Friday, 25 October 2013

The Leisure Hive written by David Fisher and directed by Lovett Bickford

This story in a nutshell: An insane progeny's dream of previous military glories...

Teeth and Curls: Opening a story with the Doctor snoring on a beach is perhaps not the most dynamic of options and doesn't exactly set the right tone for a stirring adventure. What a difference a year makes! According to the special features on The Leisure Hive the idea was to make the Doctor ‘straighter’, less silly and skip the undergraduate humour and improvisation. So everything that has made the show a pleasure to watch over the past three years then. That's not entirely fair. There are some strange, complicated people that find the out of control Tom of season 15-17 a little hard to take that probably welcomed the opportunity to rein him in a little. This story is a tale of two halves because Baker seems a little disinterested in the early episodes now that he has start talking real science and curb the jokes and yet when he is transformed into an old man this more sober interpretation fits beautifully. If the first half of the story had featured the giddy adventurer from the last season, the transformation would have been even more dramatic and impressive. I realise that JNT and Bidmead wanted to concentrate more on the story and less on the dynamics of the Doctor and his companions but it seems to come at the expense of the entertainment factor. It seems a criminal waste to have characters as fine as the fourth Doctor, Romana and K.9 and waste them on the periphery of a story and have them do little but spout technobabble. To my mind this isn't exactly an an improvement on how things were (especially when the ability to tell a well plotted story was about to go out the window). He can’t get everything right (especially when he gets everything wrong) and he can’t spend his whole life running from the Black Guardian. Tom Baker looks magnificent in his burgundy coat and scarf, by far the best innovation of those discussed on the controversial special features on the DVD. I don't like the idea of the Doctor suggesting he has experimented with time in academic sense...his reckless tinkering has been anything but! Is Bidmead trying to turn the Doctor into a scholar? His scarf is used as a plot function once again but in quite a clever way that implicates him in a murder this time. Look at the scene where the Doctor has to swear his innocence and glares up at the helmet, pauses and then declares ‘yes!’ Ever the gift of the understatement. The old age make up is so convincing it actually looks like a completely different actor playing the part. His performance slows right down; he is playing it with delicate movements, a soft voice and the mood surrounding the character is one of depression. Perhaps that's why the viewers switched off in droves! How brave to extend this transformation over two episodes giving the actor and the audience the fear that this is the fourth Doctor for the rest of his tenure. I wonder if this premature ageing contributed to the Doctor's upcoming regeneration - perhaps a younger, fitter fourth Doctor would have been able to hang on to the Ariel.  When our Doctor turns up he suddenly looks thoroughly rejuvenated and Lalla either dazzled or mortified at the thought of hundreds of Tom Baker's to play with.

Lovely Lalla: Come in number two your time is up. I actually rather like many of the decisions John Nathan-Turner made over his nine year stint (if not the generally inconsistently quality of the stories) but his feeling that it was all ‘a bit smart’ in the TARDIS with the fourth Doctor, Romana and K.9 and dumbing it down by writing two of them out and introducing Adric, Tegan and Nyssa is so wide of the mark it scarcely bears consideration. Basically the audience is too thick to understand what is going on with three intelligent protagonists so lets introduce a snivelling toad, a screaming harridan and an alien orphan high on technobabble because the audience will be able to identify far more with this bunch of misfits. Not. Even crazier is wasting a performer as strong as Lalla Ward in such a peripheral role in this story; she barely connects with the plot at all until the very end when she is reduced to screaming harridan and the usual kind of role of a victim that the companions fall into. This is hardly an improvement on stories like The Horns of Nimon when she was actively engaging with the characters, dominating the action and proving to be as smart and as resourceful as the Doctor himself. Now she is more of a swotty teenage nerds dream come true, a cute chick dressed up as a sailor and spouting more technobabble than an entire series of Star Trek. It is only because Lalla Ward is putting in more effort than ever to drag something characterful from this cold material that Romana doesn't just blend in with the wallpaper. A shame.

The Good Stuff: Is the pan across Brighton beach the dawning of a bold new era or a shocking waste of time and erroneous tone to kick start the season with? I can see an argument for both parties but being a seaside boy myself I found it achingly melancholic, if tonally inaccurate. Poor K.9 is about to suffer a manifest of indignities in his final run of stories and as a taster we get to watch his head blow into the air as he chases a ball into sea. It's cruel but I have to admit I did chuckle a little. The Leisure Hive miniatures are beautifully shot, the camera gliding up behind dunes of radioactive sand and catching the sharp lines of the building trapped in a barren landscape. The swirling heavy metal dust is a neat, atmospheric effect. The ideas powering this story are all very strong; a dead world, a barren race and a failing business, a twenty minute war that left the planet sterile for three centuries and the survivors creating a Hive to explore alien environments and try and prevent further aggression escalating. Those ideas all have great potential and the story even goes some way towards realising them. I just wish they could have had a little more fun with them. The Argolins are a very detailed alien race for Doctor Who, not just their back story (which paints a potent picture) but the striking make up and design and little details such as the tiny buds which fall from their heads as a portent of death. There will be some truly stunning music to accompany the stories in the eighties and so I completely back JNT's decision to give Dudley a rest and bring in some fresh blood. However it is a fact that although the music for The Leisure Hive is more atmospheric and attractive than we have heard in some time (probably since Geoffrey Burgeon's two scores in season thirteen - with a special mention for Simpson's City of Death soundtrack) it is also far more intrusive and tinny than Dudley Simpson's ever was. It is one of those scores that is a delight to listen to away from the images where there is nothing to distract you from its musical potency. I really like the gentle chemistry between Hardin and Mena; it is a little touch character amongst all the science. The best Doctor Who directors understand the importance of good lighting and Lovett Bickford scores highly in this regard in certain scenes. It is generally exceptional but look at the scene where Mena, the Doctor and Romana discuss the war, the radioactive sunlight streams through the window in waves and makes them glow intensely. It is very striking and not the sort of atmosphere we have come to expect from the previous administration. Stimpson is Turlough before his time, a generally mute character who creeps around in the background looking shifty and watching over his shoulder. He features in a number of very creepy scenes before being dumped unceremoniously from the plot. I didn't have a clue what was going on at the end of episode two (in sharp contrast to the previous era where the plot mechanics were always crystal clear) but the net result was rather effective anyway because it all looks so damn good. Style over substance? Perhaps, but at this stage the stylish is pretty damn chic so the distraction is polished enough to get away with it. Let's see how long that lasts... Mena's reaction to the Doctor's decrepitude before we get to see it is a nice touch. Watch out for the visually stunning sequence where the camera pans around the exterior of the Hive before belting through the windows into the studio and focusing on Hardin helping Mena to a chair. It is flawlessly executed and really exposes how much thought has gone into executing this story. How nice to come across an alien race that doesn't speak perfect English. I am rather find of the purring, clicking Foamasi voices. Doctor Who directors are often worth their weight in gold when they manage to convince something that is clearly ridiculous as being plausible and Bickford performs his magic trick during the insane sequence where the Foamasi unmask in a quick succession of reaction shots. That's magic folks because had this been a point and shoot job (Peter Moffatt, probably), it would have been agonising instead of slightly embarrassing as it is here. There is a very effective slow motion emergence of the Argolin sun, so simply achieved. Romana's reaction to baby Pangol mirrored my own.

The Bad Stuff: The direction often disguises the fact that there is something tacky, plastic and artificial about the Leisure Hive sets that screams a vaccum formed world. There is much criticism of the relative cheapness of The Horns of Nimon but in comparison I find the sets in the former story more theatrical but far bolder and sturdy than those in this story. It is just the gift wrapping (the music, lighting and effects) that convince you otherwise. It’s a real shame some of the visual effects don't match up to the quality of the direction (the hole that the Foamasi cut into the side of the Hive... is just a green line). Sometimes you have to wonder if anybody has given the edits a quick once over to make sure that everything makes sense because the Doctor and Romana don't actually witness the de-ageing recording that they spend episode one discussing and criticizing. One poor fellow (I don't know his name) is seen to walk up and down the same corridor over and over throughout the story, bless him, to suggest a busy working environment. I hope he got paid well for that role. It is interesting that JNT should criticise the 'that'll do' nature of the show under the previous administration and begin his era with a story that features the Foamasi. Obviously men in bulky, fabric suits, they are some of the least convincing aliens ever seen in Doctor Who. A lesson learnt in slagging off your predecessor, methinks. When the Zygons and Sontarans were made to look glistening and organic, I don't understand how we can backtrack like this. The techniques are there...use them. Hardin and Romana's agonisingly slow experiments are no substitute for actual drama. Do the Foamasi use Slitheen 'squeeze into smaller bodies' technology? Odd that the Foamasi take over the shuttle off screen and that part of the climax is very confused and rushed when their infiltration of the Hive was covered in torturous detail. The March of the Pangols is supposed to be the dramatic apotheosis of his plans but instead looks more like a convivial Gay Pride march with some extreme disco music banging on in the background. Why do people think that volume equals drama? There is so much hysterical hollering going on during the climax of The Leisure Hive that it would seem that the entire world is about to collapse around their ears when the truth is that the volume is simply being used to describe the fact that this is one of those whizzkid technobabble magic cliamxes that makes very little sense. The dated title sequence is ironically replaced with something that has aged far worse over the years.

Result: You'll notice that I have mostly talked about the visual aspects of this story rather than it's narrative. There is a reason for that. In some ways this is a strikingly adult production (especially in its efforts to sell the story through pictures) but in others it feels more than ever that the show is being aimed geeky loners who love scientific jargon and everybody taking everything deathly seriously. That is why everybody except those geeky loners abandoned ship. Attention grabbing direction from Lovett Bickford helps to keep the story visually arresting and awash with eye catching imagery and colours and some strong acting helps to push the po-faced storyline along with special honours going to Tom Baker, David Haig and Adrienne Corri. Intelligent details and thoughtful moments compensate for a lack of humour and a layer of entertainment that could be found in even the weakest of Williams tale has been sacrificed to make the show as 'straight' as possible. The worst crime is the amount of dreary technobabble on display, it anchors the show in real science but leaves a paucity of interesting dialogue. Style over substance? Not really because there is a lot of style and substance here but the thing it is lacking most of all is enjoyment. A sign of things to come: 6/10


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that Ward wanted to leave.

Joe Ford said...

Whether she wanted to leave or not is not the issue, it is JNT's general disdain for the character being smart that I take objection to.