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13 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 712: The Curse of Fenric, Episode Three

Dear diary,

Once upon a time, when I was living in my flat in Norwich, I used to have a shelf of Doctor Who action figures up in the living room. Each Doctor - from Hartnell to Smith at the time - was accompanied by an enemy from their era. Hartnell had a Dalek, Troughton had an *Invasion*-style Cyberman, Pertwee had a Sea Devil (and/or the Master, depending on my mood), Tom Baker had the K1 Robot, Davison had the Ainley Master (or, as Nick likes to point out, Kameleon), Colin Baker had an Earthshock-era Cyberman, and McCoy had two Haemovores. Now, Character Options have never produced any Haemovore figures, but I had a friend who made some really great custom models to suit the range, and when I saw that he was selling off a few of the vampiric creatures, I leapt at the chance to own them. Specifically, it was the couple that we see peering round the tombstone here - presumably the Sundviks? 

I love the design of the Haemovores, and I really think that they’re a great example of just how brilliant the monster design is in this season. In the next story we’ve got the Destroyer coming up - which is another fab design that I’m surprised hasn’t yet been immortalised in action figure form - but the Haemovores really made an impact on me early into my journey to becoming a *Doctor Who* fan. Regular readers will no doubt be surprised that they were etched on the my mind while reading Doctor Who: The Legend, and every time I come back to this story, I’m a little bit delighted to find that I’m loving the look all over again. That we get to see them besieging the church is just a bonus, really!

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been complaining that even though I knew where The Curse of Fenric was heading, it had completely lost me along the way. There’s been so much going on in this story, and it was all happening so quickly, that I’d completely failed to keep up with everything. Suddenly, today, I’ve realised why I’ve struggled so much - you’re not really supposed to understand what’s happening here. All the stuff with the Russians, and the vampires, and the evil fog… that’s all just to keep you interested and watching for two-and-a-half episodes, before you’re suddenly given some information about what’s happening at the same time as Ace. Quite how I’d managed to forget this beautiful exchange is beyond me;

ACE

You know what's going on, don't you? 

DOCTOR

Yes. 

ACE

You always know. You just can't be bothered to tell anyone. It's like it's some kind of game, and only you know the rules. You knew all about that inscription being a computer programme, but you didn't tell me. You know all about that old bottle, and you're not telling me. Am I so stupid? 

DOCTOR

No, that's not it. 

ACE

Why then? I want to know. 

DOCTOR

Evil. Evil since the dawn of time. 

ACE

What do you mean? 

DOCTOR

Will you stop asking me these questions? 

ACE

Tell me!

It’s the kind of scene that we’ve been needing to build towards for some time now with this pair - Ace has been caught up in the Doctor’s schemes since her second story, and while that’s not all that long ago at a time when the seasons are so short, it’s felt like a real through-arc building up to this. It’s taking that final scene from Silver Nemesis, and building on it before we move on to Ghost Light and seeing the Doctor push his companion into ever darker places.

And it’s something I’ve mentioned before, but you really do get the sense that Ace is growing up during her adventures. I’ve said elsewhere that I’d happily believe the pair of them have spent around two years beetling around the galaxies by this point, and I think all of Ace’s comments here in regards to not being a little girl any more and starting to change her mind about marriage and her future would certainly fit her at about eighteen years old. Yes, we all cringe a little bit during that flirting scene (‘faster than the second hands on a watch?’), but it’s another part of Ace’s evolution that feels right to be shown.

12 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 711: The Curse of Fenric, Episode Two

Dear diary,

I don’t know what’s wrong with me this week, but I’m completely lost with this story! I mean… I know where it’s all building, as I said yesterday, and I’m enjoying it on the whole… but I’m struggling to keep up with it! Everything is moving very fast, with characters darting from one location to another, sometimes only remaining there for the duration of a very brief scene, before heading off to the next place. The Doctor is especially bad as a culprit of this, and I’ve very quickly lost track of everything. Is it just me? It’s not a particularly complex story, but it’s at a pace I’m simply not used to seeing from Doctor Who!

Still, as I’ve said, I’m enjoying the story irregardless of my ability to follow it. There’s just so much atmosphere to The Curse of Fenric, isn’t there? Something about the way the mist rolls in while Phyliss and Jean go for their swim sums up the entire story so perfectly, and it’s the first time in a while that I’ve been able to claim that it’s the kind of thing that would have taken a hold of my imagination as a child and hooked me right in to the programme. It continues to get better from there - when we next see them, having ended their previous scene on a shot of the empty water, it takes a moment to really register what’s happened. Have they been zombified? Are they simply okay? It’s not for a good few seconds that it hits you that their fingers and nails have grown long and spindly, and that they’re pale and drained of blood. They then tempt the Russian soldier in to the water, and watch on as the hands emerge from the water to drag him down. Later on in the episode, when those same creatures come marching from the sea, I always remember a note in the About Time books that makes reference to the fact that this is the late-1980s version of ‘monster emerges from water’, citing Full Circle’ and ‘The Sea Devils’ as earlier examples in the programme. It’s *such a great shot, though, isn’t it? And I think this may be the best example of it yet.

The thing I’m enjoying most about this episode has nothing to do with the effects or the eerie atmosphere, but is relevant to something I read recently. During Series Eight, I read a comment online regarding Frank Skinner’s appearance in Mummy on the Orient Express. Someone complained that it was ‘pushing stunt-casting to the same levels we got under John Nathan-Turner’, and suggested that it was bad for the show, citing ‘Beryl Reid, Ken Dodd, Nicholas Parsons, and Hale & Pace’ as examples. Now, I spoke about Beryl Reid’s casting during Earthshock and concluded that actually she probably wan’t quite right for the role. I also discussed Ken Dodd during Delta and the Bannermen, and decided that he was absolutely perfect for the part - and looking back he’s probably my favourite thing about that entire season; I still love the way he’s shot in the back as he tries to get away!

But I sincerely doubt I’m alone in saying that Nicholas Parsons in this story completely justifies the practice of casting well known ‘names’ for the show. He’s most well known for hosting Sale of the Century or for charing Just a Minute, and that’s often brought up when people take a pot shot at him taking on a dramatic role in this story, but he’s frankly wonderful as the vicar here. His performance is honestly one of the best that a guest actor has ever given to the programme, and I could quite happily spend time just watching him. I’ll admit that it doesn’t always work - again, Beryl Reid, I’m looking at you - but surely this is the ultimate example that just because you cast someone who’s mostly known for ‘light entertainment’, it doesn’t mean that they’re not right for Doctor Who, also?

11 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 710: The Curse of Fenric, Episode One

Dear diary,

Just as a recap to those of you who may not have been keeping up with the Diary over the last few weeks - I’m watching lots of Seasons Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six out of broadcast order because… well, because they work a bit better being watched in the order that they were intended to be seen in! I’m also going all out with The Curse of Fenric, and watching the Special Edition on the DVD, though I’m still breaking it down into individual days, just pausing the DVD at the appropriate cliffhanger points. I can’t tell you how tempting it was today just to carry on and watch it as a movie-length version, though! I think this story may have been the first McCoy tale that I ever saw, and there’s certainly a fair bit that I like about it…

Perhaps largely, it’s the relationship between the Doctor and Ace. It’s something I’ve been touching on for a while now, but they really do gel together as a team in a way that other Doctors and companions haven’t since about the time Romana was on the show. Don’t get me wrong - Davison worked very well with Tegan, and Colin Baker went well with Peri (even when they were arguing, in an odd sort of way) - but McCoy and Ace just fit, don’t they? I speculated during Remembrance of the Daleks that up to six months may have passed for the pair between their first meeting and the events of that story, and by the end of last season I’d decided that they’d already spent a year together. I think I’m willing to take another big leap here and say that we might well be coming up on the two-year mark. Something about the fact that the seasons are so short in this period (over in a fortnight!) makes it feel automatically as though there must be a lot of off-screen adventures happening somewhere, and the relationship between our leads just fits that idea beautifully.

I’m finding this episode a bit strange to come to now, because it’s a story that I’m so familiar with. I know that the Doctor will go on to battle with Fenric by the end, and that Ace is a pawn in this game, and yet this first episode doesn’t really give you many clues as to what’s going on. The Doctor has obviously come here with a distinct purpose (Ace is even dressed for the period when they arrive), and then he spends the episode running from location to location, but he seems to switch between knowing what’s going on, to not having a clue. I think I’m right in saying that he’s worked out that Fenric is involved somewhere (or, at the very least, he’s almost entirely certain that it must be him), but that he’s not entirely sure how everything factors in to Fenric’s plan? Or is he looking in to all of these things to confirm his theories about what’s happening? The problem is that because I’ve become so used to looking at this story as part of the ‘bigger picture’ within the era, it’s suddenly throwing me to be watching it properly again - it’s been a good few years!

From tomorrow’s instalment, I’m going to try and block all of that out of my mind, and just go along with the story. Certainly I’ve enjoyed today’s episode, but perhaps not as much as I was expecting to because there’s so much back and forth trying to get everything in to place so that the story can progress. It’s one of those occasions when knowing too much can have a detrimental effect - but I’m also quite keen on the idea of watching this story again in the very near future, once I’ve regained a better grounding of how the story works in itself, as opposed to being part of the overall story.

10 December 2014

As we reach that time of the year where the Christmas tree is up and we hang up all our favourite ornaments, make sure you save a place for some of the awesome creations by PJ McQuade.

PJ has crafted some fantastic Doctor Who themed Christmas cards, featuring all 12 Doctors, from Hartnell to Capaldi. Also available are some rather nifty tree ornaments made from the same artwork.

You can also get hold of some limited edition, hand signed prints of the art - all of which can be viewed on his Etsy page - but hurry as they are in limited supply.

Product details:

Cards

-  Dimensions: 4.25" x 5.5"
-  Clay coated 12 pt. premium card stock
-  Comes with one white envelope.
-  $5.00
-  Available in packs of 5, 10 or 20 at discounted rates.

Ornaments:

-  5ml laminated prints, custom cut, hole punched with hanging hook.
-  Hand signed and dated on the back. All ornaments measure roughly 4x3"
-  Available individually or as a 12 pack combo. Free Doctor Who Christmas card with purchase of combo 12 pack.

Prints:

-  Dimensions: 11x14". Printed on 300gsm MOAB Entrada Fine Art Rag with archival 8 dye inks. Hand signed, numbered and dated.
-  Limited edition of 175 for the regular.
-  Limited edition of 200 for the Santa Hat variant.
-  Every print purchased comes with a free Doctor Who Christmas card.

+  Visit PJ McQuade’s Etsy page.
+  Visit PJ McQuade's Official Website.
+  Follow PJ McQuade on Twitter.

[Source: PJ McQuade]

10 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 706: Silver Nemesis, Episode Three

Dear diary,

Right then, you might want to hold on to something, because I’m about to bang on about the Time War again. My friend Alex loves the Seventh Doctor. I mean, really loves him. His first exposure to the programme was through watching this era as a kid, and in the 1990s, it was picking up the spar odic McCoy-era video tapes that really kicked off his enthusiasm for the programme. Oddly enough, the last Seventh Doctor story that either of us saw is the one I’ll be starting tomorrow - The Happiness Patrol. He’d purposely put off watching it for years because he liked there being a little bit of the Seventh Doctor out there somewhere that he had yet to experience. Anyway, I’ve known Alex for years and years now. We used to work together, we even lived together for a while, and earlier this year I made the trek home from Cardiff to be at his wedding. In all that time, we’ve discussed a lot of things about Doctor Who, and one of my favourite things that we do is theorise. I don’t really do it as much with any of my other friends, but with Alex, we go over all the little details to build up our own head canon on any trivial point that we care to think of. The big one, and the one that’s relevant for today’s episode, is our theory on the Time War.

Back when we first met, we didn’t actually know an awful lot about the Time War. It was this vast and mythical event which took place at some point between the TV Movie and Rose. It had wiped out all but one Time Lord, and almost all of the Daleks. It had raged for millennia in various forms, and occasionally the Doctor would throw in a reference to some event that he witnessed in the war. As the seasons rolled by, we slowly got drip-fed more and more information about that time, and Alex built up a fairly intricate theory about the war, which I’ve always rather liked, and which largely fits with what we’ve seen on screen since - or, rather, it does with a bit of squinting.

The general gist of it for the purposes of this entry are that the Seventh Doctor knew the Time War was coming (he was the one who fired the first real blow in Remembrance of the Daleks, after all, having kicked things off way back in Genesis), and that what we see on screen between Seasons Twenty-Four and Twenty-Six is him preparing the battlefield. He wipes out Skaro - a seat of power which could easily be used to unify the scattered Dalek forces. He takes out the Cyberfleet here, so that they won’t be in the way while the battle is raging, and they’re one less destruction. I’m sure in the books there’s another similar incident which Alex had built in to his theory (and I’ve always loved one of Jamie Lenman's fab Doctor Whoa cartoons from Doctor Who Magazine, in which the Doctor is trying to offer the Ice Warriors an ancient Gallifreyan weapon). Then there’s the whole oft-stated plan that Season Twenty-Seven would have seen the Doctor pack Ace off to the Academy on Gallifrey. We theorised that he’d be doing this specifically to shake them up a bit, provide a kick up the arse, and get them out of their stuffy ‘observers’ role that many Time Lords have been stuck in for centuries.

Why would it be the Seventh Doctor doing this? Two reasons - firstly, the war could kick off at any point once he’d made that shot at Skaro, and secondly because he knew that his next incarnation wouldn’t be up to the job. When Night of the Doctor came along and the Eighth Doctor was presented as a conscientious objector to the war, it fitted the theory perfectly - and it meant that we felt even more sure about it being the Eighth incarnation who tried to save Davros from the ‘jaws of the Nightmare Child’*, because while the Seventh Doctor had gone around the universe wiping out all these old foes in an attempt to ‘clear the stage’ for the war, the Eighth Doctor was desperately trying to cling on to anything that made him still ‘the Doctor’, and knowing that Davros was out there somewhere plotting a new ridiculous scheme is part of that.

The bit that I most enjoyed about the theory is that it all works very nicely with the Doctor’s words in this episode - when he’s talking to the Nemisis statue about the future;

NEMESIS

You might need me in the future, then?

DOCTOR

I hope not.

NEMESIS

That is what you said before.

In Alex’s theory, the Doctor hoped not to need the Validium any more, because he was hoping to find a way of averting the war.

Watching this story again now, there’s a few more ideas that crop up which I’m sure I’ll want to incorporate in to the theory, in light of the events of last year’s anniversary special. I’ve not quite got them worked out in my mind yet, but I love that Lady Peinforte knows who the Doctor is because the Nemesis told her - and in my head the Nemesis is such a complex construct that it can easily see all possible futures, but knows that the Doctor is the man who will one day use ‘the Moment’. Greater than the Hand of Omega, or the Validium, that’s the one weapon that should never be used. I love the thought that when Peinforte is saying that she knows who the Doctor truly is, it’s because she knows he’s the man who will destroy his own people and live to tell the tale.

I’m sure you don’t particularly care about all these Time War theories I keep throwing out there, trying to retroactively shoehorn modern continuity into the older stories, but it keeps me interested, and otherwise you’d have had a day of ‘there’s a lot to like again here, but also a fair bit of padding’…

*Incidentally, in Alex’s visions of the war, the ‘Nightmare Child’ is actually a Time Lord battleship made of pure Validium, and piloted by none other than Ace!

9 December 2014

Check out the fantastic range of products that our friends over at Toys R 4U have. Their prices an specialist products are hard to bear and the online shop at www.toys-r4u.co.uk is packed with loads of fun stuff.

Toys R 4U have a range of toys for children of all ages from babies to toddlers, tweens to teenagers, learning and science for kids with bright minds, role play and imagination for kids who want to fly, bikes and ride-ons, gadgets, fun clothing and accessories that will meet any child’s need; and as Buzz Lightyear would say..... tooooo infinity and beyond!  

Their unique toy shop is fast becoming the online sensation. It’s exceptionally good! They have a superb selection of toys with over 3,000 attractive products to choose from. You’re sure to find something for the little ones in your life! 

Go check out the fantastic range at Toys-R 4U and receive a FREE £5.00 discount when you place your first order. 

[Source: Toys R 4U]

9 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 708: Silver Nemesis, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Somehow - even though we’ve hit the phase of the programme where three-part stories, a format that I’ve been extolling as the best possible for ‘classic’ Doctor Who since pretty much the start of this marathon, have become common place - this story still manages to feel a bit padded out! Today opens very well, with an all out battle between the Cybermen, the Nazis, Lady Peinforte, and with the Doctor and Ace caught in the middle. There’s plenty going on, and if there’s one thing that Silver Nemesis is very good at, it’s the explosions. It’s all go for this battle, and it looks great. But then, once the fighting is at an end, everyone just sort of wanders off in their own separate directions.

The Doctor and Ace at least have a certain kind of logic to their actions - they steal the bow, take the TARDIS out of the way (as the Eleventh Doctor says in The Bells of Saint John, he doesn’t want to take the ship in to battle), and then set about tracking down the statue on foot. Fine, I’ll go along with that. The Cybermen, too, have a certain logic to their movements. They head off with the statue to take refuge in Lady Peinforte’s tomb, reasoning that she will go crazy when presented with her own death. I can sort of see their thinking there, but surely if she’s a foe powerful enough for the Cybermen to know about, then they should also be aware that she’ll not be overly bothered by the sift of the tomb. Still, I’ll nod along, because they’re at least doing something meaningful. The Nazis, on the other hand, seem to just wander off to the Safari Park. Genuinely, when the Cybermen’s ship gets blown up, we see the reaction of De Flores and he just happens to be stood around, without any purpose. They haven’t thought of using their bit of Validium to track down the rest (probably for the best, since the Doctor’s stolen it without them noticing), but have just taken a stroll. Speaking of which, you’ve then got Lady Peinforte and Richard, who wander down the high street and get caught up in a little side plot with some skinheads.

There just doesn’t seem to be any real sense of urgency to the proceedings here. The Doctor is written as though he’s desperately trying to catch up with events that have started to spiral out of his control, but then we get scenes of him laying in the grass with Ace as they listen to Jazz (it doesn’t matter that said Jazz is being used to block signals from the Cyberfleet - that could be done on the move, too), or lounging around on top of fallen trees while he has a think about what’s going on. He then seems surprised by the sudden realisation that there’s an entire fleet of Cybermen out there, when the implication up to even a few seconds before the revelation is that he knows this!

Oh, but there’s a lot to enjoy about this episode, too, when it’s actually going somewhere. I love the Doctor’s discussion with Ace about the nature of the Validium - and I’m especially keen on the way that it takes the similar conversation from Remembrance of the Daleks and manages to move it on a bit. In that story, the Doctor made a slight slip up, possibly revealing too much. Here, Ace is actively digging for the information;

DOCTOR

Validium was created as the ultimate defence for Gallifrey, back in early times.

ACE

Created by Omega?

DOCTOR

Yes.

ACE

And?

DOCTOR

Rassilon.

ACE

And?

DOCTOR

And none of it should have left Gallifrey. But, as always with these things, some of it did.

I know there’s even more padding to come in the next episode, with the arrival of Mrs Remington, so I’m hoping that the nice mythic bits of the story outweigh the filler elements that are currently threatening to dominate…

8 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 707: Silver Nemesis, Episode One

Dear diary,

Silver Nemesis is something of a black sheep in Season Twenty-Five, isn’t it? Among out-and-out classics like Remembrance of the Daleks, and stories that have gone on to be re-evaluated as the years have gone by, this one has always been seen as the eek link in this run of episodes. And yet, I’ve never been able to do anything but love it.

Oh, I mean, come on! Imagine how exciting this story sounded to me when I was first learning about it! Not only is it my favourite monsters, but it’s also the official anniversary story, there’s a witch, some Nazis, the Doctor working on another plan involving an ancient Gallifreyan relic… it just sounds really exciting! All that said, there is a lot crammed in to these first 24-or-so minutes. You’re almost left a bit confused because you go so quickly through events - there’s a comet approaching the Earth, this woman is trying to get to the future, the Forth Reich is being born, the Doctor and Ace are enjoying a jazz concert, then they’re under attack from gunmen, then they’re at Windsor castle, then they’re at the witch woman’s house, then they’re back at Windsor castle… it just never lets up!

Somehow, though, there’s quite a leisurely pace to the proceedings. We’re given a chance to watch the Doctor and Ace enjoy themselves at the concert (again, this pair just look so comfortable together doing this. It’s rare that we get to see a TARDIS team simply enjoying their travels in this way. I said during Remembrance of the Daleks that I thought maybe six months had already passed for the pair since they departed together in Dragonfire, and I think I’m willing to say that another six months could have passed before this point - we’re a far cry from the Peter Davison years, when every story very rigidly led us in to the next…). It’s perhaps because so much time is given over to savouring things like this that it all gets a bit convoluted later on. When the TARDIS is shuttling back and forth all over the place, it quickly becomes very difficult to keep track of everything that’s happening.

But there’s so many lovely little touches to this episode which perfectly sets it up as being the story to celebrate a half century of the programme, and makes it just so right for airing on November 23rd. Leslie French is perhaps the actor that I’ve been enjoying the most in this one - he was originally considered for the role of the Doctor right back when the programme started, and he’s playing his role here as very much the way I remember the First Doctor being, especially around Season Two. I can’t tell if he’s been specifically asked to play it in this way (though I imagine he has), or if it’s just a nice coincidence, but it’s lovely all the same. The only downside, perhaps, is that it makes me long to see some old black-and-white episodes again! I also didn’t realise that Fiona Walker (here as Lady Peinforte) had been in Doctor Who before - way back in The Keys of Marinus! Before starting out on this story, to try and keep up with the celebratory spirit, I re-watched the ‘making of’ documentary from the Silver Nemesis VHS, and when Fiona pointed out that she’d been in the very first series, I really had to wrack my brain to think of who she could have played (and then gave up and checked Wikipedia, instead!). You’ve also got cameo appearances from several other Who alumni, including Nicholas Courtney, John Leeson, Fiona Cumming, Andrew Morgan, and Peter Moffat.

It’s also very fitting that this story - sitting at the half-way mark in terms of the stretch of this marathon from An Unearthly Child in 1963 to The Time of the Doctor in 2013 - should have some notable firsts and lasts involved. It’s the last use of the programme’s original home, Lime Grove, which is used for some sound recording, but it’s also the first time that the programme has used on-screen captions to tell us where and when we are, and the first time that the TARDIS blows up a wind as it materialises - things which will become more frequent in the 21st century version of the series.

So once again, Happy Birthday Doctor Who. I’m glad you threw a bit of a party to celebrate turning 25!

7 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 706: The Happiness Patrol, Episode Three

Dear diary,

One of the things that comes up most about The Happiness Patrol, at least in fan circles, has to be the Kandy Man. Oh, god, the ridicule that’s been poured at that poor candy creation over the years! I can sort of see why, if I’m honest - I mean, for starters, it’s a Doctor Who villain in the shape of Bertie Bassett - but I also have to confess that I rather like him! 

There’s something so wonderful about the fact that a big pile of sweets can be made to be in any way threatening, and it’s largely down to the performance that David John Pope gives in the role. It’s played as childlike but sinister - and that’s a combination that’s always been effective. I also love the way that even the Doctor and Ace make fun of the character; a particular highlight being a scene in which the Doctor sticks his foe to the floor with Lemonade… Frees him… and then sticks him to the floor again! For all my talk of the Seventh Doctor’s scheming persona, and I’m sure there’ll be more of that to come in the next season, this is the most fun that his trickery ever comes across!

It also helps that the Kandy Man isn’t really the villain of the piece. In that time-honoured Doctor Who tradition, he’s simply a monster for the younger members of the audience to look at, while everyone else follows along with a pastiche of Thatcherism elsewhere in the story. A few years ago, this was picked up by Newsnight as though someone had just unearthed this hidden subtext in the story after all these years, but it’s fairly plain to see even if you’re not looking for it! I’ll not be delving too deeply into any of that, though, because there’s people far better suited to giving a proper in-depth look at the subject than I am - I’m more suited to discussing the Kandy Man! 

On the whole, I’ve rather liked The Happiness Patrol. It’s been the story that really solidified Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in my mind, and that’s always a good thing. I’ve spent years knowing how much I enjoy him as a Doctor, but worried that Season Twenty-Four had proven me wrong. Here’s hoping that as we move towards the end of the ‘classic’ run, the great feeling in evidence production-wise throughout this story continues - letting us go out on a high.

6 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 705: The Happiness Patrol, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Oh, you know, I’ve been dying to type these words. I’ve been hovering over them for a couple of weeks but wanted to save it for something special - and we certainly got that in today’s episode. So…

Sylvester McCoy is bloody good, isn’t he?

Hooray! Woo! Canned audience cheers in the background. Oh, of course I knew that Sylv was great. Of course he’s great, but you know Season Twenty-Four really threw me. The performance he’s giving in those four stories just isn’t right for him, and I love that he comes back and really decides to do it the way he feels is right in this season. He’s brilliant right from the start of Remembrance of the Daleks, but it’s when you get a scene like today’s ‘gun’ exchange that you really appreciate just how brilliant he can be. I try to only quote little bits here and there in The 50 Year Diary, but this really needs to be done as a longer excerpt;

DOCTOR

You like guns, don't you.

ALEX

He'll kill you.

DOCTOR

Of course he will. That's what guns are for. Pull the trigger, end a life. Simple, isn't it.

DAVID

Yes.

DOCTOR

Makes sense, doesn't it.

DAVID

Yes.

DOCTOR

A life killing life.

ALEX

Who are you?

DOCTOR

Shut up. Why don't you do it then? Look me in the eye, pull the trigger, end my life. Why not?

DAVID

I can't.

DOCTOR

Why not?

DAVID

I don't know.

DOCTOR

No, you don't, do you. [He take’s DAVID’s gun away from him, and indicates ALEX] Throw away your gun. [ALEX does so.]

It’s not only a triumph of acting, it’s also such a beautiful scene - possibly the best writing that the programme has seen in a long time. There’s something about it which so perfectly encapsulates Doctor Who, and really sells the concept that he’s a hero who needn’t resort to violence, and although I’m starting to actually bang on about it, McCoy pitches it perfectly. Can you imagine the way he’d turn out this sequence in his Season Twenty-Four persona? No, me neither, because I’m actively trying not to. What we get here is glorious.

As is the sequence with Trevor Sigma, where he turns the questioning on its head. A lot of the dialogue here seems to be lifted from McCoy’s audition scene (as, indeed, is the idea of a villain based upon Margaret Thatcher - with Janet Fielding there filling in as ‘the Iron Woman’), but there’s a marked step-up in terms of performance. You really *do* get the impression that McCoy has had the chance to sit down, think things through, and really choose what he wants to do.

I think there’s an element of ‘cutting the apron strings’ in all of this - and I don’t just mean with McCoy. John Nathan-Turner has always been described as being very hands on and insistent on what he wanted from every bit of the programme (there are stories that the character of Mel was created simply because JN-T walked in to the office one day demanding that the next companion have red hair - though I’m not sure how true that may be). It feels often, though, that in the programme’s final years, Nathan-Turner was willing to sit back a little and let other people do their thing. Andrew Cartmel shapes the show at least as much as JN-T does in this period - and I’d argue moreso. Season Twenty-Five feels like the first opportunity of the show just ‘getting on with it’ and I think it’s working all the better for it.

5 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 704: The Happiness Patrol, Episode One

Dear diary,

For a long time, I didn’t really know what the general opinion was towards The Happiness Patrol. It’s one of those stories that never managed to sit at the very top of many people’s list of favourites, but it was rarely right down the other end of those lists, either. Five or so years ago, it was the final McCoy story that I needed to see - I watched this one immediately after The Greatest Show in the Galaxy with a friend, and these three episodes were the last bits of Seventh Doctor that he had to experience, too. Truth be told, I can’t remember a great deal of my own thoughts on the story, either. A quick look at the Doctor Who Magazine poll from earlier this year reveals that it placed in position 172 of 241 - which putting it at the lower end of ‘average’ territory.

I think that’s a placement that I’d agree with, based on this first episode. There’s certainly a lot in this episode to interest me, but it doesn’t particularly stand out from the crowd at all. I have a feeling that in another six months’ time, after this marathon is over, I’ll be back in that same position of not really knowing how I felt about this one. I think what makes it all the more frustrating, and something which I hope improves as time goes by, is that there’s some real flashes of genius on display. I’m talking largely here about the direction in this one - there are bits of the episode being shot like an old movie, with dutch camera angles and some fantastically artistic lighting. I’d love love see more of this as the story goes on, because it’s that kind of visual flare that could really help this story sing.

As I’ve said, though, there’s plenty to keep me interested, and it’s mostly to do with the ideas in the script. It would be easy to talk about Helen A’s characterisation and compare her to the then Prime Minister, or to talk about the Kandyman in the kitchen (both of which I’m sure I’ll do in the next couple of days), but it’s really the ideas of the world that are appealing to me. I simply love the whole sequence in the ‘waiting area’, where the Doctor is told that this absolutely isn’t a prison, because such a place wouldn’t at all fit with the ethos of this world… but then it’s made very sure that he - and we - understand that actually, of course it’s a prison. That whole sequence is wonderful, and it’s one that feels entirely at home here in the late-1980s era of the programme. I think we’re at a point now, past the half-way mark for another Doctor, where you can really feel Andrew Cartmel’s influence in the stories, because he’s very much the hand steering the show at this point.

I also love that, once again, the Doctor is here for his own reasons. He tells Ace that he’s heard some nasty rumours about the things happening in this colony and he’s decided to check them out. It’s not often before this season that we’ve seen a Doctor so determined to go where and when he’s needed, and I’m really enjoying it as a new approach to the character. I’m also surprised, at the end of Season Twenty-Five, just how much he’s doing things like this. I’ve always thought of the ‘manipulative’, ‘scheming’ version of the Seventh Doctor as only really being apparent in the final season of the show, with only the odd hint towards that side of his nature before then. Actually, though, it’s been a plot point in all of this season’s stories, and I’d argue that it’s easily read in to the stories of the previous season, too (indeed, I did read that in to them). We’re really seeing the way he’s using Ace now, too, in the way they emerge from the TARDIS and he probes to find out what she senses about this place. We’re about to enter a period where she’s very much his litmus paper going in to adventures, so this is a nice thing to see… 

5 December 2014

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4 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 703: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode Four

Dear diary,

This episode is home to not one, but two shots which I think so perfectly encapsulate the Sylvester McCoy era of the programme. The first comes when he’s in the ring, facing down the Gods of Ragnarok, and he turns on the spot, transforming his sword into the trademark umbrella. The second, of course, is the Doctor walking away from the Psychic Circus as an enormous explosion rips through the tent behind him. It’s become something of a legend within fandom that McCoy doesn’t even flinch when this explosion goes off - he does, and now I can’t unsee it - but he does look incredibly powerful regaining himself half a second later and continuing to strut. The story has been told a thousand times over the years that the explosion wasn’t supposed to be so large, but the fact that it is really helps to make this one of the most defining shots of the late 1980s.

The Doctor’s confrontation with the Gods here is somewhat wonderful, and it’s the first time in a long while that we’ve seen the Doctor square up to such a supposedly powerful being. We got hints of it a few days ago with his speech to Davros, but here we’ve got him properly face-to-face with his enemy in the same way we’ll get to see with Fenric in a couple of week’s time. The whole sequence is perfectly keyed to Sylvester McCoy, giving him a chance to clown around and do the kind of acts that he was best known for while also delivering some wonderful speeches to the ‘monsters’ as he brings their world crumbling down around them. It’s also interesting to note that he claims to have fought the Gods of Ragnarok ‘all through time’… presumably in adventures that we didn’t see? Or does he just mean that he;s fought gods like them, meaning the Animus, and the Great Intelligence? Still, it’s good to see the continuing trend of this incarnation specifically going after his enemies instead of just bumbling in on another of their evil schemes. By the time that the story is over, there’s no doubt left in my mind that the Doctor has orchestrated this whole thing.

I’m also rather keen on just how cleverly Captain Cook has been played throughout this story. He starts off as such an obvious parody of the Doctor (complete with companion), then comes back from the dead - how very like a Time Lord - and in this episode he also makes a point of announcing that he hasn’t come to this world simply by chance. He knows what’s going on here, and he’s here because of it all. I’d not noticed quite how well done this was the last time I watched the story, so I’m glad to have seen it now, because it’s a whole other layer that helps make the story all the richer.

On the whole, I’ve been left a bit mixed with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. I’ve enjoyed it, largely, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing to watch it again any time soon, in the way that some other stories are already at the top of the list for seeing again when this marathon is over. One thing I will say, though - in the special features on this DVD, lots of people complain about how the title was given to them by John Nathan-Turner, and they all say how awful it is… but I love it! 

3 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 702: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode Three

Dear diary,

While I’ve never been actively afraid of clowns, I can certainly see why people can be scared of them. There’s something innately un-nerving about them, isn’t there? Maybe it’s the constant fixed smiles? Truth be told, I’m not sure, but watching this episode if you’re not a clown fan must be an un-nerving experience, because the ones on display here are downright creepy. Led by Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown, our troupe of circus performers manage to walk a nice line in this story - at once being this unstoppable force which has been stalking after the other characters from the opening moments, while also being just that bit useless. Ace has escaped capture by them on more than one occasion now, for example, and they’ve killed the one man who can repair them when they break!

What’s rather nice, though, is that while the clowns certainly fill the role of ‘monster’ for this story - up to now, at least - they’re not the actual threat of the piece. That comes more just in the sense that something is wrong, and the flows are really just a distraction while the Doctor puts all the pieces together. I know where this one is going, and who the true ‘villains’ of the piece are, but I’m rather impressed that we’ve managed to go three episodes with a lot of tension and worry without even revealing them properly yet. The story is absolutely packed to the rafters with elements, and there’s so much to follow that the episodes feel incredibly rich. Of course, the danger of this comes on the flip side - there’s so much going on that it can at times be tricky to actually follow everything that’s happening inside the tent. I can’t remember the last time we had a cast with this many characters each taking ownership of their own strand in the narrative.

Thankfully, all of these characters are without exception being played by rather fantastic performers. I’ve already touched on Ian Reddington’s Chief Clown, with that wonderful hand movement (I’ve been replicating it for a few days now while talking to Emma, and singing the ‘Psychic Circus’ theme tune, too), but then you’ve also got T. P. McKenna who is absolutely perfectly cast as Captain Cook (and who reminds me more and more with each episode of Mark Gatiss), and Jessica Martin making the perfect companion for him, and managing to be actually somewhat scary during her werewolf transformation in today’s cliffhanger. In the first episode, we had Peggy Mount as the stallslady (and you can see exactly why they’ve used her for the part), Daniel Peacock’s Nord, Christopher Guard as Bellboy… I could really list everyone in the cast, because they’re uniformly great in this one. All the ‘making of’ features on the DVD present us with people who’s memories of making this story - despite the troubles that the production ran in to - are only positive, and of a well-oiled team working together to make something in adversity.

I also need to touch on Gian Sammarco as Whizz Kid. It’s one of those things again that you’re just aware of as a Doctor Who fan - that Whizz Kid is meant to be a commentary on Doctor Who fans. I’ve always thought that it’s just something we’ve kind of projected on to the character over the years, but it’s pretty strong on screen, isn’t it? I think it’s more a view on fans of anything, because the same trends do seem to crop up time and time again. Still it’s hard not to listen to a line like this one;

WHIZZ KID

Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be but I'm still terribly interested.

and not compare it to the clip of John Nathan-Turner on Open Air in 1987, when he provided his famous ‘the memory cheats’ remark!

2 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 701: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode Two

Dear diary,

It’s long fascinated me that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy almost went the route of becoming a Shada for the late 1980s - a programme which could have been part-way through production before everything ground to a halt. Having finished all the location filming for the serial, the cast and crew returned to Television Centre to record all the interior segments… only to find that the studios had been closed to have asbestos removed. Schedule in tatters, nothing to be done. It’s this particular behind-the-scenes story which people tend to agree most represented John Nathan-Turner rising higher than ever before. He found ways to work around the BBC’s temporary rules and regulations for completing programmes during this period, had a large marquee erected in the car park at Elstree, and they finished the production in there. The behind the scenes documentary on this DVD has some great anecdotes about an almost war-time spirit that everyone had in making sure that the story could be finished. It’s also pointed out that they’re lucky that this was the story caught up in these events, because it’s the only one this season (indeed, the only one from this decade, I’d argue, if not even longer) which could actively benefit from such a move!

All the scenes inside the circus tent look fantastic - and far more real than if they’d been shot in a mocked-up ‘big top’ in the studios. The same can be said for the great corridors that our cast are asked to run up and down today - the billowing white sheets that form the sides make the shots stand out as being quite unlike any other corridor chase in Doctor Who, and they look wonderful. I think the only disappointment with all of this is that the series has switched to shooting all on video - because I’d have loved to see all these sequences shot out on film, as was the case when a somewhat similar problem struck the production of Spearhead From Space almost twenty years earlier.

Everything has combined together to make this story stand out visually as being very different to anything else around it, and that really does help. Even if this story had ended up being shot in the studio, though, how beautiful is the location filming? It’s all been shot down in a Dorset quarry, and yet it doesn’t look like any of the other quarries that the TARDIS has ever pitched up in. There’s a feeling to this of an alien world that’s far more considered and developed than I’m used to from the programme. It even takes some of the tricks they employed for stories like Mindwarp and adapt them for use here, too - specifically the planet in the sky, which is nicer here because it’s done more subtly, without trying to draw attention to it. The shots of the circus tent from the exterior are beautiful, too, and I’m always a little bit floored by the fact that it was part model, part full-size construct, and just a bit of clever camera trickery to join everything up.

As for the story itself… I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I think I’m enjoying it, and I’ve certainly been far more drawn in to this episode than I was yesterday, partly because the majority of the characters have now been introduced, and drawn well enough that I can quite happily go along with them. But then I’m not completely sure where things are going, and if I’m honest, my main concern is the running time. Because we’re in the era of three-part stories mingling quite freely with the four-parters now, I’m more acutely aware of the fact that I’m only half-way through this tale, and I’m not sure if there’s enough plot left to fill out almost another hour (I’ve seen the story before, so I know broadly where it’s going, but not the specifics). I think I’m just hoping that I’ll continue the trend of these last two days, and find each successive episode slightly better than the last!

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