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27 November 2014

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

Day 696: Remembrance of the Daleks, Episode One

Dear diary,

For the last fortnight, while I’ve not been enjoying Season Twenty-Four, Remembrance of the Daleks has been the light at the end of the tunnel. I could remember liking it from previous viewings (it’s one of the few stories I’d actually watched a few times before replacing it with the special edition), and the more I thought about little elements of the story, the more it seemed to be the absolute antithesis of everything that I perceived as being ‘wrong’ with Doctor Who as broadcast in 1987.

It’s nice, then, that this episode is pretty much everything that I wanted it to be. Let’s start with the thing that most relates to my complaints about areas of the last season - this story is set in the real world. When we join the Doctor and Ace in the adventure, they’re walking away from the TARDIS, which is parked down a side street. They’re out in real London streets, or in playgrounds, or junkyards. A large proportion of this serial is shot out on location - which helps - and everything feels much more solid than it did in Season Twenty-Four. These locations (and even the sets) don’t feels as ‘plastic’ or ‘comic book’, and it really does make a massive difference to things. By that same token, the fact that we see Ace go to get food in a regular cafe - as opposed to the version we saw in Dragonfire - grounds everything in reality much more. You can see where Russell T Davies was coming from when he chose to ground the 2005 revival in a council estate, with shops, and flats, and real people, because it has the same effect there that it does here, of making everything feel just that bit more natural.

Speaking of which, McCoy’s performance has jumped up tenfold from where it was last season, and he feels very natural here, too. He’s playing everything a little bit quieter, and even largely underplaying his lines, in a way that we didn’t really get to see a lot of in his first four adventures. I was trying yesterday to find a way of describing the differences in his performance, but it struck me almost instantly when he papered today - it simply is that everything is much calmer here - more calculated, and yet it comes across as less of a performance.

Take, for example, the moment when he stands with Ace, looking out over the scorch marks on the playground. He makes reference to both Terror of the Zygons and The Web of Fear, and plays the line beautifully. It’s the ultimate example of him underplaying a scene, when I know that his Season Twenty-Four performance would have gone to great lengths to really over-do the point. Having just come from two weeks of that style, I can picture exactly how that would have gone. I’m so glad, because I came to this period of the marathon knowing how much I like McCoy’s Doctor, but by the end of Dragonfire, I was almost beginning to doubt myself!

I discussed this with my friend Nick this evening. He acts as a nice counterbalance to me at this stage, because while he admits that Season Twenty-Four has its faults, he doesn’t dislike it to quite the extent that I do. He’s a bit more willing to accept that it’s the programme trying something different that doesn’t really work, but then it comes back this year and tries another direction. He’s right when he says that McCoy was pitching his performance last season to fit the ‘comic book’ style that they were going for - try to play the Doctor in Time and the Rani the way he does here and it would fall absolutely flat on its face.

That said, everything is pulling together here to help this new performance. Remember during Delta and the Bannermen, I complained that all the supporting characters just went along with the Doctor because the plot required them to do so, and it came across as rushed and false. Here, characters effectively do the same thing… but you get the sense that the Doctor has given them reason to go along with him. I think it’s in Silver Nemesis where he describes his usual tactic as simply acting like he owns the place, and it’s absolutely true of what happens here. When he climbs in to the van and Rachel questions his presence, he simply goes on with the rest of the conversation. Similarly, when they reach Totters’ Yard, he takes charge of the situation, and ends up being the one who takes out the Dalek, while the myriad of soldiers are largely ineffective against it. Here, even after one episode, I completely buy that everyone will go along with what he says, because he’s given me every reason to believe it. That’s much stronger scripting and performance than we’ve had before in this period.

While I’m on the subject, what’s the general thinking in terms of how long he’s been travelling with Ace at this point? There’s lots of little hints in this episode that seem to suggest they’ve spent a while together since Dragonfire (and I’d say that Sophie Aldred has been made up to look older than she was in that story), and that this pair are fairly comfortable together. Certainly, this isn’t the first place they’ve been to since Ice World. Equally, they’ve not been anywhere where Ace has needed to drive, because the Doctor has to ask if she can. I think I’m plumping for a period of maybe six months for them by now - long enough to go around and have several adventures, and to get comfortable together before they touch down here to sort out the Daleks (the Doctor is clearly here specifically for the Daleks, and I’d imagine he’d want to make sure Ace is up to the challenge before setting the coordinates). Does anyone else have a theory on how long they’ve been together already? 

26 November 2014

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

Day 695: Dragonfire, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I was surprised, watching the ‘making of’ documentary on this DVD today, to hear that Andrew Cartmel and Ian Briggs weren’t all that keen on the final scene with Mel in this episode. It seems to be the case that it’s adapted from part of McCoy’s audition scene, which he’d been repeatedly trying to get in to the series for a while, and ended up just putting in almost without actually telling anyone! It surprised me because it’s such a beautiful goodbye, and for me it’s the highlight of the story (and, if I’m honest, of the season!)

DOCTOR

That's right, yes, you're going. Been gone for ages. Already gone, still here, just arrived, haven't even met you yet. It all depends on who you are and how you look at it. Strange business, time.

MEL

Goodbye, Doctor.

DOCTOR

I'm sorry, Mel. Think about me when you're living your life one day after another, all in a neat pattern. Think about the homeless traveller and his old police box, with his days like crazy paving.

MEL

Who said anything about home? I've got much more crazy things to do yet…

I think it’s fair to say that this is by far the best performance that we’ve seen Sylvester McCoy give all season - and it’s much closer to the way that he’ll be handling the part from now on - and there’s something rather beautifully melancholic about the whole scene. It fits quite nicely with the fact that he ended up meeting Mel out of order (even if we didn’t see this so much on screen, but it’s been explored in audios like The Wrong Doctors), and serves as a rather nice cap to their time together. It then moves on to be a brilliant introduction to Ace aboard the TARDIS. Thinking back to the Fourth Doctor’s words in Logopolis, when he claims to have never chosen his own company aboard the TARDIS, This may be the first time, really, since Vicki* that we’ve seen the Doctor actively ask someone to come with him because he wants them to.

I’ve never noticed before just how well it melds with the story arc that’s still to come surrounding Ace’s character. By the time we reach The Curse of Fenric - more on which in a moment - the Doctor is claiming to have sensed the deliberate alteration to Ace’s life even at this stage, thus choosing to take her along with him. It becomes a bit vague, I teem to recall, just how much he’s saying to break her confidence, and how much is the truth, but I think it’s very easy to read all of that into this final scene. It would especially explain why he’s so distracted as Mel tries to make her goodbyes, and even why she so suddenly decides that this is the end of the road for her time in the TARDIS (she clearly hasn’t even mentioned to Glitz that she’s planning to go with him). I think I’m right in saying that the New Adventures novels in the 1990s revealed that the Doctor mentally forced her to leave here, because he knew of the role Ace would go on to play, and needed Mel out of the way and back to safety while he concentrated on the new girl. I don’t think that’s a leap from what we’re given on screen at all, and indeed, I really prefer to think of it like that. It also works as a nice capstone to the building up of this Doctor’s ‘meddling’ personality that I’ve been spuriously tracking over the last two weeks…

As we move in to the final two seasons of the programme’s original run, a brief word on the order in which I’ll be watching the stories. For the first time in The 50 Year Diary, I’m completely breaking with broadcast order and doing it my own way. The reasons are simple: a few stories in the next few years were swapped around between production and broadcast, and work better if watched in the order they were intended for. Thus, I’ll be watching Season Twenty-Five as Remembrance of the Daleks - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy - The Happiness Patrol - Silver Nemesis, and then Season Twenty-Six as The Curse of Fenric - Battlefield - Ghost Light - Survival. I’ve never been overboard with trying to remain 100% accurate with this marathon, hence side-steps in to things like Farewell, Great Macedon, and Doctor Who and the Pescatons, and I think I’ll get more from the next eight stories in this order!

*Yes, I know, Harry, but he’s really only asking him aboard the ship so that he can show off a bit.

25 November 2014

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

Day 694: Dragonfire, Episode Two

Dear diary,

During Time and the Rani, I said that the McCoy era was home to some of the best monster designs and costumes that the programme has ever seen - and yes, I did mean the Tetraps! Oh hush, I like them. Today’s episode is another great example with the dragon itself - there’s something really nice about the whole creature, and I even think the fact that the body is so spindly and hymn works, which is the one thing that I’d always been put off by. The actual head design is absolutely gorgeous, and I’d completely forgotten that it opened up to reveal the Dragonfire inside - I think I’d convinced myself that we simply saw it overlaid or something. I’m also fond of the fact that it’s a nice ‘monster’ - it feels like a while since we had one of those (yeah, yeah, the Navarinos in Delta and the Bannermen were friendly, but they were presented as aliens rather than monsters - the same can be said of the Lakertians at the start of the season).

Indeed, I’m rather liking the design on this story as a whole, I think. There are some seasons which seem to have their own very distinct ‘visual identity’ - Season Twenty-One is the most recent that comes to mind before this one - whereby you could show assorted screen captures of the episodes to people who don’t know which seasons they’re from, and they’d likely be able to group them together just by style. That’s been very true of Season Twenty-Four, which I’ve continually referred to as being a bit ‘comic book’. I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way, it’s just the dest description I can find for the look of this season - very bright, and artificial.

Because I’ve not been enjoying Season Twenty-Four all that much on the whole, I’ve been thinking of Remembrance of the Daleks as something of a light at the end of the tunnel. As strange as it may sound, it’s the thought of grimy brick walls, and roads, and playgrounds that makes it feel better- something real and tangible. I know Delta and the Bannermen was set in Earth’s recent history, but the holiday camp setting and the way the whole piece came together still gave it more of that ‘Season Twenty-Four’ artifice than I’d have liked!

All that said, Ice World manages to fit the visual style of this year’s stories perfectly, but also look rather good on its own merits. I recently had to put together a kind of ‘ice world’ for a design commission, and found myself automatically trying to replicate the style of the walls seen in this story - though I didn’t immediately realise that this was where the inspiration was drawn from! The various corridors look lovely, and Kane’s lair works simply because of the size of the set, and the various levels and platforms (long-term readers will know that I’m a sucker for a set with levels!) The only slight let down is that McCoy is really trying to sell the ‘ice’ factor of these sets, slipping and sliding around on the floor as though it’s near impossible to remain upright… while no one else really bothers to do the same. Sophie Aldred has some nice moments of watching her feet and carefully choosing her steps, but then slips back into the way that Tony Selby and Bonnie Langford are playing it - as if there’s no ice at all!

25 November 2014

The BBC have announced the title of the 2014 Doctor Who Christmas Special; Last Christmas.

The special is rumoured to be at least an hour in length and is written by Steven Moffat and directed by Paul Wilmhurst.

Along with the announcement, two new promo pictures were released (pictured-right), which depict The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) and two Elves; Wolf (Nathan McMullen) and Ian (Dan Starkey).

During the BBC's Children In Need television appeal, a special clip from Last Christmas was aired, which you can watch in the player below:


Check out the teaser trailer in the player, below:

+  Last Christmas will air on Christmas Day, Time TBC, on BBC One.
+  Donate to Children In Need, here

[Source: BBC]

24 November 2014

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

Day 693: Dragonfire, Episode One

Dear diary,

It’s funny, isn’t it, how some Doctors just have that one companion that ‘defines’ them. For some, like the Second Doctor and Jamie, or the Fifth Doctor and Tegan, it’s because they travel together for such a long period of time (there’s only a single Second Doctor adventure without Jamie in, and only two Fifth Doctor stories missing Tegan). For others, it’s just because they work together so well. I think that’s the case for the Seventh Doctor and Ace (a pairing who do travel together for much of this era, but I think the shortened seasons means that there’s less of an impact to it). I’ve been waiting for this story to come along, because having struggled to find my feet with the Seventh Doctor so far, the arrival of Sophie Aldred and Ace to the series really feels like the missing piece of the puzzle being slotted in to place.

Surprising, then, is the fact that the Doctor and Ace really don’t get to spend that much time together in this episode! They talk for a little while in the cafe, while the Doctor muses on wasting to go and see the dragons, but then it’s really Mel who gets paired off with the newbie, so that we can find out all about her. Within these first 25 minutes, I already feel like I know Ace better than I ever have with Mel - and I think it’s helped by the fact that the information is being fed to us naturally, with Ace telling us her life story. When Mel was introduced in the latter stages of The Trial of a Time Lord, we were given occasional info dumps about her (‘this is nothing like Pease Pottage, Mell, you know, where you lived before we travelled together? And you worked there as a computer programmer? And you’re a health and fitness fanatic? Eh? Eh? EH?’), but with Ace, you get a real sense that everything we’re told - blowing up the art classroom, and whipping up a time storm - can have really happened for this character. It bodes well for her at this early stage!

The Doctor is instead paired off with Sabalom Glitz, another character I’ve been waiting to see. He was such good fun last season, and the chance for one more story with him here has been a little light at the end of the tunnel while not enjoying Season Twenty-Four. I’m enjoying him here - his interactions with the Doctor and Mel in the cafe are particularly fun - but you really can tell that he’s not being written by Robert Holmes any more. He’s still funny, but a lot of the wit and charm that made him so enjoyable in The Mysterious Planet just isn’t there anymore.

I’d also like to use today as another example of the Doctor’s ‘planning’ personality starting to shine through. He tells Mel early on that he’s been picking up a signal from Ice World ‘for some time’, and has now decided to check it out. We’ve had plenty of occasions in the past where the TARDIS has received a distress call, and the Doctor has hurried off to investigate, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a situation before where he’s been actively monitoring a signal for some time before choosing to follow up on it and find out what’s going on. Later on, Mel realises that the Doctor has brought them here because he wanted to see the dragons - though he omitted to tell her that fact! This is probably a clearer sign of the Seventh Doctor’s evolution than any of the little hints I’ve pointed out before, and I like it, especially when balanced with the Doctor’s sadness when he thinks he may not get the chance to go and see dragons after all!

What do you mean you were expecting me to mention the cliffhanger? There’s nothing to say, is there? It’s just your average, Doctor Who cliffhanger… 

…oh, all right. This episode is home to perhaps the programme’s most pointless cliffhanger, in which the Doctor gets to a fork in the road, with a path leading off to the left and the right… but instead he chooses to climb over the railings and dangle over an ice chasm via his umbrella. I’ve been a Doctor Who fan long enough to know that the intention is that he needs to go down to the next level, and misjudges the diastase he’ll need to drop (I think the novelisation restores this version of events), but the way it’s been staged on screen is awful. Here, he seems to climb the railings for no good reason whatsoever! I think, though, that this might be one of those times where the programme has done something so bad, that I can’t help but love it!

23 November 2014

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

Day 692: Delta and the Bannermen, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I’ve been looking forward to this one, because it’s the first ‘real’ three-part Doctor Who adventure. Planet of Giants in Season Two was recorded as four parts, but later cut down, and The Two Doctors was shown in three parts, but was the length of six, but Delta and the Bannermen is three episodes of regular-length, planned from the start as a three-part story. This thought has been exciting me, because I’ve said several times across this marathon that three episodes is really the perfect length for the programme, cutting out all of that running around and getting captured in the third quarter, and helping to tighten everything up, which should in theory help the stories.

It’s a pity, then, that the format is used to badly in this story! The pacing is all over the place, and I’m not really sure that they’ve gotten the hang of it yet. I’d say that the first episode was more or less spot on, introducing the story, the characters, and the location, before ending with a cliffhanger that moves the narrative along. Episode Two then does up the stakes, before this final episode is just a bit of a mess. There’s so many characters, and everything’s been escalating so quickly - it’s another way of looking at the point I made yesterday, about the way that everyone just goes along with the Doctor, even though he’s given no one any real reason to do so, and Billy instantly accepts Delta’s situation, even going as far as to try and change his biology and fly away with her in a spaceship at the end, completely unfazed by events!

There’s not been enough time spent introducing us to these people as a group, so we’ve simply got bland ciphers doing whatever the story requires of them. Right up to the goodbye scene at the end, it doesn’t feel like anyone is a believable person here. When Ray says goodbye to the Doctor and rides off on the bike, it feels completely wrong - she got to see inside his spaceship, remember, the boy she loves has just flown off with another woman, and she’s filled the role of the Doctor’s companion for the entire story… she should at least ask to see another planet, before swanning off. This kind of thing also means that the tone is still wrong right across this episode - there’s not a single mention of the tourists who got blown up in their bus yesterday, because the plot was finished with them, and doesn’t even think to bring it up again. I’d at least expect the doctor to say something a little bit poignant about the situation.

I’m a little bit gutted about all this to be honest, because that first episode really did show an awful lot of promise, and I was looking so forward to seeing the programme attempt this type of format. We’ve got another three part story coming up next, so I’m keen to see if they’ll be any better at managing the pacing issues in that one, or if - like the rest of Season Twenty-Four - it’s all something of a failed experiment. 

22 November 2014

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

Day 691: Delta and the Bannermen, Episode Two

Dear diary,

I really can’t make up my mind with the Seventh Doctor so far. In Time and the Rani and Paradise Towers, I veered from thinking ‘he’s not got this at all’ to ‘ah, now he feels like the Doctor’ and back again (sometimes within the same scene), but I’m starting to think that by the time Delta and the Bannermen went in to production, he’s sort of picked a direction that I’m liking. Put simply: while I’m not sure he’s quite the Doctor that I’m waiting for (I’m becoming ever more convinced that I’ll have to wait for next season for that), there’s a version of the character shining through in this story that I’m really warming to. It’s present in the way that he takes instantly to Ray, and goes to comfort her after the dance, asking for her life to be spared, and generally ditching Mel for this story to hang out with someone cooler! I’m not sure if I like how quickly everyone is taking to the Doctor here, though, with people following his every whim and order without much question - at least the camp Major has to have a look inside the TARDIS before he’ll start to believe in what he’s being told!

It’s been a while since I had the chance to track any kind of story arc in the programme, and I think I may have found another (very) tenuous one forming here in regards to the Seventh Doctor’s persona. He’s often thought of as the arch manipulator, the one who goes in to his adventures with a plan in mind, and is working to a greater scheme that we can’t really see. It’s most prevalent in the books, but will start to come to the fore with Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis in Season Twenty-Five, and then even stronger through Season Twenty-Six, in regards to Ace. I’m wondering if we might be seeing the very beginnings of that character starting to develop here.

I’m thinking specifically of the last story, in which the Doctor initially claimed to know very little about the Great Architect and Paradise Towers in General, but when things started heating up, he was suddenly all-knowing, and keen to make sure that the Architect really had been destroyed. In the cliffhanger to today’s episode, we get to see McCoy deliver the first of his big speeches - the kind of thing that he’ll face off against the likes of Davros and Fenric with later in his life - and then muse that he may have gone too far. It feels as though, early in to his new body, he’s flexing his muscles, and trying to see how he can handle events. What better way to test it than with a war over the final two members of a species? Go big or go home, I guess!

The one other thing that I’m struggling with in this story, and it’s related in a way to the fact that everyone just goes along with the Doctor and accepts everything he says, is the fact that Billy is so accepting of Delta’s situation! He spots her at a dance, takes a bit of a shine to her, pops round with some flowers, and then is told that she’s in fact an alien queen, and this is her child, and it’ll grow up incredibly fast, and there’s an army on the way to kill them all. His reaction to all of this? He takes her out on a date! With child in tow! Doesn’t bat an eyelid. I know he’s grown up in South Wales, with the Cardiff Rift nearby (I did wonder when Goronwy mentioned all the weird lights in the sky, if it could retroactively be thought of as the result of the Rift), but surely he shouldn’t be quite this accepting of the situation?

Several times over the last few days, I’ve mused that Season Twenty-Four has amore lightweight, ‘comic book’ feel to it than other Doctor Who seasons. It’s still in evidence here, with the bright colours of the camp and many of the supporting characters, but sometimes the tone does veer off the path somewhat, and leave you with an uncomfortable clash of styles. It worked very well yesterday when the Tollmaster was shot in the back, but here we see the entire tour bus of characters blown up! Mel then points out that all those innocent people have died! It should be a massive shock to the system because it really shows off the might of the Bannermen, and makes them unpredictable cold killers, but it just completely jars with everything else in the episode.

Instead, it shocks you because it’s not played quite right, and you’re left with a bit of a sour taste. If I’m honest, I had to skip back a minute or two to make sure that it had really happened, and that they didn’t manage to escape in the final seconds! I’m somewhat resigned to the programme having such an ‘off’ tone this year, and I can’t quite decide if it’s the result of there being a new script editor finding his feet in the show, or John Nathan-Turner coming to the season late (having assumed that he’d be allowed to move on), or simply that they’ve over-reacted to the criticisms of the programme a season late. A pity, because there’s still lots of ideas that I’m loving - as I say, the death of the passengers could be great - but it’s just not coming together for me! 

21 November 2014

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

Day 690: Delta and the Bannermen, Episode One

Dear diary,

Today feels like an appropriate time to return to the subject of ‘stunt casting’ in Doctor Who. Ken Dodd’s appearance as the Toll Master in Delta and the Bannermen is often singled out as an example of John Nathan-Turner completely missing the point and casting light entertainment figures in the programme, but it’s an example that I think proves he knew what he was doing! Quite apart from the fact that Dodd fits the ‘comic book’ version of Doctor Who that we’re being given with Season Twenty-Four, he’s actually really good in the part, and his slightly zany antics (and very zany costume) work wonderfully in context, offset nicely against the run-down backdrop of the toll port.

Dodd’s character doesn’t make it out of the episode alive, and there’s something that really works in watching him die - throughout the scene I continually flip-flopped between thinking he was going to snuff it and thinking that he’d be spared, but I’m so glad they killed him off. It’s the perfect way to highlight Gavrok’s character, and having him shot in the back as he tries to get to freedom is just delicious. It always hurts that little bit more when a character dies who you rather like ,and who hasn’t done anything wrong.

You may have noticed from that opening paragraph that I’ve been a bit finder of today’s episode than either of the last two stories fared. There’s just so much to like here. Right from the off, we’re set down in to the middle of an alien battlefield, with a distinctive blue hue which really sets off the explosions. There’s little green army men (what a fantastic idea for a design - I’m almost surprised that the programme has taken this long to do it - one of those ideas that just feels perfectly ‘Doctor Who’), and alien princess, an evil villain and his army on the attack… it’s more action that the programme has seen in a while, and it’s rather nicely done! Even the shot of the space ship taking off to flee from the battle is something different- even though I’m sure it was achieved simply.

And then the whole idea of the story, well that’s another thing that’s pure Doctor Who! A spaceship, disguised as a bus, taking a tour group of aliens to visit Disneyland in the 1950s. It’s a great concept, and again I think it’s perfectly suited to this particular season of the programme. I can’t imagine it working at any point prior to this (and not really any point afterwards, either, though I think the Eleventh Doctor could just about fit in to this adventure), but it’s just so right for this season, and especially for Mel.

She looks so right sat on the bus, singing along with all the other passengers. It’s just a shame that she reverts to being a bit wet afterwards, though. There’s some nice character moments in her room with Delta - sympathising with the poor woman and trying to help where she can - but then as soon as she sees the alien egg, she bursts into a scream… before anything has even happened! Delta shows her a christmas decoration, and Mel screams at it! I’m surprised that she didn’t simply pass out when the little green creature emerged from inside!

The actual effect of the baby… thing coming out of the egg is lovely, and one of the best we’ve had in a long time. It looks genuinely creepy, and it’s enough to leave an impact for the week until the next episode. It’s not the only decent effects shot in here, either, and I was rather impressed by the TARDIS model as it followed the bus through space. The programme has been doing TARDIS models for ages by this point - decades! - but it’s always nice when they do it well, and having not seen many of them recently!

One last thing, though. Weismuller, one of the Americans pulls up to a police box and puts in a call to the States. He claims to be calling from ‘Wales in England’. I’ve lived in Cardiff long enough by now to know that they really don’t like it when you say things like that (we’re also not allowed to question the dual language on all the signs)!

20 November 2014

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

Day 689: Paradise Towers, Episode Four

Dear diary,

Somehow, I’ve managed to make it through this entire story without making mention of Richard Briers’ performance as the Chief Caretaker. I think I’m right in saying that Briers once told an interviewer that he’d taken a part in Doctor Who as an excuse to ‘act badly’, and I think you can see that throughout appearance in this episode, because his performance is appalling…

…and completely right for the tone of the story! It works brilliantly, and I can’t help but fall in love with it. It’s so over the top that it’s almost grotesque, and it fits the slightly ‘comic book’ theme of this season particularly well. He’s been playing the part in a particularly bizarre way throughout (though, again, it’s fitted the story), but it’s really once his mind has been taken over that things really work for me.

It means that I’m also wondering if maybe I’ve been approaching Season Twenty-Four from slightly the wrong angle. I’ve spoken in the last week about how disappointed I am with the programme all of a sudden, shifting its tone from being television for children to strictly being ‘kids telly’, but with concepts and ideas that go beyond that area. I wonder if maybe I should have been looking at Time and the Rani and this story with a mind more willing to enjoy them on their own merits, including the ‘comic book’ tone that the programme has currently adopted. In the Last Chance Saloon feature on the Time and the Rani DVD, John Nathan-Turner comments that they were asked again to tone down the violence, and that they replaced it with more humour. I think that’s been very evident so far, and I’m looking forward to them managing to strike that right balance of violence and humour in the programme again.

All that said, I’ve still not really enjoyed this episode. There is - as usual - lots of little bits that I rather like, but they simply don’t add up to a satisfying whole for me. I’m thinking that this may be another story to add to my ‘must watch again’ pile (there’s at least one in every era), because taking a different approach may help. Today’s episode also isn’t helped by the inclusion of something that was so ridiculous that I couldn’t help but be put right off by it. The Doctor has brought Mel to Paradise Towers because she’s desperate to go swimming. Fine. Before they make it to the swimming pool, they get caught up in an adventure. Fine. During this adventure, Mel gets set upon by cannibals, and then screams for her life when she thinks she’s stuck in the basement. Fine. Mere minutes later, they arrive at the pool, so she decides to forget the events of the last few hours and take a dip! No! What the hell were they thinking? Does she think that now she’s found the swimming pool, all the dangers have gone? That she can simply abandon the adventure? What on Earth is she doing?

I think this is all part of my continuing dislike of Mel - and that’s not helping the season in my estimations much, either! Bonnie Langford isn’t actually bad in the role, but the problem is that she’s only as good as the material she’s being given. Mel is the absolute stereotype of a Doctor Who companion, screaming and asking questions, and getting in to trouble. She’s not in any way believable for me as a character, and I don’t think it helps that I know Ace is coming up soon; a character I’ve always liked. We’re shifting format to three parters for the next few stories - the format I’ve often claimed in this marathon to be the perfect length for a Who story - so I’m hoping it might help to give me a bit of a shot in the arm, because I really don’t like not enjoying the series!

19 November 2014

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

Day 688: Paradise Towers, Episode Three

Dear diary,

There’s something I’ve never understood about Paradise Towers… where is it set? In my mind, it’s always been a single tower block just out in the middle of… well, the middle of nowhere if I’m honest. In my head, there’s a void, and the tower block, and that’s it. Somehow it’s never felt right to have it just somewhere on Earth, and even being a part of a city feels wrong - if people can get out and nip down to the shops or to the local park, then it really lessens the tension of the whole thing.

The implication from the video the Doctor watched in this episode (on DVD, no less! Forward thinking, there…) is that it’s on some other planet, and he comments that as ‘space is a big place’, the Great Architect could always move on and find work elsewhere. I’m not quite sure what to decide, I’d say that it can’t be far from Earth - it won awards in the 21st century, and we’re still in ‘Solar System colonising’ mode by the timeline established with the Second Doctor…

While I’m on that subject, I’m not sure if I like the image of the towers that we see at the start of each episode. It feels wrong that this world - so run-down and grimy on the inside - should be so beautiful and gleaming outside, with fresh flowers growing. It’s a concept that can work, and rather well, I think, but because we only ever see this ‘veneer’ of the building in a single establishing shot, and it’s not brought into the story at all, it seems out of place.

That said, I’ve found myself enjoying the interior of the place more and more today. The interior of the flat is still a weak point, as is the swimming pool (it just looks too ‘generic’), but the actual walkways and corridors are lovely. In the making of documentary to this story, writer Stephen Wyatt makes a point of saying that each floor of the building has its own streets and squares, and I’m rather taken with that idea, I think!

On the whole, I think I’ve been more amenable to this episode than either of the previous two. Paradise Towers still isn’t grabbing me in quite the way that I’d like it to, but I’m finding lots more to enjoy, and I think it’s a bit like Time and the Rani, in that I can see lots of brilliant ideas all bubbling under the surface, crying out to be done slightly better. The story is still hampered by that ‘kids show’ vibe that we’ve had since the Seventh Doctor arrived, but there’s so many dark and sinister ideas in here that the jolly tone almost works - helping to make them even more sinister!

I think I’ve just got a sort of general apathy towards Season Twenty-Four, because this simply isn’t grabbing me at all, despite numerous things which by rights should be. I’ve spent so long thinking of this season as one I’d hopefully champion, that I’m somewhat crushed by the fact that it’s not connecting - and I think that’s even leading to harsher scores on episodes which might otherwise fare a little better…

19 November 2014

As one of the absolute gems of British television programming, Doctor Who has been enthralling audiences since its first airing in 1963. The all-ages science fiction drama is well known for being appropriate for all ages, and as such the series has attracted a significant better-than-cult following, and with the release of the most recent bout of series, starting in 2005, the series has truly gone global, attracting an enormous cohort of fans; known as ‘Whovians’; whose number realistically could trump long standing sci-fi veterans Star Trek and perhaps even Star Wars.

The fan base is, as one might expect, a diverse one. Fan clubs are run across the world; New Zealand, Canada, USA; and local clubs are so enormously widespread that in 2012 a Google Map project commenced with the aim of logging all of the local Doctor Who groups in the UK so that fans could more easily find and join a club in their area!

As with any science fiction series, conventions are a large part of the Doctor Who fan experience. The first was held in 1977 by The Doctor Who Appreciation Society, quickly becoming the well known and fantastically well attended Panopticon, the largest of the Dr Who gatherings. Within these events fans have the chance to meet the stars of Dr Who, watch fan productions based on the show and indulge in a little collectible hunting. 

Collectibles are naturally big business in the Dr Who community. In 2007, a full sized Dalek prop from the 1988 series was auctions at London’s Bonham's auction house, reaching £7000. This is small change compared to an auction that took place just two years earlier, however, when an older specimen was sold for a gigantic £36,000! 

With Who-themed merchandise an important aspect of the fan community, one can see why many manufacturers and businesses have been keen to hop aboard the Doctor Who bandwagon. Clothing, mugs, TARDIS-themed fairylights, Dr Who-themed gelatine moulds and all-important Dr Who teapots; one wonders what other product ideas will be hatched regarding the series. Perhaps we could soon see Who-themed games on sites such as JackpotCity in the near future? There wouldn’t be any time travel involved though- it would surely defeat the object of playing! 

Dr Who is huge news and a cemented aspect of pop culture across the world, not just in its spiritual home of the United Kingdom, and with new series planned and no end of the entertaining adventures in sight, the Doctor seems set to reign long into the future!

[Source: Superserp]

18 November 2014

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

Day 687: Paradise Towers, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Over the last few days, there’s been something wrong that I simply couldn’t put my finger on. Something just didn’t feel right about the episodes I’ve been watching, and I’m coming away from them really unsure about the scores I’m giving. On the one hand it seems like I’m being too harsh on them, but on the other I know I’m rating in the same way I always do. And then last night, I finally found time to sit down and watch the Last Chance Saloon documentary on the DVD for Time and the Rani and finally managed to figure out what isn’t working for me - it’s Sylvester McCoy.

I’ve mentioned in the last few days that he’s not quite playing the role of the Doctor here in the way that he will over the next couple of seasons, but I don’t think I’d really considered that it could be the barrier stopping me from getting completely in to the stories. It’s not the only problem, I can’t place the blame entirely at Sylv’s door, but I think it’s what’s been putting me off. What helped me realise this was the way that Sylvester talks about Season Twenty-Four in the documentary, and specifically the way that he approached the part;

”I remember from Patrick Troughton that he’d been light-hearted in many ways, and comedic, and that was what attracted to me. I mean, I’d done straight drama as well, but a lot of my kind of natural instincts are towards comedy. You might be surprised to hear this, but it is! And so, I went for the comedic choices. And, I think, wrongly when I look back. Too many, it was too many.”

There have been several occasions in the last few days where I’ve mentioned Sylvester settling in to the role, but what I think I really mean is that there’s glimmers coming through of the Seventh Doctor I know from later seasons - an incarnation I like more than the impish clown we’ve got on screen at the moment. It’s a strange position to be in, really, because I’ve never had it before. The first six Doctors I’ve taken to immediately (even Pertwee, whose era I was dreading, and Davison, who perhaps took until his second season to really ‘find’ the Doctor he wanted to play), but this version of the Seventh Doctor isn’t quite doing it for me at the moment. I’m interested, now, to see if I start taking to him during the latter half of this season, or if it might take until next year.

As I’ve said above, the Doctor isn’t the only thing putting me off this story. As with Time and the Rani, the production team seem to be aiming this at a directly ‘kids show’ audience again, and sets which should be the bread-and-butter of the BBC design department don’t come across as well as I’d have liked. The actual run-down corridors of Paradise Towers are rather nice, and they largely work for me (some of the large windows against which McCoy is silhouetted in parts of this episode look lovely), but then we cut back to Mel in the flat with the cannibals, and it all starts to fall apart a little.

Still, tomorrow’s another day, and I’m still determined to like some of this season! 

17 November 2014

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

Day 686: Paradise Towers, Episode One

Dear diary,

I don't have the first clue what to make of this one. As I seem to keep saying a lot in this period, this story doesn't have a particularly high reputation among Doctor Who fans, placing 230 out of 241 on this year's Doctor Who Magazine poll (the highest story of this season is Dragonfire in position 215), and this is one of those sad times where I think I can see where the dislike comes from.

The episode is very much a game of two halves - or more accurately, it's a game of thirds. The first two thirds is great, but after that… I loved the Doctor and Mel meeting the Red Kangs (they're the best), and it's another example of the way that McCoy is finding his feet more and more as the episodes roll by, I think, and while he's still not quite on form as the Doctor he'll be playing in his latter two seasons, he's certainly showing signs of very ‘Doctor’ behaviour here. My favourite exchange comes as the Red Kangs introduce themselves;

FIRE ESCAPE

Red Kangs. Red Kangs are best. Who's best?

RED KANGS

Red Kangs, Red Kangs, Red Kangs are best.

BIN LINER

So, who's best?

DOCTOR

The Red Kangs, I gather.

and everything that follows in that scene, with the Doctor and Bin Liner performing a kind of ritual greeting. It’s a scene that I can imagine most of the previous Doctors in, though for some reason I’d love to see Pertwee confronted with this situation! I'm also rather fond of the fact that the Kangs don't like Mel, because the feeling is regrettably mutual - but more on that in a moment. Then you've got ‘Caretaker number three four five stroke twelve subsection three’ venturing off on his duties and finding himself 'cleaned', in scenes that are filled with lots of great atmosphere.

It's then later on in the episode that things start to fall apart for me. I can't say that I found anything to enjoy during the scenes of Mel being confronted by the two cannibals, and it simply left me longing for a version of the pair speaking the language of Robert Holmes. Those scenes aren't helped much by the fact that Mel is continuing to grate on me. I'm trying to like her, I swear, but it's really not happening very well. It's a pity, because I assumed I'd end up being a champion for her in the same way that I so loved the much-derided Twin Dilemma, but I'm really struggling to get on with her. We're almost at the point when I'm counting down the days to Ace's arrival. I'm also sorry to say that I think it may be Bonnie Langford that I'm struggling to like as much as it is the character… but I don't think that's really her fault. She's been cast to fill the part of the plucky young companion, who screams at every monster and gets to excitedly recite such clichéd lines as 'look, Doctor! Look!'. She's not being given much of a chance, and I'm getting the sad impression that she'll leave the series fairly low down on my list of favourites.

16 November 2014

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

Day 685: Time and the Rani, Episode Four

Dear diary,

I can't help but feel that Time and the Rani isn't necessarily let down by a poor script, but simply by the fact that the rest of the production seems to have fallen apart. I mused the other day about the fact that it looked and acted like a kids show, patronising the audience and overplaying everything, and I think that's the biggest problem - there's actually a half decent story in here about the Rani setting down on a planet, enslaving the population, and setting up her own deadly experiments in to creating a time weapon. I even like the fact that part of her plan is to go back and ensure the survival of the dinosaurs, because it makes sense of the T-Rex embryos in her TARDIS during her last appearance.

The direction of the story swings from being somewhat pedestrian to having moments where you can really see some flair, and I don't think that's been helping this one, either. It's hard to get involved when even the director doesn't know where he's pitching the tale. Andrew Morgan will be back to direct next season's opener - Remembrance of the Daleks - and I remember that story having a much better feel than this one - everything there just comes together so much better.

It's a shame, really, because this is the Rani's last proper appearance in the series, and I'm still finding her a really interesting character. She's not been quite as strong in this story as she was in Mark of the Rani, because she's been forced in to falling for the Doctor's prattling in lots of places, but there's still a lot to like about her. While I'm on that subject, I really wasn't keen on that final shot of her, being strung up by the Tetraps in her TARDIS, because it feels too much like a rehash of the way she was trapped in there last time, and with a less-beautiful TARDIS console room!

Four episodes in, I think I can go with the Doctor's comment that he'll grow on me - he's already been doing that for the last few days. I know from past experience that I like the Seventh Doctor, but he didn't win me over as much to begin with here as I was expecting him to. I think you can clearly see McCoy feeling his way in to the part throughout this story (and I'd imagine the same will be true of the next story, too, if not the season as a whole), and you really get the sense that like with Peter Davison, he's just been dropped in to the show and asked to get on with it.

I have a feeling that this story will be a good example of how I'll feel towards Season Twenty-Four as a whole, because I seem to recall finding the tone of this year's stories not quite right, even when the ideas at the heart of them are sound. I'm quite excited to find out what i make of the next three tales, because this season is the one I'm least familiar with from the Seventh Doctor era (though I've seen all the stories before). I'm willing to be impressed by it, but we'll need to step up a little from here…

15 November 2014

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

Day 684: Time and the Rani, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I'm really pleased that the Rani needs the Doctor for her current experiments. Somehow, I'd convinced myself that she was simply out fir revenge against him in this adventure, and that seemed like a real pity after all the mocking of the Master she did in Mark of the Rani in regards to having a petty vendetta against the man. It's much better that the Doctor has been summoned to Lakertia in order to help. I'm also quite keen on the fact that while the Rani needed him to be plugged in for the main part of her plan, she was also seeking his assistance earlier on in actually making the experiment work. It just feels so much more realistic that she can appreciate the Doctor's skills, in a way that the Master simply can't.

It's just a shame that we had to put up with all that tedious 'pretending to be Mel' nonsense earlier on in the story, because I think I'd rather watch a story in which the Rani tries to convince the Doctor to help her while he's in the middle of his post regeneration trauma. It's something that I could believe the Rani would do, and I think she might even be able to convince him that it's a good idea (though she may have to lie). I'm still not quite sure what the Rani's scheme is in this story, mind. I realise it has something to do with the asteroid of strange matter overhead, and there's a giant brain involved but… have we actually learned what she's up to yet?

Something that I've been meaning to mention for the last few days and haven't found a chance to is how good the 'bubble' effects look in this story. This is one of the first Doctor Who stories to use computer effects in quite this way, and while is has dated, when watching through the programme in order, it comes across as rather effective. I've seen the location footage on the DVD before now, and seen just how simply the explosions of the bubbles hitting rocks are done, but they come across well on the screen! It's no wonder that we've been treated to examples of it in all three episodes so far, and I don't think I'd be surprised if we get one tomorrow, too!

While I'm on the subject of dated computer imagery… the new titles. I know they're not very popular, but I've always liked the McCoy title sequence. I've never noticed before just how ropey some of the CGI looks in there, though, especially on the TARDIS in the bubble. At the time, did this look any more impressive than it does now? John Nathan-Turner was always quite good at being forward-thinking, and I can imagine that going for these titles was probably another step forward from his point of view at the time. Oh, and then there's the new logo… I'm afraid that I love that! It's probably the least admired of all the 'classic' series versions, but it's one of my favourites (and I think it's certainly better than the famous 'diamond' one!). That said, I think it works best when seen in two-tone, such as on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine.

The new theme music is fine, although as I think I’ve said before, they all sort of end up blurring in to one for me! This story also marks the first of Keff McCulloch’s incidental scores for the programme. McCulloch doesn’t have the best of reputations among Doctor Who fans, but the score is one of the things I’m enjoying the most about this story so far! He can stay, as far as I’m concerned!

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