Saturday, 20 July 2013

Carnival of Monsters written by Robert Holmes and directed by Barry Letts

This story in a nutshell: In a nutshell? Are you kidding me?

The Mighty Nose: If Pertwee was going for the charm offensive then this was to be his greatest story. Remember when Terrance Dicks said that Holmes liked to give the actors what they wanted, well he peppers this script with enough moments of charm for Pertwee to make you think ‘there was another Doctor Who?’ For aficionados of the Pertwee/Manning chemistry, this probably exposes the two of them at their peak (I'd toss in The Curse of Peladon and The Green Death too) and if there is any doubt that Jo is the the companion for the third Doctor must surely be dispelled before you reach the climax of this marvelous adventure. Whilst it is often alluded to by fans, is this the first time we have heard the Doctor mention that he is trying to reach the fabled beauteous planet Metebelies. He has only just been given control of the TARDIS so I guess it must be. His exile being lifted suddenly gives the Doctor a sense of freedom and series (despite hops forward and sideways in time and space) a giddy thrill at the possibilities again. How like the Doctor, especially this Doctor, to refuse to admit that he has failed to pilot the TARDIS to the correct destination on their first flight, even in the face of clucking chickens! Okay, he is proven to be right but his obstinacy in the face overwhelming evidence is very amusing (which is interesting in itself because just a few seasons back it would have been irritating rather than charming). This is man who tries not to judge by appearances (hmm, your logic failed you in The Curse of Peladon then, didn't it?) and refuses to admit that he is wrong because the very idea is impossible. You have to wonder about the sorts he has been hob-nobbing it with during his exile on Earth because he seems to have become quite versed in the manner of an upper class gentleman. I can see him at high class business clubs, sipping brandy, reading the politics of the day and discussing literature and science with the best brains of the day. His 'Hello! Topping day, what?' makes me roar with laughter, as does his retort '99 skidoo!' and it doesn't surprise me that when asked if he wants a drink he requests a large Scotch. The fella has some pluck and boxes by Queensbury rules, having taken lessons from the great John L. Sullivan himself (smug get). After running up and down the decks of the SS Bernice as though he is in a Benny Hill parody of Doctor Who, scrambling through the miniscope and sized up for dinner by the Drashigs, the Doctor admits that he is starting to feel the centuries. Always use the gifts that the actor brings to the role (think of Sylvester McCoy when he gets to play the showman in Greatest Show in the Galaxy) and Pertwee's days as a showman are hilariously brought to life as he breaks into patter ('Roll up! Roll up!') when explaining the function of the miniscope to Jo. When the Doctor recalls making a terrible old fuss to the Time Lords about the Scope and it's crimes against sentient creatures, I can see Hartnell standing before the High Council, clutching his lapels and bellowing at them with his most commanding tones. I think the Doctor should offer to give his lateral thinking speech to any organisation with the slightest whiff of bureaucracy. ‘Doctor, you’re brilliant!’ cries Jo ‘I am?’ he replies - he is just so cute in this story. Amazing how likable he has become in a very short space of time. You better stop referring to him as the creature as he will likely become exceedingly hostile. Vorg and Shirna admire his audacity for standing up to the tribunal of Inter Minor but Pletrac refuses to listen to him since he is clearly a menace to public health. Marvelous audacity, look at his manner and his clothes – he must be in the carnival business! He’s certainly got the style. The Doctor clearly loves a pretty girl and bows profusely before Shirna. I always chuckle at the scene where the Vorg tries out the carnival lingo on the Doctor and he stares at him a picture of confusion and says ‘I’m afraid I do not understand your language!’ The third Doctor as characterised here (and for much of the rest of his run) is delightful and it is at this point I would happily hop on board the TARDIS and join him.

Dippy Agent: Perhaps Katy Manning whispered in Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts' ears, or maybe they were planning this development for her anyway but there is a definitely feeling of confidence emerging with the character in season ten. I remember as far back as The Claws of Axos where she was little more than something pretty to look at in the background but here she is right in the thick of the action, asking a multitude of questions, dashing about ships and circuitry and marshland, back chatting and figuring things out. She's opinionated, resourceful and clearly enjoying every second of her time with the Doctor, whether she is terrified or not (that is Katy Manning spilling through). She admits that she loves being with the Doctor because he makes her feel so young, although she is frustrated by his stubbornness at times. Manning has finally found a use for her chicken noises. This is a girl with a key for every occasion, breaking out the skeleton key when the Doctor's sonic screwdriver proves insufficient. I love her reaction to the Doctor trying to get her to wake up - ‘Not yet I’m only half cooked.’ Fluff aside, Jo’s reaction to the peepshow concept feels very real, she is disgusted that people should be watching them for kicks. Jo is smart enough to tell the Doctor to stay hidden and let herself be locked up and then has a go at trying to get Claire to remember the loop she has been stuck in. Once the Doctor has tripped his way out of the Scope and she is left on her own, Jo is trapped in an endless series of loops and knows the drill well enough by that point to recognise that eventually the scenario will kick start again and she will no longer be a prisoner. I bet when she convinced her Uncle to get her a job with UNIT she never imagined she would be held firm by a racist tycoon, as he fires a machine gun at a Plasiosarus that has burst through the hull of a sailing ship believed missing for 50 years! She has been given some fabulous stories to tell her wealth of grandchildren to come.

Sparkling Dialogue: Considering this is one of Robert Holmes' best scripts, that must tell you something about the wealth of fantastic lines that are deployed...
‘Our purpose is to amuse, simply to amuse. Nothing serious, nothing political!’
‘Human beings are slightly more intelligent than whelks!’
‘They’re great favourites with the children!’
‘Eaten? They ate a spaceship?’
‘Merciful and compassionate?’ ‘One has…twinges.’
‘Are you feeling a bit umpty?’
‘One has no wish to be devoured by alien monstrosities! Even in the cause of political progress!’
Put your finger on there’ ‘Here (SCREAMS!)?’ ‘Good that must be the live one.’

The Good Stuff: Carnival of Monsters is directed by Barry Letts and with these four episodes he produces some of his most innovative and imaginative work. At times his producers head has been lost in the excitement and he seems to think he has an endless budget to work with but the rich imagination, colour and gloriously bizarre juxtapositions that Carnival of Monsters flaunts proves that he was the man for the job. Check out the visual quirkiness of the first scene, Kalik walking amongst the clouds of Inter Minor. Only in Doctor Who would you enjoy a story that catapults you from a grey faced planet of politics across time and space to a sailing ship in the twenties bobbing calmly on the ocean. They are so diametrically opposed (visually and tonally) that the very fact that we cut from one to the other produces delight. Vorg and Shirna's costumes are so kaleidoscopic that I felt I was under the influence whilst enjoying their patter. I think its wonderful that they got to play about on a real boat, I love larking about on water and these scenes give the 1920’s scenes a sense of  authenticity that they would have lacked had these sequences taken place all within the studio. Episode one throws a number of mysteries at the viewer, giving them a puzzle to unravel (involving an extinct monster, alien metal in the 1920s, a lost ship and a time loop - I know some Doctor Who's that fail to generate half that many intruiging ideas and with Carnival of Monsters this is just the tip of the iceberg) and the fun comes in the fact that the answers are so convivial and much bigger and brasher than I was prepared to guess. I would never imagine Doctor Who attempting to pull off something as bold and as expensive as the miniscope with its multitude of environments and an alien planet to boot. The first cliffhanger is especially delightful because it comes out of nowhere and is the last thing you are expecting to happen (for a ruddy great hand to appear and steal the TARDIS!). There is a chance to see Ian Marter at work before he joined the series full time as Harry and John's manipulated characterisation goes on to reveal what Harry might have been like had he been given a little more bite. Against all the odds, Carnival of Monsters sports a new monster that despite its obviously false appearance genuinely manages to terrify. The Drashigs are a major success story for effects pioneer Barry Letts, a vicious colony of  giant reptiles that can eat their way through spaceships and love nothing more than crunching their way through the bone and gristle of Lurmans. It was the choice to use real terrier skulls to construct the head and the hideous screaming sound effects that make all the difference to me. The Drashigs are so triumphant that you have to ask why the show seemed incapable of getting puppetry to work like this again (as exemplified in the Chewits monster Dinos, the Loch Ness Monster that pops its head up out of the Thames and the Bandril Ambassador). For once the director manages to convince that the Doctor's life is in real danger as this unmanageable threat dogs his steps wherever he runs to. It is initially pitched as quite a simple story with two storylines - one set in space and one at sea and it is great fun as the settings are innovated. It is like a Russian Doll effect - a sailing ship adjacent to a swampy marsh inside a Miniscope on an alien planet - perhaps it would have been nice to have had one final twist and show that the whole thing was inside the television of somebody watching the whole story. Things get riotous as the various story lines start breaking into one another - the Doctor and Jo entering the Drashigs resting place, the Drashings breaking into the circuitry and the Doctor exiting the Scope and actualising on Inter Minor. The performances are all sublime in this story but Leslie Dwyer and Tenniel Evans in particular have been superbly chosen, playing larger than life characters that it is extremely easy to warm to. The quick fire dialogue, the wit, the character...the scenes on Inter Minor have more than a little shade of The West Wing to them (30 years early) except this is a very sarcastic approach to politics rather than cataloguing an administration that is struggling within its constraints. The Tribunal scenes had the potential to be repetitive and bore the ass off the audience but thanks to some cheeky Robert Holmes digs at bureaucracy, the delicious chemsitry between Peter Halliday, Michael Wisher and Terrance Lodge (devious Kalik, pansy Orum and jobsworth Petrac) and a healthy dose of humour these scenes delight in their mockery of pomposity. It just goes to show what an imaginative designer can bring to a story - I remember a Star Trek DS9 episode where Bashir and O'Brien were shrunk to the size of coffee cups and were forced to wander around Starfleet circuitry in order to fulfill some kind of technobabble requirement. Whilst the sets were enormous and constructed with a hundred times the budget of this story, they are not a patch on the Scope and it's multi layered, chaotic workings with all manner of bizarre looking pieces of technology to clamber over. Isn't it amazing how evocative the Charleston is? Closing my eyes when I hear it takes me straight back to the 1920s. Vorg and Shirna, for all their attractive characterisation and the appealing performances of the actors are little more than Victorian zookeepers, poking at their live stock and getting them to scrap for the amusement of the crowds. The story isn't frightened of shying away from making that point, even if it does portray them as misguided entertainers rather than morally bankrupt businessmen. I love Shirna's little tap dance and Kalik's deadpan reaction ('Bravo') and the way it plays out twice across episodes one and two suggests that their story might be taking place in a Scope too. or it could just be dodgy editing. I prefer the think the former is true. A Scope within a Scope? Boggling! I cheer every time that spear darts towards the Doctor and Jo and they are observed by a giant eye in the ceiling. We have never seen anything quite like this in Doctor Who before. Vorg's nervous hand waving to pat the Drashig's away is similarly gigglesome. If only the Doctor's adventures all took place in a Scope, it would be advantageous if Vorg could be there to shoo away the monsters as they advance. All three cliff-hangers are turning points in the story, pushing the story in a new direction.

The Bad Stuff: The opening scenes of badly dressed extras manhandling the cheap looking Scope is all the ammunition non fans might need to make them turn something as delightful as this story off. How they could get the Drashigs so right and the Plesiosaurus so wrong within the same story baffles me. Whether it was poor continuity, the heat of the studio or just a shoddy job, the make up for the Inter Minor characters gets progressively worse throughout the story.

Result: There is a reason that the oddball stories stick in your mind more than some of the more functional ones - like the Pixar/Disney animated films of late it would appear that they have all the imagination, wit and humour has been injected into them that the other stories (adult films) are lacking. Carnival of Monsters has so many elements in it's favour that I don't know where to begin but chief amongst them is it's relative brevity, it is a Pertwee adventure at four episodes and it is packed to the gills with sparkling material which means it is one of the rare moments in the era where the story doesn't drag or feel as though it needs a little pruning. I would argue that this is a vital Pertwee story because it goes to show what the era can do when it ditches UNIT and contemporary Earth, and lets its hair down a bit. It proves that Letts and Dicks were right to reject the formula and start mining the potential in finding stories out there in the universe again (which the audience might have questioned after worthy but dull tales such as Colony in Space and The Mutants). Given his wealth of excellent material it is no small statement to say that this is one of Robert Holmes' strongest scripts, one that is saturated with wit, creative ideas and great characters. He sure knows how to pique your interest, brewing his own special brand of storytelling alchemy in the first episode and whetting your appetite for the answers. Carnival of Monsters is post-modern before it became all the rage, offering a cutting satire on television and it's conventions with some marvelous digs at Doctor Who in particular ('They're great favourites with the children!'). Holmes is always thinking about how his environment works and there is a twisted logic at the heart of the story that makes perfect sense, even when the wild ideas are bursting like fireworks in the sky. The incredible premise, the Doctor and Jo caught in the workings of a machine with miniaturized environments, is incredibly ambitious Barry Letts never shies away from that. The director is clearly having great fun bringing this world to life and has cast the story superbly too, excellent character actors buying into the concept and bringing even more attraction to the piece. The Pertwee/Manning relationship is at its height and proves effortlessly watchable and the Doctor and Jo are inundated with memorable moments in a story that plants them centre stage. It might have the odd duff effect here and there but this is about as magical as Doctor Who comes; revelling in the possibilities of a limitless format, mocking everything from the TV medium, showbusiness and bureaucracy, indulging in a fast paced runaround, contributing some terrifying monsters and providing much food for thought as it entertains the pants off you. A return to sparkling form: 10/10


BSC SSC said...

You've given the Pertwee era vey high marks so far Joe-is it a favorite era of yours?

Joe Ford said...

It's an era I have become increasingly fond of. Some solid storytelling, plenty of drama and excitement, a controversial Doctor and three great companions. Dicks and Letts took a struggling show and turned it into a complete success story. There are stories I don't like (The Mutants, The Time Monster, The Three Doctors, Planet of the Daleks) but on the whole it is my ultimate comfort viewing era, and one I return to more than most others.

Chantal said...


dark said...

I watched this one last night with my dad for the first time ever. Even though like the three doctors it was one of the early books I read, I don't have the same attachment I do to the Three Doctors for some reason.

On the one hand, I totally agree that the chalm and the performances really sell this, and the Drashig's do rank as a truly terrifying monster precisely because the Doctor (especially self assured number three), can't get rid of them. The chemistry between the Doctor and Joe is wonderful, I love his insistance that he's not on earth, and the way he doesn't actually admit he was wrong. My dad's comment upon hearing his "roll up" speech was "Oh, it's chief petty officer Pertwee?" referencing John's character from The navy Lark, which probably was correct (it's a real shame such an experienced radio actor as Pertwee never made it to Big finish).

Actually i don't think there is a duff character performance here, from the Major's wonderful old colonial racism, Claire's "You wouldn't think of me as a silly flapper", to the snide tribunal.

My only issue, is that for some reason, and I can't say what, the story seemed to get stuck half way through. Maybe it was the Doctor and Joe's run around the circuitry, maybe it was one too many bizantine politickings with the tribunal. I just felt that there was a point when things weren't moving forward. This is odd, I would usually much rather have a story that was too long than too short, but I just felt there was a stage in episode 2 or 3 when I'd seen everything, indeed half way through episode four my dad did comment "Well he better get on with sorting everything out" sinse quite honestly once the scope started to break down it felt like both plots stalled until an excuse could be found to separate joe and the Doctor and get the Doctor onto Inter minor to quickly come up with the last final solution.

Indeed, while I do see the logic that patches of space time being grabbed from various planets and shoved in a little box should theoretically be fixable with a fast return from the Tardis, this really did feel like the instance of the new series Doctor's magic wand 30 years earlier, particularly off given that the political revolution story really also seemed to stall as well.

I really want! to like Carnival of monsters more than I do, there was a lot I enjoyed, I just couldn't get over the feeling that there was something off in the way the story progressed over all that would stop it getting the perfect score from me.

Anthony Pirtle said...
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