out to celebrate the Reign of Terror and come out as a Robespierre partisan. Barbara chides Ian for not acknowledging the French Revolution changed world for the better at one point, but straight from the beginning we get the sense the show is on the side of the aristocrats -- seeing this history through the lens of the Scarlet Pimpernel, as it were. The peasants are bloodthirsty rabble who instinctively respond to the innate superiority of their betters. Rouvray, before being shot down, exerts his 'natural' authority over one of the soldiers by commanding him yield his musket, which the soldier does. "You can give them uniforms, Lieutenant, but they remain peasants underneath." The peasants derive strength from their power as a mob though and have their way in the end. One gets the sense this is seen as an abomination by the writer, Dennis Spooner. I like to think this is the Doctor's favorite period of Earth's history because it's a chaotic, morally complex period, and he can be a bit chaotic and morally complex himself. Ultimately though is going to favor justice for the little guy over privilege for the elites. If only this had been a Nine and Rose story ...

Stray thoughts:

  • I much prefer the animation in "The Invasion" over the style used to reconstruct the missing episodes here. This one is too jumpy and the characters mouths are distracting. 
  • Susan. Ugh. She'd rather whine about her fever and be taken to the guillotine than make a small effort to escape. I'm surprised Barbara puts up with here. The infotext on the DVD tells us the production team was at a crossroads here, not sure if the show would continue and, if it did, who they'd bring back. Barbara, apparently, was close to being written out at this point. Had they kept Susan and gotten rid of Barbara, I don't think there'd have been more than a second season of Doctor Who. Nobody had any idea what to do with Susan after the very first story, it seems rather obvious that Barbara was the key to the companions working, and Ian was fine, but Susan (not Carole Ann Ford, we should be clear) was the untenable character. (See Sandifer for "The Problem of Susan.")

Shorter Susan: I don't feel well, just have my head off already and be done with it.

The Shakespeare Code - "Tell you what then, don't step on any butterflies. What have butterflies ever done to you? "

The Shakespeare Code (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 3, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #184)

Is the Doctor more familiar with Harry Potter than with Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder"?

This story takes a beating in certain circles for what it does to idea of visiting the past; 1599 might as well be 1999 without indoor plumbing according to this version of history and, the argument goes, that all but sucks the life out of the adventure of time travelling. What's the point if it's all the same anyways? Sure, they had Shakespeare, but we've got J.K. Rowling and it's all just entertainment for the masses, isn't it?

The Doctor glibly pointing out that you can find doomsayers then as now, people chatting while getting a drink of water likewise, doesn't mean it's really all the same, it just means you find ways to relate to what's going on around you. I don't have a problem with doing a historical story this way, I mean, we're already mixing alien witches into the thing, so it's not like we're going after the sort of accuracy that'd make this documentary material. The thing that gets me a bit riled is the Doctor, a white male, telling Martha, a woman of color, that she needn't worry about getting nabbed off the street and sold into slavery or anything, all she has to do is walk around like she owns the place. There's a full-sized, low-hanging fruit essay's worth of material in that line about the invisibility white privilege, not to mention male privilege, to its beneficiaries.

Despite that, and despite my reservations about the implication J.K. Rowling is the Shakespeare of our time (not that I have a problem with Rowling, I wouldn't rule out the possibility the Harry Potter books will be read and loved for generations to come), and despite the fact I loathe way we're forced to watch Martha pine for the Doctor while nurses his grief over having lost Rose, and despite the fact I'm not impressed at all with this portrayal of Shakespeare, nor with how he's fetishized as a character, I still rather like this story.

For one thing, at a purely superficial level, which I'm not above delighting in, it looks lovely. They spent some money on this one and it shows. Always on the lookout for humanist themes and undermining authority based on religious credentials, I found the mockery of the street preacher snarkily amusing. Plus, witches (Carrionites, here) riding broomsticks in front of the moon, cackling over a bubbling cauldron, and casting spells (it's science, it just looks like magic because we don't understand it) is fun when it's pulled off. This story pulls it off.

Moreover, I like that Martha knows some Ray Bradbury (geek cred!) and about the time travel paradoxes. I've lamented already, so won't dwell on it except to point out again, how shabbily Martha is treated by the show; constructed to be an object of pity and therefore disliked, when she's got so much charm potential as a character that can run with the Doctor as well any companion ever could.

Martha pining for Ten is uncomfortable but Ten not pining for Martha is implausible (yes, I know he just lost Rose, but we've had "Smith and Jones" already. How much time might've passed between "Doomsday" and when Ten turns up in the hospital bed? Even if it's not much, it could still be enough that he doesn't have to carry on being a whiny git about having lost Rose.

Stray Thought:

In light of "The End of Time" and "The Day of the Doctor", the bit at the end where Queen Elizabeth turns up feels a bit more like the series has started weaving a timey-wimey thread through itself. We don't need to obsessively revisit every reference and close the loop on every bit of the Doctor's travels, it's OK to namedrop a bit and refer to unseen adventures ... but, it does give the whole enterprise a more unified feel when a years old lark is given additional context. And, back to reveling in the lightweight, when we watch this now, or even better when we meet younger Bess later and can recall this, being able to link the the two feels a bit like unlocking a fan achievement.

QEI Spotter Badge Achievement Unlocked!

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Sensorites - "I don't make threats. But I do keep promises."

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

Season 1, Story 7 (Overall Series Story #7) | Previous - Next | Index

I don't make threats. But I do keep promises.
And I promise you I shall cause you more trouble
than you bargained for if you don't return my property! 

Doctor Who at its seventh story is still in the long process of figuring out what sort of show it is, and isn't. "The Sensorites" is more what it will be than many of the first season stories; but, that's both a good thing and a bad thing. There're plenty of reasons this story is not well-loved because man, oh man, part of what it is is cheap, shoddy, poorly written, and painfully acted. And yet, if you're willing to push past its abundant flaws, it's got flashes of charm and an underlying theme that make it worthwhile. Sure, there are the usual gamut of muffed lines and at least one scene where you can see a stagehand trying to keep a piece of the set from falling down -- if you want to watch for it, it was the second episode, where Ian and Barbara have gone looking for the Senorites that just came in through the loading bay and are passing through a series of small rooms -- things early Who are infamous for; but, if you're going to be a Who fan, then you know this is the sort of stuff up with which you have to put.

So let's acknowledge stretches of this are horribly incompetent, and unfortunately the problems start straight of the gate. It wouldn't surprise if me if even relatively committed fans wished Maitland had stayed 'dead' and, when he didn't, decided to find something else to watch after the first few minutes of his screen time. It's not just that the actor playing Maitland is, in a word, terrible; he's so bad he makes hash of lines as simple as "My name is Maitland." Seriously. The script does him, nor anyone else, any favors either. Consider this bit of dialogue, far from the worst in the first episode:
MAITLAND: Now remember, all of you, no violence unless the Sensorites start it first.
IAN: Why no violence? Surely we've got the right to protect ourselves?
Maitland has basically told Ian to only use violence in self-defense. Ian replies with incredulity because surely he has right to defend himself. Um, yeah, like he said, Ian.

If this were an aberration, we'd overlook it, but it's not. This is indicative of the level of discourse throughout. This is bad TV. And yet, while I'm not going to argue this is something anyone should seek out to watch, it's a bit important.

When I was at UConn, some friends and I were out late one night walking around campus and saw the dorm cafeteria being stocked. The boxes being carted in were stamped, incredibly, "Grade D But Edible." I'm not kidding. That's what we've got here. A story that's Grade D But Edible. What makes it edible? The fact that it's trying to do something other than just put malevolent aliens onscreen to be scary. The Sensorites aren't what we are lead to believe in the early going. They're still problematic, but there's an argument being made here, incoherently at times, but an argument nonetheless. The argument is for an open-minded approach to the Other. It's a small hook to hang six episodes of turgid dialogue and a dubious plot on, but it's a strong hook.

The Sensorites are set up to be just another alien baddie, skulking around, messing with the humans' minds, apparently keeping them alive for the pleasure of torturing them. The twist isn't that they're just misunderstood, or going about contact with humans the wrong way, or even that they're actually the good guys, it's that they're basically just like us. Some of them are wise and compassionate, others are fearful and untrustworthy. The humans in the story aren't straightforward good guys either. Some are murderous colonialists who see the Sense Sphere as a resource to exploit and the planets inhabitants as an obstacle to that goal. Others might be tempted by the same thought, but aren't acting on it.

The enemy in this story isn't a conniving alien or greedy humans, it's fear. The characters who act out of fear suffer, and cause others to suffer, for it. The Doctor embodies a courageous sense of exploration here and, while skeptical of the Sensorites until he gets to know them, is open to the possibility of working with them instead of against them, despite their early appearances. And that, despite how rubbish much of this is, shines through.

Stray thoughts:

  • The idea that aliens could come along and steal the TARDIS door lock by cutting it out seems to involve a misunderstanding of what the TARDIS is (or, perhaps not having decided yet, exactly) and doesn't square at all with what we know about it now.
  • That it takes Susan pointing out the Sensorites all look very similar, so much so that they couldn't really tell each other apart without their sashes and collars of office, to set in motion an identity stealing plot is exactly as dumb as it sounds. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Stones of Blood - "Anyone for tennis? ... it's an English expression. It means, is anyone coming outdoors to get soaked?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Stones of Blood - Details

Series 16, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #100) | Previous - Next | Index

Who von Däniken Stew

  • 1 Doctor
  • companions to taste
  • 1 coven of superstitious locals
  • 1 alien (aged thousands of years, if possible)
  • 1 elderly woman with deep knowledge of local history
  • select from Celtic, Arthurian, druidic, really any pre-Roman mythology something hippies or new-agers were ever interested in with supernatural overtones
  • heaps of polystyrene
  • rope, knives, candles, robes, altars (enough for a sacrifice scene)
  • 1 darkening filter
  • stuff that glows (can be substituted with post-production visual effects in a pinch)
  • copious amounts of stock footage (crashing waves, spook forest, etc.)
  • a cliff (for cliffhangers)
  • Put all ingredients in a rain-soaked rural area
  • Mush together
  • Serve in four to six portions

  • If it doesn't turn out, check your alien. Did it have a comprehensible plan and motivations? If just hanging about seducing old women, using its amazing powers to no apparent purpose except to scare the local primitives, it may not be compelling enough.
  • Use cliff judiciously. If combined with CSO to make wholly unconvincing cliffhanger for sake of having a cliffhanger, product will curdle.

Four and Prof. Amelia Rumsford at the Nine Travellers
It almost turned out. Parts of it are tasty enough. The turn from modern-day Celtic goddess worshipping druids to hyperspace travelling justice machines is fun. Elderly Professor Rumsford is fun to watch, riding up on her bike and scaring off all those druids and whatnot. Miss Fay as her younger assistant with a dark secret is an intriguing character -- until we realize she makes no sense, at all.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in writing up "The Pirate Planet" that it's part of the Key to Time sequence, so I should probably note that this one is too. That it's all but irrelevant, and actually is a bit annoying in both, but especially here, is an indication of how poorly conceived the idea was. Still, apart from the tedious exposition and utterly capricious warning about the Black Guardian, it's not the major problem with this one. You need a chef with discipline and creativity to make this stew turn out; if you let a dabbler throw it all together in a pot, you just get mush. It's not the worst mush. I ate and would eat it again. But you wouldn't want to serve it to guests.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Pirate Planet - "Such hospitality. I'm underwhelmed."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Pirate Planet - Details

Series 16, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #99) | Previous - Next | Index

One of my frequent touchstones for finding refreshing critical perspectives with which to tweak and examine my own, generally dunderheaded fanboyish, appreciation of Doctor Who around is the writing of Mr. Graham of Shabogan Graffiti; "The Pirate Planet" is a story well-suited for a viewing through the lens of an impassioned and incisive critic of neoliberal capitalism so it only makes sense to get out of the way and highlight some of what he's written:
"The crushed planets are fed into a system to keep an ancient queen alive.  Stuck forever at a moment of near-deathly stasis, her need for energy is nevertheless immense... and growing.  The energy flows in from the crushed planets to the ravenous centre of the system.  And the hunger at the centre only grows.  The more it gets, the more it needs.  The real dividends always fall.  The crisis looms, and the only way to fend it off is to extend further and further, to accumulate more and more and more.  And with every extension, the hunger grows." [42*]
All you need to know if you've not seen "The Pirate Planet" before is that it features a planet which operates as a giant pirate ship, of sorts, able to materialise around smaller planets (populated or not), mine them for all their worth, then compress the remains down to roughly football-sized hunks of rock. What kind of madman would run some a rapacious scheme? What would the society on such a pirate planet look like?
"In 'Pirate Planet', Zanak is a culture of indolent and complacent and unquestioning people who kick jewels around their streets whenever their leader simply announces a new golden age and the mines just fill up again... and all because their world grabs others, crushes them, sucks them dry of their wealth and then moves on. The people don't know because they don't care to know. Rome never looks where she treads, as Kipling put it." [Economic Miracles]
The story isn't just polemic though, this is a Douglas Adams, after all, so there's that distinctive humor laced throughout. Not just the Captain's bluster, but moments like when the Doctor waves farewell to the guard from whom he just stole an aircar. The guard, tricked and probably thinking he's going to pay with his life the mistake, meekly waves back. It's a tragicomic moment you could blink and miss but the story wouldn't be quite so delightful without it.

This one is squarely inTom Baker's wheelhouse. He gets a lot of these moments over the years, where he expresses outrage at the greed and brutality of moral monsters a split second before and/or after chatting them up breezily with a bit of nonsensical puffery while he scopes out the details of their operation. Sometimes Baker takes the mugging too far and the outrage loses its potency -- but not here. He's as manic and brilliant as ever in this one and it's a joy to watch. The villains are ... what's the next step up from genocidal? planeticidal? ... as murderous as they come and well-worthy of the Doctor's rage. ("Rage" isn't too powerful a word, this one of the things I love about Tom Baker. He lets it loose, then reels it back in, so you know it's there even when you're not seeing it. The buffoonery is a mask, a mask that's part of his character, but the rage against injustice is what informs his actions when he's at his best.)

Newton anecdote while cruising in the aircar.
The Mentiads are the weak link in this one. Stultified by the psychic blasts they take each time a planet is ground to dust beneath their feet, it's a little hard to buy into how clueless, plodding, and generally blank-faced they are. Watch this group of sallow blokes stand around and stare at a door trying to open with their minds for a few minutes and you'll be up off the sofa looking for another cocktail.

Maybe though, what really rubbed me the wrong way about them, was that these were the folks who were out for justice, to end the evil the sensed without really understanding, but they operated like a cult, a really boring, ineffectual cult. Which, I guess, is about as much as you can say about the progressive movement these days anyways, so I guess it just hits too close to home?

Stray Observations (spoilers):

Oooooh, Romana!
  • The geography of the place is a bit wonky onscreen. Hard to make a mental map that fits how the Mentiads' lair, the mineshaft, the Bridge, and the city fit together. Funny, too, how much the advanced, automated mines of Zanak look like disused 1970s coal mines. 
  • K-9 vs. the Polyphase Avatron was fun, if not particularly dynamic. Was a "Poly want a cracker," line ever tried out? Not that it was needed, the name was enough, but I'm not sure how many shows wouldn't have succumbed.
  • The revelation that the Captain's nurse was, in fact, Queen Xanxia -- or, a nearly completely realized projection of her -- was well-played. That the Captain was a pawn, a dangerous one, being manipulated by a more powerful Queen was a bit of depth that suited the story well. 

* It's a lovely touch, that a Douglas Adams story landed in the 42 slot in Mr. Graham's series of fifty posts leading up to the 50th anniversary special. 
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