Wednesday, 31 August 2016
This story in a nutshell: Romance, swashbuckling, dopplegangers and a castle siege...Doctor Who as a seductive sunny fantasy!
Aristocratic Adventurer: I've always been of the school that Mary Tamm is a decent enough actress but wasn't at all challenged by Doctor Who. At times she steps up and commands but often she walks through her stories as though an unpleasant smell is following her. But I have to give Mary Tamm her due, she rocks in this story. The script allows Romana to be ballsy and helpless and for the first episode and not for the first time she takes on the Doctor's role, wandering off, facing the monster, finding the key, seeking out the bad guy... of course she's soon twisting her ankle and laid out on an operating table about to have her neck cut off. You can stray too far from the traditional companion role in Doctor Who but I appreciate the effort, for 20 minutes. Instead of leaving her in a pathetic and useless position, Fisher makes her character pivotal to the story. You might need to rub your eyes by the end of the story, having to identify Romana, Princess Strella and the android copy of Romana. We've seen the doppleganger trope play out countless times in Doctor Who but this is the wittiest example by miles and Tamm makes each one distinguishable and still imbues her Romana with some pluck and resourcefulness. I love the moment where she escapes the castle on the horse she simply doesn't know how to ride. It's the sort of charming moment that Lalla Ward enjoyed a handful of in each story but Tamm was shortchanged of. The first Romana is something of an aristocrat and whilst Tamm in real life couldn't have been further from that it is still a characteristic she plays extremely well, so Strella is a convincing character in her own right. When Tamm is clearly enjoying herself she delivers terrfic goods and by all accounts she thoroughly enjoyed this story. She's as drunk on the atmosphere of the piece as much as the rest of us.
Sparkling Dialogue: 'Next time I will not be so lenient!'
The Bad: It is one of those seventies stories where there is so much location work that the cut back to video in the studios is very jarring. The outside filming looks so expensive that the studio work cannot help but look cheaper by comparison.
Result: Watching this story is like enjoying a glorious afternoon with friends blissed out on wine and basking in golden sunshine. I always finish it with a smile on my face. If you're in Doctor Who for space battles or UNIT adventures then this might not be your glass of vino but if you're willing to go on a fairytale adventure in outer space then this just about the zenith of what Graeme Williams tried to achieve with Doctor Who. It's unique in of itself and deliberately small scale, highlighting atmosphere, gentle plot twists and memorable characters. It uses Romana better than any other story to feature Mary Tamm and features the Doctor at the top of his game; swashbuckler, king-maker and master of witty repartee. The episodes revel in the escape-capture-escape-capture routine, trying to make them more and more elaborate and entertaining and the plot is explained throughout most charismatically by the insanly lovable Grendel. It even has time for a five minute sword-fight and a spot of fishing. We Doctor Who fans are a right fickle bunch, we claim we always want something new interesting and yet when it is delivered we moan and groan about how what we are getting now isn't as good as how things used to be. There are a selective bunch who object to Doctor Who pushing its boundaries too far, who like to claim that a show that features Marco Polo, The Daleks' Masterplan, The Ice Warriors, The Mind Robber, Inferno, Carnival of Monsters, The Sontaran Experiment, The Invisible Enemy, The Pirate Planet, Black Orchid, Enlightenment, Revelation of the Daleks and Ghost Light a formula. I think this is might be why The Androids of Tara has only received a mild reception in the past, recent years have shown some moderate praise in its direction but on the whole fandom seems to want to forget about it. Why? Because it dares to be different. There is no other Doctor Who story like this one and for me that is its ultimate strength, it encapsulates the show during a creative peak, trying out outrageous new ideas to see if they could fit into the shows scope. I wouldn't really try and pin a genre on this story... is it a SF story, a romance, an action piece or a comedy? All of these and more and with more than a twist of The Prisoner of Zenda, it's a touch literary too. It dares to be uncynical and magical and I really love it for that: 9/10
Monday, 29 August 2016
Noble Savage: It's another excellent Leela story, a companion who in my opinion is one of the most interesting of the lot. Louise Jameson is a great actress and relishes the stronger moments she is given, Leela's curiosity, violence and protection of the Doctor. I've heard Jameson say that she had to cross out various parts of this script that were written for Sarah Jabe and endless screams but I simply cannot imagine where the might have been. Surely the whole point was to contrast Leela with Adelaide to show how useless companions were in the past compared with how stronger and more able they are currently. If that wasn't deliberate, it is a happy accident. Adelaide's inclusion makes Leela look even more capable than usual. Between the Doctor and Leela you have two very otherwordly regulars. I can't really relate to either of them and it's clear that they can't really relate to each other. The result should be unwatchable but it has the reverse effect. It's discordant, and grippingly so, Leela shows her naivete at the climax when she looks at the exploding Rutan spaceship, almost leaving herself blind.
Sparkling Dialogue: 'Are you in charge here?' 'No but I'm full of ideas.'
'You will listen to the Doctor or I will cut out your heart.'
'Leela, I've made a terrible mistake. I thought I'd locked the enemy out. Instead I've locked it in...with us.'
The Good: Nasties in the dark cannot be effective unless you have a focused director at the helm. This story could not have been made later in the Williams era, directors at that point were concentrating of comedy rather than drama but during this early, more experimental season Paddy Russell does a superb job with her resources. For a start she manages to convince that the story is set on a foggy island rather than a BBC studio. No mean feat but with effective sound FX, carefully shot camera work and lots of fog we are transported to an island of terror. No other story has an atmosphere quite like this one, a feeling of oppression and tension creeping from every shadow. Watching this story in the dark is a strikingly vivid experience. The lighthouse sets feel appropriately cramp and uncomfortable and the actors' off screen tension drips into the story with superb results. Russell is a top notch actors director too. Despite Lis Sladen suggesting she over filmed scenes until they lost any spontaneity, the handful of stories that she directed feature some of the finest ever seen in classic Who (As well as Horror, The Massacre and Pyramids of Mars are on that list). Skilled performers do most of the work. The danger cannot feel real unless we fear for the lives of our heroes. Characters such as Vince and Ben appeal to us seconds into the story, they have a nice chemistry and are apparently very happy with their work on the lighthouse. Even Rueben, racist and opinionated though he is, demands our sympathy because we all know somebody as curmudgeonly lovable as this. As they are picked off one by one we feel frightened ourselves, annoyed at the loss of such endearing people. Then the yacht strikes the rocks and further characters are introduced to the isolated setting. This is where things get REALLY interesting because this bunch aren't worthy of our sorrow. Greedy and rude, Adelaide and Henry deserve their fates and yet we still feel for them such is the sense of tension in the lighthouse. Annette Woolette is quite superb in the role of the screaming secretary, she delivers her lines with great aplomb helped along by a script that makes her thoroughly unlikable. It's possible that your ears might have been shredded by her pathetic wailings and you might welcome her death when it comes.
The Shallow Bit: Vince isn't much of a looker but he is the most endearing character on this show by a country mile. He's the only one who you really care about and it is devastating when he meets his end.
Result: It's odd, this is story I find hugely enjoyable to watch but whenever I scour my video shelves I rarely feel in the mood to watch it. I tried to pinpoint why today as I popped in the player and watched it. Was it the pathetic FX? Nope, they are serviceable and the show has dished out much worse. Was it the reported bad blood behind the scenes spilling on screen? Nadda, if anything it merely enhances the tension. Perhaps the fact that all the nice people die horribly? Don't be stupid, that's how you tell an effective story! Then what...? It came to me during a scene that is played mostly for laughs. The Doctor rushes into a room full of frightened aristocrats and announces "Gentlemen, this lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead! Any questions?"... the simple fact is this is an extremely uncomfortable story to watch. Everything about it is uncomfortable; the sets, the performances, the script, the direction... they all merge to make one of the most tense and nail biting experiences in the show's run. It's extremely dour for the most part, with relatively little in the way of light entertainment. I think it is the same reason I rarely watch The Caves of Androzani and Genesis of the Daleks (even though I acknowledge that they are blinding stories) and find myself more drawn to the Graeme William era and season 24. I know I will have a good time with those stories. Is this Dicks' best script? Possibly, in collaboration with top script editor Robert Holmes he produces an extremely tight story, perfect for Doctor Who. With a tiny setting, a handful of very memorable characters and a very real menace he has perfected the base under siege formula. It's a sub-genre that Doctor Who has been playing out for over a decade and you would think there is nothing new to learn from it but when you shift settings and characters what appears to be the same type of story on paper becomes very different in reality. Robots of Death and Horror of Fang Rock are base under siege stories that are three stories apart and yet their realisation couldn't be more diverse. The tension refuses to let up right until the last few seconds, early episodes concentrate on the hidden evil and once the cat is out of the bag it becomes a creepy killer among us story before climaxing in a monster fest. The dialogue sparkles, especially for the guest characters and with very few words we know these people very well indeed. Terrance Dicks gets written off as something of a hack adventure writer but there is a great deal of intelligence in this script. Class tension, mysticism, progress debates, survival tactics...the dialogue is crisp and to the point but it has great deal to say about the times too. It's well worth paying attention to the talkier moments. So although I find the story a mite uncomfortable to watch that is only a testament to the talent of everybody involved. Horror of Fang Rock works on so many levels, its a skilfully told character drama, a bite-your-nails good horror flick, a entertaining Doctor Who story and a brilliant start to the new season (and for incoming producer Graham Williams). It's genuinely creepy stuff: 9/10
Sunday, 28 August 2016
This story in a nutshell: A ghoulish, disfigured monster stalking the sewers of London, preying on young girls to feed upon...
Noble Savage: 'When we are both in the great here after I shall hunt you down bent face and put you through my agonies a thousand times!' screams Leela, close to death. It's her best story by miles and in Holmes safe hands she thrives in Victorian London, slaughtering Chinese henchmen, hunted by giant rats, trying out sophisticated clothes and going to the theatre. Never before has she seemed so alien and so human, highlighting her against so many characters draws magnificent attention to her lack of social graces and vicious killing streak. And yet in later episodes when Litefoot and Jago are in trouble she is clearly frightened for their safety and tries to convince the Doctor to save them with the beautiful retort' they are our friends, we must help them.' She's his conscience in that moment. The so-called padding from the early episodes, which set up these relationships, are satisfyingly paid off. Louise Jameson was always a little too good for Doctor Who (like Caroline John before her she deserves to spearhead a show rather than providing support for the star) but when she is spoilt with material like this it's difficult to argue against Leela's place in the show. She's works awesomely when paired with the Doctor (it's one of the few occasions where it seems that Baker and Jameson are drunk on each others company) but strikes out on her own often enough to prove that a Leela headed show could be made to work. I'm reluctant at any point of this review to dismiss Robert Holmes' part in making every aspect work and it's worth noting his part in Leela's finest story.
The Good Stuff:
* Chang and Greel make a real sinister pair; clip clopping through the streets of London in a carriage every night to seek out the Time Cabinet. The closest moment the story comes to reality sees Chang accosting a prostitute to take back to his master to feed on, the Ripper-esque horror of these scenes chills me to the bone. Like most of Holmes' villainous character this pair are both rather pathetic, Chang because he dotes so desperately on Greel under the impression he is a God and Greel because he is slowly dying and refusing to admit his Zygma experiments were little more than a footnote in history. Greel is more frightening because he is clearly desperate to fight back his death and slaughter his way through countless innocent women to achieve that. He's hysterical to the point of utter insanity and will murder anybody who gets in his way. Some of his lines ('I shall not keep you waiting long' he says to Leela who is waiting to have her energy sucked from her body, 'Now for my two partridges!') are sick and sinister. Once his mask is ripped away and we see how disfigured he truly is the tension steps up a mark. Now we know he cannot survive how far will this madman go to achieve his freedom?
* I have always been a huge fan of David Maloney's direction and agree with Philip Hinchcliffe one hundred percent when he says he was the best director on the payroll. Which Doctor Who stories stand out from each era? The Mind Robber? Maloney. Genesis of the Daleks? Maloney again. The Deadly Assassin? Oh yes. His work here is extraordinary, pulling together this mammoth tale with an eye for visuals and a talent for sheer entertainment. Go stick the DVD on and watch any five minutes and you will stumble across a moment that makes you gasp with delight. The body dragged up at the key side. Leela's reaction to Litefoot's pipe. 'Were you trying to get my attention?' The chase through the theatre. Mr Sin at the door and Leela jumping through the window. Chang and the prostitute. Leela screaming as she is gnawed away at by the giant rat. Casey found dead in the Cabinet of Death. 'Take the sting of the scorpion!' The dumb-waiter. Greel's melted face. 'I'll give you three seconds Doctor then Mr Sin will kill the girl!' Leela with the pistol. 'GREEL LISTEN!' The hypocrisy of making tea. The story is just one quality scene after another with everybody in tune with each other. Maloney's stylish direction is the icing on the cake; he chose the right actors, the right locations and the right pace for the story. The results speak for themselves.
The Bad Stuff: The rat is an obvious flaw but it's the only flaw in an otherwise stunning production. It's almost refreshing to be reminded that this is still Doctor Who.
Result: 'Sleep is for tortoises!' A great plump rich Christmas pudding of a story, that has been set aflame and contains a treasury of coinage within. Rarely have we been treated to such a luxurious story, one that takes the time to flesh out of all of its characters, tell an atmospheric and gripping tale and one that frequently dazzles with its colourful dialogue and is wrapped up in a budget-bursting production that manages to make the smallest of scenes totally believable. Add to this mix the Doctor at the height of his powers, accompanied by a companion who enriches the tale, a splendid Dudley Simpson score and a fascinating and expensive look at the Victorian era (which at this point in the series had not been explored to death) all told in six beautiful episodes that ensure nothing is rushed or underdeveloped. Whilst Robots of Death, Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and The Deadly Assassin are also excellent examples of how much talent was lavished on the show during the Hinchcliffe years I feel Talons is his ultimate gift to the series, the story is attention-grabbing but it's married to a dazzling production that leaves these others in its shadow. In our reality-TV driven society of razor sharp pace and instant gratification we don't see television of Talons' standard anymore and that is such a shame. Television that is content to be beautiful and characterful, to where its influences on its sleeve and dazzle with them, television that paces itself to tell a fulsome story that leaves you sated with gourmet standard quality by its climax. Halfway through the series' first run, Doctor Who climaxed its season fourteen with the best story of its entire run. Flawlessly written, wonderfully acted and featuring some of the best direction of the time, Like reaching a fantastic orgasm for six long episodes without all the embarrassment that comes afterwards. Glorious: 10/10
Saturday, 27 August 2016
There is a very interesting premise at the core of The Face of Evil, more interesting than a computer with a split personality that split up a colony ship into two separate tribes. The Doctor has often been portrayed as a flawed hero but we never really get to see evidence of this so to hear him admit that on his last visit he tried to help and misjudged his tinkering (and his ego) is quite a shock. Much like The Ark it is fascinating to set the story long after the Doctor's first visit and to explore the consequences. Whilst hardly apologetic the Doctor is clearly horrified to see the far-reaching results of his handiwork, you realise just how much of an impact, how much change he has caused when he doesn't even recognise the planet or the people until the end of the second episode! I love this idea of the Doctor failing, its one of the reason I will take him over James Bond (actually in latter years Bond has been portrayed as a flawed hero so that is a pretty moot argument of mine) any day because the Doctor can lose and lose spectacularly. A lot of people die in this story and none of it would have happened had the Doctor never visited. He's the catalyst for everything that takes place.
The Face of Evil is an often-ignored story from the treasured season fourteen and looking at it objectively it is easy to see why. It isn't one of the big hitting spectaculars like Talons of Weng-Chiang or The Deadly Assassin, it doesn't have the rich visual splendour of The Robots of Death of Masque of Mandragora. Even The Hand of Fear has Lis Sladen's creepy turn as the possessed Sarah and her moving departure at the end of the story. In comparison The Face of Evil is a studio bound tale set on a faceless alien world full of visual science fiction clichés such as tribesmen and insane computers. But to write it off as such is to do the story a great disservice.
How bizarre is it to see a companionless Doctor. I am glad they quickly introduced Leela because I don't think I could have managed a whole story with the Doctor addressing the camera as he does at the beginning of this story. Although it is rather fun imagining that you are the companion, that he is addressing you personally. If the production team had been even braver they would have roughened Leela up even more, had her dirty and dishevelled, like she really lived in the wild. As it is the Dads need some incentive to tune in so Louise Jameson debuts in clean skins looking as though she has just taken a bath. A sanitised savage she may be, but she s still stunningly beautiful and of course a superb actress to boot. I can understand the decision to keep her squeaky clean but at least her behaviour and instincts are appropriately feral and that is all down to Jameson's acting choices.
There is immediate potential with Leela that isn't apparent with so many companions and you can see instantly what the producer was trying to achieve. Much like Jamie and Victoria there is a lot of scope for having ignorant companions (and I don't mean that in a derogatory fashion, Jamie and Victoria were companions from the past and Leela is a savage warrior) who require a lot of explanations for the scientific side of things. It allows the writer to feed information to the viewer without the companion looking stupid. But it's more than that, I firmly believe the key to good comedy/drama is healthy culture clashing and to pair up an eccentric scientist with a homicidal savage and you have character gold. I think the interest in Leela as character waned when Robert Holmes gave up the script editing reins but there were plenty of wonderful moments scattered about her first five stories to justify the experiment. As is often the case, the companion simply cannot shake out of the clichés of the role but Leela managed it more often than a great many. Indeed Louise Jameson's compelling performance as the naive savage is one of the highpoints of this story, you can see already the Eliza Doolittle/Proffesor Higgins relationship flowering in precisely the way Philip Hinchcliffe wanted. And they stick close throughout the story, learning the facts of the situation together. and how Leela learns that her entire belief system is false is sensitively but firmly handled by the Doctor who refuses to molly-coddle her. By the end of the story Leela is talking about concepts she didn't even understand at the beginning and even looking at her own people exactly the same way we saw her at the beginning, thus begins her education. It's a smart relationship, one of a handful that stood out in the seventies.
Doctor Who and religion are sticky subjects, sometimes a story tackles the subject head on such as in The Massace but more often they are background elements (Underworld has a twisted religious sect at it's heart but we never get involved enough in it's workings to understand much about it). The Face of Evil deals with a heavy religious theme and has the balls to be less than positive about it. It is almost a deconstruction of the God myth, Xoanon is simply a diseased computer with delusions of grandeur but the myth behind this 'God' is an extremely powerful and destructive force. It shows how propaganda can lead to a belief system of its own, through Neeva (tricked by Xoanon), the Sevateem are manipulated into fighting and killing on behalf of their God. And Leela who actively speaks out against Xoanon is threatened with execution and banished from the settlement. It exposes some of the dangers that come with raw religious beliefs and shows you how far people are willing to go in the name of their icon. Even more interestingly the story opens out into religious war, with the two fractured halves of Xoanon's personality externalised in the Sevateem and the Tesh. We see two homicidal factions that dismiss the other's beliefs and wish to see their false religion stamped out. All very interesting. I suppose the question is how far into exploring religion can a four part SF serial from the 70's go? Much of what I have discussed here is background information and there to be picked up by those who choose but they will be others who should dismiss my claims and read something completely different into the story, or even that it has no commentary at all and is only a rather witty (if drab) adventure tale. I have no opinion on God one way or the other but I find it fascinating that a story should throw religion in such an unforgiving light. Certainly of you look at this story with religion in mind it has some very damning comments to make. What is bloody brilliant is the idea (and realisation) of a savage community with technological equipment scattered around their settlement. The way in which the Sevateem has compartmentalised these objects into their society is very creative. Neeva's glove headgear is great fun and the close up on the survey ship alloy gong a phenomenal moment, driving home the idea of how this civilisation came to be.
One thing the story gets very right is the performances. The Sevateem are played with relish by a bunch of experienced British character actors and as such come across as a believable and rowdy group. Brendan Price's Tomas is the token nice guy but there is nothing queasy about his sensitive performance. David Garfield plays Neeva with the right amount of hypnotic naiveté; I love it when he interrogates the Doctor by waving scientific equipment in his face and screaming religious propaganda (although I dread to imagine how somebody would judge this had they never seen Doctor Who before and walked in on that scene). But best of the bunch is Leslie Schofield's enigmatic performance you can see a character who is watching every plot twist and seeing how they can twist it to their advantage.
It is a story that takes the psychological and religious angle over straightforward action adventure but still manages to tell a fairly entertaining story. It is far from perfect (it's not exactly the first story you would show a non fan, or even the tenth) but there is an intelligence to the story that is hard to ignore. Personally I find it a little too dry in places, the direction freezing up too often but I would still bill it as a strong story in its own right and one that manages to push the boundaries far better than the acknowledged and overrated stories that make similar claims, such as Kinda.
Just think the entire universe could be the handiwork of a clapped out computer with split personality syndrome: 7/10