KKLAK LIVES XI – Gridlock

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Given that most of my exposure to Doctor Who growing up came from reading Target novels – which was fine, but it didn’t help me when I needed to know how to pronounce some of the names.  This was in days long before any kind of phonics teaching, so how the hell would I know how to pronounce ‘Turlough’?  The books featuring the Doctor Peter were becoming my favourites, second only to Doctor Jon, but how can you really understand The Awakening when you don’t know who’s called what.  Sontarans were called ‘Sonatarans’ in my head; I misread The Five Doctors (its shiny cover defaced by the Target library numbers I would scrawl in biro on every book in an early obsession with categorising) and thought the villain of the piece was called Rassilion.

(in those days, Literacy lessons were little more than a teacher standing at the front of a class and saying ‘Go on then; write a story.’  Ninety per cent of what I chose to write was a Doctor Who piece.  After reading The Five Doctors I decided to create a new Time Lord hero – Rassilion – a young, rebellious Time Lord, fleeing Gallifrey and not afraid to use guns.  My teacher read the piece, and – I still have the work book to this day – commented ‘Nice story.  Makes a change from you-know-who.’  Little did he know…)

What is the programme’s obsession with Gallifrey?  The Doctor’s home planet was irrelevant for the first six years of the programme, and not even named after another four.  Why do we insist on imposing a home on the most restless of travellers?

* * *

This is what a ‘cheap’ episode of Doctor Who looks like in 2007 – nominally, the reuse of the car set, should allow for a reduced budget, but CGI scenes, giant mechanical faces, cat costumes aren’t cheap.  So a small story about a society gone wrong, becomes a quite wonderful glimpse into a thousand different lives.

The third series of Doctor Who (and they’re very much series now, not seasons), is one that is in the process of being re-evaluated.  It was seen as a success at the time, but now seems to not be blessed with fandom’s fickle hand of popularity.  In part, this is due to the presence of Freema Agyeman – the abandoned companion who is defined by an unrequited crush on the Doctor throughout her time on the show.  Following on from the epic romance of Rose Tyler was always going to be hard, but the production team had little interest in creating a genuine rival for our affection.  The second reason seems to be in endings.  Story endings seem to be vital in the ‘Golden Age of Television’.  At the time, The Shield was seen as the poor cousin to The Wire, but the fact that The Wire’s final season was a sensationalist piece of drama, quite out of place with its previous years, and The Shield’s final season was a successfully tragic dismantling of a world, means that it is the latter that is now referred to as a masterpiece.  The West Wing, Deadwood, Lost – all considered masterpieces at the time, but utterly neglected once they couldn’t land their endings.  Series Three, with the Utopia / Sound of Drums / The Last of Time Lords hysteria and narrative disconnect, means that fandom loathes what it is confronted with.

I disagree.  And Gridlock, the cheap, rushed-out story, knocked-off by the lead writer to fill a gap, shows how imaginative and bold the series is.  At this moment, the series is riding a wave, genuinely the most popular show on British TV and one that children everywhere adore.

A big part of this is due to David Tennant… who honestly, is just about the most overrated lead actor in the part.  Doctor David is an irritating, smug chancer – whose main response to any moment of dramatic tension is to shout a lot.  Here, he plays the ultimate cock-tease, flirting with Martha to feed his ego.  He is nothing but a tourist; when he visits the decaying, urban wasteland of the lower levels, he has no real understanding of the suffering of those he meets.  His accent, one that is rarely commented upon, is that of a thoroughly middle-class individual pretending to be poorer than he actually is.  London is littered with these Estrurian-sounding, Jamie Oliver knock-offs.

Maybe I needed to be eight years old to truly appreciate him.

Despite the mainstream popularity of the show, it still remains precious to the fans.  This is no more evident than in the use of the Macra.  One-off monsters from forty years before, repurposed to fill a gap.  It is notable that they are missing – there are no surviving episodes of The Macra Terror in the archives, so the reimagining of them as CGI creatures is done with ease.  But they exist as little more than a wry smile, a knowing wink to a small part of the audience.

In the episode, Davies is hoping to examine the tendencies of modern society.  The unwillingness of many in lower society to report crime.   How the society remains more stratified than ever, despite some material social progress.  How the move to a secular society has not brought about the destruction of faith; instead the stories of ‘god’ are replaced with the stories of ‘humanity’ (Davies is significantly guilty of this – see The Last of the Time Lords.)  The structure is the same, the patterns we follow are the same, it’s just the words we choose that have changed.

Russell T. Davies, a man abandoned by everything, decides to put his faith in a living story.  The mutable, overwhelming story of Doctor Who.  It is a story that will outlive his tenure on the show.  More than anyone, he understands that it is a story that will never end…

…so this is perhaps why his endings to his episodes are so throwaway.

KKLAK! LIVES will return towards the end of April.

KKLAK! LIVES X – The Enemy of the World episode three

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The problem with there being so many books written about Doctor Who is that so many of them seek to be definitive.  Which is extremely unhelpful for anyone seeking to think about the programme.  The history is useless; a history is everything.  What has happened is of little interest; what people say happened is actually worth pondering.  As much as the continuity of Who is mutable, depending on the whims of each story’s writer, our history of Who has changed over time.

Think about how those first two seasons, phenomenally popular at the time, are largely ignored, especially in comparison to the final two – which at the time were met with apathy and indifference – which are unanimously considered to be masterpieces nowadays.  The history dovetails.  Once upon a time season five was the high point of the Troughton era; now it is an endless series of repetitive, formulaic base-under-sieges.  The Pertwee era is lauded, rejected and then made peace with.  There still is no resolution to the relative merits of season seventeen versus season eighteen, and expedient judgments of fellow fans can be made based upon their allegiances.  It is only Phillip Hinchcliffe, with his rarefied mixture of critical and commercial success that has largely removed his era from anything other than adulation, though individual stories, most notably The Talons of Weng-Chiang, are up for grabs.

This constantly rewritten history is no more apparent than in the history of the missing episodes.  For years, The Tomb of the Cybermen was the great, gothic masterpiece… and then, in 1992 everyone got to see it and realised that this was a slightly shoddy serial, which often underwrote its moments of dramatic tension and featured some of the worst American accents in a series habitually destroyed by poor American accents.  Allegiances soon shifted to The Web of Fear.  The first episode is rather enjoyable, but since its recovery, we’ve all realised that its central mystery is not at all engaging and the story is rather thin.  So, the masterpiece became Fury from the Deep, especially after the recovery of the genuinely terrifying Antipodean censor clips, but a brief survey of the story will reveal that it is phenomenally boring, and features a helicopter sequence which is unlikely to be anything other than tedious.  All the while, The Power of the Daleks remained largely unloved…

Any recovery of a missing episode has led to a re-evaluation of a story.  This is never more apparent than in the spectacular rise in estimation of The Enemy of the World after its return in 2013.  We had all grown up with the solitary episode in the archives, episode three, and written the story off as an excruciatingly irrelevant drama, set largely on benches in corridors.  It didn’t help that it was a complete outlier in the monster-heavy, base-under-siege season six.  But now that we can watch it at our leisure, we see how unrepresentative the episode was of the whole serial, and how textured and changing the whole story is.

It remains to be seen what changes are to come.  The recent deification of Troughton has led to some unfair overpraise of what is a wonderful central performance in a rather large number of very ordinary stories.  Will the new series change its critical standing (perhaps – perspectives really seem to have shifted on series three since its broadcast.)  The critical analysts of Who mark their territory by their judgements – Kim Newman’s adoration of the Hartnell era, Phil Sandifer’s epitome found in Steven Moffat’s work.  Toby Hadoke and Robert Sherman recently published a run-through of seventies Who and became rather tired with the formula of the Petwee and Tom Baker eras in comparison to the inventiveness of the black-and-white era (…which unfortunately made for a lethargic read).  About Time can be ignored by some for its vastly overstated apathy for New Who.  Andrew Hickey, rather sweetly, sees Lawrence Miles as the key creative figure in the history of Who.  Add to this, the legion of individual opinions on blogs, forums and fanzines.  These are our histories; none of them are definitive.  All of them are limited.  And out future evaluation of the programme comes from the conversations we play between these histories, and the conclusions (and perhaps, just perhaps, new perspectives) that we bring ourselves.

One day, we will be history too.

***

No story greater represents the flow of history than The Enemy of the World.  An outlier in a season of repetitive base-under-siege stories featuring the latest merchandisable monster, it was for the majority of its existence represent by its solitary third episode.

Which is an outlier in and of itself.  Largely set in a couple of corridors, episode three seeks to colour-in the lives of the people effected by Salamander’s machinations.  He is the enemy of the world after all.  We see that the paranoiac, selfish world promulgated by Salamander is causing ordinary people to lose all sense of perspective, and subsequently compromise themselves in order to survive in the servitude of luxury.  In a story that is genuinely multi-cultural, we see how black people are treated as disposable, giving us a greater insight into the horrors of the world than any half-arsed rant from Kent Jones.

Since the rediscovery of the remaining five episodes from some dusty shed in Nigeria, the perceived worth of the story as increased dramatically.  Ultimately, and despite the insistence of Big Finish, Doctor Who is a visual medium, and many stories can only be appreciated once they can be seen.  If the only understanding of this story was episode three, and it was watched in isolation (as was my first exposure to it), we would lose gradual shift of Salamander coming from the fringe to the fore, the casual dismissal of Doctor Pat to anything of consequence (this is just another world to him, and quips – however witty – about ‘disused Yetis’ are more important to him than meaningless talk of necessary evidence), and the gradual build-up of a story where everyone is playing a part, everyone is playing multiple roles, not just Patrick Troughton.

The Enemy of the World underlines the key contribution of David Whittaker to the series.  His mercurial nature leads to a story that is never fixed; an action adventure opening leads to episodes of political intrigue, followed by a comedy breather episode.  Then the whole narrative (and the assumptions that came with it) is thrown on its head once the revelation of the underground bunker is exposed.  Even the final episode features our nominal hero – Kent Jones – unveiled as a villain worse than Salamander himself.  Whittaker created a story that was a serial, unfolding and developing each week.  Never fixed, never safe, the worlds he created were alien places, strange and unknown, and totally unlike the ones we inhabit.  Whittaker’s TARDIS was a gateway to another way of thinking, not just another scenario ready to be disrupted by the Doctor.

Consumed by audio, we would also have lost the keen visual eye that Barry Letts brought to the production.  Letts exists as a contradiction – the writer in him is serious and moralising, the director is him is witty and effervescent.  His visual contributions to the series push closer to a comicbook aesthetic than anything else I can think of.  He quickly cuts from extreme detailed close-ups to long-shots filmed with the broadest of brushes.  Geography matters to him very little.  He present stock footage as reality, and then surprises us (underlining the mercurial nature of this story) by revealing that it was a (possibly?) fictional image on screen.  His cuts are sudden and violent like the panels on a page.  In the final moments of the story he presents a violent intrusion into the TARDIS that is so powerful and terrifying, and is only made more so by the condensed timeframe in which he presents it to us.

***

Salamander, surrounded by earnest and naïve followers, in a bunker far under the Earth, deludes himself with their love, by telling them of the horror and history of the surface.  The story he tells them is of the creation of the Daleks.  Maybe Salamander, the twisted reflection of the Doctor, is one of us.  Maybe he has watched as much of this programme as we have.

KKLAK! LIVES IX – The Power of the Daleks episode two

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Like all histories, much of Doctor Who is unknown.  It is out of reach.  Now, after fifty years or so of the show, we must accept that it will continue far beyond our own lives – our list of favourite Doctors will be irrelevant because there will be entire Doctors we will never meet.  Even now, with shiny plastic discs on our shelves, so much of Who is hidden from me.

Which is strange, because some of my favourite stories are amongst this hidden Who.  The Massacre (not of St. Bartholomew’s Eve – a title that makes not an iota of sense) is sublime.  An unsettlingly hopeless drama where history overwhelms a personal narrative and William Hartnell gives a fine performance as both the Abbott and the Doctor with his most profoundly delivered speech.  But is it that?  I mean, I’ve never seen it.  Pretty much no one has.  It is lost.  Absolutely lost.  There is not a second of footage of it left in the archives.

And so it becomes my holy grail.  The story I’d want to see more than any others.  I try to shift the order of the recovered season three stories around so that it would exist, but then regret that The Gunfighters would be absent.  And no one would ever read that story redemptively again.  So much of the success of the story depends upon Hartnell’s multiple roles – without seeing this, how can we tell if it was good or not?

And so I hope for the return of the episodes.  I don’t even need all of them.  Just one.  Or two.  Maybe there’ll turn up in some archive somewhere.  Or in the shed of a former BBC engineer.  I check internet forums and ridicule the preposterous fables of recoveries, yet secretly wish them to be true.  I read books tracing how the episodes wormed their way across the world.  Maybe the episodes are buried in a tip in Sierra Leone…

But do I really want to see The Massacre?  Why not a moment of Marco Polo (surely one of the most important, unusual stories recorded), why doesn’t that story exist when it was so widely sold?  And how do three episodes of The Dalek’s Master Plan exist when it wasn’t sold anywhere?  Don’t I actually really want to see the final, horrific episode of that serial?  What about The Myth Makers – that story is a classic (three episodes of comedy followed by one of tragedy) that needs a wider respect.  How many episodes were saved from the returned haul from Australia to be junked?  We know some of them have ended up in private hands, why not some more?  Those recoveries can show us that any episode returned has extreme value.  Galaxy 4 was ignored for the most part, but now we can see from Air Lock how boldly it was directed with its confrontational performances and strong sense of depth of field.  What other reassessments need to take place?  Is The Space Pirates a secret masterpiece?

I want the recoveries of these episodes more than I want new episodes themselves.  I immerse myself in them – watching animated reconstructions on DVD, listening to the audio and looking at telesnaps (I loved experiencing Marco Polo like that), viewing the Loose Cannon reconstructions online.  The stories are vivid and unknown and the fact that they are so removed from me makes me want them all that more.  It reminds me of the limits of my understanding of this brilliant, textured show.  I imagine histories of the show where nothing was returned to the BBC and our knowledge of the black-and-white era of the show is as reductive as our understanding of the first season of The Avengers.  This period of Who is neglected enough as it is; the sheer weight of missing material, obsolete production methods and limited presentation all diminish it in the eyes of the audience.  For so many, Doctor Who doesn’t even really begin until Spearhead from Space.

I know that The Massacre isn’t really the holy grail.  That’s meant to be The Tenth Planet episode four.  But we know what that looks like, and Blue Peter means that we’ve got the regeneration.  So maybe we can live without that one.  So shouldn’t the holy grail be The Power of the Daleks episode one?  To see Patrick Troughton’s dazzling take on the Doctor for the first time?  But honestly, that part feels like filler, and he feels like he’s killing time and it isn’t until the second episode that his take on the character becomes fully apparent.

Maybe this is our holy grail…

***

The most important thing to note is that we’re still not actually watching The Power of the Daleks.  We’re watching something that is close to an approximation of it.  There are moments in the animated version where we see the limits of the budget and the technology.  Characters bob up and down and constantly stand in positions closer to hieroglyphs than performances.  There are other moments when we are witnessing another fan re-visioning of the show; the backgrounds have enormous depth – completely unlike the cramped sets of reality.  Thousands of Daleks mass on Vulcan, rather than the two or three and the pile of cardboard cut-outs that existed before.   We won’t even mention the incorrect aspect ratio.  It’s somewhat reassuring to know that Doctor Who always looks cheap regardless of the format it is produced in.

Through a number of byzantine budgeting opportunities that come from a super-massive corporation such as the BBC (which is funded via an exploitative tax), fifteen episodes have been reconstructed via animation.

  • Cosgrove Hall animated the two missing episodes of The Invasion in 2006 using leftover money from an abandoned Scream of the Shalka It is more fully realised than the simplistic flash animation of that story.
  • Planet 55 animated the two missing episodes of The Reign of Terror, one of The Tenth Planet and two of The Moonbase. They began with a deliberately confrontational quick editing structure that angered purists, before moving onto some highly sophisticated rotoscoped motion in later efforts.
  • Quiros Entertainment animated two episodes of The Ice Warriors which is the least satisfying effort; little attempt has been made to frame the motion in anything close to the original staging, and movement is akin to split-pin puppets. The company went bust after this one effort.
  • BBC studios animated the whole of The Power of the Daleks reasoning that this story was unlikely to ever be recovered. Ambitious, and impressive in moments (the Daleks seem particularly well-realised) it suffers from little attempt to capture the nuances of performance.  The charm and interplay of Patrick Troughton and Anneke Wills (seen on off-air 8mm clips) is completely ignored.

It remains to be seen if any further episodes are restored in this manner – or why stories such as The Crusade or The Underwater Menace were not afforded the same luxury.  By animating The Power of the Daleks, we see the potential for re-assessing entire serials of Doctor Who.  Previously it was used to fill gaps and maintain a coherent viewing experience on DVD.  Now we have the potential to rediscover the great scars of our history.  The Macra Terror feels so close to being a masterpiece… would animation prove that correct or not?

Watching the episodes for the first time, I kept waiting for Anneke Wills narration to kick in.  My experience of the story was reliant on my previous viewings.  When I trace the vein of Who in my life, I feel like the realisation that huge chunks of it were deleted should have been devastating.  But when I was young I had seen so little of the programme I adored.  It was all missing to me…

***

Troughton does in two episodes what Hartnell does in a whole season.  Which, whilst completely true, is a little unfair.  It’s easier to imitate than innovate after all.  But it is astonishing how quickly Troughton establishes what is a clearly definitive take on the role.  He exudes charm and delights in dancing around the edges of the plot.  But when called into focus, when demanding the destruction of the Daleks, he is rage and fury and utterly in control.  This interplay between mischievousness and heroism come to become ultimate attributes of the role.  He is a picaresque hero.

Delightfully, David Whittaker has created a plot that allows for Doctor Pat to come alive in.  His first episode is deliberately unsettling, proposing that an interloper has come to destroy the show that we love (and that he was fundamental in evolving).  For the rest of the story he creates a society of treachery and intrigue, allowing well-defined characters to come to the forefront at different times.  It speaks to the arrogance of humanity that the rebels are not really rebelling against anything; the society they operate within seems pretty benign and they offer no real alternative beyond the vanity of power.  Within this the Doctor and the Daleks listen and adapt to the developments around them, before cumulating in a blood-thirsty final instalment.

Whittaker was a master at mercurial stories; ones that change and evolve as they unfold.  His serials start in one place and end up in a completely different situation.  It was he, along with Terry Nation, who truly understood that they were writing for serialised television, and that the aim was to engage children for twenty-five minutes and ensure they came back next week.  By crafting deliberately transgressive cliffhangers (the sheer, unsettling majesty of ‘I AM YOUR SERVANT!’ has never been bettered) and creating a serial that ranged from bizarre character interactions to a murder mystery to an enclosed drama before ending as an action movie, he ensured that Doctor Who could never be easily limited.

The Power of the Daleks is a masterpiece.  It works in a shittily-written novel, on telesnaps or on a narrated audio.  It is this story, and Shada, that the BBC have chosen to present in so many different formats.  It remains to be seen whether the new slightly-too-wide-for-my-liking animation leads to a significant re-evaluation of the story.  After all, the history of Who is being constantly rewritten.

KKLAK! LIVES VIII – The Mark of the Rani part one

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There’ll come a time when a list of favourite Doctors will be irrelevant.  Is it worth considering the man who played him for one night in 1996 or in a handful of minutes in 2013?  Do we bother counting Peter Cushing (yes we do, he was brilliant)?  Is Richard E. Grant worth our time?  In years to come there will be people who will always be left off these lists.  And one who was left off these lists, even when the part had only been played by seven people, is Colin Baker.

Poor Colin Baker.  The man who was promised four years of work and only got one and a half.  The man who wanted to play the part for a decade and adjusted his choices accordingly ended up having to devastatingly truncate his vision.  It’s not that he’s bad in the role… the role is fairly actor-proof and he’s quite charming for the most part – it’s just that the period he played the part remains the era of the show where it is criminally unloved.  The Mark of the Rani is a misbegotten story in a crassly self-loathing season of the show.  And it’s kind of wonderful.

Broadly, there are three different types of actor who have played the part:

  • A proper-character actor part (Hartnell, Troughton, McCoy, Eccleston, Smith + Capaldi) – actors who immerse themselves in a part and modulate even their body language accordingly. They tend to play the part with utter conviction and will before and after their tenure, often pop up in other things you’ve seen in little, quite offbeat or unpalatable roles.
  • The personality actor (Pertwee, T. Baker) – actors playing a heightened version of themselves. Dominant and rarely interested in finding a new take.  Their episodes are often defined by the moods they were in on the day, and their plots start to be written around their whims.
  • The television stars (Davison, C. Baker, McGann, Tennant) – work regularly in television, often in leading parts, and are a regular part of the schedules. Rely on natural charm and play similar type roles regardless of the show they are in.

Which is not to say that they are as successful as each other.  Some actors are not as good as others.  Some actors don’t receive the same breaks that others do.  Some actors get their dream job when everyone hates that show, or has forgotten that that job still existed.  C. Baker enjoyed huge popularity in a successful soap and then played Doctor Who.  Years later he would appear on I’m a Celebrity and was wonderfully lovely in series where everyone just got on.  He was kind and good natured and seemed to enjoy himself thoroughly.

It must be hard living at the bottom of the list.  He really doesn’t deserve it.  But someone has to be there.

***

One of the unintended side-effects from reading those behind-the-scenes guides is that it’s hard to extricate yourself from the knowledge of where a story was filmed from where it is set.  I’m forever picturing New Who to be in Cardiff rather than London, and The Mark of the Rani similarly feels like it’s Iron Bridge rather than Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Despite this, the location is shot with stylishness that removes this episode for the pedestrian nature of the plot.  Sarah Hellings takes full advantage of the handheld camera and fully-realised setting to present a constantly moving point of view.  It emphasises the dynamism of the Industrial age that would not be readily apparent when the majority of people are wearing rags.  She initially presents villains with their backs to us, their arrogance apparent by their unwillingness to face us.  Competently cutting between scenes she creates a pace that was often missing in an era which can be more readily defined by interminable arguments set in the TARDIS console room.

Several other tedious proclivities are avoided within this story.  Nicola Bryant manages to avoid being dressed in a swimsuit and lusted over by some creep (the fact that Eric Saward didn’t prevent this suggests either extreme negligence or deliberate intention on his behalf.  She is almost entirely objectified during her time on the show.)  Furthermore, there manages to be some affection displayed between Peri and the Doctor.  This period of the show is interesting because it is one of the few times that the people creating it actively resented the fact that they were doing so, and this is no more apparent in the fact that Peri is someone who actually doesn’t enjoy travelling through all of time and all of space.  It’s quite refreshing – I suppose it’s a more accurate representation of what we’d be like.

I love The Mark of the Rani episode one because it is a bitchy revelation of what the show was truly like at this point in time.  Doctor Colin is openly criticised for being unattractive.  When he and Peri are asked what they do in that blue box, they reply ‘argue, mainly.’  Peri is responsible for ludicrous accidents that would seem convoluted in the laziest silent-movie parody.  Pip and Jane Baker also wrote the most perceptive representation of the Master.  He is pathetically incompetent, a snivelling bully who proposes the most ludicrous, overcomplicated plans to gain only superficial power.  His malevolence is little more than petty squabbling.  The Rani exists, in much the same way that Ashlee Simpson existed in relation to her sister, to show that this pathetic thing we have in the programme could actually be a whole lot worse.

The Master performs as little more than an irritant.  He manifests himself as a disruption to the adulation that the Doctor seems to receive.  He is one of the purest forms of camp in the show, providing a witty counterpoint to the stable selflessness of the Doctor.  He tendency to dress in black is as unsubtle as his hairpieces.  Not only does The Mark of the Rani avoid the distasteful perviness that is present during the eighties era, it presents an alternative world where hunky blonde men show little interest in Peri and it is perfectly normal for villains to dress their slaves in tight vests.  The tastelessness of this era ensures that it is a chaotic element in the Saturday evening schedules.  It casually presents many of the unspoken elements of our nature – cruelty, sadism, lust, dominance – all in time for tea.

There are many moments like this in a lifetime of Doctor Who, where the things that have been outright dismissed turn out to be the most interesting parts of the show.  Love is like that though – you love the little things, the idiosyncrasies, the irritations.  The Mark of the Rani part one is one of my favourite unloved parts of Doctor Who for its beautiful camera work, knowing sense of humour and wilful disregard for some of the more unlikeable characteristics of the surrounding season.

Part two is all a bit silly though…

KKLAK! LIVES VII – Scream of the Shalka episode one

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Surprisingly, and despite its success, An Unearthly Child has rarely been used as a template for the many occasions when Doctor Who has needed to be relaunched.  Perhaps the series had added too much more to the central premise of ‘something strange in a junkyard’ for it to have any meaning.  These reboots has been plentiful over the years; Dr. Who and the Daleks, Spearhead from Space, The Leisure Hive, Timewyrm: Genesys, Doctor Who, Death Comes to Time, Rose all seek to reinvigorate the property and bring in a new audience.  It’s interesting to see what key information they choose to reveal about the Doctor in those stories (two hearts, police box, um… half human on his mother’s side), but none seek to cultivate any substantial sense of mystery about the character (and it’s key to note that one of the main differences between the pilot and the broadcast version is how much more ambiguity was injected into the character.)

Mystery is at the heart of the show.  The theme titles are, at their best, obscure.  A strangling whirl of colour and image.  As the show has gone on they have become more and more defined; galaxies, the interiors of watches, clouds and the imagined inside of washing machines all give a sense of motion and space.  Who has become about setting and narrative.  But early Who, with its flickering, vaguely incomprehensible images is about tone and mood and sense of seeing things you would never dream of seeing.  Television is not a window to somewhere else, it is this strange electronic box that has to be covered up a lot of the time, and we settle in front of it as it reaches out into our living rooms.

Scream of the Shalka makes no attempt at strangeness, maybe because it was never designed to be viewed in living rooms.  Its mysteries are the quite deliberate forshadowings found in genre television.  In An Unearthly Child there is a sense that we will never find out who the Doctor is (we don’t), why he’s in London in 1963 (we have several somewhat incompatible answers) and what the deal with Susan really is (still unanswered – the great looming problem in the Doctor’s history – what are his values on parenthood and why has he abandoned his family?)  In Scream of the Shalka there is a very definite sense that we will find out the answers to our questions (why has he regenerated, what is the deal with the Master etc.) somepoint soon, probably in a typically overblown season finale.

In 2003, Doctor Who was fractured into many different pieces.  I had fallen out of love with Who during my teens ironically because I thought there wasn’t any new Who – if only I’d known about the stacks of books and CDs and comics that were all continuing the narrative in some way or other.  There was more Who than ever… just not on television.  Animation had been seen as a compromised way to bring it back – nobody was going to love it enough to spend the money needed on it to make it look good – so cartoons were going to be the answer.

In a halls of residence with a lot of time, a fast internet connection for the first time in my life, and a pervasive sense of nostalgia, I explored the history of Who and a new animated reinvigoration that was online.  A few days later and a visit to HMV took place to waste a student loan on a copy of The Three Doctors.  The rest of history wrote itself.

There’s part of my mind that thinks that Scream of the Shalka is a waste of my time.  It’s a meaningless dead-end.  But it was, for a very short time, a reality.  This was new Who.  We can’t watch An Unearthly Child with any true understanding of what that was like in 1963; we know that that man has two hearts etc.  Shalka represents lost memories… those times when friends would ask you if Davros was responsible for Bad Wolf, and the text you received when Doctor David started to regenerate in The Stolen Earth.  Those moments are lost to us because we know what happens next.  The fact that a story, featuring an abandoned ninth Doctor made with piss-poor animation for an internet that no longer exists, is still is around it a testament to all those times we’ve lost.

There are nice things in it (the Doctor downing a glass of wine), things that the TV show eventually incorporated (Derek Jacobi’s Master), things that seem to be potent in our memory of Who (Edwardian costumes, the rural atmosphere of the story that was replaced by a far more metropolitan setting on TV) and things that are utterly hopeless (the opening scene is limp and baffling and close to incomprehensible – strange things happening to characters unrelated to the story has been part of the fiction since The Stones of Blood, but this take on it is frustratingly pathetic.)   But the story has the worst excesses of audio – constant expository narration by the lead character – and a shocking sense of space, largely down to the highly simplified animation style designed for viewings that avoided buffering.  Doctor Who has always turned the technical limitations it has faced into strengths – a theatrical filming style leads to a series heavy on dialogue rather than action – but here, scenes clunk together and characters bob up and down.

In 2003, Doctor Who had belonged to the fans for a long time, and most attempts to make the show accessible to others resulted in streamlining the few parts of continuity that they didn’t agree with.  It’s lovely that Doctor Who was cared for by so many creative and talented individuals, many of their visions of Who are brilliant, but Doctor Who is for everyone.  There’s no other drama series like it.  It’s why Americans don’t really seem to understand it.  It’s why the term ‘Whovian’ is abhorrent.  It’s why scheduling it against Coronation Street is dumb – because Doctor Who is meant to be something that everyone can watch.  Where the stories contained within it are unashamedly populist.  Everytime that it has been made into something smaller, we have limited what it is capable of.  And a shoddy animation series was just a little too small.

KKLAK! LIVES VI – An Adventure in Space and Time

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I was relieved when the fiftieth anniversary was over.  I felt like I’d spent eleven months with an anticipatory knot in my stomach; in quiet moments, dreaming of televisual adaptations of Love and War.  Thankfully, I suppose, the actual event was quite low keyish, with just one special episode, a few webisodes and a docudrama about the early days of Doctor Who to celebrate this occasion.  Day of the Doctor is as good as it can be, both an inevitable disappointment when compared to the stories in our head and perfect summation of the new series that builds on its narrative plot points and somehow manages to resolve them whilst at acknowledging that the show wasn’t actually on air for 17 of the 50 years we were celebrating.  An Adventure in Space and Time is another in the BBC’s long line of refusing to make magical television and instead, a programme about how television itself is magical.  There’s a sense of television executives congratulating themselves on being part of a history that has made Steptoe and Son and Dad’s Army and all the rest.  These shows rely on tedious expository mentions of Cuban Missile Crisis in the first five minutes to set the scene.  The airwaves seem clogged up with this inanity.

Initially, it seemed like the last chance for us to recognise what a wonderful actor William Hartnell was and how much the series owed him… but he’s dead, and everyone thinks he’s a racist so we don’t need to bother with that.  This programme can’t even bring itself to call him a racist, instead choosing to present him as making a solitary tasteless joke that the offended party laughs at.  His vanity and irascibility remain in place.  The drama communicates just how hopeless the creation of this show was, and how unloved it was by a monolithic and labyrinthine institution that commissioned it… but it can’t quite get across how it was this man who pulled it into the stratosphere.  Dalek ratings were high, but so were Zarbi, and Hartnell is the consistent link.  He managed to rewrite the show around his dashing (and I think the first Doctor is dashing in his own way) lead.

On the introduction of the Daleks (sorry Terry, sorry Ray, no time for your majesty in this programme.  Or Delia.  Or David.  Or…), it’s a bit heavy handed, as shots of a Dalek are intercut with a Nazi-inspired rifle being cocked.  It’s almost as if Terry McDonough doesn’t know what an allegory is.

It’s a bit of a mess.  Ostensibly, the drama follows Hartnell, but the show was created long before Hartnell came anywhere near it, so the first hour of the show almost seeks to move him to the sidelines and instead focus on Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein (Hartnell is shoehorned into the opening of the show via some meaningless flashback.  Can we really flashback to events that don’t concern him?  Does Mark Gatiss understand how a flashback works?)  It’s not a poor choice, their careers are both fascinating, outsiders in a hostile system, but is Hussein really that key a figure in the creation of Who?  A wonderful director, but rather exaggerated in the history we are presented with.

And isn’t that a pathetic criticism?  That my enjoyment of the series is dependent on the number of behind-the-scenes books I’ve read about the show.

Mark Gatiss is a good writer… and it gets very hard to say much more than that.  An ostensible jack-of-all-trades he appears as answers in University Challenge as much as he pops up as actor/writer/presenter etc.  But there is a consistent issue with him trying to put too much into his scripts.  The docu-drama about the creation of Doctor Who goes on all the way up to 1966.  It’s a pretty good first hour followed by a very messy, rushed twenty-five minutes.  No one was wanting to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the show by seeing someone silently pretend to be Jackie Lane.  By the time we reach Reece Sheersmith dressing up as Patrick Troughton we’re exhausted.  Gatiss has written a lot of scripts for Who by this stage, and it’s not hard to imagine that if any other writer had been given the chance to write as much for Who as he has, they would have produced a body of work that was more challenging, more daring and so much more inventive.

Back in 1999 (time travel again) Gatiss wrote a sketch for Doctor Who Night called The Pitch of Fear about the origins of Doctor Who.  In a handful of minutes, it was wittier, bitchier and less respectful than what we ended up with in 2013.  Maybe the origin of Doctor Who was a bit of a mess.  Maybe that doesn’t matter.  Doctor Who exists as a truth in its immediate moments.  Continuity is meaningless, as the multitude of writers ignore each other.  Maybe this history of Doctor Who is as real as the one I read about in those behind-the-scenes guides.

KKLAK! LIVES V – An Unearthly Child (pilot)

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There’s a reason why An Unearthly Child may be so well directed; it’s the televisual equivalent of a first album – something you have a lifetime to work on.  By the time we get to The Cave of Skulls, we’re no longer dealing with art, and only dealing with product.  Interestingly, it also is a completed second draft.  An earlier version of this episode, know colloquially as the pilot episode, is broadly similar to the broadcast version, yet feature some differences worth noting.

Within the unbroadcast episode, Susan is presented as a far ‘stranger’ individual.  She struggles to communicate with adults and wears a far more oblique outfit.  There is a sense that Ian and Barbara are taking a break from their casual corridor flirtation to investigate a genuinely alien girl (and the references to aliens – Ian’s ‘She couldn’t be a foreigner,’ and the Doctor’s ‘Savage minds,’ comment – clearly relate this to the world of 1963 as much as police boxes do), rather than the implicit suspicion that she is covering up abuse in the broadcast episode.  At this stage the traditional role of ‘companion’ doesn’t exist – largely because the role of the Doctor is so much further to the fringe of the narrative.  But here, the mystery is as much about the peculiar girl making Rorschach blots as it is about the box that is bigger on the inside.  It is a mystery that is neglected to be followed in any subsequent episodes.

Because of the pervading sense of strangeness that dominates the show at this point, travelling in the TARDIS is not the trip of a lifetime.  It is terrifying and hostile, and you will marry any old dude who looks at you twice to avoid doing it any longer.  Sixties episodes of Doctor Who use all kinds of desperate means to conveniently bring new passengers into the ship.  In the pilot, the Doctor’s reason for trapping Ian and Barbara is a more cynical, but more fully realised argument; that these teachers, via their knowledge of his advanced 49th Century technology, have the potential to change the course of history.  What we ultimately saw on screen, on the 23rd November 1963, was an ambiguously underwhelming discussion that he didn’t want to be bothered.  The pilot points towards a history of the show where the key thematic exploration is that you can’t change one line of history.  Ian, his vanity already present in his irritation with Susan’s superior knowledge, and the inquisitive nature of Barbara would have perhaps acted in counterpoint to the sagacity, however unsympathetic, of the Doctor.

The whole episode points towards an imagined alternative history of Doctor Who.  Where the TARDIS crew encountered robots on Luxor, or invented a primitive blood transfusion device for Alexander the Great, or travelled to first century Nazareth.  These alternate histories seem as real to us as a season 6B, Robert Homes’ Five Doctors, the original season 23, a televised run of New Adventures and whatever fantasy season of Who we’ve written in our head (episode one = ‘The Hole in the World’, episode two = ‘The Shame of the Cybermen’ etc.)  I particularly enjoy imagining the encounter with Christ as a story written by Donald Cotton, all hilarity with the apostles for three episodes and then a bloody crucifixion in the final part.  But the history of Who is so big, the cathedral of stories that it contains within is so broad, that no matter how ridiculous some of these untaken paths are, you can see that they very easily could have been part of the series history.

Whilst there are many changes to what we eventually saw on screen, the main difference comes from William Hartnell.  The changes are of performance far more than script.  Doctor Bill in the pilot is a grim man, aloof and removed, distant from those around him.  When Hartnell replays many of the same lines in the final version, he chooses to imbue them with that sense of mischievousness that will come to be one of the most endearing qualities of his Doctor.  You get the sense that he is actively battling against the script, yet unlike Doctors Jon and Tom, he never removes us from the integrity of the narrative.  His heightened mannerisms create a vulnerability that helps us love him, and ultimately moves the character from the side-line into the centre stage.

Maybe all Doctor Who would have been this good if they’d had the chance to film it twice…

KKLAK! LIVES IV – An Unearthly Child

 

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With the self-aware cruelty that comes from being an adult, I once forced my four god-children to watch this episode.  Not the story that we now call An Unearthly Child (and that a few pedants call 100,000BC even though that is about as historically accurate as ‘Silurian’.  Or ‘Eocene’).  God, no.  But the first episode of the ongoing serial Doctor Who.  I knew it was good.  I knew, that despite every assumption, William Hartnell episodes can convert any child.  My parents had forced me to watch an old black-and-white television show one Friday evening in 1992.  I can remember protesting against doing so.  At the end of a creaky Doctor Bill episode, I turned to my parents and said I loved it.

Five or so years later, my god-children still ask me if they can watch the rest of this story.

No matter how advanced our computers get, nothing has quite beaten the experience of watching what happens when a camera films its own monitor.  The swirling, flittering streaks across the screen show how were about to watch something that is both real and unreal.  The theme tune, instantly hummable and simultaneously completely impossible to replicate, is a haunting clash of styles.  The bass shows tells us of a show that will repeat its best tricks again and again, whilst the ethereal melody suggests that we are going to see something quite strange.  It is so strange.  Everything about the title sequence seems to tell you that this is an unsafe place to be.  That reality will clash with the horrific.  The streaks of white light reach out into the living room towards you…

Wonderfully, the theme music continues over the opening scene.  Incidental music was rarely used in the early days of Doctor Who, with the soundtrack scored by the special sounds of humming and throbbing.  They ensure that the everyday, rooms, junkyards, police boxes are instantly alien.  They are our key indicator of the abnormal elements of the show.

Waris Hussein uses a camera with constant movement, choosing when to close in on the actor’s faces for high impact.  He presents us, the viewer, as involved in the action, looking over Ian’s shoulder.  There are moments of strangeness here for us, such as when the gates to Totter’s Lane open for us of their own accord, or when we are violently struck by point of view recollections of Susan’s strange behaviour.  The series never quite managed to incorporate this visual dynamism into its regular schedule, but Hussein is dedicated to ensuring that the atmosphere of abnormality pervades the entire image.

We insist on a doctrine of autership in art.  We believe that the epitome of culture comes in the expressions of individuals.  But this is a useless definition with which to live life by.  Much beauty is found in collaboration.  Football teams, pop songs, cathedrals, the film Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott) are all examples of art where no single person can be defined at the author of the piece.  Doctor Who has no author.  It has no creator.  It is a work of collaboration, or on occasions, a work of conflict.  The series has always been at its strongest when a multitude of voices are found within the text.  Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, Donald Wilson, Rex Tucker, Mervyn Pinfield, Anthony Coburn, C. E. Webber, David Whittaker were all vital in creating these twenty-five minutes of television.  That’s a lot of voices.

But the strongest voice of all is William Hartnell.  Much maligned, largely because of the indiscreet judgments of some of his later co-stars, Hartnell is by far the most charming, most complex Doctor the series has ever seen.  He allowed his character to grow and change in a way that no other actor sought to bring to the role.  Peter Cushing aside, he was the only actor to have a substantive film career, where his range allowed him to play both violent thugs and pitiful old men.  Fans tend to forget these performances because they’re not on telly.  In An Unearthly Child, Hartnell is actively playing against the script, chuckling and bringing a profound melancholy to lines that would be played far harsher by a lesser actor.  He is determined to make this work, to rise above the limits of the worst studio in London to create something worthwhile.  People forget how much of his Doctor is a performance, a performance specifically for very poor quality broadcast television – it’s not even his own voice that he uses.

More than this, William Hartnell was the only man who believed that the series would last for fifty years…

KKLAK! LIVES III – The God Complex

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‘KKLAK’ is a nonsense word that means everything to us.  Phrases like ‘a pleasant, open face’ and ‘a wheezing and groaning sound’ are filtered through our minds from the biblical Target novels of our childhood.  I remember the ‘capacious pockets’.  Playing Doctor Who as a child didn’t mean wielding a sonic screwdriver, it was as absent from Who as it was present.  No, it meant filling my pockets with any old crap I could find and pretending I would need to find a use for it when hanging off a cliff, or battling a ‘walking mummy’ (our name for the monster in The Pyramids of Mars) or ‘green ghosties’ (who knows?)

It’s one of my favourite things about the Doctor, his suddenly producing items from his pockets.  He does it in The God Complex and it makes me smile.  I’m not sure how often Doctor Matt made me smile; most of the time spent watching him was about reconciling things in my head.  The Doctor had changed by this time; he no longer explored and used wisdom to figure things out, now he was a walking Wikipedia – he knew everything necessary to explain a plot wherever he landed.  Moments of charm were no longer quiet laughs shared between Katy Manning and Elisabeth Sladen with Doctors Jon and Tom, they were highly scripted back-and-forth repartee.

Still one thing remained the same… the companions were always upstaged by the guest stars, and yet they still remained higher billed.  This isn’t the case in most television drama.  In most shows, the regular cast are the stars – they get the juicy plot lines, they are the centre of the story, and guest stars only exist to shred out a few lines.  But in Doctor Who, it’s the guest stars who make the episode.  David Walliams is one of those British stars who crosses all boundaries.  Ostensibly a comedian, he is one of the most successful children’s authors around (however much he writes like a lazy Roald Dahl), a judge on one of television’s most popular shows and a regular on chat shows across several channels.  He is also a profoundly queer screen presence – he disrupts the stability of most shows he is in by toying and flirting with men, and by behaving in an atypically masculine manner.  So he is a shoo-in for the natural camp of Who.  In series seven, all we were mainly getting was a lot of pouting from Karen Gillen.

There is a strong tradition in Who of gods being either false or evil.  There is no benign, benevolent presence within its universe.  It is replaced by a somewhat banal belief in the amazingness of humanity, and more interestingly, in moments when the Doctor himself starts to believe he is god.  The ‘Complex’ of the title refers to the Doctor himself.  After all, the climax of the story relies on the Doctor breaking Amy’s faith in him.  The new series has a complex relationship with the old series.  It knows that the vast majority of the audience for it doesn’t even have the cultural memory of ‘the one with the maggots’ anymore.  So it is free to play with moments from the old series and recycle anything that comes out in the wash.  The fact that this is a weak cover version of a moment in The Curse of Fenric is irrelevant.  Even for fans, the moments on the screen are limp when compared to what we read in Target novels or remembered watching in our childhoods.

(Reading the novelisation of Warriors from the Deep I had no real understanding of maritime terminology and thus imagined every scene set on ‘the bridge’ as happening… well, you can guess the rest.)

Climaxes of stories in new Who have become something else.  I remember looking at the clock in Russell T. Davies episodes and wondering what on Earth he was going to do for the next fifteen minutes.  Nowadays, the plot ends, and then there are scenes of emotion.  Back on Day of the Daleks, Paul Bernard refused to film the coda to the earlier TARDIS time travel scene because he felt the story was done.  Now, climaxes can seem premature, they can be thrown away and come at some quite strange times.

Despite the imaginative use of inserted shots within the episode, The God Complex does seem to conform to the notion that modern television is just crap movies.  Doctor Who has always been able to turn this into a strength, if not visually, then thematically.  The Shining (1980 – Stanley Kubrick) is used as a touchstone – but there we gain an insight into the psychosis of a violent abuser.  Here we get a typical creepy clown.  By the time we’ve reached the set of the cheapest looking spaceship the series has done yet, we realise that the God isn’t complex, he’s kind of trite.